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Edible plants and flowers

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Last week I ordered a couple of books from Amazon, both from the 'Collins Gem' series:

  • Wild Flowers by Martin Walters
  • Food For Free by Richard Mabey.

They are both small pocket sized books which will be ideal to take with you on walks in the countryside. One useful feature of the wildflowers book is a flower-type index where different flower shapes are listed alongside different flower families. It's a useful aid to identification. So far it has helped me to identify Wild Mustard (which was part of the Edible Leaves and Shoots mixture from Garden Organic) and Petty Spurge and two kinds of Willowherb (which grow as weeds).

The Food for Free book covers similar ground to the Edible Hedgerow book I bought from River Cottage. The book contains more plants but with less detail and should be useful to help locate and identify unusual things to eat.

River Cottage Handbook: Hedgerow

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I ordered this book last week and it arrived this morning. I had a quick flick through it initially and one of the first things I noticed was that one of the plants which grows along the path through the woods looks a lot like Horseradish.

I had a more thorough read through at lunchtime to confirm the identity of a few other plants which I have seen locally. Each plant in the book has a page or two describing its appearance, typical location, any associated folklore, and usually a recipe suggestion.

I was never brought up to recognise wild plants - I knew about sloes and blackberries but that was about it. I have since encountered elderberries, plums and rowan berries but that's about it. The book is going to be invaluable in helping me learn a bit more about the various plants growing in the countryside, and to spot which ones are worth eating. There is also a section on poisonous plants and how to recognise them when they might be confused with other edible plants.

In addition to the brief recipe suggestions associated with each entry, there is also a chapter of recipes at the back of the book which makes use of many of the wild ingredients.

I'm very new to the foraging/wild food idea but the book is an excellent introduction. It will certainly accompany me whenever I'm out in the countryside.

Grimes Graves

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The latest issue of the English Heritage magazine arrived earlier in the week. There was an article about Grimes Graves and when I saw the picture of a flat landscape full of hollows, it immediately recalled the book Company of Liars. There is a sequence towards the end of the book with a very similar landscape.

The hollows were very close to 'The Hermitage' which is marked on the map in the front of the book. This seems to be very close to the site of Grimes Graves, so it looks like it provided inspiration for the location.

Company of Liars

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I recently started reading the book Company of Liars by Karen Maitland. It is set during the 14th century, as the plague was sweeping across England. There is a map in the front of the book with some of the towns featured in the book. I decided to use Google Maps to find them and see what they look like today.

The first town is Kilmington in Devon. I noticed a strange place nearby called 'No Name':

"No Name" near Kilmington

The End of Harry Potter

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I've finally got to the end of the final Harry Potter book. It took me 4 days because I only had an hour or 2 each day, on the train or in the evenings, to read it.

A few thoughts:

  • The early books were a bit childish. Thankfully the later ones were more grown up.
  • What has J K Rowling got against the North of England? She names a couple of evil characters after Northern towns (Warrington, the Slytherin chaser in the earlier books, and Runcorn, a fairly nasty man from the Ministry in the last book). Also, do all Hogwarts students live in London? There is only ever mention of the train leaving from Kings Cross.

Possibly a few spoilers below...
A few thoughts about the final book:

  • How did Neville get the Sword of Gryffindor? He was wearing the Sorting Hat at the time, and the sword had come out of the hat for Harry in the 2nd book. But when that happened for Harry, the sword was still in Hogwarts. When it happened for Neville, the sword had been taken by Griphook and its whereabouts were presumably unknown. Are we simply to assume that the hat could magically bring the sword into the school grounds?
  • I was disappointed that Harry finally defeated Voldemort with the Expelliarmus spell. I at least expected him to counter with an Avada Kedavra of his own. At least he used the Cruciatus curse on one of the Carrows so he wasn't all goody-goody in the book.
  • A few comparisons with other things:
    Lord of the Rings: A group of friends travelling around the countryside, trying to destroy a magical object. Also the presence of giant spiders.
  • Jesus: A baby who would grow up to be our saviour. Although unlike Herod, at least Voldemort knew who to target, instead of killing all children.
  • Nazis: Luna Lovegood's father wore the symbol of the Deathly Hallows - an ancient symbol which had been commandeered by evil (in the guise of Grindlewald)

I will probably re-read the book to make sure I haven't missed anything important.

Where Did It All Go Right?

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I am currently reading Where Did It All Go Right?, by Andrew Collins. The broadcaster and journalist tries to counter the fashion for 'miserable childhood' autobiographies with this book, where he describes growing up in a fairly normal family in Northampton in the 70s.

The book is effectively a time capsule of that decade, with chapters alternating between describing aspects of his home life (sometimes in great detail), and extracts from his diaries. He's a few years older than me so some of the TV and music was different to my childhood, but some aspects were painfully familiar.

The chapter called Supermousse covered food in the 70s and was an absolute gem. He came to the conclusion that, although kids eat rubbish today, things weren't actually that much better back then. He presented extracts from his diary describing meals, and most of it was out of packets or tins. Pasta and rice were non-existent, beans and chips were ubiquitous. A lot of this was similar to my own recollections. Vegetables did mostly consist of carrots and peas (with sprouts at Christmas of course). In our family, Cauliflower Cheese made an appearance after I discovered it at my Aunt and Uncles wedding and ate several platefuls.

Potatoes were the main bulk, usually chips or mashed, or sometimes mashed then fried - we sometimes had 'Bubble and Squeak' if there was leftover cabbage. One thing people did do better in the 70s was re-use leftover or spare food, probably because it was more expensive in real terms than today.

He mentions the lack of curries, or anything rice based really, but no mention of rice pudding. In the book, pasta was largely confined to tins of spaghetti, but at least we had Macaroni Cheese, usually out of a tin but I remember my mum making it on occasion, and thinking it took an awfully long time. The home made cheese sauce was better than the tinned variety though.

The 70s was a decade full of terrible food, but through no fault of the people living through it. Most people had never encountered foreign food, most people had never been abroad and even those who had were largely wary of the strange foods on offer. People weren't used to experimenting with food. Ingredients which are common now were a rarity back then - I don't remember seeing peppers, aubergines or courgettes as a child (recently in Asda, we saw Courgettes on the shelf under 'Exotic Veg' - I hope that was a mistake and they don't still consider such a common vegetable as exotic. But this was Asda so you never know.)

Survivors Part 2

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I finished reading the book on the train home tonight. If treated simply as a novel describing the end of the world, the traditional fight of good vs. evil and the only group of Christians in the world who realise what's going in, then it is a reasonable fantasy. Ignoring any religious issues at the moment, there are a few odd ideas in the book such as the passage which described addresses being collected so emails could be sent out to attract visitors to the organisations website. Obviously they meant it in good spirit, but spamming for Jesus would not make them very popular. There was another section towards the end of the book where thousands of voices were singing in different languages but the sounds combined to form the Hallelujah Chorus from The Messiah. If that was tried in a film it would be such a terrible cliche.

Most of the problems stem from the authors notes at the end of each chapter. Oh the whole, these are interesting and draw attention to parallels between the story and the Bible, but again there are a few issues.
In the notes at the end of chapter 4, the 'Big Pot' is used as another name for the Big Dipper constellation, in order to draw another parallel with the Bible. I've never heard this seriously used as a name for the constellation and this sounded so tenuous when I read it.
At the end of chapter 23, the author says:

There is something about the return of Jesus that sounds unbelievable to the modern, cynical mind. And yet it is no more unbelievable than any of the other myths and legends (including evolution) that mankind has come up with to explain our existence.

Now personally, I think the idea that the flora and fauna of our planet has been slowly changing over millions of years to be a more rational explanation than the belief that God created everything in only a few days. For a start it is based on many years of studying the real world, rather than simply believing something which was written in a book a few thousand years ago and for which there is no proof whatsoever.
This absolute belief in every word of the bible is possibly the book's greatest weakness. It crop up again in the notes after chapter 23 where he claims:

Everything else about the Bible indicates that it is an historically accurate book

For most of the Bible, there is no historical corroborating evidence. Especially the story of the creation, where there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever.


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I was walking back to the office after wandering around the shops at lunchtime. On New Street, at the bottom of the ramp which leads up to the Palisades shopping centre, there was a bloke handing out books. Ever curious, I decided to see what it was about. The book was called Survivors, written by a pseudonymous Zion Ben Jonah. It seemed to be some kind of post-apocalyptic tale designed as a warning about moral corruption in modern society. I tried to hand the book back saying that I wasn't interested, but he refused to take it back and said that he only wanted 'a few pennies' in return. I rummaged around in my pocket and pulled out a few coins to give to him - I had less than £1 on me after buying food so he only got a few coins, which strangely were all 20p pieces.

I started reading the book on the train home. It's a novel where the end of the world seems to follow the events described in the bible, which starts with the nuclear destruction of America. The book also takes issue with the moral corruption of modern America and how organised religion has diverged so far from the original teachings of Christ - both fair points as well.

There are one or two issues I have with the book (apart from it's obvious preachy nature) but I'll wait until I've finished reading it before saying more. You can read a review of the book here.

Margrave of the Marshes

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I finished reading the book on the train home tonight. It's an interesting, entertaining and moving (auto)biography, started by John Peel and finished by his wife after he died. Full of anecdotes and interesting titbits about Radio One's longest serving DJ and presenter of Home Truths, which was one of my favourite Radio 4 programmes for a while.