28 December, 2009

December recipe: Beef pie

This is a warming meal on a cold winter day, especially with crisp roast potatoes, roast parsnips and a green vegetable like Brussels sprouts. You can make it with any type of stewing or braising steak, or with stewing venison if you prefer.

(If you have three-quarters of a turkey to use up, you might prefer the recipe for leek and turkey pie)

Beef pie (serves 2)

Shortcrust pastry

4 oz (approx 100 g) plain flour
1 oz (approx 25 g) butter
1 oz (approx 25 g) lard


6 oz (approx 150 g) stewing or braising steak
2 oz (approx 50 g) smoked streaky bacon
Half an onion
1 dessertspoon (1 x 10 ml spoon) plain flour
0.25 pint (approx 150 ml) stock, red wine, or a mixture
1 teaspoon (1 x 5 ml spoon) dried rosemary
1 teaspoon (1 x 5 ml spoon) Worcester sauce (optional)*

Rub the butter and lard into the flour until it resembles fine breadcrumbs.
Gradually add cold water until the mixture forms a soft dough. If it’s flaky, add a little more water, if it’s sticky, add a little more flour.
Or you can use ready-made shortcrust pastry if you prefer.
Roll out to fit the top of the pie dish you are going to use, aiming for about 1/8” (approx 2-3 mm) thick. How much pastry you need depends on the size of your pie dish; if you have a lot left over, surplus pastry will keep wrapped in cling film in the fridge for a few days, or can be frozen.

Cut the steak into cubes about 0.5” (approx 1 cm) square. Cut the bacon into narrow strips.
Peel and chop the onion.
Heat about 1 Tablespoon (1 x 15 ml spoon) of cooking oil in a saucepan over a medium heat. When hot, put the steak and bacon pieces in and fry over a medium heat until browned.
Add the chopped onion and fry another minute or two until the onion starts to soften.
Stir in the flour, and mix well so that the flour coats the meat and onion. Pour in the stock or red wine, add the dried rosemary and season with salt and black pepper to taste.
Bring to the boil, then cover the pan with a lid and simmer over a low heat for an hour or so, topping up with water (or more stock or wine) if necessary to keep the liquid level about constant.
Pour the beef filling into a greased ovenproof pie dish.
Cover with the pastry to make a lid. Use the pastry offcuts to make decorations if so inclined.
Brush the pastry with milk.
Bake in a hot oven at about 200 C for about 30-40 minutes until the pastry is set and golden brown.
Serve with crisp roast potatoes and roast parsnips, which need to be roasted at the same temperature and so can share the oven with the pie, plus a green vegetable (or other vegetables of your choice).

*Don’t ask me what Worcester sauce is made of. Here’s a link to the history (or the legend) of its origin. I am told it bears some resemblance to the Roman garum, in which case all I can say is that I take off my hat to the Romans if they consumed it by the amphora-full.

24 December, 2009

Happy Christmas

Happy Christmas and best wishes for the New Year.

Snow is unusual before Christmas in southern England (despite the traditional pictures on Christmas cards), which is just as well given the transport chaos it causes. It looks very pretty if you're not trying to travel, though :-)

Snow on holly berries

Snowy path through the woods

.... with many snow-laden overhanging branches bowed down over the path, just waiting to tip snow down your neck if you forget to duck

Sunlight catching the snow in the canopy

Field covered in snow

16 December, 2009

Outlaw, by Angus Donald. Book review

Edition reviewed: Sphere, 2009, ISBN 978-0-7515-4208-0. 365 pages. Review copy kindly supplied by publisher.

Set in Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire in 1188-1189, Outlaw is a retelling of the Robin Hood legends. Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine has a walk-on part, and some characters are based on noblemen named in contemporary records but about whom little is known beyond the name (e.g Sir Ralph Murdac, who was Sheriff of Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire and the Royal Forests at the time). The main characters are figures from the legends (Robin Hood, Marian, Tuck, Little John, Alan Dale) or are fictional.

Thirteen-year-old Alan Dale, only son of a poor widow, scrapes a meagre living as a thief and cutpurse in and around the busy town of Nottingham. When he is caught stealing a pie and narrowly escapes the imprisonment and mutilation ordered by the cruel Sheriff, young Alan joins Robin Hood’s band of outlaws in Sherwood Forest. Growing up fast, he is taught swordsmanship by a hostage Knight Templar and develops his natural musical talent under the tutelage of a French troubadour, until he takes his place as a trusted member of Robin’s band. Robin is effectively the feudal lord of Sherwood, and Alan witnesses at first hand the ruthlessness by which Robin controls his territory. When Robin and the evil Sheriff Ralph Murdac become rivals not only for power but for the hand of the beautiful heiress Marie-Anne, Robin decides to challenge Murdac in a pitched battle – but a traitor in the band could destroy them all.

The tag line on the cover says, “Meet the Godfather of Sherwood Forest”, and a sticker on the front proclaims, “As good as Bernard Cornwell or your money back”. Between them they give a pretty good idea of what to expect. Here we have Robin Hood as a sort of twelfth-century Don Corleone, all-powerful within his territory, maintaining a private army and providing protection to those who pay him and brutal punishment to those who challenge or betray him. (Not so very far removed from normal procedure for a feudal lord, except that Robin is outside the law and answerable to – and protected by – no-one). Narrated in first person by Alan Dale, looking back on his life from old age, the structure is reminiscent of Bernard Cornwell’s Uhtred novels or his King Arthur trilogy. Though Alan appears to be shaping up to be an altogether sunnier character than Uhtred, perhaps more like Bernard Cornwell’s Derfel. It will be interesting to see how his character develops as the series progresses.

As well as Alan Dale, the band’s minstrel, all the familiar figures from the legends make an appearance, often with an inventive take on their stories and their association with Robin. Evil Sheriff Murdac is a villain in the Basil Rathbone mould, a well-groomed and fastidious weasel of a man, and his henchman Guy of Gisbourne is here given an unusual provenance (which I won’t spoil by revealing). Little John and Friar Tuck are instantly recognisable, and the famous quarterstaffs-on-the-bridge incident appears, though not quite in its usual guise. Robin’s beloved Marian (Marie-Anne) is here a great lady, heiress to the (fictional) earldom of Locksley, and Robin himself is a disinherited nobleman possessed of a sharp mind, steely determination and a streak of cruelty. My favourite character was the fictional troubadour (strictly speaking a trouvere, as he tells us, since he comes from the north of France) Bernard de Sezanne. A highly talented musician and composer, Bernard is vain, sentimental, cowardly (“I only like to wield my sword in bed,” as he puts it), and hopelessly devoted to wine, women and song, not necessarily in that order. He is also charming and funny and adds a welcome note of comedy to the proceedings. For example, here he is describing the love of his life to Alan, “How I loved her! I would have died for her – well, not died, but certainly I would have suffered a great deal of pain for her. Well, not a great deal of pain, some pain. Let’s just say a small amount of discomfort…..”

Robin Hood stories, like King Arthur stories, have a tendency to attract larger-than-life elements, which is all part of their appeal. In Outlaw there is a thriving secret pagan religion led by a formidable warrior priestess practising human sacrifice according to Iron Age ritual, Little John wears a horned helmet for the climactic battle scene, knights wear chain mail head to foot when attending a party in the Queen’s audience hall, and Marie-Anne, the superlatively beautiful heiress to an earldom, is unmarried at eighteen and can travel the country to meet Robin in his outlaw hideouts with a small escort of men-at-arms and no female companion, apparently without fear either of abduction or losing her reputation. The author says in his historical note that there is little evidence of widespread paganism in twelfth-century England, but that he liked to imagine that it existed, “perhaps fancifully”, which is fair enough.

The plot is an entertaining and easy to follow series of set-piece action sequences, rather like an action film. Skirmishes, training in sword-fighting by a Knight Templar, a hall-burning, a marauding wolf-pack, torture scenes, mutilation scenes, a bloodthirsty pagan rite, a rescue from an impregnable castle, a bit of mild spying on the Queen’s private correspondence, a pitched battle and a single combat. The mystery part of the plot is fairly slight, and the identity of the culprit is strongly signalled early on, so the eventual revelation may not come as a surprise if you pick up the clue. I thought the ending seemed rather abrupt, but as this is the first of a planned series, perhaps the ‘end’ is intended as more of a pause between this book and the next one.

A straightforward modern prose style makes Outlaw a fast, easy read, ideal if you’re tired after a hard day at work. Modern expletives are refreshingly absent, and Little John in particular has a colourful line in invented curses (e.g. “God’s holy toenails,” “Christ’s crusty drawers”, etc).

A sketch map at the front of the book shows the terrain and dispositions for the climactic (fictional) pitched battle at the manor of Linden Lea. There’s no large map, so readers unfamiliar with English geography might like to have an atlas to hand to locate the more distant places, like Winchester, in relation to the sites of most of the action around Nottingham. A historical note at the end briefly reviews the evidence for a historical Robin Hood, and explains why the author chose to place his version of the legend in the late twelfth century.

Entertaining, easy-reading, all-action adventure based on the Robin Hood legends.

04 December, 2009


Peredur was a Brittonic ruler of the late sixth century, traditionally associated with York and one of the possible sources for the character of Sir Percival in Arthurian romance. What do we know about him?



Gurci ha Peretur mepion eleuther cascord maur map letlum map Cene├║ map Coylhen.
--Harleian genealogies

Gvrgi a Pheredur meibon Eliffer Gosgorduavr m Arthwys m Mar m Keneu m Coel
--Gwr y Gogledd


Three Prostrate Chieftains
…. Gwgon Gwron son of Peredur son of Eliffer of the Great Retinue. And this is why those were called 'Prostrate Chieftains': because they would not seek a dominion, which nobody could deny to them

Three Faithless warbands
…. The War-Band of Gwrgi and Peredur, who abandoned their lord at Caer Greu, when they had an appointment to fight the next day with Eda Great-Knee; and there they were both slain

Three Horse Burdens
….. Corvan, horse of the sons of Eliffer, bore the second Horse-Burden: he carried on his back Gwrgi and Peredur and Dunawd the Stout and Cynfelyn the Leprous(?), to look upon the battle-fog of (the host of) Gwenddolau (in) Ar(f)derydd.
--Hergest Triads

Annales Cambriae

573 The battle of Arfderydd ‡between the sons of Eliffer and Gwenddolau son of Ceidio; in which battle Gwenddolau fell; Merlin went mad.
580 Gwrgi and Peredur sons of Elifert died.
--Annales Cambriae

Medieval Welsh romance title, Peredur son of Efrawg

Historia Brittonum lists Caer Ebrauc among the cities of Britain. Ebrauc and Efrawg are the same name, and Ebrauc looks closely related to Eboracum (the Roman name for York). The title of the romance may indicate that the Peredur of the Triads, genealogies and Annales Cambriae was associated with York. The name of a kingdom is sometimes appended to the name of its ruler (e.g. Urien Rheged, Maelgwn Gwynedd), and a name such as this could have been misinterpreted as a patronymic.

However, there could have been several individuals called Peredur, and the Peredur of the romance (assuming the romance is based on a historical figure at all) may not be the same as the Peredur of the Triads and Annales Cambriae. It is notable that Peredur’s brother Gurci or Gwrgi, bracketed with him in the genealogies, Triads and Annales Cambriae, is missing from the romance, which may indicate a different Peredur. It is also possible that the author of the romance could just have picked a romantic-sounding name at random for the hero of the tale and that the name has no especial significance.

Y Gododdin

Stanza A31
Caradawg and Madawg, Pyll and Ieuan
Gwgaun and Gwiawn, Gwyn and Cynwan,
Peredur of the steel armament, Gorddur and Aeddan
conquerors in the uproar of battle with shields disarrayed
and though they were slain, they slew
None returned to their districts
--Text reconstructed and translated by John Koch, The Gododdin of Aneirin

Other translations render the phrase “Peredur arueu dur” as “Peredur Steel Arm” or “Peredur Steel Arms”.


The two dates of 573 for Peredur’s battle at Arderydd and 580 for his death in Annales Cambriae are not inconsistent with each other. Eda Great-Knee in the Triads is often considered to be a reference to Ida of Bernicia, whom Bede says reigned for 12 years starting in 547 (Bede, Ecclesiastical History, Book V ch.24). This would mean that Ida died in 559 or thereabouts, which is inconsistent with his being responsible for killing Peredur in 580.

Where the dates of events in Annales Cambriae can be compared with dates for the same events in Bede’s history, they agree within a few years (see the list in Dating the Battle of Chester for examples). A discrepancy of 20+ years is unusual. It is of course possible that either Bede or Annales Cambriae has got the date wildly wrong, but another possibility may be that Eda Great-Knee is not Ida of Bernicia.

Historia Brittonum mentions a son of Ida called Adda:
Ida had twelve sons, Adda, Belric Theodric, Thelric, Theodhere, Osmer, and one queen Bearnoch
-- Historia Brittonum ch. 57

If Eda Great-Knee of the Triads was Adda son of Ida, rather than Ida, then the discrepancy over the date may be resolved. Historia Brittonum goes on to say:
63. Adda, son of Ida, reigned eight years; Ethelric, son of Adda, reigned four years. Theodoric, son of Ida, reigned seven years. Freothwulf reigned six years. In whose time the kingdom of Kent, by the mission of Gregory, received baptism Hussa reigned seven years. Against him fought four kings, Urien, and Ryderthen, and Gualllauc, and Morcant. Theodoric fought bravely, together with his sons, against that Urien.
--Historia Brittonum ch. 63

It is worth noting that this entry refers to Ethelric son of Adda, and the previous entry referred to Thelric son of Ida. If these are the same individual, then perhaps even the compiler of Historia Brittonum got the names Ida and Adda confused on occasion.

Adda’s reign cannot be dated accurately, though if the order of the text in Historia Brittonum reflects the order of events his reign was presumably some time before 597 when Augustine arrived in Kent. He may be a candidate for Eda Great-Knee in the Triads, or Eda Great-Knee may be someone whose name has been otherwise lost to history. On the whole, I would be inclined to accept the dates in Annales Cambriae for Peredur’s career, and identify Eda Great-Knee as either Adda son of Ida or some other individual with a similar name.

Peredur is listed in Y Gododdin as a battle casualty at Catraeth, which is inconsistent with the Triads unless Catraeth is another name for Caer Greu. As neither place has been definitively identified, this is a possibility. However, the heroic slaughter at Catraeth lauded in Y Gododdin is difficult to square with the Faithless Warband of the Triads. It is possible that there was more than one individual with the name Peredur. The name Gwgaun (Peredur’s son from the Triads) is mentioned in the same stanza, but I can’t see a name that looks obviously like Peredur’s brother Gwrgi or Gurci in the stanza. Gorddur is the nearest, and I don’t think it’s the same name. Given that Peredur and Gwrgi are generally bracketed together in the Triads, Annales Cambriae and the genealogies, this might be a slight indication that the Peredur of Y Gododdin is a different individual. Another possibility may be that the poet who composed Y Gododdin borrowed the names of heroes from other stories.

All the surviving references to Peredur have some connection with the region that is now northern England or southern Scotland. He appears in the genealogy called Gwr y Gogledd “Descent of the Men of the North”, the medieval romance apparently associates him with York, the battle of Arderydd is usually identified with the parish of Arthuret near Longtown in Cumbria, and if Y Gododdin refers to the same Peredur he is in company with a group of heroes from what is now southern Scotland.

It seems reasonable to infer that Peredur was a royal or noble warrior whose territory lay in what is now northern England, and that he lived some time in the later sixth century. Although far from certain, there is nothing to contradict the medieval romance locating him at Caer Ebrauc (modern York), nor is there any compelling reason not to accept the date of his death given in Annales Cambriae in 580. Given that the compiler of Annales Cambriae recorded two entries relating to Peredur, we can infer that he was an important man, or at least one about whom stories were told (which itself may imply that he and/or his family were important and/or rich enough to pay poets).

The genealogies both end at his generation, and the only reference to the next generation is to Peredur’s son Gwgaun, who is noted in the Triads as a son who did not (re)claim his inheritance. This is consistent with Peredur’s family having lost control of their territory after Peredur’s death. If Peredur was the king of a kingdom centred on York, this in turn would be consistent with the Deiran kings under Aelle of Deira taking control of York after Peredur’s death in 580, which could explain how Aelle’s son came to be in control of the city in 627. Whether the Deiran kings attacked and killed Peredur, or had some claim to be legitimate successors, or simply moved into a power vacuum and held onto it, or some combination thereof, is open to interpretation.

Annales Cambriae, available online
Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Translated by Leo Sherley-Price, Penguin, 1990, ISBN 0-14-044565-X.
Gwr y Gogledd, available online
Harleian genealogy, available online
Historia Brittonum, available online
Koch J. The Gododdin of Aneirin. Text and context from dark-age North Britain. University of Wales Press, 1997. ISBN 0-7083-1374-4
Peredur Son of Efrawg. In: The Mabinogion. Translated by Gwyn Jones and Thomas Jones. Everyman Classics, 1989. ISBN 0-460-15097-9
Triads, Red Book of Hergest, available online

Map links