Two good guidebooks for two East Anglian counties

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If you are planning a trip to Norfolk or Suffolk this year and want to do it old school, that is not wandering around waving your phone about, hoping to connect with Google maps, then these compact yet comprehensive guidebooks will please you.

Written by Laurence Mitchell, local expert and highly regarded travel and landscape writer, Slow Travel Norfolk and Slow Travel Suffolk follow his last guidebook,  Slow Norfolk & Suffolk (Bradt/Alastair Sawday’s) which was shortlisted for the 2010 East Anglian Book Awards.

The concept of ‘slow travel’ is simple: it seeks to free itself from the increasing domination of tourist listicles and encourage travellers to seek out a sense of place wherever they go. It’s not just about ticking off landmarks. Slow Travel wants us to meet people, to immerse ourselves in the natural lay of the land and to free ourselves from imposed timetables.

Both travel guides kick off with a regional map highlighting useful towns to base yourself in. The counties are divided into geographical regions for ease of navigation and each regional section kicks off with a map. Stopping-off points are highlighted and each featured walk comes with its own map. There’s information on public transport, good advice as to how to proceed on foot, suggestions for places to eat, drink and stay and reams of local history. Laurence introduces us to the people who live and work in East Anglia and those artists and writers who have visited and been inspired by the region.

Slow Travel Guides by Laurence Mitchell

Slow Travel Guides sold via Waterstones

East of Elveden- Laurence Mitchell

 

Seeking ice cream inspiration?

Ice cream, gelato and frozen custard are my desert island choices. They are what I choose when I am tired and don’t know what to eat and at the end of a bad day, comfort is found not in the bottom of a glass, but staring into a full tub of full-fat frozen something-something. But I don’t have an efficient ice-cream maker yet so when time is short, I have to rely on what I can forage from the store unless I have a stash of home-made sitting waiting for me. And it doesn’t tend to hang around for long either.

I do make a lot of ice cream though, using the old-fashioned elbow grease method of constant beating with a fork to break the ice crystals up as the mixture freezes but I also have some good suggestions for jazzing up store-bought flavours up my sleeve too. Here are some of them:

[1] Add Indian flavours:

I buy Pradip’s special chewda mix from Rafi’s Spice Box  store in Suffolk but similar mixtures are available from most Indian food stores. Chewda is a sweet and salty blend of puffed rice, sweet almonds, cashews, peanuts and peppers, a few candied lentils and enough chilli powder to provide an interesting contrast to the cold ice cream. It tastes great over coconut, pecan and vanilla but I imagine mango ice cream or sorbet would be a lovely match too. It’s easy to customise too: I’d add some fresh coconut flakes, slivers of salty-sweet prunes and dried mango.

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[2] Stir in some chilli honey:

Last year I got my hands on a bottle of Mike’s Hot Honey, made in Brooklyn. After a few delirious weeks of adding it to virtually everything I ate as an experiment, I had to make my own. Mike’s is made with wildflower honey infused with vinegared chillies and goes well with ice cream but my version is less tart: making it in small quantities means I can get away with adding smaller amounts of vinegar although honey tends to preserve itself anyway. All you need is a jar of honey, a few chillies (two per pound of honey) OR a quarter tea-spoonful of chipotle paste. Simply slice the chillies and remove the seeds then place into the jar of honey to infuse. After a couple of weeks it’ll be ready. If you cannot wait that long, stir a tiny blob of chilli paste (I like chipotle from Luchita) into the honey and seal the lid. Keep this one in the fridge and eat within two weeks. I stir chilli honey into ready-made vanilla ice cream or add it in when I am making my own from scratch. Don’t mix it thoroughly through the ice cream though; what you are aiming for are ribbons of chilli-hot flavour.

[3] Add in some roasted pineapple:

For some Caribbean flavours, skin and slice a pineapple into rings and place them onto a well-buttered non-stick baking tray. Sprinkle the rings with a little rum, a good coating of brown sugar and some chilli flakes (these are optional). Dot with butter and roast in the oven until glazed, golden-brown and caught around the edges. Now let it cool completely then cut into small pieces (or a rough mash) and mix into a tub of ice cream. Vanilla is good for showing off the fruit flavours but brown butter ice cream from Judes goes well as does stem ginger. If you want a real flavour pairing, drink a cup of Colombian Sierra Nevada coffee (Cafe de Colombia) with it or better still, make some Colombian coffee ice cream.

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Simon Law/Flickr/CC

[4] Stir in some gooseberry and hazelnut:

In season around June in Britain, millions of pounds of gooseberries will be picked, cooked into fruit purees, turned into jams and curds then baked into pies, sweetened fools and puckery sauces for oily fish. But did you know that this little fruit works really well with hazelnuts? At their simplest, the berries can be washed, dried and sliced then macerated in sugar for a day in the fridge before being added to a bowl of ice cream with hazelnuts scattered over the top. But why not cook them down into a fruity puree with brown sugar and a slug of Frangelico (a hazelnut-flavoured liqueur from Italy) then mix them into a plain ice cream with some toasted hazelnuts on top? Or if your summer liqueur of choice is St Germain – such an elegant art deco bottle- simmer the fruits in this for a more floral effect.

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[5] Go Sicilian:

This is simple. Slice and toast a brioche bun and fill it with a scoop of gelato, ice cream or granita then eat for breakfast with a cup of coffee. The best version I ever ate was filled with almond granita (icy, milky) but to be honest it is hard to imagine a bad one. There’s so many variations on a Sicilian theme too. Look for ice cream made with ricotta and toss in a handful of dried orange and lemon peel plus some shavings of dark chocolate for the classic island cassata; lemon or passion fruit sorbet with added white chocolate chunks; pistachio ice cream with candied Bronte pistachios (which are some of the best in the world and grown on the island).

[6] The Middle East and a handful of pistachios:

The pistachio nut is an evergreen tree native to Asia, dating back to 7000bc in Turkey. Its movement across Europe and the Middle East is a history full of romance and legend and one I’ve chosen to commemorate via ice cream. Apparently the Queen of Sheba decreed pistachios to be an exclusively royal food which meant commoners were forbidden from growing the nuts for their own use and the Hanging Gardens of Babylon were planted with pistachio trees on the order of Nebuchadnezzar, the ancient king of Babylon. The nut travelled to Rome in the first century A.D when the Emperor Vitellius introduced it and Islamic texts recorded pistachios as one of the foods brought to Earth by Adam. Fortunately this commoner lives in more permissive times and I now buy this set sesame paste studded with nuts, sold by the cut weight, from market stalls and Middle Eastern stores in larger towns and cities. Arabic halva is made from crushed sesame and tahini sweetened with either honey or sugar  whereas the halva I encountered in Turkey was made with brittle pressed strands of wheat flour and sugar. Often based on semolina as opposed to sesame, it’s sold plain or mixed with dried fruit and nuts and even cooked and dried fruit and vegetable leathers. I’m not going to suggest you make it at home although there are lots of recipes online should you wish to do so. What I would do is buy some good quality halva, Turkish delight and fresh pistachios then simply crumble them over a bowl of (vanilla or honey) ice cream or semi-freeze a tub of Greek yoghurt sweetened with honey and studded with fresh chopped pistachios, then serve alongside a platter of fresh halva and dates. Place a little jug of date or pomegranate syrup and a dipping bowl of sesame seeds on the table to pour over. 

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Halva with pistachios on sale / Etsy / ggbytech
NOTE: None of the links are affiliate, sponsored or mentioned at the behest of the companies involved. These are all products that I have purchased independently.

Humankind is not perfectible, but I hold out hope that it is perhaps correctable’- an interview with HP Wood, author of Mr Magruders Curiosity Cabinet

Magruder's Cover

H.P. Woods spent a fair few summers propping up the bar at Coney Island’s Sideshows downing Coronas with her friends and sometimes buying a round for Michael the Tattooed Man. The granddaughter of a mad inventor and a sideshow magician, she read for a degree in theatre studies and took a series of girl-gotta-make-rent jobs in New York City before she settled into the world of publishing. Instead of making things disappear, she makes books of all shapes and sizes and has now written her first novel, Magruder’s Curiosity Cabinet (Sourcebooks Landmark) which was published earlier this month.

Woods went back to Coney Island for inspiration for her story, setting it in May 1904, when the resorts newest amusement park, Dreamland, has just opened with the hope of making back the cost of its investment. many times over. As crowds continued to flock to seaside resorts in their thousands, Kitty Hayward and her mother arrive in the city by steamer from South Africa. When Kitty’s mother takes ill, the hotel doctor sends Kitty to Manhattan to fetch some special medicine but a series of unfortunate events leaves Kitty alone in the city with nobody to turn to except the denizens of Magruder’s Curiosity Cabinet.

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Cyclops from “Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland, 1861–2008” at the Brooklyn Museum

Magruder’s is home to a forlorn flea circus, a handful of disgruntled Unusuals, and a mad Uzbek scientist. Kitty is taken under their wing and with their help she endeavours to find out what happened to her mother only to run into problems when a plague hits Coney Island and the resort is placed under quarantine. As the once-glamorous resort is abandoned to the freaks, anarchists, and madmen, is Kitty’s missing mother the least of their problems?


Coney Island is as much a character in the novel as Kitty and the Unusuals. Once the largest theme park in the USA (between 1880 and World War Two) Coney Island drew crowds of several million visitors per year as they flocked to the three competing major amusement parks, Luna Park, Dreamland, and Steeplechase Park based there. They promenaded on its iconic boardwalk, congregated at Nathans HotDogs and Childs Restaurant to people-watch and shoot the breeze and soaked up the sun and sea air on the beach, just a few miles away from the hot, dusty and crowded streets of New York City.

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On the beach at Coney Island in 1902

The amusements attracted entrepreneurs, opportunists and carneys and their innovation and imagination birthed a new age in theme park design. The earliest carousels (as we know them today) were built in Coney Island, alongside what is widely considered the first modern roller coaster in 1884, the Gravity Switchback Railway. As night fell, over 250,000 electric bulbs lit up the skies at Luna Park which was soon nicknamed Electric Eden after its opening in 1903 and crowds gathered inside Lilliputian Village which was staffed by three hundred dwarfs.

Mr Magruders Curiosity Cabinet has been described as “gloriously original, colorful and alive…. a magnificent riot of unique turn-of-the-century characters…fools and sages, snakes and saviors” and a “cracking Coney Island roller coaster of an adventure, full of marvelous, colorful, and unapologetically authentic characters and a bright, breathless debut….” so  I asked HP Woods about the book and her inspiration. Here’s what she has to say.

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 Can you tell us about your family background of inventors and magicians?

Arthur F Poole was the inventor in the family and his main contribution to the world was an electric clock, which he spent the majority of his life and fortune perfecting… only to have a better ones be invented by others in the years that followed.  His son, my actual grandfather, was something of an inventor as well, and he was the only one who knew how to make what he called “a little doodad” that was required to make his father’s clocks run properly.  When he died in the 1970s, the little doodad went with him, and it is nearly impossible to make the family clocks run properly now.

So it is, if not a sad story, certainly one tinged with a certain irony and/or absurdity.

Theron Wood was a traveling sideshow magician in the 1920s and 1930s.  He gave it up to raise a family in central New York, although he did still perform from time to time.  My 11-year-old daughter is actually quite good at a basic coin trick that has been passed down in the family.  It’s a shame he never got to meet her… although I’m told that he was absolutely determined that women should not do magic, ever. Or wear trousers. So, perhaps it all worked out for the best.

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An advertisement of Theron’s, from when he settled down in NYC.

Is Magruders a story that has always been there, waiting to be told?

Ha! In a sense, Magruder’s is a story that has ALREADY been told!  By which I mean, the central premise—girl and mother check into hotel, mother gets sick and is “disappeared” by said hotel to cover up her dire illness—is apparently an “urban legend” that predates me by some time.  I was not aware of this when I was writing.  I came across the story in a book called The People’s Almanac, where it is presented as fact.  I’ve since been shown other versions of the story in other books, all likewise presented as fact.

In my blissful ignorance, I became very curious about what had become of the girl. As there was no information available (which makes sense in retrospect, the story being false!). I decided I had to write my own ending.  I set it in Coney Island because I have an abiding love for the place.

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Laurello, the Only Man With a Revolving Head appeared in Sam Wagner’s freak show on Coney Island, 1938. Reputedly, he could rotate his head 180 degrees.

 

Tell us about your research process…

For research, I read a lot about the history of sideshows; I had studied them a bit while getting a theater degree in college, but I really delved into it much more when I was writing the book.

I read a lot about the plague.  Two books about the Black Death, Boccaccio’s The Decameron and Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year, were incredibly important to me. I also read about plague epidemics that hit San Francisco and Honolulu in the early 1900s.  Many events in my book, such as the spineless government cover-ups and scapegoating of immigrants, did actually occur, just on the West Coast rather than New York.  (Trivia moment: the Governor of California was thrown out of office in a scandal related to the fact that he spent two years lying about the existence of plague in his state.)

I’m very envious about your time spent at Coney Island and in the theatre. Were you actively storing up stories and vignettes back then?

I never worked at Coney Island, I just lazed about a great deal. But I did spend almost all my time until the age of about 24 in or around theater: amateur productions, student productions, professional, whatever I could do.  When I needed a job in high school, I got one in the box office of the Hartford Stage Company, which is quite a respected regional theater here in the US.  After college I worked at places like the now-defunct (not my fault!) Circle Repertory Company and New York Theater Workshop.

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The author, in her 20s, at the sideshow bar, on the Coney boardwalk

The playwright Lanford Wilson once stole my pen, so I’ve got that going for me.

My point is, as a writer I connected to my sideshow characters via that background, as fellow theater-types.  Not as biological oddities or weirdos.  And I think that does give the book a different angle on “freaks” than many other books have.  I don’t see the characters in Magruder’s as exotic in any way.  They are exoticized by others, for sure, and that’s a big deal in terms of how they live.  But I see them as regular showfolk trying to make a living and get by in an often-hostile world.

For instance, Zeph, a character who had his legs amputated after an accident, has to go around either on his hands or in a special vehicle.  There are little details about the gloves he has to wear, the handles that are bolted into furniture so he can climb around and reach things, and his utter shock at a girl ever flirting with him.  But all of this is discussed in passing.  It’s not, you know, Here Is A Disabled Character Let’s Discuss That.  It’s not exotic or weird, nor is it romantic or tragic. It’s just part of his regular day.

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The character of Rosalind is genderfluid but again, it’s just a fact of life. There’s no “coming out” narrative here.  In fact, Rosalind drops his boyfriend, Enzo, because Enzo hesitates to be “out” in public and Ros ain’t having it.

The character of Kitty, who is the newcomer to Magruder’s and therefore the reader’s surrogate, is just expected to catch up with all this.  It’s normal life at the Cabinet.

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Can the reader seek out their version of Magruder or is this a world and lifestyle that is completely gone? Our opinions about what makes a curiosity might have changed…

 Well the Coney Island Sideshow  is alive and well, that’s for sure.  In fact, yours truly will be reading from Magruder’s there on July 9, mark your calendars please.  They even have a sideshow school where you can take classes in fire-eating and banner-painting. Meanwhile, the World of Wonders Sideshow  still tours the US during the summer.

So I don’t think the tradition has completely gone away—although it is, as you hint, far more niche than it used to be.  One positive development, though, is that sideshows are much more performance-based now.  In other words, sideshows involve showing off weird skills, rather than exploiting biological differences.

Coney Island itself has had something of a resurgence of late.  New amusement rides, new restaurants, even a hotel going in finally.  But of course, that always sets up a different conflict, of the preservationists versus the gentrifiers.  By my nature I tend to side with the preservationists, but not all change is bad, either.  I’m glad that Coney Island doesn’t look like “The Warriors ” anymore.

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Michael Dolan: CC/ Flickr / Freak show signs at Coney Island

How challenging is it to balance the readers need for space to create his own image of Magruder’s curiosity cabinet and your obvious pleasure in describing it to your readers? I could have happily read a straight ten page description of the attraction as a section in itself but other readers seem to prefer more space. 

This is kind of a dream-come-true question for me, because I think of myself as being terrible at description!  As a reader I guiltily skim it.  I view myself—I think because of my theater background—as primarily a dialogue girl.  But since this isn’t a script, I knew I had to try to put the reader in the specific location.  I worked really hard at the description but never thought it was good enough.

I will say, it was hard to stop myself piling on more weird exhibits, just because they are fun to invent and/or discover.  Just to give you one tiny example, there really is a book called Ought I Be Baptized?  I saw it at a tag sale, and it must have been 500 pages at least.  You wouldn’t think that query would need such a thorough investigation but somebody clearly did.

But at a certain point I just wanted people to start talking!  So, returning to your actual question, I think I just followed my own instincts as a fairly impatient reader.  Don’t bother describing the furniture, gimme an argument.

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 I’ve always been interested in the tension that exists between what fascinates us and what repels us. The Victorian freak show was the incarnation of that and although it no longer exists in such a straightforward way, some might say we have its modern-day equivalent ie Jerry Springer, reality shows like The Kardashians and Donald Trump. What do you think about this? Are we less honest and self-aware about our need to ‘other’ some people than the Victorians were? 

My initial reaction is to deny any connection between my beloved Unusuals and Trump!  But I take your point.  However I am not so sure if the situation can be generalized as us being “more” aware or less.  In fact researching this book kind of led me to the supposition that humans really don’t change all that much.

Sideshows made their money by pinging whatever raw nerves society happened to have at the time.  Studying their history, you can see that very similar acts keep appearing and reappearing, but with adjustments based on whatever was bugging people at the moment.

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So for instance, there’s a famous act usually called Spidora or similar, in which a woman pretends to be part woman & part spider.  It’s an old act.  But what interested me was, the cause of the spider transformation changes over time.  Originally it would have been something simple like, a bite from an especially mean spider. So in that instance, the uncontrollable natural world is the enemy.  But later, “atomic radiation” was the culprit.  In the 1980s, that was adjusted to “toxic waste.”

In Magruder’s, you get to see Rosalind’s performance as a half-and-half, meaning one side male, one side female.  It’s an act whose popularity tracks pretty closely with the suffrage movement.  In the same era, you’d have cartoons in the newspaper showing “a suffragette at home,” where her husband is wearing a frilly apron as he cleans with one hand and holds a baby with another.  So there was tremendous gender anxiety at the time, and it was turned into performance at the sideshow.

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Anyway, it’s not hard to “read” Trump in this light.  He is performing hyper-masculine aggression at a time when a certain segment of Americans are feeling emasculated—by the post-Fordist economy, by globalization, by feminism.  By the very fact that a black man has led the free world for 7.5 years. Humankind is not perfectible, but I hold out hope that it is perhaps correctable.

I honestly don’t know enough about the Kardashians to get a read on them in this way, but I guarantee you there is some social itch that they are scratching, just like Spidora did back in her day.

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Who are you reading and what other books in the Magruder theme might you recommend to readers newly interested in this subject?

I am reading More Than Human by Theodore Sturgeon, which has pretty much nothing to do with Magruder’s, but you asked!  There are loads of novels about sideshows and Coney Island, most of which I avoided reading because I didn’t want to copy them.  But Alice Hoffman’s Museum of Extraordinary Things is supposed to be excellent, as is Church of Marvels by Leslie Parry.  (Aside to that one damn reviewer who dismissed me as “derivative” of Hoffman: I started my book several years before Hoffman’s came out. And indeed I had myself a good long cry when I found out about hers, because I was certain all my work was for nothing. Humph!)

The Platonic Ideal of a “freak” book is of course Geek Love.  It is a Modern Classic that means a great deal to a great many people.  It’s not some dumb old commercial “beach read” like mine: Geek Love is respected as Great Literature.

I hate the bloody thing.  I can’t stand how profoundly, aggressively ugly and cruel all the freaks are. (Yes, I understand that it is social satire.  I “get” it, I just don’t “want” it.)  Jean-Luc Godard said that in order to criticize a film you need to make another film… And you could definitely interpret my book as a response to Geek Love in that sense.

And finally, on my website  I have a page called Magruder’s Library, which lists the books I read as research.  So there you’ll find the real history of Coney Island, sideshows, plagues, and all manner of other oddities.

Coney Island Freak Show

 

Mr Magruders Curiosity Cabinet is out now.

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Michael Dolan / Flickr: Coney Island in 2010

https://twitter.com/swordswallow


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Terms food writers probably shouldn’t use

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Having laughed and agreed with Sarah Millers feature on the food-writing terms that properly stick in her craw, I had no choice but to compile a list of my own. The food-writing police are in the building and they ain’t leaving any time soon. I’d love to know what your most-hated terms are (or if you think I am a prescriptive joyless b*tch and should let people get on with it).

1] Mouthgasm 

Makes me want to spit, not swallow, in  disgust.

2] Nom Nom Nom

What are you, a baby being fed microwaved mango and banana for the first time?

3] Decadent

You clearly wouldn’t know what decadence was if it slapped you round the head with a gilded mullet although I must admit that my bar for decadence is set pretty high. Oscar Wilde’s black feast? *Meh*. Bronze-lined triclinium filled with Roman flute girls and a platter of hare decorated with wings to resemble Pegasus? *Basic*.

4] Opted for

I opted to stop reading your article at this point.

5] Tangle of

GREAT idea to remind me of a plate of hair when I’m reading about food.

6] ‘Sossidge’

Not a fan of any word whose utterance causes ones mouth to form the shape of a cat’s anus. Also VV juvenile. See also: ‘sammies’ for sandwich. God knows what they whisper at you during sex. They probably have a name for their penis, too.

7] ‘Slipped through’- as in ‘my knife slipped through’

THIS DID NOT HAPPEN.

8] Buttery

Buttery meat [blech]. Marlon Brando’s buttery meat [blech]. Also a much-beloved term for fashion writers who ought to be incarcerated in fashion jail and fed ten times a day every time they describe leather as butter-soft (which is a LOT of times).

9] Authentic

Authentic for whom?

10] Sinful

I can’t speak for you but for me, murder, theft and everything Donald Trump says and everything Donald Trump does are pretty high up on my list of sins. The act of eating is not (although possibly, the consumption of a Trump steak would be). Same applies to ‘guilty pleasures’ because YOU ARE MISSING OUT if the closest you get to this is eating a bloody ice cream. Stop colluding with the language of eating disorders.

11] Foodie

I’d rather be called a professional wanker. Do you refer to gallery goers as Arties?

12] Food movement

Especially after a bad oyster.

13] Food porn

Using the word porn to describe food makes you sound so repressed, you probably think Larkin got it wrong when he said sexual intercourse started in 1963. Seriously, go get laid and then think about the sexual politics of equating abusive sexual practices with what’s on your plate.

14] Farm fresh

Conjures up images of a big fat cowpat imo. ‘Farm fresh’ on a label is usually accompanied by a line drawing of a generic farm called ‘Happy Valley’ or ‘Green Meadows’ that you know DOESN’T EXIST. And if I see this written on a restaurant menu it makes me want to ask them ‘as opposed to what? Rank and stale ?’

15] Iconic

Patti Smith is iconic. The Chrysler Building is iconic. The Taj Mahal is iconic. Your cheese toastie is not, even if it has been handmade by Rene Redzepi.

16] Addictive

I am as likely to crave a bowl of ice cream as much as the next person but let’s not pretend my love for the icy stuff is going to make me lie in bed shivering, doubled up with cramps if I miss a hit.

17] Cooked to perfection

As opposed to raw, burnt, covered in dog hair, frozen in the middle? I happen to like my steak still mooing as its brought to the table. To me that is perfection. To you it probably is not.

18] Pillowy

So help me God but if I read this about gnocchi or bao one more time I am going to place a real pillow over the face of whoever wrote it and press down hard.

 

A food-writing prescription to cure clean-eating

 

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Not ‘clean’ but fun. And we’re in danger of losing that.

The concept of clean food is a crock, posing as wellness when in fact underneath lie some pretty disordered ideas about food and eating, denial and body image. Clean eaters often demonstrate extremist beliefs and magical thinking about food and they tend to be obsessed with their physical appearance (their rhetoric exhorts us to eat clean in order to gain a flat stomach, a lean physique) at the expense of their psyches. The term is meaningless, its context weak, narcissistic and stripped of indulgence, pleasure, and love. Their locus of control is firmly centred upon the external because everything is a potential threat: food can harm them; food will make them fat; food will make them sluggish; they cannot rely on their lymphatic, hepatic and renal systems to detoxify- indeed they do not trust their own bodies at all.

The real problem with clean eaters is their lack of an internal locus of control. They seem to believe they are at the mercy of food, their appetite, and their desires, and the sense of agency and self-determination which are both necessary for a healthy psyche have become quiescent. They blame their food instead, as opposed to their own thought processes, yet food cannot be dirty or clean unless you are in the habit of rolling your weekly shopping through the mud or putting it through a hot wash. The moral value of a foodstuff lies in the method of its production, not in its inherent nature, taste or effects. If you really aspire to eat well, cut out battery hen eggs, eat meat from animals that are treated in a more humane manner and buy your fruit and vegetables from local producers who don’t use horrid pesticides or cut down their hedgerows. Shop for ingredients when you need them, cut down on food miles where possible and learn to scratch-cook using fresh and seasonal ingredients where possible. This is good food, not clean food.

If you want to learn how to take greater pleasure in what you cook and eat then I’ve compiled a reading list by authors whose love of life is expressed in the way they write about food. If eating has become a bit of a minefield, their words might help you see how rigid boundaries and self-denial can suck all the pleasure out of life. Nobody should be telling you that you can achieve via puritanical restraint and self-denial: it’s a mean old message. Publishers and commissioning editors bear much of the responsibility for turning odd, crackpot nutritional ideologies into a multi-million-pound industry as do food writers who don’t consult or quote state-registered health professionals when offering dietary advice but I’ve yet to see anyone else daring to say this. But that’s a subject for another post in the future.

If you seek order and routine in the kitchen, learn how to bake which is a discipline full of science and precise weights and measures. Chuck out the scales in your bathroom and buy a gorgeous set of scales for the kitchen instead. But please don’t be afraid of food and don’t be afraid of your appetites.

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Rachel Roddy’s zingy and warm exposition on lemons and lemon spaghetti is utterly divine. I could read this over and over again and never tire of it. Simplicity can be indulgent although Rachel is not the new Elizabeth David as many claim. I think she will be even better.

Some Like It Extra-Hot: David Ramsey’s eye-wateringly good account of eating at Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack in the Oxford American precipitated a rush on this much-loved Nashville chicken joint. Ordering the extra-hot became a culinary rite of passage for (mostly) male food writers- especially British ones -and triggered the opening of copycat establishments everywhere. This is the original, and best article.

Susan Hill on mushrooms, taken from Through the Kitchen Window (Penguin books)… “girolle mushrooms, apricot-coloured and apricot-scented, with fan vaulting below the cap, as in some ancient cathedral.”

An Encyclopedia of Seafood Cookery by Molly O’Neill, taken from her memoir, Mostly True, in which she comes of age as a chef and moves beyond her landlocked American culinary horizons. O’Neill is such a warm and wise writer and addresses her own body image issues, which were, in part, triggered by her mothers need for perfection through her daughter’s body shape.

Back to the Old World, 1962-1967 by Marcella Hazan is a chapter from her memoir L’Amarcord. It is a masterclass in how to cook from fresh market produce as Marcella distills the guidance of the stallholders into mini cookery lessons.

Gardens on the Mesa by Eugenia Bone is an excerpt from her book, At Mesa’s Edge and is a perfect little explanation about how growing one’s own food helps us develop a more grounded attitude towards cooking and eating. She peppers her text with recipes and delicious suggestions for what to do with ingredients: “With the first home-grown tomato of the season, I am transformed into a novice gardener cliché: amazed that it grew, astounded by the taste, proud as a new parent.”

Norwegian Wood by Margit Bisztray was first published in Gourmet, back in 2004 and this deceptively simple account of the foods the author enjoyed as a child during Norwegian summers draws you in until you find yourself recreating her recipes: smashed wild-strawberries on whole-grain, the amber sun-warmed plums, and blueberries harvested from the timberline. In Best Food Writing 2005.

John Thorne’s food writing keeps me grounded and that’s important in a field that seems relentlessly obsessed with the new. Thorne reminds us that everything is new to someone and his down to earth essays reacquaint us with the familiar, encouraging the reader to see it in a fresh manner. His e-zine Simple Cooking is a cornucopia of food and life as is his collection of essays, Mouth Wide Open. One of the essays inside, The Marrow of the Matter is one of the best pieces of writing ever, discussing as he does, his re-acquaintance with what he refers to as ‘the soft, fatty, helplessly vulnerable vascular tissue’ that hides in the interior of a bone- the marrow. Thorne tells us about his purchase of a specialised English spoon to prise out the marrow and his preference for marrow from smoked ham bones (which he buys from a supplier who has to sell them as dog bones)- pure unctuous pleasure.

Katy Vine’s fantastic exploration of the food scene of American state fairs would definitely be in my top ten food pieces. Published in Texas Monthly, you don’t have to like fairground food to enjoy the creativity of the grandmasters of Extreme Frying whose economic drive has resulted in such creations as deep-fried coca cola, fried butter, Texas-shaped sopapillas and the recipe profiled in this piece- deep-fried lettuce.

Another wonderful piece rooted in the ‘ordinary’ foods of Texas was written by Irina Dumitrescu and uses a lovely hologram metaphor to encourage us to take a closer look at what she refers to as ‘the cheap food of a city’ which is ‘key to its soul’. Dumitrescu is Romanian and her time in Texas was spent in part exploring the liminal places where other immigrants live, work and feed others; the less expensive ‘edges and corners’, as she describes them. Our food longings may be more about habit than nostalgia she suggests, and it is the melding of the old ways with the new in a kitchen that can be the most interesting.

Food is love and never more so when you are caring for someone who is dying. Sarah Di Gregorio is a food reporter and usually focuses on the latest eating trend. But when her mother was dying, Di Gregorio saw how her magical thinking about food could have so much more meaning than she ever thought. When There Was Nothing Left To Do, I Fed Her Ice-Cream is short, pragmatic and deeply moving.

Geoff Nicholson moved from the north of England to Los Angeles and the pigs trotters he grew up with wouldn’t be left behind. So he wrote this.

Tales From the Hunt in Diana Henry’s Roast Figs, Sugar Snow has an introduction that is a perfect distillation of game: earthy, muscular and real. She writes about flesh and sinew and the focus required to bring such bounty to the pot. Buying game might mean a walk to the local butchers but there can be so much more to it as she writes and even if you do buy your game ready-prepared for the stove, there’s a connection with the landscape that eludes other meats. Her recipe for roast pheasant with blackberries and heather honey is the sweet-boskiness of the British countryside on a plate.

Modern Salt is a relative newcomer to the food-writing annals but it is already establishing itself as a source of modern culinary longform and Jill Norman’s piece about her trip to a peppercorn plantation is the kind of food-writing I like most. For the reader, the journey to the plantation is as fascinating as is her account of the pepper-harvest: “A six-hour drive from Bangalore took me past rice paddies where bullocks pull ploughs alongside tractors, past plantations of coconut and areca palms, rubber trees, cardamom and ginger, coffee and tea, through bustling villages and towns and the lively city of Mysore, with its vast palace and chaotic traffic, up into the Ghats and to Wayanad.”

I’d like to recommend every single word written by Southerner James Villas who began his career writing for Town & Country magazine but I’ll limit myself to two books. The first, called Stalking The Green Fairy, is an anthology of his food-writing and the second is a cookbook he wrote in conjunction with his beloved mother, Martha. My Mothers Southern Kitchen highlights family and tradition which are the parts of life that clean-eating neglects. When it comes to shared culinary genealogy, eat clean serves up a barren table indeed. This book is packed with anecdotes and good-natured sparring about some of Martha’s predilections and it shows how the different generations can learn from each other in the kitchen.

Read Jane Grigson on strawberries: “Do you remember the kind and beautiful girl in Grimm’s fairy tales, who is driven out by her stepmother to find strawberries in the snow? How she comes to the dwarves’ house, and shares her crust of bread with them?

And how, as she sweeps the snow aside with their broom, she finds there – strawberries? That vivid image of delight, of fruit and snow against forest darkness, is never forgotten. It’s our northern winter longing for summer, a joy of the mind. And yet, in the sudden snow of winter a couple of years ago, I went to sweep our doorway – and found strawberries.”

In this short extract alone, Grigson shows us that food is about heritage and memory and a dash of the right kind of sentimentality although her writing never becomes sugary-sweet. Grigson is the distillation of all that is great about British food writing and I (whispers) prefer her to Elizabeth David because Grigson doesn’t do archness or snobbery and doesn’t make me feel inferior because I don’t have a stripped pine basement kitchen in Chelsea or monthly access to vine-screened terraces in southern France.

Alison Uttley’s The Country Child is saturated with vividly-written passages about food from accounts of the great farmhouse Christmas Day feasts to Susan, the book’s central character’s obsession with a ‘bloated, enormous’ chocolate Easter egg she sees sitting in the sunny window of a wealthier family. Even a few lines about the contents of Susan’s Christmas stocking tickles our taste buds: “Next came an apple with its sweet, sharp odour. She recognized it, a yellow one, from the apple chamber, and from her favourite tree. She took a bite with her strong sharp teeth and scrunched it in the dark.” Uttley writes about everyday food and makes us desirous of it. Another, less accomplished, writer would render it prosaic.

“They say it takes nerve to drink a Moxie” wrote Robert Dickinson in a letter to the makers of this soft drink from Maine. What follows is a wonderful exploration of foodways as Dickinson tries a drink that one imbiber described as like drinking a telephone pole.

The debate about high/low foods continues in a wonderfully polemic fashion. The writers who are able to write well about haute food and the everyday meals that result from a desperate scrabble in a depleted store cupboard are few and far between. Even rarer is the writer who elevate the most humble of foodstuffs into something that even the biggest food snob ends up craving. James Villas does it with a vignette about Duke’s mayo and a short piece eulogising the basic bitch of the sandwich world (sliced tomato, if you want to know) and he goes shopping in Sam’s Club then writes about it. Keith Pandolfi achieves it here, too, in his tribute to inexpensive coffee. From Folgers and the yellow packaging of Chock-full-o-Nuts to the sky blue cans of Maxwell House, he revises his previous insistence upon the finest of drip-coffees served by a beard in Brooklyn and gives us a finely drawn portrait of his stepfather too.

Keith Pandolfi is my imaginary food-writing husband. His talent makes me cry, laugh and twist my mouth into wry ‘I will never write like this’ shapes when I read yet another of his perfectly-crafted and often-whimsical pieces. The ‘Case for Bad Coffee’ piece (linked to above) is one of my favourites but the one Pandolfi piece you should absolutely read is Bright Lights: what the holidays taste like in Florida. The opening line is as finely drawn as it gets:’as Mom and I pull into the Publix in New Smyrna Beach, Florida, she parks her silver Cadillac beside a large crepe myrtle tree so the leather seats don’t get too hot while we’re shopping’ and his description of her dressed all in white, complete with sun visor, cha-cha-cha’ing down the supermarket aisles is love, pure and simple. I once spent the two weeks before Christmas in Florida, driving across to Miami from our Fort Myers base, admiring the white lights which decorated every house on Sanibel, watching The Grinch in a little art deco cinema near Estero Beach and being drawn into the seasonal excess at Disney against my cynical ‘ole British will. Once I allowed it to happen, it was good. When we flew back it was to the news that my beloved grandfather has just three months to live and life was never quite the same again. He loved Florida, had visited relatives there several times and he’d have adored Pandolfi’s piece.

Who owns southern food is a question that many have grappled with but few as generously and eloquently as  John T. Edge & Tunde Wey in an Oxford American essay that also references a piece by Hillary Dixler, “How Gullah Cuisine Has Transformed Charleston Dining. The latter gave a [deserved] platform to Michael Twitty, author of Afroculinaria blog which greatly annoyed the [white] cognoscenti of Charleston. Edge and Wey write that ‘the issues Dixler and Twitty raised about authenticity and ownership and appropriation will fester if they’re not further explored.’ They are right.

Ronni Lundy’s musings on recipes and memory make the important point that how we learn to cook, and from whom, is not usually a linear process. Lundy’s mother was the culinary version of a boogie-woogie piano player she writes, ‘riffing through her songs with a deceptive ease’ and delivering ‘old standards with a daily grace that gave these recipes a subtlety and savor that was totally lacking when they were reduced to their elements and rearranged as words on a page.’

When I was given a copy of ‘Tales of the City’ by Armistead Maupin, I learned that the hero of the series, Michael Tolliver, hailed from the sunshine state of Florida. This state is home to thousands of acres of orange groves which helped to supply much of the juice that graced American breakfast tables. So John Birdsall’s piece about the economic boycott of Floridian OJ as a protest against Anita Bryant’s homophobic rants struck a chord with me. Bryant was crowned the Sunshine State’s official OJ sweetheart by the Florida Citrus Commission, a politically powerful consortium and appeared in many of their TV ads. The boycott of these products served as a test case for consumers and the emerging civil rights movement.

The Southern Foodways Alliance collate my go-to site, a place to forage for great writing, southern esoterica and the voices of people who live there. This essay on the indulgence of pickled baloney, ‘a corkscrew of delicious processed meat,’ as the author describes it, lacks pretentiousness or food snobbery and paints an exquisite picture of the author’s growing up. I cannot deal with food snobbery which shuts off good and clear voices just because they didn’t grow up eating rarified cuisine. Silas House is not immune to the effects of snobbery as exemplified by this sentence: ” I eat it with a strange mixture of guilt, because I know what’s in it, and delicious nostalgia for a place and time that is gone forever,” but thank goodness any dissonance was challenged long enough to commit these memories to the page.

I’ve been reading Jeffrey Steingarten since his first columns in American Vogue and as he became well-known after publishing two books of food essays, I saw how (mainly) male British food writers fell over their feet such was their hurry to copy him and his experiences. This piece, where Steingarten attempts to master K-Paul’s iconic coconut layer cake is wonderful and oh-so him. This is the man who takes an almost Socratic approach to food whilst losing none of his salt, pith, and vim.

“What the public will tolerate in terms of how badly we treat prisoners is really bad,”says Jean Casella, co-director, and Editor-in-Chief of Solitary Watch in a discussion about the problem of how we feed prisoners and whether their punishment should extend to food. If you believe that the best punishment to fit the crime is a deprivation of liberty, then the shocking state of American prison food documented by Kevin Pang in this piece for Lucky Peach will disturb you, used as it is as punishment.

Pride and Pudding by Regula Ysewijn: a review

 

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Some might say that pride and pudding are two things my own life has shown a surfeit of but I would argue that in the case of the latter, there is no such thing as too much of a good thing. And if I sound a little proud of that, then so be it.

Enter the newly published Pride and Pudding: the history of British puddings by Regula Ysewijn where the authors in-depth exploration of historical cooking texts has led to a rather splendid and faithful recreation of over eighty puddings, both sweet and savoury. By referencing each pudding’s original recipe against an updated version, Regula provides a contextual revival, helping us understand how and why recipes change over time. The bibliography and reference section are manna from heaven, providing the reader with a fine culinary and gastronomic genealogy and I wish more cookbooks did this, even if it invariably results my spending some eleventy billion pounds on yet more books (although my lack of fiscal self-control is hardly Regula’s fault).

The word ‘pudding’ sounds peculiarly English despite an etymological origin ranging from the West Germanic stem *pud- “to swell” which cognates with the Old English puduc ‘a wen’, or its possible origins in the Old French boudin “sausage,” which itself came from the Latin botellus ‘sausage’ and Regula explores this in her introduction. In the modern sense, the word ‘pudding’ had emerged by 1670, as an extension to the method of cooking foods by boiling or steaming them in a bag or sack. The German pudding, French pouding, Swedish pudding and Irish putog all derive from the word and as Regula points out in her foreword, in the eighteenth century when English food was developing its identity once more, pudding was central to its gastronomy and represented a solid challenge to the tyranny of French food which had developed itself as shorthand for all that was refined at table.

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Pudding has moved on from the stuffed vegetable recipe outlined in a Book of Cookrye in 1584 and the medieval technique of preparing fish, game birds and other beasts with a large pudding stuffed inside their belly although it took a Frenchman called Francois Maximilian Misson to declare “Blessed be he that invented pudding for it is a manna that hits the palates of all sorts of people…ah what an excellent thing is an English pudding.” Regula takes his lyrical tribute and runs with it, having amassed five years of blogging experience in the subject prior to writing her book.

Pride and Pudding begins with a handy guide to the different types of pudding (bread, baked, milk, boiled etc) then launches into a historical account of puddings through the ages, from their first mention in Homer’s The Odyssey where black pudding was prepared for Penelope’s suitors to feast upon as they competed for her hand, through to the Romans, Vikings, Normans and onto the court cooking that was documented in the years following the Hundred Years War when plague, taxes and harvest failures led to widespread famine. Moving onto the Medieval period, Regula tells us about surviving manuscripts which recorded the food of the elite: there’s a jelly made in the shape of a devil, a castle and a priest surrounded by a moat of custard and the first record of a pudding-cloth replacing animal intestines to cook puddings in. The Reformation wrought changes in the kitchen too with elaborate Catholic-associated feasts being replaced by ‘proper, honest cooking’ (the eternal cycle of fashion in food, perhaps) whilst Elizabeth the First’s sweet tooth led to a total lack of patent teeth in her later years. The introduction of refined white sugar  during her reign led to a sea-change in its use as sugar was transformed into the highly decorative sweetmeats which graced wealthy tables, and thousands of patissières must have cursed as they nursed burns from sputtering hot pans of sugar.

Moving onto the seventeenth-century, Regula tells us that French food gained dominance in Britain yet despite the prominence of this male chef-dominated cuisine more cookbooks were written by British women than ever before, kicking off with Hannah Wolley’s book, The Queen-Like Closet, published in 1670. Traditional white and black puddings continued to be popular whilst new puddings began to emerge such as Sussex Pond Pudding (1672, by Hannah), the first printed recipe for a Quaking Pudding was published as was the first recorded mention of the Christmas Pudding via Colonel Norwood’s diary record in 1645. As we move into the eighteenth to nineteenth-century and Georgian and Victorian cooking, the focus remains on spectacle with innovation in glassware permitting delicate milk puddings, syllabubs and jellies to be displayed beautifully and if you thought Heston Blumenthal popularised food made to resemble something else, you’d be wrong; the Georgians delighted in creating flummeries that resembled bacon and eggs.

Cabinet Pudding
Cabinet Pudding

We read of Parson Woodforde’s plum puddings, pease puddings and a pike with a pudding in its belly whilst Hannah Glasse makes the first print mention of the iconic Yorkshire Pud. The Georgian table was pudding heaven and the Victorian street-traders made them available to the lower-classes, selling plum duff and meat puds from steaming-hot baskets. Bookshops sold cookbooks entirely devoted to the pudding alongside Eliza Acton’s tome, Modern Cookery for Private Families, firmly locating the Angel of the Home back inside her kitchen unless she could afford staff.

The twentieth and twenty-first centuries saw the growth of cooking as a leisure activity as an end in itself and the gradual move away from staffed kitchens in all but the grandest of houses. Two World Wars, the easy access to convenience foods and ingredients, the movement of women into the paid workplace, immigration, easy access to foreign travel and the decline in school cookery lessons has led to a period of turbulence in British food as it redefines itself. And our attitude to puddings very much reflects this. There’s our fetish for nursery-school puddings in a search for comfort and identity through shared nostalgia, the regained pride in our culinary past, the rise of chefs as superstars, and the constant need for new recipes to fill acres of space in cookbooks, magazines, online food sites and the many food-related TV programmes. And part of this necessarily involves looking back at where we-and the pudding- has come from.

This is where Regula’s solid research-based approach holds especial good, providing us cooks with context for ingredients and techniques. (The short section on what suet, rennet, gelatine and bone marrow is and what they are used for is both historically grounded and useful.) It is important, as a cook, to know why suet creates lightness in certain puddings and that vegetarian rennet substitutes go back to the time of Homer and are not newfangled. Once you start to take the why on board, you will soon be able to improvise and devise your own recipes as well as cooking your way through Pride and Pudding.

So…what about the pudding recipes? They are categorised into six sections: boiled and steamed; baked and batter puddings; bread puddings, jellies, milk puddings and ices; and lastly, a section for master recipes where you’ll find how to make clotted cream and custard-based sauces alongside various pastries, biscuits and flavoured vinegars. Regula incorporates notes  at the base of some of the pages, annotated with a sweet illustration of a pudding spoon. For example, her tort de moy, which is made with bone-marrow, double cream, candied peel, and rosewater among other things, has a suggestion of adding almonds to the infusion used to flavour the custard and her Devonshire white-pot can be cooked using a Dutch oven over a fire with its lid covered in hot coals instead of being placed inside an oven. There’s serving suggestions too.

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I’m particularly intrigued by her white-Pot recipe because a few weeks ago, I tweeted about a local bread and butter pudding recipe called Newmarket pudding (basically wailing for help) and Regula replied to me as did another culinary historian, Dr Annie Gray. The white-pot originated in Devon and consists of buttery layers of bread, set with custard and layered with sweet, plump dried fruits. Unlike our modern-day version where slices of bread are sogged in a mixture of sweetened-cream, the white-pot is sogged with a proper cooked custard made from egg-yolk, cream and sugar. It is an extremely luxurious-sounding meal although centuries ago, if you had access to your own cow, the incorporation of cream and butter would not have felt so indulgent and the pudding would have been a good way of using up stale bread. What might have been more of a luxury item would be the dried fruits which feel more prosaic to us, nowadays. Interestingly, the Newmarket pudding of which I mentioned was most likely the same pudding given a local name for no specific historical reason other than someone seeking to re-brand a generic national recipe for their own. The better historical question to ask is not who ‘invented’ Newmarket Pudding but why someone might seek to rename an existing recipe?

There’s in-depth recipes for haggis and black puddings with photographic depictions of their construction and the option of baking the latter in a tray instead of sausage casings. A white pudding sounds especially beautiful baked with saffron, pinhead oats, egg-yolks, dates and currants then served in a single burnished coil with honey, golden or maple syrup which would surely please James Joyce who saw the simple beauty in such a meal. A delicate castle pudding is similar to a pound cake in its ingredient proportions, lightly spiked with citrus from curd, juice or thinly sliced orange rounds. The sambocade, a cheese curd tart flavoured with elderflowers and the daryols, a flower-pot shaped custard tart, both made from hot-water pastry are somewhat sturdier, even rustic in appearance which belies the delicacy of their flavourings. I was particularly keen to make the prune tart whose genealogy includes their being made in Regula’s hometown of Antwerp on Ash Wednesday and it turned out beautifully despite my being unable to obtain’ the fairest Damask prunes’ as specified by Gervaise Markham in The English Housewife. I love prunes and the tablespoon of dark brown sugar added to them really intensifies their sticky dark flavour. If that doesn’t satisfy you then maybe try General Satisfaction, a pudding from Mary Jewry’s Warne’s Model Cookery and Housekeeping Book, 1868. Topped with a froth of beaten egg-white which covers a base containing a layer of raspberry, sponge fingers and cream, this is a mad confection which seems to take the best from many traditional British puddings. Hence the name, maybe?

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Ypocras Jellies

The batter section has another recipe I have never encountered before, Jersey Wonders, little twists of dough which are browned in lard and look for all the world like tiny pairs of female labia. (I may or may not be selling these to you, based upon that description!) Regula has chosen to not fiddle with the original recipe too much, keeping the sugar proportions roughly the same apart from a dusting of icing sugar. These are next on my list to try alongside the Ypocras jellies whose name comes from the original name for mulled wine back in the Middle Ages although, as she says, mulled wine has been around since Roman times. Mentioned by Chaucer when the first written British recipe appeared, these jellies contain all manner of spices, ‘bruised’ using a pestle and mortar and they look richly festive, perfect for Autumn and Winter feasts when their cardomom, bay, nutmeg, clementine and sloe gin flavours naturally shine (and are in season here in the UK). If you want to inspect a recipe for the mulled wine used in the jelly (also called Hippocras), this website has reprinted a manuscript from 1530 with permission of the British Library and it contains some unusual ingredients such galingale, grains of paradise, cubebs and long pepper (and should you wish to buy long-pepper, Barts Spices sell a decent one). I suspect that Nigella Lawson, no slouch in the alcohol-infused jelly stakes herself will adore this part of the book. In the same section (jellies, milk puddings, ices) you will find all the indulgent flummeries, syllabubs, trifles, possets and bombes you could ever need. Perfect party food all of them, naturally possessed of a comforting glamour, and something that chefs like Heston Blumenthal and the jelly company Bombas & Parr have clearly been inspired by. This is a book whose art direction is as meticulous as its academic research yet at no point does the reader feel overwhelmed by style over substance. The images are Old Masterly in style and cleverly compliment the contemporary twist Regula affords her pudding recipes.

If, like me, you crave a return to a more thoughtful kind of cookbook that entertains while it educates, Pride and Pudding: The History of British Puddings is out now, published by Murdoch Books in Britain, Australia and New Zealand and Regula’s website also has details of some specially commissioned Pride and Pudding bowls. It’s a wonderful and  timeless book and one hell of an achievement.

Regula’s website: Pride and Pudding

Photographs used here with kind permission of Regula Ysewijn.

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48 hours in Harwich and Wrabness

Harwich Lighthouse ?exhibited 1820 by John Constable 1776-1837
Harwich Lighthouse // 1820 John Constable 1776-1837 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N01276

Harwich is an under-estimated gem and this plucky Essex port town which faces Flanders across the choppy North Sea has long been a favourite of mine. The older quarters of the town have a rackety, ruffian-like charm, especially at night and as dawn approaches, the seagulls awaken, wheel about, and search for discarded chip wrappers, and the noises from the nearby port carry on the wind as the rest of Harwich sleeps on. And the light here can be mesmerising. Look at the painting [above]  of Harwich Lighthouse by John Constable, completed around 1820 in the small-scale Dutch manner that was so popular at the time. Both of the town lighthouses were leased at the time of their painting by Constable’s friend and patron General Rebow of Wivenhoe Park who was responsible for their maintenance and received tolls from passing ships and Constable would also spend time upriver at Flatford and Dedham, capturing on canvas the more bucolic nature of the River Stour  as it wends its way through the valleys of South Suffolk. His view of Old Harwich remains fairly unchanged though, and the place oozes history, so after a recent 48 visit to the region, here’s what we found.

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The town has been built at the tip of a small Essex peninsula in a grid pattern conceived and built in the 13th Century by the Earl of Norfolk, so as to best exploit its strategic position at the mouths of the rivers Orwell and Stour. The streets around its old port are lined with buildings dating back as far as the sixteenth century and at night when the mists push in from the sea, the tiny alleyways seem to swirl with the ghosts of the sailors and smugglers who lived and died here.  Ports are  a curious melding of pragmatism and romance, their growth stretched across centuries of struggle and aspiration, graft, malfeasance, blood, sweat, and tears, and facing a horizon which taunts with a promise of adventure and escape. A port town is both the end and the beginning of it all.

Copyright Robert Edwards and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence
Image of Harwich by Robert Edwards and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons

Harwich’s alleyways would have proved very useful as tumultuous press gangs chased their prey and sailors used them to give their assailants a run for their money which could sometimes result in a fair amount of damage to property. Many of the old inns were connected by tunnels so that local men could more easily escape from these press gangs. To add to the chaos, local sailors, smugglers, publicans, and town officials possessed competing interests as demonstrated by an event in 1794 when Lieutenant William Coller was leading a press gang in Harwich. Coller and his gang of men were about to seize three sailors hiding inside a pub called The Royal Oak and the publican shut the door in his face. This prompted lots of outrageous (and pompous) blustering from Lt Coller who demanded the man have his licence revoked. When you realise that many publicans along the coast were involved in smuggling and were in cahoots with local sailors then his anger appears more contextual, especially so as the whole set-up was an unpredictable mess of conflicting loyalties, both familial and fiscal. 

Remember Samuel Johnson on sailing as a profession?

“No man will be a sailor who has contrivance enough to get himself into jail; for being in a ship is being in a jail, with the chance of being drowned. “A ship is worse than a gaol. There is, in a gaol, better air, better company, better conveniency of every kind; and a ship has the additional disadvantage of being in danger.”


[Boswell: Life- and Boswell sailed for Holland from the port of Harwich, leaving behind on the beach his newly made friend Dr. Johnson. It is unclear what inn they dined in the night before]

t Chris Allen and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence. beach hut and low lighthouse
View towards Harwich’s lighthouse by Chris Allen // CC 2.0

The town location took advantage of the effects of a storm surge in the 1100s which had already created the largest natural harbour between the Humber and London. This harbour was so large that in the 1600s the entire British Navy could fit into it and when the English Fleet returned from the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, they put into Harwich Harbour. Harwich became a destination for serious sailors: Hawkins, Drake and Frobisher all sailed from the town during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and she herself travelled to the town to inspect the shipyard in 1561, staying at what was a medieval aisled hall in the High Street. Lord Nelson also visited Harwich in his ship Medusa in 1801 to assist in the formation of Sea Fencibles, a naval local defence force. The arrival of the Great Eastern Railway from London in 1854 put the town on the map, transporting thousands of Victorians to the port  where they could be in Rotterdam or Zeebrugge 14 hours later, thanks to steamers which puffed their way across the notoriously short-tempered sea. Cheap flights mounted their own challenge but commercially the port remains vital to the town’s  livelihood and many people still opt to enter and exit the UK via Harwich which has become become Britain’s second largest passenger port and is also designated a Haven Port where maritime traffic can shelter in inclement weather.

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An 1804 seafarers chart of Harwich by Graeme Spence

And that’s not all of Harwich’s illustrious seafaring history either. Centuries ago, in early September 1620, a wooden ship set sail from a port en-route to the brave new world of America, 3000 miles away over an unfamiliar ocean. The ship was the Mayflower and although Portsmouth claims to be the Pilgrim Fathers point of departure, some historians and locals are adamant that the ship was built in Harwich which was also the home town of its captain, Christopher Jones who lived at 21 Kings Head Street.

I love a good historical argument and claims that the Mayflower may have made only a brief stop-over in Plymouth as it began its journey have rattled a few Devonian cages. The ship has been described in some port documents as ‘The Mayflower of Harwich’, and its chief builder/owner was a Harwich native, implying that the town may well have been where the epic voyage began. Passengers embarked at the East End docks before it sailed on to Southampton and then Plymouth and some of its passengers came from Essex (at least four of them). But did the Mayflower first sail up the Thames from Harwich?

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Anchor in front of the Maritime Museum

John Acton, a backer of the Harwich scheme to reclaim the town’s place in Mayflower history, said: “History tells us that Mayflower was only there [Portsmouth]  to take on supplies and to pick up passengers from an accompanying ship that sprang a leak. The Americans are hugely interested in the Founding Fathers, who had very strong ties with this region. Many of the towns in the north-east United States have names like Norwich, Cambridge, Ipswich, Colchester, and Harwich, which reflects the closeness with East Anglia. We want them to know that the real home of Mayflower is here in Essex, not in Devon.”

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Image of Half’penny pier by Nick MacNeill via CC 2-0

Samuel Pepys was once Harwich’s MP  and held the position of Secretary to the Navy (1679-1685) and now, the Harwich Society maintains records of the town and manage local historical monuments which open to the public. Even if you only have a day to explore the town, there is much that can be seen including a visit to the yard where the Mayflower Project is constructing a replica of the famous ship that sailed to America. The Project intends to sail to America in 2020 in time to commemorate the 400th anniversary of that famous journey and in the process, reclaim what they feel is Harwich’s central place in the Mayflower story.

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Ariel shot of Redoubt Fort by John Fielding //Flickr CC 2.0

Then there’s the circular Redoubt Fort, which dates back to the Napoleonic Wars and has a diameter of 180ft and ten guns sitting on its battlements. The fort was capable of housing 300 troops in eighteen casements but it was never called into use although its construction resulted in the deaths of local people during the 1953 floods that hit Harwich. The excavation of soil at nearby Bathside in order to build the forts earthworks meant Bathside was pushed below sea level. Seawater came in through a breach in the sea wall and was prevented from ebbing away, resulting in the loss of eight lives.

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The Harwich floods of 1953/ imaga via Ruth Wright on Flickr/ CC 2.0

A Maritime Heritage Trail can be followed and the Ha’Penny Pier Visitor Centre on the Quay offers guided walking tours throughout the summer. The Historical Society recommends starting out from the Low Lighthouse Maritime Museum and Lifeboat Museum (you can get climb aboard the lifeboat too) and walking to the Barge Murals which overlook the site where Thames Sailing Barges were built up to 1930. Look out for the Treadwheel Crane, built in 1667 to a Roman design, which resembles a massive, human hamster wheel because of the way two men powered the crane by walking within it, dangerously without a restraining brake system.

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The Electric Palace Cinema: photo with kind permission of the cinema

Available to visit on request is the old Radar Tower, at Beacon Hill Fort, which was the first radar installation of the second world war. (Ask at the Harwich Visitor Centre.) Should you wish for more sedentary entertainment, the gorgeous Electric Palace Cinema has a programme of films and events. It was built in 1911 for Charles Thurston. the well-known East Anglian showman, and is the oldest unaltered purpose built cinema in Britain, boasting the actor Clive Owen as patron. The cinema’s silent screen, original projection room and ornamental frontage remain relatively intact and interestingly, Friese Greene, the inventor of cinematography, lived in Dovercourt, a short stroll away and home to good quality sandy beaches and a genteel promenade.

Back in Harwich, there’s the charming L-shaped Half’Penny pier, so named for the halfpenny toll charged when it opened in 1853 (the pier also used to be the site of transfer from the boat train to the ferry) although visitors no longer have to pay. Return to the quayside and cross over to The Pier hotel  which was built in 1852 in Italianate style to resemble a Venetian palazzo and overlooks the pier- the hotel dining rooms have fantastic views of the huge cruise liners and tankers that pass by on their way to the port. The Pier Hotel’s jolly white stucco and blue painted frontage is topped-off by an octagonal lantern on the roof and the bedroom annex is in sight of the red and white Trinity House lightship that was featured in Richard Curtis’ film, The Boat That Rocked, about the pirate radio ship, Radio Caroline, that was anchored off the coast nearby and broadcast day and night to thousands of teenagers living in Suffolk and Essex, myself included.

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Photo: courtesy of The Alma Inn

The Alma Inn was once the home of Sara Twitt who married Christopher Jones,  the local man named as master and part-owner of the Mayflower in an Admiralty document, and we spent an evening in the pub, listening to the live band and eating some of the best fish and seafood we’ve ever had. Just a few steps away from the quayside and at the heart of old Harwich, it has been a pub since the 1850s, is one of Tendrings finest CAMRA pubs and feeds its guests seven days a week on what is describes as contemporary food with an Iberian twist.

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Directed to a private room at the back of the inn decorated with a piano in one corner and a light fixture made up of barnacle-encrusted bottles [the spoils of the beachcomber], we gorged ourselves on a seafood platter, (oysters, dressed crab, roll mop, North Atlantic prawns, cockles, home-cured gravadlax, smoked mackerel paté, all served with bread and a butter sauce), added in a charcuterie platter too, (jamon Serrano, chorizo picante, salchichon Iberico, iomo, chorizo artisan, manchego with membrillo, olives, potato tortilla caperberries, olive oil, aioli, bread) and  ate a side dish of fried and battered artichokes with parmesan. A deep bowl of sea bass with a rich sauce, softened potatoes and sherry lined our stomachs for the next course, dozens of Mersea Island rock oysters [silky, plump and buttery with a creamy-white heel and lots of ozone-fresh juice], served by the wonderful Pascal who [deservedly] seems to be a local legend. Oysters taste great when they’re washed down with pints of stout and they’re astoundingly good with a little champagne or other fizzy white wine poured into their shells, prior to eating, which gives them the fizzy kick of a 12 -volt battery. Not to everyone’s taste but most definitely mine and that of the Marquis De Vauvert who had this to say about the oyster:

Delight of our appetites,
Oyster, flee the liquid plain;
Enter the pomp of the feast,
Leave this perfidious element,
And, since you must die, rather die in wine.

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There’s locally caught crab and lobster at the Alma, the latter sold by the weight and carried through the pub straight off the boat, and after posting photos on social media, I was deluged with people declaring their love for the place. They do accommodation in rooms, some of which have mullioned windows framing the same sea-view that Sara and Christopher Jones would have enjoyed. There’s no corporate mundanity, room-wise, (one resembles a ship’s cabin) as their descriptions on the website bear out: “There’s a pronounced slope to this room so roller skating is not allowed but people with one leg longer than the other will feel right at home.”

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It would be a shame to be so close to Wrabness and not visit A House For Essex which is perched on a hill overlooking the Stour estuary, and exists as a monument not only to Grayson Perry’s artistic sensibilities but also to an Essex single mother who exists only in his imagination. Inspired by follies, shrines, eccentric homes and fairy tales, this two-bedroom House for Essex is inspired by an imaginary woman called Julie who was born in Canvey Island in 1953, was a former hippy and Greenham Common protester and went on to marry a refinery worker called Dave. After two children and an affair which killed their marriage. Julie went on to marry  Rob, who commissioned the house in her memory after she was knocked down and killed by a takeaway delivery driver in Colchester.

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It is the Taj Mahal of Essex, a secular chapel in other words and Perry’s character study informs every aspect of its design from the copper-gold alloy roof, frog-eye dormer windows and fertility figure weathervane (Julie as mother of us all) to a cladding of bas-relief tiles which bear carved depictions of cassette tapes and nappy pins alongside Julie’s name and her pregnant image. The shape and location reminded me of a restored tin tabernacle and its metaphors and references seem deliberately inconsistent, as if its creator has nostalgically bought up the entire stock of the nearest head-shop and Fair-Trade emporium after returning from a gap-year spent annoying the locals across three continents.

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Perry was commissioned to design the two-bedroom holiday home by Living Architecture, an organisation that aims to enhance Britons’ appreciation of architecture through opening individually designed holiday lettings (there is also a Balancing Barn in Suffolk). It has had a mixed reception locally and persuading the council to grant permission to demolish the old farmhouse that once inhabited the site was a challenge. To gain the assent of local councillors and planners, Perry organised a presentation in the village hall and explained his vision of the English countryside as punctuated with strange and wonderful things. This particular site, with Wrabness railway station behind it, the cranes of the docks in Harwich and Felixstowe to the left and right and a scenic coastal pathway that runs downhill alongside the house and takes walkers along the Stour estuary is the result of a dynamic tension between art, nature, industry and farming. And, in the middle of this, Essex people live, leave their stamp and die.

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Despite this, I was left with a nasty taste in my mouth. The house celebrates the life of a working class local woman yet guest-stays there (which are granted via a ballot process) are not priced so ‘ordinary’ working class or even middle-class people can afford it. Living Architecture was created by Alain de Botton to allow people to experience staying in unusual living spaces created by great architects and artists [their words, not mine] but really it’s about wealthy and indulged people staying in unusual living spaces created by artists and architects.Imagine the Facebook posts of the fortunate few: Crispin and Tabitha– feeling blessed at Julie’s House by Grayson Perry. 

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Either way, you fork out at least £1800 for a weekend stay and find this will include hordes of tourists peering through the gate and in the windows and a bracing smell of horse dung from the stables next door. That’s a lot of dosh for no privacy. The garden is sere and left deliberately empty, which is odd because I didn’t think a tribute to Julie’s [imagined] existence would fail to take into account the likelihood that Julie would landscape her garden, even if it might include (as my Essex-resident friend joked) broken prams, a discarded washing machine, a few straggly petunias and a wind chime.

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If you don’t drive, the estuarine pathway at Wrabness is easily accessed because the railway station lies behind Julie’s House- Wrabness is situated on the branch line to Harwich. The Mayflower line is the name given to the route from Manningtree and it dates back to 1854 when the line was built to provide connections with steamers bound for the continent. As you walk down the hill, the views of the estuary open up and the red-brick buildings of the Royal Hospital School interrupt the horizon of the Stour’s north bank.  The school has close links to the Royal Navy and its pupils are the only ones permitted to wear naval uniform.The port of Harwich lies to the east and Felixstowe can be seen to the west and beyond Harwich, the River Stour reaches its confluence with the River Orwell which flows through the Suffolk county town of Ipswich to the open sea.

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The Stour estuary from Wrabness, the Royal Hospital School in the distance

Keeping left, a walk alongside the river joins the levée beside the saltmarshes which are a popular feeding site for many species of bird, then, after a meandering route which takes you upwards into the surrounding fields, past a caravan site, the down again towards wooded headlands and sandy beaches dotted with chalets, you will arrive at Wrabness Nature Reserve. This 50-acre site is run by the Essex Wildlife Trust and is located on the site of a former MOD depot where sea-mines were once stored.

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Wrabness foreshore by Roger Jones// CC2.0

There are pathways through farm and grazing land, woods, intertidal mudflats and saltmarshes and the keen of eye will spot woodpeckers, kingfishers, avocets and oystercatchers and the red spring plumage of the knot, whilst black-bellied dunlins dabble away at the watery mud for molluscs and worms.

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In spring, nightingales soar overhead then swoop down to hide in newly-leafed hedgerows, their song carrying for miles, whilst Brent geese feed and fatten up before departing for their Arctic summer breeding-grounds. Swallows are newly arrived, streaming over fields of rapeseed already well in flower and the plants buttery scent mingles with the rich salt-mud of the river. Blackcaps, white-throats and blackbirds add their voices to the waterside choir of terns, curlews, and water fowl all the way to Copperas Bay. The woodlands edging the river are thick with stitchwort and the yellow stars of newly opened celandines which feel waxy to the touch. We saw wood anemones, primroses and dog-violets whilst wood-spurge (euphorbia robbiae) had seeded itself liberally and its lime-green floral spume looked particularly striking next to silver birch.

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Stour Wood at Wrabness by Peter Pearson// cc 2.0

I’ve also heard good things about the Ha’penny Brasserie on the Pier, which is currently being refurbished and due to open in May 2016. Oxleys deli in Dovercourt is praised as is the 16th century Samuel Pepys wine bar which also has rooms. There’s a festival towards the end of June and in May, the annual God’s Kitchel throwing ceremony has historically taken place in the town. Staff at The Cabin Bakery in Dovercourt bake the 400 kitchels (fruited flat cakes).

 

 

 

The Ballroom by Anna Hope: review and interview

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“Where love is your only escape ….

1911: Inside an asylum at the edge of the Yorkshire moors,
where men and women are kept apart
by high walls and barred windows,
there is a ballroom vast and beautiful.
For one bright evening every week
they come together
and dance.
When John and Ella meet
It is a dance that will change
two lives forever.”

The Ballroom is a remarkable work of fiction, where the love story between two patients in a Victorian asylum shines a light on a most unedifying and painful time in history. Set in what has been called ‘God’s own country’, the contrast between the ungodly practices going on inside Sharston Asylum and the majestic, pure beauty of the Yorkshire Ridings is acute. As part of this review-feature, I interviewed author Anna Hope about her research and the themes which underpin this evocative novel. 

British asylums were home to people diagnosed with mental illness and/or learning disabilities and although some of their stories have been recorded, sadly, the majority have been lost or weren’t documented in the first place outside of medical records. The history of stigma and fear associated with mental health services means that, historically, patients have been voiceless, socially, politically and culturally, and the public remain largely ignorant about what went on inside these asylums. Privacy laws means that a hundred years must pass from the death of the last patient before any personal details can be released into the public realm, hindering historians from accessing the archives, but author Anna Hope has managed to conduct extensive research which underpins the fictional story of two patients, Ella and John, and their doctor Charles Fuller, who were incarcerated in a fictional asylum she called Sharston, an institution which she says is “crafted as much from the imagination as the historical record” after she learned of a family connection to an actual asylum which once existed nearby.

Hope’s great-great grandfather was called John Mullarkey and he was a patient at Mernston Asylum in the West Riding of Yorkshire after his transfer from a workhouse. Seemingly suffering from what we’d now diagnose as a depressive disorder with an attendant malnutrition and cachexia, Hope’s author notes describe how he never recovered and died in Mernston aged 56 in 1918. The Ballroom is novel is dedicated to his memory and takes its name from her discovery of an actual ballroom inside the asylum, fallen derelict from lack of use. It was this poignant epilogue which triggered my tears which had been brimming for the last four chapters.

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Picture: Mark Davis / Guzelian Picture shows the ballroom at West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum at High Royds Hospital, Menston, West Yorkshire.

Tell us about your research and how you encountered the story of your ancestor…

“I came across the evidence of his time in the asylum by chance (if there is such a thing) when looking at the census records for my great-grandfather, his son. In a tiny crossed-out note on the side of the census form for 1911 it stated that John Mullarkey, the head of the family was in Menston Asylum, explains Anna.

“Having never heard of the place I immediately did a search on the Internet and came across local historian Mark Davies’s fantastic online archive dedicated to the history of what became known as High Royds hospital. It was there I saw the pictures of the ruined ballroom at the asylum’s heart and knew I needed to write about the place. When I eventually accessed my great-great-grandfather’s records I found them to be incredibly moving; he was a man suffering from what was deemed to be ‘melancholia,’ but really he seemed to have been sent out of his mind by poverty and worry over work. To add to this, on his admission from the local workhouse he was ‘emaciated’ and ‘poorly nourished.’ He never recovered and died in the asylum in 1918, ” explained Anna.

“I took many of the biographical details of his life: coming from the west of Ireland to find work in Liverpool as a young man, his ‘melancholia,’ his refusal to speak when arriving in the asylum, and used them for the character of John in the book, but I also always knew I wanted to have the freedom of fiction in creating John Mulligan. Similarly I re-named the asylum Sharston so I might have the greater latitude in writing about the place that fictionalisation allows, ” she adds.

The Ballroom introduces us to Ella, recently admitted from the cotton mill where she worked from a young age after smashing a window- she has barely had a life. The brutal working conditions there caused her eyes to suppurate painfully and skin to develop an inflamed rash. Her desire to see the beautiful moors she knew lay just feet from the building and her need to inhale air which was not clotted with dust motes led to an act of atavistic desperation and as a result of this, she was beaten and committed to Sharston under the care of an ambitious young doctor, Charles Fuller. His own employment there defies the stifling expectations of his own middle-class Yorkshire family and Charles struggles to find his own identity, He has high hopes that weekly music and dances in the asylum’s ballroom will help him make his name in the medical world as a doctor who uses music to tackle psychological fractures. He spends hours imagining the reception his paper will receive in London, adopting a purely intellectual approach in order to inoculate himself against his feeling. Charles is in denial of his own emotional connection to music, despite observing the benefits that listening to music brings to his patients.

John is one of those patients, an Irishman diagnosed with melancholia after a series of losses, and so is Ella. The Ballroom is, on first sight, the story of growing relationships in a closed-off world. John and Ella are catalysts for change and acceptance and submission and through them we meet other patients; resilient and spirited Dan who is John’s friend, and Clem, another victim of a time and place where women who dared to push against a seemingly gilded existence were sat firmly down, again and again, until they broke.

In her authorial note, Hope talks of her shock at learning that the then Home Secretary, Winston Churchill, was a strong supporter of eugenics, espousing his belief that mental illness, poverty and physical disability were all evidence of a weakened genetic stock and therefore provided a good reason to sterilise the significant numbers of people in Britain with these conditions. Her own discoveries colour the prose, allowing us to feel shock, and then dismay, as former critics of the practice become zealous devotees of it. This volte-face is an ironic result of what appears to be Charles own psychological breakdown as he fights with his insight and goes on to project his own failings onto the patients and especially, onto John who represents all those qualities he fears he lacks: poetry, a heart and soul that cannot be imprisoned and a disturbing masculinity which seems hewn from the wild moors.

I drew parallels between the black Ragtime musicians of New Orleans and their small emancipatory gains and that of Charles and his orchestra when he first tried to play Ragtime and failed to embody its spirit. As a reader it was a moment in the story where I held my breath, wondering if Charles would let himself be free. Charles is as imprisoned, in his own way, as some of the patients in the asylum. He fails to recognise this although Ella, Clem and John all seem to display a nascent awareness of this. Did you feel ever tempted to give Dr Charles Fuller the gift of insight, I ask Anna?

“I definitely thought about giving him insight and I do think he’s perhaps more aware than he allows himself in his thoughts,” Anna replies. “Ultimately though, I thought it was dramatically more interesting if he was deeply in denial about his own demons and desires. I think perhaps it’s impossible to become the sort of character Charles does without deep suppression of one’s empathy. And to have empathy you need to have some modicum of self-love. I’m not sure, despite his arrogance, how much Charles really loves himself. I loved him though, despite the horror of what he becomes. I think I kept seeing him as a small boy, terrorised by his father, someone who has never felt comfortable in his own skin and wants to hurt the world in the same way he’s hurting.”

 

Of particular distress to me was learning that relatives of Charles Darwin were also exponents of eugenics and their lectures may well have gone on to influence the modified Feeble-Minded Bill which was passed in 1913 as the Mental Deficiency Act. That Darwin’s own contribution to the knowledge we have of humankind should be so distorted and abused for political ends keeps the story taut as we await the unfolding of history, sitting alongside Charles as he struggles to retain his equilibrium at one of the London lectures and sits in his room, clutching transcripts of Dr Tredgold’s address to the society at Caxton Hall. Tredgold’s findings on the Feeble-Minded were eventually passed onto Parliament and Charles wants this for himself because he is surrounded by almost faceless patients and fears invisibility as a result of what must feel like voluntary professional incarceration.

The reader cannot help but draw parallels with the politics of today but there is authorial subtlety at play here and as a result, realisation creeps slowly and coldly upon the reader.  Whilst Charles and his fellow eugenicists burn with the fevered heat of the zealot, Ella, John and the other patients remain oblivious which adds to the creeping unease until Hope allows it to bloom fully in her reader. What is particularly affecting is our realisation that the patients remain unenlightened as to Charles’s plans for medical posterity. We see them react in confusion and fear as things happen to them but any resolution of this does not involve knowledge and a consequently attendant power. And so the paternalistic philosophy of the asylum system perpetuates their dis-empowered status and our knowledge makes us collusive.

Whilst the government of today is not advocating eugenics, there does seem to be a feeling that there is a growing British under-class who are depicted as taking more than their fair share. Instead of eliciting compassion and support, they are instead dehumanised and ‘othered’ as a prelude to drastic social-welfare cuts. It has been a primitive and successful strategy to date. We are privy to Charles in his private space, a small room in the grounds where he studies, practises music and reads a transcript by Tredgold which states: “I have no hesitation in saying, that nowadays the degenerate offspring of the feeble-minded and chronic pauper is treated with more solicitude, has better food and clothing and medical attention, and has greater advantages than the child of the respectable and independent working man, So much is this the case that people are beginning to realise that thrift, honesty, and self-denial do not pay,” and in this, we cannot help but hear the words of Ian Duncan-Smith.

And Charles in his own private space, reads of measures which involve the most private space of all- a person’s sexual and reproductive organs- a potential decision which will make them public property, and their removal a tacit condition to access welfare and mental-health care. The plot exposes a paradox: sterilised patients remain incarcerated in a hidden asylum, where daily doings are secretive but patients are not permitted privacy or secrets and their bodies and minds have fluid boundaries which are defined by those who have charge over them. They are permitted only the most cursory of identities.

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High-Royds asylum at Menton, West Yorks

An early scene introduces us to John and Dan as they dig communal un-marked graves and these graves act as sump for all manner of fears as well as being a literal and metaphorical barrier to hope and progression: even death is not an escape and death will not return identity to patients nor give them a longed-for privacy and personal space. Hope finds a way to navigate us through a realisation which might otherwise threaten to overwhelm the reader, via runaway Ella, whose furious, defiant flight is brought to an accidental end by her encounter with John as he sees her fleeing as he digs the graves for patients who die in the feared chronic wards.

Released from Scarston asylum, Hope’s prose roams and probes the glorious countryside and when the reader is plunged back into the crepuscular gloom of the buildings, it is a shock. The sense of place is profound and John and Ella’s appreciation of the world outside is heightened because they are divorced from it. The asylum is a scar on the landscape but it also seems hewn from it. The dramatic Yorkshire moors which seem wild, dangerous and untamed to those of us unfamiliar with them and to Charles who prefers the tamed and subdued, but to John and Ella, they are places of safety, an alternative and purer form of asylum for the couple who seek out the dark woods and fields of crops to meet and fully be themselves. As Ella finds ways of escaping the dankness of the laundry and the dank gloom of the day-rooms and dormitories, she steps into the light and we see her.

John and Ella are very much part of the landscape and show such love for the countryside and nature. Indeed Ella’s need for air and space and connection is what causes her to be committed in the first place when her breaking of the mill-window is deemed such a transgression, it cannot be the act of a sane person. I found their attempts to maintain this connection with nature inside such a dark place almost unbearably sad and Hope’s own love for the Yorkshire Ridings shines through her prose.
Was it a shock for you when your research led you to read about such darkness (unnamed graves, abusive practices) existing in what is called ‘God’s own country’? For the reader, it is such a contrast and a triumph of writing, I comment.
“I grew up in Lancashire, in a beautiful village on the moors, but close to towns like Bolton, Blackburn and Bury, which in the 80’s were suffering a lot from post-industrial malaise. It always struck me how these towns, which were often full of deprivation were so close to such wild, open country and I always thought about the mill workers, and what their relationship might have been to those moors,” Anna says.
“As for Yorkshire, my dad’s a Yorkshireman and I have many Yorkshire members of my family, and I see that darkness and wildness as definite Yorkshire traits. There’s a blackness to the humour there which I love, and which only comes from things being a bit tough, but also this sense of incredible expansiveness you get from the landscape. I walked a lot on Ilkely moor, for instance, when writing the book, which is such a rich and inspiring spot. But I suppose, no, it wasn’t a surprise to me to discover such darkness there, although it must be said the unnamed graves were by no means confined to Yorkshire and the north, I think such practises were widespread in the asylum system across Britain,” she adds.

 

Hope is adept at writing conversation, melding evocative visual imagery and exquisite dialect with casual chat which contain little speech bombs if you pay attention, encouraging readers to become more insightful. Clem quotes Emily Dickinson; “There’s a certain slant of light. Winter afternoons. That oppresses, like the heft of cathedral tunes” as she helps Ella in the laundry where they both work, a beautiful example of the way Hope uses light, shade, and dark to emphasise the taunt of the countryside outside as the light and dark of day and night flows over the moors and pushes against the high windows. Music contains the same light and shadow too, as does dancing and the question is whether a moment of joy makes the rest of life more or less bearable. We’re forced to ask that of ourselves.

There’s epistolary conversation too and the letters that John and Ella write to each-other, with Clem’s assistance, are full of delicate yet powerful natural imagery; the epic migration of the swallow and the changing light of the surrounding woodland; a flower picked from the lawns and pressed in an encyclopaedia. Like them, we are swallowed up by the stolid and sere asylum walls but Hope reminds us to look up, out of the windows as they do and to keep watch over the future on their behalf even when it seems as if the walls have closed in on them [and us] permanently.

For Clem and the other patients, the life of the mind is a divine agony and there are no easy answers, even in death. Charles introduction of music as therapy in the asylum is a troublesome catalyst, making patients vulnerable in new ways, opening them up to the divine as Dickinson elucidates in her poem. Handling a man’s cotton shirt with stained cuffs, Clem half muses, “Men. You can never  get the stains out,” a shivering reminder of events which might have triggered her symptoms and caused her incarceration. Mental illness can be hard to articulate for even the most verbally adept and at a time when this was not encouraged socially, and little benefit seemed to result from an open conversation with ones doctors, these asides act as signposts which we can navigate from, although it is frustrating that the doctors do not see what we, the reader with historical hindsight, can.

In The Ballroom, Anna Hope gives voice to stories rarely told and life to people who were secreted away, living lives so tenuous and shifting, they barely seemed to exist at all. The historical detail is handled skilfully by Hope and her own historiography never overshadows that of her characters whose ability to make themselves heard is already seriously hindered. Like Dickinson’s poem, her book shifts from the place where hurt originates- society, religious doctrine, the culture mores of the time- to the earthly recipients of that hurt- the patients and staff who are trapped in their own way. Hope roots her characters strongly in the dramatic landscapes of the Yorkshire Ridings, giving back the dignity, belonging and sense of place that asylum has denied them, and her prose soars over the story, reminding us of the swallows which so fascinate John as they return each year to make their summer homes on the moors. The love story at its heart is painful but one of the best I have read in a long time.

The Ballroom is very cinematic, I comment to Anna. Who would you like to see play the main roles? Or is it something you find hard to envision?
“I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t thought about it at all, but as an ex- actress I know how fickle that world can be, so I try not to think about it too much! If it happens, I’ll definitely have some ideas to pitch in though – the characters are so dear to me and I can sense them so clearly that to have a very different sort of actor playing the role would be hard,” Anna replies.
I’m pretty sure that The Ballroom will be on our screens at some point.
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Author Anna Hope // photo contributed

The Ballroom was published February 4th 2016 and is in all good bookshops.

Publisher: Transworld Publishers Ltd
ISBN: 9780857521965

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A local appetite for sops and dripping

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A visit to a local graveyard led us to a man who loved his sops and dripping so much, he had his dripping-cup affixed to his tombstone.


Travel south of Newmarket and the land swells gently towards the rolling hills of west Suffolk and the fields are dotted with copses and dark-green thickets. The landscape around Newmarket is rather manicured, a result of its racing industry which has brought great wealth to parts of the town although back in February 1605, when James I made his first visit to the town, he described it as a “poor little village.”

 This part of East Anglia was once politically significant, close to the ancient Icknield Way which runs north-east from Whittlesford to Newmarket and onwards, up into Thetford Chase. These tracks were in use from the Neolithic and Bronze Ages, forming a network of paths which helped people move between the south-west of England and East Anglia. The former Kings of East Anglia built defensive earthworks to gird the loins of what was a naturally  defensive topography: the marshy, dark-watered fens further to the north, creek-riven coastal margins to the east and the sprawling broad-leaf forests of Essex to the south all made invasion and subsequent navigation tricky.
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The small village of Wood Ditton lies just south of Newmarket and was first mentioned in the Domesday Book in an instrument of King Canute: the monarch went on to give Ditton Camoys, one of the Wood Ditton manors, to Ely Abbey in 1022 in exchange for Cheveley, a nearby village. Part of Wood Ditton’s southern boundary is formed by the Anglo-Saxon earthworks, Devil’s Dyke, which is also crossed by the Roman Icknield Way.

St Mary’s church was built on the periphery of the village, down a short track edged by hedgerows and the garden walls of its neighbouring cottages. Early records date the original wooden church buildings (now gone) back to the twelfth-century although it was once home to a monastery of an even greater age. Parts of the church were vandalised by Cromwell’s men but the fourteenth century north aisle remains.

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Enter the yard via a low gate and directly in front of you lies the church and the older part of its graveyard where tombstones patched with ochre-yellow lichens and moss lean at crazy angles. Walk down a gentle slope covered in cow parsley, primroses and the dying leaves of snowdrops and you’ll arrive at two more, partially enclosed, graveyards.

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We came here in search of one particular grave after an internet search for Newmarket Pudding led me to the tombstone epitaph of a local man who has been described as a ‘gourmand’. On the first of March 1753, William Symonds was interred in front of the church, close to the gate and, at his own request, his gravestone has a small iron dripping-dish affixed to its front, protected by a rusting iron grille. A former turnspit to the late Duke of Rutland at Cheveley in Cambridgeshire (although some records state he was a gamekeeper too) Mr Symonds reached a great age of eighty and as he lay dying of an undetermined affliction, his last wishes were that the tale of his demise should be told thus. They are believed to be his own words:

Here lies my corpse, I was the man,

That loved a sop in the dripping pan;

But now, believe me, I am dead:

See here the pan stands at my head.

Still for sops till the last I cried

But could not eat, and so I died.

My neighbours, they perhaps will laugh,

When they do read my epitaph.”

(Morton’s Sixpenny Almanack and Diary for the year 1876)

Poor Mr Symonds had endured that most terrible of afflictions for a man who loved his grub; an inability to eat coupled with a raging appetite for something comforting and indulgent as he approached his death. His dripping pan has turned to rust and the remains are barely visible behind the protective iron grille, but a faint ghost of his epitaph is visible, engraved on the thick stone slab. The words took some time to decipher in the cold bright light of a March afternoon, although the word ‘dripping’ retained the most clarity. I like to imagine that William Symonds would have been pleased by that.

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How on earth did a man of his modest means manage to eat his way to a dripping-related death though? His access to meat-dripping (or sops as they were commonly referred to) belied his fiscal and social class because dripping was generally not freely available for poorer working people. However, his love of it can be explained by his occupation as turnspit to the Duke of Rutland which seemed to have provided him with a steady supply. There isn’t a huge amount of information about him (as you might expect) but a life spent proximate to landed gentry and the dukedom means that there is some documentary evidence of his life in relation to them. In records from Cheveley Park dated 1896, he was described as “an eccentric lad” who for many years had filled an important office, helping to roast the game and meat from livestock provided by the ducal estate.

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For William, it must have been extremely arduous work in unpleasantly hot conditions. Indeed, records of the Tudor turnspit boys who worked at Hampton Court give some idea of the travails turnspits endured because when they divested themselves of their upper clothing to cool down, they were commanded to ‘no longer to go naked or in garments of such vileness as they do now.’ William would have required every drop of that meaty sop in order to build the upper-body strength and musculature required to keep the spit turning for hours on end. It is not a surprise to learn that a small dog was especially bred to turn these spits too. First mentioned in documents from 1576, these dogs were trained to run in a wheel that turned a roasting spit and to make them run faster, a coal might be tossed into their metal cage. By 1850 they had fallen out of popularity because of the creation of  inexpensive, mechanical spit turning machines, called clock jacks, and towards the turn of the century, both human and canine turnspits had become obsolete.

Turnspit dogs at work: illustration from 1800 from Remarks on a Tour to North and South Wales
Turnspit dogs at work: illustration from 1800 from Remarks on a Tour to North and South Wales
 Sops were commonly known as pieces of bread which would be dipped into the drippings from the spit-roasted meat. These juices were collected in a pan placed underneath the spit. Another type of sop came from bowls of pottage or gruel. When the bread had ‘sopped up’ and was soaked in liquid, meat juices or fat, the trick was to convey the sop as swiftly as possible to the mouth before it disintegrated in the hand. The word ‘soup’ derives from sop or sup (meaning the slices of bread onto which broth or cooking juices was poured) although Joan of Arc liked to sop her bread with wine instead of cooking juices. Wealthier people in the Middle Ages threw their trencher bread (so called because it functioned as an early plate for meat and sauce) out to the dogs, despite it being sopped in a good sauce. Sometimes the trencher bread would be cast out to the waiting poor too.

Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat (in the book ‘A History of Food’) tells of St Patroclus, a third-century saint from Troyes, who managed to survive on barley bread dipped into water and sprinkled with coarse salt. In this practice, he was anticipating the early days of soup when a crust or piece of bread would be placed at the bottom of a low bowl and the gruel or other liquid then poured over it. We can see the origins of the Tuscan bread-thickened soups, the French garbures and onion soups and the Spanish gazpacho. There’s echoes of sop what we call French toast (pan perdu) in a fifteenth-century Italian recipe for suppa dorata, where pieces of bread are dipped in beaten-egg, sugar and rosewater, then fried in butter and served encrusted with more sugar. Think of zuppa Inglese too, where the bread is replaced by sweet cake which is then soaked in wine or rum and blanketed in thick custard. Still in Italy, food historian Ken Albala tells of a sturgeon-based dinner in his book, The Banquet that took place in 1584. Wealthy guests feasted upon sturgeon eggs and beaten flesh of the fish, the latter in a thick soup and served with sops, followed by sturgeon meatballs in a spicy sauce. There were sixteen sturgeon-based platters of food to get through in total, a mighty feast where some of the courses possessed a more humble culinary etymology.

At the humbler end of the scale, there’s dripping cake- or bread- which was once eaten in many British regions, although it is rarely heard of now. The Gloucestershire version of this bread, baked in the oven from  dripping, flour, brown sugar, spices, currants and raisins, had a toffee-like layer at the base of the cake which formed as it baked. Dripping cake gets a mention in Tom Brown’s Schooldays:

Tom, by a sort of instinct, knew the right cupboards in the kitchen and pantry, and soon managed to place on the snuggery table better materials for a meal than had appeared there probably during the reign of his tutor, who was then and there initiated, amongst other things, into the excellence of that mysterious condiment, a dripping-cake. The cake was newly baked, and all rich and flaky; Tom had found it reposing in the cook’s private cupboard, awaiting her return; and as a warning to her they finished it to the last crumb.

Sop-style platefuls are found wherever meat forms part of the diet. Go to Hungary and you’ll find that they have their own version of mucky bread which is known locally as fatty bread: goose fat from the well-known Hungarian goose is spread on bread, sprinkled with paprika and eaten with finely chopped peppers and onions. And there’s variations on a theme too such as Smokeworks in Cambridge, who have taken this straightforward ingredient and stirred it into mashed potatoes to make their legendary beef-dripping mash.

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‘Mucky Fat’

In Yorkshire the same dripping is spread onto good bread and goes by the name of ‘mucky sandwich’ although this habit is not unique to this fine region. My grandparents who both hailed from the Midlands kept a large china jug in the fridge, full to the brim with beef dripping from the Sunday roast, the fat solidifying into a creamy layer over a good two inches of rich beef jelly. Over the week it would be used to enrich gravies and pastry or was spread onto hot toast and allowed to melt. On an especially good day, I would be given a plate of fried bread, golden and caught around the crust and heavy with melted dripping and jelly. My grandfather would reminisce about after-school football as a lad where, at half-time, he would wolf down a ‘bread and fat’sopped sandwich with a spreading of his mother’s home-made piccalilli to cut the grease. That Sunday joint kept the family in clover for most of the week.

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Library of Congress: The Prince of Wales (George IV) asks “Dear Mother, pray let me have a sop in the pan.”

In classical literature, a sop was clearly so prized that it was deemed to be a suitable bribe for Cereberus, the three-headed dog of Pluto which guarded the gates of the infernal regions in Virgil’s Aeneid. When a person died, the Greeks and Romans would put a cake in their hands as a sop to this fearsome creature, who might therefore allow them to pass without molestation in exchange. Here we see the sop gains a secondary meaning as a bribe or salve. There exists the possibility that Mr Symons recognises that his much-prized sops might ease his suffering and might also provide him with a swifter, and easier, passage to eternal life. Or might he have been trying to bribe death to not come for him? We cannot be sure about that, but I was told that my own grandfathers sop sandwiches were so coveted by his footballing friends that he could probably have arranged to have the match thrown in exchange for a few bites- the equivalent of having Cereberus in goal.

I feel warmly towards Mr Symonds. Whilst Morton’s Sixpenny Almanack and Diary takes a dim view of ones vices being ‘considered a fitting subject for perpetuating in stone’ when it published his epitaph, and indeed Mr Symonds acknowledges his own excess of appetite, I am inclined to approve of a man who wanted to cheer-up his own neighbours whenever they visited the graveyard and church. Clearly the locals of Wood Ditton appreciate his little joke too, because when the original stone was accidentally broken during wedding party festivities at St Mary’s Church around 1871, it was removed and repaired. The stone was re-erected with the original dripping-pan in place.

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