Sunday, June 24, 2007

The meat of the matter

With the publication date for the paperback of The Scarlet Lion looming on the horizon, and my cooking efforts for the Conroi de Vey at the Tollerton Show fresh in my mind, I got to wondering what I'd serve up to William and Isabelle Marshal should they suddenly arrive at my door requesting hospitality on their road.

During his youth, William - like many teenagers of today- gained a reputation for doing nothing but eat and sleep. He earned the nickname 'Gasteviande' which roughly translates to 'scoff all'. There is a telling line from the Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal. The other knights at Tancarville where the young William is being trained to knighthood, say to his guardian:
'This greedy gorger William, in God's name, what good is he doing here?... Just how are you being served by this troublesome fellow, this devil of a glutton, who's always sleeping when he's not eating? The man's a fool who feeds him.' Unfortunately no mention is made of what he was consuming whilst eating his guardian out of house and home. Indeed, although the Histoire makes mention of entertainments and jousts in abundance, there are only occasional references to foodstuffs - but always very interesting.

There's a mention of ship's biscuits (bescuit) when Richard the Lionheart is preparing his crusade. Indeed, we are told that his ship was also laden with 'flitches of bacon, wines, wheat and flour. He also loaded pepper, cumin, wax, and spices and electuaries of the very best available. Also 'many other drinks and jellies and syrup. It would be interesting to know what the syrup consisted off.

On another occasion, William Marshal tricked the citizens of Rouen into providing a feast for himself, and the earls of Salisbury and de Warenne. He promised his companions 'Fine wines and luscious fruits.' The French army had been very close to Rouen but for various reasons had changed direction and retreated. William and the two earls had been shadowing the French, but were too lightly armed to engage in battle with them, however they knew their movements. Since Rouen was close and an ally the Marshal took the English contingent there, and told the citizens that the French army was in the area, but not to worry, he and Salisbury and Warenne would protect them. The citizens of Rouen, mightily relieved and not realising that there was only the smallest grain of truth in this story, fetched out their best for their 'saviours.'
'When it was time to eat, they quickly washes and sat down. The burgesses gave great attention to the matter of preparing their gifts....some made a present of full bodied wines, fine wines, clear, soft on the palate and sparkling, some with cloves, some spiced, according to the preference of the giver....At the end of the meal came the fruit, and they all had in abundance pears, apples and hazel nuts.' Again this is fascinating. I would never have guessed that sparkling wines were around then, but apparently so. It's also interesting to note that they ate fruit at the end of the meal and it was seen as a good and prestigious thing to do - and it was a treat. Which puts paid to the notion I've seen in some places that medieval people did not eat fruit, or treated it with deep suspicion. A pity that the Histoire does not tell us what they ate as the main dish.
Another small food scene from the Histoire is concerned with the time when William Marshal was dying. No longer able to enjoy food, he was subsisting solely on a 'diet of mushrooms'. Also 'Someone had the idea of rubbing the white of bread into small crumbs so that the Marshal would not notice.' Were mushrooms standard sick room food? Or perhaps a favourite dish of the Marshal's that they perhaps had been able to persuade him to eat. I don't know.

As to the dilemma of what to serve to my 'guests' should they visit:
I cooked an Arabic dish at the local show (pictures to follow in a future blog). Known as Mishimishya, it came to England with returning crusaders and the Sicilian cousins of our native Normans. William would probably have eaten it at some point during his sojourn in the Holy Land, and it is very tasty and easy to prepare.
Take around half a pound of good stewing lamb (depending on appetite) per person cut into cubes and half a large onion per person. Chop the onion and fry in a large pan with the lamb until the meat has coloured. Add a teaspoon of cumin per person and a teaspoon of coriander per person. Add a teaspoon of powdered ginger all told and a teaspoon of cinammon all told. Pepper and salt to preference. Cover with water and simmer until the lamb is tender. While this is going on, take half a pound of dried apricots, cover with boiling water and leave to stand. Mush to a puree in a blender or by hand. Once you're just about ready to serve the lamb, add the apricot puree a bit at a time, checking that it's too your taste. You might not need it all. Also scatter in a handful of ground almonds - again it's a case of taste it and see and test for thickness of the mixture. Serve with bread or flat bread if you're feeling Middle-Eastern.

At the Tollerton show, I also served up a pottage of broad beans, carrots, onions and garlic, and a soup made with almond milk and onions for the vegetarians among us. For nibbles there were herb omelettes, soft oatcakes, honey, goat's cheese, bread pudding (I'm working on the provenance!) shortbread, and summer fruits with cream. I think I would serve William Marshal sweet wild strawberries and cherries - and definitely a good wine, or perhaps mead from our local vineyard which I've only just come across, courtesy of a Regia friend. I can't believe it's been in my vicinity for 30 years and I've not known about it.

Bon Appetit whether you're a 'gasteviande' or not!

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Lighting Fires

Jenny Davis' comment about Lords of the White Castle having inspired her to all things Medieval, led me to wonder about my own inspirations as a writer. I'm often asked at talks where I get my ideas. The answer in my case, is frequently that one thing leads to another.
I was eleven when my Dad suggested that if I was lucky whilst digging on the beach at Hunstanton, I might come across King John's treasure. Of course that treasure, if it was ever lost in the Wellstream in the first place, will either be lying in a field inland miles away, or scattered, having been found and melted down/sold on by its discoverers. However, that didn't stop the notion from inspiring me and roughly 30 years down the line, my speculation about what really happened to John's treasure became my novel The Marsh King's Daughter. While researching a piratical character called Eustace the Monk for this novel, I came across the tale of 13thC outlaw Fulke FitzWarin. Realising this was a great swashbuckling tale about a guy who had actually lived, I knew my next novel would be his story - told in Lords of the White Castle. While researching ' Lords'I came across a genealogy chart which featured Judith, niece to William The Conqueror, who had married a Saxon Earl. Norman Lady marries English thegn...hmmm, I thought. Room for conflict here. Thus The Winter Mantle became my next project. Meanwhile, Lords of theWhite Castle had been shortlisted for an award and had sold very well. I found myself becoming interested in the tale of the hero's father, who apparently as an unknighted squire rescued his future father in law from enemy clutches, armed with no more than an old hauberk, an axe and riding a spavined nag. How could I resist? Shadows and Strongholds was the result And so it goes on. Two novels about William Marshal, The Greatest Knight and The Scarlet Lion have interested me in writing a novel about William's father John - A Place Beyond Courage. Still digesting the Marshal material has led me to the Bigod Earls of Norfolk and the current work in progress - the tale of a royal mistress forced to leave her infant son behind when she marries a man striving to rebuild his family's fortunes in the wake of disgrace and treason.
But when did the first ever spark ignite? For me, I think, it comes down to visuals. From being a very small child, even before I could read and write, I was making up stories to pictures in books - having adventures deeper into the picture and imagining new scenes and scenarios in my mind's eye. I would watch
Stingray, The Lone Ranger and Champion the Wonderhorse on TV and then go and make up new tales around what I'd seen. Gender and species were no object to my imagination, I'd easily become Troy Tempest or Champion, the Lone Ranger or Silver and spend hours on the 'film set' in my mind, making up the script as I went along and testing out new ideas. When I was older, I transferred my stories to swashbuckling movies such as El Cid, The Warlord, The Vikings. I think it had a lot to do with horses. It was much more fun pretending to gallop around than it was to drive, and horses were organic rather than mechanical. Sounds daft I know, but that was how I felt.
Adolescent hormones kicked in about the same time as Keith Michelle starred in the BBC's Six Wives of Henry VIII and at 14, for the first time, instead of talking my stories out, I actually wrote them down. I began a great Tudor novel, got bored about page 15 and gave up for a while. If not who knows. Philippa Gregory might have had a run for her money in that department! (she says with tongue in cheek). A year later along came a programme on children's TV called Desert Crusader, starring "Thibaud" a dark, handsome French knight in flowing robes, striding around the 12thC Kingdom of Jerusalem. That was it! Love at first sight and suddenly I was desperate to write a story about a lookalike. I wouldn't say it was exactly fan fiction, but along similar lines. Certainly the programme was a very powerful inspiration and the flame to ignite the bonfire stack that had been growing since I was 3 years old. I wrote a 500 page novel over the course of a year and realised that this was what I wanted to do for a living. I was 16 when I finished the novel - titled (very badly) 'Tiger's Eye' after the jewels in the hilt of the hero's sword. My Dad suggested I call it 'Crispin's Capers.' At the foot of the post I've enclosed the first 2 paragraphs of that first ever completed novel.

So, how did others become inspired to write? Or turned on to historical fiction? Or to whatever you do that is your passion. What was the spark that lit the bonfire? I'd be interested to know.

The First 2 paragraphs of "Tiger's Eye", written when I was 15 and revised i.e. edited when I first typed it out when I was eighteen.

Syria, Spring 1136

When he awoke from a restless sleep, the darkness of night was gone and with it the cold. In its place was a dingy daylight and a heat that was already making his skin prickle. His thighs and calves were spasming with cramp in this poky little hole and he ached all over. He was weary of all this hiding, of being a fugitive, he who had never hidden from anyone in his life and he was beginning to wonder if the prize was worth the suffering.

The beaded curtain that led from the back room to the shop counter on the street, clacked to one side. He whipped his dagger from its sheath and, breathing shallowly, prepared to strike.

(If my agent or editor happens to read this - it's available for consideration ladies! :-) )

Just joking....