The Christmas Pudding

On the principal that anything banned by a puritan like Oliver Cromwell has to be good, I should like Christmas Pudding: however, I find today’s offerings a bit too sweet and rich.  When my mother was alive and cooked one for each member of the family (starting it in February and giving it time to mature instead of following tradition and making it on the Sunday before Advent) I used to love it, especially fried in butter on Christmas morning.  I’m a lazy cook however and as I don’t like the store-bought versions, I usually serve something like a Pavlova for Christmas dessert.

Image by Linda Tacey from Pixabay

I once had the idea of cooking a Christmas pudding by usng the original receipe but I gave up on that as a) finding the origins of the pudding wasn’t easy and b) when I delved deeper it sounded revolting.   It seems that at the end of the winter solstice (or towards the time of the pagan festival which had been co-opted into the Christian festival of Christmas) all the good things from the recent harvest were poured into a huge cauldron and boiled up, things like hulled wheat, milk, apples, spices, honey and whatever was left in the barns and the larders.   The resulting concoction was called a porridge. 

Image by Karen from Pixabay

The story has it that every member of the household had to stir the pudding to ensure good health in the coming year but I like to think that as stirring this enormous cauldron wasn’t easy for the cook of the house (always the woman) the ritual of everyone in the household from the youngest to the oldest, including servants, being required to stir the pot, was devised by her to reduce the work.  This tradition is still adhered to in families where the pudding is still made – it certainly was in mine.

Image from OpenClipartVectors from Pixabay

Over the centuries the mixture was improved by the addition of dried fruits, meat and alcoholic spirits, although I would argue that meat may not necessarily have improved it.  When the Elizabethans added prunes (dried plums) it became plum porridge but no one can say for certain when plum porridge became plum pudding.  It may well have been when meat was dropped from the recipe in the late 18th/early 19th century.

Image by Gerd Altman from Pixabay

In its early incarnation it was boiled in a cloth dusted with flour which gave the pudding the traditional round ball shape, so familiar from Christmas card illustrations and Dickensian prints.  Although my mother never baked one in a floured cloth, she always wrapped the pudding basin in a cloth which was loosely tied at the top to allow the pudding to rise and for the top to take on a round shape.  Silver sixpences were always included in the pudding as a symbol of future wealth for the family, but we children were delighted with the ones we got in the here and now.

Charles Dickens immortalised it in A Christmas Carol the performance of which is now an essential part of Christmas: Queen Victoria and Prince Albert are said to have loved it: and along with Christmas cards, Christmas trees, tinsel and turkey, I think we can say that the Christmas pudding as part of the Christmas festivities, is here to stay.

Image by Oberholster Venita from Pixabay

CESENATICO AND THE LEONARDO DA VINCI CANAL

Leonardo da Vinci Canal

For years now I’ve been totally in love with the region of Emilio-Romagna in Italy, mostly, I admit, because of its food, but my first flirtation with the area came when I visited Cesenatico.  It was here that I discovered that the canal that runs through the centre of the town, was designed by Leonardo da Vinci and I was immediately charmed.   That the genius who produced so much art could also put his mind to something so mundane, seemed so wonderful. Is there nothing he didn’t design?   How had it escaped me?

Canal and Port

Cesenatico has been a popular seaside resort for Italian visitors since the early 20th century, but it wasn’t until the end of the Second World War when people began to seek pleasure in sandy beaches and sun that its tourist trade really took off :  Cesenatico’s beaches stretch for over five kilometres.  More recently, the town has seen an influx of visitors attracted by the beaches and shallow waters of the Adriatic, the bars, bistros, elegant shops and gelateria that line the canalside, and the near perfect weather. 

Outdoor Museum of Boats on the Canal

This is as medieval as it gets and it rings with names from history.  The ancient fishing harbour was designed in 1502 by da Vinci on the orders of Cesare Borgia, two names to set the mind racing. One part of the canal has been closed off to accommodate the Floating Museum of Marine History in which eight perfectly restored boats of the type that were once used locally for trade in the upper and middle Adriatic are on display.  Painted in the natural colours that were used in the past, each sail represents a different fishing family from the area. This was done originally so that the boats could be recognised at a distance: today they are a lesson in maritime history. 

Alongside the canal the indoor Maritime Museum houses artefacts and documents dating back to the prehistory of navigation. As the port supports today’s fishing industry the canal bustles with working boats, many of which sell their catch from the boat. Weaving in and out are small yachts and leisure craft for the canal has an attraction for all who love messing about on boats.

If it’s a sunny day and being indoors is not to your liking, then admire the collection of medieval boats on the canal while sitting at a nearby café with a glass of the delicious local wine.  If you are there on a Sunday expect to see elegant ladies tottering about on their Louboutins, tiny dogs clutched in their arms, impeccably dressed young men making the passagieta with or without their girlfriends, and old men sitting outside the bars nursing espressos and smoking.   

Cesenatico was the first Italian town to erect a monument in honour of the great Liberator of Italy, Giuseppe Garibaldi, to signify his connection to the town and this statue can be seen in Piazza Pisacane. In August of 1849, the great man, his wife, and other patriots fleeing from Rome were hunted down here.

There are a few other monuments to visit if you can drag yourself away from the port and its charms or the beach and the calm waters.   The birthplace of the poet Moretti is now a centre for the study of 20th century Italian literature with a display of his books and papers, and the Theatre built by the architect Candido Panzani which, having survived damage sustained during the Second World War was restored in 1992, is architecturally very interesting.

But Cesenatico is really a place made for relaxation, for doing what the locals do, chill out with a coffee and grappa, lunch al fresco with local wines, or dine elegantly while watching the world go by. 

The region of Emilia-Romagna in Italy has many lovely towns and villages but none, apart from Cesenatico, has a canal designed by Leonardo da Vinci, running through it.

ARRAS: Wellington Quarry

The underground memorial site at Arras, the Wellington Quarry – Carrière Wellington – should be high on the list of things to see when visiting the historic town in northern France.

Most people are familiar with the Somme Battles, Passchendaele and Ypres, but fewer are aware of the sacrifices that were made at Arras:  France alone lost 30,000 men.  A visit to The Wellington Quarry, which is in the middle of the old city of Arras, reveals a little-known story of World War I and is a good place from which to try and understand the horrors of World War I.

Pill Box with Cut Out at Wellington Quarry

First, a little bit of history to set the scene. 

The battles of Verdun which involved the French, and the battles of the Somme which involved the British and Commonwealth in 1916 had been disasters with terrible loss of life.   Arras was strategic to the Allies and, uniquely in World War 1, was under British command from 1916-1918, but was under continual bombardment from German troops.  To create a new offensive on the Vimy-Arras front, the Allied High Command decided to tunnel through the chalk quarries under Arras which had been dug out centuries before to provide building material for the town.  The plan was to construct a sort of barracks, a series of rooms and passages in which 24,000 Allied troops could hide in readiness for the planned attack and for the tunnels to go right to the edge of the enemy’s front line which would allow them to burst out and surprise them.

The Wellington Quarry Museum tells this story of this quarrying, the lives of the townspeople and the troops, and the lead up to the battle of Arras on April 9th, 1917 and a walk through the tunnels lets you experience something of what it was like to live in these depths for two years.

In March 1916 the first of the skilled men required for this job arrived on the Western Front – 500 miners of the New Zealand Tunnelling Company, mostly Maori and Pacific Islanders, gold miners from Waihi and Karangahake, coal miners from the South Island and labourers from the Railways.  Discouraged from enlisting due to the essential nature of their industry, they were now plunged right into the thick of it, working alongside experienced miners of the Royal Engineer tunnelling company, miners from the Yorkshire mines and tunnellers who had worked to dig out the London Underground.

Welling Quarry - The Tunnels

The first task was to create primitive underground living-quarters, and with superhuman effort they dug 80 metres per day to construct two interlinking labyrinths.  They worked only with pick axes and shovels as the Germans were just above them so no explosives could be used . Conditions were primitive and dangerous and although the temperature was a regular 11 degrees, it was continually damp:  there were many deaths, many injuries.

By April 1917 they had created a working underground city with running water, lighting, kitchens and latrines: a rail system and a hospital were up and running and space for 20,000 soldiers was found even if it was cramped.   Completed in less than six months 25 kms of tunnels eventually accommodated 24,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers who, as with the battlefields above ground, gave their sectors the names of their home towns. For the British it was London, Liverpool and Manchester, for the New Zealanders it was Wellington, Nelson and Blenheim.  Nowadays, Wellington is the only one of the quarries that can be visited, the others now mostly lost or covered over by buildings and car parks. 

 

 In dim light, a lift takes you 20 metres underground, during which the guide starts the extraordinary story of the Wellington Quarry tunnellers against a recorded background of men talking, pick axes hitting stone and the occasional explosion.   In breaks in the tunnels small screens pop out with black and white images of soldiers working or at ease and disappear just as quickly.  

Wellington Tunnels - Projected Image on Wall - CopyYou’re told about the one bucket of water to a dozen men.  You feel the presence of the soldiers, and you hear voices. “Bonjour Tommy” says a Frenchman against footage of civilians and soldiers chatting in the streets.  You hear letters written home, and poems from the war poets, like Siegfried Sassoon’s The General.

“Good morning. Good morning” the General said 

When we met him last week on our way to the line.

Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of ‘em dead,

And we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine.

“He’s a cheery old card”, grunted Harry to Jack

As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack

.         .           .               .              .              .               .

But he did for them both by his plan of attack.

Artefacts left behind by the soldiers are on display, helmets, dog tags, bottles, boots, electrical fittings, railway carts, bullets.  Pictures scratched in the chalk of the walls are pointed out, names of sweethearts, and humourous signs like “Wanted, Housekeeper”. 

Wellington Quarry - Map projected on Wall
Projected map on the wall of the tunnel

You are almost lulled into a false sense of normality as you listen to the sounds of men talking and laughing.  Then you reach the end and your guide points to where the exits were dynamited to enable the men to go up the sloping passageway that led to the light, over the top and into battle at 05.30 on the morning of 9th April, 1917.  It was snowing and deathly cold when the order was given to burst out of the quarries. It was Easter Monday.

Wellinfgton Quarry - Steps to Battlefield
Light at the end of the tunnel – up and over the top to the Battlefield

24,000 men erupted from the earth: initially the assault was a success.  The Canadians seized Vimy Ridge; Monchy-le-Preux was taken; the soldiers of Australia, Britain and the Commonwealth fought hard and the Germans, taken by surprise, were pushed back 11 km.  But then the Allied troops, on orders from above, were told to hold back, during which time the Germans, who had retreated, re-formed and called up re-inforcements.   Every day, for two months after that, 4,000 commonwealth soldiers died, before the offensive was eventually called of. 

Brass figures inside the 'cut-out- bunker
This is part of a brass surround that is inside the Pillbox above.

The film of the battle (which those in charge considered a success by the standards of the time) can be seen upstairs as you exit.

Facts:

Wellington Quarry,

Rue Deletoille

Arras

Tel.: 00 33 (0)3 21 51 26 95

Entrance adult 6.90 euros, child under 18 years 3.20 euros

Open Daily 10am-12:30pm, 1:30-6pm

Closed Jan 1st, Jan 4th-29th, 2016, Dec 25th, 2016

Wellington QuarryWellington Q - Cut Out Pill Box