Thursday, March 08, 2007

Roscoff pinks, elephants and pullets' eggs

This is an attempt at one of those delectable, cute, foody pictures, such as are found in cookery books, on postcards and on calendars, which I really like. However, I now understand that having a reasonable camera and a slightly more accustomed eye than I did have are not enough; those pictures are composed, or rather their subjects are, and that is a skill in itself. Experience in window dressing or flower arranging ( is their such a word as 'florism', I think there should be..) would be a help. I generally let nature or happenstance do that bit, all that's left for me is to frame the shots, and/or crop them, though I'm quite pleased at how little I feel I need to crop these days - not that it matters, I guess. Studio lighting too, plays a part in the effectiveness of those pictures, but I quite like this north light through our kitchen window, it gives a kind of bouncy, top-lit chiarascuro, somewhere between Caravaggio and an Australian soap.

The personages in this little impromptu still life, which I probably got distracted with when I should have been doing something else, are homegrown garlic, some rosemary and sage from the garden, some pullets' eggs from our friends' new bantams, and onions. The garlic we grow from original stock from the Isle of Wight Garlic Farm. Their very best thing is elephant garlic. It's name is self expanatory.

We are gradually building up a stock of this; the first we had were just two bulbs they sent us as a freebie. We kept one back for resowing and, with great delight and enthusiasm, roasted the enormous cloves of the other with chicken and ate the lot. Later that evening we discovered the other reason why it's called elephant garlic.

The eggs, as I said, come from a family who were not going to have any animals at all and are currently running at two cats, two rabbits and two bantam pullets. They justified the acquisition of the hens by saying that since Oscar's egg allergy can, theoretically, be desensitised, the introduction of small amounts of egg into his diet is a good idea. In fact, the hens were going begging because another family, whose tally now is several rabbits, a number of hens and a couple of goats, just couldn't resist letting a broody hen sit on her eggs. Oscar's body will not easily allow him to minimise the allergy; one bite of a scone from a large batch containing one small egg and he knows by taste that the egg is there and won't eat it. However, the thrill he had the other day in actually witnessing an egg emerging from Goldie's bottom more than compensates. The second of our hens died last year, and we have no plans to replace them, having got that out of our system. They were Madeleine and Martha, odd looking bare necked black fowls ( cou-nus ), who somehow always reminded us of rather chi-chi Parisian ladies who'd seen better days. I still think of them at twilight, the hour when all good birds should be abed, for fear of Mr Tod ( I wonder if Beatrix Potter was making a pun there, the fox as personification of death?).

The onions are Roscoff pinks, oignons roses de Roscoff. If you ever thought an onion was just an onion, you haven't eaten Roscoff pink onions.

When I was a student in South Wales, on rugby International Days, I would sometimes meet up with my sister and her mother-in-law, and we womenfolk would divert ourselves appropriately in Cardiff city centre while my brother-in-law and his father went to the match. Among the attractions was a real, live Johnny onion-seller with a bicycle, possibly a striped sweater (though my memory may have supplied that detail falsely), and magnificent russet ropes of tressed onions hanging from his handlebars. My sister, beguiled by the sight, decided to buy some, though she reeled when she heard the price. Nevertheless, she took them home to adorn her kitchen, and reported back that they were the most remarkably delicious onions she had ever tasted. They are not so much pink as reddish gold on the outside and a delicate mauve inside, a little like a shallot. They are not only delectable when fried or caramelised or roasted alone, but seem to significantly improve the flavour of any dish they are cooked in.

Roscoff onions were the subject of my first internet search early last year when we first had the computer. Having tried growing onions from seed from unusual or old varieties from the Organic Gardening Catalogue, with rather hit-or-miss results, we concluded it would probably be simpler and more productive to use sets ( small started onions), and I decided that as we were in Brittany, Roscoffs would be perhaps approriate. I never obtained any sets, I was finally informed by a woman at the Roscoff Museum of the Pink Onion, who was clearly quite passionate about them, that since the famous allium was currently awaiting its official appellation status, no-one outside of the area of the town was permitted to grow them; she expounded on matters of terroir and acidulite, and other such picturesquely protectionist nonsense, but did add that perhaps if we were to come and ask around privately at the market gardens someone might be prepared to pass us a few on the quiet. Very French.

Well, we never made it to Roscoff in time, and settled for planting the ubiquitously available Red Baron, which is a very fine onion indeed. I buy Roscoff pinks in the supermarket, when I'm feeling flush. But I learned a few things about the variety. It was a hybrid created in the 17th century from Portuguese varieties, probably brought to the fishing port by the Newfoundland-Brittany-Iberia traffic long sinced established by the fishing fleets supplying salt cod to southern Europe. The onion sellers who plied their trade all over Britain were called Johnnies because they were very often called Jean-Yves, still a popular name in Brittany, and there was a great and still commemorated tragedy in the early part of the last century when a ship carrying them went down not far out of port and all were drowned. The Breton coast was ever treacherous, as may be recalled from the Franklin's Tale. There is an onion festival in the town late in August. So if you're ever coming off the ferry in that pleasant little port, and you have the time, look in on the onion museum, La maison des Johnnies, and don't hesitate to buy some onions if you can.

Postscript: While writing this, I made another Google search, which yielded fresh treasures. There is a Roscoff onion man, Pascal Cre'ach still active in the UK, who has a website from which you can order his onions, plus garlic and shallots, with more of the history. There is also a rather quirky and old-fashioned short BBC film about him and his family, which even without broadband (yes, all this is brought to you without the benefit of ADSL speeds; I don't tell many people in case they laugh at me and assume I have cowpat on my shoe, which come to think of it I often do...) I was able to catch most of. It is worth looking at, if only to listen to the Breton accented English, which is intriguing and elusive, with a fair amount of Welsh, something of Cornish, something almost of Geordy...a Celtic miscellany. My final discovery was a precious bit of serendipity, somewhere off the beaten track, a blog called 'Now's the time', by a retired journalist become poet, Joe/Plutarch. It's a difficult one to describe, I strongly recommend reading it. It's as fresh as a daisy, and I found myself wishing I could do it like that. He also has a discontinued (it seems...) one called Exploring, with a haunting poem series, 'Handbook for Explorers', which I plan to give more time to. He just happened to mention Roscoff pink onions.


Unknown said...

I am amazed by this cyber connection. We, too, have grown elephant garlic from Isle of Wight stock, and love its mild flavour and almost meaty texture. I like the photograph of the onions and garlic, a good, still life compostion. Incidently, do you live near Roscoff? Or is it just the onions of that name which feature in your life.
You were kind enough to mention my Handbook for Explorer sequence of sonnets. Very few people have read them. There are 50 in all.

Unknown said...

Me again. I've just been reading your poems including the haiku, which so few people understand. It's not just returning your courtesy that makes me say so, but I really do like your poems. I enjoyed the one in particular that echoes Gerald Manley Hopkins, but not to the exclusion of the others.

Lucy said...

Thank you, Plutarch, both for coming and for your kind comments.
We are perhaps a couple of hours - 90 miles - from Roscoff, it's in the next department westwards. I fully intend to get to the onion festival this year.
I was really impressed by your blog and poems, and promise to spend some time with the sonnets. I am uncertain about writing poetry, and whether it's what I should be doing here, I've read alot of very good stuff on-line I'm not certain I can compete with... but thanks for your encouragement. I'll be over to yours anon.

Granny J said...

Lucy -- your discussion of food photography takes me back to magazine days. I worked on a trade journal dedicated to "away from home" food, i.e., restaurants and such. We ran a lot of food photos; an essential party at the food photo shoot is the professional food stylist. Not being the food editor, I had only one occasion to do a food photo -- at the Playboy Club HQ. They kindly furnished me with two home economists and a very antsy girlie photographer, who nearly went crazy waiting for The Moment when all was ready. I was faced with a brown plate with a brown steak and browned potatoes. Put the ladies to work doing the standard radish rosettes & carrot. Those, plus the usual spring of green parsley, made a picture that we were willing to publish. The Playboy brass was amazed at how yummy their food looked and wondered what I had done to make it so.

Granny J said...

Oops -- that's carrot curls! Don't want to get the routine down wrong.

Jonathan Wonham said...

"Later that evening we discovered the other reason why it's called elephant garlic."

Is that because it does something to your nose?

herhimnbryn said...

Lucy, You have a great light for your image, it looks wonderful. I looked at the ingredients, and thought mmmmmmmm, Frittata!

Great info about the Roscoff and Elephant garlic too. Thankyou.

Catalyst said...

Absolutely splendid photography.

Lucy said...

Thanks all!
GrannyJ - what a great story, it's amazing what you can do with a few radish rosettes, carrot curls and a sprig of parsley, especially at Playboy HQ!
Jonathan - yeah, something like that...
H, thanks sweety; Roscoffs are great in frittata!
Catalyst - you're a darling!

Anonymous said...

igrow roscoff onions from seed i save myself and i live 2 miles from the isle of wight garlic farm. well there you go Paul.