Book: The Tailor of Gloucester by Beatrix Potter
1987, F. Warne Publishing
Christmastide again! I have no excuse for the long hiatus I’ve had from here. I’m just sorry that I’ve yet again let everything else get in the way!
But I’ve still got a massive amount of books in mind to discuss. I thought that this year we could do something a little different, and have a series of mini posts for the 12 Days of Christmas.
Today’s book is The Tailor of Gloucester by Beatrix Potter. It’s the story of a poor tailor who is commissioned to make a coat and waistcoat for the Mayor of Gloucester, who is getting married on Christmas Day in the morning. While suitable for all ages, there is a lot of vocabulary which children may not know. However, I think it really does not matter, as most of it is there to create atmosphere.
But the reason I would recommend this book for Christmas Day (or perhaps even more appropriately, Christmas Eve) is for the peculiar section near the end where the tailor’s cat Simpkin goes walking in the snow at night on Christmas Eve. He goes through a series of little vignettes which act as a sort of morality play, or perhaps his own personal Christmas Carol experience.
It is all full of the particular atmosphere, mystery and melancholy which are so suited to a cold Winter night. The illustrations, which are more detailed and emotional than usual for Potter, reinforce the impression.
If that is the kind of mood you are looking for, then this is a great book to curl up with on a bleak Winter night. Tea is optional, but recommended
Books: Tale of Mr. Jeremy Fisher by Beatrix Potter
1997, Frederick Warne Citrus and Spice: A Year of Flavour by Sybil Kapoor
2008, Simon & Schuster
To further explore the verdant theme and make use of all the cress now growing on my kitchen windowsill, I reread The Tale of Jeremy Fisher, which is an extremely watery, green sort of story, perfect for a rainy day. The story concerns Mr Jeremy Fisher (a frog), who lives in a “damp house amongst the buttercups at the edge of a pond.” So close to the edge, in fact, that the water gets into his larder, but Jeremy Fisher doesn’t mind that; he likes getting his feet wet. He also is pleased when he sees that it’s beginning to rain.
“I will get some worms and go fishing and catch a dish of minnows for my dinner,” said Mr. Jeremy Fisher. “If I catch more than five fish, I will invite my friends Mr. Alderman Ptolemy Tortoise and Sir Isaac Newton. The Alderman, however, eats salad.”
Jeremy Fisher does indeed go fishing, but the rest of the story is a series of misadventures. He fails to catch anything for a long time, so he decides to have his lunch of a butterfly sandwich (!). But while he is eating he is pinched by a water-beetle and hears a mysterious splash which he is afraid might be a rat. Then he catches, instead of a minnow, Jack Sharp the stickleback, who flaps around with his prickly spines, and a shoal of other little fish laugh at Mr Jeremy Fisher. Worst of all, Jeremy is then eaten by a big trout. Thankfully, the trout doesn’t like the taste of Jeremy’s a mackintosh and it spits him out.
Poor Mr Jeremy Fisher can’t offer his friends minnows for dinner, but it turns out all right in the end. Mr. Alderman Ptolemy Tortoise brings a salad in a string bag, and Jeremy serves roasted grasshopper with lady-bird sauce, on the subject of which the author comments:
“which frogs consider a beautiful treat ; but I think it must have been nasty.”
This story is fun for all ages, although it does have a little bit of peril for Mr Fisher. Though he had a bad day, he managed to persevere, adapt and make a nice dinner for his friends anyway.
2 slices sourdough bread (I used Schär gluten free seeded loaf)
2 eggs (duck eggs if you can get them)
2 handfuls mixed baby spring greens
2 large snips of cress or mustard & cress
1 tin sardines
2 Tbsp fresh chives, chopped
1 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 Tbsp good butter
2 Tbsp young leeks, sliced.
1 sheet nori or kombu
4 fillets anchovies
Squeeze of lemon juice
Mustard and hot sauce to taste Method
First make the salad: arrange baby spring greens on two plates, and top with cress, chives, and a couple of anchovy fillets (these are very salty so use caution!). Then cut the nori into one inch strips and sprinkle on top (these are salty too so you only need two or three). If you like you can cut them into shapes — I cut them to look like butterfly wings. Drizzle with the extra virgin olive oil. Next fry the leeks and slices of bread in the butter on medium heat, or you can also use olive oil.
When the bread is golden, set aside and fry the sardines. Be careful with the sardines as they may fall apart if handled roughly. After a couple of minutes, when they are hot and slightly crisp, remove them and the leeks to a hot plate and fry the eggs. Duck eggs are preferable because they are very rich. They also should take only a minute or two to cook. Try to keep the yolk a bit runny. Add the fried bread to the plates with the salad, and top each slice with a couple of sardines. Then put an egg on top of the sardines. Sprinkle with a bit more cress and chives. At this point you can add a squeeze of lemon, although my sardines came in a tin with lemons, so I just drizzled a little of the lemony oil onto my eggs. Serve immediately with hot sauce and mustard.
Of course, maybe your guest is more like Ptolemy Tortoise and doesn’t want fish. In that case, you could make this cute mini stacked omelet. Cheese & Cress Omelet
1 handful baby spring greens
1-2 Tbsp cheese of choice (I used unpasteurized Red Leicester), grated
1 Tbsp milk or cream
A dash salt and pepper to taste
1 snip cress or mustard & cress
2 eggs (preferably duck eggs)
1 tsp butter or olive oil for frying Method
First add the spring greens with a dash of oil or butter to a medium pan to wilt. This should take less than a minute. Remove and set aside. Add the cream to the eggs, and salt and pepper to taste. Whisk them up and pour half the mixture onto a medium hot pan. If you have a mini frying pan you can use that, or you can pour the eggs into a metal cookie cutter to help them keep their shape. Flip the omelet when it starts to bubble in the middle (it should only take about a minute). After another minute, remove the omelet to a hot plate and pour the second half of the egg mixture onto the pan.
While this is cooking, top the first omelet with the wilted greens, cress, and cheese. When the second omelet is cooked, place on top of the first and scatter with a bit more cress, cheese, and baby greens. Serve at once. If Jeremy Fisher’s misadventures don’t put you off, never mind the rain and go fishing!
Whether you fish or not, have friends round for dinner, and cook something with a lot of green. It doesn’t have to be grasshoppers!
Book: The Tale of Little Pig Robinson by Beatrix Potter
1987, F. Warne, New York NY, USA.
We didn’t have a very hot August, which is a shame, because I find it is so much more fun to look forward to Autumn when there is a nice transition between heat and crispness. But since it’s still reasonably warm, I thought we could fit in one more summery read.
The Tale of Little Pig Robinson is quite unusual for a Beatrix Potter book. It is quite long (123 pages), and a chapter book. The setting is based upon her own seaside holiday in a little harbour town. The structure is also unusual. The story begins with a cat named Susan who goes down to the harbour to get herrings. We learn her history, and the history of Stumpy the dog. Susan sees a pig on the deck of a ship and wonders how he came to be there, but the narrative follows her home. The next passage is very evocative:
Sam ate his supper and smoked a pipe by the fire; and then he went to bed. But Susan sat a long time by the fire, considering. She considered many things—fish, and ducks, and Percy with a lame foot, and dogs that eat mutton chops, and the yellow cat on the ship, and the pig. Susan thought it strange to see a pig upon a ship called the “Pound of Candles.” The mice peeped out under the cupboard door. The cinders fell together on the hearth. Susan purred gently in her sleep and dreamed of fish and pigs. She could not understand that pig on board a ship. But I know all about him! (p.25) The narrator then explains that this story is a prequel to “The Owl & the Pussycat” by Edward Lear, which explains how the pig that they meet at the end of the poem came to be there: “When that pig was little he lived in Devonshire, with his aunts, Miss Dorcas and Miss Porcas, at a farm called Piggery Porcombe. Their cosy thatched cottage was in an orchard at the top of a steep red Devonshire lane.”(p.26) The next section of the story is a very long and detailed description of journey which the pig, whose name is Robinson, makes to market at Stymouth, and his misadventures trying to run errands there. The details are charming in a historical context and useful to get a feel for another place and time period, however, it is so long and dense that I think it would make it a trying read for a young child…it was a little trying for me. It might be better for 8 and up if they had an adult to help contextualize and learn about the historical vocabulary with them.
Another thing to keep in mind with Pig Robinson is that there are a few scenes and themes that could be upsetting to a sensitive child. The text baldly states of Robinson’s aunts that their end was bacon. The odd situation of anthropomorphic animals living independently amongst humans and yet still being eaten is a feature of many Potter books, but it is rarely so directly addressed. Also, Robinson’s journey though town is somewhat scary, with someone yelling “Come in, fat pig!” from a pub, and him seeing a ham in a window.
The other sensitive aspect is that this is basically the story of a child being kidnapped. Robinson’s aunts warn him to stay away from “ships’ cooks, and pantechnicons, and sausages, and shoes, and ships, and sealing-wax” (p.33) but in town Robinson is offered snuff by a strange sailor. Apparently Robinson’s one fault was that he could not say no, so instead of saying ‘no thank you’ and going straight away, he ends up being lured onto the ship by the sailor (who, as it transpires, is a ship’s cook!), and which point it sails off. There is a rather sinister scene of various people who might have recognised Robinson and saved him being distracted by other things and not noticing. On the other hand, it would be a good opportunity to have a discussion about safety, the importance of being able to say no, and what to do when we first start going places on our own.
However, the story is not so dark that Robinson is mistreated on the ship, thankfully. He is treated well and fed a lot (we can guess where this is going, but Robinson doesn’t, even though the ship’s cat tries to warn him). The cat itself is the one from “The Owl and the Pussycat”, who is upset on being separated from the owl.
Eventually Robinson overhears that he is meant for the Captain’s birthday dinner — as the main course! At this point the cat helps him to escape in a boat. It is a shame that the adventure only really gets going right before the end, but this section is quite exciting and also well-written, as the author describes the tropical seas with their phosphorescence, and the moon like a silver plate.
When Robinson gets to the island, he finds a rather fantastical scene.
Acid drops and sweets grew upon the trees. Yams, which are a sort of sweet potato, abounded ready cooked. The bread-fruit tree grew iced cakes and muffins, ready baked; so no pig need sigh for porridge. Overhead towered the Bong tree. (p.120)
According to the narrator the island is very like the one in Robinson Crusoe, only without its drawbacks. The Owl and the Pussycat visit it (for their wedding, as described in the original poem) and later Robinson is visited by some dogs from Stymouth who find him disinclined to return. So there is a happy ending.
As you can see this is a pretty strange book. You can check it out here, if you’d like to see for yourself. However I would still recommend a look, particularly for older children who might enjoy searching for the various references to other works. There are a couple of references to the nursery rhyme about this little piggy (one goes to market, two stay home…although there is no reference to roast beef), and Robinson himself goes “Wee! Wee! Wee!” all the time. Obviously it is a prequel to “The Owl and the Pussycat” which also ties in Robinson Crusoe (Robinson refers to himself as “Pig Robinson Crusoe” at one point, so possibly Robinson Crusoe the book already exists in this universe). Finally, there are a couple of mentions of shoes, ships, sealing wax, etc., in what must be a reference to “The Walrus and the Carpenter.” It’s amusing to think of this story as some kind of unified theory of pigs/desert islands/ships.
Pig Robinson was quite a greedy pig, and he really liked sweets, so I thought I would make truffles (although chocolate truffles probably are not good for pigs). I found this recipe, and adapted it a little to make it more fantastical. It suits the playful nature of the story.
Clotted Cream Truffles
1 1/2 cups clotted cream
1 1/3 cup dark chocolate (70% cocoa solids), crushed into smallish pieces
1/2 cup shredded (desiccated) coconut
Melt the chocolate slowly in a bain marie or microwave. I put it in a Pyrex bowl and put the bowl in a pan of simmering water. Stir the clotted cream into the chocolate and chill in the fridge for at least 3 hours. Then take out tablespoonfuls of the ganache and roll into balls, then roll them in the coconut. You could use cocoa powder, powdered (icing) sugar or any other topping of choice instead. I also put on some pink edible glitter powder to evoke the colourful setting of Robinson’s island. Chill again for another 3 hours. Enjoy with the last of the warm weather!