I have a dear friend, Valerie, who lives near a little village in the Cotswolds. I visit her every time I’m in England. She has a charming stone cottage and runs a bed and breakfast. Years ago, during my three month walk through southern England, I fetched up at her place with a painful swollen ankle. She and her now late husband, Hugh, put me up and nursed me for a week. We all became fast friends. Nowadays, if I’m ever near their cottage, I spend the night. By way of payment, for Val won’t let me pay for my room, I take her to dinner at a lovely old pub, the Old Royal Ship in Luckington. “The Ship,” as it is known, is what would now be called a “gastropub,” its food is so good. But I always order an old standard of pub grub: Bangers and Mash.
“Bangers” are pork sausages, shorter and thicker than hot dogs, and with a bit of a taste twist. They became popular between the two world wars when supplies were short. Pork was ground up with breadcrumbs, onion, and water. The twist was in the spices, which included not the usual savory sausage herbs, like thyme and rosemary, but mace, ginger, and nutmeg. The “bang” came when, during grilling, the water inside exploded, splitting the skin…thus, “bangers.” Locally made sausage has become popular again in the US and many markets now carry English Bangers.
Ah, but that’s just the beginning! Traditionally, a pair of grilled bangers is served on a mound of creamy mashed potatoes and covered with “onion gravy.”
This is the complicated part: take a large red or white onion, cut it in half lengthwise, and then slice each half thinly crossways. Drop a good knob of butter in a pan, stir in the sliced onion, and braise on medium heat as the onions soften. Add a pinch of sugar and then a splash of red wine, a dash of red wine vinegar, a little dash of Worcestershire sauce, a sprinkle of powdered mustard, salt, and pepper, and finally a half cup or so of beef broth. Turn down the heat, cover, and let simmer for perhaps twenty minutes, watching that it doesn’t evaporate and burn. Finally, stir a teaspoon of cornstarch in a little cold water and add to the onions, stirring as the sauce thickens.
Place then bangers atop the mashed potatoes and drench with the savory caramelized onion sauce. Don’t be stingy! Buttered peas are the common side dish.
For verisimilitude, serve at a small table near a wood or coal fire (optional).
And, of course, pour a pint of good British ale…
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.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.