Oh, What a Feeling!

The week before Christmas, the One & Only and I took the Toyota, Bruce, for a run to the Yorke Peninsula. A simple, short break was required before the Christmas mayhem kicked in.

The road north out of Adelaide is rarely a tempting proposition, particularly in summer, when the flat, dry, unresponsive landscape seems to suck the marrow from your bones. The horizon is vast, and the sky is deep blue and cloudless, but even that feels joyless, when it leaves the sun free to blister your skin like a grilled pepper, despite the tinted windows.

And yet, after what seemed like hours of empty, yellow paddocks and shimmering tarmac, we shimmied through Port Wakefield – where the fish shop was ‘sorry, closed, for it’s a bit hot’ – and rounded the elbow at the top of Yorke Peninsula, and followed the coastline south-west to Marion Bay. Here, the pelicans were soaring over the jetty in perfect synchronicity and the oystercatchers, ankle deep in clear water, were pecking delicately at the sandbank.

It was my first trip to the Yorke Peninsula since a brief and boozy weekend during the university years. Prior to that, there is a solitary photo of me in my slippers and dressing gown at Pine Point, at a point in time when I was too small to remember even the best beach holiday. So, I had few expectations, other than the supposition that bleak, dry moonscapes would feature heavily. They do. Man has cleared mile upon mile of scrub and eucalyptus for the purpose of planting mile upon mile of wheat and barley. Random settlements have sprung up along the coast where boats could anchor and fill their holds with the farmers produce. A scant sprinkling of gum trees lines the highway – a churlish nod to the thick, cluttered hedgerows of the Homeland – and dust invades every orifice.

Shaped like a boot, Yorke Peninsula is the central leg of three peninsulas in South Australia: Eyre to the west and Fleurieu to the east, with Kangaroo Island floating just below, across Investigator Strait, like a football. It was named for British Home Secretary Charles Philip Yorke by Matthew Flinders, who sailed around the coast of South Australia in his ship HMS Investigator in 1801-1802. It may sound more prosaic than the choice of French explorer Nicolas Baudin – Cambacérès, after a statesman of the French Revolution – but given that Yorke Peninsula was to become a land of Cornish copper  miners and tough, farmers, it seems more fittingly pragmatic.

Originally, this peninsula was home to the Narungga people, but the early settlers soon decimated the local tribes with their European diseases and desire to claim the land, and today, Innes National Park is all that remains of the original landscape: 10,000 hectares of coastline, scrub and sand dunes. The tea tree is king, and blowflies are in aggravating abundance. Several attached themselves to us as we wandered around the ruins at Inneston and then proceeded to hitch a ride on the car so they could accompany us to every corner of the park, even out to the lighthouses where a feisty wind threatened to blow us over the cliff, but could not dislodge the flies from our shoulders.

Weathered cliffs and rocky islands loom over the graveyards of numerous shipwrecks. On land, the park teems with wildlife. Drivers must potter along at a mere 40kmph in order to give way to a sun-struck lizard who plods witlessly across the road in front of us, or a family of emus stepping daintily through the saltbush, completely oblivious to the road and our bright orange car. The shy Tamar Wallabies, once extinct, have been successfully reintroduced, but prove impossible to find. However, we do spot a solitary, rust-coloured peregrine falcon swooping overhead in search of lunch. And on Pondalowie Bay, a mob of dolphins – we count an extended family pod of about thirty – play in the water, competing with surfers for the breaking waves, racing up and down the coast and dodging neatly between the surfboards. Out on the Sternhouse Bay jetty, we first smell and then see a bunch of penguins balancing on the smooth rocks at the foot of the cliff. And, out for an early swim one morning to beat the heat, we interrupt Kanga and Roo grazing in the sand dunes above Whipbird Way.

It is a harsh climate, even in this era of air conditioning and icy beer. Yet I imagine the lives of the gypsum miners and their families, isolated at the south-western tip of the Yorke Peninsula, a two-day ride to the nearest town, were imminently harder. Here, in the late 19th century, about a hundred and fifty inhabitants were toughing it out beside the saline Marion Lake. A rough paddock on the edge of the tiny town is now labelled ‘cricket ground’ but there is little else to indicate a lighter side to life. Odd to think that even the joys of the surf probably did not register with these late Victorian settlers, working to scratch a living from the less-than-lush landscape.

Yet, aside from the persistent Fly and the insidious dust, both exhibiting a keen desire to inhabit my nostrils, Marion Bay is quiet and serene, well removed from the hue and cry of Christmas shopping. With one pub and a small grocer at the petrol station, there is little to do but drift along pristine beaches, search out lonely light houses and rhapsodize over sunsets.

On the one day when the soaring temperatures trap us indoors with the air conditioner and Christmas lists, we are set free a little sooner than expected, when the hot north wind whipping through the treetops suddenly does an about-face and blasts the heat away in a matter of minutes. We push lists aside and decamp to the veranda with a glass of rosé and a local Brie. Restoring the calm is a worthy occupation. The magpies seem to agree.

*With thanks to the One & Only for his beautiful images.

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Nine Lessons & Carols

‘The air was dry with summer heat, and smoke was on the yellow moon…’ ~John Wheeler

The temperature gauge is swooping up to the century as we gallop into the third week of December. It’s a far cry from last year’s somewhat chillier Christmas in northern Europe. As I sat on the balcony early this morning, sipping tea and enjoying the cool air before the heat kicked in, I heard my first magpie warbling among the rooftops. And last night, at our local church, the carol service gave me my first touch of Christmas, the candlelight and haunting music sending shivers of anticipation up my arms.

Since the kids were in primary school, I have particularly loved this special Christmas service. Nine bible readings follow the story from the garden of Eden to Bethlehem, these short stories wreathed with glorious, spine-tingling Christmas music, sung by the resident choir and congregation.

It’s a tradition that began in the south west of England in the late 19th century. Previously, carol singers would traipse through the snow from house to house, singing secular Christmas songs.  When the Victorians published a Christmas hymnal in 1895, the frost-bitten carol singers moved indoors with relief to the marginally warmer environs of the choir stalls, up beside the altar.

In 2001 we attended our first such service in a cosy village church in Kent, where two of our children performed in the school choir. It was an ambitious project courtesy of the enthusiastic music teacher at their primary school. Somehow, Mrs. Cooke inspired these kids, aged eight to eleven, to sing joyfully in Latin, German and old English. We were rapt.

Yesterday, after a quick dinner, we followed the sound of the bells, to find a throng of people already filling the pews at St. Cuthbert’s, each person carrying a small, battery-operated candle. As the light faded, the candles winked in an array of rainbow colours, while real wax candles burned from sconces on every pillar.

As I glanced around the church, it was interesting to note the cultural variety amongst the congregation: a wonderful microcosm of the multi-cultural landscape of Australia, that was once so predominantly British. And, as the vicar noted in her opening remarks, all these different nationalities and races are ‘united through our faith in Christ.’

This cultural potpourri was also reflected in the choice of songs. While the congregation trilled enthusiastically through all the old favourites (Away in a Manger, Once in Royal David’s City, O Come All Ye Faithful’), the choir branched out into Christmas favourites in a variety of languages: Spanish, Slavic, French, German and Latin, a negro spiritual, and  two beautiful Australian carols from the 1940s.

Later, the choirmaster told me the tale of a visiting Russian conductor, a short grumpy bloke who never smiled. He was nonetheless eager to perform music that would be more relevant to an Australian Christmas than those carolling of deep mid-winter, holly and driven snow. He discovered a staff writer, John Wheeler, in the depths of the ABC who had written five Christmas poems with an Australian setting. This feisty, somewhat dictatorial Russian insisted that Wheeler team up with ABC’s music director, W.G. James, who promptly set the poems to music for an SATB choir (an acronym for soprano, alto, tenor and bass voices).

So today, instead of wintry songs about chestnuts and open fires, ice, snow and sleigh bells, we have a series of carols with references to the southern hemisphere in December. Or, as Julian Dennison and Ronan Keating remind us in ‘Summer Wonderland’ mozzie spray, sunburn and cricket bats are far more relevant to a southern hemisphere Christmas than snowmen.

‘The north wind is tossing the leaves, the red dust is over the town; the sparrows are under the eaves, and the grass in the paddocks is brown…’ ~John Wheeler

In my childhood, department stores still cocooned Father Christmas in huge black boots and a woolly red suit and sprayed fake snow on the windows, while elevator muzak consisted largely of American Christmas songs. Today, we no longer feel obliged to kowtow to northern hemisphere traditions. Why overheat the house cooking turkey and Christmas pudding in 40 degrees, when its the season for fresh prawns and salad. And there’s no need to wrap ourselves coats and scarves for a postprandial walk on the beach at the end of a long boozy Christmas lunch – a wonderful concept that I fully intend to make a family tradition.

Like that jolly Air New Zealand version of ‘Winter Wonderland,’ many antipodean Christmas songs since John Wheeler’s worthy offerings. Yet I suspect that his five carols were the first public acknowledgement that Australians weren’t simply English migrants but had established an independent culture in a completely different clime to their origins in northern Europe. Now most of us know the song about Santa using six white kangaroos to pull his sleigh, and that catchy Twelve Days of Christmas full of galahs, kangaroos and an emu up a gum tree. And of course, there’s Tim Minchin’s ‘White Wine in the Sun’ which has become a firm favourite.

And yet, the best reminder that I am back in the land of water restrictions and suffocating summer heat is not the north wind tossing the leaves – although it is currently flinging dust and gum leaves furiously across the state – but the sign above the loo that reads ‘in this land of surf and sun, we don’t flush for number one!’

Have a very merry Christmas!

*With thanks to Google images for the colourful Christmas pics!

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Road Trip


I have just returned from a road trip to Melbourne, to reacquaint myself with the Australian landscape. In my shiny new, burnt orange Toyota Corolla that I have baptized Bruce, I have chewed up the miles with glee, driving through the Adelaide Hills and across the Murray, along the Coorong to Robe and down the Glenelg Highway to Buninyong. (Isn’t that a lovely, lyrical name?) Then east to Heidelberg, around Port Philip Bay to the Bellarine and back to Adelaide via Ballarat and Penola. Past paddocks and vineyards, countless gum trees, an abundance of inimitable Aussie birds and the inevitable, innumerable sheep. And I drove through a surprising amount of rain for a country that has been despairing over drought and bush fires further north. This land of immense horizons and ‘boundless plains’ has felt a very, very long way from England’s ‘clouded hills,’ its ‘green and pleasant lands.’ And while the contrast has been startling, it has also been a wonderful re-awakening to a very different kind of beauty…

Signs to the Coorong tempt me off the highway, but I know I will pass this way again for a closer look. So, its onward to Robe – an old favourite – where I pause for a couple of days to soak up the scents of sea and saltbush, bury my toes in the sand, find an old friend, and dine on fabulous local fish. A couple of days later, I find myself drifting through Saint Kilda for a slap-up brunch with my brother and his family, where the trams brush past my elbow, and ladies dash by in high heels and fascinators, running late for a Melbourne Cup luncheon. I drop in to see a cousin’s new home among the gumtrees, its high, wide windows overlooking the Yarra River in the gully below. As we nibble on onion tarts fresh from the oven, we chat of wombats at the bottom of the garden and our children’s aspirations.

Before I move on from Melbourne, I grab an hour and a bowl of gnocchi with an old mate in Toorak. I long for a glass of red wine to go with it. If only I wasn’t having to navigate my way across city afterwards…

A seaside town, a stone’s throw from Geelong, full of stately stone buildings, churches and old-fashioned shop fronts. A morning tea by the sea that includes Portuguese tarts. Popular in Luxembourg bakeries due to a large Portuguese workforce, these custard tarts are now popular with me, too, my sweet treat of choice, whenever, wherever I can find one. Who would have thought I could find one here in Queenscliff, so many eons from the Douro or the Alzette? Yet here I sit, on a cushioned bench by the fire, with a coffee and a Portuguese tart, resenting an unseasonable cold burst that has laid waste to my light summer wardrobe, one I packed after several stifling days in Adelaide. Why am I never prepared for the unexpected weather changes? After all this practice, it beggars belief that I could pack so poorly, as yet again I amuse my One & Only with despairing tales of my chilled and coatless state.

Luckily, I can borrow extra layers from the hospitable friends who have acquiesced most cheerfully to my last-minute invasion. I have never travelled this way before, and I am taken aback, after hours weaving through city streets, suburban roads, and eight-lane highways, to discover Curlewis, an unexpected pocket of green paddocks and boutique vineyards on a quiet stretch of Port Philip Bay. I am happy to drift off the beaten track, keen to explore. Over the following days, we stroll along blustery beaches, drop into a neighbourhood winery for a bottle of bubbles, eat endlessly, and occasionally pause to snuggle up by the fire and catch up on family news and favourite books. Gazing towards the bay one afternoon, we spot a giant double rainbow, almost close enough to touch, one tiptoeing among a grove of gum trees at the far side of the paddock, the other dipping its toes in the sea.

Then it’s time to head out for a light dinner at the Dunes, on the edge of Ocean Grove, a shiny new restaurant predictably perched above the beach, with polished concrete floors and a vast expanse of glass through which we squint at the setting sun, sip wine, and fill ourselves to the brim with vegetables and lamb, served on shared platters like tapas, before dashing off to book club and a realm of indigenous writers I am only now discovering after so many years abroad.

A final lunch together on the Barwon River, where we mix the cultures – seafood with an Asian twist and an affogato for dessert – and then I am heading north west towards Ballarat, past another clutch of wineries, before turning off to Buninyong and a Thai feast mixed with Aussie wines, politics and birthday candles. Did I mention I am eating way too much..?

My final stop is Penola, where I realize it has been a journey interlaced with a thousand wineries. An old school friend in Wrattonbully provides iconic Australian entertainment in the form of a balletic Kelpie and a barbecue, while a welcome G&T helps to lubricate several jolly hours of hectic, happy chatter before I turn for bed…

And then homewards, through Naracoorte and Keith, with a short break in Tintinara for a meat pie in the company of a hungry magpie, to a city whose streets are lined with jacarandas in exactly the same shade of blue as an English bluebell. As I cruise back along the Western Highway, the bleached paddocks are truly a far cry from the verdant fields of Hampshire. Yet this stark landscape has its own, elusive beauty. And it has been a joy to revive some wonderful memories of a youth spent exploring the hinterland of Victoria and the South Australian coastline. To revive old friendships, too, garnered from all over the globe. My heart, as ever, is divided between the ear-splitting shriek of cockatoos among the scented branches of the eucalyptus and the gentle twitter of wrens and robins hidden deep within brambly hedgerows; between the deep blue, painfully bright skies of inland Australia and the hazy, washed denim heavens above the Solent. How lucky am I, to know and love two such different, yet glorious countries, to keep a piece of each in my heart?
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Paella with a Pinch

Moments away from packing our bags and heading home to Australia, we first needed to fulfill a promise made in Rome over two years ago, to meet our dear friends in the south of Spain. Airbnb provided a super little nest among the tiled rooftops of the old town, the glorious dome of a nearby church clearly visible from our balcony, the walls around us laced in bougainvillea. Yet there was no time to stop and ponder the philosophies of life in our little eyrie. We were booked into a cooking class across the river and although it didn’t start till 9.30 am, that is still dawn in Spanish terms.

On the west side of the Gudalquivir is Triana, an attractive and ancient quarter of Seville that once thronged with fishmongers and carpenters. Today, it is bursting at the seams with ceramic shops and tapas bars. We wandered over Puenta de Isabella II – or Puenta Triana, whichever you prefer – to the Mercado de Triana, that was built over the remains of Castillo Santo Jorge, a medieval fortress that was also used as the headquarters and prison for the Spanish Inquisition. It was demolished in the 19th century, but some of its walls and cobblestones have been excavated since, and can be seen below the floor of the market, where there is a museum that focuses on the history of the castle, including three centuries of religious repression in Spain.

Once an intermittent open-air market where fishermen sold their wares fresh from the river, it is now a permanent, roofed structure with a plethora of stalls brimming with fish and pork, fruit and vegetables, coffee and a cooking school: Taller Andaluz de Cocina. We meet up with our guide, Clara, as the market opens on a bright and sunny Saturday morning. Joining a multi-national group of wannabe chefs, we follow, meek as lambs, as Clara takes us past the Pescados y Mariacos, the Charcuteria, and the Semilleria. At a Frutus Y Verdurus, I am thrilled to find a colourful display of fruit we haven’t tasted since we left Manila – custard apples, pineapples, pomegranates – as well as local oranges, bitter and perfect for marmalade, whose scented trees line many of the city streets. A round, yellow melon – the galia – is apparently hugely popular with the locals, although not particularly flavourful, Clara admits. We admire the purple skinned Spanish garlic, so much stronger and sweeter than the white, Chinese variety. And we learn that Spain produces 45% of the world’s olive oil. (Next week, our friends will travel by car to Granada, passing through mile upon mile of olive orchards that feed this significant industry.) At a fish stall, we pondered how best to cook cuttlefish and dogfish, sea snails and obas, or cuttlefish roe. Any thoughts?

We are introduced to Queso Payoyo, a local goat’s cheese from the Andalusian mountains, as well as the more familiar and firmer Manchego, made from sheep’s milk. Clara tells us all about the free-range black pigs fed on ten kilograms acorns per day in order to produce the perfect Iberian ham: pata negra or Jamón ibérico de Bellota in Spanish. Salted and hung out to air dry for anything from 12 – 48 months. Last year, my sister and I stayed in the remote town of Jabugo, which is almost entirely devoted to the production of Jamón ibérico. Here, vast, silent hangars house the famous pork shoulders that have been popular since Roman times. The specific appellations are distinctions that will be strictly adhered to and protected by the region and the EU.

At the Semilleria, there are open sacks of dried beans and lentils, and tiny boxes of saffron, which sell for 5,000 euros per kilo. Back in the kitchen, we will learn that saffron must always be the final touch to a dish, possibly roasted in tin foil, but never fried. I consider whether any of my friends will notice if I use a pinch of smoked paprika for a similar effect at a fraction of the price…

Saffron is one of the most precious spices in the world: the golden nugget in a purse of copper coins. It is even nicknamed ‘red gold,’ although it turns a dish yellow when added to the cooking pot. The Ancient Greeks used it in perfume, the Chinese found it medicinal, the Indians like it to dye their fabrics that distinctive marigold colour. Saffron is incredibly labour-intensive, which is what makes it so expensive: the red stigmas are hand-picked from the purple flower of the Crocus Sativa, and it takes thousands of stigmata to make a pound of saffron. About ninety five percent of the world’s saffron comes from Iran. With its aromatic, vaguely floral flavour, it is so intense you only need to toss a pinch into the cooking pot for that distinctive je ne sais quoi

Once the food stalls have been fully explored, we return to the cooking school to start our class. Clara swiftly hands over the reins to her partner, Victor, and dons an apron to become both sous-chef and chief bottle-washer, while Chef Victor explains the four-course menu and how we will all take a hand in preparing it.

Our first recipe originated in Cordoba. Quick and easy to make, Salmorejo is a salmon pink emulsion of tomato, bread and enough olive oil to make the average American decidedly nervous. We are soon chanting, ‘more, more, more’ like a pantomime crowd until the tomato puree has turned into an orange cream. Chilled for a couple of hours, it will then be garnished with hard-boiled egg and diced jamon. Salmojero is a rich and creamy soup, served cold, like gazpacho. Much to my surprise, Victor then explains that traditionally, gazpacho is not really a soup, but a Sevillian summer drink served from the fridge like water.

Next, we toss together a vegetarian dish of garbanzos (chickpeas) and spinach that contains enough cumin – ‘a Spanish pinch’ – to make it taste more Moroccan than Spanish, and uses fried bread and garlic as a thickener.

Clara then presents us with pitchers of cold Sangria, that fresh summer party drink concocted from Tempranillo and orange and lemon soda, then garnished with diced fruits and a cinnamon stick like a southern Pimms. Its name is believed to come from the Spanish word for blood: sangre. I am a little wary of alcohol this early in the day, but it certainly helps to enliven the culinary experience.

Suitably lubricated, we move on to the pièce de résistance – is there a Spanish word for that? – paella. Traditionally, paella is the pan, not the dish. Nor is it the seafood concoction the world is used to, but a country dish of rice, rabbit and chicken, runner beans, butter beans and artichokes in season. Originating in Valencia, it was made for the fieldworkers from whatever ingredients came to hand, which could include snails and duck. And according to our expert chef, it must not contain chorizo, however strong the temptation, as it will overpower the delicate flavour of the saffron and make the dish too greasy.

Although born in the north and bred in England, Victor is fierce about the honour of his Paella Balenciana. It must be fresh and simple, laced with garlic, paprika and a Spanish pinch of saffron. Simple ingredients maybe – but it requires practice to perfect a paella. Measurements and timing must be exact, to the last grain of rice and the moment to remove the pan from the heat. As he demonstrates how to fillet the chicken with a knife so sharp it cuts through the bird like butter, Chef cautions us to stay away from restaurant paella. It’s not the real deal, he claims scathingly, and is often a defrosted, reheated mockery of the traditional paella. Chef uses only the red meat for the paella, putting the breasts aside to use in another dish. All the other discarded parts then go into the pan to make the stock. To qualify as a true-blue paella, he says, as he neatly arranges the ingredients around the edge of the pan, it should be cooked on a charcoal fire made from orange trees. Most importantly, he declares, one must never stir the rice once all the ingredients have been added and evenly spread across the flat-bottomed paella. And he sternly warns us to hide the wooden spoon from any officious helpers. Meanwhile he tosses in a Spanish pinch of salt that looks like a tablespoon’s worth to the rest of us.

We are shown that the paella pan has handles held on with rivets, which cleverly help to quantify the amount of stock and rice. Once the ingredients have all been added, the heat is turned up for five minutes, then turned down for a further 12 minutes.

As the wine is poured and the paella served up, our mouths are watering eagerly, and all is silent for several minutes as we tuck in. After the plates are all but licked clean, Clara presents each of us with a champagne sorbet made from lemon sorbet and cava with a final Spanish pinch of mint. It’s a lovely, light palate cleanser to complete the meal. Our late lunch (it is now 3pm) has been a very jolly, utterly delicious affair. ¡Viva!

*With thanks to Sarah & Ian for sharing their photos… and their holiday!

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RIP Carlos Celdran

It was with real sadness that I read the news of the death of Carlos Celdran in Madrid this week. As the story broke, there was recognition and regret on the Facebook page of every friend I had in Manila, be (s)he Filipino or foreigner, who had ever had the good fortune to meet the Philippines’ very own National Treasure.

Consistently a thorn in the side of the Powers That Be, Celdran was renowned for his seductively sacrilegious tours of Intramuros, and his equally seditious, often scandalous and inevitably slanderous one-man show about the nation’s first lady Imelda Marcos. And how we laughed. This funny little man in the Turkish slippers with turned up toes, and top hat covered in stars and stripes like some unlikely Dr Seuss character, bravely turned a mirror on the history of his beloved country, daring to display its past, warts and all, yet with the humour and love that is only possible when we love someone without reservation or pretense. With mimicry and mockery, he spoke the unvarnished truth of a country mired in all the horrors of colonial occupation, dictatorship and religious oligarchy, while still exhibiting love and respect for the country to which he owed his allegiance with every ounce of his being.

Tour guide, cartoonist and writer, artist, actor and activist, Carlos has had a finger in many pies over the years. Promoting Philippine tourism through his walking tours, his theatre, and his writing, he was a passionate advocate for Manila, its history and culture. The last time I spoke to him, he was heavily involved supporting the Mayor of Manila to clean up and improve the city. Most recently I heard about his involvement in the art and cultural Manila Biennale in 2018 or as it was touted ‘bringing the soul back to the city.’ Set within the walls of Intramuros. An expansion of his own Intramuros walking tours, it was designed to expose the darker side of Manila’s history, while celebrating its creativity. And to make people think.

This review from Josephine Vi. Roque in ArtAsia Pacific, issue 108:

‘Filipinos are often criticized for their selective memory and collective forgetting that allows the son of a former dictator to run for the second-highest office in the country, and for corrupt politicians to return to public service. Controversial issues from the Second World War remain unresolved. The drug war continues unabated despite protests and an alleged death count of more than 12,000. Given this context, the biennial succeeded in exposing the horrors of past and present, no matter how painful. Perhaps this dialogue with history is enough to encourage change and question political systems. For what is the use of commemoration if not to save us from ourselves?

Loving the Philippines though he undoubtedly did, Celdran was nonetheless determined to expose its underbelly – those issues he felt should not be swept under the carpet and forgotten. Yet in bravely drawing attention to one such issue in 2010, he would find himself being forced into self-imposed exile in Spain – eight years after the publicity stunt he pulled at Manila Cathedral, to protest against the interference of the Catholic Church in the Reproductive Health Bill.

Despite popular support, the Supreme Court last year convicted Celdran of blasphemy and offending religious feelings. After an unsuccessful plea to overturn the penal code that convicted him as unconstitutional, he moved to Madrid to escape a potential prison term. Even in exile, he was irrepressible, continuing to work on his art and his writings. In August, he was quoted by journalist Luis H. Francia as saying, ‘The irony that an antiquated Spanish law somehow sent me to exile in Spain? It’s just part of the delicious absurdity of being Filipino.’

This week he died there, aged only forty six, reportedly of natural causes. He will be much missed in Manila, as a tourist attraction, a cultural icon and a rare soul prepared to stand up for what he believed in, whatever the consequences. Articulate, yet elusive, intense yet entertaining, quirky and spontaneous, Carlos Celdran was irrepressible, and forever passionate about the city of his birth. I feel blessed to have met him.

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Changing Seasons

A one-time bandstand on the beachfront. Pale blue sky, wisps of cloud. Vast merchant ships line the horizon in orderly fashion, like a game of battleships. Wooden groins, dusted in mossy weed, are half submerged in a rising tide. The sea sparkles and softly licks the sand. White cliffs loom in the distance, topped with the fragile silhouettes of houses that may slip over the edge at any moment. Dogs pad calmly along the sand. A white coffee. Mushrooms on toast. Sunshine in my hair. All is well in my world.

Behind me, the hills slope steeply, verdant and fertile. Yet, barely a week into September, the harvesters are standing by to mow the fields, the leaves are beginning to turn brown and gold, and the heat has been sucked from the sun. No more buckets and spades and childish shrieks from the water’s edge. The beach has been swept clear of holiday detritus. The children have returned to their classrooms in shiny new shoes, with arms and faces flushed and healthy from myriad summer days.

The narrow lanes wind between hedgerows that are crowded with blackberry clusters. Once chock-a-block with too-wide caravans and campers that slow the cars to a crawl, now it is the torpid tractors and red-faced cyclists pedalling sluggishly up the precipitous ascents of the Downs that create snail-trails of traffic. The cafés, once raucous, are subdued now. Even the seagulls seem to know it’s the end of the season and have retreated to gossip in the barren fields. Somewhere above the island, three pairs of migrant sea eagles are learning the landscape of their new home. Rolls of hay, like fat buns, lie sedately on the earth.

Like the summer, I, too, am abandoning this glorious island to the brewing winds of winter. Reluctantly, plaintively, knowing the days are already closing in and the sun will soon be setting before the afternoon is over, knowing I must soon say goodbye to an eclectic bunch of warm and welcoming friends and neighbours from the croquet club, Carisbrooke castle, the Bembridge windmill and my prodigious writing group.

Every walk to the beach, or drive to town, creates a dolorous sense of loss deep in my chest. Is this the last time I will pass this way? Or this? I long to lock in every minuscule memory to recapture later, when the landscape has changed beyond belief and I am dwelling on a much larger island, the island of my other childhood, where the pert red squirrels and Watership-Down-rabbits will give way to larrikin possums and drowsy koalas; the Scottish magpies with their Thai silk sheen and rasping voices will withdraw in favour of their far less dainty antipodean cousins of the dulcet, gurgling chortle, while the Beatrix Potter hedgehogs and badgers will be usurped by Magic Puddin’ wombats and bandicoots.

There are new adventures ahead, but for now I am dwelling, achingly, in a present that I have adored for a handful of all-too-brief months, knowing it was never forever, that knowledge ensuring that nostalgia set in even as we unpacked our suitcases and hunted out the best coffee spots.

Post card images fill my head: a Norman castle, a modern lifeboat station, and an eighteenth-century windmill; a reef scattered with lanky, grey herons, little white egrets, oyster catchers in red stockings, and neat-petite black headed gulls. Watching a flotilla of softly-softly sailing boats on the Solent, or an eager-beaver hovercraft zipping industriously to the mainland like a zealous mosquito. Passing a row of lugubrious houseboats squatting on a lagoon of sulphurous seaweed. Strolling across Brading marshes, over stiles and through kissing gates, past curious heifers that lick my arm and swans that stand on tiptoe and flap their broad wings ostentatiously, then into the wildflower meadow that blossoms with wild orchids and butterflies. Picnicking on the foreshore overlooking Bembridge reef, or relaxing in a deck chair on Culver Down, enjoying an eagle-eye view over Sandown and Shanklin, Bembridge and Saint Helen’s, Brading and beyond…

New friends will soon to be swapped for older ones, recent experiences will be traded for childhood memories and the promise of novel new escapades. Isn’t it wonderful that I have room in my heart for them all?

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Windmills

Patience. The windmill never strays in search of the wind.’ Andy J. Sklivis

Bembridge Windmill by the One & Only

It’s been the perfect weather for ice-cream this past couple of weeks. The summer days have been long and gloriously warm. On our hill, 35 metres above the once-watery Bembridge Marshes, the breeze has kept the heat at bay. Still, the passers-by have systematically emptied the freezer of Magnums, Cornettos and tubs of local ice-cream. Standing on the hill at the back of Bembridge, our windmill looks across the valley to Bembridge Down and the Culver Inn, the sky between splashed with whispy cloud, tiny microlight planes, buzzards and swallows. Recently three pairs of Sea Eagles have been re-introduced to the island, but I’m yet to catch a glimpse.

This summer, I have been volunteering two days a week at the National Trust windmill, and I have become quite the anorak when it comes to its history and its workings. I have read all the literature, watched the documentary, and learned more from our visitors than all the rest put together. For instance, do you know why there are two pairs of grinding stones? Weighing half a ton each, the stones were made from either French Burr Stone, best for producing high quality flour, or Derbyshire Millstone Grit that was acceptable only for turning out rougher animal feed. The runner stone would be carved with a pattern of ‘furrows and lands’ designed to crush and cut the grain as it ran over the bed stone. This runner stone needed redressing every ten days, or after grinding about 400 tons of grain, whichever came first. As dressing the stones could take the stonemason many hours of work, a mill would generally have at least two pairs, so that one set could always be working while the other was being dressed. The current stones came from the Wootton Bridge water mill that closed down in 1945 and was demolished in 1962. But how does a watermill work? Another visitor was able to fill me in. There is also a miniature pair of stones with a handle like a pestle that can be turned by hand, so children can explore how real millstones grind the wheat into flour. (The kids also get to hunt for six small Homepride millers in their retro black bowler hats and find answers to the nature trail along the back fence.)

Fred the Flourman

Windmills became popular in Europe in the 14th century, and although they were never as popular as water wheels, they could be used in regions with little water. Or, like in Holland, where a level landscape prevents a strong flow of water. With the coming of the industrial revolution, both water and wind as a source of power were upstaged by steam and combustion engines. As an island that seems to have skipped the industrial revolution and remains largely rural to this day, it is hardly surprising that the Isle of Wight has a history of myriad mills: windmills, watermills, and tidal mills. All designed to use natural power to grind wheat into flour.

Bembridge Windmill is the only surviving windmill on the Isle of Wight. It is a tower mill –  a stone structure on which only the wooden cap and sails rotate – built in the early 18th century. Although no one is quite sure of the exact date, we know it was up and running from 1747, which date is engraved into a step. Developing on from the original wooden windmills, where the whole structure could turn on an axel? towers could be built higher – ours is 10m high – and sails (or sweeps as they are known locally) could be longer, and therefore pick up even the lightest breeze. For two hundred years Bembridge Mill was in constant use, despite the growth of steam powered mills on the mainland by the late 19th century. In 1913 it finally ground to a halt, and during the subsequent war years it became derelict, although serving as a lookout for the home guard.

Europe was once flush with mills, as so many landscape paintings testify. Dutch painters, understandably, seem to have painted little else. Then, think of Monet or Constable, who both displayed a bit of a fetish for a mill. Yet, as the industrial revolution took a firm grip on Europe, engineers learned to harness steam and coal instead of wind and water. By the early 20th century, many mills had fallen out of use. Without use or maintenance, these fine old structures gradually became derelict and hundreds were simply demolished. Also, flour is surprisingly combustible, so many wooden mills accidentally burnt to the ground. (It was also a visitor who explained how this happened and filled me in on any number of mill fires.)

While many mills burned down, others were converted into unusual homes. A few wise souls saw the worth of preserving this fascinating part of our rural heritage, with the help of photographs and drawings by the likes of architect J. Kenneth Major was an architect. Others sought simply to immortalize them with pen or paintbrush.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it became highly fashionable for the English aristocracy to travel around the Isle of Wight. Painters and writers came in droves, capturing much of the island landscape and lifestyle on canvas and paper. The pastoral landscape of the island remains today, but the coastal towns have changed dramatically since the nineteenth century, from small fishing villages to popular health spas and holiday resorts.

Bembridge Mill, towards Brading Haven, by JMW Turner

JMW Turner returned several times to the island, to sketch and paint. An original Turner oil painting of Carisbrooke Castle now hangs in the Great Hall there. His sketch book containing some two hundred and forty black and white sketches of his trips around the Isle of Wight still exists at the Tate, and beautifully captures a significant era of the island’s history. It includes at least one of our windmill, a copy of which hangs in the National Trust hut at the property.  

Currently, the sweeps lie on the ground against the fence, as they did in Turner’s sketch, while the Trust raises money for new ones. Unfortunately, even when the sweeps are fixed and turning, flour is no longer produced here. The nearest working National Trust mill is at Winchester, and we have sample bags of its flour for sale in our tiny shop, along with some recipe cards, and a lovely little cookery book chock-a-block with scone recipes for those with any skill for baking. I have to admit, after many disastrous experiments, that will never be me, but I did hear from a visitor yesterday that the cook at The Needles Battery makes the best scones she has ever tasted, so I’m off to the other end of the island for afternoon tea…

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Burnt Toast

‘My mother burns toast as surely as the sun rises each morning… I am nine now and I have never seen butter without black bits in it.’ ~ Nigel Slater

The Other Palace is a terrific little theatre only a stone’s throw from the real one on The Mall. The pub next door is buzzing when I wander past on Wednesday evening, in search of ‘Wagamama’s’ for a quick bite to eat before the show. It is still buzzing when I walk into the theatre an hour or so later…

I am early for once, the theatre almost empty, and I have a clear view of the stage set: a retro green, fifties kitchen complete with a brightly patterned, linoleum floor. On a narrow shelf, at the back of the stage I spot a Marguerite Patten’s ‘Cookery in Colour,’ and on the fridge, a red toaster in which a slice of bread waits patiently to be toasted. By the time I reach my seat in Row B, my foot is already tapping to the sound of the jaunty sixties sound track.

The Other Palace belongs to the illustrious Mr. Lloyd Webber, the latest acquisition in a stable of seven. This one only opened in 2017, but it reminds me distinctly of my adolescent years at The Space in the Adelaide Festival Centre. Sitting within spitting distance of the stage, at eye-level with the actors, this is my favourite spot in any theatre. I am almost on stage, but not quite, disbelief willingly suspended as I hover mere inches from the magic, waiting eagerly for the lights to dim.

‘Toast.’ I have read the book, seen the movie, and now there is a stage play, first developed for the Edinburgh Fringe, later polished and perfected for a London audience. The book was rather heavy going, but this abridged version turns out to have both a sparkle of humour among the pathos and a paciness that the book lacked.

Toast,’ originally penned by British food writer, Nigel Slater, and adapted for the stage by Henry Filloux-Bennett, is a poignant romp through the childhood of a wannabe chef whose taste buds are alerted to the culinary world by a diet of burnt toast, Angel Delight and mince pies. A talented and lively cast of five takes on multiple roles to tell the tale of a special mother-son relationship enhanced by time spent cooking together; a relationship cut short when his mother, struggling with asthma, finally gives up the fight, leaving her nine-year-old son in the clumsy, emotionally-challenged hands of his homophobic father. The boy’s grief over his mother’s death is assuaged by the joys of cooking, his coming of age highlighted by kitchen warfare – a battle to the death to out-bake his evil stepmother.

Mixing monologue and dance at a cracking pace, ‘Toast gives the audience a multi-sensory experience. Pink-striped paper bags of lollies, platters of fruit tarts and sexually deviant walnut whips are handed to the audience at intervals throughout the evening, the rustling of bags and wrappers interrupting the performance for a moment or two, as we see, hear, smell, touch and taste our way through a sixties childhood of lemon sherbet, lemon tarts and lemon meringue pie.

The drama takes place entirely in the Slater’s kitchen, where we meet young Nigel (Giles Cooper of ‘The Lady in the Van’), in schoolboy shorts and tie, devouring his mother’s one cookbook and describing his childhood through the Proustian medium of food memories. Suspending disbelief over the adult sized Nigel in schoolboy attire is sometimes tricky, but overall, Cooper convincingly portrays a young boy’s childish foibles, eccentricities and awakening sexuality.

Lizzie Muncy, as Nigel’s gentle, domestically challenged mother, softly breaks our hearts as we watch her struggle desperately to hide her illness from her precious son and her anxious, uptight husband. Mrs Slater’s sorrowful courage is palpable, her acute awareness that she will have to leave her sensitive son to the mercies of a cruel world and an inadequate father, had me almost in tears. But the play moved swiftly on and we were soon swept up in the strange and jealous battle, between Aunty Joan and Nigel, for Mr. Slater’s limited attention.

Stephen Ventura as Nigel’s father, Tony, is the archetypal, stiff-upper-lip Brit, who cannot bring himself to show his son any physical affection. Instead, recognizing Nigel’s penchant for lollies, he leaves marshmallow ‘kisses’ on his pillow every night. Quickly recognizing and fearing that his son is a ‘pansy,’ Tony’s inexpressible grief at his wife’s death lurches into angry violence against a son whose preference for ‘girly’ sweets he is unable to understand or tolerate.

Nigel’s first crush is the gardener, played most appealingly by Jake Ferretti, who appears for only one scene, but reappears in several other roles, including a back up dancer cheerfully strutting across the stage in a stylized, dream-sequence dance routine, gloriously camp in a frilly green apron.

Then along comes Marie Lawrence as the coquettish Aunty Joan, who goes from fanatical cleaner to evil stepmother with the swish of a duster and a flick of her ubiquitous cigarette, a wriggle of her hips and a pout of ruby red lips. Slater’s stepsisters were apparently horrified at the portrayal of their mother as an over-sexed, OCD cleaning lady, but Lawrence creates a strong character, full of Kardashian drama, sex-appeal and pizzazz.
Several lesser figures are woven into the main story line as all the actors, bar Cooper, snap in and out of character, cleverly and wittily adopting extra personae and different costumes to expand the cast and the story’s scope.

The Other Palace is a wonderfully intimate theatre. I feel as if I am watching the story unfold from an armchair by the window. As the cast frequently makes eye contact or directs cheeky asides into the auditorium, we are drawn willingly into the inner circle, passing lolly bags and crumpling our Walnut Whips wrappers in unison.

Although a decade older than I, Slater’s foodie tales of his mother’s famous flapjacks and his father’s ill-fated experiments with an exotic jar of Spaghetti Bolognese ring a carillon of bells. The 1960s was a novel period in the history of British cuisine, filled with unfamiliar but innovative cooking, as Britain emerged from an era of domestic staff and World War II rationing that extended well into the sixties. Middle class housewives faced domestic chores and family meals in horrified ignorance, and with enormous gratitude for the likes of Marguerite Patten, Delia Smith and Elizabeth David. As British palates slowly broadened to encompass unfamiliar ingredients and foreign recipes, there was a huge culinary leap from the stodgy, tasteless nursery food of past generations.

Entertaining, tasty and poignant in equal measure, ‘Toast’ provides a delicious menu of human emotions and childhood memories, handed out with brisk, unsentimental humour, as Nigel is forced to navigate a cold new world bereft of his mum. Seen through the eyes of a child, the play, perhaps more than either book or movie, clearly depicts a child’s fascination with food and its endless possibilities, as well as his egocentric sense of loss at his mother’s death. While lollies, cakes and puddings are the icing on Nigel’s food-oriented childhood, the ubiquitous lemony tartness of his favourite recipes reminds us that all is not sugar and spice even in the sweetest family saga. It is a gripping portrayal of an unhappy, resentful kid growing up in a dysfunctional adult world, as young Nigel gradually learns to focus his emotions and enthusiasms on developing his culinary skills and shaping his future without the guiding hand of his beloved mother.

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Operation Pied Piper

Remember the childhood fairy tale about a man with a flute, who lured all the children of the village away from their parents, after the townsfolk failed to honour their promise too him? With the best intentions in the world, something very similar happened to the children of Britain during World War II…

Last month, I was invited to take part in Evacuee Week.
Hosted by the Heritage Education Service at the Steam Railway in Havenstreet, each day was a re-enactment of the evacuation of over four thousand children from the mainland to the Isle of Wight, at the very beginning of WWII. The railway station became a set for local school kids to take a glimpse at the trials and tribulations of the war years, and specifically, what it must have felt like to be uprooted from their families and shipped off to strangers in the comparative safety of the English countryside. For four days in June, local schools, brownie packs, a group of enthusiastic home-schooled kids and more arrived at the station, eager to participate. Many dressed the part, in 1930s style clothes, carrying gas masks and small suitcases, and wearing large name tags pinned to their coats. Adult volunteers met them on the platform dressed as army officers, nursing staff, WI volunteers and land girls, to set the scene and welcome them to the island, encouraging them to imagine what life must have been like for children at the start of WWII.

Our resident dinner lady provided samples of some basic war-time snacks, such as potted-meat sandwiches and eggless cakes. Then she explained rationing, and there was many a gasp of horror at the thought of such limited amounts of food.  In another room, a WI volunteer showed them a selection ‘make-do-and-mend’ toys from the era – a common cry during the war for both toys and clothes – and suggested ways to create their own. As the factories had to focus on the war effort, building real guns, tanks and airplanes would take priority over the toy varieties. So this was a chance to get creative with glue and paper, wood, string and scissors. And the kids actually had a lot of old-fashioned fun with the skittles, quoits and a pinball machines made with wood, nails and marbles.

Yet another volunteer, posing as the local headmaster, took them through the drama of an air raid, marching them off to a temporary bomb shelter as the sound effect of enemy planes incited a very realistic air raid siren, while I found myself peering out of the window to catch sight of the bombers overhead.

At the end of the morning, the children boarded the steam train and were taken for a short ride, and imagined what it would have been like to head off on such an adventure without their parents. Despite our reminders that this was merely in play, we overheard several them taking it quite seriously about who they would be staying with that night. I was amused, but also inspired to read up more about the evacuation during WWII.

As a teenager, I remember reading two terrific novels about young evacuees during World War II. Carrie’s War by Nina Bawden, is a beautifully created, semi-autobiographical tale of a brother and sister sent away to a run-down Welsh mining town to escape from the air raids over London. The evacuation, while not the story’s primary focus, provides the incentive to move the protagonists to an unfamiliar setting without their parents, in order to describe a poignant  coming-of-age drama, far from the safety and familiarity of home.

Popular children’s author, Michelle Magorian, has written several novels about the war and evacuees, including Goodnight Mister Tom, A Little Love Song and Back Home. The latter remains my favourite, although it can be quite heart-rending. Twelve-year-old Virginia, known as ‘Rusty’ because of her auburn hair, returns to the harsh reality of post-war Britain after spending the war years safely in America. The culture shock, the homesickness for her American childhood and family and the difficulty of reconnecting with her ‘real’ family were no doubt common emotions for those children sent abroad for the war. 

I loved these books, and they really gave me food for thought at a young age. What was it like to be sent away from your family, with no notion of where you were going, with whom you’d be living and when – or if – you would ever see your parents again? Can you imagine being those young kids, so far from home, who may never have seen a farm, a field or a cow in their lives? Huddled in a village hall, tired and confused, carrying only their gas masks and the bare minimum of clothes in cardboard cases, they would wait to be selected by their unknown host families. Everything was labelled, including the children themselves, to reduce the chances of losing anything or anyone. Remember Paddington Bear, turning up at Paddington staion like a lost package? All those novels had relatively happy endings, but there must have been plenty of sad, misplaced childhoods among the hordes of evacuees forced to leave their parents, often for years. 

As early as 1938, the British government had put together a plan to move legions of people, mostly children, from areas at high risk of enemy air raids, to safer locations. And this complex scheme was put into action days before Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain declared war on September 3rd1939.

Operation Pied Piper would be the biggest population migration in British history. Thousands of children from wealthier families, some with their parents, many without, were rapidly exported to distant destinations such as Australia, America or South Africa. Hundreds of thousands more were moved from vulnerable cities and ports to towns and villages further inland, to board with strangers, many for the duration of the war. In total, about 1.5 million people were transported across the country and around the world, and all this was achieved in a breath-takingly short time.

At the beginning of September, 1939 over 5,000 children were evacuated from Portsmouth to the Isle of Wight. Building bomb shelters, attaching blackout curtains and relocating all those mainland children became an overnight priority. For the duration of the ‘Phoney War’ (the first few months from September 1939 to January 1940) the powers that be considered the Isle of Wight a safety zone, unlikely to be vulnerable to enemy attack. This, even though Portsmouth and Southampton, barely ten miles across the Solent, housed huge dockyards and factories building battleships and Spitfires, all of which would become prime targets for the Luftwaffe. There was even ship building and aircraft factories as close as Cowes.

By Christmas, after none of the expected bombings or gas attacks, most of the evacuees returned home, only to be re-evacuated in June 1940, when the Germans invaded France. In the end, some 820,000 school children and their teachers would be evacuated, along with half a million mothers and children under five and around 12,000 pregnant women.

Rationing was another pre-arranged government incentive that was first introduced in 1940 – and here comes the interesting angle on food. Introduced by the Ministry of Food, rationing was a scheme to monopolize the sale of food in Britain, to ensure every citizen was adequately fed and that no one – particularly the wealthy – could hoard supplies while others ran short.

As an island, heavily reliant on imports, Britain became increasingly vulnerable to German submarine attacks on ships bringing food into the country. Slogans such as ‘be thankful and never grumble’ and ‘never leave any food on your plate’ were pasted up everywhere, but didn’t do much to fill grumbling stomachs.

As soon as war was declared, every householder had to provide details of all the people living under his or her roof. Every person on that form was then given an identity card and a ration book. These books contained coupons that had to be signed or stamped by the shopkeeper each time rationed goods were bought, to ensure that people received only the specified allowance. ‘Retail Price Maintenance’ (RPM) was an essential part of the Government’s rationing policy, a practice which continued until the 1960s. The Ministry of Food also introduced unrationed school dinners in 1941, to ensure every child got at least one nutritious meal a day.

Initially, rationing only involved bacon, butter and sugar. By June, the list included jam, cheese, tea, margarine and eggs. Six months later, rice, dried fruit, tinned tomatoes and peas were added, and by the end of summer 1942, sweets, chocolate and biscuits were being rationed too. I couldn’t find specific figures for children, but an adult allowance included one egg per week, 4oz bacon or ham, 2oz margarine, 2oz tea, and 2oz cheese. Butter was saved for pregnant and nursing women, and children under five. Only bread, potatoes, and other home-grown vegetables were not rationed, although of course these were only available in season. Pamphlets about the modest spud provided recipes for cakes and bread made with potatoes and a whole meal made by filling a baked potato.

…with sugar from Australia!

These restrictions were not fully lifted until 4 July 1954 – almost ten years after the war had ended. The campaign to be careful and creative with the food available included many a dubious recipe designed to help ‘thrifty’ housewives feed their families with a severely limited pantry. Scrimping and saving became a way of life for decades. In 1947, for the royal wedding of the Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip, ingredients were sent from all over the world for the wedding cake, including sugar from the Australian Girl Guides, as rationing was still in place in the UK. Apparently hundreds of people from across the UK even sent their clothing coupons to the princess to help with her wedding dress, although these had to be returned, as it would have been illegal to use them. It was, perhaps, an overtly extravagant cake at such a time – but perhaps it also provided a lacklustre, exhausted country with a symbol of hope for the future.

It is increasingly hard to imagine such a time of frugality and scarcity in this era of over-abundance, when supermarkets are full of never-ending food supplies from all over the globe in all seasons. But it is perhaps a timely reminder that we can survive on far less than we may believe possible.

*All photos and images care of Google images, with thanks.

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Of Battenberg Cake & Coronation Chicken

I have spent a long morning immersed in English history in the Great Hall at Carisbrooke Castle, trying to untangle the web of European connections that is the British Royal Family. What better way, then, to blow away the cobwebs than at the Breeze Restaurant at Island Harbour Marina on the outskirts of Newport? Directed there by the chance remark of a colleague, I am now on the veranda overlooking a phalanx of masts, taste-testing a piece of Battenberg Cake with a caffè latte .

Bizarrely, this slice of cake is also related to my busy morning with Queen Victoria’s family tree. A chequered confection of pink and yellow squares pasted together with strawberry jam and enveloped in marzipan, the Battenberg was named for Queen Victoria’s granddaughter, another Victoria, who married Prince Louis of Battenberg in 1884. Mother of Louis, 1st Earl Mountbatten of Burma, grandmother of the Duke of Edinburgh, sister to Elizabeth, who became a Grand Duchess of Russia, and Alix, otherwise known as the Tsarina of Russia, Alexandra Feoderovna. And her brother-in-law, Prince Henri Battenberg, later married her Aunt Beatrice, Queen Victoria’s youngest daughter. I told you it was a tangled web.

The discovery of the Battenberg cake led me on to other foods named for royalty, often devised for a royal wedding or a state occasion, and it quickly became apparent that christening food after the aristocracy or a local celebrity was once very fashionable, particularly in the 19th century.   Although many of these regal dishes only had a moment or two of glory, some have survived the test of time. How about a Gateaux Alexandra, for Edward VII’s wife, Queen Alexandra? Or a consommé for her great-niece Alice? Edward VII, a renowned gourmand, had  a potato, an apple and a chicken dish stuffed with foie gras named after him. And the popular cocktail, Bloody Mary (vodka, Worcestershire sauce and tomato juice), got its name from that violent and vengeful English Queen, Mary Tudor.

Then there is the greengage plum, which derived its name from Sir William Gage, an early 18th century MP, who brought the fruit over to England from France, where it was known as Reine Claude, after the wife of the 16th century King Francis.

The Margherita pizza, in the colours of the freshly minted Italian flag, was named for Queen Margherita of Savoy (1851–1926), to commemorate her visit to Naples in 1889, while Stroganoff was a 19th century Russian count who became a beef and cream dish.  And Beef Wellington was reputedly named in honour of the Iron Duke, who led British forces to victory at the Battle of Waterloo.

Woolton pie  was made from root vegetables, created by the chefs at the Savoy to support Frederick Marquis, 1st Earl of Woolton, the British Minister of Food during World War II , who went to huge lengths to persuade people to eat more vegetables and less meat as part of the war effort.

Another cake, similar to the Battenberg (sponge cake and raspberry jam wrapped in green marzipan) was also named for a princess. Three princesses, in fact. Margaretha, Martha and Astrid were the daughters of a Scandinavian prince, who subsequently became the queens of Norway, Denmark and Belgium, and princess cake, invented by their nanny, was a firm favourite with the girls, apparently.  

More recently, Filet de Sole Mountbatten and Bombe Glacée Princess Elizabeth were served at the wedding of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip. And let’s not forget that coronation chicken salad with mangoes and almonds was invented for her coronation in 1953. There was even a Soufflé Diana created by the chef at one of the Princess of Wales’ favourite restaurants.

Now, pick the celebrity in a Bismarck herring, Bonaparte’s ribs (a popular sweet in the 19th century), a Shirley Temple or a Chateaubriand, Peach Melba and Pavlova…

*

Queen Victoria was reputedly responsible for formalizing dining etiquette that lives on today, but at least you won’t be asked to join her for dinner. Renowned as a glutton (although no one would have dared to say it aloud) QV was known to eat so fast that many of her guests never had the chance to finish their meals. As everyone was served after the Queen, and plates were cleared away as soon as the monarch put down her knife and fork, those served last would barely have managed a spoonful. Luckily there were plenty of courses, so hopefully the odd mouthful made its way to her guests stomachs, despite her race to the finish line.

Royal banquets have always been formal affairs, in fact, from Charles II to Henry VIII and right back through the centuries to William the Conqueror. Such feasts would have been incredibly extravagant and elaborate, with multiple courses and hundreds of dishes. It was the perfect way to show off one’s wealth and privilege, not to mention one’s knowledge of civilized and sophisticated behaviour. Table settings became increasingly ostentatious, and there was a very strict code of etiquette, even before there were knives and forks to eat with. Burping at the table and messy eating, for example, were completely unacceptable. Seating was hierarchical, and it was a huge honour to sit close to the King, provided you didn’t take advantage and try to poison him – and there were special tasters of the royal food to make sure that didn’t happen.

All this talk about food has made me hungry. So what’s there to eat? Coronation chicken sandwiches perhaps? Or a slice of Victoria sponge?

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