Jan 202017
 

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Today is National Cheese Lover’s Day in the United States.  There are numerous food “holidays” of this sort in the US and I don’t pay much attention to them.  But cheese is worth celebrating. I’ve already given numerous recipes and ideas for cheese in past posts, so today I’ll just ramble on a bit about the outer edges of cheese lore, plus some of my own likes and dislikes.

As a boy I was more or less indifferent to cheese. In both England and Australia cheeses were fairly undistinguished in the 1950s and ‘60s. Generic “cheddar” was the main choice. Originally, cheddar was a distinctive cheese originating from the village of Cheddar in Somerset. Cheddar Gorge on the edge of the village contains a number of caves, which provided the ideal humidity and steady temperature for maturing the cheese. Cheddar has been produced since at least the 12th century. A pipe roll of King Henry II from 1170 records the purchase of 10,240 lb (4,640 kg) at a farthing per pound (totaling £10.13s.4d). Charles I (1600–1649) also bought cheese from the village.

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Central to the modernization and standardization of Cheddar cheese was the 19th-century Somerset dairyman Joseph Harding who introduced technical innovations, promoted dairy hygiene, and voluntarily disseminated his modernized cheese-making techniques. Harding introduced new equipment to the process of cheese-making, including his “revolving breaker” for curd cutting, saving a great deal of manual effort. Harding and his wife were responsible for the widespread distribution of cheddar including into Scotland and North America and his sons, Henry and William Harding, introduced Cheddar cheese production to Australia and New Zealand, respectively.

During the Second World War, and for nearly a decade after, most milk in Britain was used for the making of one single kind of cheese nicknamed “government Cheddar” as part of war economies and rationing. This resulted in almost wiping out all other cheese production in the country. Before the First World War there were more than 3,500 cheese producers in Britain; fewer than 100 remained after the Second World War. This was the situation when I was born and remained for several decades. I thought Cheddar was just an undistinguished semi-hard yellow cheese (akin to what is called “American cheese” in the US). Not at all. Classic Cheddar made in the traditional way tends to have a sharp, pungent flavor, often slightly earthy. Its texture is firm but slightly crumbly.  Delicious – but hard to find.  It is now, once again, made in the region of Cheddar in the traditional manner. The name “cheddar” is not protected by the European Union because the process has been so widespread for so long, but the name “West Country Farmhouse Cheddar” has an EU protected designation of origin, and may only be produced in Somerset, Devon, Dorset and Cornwall, using milk sourced from those counties. It’s worth finding it.

In my youth, at best, you might find 4 or 5 English cheeses – Cheddar and Stilton were most common, but you might come across Double Gloucester, Red Leicester, Wensleydale or White Lancashire if you were lucky, so that by my 20s (1970s) things were looking up.  My father told me of legendary cheeses he knew of before the war, such as Dorset Blue Vinny, but these had long disappeared. Nil desperandum. By the 1980s savvy entrepreneurs and small farmers were starting to revive old cheeses and to create new ones.  Now there are over 700 registered cheese names in England (and Blue Vinny is in there !!). When I visit Oxford I always head for the cheese shop in the covered market to see what is on sale.  They always have something tempting.

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Nowadays in the U.S., Wisconsin is the heartland of cheese manufacture, and after decades of emulating Britain in producing undistinguished cheeses it too is in the business of coming up with new ideas, although it mostly replicates European cheeses.  Fried curds is a local specialty though, which I like, and sampled when I first visited when my son auditioned for a music conservatory in Appleton. Wisconsin also has an annual cheese carving contest, which I won’t say is the best use of cheese, but does produce some interesting works.

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Soon after my brush with Wisconsin cheese I moved to Argentina where cheese production has a long, but mostly unknown, history of cheese manufacture.  I’d known about Argentine green Sardo for many years before I moved to Buenos Aires. It’s a hard grating cheese that originated in Italy but evolved in the dairy lands of Argentina, as did the most popular cheese, Cremosa.  Generally Argentine cheese, like U.S. cheese, replicates the cheeses of Europe, some of quite high quality.  Argentine Roquefort was a favorite of mine for several years.

Moving to China meant moving to a cheese wasteland.  The Chinese are mostly lactose intolerant, so dairy products in general are not widespread. Yoghurt is common enough, but cheese is not very popular.  Generally my Han Chinese students were disgusted by the very idea of cheese — “Why would you want to eat rotten milk?” This from people who will happily gobble down stinky fermented foodstuffs that have been buried for years. Fortunately I lived in Yunnan where the Bai people have been cheese makers for centuries. I can’t say that their Rubing or Rashan cheeses are all that interesting but they kept me going for a couple of years.

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Then I moved to northern Italy and drowned in cheese for several weeks. I live near Parma and Gorgonzola and have made obligatory pilgrimages.  I’m not a giant fan of Italian cheeses, but I always have some mozzarella di bufala and Parmegiano Reggiano on hand, and usually keep odds and ends such as Provolone and Gorgonzola knocking around for lunch sandwiches.

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My recommendation for Cheese Lover’s Day is to wander outside your normal tastes. See what you can find that is new and interesting to you. I doubt that you will stumble on yak cheese (chhurpi), but you never know.  The Nepalese are starting to export it.

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Happy cheese hunting.

Jun 132016
 

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On this date in 313 the Edict of Milan was posted in Nicomedia. The precise dating of the Edict and its exact nature is still under dispute, but in general it was a Roman proclamation (one of several) to declare that Christians were to be treated fairly throughout the empire. It was originally devised in February of that year, but no other definitive dates are known, nor has the original document survived. Western Roman Emperor Constantine I, and Licinius, who controlled the Balkans, met in Milan and among other things, agreed to change policies towards Christians following the Edict of Toleration by Galerius issued 2 years earlier in Serdica. The Edict of Milan gave Christianity a legal status, but did not make Christianity the official religion of the Roman empire.

The document we now call the Edict of Milan (Edictum Mediolanense) is found in Lactantius’ De Mortibus Persecutorum and in Eusebius of Caesarea’s History of the Church with marked divergences between the two. Whether or not there was actually a formal ‘Edict of Milan’  is debatable. The version found in Lactantius is not in the form of an edict. It is a letter from Licinius to the governors of the provinces in the Eastern Empire he had just conquered by defeating Maximinus later in the same year and issued in Nicomedia.

Ever since the fall of the Severan dynasty in 235, rivals for the imperial throne had bid for support by either favoring or persecuting Christians. The previous Edict of Toleration by Galerius had been recently issued by the emperor Galerius from Serdica and was posted at Nicomedia on 30 April 311. By its provisions, the Christians, who had “followed such a caprice and had fallen into such a folly that they would not obey the institutes of antiquity”, were granted an indulgence:

Wherefore, for this our indulgence, they ought to pray to their God for our safety, for that of the republic, and for their own, that the commonwealth may continue uninjured on every side, and that they may be able to live securely in their homes.

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Their confiscated property, however, was not restored until 313, when instructions were given for the Christians’ meeting places and other properties to be returned and compensation paid by the state to the current owners:

. . . the same shall be restored to the Christians without payment or any claim of recompense and without any kind of fraud or deception.

It directed the provincial magistrates to execute this order at once with all energy so that public order may be restored and the continuance of divine favor may “preserve and prosper our successes together with the good of the state.”

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The actual letters have never been retrieved. However, they are quoted at length in Lactantius’ On the Deaths of the Persecutors (De mortibus persecutorum), which gives the Latin text of both Galerius’ Edict of Toleration as posted at Nicomedia on 30 April 311 and of Licinius’s letter of toleration and restitution addressed to the governor of Bithynia and posted at Nicomedia on 13 June 313.

Eusebius of Caesarea translated both documents into Greek in his History of the Church (Historia Ecclesiastica). His version of the letter of Licinius must derive from a copy posted in the province of Palaestina Prima (probably at its capital, Caesarea) in the late summer or early autumn of 313, but the origin of his copy of Galerius’s Edict of 311 is unknown since that does not seem to have been promulgated in Caesarea. In his description of the events in Milan in his Life of Constantine, Eusebius eliminated the role of Licinius, whom he portrayed as the evil foil to his hero Constantine.

The Edict was actually directed against Maximinus Daia, the Caesar in the East who was at that time styling himself as Augustus. Having received the emperor Galerius’ instruction to repeal the persecution in 311, Maximinus had instructed his subordinates to desist, but had not released Christians from prisons or virtual death-sentences in the mines, as Constantine and Licinius had both done in the West. Following Galerius’ death, Maximinus was no longer constrained. He enthusiastically took up renewed persecutions in the eastern territories under his control, encouraging petitions against Christians. One of those petitions, addressed not only to Maximinus but also to Constantine and Licinius, is preserved in a stone inscription at Arycanda in Lycia:

Christians, who have long been disloyal and still persist in the same mischievous intent, should at last be put down and not be suffered by any absurd novelty to offend against the honor due to the gods.

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The Edict of Milan is popularly, but falsely, thought to concern only Christianity, and even to make Christianity the official religion of the Empire (which did not actually occur until the Edict of Thessalonica in 380). In fact, the Edict expressly grants religious liberty not only to Christians, who had been the object of special persecution, but goes even further and grants liberty to all religions:

When you see that this has been granted to [Christians] by us, your Worship will know that we have also conceded to other religions the right of open and free observance of their worship for the sake of the peace of our times, that each one may have the free opportunity to worship as he pleases; this regulation is made that we may not seem to detract from any dignity of any religion.

Because Licinius composed the Edict with the intent of publishing it in the east following his hoped-for victory over Maximinus, it expresses the religious policy accepted by Licinius, a pagan, rather than that of Constantine, who was already practicing some form of Christianity. Constantine’s own policy went beyond merely tolerating Christianity: he tolerated paganism and other religions, but he actively promoted Christianity.

People commonly point to the Edict of Milan as Constantine’s first great act as a Christian Emperor, although, it is unlikely that the Edict of Milan was an act of genuine Christian faith on Constantine’s part. The document instead should more accurately be seen as the first step in creating an alliance with the Christian God, whom Constantine considered the strongest deity – among many. Constantine at that time was more concerned about social stability and the protection of the empire from the wrath of the Christian God than he was for justice or care for the Christians. The Edict of Milan is more indicative of the Roman culture’s genuine desire for seeking the gods’ intervention – which ones might prove profitable –  than of Constantine’s or Licinius’ religious beliefs.

The Edict of Milan required that the wrong done to the Christians be righted as thoroughly as possible. From the state’s perspective all wrongs should be righted as it claims “it has pleased us to remove all conditions whatsoever.” The edict further demanded that individual Romans right any wrongs towards the Christians as well. These provisions indicate that more than just the establishment of justice was intended. After stating that they should return what was lost to the Christians immediately, the edict states that this should be done so that “public order may be secured,” not for the intrinsic value of justice or even for the glory of God. The sense of urgently righting wrongs reflects the leaders’ desires to avoid unfavorable consequences, which in this case included social unrest and both internal and external weakness.

Constantine is known to have been superstitious and believed in the existence of a number of gods. Because Constantine actually revered all the gods worshiped in the Roman Empire at that time, his fear of, and desire to form an alliance with, the Christian God (as demonstrated in the Edict of Milan), is insufficient to claim he was actually a Christian in the conventional sense. He was just trying to cover all bases. Nonetheless, the Edict stopped the persecution of Christians, which many historians see as both a blessing and a curse.

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Constantine was first exposed to Christianity by his mother, Helena. At the Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312, Constantine commanded his troops to adorn their shields with the Christian symbol in accordance with a vision that he had had the night before. After winning the battle, Constantine was able to claim the emperorship in the West. How much Christianity Constantine had adopted at this point is difficult to discern. The Roman coins minted up to eight years subsequent to the battle still bore the images of Roman gods. Nonetheless, the accession of Constantine was a turning point for the Christian Church. After his victory, Constantine supported the Church financially, built various basilicas, granted privileges such as exemption from certain taxes to clergy, promoted Christians to some high-ranking offices, and returned property confiscated during the Great Persecution of Diocletian.

Between 324 and 330, Constantine built, virtually from scratch, a new imperial capital that came to be named for him: Constantinople. It had overtly Christian architecture, contained churches within the city walls, and had no pagan temples. In accordance with a prevailing custom, Constantine was baptized on his deathbed.

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Constantine also played an active role in the leadership of the Church. In 316, he acted as a judge in a North African dispute concerning the Donatist controversy. More significantly, in 325 he summoned the Council of Nicaea, the first Ecumenical Council. Constantine thus established a precedent for the emperor as responsible to God for the spiritual health of his subjects, and, thus, with a duty to maintain orthodoxy. The emperor was to enforce doctrine, root out heresy, and uphold ecclesiastical unity. As far as I am concerned this is the curse.

Constantine’s son’s successor, known as Julian the Apostate, was a philosopher who upon becoming emperor renounced Christianity and embraced a Neo-platonic and mystical form of paganism shocking the Christian establishment. He began reopening pagan temples and, intent on re-establishing the prestige of the old pagan beliefs, he modified them to resemble Christian traditions such as the episcopal structure and public charity (previously unknown in Roman paganism). Julian’s short reign ended when he died while campaigning in the East.

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Subsequently Church Fathers such as Augustine, Gregory Nazianzus, Cyril of Jerusalem, Ambrose of Milan, Jerome, John Chrysostom and Athanasius published extensive theological texts, and argued non-stop about the correct interpretation of canonical texts including the gospels and the Pauline epistles. This all led to the entrenchment of the rigidly dogmatic and hierarchical Catholic Church that was opposed periodically by various elements, leading to the kaleidoscope of sects we have today. I suspect that the Christian Church was a great deal more faithful to the precepts of Jesus before the Edict of Milan than it ever was subsequently, even following the Protestant Reformation.

I could give a recipe from De Re Coquinaria of Apicius. The period is right (4th century) as well as the general provenance. But I’ve given quite a few already. Search for Apicius in the search box and you’ll find plenty. They are really very much all on the same theme and are not easy to understand. A lot of the time he just gives lists of ingredients which all seem to be limited to the same items, such as here:

Piper, cuminum frictum, ligusticum, mentam, uuam passam enucleatam aut Damascena, mel modice. uino myrteo temperabis, aceto, liquamen et oleo.

Pepper, roasted cumin seeds, mint, grapes or raisins, honey, myrtle wine, vinegar, liquamen (fermented fish sauce) and olive oil.

These are pretty standard seasonings for Apicius, and, trust me, I’ve searched his work extensively. What we’re looking at is a sauce that is sweet, sour, salty, and spicy. Could be classic Chinese!

Let’s take a small, and slightly anachronistic detour. The village of Gorgonzola is in the Milan district and gives its name to the famous blue cheese, which can be found easily throughout Lombardy, and is immensely popular. The cheese was probably not made until the 9th century at the earliest, so it does not fit the period of the Edict, but it is regionally suitable. Like Bloom in Joyce’s Ulysses, I’m fond of a midday snack of a Gorgonzola sandwich because I usually have some on hand, and it’s quick and easy – nothing additional necessary because Gorgonzola is rich, complex, and tangy. Gorgonzola is a good addition to pasta sauces too.

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For a basic Gorgonzola sauce, heat one or two tablespoons of good extra virgin olive oil in a wide, deep skillet over medium heat. Add some finely diced onion and cook gently until soft (2 to 3 minute). Add equal quantities of shredded gorgonzola and heavy cream, and stir until the cheese melts. Then add small cooked pasta, such as penne, farfalle, or conchiglie, and stir until the sauce coats the pasta completely. I like to add a little cooked spinach to the sauce for both color and flavor. Very traditional.

Jun 162015
 

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Today is Bloomsday, a commemoration and celebration of the life of Irish writer James Joyce during which the events of his novel Ulysses (set on 16 June 1904) are relived. It is observed annually on 16 June in Dublin and elsewhere. Joyce chose the date as it was the date of his first outing with his wife-to-be, Nora Barnacle; they walked to the Dublin suburb of Ringsend. The name is derived from Leopold Bloom, the protagonist of Ulysses. The first mention of such a celebration is to be found in a letter by Joyce to Miss Weaver of 27 June 1924: “There is a group of people who observe what they call Bloom’s day – 16 June.”

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On the 50th anniversary of the events in the novel John Ryan (artist, critic, publican and founder of Envoy magazine) and the novelist Brian O’Nolan organized what was to be a daylong pilgrimage along the Ulysses route. They were joined by Patrick Kavanagh, Anthony Cronin, Tom Joyce (a dentist who, as Joyce’s cousin, represented the family interest) and AJ Leventhal (Registrar of Trinity College, Dublin). Ryan had engaged two horse drawn cabs, of the old-fashioned kind, which in Ulysses Mr. Bloom and his friends drive to poor Paddy Dignam’s funeral. The party were assigned roles from the novel. Cronin stood in for Stephen Dedalus, O’Nolan for his father, Simon Dedalus, John Ryan for the journalist Martin Cunningham, and A.J. Leventhal, being Jewish, was recruited to fill (unknown to himself according to John Ryan) the role of Leopold Bloom. They planned to travel round the city through the day, visiting in turn the scenes of the novel, ending at night in what had once been the brothel quarter of the city, the area which Joyce had called Nighttown. The pilgrimage was abandoned halfway through, when the weary pilgrims succumbed to inebriation and rancor at the Bailey pub in the city centre, which Ryan then owned, and at which, in 1967, he installed the door to No. 7 Eccles Street (Leopold Bloom’s front door), having rescued it from demolition. A Bloomsday record of 1954, informally filmed by John Ryan, follows this pilgrimage.

The day involves a range of cultural activities including Ulysses readings and dramatizations, pub crawls and other events, much of it hosted by the James Joyce Centre in North Great George’s Street. Enthusiasts often dress in Edwardian costume to celebrate Bloomsday, and retrace Bloom’s route around Dublin via landmarks such as Davy Byrne’s pub. Hard-core devotees have even been known to hold marathon readings of the entire novel, some lasting up to 36 hours. On the Sunday in 2004 before the 100th anniversary of the fictional events described in the book, 10,000 people in Dublin were treated to a free, open-air, full Irish breakfast on O’Connell Street consisting of sausages, rashers, toast, beans, and black and white puddings.

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TIME magazine wrote in 1959:

Joyce always liked to say that Nora Barnacle had come “sauntering” into his life out of the Dublin hotel where she worked as a waitress. The first day they went walking together was June 16, 1904, and Joyce always regarded it so romantically that he made it Bloomsday, the day everything happens in Ulysses. Nora had only a grammar school education, but when Joyce spouted his literary dreams to her and then declaimed: “Is there one who understands me?”, Nora understood enough to say yes. She eloped with him to the Continent (they were not married till 27 years later) and he swore to “try myself against the powers of the world.”

Here’s a few excerpts and a gallery for you to savor (the full text is here —

http://www.gutenberg.org/files/4300/4300-h/4300-h.htm)

 

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What special affinities appeared to him to exist between the moon and woman?

Her antiquity in preceding and surviving successive tellurian generations: her nocturnal predominance: her satellitic dependence: her luminary reflection: her constancy under all her phases, rising and setting by her appointed times, waxing and waning: the forced invariability of her aspect: her indeterminate response to inaffirmative interrogation: her potency over effluent and refluent waters: her power to enamour, to mortify, to invest with beauty, to render insane, to incite to and aid delinquency: the tranquil inscrutability of her visage: the terribility of her isolated dominant implacable resplendent propinquity: her omens of tempest and of calm: the stimulation of her light, her motion and her presence: the admonition of her craters, her arid seas, her silence: her splendour, when visible: her attraction, when invisible.

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A warm human plumpness settled down on his brain. His brain yielded. Perfume of embraces all him assailed. With hungered flesh obscurely, he mutely craved to adore.

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He rests. He has travelled.

With?

Sinbad the Sailor and Tinbad the Tailor and Jinbad the Jailer and Whinbad the Whaler and Ninbad the Nailer and Finbad the Failer and Binbad the Bailer and Pinbad the Pailer and Minbad the Mailer and Hinbad the Hailer and Rinbad the Railer and Dinbad the Kailer and Vinbad the Quailer and Linbad the Yailer and Xinbad the Phthailer.

When?

Going to dark bed there was a square round Sinbad the Sailor roc’s auk’s egg in the night of the bed of all the auks of the rocs of Darkinbad the Brightdayler.

For recipes for today you’ve got several choices. You could, for example, have a gorgonzola sandwich with mustard and a glass of burgundy:

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—Hello, Bloom, Nosey Flynn said from his nook.

 —Hello, Flynn.

—How’s things?

—Tiptop… Let me see. I’ll take a glass of burgundy and… let me see.

Sardines on the shelves. Almost taste them by looking. Sandwich? Ham and his descendants musterred and bred there. Potted meats. What is home without Plumtree’s potted meat? Incomplete. What a stupid ad! Under the obituary notices they stuck it. All up a plumtree. Dignam’s potted meat. Cannibals would with lemon and rice. White missionary too salty. Like pickled pork. Expect the chief consumes the parts of honour. Ought to be tough from exercise. His wives in a row to watch the effect. There was a right royal old nigger. Who ate or something the somethings of the reverend Mr MacTrigger. With it an abode of bliss. Lord knows what concoction. Cauls mouldy tripes windpipes faked and minced up. Puzzle find the meat. Kosher. No meat and milk together. Hygiene that was what they call now. Yom Kippur fast spring cleaning of inside. Peace and war depend on some fellow’s digestion. Religions. Christmas turkeys and geese. Slaughter of innocents. Eat drink and be merry. Then casual wards full after. Heads bandaged. Cheese digests all but itself. Mity cheese.

—Have you a cheese sandwich?

—Yes, sir.

Like a few olives too if they had them. Italian I prefer. Good glass of burgundy take away that. Lubricate. A nice salad, cool as a cucumber, Tom Kernan can dress. Puts gusto into it. Pure olive oil. Milly served me that cutlet with a sprig of parsley. Take one Spanish onion. God made food, the devil the cooks. Devilled crab.

—Wife well?

—Quite well, thanks… A cheese sandwich, then. Gorgonzola, have you?

—Yes, sir.

Nosey Flynn sipped his grog.

—Doing any singing those times?

Look at his mouth. Could whistle in his own ear. Flap ears to match. Music. Knows as much about it as my coachman. Still better tell him. Does no harm. Free ad.

—She’s engaged for a big tour end of this month. You may have heard perhaps.

—No. O, that’s the style. Who’s getting it up?

The curate served.

—How much is that?

—Seven d., sir… Thank you, sir.

Mr Bloom cut his sandwich into slender strips. Mr MacTrigger. Easier than the dreamy creamy stuff. His five hundred wives. Had the time of their lives.

—Mustard, sir?

—Thank you.

He studded under each lifted strip yellow blobs.

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Or, how about a breakfast of mutton kidneys? That’s my choice

Mr Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liverslices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencods’ roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.

Kidneys were in his mind as he moved about the kitchen softly, righting her breakfast things on the humpy tray. Gelid light and air were in the kitchen but out of doors gentle summer morning everywhere. Made him feel a bit peckish.

The coals were reddening.

Another slice of bread and butter: three, four: right. She didn’t like her plate full. Right. He turned from the tray, lifted the kettle off the hob and set it sideways on the fire. It sat there, dull and squat, its spout stuck out. Cup of tea soon. Good. Mouth dry. The cat walked stiffly round a leg of the table with tail on high.