The wonders of seaweed!

Julia with her lovely terrier appropriately named Seaweed!I first met Julia Horton-Powdrill on a writing course, some six years ago. I was there with my partner in crime writing Julia Wherrell (you don’t meet a Julia for years and then two come along at once!) and we have stayed in touch ever since. Julia H-P lives in St David’s in Pembrokeshire where she runs foraging courses, writes novels and runs the ‘Really Wild Food Festival’ – one busy lady! Julia W went to visit earlier this month as she was collecting her new puppy from the area (and that’s another blog coming soon!), so she thought she’d ask Julia H-P about foraging and one of her major passions – seaweed!

While I enjoy growing my own veg and picking the odd mushroom and wild berry, I really am not very knowledgeable about wild plants and food for free, so I was interested to hear how Julia H-P first got into foraging.

“I was pretty much born to it!” she says. “My father studied botany and zoology at Cambridge, and then became a GP in a rural practice in south east Wales. In those days, GPs still ‘did the rounds’ and had time to pause and appreciate their surroundings so my father would often come home with foraged plants and mushrooms for our tea. I remember him bringing home elvers fresh out of the local river once, but mother thought they were revolting, so that was not one of his better efforts!

“He was also very keen on seaweed, as am I, but it wasn’t until after he died that I made a rather significant discovery. I was going through his belongings when I came across a wonderful collection of seaweeds that he’d gathered from around Anglesey back in the 1930s. It is quite probable that some of these seaweeds no longer grow in the area, so I plan to donate them to the National Museum of Wales. They already have his beetle collection anyway!”

So what is it that’s so marvellous about seaweed, I wondered? Julia’s lovely country-style kitchen is draped with the stuff – all different shapes and sizes and colours, she breaks off bits and chews them as she talks and describes how she uses them in soups and stews. Her pantry is neatly stocked with jars of it too, and there are packs stored in the freezer.

“I use it a lot adding bits here and there to dishes as different seaweeds have different flavours and textures and, of course, being Welsh, I make lava bread! It takes some time to identify different seaweeds and to know how to clean and dry and store them, but if you are interested, you can buy books on it, or look it up – it’s all there online these days. And one of the great things about seaweed is you can just stop and try a bit – have a nibble on the beach if you want to – it is never going to harm you, none of it is poisonous.”

As well as appearing on the BBCs Countryfile earlier this month, Julia has been on other TV shows and, perhaps most memorably, been filmed sitting in a seaweed bath with The One Show presented Alex Jones! “Seaweed is terribly good for your skin,” Julia explains. “It is full of all sorts of vitamins and minerals, so run a good hot bath, stick in the seaweed and hey presto – a wonderful natural beauty treatment!” 

Multi-skilling seaweed!
We come across products containing seaweed quite often but are usually completely unaware of it. You will find it in some brands of cosmetics, ice cream, toothpaste and various food stuffs. It is also in bath preparations and is widely used as a fertilizer.

You can follow Julia’s foraging exploits here.

Her wild food festival here. 

Her new novel here. 



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Chicken or the egg?

So which did come first… the chicken or the egg? Well, on this blog, it’s the chicken as we had them last week, so this week it’s the egg! Julia adores both scrambled eggs and omelettes and makes them so well I thought it was worth asking her how she does it. So here you are from the horse’s mouth or should that be from the chicken’s beak?

I keep hens because they’re great fun and I’m lucky enough to have the room but, of course, the main reason is for their eggs. Our hens produce rich golden yolks that make omelettes and scrambled eggs look really appetising as well as tasting wonderful. Eggs make excellent cheap, nutritious and simple meals in minutes – a convenience food if ever there was one! I am sure you all know perfectly well how to make scrambled eggs but it’s interesting hearing another cook’s methods – do you remember Delia teaching us all how to boil an egg? Very useful advice it was too! 

The secret of good scrambled eggs is a low heat and lots and lots or stirring!

Scrambled eggs
Allow two eggs per person, or three if you are feeling hungry. I add salt, freshly ground black pepper and whisk very thoroughly with a fork – and that’s it. I use a non-stick (very important!), heavy-based frying pan that is 9” across. I get this hot (no need for butter or oil) and then pour in the eggs. Gently stir, using a silicon spatula, the silicon works well as it’s slightly soft and means you can cleanly push the egg off the base of the pan as you stir, so you don’t get a coating stuck to the pan, end up with a bit of a mess.

Turn the heat down really low (I use gas which is nice and responsive), then just stand there and stir gently, for about 4 or 5 minutes, until you end up with a very smooth, creamy scramble – no big lumps, or hard bits. Stop while it’s still soft and moist and tip straight onto the hot buttered toast that you remembered to put in the toaster earlier!!

Create folds in your omelette so that it is delicate and light, yet properly cooked. We enjoyed this one with mushrooms AND smoked salmon!!Omelette
I allow the same amount of eggs per person, and use the same non-stick pan and spatula and, again, there’s no need for any fat. I get the pan hotter this time and will drop a little bit of egg mix in to check that it is hot enough to start cooking on contact. Then I pour all the mix in, and after about 10 or 20 seconds, when it has formed a thin cooked layer on the bottom, start pulling the mixture in from the sides. It’s rather like ‘rumpling up’ a sheet and creating folds. I always find this bit very therapeutic!

Keep doing this, angling the pan every now and then to let any uncooked egg mixture in the middle escape onto the hot pan to cook. This is a quick process and the whole thing can be done in about a minute. While it is still very moist, and even wet, in the middle, you can chuck in some grated cheese or your cooked mushrooms. Lift up the edge to check it is slightly golden underneath and then slide it out of the pan. I always flip one half over the other as it leaves the pan as this gives you a lovely hot filling inside the perfectly cooked egg. DON’T overcook it and end up with a brown underside or it will be like shoe leather!

And of course, the options are endless – using different fillings in your omelette (I love crumbled goat’s cheese!) or making a more robust Spanish omelette with lots of veg, or even a frittata with potatoes and bacon, ham, sausage … I could go on!

How do you cook your eggs? Do you have any cook’s tips? Do share as it’s always great to learn something new!


A crying shame…

Have you ever thought, as you wipe away the tears, how wonderful the onion is? Well, OK, perhaps you haven’t… but really, you should!

The allium, such a popular flower and one that I personally love in my borders, is the flower of the onion family. Then of course, there’s the onion itself. How many meals do we cook that don’t involve onions? Not that many I imagine. Its flavour, whether sweet and mild like a Spanish onion, or tear–inducing like a red onion makes a huge difference to the flavour of a recipe. I really can’t imagine my diet without them.

Onions are eaten and grown in more countries than any other vegetable but rarely receive much acclaim. The UN estimates that at least 175 countries produce an onion crop, well over twice as many as grow wheat, the largest global crop by tonnage. And unlike wheat, the onion is a staple of every major cuisine and is arguably the only truly global ingredient. 

The onion has been around for a very, very long time. Scientists think that, based on genetic analysis, onions came from central Asia and there is very early evidence of their use in Europe back to the Bronze Age. Historians say there is no doubt that onions would have been traded along the Silk Road as far back as 2,000BC. Today, though, there is little global trade in onions. About 90% are eaten where they are grown. This may be why, in most parts of the world, onions are so much taken for granted

China and India dominate production and consumption – between them they account for about 45% of the world’s annual production of more than 70 million tonnes. But neither country is among the top onion-eating nations, however, measured by the quantity of onions eaten per head of population. The global champion in this regard is Libya, where in 2011 each person ate, on average, 33.6kg of onion, according to the UN. 

UN data estimates that we Britons get through around 9.3kg per head, that’s just over 20lbs a year. The French, whom we rather like to think of as big onion eaters, in fact made do with a modest 5.6kg or 12lbs each! So that’s another myth shattered!

Some facts about the onion:

  • The onion family belongs to the much bigger family of lilies
  • The biggest onion on record weighed 18lb 11½ oz (8.49kg) and was grown in Leicestershire
  • An onion is 85% water
  • Onions make you cry because chopping them creates the ‘lachrymatory agent’ Syn-propanethial-S-oxide
  • Eating parsley after eating onions makes your breath less oniony
  • New York City, now known as the Big Apple, was once known as the Big Onion – but today the name is more commonly used to refer to Chicago

Grow your own gold!

Saffron – three times more expensive than gold.A brief article in a newspaper caught my eye the other day: “For the first time in two centuries, saffron is being grown in Essex – just outside Saffron Walden, the town to which it gave its name.” Well, I thought, that’s interesting…

I love Saffron, both for its unique, warming flavour, and its rich red gold colour. It perfumes dishes and has a slightly sweet but earthy taste that can be used to flavour salty or sweet recipes, and is perfect for adding to basmati rice for that authentic Indian curry! It always seems terribly exotic to me, as if it has been shipped in on an old spice route… but of course, it is derived from the flower of Crocus sativus, commonly known as the saffron crocus. First cultivated in Greece, it can be grown perfectly well here in the UK, as witnessed by the town of Saffron Walden.

Crocus sativus, commonly known as the saffron crocusSaffron is the most expensive spice in the world. The dried stigmas of the saffron crocus can only be picked by hand but, fortunately, a little saffron goes a long way…! I buy a little pot for about £5 and it will probably last me 3 or 4 months.

Saffron has been around since the beginning of civilization. The ancient Greeks, for example, used the spice to scent and purify their temples. The ancient Romans bathed in saffron water. Cleopatra supposedly used it as a facial mask… perhaps an early example of an ‘orange tan’!? Throughout medieval times, saffron had great commercial importance in Europe, especially as a dye, with saffron-coloured clothes being worn by royalty and nobility – a clear sign of how wealthy you were.

So, back to 2014 and Saffron Walden – apparently, local farmer called David Smale is now Britain’s only commercial saffron grower and he started growing saffron crocuses 10 years ago. Saffron growing thrived in Britain in the 16th century, before eventually dying out owing to cheaper imports. Today, he sells the spice to Fortnum and Mason for a whopping £75 a gram – that’s three times the price of gold!

The town sign – complete with crocus!I might just try growing a few saffron crocuses myself – Suttons Seeds sell them, complete with instructions on how to harvest the saffron. With beautifully scented autumn blooms, Sutton’s say that it’s actually very easy to grow – you certainly don’t need to have green fingers! Just plant the bulbs in a sunny spot in your garden and unlike their more well-known spring-blooming cousins, once established they put on a display of beautiful and deliciously scented blooms. They will thrive in a well drained border, but can easily be grown in a container on the patio. Plus, they’re super-hardy and they’ll multiply rapidly from year to year. 


Putting on a bit of a show…

July and August are busy times down here in Devon. Of course, the tourism industry is huge in this area – we are blessed with beautiful countryside and a dramatic coastline – but it’s the strong sense of community and tradition in the countryside that also come to the fore at this time of year.

The rural community is still closely aligned with the farming world and country shows, town carnivals and village fetes are all still important (and popular) events on the social calendar.

Growing giant vegetables, showing your best breeding ram or entering your dog in the agility class are all part of the fun,­ although some people take it very seriously indeed! People go to enormous lengths to build carnival floats, groom and polish their ponies and traps and produce flower arrangements of great ingenuity. It is heartening to see such ‘traditional’ ways of life still carrying on so strongly in this technological age.

My partner in crime writing, Julia Wherrell, took the afternoon off to wander around a show local to her up on Dartmoor, the Chagford Show, and took some fun photos to give you a real feel for what goes on. She spent quite a lot of her afternoon in the produce and craft tents and when not in there, she was admiring the prize sheep and cattle, oh, and chickens of course. She says she most definitely did not go near the beer tent(!), but might have swung by the cream teas!

They always say ‘write about what you know’, so if you happen to be a fan of our Swaddlecome Mysteries series, this sort of rural entertainment will be well known to you!