Keeping Food for Winter

A reblog from William Savage, whose blog I discovered recently.
This post is quite fascinating. I’ve never eaten purslane, just pulled it out of my garden as a weed; it’s supposed to be quite good. Pickled asparagus, however, you can even buy in the grocery store here. Storing lettuce in sand for winter – never heard of that, but again, sometimes you can get “gourmet” lettuces here – little butterhead ones – with the roots still attached, which I guess is the same principle.
As for the word “walm” (check the footnote), I bet that that’s where we get “overwhelmed” from!
I want a copy of that “Compleat Housewife” book he talks about. Wonder where you could get it.

Pen and Pension

pickled-purslaneIn the days before refrigeration and canning, different means for keeping foodstuffs edible over the winter were an essential part of every household’s routine. If you didn’t pay attention to this, much of your harvest would go to waste. Besides, if your own stores failed or were inadequate, you couldn’t easily make up the deficit through purchases.

Some fruits, like apples and pears, could be stored for several months by setting them on racks in a cool place. Others had to be cooked with sugar and preserved in jars, sealed with butter or fat — no rubber seals yet. Pickling could work for others, or even drying. Quite a few fruits were dried, many we would not think of drying today, like gooseberries.

Unusual Choices

You quite often find unusual or surprising recipes in cookbooks from the eighteenth century. All the ones in this post come from “The Compleat Housewife”

View original post 762 more words

The Princess and the Glass Piano

There once was a princess of Bavaria… No, this isn’t the beginning of a limerick. For one, I’m not much good at rhymes. And for another, this line has too many syllables in it. So, no limerick. Just a little story that I stumbled across in my current research rabbit trails: the story of the Princess Alexandra Amalie of Bavaria.

schonheitengallerie1I was looking up the Gallery of Beauties, a collection of 36 paintings in Nymphenburg Palace in Munich, which I got to see last year on my trip to Germany (pardon the blurry photo). King Ludwig I of Bavaria was a notable connoisseur of feminine beauty, and so between the years of 1827 and 1850 whenever he met with a particularly beautiful young woman, he commissioned a portrait of her to be hung in his gallery. Yes, some of those ladies he had affairs with, but most of them are just beautiful girls he liked to look at. They came from all walks of life – one of the most famous one is “die schöne Münchnerin” (the beautiful Munich girl), Helene Sedlmayer, who was a shoemaker’s daughter and servant girl delivering toys to the royal palace.

1826_alexandraBut the one whose story caught my interest was about as far from a peasant as you can get – she was, in fact, Ludwig’s own daughter. Alexandra Amalie, born in 1826, really was beautiful (notwithstanding the weird early-Victorian droopy spaniel-ear curls she wore. Can’t blame her for the fashion aberrations of her time). And gifted, to boot – she has several published books to her credit.

But she was also a bit, um, disturbed. By the sounds of it, she was a germaphobe at a time when germs hadn’t even been discovered (the accounts describe it as “an obsession with cleanliness”). And then one day, when she was around 23, she was found to be sidling awkwardly down one of the corridors of the palace. Apparently she was of the firm conviction that when she was a child, she had swallowed a glass grand piano, which was still inside of her – so if she walked normally, straight on instead of sideways, she might get stuck in doorways. Or the piano would shatter, or something.

Yup. That’s some delusion alright. Then, so the story goes, one day when she was throwing up, some quick-witted servants chucked a little model piano in the bucket of barf, and told her that she had now vomited up the instrument and was rid of it. Unfortunately, the account I read didn’t say if it cured her of her grand delusion. But I do hope it did – it must be awfully uncomfortable to be living with a glass piano in your belly.

Incidentally, Alexandra Amalie was the aunt of Ludwig II, the Bavarian king who squandered massive amounts of state funds to live out his fantasies, building several “fairy tale castles” (including Neuschwanstein) so he could pretend to be a medieval monarch or be dining with the French Sun King Louis XIV (who’d been dead for almost two centuries by then). Apparently he came by his, uh, imagination honestly.

And those are the kinds of things you can learn about when you’re hopping down the research rabbit trails.

Life, the Universe, a Princess and a Grand Glass Piano. Aren’t you glad you know about her now?

PS: Most of this story I got from unverified Internet sources, chiefly Wikipedia and a couple of other sites. So it’s pretty much hearsay; don’t take it as quotable material – if you’re trying to do real research on the royal house of Bavaria, keep digging.

PPS: The English writer Deborah Levy wrote a radio play about Alexandra Amalie, The Glass Piano, which was produced by the BBC in 2011. Quite interesting – you can listen to it here.

Jet Lag, Horse Stairs, Ulrich and Eberhard

Inner Courtyard, Altes Schloss, Stuttgart

It’s 4:00 AM, and I’m sitting in the living room catching up on my emails. Well, blog posts written by my bloggy friends, rather, while I was in the Fatherland with not-as-much time and internet access as I usually have. So here I am, making my way through about forty mails that accumulated over the last few days. Hello, jet lag, my old friend… (If my comment or “Like” on your blog post arrived kind of late, that’s why.)

I mostly went for a family visit this time round, but I did get in a day of shopping (had to bring home a few goodies, no?), and while I was in Stuttgart popped into the Stiftskirche (Collegiate Church) and the Württembergisches Landesmuseum in the Alte Schloss (Old Castle) in the middle of town, for a nice dose of history.


The church has a lovely high relief of life-sized sandstone statues of the Counts (Grafen) of Württemberg running down the side of the choir. It’s from about 1580 or so, and shows eleven of the guys, from the 13th century onwards. What cracks me up each time I see it is their names: there’s Ulrich, Ulrich, Eberhard, Ulrich, Eberhard, Eberhard, Ulrich… Except for the last one, who’s a Heinrich. He must have felt a bit left out (maybe that’s why his successor commissioned the sculptures, to prove that he was one of the gang, even though he’s no Uli).

IMG_20160301_133037The Alte Schloss next door to the church is another Renaissance building (it’s the Old Castle, as opposed to the New one a little further over, which was only built in the 18th century). One of the things that’s cool about the Old Castle is its horse staircase. That’s right, horse. Large four-footed critter with hoofs, that people use for transportation. See how shallow those treads are? The staircase is designed so that the nobs could ride their chargers all the way up to the third floor of the castle, right into the banqueting hall. The Renaissance version of a drive-in.

Well, I guess I’ll try to go to sleep for another couple of hours, so I’ll sign off for now.

Life, the Universe, Horse Stairs, Eberhard and Ulrich. Should be over this jet lag thing in a day or two.

Pictures and Pears and Other Randomness

Helen Jones, of Journey to Ambeth, just posted some lovely pictures for her “Thursday Doors” series, of the church in Abbots Langley, Hertfordshire. Take a look, here. I love the way Helen’s pictures can grab me and just, for a few minutes, toss me into another place, right across the other side of the globe. And then, bing, I’m back in my Canadian existence, just a little richer for my tiny little armchair travel experience. (Check out this crazy lapis-lazuli-and-gold swimming pool she posted pictures of the other day. I mean, doesn’t that make you feel like your mind has expanded just a tiny bit, knowing this ludicrously, gloriously extravagant piece of achitectural razzle-dazzle exists in the world?)

One of the things that caught my attention in today’s post, though, was the name of that one and only English Pope, Nicholas Breakspear (who apparently came from Abbots Langley, hence his inclusion in the post). I’d never heard of him before. Now, frivolously-minded person that I am, it didn’t make me think deep thoughts about history – it just set me to wondering if he’s any relation to The Bard. You know, 12th-century Breakspear to 16th-century Shakespeare… Maybe in the intervening 400 years, the family figured out how to wave about their weaponry without cracking it – from Nick “break spear” to Will “shake spear”… [Yeah, I know, it’s bad. I just couldn’t resist.]

Nicholas Breakspear would have been Pope right around the time Brother Cadfael did his sleuthing in Shrewsbury Abbey, and Catherine LeVendeur hers in Paris. As far as I know, those two never did cross paths, although I’m sure they would have got along swimmingly. Neither did Lord Peter Wimsey and Inspector Roderick Alleyn, although by rights they should have – both attended Oxford right around the same time, were younger sons of the peerage, had mothers who read almost like identical twins, and married women involved in the arts/writing scene. And that’s not even taking into account the Scotland Yard connection. Lord Peter’s brother-in-law, Charles Parker, in fact occupies Inspector Alleyn’s chair as Chief Inspector, right around the same time. We must be dealing with parallel universes here; I’m sure Scotland Yard Chief Inspectors aren’t as thickly strewn on the ground as all that. (While we’re at it, Carola Dunn’s Alec Fletcher, the Hon. Daisy Dalrymple‘s husband, is another contender for that Chief Inspector’s chair. That seat must have been one hotly contested piece of furniture in the 1920s.) IMG_20160211_125146

Anyway. To wrap up today’s silliness, here’s a picture of Steve on a laundry basket. Just because you, I’m sure, needed to see a photo of a bear sitting on a household implement today. You’re welcome.

Life, the Universe, Fictional Sleuths, Pictures and Pears. And bears, of course, as well.

PS: Have you put in a pre-order for Checkmate yet? Just eight more days…

PPS: Now that I think of it, none of this has anything to do with pears, just spears. But I like the alliteration.

Medieval Marriage, or, I Thought I Just Made That Up

The things you find out…

I was watching a really cool BBC documentary yesterday called Medieval Lives: Birth, Marriage, Death.  Specifically, this one was episode 2, “A Good Marriage” (at the moment you can watch it here, although it might not stay up forever. Canadians can also stream it off Knowledge Network, which is what I did). And I learned something really interesting: up until the 12th Century in Europe, all it took to get married was for two people to make a commitment to each other. That’s right, you just said to each other: “I take you as my husband” and “I take you as my wife”, and bingo, you were married. It could be anywhere – a pub, a hedgerow, a cottage…

And I was sitting there, watching this, and started to sputter: “That, that, that – I made that up for Seventh Son!! That’s my idea! And it was actually real!!” The marriage customs of Ruph, the place where Cat and Guy live, are exactly that: they say “I marry you,” and that’s it, they’re hitched. But I just made that up – and now it turns out it was exactly like that in medieval Europe! I had no idea. It’s kind of cool when you find that your fiction inadvertently copies reality.

medieval peasantsSo, yes, according to that documentary, the meaning of marriage was two people committing to each other. They didn’t even need witnesses, although if you had some, that helped if the marriage was ever contested (by your spouse who wanted to get out, or by anyone else, say, your parents because they wanted to hitch you to someone with more money). If you had witnesses, your friends John, Joan, Robert and Roberta could confirm that the Thursday after Whitsun, you (Joseph) and your sweetheart Margaret had pledged your troth at the Blue Hare in front of all of them (after you’d quaffed about five pints of ale each, Margaret’s eyes had sparkled exceptionally bright, so you figured it might be a good idea to officially tie the knot. Fortunately, John and Joan had only had about two pints each, so they have a clearer memory of the event than you do). And that was entirely legal.

medieval marriageIt was only from the 12th century onwards that the church figured it should put a bit more of a control on this marrying gig, so they could keep tabs on folks a little better. However, it really was just an extension of the old custom, with the priest serving as the witness and delivering God’s blessing on the union. Legally, it was still the same thing; the priest didn’t have any actual powers – the marriage was in the vows, not in the priest’s role or a legal document. (Apparently, also, the marriage – the spoken “I take thee…” commitment – took place outside the church, in the porch, so the couple was already married by the time they crossed the threshold into the church for the blessing service).

So then I got to thinking: it’s almost like we’ve come full circle again in this day and age. From where I sit, it looks like that in the Western world, a large proportion of marriage-like relationships take place on an informal basis – two people make a commitment to each other, they move in together, and they’re a couple. In the most telling phrase, they’re in a common law marriage. All it takes is a commitment.

The one great, big, ginormous difference between medieval marriage customs and ours today, though, is not the way marriages are contracted – formally or informally, common law or regulatory law. It’s the fact that today, marriages can be un-contracted. If the common law marriage doesn’t work out, you just move your stuff out of your girlfriend’s house; if the formal law one goes sour, you go to divorce court, and (at least in Canada) after a year you can start all over again with someone else. That, in the Middle Ages, was very much not happening. A marriage was a marriage, whether contracted in a hedgerow with just the sparrows and the odd bunny rabbit as witnesses, or in Westminster Abbey with the Archbishop of Canterbury presiding. And they took that “til death do us part” thing deadly serious. The only way you could ever get out of a marriage while your spouse was alive was to establish that it hadn’t actually taken place – get it annulled, in other words. Didn’t matter if your wife turned out to be a vicious shrew or your husband a jerk who knocked you about; if you’d slept together (proof positive: children), you were stuck with them for good.

I have to say, I prefer our way of doing things today. Divorce sucks, but at least it means you’re not permanently trapped in a relationship you contracted in the heat of the moment (see “five pints of ale”, above). Could you imagine if you were bound for life to your first boyfriend, the one you thought you couldn’t live without and swore eternal faithfulness to back in grade 10? Urgh, yeah. Mind you, “for life” in the Middle Ages was a considerably shorter time period than it is today. But still.

Incidentally, I hadn’t considered it before, but I do think that in spite of their medieval marriage style, the people of Ruph do have divorce as a last-resort option. It hasn’t come up yet in my stories, but it might, some day. I wouldn’t want anyone to be stuck in a horrible relationship, you know? But I’m sure they’ll think long and hard about it before they call it quits. People are like that in Ruph.

Life, the Universe, and Marriage. The things you find out…

Tangles and Darkness

This week in telegram style: RAN ERRANDS STOP DID SOME GARDENING STOP TRIED TO UNTANGLE THE STORYLINES OF CHECKMATE STOP TRIED TO UNTANGLE THE TANGLES I CREATED BY UNTANGLING STOP SIGH STOP (In case you’re wondering what a telegram is, it’s a form of communication from the last century that no longer exists. It was kind of like texting on paper. The world’s last telegram was sent in July 2013 in India.)

With the way I write, events tend to flow from one scene to the next – I write something, and then the next thing is the logical step after that, referring back to a small piece of information that I’ve given in the last chapter, or the one before that. Now, when it comes to implementing some of my most excellent beta readers’ suggestions to the tune of “This really ought to happen sooner/later/not at all/much more often”, I can’t just take one scene and drag and drop it into an earlier part of the story. It would have the effect of taking a chunk of fish net and yanking really hard – the whole weave is destroyed. So I have to carefully un-knot the section and reconnect it elsewhere – this sentence could go here, three chapters previously; while this piece of information could come in there, in the middle of chapter 22; and this bit here could be deleted altogether, but then we better add another paragraph over here. Speaking of chapter 22, that got moved about three times this week – first up behind chapter 16 (so it, and all the intervening chapters, had to be renamed); then both of them back down again to become chapters 22 and 23 (or maybe it was 21 and 22, can’t remember); then back again to position 16 & 17… Oh what a tangled web we weave / when first we practise to, umm, write a story.

IMG_20150515_092758In other news, I’m reading a fascinating book at the moment: At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past, by A. Roger Ekirch. It’s totally shifting my thinking about history, about my fictional world (which is, after all, a pseudo-pre-industrial-European setting), and even about our current sleeping habits and lifestyles. What is so revolutionary about this is the realisation that up until about 150 years ago, nighttime was dark. I know, I know, that’s pretty much a “d’uh” – but is it? Today, we can have daylight brightness whenever we want. Even when we’re gingerly making our way along a dark campground lane towards the outhouse and back to our tent, we know full well that when we go home tomorrow, we’ll be right in 100-Watt-lightbulb range again. And even then, the little flashlight we carry to keep us from tripping over roots on the way is multiple times brighter than any lantern our ancestors had. We only play at being in the dark, but in the past, once nighttime fell, that’s all you had until the sun came up again in the morning. I wonder if the invention of artificial light wasn’t one of the most revolutionary moments of history.

Life, the Universe, Tangles and Darkness. That’s today’s news from the writing and reading trenches.

Burg Weibertreu

A friend of mine just posted this CBC article on Facebook: “Wife Carrying Championship: An unusual Nordic tradition returns”. It’s just what you’d think: a race in which husbands lug their wives over a predetermined course. The winning couple gets the wife’s weight in beer, and five times her weight in cash (and a trip to the world championships in Finland). For some reason my man doesn’t want to participate, even though I pointed out to him the serious benefits if we would win (I’m no featherweight). But then, neither of us drinks beer, so it’s perhaps just as well.

However, banter aside, the first thing this news item reminded me of is an old German tale, a story that really happened.

The year was 1140, the place a small South-Western German town called Weinsberg (Wine Mountain – if you look at pictures of the place, you’ll know why it’s called that: there’s vineyards everywhere). The solid castle overlooking the town was held by the Welfs (or Guelphs), who, in this hard autumn, were in a war with the royal house of the Staufer. The Staufer King Konrad III, after weeks of besieging the castle, finally defeated the Welfs in an open battle on December 21, 1140; the starved-out castle garrison surrendered. However, Konrad was harshly resentful that so many of his many good men had been killed by the Welfs on the field of battle; he threatened his revenge: all the men in the castle were to die as soon as he set foot in the fortress. The women, however, begged for their lives; they had had no hand in the bloodshed, they claimed, and asked for free passage out of the castle. The King, being the noble sort, consented, and what’s more, promised they could take with them whatever of their dearest possessions they were able to carry.


Early in the morning, the great castle gates creaked open to let out the first of the women. But imagine the surprise of the besiegers when out of the castle came woman after woman, carrying on her back – her husband.

King Konrad, the story says, laughed, and confessed himself outwitted. He had given his word, and his word he would keep. The women and their “dearest possessions” were given free passage; the faithfulness of the Wives of Weinsberg became legend, and the castle of Weinsberg is to this day called Burg Weibertreu, Wives’ Faithfulness.

I don’t think I ever visited the castle myself (it’s just a ruin today), but I’m pretty sure we drove past it when I was a kid on the way to visit my grandmother. My mother told me the story then, and I’ve loved it ever since. A wife-carrying race to win some beer is a fun thing, but for my money, give me those feisty Swabian women who had the guts to take a King at his word, the brawn to carry out their plan, and their husbands alive and well to show for it. A live husband beats a barrel of beer any day.

Life, the Universe, and the Faithful Wives of Weinsberg. Still one of my favourite stories ever.

PS: Just four more days to the big announcement!