Our daily bread

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I can’t resist a crusty white loaf

The enthusiasm for home baking has shot up during the lockdowns, and one of the most popular things to make at home is the humble loaf of bread. I’ve not had a go myself as it seems to be quite labour intensive unless you have a bread-making machine. 

I try not to eat too much bread as it doesn’t agree with me, but unfortunately I absolutely love it, especially a freshly-baked carb-loaded crusty white loaf. One of my favourite ways to relax is with a French baguette with lashings of butter alongside a glass of chilled of dry white wine. A very simple yet undeniably satisfying pleasure.

Bread is one of the earliest known forms of ‘cooking’ and there is archaeological evidence suggesting that some form of bread was created at least 30,000 years ago. Prehistoric man was known to eat a kind of gruel made from water and grains, and it is this food that would be spread on to hot stones near the fire to cook into a solid form. 

I wonder, because our best discoveries often come about as a result of happy accidents, whether someone spilled their gruel on to a rock near the fire, and noticed it starting to bake into something interesting? And hey presto, bread was born!

All the early forms of bread were flat, and whichever grains grew in your continent’s climate determined the kind of bread you made. In the Middle East you’d have pitta and bazlama, in India there were chapati, naan and paratha, shaobing in China and tortilla in Central America. 

The discovery that you could make bread rise was also likely a happy accident. From around 8,000BC, the ancient Egyptians were adept at brewing beer and it is possible that some of the yeast they used in the process found its way into a waiting flatbread mixture. Another theory is that there were some latent yeast spores in a flour mixture that was left too long in the heat. However it came about, it was around then that the process known as ‘proving’ was discovered.

Originally, grains would be crushed by hand, but again it was the Egyptians who invented a ‘machine’ to do the job. The grains were placed between two circular stones that were then rotated to crush them. This method was ultimately surpassed by the water mill that was invented by the Romans in around 450BC, and with each technological advance, the making of bread became more skilled and more artistic. As time went on, the finer the flour and the whiter loaf the better, as the kind of bread you ate was a reflection of your status. Dense brown loaves with coarse grains were left for the poor.

The bread making process was completely revolutionised by the the steam roller mill that was first seen in Switzerland in 1834. It rolled the grain to split it, rather than crush it, and this made the process of separating the endosperm, the germ and the bran, much easier, thus refining the flour even further. Another revolution occurred with Otto Frederick Rohwedder’s invention of the slice and wrap machine in 1928, which he used for the loaves he sold from his own bakery in Michigan. By 1933, 80% of all bread sold in the U.S. was sliced and wrapped, and the saying ‘the best thing since sliced bread’ began to be uttered.

According to my dad’s column from 31st January 1981, there were 18 million loaves sold in the UK every day 40 years ago, 75% of which were white. More recent figures suggest it is around 12 million, which is quite a drop considering that the population has increased by more than 11 million since 1981. However, it is no doubt down to the fact that there are so many food alternatives to bread available in our shops these days, alongside many of us choosing to lead a low-carbohydrate or gluten-free lifestyle. 

However, 99% of households do still buy bread, and despite the number and variety of exotic doughy creations using a whole plethora of different grains, white bread still accounts for 75% of our purchases. 

As I come to the end of this piece, I still haven’t had my breakfast, and sat there on the side is an untouched, white crusty bloomer.

Hang the low carb diet! Pass me the butter.

Contact me, and read more, at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 5th February and the Gazette & Herald on 3rd February 2021

Don’t lose your head

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Aidan Turner as Captain Ross Poldark in the 2015 TV series
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The Halifax Gibbet

 

The latest lockdown has allowed me to rediscover films and TV programmes that I enjoyed in the past and my current favourite is the 2015 adaptation of Winston Graham’s Poldark novels. What strikes me about Captain Poldark is that despite being a nobleman, unlike his wealthy contemporaries, he champions the poor and the deprived, and recognises that poverty and starvation are often the true drivers behind criminal behaviour. 

One such storyline involved a young husband who had to support his wife, child and mother, but had no income due to fact that the local mine had closed. He resorted to risking his life by taking game from the local aristocrat’s land to feed his family. In the late 1700s, when the story is set, landowners had to the right to demand capital punishment for anyone caught poaching on their property. The young man paid a very high price for feeding his family. 

This severest of punishment is a topic discussed in my dad’s column from 24th January 1981 when he talks about the Halifax Gibbet. This fearsome contraption was a precursor to the favourite of the French Revolution, the guillotine. The Halifax Gibbet consisted of two tall wooden struts with one wooden block on the ground which would support a criminal’s head, and another bigger block with an axe head embedded in it held aloft by ropes secured by a wooden peg. When the peg was removed, the block plummeted downwards.

The origins of the Halifax Gibbet are lost, so we are not sure when it was first constructed, although there is a written record of something very similar from an account in the ‘High History of the Holy Grail’, a complex tale from the early 13th century that charts the progress of various knights of the Round Table. Although it is fictional, it is believed the description was taken from real life.

The first recorded beheading in Halifax took place in 1280, but it is not known whether that was by sword, axe or gibbet, but by the 16th century, beheadings by the gibbet were common. The first person to be recorded as being subjected to it was a Richard Bentley, from Sowerby, who was executed on 20th March 1541, although the contraption was believed to have been used for many, many years before records began. 

According to an ancient custom in Halifax, the Lord of the Manor had the right to decapitate anyone who was caught, or who confessed to, stealing goods on his land over the value of 13 and half pence.

If the felon was able to escape over the boundary, he couldn’t be pursued. However, if they ever returned, then they would be still subject to the punishment. In fact a man called John Lacey achieved such a feat in 1617 and remained at liberty for seven years until he thought he’d be able to come home safely. Unfortunately for him, the punishment was not forgotten and was ultimately carried out. The Running Man pub, still found in Pellon Lane, Halifax, pays tribute to his escapade. 

By 1650, public opinion had turned against such drastic punishment for petty theft and Oliver Cromwell prohibited it. The last to suffer the blade of the Halifax Gibbet were John Wilkinson and Anthony Mitchel who died on April 30th1650.

The gibbet was dismantled and the site neglected over following couple of centuries, until it was dug up again in 1839. The original stone base was discovered, as was the deathly axe blade which was rescued and can now be seen in nearby Bankfield Museum. A replica has been erected on the original plinth, and still stands at the end of Gibbet Street in the town. A nearby plaque lists the names of all those known to have met their end at that spot.

The Halifax Gibbet was one of the most feared instruments of execution in the country, as were the gibbets of Hull that resided by the river’s edge. Felons would be strapped to them and drowned as the tidal waters of the Humber advanced. Thus sprang up the following saying: “From Hell, Hull and Halifax, may the Good Lord deliver us.”

Unfortunately, unless we live nearby, we can’t visit these two notable Yorkshire towns at the moment, but at least when it is possible again, we will no longer have to fear being strapped to a gibbet! 

Contact me, and read more, at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 29th January and the Gazette & Herald on 27th January 2021

Walking is rather Moorish

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Some people confuse the North York Moors with the Yorkshire Dales
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I had to correct Rev Richard Coles when he suggested my roots lay in the Dales

In his column from 17th January 1981, my dad discusses the fact that we often have to explain to those not familiar with Yorkshire that we are blessed with two separate national parks in our great county, and that the Yorkshire Dales and the North York Moors are not one and the same. I came across this confusion myself when I was invited to speak about taking over my dad’s columns on BBC Radio 4’s Saturday Live programme in 2017.

In the minutes just before going on air, the host, the Reverend Richard Coles, was clarifying his introduction. He had written a sentence about how I was a descendent of the Dales. I had to politely explain that my roots were in fact in the Moors and that the Dales lay west of the A1 motorway adjoining the Lake District, while the Moors lay east of the A1 adjoining the coast.

“Descended from distinguished Moor persons, Sarah Walker discusses her Yorkshire heritage,” was how I was finally introduced, my correction no doubt spoiling the alliterative flow of his original version.

The North York Moors National Park was established in 1952 with Yorkshire  Dales following in 1964. The aim was to protect and celebrate the landscape, wildlife and cultural and industrial heritage. Visitors would be encouraged, bringing with them much-needed income to fund the important work of the authorities. 

In 1981 when Dad was writing his column, the North York Moors National Park Committee was looking at ways to increase its revenue to support its upkeep, and he says: ‘Whether a professional marketing approach could ‘sell’ the National Park is a matter for long discussion.’

Little did he know then that 11 years later, his own literary endeavours would result in a marketing triumph for his beloved Moors when Heartbeat became an instant TV hit. 

In 2009 the Yorkshire Tourist Board was rebranded as ‘Welcome to Yorkshire’ and a far more commercial approach towards promoting tourism was adopted. It has recently launched its new initiative, ‘Welcome to Walkshire’, to encourage people to make the most of the hundreds of public footpaths in our fabulous county. Obviously, during lockdown, we do have to stay very close to our own homes, but once it is over, no doubt we will be keen to explore further afield. 

If we are out and about though, we do have to share our footways responsibly and considerately, which sadly does not always happen. Following my column a couple of weeks ago where I talked about my small side business of dog care, I was contacted by a reader who expressed disappointment at the behaviour of some dog owners who had allowed their pet to run towards him and nearly trip him over, then expressed astonishment at him for his lack of delight at this unwanted greeting.

I have encountered this kind of behaviour myself in dog owners who think that anyone who does not willingly submit to the wayward behaviour of their canine companions must be a some kind of cold-blooded animal hater. But people should not have to tolerate being accosted by a smelly, slobbering hound if they don’t want to. My own policy is that if I spot someone coming towards me without a dog, and I know my dog will want to greet them, I will place it back on the lead until I have ascertained whether the stranger will welcome the uninvited displays of canine affection. 

One of my regular routes is an old railway line that is shared by pedestrians, dogs and bikes. And the key word here is ‘shared’. There are plenty of people, in each category, who seem to think they have a god-given right to conduct themselves however they wish, and that the rest of us have to adapt to them. I’ve lost count of the amount of times bike, pedestrian and dog have nearly come a cropper because of the stubborn refusal to share the route sensibly.

Cyclists, if you are approaching people with dogs, please slow down and sound your bell. Dog walkers, please stand aside and make sure you have control of your dog while the cyclists go past.

And lastly if, like me, you love walking dogs, and even if they are the sweetest dogs on earth, please make sure they are not also the sources of pain in other people’s necks.

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 22nd January and the Gazette & Herald on 20th January 2021

EE’s daft as a brush

Former vice president Dan Quayle famously couldn’t spell the word ‘potato’. Picture: Pixabay

I compose these columns a couple of weeks in advance, so as I write this I am still surrounded by the trappings of Christmas and the festive cheer has yet to wear off. Because of that, and because we’ve had such a difficult 2020, I feel I am justified in extending the seasonal silliness just a little bit longer in the hope that it might bring a smile to your face and a giggle to your soul.

Firstly though, you might remember a couple of weeks back I discussed tautological words and phrases (that say the same thing twice using different words) and the unnecessary ‘extra’ words we sometimes include in sentences. I was looking through my dad’s paperwork relating to his January 1981 columns when I came across a letter from a reader on this topic.

Colonel NM Dillon from Shincliffe, County Durham, had written in with a few of his own observations, which I’d like to share with you as they are quite interesting. 

Apparently, in the Durham area, butter is referred to as ‘best butter’, and Col Dillon asks, “Why the ‘best’?” Another peculiarity of the area, he says, is that diabetes is referred to as ‘sugar diabetes’ or simply ‘The Sugar’. He also expresses the opinion that real ‘staircases’ rarely exist any more because the ‘case’ part of the word harks back to a time when household stairs were often located outside of the building and so cases were built around them to protect them from the elements. Therefore, internal sets of steps without cases should just be called ‘stairs’. I wonder if any readers today still use these phrases or have any of their own observations to share (my contact details are at the bottom of this article)?

While researching my column last time about the spoken gaffes of George Bush Senior and George Bush Junior, a person I came across who was even more famous for speaking gobbledegook was George Bush Senior’s presidential campaign running mate, Dan Quayle. His website address is still ‘vicepresidentdanquayle.com’, which tells you something about him, bearing in mind he’s not been the vice president for the past 27 years. His online entry in Wikipedia even has its own section dedicated to his public gaffes. I didn’t have enough room to include them last time, so rather than deprive you of such entertainment, I’ve included a few below which I hope will bring you those those giggles I promised at the start of this article: 

“I believe we are on an irreversible trend toward more freedom and democracy – but that could change.” 

–        Really? Are you sure about that?

“I have made good judgements in the past. I have made good judgements in the future.”

–        I also drive a red DeLorean.

“Republicans understand the importance of bondage between a mother and child.”

–        None of my children are ever going anywhere near a Republican.

“We are ready for any unforeseen event that may or may not occur.”

–        That’s so reassuring

“One word sums up probably the responsibility of any vice president, and that one word is ‘To be prepared’.”

–         Calculator anyone?

“What a waste it is to lose one’s mind. Or not to have a mind is being very wasteful. How true that is.”

–        I’m certainly in danger of losing mine

“The Holocaust was an obscene period in our nation’s history….I mean in this century’s history. But we all lived in this century. I didn’t live in this century.” 

–        I’m so confused. 

One of Quayle’s most famous blunders of all occurred in June 1992 when he was vice president. He was hosting a school spelling bee in front of a room full of kids, teachers and the world’s media. A 12-year-old boy was asked to write the word ‘potato’ on the board in front of Mr Quayle. He did exactly that, correctly, and was about to leave when the vice president stopped him and said: “Spell it again. Add one little thing on the end…Think of ‘potato’, how is it spelled?” The puzzled child hesitated, then added a letter ‘e’ at the end of the word. “There ya go!” beamed a triumphant Mr Quayle.

And the excruciating moment, captured on film, has never been forgotten. 

Contact me, and read more, at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 15th January and the Gazette & Herald on 13th January 2021

A Rosey year ahead?

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A rosemary bush

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Sprigs of rosemary ready to use in cooking

As Twelfth Night dawned this week, I’m sure most of you will have taken down your tree and packed away your decorations for another year. It has been a festive season like no other, but I hope you managed to enjoy whatever you decided to do and however you decided to mark the start of 2021.

If you are someone who enjoys using natural greenery to create your decorations, then you will no doubt be familiar with holly, ivy and mistletoe, but once upon a time it was the herb rosemary that was at the top of the tree in terms of festive décor.

It was believed to possess many qualities, some mythical, and others more practical. In medieval times, it was spread across the floor over a base of rushes that absorbed the muck and smells brought in on the feet of the great unwashed. As they trod on the rosemary, it would release a pleasant scent that would disguise the other less welcome odours rising from below.

As a forerunner to toothpaste, the woody parts of the shrub would be burnt and ground into a powder and used to cleans one’s teeth. It was also used as a cure for baldness, to ease digestive complaints and of course in cooking as a flavouring.

In terms of its mythical qualities, if you slept with it under your pillow, that would mean your slumber would not be disturbed by nightmares, and a shrub planted outside your home would protect you from unwanted intruders. In Ancient Greece, it was associated with memory and brain power, so hopeful students would wear wreaths of rosemary on their heads during examinations. The Romans would plant it outside tombs in the belief that it would preserve the bodies of their dearly departed.

Rosemary has strong connections with the Christian faith, with some stories claiming that its name came from the Blessed Virgin herself, and that Bethlehem was the first place the herb was ever cultivated. According to the tales, the infant Jesus’ newly washed baby garments were spread out across a rosemary bush to dry. Soon after his birth, the holy family had to flee to Egypt to escape the wrath of King Herod, who was searching for this imposter ‘king’ to slaughter. As Mary’s blue cloak brushed past shrubs of rosemary, their white flowers transformed into a beautiful bluey-grey. The family also wore sprigs of the the herb on their clothing as they fled in the belief that it would protect them from harm. These associations led to the plant being known as the Rose of Mary, and hence its current name. It is also believed to live for no more than 33 years, the lifespan of Jesus, and to not grow taller than his height while he walked upon the earth.

But there are other beliefs about rosemary that have nothing to do with Christianity at all. Other sources say the name is derived from the Latin ‘ros’ meaning ‘dew’ and ‘marinus’ meaning ‘sea’. It was native to the lands surrounding the Mediterranean, needing very little water to survive, and could exist on merely the ‘dew of the sea’, that is, the moisture carried on the breezes that wafted in off the water. It is often associated with love, possibly because the Greek goddess of love, Aphrodite, was said to have risen from the waves draped in garlands of the herb. Hopeful beaus would give sprigs of it to their hearts’ desires, and brides would wear rosemary coronets on their wedding day. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet (Act 4, Scene 5), Ophelia says: “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance. Pray you, love, remember.” With its associations with love and death, it may be a reference to her forthcoming demise.

Rosemary as a girl’s name became popular in the late 19th century to correspond with the advent of the Art Nouveau movement. Inspired by the colours, shapes and forms found in the natural world, names such as Rose, Lily, Olive, Myrtle, Ivy and Flora suddenly filled local birth registers.

Some of those names, such as Rose, Lily and Flora, have remained pretty common, although I don’t know any girls born in recent times with the name Olive, Myrtle, Ivy or even Rosemary. Come to think of it I can’t say I know many youngsters these days with the name Sarah either.

I suddenly feel rather old.

Contact me, and read more, at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 8th January and the Gazette & Herald on 6th January 2021

A case of dogged repetition

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Minty, left, and Vega, two Labradors that I have looked after
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Two of my doggy guests, Jess, a Golden Retriever, and Oreo. A Black Labrador

 

We have come to end of the year, and what a year it has been! I’m sure that most of us are not sad to see the back of 2020 and are hopeful that the coming 12 months are better for us all.

Something that was severely impacted during the past year was my small side business of looking after other people’s dogs. My boys and I love dogs, but I am not keen to take on the commitment of owning one. Looking after other people’s seemed like a good compromise and until the pandemic hit, I was pretty busy. But because few people are going on holiday now, and more people are working from home, the demand for this kind of service has reduced significantly, although thankfully not entirely.

I have welcomed many breeds through my doors and one thing that used to puzzle me is why some people call a certain dog a ‘Labrador’ and others call it a ‘Labrador Retriever’. That question cropped up in my dad’s column from 29th December 1980 and he thought that the Labrador was one breed, and the Retriever another. In fact, although the Labrador is a Kennel Club-recognised breed in its own right, it does come under the banner of ‘Retriever’ alongside the Golden, the Flat Coated, the Chesapeake Bay and the fantastically-named Nova Scotia Duck Tolling.

As the name suggests, the dog’s hazy origins lie in Canada, and it is believed that English settlers arrived in Newfoundland as far back as the 1500s and would use native dogs to help them fish the waters. These dogs, that were smaller than today’s Labradors, were known as St John’s water dog or the lesser Newfoundland, and would retrieve nets, lost lines, dropped fish and pull carts loaded with the catch.

English traders took them back across the North Atlantic Ocean and interbred them with their own hunting dogs to create a new breed altogether that was not only an excellent working dog, but also blessed with a friendly temperament that was eager to please. They became an instant hit with the sporting aristocracy, especially the Earls of Malmesbury.

The third Earl of Malmesbury is credited with naming the breed in 1887 in a letter in which he referred to his ‘Labrador dogs’, presumably because they came from the region known as Labrador and Newfoundland. He established his own breeding programme and the Labrador Retriever was officially recognised by the UK Kennel Club in 1903, with the first official breed club set up in 1916. Today, the Labrador is the most popular of all pedigree breeds thanks to its versatility as a family pet, a service dog, a guide dog and a working dog.

The reason Dad mentioned the Labrador Retriever in the first place was because he was discussing our usage of certain words that are unnecessary, and was citing ‘Retriever’ after ‘Labrador’ as one such example. Another was ‘salt cellar’, because the word ‘cellar’ actually means ‘salt’ so we are in effect saying ‘salt salt’. 

This could be said to be an example of tautology, the practice of saying the same thing twice, but using different words and I’m sure many of us do it regularly without even noticing. But what really irritates me is when people in positions of power do it to try to fool us into thinking they are more intelligent than they are, as if we won’t be able to tell when they are spouting meaningless waffle.

An expert in the art of meaningless waffle is former U.S. president George W Bush, who had a reputation for making tautological gaffes. His intelligence (or lack of it) was the subject of much comedic scrutiny.

“Our nation must come together to unite!” he declared, and “By making the right choices, we can make the right choice for our future.” 

What about this insightful observation? “Over the long term, the most effective way to conserve energy is by using energy more efficiently.”

It seems to run in the family too. His father, George Bush senior, is reported to have said: “It’s no exaggeration to say that the undecideds could go one way or the other.”

And wisely, on that wisest piece of wise wisdom, I’d like to wish you all a very Happy, Jolly, and Content New Year! 

Contact me, and read more, at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times and the Gazette & Herald on 30th Dec 2020

A lasting tribute

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My dad wrote a moving tribute to his own dad Norman, pictured here in the 1930s. Grandad died unexpectedly just before Christmas 1980.

As loyal readers of this column know, Christmas for my family is a celebration that, although joyful, is also tinged with sadness. During our first Christmas without Dad in 2017, we didn’t have time to dwell on his loss as my sister was gravely ill, and died at the beginning of January 2018. And so the second Christmas without Dad was our first that the loss of them both was really felt around the festive dinner table. I’m sure there are many of you reading this who can relate to that. We do still thoroughly enjoy it, but our absent loved ones are very much present in our thoughts at such times.

When I took over this column, my first piece appeared not very long after Dad had died, and it was a tribute to him. The grief was still raw, and I’m sure those feelings came out in the way I wrote it. This week, when I took out my dad’s column from 20th December 1980, I wasn’t expecting to read what I did. It is a very moving tribute he wrote to his own father who had just passed away.

I was 13 when my grandad died so did not truly appreciate the impact it would have had on my dad. But reading his tribute now, it is a rare occasion when his emotions are clearly close to the surface. Having experienced the same loss myself, the words that Dad wrote back then have moved me to tears because they are words that I could so easily have written about him. His deep love for his father shines through.

I hope you will indulge me a bit this week, as I’d like to share his words with you now, and although they are written about my grandad, I’d like them to be a tribute to all our lost loved ones whose absence we feel so keenly at this time of year.

So, over to you, Dad:

‘We are facing this Christmas without my father. He died shortly before I settled down to compile this weekly article, a comparatively young man at the age of 64. He passed his final hours in hospital, attended by a devoted hospital staff whose actions helped to cushion the inevitable sorrow.

‘I am sure we are not alone in our sorrow this Christmas. Many other families and individuals will have to cope with similar losses and tragedies, and their personal fortitude will carry them through the dark period ahead.

‘But my own father would never wish us to be sorrowful on his behalf. He was a realist, a gentle person with a delightful sense of humour whose outlook on life was based entirely upon honesty and service to his fellows. He would never wittingly do anyone a bad turn and was always willing to help and assist, yet at the same time never wishing to intrude. He allowed his children to live their own lives, always with a guiding hand but never with compulsion, while his personal views upon politics and religion remained entirely his own.

‘He was a man of remarkable talent, a fascinating combination of arts and mechanical skills with hands that could produce music from almost every instrument and also cope with the task of repairing any mechanical object from an electric iron to a motor cycle or motor car. He firmly believed in doing everything himself – repairs to the house, decorations, plumbing, roofing, gardening, and everything else. That talent has rubbed off on his family and I am thankful for his leadership in that respect. As we say in Yorkshire, “he could turn his hand to owt”.

‘Clearly he will be missed and it is difficult to sum up his qualities in a short phrase, but perhaps the following lines from Edmund Spenser (1552-1599) are suitable:

‘The gentle mind by gentle deeds is known.

For a man by nothing is so well bewray’d

As by his manners.

‘But Christmas is not a time for sorrowing. It is a time of renewal, reminding us of new beginnings and it is a time for celebration and happiness…it is the one universal celebration which is founded upon trust and happiness and it has the ability to cross international boundaries, political arenas and religious differences.”

I send you all my best wishes for the festive season and for a very Happy New Year.

Contact me, and read more, at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

ENDS

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times and the Gazette & Herald on 23rd Dec 2020

Yule start the fire

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I miss the real fire that we had in our last house

One of the things I miss since I moved into this house is an open fire, especially at this time of year. There’s nothing to match the golden glow of real flames, and they bring an extra element of festive coziness to our Christmas preparations. We had a log burning stove at my last house, and I absolutely loved it. With the tree up, twinkling lights on and stockings hung, the lit fire was the finishing touch to our own Christmas story.

Growing up, we had an open hearth in our cottage living room, and my dad was an expert at laying a fire which would often be blazing moments after being lit. He knew just how many newspaper ‘logs’ to place at the bottom with the right gaps in between to let the air circulate. On top of that, a good few sticks of kindling, then a layer of coal. And once the coal began to glow, you could start adding your bigger logs.

But it was important to know your wood, as different types of tree burn in different ways, and these days, your best bet is to go to a reputable supplier for properly seasoned logs to get the most out of your fire. Paying for good logs means you will spend less on maintaining your chimney and stove. There is an old saying that helps you remember how different species of tree burn.

‘Oak logs will warm you well, if they’re old and dry,

Larch logs of pinewood smell, but sparks will fly,

Beech logs for Christmas time, Yew logs heat well,

“Scotch” logs it is a crime for anyone to sell,

Birch logs will burn too fast, Chestnut not at all,

Hawthorn logs are good to last, if you cut them in the fall.’

I tried to find out what ‘Scotch’ logs are, and couldn’t come up with an answer (unless it’s Scots pine? But then, pinewood is already mentioned in the second line). And why is it a crime to sell them?

The last word ‘fall’ might make you think this poem originated in America, but in fact the word ‘fall’ was used for ‘Autumn’ in old English, but has not been in common speech in this country since Shakespearean times.

Dad lists many other species of wood that will burn very well, including sycamore, laurel, hornbeam hawthorn and fruit, which also give off a pleasant smell. But avoid burning acacia as it releases a terrible odour.

Of course the traditional log to burn at Christmas time is the Yule Log, but I haven’t heard of anyone doing it recently. The only Yule Log you’re likely to come across now is the chocolate version, although I’d be very happy to stand corrected!

The Yule Log is no ordinary piece of wood, but is a custom that some say pre-dates Christianity. The tradition is that you retain a partly burned piece of a log from the previous Christmas, and keep it dry all year so that it readily ignites on Christmas Day. Then it is brought into the house on Christmas Eve and ceremoniously laid on the fire. When it is lit the next day, the piece of wood that is to be the new Yule Log is placed on top and allowed to burn. But, as it is needed for the following year, once it is about half done, it needs to be taken out and kept safe and dry for 12 months. How you take it out without burning yourself or your surroundings might be a topic for debate, but once it has cooled, you then put it under your bed to protect your home and family from fire. Of course, in the days when this practice was common, house fires were a very real and ever present threat.

While the Yule Log is burning is the time on Christmas Day that you make merry, enjoy the good food, good drink and pleasant company. As one saying goes: ‘Old wood to burn, old wine to drink, old friends to talk to, and old books to read’.

This year, it is definitely going to be different, with smaller gatherings rather than the large getogethers some might be used to. But I’m optimistic that by Christmas 2021, things might have returned to something like normal again.

We can but live in hope!

Contact me, and read more, at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug


This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 18th Dec 2020 and the Gazette & Herald on 16th Dec 2020

Having our cake

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I was listening to the radio this morning and they mentioned an interesting fact about the second lockdown. One of the most searched-for recipes online in November was for Christmas cake.

During Lockdown Mark 1, there was a huge surge in the popularity of home baking because, with so much time on our hands, it was an easy way to entertain ourselves. People started bulk buying flour and it became extremely difficult to get hold of it in the shops. On one desperate trip to the supermarket I resorted to buying a packet of pizza dough mix when I couldn’t get my hands on any flour. Thankfully, I never had to use it, as I later found a small local shop that still had one solitary bag of flour tucked away at the back of a shelf. Back in the days of Lockdown 1, bread-related items such as scones, banana bread and sourdough were the most popular.

There was also a surge in online searches for recipes that didn’t need flour, presumably because it was so hard to come by. Homes were being filled with things like meringues, that only need eggs and sugar, and banoffie pie, that just needs bananas, cream, toffee sauce and a biscuit base. Of course, in the first lockdown, children were not in school, so parents across the land were involving them in kitchen-based activities which meant that child-friendly bakes, such as flapjacks and biscuits, were also extremely popular.

So in Lockdown 2, we have taken up the bowl and wooden spoon once again, and with Christmas just around the corner, it’s no surprise that many of us are using the opportunity to revive the Yuletide cake-making tradition that has until recently been on the wane. My mum would make a deliciously moist fruit cake every year, and I recall as youngsters, my three siblings and I were all invited to take a turn stirring the mixture in preparation. It would have been a couple of months before Christmas, and was the first exciting hint that the big day wasn’t far away.

The popularity of these cakes diminished over recent years and I still don’t know many people who make them. However, upon hearing that news report this morning, I would be interested to find out if any of you either still make and eat a festive cake, or whether you have used the time during lockdown to revive the old tradition. It used to be that if anyone called in, they would be offered a slice of the Christmas cake, maybe with a chunk of Wensleydale cheese, and possibly even a glass of sherry – does anyone still do that? There is something uniquely special about that particular combination of flavours, and although the custom of serving fruit cake with cheese has spread beyond the borders of Yorkshire, it is believed to have first started here.

The sharing of the Christmas cake is a custom that goes back centuries, although it is difficult to say exactly when it was first associated with the celebration. According to my dad’s archives, a festive pudding was mentioned in Poor Robin’s Almanac, a series of writings by a number of authors, first published in 1663.

‘Mince pies and plum porridge, good ale and strong beer, with pig, goose and capon’ were the favourites according to the almanac in 1695. The plum porridge mentioned is a likely forerunner to the Christmas cake, and although it was usually served quite runny, they turned it into a solid, baked version for Christmas Day. In 1662, an anonymous York poet known only as ‘J.T.’ published the following:

‘Up boys and be ye early housewives lark,

Rise up and run through snow and dark,

And cake of plum and good cheer will she give,

And merry make us while Yuletide live.’

In those days (and as I remember in the 1970s), the cake would be big enough to last many servings. As Dad wrote in one of his old columns: ‘The milkman, butcher, postman and others must receive countless portions during their Christmas rounds.’

The cake is just one of the many delicacies served at this time of year, but why do we only eat things like pigs in blankets and mince pies at Christmas? Then again, if we ate them all year round, then they wouldn’t be so special, would they.

Contact me, and read more, at countrymansdaughter.com

Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 2nd Dec 2020 and the Gazette & Herald on 4th Dec 2020