Sep 232017
 

Today is the birthday (63 BCE) of Augustus, founder of the Roman Principate and first Roman emperor, who controlled the Roman Empire from 27 BCE until his death in 14 CE. He is a monumentally pivotal figure in ancient Roman history in the period known commonly as the Roman Revolution: the timespan seeing the tail end of the Roman Republic with the assassination of Julius Caesar, civil war with Augustus as a key player, and the emergence of the Roman Empire. Here are the bare bones.

Augustus was born Gaius Octavius into an old and wealthy equestrian branch of the plebeian gens Octavia. Julius Caesar was his maternal great-uncle, and, under the name Octavianus (Anglicized as Octavian). Octavian was named in Caesar’s will as his adopted son and heir. Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44 BCE, when Octavian was 20, upon which he, Mark Antony, and Marcus Lepidus formed the Second Triumvirate to defeat Caesar’s assassins. These were unsettled times in Rome. Powerful generals such as Caesar and Pompey wanted to wield greater individual power than the Senate and ended up in a civil war with Caesar triumphant. Thereafter Caesar’s power grew until many people were afraid that he would seek to be king. So they assassinated him. Getting rid of one man with ambitions for individual power did not return the Roman Republic to its old ways, however.

The Second Triumvirate (Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus were the First) defeated the assassins in various stages culminating in their victory at the Battle of Philippi.  Afterwards the Triumvirate divided the Roman Republic among themselves and ruled as military dictators, but the alliance was eventually torn apart by the competing ambitions of its members. Lepidus was driven into exile and stripped of his position, and Antony committed suicide following his defeat at the Battle of Actium by Octavian in 31 BCE.

After the demise of the Second Triumvirate, Octavian (Augustus after 27 BCE) restored the outward façade of the free Republic, with governmental power vested in the Roman Senate, the executive magistrates, and the legislative assemblies. In reality, however, he retained his autocratic power over the Republic as a military dictator. By law, Augustus held a collection of powers granted to him for life by the Senate, including supreme military command, and those of tribune and censor. It took several years for Augustus to develop the framework within which a formally republican state could be led under his sole rule. He rejected monarchical titles, and instead called himself Princeps Civitatis (“First Citizen of the State”). The resulting constitutional framework became known as the Principate, the first phase of the Roman Empire. Historians routinely refer to Augustus as the first emperor, but Latin titles are a bit confusing. Octavian was styled Imperator (from which we get “Emperor”) as early as 38 BCE, but Imperator should really be translated “Commander” (or “Conquering Hero”) rather than “Emperor.” It was a title bestowed routinely on victorious generals as well as certain magistrates in the time of the Republic, and could still be used by certain generals in the early Empire. It was only later in the Empire that it was the exclusive title of the Empire’s rulers.  We shouldn’t let linguistic quibbles get in the way of historical facts, however. Augustus, de facto, was the first Roman Emperor.

I’ve studied this transition period quite extensively ever since I chose it as a special paper for my history A-levels and for my Oxford entrance exams. It all seemed tremendously momentous when I first came to the period as a teen. Now, as a (hopefully) mature historian, I am given to wonder whether the changes that Augustus wrought as emperor were as obvious to people living at the time as they are to us now.  History frequently looks back at dates and events as crucial turning points.  Did they seem like turning points at the time? I’m given to doubt it.  History has a funny way of looking at things – in hindsight.

The reign of Augustus initiated an era of relative peace known as the Pax Romana (The Roman Peace). The Roman world was largely free from major conflict for more than two centuries thereafter, despite continuous wars of imperial expansion on the Empire’s frontiers and the year-long civil war known as the “Year of the Four Emperors” (a war over the imperial succession). Augustus dramatically enlarged the Empire, annexing Egypt, Dalmatia, Pannonia, Noricum, and Raetia; expanding possessions in Africa; expanding into Germania; and completing the conquest of Hispania. Beyond the frontiers, he secured the Empire with a buffer region of client states and made peace with the Parthian Empire through diplomacy. He reformed the Roman system of taxation, developed networks of roads with an official courier system, established a standing army, established the Praetorian Guard, created official police and fire-fighting services for Rome, and rebuilt much of the city during his reign.

It’s amazing what you can do when you have no serious rivals and when you have absolute power. Before Augustus the Republic was a mess, torn apart year after year by powerful men and factions seeking control and dominance.  The assassins finished off Caesar, then the Second Triumvirate finished off the assassins, then Octavian polished off the other triumvirs, and stood supremely alone at the top of the pile. Once that feat was accomplished and his hold on the reins of power was firmly established, it would have been mighty foolhardy to challenge him.  The times of challenging the emperor’s power lay in the future.

Augustus died in 14 CE at the age of 75. He probably died from natural causes, although there were unconfirmed rumors that his wife Livia poisoned him. Seems a bit far-fetched to me.

If you are paying attention you will note that Augustus was emperor when Jesus was born (around 3 BCE). Yup, Jesus was probably born in the year 3 Before Christ !!! He died around 30 CE at the age of 33. If we are to believe Luke’s gospel (which I don’t) the legendary census that sent a pregnant Mary and her espoused, Joseph, to Bethlehem from their native Galilee, where she gave birth, was commanded by Augustus. As I have commented here several times before, the idea of a census covering the entire Roman Empire requiring every man, woman, and child to up stakes and leave their homes to go back to their ancestral homelands is both laughable and physically impossible. If Augustus had actually had such a ludicrously deranged idea he would have been locked up.

Tiberius

He was succeeded as Emperor by his adopted son (also stepson and former son-in-law) Tiberius.

The common staple of rich and poor alike at the time of the Roman Revolution was puls, a porridge made from farro.  Farro is whole wheat grain produced from a specific kind of wheat.  You can find it pearled in health food stores in the US, but in Italy to this day they sell it unpearled in regular supermarkets. In ancient Rome puls was the normal breakfast food for the common people, but it could be eaten for any meal.  Vegetables or meat might be added to a main dish, or fruit and honey for a sweet one.

To make farro into a dish that almost certainly resembles ancient puls combine 1 part farro to 2 parts water (with salt to taste) in a saucepan, bring to a boil, and simmer uncovered until the grains are al dente (!) – ignoring the irony of using modern Italian as an English cooking term – and the liquid is mostly absorbed.  For a soupier dish use more water. It can be eaten plain on its own (as the poorer Romans would have done) or as a side dish. Otherwise you can add what you will to dress it up – meat, fish, vegetables, fruit. Something similar is served in Tuscany these days as a breakfast dish with coffee as the liquid and candied fruit added for flavoring. Not my thing – at all.

 

 

Sep 122017
 

Today is another coincidence day.  On this date in 1634 a Hospitaller gunpowder factory in Valletta on Malta accidentally blew up, killing 22 people and causing severe damage to a number of buildings. On this date in 1940 297,000 pounds of gunpowder blew up in a series of explosions at the Hercules Powder Factory of Kenvil, New Jersey, killing 51 workers and leveling a wide area. I guess that makes today a good day to talk about gunpowder.

There’s no doubt that gunpowder transformed the world and I’ve written about one aspect of this transformation: gunpowder put an end to fighting in heavy armor which, ironically, led to a glorification of the armor-clad knight in chivalric tales that were a nostalgic look back at a golden age that almost certainly never existed. All the tales of Arthur, Lancelot, Guinevere, etc. are pure inventions of imagination with nothing whatsoever to do with historical reality. Seemingly people are constantly in search of an imaginary simpler and better world from the past – now out of reach. My academic interest, once upon of time, was with the invention of the Robin Hood legend which grew out of the same false nostalgia for a simpler age when a man of strong moral fibre, armed with only a bow and arrow (and occasionally sword or quarter staff) could right the wrongs of the world. Despite much historical wishful thinking, neither Robin Hood nor anyone like him ever existed. He is pure fiction emerging from the age of gunpowder in Europe.

There’s also a misguided belief, perpetrated by pseudo-historians, that gunpowder was invented by the Chinese for fireworks and other pleasures, but Europeans turned it into weapons of war.  Nope.  The Chinese used gunpowder in war for centuries as well as for fireworks. Gunpowder is now classed as one of the Four Great Inventions of ancient China: the magnetic compass, papermaking, printing, and gunpowder. These inventions were ascribed to Europeans in the Renaissance as evidence of their superiority over the Greeks and Romans of the ancient world, but now we know better. The Chinese got there first.

Gunpowder was the first chemical explosive and propellant to be invented. Gunpowder is the first physical explosive and propellant. Before its invention, many incendiary and burning devices had been used, including Greek fire but they were not explosive. The invention of gunpowder is usually attributed to experimentation in Chinese alchemy by Taoists in the pursuit of immortality. It was invented during the late Tang dynasty (9th century) but the earliest record of a written formula appeared in the Song dynasty (11th century).

Knowledge of gunpowder spread rapidly throughout the Old World possibly as a result of the Mongol conquests during the 13th century, with the earliest written formula for it outside of China contained within the Opus Majus, a 1267 treatise by the English friar Roger Bacon. It was employed in warfare to some effect from at least the 12th century in weapons such as fire arrows, bombs, and the fire lance before the appearance of the gun. While the fire lance was eventually supplanted by the gun, other gunpowder weapons such as rockets continued to be used in China, Korea, India, and eventually Europe. Bombs too never ceased to develop and continued to progress into the modern day as grenades, mines, and other explosive implements.

Rather than give you a long, dreary historical account, here’s a gallery of Chinese gunpowder weapons from the 12th and 13th centuries, consisting mostly of fire arrows (arrows with flaming gunpowder attached), hand-held cannons, and grenades.

 

Here then is a gallery of European gunpowder weapons, mostly cannons, showing that there was actually a fairly smooth evolution from China to Europe.

The two explosions that occurred on this date were both in munitions factories: a constant hazard in the manufacture of gunpowder. The thing about gunpowder is that the ingredients – charcoal, saltpeter (potassium nitrate), and sulfur – are not especially harmful by themselves. They are particularly inflammable when combined but also not especially harmful, certainly not explosive, unless they are confined in a tight space. I’ve made gunpowder since I was a small boy just for the fun of seeing it fizzle and burn. When gunpowder is tightly confined, the copious hot gases that are produced when it burns are deadly as a propellant or an explosive. The exact mixture of the three ingredients is very important, and was the subject of experiments for centuries. For example, the saltpeter is necessary to produce oxygen for the burning of the sulfur and charcoal, but too much saltpeter reduces the explosive effect of the gunpowder (as does not enough). Munitions factories generally have their gunpowder packed tightly, so it’s important to be very careful near it. A careless spark can be fatal.

The Hospitaller gunpowder factory in Valletta was built some time in the late 16th or early 17th centuries, replacing an earlier one in Fort St. Angelo in Birgu. It was located in the lower part of Valletta, close to the Slaves’ Prison. The explosion in 1641 damaged the nearby Jesuit church and college. The church’s façade was rebuilt in around 1647 by the architect Francesco Buonamici, while the damaged parts of the college were also rebuilt after the explosion.

The gunpowder factory was not rebuilt. In around 1667, a new factory was constructed in Floriana, far away from any residential areas. This factory was incorporated into the Ospizio complex in the early 18th century

The explosion at the Hercules Powder plant in Kenvil, New Jersey in 1941 leveled over 20 buildings. The explosions shook the area so forcefully that cars were bounced off the roads, most windows in homes miles away were broken and articles flew off shelves and walls. The explosions were felt as far away as Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and were picked up by the seismograph at Fordham University in New York, about 50 miles east of Kenvil. Not only were windows broken, but telephone wires were torn apart from their poles. Many windows in both Roxbury and Wharton high schools were shattered.

Conspiracy theories are nothing new.  Was the explosion an industrial accident or Nazi sabotage ?????? I don’t know enough about the event to draw an educated conclusion, but my money is on it being an accident. In war time fears are heightened, and it’s an easy cop-out to blame the enemy for catastrophic events rather than take responsibility yourself. The latter takes more spine than most people possess.

For a recipe I could go two ways, and I will take both paths.  There are actual recipes that use gunpowder. I imagine that they’re pretty unsavory (because of the sulfur), but they do exist. In fact sulfur does have various culinary uses. I used to be able to buy it in bulk for my home chemistry experiments from the grocery in South Australia as a boy in the early 1960s. Sulfur is actually a critical nutrient, found particularly in strong onions, to aid in vitamin D absorption and in the correct glucose metabolism. There are records of soldiers through history using gunpowder to add taste to field rations when they had no salt. But there’s also this one from the Old Foodie found here — http://www.theoldfoodie.com/2011/11/gunpowder-in-kitchen.html

Tongues, to cure. No. 1.

Take two fine bullocks’ tongues; wash them well in spring water; dry them thoroughly with a cloth, and salt them with common salt, a quarter of a pound of saltpetre, a quarter of a pound of treacle, and a quarter of a pound of gunpowder. Let them lie in this pickle for a month; turn and rub them every day; then take them out and dry them with a cloth; rub a little gunpowder over them, and hang them up for a month, when they will be fit to eat, previously soaking a few hours as customary.

The lady’s own cookery book, and new dinner-table director (1844) by Lady Charlotte Campbell Bury

Try it at your peril. Actually, I don’t suppose it’s all that bad.

Then there’s ingredients or dishes called “gunpowder” because they resemble it.  There is Chinese gunpowder tea of course.  In Chinese it’s called 珠茶(zhū chá), literally “pearl tea.” Each leaf is rolled into a small round pellet which English colonists thought resembled grains of gunpowder. This rolling method of shaping tea is most often applied either to dried green tea (the most commonly encountered variety outside China) or oolong tea.

I’ll go with a south Indian dish which is called gunpowder in English, also known as chutney podi, a ground, powdered mix of toasted urad dal, chana dal, toor dal, grated coconut, dried red chiles,curry leaves, tamarind, jaggery, and salt, which can also be seasoned with mustard seeds, turmeric, and asafetida. It is mixed with oil or ghee and eaten with flatbread, rice, idli, or whatever. It can also be made with peanuts in place of some of the dal.  It is considered comfort food in many parts of south India.

Gunpowder or Chutney Podi

Ingredients:

250gm chana dal
250gm toor dal
6 dried red chiles
1 tbsp roasted Bengal gram (putana)
1 tbsp coriander seeds
1 tsp whole cumin
1 tbsp black sesame seeds

Instructions

Dry roast all the ingredients separately. There are various ways to do this.  I use a dry cast-iron skillet on medium heat. You have to stir the ingredients frequently making sure that they toast and become fragrant, but do not burn.

Let each of the ingredients cool, then mix them all together. Grind them to a powder, in batches if necessary.  I use a coffee grinder for this step (not one I use for coffee).

Serve with ghee or oil to accompany idli, flatbread, or rice.

Aug 222017
 

Two slave revolts broke out on this date: one in 1791 in French colonial Saint-Domingue, leading eventually to the creation of the sovereign nation of Haiti; the other, led by Nat Turner in Virginia in the United States in 1831 was suppressed within one day. These anniversaries give me the opportunity to talk about slavery in the New World as well as slavery in general. It staggers me that even in the year 2017 there are people who argue that slavery was beneficial to people brought from Africa in chains to the New World and sold with almost no chance for freedom for themselves in their lifetimes, nor for their offspring and descendants. SLAVERY IS AN UNMITIGATED EVIL.

Here’s a list of the slave revolts in the New World from the beginnings of European colonialism to the abolition of slavery, indicating their dates, locations and outcomes:

1526 San Miguel de Gualdape (Spanish Florida) Victorious

c.1570 Gaspar Yanga’s Revolt (Veracruz, New Spain) Victorious

1712 New York Slave Revolt (British Province of New York) Suppressed

1730 First Maroon War (British Jamaica) Victorious

1733 St. John Slave Revolt (Danish Saint John) Suppressed

1739 Stono Rebellion (British Province of South Carolina) Suppressed

1741 New York Conspiracy (British Province of New York) Suppressed

1760 Tacky’s War (British Jamaica) Suppressed

1787 Abaco Slave Revolt (British Bahamas) Suppressed

1791 Mina Conspiracy (Spanish Louisiana) Suppressed

1795 Pointe Coupée Conspiracy (Spanish Louisiana) Suppressed

1791–1804 Haitian Revolution (French Saint-Domingue) Victorious

1800 Gabriel Prosser’s Revolt (Virginia, US) Suppressed

1803 Igbo Landing Revolt (St. Simons Island, Georgia, US) Suppressed

1805 Chatham Manor Revolt (Virginia, US) Suppressed

1811 German Coast Uprising (Territory of Orleans, US) Suppressed

1815 George Boxley’s Revolt (Virginia, US) Suppressed

1816 Bussa’s Rebellion (British Barbados) Suppressed

1822 Denmark Vesey’s Revolt (South Carolina, US) Suppressed

1831 Nat Turner’s rebellion (Virginia, US) Suppressed

1831–1832 Baptist War (British Jamaica) Suppressed

1839 Amistad, ship rebellion (Off the Cuban coast) Victorious

1841 Creole case, ship rebellion (Off the Southern U.S. coast) Victorious

1842 Slave Revolt in the Cherokee Nation (Indian Territory, US) Suppressed

1859 John Brown’s Raid (Virginia, US) Suppressed

Slavery in the New World was part and parcel of colonization and needs to be remembered for what it was: a deliberate undervaluation and subjugation of a whole continent of people who were oppressed and exploited simply because of the color of their skin. From the 16th to the 19th centuries the principal colonial powers that benefited from slavery were Spain, Britain, and France, all of whom practiced slavery because it was economically expedient, but covered their actual motives with a thin veneer of philosophical justification. Their argument was that people of African origin were better off as slaves because living in “civilization” was better than living in “savagery.” To this day you will sometimes hear this argument espoused by media commentators in the United States. This rationale, such as it is, shows absolutely no understanding of traditional African cultures, as well as zero understanding of that it means to be the property of someone else.

The future William IV of the United Kingdom, (who was my focus yesterday http://www.bookofdaystales.com/sailor-king/ ), when he was a member of the House of Lords, argued against the abolition of the Slave Trade on the grounds that slaves in the US lived in better conditions than people he had seen living in the Scottish Highlands. All well and good when you are a royal duke living in luxury in London. Whether you are dirt poor in Scotland or a well-dressed slave in Virginia, there is a vast chasm between being free and being owned by another person. Probably William had seen house slaves in the United States and was comparing their conditions to crofters in Scotland. House slaves were sometimes educated, wore decent clothes, had some freedom of movement, and ate better than field slaves. But they were still slaves. They could be sold at will; they could be beaten or even killed without legal penalty; their children were slaves who could be separated from their parents and sold at any age; the women could be raped by their masters. They had no rights as humans. It is simply not legitimate to compare the visible economic conditions of US slaves with Scottish crofters and come to a conclusion about which were better off. The former were slaves, the latter were free. Their situations are in no way comparable.

The Haitian Revolution that began in 1791 ended in 1804 with the former colony’s independence. It was the only slave uprising in the world that led to the founding of a state, which was both free from slavery, and ruled by non-whites and former slaves. Its effects on the institution of slavery were felt throughout the Americas. The ending of French rule and the abolition of slavery in the former colony by the former slaves was followed by their successful defense of the freedoms they won, and, with the collaboration of mulattoes, their independence from rule by white Europeans. It represents the largest slave uprising since Spartacus’ unsuccessful revolt against the Roman Republic nearly 1,900 years before. It challenged long-held beliefs about black inferiority and about enslaved people’s capacity to achieve and maintain their own freedom. The rebels’ organizational capacity and tenacity under pressure became the source of stories that shocked and frightened slave owners throughout the Americas.

Nat Turner’s Rebellion (also known as the Southampton Insurrection) took place in Southampton County, Virginia, during August 1831. It was led by Nat Turner, and rebel slaves killed as many as 65 people in one day. It was the largest and deadliest slave uprising in U.S. history. The rebellion was put down within a few days, but Turner survived in hiding for more than two months afterwards, before he was captured and hanged. The rebellion was effectively suppressed at Belmont Plantation on the morning of August 23, 1831.

There was widespread fear in the aftermath of the rebellion, and white militias organized in retaliation against the slaves. The state executed 56 slaves accused of being part of the rebellion. In the frenzy, many non-participant slaves were punished. Approximately 120 slaves and free African-Americans were murdered by militias and mobs in the area. Across the South, state legislatures passed new laws prohibiting education of slaves and free African-Americans, restricting rights of assembly and other civil rights for free Black people, and requiring White ministers to be present at all worship services.

In the current climate of publicly avowed racist and anti-racist sentiments in the United States today, as well as worldwide, it is important to remember these two events and to hold them up to scrutiny. I urge you to read more about them: especially the Haitian Revolution, which does not generally figure in the history books outside of Haiti.  For now I’ll turn to cooking.

Haitian cuisine is often lumped together with other regional islands as a part of Caribbean cuisine but it is distinctive, even though, like all island cuisines it is a blend of European, African, and indigenous cooking methods and ingredients. It involves the extensive use of herbs, and the liberal use of peppers. The ubiquitous rice and beans of all of the Caribbean and South America is found as riz collé aux pois (diri kole ak pwa), rice with red kidney beans (or pinto beans) glazed with a marinade as a sauce and topped off with red snapper, tomatoes and onions. It is often called the Riz National, and is considered to be the national rice of Haiti. The dish can be accompanied by bouillon. Bouillon is a hearty soup consisting of various spices, potatoes, tomatoes, and meats such as goat or beef as well as fish or shellfish. Recipes vary by region.  Here’s a video that has a rather unusual ingredient list that includes beef tripe and crabs:

Aug 142017
 

Today is the feast day of St. Antonio Primaldo and his companion martyrs (I Santi Antonio Primaldo e compagni martiri), also known as the Martyrs of Otranto, were 813 inhabitants of the Salentine city of Otranto in southern Italy (now Apulia) who were killed on this date in 1480 by invading Ottomans intent on conquering the Italian peninsula. The mass execution is commonly explained as taking place after the Otrantins refused to convert to Islam when the city fell to an Ottoman force under Gedik Ahmed Pasha. The actual events are in dispute by modern historians, but there is no doubt that hundreds of residents of Otranto were killed at this time, based on the physical evidence, that is, hundreds of skulls and other bones displayed in the local cathedral. The siege of Otranto, and the martyrdom of the inhabitants, was the last significant military attempt by a Muslim force to conquer southern Italy. The slaughter is celebrated by historians (notably Risorgimento historians such as Arnaldi and Scirocco) as a milestone in Italian and European history because this sacrifice prevented the Italian peninsula from being conquered by Muslim troops, and was the end of Ottoman designs on the region. Ottoman expansion into eastern and western Europe can be seen on this map (click to enlarge):

The contemporary Turkish historian Ibn Kemal claimed that the slaughter occurred because the inhabitants, en masse, would not convert to Islam.

Modern historians are more inclined to believe that the slaughter was a punitive measure, without religious motivation, exacted to punish the local population for the stiff resistance they put up, which delayed the Turkish advance and enabled the king of Naples to strengthen local fortifications.  It would also have been a warning to other Italian cities what to expect if they chose to resist and were defeated. They martyrs were beatified in 1771 and were canonized by Pope Francis on 12 May 2013 with their feast day set as 14 May. They are the patron saints of the city of Otranto and the Archdiocese of Otranto.

On 28 July 1480 an Ottoman force commanded by Gedik Ahmed Pasha, consisting of 90 galleys, 40 galiots and other ships carrying a total of around 150 crew and 18,000 troops, landed beneath the walls of Otranto. The city strongly resisted the Ottoman assaults, but the garrison was unable to resist the bombardment for long. The garrison and all the townsfolk thus abandoned the main part of the city on 29 July, retreating into the citadel whilst the Ottomans began bombarding the neighboring houses.

According to an account of the story chronicled by Giovanni Laggetto and Saverio de Marco, the Turks promised clemency if the city capitulated but were informed that Otranto would never surrender. A second Turkish messenger sent to repeat the offer “was slain with arrows and an Otranto guardsman flung the keys of the city into the sea.” At this the Ottoman artillery resumed the bombardment.

A messenger was dispatched to see if King Ferdinand of Naples could send assistance. As time went on “Nearly seven-eighths of Otranto’s militia slipped over the city walls and fled.” The remaining 50 soldiers fought alongside the citizenry dumping boiling oil and water on Turks trying to scale the ramparts between the cannonades. On 11 August, after a 15-day siege, Gedik Ahmed ordered the final assault, which broke through the defenses and captured the citadel. When the walls were breached the Turks began fighting their way through the town. Upon reaching the cathedral “they found Archbishop Stefano Agricolo [ Stefano Pendinelli ], fully vested and crucifix in hand” awaiting them with Count Francesco Largo. “The archbishop was beheaded before the altar, his companions were sawn in half, and their accompanying priests were all murdered.” After desecrating the Cathedral, they gathered the women and older children to be sold into slavery in Albania. Males over 15 years old, small children, and infants, were all killed. According to some historical accounts, a total of 12,000 were killed and 5,000 enslaved, including victims from the territories of the Salentine peninsula around the city.

800 able-bodied men were told to convert to Islam or be slain. A tailor named Antonio Primaldi is said to have proclaimed “Now it is time for us to fight to save our souls for the Lord. And since he died on the cross for us, it is fitting that we should die for him.” To which those captives with him gave a loud cheer. On August 14 they were led to the Hill of Minerva (later renamed the Hill of Martyrs). There they were to be executed, with Primaldi to be beheaded first. After the blade decapitated him “his body allegedly remaining stubbornly and astonishing upright on its feet. Not until all had been decapitated could the aghast executioners force Primaldi’s corpse to lie prone.” Witnessing this, one Muslim executioner (whom the chroniclers say was an Ottoman officer called Bersabei) is said to have converted on the spot and been impaled immediately by his fellows for doing so.

Between August and September 1480, King Ferdinand of Naples, with the help of his cousin Ferdinand the Catholic and the Kingdom of Sicily, tried unsuccessfully to recapture Otranto. Seeing the Turks as a threat to his home, Alfonso of Aragon left his battles with the Florentines to lead a campaign to liberate Otranto from the Ottoman invaders beginning in August 1480. The city was finally retaken in the spring of 1481 by Alfonso’s troops supported by King Matthias Corvinus of Hungary’s forces. The skulls of the martyrs were placed in a reliquary in the city’s cathedral.

On 13 October 1481 the bodies of the Otrantines were found to be uncorrupted and were translated to the city’s cathedral. From 1485, some of the martyrs’ remains were transferred to Naples and placed under the altar of Our Lady of the Rosary in the church of Santa Caterina a Formiello, an altar that commemorated the final Christian victory over the Ottomans at Lepanto in 1571. They were later moved to the reliquary chapel, consecrated by Benedict XIII, then to a site under the altar where they are now located. A recognitio canonica between 2002 and 2003 confirmed their authenticity.

A canonical process began in 1539. On 14 December 1771 Pope Clement XIV beatified the 800 killed on the Colle della Minerva and authorized their cult. Since then they have been the patrons of Otranto. On 6 July 2007, Pope Benedict XVI issued a decree recognizing that Primaldo and his fellow townsfolk were killed “out of hatred for their faith” The martyrs were canonized on 12 May 2013 by Pope Francis. The announcement of the canonization was made on 11 February 2013 by Pope Benedict XVI in the consistory in which Benedict also announced in Latin his intention to resign the papacy.

Some modern historians, such as Nancy Bisaha and Francesco Tateo have questioned details of the traditional account. Tateo notes that the earliest contemporary sources describe execution of up to one thousand soldiers or citizens, as well as the local bishop, but they do not mention conversion as a condition for clemency. Bisaha argues that more of Oranto’s inhabitants were likely to have been sold into slavery than slaughtered. However, other historians, such as Paolo Ricciardi and Salvatore Panareo, have argued that in the first year after the martyrdom there was no information about the massacres in the contemporaneous Christian world, and only later — when Otranto was reconquered by the Neapolitans — was it possible to get details of the massacre from the local survivors who saw it. Their memories may or may not have been accurate, and they are certainly not directly recorded.

Some version of a salt cod dish (known under some cognate of baccalà) is known throughout the coastal regions of Italy, Spain, and Portugal. Salentine baccalà is regionally famous in and around Otranto. The addition of tomatoes and black olives make it distinctive.

Baccalà alla salentina

Ingredients

700 gm salt cod
700 gm potatoes, peeled and sliced
8 Italian tomatoes, coarsely chopped
black olives
1 onion, peeled and sliced
extra virgin olive oil
salt and pepper
oregano
dried breadcrumbs
grated pecorino

Instructions

Soak the salt cod in water for at least 48 hours, changing the water regularly.

Preheat the oven to 200˚C.

In a deep, heavy skillet or Dutch oven, sprinkle a little extra-virgin olive oil followed by a thin layer of breadcrumbs. Then add a layer of potatoes and season with salt and pepper to taste. Then add a layer of chopped tomatoes, followed by a layer of sliced onions and olives with a seasoning of oregano and grated pecorino cheese.

Sprinkle the dish with a little olive oil.

Cut the soaked cod in chunks and lay it on top of the dish. Add another layer of potatoes, then onions, then tomatoes, olives, and seasonings, finishing with a topping of breadcrumbs and cheese sprinkled with olive oil.

Bake the dish for around 45 minutes. Turn off the oven and leave the dish in the oven for another 10 to 15 minutes.

Serve with a green salad and crusty Italian bread.

Jul 122017
 

Today is the feast day of Saint Veronica, a pious woman of Jerusalem who, according to Catholic tradition, was moved with pity when she saw Jesus carrying his cross to Golgotha and gave him her veil that he might wipe his forehead. Jesus accepted the offering, held it to his face, and then handed it back to her—the image of his face miraculously impressed upon it. This piece of cloth became known as the Veil of Veronica.

The name Veronica is a Latin form of the Greek Berenice (Βερενίκη, Berenikē), a Macedonian name, meaning “bearer of victory.” A false theory of the origin of the name emerged in the Latin West. Since the Latin word for “true” or “authentic” is “vera”, it was thought, wrongly, that the name is derived from the Latin phrase “true image” — vera icon. This theory still persists in some quarters.

There is no reference to the story of St Veronica and her veil in the canonical Gospels. The closest is the miracle of the woman who was healed by touching the hem of Jesus’s garment (Luke 8:43–48). Her name is later identified as Veronica by the apocryphal “Acts of Pilate”. The story was later elaborated in the 11th century by adding that Christ gave her a portrait of himself on a cloth, with which she later cured the Emperor Tiberius. The linking of this with the bearing of the cross in the Passion, and the miraculous appearance of the image only occurs around 1380, in the internationally popular book Meditations on the life of Christ. The story of Veronica is celebrated in the sixth Station of the Cross in many Anglican, Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist and Western Orthodox churches.

The Devotion to the Holy Face of Jesus was eventually approved by Pope Leo XIII in 1885 with Veronica’s feast commemorated on 12 July. Numerous purported “true” images of the face of Christ are venerated throughout the world, many predating the famous shroud of Turin.

The most common pass with the cape in bullfighting is called a “verónica.” The matador does not move as the bull passes, but simply swirls his cape (metaphorically brushing the bull’s face much as Veronica wiped Jesus’).

The dish for the day has to be sole Veronica, a simple but tasty dish of sole poached in grape juice and grapes. Make sure you use 100% pure, unadulterated white grape juice without added sugar. Sole is a delicately flavored fish, and grapes make a subtle complement.

Sole Veronica

Ingredients

4 sole fillets, 4 oz/100 g each
8 fl oz/ 250 ml grape juice
salt and pepper
40 grapes (approx.), seeded

Instructions

Place the fillets in a single layer in a wide pan or skillet. Pour over the grape juice and bring to a gentle simmer. Cook for about 10 minutes, or until the fish is barely cooked. Add the grapes and warm through for a further 2 or 3 minutes.

Serve one fillet per dish with the sauce and grapes divided between them, and with boiled new potatoes.

Serves 4

 

 

Jun 182017
 

Today is the anniversary of the battle of Waterloo in 1815, arguably one of the key defining moments in European and world history – inasmuch as any single day or battle can be said to be such. Longtime readers know that I don’t like to celebrate battles in and of themselves, but I do take note of a few that stood at turning points in history. I don’t want to talk about the battle itself, you can look those details up. I want to talk about the implications of the decisive victory of the Seventh Alliance (United Kingdom, Netherlands, Hanover, Nassau, Brunswick, and Prussia) under Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, over Napoleon’s French Empire which put paid to the Napoleonic Wars once and for all, but led to a slew of problems, many of which are still with us 200 years on.

Let’s dispense with a bit of English jingoism first. Wellesley was in charge and the honor of the victory was given to him in England, launching a political career that landed him as Prime Minister – reminiscent of Eisenhower in the U.S. To set the record straight, the army that Wellesley commanded at Waterloo was an ALLIED army that consisted of approximately 73,000 troops, 26,000 of whom were from the UK, approximately 30% of whom were Irish conscripts who were probably more sympathetic to Napoleon than to England. So around 18,200, that is, about 25%, were English, Scots, and Welsh volunteers. They would not have been much use by themselves against Napoleon, but if you study history in England you get the impression that the English won the battle of Waterloo with a little help from the Prussians. The battle of Waterloo was, in actual fact, the culmination of the Waterloo Campaign in which 116,000 Prussian troops were deployed.  The Prussians didn’t just help out a little. Without them the English would have been destroyed.

Popular history is marvelously myopic. Washington got a tiny bit of help from the French and Spanish empires in the American Revolution, and Eisenhower had a few allies to “help” him as he stormed the beaches of Normandy; but to hear tell of these famous engagements in the US you’d believe that the US secured victories all alone. In fact, at the beginning of the American Revolution, the Colonial troops were seriously outnumbered, underequipped, and poorly trained until the French joined in (purely to weaken England). The notion that savvy backwoods militias from the colonies won the day due to their cunning and experience as skilled hunters who knew how to attack stealthily and handle a musket, is pure modern-day patriotic nonsense, but it is incredibly widespread (not least because it fuels a rampant desire to keep gun ownership alive via the 2nd Amendment).  But . . . I digress.

The Congress of Vienna had actually begun in September 1814, after Napoleon had been defeated and exiled to Elba, but was interrupted when he escaped and returned to France to take up arms again. The final Treaty of Vienna was actually signed on 9th June 1815, 10 days before Waterloo, but took effect in practical terms (with a few minor revisions), after Waterloo.  I’ve discussed the century-long (and more) ramifications of this treaty in another post: http://www.bookofdaystales.com/congress-vienna/  No need to repeat myself. Europe (and the rest of the world with it) took a marked left turn after Vienna, leading to ethnic conflicts, revolutions, tyrannical governments, the unification of Italy and Germany, and a near-maniacal concern with radical Industrialism within Europe which, coupled with Colonialism, fueled major trade wars, as well as real wars between European powers outside of Europe – notably in Asia and Africa.

Waterloo left an indelible mark on popular consciousness in Britain spawning tales and ballads.  Here is an old favorite ballad of mine, “The Plains of Waterloo,” which I first heard sung by June Tabor around 1970 at Oxford’s Folk Club, Heritage. She was a relatively unknown librarian who liked to sing in the clubs in those days.  Here she is:

She self-parodied this ballad some years later with “The Trains of Waterloo” (Waterloo is a well-known commuter station in London), on the hilarious album Oranges and Lemmings.

Trains of Waterloo
(Les Barker)

As I was a-walking one midsummer’s evening,
All among the brick-red of surburbian sprawl,
I met a young maid making sad lamentation,
And it seemed all Basingstoke heard her sad call,

She walks the street lined with small maisonettes,
The semi-detatched, the town houses too.
Crying day it is over, executives come home again,
But my Nigel’s not returned upon the Trains of Waterloo.

I stepped up to this fair maid and said my fond creature
Oh, May I make so bold as to ask your true love’s name
It’s I have done battle in the Cannon Street rattle
And by some strange fortune I might have known the same

Nigel Clegg’s my true loves name, Merchant Banker of great fame
He’s gone to the wars out on platform two
No-one shall me enjoy but my own darling boy
No Milkman, and the Postman, and the Man from the Pru

If Nigel Clegg’s his name a commuter of great fame
Then we fought together the daily campaign
His brave brolly poking invaders at Woking
He was my loyal comrade on the five-thirty train

We fought with our Guardians we fought with our Filofax
Our rolled umbrellas our telegraphs too
We fought every evening all down the platform
And back through the night on the Trains of Waterloo

Dear lady I bring you the saddest of tidings
The five-thirty train it was cancelled you see
And Nigel not looking he went to step onto it
Straight into the path of the five-thirty-three

Your poor Nigel Clegg I have brought you his leg
And so sadly she gazed at the limb she once knew
And fondly she browsed on one half of his trousers
Oh My Nigel’s not returning on the trains of Waterloo

The suffix /-loo/ got detached from /Water/ and applied to other bloody events – in particular the Peterloo massacre in Manchester http://www.bookofdaystales.com/peterloo/   –  much as /-gate/ has been detached from Watergate in the US and applied to various political scandals.

I’ll give you beef Wellington for today’s recipe, not because it was named in honor of Wellington and Waterloo, but because everyone thinks it is, and they are wrong. It’s my tribute to false history. By the time Wellington became famous, meat baked in pastry was a well-established part of English cuisine. Some claim that the dish’s similarity to the French filet de bœuf en croûte (fillet of beef in pastry) was renamed “beef Wellington” as a “timely patriotic rebranding of a trendy continental dish.” There are, however, zero records of a dish called beef Wellington throughout the 19th century. The name first appears in the early 20th century.

I’m just going to give you some pointers here but I’ll start with a video of Gordon Ramsay giving a fairly standard treatment (with a few twists):

Some of the tips here are fine; some I diverge from. The essence of beef Wellington is layers of flavor so choose the layers to suit your palate (not someone else’s):

  1. Choose the most succulent filet of tenderloin of beef you can find.
  2. Sear it quickly in a very hot, dry pan. I don’t like to use oil at this stage. You are looking for a good sear for flavor, not fat.
  3. Slather with prepared horseradish. I just love the combination of beef and horseradish. English mustard is OK too, but for me, horseradish is king.
  4. A duxelles of mushrooms is pretty standard. Ramsay’s chestnuts are a distraction for me. Make a paste of crimini (or other well-flavored mushrooms) with a little garlic, and fry it off in a dry pan to remove the moisture.
  5. An Italian ham, such as prosciutto, is a common final layer, but pâté (conventionally pâté de foie gras) is more classic. I have moral objections to foie gras so I use a highly seasoned pâté (sometimes of my own making).
  6. You’ll occasionally see recipes with a crêpe as the final layer before the pastry goes on, “to seal in moisture.” In my humble opinion this is a complete waste of time. The crêpe gets soggy, and seals in nothing.
  7. Use cling wrap to encase the beef in the same way Ramsay does but spreading a layer of pâté down first instead of the ham. Using the cling wrap is essential to get the layers all around the beef. Chilling afterwards is also essential to set up the roll for encasing in pastry.
  8. Using cling wrap for the puff pastry is also useful, but I make a regular parcel of the pastry (like wrapping a package), not Ramsey’s toffee roll. Refrigeration overnight is also key to setting up the shape.
  9. I too bake at 200°C/400°F for about 30 minutes, because I like the beef to be rare. If you want it more well done you well have to cover the pastry with foil after it has browned and lower the oven temperature. If you do that don’t expect me to show up for dinner.
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

Ingredients

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)

Instructions

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 242017
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His portraits, acutely characterized, show similarly Mannerist proportions.

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

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

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

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

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

Zabaglone.

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

Zabaglione.

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

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

May 222017
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RATAFIAS.

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

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

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

 

May 202017
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s a few of my favorite quotes:

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

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

Life is simply what our feelings do to us.

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

Great love affairs start with Champagne and end with tisane.

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

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

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

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

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

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

French Onion Soup

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

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

Reheat the soup next day when ready to serve.

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

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