Jun 062017
 

On this date in 913 the Byzantine emperor Alexander III died of exhaustion after a game of tzykanion, the Greek name for polo, allegedly fulfilling his brother’s prophecy that he would reign for 13 months only. Seems like as good a reason as any to talk about the history of the game. Alexander, on the other hand, is scarcely worth a mention; historians variously describe him as drunk, cruel, lecherous, and malignant.

Polo originated in ancient Persia. Its creation is dated variously from the 6th century BCE to the 1st century CE. Like football, there were probably various ball games played on horseback throughout the east dating into antiquity. The first properly authenticated reference states that the Persian Emperor Shapur II learnt to play polo when he was 7 years old in 316 CE. The game was picked up by the neighboring Byzantine Empire not long after. A tzykanisterion (stadium for playing tzykanion) was built by emperor Theodosius II (r. 408–450) inside the Great Palace of Constantinople.

Qutubuddin Aibak, a Turkic slave from Central Asia who later became the Sultan of Delhi in Northern India, ruled as a Sultan for only four years, from 1206 to 1210, but died accidentally in 1210 while he was playing a game of polo. His horse fell and Aibak was impaled on the pommel of his saddle.

After the Muslim conquests of Egypt and the Levant, creating the Ayyubid and Mameluke dynasties, their elites favored polo above all other sports in those regions. Notable sultans such as Saladin (1137 – 1193) and Baybars (1223 – 1277), are known to have played polo and encouraged it in their court. Polo sticks was one of the four suits in the deck of the Mameluke precursor to modern day playing cards.

Around the 15th and 16th centuries polo migrated outward from the Persian empire to other parts of Asia including the Indian subcontinent, especially in the northern areas of present-day Pakistan (notably Gilgit, Chitral, Hunza and Baltistan), and China, where it was popular in the Tang dynasty capital of Chang’an, where is was played by women as well as men. Many Tang dynasty tomb figures of female players survive. Polo was considered valuable for training cavalry, which accounts for its migration from Constantinople all the way to Japan by the late Middle Ages.  The name polo is said to have been derived from the Balti (Tibetic) word “pulu”, meaning ball.

The modern game of polo evolved from the game as it was played in Manipur, India, in the 19th century, where the game was known variously as ‘Sagol Kangjei’, ‘Kanjai-bazee’, or ‘Pulu’. The origins of the game in Manipur are traced to early precursors of Sagol Kangjei. This was one of three forms of hockey in Manipur, the other ones being field hockey (Khong Kangjei) and wrestling-hockey (Mukna Kangjei). I don’t want to know what wrestling hockey is. Local rituals such as those connected to the Marjing, the Winged-Pony God of Polo, and the creation-ritual episodes of the Lai Haraoba festival enacting the life of his son, Khori-Phaba, the polo-playing god of sports may indicate an origin earlier than the historical records of Manipur. Later, according to Chaitharol-Kumbaba, a Royal Chronicle of the Manipur king Kangba who ruled Manipur much earlier than Nongda Lairen Pakhangba (33 CE) introduced Sagol Kangjei (Kangjei on horseback). However, it was the first Mughal emperor, Babur (1483 – 1530), who popularized the sport in India, and regular playing of this game commenced in 1605 during the reign of King Khagemba under newly framed rules.

In Manipur, polo was, and is, traditionally played with seven players to a side. The players are mounted on the indigenous Manipuri pony, which stands less than 13 hands (52 inches, 132 cm). There are no goal posts, and a player scores simply by hitting the ball out of either end of the field. Players strike the ball with the long side of the mallet head, not the end. Players are not permitted to carry the ball, although blocking the ball with any part of the body except the open hand is permitted. The sticks are made of cane, and the balls are made from the roots of bamboo. Players protected their legs by attaching leather shields to their saddles and girths.

In Manipur, the game was originally played by anyone who owned a pony, including commoners. The kings of Manipur had a royal polo ground within the ramparts of their Kangla Fort called Manung Kangjei Bung (literally, “Inner Polo Ground”). Public games were held, as they are still today, at the Mapan Kangjei Bung (literally “Outer Polo Ground”), a polo ground just outside the Kangla. Weekly games called Hapta Kangjei (Weekly Polo) were also played in a polo ground outside the current Palace.

The oldest polo ground in the world is the Imphal Polo Ground in Manipur State. The history of this polo ground is contained in the royal chronicle Cheitharol Kumbaba (c. 33 CE). Lieutenant (later Major General) Joseph Ford Sherer visited Maripur and played on this polo ground in the 1850s. In 1862 the oldest polo club still in existence, Calcutta Polo Club, was established by Sherer and Captain Robert Stewart. Later they spread the game to their peers in England. The British are credited with spreading polo worldwide in the late 19th and the early 20th centuries. The game’s governing body in the United Kingdom is the Hurlingham Polo Association, which drew up the first set of formal British rules in 1874, many of which are still in existence.

This version of polo played in the 19th century was different from the faster form that was played in Manipur. The early British game was slow and methodical, with little passing between players and only a few set plays that required specific movements by participants without the ball. Neither players nor horses were trained to play a fast, nonstop game. This form of polo lacked the aggressive methods and equestrian skills to play. In consequence teams representing Indian principalities dominated the international polo scene.

Meanwhile, British settlers in the Argentine pampas started practicing polo during their free time. Among them, David Shennan is credited with having organized the first formal polo game in the country in 1875, at Estancia El Negrete, located in the province of Buenos Aires. The sport spread quickly among the gauchos, who were skillful horsemen (and proud of it), and several clubs opened in the following years in Venado Tuerto, Cañada de Gómez, Quilmes, and Flores. In 1892 The River Plate Polo Association was founded and constituted the basis for the current Asociación Argentina de Polo. In the Olympic Games held in Paris in 1924 an Argentine team took the gold medal (the country’s first Olympic gold) and repeated in Berlin in 1936. Argentina is credited globally as the mecca of polo, mainly because Argentina is the country historically with the largest number of 10-goal handicap players in the world – ever. Polo players are rated on a scale from minus-2 to 10. Minus-2 indicates a novice player, while a player rated at 10 goals has the highest handicap possible. It is so difficult to attain a 10-goal handicap that there are fewer than two dozen in the world, and about two-thirds of all players handicapped are rated at two goals or less. All living ten-goal handicappers are Argentinos, with the exception of David Stirling who was born in Uruguay but plays in Argentina.

I am spoilt for choice when it comes to recipes.  Persian? Indian? British? Argentino? Horse meat stew would be a bit morbidly ironic, I guess, although horse meat is popular in northern Italy. I’ll go with Manipur, since that’s probably the immediate home of modern polo.  Eromba is a classic dish of the Meitei community of Manipur. It is simple yet delicious, largely because of the local vegetable ingredients. Eromba can be prepared with just about any seasonal vegetables that are considered compatible, hence can vary across regions and seasons. The word “eromba” comes from eeru taana lonba, meaning “mixing stirring watery” which when pronounced quickly becomes eromba or eronba.

You don’t stand the remotest chance of getting the right ingredients, so I’ll give you the basic idea only. Eromba is a vegetable soup which can also have a non-vegetarian option (containing fermented fish, not meat). The main seasoning is the local chile, so it is hot. Vegetables that are considered compatible to be used in any combination are:

Taro(Colocasia esculenta)
Foxnut seeds (Euryale ferox)
Stink bean (Parkia speciosa)
East Indian arrowroot (Curcuma angustifolia)
Potato
Fermented bamboo shoot
Okra
Water mimosa (Neptunia oleracea)
Broad bean

Seasoning can include ngari (fermented fish) for the non-vegetarian version, plus hot green or red ghost chile, green onion, Vietnamese coriander (Persicaria odorata), and chameleon plant (Houttuynia cordata).

You know the drill by now. If you want the taste of Manipur, buy a ticket.  I’ll see you there.  I’m heading to Mandalay in a few weeks for a teaching job, which is right across the border from Manipur.

May 292017
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yuvarelakia

Ingredients

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

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

Instructions

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

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

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

May 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.

May 022017
 

Today is the birthday ([O.S. 21 April] 1729) of Catherine II of Russia (Екатерина Алексеевна), also known as Catherine the Great (Екатерина II Великая). She was the longest-ruling female monarch of Russia, reigning from 1762 until her death in 1796 at the age of 67, and probably the most renowned. She came to power following a coup d’état when her husband, Peter III, was deposed and then assassinated. Russia was revitalized under her reign, growing larger and stronger than ever and becoming recognized as one of the great powers of Europe. Her prowess in Russia is comparable with Victoria’s in England, although her historical status in Russia (and of the monarchy in general) was greatly diminished by the Russian Revolution and the rise of communism. You can read about her reign elsewhere. I’ll just look at how she came to power from impoverished princess to immensely powerful ruler of all Russia.

Catherine was born in Stettin, Pomerania, Kingdom of Prussia as Princess Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst-Dornburg. Her father, Christian August, Prince of Anhalt-Zerbst, belonged to the ruling German family of Anhalt, but held the rank of a Prussian general in his capacity as Governor of the city of Stettin (now Szczecin, Poland). In accordance with the custom then prevailing in the ruling dynasties of Germany, she received her education chiefly from a French governess and from tutors. Although Catherine was born a princess, her family had very little money. Catherine’s rise to power was supported by her mother’s wealthy relatives who were both wealthy nobles and royal relations.

The choice of Sophia as wife of her second cousin, the prospective tsar Peter of Holstein-Gottorp, resulted from some amount of diplomatic management in which Count Lestocq, Peter’s aunt (the ruling Russian Empress Elizabeth), and Frederick II of Prussia took part. Lestocq and Frederick wanted to strengthen the friendship between Prussia and Russia to weaken Austria’s influence and ruin the Russian chancellor Bestuzhev, on whom Empress Elizabeth relied, and who acted as a known partisan of Russo-Austrian co-operation. Catherine first met Peter III at the age of 10. Based on her writings, she found Peter detestable upon meeting him. She disliked his pale complexion and his fondness for alcohol at such a young age. Peter also still played with toy soldiers. Catherine later wrote that she stayed at one end of the castle, and Peter at the other.

The diplomatic intrigue failed, largely due to the intervention of Sophia’s mother, Johanna Elisabeth of Holstein-Gottorp. Historical accounts portray her as a cold, abusive woman who loved gossip and court intrigues. Johanna’s hunger for fame centered on her daughter’s prospects of becoming empress of Russia, but she infuriated Empress Elizabeth, who eventually banned her from the country for spying for King Frederick of Prussia. The Empress Elizabeth knew the family well: she had intended to marry Princess Johanna’s brother Charles Augustus (Karl August von Holstein), who had died of smallpox in 1727 before the wedding could take place. In spite of Johanna’s interference, Empress Elizabeth took a strong liking to the daughter, who, on arrival in Russia in 1744, spared no effort to ingratiate herself not only with the Empress Elizabeth, but with her husband and with the Russian people. She applied herself to learning the Russian language with such zeal, she rose at night and walked about her bedroom barefoot, repeating her lessons (even though she mastered the language, she retained an accent). This led to a severe attack of pneumonia in March 1744. When she wrote her memoirs, she said she made up her mind when she came to Russia to do whatever was necessary, and to profess to believe whatever was required of her, to become qualified to wear the crown.

Princess Sophia’s father, a devout German Lutheran, opposed his daughter’s conversion to Eastern Orthodoxy. Despite his objection, on 28 June 1744 the Russian Orthodox Church received Princess Sophia as a member with the new name Catherine (Yekaterina or Ekaterina) and the (artificial) patronymic Алексеевна (Alekseyevna, daughter of Aleksey). On the following day, the formal betrothal took place. The long-planned dynastic marriage finally occurred on 21 August 1745 in Saint Petersburg. Sophia had turned 16. Her father did not travel to Russia for the wedding. The bridegroom, known then as Peter von Holstein-Gottorp, had become Duke of Holstein-Gottorp (located in the north-west of present-day Germany near the border with Denmark) in 1739.

As she recalled in her memoirs, as soon as she arrived in Russia, she fell ill with a pleuritis that almost killed her. She credited her survival to frequent bloodletting; in a single day, she had four phlebotomies. Her mother, being opposed to this practice, fell into the Empress’s disfavor. When her situation looked desperate, her mother wanted her confessed by a Lutheran priest. Awaking from her delirium, however, Catherine said: “I don’t want any Lutheran; I want my orthodox father.” This raised her in the Empress’s esteem.

Count Andrei Shuvalov, chamberlain to Catherine, knew the diarist James Boswell well, and Boswell reports that Shuvalov shared private information regarding the monarch’s intimate affairs. Some of these rumours included that Peter took a mistress (Elizabeth Vorontsova), while Catherine carried on liaisons with Sergei Saltykov, Grigory Grigoryevich Orlov,  Alexander Vasilchikov, Grigory Potemkin, Stanisław August Poniatowski, and others. She became friends with Princess Ekaterina Vorontsova-Dashkova, the sister of her husband’s mistress, who introduced her to several powerful political groups that opposed her husband. Peter III’s temperament became quite unbearable for those who resided in the palace. Catherine became pregnant with her second child, Anna, who only lived to four months, in 1759. Due to various rumors of Catherine’s promiscuity, Peter was led to believe he was not the child’s biological father and is known to have proclaimed, “Go to the devil!” when Catherine angrily dismissed his accusation. She thus spent much of this time alone in her own private boudoir to hide away from Peter’s abrasive personality.

Catherine recalled in her memoirs her optimistic and resolute mood before her accession to the throne:

I used to say to myself that happiness and misery depend on ourselves. If you feel unhappy, raise yourself above unhappiness, and so act that your happiness may be independent of all eventualities.

After the death of the Empress Elizabeth on 5 January 1762 (OS: 25 December 1761), Peter succeeded to the throne as Emperor Peter III, and Catherine became empress consort. The imperial couple moved into the new Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg. The tsar’s eccentricities and policies, including a great admiration for the Prussian king, Frederick II, alienated the same groups that Catherine had cultivated. Besides, Peter intervened in a dispute between his Duchy of Holstein and Denmark over the province of Schleswig.

Russia and Prussia fought each other during the Seven Years’ War (1756–1763) until Peter’s accession. Peter’s insistence on supporting Frederick II of Prussia, who had seen Berlin occupied by Russian troops in 1760, but now suggested partitioning Polish territories with Russia, eroded much of his support among the nobility.

In July 1762, barely six months after becoming emperor, Peter took a holiday with his Holstein-born courtiers and relatives to Oranienbaum, leaving his wife in Saint Petersburg. On the night of 8 July (OS: 27 June) Catherine was given the news that one of her companions had been arrested by her estranged husband. She left the palace and departed for the Ismailovsky regiment, where she delivered a speech asking the soldiers to protect her from her husband. Catherine then left with the regiment to go to the Semenovsky Barracks, where the clergy were waiting to ordain her as the sole occupant of the Russian throne. She had her husband arrested, and forced him to sign a document of abdication, leaving no one to dispute her accession to the throne. On 17 July 1762—eight days after the coup and just six months after his accession to the throne—Peter III died at Ropsha, at the hands of Alexei Orlov (younger brother to Grigory Orlov, then a court favourite and a participant in the coup). Historians find no evidence for Catherine’s complicity in the supposed assassination.

At the time of Peter III’s overthrow, other potential rival claimants to the throne existed: Ivan VI (1740–1764), in close confinement at Schlüsselburg, in Lake Ladoga, from the age of six months; and Yelizaveta Alekseyevna Tarakanova (1753–1775). Ivan VI was assassinated during an attempt to free him as part of a failed coup against Catherine: Catherine, like Empress Elizabeth before her, had given strict instructions that he was to be killed in the event of any such attempt. Ivan was thought to be insane because of his years of solitary confinement, so might have made a poor emperor, even as a figurehead.

Catherine, though not descended from any previous Russian emperor of the Romanov Dynasty (she descended from the Rurik Dynasty, which preceded the Romanovs), succeeded her husband as empress regnant. She followed the precedent established when Catherine I (born in the lower classes in the Swedish East Baltic territories) succeeded her husband Peter the Great in 1725.

Historians debate Catherine’s technical status, some seeing her as a regent or as a usurper, tolerable only during the minority of her son, Grand Duke Paul. In the 1770s, a group of nobles connected with Paul (Nikita Panin and others) considered a new coup to depose Catherine and transfer the crown to Paul, whose power they envisaged restricting in a kind of constitutional monarchy. However, nothing came of this, and Catherine reigned until her death.

According to (moderately authenticated) legend Catherine’s favorite dish was sturgeon and champagne soup.  It’s not clear whether she actually loved the soup itself or the expense and extravagance associated with it. There is a story told that her lover of the time, count Potemkin, was in a panic because she was due for a visit but there was no sturgeon to be had, and he knew her passion for the soup. So he sold a painting that he had just bought for 10,000 rubles to pay a knowledgeable fishmonger who managed to find a few fillets. The recipe is not terribly complicated, but it will not be much if you do not make a good fish stock first – obviously.

To make a good fish stock I use the head and bones of cod or haddock. Cover them with cold water and add some chopped onion, celery, and parsley root, plus a bay leaf and salt and pepper to taste. Bring to a low boil and simmer for an hour or longer. Strain thoroughly.

For the soup, place whole fillets of sturgeon in a fish kettle and cover with stock. Simmer until the fish is just cooked. If you like you can add a few diced vegetables. Parsley root is perfect. Add a good quality dry or extra dry champagne to double the quantity of stock. Let it heat through and serve.

Place a whole fillet in a shallow bowl and cover with soup. Garnish with chives, and serve with lemon wedges.  It was customary to drink the soup first with a spoon, and then eat the fish with a knife and fork.

 

Feb 192017
 

Today is the birthday (1876) of Constantin Brâncuși  a Romanian sculptor, painter and photographer who was a pioneer of modernism and one of the most influential sculptors of the 20th century. Brâncuși grew up in the village of Hobiţa, Gorj, near Târgu Jiu, close to Romania’s Carpathian Mountains, an area known for its rich tradition of folk crafts, particularly woodcarving. Geometric patterns of the region can be seen in his later works. His parents Nicolae and Maria Brâncuși were poor peasants who earned a meager living through back-breaking labor. From the age of 7, he herded the family’s flock of sheep. He showed talent for carving objects out of wood, and often ran away from home to escape the bullying of his father and older brothers.

At the age of 9, Brâncuși left the village to work in the nearest large town. At 11 he went into the service of a grocer in Slatina; and then he became a domestic in a public house in Craiova where he remained for several years. When he was 18, Brâncuși built a violin by hand with materials he found around his workplace. Impressed by Brâncuși’s talent for carving, an industrialist entered him in the Craiova School of Arts and Crafts (școala de arte și meserii), where he pursued his love for woodworking, graduating with honors in 1898.

Brâncuși then enrolled in the Bucharest School of Fine Arts, where he received academic training in sculpture and quickly distinguished himself. One of his earliest surviving works, under the guidance of his anatomy teacher, Dimitrie Gerota, is a masterfully rendered écorché (statue of a man with skin removed to reveal the muscles underneath) which was exhibited at the Romanian Athenaeum in 1903. Though just an anatomical study, it foreshadowed his later efforts to reveal essence rather than merely copy outward appearance.

Here’s a little gallery.  In my humble opinion no one has been able to capture the essence of humanity better than Brâncuși through sheer simplicity of line. He decried the label “abstract artist” and I could not agree more. There is nothing abstract about his work.

This soup, ciorbã tãrãneasca, echoes Brâncuși’s work in a way because (a) it is a Carpathian peasant dish, and (b) it combines simplicity with complexity. Ciorbã is the Romanian word for “soup” and comes from the Turkish word – “çorba.”  The word “tãrãneasca” can be translated as “traditional” or “peasant.” The souring agent for this ciorbã can be lemon juice, sauerkraut juice, vinegar, sour grape leaves, or green sorrel leaves (my favorite). Sorrel is easy to grow in your garden; it is perennial and prolific, surviving drought and poor soil with no trouble. Obviously this is a simple vegetable soup, so any combination is fine. The trick is to balance the hot and sour notes. You’ll need to play with it.

Ciorbã Tãrãneasca

Ingredients

400g slab bacon, cut in small dice
200g fresh green beans, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 onion, peeled and finely chopped
1 carrot, peeled and finely chopped
1 zucchini, chopped
2 potatoes, peeled and cubed
1 red bell pepper, finely chopped
1 chile pepper, roughly chopped
sorrel leaves
yoghurt or sour cream
fresh parsley, roughly chopped
lemon juice (optional)
salt and pepper
red pepper flakes

Instructions

Sauté the bacon and onion in a dry Dutch oven over medium-low heat to render the fat from the bacon, and until the onion begins to take on a little color.

Add the vegetables and barely cover with water (or light stock). Season with salt and pepper to taste.  Simmer for about 30 minutes or until the vegetables are cooked as you like them. I prefer a little bite to them, but traditionally they are soft. As the soup cooks check the balance of heat and sourness to your taste. You can add a little lemon juice if you desire. Add the parsley towards the end.

Serve in deep bowls with crusty bread, with yoghurt (or sour cream) and red pepper flakes on the side for guests to add as they wish.

Nov 092016
 

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Today is the celebration in the Anglican community of Margery Kempe (c. 1373–after 1438), an English Christian mystic, known for The Book of Margery Kempe, which she dictated and which is generally  considered to be the first autobiography in the English language. Her Book chronicles her domestic tribulations, her extensive pilgrimages to holy sites in Europe and the Holy Land, as well as her mystical conversations with God. She is honored in the Anglican Communion, but she was never made a Roman Catholic saint even though she was a devout Catholic; her views were not considered orthodox at the time, nor now. My considered opinion is that she is not hailed as a saint within the Catholic church because she was a woman and has been written off as a “crazy lady,” whereas if she had been a man and done what she did, she’d be in the list of saints.

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She was born Margery Burnham or Brunham around 1373 in Bishop’s Lynn (now King’s Lynn) in Norfolk. Her father, John Brunham, was a merchant in Lynn, mayor of the town and Member of Parliament. His mercantile fortunes may have been negatively affected by downturns in the economy of the 1390s (especially in the wool trade), although he was clearly a successful politician. The first record of her Brunham family is a citation of her grandfather, Ralph de Brunham in 1320 in the Red Register of Lynn. By 1340 he had joined the Parliament of Lynn. Margery’s kinsman, possibly brother, Robert Brunham, became a Member of Parliament for Lynn in 1402 and 1417. That is, unsurprisingly, she was well connected and had considerable means at her disposal.

Margery was almost certainly illiterate, although scholars do seem to want to hash out this point now and again. No records exist of any formal education for Margery and, as an adult, a priest read to her “works of religious devotion” in English, which suggests that she was unable to read them herself.  She seems to have learned various texts by heart which would have been common for an illiterate, but intelligent, person. Margery appears to have been taught the Pater Noster (the Lord’s Prayer), Ave Maria, the Ten Commandments, and other “virtues, vices, and articles of faith.” At around 20, Margery married John Kempe, who became a town official in 1394. Margery and John had at least fourteen children, some of whom likely died during infancy. A letter survives from Gdańsk which identifies the name of her eldest son as John and gives a reason for his visit to Lynn in 1431.

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Margery was an orthodox Catholic and, like other medieval mystics, she believed that she was summoned to a “greater intimacy with Christ,” in her case as a result of multiple visions and experiences she had as an adult. After the birth of her first child, Margery went through a period of physical crisis for nearly eight months. During her illness, Margery reports that she envisioned numerous devils and demons attacking her and commanding her to “forsake her faith, her family, and her friends” and that they even encouraged her to commit suicide. Then, she reports that she had a vision of Christ in the form of a man who asked her “Daughter, why have you forsaken me, and I never forsook you?” Margery affirms that she had visitations and conversations with Jesus, Mary, God, and other religious figures and that she had visions of being an active participant during the birth and crucifixion of Christ. These visions physically affected her bodily senses, causing her to hear sounds and smell unknown, strange odors. She also reports hearing a heavenly melody that made her weep and want to live a chaste life. Margery was also known throughout her community for her constant weeping as she begged Christ for mercy and forgiveness. Margery did not join a religious order, but did carry out her life of devotion and crying quite publicly. Her visions provoked public displays of loud wailing, sobbing, and writhing which frightened and annoyed both clergy and laypeople. At one point in her life, she was imprisoned by the clergy and town officials and threatened with the possibility of rape. However, Margery does not record being sexually assaulted. Finally, during the 1420s Margery dictated her Book, known today as The Book of Margery Kempe which illustrates her visions, mystical and religious experiences, as well as her sexual temptations, her travels, and her trial for heresy.

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Nearly everything that is known of Margery’s life comes from her Book. In the early 1430s Margery decided to record her spiritual autobiography. In the preface she describes how she employed as a scribe an Englishman who had lived in Germany, but he died before the work was completed and what he had written was unintelligible to others. A 1431 letter discovered in Gdańsk suggests the likelihood that this first scribe was John Kempe, her eldest son. She then persuaded a local priest, who may have been her confessor Robert Springold, to begin rewriting on 23 July 1436, and on 28 April 1438 he started work on an additional section covering the years 1431–4. The complete text in Middle English can be found here: http://d.lib.rochester.edu/teams/publication/staley-the-book-of-margery-kempe There are “translations” available in modern English, but you should be able to read the original.

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The narrative of Margery’s Book begins just after her marriage, and relates the experience of her difficult first pregnancy. After describing the demonic torment and the apparition of Christ that followed, Margery undertook two domestic businesses: a brewery and a grain mill (both common home-based businesses for medieval women). Both failed after a short period of time. Although she tried to be more devout, she was tempted by sexual pleasures and social jealousy for some years. Eventually turning away from her vocational choices, she dedicated herself completely to the spiritual calling that she felt her earlier vision required. Striving to live a life of commitment to God, in the summer of 1413 Margery negotiated a chaste marriage with her husband. Although Chapter 15 of the Book describes her decision to lead a celibate life, Chapter 21 mentions that she is pregnant once again. She later relates that she brought a child with her when she returned to England. It is unclear whether the child was conceived before the Kempes began their celibacy, or in a momentary lapse after it.

Some time around 1413, Margery visited the female mystic and anchoress Julian of Norwich at her cell in Norwich – http://www.bookofdaystales.com/julian-norwich/  According to her own account, Margery visited Julian and stayed for several days. She was especially eager to obtain Julian’s approval for her visions of and conversations with God. The text reports that Julian approved of Margery’s revelations and gave Margery reassurance that her religiosity was genuine. However, Julian did instruct and caution Margery to “measure these experiences according to the worship they accrue to God and the profit to her fellow Christians.” Julian also confirmed that Margery’s tears were physical evidence of the Holy Spirit in her soul.

The manuscript of the Book was copied, probably slightly before 1450, by someone who signed himself Salthows on the bottom portion of the final page, and contains annotations by four hands. However, Margery’s Book was essentially lost for centuries, being known only from excerpts published by Wynkyn de Worde in around 1501, and by Henry Pepwell in 1521. In 1934 a manuscript (now British Library MS Additional 61823, the only surviving manuscript of Margery’s Book) was found by Hope Emily Allen in the private library of the Butler-Bowdon family. It has since been reprinted and translated in numerous editions.

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Margery and her Book are significant because they express the tension in late medieval England between institutional orthodoxy and increasingly public modes of religious dissent, especially those of the Lollards. Throughout her spiritual life, Margery was challenged by both church and civil authorities on her adherence to the teachings of the institutional Church. The Bishop of Lincoln and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Arundel, were involved in trials of her allegedly teaching and preaching on scripture and faith in public, and wearing white clothes (interpreted as hypocrisy on the part of a married woman). Margery defended her orthodoxy in each case. In his efforts to suppress heresy, Arundel had enacted laws that forbade women from preaching.

I am particularly interested in Margery’s travels and pilgrimages which would have been unusual for a Medieval woman, and which show her perseverance in the face of difficulties. She was initially motivated to make pilgrimages by hearing or reading the English translation of Bridget of Sweden’s Revelations. This work promotes the purchase of indulgences at holy sites (much railed against by Chaucer and, later, Luther). Margery went on many pilgrimages and purchased indulgences for friends, enemies, souls trapped in Purgatory, and herself.

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In 1413, soon after her father’s death, Margery left her husband to take a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. During the winter, she spent thirteen weeks in Venice but she talks little about her observations of Venice in her book. From Venice, Margery travelled to Jerusalem via Ramlah. It is thought that she passed through Jaffa, which was the usual port for people who were heading inland. One detail that she recalls was her riding on a donkey when she saw Jerusalem for the first time, probably from Nabi Samwil, and that she nearly fell off of the donkey because she was in such shock from the vision in front of her. During her pilgrimage Margery visited places that she deemed holy. She was in Jerusalem for three weeks and then went to Bethlehem, Mount Zion, the supposed tomb of Jesus, and the supposed cross itself. Finally, she went to the River Jordan and Mount Quarentyne  (supposedly where Jesus had fasted for forty days), and Bethany where Martha, Mary and Lazarus had lived, and where Jesus is reported to have stayed on visits to Jerusalem from Galilee:

http://www.bookofdaystales.com/lazarus-bethany/

http://www.bookofdaystales.com/martha-of-bethany/

After she visited the Holy Land, Margery returned to Italy and stayed in Assisi before going to Rome. Like many other medieval English pilgrims, Margery stayed at the Hospital of Saint Thomas of Canterbury in Rome. During her stay, she visited many churches including San Giovanni in Laterano, Santa Maria Maggiore, Santi Apostoli, San Marcello and St Birgitta’s Chapel. She did not leave Rome until Easter 1415.

When Margery returned to Norwich, she passed through Middelburg (in today’s Netherlands). In 1417, she set off again on pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, travelling via Bristol, where she stayed at Henbury with Thomas Peverel, bishop of Worcester. On her return from Spain she visited the shrine of the holy blood at Hailes Abbey, in Gloucestershire, and then went on to Leicester. Margery recounts several public interrogations during her travels. One followed her arrest by the Mayor of Leicester who accused her, in Latin, of being a “cheap whore, a lying Lollard,” and threatened her with prison. After Margery was able to insist on the right of accusations to be made in English and to defend herself she was briefly cleared, but then brought to trial again by the Abbot, Dean, and Mayor, and imprisoned for three weeks. She returned to Lynn some time in 1418.

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She later visited important sites and religious figures in England, including Philip Repyngdon (the Bishop of Lincoln), Henry Chichele, and Thomas Arundel (both Archbishops of Canterbury). During the 1420s Margery lived apart from her husband. When he fell ill, however, she returned to Lynn to be his nurse. Their son, who lived in Germany, also returned to Lynn with his wife. However, both her son and husband died in 1431. The last section of her book deals with a journey, beginning in April 1433, aiming to travel to Danzig with her daughter-in-law. From Danzig, Margery visited the Holy Blood of Wilsnack relic. She then traveled to Aachen, and returned to Lynn via Calais, Canterbury and London (where she visited Syon Abbey). There is no record of her death.

Margery spent a good part of her life avoiding meat, so a Medieval vegetable dish is warranted to celebrate her life today. This recipe for spiced fennel comes from the Forme of Cury, a 14th century collection of recipes I have called on before. Here’s the original text:

FENKEL IN SOPPES.

Take blades of Fenkel. shrede hem not to smale, do hem to seeð in water and oile and oynouns mynced ðerwith. do ðerto safroun and salt and powdour douce, serue it forth, take brede ytosted and lay the sewe onoward.

Not complicated, although there’s some question as to spices. The recipe calls for “powdour douce” (sweet powder) which is about as useful as saying “mixed herbs” as you sometimes see in modern recipes. My recipe here is probably a decent approximation, but cooks would have made their own choices, and you can too. Ginger is known to have been the principal ingredient. Most likely the ingredients would have been grated or ground in a mortar.

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Sweet Powder

Ingredients

3 tbsp ginger
2 tbsp sugar
1 ½ tbsp cinnamon
1 tsp powdered cloves
1 tsp powdered nutmeg

Instructions

Mix thoroughly and store in an airtight container.

The braised fennel recipe is not difficult to recreate. You can add some white wine to the braising liquid, or use stock if you like instead of water.

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Fenkel in Soppes

Ingredients

1½ lb trimmed fresh fennel root, sliced
8 oz onions, minced
1 tbsp sweet powder (above)
1 tspn powdered saffron
salt
2 tspn olive oil
6 slices of wholemeal bread

Instructions

Put the fennel, onions, spices, oil and salt to taste in a lidded pot and barely cover with water. Bring to a simmer and cook, covered for about 20-30 minutes or until the fennel is cooked but not mushy. Stir occasionally during cooking process.

Toast the bread.

Place a slice of bread in a soup bowl and pour over it the fennel and cooking juice.

Oct 112016
 

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The Jewish high holy day of Yom Kippur begins at sundown today. Until that time it is the eve of Yom Kippur, known as Kol Nidre. Yom Kippur  (יוֹם כִּיפּוּר or יום הכיפורים), which can be translated as the Day of Atonement (or Atonements), is the holiest day of the year in Judaism. Observant Jews of all sects traditionally observe this holy day with an approximate 25-hour period of fasting and intensive prayer, sometimes spending most of the day in temple services. Even non-observant Jews usually treat the day with respect, avoiding public or ostensible secular work. Degrees of observation vary widely. In Hebrew Yom Kippur is pronounced with long vowels – Yowm Kippoor – not rhyming with Tom Kipper (pet peeve of mine).

Yom Kippur is the tenth day of the seventh month (Tishrei) in the Hebrew calendar. Rosh Hashanah is the first day of that month http://www.bookofdaystales.com/rosh-hashanah/ . Yom Kippur completes the annual period known in Judaism as the High Holy Days or Yamim Nora’im (“Days of Awe”) that commences with Rosh Hashanah. According to Jewish tradition, God inscribes each person’s fate for the coming year into a book, the Book of Life, on Rosh Hashanah, and waits until Yom Kippur to “seal” the verdict. During the Days of Awe, Jews are commended to amend their behavior and seek forgiveness for wrongs done against God and against other human beings. The evening and day of Yom Kippur are set aside for public and private petitions and confessions of guilt.

The Yom Kippur prayer service includes several unique aspects. One is the actual number of prayer services. Unlike a regular day, which has three prayer services (Ma’ariv, the evening prayer; Shacharit, the morning prayer; and Mincha, the afternoon prayer), or a Shabbat or Yom Tov, which have four prayer services (Ma’ariv; Shacharit; Mussaf, the additional prayer; and Mincha), Yom Kippur has five prayer services (Ma’ariv; Shacharit; Musaf; Mincha; and Ne’ilah, the closing prayer). The prayer services also include private and public confessions of sins and a unique prayer dedicated to the special Yom Kippur avodah (service) of the Kohen Gadol (high priest) in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.

As one of the most culturally significant Jewish holidays, Yom Kippur is observed by many secular Jews who may not observe other holidays. Many secular Jews attend temple on Yom Kippur, much as (primarily) secular Christians attend Easter Sunday services. In both cases attendance soars because observance is as much about cultural identity as religious faith.

Erev Yom Kippur (“eve of the day of atonement”), the day preceding Yom Kippur, corresponding to the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Tishrei, is commemorated with additional morning prayers, asking others for forgiveness, giving charity, performing the kapparot ritual, an extended afternoon prayer service, and two festive meals.

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Leviticus 23:26-28 decrees that Yom Kippur is a strict day of rest:

26 The LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 27 “On exactly the tenth day of this seventh month is the day of atonement; it shall be a holy convocation for you, and you shall humble your souls and present an offering by fire to the LORD. 28 “You shall not do any work on this same day, for it is a day of atonement, to make atonement on your behalf before the LORD your God”

Five additional prohibitions are traditionally observed, as detailed in the Jewish oral tradition (Mishnah tractate Yoma 8:1). The number five is a set number of special holiness according to tradition.

    No eating and drinking

    No wearing of leather shoes

    No bathing or washing

    No anointing oneself with perfumes or lotions

    No marital relations

A parallel has been drawn between these activities and the human condition according to the Biblical account of the expulsion from the garden of Eden. Refraining from these symbolically represents a return to a pristine state, which is the theme of the day. By refraining from these activities, the body is uncomfortable but can still survive. The soul is considered to be the life force in a body. Therefore, by making one’s body uncomfortable, one’s soul is uncomfortable. By feeling pain one can feel how others feel when they are in pain.

Total abstention from food and drink as well as keeping the other traditions begins at sundown, and ends after nightfall the following day. One should add a few minutes to the beginning and end of the day, called tosefet Yom Kippur, lit. “addition to Yom Kippur.” This is sometimes known in English as “putting a hedge around the law” – that is, doing all that is required by the law, and then just a little extra to make sure.

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Virtually all Jewish holidays involve meals, but since Yom Kippur involves fasting, Jewish law requires one to eat a large and festive meal on the afternoon before Yom Kippur, after the Mincha (afternoon) prayer. Before sunset on Kol Nidre worshipers gather in the temple and the Ark is opened and two people take from it two Sifrei Torah (Torah scrolls). Then they take their places, one on each side of the Hazzan (cantor), and the three recite (in Hebrew):

In the tribunal of Heaven and the tribunal of earth, we hold it lawful to pray with transgressors.

The cantor then chants the Kol Nidre prayer. This prayer is recited in Aramaic. Its name “Kol Nidre” is taken from the opening words, and translates “All vows”:

All personal vows we are likely to make, all personal oaths and pledges we are likely to take between this Yom Kippur and the next Yom Kippur, we publicly renounce. Let them all be relinquished and abandoned, null and void, neither firm nor established. Let our personal vows, pledges and oaths be considered neither vows nor pledges nor oaths.

The leader and the congregation then say together three times,

May all the people of Israel be forgiven, including all the strangers who live in their midst, for all the people are in fault.

The Torah scrolls are then placed back into the Ark, and the Yom Kippur evening service begins.

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The Kol Nidre meal before Yom Kippur services is very important and can be the subject of much debate. It should be a nourishing meal because the following 24 hours (or so) are meant to be free from food or drink, and it should be a festive meal. But . . . it cannot be a lengthy meal, and preparations cannot be extensive on the day because people are in a hurry to get to temple before sundown (and typically get there on foot). The obvious solution is to prepare a good meal ahead of time, and this gives me the opportunity to talk about the importance of making soups and stews the day before they are to be served.

I’ve frequently talked about the importance of cooking soups and stews ahead of time, and I suspect that most people know that these dishes generally taste better on the second day. The question is – why? The answer is complex, and I’ll begin by admitting that culinary science does not have all parts of the answer – yet. Here’s what we know. Simply continuously cooking soups and stews for lengthy periods of time is not enough to reap the rewards that resting and refrigerating do. That’s good news for the cook (and a nice metaphor for the idea that rest is as important as work for achieving desired outcomes).

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First, there is the issue of “marrying” flavors. I like the metaphor of marriage here. One’s partner can become more attractive to you over time, not because in some “objective” sense they have become more physically attractive, but because you have grown emotionally closer (if you have !!!). Herbs, spices, and other aromas also have an analogous way of blending over time. This process is achieved partly through cooking and partly through resting. The flavors “like” each other more. Second, there are measurable changes in sweetness as complex carbohydrates (such as fructose from vegetables or lactose from dairy) and starches break down into sweeter-tasting simple sugars. This process also causes the mellowing of strong flavors from vegetables such as garlic and onions that tend to stand out on the first day. They are still there on the second day but their new-found sweetness allows them to blend more, as do the fats and collagens from the meats, especially lamb and beef, (pork too, but we’re talking kosher here), which absorb flavors and retain them well for the blending process.

One caveat: soups and stews thickened with egg or starches such as flour or cornflour, will generally not hold their texture overnight. Thickeners should be added on the second day when reheating to ensure proper texture when serving.

All of this means that the best plan is to do the heavy cooking the day before Kol Nidre, and then all you have to do is reheat and finish off the dish the next day before going to Yom Kippur services at sundown. I often work on a three-day plan. Day 1, brown the meats and then simmer them in broth with aromatics. Browning is important because the Maillard reaction generates flavorful sugars. Refrigerate. Day 2, skim the fat that has solidified overnight, reheat and add the vegetables. Adjust seasonings as necessary, simmer until the vegetables are barely cooked (even slightly undercooked), then refrigerate overnight again. Day 3, reheat the dish, thicken as necessary, and serve.

Jul 252016
 

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Today is Día Nacional de Galicia (“National Day of Galicia”), a public holiday in the autonomous region of Spain. It is also called informally Día da Patria Galega (“Day of the Galician Homeland”), or simply Día de Galicia (“Galicia Day”). The celebration can be traced back to 1919, when the group Irmandades da Fala (a Galicianist organization) met in the Galician capital, Santiago de Compostela. It was then decided to celebrate the National Day on 25 July the following year. The date was chosen as it is the feast day of Saint James, — http://www.bookofdaystales.com/st-james-the-greater/ — patron saint of both Galicia and the Galician capital city.

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Galicia Day was celebrated openly until the Franco dictatorship (1939-1977), when any display of non-Spanish nationalism was prohibited. During that time the National Day was still celebrated by Galician emigrant communities abroad. In Galicia, the Galicianists gathered under the pretext of offering a Mass for Galician poetess and literary icon Rosalia de Castro, and Franco was fine with that. Curiously enough, the Franco regime institutionalized the religious celebration of Saint James as the patron saint of Spain even though his veneration is focused on Galicia.

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From 1968 onwards Galicianists attempted to celebrate the day in Santiago de Compostela, even though they were still under Franco’s dictatorship. The Partido Socialista de Galicia (“Galician Socialist Party”) and the Unión do Povo Galego (“Galician People’s Union”) called for public political demonstrations every 25 July. These demonstrations would invariably result in clashes with the Spanish police. Even during the first years of democracy, after 1977, any demonstration organized by the Asemblea Nacional-Popular Galega and the BN-PG (later transformed into the Galician Nationalist Bloc) was still forbidden. It was only during the mid-1980s that the National Day started to be celebrated again as it had been before Franco. However, the events from the late 1960s onwards had transformed the National Day into an event with political ramifications. The day is now an official public holiday celebrated with solemnity by the Galician government, but also with a number of festivities that take place from the night of the 24th until the early hours of the morning of the 26th.

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Galicia is located in the North-West of the Iberian Peninsula. It was first inhabited by humans during the Middle Paleolithic period, and it takes its name from the Gallaeci, the Celtic people living north of the Douro River during the last millennium BCE. Hence Galicia is part of what is known as the “Celtic fringe” — Western European coastal regions (such as Brittany, Cornwall, Wales, and Ireland)  that are the remnants of a larger European Gallic area that was conquered and assimilated by Romans. Galicia was incorporated into the Roman Empire at the end of the Cantabrian Wars in 19 BCE, and was made a Roman province in the 3rd century CE. Thereafter Galicia has been a part of a succession of empires and kingdoms with a few limited periods of autonomy. Eventually Galicia passed the Statute of Autonomy in 1936 but this was frustrated by Franco’s autocratic government. After democracy was restored, the legislature passed the Statute of Autonomy of 1981, which is still in force, providing Galicia with self-government.

Two languages are official and widely used today in Galicia: native Galician, a Romance language closely related to Portuguese, with which it shares Galician-Portuguese medieval literature, and official Spanish, usually known locally as Castellano (Castilian). 56% of the Galician population speak Galician as their first language, while 43% speak more in Castilian.

Galician cuisine is heavily dominated by seafood, even inland. Polbo á feira is an octopus dish that is favored in Galicia, and you are as likely to find it in the mountains as along the coast. I could give you a seafood recipe, therefore, and there are dozens of them. But I am always reminded of Galicia by its eponymous soup: caldo galego. “Caldo” is Galician/Castilian for “broth” and “galego” means “Galician” (spelled “gallego” in Castilian, and pronounced differently). Often it is simply called “caldo” in Galicia. You’re not going to make a good replica at home, because the soup does not contain anything special. It’s only distinctive when you have it in Galicia made from local ingredients – essence of terroir. At heart it’s a soup made of white beans cooked with ham or pork, with the addition of potatoes, greens, and chorizo, and spiced with paprika. With that knowledge (and a photo), if you are an experienced cook you have all you need to know to make the soup. Every Galician cook has variations of course, and I doubt that any of them follows a recipe, any more than I would. Quantities are not important as long as there is a fair balance.

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Here’s your ingredient list, but bear in mind that you can vary everything:

2 cups dried white beans
1 lb ham knuckle, ham bone, ham hock, or pork bones
salt and pepper
2 tsp Spanish paprika
1 lb potatoes, peeled and diced (not too small)
1 bunch turnip greens, rinsed and coarsely chopped
2 spanish chorizos (6.5 oz total), cut into pieces

First step is the usual for dried beans. Soak the beans overnight in cold water. Next day, drain the beans, put them in a heavy stock pot with the ham or pork, cover with water or light stock, and simmer until the beans are tender (1 to 2 hours).

Remove the ham or pork bones, strip off the meat and return it to the soup, discard the bones.

Add the remaining ingredients to the pot and continue simmering until the potatoes are cooked to your liking.

Serve in deep bowls with crusty bread.

Jul 142016
 

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Today is Bastille Day which I covered in this post, http://www.bookofdaystales.com/bastille-day/ Not coincidentally, the date is also the anniversary of the start of the Priestley Riots (also known as the Birmingham Riots of 1791) which took place from 14 July to 17 July 1791 in Birmingham in England. The rioters’ main targets were religious Dissenters, most notably the politically and theologically controversial Joseph Priestley, known now primarily as an Enlightenment-age chemist. Both local and national issues stirred the passions of the rioters, from disagreements over public library book purchases, to controversies over Dissenters’ attempts to gain full civil rights and their support of the French Revolution.

The riots started with an attack on Birmingham’s Royal Hotel – the site of a banquet organized in sympathy with the French Revolution. Then, beginning with Priestley’s church and home, the rioters attacked or burned four Dissenting chapels, twenty-seven houses, and several businesses. The rioters burned not only the homes and chapels of Dissenters, but also the homes of people they associated with Dissenters, such as members of the scientific Lunar Society.

Over the course of the 18th century, Birmingham became notorious for its riots. In 1714 and 1715, the townspeople, as part of a “Church-and-King” mob, attacked Dissenters (Protestants who did not adhere to the Church of England or follow its practices) in the Sacheverell riots during the London trial of Henry Sacheverell, and in 1751 and 1759 Quakers and Methodists were assaulted. During the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots in 1780, large crowds assembled in Birmingham. In 1766, 1782, 1795, and 1800 mobs protested high food prices. One contemporary described Birmingham rioters as the “bunting, beggarly, brass-making, brazen-faced, brazen-hearted, blackguard, bustling, booby Birmingham mob”.

Up until the late 1780s, religious divisions did not appear to affect Birmingham’s elite. Dissenters and Anglicans lived side by side harmoniously: they were on the same town promotional committees; they pursued joint scientific interests in the Lunar Society; and they worked together in local government, united against what they perceived as unruly mobs.  After the riots, however, Joseph Priestley argued in his An Appeal to the Public on the Subject of the Birmingham Riots (1791) that this cooperation had not really been as amicable as generally believed. Priestley revealed that disputes over the local library, Sunday Schools, and church attendance had divided Dissenters from Anglicans. In his “Narrative of the Riots in Birmingham” (1816), stationer and Birmingham historian William Hutton agreed, arguing that five events stoked the fires of religious friction: disagreements over inclusion of Priestley’s books in the local public library; concerns over Dissenters’ attempts to repeal the Test and Corporation Acts; religious controversy (particularly involving Priestley); an “inflammatory hand-bill”; and a dinner celebrating the outbreak of the French Revolution.

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Once Birmingham Dissenters started to agitate for the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts, which restricted Dissenters’ civil rights (preventing them, for example, from attending the Universities of Oxford or Cambridge, or from holding public office), the semblance of unity among the town’s elite disappeared. Unitarians such as Priestley were at the forefront of the repeal campaign, and orthodox Anglicans grew nervous and angry. After 1787, the emergence of Dissenting groups formed for the sole purpose of overturning these laws began to divide the community. The repeal efforts failed in 1787, 1789, and 1790. Priestley’s support of the repeal and his controversial religious views, which were widely published, inflamed the general public. In February 1790, a group of activists came together not only to oppose the interests of the Dissenters but also to counteract what they saw as the undesirable importation of French Revolutionary ideals. Dissenters by and large supported the French Revolution and its efforts to question the role that monarchy should play in government. One month before the riots, Priestley attempted to found a reform society, the Warwickshire Constitutional Society, which would have supported universal suffrage and short Parliaments. Although this effort failed, the efforts to establish such a society increased tensions in Birmingham.

In addition to these religious and political differences, both the lower-class rioters and their upper-class Anglican leaders had economic complaints against the middle-class Dissenters. They envied the ever-increasing prosperity of these industrialists as well as the power that came with that economic success. Priestley himself had written a pamphlet, An Account of a Society for Encouraging the Industrious Poor (1787), on how best to extract the most work for the smallest amount of money from the poor. Its emphasis on debt collection did not endear him to the poverty-stricken.

The British public debate over the French Revolution, or the Revolution Controversy, lasted from 1789 through 1795. Initially many on both sides of the Channel thought the French would follow the pattern of the English Glorious Revolution of a century before, and the Revolution was viewed positively by a large portion of the British public. Most Britons celebrated the storming of the Bastille in 1789, believing that France’s absolute monarchy should be replaced by a more democratic form of government. In these early days, supporters of the Revolution also believed that Britain’s own system would be reformed as well: voting rights would be broadened and redistribution of Parliamentary constituency boundaries would eliminate electoral abuses.

After the publication of Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), in which he surprisingly broke ranks with his liberal Whig colleagues to support the French aristocracy, a pamphlet war discussing the Revolution began in earnest. Because Burke had supported the North American colonists in their rebellion against England, his views sent a shockwave through the country. While Burke supported aristocracy, monarchy, and the Established Church, liberals such as Charles James Fox supported the Revolution, and a program of individual liberties, civic virtue and religious toleration, while radicals such as Priestley, William Godwin, Thomas Paine, and Mary Wollstonecraft, argued for a further program of republicanism, agrarian socialism, and abolition of the “landed interest.”

On 11 July 1791, a Birmingham newspaper announced that on 14 July, the second anniversary of the storming of the Bastille, there would be a dinner at the local Royal Hotel to commemorate the outbreak of the French Revolution; the invitation encouraged “any Friend to Freedom” to attend:

A number of gentlemen intend dining together on the 14th instant, to commemorate the auspicious day which witnessed the emancipation of twenty-six millions of people from the yoke of despotism, and restored the blessings of equal government to a truly great and enlightened nation; with whom it is our interest, as a commercial people, and our duty, as friends to the general rights of mankind, to promote a free intercourse, as subservient to a permanent friendship.

Any Friend to Freedom, disposed to join the intended temperate festivity, is desired to leave his name at the bar of the Hotel, where tickets may be had at Five Shillings each, including a bottle of wine; but no person will be admitted without one.

Dinner will be on table at three o’clock precisely.

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Alongside this notice was a threat: “an authentic list” of the participants would be published after the dinner. On the same day, “an ultra-revolutionary” handbill, written by James Hobson (although his authorship was not known at the time), entered circulation. Town officials offered 100 guineas for information regarding the publication of the handbill and its author, to no avail. The Dissenters found themselves forced to plead ignorance and decry the “radical” ideas promoted by the handbill. It was becoming clear by 12 July that there would be trouble at the dinner. On the morning of 14 July graffiti such as “destruction to the Presbyterians” and “Church and King for ever” were scrawled across the town. At this point, Priestley’s friends, fearing for his safety, dissuaded him from attending the dinner.

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About 90 resolute sympathizers of the French Revolution came to celebrate on the 14th. The banquet was led by James Keir, an Anglican industrialist who was a member of the Lunar Society of Birmingham. When the guests arrived at the hotel at 2 or 3 p.m., they were greeted by 60 or 70 protesters who temporarily dispersed while yelling, rather bizarrely and confusingly, “no popery.” By the time the celebrants ended their dinner, around 7 or 8 p.m., a crowd of hundreds had gathered. The rioters, who “were recruited predominantly from the industrial artisans and labourers of Birmingham”, threw stones at the departing guests and sacked the hotel. The crowd then moved on to the Quaker meeting-house, until someone yelled that the Quakers “never trouble themselves with anything, neither on one side nor the other” and convinced them instead to attack the New Meeting chapel, where Priestley presided as minister. The New Meeting chapel was burned to the ground, quickly followed by the Old Meeting, another Dissenting chapel.

The rioters proceeded to Priestley’s home, Fairhill at Sparkbrook. Priestley barely had time to evacuate and he and his wife fled from Dissenting friend to friend during the riots. Writing shortly after the event, Priestley described the first part of the attack, which he witnessed from a distance:

It being remarkably calm, and clear moon-light, we could see to a considerable distance, and being upon a rising ground, we distinctly heard all that passed at the house, every shout of the mob, and almost every stroke of the instruments they had provided for breaking the doors and the furniture. For they could not get any fire, though one of them was heard to offer two guineas for a lighted candle; my son, whom we left behind us, having taken the precaution to put out all the fires in the house, and others of my friends got all the neighbours to do the same. I afterwards heard that much pains was taken, but without effect, to get fire from my large electrical machine, which stood in the library.

His son, William, stayed behind with others to protect the family home, but they were overcome and the property was eventually looted and razed to the ground. Priestley’s valuable library, scientific laboratory, and manuscripts were largely lost in the flames.

The Earl of Aylesford attempted to stem the mounting violence on the night of the 14th, but despite having the help of other magistrates, he was unable to control the crowd. On the 15th, the mob liberated prisoners from the local gaol. Thomas Woodbridge, the Keeper of the Prison, deputized several hundred people to help him quell the mob, but many of these joined in with the rioters themselves. The crowd destroyed John Ryland’s home, Baskerville House, and drank the supplies of liquor which they found in the cellar. When the newly appointed constables arrived on the scene, the mob attacked and disarmed them. One man was killed. The local magistrates and law enforcement, such as it was, did nothing further to restrain the mob and did not read the Riot Act until the military arrived on 17 July. Other rioters burned down banker John Taylor’s home at Bordesley Park.

Contemporary accounts record that the mob’s last sustained assault was around 8 p.m. on the 17th. About 30 “hard core” rioters attacked the home of William Withering, an Anglican who attended the Lunar Society with Priestley and Keir. But Withering, aided by a group of hired men, managed to fend them off. When the military finally arrived to restore order on the 17th and 18th, most of the rioters had disbanded, although there were rumours that mobs were destroying property in Alcester and Bromsgrove.

All in all, four Dissenting churches had been severely damaged or burned down and twenty-seven homes had been attacked, many looted and burned. Having begun by attacking those who attended the Bastille celebration on the 14th, the “Church-and-King” mob had finished up by extending their targets to include Dissenters of all kinds as well as members of the Lunar Society.

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Priestley and other Dissenters blamed the government for the riots, believing that William Pitt and his supporters had instigated them. However, it seems from the evidence that the riots were actually organized by local Birmingham officials. Some of the rioters acted in a co-ordinated fashion and seemed to be led by local officials during the attacks, prompting accusations of premeditation. Some Dissenters discovered that their homes were to be attacked several days before the rioters arrived, leading them to believe that there was a prepared list of victims. The “disciplined nucleus of rioters”, which numbered only thirty or so, directed the mob and stayed sober throughout the three to four days of rioting. Unlike the hundreds of others who joined in, they could not be bribed with alcohol to stop their destructions.

Witnesses agreed “that the magistrates promised the rioters protection so long as they restricted their attacks to the meeting-houses and left persons and property alone”. The magistrates also refused to arrest any of the rioters and released those that had been arrested. Instructed by the national government to prosecute the riot’s instigators, these local officials dragged their heels. When finally forced to try the ringleaders, they intimidated witnesses and made a mockery of the trial proceedings. Only seventeen of the fifty rioters who had been charged were ever brought to trial; four were convicted, of whom one was pardoned, two were hanged, and the fourth was transported to Botany Bay. But Priestley and others believed that these men were found guilty not because they were rioters but because “they were infamous characters in other respects”.

Although he had been forced to send troops to Birmingham to quell the disturbances, King George III commented, “I cannot but feel better pleased that Priestley is the sufferer for the doctrines he and his party have instilled, and that the people see them in their true light.” The national government forced the local residents to pay restitution to those whose property had been damaged: the total eventually amounted to £23,000. However, the process took many years, and most residents received much less than the value of their property.

Initially Priestley wanted to return and deliver a sermon on the Bible verse “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” but he was dissuaded by friends convinced that it was too dangerous. Instead, he wrote in his Appeal:

I was born an Englishman as well [as] any of you. Though labouring under civil disabilities, as a Dissenter, I have long contributed my share to the support of government, and supposed I had the protection of its constitution and laws for my inheritance. But I have found myself greatly deceived; and so may any of you, if, like me, you should, with or without cause, be so unfortunate as to incur popular odium. For then, as you have seen in my case, without any form of trial whatever, without any intimation of your crime, or of your danger, your houses and all your property may be destroyed, and you may not have the good fortune to escape with life, as I have done….What are the old French Lettres de Cachet, or the horrors of the late demolished Bastile, compared to this?

Times don’t change much.

In the late 18th century poor harvests in England resulted in high food prices and the resultant opening of soup kitchens to provide cheap, nourishing food for the poor. In 1793 the Birmingham inventor and industrialist, Matthew Boulton, noted a recipe in one of his notebooks for a soup intended to be sold for a penny a quart. This was a hearty broth made up of stewed beef and vegetables served with bread. It is now known as Birmingham soup and seems appropriate for today. Modern chefs have recreated the dish and you can easily do the same. Here’s the original notebook recipe which you can click to enlarge.

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It’s basically a hearty beef broth (containing lots of beef) combined with dried peas, oatmeal, and barley, plus some onions, salt and pepper. “Beeves cheeks” can be modernized as “beef cheeks,” that is, cheap stewing beef, such as chuck.  Boulton suggests boiling the meat one day, then adding the other ingredients the next day. This is generally a good plan for soups and stews. The whole is finished off with bread which the recipe suggests is best diced and fried in lard (i.e. croutons).

 

 

May 022016
 

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Today is the birthday (1660) of Alessandro Scarlatti, a Sicilian Baroque composer, especially famous for his operas and chamber cantatas. He is generally considered the founder of the Neapolitan school of opera. He was the father of two other composers, Domenico Scarlatti and Pietro Filippo Scarlatti.

Scarlatti was born in Palermo, then part of the Kingdom of Sicily. He is generally said to have been a pupil of Giacomo Carissimi in Rome, and some theorize that he had some connexion with northern Italy because his early works seem to show the influence of Stradella and Legrenzi. The production in Rome of his opera Gli Equivoci nell sembiante (1679) gained him the support of Queen Christina of Sweden (who at the time was living in Rome), and he became her maestro di cappella (choirmaster). In February 1684 he became maestro di cappella to the viceroy of Naples, perhaps through the influence of his sister, an opera singer, who might have been the mistress of an influential Neapolitan noble. In Naples he produced a long series of operas as well as music for state occasions.

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In 1702 Scarlatti left Naples and did not return until the Spanish domination had been superseded by that of the Austrians. In the interval he enjoyed the patronage of Ferdinando de’ Medici, for whose private theater near Florence he composed operas, and of Cardinal Ottoboni, who made him his maestro di cappella, and procured him a similar post at the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome in 1703.

After visiting Venice and Urbino in 1707, Scarlatti took up his duties in Naples again in 1708, and remained there until 1717. By this time Naples seems to have become tired of his music. The Romans, however, appreciated it better, and it was at the Teatro Capranica in Rome that he produced some of his best-known operas (Telemaco, 1718; Marco Attilio Regolò, 1719; La Griselda, 1721), as well as some well-received church music, including a mass for chorus and orchestra, composed in honor of Saint Cecilia for Cardinal Acquaviva in 1721. His last work on a large scale appears to have been the unfinished serenata for the marriage of the prince of Stigliano in 1723. He died in Naples in 1725.

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Scarlatti’s music forms an important link between the early Baroque Italian vocal styles of the 17th century, with their centers in Florence, Venice and Rome, and the classical school of the 18th century. Scarlatti’s style, however, is more than a transitional element in Western music. He has tended to be forgotten by modern audiences, and many of his pieces exist in manuscript only. But I have always enjoyed his harpsichord compositions in their own right. For example:

Scarlatti composed upwards of 500 chamber-cantatas for solo voice. These represent the most intellectual type of chamber-music of their period, and it is regrettable that they have remained almost entirely in manuscript. His few remaining Masses, are generally not deemed important enough to rival those of Bach or Beethoven  So much for the experts.

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Sicilian cuisine shows influences from the Italian mainland, but is definitely different from what outsiders normally perceive of as Italian food. In particular maccu, (also known as maccu di fave, and sometimes referred to as macco), is a favorite of mine even though it is now hard to find. In its most basic form, maccu is a Sicilian soup that is prepared with dried and crushed fava beans (known in Britain as broad beans) and fennel as primary ingredients. It can be very hard to find the right kind of fava beans outside of Sicily. I can get them in northern Italy, but I have never seen them elsewhere.

Before the European exploration of the Americas, fava beans and lentils were the primary legumes used in cooking in the Mediterranean. The best fava beans for maccu are hulled and split before they are dried.

Maccu is known to have been made in some form by ancient Romans but is now rare to in Sicily, although it occasionally appears on restaurant menus there. There are also several Sicialian dishes that use maccu as an ingredient, such as Bruschetta al maccú and Maccu di San Giuseppe. The maccu is traditionally dried and sliced as a preparatory step. It can then be breaded and deep fried.

Classic maccu is very easy to make if you have the right ingredients. I made it for lunch today.

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Maccu

Cover the right kind of split fava beans (that is, hulled) with broth in a large saucepan. Add a splash of extra virgin olive oil, along with some crushed fennel seeds and fresh fennel fronds, chopped, and simmer gently for about 2 hours. That’s all there is to it. You can mash up a few beans to thicken the broth if you like, and serve in deep bowls with crusty bread.

There are limitless variations, however. Many Sicilians add small pasta to the broth about 20 minutes before serving time. Some add tomatoes or other vegetables, such as zucchini. It’s really cook’s choice.  Just be sure that the flavors or fava beans, fennel, and olive oil predominate. This is not a generic vegetable soup.