Simnel Cake, a blowslogger’s Easter post

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True to my blowslogging persona, here comes my Easter post about Simnel cake. Until a few weeks ago, I wasn’t aware this cake even existed, but here is how I came to learn about it. Picture me pleasantly sitting at a café in one of the many London parks immersed in the green of trees and dotted with countless flowers in bloom – a symphony of colours and bird songs.  I’m having a quick lunch with my friend Valerie (the idyll of the London Parks isn’t exempt from the capital’s frenetic pace and I must be back at my desk by 2pm sharp).

Valerie is a former colleague who started an Anglo-Italian group a few years ago. In passing, I need to note that she’s English to the tip of her nose or the tip of her toes depending from where you start looking. Now in her early 60’s, she has lived most of her life in North Africa, the Middle East, and South East Asia working for the British Council. Not only does she speak several languages including Arabic and Farsi, but she’s passionate about the history and culture of the countries she has lived in such as Iran and Egypt. As she’s lucky enough to live in London she regularly attends conferences and exhibitions on the subject; the Capital offers a wealth of such events attracting an international public.

The floors of Valerie’s small London house are covered with beautiful Persian carpets, and she tells me that Iranians wash them in the winter by putting them out in the snow and stamping on them. Not really possible in London as such procedure would result in the carpets becoming smeared by an unattractive mix of snowy mud and rubbishy muck.

But back to Valerie and me, chatting away in a sunny park glowing with light and green;  she tells me, waving her fork with a bright orange mouthful of Cotoletta Milanese spiked on it, that she’ll soon be baking s Simnel cake. Before broaching the Simnel subject, you might have paused when I mentioned ‘bright orange Cotoletta’ since I wasn’t describing the colour of the nearby tulip beds, and since these meat loins are usually coated in delicately golden breadcrumbs. To put the Cotoletta in its historic context, I double-check on Wikipedia if Milan inherited this delicate, almost aristocratic-looking dish, from Austria as it was under Austro-Hungarian rule for more than one Century from early 1700.

Once on Wikipedia, as I hop to ‘history’ with a flick of the wrist and the mouse, I find myself caught unawares in a culinary war – one must be cautious when travelling, even when navigating the net. Both countries maintain that they invented the Cotoletta, as if there wasn’t already enough strife on the planet without such gourmet battles! However, the Wikipedia entry suggests that a Medieval Italian text mentions ‘lombos cum panitio’ (veal loin coated with breadcrumbs) which seems to settle the argument. Unless the author of this entry is from the ‘South of the Dolomites camp’?

Turning our gaze towards Valerie and her bright orange Cotoletta; it seemed to have reached her via Mumbai (rather than Milan or Vienna) with a handful of curry thrown into the mix. Perhaps the Polish chef of the small café wanted to liven up the dainty Cotoletta; and who could blame him? Isn’t curry the favourite British dish? By the way, I didn’t say a word of what was going through my mind to Valerie since she looked extremely pleased with her meal and I certainly didn’t want to spoil her enjoyment. Whenever my friends eat an Italian speciality (usually proudly ordered with an impeccable Italian accent) they appear deeply satisfied, as if they had been transported by a magic saucer to the heart of Florence, lulled by music played by the nymphs of culture and beauty. I’d be heartless if I woke them up from their dream!

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So, Valerie tells me that she’s going to bake a Simnel cake at the weekend.  She explains that traditionally it was baked on Mid-Lent Sunday (coinciding with Mothering Sunday) and that the left-overs were stored in a cupboard to be eaten at Easter; this is why it has come to be known as an ‘Easter cake’. It keeps for several weeks because its main ingredients, like those of other English celebratory cakes, are dried fruit and marzipan. I’m very fond of dried fruit and marzipan but if I were to give a British cake a personality it would be that of a ‘square’, good-natured fellow on whom nuances are rather lost. Whereas if a personality were to be given to Italian cakes like Profiteroles, it would probably be that of a refined, cultured lady with a witty repartee. Clearly the culinary traditions of the two countries are far from telling the full story of their national character; perhaps they simply reveal a few broad traits.

Valerie adds that in her family the tradition of baking a Simnel cake was passed down through the generations and that when her mother felt that she had baked enough Simnels in her lifetime, she asked Valerie to take over in the same way that Valerie’s grandmother had done in her time. I’m in awe of such culinary tradition since I’ve hardly come across this before. The only vaguely similar instance I’ve met is that of my grandmother Eva’s hand-written cookery book which she inherited from her mother-in-law. I might have mentioned Eva before – she was born at the beginning of the 20th Century in Brno, then also a part of the far-reaching Astro-Hungarian Empire.

This means that the recipe book is written in German which makes it very difficult to understand as I can’t read the handwriting and I don’t speak the language. As for my immediate family, my mother has always harboured a great dislike of cooking and she was known for ‘burning everything, even ice-cream’; luckily she didn’t try her hand in the kitchen too often for lack of inclination and time.

In order to turn the Simnel into an Easter cake, a few chocolate eggs and fluffy chicklets would be added on top. I think that one of the reasons why today it is best known as an Easter cake is that our deeply secular society has forgotten the meaning of Lent, let alone mid-Lent, the day when Lenten rules of fasting and self-denial were relaxed to offer some relief to religious people (I had almost forgotten that mid-Lent existed before writing this post).  As for Easter, it’s a jolly day when we go on egg-hunts and we eat a belly-full of cute chocolate beasties. On the one hand we often aren’t interested in topics and values which require time and effort to understand and to make as part of our lives, and on the other we are far too busy to pause and think about the transcendental meaning of our existence. Quoting Lady Markby in An Ideal Husband, ‘we all scramble and jostle so much nowadays’, and at the dawn of the 21st Century we ‘scramble and jostle’ at digital speed!

I wonder if this English habit of ‘reusing cakes’ – my sister-in-law tells me that a similar tradition is true of wedding cakes whose left-overs are kept for the first child’s christening – points to two typical indigenous traits; pragmatism and parsimony. Why spend more time and effort baking a new cake if you’ve already got one? And why spend more money? I’ll write a whole post about spending habits in the two countries some other time, but perhaps the pragmatism of the English also informs their attitude to money which they perceive as a concrete entity not as an abstract figure. So, a pound is made of one hundred pennies and ten pounds of ten pound coins, no more no less. You can’t stretch money and adapt it to your present wishes or needs in the same way that a stone or a plank of wood can’t change their shape.

We’re reminded of kind-hearted if naïve Mr Micawber (another very British character, the creation of a towering British genius), ‘annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen pounds nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds nought and six, result misery.’ Every single shilling matters.

Many years ago I saw a TV programme featuring a shopkeeper who pretended to have run out of pennies as change for his customers while a hidden camera filmed their reaction. Most of them, women and men, young and old, claimed their penny and made their disappointment clear. This would be an unlikely scenario in Italy since Italians would mostly perceive a penny as of no value and therefore not worth being bothered about.

To conclude this rather inconclusive post about Simnel cakes, culinary traditions, and national traits, I peruse the Wikipedia’s entry for ‘wedding cakes’. This tradition too, like that of the Cotoletta Milanese (allegedly), was started in Italy; all culinary roads lead to Rome! Wikipedia explains that in Ancient Rome some special bread (the ancestor of today’s more sophisticated cake) was broken over the bride’s head to bring good fortune to the newly-weds. I’m not sure what the bride thought about this custom, but perhaps it was meant as a symbol of future marital storms occasionally interfering with marital bliss.

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Marathon Man and Team GB: A Personal Appeal from Me.

A very worthwhile and touching post.

M T McGuire Authorholic

As you know, I don’t normally talk about my family, mainly because I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t want to know about them and that they, in turn, would be absolutely horrified if I did. However, today, I’m going to make an exception. This is a personal post, about my brother, and at the end of it, I’m going to ask for your help. I aim to beg in an amusing way, without putting anyone under pressure, but if you think you’ll be uncomfortable with that feel free to make a swift exit!

Right, if anyone’s still here, on we go.

Today, I’d like to tell you about a very important event which my brother, Giles Bell: A prime examples of er,  middle aged athleticism if ever there was one; a man in the peak of physical fitness – see photo – is going to undertake with a team of other…

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Reaching Albion: a few first impressions

Why did I come to England? Twenty years on and counting, I can’t put my finger on an exact reason; fate has certainly played a part. After applying for a place at London University I was given an interview in early May and when the time came I started getting organised for my British adventure. Britain is known to be a cold country, no matter the season, so I packed a suitcase full of woollies and took off on a warm Spring morning, in my thickest winter coat.

I’ve always been of a pragmatic nature which is mirrored in my love of action and organising anything I come across such as my day, my husband, my friends, my work, life in general, and occasionally the world. A sort of practical Midas touch – which admittedly can result a little overwhelming and I’m trying to devise a strategy to be a little more disorganised.

As we landed in London, the pilot announced with glee that the temperature outside was 20 degrees, but I was determined not to alter my plans. As I boarded the tube, tugging my huge luggage along, I started nevertheless to feel the heat. A bottle of wine had been broken in the carriage, and my vapours (by then the carriage had turned into a Turkish Bath) mingled with the alcohol ones, put me into a state of sleepy stupor. So, I stepped into the Shepherds Bush pavement and noises in a haze, but still refused to take my coat off. You must be prepared for life’s occurrences and once you’ve made up your mind you shouldn’t budge – even if you are sizzling like a haddock in a frying-pan.

On the subject of pragmatism, the British too strike me as a pretty organised and methodical people. It’s not a mere coincidence that empirical thought played such an important part in the philosophical life of the nation with thinkers such as Locke and Hume. I wonder why Britain is so practical. A German scholar of Greek philosophy once wrote that according to him Greek thought is so clear and harmonious because of the bright, clean light pouring over the island. I wonder if the foggy, cloudy British weather has led the Brits to feel a particular need to hang on tightly to reality.

Being pragmatic the British often adopt a systematic approach to things. For example, a few years ago I was having a stroll in Regent’s Park on a very cold August morning. In front of me a young father was walking holding his small son’s hand. At some point the child, who was wearing a light T-shirt, complained that he was cold. ‘Of course you’re not cold, this is Summer, and Summer is a warm season’ came the matter-of-fact reply.

The British weather has always provided endless fascination to the island’s inhabitants. I remember my school teacher of French literature and language (I attended a French Lycée in Milan) explaining to us this typically British past-time as we were reading Orson Well’s The Invisible Man in translation. I found this odd; in Milan the weather is on the whole good or bad without much left to add. Now that I’ve lived in Britain for several years, I know that the four seasons can appear in one day and such meteorological volubility gives scope for much speculation.

Another aspect of British pragmatism which follows partly from the country’s stable history, probably instrumental in developing a sense of social belonging and responsibility, is the Brits’ love of precision mirrored in the importance given to detail (by contrast Italy became a united country only in 1861). When I started living in London, I was surprised to hear my acquaintances describing the journey from the tube to their homes as ‘seven-minutes-long’. In Italy, the same journey would have taken ‘around ten minutes’. A dear friend was once commenting on the cherry tree in his Surrey garden saying that it usually flowered about 35%. In Italy this tree simply wouldn’t have flowered much.

British precision also manifests itself is the importance traditionally given by the Brits to the spoken word and ‘commitment’. If Margaret Thatcher made a promise, she kept it – whatever you thought about her politics. If Bettino Craxi, Italy’s Prime Minister during the 80s, made a promise, you knew that, as the Italian saying goes, it was made of dung. Of course, you can’t tar all Italian politicians with the same brush, and in this misty political landscape a few bright lights shine through.

I must add that today’s British politicians – left, right and centre – are unfortunately not made of Thatcher’s mettle…

And finally a few considerations about Britain’s love for teddy-bears. In my travels through the country’s towns and villages, I’ve often noticed some windows behind which small gatherings of teddies stare at passers-by. They come in all shapes and sizes, and sometime other soft toys join the furry party to create a strikingly incoherent little community. This unusual passion for teddies makes me wonder. Does it originate in an education system which probably went on until the 1950s and used to be particularly strict? Does it manifest a need for some warmth and affection?

I used to rent a room with a sophisticated family in London Chelsea. The husband had a rather military demeanour and would drown any unfortunate squirrel who’d dare trespass into his garden. But at the ripe age of sixty he owned several teddies, all with their own names. If there was some slight tension between us, the stern authoritarian would often set up a ‘teddy show’ for my own enjoyment.

As I’m finishing to write this post the phone rings; it’s my mum from Milan. She’s very happy and explains that she’s just bought a key-ring decorated by two minute teddies hugging each other. I puzzle a moment and then the Italian saying comes to mind: ‘all the world is a country’.

The End

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Driving Italian style in London

With all the money I’ve invested in driving lessons, by now I could probably afford a chauffeur. When I started taking lessons more than ten years ago I didn’t suspect that the journey would be long and winding.

My first test was bluntly interrupted by the examiner who asked me to pull over for ‘the sake of public safety’. There had been warning of this humiliating outcome; as I was driving along the road, concentrating as hard as I could on avoiding silly mistakes and passers-by, I could hear a series of ominous crunchy sounds in the background. Once safely parked, the examiner explained that I had knocked off all the side mirrors of every single parked car. Armed with resilience and determination, I underwent five more tests before landing my licence. After the last examiner had signed all relevant papers I casually dropped in the conversation that it was my sixth test; and the lady examiner (with whom I happened to share a dislike of football – probably instrumental in my passing the test successfully) jumped on her seat upon hearing the news. It was too late.

When I mention to people about my driving exploits, they adopt a polite tone asking if I passed my test in Italy. ‘No’ is the triumphant answer, ‘I’ve taken all my six tests in Britain!’ I don’t always give away the number, like an elderly coquettish lady asked about her age. Soon after getting my licence I drove once in Milan and it was one the most harmonious drives I’ve ever experienced, as if the traffic along Milan’s Canal, the Naviglio, was gliding forth to the rhythm of an Austrian waltz. I know that Italian traffic is often perceived as cacophonic, but the unexpected often happens.

This was my first and last drive in ten years. More recently, having woken up to the fact that driving can actually come in handy, I booked my first ‘refresher lesson’. Victor, my newly assigned instructor, with a very auspicious name, insisted that I’d be surprised how few lessons would be needed to get me back on the road. It was him who was to be very surprised, not to say flabbergasted, by the outcome of the countless lessons which followed.

There were moments of high tension, when I expected Victor to abandon his dual-command car any moment, leaving both his car and myself to our fate, for the sake of his life. This never happened and in fact when drama arose he was always able to utter, if between clenched teeth, ‘you’re doing very well’. He needed reassuring.

But on the whole we hit it off and had many pleasant, interesting discussions about current affairs, religion and society in general. Victor was very mild and had a lot of common sense, a great example to me especially that both qualities are in short supply. For example, one Sunday morning as we were taking off for a ‘motorway session’, my husband rushed out of the house half-dressed, his open shirt fluttering in the Wintry wind, to make sure that I would follow the itinerary we had agreed together in advance – to add insult to injury I’m devoid of any sense of direction. I was getting very annoyed at this slight commotion being very touchy in general, and touchy about my driving in particular, but Victor remarked that I should perhaps listen to my husband. He was right as I had very hazy notions about which motorway I was supposed to join and how to reach it.

It was a real pleasure to exchange views about life with Victor. We often agreed, sometime disagreed, but always accepted each other’s point of view. When we once drove past a poster inviting people to a rally to protest against ‘the fascists of the right’, I exclaimed to Victor, ‘what about the fascists of the left?’ – and in my zeal drove straight through a red light. Victor was quiet for a few moments, probably recovering from the road infraction, but in the end agreed with my observation.

When I finally asked if we could have a few lessons in my own car before I started driving on my own, he was as usual mild and cautious and merely suggested starting with short and familiar routes. So, a big red ‘L’ appeared on my car and I took the plunge. When Victor saw the ‘L’ he explained in a very English fashion that it was against the law and I should display a ‘P’. However, I adopted the Italian approach which doesn’t necessarily follow the law to the letter and kept the ‘L’, a more obvious and immediately recognisable sign. If anyone stops me and inquires about it I’ll explain that ‘L’ stands for Liability.

The End

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The NHS: sacred cow or formidable behemoth?

My husband has a snoring problem. Me. He tells me that every night he feels as if he’s in the middle of the jungle with awesome lions’ roars and wild pigs’ shouts. I decided to take action, not wanting to impose on Stephen a nightly safari and was referred by my GP to the ENT hospital on the Gray’s Inn Road. It was one of my first NHS referrals. On the one hand I’m as healthy as a fish, using the Italian expression, on the other even though I’ve lived in Britain for about 20 years I still have an Italian ingrained suspicion of public hospitals.

As I was growing up in Italy in the 70’s the Italian state health system was perceived as rather untrustworthy to the extent that if you could afford it you tried to find other alternatives. Obviously, it’s always difficult to generalise and there have always been exceptions and several very professional doctors in the Italian state system; I’m just describing the overall landscape.

These considerations bring me to today’s NHS. The impression one has is that no politician, no matter his party, dares touch it. Like in Italy, there are too many personal interests at stake and nobody wants to let his NHS bacon go. So, politicians, despairingly or hypocritically, probably both, only apply cosmetic touches to hide the cracks and the whole juggernaut, which is where the rot is, is left intact.

An any rate, it was with English pride to meet with such a historic institution and trepidation that I crossed the hospital threshold on a beautiful morning. After walking along several corridors – all hospitals around the world are alike – I landed at reception. I didn’t queue for long and was soon handed a form to fill in. One of the questions was about my religion, I never answer this question as it’s nobody’s business, but this time, I thought ‘why not?’ After all, believing today means being part of a minority and has a somehow subversive whiff to it, so I wrote ‘Christian-Jewish’. I’ll explain, I’m a Catholic married to a Jewish husband and being  very interested in Jewish culture (I’ve inherited it from my Italian family) and celebrating most Jewish religious festivities with my husband and his family, I feel Jewish. Also, Jesus was Jewish and the New Testament has its roots deeply buried in Old Testament soil.

The woman at reception gave me a blank look, ‘sorry you can’t write it. You must be one or the other.’ Now, according to this form, I could have had about ten different sexual orientations, but such creativity clearly didn’t apply to religion. The receptionist added, ‘you could be other’. ‘Other!’ I thought ‘I don’t want to join the company of Jehovah’s Witnesses or Dianetics – no thank you!’ I put none.

I sat in the waiting room and a nurse came to get me for some tests and questions. She then took a leaf from my medical folder which had been handed to me by reception. Then, I was called in by a very professional doctor who asked me various questions, took a few pictures of the inside of my nose apologising for the inconvenience – in fact, being rather vain, I’m always flattered when pictures of me are taken – and then told me that she would send me to another doctor on the first floor.

As I came out of her room, my folder with all my documents under my arm, another nurse took another sheet of paper from it. I headed for the upper floor and after walking along several wide and deserted corridors, feeling like a fairytale princess lost in an unknown land, I reached a little room where a very large nurse was sitting. I informed her that I was there to see the doctor but she insisted that she was the only nurse on the first floor and if I had been sent there I must see her. I didn’t budge – I was there to see the doctor – she didn’t budge either and a verbal tussle ensued.

I left in a huff determined to find my doctor! Back to the ground floor, where the nurses explained to me that indeed I was mistaken: I had been sent to see the nurse. My second appearance on the upper floor was not as confident as the first one. I apologised profusely to the big nurse who by now was convinced of my perfect eccentricity. Patiently, she asked me to sit down and kindly started asking me all the questions already asked by the first nurse. By then rather tamed, I uttered in a little voice that all these questions had already been asked half an hour before by her colleague. In this case, no need to ask me any questions, down for a final blood test to the ground floor. She kept a few more sheets from my folder and off I went.

After a few minutes another nurse came to give me a blood test. Being a private person, I shut the door of the small room where the test was taken. He mistook my need for privacy for a longing for intimacy – understandably as the only bare part of my body was my arm – and started telling me a few titillating tales about his friends with snoring problems. As I became as expressionless as a sphinx, he politely but firmly asked me to leave.

I was about to resurface in the hustle and bustle of the Gray’s Inn Road as another nurse grabbed a few more papers from my file. By then very much alarmed, I asked her if all these sheets with medical information disseminated right and left along the hospital’s corridors would all come together in the end. ‘Of course’ she replied knowingly. I hoped in God.

The following day the large nurse called me. How lovely, I thought, being very sociable and looking forward to a chat. ‘I’ve lost some of your files’ she said apologetically. ‘Would you mind if we go over some of the questions I asked you yesterday?’

The End

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