31 May, 2008

May recipe: Custard Tart

In honour of the Old English name of the month, Thrimilchi, it seems appropriate to post a dairy recipe for May. So here is a recipe for traditional custard tart. If you have always been terrified of trying your hand at egg custard because of fear that it will curdle and be ruined (as I was for about twenty years), don’t worry. You don’t have to go through all the palaver of beating the eggs and milk for several days over a pan of water that must never boil for this recipe – just mix them, put the tart in a moderate oven, and it will sort itself out. At least, it always has so far :-)

Custard Tart

Shortcrust pastry

4 oz (approx 120 g) plain flour
1 oz (approx 25 g) butter
1 oz (approx 25 g) lard

Custard filling

2 eggs
1 Tablespoon (1 x 15 ml spoon) demerara sugar
0.5 pint (approx 250 ml) milk
Pinch of grated nutmeg
1 Tablespoon (1 x 15 ml spoon) dark rum (optional)

Rub the butter and lard into the flour until the mixture looks like fine breadcrumbs.
Mix with a SMALL amount of cold water until it just sticks together to form a dough. If it is crumbly add a few drops more water, if it is sticky add a bit more flour.
Roll out on a floured work surface and line a 7” diameter (approx 18 cm) flan ring or flan tin.
(Or you could buy ready-made pastry or a ready made tart case if you prefer).

Beat the eggs and sugar together in a heatproof jug or bowl.
Heat the milk until it is not quite boiling. If it does come to the boil, just take it off the heat and wait for the bubbles to subside before proceeding.
Pour the hot milk slowly onto the eggs and sugar, beating continually with a wooden spoon as you add the milk.
Stir in the rum, if using.
It will probably look like slightly eggy milk at this stage and won’t have thickened noticeably. Don’t worry. Pour it into the flan case and sprinkle with grated nutmeg. It doesn't expand noticeably during cooking, so you can fill the flan case nearly to the top without fear of it boiling over.
Bake in a moderate oven approx 170 C for about 30 minutes until set.
Serve hot, warm or cold, with cream if liked.

You can also bake the pastry case blind, if you wish. In which case, bake the pastry case blind for about 10 minutes in a hot oven approx 200 C, then pour the custard mix into the cooked pastry case and bake in a moderate oven approximately 160 C for about 30 minutes. Either method works well.

I expect to get 6 or 8 slices out of this recipe, but that depends on your appetite. It will keep quite happily in a fridge or at room temperature (provided it isn’t too hot) for two or three days.

29 May, 2008

Thrimilchi (May): the early English calendar

Before they converted to Christianity and adopted the Roman calendar, the early English (‘Anglo-Saxons’) reckoned time using a system of lunar months. Each cycle of the moon, probably from full moon to full moon, was a month. The year began at the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. There were two seasons, summer, when the days were longer than the nights, and winter, when the nights were longer than the days (See my earlier post for a summary of the early English calendar.)

The fifth month of the year, corresponding approximately to the Roman and modern month of May, was called Thrimilchi. Bede, writing in 725, tells us:

Thrimilchi was so called because in that month the cattle were milked three times a day; such, at one time, was the fertility of Britain or Germany.
--Bede, On the Reckoning of Time, Chapter 15. Translated by Faith Wallis.

This might be literally true. As far as I know, lactation is a continuous process so presumably a cow could be milked three times a day instead of the usual two if that happened to be convenient. It might also be a variant on the “Lost Golden Age of Far Away and Long Ago” which humans have a tendency to look back on with longing, regardless of whether it really existed. Nostalgia never goes out of fashion.

However, the month name might reflect the sudden availability of fresh pasture and fresh dairy products after the long months of winter. In lowland areas of Britain the grass usually starts to grow by April – which end of the month depends on latitude, local climate and weather – and is getting quite lush by May.

In areas with upland grazing, May corresponds to the time of year when livestock can be moved up to hill pastures. In the Lake District, Pennine hills and North York Moors the snow has gone even from the summits by May in most years and the vegetation is starting to grow strongly enough to withstand the attention of hungry sheep and cattle. Even in the Scottish Highlands, further north and higher altitude, the snow has melted and the grass started to grow again by May in all but the highest corries. This frees up the low valley fields to be cropped for hay (or, these days, silage). It has been suggested that cows grazing outdoors on fresh grass produce milk with higher nutritional content than cows fed on silage and concentrate, and anyone who's ever been into a French cheese shop will have noticed that cheese such as Beaufort produced "a l'Alpage" (from cows grazing on upland pastures) carries a noticeable price premium over the same cheese produced during the winter when the cows are living indoors (I daresay this is partly just marketing, but it does taste nicer too).

After the long dark months of winter, when people had been living on probably limited and almost certainly rather dull supplies of dried or salted produce, the sudden appearance of milk, butter, cream and cheese must have been a most welcome addition to the diet. Not so surprising if it was commemorated in the name of the month!

Bede: The Reckoning of Time. Translated by Faith Wallis. Liverpool University Press, 1999, ISBN 0-85323-693-3.

27 May, 2008

Summer flowers

It's summer, and the sudden warmth coupled with rather a lot of rain has produced remarkably verdant growth in the fields and hedges. This field path was almost overgrown with drifts of buttercups. Very pretty, though unfortunately the path before and the path after were equally overgrown with rather less picturesque stinging nettles.

The horse chestnut trees sport magnificent displays of candelabra flowers

Close-up of horse chestnut flower

And the hedges are full of flowering hawthorn, also known as May blossom (for obvious reasons)

Close-up of May blossom

Although I always associate fungi with autumn rather than spring/summer, they seem to have got in on the act too judging from these gigantic specimens growing on a tree! That's an adult's hand in the photograph to give you a sense of scale. Just imagine the size of the mushroom omelette you could get out of that......

23 May, 2008

The Last Raider, by Douglas Reeman. Book review

Hutchinson, 1963. ISBN 009-180-114-1

The Last Raider is set on board a German commerce raider, the Vulkan, in the last year of the First World War. All the major characters are fictional.

In 1918, as the First World War in the trenches of France and Flanders grinds destructively on with no end in sight, the Imperial German Navy decides to resurrect a now little-used form of naval warfare, the commerce raider, in an attempt to disrupt enemy shipping. Disguised as a neutral merchant ship, the Vulkan departs from Kiel dockyard with a scratch crew and her new captain, the famed “Tiger of the Seas” Felix von Steiger. Her mission is to intercept, capture and destroy enemy merchant ships, maintaining her neutral disguise until the victim has been lured within gunnery range and hauling up the German flag only at the moment of attack. It is a strategy perilously close to piracy, and one that will earn the Vulkan and her crew few friends. Alone on the high seas, with no support vessel and no friendly port within a thousand miles, the Vulkan’s dangerous and lonely mission will take a heavy toll on the ship, the crew and most especially the captain.

The commerce raider as described in the novel seems to me to be reminiscent of the Napoleonic system of prize-taking or the sixteenth-century privateers. I had no idea that it was still in use during the First World War. As described in the novel, the convoy system was beginning to come into use, which meant that isolated merchant ships were less common and thus the commerce raider’s task was becoming much more difficult and much more dangerous. At one point a character refers to the Vulkan as “a scavenger”, supplies are a constant problem, and several times the captain expresses dissatisfaction with the mission’s achievements. There is a strong sense that this is the last gasp of a dying breed, and that the commerce raider’s days are drawing to a close – which I guess reflects the novel’s title.

For me, the novel’s strength is its authentic atmosphere. Not only in the details that recreate the claustrophobic misery of life in a crowded warship, but also in a brooding feeling of bleakness and near-despair that reminds me of some of the First World War poets. It manages to convey a sense of the futility of war – particularly this war, which no-one can remember the reason for and which seems as if it can never end – combined with the absolute necessity for the men involved to do their duty. This in turn raises disturbing questions about honour, decency and integrity, which the contrasting characters have to confront in different ways. How does an honourable man keep his self-respect when he is engaged in a sort of state-approved and state-directed piracy? If a passenger ship is about to transmit a radio message that will bring enemy warships to destroy his ship, how can he balance his moral obligations to the civilian sailors and passengers aboard against his obligation to preserve the lives of his own crew?

The characters are clear individuals with their own hopes, fears, ambitions, hang-ups and principles, and the tensions between these contrasting people fill the novel with conflict on many levels. The disruptive presence of a captured British woman, a passenger from a torpedoed ship, serves to heighten the tensions further. The captain, von Steiger, is inevitably the central character, if only because his actions and decisions will determine the fate of all the rest and they know it. But he does not dominate the novel, and many of the secondary characters and the sub-plots associated with them take centre-stage from time to time.

The Vulkan’s journey takes her from the storm-lashed North Atlantic to the sunny Brazilian coast, and provides a wide variety of adventures and naval problems along the way, from an encounter with an iceberg north of Iceland to the practical difficulties of coaling at sea. The combat scenes range from ship battles to hand-to-hand fighting, and are brutal without being excessively graphic. No doubt reflecting its date of publication, I don’t think there’s a single expletive in the book.

The prose is clear and readable throughout. If there was much in the way of nautical jargon I never noticed it, so it must be sufficiently clear that a non-expert can understand what’s going on purely from context. Much of the dialogue seemed rather stilted and this took me a while to get used to – I wonder if it is intended to represent formal German or is just the author’s style?

Unfortunately there is no historical note, so I have no way of knowing how much of the novel is rooted in fact. Which is a little disappointing, because now I am mildly curious as to whether ships like the Vulkan existed, whether they were used by both sides, how important a role they played and whether 1918 was indeed their last gasp (as the novel seems to show) before they were replaced by the submarine warfare famous in World War II.

Action-packed naval adventure with an unusual setting and a splendid atmosphere of realism.

Has anyone else read it?

01 May, 2008

Eosturmonath (April): the early English calendar

Before they converted to Christianity and adopted the Roman calendar, the early English (‘Anglo-Saxons’) reckoned time using a system of lunar months. Each cycle of the moon, probably from full moon to full moon, was a month. The year began at the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. There were two seasons, summer, when the days were longer than the nights, and winter, when the nights were longer than the days (See my earlier post for a summary of the early English calendar.)

The fourth month of the year, corresponding approximately to the Roman and modern month of April, was called Eosturmonath. Bede, writing in 725, tells us:

Eosturmonath has a name which is now translated “Paschal month”, and which was once called after a goddess of theirs named Eostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month. Now they designate that Paschal season by her name, calling the joys of the new rite by the time-honoured name of the old observance.
--Bede, On the Reckoning of Time, Chapter 15. Translated by Faith Wallis.

“Paschal” is the Christian festival called Easter in modern English. Evidently someone had been following Pope Gregory’s advice to the early Christian missionaries sent to the English! Pope Gregory advised Bishop Mellitus:

The temples of the idols in that nation ought not to be destroyed; but let the idols that are in them be destroyed; let holy water be made and sprinkled in the said temples, let altars be erected, and relics placed. For if those temples are well built, it is requisite that they be converted from the worship of devils to the service of the true God; that the nation, seeing that their temples are not destroyed, may remove error from their hearts, and knowing and adoring the true God, may the more familiarly resort to the places to which they have been accustomed. And because they have been used to slaughter many oxen in the sacrifices to devils, some solemnity must be exchanged for them on this account, as that on the day of the dedication, or the nativities of the holy martyrs, whose relics are there deposited, they may build themselves huts of the boughs of trees, about those churches which have been turned to that use from temples, and celebrate the solemnity with religious feasting, and no more offer beasts to the Devil, but kill cattle to the praise of God in their eating.
--Bede, Book I Chapter 30

So who was Eostre, the goddess who gave her name and her festival to the Christian Easter?

Kathleen Herbert says that ‘eostre’ in the Germanic languages means ‘from the east’ and is cognate with the word for ‘dawn’ in several Indo-European languages including Greek, Latin and Sanskrit (Herbert 1994). The Old English season of summer, when the days are longer than the nights, begins at the spring equinox, and Eostre’s month would be the first month of summer. This would be consistent with Eostre as a goddess of the dawn and the coming of the sun, an altogether kinder and gentler image than the goddess of the previous month, Hretha.

If Eostre’s festival was also associated with the return of life in the spring, this may have helped her feast merge with the Christian festival of Easter, which celebrates the return of Christ to life. (See Lucy Ann White’s post on some of the traditions associated with Easter). It may not have been at all difficult for people to carry on celebrating the return of sun, light, warmth and life, with a different name attached to the associated deity.

Full-text sources available online are linked in the text.
Bede: The Reckoning of Time. Translated by Faith Wallis. Liverpool University Press, 1999, ISBN 0-85323-693-3.
Herbert, Kathleen. Looking for the Lost Gods of England. Anglo-Saxon Books, 1994. ISBN 1-898281-04-1.

Edit: The next post on this blog will be on or around Saturday 24 May.