Jun 112017

Today is the birthday (1776) of John Constable, RA, renowned English painter of the Romantic era known principally for his landscape paintings of Dedham Vale, the area surrounding his home — now known as “Constable Country.” Constable was never financially successful and he did not become a member of the establishment until he was elected to the Royal Academy at the age of 52. However, his work was embraced in France, where he sold more works than in his native England and inspired both Romantics and early Impressionists.

Constable was born in East Bergholt, a village on the River Stour in Suffolk, to Golding and Ann (Watts) Constable. His father was a wealthy corn merchant, owner of Flatford Mill in East Bergholt and, later, Dedham Mill in Essex. Golding also owned a small ship, The Telegraph, which he moored at Mistley on the Stour estuary, and used to transport corn to London. After a brief period at a boarding school in Lavenham, Constable was enrolled in a day school in Dedham. Constable worked in the corn business after leaving school, but his younger brother Abram eventually took over the running of the mills.

In his youth, Constable went on sketching trips in the surrounding Suffolk and Essex countryside, which was to become the subject of major portion of his art. These scenes, in his own words, “made me a painter, and I am grateful”; “the sound of water escaping from mill dams etc., willows, old rotten planks, slimy posts, and brickwork, I love such things.” Later, while visiting relatives in Middlesex, he was introduced to the professional artist John Thomas Smith, who advised him on painting but also urged him to remain in his father’s business rather than take up art professionally.

In 1799, Constable persuaded his father to let him pursue a career in art, and Golding granted him a small allowance. Entering the Royal Academy Schools as a probationer, he attended life classes and anatomical dissections, and studied and copied old masters. In 1802 he refused the position of drawing master at Great Marlow Military College, a move which Benjamin West (then master of the RA) counseled would mean the end of his career. In that year, Constable wrote a letter to John Dunthorne in which he spelled out his determination to become a professional landscape painter:

For the last two years I have been running after pictures, and seeking the truth at second hand… I have not endeavoured to represent nature with the same elevation of mind with which I set out, but have rather tried to make my performances look like the work of other men…There is room enough for a natural painter. The great vice of the present day is bravura, an attempt to do something beyond the truth.

Constable’s usual subjects, scenes of ordinary daily life, were unfashionable in an age that looked for more romantic visions of wild landscapes and ruins. He made occasional trips further afield. By 1803, he was exhibiting paintings at the Royal Academy. In April he spent almost a month aboard the East Indiaman Coutts as it visited south-east ports while sailing from London to Deal before leaving for China. In 1806 he went on a two-month tour of the Lake District. He told his friend and biographer, Charles Leslie, that the solitude of the mountains oppressed his spirits, and Leslie wrote:

His nature was peculiarly social and could not feel satisfied with scenery, however grand in itself, that did not abound in human associations. He required villages, churches, farmhouses and cottages.

To make ends meet, Constable took up portraiture, which he found dull, though he executed many fine portraits. He also painted occasional religious pictures but, according to John Walker, “Constable’s incapacity as a religious painter cannot be overstated.”

Constable adopted a routine of spending winter in London and painting at East Bergholt in summer. In 1811 he first visited John Fisher and his family in Salisbury, a city whose cathedral and surrounding landscape were to inspire some of his greatest paintings.

From 1809, his childhood friendship with Maria Elizabeth Bicknell developed into a deep, mutual love. Their marriage in 1816 when Constable was 40 was opposed by Maria’s grandfather, Dr Rhudde, rector of East Bergholt. He considered the Constables his social inferiors and threatened Maria with disinheritance. Maria’s father, Charles Bicknell, solicitor to King George IV and the Admiralty, was reluctant to see Maria throw away her inheritance. Maria pointed out to John that a penniless marriage would detract from any chances he had of making a career in painting. Golding and Ann Constable, while approving the match, held out no prospect of supporting the marriage until Constable was financially secure. After they died in quick succession, Constable inherited a fifth share in the family business.

John and Maria’s marriage in October 1816 at St Martin-in-the-Fields (with Fisher officiating) was followed by time at Fisher’s vicarage and a honeymoon tour of the south coast. The sea at Weymouth and Brighton stimulated Constable to develop new techniques of brilliant color and strong brushwork. At the same time he put more overt and bold emotion into his art.

Although he had scraped an income from painting, it was not until 1819 that Constable sold his first important canvas, The White Horse, which led to a series of “six footers”, as he called his large-scale paintings. That year he was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy. In 1821 he showed The Hay Wain (a view from Flatford Mill) at the Academy’s exhibition. Théodore Géricault saw it on a visit to London and praised Constable in Paris, where a dealer, John Arrowsmith, bought four paintings, including The Hay Wain. It was exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1824, winning a gold medal.

In his lifetime, Constable sold only 20 paintings in England, but in France he sold more than 20 in just a few years. Despite this, he refused all invitations to travel internationally to promote his work, writing to Francis Darby: “I would rather be a poor man [in England] than a rich man abroad.” In 1825, perhaps due partly to the worry of his wife’s ill-health, distaste of living in Brighton (“Piccadilly by the Seaside”), and the pressure of numerous outstanding commissions, he quarreled with Arrowsmith and lost his French outlet.

After the birth of their seventh child in January 1828, Maria fell ill and died of tuberculosis on 23 November at the age of 41. Intensely saddened, Constable wrote to his brother Golding, “hourly do I feel the loss of my departed Angel—God only knows how my children will be brought up…the face of the World is totally changed to me.” Thereafter, he dressed in black and was, according to Leslie, “a prey to melancholy and anxious thoughts”. He cared for his seven children alone for the rest of his life. He was elected to the Royal Academy in February 1829, at the age of 52. In 1831 he was appointed Visitor at the Royal Academy, where he seems to have been popular with the students.

He began to deliver public lectures on the history of landscape painting, which were attended by distinguished audiences. In a series of lectures at the Royal Institution, Constable proposed a three-fold thesis: firstly, landscape painting is scientific as well as poetic; secondly, the imagination cannot alone produce art to bear comparison with reality; and thirdly, no great painter was ever self-taught. He also spoke against the new Gothic Revival movement, which he considered mere “imitation”.

He died on the night of 31 March 1837, apparently from heart failure, and was buried with Maria in the graveyard of St John-at-Hampstead, Hampstead. (His children John Charles Constable and Charles Golding Constable are also buried in this family tomb.)

Constable quietly rebelled against the artistic culture that taught artists to use their imagination to compose their pictures rather than nature itself. He told Leslie, “When I sit down to make a sketch from nature, the first thing I try to do is to forget that I have ever seen a picture.” He was never satisfied with following a formula. “The world is wide”, he wrote, “no two days are alike, nor even two hours; neither were there ever two leaves of a tree alike since the creation of all the world; and the genuine productions of art, like those of nature, are all distinct from each other.”

Constable’s watercolors were also remarkably free for their time: the almost mystical Stonehenge, 1835, with its double rainbow, is often considered to be one of the greatest watercolors ever painted. When he exhibited it in 1836, Constable appended a text to the title: “The mysterious monument of Stonehenge, standing remote on a bare and boundless heath, as much unconnected with the events of past ages as it is with the uses of the present, carries you back beyond all historical records into the obscurity of a totally unknown period.”

In addition to the full-scale oil sketches, Constable completed numerous observational studies of landscapes and clouds, determined to become more scientific in his recording of atmospheric conditions. The power of his physical effects was sometimes apparent even in the full-scale paintings which he exhibited in London; The Chain Pier, 1827, for example, prompted a critic to write: “the atmosphere possesses a characteristic humidity about it, that almost imparts the wish for an umbrella”.

Constable’s oil sketches were innovative in that he did them in oils directly from the subject in the open air. To convey the effects of light and movement, Constable used broken brushstrokes, often in small touches, which he scumbled (covered in a very thin layer of opaque paint) over lighter passages, creating an impression of sparkling light enveloping the entire landscape. One of the most expressionistic and powerful of all his studies is Seascape Study with Rain Cloud, painted about 1824 at Brighton, which captures with slashing dark brushstrokes the immediacy of an exploding cumulus shower at sea. Constable also became interested in painting rainbow effects, for example in Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows, 1831, and in Cottage at East Bergholt, 1833.

To the sky studies he added notes, often on the back of the sketches, of the prevailing weather conditions, direction of light, and time of day, believing that the sky was “the key note, the standard of scale, and the chief organ of sentiment” in a landscape painting. In this habit he is known to have been influenced by the pioneering work of the meteorologist Luke Howard on the classification of clouds; Constable’s annotations of his own copy of Researches About Atmospheric Phaenomena by Thomas Forster show him to have been fully abreast of meteorological terminology. “I have done a good deal of skying”, Constable wrote to Fisher on 23 October 1821; “I am determined to conquer all difficulties, and that most arduous one among the rest.”

Constable once wrote in a letter to Leslie, “My limited and abstracted art is to be found under every hedge, and in every lane, and therefore nobody thinks it worth picking up.”

East Anglian kitchels have been mentioned in English literature dating back to Chaucer. They can still be found easily in Suffolk or Essex. They are raisins, mixed peel, and almonds with spices sandwiched between layers of puff pastry. They are made by baking a single block and then cutting it into squares or rectangles so that the sides are open, not crimped.  I generally use commercial frozen puff pastry for convenience, but if you are a dab hand, make your own. I tend to use a lot more spice than standard recipes.  You choose how much you want, or select individual ingredients from my list at the bottom.

Suffolk Kitchels


3 oz butter
10 oz currants
4 oz chopped candied peel
4 oz coarsely ground almonds
3 tsp mixed spice (see below)
1lb puff pastry (thawed if frozen)
extra melted butter for glazing
caster sugar (optional)


Preheat the oven to 400°F/200°C

Melt the butter over low heat in a large heavy-bottomed pan over medium-low heat and add the currants, peel, almonds and spice. Stir well with a wooden spoon so that everything is mixed thoroughly. Check seasonings. Remove from the heat and let cool.

Grease a large baking sheet very well.

Divide the pastry in 2 and roll out each half into equal rectangles. Place one half on the greased baking sheet and brush generously with melted butter.

Spread the fruit/nut mixture evenly over the pastry base, ensuring there is a margin around all four edges. Give the edges an extra brush of butter and carefully place the second rectangle of pastry on top. Crimp the edges and brush the top with melted butter. Score squares or rectangles (as you prefer) in the top with a sharp knife.

Bake for about 25 minutes, or until puffed and golden. Place the baking sheet on a wire rack, sprinkle with caster sugar if you wish, and allow to cool slightly. Cut away the crimped edges along the short sides , and use the score marks to cut the whole piece into squares (or rectangles).

Serve warm or cold.  I like a little whipped cream with them, but that’s probably a bit too indulgent, and is not traditional.

You’ll see “mixed spice” as an ingredient listed in English recipes for desserts. It’s analogous to “pumpkin pie spice” in the US in that you can buy it prepared.  I prefer to make my own, or, more commonly, add separate spices as I see fit.  If you want precise measurements, here you are.

Mixed Spice

1 tbsp ground allspice
1 tbsp  ground cinnamon
1 tbsp ground nutmeg
2 tsp ground mace
1 tsp ground cloves
1 tsp ground coriander
1 tsp ground ginger

Mix the spices together thoroughly and store in an air-tight container in the freezer.

May 292017

On this date in 1453 Constantinople fell to an invading army of the Ottoman Empire commanded by the 21-year-old Mehmed the Conqueror, the seventh sultan of the Ottoman Empire, defeating emperor Constantine XI Palaiologos. The conquest of Constantinople followed a 53-day siege that had begun on 6 April 1453. The capture of Constantinople (and two other Byzantine splinter territories soon thereafter) marked the end of the Roman Empire, which had existed in one form or another for nearly 1,500 years. The Western half of the Roman Empire fell to invaders in the 5th century, but the Eastern half carried on – sometimes called the Byzantine Empire – until the 15th century.

The Ottoman conquest of Constantinople also dealt a massive blow to Christendom, because Muslim Ottoman armies could subsequently advance into Europe without an adversary to their rear. After the conquest, Sultan Mehmed II transferred the capital of the Ottoman Empire from Edirne to Constantinople. For hundreds of years the city was officially called Kostantiniyye (القسطنطيني), but unofficially Mehmed called it Islambol (Islam rules) and eventually became Istanbul.

Many histories equate the fall of Constantinople (and the end of the Byzantine Empire) with the end of the Middle Ages, but it’s not as if people living at the time acknowledged that one era had ended an another begun. Things don’t happen that way on the ground. Terms such as “Middle Ages,” “Renaissance,” “Enlightenment” etc. are rubrics used by historians in hindsight for convenience. Nonetheless, big changes were afoot. Constantinople had been an imperial capital since its consecration in 330 under Constantine the Great. In the following 11 centuries, the city had been besieged many times but was captured only once: during the Fourth Crusade in 1204, an event which further damaged the bad relations between eastern and western Christianity following the Great Schism in 1054, weakened the Byzantine Empire, and one of the major turning points in Western history, still very much alive among members of the Greek Orthodox church.

The Fourth Crusade was gathered in 1202 with the intent of capturing Jerusalem by attacking from Egypt, but they were sidetracked by offers of financial help if they would assist the currently deposed emperor. Constantinople had been unstable since the massacre there of the “Latins” (Roman Catholics) in 1182 by orthodox powers. This act increased tensions in the city and worsened relations between Western and Eastern Europe. In 1203 in the midst of violent riots between Greeks and Latins in the city, the newly crowned Alexios IV Angelos was deposed and he appealed to the Crusaders to restore him and quell the city’s problems. The Crusaders laid siege to Constantinople for a year, finally taking it in 1204 and initiating a bloodbath. This unspeakable atrocity of Crusaders against Christians was unprecedented.

The Crusaders established an unstable Latin state in and around Constantinople while the remaining empire splintered into a number of Byzantine successor states, notably Nicaea, Epirus and Trebizond. They fought as allies against the Latin establishments, but also fought among themselves for the Byzantine throne. The Nicaeans eventually reconquered Constantinople from the Latins in 1261. Thereafter there was little peace for the much-weakened empire as it fended off successive attacks by the Latins, the Serbians, the Bulgarians, and, most importantly, the Ottoman Turks. The Black Plague between 1346 and 1349 killed almost half of the inhabitants of Constantinople. The city was severely depopulated due to the general economic and territorial decline of the empire, and by 1453 consisted of a series of walled villages separated by vast fields encircled by the fifth-century Theodosian walls.

By 1450 the empire was exhausted and had shrunk to a few square miles outside the city of Constantinople itself, the Princes’ Islands in the Sea of Marmara, and the Peloponnese with its cultural center at Mystras. The Empire of Trebizond, an independent successor state that formed in the aftermath of the Fourth Crusade, also survived on the coast of the Black Sea. When Sultan Mehmed II succeeded his father in 1451, it was widely believed that the young ruler, then 19 years old, would prove incapable—and that he would pose no great threat to Christian possessions in the Balkans and the Aegean. This optimism was reinforced by friendly assurances made by Mehmed to envoys sent to his new court. But Mehmed’s actions spoke far louder than his mild words. Beginning early in 1452, he built a second Ottoman fortress on the Bosphorus, on the European side several miles north of Constantinople, set directly across the strait from the similar fortress, Anadolu Hisarı, which his great-grandfather Bayezid I had previously built on the Asian side. This pair of fortresses gave the Turks complete control of sea traffic on the Bosphorus; specifically, it prevented help from the north, the Genoese colonies on the Black Sea coast, from reaching Constantinople. (The new fortress was also known as Boğazkesen, which held the dual meanings ‘strait-blocker’ or ‘throat-cutter’, emphasizing its strategic position.) In October 1452, Mehmed ordered Turakhan Beg to lead a large force into the Peloponnese and remain there to keep Thomas and Demetrios from assisting their brother Constantine XI Palaiologos during the impending siege of Constantinople.

Byzantine Emperor Constantine XI swiftly understood Mehmed’s true intentions and turned to Western Europe for help; but now the price of centuries of war and enmity between the Eastern and Western churches had to be paid. Since the mutual excommunications of 1054, the Pope in Rome was committed to establishing authority over the Eastern church. Nominal union had been negotiated in 1274, at the Second Council of Lyon, and indeed, some Palaiologoi emperors had since been received into the Latin church. Emperor John VIII Palaiologos had also recently negotiated union with Pope Eugene IV, with the Council of Florence of 1439 proclaiming a Bull of Union. These events, however, stimulated a propaganda initiative by anti-unionist Orthodox partisans in Constantinople; the population, as well as the laity and leadership of the Byzantine Church, became bitterly divided. Latent ethnic hatred between Greeks and Italians, stemming from the events of the Massacre of the Latins in 1182 by the Greeks and the sack of Constantinople in 1204 by the Latins, played a significant role. Finally, the attempted Union failed, greatly annoying Pope Nicholas V and the hierarchy of the Roman church.

The army defending Constantinople was relatively small, totaling about 7,000 men, 2,000 of whom were foreigners. At the onset of the siege, probably fewer than 50,000 people were living within the walls, including the refugees from the surrounding area. Turkish commander Dorgano, who was in Constantinople in the pay of the Emperor, was also guarding one of the quarters of the city on the seaward side with the Turks in his pay. These Turks kept loyal to the Emperor and perished in the ensuing battle. The defending army’s Genoese corps were well trained and equipped, while the rest of the army consisted of small numbers of well-trained soldiers, armed civilians, sailors and volunteer forces from foreign communities, and finally monks. The garrison used a few small-caliber artillery bullets, which nonetheless proved ineffective. The rest of the city repaired walls, stood guard on observation posts, collected and distributed food provisions, and collected gold and silver objects from churches to melt down into coins to pay the foreign soldiers.

The Ottomans had a much larger force. Recent studies and Ottoman archival data state that there were about 50,000–80,000 Ottoman soldiers including between 5,000 and 10,000 Janissaries, an elite infantry corps, and thousands of Christian troops, notably 1,500 Serbian cavalry that the Serbian lord Đurađ Branković was forced to supply as part of his obligation to the Ottoman sultan—just a few months before, he had supplied the money for the reconstruction of the walls of Constantinople. Contemporaneous Western witnesses of the siege, who tend to exaggerate the military power of the Sultan, provide disparate and higher numbers ranging from 160,000 to 200,000 and to 300,000.

Mehmed built a fleet to besiege the city from the sea (partially manned by Greek sailors from Gallipoli). Contemporary estimates of the strength of the Ottoman fleet span between about 100 ships to 430. A more realistic modern estimate suggests a fleet strength of 126 ships comprising 6 large galleys, 10 ordinary galleys, 15 smaller galleys, 75 large rowing boats, and 20 horse-transports.

Before the siege of Constantinople, it was known that the Ottomans had the ability to cast medium-sized cannons, but the range of some pieces they were able to field far surpassed the defenders’ expectations. Instrumental to this Ottoman advancement in arms production was a somewhat mysterious figure by the name of Orban (Urban), a Hungarian (though some suggest he was German). One cannon designed by Orban was named “Basilica” and was 27 feet (8.2 m) long, and able to hurl a 600 lb (272 kg) stone ball over a mile (1.6 km). The master founder initially tried to sell his services to the Byzantines, who were unable to secure the funds needed to hire him. Orban then left Constantinople and approached Mehmed II, claiming that his weapon could blast ‘the walls of Babylon itself’. Given abundant funds and materials, the Hungarian engineer built the gun within three months at Edirne, from which it was dragged by sixty oxen to Constantinople. In the meantime, Orban also produced other cannons for the Turkish siege forces.

Orban’s cannon had several drawbacks: it took three hours to reload; cannonballs were in very short supply; and the cannon is said to have collapsed under its own recoil after six weeks (this is disputed, however, reported only in the letter of Archbishop Leonardo di Chio and in the later and often unreliable Russian chronicle of Nestor Iskander). Having previously established a large foundry about 150 miles (240 km) away, Mehmed now had to undergo the painstaking process of transporting his massive artillery pieces. Orban’s giant cannon was said to have been accompanied by a crew of 60 oxen and over 400 men.

The city had about 20 km of land walls: 5.5 km; sea walls along the Golden Horn: 7 km; sea walls along the Sea of Marmara: 7.5 km), one of the strongest sets of fortified walls in existence. The walls had recently been repaired (under John VIII) and were in fairly good shape, giving the defenders sufficient reason to believe that they could hold out until help from the West arrived. In addition, the defenders were relatively well-equipped with a fleet of 26 ships: 5 from Genoa, 5 from Venice, 3 from Venetian Crete, 1 from Ancona, 1 from Aragon, 1 from France, and about 10 Byzantine.

On 5 April, the Sultan himself arrived with his last troops, and the defenders took up their positions. As their numbers were insufficient to occupy the walls in their entirety, the Byzantines decided to man the outer walls only. You can read all about the siege and fall of Constantinople if you wish. One should not assume, using hindsight, that the doom of Constantinople was inevitable. It was an exceptionally well defended city, so that even against a powerful army, fleet, and siege weapons, the fall of Constantinople was not a foregone conclusion. A few events broke the wrong way, however, and that sealed the city’s fate. It’s not overstating the case to say that the effects of the fall of Constantinople still reverberate today. If nothing else, it should be a stern warning that enmity between Christians and Muslims in Europe is scarcely new, and contemporary feuds of longstanding are not going to go away because of a few political speeches filled with platitudes.

Nowhere is the paradox of the tension between Greek and Turk more evident than in their respective cuisines: by and large they are THE SAME. I defy you to taste Turkish Delight and Greek Delight blindfolded and tell me which is which, though each side claims theirs is uniquely their own. Do the same with dolmadas (stuffed grape leaves), or 100 other specialties.  Yuvarelakia is a lamb meatball dish known in Byzantine times, and still popular in both Greece and Turkey.



1 lb. ground lamb
1 grated onion
2 cloves garlic, chopped
6 tbsp barley flour
3 tbsp chopped fresh parsley
2 tbsp chopped fresh mint (or basil)
1 tbsp dried oregano
1 egg, lightly beaten

5 cups meat stock
1 onion, chopped
1 stalk celery, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
juice of 1 lemon
2 egg yolks


Combine lamb, grated onion, chopped garlic, barley flour, chopped parsley, fresh mint (or basil), dried oregano, salt and the slightly beaten egg. Mix well. Shape into walnut-sized meatballs and set aside.

Bring the 5 cups of stock to a boil with the chopped onion, celery, and carrot. Add salt to taste. Add the meatballs and simmer, covered, for 30 minutes.

In a medium bowl beat together the lemon juice and egg yolks.  Carefully add 1 cup of stock to the lemon-egg mixture, a little at a time, whisking constantly.  When they are completely blended add back to the soup, stir, heat through gently and serve.

May 272017

Tsar Peter the Great founded  St Petersburg on this date in 1703 (OS 16 May), and, with a few gaps, it was the capital of Russia until the Russian Revolution. Swedish colonists had built Nyenskans, a fortress, at the mouth of the Neva River in 1611, in a land then called Ingermanland, that was inhabited by Finnic tribe of Ingrians. A small town called “Nyen” grew up around it. Peter was interested in seafaring and maritime affairs, and he wanted Russia to have a year-round seaport in order to be able to trade with other maritime nations. He needed a better seaport than Arkhangelsk, which was on the White Sea to the north and closed to shipping for months during the winter. On May 1703 12 [O.S. May 1] 1703, during the Great Northern War, Peter captured Nyenskans, and soon replaced the fortress. On May 27 [O.S. May 16] 1703, , he laid down the Peter and Paul Fortress closer to the estuary 5 km (3 mi) inland from the gulf), on Zayachy (Hare) Island. This new fortress became the first brick and stone building of the new city of St Petersburg.

“St. Petersburg” is actually used as an English equivalent to three variant forms of the name: originally Санкт-Питер-Бурх (Sankt Piter-Burkh), later Санкт-Петерсбурх (Sankt Petersburkh), and then Санкт-Петербург (Sankt Peterburg). The full name is often substituted by the abbreviation SPb (СПб). “Sankt” was usually confined to writing; people usually called it Петербург (Peterburg) or the common nickname Питер (Piter). Petrograd (Петроград), the name given in 1914 on the outbreak of World War I to avoid the German sound of Petersburg, was a Slavic translation of the previous name. The name was changed to Leningrad (Ленинград) in 1924.

The city was built under adverse weather and geographical conditions. High mortality rate required a constant supply of workers. Peter ordered a yearly conscription of 40,000 serfs, one conscript for every nine to sixteen households. Conscripts had to provide their own tools and food for the journey of hundreds of kilometres, on foot, in gangs, often escorted by military guards and shackled to prevent desertion, but many escaped; others died from disease and exposure under the harsh conditions.

The new city’s first building, the Peter and Paul Fortress, which originally also bore the name of Sankt Pieterburg was laid down on Zayachy (Hare’s) Island, just off the right bank of the Neva, three miles inland from the Gulf. The marshland was drained and the city spread outward from the fortress under the supervision of German and Dutch engineers whom Peter had invited to Russia. Peter restricted the construction of stone buildings in all of Russia outside St Petersburg so that all stonemasons would come to help build the new city.

At the same time Peter hired a large number of engineers, architects, shipbuilders, scientists and businessmen from all countries of Europe. Substantial immigration of educated professionals eventually turned St. Petersburg into a much more cosmopolitan city than Moscow and the rest of Russia. Peter’s efforts to push for modernization in Moscow and the rest of Russia were completely misunderstood by the old-fashioned and conservative Russian nobility and eventually failed, causing him much trouble with opposition, including several attempts on his life.

Peter moved the capital from Moscow to Saint Petersburg in 1712, nine years before the Treaty of Nystad. The city was called the “window to Europe.” It was both a seaport and also a base for Peter’s navy, protected by the fortress of Kronstadt. The first person to build a home in Saint Petersburg was Cornelis Cruys, commander of the Baltic Fleet. Inspired by Venice and Amsterdam, Peter proposed boats and coracles as means of transport in his city of canals. Initially there were only 12 permanent bridges over smaller waterways, while the Bolshaya Neva was crossed by boats in the summertime and by foot or horse carriages during winter. A pontoon bridge over Neva was built every summer.

Peter was impressed by Versailles and other palaces in Europe and in consequence built Peterhof as his official palace, and the place for official receptions and state balls. The waterfront palace, Monplaisir, and the Great Peterhof Palace were built between 1714 and 1725.

Aleksandr Danilovich Menshikov, Peter’s best friend, was the first Governor General of Saint Petersburg Governorate in 1703–1727. In 1724 St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences was established in the city. After the death of Peter the Great, Menshikov was arrested and exiled to Siberia. In 1728 Peter II of Russia moved the capital back to Moscow, but 4 years later, in 1732, St. Petersburg again became the capital of Russia and remained the seat of the government for about two centuries.

St. Petersburg prospered under the rule of two most powerful women in Russian history. Peter’s daughter, Empress Elizabeth, reigned from 1740 to 1762, without a single execution in 22 years. She cut taxes, downsized government, and was known for masquerades and festivities, amassing a wardrobe of about 12,000 dresses, most of them now preserved as museum art pieces. She supported the Russian Academy of Sciences and completed both the Winter Palace and the Summer Palace, which then became residences of Empress Catherine the Great, who reigned for 34 years, from 1762 to 1796. Under her rule more palaces were built in St. Petersburg than in any other capital in the world.

St Petersburg is noted for its cooking tradition which is rooted in Slavic dishes but with a pan-European overlay.  The 6 great dishes you must eat when you visit are borscht, blini, beef Stroganoff, pelmeni, pirozhki, and solyanka, and if you search this site you’ll find recipes for all 6. Now I’ll branch out to a classic summer soup: okroshka. It can be made with either kvass or kefir.  In essence it’s a mixture of diced ingredients, mostly vegetables, moistened with kvass or kefir. There’s really nothing to it.

Kvass is a ubiquitous Slavic drink that is mildly alcoholic. It is made by the natural fermentation of dark bread, dried, baked into croutons, or fried, with the addition of sugar or fruit (commonly raisins), and with a yeast culture and zakvaska (“kvass fermentation starter”).  Whenever I have toured rural Russia I have been greeted with the traditional bread, salt, and kvass. Kefir is fermented cow’s, goat’s, or sheep’s milk that is also very common as a drink or food ingredient throughout Russia. Kvass and kefir had wildly different tastes and so produce completely different soups, but the preparation method is otherwise the same.  Use plain kvass, not one with any kind of flavoring in it (that is, if you can find it at all). If you water down a mix of plain yoghurt and sour cream you’ll get a passable substitute for kefir. In Russia the sour cream used is Smetana which is denser than Western sour creams.

Okroshka with Kvass (Окрошка на квасе)


6 cups kvass, chilled
250 gm boiled beef, Russian sausage, or ham (or a combination) finely cubed
2 large potatoes, boiled, peeled, and finely cubed
4 hard boiled eggs, peeled and sliced
1 cucumber, peeled and finely cubed
6 radishes, finely cubed


sour cream
sliced green onions
chopped fresh dill


Mix all the solid soup ingredients in a large bowl and refrigerate them until they are thoroughly chilled.

Spoon portions of the soup ingredients into a bowl and pour in chilled kvass (or kefir) to cover – just like making your morning cereal.

Serve with bowls of green onions, dill, and sour cream for guests to add as they wish.

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.


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.


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 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.


  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 192017


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.


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.


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 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.

May 162017

On this date in 1920 Joan of Arc was canonized as a saint. Her feast day is May 30th and you can read all about her exploits and trial here http://www.bookofdaystales.com/joan-of-arc/ .  Now I just want to focus on the fact that it took nearly 500 years for the Catholic church to declare her a saint. I’ll begin by saying that I find the whole process of declaring a person a saint extremely silly. I’m not bothered so much by the question of whether she is a saint or not, but rather by the fact that it took the church so long. I remember reading about her for history lessons in primary school. My textbook ended with the terse sentence after reporting her death: “. . . 500 years later she was made a saint.” Somebody in the class asked why it took so long, and my teacher said simply that the process took a long time. Nonsense. Pope John Paul II will probably be canonized in my lifetime; many people have been declared saints, throughout history, shortly after their deaths. Why did it take so long?

Joan was put on trial by an Inquisitorial court that was heavily influenced by the English, leading to her execution in the marketplace of Rouen in 1431. When the French retook Rouen in 1449, a series of investigations were launched. Her now-widowed mother Isabelle Romée and Joan’s brothers Jéan and Pierre, who were with Joan at the Siege of Orleans, petitioned Pope Nicholas V to reopen her case. The formal appeal was conducted in 1455 by Jean Bréhal, Inquisitor-General of France, under the aegis of Pope Callixtus III. Isabelle addressed the opening session of the appellate trial at Notre Dame with an impassioned plea to clear her daughter’s name. Joan was exonerated on July 7, 1456, with Bréhal’s summary of case evidence describing her as a martyr who had been executed by a court which itself had violated Church law.  In 1457, Callixtus excommunicated the now-deceased Bishop Pierre Cauchon for his persecution and condemnation of Joan.

The city of Orléans had commemorated her death each year beginning in 1432, and from 1435 onward performed a religious play centered on the lifting of the siege. The play represented her as a divinely-sent savior guided by angels. In 1452, during one of the postwar investigations into her execution, Cardinal d’Estouteville declared that this play would merit qualification as a pilgrimage site by which attendees could gain an indulgence. Not long after the appeal, Pope Pius II wrote an approving piece about her in his memoirs.

Joan was used a symbol of the Catholic League, a group organized to fight against Protestant groups during the Wars of Religion in France. An anonymous author wrote a biography of Joan’s life, stating that it was compiled “By order of the King, Louis XII of that name” in around 1500.

Joan’s cult of personality was opposed by the leaders of the French Revolution because she was a devout Catholic who had served the monarchy. They banned the yearly celebration of the lifting of the siege of Orleans, and Joan’s relics, including her sword and banner, were destroyed. A statue of Joan erected by the people of Orléans in 1571 (to replace one destroyed by Protestants in 1568) was melted down and made into a cannon. Recognizing he could use Joan for his nationalist purposes, Napoleon allowed Orléans to resume its yearly celebration of the lifting of the siege, commissioned Augustin Dupré to strike a commemorative coin, and had Jean-Antoine Chaptal inform the mayor of Orléans that he approved of a resolution by the municipal council.

Although Nicolas Lenglet Du Fresnoy and Clément Charles François de Laverdy are credited with the first full-length biographies of Joan, several English authors ironically sparked a movement which lead to her canonization. Harvard University English literature professor Herschel Baker noted in his introduction to Henry VI for The Riverside Shakespeare how appalled William Warburton was by the depiction of Joan in Henry VI, Part 1, and that Edmond Malone sought in “Dissertation on the Three Parts of Henry VI” (1787) to prove Shakespeare had no hand in its authorship (1974; p. 587). Charles Lamb chided Samuel Taylor Coleridge for reducing Joan to “a pot girl” in the first drafts of The Destiny of Nations, initially part of Robert Southey’s Joan of Arc. She was the subject of essays by Lord Mahon for The Quarterly Review, and by Thomas De Quincey for Tait’s.

As Joan found her way further into popular culture, the French Navy dedicated four vessels to her: a 52-gun frigate (1820); a 42-gun frigate (1852), an ironclad corvette warship (1867), and an armored cruiser (1899). Philippe-Alexandre Le Brun de Charmettes’s biography (1817), and Jules Quicherat’s account of her trial and rehabilitation (1841-1849) seemed to have inspired canonization efforts in France. In 1869, Bishop Félix Dupanloup and 11 other bishops petitioned Pope Pius IX to have her canonized, but the Franco-Prussian War postponed further action. In 1874, depositions began to be collected, received by Cardinal Luigi Bilio in 1876 (same year as Henri-Alexandre Wallon’s biography). Dupanloup’s successor, Bishop Pierre-Hector Coullié, directed an inquest to authenticate her acts and testimony from her trial and rehabilitation. On January 27, 1894, the Curia (Cardinals Benedetto Aloisi-Masella, Angelo Bianchi, Benoît-Marie Langénieux, Luigi Macchi, Camillo Mazzella, Paul Melchers, Mario Mocenni, Lucido Parocchi, Fulco Luigi Ruffo-Scilla, and Isidoro Verga) voted unanimously that Pope Leo XIII sign the Commissio Introductionis Causæ Servæ Dei Joannæ d’Arc, which he did that afternoon.

However, the path to sainthood did not go smoothly. On August 20, 1902, the Papal consistory rejected adding Joan to the Calendar of saints, stating: she launched the assault on Paris on the birthday of Mary, mother of Jesus; her capture (“proof” her claim that she was sent by God was false); her attempts to escape from prison; her abjure after being threatened with death; and doubts of her purity. On November 17, 1903, the Sacred Congregation of Rites met to discuss Joan’s cause at the behest of Pope Pius X. A decree proclaiming Joan’s heroic virtue was issued on January 6, 1904 by Cardinal Serafino Cretoni, and Pius proclaimed her venerable on January 8. The Decree of the Three Miracles was issued on December 13, 1908, and The Decree of Beatification was read five days later, which was issued formally by the Congregation of Rites on January 24, 1909. The Beatification ceremony was held on April 18, 1909.

In the subsequent fighting during World War I, French troops carried her image into battle with them. During one battle, they interpreted a German searchlight image projected on to low-lying clouds as an appearance by Joan, which bolstered their morale greatly. Her canonization Mass was held on May 16, 1920. Over 60,000 people attended the ceremony, including 140 descendants of Joan’s family.

Joan of Arc was born in the village of Domrémy, then in the French part of the duchy of Bar, or Barrois mouvant, located west of the Meuse. The part of the duchy lying east of the Meuse was part of the Holy Roman Empire. The duchy of Bar later became part of the province of Lorraine. The village of Domrémy was renamed Domrémy-la-Pucelle in honor of Joan. Unfortunately that general region is now famous for chocolate which would not be appropriate to celebrate a French woman who was not aware that the Americas (origin of chocolate) existed. Instead here’s a 15th century French recipe for a pie in the shape of a castle – to remind us how Joan of Arc assisted in storming castles. I’ve always fancied doing something like this but the closest I came was making a castle out of gingerbread. Meat pies in the shape of castles were quite popular from the Middle Ages up to the late 19th century. They were often filled with what we would think of as mincemeat, that is, meat heavily laced with sugar, fruit, and brandy. They were well known gifts of the nobility.

This recipe is from Du fait de cuisine by Maistre Chiquart translated by Elizabeth Cook

For a lofty entremet, that is a castle, there should be made for its base a fair large litter to be carried by four men, and in the said litter must be four towers to be put in each quarter of the said litter, and each tower should be fortified and machicolated; and each tower has crossbowmen and archers to defend the said fortress, and also in each tower is a candle or wax torch to illuminate; and they bear branches of all trees bearing all manner of flowers and fruit, and on the said branches all manner of birds. And in the lower court will be at the foot of each tower: in one of the towers, a boar’s head armed and endored spitting fire; elsewhere a great pike, and this pike is cooked in three ways: the part of the pike toward the tail is fried, the middle part is boiled, and the head part is roasted on the grill; and the said pike is sitting at the foot of the other tower looking out from the beast spitting fire. One should take note of the sauces of the said pike with which it should be eaten, that is: the fried with oranges, the boiled with a good green sauce which should be made sour with a little vinegar, and the roast of the said pike should be eaten with green verjuice made of sorrel. At the foot of the other tower an endored piglet looking out and spitting fire; and at the foot of the other tower a swan which has been skinned and reclothed, also spitting fire. And in the middle of the four towers in the lower court a fountain of Love, from which fountain there should flow by a spout rosewater and clear wine; and above the said fountain are cages with doves and all flying birds. And on the heights of the said castle are standards, banners, and pennons; and beside the said fountain is a peacock which has been skinned and reclothed. And for this, I Chiquart have said before, I would like to teach to the said master who is to make it the art of the said peacock, and this to do courtesy and honor to his lord and master, that is to take a large fat goose, and spit it well and put it to roast well and cleanly and gaily [quickly?], and to recloth it in the plumage of the peacock and put it in the place where the peacock should be set, next to the fountain of love, with the wings extended; and make the tail spread, and to hold the neck raised high, as if it were alive, put a stick of wood inside the said neck which will make it hold straight. And for this the said cook must not flay the said peacock, but take the pinions to put on the goose and take the skin of the rump of the peacock where the feathers are held all together; and when it goes onto the goose, to make good skewers to make the said goose spread its tail as properly as the peacock if it were alive.

And on the battlements of the lower court should be chickens skinned and reclothed and endored, and endored hedgehogs, and endored apples made of meat, Spanish pots made of meat all endored; molded figures, that is: hares, brachets, deer, boars, the hunters with their horns, partridge, crayfish, dolphin, peas all molded and beans made all of molded meat. The curtains of the said castle which go all around the castle, should be so large hanging to the ground that one cannot see the bearers of the said castle. And the said curtains from the ground to two feet up should be painted with waves of water and large sea flowers; and among the said waves should be painted all sorts of fish, and above the said waters and waves should be galleys and ships full of people armed in all ways so that it seems they come to attack the said fortress and castle of Love, which appears to be on a great rock in the sea, of which people some are archers, crossbowmen, others are furnished with lances, others with ladders to lean against the said fortress, these climbing and those descending and pushing the others off, these divided and other things, these hard pressed and those in retreat, these being killed by arrows and those by stones.

And within the curtains should be three or four young children playing very well, one a rebec, another a lute, psaltery, or harp, and others who have good voices to sing appropriate, sweet, and pleasant songs so that one is aware that these are sirens in the sea by their clear singing.

And the peacock which is mentioned above, which by the advice of me, Chyquart, is the result of artifice, take it and clean it very well and then dry it well and properly, and spit it and put it to roast; and when it is nearly roasted stud it with good whole cloves well and properly; and if the surface is spoiled put it to roast again. And then let your lord know about your trick with the peacock and he can then arrange for what he wants done.

May 142017

Interesting day for Louis XIII of France. He came to the throne on this date in 1610, at the age of 8, when Henry IV of France, his father, was assassinated. He also died on this date in 1643. I’ve occasionally talked about people who died on their birthdays, but never celebrated a ruler who died on the anniversary of coming to power. I’ll spend a little time talking about the importance of his reign, but, since this is (in theory) a foodie blog, I’ll concentrate on changes in the culinary scene in France during his reign.

Louis was king at a time when Europe was in turmoil politically and religiously. His father was raised a Huguenot who had to struggle with conflicts between Protestants and Catholics both within his own realm and with his neighbors. Henry IV was the first king in the Bourbon line, and both his reign and that of his son saw the ascendancy of the Bourbons over the Habsburgs in Spain and Austria. Henry survived several assassination attempts before he finally succumbed to a Catholic fanatic, François Ravaillac, who stabbed him in the Rue de la Ferronnerie when his coach was stopped by traffic congestion related to his queen’s coronation ceremony. Henry’s problem was that he had been raised Protestant by his mother, but had to (nominally) convert to Catholicism twice: first to be king of Navarre, and then to be king of France. So, he was hated by some Protestants as a traitor and by some Catholics as a Protestant sympathizer. There’s a fundamental rule here – try to please everyone and you end up pleasing no one.

Because Louis was a minor when he became king, his mother, Marie de’ Medici, became regent for him.  Marie got embroiled in numerous court intrigues, not least because her husband had kept a number of mistresses – quite publicly – and they all insisted on a piece of the action especially after Henry’s death. She also kept a large following of Italian favorites at court which led the young king Louis to take power in 1617 by exiling his mother and executing her followers, including Concino Concini, the most influential Italian at the French court.

Louis XIII was described as taciturn and suspicious, some of which may have come from the fact that he had a serious congenital speech impediment. The ambassador of King James I of England to the court of France, Edward Herbert, 1st Baron Herbert of Cherbury, who presented his credentials to Louis XIII in 1619, remarked:

I presented to the King [Louis] a letter of credence from the King [James] my master: the King [Louis] assured me of a reciprocal affection to the King [James] my master, and of my particular welcome to his Court: his words were never many, as being so extream a stutterer that he would sometimes hold his tongue out of his mouth a good while before he could speak so much as one word; he had besides a double row of teeth . . .

Perhaps as a consequence of these speech problems, Louis relied heavily on his chief ministers, first Charles d’Albert, duc de Luynes then Cardinal Richelieu, to govern the kingdom of France. King and cardinal are remembered for establishing the Académie française, and ending the revolt of the French nobility. The reign of Louis “the Just” was also marked by the struggles against Huguenots and Habsburg Spain.

France’s greatest victory in the conflicts against the Habsburg Empire during the period 1635–59 came at the Battle of Rocroi (1643), five days after Louis’s death caused by apparent complications of intestinal tuberculosis. This battle marked the end of Spain’s military ascendancy in Europe and foreshadowed French dominance in Europe under Louis XIV, his son and successor.

I covered much of this territory here http://www.bookofdaystales.com/cardinal-richelieu/ so I will not repeat myself. Let’s move on to cooking. The exile and execution of the Italians in the French court had a major impact on courtly manners, including cuisine. At the time there were two major threads to French cuisine: (1) Classic Medieval cooking involving fruits and meats mixed together with an abundance of spices, and (2) Italian cooking styles which, to that point, were the most revolutionary in Europe. French cooking broke with both traditions and embarked on a new course that evolved into the haute cuisine we are all familiar with. The results of the new experiments in French cooking styles are laid out in Le Cuisinier françois (1651) by François Pierre de la Varenne, which became an extremely influential cookbook along with others he wrote before and after (on confiture and patisserie).

Le Cuisinier françois was the first book to set down in writing the considerable culinary innovations achieved in France in the 17th century, while codifying food preparation in a systematic manner. La Varenne introduced the first bisque and Béchamel sauce (although the latter is disputed; he replaced crumbled bread with roux as the thickener for sauces, and lard with butter; and he introduced the terms bouquet garni, fonds de cuisine (stocks) and reductions, as well as the use of egg whites for clarifying stocks. In addition, he did away with a lot of heavy spices in favor of fresh garden herbs, and separated savory dishes from sweet ones. The book also contains the earliest recipe in print for mille-feuille. He deals at length with the cooking of vegetables, which was an unusual departure from standard cookbooks of previous generations. In his recipe for a fragrant sauce for asparagus there is evidence of an early form of Hollandaise sauce: “make a sauce with good fresh butter, a little vinegar, salt, and nutmeg, and an egg yolk to bind the sauce; take care that it doesn’t curdle…”

Potage à la Reyne is possibly la Varenne’s most famous recipe, certainly the most frequently posted online – usually with modern attempts to recreate it. You’ll find coxcombs readily enough in Chinese supermarkets; I’m not sure about the West. Never seen them. Partridges are not that common either, but you can get capons easily enough. I took the recipe from here http://www.coquinaria.nl/english/recipes/07.2histrecept.htm#Pierre%20La%20Varenne%201651 where you will also find a discussion about the purported history of the soup, plus a modern adaptation. The translation is mostly my own.  The part that baffles me is why you need to pass a red hot shovel over the soup before garnishing and serving. Have you ever broiled soup?

Potage à la Reyne.
Prenez des amandes, les battez & les mettez bouïllir auec bon bouïllon, vn bouquet, & vn morceau du dedans d’vn citron, vn peu de mie de pain, pu[i]s les assaisonnez; prenez bien garde qu’elles ne bruslent, remuez les fort souuent, puis les passez. Prenez ensuite vostre pain & le faites mitonner auec le meilleur bouïllon, qui se fait ainsi; Apres que vous aurez desossé quelque perdrix ou chapon rosty prenez les os & les battez bien dedans vn mortier, puis prenez du bon bouïllon, faites cuire tous ces os auec vn peu de champignons, & passez le tout. & de ce bouïllon mitonnez vostre pain, & à mesure qu’il mitonne arrosez le dit bouïllon d’amende & ius, puis y mettez vn peu de achis bien delié, soit de perdrix ou de chapon; & tousiours à mesure qu íl mitonne mettez y du bouïllon d’amende iusques à ce qu’il soit plein.
Prenez en suite la paëlle du feu, la faite rougir, & la passez par dessus. Garnissez de crestes, pistaches, grenades & ius, puis seruez.
The Queen’s soup.
Take some almonds, grind them and put them on to boil with good bouillon, with a bouquet [of herbs], a piece of citron pulp, and a few breadcrumbs; then season them. Take good care that they don’t burn, stirring them quite often, then strain them. Then take your bread and simmer it in the best bouillon, that is made like this: after you have deboned some roasted partridges or capons take the bones and pound them well in a mortar. Then take some good bouillon, cook all of the bones with a few mushrooms, and strain everything. Simmer your bread in this bouillon and, as it is simmering, sprinkle it with the said almond bouillon and meat stock, then add in a little finely chopped partridge flesh or capon, always in such a way that it keeps simmering. Add almond bouillon until it is full. Then get the fire shovel, heat it to red hot and pass it over the top. Garnish with cockscombs, pistachios, pomegranate seeds and meat stock, then serve.

For comparison here is an English version/translation from John Nott’s The Cooks and Confectioners Dictionary (London:1723), showing the influence of la Varenne:

BEAT Almonds, and boil them in good Broth, a few Crums of Bread, the Inside of a Lemon, and a Bunch of sweet Herbs, stir them often, strain them, then soak Bread in the best Broth, which is to be thus made; Bone a Capon or Partridge, pownd the Bones in a Mortar, then boil them in strong Broth, with Mushrooms, then strain them through a Linnencloth ; with this Broth soak your Bread; as it soaks, sprinkle it with the Almond-broth. Then put a little minced Meat to it, either of Partridge or Capon, and still as it is soaking, put in more Almond-broth, until it be full, then hold a red-hot iron over it; garnish the Dish with Pomegranates, Pistaches, and Cocks-combs.

May 132017

Abbotsbury Garland Day was held on this date for a little under 200 years, and continues to this day although the date of the celebration is now somewhat more flexible. I want to make a point of mentioning this English calendar custom, in part because it is not well known, and in part because its history is reasonably clear and is mercifully devoid of the usual claptrap about “pagan” origins that dogs so many English traditions.

Abbotsbury is a former fishing village in Dorset a little to the west of Weymouth, and Garland Day celebrations have taken place there since about the early 19th century. They were first described in the edition of John Hutchins’ History of Dorset published in 1867. My strong suspicion is that they were begun simply as a way for poor fishing families to make a little money in hard times. Not many folklorists or historians make much of the fact that almost all calendar customs in England involved some form of (legal) begging. I do. In the 19th century Dorset was the poorest county in the south of England by far. In the 19th century Dorset was mostly an agricultural area with farm laborers earning 10 shillings per week, half of which went for bread alone. The common daily diet was bread and cheese and on this an agricultural laborer was expected to work from dawn to dusk, 6 days a week.

Because of these impossible conditions there were several attempts to form unions to protest, the most famous being the Tolpuddle Martyrs. By the time the Martyrs organized their union (1834), wages had sunk to 6 shillings per week. It’s no wonder that local communities such as Abbotsbury organized festivals to try to wrest a little extra money once a year from those who had some to spare. Delve deeper and I guarantee you’ll find that the vast bulk of English calendar customs – lauded as “ancient” festivals – were motivated by financial concerns.

The custom involves the making of garlands by the children of the village. Originally only the children of local fishermen took part. The garlands were blessed in a church service and some were then rowed out to sea to be tossed into the water. The children would then spend the rest of the day playing on the beach. From around the time of the First World War the custom changed somewhat in that children of non-fishermen started to take part. This was probably due to the decline of the local fishing industry. The village school gave the children a day’s holiday and they would construct two garlands, one of wild flowers and the other of garden flowers. These were paraded on poles from house to house in the village where they asked for money. Later in the day older children who had been at school in Weymouth would return to the village and make a more elaborate garland which they would also take around the houses.

Since the First World War two garlands have been placed on the local war memorial at the close of the tour of houses. The Abbotsbury village school closed in 1981 and the children no longer get a day’s holiday. This has led to the celebrations taking place either in the evening of May 13th or on the nearest Saturday. Well . . . today (2017) is a Saturday !!!

From my experience of the region around Weymouth and Portland which I knew quite well a long time ago, as well as tours more recently in the vicinity of Swanage, there’s not a whole lot in the way of regional Dorset specialties. In recent years the old methods of making Dorsetshire Blue Vinney, a crumbly blue cheese made from skimmed milk (after butter had been made from it), have been revived, and it is good with Dorset knobs, hard biscuits (baked 3 times) made with bread dough and butter. Nowadays the most common dairy products are clotted cream and ice cream, locally produced, and if you buy a cone at the seaside they’ll ask if you want the ice cream topped with cream. Slight overkill, if you ask me, but worth it.  Otherwise, fish dishes from the coastal areas are much the same as you will find in Devon and Cornwall.

There is this, however, a report taken from The Portland Arms, taken from The Penny Magazine [1838]:

The ‘Portland Arms’ is not a wayside house, where travellers are coming and going every hour, and where, therefore, you have no right to expect more than prompt but general civility. It is rather one of those retired country inns, where visitors are treated with a homely but warm-hearted attention, which places them almost on the footing of friends. And though the inn cannot boast of being as fine as a London hotel, it has, nevertheless, its reputation. George III, during his visits to Weymouth, had several times made a tour of the Isle of Portland; and on those occasions he made the ‘Portland Arms’ his head-quarters, and used to finish his day by dining at the house. The then landlady had a recipe for making a certain famous Portland pudding, and the King never failed to order this pudding, in honour of the island. She bequeathed the recipe to her daughter, the present landlady; and though the pudding may now be ordered by the humblest visitor, the honour of the king’s visits is still felt in the ‘Portland Arms’ with something of that satisfaction which another royal visit left in the Castle of Tillietudlem.

This is touted as the recipe in question:


Beat to cream ¾ lb. each of fresh butter and caster sugar, then stir in the yolks of nine well beaten eggs, and mix in gradually ¾ lb sifted flour and 2 oz. finely-shred candied peel beat all well together for about ten minutes, then stir quickly and lightly the stiffly-whipped white of the eggs, pour it into small moulds, and bake. Serve with sweet sauce to taste.

All in all it looks like a sponge cake with candied peel, made into individual cakes rather than one big one. I’d guess that it was served hot, but I don’t know what kind of sweet sauce went with it.