Last Wendesday I did my first school visit of the year, at the wonderful Birdwell Primary School just outside Barnsley. The brief was to help the children translate their imagination into stories, written down on paper. I always read that as getting children to trust their own imagination. Kids don’t lack imagination, they just think what they’ve seen on the screen is better than anything they can come up with. It’s the same old story. If somebody’s okayed an idea it must be a good one, right? Not always! I let kids write their own versions of recent films they’ve seen and their ideas often knock spots off the originals.
But I digress. School workshops is not what this post is about. I took my latest books along to Birdwell Primary. It was the first time I had the opportunity to show kids DINNER WITH A PIRATE. This is my second book in the Collins Big Cats Progress series and it was a challenge writing it, the kind of challenge I really enjoy. It’s aimed at not-so-confident readers of 8 – 10 and the word count is only 250 words. I was determined to have a sophisticated storyline that would engage Years 4 and 5 but with simple language. It was obvious from the start that the pictures were going to have to do a lot of the talking so I could concentrate on the essentials, ie the plot and the characters’ motivation.
The Italian illustrator Shahab Shamshirsaz did me proud. Based in Florence, he has a very edgy, contemporary style which we felt would be a great counterpoint to the folktale, which is medieval. We also wanted to evoke the sun of both Spain and North Africa where the story is set. Shahab went one better – the prison scenes are full of dark and shadows; the ‘freedom’ spreads full of jewel-like characters.
There are, in fact, two dinners in the story. One is Spanish, the second is Algerian – with a piratical twist. Being an ex-chef, I always become obsessed with what my characters are eating in my stories. I always draw up menus for them, which are never used, but I have to know what each character had for breakfast, lunch and dinner as, I believe, it affects how they act or react during the day.
So what did pirates eat? Depends on what kind of pirates we are talking about, I guess. Buccaneers, which tend to be the sea robbers most people think of when you say ‘pirate’, ate mostly anything they could lay their hands on. During the first two weeks of the journey, fresh meat, cheese, and milk would have been available. Sometimes there would be a cow on board, which would give milk and – when the meat ran out – her life. After that it was mostly salted meat from the barrel, hard tack or sea biscuit and a lot of beans.
The sea biscuit often had weevils in it, due to incorrect storage, and pirates often suffered from scurvy due to a lack of vitamin c in their diet. Fruit was highly prized by the few who knew their nutrional supplements. Legend has it that buccaneers were also partial to an early form of salamagundi, a stew made with anything the cook could lay his hands on, mainly chopped meat, anchovies, eggs, and onions, served with vinegar and often pepped up with rum. The occasional parrot is known to have ended up in the stew pot, feathers and all, as well as the captain’s boot polish oil, and prisoners’ fingers.
The corsairs in the med operated very close to shore, which meant they could always carry out raids on coastal settlements to replenish their larders. The infamous Turkish pirate general Dragut Rais was known to attack the island of Gozo just to get his hands on the local grapes, which were considered a great delicacy.
On shore leave, the corsairs indulged in legendary repasts, consisting of local spiced dishes made with chickpeas, lamb, chicken or fish. On grand occasions swan or peacock might be on the menu too. Flatbread was ripped into bite-size pieces and dipped into sauces. Couscous was eaten garnished with herbs, raisins and pomegranate seeds. Strong coffee or mint tea sweetened with sugar was drunk throughout the meal, and the desserts were very rich, although these were eaten more on feast days than as puddings. They included the still popular halva, nougat and lakoumja, Turkish Delight made with rosewater.
It makes you hungry just writing about that. I’m off to put the coffee percolator on. Then it’s back to writing – a follow up to The Giant Book of Giants called The Piratical Book of Pirates. I’m having great fun working on it, and using a lot of material I dug up for my first non-fiction book written – oh, during the golden age of piracy. I’ll keep readers posted about it as it goes through the various stages of production. Now I wonder what Blackbeard used to have for tea? I know he put gunpowder in his rum…..