30 June, 2011

June recipe: Gooseberry meringue pie

Summer time, and the gooseberry season comes round again. I’ve previously posted recipes for gooseberry fool and gooseberry jam. Last year, Gabriele commented that meringue-topped tarts or pies are called Baisertorten in Germany, and can be made with gooseberries. So I thought I would try making a gooseberry meringue pie this season. I made the recipe up, and it seems to have worked well. I used green gooseberries, which are the first to come into season, and I should think it would also work perfectly well with red gooseberries. Here’s the recipe:

Gooseberry meringue pie

Sweet pastry
6 oz (approx 150 g) plain flour
4.5 oz (approx 125 g) butter
2 Tablespoons (2 x 15 ml spoons) icing sugar
1 egg yolk

Gooseberry filling
10 oz (approx 300 g) gooseberries
3 oz (approx 80 g) light brown soft sugar
1 oz (approx 30 g) cornflour
1 egg yolk

2 egg whites
2 oz (approx 50 g) white sugar (granulated or caster)

To make the pastry case
Sieve the icing sugar and mix with the flour

Rub the butter into the flour and icing sugar until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs.

Stir in the egg yolk and mix to a soft dough. In theory, you’re supposed to chill the pastry in the refrigerator overnight. I never do, and it seems to be fine. This quantity of pastry will make enough for two tart cases, so split the dough into two. The second piece can be frozen and used for another tart or mince pies. (Or you could use ready-made pastry if you prefer)

Roll out pastry thickly and line a flan tin about 7 inches (approx 28 cm) in diameter.

Bake the pastry case ‘blind’, i.e. empty, in a hot oven approx 200 C for about 10 - 15 minutes until pastry is set.

To make the filling
Wash the gooseberries. Top and tail them (i.e. cut off the stalk at one end and the remains of the flower at the other).

Put the gooseberries in a pan with the sugar. Heat gently (lowest possible setting) until the gooseberries release some juice, stir to dissolve the sugar. Simmer for about 10 minutes until the fruit is cooked.

Mix the cornflour to a smooth paste with a little water.

Pour the cornflour paste into the gooseberries, stirring all the time. Bring to the boil. It should thicken to a near-solid consistency.

Remove from the heat and allow to cool a little. Beat in the egg yolk. (The spare egg yolk will keep in the fridge for a day or two and can be used in custard tart)

Pour the gooseberry filling into the cooked pastry case.

To make the meringue
Whisk the egg whites in a clean bowl until standing in soft peaks.

Fold in the sugar using a metal spoon.

Pile the meringue on top of the gooseberry filling in the cooked pastry case.

Bake in a hot oven, approx 180 - 200 C, for 10 – 15 minutes until the meringue is set, crisp and golden brown.

Serve hot or cold. I expect to get 4 – 6 slices out of this recipe, but that depends how big a slice you like. It will keep a day or so at room temperature if you don’t eat it all at one sitting.

29 June, 2011

Giveaway of Moon In Leo at Trifolium Books

Trifolium Books UK are running a giveaway of the e-book of Moon In Leo by Kathleen Herbert (reviewed here last month) for today, 29 June, only. This is the anniversary of the day when Kathleen, debilitated from a stroke, gave the draft of Moon In Leo to Connie Jensen in two carrier bags. Connie and Mike Jensen at Trifolium edited the draft into final form, and then published it in print and e-book.

Giveaway open to anyone on the planet for 24 hours only, until midnight UK time today. Simply go to the Smashwords page for Moon In Leo, select the e-book format of your choice (Kindle, Epub, etc), and enter the free coupon code posted by Connie Jensen on the Trifolium Books blog to download the e-book for free. Instructions, link and coupon code are now up on the Trifolium Books blog here.

While you're there, you might like to have a look at Connie's charming little short story for children, Farmer Ted's Easy Day, available free of charge all the time.

28 June, 2011

Paths of Exile: new cover

Here is a preview of the new Trifolium Books cover for Paths of Exile.

There's a post about the background to the double-headed dragon design on the Trifolium Books website here.

23 June, 2011

Paths of Exile to be re-published by Trifolium Books

I am delighted to announce that Paths of Exile is to be republished by Trifolium Books in July 2011.

It will have a new cover, revised and expanded maps and a new character list, together with a new print layout. The publisher, Connie Jensen, explains her approach to layout and design here.

Trifolium Books is an independent publisher based in Cumbria, UK. Their first title was Kathleen Herbert's last novel Moon In Leo, which I reviewed here (before Trifolium decided to publish Paths of Exile), and they are investigating the possibility of republishing her excellent Cumbrian Trilogy in due course. I've long admired Kathleen Herbert's Cumbrian novels, and am very pleased to have my novel(s) under the same roof.

Paths of Exile should be available some time in July, with e-book editions for Kindle, iPad and other formats to follow shortly. More details here and on the publisher's website as they become available.

16 June, 2011

The Dig, by John Preston. Book review

Penguin, 2008, ISBN 978-0-141-01638-2. 230 pages

The Dig is set in the summer of 1939 during the discovery and excavation of the Sutton Hoo ship burial. All the main characters are historical figures. Note that the author’s note says that “Certain changes have been made for dramatic effect”, but no further detail is given about what has been changed. Readers looking for an account of the actual excavation should consider themselves warned that they should not treat the novel as fact.

In April 1939, as clouds of imminent war gather over Europe, Mrs Edith Pretty of Sutton Hoo House, Suffolk, asks local archaeologist Basil Brown to excavate the ancient mounds on her land. When Basil unearths the ship-rivets of a magnificent early medieval ship, apparently undisturbed, academics from London and Cambridge promptly descend on the site, all eager to be involved in what promises to be a major discovery. When young Peggy Piggott, newly married to her former professor, discovers the first items of exquisite gold jewellery in the remains of the burial chamber, it becomes clear that this dig will exceed anything that had previously been imagined.

This is a slim volume, more of a novella than a novel, beautifully written in precise, literary prose. Sections are narrated in turn by Edith Pretty, Basil Brown and Peggy Piggott, each with their own distinctive tone. Peggy’s narrative in particular captures some of the wonder and awe inspired by the discovery of the burial; however, for the most part the ship burial is a backdrop for the characters’ emotions and relationships. Each character has their own concerns and preoccupations, and these form the main focus of the novel. Edith Pretty, widowed, lonely, in failing health and seeking solace in spiritualism, is increasingly anxious about her young son Robert and her ability to be a satisfactory mother to him. Peggy Piggott is intelligent and sensitive, and already uncomfortably aware that her marriage to her former university professor is in trouble, even though they are still on their honeymoon. She is at a loss as to why, or what to do about it, and even more uncertain about how she should react to Mrs Pretty’s nephew Rory, who is turning out to be something of a kindred spirit. Basil Brown, despite being “a tough old bird” for whom “it takes a lot to ruffle my feathers”, resents the high-handed manner in which he is pushed aside by the bombastic academic who muscles in on the excavation. All these contrasting people are brought together by the discovery of the ship, which holds its own significance and resonance for each of them.

The style is understated, and much is hinted at and left to the reader’s imagination. Expect to have to read between the lines and to be alert for small clues. In particular, the conflict between the academics, the Ipswich Museum staff and Mrs Pretty over who gets to run the excavation almost all happens off-stage. There are a few hints in Basil Brown’s narrative, but surprisingly little sense of the professional rivalries and passions that must surely have run high over such an important discovery.

An epilogue, narrated by Edith Pretty’s son Robert, gives the endings to most of the characters’ stories, although questions still remain.

Short, light, literary interpretation of some of the people involved in the discovery of the Sutton Hoo ship burial in 1939.

07 June, 2011

Hanging bowls

Replica of the large hanging bowl from the Sutton Hoo ship burial, in a reconstruction of the burial chamber at the Sutton Hoo Visitor Centre.

Hanging bowls are impressive and rather enigmatic artefacts mainly found in princely ‘Anglo-Saxon’ burials in what is now eastern England.

They are typically large circular bowls made from thin copper-alloy (bronze, brass or related alloys*) sheet, with three attachment points for suspension cords or chains. The large bowl at Sutton Hoo (see photo) was approximately 30 cm in diameter and 13 cm deep as reconstructed from the fragmentary state in which it was found. It had been hung on a nail on the chamber wall by one of its suspension rings, but presumably the bowls were normally suspended using all three rings.

The attachment points are sometimes simple rings or loops, or sometimes fashioned in the shapes of birds or animals whose heads or necks form the attachment ring. The large bowl at Sutton Hoo has attachments in the shape of animal heads that appear to be looking over into the interior of the bowl (Pollington 2003). Decorative mounts were typically applied to the attachment points. Sometimes the mounts were integrated with the attachment point to form a decorative structure. For example, a hanging bowl from York has mounts in the form of birds with the birds’ heads and beaks forming the attachment points (see picture on the York Museums Trust website here). Sometimes the mounts were separate, for example, in the large Sutton Hoo hanging bowl the mounts have a geometric swirling pattern in coloured enamels and are not part of the animal heads that form the attachment points. The large Sutton Hoo bowl also has three decorative square panels applied to the outside of the bowl between the mounts (see photo).

Many of the bowls also have decorative mounts on the inside of the base. For example, the bowl from York has silver interlace panels on the inside and outside of the base (Tweddle et al 1999). Uniquely (so far), the large Sutton Hoo hanging bowl has a model of a trout or similar fish mounted on the inside of the base on a pin that allowed the fish to rotate (Carver 1998).


Most hanging bowls are found in rich furnished graves in areas that are now in eastern England and dated to the seventh or early eighth century. It is possible that all known examples belong to this date range (Geake 1999). This tells us when it was fashionable to place hanging bowls in graves, which is not necessarily the same as the period when the bowls were made and used. The hanging bowls could have been made and used for an unknown period before being placed in the graves, and they could have continued in manufacture and use for an unknown period after furnished burial ceased. The large Sutton Hoo hanging bowl and a further hanging bowl found in a cremation cemetery discovered at the Sutton Hoo Visitor Centre had both been repaired before being buried (Pollington 2003). This may simply suggest that hanging bowls had a hard life that made them prone to damage; the thin bronze sheet does not look particularly robust and perhaps they were vulnerable to being cracked or bent if dropped. Or it may indicate that the bowls had been in use for a while, perhaps a long while, before burial.

Hanging bowls are mainly found in furnished early medieval burials in eastern England, generally categorised as ‘Anglo-Saxon’. It may be that hanging bowls were only used in these areas, and perhaps had some special significance in the local high-status culture. However, the apparent distribution may also reflect selective survival of evidence. Rich furnished burials with their concentration of artefacts (many of which may be dateable) are highly ‘visible’ forms of archaeology. In western Britain, where furnished burials are rare to non-existent, hanging bowls may have been used but not survived because they were not buried. We can safely say that hanging bowls were used (at least as grave goods) in eastern Britain where they are found, but not necessarily that they were not used elsewhere.


The decoration on the mounts often uses abstract spiral or scroll patterns of a style categorised as British or Irish ** (Pollington 2003). This may indicate that the hanging bowls (or at least the mounts) were made in Brittonic kingdoms or in Ireland and travelled to the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ kingdoms in eastern England where they are mainly found as part of trade, tribute, loot, diplomacy, gift exchange or marriage. Or the same artistic style may also have been in use by craftsmen working in eastern England, either as a local tradition or copied from itinerant craftsmen or both. Whether the hanging bowls were thought of as specifically ‘Brittonic’ by the people who deposited them as grave goods, or whether they were simply thought of as exotic luxury items suitable for proclaiming wealth and status, is open to question.


This is what makes the hanging bowls enigmatic; their function is not known with any certainty. The thin copper-alloy sheet is not robust enough to make them useful cooking pots (Pollington 2003). Were they serving vessels or storage containers? If so, what did they hold and how might they have been used? More on this issue in another post.

Carver M. Sutton Hoo: Burial ground of kings? British Museum Press, 1998, ISBN: 0-7141-0591-0.
Geake H. When were hanging bowls deposited in Anglo-Saxon graves? Medieval Archaeology 1999;43:1-18, available online.
Pollington S. The mead-hall. Anglo-Saxon Books, 2003. ISBN 1-898281-30-0.
Tweddle D, Moulden J, Logan E. Anglian York: a survey of the evidence. Council for British Archaeology/York Archaeological Trust, 1999. ISBN 1-902771-06-0.

*In theory, bronze is an alloy of copper with a bit of tin, brass is an alloy of copper with a bit of zinc. In practice, both terms are somewhat imprecise and can refer to a range of alloys that are mostly copper with various amounts of other metals. Copper alloy is a useful catch-all term.

**The usual caveat applies (and should go without saying) that objects do not of themselves have ethnicity.