A merry crew bedeckt in masks and ribbons gay

Many Morris dance troupes perform during the summer, and will go round country fairs, village fetes and festivals performing. In the past it seems that mummers and Morris would be more active as part of Christmas festivities… and here it is in John Clare’s Shepherd’s Calendar –

And singers too a merry throng
At early morn wi simple skill
Yet imitate the angels song
And chant their christmass ditty still
And mid the storm that dies and swells
By fits-in humings softly steals
The music of the village bells
Ringing round their merry peals

And when its past a merry crew
Bedeckt in masks and ribbons gay
The ‘Morrice danse’ their sports renew
And act their winter evening play
The clown-turnd-kings for penny praise
Storm wi the actors strut and swell
And harlequin a laugh to raise
Wears his hump back and tinkling bell

And oft for pence and spicy ale
Wi winter nosgays pind before
The wassail singer tells her tale
And drawls her christmass carrols oer
The prentice boy wi ruddy face
And ryhme bepowderd dancing locks
From door to door wi happy pace
Runs round to claim his ‘christmass box’

Mincemeat cheesecakes

I’m getting in the Christmas cooking mood and yesterday I was looking at some old recipes for mincemeat; one was fairly conventional, mixed dried fruits, suet and rum, the other had chopped dates and figs as well as the usual trio of currants, sultanas and raisins. They both included ratafia essence which isn’t something you ever see these days – maybe I could start a new food trend, ratafia revival?!

You may know rafafia as a sort of liqueur but I think the flavouring in this ninety year-old recipe is different.  There are several different things ratafia could be:

  • a sweet alcoholic drink such as a fortified wine
  • a fruit-based, spicy or herby  liqueur or a cordial, which might have ingredients such as lemon zest, aromatic herbs or  Christmassy spices
  •  as above but with the flavour of bitter almonds, either from actual almonds, or from the kernels of fruit such as  cherries, plums, peaches, apricots (their kernels do contain a poison in minute quantities so I guess you have to be careful with home-made ratafia!) This is the flavour of crunchy ratafia biscuits.
  • ratafia can also be brandy and grape juice which is the French style of making it
  • in Italy in the wine growing areas of Abruzzo it’s just made with cherries – which sounds delicious!

Back to the mincemeat… In this same recipe book is a mincemeat cheesecake, which surprised me because I thought it was a modern invention, or at least a modern favourite, I didn’t realise it was over a hundred years old! I had never even heard of it until I went to Manchester as a student and a local delicatessen sold it.

The cheesecake in this recipe is not much like what we think of these days, it sounds tasty all the same!

Mincemeat cheesecake

  • 2 oz butter
  • 2 oz brown sugar
  • 1 oz flour
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 1 oz ground rice
  • 1 oz ground almonds
  • ¼ tsp cinnamon
  • short or flaky pastry
  • mincemeat
  1. roll out pastry and cut out to line small cake or bun tins
  2. cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy
  3. add the egg and continue to beat
  4. add the flour, ground rice and cinnamon and mix well
  5. finally add the almonds
  6. spoon mincemeat into each pastry case
  7. cover with the mixture
  8. bake for about twenty minutes, 180°C, 360°F, gas mark 4, or until soft and cooked (I would bake the pastry blind first)



Criticising critics

I’ve shared this before, but having just read some recent criticism of an academic – criticism of their appearance, not their work, thoughts, philosophy or contribution to their field, I thought I would share this again, criticising critics!

When I have read a book, seen a film, watched a TV programme, bought a CD, seen a band etc I usually have a look at what other people think of it. It is just interesting to have other opinions and points of view. Sometimes I agree with them,sometimes I don’t; sometimes they have an opinion I’ve never even thought of, or have an insight which throws light on an aspect of the book/film/CD etc which I had not appreciated. It’s interesting if a review is different from my thoughts; if I thought something was awful and rubbish and someone else shows something about it which I might not have realised, I might not change my point of view, I might still think it rubbish, but I might understand why it is popular. Similarly if I really like something, and another person is critical of it, their view might make me defend what I think to myself, or challenge me to re-evaluate my thoughts. If someone offers an objective opinion, and argues their case, and doesn’t disparage the author/actor/artist/musician, then I might still really disagree with their opinion but I will respect it and be interested by it.

However… what really, really annoys me is when someone reviews something they know they are going to hate before they even read/watch/listen to it, and then slam it for not being perfect, or not fitting in with their narrow view. If I really dislike a genre of music, then why would I listen to it, and then say it’s awful? If I don’t like the style of a particular author, why read yet another book by him or her and criticise the way they right?

I recently read a read a review of a band I like; their music is very different, it does not fit easily into a genre, and it might take some listening to before anyone can really appreciate it. So when I was looking for reviews, I expected to read different opinions,and indeed I did; some critics, didn’t enjoy the music but still could make objective comments of the worth of aspects of it, composition, melody, lyric for example. Then I came across a review in which the author obviously hadn’t bothered to listen to the album properly, and adopted a sneering and disrespectful style in his/her criticism; it came across as someone who liked the sound of their own words, and was more keen to be bitchy in an attempt to be ‘honest’ or ‘hard-hitting’ than to make fair comment; they merely came across as being immature and ignorant, preferring to make cheap remarks, than taking the trouble to take a more balanced view.

It shouldn’t ever have to end this way

I shared an Ultravox video the other night…mentioning that I had confused that band with O.M.D. – Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark… is that an easy mistake to make if you just casually like their music? Ultravox has been active 1973–1987, 1992–1996, 2008–present and can be identified as new wave, synthpop, art rock, early post-punk, whereas O.M.D. has been on the scene 1978–1996, 2006–present and genres electronic, synth-pop, new wave, experimental, post-punk…


Mincemeat and mincemeat

I have in my cupboard a jar of mincemeat, which may be last year’s or may be the year before… thinking about it, it might even be the year before that! It is just one single jar, and since I am so fond of mince pies I might have to make some more… and I have been looking at my old cookery book, the recipes probably dating from the 1920’s if not before, and I have come across two separate lists of ingredients…

Mincemeat I

  • ½ lb cooking apples, peeled, cored, chopped
  • ½ beef suet (you can use vegetarian suet or butter)
  • zest and juice ¼ lemon (how is that going to make its presence felt? I’d use at least ½ a lemon, or a whole one)
  • ½ sugar
  • 2 oz flaked or nibbed almonds
  • 3 oz candied orange peel
  • 2 oz candied citron (lemon) peel
  • ½ lb each of  raisins, currants, sultanas
  • grated nutmeg
  • ratafia essence
  • rum

Mincemeat II

  • ¾ stoned, chopped dates
  • 1 lb chopped figs (stalks cut off)
  • ½ candied peel
  • 1½ lbs currants
  • 1 lb peeled and cored apples
  • 1 lb beef suet (you can use vegetarian suet or butter)
  • ½ lb sugar
  • ¼ lb Brazil nuts, chopped
  • ½ tsp ground ginger (I would add much more!!)
  • zest and juice of 1 lemon
  • 1/3 bottle of ratafia flavouring
  • 1/3 gill of rum  (I can’t work out how much this is in fluid ounces… maybe 2? Be generous!)

The instructions are the same for both recipes – mix all the ingredients very well together, pack into jars, make airtight… it doesn’t give any instruction as to how long to leave the mincemeat, at least a week I would guess, or as long as possible!


A reach… and reach!

I was looking at some information about our area, I can’t now remember whether it was our local newspaper, or maybe something on a local news site, but I came across a reference to Finzels Reach in Bristol. Now, although I’ve lived in the west country for over fifteen years and been associated with it much, much longer (in fact since I was in the sixth form here) I don’t know Bristol that well, and nor do I know and have never heard of Finzels Reach.

From the context of what I read I guessed it was a new development of some sort, but I had no clue as to whether it was a new name or an old name (thinking of how new pubs are called things like the Flask and Spile, the Toad’s Ear, and new roads are called all sorts of strange things) Then, today, just by coincidence, a friend and I were walking along by the Floating Harbour in Bristol, just by where the castle once was, and across the water we saw ‘Finzels Reach’!

It looked as if it might have been an old building, now much smartened up and with new development going on behind it. When I got home I looked it up to find out exactly what it had been; The area where we were walking opposite it had been virtually flattened during the Bristol blitz, but the old warehouses opposite were still standing.

Originally there had been a sugar refinery, the Counterslip  Sugar House, on the site from the last quarter of the seventeenth century. Bristol merchants have had a chequered past, on a particular shameful time  was when they were involved in the vile trade of enslaving African people and taking them far from their home, across the Atlantic to work the new plantations established in the Americas – displacing and ‘eliminating’ the original inhabitants. Sugar was brought back to Bristol, and this was the site of one of the refineries.

The building we were looking at were those rebuilt by Mr Finzel, to be precise, Herr Conrad Finzel in 1846. It was rebuilt because it had burnt down and it became one of the major refineries in the country. When Herr Finzel died, his son also Conrad took over, and the business continued until the early 1880’s when it became a brewery.

So this was Finzels Reach… my friend who is Hungarian asked about the word ‘reach’ as she only knew it as a verb. I knew it also meant a stretch of water… and we wondered whether the verb came before the noun, or vice-versa… another thing to look up.

It seems – as I understand it that, there were two origins of the word reach – one which was a noun meaning a stretch of water, and one the verb meaning to stretch out to grasp something… so, there we are!

PS my featured image is not of Finzels Reach but it is Bristol, what’s known as Bristol Byzantine

Re-reading a favourite

At this time of year, re-reading books seems like a good idea, revisiting things you have read before… I don’t know why, I guess it’s comfortable and familiar, and yet new things are always found… We haven’t had snow, just lots and lots of rain, which is much more miserable…

This is a book I haven’t read for ages, and a story to go with it:

‘Midnight in Peking’ is a book by Paul French, subtitled ‘The Murder That Haunted the Last Days of Old China.’

There is rather a comical story attached to me buying the book in Waterstones Weston-super-Mare, but it’s only really funny if you know me! The bones of my story of buying the book is that I’d heard an excerpt of it read on BBC Radio 4 and decided to get a copy. However by the time I got to the shop I had forgotten not only the name of the author but the name of the book as well.

“Hi, I wonder if you have a copy of a book set in China before the second world war… it’s not fiction, it’s a true story about the murder of a young English girl.”

Helpful assistant: “What is the title?”

Me: “Um.. something like ‘Murder in Old Peking’ … it’s written as a story but it’s true, and it’s really gripping; I heard it being read on the radio.”

Helpful assistant: “Who is it written by?”

Me: “Sorry, no idea, but it was an ordinary name like John or James or Richard somebody.”

Helpful assistant: “On Radio 4? We get a list of their books, I’ll have a look.” She consults the computer.

I mumble more stuff and then she calls over the handsome assistant.

Handsome assistant: “I think I’ve heard of that, just a minute…”

Both are now furiously tapping away at their computers while I witter on irrelevantly.

Handsome assistant: “‘Midnight in Peking?'” he reads a précis. “Who killed Pamela Werner? On a frozen night in January 1937, in the dying days of colonial Peking, a body was found under the haunted watchtower. It was Pamela Werner, the teenage daughter of the city’s former British consul Edward Werner. Her heart had been removed…?”

Me: “Yes! That’s it!”

I follow the handsome assistant through the store and he finds the last remaining copy…

It is a fascinating, and heartbreaking story. As a parent I was riven by what Mr Werner had to go through, appalled by the corruption of the various police investigators, disgusted by the cynical cover up of the British establishment trying to ‘save face’ before the Chinese…  ‘Midnight in Peking’ paints an intriguing and detailed picture of life in China before the war as the Japanese invaders were approaching, the decadence and depravity not only of the low life in the rough area known as the Badlands, but the duplicitous depravity of the ‘respectable’ American and European professionals.

Paul French has done an incredible amount of research which sits lightly on the narrative and yet informs and intrigues… and horrifies!