This, That, and The Other Thing

And if I come out will you give me a cuddle?

First things first: an update on our Nora. Yesterday was her last day for pain medication and the Vet has prescribed another two weeks kennel rest before we start any sort of free time. Then she mustn’t wrestle with Nicky, run, jump nor go for extended walks. I’m not really sure how all this is going to end up. She is after-all a dog and even now in the brief periods she is allowed out of the kennel she does everything, as she has always done, at double time. However our past experience with Bundnie and Reesie has also told us what the alternative is. It is definitely a rock and a hard-place situation. But we will do what is best for our girl.

Well now I was rather surprised when completing Spelling Bee on Wednesday. I had been told by the good people at the NYTimes Crossword that bitch “can be interpreted as inappropriate or offensive” but in a moment of daring-do I entered the word fart and it took. Apparently it is neither “inappropriate or offensive”. But then my friend Debra out in Edmonton managed to do a whole post on farts only last week while asking the musical question (perhaps brought on by a bean diet) How Low Can This Blog Go?

Speaking of our Debra, she mentioned my use of the word nonce early this week thinking that perhaps I had confused it with nance. She was quite right about nance, it was a pejorative term used in burlesque and vaudeville for a comedian who played an effeminate character. However nonce as well as meaning “for the time being” is British prison slang for someone who has been convicted of child molestation or other sex crimes and stands for : Not On Normal Communal Exercise. It is also slipping into common slang as a term for a paedophile. As Debra mentions, her – and my – knowledge of British prison slang is pretty limited and hopefully it is not something either one of us will ever have need to expand upon

Amongst his extensive output the late John Julius Norwich made a specialty of writing “popular” histories of the Mediterranean. I’ve lost count of the number he’s written and I’ve read over the years. The first would have been his History of Venice in the late 1980s. It was one of the first books in my collection of histories, cookbooks, murder mysteries, and travel guides to my beloved Serenissima and one that I return to every few years. Rather ingenuously, to my mind, he always prefaces his work by emphasizing that he is not a historian and his books are not the work of an academic. Academic they may not be but they are filled with quick character sketches, small but revealing details, and anecdotal and often bizarre vignettes.

Back in 2010 I picked up two volumes of his three volume story of Byzantium. The bookstore had the first and third but the second was not available. Ah well that could be found at a later date, could it not? Well yes it could but I hadn’t meant it to be eight years later. I finally ordered a copy through my local bookstore earlier this month. I had read about the battles, mutilations, castrations, blindings, palace intrigues and religious strife of the Roman Empire from the birth of Constantine around A.D. 274 to the crowning of Charlemagne on Christmas Day in A.D 800. And then I skipped on to the battles, mutilations, castrations, blindings, palace intrigues, and religious strife from the disastrous defeat by the Seljuk Turks in 1071 to the total defeat by the Turks in 1453. There was a glaring gap of almost three centuries of battles, mutilations, castrations, blindings, palace intrigues and religious strife left unaccounted for – a period that Norwich called The Apogee.

Much of what we know about Byzantium has been coloured by the view of earlier historians particularly Edward Gibbon. JJN feels that in his Decline and Fall Gibbon did a disservice with his hostility to the Byzantine Empire and further that his very English view that Byzantium betrayed all that was good in ancient Greece and Rome coloured subsequent histories. It has been years since I read Gibbon’s magnum opus but perhaps that will be the next challenge coming up. Meanwhile I reread Norwich’s Volume 1 in January and as I’m finishing off Volume 2 things are starting to decline and the fall, when Sultan Mehmet enters St Sophia, is 436 pages off. I have to admit that John Julius tells a good story but then eleven and a half centuries of battles, mutilations, castrations, blindings, palace intrigues and religious strife gives you some good stories to tell.

There have been some dietary changes in our household over the past month or so. No formal resolution has been made but it is more than apparent that Laurent and I both could/should lose a bit of weight. A cut in carbs was in order with smaller portions being served and more in the way of fruit and vegetables. My friend Maggie posted a great recipe for Pork Egg Roll in a Bowl and I gave it a try. We both loved it and it’s become a bit of a house favourite.

I decided to investigate the cookbook it came from: Craveable Keto by Kyndra D. Holley. No we haven’t gone all hipster* and joined the Keto movement but some of her recipes are excellent. One of them is a Jambalaya recipe – and I love Jambalaya but how can you have Jambalaya without rice a big carb no-no? Well she uses cauliflower rice! Now there are a few vegetables I just don’t like – well quite a few but let’s not go there – and cauliflower happens to be one of them. But ever game I gave it a try and… I love cauliflower rice! Now that doesn’t mean that Uncle Ben has been expelled from the house just that on occasion he’ll be replaced by cauliflower florets pulsed in the Cuisinart to rice-sized pieces.

And as for the work in progress that is weight reduction – slow and sure, they tell me, wins the race.

March 1st is Employee Appreciation Day.

Oh Oysters Come And Walk With Us

A pleasant walk, a pleasant talk, Along the briny beach

walrus-and-the-carpenter-3Perhaps the most famous ostreidae celebrated in story and rhyme are those unfortunate, plump – and let’s be honest stupid – young oysters who accepted the Walrus’s invitation to go for a jog along that great expanse of sand.  Even though their Elder wisely refused to join the rather unusual pairing of Tradesman and Marine Mammal on their stroll, the foolish young ones eagerly trotted off hand-in-hand (?) with, or puffing behind, the Walrus and the Carpenter.  And their sad fate as a result of that inadvisable course of action is well documented and told to Alice, with perhaps unnecessary glee, by those battling brothers Tweedledum and Tweedledee*.

“The time has come,” the Walrus said,
“To talk of many things:
Of shoes- and ships- and sealing wax-
Of cabbages- and kings—
And why the sea is boiling hot-
And whether pigs have wings.”

“But wait a bit,” the Oysters cried,
“Before we have our chat;
For some of us are out of breath,
And all of us are fat!”
“No hurry!” said the Carpenter.
They thanked him much for that.

“A loaf of bread,” the Walrus said,
“Is what we chiefly need:
Pepper and vinegar besides
Are very good indeed—
Now if you’re ready, Oysters dear,
We can begin to feed.”

“But not on us!” the Oysters cried,
Turning a little blue.
“After such kindness, that would be
A dismal thing to do!”
“The night is fine,” the Walrus said.
“Do you admire the view?”

“It was so kind of you to come!
And you are very nice!”
The Carpenter said nothing but
“Cut us another slice:
I wish you were not quite so deaf—
I’ve had to ask you twice!”

“It seems a shame,” the Walrus said,
“To play them such a trick,
After we’ve brought them out so far,
And made them trot so quick!”
The Carpenter said nothing but
“The butter’s spread too thick!”

“I weep for you,” the Walrus said:
“I deeply sympathize.”
With sobs and tears he sorted out
Those of the largest size,
Holding his pocket-handkerchiefs
Before his streaming eyes.

“O Oysters,” said the Carpenter,
“You’ve had a pleasant run!
Shall we be trotting home again?”
But answer came there none—
And this was scarcely odd, because
They’d eaten every one.

Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There
Lewis Carroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) – 1871

V. Lindoe – Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens

Holding my pocket handkerchief before my streaming eyes I hang my head in shame to admit that I would have been more than happy to join Walrus and Carpenter in their oysterian feast. In fact I intend to do so in the next day or so, well not with those two – I mean after all they are fictional aren’t they? Aren’t they? – but with several other friends. However I shall be dining on what I consider to be the second most famous bivalves in the world – PEI oysters.  And even better, oysters from the winter harvest.

The good people at Guinness were not above stealing from Lewis Carroll to suggest, in this underground advert, that their brew and oysters were a perfect match.

Until a year or two ago my own taste in oysters ran to those puny little smoked bits found in cans and on Ritz crackers at cocktail parties or on a slightly more sophisticated level baked in La Mediatrice or Oysters Rockerfeller. Though I had tried them once or twice before the mere thought of consuming raw oysters conjured up all manner of horrid images – none of which good taste will allow me to share here.  However on my first visit to PEI I bit the bivalve, so to speak, and tasted oysters from the cold waters of the St Lawrence as they should be tasted: raw with a dash of lemon, and a grind of pepper.  Several more feastings – including oysters fresh from Galway Bay with a glass of Guinness – has turned me into a fan.  Now my palette is not that refined that I could identify a Malpeque from a Colville Bay just by taste but I am beginning to recognize the variations created by location, salinity and time of year.  And this time of year the oysters that are being harvested are sure to be plump and tasty.

And since I’m waxing (not sealing I might add) about the joys of eating PEI oysters  I thought I’d share a few facts, figures and features about the Island’s second favourite mullusk.

  • The Mi’kmaq, the first known inhabitants of the Island, used oysters as a food source.
  • The supply of oysters was so plentiful in the 1600s that Acadians on the North Shore used them as fertilizer for their fields.
  • They also burned the shells for the lime until a statute was passed in 1832 banning the practice.
  • Malpeque oysters have been famous since 1900 when they were named “the best in the world” at the Paris World’s Fair.
  • Joining Confederation in 1876 brought with it the railway and access to wider markets which led to the decimation of the oyster beds.
  • To meet the demand seeds were brought in from New England to bolster the industry but the imports brought with them the deadly Malpeque Disease and by 1915 over 90% of the beds had been destroyed.
  • In the early 1920s a disease resistant oyster was used for reseeding and the work of  Dr. A.W.H Needler at the Ellerslie experimental station on the Biddeford River revitalized the oyster industry in the Atlantic region.
  • lg_sh371i47o-pl31oysterrake
    Wooden oyster tongs are still used today.

    For an oyster to grow to the preferred harvesting size of 3 inches takes between five to seven years in the wild; if farmed that time is reduced to four years.  And for those puny cocktail oysters? Two to three years.

  • Wild oysters are still harvested using long wooden oyster tongs.**
  • December to March is one of the prime times for harvesting – with waterways and bays frozen over it’s an arduous cold process involving ice cutting, wet suits and scuba equipment.**
  • If that old rule of only eating oysters in months with the letter “r” in them were followed the restaurants on PEI would go out of business.   As with many things new methods have improved conditions and it’s now considered safe to eat oysters any month of the year.
  • There are four main areas of oyster beds on Prince Edward Island – this interactive map allows identifies the oysters found in each and highlights what gives them their  individual taste and characteristics.

Fortunately there are several very good oyster bars within walking distance of the house.  So it’s just a matter of making a choice, bundling up, cutting our way through the snow, settling in to a comfortable arm chair perhaps by an open fire, ordering up a loaf of bread, some pepper and vinegar, perhaps a dash of Tabasco, a slice of lemon, a pint of Guinness or a nice crisp muscadet, watch the gentleman behind the bar shuck a few dozen Malpeques or Raspberry Points  – and savour the sweet briny goodness!  Definitely not “a dismal thing to do”.


*I had not realized that the first mention of Tweedledum and Tweedledee was not Carroll’s but in an epigram on the opera house war betwixt Handel and Bononcini by John Byrom, who also wrote the lovely carol “Christians Awake”.

** This link will take you to a short video on the traditional method of harvesting in the Northhumberland Straits.

***And this link will take you to a CBC report on the winter harvesting up near Malpeque on the St Laurent during the winter of 2015.

On this day in 1645:  Archbishop William Laud is beheaded at the Tower of London.

Whole Foods Eat Your Heart Out

In which we take a walk around Eliseevsky in Moscow

A click will take you to the Moscow Times Facebook page and a 360º view of the incredible Eliseevsky Store in Moscow.  Makes Harrods look like your local convenience store.

Just imagine the menu you could prepare for New Year’s Eve dinner if you were doing your shopping here?

On this day in 1937: The Irish Free State is replaced by a new state called Ireland with the adoption of a new constitution.

Foods of Christmas

Well our Christmas menus have been pretty much set.  Christmas Eve will be along the lines of a traditional réveillon: tourtière , a baked ham, chicken pot pie, potatoes au gratin, a salad with roasted carrots and red onion, some cheeses and for sweets mulled wine jellies, amaretti and brown sugar fudge.   Christmas Day will be roast beef, colcannon, roast vegetables and our Plum Pudding from the Humane Society.  And of course there will be juice of the grape that has been allowed to mature as well as other beverages of a Bacchian nature. Boxing day and the days of Christmastide will no doubt be great heaps of leftovers.

On the Stikine River on 25 December 1868 the traveller Charles Frederic Morrison found himself enjoying an unusual substitute for turkey, goose or beef. “Our Christmas dinner,” he recalled later, “consisted of a young beaver stuffed like a suckling pig, which proved delicious. Lynx also makes a good stew if you do not think of cats, and squirrels make un grand ragoût.”

And speaking of traditional Canadian Christmas fare I came across this rather odd print from The Graphic, a weekly British Illustrated newspaper, from January of 1879.  The title would suggest that the then Governor General the Marquise and the Marchioness of Lorne are the subject of the print however I am hard pressed to find the good royals anywhere in the picture.  What it does appear to be is a Christmas Eve market with all manner of interesting fauna available to grace the Yuletide table: pig, bear, deer, geese (including one that is either being flung in the air or stopped from escaping), and something that looks like a carcass of some unidentifiable critter carried by two men.  It certainly paints an interesting picture of Christmas fare on the tables in Ottawa.  No doubt the good citizens of the Motherland were intrigued and perhaps amused by the life style of the colonials.


And just to confirm that our forefathers had some interesting (in the Chinese sense of the word) eating habits at Yuletide our friend Cathy sent me a link to an article from Canada’s History magazine entitled Stuffed Beaver with all the Trimmings.  It includes a recipe for bread sauce with the side note that as turkeys were rare it was often used as an accompaniment to the roast porcupine, haunch of bear, fox, or wolverine or possibly a stew made of muskrat or moose on the festive board.  However I think our table will be just fine this year without “moose nose” as an starter.

On this day in 1974: Grande Comore, Anjouan and Mohéli vote to become the independent nation of Comoros. Mayotte remains under French administration.


Mercoledi Musicale

On our recent trip on the Grand Hibernian we were treated each night to entertainment by a variety of local performers – a story teller, a remarkably accomplished Celtic harpist, one of the great Celtic singers Nan Tom Tiamin, and on our last evening The Baileys.  Several of us lingered in the Observation car with our whiskies and late night pint listening to these extremely talented lads and were introduced to a few songs that are not part of the standard “Irish” repertoire including this lovely little ditty, performed here by Mary Black and the Black Family back in 1986.


The colcannon that the Blacks and the Baileys so fondlycolcannon_recipe_on_bag_of_potatoes_cropped remember is one of the traditional dishes, along with those potato cakes from the second verse, that Irish cookery gave the world.  When done properly it is the perfect accompaniment to a Sunday roast or an addition to a fine big breakfast with poached egg and Cumberland sausage.

I wasn’t surprised to see that there are as many variations for this wonderful potato dish as there are cooks out there.  Everyone’s ma or grandma had their own version – and you can rest assured that their way was the only “right and proper” way to make Colcannon.  Some use kale, others cabbage; a few add bacon (though bacon was that rare in most homes that Eamon Kelly has a wonderful, if slightly scatological, story about a few precious rashers); and one or two add leeks or chives.  But any recipe I’ve seen cautions that everything must be well drained so that the dish doesn’t become thin and watery but light, fluffy and creamy.  And of course no recipe for Colcannon would omit making “the hole in top, to hold the meltin’ flake of the creamy flavoured butter that our mother’s used to make”.

On this day in 1869: The Saxby Gale devastates the Bay of Fundy region of Maritime Canada. The storm had reportedly been predicted over a year before by a British naval officer.