29 April, 2013

April recipe: Rhubarb pie

Rhubarb is the first fruit* to be harvested in spring.  It usually appears around April, conveniently just after the last of the stored apples have gone.  It can be used in many of the same recipes as cooking apples, such as pies, tarts and crumbles.  Rhubarb goes particularly well with a hint of ginger, which adds a warm spicy note to the rhubarb’s tart flavour.

Rhubarb pie is easy to make, and can be served either hot or cold.  Here’s the recipe.

Rhubarb pie (serves 4-6)

Rhubarb filling
1 lb (approx 450 g) rhubarb
2 oz (approx 50 g) granulated sugar
2 Tablespoons (2 x 15 ml spoons) syrup from a jar of preserved stem ginger (optional)

5 oz (approx 150 g) plain flour
1 Tablespoon (1 x 15 ml spoon) golden icing sugar
2.5 oz (approx 70 g) butter
1.5 oz (approx 40 g) lard

Grease a shallow heatproof pie dish.  I use an oval dish about 7” by 9” (about 18 cm by about 22 cm).

Wash the rhubarb stalks and trim off the ends.  Slice the stalks into pieces approximately 1 inch (approx 2.5 cm) long.

Put the rhubarb pieces in the pie dish. Sprinkle the granulated sugar over the rhubarb.  Add the ginger syrup if using, and stir to mix.

Rub the butter and lard into the icing sugar and flour until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs.

Add 1 Tablespoon (1 x 15 ml spoon) cold water and stir to mix.  The pastry should form a soft dough.  If the pastry is floury, add a little more water.  If it is sticky, add a little more flour.

Roll out the pastry thickly on a floured work surface until it is about the same size as the top of the pie dish. 

Cover the fruit with the pastry.  Trim the edges.  Roll out the trimmings and cut into pastry leaves to decorate the top of the pie, if wished.

Brush the pie with milk and sprinkle with a pinch of granulated sugar.

Stand the pie dish on a baking tray, in case any juice bubbles out of the pie during cooking.

Bake in a moderately hot oven at about 180 C for about 35 minutes until the pastry is golden brown.

Serve hot or cold, with custard, cream or ice cream.


*I think rhubarb may technically be classed as a vegetable, since it’s the stalks that are eaten. ‘Fruit’ typically refers to a fleshy casing surrounding the seeds of a plant. However, in the kitchen rhubarb can be used in many of the same recipes as cooking apples or other sharp-flavoured stewing fruits, so from a culinary perspective it behaves like a fruit.

13 April, 2013

Kingdom of Shadows, by Barbara Erskine. Book review

First published 1988. Edition reviewed, Harper 2009, ISBN 978-0-00-728866-3. 715 pages

Kingdom of Shadows is a time-slip novel set in Scotland and England with two intertwined plots, one set in about 1290 to 1314, one set in the 1980s. The historical plot centres on Robert Bruce and Isobel MacDuff, Countess of Buchan, with other historical figures including Isobel’s husband the Earl of Buchan and Robert’s queen Elizabeth de Burgh featuring as secondary characters.  All the characters in the modern plot are fictional.

In 1980s Britain, Clare Royland inherits Duncairn Castle, a (fictional) romantic ruin on the north-east coast of Scotland, from her beloved aunt Margaret Gordon. The castle has been in the Gordon family for over seven hundred years and Clare, like her aunt, feels a powerful connection to Duncairn and to its earlier owner, Isobel Countess of Buchan, a family ancestor who played a tragic role in the Scottish Wars of Independence. But Clare’s husband Paul, a ruthless and distinctly dodgy financier in the City of London, sees Duncairn first as a nuisance and then, when an American oil company bids to buy the land, as a potential solution to his secret financial problems.  When Clare refuses the American oil company’s offer, Paul tries to make her sell Duncairn, by persuasion, fraud and force.  Meanwhile, Neil Forbes, a Scottish environmental campaigner, is organising a campaign to oppose both the sale of Duncairn and drilling for oil.  He and Clare are on the same side, but for different reasons, and Neil initially regards Clare as an enemy.  As the pressure on her builds, Clare experiences increasingly vivid visions of Isobel’s life, as though Isobel can somehow call to her from the distant past.  Is Isobel’s tragedy about to repeat itself through Clare?

I first read Kingdom of Shadows years ago.  I was reminded of it more recently when I read The Lion Wakes, because both novels feature Isobel MacDuff, Countess of Buchan, as a major character and involve a (probably fictional*) love affair between her and Robert Bruce, though that’s about the only similarity between them.  Kingdom of Shadows is a full-blown (and, at over 700 pages, ‘full’ is the operative word) Gothic romance, packed with menace, drama, passionate love and equally passionate hatred, with vaguely supernatural forces looming in the background.  The first time I read it, I remember finding the supernatural aspects irritating, so much so that I ended up skimming through quite a lot of the novel.  This time I treated it as a fantasy novel creating a world of its own that happens to have some similarities with late twentieth-century and early fourteenth-century Britain, and that worked much better for me. 

Isobel (Isabel, Isabella) MacDuff’s story, what little of it is recorded in history, is itself the stuff of tragic romance.  She was a member of the MacDuff family of Fife, who had the hereditary right to crown Scottish monarchs.  Although her husband John Comyn, Earl of Buchan, was a senior member of the Comyn family, enemies and political rivals of the Bruce family, Isobel crowned Robert Bruce when he seized the Scottish throne in 1306.  This conferred some traditional legitimacy on Robert’s rather hurried coronation, which may lie behind the harshness of the punishment later inflicted on Isobel by Edward I of England.  (I’m trying to avoid too many spoilers for readers who are not familiar with the history, so I won’t spell out what happened to her here; anyone who wants to find out can look it up on Wikipedia).  

The modern plot in Kingdom of Shadows has to go into overdrive to live up to the dramatic events of Isobel’s true story.  It reminded me of a rather over-the-top Eighties TV drama series, with its ostentatious wealth, corporate double-dealing, insider trading, fraud, blackmail, family secrets, deceit, abduction, suicide and attempted murder.  I gave up trying to keep track of all the double-crossing and fraud, and also got rather lost among Paul Royland’s collection of rich and mostly rather unappealing relatives and City colleagues.  If the financial wheeler-dealing background to Clare’s tale is intended as a sort of modern analogy to the turbulent power politics in fourteenth-century Scotland that form the background to Isobel’s tale, it has the appropriate level of dizzying complexity.

On this re-read, I was struck by the degree of allegory between Clare’s storyline and Isobel’s.  Not just in the broad parallels between the situations of the two women – controlling husbands, a love triangle, the need to make a stand – but also in details.  Sometimes the effect is quite powerful, as in their shared experience of imprisonment.  At other times I found the allegory a bit heavy-handed for my taste.  For example, both women are subjected to religious rituals by clerical brothers-in-law; and in the historical plot Robert Bruce has an Irish wife, Elizabeth de Burgh daughter of the Earl of Ulster, so the romantic hero of the modern plot, environmentalist Neil Forbes, is duly given an Irish girlfriend. I wonder if Clare’s passivity, which was another feature that irritated me first time round, was also there in the interests of creating parallels between her situation and Isobel’s. Isobel lived in a time when women, even wealthy high-born women, had very few rights. Clare has lived a very sheltered life, a beautiful rich girl who married straight from school, has always been dependent either on her parents or her husband and has never had to take her own decisions, and so she is easily pushed around by other people. Similarly, the unpleasant portrayal of Isobel’s husband may owe more to allegory with Clare’s abusive husband in the modern storyline than to the historical John Comyn.  The historical Isobel clearly disagreed politically with her husband on at least the matter of Robert Bruce’s coronation, but as far as I know nothing is known of their personal relationship except that the marriage had no surviving children, which could be interpreted in many different ways.  

The writing style is heavy on detail – I didn’t feel I really needed a description of Clare’s outfit almost every time she makes an appearance – and some of the descriptions of Clare’s nightmares and visions of Isobel border on the repetitive. The pace picks up in the last 200 pages or so as the various sub-plots involving Clare’s friends and relatives either fall by the wayside or converge on the main plot.  Atmosphere and landscape are conveyed well, especially at Duncairn with its mystical connection to both women.

A useful map at the front of the book shows the major locations in the tale, including the fictional Duncairn, and a very brief Historical Note outlines Isobel’s known history.

Gothic time-slip romance based on the tragic history of Isobel MacDuff, Countess of Buchan, during the Scottish Wars of Independence, interwoven with and paralleled by a tale about her fictional descendant Clare Royland in 1980s Britain.

*’Probably’ fictional because although there were allegations of an affair between Isobel and Robert Bruce in hostile contemporary chronicles, these may have been no more than inventions by political enemies.

05 April, 2013

Liebster Blog Award

My thanks to Kathryn Warner of the Edward II blog for awarding me a Liebster (German for ‘Favourite’) blog award.

The rules of the Liebster Award are:

  1. Thank your Liebster Blog Award presenter on your blog and link back to the blogger who presented this award to you.
  2. Answer the 11 questions from the nominator, list 11 random facts about yourself and create 11 questions for your nominees.
  3. Present the Liebster Blog Award to 11 blogs of 200 followers or less who you feel deserve to be noticed and leave a comment on their blog letting them know they have been chosen.
  4. Copy and Paste the blog award on your blog

My answers to Kathryn’s questions:

What's your favourite novel and what do you love about it?
-Impossible to pick just one.  Sword at Sunset, by Rosemary Sutcliff, for the marvellous writing.  King Hereafter, by Dorothy Dunnett, for the love story between Thorfinn (Macbeth) and Groa. Legacy, by Susan Kay, for the complex portrayal of Elizabeth I showing her cruelty and caprice as well as her charisma.   

Do you have any pet peeves in historical fiction?
-The same as in any fiction; dullness.

What are you most proud of?
-Having Paths of Exile selected as Editor’s Choice by Historical Novels Review.

Your favourite and least favourite people in history?  (As few or as many as you like!)
-Alfred the Great.  In part because of his comment in his translation of Boethius, “a king must have people who pray, people who fight and people who work”.  I have a soft spot for a king who actually recognised and acknowledged the importance of working people.
-Least favourite? That’s a hotly contested title!  Too many to mention.

The country, city or other place you'd most like to visit?
-I have a fancy to cycle the length of the Outer Hebrides, hopping from island to island on the ferries.

Which five people would you invite to your fantasy dinner party?
-Aethelflaed Lady of the Mercians, Hild of Whitby, the un-named early-seventh-century queen of East Anglia, Acha of Deira and Bernicia, and Rhianmellt of Rheged.  
All these women were important in early medieval Britain.  Aethelflaed ruled Mercia and fought the Vikings in the early tenth century.  Hild ran the seventh-century monastery of Whitby and advised kings and princes – in modern terms her role was a sort of cross between a university vice-chancellor, diplomat and CEO of a sizeable company. The queen of East Anglia influenced (at least) key religious and political decisions, yet we don’t even know her name.  Acha and Rhianmellt made international marriages that may have helped to weld kingdoms together, yet they are recorded only as names.  Historical fiction can try to imagine their lives and characters; Theresa Tomlinson featured Hild as a secondary character in Wolf Girl and A Swarming of Bees and Nicola Griffith has a novel forthcoming with Hild as the central character; Kathleen Herbert imagined Rhianmellt in Queen of the Lightning; I have plans for the un-named queen of East Anglia when Eadwine’s story gets that far. I would like to find out what they were really like.  I suspect it would be a lot more complex and surprising than anything in fiction.

Facebook or Twitter or neither?

What's one of your goals for the future?
-Finalise Ring of Scorpions (the follow-up to Paths of Exile) to get it ready for publication

What's your favourite season?

Dogs or cats or neither?

What's your favourite hobby?
-Writing and the associated reading about history.  Embroidery, dressmaking and hill-walking.

My 11 blogs:

I know some of these have already been nominated.  Feel free to take part or not as you choose, and to do as little or as much as you wish.  These are 11 blogs that I enjoy reading and that I think are well worth a visit.