Cowboys and Englishmen?

We just returned from a wonderful, much-needed vacation … two weeks in Texas.  We flew into San Antonio and did the Alamo experience, one which I heartily recommend.  But the height of our vacation was the week we spent at a guest ranch in the cowboy capital of the country’.  Of course, before arriving, we weren’t aware that there was a ‘cowboy capital of the country’, but there is … and it is Bandera, Texas.  This tiny, one square mile town, nestled in the Texas Hill Country, proudly boasts a population of 957.  There were a few shops and restaurants, and considering the population, quite a few pubs.  Many of the local watering holes had motorcycles parked out front, but a few hitching posts were still around, where you knew horses once waited patiently for their owners to return.

But we were not staying in town.  Five miles outside of town, we found our way onto what was to become our ‘home away from home’ … a small, out-of-the-way, family-run guest ranch.  As we tentatively drove through the gates and up the long, dusty driveway, we were warmly greeted by a lumbering golden retriever and his much more energetic porch mate, a yellow lab.  At that moment, we knew this was our kind’a place.  We entered the rustic main ranch house, approached the desk and before checking in, were immediately asked if we were interested in going out for a ride.  What?  Really?  Now?  Our answer … YES!  Did I say this was ‘our kind’a place’?

Since the 1930s, five generations have been welcoming guests to this 725 acre ranch, giving them a glimpse into the cowboy way of life.  Guests can stay for as few or as many days as they’d like … and quite a few came and went while we were there.  But as we all got to know each other, at the dinner table, during rides, around the campfire at night, we discovered most of the families were from ENGLAND.  What?  More guests were from England, and other European countries, than from the U.S.!!

But why?  What was the fascination with this Western cowboy culture?  (Probably the same reason I find European culture, history and traditions so fascinating.)  I think it might go back to Western films and tv programs.  If you’ve seen the movie Belfast, set in the 60s, your heart will melt at the scenes where Buddy is mesmerized whenever a Western TV program is on the telly.  And to escape from the oppression the family was living through, they went to the cinema to see Gary Cooper starring in the classic High Noon.

GUNSMOKE starring James Arness.

Who remembers GunsmokeRawhideThe Lone Ranger?  These programs, and many, many more were just as popular in the U.K. and Europe as they were here in the U.S.  And children weren’t the only ones fascinated by these TV series, their parents were too.  Growing up, boys wanted a six-shooter cap pistol, cowboy hat and chaps.  Young girls wanted to be Annie Oakley or Dale Evans, wearing fringe and riding Buttercup.  Didn’t you want a blood brother?  I did.

My English hubby, who had never been on a horse in his life until he met me (and now I can’t keep him off one), has seen far more Western films and TV programs than I ever have. Starting with The Great Train Robbery, made in 1903, through the 1970s, Western films boomed!!  Spaghetti Westerns, the low-budget films made in Italy, of which over 100 were made, were hugely popular throughout Europe, and propelled Clint Eastwood into stardom.  Then came a flood of novels, making this genre one of the bestselling ever published.  It was quite common for a Western novel to sell a quarter of a million copies in paperback in England alone.  German author Karl May was well known for his books portraying the American West, although he had never been there.

But the fascination didn’t START with books and movies, it actually began more than 400 years ago.  Records show that five Abnaki Native Americans from Maine were brought to England in 1606.  Although there is very little written about them, or why they were there, it would be hard to believe they went of their own free will.

A 19th-century depiction of Pocahontas.

I’m sure we’re all familiar with the legend of Pocahontas and John Smith (even if only through Disney’s fictionalized storytelling).  In case you may have forgotten, the child Pocahontas is said to have saved the life of John Smith after he was captured by the Pamunkey tribe and sentenced to death.  Ten years later, at the age of 18, Pocahontas moved to England with two of her tribespeople.  She was married to John Rolfe, a tobacco farmer in Jamestown, Virginia, at the time, having already been baptized as a Christian and now fluent in English.  Pocahontas changed her name to Lady Rebecca Rolfe and died just three years later in England of tuberculosis.  The British fascination with what they perceived to be this savage, new world, must have had its start at this time.

And, of course, we can’t forget about Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Shows.  William F. Cody, better known as “Buffalo Bill” took his American West spectacle to England in 1887.  No one in England had ever seen anything like it before.  Cowboys, Indians, sharp-shooters, trick riders, whip-cracking … performed before the Queen of England and all of European royalty.  His shows were so well attended, Cody became an overnight success and a living legend in England.   Buffalo Bill continued touring England and Europe to sell-out crowds for six years.

May 9, 1887, during Queen Victoria’s Jubilee Celebration, William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody, debuts his Wild West Show in London.

I now have a much better understanding of the complete fascination of the cowboy culture among Europeans and primarily the British.  The idealization of this freedom-loving spirit with its vigilante independence coupled with the lawlessness and romance of that timeless era, which has been portrayed not only in movies, but in books, magazines, tv programs and our imaginations, has captured the hearts of people everywhere.  Of course, Europeans want to experience the cowboy spirit of that era and live it for a few days.  Don’t we all?

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References:  City of Bandera, Spaghetti Westerns, Vintage News, History Today, Wandering Australian, True West,

PIES … Glorious Pies!

You cannot think of British comfort food without thinking of ‘fish ‘n chips’, the breakfast ‘fry up’, ‘pasties’ and, of course PIES!   Whether it’s lunch time, tea time or a take-away, pies are everywhere … hot, warm, or cold … pork pies, steak pies, chicken or fish pies.  It might be a  grab-and-go pie for a snack, or a family-size pie for dinner, this filling encased in a pastry shell has to be one of the most popular foods in the country.

In the U.S., pies seem to be more regional and seasonal.  At one time they were cemented in the heart of the American culture, served at every social gathering and celebration, and in county fair competitions.  Today, you’ll still see pies at roadside diners and restaurants in the Southern states, but for most of us, pies only seem to make an appearance at Thanksgiving.  What a shame that we don’t welcome this mainstay of the British diet into our kitchens more often.

Nearly 900 pies including 200 beef or steak pies, 90 pork pies, 137 chicken pies and 46 pasties, were judged at the ninth annual British Pie Awards.

Created as a means of preserving foods by completely encasing the filling and squeezing out any air, pies, in some form, have been around since antiquity.  Historians have traced the origins of pies from Egypt where drawings, showing dough wrapped around meat, were found on the walls of Ramses II tomb.  In Greece, every village had a different recipe, size and shape.  Because the solid (inedible) crust completely encased the filling, they were easily transportable, on land or sea.  You could stack them on top of each other.  They could be stuffed into camel sacks.  The Romans so loved their pies, they introduced them around Europe as they continued to conquer each country.  Although I couldn’t find the actual recipe, the first pie recipe is reported to be published by Romans, a rye-crusted goat cheese and honey pie, which actually sounds delicious.

A drawing of a medieval pie baker, circa 1465-1475.

Pyes (as they were originally spelled) appeared in England as early as the 12th century.  The very thick walls were called a “coffyn”, or box, and not meant to be eaten at all.  The “coffyn” was made from hard grains such as rye or whole wheat mixed with water.  With no refrigeration, this self-supporting shell, or storage container was meant to preserve whatever the filling was for quite some time.   The following recipe, dated 1430, states that a pye might be kept for five years.  Yikes!

For youre best. Take drye floure, in coffyne it close, And bake it hard, as I suppose.
You may kepe alle pyes fyve yeres, Þere – with alye mony metes ser
e.”

With more crust than filling, pyes were often made with game meat spiced with pepper or ginger, and may have been sweetened with currants or dates.  Pies crossed all boundaries, from the very affluent to the poor.  Wealthy society would have pies filled with venison, lamb, duck or (magpie) pigeon, while those less affluent would use just root vegetables or inexpensive organ meats, usually from pigs, for their filling.  Today we call organ meats ‘offal’, but at that time, organ meats were called ‘umble’ – hence, the name ‘umble’ pie.  To eat umble pie became known as to ‘know your place’ because you were eating the innards of the animal.

In 1662, journalist and Admiral, Samuel Pepys, in his diary, makes many references to pies:
 “I having some venison given me a day or two ago, and so I had a shoulder roasted, another baked, and the umbles baked in a pie, and all very well done.”  “Mrs. Turner came in and did bring us an umble-pie hot out of her oven, extraordinarily good.”

Over the centuries, pies became such a part of the culture, they were included in entertainment, festivals and celebrations, not only across the country, but across Europe as well.  A pie plays an important role in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, where Titus not only kills Chiron and Demetrius, but bakes them into a pie.  Titus then serves the pie to his victims’ mother.  And, I’m sure, we’re all familiar with the play Sweeney Todd, the Barber of Fleet Street and the infamous pies from Mrs. Lovett’s Pie Shoppe.

At the coronation banquet of King Henry VIII, an enormous pie was carried in by four men and presented to the King.  To everyone’s amusement, when he cut into it, a flock of pigeons flew out.  These animated pies would be baked over a wooden scaffolding with a hole in the bottom.  Into this hole, the cook would then stuff live birds, small animals, even people.  During these lavish banquets, which occurred all over Europe, you’d often have a Court Jester or entertainers pop out of one of these elaborate life-sized pies and then entertain the guests … dancing up and down the table, reciting poetry, or doing tricks.

The legendary American celebrity, Diamond Jim Brady (1856–1917), loved pies.  At a dinner in his honor, a life-sized pie was wheeled in and a dancer emerged, and walked the length of the banquet table, where she stopped at Brady’s seat and fell into his lap.  This bizarre form of entertainment is still around today.  I’m sure we’ve all heard of ‘men or women popping out of a cake’ to entertain the guests.

Sing a song of sixpence, A pocket full of rye.
Four and twenty blackbirds, Baked in a pie.
When the pie was opened, The birds began to sing;
Wasn’t that a dainty dish, To set before the king?

Sugar was incredibly rare and expensive, and while there were some versions of sweet pies, it wasn’t a common ingredient.  It was only during the colonization of the Caribbean, when the British established hundreds of sugar plantations, that sugar became a popular ingredient.  From Great Britain to Europe and North America, the spread of sugar caused a rise in the demand for sweet pies.  It wasn’t until that time did sweetened fruit pies became popular.  In the 1500s, the first sweetened fruit pie, a cherry pie, was served to Queen Elizabeth.  Whether she liked it or not, we’ll never know.

Actually any dish that was deep enough to contain meat, fish, vegetables, and a gravy, covered by a pastry crust was termed a pie.  And as pies became more and more popular among the upper classes, their cooks also became quite competitive.  This became the era of the decorative pie crust, made in elaborate pie molds.  Tin and copper pie molds, with fluted, hinged and removable sides and tops were often used for raised pies to impress the dinner guests.

We also know that whenever Emperor William I of Germany visited Queen Victoria (1819-1901), his favorite pie was served.  It contained a whole turkey stuffed with a chicken.  The chicken was then stuffed with a pheasant and the pheasant stuffed with a woodcock.  How impressive that must have been.

Because only wealthy homes had kitchens with fire-burning ovens, pie making for the commoner took place outside the home, or at the communal oven in the village, or not at all.  As a result, every village and town had its “pie man” who became as important as the ‘butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker’.   These street vendors were popular until the end of the 19th century, when bakeries and taverns began to offer pies.

I’m sure by now, you’re probably wanting to dive into a pie . . . any pie.  I know I am.  Savory or sweet.  It doesn’t really matter.  Pies are true comfort food, which always brings a smile to your face.  So, don’t wait another minute.  Bake one or buy one.  Just enjoy this ancient and beloved dish!!

Simple Simon met a pieman, Going to the fair;
Says Simple Simon to the pieman, “Let me taste your ware.”

Says the pieman to Simple Simon, “Show me first your penny,”
Says Simple Simon to the pieman, “Indeed, I have not any.”

And, if you are feeling challenged and want to bake a traditional British raised pork pie, just follow along . . . School of Artisan Foods.

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References:  American Pie Council, Grunge, What’s Cooking, Epicurious, Paul Hollywood, Everything Pie, Figgy Pudding, BBC, King Richard Centre,

PARKIN

I love to watch cooking shows … and, based upon the number of shows available on tv these days, I’m not alone.  The one I’m enjoying at the moment is a celebrity chef from England, James Martin.  His show, HOME COMFORTS (on Amazon Prime), showcases comfort foods that Martin loves to cook at home when he’s ‘not working’.   In this series, James speaks lovingly of being the son of pig farmers from North Yorkshire, and, as a child, cooking alongside his mother.  From the classic “Toad in the Hole” with onion gravy to a variety of ‘jacket potatoes’ to a Swiss roll and prawn cocktail, this show features British comfort food at its best.

In one recent episode, Martin made a cake called PARKIN.  I honestly had never heard of this cake, but hubby said it was a dish he grew up with.  Although served all year round, this very popular regional North Yorkshire dish is traditionally served in November on Bonfire Night.  I’m not really sure if its a cake or a pudding, but I do know I have to give it a try.  Made with oatmeal and molasses, this dark, spicy ‘gingerbread-like cake’ could be rather stodgy.

As always I did a bit of research to find what is, hopefully, the best and most authentic PARKIN recipe.  Apparently, it dates back to the 14th century.  And in 1728, a homemaker by the name of Anne Whittaker was accused of stealing oatmeal to make PARKIN.  Unlike wheat, oats were the staple grain in the north of England, and used in most of their local dishes from breakfast to dessert.

      “When Arthur, to make their hearts merry … Brought ales and parkin and perry.”

Because it is a British recipe, I’ve converted the grams and milliliters to cups and ounces, but it wasn’t too difficult.  I’m ready now.  So, let’s give it a go!

PARKIN
Bake 325° – 40 to 50 minutes – One 9 x 9 baking pan – Serves 6 to 8 

Ingredients
1-1/2 cups self-raising flour
1-1/2 cups oatmeal* (uncooked)
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
3 teaspoons ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
2 eggs
1 stick butter, cubed
2/3 cup dark molasses
1/2 cup cane sugar syrup (Lyle’s Golden Syrup)
1/2 cup light brown sugar
1/2 cup whole milk

* I used Old Fashioned oatmeal, which is very coarse.  To break the oats down a bit, I pulsed the oatmeal for a few seconds in a food processor.  If you use ‘fast cooking’ oatmeal, you don’t need to do this.

Preheat the oven to 325°.  And grease a 9″ x 9″ square pan (or round pan, or loaf pan … whatever pan you’d like to use).  In a large bowl mix together the flour, salt, spices and baking soda.  Stir together until well blended and then stir in the oatmeal.

Put the molasses, golden syrup, brown sugar, butter and milk in a saucepan and heat until the butter is melted.  Then take it off the heat and cool until lukewarm.  Beat in the eggs.

Add the liquid ingredients from the saucepan to the dry ingredients.  Stir in quickly and beat until the batter is smooth.

Pour the batter into a greased 9″ x 9″ pan.  Bake for 40 to 50 minutes or til it pulls back from the sides and is cooked through.  A tester should come out clean from the middle.  Cool in the pan for a few minutes and then turn it out onto a wire rack to continue cooling.

PARKIN, a strange name for this very homey, old-fashioned, gingerbread-like cake, and I’m still not sure where the name came from.  But this traditional cake was very easy to make.  It is fairly dense, much like a brownie, with the heat from the ginger and cinnamon very prevalent.  I served it warm with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.  Hubby loved it and it sent him right back to his school days.  What’s better than that!

(Note:  On quite a few other sites, I’ve read where Parkin gets even better after three days.  As always the skeptic, I left one, wrapped tightly in the cupboard, for three days.  And, yes, they are correct.  The flavors developed.  It did not dry out and it was much better.)

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PANCAKES

In preparation of Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, or Pancake Tuesday, which falls on March 1st, I thought I’d practice making ‘pancakes’.  Yup, hubby loves ‘his’ pancakes … and I’ve never made them.  For me, pancakes should be thick, fluffy, even cake-like, stacked on top of each other.  But in the U.K., pancakes never seem to get ‘stacked’.  They’re more like a French crepe … thin, folded over and served with a sprinkle of sugar and a squeeze of lemon juice.  Lemon juice?  Where’s the maple syrup and pats of butter?

So, why pancakes and why on this particular Tuesday?  In Christianity, Pancake Day or Shrove Tuesday was a national holiday and a time for celebration in Great Britain.  This day before Lent is a time of penance and renewal when Christians begin 40 days of fasting.  Rich, fatty foods such as meat and fish, sugar, eggs and dairy were prohibited during these 40 days.  Pancakes were created to use up the ingredients that might go bad during this time, and were eaten the day before the beginning of the fast.

Although I love thick, fluffy American pancakes (whether its buttermilk or chocolate chip, blueberry and even cranberry walnut), I feel compelled to make some British pancakes for Tuesday.  British pancakes are a tiny bit thicker than crepes, other than that, I’d be hard-pressed to notice a difference.  So, here I go … trying different recipes to come up with the best I can find.  And serving them with LEMON JUICE!

‘BRITISH’ PANCAKES
Makes 8 to 10 pancakes.

1-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 pinch salt|
2 large eggs
2-1/2 cups milk
2 teaspoons butter, melted, for the batter
2 tablespoons vegetable oil, for the pan

In a large bowl, mix together the flour and salt.  Make a well in the center of the flour and add the eggs.  Beat the eggs in with half the milk, until the batter is smooth and free of lumps.

Add the rest of the milk and melted butter and beat well, until you have a smooth batter.  Leave the batter to rest for at least 15 minutes or longer, (overnight, if you want to make this the night before).

Lightly grease a non-stick frypan with vegetable oil.  Heat the pan until hot, but not smoking.  You don’t want to burn the oil.  Add a ladle of batter and swirl the batter around to evenly and thinly coat the base of the pan. Cook until set and lightly golden around the edges.  With a spatula, carefully flip the pancake over and cook the other side for approximately 30 seconds.

Slide the pancake onto a plate and cover the plate with a towel to keep warm. Continue making the pancakes until all the batter is used up.  I was able to make 12 good sized pancakes/crepes.

To serve, I dusted on the powered sugar and a squeeze of lemon juice . . . folded the ‘pancake’ in half and then folded it over again . . .  with another dusting of powdered sugar.  Honestly, they were delicious!!  But were they pancakes?

Happy Pancake Day!!

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CHEESE ROLLING?

It’s the end of January and, although it hasn’t been a bad winter, I’m feeling a bit like a caged animal  … ready to pounce on anything that looks the least bit exciting.  Snow is in the forecast … again.  Covid restrictions are still in place for many activities.  Family and friends are still hunkering down.  What to do?

I’ve read more books in the past month than I’ve read in the past year.  I’ve mastered the art of making “macarons”.  Every closet and drawer has been cleaned, organized and decluttered.  My spices are now in alphabetical order.  Pitiful.  I know.  But, again, what to do?

I wonder if this is how the organizers of the Cooper’s Hill Cheese Rolling Contest felt when they came up with this bizarre idea for a contest.  I’m imagining a few very bored dairy farmers having a pint or two at the local pub one dreary January, when one of them said “Let’s roll an 8 pound wheel of cheese down a very steep hill and see how many people we can convince to chase it”.   Brilliant!  Cheese rolling?  Down a hill?  Why not!

Apparently, this ‘cheese rolling event‘ has been held in the little parish village of Brockworth, England for the past 600 years.  Each year, on the last Sunday of May, on Cooper’s Hill, you’ll find hundreds of spectators, young and old, lining both sides of this incredibly steep hill.  And it’s not just local villagers who participate.  Over the years, this ‘cheese rolling event’ has caught the attention of people from countries all over the world, like Nepal, New Zealand, Australia, and Canada.

Some have called this the most dangerous footrace in history.  Others have called it ‘the stupidest footrace in history‘ as “twenty young men and women chase a cheese off a cliff and tumble 200 yards to the bottom, where they are scraped up by paramedics and packed off to hospital.”  This event is not sanctioned by any agency or political organization, and has been banned on occasion because of the number of injuries.  Participants can expect to get scrapes and bruises, but broken bones and concussions are not unusual occurrences.  Yes, a first aid station and ambulance service is provided by the local hospital.

What are the rules?  They are very simple … the 8 pound wheel of cheese is allowed to roll down the hill from the very top.  At 12 noon, the Master of Ceremony kicks off the event by shouting: ‘One to be ready, two to be steady, three to prepare (at which point the cheese is released), and four to be off.’  The competitors then launch themselves down the hill after the cheese.  The winner is the first one who reaches the bottom after the cheese.  Originally, the winner had to catch it, but that was next to impossible, with the cheese reaching speeds of up to 80 miles per hour.  The winner must then take the cheese and hold it up over his or her head for the official photograph.

Completely out of control, crashing into one another, gaining speed as they roll.  Head over heels, tumbling, faster and faster, its a wonder they make it at all.  And, after this punishing race, you win THE CHEESE!

Have I interested you yet in participating?  Well, if you’re crazy enough to do it, you do not need to meet any criteria … or fill out any paperwork … or submit a video to the organizers. All you need to do is show up on time and make yourself known to whoever seems to be in charge.  There doesn’t seem to be a maximum number of participants.  As many as 40 have tumbled down this incline at one time.  And anything you might like to wear to attract attention is allowed … and there have been some risk takers for sure.  I’d suggest something protective rather than risqué.

This race is not restricted to just crazy young men … crazy young women also participate … and win. In fact, 28-year-old Flo Early won for the fourth time.  Her first race at the age of 17 whetted her appetite for more.  Now, however, after a broken collar bone three years ago and now an ankle injury, this brave woman has decided to give up the cheese chase.

Well, all things considered, I guess I’ll just wait out the rest of the winter.  I don’t think I’m ready (just yet) to consider throwing myself down a steep embankment for the thrill of chasing anything, never mind a bit of Wensleydale!  Wallace, I’m not.

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References:  History of Yesterday, CarniFest, VisitBritain, AtlasObscura, Wikipedia, CultureTrip,

The Queen’s Grocer, Fortnum & Mason

Would you believe the Queen of England and I have something in common?  Yes, we do.  And it is that FORTNUM & MASON  is our favorite grocery store.  Yes, this extraordinary store selling some of the most exclusive and expensive items in the world, is a grocery store.  And my favorite!   If you’ve ever visited London, hopefully, don’t just visit Harrod’s, put a trip to Fortnum & Mason on your ‘must’ list too.  You will not be disappointed.

It all began with the Great Fire of 1666, which set all of London ablaze.  As established builders, the Fortnum family moved to London to help with its rebuilding.  A young cousin, William, arrived with the family, renting a room from Hugh Mason, a livery stables keeper, while he took a job as footman in the palace of Queen Anne.   Queen Anne insisted on fresh, new candles each day, so when the royal courtiers retired at the end of the day, William had to replace the candlesticks of the half-used candles with fresh ones.  Rather than throw them away, he took the candle stumps back to his room where he melted them down, replaced the wicks and created new candles.  He would then sell the ‘new’ candles to the chambermaids and household staff, making a tidy profit.

With his entrepreneurial spirit, William approached his landlord, Mr. Mason, with a business proposition to jointly open a store selling the candles and groceries.  They chose the then less affluent Mayfair section of London, a section still undergoing rebuilding and it was there in 1707  that they opened their small store.   Fortnum used his palace connections to drum up business and working closely with the East India Company, began to sell imported teas.  A short two years later, this little grocer had outgrown their original location, moving to where they still are today.

The entrepreneurial spirit continued with William Fortnum’s grandson and namesake, also William Fortnum, who took over the business fifty years later.  The relationship with the palace also continued and they soon became the premiere supplier of teas to the Royals.

Fortnum & Mason had established a very successful business selling ready-made, take-away dishes like pork pies, poultry in aspic, dried fruits, marmalades and jams, to their affluent customers.  One item, which the newest Fortnum created, became immediately popular, the “Scotched Egg“.   A boiled egg, wrapped in sausage and deep fried, the ‘Scotched Egg’ did not need refrigeration, was a lot less smelly than just a boiled egg … and, it was delicious!

Fortnum then created their iconic baskets or “hampers” for hungry travelers, complete with disposable bamboo cutlery.  Whether it was across country or out for an afternoon, travel during that time was long and arduous.  Refrigeration didn’t exist.  There were no fast-food restaurants.  These ‘hampers’ were not only perfect for the road-weary, hungry traveler, but became in demand for an afternoon picnic, which after Jane Austen wrote about the Box Hill picnic in her novel, EMMA, were taking place everywhere.  Not only the aristocracy, but the middle classes quickly  adopted this favorite summertime activity and Fortnum & Mason’s picnic hampers were everywhere.
Since that time, Fortnum & Mason have sent hampers to every part of the world … from base camps on Mount Everest to the battlefields of Iraq.  When Napoleon said “an army marches on his stomach”, I wonder if he knew that Fortnum & Mason was supplying the British officers with food and supplies.  The Napoleonic War lasted from 1799 to 1815 and during that time officers in the British army would order specialty food items, dried fruits, preserves, pates, so that they wouldn’t have to suffer the hardship of war.

Those were the days when clothing mattered and a gentlemen carried an umbrella and wore gloves.  Committed to providing excellence in service while catering to the posh upper-classes, Fortnum’s elevated the uniform of its clerks and doormen from the simple uniform of other stores to waist coat, tails and striped pants.  Doormen wore top hats, opened doors and carried your purchases to your carriage.  Clerks knew you by name and knew your preferences.

Of course, they wouldn’t be the iconic store they are without serving Afternoon Tea, which they have been serving for centuries.  The original St. James room was completely refurbished in 2012 in honor of the Queen’s  Diamond Jubilee.

The magic begins when you enter the building . . . below the ornate clock, built in 1964, where four foot high replicas of Mr. Fortnum and Mr. Mason emerge and bow to each other every hour to the sound of 18th century music . . . and take the red-carpeted stairs to the Fourth floor.  Decorated in their elegant signature blue, you’ll notice the grand piano where the resident pianist plays daily, and then the rows of tea urns lining the walls.  Each table is set exquisitely.  An ever-changing array of offerings from classic scones, finger sandwiches and desserts are impeccably presented and served on a classic three-tiered silver tray.  And, yes, you can ask for ‘seconds’ with no additional charge.  With over 100 specialty teas, you’re bound to find one or more that you like.  It’s expensive … but so worth it.

Afternoon Tea at Fortnum & Mason

From their humble beginnings in the early 1700s until now, Fortnum & Mason has not changed their focus.  They may not be just a grocery store any longer, and many of the great food halls have changed, but there is something that remains unchanged about Fortnum & Mason and that is the commitment to quality products and superior service.

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References:  Williams Sonoma, Wikipedia, Fortnum and Mason, Britain Express, Hazle Ceramics, Afternoon Tea.UK,
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O Christmas Tree … O Christmas Tree

The Christmas season is here and we’re all beginning the much-anticipated, sometimes stressful and often-times expensive process of ‘decorating’ for the holiday.  From the balsam wreath on the front door to the strings of garlands, lights and, of course, the TREE, it can be an exhausting and exasperating project.

Today, however, we seem to have grown away from the traditional freshly-cut fir tree decorated with ornaments that have been collected over the years, or handed down from generation to generation.  Instead, we seem to have gravitated toward artificial trees, with trendy decorating themes, that change each year … which is fine, I guess.  But I’m a traditionalist.  For me, every tree is unique in its imperfection, and every ornament should have a story to tell.  Of course, I’ve been guilty of that last minute box-of- a-dozen-red-balls purchase, but be assured those are the last ornaments to go on the tree, if they make it there at all.

But, why a tree?  When did we decide to bring this outdoor living plant indoors and decorate it?  And why December … not January or February?  There are so many traditions that we keep alive today, but why?

Let’s start with Adam and Eve.  This parable, with which we are all familiar, signifies life and family, and takes place in the “Garden of Eden” where we find the symbolic “Tree of Life”.  Whether you follow this doctrine or not, in Medieval times, European Christians did, to the point of bestowing sainthood on Adam and Eve.  During that period, every saint was honored with their special communicant service or Mass … St. Thomas had Thomasmass, St. Michael had Michaelmass, Christ had Christmass, etc.  The commemorative Mass of St. Adam and St. Eve was on December 24th, the day before the celebration of the birth of Christ (Christmass).

In other parts of the world, pagan groups believed that evergreens symbolized eternal life.  While other plants and trees died, the evergreen tree remained continually alive.  Because of this phenomena, evergreens were revered.  These Pagan civilizations also considered the sun a living god and were fearful of the darker winter months when the days were their shortest.  Many pagan groups would, beginning on the shortest day of the year, December 21st, hang evergreens over their doors and windows to keep away evil spirits, and celebrate the slow return of the Sun’s strength.

Now let’s combine the Christian tradition with the Pagan belief.  It seems the worshiping of evergreens and, in particular, the fir tree, collided with the conversion of both the Christian and Pagan rituals. There are some who believe that the church tried unsuccessfully to drive the tree cult out of people’s consciousness.  Ultimately, instead of ‘fighting them’, the church decided to ‘join them’ and incorporated the decorated evergreen tree, called a ‘Paradise Tree‘, into the religious celebration of the Christ child.


It was actually the Scandinavians who were the first to bring the evergreen tree inside the home and decorate it.  And it was the Germans who were the first to light the tree with candles.  They decorated their Paradise Tree with apples to represent the Garden of Eden, cookies to represent the Eucharistic host and candles to represent Christ lighting up the world.  There is, however, a legend which says it was Martin Luther, the 16th-century Protestant reformer, who was the first to add lighted candles to a tree.  While walking home one evening, Reverend Luther was amazed by the brilliant stars twinkling in the heavens.  To recapture that scene for his family, he tied lighted candles onto the branches of the tree in his drawing room.

Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and their children decorating a Christmas Tree.

It was well over a hundred years before this tradition of decorating and lighting a “Tree” spread to other parts of Europe and became widely accepted.  Contrary to popular believe, it was not Prince Albert, but Queen Victoria’s grandmother, German-born Charlotte, who brought this German custom with her to England when she married King George III.  Reports were that Queen Charlotte had an evergreen tree at Windsor Castle, which stood in a large tub in the middle of her drawing room.  It was decorated with fruit and lit by candles, with plenty of toys for the children, who were completely enchanted by the spectacle.  This decorated TREE became an annual tradition for the Royal family.

It wasn’t, however, until Queen Victoria and Prince Albert began celebrating Christmas with a decorated tree that the rest of Britain adopted this concept of celebrating Christmas.  Wanting to emulate everything this Royal couple did, by the end of the 1850s it was a well established Christmas custom to have a decorated evergreen tree in the home of all Brits.  It is also believed that Victoria and Albert were the first to have manufactured decorations for their Christmas tree, imported from Germany.  Each year, Albert continued to spread the tradition by donating trees to schools, army barracks and royal estates. A tradition which continues to this very day.

German settlers to the new World took the custom of decorated Christmas trees with them as early as the 17th century.  By the 19th century, Christmas trees were popular not only in the new World, but in the rest of Europe.  Missionaries took the custom of Christmas and decorated trees with them to China and Japan.  So by the 20th century, the tradition of a decorated evergreen tree in your home to celebrate Christmas had become a socially accepted custom.

Whether you’re a traditionalist like me, or someone who follows the annual decorating trend, did you ever think that by putting up and decorating your Christmas tree, you would effectively be transforming your living room into a place of pagan ritual?

                                                                         Merry Christmas!

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References:  Prevail Magazine, Time Magazine, Royal Central,

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Did You Know . . . .

Did you know that …

… all “tea” comes from one plant, of which there are over 3,000 varieties.
… except for water, tea is the most popular beverage in the world.
… China grows more tea than any other country, but they are not the largest exporter.
… tea improves concentration, mood, and energy, as well as relaxation.
… there is no ‘orange‘ in orange pekoe tea.

… if the tea leaf shipped out of China from the northern ports, it was called ‘cha’
… if the tea leaf shipped out of China from the southern ports, it was called ‘te’.
… white tea actually has more caffeine than black tea.
… a pound of tea has more caffeine than a pound of coffee – but a cup of tea has less caffeine than a cup of coffee.
… the average tea drinker in the U.K. drinks 4.5 lbs of tea each year, while the average tea drinker in Turkey drinks 6.8 lbs.

… tea was first touted for its medicinal benefits – good for colds, dropsies and scurvies.
… in Victorian England, tea sold on average for £26/pound – while the average wage was £10/year.
… in Victorian England, some servants would take the used tea leaves and sell it to unscrupulous dealers, who would add fillers and resell the leaves.
… although we think of teapots as British, they actually originated in China in the 1500s.
… in the Middle East, haggling over prices doesn’t even begin until after tea is served.

… tearooms where the first ‘women-owned’ businesses in the U.S.
… the most famous tearoom in the world is the Willow Tea Room in Glasgow, Scotland.
… in the 19th century, the term for accepting a bribe was called “tea money“.
… in Victorian England, tea was kept locked away in ornate tea chests, with the key being held by the lady of the house.
… in Victorian England, children in orphanages were given tea with milk and sugar daily.

 

… the first tea to be exported from China and enjoyed by Europeans was ‘green’ tea, called “gunpowder“.
… the Portuguese were the first to enjoy drinking tea in Europe, after merchants brought it back from Asia.
… crates of Chinese porcelain was first used as ballast in the bottom of ships transporting tea.
… a China closet was where the lady of the house would display her fine imported “Chinaware”.
… the Chinese started putting handles on teacups when they realized Europeans drank their tea much hotter than they did and in larger bowls.

Ming Dynasty Yixing Teapot

… “pot holes” is the term given to the holes in the road left by English potters who would dig up the fine clay to craft their teapots.
… in the late 1800s until WWI, from London to Glasgow, Tango tea dances were all the rage.
… Prime Minister Earl Grey is credited with ending slavery in Great Britain.
… Earl Grey tea is one of the most popular ‘flavored’ teas in the world.
… Both Twinings and Jacksons of Piccadilly take credit for inventing “Earl Grey” flavored tea.

The Cup of Tea, Mary Cassatt 1881

Afternoon Tea is credited to the 7th Duchess of Bedford, Anna Russell, in the 1840s.
… Ceylon (Sri Lanka) was a world-class coffee producer until the coffee blight of 1870.
… the tea bag was invented accidentally by Thomas Sullivan as a sample bag for his customers.
… iced tea was accidentally invented by Richard Blechynde on a very hot day at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904 when he gave out ‘cold’ samples of his tea.

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Cover Photo:  “Church Lady High Tea” by Janie McGee

STICKY TOFFEE APPLE PUDDING

It’s Fall and what do you do on a gorgeous Fall day in New England?  Go apple picking, of course!  We were in New Hampshire and stumbled onto this remote, little apple orchard located down a very long, dirt road, nestled  among tall, lumbering pine trees.  No fancy signs with balloons announcing their location.  No giant painted pumpkins, mind-numbing corn mazes or antique tractor displays … just apple trees.  Apprehensively, we approached the little shed with the owner standing outside.  “C’mon in”, he said “wanna pick some apples?”  How could we not.

He explained the different varieties of apple trees and their location in the orchard, handed us a couple of paper bags and off we went.  Picking didn’t take long, as the trees were heavy with fruit … Empire, Macouns, Macintosh, Golden Delicious and Cortland … all red, ripe and ready.  After picking … and eating as many as we could … we managed to find our way back to the shed, where the owner weighed our bounty and offered us a slice of pie.  Pie?  Yes, every day his wife bakes an apple pie for anyone who, after a day of picking, would like to sit, relax and enjoy a slice of homemade apple pie.  Needless to say, it was one of the best apple pies we’ve ever had.

Now, with more apples than we could possibly eat, it was time to get baking!  So what to  make?  I certainly couldn’t compete with the apple pie we had at the orchard.  I’ve made many strudels, cobblers and apple cakes.  I wanted to make something different.  How about an old fashioned steamed pudding?

My inspiration was the classic British dessert, Sticky Toffee Pudding.  Putting on my creative baker hat once again, I came up with this Apple version.  If you are a lover of classic steamed puddings, which, unlike cakes, are dense, moist and homey, then you must give this a try.  Yes, it is a bit time consuming, but its the perfect thing to make on a chilly, Autumn afternoon.

This will feed anywhere from 6 hungry people to 12 easily.  Serve it warm with a generous slug of the thick, sweet toffee topping.  To heck with the calories … you burned them all off apple picking anyway!

STICKY TOFFEE APPLE PUDDING
Bake 350° for 60 to 70 minutes.  Serves 6 to 10, depending upon portion size.

Toffee Sauce
1 15 oz. can sweetened condensed milk

Pudding/Cake/Batter
1/2 stick (4 tablespoons) butter
4-5 large apples, peeled, cored and cubed (approximately 6 cups)
1/2 cup dark brown sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1 cup chopped toasted walnuts or pecans (optional)

1 stick butter, melted
4 eggs, room temperature
1-1/2 cups brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
2-1/2 cups all purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder

Into a high-sided saucepan, place the entire can of sweetened condensed milk.  Completely cover the can with water and bring to a boil.  Then cover the saucepan and reduce the heat to a simmer.  Let this simmer, covered, for at least two hours, while you make and bake the pudding.  Check it every now and then to ensure the can is completely covered with simmering water.  Refill water as needed.

Preheat the oven to 350° and butter six to eight ramekins.  In a large baking or roasting pan, lay a kitchen towel.  The ramekins are going to bake in a water bath and the towel keeps the dishes from bumping into each other.

In a large frypan, over medium heat, melt the butter and add the cubed apples.  Sprinkle on the dark brown sugar, the cinnamon, nutmeg and the cornstarch.  Mix gently.  Cover and let it cook down for about 15 minutes or until the apples are softened and a sauce forms.  If needed, add a bit of water.  Stir gently.

While the apples are gently cooking, in a mixing bowl, beat the eggs and brown sugar.  Add the melted butter and vanilla.  Beat in the flour, cinnamon, salt and baking powder.  Mix well, but don’t overbeat.

Spoon the apple filling into the pudding batter.  With a wooden spoon, gently mix all together.  Then spoon the batter into the buttered ramekins.  Not too high.  They will rise a bit.  Sprinkle with toasted nuts, if you’d like.

Place the ramekins on the towel-lined baking pan.  Then fill the baking pan with hot water until the water comes halfway up the sides of the dishes.

Cover the entire baking pan tightly with foil and bake at 350°.  Bake for 60 to 70 minutes (depending upon the size of the ramekins).  No peeking.  Puddings take a bit longer to bake than cakes.

When done, remove the baking pan from the oven and let the puddings rest for 10 minutes.  Meanwhile, take the can which has been bubbling away on the stove top, and holding it with a towel, carefully open it.  It will be very hot.  With a spoon, mix the thick, sweet sauce to smooth it out.  Then spoon the toffee sauce into a serving bowl or pitcher.

To serve, either pop the pudding out of the ramekin and plate it or serve it right in the ramekin … and spoon a generous dollop of toffee sauce on top.  For a little extra treat, you might want to have ice cream or whipped cream on hand.  This is an absolutely rib-sticking, old fashioned dessert, hearty, sweet and full of chunky apples with a creamy toffee sauce … perfect for a cool Fall evening.  i hope you and your family enjoy it as much as we did!!

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CLIPPER SHIPS and the GREAT TEA RACE of 1866

I hope you’ve had a chance to read my blog about THE JOHN COMPANY, formally known as the British East India Company, which led the trading of tea and other exotic goods from the Far East to Europe,  Great Britain and the New World. For more than 200 years the British East India Company dominated trading. No longer a commercial venture, more of a political one and a threat to the British government, the company became too powerful and was dissolved in 1834.

In order to control this vast empire, the East India Company, prior to 1834, maintained an impressive fleet of ships.  Built in India, these ships, known as “Indiamen”, were huge warships, not only carrying goods and passengers, but fitted out for war.  For what they did, sailing millions of miles and bringing millions of pounds of goods into port, they were exceptional.

Unloading tea crates on the East India docks. Early 1800s

Life on board, however, was quite harsh.  One story written by an officer tells what life was like on one of these “Indiamen”.  The voyage from London to China and back to England took thirteen months and two weeks. The cramped accommodations offered no privacy or room to move.  There was never enough water or fresh food and scurvy took the lives of many sailors and passengers.  Petty thefts occurred daily, with the accused being flogged or tied to the shrouds.  As bad as things were during the day, they were worse at night with no lamps or lanterns allowed.  Fire, shipwrecks and pirating were the biggest enemies of these mammoth ships.

Meanwhile, in Baltimore, Maryland, a shipyard created a ship that was not only fast, but with a cargo hold big enough to carry a significant amount of freight.  These ships came to be known as Clipper Ships … “clip” was slang for run or fly quickly. The design of these vessels, with their massive sails, enabled them to “clip” over the waves at a great speed, which caused a sensation in the shipping industry.  Now ships could travel at speeds of up to 30 kilometers an hour … and traders could deliver goods faster and the freshest tea possible.  Clipper ships became the new force.

When the Company was dissolved in 1834, Great Britain introduced the Navigation Act, which meant anyone, including non-English companies, could bring goods into a British port.  Finally, there would be competition. The Indiamen ships continued to be in service, but the East India Company soon began to see a rise in competition from these Clipper Ships, which would render their slow ships obsolete.  Speed was now the name of the game.

The Tea Clipper, Serica. 1863

At first, the Company wasn’t worried about these little American ships.  The Indiamen had dominated the shipping industry for centuries.  But very quickly these fast, lightweight American ships began to cut into their trade and their profits.  Although the Clippers were transporting all sorts of cargo, it was “tea” that caused the most interest.  The American Clipper, Oriental, made an unprecedented trip from New York to Hong Kong in only 81 days … an unheard of time in 1850.  She was immediately offered the job of transporting 1650 tons of tea from Hong Kong to London, which she did in only 99 days.

The British shipbuilders immediately began building their own Clippers, producing more than 100 ships, five of which became the most famous of all.  At that point, the race was on!  The competitive spirit sprung into action immediately because whoever could bring tea to market first would gain a monetary incentive.  Crews began competing with each other, not only as a test of their sailing, but also how quickly and efficiently the tea could be loaded onto their ships . . . . because they couldn’t set sail from China until every tea chest was on board.

The image above outlines how to efficiently load crates of tea without wasting space. This illustration shows more than 12,000 chests of tea stowed below deck.

The Clipper ship races began in 1850 and lasted only 20 years, but while they did, they caused incredible excitement.  The ships would thunder down through the South China Sea and into the Indian Ocean, then race to round the southern-most tip of Africa at the Cape of Good Hope. From there, it was north across the Atlantic, past the Azores, and through the English Channel into the Thames.  In the Thames, they would need to be towed by tugs to reach the docks.

The most famous race of all took place in 1866.  By then, the American ships had dropped out, leaving just the English clippers to bring tea to market.  The headline in the DAILY TELEGRAPH announced “The Great Tea Race of 1866” with the main competitors being the Fiery Cross, the Ariel, the Taeping, the Serica and the Taitsing.

On May 30th, they all left China within hours of each other.  Once the ships left the docks in China, telegrams would be sent from each check-in point en route to England.  The Suez Canal was still under construction so around the Cape of Good Hope they ran, taking over three months to reach the English Channel.  A distance of over 14,000 miles.  At times they came close enough to one another to actually see the crews on the competing ship.  The Fiery Cross had the lead only 20 days out, with the Taeping and Ariel falling two days behind and the Serica and the Taitsing a day behind them.  But the weather around the Cape of Good Hope evened things out.  It wasn’t long before all ships were within 24 hours of each other.  By the time they reached the Azores, they were all within sight of each other.

In addition to the bragging rights, the Captain and the crew would be rewarded for their hard work, earning up to sixpence per pound of tea.  So the incentive to win was great.  The British newspapers reported on the race almost daily.  With the changing weather, shifts in the wind and typhoons, except for the Taitsang, which had now fallen too far behind, the ships were staying neck-to-neck.  Eventually, the Taeping pulled out ahead and seemed to be the clear winner, but it was the Ariel to first spot the Cornish coast.  The last leg of the race was in sight.  But even as the Ariel was at full sail, the Taeping was closing in on her.  Both ships needed tugboats to get them down the Thames.

Crowds of people who had been following the race lined the docks, with merchants ready to be the first to announce their tea had arrived.  The Ariel was headed for the East India dock, while the Taeping was headed for the London dock.  With both ships being taken in tow at the same time going up the Thames, there was concern that the race would be a dead heat.  Knowing this, the owners of the Ariel and the Taeping agreed that whichever ship docked first would claim the prize, with no dispute between them.  Which ship would it be?

It was the Taeping who reached the dock first, with a mere 20 minute lead.  The Ariel was second and the Serica came in an hour later taking third place. No race before or since ever had a narrower margin between ships.  And in the spirit of goodwill, the crew of the Taeping shared the prize money equally with the Ariel.

The Great Tea Race of 1866 was the most famous tea race of all.  This was also the last year that  a bonus was paid for the first ship to arrive in London.  For although the ships were fast, the first cargo of tea from China had actually arrived two weeks earlier, in only 66 days, by a steamship, the Erl King.  This steamer was not part of the Clipper ship race, but the fact that it was faster than the Clippers changed the way tea was shipped from then on.  Although most of the Clipper ships remained in service for a few years, with the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, which was not suitable for them, steamships now offered a more efficient and less expensive way of shipping tea and other cargo.

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References:  Homeofohm, Teamuse, Sweetteajunkie, Wikipedia, Smithsonian, Harvard Library, Gutenberg, South Bay Sail, Tea.Co.UK, Vahdam,
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