Pungent pongs

news: Pungent pongs

DURING A HOLIDAY in France many years ago, when sanitary arrangements were still lagging behind those in the UK, the pungent smell of a Pissoir never failed to carry me straight back to my childhood. Wreathed in fumes of garlic on Exeter station as we waited for a train to Birmingham at the end of the school holidays, the remnants of my French antecedents must have been flexing their muscles. While I inhaled deeply, others were putting hankies to their noses. I think this strongly scented and versatile herb arrived in North Devon from the continent, to be distributed to discerning restaurants and the few who appreciated its finer qualities. Among the middle classes, to eat garlic was not considered ‘nice’ and if someone indulged habitually they soon became persona non grata.

Although it is basic to the Portuguese way of eating it is still stigmatised among the more conservative expatriates, which makes it necessary to conceal my addiction. Having been greeted on occasions with a horrified “You’ve been eating garlic” when calling on friends, and suffering a similar reaction from the pew behind me in church, I now indulge only in the company of consenting adults. And I always consult my diary to allow one clear day before mixing in polite company. Because the Boss can detect its smell from 10 paces I have to conceal it under cover of a slice or two of onion when preparing supper. When we lived in England I waited until he went off for a yachting weekend before eating garlic butties for lunch.

Used in ancient times for both culinary and medicinal purposes, garlic evolved from the bulb of a wild lily. However, Asafoetida, a member of the parsley family, has been in use since Roman times and has similar properties. It is obtained by cutting into the living root and, when dry, the juice becomes a resin-like solid with an acrid and bitter taste. Known as Hing or Devil’s Dung, it continues to be used in India, Iran and Afghanistan for cooking and also in hospitals devoted to Ayurveda – a traditional holistic medicine. As for the smell, it is in a league of its own, hence the incorporation of ‘foeteda’ in the generic name.

Perhaps pungent herbs have another valuable property, that of covering up the odour of bad meat in a dish of food, as well as paralysing the organisms responsible for its rotten condition. Which brings me to a nice, plump chicken bought from a supermarket in Lagos yesterday. Carried home in a cool box and stored overnight in the fridge, when I came to cook it this afternoon there was an overall purple fluorescence to the flesh and it smelled like an undertaker. Being a regular patron of this shop, where I trust the quality of the food, I had failed to check the age of the bird – I found it was well past the ‘Sell By’ date. Once bitten, twice shy, but nearly every cloud has a silver lining and tonight, instead of cooking, we shall be eating out.

We have been hoping for good weather, if a little cooler, during the next five weeks, which will be devoted to a succession of visitors from England. This is asking too much after the way I’ve grumbled about the heat – when it rained this morning I realised that my chickens had come home to roost – perhaps close relatives of the one double wrapped in my Lixo bin! A gentle breeze carried the damp air, heavy with rich fumes of ammonia from the cattle sheds next door, in through the open windows of the house. This, and the smell of wet dog and old sandals lying about the house, plus thick layers of dust everywhere, opened my eyes to the neglected state of the house.

I did a week’s cleaning in one day, in the nick of time, to greet our first guest, whose home always looks freshly cleaned and neat as a pin. I visited her farm when employed by the Milk Marketing Board in Somerset and have kept in touch ever since. Since her husband died she has continued to work the land single-handed, runs a flock of breeding ewes and a prize-winning herd of Stonmour Beef Shorthorn cattle alongside the Severn Estuary where she owns a stretch of the foreshore. Back in the early 17th century the sea broached the wharf and carried away the village of Kingston Seymour, along with all the people and livestock. Until a new retaining wall was built a short while ago, this was a regular occurrence, albeit without such loss of life. Over 200 years ago, Teeswater and Durham cattle were crossed to produce the Shorthorn. Since that time it has been used to improve many other breeds of cattle. It produces high quality meat, is extremely hardy and rivals the popular Hereford as a stock bull.

While this remarkable lady has no children of her own, she has a nephew who is currently setting up a Beef Shorthorn Breeders Club in southwest England. Now classed as a Rare Breed, the aim is to bring it to the forefront for use in heavy continental imports to produce a smaller, tastier joint of meat. As for the farm, I understand that the National Trust may take it under its wing when the present farmer is no more.