Ever since I returned from Europe last August 2017, I seem to have had a thing about liver. I’ve cooked it several times, pan-fried with a piquant sauce, in red wine and so on but recently I decided to do a chicken liver paté for a change, to be served with crusty little toasted squares.
My first experience of paté was when my father, back in the early 1970’s, used to bring home a thick, yellowed plastic tube of liver paté after he had experienced it on one of his European hoildays. The tube was about as thick as my forearm and filled with a flavoursome paté but whether it was chicken, pork or paté made from something else I have no idea. I do have a memory of my father piling half-an-inch of butter onto his finger of toast before balancing another inch thick of pate on top of it and relishing the lot along with a half bottle of wine and then going for a “snooze” on a Saturday evening before friends arrived to play cards and drink whiskey and sodas!
The first step was to check the liquor cabinet but no luck there – no brandy or cognac and not even the remains of a Christmas bottle of port. So, first step – off to buy booze and pick up the chicken livers, as well, I suppose.
I bought a cheap bottle of French brandy – bottled in France, VSOP and so on but still cheap as chips compared to the heavy hitters like Martell, or Remy Martin or Hennessey, but never mind, I’m just going to chuck it in with the livers.
I ended up buying about 500g of organic, free range livers and a handful of shallots and off home to assemble everything – Brandy, butter, liver, shallots, garlic, a sharp knife and a few sage leaves from the garden.
First off, wash the livers in cold water and snip off – I used a scissors here – any sinewy bits or anything that looks less than appealing, although when dealing with a handful of chicken livers, there’s not a lot to be said there. Not like a calf or a pig liver, which is a bit more of a substantial handful.
Anyway, next, chop the shallots and garlic finely. I used three large shallots which, when peeled, became about 8 or 9 cloves as well as three large cloves of garlic. In the end, I threw them all, along with half of the sage leaves into a food processor and whizzed them for less than thirty seconds.
Tip a generous lump of butter into a heavy fry pan, add in a glug of olive oil and when the butter foams, toss in the chopped shallots and garlic and the sage. Stir it around for a while until it softens and smells good and then chuck the livers in on top. Shake the pan and give it a stir if you want and flip the livers over after two minutes or so. I added two full measures of the brandy then and let the liver simmer for a minute or two. I fished out a large one and cut it in two to check the interior pinkness.
When satisfied, that the livers were cooked but still had a tinge of pink inside, I turned the heat off and let things cool down a bit before tossing them all into the processor again and giving them a good whiz. My butter, which I hadn’t put back in the fridge, was nice and soft now so I put a chunk of that into the processor as well as another shot of brandy, reasoning that most of the earlier alcohol would have cooked off.
The penultimate step then was to scoop the mixture out of the blender and into a fine metal sieve. At first it seemed – and looked – impossible to force the liver mixture through the sieve but by dint of elbow grease and a large wooden spoon, I managed to mash the stuff through the sieve. The sieve became quite heavy and when I turned it over, all of the finely sieved paté was stuck to the underside of the sieve. I scraped it off with a palette knife and dumped into two ramekins I had ready. It looked gorgeous – a rich chocolaty colour and a smooth, silky finish.
I smoothed the ramekin dishes with the back of a spoon and then wiped around the dishes with a tissue to make it neat. A sage leaf on top for decoration and then, finally, more melted butter poured over the paté to seal it and prevent it from oxidising and turning an unpleasant colour. Bingo – a delicious party snack.
Friday 16 February marks the 2018 Lunar New Year of the Dog, heralding spring. However, where I am right now the end of summer is approaching with autumn just down the road. I suppose that the Year of the Dog is related to the Dog Star, Sirius – so named as it appears to follow at the heels of the hunter, Orion. Dog days are also reputed to be the hottest period of the year.
I used to think the 12 Zodiac animals of the Lunar New Year matched with the Western horoscope of the dozen star-signs and I knew what I was in both systems – a snake and a crab respectively. A few years ago, when I lived in Vietnam, I realised that each animal had an aspect attached to it. I felt absurdly smug when I realised I was a water snake, having an affinity with that element, as opposed to, for example, fire, wood, metal or an air snake. And just as the 12 animals of the Zodiac follow each other in set order, so too does each aspect as they cycle through one or other of the five elements: Metal, Wood, Water, Fire, and Earth
It is often referred to as Chinese New Year, which must rankle with non-Chinese people who also observe the Lunar New Year, much like, perhaps, people in South American countries resent citizens of the USA claiming themselves to be American.
Despite having lived in Hong Kong for a full cycle of the Zodiac, I only encountered the frustration and delays as a massive migration of people took place and never really experienced the almost frantic excitement in the build up to the start of the festival that I encountered when I lived in Vietnam.
Tết Nguyên Đán to give it its full name in Vietnamese, like the Christian Easter, is a movable feast, usually falling around the end of January and before the middle of February.
However, with Tet being such an important holiday, it is essential to approach it with suitable reverence and intense preparation. Much like a western Christmas when shops start to gear up for the festive season as soon as Hallowe’en is over, so too do Tet preparations begin in earnest not only in shops and businesses but also in every home in the country. Shops fill up with gaudy decorations, usually some variation of the phrase Chuc Mung Nam Moi, ideally wrought in fine gold on a red velvet background – red and yellow being the principle lucky colours for an auspicious start to the New Year – but of course all variations on that theme, provided the colours are maintained, is acceptable.
The Kitchen God – and every household has one – must be propiated with gifts and offering because it is he, and he alone, who will report back to the Celestial Jade Emperor on the family’s efforts over the previous year and it is the Jade Emperor who will decide the future prosperity of each household.
Once the home has been thoroughly cleaned, paying special attention to the kitchen, then it must be suitable decorated. Red and yellow flowers will predominate although orange marigolds may be included. Yellow forsythia branches must adorn the home while peach and cheery blossom trees are especially popular. Kumquat trees laden with small fruit are also popular, symbolizing fecundity and abundance, something everyone aspires to in the New Year.
The largest, voluntary, world-wide migration of people take place prior to the Lunar New year as millions of Chinese and other Asian people return to their home birthplaces, similar, dare I suggest, to the mass gatherings for the Haj which followers of Islam feel it is incumbent on them to perform at least once in their lifetime.
Part of the excitement in the build-up to Tet, of course is preparing to receive long-absent family members and to scrupulously clean the home before Tet, as once the holiday begins, no cleaning may be done lest one inadvertently sweeps or throw away the good luck one is due on account of the preparations you and your family have made.
Imagine, if you can, having your birthday, Christmas, Easter, Wedding, Anniversary, Valentine’s Day, Buddha’s Birthday, St. Patrick’s day and all other major belief systems’ days of veneration all rolled into one glorious holidays where everything can be devoted to a glorious extravaganza of eating, drinking and gambling. Add to that, of course, the annual rollover of age in that at the beginning of Tet, every single person becomes a year older, so in fact, it is your birthday so what is there not to celebrate?
It’s bit different where I live now – although I am going to a Lunar New Year buffet. Unlike China and Vietnam whereat least 10 work free days is de rigeur, here in Australia it is just another day at the office although the Asian communities here of course plan their celebrations and lion dances, but for the ordinary Aussie, it is no big deal.
So, tomorrow, Friday 16 February is the first day of Tet and is considered the most important as the first visitor to the family home will set the luck for the coming year and is reserved for the nuclear family focused on the paternal side of the family. Children dressed in their new finery, bow to their parents and offer traditional greeting – Sống lâu trăm tuổi (Long life of 100 years) and formally receive a red packet – a small red envelope, decorated with traditional wishes, containing assorted bank notes while friends wish each other Tiền vô như nước (May money flow in like water).
The second day of Tet is then reserved for the maternal side of the family and for respected friends and acquaintances.
Anyway, this is first year of the Earth Dog since the last Earth Dog back in1958. Communicative, serious, and responsible in work, it seems, according to the characteristics assigned to that Zodiac. Hmm … as opposed to an Intelligent, hardworking, and sincere Fire Dog or the conservative, desirable, cautious, and always ready to help Metal Dog or the sincere, reliable, considerate, understanding, and patient Wood Dog or finally the brave and self-centered, even seemingly selfish, well-versed in dealing with financial issues Water Dog! Wow! Hard to choose among them all. Why can’t they all be combined in one?
The Year of Earth Dog also means that we will not see another one until 2078!
Inspired, enthused and curious about the frequency of dog in current English, I present the following words that are badly written or expressed – Doggerel!
If you are bored see if you can match up the dictionary definition with the numbered and italicised phrases in the following. Answers some time later, if anyone is interested. Happy New Lunar Year of the Dog!
He felt his commanding officer had discarded him as someone worthless 1 and it really ranked. Who did they think they were to treat him like this, giving him menial tasks to do, as if he were a junior in some boring office .2.
He ground out the butt of his cigarette 3. under his heel and replaced his fatigues and military I.D.4. with a soutane and a clerical collar 5 before slipping his knife into a side pocket.
Despite the full heat of the last days of summer 6, he broke into a gentle trot7. This was a chance to redeem himself. Up until recently, his time in the unit had been less than happy, problems and unfair treatment 8. seemed to follow him wherever he went 9.
Worn out 10, he felt his luck had deteriorated 11 and this was just another period of inactivity or decline 12. He took out the small shabby notebook, the corners worn and battered with use 13. and looked at the directions and notes he had been given, knowing full well he had no chance 14. of making her change her mind 15.
A sharp bend 16. in the road ahead revealed the villa on the hillside and he knew he would have to emphasize how delighted he was 17 when he met the selfish 18. occupant there if he was to overcome her suspicions.
The old lady was wearing ridiculously smart and ostentatious clothes 19 but it was obvious that her health had deteriorated 20. Her skin was lined and wrinkled, soft and doughy but her eyes remained sharp, as did her long nails. She lay back, weak and exhausted as if from influenza or gastroenteritis 21.
He’d be disgraced and more than probably dropped from favour22. if he didn’t complete this mission. This was the last and least pleasing part 23. of something he had to do but it was necessary if he was to regain favour.
Distracting her with some debased form of Latin he vaguely remembered from his school days, he slipped the knife from his pocket in a fluid, easy motion and …
A. Dog days ^
B, in the doghouse
L. dog leg
M. dog’s life
D. dog end ^
N. dressed up like the dog’s dinner
E. dog eared
O. gone to the dogs
F. dog tired
P. like a dog with two tails
G. dog trot
Q. a dog’s chance
H. dog tags
R. throw to the dogs
I. dog collar
S. teach an old dog new tricks
J. dog’s disease
T. Dog Latin
^ Two distinct meanings!
OH! Almost forgot – It’s a dog’s life can refer to a life of ease and luxury as in these pampered mutts
I think that I have a good to excellent vocabulary; I read a lot, I write a bit, I had a good education and I tend not to need a dictionary – I don’t believe that I actually have a paper dictionary here in the house. When, on the rare occasions, I do come across an unfamiliar word – one that I might be hard pressed to give an accurate dictionary-style definition – it doesn’t matter because I can understand the general meaning from the context. For the vast majority of books and articles that I read, I would say I have a total understanding of every word used in my own native language.
So, imagine my chagrin when I recently reread a novel I had read some 25 years ago (hint: referred to recently on this blog) and was dismayed to come across a plethora of words, some of which, luckily, stirred a vague memory in my word-hoard. Nevertheless many of them forced me to stop, and go to my online Oxford Dictionary of English and check to see if my understanding tallied with the author’s use and, embarrassingly, to actually look up new words that appeared almost on every page – it was like reading in a foreign language.
I remember – I think – reading somewhere that Anthony Burgess (The Malaysian Trilogy; A Clockwork Orange; Earthly Powers, etc.) kept a dictionary on the shelf in his toilet and tore out a page each day after having committed it to memory!
I am not going to go that far, of course and, besides, I don’t have a paper dictionary, remember?
Wasn’t it Humpty Dumpty who said (rather crossly, as far as I can remember) that words mean what you want them to mean, so here is a sample of words that I came across – hats off to anyone who can understand these, lifted, as they are, from context – but all from the same novel published in 1989 – shortlisted for the Booker Prize too!
^ jorum *
In all honesty, I can’t remember what half of them mean now – and I only finished reading the novel yesterday, too. Luckily my online OED keeps track of recently looked up words so there you have it. Nevertheless, it’s humbling to think that the English language is so vast and complex that there will always be new words to come across and not just the recently added ones as in “Milkshake Duck” which was recently acclaimed as the Word of the Year here in Australia. Go figure it out yourself.
* Words I have a memory my father used to use but I still had to check to ensure the author’s use tallied with my understanding of my father’s usage all those years ago.
^ Words which the inbuilt dictionary on my iMac does not recognise.
I first read John Banville’s extraordinary tale, The Book of Evidence, based on a real-life murderer staying as a guest at the Irish Attorney General’s residence while on the run,
back in the late eighties. Banville’s insightful recount of the “grotesque, unbelievable, bizarre and unprecedented*” set of circumstances which arose in Dublin in the early eighties was fascinating.
Funny how things change, along with latitudes, and Banville, like other authors I read back then, became forgotten, discarded and in competition with an increasing variety of TV shows, movies and the advent of video recorders and that was before VCD or DVD and Blue Ray!
Anyway, jump forward to now.
The Sea by John Banville caught my eye recently. Seen through the haunted eyes of the narrator, Max, an art historian, who returns to the seaside village where so many disturbing events one childhood summer took place.
Bereft of his recently deceased wife, Anna, Max seeks to come to terms both with his bereavement and the events that have haunted him since that summer so many years ago.
The early mention of the strange tide at the seaside village and Max’s odd assertion that he would not swim again combined with the novel’s bleached out seascape cover hooked me. My childhood summers too were spent down at the seaside so the title resonated with me too!
Anyway, Max switches, ably assisted by booze, from recent episodic memories of the surgeon’s almost unseemly haste in washing his hands of the death of his wife, Anna (“At that, as if released Mr. Todd gave his knees a quick smack with two flat palms and jumped to his feet and fairly bustled us to the door”) to other, less well understood images from a traumatic childhood summer when the insouciant and feckless Grace family arrived for the summer holidays at the small seaside village.
“The first thing I saw of them was their motor car parked on the gravel inside the gate. It was a low-slung, scarred and battered model with beige leather seats and a big spoked polished wood steering wheel … on the shelf under the sportily raked back window … was a touring map of France, much used. …the girl’s voice coming down from on high, the running footsteps and the man here below with the blue eyes giving me that wink, jaunty, intimate and faintly satanic.”
Mingled with scenes from his current stay at the Cedars – the cottage where he has retreated since his wife’s death.
“There goes the Colonel, creeping back to his room That was a long session in the lav. Strangury, nice word. Mine is the one bedroom in the house which is, as Miss Vavasour puts it with a demure little moue, en suite.”
Staying now at the same guesthouse which the wealthy Graces had rented that summer, Max drifts in and out of the past and present, interspersing his memories of the twins, the withdrawn Milo and the petulant Chloe, their lush mother, Connie Grace, jovial Carlo her husband and the outsider Rose, with the newly discovered trivia of his life at Miss Vavasour’s guesthouse where he is the only other guest along with the Colonel.
“Miss Vavasour is downstairs playing the piano. She maintains a delicate touch on the keys, trying not to be heard. She worries that she will disturb me, engaged as I am up here in my immense and unimaginably important labours.”
Unfamiliar with their world, Max attributed godlike stature to the Grace family but it was with the voluptuous Mrs. Grace that attracted the young Max.
“Was that a complicit smile? With a heaving sigh, she turned and lay down supine on the bank with her head leaning back on the grass and flexed one leg so that suddenly I was allowed to see under her skirt along the inner side of her thigh all the way up to the hollow of her lap and the plump mound there sheathed in tensed white cotton.”
Slowly, the three threads of Max’s memories coalesce and mysteries, cunningly concealed throughout the novel, are revealed and minor characters assume major proportions while the erstwhile understandings are now shown to have been misunderstandings.
Gracefully the strands, of seemingly unconnected events from the triad of introspective settings that Max relives, are woven into a stunning denouement whereby all is made clear from what had been only partially hinted at and mistakenly understood before.
Fantastic, a great read.
* Attributed to Dr. Conor Cruise O’Brien with reference to Charlie Haughey’s government during that period.
I don’t know why, but ever since I returned from Europe in August 2017, I seem to have hit a dry patch with regard to my writing and this blog thingy. I have been able to write neither bucolic accounts of my European Peace Walk, nor do research for my Red Branch Chronicles.
That’s not to say that I’ve been lazy – far from it. I seem to have been busy all day and everyday, just doing things that need doing and that won’t get done by themselves. There is always something “new” that has to be done in everyday, general living which has completely blotted out my creative world or perhaps, then again, I have voluntarily chosen to neglect it.
Despite the scribbled contents of a grubby, wine-stained notebook that I dragged along on the EPW and my eclectic, albeit desultory, readings in the Celtic area and era, over the last few months, nothing has sparked my interests. In truth, it may well be the other way around. I have this vague reluctance to commit myself to write about Celtic Iron Age,
and those sorts of things on my blog so I have done absolutely nothing. Saying that nothing resonated with what I felt able to write allowed me to stagnate. I’ve barely sat down in front of the computer, let alone attempted to write something about my forays into Christmas cooking so, as Ian Dury intones, I have most certainly not been “a pencil squeezer”!
However, today was different. My kitchen clock, permanently stopped at 8:42, since before I went to Europe and the September calendar on the back of the door, were all physical manifestations, I was told, of my sloth, stagnation and inactivity. Half-heartedly defending myself from those (acknowledged) charges, I pointed out the clock is always right twice a day and who needs a paper calendar anyway, when we are all tooled up with smart wearable gadgets? Nevertheless, I put up a new calendar on the back of the kitchen door and threw the recalcitrant clock into the bin (no more K-Mart clocks for me, thank you very much), resolving to buy a proper clock as soon as possible.
Seems such an easy feng shui fix, doesn’t it – buy a new clock and put up a 2018 calendar? I’m sure there is more to it than that but let’s see. I suppose the proof will be in the pudding. How much will I have written by the end of this month (January), season (Summer) or year (2018)? Well, there’s a nice attempt at temporising if ever I saw one! I started out writing about a nosedive but I may be able to convert that downward plunge into a Bigglesian loop de loop. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biggles
When I first started this blog – God, more than a year ago, some time in 2015 I think – the original idea was to promote my book, Raiding Cooley which I published as an E-book back then. I confidently expected to start on my next masterpiece almost immediately. See how wrong I can be! Anyway, this blog thingy morphed into different paths, some, or all, of which I hope to continue pursuing. However, the consequent result was that I never got around to doing any new creative writing – i.e. another blockbuster! Ideas did float around in my head, sequels and prequels and so on but it was always too easy to find a reason to do something else. I suppose a story depends upon a character and the plot natuarlly evolves from what the character does and what happens to the character. So, here is my initial draft of God knows what – an initial character. Comments, suggestions, ideas, complaints … anything? Anyone?
An Introductory Paragraph
406 A.D. Roman rule is collapsing in Britannia as the legions are recalled to continental Europe. Barbarian tribes assail the Empire from all sides. Maewyn, scion of proud Brythonic stock long accustomed to Roman rule, refuses to assume his father’s role as Decurion, the “exactor” of taxes from the local Brythonic people.The scene takes place in a Roman style villa in the far western Brythonic province of Britannia.
‘You know what your father needs’ Conchessa paused until her son looked up at her. ‘You do, don’t you?’ she insisted, adjusting her toga.
‘I told you before. I am not going to collect the taxes. I don’t care about being Decurion, do you not hear me? I refuse to do Rome’s dirty work.’
Contemptuous of both his parents’ Roman status and their newly adopted Christian piety, Maewyn glared at his mother opposite the atrium fountain.
‘Your father will explain everything later to you,’ Conchessa continued quietly.
‘There is nothing to explain.’ Maewyn snapped. ‘Do I have to tell him how things are here, in this far-western province of a crumbling Empire?’
”Don’t talk like that to your father. If Calpurnius becomes a deacon in the State religion, his property and responsibilities are passed on, in their entirety to you, his son.’
Maewyn pulled the copper goblet towards him, cradling it in his pale hands and smelling it, before looking up at his father.
‘Don’t you understand?’ Calpurnius demanded. ”The legate is insisting taxes must be collected as usual. Do you think I want to give up all of this?’
He gestured at the tilled fields stretching from the walls around the villa down the hillside, bounded by the blue line of the sea below them.
‘The legate! All the Belgae and Germania auxiliaries in Seguntium are being recalled, even now.’ Scornfully, Maewyn pushed the goblet away. ‘Roman power is collapsing along our coast, and everywhere else.”
‘Listen to your father.’ Conchessa pleaded. ‘Is there anything that you ever wanted that has not been provided for? Ask yourself, where does our wealth come from?’
‘I don’t care where it comes from. You want it, not me. And besides,’ Maewyn spat scornfully, ‘Barbarian raids are increasing. Soon there will be no-one to tax and nobody to give it to, despite your new religion.’
‘Don’t talk to me like that, you ungrateful whelp” Calpurnius shouted, his face purpling with rage. ‘We are Roman citizens and we have a responsibility to our position as Decurion and to Emperor Honorius.’
‘I thought we were proud Ordovices, the last tribe in Britannia Prima to have withstood the might of the Romans?’ he demanded of his father. Standing up abruptly, his stomach roiling in fear at his defiance, he pushed his stool back so that it crashed on the mosaic floor.
I have been guilty of ethnocentricity in my collection of posts about Celtic Iron Age Technology in that I related them solely to the culture and lifestyle associated with Ireland from roughly 300 BCE to the arrival of Christianity some 730 years later. Of course, no one in Ireland during that time would have considered themselves Celts – or Irish – for that matter, but Celtic is what they were.
This year, travelling through France, Switzerland, Austria, Slovakia, Croatia and Slovenia I realised that I was in the very heartlands of the people known by the Romans as Galli or Galatae and as Keltoi by the Greeks, but what they called themselves is conjecture. Prehistoric Bronze Age peoples, loosely linked by a common heritage, style, languages, customs and art, from the central and east central plains of Europe coalesced around 750 BCE, with the discovery and use of iron to become the most powerful people in Europe from about 450 BCE – 250 BCE.
Initially a nomadic, pastoral people who favoured the cow and the horse above all other, they adopted agriculture and settled down around La Tène in modern day Switzerland and around the Lake Neuchatel in modern Austria.
Archaeologists labelled certain cultures within the Late Bronze Age over view. The culture known as Urnfield, where the dead were cremated in pots, is considered ‘proto’ Celts followed by the Hallstatt – after a huge site in Austria – in 1200 BCE.
From 450 BCE, Celtic culture was marked by La Tène – after a lakeside site in Switzerland. There, a large quantity of material goods was found. With their discovery of iron, both in agricultural – better ploughshares – and in war – spears and swords – the Celts flooded new areas, urged on by increasing population and the need for more farmland.
Spread out from their base in North East Europe, inevitably they came into contact, and met resistance, from the expanding Roman Empire. Pushed back north and west into Gaul, modern-day France, the Celts were hemmed in by Scandinavian tribes moving south themselves as Slavic tribes pushed in from the east.
Under pressure on all sides, the Celts retreated to Britain and Ireland before even those in Britain were pushed to the extremes of Scotland, Wales and Cornwall by the arrival of the Saxons and other Germanic and Scandinavian tribes with the last remnants of true Celtic culture ensconced in Ireland until the arrival of Christianity circa 400 A.D.
So goes the myth anyway, I suppose, but at the same time, I felt comfortable and at ease walking through these heartlands. Perhaps it was the beer!