We call it “hiking” here in the United States, but in Britain, where everything is understated (Would you like a cup of tea? Answer: “I wouldn’t say no…”), it’s just called “walking,” no matter the terrain. The Brits take their walking seriously. There are, in fact, roughly 140,000 miles of protected, marked, and mapped public footpaths throughout England and Wales. Many are centuries old and existed before roads. One, the Ridgeway, which runs roughly east-west along a chalk ridge across south-central England, has been in constant use for 5,000 years!
As I’ve mentioned elsewhere in these blogs, a decade or so ago I decided to go for a walk in England. It took three and a half months and I covered nearly 1,400 miles—almost entirely on public foot paths that led me, happily, jauntily, through exquisite countryside.
Here’s what I learned about long-distance walking: within a week or so it becomes clear that this is what we humans are meant to do. Given our mostly sedentary lives, it’s easy to forget this is what we are uniquely designed for—moving rhythmically across space and through time, arms and legs swinging not in tandem but in opposition, for balance. We don’t need to watch our feet; our eyes focus far ahead, our mind takes in the world through which we pass and records it. Our feet follow automatically. It can be a remarkably intimate and magical connection with the landscape and every living thing in it. Surprise and delight wait around every bend. The experience is so vivid, so visceral that, for example, to this day I can recount the mostly pastoral world through which I walked for more than three months almost blade of grass by blade of grass. It’s a movie in my head.
Walking seems the most natural thing in the world…but of course it isn’t. It takes a toddler months of crawling and falling to master it. Being perpendicular to the ground, essentially a pillar of bones, is perilous; we are at constant risk of injury. But the benefits are obvious: speed, endurance, and the ability to see to the far horizon. We are the only primates that are no longer knuckle walkers, and this evolutionary twist took us out of Africa and to the ends of the earth. Want to experience freedom and joy daily? Take a hike/walk.
Footnote: My three-year battle with cancer, successful at last, has left me weak and wobbly as a town drunk. But I’m persistent. And determined. I already have another long walk in England planned. Maybe not three months long this time, and maybe not with a fifty-pound backpack. But it will happen…as soon as this miserable pandemic passes!
Unless you have a greenhouse, the Pacific Northwest, where I live, is a dispiriting place to try to grow tomatoes. It’s just not hot enough, the heat waves in other parts of the country this year notwithstanding. Lettuce, kale, cabbage? No problem. They love the cool and thrive. But homegrown tomatoes? You’re lucky to get them out here before school starts! And while I’m at it, does anyone know how kale became all the rage? It’s prickly and unpleasant. Kale must have a terrific public relations agency…
But I digress. The subject was tomatoes.
Cooking often features in my Davies & West mystery books, so I get a lot of mail from readers who want to know what I like to cook best. Often they want recipes from the books but they get upset when I say that I mostly just make meals up from what’s available in the season during which the books are set. Cornwall’s a lot like the Pacific Northwest—not too hot and often damp. Still, it produces so many gorgeous vegetables, meats, cheeses, and fruits that it is no wonder some of London’s top chefs have opened restaurants there.
But when fresh tomatoes finally come into season where I live (roughly a week before the incessant cold rain arrives) my mind heads south, to Italy, and to my all time favorite Tuscan white bean, tomato, and basil salad. Here’s how to make it:
Grab two or three very ripe local tomatoes (I like to add a yellow variety for color). Cut them into rough chunks, drop them into a large bowl, and sprinkle lightly with coarse Kosher salt. Toss and let them sit for twenty minutes to a half hour. The salt will draw out the excess water in the tomatoes. Drain but reserve the liquid. To the tomatoes, now add a little finely chopped sweet onion, minced garlic, a fistful of chopped fresh basil leaves, a bit more salt, and pepper, and a good glug of extra virgin olive oil.. Mix and let sit. Meanwhile, drain and thoroughly rinse a can of white cannellini beans and add them to the tomato-basil bowl. Again, let sit for a bit so the beans absorb the flavors.
You don’t have to, but I like to add sliced and browned mild Italian sausage, add a squeeze of lemon and more olive oil as a dressing, and then toss all of the savory goodies with baby lettuce. Serve outside, if it’s warm enough, with breadsticks, olives, and a chilled white wine or dry rose from Provence, and bask in the waning days of summer.
If you stay at a bed and breakfast (or guest house, inn, or hotel) in Britain, the first question your hosts will likely ask in the morning is: “Will it be the Full English?” Full English? What could that even mean?!
What it means is history, tradition, and…lots of protein.
As far back as the 14th century and into the pre-war 20th century, if you were landed gentry with the usual baronial “country house”, you were expected to provide your weekend guests with a sumptuous breakfast—especially if there was a fox hunt to follow. This might include a groaning sideboard laden with sliced cold roast beef, lamb, ham, tongue, cheeses, squab, pheasant, fish, kippered (smoked) herring, and more. And, of course, tea (there is no mention of vegetables).
Then came the Industrial Revolution, and to keep one going through those long factory hours, the “full English Breakfast” evolved. Unlike that precious (and miserly) “Continental breakfast” (bread, butter, maybe a dry pastry, jam, coffee) the full English remains a hearty mainstay—to such an extent that there are cafes across the land that offer it all day.
The “full English” is, simply put, a protein bomb. You may begin with juice and a choice of cereals, but the main event is the hot breakfast: invariably two fried eggs, fried sausage, back bacon, fried halved tomato and cubed mushrooms, fried bread and, in rare cases, a slice of fried black pudding (don’t ask). Also toast, marmalade, and tea. For obvious reasons, this is known as “a proper fry up.” Somewhere along the way, baked beans appeared. I’m not sure why, but they may have been a cheap source of protein during WWII. The beans persist today. And the brand is always Heinz. Nothing else will do, apparently. Tradition, you see.
If you’re a vegetarian, I can understand that this might not appeal. But let me tell you, it is sustaining. Some years ago, I put a pack on my back and walked roughly 1,400 miles through much of southern England. It took three and a half wonderful months. When I wasn’t camping in some farmer’s field, I stayed at B&Bs (one does need a shower and shave occasionally). And I had, always, the “full English.” I might stop at a pub at midday for a pint or two and a bag of salted crisps (potato chips), but that protein bomb kept me fueled all day.
In the evening, I’d repair to a good local pub for supper. These days, pub food has gone gourmet. At least in my beloved Cornwall, there are “gastropubs” everywhere. The menus can be sophisticated and surprising, with the freshest local ingredients.
But I know myself and, after a long day’s hike, I’ll probably tuck into a pub mainstay: “bangers and mash” (grilled local sausage, buttery mashed potatoes, caramelized onions, fresh peas). And a couple of pints of Doom Bar, St. Austell’s Tribute, Skinner’s Betty Stogs, or whatever other local ale is on tap.
Tradition, you see.
Not too many years ago, you could wander into any British town or village—or any rural area, for that matter—and be assured of finding homey and affordable accommodation in a spare bedroom in someone’s home. For centuries, of course, there were inns with rooms upstairs, but the authentic British B&B emerged especially after World War II. We tend to forget just how broken the British economy was after the war. Even in the late 1960s, when I lived there, it was a rare family that had more than one car and shop shelves were often only sparingly stocked.
In those days, if you were an empty nest couple or a war widow, renting out a spare bedroom (typically with a shared bathroom) was a brilliant way to help make ends meet. And the “full English” breakfast served in some warm kitchen or sitting room could sustain a traveler all day (see earlier blog). As recently as ten years ago, when I took a three and a half month walk through southern England, I seldom had any trouble finding a place to spend the night. There would be a sign in a cottage window or on a post out along the roadside inviting visitors. My favorite was farmhouse B&Bs, which somehow always felt especially welcoming. To this day, I remain friends with some of those hosts.
But I began to see change coming in the 1970s and early 1980s. The British Tourist Authority established a rating system for lodgings of all kinds, from simple B&Bs to posh country house hotels, and added a host of mandatory safety standards. Comfort and reliability increased, but the cost of meeting these standards (installing fire doors, etc.) put a lot Mum and Pop B&Bs out of business. The supply shrank and prices rose. Then, when the London financial boom hit in the first years of the new millennium, wealthy Londoners snapped up every available countryside cottage and disused barn to convert into weekend and holiday getaways. Skyrocketing real estate values pushed a lot of older folks out of their villages.
Today, there’s both bad news and good news. The bad news is that the supply of B&Bs has shrunk further. The good news is that what B&Bs remain are much more luxurious than the old days (with prices to match). There’s one other advantage: thanks to the Internet (and AirBnB and VRBOs), you no longer have to worry about finding a vacancy in some beauty spot (like my Cornwall) at the end of a day of wandering; you can book ahead and be reassured.
But you know, I miss the adventurous hit-or-miss days when you could just stumble on a lovely room and meet wonderful people. Here’s an example from that same long walk a few years ago: I was in Somerset and after a long day of walking I arrived late in a tiny village and asked if there was a place to stay. I was directed to a farm some distance from the village that did B&B. But when I got there the lovely hostess told me a wedding party had booked her rooms and she had no vacancies. I was worn out and started walking back toward the village before an idea occurred to me. I turned around and went back and when the surprised hostess opened the door to me again, I grinned and said, “Look, I have a tent in my pack and you have a field. I’m tired and desperate for a shower. Let’s do tent-and-breakfast tonight.” She burst out laughing. “You must be an American to be so bold, but sure! Set yourself up and come in for a bath and tea.”
I stayed the next night, too, but in a lovely room. At breakfast, her guests asked me how far I’d come. “From Heathrow Airport,” I said, and their jaws dropped. I’d been walking for more than a month.
My Davis & West mystery series is set in Cornwall, England. A fingertip shaped county at the far southwest of England, it’s not on the way to anywhere (except America) and has only grudgingly acceded to British rule over the centuries (they still have their own flag—a piratical white cross on a black background). It’s a dramatic landscape—storm-whipped on the Atlantic edge, pastoral on the English Channel side. Bronze and Iron Age stone monuments are thick upon the ground. It is an ancient place, full of legend.
Also, great food: pasture-raised beef, lamb, and pork and, because the climate is mild (for Britain), a year-long range of fresh vegetables and fruits. Several of London’s most famous chefs have restaurants in Cornwall. Ah, but the finest Cornish delicacy (and the best lunch on earth) is the Cornish Pasty (not to be confused with the skimpy bits of an exotic dancer’s “costume”).
The pasty has a long and storied history. But first, the recipe itself: a pasty is a folded crescent of short butter crust in which are nestled chunks of skirt steak, potato, onion, salt and pepper, a bit of flour and butter (to create a thick gravy), and “Swede,” or what Americans call rutabaga. Its curved edge is crimped, almost braided, and the whole is brushed with an egg wash and then baked. The golden result is a stunningly savory handful of perfection (to be accompanied, of course by a pint of local Cornish ale. Or two)!
Pasties are first mentioned in the 13th century, but it wasn’t until the 17th century that they became synonymous with Cornwall…and tin mining. The Atlantic coast of Cornwall was the world’s center of the tin (and later copper) mining industry. Vertical shafts were dug deep into the cliffs and drifts (tunnels) often reached a mile out under the ocean floor, often at several levels or tiers.
Pasties were the miners’ lunch deep underground. Their wives baked them, often incising their initials in the crust. They stayed warm in their flaky blanket for hours and some wives would put jam at one end as a sweet. The crimped crust wasn’t just decorative; it was a safety measure: the miners’ hands were often covered with arsenic dust, so they held the pasty by the edge and discarded the last bit.
Now, how do you find the quintessential Cornish pasty? My recommendation, if you’re there, is to ask around. There are pasty shops in any town in Cornwall, but the best are usually family-run bakeries. There is also a chain, called Warrens, which makes downright respectable pasties. If you want to make them at home (it’s not complicated) there are recipes on the Internet.
By the way, pasties are not for dieters. For that matter, neither is the ale…
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