Walking in another’s shoes A Thousand Moons Sebastian Barry

Cultural appreciation or appropriation? There is so much discussion about when admirable cultural appreciation shades into inappropriate appropriation. Concern about when artistic inspiration and interpretation descends into insulting, simplistic stereotype. Determination to support creative freedom while preventing promulgation of hostility towards any group of people.

In A Thousand Moons the author Sebastian Barry, a white, sixty-five-year-old Irish family man writes in the voice of a Native American seventeen-year-old orphan girl, and from the first sentence Winona-Ojinjintka is present, a person with a complex history and a compelling, convincing voice.

This novel is set after Days without End, but it is not necessary to have read that book to follow what happens in this one. The characters are making a precarious living in a smallholding in Western Tennessee soon after the end of the Civil War. The sort of living John Grisham described in A Painted House, or the way the Waltons lived on Spencer’s Mountain. The sort of living where you just get by if nothing goes wrong, but something always does go wrong eventually: bad weather, crop, animal or human disease, wide-spread harvest gluts or dearths all threaten a small farm’s economic survival. And that’s in a place and time where people can rely on the rule of law. Which was not true in Western Tennessee in the early 1870s.

What goes wrong in A Thousand Moons is violent, and cruel, and all too credible. Winona’s reactions, too, carry conviction. Her self-questioning and confusion, fear and determination are believable – and distressing. Sebastian Barry writes with such compassion, his identification with Winona’s point of view is total, I cannot believe any reader could avoid being carried into her world, her time – and suffering with her.

For me this book is a triumphant vindication of the right of an author to create and inhabit any character, to produce a work that increases a reader’s understanding of human nature. That the writer will have done the necessary research cannot be enough, s/he must walk in their characters’ shoes. Winona’s mother used the phrase a thousand moons to describe impossibly long time and distance. Sebastian Barry has walked a thousand moons in Winona’s shoes. As his readers we are privileged to go along for some of the journey.

I read the book in two nights, and yes, I’m reading it again. For many of the reasons I’ve listed before, but mainly because the characters Sebastian Barry has created deserve that much respect. I want to enjoy again the moments of delight that he describes in Winona’s voice, to rejoice in the loving care her hotch-potch found family have for one another, and to hear again their conversations.

Posted in book review | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Reading a play like a novel. Hamlet (Shakespeare) and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead (Tom Stoppard)

Stories come to us in so many ways – through our eyes as printed or electronic type, through our ears whether broadcast or podcast – through eyes and ears in stage, TV, video, film productions. And some of these ‘deliveries’ can be paused while we reflect, check back or take a break. Others plough ahead whether they have our attention or not, their story’s momentum continues in their time, not ours. So is it possible to read a playscript as one reads a novel? Does reading a play’s script improve the experience of watching it? And if it does, is it better to read a script before or after seeing the play?

These questions were on my mind while I pursued the theme I started to follow when I read Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet. In that novel she contends that Shakespeare gave his dead son fresh life in the character of Hamlet, as well as creating a memorial to Hamnet. I last read Hamlet when I was at school, and was amused this week that the copy I picked from the shelf at home was one my daughter had bought and used while studying for her A levels. But is Hamlet the man Shakespeare would like his son to have become? I can’t answer that question, Shakespeare gave Hamlet both determination to do the right thing, and difficulty in deciding what that right thing should be. He famously didn’t give him a happy resolution to his quandaries.

At first I checked my reading at unfamiliar words and consulted the footnotes, but soon found that the flow of dialogue made most of the meaning clear. And so many of the phrases are familiar – if Shakespeare truly intended the play to create a memorial for his son, then its language has been a lasting one, in almost every scene I recognised an idiom or expression that is in common use today. Did I read the play like a novel? Eventually, yes – but as a novel I’d heard abbreviated into a radio play, the outlines of the plot and characters were familiar, only details could surprise.

I read Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead on my Kindle. While I read, I saw again the Old Vic production that I’d watched, streamed to a local cinema, in 2017. Daniel Radcliffe played Rosencrantz, Joshua McGuire Guildenstern and David Haig was the Player King. I saw their faces as I read their parts; and saw them against the set in that production. So I didn’t read the script as a novel, I read it both as a reminder of watching a drama – and as an extension to that drama. The recent reading of Hamlet gave more context to the modern play than my hazy memory had done; and being able to pause, and also to read Stoppard’s stage directions, reinforced detail I’d missed. As I watched the play I (of course) developed a strong sympathy for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, that emotion flooded back when I started to read the script, so I was immersed in the narrative faster.

For me the tragedy of the characters of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is that they have no past, and no future; they have only each other, and no one else to either care for or be cared for by. The coin tossing, and which-hand-guessing, pointless pastimes while they can do nothing to affect events, is given further poignancy in our present Covid isolation. And the violation of the laws of chance emphasises their isolation from any familiar world.

Is it possible to read a playscript as one reads a novel? That’s not what happened with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead, but for both plays reading the script provided an emotional experience, beyond simply following the story of what happened next. Does reading the script enhance watching the play? It did this time. And will I reread these two scripts? I hope so: both use language in interesting ways, both evoke emotional responses, both are witty. And both required me to concentrate to follow them.

Posted in book review | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Is a writer’s world basically evil or fundamentally sound? Death at the Dolphin Ngaio Marsh

Some crime writers write as if evil is omnipresent and lurks below the most innocuous surface, everyone is capable of crime, and nearly everyone has a secret in their past that they would commit a crime to conceal. I’d put Gladys Mitchell (the Mrs Bradley series) and Ruth Rendell writing as Barbara Vine (for example in A fatal inversion) in this camp.

Others write as if they feel the world is fundamentally okay, people of goodwill are in the majority, crimes are unusual and happen as an outcome of unusual circumstances.  I place Marjorie Allingham and Ngaio Marsh in this group.

And maybe that is why I enjoy re-reading Marsh and Allingham’s books, because of the feeling that after some shocking and unfortunate occurrence has been sorted out (by Roderick Alleyn or Albert Campion), the surviving characters will return to their constructive and happy lives – apart from the villains, naturally.

So after reading Hamnet I turned to Death at the Dolphin by Ngaio Marsh.  Or rather returned. My copy of this book is a battered hardback labelled ‘Lancashire libraries – removed from service,’ and although on the slipcover the price is declared to be 52 ½ p (aha! – was 10/6 and the coinage changed), 10p has been scribbled on the title page. I lived in Lancashire in the late 1970s, so I’ve owned this tattered copy for more than forty years. It is packed on a shelf with a dozen or fifteen more of Ngaio Marsh’s stories, and may not have been disturbed (except for dusting, of course!) for a couple of decades.

I re-read this book many times in the past, but not recently. However, it was in the back of my mind all the time I was reading Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet, because Ngaio Marsh’s story is shaped round the discovery of a glove, made by John Shakespeare for his grandson.

Ngaio Marsh loved the theatre, and much of the first part of the book is given to a loving description of the rescue and restoration of a decrepit theatre – The Dolphin. It is hard not to believe that the theatre exists, that if one walked up from the Thames one wouldn’t stumble into Wharfinger’s Lane, follow it round a corner then find oneself facing the caryatids, dolphins and scrolled ironwork that frame the entrance to the Dolphin. Peregrine Jay, the chief protagonist, is a playwright and director whose enthusiasm and professional concerns are both endearing and believable. As I expect in Ngaio Marsh’s tales there is a satisfactory romance between two of her characters; when violence and death occur, they are shocking, and are vividly described; and the plot twists satisfactorily while the crime is untangled by Alleyn and Fox.

But, reading with a more critical eye, there are faults. Ngaio Marsh was a New Zealander who lived in England in the 1920s and 30s; although most of her books are set in England, even books set in later decades maintain the class structure, and speech patterns of that time. In Death at the Dolphin there are typecast cockneys, which just seems lazy; but also racial comments and an elision of homosexuality and paedophilia which are both disturbing and objectionable.

Will I read the book again? And any more of those on ‘her’ shelf?  Probably, but while enjoying the cosiness of an English village returning to an even keel, or the excitement of another production (and murder) at the Dolphin, (Light Thickens); I hope I’ll be alert to prejudice, and careful not to allow a former age’s bigotry to colour my own thoughts.

Posted in book review | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Why do I re-read a book? Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

Because I enjoyed being in the book’s world so much that I want to go back there, spend time with the characters (who wouldn’t want to talk to one of Pern’s dragons?).

Because the book has such an enthralling plot line that I raced through it and now I want to see what I missed (Alan Furst’s WW2 stories).

Because I couldn’t get into the book at first, so I skipped forward, then got hooked and read to the end; now I need to fill the gaps (true confession – that was how I read Captain Corelli’s Mandolin).

Because I didn’t understand it all the first time, and its subject or idea is something I want to know more about (popular economics books, textbooks, Lincoln in the Bardo…).

To see how the author does ‘it’: – and ‘it’ could be … hooks the reader (well this reader), or swaps point of view (Nora Roberts turns on a sixpence, or a paragraph – and carries the reader with her), or uses interior monologue (Sarah Moss), or lays down plot points without being obvious (Fred Vargas), or builds a world in a different time/place/reality from the one I live in (Madeleine Miller), or swaps time frames without confusion (and Maggie O’Farrell is a star practitioner).

So what about Hamnet? Shall I re-read it? I am re-reading it: recognising the home squeezed between the houses in Stratford, walking with Agnes to collect herbs, running with Hamnet to find help for his sister, and yearning to spend more time with William, hear him speak, read what he writes, learn how he thinks. Maggie O’Farrell’s creation slides seamlessly and convincingly, into the cracks between what I already know, of Shakespeare and his time, and what I surmise.

It is no plot-spoiler to say that the first half of the book is a tragedy, the author traces and describes the paths that lead the protagonists inevitably towards a death. But those routes are described in such detail that we readers accompany each character, feel their emotions, sense what they sense, inhabit their world.

In the second part of the book the surviving characters have to do just that – survive – despite, for some of them, crippling, mind-numbing grief. Knowing some of the historical record left me even more unsure than I might have been otherwise, about whether relationships and personalities, could ever recover. I found the end of the book deeply satisfying and (once again) convincing.

Deeply satisfying – but I find myself not sated, I’m rereading Hamnet.  And for which of the reasons listed above? Almost all of them – but chiefly the first.

Posted in book review | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Fresh thoughts in January – Butternut squash rissoles


Something to use up a small butternut squash? This one seemed to have been dropped or (of course) squashed. There’s a squished bit on the side. A veggie main or a carnivorous husband’s side dish. Slightly spicy so it goes well with left over mango salsa. Not quite vegan but peanut butter would substitute nicely for the egg.


Ingredients (quantities approximate)

Small squash, maybe 500g? Rind cut off and seeds (and the squished bit!) removed.

Two small onions (or one large), skin removed.

Level dessert spoon of ground cumin

Level dessert spoon of ground coriander

Black pepper, ground

Fresh coriander, leaves roughly chopped

Heaped dessert spoon plain flour

1 large egg

I made these in the food processor, but you could grate the squash, and fine chop the onion.


  1. I cut the squash and onion into pieces small enough to push through the feed tube on the food processor, and used the grating disc to grate both.
  2. It was a loose enough mix that I could replace the grating disc with the rotating blades, so I used quick pulses of the processor to mix in first the leaves, spice and flour, then the egg.
  3. I used floured hands to shape heaped dessertspoons of the mixture into ten patties, and left them to firm up for an hour or so. (I use an old umbrella type muslin cover to protect them while they wait).
  4. I cooked them in the centre of a fan oven at 180oC. I used non-stick parchment to line a roasting tray, so that I needed a very thin layer of vegetable oil. I preheated the tray and oil.
  5. I left them for about 30 minutes. If husband hadn’t asked me to clarify something, I’d probably have taken them out 5 minutes sooner. But the crisp edging tasted very good!
  6. As the photo shows I’d made the salsa with mango and kiwi – and surprised myself with how good it tasted.IMG_20190117_190434300


Posted in cookery, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Avoiding gluttony in an Autumn glut

grapes 4                Ironic that successful crops bring such mixed emotions.  Through summer and autumn I rejoice and enjoy raspberries, salads, courgettes and beans, and more beans, and more beans (how many recipes do you know for beans?).  And apples, so many apples this year.  But if I have too much of a particular crop to eat this week, so do most people who have gardens.  And if I lean over the gate to offer red apples to passing children I may be misunderstood.

My mother says, “Freeze, jam, store.”  And for years I did what I learned we should when I was a child; I made jams, jellies and chutneys, bottled and froze fruit and vegetables, found space to lay out apples and pears.  BUT.

But we are past the age of jam sandwiches, rarely eat jam-filled Victoria sponge or jam tarts. We are so worried about teeth, waistlines, health we try hard to pretend we don’t enjoy sugar, and keep the ration we allow ourselves for richer treats.  Preserving with sugar (or, as we did when I was young, salting shredded runner beans) doesn’t match the way we try to eat today.

And although frozen raspberries keep their flavour, I’d rather eat raspberries fresh from the garden every day, more than once a day, for a few weeks and enjoy the texture of the fresh fruit, which is lost in the freezer.  Only the youngest beans freeze well, but a mixture of sizes tastes great cooked fresh from the garden.  So I freeze complete cooked dishes, but not garden crops.

I come from a farming family.  There was always room to store produce.  But storing apples takes a lot of space.  And time, both to wrap and lay them out carefully, and weekly, to inspect and discard any that are spoiling.   I have no apple loft, and other ways to spend my time.

I know, I’m lucky.  I live in a time and place where I can go and buy fresh both in- and out-of-season produce all year round.  Or choose from a huge selection of frozen vegetables.  And I do save some apples and pears.  But I’m still wracked with guilt, can’t bear to waste such glorious food.  Which is why I’ve been searching for grape recipes.  Wonderful grapes this year, a bit slow to ripen, a little tart – but beautiful.grape biscuits

Grapes added to salads, grapes in a sauce over fish or chicken, and these savoury grape, rosemary and blue cheese shortbread biscuits. I adapted a recipe I found at ‘cooking with Caitlin’ 😦http://www.cookingwithcaitlin.com/recipes/rosemary-shortbread-appetizer).

Around 50 loose grapes, washed.

8 oz flour

3 oz blue cheese (I used stilton, if I’d used a sharper one, like Danish blue, I might reduce the amount of cheese and up the amount of butter).

5 oz butter

4 large sprigs rosemary, leaves stripped from stems

1 level tablespoon of sugar

Salt and pepper

Put everything except the grapes into a food processor and pulse at high speed until the mixture is a smooth, soft dough. (You could rub in the mix by hand, in which case you’d need to fine chop the rosemary).  Add more pepper to taste.

Switch on oven to 180oC.  Line 2 baking trays with non-stick paper (I use the heavy duty re-usable sheets, and wash them in the dishwasher).

Make walnut size balls of dough by rolling it between the palms of your hands, space out on baking sheets (between 20 and 24).

Press down on each ball with a fork, then press in 2 or 3 grapes. Add a sprinkle of salt.

Bake for 30 minutes (in my fan oven I reduced the temperature to 160oC), until biscuits are lightly coloured and grapes have just begun to burst.  Cool on rack.

They smell and taste brilliant, but I’d probably enjoy them just as much without the grapes.  (And in case you’re wondering, other people make much nicer wine than I can. I have tried).

Posted in cookery | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Cabbages or Butterflies?

Into the vegetable garden for a cabbage to make spicy cabbage and rice.  And yee-uch! My beautiful row of savoys is no more. I’ve been gloating over them for weeks, perfect tight globes securely swelling inside dark green, wavy edged, protectively tough, outer leaves. But the defence has been penetrated, the core s perforated.  Gardener’s hubris has been punished yet again.

perforated cabbage

I realise caterpillars have eaten through the outer leaves.  No – I didn’t keep checking for eggs.  And small slugs have slimed through the useful tunnels, and, oh yes, some still lurk just inside the mantle of the larder the green worlds so kindly provide.  Then, when I look for the fork to uproot and salvage what I can, I see the robin.

It’s perched on the fork handle, head tilted one way then the other; hurry up, find something for me to eat.  I reach for the handle and the bird flutters just a yard away, perches on a tomato support where it can keep a close eye on what I dig up.

Useless bird!  It won’t eat slugs, snails or caterpillars.  Just watches for worms.  That’s all I see blackbirds and robins catching in our garden.  Feathered vandals hopping across the grass with beakfuls of worms.  And vandals isn’t too harsh.  Have you ever weeded and tidied a narrow border, before covering the soil in a generous layer of compost?  Maybe not Ritz standard but better than a Holiday Inn bed.  And then what do you see?  Blackbirds working along that same bed, busy beaks shovelling compost onto the path, hoicking out seedlings, scattering debris.  And removing earthworms.

I don’t want them to steal the worms!  How are all the nutrients in that carefully made compost going to be mixed into the soil without them?

But then… There’s birdsong, and the blackbird’s is one of the most beautiful. And I love to see butterflies, you can’t have butterflies without caterpillars.  And robins probably eat slug and snail eggs.  And anyway, what right do I have to take a utilitarian view of a bird’s existence?  I don’t like to picture myself in our conservatory, a Benthamite in her Panopticon, scrutinising the actions of garden inmates to ensure they are all working to my vision of the greater good. So I smile at the robin, turn over a couple of forkfuls of soil for him, then dig out a cabbage.  I throw all the looser leaves, plus a couple of outer tight-coiled layers, with their inmates, onto the compost heap.  And there’s still, untouched, nearly enough to make spicy cabbage and rice for two.  Especially if I add a handful of green beans, and it’s that time of year – every meal has to include green beans or courgettes. So here’s the recipe, for two people.  (It’s based on one I found at http://www.madhurasrecipe.com/veg-rice/Spicy-Cabbage-Rice , if you prefer to see the original).  It’s a very tolerant recipe – lots of variation is possible!

1 baby cup* long grain rice

A small cabbage, core discarded, leaves shredded.

Possibly a handful of green beans, chopped into short lengths,

Sunflower or similar light vegetable oil

1 tblespn Cashews or peanuts, roasted.

3 curry leaves, finely chopped

1 medium clove garlic, finely chopped

1 tsp cumin seeds

1 med red chilli pepper, seeds removed, finely chopped

1 tsp coriander seeds, crushed

½ teaspoon mustard powder

½ tsp turmeric powder

Juice of ½ a small lemon

Small bunch fresh coriander

Cook the rice in a covered non-stick saucepan with 2 ½ cups water until all the water is absorbed.  Pour a little oil into a non-stick frying pan, heat and add cumin, coriander, garlic, chilli and curry leaves. Cook on a medium heat until you can smell spices and garlic and chilli begin to colour.  Add mustard, turmeric, shredded cabbage and several grinds of black pepper, stir in and cover. Cook for about 5 mnutes until cabbage has wilted and begun to colour at edge.  Mix in cooked rice, beans if used (I microwaved mine for a minute first), nuts and lemon juice, recover and cook for further five minutes on low heat. Put into warm bowl and garnish with coriander leaves.

spicy cabbage and rice





Good as a side with a simple serving of meat or fish for a carnivorous husband, good as a main for his vegetarian wife. Enhanced by mango chutney.  Also goes well with egg, I think of it as a variant on bubble and squeak.




*Does everyone have a Peter Rabbit baby cup lurking in the back of the cupboard?  In case you don’t I checked – it’s 5 fl oz.

Posted in cookery | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

You can’t blame the white chocolate and lemon curd wedding cake

A glorious summer afternoon, on my way to a river walk before tea and cake with my brother (I always bring the cake).  Spaniel and I enjoying the breeze with the top down for the swooping drive beside the South Downs towards the Arun.  And horror!  In the rear view window I see an untethered carrier bag fly from between the car seats, miss (thank God!) the windscreen of the car following and disappear into the hedgerow, concealed by foaming traveller’s joy and Queen Anne’s lace.

No chance to stop and retrieve it, we’re in a stream of traffic and there’s nowhere safe to park.  And in my head a stream of abject apology and self-justifying bluster:  “I don’t do things like that.  I don’t leave litter, I clear up litter.”   I collect discarded Styrofoam coffee cups while I walk the dog and join with my neighbours in condemning the customers of a certain drive-in takeaway burger bar.  It seems where we live is just the distance you drive before finishing your drink.  The cups are all the same (large) size, I wonder if there is another circle of roadside litter, closer to the takeaway, made up of smaller size cups?

And, when I stumble over mattresses discarded in field entrances along the lanes of the South Downs, I have to remind myself how pleased I am not to live in a police state; lest I find myself wishing for CCTV on every gateway.  But I don’t leave litter, I tell myself.  Then the view of the soaring, tumbling carrier bag plays again in my brain.  And another thought.  David Sidaris lives very close to where I was driving.  Now I’m one of the antisocial litter louts he describes in his books and on the radio.  Total shame.  I’ve reached my brother’s when another thought hits me.  ‘Does it make things better or worse that it was a bag for life?’

Resolve to do better, and put the portion of white chocolate and lemon curd wedding cake that I’ve brought to chill while the spaniel dives in and out of the river.

wedding cake

The top two tiers were made using a recipe I adapted from the Epicurious website, so here’s a link to the original.  In fact I made 5 cakes altogether, 3 white, 2 dark chocolate, as the bride wanted to use the cake as dessert.  The quantities in the original recipe were for baking in three 9 inch tins, each of the tiered cakes was baked in a loose bottomed tin, I used 25 cm (just over 9 inches), and 20 cm.  The original recipe is from the US, so here are the quantities I used, smaller size cake in brackets.  Conversion factor is (20/25 = 0.8) squared = 0.64 to give cakes of same depth – hopefully!  To make the cake itself lemony I put the zest in the cake, rather than in the lemon curd.

11.5 oz (7.5 oz)                  SR flour

1              ( ½ ) teasp           baking powder

I omitted the recommended salt

4 oz        (2 ½ oz)                white chocolate

8 fl oz    (5 fl oz)                                 double cream

5 fl oz    (3 fl oz)                 milk

1              ( ½ ) teasp           vanilla extract

4 ½ oz    (3 oz)                     butter (softened but NOT runny)

14 oz      (9 oz)                     caster sugar

4              (3 and omit milk) large eggs, separated.

Zest from 4 (3) lemons

Assembling the cake took a while, so I switched on the oven when I was half way through – 350o F or 180oC if baking in 3 separate tins in which case the time was 35 minutes.  In one large tin I turned the temperature down to 160oC (fan oven) then 140 oC after 40 minutes, and the cakes took 1 ½ hours and 70 minutes respectively.  Lots of checking with metal skewer after ¾ time.

Grease and line tin(s) with non-stick paper.

Sift flour and baking powder twice.

Melt chocolate in half the cream.  I used microwave in 10 then 5 second bursts, stirring after each one.  White chocolate melts (and burns) so easily, warming it with the cream in a 1 pint plastic pudding basin is the most successful method I’ve ever found.

Stir in rest of cream, milk and vanilla extract.

I use a stand mixer so I beat the egg whites first (detail below), transfer to a clean bowl and save washing up.

Whip egg whites to soft peaks, add ½ the sugar continue beating until stiff bit not dry.

Put in large clean bowl, and swap beater to (in my case) ‘K’ beater.  If you haven’t switched the oven on yet, do it now.

Beat butter with lemon zest and rest of sugar until fluffy. Beat in yolks.

On slow speed add alternate flour and cream mixtures, beginning and ending with flour.

Fold in the beaten egg whites, by hand with large metal spoon.

Place in tin(s) and into centre of oven

When baked through, place upside down on rack and allow to cool. I put in freezer and set crumb before slicing horizontally twice to fill with white chocolate ganache (I used icing sugar in addition to the white chocolate to stiffen the ganache), and lemon curd. (This is also the time to put in pillars). I froze the filled cake to make it easier to handle before adding more ganache to the top and a scraping to the sides.  I froze everything to take to the wedding (150 miles away) and assembled it chilled before the reception, using white ganache as ‘glue’.

I made double quantities of the curd in the Epicurious recipe, it was enough for 3 cakes and some left over, but I did not top the cakes with curd.

wedding cake2

The bottom tier was a 12 inch dark chocolate sponge, with two layers of ganache, and coated with melted chocolate.  I made one spare dark chocolate sponge, 10 inch diameter.

There were 73 guests, and ½ one dark cake and the smallest white chocolate tier left over, which I refroze.  It tasted fine when I checked before giving portions to those who missed the day.  And I didn’t mention the carrier bag to my brother.

Posted in cookery | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Roses all the way

It was to be a summer wedding, in an old tythe barn.  A country wedding, meadow flowers, cottage garden blossoms, hessian, twine and lanterns. No actual milkmaids, but old zinc buckets, churns and lanterns.  An illusional setting in the tradition of Le Petit Trianon, Sunday evening TV Hardy adaptations, but hopefully much happier outcomes than either.

rose 3

And we needed roses, not in bouquets nor formal arrangements, but for their scent.  And their romance.

Le Roman de la Rose.  The title promises to explain everything, in a guide to courtly love that was written nearly eight hundred years ago, steeped in tradition and myth dating from more than a thousand years before that.  The rose, symbol of love and commitment in Persian tradition, symbol of beauty, passion and sacrifice to ancient Greeks and Romans.  And source of a perfume used by Cleopatra to ensure Marc Antony could never forget her.

That fragrance!  Unlike so many of our flowers, whose sere pressed petals smell faintly of hay, but little more; dried rose petals keep their scent.  Run your hands through a bowl of them and the fragrance rises, a transport to summer gardens.  So there were to be baskets of rose petals, ribbons of petals strewn around the home baked cakes that were an alternative to canapés.

And rose petals have a flavour like their perfume.  As a sugared petal dissolves on the tongue, at first the only taste is sweetness, and then, elusive but unmistakable, it is rose.  So the wedding cake was to be decorated with drifts of sugared rose petals.

roses 7

The roses in our garden bloom profusely in the last two weeks of May and throughout June.  But not all the roses last so long, and we needed those with the strongest scents, like Rose de Dijon.  And it took two attempts to convince me that dried, sugared, yellow petals nearly always looked too much like potato crisps for them to enhance a wedding cake.  These, and the deeper pinks and reds, were best simply dried.  As always then, less time to do everything than I thought.

I picked flowers when they appeared dry and fresh, no dew, and before any petals began to shrivel. Picked off the petals (it felt cruel) and spread them on wicker trays to dry in the sunny conservatory.  One very hot day showed me that they mustn’t dry too fast, or you’re left with tiny, shrivelled, scentless litter.  I stored dried petals in wicker picnic hampers, out of the light but so that air could still circulate.  It’s important not to mix fresh and dry petals – or they will all rot.

roses 4

I thought I knew about how to sugar flowers, I’d decorated a ninetieth birthday cake with primroses, and it was simple enough.  But compared to fragile rose petals primroses are EASY!  Not only are they smaller and easier to handle, you can leave the stalks on until they dry so they have useful handles.  Rose petals took more care.

It was best to have an assembly line process.  I needed one bowl of lightly fork-beaten egg white, not frothy, just beaten enough to make it less gloopy so it would spread thinly on the petal.  A saucer of caster sugar. Another saucer, a large dinner plate, a paintbrush and a dessert spoon.  Sometimes I used tweezers to hold the petals.  Other days I couldn’t find them in time.  And as the photos show, I usually worked outside (it was warm, and not windy).  An umbrella food cover to keep flying insects away from sugary petals.

Put some sugar into the empty saucer.

Cover the petal with egg white (I used a mixture of dipping and painting).

Put the petal convex side down into the sugar.

Sprinkle more sugar from the full saucer over the concave surface.

Lift the sugared petal carefully onto the plate (the spoon is useful here).

Repeat until the plate is covered with petals, not touching each other.

The sugar can be poured back and forward between the saucers, unless you’ve used too much egg white.  If it clumps then throw it away and use fresh.

Cover the plate with the food cover and leave to dry. (About 24 hours in a sunny conservatory).

The dried sugar petals were quite robust, I stored them in airtight plastic boxes in the fridge. Some ‘leftovers’ were fine a couple of months later.

roses 8

Rose petals, no hidden thorns, no sharp surprises.  Sweet, beautiful, yielding – no wonder Vishnu’s wife Lakshmi was created from rose petals.  And certainly none of William Blake’s invisible worms in our creations.   A year after his triumphal welcome, the sweetness of the roses was only a memory for Browning’s patriot , but today I opened a wicker hamper, stirred its contents, and inhaled last summer’s wedding.

Posted in cookery | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Kale Side Dish

I served this with slow roasted duck, that had been stuffed with peeled cored eating apples, seasoned with chopped sage, lemon and garlic.  The quantities are variable – this served four generously.

½ butternut squash, peeled and cut into large cubes (2 cm side)

6 carrots, scraped

200g kale, thickest stems removed, finely chopped

Black pepper

Olive oil

Drizzle balsamic vinegar (optional)

Pine nuts – about a level tablespoon

I seasoned the squash and carrot with black pepper and roasted them (no oil) on non-stick liner on a flat tray when I had turned the fan oven up to 180 degrees C to start crisping the duck skin.  I took them out when they were tender, and the edges of the squash had begun to caramelise, (about 30 minutes).

In the oven space created I put a small metal dish with the pine nuts to toast, takes about 10 minutes.  If I try to do this on the hob I almost always burn them, the timing is not so critical in the oven.

I cut the carrots to a similar size to the squash and placed them both in a large microwave proof bowl, drizzled just enough olive oil to coat them. 10 minutes before serving time I added the washed kale, a spoonful of water, put a plastic plate over the bowl as a lid, and microwaved for 3 minutes on high.  (Worth checking the kale after 2 minutes to see how much time it needs).

I drained the lot in a colander, then tipped back into microwave bowl, then into serving dish so roasted vegetables on top.  Gave them a slight stir into the kale, a drizzle of vinegar and scattered the dish with pine nuts. Put into warming oven ready to serve.kale-side-dish

Posted in cookery | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment