May 122017
 

Today is the feast day of Saint Pancras whose life I will focus on briefly.  Chiefly, though, I want to talk about the area of London, St Pancras, that is informally named for him, in part because I stayed there a couple of months ago and found it somewhat appealing (and rather new to me), especially because of the grand old Victorian train station.

St Pancras was a Roman citizen who converted to Christianity, and was beheaded for his faith at the age of 14 around the year 304. Traditionally, St Pancras is the second of the Ice Saints. The Ice Saints’ days span May 11th to 13th which, in many northern European countries, are superstitiously considered to be a time when the spring experiences a cold snap (the opposite of Indian Summer in autumn).

Because he was said to have been martyred at the age of 14 during the persecution under Diocletian, Pancras would have been born around 289, at a place designated as “near Synnada,” a city of Phrygia Salutaris, to parents of Roman citizenship. His mother Cyriada died during childbirth, while his father Cleonius died when Pancras was 8 years old. Pancras was entrusted to his uncle Dionysius’ care. They both moved to Rome to live in a villa on the Caelian Hill. They converted to Christianity, and Pancras became a zealous adherent of the religion.

During the persecution of Christians by Emperor Diocletian, around 303 he was brought before the authorities and asked to perform a sacrifice to the Roman gods. Diocletian, impressed with the boy’s determination to resist, promised him wealth and power, but Pancras refused, and finally the emperor ordered him to be beheaded on the Via Aurelia, on 12 May 303.  This traditional year of his martyrdom cannot be squared with the saint’s defiance of Diocletian in Rome, which the emperor had not visited since 286. A Roman matron named Ottavilla reputedly recovered Pancras’ body, covered it with balsam, wrapped it in precious linens, and buried it in a newly built sepulchre dug in the Catacombs of Rome. Pancras’ head was placed in the reliquary that supposedly still exists today in the Basilica of Saint Pancras.

Devotion to Pancras definitely existed from the 5th century onwards, because the basilica of Saint Pancras was built by Pope Symmachus (498-514), on the place where the body of the young martyr was supposed to have been buried. Pope Gregory the Great (540 – 604) gave impetus to the cult of Pancras, sending Augustine to England carrying relics of that saint and including his legend in Liber in gloria martyrum (for this reason, many English churches are dedicated to Pancras.

St Pancras Old Church in London is one of the oldest sites of Christian worship in England. Information panels outside the church today state that it “stands on one of Europe’s most ancient sites of Christian worship, possibly dating back to the early 4th century” and has been a “site of prayer and meditation since 314 AD.” The case for these claims seems first to have been argued by local historian Charles Lee in 1955, who wrote:

There can be little doubt that a Roman encampment was situated opposite the site of St Pancras Church about this period, and that the church is on the site of a Roman Compitum, which served as a centre of public worship and public meeting… It seems probable that the Roman Compitum at St Pancras was adapted to Christian worship shortly after the restoration of religious freedom in 313 (taking its name from the recently-martyred Pancras).

Lee’s “Roman encampment” was “Caesar’s Camp at Pancras called the Brill”, identified by the antiquary William Stukeley in the 1750s. However, even Stukeley’s contemporaries could see no trace of this camp, and considered that Stukeley had let his imagination run away with him. Gillian Tindall has suggested that the lumps and bumps in the fields to the west of the church that Stukeley interpreted as a Roman camp were actually traces of the original medieval village of St. Pancras, before the center of the settlement moved north to the area now known as Kentish Town.

Originally, the parish of St Pancras stretched from close to Oxford Street almost to Highgate. In the early Middle Ages there was a center of population in the vicinity of what is now known as the old church. However, in the 14th century the population abandoned the site and moved to what is now Kentish Town. The reasons for this were probably the vulnerability of the plain around the church to flooding (the River Fleet, which is now underground, runs through it) and the availability of better wells at Kentish Town, where there is less clay in the soil. The church subsequently fell into disrepair. Towards the end of the 18th century, services were only held in the church on one Sunday each month; on other weeks, the same congregation would use a chapel in Kentish Town. It lost its status as the parish church when the New Church on what was to become the Euston Road was consecrated in 1822, and became a chapel of ease.

St Pancras railway station is a Victorian gem which in the 1960s (when most people, myself included, considered it a gaudy monstrosity) was scheduled to be demolished. Instead, it was smartened up and renovated. Now I find it quite attractive (still a bit gaudy), and glad it was preserved to represent Victorian London – the kind of railway station Sherlock Holmes would have used (Baker Street is not far away). The station was commissioned by the Midland Railway in the 1860s. Before then the company had a network of routes in the Midlands, and in south and west Yorkshire and Lancashire but no route of its own to the capital. Up to 1857 the company had no line into London, and used the lines of the London and North Western Railway for trains into the capital. After 1857 the company’s Leicester and Hitchin Railway gave access to London via the Great Northern Railway.

In 1862, traffic for the second International Exhibition suffered extensive delays over the stretch of line into London over the Great Northern Railway’s track; the route into London via the London and North Western was also at capacity, with coal trains causing the network at Rugby and elsewhere to reach effective gridlock. This was the stimulus for the Midland to build its own line to London from Bedford.

The station was designed by William Henry Barlow. The approaching line to the station crossed the Regent’s Canal resulting in the level of the line at St Pancras being 12 to 17 ft (3.7 to 5.2 m) above ground level. Initial plans were for a two or three span roof with the void between station and ground level filled with spoil from tunneling to join the Midland Main Line to the St. Pancras branch. Instead, due to the value of the land in such a location the lower area was used for freight, in particular beer from Burton.  As a result the undercroft was built with columns and girders, maximizing space, set out to the same plans as those used for beer warehouses, and with a basic unit of length that of a beer barrel.

I’ve called on Mrs Beeton for a suitable Victorian recipe, and come up with gravy soup. In some ways this soup reminds me of the potential for English cooking to be questionable, and for railway cafeterias to perpetuate that idea. But . . . it has interesting (and redeeming) features. The quantities alone suggest to me that Beeton copied this recipe from an older cookbook used for giant households. But she gives a note on endive, as it is used in the recipe, noting that it was a very common ingredient in and around London at the time.  She also uses two sauces in the recipe: Harvey’s and Leamington. Harvey’s sauce was a proprietary brand made by fermenting anchovies, and for Leamington sauce she specifically notes that this is her own recipe. I’d suggest giving it a go, but cutting down on the 11 pounds of meat. Below her recipe for Leamington sauce I give a 19th century recipe for Harvey’s sauce.

GRAVY SOUP.

  1. INGREDIENTS.—6 lbs. of shin of beef, a knuckle of veal weighing 5 lbs., a few pieces or trimmings, 2 slices of nicely-flavoured lean, ham; 1/4 lb. of butter, 2 onions, 2 carrots, 1 turnip, nearly a head of celery, 1 blade of mace, 6 cloves, a hunch of savoury herb with endive, seasoning of salt and pepper to taste, 3 lumps of sugar, 5 quarts of boiling soft water. It can be flavoured with ketchup, Leamington sauce (see SAUCES), Harvey’s sauce, and a little soy.

Mode.—Slightly brown the meat and ham in the butter, but do not let them burn. When this is done, pour to it the water, and as the scum rises, take it off; when no more appears, add all the other ingredients, and let the soup simmer slowly by the fire for 6 hours without stirring it any more from the bottom; take it off, and let it settle; skim off all the fat you can, and pass it through a tammy. When perfectly cold, you can remove all the fat, and leave the sediment untouched, which serves very nicely for thick gravies, hashes, &c.

Time.—7 hours. Average cost, 1s. per quart.

Seasonable all the year.

Sufficient for 14 persons.

ENDIVE.—This plant belongs to the acetarious tribe of vegetables, and is supposed to have originally come from China and Japan. It was known to the ancients; but was not introduced to England till about the middle of the 16th century. It is consumed in large quantities by the French, and in London,—in the neighbourhood of which it is grown in abundance;—it is greatly used as a winter salad, as well as in soups and stews.

LEAMINGTON SAUCE (an Excellent Sauce for Flavouring Gravies, Hashes,

Soups, &c.).

(Author’s Recipe.)

  1. INGREDIENTS.—Walnuts. To each quart of walnut-juice allow 3 quarts of vinegar, 1 pint of Indian soy, 1 oz. of cayenne, 2 oz. of shalots, 3/4 oz. of garlic, 1/2 pint of port wine.

Mode.—Be very particular in choosing the walnuts as soon as they appear in the market; for they are more easily bruised before they become hard and shelled. Pound them in a mortar to a pulp, strew some salt over them, and let them remain thus for two or three days, occasionally stirring and moving them about. Press out the juice, and to each quart of walnut-liquor allow the above proportion of vinegar, soy, cayenne, shalots, garlic, and port wine. Pound each ingredient separately in a mortar, then mix them well together, and store away for use in small bottles. The corks should be well sealed.

Seasonable.—This sauce should be made as soon as walnuts are obtainable, from the beginning to the middle of July.

Original Recipe from Miss Leslie’s Directions for Cooker‘ (Philadelphia, 1851)

HARVEY’S SAUCE

Dissolve six anchovies in a pint of strong vinegar, and then add to them three table-spoonfuls of India soy, and three table-spoonfuls of mushroom catchup, two heads of garlic bruised small, and a quarter of an ounce of cayenne. Add sufficient cochineal powder to colour the mixture red. Let all these ingredients infuse in the vinegar for a fortnight, shaking it every day, and then strain and bottle it for use. Let the bottles be small, and cover the corks with leather.

Oct 222016
 

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In the Russian Orthodox tradition today is the Saturday of Souls (or Soul Saturday), the Saturday before the feast of Saint Demetrius of Thessaloniki (Άγιος Δημήτριος της Θεσσαλονίκης),a Christian martyr of the early 4th century. Within the Orthodox tradition in general there are several days that can be marked as Soul Saturday. Saturday is chosen because it was a Saturday when Jesus lay in the tomb after the crucifixion on Friday and before the resurrection on Sunday. Usually Soul Saturdays occur in Lent, but the Russian Orthodox one falls on the Saturday before 26th of October. Soul Saturday is especially marked as a day of prayer for the dead.

The earliest written accounts of the life of Demetrius were compiled in the 9th century, although there are earlier images of him along with the 7th century Miracles of Saint Demetrius collection. According to these early accounts, Demetrius was born to pious Christian parents in Thessaloniki in Illyricum in 270. The biographies say that Demetrius was born into a senatorial family and was run through with spears in around 306 in Thessaloniki, during the Christian persecutions of Diocletian and Galerian.

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After the growth of his veneration as saint, the city of Thessaloniki suffered repeated attacks and sieges from the Slavic peoples who moved into the Balkans, and Demetrius was credited with many miraculous interventions to defend the city. Hence later traditions about Demetrius regard him as a soldier in the Roman army, and he came to be regarded as an important military martyr making him extremely popular in the Middle Ages (in parallel with the more Western Saint George).

Originally in the Russian Orthodox Church, the Saturday before the Feast of St. Demetrius was a memorial day commemorating the soldiers who fell in the Battle of Kulikovo (1380), under the leadership of St. Demetrius of the Don, and came to be known as Demetrius Saturday. Now it is a more general commemoration for all departed souls.

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St. Demetrius was initially depicted in icons and mosaics as a young man in patterned robes with the distinctive tablion of the senatorial class across his chest. Miraculous military interventions were attributed to him during several attacks on Thessaloniki, and he gradually became thought of as a soldier although there is no historical evidence for this. An ivory from Constantinople of the late 10th century shows him as an infantry soldier, but an icon of the late 11th century in Saint Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai shows him as before, still a civilian.

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Another Sinai icon, of the Crusader period and painted by a French artist working in the Holy Land in the second half of the 12th century, shows what then became the most common depiction. Demetrius, bearded, rather older, and on a dark horse, rides together with St George, unbearded and on a white horse. Both are dressed as cavalrymen. Also, while St. George is often shown spearing a dragon, St. Demetrius is depicted spearing the gladiator Lyaeos, who according to legend was responsible for killing many Christians. Lyaeos is commonly depicted below Demetrius and lying supine, having already been defeated. Lyaeos is traditionally drawn much smaller than Demetrius. In traditional hagiography, Demetrius did not directly kill Lyaeos, but rather through his prayers the gladiator was defeated by Demetrius’ disciple, Nestor.

A modern Greek iconographic convention depicts Demetrius with the Great White Tower in the background. The anachronistic White Tower acts as a symbolic depiction of the city of Thessaloniki, despite having been built in the 16th century, centuries after his life, and the exact architecture of the older tower that stood at the same site in earlier times is unknown.

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According to hagiographic legend, as retold by Dimitry of Rostov in particular, Demetrius appeared in 1207 in the camp of Kaloyan of Bulgaria, piercing the pagan king with a lance and so killing him. This scene, known as Чудо о погибели царя Калояна (“the miracle of the destruction of tsar Kaloyan”) became a popular element in the iconography of Saint Demetrius. He is shown on horseback piercing the king with his spear, paralleling the icononography (and often shown alongside) of Saint George and the Dragon.

I’m not really all that comfortable with saints as battle heroes. Slaying pagans and persecutors of Christians does not gibe too well with the Sermon on the Mount, cornerstone of Christian belief in my worldview. It is understandable in the context of the war-torn Middle Ages, but for me is a perversion of Christian belief that has continued to the present day. I can understand calling on the saints to protect the faithful during times of attack; turning that around into a battle cry to be the attackers of pagans destroys the Christian message. I’m not confident that “Love Your Enemies” is a message that will ever fully penetrate.

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In the Russian Orthodox tradition it is usual to make dishes of boiled wheat grains and offer them in church on Soul Saturday before eating them communally or as a family. I’ll probably give a recipe for wheat porridge at some point, but it’s not my favorite, even when cooked with milk and sweetened with sugar or honey. Instead I’ll turn to the cuisine of Thessaloniki. Because Thessaloniki  remained under Ottoman rule for about 100 years more than southern Greece, it has retained a lot of its Eastern character, including its culinary tastes. When you get away from the nonsense of ethnic rivalry you will see that traditional Turkish and Greek dishes have a lot in common. Thessaloniki’s Ladadika borough is a haven for foodies with most tavernas serving traditional meze which has both Greek and Turkish influences blended.

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Generically meze (Turkish: meze; Greek: μεζές) is a selection of small dishes to accompany drinks which can also be used as an appetizer course. The dishes can be just about anything under the sun from hummus, falafel, and babaghanoush to ground or skewered lamb, beef stew, and marinated pork. Furthermore, meze can be rich and varied, or extremely simple. For Soul Saturday I think a simple, but delicious meze dish is in order. One that I find satisfying as a snack or appetizer is pictured here. It is common in Greek cuisine.

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Serve a block of feta cheese drizzled with extra virgin olive oil and sprinkled with oregano along with kalamata olives accompanied with crusty bread. If you eat the cheese, olives, and bread together you have a somewhat astringent but tasty blend of flavors. Good for the soul as you reflect on the departed.

May 042016
 

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Today is one of several days honoring Saint Monica (331 – 387), also known as Monica of Hippo, an early Christian saint and the mother of St. Augustine of Hippo. She is remembered and honored in most Christian denominations, although on different feast days, for her Christian virtues, particularly the suffering caused by her husband’s adultery, and her prayerful life dedicated to the reformation of her son, who wrote extensively of her pious acts and his life with her in his Confessions. Popular Christian legend tells of Saint Monica weeping every night for her son Augustine.

Most of what we know about Monica comes directly from Augustine, which is far better information than is obtained from contemporary martyrologies, but personal information is, nonetheless, sketchy and conjectural. It is, for example, assumed that she was born in Tagaste (present-day Souk Ahras, Algeria). Her name is a Berber name, not popular in Europe until after her death, so on that basis alone she is conjectured to have been Berber. She was married early in life to Patricius, a Roman pagan, who held an official position in Tagaste. Patricius had a violent temper and appears to have been generally dissolute. Monica’s alms, deeds, and prayer habits annoyed Patricius, but it is said that he always held her in respect. Monica had three children who survived infancy: sons Augustine and Navigius and daughter Perpetua. She was unable to gain approval to baptize them, and grieved heavily when Augustine fell ill. In her distress she asked Patricius to allow Augustine to be baptized. He agreed, then withdrew this consent when the boy recovered. Monica’s joy and relief at Augustine’s recovery turned to anxiety as he misspent his renewed life being wayward and, as he himself tells us, lazy. He was finally sent to school at Madauros. He was 17 and studying rhetoric in Carthage when Patricius died.

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Augustine become a Manichaean (strong rival to Christianity) in Carthage. When he returned home he shared his views regarding Manichaeism, Monica drove him away. However, she is said to have experienced a vision that convinced her to reconcile with him. At this time she visited an unnamed bishop who consoled her with the now famous words, “the child of those tears shall never perish.” Monica followed her son to Rome, where he had gone secretly. When she arrived he had already gone to Milan and she followed him there. Here she found Ambrose and through him she ultimately saw Augustine convert to Christianity after 17 years of resistance.

In Confessions, Augustine wrote of a peculiar practice of his mother in which she “brought to certain oratories, erected in the memory of the saints, offerings of porridge, bread, water and wine.” When she moved to Milan, the bishop Ambrose forbade her to use the offering of wine, since “it might be an occasion of gluttony for those who were already given to drink”. So, Augustine wrote of her:

In place of a basket filled with fruits of the earth, she had learned to bring to the oratories of the martyrs a heart full of purer petitions, and to give all that she could to the poor – so that the communion of the Lord’s body might be rightly celebrated in those places where, after the example of his passion, the martyrs had been sacrificed and crowned.

Mother and son spent 6 months together at Rus Cassiciacum (present-day Cassago Brianza) after which Augustine was baptized in the church of St. John the Baptist in Milan. Africa claimed them, however, and they set out on their journey, stopping at Civitavecchia and at Ostia. Monica died on the journey and Augustine’s grief inspired large sections of his Confessions.

Saint Monica was buried at Ostia, and at first seems to have been almost forgotten, though her body was removed during the 6th century to a hidden crypt in the church of Santa Aurea in Ostia. Monica was buried near the tomb of St. Aurea of Ostia, but was later transferred to the Basilica of Sant’Agostino, Rome.

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Anicius Auchenius Bassus wrote Monica’s funerary epitaph, which survived in ancient manuscripts. The actual stone on which it was written was rediscovered in the summer of 1945 in the church of Santa Aurea. The fragment was discovered after two boys were digging a hole to plant a football post in the courtyard beside Santa Aurea.

The translation reads:

Here the most virtuous mother of a young man set her ashes, a second light to your merits, Augustine. As a priest, serving the heavenly laws of peace, you teach the people entrusted to you with your character. A glory greater than the praise of your accomplishments crowns you both – Mother of the Virtues, more fortunate because of her offspring.

It was not until the 13th century, however, that the cult of St. Monica began to spread and a feast in her honor was kept on 4th May. In 1430 Pope Martin V ordered the relics to be brought to Rome. Many miracles are reported to have occurred on the way, and the cult of St. Monica was definitively established. Later the archbishop of Rouen, Guillaume d’Estouteville, built a church in Rome in honor of St. Augustine, the Basilica di Sant’Agostino, and deposited the relics of St. Monica in a chapel to the left of the high altar. The Office of St. Monica, however, does not seem to have found a place in the Roman Breviary before the 16th century.

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The city of Santa Monica, California, is named after Monica. A legend says that in the 18th century Father Juan Crespí named a local dripping spring Las Lagrimas de Santa Monica (“Saint Monica’s Tears”) (today known as the Serra Springs) that was reminiscent of the tears that Saint Monica shed over her son’s early impiety. As recorded in his diary, however, Crespí actually named the place San Gregorio. What is known for certain is that by the 1820s, the name Santa Monica was in use and its first official mention occurred in 1827 in the form of a grazing permit. There is a statue of Monica in Santa Monica’s Palisades Park by sculptor Eugene Morahan, completed in 1934.

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Couscous is a fitting dish for Saint Monica both because it is a Berber/Algerian staple, probably from antiquity, and because it is the kind of food Monica could well have given to the poor. I discussed the general preparation of couscous here:

http://www.bookofdaystales.com/jean-dubuffet/

Properly cooked couscous is light and fluffy, not gummy or gritty. Traditionally, North Africans use a food steamer (called a Taseksut in Berber, a كِسْكَاس kiskas in Arabic or a couscoussier in French). The base is a tall metal pot shaped rather like an oil jar in which the meat and vegetables are cooked as a stew. On top of the base, a steamer sits where the couscous is cooked, absorbing the flavors from the stew. The lid to the steamer has holes around its edge so steam can escape. It is also possible to use a pot with a steamer insert. If the holes are too big, the steamer can be lined with damp cheesecloth. There is little archaeological evidence of early diets including couscous, possibly because the original couscoussier was made from organic materials that could not survive extended exposure to the elements. I suggest a simple dish of couscous and vegetables seasoned with cumin and garlic to taste. My preference is to cook the couscous separately from the vegetables in a steamer, but you can be traditional and boil them with spices in the base of your steamer. I usually sauté the spices gently over medium heat in a heavy skillet in a little extra virgin olive oil, then add the vegetables to cook through. Nowadays Algerians use whatever vegetables are to hand, including zucchini and tomatoes, but before the European exploration of the Americas vegetables would have been more limited – carrots, peas, broccoli, etc.

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The couscous that is sold in most Western supermarkets has been pre-steamed and dried. It is typically prepared by adding 1.5 measures of boiling water or stock to each measure of couscous then leaving covered tightly for about 5 minutes. Pre-steamed couscous takes less time to prepare than regular couscous, or dried pasta, beans, or grains.

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In Algeria and Morocco it is also served, sometimes at the end of a meal, or just by itself, as a delicacy called “seffa”. The couscous is usually steamed several times until it is very fluffy and pale in color. It is then sprinkled with almonds, cinnamon, and sugar. Traditionally, this dessert is served with milk perfumed with orange flower water, or it can be served plain with buttermilk in a bowl as a cold light soup for supper.

Jan 202016
 

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Today is the feast of Saint Sebastian. According to martyrologies he was killed during the Roman emperor Diocletian’s persecution of Christians. He is commonly depicted in art and literature tied to a post or tree and shot with arrows. Despite this being the most common artistic depiction of Sebastian, he was, according to legend, rescued and healed by Irene of Rome. Shortly afterwards he went to Diocletian to harass him about his sins, and as a result was ordered clubbed to death. The details of Saint Sebastian’s martyrdom were first written about by 4th-century bishop Ambrose of Milan, in his sermon (number 22) on Psalm 118. Ambrose stated that Sebastian came from Milan and that he was already venerated there at that time.

According to Acta Sanctorum, of unknown origin, but attributed to Ambrose by the 17th century hagiographer Jean Bolland, Sebastian was from Gallia Narbonensis in southeast France who was a student in Milan. In 283, Sebastian entered the army in Rome under Emperor Carinus to assist enlisted Christians. Because of his courage he became one of the captains of the Praetorian Guard under Diocletian and Maximian, who were unaware that he was a Christian.

Although Sebastian had concealed his faith, in 286 was found out. Diocletian commanded that he be bound to a stake so that archers from Mauritania could shoot arrows at him. The archers shot at him until he was full of arrows, and left him there for dead. Miraculously, the arrows did not kill him. Irene of Rome, the widow of Castulus (who had been converted by Sebastian and martyred by Diocletian), went to retrieve his body to bury it, and discovered he was still alive. So she brought him back to her house and nursed him back to health.

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Sebastian later stood on a route where Diocletian was to pass and harangued him for his cruelties against Christians. Diocletian who had presumed Sebastian to be dead was greatly astonished and gave orders for him to be seized and beaten to death with cudgels. His body was thrown into the common sewer, but a pious woman, called Lucina, who was visited by Sebastian in a vision, had it quietly removed, and buried in the catacombs at the entrance of the cemetery of Calixtus, where the Basilica of St. Sebastian (San Sebastiano fuori le mura) now stands.

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The church was rebuilt in the 1610s under the patronage of Scipione Borghese. St. Ado, Eginard, Sigebert, and other contemporary authors relate that, in the reign of Louis Debonnair, Pope Eugenius II gave the body of St. Sebastian to Hilduin, Abbot of St. Denys, who brought it into France, and it was deposited at Saint Medard Abbey, at Soissons, on the 8th of December 826.

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Sebastian’s cranium was brought to the town of Ebersberg (Germany) in 934. A Benedictine abbey was founded there and became one of the most important pilgrimage sites in southern Germany. It is said the silver-encased cranium was used as a cup in which to present wine to the faithful during the feast of Saint Sebastian.

During the Middle Ages, Sebastian was a popular saint, particularly because he was invoked against outbreaks of the plague. But in modern times his popularity has waned. His attempted execution by arrows has been an enduring artistic subject down to the present, however.

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Numerous towns and regions are named for Saint Sebastian, so you could pick a recipe from any one of them. I’ve chosen two seasonal soups from the region of Milan because it was Sebastian’s home for a while, and because I live nearby. Zuppa di porri e bietole (leek and Swiss chard soup) is easy to make, and a warming dish at this time of year. Leeks and chard are plentiful right now in northern Italy. Wash the vegetables thoroughly, chop them coarsely, and poach them in rich chicken stock. Done !! Some people add cooked rice for substance.

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Zupp alla pavese is also a simple dish, but is considered very elegant. Take 2 slices of day-old bread and fry them in a mix of olive oil and butter until golden. Place them in a shallow bowl and crack an egg over each slice. Pour in boiling stock which will lightly cook the eggs. Top with freshly grated Parmesan cheese.

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Dec 212015
 

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Today is the birthday (c.1119) of Thomas Becket (also known as Thomas à Becket), Archbishop of Canterbury from 1162 until his murder in 1170. He is venerated as a saint and martyr by both the Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion. He engaged in conflict with Henry II of England over the rights and privileges of the Church and was murdered by followers of the king in Canterbury Cathedral. Soon after his death, he was canonized by Pope Alexander III.

Becket was born in Cheapside, London, on 21 December, which was at the time the feast day of St Thomas the Apostle. He was the son of Gilbert Beket and Gilbert’s wife Matilda. Gilbert’s father was from Thierville in the lordship of Brionne in Normandy, and was either a small landowner or a petty knight. Matilda was also of Norman ancestry, and her family may have originated near Caen. Gilbert was perhaps related to Theobald of Bec, whose family also was from Thierville. Gilbert began his life as a merchant, perhaps as a textile merchant, but by the 1120s he was living in London and was a property owner, living on the rental income from his properties. He also served as the sheriff of the city at some point.

Portrait of St. Thomas Becket, reassembled from fragments by Samuel Caldwell Jr in 1919. Becket Window 1 (n. VII) in the north aisle of the Trinity Chapel, Canterbury Cathedral.

Beginning when he was 10, Becket was sent as a student to Merton Priory in Surrey and later attended a grammar school in London, perhaps the one at St Paul’s Cathedral. He did not study any subjects beyond the trivium and quadrivium at these schools. Later, he spent about a year in Paris around age 20. He did not, however, study canon or civil law at this time and his Latin skill always remained somewhat rudimentary. Some time after Becket began his schooling, Gilbert Beket suffered financial reverses, and the younger Becket was forced to earn a living as a clerk. Gilbert first secured a place for his son in the business of a relative – Osbert Huitdeniers – and then later Becket acquired a position in the household of Theobald of Bec, by now the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Theobald entrusted him with several important missions to Rome and also sent him to Bologna and Auxerre to study canon law. Theobald in 1154 named Becket Archdeacon of Canterbury, and other ecclesiastical offices included a number of benefices, prebends at Lincoln Cathedral and St Paul’s Cathedral, and the office of Provost of Beverley. His efficiency in those posts led to Theobald recommending him to King Henry II for the vacant post of Lord Chancellor, to which Becket was appointed in January 1155.

As Chancellor, Becket enforced the king’s traditional sources of revenue that were exacted from all landowners, including churches and bishoprics. King Henry even sent his son Henry to live in Becket’s household, it being the custom then for noble children to be fostered out to other noble houses. The younger Henry was reported to have said Becket showed him more fatherly love in a day than his father did for his entire life.

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Becket was nominated as Archbishop of Canterbury in 1162, several months after the death of Theobald. His election was confirmed on 23 May 1162 by a royal council of bishops and noblemen. Henry may have hoped that Becket would continue to put the royal government first, rather than the church. The famous transformation of Becket into an ascetic occurred at this time. Becket was ordained a priest on 2 June 1162 at Canterbury, and on 3 June 1162 was consecrated as archbishop by Henry of Blois, the Bishop of Winchester and the other suffragan bishops of Canterbury.

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A rift grew between Henry and Becket as the new archbishop resigned his chancellorship and sought to recover and extend the rights of the archbishopric. This led to a series of conflicts with the King, including that over the jurisdiction of secular courts over English clergymen, which accelerated antipathy between Becket and the king. Attempts by Henry to influence the other bishops against Becket began in Westminster in October 1163, where the king sought approval of the traditional rights of the royal government in regard to the church. This led to assemblies at Clarendon, where Becket was officially asked to agree to the King’s rights or face political repercussions.

King Henry II presided over the assemblies of most of the higher English clergy at Clarendon Palace on 30 January 1164. In sixteen constitutions, he sought less clerical independence and a weaker connexion with Rome. He employed all his skills to induce their consent and was apparently successful with all but Becket. Finally, even Becket expressed his willingness to agree to the substance of the Constitutions of Clarendon, but he still refused to formally sign the documents. Henry summoned Becket to appear before a great council at Northampton Castle on 8 October 1164, to answer allegations of contempt of royal authority and malfeasance in the Chancellor’s office. Convicted on the charges, Becket stormed out of the trial and fled to the Continent.

Henry pursued the fugitive archbishop with a series of edicts, aimed at all his friends and supporters as well as Becket himself. But King Louis VII of France offered Becket protection. He spent nearly two years in the Cistercian abbey of Pontigny, until Henry’s threats against the order obliged him to return to Sens. Becket fought back by threatening excommunication and interdict against the king and bishops and the kingdom, but Pope Alexander III, though sympathizing with him in theory, favored a more diplomatic approach. Papal legates were sent in 1167 with authority to act as arbitrators.

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In 1170, Alexander sent delegates to impose a solution to the dispute. At that point, Henry offered a compromise that would allow Thomas to return to England from exile.

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In June 1170, Roger de Pont L’Évêque, the archbishop of York, along with Gilbert Foliot, the bishop of London, and Josceline de Bohon, the bishop of Salisbury, crowned the heir apparent, Henry the Young King, at York. This was a breach of Canterbury’s privilege of coronation, and in November 1170 Becket excommunicated all three. While the three clergymen fled to the king in Normandy, Becket continued to excommunicate his opponents in the church, the news of which also reached Henry.

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Upon hearing reports of Becket’s actions, Henry is said to have uttered words that were interpreted by his men as wishing Becket killed. The king’s exact words are in doubt and several versions have been reported. The most commonly quoted, as handed down by oral tradition, is “Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?”, but according to historian Simon Schama this is incorrect: he accepts the account of the contemporary biographer Edward Grim, writing in Latin, who gives us “What miserable drones and traitors have I nourished and brought up in my household, who let their lord be treated with such shameful contempt by a low-born cleric?” Many variations have found their way into popular culture.

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Whatever Henry said, it was interpreted as a royal command, and four knights, Reginald fitzUrse, Hugh de Morville, William de Tracy, and Richard le Breton, set out to confront Becket. On 29 December 1170 they arrived in Canterbury. According to accounts left by the monk Gervase of Canterbury and eyewitness Edward Grim, they placed their weapons under a tree outside the cathedral and hid their mail armor under cloaks before entering to challenge Becket. The knights informed Becket he was to go to Winchester to give an account of his actions, but Becket refused. It was not until Becket refused their demands to submit to the king’s will that they retrieved their weapons and rushed back inside for the killing. Becket, meanwhile, proceeded to the main hall for vespers. The four knights, wielding drawn swords, caught up with him in a spot near a door to the monastic cloister, the stairs into the crypt, and the stairs leading up into the quire of the cathedral, where the monks were chanting vespers.

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Several contemporary accounts of what happened next exist; of particular note is that of Edward Grim, who was himself wounded in the attack. This is part of the account from Edward Grim:

The wicked knight leapt suddenly upon him, cutting off the top of the crown which the unction of sacred chrism had dedicated to God. Next he received a second blow on the head, but still he stood firm and immovable. At the third blow he fell on his knees and elbows, offering himself a living sacrifice, and saying in a low voice, ‘For the name of Jesus and the protection of the Church, I am ready to embrace death.’ But the third knight inflicted a terrible wound as he lay prostrate. By this stroke, the crown of his head was separated from the head in such a way that the blood white with the brain, and the brain no less red from the blood, dyed the floor of the cathedral. The same clerk who had entered with the knights placed his foot on the neck of the holy priest and precious martyr, and, horrible to relate, scattered the brains and blood about the pavements, crying to the others, ‘Let us away, knights; this fellow will arise no more.

Following Becket’s death, the monks prepared his body for burial. According to some accounts, it was discovered that Becket had worn a hairshirt under his archbishop’s garments—a sign of penance. Soon after, the faithful throughout Europe began venerating Becket as a martyr, and on 21 February 1173—little more than two years after his death—he was canonized by Pope Alexander III in St Peter’s Church in Segni. In 1173, Becket’s sister Mary was appointed as abbess of Barking Abbey as reparation for the murder of her brother. On 12 July 1174, in the midst of the Revolt of 1173–1174, Henry humbled himself with public penance at Becket’s tomb as well as at the church of St. Dunstan’s, which became one of the most popular pilgrimage sites in England.

Becket’s assassins fled north to Knaresborough Castle, which was held by Hugh de Morville, where they remained for about a year. De Morville held property in Cumbria and this may also have provided a convenient bolt-hole, as the men prepared for a longer stay in the separate kingdom of Scotland. They were not arrested and neither did Henry confiscate their lands, but he failed to help them when they sought his advice in August 1171. Pope Alexander excommunicated all four. Seeking forgiveness, the assassins travelled to Rome and were ordered by the Pope to serve as knights in the Holy Lands for a period of fourteen years.

This last also inspired Knights of Saint Thomas, incorporated in 1191 at Acre, and which was to be modeled on the Teutonic Knights. It is the only military order native to England (with chapters in not only Acre, but also London, Kilkenny, and Nicosia), like the Gilbertine Order being the only monastic order native to England as well. Nevertheless, Henry VIII dissolved both of these English institutions upon passing the Reformation, rather than merging foreign orders with them and nationalizing them as elements of the Protestant Church of England.

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Until recently there were no 12th century recipes from England available. However, a MS cookery book from 1140 recently showed up in archives in Durham cathedral and promises to shed new light on the cooking of the era. Prior to that, the earliest source was from 1190. However, descriptions are not, as yet, available except for snippets. I’ll go with “hen in winter” which calls for poaching a chicken with garlic, pepper, and sage.

People working with the MS suggest that this is a recipe for an old fowl, as would be typical of winter months. This gives me the opportunity to expound on poaching a boiling fowl. They are not so commonly found any more because the meat is tough, and modern cooks prefer younger birds which are much more easily managed. But old hens can be very tasty if cooked properly. The secret is very slooooow cooking. Put the hen in a big stock pot and cover it with cold water. Then bring it very slowly to a gentle simmer. Do NOT be tempted to speed this part up as you will toughen the meat permanently. Put the pot, covered, on the lowest flame for as long as need be. It may take an hour or longer just to get the surface of the liquid murmuring. Skim off any scum as it rises, and maintain a very gentle simmer. It will take 3-4 hours to cook the bird. For “hen in winter” you should add generous quantities of chopped garlic, whole peppercorns, and chopped fresh sage leaves.

When the hen is cooked, let the pot cool and then refrigerate overnight. In the morning remove the fat from the top of the pot, and reheat – again, very slowly. Remove a few cups of the broth to a fresh pan. Heat over medium-high heat and thicken with white breadcrumbs. Brighten the flavors by adding some fresh garlic, ground black pepper, and chopped sage. Let simmer gently for about 20 minutes. Serve the hen sliced, with the sauce, over thick trenchers of crusty bread.

May 212013
 

santa helena

Napoleon-surf-check

Today is a double threat. It is the feast day of St Helena of Constantinople, and, not by coincidence, a public holiday on St Helena Island.

St Helena (the saint) has two main claims to fame.  She was the mother of Roman Emperor Constantine I, and she is credited in legend with finding the true cross on which Jesus was crucified. Constantine converted to Christianity and made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. In 326-28, when Constantine was emperor, Helena undertook a trip to the Holy Places in Palestine. Jerusalem was still being rebuilt following the destruction caused by Emperor Hadrian. He had built a temple over the site of Jesus’ tomb near Calvary, and renamed the city Aelia Capitolina. Accounts differ concerning whether the Temple was dedicated to Venus or Jupiter. According to tradition, Helena ordered the temple torn down and on excavating the site found three crosses. There was a feeling among the discoverers that these were the three crosses from Calvary but Helena needed proof. So she had a woman who was near death brought from the city. When the woman touched the first and second crosses, her condition did not change, but when she touched the third and final cross she suddenly recovered and Helena declared that cross to be the True Cross. On the site of discovery, Constantine ordered the building of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Helena left Jerusalem and the eastern provinces in 327 to return to Rome, bringing with her large parts of the True Cross and other relics, which were then stored in her palace’s private chapel, where they can still be seen today. Her palace was later converted into the Basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem. This has been maintained by Cistercian monks in the monastery which has been attached to the church for centuries. Tradition says that the site of the Vatican Gardens was spread with earth brought from Golgotha by Helena to symbolically unite the blood of Christ with that shed by thousands of early Christians, who died in the persecutions of earlier Roman emperors.

The Island of St Helena, located in the south Atlantic 1,200 miles west of the coast of Africa, is one of the most remote islands in the world. Most historical accounts state that the island was discovered on 21 May 1502 by the Galician navigator João da Nova sailing at the service of the Portuguese Crown, and because of the date he named it Santa Helena after Helena of Constantinople.  Henceforth, control of the island went back and forth between the Spanish, Portuguese, British, and Dutch, although the Spanish and Portuguese dropped out of the picture quite early on leaving the British and Dutch to fight it out.  It was an important stop for their ships going to and from the Cape of Good Hope and beyond so they could take on fresh water and supplies.

Although St Helena was under the control of the Dutch East India Company at the time, the British government selected St Helena in 1815 as Napoleon Bonaparte’s place of exile following his defeat at the Battle of Waterloo.   He was eventually built a permanent home on the island where he died on 5 May 1821. During this period, Saint Helena remained in the East India Company’s possession, but the British government met additional costs arising from guarding Napoleon. The island was strongly garrisoned with British troops, and naval ships circled the island. In 1834 Britain gained control of the island, and it is now one of the last vestiges of the British Empire.

With the advent of steam ships and the opening of the Suez Canal, St Helena was no longer needed as a port of call for ships heading for the Pacific, and became increasingly isolated.  Nowadays there is one main way to get to the island, which is to fly to Cape Town and then take the RMS St Helena to the island.  It calls about once every 12 days.  Otherwise you need to sail your own boat. Tourism is almost entirely centered on visits to Napoleon’s home and grave promoted by the French government. Because of the difficulty getting to the island, tourism represents a very small part of the economy (3% of GDP).  There are plans in the works to build an airport on the island although no airlines have expressed interest in the route.  The hope is to build sport fishing tourism because of the plentiful fish in surrounding waters.

Fish cakes with distinctive flavorings are a signature dish on St Helena.  The recipe below is adapted from the one used on board RMS St Helena.  Local fish, such as tuna and wahoo, are usual, but any firm white fish will work.  The recipe uses a blend of mixed spices available only on the island.  I give a substitute here which is close.

St Helena Fish Cakes

Ingredients:

1 lb (450 g) fish filets (fresh tuna or wahoo in preference)
1 lb (450 g) potatoes
1 large onion, finely chopped
2 strips of bacon, finely chopped (optional)
Hot chiles to taste (optional)
1 teaspoon thyme
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
1 egg, beaten
Salt and pepper
1 teaspoon St Helena mixed spice (see below)

Instructions:

Cook the potatoes in salted water until tender, then drain and mash them. Put the mashed potatoes in a large bowl and leave until cool.

Wash the fish, and chop it very fine.

Heat the oil over medium heat in a skillet and sauté the onion , parsley , thyme, chiles and bacon (if used) until the onion just starts to brown.

Take the skillet off the heat and add the mashed potato, fish, mixed spice, and beaten egg.

Mix the ingredients thoroughly and form round patties with your hands, about the size of a tennis ball.  Flatten them into a fat disk somewhat thicker than a hamburger.

Shallow fry the fish cakes slowly to be sure they are cooked through and then raise the heat and continue frying until both sides are brown.

Serve the fish cakes as a main meal with rice and vegetables, or as a snack on a bread roll with ketchup.

Substitute St Helena Mixed Spice

Thoroughly mix together these ingredients and store in an airtight jar.

2 1/2 tablespoons paprika
2 tablespoons salt
2 tablespoons garlic powder
1 tablespoon black pepper
1 tablespoon onion powder
1 tablespoon cayenne pepper
1 tablespoon dried oregano