Surprise pies…

This week has been British Pie Week – the list of ‘national awareness days’ just keeps on growing! The past week has also been ‘National Conversation Week’ (and I do mean conversation and not conservation!) and the whole month of March is designated ‘National Bed Month’! But let’s focus on the all important Pie Week… I decided to do some Googling about pies and it was quite a surprise!

Pies have been around a very, very long time. Technically, everything used to be a pie. The pastry shell was originally nothing more than a baking dish and storage container for the filling. The Romans would use meats, oysters and fish in their fillings while a mixture of flour, oil and water made a sturdy shell, or case, to keep the filling in place. Not surprisingly, the pastry was tough and inedible and designed to be thrown away. Our wonderful west country pasty’s distinctive ‘D’ shape was apparently designed to enable hardworking miners and labourers, with grubby hands, to eat their meal more easily using the thick crimped crust as a handle.

It’s hard to believe a culinary dish can have a sinister side to it, but the pie does. As someone always on the look out for an ‘interesting’ way of finishing people off for murder mystery purposes (literary, not literally!), I was amazed at how often the pie has been used as a way of killing characters.

The evil Sweeney Todd has to be the most famous pie-killer. He and Mrs Lovett baked their victims in pies and sold them. A fictional character who first appeared in a Victorian ‘penny dreadful’, it has long been speculated that it was based on true events, but I couldn’t find any clear evidence. Even the bard himself, William Shakespeare, has turned to the pie as a weapon and killed off two characters with a pie! In Titus Andronicus, Titus wreaks revenge on Queen Tamora and her family for their evil deeds by baking her sons into a pie and serving it to her. Ugh!

That king of killjoys, Oliver Cromwell, virtually banned the pie in 1644, when he decided it was a ‘pagan form of pleasure’. It wasn’t a complete ban on pies though, just a ban on Christmas celebrations and foods that were associated with the ‘pagan’ holiday, such as mince pies and turkey pies. Fortunately, the ban was lifted, but not until 1660.

I think most of you will remember the nursery rhyme ‘Sing a song of sixpence’ that contains the rather worrying line ‘Four-and-twenty blackbirds baked in a pie’. It seems that in 16th century England ‘surprise pies’ were all the range among the upper classes and live animals would jump out when a pie was cut open – extraordinary! All kinds of creatures were placed inside pies including frogs, squirrels, foxes and, as we know, large numbers of blackbirds. Some records even suggest that at a dinner attended by Charles I, a huge pie was put on the table and when the crust was removed, a dwarf jumped out! My goodness, we think there are some strange things on the internet these days, but it seems some people have always had a taste for the bizarre!

After discovering such a lurid background, I’m not entirely sure I shall ever be able to regard a pie as just a tasty thing to eat ever again!

Main photo: @britishpiesweek

 

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Dear Santa…

I thought I’d share my personal ‘wish list’ for Christmas books, both cookery and fictional. I have cheated and also included one book that is top of Richard’s wish list – just in case there are any history buffs reading, or if you need an idea for a history-loving relative!

I try very hard to limit my intake of cookery books these days as there’s so much out there for free on the internet. However, nothing compares with curling up with a cup of tea on the sofa and a beautifully illustrated cookbook!

The novels I have included are definitely not candidates for any Booker or Orange, or whatever, book prize – my reading tastes are very straightforward and, if there’s one thing I hate, it’s pretentious literature that you are ‘meant’ to like as you struggle through it. I want to be entertained by a book, I want to smile a bit, cry a little and definitely feel I can’t bear to put it down until I have finished

So, I offer this list just as a personal – “hHere you go, this is what I am asking Santa for this year!” They are all available on Amazon – as are all my own novels (hah!) – surely you knew I wouldn’t be able to resist a plug!

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Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all!

widecombemare“Tom Pearce, Tom Pearce, lend me your grey mare.
All along, down along, out along lea.
For I want for to go to Widecombe Fair,
With Bill Brewer, Jan Stewer, Peter Gurney,
Peter Davy, Dan’l Whiddon, Harry Hawke,
Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all,
Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all!”

…so goes the well-known Devon folk song about a man called Tom Pearce, whose poor old horse dies after someone borrows it to travel to the fair in Widecombe with his many, many friends. Although not at all funny for the grey mare, it is a humorous song and often performed by rowdy crowds (all NINE verses of it!) that have enjoyed a little too much cider! It’s such a well-known song that the term ‘Uncle Tom Cobley’ has come to be used as a colloquialism meaning “anyone and everyone”.

widecombehistoryPossibly because of the song both Widecombe and its Fair are famous throughout the country. Widecombe-in-the-Moor, to use its full name, is a picturesque village in the middle of Dartmoor, with a magnificent church (the interestingly named Church of Saint Pancras!), visible from all the surrounding hills and tors and known as ‘the cathedral of the moor’.

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Widecombe Fair takes place annually on the second Tuesday in September, attracting thousands of visitors to the tiny Dartmoor village. It is still a traditional event full of farmers and local craftsmen and as popular with locals as visitors and well worth a visit. My partner in crime writing, Julia, went along this year to take some photos and soak up the rural tranquillity and a way of life that has gone on for centuries in the Dartmoor valleys.

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There were sheep shearing competitions, cattle, sheep and pony classes, vintage cars and agricultural machinery and some stompingly good live folk music in the beer tent from morning through to midnight! The obligatory produce tent, crammed with huge vegetables, jams and flower arrangements (and you wonder where we get our inspiration for the Swaddlecombe books?!) is always worth a visit. There was also an interesting area dedicated to ‘Living History’, complete with thatchers and other traditional craftsmen demonstrating their skills. Add to this ferret and terrier racing and the intoxicating smell of steam engines and you have the perfect rural day out!

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Left to right: Was the Reverend Ruminant present at the Fair? Certainly looks like his car! Adam Henson and his BBC film crew… and a traditional bit of ferret racing!

Such is Wideombe Fair’s fame, Julia spotted Adam Henson, the farmer presented from BBC1’s ‘Countryfile’ programme, busy filming at the fair… so, if you keep your eyes peeled you might get to see it on TV!

 

 

 

 

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Giving it some welly!

When you live in the real countryside, ’sensible’ outdoor footwear is something of a necessity. True Devonians will always smile and say you can ‘spot the incomer’ a mile off by their inappropriate choices of heels, open toed or pale coloured shoes. You can buy all sorts of fancy boots but, at the end of the day, the wellington boot is the countryman’s footwear of choice!
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I shared this fun photo (right) on Facebook this week as it made me smile and think that Albert, the lead male in our Swaddlecombe Mysteries, would find this a good use of a leaking welly. In contrast, Victoria, our leading lady, would probably use a pair of old wellies as planters for some organic herbs…

So what’s the history of the wellington boot? How did this rubberised footwear come into being? The wellington boot is associated with Arthur Wellesley, the first Duke of Wellington (1769-1852). The Iron Duke, as he was known, instructed his shoemaker, George Hoby to modify his hessian 18th-century boot and make it out of calfskin leather.

WellyMontageWellingtons first appeared in 1817 and proved popular with the troops because they were hard wearing for battle, yet comfortable for evening wear. The boot leather was treated with wax to make them softer and more waterproof. The new boots became a very popular fashion accessory for gentlemen. Considered fashionable and foppish in the best circles, they remained the main fashion for men throughout the 1840s.

American, Charles Goodyear (1800-1860), who invented a vulcanisation process for rubber, began making rubber boots. Hiram Hutchinson saw the potential for agricultural workers in France and bought the patent from Goodyear in 1852. The new waterproof boots were quick to become established and sold well within the large rural population. Amazingly, by 1857 the company were hand–making 14,000 pairs of boots per day!

Fellow American, Henry Lee Norris, moved to Edinburgh and started producing rubber wellington boots in 1856. Norris believed Scotland was a good place to manufacture wellingtons because of the country’s high rainfall – good decision! He founded the British Rubber Company and four former boot–makers from New York trained the Scottish workforce The company went into production first making rubber shoes and boots and then quickly expanding to produce an extensive range of rubber products, included tyres, golf balls and hot water bottles.

Come the outbreak of the First World War (1914- 1918) the trench war ensured high production of rubber boots and again, in the Second World War, the armed forces used vast quantities of rubber wellington boots.

And so to today, when the Wellington boot has gone full circle and become highly fashionable again. When I was a child, wearing wellies was deemed very boring. They were always plain black and not very comfy and you would go out of your way to avoid wearing them. Now, when we are so sophisticated with technology coming out of our ears, I find it amusing that something as simple as old-fashioned as a boot made out of rubber is so much in demand. You can have them in various designs and in any colour and, if you choose green ones, you can even spend a fortune on them!

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Children’s books – expanding imagination!

As an every-so-slightly doting grannie, I was very interested to read a recent BBC radio poll about which books most adults say every child should read. At the moment I read my granddaughter Grace Winnie the Pooh (the original, not the Disney version) and a lot of Spot the Dog books and ‘noisy’ books that have buttons to press that make different noises! She is not yet three, but I am already planning her future reading, so was interested to see what the top picks were in the poll…

… and it’s no surprise really that the poll suggested 26% of British adults think Harry Potter is the book they think every child should read, closely followed by Roald Dahl’s The BFG.

Top10BooksThe top ten list looks like this:

  • Harry Potter
  • The BFG
  • To Kill a Mockingbird
  • Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
  • The Famous Five
  • The Very Hungry Caterpillar
  • The Wind in the Willows
  • The Gruffalo
  • The Lord of the Rings
  • The Bible

When people were asked why they chose any particular book, the most common answer was because it ‘expands imagination’, followed by the desire to pass on the pleasure they themselves got from reading it. Couldn’t agree more! Books are so wonderful to lose yourself in, whatever your age.

The top choices of books varied across the generations with Harry Potter (35%) and ‘The BFG’ (31%) the runaway favourites among 18-34-year-olds.

However, ‘The Famous Five’ (26%) and ‘The Wind and the Willows’ (25%) are the most common recommendations for those aged 55 plus – ahem, I think that’s me then! I adored ‘The Famous Five’ series and owned every one, and ‘The Wind and the Willows’ had me enchanted, and I still love it today.

To Kill a Mockingbird was chosen because it provides lessons about the world and because it helps to develop good moral character. It wasn’t a book I particularly enjoyed… but each to their own!

The poll showed that for the most part, choices are evenly split between the genders – however, The Famous Five is a more popular recommendation among women (22%) than men (15%), while The Lord of the Rings is more likely to be recommended by men (20%) than women (9%).

I was also thrilled to see that Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was listed. I wrote a blog about it in 2015 when it was the 150th anniversary of its publication and, since it was first published, it has never been out of print. It is the most fascinating story, simple and also complex, however you want to read it and a book that most certainly expands imagination.

What were your favourite childhood reads? And what did you read to your children or grandchildren? I’d love to hear!

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