The Curious Peasant

at Peasant Publishing

Lost skills in cookery, craft, and culture.

Black pudding from Leon, Spain

I love black pudding, or blood pudding to give it it's non PC name, and the variety available never ceases to amaze me. It is the peasant food par excellence made with the philosophy that nothing of an animal should be wasted, not even it's blood.

Some communities have an antipathy or moral objection to eating something made out of blood but others prefer to waste nothing, realising the immense nutritional value of what might otherwise be thrown away.

After slaughtering a pig the blood is collected and quickly stirred so that it doesn't coagulate. Later mixed with some sort of thickener, flavoured with herbs and spices and stuffed into casings tied at each end, it is gently boiled and allowed to cool. It can be eaten hot or cold and every community has their own variety. I have eaten black pudding in Scotland, large diameter circles that are quite fatty and thickened with oat meal. Irish black puddings, slender sausages thick with barley and becoming quite crisp when fried. In my opinion, the best black pudding in England comes from Derbyshire. Quite substantial rings of a soft mix, gently speckled with back fat. Delicious fried for breakfast with a runny egg or, even more so, combined with perfectly fried scallops; a marriage made in heaven.

The French boudin noir is usually softer than its English counterpart. The variety of added flavourings is also larger. Mixed with apple, combined with onions, or even a slightly hot version with chillies in, it is more normally eaten as part of a main course, served with Puy lentils for instance.

In Spain morcilla also comes in numerous varieties. One I bought from a butcher in Navarre was so strongly flavoured (it may even have been off) that we fed it to the crayfish in the local river. They went mad for it and we could see them advancing with raised claws before gobbling it up. In Burgos recently, a town famed for it's connection with El Cid, and of course for its morcilla, we ate rounds of a dry pudding, lightly flavoured with paprika. Very delicious. But in Leon, not that far from Burgos we were in for a bit of a shock.

As a 'one-off' experience we were staying the Parador de Leon. The hotel is in an astonishing building, once a monastery, and is attached to the Church of San Marco. The interior cloister of the hotel is glorious. A 16th century stone haven of peace and tranquility. We were looking forward to our dinner in the hotel dining room and were delighted to see morcilla on the menu. I like to think I am quite an adventurous eater - I will always try the think on the menu that I haven't tried before and I love offal but, in this instance, the old adage that one eats with ones eyes first certainly holds true.

My morcilla arrived as a large semi-liquid puddle of black sitting in a complicated bird's nest of micro chips. Not put off, despite the resemblance to something my very unwell dog might have produced, I tucked in. It wasn't very nice. Very rich, tepid, strongly flavoured with paprika and with a texture like sloppy porridge. Even I could only manage half of it!

Morcilla

Now in more normal accommodation, a tiny converted cow shed on the side of a deserted valley at 500m in the Asturian hills, we have just had morcilla for breakfast. A slender sausage with huge lumps of fat and heavily seasoned with paprika. Not terribly nice eaten in the English style but I can imagine the depth of flavour it would add to the classic Asturian Fabada.

Vendéen Marshes

Just south of the Loire are the Vendéen Marshes or the Marais Poitevin. A huge region, some 110,000 hectares, of both wet and dry marsh dotted with dykes, canals and drains. I had wanted to explore the region for years and have at last managed a brief visit. Based in a chambres d'hôtes in a 12th-century priory we had the perfect opportunity to explore.

The wet marsh or le Marais mouillé, is still farmed in very traditional methods. Small fields, either for hay or grazed by white cattle, are surrounded by drainage dykes lined with poplars and pollarded willows. Flat bottomed punts, batai's, are still used to travel the dykes as there are limited roads. There are also hundreds of batai's available for tourists to hire either with or without a guide. The dry marsh, or le Marais desséche, is more intensively farmed. Some of the houses are on the far side of the dyke to the road; this pretty house had it's letter box on the road side so the dyke had to be crossed by boat to collect the mail.

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The dykes in the wet marsh are alive with the sound of amorous frogs, sometimes so loud they drown out the bird song! How can such a tiny creature make such a huge noise?

Birds are plentiful with rarities present in pleasing numbers. On one walk we saw white storks, purple herons, golden orioles, green woodpeckers, goldfinches and black redstarts - A very colourful selection!
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Of course being marshland it is wet here, and the wet has to come from somewhere. We have seen some pretty spectacular deluges but they are mostly short-lived and the strong sunshine rapidly dries out the ground - you can see the steam rising from the sodden fields which leads to great humidity.

Our first evening was a treat - a local restaurant gave us a fantastic meal of 'Marshwiggle' food. Snails followed by frogs legs and eels. Truly local food!

We were also lucky enough to see a couple of Poitevin asses. These two hairy donkeys were somewhat lugubrious but oh so charming with their dreadlocks and floppy bottom lips!

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Munching Mulleins

Returning to the garden after 10 days away I am astonished by the rate of growth in our absence. Beans are leaping up their poles, the courgettes will get their first picking tonight and the outdoor lettuces are filling nicely. The flower border is looking good if a bit chaotic.
Mullein


Self sown mulleins (Verbascum pulverulentum) have overwintered and are now in full flower. One in particular is flowering spectacularly. Another has appeared right at the front of the border - not a good place for a statuesque 6 foot tall plant. However, as it is at the front it affords a fantastic view of the mullein moth caterpillars (Shargacucullia verbasci) that are munching their way through it.

Mullein moth caterpillar


The caterpillars are considered to be a pest by most gardeners, as they can completely defoliate a plant, and are killed either with pyrethrum or can be picked off by hand. I think they are beautiful and so don't kill them. Of course if I was growing my mulleins deliberately as a herbal medicine I might feel differently. But I am not and these lovely little creatures are thickly covering the stems of three of the mulleins. There must be over a hundred on each plant, all of different sizes, some as much as 2.5 cms long, and all leaving vast amounts of waste behind them.

Given the spectacular colouring of the caterpillars I expect they are poisonous, which is perhaps why the birds have left them alone, despite their being very exposed on the stems of the plants.

Considering how many caterpillars there are I am amazed that the moths themselves are rarely seen especially as they have a nearly 5 cm wingspan: I have never seen one.

Mullein moth caterpillar














Peasant in the city

Sometimes it is necessary for this peasant to leave the lovely Wiltshire landscape and work in the heart of London. 10 days in the smelly city, we are in the throes of a mini heatwave with no rain, reminds me how lucky I am not to live here permanently. However, a delightful walk to work across Kensington Gardens has allowed me to spot some interesting trees. There is an avenue of Tulip Trees (Liriodendron)
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in front of Kensington Palace which are at their peak right now; fascinating flowers. These ancient trees have been found in the fossil record and while the trunks have been used for dugout canoes (not in London!) they are mostly grown as a decorative or ornamental tree. A second avenue of trees that I have been walking past on a daily basis are the mulberries running due South from Kensington Palace. These appear to be of different varieties as some are bearing fruit now, soon to be ripe, and others have no fruit at all and glossier leaves. I suspect the black mulberry (Morus nigra) is the fruit bearing one. Kensington Palace holds one of the National Collections of Mulberries, another being in the grounds of Buckingham Palace and these are probably part of the collection. There are other black mulberries in London, some of the best known being those on Birdcage Walk and St James's Gardens. King James I , in an attempt to establish a silk industry in London in the early 17th century, instructed people to plant mulberries and thousands were planted all over the country.
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Unfortunately his advisor promoted the black mulberry not realising that the white mulberry was the preferred food plant of the silk moth caterpillar. The tree is quite short-lived so none of the existing mulberries in London are survives. The fruit of the mulberry is sublime, eaten fresh with a large splurge of thick cream it has a flavour like no other fruit - slightly sharp and lemony. It also makes fabulous jam, crumbles, pies and one of the best fruit wines. I have tried planting a mulberry tree three times in my gardening life but have had no luck with any of them, I don't think they like my very free draining, alkaline soil. A shame as they can be prolific fruiters and it is almost impossible to buy the fruit as it is so fragile. I have never had enough mulberries to try dyeing with them but, using salt as a mordant, they can give a rich variety of shades from aubergine through to lavender. Looking at the Royal Parks website I see there are a lot of medlar trees - Mespilus germanica - in Kensington Gardens too - I will have to search them out later in the year when the "dog' s bottom" fruit is in evidence. This tree does grow successfully in my garden and fruits with abandon. I am not keen on the slightly rotted or "bletted" fresh fruit but they make a lovely dark pink jelly, perfect with game.

Curious Plants

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Broomrape
he plant world is a strange place. Take the Broomrape I found yesterday; this astonishingly beautiful plant, Orobanche minor, is a parasite, in this case on clover roots. Broomrapes are not that rare in the UK but they are mostly found in the south of the country, flowering from June right through to September. A plant of poor open habitats, they don't have any chlorophyll, hence the pale colouration, and the flowering stem is only there to set seed. Unlike orchids, which have a symbiotic relationship with their host mycorrhiza, broomrapes are a true parasite. They draw their nutrients from their host plant and can eventually be very problematic. In fact, as I write, the third International Symposium on Broomrape in Sunflower has just closed in Cordoba, Spain. The broomrape that parasitises sunflower, Orobanche cumin Wallr, has a significant effect on crop yields throughout Europe and Asia and much research is going on to find a resistant strain of sunflower. Elizabeth Luard gives a recipe for a gratin of mushrooms and young broomrape shoots that was eaten in Italy. (European Peasant Cookery p. 380). I haven't found any equivalent use in the UK.

The broom rape I found was a solitary plant, thriving in a large meadow which is cut for hay and then grazed by sheep. This solitary plant may have an adverse effect on the clover plant it is parasitising but in the overall scheme of things it won't effect the yield of this particular field much. Its beauty alone is worth the valiant sacrifice of the host.