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First recipe - Sgadan Abergwaun

The Translation - Fishguard Herrings. The above sculpture by John Cleal, who I think might be a local, has the same name - Sgadan Abergwaun. The language is Welsh. Sgadan is the Welsh for herrings, Abergwaun is the Welsh name for Fishguard. It means 'mouth of the river Gwaun'. Aber being the mouth bit. There are several places in Wales beginning with Aber - Aberystwyth, Abergavenny, Aberdare - are three that spring to mind, but apparently there are around 80. The British name Fishguard actually comes from the Norse fiskigardr which means a fish catching enclosure. And this is what it looks like today.

Rather stunning is it not? If you remember the film of Dylan Thomas's Under Milk Wood with Robert Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, this is where they filmed it. It's a small town - I'm guessing that these days the main business of the place would be tourism - on the north coast of Pembrokeshire, which is the county at the south western tip of Wales. So it must be suffering at the moment, although Britain is opening up at the moment I believe.

Many years ago now I had a holiday with my sister and her children on the south coast of Pembrokeshire. We rented a house. The children were pretty small and it was cold, but it didn't stop the children paddling in the sea. And we went for walks along the beautiful cliff paths. But one of the main things I remember is how, every time we went into the village shop, the locals all started talking in Welsh. Apparently almost 50% of Fishguard inhabitants still speak Welsh. A lot less than a century ago, and going down, but still a sizeable proportion. It's not England you see. It's a separate country, ethnically different - it's Celtic - although, of course, there are no pure Celts left. Nevertheless I note that their twin town is in Brittany - another Celtic outpost.

But back to my first recipe. We are still on Theodora Fitzgibbons' series on regional cooking and this one is Wales, which she notes, being Celtic has similarities with Brittany and other Celtic countries in its love of pancakes, and cooking on griddles, seafood, spices, herbs and cheese and even leeks. And here's another little bit of useless information. Did you know that the word Welsh comes from the Saxon for foreigner - 'waelisc' and that the Celts of Flanders are called Walloons which comes from the same source. Now I didn't know the Walloons were Celts. You learn something every day.

The photographs that Theodora Fitzgibbon chooses to illustrate her books are not always particularly apposite for the recipe she gives us, but in this case it is, as it shows a group of fishermen and is called Conversation piece at the docks. The photograph was taken around 1906 - when my father was born.

Herrings, of course, have been overfished, although I saw one history of Fishguard mentioning that the shoals suddenly ceased in 1790, which is much longer ago. That particular article said that they didn't really fish for herrings, but actually fished for sardines. Everybody else seems to refer to herrings though. I looked up the overfishing aspect and found that herring fishing in Europe virtually came to a stop in the 70s and 80s, because of the overfishing, but the herring has bounced back and it is no longer endangered. Moreover these days the methods used to catch them are much more environmentally friendly. But there are big arguments ahead in the Brexit negotiations because it's back to who can fish in British waters. I believe whilst Britain was in Europe, more or less anyone could.

I don't remember eating many herrings in my youth, though we did have pilchards and bloaters, which I think are related. And I really didn't like kippers - the smoked version. These days, one of my favourite appetisers is a kipper paste. Very simple. Very yummy. You jug your kipper - i.e. stand it head down in a large jug. Cover with boiling water and leave for 5 minutes or so. Skin and debone it and put it into a food processor with 250g melted butter, a pinch of cayenne and some lemon juice. Whiz and hey presto. You will need to put it in the fridge for it to solidify of course. I got the recipe from Jane Grigson's Good Things, but I actually first tasted it in the house of one of my husband's wealthy aunts, when we had just got engaged - I suspect not to their approval - the aunts that is. This particular aunt's husband had made the kipper paste and I thought it was so good that I asked him how to make it, thus, softening the blow of our upcoming marriage a little I think. I hope so anyway.

Later in this first recipe book there is a recipe for potted herrings, which is not quite the same but heading in the same direction I guess. You bake your herrings (6 it sys in the recipe) in the oven with a bayleaf and a pinch of mace, and covered with stock or water, for 20 minutes. Cool, lift out the fish, skin and debone. Pound, says the recipe, but I guess these days we would use a food processor, with 1/2 teaspoon anchovy essence or paste, pepper and grated nutmeg. Put into a pot, pressing down well and cover with melted butter. Nigel Slater completely modernises this and calls it Herring rillettes - which include flavourings such as sushi ginger and dill. Might be nice though. Or you could do the same as in the kipper paste recipe.

But here in Australia we don't have herrings. Well I believe there are Pacific herrings, but I have never seen them in the shops. Mackerel is a good substitute I guess, or any small white fleshed fish.

My other childhood memory of herrings is of soused herrings, which were served as lunch, or maybe breakfast, at a small guest house in Devon where we were spending our holidays. I thought they were revolting, and there were a lot left over, so we children were given the leftovers and told to go and throw them to the seagulls, which was, of course, great fun. The seagulls were very acrobatic in catching the prize mid air. I suspect I might like soused herrings these days.

At last - that first recipe, which is actually a sort of fish casserole. You can actually find the recipe online - here - on the website of some Fishguard holiday cottages. It's the exact same recipe, but no acknowledgement given to Theodora Fitzgibbon. I mean it's word for word - introduction and all. Which makes me feel a bit better for all the recipes and pictures I pinch from online - though I think I mostly acknowledge where they come from.

The dish is made from herring fillets, that are spread with mustard, salt and pepper and rolled up. These are then placed in a casserole on top of a layer each of sliced potatoes, sliced apple, sliced oniononion. Sprinkle with sage and salt and pepper. Cover with more potatoes, half fill the dish with boiling water and dot with butter before baking for 45 minutes, covered. Remove lid and brown for an extra half an hour. There is this note at the end.

"This recipe can also be used with mackerel fillets, anchovies, pilchards, John Dory, or tuna fish and half cider and half water can be used if liked."

That's a weird mixture of alternative fish don't you think?

I'm not sure whether I'm tempted or not. This could be one of those simple delicious surprises like Irish stew. Or it could be a bit of a watery disappointment. Try as I may I could not find a picture. Oh and it also has another name - Swper scadan which means Supper herring.


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