Wednesday, 2 October 2013

English "elevenses"...why not "fourses"?

I'm interested in language change – new words are being made up by individuals all the time and some spread like wildfire. But how does one spread a new word intentionally? People have to hear it enough, decide it fits the bill and use it themselves.

In a previous post "Tea: food or drink?", I lamented the confusing situation of "tea" in England – it can mean the drink, a (calorie-laden) snack, or a meal; and the timings and content differ according to region and class (unfortunately still a part of British society).

I ended that post with the recommendation that we use the word "fourses" to indicate tea with bakery goods in the afternoon. Afterall, if we can have "elevenses" as morning coffee or tea, why can't we have "fourses" as the afternoon equivalent. That would certainly solve the vexing problem, when you are invited to have "tea", that you don't know if it's a meal or not. Being invited to "fourses" is clear. Isn't it?

Help me out! Spread the word, and enjoy your afternoon tea with biscuits/scones/cake or whatever....

Friday, 1 March 2013

New takes on dry stone walls

Dry stone wall in England
A musician acquaintance has written some music and painted scenes to celebrate a very long (22 miles) dry stone wall in northern England. I never thought of walls and music together, but these are exceptionally poignant. "Wall to Wall" is the name of an exhibition of music and paintings by Martin Matthews. On his website, the paintings are accompanied by a couple of music tracks by himself playing northern-style tunes on the banjo that can be run while gazing at the picture. What a delight!

Dry stone walls are a feature of the English countryside. Once they are built, they tend to stay put forever for two reasons. Because dry stone walls are a product of clearing rocky ground that cannot be farmed, they tend to enclose pasture for sheep. Unlike fertile crop fields surrounded by hedgerows, stone walls are not destroyed to enlarge the fields; hundreds of miles of hedgerows have been lost to such "efficiency" enlargements.

Secondly, it takes a long process of natural invasion by plant life to deconstruct a well built wall; and then one is left with a pile of rocks in the landscape instead. It is sobering to think that most of the 250,000 miles of dry stone walls in Britain are at least 200 years old, and some date back to the Neolithic, 5500 years ago.

So now you've read this far thinking, "what is a dry stone wall?". A very complicated structure indeed that takes knowledge to build and to maintain. The Guardian ran an article on dry stone walling where an expert explains exactly how to build one. It is one of the traditional crafts of the countryside, along with roof thatching, hedge laying, blacksmithing, stonemasonry – what The Guardian calls "disappearing acts". The video accompanying the article has drawn a number of interesting comments. You can learn a lot from these resources and even find out how to attend courses and become a dry waller.

In closing, take a look at this new version of a dry stone wall. Now, if this isn't ingenious, I don't know what is!

New-style dry stone wall for a bike shed in Cambridge

Saturday, 29 December 2012

Buskers on the Tube

Ted Emmett, TfL busker
Hearing music floating up the escalators on London's tube always gives me a lift, even when going down, not up. The performers are usually very, very good and deserve a coin tossed their way. I stopped to listen and talk to one Ted Emmett who was playing some really nice stuff. Apparently there is stiff competition to hold one of the 39 pitches available in 25 underground stations. Transport for London vets each applicant and licences them to play, and TfL also send all their buskers a newsletter and can serve as a go-between to put them in touch with the public who would like to hire them for gigs. Seems like a win-win situation for everyone. I just wish I'd see more people contribute to the cause  – after all, it's nice to reward a good player for their efforts rather than have someone stand on a corner with a begging cup.

Chelsea Buns for Christmas!



I was devastated last year when I visited Cambridge and found Fitzbillies bakery closed for business. Then Tim Hayward and Alison Wright came to its rescue and Fitzbillies, that most Cambridge of institutions, are selling their wondrous Chelsea buns again, along with – extra bonus – slices of their incredible Sachertorte cake! (So you don't have to buy a whole cake.) Others are rapturing about the delicious menus in the new café-restaurant, but I am just glad for the take-aways.
   Yes, we fell in love with Fitzbillies Chelsea buns during our time in Cambridge but are somewhat glad we don't have access to them too often anymore. They are very special food, and so what did we eat this past Christmas day? Not turkey like every other household in Britain but Chelsea buns! What a treat.
   As for the Sachertorte, having loved the Fitzbillies variety, we were very excited one year to be in Vienna to visit the Sacher Hotel, which made the cake famous. With watering mouths, we ordered our Sachertorte – and, it didn't hold a candle to Fitzbillies' version!
   You can read all about the excitement of the new opening of Fitzbillies this past autumn and their various offerings on their website. And if you can't get to Cambridge to try these delicacies, both Chelsea buns and Sachertorte are available by mail order. Enjoy!

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Japanese Deer Dance at the Thames Festival

Kanatsu Shishi Odori
at the Ashmolean Museum
8 September 2012
Last week, England was visited by a Japanese troupe of 14 deer dancer cum drummers. Invited to the Thames Festival, which took place on the weekend (Sept 8-9), they also danced at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford and at the Embassy of Japan in London. The troupe is from Iwate Prefecture in northern Tohoku where they traditionally dance at festivals and blessing ceremonies; here they danced in memory of those lost to the tsunami last year. Though the dance is stately and serious, the audience was wowed by the tossing of horns and flattening of the white spires to the ground as they bent over.

The dance is called Shishi Odori. We actually heard a Japanese guy telling his British girlfriend at the Thames Festival parade that it was a Lion Dance from Fukushima. Wrong! It is a Deer Dance from Iwate, even though the word shishi in Japanese is written with the Chinese characters for 'lion'. The word shishi itself is ancient, meaning 'meat', and there are several kinds of meat mentioned in old documents:  ka-no-shishi (deer meat), and i-no-shishi (boar meat), with inoshishi becoming the normal word for 'boar'. The tossing of the heads resembles real deer behaviour, and the dance may symbolize ancient hunting practices revering the animals providing the food. Several other origin myths surround its distant beginnings.

Deer Dancer kneeling,
from the back
The dance costumes are very heavy, weighing about 40 pounds, a lot of the weight residing in the headgear. The long spires are bamboo that are slivered into spikes, then tied together with string into which folded papers are entwined. The papers are similar to those used in Shinto rituals to call down the god(s). Two of the fourteen dancers have spired with black bands at the top: these are the troupe leader and the single nominal doe in the group, this time actually played by a woman dancer. Traditionally the dancers have all been male, but women can now join the groups. See their dance in the Thames Festival night parade, at 0:55-1.14 minutes.

The headdress is fixed with steel antlers and has two long flaps that cascade down the back. These are painted with designs similar to those painted onto wide back panels of the divided skirt (hakama). Many such costumes, drums, and actual dancers of Tohoku performing arts were lost to the tsunami on 3.11; for this particular troupe, one drum was washed away but came floating back – taken as an auspicious even among tragedies. Sponsored by the Japan Foundation, it was quite an undertaking to bring a large dance troups and their accoutrements to London, but we hope to see them here again sometime.

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Bone marrow at the Court Restaurant, British Museum

The Court Restaurant is a classy place to eat lunch at the British Museum. Situated high up in the Great Court, you get good views of the wonderful geometric glass ceiling over the court and can see the clouds beyond. Because there are two coffee shops in the court below, the buzz of conversation from there is a little diverting, but the restaurant's tablecloth settings, including a live miniature chili plant (with chilis) instead of flowers, give a fancy ambience. For those pleasures, the menu is stiff: ca. £22 for a 2-course or £28 for a 3-course meal. But a la carte held some surprises.

Bone Marrow at the Court Restaurant, British Museum
In the past month, I have seen three references to bone marrow on menus. Where has this come from suddenly?? I suppose bone marrow is consistent with the traditional down-market English cuisine of whelks, steak & kidney pie, tongue and tripe, etc. I first ate it (trepidatiously) mixed in with mashed potatoes. Wonderful! What a flavour. So yesterday at the British Museum, I thought I'd try the Small Plate meal of Bone Marrow (£6.50, not a bad price for lunch).

What did I get? Four halves of a long bone and three slices of baguette. I needed more baguette! The stuff was so rich I could only eat one and a half of the bone contents, sharing an equal amount with my co-diners. That took care of the three baguette slices and left one bone contents uneaten. So I asked to take all the bones home with me (of course, the waitress thought it was for a dog, but it was really for my husband to try, on a rice cracker).

How was it? Well, straight from the bone, it wasn't as tasty as the mashed potatoes. It might have been better if I had loaded the seasoned salad garnish with sea salt onto the bread as well. In making my open-face sandwich, it was hard to spread the marrow. It has the consistency of jello (English jelly) and tends to wobble around a lot and fall off the bread. It looked kind of greyey pink, somewhat like a pink speckled jelly bean. And I felt like a Stone Age carnivore eating it.

Would I try it again? Yes, for the novelty and to see if the flavour changes with different ways of cooking and presenting it. It was a great conversation piece over lunch and cost a quarter of what the others paid. So, see you at the Court Restaurant for a real experience!

Sunday, 2 September 2012

Toilet paper rolls (literally!)

Toilet paper rolls!
Here they make 2- and 3-ply (!) quilted toilet paper that is so heavy, when you get towards the end of the roll, it unrolls itself onto the floor. Bonkers, or what?

When we were in graduate school in the States, we lived in a house with five students. There was an almighty row between two of them over how much toilet paper one should use (reflecting on household costs, of course). One said you only need three sheets, while the other would pull off two or three swaths of TP. The argument eventually broke up the household. The one that left would have liked this British quilted TP; she could have used only two sheets and saved even more money!