Culinary Gold

It’s strange, looking back, to discover that I’ve only been aware of how good Staffordshire oatcakes taste since this September, as it feels like they’ve been part of my life for considerably longer.

In the last 3 or 4 months, I’ve continued to enjoy oatcakes fairly frequently (probably about once every 3 weeks or so on average), including one very delicious set of homemade ones that were made for me – thanks, Glenys!

Mostly I’ve been sticking to my two basic savoury fillings – either fried egg (with or without extras – recently I’ve been using a bit of onion chutney to good effect here) or baked beans and cheese – and an occasional marmalade one to satisfy my sweet tooth. Last night, though, I came up with another very tasty filling. Traditionalists (and perhaps nutritionists) might want to stop reading at this point in order to avoid being horrified…

I tested my new oatcake idea again last night to ensure that it’s as good as my first impressions and found that, if anything, it’s even better. It’s deliciously simple (and simply delicious): butter and honey. The approach I’ve used so far for preparation is to heat the oatcake in a frying pan (since that’s how I do them with fried eggs, and I was having one of those first), then stick it on a plate, plonk a (relatively) thin slice of butter on top, drizzle honey over the top, roll it up and eat it while it’s hot. The heat from the oatcake warms the other ingredients through and causes the butter to melt nicely to give a lovely, sweet treat for the tastebuds (if not the arteries).

I probably wouldn’t want to eat more than one of these at a time, as they are pretty rich (and perhaps not incredibly healthy), and not every time I’m having oatcakes, but as an occasional indulgence I think this is definitely an idea to which I’ll be returning.

I also have a handy, and hopefully not too hard to complete, New Year’s Resolution lined up: to acquire a recipe (or perhaps several) for Staffordshire oatcakes and have a go at making some for myself.


I had a pleasant surprise at a gig I was playing at last night, as it turned out that one of my favourite Welsh singers was also on the programme.

The gig in question was a charity event down in Criccieth and I was there to play trombone with the Menai Bridge Intermediate Brass Band during the interval. The main programme included a couple of choirs, a most excellent piano/harp duo (I particularly enjoyed their renditions of Summertime and a couple of Scott Joplin rags), two fine opera singers (established tenor Gwyn Hughes Jones, who looked disconcertingly like my old friend Richard Burton (not the famous explorer or the famous actor), and up-and-coming soprano Alys Roberts) and the aforementioned singer (and also poet) Gwyneth Glyn, who is apparently a resident of Criccieth.

Gwyneth only did a couple of short sets in the concert, but one of them included her song Adra, which is one of my favourite songs. Here’s a link to a youtube video of the song, complete with a handy translation of the lyrics in case you don’t happen to speak Welsh (don’t be fooled by the first verse, which is mostly quotations of English-language songs, although I love the way there’s a Welsh one – Dwi’n mynd yn ôl i Blaenau Ffestiniog (I’m going home to Blaenau Ffestiniog) by the band Y Tebot Piws (The Purple Teapot) – thrown in).

I almost got a chance to speak to her in the interval (after we’d finished playing) but I was overcome by a bout of shyness and didn’t quite manage to pluck up the courage. After the gig (and having made the mistake of mentioning my earlier failure to Hannah, the conductor of my band, who then more or less frog-marched me over to her before standing by to watch me squirm) I made another attempt but that time was thwarted by my own politeness, as she was busy talking to other people and I didn’t want to butt in and didn’t get any natural openings to start talking to her before my lift was ready to depart.

This paragraph is addressed to Gwyneth Glyn on the unlikely event that she should ever stumble across my blog (and is more or less what I was planning say to her at the gig though, apart from the final sentence, not in Welsh as I had been intending): The bloke with the big beard who was loitering near you after the gig last night (that is, 9th December 2016 in Criccieth) would like to thank you for your delightful music and especially the beautiful song “Adra” which has been a favourite ever since he first heard it several years ago. He hopes that if the two of you should happen to cross paths again he may actually manage to talk to you. Diolch yn fawr iawn. 🙂

This post is dedicated both to Gwyneth Glyn and to my dear friend and conductor Hannah Retallick (who, after commiserating with me on my failure to talk to Gwyneth suggested I should blog about my near-encounter with her instead).

Addendum: A short while after posting the original version of this and reading Hannah’s encouraging feedback on Facebook (I forgot to mention that she’s also an aspiring writer as well as a fine musician), I was inspired to write a short poem to commemorate the events of last night. Somehow it seems appropriate, since Gwyneth Glyn is herself (as I said) a poet as well as a musician. This one’s a bit rough and ready, but I kind of like it as it stands (including the deliberate lack of punctuation and variable line length). So here it is, my “Memoir of meeting but not quite talking to Gwyneth Glyn in Criccieth, 9th December 2016”:

All I want to do
Is to talk to you
To say hello
To let you know
That I really like your song
But the words might come out wrong
So I stand and wait
Until it’s too late
Then home I go
And you’ll never know

I actually started off thinking of that (or at least a bit of it) as a potential song lyric and I may yet turn it into a song, but I’d probably have to regularise the meter a bit to do that, so maybe I won’t. Also, it occurs to me (after the fact – it certainly wasn’t a conscious thought when I wrote it) that the penultimate line is quite appropriate since my favourite Gwyneth Glyn song (and hence the one I allude to earlier in my poem) is “Adra”, which is the Welsh word for home.

It’s behind you

I was skimming through my blog archives recently and I came across a post I wrote back in April but didn’t get round to publishing. It’s nice and short (compared to my usual essays) and made me chuckle when I reread it (having forgotten all about this idea since I first wrote it down), so here it is for your entertainment and edification:

When I was learning to drive, many moons ago, one of the basic lessons drummed into me was “Mirror – Signal – Manoeuvre”; in other words, before you make any significant change in your motion you should first check that the coast is clear (including, but not limited to, checking behind you with the aid of your mirrors), then signal your intention to other road users.

This is eminently sensible advice. It’s good for cyclists as well as drivers although, of course, it’s fairly unusual to find bikes equipped with mirrors. I know such things do exist but I can’t remember when (if, indeed, ever) I last saw one in the wild.

In order to keep the mnemonic letters MSM but make it a bit more appropriate for cyclists, I’ve taken to thinking of the first word as Monitor rather than Mirror.

It recently occurred to me that a further tweak could perhaps make it even more memorable. My new, and hopefully tastier, mnemonic is MSG – “Monitor – Signal – Go”.

Apart from sharing its initials with a popular food additive and saving a couple of syllables, this has the benefit of not requiring you to remember how to spell “manoeuvre” when you’re writing it down. 🙂

Sweet suite sounds

Perhaps the best sheet-music purchase I ever made was a copy of Bach’s 6 suites for solo cello, arranged for viola.

As I recall, I bought this music about 15 years ago, shortly after I’d acquired a viola. That particular instrument purchase came about, I think, largely because a handful of friends (two other violinists and a cellist) and I wanted to form a string quartet and I was the most willing of the violinists to take up the viola (or perhaps I just wanted an excuse to buy a new toy). The quartet only lasted for about one rehearsal, but my viola has given me (and occasionally others) many hours of enjoyment over the years since then.

I’m not sure if I was at all familiar with the cello suites before I got the music for them, although I was certainly already very keen on the music of Johann Sebastian “Mighty” Bach (as he’s called by Organ Morgan in Under Milkwood). I have also got a copy of the sheet music for Bach’s solo violin sonatas and partitas, but I find the cello suites much closer to being within my technical range. In fact, if I had to choose just one instrument and one set of music to take with me to a desert island, my viola and the cello suites would be a strong contender.

Over the years I have mostly played suites 1 and 3, as these were the ones I found most accessible (largely, I suspect, because they were in relatively friendly keys – G major and C major respectively – and written for a standard cello (or viola) in standard tuning), and I can play the majority of both these suites fairly well. I’ve more or less got the hang of playing suites 2 and 4 (in D minor and Eb major) as well, though I’m somewhat less familiar with those. However, I’ve barely attempted the final two suites.

Suite 6 (in D major) was originally written, as far as can be made out, for a 5-stringed piccolo cello with an extra E string above the usual four (CGDA), and while it’s possible to play it on a standard instrument it goes uncomfortably high. Apparently it’s not too bad on a modern cello, but it is a bit more awkward on the viola especially, if, like me, you’re not too fond of playing in higher positions. (Incidentally, that reminds me of my favourite viola joke, which happens to be in German and is sadly just about impossible to make funny in translation.) My edition does include a version transposed into G major, which puts it into an easier range, but even so I’m not sure I’ve ever tried to play it all the way through – though I intend to give it a try sometime soon. One day, perhaps, I’ll get myself a 5-string fiddle and be able to tackle it in the original key.

The problem with suite 5 (in C minor) is different in that it is written for a standard four-stringed instrument but calls for a non-standard tuning. In classical parlance, this is called scordatura, whereas the same idea also crops up in many folk fiddle traditions and is sometimes known there as cross-tuning. I have a handful of fiddle tunes I tend to play in various cross tunings (usually ADAE, AEAE or sometimes AEAC#) but I’ve never really attempted to play classical music in scordatura tunings. The one called for by this cello suite is to drop the pitch of the highest string by a tone (giving CGDG). Other scordatura tunings I can think of for classical pieces are the solo violin in Saint-Saëns’ Danse Macabre (dropping the E string to Eb; though I’ve only ever played the orchestral 1st violin part myself, which is in standard tuning) and the solo viola part of Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante, which is written in D (with all the strings tuned up a semitone for a more brilliant tone), against the orchestra and solo violin playing in Eb.

There are, as far as I can make out, two basic purposes for scordatura tunings (and, equally, for cross tunings in the folk world). One is to facilitate playing chords etc. that would be more difficult in the standard tuning. The other is to give a different tone quality, either by allowing more open strings to resonate with the notes being played on other strings or just by virtue of having some or all strings pitched higher or lower than normal (or by a combination of both). In the cases where I’ve seen folk tunes notated for playing in cross-tunings, the notes have generally been written at pitch and it’s been up to the performer to adjust the fingering to fit the tuning of the strings (which is not too difficult for the relatively straightforward tunes that usually occur in this context). The usual practice for scordatura, by contrast, seems to be to write the notes that you would be playing in standard tuning (with the specific string to be played indicated if it’s not clear from the context). For example in the Bach cello suite, notes above a top-line (in alto clef) A natural are to be played on the A-string unless otherwise noted, and these notes come out a tone lower because you’ve tuned the string down to G. In theory this makes reading quite straightforward, but it does produce some strange looking intervals.

I think it’s largely this disparity between the written notes and the sounded notes that has put me off trying scordatura tuning, since I’m not averse to retuning my fiddle (or banjo / guitar) strings in general. Therefore I’m not sure that until yesterday I’ve ever actually tried playing the original version of Bach’s 5th suite. As with no. 6, my edition includes a version for standard tuning and I’ve given that a shot a few times but always found it relatively awkward to play and not all that wonderful sounding compared to the first four suites (although I’ve always enjoyed listening to recordings of the 5th suite just as much, if not more than the others).

Yesterday I finally got round to trying the scordatura version of suite 5 and was pleasantly surprised both at how easy it was to play (both to wrap my head round the gap between the fingerings and the pitches and to reach many of the chords and runs that I’d previously found very awkward in the other version of this suite) and how good it sounded – with the lowered string and some fuller chords giving it a wonderfully rich, resonant sound. It’s going to take a fair amount of practice to get some of the trickier bits up to speed but I can see this one becoming my favourite of the cello suites to play as well as to listen to.

I can’t recall there being any other pieces in my library of violin or viola music that call for scordatura tuning and which I’ve therefore been avoiding playing but if I do come across any in future I certainly won’t shy away from giving them a shot (at least if they call for lowering the pitch of the strings – I’m always more nervous about tuning strings above pitch than below).

Take me out to the ball game

For the first time in a long time, I find myself eagerly anticipating a football game. Well, having some interest in it, at least…

Of course, the fact that it’s Gaelic football (and I’m still buzzing from a recent trip to the Emerald Isle) may have something to do with it.

This afternoon is the final of the 2016 All-Ireland Senior Football Championship, which is being contested by Dublin and Mayo. I’m not sure whether to support the Dubs (because I’ve been to Dublin a few times and have at least one fairly good friend from there) or Mayo (because they have nice red and green uniforms which remind me slightly of the Welsh flag). Ultimately I’m not too bothered who wins it but I hope I’ll get a chance to catch some highlights of the game later on, though I’m unlikely to see the whole match.

Gaelic football seems to me to lie somewhere between rugby (a game I love, though I don’t generally follow it all that closely) and association football, aka soccer (a game that doesn’t particularly interest me at all) in terms of its rules and playing style – it uses a round ball (like soccer) and seems to have a bit more kicking than rugby but also allows carrying the ball and is a bit more of a contact sport than soccer, though less than rugby. One interesting feature is that not only are there several different ways to score (like in rugby, though in this case it’s scoring goals by kicking the ball into a fairly small goal area defined by two upright posts and a crossbar or scoring points by kicking or fisting it over the crossbar) but the goals and points scores are recorded separately, e.g. 1-7 would mean a single goal and 7 points; a goal is worth 3 points so that particular score would equal 10 points (a score of 1-7 would beat 0-9 but not 0-11; I think, though I’m not entirely sure, that 1-7 and 0-10 would count as a tie, in which case I think the game would usually be replayed). I’ve only watched a very small amount of Gaelic football so far but I found it quite exciting to watch.

There are several other Gaelic games but the other big one is hurling. I’d say this interests me even more than Gaelic football. The two games are actually quite similar in many respects (e.g. they are played on the same size pitch, both with teams of 15 players, and use the same scoring distinction between goals and points) but hurling is played with sticks and a smaller ball. I have heard hurling described as “a cross between hockey and murder”.

The final of this year’s All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship took place a couple of weeks ago between Tipperary (who won) and Kilkenny (the previous victors; apparently these two teams and Cork dominate hurling, while there’s a much broader spread in the football world). I watched and enjoyed highlights of that match. I also watched the whole of the All-Ireland Senior Camogie Championship last week; this time Kilkenny beat Cork (the winners for the past two years). In case you were wondering, camogie is the women’s equivalent of hurling (a game played only by men) and is essentially the same apart from a few minor rules differences.

Also in case you were wondering, there is also an All-Ireland Senior Women’s Football Championship, which is due to be taking place next Sunday (I can’t remember the teams involved) and, as with hurling and camogie, there are a few minor differences in rules (though, in this case not in name) between men’s and women’s football.

Lest you think this is turning into a sports blog, I should finish with a couple of linguistic observations.

Firstly, as you will have observed, the titles of the Gaelic football championships don’t actually mention the word Gaelic. I gather that in Ireland, the word “football” on its own is usually taken to mean Gaelic football, just as the bare term is used to mean soccer in the UK (and other parts of the world where it is the dominant football code) or American football in the USA and either Australian-rules football or rugby league in Australia (I gather there are some areas where one is significantly more popular than the other), etc. I’m sure there are plenty of other examples in non-sporting contexts of words where the same generic term is used in different parts of the world to refer to different specific cases (presumably usually the most dominant one in that place), although I can’t immediately think of any clear examples other than football. A non-geographical example would be the use of the word “bass” to refer to tubas in the brass band world, whereas it would refer to double basses in an orchestra or (most likely) a bass guitar in a rock group. The moral of the story is that context is king.

The other observation is the etymology of the word “camogie”, which seems to bear no relation to the word “hurling” despite the two sports having much the same relationship to each other as (men’s) and women’s (or ladies’, as it seems to be officially called) Gaelic football (and as far as I know, camogie is never – at least officially – referred to as “ladies’ hurling”). I gather that, although the modern games only date back to the late 19th or early 20th centuries, their roots, and especially that of hurling, are quite ancient. The stick used for hurling is known in English as a hurley (hence the name of the sport) and in Irish as a camán; as in English, the Irish name for the sport was related to that of the stick and it was called camánaíocht (I think that -aíocht is roughly the equivalent of “-ing”), although this has mutated to iománaíocht in modern Irish. One of the differences between the men’s and women’s games is that the latter is played with slightly smaller sticks (and balls) and, in Irish, the women’s stick is called a camóg (the -óg bit being a fairly common diminutive suffix in Irish; i.e. it’s a “small hurley”) and hence the game was called camógaíocht. Whereas the men’s game (presumably due to its much older roots) developed a completely separate name in English, the women’s game just borrowed the Irish name and anglicised it to “camogie” (and, unlike the men’s version, has also kept its original form in Irish).

I’ve no idea of the etymology of either “hurley” or camán, but you have to stop somewhere. And so I shall.

The Oatcakes of Contentment

Those of you who follow my blog via Facebook will already know that I recently discovered Staffordshire oatcakes and was very excited about them.

Since then (a couple of weeks ago, as I recall), I’ve had several more of these wonderful oatcakes – which are more like pancakes (of the kind eaten on Shrove Tuesday, aka Pancake Day, here in the UK) than the Scottish oatcakes I’m more used to – and have been exploring different ways of having them.

My first experiments were based around zapping them in the microwave, either with cheese (which I gather is quite a traditional Staffordshire oatcake filling) or marmalade (which isn’t). Both were very tasty and handy for a quick snack.

Since Wikipedia (in the article linked above) mentioned egg as one of the traditional fillings I next decided to give that a try. The method I came up with was to fry an egg (seasoned with a dash of salt and pepper), then put it aside on a plate while I used the frying pan to quickly heat through the oatcake (this doesn’t take long, as they are pretty thin) before plonking the egg into the oatcake (perhaps with a dollop of chilli jam or some other condiment) and eating it. Not much more difficult to prepare than the cheese or marmalade fillings, but slightly more substantial and even tastier.

One of my friends, who is himself from Staffordshire, was delighted to hear that I’d discovered the joys of his county’s oatcakes (if slightly disapproving of the idea of putting marmalade in them). He told me about his favourite way to prepare them, which is to sandwich baked beans and cheese between two oatcakes. I tried this last night, with a little bit of pepper thrown in for good measure and zapping the thing in the microwave for about a minute and a half. The result was very successful and I repeated it again this evening with the other half of my tin of beans from yesterday. I’d be hard pushed to say whether I prefer this or my fried egg filling, but ultimately it’s good to have both in my repertoire and I look forward to trying out some other fillings (both traditional and less so) in the not too distant future.

Strike Three

Having written a couple of posts about cricket last week, I thought I’d complete my hat-trick of sports-related posts by going off on a bit of a curveball.

The term curveball is not, as far as I know, used in cricket. It is actually a baseball term, which is quite appropriate as that’s the sport to which I’m mostly going to devote today’s post.

One of my transatlantic friends commented (via Facebook) on the last post that cricket is “kinda like baseball”. She said it rather tongue-in-cheek (having lived over here for long enough to pick up a bit of a British sense of humour, I suspect) but there is a certain grain of truth in the observation, as there are some striking similarities (as well as some obvious differences) between the two games.

Baseball is not a particularly high-profile sport here in the UK and has never particularly grabbed my attention. Before doing a spot of internet research (i.e. reading a handful of Wikipedia articles and watching a couple of video clips) over the weekend, I knew little more than that it was a game a bit like rounders but played with a bigger bat and having a few more rules. I don’t know much more about it even now, but I’ve managed to glean sufficient understanding of the rules and culture of baseball to finally be able to understand the punchline of a musical joke that I first heard about 20 years ago and was able to recognise as a baseball-related thing without having a clue to the meaning.

The context of the joke is an orchestral performance (presumably somewhere in the USA, the home of baseball) of Beethoven’s 9th symphony. The bass section, faced with a long gap with nothing to play, take the opportunity of slipping out and nipping across the road for a swift half at the local pub (or a couple of beers at the nearest bar, or whatever) and take the precaution of tying together the last couple of pages of the conductor’s score in order to slow him down before he gets to their entry in case they are delayed in returning. Sure enough, when the basses stagger back in having enjoyed one half too many they find the irate conductor trying desperately to undo the bit of string round his music as the perplexed performers begin to falter. One member of the audience realises that something’s wrong but has no idea what it is until his friend points out that “it’s the bottom of the 9th, the score is tied and the basses are loaded.”

Although somewhat contrived as a situation for a symphonic concert, this same sentence (with one minor change of spelling) would make perfect sense in baseball and would be an exciting situation, as the next two paragraphs will hopefully demonstrate.

Innnings are a feature of both baseball and cricket and refer to a team’s chance to bat. Cricket (and I believe also rounders) uses “innings” as singular and plural; baseball reserves the final ‘s’ for the plural. Also, baseball splits each inning (of which there are nine) between the two teams, with the first team taking the top half and the other team the bottom half, while cricket teams get a whole innings, or two (depending on the format of the match), each. Hence, in baseball, the bottom of the 9th [inning] is the last phase of the game, although if the score is tied (i.e. both teams have the same number of runs) at the end there is a tie-breaker mechanism (the nature of which has temporarily eluded my memory).

In baseball, the batting team score runs by running round a series of bases laid out at the points of a diamond (i.e. a square viewed from the corner) and the fielding team try to stop them by getting the ball to each base before the runners reach there (each batsman becomes a runner as soon as he hits the ball, drops his bat and starts running). Often they don’t get all the way round in one go and if they stop part-way they have to wait at one of the bases; they need to get back home (i.e. to the point from which they batted) in order to score their run. You aren’t allowed to overtake a runner who is ahead of you and it’s not unusual for there to be runners waiting at several bases. If all the bases are occupied they are said to be loaded. Apparently this situation presents a good scoring opportunity for the batting team but also a good “double play” opportunity for the fielding team – i.e. a chance to get two of the batting team out in one go. If your bases are loaded when it’s the bottom of the 9th and the score is tied, the next pitch is crucial and the game could go either way (and the orchestra joke is actually at least moderately funny).

I have never played baseball and I expect I never will. The closest I’ve got was playing rounders at junior school (where I used to attend our after-school rounders club and on just one occasion was selected to play for our school against another school – albeit on the second team; sadly the match was cancelled due to rain) and a few games of softball at secondary school (it wasn’t one of our regular sports in PE lessons but we occasionally played it for a change and I’m fairly sure I enjoyed playing it quite a lot more than cricket).

Incidentally, the term hat-trick itself apparently comes from cricket although these days it’s perhaps most associated with football (the association variety, appropriately enough) and can be used for a threefold achievement in a variety of sporting contexts. Wikipedia tells me that the term originated when a bowler called H[eathfield] H[arman] Stephenson took three wickets with consecutive balls in a cricket match in 1858; the fans were so impressed they had a whip-round and bought a nice hat to present to him. Although the practice of buying hats to mark the occasion seems to have been a one-off the name stuck for similar performances and was soon generalised to other triple successes in sport, such as scoring three goals in football (I’m not sure whether they have to be consecutive to count as a hat-trick, or if other people can score in between them).