Sunday 3 March 2019 13:38
One word - ‘dog’ - says it all really.
The other evening I saw and heard, for the first time, the wonderfully talented Charlie Dore. Now this lady has been around for a very long time and I’m amazed that she isn’t world famous; it’s the world’s loss. I guess she must have come close a few times; maybe she’s too talented; too wayward; too much her own ‘man’ so to speak to be manipulated by those who see the brilliance of others as no more than a cash cow to be milked for short term financial gain. By now, I imagine, she has long since moved past that base desire for fame and fortune and just does her own thing on the fringes of the commercial music world. If that’s OK with her it’s fine by me because it means I can go and enjoy her music in a little folk-y club in Twickenham, sitting in the front row less than a dozen feet from her, enchanted as she talks about her dog who is no more, and then she sings such a sweetly lyrical song called, simply, ‘Dog’.
It brought back memories of our own now long dead dogs, each one an individual, a personality, a character. Ours were always lurchers - not the ideal boating dog by any stretch of the imagination. Too big for a start, and with a positive aversion to water. I’m not even sure that they could swim; they would never have dreamed of trying. They were not keen to walk through puddles and were even mildly averse to drinking the stuff. But they were beautiful: elegant, intelligent, gentle, lazy, tractable yet hugely independent. Also rogues, inveterate thieves, potentially killers of cats and sheep-worriers of the most extreme kind. Ours always kept us on our toes and if they weren’t around we were always nervously prepared for a visit from the old bill or some apoplectic farmer. Then, like Judas, it was best to deny all knowledge and hope they would stay away ’til the fuss died down.
Of them Epney was the most unforgettable. Named for the place where he was born, a small village on the banks of the Severn in Gloucestershire, he was unique among dogs. I first met this little lurcher pup when just a few weeks old, stumbling about on ridiculously long uncoordinated legs in the bottom of an ancient canal boat being towed down the Thames. The reasons for this are contained in a barely remembered family saga, suffice to say Epney’s debut still stands out as a defining moment. He was quite the brightest, liveliest, most intelligent animal you could ever encounter; sweet natured too and very funny. He would charge at you, full pelt, from across a field, head down like a little bull. I learned early on that shouting, ‘no, no, Epney pleee-ase don’t’, would have no effect. He sort of let you believe that he was going to veer to one side or the other at the critical moment but he never did - just ran full pelt into you. It really hurt but was also very funny and he knew it was - that’s why he did it. In his joyous excitement he would often grab one’s hand in his mouth and give it a nip, sufficiently hard sometimes to break the skin. Fine if it were your own but difficult to explain to someone who didn’t know him that their bloody hand was not a sign of maliciousness on his part; that they’d simply been bitten out of sheer exuberance. Try telling that to the postman!
It was our son who owned him though really it was Epney who owned our son, but he spent a lot of his time with us. At that time we were living in an old toll house at Bull’s Bridge - a canal junction in West London. Son owned and operated the tug ‘White Heather’ and he lived on board as well. Epney much preferred to live somewhere where he could spread himself out on the rug or better still if he thought he could get away with it, the settee, in front of the old wood burning stove which meant our house rather than the more cramped conditions in his own floating home. We understood his point of view: lurchers being part greyhound, generally of a similar size, deep chested and with long legs, means sleeping in a curled up position doesn’t really work for them. They prefer to lie on their sides with legs and tail spread out around them. This requires a lot of room. Equally, being rather thin animals they like to be warm so naturally gravitate towards the heat wherever they are. That was Epney’s preference so when the tug was at Bull’s Bridge he would move in with us.
He knew what day the dustbins got emptied in nearby Southall and despite all our efforts would frequently give us the slip and head off, collecting his little gang of wayward mates as he went. Hours later he would return satiated on chicken vindaloo and pilau rice having raided the curry flavoured bins, his chin and whiskers turned turmeric yellow. He’d commandeer the nearest settee or bed and stretching out sleep for hours letting off great big smelly curry laden farts which saw off all other potential claimants.
Our business was canal based. We carried a bit of freight, operated passenger boats and worked in the field of civil engineering supplying craft and labour to contractors wherever they might need them. Epney learned to obey instructions like ‘over the bridge’ when he was running along the towpath or ‘over the gate’ at locks. He would respond to ‘on the boat’ by jumping back on board. He adored cars and loved looking out of the window. A lurcher is what is known as a ‘gazehound’ (which is probably where the term ‘greyhound’ originated from). The name describes those dogs, salukis, borzois, afghans, deerhounds and the like, that hunt mostly by sight rather than scent. Their prey moves fast and needs to be seen; a speedy response to a sighting is essential.
Epney who would never lie down in the car - always sitting there on the back seat watching where we were going and knowing exactly how to find his way home if need be. When we were running grain on the Thames from Tilbury Grain Terminal up to Coxes Mill in Weybridge it was Epney who decided Tilbury was not for him and made his way with unerring exactitude the 8 miles from Teddington to Bull’s Bridge.
Another time son needed to take his tug up onto the river Lea - a journey of some 30 miles or so through the centre of London which meant passing through two canal tunnels, negotiating several canals and a river. Knowing Epney’s penchant for high tailing it back to Bull’s Bridge if let off the boat too soon, he was confined to the cabin until they finally tied up at Springfield Park on the river Lea. It was not until the following morning that son deemed it safe to let him off the boat unsupervised. At 9am I received a phone call - Epney had gone missing and could I phone the local police station and let them know who he belonged to if he turned up. Soon after 11am there was a rattle at the letterbox which was the standard way our dogs announced they wanted to come indoors. There stood Epney, bright-eyed and smiley faced, his wagging tail announcing that he was home.
Many a time we would look at him and ask “How did you do that Epney? How did you find your way from the Lea back to Bull’s Bridge?”. This was a journey which took him right across London, finding his way over the top of the 1000m canal tunnel at Islington and 250m one at Maida Hill, along the Regent’s Canal and through the London Zoo, then from Camden Town crossing the turnover bridge above the lock. How did he manage to traverse the busy Edgware Road and find his way back down onto the towpath at Maida Vale? And how did he do all that in a little under 3 hours?
We would never know.
Epney’s dad was Sirdan - patriarch of the Braunston lurchers. For a while Sirdan and Epney were reluctant crew on the two grain barges that we worked between Tilbury and Weybridge. At Tilbury the dogs were confined to the boats because of the quarantine laws, unable to get off even to have a quick pee. The trip down river to load and then back up to Teddington - the first place they could get off and relieve themselves - was just too much. The dogs, father and son, decided quite unilaterally that they were not prepared to do the down river bit any more. Instead they took to getting off the barges at the lock, crossing the footbridge over the weir and taking up residence in the beer garden of the Tide End Cottage pub where their masters were wont to partake of the odd beer or two. Here they would stay, a small shed placed at their disposal by the publican; bed and breakfast provided. When the barges returned some 12 to 24 hours later, now heavily loaded with grain and bound for the mill, Epney and Sirdan on hearing the sound of the engines in the distance would shoot off back to the lock to await their boats. Jumping on board, they would continue on up to the mill. This was an arrangement which suited everyone, particularly Epney.
We were dumfounded with grief when he failed to return from the vet’s after an exploratory operation to find the reason for the little yips of discomfort he now occasionally made. Tumours had spread through his body and the vet deemed it kinder not to bring him around after the op. It was agreed, our only consideration that he should not have to suffer more pain and be allowed to depart this life peacefully. He was our shining dog star and we never expected the dagger plunge of pain and loss that his sudden demise would cause. Typing this account more than twenty years later, tears of grief still well up and drip down my face onto the keyboard.
The memories are sweetness itself; he gave such joy from the very first day he wobbled around on his silly puppy legs in that boat’s bottom until his untimely end. When Charlie introduced her song ‘Dog’, paying homage to her own, I looked at her and knew her feelings mirrored mine. She too wanted to weep but instead gave us a funny quirky song about loving and being loved unconditionally - the way that true love ought to be but so rarely is. And being your own dog, which Epney was.
Thank you Charlie Dore:
A DOG’S DINNER
This is the kind of meal that Epney would have loved though he’d probably have preferred rice to cabbage. It also happens to be a meal we like too - the ideal mid-week supper - quick and simple to prepare, full of flavour and very more-ish.
Chicken Curry with Hispi Cabbage
A Mango Kulfi
2-3 tablespoons half butter and half vegetable oil
1 large onion chopped small
4 skinless boneless chicken thighs chopped into bite-size pieces
400g tinned tomatoes
1-2 tablespoons (or to taste) Veeraswamy’s Butter Chicken paste (or something similar)
2 tablespoons creamed coconut
a dribble of runny honey
sea salt and black pepper
fresh coriander coarsely chopped
1 small Hispi cabbage (these are the tight furled pointed ones) chopped and rinsed
1 tablespoon cumin seeds
Melt the butter and oil in a frying pan (or a wok with a lid if you have one). Cook the onion to soften but not to brown. Add the Veeraswamy paste, raising the heat a little while you mix it with the onions stirring it round in the pan for a couple of minutes. Add the chicken pieces. Stir gently to coat well with oil and paste. Cook on a high heat for a few minutes just to seal the chicken pieces then add the tomatoes and coconut. Turn the heat down to produce a gentle simmer and cook for around 40 minutes. Taste, add a dribble of honey and season well. Keep an eye on it while it is cooking as you may need to add a little water if it becomes too thick. It should have plenty of sauce.
A few minutes before the chicken is ready, heat another pan and dry fry the cumins seeds until aromatic and popping a bit - don’t let them burn. Add the prepared cabbage, some salt, and pour on boiling water - just enough to cover. Bring back to the boil and cook for a couple of minutes. Taste. The cabbage should be nicely al denté - cooked but still with a bit of crunch to it. Strain through a sieve. Tip back into the pan, add a knob of butter and mix gently making sure the cumin seeds and butter are distributed through the cabbage.
Serve on individual plates spreading the cabbage over to form a base for the chicken curry. Spoon it over the cabbage, scatter liberally with the chopped coriander and serve.
When we lived in the Toll House at Bull’s Bridge the best kulfi to be had was from Southall just down the road, and home to a large Indian well-established community. When the wonderful Alphonso mangoes from Pakistan appeared on the streets in their colourful boxes, being hawked along the busy pavements, they were irresistible and I’d buy several boxes - each containing half-a-dozen. Then it was a race against time to get through them all; mostly we’d just eat them fresh - the golden juice running down our chins as we gnawed around the centre seed, hands sticky from holding the fruit. After that I’d purée them to freeze for a later date and also make loads of kulfi. In those days the making of kulfi involved the boiling up of masses of milk and was very time consuming. Modern chefs like MasterChef winner Dhruv Baker have developed much simplified versions of kulfi which are quick and easy to make whilst still retaining the deliciousness. This one is from his lovely book ‘Spice - Layers of Flavour’.
450g condensed milk
300g double cream
a pinch of ground cardamom
1 large mango to make about 125ml mango purée
Peel and cut the mango flesh into chunks and whizz up in a blender to a smooth purée.
Pour the condensed milk into a bowl and add a good pinch of ground cardamom. Mix. In another bowl whip the double cream until just holding its shape. Gently fold it into the condensed milk and cardamom. Stir the mango purée into the cream mix and then pour into kulfi moulds. If you can’t get hold of these, dariole, ice lolly moulds or any small freezerproof container will do just as well. Freeze until solid. Remove from the freezer about 15 minutes before eating.
BARGES & BREAD
Pub. Prospect Books, Aug. 2017
ISBN -13 978-1-909248-51-9
240pp, paperback with flaps
Size: 216 x 138mm
Price: £12.50 Black & white
Where to find some of my writings:
Petits Propos Culinaire (PPC) is a journal of food studies and food history published by Prospect Books three times a year since 1980. Now edited by Tom Jaine it is a mix of academic study, food history written with a light touch, and slightly quirky essays written by people like me. Amongst its contributors over the years are some of the best food and cookery writers of our time. Such a special publication continues to deserve our support.
PPC 96 August 2012:
Food on the Move
PPC 99 November 2013:
Hospital Food - à la française
PPC 101 October 2014:
The Limejuice Run
PPC 104 December 2015:
PPC 110 February 2018:
Une Mauvaise Herbe; Purslane