Saturday, May 23, 2015

How it was done

Back when a book was a precious work of art.

In monasteries, novices were never allowed near a psalter book. Part of the training of a young monk was to memorise the entire psalter. Once he could recite it all from memory (in Latin, of course) he was taught to translate it. He learned the chant by rote.

Only a small group of monks in any monastery were chosen to form a "schola" in which they would learn the difficult parts of the Office, the hymns and complicated antiphons for the big feasts. In the schola, the single large song book would be placed on a tall lectern and the monks would gather 'round and all sing from the same book, with one monk given the task of turning the pages as they went along.

This is what our monks do here in Norcia, though of course, novices are no longer required to memorize the entire 150 Psalms.


Oooooooo! Puuuurdy!

Doing a bit of research. It looks like there's other people who like this stuff.

Stuff like this:

(These go by way too fast, but, you know, there's the pause button...)


Thursday, May 21, 2015

Elderflower champagne recipes

Here, here and here. And here's Hugh's.

And elderflower liqueur, elderflower cordial + a Wiki page on it, and another recipe, plus Hugh's version.

And, just for fun, sloe gin.


La Sampogna

The Sampogna is a wooden flute made from the sambuca tree, probably originally by mountain shepherds. There is also an Italian bagpipe, also used by shepherds...when there still were Italian shepherds that is, called a Zampogna.

"Pliny records the belief held by country folk that the shrillest pipes and the most sonorous horns were made of Elder trees which were grown out of reach of the sound of cock-crow. At the present day, Italian peasants construct a simple pipe, which they call sampogna, from the branches of this plant."

I can imagine, at least it seems reasonable to assume that the zampogna, that you hear all over Italy at Christmas, is named after the earlier simpler flute named after the Sambuca tree.

Herblore. It's fun!


Brewing tasty May beverages

So, I went out for a long stomp yesterday afternoon in the Marcite, and was specifically looking for more cleavers. I usually collect up a bunch of it about this time every year, dry it and use it for a tea that's supposed to be anti-cancer and helpful to the lymphatic system. It's quite nice with nettle and chamomile and I'm nearly out.

Well, as usually happens when you go shopping, I ended up coming home with everything but. It turns out that sambucca, that the English call Elder and Linnaeus (and Pliny) called Sambucus nigra, is extremely abundant here. I mean, forests of the stuff, and it's all in bloom right now. I had no idea how lovely it smells! And there are cartloads of it out there.

The Elder, with its flat-topped masses of creamy-white, fragrant blossoms, followed by large drooping bunches of purplish-black, juicy berries, is a familiar object in English countryside and gardens. It has been said, with some truth, that our English summer is not here until the Elder is fully in flower, and that it ends when the berries are ripe.

The word 'Elder' comes from the Anglo-Saxon word aeld. In Anglo-Saxon days we find the tree called Eldrun, which becomes Hyldor and Hyllantree in the fourteenth century. One of its names in modern German - Hollunder - is clearly derived from the same origin. In Low-Saxon, the name appears as Ellhorn. Æld meant 'fire,' the hollow stems of the young branches having been used for blowing up a fire: the soft pith pushes out easily and the tubes thus formed were used as pipes - hence it was often called Pipe-Tree, or Bore-tree and Bour-tree, the latter name remaining in Scotland and being traceable to the Anglo-Saxon form, Burtre.

The generic name Sambucus occurs in the writings of Pliny and other ancient writers and is evidently adapted from the Greek word Sambuca, the Sackbut, an ancient musical instrument in much use among the Romans, in the construction of which, it is surmised, the wood of this tree, on account of its hardness, was used. The difficulty, however, of accepting this is that the Sambuca was a stringed instrument, while anything made from the Elder would doubtless be a wind instrument, something of the nature of a Pan-pipe or flute. Pliny records the belief held by country folk that the shrillest pipes and the most sonorous horns were made of Elder trees which were grown out of reach of the sound of cock-crow. At the present day, Italian peasants construct a simple pipe, which they call sampogna, from the branches of this plant.

Well, what do you do, if you're English, with lots and lots of elderflower?

You make elderflower champagne... durrr...

I could have brought home a houseful, and I think it's finally time to go down to the garden centre and buy me some a them really huge galvanized buckets. I'm gonna need a bale of cheesecloth too. Maybe I'll see how my mosquito nets work. And I'm going to get some of the bottles with the lever-caps too.

The monks gave me a little packet of leftover yeast from their last brew. 200 g will do me for a whole season's worth of brews. I'm looking at mead ("idromele") recipes and of course, the sambuca will produce a huge crop of berries in the late summer/early autumn, so there's going to be loads of elderberry cordial and maybe I'll try my hand at elderberry wine.

I might also have to buy another big metal shelving unit and put it in the workroom/spare room to store all this stuff.


Wednesday, May 20, 2015


Hmm... that's an odd feeling.

I've just erased eleven years worth of emails from my inbox and changed the account name.

It was weird to scroll through a decade of my life clicking "delete," but I feel now oddly like I've finally got clear sinuses and can breathe again after a long time with a cold. For the last few days, I've been unsubscribing and cancelling all my email subscriptions, news alerts and lists and memberships. Last week I closed my work-related Facebook account, and it all feels so good, I'm looking around wondering what else I can delete.

A long time ago, a friend of mine said that she never stored old emails. She would read it and respond and delete. If it was something important enough to keep, she'd file it under "electric bill" or "directions to mum's house" or whatever. I thought this was an odd thing to do at the time, but now I see the sense of it.

If anyone wants to know my new email address, PM me. I'll be blocking the old one as soon as I figure out how.


For the English Cats are the best in Europe

For I will consider my cat, Joffrey

a fragment of a fragment,
by the mad poet, Christopher Smart

For he counteracts the Devil, who is death, by brisking about the life.
For in his morning orisons he loves the sun and the sun loves him.
For he is of the tribe of Tiger.
For the Cherub Cat is a term of the Angel Tiger.
For he has the subtlety and hissing of a serpent, which in goodness he suppresses.
For he will not do destruction if he is well-fed, neither will he spit without provocation.
For he purrs in thankfulness when God tells him he’s a good Cat.
For he is an instrument for the children to learn benevolence upon.
For every house is incomplete without him, and a blessing is lacking in the spirit.


Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Tea for a broken heart

Everything is in full bloom at the moment, including all the very best medicinal and therapeutic wild herbs. I filled a small bag with Red Clover flower heads the other day. I am drying them on the window sill with some wild rose petals.

Combine the dried petals, some crushed dried rose hips and a small handful of clover flowers to make a tisane. Just a tiny half teaspoon of honey, and it will pick you up better than chamomile.



This is egg tempera, one of the major techniques of the middle ages. Ever wondered how these paintings get their astonishing depth, subtlety and translucence of colour? Layers. Layers upon layers upon layers.


What's next

Well, maybe never mind hiatus. I kind of feel like chatting with y'all.


Woke up late this morning, and realised that I had been unconsciously waiting for my little furry alarm clock to come in and walk on my head and demand her breakfast. The first moments of waking up are going to be confusing and difficult for a while.

Am I being dumb that I can't stand the idea of putting away her food dish?

For the last few months, Winnie had been having trouble jumping up onto the armchairs and sofa, so I built a little cat-ladder by piling cushions next to her favourite spots. I had become so used to straightening and restacking the cushions next to the chairs that I just found myself doing it again. I've put them away now.

Honestly, I feel terrible. And I feel dumb for feeling terrible. Not very British all this maudlin mooning about over a cat. (Though I think most British people would agree that cats are usually nicer than people.)


So, I've had quite an offer. The monks have said that I can sell my saint-paintings in their gift shop, and have even offered to let me collect some of the old (five hundred year-old) ceramic tiles from the ruined monastery they own and are slowly renovating and use them as the canvases for extra value-added awesomeness. I'm told the tourists will eat them up like chocolate pancakes. I am not going to call them icons, since icons are a very specific process and style that I know next to nothing about. They're just paintings of saints. With local wildflowers in the margins, like a manuscript, and maybe some local landscapes... with monks.

The fact that I haven't actually painted any saint-paintings seems not to have deterred Fr. Directore Spirituale one bit who seemed to be quite enthused about the idea. He said he'd seen my drawings and had every confidence. (And of course, if I can't do it or they're dreadful, they have the option of not putting them in the shop.)

Maybe it will just be tourist kitsch, but I'll do my best to make them nice. And if I practice long enough, and learn enough skills as I go along, maybe some of them will be thought of as art some day. But they will at the very least be genuine devotional items. Really made by an oblate of the monastery while praying and thinking about the saints and God and whatnot. He said that we can pitch them as being "by an oblate of the monastery who came to Norcia to live a more contemplative, semi-eremitical life." The tourists/pilgrims all have very romantic notions about monastic life, and think of hermits in the way you and I think of fairies and elves. I hope the reality doesn't disappoint. I'm working on my levitation skills.

I've been looking at and copying the saint-paintings of some of the medieval and early Renaissance masters. I think I like these better, for all their technical primitiveness, than the later polished glories of Leonardo and Michelangelo (and who has time for the silly overthetopness of the Baroque?) so I'm sticking with the medieval frescoes, of which, fortunately, there are quite a number all over town. Frankly, I see nothing wrong at all, at least at the beginning, with straight-up copying them. I've always loved miniatures and the lively and bright little paintings in the old manuscripts. I don't expect I will ever rise to the heights of the sublime Daniel Mitsui or the incredible technical prowess of Randy Asplund. But the thing is to get started. To paraphrase Bilbo, you never know where the road is going to take you.

I'm not sure what sort of materials one uses on ceramic and terracotta tile, but I figure I can try a few different things with what I've got in the art-cupboard and just see what works best. I've been up to the old monastery a few times, and the tiles are all over the place there, half buried in the soil, so there's no shortage of them to work out the details. But of course, I'm ready to hear from the experts. Now that I've not got Winnie to care for, I can take a little trip down to Florence to visit the Greatest Art Supply Shop in the World. I'll take a tile with me and just explain what I want to do and buy whatever they tell me to buy.