Tales

The Archaeology of Apple Pie

One of the chapters from my book, Rice Pudding In A Duvet

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Autumn in Helsingør

It took three weeks to devour all the Danish history books written in English. One week later I’d done a machete job on many of the Danish books in my local library. A friend with a travel agency had recognised me as a budding tour guide, and out-of-the-blue had offered me a job. It felt like a glorious coming together of all things ‘Alice’, the essence of a much younger me. There I was aged twelve, armed with a torch, a teddy, and the whole night to read an eclectic cocktail of information; diatribes on the social conditions of Victorian servant girls, of Roman soldiers relish of rotten fish sauce and of Mesolithic hunters’ painting on cave walls.

This Alice had been put aside for many years. She’d been dragged through art school, dressed-up like a clown, she’d had her lovely auburn hair shaved off, she’d put up with a huge cast of unlikely boyfriends, and she’d had to talk in front of thousands about tying scarves on handbags in Paris. Alice junior had never been consulted about any of this and was scornful of the erratic behaviour.  But she did see merit in experience. With Alice senior stricken, after the rollercoaster ride plummeted into an unfriendly small town in Denmark, junior realised that it was indeed her moment to intervene. At heart, she couldn’t really believe that she could stumble from her warm bed and be given Alice senior’s full attention. But after six months of her weeping, followed by the past few weeks of continual study and calm, things were looking promising.

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A cold day to visit Helsingør

Like all things in my life, every Alice was thrown in at the deep end of the swimming pool. The shock of the cold is the worst part, but   I often wonder in retrospect why I don’t try wading through the shallows first? As usual, there was no time to think, only to surface, tread water and adopt a doggy-paddle to reach the side of the pool. A quick towel dry, and then it was time to greet the first batch of tourists.

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I hovered nervously behind a potted palm in the reception of a modest hotel. My sixteen travellers filtered in, and I observed them chatting sweetly amongst themselves. They were a mixed bag of middle-aged Irish couples on a whistle-stop tour of Scandinavia. I suppressed my knowledge of all the horrible deeds the English had inflicted upon their nation in the past and waded in with an outstretched hand and an open smile.

I really needn’t have worried; they were wonderfully kind and generous people and we parted and hugged like old friends at the end of the three-hour trip. AND we were in my favourite Danish town of Helsingør, or Elsinore as Shakespeare renamed it. The massive fortress of Kronborg standing guard of the sound between Denmark and Sweden and the huge car ferries surreally looming over us. The frenetic view worked its special magic on my windblown Irish group, and my storytelling began.

‘This crossing has always been busy. If you drag your hands through the shiny pebbles on the beach you will uncover a fistful of sea-worn treasure. From softly sandblasted glass fragments of dark green, royal blue, turquoise and brown, to terracotta jug handles, tiles, red bricks, patterned plate fragments and chipped memories of rustic medieval faience-wear. Last summer I was lying on the beach making pictures of cloud galleons with my youngest daughter, then casually remarked that I knew that I would find some treasure. Minutes later, as I drowsily dredged the stones behind my head, I came upon a twisted pewter spoon. The story lies so close by on this energy-charged shore. This place where we sweetly lay was composed of moments of time. With every turn past the red brick battlements or whitewashed interior dungeons, you feel you would have glimpsed someone a second earlier. Layer upon layer of lives, all churned by the constant tide and scattered across the beach. You just need to know how to look.’

Good! I noted with relief that the group wasn’t at all fazed by my flowery descriptions. We turned our backs to the bitter wind and headed away from the fortress.

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Hamlet’s Castle

‘The town of Helsingør is bursting with stories untold. Modern day tales begin immediately as you close your eyes and hear the jolly rattle, jingle, and thump of beer crates being pulled on trolleys across the old cobbles, as day-tripping Swedes hastily purchase cheap Danish booze to take home to their prohibition-ridden land. Summer café terraces are filled with their drunken countrymen, as they dribble into their beer and marvel at the salacious nature of cousin Denmark.’

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Enter a captionThe city of Helsingør (Elsinore) seen from the fortress of Kronborg

My tourists really were enjoying my storytelling, but they began to look longingly at the cosy bars. A quick glance at the outrageous prices had them taken aback and basking in indignation. But I understood their desire to find a cosy place to defrost, it was terribly cold, with a wind chill taking the temperature down to minus 18°C.

‘Helsingør is situated on a very cold and draughty corner, between the Kattegat and the Baltic. Even in Shakespeare’s Hamlet the extraordinary cold is referred to twice.’

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I knew why he emphasised it. Snow flurried around us as I battled to get the words out, and I realised that it was vital that I should abandon the sightseeing and keep my sweet Irish group alive and happy. We scurried up one of the straight medieval streets, as I was thinking of my favourite café; the strong hot coffee, delicious cakes and my table in the corner. On either side of us stood stately brick merchant houses, with glimpses of warm interiors and a flickering candle. Grandly wrought facades of embassies from the 17th century nestled in-between more modest half-timbered taverns and chandlers.

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Underneath the grand old bones of these once noble buildings were garish liquor shops and discount stores. Helsingør has declined since its heady days as the Dubai of the renaissance times. She was, after all, the spoilt mistress of a very lucrative idea indeed, which spanned 400 years. In a sheltered courtyard, I gauged the spirits of my group and began to tell them the origins of this faded splendour.

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18th-century house of  Helsingør

‘During the last quarter of the sixteenth century, Denmark was the most powerful continental kingdom in Northern Europe. The reasons for this rise to wealth, riches and fame were conceived one hundred and fifty years earlier by a young king, named Erik of Pomerania. Fifteen-year-old Erik had the dizzy challenge of finding himself as the sole ruler of the United Kingdom of Scandinavia; Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, the Orkney Islands, the Shetland Islands and Schleswig Holstein in Northern Germany. A huge swathe of far-flung lands, that became immensely costly with the expenses that were incurred to rule them. Previously, huge shoals of herring had more than adequately filled the royal coffers, but these oily fish had mysteriously slipped out of the hands of the Danes to move elsewhere.’

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Pushing doors onto old courtyards is one of my hobbies – pure time travelling!

I was losing my audience. Some of the more elderly people began to crumple and glaze-over. I made one last attempt to serve them the frozen mists of time.

‘Young Erik tackled his changing fortune with genius. In 1423 he summoned a group of merchants from the powerful Hanseatic League and informed them of his cunning plan. An idea so brilliant that it has been described as 400 years of legal piracy. Erik informed them that henceforth he intended to levy a new toll; every ship wishing to sail past Helsingør would have to dip its flag, strike its topsails and cast anchor so that the captain might go ashore and pay the customs officers in the town. Naturally, the horny crew would disembark and spend their time and money in whorehouses and taverns. Supplies would be replenished, ropes and sails mended, the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker all visited. Often the paperwork would take weeks! The final flourish of this scam was that the ship captains would then have to wait patiently for the right wind to fill their sails. It seemed like Erik had it all thought out.’

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Inside this old shop is a signed photo of the actor, Gregory Peck eating ice cream in the 1950s

That was enough of that for the reluctant historians. We staggered on through the blizzard in search of shelter and my beloved bakery. We arrived to find the pretty old-fashioned frontage smashed and in the process of being gutted. After 155 years the business had been sold to a steakhouse chain. I’d felt that a visit here would be a fitting and off-beat end to my first frozen tour. In the old days, as they’d now suddenly become, the baker himself would mingle amongst the clientele of day trippers and frail old ladies, just as his great great grandfather had before. Sometimes he would offer us a stale meringue called a Kys. He would blush when I laughed about him offering me a kiss and didn’t know that he had been funny. One day he wandered amongst us enjoying the polite laughter and smiles of his guests, not finding out until later that he had a small lump of dough with a raisin on his long nose. To me, the passing of this small slice of history is a tragedy. Another bright ribbon is snatched from the hair of the once beautiful mistress of Kronborg. I grieve that I never photographed or sketched the coffee cups rattling, the arthritic old ladies with splendid hats, the 1950s décor and my pink-cheeked tourists, defrosting over hot coffee and cream cakes.

We found a nice warm bar instead.

Recipe for Danish Apple Pie

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I can offer you an edible memory; a slice of cake that is devastatingly simple to make, charming and delicious to savour. Perhaps inspired by generations of frozen visitors and inhabitants seeking solace, warmth and some famous Danish hygge (cosiness) in this icy northern land. Serve the warm cake in flickering candlelight with a large dollop of crème fraiche.

Heat the oven to 160°C / 325°F / Gas 3. Take 100g butter and melt it gently in a medium-sized pan. Add 175g sugar, 100g plain flour, 1tsp baking powder, 1tsp sea salt, 40g desiccated coconut, and 1 egg. Beat with a wooden spoon for about a minute, until blended. Line a small cake or flan tin with baking paper and dollop the cake mixture in. Peel, core and cut two apples into thin segments. Lay in a spiral pattern over the flattened cake mixture. Sprinkle with two dessertspoons of sugar and ground cinnamon, and sigh at the speed and simplicity of the recipe. Bake the cake for about 40 minutes, or until an inserted knife comes out cleanly and your house is haunted by the wonderful smell of apples, cinnamon, history, and intrigue,

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