In the last post, Riding on Branch Lines, I said that unexpected things often happen when I’m immersed in a ‘treat’. My fish project has been no exception. This treat has involved cooking ten different fish and was prompted by my lack of confidence with seafood. I’ve always been put off by the bones, strange appearance, and fierce warnings about overcooking.
In Fish Mondays, I described how I had problems in sourcing the ingredients at the beginning but that once I discovered the seafood section at my local Asda, this got easier. Last week was the penultimate fish and we had sea bass. However, this week, for the final flourish, things got a bit tricky. I’d exhausted all the unfamiliar species at the supermarket counter and had to look further afield. I decided that my best bet was the Wednesday market fish stall in the nearby town of Winchester. This was also a good opportunity to visit the specialist clock shop in the town centre and get some advice about my large oak mantel clock which is incapable of keeping the correct time.
I arrived early at the market with my clock in a plastic carrier bag and sure enough there was an enticing display of fish, many of which I now recognised. I deliberated over the huss but eventually opted for turbot. These are large, heavy flat fish and I bought one to share between two. I also bought some new season asparagus at the neighbouring vegetable stall.
Whilst in town I thought I’d try to solve another problem that’s been bothering me for a while. My bedroom overlooks the neighbours’ garden and when I’m getting dressed we regularly surprise one another. Although I’ve managed to avoid net curtains for most of my life, I decided recently that the time has come to give in to modesty, so when I passed a fabric shop, I went in and bought a couple of metres of the plainest muslin available.
By this time I was a bit weighed down and the bags were banging against my legs. The clock clanged as I walked and every now and again it made a half-hearted attempt at a chime. Then, as I was making my discordant progress through the town centre I spotted Winchester Cathedral and it occurred to me that I could soak up a bit of history before going home. Within a couple of minutes I was at the main door and as I stepped inside, the clock chimed one o’clock which was both embarrassing and inaccurate. “I’d love to look around” I said to the man at the ticket desk, “but I’ve got a lot to carry. Could you possibly look after this?” I handed him my clock and as I did so it attempted to strike again. “Could you take this, too?” I asked handing him a large flat parcel. “What is it?” he said suspiciously. “A turbot” I replied. “A what?” “A turbot”. “Oh, and I’ve got this” I said handing him the muslin curtain. I paid for my ticket and was just about to join the guided tour when I noticed the bunch of asparagus sticking out of my bag. “I suppose you want to leave that too?” he said, taking the words from my mouth.
The next hour was absorbing and delightful. I stood on Jane Austen’s gravestone in the nave and squinted up at the window dedicated to her memory. A pane at the top depicts St Augustine from whose name, Austen is derived. I walked across decorative floor tiles dating from the 13th Century, and then as I turned a corner towards the high altar my mouth dropped open at the enormous, ornate stone screen. I also learned about the hero who saved the cathedral. There was a great deal of structural movement at the start of the 20th century as the building was erected on a wooden raft over a peat bog. At first, the engineers tried pumping the water out but this made the subsidence worse, so in 1905 they brought in William Walker. He was a Royal Navy diver who worked every weekday for five and a half years. He would dive into the water under the cathedral and pull out the peat with his bare hands, replacing it with concrete and bricks. Each day he spent half an hour getting into his diving suit and would then work two three-hour shifts, emerging after the first one to smoke his pipe and eat a mutton pie. He obviously did a thorough job as the cathedral has only moved one millimetre during the past century.
The tour ended in the crypt where the Anthony Gormley statue, Sound II, stands beneath the arches. The sculptor models all his statues on his own body so it’s eerily lifelike. The crypt was dry when I visited, but in the winter it floods and so the figure is often up to its knees in water. I also learned a new word, which is something that always cheers me up. The monks used to attend eight services a day as well as High Mass. They weren’t allowed to sit down but they did have a kind of bottom rest that they could lean against. This is called a misericord.
With my ecclesiastical diversion over, I returned to the desk. “Please could I have my clock, asparagus, net curtain and turbot?” The obliging attendant looked relieved to see the back of me and my bags, and I was pleased to have spoken a sentence that I’ve almost certainly never said before. In fact I have to wonder whether anyone has ever spoken that particular combination of words.
Getting back to the fish project, it’s been interesting to discover that in common with many of the thirty-seven preceding treats, it has changed me. I now have many new dishes in my repertoire. And something surprising happened half-way through. With the first few fish I was cautious, perusing cookery books for instructions and following them carefully. But by the time I got to the fifth one, I realised that fish really is very easy to cook and this gave me the confidence to experiment. The details are on the Fish Recipes page.
And following on from the last post there are now a number of new lists on the Treats Collection page. Thank you to everyone who has contributed so far.