26 February, 2009

February recipe: Chocolate chip shortbread

Shortbread is another of those seemingly simple recipes that turns out to have as many variations as there are cooks. Some recipes stipulate butter, some vegetable fat, some a mixture of the two. Some use oatmeal, ground semolina or cornflour as well as, or instead of, wheat flour. Some tell you to cook the shortbread at a low temperature for a long time so that it doesn’t colour at all, others tell you it should be pale golden and one or two say golden brown. Some recipes just use fat, flour and sugar, others add various additional ingredients such as chopped cherries, almonds or chocolate chips. Some shape the mixture into rounds, some into fingers and some into segments of a large circle (“petticoat tails”). You take your choice, according to personal preference. I make several variations, and in the winter chocolate chip shortbread tends to be the most popular. Why in the winter? Because in the summer the chocolate melts on your fingers.

Here’s the recipe:

Chocolate chip shortbread

6 oz (approx 170 g) self-raising flour
4 oz (approx 125 g) butter
2 oz (approx 60 g) light brown soft sugar
2 oz (approx 60 g) chocolate chips, or chopped chocolate (milk or plain, as you prefer)

Grease a square shallow baking tin about 7” (approx 18 cm) square.
Mix the flour and sugar in a bowl.
Rub in the butter until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs.
Stir in the chopped chocolate or chocolate drops.
Press the mixture into the baking tin.
Bake in a moderately hot oven about 180 C for about 20 minutes until golden brown. If you prefer pale shortbread, bake in a moderate oven about 150 C for about an hour until pale golden.
Cut the shortbread into fingers while it is still in the tin and still hot. Leave to cool in the tin for at least 5-10 minutes before trying to remove it, as when it is hot it is very crumbly and inclined to break up.
Lift the shortbread fingers out onto a wire rack to finish cooling
Keeps in an airtight tin for a week or two. In theory.

21 February, 2009

The Whispering Bell, by Brian Sellars. Book review

Quaestor2000, 2009. ISBN 978-1-906836-01-6. 208 pages.

Disclaimer: The Whispering Bell is published by Quaestor2000, who are also publishing my novel Paths of Exile. However, I read The Whispering Bell before Quaestor2000 expressed interest in Paths of Exile.

The Whispering Bell is set in seventh-century ‘Anglo-Saxon’ Mercia, mainly in what is now the Derbyshire Peak District and the area around modern Sheffield. The main narrative spans the period from 633 to about 644, with a prologue in 620. All the main characters are fictional.

Orphaned by famine and war and raised as the ward of her father’s friend, a wealthy warrior, Wynflaed grows into a beautiful and accomplished woman, never knowing that she had a younger sister left behind by accident. When Mercia goes to war against Northumbria, Mercia’s king sends men to attack Wynflaed’s foster-father, who belongs to a rival faction. Only the kindness of the attackers’ leader, a young warrior called Wulfric, saves Wynflaed and her family from death. When Wulfric asks for Wynflaed as his wife, she is delighted to accept, and his father grants her lands and mining rights in the hills of the Peak District as her morning gift*. Wynflaed’s intelligence develops the near-defunct lead mine into a valuable asset, and with a loving husband and two healthy children it seems she has everything she could wish for. But her husband’s avaricious brother has designs on Wynflaed’s property, and news of Wulfric’s supposed death in battle gives him his chance. Outlawed and enslaved, if Wynflaed is to survive and regain what is rightfully hers she will need all her courage – and help from some unexpected quarters.

The novel is slow to start, and requires concentration to keep track of the large number of characters in different locations. I also found the prologue confusing because it took me several chapters to see how it linked to the main story. Once it gets going, however, it develops into a complex tale of love, friendship, loyalty and betrayal, with some unexpected turns.

The story focuses on the lives of relatively ordinary people, the middle-ranking warrior-farmers or people further down the social pecking order such as a mule-driver, a miner and a widow who takes in lodgers. Kings and aristocrats and their wars form the background to the story, but are not its main players. Details of daily life, such as buildings, food, farming, jewellery and possessions, are beautifully described, including a central role for the technology of mining and smelting lead. It’s known that the Romans exploited the lead ores of the Peak District, and the monks of Repton Abbey owned a lead mine at Wirksworth in the ninth century (when the Danes took it from them). A lead mine at Bakewell is also recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086. What happened in between is – as usual – a mystery. The Whispering Bell takes the premise that the lead resources were mined in the seventh century, on a rather smaller scale than the earlier Roman workings, which I think is highly plausible. I was delighted to see it play a key role in the story.

Wynflaed, the central character, is beautiful, intelligent, sweet-natured and thoroughly good, almost to the point of being too perfect, and the villain is pretty much unadulterated evil (though he is given a reason for his actions). For me, the large cast of secondary characters were the most vivid and memorable, from the none-too-bright but faithful young mule-driver Eadwin to the bawdy Widow Guthrum (Terry Pratchett’s Nanny Ogg would get on famously with her), the embittered miner Eofar, the kindly outlaw Rabbian (a sort of prototype Robin Hood) and the viper-tongued, fiercely independent Emma. There is a strong sense of a real, complex, changing world full of unexpected opportunities and setbacks, populated by real people busy getting on with their own lives.

The way the paths of Wynflaed and her (unrecognised) sister cross and re-cross in the novel has to be understood as the working of implacable Fate (Wyrd, an important concept in Old English), otherwise it might feel like rather too many coincidences. A good many things are left for the reader to work out from hints and clues in the text (e.g. the identity of Wynflaed’s lost sister), so this is a novel that rewards close attention. Sometimes I’d have welcomed a little more spelling out. Although the ending of Wynflaed and Wulfric’s story is pretty clearly resolved, I felt I wanted to know what happened to some of the other characters, especially Emma and Rabbian.

Landscape descriptions capture the narrow valleys, sparkling brooks and limestone uplands of the White Peak, and convey a sense of the wonder and mystery of its great natural caverns. A helpful map at the front of the book shows the location of the main places and allows the reader to follow the various characters’ journeys. I should perhaps mention that the dialogue is liberally sprinkled with those four-letter words traditionally considered ‘Anglo-Saxon’. For the most part they are used straightforwardly to describe the, ahem, body parts and activities in question, rather than as expletives, but readers who find words like c--- and f--- offensive may like to take note. The language uses a large number of archaic terms, so readers who aren’t familiar with Old English will be glad to know that a glossary at the back provides translations.

A complex tale of greed, jealousy, loyalty, betrayal and love set in the turbulent world of seventh-century England.

*Morning gift (Old English: morgengifu). A gift of money or property made by the bridegroom’s family to the bride the morning after consummation of the marriage. It was solely hers by right, remained her property even if she was widowed, and she could manage it or dispose of it without consulting her husband.

18 February, 2009

Interview on BBC Radio Suffolk

I talked to Georgina Wroe on BBC Radio Suffolk about Paths of Exile and Anglo-Saxon England on Tuesday 17 February. You can listen to the interview by playing the video below.

15 February, 2009

Suffolk spring

Snowdrops forming a carpet of blossom

A sculptural tree stump

Catkins in the sunshine.

A handsome (if rather out of focus - sorry about that) garden visitor. This smart-looking male pheasant, along with a friend, has taken to coming to our garden this winter. Not only is there food around, I think the birds are bright enough to work out that they're comparatively safe in a garden where they're only likely to be shot with a camera.

11 February, 2009

A wood turner’s workshop

Wood was the standard material for tableware such as cups, bowls and plates in early medieval (‘Anglo-Saxon’) England, as discussed in an earlier post. These items would have been made by turning, in which the wood being worked is rotated and a sharp-edged cutting tool used to cut the desired shape. This naturally produces circular items. Nowadays a power lathe is used, in which the wood is mounted on a spindle driven by an electric motor and rotated continuously. The early English also produced circular wooden items on a lathe, but not an electric one. How was it done?

Sizeable wooden items such as bowls were probably made using a machine called a pole lathe. Regia Anglorum’s site has a drawing of this ingenious machine (scroll down to the bottom of the page). A rope is wound around the lathe, and connected at its lower end to a foot treadle and at its upper end to a springy pole. The craftsman presses down on the foot treadle, causing the lathe and the object mounted on it to spin against the cutting tool, and bending the pole down. Then he lifts the tool clear, releases the treadle, and the elasticity of the pole causes it to spring back up. The pole pulls on the rope, the rope rotates the lathe backwards, and the work returns to its original position ready for another cutting stroke. Repeat, a great many times, until the object has been turned to the desired shape.

Because a pole lathe requires the object to be accelerated from rest to cutting speed and back again at every stroke, it is far less efficient in time and power than a continuously rotating lathe. However, it can be made from simple and readily available materials, and in skilled hands it can be surprisingly effective (see Robin Wood’s Battle of the Bowls video on his website). A pole lathe leaves characteristic discrete spiral tool marks on the item being made, and requires long-handled cutting tools (Leahy 2003). A fragment of a tool rest from a pole lathe was found at Coppergate (York), and long-handled hooked cutting tools consistent with use on a pole lathe have been found at Coppergate and in a pit dated to the ninth century at Portchester Castle, Hampshire (Leahy 2003).

Remarkably, the pole lathe used in Anglo-Saxon England remained in use until the early twentieth century. It was most commonly used by the “bodgers”, itinerant woodworkers who made small components such as chair legs in the beech forests of the Chiltern Hills for use in the furniture industry. But a few craftsmen still used it to make larger objects such as wooden bowls. One such was a man named George Laidley, who worked as a bowl turner using a pole lathe in a workshop on Bucklebury Common near Reading. In 1959, after his death the previous year, his lathe and workshop were acquired by the Museum of English Rural Life at nearby Reading University, and described in detail in a book by Philip Dixon (Dixon 1994).

George Laidley’s grandfather had built the workshop in 1826. The floor area was dug out to form a rectangular pit around three feet deep. Six stout timber posts formed the main structural elements of the walls, one in each corner and one in the middle of each of the long sides. Cladding of some type, probably split or sawn boards (later replaced with corrugated iron), was fixed between the posts to form the walls. The roof may have been thatched (later replaced by a tiled roof). Two pole lathes, one large and one small, were placed on the floor of the pit, so that the craftsman and any visitors stepped down to enter the workshop. The pit gradually filled up with a hundred years’ worth of wood shavings, to such an extent that part of one lathe rotted away among the shavings and had to be replaced.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because George Laidley’s workshop bears a remarkable resemblance to the sunken-featured buildings (SFBs, also known as sunken-floored buildings or in German Grubenhauser) identified in archaeological excavations of early English settlements. At first it was thought that people lived in the bottom of the pit, which would have been cramped, squalid and uncomfortable. For this reason alone I’ve always been sceptical that SFBs were used as routine living accommodation. People 1500 years ago were just as bright and inventive as today, even if they had access to less technology, and they would surely have made themselves as comfortable as circumstances allowed. This isn’t to say that no-one ever lived in a SFB. If SFBs were used mainly as workshops, they could still have been used as overflow accommodation or for low-status individuals, much as medieval servants slept in the kitchens or apprentices slept at the back of the workshop, and I daresay it wasn’t unheard of for a drunken husband reeling home after one too many to be banished to the shed by his annoyed wife. (At least the thick layer of wood shavings in the wood turner’s workshop might have provided reasonably comfortable padding and insulation).

If you want to imagine how an Anglo-Saxon SFB might have looked and how it might have been used, you could do much worse than look at George Laidley’s wood turning workshop.

Dixon PH. The Reading lathe. Cross Publishing, 1994. ISBN 1-873295-65-0.
Leahy K. Anglo-Saxon crafts. Tempus Publishing, 2003. ISBN 0-7524-2904-3.

04 February, 2009

Paths of Exile now available

Paths of Exile was officially published by Quaestor2000 on 30 January 2009, and is now available from Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.de, and Amazon.com. Also available from Woodbridge Books, Woodbridge, Suffolk, Transreal Fiction, Edinburgh and Waterstones. Other bookshops should be able to order copies, certainly in the UK and maybe in some other countries as well.

It is also available from the Book Depository via Amazon Marketplace with worldwide shipping available. The publisher also offers direct sales, with worldwide shipping, via Amazon Marketplace (click on the Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com links above), slightly higher price than The Book Depository but with immediate despatch. For countries not covered by Amazon Marketplace, the publisher also plans to sell via Ebay.co.uk, with worldwide shipping, soon.

Britain, 605 AD. When his homeland of Deira is invaded by a powerful neighbouring kingdom, Eadwine finds himself on the run for his life. Homeless, penniless and friendless, literally with a price on his head, he must evade his enemies, avenge his brother's murder and rescue his betrothed. Along the way, he will lose his heart to another woman and discover a shattering secret that challenges all the ideals he holds dear.


Carla Nayland pulls the curtain back on the little known period of seventh century Britain to reveal the fascinating world of Eadwine. Filled with unforgettable characters and wonderful historical detail, Paths of Exile is historical fiction at its most intriguing.
Michelle Moran, bestselling author of The Heretic Queen

“Paths of Exile” is an epic tale of battle, honour, loyalty and betrayal that is at once exquisitely entertaining and utterly convincing. Carla Nayland's prose is irresistible, luring the reader from the comforts of the 21st century into the harsh and often bloody reality of Saxon England. A triumphant debut that demands a sequel
Russell Whitfield, author of Gladiatrix

A powerful novel. I was completely transported to the world of seventh century Britain. A strong new voice in the field of historical fiction; Carla Nayland has written a fine book.
Elizabeth Chadwick, award-winning author of The Wild Hunt, A Place Beyond Courage, The Greatest Knight and other novels

... an exciting, tautly-plotted tale that's action-packed thriller, murder mystery, tragedy and romance all rolled into one and set in an authentic landscape I can see and touch and feel. But it's much more than that, mainly because the author has peopled her story with flesh-and-blood-characters who are both convincingly of their own time and yet, with all their fears and hopes, not at all alien to us.
Sarah Cuthbertson (full review here)