Tuesday, 25 June 2013

The Woodpecker's Child and the Perils of Making Trifle

It's our wedding anniversary this week and I've been deliberating what to cook. No idea on mains, so will drop some hints about a takeaway, but I thought I'd make a trifle for pud. Trifles are dead easy to do, even if you are a rubbish cook (just add loads of sherry and no-one will notice the taste).

This has reminded me of an episode involving trifle production during my girlhood in Sussex.

I grew up in a very rural environment. Our nearest neighbour was a mile away across the fields, our house was tucked at the bottom of a long bumpy track that led to more fields and we were surrounded by acres of unbroken grass and woodland. We regularly got cut off in bad winters when snow blew in drifts across the lane and you could walk from one hedge top to the other and not know there was a road buried eight foot beneath your feet.
We had ponies and my sister and I spent all our free time riding in the eighty acre wood opposite the farm house. In many ways it was an idyllic childhood, simple, understated and uncomplicated.

For the most part our neighbours were farmers, but increasingly as time passed people came from outside to buy up the farms and manors and so we gained new neighbours (albeit at a distance of miles!) who were not country people but had made a pile in London and invested it in the Sussex countryside.

One such family were the Shaws. They bought a large estate on the other side of the wood from us. My sister and I used to ride through it from time to time, following the bridleway that wound through the trees and came out on their drive. The big house was not all that pretty; the real gem was an ancient cottage hidden away in a small clearing near where the bridleway came out of the woods. 
The place can hardly have changed in the five or six hundred years since it had been built; it was a wattle and daub timber framed construction and had a circular hearth in the middle of the floor. The old lady who lived in it, a tenant of the new family now, had been born there and by her old age had become so bent double that the village children used to refer to her as the Witch In The Woods.

I loved this cottage and was sad when the old lady who'd loved it too died. I was very taken with history and your imagination could really run wild when you looked at such a place. You will imagine my horror and disbelief one day when riding past it I discovered that the trees that surrounded it had been ripped away and uprooted, the ancient leaded-light windows taken out and replaced with modern plastic ones, and the entire cottage looked as if it had been subjected to a blast of considerable duration from a monster jet wash with the result that it now looked like a mock-tudor horror on a modern housing estate.

It broke my heart and I was upset for days. I can still remember the feeling some thirty years later.

Of course such a thing could not happen today, but back then grading and planning was looser, and the place was so tucked out of the way I suppose no one really noticed.

Anyway, the point of telling you this is that not long after the desecration of my beloved gingerbread cottage, the man responsible came to supper at our house.

Mum was preparing a trifle for pudding. At that time we had a house full of cats (our resident, much-loved and characterful Burmese Matilda Jane having produced five kittens who were the result of a rapid and ultimately doomed love affair with the local rakish Tom). For some unaccountable reason because I don't remember them ever being there before, there was a bowl of cat biscuits on the kitchen surface.
Something happened to distract my mother and the cat biscuits, which were small round balls of dried meat, fell on the floor. She swept them up with the dustpan and went back to making the trifle, lining the sides with Viennese sponge fingers, drizzling the sherry over them, then adding the raspberries and sliced banana, before finally topping with custard and cream and scattering slivered almonds on top.
The pudding went into the fridge and she went off upstairs to get ready.

The Shaws were late. Dad got a call to say they'd been delayed because Mr Shaw (David) had had an accident while mowing the lawn that afternoon and had had to go to casualty. Of course this piqued our childish interest hugely and we were allowed to stay up to find out what had happened.

They duly arrived, and my eyes immediately went to the thrillingly large and in places satisfyingly blood-stained bandage that was all we could see of David Shaw's right hand. 
We were introduced (my mother had a strained look on her face as though she thought I might lambast him at any moment for ruining the old cottage) and then quickly ushered out to go and watch TV.
Barely ten minutes later the door opened and in came my mother, clearly trying not to laugh and not succeeding.  
"Oh Sue!" she giggled, "This is dreadful! He's cut off his fingers with the mower! And all I can think is that the sponge cakes in the trifle look just like fingers. How am I going to serve it without getting a fit of the giggles?"

"Even worse," I  said helpfully, "they look like bloody fingers because the raspberry juice has leaked all over them."

I thought it was very funny and from that day on Viennese sponge fingers have been known universally as "David Shaw's Fingers" in our family.

But it was to get worse. I found out the next day from mum that she had managed to serve the trifle while maintaining her composure, only to discover to her absolute horror that some of the cat biscuits that had fallen on the floor had somehow got into the custard. We can only surmise they must have slipped out of the dustpan. All was well though, because Mr Shaw thought they were balls of caramel, remarking on how unusual but delicious an addition they made to a traditional English pud!

 I think the cottage and it's old lady got their revenge, don't you?

I'll leave you with some pictures of the Woodpecker's Child, who finally came visiting yesterday. Even better, I think there are three of them, although only one came really close. How exciting! And worth waiting for.

Greater Spotted Woodpecker Chick Number One

Getting the hang of the feeders....

How does this work then??

GSW Chick Number Two

GSW Chick Number Three

And even more finally, here is a Poplar Hawk Moth who graced the box yesterday... Magnificent, don't you think? I've heard them called the Daddy of the Moth World and you can see why.

And perhaps the loveliest name for a moth I have yet come across, the very delicate if slightly holey Maiden's Blush.

Here's looking at you kid


  1. Great pics CT. The baby woodpeckers are the cutest aren't they??
    I did laugh at your trifle story.
    Happy Anniversary!
    Ours is coming up too.. 30 years. Ye gods.

    1. Very pleased to see the chicks (I've been hearing them long enough).
      Happy anniversary to you too :-) Tempus Fugit, non?

  2. Hi CT Great story. I was wondering did you ever tell them the story? Perhaps they will read it here!!! Great shots of the Woodpecker and I love that Popular Hawk moth.Mind yu I think it looks more like a bat!! Margaret

    1. Hoping they won't read it here!!! We never told them....
      And you're right about the moth, there is something battish about him :-)

  3. Fab moths and GSW but disgusting cat biscuit trifle! Happy Anniversary to you both. x

    1. Thanks Em :-)

      Any luck with your GSW babies yet?

  4. Oh. My. Gosh! Your trifle story is one of the funniest things I've ever heard of, LOL! The best part: trifle made with David Shaw's Fingers! Happy anniversary :)

    1. Thanks Dara :-)

      I saw my sister this afternoon and told her I'd written a post about David Shaw's Fingers and she knew exactly what I meant, so it's still going strong after all these years!

  5. An excellent story, made all the better for being true! As a matter of research I have just tried a cat biscuit (actually I tried three varieties because our three cats all have different digestive needs - typical!) and I can report that none of them taste in the slightest like caramel which only goes to show that either a) Mr Shaw was even more an idiot that first appeared or b) your Mum has unparalleled trifle making skills.

    Not sure I should be eating cat biscuits, being a vegetarian and all, but it had to be done.

    Many, many congratulations on your anniversary! Hold out for the takeaway!

    P.S re: aubergines - I consulted my HG regarding your very kind offer. He said, 'Are you mad? Look in the greenhouse - there are hundreds of the things.' Well, not hundreds, but you know what I mean. But if I am ever in your neck of the woods, I shall be round for tea and cake. Definitely!

    1. I think you have to be quite an idiot to cut your own fingers off with a lawn mower so I favour a) (which is not to denigrate ma's legendary cooking skills).
      There is another hypothesis, which is that he knew all along they were cat biscuits and was being gentlemanly.
      I thank you for your market research in relation to this post: it was very kind and most thorough of you :-) And also for the response regarding the offer of aubergines. Tea and cake is always available here regardless of the current vegetable situation.

  6. My maternal grandfather cut off his thumb with a circular saw whilst dealing with some tree trunks. He wasn't stupid - merely unobservant, because the story went that he returned to the house from his workshop and said, 'I have just cut off my thumb,' to wit one of his sons said, 'Where is it?' and grandpa said, 'oh, I must have left it on the saw bench.'

    It was thusly retrieved, both parts of grandpa were removed to hospital where an attempt to reunite man with thumb was attempted, but it failed. Well, I think plastic surgery was still in its infancy in the earlies 1950s. He seemed to manage well without it for the next thirty five years.

    I should like to reciprocate the offer of tea and cake, should you ever find yourself in the middle of Kent. Lord knows why you would, of course, save for a fit of lunacy and / or a dodgy satnav, but then I believe a goodly dollop of traditional cream tea and tiny sandwiches is an excellent cure to draw one from inadvertent fits of madness!

  7. First of all Happy Anniversary, I hope you have a lovely time whatever you eat! Woodpecker chicks are beautiful, it's lovely you have them visiting. Great trifle story and more amazing moths.

    1. Thanks Suzie :-)

      I've never seen the woodpecker chicks before so it's a real treat, and worth the small fortune in fat balls!

  8. Happy Anniversary! I loved the trifle story. Old cottages, full of character (but sadly not listed or protected) are often being pulled down here for bigger, charmless mansions. The Woodpeckers are cute, and the Poplar Hawk Moth is fascinating.

    1. I don't know why people don't always value them as much as they should, aesthetically and also for their historical value.

  9. Great trifle story! Cheered me up from my Glastonbury blues! GSW chicks are cute indeed! Love their bemused states at the feeders!

    1. Blues because it's over or you didn't enjoy it as much as hoped? Hopefully the former.
      The GSW's are adorable I'm fascinated by them :-)

    2. Definitely the former!! :)


Thank you for leaving a comment. I always enjoy reading them and will try my best to reply to every one. CT x