29 September, 2013

September recipe: Pasta with bacon, cream and courgettes

This simple and delicious dish is quick and easy to prepare.  It makes use of late summer and autumn vegetables such as courgettes*, sweet peppers and mushrooms, which go very well with the bacon.  I like the strong, rich flavour of smoked bacon, but you can use any kind of bacon you prefer.  You can also vary the vegetables and herbs according to taste and availability.

Pasta with bacon, cream and courgettes (serves 2)

4 oz (approx 100 g) pasta
4 oz (approx 100 g) smoked streaky bacon
Half a small onion
4 oz (approx 100 g) mushrooms
Half a red pepper
6 oz (approx 150 g) courgettes*
5 fl. oz. (approx 140 ml) single cream
Parsley (or other herbs of your choice)

Cook the pasta in boiling salted water according to the instructions on the packet.  Any shape of pasta will work in this dish.

Chop the bacon into small pieces.

Peel and chop the onion.

Peel and slice the mushrooms.

Wash and chop the red pepper and courgettes.

Fry the chopped bacon gently in butter until it is starting to colour.

Add the chopped onion, courgette and red pepper. Fry for 2-3 minutes, then add the sliced mushrooms and continue to fry until the vegetables are softened and coloured (usually about 5 minutes for me, although it will vary depending on your cooker and the size of the vegetable pieces).

Pour in the cream and season with salt and black pepper.

Cook gently for 2 minutes or so until the cream starts to bubble.

Remove from the heat. Stir in the cooked and drained pasta, and sprinkle with chopped parsley (or other herbs of your choice).

Serve immediately, with a green vegetable or salad if wished.

*I believe courgettes are called zucchini in North America

22 September, 2013

Henry of the High Rock, by Juliet Dymoke. Book review

Arrow, 1973. ISBN 0-09-907110-X. 318 pages

Set in 1087 to 1100, mainly in England and Normandy, Henry of the High Rock tells the story of the early life of Henry ‘Beauclerc’, third son of William the Conqueror and later Henry I of England. Henry is the central character, and his brothers William Rufus and Robert Curthose are important secondary characters. Many other historical figures appear, including William the Conqueror and his brother Bishop Odo, Archbishop Lanfranc and Archbishop Anselm, various Norman lords, and Eadgyth, daughter of Malcolm Canmore of Scotland and Queen Margaret. Henry’s pages and retainers are fictional.

On the death of William the Conqueror, his eldest son Robert succeeds to the Duchy of Normandy, and his second son William becomes King of England. For the youngest son, Henry, there is no land, only a gift of money. Henry greatly desires lands to rule, but even when he agrees with his brother Robert to exchange a cash loan for part of western Normandy, it is not long before his two brothers combine against him to drive him from his lands. Periodically exiled, penniless and even imprisoned, Henry will find it no small task to survive his brothers’ enmity, let alone to claim what he believes should be his inheritance.

Juliet Dymoke’s books seem to be out of print, which is a pity as I liked this one very much. It covers Henry’s early adulthood from his father’s death to his coronation and marriage to Eadgyth (descended from the English royal family through her mother, St Margaret). The author says in the Author’s Note that the book adheres to the accounts of contemporary chroniclers, and that she invented only two entirely fictitious events. Henry’s dealings with his erratic brothers and the various sudden turns of fortune are dramatic enough to need little embellishment.

What I liked most about Henry of the High Rock was the characterisation. Henry gets an attractive portrayal, as one might expect for the central character and hero. His sense of justice and commitment to the rule of law, which he believes should apply even to powerful barons, is emphasised and contrasted sharply with the prevailing norm. Henry’s brother Robert, nicknamed Curthose for his short legs, is too lazy or ineffectual to keep his barons in check, and destructive anarchy reigns throughout his duchy as scores of local tyrants rampage at will. In England, Henry’s other brother William, nicknamed Rufus for his florid colouring, imposes the destructive tyranny himself. Henry, in contrast, considers that the rights and privileges of lords should not be incompatible with justice, and puts this into practice during his rule in western Normandy. So much so that even when his brothers have invaded his lands and forced him into exile, his reputation for justice gives him the opportunity to make a comeback. This portrayal of Henry is consistent with statements in contemporary chronicles, and with Henry’s later nickname, the ‘Lion of Justice’. Henry’s well-documented faults, notably a string of temporary mistresses and a striking act of arbitrary violence, are included but given a positive gloss; Henry treats his women and his illegitimate children well, and the arbitrary violence is immediately regretted. The portrayal may be rather idealised, but then the novel is told mainly from Henry’s point of view so that is perhaps to be expected. 

Robert Curthose and William Rufus are also vividly portrayed, contrasting with each other as much as with Henry.  Robert is indolent, self-indulgent and easily pushed around, a brilliant soldier – as demonstrated by his performance on crusade – but a hopeless ruler. I couldn’t help seeing echoes of his nephew Stephen, later (disputed) king of England, and wondering if genial ineptitude was an occasional family trait. Rufus, in contrast, has all the strength of will that Robert lacks, but with no check on his power and apparently no conscience, he is erratic, ruthless and cruel. The minor characters are also developed as individuals; for me, the most memorable was Herluin, a minor knight and a loyal follower of Henry, a devout and highly moral man living under a dark shadow.

The charming love story between Henry and Eadgyth is low-key – of necessity, as they probably hardly met before their wedding. Henry at least is open-eyed that it is a political marriage but, as he reflects, ‘how much better if love came too’.

William Rufus is famous for the mysterious circumstances of his death, killed by an arrow whilst hunting in the New Forest – just in time for Henry to claim the royal treasury and then the crown of England before elder brother Robert’s return from crusade. Exactly what happened that day remains unknown, and there are many theories of varying degrees of plausibility. The author has an intriguing solution in Henry of the High Rock, although some inferences are left for the reader to draw, rather than being spelled out.

There is no map, so readers unfamiliar with the geography of England and northern France may like to have an atlas to hand to follow Henry’s journeys. A brief Author’s Note outlines the underlying history and indicates some of the inventions used to fill in gaps.

Henry of the High Rock is the second in a trilogy about the early Norman kings, starting with Of the Ring of Earls and finishing with Lion’s Legacy. I haven’t read either of the others (although on the strength of this one, I will look out for them), and I had no difficulty following Henry of the High Rock, so it can be read as a stand-alone.

Well characterised retelling of the early adulthood of Henry I, from his father’s death to his coronation, set in England and Normandy in the late eleventh century.

15 September, 2013


Skiddaw from Keswick.  The central peak is the main summit and the peak to the right is Skiddaw Little Man

Skiddaw is one of my favourite hills in the Lake District.  Its graceful outline, rising elegantly above the lake of Derwentwater, is one of the classic views of the north Lakes, especially lovely in late summer when the heather clothing the slopes is in flower.

Skiddaw is one of the four summits in England that rise to a height of 3,000 feet above sea level (the others are Helvellyn [see earlier post on Helvellyn and Grisedale for some photographs], Scafell and Scafell Pike).

Skiddaw stands in the north-west of the Lake District, just north of the little town of Keswick at the foot of Derwentwater.

Zoom out to see the hill in relation to Keswick and the surrounding area, and use the arrow keys to move around.

The most popular way to climb Skiddaw is from Keswick (or from Gale car park at the road-end behind Latrigg, about a third of the way up from Keswick).  The bridleway, now a well-engineered path, climbs steadily up the south side of the massif above Whit Beck and then across Jenkin Hill.

Looking up Whit Beck and Jenkin Hill. The path is the clear grey line zig-zagging up the slope in the distance
I like to use the Jenkin Hill path as the descent route, so I can gaze at the lovely view south over Derwentwater to the central Lakeland fells all the way down.  For an ascent route, I like to walk around the eastern side of the massif and follow the track up the Glenderaterra Valley to Skiddaw House.  This route takes in the lonely country known locally as ‘Back o’ Skiddaw’ – behind Skiddaw as seen from Keswick.  This area of rounded heathery hills is in complete contrast to the dramatic rocky scenery of the central Lakeland fells, more reminiscent of the Southern Uplands or the Grampians of Scotland.

Back o’ Skiddaw
The contrast is due to the underlying geology.  Unlike the fells of central Lakeland, built of hard volcanic rocks that form dramatic crags and rock faces, Skiddaw and the surrounding hills are built of a metamorphic rock, Skiddaw Slate.  Laid down some 500 million years ago, the slate weathers into smooth slopes of grass, heather and scree.  The only building in the area is Skiddaw House, tucked under the eastern flank of the Skiddaw ridge in a small stand of sheltering trees.  Originally built as a shooting lodge, it was later used as shepherds’ and gamekeepers’ cottages, and is now a youth hostel.

Skiddaw House
From Skiddaw House, a path climbs over the rounded hill of Sale How and up to the summit ridge of Skiddaw.

View north-west from Skiddaw summit over Longside Edge and Bassenthwaite Lake to the Solway Plain, with the Solway Firth in the distance
Its height and position make Skiddaw an exceptional viewpoint, even by Lake District standards. East, south and south-west is a panorama of Lake District hills, with the Pennines in the distance on the eastern horizon.  The view north-west extends across the Solway Firth to Criffel and the Galloway Hills in southern Scotland, and west to the Isle of Man and even, on exceptionally clear days, as far as Northern Ireland.  It was somewhat hazy on the day I took this photograph, though, so Scotland is under the line of clouds on the horizon.

Skiddaw Little Man has a magnificent view over Keswick and Derwentwater, with the central fells in the distance.

View over Keswick and Derwentwater from Skiddaw Little Man

The name ‘Skiddaw’ (pronounced ‘Skidda’) is probably Norse.  The second element is probably from Norse ‘haugr’, meaning ‘hill’.  The first element is subject to debate, and could be from ‘skyti’ (‘archer’), ‘skuti’ (craggy ridge), or ‘skitha’ (firewood, kindling).  Skiddaw is distinctly short on craggy ridges, so the first or third seem most likely – either ‘archer’s hill’ or ‘the hill where firewood can be found’.

Evening light on Skiddaw