How to make elderflower cordial from scratch, from memory

We will take it as read that you’ve already created the universe (CARL SAGAN JOKE LINK, insert your own reference here!).

First, find your elderflowers. I appreciate that not everyone spent their childhood up to their armpits in thorny, stinging bits of nature trying to extract calories from it, so a brief guide will commence. Skip this part if you already know what elderflowers look like.

Elder bushes (often small trees; Sambucus nigra) like to grow at the edges of clearings. In practical terms this means they like river banks, streams, parks, railway sidings, and verges. Which is great, because you can basically live in a city and still find them.

They’re small slender trees with woody, brittle bark that send out long thin green stems of leaves and flower heads, and they’re usually between six and 12 feet tall, which for some reason I don’t know in metric (like, 2-4 metres?), and they look like this:

Or this:

The branches bend very easily which is good because you’re going to spend ages hooking them with sticks to pull them down enough that the rest of the tree moves that you can get some of the better flowerheads. Also wading through brambles.

To make sure, their bark looks like this:

Their leaves vary quite a lot but they’re generally in the range of this:

And the flowers look like this:

The underside of the flowers will a) branch out on each bunch from the main stem and b) often be covered in blackfly. Try to avoid those.

There’s another kind of bush which has similar-looking flowers, but it normally grows in people’s hedges/gardens, has glossier leaves, the flowers have a vague pinkish undertone instead of yellow, and the stems don’t branch out but go straight up. Avoid them, they aren’t edible and also they smell gross. Elderflower pollen has a pretty distinctive smell.

It also pretty distinctively gets in your clothes so wear something you don’t mind scrubbing later.

Now you’ve located your elder. Go get a couple of plastic bags, some scissors (don’t make my mistake and rip your thumbnail in half breaking stems all morning), and long trousers because nettles like the same places elder bushes do. Good luck with that.

Pick an absolute shittonne of elder flowers. No, more than that. More than that. You want 1-2 bags full. and preferably fairly bug-free.

Take them home and give them a rinse, try to remove any bugs, spiders etc.

Next: remove the flowers from the stalk into a big bowl. This will take forever, annoy you, and get pollen over your hands. A friend recommended using a fork and pulling down from the stem to pop the flowers off.

Elderflowers, small and white, being held over a bowl containing more of the same

Anyway, don’t be too perfectionist about it, just get the big bits and any more bugs that happen to be in there (you think you got them all earlier? You emphatically Did Not).

Take a roughly equal weightish (not volume, that would be too many) of caster sugar and mix it through the flowers with your hands for a bit. They’re already covered in pollen, it’s not going to get any better.

Put the sugar and the flowers in a fucking massive saucepan full of water and boil that for about 1-2 hours while stirring every so often, adding more water as necessary.

A saucepan full of brown and white and yellow star-shaped flowers floating in water

Take it off the heat. Go get your big bowl again.

Get a clean tea towel (or “length of muslin” or “cheesecloth” or “fancy cloth bag”) and dump everything through that into the bowl.

Now you get to spend as long as you can stand dangling your oozing, bulging bundle over the bowl, alternating between slapping it with a spoon to make it drain faster and just milking it like a cow tit for the same effect. Do this, because you will get a lot of cordial out that way.

Let it cool if you haven’t already.

Decant into a bottle and refrigerate. With any luck you’ve put enough sugar in it that it won’t go off in a hurry, but you can also slop it into an ice cube tray and voila! Tasty ice cubes. Or do as I did and add agar and boil it again to make Very Very Sweet Oh Dear God Too Sweet jelly.

bottled cordial

Bon… thingy.

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The recipe, very literally, of my dreams

Other people get portentous dreams prophesying war: I get dreams insisting this is a Scandinavian folk dish colloquially called a “Shitstorm”. It is no such thing, but what it is is a handy rice-cooker meal which marries principles of a Levantine Makloubeh with a Spanish Tortilla.

Not A Shitstorm

  • about 1/2 measure of rice
  • 3 eggs
  • 100g ish of new potatoes, sliced into flat slabs
  • one chonk of frozen spinach
  • two little chonks of frozen chopped kale
  • vegetable boullion
  • cooking spray
  • garlic powder, roughly 1 mustard spoon thereof
  1. spray the inside of your rice cooker bowl
  2. layer the bottom with the potato slices
  3. cover with rice, add the frozen vegetable chonks
  4. fill to the appropriate level with vegetable boullion (remember you will need to account for the potatoes). add garlic powder.
  5. let the rice cooker do its thing. while it’s doing that, beat the eggs.
  6. pour the eggs into the cooked tower of rice and veg. Give it a bit of a poke so it actually filters through.
  7. Another round of the rice cooker.

You should have a kind of… ricetila with green bits that tastes of garlic. I’ve no idea if the Definitely Not Shitstorm Of My Dreams will catch on but it’s very easy to make and I’m always in favour of recipes like that.

[Recipe] Dirty Posset

Experiments with English recipes as per my dumb weird mission to revitalise the national palate continue.

After noodling with Roman British recipes I’ve leapt a long way forward in time to investigate the Age of Sail, which has raised a nagging question about a childhood favourite book.

In The Silver Chair by CS Lewis, when the Queen of Harfang offers “possets and comfits and caraways” to a knackered, cold, hungry and fed up Jill Pole, what kind of posset does she refer to? Comfits and Caraways are pretty straightforward (if not exactly pleasant in my opinion). A cold set lemon posset doesn’t seem to cut it…

So we begin with a recipe for Posset, an old favourite for sickly and miserable types which, as far as I can work out, before it was cream curdled with lemon juice as it is now, was more like milk curdled with Basically Any Alcohol But Probably Wine and then spiced. By the 16th century it had reached its current cold confection status, but during the age of sail cream and indeed fresh lemons were not always available to sick bay invalids, and improvisation was necessary. While “boil milk, add either wine or ale “and no salt”, let it cool, gather the curds and discard the whey, and season with ginger, sugar, and possibly “sweet wine” and candied anise.” sounds like the start of a compelling meal, if I wanted sweet cottage cheese I probably wouldn’t go to the trouble of making it, and I very definitely do not discard whey, that stuff is expensive for Body Building Types.

The version I liked best, Sack Posset, also involved oatmeal for additional strengthening properties, and comes out of experimentations by Anne Chotzinoff Grossman and Lisa Grossman Thomas in their seminal and incredibly useful Lobscouse and Spotted Dog, which along with John Edwards’ Apicus translation and modernisation, and endless different translations and approximations of The Forme of Cury, is proving exceptionally useful in the quest.

Full disclosure, the Grossman and Grossman version contains both dry sherry and ale as per the original they worked from whereas I cannot abide either and have no intention of buying them. I also wanted something that would work as a restorative for me personally, a man best described as a night shift gremlin with a loose relationship with sleep schedules: coffee.

Ingredients

  • 1.5 tsbp oatmeal
  • 1.5 tsbp sugar
  • pinch of nutmeg
  • about 35-50ml of whatever sweet & spicy liqueurs/flavoured vodka you have around. i used Christmas cake vodka* but frangelico, vanilla vodka, amaretto, caramel vodka etc would work just as well. if you’d put it in your coffee you can put it in this.
  • 1 spoonful of instant coffee power or two firm squirts of coffee concentrate, or an espresso
  • 1 cup of whole milk or, if your hangover is really bad, 1/2 a cup of whole milk & 1/2 a cup of single cream (and add another espresso)

Method

  1. Combine ingredients thoroughly in a milk pan and simmer while stirring continuously, until the mixture has thickened to thickshake consistency
  2. Chug or eat with a spoon from your mug
  3. Will cure: hangover, heartbreak, horrible weather, and possibly death

* Technically it’s Mince Pie Vodka Liqueur and it’s made to a Hairy Bikers’ Recipe. I rate it highly. I think Clary would also work a treat under these circumstances, but as that takes at least a month to mature and the vodka only takes three days, I know which side I come down on.

 

 

A break for your daily language lesson

I realised recently that my use of Duolingo is largely ritualistic. Catalyst for this was French getting a whole bunch of bullshit added: not proper lessons, just individual words and stuff being added to Basic so that all my progress got wiped out of level 1 and I have to do all the additional stuff. Now, each time I finish those skills I get a Lingot, so if I were *grinding* (as Yon Gamers Say), I’d be pleased I had an easy way to build up Lingots. If I were merely interested in progress, I’d be using my massive Lingot stash for streak freezes and buying bonus skill rounds. If I were truly dedicated to actually learning I’d be consuming Turkish especially outside of the app, but I’m basically not stretching myself at all. It’s just a morning ritual: 5-10 minutes of swearing at the phone as it analyses my ability to bullshit in two different languages: a mild warm-up for the brain like my lazy work-outs are a mild warm-up for the body.

I am, largely non-consensually, learning more French though. My current job requires (unlike my old one) that I read press coverage from various client-selected non-UK countries. They don’t expect me to be multilingual (they’d need to pay a lot more for that); one platform autotranslates (sometimes badly) from the German, Italian (very badly: translate cannot handle this AT ALL), Chinese, French, Spanish, Portugese and theoretically Polish (although none’s come up yet) business press. The other offers a click through translation applet: which at shit o’clock in the morning, when I’m trying to process a million billion articles, is just a waste of several seconds and CPU on an already beleaguered laptop.

So I’ve been kind of learning enough context and minimal vocab to know whether this or that article is relevant. I’ve also, in the privacy of my own head, taken to referring to the SNCF, the French national train service which causes the people of France such consternation despite being so much bloody cheaper than the privatised UK “services” I could weep (seriously, France, it’s very easy here to spend 2/3 of your day’s wages getting to and from work), as “Sncoof” or “Sncoeuf”. If I’m feeling really petty, it’s “Le Sncoeuf.” Why petty? Because in that blasted unnecessarily gendered language, the rail service is feminine. It’s La SNCF. Referred to as “she” when the translate function has finished muddying the waters.

That’s right: I’m expressing my displeasure with mountains of bickering about French trains by deliberately misgendering the national rail service. Take THAT, French journalists!

What, in theory, is happening with my writing?

First of all: Vulture Bones Magazine have a short story of mine in their current issue, #5, available to buy on their website. The story is called The Invention of Terms, and it’s about data architecture and gender outlaws, and is not as dull as that probably sounds. It’s botanical sci-fi, because John Wyndham Happened To Me at a formative stage.

What’s ahead?

I have A Project brewing with my comics collaborator, Emma, but it’s going to be a while before I can tell you all about that. Suffice to say it is very exciting.

My howevermanyth novel, Architects of the Flesh (a hellish Lammarckian dystopian fantasy London where literally self-made characters go head-to-head with a eugenics-based class system and there are absolutely no winners), is currently at the first-proofing stage, and will with good wind and no catastrophes be coming out later this year. I can’t wait to introduce everyone to the book’s five terrible protagonists, Levi, Jonah, Amara, Margaret and James.

Currently in the “critical feedback” stage between first and second draft is Tourist’s Guide To The Ideal London, a multi-reality London contemporary fantasy about the toxic and panegyric forms of belief, about the nature of London and the nature of people, and about how avoiding your problems does not make them go away. Bodge, Alec, Ed, and Opportunity await to take you on a tour through near-infinite Londons but, unfortunately for Opportunity, absolutely no Manchesters.

At the “drawer time-out” stage after first draft is Eggs & Rice, a noir murder mystery set in 1920s Harlem–with a twist. Less Jazz Funtimes and more PTSD and conspiracy, this will leave you on the edge of your seat or possibly actually sitting in the aisles depending on what you’re expecting from it.

In the planning phase I have The Noble Art of Treachery, a bird-heavy fantasy novel about, so far, conspiracy, identity, the unwholesome threesome between politics, religion and commerce, and what happens when you don’t take responsibility for your fuck-ups, especially when that fuck-up is also a whole human person.

Awaiting further input but well into the heavy brainstorming stages are Hooked, a historical romance/murder mystery set in the the end of the studio era of Hollywood; an as-yet untitled sci-fi calamity about nanobots, corruption, the power of framing a story for yourself, and revenge; and the aforementioned Secret Comics-Related Project.

Slowly being collected is my first proper collection of short stories: some are awaiting the end of a contractual obligation to their original publisher; some are already available as individual shorts on the books page, and some are completely unpublished bonus material! Keep an eye out.

Trans Day of Visibility 2019

It’s TDoV again, and I’m still here.

There was a point in my life where that wasn’t really such a certainty. In the four and a half years since coming out, the three years since getting hormones, the two and a half since top surgery, I have lost a grand total of zero friends as a result of transition. I’ve faced zero familial objection (this may be because I had the luxury of not having to ask anyone’s permission and of being able to present the situation as a fait accompli [even though, with two more surgeries impatiently awaited, it’s not strictly accompli; there’s also the GRC looming, for which I do not much fancy having to surrender my passport]; either you accept your son, or you don’t, but you don’t have a daughter); not everyone is so lucky.

I’ve spent a fair bit of time introspecting and about the same amount of time being annoyed by the relentless force of a very tiresome and very loud minority determined to make life harder for people who already have it very hard, and grown adults who feel they have a moral duty to bully children, often on the front pages of national newspapers, because nothing says “moral rectitude” and “maturity” like using a nationally-circulated publication to harass seven-year-olds for wearing The Wrong Kind Of Clothing and Weeing In The Wrong Toilet (if I recall correctly from my own childhood it was generally just considered positive if small children weed in A Toilet as opposed to in their chair, and wore Some Kind Of Clothes instead of removing them and running around with no knickers on, but it’s possible my friends were the exception).

In the midst of that I’ve been quietly proud of the younger generations for whom gender becomes more and more optional and whose support for their peers is so much more committed and usually better-informed, despite these pointless Mumsnet campaigns.

That said, even in the 90s nights in rural nowhere in a school largely intended to keep bothersome fuck-ups away from “real people” (because further isolation is of course what all abused teenagers need; we had a large mural in our building painted on a personal trip by none other than celebrity nonce Rolf Harris in the 1970s. I leave you to draw your own conclusions as to the nature of the school), I found a bemused kind of support for my 16-year-old declaration that I was “going to become a gay man”. I had no more idea how I was going to make this happen than anyone else, but I still have a leavers’ book signed by my peers and a vivid memory of an encouraging message penned in clumsy biro letters by one Gemma Petherick: “You go be a gay man. I believe in you.”

Well, Gemma, it’s taken me a further 16 years–an actual lifetime–to get that started and it’s still a work in progress (a paralytic lack of confidence in my charming personality doesn’t help with putting the moves on real live gents, for one thing), but I got there. I did it. You were right to believe in me.

Not in me alone: no one in this world does anything by themselves. Generations of trans people before me fought for this: Michael Dillon, Lou Sullivan, Reed Erickson. Friends who’d made the same trip before me gave me their advice, tips, names, taught me what not to say or do in order to avoid undue stress from interrogation or additional delays. I lucked into a time when consciousness of this irritating mismatcjh between body and self is expanding; a certain intolerance of intolerance had already given me a circle of friends committed to No Bullshit Transphobia before I came out.

And that’s actually what I want to focus on this year: friends and allies.

Because being trans is often a historically lonely experience where isolated individuals thought they were the only person labouring under a unique and horrible curse, because cultures seek validation from tradition, because people will insist on treating gender variance as a trend that’s popped out of nowhere, I’ve been lookign to the past like trans Sherlock Holmes for traces of my “trancestors”. There’s in fact an easy litmus test to determine between “woman escaping from the strictures of the patriarchy” vs “actual trans man” when looking at the past: “did they ever stop being a man voluntarily?” or did they, like the nameless weaver reported in 17th century France by Louis Crompton in his Homosexuality and Civilisation, caught out with the wrong genitals and offered the chance to “repent”, instead respond more or less, “Non merci, je préférerais être pendu.”?

In a couple of these cases I see not only the courage and determination of men refusing to be forced into a life that wasn’t theirs on the basis of anatomy, but also the anachronistically stalwart loyalty of their friends. James Barry‘s good friend Lord Charles Somerset; the fellow-soldiers of Albert Cashier who had him buried with full military honours under the name he had chosen, and unwaveringly maintained that he was a man regardless of his genitals–correct in their knowledge that he was their friend and comrade Albert, regardless of the circumstances of his birth.

I think also of the war surgeon Harold Gilles who not only reconstructed shattered soldiers during WW1 but also performed the first known phalloplasty on the young doctor Michael Dillon. I think of Magnus Hirschfeld, who first argued that the best treatment for what would come to be known as gender dysphoria was to allow the patient to transition–whose valuable work and research was burned by the Third Reich. I think of my friend Sandra Duffy, international trans law expert travelling the damn world trying to fix it; I think about the recent spectacular success of hbomberguy’s stream to raise money for the UK Mermaids charity which supports transgender children and their families and its support from game developer John Romero and US congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and all the other people who visited and donated. I think of the parents I’ve seen at trans pride, proud as all hell or confused but loving, with their recently-out children.

I can’t pretend to know what it feels like for an unprepared cis person to find out their child, parent, sibling, friend or partner isn’t the gender they thought they were. My experience of this as a trans person (even before I knew that’s what I was) has always been a peculiar mixture of envy and alarm before I transitioned and now, with the process well underway and misgenderings down to never, a kind of paternal (well, avuncular, anyway)pride as a person blurred by separation from themselves begins to come slowly into focus and springs into life. As they begin to shine. I can at last fully empathise with the (trans) friend whose own response to my coming out was: “oh thank God, I’ve been waiting for you to say this for ten years“.

It’s not that this is some cult, that I want every person on earth to go get a new gender from the gender bin and throw away one that works for them. But I do think it’s useful to look at yourself and ask, “am I happy like this? How would I feel if my gender were different?”. Even if the answer is “nah fam, I’m good”,. sometimes there’s a niggling question buried in there: “do I have to wear make-up/have to not wear it?”; “what if I have a test run of just not having a gender at all?”, “I feel kind of trapped by the expectations attached to my gender”. Maybe it gives people the freedom to pick-and-mix gender signifiers instead of feeling that they’re required to perform a role that doesn’t entirely fit.

Those of you who wear bras might like to liken it to taking off one that just does not fit. The relief! The freedom! The vulnerability, sure–but it’s so much easier to deal with anything else when that particular pain is gone, and the red marks go away eventually.

Anyway, here I am: thirty-six not out, weird and ridiculous, still can’t dance and no longer care. I go to the gym, work in a job, cook my own meals, occasionally even remember to clean the kitchen; I write to MPs, I vote, and I never, ever, ever watch anything that credits Graham Linehan as a writer.

(If you’d like to learn more about trans men in history, Wikipedia peppers them in here among those of us who are alive and famous enough to have a Wikipedia page–I haven’t published enough books for that yet. If you’d like to take some of the sting out of the expense of post-surgical taxis, my Ko-Fi is here.)

Tudor Costuming 101

There is nothing in my life that I do which isn’t a riot of trial and error, thrown in at the absolute deep end, and this was no different. Here is a step-by-step guide to making a full Tudor gentleman’s outfit, which you too can wear to the National Portrait Gallery to harass the paintings and make the security staff giggle.

Step one: obsess about owning a doublet because you’ve been reading about Tudor history.

Step two: finally commit to buying a pattern.

Step three: buy curtain fabric off ebay, some cheap ribbon, and another set of curtains from TRAID during their £3 sale.

Step four: I don’t have a sewing table, by the way, so I did pretty much all of this standing up at an 18-year-old ironing board that was shedding padding onto the carpet the entire time, and I spectacularly burnt myself. But at least I didn’t take a chunk out of my knuckle with the shears this time! I did burn the next knuckle up on the same finger.

Several pattern pieces pinned to their patterns

I also didn’t cut enough of some pieces but I didn’t find that out until later so I had to go back and cut more.

Incidentally, standing up for sewing is much less awful for my back than sitting hunched over a machine has ever been, and makes me less impatient, which means I’m more likely to do things properly! Incredible. Yes, this disaster counts as doing things properly

Step five: While still in the early stages of construction, run out of trim and have to order more, thus effectively forcing a pause.

ribbon trim laid out on velvet

Step six: while waiting to get more trim, make life even harder for yourself by deciding you want “slashy Tudor hotpants” (not their correct name, astonishingly! Apparently they’re called “paned slops”); search for a pattern but find them all astonishingly dear. Instead end up on an SCA/Renfair guide site which uploads written instructions on “quick and dirty pumpkin pants”, which acknowledges that once you put in panes, which requires another layer of fabric, you can’t really call it “quick” any more.

Step seven: arrogantly attempt it anyway. Do the base layer fine. Do the next layer fine:

slashed tudor shorts held up to show slashes clearly

Step eight: promptly make the exact mistake you were trying to avoid vis-a-vis which side goes over which (it’s wrong side of inner layer to right side of outer layer then invert, genius), and have to unpick about 50% of it. NB: you are also sewing an elasticated waistband into the curtain pole section of the old curtains, which you will not do in any kind of rational or logical manner.

Step nine: having completed your PANED SLOPS WITH POCKETS IN THE SIDE SEAMS, BECAUSE MAKING CLOTHING WITHOUT POCKETS IS FUCKING ILLEGAL, CLOTHING COMPANIES, STOP THAT SHIT, you will now get the remaining quantity of trim: it sill won’t be enough so you’re going to have to make do.

Step ten: Oh shit do I have enough grommets? Yes I have enough grommets, but can’t fuck this up at all. You immediately fuck up the first one and break it, because you cannot remember how to apply grommets and have lost the instructions, and are squatting in the bathroom doorway using a plate weight from your dumbbells as an anvil because the floor in your flat is too soft. Buttonhole that hole with embroidery thread instead, and move on.

Step eleven: sew on buttons, button loops, and attach cord through grommets. Immediately have to shorten the button loops. The aglets still haven’t arrived for your jacket: don’t let that stop you from wearing it to Bageriet for semla and getting compliments from nice Swedish bakers on your sewing.

close up of me wearing the jacket, with fraying cord

Step Twelve: the cord will unknot if you try to tie it in a bow. Repeatedly. You will have to perform emergency surgery in a Nero toilet and later remove a grommet that’s come loose and replace it with more scarlet thread buttonholing.

Step Thirteen: the aglets have arrived by the time you get home. They look suspiciously big. You fit one with your bare hands. It is too wide and won’t go through the hole. Unfurl it with jewellery pliers and carefully wrap it properly. Repeat this 23 more times.

close up of shoulder attachment, with aglets

Step fourteen: insist on a photoshoot, wearing eBay-purchased ruff made out of yet more curtains (net ones), and a pair of extremely elderly thigh socks from the late American Apparel range. Realise with a heavy heart that, unless someone has a costume party, you have absolutely nowhere to wear this outfit.

photoshoot of full black and red tudor gentleman's outfit: red stockings, red and black paned slops, black doublet with red and gold trim, white ruff. no shoes or cape

Step fifteen: mysteriously receive praise for this disaster from multiple professional costumier friends even after pointing out that it’s a hanging thread mess that you failed to iron effectively and that you also managed to sew the lining wrong twice and that the unpicker is now more familiar to you than your own body, to which they will inevitably reply: that’s how it is, bro.


If, for some mad reason, you enjoy this blog in general, you can fund my coffee problem here (please fund my coffee problem/rent, as you can see I keep making terrible, terrible choices and at least it will be funny while the world is on fire)

“You’re So Pretentious”

If there’s anything that gets my goat–really just abducts my entire herd–it’s pretention.

Well. It’s… people calling things pretentious, when they’re not.

If you’re rushing to describe that as “pretention”, don’t. This post is pure pedantry.

You see, pretention is about pretense. It’s about pretending to care about something because you think it makes you better to care about it. It’s when your intention is to deceive. It’s when you care about how you look to other people; when you want to look “better” than you are.

If Gary McFart wakes up one morning and tells his neighbour that he’s a big fan of Ravel, though he’s never listened to a single composition (or has and disliked it), that’s being pretentious. His neighbour Katy Pissbins can rightfully bitch about him to her friend Chanelle Nosejob that he’s “so pretentious”. That he “thinks he’s better than us”, or at least wants to be. Go, Katy Pissbins and Chanelle Nosejob! Take Gary down a peg and make him stop being so silly.

If Gary McFart tells Katy Pissbins in a moment of mad sincerity that he’s always loved Ravel–and he truly, truly has, he’s listened to so many performances on YouTube, and it moves him! It really moves him! It moved him so much he went out and learnt a whole new vocabulary that Katy Pissbins doesn’t understand, because he wanted to be able to talk about this thing that he loves, to say accurately how and why it moved him–

Then no, he’s not being pretentious. Katy Pissbins might think that his love for something outside of their shared social experience is a sign of unnecessarily elevated self-worth, but both Gary and Katy Pissbins are entitled to love whatever they want, and there is no elevation too great for self-worth. And, as Katy Pissbins would know if she wasn’t so fixated on how other people perceived her, she might realise that “traditionally associated with the middle and upper classes” is neither the same as “better” nor “getting ideas above your station”. Be free, Katy Pissbins. Your station is wherever you want it to be.

But it works the other direction, too.

Josh Yeah-Actually tells his new friends that he’s well into grime. Josh Yeah-Actually doesn’t… really get grime. He’s not sure he actually likes it. He’s made and effort to look like he does, because he can’t bear the idea of being found out, but he just doesn’t, really, you know, he doesn’t get it. He’s painfully certain it’s not for him. But he wants to be the kind of person it’s for. He wants to be what he’s decided is “cool”. So he tells everyone he’s into grime. Olivia Stickbottom is rightfully suspicious of this. She wants to know who he thinks he’s fooling.

Of course, maybe Josh Yeah-Actually absolutely fucking loves grime. He goes to gigs, with his public-school accent. He makes friends regardless, because sincere love and enthusiasm are a pretty powerful attractant, and unselfconscious confidence in loving what you’re into will trump “you sound and look a bit out of place”. Olivia Stickbottom might ask who he thinks he’s fooling, but in this example, he’s not trying to fool anyone. You don’t need to fool anyone, Olivia! You can just have fun!

If I never have to hear “getting ideas above your station” aimed at someone’s sincere interest in something new to them, or “tcch, she thinks she’s cool” muttered about a person whose interest doesn’t always line up with their appearance, I will be a very happy man.

Learning a new vocabulary because you want to talk about something “correctly” or in more detail is part of liking a thing. It is not pretentious to be precise about things. Make an effort to pronounce words from a language that isn’t yours correctly isn’t pretentious. It is not pretentious to be polite about people’s languages.

And the word you’re looking to angrily write in the comment box is pedantic. I’m not pretending to be otherwise.

Tradition vs trade

Recreating a country’s cuisine after capitalism, imperialism, and self-inflicted wounds have “fucked it to pieces” is no easy task. It’s necessary to find a balance between the old and the new–to retain or revive traditions (such as steaming, smoking, and salting) and ingredients (please love the humble turnip, it wants to be loved) while accepting the enormous debt England and its neighbours have always been in to trade, to external ideas, and increasingly to the influx of other traditions and ingredients from around the world. It’s especially necessary to remember that interconnectedness is the core of the culture of the isles and has been since before a bunch of Italian empire-builders stomped all the way up to the Borders and complained that they didn’t have thick enough socks.

What’s available?

With a largely temperate-oceanic climate and some bad soils in parts of the UK it’s tempting to view the country as largely barren–it’s certainly not the breadbasket of Ukraine or the garden of the Fertile Crescent. But the British Isles as an environment yield plenty of food much of which we’ve moved away from; some of it indigenous, some of it introduced.

A natural resident of the islands, usurped by the more nutritious and starchier potato, turnips have a bad reputation and have been used as a comedic byword for deprivation. But a variety of hard root vegetables grow well in British soils, and benefit from long, slow cooking in fatty stews, providing bulk and sustenance, and a little variety to go with the potatoes and carrots we still eat. Also, turnips make great pickles.

Remains of Romano-British meals dug up in London tell us we were eating “celtic beans” (like broad beans, but not as broad), chickens and their eggs, oysters, and a bunch of indigenous and roman-introduced plants (alexanders, now largely forgotten about, were a Roman favourite; hazelnuts just grew here) alongside our fat round bread–all at 1800 years ago.

Cheese has been made in this country for thousands of years, although hard cheeses like cheddar, associated with this country, are a relatively new development. In addition to formerly-indigenous animals like aurochs and their smaller cousins oxen, wild boar, and the remaining deer and hare, we also ate wildfowl, small birds (blackbirds, for example), and animals like voles. Farmed animals, such as horses, pigs, cattle, and sheep, also provided mostly winter sustenance, with sheep turning the thin grass of mountainsides into edible animal proteins, and pigs transforming acorns into stew and cooking fat. On the coasts and by the rivers, fish and plentiful shellfish–not just oysters but limpets, mussels, whelks, and winkles–helped to bulk out diets. Stone tanks for limpet-farming have been found in Orkney dating back well beyond writing.

Away from complex animal proteins, the country has produced a variety of plant foods–peas and beans might originally have been imported, but both flourish in our climate, runner beans in particular. Cereal crops such as wheat in the south, and barley, oats and rye further north have provided the starchy basis of the British diet before the introduction of potatoes from Peru in the Renaissance period. Vegetables included kale-like winter and spring greens (which have since diversified into spinaches and other leaf vegetables thanks to the miracle of selective breeding, agricultural fact fans!) as well as the ubiquitous cabbage, alliums like leeks and onions (garlic, usually imported from the continent, was highly prized), and more flavourful wild life plants like wild garlic, nettles, and watercress. Peppery plants abounded. We also consumed bull-rush pith, and during the Tudor period a Chinese relative of the parsnip, Skirret (a root with a complex flavour profile) enjoyed a brief vogue on the tables of the wealthy. Oh, and the kings of the 13th century were obsessed with fennel.

Whether we ate flax as well as using it for cloth fibres is debatable, but it grows here. We also have and, unlike the land-based wealth of plant and animal biodiversity which has vanished from out landscape as well as from our tables, continue to have a huge range of seaweed, all of it edible, some of it still eaten. We’re also not short on edible mushrooms, and have a couple of species of immediately-edible nuts and one or two that make decent flour if leeched long enough.

What does this result in?

Many of the plants and fruits which grew and grow easily in this country (with exceptions of strawberries, raspberries, and blackberries, later joined by apples and pears and stone fruits) taste, bluntly speaking, pretty bloody awful when they’re raw–if not actually toxic. The winters are bitterly old in many parts of the country and sodden in all of them. Although the first nation on earth to industrialise (which did a number on our food culture and social structure that we still haven’t recovered from, thanks capitalism), storage solutions for food were still slow in coming in the interim between “everyone has a nice cold cellar and a shed for their ham” and “congratulations on your new fridge-freezer, Mrs. Bucket”.

Breads and porridges exist more or less everywhere in the world where forms of grain/cereal are grown, in one form or another. The British Isles are no exception. Drying plants must have been a chore and a half in our perennially-damp climate, but with hard roots and protein-filled pulses it was worth the effort. Perhaps less so for leaf vegetables.

Some of our traditions for preserving meat and fish–smoking and salting–remain in the form of kippers, smoked salmon, and cured ham, but a lot of them seem to have fallen by the wayside. Looking to cultures with more unbroken food traditions and similar climates turns up a far greater inventive variety of meat preservation methods that also act as flavour-enhancers; there’s also a dearth, these days, of pickling and preserving of fruit and plants.

Once ingredients are dried, they’re harder to cook with quickly, but fortunately the British have long had a solution to that: the soup, the stew, and the “pottage” (basically stew but like, mushier). Frequently a pot could be kept on a low simmer for days on end, with ingredients added in and taken out meal by meal, water added, and flavours intensified and altered with each passing day.

Added bonuses of making a multi-day stew, in a climate that’s frequently cold and wet, before central heating is a thing and when “poo in the water” isn’t something we know enough to avoid…

  1. Warms the room being cooked in, for multiple days
  2. Helps to clean both the water and the ingredients for consumption, by killing most of the pathogens.
  3. Hot water creates steam, and steamed puddings (fat, flour, and water all being readily accessible, never mind blood and sausage ingredients for a black or white pudding), perhaps unsurprisingly, are Our Thing.

Rich to Poor

This the direction new ingredients travel in the UK and always have: the wealthy get the fancy new ingredients and their cooks spend a while puzzling how to use them, and then these dishes finally stop being expensive and therefore fashionable, and the dishes become available to the poor, and then they’re “bad, crappy food”.

The Crusades, when half of Europe picked up and fucked off to the Eastern end of the Mediterranean to do a lot of murdering and generally behave like English people on a stag do, brought mostly men of a huge variety of social classes into contact with radically different ingredients and cuisines. For those who remained in Antioch, palates changed. For those who returned then to England, the desire for spice and heat beyond the rare experiences provided by the indigenous herbs came with them.

By the time Richard II commissioned The Forme of Cury, the taste for sweet and spicy foods (the recipes contained within use a lot of sugar) as symbols of wealth and power had combined with the use of rich meats for the same purpose for some centuries. Even in this first English cookbook the influence of trade and travel was embedded deeply: recipes cribbed from France, Portugal, and Arab Spain.

In waves of discovery, oranges, coffee, potatoes, tomatoes, pineapples, tea, chocolate, and bananas were added to the English palate and many have become staples (pineapples perhaps less so). And, in an amusing parallel with that first cookbook, the English became obsessed with curry.

In light of all this, it would be absolutely absurd to suggest that “traditional” English cuisine is or ever should be limited to indigenous and local ingredients–especially since one of the end results of a brutal expansionist policy in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries was the acquisition not only of new ingredients but new ways of cooking as citizens of what were to become Commonwealth countries in the 20th century came to England and brought with them the condensed power of millennia of cooking traditions the English hadn’t even touched on.

As a result of which, the English once again became obsessed with curry. I think it’s possible that with at least three separate iterations of “being obsessed with curry”, it’s something that has to end up in any English cuisine, even before we consider the impact of fusion dishes like the imperialist period kedgeree (the marrying of English tastes with traditional kitchiree), mulligatawny, and chutneys, and more recent, England-based inventions by British-Indian and British-Pakistani chefs such as the Birmingham Baltis and the nationally-beloved chicken tikka massala.

A taste for novelty (and a tendency to bastardise it) is as much part of English food as root vegetables and butter, pie or sandwiches (and as many businesses have proven, combining chicken tikka massala with pie or sandwich formats is a sure-fire winner). It would be madness to ignore that English cuisine and culture is heavily impacted by its relations with the rest of the world, and has its roots from all over Europe, if not the rest of the world too.

One Tradition, One Trade:

Savoury porridges using different types of grain or cereal (frumenty, using cracked wheat, was popular in England, kayu made with rice in Japan) are a common staple food. As “cracked wheat” is a bugger to acquire on a budget and then a bigger bugger to find something to do with regularly enough to not just have it Sitting In The House Taking Up Space, I’ve been playing with porridge oats instead. You can almost certainly do this with barley too.

Traditional:

Ingredients

1/2 onion
1/2 pint (250ml) of stock, whatever stock you want
1 tsp oil (or equivalent butter)
salt, pepper, mixed dried herbs
about 30g whole porridge oats
1 puck (about 30g) of frozen spinach
40g (about 3 tbsp) of frozen peas
about 1 tsp of lemon juice, lime juice, or whatever vaguely acidic citrus juice you have to hand

Method

  1. Get you a small saucepan. Milk pan is fine. Oil or butter goes in the bottom, heat it up. Gently cook your onions until they’re starting to be a bit see-through
  2. Turn the heat right down, add the stock, porridge, and seasonings, acidic ingredient (lemon juice or whatever, and bring back up to the boil.
  3. Stick a lid on it and simmer it for a few minutes, stirring occasionally so the oats don’t stick to the bottom.
  4. Add your peas and spinach, carry on cooking until most of the liquid has been absorbed and the oats are soft. If the liquid is absorbed and the oats aren’t soft yet, add some more and keep going.
  5. FOOD. Put some butter or something or chopped nuts on the top and eat it.

Curry Worts (I did indeed call it that to be Smart) — ie, The Trade Enhanced Version

Ingredients

onion, porridge, stock, salt and pepper as above.
2 tsp oil (or ghee)
mashed garlic (1-2 clove)
1/4 tsp each ground cumin, ground ginger, and turmeric
1/2 tsp paprika
1 tbsp tomato paste
about 30g mung dal or other lentil/pulse

Method

  1. Soak your pulses according to instructions on packet or whatever, except salt the water instead of just soaking in plain water. drain, but hang onto the water separately.
  2. oil, garlic and onion go in the pan together and cook until the onions are getting see through. stir so the garlic doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pan.
  3. Turn the heat down, add the lentils/mung dal, tomato paste and spices, stir until the dal and onion is properly coated and simmer for a few minutes.
  4. Add the stock, mung water and porridge, cook as before, until liquid is absorbed and the oats are soft. You should have a thick glutinous porridge with a nice vivid colour which is Well Spicy.
  5. NB I’ve made this to my taste, you may find you prefer more or less spices. Experiment.

Variants

As you can see, working with the same base for a dish of oats, onions, stock and some kind of plant protein & seasoning is pretty much open to relentless interpretation. For frumenty, for example, it’s sometimes advised people add milk or cream in slowly while cooking, or saffron and wine. Switching out the grains (and frying them briefly in the oil beforehand, if you don’t want them to stick together) can provide a different texture. Adding more liquid gives you a cereal/grain soup. Throwing in a bit of meat and some plant starch (potato or something) takes you part of the way to a stew… and so on.

All hail THE ROLLING BOIL and stay tuned for more.


Overwhelmed with gratitude? Tip jar.

El Cheapo Recipe: Peanut Soup

Before I plunge on with my investigations into the joy of English Tradition and food, an adaptation of an adaptation of an adaptation (it originally came out of someone’s mum’s cookbook from… somewhere).

What Put In Soup

1 wonky onion, chopped (< 6p)
1 stalk of celery, also chopped (13p)
1 wonky carrot, chopped (< 5p)
a moderate sprinkle of curry powder, ginger, and cayenne (or chilli flakes), and some black pepper (cumulatively works out at maybe 2p)
Say about 15g of peanuts, depending on how nutty you want it–(< 5p)
A generous dessertspoon of crunchy peanut butter (< 7p)
A generous dessertspoon of plain flour (8p)
1 stock cube dissolved in 300ml of hot water (5p)
A splash of oil for frying (7p)

Total: 58p. Celery and carrots are optional, you can also add minced garlic or substitute fresh ginger for ground if you like, and increase or decrease peanuts to taste. The ratio you don’t want to mess with is the stock / peanutbutter / flour one.

How Make Soup

Put your onion and oil in a pan. Start frying the onion. Add the celery and carrot as you go. If you’ve got garlic and fresh ginger at this point then add them too. Also add the peanuts but not the peanut butter.

Fry that and move it about in the pan so it doesn’t stick. Keep that up until the onions start to look sort of see-through a bit or go slightly limp. Then add the stock, peanut butter, and the spices but not the cayenne/chilli.

Stir until the peanut butter dissolves. Get that stuff up to the boil then turn it down to simmer and let it bubble a while. Then stir in your flour until that’s mixed in properly too.

Let everything cook down a bit until it’s thick, stirring regularly so it doesn’t stick. Add your cayenne/chilli, let it go for maybe 1-2 minutes longer.

Put food in bowl, put bowl on table/knees etc, eat with spoon, congratulate self on making an entire meal which is basically peanuts.

A bowl of peanut-butter soup, on a cushion, next to a plate with a large crumpet on it and a glass teacup with some ginger root floating in it

Admittedly all I’ve really done here is make a less complicated and smaller serving of something else, and that soup is dangerously close to being satay sauce, but I think if you need to get a lot of protein/fat and calories into your body and don’t have a lot of money, you can start to get sick of peanut butter sandwiches pretty quickly, and it’s good to have other options.