Local dishes supply food for thought16th May 2017
From The Guernsey Press' 'Signpost to yesterday' series, April 9 1952. By 'Guernesiais.' The writer makes the contentious claim that Jersey Wonders are actually from Guernsey, and as for bean jar ... The old Guernsey recipe book illustrated is from the Library collection.
Guernsey is noted for a variety of dishes which, if not exactly peculiar to it, at least are not encountered beyond the Channel Islands. Some of these, alas! can only be sampled by the favoured few, but many types of Guernsey fare are still obtainable, although perhaps several of them lack the quality which they enjoyed in years gone by.
Given the supples and a good cook it would be possible to enjoy a meal such as could not be eaten on the mainland. It would be a substantial spread, not, perhaps, to the liking of everyone, but undoubtedly of a rich and satisfying nature.
Here is what I would suggest for such a repast:
Soupe à la graisse, followed by sand-eels, or baked conger. Next, a leg of Guernsey pork with locally-grown vegetables. This could be washed down with island cider. For a sweet I would suggest gâche mélan, and to finish there could be a planche cake thickly spread with Guernsey butter. Sloe gin would round off an appetising feast.
Alternatively, one could start with conger soup, succeeded by a dish of ormers. If possible, a helping of bean jar would be acceptable, followed by Jersey Wonders, Guernsey biscuits or soda cake. Gâche, of course, would provide an alternative, eaten with butter milk.
Some may exclaim with horror at such a repast. It would be too filling, highly indigestible, inelegant; more of the farmhouse than of the select hotel. Perhaps they are right, but these were (and in some cases still are) the traditional dishes of this island, together with a few more which I have not yet mentioned.
There was, for instance, a preparation known as Pannais à la graisse, consisting chiefly of parsnips cooked in fat, and no doubt made savoury by other ingredients. I doubt whether it is relished nowadays.
Another memory is the fragrance of roasting chestnuts, 'castines,' under the French Halles. Up to the last War, I fancy, one could obtain these appetising nuts, piping hot, from the women who cooked them in the braziers, which, at the same time, provided warmth to the cooks. Now, to enjoy this fare, one must roast them oneself at home.
I doubt whether much conger soup is made today, delicious though it is. Soupe à la graisse, once a regular item on the menu of the frugal Guernseyman, has become a rarity, and the practice of eating juicy steaks for supper on Christmas Eve has died out because one can no longer procure such meat.
Very little fish is dried in Guernsey at the present time. Formerly conger, mackerel, long-nose (another Guernsey speciality, despised, like conger, on the mainland), big sand-eels, and sometimes cod, were split open and held thus by wooden stakes to dry in the sun and the wind for a few days.
Then they were baked and eaten with considerable relish. I can remember this fare, and my mouth waters at the memory!
Fortunately, a good deal of traditional Guernsey fare is readily obtainable today, although it is not of the quality we relished before the War. While bread is no longer baked in furze ovens, such fare as planche cakes, Guernsey biscuits (galettes) and gâche may be bought in any confectioner's shop. Unhappily gâche can no longer be obtained in three qualities: plain, sultana and currant. All of it is made with sultanas nowadays.
Jersey Wonders (merveilles) are, I believe, of Guernsey origin, despite their name. Perhaps someone can tell me how it was earned. Similarly, 'Jersey Jar' is another name for 'Bean Jar,' but whether it originated in the sister island I cannot say.
Locally brewed cider is still to be had, but in nothing like the quantity once obtainable. At one time (almost within living memory) cider orchards were common here, and presses were not mere garden ornaments or museum pieces, as they are today. A certain amount of sloe gin is made, but privately, for home consumption.
No longer can one purchase golden butter on a cabbage leaf in the Market. A nominal quantity is made by the States Dairy and a few lucky people eat it. The butter is not in the old time round pats, on which were imprinted the name of its maker, together with some ornamental designs. Butter stamps, like Guernsey butter, are rarities nowadays.
There was a time when butter-milk and curds could be freely bought. I wonder where such food could be purchased today?
Soda cake, I fancy, is peculiar to Guernsey, and I am glad that it is once more to be had. To me, at all events, it tastes as good as ever.
Ther is no need for me to state that ormers are a local delicacy. To the average islander there is no dish to compare with it, but like so many delicious things, the ormer is far less plentiful than hitherto. In the last century hundreds of dozens used to be taken, whereas today, although catches are often good, their numbers are always comparatively moderate.
Many will remember Fat Cattle Shows and the days when local meat was exhibited in the Market surmounted by notices proclaiming from which parish it had come. Rows of pigs (dead of course!) and displays of local poultry were commonly seen before the War, but only rarely is such a sight to be viewed in these austere times.
But at least the familiar Guernsey Sugars are still to be had, albeit on coupons. Their flavours and bright colours remain, although their price has naturally risen. Other varieties of sweets are made, locally, but sugars remain the favourite.
Doubtless other savoury preparations of a local nature will spring to the minds of those old enough to remember them, but at least I have nentioned most of those good things.
Some, it seems, have gone for all time, but several remain. These vary our somewhat monotonous diet, and, as well, give a touch of originality to our way of life.
I hope these traditional dishes will never be allowed to disappear, for without them our palates would be robbed of some of the sweets of living.