Roamer: Some more shakes of a fishy tale and angling for a taste of ginger ale

Lough Neagh (or Lough Erne) pollan
Lough Neagh (or Lough Erne) pollan

Roamer’s recent quest for a ginger ale plant – a traditional way of ‘growing’ ginger-flavoured lemonade in an earthenware pot or big bottle – was rewarded with various techniques, procedures and recipes but so far no one has admitted to possessing a living plant.

I’d dearly like to find one, and sup the ale, to experience first-hand what Macosquin-reader Ernie Nevin remembers as “a lovely fresh drink.”

Roamer’s mother nurtured a plant in her kitchen in the early 1950s, and whereas I wouldn’t “walk a million miles for one of your ales” I’ll happily drive to any part of the country to taste it again!

Meanwhile, several readers’ requests for information about Lough Neagh pollan – a unique little freshwater herring – has been more successful.

Though evidently the fish scaled further depths than Lough Neagh!

An e-mail from a Randalstown reader began “my wife informs me that she has seen pollan recently in our local Costcutter supermarket but says she hasn’t noticed them since, so they are still available.”

There were reminiscences on this page recently about pollan being sold by “travelling salesmen” in various parts of Northern Ireland, memories reflected in the letter from Randalstown - “I can remember my mother buying them at the door. There used to be men who came round selling them out of cars and vans, but pollan were never very popular, regarded as not having much taste and too many bones.”

While a number of the fish’s aficionados who’ve contacted Roamer feel quite different about its flavour, there’s no doubt about its availability, at the right time of the year.

Roamer phoned Una at the aforementioned Randalstown supermarket and asked her if she’d any pollan.

“We do stock them” she said “but they’re not in season at the moment.”

Lough Neagh pollan are only available there between March 1 (or sometimes St Patrick’s Day) and the end of June.

“They’re very popular” Una added, “It’s one of the older more traditional kind of things that we sell.”

Apparently a local chippy also offers pollan and chips and “they’re available frozen as well,” said Una, “but the frozen ones don’t taste the same as when they’re fresh.”

Regarding pollan’s well-concurred distinctive flavour she described it as “different” and agreed with some of the folk who defined it as “a bitter-sweet taste.”

We’ve already been told on this page a few weeks ago that Lough Neagh pollan are also found in Lough Erne, and in several other waterways in Ireland.

An e-mail from Fred Ternan began with an interesting introduction “a number of us with direct connections to wooden boat-building and boat usage on Lough Erne have recently formed a group called Lough Erne Heritage.”

Mr Ternan outlined the organisation’s goals “to preserve and promote the forgotten heritage of wooden boats, the people who built and used them and the culture relating thereto.”

His heritage group staged a display and gathered relevant information in Enniskillen library recently and there are still some lovely old pictures around the library’s website and Facebook page.

Sadly the exhibition is over for now, but Fred told me that it covered the history of wooden boat-building from the early log-boats, through cots to the wooden clinker-built boats. It also profiled many of the boat builders and outlined the various uses of their boats.

“One of the main uses was fishing for eels using long lines baited with perch fry and sometimes pollan,” explained Fred, adding “the pollan were caught in nets, kept fresh between leaves of the Flag Iris or ‘flaggan’ and on the same day as they were caught they were cut into small cubes and placed on the hooks when the line was being set that evening.”

Roamer will shortly be contacting Mr Ternan to find out more about his organisation, and hopefully to discover why the pollan were wrapped in Flag Iris leaves.

Perhaps this was to enhance the flavour, because Fred’s e-mail continued “they were an excellent bait on which many fine eels were caught. Of course those not required for bait were cooked and eaten making an excellent tea for the family. All I know about their cooking, I am afraid, is that a pan was used.”

Apparently eel fishing is not allowed on Lough Erne now “and I am told that there may be no pollan,” wrote Fred, adding a strong note of optimism “the pollan however may still be there. They were always a rather mysterious fish and could only be caught in certain parts of the lough at certain times of the year using a net with a particular size of mesh. This detail was only known to the fishermen and if applied today, pollan might still be caught.”

Lough Erne Heritage intends to bring all this seemingly forgotten information to the attention of the public through displays, talks and a website.

“Whilst wooden boat-building only came to an end around 1970-80 due to the introduction of glass fibre production, it is remarkable how little is now known about the subject,” Fred explained nostalgically “cots and clinker built boats were once commonplace on the lough.”

There’ll be more Erne yearnings here soon, though next Wednesday we’ll be revisiting the Belfast-of-yore evocatively recounted by the late, great, eclectic thespian, writer and traveller Richard Hayward.