Delight in the details

It is sometimes said that the devil is in the detail, usually when something that seems on the face of it to be simple turns out to contain some hidden complexity.

According to Wikipedia this actually derives from an earlier saying – God is in the detail – which indicates that details are important and whatever you do should be done thoroughly.

Sometimes, however, I think that it is delight that awaits in the details, especially if it’s in a work of art (in the broadest sense of the term) that you are contemplating.

This thought came to my mind this evening as I was listening to the Tweed Album by Mr. B the Gentleman Rhymer, my favourite exponent of the wonderful genre of chap hop.

This is one of his albums that I got relatively recently and I am therefore less familiar with it than with his first two albums, which I’ve had for somewhat longer. Still, I have listened to it at least half a dozen times in the last couple of years. Tonight, though, I heard (or at least noticed) for the first time a particular line in the song Summertime (nothing to do with the Gershwin classic of that name) that rather tickled my fancy:

“All the young people on their field telephones, updating their stati so they don’t feel alone”

The thing that I found delightful about this was the use of stati instead of the generally accepted statuses as the plural of status, clearly and deliberately playing on the Latin origin of the word (as stati is the nominative plural form in Latin, while in English it gets the standard plural treatment). Not, I admit, a particularly earth-shattering detail but quite amusing to me and a nice example of how you can pick up on little details of things long after you become basically familiar with them.

I wonder what other delights await me on further acquaintance with the works of Mr. B. (As a partial answer, while I was finishing this post, another delightful phrase cropped up in one of the songs on the same album: “Butter my muffin” — an expression of surprise that I think will have to adopt into my own idiolect.)

When life gives you apples…

Over the last few years I’ve been greatly blessed to have a more or less regular annual bulk supply of apples.

At first, it was because I lived in a house with two apple trees in the garden.  The landlords were very happy for my housemates and I to avail ourselves of the crops and since I seemed to be the only one to do so I had more than enough apples for my culinary needs each autumn.

I moved out of that house quite a few years ago now (about 8, I think) but since then I’ve had a couple of friends with apple trees and each year one or both of them give me a nice lot of apples to use.

Originally I mostly used these apples for cider but in more recent years I’ve tended to use more of them for cooking than brewing.  In the past this has usually amounted to lots of apple crumbles supplemented by occasional batches of stewed apple (and in one case when I was feeling adventurous, apple butter) or zapped apples (a microwaved treat that is both deliciously simple and simply delicious), with one or two apples lobbed into stews now and then.

A few days ago I received this year’s (or technically last year’s) batch of apples from one of my friends and I’ve decided to expand my repertoire a bit.  Doubtless there will be a few apple crumbles and zapped apples to come (not to mention apples in stews, and perhaps a batch of cider) but I want to do a few other things as well.

As it happens, I’ve just been getting into another bout of slavophilia, prompted by finally getting round to listening to the CD of Eugene Onegin that I bought several months ago and aided by the fact that the Russian lessons on Duolingo have finally gone live, which gives me a good chance to revive my rather rusty Russian language skills. One result of this is that I’ve had my Russian cookery books out (the one by Kira Petrovskaya that I blogged about shortly after getting it several years ago and one called The Food and Cooking of Russia by Lesley Chamberlain that I got shortly afterwards. Both of these contain several recipes involving apples quite prominently.

This evening I have been trying my first couple of Russian apple recipes, one from each book.

Chamberlain supplied an intriguing recipe for Carrot and apple vzvar. She didn’t seem to explain what a vzvar (or взвар as it would appear in Cyrillic) is, but this one amounted to gently simmering carrots and apple in a minimal amount of water (after lightly sautéeing them in butter). Interestingly, all the Google hits I’ve been able to find for vzvar seem to indicate a kind of beverage, which is certainly not how this recipe turned out or, as far as I can see, how it was intended. Perhaps because of the limited amount of water used, I accidentally burned the carrots a bit but it actually gave quite a nice caramelised effect; there was no mention of this in the recipe, so I assume it’s not how it’s supposed to turn out but it certainly wasn’t the major culinary disaster I first feared.

Petrovskaya’s book furnished a recipe for an apple soup. The idea of cold fruit soups is not new to me, as I came across them on a visit to Hungary and I’m sure I’ve previously seen this recipe (and an equally delicious looking one for cherry soup – all I need now is a friend with a cherry tree) on reading this book, but I’ve never tried to make one. Again, it’s a pretty simple recipe. Basically you chop up a load of apples, simmer them with a bit of sugar and a few cloves in plenty of water until they are nice and soft, then mix in a bit of vanilla extract, leave to go cold and serve. At the moment I’m still waiting for it to go cold, but the taste I’ve had of the still-warm soup is promising.

I’ll probably be returning to Chamberlain’s book this weekend to try a dish of stewed cabbage and apples and there are plenty more apple-based recipes in both books to check out.

Of course, I’m not restricting my Russian cookery explorations to things involving apples (any more than I’m intending to restrict my apple cookery to recipes from Russia). Indeed, one of the other things I’ve been doing in the kitchen this evening is to get another batch of перцовка (pertsovka – (chilli) pepper vodka) going. In case you’re wondering what that’s all about, I wrote about pertsovka in my previous post about Petrovskaya’s book (linked above), although she doesn’t mention it (Chamberlain does, but I didn’t get her book until after that). I wrote that post shortly after my first and, up to now, only previous – and rather successful, if I say so myself – attempt to make pertsovka and I look forward in a few days time to finding out whether my second batch is as good as the first.

Perhaps I should next have a go at making apple vodka!

Ringing the Changes

Happy New Year!

I don’t usually bother making new year’s resolutions but I do sometimes like to set myself a few informal goals for the coming year. Last year, I had a few opera-related goals. One was to see a live opera, which I didn’t manage to achieve, although I’m more likely to manage it now that our local theatre has reopened (as of December) and is promising occasional operas amongst its programme. Another was to start exploring the Russian opera repertoire (the source of my first two encounters with live opera back in the early 1990s) — I succeeded in revisiting both of the Russian operas I’d seen live: Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades and Prokofiev’s Love of Three Oranges; I also listened to Eugene Onegin (another Tchaikovsky work and possibly the most popular Russian opera in the world) and I look forward to watching it on DVD soon (along with Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, another of the “great” Russian operas).

My big goal, though, was to properly acquaint myself with Richard Wagner’s Ring cycle. This is a story (based on Teutonic mythology) spread out over four operas, lasting a grand total of about 15 hours, so it’s not for the faint-hearted. Indeed, Wagner’s music, and the Ring cycle in particular, seems to be one of those love-it-or-hate-it kind of things, sort of the Marmite of the music world (apologies to any non-British readers who quite possibly have no idea what I mean by that reference, though the Wikipedia link should help you).

Previously, I had been familiar with the Ride of the Valkyries, which is probably known to just about everybody in the Western world although most (myself included, until very recently) would likely not be able to tell you that it is the music which opens Act 3 of Die Walküre (the second opera in the cycle – the English translation of the name is “The Valkyries”, so it’s probably not too surprising that it’s in this one) or that the main theme from it crops up again quite a few other times within the cycle (in fact, as far as I could spot, it first appeared at the start of Act 2 of the same opera, though in a less developed form) and a couple of years ago (before I started to get properly into opera) I got a CD of orchestral music by Wagner which turned out to consist of preludes and other instrumental sections from his operas (apparently he composed very little else).

When I started to explore opera, I got a couple of compilation albums (one with a book attached). One of these included the Immolation Scene from the end of Götterdämerung (the final opera in the cycle; actually, this scene is the very last one of the whole cycle). I enjoyed this (and the instrumental stuff from my earlier CD) enough to want to listen to more.

Round about November 2014, I got a DVD of highlights of the Ring, purporting to tell the essential story through extracts from the operas, leaving out much of the padding (of which there is a lot in the Ring cycle – albeit largely set to wonderful music) and bringing the runtime down from about 15 hours to a much more manageable 100 minutes. These extracts were taken from a cycle staged by a Spanish group called La Fura dels Baus, with lots of exciting stage lighting and acrobatics to complement the music. I rather enjoyed watching this and it led to my decision, when considering operatic goals for 2015, to aim to see or hear the whole cycle.

I acquired my first (and so far only) complete Ring cycle on DVD last January, as I managed to find a well-acclaimed one (the Barenboim-Kupfer one from Bayreuth, c. 1992) going for a very reasonable price (about £15, which works out at £1/hour). Before plunging into this, though, I picked up a couple of CDs of highlights, one conducted by Herbert von Karajan and the other by George Solti (both, I gather, did multiple Ring cycle recordings and I don’t recall which ones I’ve got – basically whichever had highlight albums available nice and cheap).  I also had a look at a couple of Wagner’s other operas – Der Fliegende Holländer (aka the Flying Dutchman, suitable for my growing interest in sailing and things maritime last year, not to mention a fairly manageable 2 hours or so; I have watched a DVD version and listened to an audio one) and Tristan und Isolde (a 4+ hour mammoth, but at least there’s only one opera to sit through; this one I’ve only listened to so far, though at least one Wagner-specialist music critic describes this as “the ideal gramophone opera” in any case).

Though I was now feeling ready to tackle the full Ring cycle, I decided that I wanted to watch the operas, at least for the first time, together in one block rather than spread out across several weekends. The first opportunity to do so didn’t come until this week, when I was able to make use of a few days off work between Christmas and the new year to watch the operas on consecutive days, starting on Tuesday 29th December.  In fact, I ended up starting Götterdämerung a bit later than intended last night and, as it’s quite long and I was falling asleep (because I’d been out late at a New Year’s party the previous night, not because the music’s boring) I decided to postpone the final scene (the aforementioned Immolation Scene) until this morning so that I could better appreciate it.

Watching the Ring cycle was, in some ways, quite different from most other operas, but I found it a very enjoyable experience and one I’d like to repeat (though next time I probably won’t be so concerned about watching all the operas so close together).  If I get a chance to snap up any other versions of the Ring at sensible prices I may well do so (e.g. a more traditionally staged one, or perhaps the complete version of the Fura dels Baus one I mentioned earlier, which is even less traditional than the Kupfer-Barenboim one), though I’ll also be happy to enjoy this version again (and perhaps one or two audio recordings too). And I’d love to experience a live performance of the Ring cycle, in the unlikely event that I ever get a chance to do so.

I mentioned that the Ring is a bit like operatic Marmite.  In a sense I think this is quite an appropriate simile, not least because both are supposed to be things you either love or hate but in both cases I find myself somewhat towards the love end of the spectrum but not absolutely wild about it.  There will be times when Wagner is just the thing I want to listen to, and other times when I’m more in a mood for, say, Rossini, just like there are times when I want marmite on my toast and other times when I want marmalade (perhaps made with Seville oranges).