Whelks, Weeds, and Apricots
Two diary entries, a recipe cooked on a boat, and eating notes
Hello! My name is Rebecca May Johnson, I am a writer and cook and this is my Substack. This week’s newsletter is diary entries about whelks, gooseberries, weeds and apricots, a recipe cooked on a boat a few summers ago, and eating notes.
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Whelks, Weeds, and Apricots
He was picking up small things with a toothpick from a ceramic dish on the bar and putting them in his mouth. I asked him what he was eating, and he said ‘whelks’. I asked if I could try one, he said, ‘yes, finish them if you like’. I asked, ‘did you cook them? He said ‘yes’. I said, ‘how?’ He said, ‘I boiled them for 20 minutes last night, then added salt and black pepper and finally a little vinegar’. They were sweet, a little saline and the black pepper with vinegar was a delectable combination. ‘Who caught them?’ I asked. ‘My dad’, he said. ‘Is he a fisherman?’ ‘Yes, well he was, he’s retired now,’ he said. ‘How long for?’ I asked. ‘Fifty years’, he said. ‘Wow, I said, did he get up and go out in the night?’ I asked. ‘Yes’, he said. ‘I did it too for ten years after I left school’, he said. ‘Do you need to soak them in water to get rid of grit, like with mussels?’ I asked. ‘No’, he said. ‘If they’re growing on good clean ground, you can just cook and eat them.’ He continued: ‘these were brought up with other fish and crabs and picked out’, he looked out towards the breakwater as if to suggest where they were gathered, ‘but when they are caught commercially in traps, they use old rotting fish as bait. Then, you have to leave the whelks hanging in a net for 24 hours before cooking them or they will taste of the bait.’ ‘Do you mean you have to wait for the whelks to digest the bait and shit it out?’, I asked, emboldened by a pint of Essex Boys best bitter. He made an affirmative noise and I ate the rest of the whelks, in which I did not encounter grit, nor a bad taste.
My allotment neighbour arrived. He began by asking if I had been ill again, as he does every time he hasn’t seen me for a few weeks. When I said, ‘no’, he moved on to say that when he and his wife took on an allotment (c. 30 years ago) they decided they wouldn’t take summer holidays as they couldn’t keep up with it. I said nothing, he was implying I should do the same.
I was picking gooseberries, red and green. I asked him the ratio of sugar for his jam he said: 3 pounds of berries and 3.5 pounds of sugar and a pint of water. Though then he said that much water was not needed really, and if you reduce the water, you can reduce the sugar too. I thought of his cake ‘with nothing in it’ that he told me about last summer, where he had cut most of the sugar and butter ‘right down’. He drove around with a piece of the cake in the back of his car for several weeks hoping to see me, but we kept missing each other so I did not find out what the ‘cake with nothing in it’ tasted like. You cook the berries first until soft and then add the sugar, he continued. He didn’t think his recipe was that good. He said I might find a better one.
The next day I pulled up weeds, put them in a large sack, dragged it to the car, and took it to the garden waste recycling at the tip. Then I climbed the apricot tree on the plot and with a long stick from last year’s pruning, knocked down as many fruits as I could – only 2kg due to hail when the tree was in full blossom. I pruned the young plum tree, which could be done with a pair of secateurs as it is very small. In the evening I returned, somewhat stressed about seeing my neighbour again after yesterday’s encounter, to water tomatoes. He was agitated too and asked me about the strimmer out of the blue, saying, ‘when you got a strimmer, I thought you were going to use it, but you haven’t, and your side of the path needs cutting.’ I said, ‘I have used the strimmer several times, though I’ve been away for a few weeks, so it needs cutting again.’ In fact, I had previously avoided using the strimmer at times of day when my neighbour visits the allotment because I have heard him complain about strimmers before. Admittedly, he complained about petrol strimmers as he did not like the smell of petrol fumes, but I couldn’t remember if his feelings of ill-will extended to the noise of strimmer, which my electric one undeniably produced. Then he talked about ‘virulent’ weeds with yellow flowers. He used the word ‘virulent’ repeatedly, and confessed to having come onto my plot several times to remove them, ‘I hope you don’t mind’, he said, before scolding me again. I must have been torturing him inadvertently while I was away. I left hurriedly. Later, late that evening he left a voicemail telling me not to do strimming in case through doing so, I spread about seeds of the virulent weed and that he would cut the grass by hand.