Writing Portfolio


The swifts overhead

As I write, I have a sunny view over a valley in the heart of that part of Tuscany which is sometimes called ‘Chiantishire’. The village we are staying in is called Panzano-in-Chianti, and it is located on the road known as the Chiantigiana (although on the maps it goes by its numerical designation, route 222, which runs from Florence to Siena). Lunch later today will be courtesy of the local butcher, and there are no prizes for guessing what the wine will be. For now, though, the principal sounds are the bells of the church (Santa Maria, located at the top of the hill), the cicadas and the shrill calls of the swifts circling overhead.

There are a lot of swifts, and they do a lot of flying. From a superficial perspective these dark-coloured yet fascinating summer visitors look a little bit like swallows and martins but they are in fact more closely related to hummingbirds. Their wings are much bigger in proportion to their bodies, which is appropriate as they spend most of their lives in flight – so much so that the ancients believed that they didn’t have any feet (actually they do – they have very short legs with which they can cling to vertical surfaces – although their Latin name, apus, derives from the Ancient Greek a pous, meaning ‘without feet’).

They eat, mate and even sleep on the wing. They fly higher than swallows and martins, and for great distances in a matter of days – once, a bird ringed in England was found in Spain four days later. They are fast, too; the hobby, another summer visitor, is one of few birds of prey that can catch them. They do land to nest (usually in tall buildings nowadays, although holes in trees and cliffs are also used), but unlike swallows and martins you’ll never see them perched on telephone wires.

These airborne symbols of summer can be seen in towns and rural areas all over Europe and Asia between April (May in places as far north as Britain) and August; they winter down in sub-Saharan Africa. It is most likely because of their association with summer that I find it pretty hard not to smile when I look up and see the swifts.


Glastonbury, place of myth and legend

To Somerset, the ancient ‘Summer Land’ in the West Country and a county of endless fascination to historians. This was where Alfred the Great hid out in the marshes in early 878 after the Vikings had taken him by surprise and raided his stronghold at Chipenham; he took refuge in an old woman’s hut and, so legend has it, forgot to keep his eye on the cakes while thinking about how he could overcome his enemies (which he did, triumphing over them at Ethandun – modern-day Edington in Wiltshire – later that same year). This was also where the Duke of Monmouth’s ill-fated rebellion against James II came to an end in 1685 at the battle of Sedgemoor (an illegitimate son of Charles II and an experienced military leader, Monmouth knew that his peasant rabble was no match for the regular army and so went for a night attack, which failed). In the far north-east of the county, there’s the old Roman spa of Aquae Sulis (modern-day Bath).

And then there is Glastonbury.

Where to begin? Let’s start with the landmark that can be seen for miles around. Glastonbury Tor, the hill just outside the modern town, is topped by a distinctive tower that is all that’s left of a fourteenth-century church (itself built on the site of an earlier church). It’s dedicated to St Michael and it can be reached after a half-hour walk from the town. The Tor appears to have been called Ynys Afalon by the Ancient Britons, a name which translates as the Isle of Avalon which has led many to associate it with the mythical island of that name; certainly there was a time when the Tor was indeed an island, for the surrounding low-lying fields used to be marshland. The views from the top are quite spectacular.

Down in the town, there’s the ruins of the monastery. Glastonbury Abbey dates back to at least the early eighth century, although in Medieval times it claimed to be much, much older. What can be in no doubt is that it produced one of the great English statesmen of the Dark Ages, St Dunstan, who was the Abbot of Glastonbury before becoming the Archbishop of Canterbury, in which capacity he served under King Edgar whom he crowned at Bath Abbey in 973. Glastonbury, then, was clearly an important place and it was a major destination for pilgrims before the Reformation; even now it retains a reputation as a place of great spirituality steeped in myth and legend (appropriately, it is twinned with Lalibela in Ethiopia, a fascinating place which I will write about one day). The abbey ruins themselves are quite majestic, giving visitors a very good idea of just how imposing the abbey would have been in its Medieval heyday.

Glastonbury Abbey grew rich on the wool trade, that staple of the Medieval English economy, after the monks drained the surrounding marshland in order to create grazing-land for sheep. The earliest actual date for which we have documentary evidence about Glastonbury Abbey is 712, when King Ine of Wessex endowed a community of monks there, although some would have it that the abbey had been established prior to this royal endowment. The stories about Glastonbury Abbey’s origins certainly go back further than the conversion of the English in the late sixth and early seventh centuries; there were places on the island of Britain, especially in the West Country, where Christianity existed before St Augustine landed in Kent in 597. Christianity had originally come to these isles with the Romans, and when they left some traces of it stayed here (Bede, for example, refers to the post-Roman British leader Ambrosius beating the Anglo-Saxons at Badon Hill “with God’s help”, as well as noting that the “Pelagian heresy” had “seriously infected the faith of the British church”). St Patrick, who lived in the fifth century, is said to have become the leader of a group of hermits in Glastonbury after returning from Ireland. According to the plaque at the ruined St Michael’s Tower atop the Tor, he “discovered an ancient ruined oratory on the summit after climbing through a dense wood”.

The monks of Glastonbury, though, claimed a much older foundation for their monastery. They propagated a quite extraordinary legend, involving a person from the Bible. Christianity at Glastonbury, so the story goes, went right back to the origins of Christianity itself. Joseph of Arimathea is the man in the Gospels who convinces Pontius Pilate to let him take care of Jesus’s body after the Crucifixion; it was in the sepulchre (rock-cut tomb) that was presumably meant for Joseph that Jesus’s body was placed, and from which it had vanished by the time Mary Magdalen went there on the third day.

After the Resurrection, so the Glastonbury legend goes, Joseph travelled to Britain, to the Isle of Avalon to be exact, bringing with him the cup used at the Last Supper and his staff which had been cut from the same thorn bush which had provided the Crown of Thorns. At Avalon he founded a Christian church; if true, this would make Glastonbury not just the first Christian church in Britain but one of the first anywhere. It’s said that when he planted his staff in the ground, it flowered, and there are to this day various thorn bushes in the vicinity that are off-shoots of the original Glastonbury Thorn (which is said to have been destroyed by Puritans in the seventeenth century). 

The cup – the Holy Grail – he buried, and in time the place where he apparently buried it would come to be called the Chalice Well (so maybe Indiana Jones was looking in the wrong place for the Holy Grail as well as the Ark of the Covenant).

The full story goes even further back, for as an addendum to this we have the notion, not mentioned in the Bible, that Joseph of Arimathea was related to Jesus – specifically, he was the Virgin Mary’s uncle and thus Jesus’s great-uncle (the notion of his being related to Jesus is not inconceivable, offering at the very least an explanation as to how he was able to persuade Pilate to give him the body after the Crucifixion). He was a merchant – evidently a successful one, since he was rich – who travelled to Britain on business. This too is not inconceivable, for it is a matter of historical record that, even though Britain didn’t become a Roman colony until 43 AD (a decade or so after the Crucifixion), merchants and traders from the Eastern Mediterranean had for some time been coming to Britain to buy local products, most notably the tin which has been mined in the West Country for millennia (it is under the name of the ‘Tin Isles’ that the British Isles crop up in Herodotus’s The Histories). And on one of his trips to pre-Roman Britain, he took his great-nephew with him.

This would have been at some point during the big gap in Jesus’s life between when he went to the Temple at the age of 12 and when he started his ministry at around 30, a period of some eighteen years in the life of the Son of God about which the Bible tells us nothing. As well as Glastonbury, which would have been an island (Avalon) back then, there are also a couple of places in Cornwall that claim to have been visited by a young Jesus. They’re not alone, for there are quite a few other places in the world that have been suggested as places which Jesus travelled to during this time (evidently there is an urge for him to have been doing something a bit more interesting than the obvious explanation, that he was working as a carpenter in the Nazareth area). The Glastonbury legend has even inspired a famous song – the hymn ‘Jerusalem’.

But is this true? There are many, drawn to the myths of Glastonbury, who would happily believe it. It’s telling, though, that Bede, who is happy to mention the battle of Badon Hill (an event so shrouded in myth and mystery that no-one can say with absolute certainty where it was fought, with that British victory usually being attributed to King Arthur – of whom more shortly), doesn’t mention anything in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People about Joseph of Arimathea bringing a young Jesus to Britain, or of the former coming back after the latter’s death and resurrection. In fact, he doesn’t even mention Glastonbury (which, if we accept the 712 date, was founded in his lifetime) at all.

Finally, no account of Glastonbury can be complete without mentioning the once and future King of the Britons, for the Isle of Avalon is indelibly associated with the legends of King Arthur. And, since his knights were involved in various quests to find the Holy Grail, it make senses (sort of) for Glastonbury to have a legend about that too. One of the places you can see from the top of the Tor is Cadbury Castle, an Iron Age hill-fort which some reckon to have been the location of Arthur’s court, Camelot. Avalon’s main Arthurian association, though, comes with the final part of Arthur’s story. When Arthur was wounded at the battle of Camlann (the one in which he defeated the treacherous Sir Mordred), he was taken to Avalon, an island that was said to have healing properties.  

The association of Avalon with Glastonbury was cemented in the year 1191. In that year, the monks of Glastonbury Abbey were digging in an old cemetery during the rebuilding of their monastery when they unearthed a lead cross (or so they said). The Latin inscription on it read Hie Jacet Sepultus Inclytus Rex Arthurus In Insula Avalonia, which is translated into English as ‘here lies interred in the Isle of Avalon the renowned King Arthur’. The monks, so this story goes, dug deeper and found two human skeletons, one male and one female, which they assumed to be those of Arthur and Guinevere. This may have a dubious ring to it, especially when one takes into consideration that this was the same monastery that claimed to have been founded by someone from the Bible, but what’s evidently important here is not necessarily what the remains were but what they were believed to be. The historical record shows that in 1278 these remains were reburied amid much pomp and circumstance (and in the presence of King Edward I and his queen, Eleanor of Castile) close to the high alter of the abbey church; Glastonbury Abbey’s status as a major pilgrimage venue was assured. The tomb survived until the abbey’s dissolution in 1539, and to this day the site of it can still be seen amid the majestic ruins of this once-great monastic establishment.


Kentish landings

To Kent, where on a twenty-mile stretch of coastline you can find the locations of not one but four sites commemorating famous landings in England, all of which have played a key role in shaping the world in which we live today.

The first one is in the woods near Dover Castle, that fortress atop the White Cliffs that overlooks the UK’s busiest port. The castle, said to be England’s largest, has for centuries existed with the purpose of preventing hostile forces from landing on our shores; it was used by the military until the 1980s, and not for nothing has it been called the ‘Key to England’! Dover, of course, was part of the Medieval confederation known as the Cinque Ports, established to ensure that men and ships were available to defend that part of our coast that was closest to Europe in the event of an invasion. Dover is of course older – its status as the gateway to Britain goes back to Roman times, when it was called Portus Dubris and was the principal means by which Roman troops and traders arrived in the province of Britannia.

Anyway, somewhere in the woods just to the east of the castle is the concrete outline of an old aeroplane. This commemorates the first (and historically the most recent) of our landing-spots, the place where Louis Blériot landed in July 1909, having completed the first flight over the English Channel. Actually, it wasn’t the first flight, for a Frenchman and an American had crossed the Channel in a hot-air balloon in 1785, but it was the first flight in an aeroplane. This was just six years after the Wright brothers had done the first powered flight, and public interest in who would be the first to fly across the Channel was high thanks to the Daily Mail which had in 1908 offered a prize of £500 to anyone who could complete the feat. When 1908 ended with the money unclaimed, the paper upped the prize to £1000. Apparently the paper’s owner reckoned that one the Wright brothers – Wilbur – would be the first, but in the event he had already amassed a fortune from prize money from duration and altitude flights, as well as from sales contracts, and thought the cash on offer to be not worth the risk. Several days before Blériot took off, a rival had attempted the crossing, only to become not the first person to fly an aeroplane across the Channel but the first person to a crash-land an aeroplane on water (he survived).

Blériot flew without a compass, planning instead to take his course from a French destroyer which was sailing across the Channel as his escort, however he hit low cloud and the wind blew him off course; when he did land, it was a crash-landing which damaged his craft’s undercarriage and propeller. But he had successfully flown across the Channel all the same, even though the Mail’s correspondent didn’t witness the landing (he’d been expecting Blériot to land on the beach, and on being told that the intrepid aviator had actually landed above the cliffs near the castle he quickly got hold of a motor-car and headed up there). Louis Blériot’s place in history was assured, and today he is commemorated by the concrete outline of his aeroplane – his own design, called the Blériot XI – on the spot where he landed, which is a few minutes’ walk through the trees from Upper Road (just off the A258); there were no trees there when he landed, which just goes to show how landscapes can change over time.

Along the coast in a northerly direction there are castles – Walmer, which to this day is the home of the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports (now entirely ceremonial but the position does still come with a castle!), and Deal, built as a defensive fortification by Henry VIII (it’s got round walls, thus eliminating the corners of square keeps which were the most vulnerable points once cannons started to be used, and has three levels from which cannons faced out to sea). Between the two is a plaque commemorating the oldest of our landing-sites, that of Julius Caesar in 55BC.

This is the event that is often said to mark the beginning of British history – although the Romans and others had certainly traded with Britain before (the Phoenicians are known to have bought tin from the West Country), the British Isles were very much on the edge of the known world and Julius Caesar’s visit was the first time anyone had come over in a military capacity. He’d just conquered Gaul, and his invasion of Britain was, according to Winston Churchill in his History of the English-Speaking Peoples, “an integral part of his task of subjugating the Northern barbarians to the rule and system of Rome.” Caesar, who suspected the Britons of having aided their fellow-Celts the Gauls in their struggle against Rome, regarded the people of the south-eastern corner of the island (modern-day Kent) as being the most civilised on said island on account of their being the closest to mainland Europe.  Not that that was saying much, for they were nevertheless “a tougher and coarser branch of the Celtic tribes whom he was subduing in Gaul” (Churchill again), and he appears to have regarded their pre-battle preparations, which consisted of taking their clothes off and painting themselves blue, with some distaste (he was even less keen on their priests, the Druids, who he’d heard performed human sacrifices).

Caesar judged Dover to be unsuitable for a landing (those blue-painted warriors standing on top of the cliffs must have been off-putting), so he opted to land on the beach between Walmer and Deal instead. His troops were able to fight off the natives and establish a beach-head but they were beset by bad weather and the tides, not something they’d ever had to worry about in the Mediterranean. Unable to advance further inland, he returned to Europe after a couple of weeks. He was back a year later, better prepared and with a larger force, and this time he was able to advance inland and indulge in a bit of dividing and conquering by setting one of the British tribes against another, but when he heard of a revolt in Gaul Caesar left once again, never to return. The Roman conquest of Britain would not happen until 43AD, when Emperor Claudius sent Vespasian over with an army (which, interestingly, included elephants) to subjugate the Britons and establish a new Roman colony, Britannia.

Further along the coast, beyond Sandwich but not quite as far as Ramsgate, is Pegwell Bay, once the location of a major hoverport from where big vehicle-carrying hovercraft departed for Calais. The hovercraft have long gone (the hoverport closed in 1982), but there is one very large piece of evidence that points to an older sea-crossing. Back in 1949, a group of intrepid Danes sailed a life-size replica of a Viking longship from Denmark to Kent. They actually landed at Broadstairs, but the ship, called the Hugin, was put on display at Pegwell Bay to commemorate a landing which took place at Ebbsfleet, a hamlet at the head of Pegwell Bay marking the eastern end of the channel which once separated the Isle of Thanet from the Kentish mainland, in the year 449. This arrival would have a profound effect on the course of our history; indeed, the island of Britain would never be the same again.

Although a Viking longship commemorates this landing, those who landed weren’t Vikings. The arrivals of 449 were two brothers, Hengist and Horsa, warriors apparently invited over as mercenaries by a warlord known as King Vortigern. They brought with them a motley crew of Angles, Saxons and Jutes who hailed from what’s now Denmark and northern Germany; in due course, more of them followed. In his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, the Venerable Bede records that they “were granted lands in the eastern part of the island on the condition that they protected the country: nevertheless, their real intention was to subdue it.” This they did, becoming the ancestors of the English, for as Bede continues: “From the Jutes are descended the people of Kent and the Isle of Wight … From the Saxons … came the East, South and West Saxons. And from the Angles … are descended the East and Middle Angles, the Mercians, all the Northumbrian stock … and the other English peoples.” A plaque close to the Hugin thus commemorates this landing as the ‘beginning of English history’.

Not far inland, there is commemorated an arrival of a more spiritual kind which also changed Britain for ever.  Over a century after the arrival of Hengist and Horsa, the Anglo-Saxons (as they became known) had come to dominate much of the island of Britain, establishing several kingdoms – an arrangement known to historians as the Heptarchy. By the 590s, the kingdom of Kent was ruled by one Ethelbert (sometimes referred to as Æthelberht), who according to Bede was a descendant of the afore-mentioned Hengist. In the year 597, a missionary arrived from Rome. Christianity had come to Britain before, when the Romans had converted to it, but the Anglo-Saxons had arrived after the Romans had left and were very much a pagan people.

That changed with the arrival on the Isle of Thanet of St Augustine, the missionary sent by Pope Gregory to convert the heathen Anglo-Saxons to the true faith, starting with the ones in Kent since they were the closest to Europe (like Caesar before him, Gregory appears to have regarded the people who lived in Kent as the most civilised in Britain, probably for the same reason). Ethelbert, who according to Bede “had already heard of the Christian religion, having a Christian wife of the Frankish royal house called Bertha, whom he had received from her parents on condition that she should have freedom to hold and practice her faith unhindered”, went out to meet him. He listened to Augustine preach a sermon, following which he allowed him to establish a base in Canterbury (which is why to this day the most senior Anglican clergyman is the archbishop of that fine city). He even converted to Christianity himself, which gave Augustine “greater freedom to preach and to build and restore churches everywhere”; thus did the English become a Christian people. The spot where Augustine preached his first sermon on English soil is, therefore, of great historical importance, and it is today commemorated by a cross – St Augustine’s Cross, the last of our Kentish landing commemorations.



The county of Wiltshire has long been noted for its ancient landmarks and monuments – there’s much more to it than just Stonehenge. To the north – just off the A4 as opposed to the A303 – is a village called Avebury, and that is home to the largest ancient stone circle in all of Europe. It may not have the immediate impact of Stonehenge – the number of stones has over the centuries been greatly reduced – but it has a distinct charm of its own, which is helped by the fact that part of the village actually lies within the stone circle. Plus, unlike Stonehenge, it’s free to visit and you can actually go up and touch the stones.

In fact, it could be said that the stone circle at Avebury, which dates back to the third millennium BC, is more of a circular enclosure with various arrangements of standing stones (including two smaller circles) inside, and that it’s merely a part of a whole complex of ancient structures in the vicinity, “one of a cluster of major prehistoric works,” according to the book Mythology of the British Isles by Geoffrey Ashe which I have been dipping into recently. Other stones form an avenue leading away from the Avebury circle towards a smaller site known as the Sanctuary, an easy-to-miss site close to the A4 which is not far from the burial mound that is the West Kennet Long Barrow and Silbury Hill, which looks man-made because it is (it’s the largest prehistoric mound in Europe, similar in size to the smaller pyramids at Giza); it dates back to around the same time as Avebury and apparently took several centuries to make.

The stone circle at Avebury, which as well as various other standing stones also encloses part of the village (including the pub, the Red Lion, which can therefore claim to be the only pub to be located within an ancient stone circle), is itself enclosed by a henge – a ditch and earth bank which would appear to have served as a means of restricting entrance to the site to certain key points (rather like, I suppose, the doors of a cathedral).

Quite a few of the stones are no longer there. Over time, some were broken up for use as building materials while others were removed to allow for cultivation of the land. It’s also been noted that even though there has been a Christian church at Avebury since the seventh century (it is located outside the stone circle), superstition about the stones led to the removal and burial of quite a few of them in the fourteenth century. It was this removal of the stones that led to the only known death to have been directly associated with them. “About 1320,” states Ashe, “a man who was helping to smash one of the stones was crushed to death when it keeled over on top of him. In 1938 his skeleton was found, with the tools of his trade – he was a barber-surgeon.” One imagines an itinerant trader unexpectedly getting roped into helping out with some heavy lifting while he was passing through the village, with fatal results.

As for what it was built for, that is a mystery that continues to fascinate – and the Neolithic people who built it left us no clues, as they were of a pre-literate age. The lack of human remains that have been unearthed precludes the notion of Avebury having been a place of death or sacrifice, and the best guess is that it was a temple used for ceremonies of some sort, in which the path of the sun played a key role, for the stones’ astronomical alignment has been remarked upon (light-heartedly as well as seriously; in 2014, the National Trust claimed that they were planning to move one of the stones at Avebury in order to align the circle with British Summer Time – a claim that was, of course, made on April Fools’ Day).

In the eighteenth century, the antiquarian William Stukeley pioneered archaeological investigative techniques at Avebury – taking notes, making drawings and doing careful measurements in a bid to unlock the mystery of the stones (at the same time as some of the local farmers were busy removing some of the stones, not out of superstition but in order to obtain building materials and clear the land for the plough). Stukeley figured out that there were two stone avenues extending out from Avebury – one, the Kennet Avenue, heading south-east to the Sanctuary and another, the Beckhampton Avenue, heading south-west (few stones from the latter had survived even in Stukeley’s time, and for many years archaeologists reckoned he’d got it wrong although buried stones have recently been unearthed along its route). He theorised that Avebury had been built by the Druids (who actually post-date the construction of the site) and that the avenues formed a ‘solar serpent’ and he reckoned that to be similar to symbols used in ancient Egypt. 

Wishful thinking, probably (as Ashe states, a “past guess at serpent-worship had no basis but the fancy that the Avebury-Avenue-Sanctuary formation was serpentine”) – although in Stukeley’s favour he was right about the Beckhampton Avenue, and by studying Avebury at a time when quite a few of the stones were being dismantled his contribution towards our understanding of the site is invaluable. He also seems like a fascinating chap, as antiquarians often do, being from a time when men could get away with having multiple scholarly interests (as well as digging around at Avebury and Stonehenge, he was a biographer of Newton, no less, as well as being a C of E priest who was obsessed about the Druids).

Further theorising came in the early twentieth century with the development of the notion of ley lines, the idea that prehistoric sites are not located at random points but are arranged in straight lines. Avebury plays a part in this. “One of the longest and most impressive leys in the country,” state Janet and Colin Bord in their book Mysterious Britain, “cuts through the southern edge of the Avebury circle … This ley or ‘dragon line’ stretches from Land’s End to Burrow Mump and Glastonbury Tor, thence on to Avebury, and eventually reaches Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, touching en route many hills and churches dedicated to St Michael”. Mysterious Britain is a work from the Seventies which focuses on Britain’s ancient monuments with a strong emphasis on the weird and the wonderful, and seems to take a lot of it at face value (I suspect that Stukeley would’ve loved it). Ley lines are a good example of people making way too much about what is essentially a couple of coincidences, and in the case of the example mention it falls flat when you look at a map and realise that the places mentioned aren’t really aligned on a straight line, although Ashe hedges his bets by stating that the St Michael Line (as he calls it) is “not perfectly straight, but good enough to be significant”.

More seriously, the early twentieth century saw an archaeologist by the name of Alexander Keiller working at Avebury. His excavations led to the reconstruction of some of the stone settings, for he was able to find quite a few of the stones that had been buried and re-erect them in their original positions (or as close as possible); in addition, he marked the positions of stones that had been lost for good with concrete posts which he’d designed specially for this purpose. It was he who found the remains of the unfortunate barber-surgeon. It’s also thanks to Keiller that the site is the way it is today, for he was a wealthy man who purchased much of the land in Avebury so that he could carry out his excavations, and he later sold it to the National Trust – which runs the site today. It is most definitely worth a visit.


Curried ox kidneys

What do you do, cooking-wise, with ox kidney? Aside from steak and kidney pie or steak and kidney pudding, of course. Determined to have this piece of offal for dinner, for it had been taken out of the freezer and was calmly defrosting in the fridge, I took a look in the recipe books to see what I could find.

I would not be finding anything relating to what to do with an ox kidney in our latest acquisition, a slim hardback called The Curious Cookbook by Peter Ross. Peter Ross is a senior figure at the Guildhall Library down in the City, and it has the largest collection of historical cookery books of any British public library; turns out they did an exhibition on this very subject the other year. Mr Ross has been trawling this (doubtless fascinating) collection and has come up with over a hundred recipes from all points between the late fourteenth century and the Second World War. These are from the bizarre or absurd end of Britain’s long culinary history; if you’ve ever wondered how to make ‘porpoise with wheat porridge’ (a delicacy from 1450, that one), ‘stewed sparrows on toast’, ‘a pint of gruel for invalids’ or that medieval dish where you sew the front end of a cockerel onto the rear end of a pig (a ‘cokyntryce’, in case you were wondering), then this is the book for you.

If, however, you’re just after tips on what to do with hedgehogs, badgers (“there are very few recipes for cooking badger, which has been said to taste like gamey beef”) or squirrels, or if you want to know ‘how to avoid a bitter rook stew’ (that one being from 1940, a time when ‘eating crow’ was clearly more than just an expression) then the answers can be found within these pages. It just goes to show, as they saying goes, that the past is a foreign country and they do things differently there – as Mr Ross says in the introduction, “what we ate in the past now seems extraordinarily strange, intriguing, revolting, or just plain curious”. He’s not kidding, and having read this engrossing and thought-provoking book, I am drawn to wonder what people in the future might think about what we in the present eat, and how they might in their own minds judge us for our culinary choices. Hopefully they will have a food historian who, like Mr Ross, manages to use the commentary to put the recipes in the context of the time when they were written.

As for ox kidneys, I would need to find a recipe of a more recent vintage although as far as offal is concerned Mr Ross hits the nail on the head with his comment that “the decline in the eating of offal can be mapped in direct relation to the increase in wealth of the British population who, given the choice, will often opt for more expensive and simply prepared cuts of meat”.

I found an ox kidney recipe courtesy of Delia Smith, who explains (in Delia Smith’s Complete Cookery Course) that, as well as being “an essential ingredient for steak and kidney pie or pudding” because “no other type of kidney will give it the proper, traditional flavour”, ox kidney is “not recommended for grilling or frying”. However, Delia goes on to state that “it is excellent stewed, braised, or especially curried”. Curried? Hmm. Curried ox kidney (“another very economical, yet rather special, curry”) it would be, then. Most of the ingredients for that were already in the house. The ox kidney is cut into pieces and any bits of fat removed; it’s then browned and put to one side. Then some chopped onion is fried, and to that is added ground coriander, ground turmeric and cumin seeds – followed by natural yoghurt, tomato purée, water and garlic. To this, the kidney parts are added with some chopped-up green chilli and the lot is then brought to be boil and then put on simmer. Easy enough.

But what to have with it? Rice is the obvious accompaniment for curry, but I’d had enough of rice because I’d been working my way through a leftover risotto which had been my lunch for most of the week. So what else? Potatoes? I turned to Camellia Panjabi’s 50 Great Curries of India which has a tried-and-tested recipe for potatoes with peanuts – boil the potatoes in water with some salt and turmeric, then heat up some oil, add cumin seeds and a chopped green chilli, then add the potatoes and roughly-ground peanuts and stir. That would do nicely.

And as a side? How about something involving carrots, since there were some of those kicking around? I found in the Panjabi book a recipe for carrot koshumbir. What is that, I hear you wonder, is that? Well, it’s a type of cachumber which, Ms Panjabi explains, “is to an Indian meal what salsa is to a Mexican one. It provides raw vegetables with a tangy touch … In Western India, in Maharashtra and along the west coast, cachumbers are particularly popular and varied, and are known as koshumbir … They are sol tasty that they can be served as a salad or side vegetable.” I must admit I was a bit unsure about serving myself a raw vegetable as a side, but I figured I might as well have a go. All I had to do was grate up some carrot, mix it in with a small amount of dessicated coconut and add lime juice, sugar, salt and yet more roughly-ground peanuts. Then heat up some (more) cumin seeds and green chilli (to be honest I just used some of the cumin and chilli from the potato recipe) and add those.

So that’s what I did – curried ox kidney, served with potatoes with peanuts and a side of carrot koshumbir. And it was delicious.