Conversations with Strangers: The Forager

50 Since I started this blog in December 2013 I’ve written 50 blogposts and achieved 7300 views from all around the world, including Indonesia, Iraq and Vatican City. This would be the ideal point to look back, evaluate and reminisce, and such indeed was my original purpose, before I remembered how much I hate writing self-reflexive articles. True though it may be that the unexamined life is not worth living, I’ve never enjoyed doing it in front of an audience. I keep a journal for that, now well into its ninth volume, and woe betide he who peruses it without permission! So it is with some delight I have tossed aside my projected plan of discussing the motives that led me to begin blogging, complaining about how much I hate taking photos – the worst part of the blog – and trying to impose a retroactive rationale on a rattlebag of miscellaneous writing that incorporates anecdotes, poetry readings and academic conference reports, on topics as varied as astronomy, wild swimming, flying a glider, the Homeric translations of George Chapman and the embarrassments of taking a tramp home after a beer festival.

Instead, here’s an interesting conversation I had with a complete stranger.

 

… Over the bridge, a couple of people had vaulted the railings and were browsing on the blackberry bushes sloping down to the edge of the Taff, that mostly flows grey, brown or greasy green, but in these hot summer days had grown so clear that its rocky bottom was just visible through the weed.

– Found any juicy ones? I inquired, leaning against the railings.

The girl looked up. – They’re all a bit sour at the moment.

A green stripe varied the blonde hair that curved down her cheek toward her chin, and her bare bronzed arms were daubed with abstract colour, worked into her skin with the needle’s point, striped white also with the fainter mark of thorns. Her friend or boyfriend, with similar tattoos and a wild tangle of hair and beard, never spoke.

– Everything is coming into season about three weeks early this year, I observed, but even so I’d give the blackberries till the end of the month.

– Want to try one? she said, extending a purple hand. I picked the largest, dark, plump and softly bobbled; still my mouth filled with the familiar bitterness of a berry a few weeks under-ripe.

– No, not quite there. Have you ever tried making blackberry gin?

– We’ve done blackberry vodka.

– Does it still go that wonderful blood colour?

– Oh yes. Tastes great with cloudy apple juice.

– I like doing mine as a gin and tonic – then it bubbles upwards into a foaming glass of gore! I’m looking forward to laying in a stock for Halloween. Have you ever made nettle tea?

– No, but I made a chickpea and nettle curry the other day. It’s very versatile. I use it instead of spinach in a couple of recipes.

– Really? I’ve done it up with butter and pepper before, but it just tasted of pepper and butter. Kind of flavourless. Ah, just like…

-Just like spinach, yes. Bute Park’s a really good place for foraging. Her gaze roamed beyond me, upriver and down. There’s a big patch of elderflower over there. We made a ton of cordial. And there’s wild garlic and dandelion for salads.

She was eating up the rest of the blackberries from the palm of her hand as we spoke. Her friend or boyfriend found a little worm in his last, and threw it away. Then, not without awkwardness, they climbed back over the railings.

– See you when they come into season, I guess.

Tending Bar at the Cardiff University Ale and Cider Festival

logo with dragonThis coming Thursday, I’ll be bunking off a seminar and taking a long train journey down to Cardiff for the Real Ale and Cider Society’s 17th Annual Festival. It’s the largest student festival in Britain. There should be about 50 ales and 50 ciders – I’m told there is a list, but apparently it’s being kept Top Secret until the festival begins – 5 types of mead and 7 types of wine. My mouth is watering at the very thought.

Despite this being my fourth year at the festival, I have never visited as a customer. I’ve always worked behind the bar, recommending my favourite brews, serving up the ale with a flourish and partaking liberally in the quiet moments. A certain degree of familiarity with the different types of ale is a most desirable characteristic, and so long as you don’t drink more that you serve, the few genuinely sober people about are quite forgiving.

On my first year, I went home for the festival weekend, and only worked on the Thursday – how little I knew back then! Still, I returned to my halls addled enough to forget to shut the shower door, and completely drenched my ensuite – so evidently it was not time wasted.

The second year was a bit of a blow out, I admit. I managed to time myself so perfectly on the Thursday that the last thing I remember is last orders. And then, as usual, I woke up in bed, in my pyjamas, to find it was the next morning. My survival instincts often astonish me like that.

The festival that year was a sell out success, so there wasn’t the same chance to drink myself under the table as there was on the Thursday night – the paying customers had it all, the greedy beggars! I blame the undercover policemen, who prowled around quietly on the first night and came back to drink on day two in a massive group. But my memories are good. Being the most beardy member of the society at that point, I was quite identifiable, and got a lot of hugs. There was a lovely moment when I was listening to a band I’d helped book – who were fantastic – with a pint of ale in my right hand and my left around a rather pretty girl, and I thought how jealous and disbelieving my sixteen year old self would have been if he could have seen me now. I felt cool, which, God knows, doesn’t happen often enough. Unfortunately, I blew it almost immediately by reaching that plateau of drunkenness where I can dance completely unselfconsciously. The last band started off by covering Staying Alive, and got cheesier by the minute. At no other point have I, or would I EVER, dance to Gay Bar.

But all too soon the beer and cider had vanished down a thousand thirsty throats, and it was all over save for taking everything down the next morning, and the massive fried breakfast that inevitably follows.

The next year was not quite so exuberant, as I had begun to develop an (utterly unjustified) reputation about the committee, and they refused to give me any mead after nine o’clock. Spoilsports. There was a rather fun moment in the clearing up, where my housemate lent her head against my arm and said ‘Carry me home.’ She was out of the Great Hall and halfway out of the building before she managed to convince me it was a joke. What the security guards must have thought, I don’t know.

Surprisingly, considering I hadn’t drunk myself into complete insensibility, that morning was the worst hangover I’ve ever had at the festival. I stumbled into work at 3pm in my day-old festival t-shirt and oldest jeans, looking like hell and smelling of stale beer. Yet to my astonishment and delight, I pulled shortly after last orders, and turned up to the fried breakfast on Saturday with a big cheesy grin on my face that didn’t fade for a week afterwards.

I doubt I’m going to get that lucky again. But whatever happens, I’m going to have two nights of good music, cracking cider and wonderful ale, among some lovely people who I haven’t seen for over half a year, and that’s more than worth the journey.

The Cardiff University Real Ale and Cider Society Festival is open from 2pm to Midnight on the 21st and 22nd of February. Entry is £3 with a commemorative pint glass.

Discovering Seafood with Keith the Fish

HobbitI came back to York University early in order to spend New Year with some friends, and I’m alone in the house tonight. Well, alone except for the wonderful smell of grilled herring that’s wafting up the stairs. I ate it with steamed green beans and boiled potatoes, and felt like Bilbo Baggins before the rascally dwarves burst in to steal his supper. Best of all, the herring cost me precisely 67 pence, and it wasn’t even going off! What a preposterously undervalued fish it is.

You would not catch the smell of fish wafting up the stairs in my home in Winchester. My father doesn’t like it, and while my mother has always had a thing for sardines, she refuses to let me eat my beloved breakfast kipper underneath her roof for fear of the smell. Given my oily-fish deprivation, it’s amazing I’ve turned out as smart as I have.

It all started with kippers, really. I ate my first kipper in a guest house near Campbeltown in Scotland, on the morning of the 27th of August, 2007 (O, historic date!) It was fresh, local, and delicious, and once I’d figured out the challenge of separating the fish from the bones, I was hooked. By the time I came to Cardiff University in October 2009, the two things I wanted to cook and expected to live off were kippers for breakfast and yorkshire pudding for tea.

I never really managed to do yorkshire pud successfully (I kept forgetting to add hot oil to the pan first) and I now shudder to think of those breakfast kippers. They were cheap fillets from Tesco, three-to-a-vacuum-pack, which I’d microwave and eat. I liked them well enough at the time, but the rest of the flat weren’t terribly happy with stumbling hung-over into the kitchen of a morning to be confronted with the rich, kippery scent of my breakfast. After I found ‘AARGH KIPPERS’ spelled out in fridge magnets a few too many times, I quietly dropped the habit. And for six months, I returned to the fishless days of my youth.

And then, as my second year in Cardiff began, I discovered Keith the Fish.

Keith the Fish takes some discovering. Tucked away behind Marks and Spencer‘s off of Queen Street, he’s definitely off the beaten track. To make matters worse, his operating hours are 9-12 Tuesday through Saturday, so he’s quite hard to catch. I forget what dire exigency could have gotten me out of bed before noon, but I happened to pass by and ask if he did kippers. Turns out he did Manx kippers a pound a time, so I bought one and ate it jugged the next morning. To jug a fish, you pour boiling water over it and leave it for six minutes, then pull it out, slap it on a plate and eat it. It’s not pretty, but it’s fast, it’s delicious, and provided you don’t leave the bones lying around, surprisingly fragrant.

My visits to Keith the Fish became weekly, and I got to know Keith himself, a grand old survivor of the fishmonger’s trade who recently celebrated

Keith with a whopper of a catch!
Keith with a whopper of a catch!

his seventieth birthday. Our conversations always began the same way. ‘The fish trade in this country is going to the dogs!’ he’d growl, before going on to lambast supermarket fishmongers for their smelly fish, or the Arab Spring for driving up the price of his petrol. His main complaint was the lack of fish getting into children’s diet. He loved kids. He had a wonderful trick to pull if any kid came by. There was always some mighty salmon sprawled out across the shopfront, his tail tucked away beneath the display. Keith would pretend to be fussing with something up another end of the stall, lay his hand on the fish’s tail and give it a few twitches. When the screams began he knew he’d done his job!

I slowly got up the confidence to attempt something requiring more complex cookery skills than the application of boiling waterI can’t say I ever really cooked white fish to my satisfaction, but my grilled rainbow trout was so fresh I could taste the water it was caught in, and moule mariniere remains the best thing I have ever cooked for myself.

Now, alas, I have moved into York and all is changed. I have yet to really get a taste for Whitby kippers, and fresh cockles are impossible to find. I was forced to purchase my grilled herring from Keith’s despised supermarket. If I really wish to remain true to his standards, I reckon I’m going to have to take up rod and waders and go angling.

My First Time Drinking Mead

In hindsight, my mistake was in thinking I was a Viking.

It was a houseparty for one of my friends in Cardiff, the delightful Cathy. She will laugh at anything, and is never found out of her hoodie, and she may drink her ale in lady-like halves, but she can still match me drink for drink with ease. I was sprawled out on the sofa introducing myself to some Spanish exchange students when my friend Jamie came in, carrying a five-litre plastic container, something like the size of a desk drawer on its end. A rich and mysterious looking brown liquid was sloshing about within.

‘What is it?’ I asked, wondering if one of his regular home-brew disasters had finally come to fruition.

He slapped the container. ‘This, my friend, is mead.’

‘Mead?’

‘Medieval mead. Specially brewed for authenticity. Have a glass if you fancy.’ And he went off to talk with Cathy.

I have never been behindhand in trying new drinks. My glass of warmish ale swiftly vanished, and I got to my two tipsy feet to sample the mead. The only thing I knew about it was that the Vikings drank it in horns, and that a horn held about two pints. So I poured myself a pint of mead, and sat down again.

It was delicious. I have never been much for sweet drinks since I sampled my first Guinness, but the mead was flowery, dark and sweet and tasting of all the scents of summer brewed together. It vanished with surpassing swiftness.

‘The mead’s lovely, isn’t it?’ I shouted to Jamie, when he glanced my way.

‘It’s great. You’ve got rather a large glass there, haven’t you?’

I looked at my quarter-pint incredulously. ‘Don’t be stupid. Vikings used to drink it in horns. I haven’t even drunk half a horn yet!’ I stood up on feet that suddenly seemed even tipsier than before, and carefully poured myself another pint of mead.

Everything gets a bit hazy from thereon in. I think someone tried to explain to me that mead was 14.5% abv, and that I’d been drinking wine like beer. Someone else told me it was probably time to go home. I just remember lying back on that sofa, grinning toothily at the ceiling, the most chemically happy I had ever been in my life. If Vikings felt like this every time they got drunk, how did they ever manage to get up the testosterone for all that raiding and burning and pillaging? This was bliss!

And then my friend Chris was walking me home, whilst I was laughing at everything and qupting the Rubiayat of Omar Khayyam at the top of my voice. That was my first night drinking mead, but it wouldn’t be the last by a good way.

Thoughts on being a bicycle courier

Last year, I worked from September to December and from April through to July as a bicycle courier in Cardiff, capital of Wales. A few qualifications are needed here. I was not one of those people on racing bikes with big yellow backpacks and alarmingly low life expectancies you see weaving through the midday traffic. My bike was a Dawes Discovery, equally well adapted to getting the shopping home or a cycle tour to Bristol, but not the fastest bike (34mph is about my record) and it was further encumbered by a great boxy trailer strapped on behind. For I wasn’t delivering business documents, but information packs: local travel information for Sustrans, a local transport charity, as part of their initiative to get the good folk of Cardiff out of their cars and onto bikes, buses, trains and their own two feet.

We were a ragtag bunch of indigent students, broke twenty-somethings balancing this with three other jobs as a leg-up to better employment, and a few enormous Poles and exubrant Greeks – as nice a bunch of people as you might find anywhere. When I tried to go full time at the end of the year, I found it rather frustrating – there simply weren’t enough shifts to go around, and a proper 9-4 day was hard to find. As a student job, nothing could have been better. The hours were easy and flexible, the money was surprisingly good (the 20p per mile travel expenses added up to a pretty good end of year bonus) and it was a terrific opportunity to explore areas of Cardiff that I never even knew existed – and I considered myself a particularly adventurous student. For the first time since my days of apple picking in the bright English autumn, I had a job I could enjoy. The outdoors, I decided, was the magical ingredient.

Of course, there were downsides. I had a couple of close shaves with white van man, there was the day some idiot kids tried to steal one of my bags, and though people were usually pleased to see me – one of the advantages of being delivery rather than canvassing, who often felt the sharp end of peoples tongues – I got a frosty reception more than once. The risk of a thorough drenching was possible all through, but winter added the additional terrors of hail and icy patches on the road, and summer the possibilities of sunstroke. I came back weak and dizzy from one shift and had to sit under a ice-cold shower for half an hour. And it was really quite unfortunate that I had to come into several of my lectures in lycra.

But on the other hand, there was the joy of discovering another of Cardiff’s innumerable suburban libraries, into which I often took a surreptitious detour to use the toilets and scan the graphic novels section for the latest Batman comic; the delight in finding a new shortcut, and the not-infrequent wrath at finding it so overly pedestrianised it was a struggle to get a bicycle through, never mind a bike and trailer; the delightful woman on Pen-y-dre, Rhiwbeina, who kept a sheep as a pet, and was kind enough to offer me a cup of tea while Nick the sheep gobbled up custard creams; and the hot day sweltering up and down the heights of Grand Avenue, where everyone I delivered to were offering me cokes and glasses of squash. I became so tanned I not only had watch marks, but little white cycling gloves as well.

I resigned at the end of July, partly because I was no longer comfortable with where we were delivering to (Cardiff has some nice areas, rich and poor, but Riverside was not a place I was comfortable leaving my bike, even for a couple of minutes – besides, it was too close to base to offer a full days work), partly because I was fed up of sleeping on the floor of my friend’s barely furnished apartment, and partly due to simple lonliness now that most of my student friends had come home. But in the glory days, when I was expertly balancing work with play with lectures on a sunny afternoon in October or July, it was enormous fun.

My friend Kristina has written about the perils of being a canvasser for the same charity here.