Tales of the riverbank
On one occasion when I was still at primary school, my brothers and I were picked up from school by our dad, who told us he wanted to take us somewhere as a bit of a surprise. He drove to Kendal, past the old county show field, (where Morrisons supermarket is now) and turned left over a small humpbacked bridge and on to a back lane heading north.
We followed the lane up into the hills before taking a turning off the road on to a tiny dirt track, which led up to an old, ruined barn and a walled garden. I remember I had to jump out of the car and open a gate to let us in. Once through the gate we carried on following the track for about another mile, bouncing over pot holes, with over grown hedges hemming the car in as the track got narrower.
After a while we came to another bridge, which we crossed, we then all had to sit and wait patiently for our grandad to turn up. The wait was a bit of a challenge as there was nothing there, other than a parking place under a large chestnut tree. Eventually my grandad arrived, and he and our dad took it in turns to ferry us across a small stream called Flodder Beck, near to where we’d parked, once safely across we walked along the bank through what seemed like giant weeds, brambles and thistles until we reached the last obstacle was a barbed wire fence, which with some more paternal assistance was conquered!
We were quite literally I the middle of nowhere, none of us knew where we were. It looked like a place nobody had ever visited before! We later discovered it’s a spot known as the Ivy pool, on the river Mint, and ever since then it’s been my happy place!
Even now, when I want to escape from where I actually am (the dentist’s chair) I can picture it that scene. I’m 10 years old leaning over the edge of the river bank eagerly counting how many majestic salmon I can see lying under the bank or I’m watching my dad cast with his rod and grandad Ronnie deftly using his net to with net to secure dad’s catch.
I guess this sounds like the start of a happy tale and in some ways it is. It’s the beginning of my love of fish and fishing and the influence that that has had on me as a chef over the years, but ultimately, it’s a sad story, not only for me but also for everyone in Cumbria.
I’ll explain… I have my own son now, he’s called Charlie and he has a love for fishing too, we’ve bought him a new rod. We’d love to take him up to the Ivy Pool on the Mint, which my dad still owns, so he can have the same experience I had all those years ago. The smell of the moss on the bank, the sounds of the river, and that simple connection with nature which has shaped the person I am today, but there’s a bit of a problem.
The Ivy Pool remains the same, but the fish have changed. If you go to the river and lean over the bank you won’t wonder how many fish are there, because almost certainly you won’t find any. If you go to Gooseholme to watch the salmon jump there’s a good chance you won’t see any either, and it’s the same at Sedgwick too. Once there was a ten year wait to secure a membership with Kent Anglers, now sadly they barely have enough members to break even. Essentially a once thriving river has become virtually barren in less than 30 years and it’s a so sad particularly when the river was known for its diverse species, including white-clawed crayfish, bullhead, freshwater pearl mussels and Atlantic salmon.
Both the Environment Agency and Cumbria County Council are in my view severely letting the county down when it comes to the levels of river pollution, and as a keen fishermen it’s been very obvious for some time.
When you walk on the Crookwheel just south of Kendal you can see the pollution entering the river. It took a full-blown legal battle led by Kent (Westmorland) Angling Association to get it fixed and that particular battle wasn’t against United Utilities, it was against Cumbria County Council who allowed them to do it!
The saddest thing is, that there are many sites like this across the county where it’s simply not even safe to swim in the water because the bacteria and algal levels are too high. Windermere is one such place, right at the heart of an UNESCO World Heritage Site, surly that should be classed as a national disgrace? On the plus side thankfully there are some amazing people doing a wonderful job campaigning for change.
The thing that really makes me saddest of all is that the river Mint is well away from any housing upstream and has yet to pass through Kendal. The problem up stream isn’t due to sewage effluent or even from a lack of infrastructure investment, it’s mainly down to the way the land has been farmed and managed, with too many nitrates and phosphates being used, leaching off the land and ending up in the river.
But how does this relate to this week’s recipe I hear you ask? Well it’s not just the river Kent where fish stocks have been impacted. Salmon stocks in general are in a dramatic free fall, it can be seen on the big Scottish rivers, which are mainly in low density population areas, in Wales and right across rural England and for that matter the whole of the North Atlanctic region. Yes, pollution certainly plays its part in this decline, be it in the form of human effluent, phosphates, nitrates or other chemicals.
But one often overlooked underlying issue is intensive fish farming off our coasts. Antibiotics, antifoulants, pesticides, and other chemicals are used in abundance in salmon farms. Like parasitic sea lice, these substances don’t just affect the salmon inside the farms; they spread to wild fish species and humans.
As a result I would wholeheartedly encourage everyone to consider boycotting intensively farmed salmon, its unethical and unsustainable. Instead look to organic, sustainable alternatives. It’s something we’ve done at both restaurants, it’s why we use Chalk Stream Trout, which in my honest opinion is a far superior to any intensively farmed salmon.
Seaweed Cured Trout - Serves: 6 as a starter
1 side of chalk stream trout (descaled and pin boned)
100g dark brown sugar
A large sheet of dried kelp (kombu) seaweed
Place the seaweed in cold water until it becomes pliable, roughly about 20 minutes.
Mix the salt and sugar together and set aside.
Use some cling film to create a large square, note it should be twice as wide as your trout.
Place the seaweed on the cling film and spread an even layer of the salt and sugar mix and the place the trout on top skin side down spread the remaining mix over the top.
Wrap the seaweed tightly around the trout and then securely wrap it in the cling film. Place in the fridge overnight.
The following day remove the trout fillet from the seaweed and gently wash the cure off under the tap. Place the fish in a tea towel to dry.
It’s now ready to be sliced and used. At this point we tend to blow torch the skin in the restaurant, which adds a smoky flavour, and it also means that you can the peel the skin away. But if you do choose to do this step at home, please be extremely careful. Once blow torched and sliced I serve it with pickled cucumber, apple and dill.