Eating Seasonally

One of my most popular posts at the moment is my recipe for Damson Plum Crumble Cake. On the list of search engine terms which have brought people to my blog, “damson dessert recipes”, “baking with damsons” and “damson cake recipes” appear frequently. This increase in searches for things to make with damsons began a couple of weeks ago; at this time of year, plum trees are laden with fruit.

Damson plum cake

The season is changing, the leaves are just beginning to turn and hints of fall are in the air, bringing to mind frosty mornings, log fires and home-made apple crisps. As Keats wrote in his Ode to Autumn, the fall is a “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness”,  a time of abundance which “bend[s] with apples the moss’d cottage trees/And fill[s] all fruit with ripeness to the core”. It is my favourite season!

September in the Forest, by Larisa Koshkina (Public domain image source)

The abundance of delicious fruit and vegetables at this time of year makes it easy to eat seasonally. But I think it is important to eat with the seasons as much as possible all year round. Even though you can buy strawberries at Christmas, cherries in January and apples shipped in from New Zealand, there are many benefits to cooking and eating by nature’s calendar:

  • It is more satisfying to know you are eating food that hasn’t been flown half-way across the world, generating environmentally harmful emissions in the process.
  • Locally grown, seasonal fruit and veg tastes better because it has been allowed to grow and ripen naturally.
  • Eating locally and seasonally supports small businesses and generates income for farmers and growers, thereby helping the local economy.
  • Buying seasonal produce can mean that you experience a world of fruit and veg varieties beyond what is available in the supermarket aisles, such as Heirloom tomato varieties, doughnut peaches and Romanesco cauliflower.
  • Many local/seasonal growers are also organic, growing their produce without the use of harsh chemicals and artificial sprays. Research supports the claim that organic fruit and veg is healthier than ‘conventionally’ grown fruit and veg (before the advent of modern chemicals, organic was the conventional way of growing). An analysis of over 300 scientific studies, published last month in the British Journal of Nutrition, found that “organic crops are up to 60% higher in a number of key antioxidants than conventionally-grown ones”. If you are interested, you can read about the research here.

Pumpkin squash, by Erich Mauber (public domain image source)

Ultimately, eating with the seasons helps you become healthier, boosts your enjoyment of food and supports your local community. What’s not to love?!

Do you make an effort to eat seasonally? If you need a little help to start following nature’s timetable, take a look at Eat the Seasons (US site) or Eat the Seasons (UK site) to find inspiration!

A Little Bit of Silliness

Here’s a little bit of silliness to make you smile on this Monday morning. I remember this rhyme from my childhood and it still makes me giggle.

(Rhyme: Anon. Graphic created by me, using Pinwords.com. Image sourced from PublicDomainPictures.net).

Do you remember any rhymes or limericks from your childhood which make you smile?

Belsay Hall: an exhibition of Jane Austen costumes

Driving south from Scotland last summer, we stumbled across Belsay Hall in the north-east of England.

Built in the early nineteenth century, Belsay Hall was the home of the Middleton family until the 1960s, when it was discovered that the house had been very badly affected by dry rot. Today, it lies empty.

A view of the Pillar Hall atrium at Belsay

A view of the Pillar Hall atrium at Belsay

Another view of Belsay

Another view of Belsay

 

Although I prefer visiting country houses which are still furnished and lived in, my interest was piqued by Belsay’s advertisement for an exhibition of costumes from movie and television adaptations of Jane Austen novels. People who know me well and regular readers of Cultural Life will know that I take delight in all things Austen, so it was a fun opportunity to be able to see some of the costumes from the adaptations.

Outfits from PRIDE AND PREJUDICE: the 1995 BBC version starring Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennet and Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy

One of the outfits worn by Elizabeth

A coat, shirt and breeches worn by Mr. Darcy, during the infamous scene when he dives into the lake near Pemberley. The script-writer took some artistic licence with that scene; it’s not in the book.

Mr and Mrs Darcy’s wedding clothes

Elizabeth Darcy (nee Bennet): “It is settled between us already that we are to be the happiest couple in the world”

The wedding of Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy -- copyright BBC

The wedding of Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy — copyright BBC

Outfits from PRIDE AND PREJUDICE: the 2005 version starring Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Bennet and Matthew Macfadyen as Mr. Darcy

A dress and necklace worn by Mr. Darcy’s fearsome aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourgh (played by Judi Dench)

A suit worn by Mr. Darcy

Outfits from SENSE AND SENSIBILITY: the 1995 movie version starring Emma Thompson as Elinor Dashwood and Kate Winslet as Marianne

One of Elinor Dashwood’s outfits:

The wedding outfits of Colonel Brandon (Alan Rickman) and Marianne Dashwood

Colonel Brandon was now as happy as all those who best loved him believed he deserved to be. In Marianne he was consoled for every past affliction; her regard and her society restored his mind to animation, and his spirits to cheerfulness; and that Marianne found her own happiness in forming his, was equally the persuasion and delight of each observing friend. Marianne could never love by halves and her whole heart became, in time, as much devoted to her husband, as it had once been to Willoughby.

Do you enjoy costume dramas and adaptations of classic novels?

What Not To Say To People Who Are Worrying

I finally succumbed to the hype and read The Fault in Our Stars recently. Everywhere I go, I see piles of copies of it in book stores, posters advertising the movie and people enthusing about it on social media, so I thought I would try it and see what all the fuss is about. The latest craze in YA fiction, The Fault in Our Stars fits into a genre which is being called “sick lit”. First we had sparkly vampires (e.g. Twilight), then we had dystopian worlds (e.g. The Hunger Games and others) and now, “sick lit”, as YA books with themes of terminal illness are flying off the shelves.

The Fault in Our Stars (image courtesy of Goodreads)

The title of The Fault in Our Stars is derived from a line in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, for we are underlings”. It is a majestic title and the pages that follow are a sensitively written portrayal of a teenage girl, Hazel, who is suffering from terminal cancer. A medical breakthrough drug bought her a few more years, during which she falls in love with a boy, Augustus Waters, who has started coming to the Cancer Kid Support Group that Hazel attends.

Although the characters are vividly portrayed and Green’s writing made me feel sympathetic for Hazel and Augustus, I felt rather underwhelmed after I turned the last page. I read it quickly but do not feel compelled to pick up another of Green’s books. His writing, and The Fault in Our Stars in particular, has legions of fans. Am I missing something? Maybe I should try it again.

There was, however, one particular aspect of this book that I found thought-provoking: the way people use metaphors and analogies to describe serious illnesses, such as describing cancer as a battle or as a journey. To me, the phrase “cancer journey” sounds like trying to put a positive spin on it, when sometimes there isn’t one. Yet society constantly uses metaphors for things that we find difficult to talk about, such as illness and death.

It’s part of our incessant need to be positive, to reassure ourselves.  I have met similar situations myself, when well-meaning people say “I’m sure everything’s going to be fine”. But I know what it feels like for everything to not be fine. Right now, in fact, I’m feeling uncertain and fearful about the future because I am worried about certain things going on in my life at the moment, notably my mother’s need for further medical treatment soon. She was very ill less than two years ago and needs more treatment, otherwise she will become ill again. I am grateful for every day that she is with me but I worry about her a lot.

From my point of view, the least helpful thing to say to people who are worrying is “everything is going to be okay”. Instead of trying to quell someone’s worry with a well-intentioned but unhelpful platitude, just listen.

“Compassionate listening brings about healing” — Thich Nhat Hanh

Chocolate cake…..without the guilt!

My sister introduced me to The Unrefined Kitchen when she made their refined sugar-free, gluten-free chocolate cake for my niece’s 2nd birthday. It was scrumptious, so much so that I made one myself this weekend! As this chocolate cake is sweetened with honey and has no refined sugar in it, perhaps it should be renamed the “Eat-As-Much-As-You-Like-Without-Feeling-Guilty Chocolate Cake”. ;)

For the cake recipe and many more delicious recipes, click here to go to the Unrefined Kitchen.

A woman’s best friend….

I have a guest staying for the day. He is very agreeable and has perfect manners. :)

sherlock

Joyful, joyful, joyful,
as only dogs know how to be happy
with only the autonomy
of their shameless spirit
” (Pablo Neruda, translated from the Spanish below)

“Alegre, alegre, alegre
como los perros saben ser felices,
sin nada más,
con el absolutismo de la naturaleza descarada”

The end of the academic year

Classrooms and exam halls lie empty, until the academic year begins anew

Public domain image

At the beginning of June, I published this post, which marked the third anniversary of Cultural Life and let my readers know that my blogging over the next few days would be sporadic due to my exam schedule.

I am very happy to report that, despite the multiple stresses of that week (the usual exam nerves, mixed with increased stress from getting some not so great news about my mother from the hospital), all the exams were fine. I have a tendency to pressure on myself and I always think that I can do better but when I got the results last week, I was delighted. Overall, for my second year of university, I achieved a First! In GPA terms, because many of my readers hail from Canada and the U.S., that equates to a 4.0 GPA. Not too shabby! :)

Now that I have absolutely no studying to do and no deadlines to work towards, I have more time for reading non-academic books without feeling guilty. This morning, I finished reading Americanah (2013) by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

Image courtesy of Goodreads

It is a highly acclaimed novel which has won many awards, including the U.S. National Book Critics Circle Award and the U.K. Man Booker Prize. The story spans three continents and explores themes of race and identity, focusing on the main character, Ifemelu, who leaves her native Nigeria and her teenage sweetheart, Obinze, to study at college in the States. The novel begins with a description of a Princeton summer and evocatively compares its “lack of a smell” to other American places in the summer: “Baltimore smelled of brine, and Brooklyn of sun-warmed garbage”. Ifemelu is an immigrant and she views the U.S. from the refreshing perspective of a non-native.

Her insights into modern-day America are sometimes pithy and always insightful. To express her observations, she starts a WordPress blog, writing about race and racism in the U.S. from the point of view of a “Non-American Black”.

Ifemelu: “I came from a country where race was not an issue; I did not think of myself as black and I only became black when I came to America”

Her blog, entitled Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black, soon becomes well-known for its controversial, unreserved and challenging posts about racial identity and ethnicity in the U.S. Many of her posts are included in the book and I have no doubt that if Ifemelu was a real life WordPress blogger, she would be featured on Freshly Pressed a few times!

Americanah is a novel of many genres. It is a story of returning to your roots, to the country which runs in your veins. Ifemelu and Obinze, at different times, both return to Nigeria and Adichie’s writing strongly evokes the spirit of living in the country: the juxtaposition between the wealthy Lagos businessmen and the traditional ways of life, the Nigerian heat and sounds and colours. After reading this novel, I feel like I was given an insight into parts of Nigerian society: the part that longs to better itself, the ambitious young men and women who seek education and opportunities in the U.S. and the U.K., and the wealth of political corruption in Nigeria.

It is also a romantic story of love, which is divided by bureaucracy and rejected visa applications. It is a story of the search to discover one’s identity and, above all, it is an insightful narrative of attitudes towards race in three different countries: America, England and Nigeria. It left me pondering anew how shocking it is that, in this day and age, people still face discrimination based on their skin colour, even in the wealthy, highly educated and highly developed nations on the planet. I’ll finish with a quote which stood out to me: “Here’s to possibilities of friendship and connection and understanding”. Yes, indeed.

Have you read Americanah? If not, has my review made you want to pick it up?

“Belle” — class and racial politics in the Georgian era

The recently released movie, Belle, is based on the true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle, who was raised by her great-uncle in the privileged setting of upper-class Georgian society. It is a costume drama and there are stately homes, pretty dresses and carefully landscaped gardens aplenty. However, it is an unusual costume drama because Dido was a wealthy mixed-race woman at a time when black or mixed-race aristocrats were almost non-existent.

Photo credit: Wikipedia (public domain image)

Photo credit: Wikipedia (public domain image)

The director of Belle, Amma Asante, was inspired by this portrait, which shows Dido and her cousin, Lady Elizabeth Murray, painted in 1779. The painting is extraordinary for its time because black or mixed-race subjects in Georgian paintings were rarely portrayed as equal to white subjects. Asante says that “Everything you see in the film, the vision I have created, comes from the painting” (quote source: Ham & High).

I saw the film last week and while I am always a fan of costume dramas, unlike many period drama films this isn’t a typical love story. There is a romance but that is mostly eclipsed by the focus on issues of class, gender and racial politics of the time in which Dido lived. Slavery wasn’t abolished in Britain until 1807 and the film is set in the 1780s, a time of great legal significance in the battle between those who opposed slavery and those who supported it. Belle is a costume drama with a difference!

My Literary Wish List

A few weeks ago, Emily January over at The Bookshelf of Emily J. posted this post with ten books that she wouldn’t mind getting for her birthday. Emily suggested that her readers could post their own literary wish lists too. My birthday isn’t for another eleven months but here are ten books I would be delighted to be given. Perhaps I will gift them to myself! ;)

Divided by a Common Language: A Guide to British and American English (2007) by Christopher Davies.

If you’re a regular reader of my blog, you’ll know that I love language and the study of linguistics. One thing, out of many, that fascinates me about language is the fact that English has so many varieties around the world. I am interested in differences between the U.S. and the U.K. in general but language differences are especially interesting to me.

One Night in Winter (2014) by Simon Sebag Montefiore

There is something about literature which is set in Russia that I find absolutely enthralling. I read Sebag Montefiore’s sweeping, epic novel Sashenka a few years ago. It began in 1916, at the beginning of the Russian Revolution, and it was a compelling read. Sebag Montefiore is a historian as well as an author and so his novels are always scrupulously well-researched and historically detailed. He has written several books — fiction and non-fiction — about Russia and its history. I can’t wait to read One Night in Winter.

Sweet Tooth (2012) by Ian McEwan

Set during the Cold War, Sweet Tooth is about a young Cambridge graduate and compulsive reader, Serena Frome, who is recruited to MI5 in order to infiltrate the literary circles of writers whose politics are in alignment with the government. It is a story of love, betrayal and espionage and it sounds intriguing!

Homage to Catalonia (1980) by George Orwell

This October, I am due to go to Catalonia to teach English. Homage to Catalonia is Orwell’s account of his time spent fighting against the fascist Nationalists in the Spanish Civil War. I have studied the Civil War as part of my degree and there is much more for me to learn about this brutal time in Spanish history, which led to a forty-year political dictatorship. The legacy of the Civil War and Franco’s oppressive political regime can still be seen in Spain today; the cultural taboo surrounding the war and the dictatorship is only just starting to be broken.

Hard Choices (2014) by Hillary Clinton.

There are too few women in high-ranking political positions and in leadership roles in the workplace. Regardless of political views, I think Hillary Clinton is an inspiring person simply because she is a woman who has achieved a prestigious position, despite the sexism that women often face in the world of politics. I read her earlier memoir, Living History, and I look forward to reading her latest.

I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban (2013) by Malala Yousafzai and Christina Lamb.

Continuing with the theme of strong women who want to make a difference in the world, I Am Malala is a remarkable story of the determination of a Pakistani schoolgirl who speaks out for education. After being shot in the head by the Taliban on her way home from school and undergoing emergency surgery, Malala has been (and continues to be) on an awe-inspiring journey and has become the youngest ever nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize. She is an amazing young woman!

Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish (2013) by David Rakoff

Until his untimely death from cancer in 2012, David Rakoff was a regular contributor to This American Life and I always enjoyed hearing his humorous and often poignant stories. Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish was published posthumously in 2013 and Rakoff wrote it entirely in rhyming couplets. I have heard a number of his stories in rhyme on This American Life; they are often thought-provoking and always enjoyable.

Looking for Alaska (2006) by John Green

I keep hearing hype about John Green but have never read any of his books. I thought I would add this to my wish list so I can find out what all the fuss is about.

The Cuckoo’s Calling (2013) by Robert Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowling).

Crime isn’t my usual genre of fiction but as a fan of Rowling’s writing and superb storytelling, I want to read this. I remember when the real identity of Robert Galbraith was leaked last year. There was such a media storm! I wrote a post about it entitled Musings on Fame, Fortune and the Pseudonym of J.K. Rowling.

In the Skin of a Lion (1997) by Michael Ondaatje.

This book was recommended to me by Caitlin Kelly from Broadside Blog. The main character is Patrick Lewis, who “arrives in Toronto in the 1920s and earns his living searching for a vanished millionaire and tunneling beneath Lake Ontario” (Goodreads).

What is on your literary wish list at the moment? Have any of the books on my wish list caught your eye?