Of seconds, solstices, soup and seconds
Of grandfather time…
Just to the right of the seld hangs a wall-clock. It, too, was a wedding present, but a second hand one – given in the days when second hands were luxury.
The story passed down through time is of my grandfather’s great aunt – ‘a good woman, but her husband drank…’ – meeting him in town shortly before his marriage…
‘Tom bach,’ said she, ‘I am afraid that I cannot afford to buy you and Maggie a wedding present, but our old clock has been at the jeweller’s for months now. I do not have the money to fetch it, but if you can pay for the repair, then it is yours…’ My mother, whose first language was Welsh, rarely used contractions when speaking English and never when quoting the dead. As a result, their voices acquired a gravitas I subsequently associated only with the departed, the bible and the BBC.
Anyway, the repair must have been a solid stitch in time, for the clock has toc-tic-toc-ed its way through almost a century since, providing a bass counterpoint to family life so familiar that it is only consciously ‘heard’ when strange silence indicates that it has it run out of wind.
Unless the wrong winder is wound, that is. Stick to the one next to the pantry and all that is audible is the metro-gnomon of the clock work. Wind the one next to the seld accidentally and the ‘chime’ kicks in, striking shock and awful awakenings all through the day – and night – at hourly intervals throughout the week-it-will-take-to-run-down. Roughly hourly, that is, for it gains a few minutes every day as if thoroughly enjoying itself.
Of human bondage…
The newest timekeeper in the household is, by contrast, precise to the point of pickiness. An unusual YesTM watch with a 24 hour dial and a single hand, it’s not one of those ‘at a glance’ timepieces, but it does tell you the time of sunrise and sunset each day, how phased the moon is AND bleeps at sunrise at equinoxes and solstices. What more could a girl ask for? Well, the ability to wear any watch for more than a few months without it stopping, for a start – so I got it for my Tom as a Christmas present a couple of years ago, knowing his wrist to be a much more reliable repository than mine.
Buying it proved quite a journey, as the watches are produced by a company ‘based in California, with a Viking at the helm’. With no longboats sited off west-walian shores for the best part of a millennium, and less than a fortnight to go until Jul, tracking down a British outlet became a treasure hunt in itself – but one I felt compelled to follow having succumbed, utterly, to the promise of a timepiece ‘inspired by tribal shamans, ancestral astronomers, British chronologists and Swiss watch- makers’ (and the promise that it never, ever said ‘cuckoo’).
Eventually the trail lead me to ‘Bulletproof Cupid’ – an online outfit specialising in ‘gothic, fetish and alternative footwear and clothing’ – seemingly the only UK stockist… or should that be stockingist? I’m not sure quite how ‘Yes’ watches found their way into their catalogue other than through the tenuous link of a rubber strap attached to some models and perhaps the importance of getting home by sunrise to some of their vamp-ier customers…. but anyway, by the time I stumbled upon the site wearing my Calvinist-inclined ‘sandals for summer, boots for winter and put a vest on if you’re cold’ attitude to fashion, they’d sold out. Oh… wait… apart, perhaps, from one used for display at trade shows which just might be at the back of a cupboard somewhere… I kept my eyes front as the site owner rummaged…
It was also at a time when the most adventurous I’d ever been about online shopping was the odd foray into Amazon territory… tried, tested, safe, everybody buys there. Ebay still scared me, yet here I was, trusting postal orders in hand (by now the only way to ‘complete’ in time for Christmas) – surrounded by girdles of Hipollyte and basques of other Viragos completely unconnected with publishing houses… DARE I?
Well of course you know already that I did, reassured by prolonged and personal email correspondence with the site owner who exhibited patience way beyond the call of customer satisfaction in response to my virtual um-ing and ah-ing. They no longer, however, stock the watches, so if you want to check out their site you’ll have to think of some other excuse…
Of the solstice and circumcision…
Anyway once acquired, that the gift would be a success was beyond doubt, given the large number of buttons to push and things that go ‘ping’. But its endearing ‘wake up, it’s a significant day’ cry has proven problematic. Being unexpectedly alarmed at eight-ish one morning in late December is one thing. Being jolted awake at four thirty-ish am on the midsummer solstice with work the next day is quite another and can lead to bleeping from more than one source. And then, this December 21st, bleeping came there none.
We peered at it. We shook it (or at least Tom did)… we peered at it some more, as you do, and then at the instructions… yet still the Yes watch computations said ‘no’
‘Are you sure it’s set up for the right longitude and latitude?’ I asked optimistically… And so it was that the online search for the most accurate expression of our celestial place on earth – and the associated tangents I so love – lead to the happy discovery that the watch is in fact quite well.
For winter solstice (a precise point in time, I learned, associated with the exact moment at which the sun reaches ‘its southernmost distance from the celestial equator’ – and not a whole day in itself, as I had previously assumed) was not, in fact, due to occur until 6.08 am on the 22nd December in 2007. The day on which the solstice falls is also of course the day on which the sun will be at its very lowest in the sky at noon – and hence is the shortest day…
Hmm, I mused… but does that necessarily mean that the shortest day is followed by the longest night? Or might it precede it? Is the longest dark hour always before dawn or might it be after sunset? Does the chicken sometimes feel the need for egg mayo on its sandwiches and, if so, is it prepared to cross the road to buy them? And why does dawn seem to continue getting later even after the solstice has passed? I began to sympathise with my mother who often stated retrospectively that I should have been christened ‘Pam’ – the Welsh word for ‘why’…
Still, my journey towards answers has taken me to fascinating places. ‘Did you go out much over Christmas?’ ‘No, but I travelled a very long way indoors…’
En route I met Julius Caesar, Pope Gregory and his bull, and Dennis the Short (aka Dionysius Exiguous) a Russian monk who designated Jesus’ circumcision as the start of ‘A.D.’ – short, perhaps for ‘Aw! Don’t!!!!’? or ‘Ano Dennis? and perhaps also the source of the tradition of serving cold cuts after Christmas?
I also happened upon a gorgeous, brief quotation declaring ‘superstition’ to be ‘the hobgoblin of little minds’ and discovered that our friends up north enjoy roughly two hours less light each day than extreme southerners do… no wonder bagpipes wail…
And last, but by no means least, I encountered ‘the Equation of Time’. Oh, what promise encapsulated in just four words…
It’s not, however, quite as earth-shattering as its title suggests; catamaran trips to parallel universes are not yet available and putting the TARDIS out to grass would be premature. It’s basically to do with the fact that not only are we spinning round our earth’s axis as we orbit the sun, we’re also orbiting in an ellipse, not a circle, and wobbling as we do so. Well wouldn’t you? Barleysugar anyone?
And due to this wibbling and meandering, even if we could rely on the sun shining, the time as told by a sundial might be up to quarter of an hour or so wrong at some points in the year. They also cause the times of sunrise and sunset to do very odd things.
The ‘Equation of Time’, then, combines the effect of the tilt with the wander in a mathematical expression of wave form – and if you want to find out more, spin it at Google. I explored it on the website of the Royal Observatory – in language suitable for GCSE Astronomy – and almost simultaneously discovered that they are now the only British stockists of Yes watches – sending a small shiver up my hobgoblin’s spine…
What most wowed my ‘gosh’ threshold though was finding that due to these factors, for several days around midwinter, day and night length hardly change, as if the year marked time in glorious hibernation. How perfect.
(Admittedly, I have a fairly low ‘gosh’ threshold – as evidenced by the look on Tom’s face one evening last week when I came striding in from the garden declaring that ‘Mars is magnificent tonight…’ Well it was – and still is! Get out there after dark and look for something pinkish and unblinking… in the sky that is)
Anyway, beautifully apt though this slow U-turn of the year feels, it has rather scuppered my attempts at working out whether the longest night precedes or follows the shortest day, the nights from the 20th to the 25th December all being recorded as 16 hours and 14 minutes long in this corner of Britain. The days don’t actually lengthen perceptibly until the 25th and sunrise actually continuing to grow slowly later until the 5th of next month. Only sunset starting to pull away faster and faster at the other end of the day stretches the light.
It makes me think that early attempts at predicting the triumph of the sun over the darkest part of the year could have been quite fraught…
‘Oi, druid… you said last Tuesday was the shortest day… It’s Friday now and yet it was darker this morning when the Maridunum bus turned up … You been on the single mistletoe again you shambling old shaman?’
Perhaps then a period of drunken mid winter feasting became necessary for a week or so around the solstice, just to stop too many awkward questions? Feasting and watching chickens, it would seem, for we have an old saying here in Wales that the day lengthens by ‘cam ceiliog’ – a cockerel’s stride – between Christmas and the New Year. Well, I now know that a cockerel’s stride measures five minutes… Life is more complete… I think.
It’s also sets me wondering whether the phrase ‘cam ceiliog’ has perhaps survived whilst other measurements of time based on avian perambulation has been lost… what of the goose gait – the time it takes to run to the safety of the next field from a gaggle? The peacock prance involved in locating the nearest public conveniences in ancient Cymru? The turkey tread it once took to gobble down a post-christmas sandwich? Or the swallow step… …
Of dry old birds:
Turkey timing is still of course of prime importance in households up and down the land at this time of year. By it we reckon the hours needed to defrost a frozen specimen, the ‘is- it-isn’t-it cooked anxiety of Christmas morning and the maximum number of days you can safely allow one to hang around in the fridge post cremation. Indeed the passage of the holiday itself can be marked off by its shape shifting – from virgin roast and cold to motherly sandwiches and risotto, finally metamorphosing into wizened crone curry with cranberry raiita.
Over the years, I’ve learned to trust implicitly in Delia on the subject. It is, after all, one of the meals that you really want to get right – and although dallying with Ms Smith is a bit like cooking with a dominatrix looking over your shoulder, she is never, ever wrong.
But this year I strayed. This year I allowed myself to be seduced by the promises of men… I should, of course, have known better.
First, on the 23rd, I watched Gordon Ramsey ram a herb butter twixt turkey skin and breast – or actually I watched him getting his young son to do so, ‘It’s a job for small hands’, he chortled… and I can assure you that it had none of the ‘wrong on so many levels’ feel of John Selwyn Gummer and his burger-fed daughter.
Then, late on Christmas Eve, I sat down to a recording of Jamie Oliver, who was also jamming a herb (and citrus) flavoured butter between skin and breast – aided this time just by a piping bag and manipulation… Suddenly Delia’s oily massaging of the outside of the turkey began to feel wholly inadequate… and childlessness was no longer an excuse. Damn you Oliver! There’s always one who asks for more…
‘I’ll see how I feel in the morning…’ I promised myself, already knowing that 7.00am would find me in the garden.
Finding anything else in the garden (or a torch in the house) was going to be more challenging though. When I mentally committed to herb-enhanced turkey it hadn’t really dawned on me just how dark 7.00am is this time of the year and even though I know the garden like the back of my hand, my own knuckles can look fairly unfamiliar the wrong side of my first cup of coffee. The almost full moon, low in the eastern sky, served only to silhouette, not illuminate.
Yet all I sought were thyme, parsley and sage. If wise men can manage frankincense and myrrh by starlight, surely a not-yet- quite-wise woman can manage a few aromatic leaves? And so began my cold gropings…
My first return to the kitchen revealed partial success. I had in my hand a good posy of slug-baubled parsley, but the sage was frost-burned and the sprigs of thyme almost leafless. But, concentrating on finer touch, my second foray eventually solved the equation of thyme, where liberal ‘hecks’ plus numerous ‘whys’ eventually equal naught but a few sorry – if useable – stalks.
The sage however was unyielding. Well you try identifying frost-burned leaves with frost-bitten fingers whilst squatting in the near dark. I had, however, succeeded in waking the robin, which impatiently started to buzz the head of the unusually early bird. I silently told it tales of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage bird-in-a-bird-in-a-bird-in-a-bird roast creation, and just how small the bird essential for the centre of the parcel is… It knew I was joking of course, as – eventually – did I.
So, robin stuffed but turkey still empty, I began the task of cutting out sage leaves… delicately trimming brown crimp from good centres. A tousle- haired, blinking Tom appeared just as my tongue was following the turn of the final cut. ‘But you don’t like sage’, he reminded me. That’s right, I don’t – and the feeling was intensifying by the minute…
What’s convinced me to return to Delia’s fold next year though is that thanks to Gorgon and O’Liver, Christmas actually smelled wrong.
It’s a sensory aberration I first experienced the year I persuaded myself that an artificial tree would suffice. Needles to say it didn’t, and instead of the tedious job of vacuuming pine quills from directly under the tree, we ended up having to vacuum them from behind each sofa and armchair where I’d strewn off-cut sprigs begged, shamefully from a little shop in Maenclochog in a desperate attempt to recreate eau-de-noel.
‘Our tree doesn’t smell like a tree…’ I mumbled in welsh as the shopkeeper refused to accept money for the miserable bunch I’d gathered from the pavement outside.
There are, I think, smells associated with Christmas and smells intrinsic to Christmas. Into the ‘associated’ category I’d put the zest and spices of the cake and pudding mixes, wood smoke on the air, the essence of butter hitting bread toasted on an open fire… pork crackling as it roasts, even the dubious pleasure of hard boiled eggs cooked for the Boxing Day potato salad; things that surround us each Christmas but which may also crop up at other times of year.
Intrinsic to Christmas though – presumably because I experience them only at that time of year – are the smells of the cake and puddings actually baking and boiling, the pungence of the tree, the oily spirit of ‘Zebo’ grate polish applied to the old ‘Chattan Special’ cooking range each Christmas Eve and the combination of cooking scents which, together, are – and have always been – Christmas Dinner. Delicious though herb and citrus turkey undoubtedly is, it is not Christmas turkey. And never will be again. Familiarity, after all, breeds content.
Ultimate comfort though, for me, is to be found at the bottom of a basin – preferably with a wooden spoon – whenever the weather turns bitter.
The fortnight of pinching pre-Christmas cold left me craving cawl – an expression best spelled out to the English, if you want to avoid their polite but panicky ‘oh god, they probably eat placentas too…’ expressions.
Cawl is traditional Welsh soup, always with a meat and vegetable base and always containing potatoes, carrots and leeks. And there the rules end, for no two families will have exactly the same cawl recipe and there isn’t even accord on the type of meat which should be used.
This realisation first dawned at St David’s Day gatherings of my youth, when every woman of the chapel sisterhood would bring a saucepan of cawl to the vestry kitchen, there to be conglomerated before being served at the ‘noson lawen’ or ‘happy night’ that followed.
I still remember the less than sisterly murmurings about ‘her’ cawl being pretty thin… and the less than happy debate as to when, precisely, the leeks should be added… but worse still was having to eat cawl that wasn’t proper cawl. Cawl without trollies in it…
The variation on the meat content stems, I assume, from the tradition of using the leftovers of the Sunday joint or bird as the basis for the weekly cawl – thus the cawl of my very young childhood always had a chicken basis to it, chicken being the cheapest protein available at the time. After cold meat on Monday, the carcass would be boiled whole that evening then stripped clean for every last fragment of precious nutrition. With a garden full of vegetables through the summer and autumn and stores that lasted winter-through, the only ingredient which had to be bought was a packet of Leo dried peas which, when soaked overnight added body to the otherwise thin soup.
But as our fortunes improved a little – largely thanks to the introduction of Family Income Supplement in 1970 – our weekly cawl became based on a marrow bone and a small quantity of shin beef – a recipe I still follow today. Others swear by lamb and some favour a piece of smoked bacon.
And so it was that midwinter found me badgering butchers for a bone… just at the time of year when most have cleared their storerooms ready for the influx of poultry. And the more they shook their heads sadly, the more I longed for cawl…
‘Does not having a bone really make much difference?’ asked poor Tom, beginning to despair both for Christmas if my mood got any fouler and for the earth’s future if we drove to yet ANOTHER butcher. Truth be told I don’t really know, because I’ve always made it with a bone. But whilst willing to acknowledge that there are as many recipes for cawl as there are mams in Wales, mine was, that day, the only real one.
The hunt was finally concluded by my whispering to the bread shelves in our local small supermarket cum-convenience store. Although there’s no butcher’s counter, there is, visibly, meat which has been cut up for sale in cling-filmed polystyrene trays… and instinct tells me that where there’s meat there’s BONE.
‘Hello… is anyone there?’ I called softly to a shelf of cob loaves behind which I could hear rustling. The affirmative answer emanated rather worryingly from the chicken rotisserie oven – and I’ve never felt much enthusiasm for spit-roast chickens after a childhood of watching my grandfather’s phlegm sizzling on the open coals of the Chattan Special…
But the ending was a happy one. In a Royston Vasey- esque scene, after some sawing (but happily no screams) I was handed a package by an anonymous arm. I asked no questions, just gave silent thanks as I spooned the precious boiled marrow out later that night.
The other vital ingredient, for me – although rare in cawl recipes – is the trollies – or ‘trollins’ as I understand they’re known elsewhere in Wales – flour and suet dumplings with chopped parsley if you’re posh – which I’m not.
Bliss, for me then, on a bitter day, is the bottom third of a basin of cawl, out of which I’ve already picked and eaten the vegetables. With luck I’ll have remembered to blow on each of the first mouthfuls, the blessing most often heard uttered with cawl being the breathless ha-a-a-a of mouths trying not to scald too badly. By bliss stage though, heat has dropped to ‘just right’ and what remains are the belly-warming trollies and gobbets of silken soft shin, ready to melt at the touch of your tongue-tip…
Oh and the only thing better than fresh cawl is ‘cawl twmo’ – i.e. warmed up for a second time…
Cawl for 6 (or three, two days running, or two three days… etc):
The night before:
In a fairly huge, lidded saucepan, boil your
- marrow bone and
- 1½ lbs shin beef
- A good quantity of salt – at least a couple of teaspoons
- A bay-leaf or two if you have them
together for a couple of hours, skimming off any scum after the first ten minutes or so.
Ask for the beef all in one chunk and cook it that way. Do NOT throw away the cooking water (now technically ‘stock’) and do NOT leave the cooking pan where someone else might decide to helpfully clear it up for you. Leave it somewhere cool overnight, so that the fat will form a hard layer on the surface which can easily be removed the next morning. Cold birds love this.
Once the meat has cooled a bit, use your hands to pull it apart into comfortable, mouth-sized chunks. Remove any marrow you can from the bone using a spoon, a skewer, or, if a double -ended bone, by blowing through it like a pea-shooter. Make sure the other end is over a bowl or plate… Put the marrow and the meat somewhere cool overnight – covered in the fridge is fine.
Put 1 packet of leo dried peas to soak with 1½ pints of boiling water and the table of bicarbonate of soda you’ll find in the packet. If you’re lucky enough to find a net too (and I didn’t in my last packet!) you can put it over your hair and pretend that you’re a real cook. Or make the goldfish think it’s at Alton Towers.
On the day:
Make the trollies first.
9 oz. self raising four
- 3 oz. suet
- A good pinch of salt
Combine into a workeable dough using cold water – adding a bit at a time – it’s easier to add than to take away. Flour your fingers and form into 12 round balls which can sit on a floured plate ‘til you need them later.
Now de-fat your meat stock as above, strain the peas and boil them together for at least half an hour. The peas should turn to mush.
Turn down to a brisk simmer and add:
- The meat and marrow from last night
- 2 baking-size potatoes (or more little ones)
- 3 large carrots
- ½ a swede
All cut in 1- 1 ½ cm cubes/ oblongs (or any form of polyhedron that takes your fancy really, but I assume you want to eat today…)
Be sensible… if your stock doesn’t cover the veg add some water. But don’t drown it completely
Five minutes later add:
1-2 leeks depending on your taste, finely shredded. I usually use mostly white stalk, the green tops being stronger and more prone to gritty icky bits.
Fifteen minutes later add:
- 3-4 stems of chopped parsley and
- Plenty of pepper if you like it.
TASTE it at this stage. If it’s at all tasteless, ADD MORE SALT… You’ll be surprised how much it requires… Don’t be scared! Do it! Keep tasting! Try a piece of each of the vegetables too. They should be almost cooked by now.
Finally – making sure the cawl is simmering, add your trolleys. Just drop them on top, spacing them fairly evenly. They will swell!
Clamp the lid on tight and do not disturb – unless you hear shouting – for 20 minutes.
Eat and enjoy…
And if anyone suggests herby citrus dumplings, don’t believe them
some nice little touches – not just a ‘buy me’ site
these boots were made for waLking… and good people run the site too
a nice site for deep thoughts and science for the shallow of brain (like me)
Meet Dennis the Short… lots of thought-provoking stuff here
Work out your own sunrise and sunset times… one of the most user-friendly online calculators I found. Hurrah for Peter of Crouch End