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.

Adra

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).