History and Some Wee Oatcakes for St. Pat's

Call me nuts, but I'm thrilled when I come across a new book series (new to me anyway) that is absolutely terrific, full of fascinating history, great characters, a mystery to be solved, well written and even with some humor and romance.  Lots of wonderful books yet to be read. Well, watch me do a little happy dance!

I'm doing it now for Peter Tremayne a Celtic scholar who has written such a series - Mysteries of Ancient Ireland!  This one, Shroud for the Archbishop, featured today, is the second in said series. Absolution by Murder being the first. They're also called the Sister Fidelma Mysteries.  She is the protagonist, an Irish advocate and judge who is called upon to investigate a tricky and politically sensitive murder, while on an assignment in Rome.  Here's what the Publishers have on this one:

"Wighard, Archbishop designate of Canterbury, has been found dead, garrotted in his chambers in Rome's Lateran Palace in the autumn of A.D. 664. His murderer seems apparent to all, since an Irish religieux was arrested by the palace guards as he fled Wighard's chamber, but the monk denies responsibility for the crime, and the treasures missing from Wighard's chambers are nowhere to be found.

The bishop in charge of affairs at the Lateran Palace suspects a political motive and is wary of charging someone without independent evidence. So he asks Sister Fidelma of the Celtic Church to look into Wighard's death. Fidelma (an advocate of the Brehon Court), working with Brother Eadulf of the Roman Church, quickly finds herself with very few clues, too many motives, a trail strewn with bodies--and very little time before the killer strikes again."

 Before reading his first two novels I had no idea that ancient Ireland was so advanced both in law, education and women's rights, which have only recently been regained.  As Tremayne details in his Forward, "Sister Fidelma's World": "Ireland, in the seventh century A.D. (the time of these novels) was governed by a system of sophisticated laws called the Laws of the Fenechas, or land-tillers, which became more popularly known as the Brehon Laws, deriving from the word breitheamh - a judge... But it was in A.D. 438 that the High King, Laoghaire, appointed a commission of nine learned people to study, revise and commit the laws to the new writing in Latin characters.  One of those serving on the commission was Patrick, eventually to become patron saint of Ireland.  After three years, the commission produced a written text of the laws, the first known codification.  The first complete surviving texts of the ancient laws of Ireland are preserved in an eleventh-century manuscript book.

"Under these laws, women occupied a unique place.  The Irish law gave more rights and protection to women than any other western law code at that time or since.  Women could, and did, aspire to all offices and professions as the equals of men.  They could be political leaders, command their people in battle as warriors, be physicians, local magistrates, poets, artisans, lawyers and judges.... Women were protected by the laws against sexual harassment; against discrimination; from rape; they had the right of divorce on equal terms from their husbands...they had the right of inheritance of personal property and the right of sickness benefits."  That is until the 17th century, when the English colonial administration succeeded in not only  impoverishing and deforesting Ireland, but "finally suppressed the use of the Brehon Law system.  To even possess a copy of the law books was punishable, often by death or deportation."  Laws, needless to say, replaced by a vastly inferior set.

Another area of early Irish history I was ignorant of was their educational system. As Tremayne further notes in his forward: "While the seventh century A.D. was considered part of the European "Dark Ages," for Ireland it was a period of "Golden Enlightenment."  Students from every corner of Europe flocked to Irish universities to receive their education, including the sons of the Anglo-Saxon kings.... At the great ecclesiastical university of Durrow, at this time, it is recorded that no less than eighteen different nations were represented among the students....Ireland was a by-word for literacy and learning."

Next I did a bit of looking into what the Irish might have been eating at the time. Oatcakes yes, certainly not papaya with blueberries. Probably not even Corned Beef and Cabbage, but then again perhaps something close.  They did raise cattle, the number of which on a man's possession depicted his wealth, according to my online source. Beef was eaten mainly in the winter time, and became known during Brehon times as 'winter food' since cows would be slaughtered in the winter months and the beef preserved using salt.  (Ahhh, corned beef's origins?) Thus, lots of dairy products all year, favorites being cultured milk of various sorts, butter and cheeses.  As far as grains, it was oats and barley for bread, porridge and thickening stews or soup.  In addition, there was game and fish as well as some vegetables, mainly cabbages, onions, garlic and parsnips, alongside wild herbs and greens.  So, it's quite possible cabbage would have been combined with beef in a stew. The dish wasn't born in a vacuum.

Oatcakes are mentioned in the series, as well as porridge, however, it was the oatcakes that caught my fancy (which I remember mainly from the first book as this second one takes place in Rome). I decided to make a version based on my standard scones recipe, using ground oats in place of half the flour, with the addition of raisins, cinnamon and nutmeg.  I don't know if they had raisins in Ireland, but perhaps Sister Fidelma brought some back from Italy? Actually at that time there was plenty of traffic back and forth. They brought wine from France and Italy, so raisins were very likely present as well.

They turned out splendidly!  I love these little "oatcakes" and will be making them again for sure.  And, it took very little extra time to whiz up the oatmeal in my mini food processor.  Totally worth it.  As for the cinnamon and nutmeg....why not?  If they had wine and raisins, then a few spices could have made their way to the Emerald Isle as well!  Those spice traders got around.

St. Patrick's Day Oat Scones 

   Makes 8 Scones

Preheat oven to 400 F

Measure and mix together in a large bowl:
   1 cup oats, ground fine
   1 cup unbleached white flour
   2 1/2 teas. baking powder
   1/2 teas. salt
   1/2 teas. cinnamon
   1/4 teas. nutmeg
   1/4 cup sugar
   12 cup golden raisins
Stir in: 1 1/3 cups cream

Mix until the dough just starts to come together.  Turn out onto a floured surface and knead briefly; just enough to bring the dough completely together.  Pat into an 8-inch circle.  Optionally you can brush the top with 2 tablespoons melted butter and sprinkle with 1 1/2 tablespoons sugar.

Cut the circle into 8 wedges and place 1 inch apart on a baking pan lined with parchment paper .  Bake for 17 minutes or until golden brown. Adding extras like butter, clotted cream and jam is totally arbitrary.  Quite good without.

 I'll be linking this post over at Simona's Novel Food Event, and with Beth Fish Reads for her Weekend Cooking page.  I hope you will visit and see what all is being cooked up and check out some good book recommendations as well.  And there's still time to link up with Simona - until March 24th, if you'd like to participate.


Mae Travels said...

Ireland in the Dark Ages does sound like a wonderful subject for historical detective fiction! I'll have to look it up.

best... mae at maefood.blogspot.com

Beth F said...

Oh I wonder if that series is available on audio. I'll have to check. Yummy wee oatcakes!

Tina said...

I’m like you, I love to discover a series and particularly one with history. Your oat cakes cake out very well.

gluten Free A_Z Blog said...

I say, YUM to the oatcakes.. They look easy to make and wonderful.. The book may be a little too heavy for me, but does sound interesting.

Simona Carini said...

I am also thrilled when I find a fascinating new mystery series :) The one you describe sounds truly terrific and I am adding it to my "to read" list. And your oatcakes sound delicious: I have a soft spot for scones and also for oats. Thank you so much for contributing to Novel Food :)

Marg said...

Those oatcakes look fab! I could definitely eat one of those now!

Mae Travels said...

Thanks for the recommendation -- I did buy and read the first book in the series!

best... mae at maefood.blogspot.com

(Diane) bookchickdi said...

This looks like a wonderful series, I'm going to look for the books.

Debra Eliotseats said...

Love the art that you posted. I feel totally unprepared for St. Paddy's Day this year. I might whip these up. (I think I have everything without having to run to the store and possibly running into hoarders.) Stay healthy!

Elizabeth said...

Your oat scones look delicious! I really like the way you justify the presence of raisins....

And. I don't think you're nuts at all! I'm always looking for new books to read. I read page one of book one of the series in our public library preview - it looks really promising. I am now no.6 of 6 holds on one copy of the e-book version of Book 1 "Absolution by Murder".

Delaware Girl Eats said...

I think I like scones, but oats aren't my favorite fiber. Still an inspiring idea