Tuesday, 24 April 2012

My First Scottish Fish

I had recently started my trout fishing life in Kent, with a friend who patiently taught me how to cast and had the inspired notion of ensuring that I caught a fish by teaching me in a place where it was easy to do so – a fish farm. My first Rainbow weighed in at around two pounds, fought like a locomotive and – because you paid for each fish you caught – cost me about eight quid!

Fish Farm Trout
But of course I was hooked too. There is something so simplistic, so condensed about turning up at a water with a rod, a small bag and a net. No bait, no seat, no rigs or weighty bombs to cast at the horizon – it seemed so pure, so refined and so light! It was apparent that it would be easy to become snobbish about the virtue of this inherent simplicity. And of course you could always leave the bag behind too because fly fishing is the only time in life that grown men could and should wear a waistcoat. I have seen some older gentlemen sporting “gilets” while boarding aircraft or strolling along the promenade at Brighton –sometimes it’s almost a uniform in the checkout at Heathrow - but it really shouldn’t be allowed. I blame the wives of these safari gilet wearing warriors for permitting them to leave the house in such attire – waistcoats are for, and only for, fly fishermen.

I eventually left the fish farm once my casting was sufficiently capable and approached the smaller, stocked fly fisheries that could be located in the Trout Fishing magazines. At these waters I learned the various ‘arts’ of fly fishing; drifting, intermediate lines and fast sinking monstrosities that hooked up on everything that littered the bottom of the lake; buzzers, nymphs, sparkly lures and the ubiquitous Montana. I also caught a few ‘novelty’ fish like the golden rainbow and the blue; some insipid looking brown trout which were anything but the expected “currants, raisins and cloves” described by Henry Williamson, being rather silvery fish with stubby tails looking poorly and limp, and I even caught tench on the fly in one Estate Lake in Kent.
Golden Trout

I went on to fish a local reservoir; a vast water with depths of up to 70 or 80 feet but where the majority of the trout are caught near the surface for most of the year, only becoming unreachably elusive during the extreme heat or the severe cold. I loved the splashy rise, the gentle sip or the “roll over” as the flies were taken and, for a while became adept on the bank and in the boat – by adept I mean that I occasionally caught a few of these ‘wilder’ fish and my casting improved. I enjoyed the solitude of these larger waters, though of course, the fish were still stocked; on the borders of Kent and Sussex, wild trout are, rarely, found in one or two locations only, so if one wishes to catch a trout one must necessarily travel or put up with stockies.

I came to appreciate the art of tying my own flies, always preferring to use natural materials, or at least natural looking flies whenever possible. Much of my writing about trout fishing traduces the “lure” – that flashy imitation of nothing earthly - that angers a fish into snapping at your “fly”, rather than taking one that it has been fooled into believing was a nymph or midge lava or even a fry. Yet although I have used lures, especially on the ‘dog’ days, when fish are reticent, deep or sleepy, I’m not very adept at fishing them and feel less satisfaction catching with them – I am very definitely a nymph man at heart.

But in 1990 I ‘discovered’ Scotland. I arrived in Glencoe at 4 o’clock on a darkly glowering, crepuscular November afternoon and seemed to feel the enormous weight of the mountains around me, their very mass barely discernible in the heavy, wintry dusk, as the attenuated light leaked from the landscape.

Scotland hooked me too. I was captivated by its history, its forthright, sometimes dourly pragmatic inhabitants, its cheerful national optimism and its gloriously diverse and enchanting landscape. From that November accident (we started in Bath and just kept driving… ) began a consanguineous affiliation that adhered to my Celtic descent and forced a return, time and time again, sometimes two or three trips a year. It would take me chapters to attempt to explain why I was so entranced by a country that most people think too damp, dark or hard to reach, and in the end it’s such a nebulous concept – a love affair with a country – that it would be too difficult to define anyway.

Naturally, the love of fishing and the love of Scotland would coalesce, but it took a year or two for them to do so – I had separated them in my mind as perhaps one would a mistress and a wife – never conceptualising the union of the two. But of course it did happen – I was asked by my partner at the time why I hadn’t taken fishing tackle with us on our Scottish trips and I could give no valid, believable explanation, mumbling something about ‘not fishing on holidays’ an obvious piece of fabrication as it hadn’t stopped me Marlin Fishing in Gran Canaria or Bass fishing in Cornwall. Thus the two loves – a country and a sport - were combined.

As far as Scottish fishing is concerned, there are so many famous places and rivers. The sea at Malaig and Oban, the lochs of Leven, Lomond, Ness and Ken, the rivers Tweed, Spey, Dee, Tay and Don and a myriad of smaller rivers, burns, lochs and lochans – even one lake. There are towns whose names are synonymous with the sport, Dunkeld, Beauly, Kelso and Thurso and the entire country is veined with meandering watercourses and potholed with glacial lochs of vastly differing sizes – it is a veritable dream country for a fisherman.

It was in a marginally famous river that I caught my first Scottish and truly wild, brown Trout – the Blackwater.

It’s namesake in Ireland – the Munster Blackwater - is probably more famous, starting in Kerry and flowing out through Youghal harbour in County Cork with some magical salmon and trout fishing beats in between. I have fished that river too, now. As we walked down towards the falls of Rogie from the car park towards the Scottish Blackwater near Contin, salmon were showing everywhere, splashing in pools as they fought their way up-river in the inevitable battle against contour and elements to spawn. I was persuaded by my girlfriend to fetch my gear from the car and have a go, so I did, to some extremely disgruntled looks from the Salmon Angler opposite. I tied a small red tag stick fly to a four pound point fishing as I would in a fish farm stew pond back home – not knowing any better - and cast it into the pool.

 It felt like a momentous occasion that first cast, almost ‘heavy’ yet I felt lightheaded; my hand tremulous, my breathing fast and light. I didn’t want to catch a salmon – Heaven knows I wasn’t ready for that yet – I just wanted to ‘fish’ and I wanted to hold a real, proper wild, brown trout in my hand and just look.

It was perhaps three or four casts later that I caught my first ever Scottish Brown Trout – a tiny, dark peaty fish of maybe six inches or so. I was like a small child on his first ever minnow fishing trip, amazed and filled with awe at the cascade of colours on these predominantly green fish, but with so many swirls, whorls and blotches. I counted several other colours and, surprisingly, not much actual brown. Only six inches, but that first trout from Scotland could not have been more welcome or more life changing for me. A few seconds after releasing the first fish, I caught another, slightly smaller trout and then another.

The first 6 inch Brownie

It was a wonderful moment in time; the very slight pull on the line - sometimes like a breath of gossamer, or as if a slight breeze had caught the material of the fly - would cause my hand to twitch the rod a fraction of a second later, yet often that fraction, that slight hesitation between sensation and brain impulse was eons too long in trout time, the fish had already realised its mistake and spat out the coarse imitation in disgust. Yet I had fooled it for an instant. I had duped the trout into thinking that my size 16 twinkle midge was a real insect, a genuine item of food. It didn’t matter that all the fish were small, what mattered was the moment, the whole short episode of time, the period in which everything around me tunnelled in on those few fish, that short, magic spell of catching ones first truly wild trout.

By this time the surly salmon angler had moved downstream and I was inexorably drawn back to the ‘real’ world by a loud splashing and sudden movement on the opposite bank. I watched entranced as he played and then lost a large tail-walking salmon. The fish was there one second and gone the next, the line sagging towards the water like a broken washing line as the water of the pool resumed its slow, washing-machine tumble. I would have been completely distraught, raving and stamping around, throwing my rod in the bushes and chewing through the nearest tree trunk, but he just stood looking blankly at the water, still for a moment, then seemed to give an inward shrug before retying his cast. No doubt his fate was different to mine; he has probably caught many salmon each season and one lost fish is just another episode in his ordinary, daily life.

I felt that it was time to retreat. The tranquillity of the pool had been transformed into an angry, brooding entity, the benignity had gone, the still quietude banished. The dark, rocky shelf surrounding the pool was now a forbidding presence, a malevolent gaoler rather than a welcoming gatekeeper.

Another wild Brown Trout

As I climbed the hill back to the car park it occurred to me that I had been blessed with some nice fish as a gift, if you like, from the river, and this feeling has been prevalent from time to time over the years. I have learned to react to the changing character of rivers, lochs and lakes, when I am astute enough to feel these imperceptible nuances of character shift and to accept the gifts when given with thanks. Sounds daft? Well ok, I can accept that in the here and now, but I will still watch for those mood changes and I will welcome them as gifts or warnings as appropriate.

Scotland had presented me with a gift and has pretty much kept on giving since. There have been many wonderful trips, an amazing amount of magic moments to write about and to commit to memory. I still go back to Scotland as often as I can – I just can’t keep away. 

Beautifully clean

Thursday, 19 April 2012

30 Second Mayonnaise

Mayonnaise is not a difficult accompaniment to make by any means, but it does take some time. Once the ingredients, except the oil, have been put into the bowl, the latter is whisked in slowly, very slowly - trickled, in fact - in order to emulsify the ingredients without them separating into an oily mess. In essence the difficulty arises because oil and other, water based ingredients are being combined, and it doesn’t take an expert to know that oil and water don’t mix. It’s not rocket salad.

However, I have recently discovered (not invented!) a way to make mayonnaise without the need to trickle in the oil slowly; all you need is one of these:

….or something similar.
The high revolutions of this kind of food processor (mine is a Bamix) ensures that the oil is quickly processed into the remaining constituents of the recipe, thereby not allowing time for separation. It really is that simple.

Here’s one recipe – just remember that a stronger oil such as olive oil will change the taste of the finished mayonnaise quite radically.

One egg (at room temperature)
A dash of white wine/cider vinegar or lemon juice
A teaspoon of Mustard (I use Dijon, but English or Wholegrain work too)
A pinch of salt
A pinch of white pepper
300 mls of light oil (sunflower or vegetable)

Put all the ingredients into a tall narrow beaker and place your processor right at the bottom of the jug and turn it on. Do NOT do anything with the mixer other than tilt it very slightly in order to mix the resultant combination thoroughly and fast. Within seconds you will have a tasty, thick mayonnaise equal to anything you buy in a jar. Also remember, more oil makes a thicker sauce not a thinner one.

You can add minced or grated garlic, herbs, chilli – or pretty much anything else you like, but I would suggest you add these at the beginning of the process to ensure thorough incorporation. Another great additive would be a splash of tomato ketchup and a pinch of cayenne pepper for a great Marie Rose Sauce. It’s great to experiment.

Straightforward enough, but as always, practice makes perfect.

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Esox World

If you like Pike Fishing and are getting a bit fed up with not finding much on here anymore.....then you could try reading the new on-line magazine set up by Steve Rowley.

It's a great read...

Esox World

You need to register - but it's free!

Friday, 13 April 2012

Bewl - The Drought or Mismanagement?

Since April 5th this year, we in the South East have been subjected to another hose pipe ban. Whether this is due to two exceptionally dry winters or to the mismanagement of the water companies is open to conjecture. Yet the press have not had much to say on the subject, in fact nobody appears to have much to say. 3.3 Billion litres of water is lost every day to water leaks, water bills have risen by, on average, 5.7% this year, and unlike other energy bills - Gas and Electric - you cannot swap between water suppliers. Incidentally 3.3 billion litres is enough water to fill Wembley Stadium three times over - every day!

The water towers almost high and dry
Like most other fisherman - aroung 800,000 of us - I pay almost £30 per year for a fishing licence, but other water users do not. Unlike other water users, my sport has been severely hampered by water extraction, empty reservoirs, rivers and lakes and fish deaths which must inevitably be caused by the lack of water across the South and East. Anglian Water and my local authority Southern Water are amongst 6 companies who have missed their target for leakage repairs last year and previous years.

A huge amount of exposed ground
Since the water companies were privatised in 1989, foreign companies have gradually bought up the vast majority of shares, often without customers even noticing. The Twenty Two companies that make up our Water Authorities made massive profits of £2.2billion in the 2010/11 financial year, with a turnover of more than £10billion. Meanwhile, the impact of rising bills is stretching family finances, with millions of households owing more than £1.6billion, and debts rocketing 130% in the past decade. It is the householder who will have to foot the bill for this year's drought cost too. As a fisherman - I will have to pay twice!

Happier days - when Bewl was full.

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Herman - the Friendship Cake

It seems very odd that something about which you haven’t heard for 20 or 30 years is suddenly on everybody’s kitchen table. Oh, well that might be an exaggeration, but it does seem to be the topic of many culinary conversations these days. It was even mention on the Radio by Radio Two’s Zoe Ball. It may be part of the “Bake Off” phenomenon or the “Too many cooks ……on TV” madness, but whatever its origin, I have been given two ‘starters’ this year and I have to say that the versatility of it has been remarkable.

But first of all I should perhaps tackle the more important question - what is “Herman”? Well, Herman is the edible equivalent of a chain letter, the gift that keeps on giving and the cake that you can bake forever. You are presented with a tub of yeasty, floury, sugary mix and a set of instructions which give you full details of how to “look after” your Herman, when to feed him and when to stir him together with a simple recipe or two for when you wish to “convert” a part of him into a cake. The idea also is for you to divide the mix and pass some along to your friends and family…and so the chain continues.

The intriguing thing is that when you have the cake baked from a mix that has been passed on - you could be eating a cake from a mix that is quite old - well past a normal sell by date, in fact!

But if you haven’t been given a Herman either because you have no baking friends, have been living on another planet or have no friends at all, then here is how to set up your own starter….

You will need:
A packet (7g) of dried yeast
150g of plain flour
225g Castor Sugar
250mls of warm milk
100mls warm water

• Mix the yeast into the warm water, stir and leave for 10 minutes or so
• Separately, mix the flour and sugar and slowly stir in the warm milk
• When the yeast mix has started to bubble stir this into the mix well and cover the bowl with a clean cloth and leave for 24 hours.

You can now pretend that you have friends as you are the proud owner of a Herman.

A nicely bubbling Herman...

These are the typical instructions that come with your yeast mix if you have friends who have given you one…

Hello, my name is Herman. I am a sourdough cake. I’m supposed to sit on your worktop for 10 days without a lid on.
You CANNOT put me in the fridge or I will die.
If I stop bubbling, I am dead.
Day1: Put me in a large mixing bowl and cover loosely with a tea towel.
Day 2: Stir well
Day 3: Stir well
Day 4: Herman is hungry. Add 250g each of plain flour, sugar and milk. Stir well.
Day 5: Stir well
Day 6: Stir well
Day 7: Stir well
Day 8: Stir well
Day 9: Add the same as day 4 and stir well. Divide into 4 equal portions and give away to friends with a copy of these instructions. Keep the fourth portion. (I would actually ensure that you hold some back for yourself too.)
Day 10: Now you are ready to make the cake. Stir well and add the following:

225g castor sugar
300g plain flour
Half tsp (teaspoon) salt
160m cooking oil
2 eggs
2 tsp vanilla essence
2 cooking apples cut into chunks
200g raisins
2 heaped tsp cinnamon
2 heaped tsp baking powder

Mix well and pour the well combined mix into a lined loaf tin.

Bake in a medium oven (170-180 degrees C) for 40 – 45 minutes or until a skewer placed into the centre of the cake comes out clean.

You may need to cover the top of the cake with foil until the middle of the cake is cooked through.

A "basic" Herman cake

This will produce a yeasty, sugary yet remarkably tasty and moist cake with a lovely depth of flavour. You will also learn why, earlier I suggseted that you keep some mix back for yourself - you will want to make more - it's definitely one you'll want to make again!

As I said earlier, Herman is wonderfully versatile and I intend to publish part two on this blog shortly which will provide further recipes for cakes and also how to convert part of the mix into a sourdough bread culture. Watch this space.....

Monday, 9 April 2012

Broadlands Fish Kills

I have fished on the Norfolk Broads a few times over the years, but I am not a regular up there. It is however, an area steeped in fishing history and as such one would believe that the Broadlands Authority would have the interest of the anglers of the area at heart, especially as they are a major financial contributor within the economy, both local and tourism.

But fish are being killed and the evidence points to the recent dredging that is still being carried out. Mike Hastings is a friend of mine who lives in the area - check out his blog to find out how we can fight against this incompetence.

His blog is HERE

Forest Grumps

Feeding the neighbours sheep
Since we moved into the Cottage a little over two years ago we have got to know the woods around us very well. The diversification is good; some heathland, some deep woods, some light woodland and some estate park with larger trees and open aspects. There is a grand house, an old castle, a farm, a hop field and a small meandering river. There are footpaths, sheep paths, rabbit paths and even the odd deer run or two. There are uphill paths and (obviously) downhill paths – there’s even the odd level path!

The deep woods are predominantly sweet chestnut – many areas around Kent and Sussex are, their long, coppiced trunks ideal for hop farms - but there are two or three marvellous beech groves, some pine (used for growing and selling on), lots of oak and a remarkably ancient pollarded hornbeam. Being an old estate, there are copper beeches and an old pinetum which even contains a Sequoia (Giant Redwood) which is not 100 yards from our front door. But there are woods of impenetrable thick hazel and silver birch, a haven for animals, plants and birds alike.

We have acres of bluebells coming up right now and in a week or two they will carpet our landscape with a misted haze of cerulean which, when lit by long beams of mote flecked early morning sunlight, turn the deep woods into an ocean rather than a forest – as if a colour blind artist has been at work on the canvas.

So fortunate are we living here that we have found it only too easy to share our walks with friends and family. We frequently have visitors for walks, meals, coffee or tea and barbeques. But always walks. There is so much to see and to discover and then to pass on. Children love to run through the glades, looking up “walking” sticks, finding the grass snakes, picking heather, wild flowers and even foraging for mouth reddening blackberries. The sheep are friendly and inquisitive and usually a squirrel or two (or three) will put in an appearance. If we are really very, very lucky, we might see a roe or fallow deer, or perhaps a fox.
My daughter, not really an outdoors sort of person, recently brought her husband and my only (so far) Grandchild, Eli-Lew to spend a day with us and as it happened, at that time, we were taking care of our neighbours sheep and hens. Having six Grandparents means that finding a different name for each can prove to be a minor difficulty, but I am known as “Grumps” suiting both my (very) occasional grumpy demeanour and the need for an alternative to “Granddad or Grandpa. Naturally, living in the woods, or forest, the additional appendage to my name seemed appropriate.

Grumps scaring children at the ancient Hornbeam
Eli is a little too young to appreciate all this, at a month less than 1 year old, but I hope he will come to appreciate the outdoors rather than sit in front of a computer or TV all day as the youngsters seem to in this time of rapid technological overkill. Phil, his father seems to enjoy being outside and has dabbled with chickens and vegetables and is a keen photographer – and anyone who would rather cycle to work than catch a bus – even in winter – can’t be too afraid of the big outdoors.

Still, we had an invigorating walk, fed the Jacob’s sheep, the hens and the bolshie bantam and picked up a few pinecones for firelighters. We didn’t get wet or cold, Eli-Lew didn’t fall out of his back pack and we went back home for a brew and some home made Herman Cake (A future blog post – perhaps?).

I wish we saw more people in the woods, I would love more people to get outside and encourage their children to explore. There is far more to see, enjoy and to educate than ever there could be in a shopping mall or in front of a Playstation.

Scotney Castle – where we live – fosters the walking ethic with Geo-cache, well laid footpaths, clear signage and maps and we hope to see more and more families roaming the estate and learning about the environment in which they live.

As Land Rover used to say in their wonderfully evocative commercial – One Life, Live It!

Monday, 2 April 2012

Chickens...The Serial

As I grow older I find it quite difficult to find things to do that I’ve not done before. That is to say, to do something I would find interesting and - dare I say it – stimulating. I have never kept chickens myself. I’ve looked after them for others, I have killed and plucked one or two and I have eaten many, as well as their eggs. But the owning and maintenance of chickens is something I have not had the opportunity to do, but have aspired towards for some time.

Gone are the days when buying something excites me, those times when I thought that spending my money on the latest DVD or CD would cheer me up or provide some interest in a busy, or tiring week. In fact, the opposite is true – I find it more delightful to not spend money. This is born somewhat of necessity, but it does add a frisson of challenge to try to do things cheaply, or better still, for no cost whatsoever. I am by no means a miser, but fun is fun, after all.

That was the requirement I set for myself when I first considered keeping chickens – it’s not as if eggs are the most expensive item in the shopping trolley, yet, at any rate – but if you add up the cost of feed, bedding, housing and all the protection, it could easily become an uneconomical enterprise and one that I would have trouble justifying. So the plan is to create a hen run and provide three or four chickens for minimum cost and maximum educational, culinary and entertainment value.

So, as a smallish coop had come my way, almost new and for a fifth of its original price, I considered that the time had come to commence the project. I have some old fencing posts lying around, and whilst these will not be tall enough when concreted in, they will at least be a base upon which to build. That is an additional requirement, I suppose; a coop and a run which can be extended. The other idea I have in mind is an extra portable run into which we can place the hens in various areas around the cottage in order to give them a varied feeding area as often as possible, whilst still sustaining maximum protection from the marauding rural foxes.

So, it has started. I don’t know when part two will appear and I cannot put a timescale to the overall operation because it will largely depend upon the availability of  low cost materials. But I will keep this blog updated and Tweet and Facebook details as and when they change. @SnowdogMikey is my Twitter address if you want to follow me….My Facebook page should be HERE.