29 September, 2008

September recipe: Caramel apple tart

This is a variation on the classic French dessert Tarte Tatin, but I hesitate to call it that in case it’s a protected regional name (I’d rather not be escorted to the border next time I go cycling in Normandy). It’s a good way to use up windfall dessert apples, if you happen to have an apple tree or know someone who does.

Don’t be put off by the terrifying prospect of having to turn the tart out of its baking tin. If you think about it, it’s actually the easiest kind of tart to turn out because the pastry is on the top when it's cooked and therefore it’s not going to stick to the tin and break. The worst that can happen is that the one or two of the apples stick, in which case you just scrape them out and put them back in their approximate place on top of the tart. No-one will ever know, especially once the tart is covered in caramel sauce. Just don’t let anyone watch you.

Caramel apple tart

Serves 4–6.

3 oz (approx 75 g) plain flour
3/4 oz (approx 20 g) butter
3/4 oz (approx 20 g) lard

Approximately 1 lb (approx 450 g) eating apples
3 oz (approx 75 g) butter
2 oz (approx 50 g) light brown soft sugar
1 oz (approx 25 g) dark muscovado sugar
1 Tablespoon (1 x 15 ml spoon) honey

Grease a 7” (approx 18 cm) diameter sandwich tin.
Rub the butter and lard into the flour until it resembles fine breadcrumbs.
Mix with a small amount of water until it forms a dough.
(Or you can use ready-made shortcrust pastry if you prefer).
Roll out to a circle approximately 1” (approx 2.5 cm) bigger in diameter than the sandwich tin.

Cut the apples into segments and remove the cores (and any damaged parts if using windfalls), but don’t peel them.
Heat the butter, sugar and honey gently in a medium saucepan until the butter has melted and the sugar dissolved.
Add the apple segments and cook for two or three minutes.
Remove from the heat. Fish the apple segments out, leaving most of the sauce in the pan, and arrange them skin side down in the sandwich tin.
Put the pastry on top of the apples, and tuck the edges down between the apples and the sides of the tin,
Bake in a moderately hot oven at about 180 C for about 25–30 minutes until the pastry is set and golden.
Remove from the oven, and loosen the pastry all round the edges of the tin using a pie slice or a blunt table knife. Leave to cool in the tin for 5–10 minutes.
Loosen the pastry all round the edges again.
Place a large plate (bigger than the sandwich tin) on top of the tin. Hold the plate and tin together and invert them so that the plate is underneath and the tin is on top. Lift the tin gently, and the apple tart will fall out of the tin onto the plate with the pastry on the bottom and the apples on the top. (Honest, it will). If it’s inclined to stick, give the tin a gentle tap. If any of the apple segments have stuck to the tin, scrape them out and put them in their approximate places on top of the pastry.
Reheat the caramel sauce and pour over the tart to serve.
Serve with cream, whipped cream, natural yoghurt or ice cream.

The tart can be eaten warm or cold, but the sauce is always best if reheated. It will keep for two or three days at room temperature.

I expect to get six slices out of this recipe, but it depends how big a slice you like.

23 September, 2008

Halegmonath (September): 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 ninth month of the year, corresponding approximately to the Roman and modern month of September, was called Halegmonath, “holy month”.

Bede, writing in 725, tells us:

Halegmonath means “month of sacred rites”.
--Bede, On the Reckoning of Time, Chapter 15. Translated by Faith Wallis.

He doesn’t elaborate, which is a shame. So we do not know why the month was called holy, nor what rites were performed or what deities honoured. I think a few inferences can be made, though (as ever) other interpretations are possible.

In most of temperate Europe, the main cereal crops are harvested during August and September and harvest is completed some time during September, depending on the weather and the crop (for example, barley is harvested earlier than wheat in regions where both are grown). Cereal crops, such as rye, oats, barley and the various types of wheat, were the staple food before potatoes were introduced from the New World. More than any other single crop, the cereal harvest determined whether the ensuing winter would be a hungry one. The month in which the cereal harvest was safely gathered in and the future of the community secured for another year, could justifiably be considered a holy month.

What deity might have been honoured in this holy month? Tacitus says of the Angles in continental Germany in the first century AD:

There follow in order the Reudignians, and Aviones, and Angles, and Varinians, and Eudoses, and Suardones and Nuithones; all defended by rivers or forests. Nor in one of these nations does aught remarkable occur, only that they universally join in the worship of Herthum; that is to say, the Mother Earth. Her they believe to interpose in the affairs of man, and to visit countries. In an island of the ocean stands the wood Castum: in it is a chariot dedicated to the Goddess, covered over with a curtain, and permitted to be touched by none but the Priest. Whenever the Goddess enters this her holy vehicle, he perceives her; and with profound veneration attends the motion of the chariot, which is always drawn by yoked cows. Then it is that days of rejoicing always ensue, and in all places whatsoever which she descends to honour with a visit and her company, feasts and recreation abound.
--Tacitus, Germania

The goddess’ name is variously rendered as Nerthus, Ertha or Herthum depending on the translation. The original Latin is, “Nec quicquam notabile in singulis, nisi quod in commune Nerthum, id est Terram matrem”, so I’ll use the form Nerthus.

A Mother Earth goddess would seem to be a reasonably likely candidate for a deity to be honoured in a month that celebrated the grain harvest.

Kathleen Herbert quotes from an account written by a German visitor to southern England in September 1598:

By lucky chance we fell in with the country-folk celebrating their harvest-home. The last sheaf had been crowned with flowers and they had attached it to a magnificently robed image, which perhaps they meant to represent Ceres. They carried her hither and thither with much noise; men and women were sitting together on the waggon, men-servants and maid-servants shouting through the streets until they came to the barn.
--Quoted in Herbert (1994)

Ceres was the Roman goddess of agriculture, from whose name we get the modern English word “cereal”.

So 1500 years after Tacitus described Nerthus riding in a ceremonial vehicle amid great rejoicing, we have an account of the English celebrating the corn harvest in September by carrying a female image in a waggon, also amid noisy rejoicing. It should be noted (and should go without saying) that the 1598 account doesn’t prove an uninterrupted survival of ritual, much less religion, for 1500 years. For all the German visitors (and we) knew, the English villagers might have invented their celebration the year before based on a fragment of Roman myth that someone had seen or heard of and thought would make a good excuse for a party. Nevertheless, it may not be too far removed from the “sacred rites” of the early English “holy month”.

Tacitus, Germania. Full-text translation available online.
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.

20 September, 2008

Suffolk saunter

...the green and gold of this most unspoilt and unprettified of counties....
--PD James, Unnatural Causes

A somewhat overly romanticised description, but I can see what she was getting at. The tower in the distance belongs to Stoke-by-Nayland church.

Stoke-by-Nayland church tower.

Splendid half-timbered house opposite the church.

The Anchor Inn, Nayland. This is a lovely pub serving excellent food. Not only does it do its own cooking, it owns the surrounding farm estate and raises its own free-range chickens, beef, pork and lamb and grows its own fruit and vegetables. It also has its own smokehouse, where it seems to smoke anything that runs, flies or swims, and has a very pretty setting on the river Stour. Highly recommended if you're ever in the Constable Country area.

River bridge at the Anchor Inn's garden.

Butterfly sunning itself on a blackberry bush. Looking at the invaluable British Butterflies website, I think it's a comma.

Other wildlife highlights that weren't caught on camera included a kestrel perched on the edge of a straw bale surveying the surrounding stubble for displaced field voles, and the reckless grey squirrel that shot across the road six inches in front of my front wheel and three inches in front of my companion's. Tsk, don't squirrels belong to the road safety Tufty Club any more?

16 September, 2008

White Rose Rebel, by Janet Paisley. Book review

Edition reviewed, Penguin, 2008, ISBN 978-0-141-02679-4. 390 pages.

White Rose Rebel is set in the Highlands of Scotland in 1744-1746, at the time of the second Jacobite* Rising, and tells the story of ‘Colonel’ Anne Farquharson, Lady McIntosh, who raised her husband’s clansmen to fight for Charles Edward Stuart (Bonnie Prince Charlie). The main characters are all historical figures. I haven’t been able to figure out whether Anne’s half-sister Elizabeth is fictional or a historical character whose career has been modified.

Anne Farquharson, daughter of a chief of the Clan Chattan federation, has been a staunch Jacobite all her life and has no time for the Union with England or the government in London. When she marries the disturbing and devastatingly attractive Aeneas McIntosh, chief of a neighbouring clan and head of the Chattan federation, politics is the last thing on Anne’s mind. But when Bonnie Prince Charlie arrives in Scotland, Anne is furious that Aeneas refuses to raise his clan to the Jacobite cause, and soon she and her husband find themselves on opposite sides of a bitter war. Torn between her husband and her lover, the handsome warrior Alexander MacGillivray, Anne faces peril and heartbreak as the Jacobite rising sweeps to its bloodstained climax at Culloden.

White Rose Rebel is a fast, easy read with plenty of exciting action. Even the misunderstandings between husband and wife are as likely to occur on the battlefield as in the bedchamber. The battle scenes are vivid and bloody, giving a clear picture of how it might have been to fight with musket, bayonet and broadsword on the Highland moors. Sometimes less is more; one memorable scene in which a horse balks at crossing a river running red with the blood from Culloden was (for me) more chillingly evocative of the scale of the slaughter than the full-on description of carnage that follows a few pages later.

The characters are boldly drawn and some of the secondary characters, such as the hard-drinking Dowager Lady McIntosh and the decorative but useless Bonnie Prince Charlie, are at least as memorable as the leads. Anne is the central character, and most of the story is told from her point of view. Anne is clearly intended to be feisty and independent, but I’m afraid she struck me as wilful and egotistical. She attributes her husband’s actions to a desire to anger her, without even trying to understand his real reasons, and is inclined to act first and think later, even if she risks other people’s lives as well as her own. This might reflect her youth; most of the story takes place when Anne is aged a year either side of twenty. Her lover MacGillivray is a classic warrior hero, as brave and handsome as Anne herself, and also not overly given to thinking. Anne’s self-centred half-sister Elizabeth is an interesting character, and her desire for MacGillivray creates a pair of interlocking love triangles that drive some of the key plot twists. I found Aeneas the most interesting of the leads, perhaps because he is some years older than the others. Aeneas does not lack for courage, but he sees further than Anne and MacGillivray and has a better grasp of political and military reality. He understands that a successful war needs more than patriotic fervour – and that an unsuccessful one can be an unmitigated disaster for the losing side. However, I found the romance between Anne and Aeneas disappointing, perhaps because it seems to be founded mainly on lust. They can’t keep their hands off each other even when they are on opposite sides of a war (and there’s no shortage of explicit bedroom scenes to prove it), but they don’t seem to know or understand one another very well on other levels.

The novel makes a point of the culture clash between England / Lowland Scotland and the clan-based, almost tribal, society of Highland Scotland. Culture clash there undoubtedly was, but I’m not altogether convinced that pre-Culloden Highland Scotland was such a paradise of women’s rights and free love as depicted in the novel. We are told that Highland women decide when and whether the clansmen will fight, and that a Highland woman can expect to have as many affairs as she likes with any man she likes, quite openly and without any condemnation, both before and after marriage. Were Highland chieftains really as much under the thumb of their women as this? I’d be interested in the evidence supporting this social structure, and was disappointed to find that it isn’t discussed in the Author’s Note. But then, this is also a Highland Scotland with nary a mention of the midge; I could understand the hardy Highlanders being indifferent to this characteristic species of Highland wildlife, but surely the English characters sweating through a Highland glen on a hot August day would have had something to say about midges?

White Rose Rebel wears its Jacobite heart on its sleeve. There’s never any doubt which side the reader is supposed to support. The pro-Jacobite Highlanders are brave, joyous, tolerant and honourable. The first Englishman we meet is a cowardly bully who makes his wife walk on a hot day and refuses to allow her a drink of water, but who backs down when confronted by three women armed with knives and a pitchfork. The English high command are incompetent and/or brutal psychopaths, and the anti-Jacobite Scots feature a slimy lawyer and a homophobic churchman (and one decent man, to be fair). If the Jacobites had their share of creeps and thugs, we don’t meet any.

The novel is mainly written in modern English, with a peppering of Gaelic, Scots and French phrases in the dialogue. I’m not quite sure whether these indicate the language the characters are speaking, or whether the characters are speaking English and inserting occasional phrases of another language. Either way, the Gaelic and Scots phrases are translated in a helpful glossary at the back of the book (you’re on your own with the French), though the meaning is usually reasonably clear from the context.

There’s no map, so readers who want to trace the campaigns across Scotland may find it useful to have an atlas handy. It’s worth noting that Moy Hall in the novel refers to the Moy on the modern A9 south of Inverness, not the Moy near Loch Laggan in the Central Highlands (which puzzled me for a good half of the story, as I’m familiar with the Loch Laggan Moy and had trouble understanding the geography of the novel until I found the Inverness Moy on a road map).

Entertaining swashbuckler for readers who like their heroines feisty, their heroes handsome and sardonic, their bedroom scenes plentiful, their battle scenes gory and their politics clear-cut.

(Edited to correct the dates and add page count).

*James Stuart (James II of England and James VII of Scotland) was exiled in 1688 when his daughter Mary and her husband William of Orange were invited by Parliament to take over the throne. Supporters of the exiled James, his son James Stuart and his grandson Charles Edward Stuart (aka ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’) were called ‘Jacobites’, from the Latin for James ‘Jacobus’.