May 262017
 

Today is the feast day of Augustine of Canterbury, who died on this date in 604. He was a Benedictine monk who was sent to Britain by pope Gregory the Great to convert the relatively new settlers from northern Europe generally called the Anglo-Saxons. He eventually became the first Archbishop of Canterbury in the year 597, securing in perpetuity the primacy of Canterbury over all other Anglican archdioceses (although from his time until the English Reformation it was a Catholic archdiocese).

After the withdrawal of the Roman legions from their province of Britannia in 410, the inhabitants were left to defend themselves against the attacks of groups from the north German plain and Scandinavia. Before the Roman withdrawal, Britannia had been converted by the Romans to Christianity. Archeology testifies to a growing presence of Christians, at least until around 360. After the Roman legions departed, non-Christian groups settled the southern parts of the island while western Britain, beyond the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, remained Christian. Thus, the old British church developed in isolation from Rome under the influence of missionaries from Ireland, and was centered on monasteries instead of bishoprics. Other distinguishing characteristics were its distinctive method of calculating the date of Easter and the style of the tonsure that clerics wore. Evidence for the survival of Christianity in the eastern part of Britain during this time includes the survival of the cult of Saint Alban and the occurrence in place names of Eglos and Eglwys, Brythonic Gaelic for “church” (possibly Anglicized as Eccles).

It was against this background that Gregory I decided to send a mission, often called the Gregorian mission, to convert the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity in 595. The Kingdom of Kent was ruled by Æthelberht, who married a Christian princess named Bertha some time before 588, and perhaps as early as 560. Bertha was the daughter of Charibert I, one of the Merovingian kings of the Franks. As one of the conditions of her marriage, she brought a bishop named Liudhard with her to Kent. Together in Canterbury, they restored a church that dated to Roman times —possibly the current St Martin’s Church. Æthelberht was not a Christian at this point but allowed his wife freedom of worship. It’s an open question whether Æthelberht and/ or Bertha asked Pope Gregory to send missionaries to Kent or whether Gregory initiated the mission on his own. Bede, in the 8th century recorded a famous story in which Gregory saw fair-haired Anglo-Saxon boy captives from Britain in the Roman slave market and was inspired to try to convert their people. He is reputed to have asked (in Latin) who they were and was told they were “Angli” (Angles) to which he replied, “Non Angli sed Angeli” (Not Angles but Angels). I prefer Sellar and Yeatman’s humorous mistranslation – “Not Angels but Anglicans.”

In 595, Gregory chose Augustine to head the mission to Kent. The pope selected monks to accompany Augustine and sought support from the Frankish royalty and clergy in a series of letters, of which some copies survive in Rome. He wrote to King Theuderic II of Burgundy and to King Theudebert II of Austrasia, as well as their grandmother Brunhild, seeking aid for the mission. Gregory thanked King Chlothar II of Neustria for aiding Augustine. Besides hospitality, the Frankish bishops and kings provided interpreters and Frankish priests to accompany the mission. By soliciting help from the Frankish kings and bishops, Gregory helped to assure a friendly reception for Augustine in Kent, as Æthelbert was unlikely to mistreat a mission which visibly had the support of his wife’s relatives and people. Moreover, the Franks appreciated the chance to participate in mission that would extend their influence in Kent. Chlothar, in particular, needed a friendly realm across the Channel to help guard his kingdom’s flanks against his fellow Frankish kings.

Sources make no mention of why Pope Gregory chose a monk to head the mission. Pope Gregory once wrote to Æthelberht complimenting Augustine’s knowledge of the Bible, meaning that Augustine was well educated. But he was also a good administrator. Gregory was the abbot of St Andrews as well as being pope, and he left the day-to-day running of the abbey to Augustine, the prior. Augustine was accompanied by Laurence of Canterbury, his eventual successor to the archbishopric, and a group of about 40 companions, some of whom were monks. Soon after leaving Rome, the missionaries halted, daunted by the nature of the task before them. They sent Augustine back to Rome to request papal permission to return. Gregory refused and sent Augustine back with letters encouraging the missionaries to persevere.

In 597, Augustine and his companions landed in Kent, achieving some initial success soon after their arrival. Æthelberht permitted the missionaries to settle and preach in his capital of Canterbury where they used the church of St Martin’s for services. Neither Bede nor Gregory mentions the date of Æthelberht’s conversion, but it probably took place in 597. In the early medieval period, large-scale conversions required the ruler’s conversion first, and Augustine is recorded as making large numbers of converts within a year of his arrival in Kent. Also, by 601, Gregory was writing to both Æthelberht and Bertha, calling the king his son and referring to his baptism. A late medieval tradition, recorded by the 15th-century chronicler Thomas Elmham, gives the date of the king’s conversion as Whit Sunday, or 2 June 597; there is no reason to doubt this date, although there is no other evidence for it.

Augustine established his episcopal see at Canterbury. It is not clear when and where Augustine was consecrated as a bishop. Bede, writing about a century later, states that Augustine was consecrated by the Frankish Archbishop Ætherius of Arles in Gaul after the conversion of Æthelberht. Contemporary letters from Pope Gregory, however, refer to Augustine as a bishop before he arrived in England. A letter of Gregory’s from September 597 calls Augustine a bishop, and one dated ten months later says Augustine had been consecrated on Gregory’s command by bishops of the German lands.

Soon after his arrival, Augustine founded the monastery of Saints Peter and Paul, which later became St Augustine’s Abbey, on land donated by the king. This foundation has often been claimed as the first Benedictine abbey outside Italy, and that by founding it, Augustine introduced the Rule of St. Benedict into England, but there is no evidence the abbey followed the Benedictine Rule at the time of its foundation. In a letter Gregory wrote to the patriarch of Alexandria in 598, he claimed that more than 10,000 Christians had been baptized; the number may be exaggerated but there is no reason to doubt that a mass conversion took place. However, there were probably some Christians already in Kent before Augustine arrived, remnants of the Christians who lived in Britain in the later Roman Empire.

Further missionaries were sent from Rome in 601. They brought a pallium for Augustine and a present of sacred vessels, vestments, relics, and books. The pallium was the symbol of metropolitan status, and signified that Augustine was now an archbishop unambiguously associated with the Holy See. Along with the pallium, a letter from Gregory directed the new archbishop to consecrate 12 suffragan bishops as soon as possible and to send a bishop to York. Gregory’s plan was that there would be two metropolitans, one at York and one at London, with 12 suffragan bishops under each archbishop. As part of this plan, Augustine was expected to transfer his archiepiscopal see to London from Canterbury but the move from Canterbury to London never happened. No contemporary sources give the reason, but it was probably because London was not part of Æthelberht’s domains. Instead, London was part of the kingdom of Essex, ruled by Æthelberht’s nephew Saebert of Essex, who converted to Christianity in 604.

Augustine failed to extend his authority to the Christians in Wales and Dumnonia to the west. Gregory had decreed that these Christians should submit to Augustine and that their bishops should obey him, apparently believing that more of the Roman governmental and ecclesiastical organization survived in Britain than was actually the case. According to Bede, the Britons in these regions viewed Augustine with uncertainty, and their suspicion was compounded by a diplomatic misjudgement on Augustine’s part. In 603, Augustine and Æthelberht summoned the British bishops to a meeting south of the Severn. These guests retired early to confer with their people, who, according to Bede, advised them to judge Augustine based upon the respect he displayed at their next meeting. When Augustine failed to rise from his seat on the entrance of the British bishops, they refused to recognize him as their archbishop. There were also, however, deep differences between Augustine and the British church that perhaps played a more significant role in preventing an agreement. At issue were the tonsure, the observance of Easter, and practical and deep-rooted differences in approach to asceticism, missionary endeavors, and how the church itself was organized. There were political dimensions involved, as Augustine’s efforts were sponsored by the Kentish king, and at this period the Wessex and Mercian kingdoms were expanding to the west, into areas held by the Britons.

Site of the tomb of Saint Augustine, founder and first abbot of the abbey later dedicated to him.

Before his death, Augustine consecrated Laurence of Canterbury as his successor to the archbishopric, probably to ensure an orderly transfer of office. Although at the time of Augustine’s death the mission barely extended beyond Kent, his undertaking introduced a more active missionary style into the British Isles. Despite the earlier presence of Christians in Ireland and Wales, no efforts had been made to try to convert the Anglo-Saxon invaders. Augustine by converting them eventually became the decisive influence on the development of Christianity in the British Isles.

I have chosen Kentish huffkins for today’s recipe, not because they are especially ancient or Anglo-Saxon, but because they are a distinctively regional specialty and rather hard to come by these days because they cannot easily be produced commercially. They are rather rich bread rolls, noted for the indentation in the middle. They can be eaten plain, or more commonly these days, with the middle hole filled with either something savory, such as bacon, or sweet, such as pitted cherries (for which Kent is well known).

Kentish Huffkins

Ingredients

500g strong bread flour
5g salt
50g vegetable shortening
12g fresh yeast
5g sugar
200ml milk
200ml water

Instructions

Sieve the flour into a warm bowl. Rub the vegetable shortening into the flour and add the salt and the sugar. Leave in a warm place for a few minutes.

Heat the milk and water in a small pan until just tepid, then crumble in the fresh yeast and stir until the yeast and liquids are all thoroughly blended. Add the yeast and liquids to the dry ingredients and combine to form a dough.

Turn the dough on to a floured surface and knead for about 20 minutes until it is smooth.

Return the dough to the bowl, cover, and leave in a warm place for about 1 hour or until doubled in size.

Punch down the dough and divide it into 12 pieces. Roll each piece into a round ball and place them on a greased and floured baking sheet making sure to leave enough space between the balls for expansion. Press your thumb firmly into the center of each roll to form a hole. Leave in a warm place to rise for 20 minutes.

Set oven to 425ºF

Bake for 20 minutes or until golden brown.

May 252017
 

Today is the Feast of the Ascension also known as Ascension Thursday, Holy Thursday, or Ascension Day, and  commemorates the Christian belief of the bodily Ascension of Jesus into heaven. It is one of the ecumenical feasts (i.e., universally celebrated) of Christian churches, ranking with the feasts of the Passion, of Easter, and Pentecost.  Ascension Day is traditionally celebrated on a Thursday, the 40th  day of Easter (following the count given in Acts 1:3), although some Christian denominations have moved the observance to the following Sunday. Many less liturgically minded denominations don’t observe the day in any special way although it is often marked on the calendar. Easter and Pentecost tend to be of much greater importance all around.

The ascension of Jesus is an important linking event between the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles which were both written by the same author. The Gospel concerns Jesus’ earthly life, and Acts concerns what happened afterwards. This 2-volume work is, therefore, unique in documenting both the events in Jesus’ life and how the early church developed out of those events. Luke uses Mark for the backbone of his gospel but adds a lot of material that is found nowhere else such as the Visitation of Mary, the Nativity, and childhood narratives about Jesus. If you have followed my other posts on Christian feasts you will know that I am highly skeptical of Luke. Practically every story he tells that is found nowhere else “miraculously” solves a logical puzzle. So, for example, how is it that the Messiah is foretold as coming from the lineage of David, and born in Bethlehem, but Jesus – who might be the Messiah – comes from Galilee? Simple. His parents took an unexpected trip to Bethlehem when Mary was pregnant because of a massive census ordered throughout the Roman empire by the emperor.  That solves the logical puzzle concerning the Hebrew prophets but fails to account for the fact that no such census is known of, nor could have occurred without the empire disintegrating.

To my mind, the ascension of Jesus is of the same logical order as many other tales that Luke alone attests. The thing is that Luke did not like logical loose ends. People were wondering by Luke’s time such things as: “What are we going to do with John the Baptist’s disciples?” “What did Jesus do before he started traveling around and preaching?” and . . . “Where did Jesus go after the resurrection?” Luke’s answer to the latter is that he hung around for a while, but then ascended into heaven, leaving the Holy Spirit to come down on Pentecost and get the church started. Chapter 24 of Luke’s gospel recounts the resurrection followed by a few appearances of Jesus to his disciples, then this:

50 Then Jesus led them to Bethany, and lifting his hands to heaven, he blessed them. 51 While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up to heaven. 52 So they worshiped him and then returned to Jerusalem filled with great joy. 53 And they spent all of their time in the Temple, praising God.

Luke picks up the action again at the start of Acts:

1In my first book [Luke’s gospel] I told you, Theophilus, about everything Jesus began to do and teach until the day he was taken up to heaven after giving his chosen apostles further instructions through the Holy Spirit. During the forty days after he suffered and died, he appeared to the apostles from time to time, and he proved to them in many ways that he was actually alive. And he talked to them about the Kingdom of God.

Once when he was eating with them, he commanded them, “Do not leave Jerusalem until the Father sends you the gift he promised, as I told you before. John baptized with] water, but in just a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”

So when the apostles were with Jesus, they kept asking him, “Lord, has the time come for you to free Israel and restore our kingdom?”

He replied, “The Father alone has the authority to set those dates and times, and they are not for you to know. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you. And you will be my witnesses, telling people about me everywhere—in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

After saying this, he was taken up into a cloud while they were watching, and they could no longer see him. 10 As they strained to see him rising into heaven, two white-robed men suddenly stood among them. 11 “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why are you standing here staring into heaven? Jesus has been taken from you into heaven, but someday he will return from heaven in the same way you saw him go!”

So now we have a convenient segue into the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples and the birth of the church. A little too convenient if you ask me. Stories of Heavenly ascents were fairly common in Judaic sacred texts signifying divine approval or the deification of an exceptional person. Elijah, for example, does not die but ascends to heaven in a whirlwind (2 Kings 2:11).  The Roman Catholic church continued this dogma with apocryphal tales of the ascension of Mary, mother of Jesus, who logically could not have died because she was born without sin, and therefore was not subject to the penalty for sin – death.

The ascension also assumes an ancient cosmology in which the sky is a big dome covering the earth, and heaven lies beyond that dome. By this reckoning, heaven is a space above the sky, so that people who are exempt from death can simply float up to the sky and beyond. Although it took several hundred years to develop a grander and more sophisticated cosmology, the story of the ascension of Jesus still has its devotees.

I’ve chosen angel cake (angel food cake in the US) for my recipe today. Usually I buy it when I want one (generally to eat with strawberries), but homemade is better – but a bit tricky to get really light. Maybe I’m being a bit cynical concerning Luke’s story by giving you a recipe that rises a lot, and floats like clouds, like Jesus did, but I assure you I am only cynical about Luke’s rationalizing, not about the heart of the Christian message.

Angel Cake

Ingredients

1¾ cups superfine sugar
¼ tsp salt
1 cup cake flour, sifted
12 egg whites at room temperature
⅓ cup warm water
1 tsp orange extract (or vanilla extract)
1½ teaspoons cream of tartar

Instructions

Preheat oven to 350˚F.

Sift half of the sugar with the salt and the cake flour.

In a large bowl, thoroughly combine the egg whites, water, orange extract, and cream of tartar with a whisk, or a stand mixer with a balloon whisk. When the egg whites start to foam switch to a hand mixer. Slowly sift in the remaining half of the sugar, beating continuously at medium speed. Stop when you have medium peaks. Sift enough of the flour and sugar mixture to dust the top of the foam. Fold the flour in gently with a spatula, then repeat until all of the flour mixture is incorporated. You must maintain the foam as much as you can.

Spoon the mixture gently into an ungreased baking pan (I use non-stick tube pan). Bake for 35 minutes then check for doneness by inserting a tooth pick. When done it will come out clean.

Invert the pan on a cooling rack, and cool for at least an hour before attempting to turn out.

Typically I serve angel cake with strawberries I prepare by slicing them into a bowl, dusting then with superfine sugar, and leaving them overnight it the refrigerator. Next day the juices from the strawberries make a tasty sauce.

May 242017
 

Today is the birthday (1494) of Jacopo Carucci, usually known as Jacopo da Pontormo,  Jacopo Pontormo or simply Pontormo, a painter from the Florentine School of the later Renaissance. His extant body of work represents a profound stylistic shift from the calmness and regularity that characterized the art of the high Renaissance, and he is sometimes called a Mannerist (although the term is unevenly applied to many genres in different eras). He is famous for his use of twining poses, coupled with ambiguous perspective, and his figures often seem to float in an uncertain environment not tied by the forces of gravity. Pontormo is not exactly a household word these days largely because most of his largest and most ambitious works are lost; but his art is steadily growing in popularity.

Jacopo Carucci was born at Pontorme, near Empoli, to Bartolomeo di Jacopo di Martino Carrucci and Alessandra di Pasquale di Zanobi.  Pontormo painted in and around Florence, first as a young apprentice and then supported by the Medici. A trip to Rome, primarily to see Michelangelo’s work, influenced his later style. Haunted faces and elongated bodies are characteristic of this work. An example of Pontormo’s early style is this fresco depicting the Visitation of the Virgin and St Elizabeth, with its dancelike, balanced figures, painted from 1514 to 1516.

This early Visitation is interesting in comparison with his painting of the same subject which he did about a decade later for the parish church of St. Michael in Carmignano, about 20 km west of Florence. In the earlier work (left), Pontormo is much closer in style to his teacher, Andrea del Sarto, and to the early 16th century Renaissance artistic principles. For example, the figures stand at just under half the height of the overall picture, and though a bit more crowded than true high Renaissance balance would prefer, they are at least are placed in a classicizing architectural setting at a comfortable distance from the viewer. In the later work (right), the viewer is brought almost uncomfortably close to the Virgin and St. Elizabeth, who drift toward each other in clouds of drapery. Moreover, the clear architectural setting that is carefully constructed in the earlier piece has been completely abandoned in favor of a peculiar nondescript urban setting.

The Joseph canvases (now in the National Gallery in London) offer another example of Pontormo’s developing style. Done around the same time as the earlier Visitation, these works (such as Joseph in Egypt) show a much more mannerist leaning.

In the years between the SS Annunziata and San Michele Visitations, Pontormo took part in the fresco decoration of the salon of the Medici country villa at Poggio a Caiano (1519–20), 17 km NNW of Florence. There he painted frescoes in a pastoral genre style, very uncommon for Florentine painters; their subject was the obscure classical myth of Vertumnus and Pomona in a lunette.

In 1522, when the plague broke out in Florence, Pontormo left for the Certosa di Galluzzo, a cloistered Carthusian monastery where the monks followed vows of silence. He painted a series of frescoes, now quite damaged, on the passion and resurrection of Christ.

The large altarpiece canvas for the Brunelleschi-designed Capponi Chapel in the church of Santa Felicita, Florence, portraying The Deposition from the Cross, is considered by many Pontormo’s surviving masterpiece (1528). The figures, with their sharply modeled forms and brilliant colors are united in an enormously complex, swirling ovular composition, housed by a shallow, somewhat flattened space. Although commonly known as The Deposition from the Cross, there is no actual cross in the picture. The scene might more properly be called a Lamentation or Bearing the Body of Christ. Those who are lowering (or supporting) Christ appear as anguished as the mourners. Though they are bearing the weight of a full-grown man, they barely seem to be touching the ground; the lower figure in particular balances delicately and implausibly on his front two toes. These two boys have sometimes been interpreted as angels, carrying Christ in his journey to Heaven. In this case, the subject of the picture would be more akin to an Entombment, though the lack of any discernible tomb disrupts that theory, just as the lack of cross poses a problem for the Deposition interpretation. Finally, it has also been noted that the positions of Christ and the Virgin seem to echo those of Michelangelo’s Pietà in Rome, though here in the Deposition mother and son have been separated. Thus in addition to elements of a Lamentation and Entombment, this picture carries hints of a Pietà. It has been speculated that the bearded figure in the background at the far right is a self-portrait of Pontormo as Joseph of Arimathea. Another unique feature of this particular Deposition is the empty space occupying the central pictorial plane as all the Biblical personages seem to fall back from this point. It has been suggested that this emptiness may be a physical representation of the Virgin Mary’s emotional emptiness at the prospect of losing her son.

On the wall to the right of the Deposition, Pontormo frescoed an Annunciation scene. As with the Deposition, the artist’s primary attention is on the figures themselves rather than their setting. Placed against white walls, the Angel Gabriel and Virgin Mary are presented in an environment that is so simplified as to almost seem stark. The fictive architectural details above each of them, are painted to resemble the gray stone pietra serena that adorns the interior of Santa Felicità, thus uniting their painted space with the viewer’s actual space. The startling contrast between the figures and ground makes their brilliant garments almost seem to glow in the light of the window between them, against the stripped-down background, as if the couple miraculously appeared in an extension of the chapel wall. The Annunciation resembles his above mentioned Visitation in the church of San Michele at Carmignano in both the style and swaying postures.

Vasari tells us that the cupola was originally painted with God the Father and Four Patriarchs. The decoration in the dome of the chapel is now lost, but four roundels with the Evangelists still adorn the pendentives, worked on by both Pontormo and his chief pupil Agnolo Bronzino. The two artists collaborated so intimately, that specialists dispute which roundels each of them painted.

This tumultuous oval of figures took three years for Pontormo to complete. According to Vasari, because Pontormo desired above all to “do things his own way without being bothered by anyone,” the artist screened off the chapel so as to prevent interfering opinions. Vasari continues, “And so, having painted it in his own way without any of his friends being able to point anything out to him, it was finally uncovered and seen with astonishment by all of Florence…”

Many of Pontormo’s well known canvases, such as the early Joseph in Egypt series (c. 1515) and the later Martyrdom of St Maurice and the Theban Legion (c. 1531) depict crowds milling about in extreme contrapposto of greatly varied positions.

His portraits, acutely characterized, show similarly Mannerist proportions.

Many of Pontormo’s works have been damaged, including the lunnettes for the cloister in the Carthusian monastery of Galluzo. They are now displayed indoors, although in their damaged state.

Perhaps most tragic is the loss of the unfinished frescoes for the Basilica of San Lorenzo, Florence which consumed the last decade of his life. His frescoes depicted a Last Judgment day composed of an unsettling morass of writhing figures. The remaining drawings, showing a bizarre and mystical ribboning of bodies, had an almost hallucinatory effect. Florentine figure painting had mainly stressed linear and sculptural figures. For example, the Christ in Michelangelo’s Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel is a massive painted block, stern in his wrath; by contrast, Pontormo’s Jesus in the Last Judgment twists sinuously, as if rippling through the heavens in the dance of ultimate finality. Angels swirl about him in even more serpentine poses. If Pontormo’s work from the 1520s seemed to float in a world little touched by gravitational force, the Last Judgment figures seem to have escaped it altogether and flail through a rarefied air.

In his Last Judgment, Pontormo went against pictorial and theological tradition by placing God the Father at the feet of Christ, instead of above him, an idea Vasari found deeply disturbing:

But I have never been able to understand the significance of this scene, although I know that Jacopo had wit enough for himself, and also associated with learned and lettered persons; I mean, what he could have intended to signify in that part where there is Christ on high, raising the dead, and below His feet is God the Father, who is creating Adam and Eve. Besides this, in one of the corners, where are the four Evangelists, nude, with books in their hands, it does not seem to me that in a single place did he give a thought to any order of composition, or measurement, or time, or variety in the heads, or diversity in the flesh-colours, or, in a word, to any rule, proportion or law of perspective, for the whole work is full of nude figures with an order, design, invention, composition, colouring, and painting contrived after his own fashion, and with such melancholy and so little satisfaction for him who beholds the work, that I am determined, since I myself do not understand it, although I am a painter, to leave all who may see it to form their own judgement, for the reason that I believe that I would drive myself mad with it, and would bury myself alive, even as it appears to me that Jacopo in the period of eleven years that he spent upon it sought to bury himself and all who might see the painting, among all those extraordinary figures… Wherefore it appears that in this work he paid no attention to anything save certain parts, and of the other more important parts he took no account whatever. In a word, whereas he had thought in the work to surpass all the paintings in the world of art, he failed by a great measure to equal his own (past) works; whence it is evident that he who seeks to strive beyond his strength and, as it were, to force nature, ruins the good qualities with which he may have been liberally endowed by her.

I thought that zabaglione would make a good treat to celebrate Pontormo for no other reason that I find it an exquisite dish, and because the recipe has been virtually unchanged since the late 15th century. This one is taken from a MS entitled Cuoco Napoletano and is the oldest known. In the 15th century, cooks would have cooked the zabaglione over low heat in heavy vessels, but it is much safer to use a double boiler, cooking the zabaglione over simmering water. Even so, whilst cooking you must whisk constantly.  This not only aerates the mix, but prevents the egg yolks from curdling or scrambling.  Modern cooks use Marsala for the wine.

Zabaglone.

Per fare quatro taze de Zabaglone, piglia .xii. rossi de ova frasca, tre onze de zucaro he meza onza de canella bona he uno bucale de vino bono dolce, he fallo cocere tanto che sia preso como uno brodeto. Et poi levalo fora he ponello in uno grando piatello davante alli Compagnone. Et se vorai, gli potrai ponere uno pezo de butiro fresco.

Zabaglione.

To make four bowls of zabaglione, take twelve yolks of fresh eggs, three ounces sugar, a half ounce good cinnamon and a cup of good sweet wine. Let it cook until it is thick like broth. Then take from the heat and put it in a large dish for the company. If you like, you can put a piece of fresh butter on it.

Conventionally nowadays zabaglione is served with a ladyfinger or a piece of fruit, but I’m happy with it plain.

May 232017
 

On this date in 1829 Cyrill Demian (1772–1849) received an official patent from the Vienna patent office for a new instrument he called an accordion. Thus, he is generally credited with the invention. A few give credit to Christian Friedrich Ludwig Buschmann (who also claims to have invented the harmonica) but there is no evidence for either claim apart from a few jottings that Buschmann himself made. His claim to have invented the harmonica is clearly false because they were on sale in Austria 3 years before he says he invented the instrument. Demian is our man.

Cyrill Demian was an Armenian from the Romanian city of Gherla (ancient Armenopolis) who moved to Vienna and worked as an organ and piano maker, with his two sons Karl and Guido, in Mariahilfer Straße No. 43 in Vienna. His new instrument was a modification of the Handäoline, comprising a small manual bellows and five keys. As noted in his own description and patent application, the instrument was what we now call a push-pull accordion, that is it produced a different note on each key depending on whether the bellows were pushed or pulled. Five keys would give a few notes more than an octave in a diatonic scale and major chords would be easy to produce.

His description is translated here from the original German:

Its appearance essentially consists of a little box with feathers of metal plates and bellows fixed to it, in such a way that it can easily be carried, and therefore traveling visitors to the country will appreciate the instrument.

It is possible to perform marches, arias, melodies, even by an amateur of music with little practice, and to play the loveliest and most pleasant chords of 3, 4, 5 etc. voices after instruction.

1st – In a box 7 to 9 inches long, 3½ inches wide and 2 inches high, feathers of metal plates are fixed, which were known for more than 200 years as Regale, Zungen, Schnarrwerk, in organs.

2nd – With bellows fixed to the above box and its 5 claves fixed below, even an amateur of music can play the loveliest and most moving chords of 3, 4 and 5 voices with very little practice.

3rd – Each claves or key of this instrument allows two different chords to be heard, as many keys are fixed to it, double as many chords can be heard, pulling the bellows a key gives one chord, while pushing the bellows gives the same key a second chord.

4th – As this instrument can be made with 4, 5 and 6 or even more claves, with chords arranged in alphabetical order, many well known arias, melodies and marches, etc. may be performed similar to the harmony of 3, 4 and 5 voices, with satisfaction of all anticipations of delicacy and vastly amazing comfort in increasing and decreasing sound volume.

5th – The instrument is of the same size as the attached illustration, with 5 claves and 10 chords, not heavier than 32 to 36 Loth [1 Loth = approx. 16 gm], only if there are more chords will it become longer and some Loths heavier, so it is easy and comfortable to carry and should be a welcome invention for travelers, country and parties visiting individuals of both sexes, especially as it can be played without the help of anybody.[1]

With the cover of the bellows, the entire instrument may be doubled, in order to play more chords or more single tones, in this case, keyboard, the bellows remain in the middle, while each hand controls in turn, either the claves or the bellows.

The above-mentioned duplication of the instrument or adding more chords, would not make anything better to anybody, or give something new, as only the parts would increase, and the instrument more expensive and heavier. The instrument costs 12 to 16 Marks the difference in price results in a more elegant or worse-looking appearance.

From humble beginnings a welter of different kinds of accordions came forth. Many more right hand (treble) keys were added, as were left hand (bass) keys. More reeds (what are called “feathers” here) made richer sounds which could be added or subtracted via stops (equivalent of organ stops), and so forth.

In the 19th century the accordion eventually supplanted the fiddle as the staple instrument for dance music in northern Europe, because of the relative ease of playing in comparison with the fiddle.  Accordion reeds are permanently tuned, so it is hard/impossible to play out of tune, and the arrangement of the keys makes production of major chords very simple. If it is tuned in C major, for example, the first 3 keys played together by pushing the bellows produce the notes C E G (the tonic major chord).

Here’s a video of John Spiers trying out a new push-pull accordion, called a melodeon in England. John is the son of a very old friend of mine, and is quite well known in the English folk scene. I played this kind of instrument for many years, but have retired and do not own one any more – otherwise I would give you a sample of my own playing.

Because Demian was Armenian I’ll choose an Armenian recipe to celebrate him even though the accordion was born in Vienna.  I’ve given plenty of Viennese recipes and precious few Armenian ones. Lamb and bulgar are classic Armenian ingredients, so here’s a lamb meatball dish that involves both. You can think of the meatballs as lamb stuffed with lamb. The influence of Indian cuisine should be obvious to those who know kofta.

Kufta

Ingredients

Stuffing

1 lb ground lamb
2 onions, peeled and finely chopped
½ cup green bell pepper, finely chopped
3 tbsp fresh parsley, chopped
¼ cup pine nuts, toasted and chopped
1 tsp paprika
½ tsp mint leaves finely chopped
½ tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp dried basil
salt and freshly ground black pepper

Outer layer

1½ lb lamb, finely ground
¾ cup fine bulgur, soaked 20 minutes in water and drained
1 onion, peeled and finely chopped
1 tbsp chopped parsley
salt and freshly ground black pepper

To cook

4 pints chicken stock
olive oil

Instructions

For the filling, sauté the lamb in a skillet over medium-high heat with a trace of olive oil. When thoroughly browned add the onions, green pepper and parsley and cook for about 10 to 15 minutes, until the vegetables have softened. Add the spices and season to taste with salt and pepper. Cook for 10 more minutes, then place in a bowl and chill thoroughly.

Chill completely.

To finish and cook, mix the outer layer ingredients together in a food processor. You want this outer layer to be light and fluffy, so mix well so that air is incorporated.

Shape the filling into balls the size of walnuts.

Shape the outer layer into round patties that are large enough to wrap around the filling. Place one ball of filling inside the outer layer, and then wrap the outer layer around the filling so that it is completely and evenly covered. Sorry, this takes practice.

Bring the stock to a simmer in a large stock pot. Add the meatballs a few at a time, cover and simmer for about 8 to 10 minutes. When they are cooked the meatballs will rise to the surface.

You can serve the kufta in some broth, or with plain boiled rice and yoghurt.

May 222017
 

Today is the beginning of the Rogation Days which run from Monday to Wednesday up to Ascension Thursday which is 40 days after Easter. Rogation Days were originally days of prayer and fasting in Western Christianity but in England became associated with two distinct ancient customs: going out into the fields to bless the new crop, and beating the bounds. The word “rogation” comes from the Latin verb rogare, meaning “to ask”, which reflects the ancient practice of beseeching of God for the appeasement of his anger and for protection from calamities, particularly in relation to the crops. Nowadays the Rogation Days are a minor part of the church year, although some practices are enjoying a renaissance.

The Rogation Days were introduced around 470 by Mamertus, bishop of Vienne, in France because of a particularly bad Spring that year which threatened the crops, and were eventually adopted elsewhere. Their observance was ordered by the Council of Orleans in 511, and though the practice was spreading in Gaul during the 7th century, it was not officially adopted into the Roman rite until the reign of Pope Leo III (pope from 795 to 816). The faithful typically observed the Rogation Days by fasting and abstinence in preparation for the feast of the Ascension, and farmers often had their crops blessed by a priest at this time. Violet vestments are worn at the rogation litany and its associated Mass.

In England it was also common on the Rogation Days for the priest, churchwardens, choirboys, and parishioners to process around the parish boundary, stopping at marker stones, and praying for the protection of the parish in the forthcoming year. This was also known as ‘Gang-day’, after the Old English word for going or walking.

The Rogation Day ceremonies are thought to have arrived in the British Isles in the 7th century. The oldest known Sarum text regarding Rogation Days is dated from around 1173 to 1220. In it, celebrations in the south of England are described, in which processions were led by members of the congregation carrying banners which represented various biblical characters. At the head of the procession was the dragon, representing Pontius Pilate, which would be followed by a lion, representing Christ. After this there would be images of saints carried by the rest of the congregation. Sarum texts from the 13th and 15th  centuries show that the dragon was eventually moved to the rear of the procession on the vigil of the Ascension, with the lion taking the place at the front. Illustrations of the procession from the early 16th century show that the arrangements had been changed yet again, this time also showing bearers of reliquaries and incense.

During the reign of King Henry VIII, Rogation processions were thought to assist crop yields, with a notable number of the celebrations taking place in 1543 when there were prolonged rains. During the reign of Edward VI, after the Crown had taken much of the Church’s holdings within the country, Rogation processions were not officially condoned or even recognized as an official part of worship. However, in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I the celebrations were explicitly mentioned in the royal reformation, allowing them to resume as public processions.

Rogation processions continued in the post-Reformation Church of England much as they had before, and Anglican priests were encouraged to bring their congregations together for inter-parish processions. At specific intervals, clerics were to remind their congregations to be thankful for their harvests. Psalms 103 and 104 were sung, and people were reminded of the curses the Bible ascribed to those who violated agricultural boundaries. The processions were not mandatory, but were at the discretion of the local minister, and were also ascribed more importance when a public right of way needed to be protected from agricultural or other expansion.

Roman Catholic imagery or icons were banned from the processions. The Archdeacon of Essex, Grindal of London, beseeched the church to explicitly label the tradition as a perambulation, to further distance it from Italian liturgy. In the book Second Tome of Homelys, a volume containing officially sanctioned homilies of the Elizabethan church, it was made clear that the English Rogation was to remember town and other communal boundaries in a social and historical context, with extra emphasis on the stability gained from lawful boundary lines.

In England the Rogation Day processions got blended with the old custom of beating the bounds which dates from Anglo-Saxon times. The custom is mentioned in laws of Alfred the Great and Æthelstan. It may have been derived from the Roman Terminalia, a festival celebrated on February 22 in honor of Terminus, the god of landmarks, to whom cakes and wine were offered while sports and dancing took place at the boundaries. See: http://www.bookofdaystales.com/boundary-day/

At one time, before modern surveying techniques, making sure that everyone knew the boundary lines was very important to avoid disputes between parishes (and farm land). It was also a way of strengthening the community and giving it a sense of place. In 1865–66 William Robert Hicks was mayor of Bodmin in Cornwall, when he revived the custom of beating the bounds of the town concluded the event with a game of Cornish hurling. Hurling survives as a traditional part of beating the bounds at Bodmin, commencing at the close of the ‘Beat’. The game is organised by the Rotary club of Bodmin and was last played in 2016. The game is started by the Mayor of Bodmin by throwing a silver ball into a body of water known as the “Salting Pool”. There are no teams and the hurl follows a set route. The aim is to carry the ball from the “Salting Pool” via the old A30, along Callywith Road, then through Castle Street, Church Square and Honey Street to finish at the Turret Clock in Fore Street. The participant carrying the ball when it reaches the turret clock receives a £10 reward from the Mayor.  Here’s an idea of Cornish hurling from St Columb (which takes place on Shrove Tuesday, not Rogation Days).

Both Ganging beer and Rammalation biscuits are mentioned in old texts as part of the festivities of Rogation beating the bounds, but both are a complete mystery. It’s possible that Ganging beer was just the regular parish beer given the name “Ganging” because of the day, rather than being a special recipe. Before the Reformation churches often had their own breweries, and brewed huge batches of beer to sell at various festivals as a prime money maker. The Reformation killed the festivities and the church breweries because the church authorities deemed them to be unseemly and unchristian. This is where the term “pagan” caught hold in relation to these festivities, leading to a lot of misunderstanding. By “pagan” the authors meant that such revels were Roman, that is, Catholic, not that they stemmed from a pre-Christian era.

Rammalation biscuits are a total mystery. Neither a recipe or even a glimmer of an idea remains despite much historical digging.  Well, no matter.  Let’s go with ratafias. The word starts with the same letters, and they are one of my all-time favorites. Mrs Beeton to the rescue. If you cannot find bitter almonds use almond extract.

RATAFIAS.

  1. INGREDIENTS.—1/2 lb. of sweet almonds, 1/4 lb. of bitter ones, 3/4 lb. of sifted loaf sugar, the whites of 4 eggs.

Mode.—Blanch, skin, and dry the almonds, and pound them in a mortar with the white of an egg; stir in the sugar, and gradually add the remaining whites of eggs, taking care that they are very thoroughly whisked. Drop the mixture through a small biscuit-syringe on to cartridge paper, and bake the cakes from 10 to 12 minutes in rather a quicker oven than for macaroons. A very small quantity should be dropped on the paper to form one cake, as, when baked, the ratafias should be about the size of a large button.

Time.—10 to 12 minutes. Average cost, 1s. 8d. per lb.

 

May 212017
 

Today is the birthday (1844) of Henri Julien Félix Rousseau, French post-impressionist painter, sometimes  known as Le Douanier (the customs officer), a slightly off-hand joke concerning his day job as an import tax collector. He started painting seriously in his early forties but was ridiculed during his lifetime by critics. He was not fully recognized as a self-taught genius until after his death when his work exerted an enormous influence on several generations of artists.

Rousseau was born in Laval (in northwest France near Brittany), in 1844, son of plumber. He attended secondary school in Laval first as a day student, and then as a boarder after his father became a debtor and his parents had to leave the town upon the seizure of their house. After school, he worked for a lawyer and studied law, but after a short stint tired of the work and joined the army. He served for 4 years, starting in 1863, but on his father’s death, he moved to Paris to support his widowed mother as a government employee. In 1868, he married Clémence Boitard, his landlord’s 15-year-old daughter, with whom he had six children (only one survived). In 1871, he was appointed as a collector of the octroi of Paris, collecting taxes on goods entering Paris. His wife died in 1888 and he married Josephine Noury in 1898.

From 1886, he exhibited regularly in the Salon des Indépendants, and, although his work was not placed prominently, it drew an increasing following over the years. Tiger in a Tropical Storm (Surprised!) was exhibited in 1891, and Rousseau received his first serious review when the young artist Félix Vallotton wrote: “His tiger surprising its prey ought not to be missed; it’s the alpha and omega of painting.” In 1893, Rousseau moved to a studio in Montparnasse where he lived and worked until his death in 1910. In 1897, he produced one of his most famous paintings, La Bohémienne endormie (The Sleeping Gypsy).

In 1905, Rousseau’s large jungle scene The Hungry Lion Throws Itself on the Antelope was exhibited at the Salon des Indépendants near works by younger leading avant-garde artists such as Henri Matisse, and by a group now generally known as Les Fauves.

After Rousseau’s retirement in 1893, he supplemented his small pension with part-time jobs and casual work such as playing a violin in the streets. He also worked briefly at Le petit journal, where he produced a number of its covers. Rousseau exhibited his final painting, The Dream, in March 1910, at the Salon des Independants.

In the same month Rousseau cut his leg and the wound became infected, which he ignored. In August he was admitted to the Necker Hospital in Paris, where his son had died, and was found to have gangrene in his leg. After an operation, he died from a blood clot on September 2, 1910.

At his funeral, seven friends stood at his grave: the painters Paul Signac and Manuel Ortiz de Zárate, the artist couple Robert Delaunay and Sonia Terk, the sculptor Brâncuși, Rousseau’s landlord Armand Queval, and poet Guillaume Apollinaire who wrote the epitaph Brâncuși put on the tombstone (translated here):

We salute you
Gentile Rousseau you can hear us
Delaunay his wife Monsieur Queval and myself
Let our luggage pass duty free through the gates
of heaven
We will bring you brushes paints and canvas
That you may spend your sacred leisure in the
light of truth
Painting as you once did my portrait
Facing the stars

Here is a small gallery of some of my favorites.  I’m not particularly taken with his usual flat representation of the human figure, but I do like his portrayal of foliage, his colors, and his general composition. De gustibus . . .  I am not (nor want to be) an art historian.

Figuring out a recipe du jour is dead simple because of a famous event towards the end of Rousseau’s life. In 1908 Pablo Picasso, at the time an up and coming star, came across a painting by Rousseau (Portrait of a Woman) being sold in a junk shop cheaply as a canvas to be painted over. He was moved by the artistry, bought the painting, sought out the artist, and held a half serious, half burlesque banquet in his studio at Le Bateau-Lavoir in Rousseau’s honor. “Le Banquet Rousseau,” as it has come to be known is now legendary. US poet and literary critic John Malcolm Brinnin, wrote that it “was neither an orgiastic occasion nor even an opulent one. Its subsequent fame grew from the fact that it was a colorful happening within a revolutionary art movement at a point of that movement’s earliest success, and from the fact that it was attended by individuals whose separate influences radiated like spokes of creative light across the art world for generations.” Guests at the banquet included, Guillaume Apollinaire, Jean Metzinger, Constantin Brâncuși, Juan Gris, Max Jacob, Marie Laurencin, André Salmon, Maurice Raynal, Daniel-Henri Kahnweiler, and Leo and Gertrude Stein.

The banquet was designed to be in two stages: first a formal dinner for 30 special guests, and second a general party for anyone who wanted to attend. Unfortunately, Picasso mixed up his dates and had ordered catered food (from a cheap local bistro) for the formal dinner for the wrong night. Consequently there was a scramble to provide dinner, and French artist’s model Fernande Olivier who shared the apartment with Picasso, made a big batch of riz à la valencienne — i.e. the French idea of paella — while Gertrude Stein raced around Montmatre in search of cheeses, sardines, bread and so forth as hors d’ouevres.

You can read all about the events of the banquet elsewhere. There are numerous stories and vignettes recounted by those present. Rousseau arrived at 8 pm when the guests (who had been drinking since 5 pm) were, let’s say, in jovial spirits. He was wearing his artist’s beret with a cane in one hand and his violin in the other. An odd sight: the short, white-haired, 64 year old painter greeted by 20-something artists and poets living in the heart of Bohemia, who would all go on to be world famous, but at the time were just beginning to be noticed. All of them ultimately drew inspiration, in one way or another, from Rousseau’s work.  Opinion is sharply divided as to whether the attendees (and Picasso himself) were truly honoring Rousseau or mocking him. Probably a bit of both at the time. But in death Rousseau had the last laugh: the painting that Picasso bought for 5 francs and displayed that night is now valued at $100 million.

Paella varies considerably around the world and is rarely cooked as they make it in Valencia. You’ll find one traditional recipe of mine here, http://www.bookofdaystales.com/cesare-borgia/  Throughout Spain, France, and Italy people prepare a variety of dishes of saffron rice with fish, meat, and vegetables which they think of as “Spanish rice”, and, of course, I have no idea what actually went into the dish at Rousseau’s banquet. But the typical Parisian riz à la valenciennes, calls for chicken, mussels, chorizo, and shrimp, with bell peppers and onions; a far cry from the rabbit, beans, and snails in Valencian paella. It is essential to have a wide, deep skillet to prepare this dish, preferably a paella pan.  A wood fire won’t hurt either, but a gas stove will do.

Riz à la Valenciennes

Ingredients

1 small chicken, cut in 12 pieces
olive oil
½ L/1 pint unshelled fresh mussels, fully scrubbed and debearded
160 ml/⅔ cup dry white wine
6-8 large shrimp, raw
2 onions, peeled and chopped
1 green bell pepper, deseeded and chopped
4 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
100 g/3½ oz. chorizo, finely sliced
250 gm/2 cups short-grain rice
800 ml/ 3½ cups chicken broth
½ tsp powdered saffron
salt and freshly ground black pepper
finely chopped flat-leaf parsley

Instructions

Heat a small amount of olive oil in a skillet and sauté the chicken pieces until they are golden on all sides. Because they are small, this process will ensure that they are almost, but not entirely, cooked through. Transfer the chicken pieces to a bowl with their juices and set aside.

Heat half the white wine in a large pot. Add the mussels, cover and cook over high heat until the mussels are just open. Discard any mussels that do not open, and transfer the mussels to a bowl with their juices (strained through muslin) and set aside.

Sauté the shrimp in a little olive oil until they turn pink. Set aside.

Heat 2 to 3 tablespoons olive over medium heat in a large skillet or paella pan. Add the onions and bell pepper and sauté until soft. Add the chorizo slices and cook for 5 minutes more. Add the garlic and continue cooking for another 1 to 2 minutes.  Add the rice and sauté an additional 3 minutes, stirring regularly. Add the remaining white wine and allow it to evaporate completely. Add the broth and saffron, and season to taste with salt and pepper.

Bring the broth to a boil, cover, and turn the heat down as low as possible. Let the rice to cook for about 15 minutes, undisturbed. Remove the cover and check the rice. It should be barely cooked. If need be cook a little longer. When the rice is almost ready, arrange the chicken pieces, mussels and shrimp on top of the rice. Add their juices to the skillet. Cover and allow to cook over low heat for 5 minutes more.

Uncover, garnish with the fresh parsley, and serve in the skillet.

Serves 4

May 202017
 

Today is the birthday (1799) of legendary French author Honoré de Balzac.  His father, born Bernard-François Balssa, was one of eleven children from an artisan family in Tarn, a region in the south of France. In 1760 he set off for Paris with only a Louis coin in his pocket, intent on improving his social standing; by 1776 he had become Secretary to the King’s Council and a Freemason (he had also changed his name to the more noble sounding “Balzac,” his son later adding—without official recognition—the nobiliary particle: “de”). After the Reign of Terror (1793–94), François Balzac was sent to Tours to coordinate supplies for the Army. Balzac’s mother, born Anne-Charlotte-Laure Sallambier, came from a family of haberdashers in Paris. Her family’s wealth was a considerable factor in the match: she was 18 at the time of the wedding, and François Balzac, 50

Honoré (named after Saint-Honoré of Amiens http://www.bookofdaystales.com/st-honore-of-amiens/ ) was the second child born to the Balzacs. Exactly one year before, Louis-Daniel had been born, but he lived for only a month. As an infant Balzac was sent to a wet-nurse; the following year he was joined by his sister Laure and they spent four years away from home. When the Balzac children returned home, they were kept at a distance from their parents. At age 10 Balzac was sent to the Oratorian grammar school in Vendôme, where he studied for 7 years. His father intentionally gave him little spending money to try to instill in him a sense of a hardscrabble upbringing but it primarily served to make him the object of ridicule among his much wealthier schoolmates.

Balzac had difficulty adapting to the rote style of learning at the school. As a result, he was frequently sent to the “alcove”, a punishment cell reserved for disobedient students. (The janitor at the school, when asked later if he remembered Honoré, replied: “Remember M. Balzac? I should think I do! I had the honour of escorting him to the dungeon more than a hundred times!”) His time alone, however, gave Balzac the opportunity to read voraciously.

Like Dickens (sometimes called the “English Balzac”), Balzac used scenes of his boyhood in his writing, especially La Comédie Humaine. His time at Vendôme is reflected in Louis Lambert, his 1832 novel about a young boy studying at an Oratorian grammar school at Vendôme. The narrator says : “He devoured books of every kind, feeding indiscriminately on religious works, history and literature, philosophy and physics. He had told me that he found indescribable delight in reading dictionaries for lack of other books.”

Balzac often fell ill, finally causing the headmaster to contact his family with news of a “sort of a coma.” In 1814 the Balzac family moved to Paris, and Honoré was sent to private tutors and schools for the next two and a half years. This was an unhappy time in his life, during which he attempted suicide on a bridge over the Loire River. In 1816 Balzac entered the Sorbonne, where he studied under three famous teachers: François Guizot, who later became Prime Minister, Abel-François Villemain, a recent arrival from the Collège Charlemagne who lectured on French and classical literature, and, his favorite, Victor Cousin, who strongly encouraged independent thinking.

After the Sorbonne Balzac was persuaded by his father to follow him into the Law. For three years he trained and worked at the office of Victor Passez, a family friend. During this time Balzac began to delve the vagaries of human behavior. In Le Notaire (1840), he wrote that a young person in the legal profession sees “the oily wheels of every fortune, the hideous wrangling of heirs over corpses not yet cold, the human heart grappling with the Penal Code.”

In 1819 Passez offered to make Balzac his successor, but he had had enough of the Law. He despaired of being “a clerk, a machine, a riding-school hack, eating and drinking and sleeping at fixed hours. I should be like everyone else. And that’s what they call living, that life at the grindstone, doing the same thing over and over again…. I am hungry and nothing is offered to appease my appetite.” In consequence he determined to become a writer.

Balzac’s work habits are legendary, he wrote from 1 am to 8 am every night and sometimes even longer. Balzac could write very rapidly; some of his novels, written with a quill, were composed at about thirty words per minute. His preferred method was to eat a light meal at 5 or 6 in the afternoon, then sleep until midnight. He then rose and wrote for many hours, drinking innumerable cups of strong black coffee. He would often work for 15 hours or more at a stretch, and claimed to have once worked for 48 hours with only 3 hours of rest in the middle.

Balzac revised obsessively, covering printer’s proofs with changes and additions to be reset. He sometimes repeated this process during the publication of a book, causing significant expense both for himself and the publisher. As a result, the finished product quite often was different from the original text.

Balzac died in Paris in 1850, 5 months after marrying Ewelina Hańska, widow of count Hańska, in Russia.  He had never enjoyed good health, but the journey to Russia to finalize his courtship with Ewelina (who was also being courted by Franz Lizst), and his persistent overeating, along with his generally poor personal habits, weakened his system fatally. He showed all the symptoms of heart failure in his final year.

The day he died he had been visited by Victor Hugo, who later served as a pallbearer and eulogist. Balzac is buried at Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. At his memorial service, Victor Hugo said, “Today we have people in black because of the death of the man of talent; a nation in mourning for a man of genius.” The funeral was attended by the literary elite of Paris”, including Frédérick Lemaître, Gustave Courbet, Dumas père and Dumas fils,[84] as well as representatives of the Légion d’honneur and other dignitaries. Later, Auguste Rodin created the Monument à Balzac in his honor, and featured him in several smaller busts.

Here’s a few of my favorite quotes:

Our worst misfortunes never happen, and most miseries lie in anticipation.

First love is a kind of vaccination which saves a man from catching the complaint a second time.

Life is simply what our feelings do to us.

If you mean to cook your dinner, you must expect to soil your hands; the real art is in getting them clean again.

Great love affairs start with Champagne and end with tisane.

The majority of husbands remind me of an orangutan trying to play the violin.

And he, like many jaded people, had few pleasures left in life save good food and drink.

Cruelty and fear shake hands together. An unfulfilled vocation drains the color from a man’s entire existence.

Hatred is the vice of narrow souls; they feed it with all their littleness, and make it the pretext of base tyrannies.

After Balzac had closeted himself away for lengthy creative bursts, drinking coffee and eating only fruit and eggs, he would take a break and wolf down vast quantities of food. Once he asked his publisher, Monsieur Werdet, to lunch between writing bouts. According to the food historian Giles MacDonagh, he ate “a hundred Ostend oysters, 12 Pre-Sale mutton cutlets, a duckling with turnips, a brace of roast partridges, a sole Normand, without counting hors d’oeuvres, entremets, fruits etc.”

Balzac sometimes gave dinner parties with a theme. Once he served a meal of nothing but onions: onion soup, his favorite onion puree, onion juice, onion fritters and onions with truffles. His idea, apparently, was to showcase the purgative properties of the vegetable. It worked. All his guests got sick. Maybe if you just make French onion soup you can avoid this fate. I’ve been making classic French onion soup since I was a novice cook, which, if made well, is superb. But you must get  it right. It takes time and patience. This is my recipe from memory which I have played with over the years. It makes about 8 servings, so I don’t make it very often these days. You really shouldn’t make small quantities.

French Onion Soup

Peel 10 sweet white onions, halve them, and finely slice them. Heat 3 tablespoons of butter in a large, heavy Dutch oven, over low heat and layer in the onion slices sprinkling salt between each layer. Let the onions sweat down, undisturbed for 15 to 20 minutes.  After that, stir the onions occasionally until they take on a dark, even, mahogany color. This is the absolutely critical step, and requires patience and attentiveness. You don’t want any of the onions to burn but they must be dark brown. Eventually the onions will reduce to about 2 cups. Ignore cookbooks that say you can brown the onions in 10 minutes or so. This is complete nonsense. Slowly cooked onions take an hour (sometimes longer) to reach this stage.

Add a cup (or more) of dry white wine to cover the onions and turn the heat to high. Reduce the wine to a syrup, then add 5 cups of beef consommé. See the HINTS tab for my recipes. You want this consommé to be of the highest quality. Also add a cup of good quality farm apple cider, and a bouquet garni (your choice of herbs; I use thyme, parsley, marjoram, and bay leaf). Simmer gently for about 20 minutes. Cool and refrigerate overnight.

Reheat the soup next day when ready to serve.

Heat the broiler. Cut day old baguette slices into rounds to fit the  mouths of oven-safe soup crocks. Very lightly toast the bread under the broiler on one side only.

Add a little cognac to the soup, and ladle it into the crocks, leaving space for the bread. Place the bread, toasted side down, on top of the soup and spread it with grated Gruyère. Place the crocks under the broiler and broil until the cheese is bubbly and toasted.

May 192017
 

Christin

On this date in 1743 the Lyonnais physicist Jean-Pierre Christin, permanent secretary of the Académie des sciences, belles-lettres et arts de Lyon, working independently of the Swedish astronomer Anders Celsius (who had developed a similar (but inverted) scale), published the design of a mercury thermometer, the “Thermometer of Lyon” built by the craftsman Pierre Casati that used a scale where zero represented the freezing point of water and 100 represented the boiling point of water at one standard atmosphere. It was, and still is (sometimes), called the centigrade scale although more usually it is called the Celsius scale to honor the first creator even though his scale is not quite the same as the centigrade scale. I tend to vacillate between the two names because I grew up calling it centigrade which seems more etymologically satisfying to me – “centi” (100), “gradus” (degree). Honoring people is all right too, though, as for many SI units: joule, amp, volt, etc. etc. I’ll dribble on a bit about the history of the Celsius scale and then turn my attention to why the US is so resistant to the metric system when the rest of the world uses it more or less happily – even Britain, where such changes do not come easily.

Fahrenheit

As it happens, the Fahrenheit scale, developed by the Dutch-German-Polish physicist, inventor, and scientific instrument maker Daniel Gabriel Fahrenheit, was published only about 20 years before Celsius and Christin published details of their scales, because at that time there was a pressing need in science for accurate measurements of temperature. Fahrenheit’s scale had three calibration points: the freezing point of a stable mix of ice, water, and ammonium chloride  (0°F), the freezing point of distilled water (32°F), and mean human body temperature (96°F). The latter reference point was later shifted slightly higher. The boiling point of distilled water at one atmosphere was set at 212°F, making the range between the freezing and boiling points of water 180 degrees. 180 is a highly composite number (or anti-prime), meaning that it has numerous divisors, so that, in theory, the scale is useful for mathematical calculations that will result in whole number solutions to various equations.

Celsius

In 1742 Anders Celsius (1701–1744) published details of  a temperature scale which was the reverse of the scale now known by his name: 0 represented the boiling point of water, while 100 represented the freezing point of water. In his paper “Observations of two persistent degrees on a thermometer,” he documented his experiments showing that the melting point of ice is essentially unaffected by pressure. He also determined with remarkable precision how the boiling point of water varied as a function of atmospheric pressure. He proposed that the zero point of his temperature scale, being the boiling point, would be calibrated at the mean barometric pressure at mean sea level.

In 1743 Jean-Pierre Christin published his work on a centigrade scale, and in 1744, coincident with the death of  Celsius, Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus (1707–1778) reversed Celsius’ scale, but otherwise kept the intervals between degrees the same. Here we have a, not very well known, example of a common habit of scientists coming up with the same results independently. In this case the coincidence is undoubtedly due to the fact that a metric system of measures across the board makes a great deal of sense for computational purposes. Time is the one variable that won’t play nice.

Linnaeus’ custom-made “linnaeus-thermometer,” for use in his greenhouses, was made by Daniel Ekström, Sweden’s leading maker of scientific instruments at the time and whose workshop was located in the basement of the Stockholm observatory. As it happens, numerous physicists, scientists, and instrument makers at the time are credited with having independently (or semi-independently) developed a centigrade scale; among them, Pehr Elvius, the secretary of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences (which had an instrument workshop) and with whom Linnaeus had been corresponding; Daniel Ekström, the instrument maker; and Mårten Strömer (1707–1770) who had studied astronomy under Anders Celsius.

The first known Swedish document reporting temperatures in the centigrade scale is the paper “Hortus Upsaliensis” dated 16 December 1745 that Linnaeus wrote for a student of his, Samuel Nauclér. In it, Linnaeus recounted the temperatures inside the orangery at the University of Uppsala Botanical Garden:

…since the caldarium (the hot part of the greenhouse) by the angle of the windows, merely from the rays of the sun, obtains such heat that the thermometer often reaches 30 degrees, although the keen gardener usually takes care not to let it rise to more than 20 to 25 degrees, and in winter not under 15 degrees…

For a long time the Fahrenheit and centigrade systems had roughly equal followings. In Australia where I grew up, in England where I finished secondary school and attended university, and the US where I lived for 35 years, Fahrenheit ruled in weather reporting and (mostly) in the laboratory. Nowadays only the US and a few scattered islands in the Atlantic and Pacific (mostly US dependencies) use Fahrenheit for weather reporting, and every country in the world uses centigrade for scientific purposes (or the closely related Kelvin scale). Here is a map of the world with those countries using centigrade colored in grey, and those using Fahrenheit colored in green. (You will have to click on the map to enlarge it to see the tiny islands).

Why is the US so resistant to conversion to the metric system in general? I’d say that there are multiple reasons, including a degree of mindless conservatism (coupled with a resistance to the cost of changing).  Clearly such resistance has its down side. For example, the Hubble telescope had to be retrofitted at great expense and inconvenience because the US engineers who designed and built it confused metric and Imperial units of measurement, and ended up at the outset with a telescope in space with a prime reflecting mirror that could not be focused properly.

When it comes to weather reporting I understand why people in the US don’t want to switch from Fahrenheit to centigrade. Fahrenheit has a human dimension to it that centigrade lacks. I can recalibrate Fahrenheit, used for weather reporting, to what I will call the Juan Alejandro Bloody-Bloody Scale thus: 0°F is BLOODY COLD and 100°F is BLOODY HOT. Both ends of this scale represent well understood extremes with round decimal numbers. Centigrade is not round at all at those temperatures. 0°F  is -17.7778°C and 100°F is 37.778°C (approximately).  For round numbers in the centigrade scale you need to pick 0 (which is critical in some ways, such as for frost or plant growth, but not especially cold for humans), and 40 (which is insanely hot, and not very common). Most places I have lived in the world regularly experience one or other of the extremes of the Fahrenheit scales, but not both. My home in the Catskills in New York, however, had the good fortune to experience both on a regular basis. Not the prime reason, but one of several reasons that I do not live there any more.

What I am getting at is that both 0 and 100 in the Fahrenheit scale represent significant milestones (or turning points) in the ways humans feel about local weather conditions. When someone says, “It’s going to hit one hundred (or zero) today” there’s a sense of importance derived from the number itself. There’s a recognizability to the number even though the difference between 99°F and 100°F is hardly noticeable. Hundreds mark significant achievements in human terms: 100 years old, 100th anniversary (i.e. centennial) etc. So in that sense the Fahrenheit scale has a more human feel to it than centigrade (in my opinion). Even though Fahrenheit is not intrinsically decimal, it has a decimal feel to it where it counts in human experience.

Thermometers have limited, but very important, uses in cooking. In particular they are invaluable in sugar cookery. If you check out the HINTS tab of this blog you will find my notes on the various stages of sugar cooking for different confections and the temperatures needed to achieve those stages (in centigrade). For a recipe I want to turn to Lyon, home of Jean-Pierre Christin whom we are celebrating today, and it would be great if there were a local recipe that I could share that uses a sugar thermometer. Lyon is certainly a major culinary center and there are numerous candied treasures to sample, such as the legendary pink pralines or coussins de Lyon. But . . . their production involves trade secrets. Sorry, save your pennies for the air fare. The best I can offer is a recipe for marrons glacés (candied chestnuts) which are a Lyon specialty. Even there I recommend going to Lyon rather than attempting to make them yourself. It’s a very fiddly and time-consuming job.

Let’s start with the French name and what it implies. There are two French words for “chestnut” – marron and châtaigne. The châtaigne is a low grade chestnut normally used for roasting and the typical chestnut that you find in stores outside of southern France and northern Italy. The marron is a high quality chestnut that can cost four or five times more than regular chestnuts, and are the ones you need for this recipe. One thing that is simple about this recipe is the ratio of ingredients 1:1:1:1 – 1 part peeled chestnuts to 1 part sugar to 1 part water to 1 vanilla bean. Now it gets demanding.

Take each chestnut and cut through the tough outer skin all the way around the chestnut so that you cut to the lower membrane, but do not pierce the meat. With a little labor you can peel off the outer skin, but it goes quicker if you place the chestnuts in the microwave on high heat for 20 seconds. This produces some steam as the chestnuts cook a little, loosening the skin. Peel off the tough outer skin being careful not to damage the meat. Then remove the inner skin. Some people use the point of a paring knife, others scrub off the skin with steel wool or an abrasive pad (used only for cooking). Using an abrasive rather than a knife makes damage to the meat less likely. Be prepared for a certain number of damaged chestnuts. These will not make pretty confections, but candy them anyway and then chop them for use with ice cream or in pies and cakes.

Place the water, sugar, and vanilla bean (split lengthwise) in a saucepan and bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Place the peeled chestnuts in a wire basket and lower them into the syrup. Boil vigorously for 1 minute.  Take from the heat and let cool. Keep the chestnuts 24 hours in the syrup, then repeat the process of boiling, cooling, and preserving for 24, hours three times. After the last cooling remove the wire basket from the syrup and separate the chestnuts on wire racks to dry. They are best if eaten quickly !!

May 182017
 

Today is the birthday (1919) of Margot Fonteyn de Arias, DBE, prima ballerina assoluta of the Royal Ballet, for whom she danced her entire career. Fonteyn was born Margaret Evelyn Hookham in Reigate, Surrey. Her father was a British engineer, and her mother was the daughter of Brazilian industrialist Antonio Fontes. Very early in her career Margaret took the name by which she was known all her life, Margot Fonteyn, with the surname derived from “Fontes,” also adopted by her brother—Portuguese “fonte” is “fountain” in modern English, “fonteyn” in Middle English. Her later formal married name was Margot Fonteyn de Arias in the Spanish-language tradition.

At 4 years of age her mother signed her and her elder brother up for ballet classes. At age 8, Margot travelled to China with her mother and father, who had taken employment with a tobacco company there while her brother Felix remained at his school. For six years Margot lived in TianJin, then in Shanghai, where she studied ballet with Russian émigré teacher George Goncharov. Her mother took her back to London when she was 14, to pursue a ballet career. Her father continued on in Shanghai and was interned during World War II by the invading Japanese.

In 1933 Fonteyn joined the Vic-Wells Ballet School, the predecessor of today’s Royal Ballet School, training under the direction of Ninette de Valois and such teachers as Olga Preobrajenska and Mathilde Kschessinska [Krzesinska]. After starting with the Vic-Wells Ballet, she rose quickly through the ranks of the company. By 1939 Fonteyn had performed principal roles in Giselle, Swan Lake and The Sleeping Beauty and was appointed prima ballerina. She was most noted in the ballets of Frederick Ashton, including Ondine, Daphnis and Chloe, and Sylvia. She was especially renowned for her portrayal of Aurora in Tchaikovsky’s The Sleeping Beauty. Fonteyn also worked with choreographer Roland Petit and, later in life, Martha Graham. When the Royal Ballet toured the United States in 1949, Fonteyn instantly became a celebrity for her performances.

In the 1940s she and Robert Helpmann formed a very successful dance partnership, and they toured together for several years. In the 1950s she danced regularly with Michael Somes. In 1955, the year in which Fonteyn married a Panamanian diplomat, they danced together in the first color telecast of a ballet, NBC’s production of The Sleeping Beauty. In 1958 they appeared together in the first British televised version of The Nutcracker.

Fonteyn began her greatest artistic partnership at a time when many people, including the head of the Royal Ballet, Ninette de Valois, thought she was about to retire. In 1961 Rudolf Nureyev defected to the West, and on 21 February 1962 he and Fonteyn first performed together in Giselle. She was 42 and he was 24. Their performance was a great success; during the curtain calls Nureyev dropped to his knees and kissed Fonteyn’s hand. They created an on-and-offstage partnership that lasted until her retirement in 1979 at age 61, and were lifelong friends. Fonteyn and Nureyev became known for inspiring repeated frenzied curtain calls and bouquet tosses. Sir Frederick Ashton choreographed Marguerite and Armand for them, which no other couple danced until the 21st century. They debuted Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet, although MacMillan had conceived the ballet for Lynn Seymour and Christopher Gable. Fonteyn and Nureyev appeared together in the filmed versions of MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet, Swan Lake, Les Sylphides, and the pas de deux from Le Corsaire.

Despite differences in background and temperament, and a 19-year gap in ages, Nureyev and Fonteyn became close lifelong friends and were famously loyal to each other. Fonteyn would not approve an unflattering photograph of Nureyev. He said about her:

“At the end of ‘Lac des Cygnes’ when she left the stage in her great white tutu I would have followed her to the end of the world.”

The extent of their physical relationship remains unclear. Nureyev said that they had one, while Fonteyn denied it. Her biographer Meredith Daneman agreed with Nureyev. The pair remained close even after she retired to a Panama cattle farm with her husband. She talked with Nureyev by phone several times a week, although her farmhouse did not have a telephone. When she had to be treated for cancer, he paid many of her medical bills and visited her often, despite his busy schedule as a performer and choreographer. In a documentary about Fonteyn, Nureyev said that they danced with “one body, one soul” and that Margot was “all he had, only her.”

In 1955 Fonteyn married Dr Roberto Arias, a Panamanian diplomat to London. Their marriage was initially rocky because of his infidelities. She was arrested in Panama when helping Arias to attempt a coup d’état against the government in 1959. Confidential British government files released in 2010 showed that Fonteyn knew of and had some involvement in the coup attempt. In 1964 a rival Panamanian politician shot Arias, leaving him a quadriplegic for the rest of his life.

After her retirement she spent all her time in Panama, and was close to her husband and his children from an earlier marriage. She had no pension, and had spent all her savings looking after her husband.[6] Shortly before her husband’s death, in 1989, Fonteyn was diagnosed with cancer, and she died on 21 February 1991 in a hospital in Panama City, Panama, aged 71.

Reigate in particular, where Fonteyn was born, and Surrey in general, is pretty much a wasteland when it comes to old traditional recipes. This may be due to the fact that Surrey is little more than a suburb of London – Reigate certainly, these days. Yet all is not lost. Surrey tea rooms are noted now, and have been for over a century, for the classic English afternoon tea “cake” (or tart), maids of honour. Tradition has it that they were first baked by a maid of honour at Henry VIII’s court, some versions even suggesting the maid in question was Anne Boleyn. Legend also has it that Henry prized them so much that he kept the recipe locked away. Who knows? What we do know is that you will find them served in Kew, Richmond, and other landmark towns in Surrey.  There are something like a custard cheesecake inside a pastry shell.Sometimes you will find recipes for them that are cake and jam inside a pastry shell. These are not traditional. A tea room in Kew in Surrey, “The Original Maids of Honour,” dates back to the 18th Century and was set up specifically to sell these tarts. Dainty and royal morsels for a world renowned ballerina.

Surrey Maids of Honour

Ingredients

Pastry

2 cups all-purpose flour
6 tbsp cold unsalted butter
⅓ cup vegetable shortening
2 large eggs, beaten
2 tsp lemon juice
⅛ tsp rose water or orange flower water (optional)
1 pinch salt

Custard Filling

1 vanilla bean (or 1 tsp vanilla extract)
½ cup heavy cream, plus 2 tbsp
¼ cup unsalted butter
2 tbsp granulated sugar
¼ cup ground almonds
1 large egg, beaten
2 tsp finely minced fresh lemon zest
1 tbsp fresh lemon juice
¼ tsp rose water or orange flower water (optional)
fresh ground nutmeg

powdered sugar (for dusting)
butter (for greasing)

Instructions

Dice the butter. Sift the flour into a large mixing bowl. Add in the diced butter, plus very small scoops (teaspoon sized) of shortening. Mix together, cover, and place the bowl in the freezer for 10 to 15 minutes.

In another bowl, place the eggs, lemon juice, rosewater (or orange-flower water), and a pinch of salt and put in the refrigerator.

Using a food processor pulse the chilled fats and flour until the mix is coarse and crumbly (8 to 10 pulses). Do not over process. Slowly add the liquids (while pulsing more) until the pastry has almost come together. Scoop out the pastry on to a floured surface and knead until it is completely combined. Only a few times should be needed. Cut into two discs, wrap each in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 30 minutes.

To make the filling, cut lengthwise down the vanilla bean with the tip of a sharp knife. Put the vanilla bean and cream into a saucepan, and heat to just below boiling over medium heat. DO NOT BOIL. Remove from the heat. Take out the bean and scrape the seeds into the cream (or simply use vanilla extract). Add the butter, sugar, ground almonds, egg, lemon zest and juice, and the rosewater (or orange-flower water), stirring well to combine. Let stand for about 10 minutes.

Pre-heat the oven to 425˚F

Grease very well 2 12-hole tart or muffin pans. If you have only one (as I do now), you’ll have to make two batches, each as follows. Roll out half the pastry, cut out 12 rounds with a 3” round cutter, and carefully press them into the tart pan. Spoon half the filling into the pastry cases. Leave about 1 inch below the rim because the custard rises as it bakes. Dust lightly with fresh nutmeg and bake for 15-20 minutes, or until the custard is golden and puffy.

Let the tarts sit in the pan for a few minutes before unmolding on to a wire rack to cool. Dust the tops with powdered sugar.

You can leave the tarts to cool a little before serving, but they are best eaten still slightly warm.

May 172017
 

On this date in 1902, archaeologist Valerios Stais found among some pieces of rock that had been retrieved from the Antikythera shipwreck in Greece 2 years earlier, one piece of rock that had a gear wheel embedded in it. Stais initially believed it was an astronomical clock, but most scholars at the time considered the device to be an anachronism of some sort, too complex to have been constructed during the same period as the other pieces that had been discovered with it (dated around the 1st and 2nd centuries BCE). Nope !! What is now called the Antikythera mechanism is, in fact, an ancient Greek analogue computer and orrery used to predict astronomical positions and eclipses for calendrical and astrological purposes, as well as a four-year cycle of athletic games that was similar, but not identical, to an Olympiad, the cycle of the ancient Olympic Games.  Nothing like it would re-emerge in Europe for 15 centuries. There is so much about the ancient world that remains a mystery (Stonehenge, the Pyramids, etc.).

The Antikythera mechanism was found to be housed in a 340 mm (13 in) × 180 mm (7.1 in) × 90 mm (3.5 in) wooden box but full analysis of its form and uses has only recently been fully performed.  In fact after Stais discovered it, it was ignored for 50 years, but then gradually scientists of various stripes, including historians of science, looked into it, and research into the mechanism is ongoing. Derek J. de Solla Price of Yale became interested in it in 1951, and in 1971, both Price and Greek nuclear physicist Charalampos Karakalos made X-ray and gamma-ray images of the 82 fragments.

The mechanism is clearly a complex clockwork device composed of at least 30 meshing bronze gears. Using modern computer x-ray tomography and high resolution surface scanning, a team led by Mike Edmunds and Tony Freeth at Cardiff University were able to look inside fragments of the crust-encased mechanism and read the faintest inscriptions that once covered the outer casing of the machine. Detailed imaging of the mechanism suggests it dates back to around 150-100 BCE and had 37 gear wheels enabling it to follow the movements of the moon and the sun through the zodiac, predict eclipses and even recreate the irregular orbit of the moon. The motion, known as the first lunar anomaly, was first described by the astronomer Hipparchus of Rhodes in the 2nd century BCE, and so it’s possible that he was consulted in the machine’s construction. Its remains were found as one lump later separated into three main fragments, which are now divided into 82 separate fragments after conservation work. Four of these fragments contain gears, while inscriptions are found on many others. The largest gear is approximately 140 mm (5.5 in) in diameter and originally had 224 teeth.

It is not known how the mechanism came to be on the sunken cargo ship, but it has been suggested that it was being taken from Rhodes to Rome, together with other looted treasure, to support a triumphal parade being staged by Julius Caesar. The mechanism is not generally referred to as the first known analogue computer, and the quality and complexity of the mechanism’s manufacture suggests it has undiscovered predecessors made during the Hellenistic period.

In 1974, Price concluded from the gear settings and inscriptions on the mechanism’s faces that it was made about 87 BCE and lost only a few years later. Jacques Cousteau and associates visited the wreck in 1976 and recovered coins dated to between 76 and 67 BCE. Though its advanced state of corrosion has made it impossible to perform an accurate compositional analysis, it is believed the device was made of a low-tin bronze alloy (of approximately 95% copper, 5% tin). All its instructions are written in Koine Greek, and the consensus among scholars is that the mechanism was made in the Greek-speaking world.

In 2008, continued research by the Antikythera Mechanism Research Project suggested the concept for the mechanism may have originated in the colonies of Corinth, since they identified the calendar on the Metonic Spiral as coming from Corinth or one of its colonies in Northwest Greece or Sicily. Syracuse was a colony of Corinth and the home of Archimedes, which, so the Antikythera Mechanism Research project argued in 2008, might imply a connection with the school of Archimedes. But the ship carrying the device also contained vases in the style common in Rhodes of the time, leading to a hypothesis that the device was constructed at an academy founded by the Stoic philosopher Posidonius on that island. Rhodes was busy trading port in antiquity, and also a center of astronomy and mechanical engineering, home to the astronomer Hipparchus, active from about 140 BCE to 120 BCE. That the mechanism uses Hipparchus’s theory for the motion of the moon suggests the possibility he may have designed, or at least worked on it. Finally, the Rhodian hypothesis gains further support by the recent decipherment of text on the dial referring to the dating (every 4 years) of the relatively minor Halieia games of Rhodesl. In addition, it has recently been argued that the astronomical events on the parapegma (almanac plate) of the Antikythera Mechanism work best for latitudes in the range of 33.3-37.0 degrees north. Rhodes is located between the latitudes of 35.5 and 36.25 degrees north.

Using analysis of existing fragments various attempts have been made on paper, and in metal, to reconstruct a working model of the mechanism.

Some of the earliest Greek recipes extant mention the use of cheese. In book 9 of Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus meets the Cyclops Polyphemus in cave who, on returning with his sheep and goats from the fields, milks them and makes cheese with the milk. Feta is made from sheep’s milk or a mix of sheep’s and goat’s milk, so some food historians conjecture that feta or something akin may date from the 8th century BCE (Homer’s era).

One of the oldest Greek recipes, although hard to interpret accurately, calls for fish baked with cheese and herbs.  I don’t have the necessary ingredients to hand to experiment at the moment, and recipes for baked or fried fish and feta that I have available, all call for New World ingredients such as tomatoes and zucchini. My suggestion would be to coat a roasting pan with olive oil, lay in some Mediterranean fish fillets, and top them with crumbled feta mixed with either yoghurt or breadcrumbs seasoned with dill, salt and pepper. Garlic and onions would make good seasonings as well. Bake at 375˚F for 20 to 25 minutes and serve with boiled potatoes and a green salad.

If you don’t want to be quite so adventurous, fill halved pitas with a mix of feta, chives and herbs, drizzle with olive oil, and grill briefly until the pitas are golden and the feta is soft.