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English life

A ploughman’s lunch

Photo by Glammmur, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The ploughman’s lunch, shown above, has been around for hundreds of years in England. It typically consists of crusty bread and a couple of hunks of cheese and a variety of items may or may not be added : pickles, chutneys, pies, salad, sliced meat, hard-boiled eggs or even an apple or grapes. It is often presented on a wooden platter, as in the photo above.

Probably no two ploughman’s lunches are ever quite exactly the same. And of course, it needs to be washed down with an ice-cold beer or cider.

Origins

Bread, cheese and beer have existed in England since its beginning, and the phrase “a ploughman’s lunch” was first recorded around the end of the 14th century in a medieval poem called Pierce the Ploughman’s Crede. It is not difficult to imagine that these three items would be easy to pack for a farm labourer who needed an economical but hearty packed lunch after a morning working in the fields. Cheese was a good source of protein in this midday sustenance.

This type of cold, easily prepared meal has also been on offer in inns or other establishments for centuries. At times it may have been all they had to offer, especially throughout rationing at the time of the second world war, and afterwards. But it remained a popular combination.

Bread and cheese
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Ploughman’s lunch hits the big time

There is some argument over whether “a ploughman’s lunch” always referred to the bread and cheese combo, or if it meant whatever the ploughman had in his lunch box for his midday meal that particular day.

But by the 1950’s it definitely had the meaning of the meal pictured above. The Cheese Board began promoting the sale of cheese when rationing ended and in the 60’s and 70’s the Milk Marketing Board began a campaign to promote the ploughman’s lunch itself. It was also a dream for caterers as the ingredients were flexible and the meal was so easy and quick to prepare. So understandably, it was always on the menu for the pubgrub of this period, and maybe brought with it the nostalgia of a less complicated, rural England.

New versions

A modern take on ploughman’s lunch
With thanks to https://communitykitchenatl.com/recipe/ploughmans-platter/

Nowadays chefs and gastropubs have added their own twists to the ploughman – and it has become a lunch that can stand up to most occasions. Scotch eggs, olives, paté, fancy meats and even fish can all adorn a contemporary ploughman’s lunch – but the cheese, unlike the substantial slices of bread, remains a staple ingredient, whatever variety it may be.

A relatively simple, timeless dish. Arrange the foodstuffs of your choice on a plate or platter or in a tray or a bowl. And off you go. Bon appetit!

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English life

A calorie-laden trip through English food

Photo by Laurenz Kleinheider on Unsplash

A  completely personalised and random list

There’s a lot of negative news out there and coronavirus lockdown restrictions haven’t been exactly a bundle of fun.  Some of us have had to develop our culinary skills a little further than usual in these trying times. Some of us may have turned to the comfort food we crave. It got me thinking about the food of my childhood. I was born and grew up in the north of England. In the 80’s, when globalisation was beginning to take place, and people began to travel further afield on holiday, the range of foodstuffs on offer gradually began to increase. Nowadays any reasonably sized supermarket has a huge variety of goods, much of it imported from abroad, as our culinary tastes have broadened. But what about food we consider to be quintessentially English ?

In no particular order, here are some of my favourite typically English foodstuffs from my childhood.  Maybe I should warn you first that this post is not for anyone strictly controlling their calorie intake. But it makes for divine comfort food.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Fish_and_chips_blackpool.jpg
  • I know it’s a cliché but I have the best memories of steaming hot battered  fish and chips with lashings of malt vinegar, brought home by Mum or Dad as a treat . The first takeaway I ever sampled  –  before takeaway was even a thing. Or as an adult, buying this tasty comforting fare, best eaten out of the wrapping paper on the way home after a few drinks in the pub. Pure bliss.

Selection of English Cheese
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  • Cheese – my personal favoutite is tangy, crumbly Cheshire cheese. But there’s an immense range of around 700 English cheeses you can sample …..it’s not all about Cheddar. And there are some great names ….Cornish Yarg, Dorset Drum, Fine Fettle Yorkshire and the marvellously named Stinking Bishop, whose name orginates from Stinking Bishop pears, which are used to make an alcoholic drink known as perry, in which the cheese is steeped while it matures. In turn,  Stinking Bishop Pears are named after Mr. Frederick Bishop, who first cultivated them. Mr Bishop is said to have once shot at his kettle when it did not heat water quickly enough for his liking. Interesting guy.
A 99 ice-cream
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  • Ok, English weather in general can be pretty dismal but when conditions are right and it’s sunny, the sky is blue, it’s around 24 degrees and there is no more than a gentle breeze, an English summer’s day is not far from perfect. And top it off with a 99 from the ice-cream van. A 99, for those of you not in the know, is a soft ice-cream cone with a Cadbury’s chocolate flake. Heaven.
The fry-up
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  • The full English breakfast. Typically consists of bacon, sausages, fried eggs, baked beans, fried tomatoes, hash browns, fried bread, black pudding and any thing else you care to throw in. Yes, it involves a lot of frying. That’s why it’s also known as a fry-up. It also contains a huge amount of calories. But it is a tried and tested hangover cure, possibly because you are unable to move anyway if you scoff the lot. Variations include the Full Scottish, Full Irish and Full Welsh breakfast.

Plate of delicious freshly baked Xmas mince pies with one broken open to reveal the rich fruity filling. (Stockarch Free Stock Photos )
  • Mince pies. These are a Christmas delicacy and if you are unfamiliar with them, you would probably assume they are savoury….but no, they are made with sweet mincemeat consisting of dried fruit with spices. Orginally, however, in the 13th century mince pies were much bigger, generally rectangular in shape and surprise, surprise, they did contain meat well as fruit and spice. By the time of Queen Victoria, the mince pie had evolved into the the sweet- flavoured individually sized pie that we know and love today…. the mouthwatering taste of a traditional English Christmas.

So there you have some of my favourite food treats from my country of birth.

Anything else you would add to the list ? Tell me your thoughts ….

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English life

And here is the weather forecast ….. from Saint Swithin

Who was Saint Swithin ?

It is truly amazing how snippets of information, no matter whether they are based on fact or fiction, can filter through hundreds of generations and become part of our traditions and culture. Such is the case of Saint Swithin (or Swithun, if you prefer), who was the bishop of Winchester in the 9th century. Despite the fact that not much has been recorded about his life, it is the events after his death that have earned him a place in history.

What we do know for sure is that Swithin was the bishop of Winchester from October 852 until July 853, and that on his deathbed, he requested to be buried in the cathedral grounds where the rain could fall on his grave.

But after a church reform, on 15th July in the 970’s, Swithin’s remains were transferred from his burial place in the grounds to a new shrine in the Old Minster in Winchester. The removal of the remains were carried out in heavy rain storms, which were said to last 40 days and 40 nights. Swithin was evidently not amused.

As we do not have access to weather records from the 10th century, the 40 day downpour has never been confirmed. But the legacy of Swithin has endured. He is the patron saint of Winchester. He is the saint we should address if we are in need of water in the event of a drought. He is also remembered in this verse:

St. Swithin’s day if thou dost rain
For forty days it will remain
St. Swithin’s day if thou be fair
For forty days ’twill rain nae mair. 

And translated into contemporary English – if it rains on 15th July, now known as Saint Swithin’s day, you are going to see a lot more rain. 40 days and nights’ worth, to be exact. But should the opposite be true, that is, the sun deigns to make an appearance, then you will enjoy 40 days of fine weather.

Sadly , I am obliged to admit that there are no years on record when this prediction actually came true. A meterologist would tell you that the weather can often change mid-summer in England and this is a phenomenon dependent on jet streams. But I would stake a guess that numerous people in England will look at the sky on 15th July 2020 and remember Saint Swithin.

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English life

Quirky place names in England

Where are we ?   Photo by Leah Kelley on Pexels.com

Bizarre names

There are many locations in England with outlandish names. Some are rude, some are funny and some are just, well, really silly.

Here are are some of my favourites :

Beer

Beer is a picturesque little village on the coast of Devon. I am sure you can have a beer in Beer, but its name isn’t related to the drink. It is from the Old English bearu which meant grove, and this referred to the vegetation that originally surrounded the village.

Bell End 

This village in Worcerstershire shares its name with the British slang for part of the male genitalia, and has a secondary meaning, also slang,  which applies to someone who is annoying. Not to be used in polite company, unless you are referring to the location, of course.  Bell End won a competition in 2016 when it was voted the most hilarious place name in Britain.

Crackpot

Crackpot, a perjorative word for someone with irrational ideas, is also the name of a village in Yorkshire. It is believed to be the amalgation of an old English word, kranka, meaning crow,  and the word pot from Viking, which referred to a rift or a cavity. As is the case with many other place names, it describes what the settlers first spotted when they arrived at the location.

Giggleswick

Well, first of all, the name Giggleswick just makes me want to giggle. This town in the Yorkshire dales has the classic Anglo-Saxon ending – wick, (also appearing as –wich and -wyke in other place names) which meant dwelling or settlement.  The giggles bit  doesn’t have anything to do with laughing though. It’s because the particular site  in question belonged to Gichel, according to A Dictionary of British Place Names.

Pant

There are three places called Pant in Wales and one in England, namely in Shropshire, near the Welsh border. In the Welsh language, a pant is a valley, a dip or a hollow.  Pant in Shropshire is , unsurprisingly, located in a dip directly below Llanymynech Rocks Nature Reserve. In the same way I would like to have a beer in Beer, I would also like to pant in Pant. Obvious I know, but having a beer in Pant or panting in Beer just wouldn’t be the same.

Sandy Balls

Sandy Balls, close to the River Avon and the New Forest in Hampshire, is comprised of woods and parklands which are now managed as a holiday centre. It was originally called Sandyballas, which referred to the sand dunes, and the name Sandyballas appears on documents from  Henry VII’s time. By 1939, the name Sandy Balls was in use for the promotion of the location as a holiday spot, with a possibly unintentional play on words.

Ugley and Nasty

Ugley is located in the Essex countryside and was registered in the Domesday Book as Ugghelea.  The theory is that someone called something like Ugga owned the original land which was a leah (Old English for a meadow or open field). Nothing to do with Ugley being ugly  – in fact it is said to be very pretty.  Ugley is not that far away from Nasty, in Hertfordshire. According to Wikipedia, the name Nasty is derived from Anglo-Saxon, æt þǽm éastan hæge, meaning “at the eastern hedged enclosure” or similar. And no, I don’t understand how the name evolved into Nasty, either.

Westward Ho!

The only place in the British Isles that includes an exclamation mark in its name, Westward Ho! can be found on the North Devon coast. Its attention grabbing name comes from the novel of the same name, by Charles Kingsley, published in 1855. His novel would not fare well in contemporary times due to its imperialist bias, but in its day, it was a bestseller. Ten years after publication,  some local businessmen from Bideford (where the storyline begins) set up a holiday village in close proximity, christening it  Westward Ho! and cashing in on the novel’s success and the Victorians’ love for seaside breaks.

And finally ….. all the Bottoms

Forgive my puerile sense of humour, but I just love all those place names that include the word bottom (which, incidentally is derived from Old English botm , meaning the lowest part of something). Too many to mention here but thank you to Bottom’s Fold in Lancashire, Broadbottom in Greater Manchester, Clay Bottom in Bristol, and the marvellously named Scratchy Bottom in Dorset, for making us laugh.

Feel free to tell me about any other place names that make you laugh – in England or anywhere else…..hope you enjoyed reading this post as much as I have in creating it.

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English life

British icons – the red pillar box

A famous British icon – the red post box
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A burst of colour in the streets

Modern technology may have diminished the longstanding tradition of sending letters, but the red pillar box remains a well-known and much loved British emblem in the same way as the iconic red phone box. (see post of 4th October, 2019 British icons – the red phone box).

But how did red letter boxes come about ?

A brief history

Sir Rowland Hill was a teacher and social reformer who campaigned for changes in the postal system in the 1830’s. At that time, the postal service was poorly managed, costly, and slow. There was a complicated system of postal rates, and it was the recipient who paid for the letter and not the sender, so letters could be refused. Despite some fierce opposition, Hill revolutionised the postal system to create affordable standard rates by the use of postage stamps, to be paid by the sender.

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Postage stamps have long been collectable items
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However, in order to post a letter, it still needed to be taken to a receiving office, which were not always located near to the letter writer. These offices were usually coach inns or places where road tolls were collected, very different from the Royal Mail Post Offices we use today. As the country became more urbanised and industrialised, people needed more convenient places to deposit their correspondence. In 1852, Rowland Hill sent Anthony Trollope, a civil servant and a novelist, to trial the use of a “letter-receiving pillar” in the Channel Islands, a location which was further hindered by its dependence on a boat to and from the mainland for its postal service.

The use of pillar boxes along with scheduled collection times was a success. Letter boxes were introduced in Jersey in 1852, and later extended to the rest of Britain, where the first pillar box was inaugurated in Carlisle in 1853. The first post boxes were hexagonal but there have been more than 800 different types of post box over the years. One thing they generally have in common is that a post box displays the insignia of the incumbent monarch at the time of its installation.

Up to 1859, there was no standard colour for the pillar box. From 1859 to 1874 the standard colour was green, which was eventually deemed too inconspicious. Using the same logic as in the case of the phone box, the colour was changed to red to make post boxes easily identifiable. By 1900, the number of pillar boxes amounted to 33,500 in Britain, plus those throughout the British colonies.

A George V post box
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There are numerous types of pillar box which have survived until the present day. They are referred to by designated letters, type A, B, C and so on. John Penfold designed some of the first letter boxes and his nine different designs are now simply known as Penfolds. British post boxes have been copied and replicated in other countries in colours such as blue, green and yellow. And did you know that every time a British athlete won a gold medal in the 2012 London Olympics, a pillar box from their home town was painted gold to commemorate the occasion?

So not only do pillar boxes still serve their original purpose, they brighten our streets and add a little bit of history.

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English life

April Fool’s Day

April is here….
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A tale of calendars and fish

On the first of April both in the U.K. and several other countries, we celebrate April Fool’s Day. It is a day of practical jokes which are played on unsuspecting victims and the prankster often shouts “April Fool!” at the victim at the end of the joke. This horseplay generally lasts until midday and is frowned upon after this this point.

A battle of calendars

The origins of this day are not entirely clear. However, this story begins in the Middle Ages in Europe, when Pope Gregory XIII introduced the Gregorian calendar in 1582. This was a change from the old Roman calendar imposed by Julius Caesar. The Julian calendar had an extra day in February every 4 years, and was also, in a nutshell, 11 minutes too long. Over a long period of time, this had caused Easter to fall further away from the third week of March, when it was traditionally celebrated. The calendar was also out of sync with astronomical events such as solstices and equinoxes, of great importance in a world where electricity was yet to be invented. To solve these issues, the Gregorian calendar slightly modified the leap year schedule, explained by the U.S. Naval Observatory below:

Every year that is exactly divisible by four is a leap year, except for years that are exactly divisible by 100, but these centurial years are leap years if they are exactly divisible by 400. For example, the years 1700, 1800, and 1900 are not leap years, but the years 1600 and 2000 are.”

And in addition to this, there was more than one date designated as New Year. The Julian calendar had in fact originally designated January 1st as the beginning of the New Year, but during the Middle Ages European countries had placed more emphasis on days of religious significance, which in turn, had been superimposed on earlier pagan rites. Crazy as it may seem to us now, there were New Year celebrations beginning on March 25th, which was the feast of the Annunciation, (also known as Lady Day, referring to the Virgin Mary) and ending on April 1st. These dates coincided with the vernal equinox, when the length of day and night have equal duration. Ancient cultures such as the Persians/Iranians, still recognise this event around March 21st.

The papal bull which reformed the calendar had no jurisdiction outside the Catholic Church so it was first applied in Catholic nations such as France, Spain, Italy and Portugal amongst others. Protestant countries were much slower to use the Gregorian calendar, as they rejected its papal influence. Germany finally adopted it in 1700 and England followed in 1752. Changing the calendar meant that in 1752 England and the British Dominions went to bed on Wednesday September 2nd and woke up on Thursday September 14th, losing 11 days in the process. But from this point they were at least in line timewise with most of Continental Europe. Greece only began to adhere to the Gregorian calendar in 1923. Orthodox churches have never accepted it, although it is now the civic global standard.

Poisson d’avril
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So back in the European Middle Ages, people who considered that January 1st was the beginning of the New Year made fun of those who still followed the older calendar and finished their New Year festivities at the beginning of April. The earliest reference to these shenanigans dates back to 1508 when the French poet Eloy d’Amerval made reference to a “poisson d’avril”, literally an “April fish.” But why fish? And did you notice that 1508 just happens to predate the Gregorian calendar by 74 years? A possible theory is that it was forbidden to fish in April so jokes were played by throwing dried fish into the river and pretending they were freshly caught. Somehow these pranks got caught up in the battle of the calendars and have endured to date. In today’s France, the translation of April Fool is still poisson d’avril.

April’s Fool’s Day has become an annual custom in many countries around the world. In the Ukraine, for example, it includes a parade through the city, an international clowns’ festival and the city itself is festooned with disguises. Spain is an interesting exception where although the practice of pranking other people is alive and well, it is scheduled on December 28th , el día de los innocentes (Holy Innocents Day) and not on the first day of April.

The media have played some well-known April Fool hoaxes. In England, a famous April Fool’s joke took place in 1957, when the BBC showed a spoof documentary showing spaghetti supposedly being harvested from a tree in Switzerland. The voiceover was provided by Richard Dimbleby, a well-known and respected reporter, which lent gravitas to the spot. Hundred of people rang the BBC afterwards with questions about the “spaghetti tree”. It is only fair to point out that out that in 1957 pasta was not easily available to English people and spaghetti was a fairly unknown foodstuff. And maybe they were just more innocent times. In today’s world, where we have access to information at the touch of a button, it is very doubtful that this type of mass hoax would have the same effect.

Or is it?

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English life

It’s Pancake Tuesday !

Pancakes served with fruit
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Why do we celebrate Pancake Tuesday ?

Many English-speaking countries celebrate Pancake Tuesday (also known as Shrove Tuesday). This custom has its roots in Christian liturgical tradition. Shrove Tuesday precedes Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent – a 40 day stretch when religious followers would fast, or avoid rich and fatty food, and refrain from other vices, as a symbol of penance. The verb “to shrive” meant “to confess” and Christian followers were expected to be “shriven” before the solemn Lenten period.

In other countries this day is usually known as Mardi Gras (which means Fat Tuesday) and is very often a carnival day. Over time, what was once just a day of festivities gradually extended to the previous Sunday up to Shrove Tuesday and this was known as Shrovetide in England. In Medieval England, pancakes were a convenient way of using up rich food such as milk, eggs and butter before embarking on a period of food austerity.

Shrovetide was a half-holiday in England and was announced by church bells at 11 a.m. There were games of mob football, a local football match where many people joined in, using an inflated pig’s bladder as the ball. This custom declined during the 19th century, probably due to fears for public safety. Pancake races were another common sight and they are still organised on Pancake Tuesday in present times. The runners have to cover a specified route, while flipping pancakes in their frying pans. London still holds pancake races – in Leadenhall and Greenwich markets, for example. In recent years there has also been a Parliamentary Pancake Race where teams from the House of Commons and the House of Lords held a relay pancake race in Victoria Tower Gardens in order to raise money for charity. Sadly, this was cancelled in 2019 due to hostile protests related to Brexit, which made the race untenable around the Westminster area.

Will you be eating pancakes today ? Whichever way you are celebrating Pancake Day, enjoy it !

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English life

Christmas – love it or hate it ?

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Christmas decorations

A short Christmas story with your chosen ending

They were in love and they lived together. She adored Christmas and all its trappings. He really wouldn’t have cared if Christmas never happened again. For this reason, their first Christmas together was proving difficult. One of them was continually wrapped up in Christmas euphoria whilst the other wallowed in disgust at the commercial frenzy around them.

” Let’s go and see the Christmas lights in the city centre” she suggested one December evening. ” I’m tired, it’s cold and I am really not interested in any of this palaver” he replied. “But whyever not?” she pleaded. “It’s such a wonderful time of the year, and it’s soooo pretty……”. He left the room before he had to listen to any more to his love who was becoming more of a deluded Christmas maniac every minute….

She sighed. He would never understand that Christmas for her was an expression of life, that she wanted to enjoy rituals like this with the love of her life. But she understood that Christmas was a difficut time for him, and remembered his harrowed face when he told her about his mother’s fatal accident on Christmas Eve when he was only a teenager…..

He sat down heavily. Why was she so obsessed with all this Christmas crap ? But then he thought about her tragic childhood, the poverty surrounding her as she had grown up, and the way, even now, the smallest things could fill her with delight as there had been so little joy at the beginning of her life.

So what do you think ? Did they go to the Christmas lights? Did they spend many more Christmases together?

Love it or hate it or somewhere inbetween, Christmas. The choice is yours.

Feel free to write your ending to the story in the comments box.