Golden Quinces

This year’s crop of quinces from our garden

Our quinces are now picked, and the quince cooking season begins! You’ll find a recipe section at the end of this blog, and just to keep things current, I’m adding in an extra recipe which I tried for the first time yesterday – a beef and quince tagine.

I’ve had a love affair with the quince for the last fifteen years, ever since I began to pick the fruit from a neglected tree as I’ll describe shortly. I couldn’t let them go to waste! I knew nothing about quinces – where they came from, and what you could do with them – so I decided to find out.

The start of our quince harvest this year

Although it’s not common to see this golden fruit on sale very often, it was once highly prized. In the Middle Ages, quince trees were only planted by wealthy folk, and the dishes cooked with their fruit ranged from preserves and sweetmeats to savoury stews, where the quince provides a delicious sweet/sour background for the meat. Sometimes bowls of quinces were left out simply so that their delicate perfume could fragrance the air. We usually keep them in an old cherry-picker’s basket until I’m ready to cook them, and they do indeed have a lovely scent. Not many people in the UK cook quinces today, but there has been something of a revival in recent years, and I’ve collected various ‘quince supplements’ from magazines and newspapers.

Quinces originated in Mesopotamia, and it was the ancient Greeks who began to cultivate them, calling them ‘kydonia malon’, meaning ‘apple of Kydonia’. This corresponds to modern day Khania in Crete. Who knew that Quince means Khania? Historians also think that many early references to ‘apples’, such as Aphrodite’s ‘apple of love’, and the golden apples of the Hesperides, may in fact mean quinces. They were also used in the Middle East, then migrated to Europe, perhaps during the time of the Crusades.

My visit to a Cretan cave – the landscape in which it’s thought quince trees originated

You can’t eat a quince raw, but you can turn it into wonderful dishes – quince ‘cheese’, often known as membrillo, jelly, cakes and stews. I first started to experiment with quince recipes when I had an allotment in Bath; further down the plot was a neglected quince tree, on a strip of land which no one laid claim to. I watched these knobbly, pear-shaped fruit through the summer, and waited patiently until they’d started to ripen in mid-autumn. You need to hold back until they turn a deep yellow, but then pounce before they start to discolour. Friends visiting our garden as the quinces begin to ripen ask what those ‘furry pears’ are! Quinces have a thick down on them as the fruit grows, which is eventually shed when they reach picking stage.

When we moved to Gloucestershire, and I missed this quince bounty, we planted a dwarf Serbian quince tree in our rather exposed, terraced garden. It did well. Later still, when we moved to Exeter, I gained permission to go quince scrumping in an old medieval courtyard right in the city centre, by St Nicholas Mint. Here, in a walled garden, a beautiful quince has been planted, and every year those on the ‘quince interested list’ would be summoned to share the harvest. One year I only just managed to climb back on the bus home, laden with several carrier bags which weighed at least as much as a full suitcase.

Our quince tree in bloom – it has a very delicate scent

And now, in Topsham, we have our second Serbian dwarf quince tree, the only variety of dwarf quince tree I’ve come across – essential if you haven’t the space for a big tree, as they can grow to the size of a tall pear tree. It’s four years since we planted it, and is doing very well. It gave about 25 quinces last year, which is enough to make all my favourite recipes, and over 40 this year.

If you can grow, beg or buy quinces – and some greengrocers and farm shops do stock them now – here follow some of my favourite recipes. Notes in brackets are usually my comments on the original instructions.

Some home-made Mebrillo or quince paste – perhaps not quite so perfectly cut as those you buy in a delicatessen, but just as delicious!

Membrillo is the best known quince recipe, and the resulting firm paste is sold in delicatessens at a very expensive price, and sometimes served with cheese plates at gourmet restaurants. The term ‘cheese’ means a fruit paste, and isn’t related to milk cheese. This recipe has been known in various forms since the medieval period.

Quince Cheese (also known as Membrillo or Quince Paste)
1 ¾ kg quinces – (you can make this with any weight, provided matched with the same weight for sugar)
300 ml water
granulated sugar
caster sugar.

Wash the quinces, but don’t peel or core them. Cut them into quarters and put them into a saucepan with water. Simmer until soft, then put them through a sieve. (Warning! This is hard work but needs to be done, to get the hard pieces out. A food processor won’t do the job.)

Weigh the pulp and put into a large pan with an equal weight of granulated sugar. Stir over a low heat until the sugar dissolves. Continue cooking, stirring continuously, until the mixture becomes so thick it is leaving the sides of the pan. (You may need to add more water – take care that it doesn’t burn.)

Turn into shallow tins lined with greaseproof paper. Leave to dry in a warm place, e.g. in airing cupboard, for 3 -4 days, or in an oven on its lowest setting for 12 hrs. (I found 3 hrs worked perfectly well.) This will make the paste easier to handle and also improve the texture, giving it a slight chewiness.

Cut into pieces, the size of a square of chocolate, and roll in caster sugar. (It’s not strictly necessary to add more sugar at this point.) Pack in airtight box with greaseproof paper between each layer. (from It’s Raining Plums, Xanthe Clay). You can freeze this successfully – I’m currently finishing off last year’s just before making a new batch. And it also makes a very good Christmas present!

Hugh’s sticky quince and ginger cake, with the left-over glaze setting nicely in a jar

Sticky quince and ginger cake
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall

This makes a pretty, moist cake studded with poached quince and stem ginger. Save any leftover poaching syrup – it will solidify into a jelly and is delicious spread on toast, (slightly hot in flavour because of the ginger). Makes one 23cm cake.

150g butter, softened, plus a little more for greasing
2 large-ish quinces (about 600g)
160g caster or vanilla sugar
160g runny honey
1 small thumb fresh ginger, peeled and finely diced
Juice of ½ lemon
250g plain flour
2 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp baking powder
Good pinch of salt
180g caster or vanilla sugar
3 eggs, plus 1 egg yolk
100g creme fraiche
1 tsp vanilla extract
3 balls stem ginger in syrup, drained and chopped
For the topping
3 tbsp syrup from the ginger jar
3 tbsp quince poaching liquid
2 tbsp granulated sugar
Heat the oven to 170C/325F/gas mark 3. Grease a 23cm x 5cm round, spring-form cake tin, line the base and sides with baking parchment, and butter the parchment.

Peel, quarter and core the quinces. Cut each quarter into 1cm slices. Put the quince into a large saucepan with 600ml water, the sugar, honey, ginger and lemon juice. Bring to a boil and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the quince is very tender and has turned a deep, rosy amber colour – about an hour and a half. (NB – in my experience, it’s often much quicker – even as little as 10 mns! I recommend not cutting the quince too small or you may end up with mush – usable, but not quite as nice as chunks. The quince may not always turn red either but that’s nothing to worry about.) Drain, reserving the liquor. Leave the quince to cool, and in a small pan reduce the liquor until thick and syrupy.

Sift the flour, ground ginger, baking powder and salt into a bowl. In a separate bowl, beat together the butter and sugar until pale and fluffy. Add the eggs and yolk one at a time, beating well after each addition. Mix in a few tablespoons of the flour, the creme fraiche and vanilla, fold in the rest of the flour, then the poached quince and chopped ginger. Spoon into the prepared tin and smooth the top with a spatula. Bake for about an hour and a quarter (check after an hour – if the cake is browning too quickly, cover with foil), until a toothpick inserted into the middle comes out clean.

While the cake is cooking, whisk together the ginger syrup and poaching syrup to make a glaze. As soon as the cake comes out of the oven, pierce the top a few times with a skewer and brush on the glaze, letting it trickle into the holes. Sprinkle over the sugar and leave to cool in the tin for 20 minutes. Remove from the tin and leave on a wire rack to cool completely.
Notes: Freezes very well. And you get half a small jar of jelly out of it – just save the left over liquid and let it set. It has an intense and sweet flavour.

The quince harvest is just about ready

Lamb Shanks and Quince Tagine
½ tsp cumin seeds
½ tsp coriander seeds
100gm unsalted butter
4 Lamb shanks
1 tsp ground ginger
½ tsp cayenne pepper
3 garlic cloves, crushed
2 large onions, roughly chopped
400ml lamb stock
½ cinnamon stick
4 tbsp clear honey
20g fresh coriander leaves, coarsely chopped
1 quince, peeled, quartered and cored
1 lemon, juice & 2 strips of rind
½ tsp saffron, dissolved in 2 tbsp boiling water

Grind the cumin and coriander together. Heat 75gm butter in a large casserole and brown the lamb on all sides. Remove the meat and set aside. Add all the spices (except the saffron), and the garlic and onions; cook for 2 minutes. Season and add the stock. Add 2tbsp honey and about a third of the coriander. Bring to the boil, return the lamb to the casserole, then turn down to a simmer. Cover and cook over a low heat for 1 ½ hrs until meltingly tender.

Meanwhile, put the quince in a small saucepan and cover with water. Add the lemon rind, juice and the remaining honey. Bring to the boil, then simmer for 15-20 mns until tender.

When the lamb is cooked, remove the shanks and cinnamon stick and keep warm. Add about 4tbsp of the quince poaching liquid, the saffron and its water. Bring to the boil and reduce to a thickish sauce. Taste and season.

Slice the quince and heat the remaining butter in a frying pan. Sauté the quince slices until golden. Return the lamb to the casserole and heat everything through. Gently stir in the remaining coriander and add the quince. Serve immediately with couscous or bread.

Picked, and weighed – these quinces came from the ‘Old Mint’ garden in Exeter

Quince Stew
Fry 2 large oinions.

Add 2lb shoulder of lamb, beef or veal, cut into 1 inch cubes, brown the meat. Add 1 ½ tsp ground cinnamon, ¼ tsp grated nutmeg, salt and pepper to taste. Cover with water and simmer for 1 hr. Then add 2 ripe quinces, peeled, cored & cut into similar chunks, plus 4 oz soaked yellow split peas. Simmer for 15 mns, then add 4 tbsp lemon juice and 1 – 2 tbsp of sugar. Simer a further 15 mns or until ready.


(Found on a forum, said to be from Claudia Roden’s Book of Jewish Food. I’ve used lamb shoulder, and I soaked the split peas for 2hrs, and parboiled them too to be on the safe side.)

Some of last year’s crop in my cherry-picker’s basket. They change from green to yellow quickly, so it’s important not to miss the moment.

An old Turkish recipe that dates back to the Ottoman Empire, from Gamze Mutfakta, on Food52.

Quince, prunes or dried apricots were commonly used in lamb and beef stews. Quince is an ancient fruit that grows across Turkey. It’s not an easy fruit to eat when raw. It also has an extremely tough flesh, which is difficult to cut up and swallow. But If you leave a quince on a sunny windowsill it will slowly release its delicate fragrances of vanilla, citrus, and apple all over your house. And if you cook it, those scents blossom into a magnificent perfume in your dishes whether its a stew or a dessert. The fruit turns its colour from yellow white to a light rose when its cooked. Such a magical fruit. (I agree!)

Serves 6-8

Ingredients
2kg Quality beef chuck or rump, cut into 6cm pieces
3 quinces
4 medium onions
4 cloves garlic
1/2 cup sultanas
2 tbs tomato puree
3-4 green peppers (a mix of red, yellow, green and orange is fine)
1-2 red peppers
3 tbs olive oil
1.5 glass red wine
1 cinnamon stick
1 teaspoon allspice
1 teaspoon turmeric
2 bay leaf
Salt&pepper
Water

Directions: Peel and chop the onions, then peel and slice the garlic. Peel, core and slice the quinces in cubes. Put them in a bowl of cold water with lemon juice.

Heat 3 tablespoons of oil over a medium heat in a large saucepan and sauté the onion and garlic until soft. Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside, then add the beef and sauté for 5 minutes until all sides are seared add sultanas and the quince & stir for 5 minutes. Return the onions and garlic .Deglaze with red wine.

Add the tomato purée, peppers (cut into chunks or broad strips), cinnamon, bay leaf, allspice, turmeric and enough water to cover (+1 cm)

Season and stir well, bring to the boil then simmer for at least 45 min -1 hour.

Serve with Pilav or mashed potatoes.

Cherry’s notes: Delicious! I made about a third of this quantity, and scaled down the ingredients proportionately, although I still kept to three quinces. Two would have been better, as they need to balance out the meat. I also added 2 or 3 tbsps of runny honey to counteract the tartness – this gave a good sweet-sour flavour. I didn’t have allspice so I used 2 star anise instead, which worked very well. Judging by other similar recipes, the spices can easily be adjusted according to taste or availability.

You may also be interested in ‘Alchemy and Cooking’ And, in that context, these related books:

Strange Signs – a Miscellany from around the World

I’ve decided it’s time for some light relief in the blogs. So here are some of my silly sign collection – I’ve long had a penchant for photographing daft, entertaining, uplifting, creepy or startling signs. Translations from another language offer many creative possibilities, of course. And, oddly enough, so do seaside towns. Let’s start off in the right way.

This sign just happens to fit my brief.

One thing you can be sure of in most of your travels, that tipping is allowed. Even when other things are forbidden.

Culinary delights can be dubious or puzzling though.

Even closer to home, it’s the option to order duck without duck that puzzles me.

And I never did work this one out, while visiting the Blue Mountains in Australia, a place where I also found the classic sign which follows.

C’me on now, Aussi pals – you’re putting yourselves down! We Poms love your accent.

Who’s for this very special form of massage?

Now for some seaside signs, which seem to specialise in telling you what not to do. Stay away! (from North Devon, Torbay, Padstow, Teignmouth…)

There are a few exceptions though, such as here where parking is reserved for sea mammals, as indeed it should be.

As for the warning below in Sydney, if you did jump with dire consequences, the fine might be the least of your worries.

And this one from Dawlish Warren, I’m afraid, is beyond my comprehension.

However, it’s not all grim on the beach. This you may not be able to read quite so easily, but it’s a lovely story which we saw unfold on Watergate Beach, Cornwall. The young man led his girlfriend up the rocks to a high point, then dashed down to the sand and wrote in big letters, ‘Marry me Emily!’. After which he climbed back up again, went down on one knee and made the proposal. It looks as though she accepted. And these pictures are followed by a more permanent memento carved into a rock near Sydney.

Changing tack now, though still with the sea in mind, this is indeed the most unusual wedding gift I’ve heard of.

A rather lovely public notice which we saw in Antigua, in the Caribbean.

And, on the other hand, keeping you safe on the streets of Mumbai. Well done them for spotting the dangers that rumours can bring! (Actually, I think we should take that one seriously.)

Talking of public safety, I wonder what the outcome of this experiment was in terms of mortality rates? (Seen on a busy London street.) Followed by a questionable sign on a respectable government building in Boston, USA.

Next, some strange aspects of religion – from Good News gas deliveries in my home area of Exeter, to restriction on the length of incense sticks in Penang (4 feet seems rather generous to me) and a re-interpretation of the Bible from Greece.

Two ways with an elephant – how to climb up, or use what comes from its rear end. Who knew?

Oh no! Please…I rushed home to shut my cats up when I saw this in Nailsworth one day, close to where we used to live. But there are genuine delights in the area. The Amberley cow hunt takes place in Gloucestershire every year, although visitors might not realise that this sign refers to delightful home-made models of cows. Think scarecrows or ‘cow-crows’.

Onto pubs, restaurants and shops now. Here’s a chorus of dogs banned at one pub, but given high status at another.

Some shop names and signs may have strange associations.

But some, of course, are just right!

And that’s the end of my whistlestop tour of curious signs collected over the last twenty years. It may be another twenty before I manage to find enough to put up a second post.

You might also be interested to read:

Enoch & Eli: Heroes of Black Country Wit

The Unusual Exhibition

The Cosmic Zero – ‘Getting Something from Nothing’

I am not known for my skill in mathematics. Although my father was a maths teacher, it seems I didn’t inherit the gene. I struggled as far as O Level Maths (with remedial input from Dad) and then abandoned it with relief. Later, however, when I came into contact with the idea of sacred geometry, I did make my reluctant brain face up to certain mathematical challenges. The effort made me realise that grappling with number can help to stimulate deep layers of thinking, and has come in useful both for my own understanding, and for some of the books that I’ve written.

But the story here is more light-hearted – my own experience of encountering the powers of zero. Although zero itself is not such a light-hearted topic, I discovered, when looking into its history: ‘Within zero there is the power to shatter the framework of logic.’ More on that shortly, but I’ll start the memoir first.

The road in Bath which became the scene of the crime

There are no zeros in the world of the gods. That’s what I’ve been told, anyway. Vida, a friend of mine with a strong interest in the supernatural, pointed out that the number nought doesn’t register on the psychic plane.

‘It just doesn’t work,’ she said. ‘I proved it, with the Premium Bonds. I asked for £50,000, and visualised the number as powerfully as I could. I know that I shouldn’t really ask for money. But my daughter needed things for the baby. Thought I’d give it a go.’

‘And? What happened? Like the rest of us, you didn’t win, I suppose?’

‘Oh, I did. In the very next draw. But I only got £50. The powers-that-be didn’t recognise the noughts, you see.’

‘There’s a zero in fifty,’ I pointed out.

‘Well, they don’t do £5 wins any more,’ she said tartly.

However, as I discovered, it works both ways. The way in which the gods may disregard zeros can sometimes work in our favour. This is the tale of how I lost £200 through no fault of my own, but gained justice through the casual handling of these cosmic zeros. Or maybe it was deliberate? I’ve done my research, and have learnt that the gods sometimes take zeros into their own hands, not so much to retain their jealous power over them, but out of love, to soften the blows of fate, or to allow a little bit of cosmic luck to come our way. Although whatever the outcome, there’s usually a lesson in that too, for us mortals concerned.

Zero may be a relatively modern toy of the gods. The number zero is an invention, not an obvious concept from day one of human civilisation. ‘The origin of the symbol zero has long been one of the world’s greatest mathematical mysteries’, as the Bodleian library states boldly.

The manuscript carbon-dated to prove that this Indian text including the symbol for zero comes from the 3rd-4thc AD. (Bodleian Library)

Although it is primarily a mathematical tool, it most definitely has a magical side too, and many cultures have considered it as having ‘darkly magical connotations’, as one reputable article proclaimed. Zero’s history is one ‘of the paradoxes posed by an innocent-looking number, rattling even this century’s brightest minds and threatening to unravel the whole framework of scientific thought…The clashes over zero were the battles that shook the foundations of philosophy, of science, of mathematics, and of religion.’ (Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea, Charles Seife).


Zero arose independently in different parts of the world, but the version we have today probably began in Babylonia around 300BC, as part of the system for notating numbers. It was developed further in India from the 3rd or 4th century AD, as recent carbon dating of a manuscript proves.
It then spread both East and West – the Silk Road must have played a part in its transmission – and finally arrived in Europe in about 1200 AD, championed by the Italian mathematician Fibonacci.

Leonardo Fibonacci, champion of the zero

As for the symbol we use today, it began as a dot, and then a hollow centre was added, turning it into the 0 symbol that we have today. Perhaps someone thought that a dot is a ‘something’ and that we really need some empty space in it to fulfil the underlying concept. (Could the creation of doughnuts, bagels and Polo mints have followed a similar philosophical evolution, I wonder?)


You can watch a delightful video by the Royal Institution about the origins of Zero: What is Zero? Getting Something from Nothing.

Image from Royal Institution’s video: ‘What is Zero?’

But back to the story – I’ll tell you what happened to me one summer, and you can decide for yourself whether zeros have a cosmic significance.

It was an August Bank holiday weekend, in the city of Bath. I’d been at a lunch party in the country on the Sunday, and drove home to a deserted street. I lived on a short Victorian terrace running up a hill. As you can see in the photo at the start of this post, the houses are set up high, and the road running below is bounded by a high retaining wall. It was conveniently close to the city centre, and thus usually choc-a-bloc with commuter cars on weekdays, and with residents, shoppers and visitors at weekends. But today it looked as if almost everyone had gone on holiday, so I had the luxury of gliding, rather than squeezing, into a parking space.

On that Bank Holiday Monday, my friend Erica came over from Bristol for the day, and when she left, I walked with her to her car. I could see immediately that something was up. Her car was parked safely at the top of the hill, but my red Golf was now skewed sideways along the wall, with a grimy white Toyota sitting too close to its bonnet. It didn’t take long to figure out that the Toyota had reversed with considerable force into the Golf, shunting it back into the wall, then rebounding a few inches forwards. The tow bar on the rear of Toyota showed traces of paint, and it had clearly left a corresponding dent on the front end of the Golf. I was flabbergasted.

‘Why on earth did someone do this? There was plenty of room to park.’

‘Looks as if he was drunk,’ said Erica. ‘You’ll have to report it. Would you like me to be a witness?’

I was grateful. Over the next few days I contacted the insurance company, and waited to hear from the owner. I even put a letter on the windscreen of the offending vehicle, inviting the driver to contact me. At once. Forthwith. Politely, so far – after all, it could have been stolen and returned after a joy ride.

One morning later that week, I drew open my bedroom curtains to see someone taking my letter off the windscreen. I recognised him as the man who lived further down the terracey: fiftyish, with a beaky nose and a loose-fitting fawn mac. A widower, someone had said. Ah, well if it was a neighbour, he would be round, once he’d had a chance to read the note.

I waited for another day, but nothing happened. Was he the type to get drunk, then crash his car? I’d heard he was fond of the cricket club bar, but he didn’t look quite that irresponsible. But you never know, do you?

By the end of the week, I’d put a note through his door, and contacted the police. Why didn’t I go round to see him? Why indeed – I ask myself that now, and the only answer – or excuse – I’ve come up with is that I had recently begun to live on my own, and that divorce can make you timid, and want to avoid further confrontations for a while.

‘How could he have done that and walked away?’ I fumed, as time slipped by, with no word from him. ‘He couldn’t have done it without noticing.’

The policeman who called at my house was sympathetic, but he’d seen evidence in the form of train tickets, proving that the widower had been in Cornwall at the time. The said widower also denied both lending his car to anyone, or having it stolen. Nothing to do with him, or his car, he maintained. This was plainly nonsense, but the same pleasant police officer said that without initiating a private forensic test to prove that the paint on the front of my car came from the back of his, there was no firm proof. 

By now, my ex had heard of the mishap and offered to pay a visit to the perpetrator along with a friend. They planned to wear black balaclavas and brandish baseball bats. Just to frighten him, he said. Just to get an admission of guilt. It wasn’t his normal style at all, and I can only assume he and the friend had had a fun time the evening before, fuelled with a bottle of wine, planning this heroic rescue mission.

‘What if it gives him a heart attack?’ I said, declining the offer.

For a long and tedious time, it seemed as though my insurance company would triumph over his. Then they said as Erica was a friend, her witness statement was not evidence. Huh? Since therefore I couldn’t prove the other party’s guilt, they would charge me the £200 excess. I was left with a hole in my bank balance, and also in my understanding of this event. My best guess was that he’d offered a mate the use of his car while he was away – there was no disproving his story of visiting the son in Cornwall – and that the mate had gone on a binge, rammed the car, and left it without a backwards glance. The owner had probably thus invalidated his insurance, and in order to escape trouble was prepared to alienate a close neighbour. It was a bitter result, but I had to swallow it, unless I was to launch an independent court case. But there was more to come.

Scene of The Encounter:
The allotments in Bath, surely one of the most beautifully-situated plots in the country. Mine is just visible at the forefront of the picture, with the apple tree on the right

Sometimes cosmic justice takes a while to pan out. The following summer, I bumped into the widower on the allotments which ran behind my garden. By the time I spotted him, we were so close that acknowledging each other was inevitable.  

‘I’ve lost my cat,’ he said. ‘She might have gone away to die.’

‘I’m sorry to hear that,’ I said. ‘I’ll look out for her.’

Why were we being polite, as if nothing had happened? Why was I being such a coward? The moment had come to change that.

‘I was very upset,’ I said, ‘when you didn’t respond to my letter. I think you’re aware that your car hit mine, but you wouldn’t own up to it.’

He looked sheepish. ‘I was going through a lot at the time. My wife had died.’

‘And I had just been divorced. I didn’t need the stress either. I lost my no claims bonus, £200.’

He played another hard luck card. ‘Well, maybe it was stolen. When I came to get the MOT, they found that the chassis was completely bent. Had to scrap the car. It was worth £2000 and I had to write it off.’

Hah! I knew then for sure that there was no thief. ‘If there had been, he’d have told the police. He lent or illegally hired out the car, and couldn’t claim on the insurance,’ I triumphed, inwardly.

And so the gods had been kind with their cosmic zeros, at least in terms of the overall balance sheet. The widower had paid three noughts for his misdemeanour. I had lost only two, and perhaps learned a lesson about cowardice.   

References

Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea, Charles Seife (Souvenir Press – new edition 2019) ‘The Babylonians invented it, the Greeks banned it, the Hindus worshipped it, and the Christian Church used it to fend off heretics. Today it’s a timebomb ticking in the heart of astrophysics. For zero, infinity’s twin, is not like other numbers. It is both nothing and everything.’

Related books by Cherry Gilchrist

Enoch and Eli – the heroes of Black Country Wit

‘A Long Long While’
I first heard this story delivered with great relish in a folk club in Birmingham, back in the 1960s. The story-teller was Alan Bishop, a bearded native of Blackheath in the Black Country. It wasn’t the last time I heard it either, as it was one of Alan’s favourites, and he would end it with a gleeful grin, while he waited for the punch line to sink in. Alan was in fact so fond of this story that his family made sure it was recited it at his memorial service in 2017.

It’s bin a long, long while since fust this tale was told
You’ll laugh your eyes out when you hear it, as Eynuck did of old

Two men went sanking down the street
When soon two fighting dogs they hied
They stuck ‘em in an empty butt, lid on
To fight it quietly out inside

Now yow con fight to your heart’s content
And both stood nigh to listen
Bist gonna have a bet? said one
Now tell me, bist or bissen?

They placed their bets the while
And the clamour in the butt was chronic
What thrills they got from that there fight
It was better than a doctor’s tonic

But soon alas, dead silence reigned
And each mon looked at t’other
They raised the lid – an empty butt
Them dogs – they’d etten one another!

I think the title would be better as ‘Them two dogs had etten one another’ – but then that would give the game away. But isn’t there more to this story than just making you laugh? True, it’s yet another comic tale in the traditional Black Country fashion, with a preposterous ‘double take’ conclusion, but I think there’s something of the metaphysical in it too. After all, when cosmologists and theologians struggle with the question, ‘How did Something come out of Nothing?’, then surely, a convincing answer to the even more difficult question of ‘How does Something return to Nothing’, deserves serious consideration. Yes, ‘them two dogs had etten one another’, and that settles it.

Folk singing duo Pam and Alan Bishop, at the Grey Cock Folk Club, Birmingham, in 1969.

And this is just one of a multitude of Black Country jokes and stories. Why is it such a ‘funny’ place? Why do people still tell jokes the whole time, especially, it seems, in pubs? When writer and actor George Fouracres, returned to his native Black Country to research an article on Black Country humour , the first person he asked was his father. “Everyone round here thinks they’m a comedian,” reflected his father. Black Country folk, he reckoned, will always find a way to “av a loff abaat” whatever situation they find themselves in.

Enoch and Eli
These are the mythical duo who drive the juggernaut of Black Country jokes. They are very often the narrators of the stories, tripping each other up in dialogue, scoring points and laughing at the ways of the world. In the tale above, only ‘Eynuck’ (Enoch) appears, but his pal Eli is always just around the corner. The pair, often referred to in Black Country dialect as Aynuck and Ayli, have become the stock characters , often of stories where one of them makes the other the butt of the joke. Aynuck and Ayli have weaseled their way into cartoons and comedy clubs, and have even had a reading room named after them. More on their origins later.

Black Country humour
Black Country and Brummie humour is dry, sharp and mostly delivered dead pan. The inhabitants love to send themselves up, as well as everyone else. Given that ‘meat’ and ‘mate’ are pronounced the same, along with ‘bison’ and ‘basin’, and ‘whale’ and ‘while’, there’s a fund of jokes to be had about these potential misunderstandings.

Aynuk: What’s the difference between a buffalo and a bison?
Ayli: I doh know, I’ve never washed me hands in a buffalo.

Aynuk and Ayli were fishing in the canal:
‘Me mate’s fell in the canal !’
‘Owd it appen?’
‘I just took a bite ov me sanwich an me mate fell out.’

Ayli, Aynuk and their mate Noddy Holder go into a clothes shop and Noddy says to one of the assistants, ‘I’m re-forming Slade, I want to buy some new stage clothes. I need a pair of flared trousers, a wide collar shirt, platform boots and a mirrored top hat.’
‘Kipper Tie?’ asks the assistant.
‘Oh thanks,’ says Ayli and Aynuk ‘Two sugars and milk
please.

Even ducks don’t get off lightly in the Black Country

Leaving the puns hastily behind – there’s plenty more in that vein- it’s worth digging deeper into the nature of Black Country wit. The jokes are often about people being daft or stupid, at least on the face of it. But there’s usually a wry twist, a double take, a lightning quick reversal of expectations which kickstarts a guffaw. This kind of wit tickles your brain. It’s a type of humour in the tradition of the Wise Fool, similar to the Turkish and Middle Eastern stories about their folk hero, known as ‘Nasr Eddin’ or ‘The Hodja’. It appears to be ridiculous but is often rather clever.

Aynuk: People always say as Black Country folk is thick, doh ‘em?
Ayli: They do, mate.
Aynuk: Well I read in the paper as ‘ow the population of London is the densest in the whole country.

Yes, right! Insult them, and they’ll find a crafty way of turning it back on you. Indeed, the Black Country has long celebrated its own wit. T. H. Gough’s cheap-and-cheerful collections of Black Country Stories were a popular seller and ran to five volumes in the 1930s. I have one on my shelf now.

I’ve been around Brummie and Black Country humour since I was about ten – although I’m not completely a native, I spent my formative years in the Birmingham area. I am told I still break into a Brummie accent when excited. Strictly speaking, Birmingham and the Black Country are not exactly the same thing, but for many of those years, we lived on the edge of the Black Country itself, near Aldridge and Walsall. The two areas – Black Country and Birmingham – have much in common, but as Birmingham was industrialised earlier, its local customs and language were diluted to a greater extent, as it grew into a city and had a influx of workers. The Black Country – an area covering the boroughs of Dudley, Sandwell, Walsall and Wolverhampton – is said to have retained its distinctive outlook and language for much longer. However, the name ‘ Black Country’ has been in use for a while, at least as early as the 1840s, referring to the seams of coal prevalent in the area, or the soot which began to cover everything .

Another page from Douglas Parker’s ‘Aynuk and Ayli’s Black Country Joke Book’

Black Country dialect is a rich heritage which is valuable to the English language as a whole, as it’s apparently the closest one we have to Middle English. It’s Germanic speech – note the ‘bis and ‘bissen’ in the dog story at the start, similar to German ‘Du bist’, meaning ‘you are’.

When I gave a talk once at the British Council in Florence, Italy, I was put up for the night by the director of and his wife. They were a highly educated, well-spoken couple who you might assume had come from the Home Counties. But no, they were proud natives of the Black Country, and completely bilingual. They loved to speak ‘Black Country’ together, impossible for an outsider to understand and very useful, they told me, when they didn’t want their children to understand what they were saying! Sadly, I also learnt from them that schools had in their day tried to drum Black Country speech out of the children, and the ‘nippers’ ended up with one language for the classroom, and another for the playground.

Black Country words describing what children (nippers, babbies) might be doing
Riling is fidgeting or rolling about
Slummocking is standing or walking in a slouching, slovenly way
Chobbling is chomping or munching loudly, especially on your rocks (hard sweets).
Blarting is crying or sobbing.
Clarting about is messing around.
Wagging it means playing truant

Note how the author, T. H. Gough, despite making collections of ‘Black Country Stories’, still refers to the dialect as ‘vulgar’ and of ‘the uneducated class’.
This volume was published in 1935

Language coach
If you’re concerned that you might not be able to master the accent, then there are guides to help you. I have in my possession Aerbut Paerks of Baernegum: Six Dialect Monologues by Graham Squiers, published in 1923. Fork out one shilling, and you could be speaking like a native – even if it wouldn’t perhaps be considered quite culturally appropriate today. But in the grand old days of the monologue (think Stanley Holloway and ‘Albert and the Lion’) it would indeed ‘be a loff’.

Here’s Aerbut (Herbert) getting married:

‘Ah kid. I’m sorry as yo couldn’t get orf from ther waerks and cum to ther weddin’. We daint ‘arf ‘ave a tim I tell yer. I took Gaertie t’ave ther banns put up faerst. Ther bloke wanted ter know ther date of me baerth, and wot I waerked at and ‘oo my old mon wos, and ‘edaint ‘arf get shearty when I told ‘im I’d got a strorberry mark under me left ear’ole. Then he arksed Gaertie if ‘er wos a spinster. ‘Er says, “Gar off, I’m a baernisher of caertin ‘ooks.”’

Could this be the script for a star turn at a dinner party today? Probably not.

But the double act of Herbert and Gertie Parksis trumped by that of Aynuk and Ayli, the favourites in all the stories and jokes, the duo with the innate shrewdness of the Black Country folk. How did these names come to be chosen? After all, Eli was a High Priest of Shiloh in the Bible, and Enoch an ancestor of Noah who ‘walked with God and was not’. Not much to laugh about there, surely? Such resonant and robust Biblical names were popular in the 19th century, though, especially in non-conformist families. Black Country expert Jon Raven confirms that ‘Methodism had a particularly strong foothold in the Black Country amongst all strata of society.’ (Although he goes on to explain that the Methodists and the similarly numerous Wesleyans were often at each other’s throats!) According to one source, the pairing of the two names Enoch and Eli originated in the late 19th century music hall, as used by comedian Ernie Garner. (Little Book of the Black Country – Michael Pearson, History Press 2013). Somehow, they passed into local culture and became a permanent fixture. Aynuk and Ayli was the name of a much-loved comedy duo (John Plant and Alan Smith), well-known in the Midlands from 1984 to 2006.

Joke Themes

The pub has remained a prime source of material for jokes, as well as a venue where people are still eager to listen to them:
Aynuck and Ayli in the pub.
Ayli: Doh drink no more, mate, yo’ve ‘ad enough.
Aynuk: ‘Ow do yer mek that out, I ay drunk.
Ayli: You must be, yer face is gerrin’ blurred already.

The Dog
Dogs are popular in other A & A jokes too:

After seeing the sign in the big store, ‘Dogs must be carried up the escalator,’ Aynuk spent three hours trying to find a dog.

Aynuk went round to see Ayli’s new dog which kept barking and leaping up at him as he walked up the path.
‘My word ‘e doh ‘erf bark some,’ said Aynuk,
‘Yes’, said Ayli, ‘but you know the saying ‘a barking dog never bites?’
‘Ar,’ said Aynuk, ‘I know the saying and yo know the saying but does you’r dog know it?’

The ‘Ooman
The wife and mother-in-law as tyrant, nuisance and millstone was often the butt of old Black Country jokes – maybe this has changed a little now, with the advent of sharp-witted Black Country female comedians such as Josie Lawrence and Meera Syal? So I shall ignore those sorts of joke, except for this one, which I reckon helps to level up the playing field.

A little lad went home feeling really excited that he’d been chosen for the school play. He told his father, ‘I’ve got the role of an old married man’ His father patted him on the head sympathetically. ‘Never mind son,’ he said, ‘maybe next year you’ll get a speaking part.’

Daft Jokes
And then there are the plain daft ones, which nevertheless make you giggle:

Aynuk: How do yo stop moles diggin’ in the garden?
Ayli: Hide all the shovels.

Aynuk: How many hundredths are there in an inch?
Ayli: Cor, there must be thousands, mate.

Grandiose ideas
Black Country folk like to dream big:
Aynock thought Ayli was in need of a little further education so decided he would take him to the big city, Birmingham.
Aynock led him round the city explaining what building was what, and the local history attached to them. Eventually they arrived at Victoria Square, and by this time Ayli’s brain was in a right spin. Suddenly, Ayli turned and saw the large building and said to Aynock, ‘Is thet a palace our kid?’
‘Naa’, says Aynock, ‘that’s the Council House.’
‘Bloody hell,’ says Ayli, ‘I’ve got me name down for one of them.’

From Jon Raven’s ‘Tales from Aynuk’s Black Country’
‘E is for ‘Ere-ya-go’ – jig along to this delightful Black Country Alphabet Song

More Black Country words
I’ll finish off with a few more delightful dialect words and expressions:
Scrage means to scratch, scrape or graze the skin.
Fittle is food, and ‘bostin’ fittle’ is ‘great food’
Yampy means daft, or someone who’s losing the plot.
Never in a rain of pigs pudding means something will never happen.
Clarting about is messing around.
Noggy means old-fashioned or outdated.
Fizzog is a face (from the word physiognomy); tell someone to stop sulking with, ‘Put yer fizzog straight.’
Oil tot means feeling satisfied and happy, from the days when working men would have a tot of olive oil before drinking beer, in the belief that it would stop them getting very drunk.
Go to the foot of our stairs! is a local exclamation of shock or surprise.
This ain’t gettin the babby a frock and pinny means ‘We’re wasting time’.

So, for now, Keep out th’ossroad! (Mind how you go!)
Ta-ra-a bit! (See you!)

Contribute to the post – If you’ve any Black Country jokes or words that you’d like to share (keep them clean, please!) just submit them via the Comments/Leave a Reply box. They’ll appear on site as soon as I’ve had a chance to ‘approve’ them.

Update! My good friend and former Archers’ scriptwriter Mary Cutler has contributed a few, from her lifelong association with Birmingham and the Black Country:

‘It’s looking very black over Bill’s mother’s ’ – It’s likely to rain soon.’

‘Outdoor’ – Off-licence

Yam yams’ – affectionate (local) appellation for people with a strong Black Country accent

‘Go and wash your ickle donnies’ – to a child

References

Black Country words in this piece are contained in an article in the Birmingham Mail

Tales from Aynuck’s Black Country, Jon Raven, Broadside 1978.

Acknowledgements

Many thanks to my old folk singing buddy, Pam Bishop, who supplied photos and a copy of ‘It’s been a long, long while’. View her website here.

Thanks to renowned singer Peggy Seeger, who helped me with general queries about folk music in the 1960s. This is a link to the description of the Radio Ballads (see below) on her website.

And to another folk buddy, collector Doc Rowe, who re-discovered the photo below and sent it to me. Find Doc’s website here.

How I became interested – My interest in folk song, stories and language grew strong through my connection with BBC Radio producer Charles Parker, who with Ewan McColl was responsible for the iconic Radio Ballads. In Birmingham, in the mid 1960s, I was a member of the regular folk workshop run by Charles, along with Pam and Alan Bishop, (who are featured at the start of this post) I dedicated my book Your Life, Your Story: Writing your life story for family and friends, to Charles Parker.

Here I’m sitting with Charles Parker while he records the folk singer Cecilia Costello in the Jewellery Quarter of Birmingham. I was 18 at the time. Cecilia is best remembered for her haunting ballad, ‘The Grey Cock’, which gave its name to the longstanding Birmingham folk club.

Mick Jagger and the Cigarette Butt

Mick and Brian on stage, c. 1964, with trademark maracas

In 1963, I discovered the Rolling Stones, outside a concert venue in Birmingham. With a couple of friends I raced off to the Odeon Cinema after school, and waited for the stars to emerge from their rehearsal. We were engaged in our best new pursuit – autograph-hunting. Being only 14, I couldn’t have afforded a ticket for the actual concert, and wouldn’t in any case have been allowed to go. It was the era of screaming fans and disapproving newspaper reports about long-haired pop stars. But on the day when I simultaneously fell in love with both Mick Jagger and Brian Jones, I do think it shows some discernment – the Stones were almost unknowns, on their first tour of Britain as a support band.

What follows is a memoir that I’ve written for a new anthology of ‘flash’ stories from Exeter Writers, of which I’m a member. I can’t quite believe I’m exposing my youthful folly so openly here, so be gentle with me, dear reader.

Their first major concert tour of the UK in 1963 – they appeared at Birmingham Odeon on Oct 24th. This was the breakthrough that shot them to stardom, even thought they were only a supporting band

Meeting the Stones

‘You kept one of Mick Jagger’s butts,’ she said. ‘And a tin of Coke they’d drunk.’
‘No – no, not me,’ I replied. What a sleazy idea. I had chased the Rolling Stones, I admit, but I wouldn’t have stooped to that.
‘Oh well, must have been someone else,’ Marion conceded graciously. We were old acquaintances, meeting again at a funeral and reminiscing on being teenagers back in 1963.


My friend Helen and I did pick them out, the Rolling Stones, and that’s something to be proud of. They were just a supporting band on the bill in Birmingham when we discovered them. But we recognised their talent, befriended them, wrote them dozens of letters, and followed their trail as best we could. Fourteen-year old schoolgirls with watchful parents and little pocket money didn’t get too much chance to roam, although it’s amazing what we managed. We took trains and buses to places like Coventry and Worcester, and devised ingenious tricks to get in backstage, such as announcing confidently, ‘I’ve been asked to take a message to the band.’ (That one did work, occasionally.)


The Stones drove around in an old Commer van, which we learnt to recognise half a mile away. They recognised us, too, frenetically waving and ready to be their willing slaves.
‘Get us a cup of tea, Cherry,’ said Keith Richards in the greasy spoon café, and my world was complete.

The Odeon Cinema, New St, Birmingham
Scene of my first encounter with the Stones, down a side alley at the Stage Door. This photo seems to date from an earlier period, but the scene is very similar. I can see the bus shelter where I waited every day, changing buses after school.

At one concert, forbidden to enter backstage, we pushed ourselves up on the window ledge outside, trying to get a glimpse into their dressing room. Inside was a memorable scene – Mick and Charlie were reading a letter from Helen, and laughing fit to bust. She had a talent for humour – later, she wrote radio scripts for a living.

Helen and I divided the Stones up between us. She was to have Mick, and I would have Brian Jones. The shaggy blonde hair, the slow sexy smile….It’s all there, in my diary, which is covered with embarrassing scrawls: ‘Brian! Brian!’

I don’t think Brian ever replied to my outpourings, though Bill Wyman did when I asked him to clarify their song lyrics. ‘It’s “Where’s it at?” not “Where’s my hat,”’ he wrote back in patient amusement. Such letters and signed records from various Stones were tossed out with scorn in my later teenage years. They would have been worth something now.

I too had autographed photos, letters (better than a ticket!) and this EP record signed by all the band. I wonder where they are now?

But I do have my diaries to check up on all those touching details of our meetings.
Here’s one account: ‘At about 6.30 we saw a van coming and Brian waving to us! Wow! Introduced him to our policeman friend, and Brian sort of backed away nervously.’
I can’t think why.

And now I turn back to the entry for that first, life-changing encounter in Birmingham – and what’s this? ‘Mick is quite nice and he gave me a fag to keep and we got some fag ends and souvenirs and things off the others and then we walked down to the hotel with fair-haired Brian and we thought umm yes we like him then we thought….’


The diary is a ruthless reporter. Memory is a fickle thing, our hold on it ephemeral. It charts our journey of passion, even though the feelings inscribed there may be ephemeral too. When Brian died in 1969, the year I turned twenty, I’m afraid I just didn’t care any more.

The incriminating evidence

This story will be published in the Exeter Writers Flash Fiction anthology on June 6th through Amazon Kindle. (Click to pre-order your copy for just 99p!) Here’s the description: Welcome to Flashlight: a lucky dip of flash fiction from the members of Exeter Writers. It’s a varied collection, much like its authors. We hope you’ll find plenty to amuse, move, intrigue and entertain you. Sample at your pleasure! I’ve been a member of this writers’ group for about five years now, and can vouch for the lively mix of offerings which it contains.

Related books by Cherry Gilchrist

The Unusual Exhibition

‘Vines and olives groves, Fressac’ – All paintings on this page are by Robert Lee-Wade, RUA

Robert is sweeping out the dust and straw from the long, covered alley where the horses come to be groomed and fed. Bill, the chief horseman around here, removes the last saddles and bridles from their pegs, while the dogs sniff around eagerly, aware that something unusual is happening. It’s the day of the art exhibition. My husband, Robert Lee-Wade, is a painter in the impressionist style, a member of the Royal Ulster Academy and widely exhibited in various countries abroad. But never before in a stable block in the South of France.

Robert cleaning the alleyway ready for the exhibition.

Robert and I have been at Mas la Chevalerie for several weeks now. We’re staying in a gite on a ranch owned by retired actors Bill Homewood and Estelle Kohler on an extended stay to paint (Robert), write (Cherry) and enjoy the landscape of the Languedoc and the Camargue. It’s September in the South of France, and the grape harvest is coming along, in this idyllic spot. And so is Robert’s art – Bill has helped him to set up a makeshift studio in his capacious office, where he (Bill) also records audio books for Naxos.

Estelle, I should say, was my heroine when I was sixteen and she was a very young actress with the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford. At that time, newly arrived from South Africa, she was playing Ophelia to David Warner’s Hamlet. The innovative production by Peter Hall captured my teenage imagination, and with friends from school in Birmingham, we saw the play several times, usually on cheap stand-by tickets. I never imagined that I might become friends with Estelle so many years later.

Robert Lee-Wade, Estelle Kohler and Bill Homewood
Bill organising the logistics. Camargue pony arrived for schooling. Interested bystanders.

‘Let’s have an exhibition!’ said Bill, after Robert had been painting for several weeks. He and Estelle have been here for decades, and know practically everyone in the Fressac area. They count up who they might invite – the mayor (of course), the baker, the restaurant owner, the dressage specialist, the Danish sculptor, the ex-rock drummer and a whole long list of others. We are to provide the refreshments; being France this must be wine, and being near the Camargue, this must include brandade, a paste made of salted cod. And definitely some baguettes. So be it.

The alleyway is nearly clear now, except that another friend of Bill’s has chosen to bring his exquisite white Camargue stallion for some extra training in Bill’s manège. We’ve had our own exciting encounter with Camargue horses on this trip, taking a three day break down in the marshes to ‘ride the white horses to the sea’.

‘The White Horses of the Carmargue’

The pictures are up, the guests arrive. ‘Everyone will come,’ we’re told. ‘They love a chance to socialise and have an apéro.’ They do, and they mingle, looking carefully at the paintings first– some sales are made – and then it’s time to get down to the serious business of eating and drinking. The party grows merry – why not let the horses join in the fun?

The horses on the lawn, in art and real life

Several hours later, it’s quiet again. Bill and Estelle choose a painting as a gift for their help – it’s ‘Where the Nightingales Sing’, which captures the essence of this magical place. We have also seen golden orioles here, and once, a bee-eater in technicolour glory.

We’ll soon be packing our hatchback car and making the long drive back to the UK. We all talk of doing the same thing another year, but although Robert and I will come back for shorter visits, this exhibition is one of those delightful comings-together that can only happen once. And it’s probably all the more memorable for that reason.

The castle from the horse manege at Mas La Chevalerie

Paintings from the Camargue, by Robert Lee-Wade RUA

You can see more of Robert’s artwork here