31 July, 2013

July recipe: Pork pie

A home-made pork pie is ideal as part of a summer meal for a group of family and friends, especially if you don’t care for barbecues or feel like a change.  It also works very well as part of a picnic, or for an effortless dinner after a long day at work – once cooked and cooled, it needs no further work, just cut a slice and serve with salad.  It’s also surprisingly easy to make, as hot-water pastry is very forgiving. 

Here’s my recipe.

Pork pie

10 oz (approx 300 g) strong white flour*
4 oz (approx 125 g) lard
0.5 teaspoon (0.5 x 5 ml spoon) salt
Hot water to mix

1.25 lb (approx 500 g) minced pork
4 oz (approx 125 g) smoked streaky bacon (or back bacon if preferred)
1 teaspoon (1 x 5 ml) ground nutmeg
1 Tablespoon (1 x 15 ml spoon) fresh sage leaves (or other herbs of your choice)
8 oz (approx 250 g) carrot

Grease a deep cake tin about 6 inches (approx 15 cm) in diameter.  If the tin doesn’t have a loose base, fold a long strip of tinfoil into three lengthwise (so you get a triple-thickness strip), and lay it across the bottom of the tin and up the two opposite sides.  Make sure it is long enough to extend well past the top of the tin so that you can grasp the two ends easily.  The tinfoil strip will help to lift the pie out of the tin after it is cooked.

Rub the lard into the flour and salt until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs.

Stir in approximately 6–7 Tablespoons (6–7 x 15 ml spoons) of very hot water and mix well.  The mixture should form a ball of stiff dough.  If it is floury and flaky, add a little more hot water. If it is too sticky, add a little more flour.

Set the pastry aside for a few minutes to cool.

Chop the bacon into small pieces.

Peel, wash and grate the carrot.

Chop the sage (or other herbs) finely.

Mix the minced pork, chopped bacon, grated carrot, nutmeg and chopped herbs in a large bowl and season with ground black pepper and a little salt.

Roll out three-quarters of the pastry into a large circle.  Line the greased cake tin with the circle of pastry, pushing the pastry well down into the corners.  If the pastry tears, dampen the edges with water and press them back together.

Put the filling into the pastry case and press down firmly.  Fold the edges of the pastry case down over the filling.

Roll out the other quarter of the pastry into a circle big enough to make a lid.  Dampen the ring of folded-down pastry with water, and put the pastry lid on top.  Trim off any excess pastry.

Roll out the pastry trimmings to make decorations of your choice for the top of the pie.

Brush the top of the pie with milk.

Cook in the centre of a slow oven, about 150–160 C, for about 2 to 2.5 hours, until the pastry is golden brown.

Remove the pie from the oven, and run a palette knife around the sides of the tin to loosen it.  Don’t try to take the pie out of the tin yet.

Cool the pie in the tin on a wire rack.

When the pie is completely cool, run a palette knife around the sides again to make sure it is still loose.  Then press up the loose base of the tin (if it has a loose base), or lift the pie out of the tin using the tinfoil strip.  Don’t try to take the pie out of the tin until it is completely cold, or there’s a risk it may collapse.

Serve cut in slices.

I generally get 8 to 10 slices out of a pie this size, although it depends how large a slice you cut.

The pie will keep in the fridge for several days, so you can make it well in advance, or eat it over several days.

*’Strong’ flour is the kind used for making bread.

24 July, 2013

The Caspian Gates, by Harry Sidebottom. Book review

Penguin, 2012. ISBN 978-0-141-04616-7. 366 pages.

Fourth in the Warrior of Rome series, The Caspian Gates is set in the Eastern Mediterranean, the Black Sea and the Caucasus in 259-262 AD. Emperor Gallienus is a historical figure and a secondary character.  Ballista is based on a historical figure about whom little is known.  The other main characters are fictional.

After his part in the fall of the usurper Macrianus and his sons (recounted in Lion of the Sun, reviewed here earlier), Ballista is waiting in Ephesus for Emperor Gallienus to decide his fate. When an earthquake devastates the city, the barbarian Goths take the opportunity for looting and piracy – and to pursue their blood feud against Ballista.  If he survives the Gothic attack, Ballista will face a yet more perilous mission, to the savage tribes of the Caucasus and his old enemies, the Persians.

Like its predecessors, The Caspian Gates has no shortage of action and adventure.  An earthquake, several fights with Gothic raiders, an extended sea-chase from Gothic pirates, a tumultuous storm in the Black Sea, a sabotage attempt, more than one murder and a gruelling chase across the mountains all feature, before reaching the climactic battle scene in the wild mountain pass of the Caspian Gates.  The sea chase and the storm were especially gripping, with a real sense of tension and menace.

Now that the political plotting of the Macriani has been resolved, Ballista is no longer at the centre of events in the Empire.  Indeed, Emperor Gallienus is actively looking for somewhere to park him out of the way.  This may explain why I felt that The Caspian Gates was rather episodic, as if recounting a series of incidents that happened to occur one after the other but with little connection between them. In the first half of the book Ballista is essentially kicking his heels waiting for Gallienus to make a decision, and apart from the decision itself, the first half of the book has very little bearing on the events of the second half. Previous instalments in the series also contained a fair helping of travelogues and digressions to explain background detail about culture, religion and myth, but the court intrigues and Ballista’s conflict with the Macriani helped to pull the narrative together into a coherent whole.  With that gone, The Caspian Gates seemed to have lost a lot of narrative drive.  This is compounded by Ballista himself, who seemed rather directionless in this novel.  To be fair, Ballista has no control over where Emperor Gallienus will choose to post him, and as a newcomer and an outsider he has little influence over the established rival factions when he gets there. However, he also seems to have lost direction in his personal life; there are several comments that ‘things are not good’ between Ballista and his wife Julia, yet he seems content to let matters drift without apparently making any attempt to find out what is wrong from Julia’s side (readers of Lion of the Sun will be able to hazard a guess). A certain amount of aimless uncertainty may well be highly appropriate for the chaotic period of the Third-Century Crisis, but it made for a somewhat disappointing narrative.  However, given the philosophical musings on the nature of exile in The Caspian Gates, perhaps it is setting up for something important in the next book.

Many of the core characters from the previous books reappear in The Caspian Gates, including Ballista’s Irish bodyguard the no-nonsense ex-gladiator Maximus, and the gloomy Caledonian Calgacus.  Ballista’s young Greek secretary Demetrius makes a fleeting appearance, now with Emperor Gallienus.  His place in Ballista’s entourage is now taken by another Greek, Hippothous, who fulfils the same role as a recounter of Greek philosophy and legend, but who is an altogether tougher and more violent character, an ex-bandit who enjoys killing for its own sake. Rather to my disappointment, Ballista’s intelligent Roman wife Julia appears only briefly.

As with its predecessors, The Caspian Gates does not so much end as take a brief pause for breath before Ballista is despatched on his next adventure.  It will be interesting to see how this develops, as Ballista is clearly feeling his age in The Caspian Gates despite, or perhaps because of, his encounter with a gorgeous Amazonian princess.  I wonder how many more adventures he can expect before (or indeed if) he is allowed to retire to Sicily with his family.

The writing style is straightforward modern prose, liberally sprinkled with modern expletives (readers who find f--- and c--- offensive should consider themselves warned). There are also a lot of Latin, Greek and Persian terms scattered through the text, and it is worth bookmarking the glossary at the back as they are not always immediately clear from context. A list of characters at the back is helpful for keeping track of who is who, especially minor characters or figures from history or legend. Maps of the Caucasus and the cities of Ephesus and Miletus at the front are useful for following the action.  There is a comprehensive Historical Afterword at the back, with sources and suggestions for further reading.

Episodic action-adventure set against the background of Rome’s third-century crisis.

21 July, 2013

Ullswater shore

The Ullswater shore path was described by Wainwright as ‘the most beautiful and rewarding walk in Lakeland’.  It runs along the eastern shore between Howtown (roughly halfway along the lake) and Patterdale.  It makes a lovely walk when combined with climbing Place Fell.  Or if you're feeling less energetic or have less time to spare, you can catch the Ullswater steamer from Glenridding to Howtown, then walk along the lakeshore path to Patterdale and from Patterdale back to Glenridding on a path alongside the road.

Zoom in for more detail 

The path rises and falls along the shore, sometimes diverting inland to skirt fields or crags, but it never strays far from the lake for long.  Stretches of the path run through woodland, full of the song of willow warblers in spring.  

View along the lake shore path, with the bright green of new leaves on the birches 

Path through woodland around the foot of Hallin Fell

Looking across Ullswater to Glenridding from the lakeshore path

Red-breasted merganser on Ullswater.  These handsome diving ducks live in the north and west of the UK.  This one is a male, with a long red bill, dark green head, chestnut-mottled breast, and black, white and grey back.  For more information, see the RSPB site.

One of the Ullswater Steamers.  These historic boats operate a year round passenger service linking Glenridding with Pooley Bridge via Howtown. 

Ullswater is the second largest lake in the English Lake District, after Windermere.  It lies in the north-east of the area, stretching 9 miles from Pooley Bridge in the north to Patterdale in the south.
Map link: Ullswater 

Patterdale at the head of the lake is surrounded by high fells, including Helvellyn, one of the four English hills over 3000 feet high, to the east.  By contrast, Pooley Bridge at the foot of the lake lies in rolling foothills that give way to the plain of the Eden Valley.

The name Ullswater was recorded in 1323 as ‘Ulvreswatre’.  The second element may be derived from Norse ‘vatn’, which means ‘water’ or ‘lake’, or English ‘water’; either way the meaning is obvious.  The first element ‘Ulfr’ could be the Norse personal name Ulfr, or possibly the Norse word ‘ulfr’ meaning ‘wolf.  So the name probably means either ‘Ulfr’s lake’ or ‘lake of the wolves’.  

06 July, 2013

Rheged: Location

Rheged (also spelled Reged, Reget) was a kingdom in early medieval Britain.  Its most famous king, Urien, was active some time in the late sixth century.  He is recorded in Historia Brittonum and royal genealogies, and was lauded in the poetry attributed to Taliesin.  However, the name of the kingdom itself is known only from the poetry; Historia Brittonum describes a military campaign by Urien against the kingdom of Bryneich (Bernicia) on the coast of what is now north-east England, but does not name or locate Urien’s kingdom. Where might the kingdom of Rheged have been located?


Location of other kingdoms

It seems quite clear that Rheged was somewhere in the north of Britain.  Urien’s genealogy is in the Bonedd Gwyr y Gogledd (Descent of the Men of the North), and the one mention of him in Historia Brittonum describes him fighting against the king of Bernicia at Lindisfarne, in what is now north-east England (see earlier post on Urien Rheged for details).  Urien’s son and probable successor Owain is associated in a medieval tale with the northern saint Kentigern and the daughter of the King of Lothian in what is now south-east Scotland (see earlier post on Owain for more information). According to Historia Brittonum, Urien’s (probable) great-grand-daughter Rhianmellt married the brother of the king of Northumbria in what is now north-east England (more on Rhianmellt in a later post). 

Consideration of the known locations of other kingdoms in the north of sixth-century Britain may help to narrow down the area in which we can look for Rheged. See the sketch map here.

North of the Firth-Clyde isthmus, in what is now north and north-east Scotland, was the kingdom of the Picts.  Argyll, the Kintyre peninsula and nearby islands such as Mull and Iona were part of the kingdom of Dal Riada. The area around the Clyde valley and modern Glasgow was the kingdom of Strat Clut or Alt Clut (Strathclyde). One of Taliesin’s poems mentions a region called ‘Aeron’, which may have been the area around modern Ayr.  The area around Edinburgh and what is now Lothian in south-east Scotland was the kingdom of Gododdin.

What is now north-east England from the river Tweed to the Humber estuary was split between the kingdoms of Bernicia and Deira (which merged to form Northumbria in the seventh century). How far they extended west is not known, but the great natural barrier of the Pennine chain is a likely border. The area around Leeds was the kingdom of Elmet (see earlier article on Elmet for more details. 

West from Elmet, a handful of place names indicate a possible kingdom called Craven located in the western foothills of the Pennines.  Its extent is (as usual) uncertain, although the weapontake of the same name in Domesday Book extended west to the Lancashire coast.  South of the Mersey, the Chester area and what is now Cheshire and Shropshire may have been part of the kingdom on Powys (see earlier post on early medieval Powys for more details).

This leaves a big void on the map on the western side of what is now northern England and southern Scotland, stretching from Ayr or Strathclyde in the north down to Lancashire (if Craven extended to the coast) or perhaps as far as the Mersey (if Craven did not extend to the coast) in the south. 

There was certainly occupation in this area in the fifth and sixth centuries, including some inhabitants who apparently controlled substantial resources and may have been chieftains or kings.  For example, someone built two successive very large timber halls in the Roman fort at Birdoswald (see earlier articles for more information on the halls and the dating). The coastal promontory fort of Trusty’s Hill on the north shore of the Solway was occupied by someone who could afford fine metalwork and luxury imports (see earlier article on Trusty’s Hill). Radiocarbon dating has suggested that Trusty’s Hill was occupied from approximately the late fifth century to approximately the early seventh century (see Galloway Picts site, 2 May 2013). Unfortunately, there were no inscriptions to name the people or dynasties who ruled from these places, or to name the areas they controlled.

So there is a large area on the western coast roughly from Strathclyde to Lancashire with clear archaeological evidence of local or regional rulers in the early medieval period but no associated names. Conversely, there are named kings and kingdoms in the genealogies and the poetry with no associated locations.  It seems reasonable to put the two together, and to surmise that the un-located kings and kingdoms of the poetry, including Rheged, were probably to be found somewhere in this large region.

Place names

The name Rheged does not seem to have survived in modern place names.  Rochdale in Lancashire was recorded in Domesday Book as Recedham, and the first part of the name looks similar to ‘Rheged’.  However, it could be derived from the Old English word ‘raeced’ (a hall or large building) (Room 1993), or from some compound of Brittonic ‘coed’ (wood) (Clarkson 2010, p.72). 

Dunragit in Galloway has a second element (-ragit) that looks similar to ‘Rheged’, which would give the romantic translation ‘Fort of Rheged’.  However, Tim Clarkson suggests that it may be derived from Gaelic and may have no connection with Rheged (Clarkson 2010, p.71). 

Even if one chooses to accept these rather tenuous connections to the name ‘Rheged’, the two names are at almost opposite ends of the void on the sixth-century map identified above. So they still do not help much in identifying the location of Rheged.

Can the poetry help to narrow down the location of Rheged? More on this in the next post.

Map links

Historia Brittonum, available online
Room A. Dictionary of Place Names. Bloomsbury, 1993. ISBN 0-7475-1511-5.
Clarkson T. The Men of the North. Birlinn, 2010. ISBN 978-1-906566-18-0.