Apr 162017
 

Happy Easter 2017 !!!  I’m not going to launch into a long polemic about historical accounts of Easter and the resurrection. If you want my thoughts on all of that read my chapter “What Peter, Paul, and Mary Saw” in this book: https://www.amazon.com/Thinking-Christian-Essays-Prod-Believer-ebook/dp/B01DGJ2OIM/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1492312589&sr=8-1&keywords=forrest+thinking+christian  Instead I will turn my attention to Easter eggs, an enduring symbol of Easter.

Displaying colored chicken’s eggs has been an Easter custom for a very long time; just exactly how long is a matter of debate. Decorating eggs in general is an ancient art. Furthermore, eggs have been an enduring symbol of death and rebirth in numerous Mesopotamian cultures for thousands of years. Thus, their association with Easter seems perfectly natural. What intrigues me is how diverse the traditions are these days.

There seems to me to be some merit in the speculation that boiled eggs were eaten at Easter for practical reasons. In the Middle Ages eggs were forbidden during the Lenten fast in some traditions, but, being Spring time, chickens did not stop laying. You can keep eggs for quite some time without spoilage, but not forever. Three weeks is about the limit. Boiling them allows you to keep them a little longer, and then at Easter, when the Lenten fast is over, they can be eaten. Boiling them with certain natural dye materials, such as onion skins or some tree barks, adds a whole new dimension – including additional decoration.

Let me just interject a quick note here about refrigerating versus not refrigerating fresh eggs. People in the US refrigerate EVERYTHING, including many items that should NOT be refrigerated. Chocolate, bread, and tomatoes, for example, will degrade much more quickly if refrigerated – but people do it anyway (not me!!). Eggs are complicated. Generally they are refrigerated in the US, but not in Europe. There is a reason for the difference. Eggs in the US are scrupulously washed before storage, and the washing removes a thin protective film which they acquire from the hen in the laying process, making the shells porous and open to invasion by harmful bacteria. So after washing they must be refrigerated. Eggs in Europe are not washed, so the protective film is preserved and they can be safely stored at room temperature. I prefer room temperature eggs for cooking under most circumstances, so when I lived in the US I had to take them out of the refrigerator some time before using them.  Here in Italy there is no need – likewise when I lived in Argentina and China. Trying to change habits in the US is almost certainly a lost cause.

There are so many different ways to decorate eggs that it would take me a fortnight to enumerate them all. One simple, very traditional, way is to affix a pattern to the eggs before boiling them in colored water so that the stain penetrates only the bare surface of the eggs. Pace eggs in the north of England are made this way (“pace” being a dialect variant of “pesach” – Aramaic for Passover/Easter, giving the common Romance words – via Latin (pascha) – for Easter such as Pascua, Pasqua, or Pâques).  Pace egging was a longstanding tradition in rural England involving a death and resurrection play and a begging song.  This traditional version comes from Burscough in Lancashire:

 

In eastern European countries, notably, Ukraine, a tradition of dyeing eggs in highly developed patterns using a wax-resist method (batik) has evolved into an art form that is still popular, with many regional variations.

Similar traditions have evolved throughout Mediterranean and Slavic cultures, and sometimes displaying them on Easter “trees”.

There is also a rather rarer tradition throughout Europe of carving lacey patterns into the uncolored shells.  This is incredibly delicate work that requires years of practice.

Chocolate eggs are a relative newcomer to the Easter scene; not possible until the perfection of techniques for making solid chocolate in the 19th century, allied with industrial processes for making hollow shapes.

Of course you can make decorative or artistic egg-shaped forms for Easter out of any material from marzipan to gold.

There’s probably no need to extol the enormous versatility of the chicken egg. Instead I’ll showcase a dish I made several years ago based on a 14th century recipe: poached egg with a saffron and ginger flavored Hollandaise. You should be able to work it out without a detailed recipe from me.

For Easter breakfast or brunch you can whip up a frittata, tortilla, omelet, or quiche is plain eggs are too bland for you. Later you can have a baked egg custard, pancake, flan, or egg-anything-you want. Let’s instead consider the virtues of eggs other than chicken eggs.

Duck. Duck eggs are not easy to find in the West, but in Chinese markets they are as common as chicken eggs and can be used in much the same way. I bought them all the time in Yunnan. They are a little more flavorful than chicken eggs – perhaps earthier.

Quail. Once quail eggs were hard to find in the West, but I have no trouble getting them in northern Italy now. They’re a little fiddly to cook with.  You can boil them, but peeling them is a chore. I usually fry them, but you’ll need quite a few if you are making a meal of them !!! In China they have special utensils for frying them in a row on a stick. This is a great street snack. Usually I chose the option of dusting them with a hot spicy powder. The fun is in the size more than the taste. They’re not so different from chicken eggs in that regard.

Goose. The goose egg is larger than duck or chicken eggs and is decidedly more robust in flavor. They’re hard to find and I don’t care to go to the trouble these days because I’m not a fan of the taste.

Ostrich. I’ve never seen ostrich eggs for sale outside of Africa, and even there they are not common. Ostriches don’t produce very many eggs and breeders generally use them to make more ostriches. They are gigantic with an exceedingly tough shell that takes a hammer, or the like, to break into. One egg will serve more than one person – scrambled or made into an omelet. They are delicious if you can ever get hold of one that is fresh enough to eat.

Oct 232016
 

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Today is Mole Day, an unofficial holiday celebrated among chemists, chemistry students and chemistry enthusiasts on October 23, between 6:02 AM and 6:02 PM. No, it does not celebrate pesky little furry mammals who make hills that some people make into mountains. The mole is the unit of measurement in the International System of Units (SI) for the amount of a substance. You might have a tough time for a few seconds if your eyes glaze over when the subject of mathematics comes up. I promise to be quick.

The mole is widely used in chemistry as a convenient way to express relative amounts of reactants and products of chemical reactions. For example, the chemical equation 2 H2 + O2 → 2 H2O implies that 2 mol of dihydrogen (H2) and 1 mol of dioxygen (O2) react to form 2 mol of water (H2O). The mole may also be used to express the number of atoms, ions, or other elementary entities in a given sample of any substance. The concentration of a solution is commonly expressed by its molarity, defined as the number of moles of the dissolved substance per liter of solution. This takes me back to my days of quantitative analysis in chemistry lab in grammar school. I used to be all right with the experiments, but I always managed to get tripped up on the mathematics at the end. I knew my chemistry backwards, forwards, and inside out – yet I still managed to make a simple error in calculation on the quantitative analysis in the final lab exam for ‘O’- level and fretted for a month until the results were published. Crisis over. Even with one simple error in multiplication on one tiny part of the whole exam I still got the highest mark. Phew !!

The mole is based on Avogadro’s constant, which is approximately 6.02 × 1023 (actually more like 6.02214085774×1023) and which is the number of particles (usually atoms or molecules) in one mole of substance. In the US writing style today’s date is 10/23, so at 6:02 (the time I woke this morning as it happens – late for me), we can say that we have approximated Avogadro’s constant (6:02 10/23) in the same way that 10/6 (October 6 in US, 10 June in Britain) is Mad Hatter’s Day, or 22/7  (22 July in Britain) is Pi Approximation Day. Semi-officially, Mole Day runs from 6:02 am to 6:02 pm.

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You can convert moles to grams by using the common isotope for carbon which is carbon-12. I mole of carbon-12 weighs 1 gram (which is also one way to define a gram – than is, 6.02 × 1023 atoms of carbon-12 = 1 gram). Carbon-12 is also the standard for all other atomic masses. Its nucleus contains 6 protons and 6 neutrons, giving a mass number of 12. Furthermore, carbon is the basic element of organic life because of its unique ability among all the elements to form long and complex chains or molecules. No other element even comes close in this ability. Without carbon there would be no life.

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According to current theory, the Big Bang did not produce significant amounts of carbon or other heavy elements (heavier than lithium). Mostly the Big Bang produced hydrogen and helium (constituent elements of stars, including our sun).  The heavier elements need extremely high temperatures to fuse the lighter nuclei of hydrogen and helium to make heavier nuclei, but the Big Bang had “cooled” below that temperature after only about 10 seconds. After the Big Bang, only very dense exploding stars were capable of generating such high temperatures and pouring out heavy elements. So all the carbon in your body was once part of an exploding star (as was all the oxygen, nitrogen, calcium, potassium iron, etc). Congratulations – You Are Stardust.

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If I go with molecules based on carbon-12 as today’s theme I have unlimited possibilities for recipes. Everything we eat, with the exception of salt, is organic (based on carbon). That’s not especially promising or limiting. But if we focus on Avogadro we can narrow things down. Avogadro’s full name was Lorenzo Romano Amedeo Carlo Avogadro di Quaregna e di Cerreto, Count of Quaregna and Cerreto (9 August 1776 – 9 July 1856). He was born in Turin in the Piedmont region of northern Italy – then part of the kingdom of Sardinia. Avogadro graduated in ecclesiastical law at the late age of 31 and began to practice thereafter. But he soon became attracted to physics and mathematics and in 1809 started teaching them at a liceo (high school) in Vercelli, where his family lived and had some property.

In 1811, he published an article with the title Essai d’une manière de déterminer les masses relatives des molécules élémentaires des corps, et les proportions selon lesquelles elles entrent dans ces combinaisons (“Essay on Determining the Relative Masses of the Elementary Molecules of Bodies and the Proportions by Which They Enter These Combinations”), which contains Avogadro’s central hypothesis on atomic mass. In 1820, he became a professor of physics at the University of Turin. Avogadro was active in the revolutionary movement of March 1821. As a result, he lost his chair in 1823 (or, as the university officially declared, it was “very glad to allow this interesting scientist to take a rest from heavy teaching duties, in order to be able to give better attention to his researches”). Eventually, King Charles Albert granted a Constitution (Statuto Albertino) in 1848. Well before this, Avogadro had been recalled to the university in Turin in 1833, where he taught for another twenty years.

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Turin is most famous in Italy for its chocolate. Turin chocolate firms make all manner of chocolate products but are famous for Gianduiotto, named after Gianduja, a local Commedia dell’arte mask. The city is also known for bicerin, a traditional hot drink made of espresso, drinking chocolate and whole milk served layered in a small rounded glass. Every year Turin organizes CioccolaTÒ, a two-week chocolate festival run with the main Piedmontese chocolate producers, such as Caffarel, Streglio, Venchi and others.

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I’m not a big fan of chocolate, and even if I were to give you a recipe you’d need to come to Italy for the right ingredients (and atmosphere). The Piedmont region does have some savory I like, however. One is paniscia, which in Italy is called “risotto” but is, in reality, a creamy version of the Hispanic staple, rice and beans. Paniscia originates in Novara, to the west of Turin, but is quite commonly found throughout Piedmont (and impossible to find elsewhere in Italy). You’ll have to make do with what you can find for meat/pork products. The whole Po Valley is famous for its regional sausages and hams. Use one or two semi-cured Italian pork sausages. Local ones in Piedmont are salam d’la duja, a somewhat soft, half-cured sausage finished submerged in pig fat, like a confit, and fidighina, with pig’s liver. Lardo is cured pork fat, for which you can substitute lard, and cotenna is cured pig skin, which you can replace with roast pork skin. Local cooks often use carnaroli rice rather than the more usual arborio rice used in risotto because it cooks up creamier.

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 Paniscia

Ingredients

¾ cup dried borlotti beans
½ head savoy cabbage, shredded
2 ribs celery, chopped
1 leek, cleaned well and chopped
4 oz Italian semi-cured sausage, diced
4 oz lardo or pork fat, diced
4 oz cooked pork skin, diced
¾ cup carnaroli (or arborio) rice
1 cup Italian red wine
1 tbspn butter (plus extra)
2 oz Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
salt and pepper

Instructions

Cover the beans with cold water and soak them overnight.

Drain the beans and put them in a pot with the cabbage, celery, leek and salt to taste. Cover with water and bring to a simmer. Cook until the beans are tender but not completely cooked (around 2 hours). Keep the pot warm.

Place the meats in a wide, deep, heavy skillet and warm over medium-high heat. When the lardo starts to melt, add the rice. Stir with a wooden spoon to coat the rice with the fat. Continue to cook  for 2 to 3 minutes. Add the wine and allow it to reduce, stirring constantly.

Now you begin the risotto-making process which takes time and experience. Place on ladle of the bean broth in the skillet and stir. Controlling the heat is crucial. The broth should not bubble vigorously nor simmer listlessly. Somewhere in between. When the broth has nearly been absorbed add another ladleful. Keep stirring as the rice cooks and add more broth as it is absorbed. After about 15 minutes check the rice. It should be close to cooked. Start adding the beans and vegetables with the broth towards the last 5 minutes. The rice should be al dente and the whole mixture will have a creamy texture.

Remove the skillet from the heat, let it rest for 5 minutes, then add the butter and cheese. Stir thoroughly until the butter and cheese melt and are incorporated. Serve immediately

 

 

Mar 142016
 

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Today is White Day (ホワイトデー Howaito Dē) in east Asia, falling one month after Valentine’s Day. It began as a marketing ploy in Japan because of a misunderstanding about how Valentine’s Day works in the West. When the Japanese began adopting Valentine’s Day as a celebration they took it as a day when women gave gifts to men (particularly of chocolate) and not the other way round. So manufacturers invented a day for men to reciprocate a month later.

In Japan, Valentine’s Day is typically observed by girls and women presenting chocolate gifts (either store-bought or handmade), usually to boys or men, as an expression of love, courtesy, or social obligation. On White Day, the reverse happens: men who received a honmei-choco (本命チョ, ‘chocolate of love’) or giri-choco (義理チョコ, ‘courtesy chocolate’) on Valentine’s Day are expected to return the favor by giving gifts. Traditionally, popular White Day gifts are cookies, jewelry, white chocolate, white lingerie, and marshmallows. Sometimes the term sanbai gaeshi (三倍返し, ‘triple the return’) is used to describe the generally recited rule that the return gift should be two to three times the worth of the Valentine’s gift. Very Japanese.

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White Day was first celebrated in 1978 in Japan. It was started by the National Confectionery Industry Association as an “answer day” to Valentine’s Day on the grounds that men should pay back the women who gave them chocolate and other gifts on Valentine’s Day. In 1977, a Fukuoka-based confectionery company, Ishimuramanseido, marketed marshmallows to men on March 14, calling it Marshmallow Day (マシュマロデー Mashumaro Dē). Soon thereafter, confectionery companies jumped on the bandwagon and began marketing white chocolate. Now, men give both white and dark chocolate, as well as other edible and non-edible gifts, such as jewelry or objects of sentimental value, or white clothing like lingerie, to women from whom they received chocolate on Valentine’s Day one month earlier. If the chocolate given to him was giri choco, the man likewise may not be expressing actual romantic interest, but rather a social obligation.

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Eventually, this practice spread to the neighboring East Asian countries of South Korea, China, and Taiwan. In those cultures, White Day is for the most part observed in the same manner. I’ll check in with my son later to see what he’s done. He lives in China and has a Chinese girlfriend. I know he did the standard Western thing on Valentine’s Day, but I expect he’ll do something today as well.

Me? I don’t live in China any more and don’t have a girlfriend. So I’m good. Furthermore, I don’t care for sweets in general, or white chocolate in particular, so I can’t be much help. This site should give you plenty of ideas:

http://www.averiecooks.com/2012/09/25-national-white-chocolate-day-recipes.html

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Dec 022015
 

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The first self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction was initiated in CP-1 on this date in 1942, under the supervision of Enrico Fermi, who described the apparatus as “a crude pile of black bricks and wooden timbers”. Chicago Pile-1 (CP-1) was the world’s first nuclear reactor to achieve criticality. Its construction was part of the Manhattan Project, the Allied effort to create atomic bombs during World War II. It was built by the Manhattan Project’s Metallurgical Laboratory at the University of Chicago, under the west viewing stands of the original Stagg Field.

The reactor was assembled in November 1942 under the supervision of Fermi, in collaboration with Leo Szilard, discoverer of the chain reaction, and Herbert L. Anderson, Walter Zinn, Martin D. Whitaker, and George Weil. It contained 45,000 graphite blocks weighing 400 short tons (360 t) used as a neutron moderator, and was fueled by 6 short tons (5.4 t) of uranium metal and 50 short tons (45 t) of uranium oxide. In the pile, some of the free neutrons produced by the natural decay of uranium were absorbed by other uranium atoms, causing nuclear fission of those atoms, and the release of additional free neutrons. Unlike most subsequent nuclear reactors, it had no radiation shield or cooling system as it only operated at very low power. The shape of the pile was intended to be roughly spherical, but as work proceeded Fermi calculated that critical mass could be achieved without finishing the entire pile as planned.

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In 1943, CP-1 was moved to Red Gate Woods, and reconfigured to become Chicago Pile-2 (CP-2). There, it was operated until 1954, when it was dismantled and buried. The stands at Stagg Field were demolished in August 1957, but the site is now a National Historic Landmark and a Chicago Landmark.

The idea of chemical chain reactions was first put forth in 1913 by the German chemist Max Bodenstein for a situation in which two molecules react to form not just the molecules of the final reaction products, but also some unstable molecules which can further react with the parent molecules to cause more molecules to react. The concept of a nuclear chain reaction was first hypothesized by the Hungarian scientist Leo Szilard on 12 September 1933. Szilard realized that if a nuclear reaction produced neutrons or dineutrons, which then caused further nuclear reactions, the process might be self-perpetuating. Szilard proposed using mixtures of lighter known isotopes which produced neutrons in copious amounts, although he did entertain the possibility of using uranium as a fuel. He filed a patent for his idea of a simple nuclear reactor the following year. The discovery of nuclear fission by German chemists Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann in 1938, followed by its theoretical explanation (and naming) by Lise Meitner and Otto Frisch, opened up the possibility of creating a nuclear chain reaction with uranium or indium, but initial experiments were unsuccessful. Fermi’s experiment marked the dawn of a new era.

I could give you a lot more historical and technical details. It mostly bores me so I cannot imagine what it will do for you. Instead here’s two pieces of relatively unimportant information which amuse me.

First, Fermi christened his apparatus a “pile”. Emilio Segrè later recalled that:

I thought for a while that this term was used to refer to a source of nuclear energy in analogy with Volta’s use of the Italian term pila to denote his own great invention of a source of electrical energy [a battery]. I was disillusioned by Fermi himself, who told me that he simply used the common English word pile as synonymous with heap. To my surprise, Fermi never seemed to have thought of the relationship between his pile and Volta’s.

Pila is still the common Spanish word for a (small disposable) battery. I’m not sure about Italian (I’ll have to ask my students). I know that pila can be used in Italian for a battery, but I am not sure how common it is, or what type of battery. I do remember early on in Buenos Aires asking in a store for batteries for my camera and using batterias only to get blank stares. Batteria in Spanish is used for car batteries and such.

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Anyway, Volta used the word pila for his invention for reasons that are obvious when you see a photo of it. It’s a pile of stuff. It’s amazing how dense world-class physicists can be when it comes to a simple matter of etymology.

Second, I now teach at a technical high school in Mantua named after Fermi: Istituto Superiore Enrico Fermi. I’m not sure how much the students know about Fermi; I’ll find out later when I go in.

While writing the appendix for the Italian edition of the book Fundamentals of Einstein Relativity by August Kopff in 1923, Fermi was the first to point out that hidden inside the famous Einstein equation (E = mc2) was an enormous amount of nuclear potential energy to be exploited. “It does not seem possible, at least in the near future”, he wrote, “to find a way to release these dreadful amounts of energy—which is all to the good because the first effect of an explosion of such a dreadful amount of energy would be to smash into smithereens the physicist who had the misfortune to find a way to do it.” Interesting remarks from the man who was, in fact, the first physicist to do it and was not smashed into smithereens. See http://www.bookofdaystales.com/e-mc%C2%B2/

Chocolate Pudding in a Glass Dish

Apparently in March 1942 Fermi wrote a recipe for chocolate pudding. The essence is that you melt 30 grams of chocolate with ½ teaspoon of sugar per serving in a double boiler. Remove from the heat and whip the chocolate with one egg yolk per person. Pour into individual cups and chill in the refrigerator for 8 hours. Serve with toasted almonds and/or whipped cream. This recipe appeared in a newspaper article whose provenance I don’t know. No matter. It’s from Fermi and that’s good enough for me.

Dec 012013
 

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Happy birthday  (1761) to Marie Tussaud Grosholtz, better known as Madame Tussaud, famed wax sculptor and founder of Madame Tussauds waxworks.  She was born in Strasbourg in France. Her mother worked as a housekeeper for Dr. Philippe Curtius in Bern in Switzerland, who was a physician skilled in wax modeling used in teaching anatomy originally.

Curtius moved to Paris in 1765 to establish a cabinet de portraits en cire (wax portrait exhibition). In that year, he made a waxwork of Louis XV’s last mistress, Madame du Barry, a cast that is the oldest work currently on display. A year later, Tussaud and her mother joined Curtius in Paris. The first exhibition of Curtius’ waxworks was shown in 1770 and attracted a large crowd. In 1776, the exhibition was moved to the Palais Royal and, in 1782, Curtius opened a second exhibit, the Caverne des Grands Voleurs, a precursor to the later chamber of horrors, on Boulevard du Temple.

It was Curtius who taught Tussaud the art of wax modeling. She showed talent for the technique and began working for him as an artist. In 1777, she created her first wax figure, that of Voltaire.

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From 1780 until the Revolution in 1789, Tussaud created many of her most famous portraits of celebrities such as  Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Benjamin Franklin. At the same time, she remained on good terms with the French royal family. She claimed in later years to have been employed to teach votive making to Élisabeth the sister of Louis XVI. In her memoirs, Tussaud said that it was in this capacity that she was frequently privy to private conversations between the princess and her brother and members of his court. She also said that members of the royal family were so pleased with her work that she was invited to live at Versailles.

In Paris, Tussaud became involved in the French Revolution and met many of its important figures including Napoleon Bonaparte and Robespierre. On 12 July 1789, wax heads of Jacques Necker and the duc d’Orléans made by Curtius were carried in a protest march two days before the attack on the Bastille. Tussaud was arrested during the Reign of Terror together with Joséphine de Beauharnais and her head was shaved in preparation for execution by guillotine. However, thanks to Collot d’Herbois’ support for Curtius and his household, she was released. Tussaud was then employed to make death masks of the victims of the guillotine, including some of the Revolution’s most infamous dead such as Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, Marat, and Robespierre. Her death masks were held up as revolutionary flags and paraded through the streets of Paris. Soon, Tussaud was searching through piles of bodies collecting the most illustrious heads she could find.

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When Curtius died in 1794, he left his collection of wax works to Tussaud. In 1795, she married François Tussaud. The couple had two children, Joseph and François. In 1802 she went to London, having accepted an invitation from Paul Philidor, a magic lantern and phantasmagoria pioneer, to exhibit her work alongside his show at the Lyceum Theatre in London. She did not fare particularly well financially, with Philidor taking half of her profits. As a result of the Napoleonic Wars, she was unable to return to France, so she travelled throughout Great Britain and Ireland exhibiting her collection. From 1831 she took a series of short leases on the upper floor of “Baker Street Bazaar” (on the west side of Baker Street, Dorset Street, and King Street), which later featured in the Druce-Portland case sequence of trials of 1898-1907. This became Tussaud’s first permanent home in 1836.

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One of the main attractions of her museum was the Chamber of Horrors. This part of the exhibition included victims of the French Revolution and newly created figures of murderers and other criminals. The name is often credited to a contributor to Punch in 1845, but Marie appears to have originated it herself, using it in advertising as early as 1843.

Other famous people were added to the exhibition, including Horatio Nelson, and Sir Walter Scott, and some of the sculptures done by Marie Tussaud herself still exist. The gallery originally contained about 400 different figures, but fire damage in 1925, coupled with German bombs in 1941, has rendered most of these older models unusable. However, the molds themselves have survived (allowing the historical waxworks to be remade), and these can be seen in the museum’s history exhibit. The oldest figure on display is that of Madame du Barry. Other faces from the time of Tussaud include Robespierre, George III, and Benjamin Franklin. In 1842, she made a self portrait which is now on display at the entrance of her museum. She died in her sleep on 15 April 1850.

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By 1883 the restricted space and rising cost of the Baker Street site prompted her grandson (Joseph Randall) to commission the building at its current location on Marylebone Road. The new exhibition galleries were opened on 14 July 1884 and were a great success. However, the building costs, falling so soon after buying out his cousin Louisa’s half share in the business in 1881, meant the business was under-funded. A limited company was formed in 1888 to attract fresh capital but had to be dissolved after disagreements between the family shareholders, and in February 1889 Tussaud’s was sold to a group of businessmen led by Edwin Josiah Poyser. Edward White, an artist dismissed by the new owners to save money, allegedly sent a parcel bomb to John Theodore Tussaud in June 1889 in revenge.

Madame Tussaud’s wax museum has now grown to become a major tourist attraction in London, incorporating (until 2010) the London Planetarium in its west wing. It has expanded and will expand with branches in Amsterdam, Bangkok, Berlin, Blackpool, Hollywood, Hong Kong, Las Vegas, New York City, Shanghai, Sydney, Vienna and Washington, D.C. Today’s wax figures at Tussauds include historical and royal figures, film stars, sports stars and famous murderers. Known as “Madame Tussauds” museums (no apostrophe), they are owned by a leisure company called Merlin Entertainments, following the acquisition of The Tussauds Group in May 2007.

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In July 2008, Madame Tussauds’ Berlin branch became embroiled in controversy when a 41-year-old German man brushed past two guards and decapitated a wax figure depicting Adolf Hitler. This was believed to be an act of protest against showing the ruthless dictator alongside sports heroes, movie stars, and other historical figures. However, the statue has since been repaired and the perpetrator has admitted he attacked the statue to win a bet. The original model of Hitler, unveiled in Madame Tussauds London in April 1933 was frequently vandalized and a replacement in 1936 had to be carefully guarded.

I have extremely fond memories of Madame Tussauds as a teenager in the 60’s when I would frequently spend the afternoon there.  You entered on the main floor where, in two large halls, were displayed, in semi-random fashion, waxworks of the famous.  The figures on display changed as the fortunes of individuals rose and fell.  I remember the big hoopla, for example, when the figures of the Beatles were first unveiled.

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On the second floor was a series of alcoves with individual tableaux, the most famous of which was Sleeping Beauty, made by Madame Tussaud herself, and featuring a clockwork mechanism that simulated the rise and fall of Sleeping Beauty’s chest as she breathed in her sleep.  Beside her was the image of Madame Tussaud in old age, also created by Madame Tussaud.

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In the next alcove was a tableau of the young Marie mixing plaster to make death masks during the French Revolution.

In the basement was the Chamber of Horrors.  Around the perimeter of the room were alcoves showing various famous murderers, including Crippen and Lee Harvey Oswald.

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One exhibit that impressed me was of a famous 19th century female poisoner, at the front of which was a glass dome containing a lump of half chewed toffee that was purportedly being chewed by a baby at the time her mother was poisoned.  Very creepy. In the middle of the room was a long glass case containing the actual death masks of Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, and Robespierre made by Madame Tussaud.  Electrifying.

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I also remember the great excitement when Madame Tussauds opened a new room that replicated action on the gun deck of HMS Victory during the battle of Trafalgar.  I was a big Nelson (and Hornblower) nut at the time, so I had to go as soon as I could. It was a terrific display complete with lights simulating the flash of canon fire and a deafening sound track of explosions and myriad shouting voices. But the true wonder of the exhibit was the smell of the room. They had aerosols all around spraying a potent mix of the smell of gunpowder, blood, and vomit into the room – a daring move. I loved it.

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I took my son to Tussauds in the 90’s on a trip to London after we had seen the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, and Westminster Abbey.  I have to say I was a little disappointed. It was all showy and glitzy, dominated by modern celebs, and thronging with people.  I wanted my funky old Madame Tussauds back.  The march of “progress.” Fortunately I have a good visual memory.

It may surprise you to learn that wax has a culinary use.  It is often added to chocolate because it creates a glossy sheen and prevents chocolate coatings from melting as quickly in hot weather.  I have never done this so I nicked a recipe from here:

http://www.cooks.com/recipe/nh04e8v1/ricks-favorite-maple-walnut-cream-chocolates.html

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RICK’S FAVORITE MAPLE WALNUT CREAM
CHOCOLATES
 
1 can sweetened condensed milk
3 lb. confectioners sugar
3 tbsp. maple flavoring
1 c. chopped walnuts

CHOCOLATE DIP:

4 sq. unsweetened chocolate
1/2 cake paraffin wax (2 1/2 x 2 1/2 inches)
12 oz. chocolate chips

Stir maple flavoring into condensed milk and add slowly to confectioners sugar in a large bowl. Mixture will be very thick. Mix in chopped nuts. With your hands, roll small amounts into ball and dip in chocolate mixture.

For chocolate dip, melt unsweetened chocolate and paraffin in the top of a double boiler over water (medium-high heat). Lower heat temperature and add chocolate chips, stir to melted. Keep temperature low enough to maintain a melt, and to keep the chocolate thickened. Dip balls of center mixture, one at a time, and place on waxed paper to cool.

These keep well for a long time and may be made weeks before needed.

 

Jul 212013
 

Belgium3

Belgium2
Today is a national holiday in Belgium celebrating the inauguration of Leopold I, the first king of the Belgians, after the nation’s independence from the Netherlands in 1831. Belgium’s history is intertwined with those of its neighbors: the Netherlands, Germany, France and Luxembourg. For most of its history, what is now Belgium was either a part of a larger territory, such as the Carolingian Empire, or divided into a number of smaller states, prominent among them being the Duchy of Brabant, the County of Flanders, the Prince-Bishopric of Liège and Luxembourg. Due to its strategic location and the many armies fighting on its soil, Belgium since the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) has often been called the “battlefield of Europe” or the “cockpit of Europe.” It is also remarkable as a European nation which contains, and is divided by, a language boundary between Latin-derived French, and Germanic Dutch (Flemish)

After Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in 1815, the major victorious powers (Britain, Austria, Prussia, and Russia) agreed at the Congress of Vienna on reuniting the former Austrian Netherlands and the former Dutch Republic, creating the United Kingdom of the Netherlands, which was to serve as a buffer state against any future French invasions. This kingdom was under the rule of a Protestant king, William I.

The Congress of Vienna treated Europe as if it were a giant board game with territories and ethnic groups carved up and reorganized in hopes of creating a balance of power between the major players and with suitable buffer zones between them.  The hope was that the resultant layout would prevent the rise of another Napoleon, and that there would be a measure of peace thereby.  Instead what resulted was a century of revolution and warfare initiated in large part by frustrated ethnic groups who resented being pushed around and manipulated like pieces in a game.  The inclusion of the Belgians in the Kingdom of the Netherlands was one such problem.

The first 15 years of the Kingdom showed progress and prosperity, as industrialization proceeded rapidly in the south (that is, the Belgian sector) where the Industrial Revolution allowed entrepreneurs and labor to combine in a new textile industry, powered by local coal mines. There was little industry in the northern provinces, but most overseas colonies were restored, and highly profitable trade resumed after a 25 year hiatus. Economic liberalism combined with moderate authoritarianism under William 1 accelerated the adaptation of the Netherlands to the new conditions of the 19th century. The country prospered until a crisis arose in relations with the southern provinces.

Protestants controlled the new country although they formed only a quarter of the population. In theory, Catholics had full legal equality; in practice their voice was not heard. Few Catholics held high state or military offices. The king insisted that schools in the south end their traditional teaching of Catholic doctrine, even though everyone there was Catholic. Socially, the French-speaking (Belgian) Walloons strongly resented the king’s policy to make Dutch the language of government.

Political liberals in the south had their own grievances, especially regarding the king’s authoritarian style; he seemed uncaring about the issue of regionalism, flatly vetoing a proposal for a French-language teacher-training college in francophone Liège. Finally, all factions in the South complained of unfair representation in the national legislature. The south was industrializing faster and was more prosperous than the north, leading to resentment of northern arrogance and political domination.

Belgium1

The outbreak of revolution in France in 1830 was a signal for revolt in Belgium. The demand at first was autonomy for Belgium, as the southern provinces were now called. Eventually, revolutionaries began demanding total independence. The Belgian Revolution broke out in August 1830 when crowds, stirred by a performance of Auber’s La Muette de Portici at the Brussels opera house of La Monnaie, spilled out on to the streets singing patriotic songs. Violent street fighting soon broke out, as anarchy reigned in Brussels. The liberal bourgeoisie who had initially been at the forefront of the revolution, were appalled by the violence and willing to accept a compromise with the Dutch.

The king assumed the protest would blow itself out. He waited for a surrender, announcing an amnesty for all revolutionaries, except foreigners and the leaders. When this did not succeed he sent in the army. Dutch forces were able to penetrate the Schaerbeek Gate into Brussels, but the advance was stalled in the Parc de Bruxelles under a hale of sniper fire. Royal troops elsewhere met determined resistance from revolutionaries at makeshift barricades. It is estimated that there were no more than 1,700 revolutionaries (described by the French Ambassador as an “undisciplined rabble”) in Brussels at the time, faced with over 6,000 Dutch troops. However, faced with strong opposition, Dutch troops were ordered out of the capital on the night of September 26 after three days of street fighting. There were also battles around the country as revolutionaries clashed with Dutch forces. In Antwerp, eight Dutch warships bombarded the city following its capture by revolutionary forces.

Belgian independence was not allowed by the 1815 Congress of Vienna; nevertheless the revolutionaries were regarded sympathetically by the major powers of Europe, especially the British. In November 1830, the London Conference of 1830 or “Belgian Congress” (comprising delegates from five major powers) ordered an armistice on November 4. The British foreign secretary Lord Palmerston was fearful of Belgium either becoming a republic or being annexed to France, and so invited a monarch from the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha in Germany to take the throne. On July 21, 1831, the first “King of the Belgians,” Leopold I of Saxe-Coburg was inaugurated. Even so it took a further eight years of war with the Netherlands before Belgium was fully independent and was designated by the major powers as a neutral nation.

From its founding as a nation Belgium has been divided along linguistic/ethnic lines: Dutch speaking Flanders in the north, and French speaking Wallonia in the south.  This division has caused endless social and political tensions down to the present day, and the two regions are culturally as distinct as if they were separate nations.  Yet somehow the nation retains a level of unity and identity within the broader European stage. Outsiders know Belgium chiefly for two products – beer and chocolates, produced and enjoyed across the ethnic divide of the country.  Brands of Belgian chocolate and pralines, like Côte d’Or, Neuhaus, Leonidas, and Godiva are famous, as well as independent producers such as Burie and Del Rey in Antwerp and Mary’s in Brussels. Belgium produces over 1100 varieties of beer. The Trappist beer of the Abbey of Westvleteren has repeatedly been rated the world’s best beer. The biggest brewer in the world by volume is Anheuser-Busch InBev, based in Leuven.

Belgian-chocolate2  belgium4
I can think of no better dish to represent Belgium on this day than the beef and onion stew known as Carbonade  à la Flamande in French and Stoverij in Flemish. Beer is a key ingredient, and the dish is popular in both Flanders and Wallonia. It is crucial to understand that this is not just the usual European beef in beer recipe.  You are striving for a sauce that is markedly bitter and sweet. Therefore the type of beer used is important, and traditionally an Oud bruin, Brune Abbey beer or Flanders red are the beers of choice because of their bitter flavor. Either brown sugar, or (preferably) red currant jelly, provides the sweet note.

Carbonade  à la Flamande/ Stoverij

Ingredients

3 ½ lbs chuck roast, cut into 1-inch pieces
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 Tbsp butter
3 medium yellow onions peeled and sliced about ¼ inch thick (about 8 cups)
3 tbsp all-purpose flour
1 ½ cups beef broth
1 12 oz bottle Belgian beer
4 sprigs fresh thyme or 2 tsp dried thyme
2 bay leaves
1 tbsp whole grain mustard
2 tbsp redcurrant jelly or 1 tbsp brown sugar

Instructions:

Season the beef with salt and pepper.

Heat 2 tbsps of butter in a heavy dutch oven and brown the meat thoroughly in batches over high heat. It is best if the beef is not stirred too often.

Transfer the browned beef to a separate bowl.

Add 2 tablespoons butter to the dutch oven; reduce heat to medium. Add the onions and ½ teaspoon of salt. Cook until the onions are caramelized and golden-brown.

Add the flour and stir until the onions are evenly coated and the flour is lightly browned.

Add the broth, scraping the pan bottom with a wooden spoon to loosen the browned bits stuck to the bottom. Add the beer, thyme, bay leaves, and browned beef with any of the accumulated juices.

Increase heat to medium-high and bring to a full simmer.

Reduce the heat to low, partially cover, and let cook for 2-3 hours until the beef is fork tender. Keep an eye on the sauce as it reduces in the final hour.  Add a little water if it reduces too fast.

About half an hour before it finishes cooking, add the mustard and redcurrant jelly (or brown sugar).

Adjust seasonings to taste.

Serve over noodles or with boiled potatoes, or French fries (which the Belgians claim to have invented).

Serves 6

Whatever beer you have used in the cooking makes for a great drink to accompany the stew.