On 25 July the citizens of Santiago de Compostela help themselves to another slice of pie as they celebrate the feast day of St James (Sant Iago). The apostle is believed to have sailed to the rain-lashed north western shores of Spain and his bones are claimed to be buried in the depths of the magnificent cathedral of the beautiful capital city of the region of Galicia. Since medieval times pilgrims have walked hundreds of miles, along various routes, on the picturesque Camino de Santiago (watch Martin Sheen in “The Way” to get a feel for the landscapes) to seek remission of their sins. Still today, during the summer months, a steady stream of dusty sunbaked travellers of all ages stumble their last few tired steps through a narrow corner opening out into the vast plaza, where they gape, astounded both by the towering cathedral and by the enormity of their achievement. If one has walked at least the last 100 kms one may collect an official Certificate, after which a comforting piece of the almond pie of St James is available in every cafe and restaurant to restore one’s depleted energy. I confess that my visits to Santiago of the Field of Stars have hereunto been made by plane but maybe one day I will step up to the walk.
The recipe for the Tarta de Santiago is easy to make, and an online search comes up with little variation in the suggested ingredients. I made the full version below to feed a crowd earlier this week, and then made a reduced version for small-family use by exactly halving the ingredients. We enjoyed a slice with a cup of Earl Grey, but there is no reason I can think of why a glass of Galician Albarino Rias Biaxas would not enhance the experience.
- 250g caster sugar
- 250g ground almonds
- ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
- ½ teaspoon almond extract
- Grated zest of 1 lemon
- Grated zest of 1 orange
- 6 eggs
Mix all the ingredients – I whizzed them all together in the food processor.
Bake in a loose-bottomed 22cm cake tin at about 160 C until golden and firm.
When it has cooled and you have taken it out of the tin you will need to place a stencil of the Cross of St James on the cake and sift a nice thick layer of icing sugar over the whole of the surface. After you have carefully removed the stencil there will be a lovely clear image of the Cross. A moistened bit of kitchen paper picks up any inappropriate incursions of sugar. For the stencil there is a picture on Wikimedia Commons that you can print and cut out. Having the intention of making at least two tarts I thought I would cut the stencil out of a piece of transparent plastic so I could rinse and re-use it, but, oh boy, what a struggle – that was 25 minutes of my life I’m never going to get back – and in the end I gave up and made it quickly and easily from the printer paper.
Galicia’s wild romantic individualism, reflected through its ancient oral story-telling traditions, has much in common with those other edgy territories, Brittany, Cornwall and Wales, but it’s better at cake.
These intriguing blooms are profusely snaking, clinging and stretching all over our south-facing brick wall. It is not surprising to discover that their mysterious complexity has been made use of by more than one religion.
The Spanish Catholic missionaries who went to South America in the 15th century treated the passion flower as a teaching aid in retelling the story of the passion and crucifixion of Jesus Christ.
The ring of filaments symbolises the crown of thorns, the three stigmas the three nails on the cross, the five anthers the five holy wounds, and the ten sepals and petals stand for the ten of the twelve apostles who did not waver – Judas betrayed Jesus, and Peter denied knowing him. The flagellation of Jesus during the passion is represented by the plant’s whip-like tendrils and the spots on the underside of the leaves recall the thirty pieces of silver paid to Judas for his act of betrayal. The flowers bloom brightly but last for only a day, as did the passion and death of Jesus, before retracting into a tightly-wrapped bundle reminiscent of a burial shroud.
I just couldn’t say no to the new parents’ request for a cosy crocheted cocoon and hat, but the concept was new to me. So I had a trawl through some rather amazing patterns on the internet, most of them displaying considerable feats of imagination and nearly all of them requiring a degree of bravery to which I simply failed to aspire. In the end I settled on a free Red Heart pattern and proceeded to tone it down to make it a bit more West London, UK. Take a look at the photo attached to the original pattern and you will see what I mean.
In fact it is a lovely pattern, very easy and quick to work up. All I did was to modify the colours and simplify the hat. The end result, modelled here by a plastic jellybaby, went down well with the parents, although baby has already grown out of it, as they do.
Proving the proverb that the proof of the pudding is in the eating, but I’ll admit that it’s not the most photogenic of desserts, even if I had remembered to take a photo before the spoons were grasped.
Down at the bottom of my garden the sturdy shoots of pink rhubarb, under their umbrellas of dark green leaves, have been responding to days on end of sunshine and to the contents of the rain water butt. Cooked within moments of being picked, this year’s croppings have already resulted in a few good bake mixes. Some recipes invite you to cook and sweeten your rhubarb before adding it to the other ingredients but I prefer to leave it au naturel and experience the exquisite burst of tartness embedded within the sweet surrounding dough, such a decadent pleasure.
This recipe makes a pudding or a cake or individual muffins.
- Cream together 120g butter or vegetable margarine and 170g soft brown sugar. For added richness I like to use muscovado sugar, which resists amalgamation, but melting the butter and sugar gently together while stirring briskly is worth the faff.
- Mix in a quarter of a teaspoon of ground ginger. Yes, only a quarter, for a subtle buzz. I have had a go at alternatives here such as a few drops of vanilla or almond essence, but again keeping it mean, letting the rhubarb’s light shine.
- Mix in the grated zest of one lemon.
- Add 3 beaten eggs.
- Mix in 100g soured cream.
- Fold in 170g self-raising flour (or, for the wheat-fearing, spelt flour with a teaspoon of baking powder).
- Fold in 200g rhubarb sliced into 1cm pieces.
- Put the mixture into a pudding dish, cake tin, or muffin tin depending on what you decide you are going to call it. This decision will also affect the oven temperature and length of cooking time. I would recommend a little lower temperature and a little longer than you would bake a Victoria sandwich cake.
The above can be followed conscientiously and meditatively, or steps 1-5 can be achieved all at one, carefree, rapturous, go in the food processor, but the flour needs as little mixing as possible, so as not to beat the air out of it, just a few pulses, and the rhubarb pieces just a pulse or two so as not to lose their identity.
I served the pudding, warm, with spoonfuls of crème fraiche, to a recent jolly gathering which included a poet from Bloomsbury, who savoured a second helping and said some appreciative words, although they did not rhyme.
Slow-Baked Easter Biscuits from Lancashire
Long ago in the village of Goosnargh (pronounced “goozner”), in the heart of the peaceful Ribble valley in the north of Lancashire, the village baker produced a new biscuit for Easter. I imagine him thinking it up as a frugal opportunity of using the residual heat from the dying oven after the last batch of bread came out on Holy Thursday. After a long day farming the fields by the river Ribble my ancestors would return home to each take their shift at weaving cotton on the hand loom in the farmhouse. Perhaps they ate these biscuits to keep them going. I have found my forebears’ births, marriages and deaths recorded by the Jesuits at their chapel at nearby Stonyhurst. Then, in the 1840s, when the first cotton factory was built further along the river, putting the hand loom weavers out of business, records show that the younger members of the family left to seek work on the new railways in Liverpool. There, these strong country boys, slow and sparing of speech, met the hungry Irish girls yattering and skittering off the boats, the Great Famine a rough sea away. Did they, I wonder, woo them with biscuits?
- Mix 110g butter or margarine with 20g caster sugar and 180g plain flour and 1 tablespoon caraway seeds and 1 teaspoon of ground coriander, using the method you would use for shortbread. (I lob it all into the food processor.) Spelt flour works perfectly here for those who wish to avoid wheat flour.
- Chill the dough if you have time and inclination then roll it out to 5mm. The traditional Goosnargh cake is cut into plain-edged, not fluted, rounds, which can be achieved with an upturned glass tumbler. This quantity makes a little over a dozen biscuits. Place on a floured baking tray.
- The crucial element of the Goosnargh cake, its USP if you will, is that it is baked slowly on a low heat and should never turn brown. I put them in the fan oven at 150 degrees for about 25 minutes, taking them out while still pale, and sprinkling a little more caster sugar on them.
Best enjoyed with a cup of tea (and this might be one of very few occasions when a native Lancastrian will be tempted to partake of a brand of tea from the adjacent county*) they make an interesting contrast to the unrelenting sweetness of the usual paschal comestibles.
I also found an ancestor on the other side of my family tree who is buried at Goosnargh, having died at the nearby Lancashire County Lunatic Asylum. I would have hoped that here, too, the biscuits would have found their way on to the inmates’ tea plates. I thought at first that this ancestor was a servant at the asylum, but no, the record showed that her occupation had been a servant prior to her incarceration for lunacy. Thankfully the DNA has become diluted across the intervening years, such that her descendants now evince only a mild eccentricity.
* an elucidation for our non-UK readers: “Yorkshire Tea” is a best-selling brand throughout the country, but the denizens of the contiguous counties of Lancashire and Yorkshire maintain a good-natured rivalry which goes back to the Wars of the Roses in the 1480s, the red rose being the symbol of the Lancastrians and the white rose the symbol of the Yorkists, whose leader, Richard III, slain on the battlefield, was reburied this week in Leicester Cathedral.
There is something so fiercely brave about the slender strength of the dependable snowdrop. No matter what the weather brings this flower remains bowing but unbowed. It confidently shakes itself free from the snowflakes, sturdily stands up to the winds, and resolutely ignores the raindrops.
The snowdrop is a modest flower. It does not shine a brilliant white, nor does it bear the sunny reflection of the surrounding aconites and narcissi, nor does it seek to draw near to the aristocratic ivory of the lily of the valley: it is its very own cool shade of serene white.
The leaves and stem hold the promise of the green of the heart of spring, holding out in all weathers until that spring eventually comes, an expression of hope.
Each snowdrop in the clump has its own conscious role to play in the whole picture; they work together in just the right spacing, no more and no less than needed, each one as important to the big picture as any other, and no one bloom asking for or taking more attention than any other. The perfect community.
My heart lifts when I see art on the street that is touchable, shared, readily opening up to a different light the mundane moments of daily routine. A good example is the endless gift to Harlow New Town’s community comprising 84 sculptures carefully planted throughout its living and working and shopping and playing spaces.
My photo is of a wall in a small Coventry shopping precinct, an energising art work robustly composed in concrete by William Mitchell in 1966. The window set into its exuberance affords a glimpse of the bright plastic condiment dispensers within.
William Mitchell won the 2014 Creativity in Concrete Award for his lifetime’s achievement. I have admired his carved bell tower and panels at Frederick Gibberd’s RC Cathedral in Liverpool, and the delicately expressive success of his cement Stations of the Cross in the RC Clifton Cathedral in Bristol, but I did not know until now that he designed the glorious Egyptian escalator and Egyptian Hall at Harrods.
Some rather interesting details about Mitchell may be found enthusiastically presented on: https://wharferj.wordpress.com/2011/09/02/william-mitchell-an-unacknowledged-genius/ and there are honourable mentions in the two lovely books I received at Christmas, Christopher Martin: A Glimpse of Heaven, Catholic Churches of England and Wales (2006), and The Twentieth Century Society: 100 Buildings 100 Years (2014) and in another wonderful and richly detailed book, this one a birthday present, Robert Proctor: Building the Modern Church, Roman Catholic Architecture in Britain, 1955 to 1975 (2014). How good my family are to me.
William Mitchell’s art is truly accessible.