28 October, 2009
of Devonshire flora, food and fauna
Well, believe me when I say it is very tricky to limit myself to just these photographs for my first Devon holiday post. Every moment seemed worthy of an image. Can you imagine seeing this little otter fellow, and all his merry mates, in person? And the view from our cottage door, onto the eponymous Pond of Pond Cottage... a tiny view into our evening sitting room, the Dairy perched high... but I'm getting ahead of myself.
My mother in law asks me to clarify from my last post that our cottage did indeed have electricity! It was only my overdramatic sense of occasion that made me insist on one dinner at the picnic table, and you would have laughed to see us holding candles over our plates and trying to identify bites of our suppers. "Hang on one minute, is this pork, or rice? This is DEFINITELY a green bean..." My family was admirably tolerant of me! But there was also a quarter moon to light our way, with proper nearly-Halloween clouds skidding across it, and enormous rustling red-leafed trees to block its light.
Pork Medallions with Sage, Mushrooms and Creme Fraiche
1 1/2 lbs pork fillet, trimmed of all membranes and fat, sliced into 12 medallions
2 tbsps butter
16 sage leaves
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 shallot or 1/2 white onion, minced
12 medium mushrooms of your choosing, sliced thick
2 tbsps Marsala wine, or Calvados or brandy
1 cup creme fraiche (half-fat works fine)
sea salt and black pepper to taste
Melt butter in large skillet until brown and drop in sage leaves in a single layer. Cook until crisp and set aside. Bring up heat to high and place pork in skillet, again in a single layer. Brown on first side, then turn and brown on second side. The meat should still be quite raw on the inside. Remove to a platter and keep warm.
Add garlic, shallot or onion and mushrooms to skillet and saute until mushrooms give off juice. Pour in wine or Calvados or brandy and simmer high for a minute or so. Whisk in creme fraiche and lower heat to a very low light. Stir until beautifully creamy, then lower pork medallions into sauce in a single layer. Cook for about five minutes, spooning sauce over pork quite continuously. When the pork feels firm to the touch, it's done. Season and you're ready.
Serve over steamed rice and crush the sage leaves over top. Simply LUSCIOUS.
I cannot convey in writing the intensely celebratory aroma of this dish. It's quite definitively autumnal, with the faintly alcoholic suggestions and woodsy sage and luxurious cream. You will make this often, I'm quite sure, and I've had great success substituting veal escalopes and chicken breasts for the pork.
Pork is one of the subjects on which I am uncharacteristically evangelical. It is emphatically NOT meant to be "the other white meat" as our American leaders of industry would have you believe. A pig should not give white meat, any more than a baby cow should. Pork and veal should be rosy pink, reflecting the animals' happy, lively life in the out of doors, not a sad, crowded existence in a sterile pen. So when you see pork in America that's pale and devoid of any character, don't buy it. Buy chicken fillets if you want something white and fat-free, but save your pork calories for the real thing, pink and juicy.
With this I served my new favorite side dish, about which I'm thrilled because now I like green beans, and it is totally simple! It is a sad fact of my taste buds that I can be fed almost anything as long as it's tossed in butter and garlic.
Garlicky Green Beans
1/2 pound fine green beans, ends trimmed
2 tbsps butter
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 tbsp olive oil
sea salt and black pepper to taste
Bring water in a saucepan to the boil and plunge green beans into it. Boil high for about five minutes or until a bean is cooked to your liking. I like them still with a bite, but not hard. A good guideline for that level of cookedness is that the water smells like green beans! Drain the beans and set aside in a bowl, covered with another bowl, to keep the beans warmish.
Melt the butter in the same saucepan to save washing up, and add the garlic. Cook very low until garlic is soft and then add the olive oil and salt and pepper to taste. Keep the butter mixture warm until you're ready to serve, then drizzle over the beans and toss well. When serving, be sure to bring up the lovely melted garlicky butter with a spoon.
So this is what fed us one gorgeous evening at our house, which had the ambience of a dolls house, everything just barely large enough for John to fit (although he had to duck in the doorways). The front step seemed to be crying out for our Wellies to rest upon its stones, although Avery was completely grossed out by a little pal who had made his way into her boot, lying on its side overnight: a giant slug!
The pond held a family of mallard ducks who appeared each morning and evening but flew off squawking furiously if we tried to feed them bread crusts. High above the property perched a simple perfect, tiny cylindrical building called The Dairy, which came with a key so we could explore. Under its precise thatched roof we ducked inside, to find a room furnished with local Devon marble in huge vats and trays lining the walls, complete with a system of drainage into lead pans below. In the center was a massive sort of font of more marble, and we tried hard to imagine what the purpose was, exactly, of all these implements. The windows above the work surfaces were stained-glass and the walls made of tiles decorate with tiny green ivy leaves. I can't describe the timeless serenity of this room, which in fact held sway over the entire property.
Above the dairy (very high into the landscape by now, as you can imagine!) was a series of planned walks, through a verdant countryside made up of an enchanting combination of uncontrolled foliage and meticulous pruning. We had read in the history of the property that since its inception in 1810 (as a country retreat for the Duchess of Bedford!) it had fallen into the hands of a fishing syndicate (brown trout), and even later than that, been abandoned entirely to be discovered by the Landmark Trust in 1985. Completely under foliage! The LT crew discovered, if you can imagine, entire BUILDINGS under ivy and other climbing plants. Beyond the massive actual structures, they uncovered miles of precise stone paths, benches and bridges, and even two caves, complete with stalactites. Magical.
Just off the garden path is the magnificent Hotel Endsleigh, originally the manor house that presided over our little cottage for the Duchess. Tea there is not to be missed: sandwiches of local ham and grainy mustard, rich egg mayonnaise, a Victoria Sponge cake that Avery rolled her eyes over in delight, dense brownies, fresh scones and clotted cream. The hotel was packed, as far as we could see, with the car park full of fancy cars (our little Minnow was quite eclipsed in size and stature!). But it was separated from our property quite completely, adding only a cozy atmosphere of luxury, smoking chimneys and elegant burning tapers in the evening, when we passed by from our walks on the way home, along the rushing River Tamar, which separates Devon from Cornwall. So funny: on one of our drives, we came to a sign, "Welcome to Cornwall." "Oh, goody, now I can start reading 'Rebecca,'" Avery rejoiced, picking it up from the car seat. "We're back in Devon," we said a few minutes later. "Goodbye, 'Rebecca,'" she said.
Evenings of aromatic log fires, chats with my two favorite people, card games, hilarious attempts at a Sherlock Holmes game acquired at a local flea market! All with a background of soup simmering (not a bone or scrap escapes my industry, and we wallowed in creamy red pepper soup, mushroom soup with fresh thyme, and the clearest, simplest chicken broth with plenty of carrots and celery). And hours of time to read. Avery plowed through all her books, all my books, all the books that came with the house, reaching a grand total of over thirty by midweek. "There has to be a bookshop nearby!" she wailed, and this we found in darling nearby Tavistock (don't tell Avery, but there's a statue of... Sir Francis Drake there).
The Bookstop has something for everyone including a massive children's section and a cafe. Tavistock is graced as well by a perfect Dickensian delicatessen and all-round goodies shop called N.H Creber, Quality Grocer. I loved it anyway, but someone with a sweet tooth would go quite mad among the biscuits, cakes, chocolates and jams. And Scotches, don't even get me started! Many I had never heard of and certainly could not afford. But I could afford some of their duck liver pate, and Avery succumbed to chocolate-studded shortbread. A glorious place, as you see! I also made a foray into Palmer's butcher shop where I acquired simply the most flavorsome smoked streaky bacon I have EVER eaten. One slice will satisfy anyone, with a fried egg on the side. On a sandwich with Frederickson tomatoes, I can only imagine. And here I procured a lovely cheese called Cornish Yarg, now Avery's hands-down favorite. "Describe it for me, what you like about it," I inquired, and after some thought, she said, "It's an unassuming little cheese, it's just there to be enjoyed." Creamy and simple.
And to give you a brief idea of the wildlife to be enjoyed, let me point you to the Tamar Otter and Wildlife Centre (in Cornwall!). I have rarely seen Avery so happy. "I want Anna, I want Anna!" she kept crying, missing her best friend who is obsessed with all things animal. These endangered little creatures were everywhere at the Sanctuary, and we arrived at feeding time, to see them leap for bits of fish thrown to them by the impassioned and delightful owner. "I know they look cute, and furry," he warned, "but these little guys will take off a thumb from you before you can turn around. I've seen them take down a heron in 15 minutes." Lovely thought. He assured us we could see this fascinating spectacle of the food chain in a Youtube video, but so far I have resisted the call.
I must love you and leave you with this massive post, a paean to Devon and Cornwall. Soon I shall tell you about the wild ponies we encountered in Dartmoor and regale you with some stories of castles and stately homes nearby. Probably the people you travel with will not be as full-up with Sir Francis Drake as our child is (the musical is only three weeks away), and so your visit to his home will be more peaceful than ours, which included a running commentary on everything the displays got wrong. Till then, if you simply can't live without more photographs, try this. And make that pork dish: you won't be sorry!