As we motored along the road leading to Padstow, I was in awe of the countryside – with its rolling hills, hedgerows and wildflowers galore, it was even prettier than I had imagined.
I have been travelling to Cornwall most of my life – in an armchair, that is – luxuriating in the delicious words of those legendary authors Daphne du Maurier, Winston Graham and, yes, Rick Stein too.
On this, my first actual visit, I was half expecting to see Ross Poldark charging heroically atop Darkie, his stallion – the beautiful, flame-haired Demelza stood there waiting for him. One cannot help but daydream a little, no?
Padstow has long been a fishing port – the fist stone pier having been built in the sixteenth century. In 1899, with the opening of the railway, the village became popular with tourists from London and across the UK. And it is fair to say that tourism has since well and truly taken over from the fishing industry as the area’s linchpin.
We discovered narrow, undulating lane ways filled with charming old buildings (many of them ‘listed’) and rows of interesting little shops and eateries. Stone cottages in Padstow are adorned with either pastel or brightly coloured paint – together with window boxes and hanging baskets brimming with vivid blooms of petunia, fuchsia, lobelia, daisy and trails of variegated ivy.
Down by the harbour, herring and black-backed gulls – which are larger (and fiercer) than our seagulls in Australia – watch and wait, before swooping down to steal chippies, buns and pasties from the hands of less-savvy tourists! Given this, we chose to eat in the sanctuary of pubs or under the awnings of the bistros, rather than sitting on the benches at the water’s edge.
Fish Pie is one of the dishes we came to enjoy in Cornwall – and across the UK. While it is known as ‘pie’, to my mind it is more of a seafood ‘bake’ topped with mashed potato and cheese. That said, it is most delicious and a good thing indeed.
FISH PIE - THE TRADITIONAL ENGLISH VERSION
4-6 Desiree potatoes, cooked and mashed with a little milk
550g white fish fillets*
2 cups milk
¼ teaspoon fennel or dill seeds
1 heaped tablespoon plain (AP) flour
1-2 tablespoons butter
1 small brown onion, very finely chopped
¼ cup frozen baby peas
100g baby prawns, green or frozen raw
1 teaspoon lemon zest, finely chopped
white pepper and smoked sea salt
Vintage cheddar cheese, grated, for the topping
extra butter, for greasing
Assuming you have cooked and mashed your potatoes already, preheat your oven to 180 degrees C. Grease the base and sides of a four-cup ovenproof dish with butter.
Place the fish into a medium sized saucepan, cover with the milk and sprinkle over the fennel seeds. Heat the milk and poach the fish gently for about 10 minutes (take care not to boil the milk!). Remove the fish from the milk with a metal lifter and place it, in chunks, evenly over the base of the ovenproof dish.
Meanwhile, melt the butter in a small saucepan, then stir in the very finely chopped onion and cook till softened. Now sprinkle the flour over the buttery onions and stir over a low-medium heat. Gradually pour the milk (used to poach the fish) over the flour and stir until it begins to boil and thickens. Add the lemon zest and peas, then the prawns. Now, season to taste with the smoked sea salt and white pepper.
Pour the white sauce over the fish. Using a large serving spoon, layer the mashed potato over the top of the fish and sauce, starting with the edges. You need to cover the fish, as the potato acts as the ‘lid’ of the ‘pie’. Run a fork over the potato to spread it and create a textured pattern. Sprinkle with the grated cheese.
Bake for 30-40 minutes until the top of the ‘pie’ is golden brown. Any leftovers can refrigerated and successfully reheated the following day. The pie actually tastes better on day two! This quantity will serve four.
Serve with salad and traditional mushie peas+. You can also add some chopped parsley to the milk, and perhaps a little saffron.
* I have used fresh pink ling quite successfully.
+ More on ‘mushy peas’ and our stay in Cornwall in a future post.
Postcards from Padstow, Cornwall...
Tell me dear readers, have you been to Cornwall? Who are your favourite Cornish writers? Have you ever been swooped by a big British seagull? And have you tasted fish pie the traditional English way?
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NB: I use Australian standard measuring cups and spoons in my recipes.