26 November 2011

On Cinnamon and Peacocks

I went shopping the other day at our lovely local bulk foods store. We were running dismally low on such necessities of life as dried beans, rolled oats, and large chunks of chocolate, so the situation had to be remedied. Besides, Christmas is coming up, and it was imperative that I lay in the required supplies. One of the things I love about the bulk food store is the way it smells; they sell spices and other delectables from open bins with just a loose lid on them, so the scent permeates the whole shop. As it did my car, on the half-hour drive home.

This, dear people, is a bag of cinnamon. A one-kilogram bag of cinnamon. For those of you in the US, that's two-point-two pounds. And what I paid for it is $4.97. Four Canadian dollars, and ninety-seven cents. For those of you in Europe, that's about €3.55. For those of you in the US, that's $4.97. And for everyone else, that's just plain ridiculous.

You see, it was snowing that day as I was driving home, inhaling cinnamon scents all the way. Cold, white, soft flakes of snow. Temperatures just around the freezing point. And no, that's not terribly unusual here for this time of year, even though, contrary to what you might think, I do not live in an igloo year-round, and my car moves on tires, not sled runners. (I live in Canada, not next door to Father Christmas and the North Polar Bear. Just sayin'.) But, my point is I'm driving home, through the snow, with a one-kilo bag of cinnamon in the car that I paid five bucks for.

For the last few years around Christmas, the local educational TV station has been broadcasting this very interesting show called "A Tudor Feast at Christmas" (ooh, very cool, you can watch it for free here!). A team of English historians dress up in outfits from the late 16th century, go to an old manor house, and spend three days preparing a meal like the highest rungs of the social ladder in Elizabethan England would expect to be fed at a Christmas celebration. They use only the technology, ingredients and methods that would have been used at the time; and talk to the camera about how much bloomin' work it is to grind almonds for marzipan in a mortar and pestle instead of using a food processor. Now that's my kind of reality television!

So one of the blurbs that really stuck with me is where this food historian talks about cinnamon. He says, if I recall correctly, that cinnamon was nearly as precious as gold in those days - if not more so. Say, an English merchant outfitted three whole sailing ships, vessel, crew, supplies, everything, and sent those three ships off to the Spice Islands. He waits a full year for their return. Two of the ships are lost entirely, sunk off the coast of India in a storm. Just one of the ships makes it back to the cooler climates of Europe, its cargo hold loaded with the little fragrant brown sticks. That merchant, in spite of having lost two-thirds of an enormous investment, has just made his fortune for life.

Countries where it can snow in November are constitutionally incapable of growing cinnamon, so they have to bring it from elsewhere, from the far-away exotic shores of hot climates. Cinnamon, by rights, should be expensive around here. I have a feeling that my one-kilo bag of cinnamon, finely ground and powdery, probably equates to a wealthy person's yearly income by 1597's standards. But in case you were wondering, $4.97 doesn't go very far in today's Canada. In fact, it's only about twice of what I might pay for an equivalent weight in apples, which I could have picked from the trees in the orchard down the street a few months ago.

I wonder if the price on whole roasted peacock with the skin put back on, presented at the table in all its peacocky splendour, is going to go through a similar price drop anytime soon?

Life, the Universe and Cinnamon. Steve says he's looking forward to gingerbread.

17 November 2011


I won something again!! This is amazing, I'm on a roll. I've never won anything before, and now two things in one month! This time I actually had to work for it, though, as it was a contest, not just a draw. Christopher Bunn (yes, he of the Aebelskivers) wrote this very cool new song, and was giving away an Amazon gift certificate to the first person who could identify all three people the song was about. One was a character from one of his books, and as his current Magnum Opus, The Tormay Trilogy, is a three-volume fantasy which is quite magnum, indeed, it took a bit of searching.

I did find it, though, dredging up from the recesses of my blurry memory the general vicinity of the part of the story in which the character was being talked about, and looked it up to find the actual name. It would have been a lot easier if I'd had the books in my hand in hardcopy, then I could have just gone "Okay, about a third of the way through the book, right page, second paragraph from the bottom," and flipped through until it jumped out at me. Alas, so far Christopher's books are only available in e-book format, and e-pages don't flip very well.

The funny thing is that I'll probably end up using that gift certificate to just buy more of his books. Well, okay, I already have all of the ones that are out in print - wait, not print - uh, font? pixel? binary code? (Hmm, this is the same problem I've run into with my online studies: I never hand in papers, they're always just digital files. "Excuse me, Professor, when are those bites due?") But there'll be more of his books coming out soon, and meanwhile, there's so much other good stuff out there to read... And with e-books, oh dear, it's just too darn easy to get yet another book.

Those of you who have been faithfully following my flog - sorry, blog (getting a bit carried away with the alliteration there for a moment) might remember that last year I bought myself an e-book reader, with absolutely no intention to read books on it, as in, fiction, for amusement. Oh no, I was going to firmly remain faithful to my beloved print-on-paper (pBooks, we call that nowadays). The electronic dog polisher was only going to be for strictly electronic dogs, i.e. for reading pdf files for the aforementioned online studies. Hah- hahahah!! As it turns out, tiny little 6" screens are actually quite lousy to read pages on that were designed for 13" windows. (D'oh!)

But, ooh, they're lovely for reading regular books. Instant large print, anyone? What's more, instant reading material, at 10:30 on a Saturday night when you've just finished your Nero Wolfe novel, and you want another one, RIGHT NOW. No more waiting until the library opens again on Tuesday, or at least until the bookstore opens on Sunday morning. Now I can get more books with a few taps of a button, whenever I want. Instant gratification. But the ironic thing is that the instant-gratification reading machine is also teaching me to read more thoroughly again - to really read, page by page, instead of just skipping through the story for the instant gratification of only getting the good bits.

And it's not that my e-reader has turned me off pBooks, in the least. Rather, it's added a new dimension to my reading life. It's a winning situation, all around.

Incidentally, if you can't, or don't want to, afford a dedicated e-reader, you can still read e-books on your computer; the software is available for free download. So you have no more excuses for not reading Christopher's books; he's even giving one away for free.

Life, the Universe, and E-book Reading. Unexpected wins.

11 November 2011


It's the 11.11.11 today. That's a lot of 1's in a row. It's also Remembrance Day, and this year, I'm wearing the poppy.

Remembrance Day tends to be shrouded in sepia, with splashes of red (the poppies). We remember the men - and less often, women - who fought in the wars of the 20th century, wars which, for the most part, happened more than a lifetime ago. My uncle who fell in Russia would be ninety years old now, my uncle-in-law who was left on the fields of Normandy when he was nineteen would have had his 87th birthday this summer. Or, most likely, would not have; none of his siblings lived much past 70.

I remember hearing a story of someone who described how in the 1970's he first saw Cuba, which he had only known from TV footage up to that time. His big surprise was that Cuba was in colour! All the photos and films he'd seen were black-and-white. The stories we tell on Remembrance Day tend to be in sepia tones, stories of long ago and (for North Americans in particular) far away. We forget that all those things happened in colour, were here-and-now for those who lived then.

We also forget that when we are in the midst of things, when we experience them in colour, so much that happens seems inevitable, as if there was nothing we could do about it. I'm a pacifist at heart, but really, my dedication to peace has never been put to the test. I suspect that in actuality, I'm a passivist - I just want to be left alone to live my life, to not be bothered.

And that's were Remembrance Day comes in. I can live my life in peace because of those who were not passivists. I can live in a society where it is unacceptable to disparage someone because of their skin colour, thanks to Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King. I, and my daughter, can hold property, can obtain university degrees, can vote, thanks to Emmeline Pankhurst and Nellie McClung. And I can sleep at night without fear of bombs dropping on my head because of those who fought the sepia-coloured wars, and those who fight today for our freedom from violence and injustice.

Nothing says it better than the old greeting of the Christian liturgy: "Pax vobiscum - Peace be with you". "And also with you."

09 November 2011

Scarborough Fair

I just gave my herb bed its autumn haircut, bringing in the last of the herbs that I was going to preserve. Here's a lovely Scarborough Fair basket, filled with parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme. The last three are now hanging in bundles above the wood stove to dry; the parsley was chopped and frozen, as it doesn't dry well.

I also couldn't resist picking a few more heads of calendula (English marigolds), which were still blooming, and putting them on an old dehydrator rack in the workshop to dry. Poor Man's Saffron, dontcha know. Not that I ever use saffron, really, or calendula petals, for that matter, but I just like having it. I suppose it's like some women and shoes; I always like having yet another herb plant in the garden, or spice in the cupboard. Some of the herbs I don't even bother preserving, as I'd definitely never will use them; I just like growing them.

d is one of them; I don't even know what it's good for, really. I read somewhere that you could put it, sparingly, in pork dishes; but otherwise the only uses for it I heard of is as a strewing herb, and as part of a bouquet of aromatic herbs that judges in Ye Olden Days put on their bench in the court room in order to ward off jail fever which the prisoners would bring with them into the dock (the inconsiderate wretches). Neither one of those is any good to me, seeing as I'm neither a Victorian judge (or a judge of Victoriana, for that matter), and don't have my floors covered in rushes (hardwood or carpeting is nicer, I find, but if you want to put straw on your floors, more power to you. I can let you have some southernwood to keep it nice-smelling). Apparently southernwood is related to wormwood (as in, "bitter gall and -"), which used to be the flavour in absinthe (the drink Van Gogh & Co fried their brains with); its toxicity is the reason that you can't get absinthe any more.

Another herb I like to have in my garden, just to have it, is tarragon. I know you can make lovely tarragon vinegar, and there's lovely recipes for tarragon chicken, and it's a lovely part of a lovely bouquet garni, but really, I don't actually like the flavour. Any of those anise-like flavours, I'm not particularly fond of to eat - anise, tarragon, licorice, even basil... And I'd grow them all, if I could. (Hey, can you grow licorice on the 50th latitude? Or is that a tropical? Hmm, she says, with an avaricious gleam in the eye...) But, anyway, tarragon has one quality that makes it rather vital to have in one's garden: tarragon's other name is Dragonsbane. Truly, it wards off dragons! I haven't seen a single one in my garden since I planted it.

Life, the Universe, and Herb Collections. I think I'll go listen to Scarborough Fair now.