On Weeding & Writing - an occasional eclectic blog by author C.F. Dunn
2022: The First Day of the Rest of the Year.
How have you spent the first day of the new year? Having prepared the stollen that I somehow missed at Christmas, I have spent the rest of the first day of 2022 ensconced in my study. The files – ordered months ago – have finally arrived. Now labelled, they have taken a wealth of research material, notebooks, specialist articles – all the bits and pieces garnered for the current writing project.
Sorting and filing are apt metaphores for the process of preparing for the new writing year. Even if Book 3 of the series is well underway, there’s a sense of renewed vigour, a fresh beginning.
I love the weeks of festive preparation in the lead up to Christmas with its delightfully chaotic, diamond-bright cheerfulness as absorbing now as it was to me as a child. Yet there’s something about the turn of the year that calls for a reflective mien. Perhaps it is the lull after the Christmas rush, or the quiet, dark days in the depths of winter. Or is it the hibernation of the self before spring awakens the senses and drives us from our insularity?
Now listening to my writing playlists while making notes, I’m shaking off December’s dust and readying myself for the year ahead. On my list of things I wish to achieve (aside from all those relating to the garden, house and family) is a pile of books I want to read (research-related and novels), a research trip for the current project and preparation for the next. I have a conference to go to as well as several literary festivals. Covid notwithstanding, I’d like to meet up with author friends because there is only so much a Zoom get-together can deliver. But much of that is dependent upon the unpredictable outcomes of the present pandemic as well as life’s twists and turns such as had me bed-ridden for fifteen weeks last year with a broken leg. Is it no wonder then, that we look to those things we can control – books and shelves, our little spaces – that make up the safe part of our lives? There is comfort there among the regularity of numbered pages, the neatly labelled files, the array of pens and coloured tags and the pristine notebooks waiting for the first impression of a fresh idea.
So forgive me if I linger here a while longer, temporarily secreted from the volcanic anxiety of a stressed world as I navigate the paths of a known past. Standing at the gate of the year, I’m taking a moment to rest and relfect before taking the first step into 2022 with all the vicissitudes and possibilities it offers. Whatever road you find yourself on, may you find it a bright and smooth way. Happy New Year!
The hour grows late. The turkey’s stuffed, the mulled wine sozzled, and it is time to wish you all a very kind and content Christmas and a happy New Year. God rest ye merry, everyone!
Victorian Family Recipes From Christmas Past
Do you think that most families have favourite recipes that make an appearance, like Marley’s ghost, at Christmas? Recipes that have been tweaked down the years, but are basically the same as when first concocted way back beyond memory?
During our mammoth unpacking we came across family recipe books dating from the Victorian period and later. These books would be brought out on occassion to be raided for old favourite dishes, the preperation of which would be accompanied by stories of the women who wrote them. Some of the recipes – all hand written – had been passed from one generation to the next. Many originated as a result of trial and error in the kitchens of Georgian wives; a few predate even those.
Here, my husband’s great-grandmother, Ethel Chapman, aged 20, records a few favourite recipes in a little book dated 31st January, 1876.
Gingerbread – aunt B’s
Melt 1/2lb butter in 1 lb of treacle
then add one pound flour, 1oz ground
ginger, (1/2oz carroway (sic), 1/2 oz corriander seeds, a little nutmeg) (crossed out)
3 eggs & a teaspoonful of carbonate
of soda. Bake for 2 hours in a
well papered tin in an oven
almost cold at first, heating gradually.
In For Christmas
At last – after four years of working on the house surrounded by 500+ packing boxes and dust – we have finally unpacked and are in. OK, so the hall is still a tool shed and if you try to manoeuvre through it you stand a good chance of knocking over the stacks (and I mean stacks to rival B&Q) of paint tins. Yes, it’s true that we could probably supply enough wire wool, sandpaper, filler and varnish to renovate several houses, and perhaps there are a good few months of snagging work to do in dark corners, but that’s nothing compared with what has been achieved. So, all in all (and with two dogs acquired and two books written) four years down the line we consider ourselves MOVED.
Gardening Update: Some You Win, Some You Lose
A Blight On All Their Houses – Spotting Potato Blight
I spotted the first signs of blight on the potatoes today. Not many leaves, so it was a matter of cutting off affected foliage and burning it. But it will be back. When a third of the leaves show the tell-tale brown splotches followed by the rapid collapse of the plant, I’ll remove all the leaves and stalks because there is nothing to be done to halt the spread once it starts and I won’t use chemical sprays. The dying leaves have done their job of growing the spuds and will serve no purpose other than to harbour the problem. Better to get rid of the foliage sooner rather than later in the hope that the tomatoes on the other side of the garden escape infection.
There are two schools of thought about harvesting potatoes from a blighted patch: dig them up immediately or leave them in the ground for at least two weeks to protect them from spores. I’m inclined to the latter – except, you might recall – we have a problem with wireworm, and leaving the tatties in the ground is asking for trouble. Still, the blight was late this year and I’m trusting the crop will have benefitted from the few extra weeks in the ground and the copious amount of rain we’ve had over the last month. Time, as they say, will tell.
Can Do Better: Why ‘Best’ Is Not Good Enough.
Do you remember being told as a child that ‘you can do better’? Do you recall how that made you feel – encouraged, perhaps? Despondant? The other day I posted an oft quoted phrase on a well-known media platform and asked for comments. What I didn’t say was WHY I was interested in the feedback. This is the reason.
Some years ago a young person experienced severe self-doubt over school-related performance, which compounded already very low self-esteem. In the course of therapy, this person was told, ‘The enemy of the best is the good enough.’ Devastated, the young person interpreted the quote to mean that only the best is good enough.
Redoubling their efforts, the young person excelled in their chosen subject at university, only to suffer a complete breakdown as a result. Despite attaining academic excellence, they never felt that they had earned the accolades they had been given, because ‘good enough’ wasn’t ‘the best’.
Subsequently, when the young person recently heard the phrase again, their reaction was one of dismay – much to the surprise of the person who quoted it. And this is why.
The Soviet T34 was fast to manufacture, easy to drive, quick to manoeuvre and reasonably well armed. In the face of such opposition, the German army reacted by producing tanks that were far superior and massively over-engineered. As a result they could not produce enough of these gold-plated versions to outgun the Soviet tanks. In this instance, it was the number of tanks that counted, not the quality. As General Zhukov said, ‘The enemy of the best is good enough.’
Hearing this, the young person thought about it for a while and then, looking up, said, “I have spent my life thinking that in order to be accepted at school and to be of value to society, I had to be the best, but no matter how hard I tried I could never be perfect.”
To this young person, the phrase meant the opposite of its intended meaning.
Throughout childhood and into adolescence, young people are exhorted to try harder, do better, never accept ‘good enough’. A quick search online of the word ‘encouragement’ came up with dozens of images of high-achieving children and advice on how to improve their educational outcomes. Few showed alternative concepts of success. Even where parents are given tips on how to raise a child to be kind, helpful, and resilient, the values placed on these virtues rarely filter into systems used to gauge results. Effective parenting – and by default, the competence of the parent – is itself judged by the success of the child. Attainment is measured in scores and grades, goals set and targets met. By the time they reach adulthood, many people are wired and primed to respond to similar phases in the way the young person did – not in terms of being encouraged, but with raised levels of anxiety at the implied criticism. How many of us recognise the anxious child within ourselves, the one who feels they don’t deserve praise, who ‘must do better’?
As a society, we want our children to strive and to make the best of the opportunities offered to them. Empty praise is just that and does nothing to encourage individual expectations. But there is also an undercurrent of cultural unease in the way children are raised that speaks of a fear of featherbedding young people and which says that praise will undermine effort and therefore performance. Raise the bar, make them work for it. But the bar is also a rod used to beat under-achievers.
Attainment is a matter of societal and individual viewpoint driven by a history of ambition and fear. We are all the victims of these pernicious attitudes and the perpetrators. Only by recognising the effect of our inherited perspective towards success and the language that surrounds it, can we modify and change the way we approach our children’s future. Our best is good enough.
Growing for Gold: the Enduring Appeal of Saffron
It’s one of those things people seem to know about the past (like Henry VIII had six wives and that spices were used to disguise rotten meat – more on that later): saffron, they say, was worth its weight in gold. It was so valuable that they even renamed a village – Saffron Walden – after it. However, two of those three statements are incorrect. In growing for gold, what is the enduring appeal of saffron from antiquity to the modern era? But first a recap on the fate of my own modest project.
Having enriched the soil first, I replanted the saffron in the original position. I’ve selected the fattest corms for this bed and will nurture the smaller ones into productivity elsewhere. It’s not a crop for the impatient: I might get a few flowers later this year, but the corms will not produce their best for at least another year after that.
Trial and error, dearth and glut is precisely what our Medieval forebears would have encountered as they attempted to establish new crops on a commercial scale. Too little rain, too much, low temperatures, mice – all affected productivity as much as they do now. With the initial outlay on corms and limited harvests in the first year, saffron was a risky business. Labour-intensive husbandry – both to keep the fields weed free and in the delicate, time-critical harvesting of the fragile stigma – raised costs even further. But the potential rewards were great.
Recorded in antiquity in Egypt, Mesopotamia and Crete, as well as in Persia and Alexander’s Greece, saffron had a global appeal. It was used variably as a dye for cloth, a pigment in art works, and for a wide range of medical conditions including a cure for headaches and heart problems and a salve for wounds. It was thought to have mood-altering qualities and indeed can produce a sense of euphoria due to its compounds (safranal and crocin might have an anti-depressant effect by maintaining the balance of dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin (Hosseinzadeh et al., 2004)). Studies in humans show there can be a benefit to patients with anxiety and depression, so perhaps it is then not surprising that it was also an ingredient in some forms of incense and used in both civic and religious ceremony.
In cuisine, we think of saffron as a flavouring and colourant in dishes requiring an exotic touch. English cookery books from the late fourteenth and early fifteenth-century show an extensive use of saffron despite its exorbitant cost, appearing in almost a half of the recipes in the compilation from Harleian MSS. 279 & 4016, Two Fifteenth-Century Cookery-Books (Thomas Austin) (1430 – 1450) and over a third in Forme of Cury (c1390). Demand remained high with production in England peaking in the Sixteenth-century, before a slow decline and the eventual cessation of production in England altogether.
It takes upwards of 150 flowers (roughly 450 stigma) to produce one gram of saffron. I won’t be growing enough saffron to sell, but the few delicate strands added flavour to the Medieval dishes I’ve tried (see below).
Saffron is now grown in other regions, including in Iran and Afghanistan, Greece and France and remains as valuable today as it was in the later Medieval and Early Modern periods. Its high value perhaps accounting more for its intoxicating appeal than its slightly bitter flavour and hay-like aroma, saffron nonetheless offers a link to the past and a tantalising glimpse of its potential for the future.
And the odd ones out of the three statements I mentioned at the beginning of this blog?
- Henry VIII did indeed have six wives.
- Saffron was worth far more than its weight in gold.
- Spices were not – I repeat not – used to disguise rotten meat. But more on that in a future blog
This is basically rice pudding. I tried it because it uses almond milk and is therefore suitable for those with a dairy or lactose intolerance. I added saffron, which turned the pudding a glorious golden yellow and imparted a subtle flavour.
Rys. Take a porcyoun of rys, & pyke hem clene, & sethe hem welle, & late hem kele; þen take gode mylke of almaundys & do þer-to, & seþe & stere hem wyl; & do þer-to sugre and hony, & serue forth.
Take a portion of rice, and pick it clean, and boil it well, and let it cool; then take good milk of almonds and thereto, and boil and stir it well; and do thereto sugar and honey, and serve forth.
Two Fifteenth-Century Cookery-Books (Thomas Austin, comp.)
Up For Auction: A Once-Lost Medieval Manuscript Witnesses History
While I won’t be bidding on the 6th June, I will await the outcome of the auction with interest as this remarkable witness to history begins the next stage of its long journey .
(1) Kurtis A. Bartow, “Appendix: the Library of Margaret of York and Some Related books,” in Thomas Kren, ed., Margaret of York, Simon Marmion and the Visions of Tondal (Malibu, CA: J. Paul Getty Museum, 1992), 257–262. For the complete list of books associated with the duchess.
Details of the manuscript and its provenance (below) have been taken from the Bloomsbury Auction website.