28 February, 2014

February recipe: Apple lattice tart

Apple lattice tart

Apples are generally associated with late summer and autumn, and indeed the peak of the English apple season is in September and October. However, many apple varieties, especially cooking apples, store for several months, and so some apple varieties are effectively in season all winter.

This pretty apple tart can be made with any variety of cooking apples, so it can be enjoyed right through the autumn and winter. Here’s the recipe.

Apple lattice tart

4 oz (approx 125 g) strong plain flour
1 Tablespoon (1 x 15 ml spoon) icing sugar
2 oz (approx 50 g) butter
1.5 oz (approx 35 g) lard

1 lb (approx 450 g) cooking apples
2 Tablespoons (2 x 15 ml spoon) golden syrup
Juice of 1 lemon
1 teaspoon (1 x 5 ml spoon) ground cinnamon

Grease a shallow flan dish about 7 to 8 inches (about 18 to 20 cm) in diameter.

Peel and core the cooking apples. Chop into chunks about half an inch (approx 1-1.5 cm) cubed.

Put the apple chunks, lemon juice, golden syrup and cinnamon in a saucepan. Cover and cook gently for about 15 minutes (the time will vary according to the apple variety) until the apples are soft.

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

Add about a tablespoon (about 15 ml) of cold water and mix with a knife. The mixture will start to stick together. Squash it into a ball of dough.

Cut off about a quarter of the dough and set aside.  Roll out the other three-quarters into a circle and line the flan dish.

Spread the cooked apples in the pastry case.

Roll out the remaining pastry and cut into strips.  Lay the strips crosswise on top of the apple filling to form a lattice.

Bake in a hot oven at about 190 C for about 30-35 minutes until the pastry is golden.

Serve hot or cold, with natural yoghurt, cream or ice cream.

I normally expect to get 6 slices out of this quantity, but it depends how big a slice you like.

Note that the pastry is quite firm when cold, but when hot the pastry is very crumbly and will tend to fall apart.  If you’re serving the tart in a situation where you need it to stay in neat slices when cut, I recommend serving it cold!

If there is any left over the tart will keep for several days at room temperature.  I’ve never tried freezing it.

18 February, 2014

Snowdrop weekend at RSPB Flatford Wildlife Garden

Snowdrops at Flatford Wildlife Garden

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) has a wildlife garden on the banks of the River Stour at Flatford. It aims to show how gardens can benefit wildlife and look beautiful at the same time. Details on the RSPB site here.
Map link: Flatford

Drift of snowdrops by the entrance gate

Snowdrops blossom in late February, a welcome sign of spring to come, and Flatford Wildlife Garden is holding a Snowdrop Weekend on 22-23 February 2014. As well as access to the garden, there will be plants for sale and activities such as seed planting. Details on the Events page at the website.
Snowdrops in a hazel coppice

Snowdrops flower early so that they can make full use of the sunlight shining on the woodland floor, before the leaves on shrubs and trees develop later in the season and cast shade.
Close-up of snowdrops

The snowdrops are not alone; other flowers such as violets are also starting to blossom for spring.
Sweet violets by the entrance gate

05 February, 2014

The Tenderness of Wolves, by Stef Penney. Book review

Quercus, 2007.  ISBN 978-1-84724-067-5. 450 pages.

The Tenderness of Wolves is set in Canada in 1867, against a background of farming, trapping and fur trading in an isolated frontier settlement. All the main characters are fictional.

When French trapper Laurent Jammet is found brutally murdered in his cabin in the isolated frontier settlement of Dove River on Georgian Bay, suspicion falls on seventeen-year-old Francis Ross, adopted son of a local farming couple, who disappeared on the same day. Anxious to find out the truth and to clear her son’s name, Mrs Ross (her first name is never given, but can be deduced) sets out to follow his tracks north into the wilderness.  She has the help of a stranger to the settlement, Parker, a trapper who was acquainted with Jammet and who has his own reasons for seeking the killer. Also on the trail are three investigators from the Hudson Bay Company, and a Toronto scholar searching for a mysterious bone tablet that was owned by Jammet and vanished at his death.  Soon the empty forest and tundra are criss-crossed by various search parties, seeking to find – or conceal – the truth about the murder. Not everyone will return.

The Tenderness of Wolves is part literary novel, part mystery, part (mild) adventure quest, and part understated and bitter-sweet love story. The novel has an unusual structure, with short chapters alternating between a first-person narrative by Mrs Ross and third-person narratives from the viewpoint of various other characters. This can be confusing, as everyone seems to have a similar narrative style, and I quite often found myself having to backtrack to remind myself of the narrator, especially if I had put the book aside for a while.  Provided you concentrate, though, the structure has the benefit of showing people and events from more than one perspective.  The novel is written throughout in present tense, a technique that I don’t generally care for. I think it may be intended to create an impression of immediacy, like a screenplay, but for me it always has the effect of distancing me from the characters and putting everything into slow motion.

Fortunately, the beauty of the landscape descriptions are worth lingering over, so the slow pace does not matter. This was the outstanding feature of the book for me. Forest and bog and bony upland, all under ever-deepening snow as winter tightens its grip, the bone-aching cold and the loneliness of an empty landscape where one settlement may be several days’ arduous travel from the next, are described in lyrical prose. The lovely scene in which Mrs Ross and Parker watch a wolf on the edge of their camp is especially memorable.

The vast landscape dwarfs the humans living in it, and many of the characters seem to be oppressed by it in different ways, perhaps feeling that it magnifies their sense of their own inadequacies. Early in the novel Mrs Ross, who came to Canada from the Scottish Highlands – itself a sparsely populated environment, especially after the Clearances had got going – tells us that when she first arrived she was so overwhelmed by the emptiness that she broke down in tears.  Donald Moody, a likeable and introspective young man who works for the Hudson Bay Company, is unsure of himself, doubting his ability to manage in such a place.  Another company man is apparently in the process of drowning his fears in laudanum.  By contrast, some of the Native American trappers such as Parker seem completely at home in the wilderness.

In a cleverly constructed plot, the murder mystery turns out to be connected to a web of theft, mutiny and trade monopolies, gradually revealed by the various searchers.  All the threads of the murder – who did it and why – are neatly drawn together and resolved at the end.  Many other threads are left hanging, though (I was especially disappointed about the bone tablet).  I suppose this reflects real life, which tends to be full of unresolved mysteries and unanswered questions.

There’s no map and no historical note, so readers interested in aspects of the background, such as the history of pioneer settlement in Canada, or the workings of the fur trade and the Hudson Bay Company, will have to research it on their own.

Beautifully written tale of a pioneer community in nineteenth-century Canada, part mystery and part bitter-sweet love story.