Wednesday 29 September 2010

If Michael brings acorns, Christmas brings snow

Well, it was true last year - and we wait in expectation to see what will happen in 2010. This year has been a bumper harvest for nuts and berries of all sorts. One look round the fields near me and you can see the blackberries, although they came early and bitter, have settled into a ripe, juicy, bumper crop. The cobnuts, for the more observant among you, were ready by 'Nutting Day', 3rd September. This used to be a traditional school holiday to allow families to collect nuts for the winter. But woe betide anyone in these parts who headed out to collect them on 21st September, Devil's Nutting Day. I have no idea where that tradition comes from. The walnut tree in the garden has only just begun to shed its harvest, and the acorns similarly seem to have ripened this week. And, the Michaelmas daisy (pictured below) is in full flower in the garden. :)

Anyhow, today I have been making orange and hazelnut cake - the traditional teatime snack for the Feast of Michaelmas, okay....The Feast of Saints Michael, Gabriel and Raphael, and all angels. The others do seem to get a bit left out. I thought I would share the recipe, and when the finished cake is out of the oven, maybe a picture.

Warning, I am stubbornly imperial.

6oz soft butter
3 eggs
4oz wholemeal self raising flour
1 1/2 teaspoons mixed spice
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
4oz self raising flour (white)
5oz soft brown sugar
8oz hazelnuts, toasted then crushed
grated rind of 2 oranges, the juice of 3

Beat the butter and the sugar together until light and fluffy. Add the eggs a little at a time and beat well in between. Fold in the flours, baking powder and mixed spice - sieved together. Toast the hazelnuts and then beat them up with a rolling pin. Add them to the mixture. Grate the rind of two oranges, throw that in, and then juice those oranges and another. Mix in the juice.

Pour the mixture into a lined and greased 7inch baking tin, smoothing the top. Bake in a pre heated oven at 180 degrees celsius for about and hour and a quarter. Remove from the oven and allow to cool. Turn out.

It is traditional to decorate this cake with marzipan leaves around the outside. To do this wait until the cake is completely cool. Roll out your marzipan and get arty making leaves, or nature orientated designs. Thinly spread apricot jam around the cake where you would like to stick your marzipan artwork, and then stick them on. Marizpan fruits are traditional for the top of the cake - a centre piece, but who am I to dictate your creativity? If you are a Michael Angleo in the kitchen make an angel, I double dare you. For me, I like to put the marzipan-ed cake under a hot grill for a few moments to give to some colour. Or, if you are lucky enough to have a blow torch for the kitchen, get happy! ( I really want one of those).

The promised picture:

Just so you know, other traditional foods for today are goose, all things spicey, such as cloves, cinnamon and ginger, apple and blackberry cake or crumble, roasted beetroots served with fresh cream and toasted nuts, lambs liver, and treacle and toffee!

Errrr....not together, obviously.

Monday 27 September 2010

Two biographies and an autobiography

Guess who is in vogue at the moment? I'll give you a clue...the Pope came to England because of him. I am not normally a follower of fashion, but the recent turn towards John Henry Newman has caught my attention. (Yes, before you say it people, I am aware that 'fashion' in reading is to many deeply ironic - run with me here). I have taught Newman's view of conscience as part of the A2 syllabus many times, and I have always really liked his pattern of thinking. I never read much more about him than that though. A few pages ahead in the set texts is all I ever aimed to be.
So, then comes the news that Newman is to be beatified, and with it a swathe of books about Newman's life and new editions of his most famous works. You know it is going to catch the eye of any book lover. I am no exception. I took for my first biography John Henry Newman: His Inner Life by the Capuchin Friar Dr. Zeno. This is Ignatius publications at its evangelical best, and whilst I learnt lots about the life of Newman as a man of faith, I could get no handle on him as a human being worth understanding or relating to. Zeno paints Newman the holy man - saint. It was a very easy read though, and so whilst I was busy, I read the whole thing in a few days. Cute family portraits of Newman as a friend are painted, the story of his life moves quickly and in great uncomplicated, divinely inspired patterns. You can't help feeling it wasn't quite like that at all and you are being taken for a ride. You are probably right.

Next, I picked up Newman and his Age by Sheridan Gilley. Let's put by prejudices about the name Sheridan aside for the moment, shall we? This is a much slower, slightly more academic read. It goes painfully through the intricate disputes that marked Newman's life. Extracts from Newman's letters illustrate when and how he stopped speaking to various friends and family. His diary shows the hurt this caused him. Some of the controversies seem so academic and high minded it makes you wonder what they were all getting their knickers in a twist about. I wonder what Newman would make of the various controversies with the Church today. No doubt he would have a blog, and no doubt it would cause trouble.

One thing about Newman seriously bothers me. He never seems happy. He is always worried about one thing or another, always caught up in some controversy or suffering some failure. His biographers never seem to paint him laughing or telling a joke. That makes me sad.

Now I am going to turn my attention to his Apologia Pro Vita Sua. Again, it was written whilst Newman was under attack. But, I hope when he writes in his own words, there might also be a sense that he loved his life. For someone who achieved so much, I would be very sad if the case were otherwise. After that I might read some more of his own writing, who knows? Amazon are going to have to give me credit though, my passion for books is leading quickly to bankruptcy.

Thursday 23 September 2010

Ben XVI - education and inspiration

I have the house to myself, a great, heart warming home-cooked daal on the stove, peshwari naan in the oven and a bottle of Old Hooky at the ready. So, I thought I would have a little think about the recent Papal events in these parts.

Being someone who is interested in teaching, education and learning I was interested to hear
BXVI views on these topics most of all. This was the visit of an educated academic for the beatification of an educator, intellectual - two men with a passion for learning.

At Cofton Park BXVI spoke directly about Blessed John Henry Newman's vision for education, commending his understanding that learning has got to be rooted more deeply than any reductive, utilitarian ethos. The critic in me paused here to consider the way in which students today are forced to enter a lottery in order to secure the fate of their Secondary school. For the most part, Catholic schools have opted out of this system, and faced much criticism for it...but, I digress - that debate is more complicated than the remit of this post.

BXVI renews Newman's appeal for an intelligent, well instructed laity. Quoting Newman's words he declared: 'I want a laity, not arrogant, not rash in speech, not disputatious, but men who know their religion, who enter into it, who know just where they stand, who know what they hold and what they do not, who know their creed so well that they can give account of it, who know so much of history that they can defend it.'

That strikes me as something of a real challenge to the laity, to the person sitting in a pew on a Sunday, to teachers, to pupils, to everyone. To me it is a beautiful challenge both to seek education, and to learn to use words carefully - as precious gifts for sharing with one another. I liked that, it inspired me.

Now, I am going back to my yummy dinner, that beer and some Black Adder.

Wednesday 15 September 2010

On the inside, looking out - moving on

I need to re-post this, published first two years ago, because, having made a decision to leave my studies of Moral Theology behind for a more practical approach to the 'good life', I am trying to keep in perspective my central purpose - to work for solidarity amongst people and nations. Fr. Neil who wrote to me here, is still working and teaching in Burma, everyday giving of himself for the well being of others.

I should be working, but I have not written any thoughts down about coming to live in Oxford, and now nearly two weeks in, it is beginning to bother me.

I have always been an observer of this place, watching closely (and critically) its every move. I wanted to come here, but I also had a deep desire to keep my distance. There are aspects of Oxford that make my skin crawl and I didn't want to be drawn in. When there are teams of people dedicated to ensuring that you are comfortable, well fed and have enough clean linen it is easy to become detached from the real world. The spires of Oxford turn to ivory very quickly if you do not keep your guard.

The homelessness of this flamboyant city shocks me. There are so many truly vulnerable people sleeping on the streets yards from our banquet halls and cosy student rooms. It seems as if this city just doesn't have enough services out there to help people who have gotten a bit lost. In the coming days I am planning on seeking out a way to offer a hand to help an organization that helps people with what they need. I hope they will let me on board.

I think I could liken living here to residing in a goldfish bowl. Not in terms of monotony, because every day is new, exciting; every moment is a privilege. It is neat around the edges though, refined, contrived. There are many people looking at you: tourists, tutors, supervisors, new found friends, travelers and street people. People taking note: you have this opportunity - you owe it to everyone to make the best of it, and give it everything you have got! On the inside, looking out, I just hope I am up to the job.

I received an email from a friend a few days after I arrived here. He is a Columban Missionary working in Burma. For sometime last year I thought that he, and the people he works with, had been lost to this world. The words he sent in an email are special to me because they touch on the purpose of study: knowledge is only useful to the extent it serves those in most need. If it fails in this respect then other work is both more valuable and more honorable.

Here is the message that was sent to me (words with stars are censored for the safety of N):

Dear Elaine,

It was good to hear from you. Thank you.

Congratulations as you begin your D Phil in Moral Theology. I know you, with your sharp mind, will enjoy it. We need people like you who will write and research such vital issues. Do not be afraid.

It was very kind of Anna and you and all at Heythrop to donate to the survivors of the cyclone. It brought relief and hope to so many poor people as we were able to buy food and clothes, cooking utensils and build temporary shelters for them. It was a terrible disaster and then turned worse as a man made one. It will take years to recover.

I started a soup kitchen and we are feeding up to a thousand hungry people daily. Unfortunately, we are only touching the surface as we would need thousands of soup kitchens. Anyway, it is a start. I am very happy here and enjoy te*ching s*ci*l j*sti*e. I got food poisoning last month and it really set me back for a few weeks, but I am fine again.

Elaine, I wish you all the very best in your D Phil studies and I know you will enjoy it.

All good wishes,


Studying cannot be a selfish activity, and neither can academics afford to closet themselves in ivory towers. The real world does not have three meals a day and sleep in a cosy bed by night. What work is done here needs to bring to public attention, my attention, the needs of all those whose voice is never heard in the corridors of power.

Monday 13 September 2010

In case of emergency...

There's no place like Rome, there's no place like Rome, there's no place like Rome.

Pope protesters in the UK really should pay more attention to footwear.

Saturday 11 September 2010

Camino Supper

It has happened again, I have pilgrimage withdrawal symptoms. For the last few nights I have been dreaming about the Camino de Santiago. It is a re-occuring dream, based in experience, of arriving at the Cathedral for the first time, having walked 545 miles and walking up the steps into the cool cavernous nave of Santiago. It is a dream I love exploring.

Anyhow, to help my withdrawal symptoms yesterday, I took control of Friday supper time. I was determined for a traditional take but, let's face it, no one has ever been lit up by fish pie. So, I set my heart on moules marinere, chips cut with the skins still on, home made mayo with chives from the garden, and salad leaves served with toasted pine nuts and capers. I take Friday fasting seriously, you understand. I was going to need a bottle of Sancerre too.

I packed myself off to Waitrose, but was shocked to discover that they lady at the counter thought mussels would not be in season for another 7 days. In Ireland they have been in for weeks! But, who am I to criticize? I have to have a sudden re-think. On the counter there were almejas and beautiful prawns. One problem, what on earth is the English word for almejas? I didn't know and I couldn't see a label anywhere! English is my first language! FFS! I have only ever eaten these little shells in Spain though. I opted for the "Hallo, please could I have 500g of...them,' *points*, "thank you". Then I bought lots of pink unshelled prawns and some fan tail peeled prawns, a bottle of white rioja and a lemon. This was going to be fun! The label told me about the shells, they are called 'clams'!

When I got home, I went to the kitchen, flicked on the Spanish radio and got cooking. I thick cut 4 big potatoes, skins on. Heated up a heavy pan with sunflower oil, and plunged the cut chips into boiling oil. I finely cut an onion and a red chili pepper and shallowed fried it in some olive oil. As they were getting soft I added a little sea salt, pepper and smoked paprika. Then I threw in the cleaned clams and a good glass of white rioja.

*check on the chips*

Once the clams began to open I threw in the unshelled tiger prawns, waited for a bit, and then the fan tail peeled prawns. I cut some flat leaf parsley and lemon slices and threw them in too. Dinner was two minutes from ready.

I rescued the chips from the oil and got them onto the plates, then I brought the big pan of seafood to the table for people to help themselves.

We tucked into the whole lot, dipping the chips into the mayo (4 egg yolk whisked, olive oil added gradually, chives from the garden and sea salt) and gobbling the salad. Of course, we drank the rest of the Rioja too.

A truly great Camino meal. A new take on Friday fish supper. Great sharing food for the family - no fighting over the last prawn!