..Narrow nightwatch nigh the ships head
While tossed close to cliffs. Coldly afflicted,
My feet were by frost benumbed
Chill its chains are; chafing sighs
Hew my heart round...
From 'The Seafarer' : Anon 8th Century AD
(Translated from the Anglo - Saxon by Ezra Pound)
The village of Newlyn clinging snugly to the east-facing slope of Mounts Bay is an extraordinary place; an important fishing centre, one of the first communities to resist so called ‘re-development’ and a famous nineteenth century artists’ colony.
Newlyn is still a lively fishing port. The harbour fills with fishing boats large and small and there is a fish market most mornings. Because of its easy reach to the Western Approaches fishing grounds, over fifty species of edible fish are landed here. Much of the catch is shipped up country and to Spain and France. Breton lorries take their loads of seafood home to be eaten by visitors to Brittany who little suspect that their ‘fruits de mer’ are actually fruits of Cornwall. The village is home to fish processing, ice making, chandleries and several really good fish shops. There are also some great pubs serving thirsty fishermen.
Pilchards used to be the lifeblood of Newlyn, but mackerel and herring were almost as important. The hardships of Newlyners’ lives in the nineteenth century are graphically captured in the paintings of Stanhope Forbes and his followers who settled in Newlyn back in the 1880s.
Stanhope Forbes’ first painting of the town called ‘A Fish Sale on the Beach’ was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1885 and lead to hundreds more paintings him, his pupils and the other artists who formed the artists' colony.
The painters were attracted by the light, the cheapness of accommodation and models and the direct train from London! Usually painting in the open air the artists captured the faces of the fisher girls, the oilskinned fishermen and the older folk as they mended nets or gossiped by the quayside. The Penlee Gallery in Penzance now houses many important examples of their work. A recent TV programme about art in West Cornwall condemned the Newlyn artists for painting chocolate box paintings. How dare they! The paintings are far from that - and often depict loss and tragedy as well as the blithe sunny days when silvery shoals of fish are filling the bay..
In 1991, Len Scott the head of the Newlyn Fishermans’s Mission started the Newlyn Fish Festival. The festival’s aims are to allow ‘the fishermen of Newlyn the opportunity to show their industry off to the wider public who, perhaps, know little about commercial fishing or its problems’. The venture was a huge success from the outset and what started a fundraiser for the Mission has more than fulfilled the aims of increasing understanding of the fishing industry as well as giving everyione a great day out.
On August Bank Holiday weekend thousands of people flock to Newlyn to look at the boats, the stalls of every sort, watch filleting competitions and cookery demonstrations, see extraordinary displays of fish and eat some delicious fishy dishes.
So talking of delicious fishy dishes, here is one.
This recipe is an adaptation from ‘Cornish Recipes Ancient and Modern’ collected by Edith Martin and first published by the Cornish Federation of Women’s Institutes in 1930.
4 or more mackerel gutted, de-headed, flattened out and spines removed.
2 bay leaves broken into pieces
2 sprigs thyme
½ tsp chilli flakes
½ tsp ground mace
White wine vinegar (or half and half with white balsamic vinegar)
Cornish sea salt
Chop the onion and lay the fish in a flat-bottomed dish. Sprinkle with the onion and the rest of the herbs and spices, then pour over the vinegar so the fish is just covered. Season well. Put into the oven and bake gently for an hour. Cool and remove the individual fish put into a serving dish and strain the liquid back over the fish. Serve cold by which time the fish has become wonderfully spiced and 'meaty'.
I buy my mackerel from the Mackerel Man who sits daily in a little van on a lay-by just outside Penzance; he keeps the fish in a giant cool box. When I asked him how he cooked marinated mackerel, he said the same way as his mother - with lemon peel and ginger. So the flavourings are almost infinitely variable; try adding parsley, tarragon, or even garlic with lime, ginger and chilli - whatever you fancy, just stick to the vinegar part of the method.
'Yet longing comes upon him to fare forth on the water...'