SUMMER FOOD IN SPECIAL PLACES

The ChurchThe tiny village of Morwenstow lies on the North Cornish coast near the seaside town of Bude. It’s main claim to fame is that it was the home of the Reverend Robert Stephen Hawker (1803 -75), a wonderful eccentric who came to the village as a young man, having finished his studies at Oxford. As an undergraduate, he won the Newdigate Poetry Prize and married his rich godmother,  many years older than him.  In 1834 he became the vicar of Morwenstow and spent the rest of his life in what was then a desolate country parish on the storm-swept coast. The coast is still desolate in the winter, but these days, Morwenstow is a holiday destination and a place to experience delicious food!

Last Sunday we ate at The Bush Inn in the village. We made for a table in their large garden with a wonderful view of the sea, glimpsed through the lush curves of the valley. Behind us, the inn’s vegetable garden was full to bursting with all manner of delectable eatables. We chose to sit in one of the two covered tables, under a thatched roof with the view ahead of us. It was a very warm but cloudy day, however the lack of sunshine was more than compensated by the Sunday lunch. The roast beef from a local butcher in the nearby village of Kilkhampton was delicious and there was plenty of it. A huge yorkshire pudding accompanied the meat and our charming waiter then produced a large dish of vegetable that included celeriac, parsnips, two types of courgette – yellow and green, and roast potatoes, crisp and done to a turn. All the vegetables came from their productive garden and you could taste it!  The gravy was good, too. Very often badly made gravy can let down an otherwise excellent Sunday lunch.

What more could you wish for in England during July? A fabulous view and well-cooked, traditional English food; wonderful.  After the meal we walked along the coastal path and made our way to Hawker’s Hut. Looking like a garden shed, built into the cliff side, it’s constructed of ship’s timbers. A slightly forbidding place in its time, it is now owned by the National Trust and the steep path you have to walk down to reach it has been made safe and gives you the most fantastic view of the coast and the Atlantic ocean.

In this small hut, the Reverend Hawker came to meditate, some say to smoke opium and to compose romantic poetry. The hut is full of carvings going back years. Lovers have written their names and the dates of their trysts in the wood. We sat awhile and took in the beauty of the view and tried to evoke  the spirit of Hawkins. But he was obviously busy elsewhere on that day, so we walked back to the village and explored the church and the churchyard, populated by local people and sailors who met their end on that ferocious coast.

That took us to tea time and we made our way to the tea shop in the village and enjoyed a sumptuous cream tea with lashings of strawberry jam, fresh scones and Cornish clotted cream. Yum! What struck me about both these restaurants is that, although it is the height of the summer season, there was ample parking and plenty of seats. Everyone we met was friendly and chatty and the service was excellent. The prices were manageable too, particularly if you were feeding a family.

This is what summer eating out is all about. Long leisurely walks by the sea or in the countryside, charming setting and glorious views, pleasant people and lots of smiles to frame your meals. Too often, at our holiday resorts, we have to deal with surly waiters and bored waitresses, managers that don’t give a fig about you and food that is uneatable and hugely expensive. When it works, like it did for us in Morwenstow, it’s wonderful. I hope the delightful Reverend Hawker will be spinning in his grave with joy!

http://www.bushinn-morwenstow.co.uk/

DELIGHTS OF THE ITALIAN SUNDAY LUNCH

Parmigiano-Reggiano festival in Modena; each w...
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When I was six, many years ago, I would annoy my older sister to the point of madness. Why? because I would insist on sitting next to our father for Sunday lunch. There was always a shouting match and my mother would call a truce, explaining to my sister that I was the baby of the family and since our papa worked at night and therefore was asleep much of the day when I was at school, I should be allowed to have his undivided attention during this special family meal.

My father was a musician and led his own jazz band. He played in many of the famous restaurants and clubs in the West End of London, Quaglinos and The Cafe Royal to name just two. He was Italian and he loved food and good wine. Having left a war-torn Italy in 1919, where he’d fought on the side of the British, he came to London, a young man of just twenty-three years old, hoping to make it as a muso. He did and managed to support a wife and five children on his earnings for the following twenty-eight years.

My earliest memories are of those magical Sunday lunches that started at one o’clock and went on until the clock struck five. The meal would begin with an anti pasti of unique proportions; there would be olives and salami and prosciutto and all other types of Italian meats and vegetable that my father would have gathered during his weekly shop at the Italian deli in Soho where he was known by his first name, Francesco. My mother, also of Italian parentage, although born in London, would display all these culinary delights on several china flowered half-moon dishes that had been handed down to her from her mother and probably used by her grandmother as well. This first course was one to linger over. My father would open the bottle  of good Chianti to signify that the meal could begin and I would wait, salivating, while my mother was served first. Then I would be given a tiny glass of wine, watered down with San Pellegrino mineral water and a selection of the delicious food would be placed on a small plate for me to guzzle.

A good hour was spent on this first course, when the wine and conversation flowed. We were often joined by a fellow musician or two and their wives or girlfriends. There was always much argument and laughter and I loved it. When my father thought it time for the second course, he would nod at my mother and she would disappear into our small kitchen which was like the Tardis as all manner of delights would emerge from its dark depths. The second course was always soup of some sort. Usually a clear chicken broth with three ravioli floating in it, like islands in a golden sea. Parmesan cheese was handed round and the ravioli carefully dusted.

Another bottle of wine called Lacrima Christi or tears of Christ, a very special wine indeed, would accompany the soup and again, I would be allowed to sample a little and to discuss its merits or not with my father. The the main course would be announced with much clattering of dishes from the kitchen. It was  usually a large roasted fowl or maybe a joint of lamb cooked with rosemary and garlic. There would be lots of vegetables, often including aubergine baked in olive oil and smothered in another Italian cheese, stuffed tomatoes, sautéed potatoes and depending on the time of year, cabbage fried with apple and garlic or fresh green tiny peas from our garden.

This course took at least two hours to eat. There was discussion about music and opera and food and the old country and the old relatives who were still there. When they wanted to talk of the war or anything unpleasant, the language would change to Italian and I would try desperately to understand. My parents wanted me to be English so I wasn’t taught to speak Italian.  It was not wise in the late 1940’s or 50’s to admit Italian heritage in the UK. I knew that during the war and soon after there was much animosity towards the Italians. We were fortunate that we continued to enjoy all this marvelous food because my father was close friends with the chefs of the places he played at and they took on the fact that he had a young family and gave him food from their kitchens. As the rich and famous ate there, our table on a Sunday was graced with that same sort of food that a princess might eat.

When rationing ended, I was often taken to the Soho deli and to Bianchi’s restaurant to meet all my father’s old friends. Again, there was conversation and happiness in their love of good food and wine and just being together. After he died, my world became a much quieter and less delicious place! But when I had a family of my own, I made sure that they enjoyed some of that wonderful Italian food, the tastes and smells, the conversation and warmth.  I wanted desperately to make them understand that fast food and the destruction of the family meal in favour of the television dinner is a very cruel and damaging loss to us all.