Maldon, England — Way out on the wide marshes of the Blackwater estuary, black-headed gulls, lapwings, and coots nest in the tall grasses of numerous creeks and inlets. Twice a day these mud flats and marshes are flooded, leaving behind salt deposits that are further concentrated through rapid evaporation by sun and wind.
This bounty of pure salt from the sea has been harvested for millenniums. The Saxons gathered the salty water in clay pans embedded in the riverbanks.
The water was first allowed to evaporate partway, and the resulting brine was transferred to pots and heated for further evaporation.
Salt production remained a vital local industry through the Middle Ages, and in 1085 the Domesday Book recorded 45 salt pans in the Maldon area.
Today Maldon sea salt is still harvested by methods virtually unchanged for hundreds of years.
Water is drawn from the river after a period of dry weather, filtered, and pumped directly into salt pans.
As the water evaporates, the pans fill with salt, which settles and cools overnight. The next morning the salt is dragged to the sides of the pan with wooden rakes.
Salting and smoking meats and fish for preservation has been carried on since prehistoric times. Today, although we no longer need to cure such perishables because of refrigerators and freezers, the old methods remain.
Regional and locally cured products are quite popular throughout Britain. Sweet-pickle hams from Suffolk and meaty York and Cumberland hams are but a few of the traditional cures, while around coastal areas, fish are dry salted or brined, then smoked to satisfy regional tastes.
The result is a profusion of unique products: smokies from Arbroath, bloaters from Great Yarmouth, finnan haddock, Scottish smoked salmon, Welsh smoked sewin, smoked mackerel from the West Country, Craster and Loch Fyne kippers, and much more.
In Norfolk and Suffolk, dumplings are called ``swimmers'' or ``floaters'' because they are traditionally made with bread dough, not suet, and thus they float rather than sink. In hard times they were a staple, served on their own with just a bit of gravy, but they can be made at home and are an excellent accompaniment to Norfolk salt beef.
Most of us probably won't go so far as to cure our own hams or smoke our own kippers, but one should nevertheless look out for home-cured products, which are generally far superior to those mass-produced in factories.
Here is a typical Scottish fisherman's soup that should be made with true finnan haddock, which is undyed, lightly brined, and smoked, with a delicate straw-brown color. Use the whole fish, as the skin and bones add flavor. Cullen Skink 1 large finnan haddock (smoked haddock) 1 onion, peeled and chopped 300 milliliters (1/2 pint, or 1 1/4 cups) water Salt Freshly ground black pepper 600 milliliters (1 pint, or 2 1/2 cups) milk 25 grams (1 ounce, or 1/4 stick) butter, cut into small pieces 225 grams (1/2 pound) mashed potato 4 tablespoons cream Freshly chopped parsley
Place haddock in a saucepan with onion and cover with water. Bring to boil and simmer about 15 minutes. Remove fish and separate flesh from skin and bones. Set flesh aside.
Return skin and bones to pan, season, and cook for a further 1 hour. Strain fish stock, discarding skin and bones, and add flaked fish. Return to heat, add milk, butter, and mashed potato. Bring to boil and simmer a few minutes.
Adjust the seasoning and stir one spoonful of cream into each bowl before serving. Garnish with chopped parsley. Serves 4. Norfolk Salt Beef and Dumplings 450 grams (1 pound) sea salt 225 grams (8 ounces, or 1 cup) brown sugar 3.6 liters (6 pints, or 15 cups) water 50 grams (2 ounces) saltpeter 1.35-1.8 kilograms (3-4 pounds) silverside of beef 4 carrots, peeled and sliced 2 bay leaves 2 onions, peeled and chopped 12 black peppercorns Bouquet garni
In a large pot or plastic tub, mix first four ingredients for brine. Add meat, cover with a plate to keep it submerged, and soak 5 to 7 days, inspecting periodically.
To cook, combine beef in large saucepan with carrots, onions, bay leaves, peppercorns, and bouquet garni. Cover with water and bring to boil. Skim and leave to simmer 2 1/2 to 3 hours, or until tender. Dumplings 900 grams (2 pounds) plain flour Pinch of salt 600 milliliters (1 pint, or 2 1/2 cups) milk 50 grams (2 ounces, or 1/2 stick) butter 2 teaspoons sugar 10 grams (1/3 ounce) dried yeast
Sift flour and salt into a large mixing bowl. Gently heat milk and butter until butter melts. Add sugar and cool until lukewarm, then sprinkle on dried yeast. Set aside 15 minutes until frothy.
Add mixture to flour and mix to a firm dough. Knead on a floured board until smooth and elastic. Return to bowl, cover with a damp cloth, and set aside in a warm place until dough has doubled in size.
Knead again and form into small balls. Leave to rise in a warm place for 15 minutes.
To cook, drop balls into a large pan of fast-boiling salted water, preferably the cooking liquid from the beef brine. Make sure there is sufficient room in the pot.
Cover and boil 10 to 25 minutes, until dumplings rise to surface. Strain and serve with salt beef, together with English mustard. Serves 6 to 8.
While it is sometimes considered a holiday food, spiced beef is eaten year round in Cork, Ireland's ``second city.''
In the English Market in Cork, many butchers specialize in this favorite, and they are extremely proud of their individual secret recipes and combinations of spices. Spiced Beef 2.7-kilogram (6-pound) joint of beef 450 grams (1 pound) coarse sea salt 1 teaspoon ground cloves 1 teaspoon ground mace 1 teaspoon cinnamon 1 teaspoon nutmeg 1 teaspoon allspice 1 teaspoon coarsely crushed black peppercorns 1 teaspoon saltpeter 1 tablespoon juniper berries, crushed 4 bay leaves, crushed 225 grams (1/2 pound, or 1 cup) brown sugar 450 grams (1 pound) carrots, peeled and sliced 3 onions, peeled and sliced 3 sticks celery, chopped Bouquet of fresh herbs Water
Unroll beef joint, if necessary. Mix salt and spices together. Rub thoroughly into joint, then lay joint in a shallow dish on a bed of more salt and spices. Turn meat daily, rubbing salt and spices in thoroughly, for about a week.
When ready to cook, wash and roll up the joint and tie securely with string.
In a large casserole, put in the chopped carrots, onions, and celery, then place beef on this bed of vegetables. Cover with cold water, add fresh herbs, and slowly bring to boil.
Cover and simmer gently until tender, up to 4 or 5 hours depending on size of the joint. Remove from liquid and allow meat to cool; stand in a flat dish with a weighted board on top.
Or, reduce cooking liquid to a concentrated aspic, chill and glaze cold meat repeatedly. Serve cold.