Apple Time in the Historical Experiment Kitchen

It’s apple season and also, after ten days of being banned from cooking due to having covid, time for me to do some cooking ‘archaeology’!

I have a project in hand, adapting the sort of recipes my characters might eat, into something that’s easy to cook in a modern kitchen with modern ingredients, and mindful of modern tastes (specially not boiling vegetables and pasta forever, and being less likely to want to eat brains). So yesterday, I made a Roman/Victorian dinner and the recipes are below.

For recipes which Lucretia in the Murder Britannica series might eat, I refer to Apicius’s Roman Cookery Book (my copy is translated by Barbara Flower and Elisabeth Rosenbaum and published by Martino Publishing). My Latin is extremely rusty and the recipes themselves are more guidelines for someone who obviously knows what the normal methods are and another place I visit is the Tavola Mediterranea website where they have worked out ancient recipes from similar instruction and from which I’ve cooked some delicious food. It’s a fascinating website and well worth a visit.

For Margaret and Katherine of the Margaret Demeray and Caster & Fleet series, I use old cookery books, some facsimile, some original, with recipes that an ordinary woman of the late 19th/early 20th century might cook.

Of course their experiences would be quite different. 

Lucretia is rich and thoroughly enjoys as much imported food she can get her hands on, but she hasn’t actually cooked anything herself since she was a very young girl, so would relegate any cooking to an enslaved person, or send an enslaved person to buy ready cooked delicacies from a street trader. A Roman era kitchen was small and full of earthenware. It might have looked like this. I imagined street stalls like the one in the image below (excavated in Pompeii) in the forum in Durnovaria, selling hot pastries, sizzling meat, hot spiced wine and cider in my books. Lucretia wouldn’t have had potatoes, tomatoes, sweet (bell) peppers, chillies etc – all of which we take for granted. But that’s not to say she didn’t like spicy food – there’s ample pepper and fragrant spices in most recipes. Modern tastes of course don’t particularly fancy seasoning food with fermented fish (garum) but you can use modern fish sauce (e.g. the sort for Thai cooking), soy sauce or just salt in its place.

Meanwhile Margaret and Katherine are both middle-class and while both have domestic help (Margaret’s only coming in a few days a week in books one and two), they can both cook – Margaret with significantly more enthusiasm than Katherine. They have kitchens that we’d recognise – with a gas stove and metal pans. A refrigerator is a luxury item, so certainly in the first two Margaret Demeray books, Margaret doesn’t have one, relying instead of a cool pantry and shopping more regularly for perishable goods. It’s perhaps no wonder that the cookery books of the time rely a lot on canned and dried goods like tomatoes and fruit, and are heavily egg and cheese based. Chicken, which we think of as cheap now, was a luxury in Edwardian times (and in fact my parents both considered it a special Sunday food until the 1960s), so recipes for meat dishes tend towards mutton and pork. 

Margaret’s potential recipes look a lot more familiar than Lucretia’s and include curries and pasta dishes and vegetarian cuisine. But you can’t rely on them for timings – half an hour to cook spaghetti? (Was it a different construction then, or did Edwardians just not trust it?) And there’s advice which both agrees and conflicts modern ideas: cook potatoes with skin on but don’t cook vegetables too rapidly or you’ll spoil their colour. 

So going back to yesterday’s Sunday dinner. I experimented on my family with an adaptation of a Roman recipe for main course and a Victorian recipe for dessert. One which Lucretia might have ordered someone make for her and one which even Katherine could cook herself. NB – the pork dish is a good use of leftovers from a pork roast! They were both delicious and went down a treat.

And without further ado, here are the recipes:

PORK WITH MATIAN GRANNY SMITH APPLES

Adapted from Minutal Matianum by Apicius as translated by Barbara Flower and Elisabeth Rosenbaum

Serves 6

INGREDIENTS

2 tablespoons olive oil
100g (4 oz) ground pork/pork mince 

3 leeks, cleaned and sliced

½ bunch chopped coriander 

500 g (1lb) cooked pork, chopped into large chunks
½ cup chicken stock 

1½ tablespoons fish sauce*
2 large firm eating apples, peeled, cored and diced
3 teaspoons coarsely ground black pepper
3 teaspoons ground cumin
3 teaspoons ground coriander

Handful of fresh mint leaves
2 garlic cloves
1/3 – ½ cup white vinegar
2 tablespoons honey
¼ cup pomegranate molasses
1 teaspoon cracked pepper for garnish

*(I used the sort you use for Thai cooking but you could use soy sauce or just season with salt to taste.)

METHOD

  1. Heat oil.
  2. Saute pork mince till brown, add leeks and coriander.
  3. Add chopped cooked pork.
  4. Add stock and 1 tablespoon of fish sauce and warm through.
  5. Add chopped apples.
  6. Pound together in a pestle or blend: pepper, cumin, coriander, fresh mint, garlic and add this to the pan.
  7. Mix vinegar, honey, pomegranate molasses and remainder of the fish sauce in a cup and add that.
  8. Heat through and thicken with cornflour or beurre manié.
  9. Serve with barley (Roman) or rice (borderline Roman) or potatoes (not Roman at all). I also served it with peas into which I’d mixed crispy bacon and spring onions (scallions).

APPLE HEDGEHOG

(For a version which looks more like a hedgehog and includes another ingredient, check out Mrs Crocombe’s demonstration here.)

Serves 6

INGREDIENTS

1 kg/ 2lb Cooking Apples (about 5)

75g, 3 oz sugar

2 egg whites.

Two handfuls of slices almonds

A few raisins or sultanas or currants

A glacé cherry

METHOD

  1. Preheat an oven to 180°C or 350°F or gas 4.
  2. Peel, quarter and core the apples, put in a saucepan with a little water and 25 g/1oz sugar. Heat gently until just cooked (although if you overcook them a little, as I did, it’s not the end of the world. You just want them to retain some structure and not be mush).
  3. Put into an ovenproof dish and shape into a sort of hedgehog (a large mound of apples, with a smaller bit at the front for a head.
  4. While it’s cooling somewhat, whisk the egg whites into soft peaks, then fold in the remaining sugar.
  5. Cover the apples with the meringue mixture and decorate the ‘body’ part with flaked almonds.
  6. Put in the oven for about 20 minutes till the meringue is golden and the almonds just a little brown (keep an eye on it to make sure the almonds don’t burn).
  7. Decorate the face with a glacé cherry for a nose and raisins/sultanas/currants for eyes.

Words and photographs* copyright 2022 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.

*photograph of street kitchen in Pompeii Dietmar Rauscher https://www.dreamstime.com/thermopolium-pompeii-ancient-roman-street-food-kitchen-thermopolium-pompeii-ancient-roman-street-food-kitchen-serving-image184835561

A Novel Idea

Here’s a confession about a time when ‘the story’ was more important than common sense, logic or, in fact, the environment.

Sometimes I’m asked whether I have a preference in terms of what era I read about in historical fiction and whether it reflects on the eras I write about.

It’s hard to answer either.

The first books I read which could be termed historical fiction for children were set during the English Civil War between the “Roundheads” and “Cavaliers” or set in Elizabethan England. I loved books like ‘Cue for Treason’ where one of the protagonists was a girl who actually did things rather than just sit about watching boys have all the adventures. 

Then, around the age of nine or ten, I hit a heavy romantic/melodramatic phase around the time that children’s TV dramatised ‘A Little Princess’ in which a girl goes from riches to poverty and is kept in an attic by a wicked headmistress.

This was where my confession comes in.

I had entered the hinterlands of adolescence where I realised that my parents just didn’t understand me. I started a novel titled with those very words – an angst ridden drama involving a cruelly under-appreciated Victorian girl who… 

I didn’t get very far because I hadn’t quite worked out what she was going to actually do except whinge (although I daresay I’d planned a handsome young lad for her to fall in love with because he did understand and appreciate her and they’d ultimately marry). 

Instead I formulated a romantic plan less exhausting than writing a novel.

I might have been inspired by one of the old-fashioned Codd Neck bottles we’d dig up from time to time.

They were just begging to have a message put in them, if only they weren’t broken. And that’s where I got the idea.

I wrote a letter in the poshest English I could muster, in my fanciest handwriting with lots of curlicues, begging the recipient for help and asking them to rescue me from the attic in the castle where I was cruelly imprisoned. I dated it 1872, ripped the edges a little, stained the whole thing with tea to make it look old, rolled it up and put it in a normal glass bottle with a screw top (which I was saving to take back to the shop in exchange for enough small change to buy sweets and thus quite a sacrifice to the literary cause).

I then took the bottle to my secret place by the river, slipped it in and watched it bob downstream until it disappeared.

For a few days afterwards, I imagined the bottle getting into the larger river into which ‘mine’ fed and then out to sea and finally being picked up who knew where. It would be in the news! It would be a sensation! Who had the imprisoned girl been? Which castle? Had she ever escaped or was her skeleton still waiting in a dusty attic?

Then I was consumed by guilt. 

The thing I should have worried about – the fact that ‘my’ river was full of rocks and led to a waterfall and therefore the chances were high that the bottle might smash long before it got to the larger river, let alone the sea and someone might stand on it and get hurt – didn’t occur for years.

It also didn’t occur to me that even if it had been found intact, no one would think the message was genuine since the bottle, the handwriting and the felt-tip pen with which I’d written the letter were firmly late 20th century, not to mention the fact that it might seem suspicious that the ‘imprisoned’ girl had somehow managed to escape the attic to drop the bottle in a river and then presumably gone back to incarceration. 

What I did worry about for a week or so was that when it was found, a fruitless and expensive global search for a fictional little girl would commence for which I’d be wholly responsible.

When nothing happened I stopped worrying, but possibly as a direct consequence, I largely lost interest in romances about rich girls who were nothing like me and drifted towards books about average people who, whether historical or not, found themselves in extraordinary situations and had to manage with the resources at their disposal. 

And that, in partial answer to both original questions, explains what I’m really interested in reading and writing. 

It’s less about the era, even though I do have ones I gravitate towards. It’s more about what happens when an average sort of person – neither so poor, that they may as well take risks because they’ve nothing to lose nor so rich that they can do what they want and not worry about the consequences – has to tackle an extraordinary situation, when maybe they have to do it around the working day, family commitments, social expectations, financial constraint. Can they still have adventures? Can they still face peril? Can they still have fun?

Yes they can!

And when Liz Hedgecock got in touch (or did I get in touch with her?) and suggested co-writing a series set in Victorian London I jumped at the chance to prove it. 

We set about writing one book and the Caster and Fleet series then took over our lives because Katherine and Connie’s adventures were so much fun to write.

And in the first one, I finally got to write and deliver an anonymous letter. Only this time, it was in a much less risky way than I had aged nine or ten and it didn’t waste a bottle.

If you haven’t had the chance to read the Caster and Fleet series (six novels plus a novella) – the first three books are on special offer between Monday 28th June and Sunday 4th July 2021:

The Case of the Black Tulips is 99p/99c

The Case of the Runaway Client is £1.99/$1.99

The Case of the Deceased Clerk is £2.99/$2.99

And if you want to hear an abridged version of the first two chapters to give you a taster and also find out how Liz and I made friends and worked together on the series, here we are being interviewed about the books and their spin offs. 

Words copyright 2021 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission. Image credit

ID 201797590 © Chrissiecreative | Dreamstime.com

Of Rags and Richness

I seem to have become infected with some sort of reverse-Midas touch which means pretty much everything I touch is breaking down. This includes the fridge-freezer, the oven door, the car (or at least a warning light has come on) and the laptop which has ‘lost’ its word processing system. And yesterday, when I was teaching my daughter to sew, the sewing machine stopped working.

In the early hours of this morning when I was trying to formulate a short story and realising it was rapidly turning into a novel, I returned my thoughts to sewing, which as a creative activity, helps me zone out completely. Right now, the more I can tune out the better.

I learnt to sew very young. Until I married I made a lot of my own clothes, partly because I was an odd shape: short, thin, with no hips but an ample bust. After marriage I largely stopped because we had a small house and it wasn’t as easy having bits of sewing over the place and living on toast for a couple of days while I was making something. And the way I mutter to myself when things go wrong drove my husband mad. Now that my son has pretty much moved out though, I’ve reconfigured his bedroom as a sewing room and am starting afresh.

As I was thinking about this at six a.m., I considered my characters and their relationship with clothes.

Aunt Alice in the Caster & Fleet books is partly drawn from my paternal grandmother only with added primness and shockability (my grandmother wasn’t prim and not especially shockable although that might have been because she didn’t really realise what was going on). My grandmother had been brought up to be a housewife. It would be her husband’s job to  support her, while she played her part by being thrifty and skilled in cooking, sewing and parenting. Which she was. She adored pretty, bright, well-fitting clothes, took a lively interest in prevailing fashion and delighted in discussing dress-making ideas and helping develop my skills. This filtered into Aunt Alice.

Katherine in the same books is even shorter than I am, but doesn’t have a bust worth talking about. While that would have been an advantage to me, it wasn’t to her in the late 19th Century.  She’s also in a situation where the rug has been pulled out from under her financially. She can no longer afford a dressmaker but must rely on Aunt Alice’s skills. She herself can sew of course, but she’s not really patient enough to put as much effort in as she would need to, not to mention the fact that she has a job keeping her occupied every day. She’s very conscious in the early books that what she’s wearing is very slightly out of style, or has been re-modelled. While she’s grateful to Aunt Alice, she’s also a little envious of her better off friends, particularly Connie. Katherine also struggles with fashions which don’t really suit small, flat-chested women. This is pretty much a reflection of how I felt in my younger years when fashions didn’t really suit small, busty women and I didn’t have any money for new clothes.

Her younger sister Margaret, who appears from time to time in the Caster & Fleet books and now has a book all of her own set in 1910 is positively clothes obsessed. She remembers her teenage years when she was always a little out of style, and now she’s fully grown up and has a professional career, she will splash out on the latest hats and a few evening dresses that she perhaps can’t quite afford, simply because they’re beautiful. She has the advantage over Katherine of being taller and busty. She may find the bust a nuisance in the 1920s, but right now, she’s quite happy in clothes that are elegant and perfectly skim her figure. (Yes, I’m jealous of Margaret. She reflects how I wish I was and has a confidence in her appearance I won’t have if I live till I’m 100.)

Moving back several hundred years Lucretia, is also obsessed with the latest fashion (as soon as it arrives from Rome to West Britain). Her mental self image is fixed around eighteen. Then she was small and curvaceous with long dark, wavy hair and while probably not exactly pretty, she was certainly striking. Nowadays – the wrong side of fifty – she’s very curvaceous and says the appearance of the odd silver strand of hair is a trick of the light. Just in case though, she has a collection of wigs sourced from all over the empire: one with black Indian hair, one with blonde German hair, one with red hair (the source of which may be a henna plant) and one which mixes them up a bit. She also wears as much make-up as she can without falling forwards under the weight of it. Most of the cosmetics are lead based and therefore toxic, but even if she realised, she’d probably say beauty has its price. It’s perhaps as well she doesn’t have access to a full-length mirror and can keep in her head the image of herself as young and beautiful and not have it dashed by reality – though of course, she’d say that was a trick of the light too.

Nowadays of course, I’m probably closer to Lucretia than Katherine in looks, though I couldn’t bear all that make-up. I’d say I couldn’t bear the thought of a wig either but not having seen a hairdresser since January, my silver strands are rather taking over.

I am still short, with no hips and an ample bust. Sadly I am no longer thin. And equally sadly, unlike Lucretia I do have a full-length mirror and am not deluded enough to think I still look eighteen. Oh well – I’m ready for a different dress-making challenge. Bobbins at the ready sewing machine – I’m coming to fix you.

Welsh costume

(This is from a rather blurry polaroid of me and my sister in a Welsh costume made by my mother for St David’s Day when we lived in Wales. All the other little girls wore short skirts but my father was determined we should be ‘authentic’. As we were English this seemed a bit pointless but that was Dad for you. My sister is now taller than me.)

Words and photograph copyright 2020 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.

 

Writing Between the Fine Lines

Books for Older Readers?

How is an older reader any different from a younger one? We aren’t of course – except for the level of irritation we may feel when reading how we’re portrayed.

A great many industries have fallen foul of this (retailers – you know who you are) and the writing industry is one of them. 

Things some authors forget about people over fifty and indeed over seventy:

  • We don’t usually wear clothes from before WWII unless we’re going to a fancy dress party. 
  • In our teens we danced to anything from rock ’n’ roll to hip-hop – therefore it’s unlikely our favourite tunes are from the 1930s or before.
  • We grew up in a society which was described as ‘permissive’ and some of us were hippies. Whether we are/were permissive or not, whether we want to read about it or not, few of us find sex shocking or dirty. 
  • Apart from in a professional context, we prefer (or at least I prefer) not to be addressed formally. I find the words ‘Mrs Harmon…’ tend to precede bad news.
  • The menopause is not the morphopause. A woman on the far side of it is no different from the woman on the near side only except that she has one less thing on her shopping list every month.
  • Regardless of gender, we’re probably still working or have worked most of our adult lives.
  • We understand more of what teenagers and twenty-somethings say than we let on.

Under the spare bed I’ve stored various story segments written between the ages of sixteen and thirty. Whether I’ll ever do anything with them I don’t know. 

In my teenage jottings, all the main characters are under eighteen. Anyone over twenty is of doubtful interest since their sole function is to do what the adults around me seemed to be doing: boss people about and mess things up for the next generation. 

Back then, older people said if we worried about the future we were naïve and if we didn’t we were frivolous. ‘All you care about,’ they said, ‘is sex, awful so-called music, ridiculous fashions and avoiding settling down.’ (From what I recall we were interested in all those things – as are young people in every generation – but also the fairly major risk of being blown up in a nuclear war because of sabre-shaking adults.)

At twenty-one, I graduated and started working. The characters in my stories then were also in their twenties, torn between having to earn a living, wanting to do something interesting instead, wondering if they would ever find The One and fundamentally feeling that adult life was frankly not worth the bother.

After I hit thirty, there was a long gap when I didn’t write much at all, because earning a living turned into a career, The One finally turned up (albeit not to the timetable I had in mind as a teenager) and consequently I had two children. Adult life, whether worth the bother or not, got in the way.

By the time I got round to writing properly again I was, of course, older. 

Things that I’d discovered in the meantime included:

  • Some people have lots of energy and want to change the world for the better.
  • Some people have lots of energy and want to change it for the worse.
  • Some people are tired, busy, ill, disillusioned.
  • Some people just want to have some fun. 
  • Some people just don’t care.
  • People can be insecure, worried, want to love and be loved, want sex or not want sex, be angry, happy, spiritual, a-spiritual, confused, hopeful, dangerous. 
  • They can be all these things at the same time or at different times.
  • Crucially, they can be all these things whatever age they are.

The only difference between a younger person and an older one is that the younger one looks at the older and thinks it’ll never happen to me and the older looks at the younger and thinks when did I stop being you?

By the time I started writing again, I realised that whatever age my characters were they had to be as multi-faceted as real people. 

How have I tried to reflect that in my own stories? 

Murder Britannica is a humorous murder-mystery set in 2nd Century south-east Wales. Its main characters Lucretia and Tryssa are two British women in their fifties who have loathed and subsequently avoided each other since since their teens. While the self-absorbed Lucretia is the richest woman in the area, suddenly she has to rely on Tryssa, the wisest woman in the area, to stop a string of mysterious deaths from really getting out of hand. I had great fun writing about them. Lucretia doesn’t think she’s too old for anything, whether it’s getting even richer or flirting with eligible (e.g. rich) men and thinks Tryssa is dull and possibly sneaky. Tryssa feels maturity should equal wisdom and equanimity and thinks Lucretia is ridiculous. A second book about them will hopefully be out in Spring 2020. It’s set in Durnovaria (modern day Dorchester) and while Lucretia’s visit to an old flame uncovers more than a plot to defraud her of money, Tryssa finds not just answers to a buried secret but also unexpected love.

The Cluttering Discombobulator is a fictionalised memoir about my father. It flips between memories of being a child in the 1970s and being the forty-something daughter of an elderly man who runs amok with a mobility scooter. The book started when my father challenged me to write an interesting short story about a retired couple, one of whom is in a wheelchair. Over time and circumstance, it morphed into something else entirely. 

Kindling and The Advent Calendar (collections of short stories, many of which are based on real events and/or places) have plenty of young people on the edge of adulthood or adolescence but also several older people revisiting their youth to close a circle.

Weird and Peculiar Tales (co-written with Val Portelli) features several older people either on the wrong side of things that go bump in the night or being the thing that goes bump in the night.

Starting with The Case of the Black Tulips, the Caster & Fleet series (co-written with Liz Hedgecock) is set in 1890s London. Katherine (25) and Connie (22) team up to solve one mystery and end up solving several. There’s romance, humour, dark deeds and plenty of tea. Where are the older characters? Well in an era when a nice girl (even aged 25) was still largely under someone’s supervision a lot of the time, Katherine has Aunt Alice and Aunt Alice’s friend Mina to chaperone her (assuming she doesn’t climb out of a window or something). Aunt Alice has been trying to bring up Katherine and Katherine’s sister Margaret since their mother’s death. She’s loving, shy, unworldly and doesn’t really feel equal to her nieces’ fire. She’s quietly horrified that Katherine’s working – even in a job suitable for a nice middle-class girl – and would rather live in genteel poverty. Her quiet and somewhat secretive friend Mina is more inclined to turn a blind eye to Katherine’s activities. Alice and Mina are both in their late forties, perhaps considered old maids. Has life passed them by? Perhaps it hasn’t. There are also two much less retiring women. One is Connie’s mother who could turn a disappointing jelly to stone with one glare and whose efforts to marry her daughter off to any suitable young man are the main reason Connie escapes to a side-street restaurant one rainy lunch-time and meets Katherine. The other is Penelope, the aunt of the young man who may or may not be on Katherine’s side. If anyone would swing from Tower Bridge the minute it’s built, it would be Penelope. As the bridge isn’t quite finished when we meet her, she settles for a different adventure altogether. There are older men too – enigmatic Mr Maynard, the senior civil servant and entrepreneurial Mr Templeton, the manager of a music-hall.

As a reader, I’ll read anything. I like old classics, I like new finds. I like mainstream fiction, genre fiction, young adult fiction and children’s fiction. I don’t care if the main characters are six or a hundred. The key thing is they need to be interesting and roundly authentic. 

As a writer, I find my characters tell me how old they are and I go from there. I myself haven’t got to sixty yet, let alone eighty or a hundred. Will that stop me writing about someone who tells me that’s how old they are? No. But I’ll do my best to make them real.

Before you make assumptions, have a look at the Books for Older Readers website and see what’s there. You’ll find quite a range. 

There may even be a few that older readers are apparently too old to understand. 

Who’d have thought it? 

Shocking.

The Books for Older Readers Facebook group and website was established in October 2017 to promote books (mainly fiction) with older protagonists or themes such as ‘second chances’, which tend to appeal to readers in mid-life or beyond.

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Words copyright 2019 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.