20th May 1813 The Birth of Richard Wagner

Full many a wonder is told us in stories old,
of heroes worthy of praise, of hardships dire,
of joy and feasting, of weeping and of wailing;
of the fighting of bold warriors, now ye may hear wonders told.

From The Ring of the Nibelungen (12th Century Anonymous)

One of the things that someone said to me when I was much younger, is 'It's the song and not the singer.' What she meant was that great art should stand independently of its creator. We must judge the art as art, not as the creation of a person whose views or actions we might abhor. It's a useful counteraction to the views of someone like my mother, who when I expressed an admiration for Picasso at the age of about thirteen, said 'Yes, but dear, he's not a nice man.'

I think the doctrine, like all doctrines, has its limits and that brings me to Wagner. Definitely not a nice man. A man to whom you should never lend money, or with whom you should never leave your wife, or go into business, or enter into political dialogue. Although - given the penchant of other mens' wives for Wagner, he must have had something! But whatever we think of the man and his politics and the taint of history, Wagner made the musical world anew and he can't be ignored.

Richard Wagner was born two hundred years ago today in Leipzig. That makes him contemporary with the publication of 'Pride and Prejudice' - which just goes to show how the world changed during his lifetime. Here's the man himself.

Wagner's father died when he was a baby, his mother quickly remarried and his step father (who may have been his real father anyway) was an actor and playwright. This early influence must have contributed to Wagner's comfortable accommodation of all the aspects of theatrical production. Before Wagner, composers made music and writers wrote their libretti. Wagner did it all, including in later life, building the theatre at Bayreuth as a shrine to his own musical genius. His masterpiece, 'The Ring of the Nibelungen' is based on a long anonymous poem written in Middle High German in the 12th century. The Ring is similar to the old Norse sagas, and not surprisingly also fascinated J.R.R.Tolkien.

On the whole - and certainly in my sitting room, I like my music on a small scale - I'd much rather have a song than a symphony. But you have to admire Wagner's mighty vision and his iconoclasm. His early music education was sketchy and maybe that was the reason that later on he reached beyond the conventions of the time and put together those gigantic, crashing, unresolved chords. 

Emperor Joseph II said about 'The Marriage of Figaro', "Too many notes Mozart!", so goodness knows what he would have made of 'Gotterdemmerung'. I'm not a natural Wagnerite and bizarrely I came to Wagner through the wonderfully funny Anna Russell. She does the most hilarious analysis of 'The Ring' - and it is all absolutely correct. Her 'Ring' contains such gems as ....

The Rhine Maidens - "a sort of aquatic Andrews Sisters" and of Siegfried - "He's very young. He's very handsome. He's very stupid!" Of Alberich, the horrible dwarf who made the Ring of the Nibelungen, she says, "As you can see he's excessively unattractive." Judge for yourself.

Russell came from Suffolk but spent so much time in the US and Canada, her accent is a delightful transatlantic drawl which suits her deadpan delivery perfectly - I do recommend her, especially to Wagner virgins.

Wagner had an extraordinary impact on the cultural world of the nineteenth century; music, poetry and theatre all reeled under his impact and the artistic universe was never quite the same again - a new star had entered the firmament. So BBC Radio 3 - the soundtrack to my life, has lots of Wagner this week and I’m going to make something that's been on the 'to be cooked' list since I ate it a month ago in Germany. I wonder if Wagner, as he languished (briefly) in a debtors' prison in Riga, fantasised on the food of his childhood? He would certainly have eaten this seasonal treat from Bavaria.

Bärlauch Knödel - Wild Garlic Dumplings with (Fake) Wild Mushroom Sauce 

You need the wide leafed wild garlic here - ramsoms, not allium triquetrum, the chive like weed of West Country lanes. This is a traditional recipe, but you can also see Kerstin Losch's recipe at http://foodforagingcourses.co.uk/german-wild-garlic-dumplings-barlauch-knodel-made-with-wild-garlic-paste-barlauchpaste/

Make the wild garlic paste first.

Blitz 250g wild garlic leaves with 125ml of sunflower oil and a tsp salt. Store in a screw top jar - it keeps ages.

For the knödel:

225g good stale bread torn into small pieces, bigger than breadcrumbs - about the size of a fingernail. Too small and your mixture will be gluey, too big and it won't hold together. It all depends on the bread.

150 ml warm milk.

Pour the milk over the bread and leave to stand until all absorbed. Add more milk if it still seems dry.

Now add 2 tablespoons of the wild garlic paste and 50g wild garlic leaves finely shredded

Fry 3-4 chopped spring onions in a little butter with a chopped clove of garlic (or use the wild garlic stalks finely chopped). Cool, add to the rest of the ingredients and mix together. You now need to add plain flour, spoonful by spoonful, until you have a soft dough that will hold its shape. Mould it with your hands into balls about the size of a golf ball and leave to stand for at least 30 minutes. It makes about a dozen balls.

Line a steamer with greaseproof paper and gently put in your knödel. Steam for 20 minutes.

Fake wild mushroom sauce

This couldn't be easier. Chop 4 large mushrooms into chunks and fry in a walnut sized lump of butter. Meanwhile soak a few dried porcini shreds in hot water. Add to the fried mushrooms together with the soaking liquid (take care there's no grit) and 60ml white wine. Reduce until the liquid is nearly gone. Tip in a 200g tub of crème fraiche and heat through gently. The full fat crème fraiche is much better here, the low fat version goes a bit claggy - (good Yorkshire word that :) For extra authenticity, season with truffle salt or add a smidgeon of truffle oil.

Spoon some sauce onto the plates, add three dumplings per person and garnish with the garlic flowers. I steamed a few leaves to add as well. 

There are lots of German recipes that use stale bread - German bread is too good to waste, but I especially love these.

Trompettes tout haut dor pâmé sur les vélins
Le dieu Richard Wagner irradiant un sacre
Mal tu par lencre même en sanglots sibyllins.

from: 'Hommage Á Richard Wagner' by Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-1898)

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