Ne’er cast a clout

Tomorrow is the 1st of May, and the weather has been so changeable with pictures in today’s newspaper of snow-covered landscapes, and with a tremendous hail storm here yesterday, I can’t imagine we’re going to get much better or more settled weather in the next few days.

Thinking about this, and wondering when I was going to be wearing my shorts again, I pondered on the saying ‘ne’er cast a clout till May is out’… or should it be ’till may is out’. This is a saying over which there are endless disputes. Does ‘clout’ meaning clothing (I think it does) or does it mean a clod of earth, and is it May the month or may the hawthorn tree? So does the saying meaning don’t start taking off your winter clothes until the month of May has started or is over, or until the may blossom blooms, or does it mean don’t start turning over the soil in your garden (casting a clout/clod of earth) until the month or the flower is here or gone?

May flowers are the most sweetly smelling of all wild flowers (apart from cowslips – but it’s difficult these days to find cowslips or get near enough to smell them, whereas hawthorn blossoms everywhere and the spring air is filled with their scent)  Hawthorn must be one of the most common trees in Britain, a native tree, and they are just everywhere, and there is a garden variety too so they are not just in the wild. Travel down almost any country road and you’ll find hawthorn hedges; it’s thought that maybe as many as 200,000 miles (yes miles) of hawthorn hedge were planted in last half of the eighteenth and first half of the nineteenth centuries when the enclosures were being enacted – the forcible closing off of land, much of it previously common land. The word haw is extremely old, and literally means hedge – so hawthorn is hedgethorn; the city of Den Haag in the Netherlands is from the same root.

The fruit of the hawthorn is haws, and they can be made into a jelly, but I have to say, when I made it, it didn’t taste very nice… maybe it was my recipe, or maybe they actually don’t taste very nice!

Here are a couple of interesting sites connected to may, hawthorn, and old sayings:


Lentil soup and Spry

I love old cookery books, particularly the little booklets produced by food manufacturers containing recipes using their products. I have a  copy of the Spry (a vegetable fat)  book, ‘What shall I cook today’, published I think in 1937.

Looking at the section on sauces and soups, there are some recipes which could be found in current recipe books, others which I don’t think would feature.

Here are the sauces and their main ingredients, all containing Spry of course:

  • tomato sauce (tomatoes, onion,  ham)
  • apple (apples of course and sugar)
  • marmalade (marmalade and extra sugar)
  • onion
  • custard
  • cooked salad dressing (egg, flour, sugar, mustard, salt, milk, vinegar, water)
  • white
  • Dutch (fish stock, egg, lemon juice)

… and there are six soup recipes

  • white vegetable (potatoes, onions,, turnip and carrots – which are orange of course!)
  • Scotch broth ( mutton, pearl barley, carrot, turnip, cabbage,, peas, onion)
  • potato (potatoes, onion and leeks)
  • lentil (lentils, turnip, carrot, onion, potatoes)
  • tomato
  • kidney (sheep kidneys, onion, carrot, turnip

Turnip seems a really popular vegetable in 1937… I don’t think it is as popular today, in fact, i can’t think of the last time we ate it and I like turnips! it may seem surprising that there is kidney soup, offal was much used in the past, cheap,, nutritious and with little waste. The kidney soup is cooked for two hours… I’m not sure I would like it anyway, but after two hours of cooking,, what on earth would it taste like – and imagine the smell!

Lentil soup

  • 4 oz lentils
  • 2 pints water
  • pieces of turnip and carrot
  • 1 onion
  • 2 large potatoes
  • 2 oz Spry
  • salt and pepper
  1. wash the lentils and soak overnight
  2. melt Spry and add the lentils and chopped vegetables
  3. cook gently for 20 mins with the lid on
  4. add the water, bring to the boil and simmer for 2-3 hours
  5. season and serve
  6. alternative method – pass the soup through a sieve
  7. thicken with a tablespoon of flour mixed with a little cold milk
  8. boil for 3 mins
  9. add a little extra milk

Something rather bewildering about plums

My mother-in-law was born in Surrey in 1914, and although only five years older than my own father, she had a foot in a different world, a pre world war world. Also, although my father was very much a country boy, growing up on the edge of Cambridge which apart from the university was very much a market town, she grew up in the small villages of Nutfield and Bletchingley, right in the heart of the Surrey countryside.

I was always interested in things she told me about her life as a child, and she used to talk about the wild fruit they would pick, blackberries, sloes, crab apples, and also bullaces… of which I had never heard. being interested in food, in hedgerow foraging, dragging the children off to pick hips and haws for a recipe I’d come across, going out with bags for blackberries, and although I’d read a lot of fiction and factual stories about the English country, I’d never ever heard of bullaces.

Even  now, although I’m so interested in them,, I’ve never found any and never tried any. I think I know where a wild tree grows, but it’s on a very buys trunk road and inaccessible. I have a very interesting book, called Forgotten Fruits, by Christopher Stocks, and I’ve had a look to see what Mr Stocks says about bullaces. He starts off his chapter on plums ‘There is something rather bewildering about plums’ it’s not just the origins and ancestry of the fruit, but what they have been called over the years. he gives the example of apples always being called apples, but a plum, he says ‘can also be a damson, a bullace, a greengage or a mirabelle… a cherry plum or a prune‘. there is a whole chapter about plums but here is a summary of their origins, according to Mr Stocks:

  • bullaces and cherry plums are probably derived from a wild plum, prunus cerasifera for cherry plums and prunus institia for the bullace
  • bullaces are probably the ancestors of  damsons and mirabelles
  • ordinary plums, dessert plums, are probably a hybrid of cherry plums and sloes from the blackthorn bush, prunus spinosa, but maybe not, maybe it’s just the cherry plum!
  • prunes and greengages are just different varieties of ordinary dessert plums

I had never heard of mirabelles either, until I read one of the Inspector Wexford novels, by Ruth Rendell where there is a character who has mirabelles in her garden – which she calls miracles.



Being nasty to Masterchefs

One of my favourite programmes in Masterchef, and I avidly watch every series, amateur, professional and celebrity.  Although I love the cooking aspect of it, and the different sorts of food we see, and recipes and preparation we watch, the thing which I probably enjoy most is the personalities.

The amateur series is on at the moment; as usual it started with a group of ordinary people who are gradually whittled down through heats of different challenges, cooking their own dishes, the dreaded invention test, challenges in professional kitchens and restaurants, as well as a really difficult challenge – this time cooking on a battleship in a howling gale! As the series progresses, we get to find out more about the contestants, not so much their private lives, at the moment it’s just mother-of-four so and so, company director someone else, research chemist a.n.other etc, but we find out aspects of their personality and how they manage to get to grips with the different things they are expected to do.

I’m sure all us viewers have our favourites, the one whose food we really like, the ones who seem to be interesting characters, those who are nervous, those who are cocky in a cheeky way. Many people also follow the programme on various forums and social media sites, where the programmes are discussed and commented on.

I shouldn’t be shocked, I know I shouldn’t, but it amazes me how unkind some of the comments are in these forums and sites, and how plain ridiculous. We the viewers don’t actually taste the food, so we can not comment on whether a dish is better or worse than another; the two judges, one a professional chef, one a foodie who knows a tremendous amount about food have the food there in front of them – we don’t!

In a way comments on the food and dishes isn’t so bad, but comments on the contestants is nonsensical – we don’t actually know them, we only see what the editors of the film allow us to see – and the different cooks are almost labelled, the dizzy one, the calm one, the eccentric one, the messy one… and we are shown ‘clips’ reinforcing those characteristics. They have to cook for sometimes up to three hours, they have the judges wandering around talking to them, camera crews, someone asking them questions… the programme is only an hour – sometimes only half an hour, so what we see has been highly edited and controlled. We don’t really know if a contestant is silly or stupid, nice or rude, or over-confident… we have no idea!

Whenever I see a nasty comment I just reflect on how shallow and thoughtless the person making it is – and if anything it makes me like the contestant more!

Of jolly good ale and old

This rather cheery poem about ‘jolly good ale’ was apparently written by a  clergyman born in 1530 or thereabouts, William Stevenson; he may also have been the author of a play,  Gammer Gurton’s Needle – although this may have been written by another man of the church, the Archbishop of Bath and Wells, John Still. Stevenson was born in Durham but studied at Cambridge at Christ’s College, where, by the age of thirty he had received a Bachelor of Arts degree, a Masters, and a Bachelor of Divinity degree. An archive from the college records is involvement in plays although they do not mention him actually writing one. He returned to Durham Cathedral where he became a prebend – which means he received an income from the cathedral.  He died in 1575.

Jolly Good Ale and Old

I cannot eat but little meat,
My stomach is not good;
But sure I think that I can drink
With him that wears a hood.
Though I go bare, take ye no care,
I nothing am a-cold;
I stuff my skin so full within
Of jolly good ale and old.
Back and side go bare, go bare;
Both foot and hand go cold;
But, belly, God send thee good ale enough,
Whether it be new or old.

I love no roast but a nut-brown toast,
And a crab laid in the fire;
A little bread shall do me stead;
Much bread I not desire.
No frost nor snow, no wind, I trow,
Can hurt me if I wold;
I am so wrapp’d and thoroughly lapp’d
Of jolly good ale and old.
Back and side go bare, go bare,
Both foot and hand go cold;
But, belly, God send thee good ale enough,
Whether it be new or old.

And Tib, my wife, that as her life
Loveth well good ale to seek,
Full oft drinks she till ye may see
The tears run down her cheek:
Then doth she trowl to me the bowl
Even as a maltworm should,
And saith, ‘Sweetheart, I took my part
Of this jolly good ale and old.’
Back and side go bare, go bare,
Both foot and hand go cold;
But, belly, God send thee good ale enough,
Whether it be new or old.

Now let them drink till they nod and wink,
Even as good fellows should do;
They shall not miss to have the bliss
Good ale doth bring men to;
And all poor souls that have scour’d bowls
Or have them lustily troll’d,
God save the lives of them and their wives,
Whether they be young or old.
Back and side go bare, go bare;
Both foot and hand go cold;
But, belly, God send thee good ale enough,
Whether it be new or old.

Such a busy place…

Yes, I know I’m absent-minded, very absent-minded, but actually my mind is absent at all… it’s just very full! For example there is what you might call my front mind which is everything I’m doing right now… and slightly to the side of my front mind is the thoughts of everything I should be doing, will/maybe doing/ought to do – this can range from finishing all the jobs I’ve started and wandered away from, like the ironing, like finishing tidying this room, to actually papering a room which we have bought the paper for (last year…) to finishing off the MOOC I’m doing.

Now there is also my back mind, with all the memories of things I’ve done… that’s quite integrated and blurry along the edge where it meets my front mind; hovering above my back mind are all the dreams and imaginings and thoughts and feelings I had in the past… and I daresay if you excavated beneath my back mind you’d find a subterranean mind and who knows what lurks there! There are literally thousands, if not millions of little trails and paths between my front and back mind… so for example if I meet someone I was a t school with, an image of them plus lots of memories and stories, zips along to my front mind and attaches itself to the person I’m with now.

Somewhere, and I sort of feel that these two minds are situated to either outside edge of my whole mind, drifting between front and back, and rather tenuously linked. These two are rather different but similar; one is like an archive of things which have just been pushed further and further back behind newer stuff – I often rifle through this archive on quiz nights, trying to find out an answer I know but which has got lost among the dusty piles of other knowledge.The other one is like a lost property office, and all sorts of random things lurk there, unattached… for example I have a really clear memory from when I was very young, visiting some friends or maybe distant relatives of my parents. Although I was small at the time it still seemed a small room, with an open fire. It was quite dimly lit, a sort of yellowy light, so could this old place be lit by candles or lanterns or gas lamps? As well as my parents and the person/people we were visiting, we were with some other people – my aunty and uncle? My godparents who were close friends of my parents? My parents cousins? The thing which surprised me at the time, as a little child who lived in a bottom floor flat, was that there was a small wooden door beside the fireplace, and when opened revealed stairs! I was so surprised ad filled with wonder I’ve never forgotten it, but I’ve forgotten everything else… so this poor unattached memory sits there, waiting perhaps without hope, to be connected.

There is also, perhaps a bit like a mezzanine above my back mind, of stories I’ve been told by other people, my parents, relatives, friends from long ago – true stories, their stories – and also books I’ve read, films and TV programmes I’ve watched; quite often what is stored here is a bit muddled up with the back memory, as if files or books have been put back in the wrong place.

I forgot to mention, between the back memory, the archive and the lost property office, are folders of stuff which are never properly filed… were they things I dreamed or imagined? Were they things which I invented as a child and accidentally remembered as true memories? were they just random bits of unattached stuff which got shoved here as there was no other proper place to file them?

Now somewhere – and it’s a bit like a trolley of stuff which can be moved, are my actual stories. So at the moment, a lot of my front brain is very involved in the Radwinter stories, my genealogical mysteries; I am writing them in the first person, as Thomas Radwinter my main character… so inside my head I also have Thomas’s brain with his front brain, back brain, archive, lost property office, mezzanine, and random folders… and there is something a little like a laboratory or factory, creating the story line… There is also the Portbraddon story I am editing and revising – the story of a family whose unity and closeness is broken when their grandmother dies…  Fortunately both these stories (and many others I have written) are set in a fictional area around a seaside town called Easthope, and a small city called Strand… which on the one hand makes things easier, but on the other hand in the location finder/maps/geographical area of my front and back brain is an extra totally fictitious place alongside the place I live now and other places I visit regularly…

So all in all, I guess it maybe isn’t surprising that I forget to go somewhere, do something, buy something, ring somebody, write to somebody… and that is without the added complication of my procrastinationitis…

Oh, while I remember… have you read my e-books? If not, here’s a link: