Gower, as I have said before has a superb array of wildfood and natural ingredients for the passionate cook or professional chef. I often refer to it as my extended larder in my blogs, with its balmy micro climate moderated by prevailing south westerly winds off the Atlantic. In the summer months you can enjoy averages of 7.5 hours of daily sunshine. The average temperature on Gower even in January is 9℃.
The Gower peninsula juts out into the Bristol channel, a body of water that has the second highest tidal range in the world (the highest tidal range is north eastern Canada Bay of Fundy) with extremes of tides measuring some 15 metres, nearly 50 feet in the Avonmouth area. This huge tidal range is one of the main factors that has shaped Gower’s natural beauty with rugged surf washed, rocky beaches to the north and miles of majestic, golden sandy beaches to the south.
Communities have been farming and fishing the Gower peninsula for millennia- an ancient burial chamber a short walk from the Ship Inn here in Port Eynon has proved this. The recent re-analysis of the famous “Red Lady of Paviland” (who is in fact a man) has dated the remains found at the site to an incredible 33,000 year’s ago to the Paleolithic time, in between ice ages when the ice sheet was thought to have been retreating. The stretch of the Bristol channel out from the cave in Gower was thought to have been a large flat grassy plain reaching some 70 miles out further than today’s coast line. Rich in vegetation and very fertile this grassland would have been host to an abundance of wild life, fowl and deer highly suitable for a nomadic hunter such as our “Red Lady”. Infact the latest theory suggests this to be an accurate description of the land and the remains. Recent bone analysis showed that a diet high in meat and fish was highly probable.
So here we have it scientific evidence of the fact that this Gower land has been a source of nourishment and sustenance for generations and continues to provide for us a rich harvest from land and sea.
Here at the Ship Inn, Port Eynon, just a short walk from “Goat’s Hole” cave (as it’s locally known) where the ancient remains were found, we too look out across Gower for our culinary inspiration, just as that nomadic hunter would of once done perhaps……
In the Ship kitchen we are eager to tear off the calendar sheet of August and welcome the change of pace that September brings. We can let out a sigh of relief and start to think creatively once more about the coming season.
As the days get shorter, and a more pronounced nip fills the evening air we start thinking of heartier food to bring a little warming comfort.
Chowder it seems means many things to many people. It’s a minefield of ideals and opinions cooks and chef’s hotly contest and debate which ingredients should or shouldn’t be used and everyone seems to have an award winning recipe.
To some a chowder is strictly vegetarian using only the freshest vegetables from the season such as sweet corn or potato. Others protest that it must be a seafood or shellfish broth that has its roots in France, and even its very name may confirm this as a chaudiere was a cauldron style pot used in fishing communities in France for communal cooking.
It was very economical and nourishing. This form of communal cooking was thought to of originated in the Breton coastal region of France who then brought this custom to Newfoundland, where it is thought to of spread to Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and New England.
So it’s origins were firmly rooted in peasant cuisine with some old recipes using slightly soured milk and ground up saltine crackers to give thickness to the soup.
New England chowder uses salt pork, clams and diced potato in a mixed cream and milk base with a little butter. Manhattan clam chowder substitutes chopped tomatoes for the milk and cream and typically leaves out the potatoes.
Another fact confirming chowders French origin is perhaps a fish soup called “chaudree” from the coastal regions at Charente-Maritime and Vendee.
The concept of chowder is simple; it’s a one pot meal solution using a variety of economical ingredients to create something of sustenance which is tasty and therefore favourably suited to peasant communities of old.
But chowder can be so much more…..once described by a critic as “a heart warming broth which cradles you, giving a silky seductive kiss that oozes a warming glow to your toes”. It really is central heating for the soul, and a good bowl of chowder can bring a little sunshine to the darkest of winter days.
Back at the Ship kitchen we process a lot of fish, hundreds of kilos through the summer months. We therefore have a good supply of what we call stockfish that is all the bits and pieces left over from portioning including bones, skin and heads. All of this is frozen whilst at its freshest ready to use in our chowder until we have 30-40 kilos of stockfish. We then place the frozen fish in a massive 80 litre sauce pan and start the two day process that is our signature chowder.
For the first stock we cut about 3 kilos of vegetable mirepoix which is a French culinary term for roughly diced: carrot, onion, celery and leek then we add herbs, spices and aromats to include fennel seed, bayleaf, peppercorns, clove and star anise. Then parsley stalks and some garlic cloves the pan is then filled to the top with cold water and simmered for 4-5 hours but never boiled!
All impurities are carefully skimmed off during this stage. Then all the fish is removed and the stock is strained twice. This stock is de-canted into several containers left to cool and then refrigerated until the following day.
Cut a brunoise of vegetables about 3 kg to include: carrot, onion, celery and leek (brunoise is a French culinary term and means cutting the smallest dice humanly possible with just a knife!) This is quite slow and even an experienced chef will find this painful. (be warned) it is worth it though.
It’s worth saying at this stage that we use only the very best air dried salted pancetta which is very lightly smoked, we cut this into thumbnail size lardons and fry them gently in a little oil so that they render down release their own oil and impart flavour. We then cook our brunoise of vegetables in this forming the chowder base.
Fresh aromats are added to the base including bayleaf and a bundle of herbs tied with string so they can be easily fished out when they’ve done their job these include: Thyme, Parsley and Tarragon. The cold fish stock is then added along with some 1/4 inch diced potato and brought to a simmer (but again no boiling!).
Add some cream to the broth and continue to cook until the potatoes are fully cooked and are starting to break. Taste, season with only white pepper and fish sauce (nam pla) initially this should provide enough saltiness.
Leave stand, we use modified potato starch to thicken and add creaminess these are readily available and known as thickening granules they are neutral and carry flavour well. Last but not least freshly chopped parsley, chives and tarragon are added off the heat at the end of cooking. This base mixture is then portioned up and can be frozen or refrigerated.
We then sautee off a selection of fish, scallops and king prawns with maybe a few mussels, clams or in shell Penclawdd cockles add to this our chowder base mix and maybe some marsh samphire and there you have it our signature chowder.
It’s worth noting that we only make this in industrial size quantities, you can obviously scale this back to just a few portions at home. What I’ve hopefully done is to give you the gist of the process here.