Dragon Pie

Tonight was one of those nights when I indulged in my passion for experimental cookery.

As seems to happen more often than not, I came up with something that was not only edible but actually quite enjoyable to eat. This one felt like something that’s worth trying again and there’s definitely room for improvement in the basic recipe so I decided to record it here (mainly for my own future reference, though the recipe idea isn’t copyrighted, so you’re welcome to try it — if you come up with some good variations, feel free to let me know).

The starting point was a whole load of leeks, potatoes and onions that I bought on special offer (a bag of each for a total of £1) in my local supermarket last week, and which are getting to the point of needing to be used up before they get too far past their best. Initially I had planned to do a leek and potato soup but I wasn’t feeling particularly in the mood for soup this evening and, after a bit of thought, I came up with an alternative plan.

Essentially, my idea was to make a kind of vegetarian shepherd’s pie (a leek-herd’s pie, I suppose, if leeks needed herding in the same way as sheep), with a base of leek and onion topped with mashed potato. I had one or two ideas to make the dish a bit more interesting…

I started by chopping up a leek and couple of onions (fairly finely) and sautéeing them gently in olive oil for a few minutes, adding a roughly minced clove of garlic shortly before transferring them to a lightly oiled casserole dish and mixing in a bit of chopped parsley and thyme from my windowsill herb garden. I would probably have added sage and rosemary too, in honour of Scarborough Fair, but my sage (which I’m growing from seed) isn’t yet quite big enough for harvesting and I couldn’t be bothered to go out and harvest the rosemary that, unlike my other herbs, is growing in my back garden. I also added around 100ml of red wine and then stuck it in the oven (around gas mark 5) for 15 minutes while I steamed some potatoes (prepared, with a little bit of mint, also from my herb garden, while I was sautéeing the leek and onion) ready for mashing.

Once the potatoes were steamed, I mashed them with a little milk and black pepper (not from my herb garden, and alas I don’t have space, time or money to keep a cow), then removed the casserole from the oven and put a layer of mashed potato on top of the leek/onion mixture. After grating a bit of cheese (gran padano, as that’s what I had in the fridge) on top, I returned it to the oven on a higher heat (up to gas 8, I think) while I fried an egg to go along with it.

The resulting pie was rather tasty, though the filling was perhaps slightly on the al dente side (not too much of a problem as I like a bit of crunch, and the vegetables certainly weren’t raw) and the topping could have done with being browned a bit more. I’m not sure if the best thing would be just to cook it for somewhat longer once assembled or to sautée the leeks and onions for a bit longer and then stick the assembled pie under the grill for a few minutes.

It occurred to me that the ingredients were mostly red, white and green, the colours of the Welsh flag. Since leeks, in particular, are an emblem of Wales, and potatoes (not to mention cheese-on-toast, which bears a certain resemblance to cheese-on-pie) are also a pretty staple part of our national cuisine, I decided to name my new dish “dragon pie”, although the wine seemed to turn from red to purple in the process of cooking so the chromatic effect was slightly lost in the final product.

Apart from the aforementioned tweaks to cooking times/methods, I’d be inclined to use a Welsh cheese (perhaps a local cheddar) next time round, although the gran padano worked fine. The wine was a fairly non-descript, though pleasant enough, cheapish Spanish merlot/cabernet sauvignon from one of my local supermarkets (not, as it happens, the one from which I got the veg) and, since there’s not a huge range of Welsh wines on the market (in fact, I can’t recall seeing any and if there are some I suspect they are quite expensive), I don’t think I’d be too worried about locally sourcing that ingredient; in fact, I think pretty much any reasonable red plonk would do the job ok.

I’ve got about half the pie left over, so it will be interesting to see how it tastes when cold. That, I suppose, I will find out tomorrow.

A true improvement

My trusty mountain bike has served me well for about 14 years. It has, however, been increasingly showing signs of wear and tear. Perhaps the most serious problem is that about 3 years ago I accidentally stripped the thread on the bottom bracket shell and since then I’ve had to rely on threadless bottom brackets. These are a handy invention but don’t seem to be quite as robust as the more traditional kind and, in consequence, I’ve had to replace the unit at least once per year since I started using them. At around £20 a pop, it would take a few years to amount to the cost of a new bike but it’s certainly quite frustrating and potentially takes the bike off the road for several days at a time (and necessitates a fairly long walk home pushing my suddenly non-functional bike if the component fails suddenly mid-ride).

Therefore, when the bracket went again a couple of weeks ago as I was cycling up a steep hill (fortunately within half a mile of home) I decided the time had come to get myself a new bike. This is actually a move I’ve been considering for at least a year and I had more or less decided to go for a hybrid bike this time. These are, as the name suggests, somewhere between a mountain bike and a racing/touring bike in style, generally with a relatively heavy non-suspension frame (the lack of suspension is actually a good thing if you’re sticking mostly to road riding, as suspension tends to soak up a lot of energy that would otherwise be translated into forward motion), fairly large, narrow wheels (again, more efficient on-road, though tough enough to withstand light off-road use), mudguards, a luggage rack, straight handlebars (positioned relatively high) and a wide, comfortable saddle.

I found a reasonable looking bike for a reasonable looking price on eBay, ordered it and was excited when it arrived a few days later. Putting it together was fairly straightforward and all seemed to be well.

I was somewhat less impressed the next morning when I set off to ride to work and discovered that the front tyre, which I’d pumped up the previous evening, was pancake flat. With no time to fix it, I leapt on my trusty reserve bike and headed in to the office. On my return, I checked out the inner tube and concluded that it had a faulty valve, so I threw it away and installed a spare.

For the next couple of days the bike functioned fine but I did notice that the front wheel had a very pronounced wobble. The hub and rim both appeared to be fine, so this was evidently a truing problem caused by improperly tensioned spokes, although a quick inspection didn’t turn up any that were obviously significantly tighter or looser than the rest. A quick google search indicated that this is not an uncommon problem on new bikes. One helpful video I watched (along the lines of “Top 5 maintenance tasks required on almost all new bikes” – which listed truing the wheels at no. 1) suggested that if a wheel was out of true it should be taken back to the seller to have them put it right; however, the video’s presenter conceded that this isn’t necessarily practical when you’ve bought the bike by mail order so this left me with the alternative of doing it myself.

In the past I’ve occasionally tried truing the wheels on my other bikes, with limited success (and only based on trying to understand written descriptions of the process rather than watching videos on how to do it). This time I watched a handful of videos and quickly came to the conclusion that the job should be reasonably straightforward and I wouldn’t need to invest in a wheel truing stand but probably would benefit from getting a reasonably sturdy bike maintenance stand (another purchase, like the new bike, which I’ve been considering for some time). I returned to eBay and found a decent looking one within my budget, so I ordered that (and a new spoke key for good measure, as my old one’s one of those cheap circular ones with about 8 different slots and it’s a real pain to try and get the right one – for the new one I went for a triangular thing with only the 3 sizes I’m likely to actually find on any bike in the wild) and sat back to wait for it to arrive (well, obviously I did other stuff while I was waiting, but none of it involving my new bike).

The spoke wrench arrived within a couple of days and the stand was here by this Monday, so I quickly assembled it, clamped up the bike and had a go at truing the front wheel following the advice in the videos I’d watched (supplemented by a quick glance in my bike maintenance book to check I’d correctly understood which way to turn the spoke nipples in order to tighten them). I won’t go into details here – if you want to true your own wheels (or just understand the process) you can easily google instructional materials for yourself. Suffice it to say that, within about half an hour, I’d got the wheel running more or less true. It’s not quite within the half millimetre that professional wheel builders apparently strive for, but considerably better than it was.

For the last couple of days I’ ve been riding the new bike again and so far it’s been working fine. Having a more or less true front wheel definitely seems to make quite a big difference, and I’m hoping it won’t require too regular adjustment (the back wheel seemed fine as it was, and again I hope that won’t need tweaking for a good long while yet).

Now I can concentrate on getting used to the slightly different riding position and gearing that my new bike has from the old one.

On being mistaken for a lumberjack

While I was walking home from a dentist’s appointment this afternoon, a kid (who judging by his size and uniform was in the early years of the local secondary school) asked me if I was a lumberjack. Being the truthful chap that I am, and not disposed to enter into a lengthy dialogue with half my mouth still numbed by anaesthetic, I answered with a curt (but hopefully fairly friendly sounding) “no” and a probably somewhat lopsided attempt at a smile. It left me slightly perplexed, though, as I don’t think I was looking or acting particularly like a lumberjack at the time.

Admittedly, my beard is currently in fairly bushy mode (not that I’d think of that as a particularly stereotypical lumberjack trait) and I was wearing cargo trousers, a denim jacket and a woolly hat. However, I wasn’t wearing one of my checked shirts or carrying an axe or other tools of the woodchopping trade, and I wouldn’t have thought that my slightly tatty deck shoes would particularly suggest this as my vocation.

It did cross my mind (once it was too late to ask) to wonder whether the kid has recently discovered Monty Python’s “Lumberjack Song” and is asking the same question of every random stranger that he meets on the street. Otherwise it seemed a very odd question.

This incident reminded me of a couple of previous occasions when people have made suppositions about my identity based on my appearance. Both, as it happens, were to do with my leather hat. It’s one that I picked up quite a few years ago on eBay and tends to be my go-to hat for most of the year as it combines the practical virtues of being reasonably waterproof for when it rains, having a chin-strap to keep it attached in windy weather and having a nice broad brim to keep the rain and (less often) the sun out of my eyes, as well as providing protection against seagulls and preventing too much heat loss through the top of my head. It’s actually from South Africa, though I suppose it does look a bit like an Australian bush hat or an American cowboy hat. Hence the confusions…

The first was not all that long after I got the hat, when I was asked by a couple of slightly drunk blokes at Crewe station if I was Crocodile Dundee. I’ll spare you the gory details of that story!

The second was on the ferry across to Ireland last summer. On this occasion I wasn’t addressed directly but, while I was queuing to get off the boat, I heard a small child a little way behind me loudly asking his Dad if that was a cowboy ahead of them in the queue. It’s possible my leather jacket may have contributed to the impression, but I think it was mostly based on the hat and it was fairly obvious that he was referring to me. It wouldn’t have been so bad if he’d just asked once and forgotten about it, but there followed a near constant stream of cowboy references and questions for the next several minutes. I suppose I should probably have put him out of his misery by turning round and either gently correcting his mistake or blatantly lying and telling him that yes, I was a real live, genuine cowboy — my inclination was strongly towards the former option as I don’t generally like to play too fast and loose with the truth and wouldn’t want to set a bad example for impressionable young minds. Sadly, though, my natural shyness kicked in and I just spent a few uncomfortable minutes hoping that either the kid would shut up or everyone else would somehow assume he was talking about somebody else.

In fact, now I cast my mind back, I can think of several other examples of times when I’ve been mistaken for other types (such as a pirate or a biker) based on what I was wearing. Still, I’d better stop working now so that I can sleep all night and then, as tomorrow is Wednesday, go shopping and have buttered scones for tea.

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).