Cooking with Vampires (Beginners Part 1)

To the people who have already read Willow the Vampire and the Sacred Grove it will come as no surprise that Stinkforthshire’s vampire community is not adverse to some gourmet wining and dining (bloodsucker-style, naturally).

We are not talking about your typical Jamie Oliver, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall or Delia Smith recipes here – I’m fairly certain cured vicar with lettuce or spiced bloodwine are not among the latest editions of their culinary offerings.

Food plays such a large part of a human’s life, why should this be different for vampires? It’s always bugged me that vampires in film and literature are mostly being displayed as fairly simplistic creatures (except for Elizabeth Kostova’s “The Historian”, where the vampire is a very sophisticated creature of the night = one of my favourite books of all time).

This blog’s creatures of the night have so far shown us that survival depends very much on being an omnivore. Red Pandas and other creatures too fussy about their diet suffer greatly at the hands of humans, as loss of habitat as much as poaching endangers their lives. With loss of habitat comes a smaller food source, less food means starvation and extinction.

Vampires might not be in danger of running out of their favourite food source, but with humans “polluting” their bodies with fake sun tan spray, tanning generally, alcohol and drugs, not to mention prescription drugs and fatty foods, bloodsuckers might also soon despair of finding food that doesn’t harm them…even though they are supposed to be immortal, it doesn’t mean they can’t suffer from permanent hangovers, headaches, stomach upsets and general feeling of being unwell. So are there any cures against human blood and flesh turned bad?

Mandrake (Mandragora officinarum), scanned fro...

Among the mythical plants used in Odinism and Wicca as well as in ancient magic spells are some plants of the nightshades family (Solanaceae), in particular the famous mandrake plant. The mandrake root or plant genus Mandragora contains deliria hallucinogenic tropane alkaloids as well as bifurcations, which is partly responsible for the odd shape of the mandrake root.

Belladonna is another famous plant that contains tropane alkaloids and ranks therefore as one of the most toxic plants in the world. The plant is also known as the Deadly Nightshade and its effects on the unsuspecting human – an presumably equally unsuspecting vampire – are frightening spells of delirium and hallucinations. The Belladonna plant was used as a plot device in one of the early Merlin episodes (BBC, season 2, ep. 7 “The Witchfinder”), where a fake witch finder uses it to induce mass hallucinations in several women, who are given Belladonna in form of eye drops, which are supposed to make a person’s eyes more beautiful. In medieval times, however, Belladonna was used in medicine, namely as an anaesthetic during surgery.

Whatever Alice Band the vampire – also known as Willow’s Mum – puts into her bloodwine recipe, it is fair to say her husband is not just partial to it because it tastes of cinnamon!

All parts of the mandrake plant are poisonous to humans, from its tobacco shaped leaves to its whitish-green or purple flowers and its human shaped root. Legend has it that anyone who digs up a mandrake root will be killed by its violent screams. Harvesting a mandrake plant is in itself a risky and mysterious business. At J K Rowling’s Hogwarts Harry and his school mates have to wear gloves and ear muffs to protect themselves from the mandrake root’s screams and bites. In magic spells mandrake is used to bewitch those who are given it. From its mild narcotic to aphrodisiacal elements, the mandrake plant has played a part in “medicine” and “magic” throughout the ages.

Both Machiavelli and Shakespeare used references to the toxic plant in their writings, but interestingly the former uses it to bewitch a woman to go to bed with his protagonist, while the latter uses it as a sleeping draft. In other writings (Salmon Rushdie and Guillermo del Toro for example) the mandrake plant becomes a magical cure for illness.

Atropa belladonna - wolfskers

Oddly enough, the mysterious mandrake belongs to the family of far less mysterious potatoes, just like eggplants and tomatoes. Although many nightshade plants are used by humans either as food or in medicine or to spice meals, many are so rich in alkaloids that they can actually kill humans when taken in in just small quantities.

While mandrake is undoubtedly not lethal to vampires, as a spice added to bloodwine or to the process of curing human flesh in the smoke house they are favoured, at least in the Stinkforthshire household of the Band family. Bloodwine’s taste depends very much on the human blood used in the first instance – bankers have a distinctly metallic aftertaste, while the trucker and travelling community has a large fat content with a peculiar chips and burger flavouring. In my latest Willow short story a banker gets the grilling of his life – and I’m not talking about answering questions at an enquiry by the Financial Services Authority! No doubt Alice and her daughter Willow have a mandrake marinade to sprinkle over our greedy friend, while he’s roasting over a small, but very hot flame…

Many of the plants and hedgerow offerings we see today were used in medieval times as sources of human food and also for healing. Nettles, dandelions, St. Johns Wort, hawthorn berries and elderberry, honey and tree bark all had their role to play. Medieval monks ran the only “hospitals”, where the wealthy could get some form of healing and where many knights were helped with their battle wounds. Various herbs were used in combination with vinegar for burns treatments, insect bites and skin ointments. BTW, raw onion is an excellent remedy against bee and wasp stings, I’ve tried it myself lots of times.

Angelica was a medicinal plant brought from Scandinavia to the rest of Europe. Its healing powers were used to help mainly with respiratory diseases, while arnica was used to help knights with wounds and bruises, of which they must have had many, just from jousting, never mind going into battle during the crusades.

Which brings me to my plans for this Sunday, when I shall be watching “real” knights battling it out at “Joust”, held at Cardiff Castle, yay!

You can look forward to lots of pictures in future posts, provided my stupid camera won’t let me down again, sigh.

(animation source: heathersanimations.com)

Nocturnal Treasures

This blog has reported about squirrels, aardvarks, hedgehogs, moths, fairies, snakes, ghosts, oak and willow trees, dragons and knights, aardwolves, raccoons, hyenas, cats and bats, goblins and all manner of other creatures of the night.

While the supernatural ones can undoubtedly take care of them selves, Willow the Vampire has made it her business to defend the natural world and its denizens against mankind’s thoughtlessness, cruelty and plain stupidity. In Willow’s quest for allies to help her rescue Earth from dark forces of the underworld, my eleven-year-old heroine has already shown herself to be a staunch defender of the rights of animals.

Who could forget her making a smorgasbord of the research staff at Stinkforthshire’s very own Cosmetic Lab, where animal testing took on a new meaning, once Willow had sunk her fangs into the security guard?

Every day somewhere in the world some nocturnal treasure trove is plundered and its contents spoilt forever. From the rainforests in South America to the ancient woodlands of Britain, commerce and greed will always find an excuse to plunder nature’s treasure chest.

Once a species is lost, there is little we can do to get it back, be it a wildflower, a rare newt, a strange looking toad or a Red Panda. In J K Rowling’s series of Harry Potter books Hermione rightly spoke out for the rights of elves, the much put upon servants of wizards and Hogwart’s School of Wizardry. In Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy the Shire’s natural world is defended by the Hobbits, who’d give their lives to protect what truly matters in this world. In T H White’s The Once and Future King the young King Arthur is taught by Merlin what it takes to be another being, a different creature, seeing the world through somebody else’s eyes.

What seems to make sense in literature and what we agree is right and proper is just that much harder to follow in real life. Seeing an appeal on my Facebook account from Compassion in World Farming I feel ashamed that I frequently forget the cows in the fields, the chicken in the coop, the geese in their pen, the lambs being led to the slaughter.

Willow the Vampire might ask herself often, how she’d survive, if bloodsucking was no longer an option and humans became extinct – or were at least off the menu on moral grounds.

Why are we humans still eating meat, when our insatiable appetite for flesh forces poor farmers to clear more and more land so cattle can graze, fart and pollute the very air we breathe, only to be shipped in horrific life transports to the other end of the world, where animals are slaughtered under the most barbaric conditions?

Various experiments have shown that we can exist far more healthily on a meat free diet. Do we fear our blood will became even tastier for vampires, if we “taint” it with carrots, broccoli and all the other 5 healthy elements we’re supposed to have every day?

Admittedly, we would once again be a lot shorter, once the over-supply of protein stops. Monk-y-monk-boys from the 14th century were an awful lot smaller than the average Welsh woman is today – crusading knights would probably fit into a hoodie made for a ten-year-old today. The average Hollywood hunk would suddenly retail at just 5 ft, while the starved bimbos treading the Paris cat walk would look like every other vertically challenged dumpling the rest of us females see in the mirror every day.

Our obsession with meat-munching has reached such levels that celebrities drape themselves in raw flesh to gain attention and whole nations have become so fat they can no longer leave the house. Will we all start eating each other after Armageddon or Ragnarök has happened, like the French black comedy Delicatessen suggests (1991, Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro directed)?

What will happen to vampires, if humans start eating humans and we return to our cannibalistic ways? Will a future encyclopaedia of animals mark them out as being extinct, along with the oak trees, the Red Pandas, the moths, the foxes, the aardvarks, the hedgehogs, the raccoons and even the snakes?

Adam and Eve have so much to answer for – not because they sought knowledge, but because they used it to exterminate the world.

(original artwork copyright Maria Thermann, animation: heathersanimation.com)

Spectral Goblins

The last few days’ sunshine have taken their toll on me and frankly, writing a blog about creatures of the night, when you’re roasting in the sun is rather difficult. A little blog-holiday is what I needed, but now I’m back.

Looking for inspiration I turned to my trusted friend the encyclopaedia of animals. If ever there was a creature that resembled a hobgoblin, it’s got to be the Spectral tarsier, although his cousin the Western tarsier comes a close second.

Spectral Tarsier

Spectral Tarsier (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Tarsiers belong to the family known as Prosimians, meaning they are classed as primates but are really critters that existed before monkeys showed their faces in evolutionary terms. Most scientists today argue that tarsiers should really be classified as a suborder called Haplorhini to which monkeys and certain apes also belong.

Tarsiers have huge eyes, just like bush babies, but tarsiers’ eyes cannot move and they lack the light-reflecting disk to enhance their night vision. To make up for this inefficiency of nature, tarsiers can rotate their heads nearly a full circle or 360 degrees, putting a rather literal interpretation on the words “this is making my head spin”.

In fact, each eye of a tarsier is bigger than its brain, which perhaps explains the puzzled expression on their strange little faces. As tree-dwellers, they have long, skinny digits, so they can grasp branches better. They have very long, spindly legs and large ears with excellent hearing as well as a long, thing tail to help with navigation when leaping. Tarsiers are tiny, weighing only 165 gr or 6 oz., but they pack a punch when it comes to leaping, which they could easily do for the Olympics. Tarsiers can leap up to 20 feet or 6 m between trees.

In the trees they hunt for bats and birds. When on the ground foraging for insects, lizards or snakes tarsiers hop on their hind legs, making them look more than ever like Dobby the Elf (J K Rowling, Harry Potter books).

Tarsier

While Willow the Vampire and her friends are unlikely to encounter a tarsier in rural Stinkforthshire, elves and goblins are another matter. As Willow’s world widens – she is going to be 12 in the next story and therefore more independent – she discovers that humans and vampires share Earth with all manner of natural and supernatural beings, not all of them friendly.

Being able to distinguish friend from foe, good characters from bad, is something we hope to learn as we grow up. Some of us are destined to fall for the same tricks time and again, others get wiser with experience and learn from their mistakes. Being taken in by fine words and charming gestures is something we warn our kids about. “Don’t take sweets from strangers” we say to them as they leave for school or the playground, but we rarely follow our own advice.

At work or in our social life we often meet goblins and dark elves who charm us with their otherworldliness, their different looks and their flattery. Some of us mean us real harm, see as “sport”, somebody to trick and fool. Others are just mischievous and want to have fun. Either way, we end up getting hurt, when we forget that they might look us straight in the face with those big, innocent eyes of theirs, but their heads can turn all the way round to talk about us disparagingly without us realising.

Dobby in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows ...

Dobby in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 1 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Spectral tarsiers or spectral goblins, either way they are a learning experience for Willow the Vampire to endure. Not all our foes wield swords, fangs and claws. Some make cute twittering noises and flatter their eyelashes at us, before attempting to strangle us with their long fingers and toes.

Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder

A bat-eared fox in Kenya.

A bat-eared fox in Kenya. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For those of you who liked the last blog about one of nature’s little oddballs (the aardvark, if not the writer), here’s another example that evolution does have a sense of humour.

The bat-eared fox may belong to the same family as other meat-munching foxes, dogs and wolves, but bat-eared foxes live mainly on a diet of insects. Their sharp teeth crush the outer cases of bugs and other insects’ bodies, allowing them to carve out a niche living in a harsh environment. Bat-eared foxes even have eight additional molars to help them grind up termites, juicy dung beetles and similar prey.

Bat-eared foxes thrive in hot climates like the savannahs or deserts of Africa. Their large pointy ears have super-hearing, which picks up the smallest noise made by its insect prey. These foxes have quite long, shaggy fur, which forms a parting on their back, making them look even more like an oddball among the otherwise beautiful fox family (officially known as Canidae). Bat-eared foxes also have pointy little faces that remind one of a Chihuahua or Dobby the Elf (J K Rowling, Harry Potter books) rather than a fox.

Having recently indulged in a WP conversation with one of my blog readers about the various aspects of beauty – mainly was Yoda the ugliest dog or do we just have ugly, brain-washed minds that make us think, anything that is out of the ordinary must be ugly – I feel that the bat-eared fox is a fine example for the old adage that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Among the 21 different varieties of foxes found on our planet, the bat-eared fox is unlikely to win a beauty contest, yet its qualities make it rather endearing…a bit like Yoda, who hung on to life well beyond the normal life span allotted to our pets.

A survivor against the odds the bat-eared fox makes a niche living among much larger hunters with which it shares its habitat. We may not think that Yoda the dog or Batty the fox are beautiful in the conventional sense, but I’ve always been a sucker for the underdog (if you’ll pardon the pun) and we can admire tenacity in the face of adversity and an iron will to fight on, even when there’s no guarantee of succeeding.

My heroine Willow the Vampire is therefore not the most beautiful vampy child that ever walked a moonlit night. In fact, I wanted her to look quite ordinary – as far as vampires can look “ordinary”. Over time, she will discover the qualities that make her beautiful in the eyes of those dear to her, her family and friends.

Attraction is a multi-faceted thing and when we see a beauty queen or fashion model hanging on the arm of some not particularly appealing looking man, we often think “what possessed that woman to fall for such an ugly git?”

Well, the ugly git tries much harder to win her affections and to keep them – while the handsome guy tends to rely on his looks to make a quick conquest and then stops bothering. Even beauty queens and fashion models long for affection and lasting relationships.

A pair of Bat-eared Foxes photographed outside...

A pair of Bat-eared Foxes photographed outside their den at first light. Image taken in the Masai Mara, Kenya. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We may not want to queue up in a zoo to see the bat-eared fox, but rush instead to the enclosure with the cute panda; however, the less attractive creatures among us are often the far more interesting…

Willow the Vampire is unlikely to ever turn into a teenage vampire with ravishing looks that will “bag” her a heart throb of the Twilight ilk, but during the course of my book she learns to discover her own inner beauty…in that she is lucky, since not all of us are blessed to do so.