“Think ye of the times when we oft spake at mead

When we on the benches did raise up our boast,
Henchmen in the hall – about hard strife,
Now may each one make trial of how bold he be.”

This is a quotation from the Battle of Maldon. Byrhtnoth is dead and his kinsman Aelfwine encourages the warriors by reminding them of their boasts in the Mead Hall and how they must now make good their promises.

Today I am not talking about battles, but of mead. Almost the first thing we were told at the “Building a Shieldwall” session at the Historical Novel Society conference was “Anglo-Saxons didn’t drink mead!” A good way to catch the attention of the audience. What I think they meant was that the mead that was drunk was very different from what we think is mead; a thick fortified wine manufactured by monks. What was it they drank?

Anglo-Saxon Food & Drink by Ann Hagen has a useful chapter on Fermented drinks, but I was looking for something I could make myself. I looked in my father’s old wine making book – honey, water and mead yeast.

Ancestral Wine Making Book

The Ancestral Wine Making Book

I found a  recipe online using a milk bottle and a balloon. Perhaps I would have a go.

This is the time of year I get an urge. An urge to wander the local hedgerows and gather the abundance that is to be found there: blackberries and elderberries, sloes and crab apples. I then have a furious session of freezing, jam making and most important, wine making.  Here is a post from a different blog of an autumn a few years ago.

What would the Anglo-Saxons have done with a harvest like this? It couldn’t be frozen – unless the winter was particularly cold. They wouldn’t make jam – there wasn’t the sugar available – although they might have cooked fruit and preserved it in honey. There was no gin, so no sloe gin! Foods could be dried, perhaps larger fruit, such as apples, plums. Salting would be okay for meat and vegetables, and smoking, but not for fruit. What to do with those juicy blackberries?

Throughout history a lot of foods (most?) were seasonal. When it was available you ate as much as you could, then waited for next year. Nowadays we can eat whatever we want, when we want it and we have lost our connection with the turning of the seasons. Would we appreciate things more if we had to wait for them?

Back to the Anglo-Saxons. They were a practical people. They would not want to waste anything – and they liked to drink! Any fruit that could not be consumed immediately would be used. Apples would be pressed to make cider. If they had grapes, wine would be made (there would have been vines surviving from Roman times.) Once you know how to ferment apples or grapes, you can do the same with other fruit. Your surplus honey would be used for mead. You would improvise – use what ever you had.

This year I had pears They started to appear in the kitchen. Apparently it is a particularly good year for pears, at least in our garden, and these were the first windfalls.

Windfallen pears

Windfallen pears

Pears are a tricky fruit, difficult to tell when they are ripe. If you catch them at the right moment, they are delicious. Unfortunately that moment lasts for only a few minutes, earlier they are hard as a rock, later a soggy mush. What to do with them? Jam? We don’t eat much jam and I think I still have some jars from the last glut. There is a limit to the amount of Pear Crumble you can eat, believe me — there is. It had to be wine. My thoughts about mead and Anglo-Saxon wine making had fermented in my brain.

I would make wine, but not wine as I usually make it.

When looking for Pear wine recipes, I had found one for Homemade Pear Mead I would have a go.

A chopped my pears and poured over the boiling water and added the various chemicals – I wanted to be authentic,  but not that authentic.

Chopped pears soaking in water.

Chopped pears soaking in water.

The recipe said to add the yeast the following day. This didn’t seem right, my usual method is to soak fruit for however long, strain, add sugar and then yeast. I think I was right as there was no fermentation, just a nasty grey scum on top.

A week later I strained the liquid and added the honey (and more yeast). Within an hour or so it started bubbling!

Fermenting!

Fermenting!

It is being kept warm beside the radiator (when it is on) and in the sun (when it shines)

The recipe says to rack every three months for a year, then bottle and leave to rest for another year.

Can I wait that long to taste it?

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Book Review – Death’s Bright Angel

One of the best things about the recent Historical Novel Society Conference was the Bookstall and the opportunity to buy a book and get it signed by the author.

I bought a few books, not too many – at least I could still lift my suitcase when I departed. Since the conference coincided with the 350th Anniversary of the Great Fire of London, I bought two books on that theme. I might buy a third; the reading by C. C. Humphreys at the Gala Dinner whetted my appetite.

I will write reviews of them all, but I start with Death’s Bright Angel by J. D. Davies. I didn’t actually buy this at the Conference. I had ordered it and intended to meet the author to get it signed. The book was released on 30th August but it didn’t arrive until after I had left home – thank you Amazon! I understand that copies arrived at the conference bookstall eventually.

Part of my haul from HNSOxford16

Part of my haul from HNSOxford16

Death’s Bright Angel is the sixth in the Quinton Journals series by J D Davies and Matthew Quinton has learned a few things. In the first of this series this Gentleman Captain knew nothing about sailing a ship – now he does. The book opens with a battle, a duel rather, between two ships. England is at war with both Holland and France and Matthew is searching the North Sea for their fleets. The ship he finds is French and they fight it out, cannons blazing and blood staining the decks, until one surrenders. Matthew wins, but his ship is damaged.

This theme continues. Success, but at a cost. He enthusiastically helps to burn the Dutch merchant fleet, an action to hit the economy of Holland and perhaps provoke rebellion. The destruction of a nearby, innocent village causes him to think again.

He is summoned back to England by the King and tasked with investigating a possible Dutch plot against the country. His pregnant wife is angry. She is Dutch and Matthew has bankrupted her father – his ships were among those burned. She has more to worry about when she discovers that her husband is working with the beautiful and enticing Aphra Behn, writer and secret agent. As the heat rises in early September 1666, Matthew Quinton, racked with guilt, must find the conspirators. What do they plan?

A fire starts in London, the East wind blows, the fire spreads. Should Matthew help to fight the fire or save his wife? Did the Dutch start the fire, or do they plan something worse?

This book is a thrilling race against time, combining action with a vast knowledge about the period. Historical characters make their appearances, King Charles II and his brother James, Samuel Pepys buries his cheese. The reader is there, in London during the Great Fire, walking, or rather running, through the streets, dodging the flames, pulling down houses and rescuing innocent people from xenophobic mobs.

There is more to this book, though, than a good read. Instead of the usual historical notes at the end, there is an essay, raising new theories about the causes of the Great Fire of London. The author is an expert on the period and has looked into original documents. When you consider that the burning of the Dutch ships occurred only two weeks before London’s fire, it would be difficult to conclude that there was no connection. Or perhaps it was just an out of control baker’s fire.

Two books for the price of one – what more could you want?

My next review will be The Ashes of London by Andrew Taylor

My first #HistFic Conference #HNSOxford16

Apologies for the strange title – I’ve been doing rather a lot of Tweeting recently!

Last week I promised to write about the Historical Novel Society conference in Oxford. With getting on for 300 attendees: writers, readers and others interested in writing historical novels, most of whom probably write blogs, why write another? Why read another?

Because I promised, and I always keep my promises and also because everyone’s experience will be different. This is mine.

I arrived at St Anne’s College about 4.30 Friday afternoon, pushed out of a car further down the road (where were you supposed to park?) in a torrential downpour. It didn’t seem like an auspicious start. A change of clothes and a cup of coffee later and I was ready to cross the road to the Andrew Wiles Building. Of course I was early, but there seemed to be no-one about – eventually I realised everything was happening downstairs. I collected my badge, picked out a goody bag and settled down to rummage through it. I discovered that others were more interested in the weight of the bag, rather than the contents. They were those who had travelled from afar – I was amazed to discover how many had come from the U.S. It put my one and a half hour drive in perspective.

Goody Bags

Plenty of Goody Bags – which to pick?

Then it was time for the official Welcome and “The Big House Story” – a conversation with Fay Weldon and Jo Baker. This was an interesting discussion about writing from the point of view of servants, such as Longbourn, Jo’s book inspired by Pride and Prejudice. I think there might have been a problem with Fay Weldon’s microphone as I had difficulty hearing her. I should say here that apart from this, the sound was excellent in the main hall and the other venues.

This was followed by Wine and Canapés. I wish I had stopped chatting long enough to taste more of the enticing canapés. We were turned out at 8.30, so I retired to the pub opposite. Shared a table with three Americans and two other Brits. Interesting that I was the only one writing about British history.

Fay Weldon and Jo Baker discuss servants.

Fay Weldon and Jo Baker discuss servants.

I slept very well in my comfortable garret (up three flights of stairs) and was practically first in line for breakfast (very good). First on for Saturday was a Panel Session “The Next Big Thing in Historical Fiction.” To which the answer is “Nobody knows.” Agents are looking for one thing, publishers another; you must please the marketing department and attract the book shops. The Tudor era is overloaded, but a WW2 saga might be popular.

Straight after this was the session I was looking forward to: “Building a Shield Wall.”, run by Paula Lofting and other members of Regia Anglorum. The first thing we were told was that the Angl0-Saxons didn’t drink mead. So that’s half my book out the window! We found out a lot about the clothing – especially how difficult it is to get into a mail shirt, especially in front of a large audience in a very small room. We discovered the difference between round and kite shaped shields and the advantages, and disadvantages, of fighting on foot and on horseback. They moved out into the atrium to demonstrate the actual setting up of a shield wall, causing consternation to other delegates, who had their coffee break shattered by the cry of Ut! Ut! Ut!

(There is some film and a much shorter post about the conference on Ruth Downie’s blog)

So that's what the Anglo-Saxons used for their Powerpoint presentations

So that’s what the Anglo-Saxons used for their Powerpoint presentations!

Saxon warrior brought to his knees by lady in sensible shoes (and an axe)

Saxon warrior brought to his knees by lady in sensible shoes (and an axe)

Shield Wall

Ut! Ut! Ut!

After all that excitement we returned to the main hall for the Keynote address by Melvyn Bragg. His latest book, “Now Is The Time” is about the Peasants Revolt and he talked about the difference between Historical Fact, which you have to obey, and Historical Fiction, which is the bits that you don’t know. You can make it up but must stick to the spirit of the character. If you research enough around the events, you should be able to recreate what they might have said. Bought the book afterwards (although service at the bookstall was a bit slow.) and got it signed.

Melvyn Bragg making a point.

Melvyn Bragg making a point.

After that was lunch, sandwiches and fruit – very nice sliced pineapple, followed by the presentation of the awards.

Presentation to Joint winner of the HNA Indie Award, Lucienne Boyce

Presentation to Joint winner of the HNA Indie Award 2016, Lucienne Boyce

Straight after that was another panel, Battle Scenes: Guts, gore and glory. No, not a replay of the awards, but a talk by authors famous for writing dramatic and life-like scenes of battle. It was rather skewed towards the Romans – anyone would have thought that the Romans fought a lot of battles! There was much discussion of classical sources. Why did neither of the Anglo-Saxon supporters mention the Battle of Maldon! I’m not sure I learned much (about writing battle scenes) but it was an entertaining session.

Justin Hill, Matthew Harffy, Harry Sidebottom, Douglas Jackson and Simon Scarrow talk Battles

Justin Hill, Matthew Harffy, Harry Sidebottom, Douglas Jackson and Simon Scarrow talk Battles

Time for a cup of coffee. Biscuits were advertised but I didn’t see them – just as well. Then it was into another workshop: Creating Fictional Historical Characters, with Jean Fullerton. This was in the same small room that had been used for the Shield Wall re-enactors. I don’t know if someone had misjudged the numbers, but there was even less space. More people kept appearing and tables were shoved up and chairs brought in from elsewhere. We learned the does and don’ts of creating heroes and villains. I must have been getting tired as all I remember was the warning – “Don’t kill the kittens!” your reader will never forgive you.

Exactly!

Exactly!

The final session was back in the main hall Kate Williams, Margaret George and Manda Scott on “Faith and Morality in historical fiction and biography.” Like the last session, this was  about thinking about the differences between how people lived and believed in earlier times and how we think about things nowadays. There was a discussion  about how you can never get the truth of any event, however modern. We can only do the best we can with what we have. This was followed by an Introduction to HNSUS17 to be held in Portland, Oregon on June 22nd-24th, 2017. We were then allowed to go, to prepare for the Gala Dinner.

Is it Dinner Time yet?

Is it Dinner Time yet?

Back in my room at St Anne’s, I lay exhausted on the bed. Could I take any more? Yes I could. After a wash and brush up I descended the three flights of concrete stairs in my posh dress and glittery shoes. It was a short walk to the Dining Hall. It seemed a long time since breakfast that morning. Music was playing and wine bottles were on the tables. Here and there were delegates dressed in historical costume, ready for the Costume Pageant. I was joined by Clare Lehovsky whom I had met on an Arvon course at The Hurst, a year ago. I had met other friends from that course during the conference, so it was something of a reunion. An American gentleman sat opposite, Christopher Cevasco. We discussed our books and discovered he was also writing about the 10th century. I don’t know if there were any more in the room, not many I suspect. Also sitting opposite was Richard Buxton, a Welshman writing about the U.S. Confused and I hadn’t even had a drink – yet.

Chris and Richard. Managed to include the menu as well

Chris and Richard. Managed to include the menu as well

Queuing up for the Costume Pageant. Clare in white top - 1920s

Queuing up for the Costume Pageant. Clare in white top – 1920s

C C Humphreys reading from his book "Fire" I've already bought two books about 1666, do I need another?

C C Humphreys reading from his book “Fire” I’ve already bought two books about 1666, do I need another?

The highlight of the evening was an invitation (after much nagging) to handle a Seax.

Thank You Matthew (Come up to my room and I'll show you my Seax) Harffy

Thank You, Matthew “Come up to my room and I’ll show you my Seax” Harffy

I was up bright and early the next morning for my Full English breakfast, ready for the final day of the conference. There was to be a lot of running back and forth today. I had two pitch sessions booked. I will draw a veil over them, except to say that they have given me a lot to think about.

I just managed to get to the “Streets through the Ages” Panel just before it started.  Here we were given descriptions of life in different eras. Gordon Jackson spoke about Romans, Carol McGrath about Medieval – 14th century (not Anglo-Saxon I’m afraid) Jenny Barden took us back to the Elizabethan period and Charlotte was not left much time for the 17th century. We were running late and everyone wanted to get to the main hall for the talk by Tracy Chevalier.

Tracy Chevalier addressing a packed Hall

Tracy Chevalier addressing a packed Hall

It was strange to discover that such and English seeming author as Tracy Chevalier spoke with an American accent. Although she has lived here a long time but hasn’t lost it. She talked about how distancing yourself in history makes it easier to write, although you have to spend a lot of time on research. If you write about the modern-day everyone asks if it’s autobiographical! That said, we heard something about a book she has been working on recently: a re-working of Othello set in a 1970s school playground.

Unfortunately I had to miss the questions part of this talk, but made it to the Session on “Time Slip; Time Travel” This is a genre which I enjoy reading. I might have a go at it myself, sometime. Anna Belfrage and Christina Courtenay explained about the difference between Time Slip, in which the characters do not actually physically travel back in time and Time Travel, when they do. You have to think carefully about the method of travel, how to emphasise the differences between your two eras. We finished with a competition. Who could think of the best method of time travel – the winner was someone who suggested shoes.

I didn’t make the HistFictionalist Challenge – too busy talking again. Missed the wrap up as well. I think my sense of time was getting adrift! I had some lunch, drifted around for a bit and then left. I didn’t want to leave. I walked into the centre of Oxford and as I returned to pick up my lift, got lost. I eventually found my way back, tired and foot worn. I had to return to real life.

So, what did I think of my first HNA Conference? I enjoyed it immensely – so much to do, so many people to meet: old friends, new friends, twitter friends. Sorry if I haven’t mentioned you in this blog, but you are in my thoughts.

Would I go again? Like a shot. Perhaps not next year, but when it is held in the UK again.