Mahseer. Big Al's Chowder

John Leary
17th July 2008, 20:04
It can be claimed that going to see as a young man opens up many new horizons not least when it comes to food. My mother was an excellent cook but I cannot remember ever being served at home with anything that contained Indian spices or garlic.

Had I been prone to putting on weight then I suspect that I would have weighed in at much more than the ten and a half stones (67 Kg ) which was my weight when I first went to sea. I always ate like a horse but have never weighed more than eleven and a half stones (73 Kg) during the whole of my life.

Anyway I digress because working for Brocklebanks opened up a series of whole new Worlds for me, particularly when it came to food. Who can forget the Bombay duck, Kedgeree, hot cakes and syrup, devilled kidneys and best of all the curries that were always available at lunchtimes.

Since those days I have always been partial to Indian food although I have a powerful reaction to chilly that causes me to perspire heavily even before the first forkful reaches my mouth. I guess it is a small price to pay compared with the delight and pleasure of eating a Madras, Biyriani or Vindaloo curry! Most Indian restaurants do not come even close to the authentic dishes that we were served on board the Brocklebank ships on which I served.

I never ever sailed on a Brocklebank ship that was a poor feeder and never sailed with a Purser/Chief Steward that sought to restrict what was provided for the benefit of their own pocket. I did see boxes of stores and alcohol go ashore but never to my knowledge did I suffer as a consequence.

I sailed with many excellent Purser/Chief Stewards and judge that Alan Woods was up there amongst the best.

When I met him I would judge that “Big Al” as he was affectionately known was in his forties, although I might be wrong, was on the short side and going bald. What was noticeable was his extensive midriff that put a lot of stain on the waist band of his uniform trousers and shorts.

Big Al was ably assisted by the second steward Ron whose surname I cannot now remember, who was tall where Al was short, was slim where Al was rotund and had a full head of hair where Al was losing his rapidly.

It might be hard for some modern seafarers with their IPods, satellite television, DVD players and access to the Internet to appreciate how little there was in the way of shipboard entertainment on cargo ships in the 1960’s. Mahseer had a ships library, a dart board and table tennis table in the rear saloon and an Eddystone general purpose receiver in the bar. During my time on board one of the engineers had a record player which he left in the bar but that basically was it. This was a time even before film projectors were provided. To suggest it was bleak would be wrong because Mahseer was a friendly ship and most of the social life in the evenings and weekends involved cards, dominos, Mah-jong, the BBC World service and above all conversation and good humour.

Saturday evenings were always lively affairs particularly when the football results were announced by the BBC. The Chief Engineer (Jack Evans) and many of the other officers were passionate Liverpool supporters and the mood varied between euphoria (when they won) to bleak despair (when they lost) which I have to say wasn’t very often as this was during the managerial reign of the legendary Bill Shankley.

As the voyage progressed rumours and whispers circulated that Big Al was planning something special. Hard facts were difficult to obtain. It was suspected that full details were known only to a very small band of trusted confidents. Juniors like me tried hard to find out what was planned but the way in which the secret was guarded would have made any State Security Service very proud.

In an unguarded moment Ron the Second Steward let slip that the ingredients were being assembled and obtained from the ships chandlers at our ports of call, that the dish was such a speciality that it could not be entrusted to the ships cook but would be prepared by Big Al himself and that anyone allowed to taste it should consider themselves to be one of life’s chosen ones. You can imagine the suppressed excitement therefore when it was further revealed that the meal in question was to be a Chowder.

You patient reader, might at this point be forgiven for saying to yourself good lord is that what the fuss was all about but I had never heard of Chowder let alone tasted it and did not wish to announce to the whole ship what an ignoramus I was. So I kept quiet and waited.

One Saturday afternoon when we were at sea crossing the Indian Ocean, Big Al was, most unusually for him, to be seen working in the Galley. Questions as to what he was about were rebuffed with unusual terseness. Ron also was extremely reticent to enter into any sort of conversation claiming that he was extremely busy and could not spare the time to chat.

Attendance at dinner in the saloon that evening was poor. Senior ranks were noticeable by their absence leading to speculation amongst us juniors that tonight must be “it”. If the other juniors were invited they did not let on. All I knew was that if invitations had been sent out mine had been lost in the post.

On the Mahseer the galley, R/O’s and Pursers cabins, the serving pantry and the dining saloon were all on the Starboard side. It was necessary therefore when coming from the radio room which was located at boat deck level to come down the internal staircase, turn left to walk in front of the dining saloon doors and then turn right past the serving pantry and down the corridor to return to my cabin.

At about nine in the evening, having completed my watch and closed down the ships wireless station, I started to return to my cabin. What a surprise therefore to find that the door of the serving pantry was open with a number of senior officers standing in the corridor outside the pantry holding soup bowls in one hand and large pieces of fresh crusty bread in the other. Holding court in the pantry was Big Al ladle in hand dispensing largesse from a large, deep saucepan.

The smell was astonishing. I would defy anyone, even if they had just enjoyed a large meal not to feel hungry when enveloped by that heavenly bouquet of fish, herbs and freshly baked bread.

As I stopped and then lingered in front of the serving pantry door, I felt I was re-enacting the scene from the film Oliver Twist, when the young orphan stood in front of the Beagle, held out his dish and asked for more. I wasn’t an orphan, had already eaten a large meal earlier in the evening so wasn’t desperately hungry and certainly wasn’t small for my age but I must have had a pleading expression on my face as big Al asked me if I would like to taste his Chowder. My affirmative answer resulted in him plunging the ladle deep into the pan accompanied by a scraping sound as he recovered that ambrosia from its depths.

As I looked down into my steaming bowl and tasted its contents it became abundantly clear that Al’s Chowder was a fish stew. However that simple description fails to do it justice because over the next five minutes, my taste buds lit up in a frenzy of excitement as I embarked on a journey of discovery and pleasure.

There were pieces of pink fish, white fish, molluscs and prawns, all firm but beautifully tender. The liquor was opaque with the subtle taste of herbs. There was a slight sensation of heat as obtained from spices but nothing excessive. It was a masterpiece in its way deserving of a place in an art gallery had it been a painting or a piece of sculpture. It deserved a Michelin star long before the days of celebrity chefs and foodie gurus. Al stood there beaming, proud of his achievement and basking in the well deserved compliments. Having finished the first bowl I asked for a refill but was told in no uncertain terms to clear off and count my blessings. I walked away feeling at peace with the World savouring the after-taste.

That to my knowledge was the only time during my two deep-sea voyages on Mahseer that Big Al made Chowder. He always refused to reveal the secrets of its construction and I never sailed with him on any other Brocklebank ships after the Mahseer. Perhaps there are others who sailed with him who were fortunate enough to experience what I did in 1964 and remember it as I do.

Many, many years later, long after I had left the sea, I was fortunate enough whilst on a business trip to the USA, to find myself in a really famous Boston fish restaurant that was located in a converted warehouse on the Boston waterfront. Featured prominently as a house speciality was its World famous Boston Chowder. I gave into temptation and ordered it as my main course.

To say that I was disappointed would be an understatement because the coagulated, fishy broth served in Boston was a mere shadow of what I had experienced on Mahseer. Since then whenever there has been Chowder on a restaurant menu I have avoided it in tribute to my memory of Big Al’s masterpiece.

Philthechill
18th July 2008, 15:32
John! Brilliant piece of nostalgia in its finest form---------i.e. food nostalgia!

I too was fortunate to sail with Alan Woods and experienced his magnificent chowder. It was on "Mangla" between (looking feverishly at his Discharge Book for the relevant dates!) 6/1/69 and 12/6/69, on a voyage not to be forgotten (details of which I put on Brock's Forum). Briefly, to save your maybe trying to find it, it was about one of our engineers going deolali in The Seychelles.

Alan, in his wisdom, announced, post drama, "I'm going to make a chowder tomorrow!"
"Well whoopee to that!", I thought, "He's going to have to go some to beat Ernie Prevost's salmon chowder!"

Ernie used to make his famed salmon chowder just as soon as whatever ship he was on was clear of Port Said and was well-and-truly homeward-bound.

There, of course, lay the difference. Ernie's chowder was based on salmon whereas Alan's was based on anything, and everything, which swam in, crawled along the bottom of, or was merely an occupant of, the sea!

As we were sailing from The Seychelles the following day we couldn't have a full-blown "all hands there" party but that didn't really matter, too much, as we were all assured we would be able to sample some of this wonderful chowder!
Before we sailed Alan purchased muchias local fishy produce so he didn't need to rely on whatever was in the fish room for his ingredients.

Talk about The Witches in Macbeth and their bubbling cauldrons!! They had nothing on Alan, and his huge aluminium dixie, filled to the brim with the most heavenly-smelling (pause while he wipes the drool from his lips at the thoughts of this long-ago feast acting on parts of his brain long thought to be out-of-commission!!) amalgamation of fish, prawns, crab, spices and herbs gently simmering away, overseen by a heavily-perspiring Alan who would chide anyone, with the temerity to ask for a pre-serving-up-taste, with a few gentle words of approbation such as, "Go on f**k-off out of it you 'orrible t**t! NOBODY! and I mean NOBODY gets a taste until it's ready!! Now go on! F**k-off before I chuck the whole lot over the wall!!!"

Then the moment of truth arrived!! We, who had not sampled the delights of Alan's chowder before, were promised, by the lucky people who HAD tasted it, that it really was something special so, understandably, we were all looking forward with great anticipation to trying this ambrosia!

It truly was a work-of-art, rather than simply a meal, and Alan was as proud of it as any new father with his newborn child and knew that all the praise, heaped on his balding head, was absolutely genuine.

His making the chowder, at that particular time, when we had all just gone through a very traumatic incident was pure genius. All the more so when it's realised that Alan, himself, had had a knife held at his throat by the deranged 3rd Engineer during the incident!

So, John, I can endorse your nostalgic recollection of Alan Wood's chowder, absolutely, up, down and sideways and thank you very much for making my mouth flow like Victoria Falls at the memory!!!! Salaams,(Hippy) Phil

John Rogers
18th July 2008, 17:00
Both stories made my mouth water,even the smell of the spices brought tears to my eyes. Maybe Al found the recipe in New Orleans because it sounds more like a Cajun Gumbo.

John.

John Leary
21st July 2008, 20:16
Phil and John
Good to hear from you both.
Phil, your recollection was just how I remembered Al in the galley. He clearly hadn't changed and was still as guarded about his creation as when I
was privaledged to taste it.
John, never having tasted a Cajun Gumbo I cannot say with certainty whether it was akin to Al's dish. A rose by any other name etc, etc. What I can say is that travel and time spent in the Merchant Navy certainly widened my horizons about food to the point where I even tried snails in Cyprus during my time on Manaar and if I'm honest they were much better than I expected!
Regards John

John Rogers
21st July 2008, 21:23
I have eaten a few snails in my time and I enjoyed them,lots of vinegar and pepper make them go down better.

John Rogers
21st July 2008, 21:29
Try this little gem.

NEW ORLEANS FILE GUMBO

This is one of the richest Cajun gumbos, and makes a hearty and unusual dinner. Be sure to include plenty of sausage from the pot, along with a piece of chicken in each serving.

THE GUMBO BASE:

1 lb. Creole or smoked sausage, sliced 1/2" thick
1/2 lb. lean baked ham, cut into 1/2" cubes
1 fryer, cut up
1/2 lb. shrimp, peeled
1/2 lb. white fish fillets
1/2 c. chopped green pepper
1/2 c. thinly sliced green scallion
2 tbsp. finely minced parsley
1 tbsp. finely minced garlic
2 c. chopped onion
1 lg. ham bone, cut into 3" lengths (optional)

THE ROUX:

2/3 c. vegetable oil
2/3 c. flour

THE LIQUID AND THE SEASONINGS:

2 qt. cold water
3 1/2 tsp. salt (less if cooking with ham bone)
1 1/4 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1 tsp. dried thyme
3 whole bay leaves
2 1/2-3 tbsp. file powder
1/8 tsp. cayenne
1/2 tsp. dried marjoram

After assembling the ingredients for the gumbo base, heat the oil in a heavy 7-8 quart pot or kettle over high heat. Brown the chicken parts in the hot oil, turning several times to ensure even browning. When the chicken is brown, remove it to a hearted platter and place, uncovered, in a preheated 175 degree oven to keep it warm.

Make the roux by gradually adding the flour to the oil in the pot, stirring constantly. Cook over low heat until a dark brown roux (the color of peanut butter) is formed. Do not try to hurry this step. The roux is the most important part of any gumbo base, and will take approximately 20-30 minutes of stirring to get it right. It's worth the wait.

When the roux reaches the right color, quickly add the sausage, onion, green pepper, scallion tops, ham, parsley and garlic. Continue cooking over low heat for 10 minutes more, still stirring, then add 1/4 cup of the water, the reserved chicken pieces and all the seasonings except the file powder; mix thoroughly. Gradually stir in the rest of the water. Raise the heat and bring to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer the gumbo for 50 minutes to 1 hour, or until the chicken parts are tender. Stir frequently, taking care not to break the pieces of chicken.

Before serving, bring the gumbo back to a boil and add the shrimp and fish. Simmer just until the shrimp turn pink, about 10-12 minutes. Remove the pot from the heat and let the simmer die down. Add the file powder and stir. Let the gumbo stand in the pot for 5 minutes after adding the file, then serve in gumbo bowls or deep soup bowls over boiled rice.

If this recipe makes too much for your family to eat at one time, take only the amount you want to serve and add the file to it. The leftovers, or "lagniappe" (another marvelous meal), should be stored in the refrigerator, and the file added after reheating.

John Rogers
21st July 2008, 21:30
Another simple one to try.

CHICKEN AND FISH GUMBO
2 tbsp. oil
1 c. chopped onions
1/3 c. flour
1/2 c. white wine or chicken broth
1/2 lb. sliced mushrooms
4 tsp. lemon juice
1 1/2 lb. cod filet, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 1/2 tbsp. Worcestershire
3 lbs. chicken parts
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1 1/2 c. water
2 1/2 tsp. thyme
2 green peppers, seeded and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1 lb. tomatoes, chopped
1 1/2 tsp. paprika
In a large saucepan, heat oil until hot. Add chicken; brown on all sides. Remove from saucepan. To oil remaining in pot, add onion and garlic; saute until tender, about 3 minutes. Add flour; cook and stir until well blended. Gradually add water and wine, stirring constantly until thickened, about 2 minutes.

John Leary
22nd July 2008, 17:47
Hi John
Both recipes sound great. Will have to give them a try sometime when I am ravenously hungry. The ingredient "file powder" is unfamiliar. Is it uniquely American or does it to your knowledge have a UK equivalent?
Best regards
John

John Rogers
22nd July 2008, 19:14
Here is some info on the file powder.

All About Filé Powder

by Sandra Bowens


"It's a sin to eat gumbo without filé." Zatarain's

To those outside of Louisiana, the subject of gumbo may seem a bit mysterious. Unusual words like okra and crawfish get tossed around casually. Topics such as the color of a roux or which brand of tasso to use can cause the sparks of a great debate to fly. Most everyone within the Bayou State will agree, however, there is no voodoo to a great gumbo, just a little magic powder from the sassafras leaf.

The sassafras tree, sassafras albidum, is native to the Eastern United States and is still found widely along the Gulf Coast. It may grow to 20 or 30 feet with distinctive leaves that take on three different mitten-like shapes. A tea is sometimes brewed from the roots. Both the bark and the roots were long used to flavor root beer, giving it that familiar taste and aroma.

Now we know that the roots and bark contain the carcinogen safrole so usage has declined. Some folks insist that if it didn't hurt their ancestors it won't hurt them. Distilled essential oils are still used cosmetically.

Lucky for us, the leaves do not contain safrole so we can use them safely. Filé powder, sometimes called gumbo filé, (say fee-lay) will thicken a gumbo and add a distinctive kick of flavor. It is a simple ingredient made from ground sassafras leaves. That's all, nothing more.

Although it is closely associated with Creole cooking, the Choctaw Indians were using filé powder when the Cajuns arrived in Louisiana from Acadia in the 1600's.

With an earthy taste that is similar to thyme combined with savory, ground sassafras will lend a unique flavor to stews, sauces and other hearty dishes. It also serves as a thickening agent but should only be stirred in at the end of cooking. If allowed to boil, filé powder will cause a liquid to become stringy and unappetizing.

One trick I learned while living in Louisiana is to pass the bottle of filé powder at the table with the Tabasco. This way, folks can add as much or as little as they like.

Follow this link to learn how to make your own filé powder or look for it along with the other spices at well-stocked supermarkets.

John Leary
23rd July 2008, 12:51
John
Many thanks. I've learnt something new. Now I have to find a sassafras tree!
Regards
John

John Rogers
23rd July 2008, 13:56
Its Your quest,follow it. and have lots of fun doing it.

John.