Mushroom soufflé

We often used to have cheese soufflé at home – it was one of the regular things my mum cooked, and although it was delicious, as all the things she made for us, it was just an ordinary dish. It was light, it was fluffy, it was yum, but so was everything she made – especially the yum. However, I don’t ever remember her making a different soufflé, not even something like ham – it was just cheese, and we would have Heinz tomato sauce with it, and probably jacket potatoes.

I’ve made soufflés, but not often as my mum did, I’m not sure they would be a thing my children remember eating, as i temember… Yest they are so simple, so economical, so easy! And even if they go a bit wrong and are a bit flabby, they still taste good! – I hasten to add that mum’s never went wrong, only mine!

Here is a recipe i am sure my husband would adore as he loves mushrooms – it’s very simple, just five ingredients plus salt and pepper, I must try making it! It’s from the National Mark Calendar of Cooking, written nearly ninety years ago:

  • ½ dozen large mushrooms, finely chopped (the recipe says peel, but these days no-one peels mushrooms – I guess it was when they were gathered from the wild and could have all sorts of not nice things on them!)
  • 4 eggs, separated, whites whisked
  • 1 oz butter
  • 1 oz flour
  • 1 gill milk (¼ pint)
  • salt and pepper
  1. melt the butter, add the flour and cook for a minute, stirring well
  2. add the milk, bring to the boil and continue stirring to make a smooth sauce
  3. take off the heat (off the fire the recipe says) and beat in three of the yolks one after the other
  4. beat in the mushrooms and seasoning to taste
  5. fold in the beaten egg whites
  6. pour into a greased and lined (with a collar of paper above the edge of the tin)  soufflé case and bake for about an hour, gas mark 6, 400º F, 200º C

As I mentioned – I haven’t actually cooked this yet – we have mushrooms at home and lots of eggs, but everything else from this little book has worked, and the thing with soufflés is that even if they go a bit wrong, they still taste good!


A pretty little dish

I was having tea with a friend at her house and we were talking about all sorts of things; we have known each other for about three years, but met through a shared activity with other people so today was the first time we’d just sat the two of us nattering. We were talking about our lives, and as we are a similar age there have been a lot of similar experiences. We were talking about homes and houses as both of us are going through the process of getting rid of unwanted things – many of which we like but have no use for or have no room for or are only holding on for sentimental reasons.

We were talking about how lifestyles have changed and she jumped up and said she was going to show me something and I followed her into another room. On the window sill were three little dishes, about four or five inches long, narrow, shallow, a pretty greeny glaze – and at the back side of each was a miniature vehicle. There was a horse-drawn omnibus, and old-fashioned engine driven omnibus, and a red London bus. They were made from metal and attached through the lip of the ceramic dish. The buses had adverts on appropriate to the age of the transport and were each painted red. They were utterly charming.

I knew exactly what the little dishes were, but how many young people would – I say young people, because since the smoking ban in public, and the large number of people who have given up smoking, not every house has ashtrays – these were ashtrays. When I was a child every household had ashtrays because so many people smoked – gosh, how it must have smelled! My friend and I talked about going to the cinema and seeing the screen through a pall of smoke, going into pubs and the walls and ceilings were yellow with nicotine, going to a restaurant and have people all around smoking while you ate.

I know people still do smoke, but in general the air is much cleaner, and you no longer go out socially and come home with your clothes stinking. It used to be totally socially acceptable, and at Christmas I remember gifts (not to me – I was a child!) of tins of cigarettes. There were smoking related gifts for children though – a ‘smoking set’ made from licorice or a sort of icing, with toasted coconut as tobacco.

I guess junk shops must be full of old ashtrays, and I guess many people buy them not knowing what they are – as they might ones like my friend’s little dishes!

River Ouse under a Norfolk sky

More on mythic voyages

I mentioned the travels of St Brendan of Clonfert, and referred to that other trans-Atlantic voyager from early times, Nicholas of Lynn… who may, or may not have travelled across the ocean; I mentioned him in my 50,000 word challenge, somehow I had travelled from my own story, to the tales of others and their relationship with rivers, seas and oceans.

The voyages of St Brendan may be more famous, but are they more true than those of a lesser known monk, Nicholas of Lynn, mathematician, astronomer, monk.

Nicholas of Lynn, (Nicolas de Linna) was born in 1330 in the Norfolk town of King’s Lynn, on the edge of the Wash. He became a Franciscan friar and an academic at Oxford University and is believed to have travelled to the Arctic Circle in about 1360. He is known to have written  a book describing his voyage and adventure,  but unfortunately there are no copies still in existence. It was called Inventio Fortunate,  ‘Fortunate Discovery’  and it was an account of his travels and journeys north.

However, two hundred years after he supposedly went on his adventure, Thomas Blunderville,  an English humanist writer and mathematician, well-known and well-regarded for work on logic, astronomy and education did not believe that Nicholas of Lynn could have made his voyage. More recently some weight has been added to the argument that in actual fact, Nicholas did indeed visit the Arctic, as Inventio Fortunate seems to have been a reasonably accurate description of Greenland and the Canadian Archipelago. Whether Nicholas himself travelled to Greenland and Iceland, or whether he just rewrote the tales he heard, there are parts of ‘Fortunate Discovery’  which almost  conclusively indicate an Icelandic or Greenlandic source.

It may be that although Nicholas wrote about the voyages as if he himself had made them, he might have heard them from another sources; it seems very likely to some, that he got his information, not first hand by travelling through the Arctic, but from a priest named Ivar Bárdarson. Bárdarson was actually the  administrator of the See of Gardar in Greenland, from about 1340 to about 1360. He had obviously travelled around these very areas and would have known – from his own experience or from talking to other travellers, about the eastern seaboard of the Canadian Arctic. He wrote a description of Greenland which had a wide circulation and was translated; the explorer Henry Hudson took it with him on some if not all of his voyages.

Hudson was an interesting man too, who met a tragic fate; he was born some time between 1565-1570, and made two attempts on behalf of English merchants to find a prospective Northwest Passage to China, then known as Cathay. It was believed that there was a route above the Arctic Circle and Hudson also explored the region around modern where New York now stands  while he was looking for this supposed western route to Asia. He was actually under the employ of  the Dutch East India Company and explored  and gave his name to the Hudson River; it was mainly thanks to him that there was a Dutch colony there for a while – New York, famously was originally called New Amsterdam.

Hudson went on to discover the Hudson Strait and Hudson Bay on his final expedition. However, these harsh and dangerous conditions bred harshness and danger for Hudson and his son. They overwinterd on the shore of James Bay, named not after King James I for whom Hudson was not working, but Thomas James, a Welsh captain who explored the area two decades later between 1630 and 1631.

 Hudson wanted to continue to the west, to continue his search, and maybe just to explore and see what there was. However, all but seven of his crew mutinied. Hudson, his son and seven men were set adrift and were never seen again or heard of again. Unless they were fortunate enough to meet some friendly Inuit, they must have drowned, or starved, or maybe were even attacked by some creature, a polar bear maybe.

Meanwhile, one hundred and fifty years earlier, Ivar Bardarson returned to Norway, possibly between 1361 and 1364; this is where Nicholas of Lynn may have met him in person. From their meeting he may have written his ‘Fortunate Discovery’ .





A mythical voyage

My recent writings, the challenge towrite 50,00 words, led me to some curious places… I looked at the voyages of St Brendan the navigator, and Nicholas of Lynn

St. Brendan is known far more widely, beyond Ireland, because of his voyage from Europe across the Atlantic; many believe he actually reached North America, although there’s not much actual proof other than ‘belief’. Known as St Brendan the Navigator, or Saint Brendan of Clonfert he was born in 484 near Tralee in County Kerry; he was the son of Finnlug and Cara according to tradition and legend, but who can really say after sixteen hundred years.!  He may have died in about 577 at the  age of ninety-four – fantastic for those times – in County Galway.

He was born in tribal Ireland, untouched by the Romans except maybe for the very easternmost sea-boards, and probably belonged to the Altraige tribe. Saint Patrick had arrive in Ireland some fifty years before, taken as a slave from the hills of Somerset, possible even our village of Uphill, and he and his followers had converted many Irish people by then.

Brendan is most famously  known for his travels; even if none of the legends and stories is true, what is certain is that he did make a voyage, a remarkable voyage and may well have been one of the first Europeans to set foot on land on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. It has been difficult enough to find evidence of the Vikings who we now know did get to mainland North America, but to find the slight traces and provable evidence for some Irish monks making landfall fifteen hundred years ago is impossible.

The reason for his voyage, his mission, was to find the Garden of Eden, or the Isle of the Blessed, (Terra Repromissionis Sanctorum) and  the Promised Land of the Saints. His story was written three hundred years later in the ninth century, but there are many different versions; over one hundred manuscripts across Europe exist plus many translations and interpretations. His story may have  been sensationalised to make it more interesting or exciting.

The explorers – because really that is what they were, driven by the same interests, desires and ambitions as any other explorer, Columbus, Drake, Cook, Ranulph Fiennes…  – must have seen many amazing things, whatever the fabrication, fantasy and fiction of the accounts. They would have navigated by the stars, and as experienced seamen  they may have been able to ‘read’ the sea and the wind, and know their position roughly from where the sun was. They wouldn’t necessarily have known where they were, but they would be able to back track home – even if they were blown off course.

We are so ignorant in comparison, so easily lost in so many ways!


Treat umbrellas kindly…

As a post script to Ruth Drew’s advice on cleaning umbrellas, particularly silk ones (I didn’t know there were silk umbrellas) I share further thoughts from her on looking after your brolly. Just thinking about umbrella reminded me of various stories where they play an important role… with people concealing things in them, using them as weapons, using them as a distraction – and who could forget Sairey Gamp in Martin Chuzzlewit? She even for a while gave her name to umbrellas.

I came across these other novels featuring umbrellas

  • Robinson Crusoe, by Daniel Defoe
  • Howards End, by EM Forster 
  • Father Brown stories, by GK Chesterton 
  • Amerika, by Franz Kafka 
  • Winnie the Pooh, by AA Milne 
  • Mary Poppins, by PL Travers 
  • The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, by CS Lewis 
  • The End of the Affair, by Graham Greene 
  • Umbrella, by Ferdinand Mount 

… and you can find out more here:


However, back to Ruth Drew; this is the time of year when umbrellas come into their own, and when you come home with the poor things sodden and dripping this is what you should do:

Don’t forget to treat umbrellas kindly. It is not a good idea to leave even a damp umbrella rolled up, let alone a sopping wet one. Unless yours is a nylon umbrella, wet will rot the fabric – and seep through and rust the spokes. So a good shake is what’s needed – even for the nylon kind – and then a little time to dry with the spokes open.

One thing which afflicts damp umbrellas left to dry all rolled up is smell – a nasty musty almost foetid smell will develop, and then envelop you next time you’re walking along beneath it in the pouring rain…



Treating silk umbrellas warily

I’m not really an umbrella person, although my fictional Victorian umbrella factory museum appears fairly regularly in what I write. I have occasionally possessed an umbrella, but never used it very often, and usually it would disappear into the back of a cupboard, or just disappear. The idea of cleaning an umbrella never occurred to me, but I guess we are fortunate enough to live somewhere with clean air and so it has never been needed – even if I’d thought of it.

However in the past, when most homes were heated by coal fires, and most industry powered by it, keeping anything clean was a massive problem. I’ve read that people working in London would take a spare collar and cuffs to change into at lunchtime… back when collars and cuffs were removable.

Here is some advice from Ruth Drew, probably written in the forties or fifties, on how to clean your umbrella – just in case you need to or want to:

You would think that, in this country, umbrellas would have all the natural cleaning that they require, but it is surprising how often they become grubby in the folds. Cleaning, however, presents one or two difficulties.
Silk umbrellas have to be treated very warily. For example, you can affect both the proofing of the silk and the colour if you clean with spirit or shampoo, whether it is based on soap or soapless detergent. Quite a lot of grubbiness yields to sponging with plain tepid water, and this is as much as you can do. If the umbrella is made of nylon, it is perfectly safe to sponge with mild soapless detergent, and then with clear water as a rinse. In either case, you obviously then leave the umbrella open to dry, and, equally obviously, you are careful to dry the metal spokes with a clean soft cloth, so that there is no danger of rusting.

I think there is a typo in the original – I’m sure Ruth would have rinsed with clean as opposed to clear water!

I am intrigued by the shampoo – is it ordinary hair shampoo, or special umbrella shampoo? Hmmm… maybe I should investigate…


Why can’t I make pie like my mum’s?

My mum was an amazing cook – of everything, but mostly I remember her pastry; whether it was shortcrust for pies, tarts and flans, or any other type for every sort of deliciousness, she never had a failure. Light, crispy, no soggy bottoms (apart from the cooked and lovely soggy at the bottom of a pie, which would still have texture and ‘bite’ even though it had absorbed the juices of whatever it contained) not too thick or too thin, and tasty even when it was leftovers from the day before, or even the day before that!

She mostly used the Be-Ro cookery book, which I also use – not just the latest edition, but the actual one she used, and also, I think one which may have been my grandmother’s. However, she would also collect recipes from magazines and elsewhere, and went to cookery classes too, so we had all sorts of different pastries, as well as just her standby. I have never managed to get anywhere near the sweet flan pastry she made, with egg yolks to bind, and a little sugar if it was a sweet filling… mine isn’t bad, but it is just not quite the same or as good.

And yet, and yet, when she was first married it was a different story… it was probably in the first weeks or months of her and dad’s marriage. They lived in rented rooms, and I can’t quite remember what they told me of the arrangement, but the landlady had to walk through where they were to get from one part of her living area, to another – no doubt arranged like that to nosy into the affairs of her tenants! Mum finished work earlier than dad and when he got home they had pie for desert and he criticised her pastry! She had never made it before and had just tried to follow a recipe (maybe Mrs Beeton) My dad wouldn’t have been horrid or unkind, just a typical insensitive young man – and the Elsdens are sometimes quite blunt in talking about food. Mum was a bit cross and a bit upset, but luckily her friend Daphne arrived as they were going out together.

When mum got home after having a nice, and no doubt giggle-filled evening, she found a beautiful golden, sugar sprinkled apple pie waiting on the table, with ‘I LOVE YOU’ written in pastry. She and dad both laughed – he’d realised how unintentionally unkind he had been, and she knew he would never have deliberately said anything mean or hurtful.

I often think of that, in fact every time I make pastry I think of that and i think of both of them!