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.

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(Slightly Tarnished) Silver Strings – Part 2

Last week I wrote about some of the early history of my violin playing, finishing my account on the eve of my departure for university.  The time has now come to bring my account up to date.

Prior to going to university, my violin playing in public (apart from playing it in a church band — which I’ve continued to do, along with various other instruments, to this day) was mostly confined to classical music.  When I went to university, and subsequently, my musical horizons expanded significantly.

Actually, as an undergraduate (maths) student in Nottingham, I didn’t do very much violin playing at all (at least publicly).   The mainstay of my musical life in Nottingham was the unversity’s early music ensemble, in which I played (mostly tenor) recorder and (mostly bass) viol.  I also played bass guitar in several groups, including a band from the Christian Union that played for various jazz café events.

For most of the time the CU jazz café band remained nameless, but we did eventually get named The Marvellous Mechanical Mouse Organ (at my suggestion — partly because I was just getting back into Bagpuss at the time and mainly to avoid some even worse names that had been suggested); I think that was just in time for our final gig.  Most of the time I played bass in that band (having earlier learned to play the bass mostly by learning on the job in a jazz big band) but I did play violin for at least one or two gigs, when there was another bassist available and we were slightly short of horns (OK, so the violin is not usually considered part of the horn section, but you know what I mean).

While at university I also got hold of some books of folk tunes, foremost among them The Fiddler’s Fakebook (by David Brody, published by Oak), and started to get more into folk fiddling, although still only in the confines of my own home and only playing on my own or with members of my family.  Previously I had played some folk music with my Dad from some books he had, but the Fakebook definitely gave a big boost to my interest in this kind of music (or rather, these kinds, since it covered quite a few different folk styles).

When I moved to Bangor to do my PhD, I decided to approach the music department to find out if there were any early music opportunities, especially as I was keen to continue playing the viol and I didn’t have one of my own (I still don’t, though I’d still love to get one one day).  At the time there weren’t, but one of the members of the department, Stephen Rees, put me in touch with the local folk music scene (in particular, regular Welsh and Irish sessions taking place in local pubs), which gave me a start on playing folk music with other people and also on learning tunes by ear rather than reading them from books. I’m firmly convinced that this is the way forward for folk music, although books can be quite handy as backup sources / memory aids for tunes.

I regularly played, mostly fiddle (with a bit of tin whistle and occasional banjo or other things), in both the Irish and Welsh sessions for several years, although gradually I drifted out of the habit of going to them as I got busy with other things.  After about a year of going to the sessions, I was invited by a couple of guys I’d met there to join them for a practice in one of their houses and quickly discovered that they were recruiting a new fiddle player for their twmpath (aka barn dance or ceili(dh)) band, Defaid Du (Welsh for “black sheep” (pl.)).  We got on pretty well and I soon found myself a member of the band (also playing a bit of tin whistle and occasional banjo or other things).  My first gig with them was all the way over in Lincoln and, over the next 10 years or so we played many gigs (some excellent, some less so) in many places, mostly across North Wales but occasionally further afield.  Lincoln remained the furthest distance I travelled with that particular band, but we did also go down to Exeter one time and to the Gower Peninsula (near Swansea) a couple of times, as well as a handful of gigs in the English midlands.

Apart from the great deal of pleasure I got from playing and hanging out with the other members of the band (to say nothing of the beer), one of the things I particularly valued about being a twmpath musician was the opportunity to travel to all kinds of obscure bits of North Wales (and, as mentioned, beyond) that I probably would otherwise never have seen.  Quite often, whether I’m travelling to or through, or just talking about, a place in North Wales (or sometimes beyond), I find myself saying “I played a gig there once…”.  Sadly Defaid Du came to an end a couple of years ago when our guitarist/gig-organiser/bloke-with-PA moved to the south of England.  We did, however, have a reunion gig the other week (for the wedding of a daughter of one of my bandmates) and we have another one coming up next month (for the wedding of the daughter of a friend of the band).  It’s been great to play again together, although it has made me realise how much I miss playing twmpathau.

I have occasionally moonlighted with other local twmpath bands (especially the ever-wonderful Aderyn Prin) when their own fiddler (or on one occasion their guitarist — although I played fiddle and their fiddler played guitar, as I knew the tunes better than the chords) has been absent, and doubtless I shall continue to do so. I’ve also played a few solo gigs of folk fiddle music, including one memorable one (for me, at least) when I stood playing Welsh folk tunes for an hour or so outside the Welsh Assembly Government’s tent (at their request) at the International Eisteddfod in Llangollen.

Most of my other public music-making in recent years, apart from a couple more forays into the world of classical music (about which more later), has been on other instruments — mostly basses of various descriptions. However, I have played a bit of jazz violin at jazz cafés hosted by my church (as with the Nottingham CU ones, I usually played bass for these events, but there was at least one when I could find another bass player but was short of horns). One of the other members of my new jazz band is also a bassist (as well as a trumpeter), so at some point I may get to play a bit of fiddle with the Jazz Knights if James would like to play bass.

Once again, this account of my fiddle playing seems to be growing somewhat larger than intended, so I’ll postpone the account of my classical playing in the post-university years to another post. It should only take one more post to finish bringing the narrative up to date, although I hope that I have several more posts worth of violin playing (in all kind of styles) to look forward to in the future.

Dydd Gŵyl Dewi Hapus Eto!

Today is St David’s Day.  In honour of the patron saint of Wales, I’m going to write the bulk of this post in Welsh.  For the benefit of those of you who are not blessed with understanding of the language of heaven, I’ll provide a short summary in English at the end.

Dwi wedi byw yng Ngogledd Cymru ers bron i 14 mlynedd bellach a does gen i ddim awydd symud i ffwrdd byth.   Des i yma yn wreiddiol i wneud doethuriaeth mewn mathemateg ym Mhrifysgol Cymru Bangor (fel roedd hi ar y pryd – mae hi wedi newid i Brifysgol Bangor ers hynny) ac wnes i ddewis Bangor o achos diddordebau ymchwil yr adran mathemateg (un o’r lleoedd gorau yn y DU i astudio topoleg, er wnes i symud i mewn i algebra pur erbyn i mi orffen y PhD), yn hytrach nag unrhywbeth ynglŷn â mynyddoedd, cerddoriaeth, iaith ayyb.  Wrth gwrs, fel rhywun efo diddordeb mawr mewn ieithoedd ers talwm, ro’n i wrth fy modd i symud i rywle efo iaith newydd i mi ei ddysgu a cholles i ddim amser i ymuno â dosbarth.  Wnes i’r cwrs Wlpan (ac wedyn y cwrsiau eraill) wedi’i rhedeg gan y brifysgol, ac wnes i ffeindio hi’n gwrs ardderchog.  Hefyd, wnes i ddefnyddio’r Gymraeg cymaint â phosibl tu allan y dosbarth o’r dechrau, sy’n beth pwysig iawn i ddysgu iaith yn llwyddianus.  Daeth fy addysg ffurfiol yn Gymraeg i ben tua 10 mlynedd yn ôl ond dwi wedi parhau i’w ddefnyddio yn eitha rheolaidd.

Yn fy marn i, mae Cymraeg yn iaith hyfryd.  Mae’n medru bod yn anodd weithiau, efo llawer iawn o fanylion bach i greu trafferth.   Er bod pobl fel arfer yn sylwi ar y treigladau fel ffynnon trafferthion i ddysgwyr, dwi’n meddwl bod ffurfio’r lluosog yn galetach, gan bod ‘na cymaint o ffyrdd i’w wneud.  Un o’r bethau eraill mae pobl yn canfod fel problem ydy’r gwahanol tafodieithodd, yn arbennig y gwahaniaeth rhwng iaith y Gogledd a iaith y De.  Dwi’n meddwl bod gwahaniaeth rhwng yr iaith ffurfiol, ysgrifennedig ac unrhyw dafodiaeth llafar yn llawer fwy arwyddocaol ond dydy hyd yn oed hynny ddim yn broblem rhy fawr.  Dydy fy Nghymraeg i ddim cystal â hoffwn i, ond dwi am ddal ati.  Ar hyn o bryd, dwi’n trio defnyddio’r Gymraeg bob dydd, gan obeithio bydda i’n mynd yn well amdani yn hytrach nag yn waeth.

Cymraeg am byth!

And here’s the summary (somewhat condensed – you’ll just have to learn Welsh if you want the whole thing 🙂 ):

I moved to Wales nearly 14 years ago, attracted by the research interests in the (now defunct) maths department of the University of Wales, Bangor (latterly Bangor University) and was delighted to be moving to an area with another new language for me to learn.  I quickly signed up to a Welsh course – the Cwrs Wlpan run by the university, which (along with its follow up courses) was excellent.  I also tried to use Welsh as much as possible outside the classroom right from the start and have continued to use it since I finished formal Welsh lessons 10 years ago.  I think Welsh is a beautiful language and well worth the effort of learning (especially if you live in Wales), although the formation of plurals still gives me some trouble. I try to use Welsh every day, in the hope that my command of the language will get better rather than worse.

Dydd Gŵyl Dewi Hapus

I remembered this morning that today is St David’s Day. Sadly it’s not (yet) a public holiday in Wales, though there is a movement to make it one.

Today I am mostly celebrating by listening to Welsh folk music on last.fm and I may get round to making some Welsh cakes later if I can find the recipe.