Writing Portfolio

28.3.16

Honeyed shoulder of lamb with flageolet beans

What to have for Sunday dinner at Easter? There are several options; if you look up suggestions for an Easter Sunday roast online you’ll find options involving pork, beef and chicken. However, the meat that is most traditionally associated with Easter is lamb. It’s closely associated with spring, and the religious symbolism – the Last Supper having been a Passover meal, and lamb being the meat most associated with the Passover – is a strong one.

It’s worth bearing in mind, though, that while British lamb isn’t as intensively farmed as (say) beef and pork, lamb for the “ever-reliable” Easter market comes from flocks specially managed for autumn lambing, according to The River Cottage Meat Book (most flocks would be lambing in the spring if left to their own devices). Specifically, we opted for shoulder – which, according to Hugh F-W in the above book, is “wrongly thought of as the poor man’s leg … plenty of tender meat, albeit in a form that is not easy to carve.”

We already had a recipe for lamb shoulder that we’ve used before, and liked – and it’s a bit different, as the main accompaniment is flageolet beans (“a high-class variation of the haricot, and quite delicious”, according to Delia Smith) rather than roast potatoes. We’re not entirely sure how we came to have this recipe (it was clipped from a magazine called Good Taste which apparently promotes food from Lincolnshire, not a county that Allison and I have visited – so goodness knows how we got hold of it). It’s also not the best-written of recipes, as it calls for lemon juice and zest in the ingredients but doesn’t mention what to do with the zest in the instructions, while oil (type and quantity unknown) is omitted from the ingredients but mentioned in the instructions. We also didn’t have all of the required herbs in ‘fresh’ form so we did what we could, and what’s presented here is a somewhat modified recipe.

Mix the juice and zest of a lemon with two tablespoons of honey, two tablespoons of olive oil and a couple of generous pinches of dried oregano. Cut a head of garlic in half (horizontally) and place both halves in a lined roasting tin; place a 1.4kg (3lb) shoulder of lamb on top of this and rub it with the mixture. Sprinkle salt and pepper over the lamb, and place sprigs of rosemary and thyme – four or five of each – atop and beside it. Add 150ml of stock (chicken or vegetable will do) to the tin, and stick in an oven pre-heated to 180°C (or 400°F, or gas mark 6).


Cook for 2½ hours, and allow to rest for 30 minutes after that. In the meantime, melt 30g butter in a sauté pan, then add one chopped onion and two or three finely-chopped cloves of garlic. When these have been sweated for 5-10 minutes, add the (drained) contents of two tins of flageolet beans and approximately one teaspoon of finely chopped rosemary leaves. After coating the beans, add 100ml of stock and bring to the boil, then simmer for three minutes. Add three tablespoons of double cream and bring to the boil again; season with salt and pepper.

Once the lamb has been transferred from the roasting tin to the carving-plate, strain the liquid, syphon off the fat and thicken the liquid if required to serve as an accompanying jus.

We served ours with pan-fried kale. Delicious – another winner!

As it happens, we actually used a somewhat larger shoulder than specified in the recipe, so we modified the cooking time accordingly. This left us with a fair amount of leftover lamb meat, as well as the bones. What to do with those? Stay tuned…

25.3.16

Walking in Mill Hill


My latest ‘walking’ assignment for Londonist is all about Mill Hill – a circular walk beginning and ending at the Tube station at Mill Hill East and taking in part of the old railway route that used to run to Edgware (something I’ve looked into before on this blog) and then climbing up to Mill Hill Village, with views of the surrounding area. You can see Wembley Stadium and the church atop Harrow on the Hill from there, and I was pleasantly surprised to note the top of the Shard poking above the ridge to the south-east that I took to be Hampstead Heath. I rather liked this walk, especially as it took me onto almost-home territory; I grew up in nearby Edgware and spent many an hour in the pub that’s mentioned in the article, although it’s gone through at least one refit since those days!

The walk can be found on the following link:


22.3.16

Hot cross buns


Easter is a time for baking (there’s something allegorical about the dough rising), and this year I thought: Why not give hot cross buns a try?

Although they are very much an Easter food, hot cross buns can be purchased throughout the year these days – although a local pub only does its “hot cross burger” at this time of year (yes, that is what you think it is and no, I haven’t tried it).
Hot cross buns are an old English delicacy traditionally associated with Good Friday, and there’s a religious symbolism in the ingredients – the dough refers to bread served at communion, the spices allude to the spices that were wrapped with Jesus’s body and the cross is, well, self-evident. Their provenance, though, is a bit hazy – some say they go back to Roman times (the Romans are known to have made buns with crosses on them, but this may have been so they could easily be broken into four parts), while others reckon they’re a Saxon thing (associating them with the worship of the pagan goddess Eostre). There are various superstitions and traditions about hot cross buns being used medicinally and being hung in the kitchen to protect against fire (in this tradition, the hanging bun – said not to go mouldy if baked on Good Friday – is replaced annually). However, there are no written records about them until Elizabethan times, when their consumption was restricted to festive periods, and the earliest recipes for them date from the eighteenth century.

After trawling through our recipe-books, I decided to go for the hot cross bun recipe in my copy of Delia Smith’s Complete Cookery Course (“a new edition for the 1990s”). Like many a festive recipe, hot cross buns have a much wider ingredients list than more everyday bread-based products, and as is the case with the traditional Ukrainian paska that I made last year, a case could be made for associating the extra ingredients – the butter, the eggs – with the end of Lent. The hot cross bun recipe called for a trip to the shops for a couple of items (while I still had some currants left over from the raisin loaf, the likes of ground mixed spice and cut mixed peel were not things that I already had).

So where to begin? Yeast first – Delia said to use the dried stuff, mixed with caster sugar and “hand-hot” water and left “until a good frothy ‘beer’ head forms”. Meanwhile, the dried goods – plain flour, salt, mixed spice, sugar, currants and mixed peel, were mixed together in a bowl, to which was added all of the wet goods – the yeast mix, milk (“again hand-hot”), melted butter and a beaten egg. I must admit to being a bit worried that that last one would scramble, what with the butter having just come off the stove, but in the event it didn’t. This was kneaded together and, though sticky at first, it did end up being “smooth and elastic”, just as Delia had promised it would be (although I bake a fair bit, I must confess to being a bit sceptical at times about sticky dough acquiring a smoothness without the addition of more flour, especially when using a recipe I haven’t tried before; that said, the kneading is always my favourite part).

One rising and knocking-down later, I divided the mix into twelve portions (is this supposed to be symbolic of the Disciples?) and arranged them on a baking tray. I then made a deep cross on each of them with a knife – this is how the crosses on hot cross buns were originally done – before considering the note that the bottom that mentioned that, for “more distinct crosses, use a flour-and-water paste”. Unfortunately I had by now ran out of plain flour, so I used wholemeal instead (it was that or self-raising). The paste was rolled out into thin strips which were placed atop the buns which I then left to rise.
After just fifteen minutes in the oven, the buns were ready! One last thing to do, though – brush them with a sugar-and-water solution as soon as they emerged, in order to make them sticky.
Sticky they most certainly are. While I am not entirely happy with the crosses (should’ve gone to get some more plain flour, plus they’re a bit on the thick side), I’m pleased with the way the buns have turned out. I won’t be serving them with burgers, though.

17.3.16

A walk along the Regent's Canal

Fancy a walk in London this weekend? I’ve been looking into walks in the London area, and I came up with this gem along the towpath of the Regent’s Canal – six miles from Camden to Limehouse. The write-up for this walk, which takes in Camden Market, Granary Square, Islington, Broadway Market (if it’s Saturday) and Victoria Park (plus, if you’re lucky, the superb floating bookshop Word on the Water which I encountered last year on the Capital Ring) can be found on Londonist…

11.3.16

The Pepys show


To Greenwich, where the National Maritime Museum is housing an exhibition devoted to the life and times of a seventeenth-century naval civil servant and man-about-town who just happened to record everything that he saw and experienced in a diary. ‘Samuel Pepys: Plague, Fire and Revolution’ tells the story of a most turbulent time in English history (from the aftermath of the Civil War to the Glorious Revolution) through the eyes of the greatest of diarists.
Here was a man who, although he must have realised that someone in the future would read what he’d written down, left nothing out – even when it reflected badly on him (and, as he wasn’t the most faithful of husbands, there’s plenty of that). As well as the minutiae of his personal life (what he ate, who he met, problems with the servants, trips to the theatre, falling asleep in church), his diary – which he kept between 1660 and 1669, writing it in shorthand by candle-light and only giving up when he feared for his eyesight – has eye-witness accounts of some of the key events of the age – the return and coronation of Charles II (Pepys left the ceremony early, as he needed the loo), the Great Plague of 1665, the Great Fire of 1666. It is both a fantastic and fascinating read, a real window through which we can glimpse the past. The whole thing amounts to over a million words, and remains one of the key texts for understanding Restoration England; for this reason, the exhibition’s publicity calls him, with some justification, “history’s greatest witness”.
Pepys came from a humble background – the son of a London tailor, he was the fifth of eleven children but the oldest one to survive. Earmarked as a bright boy, he attended St Paul’s School and then went to Cambridge, following which he came under the patronage of his well-connected cousin, Edward Montagu (who’s appeared on this blog before; he was a Parliamentarian soldier who became one of Cromwell’s generals-at-sea before being instrumental in inviting Charles II back to England, upon which he was ennobled as the Earl of Sandwich) who ensured his entry into the civil service. He married young (but not as young as his wife Elisabeth, who was just 14) and in 1658 he underwent surgery – a high-risk option at the time – to remove a bladder stone. Seventeenth-century surgical equipment can be seen in the exhibition.
The tumultuous times in which he lived are brought to bear early on in the exhibition with a large painting of Charles I’s execution, which Pepys bunked off school to see (although curiously, the painting shows Thomas Fairfax as the executioner, even though he hadn’t even signed the death warrant). There are plenty of items Cromwell-related (Pepys was a great admirer of the Lord Protector), including his death mask and a large bowl commemorating Charles II’s evading of Cromwell’s troops by hiding in an oak tree after the battle of Worcester – an event that, in addition to giving us the Royal Oak pub name, Charles later retold to one S. Pepys, who recorded it for posterity.
Portraits abound – as well as Pepys himself, there’s Cromwell, Charles II in coronation regalia, two of his patron Montagu (“my Lord”), his wife Elisabeth (reproduced from an engraving, the original having been destroyed long ago) and various contemporaries like Sir Christoper Wren. There are also portraits of some of the Merry Monarch’s mistresses, including an almost-naked Nell Gwyn, the most famous actress of the age (“pretty, witty Nell”, Pepys called her), and Mary Davis, another actress who (we learnt) Pepys rather liked, although Elisabeth took a different view, describing her as “the most impertinent slut in the world”. There’s even space for a miniature of Frances Stuart, who refused to become a royal mistress and who is said to have been the model for Britannia, as depicted on the old (pre-decimal) penny and the (pre-2008) 50p coin.
As well as exhibits – models of ships, musical instruments (Pepys loved to relax with some music), items used in futile attempts to ward off plague, many documents and letters (do check out Charles II’s love-letter to Louise de Kerouaille, and wonder how it could have been written by a man who was far from monogamous) – there are graphics, and it’s here that the exhibition does very well. The section on Restoration theatre (quite literally restored, as Cromwell had banned it) is complete with recordings of extracts from plays – a period comedy, and Macbeth done in the style of the time – interspersed with readings of extracts from Pepys’s diary where he comments on plays he’s seen, complementing visuals of silhouetted actors and actresses giving it their best despite loud cat-calls from a lively audience. Better still is the depiction of the Great Fire of 1666 – a large-scale picture of old London across which the flames gradually spread, to the sound of a roaring fire and Pepy’s commentary (indeed, many consider his eye-witness account of the Great Fire, right down to his burying a Parmesan cheese in his garden, to be the best part of the diary).
Pepys’s professional career is dealt with in a section on naval warfare (the diary aside, he is still regarded by naval historians as one of the most crucial civilians ever to have played a part in the development of the Royal Navy), while beyond that there’s a part devoted to science that explores Pepys’s role in the Royal Society – through which he knew the likes of Newton, Hooke, Halley and Wren. There are scientific instruments on display here, and most interestingly there’s a first edition of Newton’s Principia that refers to Pepys by name on the title page, as he had authorised its publication in his capacity as President of the Royal Society.
The exhibition ends with some detail on the Glorious Revolution – an event which brought about Pepys’s professional downfall. He rose high – as well as an MP, he was Secretary for the Admiralty – but his career was tied with the fortunes of James II (who, as Duke of York, had been the Lord High Admiral and had as such been well aware of Pepys’s work with the Navy). By supporting James’s right to succeed to the throne despite his Catholicism, Pepys was in fact one of the original Tories (the Tory-Whig distinction dates from the Exclusion Crisis) and he was for a time imprisoned in the Tower on fabricated charges (he was accused, among other things, of secretly being a Catholic – a dangerous thing to be accused of at the height of the hysteria known as the Popish Plot). When James fled the country, Pepys retired from public life.
Just about the only thing that’s not on show is the diary itself – that is kept at Pepys’s old college at Cambridge where it’s not allowed to leave the premises as per the terms of Pepys’s will, which is on display. Written in shorthand and bound in six volumes, the original version of the diary was part of Pepys’s very large book collection (itself one of the most impressive seventeenth-century private libraries in existence) and it wasn’t transcribed into plain English until the early nineteenth century – a job that took three years, with the transcriber only realising towards the end of his mammoth task (and you can see some of this work) that the key to Pepys’s shorthand system was written down in another book located a few shelves above the diary volumes!
There were a few things that I learned, and not just the fact about the actual diary not being allowed to leave Cambridge. I was rather surprised to learn that it wasn’t published in its entirety until the 1970s; earlier editions of the diary left the really racy bits out, and it was only after the Lady Chatterley trial that these were deemed fit for publication. The full-length version runs to eleven volumes (including the companion and index); most of us settle for single-volume abridgements like The Shorter Pepys (itself over 1000 pages) although there is a very useful online version of an older edition.
There are just a few weeks left before the exhibition closes. Go now, while you still have the chance.

3.3.16

John Buchan and the fall of Erzerum


Last month, a First World War centenary passed with little notice; perhaps unsurprising, because it had few lasting effects. On 16th February 1916, Russian forces captured the eastern Turkish fortress-city of Erzerum after a winter campaign that took the Ottomans, who’d recently beaten back Russia’s Western allies at Gallipoli, by surprise.

Although they did capture the coastal city of Trabzon as well, the long-term effects of the Russian campaign were few. A year later, the Russian Revolution happened regardless, and in 1918 the Bolsheviks gave Erzerum and the surrounding area back to Turkey under the terms of the treaty of Brest-Litovsk (an echo of two earlier, nineteenth-century wars in which Russia had taken Erzerum and then returned it in the subsequent peace settlement).

The taking of Erzerum did have an afterlife of sorts, though, with a fictional depiction of the climax of that campaign. Several months afterwards, John Buchan published Greenmantle, his follow-up to The Thirty-Nine Steps which he’d published the previous year. In Greenmantle, the resourceful hero Richard Hannay returns; recuperating from wounds received on the Western Front, he’s summoned by the spymaster he met in his previous adventure and briefed on the political situation in the Middle East – British intelligence having received hints that the Germans and their Ottoman allies are trying to kick-start a Muslim holy war or jihad that will, if it comes off, throw everywhere from Africa to India into turmoil, threatening the stability (or even the very existence) of the British Empire. Hannay teams up with a fellow-officer, Sandy Arbuthnot (a master of disguises and expert on all things Oriental) and an American, John Blenkiron (even though the USA was neutral at the time, Buchan was very big on the notion of an alliance between the great English-speaking nations) and the three make their own ways to Constantinople, and from there they travel to the showdown at Erzerum.

The adventure is a good one, and despite the fact that it was written and published during the war it does allow for some reflection on war-weariness and goes beyond mere stereotypes of the Germans; the ox-necked bully Colonel von Stumm, for example, is contrasted with a surprisingly sympathetic portrayal of the Kaiser when Hannay briefly meets him, and other ‘good’ Germans can be found in the forester’s wife (who shelters Hannay) and Gaudian, an engineer who would return in The Three Hostages. Very popular at the time, it outsold The Thirty-Nine Steps, was apparently enjoyed by the Romanovs and is still in print – and it can still cause controversy with its references to political tensions in the Middle East (in 2005, the BBC had to cancel a radio adaptation following the 7/7 bombings).

There is some truth behind the fiction, for – strange though it may seem – German attempts to unleash jihad on an unsuspecting British Empire were no figment of Buchan’s imagination. When war had broken out in 1914, the Kaiser had vowed to “inflame the entire Muslim world against this hateful, lying and unscrupulous nation” (by which, of course, he meant Britain). Allied with the declining Ottoman Empire, German agents used Constantinople as a base from which to enter the Great Game – that old struggle for supremacy in Central Asia – cultivating rulers in Persia and Afghanistan with gold and guns, and even spreading rumours that the Kaiser had converted to Islam in order to legitimise Germany’s intentions.

Working as he was for British intelligence, Buchan would have had access to secret reports about what Germany was up to in the Middle East; after the war, his friend T.E. Lawrence (presumably one of the models for the Sandy character) observed that “Greenmantle has more than a flavour of truth”. That he was able to continue to write popular fiction in addition to his official work speaks volumes for his capabilities, especially given that he didn’t always stick to the official propaganda line in his novels; in fact he seems to have regarded novel-writing as some sort of release from his official duties as well as a handy means of earning some extra money. As was the case with The Thirty-Nine Steps (and indeed with his pre-war novel The Power-House), here was a tale of brisk action and indeed escapism set against a background that wasn’t so much realistic as all too real. That it is still readable today says a lot for the man’s capabilities as a storyteller par excellence.