Thursday 23 February 2017

Walking through history

 One of the things I love about this corner of the Cotswolds are the many and varied walks that we continue to discover even though we have lived here for over 20 years.  Walks across hilltops with far reaching views, along deep verdant valley bottoms, down networks of quiet hidden narrow country lanes, through pretty stone villages, or as in this case wandering along a towpath running beside a canal.
We know and have walked many different stretches of this canal as it journeys from the River Severn to the River Thames, but we have never discovered this particular part of the towpath previously even though it is no more than a couple of miles from our home high in the hills.

What is now a quiet and peaceful sanctuary - a haven for wetland birds, would have been a hive of industrial activity during the 18th and 19th centuries.
This elegant original brick arched bridge was built in 1778 to carry a road over the canal to the woollen mills.
Today it is hard to imagine what a busy thoroughfare this would have been with boats and people plying up and down the water all day long mainly carrying coal

The ancient church of St Cyr's had already stood here for more than 650 years before the canal was even given consideration during the early part of the c18th.

The whole area with its hills and valleys grew very rich off the backs of sheep for centuries - known as Cotswold 'Lions' and introduced here by the Romans. Medieval weavers in c12th Flanders would sing "the best wool in Europe is English, and the best wool in England is Cotswold"
The prosperous local mill owners built themselves grand mansions, wonderful churches which are still known as 'wool churches', and endowed many fine schools in the area

During the c18th these valleys were particularly famed for their scarlet red wool cloth dyed with cochineal which was used to make soldiers uniforms, but also loved by Cherokee Indians who traded furs for it. In the painting above it is just possible to make out the red wool cloth hanging over tenderhooks to dry on the hillsides
St Cyrs churchyard features several traditional style Cotswold table top tombs

500 years before the wool mills were even built, wool was one of the countries most important commodities. It paid for the great abbeys and monastic buildings and it is acknowledged that wool was responsible for half the wealth in England - wool exports paid for Richard the Lionheart's enormous ransom to the Saracens. The Lord Chancellor still sits to this day on a sack stuffed with wool in The House of Lords showing the pre-eminent position that the wool industry has played in this country's affairs. 

Monday 20 February 2017

Cream of Celery Soup

Sauté onions and garlic in a little olive oil
add 1 litre of vegetable stock
 one large potato chopped into small pieces,
some chunks of celeriac (optional)
add a whole head of chopped celery
Season with ground coriander,
some freshly ground black pepper,
and nutmeg,
finally add a couple of bay leaves
leave to simmer for 45 minutes or
place in a slow cooker
for several hours - mine goes in a slow cooker.
Remove the bay leaves then liquidise before serving -
add some single cream and fresh herbs

  A tasty bowl of nourishing soup and some crusty artisan bread - just what the doctor ordered
Spring has arrived in our garden 

Wednesday 15 February 2017

'Arsenic and Old Lace'

 Did you know that cooked rice is laced with arsenic? This was news to me, but fear not help is at hand

      • Basmati rice contains the least levels of arsenic than any other rice
      • Brown rice contains more arsenic than white rice due to the husk
      • Growing rice organically makes no difference to the levels
      • Rice cakes and crackers contain higher levels than cooked rice
      • The levels of arsenic found in rice milk far exceed the amounts that are allowed in drinking water

We are buying more rice products for our children than at any other time. More and more baby rice products are appearing on our supermarket shelves.
Arsenic is a naturally occurring element which can be found in soil and water, but because arsenic is found in soil and water, small amounts can get into food. However, generally these levels are too low to cause concern. Rice, however, has around 10 - 20 times more aresenic than other cereal crops. This is due to the fact that it is grown in flooded conditions which makes it easier for the arsenic to leave the soil and enter the rice. When it comes to rice milk the Food Standards Agency advises that it should never be used as an alternative milk for children below the age of 5. However, surprisingly there is no legal obligation for rice milk producers to issue warnings on their packets.
We enjoy rice dishes and I usually make one most weeks, but it is very simple and easy to minimise the risks
During the cooking process the arsenic leaves the rice and enters the cooking water. If like many people you use a rice cooker or cook your rice in a small amount of water so that it absorbs it all leaving the rice ready to serve then the arsenic is all reabsorbed. Better to boil the rice in a large pan full of boiling water then drain it so that the arsenic is not reabsorbed. 
Even better, soak the rice overnight before cooking, this allows the arsenic to escape into the water - drain the rice and rinse thoroughly with fresh water, and then cook in plenty of boiling water. When cooked, drain the rice, and rinse again with boiling water to get rid of the last of the cooking water. Using this method removes more than 80% of the arsenic, whatever is left is extremely negligible, so no need for alarm

Tuesday 14 February 2017

Happy Valentine's Day

Monday 6 February 2017

Great Survivors

There are several plants and trees inhabiting the planet that are surprising survivors from the Mesozoic period, a time when Dinosaurs roamed the earth. I am showing two examples - a plant and a tree, both of which I am able to photograph simply because the plant lives with us, and the tree grows locally.

The Ginko biloba (Maidenhair tree) has been described as a 'living fossil' because it is the sole survivor from an ancient group of trees that date back to beyond the time of dinosaurs. Ginkgo genus fossils are found in both Jurassic and Cretaceous rocks, but today Ginkgo biloba is the only member of this genus remaining. They can be extremely long lived, the oldest recorded individual tree being 3,500 years old. The Ginkgo has a long history of cultural importance in Asia where it is revered - legend has it that Confucius sat beneath a Ginkgo Tree whilst teaching.
Fossilised ginkgo leaf overlaid with a comtemporary leaf for comparison.

Some people take Ginkgo pills, made from juice in the leaves, on the understanding that they prevent strokes and Alzheimer's. However, as yet, there has been insufficient scientific evidence to prove it works. It may be better to walk 3,000 extra steps a day, and keep mentally active by playing Sudoku or may be even blogging!!
I purchased this Cycad revoluta (Sago Palm) in a Spanish market a good 15 years ago. Obviously it was much smaller then as I was able to return with it on the plane. Although it resembles a palm it is actually a fern whose genus also dates back to before dinosaurs roamed the earth. Fossils of the cycad genus have also been discovered providing evidence of their existence dating back over 300 million years. 
Every two or three years our plant produces a new set of leaves which are fascinating to watch as they unfurl 

They look soft like ferns but their appearance belies them - as they mature the leaves become leathery, very tough and strong with sharp points at the tips. Their stems too have needle sharp prongs which can be harmful to the unwary
 unfurling day by day
I have no idea how this giant pre-historic looking bug gained access to the conservatory - all of the windows and doors were tightly shut
He is a Cockchafer or May Bug (Melolontha) a member of the family Scarabaeidae - Scarab beetles were revered as sacred in ancient Egypt.
How do I know that he is a boy? - he has seven leaves on his antannae whereas girls have six