Thursday, 14 June 2012

Playing the Game

                     In an act of eternal optimism (or maybe unshakeable faith in his own art), a fisherman carries on his back as small wicker basket called a creel, in which to keep his catch. At the start of the day’s sport, the creel is lined with moss, which is moistened with river water, and fish, when caught, are slid in through the opening in the lid where, all being equal, they will remain fresh. 

A Creel

Creel is an odd word. It may come from the old French crielle – ‘latticework’, with links to the Latin crātis – ‘a wickerwork hurdle’. The OED gives the first usage from about 1425, in Andrew of Wyntoun’s The Orygynale Cronykil of Scotland:

[Ane a payr off coil crelis bare],
That covryt welle wyth clathis are;
[Book 8, Ch. 38, ll. 51-2].

J O Halliwell’s Dictionary of Archaic and Provincial Words [1855] gives it as (1) A wicker basket, North.  MacLeod and Dewar’s Dictionary of the Gaelic Language (1866) has craidhleag – ‘a basket, a creel’, but I can find no corresponding words in Welsh, Manx, Cornish or Breton; (Dwelley’s Faclair Gàidhlig (1902) gives a secondary meaning as a skull). The word is not mentioned in Isaak Walton’s The Compleat Angler (1653), where you might expect it, nor does Shakespeare use it. A creel does make a nice decorative item though. 

A Game Bag

Another sporting item in which to carry one’s catch home is the game bag. I used to use mine in lieu of a briefcase, as I could sling the heavy bag on its strap over my shoulder. The bag itself has a removable, washable, rubber-treated cotton lining, making it waterproof, and has a net outer-bag, intended for rapidly cooling feathered or furred game, but just as handy for an apple or orange, or a packet of sandwiches. Having taken your game, you will need something in which to cook it. 

Portmeirion Game Pie dish

I have a pair of game pie dishes, both of the same design, but in different colours, from Portmeirion Pottery. In 1961, Pormeirion purchased Kirkham’s Limited in Stoke-on-Trent, and in an abandoned attic, owner Susan Williams-Ellis found moulds for all manner of Victorian pottery items. 

Detail of the lid

Amongst these were moulds for game pie dishes, which Williams-Ellis modified slightly, replacing the original knob-style handles with an ears-of-wheat relief cast from the side of the base. 

Detail of the base

The dishes were sold from 1972, in three sizes and three colours (white, brown and blue – although advertising from the time also shows green), but by 1974 the blue and green dishes had been withdrawn, and the brown and white ones were withdrawn in 1977. 

White Portmeirion Game Pie Dish

Some will say that blood sports were falling from favour at the time, and dishes decorated with dead deer, fowls and rabbits were not to everyone’s tastes, but it’s more likely that the dishes did not sell well as the glazes tended to craze and discolour in hot ovens, the white ones in particular suffering badly from staining with meat juices. 

Portmeirion Factory stamp on base.

Our American cousins come over all squeamish about such matters, which is odd considering their views on shooting in general. I love them, and use mine regularly for stew and dumplings (a necessary staple food-group in Lancashire). 

Speaking of cookery, one of my favourite cookery books is W M W (Willie) Fowler’s Countryman’s Cooking (1965). Willie was born in Lostock, near Bolton, Lancashire, in 1914, and served in the RAF as a Lancaster bomber pilot before settling in Eskdale in Lakeland, where he farmed mink and daffodils. 

Willie Fowler

His book is brilliant and if you poke about on tinternet (here, maybe?) you can find extracts read by the mellifluously voiced Leslie Philips for BBC Radio 4. It is well, well worth a listen. Just to give you a feel, here is Willie’s recipe for cormorant. 

Having shot your cormorant, hold it well away from you as you carry it home; these birds are exceedingly verminous and the lice are said to be not entirely host-specific. Hang up by the feet with a piece of wire, soak in petrol and set on fire. This treatment removes most of the feathers and kills the lice. When the smoke has cleared away, take the cormorant down and cut off the beak. Send this to the local Conservancy Board who, if you are in the right area, will give you 3/6d, or sometimes 5/-, for it. Bury the carcase, preferably in a light sandy soil, and leave it there for a fortnight. This is said to improve the flavour by removing, in part at least, the taste of rotting fish. Dig up, and skin and draw the bird. Place in a strong salt and water solution and soak for 48 hours. Remove, dry, stuff with whole, unpeeled onions; the onion skins are supposed to bleach the meat to a small extent, so that it is very dark brown instead of being entirely black. Simmer gently in seawater, to which 2 tablespoons of Chloride of Lime has been added, for 6 hours. This has a further tenderising effect. Take out of the water and allow to dry. Meanwhile, mixing up a stiff paste of methylated spirit and curry powder, spread this mixture liberally over the breast of the bird. Finally, roast it in a very hot oven for 3 hours. The result is unbelievable. Throw it away - not even a starving vulture could eat it!


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