Category Archives: History

Books History

Cookery of ages

From A History of Food in 100 Recipes, by William Sitwell

Recipe for Erbolate (baked eggs with herbs)
Take parsel, myntes, saucrey & sauge, tansey, veruayn, clarry, rewe, ditayn, fenel, southrenwode, hewe hem& gringe hem smle, meddle hem up with Ayrenn, do butter in a trape, & do pe frs perto & bake & messe it forth. {Take parsley, mint, savory, sage, tansy, vervain, clary, rue, dittany, fennel, southernwood. Chop them and grind them small. Mix them with eggs. Put butter in a baking dish and put the mixture in it. Bake and serve it in portions.
From The Forme of Cury, by the master cooks of Richard II.
“In the form of a vellum scroll, a copy of it lives in the British Library. Its graceful prose, daintily written in soft red ink, details 196. This recipe encapsulates the spirit of the book, written with the approval of medical gurus and philosophers, the herbs being meant mainly for medical purposes. … baked and sliced into portions, the resultant dish is more omelette than souffle.

From Feeding the Nation by Marguerite Patten, a home economist who had worked for the Eastern Electricity Board and Frigidaire trying to sell fridges before World War II.
3lb elderberries
3lb apples
5lb sugar
Remove berries from stalks and wash. Warm them to draw juice. Simmer for 1/3 hour to soften skins. Core apples and simmer until quite soft in another pan with very little water, pass through sieve or pulp well with a wooden spoon, add apples to to elderberries, reheat and add sugar. Stir until dissolved and boil rapidly until jam sets. Make first test for setting after 10 minutes. Put into hot jars and seal.

This at a time after Lord Woolton set up the Ministry of Food. From his memoirs: “The country never realised how nearly we were brought to disaster. During the course of two hours on a Friday afternoon, I received five separate signals from the Admiralty reporting food shops had been sunk on the Atlantic route. By some extraordinary misfortune, these five ships were largely stocked with bacon.” p. 236

He was a national figure. One broadcast radio ditty ran: “Those who have the will to win/ Cook potatoes in their skin. Knowing that the sight of peelings/Deeply hurts Lord Woolton’s feelings.” p. 237

Books History

The chemistry of chocolate

From Stuff Matters, by Mark Miodownik
p. 92-3
“Cocoa trees grow in tropical climates and produce fruit in the form of large, fleshy coca pods. These look like some form of wild and leathery orange or purple melon. The pods grow directly out of the trunk of the tree … inside each pod are 30 to 40 soft, white, fat almond-shaped seeds the size of small plums. … we harvested the cocoa beans using machetes, and then deposited them in a heap on the ground, where we left them to rot. This is how all chocolate is made. Over two weeks the heaps of beans start to decompose and ferment, and in the process they heat up. This serves the purpose of ‘killing’ the cocoa seeds, inasmuch as it stops them from germinating into cocoa plants.But more importanty it chemically transforms the raw ingredients of the cocoa beans into the precursors of the chocolate flavours…. fruity ester molecules are created, the result of a reaction between the alcohols and the acides that are created by enzymes acting within the cocoa beans… the taste of chocolate is highly dependent not just on the ripeness and species of the cocoa bean, but also on how high the rotting piles of beans are stacked, how long they are left to rot and generally what the weather is like.”

p.94-5
Drying and roasting … ” roasting turns the bean into a mini chemical factory,… first, the carbohydrates within the bean, which are mostly sugar and starch molecules, start to fall apart because of the heat. This is essentially the same thing that happens if you heat sugar in a pan: it caramelises. Only in this case the caramelizing reaction takes place inside the cocoa bean, turning it from white to brown, and cretaing a wonderful range of nutty caramel flavour molecules…. Another type of reaction, … also contributes to the colour and flavour of the cocoa: the Malliard reaction. This is when a sugar reacts with a protein …. reacting ith the acids and esters and resulting in a huge range of smaller flavour molecules. It is no exageration to say that without the Maillard reaction the world would be a much less delicious place: it is the Maillard reaction that is responsible for the flaour of bread crust, roasted vegetables, and many other roasted, savoury flavours. In this case the Maillard reaction is responsible for the nutty, meaty flabours of chocolate, while also reducing some of the astringency and bitterness…

Grind up the fermented and roasted cocoa nuts and add them to hot water and you have the original hot ‘chocoatl’ made by the Mesoamericans… When Europeans explorers got hold of the drink… they exported it to coffee houses, where it competed with tea and coffee to be the beverage of choice of Europeans – and lost. What no one had really mentioned was that ‘chocatl means ‘bitter water’ and even though it was sweetened with the new cheap sugar … it was also a gritty, oily and heavy drink, because 50% of the cocoa bean is cocoa fat. This is how it remained for another 200 years, an exotic drink, notable but not terribly popular.”

Books History Politics Women's history

An astonishing veil of royal protection

What’s really most astonishing about The Mystery of Princess Louise: Queen Victoria’s Rebellious Daughter is what’s missing. That’s no fault of the author, Lucinda Hawksley, but she has to leave large gaps in her biography, for documents relating to Princess Louise, who died in 1939, and her husband, who may have had his own secrets, as a homosexual in an intolerant age, remain classified and closed away.

We’re not talking about matters of state here, some deep secret about the First World War and relations with Germany that might somehow, distantly, have modern ramifications, or impact on anyone alive today – what we’re talking about are documents that probably, Hawksley concludes, show that Louise had an illegitimate child.

But when she went to the Royal Archives,she found a brick wall: “We regret that Princess Louise’s files are closed.” And she found that archivists in the National Gallery, Royal Academ and the V&A, as well as overseas collections in Malta, Bermuda and Canada, we bemused to find that material they expected to hold had been removed to the Royal archive.

Hawksley traces that probable child, adopted by the Queen’s accoucher, and family. She reports how his descendant, Nick Locock, tried to get his grandfather’s body exhumed, from a family mausoleum in Kent to establish that through DNA tests, which would have involved drilling through the coffin and removing a fragment of bone. A long legal battle ended with that being denied on the basis of “the sanctity of Christian burial”. “As Nick commented to me with a wry smile a few years after losing the court case: ‘I wouldn’t have minded so much if the very same church hadn’t recently moved about 200 bodies to make way for a coffee shop in the crypt!” (p. 93)

And the records of Queen Victoria – her volumninous letters and diaries are apparently available, but as Hawksley notes, not what they seem. For they aren’t the originals, but were heavily edited by Princess Beatrice. Given how much of a nasty, self-centred, vindictive character the Queen appears, it’s hard to imagine just how bad the originals are, Hawksley concludes.

Despite her upbringing, Louise was, for a royal, an interesting character. She tried to support Josephine Butler’s campaign against the Contagious Diseases Act – and although she was stopped from that on the basis of “this is politics”, she maintained a friendship with Butler, as well as many deeply “unsuitable”campaigners and artists. Perhaps not surprising that a central London pub was named after her.

This is definitely worth a read for a glimpse into another world – and a perspective on current debates on child abuse and neglect – for Queen Victoria certainly treated her children in a way that would count as emotional abuse under proposed new laws. Of course whether she’d get arrested would be another question…

Books History Women's history

Reading a fine history of Delphi

A shorter verson was first published on Blogcritics

There’s a whole book about the history of Delphi, and the material to fill it handsomely, because it was an important place in the ancient world, influential and often rich for many of the centuries from before Greek history was recorded well into the 4th century AD.

But it wasn’t, by and large powerful. It wasn’t the centre of an empire, it never had large bodies of troops to call on, it lived in large part on its wits, navigating its way through the Persian Wars (probably rather less than heroically), the Peloponnesian War, centuries of Roman emperors and their foibles.

That makes its history, I found, particularly interesting. Most of the human race, for most of our history, has lived like this, town burghers, village elders, huddling anxiously together, trying decide which side to choose in a conflict, or whether they can get away with sitting on the fence, calculating whether flattery is a good option, or an appearance of independent mindedness. Most of us haven’t been at the centre, from which most history is written, but the peripheries, trying to cope with the power of the centre.

That balancing act is central to Michael Scott’s very readable but still scholarly and serious complete account of the Greek settlement’s history. I was particularly impressed by his credible refusal to try to answer unanswerable questions: not choosing which record of the oracle’s pronouncements to “believe”, but acknowledging that they were shaped to the purposes of the writers who recorded them often centuries after their reported utterance.

He doesn’t try to solve the puzzle of the lack of a chasm beneath the temple of Apollo, while recording the recent geological revelations that the site is at the centre of two fault lines, perfectly placed to produce the fissured bedrock beneath the temple, through which fumes of ethane, methane and ethylene, from the underlying bituminous limestone might have risen. Indeed, he notes that intoxication of the priestess, if part of the practice, doesn’t really do anything to explain how for 1,000 years carefully crafted prophecies emerged from the depths of the temple and were at the centre of maintaining the economic future of a inconveniently located site that had nothing obvious to recommend it as a place for a visit beyond its mystique.

He’s also interesting on the place of the oracle at its peak time, that of the classic period of Greek history, when city states with varying methods of government often used it as a “tie-breaker” in making tough decisions about their actions – his comparison with management consultants is interesting, although I rather like the idea of turning his approach around: thinking about management consultants as being like the Pythia – about the same level of science and probably as good at judging the desires of those who employ them.
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Books History Politics

Behind our unwritten constitution…

Little known facts: ” The 1713 Place Bill, which would have taken all government ministers out of parliament and split the executive from the legislature, failed to get on the statute book only because the vote on the third reading in the Lords was tied. The Reform Act of 1832 was later thought so good they named it Great, but on its second reading in 1831 was carried in the Commons by a single vote, as was the vote of no-confidence in Jim Callaghan in 1979 that led to Mrs Thatcher’s first election victory.” (p5)

“Sir William Paxton … bought his Carmarthenshire seat with 11,070 breakfasts, 36,091 dinners and 25,275 gallons of ale, carried on treating the electorate with food and booze until a series of Corrupt Practice Acts in 1854, 1883 and 1885.” (p. 11)

From Parliament: The Biography, Volume 1, by Chris Bryant.

Books Environmental politics History

From the East Anglian fens to the fragile wilds of Chernobyl

Tim Dee’s Four Fields is a title reflecting a bit of a conceit – it might equally be called “interesting natural things I’ve seen around the world”. It ranges widely from the fens of East Anglia to the horrors of nature distorted around Chernobyl, with a digression to a near-abandoned tobacco farm in South Africa to follow a honeyguide, to the American prairie and site of Custer’s last stand.

But it was the accounts of the fens I found most fascinating, possibly for their combination of history and ecology. Dee reports on the draining of Whittlesey Moor, the last fen mere to be so treated, in 1851. An iron column, 22 feet high was driven into the peat until it rested on the clay, it’s top level with the peat. “The water was pumped from Whittlesey in a matter of days. Locals strapped planks to their feet to walk on the mud and gather the fish that were dwoning in air. Eels and others were taken by the ton… the lake gave up a censer and an incense boat, which the last Abbot of Ramsey had lost in its watery flight from the Dissolution Commissioners of Henry VIII. The skeleton of a gramps (a dolphin of some species, possibly a killer whale) was also found, a leftover from more marine times. The water birds … went with its water. Previously, eight punt-gunners had made a living shooting its ducks. Three thousand wildfowl had been taken from the decoy on Holmes Fen in one week. Eight bitters or buttercups had been shot on Whittlesey in one day.” And on the column, Dee says … “its crown is now 12 feet clear of the earth, an iron-green stick in the birch-crowded day.” (p. 28) – a result of the peat soil shrinking.

Yet the earlier, pre-drained, fenland had been immensely productive, a part-wild, part-farmed place. “there were always people in every field and on every fen… reeds and sedges scythe for teaching; duck and fish tapped for food; peat dug for fuel; litter … off marsh plants for coarse hay. … Reeds grew in the wetter part of the fen. After winter frosts stripped them of their flags, old stems of four years or more were cut for roofing and younger stems were mixed with litter for fodder… Coopers sought the bullrushes on the fen, their long round stems were dried and placed between barrel staves where, on contact with fewer or whatever else was in the barrels, the stems would swell and keep the joints watertight. … Osiers from willows on the fen were cut for baskets, eel traps and foggot binds; thicker branches made good scythe handles. To keep the stick swollen and the fastening firm between harvests, scythe would be stored under the fen water, like moon-slivers of rusting silver.”
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