By SIR WILLIAM BEACH THOMAS
JUST as Edison grieved when he looked at the wasted power of the sea, a famous Continental gourmet lamented at the spectacle of great, fat snails crawling about uneaten. He had some reason for his lamentations. There is an enormous amount of disregarded food crawling, running and swimming about uneaten, and yet more growing in the ground. A gourmet of my acquaintance with a very wide knowledge of European cookery—as well as of European politics—once said that one thing he could not understand in the British people was their neglect of the fresh-water crayfish, one of the most succulent foods that comes to the table, if properly cooked. Another fresh-water fish much neglected by cooks is the eel. A fish- monger, as quoted to me the other day, avers that there is no market for eels. He could sell them only to a few special customers.
Both these esculents are of no little interest in natural as well as in culinary history. Crayfish abound in a certain number of our streams, though they may be classed as local. At one time caterers for the Savoy Hotel used to comb out certain reaches of the River Lea, which supplies London with much of its water, for crayfish that abound there. They were used chiefly as garnishing for various dishes ; but the bigger specimens make really good food, as a few, a very few, local residents realise. The sort of circular net that one saw French- men using in Boulogne Harbour during the last war will come up laden with crayfish if the right bait is provided. The eel, in the eyes of all naturalists, supplies the most marvellous example of the migration habit, or mania. The elvers swarm into th:. mouths of our western rivers after their two years' journey from the deep holes in the Atlantic which are their strange breeding-home. At one time they were caught in myriads and exported alive to Germany and other European countries for the stocking of the rivers and ponds. They are a highly appreciated form of food among the people as well as in the expensive restaurants. I travelled once in a third- class carriage in company with a number of Belgian workmen, who, one after the other, pulled out from their pockets stiff sticks of dried eel, which they gnawed with obvious satisfaction. It was not a pretty sight, but it was evidence that the food was good.
It may be said that no fresh-water fish, except the trout and grayling, is popular in England or worthily exploited. Of course the associations of coarse fishermen in the North of England are of great size, and the results of their competitions indicate the large number of fish that they secure, but it remains that the market in coarse fish is singularly narrow. What unappreciated numbers flourish, for example, in the reservoirs and in the Fen dykes! The essential reason perhaps for the neglect of such fish, as of many other forms of food, lies in the low level of cookery in our island. If only we had inherited such a masterly art of conservative cookery as flourishes among the Maoris, who are held by some to owe the exceptional perfection of their physique and their good health to the scientific nature of their native cookery. But one need not go to the Antipodes for examples of culinary skill. What an excellent dish is a pike when eaten in France! And how angry the French were when the pike and other coarse fish were killed in scores tly bombs thrown of set purpose into the streams by a greedy soldiery.
It is not a far cry from the River Lea, where the crayfish swarm, to the great reservoirs. Both supply London with its water. There was once a fear that the immense number of duck, of widgeon, mallard and other sorts, which frequented one of these reservoirs, might foul the water, since many flew straight to the reservoir from neighbouring sewage-farms, and selected sportsmen were called in to reduce their number. One of my strangest experiences in the observation of birds was at the great Staines reservoir. Immediately on creeping up the protective bank we flushed the largest flock of widgeon that it has ever been my fortune to see. Towards the end of the lake remained wholly unmoved a yet larger company of coot The water was black with them ; and their multiplication is no small nuisance to authority. What a contrast is such a populous area as this with the little valleys between the hills that skirt the coast in Eastern Spain. There any bird, however small, is trapped for food and even the guillemots, caught in the fishing nets that are worked unceasingly in the sea, are killed and cooked. Are coot good for food? They are regarded, as I know from experience, as a most desirable luxury by the gypsies, who have also a great liking for the hedgehog, which they cook in clay. The removal of the skin, they say, is essential to the right cooking of both these dainties.
That great and charming naturalist, Frank Buckland, was persuaded that almost everything was fit for human food— mice, the buds of the hawthorn as well as the berries, with many roots such as the pignut, which has indeed—experto crede—a pleasantly nutty flavour. Such experimenters as Buckland are very much the exception. The public in general is afraid of any out-of-the-way fare. The villagers in most counties will not eat the moorhen, let alone the coot. Black- berries are shunned after the end of September and virtually no mushroom is deliberately eaten except agaricus campestris, though some other sorts, certainly the morel, are superior in savour and not less wholesome. The utter rejection of the chanwignon, or fairy-ring toadstool, is a real deprivation. It has the advantage of lasting almost indefinitely and flavours many a country dish of potage in rural France, where the boletus also is eagerly sought. Travelling from the East Coast one day a 'long-shore sportsman asked me if I would like to buy a woodcock, and produced from a capacious well-filled sack a fat and long-beaked bird. When I told him I did not relish curlew, he told me I was wrong and added that there was a fair market for the bird, even under its rightful name.
There is manna on the face of the land and by the sea—for example, that health-giving and pleasant seaweed, known as laver, which grows in quantity in Devon and doubtless else- where. It would be a • benefit to the nation in health and pocket if the edible had a wider definition, and existing narrowness is in part the result of bad cooking. The good cook is an economist as well as the best of doctors. Potatoes, that Lord Wootton tells us to eat in greater quantity, have twice the flavour if boiled or baked in their skins. If a narrow circle of skin is first removed, the skin will eventually fall off at a touch, and trouble is saved as well as nutriment increases and most green vegetables are robbed of their best salts by wasteful cookery. A Japanese who was leaving this country said he would like to make the English some return for the hospitality he had received, so he left behind a recipe for the cooking of the tender sprouts of the bracken. It is arguable that we should be wise to supplement spinach with nettles and asparagus with hops, and lettuce with dandelion and sorrel. but whatever may be thought of such wild foods—and they are many—it is certain that we use too few species of vegetables.
It may be remembered that the one charge against the English made by that stalwart friend of our nation, Ambassador Page, was the lack of variety in our vegetables. Of the little used vegetables the one that seems to my prejudice to give the best return is the kohl rabi. It lasts well, is easily grow% and has an individual flavour. It has also its botanic interest: the apparent bulb is a stem. That other field-crop, the swede: is very much the most pleasant, or, some would say, the least unpleasant, of the turnip group. We live and learn, if slowly and it is satisfactory news that more Dutch frames for vegetab are in use than ever before. They give us vegetables at else barren season ; and provide proof of the truth that quicker a vegetable grows the better it is to eat.