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…
At the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, from the mid-1700s to the mid-1800s, it occurred to some folks in England that horse-drawn carts were not a particularly efficient way to move raw materials across country or finished goods to market. Their solution? Canals and horse-drawn barges. Thousands of miles of canals were dug by investors and industrialists linking existing waterways with industrializing cities.
But the craze, while profitable, was short-lived. The advent of railways (an even bigger craze) rendered the canals increasingly obsolete and many fell into disrepair. Then, after the Second World War, a light bulb came on at the British Waterways Authority and it flashed: Recreation! Economic revitalization! Canals throughout central England were renovated, boatyards flourished, canalside pubs were reborn, and a new generation of steel-hulled “narrowboats” were launched (narrow because the canals and their locks were never widened).
Think of today’s narrowboats, available for weeklong rentals, as sixty foot-plus stretched out floating luxury RVs, complete with fitted-out living area, fully-equipped kitchen, bedrooms, central heating, bathroom with shower, fuel, water, household items, and more (like wi-fi and TV). With a small diesel engine in the stern and a rear tiller by which to steer, they serve as transportation, accommodation, recreation, restaurant, and home as you meander through some of the most pastoral countryside in Europe.
It’s best to hire these boats with close friends (you will be close!), in part because opening, closing, and filling the locks that carry your canal over hill and dale are manual, but fun. There are charming villages to visit along the way, lots of waterside wildlife, sheep and cows, and some stunning engineering marvels as well: tunnels through mountains, aqueducts over gorges, cuts across hillsides, and more. I’ve navigated several lovely circular routes, but my favorite is the Llangollen Canal which takes you deep into the mountains of North Wales along a route studded with “van Gogh” lift bridges, long dark tunnels, and the amazing Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, soaring a few hundred feet above a narrow gorge—breathtaking in more ways than one.
But here’s the thing: you won’t go fast and you won’t go far. To protect against bank erosion, you cruise at only four miles per hour, and you can only go one-way, as places to turn (“winding holes”) are few and far between. In a week, though, you can cover a fair swath of central England. Stress, hurry, and worry are pointless. You just let the countryside slip by and the only decision you have to make is when to break out the gin and tonics in the afternoon, what imaginative repast to whip up in the kitchen for dinner, and where to tie up for the night. And at dawn, with birdsong and the morning mist rising from the water, you’re off again, adventure just around the next bend.
Crazy hours at work? Trapped at home in the pandemic nightmare? This is the ideal mental health break. Britain is opening again and there are narrowboat hire companies on dozens of canals on the Internet.
Slow down. Breathe.
England and America: two countries separated by a common language.
As you might expect, given that my mystery series is set in Cornwall, England, I have a wonderful group of fans in the UK. They are loyal, but not uncritical, thank goodness (I love critiques!).
They have a common “beef”: Americanisms. That is, words in American English which are different in the U.K. It is a fair criticism, but one that is diabolically difficult for American writers to resolve. Many years ago, I published a popular three-book series called The Best of Britain’s Countryside: A Driving and Walking Itinerary. Amazingly, the books are still available (used) via Amazon and are still getting great reviews. But I always included a glossary of American/British translations, if only to help American visitors avoid embarrassment—because, let me tell you, confusion and misunderstandings are common between two people claiming to be speaking the same language (personal experience below).
Here are just a few befuddling examples:
There is no end to them. It’s astonishing we can even converse! The meeting of the G7 nations was just held in Cornwall. The foreign leaders had translators. Did Biden and Johnson have one too?
I have spoken to other American authors of British mysteries and we seem to have all arrived at a common solution: If a British character is speaking, we use British words and spellings. In descriptive narrative (since most of our readers are Americans) we tend to use American terms. This system manages to make everyone unhappy, equally.
But there are times when the language gap can be humiliating, as I learned when I took a job in London, my first trip to England. I admired the snappy leather suspenders some of the men used to hold up their trousers and resolved to purchase a pair. I marched over to the men’s department at Selfridges, on Oxford Street, and asked a dapper salesman to see their suspenders. He blinked, just once, and directed me to women’s lingerie, which is where I learned that “suspenders” in British English are ladies’ garter belts.
You can’t be too careful.
"Murder on the Commons,” the fourth book in the Davies and West mystery series, will be released shortly. To all my readers who have written to ask where it was, please accept my apologies. It wasn’t writer's block. It was cancer.
Two and a half years ago, I was diagnosed with a particularly aggressive form of bone marrow cancer. I went through three different cycles of chemotherapy, only to have the cancer return. The last resort was stem cell replacement, completed at the end of February. Cancer, as they say, is not for sissies, and stem cell replacement even less so: a grueling month in hospital, sicker that I believed possible.
But it seems to have been successful. The latest scan shows no sign of the cancer but, of course, time will tell. Over the months, I learned a lot about patience and gratitude. Patience because cancer is mostly about waiting—for appointments, for tests and scans, for treatment, for results—and then repeat. Gratitude because I have learned to depend upon the kindness, caring, and encouragement of friends, family, and utter strangers.
It’s been quite a journey…and there is still a long way to go. To all of you who have written, thank you.
Meanwhile, enjoy “Murder on the Commons” and let me hear from you!
Many years ago, when I was ridiculously young, I managed to get a job in London. It’s a long story. I wasn’t even out of college. It was the first time I’d ever been outside of New York and everything about those months in England was magical and memorable…including my upstairs neighbor, Lillian, but that’s another story.
Now this was in the Swinging Sixties and, you know, the Brits were not known for their cuisine then. It was like they were still on a wartime footing. Choices were limited and vegetables were cooked until they were grey and very dead. If you wanted a good meal in those days, you went to an Indian restaurant.
But at noon, all the chaps (and ladies) where I worked went to the local pub for a couple of pints and lunch. It was very convivial and chummy, crowding in around the bar and the cases with cooked food options. And that’s when I fell in love with Shepherd’s Pie.
Now, to be honest it was Cottage Pie, not true Shepherd’s Pie. Shepherds apparently being hard to round up in central London, not to mention their sheep, pub cooks turned to minced beef instead of lamb. I didn’t know any better. What I did know was that I had just stumbled upon the most savory and satisfying meal of my life.
It’s not very complicated (see “wartime shortages” above), but there are a couple of secrets to making the kind of winter dinner that no one can stop eating until the baking dish is scraped clean. As for wine pairings, I would suggest a velvety red or, better yet, a pint of English ale (NOT American beer!).
Here it is:
Start with a diced large onion. Sauté in a splash of olive oil and a knob or so of butter and add small diced carrots, say half a cup or more. Cook on medium heat until the onions and carrots begin to soften and take on color. Then, add a teaspoon or two of crushed diced garlic. Mix together and make sure not to brown the garlic, which ruins everything.
Now, mix in a pound and a half or so of minced lamb (or beef) and cook until barely brown. Add a good sprinkle of flour and then a half cup of chicken broth and a couple of tablespoons of tomato paste and mix in, along with several dashes of Worcestershire sauce (that’s the secret ingredient). Now it is time to add thyme and rosemary to taste and salt and pepper. Simmer for ten minutes or so.
Meanwhile, you have a pot of cubed Russet potatoes on the boil (only Russets). That’s for the topping. When they are starting to soften (but are not yet mushy!), drain and start mashing. Add milk (and/or half and half if you wish), salt and pepper, and an egg yolk. Whisk (or whip) briskly until fluffy.
Spoon the meat and vegetable mixture into an oiled baking dish or casserole and mix in some frozen green peas (they will cook). I also add some chopped parsley, but you needn’t. Now smooth the mashed potatoes atop the meat mixture to every edge of dish. I like to lightly score the top of the potatoes diagonally in both directions with the tines of a fork and brush on a whisked egg yolk (it helps with browning) before I slip the whole thing into a 400 degree oven for at least 20 minutes or until the topping begins to brown and the meat is bubbling.
Time to serve at last. But look out, your family will keep spooning it out! It’s irresistible. The ultimate comfort food, at least in my book.
And now, for fun, take a look at this “Sweeney Todd” version: https://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/alton-brown/shepherds-pie-recipe2-1942900.
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