I realise, with a degree of shame, that it has been a while since I posted anything… The truth is that, over the last few months of glorious Scilly summer I have, frankly, been too busy making the most of the flat seas and uncharacteristically warm breezes. In the gaps when I’ve not been boating or messing around on the beach I have spent the time writing in my small studio set in the cool shade under a row of elms at the bottom of my garden. The result: a new book celebrating the extraordinary local produce of St Agnes - An Island Food Mile - a commonplace book of St Agnes.
St Agnes is an island obsessed with food! Eating well, drinking well and the business of producing extremely good quality ingredients from the tiny scraps of farmland are absolutely central to island life. There can’t be many places where the postman stops on his round to mention a particularly excellent Galician wine he drank the other night; or where Coastguard exercises are put on hold in order to discuss the best way of crisping up butternut squash in the top oven of an Aga. I am often hijacked on my way down the road and pulled aside to taste or investigate a new product from one of the farms - perhaps a new blend of gin from Westward Farm (tough job, but someone’s got to do it), some baby organic artichokes from Tamarisk Farm or a bag of interesting offal-y offcuts from the most recent Troytown Farm beef animal. The industry and constantly evolving creative enterprise displayed by these food producers is remarkable.
St Agnes is also an island of cooks. (It is probably worth mentioning from the start that An Island Food Mile is not the first food book written on St Agnes: islander Susan Hicks was one of the early celebrity chefs of the Keith Floyd era and wrote several island cookbooks, as well as appearing regularly on BBC television during the 1980s. Her love for the ingredients of St Agnes - particularly the seafood - shines off the pages.) The quality of the food cooked and served in the island's cafés and restaurants is extraordinary for a place so small: from the legendary cream teas at Coastguards Cafe (eaten overlooking the best view in Scilly) to the delicate seafood dishes at High Tide, served in the same venue in the evenings; from the home made pizzas at Covean Cottage to the classic pasties and Cornish ale at the iconic Turk’s Head pub.
But it isn’t just at the catering establishments that one can eat well on St Agnes - pretty much every house and granite cottage on the island is home to at least one passionate and clever cook and, when it comes to cooking, the men are as enthusiastic as the women. Island events (weddings/birthdays/etc.) where everyone brings a homemade dish are always pretty luxurious eating experiences. And it is a moment of particular pride for an island family when every single one of the ingredients of the Sunday roast has been sourced within a radius of half a mile.
This obsession with food can be attributed, I think, to three important aspects of the island mentality. The first is a natural creativity and inquisitiveness. This has been part of the Scillonian soul for centuries, where adaptability has often been key to survival in an isolated community. These days, this characteristic manifests itself in an endless entrepreneurial quest to make the best of what’s available and to adapt and diversify as times change. As flower farming faded from profitability, the farms looked around for alternatives and came up with a bewildering variety of creative alternatives: essential oils, ice cream, organic strawberries, artisanal chocolate, apple juice and cider, fragrant gin and so on…
The second is a connection with the land and an awareness of the fragility of the environment which ensures that this quest to make a living is always proportionate and governed by the ecological needs of St Agnes. The land and sea is all we have to live off.
The final factor is the importance of home and the role of the family within island life. Many families have lived here for generations, with the marks left by their ancestors surrounding them, and every meal is, in part, a celebration of the family unit. The bowl of warming winter vegetable soup or the summer lobster salad are more than just nutrition - they are reaffirmation of an island family and an island home.
This is the rich world of island food which I wanted to celebrate when I started writing An Island Food Mile. I didn’t want simply to write a recipe book (though, as a trained chef and lifelong cook, I have amassed a fair few recipes along the way). There are, to my mind, plenty of such books already, causing bookshelves to sag in kitchens throughout the country. Instead I took my model from the Commonplace Book so popular in the 17th and 18th centuries. These were small humble books, assembled over the years by their owners and containing anything that had been of interest during a lifetime, from recipes, poems and philosophical ideas to religious quotations, random lists or scientific questions. Commonplace books were data storage systems before the era of Google. They were untidy bulging collections of memorabilia passed down through families. They were direct expressions of real lives lived with curiosity and love.
An Island Food Mile does contain recipes of course - from lobster with sea spinach mousse to Scilly Pearl apple pavlova - but it also contains much more: essays dealing with the benefits and restrictions of local food, poems, autobiographical memories of past places and meals, lists and even sheet music. Not to mention the accompanying illustrations by the incredibly talented Amy Keelan…
If you would like to buy a copy, you can do so here
HAPPY ISLAND EATING!
Author - Piers Lewin
I am a musician and writer living on the Isles of Scilly. These articles and posts explore music, poetry and creativity inspired by the landscape and culture of the islands.