Aug 092017

Today is often cited (erroneously) as the birthday (c. 1594) of Izaak Walton, an English writer best known as the author of The Compleat Angler, that is, if he is remembered at all these days. Walton also wrote a number of short biographies that he recorded as he was researching The Compleat Angler and which were eventually collected into one volume under the title Walton’s Lives. Walton was born in Stafford on a date that is unknown. The traditional date of 9th August 1593 is based on a misinterpretation of his will, which he began on 9 August 1683. The register of his baptism gives his father’s name as Gervase. His father, who was an innkeeper as well as a landlord of a tavern, died before Izaak was 3 years old. His mother then married another innkeeper by the name of Bourne, who later ran the Swan in Stafford.

He is believed to have been educated in Stafford before moving to London in his teens. He is often described as an ironmonger, but he trained as a linen draper, a trade which came under the Ironmongers’ Company. He had a small shop in the upper storey of Thomas Gresham’s Royal Burse or Exchange in Cornhill. In 1614 he had a shop in Fleet Street, two doors west of Chancery Lane in the parish of St Dunstan’s. He became verger and churchwarden of the church, and a friend of the vicar, John Donne. He joined the Ironmongers’ Company in November 1618. Walton’s first wife was Rachel Floud (married December 1626), a great-great-niece of Archbishop Cranmer. She died in 1640. He soon remarried, Anne Ken (1646–1662), who appears as Kenna in Walton’s poem The Angler’s Wish. She was a stepsister of Thomas Ken, afterwards bishop of Bath and Wells.

After the Royalist defeat at Marston Moor in 1644, Walton retired from his trade. He went to live just north of his birthplace, at Shallowford between Stafford and Stone, where he had bought some land bordered by a small river. However by 1650 he was living in Clerkenwell in London. The first edition of his book The Compleat Angler was published in 1653. His second wife died in 1662, and was buried in Worcester Cathedral, where there is a monument to her memory.

For the remainder of his life (40 years) Walton visited eminent clergymen and others who enjoyed fishing, compiling the biographies of people he liked, and collecting information for revisions and additions to The Compleat Angler. He died in his daughter’s house at Winchester, and was buried in Winchester Cathedral.

The Compleat Angler was first published in 1653, but Walton continued to add to it for a quarter of a century, going through 5 editions. At the core of the book are instructions about fishing itself, but the whole work is a kaleidoscope of poems, stories, reminiscences, autobiography, and miscellany about fishing.  You have to dip into it to get the idea.  Here’s a few quotes:

Doubt not but angling will prove to be so pleasant that it will prove to be, like virtue, a reward to itself.

Rivers and the inhabitants of the watery element are made for wise men to contemplate, and for fools to pass by without consideration.

You will find angling to be like the virtue of humility, which has a calmness of spirit and a world of other blessings attending upon it.

We may say of angling as Dr. Boteler said of strawberries: “Doubtless God could have made a better berry, but doubtless God never did”; and so, if I might be judge, God never did make a more calm, quiet, innocent recreation than angling.

Thus use your frog…Put your hook through his mouth, and out at his gills;…and then with a fine needle and silk sew the upper part of his leg, with only one stitch, to the arming-wire of your hook; or tie the frog’s leg, above the upper joint, to the armed-wire; and in so doing use him as though you loved him.

Walton did not claim to be an expert at fly fishing and many of the technical discourses on the subject come from other fishermen. But he was skilled at using live bait (as in the case of the frog), and was a genuine devotee of fishing in general. In the first edition the book opens with a dialogue between Piscator (angler) and Viator (traveler) extolling their respective pastimes, much in the vein of similar dialogues from an earlier period.

In the second edition, seemingly in response to critics who felt that Piscator was too dominant in the dialogue, introduced the falconer, Auceps, and changed Viator into Venator (hunter), and made these new companions each expound on the joys of their individual sports. After the 17th century, Walton was not much in vogue until the late 19th century when noted folk tale scholar and editor, Andrew Lang, put out a new edition in 1896.

I lived on a trout stream in the Catskills for nearly 30 years, and during that time I became deeply involved in the world of fly fishing, which includes fly tying (an incredibly arcane art), split bamboo cane making, entomology, and tale telling galore. Dipping into Walton is like peering into the lives of many of the fishermen I knew. One thing that unites Walton with contemporary fishermen is the distaste for actually killing and eating the fish they catch. Rather they prefer to catch fish – enjoying the battle – and then immediately releasing them back into the river. So a fish recipe might not meet with their approval. I’ll go ahead anyway.

Here’s two recipes from 17th century England. First, from The Accomplish’d Lady’s Delight In Preserving, Physick, Beautifying, and Cookery (1675). In this case a “coffin” is a contemporary word for an enclosed pie shell.

To make a Carp-Pye.

After you have drawn, wash’d, and scalded a fair large Carp, season it with Pepper, Salt, and Nutmeg, and then put it into a Coffin, with good store of sweet Butter, and then cast on Raisins of the Sun, the juice of Limons, and some slices of Orange-peels, and then sprinkling on a little Vinegar, close it up, and bake it.

Second, from The Whole Duty of a Woman: Or a Guide to the Female Sex (1696)

To Stew Trouts, Carp, Tench, &c.

Draw them and scrape them well, wash them in White-wine, then smeer them over with a piece of Sweet Butter, and lay them orderly in a Stew-pan, putting in as much water as will cover them above an inch, with a little Salt, a bundle of sweet herbs, and some blades of Mace, take them up, and make your Sawce of beaten Butter, Claret, yolks of Eggs, and Sugar.


May 132017

Abbotsbury Garland Day was held on this date for a little under 200 years, and continues to this day although the date of the celebration is now somewhat more flexible. I want to make a point of mentioning this English calendar custom, in part because it is not well known, and in part because its history is reasonably clear and is mercifully devoid of the usual claptrap about “pagan” origins that dogs so many English traditions.

Abbotsbury is a former fishing village in Dorset a little to the west of Weymouth, and Garland Day celebrations have taken place there since about the early 19th century. They were first described in the edition of John Hutchins’ History of Dorset published in 1867. My strong suspicion is that they were begun simply as a way for poor fishing families to make a little money in hard times. Not many folklorists or historians make much of the fact that almost all calendar customs in England involved some form of (legal) begging. I do. In the 19th century Dorset was the poorest county in the south of England by far. In the 19th century Dorset was mostly an agricultural area with farm laborers earning 10 shillings per week, half of which went for bread alone. The common daily diet was bread and cheese and on this an agricultural laborer was expected to work from dawn to dusk, 6 days a week.

Because of these impossible conditions there were several attempts to form unions to protest, the most famous being the Tolpuddle Martyrs. By the time the Martyrs organized their union (1834), wages had sunk to 6 shillings per week. It’s no wonder that local communities such as Abbotsbury organized festivals to try to wrest a little extra money once a year from those who had some to spare. Delve deeper and I guarantee you’ll find that the vast bulk of English calendar customs – lauded as “ancient” festivals – were motivated by financial concerns.

The custom involves the making of garlands by the children of the village. Originally only the children of local fishermen took part. The garlands were blessed in a church service and some were then rowed out to sea to be tossed into the water. The children would then spend the rest of the day playing on the beach. From around the time of the First World War the custom changed somewhat in that children of non-fishermen started to take part. This was probably due to the decline of the local fishing industry. The village school gave the children a day’s holiday and they would construct two garlands, one of wild flowers and the other of garden flowers. These were paraded on poles from house to house in the village where they asked for money. Later in the day older children who had been at school in Weymouth would return to the village and make a more elaborate garland which they would also take around the houses.

Since the First World War two garlands have been placed on the local war memorial at the close of the tour of houses. The Abbotsbury village school closed in 1981 and the children no longer get a day’s holiday. This has led to the celebrations taking place either in the evening of May 13th or on the nearest Saturday. Well . . . today (2017) is a Saturday !!!

From my experience of the region around Weymouth and Portland which I knew quite well a long time ago, as well as tours more recently in the vicinity of Swanage, there’s not a whole lot in the way of regional Dorset specialties. In recent years the old methods of making Dorsetshire Blue Vinney, a crumbly blue cheese made from skimmed milk (after butter had been made from it), have been revived, and it is good with Dorset knobs, hard biscuits (baked 3 times) made with bread dough and butter. Nowadays the most common dairy products are clotted cream and ice cream, locally produced, and if you buy a cone at the seaside they’ll ask if you want the ice cream topped with cream. Slight overkill, if you ask me, but worth it.  Otherwise, fish dishes from the coastal areas are much the same as you will find in Devon and Cornwall.

There is this, however, a report taken from The Portland Arms, taken from The Penny Magazine [1838]:

The ‘Portland Arms’ is not a wayside house, where travellers are coming and going every hour, and where, therefore, you have no right to expect more than prompt but general civility. It is rather one of those retired country inns, where visitors are treated with a homely but warm-hearted attention, which places them almost on the footing of friends. And though the inn cannot boast of being as fine as a London hotel, it has, nevertheless, its reputation. George III, during his visits to Weymouth, had several times made a tour of the Isle of Portland; and on those occasions he made the ‘Portland Arms’ his head-quarters, and used to finish his day by dining at the house. The then landlady had a recipe for making a certain famous Portland pudding, and the King never failed to order this pudding, in honour of the island. She bequeathed the recipe to her daughter, the present landlady; and though the pudding may now be ordered by the humblest visitor, the honour of the king’s visits is still felt in the ‘Portland Arms’ with something of that satisfaction which another royal visit left in the Castle of Tillietudlem.

This is touted as the recipe in question:


Beat to cream ¾ lb. each of fresh butter and caster sugar, then stir in the yolks of nine well beaten eggs, and mix in gradually ¾ lb sifted flour and 2 oz. finely-shred candied peel beat all well together for about ten minutes, then stir quickly and lightly the stiffly-whipped white of the eggs, pour it into small moulds, and bake. Serve with sweet sauce to taste.

All in all it looks like a sponge cake with candied peel, made into individual cakes rather than one big one. I’d guess that it was served hot, but I don’t know what kind of sweet sauce went with it.

Jun 052016


Today is Sjómannadagurinn, meaning ‘sailors’ day’ or ‘seamen’s day’ in Iceland, a day to honor all those involved in the country’s fisheries, particularly those working at sea. Sjómannadagurinn is celebrated on the first Sunday of June all over the country, with the biggest festivals often held in towns where fisheries are the main source of employment. Although Sjómannadagurinn is officially on a Sunday, many places begin festivities on the Saturday. The day was first celebrated in Reykjavik and Ísafjörður (West Fjords) back in 1938, but even before that Icelanders had a tradition of holding special church services for seamen before the fishing vessels departed after the winter break. The day was made official in 1987.

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Fishing is an important part of Iceland’s economy, so celebrating people in the fishing industry is only natural. Nowadays small fishing villages around the country, even more than in Reykjavík. Events cover the waterfront (literally). There are parades, plays, music, boat races, games, simulated sea rescues . . . you name it. I think the Ugly Fish Display (strange fish exhibited on ice) is my favorite.


Tourism is now an important part of Iceland’s economy as well and many of my friends have traveled there recently. It’s not high on my priority list because I’m not a fan of cold and ice, and bland food does not exactly beckon me either. But I have several Icelandic friends I would like to visit, and Icelandic literature from its Viking past has an allure. I know a lot of people go for the geothermally heated natural pools, but I’ll pass. Not my thing. Maybe some fermented shark would work.

Iceland’s traditional cuisine is based on fish, lamb, and dairy products, with little to no use of herbs or spices. Due to the island’s climate, fruits and vegetables are not generally a component of traditional dishes, although the use of greenhouses has made them more common in contemporary food. Nowadays Icelandic chefs focus on the freshness of ingredients rather than traditional recipes, so you’ll find a wide range of dishes available.

I gave a recipe for the classic plokkfiskur here .  Still very popular among Icelanders. I suppose I could give a recipe for broiled puffin, which is also still quite popular, but getting one to cook might prove tricky. Here’s a simple Icelandic recipe for baked fish. I’m sorry it’s not more complex; that’s the nature of the beast. I promise to give a recipe for sheep’s head next time I post on Iceland. But today is a fishing holiday, so it really has to be a fish dish. Cod is the traditional favorite, but any firm white fish will work. The cheese you choose will determine the nature of the dish. Iceland has a strong dairy industry, but not a great heritage of traditional cheeses. Locally produced cheeses tend towards the “cheddar” variety, so you can use your own local version of the same, or a German melting cheese, such as emmental or tilsit.




1 tbsp butter
6 fish fillets
1 lemon
salt, pepper to taste
200 g grating cheese, grated
1 tbsp prepared mustard
1 cup heavy cream
½ cup breadcrumbs


Preheat the oven to 350°F/180°C.

Grease a baking dish well and place the fillets in it in a single layer. Season the fish with salt, pepper and freshly squeezed lemon juice. Spread an even layer of grated cheese over the fish.

Mix the mustard with the cream and pour it over fish fillets. Top with an even layer of breadcrumbs.

Bake on the middle rack of the oven for about 35 minutes, or until the breadcrumbs are evenly golden. If necessary, turn the dish halfway through cooking to ensure that the top is even.

Serve with mashed or boiled potatoes and thickly buttered dark rye bread.