Mar 202019

Today is the birthday (1917) of dame Vera Margaret Lynn CH DBE OStJ, widely known as “the Forces’ Sweetheart” because her musical recordings and performances were enormously popular during the Second World War. I almost never honor a living person, but when scouring my lists I found her name and thought she must have passed on by now. Nope. 102 today.

During the war she toured Egypt, India, and Burma as part of Entertainments National Service Association (ENSA), giving outdoor concerts for the troops. The songs most associated with her are “We’ll Meet Again”, “The White Cliffs of Dover”, “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square” and “There’ll Always Be an England”.

She remained popular after the war, appearing on radio and television in the UK and the US and recording such hits as “Auf Wiederseh’n Sweetheart” and her UK Number one single “My Son, My Son”. In 2009, at age 92, she became the oldest living artist to top the UK Albums Chart, with compilation album We’ll Meet Again: The Very Best of Vera Lynn. She released the compilation album of hits Vera Lynn 100 in 2017, to commemorate her centennial year, and it was a number-3 hit, making her the first centenarian performer to have an album in the charts. She is held in great affection by veterans of the Second World War to this day, and in 2000 was named the Briton who best exemplified the spirit of the 20th century.

Lynn sang outside Buckingham Palace in 1995 in a ceremony that marked the golden jubilee of VE Day. This is stated to have been her last known public performance, although she sang again on the evening of the same day in the public concert in Hyde Park. The United Kingdom’s VE Day Diamond Jubilee ceremonies in 2005 included a concert in Trafalgar Square in London, in which Lynn made a surprise appearance. She gave a speech praising the veterans and calling upon the younger generation always to remember their sacrifice, and joined in with a few bars of “We’ll Meet Again”. In her speech Lynn said: “These boys gave their lives and some came home badly injured, and for some families life would never be the same. We should always remember, we should never forget, and we should teach the children to remember.”

Well . . . are we teaching the children???  No need to comment, I know the answer.

When looking around for a recipe, I discovered that Vera Lynn’s idea of a simple pleasure is a glass of wine and a bag of crisps. Hmmmm. Not very celebratory, and not something that appeals to me. But, go ahead if it tickles your fancy. Lynn ran into a certain amount of criticism early in her career (pre-war years) because she came from an east London, working-class family. That all faded when she became the forces favorite, and the voice of hope during the Blitz, but she was always proud of her roots. So here’s London Particular, a version of split pea soup developed in the early 20th century in dubious honor of the smogs, known as “pea soupers” that hung over England in those days. This version requires making ham stock first, and is a little bit different from the usual pea soups in that he contains malt vinegar.

London Particular


1 smoked ham hock
1 onion, peeled and halved
1 stick celery, roughly chopped
8 black peppercorns
½ cup malt vinegar
1 bay leaf
8-10 fresh mint leaves
1 tbsp chopped parsley stalks
200 gm green split peas
40 gm butter
1 onion, peeled and diced
freshly ground black pepper


Place the ham hock in a large saucepan along with the halved onion, celery, peppercorns, bay leaf, mint, malt vinegar and parsley stalks. Cover with cold water, bring to a boil and simmer, partially covered, for two to two and a half hours, until tender. Leave to cool in the liquid, then remove and strain the stock through a sieve into a bowl. Reserve the stock for making the soup, and shred the meat into bite-sized chunks. Taste the stock: if it is too salty, dilute with fresh water.

Melt the butter in a large saucepan over a medium-low heat and sweat the onion until soft and translucent. Add the peas and about 1 ½ liters of stock, bring to a boil, reduce the heat to a simmer and skim off any scum. Simmer until the peas are very soft, between 45 to an hour. Add more stock if the soup gets too thick. Process about three-quarters of the soup in a blender until smooth, adding a little more stock if it is too thick. Season to taste with black pepper. Return to the saucepan with the unblended soup, add some of the ham and warm through. Serve in warmed bowls, with some mint leaves scattered over the top. Place a cruet of malt vinegar on the table in case guests wish to add more.

Feb 272017

Today, the Monday before Ash Wednesday, used to go by a lot of names in England at one time, but they are all pretty well defunct.  Shrove Monday is technically correct because it is the Monday in Shrovetide.  But just as tomorrow is technically Shrove Tuesday, but the English all call it Pancake Day (because you eat pancakes on that day), today – to my mind, is best known as Collop Monday, although the tradition of eating collops today has fallen away in most places – except in my house.

Formally, Shrovetide is the week before Lent, but in many parts of the world where Carnival now stretches from Epiphany to Lent (New Orleans, Buenos Aires, Rio etc.), Shrovetide covers that whole season.  There’s nothing really wrong with merging Christmas and Easter. In the Medieval church the two festivals were seen as quintessentially linked.  Many traditional (supposedly Christmas) carols actually follow the arc of the two seasons, but now they get sung at Christmas and miss out the Easter bits.  Handel’s Messiah is well known for having what people think of as the Christmas part and the Easter part. Handel was following the ages old tradition of placing the two celebrations together. If you follow the arc all the way from Advent to Pentecost you cover half the year (from the end of November to May), so, in some ways you can conceive of the winter and spring as the sacred half of the year, and summer and autumn as the secular half. I’ll unpack some of this as the Easter season progresses.

I like splitting the year in two like this.  I also like the ups and downs of the Christmas to Easter arc.  It’s not all feasts and merriment. There are feasts AND fasts, and, for my money, the fasts are as important as the feasts. Feasting after a fast is much more celebratory than simply pigging out all year, with extra blow outs once in a while.

Shrovetide is, of course, feast time because Lent is coming.  The Monday and Tuesday before Lent are typically associated with rich foods. I don’t buy the idea that people used to use up all their fats, meats, etc. before Lent in celebratory meals so that they did not go to waste, but there is plenty of evidence that the days before Lent were especially joyous – and still are.   Pancakes on Tuesday still survive, but collops on Monday did not.

The word “shrove” is the past tense of the English verb “shrive,” (past participle, “shriven”) which means to obtain absolution for one’s sins by way of Confession and doing Penance. Early English Christians were expected to be shriven immediately before Lent began. The terms “Shrove Monday” and “Shrove Tuesday” are no longer widely used in English-speaking countries outside of high liturgical traditions, such as in the Lutheran, Anglican, and Roman Catholic Churches.

The name Collop Monday leaves us with a bit of puzzle because what collops were when the day got its name is not clear.  A collop is a slice of meat, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, but the derivation is obscure. By Elizabethan times, “collops” came to refer specifically to slices of bacon. Shrove Monday was traditionally the last day to cook and eat meat before Ash Wednesday A traditional breakfast dish was collops of bacon topped with a fried egg. This could well be the beginning of eggs and bacon as a breakfast dish.

But collops are not simply slices of bacon; any cutlet could be referred to as a collop, and there are also examples in early sources of minced meat (lamb, beef, or bacon), served in thin patties being called collops. At Christ’s Hospital, founded before the reign of Elizabeth I, the word collops was used on the menu to mean stewed minced beef. Scotch collops are a traditional Scottish dish. It can be created using either thin slices or minced meat of beef, lamb or venison. This is combined with onion, salt, pepper and suet, then stewed, baked or roasted with optional flavorings according to the meat used. It is traditionally served garnished with thin toast and mashed potato. It is referred to as a meal in Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel, Kidnapped. Lamb collops were included on the breakfast menu for first class passengers of the Titanic.

In east Cornwall, today is sometimes called Peasen Monday or Paisen Monday after the custom of eating pea soup on this day.  I’m not sure why pea soup was especially recommended for Shrovetide unless it was made with bacon or ham hocks which would be forbidden in Lent. In any case, for my Collop Monday dinner I usually combine the two traditions in my own special way – pea soup followed by a slice of steak with an egg on top (plus an onion and mushroom garnish in between).  Here’s my gallery from this year with notes:

Here’s my pea soup.  I usually make it by keeping the split peas somewhat integral, rather than making a purée of the soup with a blender.  This year I had to use prosciutto for the ham part.  It worked.

Caramelize some onion

Quickly sear a thin slice of steak in a very hot pan (without fat)

This year I mixed in some wild mushrooms with the caramelized onions

Fry an agg

Serve with the egg over the steak garnished with onions

Apr 042015


Today is the birthday (1648) of Grinling Gibbons, a Dutch-British sculptor and wood carver known for his work in England, including St Paul’s Cathedral, Blenheim Palace and Hampton Court Palace. He was born and educated in Holland of English parents, his father being a merchant. He is widely regarded as the finest wood carver working in England, and the only one whose name is widely known among the general public. Most of his work is in lime (tilia) wood, especially decorative Baroque garlands made up of still-life elements at about life size, made to frame mirrors and decorate the walls of churches and palaces. He also produced furniture and small relief plaques with figurative scenes. He also worked in stone, mostly for churches. By the time he was established he led a large workshop, and the extent to which his personal hand appears in later work varies.


Very little is known about his early life. The name Grinling is formed from sections of two family names. He was born in Rotterdam, and it is sometimes thought that his father may have been the Englishman Samuel Gibbons, who worked under Inigo Jones, but even two of his closest acquaintances, the portrait painter Thomas Murray and the diarist John Evelyn, cannot agree on how he came to be introduced to King Charles II. He moved to Deptford in England around 1667, and by 1693 had accepted commissions from the royal family and had been appointed as a master carver. By 1680 he was already known as the “King’s Carver”, and carried out exquisite work for St Paul’s Cathedral, Windsor Castle, and the Earl of Essex’s house at Cassiobury. His carving was so fine that it was said a pot of carved flowers above his house in London would tremble from the motion of passing coaches.


The diarist Evelyn first discovered Gibbons’ talent by chance in 1671. Evelyn, from whom Gibbons rented a cottage near Evelyn’s home in Sayes Court, Deptford (today part of south-east London), wrote the following: “I saw the young man at his carving, by the light of a candle. I saw him to be engaged on a carved representation of Tintoretto’s “Crucifixion”, which he had in a frame of his own making.” Later that same evening, Evelyn described what he had seen to Sir Christopher Wren. Wren and Evelyn then introduced him to King Charles II who gave him his first commission – still resting in the dining room of Windsor Castle.


Horace Walpole later wrote about Gibbons: “There is no instance of a man before Gibbons who gave wood the loose and airy lightness of flowers, and chained together the various productions of the elements with the free disorder natural to each species.”


Gibbons was employed by Wren to work on St Paul’s Cathedral and later was appointed as master carver to George I. He was also commissioned by King William III to create carvings, some of which adorn Kensington Palace today. An example of his work can be seen in the Presence Chamber above the fireplace, which was originally intended to frame a portrait of Queen Mary II after her death in 1694. Also in the Orangery at Kensington, you can see some his pieces. Many fine examples of his work can still be seen in the churches around London – particularly the choir stalls and organ case of St Paul’s Cathedral. Some of the finest Gibbons carvings accessible to the general public are those on display at the National Trust’s Petworth House in West Sussex, UK. At Petworth the Carved Room is host to a fine and extensive display of intricate wooden carvings by Gibbons.

gg13 gg14

His association with Deptford is commemorated locally: Grinling Gibbons Primary School is in Clyde Street, near the site of Sayes Court. His work can be seen in the London churches of St Michael Paternoster Royal and St James, Piccadilly, where he carved the wood reredos and marble font. The Anglican dislike of painted altarpieces typically left a large space on the east wall that needed filling, which often gave Grinling’s garlands a very prominent position, as here.

St Michael and All Angels Church, Badminton, has a monument by Gibbons to Henry Somerset, 1st Duke of Beaufort (1629–1700). He was buried alongside his ancestors in the Beaufort Chapel in St George’s Chapel, Windsor, but the monument was moved to Badminton in 1878. The monument by Gibbons is now on the North side of the chancel at St Michael and All Angels Church, Badminton, and consists of an effigy of the Duke in Garter robes, reclining on a sarcophagus and a plinth with relief of St George and the Dragon. There are twin Corinthian columns with embossed shafts, acanthus frieze, cornice with flaming urns, and the Duke’s arms and supporters. At the top, 25 ft from the ground, is a tasseled cushion supporting a coronet; on the plinth are full-length female figures of Justice and Truth. Above the Duke’s effigy, parted curtains show the heavenly host with palms and crowns. The Latin inscription displays the names of his family and the many offices he held.


St. Peter and St. Paul church in Exton, Rutland has a fine marble tomb by Gibbons, dating from 1685, showing Viscount Campden with his fourth wife, Elizabeth Bertie, and carvings of his 19 children. Gibbons also made the monument for Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell, a British naval hero killed in a disastrous shipwreck in 1707. Shovell’s large marble monument can be seen in the south choir aisle of Westminster Abbey.

Gibbons’ work very often includes carvings of peapods. A legend states that he would include a closed pod in his work, only carving it open once he had been paid. If the pea pod was left shut it supposedly showed that he had not been paid for the work.


Gibbons worked predominantly in tilia wood, commonly called lime or linden (not related to the lime fruit).Tilia is a genus of about 30 species of trees native throughout most of the temperate Northern Hemisphere. The genus occurs in Europe and eastern North America, but the greatest species diversity is found in Asia.

Linden trees produce soft and easily worked timber, which has very little grain and a density of 560 kg per cubic metre. During the Viking era it was often used for constructing shields. It is a popular wood for model building and for intricate carving. Especially in Germany, it was the classic wood for sculpture from the Middle Ages onwards and is the material for the elaborate altarpieces of Veit Stoss, Tilman Riemenschneider, and many others. The wood is used in marionette- and puppet-making and -carving. Having a fine light grain and being comparatively light in weight, it has been used for centuries for this purpose; despite the availability of modern alternatives it remains one of the main materials used as of 2015.

There are a few dishes that might be called Anglo-Dutch in that they are made similarly and are popular in both countries. Pea soup is one such. Actually pea soup has shown up in three of my posts already:

Although there is an endless variety of recipes for pea soup it comes down to a few basics — peas, onions, potatoes and meat. Then the decisions: fresh or dried peas, green or yellow splits, blended or chunky, smoked meat or not, hocks or sausages, or what? The most basic recipe calls for simmering green splits in stock with a ham hock or two, diced potatoes, and coarsely chopped onions. When the peas are fully mushy strip the meat from the ham hock and return it to the soup. I prefer to blend the vegetables and then return the meat.

“Pease” is the Middle English singular and plural form of the word “pea”—indeed, “pea” began as a back-formation. Pease pudding was a high-protein low-cost staple of the diet and, made from easily stored dried peas, was an ideal form of food for sailors, particularly boiled in accompaniment with salt pork which is the origin of English pea (and ham) soup. Although pease was replaced as a staple by potatoes during the nineteenth century, the food still remains popular in the national diet in the form of “mushy peas” commonly sold as the typical accompaniment to fish and chips, as well as with meat pies.


Here’s 3 old fashioned English recipes from Mrs Beeton


142. INGREDIENTS.—3 pints of green peas, 1/4 lb. of butter, 2 or three thin slices of ham, 6 onions sliced, 4 shredded lettuces, the crumb of 2 French rolls, 2 handfuls of spinach, 1 lump of sugar, 2 quarts of common stock.

Mode.—Put the butter, ham, 1 quart of the peas, onions, and lettuces, to a pint of stock, and simmer for an hour; then add the remainder of the stock, with the crumb of the French rolls, and boil for another hour. Now boil the spinach, and squeeze it very dry. Rub the soup through a sieve, and the spinach with it, to colour it. Have ready a pint of young peas boiled; add them to the soup, put in the sugar, give one boil, and serve. If necessary, add salt.

Time.—2-1/2 hours. Average cost, 1s. 9d. per quart.

Seasonable from June to the end of August.

Sufficient for 10 persons.

Note.—It will be well to add, if the peas are not quite young, a little sugar. Where economy is essential, water may be used instead of stock for this soup, boiling in it likewise the pea-shells; but use a double quantity of vegetables.


143. INGREDIENTS.—1 quart of split peas, 2 lbs. of shin of beef, trimmings of meat or poultry, a slice of bacon, 2 large carrots, 2 turnips, 5 large onions, 1 head of celery, seasoning to taste, 2 quarts of soft water, any bones left from roast meat, 2 quarts of common stock, or liquor in which a joint of meat has been boiled.

Mode.—Put the peas to soak over-night in soft water, and float off such as rise to the top. Boil them in the water till tender enough to pulp; then add the ingredients mentioned above, and simmer for 2 hours, stirring it occasionally. Pass the whole through a sieve, skim well, season, and serve with toasted bread cut in dice.

Time.—4 hours. Average cost, 6d. per quart. Seasonable all the year round, but more suitable for cold weather. Sufficient for 12 persons.

THE PEA.—It is supposed that the common gray pea, found wild in Greece, and other parts of the Levant, is the original of the common garden pea, and of all the domestic varieties belonging to it. The gray, or field pea, called bisallie by the French, is less subject to run into varieties than the garden kinds, and is considered by some, perhaps on that account, to be the wild plant, retaining still a large proportion of its original habit. From the tendency of all other varieties “to run away” and become different to what they originally were, it is very difficult to determine the races to which they belong. The pea was well known to the Romans, and, probably, was introduced to Britain at an early period; for we find peas mentioned by Lydgate, a poet of the 15th century, as being hawked in London. They seem, however, for a considerable time, to have fallen out of use; for, in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, Fuller tells us they were brought from Holland, and were accounted “fit dainties for ladies, they came so far and cost so dear.” There are some varieties of peas which have no lining in their pods, which are eaten cooked in the same way as kidney-beans. They are called sugar peas, and the best variety is the large crooked sugar, which is also very good, used in the common way, as a culinary vegetable. There is also a white sort, which readily splits when subjected to the action of millstones set wide apart, so as not to grind them. These are used largely for soups, and especially for sea-stores. From the quantity of farinaceous and saccharine matter contained in the pea, it is highly nutritious as an article of food.

PEA SOUP (inexpensive).

144. INGREDIENTS.—1/4 lb. of onions, 1/4 lb. of carrots, 2 oz. of celery, 3/4 lb. of split peas, a little mint, shred fine; 1 tablespoonful of coarse brown sugar, salt and pepper to taste, 4 quarts of water, or liquor in which a joint of meat has been boiled.

Mode.—Fry the vegetables for 10 minutes in a little butter or dripping, previously cutting them up in small pieces; pour the water on them, and when boiling add the peas. Let them simmer for nearly 3 hours, or until the peas are thoroughly done. Add the sugar, seasoning, and mint; boil for 1/4 of an hour, and serve.

Time.—3-1/2 hours. Average cost, 1-1/2d. per quart.

Seasonable in winter.

Sufficient for 12 persons.

Here are some more English recipes (some a bit nouvelle) using standards of English cookery, such as leeks and mint along with the peas

My favorite is peas with baby leeks. I’ve modified the recipe slightly to suit my tastes. I’ve made the truffle oil and sugar optional. I’m not a big fan of truffle oil, and I never add sugar to a savory dish. If you use vegetable stock this soup is vegetarian.


Pea and Baby Leek Soup


3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 yellow onion, peeled and coarsely chopped
4 baby leeks sliced thin
2 celery stalks chopped coarsely
1 russet potato peeled and diced
6 cups light stock
1 bunch thyme
1¼ pounds fresh English peas
½ cup cream
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon white pepper
1 teaspoon truffle oil (optional)
1 tablespoon sugar (optional)


Melt the butter in a large heavy pot over medium heat.

Add the onion, leeks and celery and sauté until soft.

Add the potatoes, thyme and stock and bring to a boil. Then reduce the heat and simmer until the potatoes are softened, about 20 minutes.

Remove from the heat and let steep for a few minutes.

While contents are steeping, fill another pot with salted water and bring to a boil. Add the peas and cook until tender, about 3-5 minutes.

Drain and cold-shock the peas, in an ice-water bath to preserve their bright green color.

Add the peas to the pot with the vegetables and stock.

Blend the contents, preferably with an immersion blender, or in batches in a regular blender.

Add cream, salt and, pepper to taste – and the truffle oil, and sugar if desired.

This soup is equally good warm or chilled.

Here is a Dutch 16th century pea soup recipe that Gibbons might well have eaten, taken from The Splendid Table’s How to Eat Supper by Lynne Rossetto Kasper and Sally Swift. Note that it is laden with spices.


Dutch Baroque Pea Soup


1 large leek
3 to 4 tablespoons butter
1 large carrot, peeled and fine chopped
3 medium onions, peeled and chopped into ¼-inch dice
Meat cut from 2 large smoked ham hocks (2 to 2½ pounds)
Salt and fresh-ground black pepper
3 medium red skin potatoes, peeled and cut into ¼-inch dice
1½ cups dried split peas (yellow ones are preferred in Holland)
3 whole cloves
1 teaspoon ground allspice
1 teaspoon ground ginger
¾ teaspoon dried thyme
1 large garlic clove, minced
2 14-ounce cans vegetable or chicken broth
3 to 4 cups water


2 tablespoons butter
¼ teaspoon allspice


1. Prepare the leek by cutting away the green top and the root. You’ll use only the white portion. Slice the white stalk down its length and rinse it under cold running water to wash away any sand. Pat the leek dry with paper towels and slice it thin.

2. In a 6-quart pot, melt the 4 tablespoons of butter over medium-high heat. Stir in the leeks, carrots, onions, and meat, and salt and pepper. Sauté until the onions begin to brown. Then stir in the potatoes, split peas, cloves, 1 teaspoon allspice, the ginger, thyme, garlic, broth, and water. There should be enough liquid to cover the peas and vegetables by an inch. Add more water if necessary.

3. Simmer the soup, partially covered, 30 minutes, or until the split peas are almost dissolved and the potatoes are tender. Taste the soup for seasoning, and just before serving it, swirl in the 2 tablespoons of butter. Finish the soup by stirring in the last ¼ teaspoon of allspice.


Snert, also called Erwtensoep, is the modern Dutch version of pea soup. It is a thick stew of green split peas, different cuts of pork, celeriac or stalk celery, onions, leeks, carrots, and often potato. Slices of rookworst (smoked sausage) are added before serving. The soup, which is traditionally eaten during the winter, is emblematic of Dutch cuisine.

It is customarily served with rye bread (roggebrood) and bacon, cheese or butter. The bacon is usually katenspek, a variety of bacon which has been cooked and then smoked. Pancakes are sometimes served with pea soup; this dish is called snert met struif, struif referring to the pancakes.

So called ‘koek en zopie’ outlets, small food and drinks stalls which spring up only during winters along frozen canals, ponds and lakes in the Netherlands and cater to ice skaters, usually serve “snert” as a hearty snack.



1 (14 ounce) bag dried split peas
1 ham hock
3 slices bacon, chopped
2 (14.5 ounce) cans chicken broth
3 1/2 cups water, plus more as needed
4 small potatoes, peeled and diced
2 carrots, peeled and diced
1 leek, diced
1/2 large onion, diced
2 stalks celery with leaves, stalks diced and leaves chopped
1 clove garlic, diced
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1 (1 pound) package smoked sausage, sliced


Place dried split peas, ham hock, and bacon into a heavy soup pan, pour in the chicken broth and 3 1/2 cups water.

Cover and simmer until the peas are tender and broken apart, about 2 hours. Stir in more water as needed to prevent the soup from burning on the bottom. Stir occasionally throughout cooking.

Stir the potatoes, carrots, leek, onion, celery, and garlic into soup; mix in more water, if needed. Cover and simmer the soup for 1 more hour.

Season with salt, black pepper, thyme, nutmeg, and cloves; mix sausage slices into soup. Cover and cook 30 minutes more to blend the flavors.



Jul 202013



Today is the birthday (1822) of Gregor Johann Mendel, a German speaking Silesian scientist and Augustinian friar who gained posthumous fame as the founder of the new science of genetics.  Mendel was born into an ethnic German family in Heinzendorf bei Odrau in Silesia in what was the Austro-Hungarian Empire (now Hyn?ice, Czech Republic). He was the son of Anton and Rosine (Schwirtlich) Mendel, and had one older sister (Veronica) and one younger (Theresia). They lived and worked on a farm which had been owned by the Mendel family for at least 130 years.

Mendel worked on the family farm as a gardener and studied beekeeping until the age of 11. At that point a local schoolmaster who was impressed with his intellect recommended that he go to Troppau to a secondary school.  This was an unusual step because in that era in the Western world the vast majority of boys left school at 11 and took up work on farms, began apprenticeships, or the like.  His family had to take on the burden of financing his education whilst not having him around to work.  But they acquiesced and he graduated with honors in 1840.

Following his graduation, Mendel enrolled in a two-year program at the Philosophical Institute of the University of Olmütz. There, he again distinguished himself academically, particularly in the subjects of physics and mathematics, and tutored in his spare time to make ends meet. Despite suffering from deep bouts of depression that, more than once, caused him to temporarily abandon his studies, Mendel graduated from the program in 1843.

That same year, against the wishes of his father, who expected him to take over the family farm, Mendel began studying to be a monk. He joined the Augustinian order at the St. Thomas Monastery in Brno, and was given the name Gregor (his birth name was Johann).  At that time, the monastery was a cultural center for the region, and Mendel was immediately exposed to the research and teaching of its members, and also gained access to the monastery’s extensive library and experimental facilities.

In 1849, when his work in the community in Brno exhausted him to the point of illness, Mendel was sent to fill a temporary teaching position in Znaim. However, he failed a teaching-certification exam the following year, and in 1851, he was sent to the University of Vienna, at the monastery’s expense, to continue his studies in the sciences. While there, Mendel studied mathematics and physics under Christian Doppler, after whom the Doppler effect of wave frequency is named; he studied botany under Franz Unger, who had begun using a microscope in his studies, and who was a proponent of a pre-Darwinian version of evolutionary theory.

In 1853, upon completing his studies at the University of Vienna, Mendel returned to the monastery in Brno and was given a teaching position at a secondary school, where he would stay for more than a decade. It was during this time that he began the experiments for which he is best known. Around 1854, Mendel began to research the transmission of hereditary traits in plant hybrids. At the time of Mendel’s studies, it was generally believed that the hereditary traits of the offspring of any species were merely the diluted blending of whatever traits were present in the “parents.” It was also commonly accepted that, over generations, a hybrid would revert to its original form. Mendel’s work on the propagation of peas completely overturned these assumptions.

Mendel chose to study what happened over several generations to 7 traits of peas as they were mixed and matched:

1.Form of ripe seed     Smooth vs Wrinkled
2.Color of seed albumen Yellow vs Green
3.Color of seed coat     Grey vs White
4.Form of ripe pods     Inflated vs Constricted
5.Color of unripe pods     Green vs Yellow
6.Position of flowers     Axial vs Terminal
7.Length of stem     Tall vs Dwarf


The first thing he discovered was that there was no blending. If, for example, he paired a plant with green pods with one with yellow pods, the pods of the next generation were either green or yellow, and not some greenish-yellow in between.  He also discovered that a characteristic might disappear for a generation and then reappear in the next. Furthermore, he discovered that these seven traits were completely independent of one another, and could be passed on in any combination.

Over 8 years he developed the notion of dominant versus recessive traits.  He theorized that every plant has two genes per trait and passes one on to the next generation, the partner plant providing the other.  In this way every plant can have one of four gene combinations: dominant::dominant, dominant::recessive, recessive::dominant, recessive::recessive. If the dominant gene is present AT ALL it masks the recessive.  So, for example, if smooth seeds is a dominant trait, it will appear in the first three combinations, but not the last.  In theory, therefore, over time any trait should be represented in each generation by more or less ¾ of the plants (although experimental conditions won’t make this exact). This is what Mendel’s experimental data show.

Mendel's notes on peas

Mendel’s notes on peas

During his 8 years of study Mendel made 287 crosses between 70 different purebred plants, producing approximately 28,000 pea plants.  He formulated two principles which are now called Mendel’s Laws and are the cornerstone of genetics.  They are: 1. The Law of Segregation (a parent has two genes for each trait and passes ONE of them on to the offspring). 2. The Law of Independent Assortment (separate genes for separate traits are passed independently of one another from parents to offspring).

Mendel published his findings in 1866 to vast indifference in the scientific community because no one could understand what he was saying, nor recognize the profound value of his discoveries because they did not fit current theory. Mendel died before the scientific community caught up with him.  Blending inheritance continued to be the dominant theory until around 1900. It is a sad fact, repeated through history, that you can be right but your ideas rejected because they fail to support prevailing views.  By 1900, research aimed at finding a successful theory of discontinuous inheritance rather than blending inheritance led to independent duplication of Mendel’s work by Hugo de Vries and Carl Correns, and the rediscovery of Mendel’s writings and laws. Both acknowledged Mendel’s priority, and it is thought probable that de Vries did not understand the results he had found until after reading Mendel.  What always astounds me when I think about Mendel and his peas is that even with 28,000 plants and data gathered over 8 years, I and millions of others, would NEVER have the flash of insight to put it all together to come up with the conclusions Mendel did. That is the mark of pure genius.

For a recipe I have no choice.  It has to be Silesian pea soup.  Fortunately there is such a thing.  It’s close kin to classic split pea soup, but with important differences.  First, it is made from whole dried peas and not splits.  These produce a markedly different flavor. Second, it uses fresh pig bits rather than smoked. Apart from the trotters and skin these may be hard to find.  I can get snouts and ears in Argentina on occasion. Use what you can find.  It also uses parsley root which can be a bit hard to find, but makes a difference.


Silesian Pea Soup


1 lb (500 g) whole dried peas, soaked overnight
1 stalk celery diced
1 carrot peeled and diced
1 leek sliced thin
1 onion peeled and chopped coarsely
1 parsley root peeled and diced
1 large potato peeled and diced
1 small bunch fresh parsley chopped fine
1 small bunch fresh lovage chopped fine
1 tsp allspice
salt and pepper
1 lb (500g) any combination of pig’s trotters, ears, snout, and skin


Fry the pig parts in a heavy skillet until they are golden brown.

Put the pig parts, peas, and allspice into a large soup pot and cover with water.  Add salt and pepper to taste.

After about an hour remove the pig parts, strip the meat from the trotters, and chop up whatever else is edible.  With a potato masher, mash up some (but not all) of the peas.

Return the meat to the pot and add the vegetables and herbs.

Simmer until the vegetables are cooked.

Serves 6

May 132013


On this date in 1787 the First Fleet left Portsmouth to establish a new colony in Australia.   The fleet was made up of 11 ships under the command of Captain Arthur Phillip who was to be governor of the new colony. Apart from establishing Britain’s claim on Australia, the settlement was to be the first of a series of penal colonies designed to relieve pressure on jails in England.  These penal colonies were notorious hell holes and form an important part of Australia’s founding history.  The fleet consisted of 11 ships – 2 Royal Navy armed escorts, 6 convict transports, and 3 supply ships. It is not fully established, but it is estimated that  around 1,420 people embarked at Portsmouth, made up naval officers and crew, marines (some with wives and children), free settlers, and male and female convicts (some with children).  The journey took 252 days and the route was via Tenerife and Rio de Janeiro to the Cape of Good Hope, then to the east coast of Australia. This was one of the greatest sea voyages of all time.  The journey was over 15,000 miles, and although 48 people died, every ship arrived safely.  They headed for Botany Bay but finding it inhospitable, despite Captain Cook’s glowing reports, moved north to Port Jackson which Phillip renamed Sydney Cove, the current site of the city of Sydney.

In the days before refrigeration and canning, feeding people on ships on long journeys was a challenge.  The main staple was heavily salted beef which had to be soaked, and then stewed a long time to soften it and make it palatable.  It was usually accompanied by pea soup flavored with the fat rendered out of the beef.   Classic recipes for split pea and ham soup are a dime a dozen, so I have included here a more exotic pea soup from Egypt. Yellow splits give it a nice earthy flavor.

Egyptian Split Pea Soup

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
3 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 cup zucchini, chopped
1/2 cup red pepper, chopped
1 cup split peas (green or yellow)
2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger
2 teaspoons ground cumin
2 teaspoons ground coriander
2 tablespoons brown sugar
5 cups chicken stock
2 slices lemons
1 cup fresh tomato puree
1/4 teaspoon cayenne
salt and pepper
4 tablespoons finely chopped fresh cilantro
sour cream


Heat the olive oil in a heavy pot on medium high heat.

Sauté the onions, garlic, zucchini and red pepper for about 5 minutes or until slightly softened.

Add the ginger, cumin, coriander, and brown sugar and sauté for another minute.

Add the lemon slices, stock, tomatoes, cayenne, and salt and pepper to taste.

Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to low, cover the pot and simmer for about 1 1/2 hours or until the peas are tender.

If the soup is too thick for your tastes at this point, add more stock.

Remove the pot from the heat and discard the lemon slices.

Add the fresh cilantro and puree the soup in a blender or food processor.

Add more seasonings if necessary.

Serve with a dollop of sour cream.

Serves 6