Nov 09 2010

A Week on Bryher

Nothing but sunset from Scilly to the USA….!
The autumn sun is setting as we sit quietly outside Hillside Farm looking east to the islands of Tresco and St Mary’s and west across a flat Atlantic peppered with the crocodile teeth of the Norrard Rocks. In the distance the Bishop Rock Lighthouse sits like a tiny black pin on the horizon. In front of us in the fading light is a patchwork of little green fields, each protected from the Atlantic’s fury by neatly clipped hedge of pittisporum, escallonia and senecio. A Cypress tree stands majestic beside a still productive polytunnel, its plastic glistening pink in the last rays of the sun. It is October and Ruth’s stall in front of the farm house is still stacked high with tomatoes, butternut squash, peppers, broccoli, onions, cabbage, courgette, freshly dug potatoes and eggs laid by hens still scratching around beneath us in a fox and badger free heaven.

Tiny clouds and white sand……………
The next day tiny clouds spatter the sky, the sea really is Bahamian blue edged with white sand. Each year the beauty of Scilly takes my breath away; each year friends ask why we keep coming back. “Go there” I say “and you’ll see”. We left home at 5.45 am. It was dark and cold and the dawn was a long time breaking. At Land’s End aerodrome we climbed aboard a tiny gnat and flew high into the mist. In just fifteen minutes we landed on St Mary’s, were scooped into a tiny bus and deposited on the quay at Hugh Town to await the boat to Bryher. A lazy wind bit deep as we sat and waited, watching the bustle of boats coming and going. The sea is Scilly’s motorway.

The sea is the Scilly’s motorway
Ruth met us at the quay with a warm welcome and drove us the tiny distance to Hillside Farm. The wind dropped and we set off across the hill in watery sunshine to Hell Bay; the rocks explain the name. We returned dazzled once more by the breath taking beauty and lit the fire. I cooked chicken and Ruth’s vegetables and we began to relax, to allow the magic of the islands to enfold us once more.

It is the emptiness of Bryher I find so captivating. No cars, no noise, no bustle, nobody, just the sound of the sea and birds soaring overhead, the occasional Shetland pony grazing precariously on the edge of the cliff.

Grazing precariously on the cliff
I set off alone round the Great Pool, and struck out to Gweal Hill past Sinking Porth. No one, nothing. I stopped and stared once more across the sea towards the Bishop Light trying to take in the three thousand miles of emptiness from here to America.

I looked across the seductively glassy flatness of the water and tried to imagine the raging storms that have wrecked 800 ships around the islands across the centuries. When the sea was the highway of the world, Scilly provided a place of pivotal importance between nations, a refuge for fleeing kings, a base from which to plan invasion, a shelter from battle, even a treacherous haven from a storm.

we’re watching you watching us………
I turned north towards Hell bay and the Great Popplesstones and it was here that my solitude abruptly ended as I came upon a migrant flock of the ubiquitous birdwatchers that land on the islands every autumn.

Afraid I’d startle some rare feathered exhibit I scuttled back to Hillside Farm, then a beer in the Fraggle Rock bar and supper in the quaint little Vine Cafe.

Bryher Harbour
One evening we called in to the luxurious Hell Bay Hotel, a beautiful setting in startling contrast to the refreshing simplicity of the Vine café and Fraggle Rock Bar. With a glass of wine in hand we took time for another look at their fabulous collection of Cornish art
We went to St Agnes for lunch and pondered at the gentle landscape of this the most southern island as we walked its perimeter of gentle grassy slopes and strange rock formations.

Horse Rock
We travelled around all the islands by boat, watching gannets diving for fish and seals lounging on the beach and snorkelling around us. We explored St Martins and visited deserted Samson, walking among the derelict cottages and pondering the Spartan lives of those forced to leave in 1855.

“Our rock!”
The tourist season was closing round us as we left Bryher to travel at low tide right round all the islands for the last time on our way back to St Mary’s, the tiny plane and the shocking reality of mainland Britain.

…just another fabulous sunset…!
To Make Lasagne
Like so many classic Italian dishes, lasagne varies from region to region. Internationally, of course, it has developed another identity altogether as a readymade dish available everywhere which, like Pizza, bears little resemblance to its country of origin.
We are most accustomed to a variation made up of a meat and tomato sauce, a simplified ragu, layered with a cheese sauce and sheets of easy-cook pasta. It does take time to prepare so it’s worth doubling up on the quantities for a big group of friends or for portions in the freezer.
500gms lasagne
750 ml Bechamel sauce….homemade or good quality ready made
150 gms grated parmesan cheese
Ragu; see below
The Ragu
200gms minced beef or mixed pork and beef
55gms chopped prosciutto or streaky bacon
1 chopped onion, carrot, celery stalk
3 tablespoons tomato puree
A glass of red wine
A little beef or chicken stock
Butter and oil for frying
Salt and pepper
Melt butter with a little oil in a heavy flat pan; the oil stops the butter burning. Fry the vegetables and bacon gently till soft. Add the meat and brown a further ten minutes. Stir in the wine and allow it to bubble to allow the alcohol to evaporate. Stir in tomato puree and a little stock to loosen the ragu to a sauce like consistency. Simmer for 1 ½ hours adding more stock if it becomes dry. Add salt and freshly ground black pepper.
To assemble the dish:
First carefully read the instructions for the lasagne: some need cooking in boiling water before assembly and some are ready cooked and can go in straight from the packet!
Spread a layer of béchamel sauce on the bottom of a large flat gratin dish. Follow with a single layer of lasagne. Nest some of the Ragu, then more lasagne and so on. Finish with Bechamel and a thick layer of the cheese. Bake in a hot oven for thirty minutes until golden on top. Remove from the oven and allow to set for ten minutes before serving.
In his wonderful book, Complete Italian Food, Antonio Carluccio adds fried courgette, aubergine, spinach balls and porcini between each layer of lasagne and ragu; a truly sumptuous version!

Good Night!

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