From Princess Bride to Faerie Queen

In my quest for gorgeous clothing (I know, terribly shallow, but I like clothes…), I occasionally come across shops which are veritable Aladdin’s caves. Usually shops specialising in vintage attire, they have racks of dresses and jackets lining the walls, shelves stacked high with shoes and hats. They have a musty smell, not unlike that which you smell in a second-hand bookshop.

Copy of CIMG2687

A couple of years ago I found myself in the vintage section at Liberty’s. Designer vintage. Very grand and glamorous. I was persuaded to try on a dress which I was admiring: a 1950s brocade wedding dress. It took a while to twist my arm – I had no reason for the dress, I thought it was too small and I was always told that you shouldn’t touch what you can’t afford. And at something in the region of £3K, I couldn’t afford this dress. However tempting and wonderful. I didn’t want to run the risk of ripping it. But I was persuaded.

It fit like a slightly tight glove. I was terrified that my next breath would burst the seams. The ladies gave me a pair of just-as-expensive vintage designer shoes to wear with it, for the height. I won’t lie: I felt like a princess in that dress. I have also never worn so much money in my life. I was very very tempted. Not that I had the money. But some dresses are just so worth it.

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I had a similar sort of moment while I was in Canterbury at the weekend. I was introduced to a vintage shop there: Revivals. Not a giant shop, but my goodness, the clothes! I was tempted by several, having been encouraged to try them on. There’s something about vintage clothes which make me feel so very elegant and pretty. I managed to practise some restraint though: I only bought one of the several – a gorgeous 1950s (do you sense a theme here?) cocktail dress. Which makes me feel like a faerie.

Don’t Upset King Henry…

There’s something quite awesome about the way in which a cathedral dominates the skyline of a small town or city. Particularly a medieval cathedral, although the relatively modern red-brick cathedral of Uppsala, Sweden, is especially distinctive. There is a fantastic view of Canterbury Cathedral across the city from the top of a monument in the Dane John Gardens. Apparently, a rule exists in Canterbury which forbids building anything taller than the cathedral.

Canterbury Cathedral

Canterbury Cathedral

Uppsala Cathedral

Uppsala Cathedral

 

Perhaps the most significant event to happen under the shadows of the eaves happened in 1170. As frequently happened, the Church and the State were at loggerheads. Henry II thought that clergymen should be tried in civil courts and punished accordingly. The Church actually rather thought that the Church should retain authority over clergy and the punishments. Which didn’t involve anything very harsh, unlike the civil ones. So when the Archbishop of Canterbury died in the 1160s, Henry thought he’d appoint his good friend, the Chancellor Thomas Becket. Thomas was not, at this time, a priest, but Henry as never one to let little details like that stand in his way. Thomas didn’t want to be the Archbishop either. But Henry got what he wanted, ordaining Thomas a priest one day, and then consecrating him Archbishop the next. But Thomas said that now that he was a servant of the Church and God, actually he couldn’t support Henry’s reforms. Which annoyed the fiery King. One thing led to another, and Thomas was approached by four knights in his own Cathedral on his way to Vespers. They wanted to arrest him, but he refused to go quietly. Apparently they weren’t patient men, and they struck the Archbishop with swords, killing him. Henry was devastated; he hadn’t wanted Thomas to be killed.

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The moral of the story is: be careful what you say when people who want to be in your good books are around to hear you.

Land Ahoy! Real World Sighted!

Hej hej! Me again! Back from my sojourn in Medieval Europe. Was quite a nice holiday, really, all things considered. Lots going on, what with kings, popes, power and the need to defend Christendom. I have now reached that happy island which exists between the end of exams and receiving the results (I’m taking it as a good sign that my university has allocated me my tickets for graduation).

Flourless Chocolate Cake

Flourless Chocolate Cake

So anyway, now I must turn my attention to the Real World and what I wish to do now that I have Grown Up. I’m not one of those super-organised people who’ve known what they wish to do since they were five and have been driven by burning ambition ever since. Instead, I changed my mind on pretty much a yearly basis, probably more frequently. I signed up to do Viking Studies because, quite honestly, I was interested. I like history, especially medieval history, and I’m something of a Wagner obsessive. (Yay for it being his bicentenary and the BBC doing the entire Ring Cycle at the Proms this year!) So I went to learn the sagas. I gave practically no thought to what I would do after my degree. I was off to study and learn!

Although, right now, my mind is probably still too full of Vikings and Crusaders, kings and popes, warfare and gold, to be of much use. I still think that one of the best crusaders was one King Sigurd of Norway, quite apart from the fact that whenever I hear the name ‘Sigurd’ I think ‘Dragon-slayer!’. In 1107, having belatedly received the memo from Pope Urban II (dated 1095) about there being an expedition to the Holy Land to retrieve Jerusalem from the Muslims, Sigurd gathered ships and set sail. Norway, by the way, was a new Christian country, converting in a bloody fashion during the eleventh century. Sigurd, we are told by Snorri in Heimskringla, won every battle he had on his crusade, defeating several pirate ships in the Mediterranean. Upon reaching the Holy Land, he was received by King Baldwin I of Jeruslam (previously Baldwin of Boulogne) and presented with a splinter from what was considered to be the Cross of Christ. Because, you know, what better present is there, than a chip of wood from a torture device? But anyway. Sigurd and his men returned home to Norway via Byzantium and that was his crusade. The First Crusade had ended in 1099, so he was only a few years late…

Anyway, while I have a think about What to Do Next, I thought I’d spend time productively making cake. I choose, at random from my collection, my Hummingbird Bakery recipe book, Home Sweet Home. OK, it wasn’t that randomly. I haven’t used it before.

I still think flicking through a recipe book is probably one of the best parts of baking. All those pictures and scrumptious sounding goodies! The only suggestion made by my flatmates was “Chocolate, please!”. So I meandered a pleasant route through the book, with lots of stopping and starting as pictures and recipes caught my eye.  I settled on, because it intrigued me, a recipe for Flourless Chocolate Cake. I’ve made gluten-free things before. That is not what intrigued me. What intrigued me was the complete lack of any flour substitute. Previously, when I’ve made gluten-free things, I’ve used ground almonds instead. But this recipe had nothing like that; just chocolate, butter, sugar, water, and eggs. Intriguing. A baked mousse…

From this...

From this…

It’s straight-forward: the eggs and just over a third of the sugar get mixed together. This was tediously slow until I discovered that the whisk I thought was broken, wasn’t. So that sped up the process a bit. The rest of the sugar was made into a syrup, and then the butter and chocolate was melted into the syrup before being added to the eggs. Mix mix mix. It fills the tin better than most of the Victoria sponge mixes I make do. Only once I’ve shut the oven door do I remember that the recipe said something about sitting it in a roasting pan of water to make a bain marie. Never mind.

...via this...

…via this…

Fifty minutes later, it somehow managed to rise. I’m impressed. It smells like a chocolate cake ought. It squidges a little when I press the top, and the crust crumbles. The recipe says it shouldn’t be firm, so I’m not unduly worried. I leave it on the side to cool in the tin, as the recipe tells me. When I come back to remove it from the tin, the centre has sunk. It looks like a kladdkaka – a Scandinavian brownie-cake.  Very unexpected. Tastes like it too. Just perfect with a dollop or two of sour cream.

...to this! Ta-dah!

…to this! Ta-dah!