Monday was a day apart. Perhaps that day in 1987 was a similar sort of day, when I wasn’t actually here to see trees felled, and the sea clamber up into houses like a white-fanged monster. Here the doors whistled all night. But it was the sea, endlessly rolling, throwing out the birds, spitting and frothing and covering the beach with spume and creeping ever nearer. At times it was a wall of water, rising up, drawing back. A boy was swept off the beach, just up the road at Newhaven. He’s still missing. There’s something sad and ghoulish about it, with sparse details (his age, 14, not much more), the sea with cruel intentions.
I tried to get a train. Up to London and down to Somerset. Off to see my dad after two years – down to the West Country, the Bristol channel, the other side. No one had slept because of the sea and the wind battering at our windows. 80 mph winds, the papers had predicted, and chaos on the roads and rail, and everyone had smiled because there’s always a joke about weathermen here. It’s either hysterical (the wrong kind of snow!) or underplaying things, like a blushing maiden shy of the clouds. Who can forget Michael Fish and his 1987 blunder about the hurricane that reduced Sevenoaks to one oak – “Don’t worry, it isn’t”, he said, in response to a lady phoning the BBC, worried there might be one on the way.
The taxi didn’t show up, so we hailed a cab in the street. The wind made me feel very light in the loafers. At one point a huge gust ripped open my coat, dragged my scarf on to the street and was unbuttoning my shirt in the manner of a really proactive first date. I had to hang on to a lamp post.
The waiting room at the station was full. My mum worked the room as if at a party. She wasn’t coming with me but was there to ‘see me off’ which normally means posting ten pound notes through the window as the train moves off, followed by a jar of peanut butter. But there were no trains. Sheila worked in Brighton and had been up since 5am ‘because of the wind’. Francoise was going to Liverpool where she was expected by a group of friends. Another lady in a strange hat wasn’t travelling at all and seemed to be there purely to socialize. We joked about drinking so much tea to pass the time that we’d end up murdering people ‘because of the caffeine’. There were no trains, it was clear. There had been no train at 9.25, 9.58, 10.25, 10.58, 11.25 and 11.58. Sheila was going to give it til 12.25, and if that one didn’t turn up she was going back to bed.
We went to a cafe round the corner to wait. When I saw what was on the menu, something in me softened. Beetroot and potato rösti with Weald smoked haddock and a poached egg. You can’t rush a poached egg. I watched him gently spooning it through the water. Could I leave it another day? The predictions had been right for once. The storm, known as St. Jude, had been tracked way back when it was just a few wisps over the Atlantic. They knew it was coming. They warned us: unless it’s essential don’t travel on Monday. It had exacted the kind of damage that brings public transport to its knees, with branches strewn on tracks (we were on a ‘branch line’ fittingly), a bus rearing up like a distressed pony. Gas explosions, wild seas, a lost boy.
I ate the rösti on the platform, the lumbering behind of the 12.25 still visible as it made its way to Lewes. Too full, too few carriages, too early. I got there as the doors were closing. I didn’t bother to protest. No one looked particularly jubilant inside. And it was suddenly a beautiful day. I sat and ate the best breakfast ever from a cardboard box made for the purpose. Ruby patties, fresh and clean, with a hint of horseradish. I think they must have cooked the potato and possibly grated the beetroot raw. The poached egg was rangy as a jelly fish, the yolk meltingly tender. Clumps of haddock fell away. I ate it all with my fingers. It didn’t occur to me, for once, to photograph it. The photo of the sea above was of a quiet day, the moon a quiet night. It was good to give up. I’m here for a while.
Beetroot and potato rösti
Inspired by Sea Salt in Seaford, East Sussex.
Heavily adapted from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, The Guardian Weekend, 5th October.
Rösti are Swiss, from Bern, and began life as a substantial dish for farmers, but this one below is not a ‘trad’ recipe. I’m not convinced about the egg. You could experiment. If you’re not a fan of beetroot, you could grate apple instead. And I suspect this recipe could be happily adapted for parsnips. Parsnips and apple are good bedfellows.
300g firm potatoes
2 medium beetroot
1 egg, lightly beaten (optional)
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
Olive oil and butter for frying
Put the potatoes (unpeeled) into a saucepan and add cold water just to cover. Salt lightly, bring to a boil, then cook for seven minutes and then drain. They should still offer some resistance to a knife. Once the potatoes are cool enough to handle, coarsely grate them into a large bowl. Peel the beetroot and grate it, raw, into the same bowl. Add the egg (or as much of it as you see fit) plenty of seasoning, and mix. Cook the rösti in batches. Heat a nonstick frying pan over a medium heat and add oil and a knob of butter to come up about 2mm up the sides. When the oil is hot, take a heaped dessertspoonful of the potato mixture and drop it into the pan and use a spatula to form it into a rough patty shape. Add several more spoonfuls without overcrowding the pan. Cook for eight to ten minutes, turning carefully once or twice, until golden brown and crisp all over. Serve nicely warm with horseradish, smoked haddock and a poached egg.