30 August, 2008

August recipe: Stir-fried lamb with courgettes and peppers

August is the season for plump Mediterranean vegetables - courgettes*, peppers, aubergines, tomatoes and their like. I am a great fan of courgettes, but if they have a fault it’s that the plants never seem to know when to stop. So I'm always on the lookout for ways to use courgettes, preferably in some quantity. They stir-fry well, being quick to cook and ready to take up flavourings like garlic and soy sauce. I probably cook some variant of a courgette stir-fry about once a week in season.

Here’s a good basic recipe that’s both easy and quick. It's one of my standbys to cook after a long day at work, because once the ingredients are chopped dinner can be on the table in minutes. You can vary the ingredients according to taste and availability, e.g. it works well with pork or flash-fry beef steak instead of lamb. I happen to grow yellow courgettes, but it works just as well with the green kind.

Stir-fried lamb with courgettes* and peppers

Serves 2

7 oz (approx 200 g) leg of lamb. Leftover cold roast is ideal.
1 lb (approx 450 g) courgettes
Red pepper
Half a small onion, or 2-3 large salad onions
4 oz (approx 100 g) mushrooms
1 piece root ginger, approx 1” cube (approx 2.5. cm cube)
1 large clove garlic
2 Tblsp (2 x 15 ml spoon) dark soy sauce
2 Tblsp (2 x 15 ml spoon) dry sherry or rice wine

Cut the meat into thin slices.
Trim the ends off the courgettes and cut into slices if small, or into matchsticks if large.
Remove the seeds from the red pepper and cut into strips.
Peel and slice the mushrooms.
Peel and chop the onion, or slice the salad onions into rings.
Peel the root ginger and shred into fine strips.
Heat approx 1 Tblsp cooking oil in a wok or large frying pan.
Add the onion and ginger and stir-fry approx 1 minute.
Add the chopped lamb and stir-fry another minute.
Add the courgettes, pepper and mushrooms. Crush the garlic and stir in. Stir-fry another 2 minutes until the meat is cooked and the vegetables soft and starting to colour.
Stir in the soy sauce and sherry. Stir well to mix. Remove from the heat and serve immediately with rice or noodles.

*Called zucchini in North America and Australia

26 August, 2008

Weodmonath (August): 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 eighth month of the year, corresponding approximately to the Roman and modern month of August, was called Weodmonath, meaning “weed month”.

Bede, writing in 725, tells us:

Weodmonath means “month of tares” for they are very plentiful then.

--Bede, On the Reckoning of Time, Chapter 15. Translated by Faith Wallis.

Anyone who has ever managed a garden knows that weeds are plentiful at more times than just August! Why pick on August as the weed month? It might be just a convenient name. The month has to be called something and ‘weed month’ might have been considered as good a name as any.

However, August is the time when the main cereal crops of temperate Europe – barley, rye, wheat, oats – are fully grown and ripening. The proportion of weeds in the cereal fields would be obvious by August. Perhaps it was a good indicator of (a) how difficult it was going to be separate the cereal from the weeds at harvest and threshing time and (b) the likely cereal yield; the higher the proportion of weeds in the cereal fields, the lower the yield of cereal. Maybe August was the weed month because it was then that you could judge how difficult the harvest was going to be?

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

24 August, 2008

Brilliante blogs award

Gabriele at The Lost Fort kindly nominated me for this sparkly blog award. Thank you, Gabriele. I'm not quite clear what the sparkly object actually is: Jonathan Jarrett, who was also on Gabriele's list (and was also kind enough to include me in his own list), calls it a tinfoil hat. I think it looks like a diamond on some sort of stand, not unlike the diamond that was the target of that Pink-Panther-style attempted raid on the Millenium Dome. Any other ideas, anyone?

The usual caveats and disclaimers apply: all the blogs and websites listed in the sidebar, plus a good few that I visit but haven't got around to adding yet, are worthy recipients, but it would be a long post to list all of them. So here, in no particular order, are ten to check out, if you aren't already familiar with them:

Feel free to play along!

15 August, 2008

John Barleycorn

The Murder of John Barleycorn

As I went through the North Country,
I heard a merry meeting,
A pleasant toy, and full of joy,
two Noble-men were greeting.

And as they walked forth to sport,
upon a Summers day,
They met another Noble-man,
with whom they had a fray.

His name was Sir John Barley-Corn,
he dwelt down in a Vale,
And had a Kinsman dwelt with him,
they called him Thomas good-Ale.

The one named Sir Richard Beer,
was ready at that time,
And likewise came a busie Peer,
call'd Sir William White-Wine.

Some of them fought in a black-Jack,
some of them in a Can.
But yet the chiefist in a black pot,
fought like a Noble-man.

Sir John Barley-Corn fought in a Bowl,
who won the Victory,
Which made them all to chafe and swear,
that Barley-Corn must dye.

Some said kill him, some said him drown,
some wished to hang him high,
For those that followed Barley-Corn,
they said would beggars dye.

Then with a Plow and they Plow'd him up,
and thus they did devise
To bury him within the Earth,
and swore he would not rise.

With harrows strong they came to him,
and burst Clods on his head,
A joyful Banquet then was made,
when Barley-Corn was dead.

He rested still upon the earth,
till rain from Sky did fall,
Then he grew up on branches green,
which sore amaz'd them all.

Increasing thus till Midsummer,
he made them all afraid,
For he sprang up on high,
and had a goodly Beard

When ripening at St. James tide,
his countenance waxed wan,
Yet now full grown in part of strength,
and thus became a man.

Wherefore with Hooks and Sickles keen,
unto the fields they hy'd,
They cut his Legs off by the Knees,
and Limb from Limb divide.

Then bloodily they cut him down,
from place where he did stand,
And like a Thief for Treachery,
they bound him in a band.

So then they took him up again,
according to his kind,
And plac'd him up in several stacks,
to wither with the wind.

Then with a pitchfork sharp and long,
they rent him to the heart,
And Traytor like for Treason did,
they bound him in a Cart.

And tending him with weapons strong,
unto the Town they hie,
Whereas they Mow'd him in a Mow,
and so they let him lie.

They left him groaning by the walls,
till all his Bones were sore,
And having took him up again,
they cast him on the floor.

And hired two with Holly Clubs,
to beat at him at once,
Who thwackt so hard on Barley-Corn,
the Flesh fell from his Bones, [sic]

Then fast they knit him in a sack,
which griev'd heim very sore,
And soundly steept him in a fat, [vat
for three days space and more.

From whence again they took him out,
and laid him forth to dry,
Then cast him on the Chamber Floor,
and swore that he should dye.

They rub'd and stir'd him up and down,
and oft did toyl and ture,
The Mault-man likewise with vows his death,
his body should be sure.

They pul'd and hal'd him in a spight,
and threw him on a Kill, [kiln
Yea dry'd him o're a fire hot,
the more to work their will.

Then to the Mill they forst him straight,
whereas they bruis'd his bones,
The Miller swore to murther him,
betwixt a pair of Stones.

The last time when they took him up,
they serv'd him worse than that,
For with hot scalding Liquor store
they washt him in a fat. [vat

But not content with this Bod wot, [God
they wrought him so much harm,
With cruel threat they promise next,
to beat him into Barm.

And lying in this danger deep,
for fear the he should quarrel,
They heap'd him straight out of the fat,
and turned him into Barrell, [sic]

They roar'd and broach'd it with a Tap,
so thus his death begun,
And drew out every drop of Blood,
while any drop would run.

Some brought in Jacks upon their backs,
some brought in Bowls and Pail,
Yea, every man some weapon had,
poor Barley-Corn to kill.

When Sir John Good-Ale heard of this, [Thomas Good-Ale
he came with mickle might,
And took by strength their Tongues away,
their Legs, and their sight.

Sir John at last in this respect,
so paid them all their hire,
That some lay bleeding by the walls,
some tumbling in the mire.

Some lay groaning by the walls,
some fell i'th street down right,
The wisest of them scarcely knew
what he had done o'er night.

All you good wives that brew good ale,
God keep you all from teen,
But if you put too much water in,
the Devil put out your Eyne.

--Dated to 1620–1630, full text of this and many more songs available here

The ballad of the death and resurrection of John Barleycorn has been a popular one in England and Scotland for at least four centuries. The earliest known version is the Scots ballad Allan-a-Mault, found in the 16th-century Ballantyne manuscript (for the lyrics, see the link above). Alternative versions abound. Robert Burns wrote a version in 1782, and numerous folk groups have recorded variants and adaptations (see Wikipedia for a list). Curiously, John Barleycorn’s laying low of his tormentors in the last verses is often omitted, which I think is rather a shame as it neatly brings the poem full circle.

It’s appealing to see the ballad of John Barleycorn as a distant memory of a sacrificial king or a dying god whose death rendered the earth fertile, along the lines suggested in Frazer’s immensely popular book The Golden Bough. (However over-enthusiastic Frazer’s conclusions, if his book helped to inspire Mary Renault’s Theseus novels I can forgive him anything).

Kathleen Herbert suggests that the name ‘Beow’ (Old English for ‘barley’), which appears among the legendary figures connecting Alfred the Great’s pedigree back to Noah’s Ark, is another representation of John Barleycorn (Herbert 1994).

It’s also very appealing to connect John Barleycorn with another legend involving a miraculous drink derived from the blood of a murder victim, the Norse legend of the origin of the mead of poetry. Kevin Crossley-Holland’s is the best modern retelling I’ve come across. It’s well worth seeking out his book, but here’s a short summary for anyone who isn’t familiar with the legend:

When they agreed their truce, the Norse gods created Kvasir, wisest of all men. Kvasir was murdered by two jealous dwarfs, who drained his blood and mixed it with honey to brew a sublime mead. Whoever drank a draught of that mead became a poet or a wise man. The mead was stolen by a giant, and recovered by Odin using his characteristic mixture of force, deceit and sexual seduction. After that, the gods guarded the mead of poetry well, and it was never stolen again. But from time to time, Odin would permit a man to drink of it; he gave the gift of poetry.

Could John Barleycorn and wise Kvasir be connected, or derived from the same ancient tradition handed down from the dawn of time? Well, possibly, though I cannot see how you’d go about testing the hypothesis. Heady stuff, this, speculating about long-lost religions.

Perhaps the ballad of John Barleycorn began life as an extended Old English riddle? It wouldn’t take much to recast the song in the familiar say-what-I-am-called format. Indeed, John Barleycorn has been suggested as a possible solution to Riddle 26 in the Exeter Book:

Part of the earth grows lovely and grim
With the hardest and fiercest of bitter-sharp
Treasures--felled, cut, carved,
Bleached, scrubbed, softened, shaped,
Twisted, rubbed, dried, adorned,
Bound, and borne off to the doorways of men--
This creature brings in hall-joy, sweet
Music clings to its curves, live song
Lingers in a body where before bloom-wood
Said nothing. After death it sings
A clarion joy. Wise listeners
Will know what this creature is called

--Riddle 26, translation and original text available here

I can see the connection, though I personally prefer ‘lyre’ as a solution to this riddle because of the reference to music.

Rhyme, riddle or remnant of a vanished religion, raise a glass to John Barleycorn next time you go for a beer.

Herbert, Kathleen. Looking for the Lost Gods of England. Anglo-Saxon Books, 1994. ISBN 1-898281-04-1.
Crossley-Holland, Kevin. The Norse Myths. Penguin, 1980, ISBN 0-14-006056-1.

11 August, 2008

High summer

Young swallows in chattering groups on the telephone wires. The barley field cut and golden, gleaned by the rooks that give the farm its name. Dragonflies like gleaming biplanes skimming the pools in the rutted track. Fat brown velvet bulrushes in the shallows at the pond margin. The common tern chicks are nearly as big as their parents - though they still beg for wriggling silver fish - and have exchanged their speckled down for mottled brown-grey feathers and rakish charcoal caps above white foreheads. Blackberries swelling in the hedgerows.

Summer reaches its zenith and turns towards autumn.

A field of ripe barley. You can tell it's barley and not wheat (the other big cereal crop in East Anglia) because it has long whiskers. John Barleycorn had a beard, remember. This will probably be destined to be turned into malt and thence into beer.

Close-up of barley showing the whiskers.

"....fireweed seeding into fluffy ashes...."

--JRR Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring.

Otherwise known as rosebay willowherb. Here's what it looks like before the seeds form. It's quick to colonise waste ground, hence the name "fireweed" because it's among the first plants to spring up after a fire.

Bulrush. The flower has this smooth velvet appearance when it first forms. During the autumn it will fall apart like a motheaten cushion to release thousands and thousands of fluffy seeds. Trivia note of the week: apparently this plant used to be called reedmace, and became known as 'bulrush' because of an erroneously named but popular painting.

06 August, 2008

The Brendan Voyage, by Tim Severin. Book review

Edition reviewed: Arrow, 1978. ISBN: 0-09-919460-0

On St Brendan’s Day in May 1976, Tim Severin and four companions embarked on an attempt to sail across the North Atlantic from Ireland to North America in a leather boat, recreating the (legendary?) voyage of St Brendan the Navigator. St Brendan lived during the sixth century, and is one of the most important Irish saints. The medieval text Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis (The Voyage of St Brendan the Abbot) tells how St Brendan and a crew of 17 Irish monks built themselves a leather curragh and set sail west over the ocean in search of the Promised Land. After many colourful adventures and hardships, during which they encountered many strange lands and strange creatures, they arrived at their destination and then returned safely home. Tim Severin set out to test the hypothesis that this apparently fantastical journey could have been an account of a real voyage, or voyages, from Ireland to North America. Was such a journey possible with sixth-century technology? To find out, he decided to build a leather curragh using as nearly as possible the materials, designs and techniques available in St Brendan’s time, and to try the journey for himself. This book is an account of the project, from idea to completion.

Curraghs are small, narrow, keel-less boats, still in use on the west coast of Ireland (or they were at the time of the Brendan project). Now made of canvas rather than leather and called ‘canoes’, they are used for inshore fishing and to ferry cows out to offshore islands for summer grazing. Reconstructing a sixth-century ocean-going curragh required designing the boat itself, based on expertise in naval architecture and a single illustration in a medieval manuscript, then identifying and then sourcing the right kind of leather, the right kind of grease for preserving and waterproofing it, the right kind of flax thread for ropes and stitching, and the right kind of wood for the strong but flexible frame. Not to mention finding craftsmen who knew how to make and work such materials. The saga of designing and building the boat is almost as complex and fascinating as the saga of the journey itself. Very often Tim Severin found himself contacting the last firm or person still in business with the traditional skills he needed – a generation later and the knowledge might have been lost and the project not possible at all.

The ship, named Brendan (what else?) was eventually completed and set sail from Brandon Creek (Brandon is the modern Irish spelling of Brendan) in May 1976. Learning to sail a keel-less boat in the vagaries of the Atlantic weather was the first challenge – Tim Severin describes Brendan as “skidding across the waves like a tea tray”. The planned sailing route was to take them north along the west coast of Ireland, then north-west and north to thread through the Hebridean islands, north again to the Faroes, then west to Iceland, west again to Greenland, then south-west along the coast and the edge of the Arctic pack ice to Labrador and Newfoundland. This apparently roundabout route is known as the Stepping Stone Route, and has the benefit that it allows the journey to be broken up into a series of comparatively short ‘hops’ from one island to the next. As the prevailing winds in the Atlantic are west-to-east, this allows a sailing ship to wait in harbour for the occasional east-to-west weather systems that blow the right way for the journey. Several centuries after St Brendan’s time, the Norsemen used the same route in their voyages across the North Atlantic.

This is an epic journey by any standards, even more so when undertaken in a small open boat, and Tim Severin’s clear and straightforward prose style is ideally suited to telling the story. There is adventure aplenty, whether it be the thrilling and dangerous ride through the rock-strewn Mykines Sound in the Faroes in the grip of gale and tide-race, or the heart-stopping anxiety of trying to repair Brendan in the harsh Greenland Sea after the hull was holed by ice. There are also moments of serene beauty in encounters with the whales who frequently came to investigate Brendan, perhaps wondering if the leather boat was some strange relative of theirs, and in the starkly stunning volcanic landscape of Iceland, the towering sea cliffs of the Faroes, and the deadly loveliness of the pack ice.

The author’s fellow sailors are deftly characterised, from the cheerfully irrepressible Edan, nicknamed “Gannet” because he would eat anything (except, as it turned out, dried whale blubber), to the easy-going Arthur Magan and the calm, cool-headed George. Perhaps the most memorable is the Faroese fisherman Trondur, who could catch fulmars at sea as a welcome addition to the crew’s diet, harpoon a whale bigger than the boat, and fish for cod in 300 feet of water. (Who says the Norse legend of Thor fishing for the World Serpent was a myth?)

Brendan’s voyage showed that a leather curragh built with materials and technology available to St Brendan was capable of crossing the North Atlantic. Indeed, some of the early medieval technology turned out to be superior to the modern alternatives available in the 1970s. A diet of cheese, salt pork, smoked sausage, oatmeal and hazelnuts – supplemented of course by Trondur’s seabirds and cod – proved more palatable, more nutritious and better able to survive the conditions in an open boat than modern packaged and dehydrated foods. Woollen clothing kept the crew warmer than synthetic materials, with the exception of modern waterproof immersion suits (without which survival in the cold Greenland Sea would have been measured in minutes). Wood, leather and flax proved more versatile and durable than many modern materials, and could be readily modified or repaired in an emergency. Tim Severin sums up by saying, “…the modern equipment worked better until it broke, but then the traditional gear, clumsy and inefficient though it was, managed to survive the adverse conditions – and this is what mattered.”

As well as testing out the technology, the voyage also provided possible explanations for some of the apparently fantastic incidents in the Navigatio. The Island of Smiths, where one of St Brendan’s monks was killed by fiery demons, could be a description of the eruption of a submarine volcano and the volcanoes on the south coast of Iceland. The Island of Sheep is recognisable as the Faroes – the modern name is derived from the Norse Faer-Eyjaer, or “Sheep Islands” – and the pillar of floating crystal could be a stray iceberg. Even the giant fish the monks tried to land on, thinking it was an island, could be a (somewhat embellished) description of a close encounter with a whale, since whales were apparently attracted to a leather boat.

The Brendan voyage doesn’t prove that St Brendan and/or other Irish seafarers did sail to North America in the sixth century. That would require finding an inscription on the North American seaboard saying “St Brendan was here”, or words to that effect, capable of being securely dated on radiocarbon or stylistic grounds to the right period. The chances of such a discovery must be vanishingly small. But what it clearly shows is that they could have done it – and that if they did, it would have been a marvellous adventure, well worth remembering and retelling for 1500 years.

Exciting adventure, remarkable travelogue and a fascinating study of early medieval seafaring technology, all rolled into one.

Has anyone else read it?

03 August, 2008

Woolpit Steam Rally

Every summer the little Suffolk village of Woolpit holds a rally for steam-powered machinery of all kinds - traction engines, steam rollers, steam-powered lorries, you name it (More information and photo galleries on the official website). This year I actually remembered it was on and we cycled out to have a look.

Possibly the smallest and prettiest self-service cheese shop in the country, at Rodwell Farm near Needham Market. Their cheese is very good, too.

Chocolate-box thatched cottage passed on the way.

Steam-powered carousel. If you look closely you can see the steam engine that would originally have powered it in the middle of the carousel, though at the show they were running it off a diesel generator. Also, if you look closely, you can see that some of the rides on the inner row are in fact giant chickens rather than horses. Don't ask me why.

Steam-powered road roller. I expect Bedfordshire County Council has got a replacement by now. Though, pressures on local authority budgets being what they are, you never know.