Writing Portfolio

19.5.17

Curried ox kidneys

What do you do, cooking-wise, with ox kidney? Aside from steak and kidney pie or steak and kidney pudding, of course. Determined to have this piece of offal for dinner, for it had been taken out of the freezer and was calmly defrosting in the fridge, I took a look in the recipe books to see what I could find.

I would not be finding anything relating to what to do with an ox kidney in our latest acquisition, a slim hardback called The Curious Cookbook by Peter Ross. Peter Ross is a senior figure at the Guildhall Library down in the City, and it has the largest collection of historical cookery books of any British public library; turns out they did an exhibition on this very subject the other year. Mr Ross has been trawling this (doubtless fascinating) collection and has come up with over a hundred recipes from all points between the late fourteenth century and the Second World War. These are from the bizarre or absurd end of Britain’s long culinary history; if you’ve ever wondered how to make ‘porpoise with wheat porridge’ (a delicacy from 1450, that one), ‘stewed sparrows on toast’, ‘a pint of gruel for invalids’ or that medieval dish where you sew the front end of a cockerel onto the rear end of a pig (a ‘cokyntryce’, in case you were wondering), then this is the book for you.

If, however, you’re just after tips on what to do with hedgehogs, badgers (“there are very few recipes for cooking badger, which has been said to taste like gamey beef”) or squirrels, or if you want to know ‘how to avoid a bitter rook stew’ (that one being from 1940, a time when ‘eating crow’ was clearly more than just an expression) then the answers can be found within these pages. It just goes to show, as they saying goes, that the past is a foreign country and they do things differently there – as Mr Ross says in the introduction, “what we ate in the past now seems extraordinarily strange, intriguing, revolting, or just plain curious”. He’s not kidding, and having read this engrossing and thought-provoking book, I am drawn to wonder what future historians might think about what we in the present eat, and how they might in their own minds judge us for our culinary choices. Hopefully we will have a food historian who, like Mr Ross, manages to use the commentary to put the recipes in the context of the time when they were written.

As for ox kidneys, I would need to find a recipe of a more recent vintage although as far as offal is concerned Mr Ross hits the nail on the head with his comment that “the decline in the eating of offal can be mapped in direct relation to the increase in wealth of the British population who, given the choice, will often opt for more expensive and simply prepared cuts of meat”.

I found an ox kidney recipe courtesy of Delia Smith, who explains (in Delia Smith’s Complete Cookery Course) that, as well as being “an essential ingredient for steak and kidney pie or pudding” because “no other type of kidney will give it the proper, traditional flavour”, ox kidney is “not recommended for grilling or frying”. However, Delia goes on to state that “it is excellent stewed, braised, or especially curried”. Curried? Hmm. Curried ox kidney (“another very economical, yet rather special, curry”) it would be, then. Most of the ingredients for that were already in the house. The ox kidney is cut into pieces and any bits of fat removed; it’s then browned and put to one side. Then some chopped onion is fried, and to that is added ground coriander, ground turmeric and cumin seeds – followed by natural yoghurt, tomato purée, water and garlic. To this, the kidney parts are added with some chopped-up green chilli and the lot is then brought to be boil and then put on simmer. Easy enough.

But what to have with it? Rice is the obvious accompaniment for curry, but I’d had enough of rice because I’d been working my way through a leftover risotto which had been my lunch for most of the week. So what else? Potatoes? I turned to Camellia Panjabi’s 50 Great Curries of India which has a tried-and-tested recipe for potatoes with peanuts – boil the potatoes in water with some salt and turmeric, then heat up some oil, add cumin seeds and a chopped green chilli, then add the potatoes and roughly-ground peanuts and stir. That would do nicely.

And as a side? How about something involving carrots, since there were some of those kicking around? I found in the Panjabi book a recipe for carrot koshumbir. What is that, I hear you wonder, is that? Well, it’s a type of cachumber which, Ms Panjabi explains, “is to an Indian meal what salsa is to a Mexican one. It provides raw vegetables with a tangy touch … In Western India, in Maharashtra and along the west coast, cachumbers are particularly popular and varied, and are known as koshumbir … They are sol tasty that they can be served as a salad or side vegetable.” I must admit I was a bit unsure about serving myself a raw vegetable as a side, but I figured I might as well have a go. All I had to do was grate up some carrot, mix it in with a small amount of dessicated coconut and add lime juice, sugar, salt and yet more roughly-ground peanuts. Then heat up some (more) cumin seeds and green chilli (to be honest I just used some of the cumin and chilli from the potato recipe) and add those.




So that’s what I did – curried ox kidney, served with potatoes with peanuts and a side of carrot koshumbir. And it was delicious.

6.5.17

The Capital Ring: summing-up

So what to do after finishing the Capital Ring? Write about it, of course – for The Archer, our local volunteer-run newspaper here in East Finchley for which I have been writing for the past half-a-dozen years. Appropriate, really, for I only found out about the Capital Ring by virtue of living in East Finchley which is on the route. My write-up, which made it onto the back page, can be found here:

2.5.17

Looking around, and atop, Bath Abbey

To Bath, originally founded by the Romans as Aquae Sulis and later rebuilt in the eighteenth century (like the Romans before them, the Georgians saw the city as a place to go and take to the waters which are said to have healing properties). Unlike many a Roman settlement, it was actually built as a spa town not as a garrison, and the idea of going to Bath for one’s health, or for pleasure, was one that was as enthusiastically embraced by well-off people in the eighteenth century as it had been by well-off Romans. Today, the city centre is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and my general rule of thumb is that if a place has been given that status, it’s got to be worth a visit.

I was particularly interested in the abbey – or, to give it its full name, the Abbey Church of St Peter and St Paul. Old churches are always worth looking around, and this one is particularly impressive – and, indeed, bigger than some cathedrals (although like the cathedrals it does have plenty of enthusiastic volunteers who are always there to answer any questions you may have, however obvious). And yes, even though it does not have a cathedral Bath is still a city (the two do not necessarily go hand-in-hand; Guildford and Southwark, for example, have cathedrals but are merely a town and a London borough respectively). Despite the name, Bath Abbey is in fact the main parish church for Bath – the ‘abbey’ part doesn’t mean that it’s a monastery (it isn’t, although it used to be prior to the Reformation) but the church is allowed to call itself an abbey due to its historical significance.




Principally, this significance is because in the year 973 a coronation took place there. King Edgar, sometimes known as Edgar the Peaceful, was in that year crowned as King of England at Bath Abbey. Somewhat unusually, he’d already been the king for 14 years so one wonders how St Dunstan, his Archbishop of Canterbury and principal advisor, was able to persuade him to wait for so long. The great-grandson of Alfred the Great, Edgar is sometimes referred to as the first King of England, but I’m not so sure about that – although his reign was a period in which England was consolidated as a unified kingdom under the Wessex dynasty, the honour of being the first Anglo-Saxon king to rule over the whole of England must surely go to his uncle, Athelstan, who had conquered the Viking kingdom of York.

Edgar’s coronation is significant because it was the first time when records were taken of what had happened at an Anglo-Saxon coronation; thus did the service carried out by St Dunstan in 973 form the basis for all subsequent coronations of English, and later British, monarchs (for example, Handel’s Zadok the Priest, based on the bit in First Kings about said priest anointing King Solomon and the people rejoicing, was written for George II’s coronation in part because that particular Biblical text had been used at previous coronations because it was known to have been used at Edgar’s). The ‘peaceful’ tag, by the way, is not due to his personality – he is said to have killed one of his noblemen who had the temerity to marry a noblewoman who Edgar himself had wanted to marry (and after killing said nobleman, he did indeed marry said noblewoman) – but the nature of his sixteen-year reign, which was unusually peaceful with no foreign invasions or internal rebellions.

Before entering the abbey, there’s plenty to look at if you observe the building’s west front from the Abbey Churchyard (that being the name of the square where you can also find the Roman Baths). To the sides of the window are representations of Jacob’s Ladder, referring not only to Jacob’s dream in Genesis but also to a dream that was had by Oliver King, the Bishop of Bath and Wells (a title that always makes me think of Blackadder) who rebuilt Bath Abbey in or around 1500; the twin ladders show angels climbing Heaven-ward, although if you look closely it really does look as though some of them are actually making their way down. Peter and Paul, the abbey’s patron saints, flank the wooden door which, like many a west door of many an English church, is almost always closed (the entrance door is on the left).



Inside, there’s a great fan-vaulted ceiling made from the local Bath stone which also provided the building-material for much of the city; while the modern abbey building dates from the rebuild that was initiated by Bishop King in the sixteenth century (it wasn’t completed by the time of the Reformation, when the monks were kicked out, and it wasn’t until 1572 that it became the parish church of Bath), the ceiling we see at the abbey today is actually the result of a Victorian restoration job – the work of Sir George Gilbert Scott, no less.



More fun is to be had on the tower tours, which are £6 and take place every hour on the hour when the abbey is open (except when there’s a service or special event on) – these have to be paid for in advance on the same day, and can be booked out quite quickly at weekends, but they’re well worth going on if you can get a place.

You’re led up a narrow spiral staircase onto the roof, and thence to the bit above that fan-vaulted ceiling (you can see where they put the keystones, and there’s even a small hole in which you can peep down to the nave below) and the bell room. 







Then it’s up to the bell-ringing room for a lesson in this history of bell-ringing at the abbey (the quarter-hourly chimes are automated, nowadays) before ascending higher still to the belfry. Of particular skill is change-ringing, which is where the bell is manipulated via the rope until it’s hanging upside-down, which then makes it easier to ring in a pre-ordained sequence (this is where the expression ‘ringing the changes’ comes from). Bath Abbey has ten bells, the biggest of which is the 33 cwt (just over 1½-ton) tenor bell, which carries a rather nice inscription:


All you of Bathe that hear me sound
Thank Lady Hopton’s hundred pound

This refers to a seventeenth-century benefactor who paid for the bell, although it doesn’t tell the full story. The bell actually cost £160 (a small fortune in those days), and although it was agreed that Lady H. could pay for it in instalments she had in fact paid barely £20 by the time she died; she did, however, promise in her will that her family would pay the rest! More drama occurred in 1869 when the bell cracked during ringing-practice, resulting in it having to be (very carefully) taken down to ground level and transported to London via canal to be recast. Unfortunately, when it returned to Bath and was put back in place, it was found to be out of tune and so had to be removed and sent back to London for another recast. It wasn’t the foundry’s fault, though, for the abbey’s long-serving organist had gone to London with the bell to supervise the tuning process, but he was by that stage going deaf and hadn’t told anyone.



From there, it’s over to the clock face – the inside of the clock face to be precise. The clock looks out over to the north, and from ground level you would think that the face itself is all a single pane of glass. This is not the case – for the Roman numerals also act as the edges of several panes of glass, which is pretty clever if you ask me. Today the clock is lit from behind by electric lights but in the nineteenth century, the clock was lit by gas-lamp, and in order to prevent accidents a man was paid to sit in the small space behind the face and check on the lamp; monotonous, but at least it was indoors (there were worse jobs to be had in times past, as anyone who’s ever seen Tony Robinson’s superb doco The Worst Jobs in History will know).



So that, along with some fantastic views of the city from the roof, was the tower tour of Bath Abbey!




23.4.17

St George of England

Today is St George’s Day, which usually passes with a re-heated article in at least one newspaper lamenting on why the English don’t celebrate being English much, and with another (equally reheated) one about the fact that St George was not, in fact, English.

Both are, in their own way, onto something. Celebrations of English identity have not really been the done thing, which might explain why some people to this day confuse being English with being British (there is a big difference!), and I think we all know by now that St George existed before England did, and he wasn’t even widely known about in England until several centuries after he’d died.

He was a Roman soldier, born in the province of Syria Palaestina (the city of his birth, Lydda, is now called Lod and is located about nine miles south-east of Tel Aviv), who was born a Christian and refused to renounce his faith when the Emperor Diocletian embarked on the Roman Empire’s last and most severe persecution of Christians in the year 303 AD; he was beheaded on 23rd April 303 in Nicodemia (modern-day Izmit in Turkey).

He was venerated as a saint in the Eastern Roman Empire, and his reputation spread to England as a result of the Crusades (the English soldiers who went to fight for Christianity in the Holy Land being inspired by stories about an old Christian soldier). Although use of his emblem – a red cross on a white background – has been attributed to Richard the Lionheart, the first properly documented use of this particular heraldic device by an English ruler is usually credited to Edward I. St George’s Day was declared to be a feast day in England in 1222, and in 1348 Edward III put the (then new) Order of the Garter under George’s banner.

It’s been theorised that his rise to prominence in England was helped by the fact that, unlike this country’s home-grown saints (Alban, Cuthbert, etc), he wasn’t closely identified with a single location or region within England – that and the fact that St George’s Day somehow survived the curtailment of saints’ days that came with the Reformation. In any case, his symbol was so identified with England that when a combined Anglo-Scottish flag was created in 1606, three years after James VI of Scotland became James I of England (but still just over a century before the Act of Union), the Cross of St George formed the English part of the original Union Jack.

Looking further afield, St George is perhaps the most international of saints; as well as England, he is also the patron saint of Ethiopia (jointly, with local man St Frumentius), Georgia (obviously), Greece, Malta (jointly, with St Paul), Moldova, Palestine and Portugal (one of several, admittedly) – as well as the cities of Beirut, Genoa, Ljubljana, Moscow, Reggio di Calabria and at least two major international organisation (the Scouts and the Girl Guides), alongside agricultural workers, archers, butchers, saddlers, shepherds and just about anyone who rides horses.

Anyway, happy St George’s Day!

14.4.17

The new pound coin

As of last month, we have had a new coin to deal with. I have only received one of the new pound coins in my change once so far, and I haven’t spent it yet as it’s a pretty good conversation-piece because not everyone else has seen one yet, but since the old one is scheduled to be phased out by October it’s clearly something we’re about to see a lot more of. This is the future, so let’s get used to it.



The new pound coin is bi-metallic – just like the £2 coin, the euro coin, the Canadian ‘toonie’ and the old French ten-franc coin which was, prior to the euro, worth (roughly, depending on exchange rates) £1. The reverse shows plants representing the four Home Nations – the rose of England, the leek of Wales, the thistle of Scotland and the Shamrock of Northern Ireland – bound by a crown, while below the Queen on the obverse there’s a little hologram which, depending on the angle at which you’re looking at it, shows a little £ sign or a number 1. 


This is intended to make the new coin really difficult to forge; the main problem with the old one is that forgery’s relatively easy, with it having been estimated that between one in eight and one in ten pound coins currently in circulation are forgeries (and, given that knowingly passing on forged money is a criminal offence, most people who end up with one that they reckon might be a fake probably don’t bother to look too closely as proving the coin in question to be a fake would render it worthless, leaving you out of pocket if you try to be honest).

The new one is ever so slightly bigger than the old one (by less than a millimetre, noticeable if you have one of each to compare and contrast), and a little bit lighter (using the digital kitchen scales, I can confirm that the new one weighs in at nine grams, while the old one is ten). 


It’s also twelve-sided, another anti-forgery initiative although for older Britons this could make it slightly reminiscent of the old threepenny bit (which was also twelve-sided); Private Eye has already got in with a joke about how the new pound coin has the same spending power as three old pence did back in the day, so no-one else has to.


In terms of British currency, the pound coin is a relatively new thing (not counting gold sovereigns), having first been introduced in 1983, a year after the 20p coin (pound coins were intended to replace pound notes, which were phased out by the Bank of England in 1988 although they continue to be issued in the Channel Islands and by one of the Scottish banks that’s allowed to print money). Although they were only introduced last month, the new ones all bear the date ‘2016’, which should confuse any future historians who feel inclined to study the history of post-decimal British coinage. Actually, coins being minted before they enter circulation (done by the Royal Mint in order to ensure that there are enough of them) are nothing new. The bi-metallic £2 coin was first minted in 1997 prior to its introduction the following year, and going a bit further back the old 10p and 5p coins had been minted in decimal form since to 1968, and the old 50p coins since 1969, even though decimalisation didn’t come about until 1971 (it’s worth noting, though, that the pre-1990 5p and the pre-1992 10p coins were the same size, and the same value for that matter, as the old shilling and two-shilling coins, which continued to appear in change until the sizes of said coins were reduced in the early Nineties).