24 December, 2015

December recipe: Chocolate macaroons

Chocolate macaroons

If you like chocolate, this recipe is for you.  These chocolate macaroons are light, surprisingly simple to make, and delicious enough for any festive occasion. When you’ve eaten enough fruit cakemincemeat meringue and mince pies for one Christmas, try these for a change.

You can use the egg yolks in sweet pastry, or substitute two egg yolks for one of the eggs in custard tart for a richer custard.

Chocolate macaroons

For the macaroons
2.5 oz (approx 60 g) ground almonds
4.5 oz (approx 125 g) icing sugar
0.5 oz (approx 12 g) cocoa
0.5 oz (approx 12 g) granulated sugar
2 egg whites

For the ganache filling
2 oz (approx 50 g) plain chocolate
2 Tablespoons (2 x 15 ml spoons) double cream
0.5 oz (approx 12 g) unsalted butter

To make the macaroons
Sieve the icing sugar, ground almonds and cocoa together.
Whisk the egg whites until starting to thicken.
Add the granulated sugar and whisk until stiff.
Fold the icing sugar, cocoa and almonds mix into the egg whites using a metal spoon.
Line a baking tray with baking parchment. (Yes, you really do have to do this. If you just grease the tray the macaroons will stick).
Spoon (or pipe, if you have a piping bag) the mixture onto the baking parchment in discs about 2 inches (about 5 cm) in diameter, well separated.
Leave to stand for 15 minutes to form a skin.
Bake in a hot oven at 180 C for approximately 12-15 minutes, until the macaroons are dry on top.
Remove from the parchment using a palette knife and cool on a wire rack.

To make the ganache filling
Break the dark chocolate into pieces and melt it in a bowl over a pan of simmering water.
Stir in the butter and double cream.
Remove from the heat.
When the ganache has cooled but is still soft enough to spread, sandwich the chocolate macaroons together in pairs.

This quantity makes about 16 macaroons (8 pairs).

Before you sandwich them with the ganache, the macaroons will keep for several days in an airtight tin.
After you’ve sandwiched them together with the ganache, they will keep for a day or two. Not that they are likely to get the chance.

Happy Christmas and all the best for the New Year.

30 October, 2015

Better Than Gold, by Theresa Tomlinson. Book review

A & C Black 2014. ISBN 978-1-4729-0782-0. 124 pages.

Better Than Gold is set around 655 AD in Northumbria (in what is now north-east England) and Mercia (in what is now the Midlands). The main character, Egfrid, is a historical figure, and his time as a hostage at the royal court of Mercia is a historical event, although the details are not known. Other historical figures who feature as important characters in the novel include King Penda and Queen Cynewise of Mercia and their children, Egfrid’s father King Oswy of Bernicia and his queen Eanflaeda, Egfrid’s cousin Ethelwold and the Christian monk Chad (later St Chad, if I have identified him correctly).

Egfrid, son of the King of Bernicia, is aged ten when he is taken hostage by Penda, King of Mercia, in a raid. Mercia and Bernicia are bitter enemies; Penda has previously slaughtered Egfrid’s paternal uncle and his maternal grandfather and uncle. Egfrid’s father Oswy has so far escaped a similar fate by avoiding battle, which leads Penda to despise him as a coward. Unlike the Christian kings of Bernicia, Penda is a pagan and his religion practices human sacrifice, so when Egfrid is captured he fears the worst. But his courage and loyalty to his nursemaid and tutor, both captured with him, earns him Penda’s respect. He finds himself treated with honour and even kindness, particularly by Penda’s queen Cynewise, who is working to weave a peace treaty between the kingdoms. But when the old feud breaks out into war once more, Egfrid is faced with a dilemma – whose side should he be on?

I enjoyed Theresa Tomlinson’s mystery novels, Wolf Girl for young adult readers (review here) and A Swarming of Bees for adults (review here), both set in the Northumbrian royal abbey at Whitby in the seventh century, and her novel about Acha of Deira set in the late sixth century, The Tribute Bride (review here). Better Than Gold is a children’s book set a few years earlier than Wolf Girl or A Swarming of Bees.

Part of the inspiration for Better Than Gold was the discovery of the Staffordshire Hoard near Hammerwich in the territory of the old kingdom of Mercia in 2009. This is the largest collection of early English (Anglo-Saxon) precious metalwork ever found, and consists almost entirely of gold and silver objects associated with military equipment, for example the decorative fittings from sword hilts and fragments of at least one helmet. For details of the Staffordshire Hoard, see the official website. This overwhelming focus on martial items is extremely unusual, as most Anglo-Saxon precious metalwork consists of dress fittings such as strap-ends, buckles and brooches, or luxury tableware such as plates or cups, and immediately suggests that there ought to be a dramatic story behind the Staffordshire Hoard. How might it have been assembled, who owned it, what did it signify, why are the items almost all military, who might have buried it, and why might it have been buried and never recovered?  (For a discussion, see my blog post at the time and the associated comments thread). We will probably never know the answers for sure. In Better Than Gold, Theresa Tomlinson has drawn on an episode recorded in Bede’s History and the rather enigmatic Restoration of Iudeu mentioned in Historia Brittonum to imagine a scenario that might lie behind the hoard.

Better Than Gold also imagines how life might have been for a ten-year-old noble boy in the society that produced the Staffordshire Hoard. What would a boy at a royal court eat and wear, what would he be expected to learn, how would he spend his time? This focus on the details of daily life was one of the features I liked about The Tribute Bride and A Swarming of Bees, and it was pleasant to see it again here.

Better Than Gold has the same gentle tone as The Tribute Bride and A Swarming of Bees. Most of the people, most of the time, treat each other decently. There is violence – human sacrifice and battles with many casualties – but because of Egfrid’s age he is rarely directly involved and most of the violence happens in the background. Like the author’s other books, the women are very much to the fore. Queen Cynewise has much authority at the Mercian court, ruling the kingdom while Penda is away on campaign and exercising considerable influence when he is back. Their rule of Mercia seems to be very much a joint enterprise. Like Acha in The Tribute Bride, the royal women in Better Than Gold play a crucial role as peaceweavers, both by formal marriage alliance and in the day-to-day management of court life, ever alert to the need to head off situations where drink and ego threaten to spark conflict and even war.

Better Than Gold is a much simpler and shorter story than the young adult mystery Wolf Girl. I’d estimate its length at around 20,000–25,000 words, roughly a quarter of the length of a ‘standard’ adult novel. I would guess it is aimed at a younger audience, perhaps about the same age as the ten-year-old protagonist. The complex political rivalries and feuds between the various kingdoms are seen mainly in family terms – appropriately, since the conventions of blood-feud and vengeance for a kinsman meant that early English warfare could have a personal as well as a political dimension. It’s clearly written in straightforward modern English, with some archaic terms to add a period flavour, such as the Old English names for the months (Blood-month, Offerings-month, etc. More information on the Old English calendar and the month-names can be found in my article here). I was pleased to see that the original Old English personal names have been kept, e.g. Egfrid, Cynewise. Some names have been replaced by nicknames to avoid potential confusion between similar names within a family, e.g. Egfrid’s dead uncle Oswald is referred to by his (historically documented) nickname of Whiteblade to avoid confusion with his brother Oswy.

A short Author’s Note at the end briefly outlines some of the underlying history and provides a link to learn more about the Staffordshire Hoard. Unfortunately there’s no map on which a reader could follow Egfrid’s travels, although as most of the place names are given in their modern forms (Bamburgh rather than Bebbanburgh, Tamworth rather than Tameworthig) they could be identified on a modern map.

Charming tale about life at the royal courts of seventh-century England and the sort of events that might lie behind the burial of the magnificent Staffordshire Hoard.

26 September, 2015

Llanthony Priory

Llanthony Priory is a ruined twelfth-century priory in the Black Mountains of south-east Wales.

Llanthony Priory tower and nave
Llanthony Priory. The remains of the crossing tower with the north arcade of the nave and two arches of the south arcade. The south transept is to the right of the tower. The small pointed arch on the right of the south transept leads to the slype, a covered passageway between the south transept and the chapter house

Llanthony Priory lies in the Vale of Ewyas, a classical glaciated valley with steep sides and a flat valley floor. At the head of the valley, to the north, Gospel Pass leads over to the town of Hay-on-Wye. 

The valley changes direction at Llanthony, so the impression at the priory site is of being surrounded by hills. This gives the site a sense of being enclosed, separated from the rest of the world. Early Christian monastic foundations seem to have liked spaces that were clearly delineated, such as islands and ex-Roman forts, and the Llanthony Priory site has a distinct feeling of an island valley amongst the hills.

Map link: Llanthony Priory 

Llanthony was an Augustinian priory, founded in the early twelfth century by a Norman knight named William de Lacy. Tradition says that one day when out hunting he took shelter in a ruined chapel dedicated to St David, and then founded a priory on the same site. The ruins of the priory church visible today belong to a grandiose rebuilding project conducted by the de Lacy family in the period 1180-1230.

The priory was in decline by the beginning of the sixteenth century, and after the Dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry VIII it was left to decay.  The prior’s house on the west side of the cloister was converted into a private house and is now the Priory Hotel.  The welcoming bar in the undercroft was probably once the prior’s cellar – highly appropriate that it still retains something approximating to its original use – and is a great place to stop for a beer on a long bike ride (sustenance is in order before tackling the climb over Gospel Pass).

The Priory Hotel and the remains of the nave
The Priory Hotel and the remains of the nave

The north arcade of the nave still has a complete set of standing arches

Looking across the site of the cloisters (which would have occupied the open lawn in the foreground) to the nave, with the ruins of the crossing tower on the right and the Black Mountains in the background

The south and west walls of the crossing tower still stand to some height

The crossing tower from the east end, with the nave beyond

Looking along the nave to the remains of the crossing tower, with the remains of the south transept on the right

The arches of the nave arcade are pointed arches in the Gothic style. But the row of smaller windows above the arch in the tower are round arches in the Norman style.

Close-up of the upper windows in the crossing tower

The south transept also has round arches standing

Round arch in the south transept

Mixed styles are very common in British medieval churches, because architectural fashions could change in the decades that it took to build a large church, and building designs were frequently altered during construction. Presumably the builders of Llanthony Priory church started at the east end with the traditional Norman round arch style, and then decided to adopt the fashionable new pointed Gothic arch as the church building progressed west.

The place name, Llanthony, looks at first sight as though the church should be dedicated to St Anthony, with the Welsh ‘llan’ (church) and the saint’s name.  However, the parish church on the site is dedicated to St David, the patron saint of Wales, and the priory church was dedicated to St John.  So where does St Anthony come into it?

The answer is that he doesn’t. The Welsh name is Llanddewi Nant Honddu, ‘the church of St David in the valley of the [river] Honddu’, a completely accurate descriptive name describing the dedication of the parish church (and the original chapel) and its location.  The ‘Nant Honddu’ seems to have been transformed into ‘Anthony’, perhaps through being misheard by non-Welsh-speakers who made sense of it as best they could.