What the Wenches are Reading in April!

Christina here to tell you what the Wenches have been reading this month – an eclectic mix as always! With all of us being in isolation, we’ve had plenty of time to dive into our TBR piles and we hope you have too. Have a look and see if anything appeals to you!

The Forgotten SisterI’ll start off with my own April favourites: First and foremost I had the pleasure of reading an advance copy of Wench Nicola’s upcoming release, The Forgotten Sister – published tomorrow! – a Tudor mystery and time slip (dual time) novel. I can safely say that this is one of the best books I have read in a long time! It has everything you want from a time slip story and it was utterly, utterly brilliant!!! Nicola has managed to intertwine the story of Amy Robsart (wife of Robert Dudley in Tudor times) so cleverly with the characters in the present. Robert is part of Queen Elizabeth I’s court and Amy doesn’t seem to figure much in his plans. She needs a way out of their loveless marriage and thinks she’s hit on the perfect solution – but has she? The present day heroine Lizzie has her own problems to contend with and when her life begins to echo the happenings of the past, she has to uncover a centuries old secret in order to move forward. I couldn’t put this down and the characters will stay in my mind for a long time.

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No Man Is An Island . . .

Bodleian_Libraries ElbaAndrea/Cara here, I’ve recently started working on a new Lady Arianna mystery novel, and after having sent her and Lord Saybrook to Scotland in the last adventure, I decided to head south to the Mediterranean.

More specifically, to a certain island in the Mediterranean—one that will likely ring a bell with aficionados of Regency-era history. (Though there’s a little unexpected excitement along the way.) Elba was home to Napoleon during his first exile from the world stage. But I knew little else about the rugged speck of land in the Tyrrhenian Sea. Which of course meant I needed to do some research.

Aerial_view_of_Elba_2Oh, joy. Now in the spirit of full disclosure I’ll confess that I have a thing for islands. I love the sense of their being a little world unto themselves. The closeness of water seems to bathe them in a special aura—things always feel calmer and more relaxed on an island. (Yes, yes, I know—an oxymoron when it comes to Napoleon!)

Elba didn’t disappoint. I found it to be a fascinating place, rich in history and natural beauty. Allow me to share some of the highlights of my research . . .

Tuscan_archipelagoFirst let’s place it a little more exactly. It’s a mere 6 miles off the coast of Italy, which raised concerns from the start among the Allied leaders at the Congress of Vienna when Napoleon requested it as his place of exile. As the Emperor of Austria wrote to his foreign minister, Prince Metternich, “The important thing is to remove Napoleon from France, and God grant that he may be sent very far away. I do not approve of the choice of the Island of Elba as a residence for Napoleon; they take it from Tuscany, they dispose of what belongs to my family, in favour of foreigners. Besides, Napoleon remains too near to France and to Europe.” Lord Castlereagh of Britain agreed, but Tsar Alexander harped on the need to get Napoleon to abdicate quickly, and so he was grudgingly given the island as his new empire.

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Travels with my Armchair

Flip flopsCara/Andrea here,
Here we are in August, those last few weeks of summer lassitude before Labor Day signals that we all House partymust slough off our flip-flops and shorts and buckle back down to work. (Never mind what the calendar says about the Autumn equinox, here in America, the first Monday in September means the beach party is over.)

Victorian beachNow, in Europe, August has long been the traditional month to go away on vacation—France and Italy basically shut down as everyone takes the opportunity to venture far and wide for a break from the familiar. It’s been coming increasingly the same here.  Where I am, there’s a noticeable absence of the usual crowds, and many of my friends are heading off for visits to summer beach or mountain houses, or exotic globe trotting adventures. (I can’t help but think of our Regency era characters, for whom August signaled the start of the country house party/shooting season, or the city Victorians, who could take advantage of the new railroad systems to vacation at the seaside!)

SailboatAlas, I am not sailing off to any exotic ports, save in my own imagination. (If you read a note of longing in the statement, well . . . maybe just a little!) I love to travel, so despite the fact that I’m staying close to home, I’ve decided to settle into my armchair and do some mental peregrinations. So where am I going? Since money and logistics are no object, I let my imagination run free . . . here are some of the spots that top my Travel Wish List:

Scottish Highlands
The Scottish Highlands

The austere beauty of the Highlands has always struck a chord with me. I’d bring my hiking boots and walking stick so I could explore the loch and moors and tiny villages—along with plenty of buttery shortbread to fuel the trekking! 

 

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Something to Munch On!

Biscotti 1Cara/Andrea here,
On occasion, rather than wax poetic about some bit of historical research or intriguing person who has caught our fancy, one of us Wenches will invoke the “Life Is Hitting Me Between the Eyes” rule offer up some lighter fare for you to munch on. Well, it’s my turn. I am in the midst of selling my house and buying a new place—the closing take place at the end of this month, and I am in a state of mild—well, more than mild panic. How did I accumulate so much STUFF to sort through. BooksNot to speak of packing up all my books. (The mover who came to estimate the job looked at me with this really puzzled expression and said ,“What do you do? I’ve never seen anything like this.”

Tuscany eveningSo, since I need a lot of energy to keep me going (and we all know sugar is a major food group when one is under stress) I thought I’d share a recipe for biscotti that I recently learned in Tuscany. Granted they won’t taste quite as good as when they are made by the gorgeous and charming Michele and his assistant. (He is a Michelin-starred chef and rather delicious to look at! I was lucky enough to get a cooking lesson from him.) And another word of warning—they should be munched with a glass of prosecco overlooking the rolling Tuscan hills at sunset.

Biscotti 2Now, lest you think I was merely lollygagging all morning with Michele, I do have some “research” tips to pass on. In Europe, it’s standard to weigh ingredients rather than measure them as we do. Michele assures me it is far more accurate, and in pastry, precision is the key for the best results. Who am I to argue!

So, without further ado, the recipe, which I guarantee will bring a smile to your lips—along with a delightful kiss of honey. (Apologies to fellow American readers as I have not yet translated the quantities to American weights/measurements.)

Biscotti 4Ingredients
200 grams eggs
375 grams sugar
100 grams egg yolks
25 grams acacia honey
500 grams flour
2.5 grams baking powder
2.5 grams vanilla powder
400 grams almonds

Method

1.  Whisk the eggs, sugar, egg yolks and honey until very pale yellow.

Biscotti 52.  Sift together flour, baking powder and vanilla powder. Add to egg mixture, slowly at first then quickly, mixing just to combine.

Biscotti 73.  Toast the almonds for 3 minutes in the oven at 200 C, chop in food processor, then mixture into batter.

4.   Put batter in a pastry bag and pipe out lines of the dough (1.5-2 inches wide) well spaced, on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper. Bake at 200 C for 7-9 minutes.

5. Let cool, slice on diagonal to make “biscotti,” then put them back in the pan and bake at 180 C or 8 minutes. Serve with chilled vin santo!  Perfect summer fare! (Or winter fare with hot chocolate for our readers who reside in the Southern hemisphere.

Biscotti 9So a quick question before I head back to the kitchen. Do you have a favorite comfort when you are under stress? These biscotti are wonderful, but my real go-to treat are blondies with golden raisins and walnuts, baked a little underdone so they are really gooey! They always seem to make me feel better no matter what!

The Palio de Siena—A Race for the Ages

AP-avatar Cara/Andrea here,  As the resident Wench “jock,” I occasionally jog off from the ballrooms and country houses for a swing through the history of sporting traditions. Tennis and golf—games grounded in the lawns and links of Great Britain—have been past subjects. But today, as I’m straying farther afield . . . I’ve just returned from an idyllic trip to Tuscany, where I was lucky enough to experience (sort-of) one of the most famous sporting competitions in the world—the Palio de Siena, a rough-and-tumble bareback horse race that originated in the Middle Ages.

Palio-race

Heart and Hooves
Palio-flags-2 The first thing to understand about the Palio is that it is much more than a mere sporting event. Passion, pageantry, pride—centuries of traditions and rivalries whip up emotions to a frenzy for the extravaganza that takes place each summer in the ancient hilltop city of Siena, Italy, as the 17 Contrade, or neighborhoods, compete against each other for the ultimate bragging rights as the Palio champion. The spectacle, a colorful gallimaufry of Medieval pomp and splendor, includes costumed rituals, ornate banners, the blessing of the horses in the Church, and a whirlwind ride around the dangerously steep and sharp turns of the Piazza del Campo.

Pageant-1 Piazza-di-Siena The Palio has its origins in the 14th century races that used to be run through the narrow streets of the city. Apparently the citizens of Siena enjoyed a variety of rather violent games when they weren’t at war with their neighbors, for the central square was often the site of boxing brawls, jousts and bull fighting. When the Grand Duke of Tuscany outlawed the pitting of man against horned beasts in 1590 (no doubt preferring to keep his soldiers in fighting shape for human opponents) the Contrade, or neighborhoods of the city, began to organize races in the Campo. The first ones were run on buffalo and donkeys, but in 1656, horses became the mounts of choice and the Palio as we know it today galloped into its special place in history.

A Ride Through History
  Bell-tower So, now let’s saddle up—in a manner of speaking— and take a quick ride through the details of the Palio. There are two races each year, based on religious calendar of the Catholic Church: July 2, which celebrates Feast of the Visitation, and August 16, the day after the feast of the Assumption, which celebrates the Virgin Mary. (The August date was added in 1701.)  In 1729, the race course was formalized as a circuit around the perimeter of Piazza del Campo. (Wooden barricades are put up and dirt is laid over the rough cobblestones for the two races, which circle the square three times and last less than 2 minutes.) 

Siena-duomo That same year also saw the limit of ten horses established, as the full complement of 17 too often ended in a melee of blood and broken bones. The annual slots rotate—the seven who didn’t race the previous year are automatically in, with the three additional places  Pageant-3 chosen by lottery. To avoid Machiavellian maneuvers (chiefly doping and bribery, though in the past horses were sometimes be poisoned by rival Contrade) the mounts are also chosen by lottery a week before the race, and no purebred horses are allowed. As you can imagine, these days elicit much cheering and gnashing of teeth throughout the city.

Palio-flag Caterpilars, Dragons, Porcupines . . .
The rivalries between the 17 Contrade are fierce. For natives of Siena, they are “Caterpillars” or “Giraffes” first, and Siennese second. The residents of the neighborhoods sport their own heraldic colors and beasts (my favorite banners were the Eagle and the Dragon, though the Porcupine was pretty cool too.)  In the weeks before the races, the ancient grey stone walls of the city come alive with Contrade flags, and, you will see people around the city sporting their allegiance in the form of lovely silk scarves.

Drappellone They are all vying to win the “Rag”—the Drappellone or Palio, which is a hand-painted banner, created by a different artist e
ach year—and the strategies go far beyond pounding hooves and sweating horseflesh. Preventing one’s arch rival from  winning is almost as important as one’s own victory, so the plotting and secret alliances between the contestants puts the  Borgias to blush. Tradition holds that the biggest loser is the horse that comes in second. On the course, jockeys must contend not only with the treacherous turns and steep slopes but also with flailing nerbi (a whip made of a dried bull’s penis) flying elbows and deliberate kicks. In other words, all’s fair in love and Palio!

Spectator seats for the race run dear. A good one can cost over $1,000, though one can brave the crushing crowds and try to get a rail position on the center infield. Where admission is free—but be prepared to get there hours early and withstand the hot Tuscan sun. So I decided to simply enjoy the energy and color of the city by visiting two days before the actual race. And to my delight, I discovered yet another tradition of the Palio . . .
 
Main-square Squaring Off
  At around 5 pm I took a stroll to the Campo, simply to see the course and the splendid bell tower that is an iconic image of Siena, but it quickly became clear by the fast-growing crowds that something special was starting to happen. Troops of children filed in to bleachers by the bell tower and serenaded Crowd the square with lusty exuberance—I was told that the songs were the Siennese equivalent of college football fight chants. Another spectator informed me that the whole hoopla was because the horses were about to come out for a practice round, something that traditionally happens on the three evenings preceding the race.

Girls-singing  Sure enough, the square quickly filled up to full capacity, and the reserved seating on my evening was packed with club members from the different Contrade. (I merrily began to climb up to an empty seat, much to the horror of the locals, who made it quite clear that tradition banned interlopers! A closer look revealed that no women were in Crowd-2 that section of the stands—they had their own enclave over in the corner.) The police quickly closed off the square with barricades, and a cannon blast signaled that the horses had entered the track. Amid wild cheering, they loped around at an easy canter, simply to become familiar with the noise and the twists and turns. Still, it was an amazing experience to feel the thrum of excitement making the very stones come alive.

Horse-5 After the three laps, the horses were each led off, followed by a procession of men from their Contrade singing at the top of their lungs. On the actual Palio day, the race is preceded by the Corteo Storico, a colorful medieval pageant of flag twirlers, costumed processions and traditional cavalry charges.

I’m sorry I didn’t get to experience the main event, but my small taste of the Palio was still a special experience. The chance to  witness living history, with all its rich traditions and colorful Horse-3 pageantry was truly memorable.

So what about you? Is there an historic event, be it sporting, musical, religious . . . whatever, that you would love to attend? Please share!