Pies to live for

I’ve mentioned The Etymologicon before (one of my first Kindle purchases). It has to be one of the most entertaining books I’ve ever read. How about this, from the section ‘Beastly Foreigners’, all about the English’s predilection for slandering their neighbours: 

The Welch are said to be so remarkably fond of cheese, that in cases of difficulty their midwives apply a piece of toasted cheese to the juana vita [gates of life] to attract and entice the young Taffy, who on smelling it makes most vigorous efforts to come forth.  Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, 1811

It creates an alarming picture in my imagination: a kind of Roald Dahl/ Meet the Midwife/Hammer House of Horror combo that I really don’t want to pursue. I also now feel a little reluctant to admit that I am ‘remarkably’ fond of cheese so I shall head in the direction of pies instead. 

Meet the Ron Evans classic pie: mince and onion. Ron Evans has been making these pies, well, not the current Ron and not these three pies specifically, in Port Talbot since 1926. I keep promising to take some home to Kent but the last couple of trips have seen me travelling back on a Sunday or Monday. But my next return journey will be on a weekday so I’ll be making a pit-stop at the Taibach shop on my way to the M4. Crisp pastry, a seasoned, saucy filling: pies to live, as opposed to die, for. I’m not that fond of the local moniker, a ‘Runny Ron’: more of a Benny Hill/Anthony Worrall Thompson combo that I’d also prefer not to pursue. 

I had very good pies at my life writing course, Life Matters, at Mendham Mill (organised by Rochelle Scholar of Mendham Writers) a couple of weeks ago too. Steak and Ale, courtesy of Bronwen, cook and nurturer extraordinaire, who kept us all magnificently fed and watered from Friday evening to Sunday lunchtime.

Home-made with love.


I haven’t spent as much time as this in Port Talbot for many, many years and I might be enjoying the town now more than I ever did when I lived here, particularly its plethora of cafés and food shops.  This morning I headed off to one highly recommended venue for a mid-morning pasty snack. I even took a picture of it, all warm and cosy inside its torn open paper bag, on the dashboard of my car (it was raining) before I took that first tantalising bite. Oh. Dear. No. Bad pasty. 

Too much thick pastry and nowhere nearly enough seasoning. In my opinion, of course. Other people will love them I’m sure.

I suppose that’s the risk of a recovered enthusiasm: idealism and self-manufactured illusions can give way to disappointment. But that’s reality. And that’s what Real Port Talbot has to be: warts and beauty spots. And I’m sure most people here will agree we have a pretty good supply of both. But for dinner tonight it’s all beauty: thanks to Ron Evans.

Hungry Writing Prompts
  1. Write about making fun of someone.
  2. Write about pies.
  3. Write about someone who cares.
  4. Write about being disappointed.
  5. Write about what is beautiful.


Blogsplash: my most beautiful thing

Thank you Fiona and Kaspa from Writing Our Way Home for another inspirational online project: a blogsplash on my most beautiful thing.

It is never constant. The day can reveal it, then retrieve it. I might not own it: a sunset, words spoken by a child, a smile. Beauty can fade, become functional, decay. Sometimes, it reminds me it is there. Or makes me rethink what beauty really is.

a timeless teazle
The common teazle: dipsacus sylvestris. A thorny plant found on waste ground. Old English: tǣsel; related to Old High German: zeisala, teasel, Norwegian: tīsl, undergrowth, tīsla, to tear to bits.

A piece of my hometown preserved in resin; all thorns and raggedness capturing the light on a wooden windowsill.  Today, it is my most beautiful thing.

Thank you Hafod Grange Paperweights, Goytre, Port Talbot, for making beautiful things.

Fiona's new novel, The Most Beautiful Thing, is available free on Kindle on 24th and 25th April.


Off Spooting. And writing prompts.

The Port Talbot Old and New Facebook page is a regular meeting place for me now. We share and discuss our memories, complaints, events, concerns, photographs and research. Sometimes I learn things about the town that come as a surprise. I might not be able to reference them in Real Port Talbot  - due out next year - (RPT won't be a local history book, or a guide book, or a memoir, but it does draw on all of those things) but they still add to my relationship with the town and might even spring open a new research direction for me.

A post this morning, started by Brenda Turner, has done just that, and thanks to a photo added by Nigel Eley, I am now on a mission. A Razor Clam mission. Or spoots, as Brenda calls them.

(Aside: I Googled spoots and found this great blog, Gastrobeach (how good a title is that?) and here's their post on spoots: These spoots are made for wok-ing. I wish I'd thought of that first.)

My dad used to dig up razor clams when the tide was out on Aberafan Beach and use them for fishing bait. I've seen them used in a couple of trendy dishes during the course of the Masterchef series but hadn't thought of cooking them myself, until now.

I think I'm going to need a fisherman to help me out here though. At the moment I have visions of sprinkling salt at the little bubble holes in a patch of wet sand and waiting for a razor clam to shoot upwards and for me to catch it like a baton. Maybe. Maybe not.

But I have a recipe, courtesy of Brenda, who, although I only know her via Facebook, sounds like an expert forager, past and present:

I soak them in lightly salted water, then use this method for cooking, still in their shells, oh and garlic, parsley and a splash of white wine doesn't hurt. A nice way of doing them is in a ribbed steak griddle pan. Get the pan fairly hot and then angle the spoots into the spars of the griddle and it will help keep them closed for long enough. Cook them for a minute to 90 seconds in butter and wine, then take the spoots out and put the pan back on the heat, reduce the juices and add butter and chopped herbs. Serve them as they are, with just the spoots and a little of the juice. And get away from the idea that it has to be piping hot to serve, that’s often when you ruin the fish.

There weren't any photos on Gastrobeach so I googled again and found these, courtesy of Galloway Wild Foods, another great blog.

spoots or razor clams
There's no getting away from the fact that they do look better clothed.

marinated spoots

I know what you're thinking, and you're right: a bit penile. Nothing that a sharp knife can't remedy. Sorry, guys.

Now all I need is a patient, friendly fisherman. If I go down to the Prom and Pier in search of one I hope I don't give the wrong impression. Once, when I was staying with friends in a small town near Atlanta, Georgia, USA, I offered to help the log-man unload and stack the logs from his pick-up. I had no idea of the impression this offer to help had made on him until he returned in  his pick-up truck the next day, wearing his best dungarees, checked shirt and baseball cap, and invited me for a ride into the Appalachians, which was probably the rural-Georgian equivalent of a marriage proposal.

Hungry Writing Prompts
  1. Write about belonging.
  2. Write about a photograph you remember.
  3. Write about sand.
  4. Write about patience.
  5. Write about going on a date with someone you don't know.


Tastes of yesterday

Tomorrow I'm driving to Norfolk to lead a life writing course at Mendham Mill. We'll talk about what it means to write from life, what the issues are surrounding the sharing of personal and deeply felt events. We'll uncover memories and discuss ways we can shape them on the page.

There's something about tastes and smells that evokes vivid memories. Do you remember this?

I wasn't a fan of lollies. Not even a Mivi whose icy skin covered a wadge of vanilla ice-cream. I preferred 99s or Oyster Shells. At a push I'd have a milk lolly which was more like ice-cream than lolly. Or a wafer: a rectangle of Wall's ice-cream between two thin boards. There was a right way to assemble your wafer. Open the wrapping on the ice-cream block and lay it ice-cream face down on one wafer. Take off and discard the rest of the paper wrapping, add the second wafer to make your 'sandwich'. Don't let anyone tell you there's another way.

There's another photo I came across in my hungry writer album that takes me back to childhood. I wrote about my dad's green beans here. But here's a poem from many years ago when I first started writing.

Bean Picking

for my father

When the jungle of leaves
dropped their scarlet blossoms
we waited for them to grow
at first invisible against the green

but in August we pushed
between the rows with a colander
and your orders to leave the small
and not to miss the big.

The coarse underside of leaves
grazed our bare shoulders, sun
dribbled through the overlaps.
We smelt hot, uncooked beans

and tugged them from their stalks,
some solid bodied, plumping
along their length, others curling
like witches’ fingernails.

In the kitchen you topped, tailed,
and pared the spines away.
Just a plate of these’ll do me you used to say,
with butter and a drop of pepper.

At the end of Summer
you saved twelve maybe twenty
moist red hearts
to harden in brown paper.

As a poem it has weaknesses. I can see that now. But I am still fond of its simple honesty. And honesty and directness are qualities I want to have more and more in my writing. And I want to recognise them in other people's words too. So many poems in my first poetry collection relied heavily on what I call 'literary fireworks': clever linebreak, extended metaphor, imagery designed to startle. I'm aiming for a quieter approach these days. Not that it makes the crafting of the work any easier though: simplicity doesn't mean an absence of effort. Remember what Fred Astaire said?

If it doesn’t look easy, you aren’t working hard enough.

Hungry writing prompts
  • Write about what frightens you.
  • Write about buying ice-cream.
  • Write about growing vegetables.
  • Write about what you like to read.
  • Write a list of simple things.

Fish on Fridays

I remember that we had fish for dinner quite often on Fridays when I was a kid. Usually bread-crumbed plaice. And chips. My mother kept her chip pan under the sink, filled with white lard that melted to a hot, golden slick and made the most delicious chips. 

I don’t think we had fish for any religious reasons. We weren’t Catholic or Anglican and avoiding the meat of four-footed creatures on the last day of the week. Maybe it was because fish and Friday started with the same letter. I think ‘four-footed’ started me on this line of thought. And we used to have sandwiches on Saturday too. Maybe it was just habit.

Today is Good Friday so perhaps there are even more people eating fish than on any other Friday of the year. And after stalking the aisles of Tesco in Port Talbot, considering their Finest Breadcrumbed Chicken with Herb and Lemon on a first and second pass, I plumped for fish too: white and smoked cod for a fish pie.

More and more I want to know exactly what I’m eating. And while starting from scratch can be time-consuming I know I’m going to enjoy it more and feel better after eating it rather than dissecting an anonymous slip of chicken and some dodgy emulsifiers, trying to convince myself it's not too bad. I want real food.

I’ve jogged a little further down the Real Port Talbot road over the last couple of weeks too: more notes and photos that I’ll need to write up and assemble when I get back to Kent. This Easter weekend is the first anniversary of Michael Sheen’s Passion play, a staggering community play that unravelled on the streets of Port Talbot over 3 days in April 2011, and there’s an exhibition in the Aberafan Shopping Centre, a book launch on Saturday and, on Sunday night, the world premiere of the Gospel of Us (a film by Dave Mckean created from the original live footage) with a personal appearance by Michael Sheen.

I watched The Passion online from my home in France last year. It was alarming, intriguing, moving and inspiring. But the ‘memory’ weekend is equally as astonishing, cataloguing on display boards around the Shopping Centre people’s memories and experiences of the event: photos, poems, statements, paintings, needlework. Someone once said to me that Port Talbot is the death of culture, that no-one in the town is interested in art. They couldn’t be more wrong.

But what I have noticed is that artists in Port Talbot don’t make a big fuss of themselves and their work. There’s enjoyment and passion for what they do but there’s no self-indulgence. They’re happy to talk about it but there’s no pretence. Perhaps because it’s often art that springs from a sense of community, art that has its source in the environment.
And The Passion was a beacon for this kind of art: ordinary people working with professional actors and the National Theatre of Wales on the town’s streets and mountains and beach. It blended the dramatic with the every day, memory with imagination. It created a space for the seemingly impossible to happen: both in the denouement of the theatrical event and how, in its aftermath, it seemed to reawaken a stifled pride in the town and encouraged action and creativity.

But back to fish pie. My niece reminds me I made this for her when she stayed with me in Kent in the 1990s, years before she had her own children. Her daughter is seven tomorrow, her little boy is five later in the year. I still have to shake myself sometimes to realise she’s a grown woman with a family and not still the little girl who made sandcastles with me on Aberafan Beach.

Fish Pie

This is going to be one of those vague recipes as I have never weighed anything. The best thing to do is decide how many people you’re cooking for and work from there.

skinned and boned fish: half smoked and half plain. I used smoked and white cod today, enough for four people
two hard-boiled eggs, chopped
a lemon
  • Poach the fish in half a pint of milk, adding a slice of onion and a few curls of fresh lemon peel, until it’s just cooked.
  • Drain, keeping the milk to one side and chucking out the onion and peel.
  • Flake the fish and add the chopped egg, chopped parsley and a good squeeze of lemon juice.
  • Make a thick white sauce with the poaching milk, starting with a flour and butter roué.
  • Add enough to the fish mixture to make it nice and saucy – see 1st photograph above.
  • Top with buttery, mashed potatoes and cook for about 20 or 25 minutes until the peaks are crisp.

I can show you the ‘ready for the oven’ pie but not the ‘ready to eat’ one because I was overly ready to eat it and forgot to take a photo. But I’m sure you can imagine the crispy bits.

Hungry Writing Prompts
  • Write about fish and chips
  • Write about Friday.
  • Write about the place where you were born.
  • Write about a work of art that has inspired you.
  • Write about getting older.