25 November, 2010

November recipe: Braised red cabbage and pork

Red cabbage and cooking apples are both in season in late autumn and early winter, usually harvested earlier in the autumn.

The brilliant red-purple of braised red cabbage is a cheerful splash of colour as the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness gives way to fog and frosts.

Both red cabbage and apples seem to go particularly well with pork. This recipe works equally well with pork chops or pork steaks, either grilled or fried as you see fit.

Serves 2

Braised red cabbage with fried pork steak

Braised red cabbage
8 oz (approx 250 g) red cabbage
4 oz (approx 125 g) cooking apple
Half a small onion
About a teaspoon (1 x 5 ml spoon) of butter
1 teaspoon (1 x 5 ml spoon) granulated sugar
1 Tablespoon (1 x 15 ml spoon) white wine vinegar or cider vinegar
About 3-4 fl. oz (approx 75-100 ml) water

2 pork steaks or pork chops

Half a small onion
About half an ounce (approx 10 g) butter
2 teaspoons (2 x 5 ml spoon) flour
About 0.25 pt (approx 150 ml) milk
1 teaspoon (1 x 5 ml spoon) tomato puree
1 teaspoon (1 x 5 ml spoon) ready-made mustard

Remove the outer leaves from the cabbage and cut out the tough stalk in the centre. Cut into shreds.

Peel and core the cooking apple, and chop into chunks. Peel and chop the half onion (put the other half aside for the sauce).

Cook the cabbage in boiling water for 3-5 minutes, then drain. At this stage the cabbage will look a rather unappealing blue colour. Don’t worry. In a few minutes you can perform some kitchen alchemy with vinegar and turn it red again.

Add the butter to the drained cabbage and cook gently over a low heat to melt the butter. Stir in the chopped apple and onion.

Stir in the sugar and vinegar. The acid in the vinegar will turn the cabbage a cheerful red-purple colour. Add the water, season with salt and pepper to taste, cover the pan and simmer over a low heat for about 30 minutes until the cabbage is tender. Stir from time to time to make sure it isn’t sticking to the bottom of the pan, and add a little more water if necessary. Only add a small amount of water at a time, because when it has finished cooking most of the water should have gone, leaving just a small amount of cooking juices.

While the cabbage is cooking, fry or grill the pork chops or pork steaks. I fry them in butter or cooking oil over a moderate heat for about 5-7 minutes each side.

To make the sauce, peel and chop half a small onion and fry gently in the butter in a small saucepan until softened and starting to colour.

Remove from the heat and stir in the flour, mixing well so that the flour coats the onion pieces. Pour in the milk.

Return the saucepan to the heat and bring to the boil, stirring all the time. When the sauce thickens, turn the heat down and add the mustard and tomato puree. Season with salt and pepper. If it is too thick for your liking, stir in a little more milk. Simmer over a low heat for 1-2 minutes.

Pour the sauce over the cooked pork steak or chops. Serve with the braised red cabbage and mashed potatoes.

19 November, 2010

Ruso and the Demented Doctor, by RS Downie. Book review

Penguin, 2009. ISBN 978-0-141-02726-5. 462 pages

Also published under the title Terra Incognita. Sometimes the author’s name appears as Ruth Downie, sometimes as RS Downie.

Second in the Medicus Ruso Roman historical mystery series, Ruso and the Demented Doctor is set in AD 118 in and around Coria (modern Corbridge) in the north of the Roman province of Britannia. All the main characters are fictional.

Gaius Petreius Ruso, Medicus (army surgeon) with the Roman Twentieth Legion in Deva (modern Chester), has volunteered to accompany a detachment on a mission to the northern border*, partly as a way of taking his housekeeper and girlfriend Tilla home to visit her remaining family and friends. Before they even arrive, Ruso learns there is trouble among the local population, not least from a man with antlers on his head – the Stag Man – who claims to be a messenger from the gods. Things get even worse after arriving in Coria, where Ruso is pitched unwillingly into a politically sensitive murder investigation. A soldier has been gruesomely killed in a back alley, and the fort doctor has apparently gone insane and confessed to the murder. Ruso is ordered to get the doctor to retract his confession, so the Prefect’s aide can arrest the preferred suspect, a local rebel sympathiser. On top of this, Ruso is also supposed to sort out the hopelessly inefficient – and, as he gradually discovers, possibly corrupt – fort medical service. And just to make his life even more complicated, his lovely girlfriend Tilla is even more troublesome than usual now she is home, especially when it turns out that the Romans’ preferred suspect for the murder is her childhood friend and former lover….

Ruso and the Demented Doctor lives up to the high standards of its predecessor, Ruso and the Disappearing Dancing Girls (reviewed here in August 2010). The dry humour that was such an appealing feature of the first novel is back, as Ruso the eternal straight man gamely tries to navigate the bewildering native customs, Tilla’s self-willed independence of thought and action, the antics of the infirmary staff and the devious machinations of security officer Metellus. Ruso himself is as decent and likeable as ever, although he can be so obtuse in emotional matters that I can’t help thinking his ex-wife may have had a point when she told him he was impossible to live with. The beautiful and enigmatic Tilla comes more to the fore here on her home ground, torn between her affection for Ruso and her suspicion of Rome. More is revealed about the sad fate of her family and the events that led to Ruso buying her at death’s door from an abusive slave dealer in far-off Deva.

Minor characters are as individual as the two leads, whether they are secondary characters from Ruso and the Disappearing Dancing Girls making a reappearance – slimy Claudius Innocens, cheerfully egotistical Valens – or new actors in the new story. Of the latter, I found Metellus especially convincing as the Prefect’s aide, a sort of head of the security police, polite, amoral and chillingly ruthless.

The mystery plot is rather more substantial than in Ruso and the Disappearing Dancing Girls, and the solution isn’t obvious in advance (or at least, I didn’t spot it). An especially interesting feature of the novel is the vivid portrayal of a Roman frontier fort and its associated shanty town, full of the soldiers’ relatives and traders on the make. Some of the local British population have decided that the Romans have something to offer and have moved into town, set up businesses servicing the Army, and begun adopting Roman names and Roman ways. Others regard the Romans with suspicion and outright hostility. The different customs and ideas, and the interactions and conflicts between them, make for a thought-provoking picture of culture clash and transition, with no easy answers.

Ruso’s relationship with Tilla, which was just getting started in the first book, develops and deepens further in this one. It’s another feature of the novel that I found especially convincing. Both are likeable and sympathetic characters, both are independent adults with their own history and their own values, sometimes resulting in mutual incomprehension and mistrust that conflicts with their attraction to each other. Their relationship is important to them, but it is not the only thing in their lives, and if it is to work they will need to find some sort of mutually acceptable balance. The quote at the beginning of the paperback, from the poet Martial, says “I can’t live with you – nor without you.” Very apt. I look forward to more of this intriguing relationship in the next instalment.

A useful map at the front of the book places the locations in their geographical context, and a brief Author’s Note at the end sketches some of the underlying history.

Delightful historical mystery told with wry humour and deft characterisation, set against the contrasting cultures of northern Britain and the Roman Army in the second century AD.

*Hadrian’s Wall has yet to be built, so the border at this stage is just a road linking a string of forts.

12 November, 2010

Staffordshire Hoard – revisited

Jonathan Jarrett has some interesting additional information on the Staffordshire Hoard on his blog, reporting from a seminar held at Oxford in October this year. Read the article here.

The Staffordshire Hoard
I’m sure you all remember the Staffordshire Hoard, discovered in 2009. If you need to refresh your memory, see my post on the Hoard and the comments thread, and Jonathan’s post on Cliopatria.

The Hoard was discovered at Hammerwich (Map here), in the heartland of the early medieval kingdom of Mercia. It is near the Mercian royal centre at Tamworth and the Mercian ecclesiastical centre at Lichfield, and very close to the Roman road of Watling Street.

At the time of the announcement of the discovery, it was thought that the hoard’s burial site was a field in the middle of nowhere, as there was no evidence of any structures in the vicinity. This, coupled with its proximity to the road, supported interpretations suggesting that the Staffordshire Hoard was buried in a hurry in adverse circumstances by someone who was unable to recover it subsequently, perhaps because the people who buried it were being pursued by an enemy and did not survive to recover the hoard or reveal its location. Whether this represented someone burying their wealth for safekeeping from enemies, an attempt to recover tribute yielded unwillingly by a defeated army, a sort of seventh-century jewel heist (theft of a royal treasury?) gone disastrously wrong, or any number of other interpretations, is open to discussion.

Was the Staffordshire Hoard originally under a mound?
Jonathan’s blog post adds the important new information that the site of the hoard might originally have been under a mound.

“It also emerged later that the deposition site may have once had a mound over it, which would have been quite clear from the road”
-- http://tenthmedieval.wordpress.com/2010/11/03/seminary-lxviii-a-namecheck-to-be-treasured/

If true, this turns the idea of a hasty burial completely on its head. Raising a mound is a non-trivial task requiring quite a lot of labour (how much depends on the size of the mound). It’s not something you can do in a hurry with an enemy in hot pursuit. If there was a mound raised over the Staffordshire Hoard, it suggests that the hoard was deposited deliberately and was meant to be marked and remembered.

Valuable objects buried under a mound are well-known from rich graves, like the ones at Sutton Hoo. However, the Staffordshire Hoard site was excavated by archaeologists and no trace of a grave was discovered in the vicinity. Furthermore, the composition of the Staffordshire Hoard was very peculiar, containing a high proportion of precious metal fittings from military equipment, such as sword pommels and helmet pieces, no actual weapons, and no belt fittings, buckles, brooches or strap-ends. This composition is nothing like any grave assemblage I have ever heard of. So it doesn’t look likely that the Staffordshire Hoard was a rich burial (or if it was, it was a very peculiar one).

A ritual deposit?
In my original post I mentioned the possibility of a ritual deposit in passing, but did not consider it in detail because it seemed too inconsistent with the idea of a hurried deposition. However, the suggestion of a mound raised over the site brings the possibility of a deliberate ritual deposit back into the frame.

Ritual deposition of the military equipment of a defeated army is recorded in Germany and southern Scandinavia in the early centuries AD. Tacitus recounts a battle between two first-century German tribes, the Hermundari and the Chatti, in which the entire defeated army and its equipment was sacrificed to the gods:

In the same summer, a great battle was waged between the Hermunduri and Chatti,
both attempting to appropriate by force a river which was at once a rich source
for salt and the frontier line between the tribes. Apart from their
passion for deciding all questions by the sword, they held an ingrained
religious belief that this district was peculiarly close to heaven
The struggle, which went in favour of the Hermunduri, was the more
disastrousยบ to the Chatti in that both sides
consecrated, in the event of victory, the adverse host to Mars and Mercury; a
vow implying the extermination of horses, men, and all objects whatsoever.
--Tacitus, Annals of Imperial Rome, Book 13 ch 57, available online

Archaeological discoveries in Denmark and southern Sweden show that this was not a literary exaggeration or invention; for example, at Illerup in Denmark entire armies’ military equipment has been found systematically broken and dropped into a lake (see this English-language article on the Illerup website for information).

Extrapolating from first- or second-century Germany and Denmark to seventh- or eighth-century England is speculative at best, as should surely go without saying. That said, Tacitus’ description and the Illerup finds offer at least an intriguing parallel. The Staffordshire Hoard contained a high proportion of military items, consistent with an assemblage of war gear. The rich weapon fittings in the Staffordshire Hoard had been stripped from the weapons they had originally adorned, which could be dismantling for re-use or could also be consistent with a form of symbolic destruction. The helmet pieces in the Staffordshire Hoard are fragments of multiple helmets, not pieces of the same helmet, suggesting that the hoard was part of a larger collection and that some of the material ended up elsewhere (see Jonathan’s post), which is reminiscent of the findings from Illerup of different pieces of the same sword in different bundles on the lake bed. This may even provide an answer to the question about what happened to the business end of the weapons – perhaps the blades ended up with the other bits of the various helmets, wherever that is or was.

The Staffordshire Hoard need not necessarily represent the spoils of a single battle. The items may have been accumulated in different places over time and brought together at a later date, perhaps as a tribute payment after a military defeat as Jonathan suggested in his Cliopatria article. Jonathan has the respectable historian’s wariness of romantic ‘storybook’ explanations, and rightly so, though I rather suspect that the deposition of 5 kg of gold composed mostly of fittings from high-status weapons was far from an everyday occurrence and therefore might reasonably be taken to indicate some extraordinary event. Perhaps the Staffordshire Hoard reflects some profoundly important struggle, in which the identity or survival of a kingdom or a people was seen as being at stake. An enormous ritual deposit, made in thanks for victory/survival, as a consequence of defeat, or in fulfilment of an oath, could fit into such a context.

The concept of a ritual deposit also offers a potential explanation for why the Staffordshire Hoard was not recovered – a ritual deposit is not meant to be recovered. Everyone knows it is there, that it is supposed to stay there for all time, and that disturbing it may have appalling consequences. The cup-stealing episode in Beowulf, where theft of a cup from a burial mound brings down the dragon’s wrath and results in the destruction of Beowulf (soon to be followed, it is hinted, by the destruction of his people), offers a glimpse of the sort of beliefs that may have prevailed, even after the conversion to Christianity if the Christian glosses in the poem are anything to go by. By the time such beliefs were no longer current and digging up burial mounds for treasure was permissible, the mound marking the location of the Staffordshire Hoard could have long since eroded away and the existence of the hoard have passed from memory. In a way, this is a simpler explanation than the idea that no-one who buried the Staffordshire Hoard survived to tell the tale.

Tacitus, Annals of Imperial Rome, Book 13 ch 57, available online

05 November, 2010

Lion of Cairo, by Scott Oden. Book review

Transworld, 2010, ISBN 978-0-593-06125-1. 410 pages.

Lion of Cairo is set in and around twelfth-century Cairo. Some of the secondary characters are based on historical figures – I recognised Amalric, King of Jerusalem, and the Syrian general Shirkuh, among others. There may also be other historical figures that I didn’t recognise. The main character, Assad, is fictional.

In Cairo, capital of a decaying empire, the young Caliph Rashid al-Hasan is kept a virtual prisoner in his own palace by his ambitious vizier Jalal. On Egypt’s border, a Syrian army led by a previous scheming vizier and the powerful general Shirkuh is poised to invade. Vizier Jalal is hatching a nefarious plot to ally with the Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem against Syria, murder the Caliph, and seize the throne for himself. But he has reckoned without Assad, the greatest assassin of the age and owner of a legendary blade with malevolent supernatural power, who has been sent by the Hidden Master of Alamut to offer help and alliance to the Caliph. As well as the duplicitous Vizier Jalal and the two invading armies, Assad must also deal with a rival sect of assassins and their leader’s loathsome black magic – a task that will stretch even the formidable Emir of the Knife to his limits.

Like Men of Bronze by the same author, which I reviewed a while ago, Lion of Cairo is a blockbuster adventure in the tradition of Robert E Howard, to whom the novel is dedicated. “Action-packed” would be an understatement. Lion of Cairo is overflowing with spies, political intrigues, secret passages, rival sects, murders, assassinations, conspiracies, betrayals, duels and battle, with a helping of necromancy thrown in. It’s also a very dangerous novel to be a character in, as one might expect of a novel with an Assassin as the central character. This is a story in which political backstabbing isn’t a metaphor. The deaths start in the prologue and reach a truly impressive level by the end of the book. Combat scenes are frequent, detailed and graphic; readers who enjoy violent blow-by-blow fight scenes will find Lion of Cairo much to their taste.

The plot is intricately constructed, with several sub-plots that at first appear to be distinct but which cleverly converge to reach a climax at the final battle. The narrative cuts back and forth between sub-plots and different groups of characters, building suspense by always leaving one sub-plot on a cliffhanger when the scene switches to the next. So much is packed into the story that it’s hard to remember that the main events span only a few days.

Although the setting is medieval Cairo in the second half of the twelfth century, and some real historical events and real historical figures are featured, Lion of Cairo has the larger-than-life feel of a tale from the Arabian Nights. Assad’s fearsome knife, called The Hammer of the Infidel, has some evil supernatural power, which Assad himself does not fully understand (although there is a hint that one of the other characters does, and that this may be taken up in the sequel). The leader of the rival assassin sect in Cairo is a necromancer and black magician, who seems to be seeking occult knowledge among the forgotten remains of ancient Egypt.

In the Author’s Note, Scott Oden says “The Cairo presented herein is not the Cairo of history but rather the Cairo of Scheherezade – a city where the fantastic occurs around every corner.” And indeed it does – the city of Cairo is drawn so vividly that it is almost a character in its own right, a teeming metropolis filled with colour, glamour and squalor, where new buildings jostle for space with ruins of unimaginable antiquity, a city filled with the energy of life and with the risk of sudden, violent death. In its variety and vigour it reminds me a little of Terry Pratchett’s Ankh-Morpork, and trust me, that is a compliment.

The ending leaves clear scope for a sequel. There are still plenty of ambitious men with designs on Cairo, and the history of Assad’s mysterious knife is still to be resolved. Not to mention the appearance near the end of a charming and capable young man by the name of Yusuf ibn Ayyub, who (if I have identified him correctly) has an exciting role ahead of him.

Violent, action-packed adventure fantasy full of swords and sorcery, following in the heroic tradition of RE Howard.