Tag Archives: South Downs

Eating biscuits at the lost village of Balsdean

Chocolate dunking biscuits

A few days ago, I made this batch of biscuits. They’re a variation on a recipe by Justin Gellatly for “the perfect dunking biscuit” found in his book Bread, Cake, Doughnut, Pudding, but I fancied adding cocoa. Cos, well, chocolate. They’ve got a great snap, and dunk well, but I took them on a walk with my friend Alex. We ate them on the site of Balsdean, a village or hamlet*, that is now lost, or at least gone.

If you’re a bit of a map geek, like me, every time you visit somewhere new, you need a map, preferably (in the UK) a 1:25,000 OS map, plus its digital download counterpart these days. On holiday in Dorset earlier this year, I loved poring over the map and seeing the italic font used by OS for post-Roman archaeological sites, saying “Medieval village (site of)” , “Church (rems of)”. The English landscape is littered with these. It’s fascinating to muse about, then investigate, what actually happened to these places. Why do some villages survive, grow and swell into towns or cities, whereas other fail or fade away?

The reasons are many: a wave of the plague may have depopulated a place to the point where it simply couldn’t continue to exist, without residents to work the land. Something similar happened near here to Hamsey, where the original site of the village now consists of just a church and a barn. Or it may have been lost to changing landscape, crumbling sea cliffs for example, such as Dunwich on England’s East Anglian coast. Another factor may be changing technology. An interesting example of a village dying due to technological change close to (my) home is Tide Mills.

Tide Mills, on the Sussex coast between Newhaven and Seaford, came into being fairly late on, when the landowner decided to use the tidal range to grind grain. A tide mill was built and used between 1788 and 1883, grinding wheat for flour (just to get this post back to my blog’s main theme for a second), in combination with a wind mill. When steam power arrived, the tide mill became obsolete. Despite being clean and green! Not really concerns in the 19th century, other than among Romantic poets. The main concern was it was hard to maintain, so more expensive than a coal-fired steam mill.

The village’s railway station was closed in 1942, three years after the final residents had been removed. During the Second World War, the site was used for street fighting training. Today, you can still see the remains of many buildings. Which is a lot more than can be said for Balsdean, which was cleared of its remaining populace then used for artillery and tank training in the war. There are some amazing before and after photos on this site. The manor looks very fine. People would pay a pretty penny for a place like that in these parts these days.

It’s a very peaceful spot now. Despite something of a howling wind on the Downs’ exposed flanks during our walk, among the trees at Balsdean we had a quiet moment to enjoy the biscuits and try to picture the village and its church. To the modern, historical conservation-oriented mind, the intentional shelling of a Norman church** is boggling but the world was a very different place in 1942. The Battle of Britain in 1940 may have forced the Nazis to postpone Operation Sea Lion, their invasion plans, but Britain was still besieged. Today, all that remains of the church is a pile of stonework and a small plaque marking the location of the altar.

It’s a place that’s clearly inspired people, including the Brighton band Grasscut, who created a musical extra-urban pyschogeographical journey around the area with tracks on their 2012 album 1 inch: 1/2 mile. They even hid “in the environs of Balsdean, a single, utterly unique Grasscut artefact”. Clues to its location can be found in this track, A Lost Village. Which sounds intriguing, much like Kit Williams’ famed book/treasure hunt Masquerade from my childhood.

If you’re interested in visiting Balsdean, for the walk, for the history, or to look for Grasscut’s artefact (assuming no one’s found it), strangely it isn’t marked with “Medievel village (site of)” on the OS map, but here’s the What Three Words spot where the various lanes met in the centre of the village is, with an OS grid reference of 378058, while this is the site of the church.  Switch to satellite view and you’ll see more lumps and bumps and evidences. If you like funny English place names, Balsdean is where Balsdean Bottom meets Standean Bottom, just south of Castle Hill Nature Reserve, not far from the South Downs Way southwest of Lewes.

As for the biscuits, they helped us on our way, and I’m going to keep tweaking the recipe. I’ll post it here when I’m satisfied.

 

 

 

* A hamlet is  a small village, which etymologically quite likely comes from ham, meaning home or place of residence, and let, a French diminutive. One dictionary definition says it’s a village without its own church. So technically Balsdean wasn’t a hamlet, as it had a Norman church.

** This informative site gives some more detail about Balsdean from a 1990 source. The church, or chapel, had fallen out of use as a place of worship by the late 18th century, becoming instead a farm building. So it wasn’t quite so shocking to shell it into a pile of rubble.

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Filed under Discussion, Misc, Travelling

The Eighteenth South Downs Beer & Cider Festival, Lewes, 20-21 June 2014

18th South Downs Beer Festival in Lewes town hall. With many empty casks.

The poster for the 18th South Downs Beer and Cider Festival nicely riffs on the cover design of Neil Young’s 1972 classic album ‘Harvest’. As I’m a fan of both real beer and that album, it got me excited about the event when I first spotted it. As Fran was interested in going, and couldn’t do the first day, a Friday, due to work commitments, I got tickets for the 11am to 5pm Saturday session.

South Downs Beer Festival 2014 PosterHarvest album cover

A week or so before the event, I went to the CAMRA site and printed off the list of breweries represented, going through it to highlight all the local ones. This festival, being held in the handsome Lewes Town Hall, marked forty years of the Brighton and South Downs Branch of CAMRA, so promised to be special.

So it was a kick in the teeth when we arrived at about 1pm on the Saturday to find pretty much all the local beers had run out, bar those from Harveys. Now I love Harveys, but I drink it most days, so I was most keen on trying other stuff from around Sussex. So it was disappointing to see crosses through the signs for both the beers from 360 Degree brewery at Sheffield Park, just north of Lewes; through those of Bedlam in Aldbourne, West Sussex; through both the beers from Burning Sky at nearby Firle; ditto Downlands, at Small Dole, West Sussex; ditto both beers from Goldstone, from nearby Ditchling; ditto Kissingate of Lower Beeding, West Sussex; ditto Brighton’s Laine; ditto Pin-Up Brewery of Southwick, East Sussex; ditto the intriguing Rectory of Streat, East Sussex, brewed by a priest.

Guttering and empty casks. Sorry, bad photo.

The few local beers I tried were: Lammas Ale from 1648 Brewing Co in East Hoathly, East Sussex. This had bubblegum-ish aroma, from malted wheat, and low carbonation, medium body. Then a Wolseley Best from The Stanley in Portslade, also East Sussex (though currently brewed at Downlands). This had nice hints of liquorice, charcoal and nuts, but frankly, I drink Harveys Best all the time and I wasn’t here for the best bitters. Cavedweller from Caveman Brewery, over in Kent, was a bit more interesting, a porter nicely combined blackcurranty flavours with more piney, resiny hints from UK Bramling Cross hops. I wouldn’t call porter a summer beer though. Another more interesting one was Regaler from Franklins, in Bexhill-on-Sea, East Sussex. The notes called it a “cold-fermented lager-style ale”. I assume it was a Kölsch-style beer, top-fermented like an ale and more full-bodied and less carbonated than most lagers.

Festival beer list

All of which was fun, but not what I was hoping for. Interestingly, a lot of what had run out was the more hoppy American craft beer-style stuff: not what you typically associate with CAMRA, which can he thanked for keeping British cask ale, notably bitters, alive through the 1970s and 1980s when dreadful industrial lagers took over British pubs. Although Britons still drink mostly industrial lager by proportion now, we’re coming back round to real beer – in part thanks to CAMRA, but also in part thanks to the vitality of the highly influential US craft beer movement and the exciting flavours and aromas offered by US hops.

My favourite beers these days are those that take our incredible British brewing heritage but aren’t afraid to be inspired by US beers and US hop flavours. That’s what I was hoping to try more at the festival, things like Burning Sky’s ‘Arise’ “Session strength IPA”, here available in cask. But it had run out.

Drinking out third-pints at the 18th South Downs Beer Festival

Now, I’m aware that things do – and have to – run out at these beer festivals, but considering the event was running from 11am on the Friday to the evening of the Saturday, when everything was finished, a total of about 20 hours of sessions, it seemed pretty poor that so much was gone already when we arrived – at roughly just after the mid-point. I realise part of the buzz of a beer festival is the first rush to try the latest products of interesting breweries on the first day, but well, it just seemed like poor event management that so many punters like us who didn’t arrive till the second day were deprived of the so many of the beers, in particular those local brews.

Now if I was writing about the event in a journalistic capacity, I would contact the Brighton CAMRA branch and the festival organiser, Ruth Anderson, but instead I’m just blogging about it as a disappointed punter and don’t feel like chasing around after them for quotes. Plus, I suspect they’d just reiterate the line about how it’s normal for casks to run dry after the initial evening throng has been at them. I really didn’t want to be writing a moany post about the event I’d been so looking forward to but, well, here we are.

Lewes Corn Exchange, with surprisingly mixed crowd at the beer festival

Still, while pretty much all the stuff I’d marked on my print-off had run out, at least it meant we’d only drunk a few third-pint samples each and were subsequently able to cycle down to the Kingston village fete, along a lovely traffic-free path. The festival was held in the Lewes Town Hall and corn exchange, a great venue where I usually just go to give blood, but as it was a gorgeous hot, sunny day, being outside appealed greatly.

Pints at the Kingston village fete

At the fete, we met some friends. And visited the beer tent – which not only had a cask of Burning Sky’s delicious Plateau pale ale, but the guy serving the drinks even gave us a free glass from Long Man, another nearby brewery. We went home via The Swan in Southover, where we had a Harveys Olympia golden summer ale in the lovely garden, so the day turned out well in the end.

Bikes outside fete, nr pub

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Filed under Ale, beer, Breweries, British beer, Discussion, Events

Strawberry tart

Strawberry tart

We’ve had some proper summer weather here in southern England the past few weeks. I’m quite shocked. It’s potentially looking like a good year for fruit too. All that rain in January-Febuary then a strangely hot and sunny spell in March might count for something in that department. Already our plum tree is sagging under the weight of ripening fruit, and out goseberry bush is starting to look ready to yield its sour green offerings.

I was planning to use the goosebrrries, a fruit I ate a fair amount as a child but haven’t touched for years, if not decades, for a tart yesterday, when we had friends visiting for lunch, but decided they weren’t quite ripe (the bush is in a very shady spot). Instead, the farmers market had a stall loaded with (ripe) gooseberries, cherries, strawberries and tayberries. I hadn’t encountered the latter before, but they’re a common blackberry (Rubus fruticosus)/raspberry (Rubus idaeus) cross. We bought a punnet, but mostly we bought strawberries as I’d seen a handsome looking recipe in Dan Lepard’s ‘Short & Sweet’. Another version of his recipe is available here on the Guardian.

It involves a slightly unusual custard, or sort-of custard. I’m not sure it’s a strict definition but I always assumed custard referred to things made with a mixture of milk or cream and egg yolk. This one, however, is made with egg white. Which is a typically nifty Lepard trick, as you use yolk in the pastry, and can then use up the leftover white. You make a mixture of milk, cornflour, sugar and the egg white, cook it till thick, then cool this, later on combining it with crème fraîche. Lepard uses a similar process for another of his custards, though that one does use yolks, then is mixed with double cream. It’s very handy.

So anyway.

Strawberries
About 500g strawberries
A little caster sugar

Pastry
125g plain flour (all-purpose or cake flour)
25g icing sugar (confectioners sugar)
Pinch salt
75g unsalted butter, cold, cut in small cubes
1 egg yolk
A little cold water

Custard
130g milk
20g cornflour (corn starch)
1 egg white
50g caster sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
250g crème fraîche

1. Cut the stalky bits off the strawberries then slice into two or three or four, depending on the size of the individual fruit.
2. Put the strawberries in a bowl, sprinkle with caster sugar, then leave in the fridge to macerate, stirring occasionally.
3. Make the pastry by sieving together the flour and icing sugar, adding the salt then the cubed butter. Rub together until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs (you could do this in a food processor), then add the egg yolk and water and bring together a dough. Don’t be tempted to add too much water. A tablespoon or so should be enough. You want the pastry crumbling not sticky.
4. Form the pastry into a disc then wrap in plastic and rest in the fridge.
5. Combine the milk, cornflour, egg white sugar and vanilla in a saucepan.
6. Whisking well, put over a low heat. Continue whisking, increasing the heat slightly, until the mixture thickens. It can get pretty thick, so don’t get too carried away. And watch it doesn’t burn.
7. Put the thick mixture into a bowl, cover with a plate and allow to cool. Then leave in the fridge until you need it.
8. Roll out the pastry and use it to line a 25cm-ish pie or flan tin.
9. Preheat the oven to 170C.
10. Bake the pastry case blind – that is, covering the pastry with a lining of parchment and filling it with baking beans. I used to use my childhood marbles, but I’ve lost them (ahem), so currently I’m just using kidney beans. Bake for about 15 minutes then remove the beans and parchment and keep baking until the case is golden.
11. Allow the pastry case to cool.
12. Put the thick custard mix in a large bowl and loosen it up with electric beaters.
13. Add the crème fraîche and keep beating until it’s all nicely blended.
14. Put the crème fraîche-custard in the cooled pastry case.
15. Arrange the macerated strawberries over the top.
16. Serve.

Strawberry tart 2

I was hoping we’d have a little of ours leftover but eight of us – five adults, three kids – demolished it in mere seconds. Well, a few minutes perhaps. All in all, it was a lovely end to a very satisfying lunch. For starters we did some fiore di zucca: battered, deep-fried zuccchine flowers, filled with mozzarella and a little anchovy. Then for the the main course we did honey-glazed roast chicken with lemon thyme and smoked paprika, a great Tom Kerridge recipe that can be found here; smashed new potatoes with mint; broad bean, pea and mint salad with Medita (our local version of feta, from High Weald Dairy); and a simple lettuce salad. The kids didn’t fuss about any of it – indeed, they demolished most of the mains in seconds too. Kids can really be the worst critics of food, so we were very chuffed with this result. Wish we’d taken a few photos.

All accompanied by local beer and incredible sunshine, and a post-prandial walk on Malling Down, part of the South Downs, an area that’s just received a special Biosphere status from Unesco alongside places like the Amazon and the Rockies, it was a wonderful day. Which compensated nicely for my disappointment about the 18th South Downs Beer & Cider Festival, which we’d attended the day before.

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Filed under Baking, Pies & tarts, Puddings & desserts, Recipes