Friday 23 November 2012

Wildlife, Wetlands & Crossrail: A Visit to Wallasea Island

Wallasea Island

Huge, overarching sky; pools of crystal-blue water; a vast, flat landscape stretching out to the horizon - this is Wallasea Island on the Essex coast.  I've just made a visit here, on a day of brittle autumn sunshine, to see for myself the beginnings of a project that will be the "largest man-made nature reserve in Europe", because millions of tonnes of soil will be arriving on Wallasea to create a wetland landscape of mudflats, salt marsh and lagoon, last seen over 400 years ago.

Wetland with the Crossrail material handling facility just visible in the distance
The soil is initially coming from the Crossrail project; the rail tunnels currently being bored through London - and the soil is apparently being brought up from a level so deep it won't be polluted.  The RSPB, the owner of the reserve, has partnered Crossrail to create this new wildlife haven.  Crossrail will deliver 4.5 million tonnes of material in total and at its peak there will be 10,000 tonnes unloaded on the island by 4 ships a day. A new jetty and material handling facility have been built to process this; it's a large development, which seems to rise up out of the salt marsh.  Next to it is a line of soil "pyramids" and as I came up to these, the automated conveyor belt bringing the soil suddenly started up, creating an eerie, echoing sound in the vast, windswept landscape.  It's an impressive bit of mechanised kit, but - as I watched - a man came up with a long stick and started poking at a blockage in it. It still needs to be fixed in the old fashioned way, then.

The soil from Crossrail
The new wetlands will reverse the loss of tidal marshes to arable farming that has been taking place for centuries.  The risk of flooding on the Essex coast and rising sea levels has led to new thinking here; the sea walls have traditionally held the tide back but now sections of these are being breached to allow the water to return.  I could clearly see here on the island where small sections of the sea wall have been breached.
Sections of the sea wall that have been breached
The new reserve should encourage wading birds, ducks, geese, fish and seals.  It is hoped that lost populations of spoonbills and Kentish plovers will return to this site.  On my visit, I saw flocks of beautiful golden plovers; the sunlight glinting on their wings as they flew off - as well as lapwings and curlews.  I also saw a sparrowhawk, but sadly no peregrine or short-eared owl (although before I left it was getting just dark enough for them to emerge).  Apparently, 2011 was a good year for the owls and they were often seen hunting here.

We left the island as the tide was coming in, so we just made it through the water before the sea flooded the road and made it impossible to pass.  It had been a fascinating afternoon.

Saturday 3 November 2012

Essex Huffer Recipe

I recently wanted to create a lunch with an Essex huffer, which is a wedge-shaped bap eaten with a filling of choice.  Although the huffer has become a local bread in this part of Essex, I can't find any recipes for it in any old or new Essex cook books and there is little information online.  However, there is a traditional bread from Kent called a huffkin, and although huffkins are smaller rolls, it seems to me that there is a very close similarity between the two breads.  So I've looked to the huffkin for ideas for my recipe.  My huffers are slightly smaller than the huge baps on the pub lunch menu, but they'll be larger than a traditional huffkin.

Essex Huffer with Scottish Cheddar and Old English Chutney with Cider

Recipe for an Essex Huffer (This makes 8 Huffers)

1lb 10oz (750g) of strong bread flour. 
7 fl oz (200 ml) scalded milk (milk boiled and then cooled until it is tepid)
10 fl oz (275 ml) tepid water
2 1/2 oz (75g) butter
1/2 oz (15g) fresh yeast*
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons sugar.

A little extra flour for a floury surface to knead the dough.
A little extra butter for greasing.

You will need:

Two baking trays.
A bowl to mix the dough in and a bowl to mix the fresh yeast.


1. Mix flour, salt and sugar in a bowl.

2. Rub in the butter.

3. In a separate bowl, mix the fresh yeast with a little of the tepid water to create a loose paste, then add the rest of the water.

4. Make a well in the centre of the flour mixture and pour in the tepid milk.

5. Then pour in the yeast and tepid water mixture.

6. Leave the mixture for 10-15 minutes under a piece of muslin (or tea towel).

7. Mix into a dough, adding a little more flour if the mixture feels too wet, or water if the mixture feels too dry.

8.  Turn the dough out onto a floury surface and knead for 10 minutes.

9. Wash out the floury bowl and grease with butter.

10. Put the dough into the bowl, cover with the muslin (or tea towel) and leave for an hour in a warm room.

11. Turn the dough out onto a floury surface and cut in half.

12.  Roll out each half into a circle and then cut into four pieces each 2cm thick.

13. Put four pieces on one, greased baking tray and four on the other.

14. Leave under tea towels for 30 minutes.

15. Pre-heat the oven to 220c, 200 fan or gas 7.

16. Place the baking sheets with dough in the oven and bake for 20-25 minutes.

* I always use fresh yeast in my breadmaking. This can be available in supermarkets and bakeries that bake bread on site.  If you would prefer to use dry yeast instead for this recipe, then I believe 15 g fresh yeast converts to 4 g of dry, quick yeast.