Santiago Tart

Santiago Tart

Santiago Tart

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.

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Passion Flower

1357 Passion Flower

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.

Consider the Snowdrop

971 Snowdrops

A Meditation

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.

William Mitchell – Concrete Art

948 W Mitchell Coventry

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.


Socca

946 Socca

The word “conviviality” derives from the Latin word for “feast” and hints at the Latin words for “living with”. In French the word for “friend” is “copain”, derived from the Latin words for eating bread together. The recent troubling events in France, the home of gastronomic excellence and inevitably consequent conviviality, make us want no more threats to the French people’s ability to continue to feast and live together in comfort and harmony with their friends and neighbours. If anyone is contemplating starting up a Feasting For Peace movement I shall, with alacrity, apply to be considered for the post of local Branch Membership Secretary.

After years of looking out for “chick pea flour” I have discovered that it is marketed under other names (yes, all right, I could have tried harder) and I have purchased a bag of “gram flour”. At last I can attempt to bring back those fragrant holiday memories of the street market in Nice on the Côte d’Azur, where from a wide cast iron pan set over a wood fire in a tin drum comes forth the fastest and best of fast foods, the “socca”, a tasty chick pea flour pancake folded into a crisp-edged floppy cone, to take the edge, and more, off an appetite whipped up by the sea breeze sweeping the sunlit length of the Promenade des Anglais.

“Cuisine Niçoise” (first published in English in 1983) is an engaging compendium of culture and cookery compiled by allegedly crooked politician and former mayor of Nice, Jacques Médecin. He tells us that socca used to sustain the builders constructing the city’s fine buildings. It was the job of the site’s “bochou” (gofer) to listen for the cry of the itinerant socca vendor and to ensure his hungry co-workers got some before it cooled.

Simply combine equal volumes of chick pea flour and water, add some olive oil and some salt, mix to a smooth batter, leave it to stand for 15 minutes, then pour a ladleful into your hot frying pan that is already sizzling with a little olive oil.

I used 250ml of flour with 250ml of water plus 25ml of olive oil (additional oil is needed for frying the pancakes) and a teaspoon of salt. This amount made about six dinner-plate sized thin pancakes.

Jacques Médecin proposes, if there be no wood fire readily available, pouring the mixture into an oiled baking tin to a depth of 2-3mm and placing it under a hot grill, piercing blisters as they form, until it is well browned, almost burnt in parts, and then cutting it into 5cm squares and serving while still hot, with pepper. I will try this method next time, because frying pancakes has its tense moments, but I was after the floppy cone experience this time.

And yes it did bring back those holiday memories, on a sunny British winter lunchtime. Lovely just naked, plain and simple, but I note that there are a number of suggestions, from various parts of the world, on offer if you search for “chick pea pancake”, the only limit being the horizons of your own imagination.

Salut les copains!

Waiting, Christmas Eve

935 Manger

In countless churches this morning there’s a nativity tableau with an empty manger awaiting the baby. By the end of this Christmas night the gap will have been filled and the scene will be complete.

For hundreds of years craftsmen have offered painstaking examples of their humble wood and plaster work to their churches, dusted down each December and set on freshly gathered straw, to become an act of community prayer, understood by the smallest child, recognised by the forgetful elderly, soliciting memories in all of us of Christmases gone by, and lives gone by, and awakening hopeful beginnings and promises of what is to come.

A very special moment, that pause of reflection before the new baby on Christmas morning.

Peace + hope = joy …

Sweet Baby Crochet Blanket

873 yellow stripe blanket

There’s a sweet baby in the pipeline so here is an 80 cm square blanket I have just finished crocheting. Too early yet to know whether this sweet baby will require pink or blue accessories, and mummy-to-be likes yellow, so I have made it white with pale yellow stripes and a pale yellow edging, worked in a simple V stitch which gives a firm but pretty texture on both sides and a cosy warm depth.

After a few minutes of purposeful pushing and pulling a crochet hook  through soft yarn, in an easy sequence of moves, the brain slows down and produces a physical calm which lends itself to contemplative processes such as meditative reflection, or thinking through a problem, or preparing a new post. This straightforward repetitive pattern, with no counting involved, is also ideal for working at while watching my crime dramas (except for the Nordic ones where I need to read the sub-titles).

I used baby double knitting yarn and a size 3.50mm crochet hook. Tension and gauge do not matter as long as they are consistent all the way through. Sometimes on this kind of project I will use a smaller hook for the edging in order to neaten and firm up any slackness that may have eased into the tension (perhaps during a particularly complex episode of CSI, for example).

1. I started with a foundation chain, and then

2. a first row of treble crochet (known as double crochet in the US), then

3. starting the second row with 3 turning chains and a treble into the top of the first treble, then missing one stitch then continuing in this V stitch pattern (of two trebles in the top of every second treble and missing the stitch in between), then

4. the third row continuing the V stitch, with the two trebles inserted into the top of the second treble of each pair in the second row, then

5. repeating the third row (as long as you want, changing colour if and when you want to),

6. finishing with a row of trebles to match the first row, and

7. a row of trebles down each side, and

8. finally one row of single crochet in yellow round the whole blanket.

(teddy bear George likes it a lot)