14 November 2014

Ready, Steady, Bake!

“Good friends, sweet friends, let me not stir you up…”
  Julius Caesar

To overstate the obvious, Britain is baking mad. Although it has always been a nation of bakers, Britain is now a nation that is baking obsessed! The British baking industry is worth more than £3.4billion, and the effect is evident in the high street. Marks & Spencer have reported sales increases of up to 20% for baking ingredients, particularly in specialist sugars and cake decorating equipment. At John Lewis, purchases of cake tins and muffin trays have increased by 15%, while sales in vintage-style cake tins and stands have more than doubled.
This chain of events is due largely to the phenomenal success of the BBC’s baking competition show, “The Great British Bake Off”.  Each week, some four million plus viewers tune in to watch the dynamic duo of Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood critique the calibre of contestants' cupcakes and croquembouche. But, this you know – unless of course you have been living on the planet Mars for the past four years!

What you may not know is that there was a time in Britain when baking could land you in prison! In 1664, Olivier Cromwell’s Puritans banned Christmas pudding, along with mince pies and a whole host of other festive holiday foods (and beverages, church services, and…!). The humble Christmas pudding became the focus of Puritan attack on the “lewd” and “debauched” festive celebrations that were "unfit for God-fearing people". Anyone caught making a fruit-studded, brandy soaked dessert was carted off and punished severely.
King George I (1714-1727) reestablished the custom of serving it as part of the royal holiday feast in 1714. That is, despite objections voiced by the Quakers, who regarded Christmas pudding as "the invention of the scarlet whore of Babylon". We have that great guardian of Victorian family values, Prince Albert, to thank for returning the lowly and much-maligned Christmas pudding, much as we know it today, back on to the holiday map.
Recently, I discovered another great, British, Christmas Pudding tradition that has come down to us from the time of Albert and Victoria: “Stir-Up Sunday”. Stir-up Sunday is the last Sunday before the season of Advent. (This year’s date is 23 November.) The term “Stir-Up Sunday” comes from the opening words of the Collect for the day (the "The Twenty-Fifth Sunday After Trinity", or, the fifth Sunday before Christmas) in the Book of Common Prayer:
Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may of thee be plenteously rewarded; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

This exhortation was apparently a timely reminder to the ladies of the congregation of their need to bring forth their plenteous fruits (suet and brandy) and to get stirring! What a wonderful way to enter into the spirit of the season of Advent – a time of expectant waiting and preparation before the festivities of Christmas and the Nativity.

Traditionally, Stir-Up Sunday was a family affair, with parents and children gathering in the kitchen to make the Christmas pudding together, every member of the family taking a turn stirring the bowl, whilst uttering a wish. The puds and wishes were then carefully wrapped in brandy soaked cloths to mellow over the coming weeks until Christmas Day.
It is a sad truth, thanks to the ease, convenience and quality of store-bought Christmas puddings, that two-thirds of British children have never experienced stirring or making a Christmas pudding.
Getting everyone huddled in the kitchen for Stir-Up Sunday is a Victorian fantasy, to be sure. But, one well worth reviving, I think, particularly, in the midst of our avid Baking madness.
Prince Albert's Christmas Pudding
For 8 helpings: 1 Ib prunes; 1 pt water; 1 lemon; 1 oz Barbados sugar; butter for greasing; 2 large eggs; 4 oz butter; 4 oz soft light brown sugar; pinch of salt; 4 oz soft wholemeal breadcrumbs; 1 oz semolina; brandy butter (Guard Sauce) made with 3 oz butter; 4 oz icing sugar and 1 oz ground almonds.
Steep the prunes in the water overnight. Grate the rind of half the lemon and pare the rest. Squeeze the juice. Simmer the prunes with the water, pared rind, juice, and Barbados sugar until soft. Drain. Cut the fruit in half and remove the stones. Crease the inside of a 2 pint pudding basin thickly with butter. Press enough prunes into the fat, cut side down, to line the basin completely. Shred any prunes left over. Separate the eggs.
Beat the 4 oz fat and soft brown sugar until creamy, and beat in the egg yolks and salt. Mix in the grated rind, breadcrumbs, semolina and any shredded prunes. Whisk the egg whites until they hold firm peaks and fold them into the mixture. Turn into the basin, cover tightly with greased foil and steam for 2 1/2-3 hours.
Firm in the basin for 6 minutes, then turn on to a warmed serving dish. Serve with chilled brandy butter and whipped cream. Note: If you wish, make the steeping liquid of the prunes into a sauce with 1 teaspoon arrowroot and 1 tablespoon brandy to each 1/2 pt liquid.

12 September 2014

"Stands Scotland where it did?" - On Shakespeare & Scotland

Reprinted from Focus Magazine, September 2014

“Stands Scotland where it did?”

On a summer’s day that might be best described as both ‘foul’ and ‘fair’, I found myself in the Royal Library at Windsor Castle, under the watchful eye of William Shakespeare. Not literally, of course. His image, in alabaster, holds pride of place upon a fine marble plinth, and oversees the comings and goings of this magnificent place. (A bibliophile’s heaven on earth.) Shakespeare’s slightly quizzical gaze is bent towards a rather dimly lit chamber holding a few of the Library’s most treasured artefacts.

One such rarity is a copy of the “Articles of Union”. The delicate, vellum manuscript, signed and sealed on 22nd July 1706, ratified a united Anglo-Scottish parliament. It appears that the English and Scottish Commissioners who signed the document used two distinct batches of sealing wax. The message of the document, textually and contextually, is quite clear: the two nations are separate, but equal, and fundamentally better off together, than apart.

Of course, the first act of union took place a century earlier, with the accession of King James VI and I in 1603. James’s arrival in London, along with the stream of Scotsmen and women who followed him, heralded a time of great change in the capital and the nation. Unsurprisingly, this major shift in the political landscape elicited a fair amount of hostility, with a few daring wits of the day expressing their disapproval by openly satirizing the new King, his court, and countrymen on the page and the stage. Shakespeare, rather wisely, saw things differently – or, more opportunistically, at any rate. Shakespeare embraced the new regimen, and the new regimen embraced him, with quite dramatic results. (Pun intended.)

Shortly after James’s accession, Shakespeare’s company were granted a performance license and styled “The King’s Men”. 

Macbeth, Shakespeare’s dark, powerful and popular “Scottish play” – almost certainly written at the King’s request – is nothing less than a tribute to his new king and patron. James was a real theatre lover, with a taste for Scottish history, magic, witches and demonology.

There is an elusive bit of folklore that suggests that Shakespeare became acquainted with Scotland – and its sovereign – during a successful tour North with his theatre company. There may be some truth in this - who knows? One wonders: does his famous quote, “So foul and fair a day I have not seen” (Macbeth, 1.3.38), imply an intimate knowledge of Scotland’s climate and variable weather – dismal, down-pouring days giving way to the fairest, most pleasant and balmy of nights, meriting the phrase “a Scottish evening”?

I had opportunity to sit and ponder such thoughts on a recent coastal holiday at Monreith, in Dumfries and Galloway, as I sat by the sea – amid sudden squalls and spectacular sunshine, watching the weather rolling in from Northern Ireland, with the Isle of Man just visible on the horizon and wrapped in a blanket of mist. In moments such as these, one has a palpable and deeply moving sense of Britain being Britain – large, rich and diverse. 

Long may it remain so.

07 August 2014

Success in Rio

Reprinted from Focus Magazine, August 2014
Cicely Berry
Image © Ellie Kurtz

“Where words prevail not, violence prevails.”                                                                                               – The Spanish Tragedy, Thomas Kyd
By the time this appears in print, the dust of the FIFA World Cup will have settled, the winning nation will have held the golden trophy aloft (C’mon, Argentina!), and we all shall have re-emerged -- somewhat blurry-eyed, perhaps -- from our collective Brazilian hangover. What, one wonders, shall remain?

A great deal of questioning, no doubt. A certain Uruguayan will be due a period of intensive self-reflection (“To bite, or not to bite, that is question?”), and a considerable amount of collective introspection will be due for the likes of host nation, Brazil, and, of course, England.

Following England’s abrupt departure from the proceedings, I was more disappointed by the players’ reactions than by their poor performance. Wayne Rooney’s apologetic epilogue was utterly disheartening, particularly, his assessment that the English side is “too nice” to win trophies. Rooney lamented England’s lack of “nastiness”, implying that the team should become more ruthless and “street-wise”. That would be very sad, indeed, and quite out of national character.

Fair play and sportsmanship are hallmarks of British mentality and disposition. When outlining characteristics of his beloved English for his fellow Americans in 1904, Ralph Waldo Emerson mused that the most indefatigable English trait was “pluck”. He enthused: “One thing the English value is pluck. The cabmen have it; the merchants have it; the bishops have it; and the women have it!”

Cicely Berry, legendary Voice Director of the RSC, is by far the pluckiest Englishwoman I know. Since 1997, Cicely has traveled to Brazil to collaborate with “Nós de Morro” - a group of theatre artists based in one of Rio’s toughest slums (favelas). Far from the lush, tropical scenery featured on our tellies during the World Cup, Vidigal is a world apart - set high in the hills that surround the beautiful and opulent city. Controlled by drug cartels, replete with guns, gangs, and violence, it is place into which the police do not venture except in armoured cars. Armed with the works of Shakespeare, diminutive, octogenarian Cicely Berry enters this volatile place and competes confidently with drug lords for the hearts, minds and souls of Vidigal’s favelados (young people living in the slums).
As vividly depicted in the brutal, but truthful film City of God (2002), life is cheap in Vidigal. Watching that film, I shuddered at the thought of gentle, precious Cicely traversing such a place. (I once suggested accompanying her, and she resisted on the grounds that she could not guarantee my safety.)

True to herself, and driven by her uncompromising politics, Cicely’s mission is to empower, liberate and give voice to the voiceless. For Cicely, Shakespeare’s words are apt channels of expression, and by freeing the voice through his full, rich and powerful language, the speaker ultimately develops the courage and freedom to fully express their inner self. Hers is a truly characteristically English ‘plucky’ success in Rio, and one well worth celebrating!

15 June 2014

Fathers, Sons, and Wars

Lately, I have been thinking a lot about fathers and sons. Recent events, of both private and public varieties, have prompted fresh thoughts about this primordial dynamic. Becoming a parent has a way of re-tuning the mind to see familiar concepts in a new light. Watching my “Darling English Boy” evolve into a “Darling English Dad” has given me a renewed respect for fathers and fatherhood.

Just before the arrival our son, Miles, I became obsessed with family history. I was intrigued to find that my husband descends from an exclusively male lineage on his father’s side. His paternal history, like that every Englishman, is a rich tale of fathers, sons, and wars.

In May 1916, my husband’s grandfather, Russell, enlisted in the Army and joined the British effort in “The Great War”. He was but 19 years of age. Yet, the sure and steady longhand and precise signatures that appear on his enlistment form suggest maturity beyond his tender years.

British Legion 'Poppy Field' in Henley-in-Arden
He gave particular care and attention to the signing of his ‘Oath of Allegiance’. The “t” is most carefully crossed, both “i’s” firmly dotted, and a plump full stop appears definitively to the rear of the concluding character. The document exudes sincerity, duty and pride. Russell was a brave soul, amongst a host of similarly valiant youth that answered the call of King and Country. However, unlike the multitude of his fellow brothers-in-arms, Russell was one of the lucky ones that survived. As Shakespeare puts so well, “This story shall the good man teach his son” (Henry V, 4.3.56).

Shakespeare, of course, knew a thing or two about fathers, sons, and wars. His works are a vast reservoir of engaging stories on this theme. His history plays, in particular, are built upon this foundational concept. Most notably, in Henry the Sixth, part 3, Shakespeare underscores the maddening nature of war through his invention of two tragic and un-named characters, referred to merely as: “A Father who has killed his son” and “A Son who has killed his father.” Time and again, Shakespeare shows us the human cost of national conflicts, and the familial relationships behind the power play.

Recently, I had the good fortune to see Greg Doran’s excellent production of Henry IV, parts 1 and 2 at the RSC. At the heart of this narrative exists the triadic relationship of King Henry, Prince Hal and Falstaff. Troubled son, Hal, turns his back on his duty and his sovereign, by displacing his regal father in favour of a low life surrogate in the figure of Falstaff. In performance this complex choice is played with great, rollicking humour and touching pathos by Jasper Britton (Bolingbroke/King Henry) and Alex Hassell (Prince Hal), with Sir Antony Sher stealing the show as the roly-poly, custardy coward, Falstaff.

Alongside the engaging performances, Doran’s direction is crystal clear, making the grand narrative easy to follow. It was, in very deed, child’s play. I was seated next to a little chap called Gregor Bulmer, aged 8, who was at the theatre with his dad. They huddled together during the ferocious battle scenes, and the young lad was enrapt by the performances from start to finish. As the lights came up, Gregor gave his assessment: “Epic.” I asked if he understood it all, he smiled and said he had.

The epic tales of fathers, sons, and wars will always captivate us and command our attention and respect. And so they should, as we should never forget.