May 282020

The eclipse of Thales was a solar eclipse that was, according to Histories of Herodotus, accurately predicted by the Greek philosopher Thales of Miletus. If Herodotus’ account is accurate, this eclipse is the earliest recorded as being known in advance of its occurrence. Many historians believe that the predicted eclipse was the solar eclipse of 28 May 585 BCE. How exactly Thales predicted the eclipse remains uncertain; some scholars assert the eclipse was never predicted at all. Others have argued for different dates, but only the eclipse of 28 May 585 BCE matches the conditions of visibility necessary to explain the historical event. I have mentioned this eclipse before but in that post I was more interested in eclipses in general as ways of dating ancient events.

Herodotus’ Histories 1.73-74 states that a war started in the period between the Medes and the Lydians. There were two reasons for the war: the two sides had clashing interests in Anatolia, but also there was a motive of vengeance: some Scythian hunters employed by the Medes who once returned empty-handed were insulted by king Cyaxares. In revenge the hunters slaughtered one of his sons and served him to the Medes. The hunters then fled to Sardis, the capital of the Lydians. When Cyaxares asked for the Scythians to be returned to him, Alyattes refused to hand them over; in response, the Medes invaded.

Afterwards, on the refusal of Alyattes to give up his suppliants when Cyaxares sent to demand them of him, war broke out between the Lydians and the Medes, and continued for five years, with various success. In the course of it the Medes gained many victories over the Lydians, and the Lydians also gained many victories over the Medes. Among their other battles there was one night engagement. As, however, the balance had not inclined in favor of either nation, another combat took place in the sixth year, in the course of which, just as the battle was growing warm, day was on a sudden changed into night. This event had been foretold by Thales, the Milesian, who forewarned the Ionians of it, fixing for it the very year in which it actually took place. The Medes and Lydians, when they observed the change, ceased fighting, and were alike anxious to have terms of peace agreed on. [Histories 1:74]

As part of the terms of the peace agreement, Alyattes’ daughter Aryenis was married to Cyaxares’ son Astyages, and the Halys River (now known as the Kızılırmak River) was declared to be the border of the two warring nations.

An alternate hypothesis regarding the date of the battle argues that Herodotus was carelessly recounting events that he did not personally witness, and that the solar eclipse story is a misinterpretation of his text. According to this view, what happened could have been a lunar eclipse right before moonrise, at dusk. If the warriors had planned their battle activities expecting a full moon as in the previous few days, it would have been quite a shock to have dusk fall suddenly as an occluded moon rose. If this hypothesis is correct, the battle’s date would be not 585 BCE (date given by Pliny based on the date of solar eclipse), but possibly 3 September 609 BCE or 4 July 587 BCE, dates when such dusk-time lunar eclipses did occur. Generally speaking, I find this argument unconvincing. It is hard to confuse lunar and solar eclipses, and their effects on armies would have been radically different.

While doubt has been cast on the truth of the story, there are other accounts of it besides that of Herodotus. Diogenes Laërtius says that Xenophanes, who lived in the same century as Thales, was impressed with the prediction, and he also gives additional testimonies from the pre-Socratics, Democritus and Heraclitus. At the time of Thales’ purported prediction it was not yet known that eclipses were caused by the Moon coming between the Earth and the Sun, a fact that would not be discovered until over a century later by either Anaxagoras or Empedocles.

If the account is true, it has been suggested that Thales would have had to calculate the timing of any eclipse by recognizing patterns in the periodicities of eclipses. It has been postulated that Thales may have used the Saros cycle in his determination, or that he may have had some knowledge of Babylonian astronomy. However, Babylonians were far from being able to predict the local conditions of solar eclipses at that point, which makes this hypothesis highly unlikely. In fact, there is no known cycle that can be reliably used to predict an eclipse for a given location and, therefore, any accurate prediction would have been pure luck.

The eclipse peaked over the Atlantic Ocean at 37.9°N 46.2°W and the umbral path reached south-western Anatolia in the evening hours, and the Halys River is just within the error margin for delta-T provided.

On the whole, I do not think that emulating the Scythians’ dish of serving up the king’s son on a platter would be a suitable way to celebrate the day, but there are alternatives.  One is mare’s milk cheese.  The Scythians were noted for this cheese by Herodotus:

Now the Scythians blind all their slaves, because of the milk they drink; and this is how they get it: taking tubes of bone very much like flutes, they insert these into the genitalia of the mares and blow into them, some blowing while others milk. According to them, their reason for doing this is that blowing makes the mare’s veins swell and her udder drop. When done milking, they pour the milk into deep wooden buckets, and make their slaves stand around the buckets and shake the milk; they draw off what stands on the surface and value this most; what lies at the bottom is less valued. This is why the Scythians blind all prisoners whom they take: for they do not cultivate the soil, but are nomads.

Herodotus Histories 4:2

The author of the Hippocratic treatise On Generation, On the Nature of the Child and Diseases IV (which dates to the end of the 5th century BCE or the beginning of the 4th) compares the physiological process whereby a bad humor is heated and agitated in the human body to the making of mare’s cheese by the Scythians:

If the man is not purged, as the humor is stirred, there is produced an amount that is excessive. This is similar to what the Scythians make with mare’s milk. For they pour the milk into wooden bowls and shake it. As it is stirred, it foams up and separates. The fatty part, which they call butter, as it is light rises to the surface; the heavy and thick portion sinks to the bottom; they separate it and dry it. When it has become firm and dry, they call it ‘hippakē’. The whey of the milk is in the middle. Similarly in the case of man: when all the humour in his body is stirred, all the humours are separated by the principles I have mentioned: the bile rises to the top, as it is lightest; then comes the blood; third the phlegm; and the water, as it is the heaviest of the humours. (Diseases 4.51, 7.584 Littré)

Mare’s milk is fairly commonly available in central Asia (even in supermarkets) and I was offered it several times when I was in Kyrgyzstan 2 years ago.  Kyrgyz nomads are also known for making cheese from mare’s milk although the process is a bit tricky because the milk will not coagulate using cow rennet.  You can use camel rennet and maybe yak rennet also.  But there are other processes that can be employed as well, as in the above quote.  I doubt you will find mare’s milk cheese outside of central Asia, but give it a try.  It is a little reminiscent of goat’s milk cheese.  If not, maybe you can find mare’s milk.  It is normally called kumis (Russian term).

Sep 282017

On this date in 1928 Sir Alexander Fleming, according to his own account much later, noticed a bacteria-killing mold growing on a petri dish in his laboratory thus discovering what he later called penicillin. There are many BIG MOMENTS like this documented in the history of ideas that are not really quite the turning points they seem to be in hindsight.  The actual development of effective antibiotics was years away from Fleming’s chance discovery, and there’s some doubt as to how much it was a pure accident.  Even so, we can celebrate the day anyway.

For centuries, but especially in the late 19th century, there had been numerous accounts by scientists and physicians on the antibacterial properties of different types of molds, including the mold penicillium, but they were unable to discern what process or ingredient was causing the effect. The traditional version of Fleming’s discovery paints it as a serendipitous accident, but many skeptics have questioned the extent of the serendipity. While it is likely true that by chance Fleming noticed a petri dish containing Staphylococcus, which had been mistakenly left open, had been contaminated by blue-green mold from an open window in his laboratory in the basement of St Mary’s Hospital in London (now part of Imperial College), and that there was a halo of inhibited bacterial growth around the mold, it was not a groundbreaking conclusion that the mold released a substance that repressed the growth and caused lysing (rupturing of the cell walls) of the bacteria. Surely he would have known of previous accounts of the antibacterial properties of molds.

Once Fleming made his “discovery” he grew a pure culture of the intrusive growth and found that it was a Penicillium mold, now known as Penicillium chrysogenum. Fleming coined the term “penicillin” to describe the filtrate of a broth culture of the Penicillium mould. Fleming asked C. J. La Touche to help identify the mold, which he incorrectly identified as Penicillium rubrum (later corrected by Charles Thom). He expressed initial optimism that penicillin would be a useful disinfectant, because of its high potency and minimal toxicity in comparison to antiseptics of the day, and noted its laboratory value in the isolation of Bacillus influenzae (now called Haemophilus influenzae).

Fleming was a famously poor communicator and orator, which meant his findings were not initially given much attention. He was unable to convince a chemist to help him extract and stabilize the antibacterial compound found in the broth filtrate. Despite this, he remained interested in the potential use of penicillin and presented a paper entitled “A Medium for the Isolation of Pfeiffer’s Bacillus” to the Medical Research Club of London, which was met with little interest and even less enthusiasm by his peers. Had Fleming been more successful at making other scientists interested in his work, penicillin for medicinal use would probably have been developed years earlier.

Despite the lack of interest of his fellow scientists, he did conduct several more experiments on the antibiotic substance he discovered. The most important result proved it was nontoxic in humans by first performing toxicity tests in animals and then on humans. His following experiments on penicillin’s response to heat and pH allowed Fleming to increase the stability of the compound. The one test that modern scientists would find missing from his work was the test of penicillin on an infected animal, the results of which would likely have sparked great interest in penicillin and sped its development by almost a decade.

Molecular model of Penicillin by Dorothy Hodgkin, c.1945. Front three quarter. Graduated grey background.

In 1930, Cecil George Paine, a pathologist at the Royal Infirmary in Sheffield, attempted to use penicillin to treat sycosis barbae, eruptions in beard follicles, but was unsuccessful. Moving on to ophthalmia neonatorum, a gonococcal infection in infants, he achieved the first recorded cure with penicillin, on November 25, 1930. He then cured four additional patients (one adult and three infants) of eye infections, but failed to cure a fifth.

In 1939, Australian scientist Howard Florey (later Baron Florey) and a team of researchers (Ernst Boris Chain, Edward Abraham, Arthur Duncan Gardner, Norman Heatley, M. Jennings, J. Orr-Ewing and G. Sanders) at the Sir William Dunn School of Pathology, University of Oxford made progress in showing the in vivo bactericidal action of penicillin. In 1940, they showed that penicillin effectively cured bacterial infection in mice. In 1941, they treated a policeman, Albert Alexander, with a severe face infection. His condition improved, but then supplies of penicillin ran out and he died. Subsequently, several other patients were treated successfully. In December 1942, survivors of the Cocoanut Grove fire in Boston were the first burn patients to be successfully treated with penicillin.

By late 1940, the Oxford team under Howard Florey had devised a method of mass-producing the drug, but yields remained low. In 1941, Florey and Heatley travelled to the US in order to interest pharmaceutical companies in producing the drug and inform them about their process. Florey and Chain shared the 1945 Nobel Prize in Medicine with Fleming for their work.

Several species of the genus Penicillium play a central role in the production of cheese and of various meat products. Penicillium molds are used for Blue cheeses in general. Penicillium camemberti and Penicillium roqueforti are the molds on Camembert, Brie, Roquefort, and a host of other cheeses. Penicillium nalgiovense is used to improve the taste of sausages and hams, and to prevent colonization by other molds and bacteria. Penicillium camemberti is one of the most common molds used for cheese production. It is used to make Camembert, Brie, Langres, Coulommiers and Cambozola. Colonies of P. camemberti form a hard, white crust on these cheeses, and is also responsible for giving them their distinctive taste.

With that information I’ll leave you to it. I’m thinking of camembert and salami on a crusty roll – probably toasted or grilled. I’m sure you’ll think of something.


Jan 202017


Today is National Cheese Lover’s Day in the United States.  There are numerous food “holidays” of this sort in the US and I don’t pay much attention to them.  But cheese is worth celebrating. I’ve already given numerous recipes and ideas for cheese in past posts, so today I’ll just ramble on a bit about the outer edges of cheese lore, plus some of my own likes and dislikes.

As a boy I was more or less indifferent to cheese. In both England and Australia cheeses were fairly undistinguished in the 1950s and ‘60s. Generic “cheddar” was the main choice. Originally, cheddar was a distinctive cheese originating from the village of Cheddar in Somerset. Cheddar Gorge on the edge of the village contains a number of caves, which provided the ideal humidity and steady temperature for maturing the cheese. Cheddar has been produced since at least the 12th century. A pipe roll of King Henry II from 1170 records the purchase of 10,240 lb (4,640 kg) at a farthing per pound (totaling £10.13s.4d). Charles I (1600–1649) also bought cheese from the village.


Central to the modernization and standardization of Cheddar cheese was the 19th-century Somerset dairyman Joseph Harding who introduced technical innovations, promoted dairy hygiene, and voluntarily disseminated his modernized cheese-making techniques. Harding introduced new equipment to the process of cheese-making, including his “revolving breaker” for curd cutting, saving a great deal of manual effort. Harding and his wife were responsible for the widespread distribution of cheddar including into Scotland and North America and his sons, Henry and William Harding, introduced Cheddar cheese production to Australia and New Zealand, respectively.

During the Second World War, and for nearly a decade after, most milk in Britain was used for the making of one single kind of cheese nicknamed “government Cheddar” as part of war economies and rationing. This resulted in almost wiping out all other cheese production in the country. Before the First World War there were more than 3,500 cheese producers in Britain; fewer than 100 remained after the Second World War. This was the situation when I was born and remained for several decades. I thought Cheddar was just an undistinguished semi-hard yellow cheese (akin to what is called “American cheese” in the US). Not at all. Classic Cheddar made in the traditional way tends to have a sharp, pungent flavor, often slightly earthy. Its texture is firm but slightly crumbly.  Delicious – but hard to find.  It is now, once again, made in the region of Cheddar in the traditional manner. The name “cheddar” is not protected by the European Union because the process has been so widespread for so long, but the name “West Country Farmhouse Cheddar” has an EU protected designation of origin, and may only be produced in Somerset, Devon, Dorset and Cornwall, using milk sourced from those counties. It’s worth finding it.

In my youth, at best, you might find 4 or 5 English cheeses – Cheddar and Stilton were most common, but you might come across Double Gloucester, Red Leicester, Wensleydale or White Lancashire if you were lucky, so that by my 20s (1970s) things were looking up.  My father told me of legendary cheeses he knew of before the war, such as Dorset Blue Vinny, but these had long disappeared. Nil desperandum. By the 1980s savvy entrepreneurs and small farmers were starting to revive old cheeses and to create new ones.  Now there are over 700 registered cheese names in England (and Blue Vinny is in there !!). When I visit Oxford I always head for the cheese shop in the covered market to see what is on sale.  They always have something tempting.


Nowadays in the U.S., Wisconsin is the heartland of cheese manufacture, and after decades of emulating Britain in producing undistinguished cheeses it too is in the business of coming up with new ideas, although it mostly replicates European cheeses.  Fried curds is a local specialty though, which I like, and sampled when I first visited when my son auditioned for a music conservatory in Appleton. Wisconsin also has an annual cheese carving contest, which I won’t say is the best use of cheese, but does produce some interesting works.

cld5 cld3 cld2 cld1

Soon after my brush with Wisconsin cheese I moved to Argentina where cheese production has a long, but mostly unknown, history of cheese manufacture.  I’d known about Argentine green Sardo for many years before I moved to Buenos Aires. It’s a hard grating cheese that originated in Italy but evolved in the dairy lands of Argentina, as did the most popular cheese, Cremosa.  Generally Argentine cheese, like U.S. cheese, replicates the cheeses of Europe, some of quite high quality.  Argentine Roquefort was a favorite of mine for several years.

Moving to China meant moving to a cheese wasteland.  The Chinese are mostly lactose intolerant, so dairy products in general are not widespread. Yoghurt is common enough, but cheese is not very popular.  Generally my Han Chinese students were disgusted by the very idea of cheese — “Why would you want to eat rotten milk?” This from people who will happily gobble down stinky fermented foodstuffs that have been buried for years. Fortunately I lived in Yunnan where the Bai people have been cheese makers for centuries. I can’t say that their Rubing or Rashan cheeses are all that interesting but they kept me going for a couple of years.


Then I moved to northern Italy and drowned in cheese for several weeks. I live near Parma and Gorgonzola and have made obligatory pilgrimages.  I’m not a giant fan of Italian cheeses, but I always have some mozzarella di bufala and Parmegiano Reggiano on hand, and usually keep odds and ends such as Provolone and Gorgonzola knocking around for lunch sandwiches.


My recommendation for Cheese Lover’s Day is to wander outside your normal tastes. See what you can find that is new and interesting to you. I doubt that you will stumble on yak cheese (chhurpi), but you never know.  The Nepalese are starting to export it.


Happy cheese hunting.

Jul 122016


I’m back !!! Did you miss me? I’ll continue moveable feasts as I can but July is not full of them. Instead today is the birthday (1852) of Juan Hipólito del Sagrado Corazón de Jesús Yrigoyen Alem (usually Hipólito Yrigoyen), two-time President of Argentina and a hero of mine. His activism became the prime impetus behind the passage of universal male suffrage in Argentina in 1912. He is generally known as “padre de los pobres”(the father of the poor) in Argentina. Yrigoyen presided over a rise in the standard of living of Argentina’s working class together with the passage of a number of progressive social reforms, including improvements in factory conditions, regulation of working hours, compulsory pensions, and the introduction of a universally accessible public education system. He was also responsible for great economic growth in the country. For me he was one of the last truly caring and honest politicians, not only in Argentina, but throughout the world. His public career ended when the rich overthrew him in a coup – of course.

Yrigoyen was born in Buenos Aires, to a French Basque father, and grew up in the barrio of Balvanera which at the time was a notorious district for brothels and the birth of tango. He trained for the legal profession and worked at several jobs, including school teacher before entering politics. He used several spellings of his name over his lifetime, but Yrigoyen is now the most common. His father’s name was Hirigoyen, which means “city from above” in French Basque. The “h” is aspirated in French Basque but not pronounced in Spanish Basque or Spanish, so he changed it to Yrigoyen, and sometimes Irigoyen.

His background was basically lower middle class, and he had fought in the revolution of 1874 under Bartolome Mitre. I won’t go into detail. Suffice it to say that following independence from Spain in 1816, Argentina had a tumultuous 19th century involving territorial wars with neighboring nations as well as civil wars. Yrigoyen was an immensely stabilizing force.


In 1891 Yrigoyen co-founded the Unión Cívica Radical (Radical Civic Union), together with his uncle, Leandro Alem. Yrigoyen was popularly known as “el peludo” which is a complicated word to translate. It is Lunfardo (Buenos Aires street slang) and usually refers to hairy people because it comes from the word for the hairy armadillo. But the hairy armadillo is also very shy and Yrigoyen was highly introverted and averse to being seen in public or having his photo taken. Following Alem’s suicide in 1896, Hipólito Yrigoyen assumed sole leadership of the Radical Civic Union. He took a strong oppositional position to the political establishment of the time which he considered corrupt and self serving. The Radical Civic Union took up arms in 1893 and again in 1905. Later, however, Yrigoyen adopted a policy of nonviolence, pursuing instead the strategy of “revolutionary abstention,” a total boycott of all elections until 1912, when President Roque Sáenz Peña was forced to agree to the passage of the Sáenz Peña Law, which established secret, universal, and compulsory male suffrage.

Yrigoyen was elected President of Argentina in 1916. He frequently found himself hemmed in, however, as the Senate was appointed by the legislatures of the provinces, most of which were controlled by the opposition. Several times, Yrigoyen resorted to federal intervention of numerous provinces by declaring a state of emergency, removing willful governors, and deepening the confrontation with the landed establishment. Pro-Yrigoyen political supporters were known as “personalistas”, a blunt suggestion that they were sycophants of Yrigoyen, anti-Yrigoyen elements were known as “anti-personalistas”.

Yrigoyen was popular, however, among middle and working class voters, who felt integrated for the first time in the political process, and the Argentine economy prospered under his leadership. Yrigoyen preserved Argentine neutrality during World War I, which turned out to be a boon, owing to higher beef prices and the opening up of many new markets to Argentina’s primary exports (meat and cereals). Yrigoyen also promoted energy independence for the rapidly growing country, obtaining Congressional support for the establishment of the YPF state oil concern, and appointing as its first director General Enrique Mosconi, the most prominent advocate for industrialization in the Argentine military at the time. Generous credit and subsidies were also extended to small farmers, while Yrigoyen settled wage disputes in favor of the unions.


Following four years of recession caused by war-related shortages of credit and supplies, the Argentine economy experienced significant economic growth, expanding by over 40% from 1917 to 1922. Argentina was known as “the granary of the world”, its gross domestic product per capita placing it among the wealthiest nations in the world. Yrigoyen also expanded the bureaucracy and increased public spending to support his urban constituents following an economic crisis in 1919, although the rise in urban living standards was gained at the cost of higher inflation, which adversely affected the export economy. Constitutionally barred from re-election, Yrigoyen was succeeded by Marcelo Torcuato de Alvear.

On the expiration of Alvear’s term in 1928, Yrigoyen was overwhelmingly elected President for the second time. In December of that year, U.S. President-elect Herbert Hoover visited Argentina on a goodwill tour, meeting with Yrigoyen on policies regarding trade and tariffs. Radical anarchist elements attempted to assassinate Hoover by attempting to place a bomb near his rail car, but the bomber was arrested before he could complete his work. President Yrigoyen accompanied Hoover thereafter as a personal guarantee of safety until he left the country.


In his late seventies, he ended up surrounded by aides who censored his access to news reports, hiding from him the reality of the effects of the Great Depression, which hit towards the end of 1929. On December 24 of that year he survived an assassination attempt. Fascist and conservative sectors of the army plotted openly for a regime change, as did Standard Oil of New Jersey, who opposed both the president’s efforts to curb oil smuggling from Salta Province to Bolivia, as well as the existence of YPF, itself. On September 6, 1930, Yrigoyen was deposed in a military coup led by General José Félix Uriburu.  After the coup Enrique Pérez Colman, minister of finance in the Yrigoyen cabinet, General Moscini, former director of oil fields, General Baldrich and a number of Yrigoyenist deputies were placed under arrest by the provisional government of General Uriburu. The new government of Uriburu adopted the most severe measures to prevent reprisals and counter-revolutionary tactics by friends of the ousted administration of Yrigoyen.


Yrigoyen died in Buenos Aires on July 3, 1933 and was mourned throughout the city with a public funeral. The coup that ended his presidency also ended stability in Argentina. A lost time.

Here’s dulce de batata and cheese to celebrate Yrigoyen. Dulce de batata is a paste made from sweet potatoes that people normally buy commercially, but you can make it yourself (as you can dulce de leche or dulce de membrillo).  Dulce de batata and cheese is a common dessert, reportedly the favorite of the legendary gaucho Martín Fierro. You can eat dulce de batata with any soft cheese but Argentine cremoso is the most usual. Cremoso was first made by Italian immigrants as a form of Stracchino), also known as crescenza typical of Lombardy, Piedmont and Veneto. It is eaten very young, has no rind and has a very soft, creamy texture and a mild, delicate flavor.


Dulce de Batata


2 kg sweet potatoes, peeled and diced
1 ½ kg sugar
1 tbsp fresh lemon juice
1 tsp powdered cinnamon
1 tsp vanilla extract


Boil the sweet potatoes in water with the lemon juice until they are soft (about 40 minutes).

In a non-reactive saucepan place 1 L of cold water, the sugar, and vanilla. Bring to a low simmer and cook gently for 30 minutes to form a syrup.

Drain the sweet potatoes and add them to the sugar syrup. Cook the mixture on a low simmer, stirring regularly until the whole becomes thick and creamy. You can mash the sweet potatoes with a wooden spoon to hasten the process if you like. Add the cinnamon, stir, and let cool.

Serve with slices of cheese (as pictured).


Jun 112016


Today, the second Saturday in June, is National Day in Montserrat, a Caribbean island in the Leeward Islands, which is part of the chain known as the Lesser Antilles, in the British West Indies. It is a British Overseas Territory. Montserrat is approximately 16 km (10 mi) long and 11 km (7 mi) wide, with approximately 40 km (25 mi) of coastline. In 1493, Christopher Columbus named the island Santa Maria de Montserrate, after the Virgin of Montserrat in the Monastery of Montserrat, near Barcelona in Spain.

Archaeological field work in 2012, in Montserrat’s Centre Hills indicated there was an Archaic (pre-Arawak) occupation between 4000 and 2500 BP but the island was uninhabited when Columbus sailed by. A number of Irish settled in Montserrat in 1642, and the Irish population expanded due to the arrival of exiles after Cromwell’s conquest of Ireland (1653). The island was captured by the French in 1666, and shortly afterwards by the English. English control of the island was confirmed under the Treaty of Breda in 1667.


The Irish and English colonists began to transport African slaves for labor, as was common to most Caribbean islands in the 18th century. The colonists built an economy based on the production of sugar, rum, arrowroot and sea island cotton, cultivated on large plantations using slave labor. By the late 18th century numerous plantations had developed on the island, and many Irish continued to be transported to the island, to work as indentured servants.

On 17 March 1768, slaves rebelled but failed to achieve freedom, but the people of Montserrat celebrate St Patrick’s Day as a public holiday due to the slave revolt. In 1782, during the American Revolutionary War, France briefly captured Montserrat after supporting the American cause. The French returned the island to Great Britain under the 1783 Treaty of Paris, which ended that conflict.


The Irish constituted a significant proportion of the population from the founding of the colony in 1628. Many were indentured laborers; others were merchants or plantation owners. The geographer Thomas Jeffrey claimed in The West India Atlas (1780) that the majority of those on Montserrat were either Irish or of Irish descent, “so that the use of the Irish language is preserved on the island, even among the Negroes.” There is indirect evidence that the use of the Irish language continued in Montserrat until at least the middle of the 19th century. The Kilkenny diarist and Irish scholar Amhlaoibh Ó Súilleabháin noted in 1831 that he had heard that Irish was still spoken in Montserrat by both black and white inhabitants. A letter by W.F. Butler in The Atheneum (15 July 1905) quotes an account by a Cork civil servant, C. Cremen, of what he had heard from a retired sailor called John O’Donovan, a fluent Irish speaker:

He frequently told me that in the year 1852, when mate of the brig Kaloolah, he went ashore on the island of Montserrat which was then out of the usual track of shipping. He said he was much surprised to hear the negroes actually talking Irish among themselves, and that he joined in the conversation.

There is no evidence for the survival of the Irish language in Montserrat into the 20th century.

Britain abolished slavery in Montserrat and its other Caribbean territories effective August 1834. During the 19th century, falling sugar-prices had an adverse effect on the island’s economy. In 1857, the British philanthropist Joseph Sturge bought a sugar estate on the island to prove it was economically viable to employ paid labor rather than slaves. Numerous members of the Sturge family bought additional land. In 1869 the family established the Montserrat Company Limited and planted lime trees, started the commercial production of lime juice, set up a school, and sold parcels of land to the inhabitants of the island. Much of Montserrat came to be owned by smallholders.

From 1871 to 1958, Montserrat was administered as part of the federal crown colony of the British Leeward Islands, becoming a province of the short-lived West Indies Federation from 1958 to 1962. In 1979, The Beatles’ producer, George Martin, opened AIR Studios Montserrat to provide a haven for harried musicians. The studios attracted numerous world-famous musicians, who came to record in the peaceful and lush tropical surroundings of Montserrat.


The last decade of the 20th century brought two events that devastated the island. In the early hours of 17 September 1989, Hurricane Hugo, a Category 4 storm, struck Montserrat with full force, producing sustained winds of 140 kilometers per hour (87 mph). It damaged more than 90% of the structures on the island. AIR Studios closed, and the tourist economy was virtually wiped out. Within a few years, the island had recovered considerably, only to be damaged again, and even more severely, six years later by volcanic activity that started in 1995.


The island now has a population estimated at around 6,000. Approximately 8,000 refugees left the island (primarily to the UK) following the resumption of volcanic activity in July 1995. Now, two-thirds of the population are between the ages of 15 and 64, the vast majority being of mixed Irish and African descent. It is not known with certainty how many African slaves and indentured Irish laborers were brought to the West Indies, though according to one estimate some 60,000 Irish were “Barbadosed” by Oliver Cromwell, some of whom would have arrived in Montserrat.

Today is also the first day of National Dairy Goat Awareness Week in the U.S. which runs from the first to the second Saturday in June. It was proclaimed in the Reagan era to promote dairy products from goats. Ronnie praised goats as hardy, productive animals that were intrinsically linked to the history of the United States. I expect he had a good speech writer; this is the man who thought ketchup was a vegetable.


By coincidence, goat stew, known locally as goat water or kiddy stew, is the national dish of Montserrat. So you have a choice: cheese or meat. I buy goat cheese quite often when I can. I like its tang, especially in sandwiches and salads. I’m also a fan of goat meat which is harder to find, but is very common in Mantua, where I live now. There are numerous goat farms scattered around the countryside. Goats are common in the rockier regions of Montserrat, where they thrive. Milk-fed kid is as tender as young lamb, but mature goat requires lengthy cooking to be tender. It is more flavorful than kid, though.

Goat water is prepared using goat meat, breadfruit, vegetables, onion, tomato, spices and herbs, and flour. Additional ingredients may also be used, such as rum, whiskey and various tubers. Not surprisingly, there is no canonical recipe; it’s all down to what’s available and cook’s choice. Here’s a reasonable recipe which you can vary as you like. The bouquet garni can have in it various herbs. Mine is normally sprigs of thyme, rosemary, and sage.  Maggi cubes are made in Nigeria and are the ubiquitous flavoring in West African and Caribbean soups and stews. You can buy them online or in specialty markets. I’m not a big fan, so I use stock. Red chile peppers and tomato paste are also common ingredients, but I have omitted them here. Your choice.


Goat Water

10 lb goat meat
2 lb/1kg green pawpaw, peeled and diced
2 lb/1kg breadfruit, peeled and diced
1 lb/500g flour
1 lb/500g onions, peeled and diced
cooking oil
2 tbsp gravy browning
bouquet garni
salt & black pepper
stock (or Maggi cubes)


Cut the meat into serving pieces and season with salt and pepper. Heat cooking oil over high heat in a heavy pot and lightly brown the meat on all sides. Cover with stock (or water with Maggi cubes) and simmer for at least 2 hours (longer if the meat is still tough.

Gently sauté the pawpaw, breadfruit and onions and sauté in a little cooking oil, then add them to the meat along with a bouquet garni. Continue simmering.

Mix 3 tbsp (45ml) of flour to a smooth paste with water and add 2 tbsp (30ml) gravy browning. Add this mix to the stew.

With the remaining flour, make tiny dumpling (droppers) by making a dough of flour and water that is stiff. Mix the flour and water, a little at a time, until you have a firm ball. Knead the dough for about 20 minutes, then break off small pieces to form the dumplings. Add them to the stew and simmer until they are cooked, about 20 minutes.

Serve in deep bowls with crusty bread (or white rice).

Apr 262016


In the early afternoon on this date in 1803 a meteorite shower of more than 3000 fragments fell upon the town of L’Aigle in Normandy. Upon hearing of this event the French Academy of Sciences sent the young scientist Jean-Baptiste Biot to investigate. After painstaking work in the field he reported two kinds of evidence pointing to an extraterrestrial origin for the stones:

Physical evidence: the sudden appearance of many identical stones similar to other stones fallen from the sky in other places

Human evidence: a large number of witnesses who said they saw a “rain of stones thrown by a meteor.”


Biot drew a detailed map of the dispersal of the meteorites, and his subsequent impassioned paper describing how these stones must undoubtedly be of extraterrestrial origin effectively gave birth to the science of meteoritics. The L’Aigle event was a real milestone in the understanding of meteorites and their origins because at that time the mere existence of meteorites was hotly debated. The existence of stones falling from the sky had long been recognized, but their origin was controversial, with most commentators agreeing with Aristotle that they were terrestrial in origin. Eye-witness accounts were treated with great skepticism. They were generally dismissed as lies or delusions.


The meteorites that fell on L’Aigle were collected and sold or sent to numerous museums in Europe where they may still be seen.

aigle5 aigle3 aigle1

Most meteorite falls, such as at L’Aigle, are recovered on the basis of eyewitness accounts of the fireball or the impact of the objects on the ground, or both. Therefore, despite the fact that meteorites fall with virtually equal probability everywhere on Earth, verified meteorite falls tend to be concentrated in areas with high human population densities such as Europe, Japan, and northern India. As of April 2016, the Meteoritical Bulletin Database has listed 1,145 confirmed falls.

Meteorite falls may have occasionally led to cult worship historically. The cult in the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, possibly originated with the observation of a meteorite that was taken by contemporaries to have fallen to the earth from the home of the gods. There are reports that a sacred stone was enshrined at the temple that may have been a meteorite.


In the 1970s, a stone meteorite was uncovered during an archaeological dig at Danebury Iron Age hillfort, Danebury England. It was found deposited part way down in an Iron Age pit (c. 1200 BCE). Since it must have been deliberately placed there, this could indicate one of the first known human finds of a meteorite in Europe.

Some Native Americans treated meteorites as ceremonial objects. In 1915, a 135-pound iron meteorite was found in a Sinagua (c. 1100–1200 AD) burial cyst near Camp Verde, Arizona, respectfully wrapped in a feather cloth. A small meteorite was found in a pottery jar in an old burial found at Pojoaque Pueblo, New Mexico. Archeologists report several other such instances, in the Southwest US and elsewhere, such as the discovery of Native American beads of meteoric iron found in Hopewell burial mounds, and the discovery of the Winona meteorite in a Native American stone-walled crypt. The oldest known iron artifacts are nine small beads hammered from meteoritic iron. They were found in northern Egypt and have been securely dated to 3200 BCE.

Indigenous peoples often prized iron-nickel meteorites as an easy, if limited, source of iron metal. For example, the Inuit used chips of the Cape York meteorite to form cutting edges for tools and spear tips.

Publishing is analogous to meteorite strikes. I know editors have seen my articles that they printed, but I have absolutely no idea how many have read them or what impact, if any, they have made. Ditto for my books. I know how many have sold, but no idea how many were read. This fact would be depressing if I cared. I am not trying to make money from my writing, or become famous.  I write because it pleases me.  If it pleases others, I am glad; if not, not.


L’Aigle is in Orne, a landlocked department in Normandy that is also the site of Camembert, the village that gives its name to the famous cheese. Coincidentally, camembert was first made around the time of the L’Aigle meteorite fall. Camembert was reputedly first made in 1791 by Marie Harel, a farmer from Normandy, following advice from a priest who came from Brie.

However, the origin of the cheese known today as camembert is more likely to rest with the beginnings of the industrialization of the cheesemaking process at the end of the 19th century. In 1890, an engineer, M. Ridel, devised the wooden box which was used to carry the cheese and helped to send it for longer distances, in particular to North America, where it became very popular. These boxes are still used today.

Before fungi were scientifically understood, the color of camembert rind was a matter of chance, most commonly blue-grey, with brown spots. From the early 20th century onwards, the rind has been more commonly pure white, but it was not until the mid-1970s that pure white became standard.

My discovery of camembert occurred in 1966 when I was an exchange student in France. Before that time my culinary tastes were extremely limited. Cheese, as far as I was concerned, was generic Cheddar. But when I lived in France it was my duty, along with Jean-Loup my exchange mate, to get the baguettes for the evening meal on our way home from school. We frequently bought some camembert as well, sliced it, and stuffed it into a baguette as a quick snack on the way home. That, and Jean-Loup’s mother’s cooking, changed my outlook on food for life.

So, why not do the same in tribute to the L’Aigle meteorite fall?  I just did.

Feb 242016


Today is the birthday (1709) of Jacques de Vaucanson, a French inventor and artist who was responsible for the creation of impressive and innovative automata and machines such as the first completely automated loom. He is credited sometimes with building the world’s first true robot, hence the “father of robotics,” but this claim is overreaching, in my humble opinion. His loom, however, was ingenious and revolutionary, and the principles on which it operated led eventually to the development of computers.

He was born in Grenoble, France in 1709 as Jacques Vaucanson (the particle “de” was later added to his name by the Académie des Sciences). The tenth child, son of a glove-maker, he grew up poor, and in his youth he reportedly aspired to become a clockmaker. He studied under the Jesuits and later joined the Order of the Minims in Lyon. It was his intention at the time to follow a course of religious studies, but he regained his interest in mechanical devices after meeting the surgeon Le Cat, from whom he would learn the details of anatomy. This new knowledge allowed him to develop his first mechanical devices that mimicked biological vital functions such as circulation, respiration, and digestion.

At just 18 years of age, Vaucanson was given his own workshop in Lyon, and a grant from a nobleman to construct a set of machines. In that same year of 1727, there was a visit from one of the governing heads of Les Minimes (an important marina in La Rochelle). Vaucanson decided to make some androids. The automata would serve dinner and clear the tables for the visiting politicians. However one government official declared that he thought Vaucanson’s tendencies “profane,” and ordered that his workshop be destroyed.

In 1737, Vaucanson built The Flute Player, a life-size figure of a shepherd that played the tabor and the pipe and had a repertoire of twelve songs. The figure’s fingers were not pliable enough to play the flute correctly, so Vaucanson had to glove the creation in skin. The following year, in early 1738, he presented this invention to the Académie des Sciences. At the time, mechanical creatures were a fad in Europe, but most could be classified as toys, and de Vaucanson’s creations were recognized as being revolutionary in their mechanical lifelike sophistication.


Later that year, he created two additional automata, The Tambourine Player and The Digesting Duck, the latter considered his masterpiece. The duck had over 400 moving parts in each wing alone, and could mimic flapping its wings, drinking water, digesting grain, and defecating. Although Vaucanson’s duck supposedly demonstrated digestion accurately, it actually contained a hidden compartment of “digested food,” so that what the duck defecated was not the same as what it ate; the duck would eat a mixture of water and seed and excrete a mixture of bread crumbs and green dye that appeared to the onlooker indistinguishable from real excrement.


Although such “frauds” were sometimes controversial, they were common enough because such scientific demonstrations needed to entertain the wealthy and powerful to attract their patronage. Vaucanson is credited as having invented the world’s first flexible rubber tube while in the process of building the duck’s intestines. Despite the revolutionary nature of his automata, he is said to have tired quickly of his creations and sold them in 1743.

In 1741 he was appointed by Cardinal Fleury, chief minister of Louis XV, as inspector of the manufacture of silk in France. He was charged with undertaking reforms of the silk manufacturing process. At the time, the French weaving industry had fallen behind that of England and Scotland. Vaucanson promoted wide-ranging changes for automation of the weaving process. In 1745, he created the world’s first completely automated loom, drawing on the work of Basile Bouchon and Jean Falcon. Vaucanson was trying to automate the French textile industry using punch cards to control looms – a technology that, as refined by Joseph-Marie Jacquard more than a half century later, would revolutionize weaving and, in the 20th century, would be used to input data into computers and store information in binary form. His proposals were not well received by weavers, however, who pelted him with stones in the street and many of his revolutionary ideas were largely ignored.


He invented several machine tools, such as the first fully documented, all metal slide rest lathe, around 1751 (possibly later). It was described in the Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers. In 1746, he was made a member of the Académie des Sciences.


Jacques de Vaucanson died in Paris in 1782. Vaucanson left a collection of his work as a bequest to Louis XVI. The collection would become the foundation of the Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers in Paris. His original automata have all been lost. The flute player and the tambourine player were reportedly destroyed in the Revolution. Lycee Vaucanson in Grenoble is named in his honor, and trains students for careers in engineering and technical fields.

jv8 jv7

Grenoble, Vaucanson’s home, is the center of a well-known terroir cuisine that includes a local species of walnut, several cheeses including Le Bleu du Vercors Sassenage and Saint Marcellin, Chatreuse liqueur, made from 130 locally produced plants and whose recipe is known only by 2 Carthusian monks at a time, and wines made from Chardonnay, Jacquère and Persan, Verdesse and the very local Etraire de la Dhui grapes. Well worth a visit. For simplicity I am going to give to you sauce Grenobloise, made with capers, lemon, and butter, and used primarily for white fish. I love this sauce and make it all the time.


Sauce Grenobloise

Begin with a peeled lemon. Using a paring knife, cut the white pith away from the lemon. Remove segments by slicing between the membranes. Cut the segments into ½” pieces. Heat some good quality farm butter in a heavy skillet and keep cooking until it turns brown. Be careful because you do not want it to blacken.

Remove the skillet from the heat and stir in the lemon pieces, some drained capers, and chopped fresh parsley. The proportions are really up to you. Stir the ingredients to incorporate.

Pour the sauce over white fish, chicken, or pasta.

Jan 282016


The Bal des Ardents (Ball of the Burning Men) or Bal des Sauvages was a masquerade ball held on this date in 1393 in Paris at which Charles VI of France performed in a dance with five members of the French nobility. Four of the dancers were killed in a fire caused when a torch brought in by Charles’s brother, Louis, Duke of Orléans, caught the highly flammable costumes on fire. Charles and another of the dancers, the noble knight Ogier de Nantouillet survived. The event undermined confidence in Charles’s capacity to rule. Parisians considered it proof of courtly decadence and threatened to rebel against the more powerful members of the nobility.

Charles’s wife, Isabeau of Bavaria, held the ball to honor the remarriage of a lady-in-waiting. Scholars believe it may have been a traditional charivari, with the dancers disguised as wild men, mythical beings often associated with demonology, that were commonly represented in medieval Europe and documented in revels of Tudor England. The event was chronicled by contemporary writers such as the Monk of St Denis and Jean Froissart, and illustrated in a number of 15th-century illuminated manuscripts by painters such as the Master of Anthony of Burgundy. The incident later provided inspiration for the main scene in Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “Hop-Frog” ( )

In 1380, after the death of his father, Charles V of France, the 12-year-old Charles VI was crowned king, beginning his minority with his four uncles acting as regents. Two years later, one of them, Philip of Burgundy, described by historian Robert Knecht as “one of the most powerful princes in Europe,” became sole regent to the young king after Louis of Anjou pillaged the royal treasury and departed to campaign in Italy. Charles’s other two uncles, John of Berry and Louis of Bourbon, showed little interest in governing. In 1387, the 20-year-old Charles assumed sole control of the monarchy and immediately dismissed his uncles and reinstated the Marmousets, his father’s traditional counselors. Unlike his uncles, the Marmousets wanted peace with England, less taxation, and a strong, responsible central government—policies that resulted in a negotiated three-year truce with England, and the Duke of Berry being stripped of his post as governor of Languedoc because of his excessive taxation.


In 1392 Charles suffered the first in a lifelong series of attacks of mental illness, manifested by an “insatiable fury” at the attempted assassination of the Constable of France and leader of the Marmousets, Olivier de Clisson—carried out by Pierre de Craon but orchestrated by John V, Duke of Brittany. Convinced that the attempt on Clisson’s life was also an act of violence against himself and the monarchy, Charles quickly planned a retaliatory invasion of Brittany with the approval of the Marmousets, and within months departed Paris with a force of knights.

On a hot August day outside Le Mans, accompanying his forces on the way to Brittany, without warning Charles drew his weapons and charged his own household knights including his brother Louis I, Duke of Orléans—with whom he had a close relationship—crying “Forward against the traitors! They wish to deliver me to the enemy!” He killed four men before his chamberlain grabbed him by the waist and subdued him, after which he fell into a coma that lasted for four days. Few believed he would recover. his uncles, the dukes of Burgundy and Berry, took advantage of the king’s illness and quickly seized power, re-established themselves as regents, and dissolved the Marmouset council.


The comatose king was returned to Le Mans, where Guillaume de Harsigny—a venerated and well-educated 92-year-old physician—was summoned to treat him. After Charles regained consciousness, and his fever subsided, he was returned to Paris by Harsigny, moving slowly from castle to castle, with periods of rest in between. Late in September Charles was well enough to make a pilgrimage of thanks to Notre Dame de Liesse near Laon after which he returned again to Paris.

The king’s sudden onset of insanity was seen by some as a sign of divine anger and punishment and by others as the result of sorcery. Modern historians speculate that Charles may have been experiencing the onset of paranoid schizophrenia. Charles continued to be mentally fragile, believing he was made of glass, and according to historian Desmond Seward, running “howling like a wolf down the corridors of the royal palaces.” Contemporary chronicler Jean Froissart wrote that the king’s illness was so severe that he was “far out of the way; no medicine could help him.” During the worst of his illness Charles was unable to recognize his wife, Isabeau of Bavaria, demanding her removal when she entered his chamber, but after his recovery Charles made arrangements for her to hold guardianship of their children. Queen Isabeau eventually became guardian to her son—the future Charles VII of France— (b. 1403), granting her great political power and ensuring a place on the council of regents in event of a relapse.


In A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century the historian Barbara Tuchman writes that the physician Harsigny, refusing “all pleas and offers of riches to remain,” left Paris and ordered the courtiers to shield the king from the duties of government and leadership. He told the king’s advisors to “be careful not to worry or irritate him …. Burden him with work as little as you can; pleasure and forgetfulness will be better for him than anything else.” To surround Charles with a festive atmosphere and to protect him from the rigors of governing, the court turned to elaborate amusements and extravagant fashions. Isabeau and her sister-in-law Valentina Visconti, Duchess of Orléans, wore jewel-laden dresses and elaborate braided hairstyles coiled into tall shells and covered with wide double hennins that reportedly required doorways to be widened to accommodate them.


The common people thought the extravagances excessive yet loved their young king, whom they called Charles le bien-aimé (the well-beloved). Blame for unnecessary excess and expense was directed at the foreign queen, who was brought from Bavaria at the request of Charles’ uncles. Neither Isabeau nor her sister-in-law Valentina—daughter of the ruthless Duke of Milan—were well liked by either the court or the people. Froissart wrote in his Chronicles that Charles’s uncles were content to allow the frivolities because “so long as the Queen and the Duc d’Orléans danced, they were not dangerous or even annoying.”

On 28 January 1393, Isabeau held a masquerade at the Hôtel Saint-Pol to celebrate the third marriage of her lady-in-waiting, Catherine de Fastaverin. Tuchman explains that a widow’s remarriage was traditionally an occasion for mockery and tomfoolery, often celebrated with masquerades or charivari characterized by “all sorts of licence, disguises, disorders, and loud blaring of discordant music and clanging of cymbals.” On the suggestion of Huguet de Guisay, whom Tuchman describes as well known for his “outrageous schemes” and cruelty, six high-ranking knights performed a dance in costume as wood savages. The costumes, which were sewn on to the men, were made of linen soaked with resin to which flax was attached “so that they appeared shaggy and hairy from head to foot.” Masks made of the same materials covered the dancers’ faces and hid their identities from the audience. Some chronicles report that the dancers were bound together by chains. Most of the audience were unaware that Charles was among the dancers. Strict orders forbade the lighting of hall torches and prohibited anyone from entering the hall with a torch during the performance, to minimize the risk of the highly flammable costumes catching fire.


According to historian Jan Veenstra the men capered and howled “like wolves”, spat obscenities and invited the audience to guess their identities while dancing in a “diabolical” frenzy. Charles’s brother, Orléans, arrived with Phillipe de Bar, late and drunk, and they entered the hall carrying lit torches. Accounts vary, but Orléans may have held his torch above a dancer’s mask to reveal his identity when a spark fell, setting fire to the dancer’s leg. In the 17th century, William Prynne wrote of the incident that “the Duke of Orleance … put one of the Torches his servants held so neere the flax, that he set one of the Coates on fire, and so each of them set fire on to the other, and so they were all in a bright flame,” whereas a contemporary chronicle stated that he threw the torch at one of the dancers.


Isabeau, knowing that her husband was one of the dancers, fainted when the men caught fire. Charles, however, was standing at a distance from the other dancers, near his 15-year-old aunt Joan, Duchess of Berry, who swiftly threw her voluminous skirt over him to protect him from the sparks. Sources disagree as to whether the duchess moved into the dance and drew the king aside to speak to him, or whether the king moved away toward the audience. Froissart wrote that “The King, who proceeded ahead of [the dancers], departed from his companions … and went to the ladies to show himself to them … and so passed by the Queen and came near the Duchess of Berry.”


The scene soon descended into chaos; the dancers shrieked in pain as they burned in their costumes, and the audience, many of them also sustaining burns, screamed as they tried to rescue the burning men. The event was chronicled in uncharacteristic vividness by the Monk of St Denis, who wrote that “four men were burned alive, their flaming genitals dropping to the floor … releasing a stream of blood.” Only two dancers survived: the king, thanks to the quick reactions of the Duchess of Berry, and the Sieur de Nantouillet, who jumped into an open vat of wine and remained there until the flames were extinguished. The Count de Joigny died at the scene; Yvain de Foix and Aimery Poitiers, son of the Count of Valentinois, lingered with painful burns for two days. The designer of the dance, Huguet de Guisay, survived a day longer, described by Tuchman as bitterly “cursing and insulting his fellow dancers, the dead and the living, until his last hour.”

The citizens of Paris, angered by the event and at the danger posed to their monarch, blamed Charles’s advisors. A “great commotion” swept through the city as the populace threatened to depose Charles’s uncles and kill dissolute and depraved courtiers. Greatly concerned at the popular outcry and worried about a repeat of the Maillotin revolt of the previous decade—when Parisians armed with mallets turned against tax collectors—Charles’s uncles persuaded the court to do penance at Notre Dame Cathedral, preceded by an apologetic royal progress through the city in which the king rode on horseback with his uncles walking in humility. Orléans, who was blamed for the tragedy, donated funds in atonement for a chapel to be built at the Celestine monastery.

Froissart’s chronicle of the event places blame directly on Charles’ brother, Orléans. He wrote: “And thus the feast and marriage celebrations ended with such great sorrow … [Charles] and [Isabeau] could do nothing to remedy it. We must accept that it was no fault of theirs but of the duke of Orléans.” Orléans’ reputation was severely damaged by the event, compounded by an episode a few years earlier in which he was accused of sorcery after hiring an apostate monk to imbue a ring, dagger and sword with demonic magic. The theologian Jean Petit would later testify that Orléans practiced sorcery, and that the fire at the dance represented a failed attempt at regicide made in retaliation for Charles’ attack the previous summer.


The Bal des Ardents added to the impression of a court steeped in extravagance, with a king in delicate health and unable to rule. Charles’ attacks of illness increased in frequency such that by the end of the 1390s his role was merely ceremonial. By the early 15th century he was neglected and often forgotten, a lack of leadership that contributed to the decline and fragmentation of the Valois dynasty. In 1407, Philip the Bold’s son, John the Fearless, had Orléans assassinated because of “vice, corruption, sorcery, and a long list of public and private villainies”; at the same time Isabeau was accused of having been the mistress of her husband’s brother. Orléans’ assassination pushed the country into a civil war between the Burgundians and the Orléanists (known as the Armagnacs), which lasted for several decades. The vacuum created by the lack of central power and the general irresponsibility of the French court resulted in it gaining a reputation for lax morals and decadence that endured for more than 200 years.

I have chosen a recipe for waffles (gaufres) from Le Ménagier de Paris, a 14th century French manuscript. Waffles were very popular in the Middle Ages in France. They were made using waffle irons in much the same way as they are made today.

Gauffres sont faites par quatre manières L’une que l’en bat des œufs en une jatte, et puis du sel et du vin, et gette-l’en de la fleur, et destremper l’un avec l’autre, et puis mettre en deux fers petit à petit, à chascune fois autant de paste comme une lesche de frommage est grande, et estraindre entre deux fers et cuire d’une part et d’autre; et se le fer ne se délivre bien de la paste, l’en l’oint avant d’un petit drappelet mouillé eu huille ou en sain.

La deuxième manière est comme la première, mais l’en y met du frommage, c’est assavoir que l’en estend la paste comme pour faire tartre ou pasté, puis met-l’en le frommage par 1’esches ou milieu et recueuvre-l’en les deux bors; ainsi demeure le frommage entre deux pastes et ainsi est mis entre deux fers.

La tierce manière, si est de gauffres couléisses, et sont dictes couléisses pour ce seulement que la paste est plus clère et est comme boulie clère, faicte comme dessus; et gecte-l’en avec, du fin frommage esmié à la gratuise; et tout mesler ensemble.

La quarte manière est de fleur pestrie à l eaue, sel et vin, sans œufs ne frommage

Waffles are made in four ways. First way, beat eggs in a bowl, then add salt and wine;sprinkle with flour and mix together.Then gradually fill two [waffle] irons with this mixture, no more than the equivalent of a cheese strip at a time, then tighten the two irons, and cook on both sides.If the dough does not come off easily from the iron, rub it first with a piece of cloth that has been soaked in oil or fat.

The second way is like the first, but add cheese, that is, spread the batter as though making a tart or pie, then put slices of cheese in the middle, and cover the edges. Thus the cheese stays within the batter and then you put it between two irons.

The third way gives dropped waffles, so called simply because the dough is more fluid;it is made ​​as above but with the consistency of a clear broth.Mix in the grated cheese.

The fourth way is to knead the flour with water, salt and wine, no eggs or cheese.

Well, I don’t have a waffle iron, so I made this recipe using the second method, with a skillet, much like a pancake.

First, make an egg batter as you would for pancakes or waffles. Here’s my version:

Heat oil in a skillet over medium heat, and pour in your batter. Cook until the top is no longer moist.


Place a slice of cheese on top.


Then cover with another layer of batter.


Cook the top under the broiler.


You can see that the finished product has two layers with melted cheese in the middle. Made a nice breakfast as I was writing. Bon appétit.

Jul 272015


Today is the birthday (1870) of Joseph Hilaire Pierre René Belloc, an Anglo-French writer and historian. He was one of the most prolific writers in England during the early twentieth century. He was known as a writer, orator, poet, sailor, satirist, man of letters, soldier and political activist. He is notable for his Catholic faith, which had a strong impact on his works, and his writing collaboration with G. K. Chesterton. He was President of the Oxford Union and later MP for Salford from 1906 to 1910. He was a well known disputant, with a number of long-running feuds, but also widely regarded as a humane and sympathetic man. Belloc became a naturalized British subject in 1902, but kept his French citizenship.


His most lasting legacy is probably his verse, which encompasses comic verses for children and religious poetry. Among his best-remembered poems are from his humorous Cautionary Tales for Children, including “Jim, who ran away from his nurse, and was eaten by a lion” and “Matilda, who told lies and was burnt to death”. The full text can be found here.

A great variety of poems of all sorts can be found here:

Belloc was the kind of man I would have liked to have as a friend – kind, amusing, smart, kind, loving, and generous, as well as stubborn and pig headed with strong convictions. Here’s some memorable quotes:

When I am dead, I hope it may be said: “His sins were scarlet, but his books were read.”

Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine,
There’s always laughter and good red wine.
At least I’ve always found it so.
Benedicamus Domino!

For no one, in our long decline,
So dusty, spiteful and divided,
Had quite such pleasant friends as mine,
Or loved them half as much as I did.

The Church is a perpetually defeated thing that always outlives her conquerers.

It has been discovered that with a dull urban population, all formed under a mechanical system of State education, a suggestion or command, however senseless and unreasoned, will be obeyed if it be sufficiently repeated.

Whatever happens, we have got
The Maxim gun, and they have not.

The Llama is a woolly sort of fleecy hairy goat, with an indolent expression and an undulating throat; like an unsuccessful literary man.

From quiet homes and first beginning

Out to the undiscovered ends
There’s nothing worth the wear of winning
But laughter and the love of friends.
Oh, you should never, never doubt what nobody is sure about.

Write as the wind blows and command all words like an army!

If we are to be happy, decent and secure of our souls: drink some kind of fermented liquor with one’s food; go on the water from time to time; dance on occasions, and sing in a chorus.

When friendship disappears then there is a space left open to that awful loneliness of the outside world which is like the cold space between the planets. It is an air in which men perish utterly.

Loss and possession, death and life are one, There falls no shadow where there shines no sun.

“No, she laughed.” How on earth could that be done? If you try to laugh and say ‘No’ at the same time, it sounds like neighing — yet people are perpetually doing it in novels. If they did it in real life they would be locked up.

For I know that we laughers have a gross cousinship with the most high, and it is this contrast and perpetual quarrel which feeds a spring of merriment in the soul of a sane man.

Pale Ebenezer thought it wrong to fight,
But Roaring Bill (who killed him) thought it right. 


Belloc grew up in Slindon and spent most of his life in West Sussex. He always wrote of Sussex as if it were the crown of England and the western Sussex Downs the jewel in that crown. He loved Sussex to the point of idolatry as the place where he was brought up and as his spiritual home. Belloc wrote several works about Sussex including Ha’nacker Mill, The South Country, the travel guide Sussex (1906) and The County of Sussex (1936). One of his best-known works relating to Sussex is The Four Men: a Farrago (1911), in which the four characters, each aspects of Belloc’s personality, travel on a pilgrimage across the county from Robertsbridge in the far east to Harting in the far west. The work has influenced others including Sussex traditional singer, Bob Copper, who retraced Belloc’s steps in the 1980s. Belloc was also a lover of Sussex songs and wrote lyrics for some songs which have since been put to music. Belloc is remembered in an annual celebration in Sussex, known as Belloc Night, that takes place on the writer’s birthday, 27 July, in the manner of Burns Night in Scotland. The celebration includes reading from Belloc’s work and partaking of a bread and cheese supper with pickles.


So have at it tonight. There are a number of excellent Sussex cheeses courtesy of the modern revolution in English cheese making including Sussex Slipcote, High Weald Duddleswell, Sussex Charmer, and Olde Sussex. Sussex cheeses are made from both sheep’s and cow’s milk. I’ll give the prize to Brighton Blue, a semi-soft cow’s milk cheese which is quite mild when young, but becomes stronger with age. It is a little hard to find but the producer, High Weald, has a website:

Belloc was a great lover of Burgundy too, so I suggest a pairing of French wine with the English cheeses to celebrate his Anglo-French heritage.

May 142015

NPG 62; Edward Jenner by James Northcote

On this date in 1796 Edward Jenner administered his first smallpox vaccination. I love the fact that he was also the first person to describe the brood parasitism of the cuckoo. Jenner was born in Berkeley, Gloucestershire, as the eighth of nine children. His father, the Reverend Stephen Jenner, was the vicar of Berkeley, so Jenner received a strong basic education. He went to school in Wotton-under-Edge and Cirencester. During this time, he was inoculated (NOT vaccinated) for smallpox, which had a lifelong effect upon his general health.

Let’s take time out to talk about inoculation versus vaccination – terms which are now confused. Inoculation, also called variolation, is the act of introducing the SAME pathogen into an individual as the one you want to immunize against. So, for example, some parents deliberately have their children play with ones with chicken pox so that they will catch the disease and in future be immune. This is inoculation. Vaccination is introducing a DIFFERENT pathogen to create immunity. Jenner was inoculated, that is, he was given a mild case of smallpox to immunize him. This can be effective but it is dangerous, and can be lethal.

At the age of 14, he was apprenticed for seven years to Daniel Ludlow, a surgeon of Chipping Sodbury, South Gloucestershire, where he gained most of the experience needed to become a surgeon himself. In 1770, Jenner became apprenticed in surgery and anatomy under surgeon John Hunter and others at St George’s Hospital. William Osler records that Hunter gave Jenner William Harvey’s advice, very famous in medical circles (and characteristic of the Age of Enlightenment), “Don’t think; try.” Hunter remained in correspondence with Jenner concerning natural history and proposed him for the Royal Society. Returning to his native countryside by 1773, Jenner became a successful family doctor and surgeon, practicing on dedicated premises at Berkeley.

Jenner and others formed the Fleece Medical Society or Gloucestershire Medical Society, so called because it met in the parlour of the Fleece Inn, Rodborough (in Gloucestershire), meeting to dine together and read papers on medical subjects. Jenner contributed papers on angina pectoris, ophthalmia, and cardiac valvular disease and commented on cowpox. He also belonged to a similar society that met in Alveston, near Bristol.

Jenner was elected Fellow of the Royal Society in 1788, following his publication of a careful study of the previously misunderstood life of the nested cuckoo, a study that combined observation, experiment, and dissection.


His description of the newly hatched cuckoo, pushing its host’s eggs and fledgling chicks out of the nest (contrary to existing belief that the adult cuckoo did it) was only confirmed in the 20th century, when photography became available. Having observed this behavior, Jenner demonstrated an anatomical adaptation for it—the baby cuckoo has a depression in its back, not present after 12 days of life, that enables it to cup eggs and other chicks and toss them out of the nest. The adult does not remain long enough in the area to perform this task. Jenner’s findings were published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society in 1788.

“The singularity of its shape is well adapted to these purposes; for, different from other newly hatched birds, its back from the scapula downwards is very broad, with a considerable depression in the middle. This depression seems formed by nature for the design of giving a more secure lodgement to the egg of the Hedge-sparrow, or its young one, when the young Cuckoo is employed in removing either of them from the nest. When it is about twelve days old, this cavity is quite filled up, and then the back assumes the shape of nestling birds in general.”

Jenner married Catharine Kingscote (died 1815 from tuberculosis) in March 1788. He might have met her while he and other Fellows were experimenting with balloons. Jenner’s trial balloon descended into Kingscote Park, Gloucestershire, owned by Anthony Kingscote, one of whose daughters was Catharine.

Inoculation was already a standard practice, but involved serious risks. In 1721, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu had imported variolation to Britain after having observed it in Istanbul, where her husband was the British ambassador. Voltaire, writing of this, estimates that at this time 60% of the population caught smallpox and 20% of the population died of it. Voltaire also states that the Circassians used the inoculation from times immemorial, and the custom may have been borrowed by the Turks from the Circassians.

In 1765, John Fewster published a paper in the London Medical Society entitled “Cow pox and its ability to prevent smallpox”, but did not pursue the subject further. In the years following 1770, at least five investigators in England and Germany (Sevel, Jensen, Jesty 1774, Rendell, Plett 1791) successfully tested a cowpox vaccine in humans against smallpox. For example, Dorset farmer Benjamin Jesty successfully vaccinated and presumably induced immunity with cowpox in his wife and two children during a smallpox epidemic in 1774, but it was not until Jenner’s work some 20 years later that the procedure became widely understood. Indeed, Jenner may have been aware of Jesty’s procedures and success.

The initial source of infection was a disease of horses, called “the grease”, which was transferred to cattle by farm workers, transformed, and then manifested as cowpox. Noting the common observation that milkmaids were generally immune to smallpox, Jenner postulated that the pus in the blisters that milkmaids received from cowpox (a disease similar to smallpox, but much less virulent) protected them from smallpox.


On 14 May 1796, Jenner tested his hypothesis by vaccinating James Phipps, an eight-year-old boy who was the son of Jenner’s gardener. He scraped pus from cowpox blisters on the hands of Sarah Nelmes, a milkmaid who had caught cowpox from a cow called Blossom, whose hide now hangs on the wall of the St George’s medical school library (now in Tooting). Phipps was the 17th case described in Jenner’s first paper on vaccination.

Jenner vaccinated Phipps in both arms that day, subsequently producing in Phipps a fever and some uneasiness, but no full-blown infection. Later, he injected Phipps with variolous material, the routine method of immunization at that time. No disease followed. The boy was later challenged with variolous material and again showed no sign of infection.

Donald Hopkins has written, “Jenner’s unique contribution was not that he inoculated a few persons with cowpox, but that he then proved [by subsequent challenges] that they were immune to smallpox. Moreover, he demonstrated that the protective cowpox pus could be effectively used for vaccination from person to person, not just directly from cattle. Jenner successfully tested his hypothesis on 23 additional subjects. Jenner’s fame, thus, lies in the rigor of his analysis and not in being the first to vaccinate. Ahhh !! How many “facts” did I learn in school that are wrong.


Jenner continued his research and reported it to the Royal Society, which did not publish the initial paper. After revisions and further investigations, he published his findings on the 23 cases. Some of his conclusions were correct, some erroneous. The medical establishment, cautious then as now, deliberated at length over his findings before accepting them. Eventually, vaccination was accepted, and in 1840, the British government banned variolation and provided vaccination using cowpox free of charge. The success of his discovery soon spread around Europe and, for example, was used en masse in the Spanish Balmis Expedition, a three-year-long mission to the Americas, the Philippines, Macao, China, and Saint Helena Island led by Dr. Francisco Javier de Balmis with the aim of giving thousands the smallpox vaccine. The expedition was successful, and Jenner wrote, “I don’t imagine the annals of history furnish an example of philanthropy so noble, so extensive as this.”


Jenner’s continuing work on vaccination prevented him from continuing his ordinary medical practice. He was supported by his colleagues and the King in petitioning Parliament, and was granted £10,000 in 1802 for his work on vaccination. In 1807, he was granted another £20,000 after the Royal College of Physicians had confirmed the widespread efficacy of vaccination.

In 1811, Jenner observed a significant number of cases of smallpox after vaccination. He found that in these cases the severity of the illness was notably diminished by previous vaccination. In 1821, he was appointed Physician Extraordinary to King George IV, a great national honor, and was also made Mayor of Berkeley and Justice of the Peace. He continued to investigate natural history, and in 1823, the last year of his life, he presented his “Observations on the Migration of Birds” to the Royal Society.

Jenner was found in a state of apoplexy on 25 January 1823, with his right side paralyzed. He never fully recovered and eventually died of an apparent stroke, his second, on 26 January 1823, aged 73. He was survived by one son and one daughter, his elder son having died of tuberculosis at the age of 21.


In 1979, the World Health Organization declared smallpox an eradicated disease. This was the result of coordinated public health efforts by many people and organizations, but vaccination was an essential component. And although the disease was declared eradicated, some pus samples still remain in laboratories in Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia, in the United States, and in State Research Center of Virology and Biotechnology VECTOR in Koltsovo, Novosibirsk Oblast, Russia.

The eradication of smallpox was made possible by the fact that it must have a human vector to survive. No human carriers, no smallpox. I well remember getting vaccinated in 1965, then a requirement for all international travelers. I’ve still got the little telltale scar on my upper left arm – the stigmata of a generation. Then you needed a new vaccination every 5 years because cowpox vaccination is not 100% effective for life. I dutifully had mine but none ever took after the first.


Jenner lived and worked in the dairy lands of Gloucester famous for cheeses. Before refrigeration, Gloucester milk spoiled before it could make it to London so it was converted to cheese. There are two types of Gloucester cheese – Single Gloucester and Double Gloucester – both made since the 16th century. Prior to that Gloucester cheeses were made from sheep’s milk. Gloucester is a traditional, semi-hard cheese, at one time made only with the milk of the once nearly extinct Gloucester breed cows (and now on the verge of disappearing again).

Double Gloucester, like Cheddar, is made all over the world and, as such, varies in quality and does not have protected status. Single Gloucester is made only in Gloucestershire and is protected. Both types have a natural rind (outer layer) and a hard texture, but Single Gloucester is more crumbly, lighter in texture and lower in fat. Double Gloucester is allowed to age for longer periods than Single, and it has a stronger and more savory flavor. It is also slightly firmer. The flower known as Lady’s Bedstraw (Galium verum), was responsible for the distinctively yellow color of Double Gloucester. In the United Kingdom today, of these two types of cheese, it is the Double Gloucester which is more likely to be sold in supermarkets. Both types are produced in round shapes, but Double Gloucester rounds are larger. Traditionally, whereas the Double Gloucester was a prized cheese comparable in quality to the best Cheddar or Cheshire, and was exported out of the county, Single Gloucester tended to be consumed within Gloucestershire.

Most Double Gloucester sold in UK supermarkets is slab cheese, made in large creameries operated by major dairy companies such as Dairy Crest. It is normally sold as a supermarket own brand. This version of the cheese is pasteurized but not processed.


Gloucester cheeses are endangered again because of EU regulations (see ). The EU forbids TB vaccination of dairy cattle because immunized cows test positive for TB and so cannot be distinguished from infected animals. A strange ironic twist given that this breed is the source of Jenner’s first smallpox vaccination. Breeders had built up herds in the 1970s but are reluctant to fight the regulations, so herds are again in decline. It is estimated that only 450 purebred cows exist today.

Good traditional Gloucester cheese is hard to beat eaten as is. But you can use it as you would cheddar in recipes. For me, give me some water biscuits, a nice pot of creamery butter, and a good wedge of Gloucester and I am a happy man.