Jul 132013

Coventry God Cakes

… Naked, you are blue as the night in Cuba;
You have vines and stars in your hair;
Naked, you are spacious and yellow
As summer in a golden church….

From ‘Sonnet XXVII: Naked You Are As Simple as one of your Hands’ by Pablo Neruda (1904-1973)

I’ve been reading up on the Anglo Saxons and the Vikings for a new project, which has taken my thoughts to Lady Godiva, the putative anniversary of whose daring exploit is today. Everyone knows the story of Lady Godiva riding naked through the streets of Coventry to save the people of the city from her husband’s excessive demands for taxation. Peeping Tom is supposed to have been struck blind after boring a hole through a shutter in order to see her. It’s a story that has been told, retold, embroidered, painted and celebrated in song and story. But is it true?

 Lady Godiva entering Coventry painting

Lady Godiva entering Coventry by David Gee (1793-1872)

Let’s start with the facts.  Godiva (or Godgifu as she was known in Anglo-Saxon) was an historical figure, as was her husband Earl Leofric and she is mentioned by a number of thirteenth century chroniclers such as Florence of Worcester, Ranulf Higden and Roger of Wendover. Evidence of her life exists in deeds and documents of the period.

In 1043 Leofric and Godgifu endowed a Benedictine house for an abbot and 24 monks on the site of St Osburg’s Nunnery, which had been destroyed by Vikings in 1016. The monastery was dedicated to God, the Virgin Mary, St Peter, St Osburg and All Saints. Subsequently Godgifu gave the monastery many gifts in honour of the Virgin Mary and she is reputed to have had all her personal gold and silver melted down and made into crosses, images of saints and other decorations to grace both the Coventry House and a number of other churches and monasteries. We even know the name – Mannig – of the goldsmith who made some of the offerings.

So she was pious – but there is nothing unusual in that. The knotty problem is that no chronicler mentions the famous ride until the 13th century, some three hundred years after it was supposed to have happened. But, but, but…. there is an intriguing possibility.

Before the Reformation is was customary and very common, for religious individuals to undertake some physical humiliation or debilitating effort as a penitential gesture. You still see it nowadays – people walking the Camino di Santiago, or in India attending holy events barefoot or covered in ashes, or in Japan climbing to holy places carrying a heavy burden. Supposing Godiva undertook such an act – maybe in her undershift, riding through the streets as an act of extreme piety or as a plea to God to stay her husband’s grasping hand? If that were the case, not mentioning it at the time – even assuming there was someone who could have written down the event, would not be unusual.

I’ll go for that.  I like her – she sounds humane and womanly and daring.

Godiva outlived her husband Earl Leofric by some years and in fact we know she survived beyond the Norman Conquest because her name appears as a former landowner in the Domesday Book which was published in 1086 – and that makes her doubly unusual – an Anglo Saxon female landowner. She must have been extraordinary. Good for Godiva.
So in her honour I’ve made Coventry Godcakes. These were supposed to be brought to the baptismal feast by a baby’s godparents on the day of a Christening. They are very similar to the delicious little pastries called Banbury cakes which I made a couple of years ago, but the triangular shape of a Godcake is a nod to the Holy Trinity.


Coventry God Cakes

150g mixed dried fruit
1 tablespoon honey
1/2 tsp cinnamon
small knob of butter – about a dessertspoon
grated rind of half an orange
apple or orange juice
a pack of frozen all butter puff pastry
1 egg to glaze
Oven 220c

Cover the fruit with the juice and soak for about an hour. Melt the butter in the pan, drain the fruit and add to the pan with the honey. Wam through until any liquid has simmered off then add the spice and orange rind and leave to cool.

Roll out the pastry and cut into two long strips about 4″ wide and 15″ long.

Put spoonfuls of the mixture at intervals along one side of each strip, leaving about an inch between each little pile. Fold over the top half of the pastry and press down between each pile of fruit and at the bottom edge. Cut diagonally into triangles and glaze with beaten egg. Bake for about 20 minutes until golden brown then decorate as desired.

We had these with ice cream – it’s very hot here!

The Magic-mill that grinds the gran’nams young,
Close at the side of kind Godiva hung;
She, of her favourite place the pride and joy,
Of charms at once most lavish and most coy,
By wanton act the purest fame could raise,
And give the boldest deed the chastest praise.

From: ‘The Parish Register: Part 1 Baptisms’ by George Crabbe (1754-1832)

 Posted by at 3:15 pm
Jun 102013
white asparagus with dill crème fraiche

white asparagus with dill crème fraiche

Thus the ancient Wainamoinen 
In his copper-banded vessel,

Left his tribe in Kalevala,

Sailing o’er the rolling billows,

Sailing through the azure vapours,

Sailing through the dusk of evening,

Sailing to the fiery sunset,

To the higher-landed regions,

To the lower verge of heaven.

From ‘The Kalevala’ compiled by Elias Lönnrot (1802-1884)

It’s ‘Helsinki Day’ today. The city will be awash with parties and fun events, all dedicated to the celebration of one of the most civilized places in which to live. 

Helsinki is one of my favourite cities; I think the quality of life in Helsinki is second to none – even in winter. I went there in June 2001 with my Mum and after we had done the main obligatory sites in the morning, I went off alone in the afternoon to do a bit of exploring. Not surprisingly my main area of interest when I’m in a new city is to check out firstly the food shops and secondly the kitchen equipment emporia. I had a whale of a time in Helsinki.


Southern Helsinki skyline

Southern Helsinki skyline

Helsinki is a city built around the sea and waterfronts are everywhere. Old ladies in headscarves sit behind stalls near the ferry port selling knitted stockings and bunches of lily of the valley. On sunny days people drink incredibly strong coffee in pavement cafes and sit on seats and steps watching the world go by.  In the winter, the pavements have under-pavement heating! The city has a flavour of Russia and a flavour of Sweden but actually, it is its own unique self.

One of the major sites visitors head for is the Temppeliaukio Church, which is built into the bedrock  and mostly underground – it’s a beautiful space hewn out of the heart of the city. Here’s a picture.


 If the Temppeliaukio Church is the spiritual heart of the city, national pride focusses on other ‘must see’ site – the Sibelius Memorial. It’s amazing, a stave of music translated into steel, controversial when first erected, it’s now a much loved memorial to Finland’s national composer.

In the centre of the city is ‘Stockmann’ – the Harrods of Helsinki.  I headed straight for the food hall in the basement. Suddenly I felt I was on the set of ‘Alien’. All around the walls were tall glass-fronted freezer cabinets. In every cabinet were transparent plastic balloons filled with water and frozen – and in every balloon – a sea creature. Crayfish, crabs, lobster – crustacea of every sort and size in cryogenic pods waiting to be released.  It was rather spooky. Less spooky were the fantastic selection of liqueurs made from cloudberries and lingonberries and whortleberries – the sweet tastes of the fleeting Finnish summer.

I wandered round the store wondering where the music was coming from and finally on the top floor I found it – a small orchestra was playing in the café and around the little dance floor, people were dancing – on a week day afternoon! Finns sure know how to have fun.


In the Finnish Design Centre a little way down the street, I blew a big chunk of my holiday spending money on a stainless steel Hackmann saucepan. Since then, it has made hundreds of risottos, soups and sauces. Last year I dropped it and disastrously the rivets that held the handle sheared right off. I was distraught. I wondered if I could have it repaired or if I could buy a new one, so I emailed Hackmann. They asked me to send a photo of the pan and the broken handle, which I did and three weeks later – a new pan arrived! Despite the fact it was over ten years old, Hackmann cared enough to send me a replacement. So there you are – fantastic service and my faith in Finland confirmed.

So what to cook? I managed to get some white asparagus this week, so let’s have that with a few tasty prawns and a big spoonful of chopped dill stirred through some softly whipped crème fraiche. 

No recipe, because this is assembly not cooking. Close your eyes and imagine you are in a seaside cafe in Helsinki listening to the ‘rolling billows’ of Wainamoinen lapping on the rocks below.


 Thus the wise and worthy singer

Sings not all his garnered wisdom;

Better leave unsung some sayings

Than to sing them out of season.

From the Epilogue to ‘The Kalevala’ (ibid)

*(Which means ‘Cheers” – it is a very funny language)


May 312013
asparagus gratin

asparagus gratin

‘…What mad Nijinsky wrote
About Diaghilev
Is true of the normal heart;
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.’

From: ’1 September 1939′ by W H Auden (1907-1973)

On the evening of 29 May 1913, the composer Igor Stravinsky went for supper with the ballet impresario Serge Diaghilev and his then lover, the star of the Ballets Russes, Vaslav Nijinsky. They had had something of an evening already. The Théâtre de Champs Élysées had just been the scene of – if not a riot then let us at least call it rowdy behaviour, between two factions of the audience. The two factions were what Cocteau called the ‘boxes’ – where sat the upper class, more conservative element, and the Bohemian avant-garde types in what John Lennon would have called ‘the cheap seats’.

The reason? A ballet.  But not just any ballet, the first performance of the stupendous, ‘Rite of Spring’, produced by Diaghilev, choreographed by Nijinsky – with a radical score written by Stravinsky. I wonder what they ate? And what they talked about? Did they wait up for the early newspapers and look avidly for the reviews? Did they realise what a succès de scandale they had on their hands?

The evening started peaceably enough. There was a decorous performance of ‘Les Sylphides’ and an interval. When Stravinsky’s pulverising beat of a score began, all hell broke loose. Anyone who was anyone was there, and lots of people, like Coco Chanel and Saint-Sëans, might not have been there, but later claimed they were present. We do know that in the audience were Jean Cocteau, Maurice Ravel (the only person who really understood the music) Gertrude Stein, Alice B.Toklas, Pablo Picasso. Marie Rambert was dancing in the chorus. Was Marcel Proust there? We don’t know, but we do know Henri Matisse missed it, because he was in Morocco.

People got totally carried away and not just insults were thrown. The noise, the stamping of feet and the catcalls were so deafening neither the audience nor the dancers could hear the music. Stravinsky slid out of his seat and stood beside poor Nijinsky the wings whilst he shouted the moves to his dancers, who bravely carried on dancing whilst being deafened by the noise from the auditorium. It must have been awful for them. The choreography, which involved lots of counter-intutive movements, was difficult enough, but to dance it with your ears full of heckling and the stage covered in thrown objects must have been a nightmare.

I was astonished to see the costumes. These poor girls look like extras from a very bad cowboy film. The music might still feel pretty contemporary, but the designs look as though they came out of the ark.

It’s a sexy piece of music even now, full of rhythmic dissonance, and it was a complete antidote to the dreamy impressionistic music of the time. In a dark primitive forest in northern Europe a young girl dances herself to a frenzied death as part of a pagan ritual to celebrate the coming of spring.  This is what Stravinsky himself said later, in his 1936 autobiography.

‘One day (in 1910), when I was finishing the last pages of ‘L’Oiseau de Feu’ in St Petersburg, I had a fleeting vision … I saw in my imagination a solemn pagan rite: sage elders, seated in a circle, watching a young girl dance herself to death. They were sacrificing her to propitiate the God of Spring. Such was the theme of the Sacre du Printemps’

Russian folk tales and mythology fascinate me. I guess it was too many readings at an impressionable age of Arthur Ransome’s ‘Old Peter’s Russian Tales’. But I’ve also been reading recently ‘Gossip From the Forest’ by Sara Maitland about the origins of European folk tales and their relationship with the great northern forests of folk memory. It’s fascinating stuff.

So the Rite of Spring engages on every level. I love the music, I’m interested in that whole early twentieth century European avant garde. I’m fascinated by Russian culture. I just wish I wish I’d been there. When someone finally invents time travel, I’ll be the first up to buy a ticket.

Anyway it’s spring. Time for asparagus. They might have been serving this in the restaurant in the Bois de Boulogne on the 13 May 1913….

Gratin of Asparagus

For two.

A bunch of asparagus trimmed and the bottom of the stalks peeled if necessary.
Slices of procuitto or black forest ham
A crust of stale bread and about an ounce of parmesan, blitzed together to make cheesy crumbs.
Cream – about 3-4 tablespoons
Nutmeg and black pepper
A shallow gratin dish.

Boil the asparagus for 3-4 minutes and let it cool. Lay out the ham on your work surface and then lay on top of each slice 2 or 3 asparagus spears – depending on their thickness. Roll them up and lay in a buttered gratin dish. Pour over the cream and season with grated nutmeg and black pepper.  Sprinkle with the crumbs and bake for about 25 minutes at 180c until lightly browned. Serve as a starter or add a hearty salad to make a main course.

Apologies it doesn’t look as pretty as it might – I was very hungry!

In everything I want to touch
the very essence.
In work, in seeking the path,
in heart’s turbulence.

For the meaning of days past,
for their cause,
for foundations, roots,
and their inner cores.

I want to grasp the threads,
of events and histories,
live, think, feel, love,
make discoveries….

From: ‘In Everything I want to Touch’ by Boris Pasternak (1890-1960)