The Union haggis and Covent Garden's 'Piano man' dies

I hope everyone had a Christmas to remember; those weeks over the holiday period of overindulgence seem a distant memory. Conversation (ones that I make very little contribution to) seem to revolve around exercise, the value of gym membership, abstinence of one sort or another and the replacement of the 5:2 with alternate day dieting. The conversation killer, Elizabeth assures me, will be the results of the eel survey which we encouraged you to have a go at in the last newsletter.

Firstly, thanks to all those that had the courage to answer the questions. There is no shame in owning up and ticking ‘don’t know’ in the box. In fact it’s a strong indication that the message about what is, and what isn’t sustainable with regards to buying eel is still not really properly understood. For those interested in the eel survey answers here is a link to where I have answered most of the questions with a little additional info. The most interesting result of the survey for me was that 84% did not know if the ‘Sustainable Eel Standard’ included adult wild and farmed eel and that the remaining 16% thought the standard included both. If chefs and people knowledgeable and interested in food and sustainable issues don’t realise that the standard is all about sourcing fish that has been farmed, it means we need to have a radical rethink about how we are getting the message across, and reminder to myself, must try harder.

Elver fishing in France enjoyed bumper catches which meant they satisfied their quotas in the first weeks of the season starting. Fish2fork have already covered this story on their website and also seem to question the evidence of how much more data does ICES need to reassess their red listing of eel. I haven’t seen the Environment Agency dates for the opening and closing of the elver season in the UK yet but I do hope they have learnt from the ridiculous random choice of dates that they picked last year. Would always be best to consult a tide table and pick a falling spring tide date to start the season so as elver fishermen can fish on first day of the season (even if they don’t catch anything), and finish the season after a spring tide has finished. While fishermen are making ready for the season here they probably need to prepare themselves for a dramatic fall in price. The added danger is that a dramatic drop in elver prices may tempt restaurants to feature elvers as a ‘special’ - not something we will be condoning.

Here in Gloucestershire we may not have suffered quite as badly as those on the Somerset Levels but we still had significant amounts of water on local farmland. The bad news is that we have two very big Severn Bore tides due in the next 7 weeks, both have a 5* star rating which is bigger than anything we had last year. Although this will provide great fun and amusement for the several hundred surfers and canoeists who will attempt to surf the bore, if more rain comes and we have another bout of low pressure the flood defences will definitely be challenged. When watching the phenomenon that is the bore, I just can’t help wondering how many elvers and early spring salmon have decided to serenely hitch a free ride on the power of that tide while above them the carnage and pantomime of surfers falling and crashing plays itself out.

The rod and line salmon season has got going in Scotland already - the Scots have always made their own rules with regards to when the season starts and finishes. Alex Salmond was keen to be photographed last week opening the fishing on the River Tay so wouldn't be at all surprised if Scottish independence championed all year fishing.

Which brings me nicely onto Ranald Macdonald, of London Restaurant Group Boisdale, whose Belgravia restaurant (often referred to as Scotland’s unofficial London embassy), have just introduced this week a special Burns menu. Designed to celebrate the Act of Union and his support for the No campaign, the menu available until the 29th January features a special haggis recipe, made mainly of heart from Scottish lamb, liver from English lamb, lungs from Welsh lamb bound together with the finest Irish barley. Owner Ranald comments “The Union haggis acts as a culinary metaphor for the Union upon which Britain’s greatness was built, and future prosperity and fortitude depends. …” I’ll drink to that Ranald.

Last week at the good age of 88 Jimmy Hardwick died. He was the long-standing pianist at the famous American-style Joe Allen restaurant in Covent Garden. When he played on the opening night 37 years ago, having been recommended by American actress Elaine Stritch, he thought the job might last a couple of years. In fact he never left. The long list of stars who dueted with him on the piano included Ava Gardner, Richard Harris, Peter O’Toole, and many of the stars he played for became regulars and friends, Joan Collins and Al Pacino amongst them. Elizabeth Taylor, a regular in the ‘80s once asked Jimmy if he would take one of her dining companions out on the town for a ‘’boys’ night out’’. Jimmy decided the best the best place to entertain Rock Hudson was Heaven, the recently opened gay nightclub, the rest is history.

I ought to finish on the subject of salmon prices. There was a time when we used to have gentle rise and fall of prices. It was a reasonably predictable wave, rising and falling throughout the year. Oh, how we wish for those days again. The rise we saw in the month approaching Christmas was not altogether unpredictable but the severe spike in prices in December caught the industry by surprise. Many salmon farms like to take advantage of the holiday period and so with fewer fish on the market prices have stayed pretty firm. The future however is looking very unpredictable with prices on the rise again and hitting fresh highs this will be a very challenging year.