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!

Technology-assisted language learning #1

Recently I’ve been quite busy with language-learning related stuff (mostly Spanish, but also bits of several other languages) and I’ve been exploring some technological aids to help me.

My previous language learning efforts have mostly focused on traditional media such as books and tapes/CDs, although I have made a fair amount of use of things like flashcard software (Anki is my favourite) and internet radio stations.

In the past couple of years, I have explored some of the language apps available for my Android phone.  However, this is a device of fairly limited capacity running on an old version of the Android OS (2.something) so there were several apps I’d heard of from friends (including Simon who runs the Omniglot website) and other sources that I wanted to check out but couldn’t get to run on my phone.

A few weeks ago I got myself a reconditioned Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 tablet.  This has a much beefier processor than my phone, as well as a lot more memory and storage space, and runs Android 4 (the wonderfully named Ice Cream Sandwich), so should have no trouble running the pick of the current crop of apps, language-related or otherwise.

Since then I’ve been trying out several different apps for Spanish and other languages.  I will probably write about some of them in forthcoming posts.  For now, though, I want to talk about the latest one I’ve been checking out: Duolingo, which exists as both a website and an Android app (I think there’s also an iPhone version).

As far as I can make out, Duolingo is basically a community-driven project.   On their website I found the slogan “We believe everyone should have access to education of the highest quality – for free”, which is a sentiment I share.  As the name suggests, their particular focus is on language education.  They provide courses in a variety of languages, both as source (the language via which instruction is given) and target (the language you’re learning).

A couple of the friends with whom I went to Spain in August used Duolingo to pick up a bit of Spanish in advance of our trip (the most notable result of which was one of them declaring “Yo soy una manzana”, which means “I am an apple”) and have been continuing to use it since then.  At the time, I didn’t check it out myself, partly because I didn’t have my tablet and didn’t know if my phone could handle it (nor that there was a website interface) and partly because I mistakenly assumed it would only be a beginner level course that wouldn’t have anything useful to teach me.

Yesterday, I got round to installing Duolingo on my tablet for a closer look and I was pleasantly surprised.  There are courses for English-speakers on about 8 or 9 languages at present (though a few of them only seem to be available via the website), as well as courses aimed at speakers of other languages.  One nice feature is that when you start a course you can either go from the beginning or take a placement test to assess your existing level of knowledge of the target language and fast-track you to a suitable starting point.

Out of curiosity (and a desire to learn/improve all the languages I can) I started the courses not only for Spanish but also French, German, Dutch, Italian and Irish, opting for the placement test in each case.

I was quite gratified to reach Level 10 in Spanish (I’m not sure how many levels there are, and it may vary between languages, but I seem to have ended up about three quarters of the way through the available units, and poised ready to start a lesson on the subjunctive).   There seems to be a reasonable variety of different lessons and exercises, with a combination of reading, writing, listening and even speaking, so I expect that working my way through the rest of the course should be quite useful. Apparently it is based on a generalised Latin American version of Spanish, in contrast to the peninsular Spanish focus of most of the instructional material I’ve used to date, but I don’t think that should be too much of a problem.

Given that I still consider my French to be a lot stronger than my Spanish (and I can generally string together a vaguely correct sentence in French much more easily than in Spanish) I was moderately surprised that I only reached Level 7 in French.  This is probably largely due to mistakes with accents, which are generally much harder in French than Spanish (as there are more to choose from and they aren’t always entirely obvious from pronunciation) as well as the fact I’ve done a lot more writing in Spanish than French recently (I think it was mostly the written exercises that let me down in the French test).

In German, I achieved Level 5 – not too surprising considering my German was never quite as strong as my French (though in theory I studied them to the same level) and is much rustier.  I was pleasantly surprised to get up to Level 3 in Dutch since, although it’s less than a year since I last had a go at learning it, I didn’t get very far in my lessons then. Both my Irish and my Italian are languishing down at Level 1.

My main goal remains to focus primarily on Spanish for the moment but also to do some gentle revision of French and German and probably do a bit of Dutch, using Duolingo alongside various other tools for each language.  Doubtless I’ll do at least a bit with both Irish and Italian too, although those are definitely lower priorities at the moment.

Amongst the other languages apparently in development (for English-medium courses) on Duolingo are Swedish, Russian and Hungarian.  All three have for some time been on my shortlist of languages to work on (I speak some Russian, though considerably less than German or French, and a little bit of Hungarian, though only a negligible amount of Swedish as yet), so I’m looking forward to trying out those languages when they go live.

There’s no sign, yet, of any courses in English for non-Indo-European languages on Duolingo, which is a shame as I’d definitely like to break further out of the Eurocentric mould in my language studies (Swahili being the non-IE language that interests me most, though there are plenty of others).  For now, at least, it looks like I’ll have to stick with other tools for explorations in that direction, as well as for IE languages such as Catalan that are not on the Duolingo menu.  However, for the languages that are available I think Duolingo will be a very handy addition to the toolbox.


Once there lived a crocodile…

My recent experiments with kvass have been just one of the manifestations of my latest bout of slavophilia.

I have been interested in Russia for quite a long time, at least since a school trip to Moscow and Leningrad (shortly before it was renamed back to St Petersburg) in 1991.  I learned a small amount of Russian for that trip and then had a chance to study the language as a subsidiary module at university for a year in 1997-8.  Hand-in-hand with my interest in the language has been an interest in the culture of Russia.  Along with most of my other interests, these enjoy occasional periods at the forefront of my attention, with often quite long gaps in between.

In addition to various culinary-related activities and a spot of balalaika playing, not to mention listening to quite a lot of Russian music (including some by the Mighty Handful), I have recently been having another attempt to dust off my Russian language skills which have largely languished in disuse since I finished my university course 15 years ago.  My main goal is to be able to tackle some works of Russian literature (which I enjoy reading in translation) in their original language.

Most of my knowledge of Russian literature (in translation or otherwise) is confined to prose, but I have enjoyed my limited exposure to Russian poetry too.  In particular, I have fond memories of a poem that I studied as part of my Russian course.  This was Крокодил (Krokodil = Crocodile) by Korney Chukovsky, a popular children’s poet who was mostly active during the Soviet era.  We only actually studied the first 30 or so lines of the poem in our class and I later discovered that it is considerably longer than that (I think I originally thought we’d done the whole thing).  At one time I could remember more or less the whole of the section we’d studied.  These days I only have the first half dozen lines firmly committed to memory, although I can also remember several later snippets.

Here’s how the poem starts:

Жил да был
Он по улицам ходил,
Папиросы курил,
По-турецки говорил –
Крокодил, Крокодил Крокодилович!

That’s about as far as I can remember without having to look it up (although I did check the spelling).  A rough prose translation is:

Once there was a crocodile.  He was walking down the street, smoking cheap cigarettes and speaking Turkish.  Crocodile, son of Crocodile!

Obviously that translation loses all the poetry, even if it does retain the meaning fairly faithfully.  I did have a quick go at making a verse translation, but I didn’t manage to come up with anything good that stuck reasonably close to the original meaning.

There are a couple of interesting (?) observations about this first bit of the poem.

One is that, when I first learned it (in 1998, fairly shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union), I learned the third line as Он по Невскому ходил (“He was walking down Nevsky Prospect”; Nevsky Prospect is the name of the main street in St Petersburg).  When I looked for a version online a few years ago it had replaced по Невскому with по улицам (i.e. “down the road”, without specifying which road).  I had assumed that this edit was to remove a Soviet-era road name, but on checking it up just now I discovered that Nevsky Prospect was actually the original name (it was changed for a while during the Soviet era to Проспект 25 Октября – “Avenue of the 25th of October” – to commemorate the October Revolution of 1918) and that the poem was written in 1916, two years before the revolution took place.  I’m guessing that the original text had the reference to the Nevsky Prospect, that the other version was a later edit (most likely during the time when the road had a different name) and that both versions are now in circulation.  I think my preference is probably for the Nevsky version, since that’s the one I first learned and it sets the poem in a more definite location.

Another observation is that a reference to smoking in a children’s poem seems quite surprising if we judge by the standards of our own culture but is probably somewhat less so if we remember that the poem was written nearly 100 years ago in another country.  I remember my Russian teacher explaining the meaning of папиросы (papirosi), which is not the standard Russian word for cigarettes (сигареты – sigareti); I can’t remember entirely but I think it was essentially a type (rather than a brand) of cheap cigarettes commonly smoked in the Soviet Union (there are pages about papirosi on Wikipedia in several languages – including Russian, German and Spanish, but not English; I can’t quite follow any of them well enough to do more with a quick skim reading than just confirm my vague memory – it’s not that important for understanding or enjoying the poem anyway).

Finally (just because I know it will wind up a few of my friends to give three observations when I’ve said there were a couple :)), the line “Крокодил, Крокодил Крокодилович!” (Krokodil, Krokodil, Krokodilovich! = “Crocodile, Crocodile, son of Crocodile”) was the first line of the poem that I learned, as our teacher taught us that when she was explaining the Russian naming system (with its strong emphasis on patronymics) sometime before we looked at the rest of (the start of) the poem.  Although it is clear from the rest of the poem that it is about an actual crocodile, the word is here being treated as a proper noun (i.e. a name) and it is the name not only of the eponymous protagonist of the poem but also of his father (or, if not their actual name, it is at least indicating that his father was also a crocodile – probably no great surprise from a biological perspective!).  In any case, it is a lovely turn of phrase that rolls beautifully off the tongue in Russian.

Although we only did the very first part of the poem in my Russian lessons, I have subsequently read somewhat more of it.  I still have quite a lot to get through, though, and I will need to improve my Russian somewhat in order to understand it.  Still, if the start is anything to go by, understanding this poem will itself be a rich reward for any effort I expend in learning the language.

Hello, bonsoir & croeso

I recently joined a new group on Facebook called Bangor Polyglots.  As the name suggests, this is for people based in the Bangor area (that’s the one in North West Wales rather than any of the many others around the world) who speak several languages and have a strong interest in language in general.   As you might also guess from the fact that the name specifies a geographical location, this is intended to be a group that has face-to-face meetings rather than just existing in cyberspace.
The group only began to meet a fortnight ago and, at the moment, they meet on Monday evenings at one of the pubs in Bangor (the Ship Launch, down near the pier).  This is unfortunate for me, since on Monday evenings I have rehearsals with the Menai Bridge Band.  However, I discovered after the first meeting that they go on fairly late (until around 11pm), which gives me a chance to get across after the band practice (which finishes at 9).  Since the weather was fine (albeit cold) last night and I wasn’t feeling too tired, I cycled across to meet the others for the first time last night.

As it happens, there were only 3 other people there (though apparently there had also been one other person there earlier), one of whom I already know, so it wasn’t too daunting to join in the meeting.

One of those present was Simon, the organiser of the group (and the one I already knew).  He is also the creator and maintainer of the Omniglot website – an online encylopedia of languages and writing systems.  I first came across this fascinating website some time before Simon moved to Bangor so I was delighted when I met him a few years back and discovered that he was the man behind it.  He speaks several languages to a high standard and has a particular interest in the Celtic languages.   He’s also learning Russian, which I studied for a while (as a subsidiary subject) at university (far too many years ago).

The other two people there are, I gather, both students.  I think Rhian is studying linguistics and Sam is studying German (with a bit of Dutch on the side).  They both speak Welsh and Cornish, as well as several other languages.

Last night’s general conversation was mostly in a fairly free mix of Welsh and English.  I also had a bit of a chat with Simon in French and Russian and we all threw bits of quite a few other languages into the mix too, so it definitely qualified as a meeting of polyglots.  One of the notable topics of conversation was the notion of cellar doors, as propounded (though apparently not originated) by J. R. R. Tolkien.  Both Rhian and I were delighted to find somebody else (i.e. each other) who was familiar with this concept and we had great fun explaining it to the others and then all coming up with our own cellar doors in various languages (if you’ve no idea what I’m talking about you may want to check out the link in the previous sentence to Simon’s blog, where he has written about cellar doors today).  We also spent some time discussing compound words in German (and trying to make up some of our own, then translate them into Welsh), the Welsh translation of “passion fruit” (which none of us knew – I looked it up later and apparently it’s granadila, which is very similar to the French grenadille) and the current state of the various different proposals for a standard dialect of modern Cornish (a scene which appears to be even more fragmented than when I last seriously looked at it several years ago, when there were three main claimants for the title).

I did manage to get an answer for a question that’s been bugging me (slightly) for a couple of weeks.  A friend and I were discussing corgis (the small Welsh dogs beloved of Queen Elizabeth) and we couldn’t remember the meaning of the word.  It is a Welsh compound word, breaking down to cor + gi (< ci = dog) but we couldn’t remember what cor meant.  We did flippantly speculate that it could be côr = choir, which would make corgis dogs that sing in choirs.  🙂 However, it turns out (as Rhian reminded me last night) that cor is a synonym or abbreviation (I’m not sure which) of corrach = dwarf, so a corgi is actually a dwarf dog (not a bad description, really).

All told, I had a very pleasant evening with my fellow polyglots.  I’ll probably try and get across for the meetings (or at least the last part of them) whenever possible (which will probably be based on what the weather’s like and whether I’m feeling sufficiently energetic to cycle there and back).  I hope that this will help me to polish my French and Russian (and Welsh, for that matter) and perhaps learn a bit more Cornish and a few odds and ends of other languages.