Jul 112021
 

Today is the birthday (1603) of Sir Kenelm Digby whose name may not ring a bell with you.  In his day he was a noted courtier and diplomat, for both Charles I and II, and was a noted astrologer and natural philosopher.  Or, as he is described in John Pointer’s Oxoniensis Academia (1749), he was the “Magazine of all Arts and Sciences, or (as one stiles him) the Ornament of this Nation.” Not faint praise by any means.  But, like so many of his contemporaries who had their time in the sun when they were alive, his sun has now set. He might even be completely forgotten nowadays were it not for the volume, The Closet of the Eminently Learned Sir Kenelme Digbie Kt. Opened, published from his notes after his death by his servant.  The book is a great lens into cooking styles of the seventeenth century, not only in England but also across Europe.  Fans of this blog will remember it from past posts.

Digby was born at Gayhurst in Buckinghamshire. His father, Sir Everard, who owned Gayhurst Manor, was executed in 1606 for his part in the Gunpowder Plot. Digby was raised Catholic, which hindered some of his political ambitions in life, but his father’s deeds did not adversely affect his career given that he was only 3 years old at the time of the Gunpowder Plot. In fact, he was sufficiently in favor with James I to be proposed as a member of Edmund Bolton’s projected Royal Academy (with George Chapman, Michael Drayton, Ben Jonson, John Selden and Sir Henry Wotton). He went to Gloucester Hall (now Worcester College), Oxford, in 1618, where he was taught by Thomas Allen, but left without taking a degree. In time, Allen bequeathed to his library to Digby, which he eventually donated to the Bodleian Library.

He spent three years on the Continent between 1620 and 1623, where Marie de Medici fell madly in love with him (according to his journal !!). Around 1625, he married Venetia Stanley. He had also become a member of the Privy Council of Charles I. Due to his Roman Catholicism being a hindrance in being appointed to government office, he converted to Anglicanism.

Digby became a privateer in 1627. Sailing his flagship, the Eagle (later renamed Arabella),[8] he arrived off Gibraltar on 18th January and captured several Spanish and Flemish vessels. From 15th February to 27th March he remained at anchor off Algiers due to illness among his crew, and extracted a promise from authorities of better treatment of the English ships. Among other things, he persuaded the city governors to free 50 English slaves (yes, indeed, White slavery was alive and well in the 17th century). He seized a Dutch vessel near Majorca, and after other adventures gained a victory over the French and Venetian ships in the harbor of Iskanderun on 11th June. His successes, however, brought upon the English merchants the risk of reprisals, and he was urged to depart. He returned to become a naval administrator and later Governor of Trinity House.

His wife Venetia died suddenly in 1633, prompting a famous deathbed portrait by Van Dyck and a eulogy by Ben Jonson. (Digby was later Jonson’s literary executor. Jonson’s poem about Venetia is now partially lost, because of the loss of the center sheet of a leaf of papers which held the only copy.) Digby, stricken with grief, secluded himself in Gresham College and attempted to forget his personal woes through scientific experimentation and a return to Catholicism. At Gresham College he held an unofficial post, receiving no payment from the College. Digby, alongside Hungarian chemist Johannes Banfi Hunyades, constructed a laboratory under the lodgings of Gresham Professor of Divinity where the two conducted botanical experiments.

After becoming a Catholic once more in 1635, he went into voluntary exile in Paris, where he spent most of his time until 1660. He did return to England to support Charles I in his struggle to establish episcopacy in Scotland (the Bishops’ Wars), and, in response, found himself increasingly unpopular with the growing Puritan party. He left England for France again in 1641. Following an incident in which he killed a French nobleman, Mont le Ros, in a duel, he returned to England via Flanders in 1642, and was jailed by the House of Commons. He was eventually released at the intervention of Anne of Austria, and went back again to France. He remained there during the remainder of the English Civil War.

Queen Henrietta Maria had fled England in 1644, and he became her Chancellor. He was then engaged in unsuccessful attempts to solicit support for the English monarchy from Pope Innocent X. His son, also called Kenelm, was killed at the Battle of St Neots, 1648. Following the establishment of the Protectorate under Oliver Cromwell, Digby was received by the government as a sort of unofficial representative of English Roman Catholics, and was sent in 1655 on a mission to the Papacy to try to reach an understanding. This again proved unsuccessful.

At the Restoration, Digby was also restored to favor with the new regime due to his ties with Henrietta Maria. However, he was often in trouble with Charles II, and was once even banished from Court. Nonetheless, he was generally highly regarded until his death in 1665.

Digby’s Closet Opened is a treasure trove of recipes for the historical enthusiast.  The complete book can be found here:

https://www.gutenberg.org/files/16441/16441-h/16441-h.htm 

Browse at your leisure.  There are no illustrations nor lengthy introductions – just recipe after recipe, many of which are for alcoholic drinks (over 100 pages at the beginning).  Foreign influence can be seen in recipes such as “Pan Cotto, as the Cardinals use in Rome” and “A savoury and nourishing boiled Capon, Del Conte di Trino, a Milano:”

A SAVOURY AND NOURISHING BOILED CAPON DEL CONTE DI TRINO, À MILANO

Take a fat and fleshy Capon, or a like Hen; Dress it in the ordinary manner, and cleanse it within from the guts, &c. Then put in the fat again into the belly, and split the bones of the legs and wings (as far as you may, not to deface the fowl) so as the Marrow may distil out of them. Add a little fresh Butter and Marrow to it; season it with Salt, Pepper, and, what other Spice you like, as also savoury herbs. Put the Capon with all these condiments into a large strong sound bladder of an Ox (first well washed and scoured with Red-wine) and tie it very close and fast to the top, that nothing may ouse out, nor any water get in (and there must be void space in the bladder, that the flesh may have room to swell and ferment in; therefore it must be a large one). Put this to boil for a couple of hours in a Kettle of water, or till you find by touching the Bladder, that the Capon is tender and boiled enough. Then serve it up in a dish, in the Bladder (dry wiped) which when you cut, you will find a precious and nourishing liquor to eat with bread, and the Capon will be short, tender, most savoury and full of juyce, and very nourishing.

I conceive, that if you put enough Ox-marrow, you need no butter; and that it may do well to add Ambergreece, Dates-sliced and pithed, Raisins, Currants, and a little Sugar.

Peradventure this might be done well in a Silver-flagon close luted, set in Balneo bulliente, as I make the nourishing broth or gelly of Mutton or Chickens, &c.

I find his reflections on mince pies to be especially fascinating given that in modern times cooks occasionally wonder why the filling is called mincemeat.  This is why:

MY LADY OF PORTLAND’S MINCED PYES

Take four pounds of Beef, Veal or Neats-Tongues, and eight pounds of Suet; and mince both the meat and Suet very small, befor you put them together. Then mingle them well together and mince it very small, and put to it six pounds of Currants washed and picked very clean. Then take the Peel of two Limons, and half a score of Pippins, and mince them very small. Then take above an Ounce of Nutmegs, and a quarter of an Ounce of Mace, some Cloves and Cinnamon, and put them together, and sweeten them with Rose-water and Sugar. And when you are ready to put them into your Paste, take Citron and Orangiadoe, and slice them very thin, and lay them upon the meat. If you please, put dates upon the top of them. And put amongst the meat an Ounce of Caraway seeds. Be sure you have very fine Paste.

My Lady of Portland told me since, that she finds Neats-tongues to be the best flesh for Pies. Parboil them first. For the proportion of the Ingredients she likes best to take equal parts of flesh, of suet, of currants and of Raisins of the Sun. The other things in proportion as is said above. You may either put the Raisins in whole, or stone the greatest part, and Mince them with the Meat. Keep some whole ones, to lay a bed of them at the top of the Pye, when all is in. You will do well to stick the Candid Orange-peel, and green Citron-peel into the meat. You may put a little Sack or Greek Muscadine into each Pye. A little Amber-sugar doth well here. A pound of flesh, and proportionably of all things else, is enough for once in a large family.

Here are two more recipes for mince pies, in case the first does not suit you.

ANOTHER WAY OF MAKING EXCELLENT MINCED PYES OF MY LADY PORTLANDS

Parboil Neats-tongues. Then Peel and hash them with as much as they weigh of Beef-suet, and stoned Raisins and picked Currants. Chop all exceeding small, that it be like Pap. Employ therein at least an hour more, then ordinarily is used. Then mingle a very little Sugar with them, and a little wine, and thrust in up and down some thin slices of green Candyed Citron-peel. And put this into coffins of fine light well reared crust. Half an hour baking will be enough. If you strew a few Carvi comfits on the top, it will not be amiss.

MINCED PYES

My Lady Lasson makes her finest minced Pyes of Neats-tongues; But she holdeth the most savoury ones to be of Veal and Mutton equal parts very small minced. Her finest crust is made by sprinkling the flower (as much as it needeth) with cold water, and then working the past with little pieces of raw Butter in good quantity. So that she useth neither hot water, nor melted butter in them; And this makes the crust short and light. After all the meat and seasoning, and Plums and Citron Peel, &c. is in the Coffin, she puts a little Ambered-sugar upon it, thus; Grind much two grains of Ambergreece and half a one of Musk, with a little piece of hard loaf Sugar. This will serve six or eight pyes, strewed all over the top. Then cover it with the Liddle, and set it in the oven.

amber sugar

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Amber(ed) sugar is brown rock sugar in crystals which is quite different from ambergris – both of which are mentioned in these recipes. Ambergris is extremely expensive because it is rare – produced occasionally in the digestive system of sperm whales, and highly prized by perfume makers.

Meanwhile — here is a modern attempt at making Digby’s tosted cheese:

Dec 222019
 

Today’s antiphon is O Rex Gentium

Latin:

O Rex Gentium, et desideratus earum,
lapisque angularis, qui facis utraque unum:
veni, et salva hominem,
quem de limo formasti.

English:

O King of the nations, and their desire,
the cornerstone making both one:
Come and save the human race,
which you fashioned from clay.

Isaiah had prophesied:

“For a child has been born for us, a son given us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” Isaiah 9:6

“He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” Isaiah 2:4

“But now, O LORD, thou art our father; we are the clay, and thou our potter; and we all are the work of thy hand. Isaiah 64:8

King of all nations does not narrow things down a whole lot when it comes to picking a recipe. What would you serve a king if he came to dinner? Tough question since he is the king of ALL nations — no favorites.  He was a simple man, anyway.  But he did like to eat with people — a lot.  I made empanaditas today — with mincemeat. Two kinds — fried and baked.  These could be kind of universal — English mincemeat made in a Mexican and Argentine way.

 

Whipped cream makes them royal enough for me.

Dec 162019
 

The Bill of Rights 1689 is a landmark Act in the constitutional law of England that sets out certain basic civil rights and clarifies who would be next to inherit the Crown. It received the Royal Assent on this date in 1689 and is a restatement in statutory form of the Declaration of Right presented by the Convention Parliament to William III and Mary II in February 1689, inviting them to become joint sovereigns of England. The Bill of Rights lays down limits on the powers of the monarch and sets out the rights of Parliament, including the requirement for regular parliaments, free elections, and freedom of speech in Parliament. It sets out certain rights of individuals including the prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment and reestablished the right of Protestants to have arms for their defense within the rule of law. It also includes no right of taxation without Parliament’s agreement. Furthermore, the Bill of Rights described and condemned several misdeeds of James II of England.

These ideas reflected the political views of John Locke and they quickly became popular in England. The Bill also sets out – or, in the view of its drafters, restates – certain constitutional requirements of the Crown to seek the consent of the people, as represented in Parliament. In the United Kingdom, the Bill of Rights is further accompanied by Magna Carta, the Petition of Right, the Habeas Corpus Act 1679 and the Parliament Acts 1911 and 1949 as some of the basic documents of the uncodified British constitution. A separate but similar document, the Claim of Right Act 1689, applies in Scotland. The Bill of Rights 1689 was one of the models for the United States Bill of Rights of 1789 (including the notorious 2nd Amendment), the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, and the European Convention on Human Rights of 1950.

Here is a recipe for rich meat broth from A True Gentlewomans Delight of 1653 that is not only contemporary with the English Bill of Rights, but also puts me in mind of classic Christmas recipes, such as mincemeat.  Although it is a recipe for meat broth to be served as a savory dish, it contains currants, raisins, and prunes and spiced with mace, nutmeg, and cinnamon. It also has a great deal of sugar.  The recipe calls for Saunders which is red sandalwood (giving a yellowish-red tint).  If you do replicate this dish, you might want to reduce the quantities.

DESCRIPTION: How to make a rich broth of lamb or beef

To make stewed Broth.

Take a neck of Mutton, or a rump of Beef, let it boyle, and scum your pot clean, thicken your pot with grated bread, and put in some beaten Spice, as Mace, nutmegs, Cinnamon, and a little Pepper, put in a pound of Currans, a pound and a half of Raisins of the Sun, two pounds of Prunes last of all, then when it is stewed, to season put in a quart of Claret, and a pint of Sack, and some Saunders to colour it, and a pound of Sugar to sweeten it, or more if need be, you must seeth some whole Spice to garnish your dish with all, and a few whole Prunes out of your pot.

Dec 132019
 

Today is the birthday of Phillips Brooks (1835–1893), an Episcopal priest, who, when he was rector of Church of the Holy Trinity, Philadelphia wrote the words of “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” He was inspired by visiting the village of Bethlehem in Israel in 1865. Three years later, he wrote the poem for his church, and his organist Lewis Redner (1831-1908) added the music.

Redner’s tune, “St. Louis”, is the tune used most often for this carol in the United States. Redner recounted the story of its composition:

As Christmas of 1868 approached, Mr. Brooks told me that he had written a simple little carol for the Christmas Sunday-school service, and he asked me to write the tune to it. The simple music was written in great haste and under great pressure. We were to practice it on the following Sunday. Mr. Brooks came to me on Friday, and said, ‘Redner, have you ground out that music yet to “O Little Town of Bethlehem”? I replied, ‘No,’ but that he should have it by Sunday. On the Saturday night previous my brain was all confused about the tune. I thought more about my Sunday-school lesson than I did about the music. But I was roused from sleep late in the night hearing an angel-strain whispering in my ear, and seizing a piece of music paper I jotted down the treble of the tune as we now have it, and on Sunday morning before going to church I filled in the harmony. Neither Mr. Brooks nor I ever thought the carol or the music to it would live beyond that Christmas of 1868.

 My recollection is that Richard McCauley, who then had a bookstore on Chestnut Street west of Thirteenth Street, printed it on leaflets for sale. Rev. Dr. Huntington, rector of All Saints’ Church, Worcester, Mass., asked permission to print it in his Sunday-school hymn and tune book, called The Church Porch, and it was he who christened the music ‘Saint Louis.’

Growing up in England, I knew a completely different tune, which I – mistakenly – thought was the original (because I thought it was an English carol). I am well used to favorite carols having different tunes in England and the US.  I actually prefer the English tune which was composed by Ralph Vaughan Williams and based on an English folk ballad called “The Ploughboy’s Dream” which he had collected from a Mr. Garman of Forest Green, Surrey in 1903. Henry Garman was born in 1830 in Sussex, and in the 1901 census was living in Ockley, Surrey. Vaughan Williams’ manuscript notes he was a “labourer of Forest Green near Ockley – Surrey. (Aged about 60?)”, although Mr Garman would have been nearer 73 when he sang the tune. It is called “Forest Green” now.

When I was a pastor, I frequently sang this as a duet with my late wife at Christmas (with me singing the bass line).

There are also two tunes by H. Walford Davies, called “Wengen”, and “Christmas carol.” “Wengen” was published in Hymns Ancient and Modern in 1922, meanwhile “Christmas Carol” is usually performed only by choirs rather than as a congregational hymn. This is because the first two verses are for treble voices with organ accompaniment, with only the final verse as a chorale/refrain harmony. This setting includes a recitative from the Gospel of Luke at the beginning, and cuts verses 2 and 4 of the original 5-verse carol. This version is often performed at the service of Nine Lessons and Carols in Kings College, Cambridge.

Here is a Christmas recipe from my own YouTube channel, Juan’s Whirled (so you can hear my voice if this blog is the only way you know me).  It’s my take on mincemeat pie with actual meat in it – as might be prepared centuries ago.  Please subscribe to the channel if you are new to it.

 

Dec 282016
 

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On this date in 1836 South Australia was officially proclaimed as a new British colony near The Old Gum Tree in what is now the suburb of Glenelg North. The event is commemorated in South Australia as Proclamation Day. I grew up in Gawler, South Australia so today has something of a resonance for me. I’ve not returned since 1965 but around this time of year I sense the urge to visit once again and get a little nostalgic. Proclamation Day used to be a public holiday, but it was never important for my family because we were on school summer holidays anyway. Still, the founding of South Australia is an important event, rarely noted in the histories (not even in my own history classes), because it was overshadowed by the eastern colonies and cities – Sydney, Melbourne, New South Wales, etc. – and the eastern explorers.

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A group in Britain led by Edward Gibbon Wakefield was looking to start a colony based on free settlement rather than convict labor. Wakefield suggested that instead of granting free land to settlers as had happened in other colonies, the land should be sold. The money from land purchases would be used solely to transport laborers to the colony free of charge; they would be responsible people and skilled workers rather than paupers and convicts. Land prices needed to be high enough so that workers who saved to buy land of their own remained in the workforce long enough to avoid a labor shortage.

In 1830 Charles Sturt explored the Murray River and was impressed with what he briefly saw while passing through Lake Alexandrina, later writing:

Hurried ….as my view of it was, my eye never fell on a country of more promising aspect, or more favourable position, than that which occupies the space between the lake (Lake Alexandrina) and the ranges of the St Vincent Gulf, and, continuing northerly from Mount Barker stretches away, without any visible boundary.

Captain Collet Barker, sent by New South Wales Governor Ralph Darling, conducted a more thorough survey of the area in 1831, as recommended by Sturt. After swimming the mouth of the Murray River, Barker was killed by aboriginees who may have been suspicious of him because of contact with sealers and escaped convicts in the region. Despite this, his more detailed survey led Sturt to conclude in his 1833 report:

It would appear that a spot has at last been found upon the south coast of New Holland to which the colonists might venture with every prospect of success ….All who have ever landed upon the eastern shore of the St. Vincent’s Gulf agree as to the richness of its soil and the abundance of its pastures.

In 1834 the South Australian Association, with the aid of such figures as George Grote, William Molesworth and the Duke of Wellington persuaded British Parliament to pass the South Australia Colonisation Act 1834. The Act stated that 802,511 square kilometers would be allotted to the colony and to be convict-free. The plan for the colony to be the ideal embodiment of the best qualities of British society, that is, no religious discrimination or unemployment. The province and its capital were named prior to settlement. The Act further specified that it was to be self-sufficient; £20,000 surety had to be created and £35,000 worth of land had to be sold in the new colony before any settlement was permitted. These conditions were fulfilled by the close of 1835.

While New South Wales, Tasmania and (although not initially) Western Australia were established as convict settlements, the founders of South Australia had a vision for a colony with political and religious freedoms, together with opportunities for wealth through business and pastoral investments. The South Australia Act  reflected these desires and included a promise of representative government when the population reached 50,000 people. South Australia thus became the only colony authorized by an Act of Parliament, and which was intended to be developed at no cost to the British government. Transportation of convicts was forbidden, and ‘poor Emigrants,’ assisted by an Emigration Fund, were required to bring their families with them. Significantly, the Letters Patent enabling the South Australia Act included a guarantee of the rights of ‘any Aboriginal Natives’ and their descendants to lands they ‘now actually occupied or enjoyed.’ These noble intentions were not fulfilled of course.

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The western and eastern boundaries of the colony were set at 132° and 141° East of Greenwich, and to the north at the Tropic of Capricorn, (23° 26′ South). The western and eastern boundary points were chosen as they marked the extent of coastline first surveyed by Matthew Flinders in 1802.

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In 1836, the John Pirie and the Duke of York of the South Australia Land Company set sail for South Australia to establish the first settlement on Kangaroo Island. Royal Navy Rear-Admiral John Hindmarsh was selected to be South Australia’s first governor. The first settlers and officials set sail in early 1836. A total of nine ships consisting of 636 people set sail from London for South Australia. The ships in the fleet included the Cygnet (carrying Colonel William Light’s surveyors), Africaine, Tam O’Shanter, Rapid, and HMS Buffalo (carrying Hindmarsh). After an eight-month voyage around the world, most of the ships took supplies and settlers to Kangaroo Island. They landed at Kingscote to await official decisions on the location and administration of the new colony.

Surveyor Colonel William Light was given two months to locate the most advantageous location for the main colony. He was required to find a site with a harbor, arable land, fresh water, ready internal and external communications, building materials and drainage. Light rejected potential locations for the new main settlement, including Kangaroo Island, Port Lincoln, and Encounter Bay. Light decided that the Adelaide plains were the best location for settlement. Most of the settlers were moved from Kangaroo Island to Holdfast Bay with Governor Hindmarsh arriving on 28 December 1836 to proclaim the province of South Australia.

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The date 28 December as a public holiday in South Australia was modified to the first otherwise working day after the Christmas Day public holiday (i.e. usually 26 December). Formal ceremonies involving the most senior current officials and politicians, followed by public celebrations, continue to be held at the still-extant Old Gum Tree at Glenelg on 28 December.

A Christmas bombe is an entirely suitable treat for this day. When I lived in South Australia my mum used to make a full roast dinner for Christmas followed by Christmas pudding, all of which would make the kitchen (where we ate), an absolute furnace. But for my mum tradition was tradition even though it sometimes topped out at 100°F(38°C) and we had no air conditioning; not even a fan. Even so it would have been unthinkable for her to deviate from her British traditions.

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When I was raising a family in New York I usually made a traditional British Christmas dinner, but ice cream at Christmas was actually a Victorian favorite, especially chestnut ice cream — https://www.bookofdaystales.com/w-s-gilbert/ — so sometimes I made a bombe. You can make your own ice cream for this, or use store bought. You’ll need a large mould.  I used to use a flat-bottomed metal bowl, the same one I used to boil my puddings.

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Over the years I made two different kinds of bombes. My original attempts were simply tri-colored bombes. All you need is ice cream of three nicely contrasting colors. Butter the mould well and line it with plastic wrap. Soften one ice cream so that it spreads easily. Then coat the base of the mould with it. Set up the ice cream in the mould in the freezer for several hours. Soften the next color of ice cream, then remove the mould from the freezer, spread the second ice cream inside the first leaving a hollow in the center, and return the mould to the freezer. When the second ice cream has set up, soften the last ice cream. Then fill the hollow with the third flavor, smooth off the bottom, and let the whole set up. To serve, have a basin of warm water handy. Dip the mould in the warm water to release the bombe. Turn it out on a plate, remove the plastic wrap, and serve sliced. If you want you can give guests a fruit syrup. It depends on the flavors of the ice cream.

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If you are adventurous you can make mincemeat ice cream with brandied cherries. This takes all of Advent to prepare. First, around 6 weeks before Christmas, fill a large mason jar with pitted bitter cherries and pour good quality brandy over them. Seal the jar and set aside. Every day or so invert the jar so that it spends half the time on its base and half on its lid. Make the bombe 2 or 3 days ahead of time. I always made my own vanilla ice cream and mincemeat for this recipe but you can use store bought if you want. My vanilla ice cream recipe is here, https://www.bookofdaystales.com/helen-keller/ and my mincemeat recipe is here https://www.bookofdaystales.com/first-sunday-advent/

Soften the vanilla ice cream and mix it well with mincemeat. The proportions are entirely up to you but I would not overdo the mincemeat. Butter a mould and line it with plastic wrap. Fill the mould with the ice cream and mincemeat mix, and let it set up overnight. To serve, unmould the ice cream on to a serving platter, and spoon the brandied cherries with some of the flavored brandy over the top.

Nov 272016
 

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Today is the first Sunday of Advent, the first Sunday in the ecclesiastical year in many churches in the West, and the beginning of Christmastide in general. I like to follow the church traditions for Christmas and Easter, rather than succumb to secular chaos. I have discussed my general idea about “unpacking” Christmas in many places – e.g. here http://www.passionintellectpersistence.com/unpacking-christmas/ I’ll give a quick synopsis now, and you can see how it works if you follow this blog to Christmas Day and beyond.

The simple way to think about the whole business is that Advent is not Christmas. Advent leads to Christmas in the same way that Lent leads to Easter. It is a time of preparation and anticipation. If you just plunge right into the whole pageant full bore, listening to carols or Christmas music blaring in stores, seeing images of Santa, angels, wise men, baby Jesus etc. etc. all jumbled together, having festive office and home parties, present shopping amidst frantic crowds, and all the rest of it, you are missing the whole contour of the season, and I am not surprised if you are exhausted by the time the 25th of December rolls around, and are glad when it’s over. If you take slow steps towards Christmas and prepare properly, the season unfolds slowly and joyously. You can savor each moment for what it is, and not try to cram it in all at once.

No one knows for sure when Advent was inaugurated as a church season. The earliest source asserting December 25th as the date of the birth of Jesus was Hippolytus of Rome (170–236), writing very early in the 3rd century, and basing the date on the assumption that the conception of Jesus took place at the Spring equinox which he placed on March 25, and then added nine months. There is historical evidence that by the middle of the 4th century the Christian churches of the East celebrated the birth and baptism of Jesus on the same day, on January 6th while those in the West celebrated a Nativity feast on December 25th, and that by the last quarter of the 4th century, the calendars of both churches included both feasts. Advent was added some time in the 5th century, it appears.

There was some kind of preparatory season before Christmas as early as 480 but it was the Council of Tours of 567 that firmly fixed the idea by ordering monks to fast every day in the month of December until Christmas. Advent and Christmas were not, and still are not, as important in the Christian church as Easter, but you’d never know this given the secular hijacking of Christmas for commercial purposes. In fact, until the 19th century Christmas was a rather low-key affair, and it was Dickens more than anyone else who was responsible for raising its profile in the public eye. I’ll let the secular world do its thing whilst I continue to follow old church tradition.

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For me, the Advent wreath is a tangible way to keep things in perspective. The concept of the Advent wreath originated among German Lutherans in the 16th century, but the modern Advent wreath took shape in the 19th. Johann Hinrich Wichern (1808–1881), a Protestant pastor in Germany and a pioneer in urban mission work among the poor is credited as the inventor of the modern Advent wreath. Supposedly, during Advent, children at the mission school Rauhes Haus, founded by Wichern in Hamburg, would ask daily if Christmas had arrived. In 1839, he built a large wooden ring (made out of an old cartwheel) with 24 small red and 4 large white candles. A small candle was lit successively every weekday and Saturday during Advent. On Sundays, a large white candle was lit. The custom gained ground among Protestant churches in Germany and evolved into the smaller wreath with four or five candles known today. Roman Catholics in Germany began to adopt the custom in the 1920s, and in the 1930s it spread to North America.

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The Advent wreath (or crown) nowadays can take many forms. Mine has four colored candles in a ring representing the 4 Sundays of Advent, and a white candle in the middle representing Christ. You start on the first Sunday of Advent by lighting one candle, then each successive Sunday you light one more until the whole circle is lit. Then on Christmas Eve you light all four plus the white candle, and do so again on Christmas Day. In this way you have the physical feeling of the season growing in intensity, Sunday by Sunday, instead of feeling as if everything has crashed down on you all at once.

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I make my Advent crown by taking a plate, affixing the candles to it by melting wax to form their base (and making a mess in the process), then adding assorted bits and pieces – mostly sweets – as decoration.  At the start it’s very simple, but it grows as the season progresses. The crown is not a static decoration, but an ever-evolving one.

The colors of the candles vary in different church traditions. In Protestant churches three are usually purple or violet symbolizing penitence, and one is rose (or pink). Sometimes people (especially in the Anglican and Methodist communions) use blue rather than violet. I’m not very fussy about such things; I tend to go with what I can find. The important point is to have one that is rose or red. In the current Catholic tradition, all the candles are red, representing the dominant Christmas color. It is a matter of choice whether you have a white Christ candle in the middle or not.

In different traditions the candles have different names and meanings. When I was a pastor I used the sequence of Hope, Love, Peace, and Joy, with the rose candle signifying Peace. I’ll explore their separate meanings for me over the next three Sundays. For now let’s talk about HOPE. This is an easy one. I always light the first candle in the crown very early – in the darkness – on Sunday morning. I want the mental and physical image to be one of starkness and bareness with a single, frail light dispelling the gloom of night. That image, to me, symbolizes hope very clearly.

Music for the season is also important to me. Many churches just bang on with carols right from the start. But there are Advent hymns that are about hope and expectation, that in my mind should come first. This is a classic based on a 12th century Latin text, with a tune taken from Gregorian chant:

It gets slung into the general Christmas mix on CDs and such under the general rubric “Christmas music,” but deserves to be first, on its own, at the very beginning of Advent, then set aside.

Food preparation is a most important aspect of Advent for me. I already shared here my making of Christmas puddings last Sunday https://www.bookofdaystales.com/stir-up-sunday/ because that little nugget precedes Advent. But the bulk of Christmas food preparation takes place within Advent. There are a number of things that need time to mature. Mincemeat is one.

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The name “mincemeat” often confuses people because they don’t understand the history of the recipe. For centuries mincemeat consisted of chopped meat with fruit, as was common in Medieval cookery. Gradually the fruit and sweet component came to be predominant, and the meat element was reduced to fat of some sort – usually suet. A few diehards still add meat, as I was wont to do years ago. Mincemeat is a thoroughly English Christmas tradition that has gradually spread to other parts of the world primarily the British Diaspora. Here’s a 16th century recipe for meat pies from A Propre new booke of Cookery (1545):

Pyes of mutton or beif must be fyne mynced & seasoned with pepper and salte and a lytel saffron to colour it / suet or marrow a good quantitie / a lytell vynegre / pruynes / great reasons / and dates / take the fattest of the broath of powdred beefe. And if you will have paest royall / take butter and yolkes of egges & so to temper the floure to make the paest.  

This is clearly a savory dish with sweet and sour notes. But even in the 19th century Mrs Beeton still calls for beef in the recipe, even though her mincemeat is for dessert pies:

MINCEMEAT.

  1. INGREDIENTS.—2 lbs. of raisins, 3 lbs. of currants, 1-1/2 lb. of lean beef, 3 lbs. of beef suet, 2 lbs. of moist sugar, 2 oz. of citron, 2 oz. of candied lemon-peel, 2 oz. of candied orange-peel, 1 small nutmeg, 1 pottle of apples, the rind of 2 lemons, the juice of 1, 1/2 pint of brandy.

Mode.—Stone and cut the raisins once or twice across, but do not chop them; wash, dry, and pick the currants free from stalks and grit, and mince the beef and suet, taking care that the latter is chopped very fine; slice the citron and candied peel, grate the nutmeg, and pare, core, and mince the apples; mince the lemon-peel, strain the juice, and when all the ingredients are thus prepared, mix them well together, adding the brandy when the other things are well blended; press the whole into a jar, carefully exclude the air, and the mincemeat will be ready for use in a fortnight.

Average cost for this quantity, 8s.

Seasonable.—Make this about the beginning of December.

This is a pretty hefty amount – over 12 pounds of mincemeat without adding in the pottle of apples, whatever that means.  A pottle is half a gallon of liquid, but also a generic name for a container. Not important. The gist of the recipe is clear. She also gives the following which is far closer to modern recipes:

EXCELLENT MINCEMEAT.

INGREDIENTS.—3 large lemons, 3 large apples, 1 lb. of stoned raisins, 1 lb. of currants, 1 lb. of suet, 2 lbs. of moist sugar, 1 oz. of sliced candied citron, 1 oz. of sliced candied orange-peel, and the same quantity of lemon-peel, 1 teacupful of brandy, 2 tablespoonfuls of orange marmalade.

Mode.—Grate the rinds of the lemons; squeeze out the juice, strain it, and boil the remainder of the lemons until tender enough to pulp or chop very finely. Then add to this pulp the apples, which should be baked, and their skins and cores removed; put in the remaining ingredients one by one, and, as they are added, mix everything very thoroughly together. Put the mincemeat into a stone jar with a closely-fitting lid, and in a fortnight it will be ready for use.

Seasonable.—This should be made the first or second week in December.

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Given her penchant for plagiarism, I doubt Mrs Beeton tested either recipe, but she got them from someone who did. For me, making mincemeat is a fairly simple, haphazard affair. I start with a mix of raisins, sultanas, and currants, and add about half again of grated suet. Then I add some apple chopped fine and finish the fruit mix with what crystallized fruits and candied peel I have on hand. Finally, I moisten the mix with lemon juice and brandy, stir in a fair amount of allspice, cloves, nutmeg, and cinnamon to taste, and bottle it up until Christmas, leaving it to mature in the back of a kitchen cupboard. If need be I add brandy on Sundays when I “feed” my puddings. It’s ready to use in pies by Christmas Eve.