29 August, 2011

August recipe: Plum jam

Plums are abundant in August and early September. If you have a surplus, one way to store them is in plum jam. Any variety of plum can be used to make jam, or you can use a mixture of different varieties according to taste and availability. Dark purple plums tend to make a deeper coloured jam, whereas pink-hued plums like Victorias will make a lighter colour.

The quantity below will make about three or four medium-sized jars of jam. You can start eating it straight away, or it will keep indefinitely provided the seal of the jar isn’t broken.

Plum jam

2 lb (approx 1 kg) plums, any variety or a mixture
2 lb (approx 1 kg) sugar. I usually use granulated sugar

Wash the plums.

Halve and stone the plums. If the plums are large, chop the halved plums into pieces of the size you would like to find in the finished jam.

Put the chopped plums in a large saucepan with 2 Tblsp (approx 30 ml) water.

Cook over a very gentle heat until the juice starts to run. Then simmer for 15 – 20 minutes until the fruit is soft enough to mash with a wooden spoon. You don’t actually have to mash it, and I usually don’t because I like whole fruit jam, but it’s a good indicator for when the fruit is ready to go on to the next stage.

Add the sugar and stir until it has dissolved (a minute or so).

Add a small piece of butter. This is supposed to help stop the jam sticking.

Bring the jam to a full rolling boil – this means lots of bubbles across the whole surface of the liquid in the pan (see picture). Don’t lean over the pan and keep any children or pets out of the way. Boiling jam will sometimes spit, and as it is both hot and sticky it can give an unpleasant burn.

Boiling jam (All together now: "Double, double, toil and trouble....")

Boil until the setting point is reached. To test for setting point, scoop out a teaspoonful of jam and drip it onto a cold plate. It will form a pool. (If it forms a bead, your jam is ready – take it off the heat straight away and proceed to the next step). Wait for the pool to cool (30 seconds or so), then push it horizontally with your finger. If the surface wrinkles, the jam is ready. If the pool stays liquid, keep boiling for another 2 minutes and test again. I usually find this jam reaches setting point after about 15 minutes boiling.*

Remove the jam from the heat, and pour into clean glass jars. I find the easiest way to do this is to pour from the pan into a heatproof jug, then use the jug to fill the jars.

Seal the jars immediately. I seal jam jars with a layer of cling film and then a screw-top lid, but you can use any method of your choice as long as it is air-tight.

Let the jars cool, label them, and store in a cupboard until needed.

You can scale up the quantity as you see fit, but remember that you need plenty of space in the pan for the jam to boil without boiling over. If the pan is about half-full after you put the sugar in, that should be about right.

*I am told that a sugar thermometer makes it easier to recognise setting point. I’ve never used one, so can’t comment. The old-fashioned way works for me.

24 August, 2011

Paths of Exile now available as e-book

Paths of Exile is now available as an e-book on Amazon Kindle UK, Amazon Kindle US and in several e-book formats including Kindle, Epub (Nook, Sony Reader, Kobo), Palm Doc and others on Smashwords. The first 20% is available in most formats on Smashwords if you want to try before you buy.

19 August, 2011

Burgh Castle Roman fort: Church of St Peter and St Paul

The remains of the Roman shore fort are by far the most impressive visible features on the site of Burgh Castle Roman fort, with three of the four walls and their massive bastions still standing to near full height (see my previous post for pictures).

The church of St Peter and St Paul stands one field north of the remains of the Roman fort (see map link here). It is is an attractive small church with a round tower. The listed building record identifies the tower as late 11th century, with the rest of the church being later (British Listed Buildings).

Church of St Peter and St Paul, Burgh Castle

I wonder if some of the red bricks and tiles visible in the tower (among the flintwork and around the arched window, not at the top of the tower which looks like a later rebuild) are Roman bricks and tiles recycled from the nearby Roman fort.

Close up of tower showing red bricks and tiles among the flints and around the window

Most round church towers are found in East Anglia, mainly in Norfolk, some in Suffolk, and a handful in Essex and neighbouring counties. Why round towers? One possibility is that round towers were chosen as a consequence of the local building materials. The main building stone available in most of East Anglia is flint, which comes in irregular nodules. Flint makes a perfectly good building material, especially if combined with plenty of mortar, but it isn’t great for the construction of corners. This can be solved by importing stone from elsewhere to make the corners (you can see this technique in the corners of the church doorway in the photo). Or it can be solved by avoiding corners if at all possible and building round towers.

Another possibility is that round towers happened to be fashionable, or were chosen as part of an expression of regional or local identity. A thought that occurs to me is to wonder if round church towers could have been influenced or inspired by the round bastions on surviving Roman fortifications. Remains like Burgh Castle Roman fort are impressive even now and must have been more so a thousand years ago when the Roman forts were better preserved and large buildings were fewer than today. Someone who had seen one of the Roman forts might have decided to follow this example of how to build a tower, on the practical grounds that it had clearly worked in the past, and then the idea may have been copied at nearby sites and become a local fashion. If the forts were even vaguely remembered as ‘Roman’ structures, it may also have seemed fitting to borrow some of their architecture when building churches for a religion whose headquarters was Rome. Early monastic foundations built within Roman shore forts may also have reinforced such an association. I need hardly say that this is speculative.

Burgh Castle Roman Fort is a possible site for the seventh-century monastery called Cnobheresburg, mentioned in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History. If this is the case, the existing church may be a replacement for an earlier church, either on the same site or nearby, perhaps within the walls of the Roman fort. The dedication to St Peter and St Paul is consistent with an early foundation; Aethelbert of Kent built a monastery with a church dedicated to St Peter and St Paul in 602 (Bede Book I Ch. 33), the church built in York in 626 was dedicated to St Peter (Bede Book II Ch. 14), and the seventh-century Chapel of St Peter on the Wall at the Roman shore fort near Bradwell-on-Sea in Essex is a likely candidate for the church founded at a place called Ythancaestir in 654 (Bede, Book III Ch. 22). More about Cnobheresburg in another post.

Bede, Ecclesiastical history of the English people. Translated by Leo Sherley-Price. Penguin Classics, 1968, ISBN 0-14-044565-X.
British Listed Buildings, Church of St Peter and St Paul, Burgh Castle, available online

11 August, 2011

Libertas, by Alistair Forrest. Book review

Edition reviewed: Quaestor2000, 2009. ISBN 978-1-906836-07-8. 218 pages. Also available as an e-book in various formats at Amazon Kindle and Smashwords.

Libertas is set in the first century BC in southern Spain and the Mediterranean, against the background of the civil war between Roman generals Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great. The historical figure of Sextus Pompey (younger son of Pompey the Great) is an important secondary character, and other historical figures including Julius Caesar, Gnaeus Pompey (elder brother of Sextus), Marcus Agrippa and Titus Labienus make brief appearances. All the main characters are fictional.

Melqart, nicknamed Pito, is the son of a respected baker in the quietly prosperous mountain town of Munda in Hispania Ulterior (modern southern Spain). When the Roman army decides that Munda’s location is of strategic importance, Pito’s talent for invention earns him a role as a surveyor, map-maker and deviser of a signalling system. But when Munda finds itself the focal point for a savage battle in the Roman civil war, Pito’s old enemy, the villainous local thug Arsay, sees his chance to seize power. If Pito is to survive and rescue his beloved family from slavery, it will take all his courage and ingenuity, not to mention the help of unexpected allies…

Melqart (Pito), the central character and narrator of this adventure tale, is an unusual and likeable hero. A reluctant warrior who only fights if he has to, Pito would much rather solve a problem by applying his brains than his fists. He turns out to be a talented inventor, coming up with innovations such as a mirror signalling system, a retractable keel and a torpedo. Pito is drawn to knowledge in all its forms, from the library of scrolls left by the Greek philosopher Archimedes* in Syracuse to the spiritual wisdom of the enigmatic mountain hermit Uriel. He also has a semi-mystical relationship with the magnificent mountain eagles that patrol the skies above Munda. Indeed, the eagles are as important as the human characters, intervening decisively at crucial points in Pito’s life.

The historical Sextus Pompey displayed considerable enterprise after his father’s defeat, not only managing to avoid getting killed but setting up for a while as a successful pirate and operator of a maritime protection racket on the island of Sicily. He is a memorable character in Libertas, a rogue with style, wit and charm who, despite his shrewd eye for the main chance, is generous and immensely loyal to his friends, including those of modest status like Pito.

Pito’s adventures take him far and wide across the Mediterranean to the desert kingdoms of North Africa and the volcanoes of Sicily, encountering a variety of different cultures and people. Details of daily life – baking bread, a village feast, growing and preparing food – are described with as much care as the dramatic scenes of battle, storm and volcanic eruption. The landscape of southern Spain around Munda (modern Monda) is beautifully portrayed, with its craggy peaks, aromatic mountain pastures, rivers, ravines and olive groves. Pito reflects from time to time that Munda is a little corner of Paradise on earth, and it would be difficult not to agree with him.

Libertas shows how a largely peaceable and prosperous community can be suddenly devastated, just because it happens to be a convenient place for a battle between rival foreign powers. The inhabitants of Munda have little or no direct involvement in the conflict between Roman political factions, but the war arrives anyway with all the random violence of a hurricane, wreaks its havoc and leaves the bewildered survivors to pick up the pieces as best they can.

The Battle of Munda in 45 BC was a real event, although its location is uncertain according to the Author’s Note. Here it is placed near modern Monda, inland from the Costa del Sol. The fictional coastal village of Apollacta is a clever play on the modern name of the coast – it translates as ‘Apollo’s Shore’ or the coast of the sun god. Holidaymakers heading off for a break in the sun this summer might like to pack a copy of Libertas and imagine what this popular corner of southern Spain might have been like two thousand years ago.

A short Author’s Note at the back summarises some of the underlying history, and two maps at the front show the location of Munda and a plan of the town as imagined in the novel. Particularly useful is a map showing the battlefield of Munda in detail and the dispositions of the forces involved, sensibly placed in the relevant chapter so the reader can refer to it during the gripping battle scenes.

Fast-paced adventure tale of invention, courage, friendship and survival, set in the idyllic landscape of southern Spain against the background of the civil war between Caesar and Pompey.

*Yes, that Archimedes, he of the “Eureka” moment, the Archimedes screw, etc.

05 August, 2011

Locations: Derbyshire’s gritstone tors

Gritstone tors on Kinder Scout

Gritstone is the characteristic rock of the ‘Dark Peak’ landscape, extending in an arc around the west, north and east of the Derbyshire Peak District. As its name implies, it’s a hard coarse-grained sandstone formed from grit laid down on the bed of a vast river delta around 300 million years ago (long before the dinosaurs, to put the timescale into context). Gritstone is hard, abrasive and very strong. Its sharp-edged crystals make it ideal for grinding grain, hence its alternative name of Millstone Grit, and its strength makes it a sturdy building stone.

In the landscape, gritstone forms high windswept moorlands of heather and blanket bog, vertical cliffs called Edges, and strangely sculptured rock outcrops called tors. The tors are among the most atmospheric features of the gritstone moorlands of the Dark Peak, carved by wind, rain and frost into weird shapes.

Part of Paths of Exile is set in the Dark Peak in the Upper Derwent Valley (see map link at the bottom of the post), where the gritstone tors on the high moorlands make for a distinctive landscape.

All along the eastern horizon, an irregular row of boulders and tors marked the edge of a slightly higher plateau. The rock was dark grey in colour and curiously rounded, like stacked cushions or piled cakes of bread. At close quarters it was coarse-grained and abrasive, full of large rounded pebbles and occasional tiny flecks that caught the light and sparkled in the sun. […] A short distance away to the south, a gritstone tor reared its stepped profile against the bright sky.
--Paths of Exile, chapter 11

“...like stacked cushions or piled cakes of bread”
If you look at the topographical map in the link below, you’ll see that one of the tors on Derwent Edge is called ‘The Cakes of Bread’.

“...reared its stepped profile against the sky”

“...coarse-grained and abrasive...”
Close-up of gritstone. You can see the pebbles embedded in the rock; presumably they were washed down the rivers that formed that long-ago delta and deposited along with the sand and grit. The pebbles vary between rocks in different locations. These are quite small, a centimetre (half an inch) or so across, but some of the tors elsewhere on the moors contain pebbles the size of a walnut, and where they have weathered out the tors are riddled with round cavities like a Swiss cheese.

Gritstone tors can weather into fantastic shapes, resembling a natural sculpture park – or, for a (fictional) group of exhausted fugitives familiar with tales of man-eating monsters who “walk nightlong / The misty moorland”, something altogether more intimidating:

Who says trolls are mythical?

Gritstone tors like this one were part of the inspiration for including beliefs in trolls in Paths of Exile. For a discussion on troll-like creatures in Old English myths, see my earlier post on Eotens.

Map link
Upper Derwent Valley. The reservoirs were not there in 605 AD!