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Liz Woods: Top Five books

I find I’m reading less fiction as I get older; the world is a fascinating and complicated place and I’m still trying to make sense of it! What is it that Michael Douglas’s character says about his girlfriend in the film of Michael Chabon’s book ‘Wonder Boys’? “She was a junkie for the written word and books were her drug of choice.” That could be me. So bearing in mind that my choices below might be different next week – here goes.

‘Persuasion’ by Jane Austen
The mature woman’s Austen. Yes, I love ‘Pride and Prejudice’ too, but Anne Eliot’s second chance for love moves me more. Will Anne have the courage to
follow her heart this time? Will her lover have the courage to trust her and himself again? Yes, on both counts – I do like a happy ending.

‘Prodigal Summer’ by Barbara Kingsolver
One of the rare books that I finished reading and then immediately read again. Set in the Appalachians over one steamy season, Kingsolver’s tale of three characters, who are all connected, but who never actually meet resonates with her love and deep knowledge of the ways of natural world and our place in it.

‘Notes from an Exhibition’ by Patrick Gale
I was a massive Patrick Gale fan before I ever thought I might be lucky enough to live in Cornwall. Any Patrick Gale is worth reading, but as both a Quaker and resident of Penzance this novel is literally, right up my street.

‘The Age of Wonder’ by Richard Holmes
Richard Holmes is a serious historian who writes wonderfully well. This is a profile of three of our greatest early scientists, Joseph Banks, Humphry Davy and William Herschel. But it’s really about the life and times of a generation which also included Coleridge, Southey and Shelley and how early science and romantic poetry were all much more connected than I realised. Fascinating stuff.

Only one left….oh dear!

‘Honey from a Weed’ by Patience Gray
I have a large collection of cookery books and books about food. I’m not a fan of most celebrity chefs (although Nigel Slater can do no wrong) but this wonderful book about food and a life well lived is the antidote to celebrity cheffing. Patience Gray was a food writer for ‘The Observer’ in the late 1950s and wrote the marvellous recipe book ‘Plats du Jour’, way before Elizabeth David turned us all on to Mediterranean food. In the 1960s Patience turned her back on London and followed her sculptor lover to some of the unchanged corners of Greece and Italy. She writes of a peasant life and peasant food that hardly exists any more. Her recipes illustrate the world she found – just simple, plain and honest. Lovely.

‘Cornish Feasts and Festivals’ came about as a result of a blog that I have written over the last three years which connects food with various festivals and
anniversaries throughout the year. Both the book and the blog have given me the chance to research folk lore, social history, the way people cooked and ate and the way that our diet used to be influenced by the seasonal round of celebrations that have been lost over the last three or four hundred years. But I didn’t want the book to be just nostalgic which is why it includes some non traditional dishes which show off our wonderful Cornish produce.

I’m not sure when this will be published – but here’s a little treat that didn’t make it to the book .

‘Here we go gathering nuts in May, nuts in May, nuts in May
Here we go gathering nuts in May, nuts in May, nuts in May
On a cold and frosty morning..’

Traditional English Rhyme
The Holy Rood is a phrase used in the Catholic Church to mean the Cross of the Crucifixion. The word ‘Rood’ coming from the same Old English root as ‘rod’. As ever there’s some confusion about the day, but most sources say that it commemorates the discovery of the supposed ‘True Cross of Christ’ by St Helena who was the mother of the Emperor Constantine. She travelled to Jerusalem in 326AD and ordered the building of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which is still there. September 14th is still one of the Twelve Great Feasts in the Orthodox Calendar. You won’t be surprised to find either that there was also a Feast of Demeter the Goddess of Corn which was held at about this time. Most of us come across the word ‘rood’ in relation to the screen which separates the nave from the choir in a church. Some of these rood screens are fantastic examples of mediaeval carving, and I love looking out for them when poking around in our old Parish Churches.
Holy Rood Day was a significant mediaeval holiday when tradition dictated that you went nut gathering. In most cases this meant gathering hazel nuts that were an important protein source in the winter for people and animals, but could also be sold to dyers, the nuts making both red and black dye. However people have been gathering hazel nuts in Britain since the dawn of time. In 1995 a shallow pit was discovered on the island of Colonsay in the Inner Hebrides, it was full of the remains  of hundreds of thousands of burned hazelnut shells that were carbon dated to about 7000 BC.

So I’ve been a’nutting and I picked these hazel nuts a few days ago at Godolphin
within the boundaries of the estate which goes back well into the mediaeval period.
This is what The Dictionary of English Folk Lore has to say about village nut gathering
parties – ‘Lively affairs with much bawdiness and love making and jokes about
testicles because of the way the nuts are clustered on the branches.’ The hazel nut
was indeed a mediaeval symbol of fertility. AIas I went alone…