Apr 222017
 

Today is the birthday of Isabella I (Ysabel I) of Castile (1451 – 1504). She married Ferdinand II of Aragon and their marriage became the basis for the political unification of Spain under their grandson, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. After a struggle to claim her right to the throne, she reorganized the governmental system, brought the crime rate to the lowest it had been in years, and unburdened the kingdom of the enormous debt her brother had left behind. Her reforms and those she made with Ferdinand had an influence that extended well beyond the borders of their united kingdoms. Isabella and Ferdinand are well known for completing the Reconquista, ordering the conversion or exile of their Muslim and Jewish subjects under the legendary Spanish Inquisition, and for supporting and financing Christopher Columbus’ 1492 voyage that led to the colonization of huge parts of the New World and to the establishment of Spain as the first global power which dominated Europe and much of the world for more than a century. The phrase “the sun never sets on the empire” was coined to describe the Spanish empire under Isabella’s great-grandson, Felipe II, and inherited only much later by the British.

With many celebrated (larger than life) historical figures such as Napoleon, Genghis Khan, etc. I always ask my students the deathless question: “(Fill in the blank); ‘Good Thing’ or ‘Bad Thing’?” I’m stealing from 1066 And All That, of course, and on the surface it’s a silly question. History is not black and white. I’m asking them to give considered answers in the vein of, “On the one hand . . . . on the other hand . . .” Well what about Isabella? Good Thing or Bad Thing? Your answer probably depends on your ethnic origins. If you’re Hispanic you’ll probably lean in favor of Good Thing, if you’re Jewish, Indigenous American, or Moorish – not so much. The thing is that Isabella is a towering figure in world history. She was not only tough minded, independent, and politically astute, she was also the progenitor of numerous monarchs and dynasties.

The most famous living descendants of Isabella I (and Ferdinand II) are probably the current European monarchs. First of all, the Kings of Spain are descended from their union, with their current major dynastic heir being King Felipe VI of Spain. However, it is also the case that all the other monarchs currently reigning in Europe – King Albert II of Belgium, Grand-Duke Henri of Luxembourg, Queen Elizabeth II of the U.K., Queen Margrethe II of Denmark, King Harald V of Norway, King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden, and King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands – descend in some way or another from Isabella and Ferdinand. This is also true of the Sovereign Princes of Europe: Albert II, Prince of Monaco and Hans-Adam II, Prince of Liechtenstein. That’s leaving a pretty significant mark.

From the point of view of English history, Isabella’s daughter, Katherine, was first married to Henry VII’s eldest son Arthur, and then, when he died, was remarried to his second son Henry who became Henry VIII. Henry’s divorce from Katherine was, of course, the immediate cause of the English Reformation, and the ascent of their daughter, Mary I, Isabella’s granddaughter, the precipitating event leading to the bloody Counter-Reformation in England. Mary married Isabella’s great-grandson Felipe II (Mary’s first cousin once removed) but they had no children, hence that bloodline vanished. It’s always struck me as a tad ethnocentric (or xenophobic) of English history text books that Felipe is rarely acknowledged as an ACTUAL king of England. Admittedly he was king by marriage, and his reign lasted only whilst Mary was alive. But he was king – not royal consort, like Victoria’s Albert, or royal hanger-on like the current Greek guy. He was genuinely king of England (jure uxoris), and tried to make the title stick after Mary’s death by launching the famous Armada which came to a well-known miserable end. The current Elizabeth II is descended from Isabella via a different bloodline. And . . . just to muddy the waters further, Isabella was a direct descendant of the kings of England (including king John) via John of Gaunt. Not much hybrid vigor in the bloodlines in those days.

Isabella was first betrothed to Ferdinand at the age of 6, but subsequent complex royal machinations scotched that deal as she was offered around to numerous princes until, as an adult and heir presumptive, she got a (wobbly) agreement from her brother, Henry, king of Castile at the time, that she would not be forced to marry against her will.  In 1468 after Isabella refused a marriage proposal from Alfonso V of Portugal (backed by brother Henry), Isabella made a secret promise to marry her cousin and very first betrothed, Ferdinand of Aragon. On 18 October 1469, the formal betrothal took place. Because Isabella and Ferdinand were second cousins, they stood within the prohibited degrees of consanguinity and the marriage would not be legal unless a dispensation from the Pope was obtained. With the help of the Valencian cardinal Rodrigo Borgia (later Alexander VI), Isabella and Ferdinand were presented with a supposed papal bull by Pius II (who had actually died in 1464), authorizing Ferdinand to marry within the third degree of consanguinity, making their marriage legal. Afraid of opposition, Isabella eloped from the court of Henry with the excuse of visiting her brother Alfonso’s tomb in Ávila. Ferdinand, on the other hand, crossed Castile in secret disguised as a servant. They were married immediately upon reuniting, on 19 October 1469, in the Palacio de los Vivero in the city of Valladolid. It was both a successful union politically, and, by all accounts, a happy one – although one never really knows about such things. I’d (modestly) characterize the marriage as an uncharacteristically (for the time) equal partnership. It’s vital to remember that this was an era of very powerful female rulers in a patriarchal world. Many men found this out to their peril.

You can catch up on Isabella’s numerous achievements in standard histories.  How about her personality? Here we must be careful not to be anachronistic. For starters, Isabella was short but stocky with a very fair complexion, and had a hair color that was between strawberry-blonde and auburn. Some portraits, however, show her as a brunette. Her daughters, Joanna and Catherine, were thought to resemble her the most. Isabella maintained an austere, temperate lifestyle, and her devotion to Catholicism was the hallmark of her life. In spite of her political hostility towards the Muslims in Andalusia, she developed a taste for Moorish decor and style.

Her contemporaries were more or less unanimous concerning her temperament. Andrés Bernáldez said, “She was an endeavored woman, very powerful, very prudent, wise, very honest, chaste, devout, discreet, truthful, clear, without deceit. Who could count the excellences of this very Catholic and happy Queen, always very worthy of praises.” Hernando del Pulgar wrote, “She was very inclined to justice, so much so that she was reputed to follow more the path of rigor than that of mercy, and did so to remedy the great corruption of crimes that she found in the kingdom when she succeeded to the throne.” This is a telling quote. Obviously she was not an advocate of “the quality of mercy.” This point is echoed in the writings of     Lucio Marineo Sículo: “[The royal knight Alvaro Yáñez de Lugo] was condemned to be beheaded, although he offered forty thousand ducados for the war against the Moors to the court so that these monies spare his life. This matter was discussed with the queen, and there were some who told her to pardon him, since these funds for the war were better than the death of that man, and her highness should take them. But the queen, preferring justice to cash, very prudently refused them; and although she could have confiscated all his goods, which were many, she did not take any of them to avoid any note of greed, or that it be thought that she had not wished to pardon him in order to have his goods; instead, she gave them all to the children of the aforesaid knight.” There you go !!! Justice trumps mercy (even fiscal pragmatics). Quite the stalwart woman.

Here’s a recipe from a 15th century Catalan cookbook, Libre Del Coch by Mestre Robert. I know I’m being a bit free and easy with my regional recipe idea here. If I were an idiot I could claim that Catalonia is part of Spain these days, as is Castile and Aragon, and, therefore, this is an old “Spanish” recipe. I’m not that stupid. But Isabella’s marriage did lead to the unification of Spain, and when I look over historic recipes I see a great deal of overlap from region to region, not least because European royalty moved all over the place when they married and took their cooks and culinary ideas with them. At the aristocratic level, the household cuisines showed a great deal of homogeneity, with variations due in large part to the availability of ingredients. This recipe is for a casserole/stew of meat (probably lamb or mutton) with oranges. Bitter oranges were brought to Spain from China by the Moors and were (and are) prolific throughout Iberia. They are a common flavoring ingredient.  This kind of recipe is ancestral to a host of Spanish meat casseroles.

Naturally the recipe is completely vague as to quantity of ingredients, and even as to their precise nature. What do you make of “totes salses fines” for example? Fine herbs/spices? I’m thinking pepper, cloves, ginger, nutmeg, allspice – the usual suspects. Medieval linguistic skills are not my strong suit to begin with, let alone interpreting vague instructions in the dialect (that seems to drift between Old French and Old Spanish). Agresta was a type of verjuice (unripe grape or apple juice) used as a strong acidifier (you’ll note that the recipe suggests vinegar as an alternative), intensified further by the orange juice. I’ve given translating a go. My translation is extremely loose partly because I don’t recognize all the vocabulary, and partly for ease of reading.

Casola de Carn

Pren la carn e talla-la menut a troços axf com una nou. E çoffregiràs-la ab bona grassa de carnsalada. E quant sia ben çoffredida, met hi de bon brou e vaja a coure en una casola. Emet-hi de totes salses fines e çaffra e un poch de such de toronge o agresta, de manera que coga molt bé, fins a tant que la carn se commence a desfer e que y romanga solament hun poch de brou, pendràs tres o quatre ous debatuts ab such de toronges o agresta. E met-ho dins en la cassola. E quant ton senyor se volrà aseure en taula, dona-li quatre o sinch voltes girades, e tantost se espessirà. E quant sia bé espès, leva-u del foch e fes escudelles e damunt cada una met-hi canyella.

Emperò alters són qui no.y volen metre ous ni salsa sinó sola canyella e girofle. E coguen en la carn, com dit he damunt.

E met-hi vinagre, perquè tinga sabor. E per lo semblant molts fan açò que us dire, que tota la carn posen en una peça farcida de canyella e girofle sencer y en lo brou ben picades les salses, emperò far a girar adés adés, perquèno coga més d’una part que d’altra e axf no.y cal metre sinó girofle e canyella, emperò com dit he de bona manera.

Meat Casserole

Cut the meat into pieces the size of a nut and fry it in pork fat. When it is well fried put in some good broth and set it to cook in a casserole. Add all the fine flavorings and saffron and a little orange juice or agresta, and cook well until the meat begins to fall apart and only a small amount of broth remains. Add three or four eggs beaten with orange juice or agresta. When your master is ready at table, turn the meat four or five times to let the sauce thicken. When it is thick, take it from the fire and serve it in bowls, sprinkled with a little cinnamon on each.

There are some people who do not add eggs, or spices except cinnamon and cloves. The meat is cooked as stated above.

They add vinegar, for the flavor. It appears that many people do it in the following manner: the meat is left whole stuffed with cinnamon and cloves, and with the other spices in the broth. The meat has to be turned from time to time so that it doesn’t cook more in one part than in any other. You can leave out the cloves and cinnamon, as long as you follow the other directions correctly.

Have fun. When I get round to experimenting with this recipe I’ll do it in a big covered skillet on the stove top rather than in a casserole, because I have more control that way. Besides, even the word “casserole” gives me nightmares because as a teenager my mother used to make a week’s worth of casseroles on Sundays, because she got home late from work and did not have time to cook in the evenings, and my father, who was an excellent cook, never lifted a finger. I was just learning at that stage and might have contributed something if I had known what I was doing, and did not feel the constant need to play the indolent adolescent. No matter what went into each casserole they all came out the same – and all tasting a bit burnt from being in the oven too long. Scalded and burnt dish rag is about how I would describe the taste. Admittedly oven versus stove top is a tough call. Oven braising works well enough if you know what you are doing.

Apr 202017
 

UN Chinese Language Day is observed annually on this date. The event was established by UNESCO in 2010 as a way “to celebrate multilingualism and cultural diversity as well as to promote equal use of all six of its official working languages throughout the organization.” April 20th was chosen as the date to pay tribute to Cangjie (倉頡), a legendary person who is credited with inventing Chinese characters. The first Chinese Language Day was celebrated in 2010 on the 12th of November, but beginning in 2011 the date was changed to the 20th of April, roughly corresponding to the start of Guyu (谷雨) in the Chinese calendar. Chinese people celebrate Guyu (which usually begins around April 20th) in honor of Cangjie, because of a legend that when Cangjie invented Chinese characters, the deities and ghosts cried and it rained millet; the word “Guyu” literally means “rain of millet” (or “grain rain”).

This is all very convoluted, but that is all to the point. UNESCO’s intention in celebrating the UN’s 6 official languages on different days is to celebrate linguistic diversity. Learning a foreign language, if done right, makes you understand that it’s not just a matter of learning new words and grammar: you have to think differently. If you are a native English speaker and you learn French or German, this point may be lost on you. But if you learn Chinese, or, Japanese, or (heaven forbid) Burmese (as I am trying now), you quickly grasp that the native speakers of these languages don’t think of the world in the same way as English speakers. You get a little of the flavor of this idea (a very little), when you have to confront gender in French or Spanish. In Chinese you start, almost at the outset, with the notion that everything has to be classified into about 50 categories based on shape, quality, purpose, and whatnot, because you can’t express the number of objects without a measure word, and to use the correct measure word you need to be able to classify the objects you are counting. Maybe they are small living things, or things that are jointed, or flat and useful things. Each has a special measure word. But the trouble does not stop there; flat and useful things include credit cards, movie tickets, and tables, among other things !!! Westerners would hardly objects into such a category. The degree to which one’s native language affects one’s way of thinking is a matter of considerable debate (see http://www.bookofdaystales.com/benjamin-lee-whorf/ ), and I’m not going off on that tangent. I’m just making you aware that linguistic diversity is not some inconvenience to be resolved: it is important as a means of personal and cultural identity.

According to legend Cangjie lived around 2650 BCE and was supposedly an official historian of the Yellow Emperor when he invented Chinese characters. He is said to have had four eyes. Cang Jie was the eponym for the (c. 220 BCE) Cangjiepian proto-dictionary as well as the Cangjie method of inputting characters into a computer.

There are several versions of the legend of Canjie’s creation of Chinese characters. One sayss that shortly after unifying China, the Yellow Emperor, being dissatisfied with his “rope knot tying” method of recording information (like Quipu), charged Cangjie with the task of creating characters for writing. Cangjie then settled down on the bank of a river, and devoted himself to the completion of the task at hand. Even after devoting much time and effort, however, he was unable to create even one character. One day, Cangjie saw a phoenix flying above him, carrying an object in its beak. The object fell to the ground directly in front of Cangjie, and he saw it to be an impression of a footprint. Not being able to recognize which animal the print belonged to, he asked for the help of a local hunter passing by on the road. The hunter told him that this was, without a doubt, the footprint of a Pixiu (something like a winged lion used in Feng Shui), being different from the footprint of any other beast that was alive.

His conversation with the hunter greatly inspired Cangjie, leading him to believe that if he could capture in a drawing the special characteristics that set apart each and every thing on the earth, this would truly be the perfect kind of character for writing. Thenceforth, Cangjie paid close attention to the characteristics of all things, including the sun, moon, stars, clouds, lakes, oceans, as well as all manner of birds and beasts. He began to create characters according to the special characteristics he found, and before long, had compiled a long list of characters for writing. To the delight of the Yellow Emperor, Cangjie presented him with the complete set of characters. The emperor then called the premiers of each of the nine provinces together in order for Cangjie to teach them this new writing system. Monuments and temples were erected in Cangjie’s honor on the bank of the river where he created these characters.

It’s a cute story, but archeology suggests that the Chinese writing system developed over a considerable period of time. The exact evolutionary sequence is now lost to history but the conjecture that the characters evolved over centuries from simple pictographs to complex characters is widely (not universally) accepted. Children (and beginners) are taught the rudiments of Chinese characters by imagining them to be pictographs. For example, my teacher taught the character for nǚ 女 (woman) by suggesting that it looked like a pregnant woman (two legs at the bottom, belly protruding on the left). He explained dozens of characters in this way, but modern linguists agree that such teaching techniques are simply mnemonic devices and not actual indications of the evolution of the characters.

Let’s turn our attention to the millet that supposedly rained from the sky when Cangjie invented the characters. Millets are a group of highly variable small-seeded grasses, widely grown around the world as cereal crops or grains for fodder as well as human food. Millets are important crops in the semiarid tropics of Asia and Africa. Foxtail Millet is known to have been the first domesticated millet. Chinese legends attribute the domestication of millet to Shennong, the legendary (prehistoric) Emperor of China.  Palaeoethnobotanists (archeologists specializing in plant remains) relying on data such as the relative abundance of charred grains found in archaeological sites, hypothesize that the cultivation of millets was of greater prevalence in prehistory in Asia than rice, especially in northern China and Korea. Some of the earliest evidence of millet cultivation in China was found at Cishan (north). Common millet husk phytoliths and biomolecular components have been dated around 8300–6700 BCE in storage pits in Cishan along with remains of pit-houses, pottery, and stone tools related to millet cultivation. A 4,000-year-old bowl containing well-preserved noodles made from foxtail millet and broomcorn millet was found at the Lajia archaeological site in China.

In most of China congee (porridge) made from rice is a common nourishing comfort food. I don’t like it very much, but, then again, I don’t like oatmeal porridge either. Millet porridge is, however, a staple in the north of China where it was first domesticated and still widely grown. You can buy millet, not necessarily Chinese millet, in most health food stores. It may come from India or Africa where it is also an important staple. Chinese specialty markets will stock the Chinese variety.

There’s really nothing much to cooking millet as a porridge. For a watery porridge use 4 cups of fresh water to ½ cup of millet. Simmer gently for about 30 minutes until the millet “blooms,” that is, pops open. In China it is served hot in the winter and warm in the summer.  If you want a drier millet dish reduce the amount of water to about 3 cups and increase the millet to about 1 cup (you need to experiment based on a number of variables such as humidity). Cook tightly covered over low heat for 30 minutes until all the water is absorbed. This way you can use the millet in the same way that you serve rice.

Apr 192017
 

Today marks the anniversary of the battles of Lexington and Concord in 1775, the first engagements in the war for independence of the North American colonies of Great Britain. As ever, I’m not interested in hailing the battles per se, nor in offering detailed analysis of the battles.  There are plenty of other sources for that. I do want to point out 2 issues, however: one minor, one major.  First the minor one. July 4th 1776 is celebrated as Independence Day in the US, but celebrating independence on ONE DAY – especially that date – is beguiling in the extreme. The war for independence lasted from 1775 to 1783, and the fate of the colonies hung in the balance for most of that time. A simple declaration of independence was important politically, of course, but it did not do anything to further the actual cause of independence.  July 4th is a token and the year 1776 was no more, or less, important than any other year in the late 18th century for the United States. For me, 1791 is a far more important year in US history, which brings me to my major issue.

On 30th December 1791 George Washington informed Congress that Amendments 1 to 10 to the Constitution (of 12 proposed) had been ratified by the requisite number of states and were enshrined as the Bill of Rights. Of these 10 the 2nd is the one I want to focus on, and I do it on this date because it is pertinent to what happened at Lexington and Concord. The Battles of Lexington and Concord were the first military engagements of the American Revolutionary War fought on April 19, 1775, in Middlesex County, Province of Massachusetts Bay, within the towns of Lexington, Concord, Lincoln, Menotomy (present-day Arlington), and Cambridge, near Boston and marked the outbreak of open armed conflict between the Kingdom of Great Britain and thirteen of its colonies on the mainland of British America.

In late 1774 the Suffolk Resolves were adopted to resist the enforcement of the alterations made to the Massachusetts colonial government by the British parliament following the Boston Tea Party. The colonial assembly responded by forming a Patriot provisional government known as the Massachusetts Provincial Congress and calling for local militias to train for possible hostilities. The rebel government exercised effective control of the colony outside of British-controlled Boston. In response, the British government in February 1775 declared Massachusetts to be in a state of rebellion.

About 700 British Army regulars in Boston, under Lieutenant Colonel Francis Smith, were given secret orders to capture and destroy rebel military supplies reportedly stored by the Massachusetts militia at Concord. Through effective intelligence gathering, Patriot colonials had received word weeks before the expedition that their supplies might be at risk and had moved most of them to other locations. They also received details about British plans on the night before the battle and were able to rapidly notify the area militias of the British expedition.

The first shots were fired just as the sun was rising at Lexington. The militia were outnumbered and fell back, and the regulars proceeded on to Concord, where they broke apart into companies to search for the supplies. At the North Bridge in Concord, approximately 400 militiamen engaged 100 regulars from three companies of the King’s troops at about 11:00 am, resulting in casualties on both sides. The outnumbered regulars fell back from the bridge and rejoined the main body of British forces in Concord.

The British forces began their return march to Boston after completing their search for military supplies, and more militiamen continued to arrive from neighboring towns. Gunfire erupted again between the two sides and continued throughout the day as the regulars marched back towards Boston. Upon returning to Lexington, Lt. Col. Smith’s expedition was rescued by reinforcements under Brigadier General Hugh Percy, a future duke of Northumberland known as Earl Percy. The combined force, now of about 1,700 men, marched back to Boston under heavy fire in a tactical withdrawal and eventually reached the safety of Charlestown. The accumulated militias blockaded the narrow land accesses to Charlestown and Boston, starting the Siege of Boston. Ralph Waldo Emerson, in his “Concord Hymn”, described the first shot fired by the Patriots at the North Bridge as the “shot heard round the world”.

The shot was, indeed, heard round the world. Peoples both in European colonies in the Americas, notably South America, and in European nations themselves, took heed and commenced armed struggles against their monarchic rulers that continued throughout the 19th century. The spirit of republicanism was born. Ironically, the British monarchy is one of the few to have survived into the 21st century but only in radically weakened form. The British monarch is now no more than a figurehead, although a vital one. The importance of Lexington and Concord for me lies in the fact that the North American rebellion was carried out by militias. This brings me back to the 2nd Amendment. Its full text reads:

A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

(click to enlarge)

Both the people of the US and the Supreme Court argue endlessly about the wording of the Amendment, but the intent seems quite clear to me. The initial clause about militias tends to be treated as a useless frill by those who want to walk around the streets armed to the teeth, but to my mind it is monumentally important. The Constitution and the Bill of Rights were framed in the shadow of a war for independence that could not have begun without armed militias – as at Lexington and Concord. The 2nd Amendment was, in part, modelled on legislation enacted in Britain in the wake of the Glorious Revolution.

The English Bill of Rights of 1689 emerged from a tempestuous period in English politics during which two issues were major sources of conflict: the authority of the King to govern without the consent of Parliament and the role of Catholics in a country that was becoming ever more Protestant. Ultimately, the Catholic James II was overthrown in the Glorious Revolution, and his successors, the Protestants William III and Mary II, accepted the conditions that were codified in the Bill. One of the issues the Bill resolved was the authority of the King to disarm its subjects, after James II had attempted to disarm many Protestants, and had argued with Parliament over his desire to maintain a standing (i.e. permanent) army. The bill states that it is acting to restore “ancient rights” trampled upon by James II, though some have argued that the English Bill of Rights created a new right to have arms, which developed out of a duty to have arms

I know, I know, this all gets murky quickly and I am not a lawyer. The Supreme Court goes over this ground repeatedly. Many argue that the “ancient right” to possess a weapon stems from the Right to Life which allows people the right to self defense, that is, the right to own a weapon to defend yourself against mortal attack. I get it. But the text of the 2nd Amendment is crystal clear. The right to bear arms exists in the context of militias raised to defend against tyranny. Furthermore, the Amendment speaks of the right to BEAR arms, not to OWN them. This is not some semantic quibble; it’s a critical point. There’s a vast difference between being able to go to a well-stocked armory in the town to pick up a weapon to assist a militia and having a private arsenal in one’s home. I won’t belabor the point. It’s been made numerous times before to no avail.  I’ll pick up pots and pans instead.

Prior to the Revolutionary War cookbooks in the North American  colonies were reprints of British originals such as Hannah Glasse’s  The Art of Cookery made Plain and Easy, first published in 1747, and reprinted numerous times. American Cookery (1796) by Amelia Simmons was the first truly North American cookbook, using local ingredients, such as cornmeal, and recommending pearl ash (potassium carbonate) as a leavening ingredient for the first time in print. It is an important window into distinctively American cooking in the late 18th century. Recipes like this one amuse me greatly:

To make a fine Syllabub from the Cow.

Sweeten a quart of cyder with double refined sugar, grate nutmeg into it, then milk your cow into your liquor, when you have thus added what quantity of milk you think proper, pour half a pint or more, in proportion to the quantity of syllabub you make, of the sweetest cream you can get all over it.

Sure, I’ll just hop out to the barn and milk Betsy into my cooking pot. Or . . . how about the quantities for puff pastry number 2?

Puff Pastes for Tarts.

No. 1. Rub one pound of butter into one pound of flour, whip 2 whites and add with cold water and one yolk; make into paste, roll in in six or seven times one pound of butter, flowring it each roll. This is good for any small thing.

No. 2. Rub six pound of butter into fourteen pound of flour, eight eggs, add cold water, make a stiff paste.

That’ll do the trick when I’m feeding a militia. You can dip into the whole text here: http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/12815/pg12815-images.html It will give you plenty of ideas for a colonial dinner party. This recipe especially appeals to me because I think turkey and oysters go well together (even though I’m not a huge fan of cooked oysters):

To smother a Fowl in Oysters.

Fill the bird with dry Oysters, and sew up and boil in water just sufficient to cover the bird, salt and season to your taste—when done tender, put into a deep dish and pour over it a pint of stewed oysters, well buttered and peppered, garnish a turkey with sprigs of parsley or leaves of cellery: a fowl is best with a parsley sauce.

I can’t provide a modern recipe right now because I can’t get hold of either turkey or oysters at present. Oyster stuffing for roast turkey is still a staple in the rural South, but this recipe is more basic – just turkey and oysters. I’ll try it out when I get the chance.

Apr 182017
 

Today is celebrated in Russia as the Victory of the Novgorod Republic over the Teutonic Knights in the Battle of the Ice (Ледовое побоище), fought on 5th April 1242, largely on the frozen Lake Peipus. I don’t often commemorate battles on this blog, but I am making an exception here because this battle illuminates a part of European history that tends to get underplayed, or plain ignored, in modern consciousness, namely the general understanding of what the so-called Crusades were all about. The popular image of the Crusades, very poorly understood, is of Western Christian armies fighting Muslims in the Near East for control of Jerusalem and the Holy Land, ostensibly to allow access by Christian pilgrims. This piece of the puzzle is only a very small part of the whole story. In a nutshell, with me being hopelessly simplistic as usual, the Crusades were an attempt by Western European powers to control Eastern Europe as well as the Near East using religion as their justification. In my cynical opinion the real motive was power and wealth. For me the only important question in history is WHY?  The answer is always the same – MONEY.

Although the Crusades are usually characterized in the Western mind as wars between Christians and Muslims, they were as much, if not more, wars between Catholic and Eastern Orthodox territories, as well as between Catholic forces and inhabitants of regions that are now, rather misleadingly, called “pagan” where pagan means not Jewish, not Christian, and not Muslim.  There was no pagan religion as such. The word is a catchall for numerous diverse religions outside those that are sometimes called the Religions of Abraham (because he is ancestral to all three) or Religions of the Book (i.e. the Torah which is common (sort of) to all three), that is, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

The First Crusade arose after a call to arms in a 1095 sermon by Pope Urban II. Urban urged military support for the Byzantine Empire and its Emperor, Alexios I, who needed reinforcements for his conflict with westward migrating Turks who were colonizing Anatolia. One of Urban’s stated aims was to guarantee pilgrims access to the holy sites in the Eastern Mediterranean that were under Muslim control. Urban’s wider strategy may have been to unite the Eastern and Western branches of Christendom, which had been divided since their split in the East–West Schism of 1054, and establish himself as head of the unified Church. The response to Urban’s preaching by people of many different classes across Western Europe established the precedent for later Crusades, which, among other things, provided opportunities for economic and political gain.

The Crusaders’ behavior, under Papal sanction, was often deplorable. For example, Crusaders frequently pillaged as they travelled, while their leaders retained control of much captured territory rather than returning it to the Byzantines. During the People’s Crusade (1096) thousands of Jews were murdered in what is now called the Rhineland massacres. Constantinople was sacked during the Fourth Crusade (1202-04) rendering the reunification of Christendom impossible. Subsequently the Crusades actively attempted to capture regions that were under Eastern Orthodox control. The Battle on the Ice was part of this larger enterprise sometimes called the Northern Crusades.

The Northern Crusades or Baltic Crusades were religious wars primarily undertaken by Christian military orders and kingdoms against the Baltic, Finnic, and Slavic peoples around the southern and eastern shores of the Baltic Sea. The crusades took place mostly in the 12th and 13th centuries and resulted in the subjugation and forced baptism of indigenous peoples. The Teutonic Order’s attempts to conquer Orthodox Russia (particularly the Republics of Pskov and Novgorod), an enterprise endorsed by Pope Gregory IX, marked the tail end of the Northern Crusades. The Battle of the Ice in 1242 is usually considered to be the key turning point, although historians do not all agree concerning its importance.

Hoping to exploit Novgorod’s weakness in the wake of the Mongol and Swedish invasions, the Teutonic Knights attacked the neighboring Novgorod Republic and occupied Pskov, Izborsk, and Koporye in autumn 1240. When they approached Novgorod itself, the local citizens recalled 20-year-old Prince Alexander Nevsky to the city, whom they had banished to Pereslavl earlier that year. During the campaign of 1241, Alexander managed to retake Pskov and Koporye from the Crusaders.

In the spring of 1242, the Teutonic Knights defeated a detachment of Novgorodians about 20 km south of the fortress of Dorpat (Tartu). Led by Prince-Bishop Hermann of Dorpat, the knights and their auxiliary troops of local Ugaunian Estonians then met with Alexander’s forces by the narrow strait (Lake Lämmijärv or Teploe) that connects the north and south parts of Lake Peipus (Lake Peipus proper with Lake Pskovskoe).

On April 5, 1242. Alexander, intending to fight in a place of his own choosing, retreated in an attempt to draw the  over-confident Crusaders on to the frozen lake. The crusader forces likely numbered around 2,600, including 800 Danish and German knights, 100 Teutonic knights, 300 Danes, 400 Germans and 1,000 Estonian infantry. The Russians fielded around 5,000 men: Alexander and his brother Andrei’s bodyguards (druzhina), totaling around 1,000, plus 2000 militia of Novgorod, 1400 Finno-Ugrian tribesman and 600 horse archers.

The Teutonic knights and crusaders charged across the lake and reached the enemy, but were held up by the infantry of the Novgorod militia. This caused the momentum of the crusader attack to slow. The battle was fierce, with the allied Russians fighting the Teutonic and crusader troops on the frozen surface of the lake. After a little more than two hours of close quarters fighting, Alexander ordered the left and right wings of his army (including cavalry) to enter the battle. The Teutonic and crusader troops by that time were exhausted from the constant struggle on the slippery surface of the frozen lake. The Crusaders started to retreat in disarray deeper onto the ice, and the appearance of the fresh Novgorod cavalry made them retreat in panic.

It is commonly said that “the Teutonic knights and crusaders attempted to rally and regroup at the far side of the lake, however, the thin ice began to give way and cracked under the weight of their heavy armor, and many knights and crusaders drowned”; but Donald Ostrowski in Alexander Nevskii’s “Battle on the Ice”: The Creation of a Legend contends that the part about the ice breaking and people drowning was a relatively recent embellishment to the original historical story. He cites a large number of scholars who have written about the battle, none of whom mention the ice breaking up or anyone drowning when discussing the battle on the ice. After analyzing all the sources Ostrowski concludes that the part about ice breaking and drowning appeared first in the 1938 film Alexander Nevsky by Sergei Eisenstein. The day is particularly celebrated in Russia because it is commonly held, although disputed by historians, that the victory of Novgorod at the Battle on the Ice stopped further incursions into Russia by Crusaders.

There’s not much source material on uniquely Novgorod cooking of the Middle Ages. They ate cereals, such as oats, rye, wheat and barley as both bread and porridge primarily, with the addition of vegetables and meat on occasion, just as did all Slavs at the time. The common Russian word “kasha” which refers to buckwheat in the West, is just a general term for porridge in Russia, made from any cereal including rice.  I have already given a basic recipe for buckwheat kasha here – http://www.bookofdaystales.com/yuris-night/  Let’s try something a bit heartier. I suggest kholodets, a common Slavic cold dish of shredded meat in gelatin made by boiling down meaty bones. I figured a cold dish was suitable to commemorate a battle that took place on ice. You can choose what meats you want, including pork, veal, beef, or chicken. A mixture is common. I like beef and veal.

You’ll need to start with 2 pounds of beef bones and a mix of stewing beef and veal. Place them in a large stock pot with a scrubbed, unpeeled onion, cover with cold water, bring to a simmer, and cook, covered, for at least 5 hours, skimming the scum from the pot as necessary. Remove the bones and onion from the broth, add what vegetables you would like as a garnish – one or two peeled carrots will do – plus seasonings that you prefer, such as garlic, salt and pepper. Bring back to a simmer and cook for another 45 minutes. Remove the meat and vegetables, and strain the broth through fine muslin into a clean bowl. Shred the meat into small pieces and slice the vegetables.

You can use one big mould or several smaller ones for the finished dish. Lightly grease the moulds then lay some vegetable pieces at the bottom. Then add the shredded meat and fill up the moulds with the strained broth. Refrigerate overnight. In the morning the broth will have set up as a gelatin with some fat on top. Scrape off the fat, dip the moulds in hot water for a minute to release the jellied meat, place an inverted plate over each mould, turn it right side up and tap gently to release. If you have created enough gelatin from the bones they will come out clean.  Of course you can always cheat and add a little extra packaged gelatin during the final simmering to be on the safe side. I usually do. The onion skin will give the broth a brownish tinge. Some people use sliced boiled eggs rather than vegetables as the garnish. Your choice.

 

Apr 172017
 

Today (2017) is Easter Monday in many Western countries – typically (but not everywhere) a national holiday for kicking back and enjoying the good weather in some easygoing way. For a good part of my life (as now), Easter Monday was folded into the Easter holidays in general (usually a week or more), so it’s not been particularly special for me. But I get it. Having an extra day before heading back to work (similar to Boxing Day) is a great idea. I’m all in favor of extra days. By happy coincidence today is also Sham El Messim in Egypt. The festival normally follows the Eastern religious calendar which, for reasons I have not figured out (readers can help me), coincides with the Western one this year.

In Egypt, the ancient festival of Sham El Nessim ( شم النسيم‎‎, literally meaning “smelling of the breeze”) is celebrated on the Coptic (i.e. Eastern) Easter Monday, though the festival dates back to Pharonic times (perhaps to about 2700 BCE). It is celebrated by both Egyptian Christians and Muslims as an Egyptian national holiday rather than as a religious one. Traditional activities include painting eggs, taking meals outdoors, and eating fesikh (fermented mullet). If I had not been renewing my passports in anticipation of my upcoming migration to Asia I would have been in Cairo today visiting family.  Oh well.

The name of the holiday is derived from the Egyptian name of the Harvest Season, known as Shemu, which means a day of creation. According to annals written by Plutarch during the 1st century CE, the Ancient Egyptians used to offer salted fish, lettuce, and onions to their deities on this day. After the Christianization of Egypt, the festival became associated with Easter. Over time, Shemu morphed into its current form and its current date, and by the time of the Islamic conquest of Egypt, the holiday was settled on Easter Monday. The Islamic calendar being lunar and thus moveable relative to the solar year, the date of Sham el-Nessim remained on the Christian-linked date. As Egypt became Arabic the term Shemu found a rough phono-semantic match in Sham el-Nessim, or “Smelling/Taking In of the Zephyrs,” which fairly accurately represents the way in which Egyptians celebrate the holiday.

In Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians, (1834) Edward William Lane writes:

A custom termed ‘Shemm en-Nessem’ (or the Smelling of the Zephyr) is observed on the first day of the Khamaseen. Early in the morning of this day, many persons, especially women, break an onion, and smell it; and in the course of the forenoon many of the citizens of Cairo ride or walk a little way into the country, or go in boats, generally northward, to take the air, or, as they term it, smell the air, which on that day they believe to have a wonderfully beneficial effect. The greater number dine in the country or on the river. This year they were treated with a violent hot wind, accompanied by clouds of dust, instead of the neseem; but considerable numbers, notwithstanding, went out to ‘smell’ it.

Traditional foods eaten on this day consist mainly of fesikh, lettuce, scallions or green onions, tirmis, and colored boiled eggs. I’ll leave making fesikh to the experts. Fesikh (فسيخ‎‎  pronounced in Egyptian Arabic like “physics”) is a traditional Egyptian dish consisting of fermented, salted, and dried gray mullet, of the genus Mugil, a saltwater fish that lives in both the Mediterranean and the Red Seas. Some Egyptians make their own, but the process is lengthy and can be hazardous. Reports of food poisoning from incorrectly prepared fish show up in the news every year. The traditional process of preparing fesikh is to dry the fish in the sun before preserving it in salt, and a few families still take pride in doing it themselves. Most buy it already prepared. The occupation has a special name in Egypt, fasakhani.

Preparing tirmis is no less exacting and time consuming than preparing fesikh, and I don’t recommend it for the novice.

Tirmis is made from lupini beans. Rather surprisingly, lupini beans, in the genus Lupinus are indigenous to the Old and New Worlds. How did that happen? The Old World variety, L. albus, is high in alkaloids and so are extremely bitter unless soaked for 5 days or longer. The New World beans, L. mutabilis, are also bitter, but much less so, and, therefore, do not need as much soaking before preparing. I can get prepared as well as dried lupini beans in Italy. I’m pretty sure that they are L. mutabilis because they are not especially bitter.

Lupini beans have a venerable history: one of the oldest known domesticated plants in the Old and New Worlds. Archaeological reports record seeds of L. digitatus Forsk showing up in the tombs of Twelfth Dynasty Egyptian Pharaohs (over 2000 years BCE). Apparently they were already domesticated in those times. Seven seeds of this species were also found in the tombs of this dynasty dating back to the 22nd century BCE. Lupini were popular with the Romans, who spread their cultivation throughout the Roman Empire.

The Andean variety of lupini beans was domesticated by pre-Incan inhabitants of present-day Peru. Rock imprints of seeds and leaves, dated around the 6th and 7th centuries BCE, are exhibited in the National Museum of Lima. Cultivation was widespread in the Incan Empire, and beyond. Lupini were also used by pre-Columbian Indians in North America, such as the Yavapai people of the Grand Canyon region.

The traditional method of preparing L. albus in Egypt is to first soak the dried beans for 24 hours. Drain them, cover with fresh water, and boil them for 1 to 2 hours. Drain them again, and cover with more fresh water. Then soak, rinse, repeat for 5 days (changing the soaking water every 24 hours). The process is not tremendously time consuming or difficult – just a long, drawn out affair. I don’t quite see the point. Buy them in brine and be done with it.

The skin of lupini beans is tough, so to eat them you need to bite a hole in the skin and squeeze the inner part into your mouth. Traditional condiments, as with ful medames, include salt, olive oil, lemon juice, and powdered cumin. Very Egyptian.

Mar 302017
 

My birthday has rolled around again – 66 this year.  Here are posts from previous years.

http://www.bookofdaystales.com/juan-alejandro/

http://www.bookofdaystales.com/juan-alejandro-2/

http://www.bookofdaystales.com/vincent-van-gogh/

Between them are all the birthdays and anniversaries I think worthy of note. This year I’ll note some people who died on this date.  It might sound a bit depressing but we all die and I would really like it (I think) if I joined the illustrious company who died on their birthdays – but not quite yet. I mentioned 3 last year but left off:

1986 James Cagney

2002 Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother

2004 Alistair Cooke (2004).

I’ll also mention that it is the feast days of Blessed Amadeus IX of Savoy, John Climacus, Mamertinus of Auxerre, Quirinus of Neuss, Tola of Clonard, as well as Shouter Liberation Day in Trinidad and Tobago.

What has amused me for some time now is that of all the semi-serious food days (most from the US) today is a WORLD food day – World Idli Day.  Why, I have absolutely no idea, and I do not intend to make them today. Idli is a traditional breakfast in South Indian households, a slightly savory puffy cake that is popular throughout India and Sri Lanka. The cakes are made by steaming a batter consisting of fermented black lentils and rice.  There are also numerous regional varieties presented in this gallery.

A precursor of the modern idli is mentioned in several ancient Indian works. Vaddaradhane, a 920 CE Kannada language work by Shivakotiacharya mentions “iddalige”, prepared only from a black gram (urad dal) batter. Chavundaraya II, the author of the earliest available Kannada encyclopaedia, Lokopakara (c. 1025 CE), describes the preparation of this food by soaking black gram in buttermilk, ground to a fine paste, and mixed with the clear water of curd and spices. The Western Chalukya king and scholar Someshwara III, reigning in the area now called Karnataka, included an idli recipe in his encyclopedia, Manasollasa (1130 CE). This Sanskrit-language work describes the dish as iḍḍarikā. The food prepared using this recipe is now called uddina idli in Karnataka.

The recipe mentioned in these ancient Indian works leaves out three key aspects of the modern idli recipe: the use of rice (not just urad dal), the long fermentation of the mix, and the steaming for fluffiness. The references to the modern recipe appear in the Indian works only after 1250. Food historian K. T. Achaya speculates that the modern idli recipe might have originated in present-day Indonesia, which has a long tradition of fermented food. According to him, the cooks employed by the Hindu kings of the Indianised kingdoms might have invented the steamed idli there, and brought the recipe back to India during 800-1200.  Achaya refers to an Indonesian dish called “kedli”, which he claims is similar to idli. However, Janaki Lenin was unable to find any recipe for an Indonesian dish by this name. I see no reason to doubt that idli is Indian in origin.

To make Idli, four parts uncooked rice (Idli rice or parboiled rice) to one part whole white lentil (urad dal, vigna mungo) are soaked separately for at least four hours to six hours or overnight. Optionally spices such as fenugreek seeds can be added at the time of soaking for additional flavor. Once done soaking, the lentils are ground to a fine paste and the rice is separately coarsely ground, then they are combined. Next, the mixture is left to ferment overnight during which its volume will more than double. After fermentation some of the batter may be kept as a starter culture for the next batch. The finished idli batter is put into greased moulds of an idli tray or “tree” for steaming. The perforated molds allow the idlis to be cooked evenly. The tree holds the trays above the level of boiling water in a pot, and the pot is covered until the idlis are done (about 10–25 minutes, depending on size). A more traditional method is to use leaves instead of molds. Idli can be rather bland and are usually served with chutneys or sambar, a vegetarian curry.

This instructional video gives the basics:

Mar 262017
 

Today is the fourth Sunday in Lent and has been known by many names, Refreshment Sunday, Laetare Sunday, Rose Sunday, and Mothering Sunday, because of various customs associated with the day.  I’m going to focus on Mothering Sunday, but also tip my hat to the other names and traditions.  My mother, who was raised Anglican, vaguely mentioned it when Mothering Sunday came around each year when I was a little boy, 60 years ago, but it had no obvious meaning at the time outside of a few churches that honored it.  Then it was the custom to give little children posies of wild flowers to take to their mothers.

There is no precise documentation of what people did on Mothering Sunday historically but it seems that in the 16th century some people took the day to visit their “mother” church. What their mother church was apparently varied.  For some it was the diocesan cathedral, for others it was the church where they were baptized. It is tempting to see the latter custom as the reason why the day became a family reunion holiday, because people returning to where they were born would likely have the opportunity to visit their parents. But there is no strong evidence for this practice. However, it is known that in the 16th century going a-mothering was established in some regions of England.  Robert Herrick (1591 – 1674) wrote:

TO DIANEME. A CEREMONY IN GLOUCESTER.

I’ll to thee a simnel bring,
‘Gainst thou go’st a-mothering:
So that when she blesseth thee,
Half that blessing thou’lt give me.

A simnel is a simnel cake, a cake made with fine flour that has been around since the Middle Ages, and which was a customary treat on special days. Mid-Lent Sunday was commonly a time to have a small break from the fasting rigors of Lent, so a fine fruit cake was an appropriate gift to take to family on Mothering Sunday, or Refreshment Sunday. The old Gospel reading of the day concerned the miracle of loaves and fishes, so a little indulgence was warranted. After all, Sundays, even in Lent, are feast days, not fast days.

It’s not possible to make much historical sense out of the evolution of Mothering Sunday, but certainly by the 18th and (especially) 19th centuries it was customarily a day off for household servants to visit their mother church with their own mothers and other family members, or simply to visit their parents. It was often one of the few times that whole families could gather together, and because the focus was not on specific holiday celebrations it could be devoted to family activities.

By the early 20th century the custom of keeping Mothering Sunday had tended to lapse . In 1914, inspired by Anna Jarvis’s efforts in the United States, Constance Penswick-Smith created the Mothering Sunday Movement, and in 1921 she wrote a book asking for the revival of the festival. Constance was the daughter of the vicar of Coddington, Nottinghamshire, and there is a memorial in Coddington’s church. The wide scale revival of the day did not occur, however, until US and Canadian soldiers serving abroad during World War II brought Mother’s Day (a different day) to Europe.  By the late 1950s, prompted by savvy merchants, Mothering Sunday became England’s Mother’s Day, although it took some time to catch on as such.

Mid-Lent Sunday is also known as Rose Sunday, again for somewhat obscure reasons. The liturgy in Catholic and Anglican churches allows for rose-colored vestments on this day. It is said that pope Leo IX, in 1051, commanded the nuns of Bamberg in Franconia, to furnish a Golden Rose to be blessed and carried on Mid-Lent Sunday each year, but the blessing and presentation of Golden Roses by the pope was not restricted to this Sunday, although the 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia asserts that “the Golden Rose, sent by the Popes to Catholic sovereigns, used to be blessed at this time, and for this reason the day was sometimes called ‘Dominica de Rosa’.”

In my Lenten wreath there is one rose candle that I extinguish on this day (the symbolic opposite of Gaudete Sunday in Advent).

Another tradition associated with Mothering Sunday is the practice of “clipping the church”, whereby the congregation form a ring around their church building and, holding hands, embrace it.

Simnel cake, via Herrick, has some association with this day, but it is more commonly associated with Easter Sunday. For a while in England “Mothering Buns” or “Mothering Sunday Buns” were made to celebrate. They are sweet yeast buns topped with pink or white icing and the multi-coloured sprinkles known as “hundreds and thousands” in the UK. They are not widely made or served today in the UK but in Australia they are a bakery staple year round.

This year I’ll eschew sweet things and go with carlings.  Carlings are pancakes made of split pies fried in butter that can still be found in the north of England and Scotland that were commonly eaten on Mothering Sunday.  You can choose whether to add herbs or not. Sage or parsley would be all right, but I don’t usually add any. You need to be fairly warned that cooking the peas too long, or not draining them sufficiently will make the carlings too moist and they will fall apart when cooked. It’s not traditional, but it might be worth it to try adding a beaten egg to the pea mix to set up the carlings better as they cook. In that case you’d need to increase the bread crumbs as well.

Carlings

Ingredients

8 oz split green peas
4 cups stock
1 slice stale bread, grated into crumbs
1 onion, peeled and chopped finely
4 tbsp butter
dried herbs (optional)
salt and pepper
flour

Instructions

Soak the peas overnight.

Next day, drain the peas, place them in a saucepan with the stock and simmer for about an hour or until tender. Do not overcook them so that they are mushy.

Meanwhile, mix together the breadcrumbs, onion, and your choice of dried herbs.  Melt 2 tablespoons of the butter and stir it into the breadcrumbs. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Drain the cooked peas well and stir them into the breadcrumb mix. Chill for at least 1 hour.

Season a handful of flour with salt and pepper and place it in a shallow bowl.  Form the pea mixture into patties and press each side into the seasoned flour.

Melt the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter in a skillet over medium heat and sauté the patties in batches. Cook on one side then flip the patty to cook the other side, so that they are golden on both. Flip them only once because they have a tendency to fall apart if handled too much.

Serve warm.

 

Mar 142017
 

Today is the birthday (1836) of Isabella Beeton, known now universally as Mrs Beeton, whose recipes from her Book of Household Management I have given here many times.  There’s no great need to review her life and history of publication of her cookbook, which has gone through multiple editions and is still in print. Of course, the recipes from 1861 have gone the way of all things. Later 20th century editions used metric measures, were very precise in their lists of ingredients, and all the recipes were thoroughly kitchen tested.  When I was growing up my mother used a 1939 edition (affectionately known as “Ma Beeton”) which was given to her as a wedding present in 1944, inscribed lovingly by her parents who were born in the Victorian era, and who spent their whole working lives as household servants.  This was my first cookbook too when I was a boy, and I inherited it from my mother after she died.  I always imagined that Mrs Beeton was a starchy mob-capped old Victorian household cook (hence “Ma Beeton”). It never dawned on me that she was a well-to-do woman who died in her twenties until I started exploring her history. I also never realized the vast difference between her recipes and those in later editions until I bought a facsimile of the first edition.  In my oh so humble opinion, the first edition is still the best.  You can peruse it here:

http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/10136

In the 20th century the first edition came in for a lot of criticism for being a work of plagiarism and for the assertion that Isabella herself had little knowledge of cooking. Based on my own research I think that this criticism is unfair.

Isabella’s unmarried name was Mayson, and she was born in Marylebone, London. Shortly after Isabella’s birth the family moved to Milk Street, Cheapside, where her father Benjamin traded linen. He died when Isabella was four years old, and her mother, Elizabeth, pregnant and unable to cope with raising the children on her own while maintaining Benjamin’s business, sent her two elder daughters to live with relatives. Isabella went to live with her recently widowed paternal grandfather in Great Orton, Cumberland, though she was back with her mother within the next two years.

Three years after Benjamin’s death Elizabeth married Henry Dorling, a widower with four children. Henry was the Clerk of Epsom Racecourse, and had been granted residence within the racecourse grounds. The family, including Elizabeth’s mother, moved to Surrey and over the next twenty years Henry and Elizabeth had a further 13 children. Isabella was instrumental in her siblings’ upbringing, and collectively referred to them as a “living cargo of children.” The experience gave her a great deal of insight and experience in how to manage a family and its household at an early age.

After a brief education at a boarding school in Islington, in 1851 Isabella was sent to school in Heidelberg, accompanied by her stepsister Jane Dorling. Isabella became proficient in the piano and excelled in French and German.  She also gained knowledge and experience in making pastry. She had returned to Epsom by the summer of 1854 and took further lessons in pastry-making from a local baker. All in all, therefore, to accuse her of simply compiling recipes and household advice from others and then copying it is a gross distortion.  It’s true that she used recipes from the works of others, but this was (and is) normal practice.  Furthermore there is clear evidence that she kitchen tested most, if not all, of her recipes.  Isabella’s half-sister, Lucy Smiles, was asked after her death concerning her memories of the book’s development. She recalled:

Different people gave their recipes for the book. That for Baroness pudding (a suet pudding with a plethora of raisins) was given by the Baroness de Tessier, who lived at Epsom. No recipe went into the book without a successful trial, and the home at Pinner was the scene of many experiments and some failures. I remember Isabella coming out of the kitchen one day, ‘This won’t do at all,’ she said, and gave me the cake that had turned out like a biscuit. I thought it very good. It had currants in it.

I don’t see how you can read this and still think that Isabella was just a rank plagiarist. I think that her sister probably overstates the case in asserting that every recipe was tested, but I am sure the majority were.  What is more to the point is that her recipes are all clear and relatively easy to follow, unlike those of previous generations. She gives lists of ingredients with exact quantities, straightforward directions, and indications of seasonality and cost per person. Her additional remarks about farming practices, hunting, and the like are a bonus. It is true that you need to have some experience in cooking to follow her recipes, and you need to know something about the Victorian kitchen to make sense of the directions sometimes. If you’re not familiar with cooking on a wood-fired stove (which I am) you can get a little lost from time to time, but experience ought to direct you. The reason I give her recipes here frequently is that they are good recipes, and I applaud her on her birthday.

There is no mention in the first edition of birthday cakes, and very little reference to birthdays at all (only to birthday dinners in ancient Greece).  Never mind. Here is her recipe for yeast cake which I think is quite delectable and well suited as her birthday cake.

A NICE YEAST-CAKE.

  1. INGREDIENTS.—1-1/2 lb. of flour, 1/2 lb. of butter, 1/2 pint of milk, 1-1/2 tablespoonful of good yeast, 3 eggs, 3/4 lb. of currants, 1/2 lb. of white moist sugar, 2 oz. of candied peel.

Mode.—Put the milk and butter into a saucepan, and shake it round over a fire until the butter is melted, but do not allow the milk to get very hot. Put the flour into a basin, stir to it the milk and butter, the yeast, and eggs, which should be well beaten, and form the whole into a smooth dough. Let it stand in a warm place, covered with a cloth, to rise, and, when sufficiently risen, add the currants, sugar, and candied peel cut into thin slices. When all the ingredients are thoroughly mixed, line 2 moderate-sized cake-tins with buttered paper, which should be about six inches higher than the tin; pour in the mixture, let it stand to rise again for another 1/2 hour, and then bake the cakes in a brisk oven for about 1-1/2 hour. If the tops of them become too brown, cover them with paper until they are done through. A few drops of essence of lemon, or a little grated nutmeg, may be added when the flavour is liked.

Time.—From 1-1/4 to 1-1/2 hour. Average cost, 2s.

Sufficient to make 2 moderate-sized cakes.

Seasonable at any time.

If you want to have a sugar fit you can add almond icing; I prefer the cake plain.

ALMOND ICING FOR CAKES.

  1. INGREDIENTS.—To every lb. of finely-pounded loaf sugar allow 1 lb. of sweet almonds, the whites of 4 eggs, a little rose-water.

Mode.—Blanch the almonds, and pound them (a few at a time) in a mortar to a paste, adding a little rose-water to facilitate the operation. Whisk the whites of the eggs to a strong froth; mix them with the pounded almonds, stir in the sugar, and beat altogether. When the cake is sufficiently baked, lay on the almond icing, and put it into the oven to dry. Before laying this preparation on the cake, great care must be taken that it is nice and smooth, which is easily accomplished by well beating the mixture.

Feb 282017
 

 

Today is Shrove Tuesday, pretty universally known as Pancake Day in England. Within the Christian world, especially in Catholic countries, the day goes by various names and is associated with numerous customs. Mardi Gras in New Orleans is very well known, for example. I’m going to leave the rest of the world alone and zoom in on Shrove Tuesday in England where pancakes are king and mob football is queen.  This post (and yesterday’s) are part of a series I am going to do on what I call “unpacking Easter” analogous to my series on unpacking Christmas.  The details of Easter are here if you want to look ahead — http://www.passionintellectpersistence.com/unpacking-easter/

My mum made pancakes on Pancake Day every year when I was growing up.  It always came up as a surprise to me because within the Presbyterian church tradition at the time we paid no attention to Ash Wednesday, Lent, and so forth.  Consequently I was always unaware that Shrove Tuesday was on the horizon, and since it’s a movable feast, linked to Easter, I had no date fixed in my head. I was just pleasantly surprised every year when the frying pan, eggs, lemons, and sugar came out and I stuffed my gut with pancakes.

NOT English pancakes

First of all, for the non-Brits amongst you, let’s be clear about pancakes.  English pancakes are nothing like the doughy raised things that people in the U.S. eat for breakfast with butter and syrup. Put that thought completely out of your head.  They are close kin to French crêpes, Italian crespelle, or Argentine/Spanish panqueques. They can be eaten any time of the year with any filling, sweet or savory, but on Pancake Day they should be served with sugar and lemon wedges as dessert after dinner.

The usual nonsense gets spouted yearly about how the custom of eating pancakes on Shrove Tuesday arose, but the truth is that no one knows. Rubbish such as this comes from Wikipedia:

Pancakes are associated with the day preceding Lent because they were a way to use up rich foods such as eggs, milk, and sugar, before the fasting season of the 40 days of Lent. In addition, pancakes, in Christianity, symbolize “four pillars of the Christian faith—eggs for creation, flour as the mainstay of the human diet, salt for wholesomeness and milk for purity.” The liturgical fasting emphasized eating plainer food and refraining from food that would give pleasure: in many cultures, this means no meat, dairy products, or eggs.

Eggs and milk are not classically forbidden in Lent so there’s no reason to use them up the day before Ash Wednesday, and sugar was not common household fare in Europe until the 18th century. My suspicion is that Pancake Day took off in England in the 19th century as did so many “ancient” traditions.  Much the same can be said of the famous Pancake Day race in Olney and Royal Shrovetide Football in Ashbourne. No matter. They’re fun.

Legend has it that the Olney (Buckinghamshire) Pancake Day race began in 1445 on Shrove Tuesday. Supposedly the “Shriving Bell” rang out to signal the start of the Shriving church service and on hearing the bell a local housewife, who had been busy cooking pancakes in anticipation of the beginning of Lent, ran to the church, frying pan still in hand, tossing the pancake to prevent it from burning, and dressed in her kitchen apron and headscarf.  A nice story which may or may not be true.

Nowadays the race is run at 11 am on Shrove Tuesday from the market place to the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul, a distance of a little over 400 yards. The record time stands at around 55 seconds which is pretty nippy. Current rules require that the participants wear a headscarf and apron, and that the pancake be tossed once at the start and again at the finish. Men occasionally participate (usually celebrities) but they have to wear apron and headscarf. The race is limited to 25 competitors, although since 1950 there have also been children’s races. The traditional prize for the winner was a kiss from the verger.  This gallery shows the race in the immediate post-war years and more recently. You can see that the competitive element is much more in the foreground these days.

There may be a bit more continuity to the Shrovetide football game in Ashbourne (Derbyshire) although primary sources are scant.  It seems to have started some time in the 17th century although seasonal games of mob football are considerably older.  Shrove Tuesday used to be a half-day holiday in England giving townspeople the leisure time for ball games.

The Ashbourne game is played over two days on Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday, starting each day at 2.00 pm and lasting until 10.00 pm. If a goal is scored before 5.30 pm a new ball is released and play restarts from the town centre, otherwise play ends for the day. The ball is rarely kicked, though it is legal to kick, carry or throw it. Instead it generally moves through the town in a series of hugs, like a giant scrum in rugby, made up of dozens if not hundreds of people. When the ball is goaled, the scorer is carried on the shoulders of his colleagues into the courtyard of The Green Man Royal Hotel.

The two teams that play the game are known as the Up’Ards and the Down’Ards. The Up’Ards are traditionally those town members born north of Henmore Brook, which runs through the town, and Down’Ards are those born south of the river. Each team attempts to carry the ball back to their own goal from the turn-up, rather than the more traditional method of scoring at/in the opponents goal. There are two goal posts 3 miles apart, one at Sturston Mill (where the Up’Ards attempt to score), the other at Clifton Mill (where the Down’Ards score). Although the mills have long since been demolished, part of their millstones still stand on the bank of the river at each location and once served as the scoring posts. In 1996 the scoring posts were replaced by new smaller millstones mounted on to purpose-built stone structures, which are still in use to this day and require the players to actually be in the river in order to goal a ball.

The actual process of ‘goaling’ a ball requires a player to hit it against the millstone three successive times. This is not a purely random event, however, as the eventual scorer is elected en route to the goal and would typically be someone who lives in Ashbourne or at least whose family is well known to the community. The chances of a ‘tourist’ goaling a ball are very remote.

The game is played through the town with no limit on the number of players or the playing area. Thus shops in the town are boarded up during the game, and people are encouraged to park their cars away from the main streets. The game is started from a special plinth in the town center where the ball is thrown to the players (“turned-up”), often by a visiting dignitary. Before the ball is turned-up, the assembled crowd sing Auld Lang Syne followed by God Save the Queen. The starting point has not changed in many years, although the town has changed around it. As a consequence, the starting podium is currently located in the town’s main car park, which is named Shaw Croft after an ancient field that was once there.

The game has been known as “Royal” since 1923, the then Prince of Wales (later King Edward VIII) turned-up the ball in 1928. The Prince is recorded as getting a bloody nose during the game. The game received ‘Royal Assent’ for a second time in 2003, when the game was once again started by the Prince of Wales, HRH Prince Charles.

The Up’Ards’ traditional goal was Sturston Mill in Sturston village east of Asbourne and the Down’Ards’ goal was Clifton Mill in the village of Clifton west of Ashbourne. Clifton Mill was demolished in 1967. A stone obelisk with commemorative plaque marking the site was unveiled in 1968. This became the Down’Ards goal for the next 28 years. Sturston Mill was demolished in 1981. A timber post salvaged from the mill was erected on the site of the old mill to act as a goal for the Up’Ards. The purpose-built goals erected in 1996 on the banks of Henmore Brook are located 3 miles apart. The Up’Ards goal is upstream from Shawcroft adjacent to the site of the former Sturston Mill and the Down’Ards goal is downstream from Shawcroft adjacent to the site of the former Clifton Mill.

The game is played with a special ball, larger than a standard football, which is filled with Portuguese cork to help the ball float when it inevitably ends up in the river. It is now hand-painted by local craftsmen specially for the occasion, and the design is usually related to the dignitary who will be turning-up the ball. Once a ball is goaled it is repainted with the name and in the design of the scorer and is theirs to keep. If a ball is not goaled it is repainted in the design of the dignitary that turned it up and given back to them to keep. Many of the balls are put on display in the local pubs during the game for the public to view; traditionally these pubs are divided by team (The Wheel Inn being a popular Down’Ard base, and the Old Vaults for the Up’ards, for example).

There are very few rules. The main ones are:

Committing murder or manslaughter is prohibited. Unnecessary violence is frowned upon.

The ball may not be carried in a motorised vehicle.

The ball may not be hidden in a bag, coat or rucksack, etc.

Cemeteries, churchyards and the town memorial gardens are strictly out of bounds.

Playing after 10 pm is forbidden.

To score a goal the ball must be tapped 3 times in the area of the goal.

I gave my recipe for pancake batter in this video.

https://drive.google.com/file/d/0Bx9zQ-sRgAkQMEpmZkVZLUJsR1U/edit?usp=sharing

It’s the same egg batter that I use for Argentine tortillas and Yorkshire pudding. You can use milk in place of water and add butter to the batter if you want. I’ve been making pancakes for over 40 years and I’m content with my recipe, such as it is. For me there are two “secrets” – (1) Mix the flour and water first to avoid lumps. (2) Keep the batter thin so that it will spread easily in the pan and make thin pancakes. After that you’re on your own. I’ve given Mrs Beeton’s recipe at the end, in case you want something more detailed.

Your pancake pan should be small and heavy. Heat the pan over high heat for a minute or so, then turn off the heat and add a knob of butter to the pan.  While it is sizzling drop in a ladleful of batter and swirl the pan around so that the batter coats the bottom evenly. Place over medium-high heat until the bottom is easily released from the pan when you shake it. The bottom should be speckled brown.  Then you can do one of several things. Traditionally you toss the pancake and cook the other side so that it is also a little brown. In the past I was never very good at tossing the pancake without it breaking or falling back crumpled up, so I used to slip it under the broiler to cook the top. Third choice is to follow Mrs Beeton and not cook the top at all.

I cook pancakes to order so that every one is fresh. I slip each one out of the pan and serve it flat on a plate.  Our custom when I was a boy, which I still follow, is the sprinkle the flat pancake with sugar and add a squeeze of fresh lemon, roll it up and repeat.

Generally the first pancake is a failure for one reason or another.  I eat it quickly and move on.  Once the pan is hot enough so that the butter melts easily each time you add a knob to the pan the procedure is much smoother – in my experience.

TO MAKE PANCAKES.

  1. INGREDIENTS.—Eggs, flour, milk; to every egg allow 1 oz. of flour, about 1 gill of milk, 1/8 saltspoonful of salt.

Mode.—Ascertain that the eggs are fresh; break each one separately in a cup; whisk them well, put them into a basin, with the flour, salt, and a few drops of milk, and beat the whole to a perfectly smooth batter; then add by degrees the remainder of the milk. The proportion of this latter ingredient must be regulated by the size of the eggs, &c. &c.; but the batter, when ready for frying, should be of the consistency of thick cream. Place a small frying-pan on the fire to get hot; let it be delicately clean, or the pancakes will stick, and, when quite hot, put into it a small piece of butter, allowing about 1/2 oz. to each pancake. When it is melted, pour in the batter, about 1/2 teacupful to a pan 5 inches in diameter, and fry it for about 4 minutes, or until it is nicely brown on one side. By only pouring in a small quantity of batter, and so making the pancakes thin, the necessity of turning them (an operation rather difficult to unskilful cooks) is obviated. When the pancake is done, sprinkle over it some pounded sugar, roll it up in the pan, and take it out with a large slice, and place it on a dish before the fire. Proceed in this manner until sufficient are cooked for a dish; then send them quickly to table, and continue to send in a further quantity, as pancakes are never good unless eaten almost immediately they come from the frying-pan. The batter may be flavoured with a little grated lemon-rind, or the pancakes may have preserve rolled in them instead of sugar. Send sifted sugar and a cut lemon to table with them. To render the pancakes very light, the yolks and whites of the eggs should be beaten separately, and the whites added the last thing to the batter before frying.

Time.—from 4 to 6 minutes for a pancake that does not require turning; from 6 to 8 minutes for a thicker one.

Average cost, for 3 persons, 6d.

Sufficient.—Allow 3 eggs, with the other ingredients in proportion, for 3 persons.

Seasonable at any time, but specially served on Shrove Tuesday.

 

 

Feb 272017
 

Today, the Monday before Ash Wednesday, used to go by a lot of names in England at one time, but they are all pretty well defunct.  Shrove Monday is technically correct because it is the Monday in Shrovetide.  But just as tomorrow is technically Shrove Tuesday, but the English all call it Pancake Day (because you eat pancakes on that day), today – to my mind, is best known as Collop Monday, although the tradition of eating collops today has fallen away in most places – except in my house.

Formally, Shrovetide is the week before Lent, but in many parts of the world where Carnival now stretches from Epiphany to Lent (New Orleans, Buenos Aires, Rio etc.), Shrovetide covers that whole season.  There’s nothing really wrong with merging Christmas and Easter. In the Medieval church the two festivals were seen as quintessentially linked.  Many traditional (supposedly Christmas) carols actually follow the arc of the two seasons, but now they get sung at Christmas and miss out the Easter bits.  Handel’s Messiah is well known for having what people think of as the Christmas part and the Easter part. Handel was following the ages old tradition of placing the two celebrations together. If you follow the arc all the way from Advent to Pentecost you cover half the year (from the end of November to May), so, in some ways you can conceive of the winter and spring as the sacred half of the year, and summer and autumn as the secular half. I’ll unpack some of this as the Easter season progresses.

I like splitting the year in two like this.  I also like the ups and downs of the Christmas to Easter arc.  It’s not all feasts and merriment. There are feasts AND fasts, and, for my money, the fasts are as important as the feasts. Feasting after a fast is much more celebratory than simply pigging out all year, with extra blow outs once in a while.

Shrovetide is, of course, feast time because Lent is coming.  The Monday and Tuesday before Lent are typically associated with rich foods. I don’t buy the idea that people used to use up all their fats, meats, etc. before Lent in celebratory meals so that they did not go to waste, but there is plenty of evidence that the days before Lent were especially joyous – and still are.   Pancakes on Tuesday still survive, but collops on Monday did not.

The word “shrove” is the past tense of the English verb “shrive,” (past participle, “shriven”) which means to obtain absolution for one’s sins by way of Confession and doing Penance. Early English Christians were expected to be shriven immediately before Lent began. The terms “Shrove Monday” and “Shrove Tuesday” are no longer widely used in English-speaking countries outside of high liturgical traditions, such as in the Lutheran, Anglican, and Roman Catholic Churches.

The name Collop Monday leaves us with a bit of puzzle because what collops were when the day got its name is not clear.  A collop is a slice of meat, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, but the derivation is obscure. By Elizabethan times, “collops” came to refer specifically to slices of bacon. Shrove Monday was traditionally the last day to cook and eat meat before Ash Wednesday A traditional breakfast dish was collops of bacon topped with a fried egg. This could well be the beginning of eggs and bacon as a breakfast dish.

But collops are not simply slices of bacon; any cutlet could be referred to as a collop, and there are also examples in early sources of minced meat (lamb, beef, or bacon), served in thin patties being called collops. At Christ’s Hospital, founded before the reign of Elizabeth I, the word collops was used on the menu to mean stewed minced beef. Scotch collops are a traditional Scottish dish. It can be created using either thin slices or minced meat of beef, lamb or venison. This is combined with onion, salt, pepper and suet, then stewed, baked or roasted with optional flavorings according to the meat used. It is traditionally served garnished with thin toast and mashed potato. It is referred to as a meal in Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel, Kidnapped. Lamb collops were included on the breakfast menu for first class passengers of the Titanic.

In east Cornwall, today is sometimes called Peasen Monday or Paisen Monday after the custom of eating pea soup on this day.  I’m not sure why pea soup was especially recommended for Shrovetide unless it was made with bacon or ham hocks which would be forbidden in Lent. In any case, for my Collop Monday dinner I usually combine the two traditions in my own special way – pea soup followed by a slice of steak with an egg on top (plus an onion and mushroom garnish in between).  Here’s my gallery from this year with notes:

Here’s my pea soup.  I usually make it by keeping the split peas somewhat integral, rather than making a purée of the soup with a blender.  This year I had to use prosciutto for the ham part.  It worked.

Caramelize some onion

Quickly sear a thin slice of steak in a very hot pan (without fat)

This year I mixed in some wild mushrooms with the caramelized onions

Fry an agg

Serve with the egg over the steak garnished with onions