Nov 192018
 

Doom Bar sounds like it ought to be a sketchy nightclub that you frequent only if you have no regard for life or limb, but, in fact, it is a sandbar at the mouth of the Camel estuary on the north coast of Cornwall that has been a danger to shipping for centuries. On this date in 1911, two ships, Island Maid and Angele, foundered on Doom Bar. All five of the Island Maid’s crew were rescued, but all but the captain of the Angele perished. The Doom Bar has accounted for more than 600 beachings, capsizings and wrecks since record keeping began early in the 19th century, the majority of which are wrecks.

The bar is composed mostly of coarse sediment carried up from the seabed by bed load processes, and it has been shown that there is a net inflow of sediment into the estuary. This inflow is aided by wave and tidal processes, but the exact patterns of sediment transport within the estuary are complex and are not fully understood. There is only a very small sediment contribution from the River Camel itself: most of the river’s sediment is deposited much higher up the estuary. A large proportion of the sediment in Doom Bar is derived from marine mollusk shells, and as a consequence it includes a high level of calcium carbonate, measured in 1982 at 62%. The high calcium carbonate content of the sand has meant that it has been used for hundreds of years to improve agricultural soil by liming. This use is known to date back to before 1600. High calcium carbonate levels combined with natural sea salt made the sand valuable to farmers as an alkaline fertilizer when mixed with manure. In a report published in 1839, Henry De la Beche estimated that the sand from the Doom Bar accounted for between a fifth and a quarter of the sand used for agriculture in Devon and Cornwall. He also stated that around 80 men were permanently employed to dredge the area from several barges, removing an estimated 100,000 long tons (100,000,000 kg) of sand per year, which he said he had been “assured by competent persons” had caused a reduction in height of the bar of between 6 and 8 feet (180 and 240 cm) in the 50 years before 1836. An estimated 10 million tons of sediment was removed from the estuary between 1836 and 1989, mostly for agricultural purposes and mostly from the Doom Bar.

There is a submerged forest beneath the eastern part of the Doom Bar, off Daymer Bay. It is believed to be part of the wooded plain that existed off the current Cornwall coast before it was overcome by sand dunes and beach sand during the last significant rise in sea-level, which ended around 4,000 years ago. Exposed as they are to the Atlantic Ocean, the sands of the area have always been prone to sudden shifts: several houses were said to have been buried one night during a powerful storm. According to tradition one such shift led to the formation of the Doom Bar during the reign of Henry VIII (1509–1547), causing a decline in the prosperity of Padstow. Today, the sandbank covers approximately 0.4 square miles (1.0 km2), linking the beaches near Harbour Cove by sand flats, although the actual size and shape varies.

The name “Doom Bar” is a corruption of the older name Dunbar which itself derives from dune-bar. Although the bar was commonly known as “Dunbar sands” before 1900, the name “Doom Bar” was used in 1761 (as “the Doom-bar”), and it was also used in poetry, and in House of Commons papers in the 19th century. According to local folklore, the Doom Bar was created by the Mermaid of Padstow as a dying curse after being shot. One local legend says that a Padstow local, Tristram Bird, bought a new gun and wanted to shoot something worthy of it. He went hunting seals at Hawker’s Cove but found a young woman sitting on a rock brushing her hair. Entranced by her beauty, he offered to marry her and, when she refused, he shot her in retaliation, only realizing afterwards that she was a mermaid. As she died she cursed the harbor with a “bar of doom”, from Hawker’s Cove to Trebetherick Bay. A terrible gale blew up that night and when it finally subsided there was the sandbar, “covered with wrecks of ships and bodies of drowned men”.

For centuries, the Doom Bar was regarded as a significant danger to ships—to be approached with caution to avoid running aground. When sails were the main source of power, ships coming round Stepper Point would lose the wind, causing loss of steerage, leaving them to drift away from the channel. Sometimes, gusts of wind known colloquially as “flaws” blew over Stepper Point and pushed vessels towards the sandbank. Dropping anchor would not help, as it could not gain a firm hold on the sand. Richard Hellyer, the Sub-Commissioner of Pilotage at Padstow, gave evidence in 1859 that the Doom Bar was regarded as so dangerous that in a storm, vessels would risk being wrecked on the coast rather than negotiate the channel to Padstow harbor.

In 1761 John Griffin published a letter in the London Chronicle recommending methods for entering the Camel estuary during rough weather, particularly while north-northwest winds were blowing and described the bolts and rings he had fixed to the cliffs to assist ships trying to enter the harbor. Mooring rings were still there in 1824, and around 1830, three capstans at the base of the cliffs and bollards along the cliffs, by which means boats could be warped safely past the bar were installed.

In 1846, the Plymouth and Padstow Railway company took an interest in trying to remove the Doom Bar, hoping to increase trade through the harbor at Padstow. The plan was to create a breakwater on the bar, which would stop the build-up of sand, and the railway would transport sand from the nearby dunes to where it was needed for agricultural purposes elsewhere in the south west. However, neither the breakwater nor the railway was built, but the issue was re-examined by the 1858 British Parliamentary Select Committee on Harbours for Refuge.

During the 20th century the Doom Bar was regularly dredged to improve access to Padstow. By the 1930s, when Commander H.E. Turner surveyed the estuary, there were two channels round the Doom Bar, and it is thought that the main channel may have moved to the east side in 1929. By 2010 the original channel had disappeared. The estuary is regularly dredged by Padstow Harbour Commission’s dredgers, Sandsnipe and Mannin.

In 1827, the recently founded Life-boat Institution helped fund a permanent lifeboat at Padstow, a 23 feet (7.0 m) rowing boat with four oars. The lifeboat house at Hawker’s Cove was erected two years later by the Padstow Harbour Association for the Preservation of Life and Property from Shipwreck. Reverend Charles Prideaux-Brune of Prideaux Place was the patron. In 1879, four of his granddaughters and their friend were rowing on the Doom Bar and saw a craft go down. They rowed out to save the drowning sailor. All five girls received a Royal National Lifeboat Institution Silver Medal for their bravery.

Despite the safer eastern channel and improvements in maritime technology, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution still deals with incidents at the Doom Bar. In February 1997, two fishermen who were not wearing lifejackets drowned after their boat capsized. Two anglers had been killed in a similar incident in 1994. On 25th June 2007, the Padstow lifeboat and a rescue helicopter rescued the crews of two yachts in separate incidents from the area.

Doom Bar has lent its name to a bitter (4.0% abv) brewed by Sharp’s Brewery originally at Rock, a village on the estuary opposite Padstow and in Burton-upon-Trent. It is the brewery’s flagship beer, accounting for 90% of sales and with an output of 24,000,000 imperial pints (14,000 kl) in 2010. In 2011, sales increased by 22%, making it the UK’s fastest growing beer for three years in a row. In June 2013, Doom Bar bitter became the number one UK cask ale, by volume and value.

In honor of Padstow, Doom Bar, and Cornwall, here is a recipe for Cornish Game Hen marinated in a beer brine, and then roasted.

Doom Bar Cornish Game Hen

Ingredients

2 Cornish game hens
12 oz Doom Bar bitter
¼ cup kosher salt
2 tbsp white sugar
1 tbsp whole cloves

Instructions

Combine the beer, salt, sugar, cloves, and 1 cup of water in a saucepan. Heat over medium heat, stirring constantly until all the sugar dissolves. Remove from the heat and let cool.

Place the hens in sealable plastic bags, and divide the beer brine between them. Squeeze out the air, seal tightly, and marinate in the refrigerator overnight.

In the morning remove the hens from the brine and let them air dry.

Preheat the oven to 450°F.

Place the hens on a rack in a roasting pan, and roast until golden brown and cooked through (about 40 minutes).  Serve with roast potatoes and other roast vegetables.

May 172017
 

On this date in 1902, archaeologist Valerios Stais found among some pieces of rock that had been retrieved from the Antikythera shipwreck in Greece 2 years earlier, one piece of rock that had a gear wheel embedded in it. Stais initially believed it was an astronomical clock, but most scholars at the time considered the device to be an anachronism of some sort, too complex to have been constructed during the same period as the other pieces that had been discovered with it (dated around the 1st and 2nd centuries BCE). Nope !! What is now called the Antikythera mechanism is, in fact, an ancient Greek analogue computer and orrery used to predict astronomical positions and eclipses for calendrical and astrological purposes, as well as a four-year cycle of athletic games that was similar, but not identical, to an Olympiad, the cycle of the ancient Olympic Games.  Nothing like it would re-emerge in Europe for 15 centuries. There is so much about the ancient world that remains a mystery (Stonehenge, the Pyramids, etc.).

The Antikythera mechanism was found to be housed in a 340 mm (13 in) × 180 mm (7.1 in) × 90 mm (3.5 in) wooden box but full analysis of its form and uses has only recently been fully performed.  In fact after Stais discovered it, it was ignored for 50 years, but then gradually scientists of various stripes, including historians of science, looked into it, and research into the mechanism is ongoing. Derek J. de Solla Price of Yale became interested in it in 1951, and in 1971, both Price and Greek nuclear physicist Charalampos Karakalos made X-ray and gamma-ray images of the 82 fragments.

The mechanism is clearly a complex clockwork device composed of at least 30 meshing bronze gears. Using modern computer x-ray tomography and high resolution surface scanning, a team led by Mike Edmunds and Tony Freeth at Cardiff University were able to look inside fragments of the crust-encased mechanism and read the faintest inscriptions that once covered the outer casing of the machine. Detailed imaging of the mechanism suggests it dates back to around 150-100 BCE and had 37 gear wheels enabling it to follow the movements of the moon and the sun through the zodiac, predict eclipses and even recreate the irregular orbit of the moon. The motion, known as the first lunar anomaly, was first described by the astronomer Hipparchus of Rhodes in the 2nd century BCE, and so it’s possible that he was consulted in the machine’s construction. Its remains were found as one lump later separated into three main fragments, which are now divided into 82 separate fragments after conservation work. Four of these fragments contain gears, while inscriptions are found on many others. The largest gear is approximately 140 mm (5.5 in) in diameter and originally had 224 teeth.

It is not known how the mechanism came to be on the sunken cargo ship, but it has been suggested that it was being taken from Rhodes to Rome, together with other looted treasure, to support a triumphal parade being staged by Julius Caesar. The mechanism is not generally referred to as the first known analogue computer, and the quality and complexity of the mechanism’s manufacture suggests it has undiscovered predecessors made during the Hellenistic period.

In 1974, Price concluded from the gear settings and inscriptions on the mechanism’s faces that it was made about 87 BCE and lost only a few years later. Jacques Cousteau and associates visited the wreck in 1976 and recovered coins dated to between 76 and 67 BCE. Though its advanced state of corrosion has made it impossible to perform an accurate compositional analysis, it is believed the device was made of a low-tin bronze alloy (of approximately 95% copper, 5% tin). All its instructions are written in Koine Greek, and the consensus among scholars is that the mechanism was made in the Greek-speaking world.

In 2008, continued research by the Antikythera Mechanism Research Project suggested the concept for the mechanism may have originated in the colonies of Corinth, since they identified the calendar on the Metonic Spiral as coming from Corinth or one of its colonies in Northwest Greece or Sicily. Syracuse was a colony of Corinth and the home of Archimedes, which, so the Antikythera Mechanism Research project argued in 2008, might imply a connection with the school of Archimedes. But the ship carrying the device also contained vases in the style common in Rhodes of the time, leading to a hypothesis that the device was constructed at an academy founded by the Stoic philosopher Posidonius on that island. Rhodes was busy trading port in antiquity, and also a center of astronomy and mechanical engineering, home to the astronomer Hipparchus, active from about 140 BCE to 120 BCE. That the mechanism uses Hipparchus’s theory for the motion of the moon suggests the possibility he may have designed, or at least worked on it. Finally, the Rhodian hypothesis gains further support by the recent decipherment of text on the dial referring to the dating (every 4 years) of the relatively minor Halieia games of Rhodesl. In addition, it has recently been argued that the astronomical events on the parapegma (almanac plate) of the Antikythera Mechanism work best for latitudes in the range of 33.3-37.0 degrees north. Rhodes is located between the latitudes of 35.5 and 36.25 degrees north.

Using analysis of existing fragments various attempts have been made on paper, and in metal, to reconstruct a working model of the mechanism.

Some of the earliest Greek recipes extant mention the use of cheese. In book 9 of Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus meets the Cyclops Polyphemus in cave who, on returning with his sheep and goats from the fields, milks them and makes cheese with the milk. Feta is made from sheep’s milk or a mix of sheep’s and goat’s milk, so some food historians conjecture that feta or something akin may date from the 8th century BCE (Homer’s era).

One of the oldest Greek recipes, although hard to interpret accurately, calls for fish baked with cheese and herbs.  I don’t have the necessary ingredients to hand to experiment at the moment, and recipes for baked or fried fish and feta that I have available, all call for New World ingredients such as tomatoes and zucchini. My suggestion would be to coat a roasting pan with olive oil, lay in some Mediterranean fish fillets, and top them with crumbled feta mixed with either yoghurt or breadcrumbs seasoned with dill, salt and pepper. Garlic and onions would make good seasonings as well. Bake at 375˚F for 20 to 25 minutes and serve with boiled potatoes and a green salad.

If you don’t want to be quite so adventurous, fill halved pitas with a mix of feta, chives and herbs, drizzle with olive oil, and grill briefly until the pitas are golden and the feta is soft.

Feb 102016
 

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Today is the feast day of St Paul’s Shipwreck (San Pawl Nawfragu) which is a public holiday in Malta, especially in Valletta, Marsalforn, and Munxar. I am not sure why this date was chosen. The event is described in the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 27:27-28:5), the tail end of the book. The chronology of events in Paul’s life is endlessly disputed by scholars because what facts can be gleaned from letters that we are reasonably certain were written by Paul are not always in agreement with Acts. According to Acts Paul arrived in Jerusalem on his fifth and final visit in 57 with a collection of money for the community there. Acts reports that he was warmly received, but goes on to recount how Paul was warned by James and the elders that he was gaining a reputation for being against the Law, saying “they have been told about you that you teach all the Jews living among the gentiles to forsake Moses, and that you tell them not to circumcise their children or observe the customs.” (Acts 21:21) Paul underwent a purification ritual in order to give the Jews no grounds to bring accusations against him for not following the law. But he then caused a stir when he appeared at the Temple, and he escaped being killed by the crowd only by voluntarily being taken into Roman custody. When a plot to kill Paul on his way to an appearance before the Jews was discovered, he was transported by night to Caesarea Maritima. He was held as a prisoner there for two years, until a new governor reopened his case in 59.

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When the governor suggested that he be sent back to Jerusalem for further trial, Paul exercised his right as a Roman citizen to appeal to Caesar, so he was transported to Rome. During the journey, vividly described in Acts, the shipwreck occurs. This passage is notable in that it is one of the so-called “we” passages – written in the 1st person plural. There is no scholarly consensus concerning these passages. They could be a deliberate forgery to suggest that the author of Acts was an actual eyewitness, or they could be redactions based on older, fragmentary primary material written by an eyewitness. I incline towards the latter, but this is more of an educated guess than anything else. Here’s the passage:

27:27 On the fourteenth night we were still being driven across the Adriatic Sea, when about midnight the sailors sensed they were approaching land. 28 They took soundings and found that the water was a hundred and twenty feet deep. A short time later they took soundings again and found it was ninety feet deep. 29 Fearing that we would be dashed against the rocks, they dropped four anchors from the stern and prayed for daylight. 30 In an attempt to escape from the ship, the sailors let the lifeboat down into the sea, pretending they were going to lower some anchors from the bow. 31 Then Paul said to the centurion and the soldiers, “Unless these men stay with the ship, you cannot be saved.” 32 So the soldiers cut the ropes that held the lifeboat and let it drift away.

33 Just before dawn Paul urged them all to eat. “For the last fourteen days,” he said, “you have been in constant suspense and have gone without food—you haven’t eaten anything. 34 Now I urge you to take some food. You need it to survive. Not one of you will lose a single hair from his head.” 35 After he said this, he took some bread and gave thanks to God in front of them all. Then he broke it and began to eat. 36 They were all encouraged and ate some food themselves. 37 Altogether there were 276 of us on board. 38 When they had eaten as much as they wanted, they lightened the ship by throwing the grain into the sea.

39 When daylight came, they did not recognize the land, but they saw a bay with a sandy beach, where they decided to run the ship aground if they could. 40 Cutting loose the anchors, they left them in the sea and at the same time untied the ropes that held the rudders. Then they hoisted the foresail to the wind and made for the beach. 41 But the ship struck a sandbar and ran aground. The bow stuck fast and would not move, and the stern was broken to pieces by the pounding of the surf.

42 The soldiers planned to kill the prisoners to prevent any of them from swimming away and escaping. 43 But the centurion wanted to spare Paul’s life and kept them from carrying out their plan. He ordered those who could swim to jump overboard first and get to land. 44 The rest were to get there on planks or on other pieces of the ship. In this way everyone reached land safely.

28:1 Once safely on shore, we found out that the island was called Malta. 2 The islanders showed us unusual kindness. They built a fire and welcomed us all because it was raining and cold. 3 Paul gathered a pile of brushwood and, as he put it on the fire, a viper, driven out by the heat, fastened itself on his hand. 4 When the islanders saw the snake hanging from his hand, they said to each other, “This man must be a murderer; for though he escaped from the sea, the goddess Justice has not allowed him to live.” 5 But Paul shook the snake off into the fire and suffered no ill effects.

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There is a special celebration in Valletta on Malta at the Collegiate Parish Church of St Paul’s Shipwreck on this day. The church hosts fine artistic works, including the magnificent altarpiece by Matteo Perez d’Aleccio, as well as paintings by Attilio Palombi, and Giuseppe Calì. The wooden titular statue of St Paul was carved in 1659 by Melchiorre Cafà, the brother of Lorenzo Gafà who designed the dome. The statue is paraded through the streets of Valletta on the feast day of St Paul’s Shipwreck even (and appropriately) during heavy rain One can also view the relic of the right wrist-bone of St Paul, and part of the column from San Paolo alle Tre Fontane, on which the saint was reputedly beheaded in Rome.

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For this feast day I have chosen the unofficial national dish of Malta, rabbit braised in red wine and garlic. Given the name, you scarcely need a recipe, but here goes. The trick is to use A LOT of garlic. This recipe calls for three BULBS, not cloves – whole bulbs.

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Rabbit with garlic & wine (Fenek fit-tewm u l-inbid)

Ingredients

1 rabbit cut into 6 or 8 pieces
500ml red wine
3 whole garlic bulbs, peeled and chopped
2 tablespoons olive oil
2-3 bay leaves
salt and pepper

Instructions

Place the rabbit pieces in an earthenware pot and cover with the wine. Refrigerate overnight.

In a large, heavy skillet gently sweat the garlic in the olive oil. Do not let it take on color.

Remove and reserve the garlic, leaving the oil in the pan. Heat the oil on medium-high, remove the rabbit pieces from the wine, and brown them in the oil on all sides – reserving the wine.

Place the rabbit, garlic and bay leaves in an ovenproof casserole. Cover with the wine, and season to taste with salt and pepper. Cover and bake at around 375°F for an hour or until the meat is tender. Check the liquid level periodically to make sure that the wine is reducing to a thick sauce, but not drying out. Uncover towards the end if it is not reducing sufficiently.

Serve with boiled new potatoes and marrowfat peas.

Serves 4