ABERFAN

I wished we had known about Aberfan before we traveled through Wales.  We would have visited this little hamlet to pay our respects.  Although the horrific catastrophe took place over 50 years ago, I wonder if that community has ever really healed.  Losing half the town’s population of children, 116, and 28 adults in a matter of moments is something which, I imagine, you can never really ever put behind you.  And, this preventable tragedy actually happened to this tiny Welsh coal-mining village on Friday, October 21, 1966, at 9:15 am.

Coal mining, or “black gold”, played a huge part in the Industrial Revolution in Britain.  Wood was in short supply by the 19th century and coal was needed to fire the blast furnaces for the iron and copper industries.  The dangerous job of mining coal was the center of discontent for most of its workers.  Uprisings against employers were commonplace.  Although the Factory Act and Mines Act were passed, which were meant to prevent women and children under the age of 10 from working underground, they were by and large, ignored.  Accidents, long-term health problems and other catastrophes continued.

Did the coal-mining company knowingly and willfully disregard the maximum amount of unstable waste which could be piled up, on a sloping hill, on top of an underground stream, even though they were warned repeatedly?  We’ll never really know.  The National Coal Board, however, was responsible for maintaining these waste sites which hovered dangerously close to these small towns and, it’s obvious, they didn’t.

The aftermath of the Aberfan disaster. 1966

But all it took was a very rainy season that year.  Local residents noticed that flood waters were actually dripping down from the coal mines.  The situation was dangerous!  Meetings were held between the local representatives and the National Coal Board.  Although the National Coal Board admitted knowing there was a problem, they did nothing.

It was the last day of the school term, and after a night of heavy rains, at 9:15 am on Friday, October 21st, as the children of the Pantglas Junior School were seated at their desks, with their teacher at the helm, about to begin their first lessons, a deafening roar could be heard outside.  It didn’t take but a few moments for this 30′ high avalanche of debris from the mine to wash down the hillside and completely engulf the little school, a row of houses, and a farm.  1.5 million cubic feet of sludge crushed the life out of this community.  A torrent of water then engulfed the sludge caused by the broken water mains.  It all happened so quickly, the children didn’t have time to flee for their lives.  Teachers threw themselves over the children to protect them.  116 children died – ages 7 to 10 … 28 adults – 5 of them teachers … many more injured.

Hundreds of people heard the noise, stopped what they were doing, picked up a shovel and ran to the site.  It took over a week for rescuers to retrieve the bodies of the victims. “Civil defense teams, miners, policemen, firemen and other volunteers toiled desperately, sometimes tearing at the coal rubble with their bare hands, to extricate the children,” reported the New York Times.  The dead were taken to a makeshift mortuary set up in Bethania Chapel, where many parents had to endure the ordeal of identifying the bodies of their children.

Rescue workers at the site of the Pantglas Junior School.

Inquiries were held and findings resulted in this statement … “our strong and unanimous view is that the Aberfan disaster could and should have been prevented. … the Report which follows tells not of wickedness but of ignorance, ineptitude and a failure in communications. Ignorance on the part of those charged at all levels with the siting, control and daily management of tips; bungling ineptitude on the part of those who had the duty of supervising and directing them; and failure on the part of those having knowledge of the factors which affect tip safety to communicate that knowledge and to see that it was applied.”

Mourners walk through the center of town. 1966

A mass burial was held on the 25th of October.  The company was never prosecuted, nor any of its staff members.  Instead a paltry offer of £500 was paid to each of the families who lost a loved one.

Today they have moved on.  Well, some of them.  It’s still a very sensitive subject, which some refuse to talk about.  For the longest time, it was never mentioned in school, but now school children are being taught about this horrific tragedy.  Of course, the coal mines have been closed for years … and there now stands a memorial garden where the school once stood.  There’s also a community center setup by one of the childhood survivors, which is an integral place for young families.  The River Taff, once a smelly streak of polluted, black liquid running through the town is now a source of local pride and brimming with life.


The residents of Aberfan don’t want to deny the tragedy, but they want to be remembered for more than just that.  I do know should we get the  opportunity to travel through Wales once again, we will definitely pay our respects to this brave little hamlet.

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References:  Walesonline, Wikipedia, MSN, Vogue, History Extra, Averfan Documentary

Princess Alice of Battenburg

Has anyone else been watching this season’s THE CROWN on Netflix?  I am spellbound by this remarkably well-made, historical drama.  From the stunningly beautiful and lavish set designs to the dramatic vistas and landscapes, the authentically-detailed period costumes, and, of course, the remarkable portrayals of each of the Royal family by such a talented cast, it’s very difficult to not get caught up in every nuance, image and monologue.  Some people may call this nothing more than a glorified soap opera, but it is so believable, so well made, I had to do some fact checking.  Is this historically accurate or has it been infused with ‘artistic license’

Not having any more information about the Royals than most people (supermarket tabloids, banner headlines on search engines), I’ve been intrigued by such a parade of complex individuals who’ve occupied the rooms of the palace and 10 Downing Street at one time or another.  One such person was the recent episode which introduced us to Prince Philip’s mother, Princess Alice of Battenburg, brilliantly played by Jane Lapotaire.  But a nun?  Living in a down-trodden community in Greece? Looking for charitable donations?  I needed to know more . . .

Victoria “Alice” Elizabeth Julia  Marie was born on February 25, 1885 at the home of her great-grandmother, Queen Victoria, in Windsor Castle to German parents, Prince Louis of Battenburg and Princess Victoria of Hesse.  Alice’s father was an officer in the Royal Navy, and as a result, the family lived in, not only London, but Germany and Malta.  The eldest of four, Alice’s mother was very concerned by Alice’s lack of development.  Alice was slow in learning to speak and had trouble pronouncing words.  Through her aunt’s intervention, Alice was later diagnosed with congenital deafness.  Once diagnosed, Alice quickly learned to lip read and became proficient in English, German, French and Greek.

Princess Alice and her husband, Prince Andrew
(1903)

She was a stunning beauty and grew to be one of the loveliest young women in Royalty.  At the coronation of King Edward VII, Alice met her future husband, Prince Andrew of Greece and Denmark.  On October 6, 1903, she 18 and he 21, this handsome couple were married and moved to Greece where Andrew became a commissioned officer in the Greek army.  The marriage was marred from the beginning.  Little did Alice know of Prince Andrew’s bisexuality or extravagant lifestyle.  Regardless, the pair would go on to have five children, four daughters and one son. The youngest, Philip, born in 1921, six years after their youngest daughter.

As with most young, wealthy princesses, Alice had little or nothing to do but attend social gatherings.  On a trip to Russia in 1908 to attend the wedding of her husband’s niece, Alice became intrigued about plans to create a religious order of nurses.  When Alice returned to Greece, she found the country in political turmoil.  The turmoil escalated into war and the Balkan Wars broke out in 1912.  Alice quickly threw herself into helping the wounded soldiers by organizing field hospitals.  During this time Prince Andrew’s father was assassinated by a Greek anarchist so the family was forced to flee in exile to Switzerland.

Alice with her first two children, Margarita and Theodora, c. 1910

Just a short two years later saw the outbreak of WWI which caused horrific tragedy to Alice’s family back in Germany, most of whom were murdered.  The family had to give up all of their privileges, positions and titles, as well as their name.  From “Battenberg”, they were now known as “Mountbatten”.  With the end of WWI and the fall of the German empire, the Mountbattens returned to Greece, but once again war broke out in Greece only two years later and Prince Andrew, who was commander of the Military, was banished from the country.  This time the family fled to Paris.

After all this turmoil, tragedy and disruption in their lives, it’s no wonder that Alice turned to religion.  She converted to the Greek Orthodox faith.  Her philandering husband didn’t help Alice’s now fragile state of mind.  With all she had been through, Alice began thinking she had special healing powers and was receiving messages from God.  The couple became estranged. Now diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, Alice, aged 45, was forced to move into a sanatorium in Switzerland, where she lived for two years.

Alice tried many times, unsuccessfully, to escape from the sanatorium.  Under the care of many psychiatrists, including Dr. Sigmund Freud, Alice was forced to undergo invasive treatments to “cure her of frustrated sexual desires” which was Freud’s diagnosis.  Dr. Freud concluded that Alice was suffering from unsatisfied sexual frustration.  Her son, Philip, was just nine years old when his mother was taken from him.  Prince Andrew had no desire to raise his son.  He, in fact, ran away with a mistress to the French Riviera.  Young Philip was raised by other members of his family in England, living and being educated in exclusive boarding schools.  During this time, Alice’s daughters all married German prince’s and moved to Germany.  Alice did not attend any of the weddings.

When Alice was finally released from the sanatorium in 1932, she found herself alone.  With nowhere to go, she drifted throughout Germany for years.  The death of her daughter and her daughter’s family in a plane crash in 1937 was the first time in seven years Alice saw her husband.  It was at that time she reunited with the rest of her children and family.  Alice then returned to Greece to continue her charity work.  She wanted her son, Philip, to come with her, but he had a future with the Royal Navy.  When the second World War broke out, Alice’s family was split between Germany and England.  Her son and British family members were on the Allied side, while her daughters and in-laws were on the German side.

In 1941 the Nazis took over Greece.  Although many fled, Alice remained and became an activist, hiding as many Jews as possible in her home, smuggling in medical supplies and doing whatever charity work she could find.  In 1944 when the war was over, Athens was liberated but nothing changed in Greece.  The British were now fighting the Communists for control.  With no food, most people living in squalid conditions, Alice continued putting her life on the line with her dangerous acts of charity.

In 1947 Alice did get the opportunity to leave Greece to attend the wedding of her son, Philip, to Princess Elizabeth.  Her visit was short lived, however, because she wanted to return to Greece where she organized a nursing order of Greek Orthodox nuns, modeled after the one she had witnessed in Russia many years before, known as the Christian Sisterhood of Martha and Mary.  By June of 1953, Alice was now clothed only in the simple grey habit worn by many Greek Orthodox nuns, which she wore to the coronation of Queen Elizabeth.

The military junta in 1967 forced Prince Philip to send for his mother.  Alice returned to London to live out her years with her son, Prince Philip, and his wife, Queen Elizabeth, at Buckingham Palace.  Now quite frail and deaf, but alert and cognizant, she continued to smoke and play canasta.  Then, on December 5, 1969, at the age of 84, with every one of her belongings given away at her request, Princess Alice of Battenberg died.

This remarkable woman endured more than most.  It’s sad to me that so few have even heard her name, never mind her incredible story.  I wonder if any of us could have lived through the terrors of wars, family members killed and murdered, a husband who betrayed her and children who seemingly left her completely on her own.  The British government named Princess Alice “Hero of the Holocaust” for her services during the Jewish Massacre, and in 1994 she was honored by Israel as ‘Righteous among the Nations’.

As fascinating as the episode on The Crown was, it barely scratches the surface of the dramatic life this woman has lived.  Were there some artistic liberties taken for the script?  Yes, of course.  But I don’t think it was necessary.  A remarkable story of a remarkable woman.  Thank you Netflix!

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References:  Crowns, Tiaras, Coronets, Famous People, Wikipedia, CNN, Elle,

WHITBY FISH PIE

Whitby is a charming, seaside village in north Yorkshire.  Although we have visited quite a few times, there’s no real reason for most people to have heard of Whitby … unless you’ve followed the career of Captain Cook or have read Bram Stoker’s novel DRACULA.  Actually, quite a few literary geniuses have lived or visited Whitby during their careers.  In addition to Bram Stoker, you may have heard of Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell or Lewis Carroll among many others.  Today, tourism is what keeps this quiet, little fishing village alive … well, that and “fish pie”.

As with most regional recipes, it comes down to whatever is available, and whatever the cook decides to do with it.  In Whitby, it’s the ‘catch of the day’.  For me, it was a quick trip to the grocery store, after which I decided to use cod.  And pulling from my bookshelf of resources, it was Paul Hollywood’s BRITISH BAKING which inspired this beloved regional dish.

I was a bit hesitant … not all of my attempts at Hollywood’s recipes have been successful … but this one certainly was.  We all loved it.  A hearty, satisfying dish, flavorful and delicious.  Perfect for a Sunday supper on a wintry night.  Serve it up with a tossed green salad and bottle of white wine.  We hope you enjoy it as much as we did.

WHITBY FISH PIE
Serves 6 to 8.  Bake at 425º for 30 to 40 mins.

The crust (or purchase a pre-made pastry crust)
2 cups all purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
10 tablespoons cold butter, cubed
1 egg, beaten
1/4 cup icy cold water

The filling
4 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup all purpose flour
2 cups milk
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon salt
pepper
1/2 diced white onion
2 stalked celery, diced
2 cups spinach, washed and chopped
1/4 cup parsley, chopped
2 lbs. solid white fish, skinned, cubed
2 boiled potatoes, peeled and cubed (optional)
1 egg, beaten

I know after reading this list of ingredients, it seems like a lot of time and work, but it really isn’t.  We all know a good pie starts with a good crust.  They are super easy, but if you don’t feel comfortable making one, store bought crusts have come a long way.

When ready to cook, make the filling in one large saucepan, beginning with a roux, adding leftover cooked potatoes if you have them.  Dump it all into a large pie plate or casserole.  Then top it with the pie crust and bake for about 40 minutes.  Done!
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The details:
To make the crust:
Mix the flour and salt together in a bowl.  Add the chilled butter and cut in until the flour resembles coarse crumbs.  Add the beaten egg and, with a fork, mix together quickly adding the cold water as needed …

OR … put all the dry ingredients in your food processor and pulse for 10 seconds.  Add the cubed butter and pulse for another 10 seconds.  Add the beaten egg and as much water as needed to hold it together and pulse for a final 10 seconds.

The flour mixture should stay together.

Whichever method you use, when it comes together, turn out on a floured board and form a ball.  Wrap in plastic wrap and chill for at least 30 minutes.

The filling:
In a large saucepan, over medium heat, melt the butter.  When melted, stir in the 1/2 cup of flour and cook til all combined.  Slowly add the milk and whisk until smooth and creamy.  This will take two to three minutes.  Season with cloves, salt and pepper.

The bechamel should be nicely thickened.

Next, stir in the diced onions and celery.  The heat should be medium to low.  Then add the chopped spinach and parsley.  Taste to adjust the seasoning.  You may need to add a bit more salt.

Add the cubed fish and fold in gently.  You don’t want to break the fish up.  If you have leftover boiled potatoes, add them now … or any leftover veggies you may have.  Turn off the heat and dump everything into a large casserole or pie plate.

Take the pastry out of the frig and, on a lightly floured board, roll it out to fit the casserole or pie plate.  Be sure to cut an air hole in the center of the pastry for the steam to escape.

Brush the edges of the casserole with water or the beaten egg and put the pastry crust on top.    Press the pastry onto the rim of the dish to adhere.  Decorate as you’d like, or not.  Brush the beaten egg all over the pastry crust.

Be sure to put the casserole onto a baking tray to catch any spillage … and there will be spillage.  Bake at 425º for 40 to 45 minutes until golden brown and bubbly.


Take it out of the oven and serve right away.  A simple green salad and glass of white wine … maybe some crusty bread, perfect!  This is an old-fashioned supper dish and it doesn’t disappoint.  WHITBY FISH PIE … a steaming pie full of goodness and nutrition.  If you make it, please let me know.
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References:  Wikipedia, Visit Whitby, Paul Hollywood,

Portsmouth’s Dockyard

When hubby suggested that we visit the Portsmouth Shipyard while in England this past fall, I have to admit I was a bit skeptical.  A visit to a naval base?  My Dad worked at a naval base for years (one of the oldest shipbuilding facilities in this country), so I’m quite familiar with touring historic shipbuilding facilities and what they have to offer.  I wasn’t, however, prepared for the fascinating, fun and intimidating adventure that was awaiting us.

Spinnaker Tower Portsmouth

We chose to stay at a quirky little b&b along the waterfront, originally a 200-year old pub frequented by the dock workers.  The location couldn’t have been better.  We had views of the waterfront, the quay, the shipyard and the 560′ foot high Spinnaker Tower.  The weather was, what we generally refer to as, typical English … a bit grey, overcast and drizzly.  That didn’t stop us, however, from seeing all this unique little area had to offer.

Our first afternoon we visited the very touristy quay with all its fine, upscale shops and restaurants.  The next day, we took an exhilarating ride on a hovercraft, floating above the sea and traveling at 45 knots, to the beautiful Isle of Wight where we relaxed on the beach, hiked to the top of lookout cliff, ate local seafood and where I’d love to return … for more than a day.

But the reason we came here was to visit the Dockyard.  I wasn’t prepared for how pristine this working shipyard would be.  It was almost ‘elegant’ in its presentation, and a bit intimidating with its  20′ high brick walls and imposing main gate, which prevent you from seeing what lies behind the walls.

In addition to the fleets of ships and repair facilities, the entry fee gains you admittance to children’s action stations and pirate adventures, the National Museum of the Royal Navy, harbor tours, a water bus, as well as the Royal Navy Submarine Museum.  The highlights, of course, are the H.M.S. Victory, the H.M.S. Warrior and the Mary Rose.  Being very familiar with “Old Ironsides”, the U.S.S. Constitution, built in 1794 and now housed at the Boston Naval Shipyard, I was most fascinated to tour the equally famous British warship, H.M.S. Victory, built for battle against the American’s War of Independence.


When you step on board the H.M.S. Victory, you get to experience the ship as it was in 1805.  Not only can you inspect every nook and cranny of this fascinating vessel, observing where the sailors and officers ate and slept, the costumed crew take on the characters and give you a very real and personal look at how harsh life was like on board as they prepare for the Battle of Trafalgar.  Of course, I found the galley and the main cabin to be the most fascinating.  Others may have been more fascinated by the cannons and the coal-fired boiler room.  All  in all, I would absolutely recommend a visit to experience this piece of history.

The entry fee alone was worth our visit to the H.M.S. Victory, but our day didn’t end there.  We took a water bus across the bay to the Royal Navy Submarine Museum.  Having never been on a submarine before, this exhibit was incredibly fascinating to me (and the others in our group).  The first impression for me was trying to imagine how these brave men were able to withstand the claustrophobic conditions aboard this imposing vessel.


This monstrous, grey, monolith of a ship was beyond intimidating.  The H.M.S. Alliance is England’s only remaining WWII submarine and what an absolutely incredible experience this was.  A retired submariner guide takes you through the entire ship beginning in the engine room and ending in the torpedo compartment.  He’s not only very informative, but entertaining as well, providing you with all the ‘inside’ information (including how to use the toilet flushing system*).  You have the opportunity to not only view the world through the periscope and push the horrifying ‘dive alarm’, you’ll observe how these brave men lived and worked on this undersea, iron amphibian.  Each compartment is staged to replicate exactly how it would have been during WWII, from the jacket still hanging on the peg, to the canned milk for the tea, to the photos of their true loves pinned to the wall.

In addition to the Alliance, there is a submarine museum where you can tour Britain’s first submarine, the Holland I, and learn about John Holland, who developed the very first submersible vessel.

From the Victory to the Alliance and everything in between, our visit to Britain’s oldest Naval Base, the Portsmouth Dockyard, was truly memorable.  Restoration of these vessels has been a considerable and expensive undertaking,  but so worth it.  And in order to continue the restoration, the ticket prices are a bit high, but when would you ever get the chance to experience anything like this?  I’m sure you’re thinking this would be great for kids and families and may not interest a lot of people, and I was certainly skeptical, but take it from me, you’ll never forget your visit to Portsmouth and the Portsmouth Dockyard.

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* Just for fun:   How to Use the Submarine Toilet Flushing System:  After entering, close door “A”

  1. Open waste tap “B” and flush tap “C” with lever “D”, causing door “A” to be blocked.
  2. Open cover “E”.
  3. Move lever “F” to “use”.
  4. Use lavatory “G”.
  5. Open waste tap “H” and flushing tap “I”.
  6. Move lever “F” to “flush” position (do this more carefully the deeper the submarine is submerged) until compartment “J” is barely filled.
  7. Open shut-off valve “K”.
  8. Move lever “F” carefully to position “eject”.
    Compartment  “J” is filled through “K” and “L” with air from the 12 ATM system.
  9. Move lever “F” carefully to the “air waste” position. In this position, the air flows out of compartment “J” through valve “M” to the foul water tank and on to the battery compartment through pipe “O”.
  10. Lever “F” stays in the “air waste” position when the lavatory is not in use.
  11. Close and lock taps “H” and “I”.
  12. Close lever “E”.
  13. Close taps “B” and “C” with lever “D”.

Note: If these instructions are not followed exactly as above, the contents of the toilet will spill out over and up and down the closet. If you are so careless, you clean it up!

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References:  Historic Dockyard, Boston Navy Yard, HMS Victory, Royal Navy Submarine Museum, Wikipedia, John Holland

GBBO . . . what’s happened to you?

What has happened to the Great British Bake Off?  Now in season 10 (or is it 9, maybe 8?) it has become a showcase of unattainable, unrelatable challenges.  No longer is it a baking show to which home bakers can think about, perhaps some day, challenging themselves to bake that irresistible, classic cake/pie/tart/bread/roll/pastry.  Now the contestants are asked to bake scenic ‘landscape desserts‘, pita bread on an outdoor  fire pit, and what in the world is a ‘Kek Lapis Sarawak‘ cake?  I completely understand that this is a long-running program and there is a need to have new “content” for each of the 10 episodes, but biscuit chandeliers? REALLY?

Has anyone else noticed that the bakers are younger, more stylish, and dare I say, more attractive?  In past seasons, there was a wide range of ages.  But not so much any more.  Where’s the Val, Diana, Brendan, Norman and Nancy today?  Is this home baker now too old for the commercial Channel 4 audience?  Also, these much younger contestants, with their perfect teeth, coifed hair and slim  bodies appear to be in ‘character’ now … much like MasterChef.

Season 1, which (unless you have a streaming service) we in the U.S. have never had the opportunity to see, featured 10 home bakers baking in the imposing tent which then moved around the U.K. to six different locations.  It was all about the classic bakes, ranging from puddings to breads to cakes.

The judges were Paul Hollywood, a seasoned bread baker, and Mary Berry, the Julia Child of Great Britain.  Together with comediennes Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins as the sympathetic, caring, yet off-beat presenters who were always there to bolster a sagging souffle, the show was an immediate hit.  Let’s not forget the music.  Combining cellos, violins and a xylophone, the tension-building introduction perfectly set the mood of the show.

Mary Berry, Paul Hollywood, Sue Perkins, Mel Giedroyc

The logistics of a roving tent must have been too daunting because in Season 2 the tent became permanently setup on the beautifully landscaped grounds of a 17th-century mansion house.  The number of contestants increased from 10 to 12 and a “star” baker was introduced.  It was official.  The Great British Bake Off was a huge hit!

Season 3, which here in the U.S. is referred to as Season 1, is when the rest of us fell in love with this charming baking show.  We were tired of the gimmicky, cut-throat, competitive, backstabbing drama which was so prevalent in our cooking shows.  We all fell in love with this simple format and with contestants who actually cared about each other, helping each other out when a crisis was imminent.

Ian dumping his bake into the bin.

Yes, there was one incident in Season 4 when Diana is accused of leaving Ian’s ice cream out of the freezer, which caused his bake to fail, and thus being eliminated.  Diana left the show because she said the program was edited to make it look as if she left the ice cream out when, in fact, she had put it back into the freezer.  She departed the show because of how she was portrayed.

The BBC series ran for six seasons, but when Channel 4 purchased the show, Mary, Mel and Sue left.  Paul Hollywood remained.  We were then introduced to Prue Leith as judge, replacing Mary Berry.  Noel Fielding and Sandi Toksvig took over for Sue and Mel.  Yes, they get the job done, but with gimmicks and slapstickish comedy, none of the clever, witty interplay we so enjoyed from Mel and Sue.

The first six seasons of this beloved show are constantly rerun on PBS, while Netflix has kept us up-to-date on the recent three.  Will I continue to watch?  Absolutely!  I wouldn’t miss one episode.  But I do miss the eccentric, aging, snaggle-toothed, rural baker who is completely uncomfortable in front of the camera, but was such fun to watch.

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CAKE

One of the oldest forms of what originated as a sweetened bread is cake.  In its simplest form, it is flour, sugar, milk, eggs, and butter, but it can be so much more than just that.  Cake can evoke so many different emotions and memories in each of us.  From the modest, but much-loved birthday cake of our childhood, to the multi-tiered symbol of love, the wedding cake, to the rich, decadent torte we enjoyed during our last extravagant dinner.  Or perhaps it was that $5.00 cake at the grocery store which looked so good you couldn’t pass it up.  Today a celebratory Cake is a ‘must have’ for most cultures at every occasion … from the baby shower to the anniversary dinner to the retirement party.

Duff Goldman photographed next to one of his designer cakes, a floral wedding cake at Charm City Cakes West.

I am fascinated by the incredible cakes produced on some of the Food Network shows. Watching episodes of Cake Boss or Ace of Cakes can leave you feeling hopelessly inadequate as a baker.  But you must know that lavishly decorated cakes didn’t begin when the Food Network started showcasing these professional bakers and their cake masterpieces.  It began during the Victorian era.

When hubby and I have a weekend free, we love to spend a Sunday afternoon strolling around rural town centers, browsing through curiosity and antique shops.  Recently I came across a fascinating  book entitled The Victorian Book of Cakes, Recipes, Techniques and Decorations from the Golden Age of Cake Making”.  Not the original, this reproduction, written in 1958, is taken from the turn-of-the-century tome which was the standard for professional bakers during the Victorian era. The recipes range from petit fours to pound cakes, slab cakes and shortbread, to gingerbread and marzipan.

The illustrations in this book are remarkable in that they are not photographs but drawn capturing the precise details from each original baked item.  The images of wedding cakes are astonishingly beautiful, each having won prizes at the London International Exhibition 100 years ago.

The book has hundreds of recipes, which are quite interesting.  Most use the same simple ingredients, but with very minimal direction.  The cakes are generally traditional fruit cakes, with nuts, spices, and rum or brandy, such as the wedding cake Prince William and Kate Middleton served for their wedding.

For leavening agents, although they do not call it “baking powder”, a blend of ‘cream of tartar’ and baking soda (two pounds of cream of tartar to one pound of baking soda) is used – which essentially is ‘baking powder’ (invented by Alfred Bird in 1840).  Yeast or beaten egg whites were also used to lighten batters, all of which leads me to think that most of these cakes were probably more ‘bread like’ and quite dense.

In a Victorian bakery or pastry shop there would be a variety of cakes and biscuits for sale from scones and shortbread to meringues, marzipan and trifles.  This book gives the bakery owner, not only recipes for its ‘best sellers’, but advice on how to display these confections and what to charge … with cakes starting at a shilling.  One description for a “SHILLING GATEAU” is described as “very saleable and enhance the general shop display.  They should be made from a good Genoese base, either a light egg mixture or a closer-eating butter mixing.  The latter seems to be the favorite of the cake-eating public.”  How fun!  I guess we ‘cake-eating public’ like a ‘closer-eating’ mixture … whatever that may mean.

In addition to the advice and recipes are the original advertisements for all the baking essentials required, from flours and sugars to cake stands and ovens.  One advertisement which I found interesting was for a “vegetable butter” made from “cocoanuts, as an excellent substitute for butter, margarine and lard”.  Why has it taken us another 100 years to fully incorporate coconut oil into our baking?

Times may have changed and although some of the ingredients have stayed the same, progress seems to be  mostly in the preparation, and in the myriad of flavors we have today.

I’m sure you’ve probably realized by now that ‘I like to bake’.  Breads, cakes, cookies, it really doesn’t matter.  I find baking to be relaxing.  It also provides a much-needed creative outlet.  Taking an assortment of unrelated ingredients and turning them into, hopefully, a confection that not only tastes good, but is pretty to look at, is quite satisfying.  Not all my ‘bakes’ have been successful, of course.  In fact, some have been complete disasters, requiring a quick trip to the nearest bakery when it was an occasion for which I was to supply the “cake”.  But, for the most part, they’ve been pretty decent.

I’m not sure any of us would enjoy making the seemingly simple, but on closer inspection, overly-complicated recipes in this “The Victorian Book of Cakes” today,  but I do feel challenged to try my hand at making one or two – some shortbread perhaps?  Not that I would ever do what Julie Powell did with Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking.  But, then again …

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TOMATO JAM

I love gardening … flowers, vegetables, it doesn’t matter.  So after returning from a two-week trip to England, I was anxious to see how my vegetable garden had faired without my constant attention.  Because it was the middle of September and I  knew the veggies, especially tomatoes, would be ripening on the vine, I told friends and family to just ‘help themselves’.  Of course, no one did, so when we returned the garden was bursting.  Yikes!

It took not one, but three trips with a basket from the kitchen to the garden, to pick all the beautifully ripe, red, sweet tomatoes.  The first thing I did, of course, was to put as many into the freezer as there was room for.  (Yes, I freeze tomatoes.  All summer, I had been stocking the freezer with all sorts of tomato-based soups, stews and salsas.)  The next thing was to look online for inspiration … something completely different using these luscious fruits … something I hadn’t made before.

Tomato Jam! The “world wide web” had done it again!  Tomato Jam it was going to be.  I narrowed it down to three of what appeared to be, from the reviews, reasonably successful recipes on three reasonably successful websites.  Before trying any recipe from any website, I always check out the reviews.  Most of the reviews are merely comments from people saying “how good that looks”, or “I can’t wait to try this” yet never having made it.  Or, “this was delicious after I added ‘this, that or the other’ and ‘cooked it for'”.  So, it can be a bit frustrating and does take a bit of sifting through each review to find those who actually have made the ‘original’ recipe.

The first recipe said 1 cup sugar to 1-1/2 lbs. of tomatoes.  Seems like a lot of sugar to me.  The second recipe said 1-1/2 cups sugar to 2 lbs. of tomatoes.  Same ratio.  The third recipe said 3/4 cup sugar to 4 lbs. of tomatoes.  Okay, now I’m interested.  They all said chop the tomatoes, put them into a heavy saucepan and then add lemon juice, cinnamon, cloves, freshly grated ginger and salt.  At least they agreed on something.

Again, the first recipe said to bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for an hour and 15 minutes until thick and jam-like.  The second recipe said the same except after an hour the jam should be ready.  The third recipe stated it takes two to three hours for the fruit to break down and become thickened.  This is beginning to sound like Goldilocks and the Three Bears.  All the recipes did agree, however, that the jam would be sweet, spicy and delicious … a wonderful spread on sandwiches, with cream cheese and crackers, as a condiment or dip.

I started with 10 lbs. of tomatoes, washed, hulled, and cut up.  Put the chopped tomatoes into my Le Creuset stock pot (love that pot), added the lemon juice, grated ginger, cinnamon, cloves and one cup of brown sugar and one cup of white sugar (more tomatoes, less sugar per pound was my thinking).  Because we like a bit of spice, I added a heaping teaspoon of red chili flakes.  I then brought the mixture up to a boil, reduced the heat to a sputtering simmer and waited.

Feeling quite confident, I made a cuppa tea and relaxed in front of the telly.  An hour later, I check on the pot.  It’s soup.  Huh?  Okay, it’s obvious that because I used more tomatoes, it’s going to take a bit longer.  An hour later, it’s still soup.  It has reduced down, but it’s still soup.  Patience is not one of my strong points.  An hour later (now three hours into this, I chop up an apple, thinking the pectin from the apple is going to help with the thickening.  Another hour goes by.  No thickening!  I’m getting annoyed … take out my immersion blender and start pulverizing.  The time is now 10 pm and I’m tired, but I’m not about to give up.  Go to the cupboard and get powdered pectin.  Add two heaping tablespoons, mix everything together, cover the pot, turn off the heat and go to bed.

Next morning, I check.  Still soupy, but better.   Back on the heat it goes.  Another hour goes by and it’s beginning to thicken.  By hour no. six, I’m done with this.  Off goes the heat, I let it cool, taste it for seasoning … and it’s surprisingly good.  Spicy and sweet, but not overpoweringly so. Jam?  Not really.  I pour it into individual plastic containers, cover, label and put them into the refrigerator.

That evening I take one container out and, yes, it’s finally thick, rich, sweet, spicy Tomato Jam!  Hooray!  What the problem was, I will probably never know.  Were my tomatoes too juicy?  Should I have removed the seed pods?  Did the other recipes intentionally mislead readers?  As for now, Tomato Jam is on the table and we’re going to enjoy it tonight as a spread on our leftover pot roast with goat cheese, arugula and sauteed onion sandwiches.

If you want to try your hand at making Tomato Jam, here’s MY recipe!!  And take it from me, start in the morning.  Good luck!

TOMATO JAM
Length of time …?  How much will it make …?

10 lbs. of good quality, fully ripened tomatoes – hulled, chopped, with seed pods removed
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup white sugar
Juice from one large lemon
1 tablespoon minced/grated fresh ginger
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon red chili flakes (or more to taste)
1 large apple, chopped
powdered pectin, if needed

In a large stock pot, add all the ingredients.  Bring to a boil and then reduce heat and simmer until thick and ‘jam-like’.  The mixture should coat the back of a spoon and there should be no separation.  Taste and season according to your likes.  This could take anywhere from two to six hours depending upon the level of liquid from your tomatoes.  If necessary, mash with your potato masher or get out the immersion blender and blend the pulp.  When ready, pour into individual jars or plastic containers.  Will keep in refrigerator for up to two weeks.  To keep longer, freeze or can.

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THE BEATLES

I’m sure you’re all scratching your heads wondering why in the world would I be writing about the Beatles.  What could they possibly have to do with a blog called TEA, TOAST and TRAVEL?  Well,  they certainly do qualify … definitely from England, and they were all “tea” drinkers.


We just returned from a two-week visit to England and, never having visited before, this year we decided to go to Liverpool.  How surprised were we when we discovered this once down-on-its-heels city of the working classes is now a thriving metropolis with a world-class seaport district, high-end restaurants and shops, museums and a tourist mecca.  How did all this happen?  The obvious and logical answer, of course, is the investment over recent years by developers into revitalizing the city.  I say it’s because of four young men from the ‘neighborhood’ …. John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr and George Harrison.

In making plans for our visit to Liverpool, I thought it would be great fun to take a “Beatles tour” … maybe finding a cabbie to take us around, or we might find a ‘hop-on-hop-off’ bus.  So, I started trolling websites looking for what we might be able to do.  Not only did I find a slew of companies offering organized Beatles tours, ranging anywhere from three hours to a full day, and anywhere from a private tour with an ‘expert’ Beatles guide, to full bus tours, it was impossible to choose.

Looking at the range of possibilities (and the costs), I choose one of the bus tours.  Now I had to choose the day and time to make our reservation.  Huh?  Although they offered tours every three to four hours, they strongly suggested advance reservations because they usually sell out before the day of.  Once again, huh?   This was just one of the many Beatles tours.  So, I selected one time slot which would work for our schedule …. sold out.  Okay, I choose another …. sold out.  Picked one for the next day …. sold out!  What the?  I had to switch to another tour group.  Finally, landed on the “Magical Mystery Tour”.  Made the advance online reservation.  Paid in full.  And exhaled!

Never having been to Liverpool, we wanted to get there early, poke around the city center a bit and get a feel for this coastal metropolis.  Thank goodness for “sat nav” because without it, we’d still be driving in circles, trying to navigate the many bridges and tunnels.  And when we finally emerged, it was beautiful!  Elegant ornate old stone buildings intermingled with the sleek, modern architecture of today.  With the help of the many tourist information stands, we found our way to the “Magical Mystery Tour” kiosk (located right next to the Beatles museum), picked up our “Tickets to Ride” and were soon in the midst of other like-minded tourees … all ages … all countries … all interested in The Beatles!

There we all were clustered in front of ‘our’ bus (of which there were many), taking selfies, waiting patiently for the doors to open.  As soon as they did, we piled in, jostling each other for the best seats.  The tour leader boarded, introduced himself and we were off.  We began at the stadium where tickets to Paul’s 2008 concert sold out in seconds to twice its capacity, when he played far into the night without ever taking a break.  We then drove to the ‘neighborhood’ where the four young men grew up, visiting each individual location, the schools, the hangouts, the barber shop, the church where Paul was a choir boy … learning about all the inspiration for their songs.  Along the way, the entire bus group would break out into song, everyone knowing the words, to the Beatles background music.

The tour leader was not only entertaining, he provided us with so many rich details on each band member, making it quite an intimate experience.  Starting from 1957 when 15 year old John Lennon started a skiffle band, to Paul McCartney asking his banjo-playing mother to teach him how to play the guitar, to Richard Starkey wearing a bunch of gold rings and earning the name “Ringo”, to Lennon wanting George Harrison in the band because “that kid can sing and he’ll get us all the girls”.  And learning that the reason the Beatles broke up was not because of Yoko Ono, but because of the death of Brian Epstein, the cement which kept these talented four together.

Yes, we stopped at Penny Lane, Strawberry Field, Paul McCartney’s home, George Harrison’s home and more.  At each destination, everyone piled out of the bus, taking turns for our photo op in front of whatever icon we visited, while watching similar buses, taxis or limos pulling away with another group of like-minded Beatles fans.  I felt badly for people living on the streets where all this activity goes on day after day.  They still had to go to work, school, shopping, the dentist, whatever, and here we all were clogging up these narrow, little neighborhood streets.  Our tour driver insisted not only don’t they mind, they actually love all the attention.  I hope so.

Two hours later, our tour ended back in the city center where it really all started for the Beatles, at the Cavern Club.  This little below-ground club is where in 1961 the Beatles (before Ringo) played to the lunchtime crowd almost daily.  Today this alleyway of a street is the hub for Beatles mania!  The Cavern Club sits mid-way, but first there are Beatles gift shops selling absolutely every item you can imagine with Beatles images on them.  Outside the Cavern Club is a brick wall with the name of every known country, rock or blues musician.  And be sure to have your photo taken with John Lennon or Cilla Black.
Each year Liverpool hosts an International Beatles Week attracting thousands of fans, with concerts all throughout the city performed by hundreds of Beatles tribute bands from around the world.  And, if you are such an ardent Beatles fan that you want an all-consuming experience, then you must stay at the Hard Day’s Night Hotel.  This high-end establishment is adorned with specially-commissioned artwork and memorabilia.  And, yes, it serves Afternoon Tea.

As I said Liverpool is a vibrant and thriving city now.  If you ever get the chance to visit, you won’t be disappointed.  And if you want to argue that Liverpool’s amazing turnaround over the past 30 years is because of the investment of dedicated developers which has led to the revitalization and rebirth of the city, you may be right.  But I say it’s all because of four lads, who called themselves the Beatles.

~ ~ ~ ~
References:  Hard Day’s Night Hotel, The Cavern Club, Beatles Tours, Wikipedia,
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ZUCCHINI TOMATO GALETTE

What’s better than being able to go out into the vegetable garden and pick whatever veggies you want for dinner that evening.  Again this summer, my garden has produced an over-abundance of zucchini.  In addition to making all my favorite zucchini recipes – muffins, chocolate zucchini bread, mock apple streudel, ratatouille, fritters and frittata – as well as filling the freezer –  I’ve been on the search for yummy, new zucchini recipes.  Well, I’ve come upon one which is so easy and delicious, I just had to share.  I made this once to test it and now I can’t stop making it.

I know “galette” sounds intimidating, but believe me, it’s not.  Whether you call these rustic, free-form pies a “galette”, “clafoutis”, or “crostada”, they are all easy to make.  And, you can make them savory or sweet – just vary the filling.  Keep in mind the term “rustic”.  It’s not suppose to be a perfectly-formed crust.  If you are fortunate enough to have a food processor to make the crust, its even easier.  And, the crust can be made up to three days ahead.

For a casual dinner or to impress guests, this is an easy-to-make, rustic Zucchini Tomato Galette.

ZUCCHINI TOMATO GALETTE
Bake 425°F for approximately 25 minutes.  Serves from 4 to 14 – depending upon serving size.  Will make one large or four individual galettes.

CRUST
1-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup (one stick) very cold butter, cubed
4 to 6 tablespoons ice water

The crust will be flakier if the butter and water are icy cold.  Mix the flour and salt together.  Then cut in the cubed butter until its a nice crumb.  If using the food processor, pulse 8 or 9 times.  Add just enough ice water to form a dough.  Dump the dough batter onto a lightly floured board.  Pat it together to form a smooth disk.  Wrap in plastic wrap and chill for about 30 minutes (or up to three days).

FILLING
1 large zucchini, sliced approx. 1/4″ thick
12 to 16 cherry/grape tomatoes, halved
3/4 cup ricotta cheese
2 eggs – 1 for egg wash
1/2 cup grated Parmesan/Romano cheese
grated zest of one lemon
salt and pepper
olive oil

On a baking sheet, spread the zucchini and tomatoes in a single  layer.  Brush lightly with olive oil, and sprinkle with salt and pepper.  Roast at 425°F for about 15 minutes or until roasted through.  When tender, remove and let cool.

While the veggies are roasting, mix together the ricotta cheese, one egg and lemon zest.  On a lightly floured board, roll out the dough to a large circle – approximately 14″ in diameter, 1/4″ thick.  Or, make individual galettes.  It’s entirely up to you.

Put the crust(s) on a large baking sheet.  Spread the crust with the ricotta and egg mixture, leaving a 2″ border around the edge.  Then sprinkle half the grated cheese onto the ricotta mixture.

Arrange the roasted zucchini slices and tomato halves on top of the cheese mixture.  Fold the edges of the crust over towards the center.  Brush the dough with the egg wash.   Sprinkle with the rest of the grated cheese.

Bake the galette in a preheated 425°F oven for 25 to 30 minutes, or until the crust is golden brown.  Remove from the oven and let cool for 15 minutes before serving.  Slice in wedges as if its a pizza.


For dinner, serve this delicious entree with a big garden salad.  Or, if you are having a party, this makes a wonderful appetizer, just slice in slivers and arrange on a platter.  This recipe is a  definite keeper.  I hope you enjoy it as much as we do.
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GENDER INEQUALITY in TEA?

I was reading an interesting article the other day about the perceived femininity of “tea” …  with which I had to agree.  In this country, except for the ready-to-drink bottled iced tea products, advertising is targeted primarily to women over the age of 35.  If you ask someone to describe an image of “tea drinking”, they’ll probably describe two women sitting at a table drinking from bone china tea cups and saucers, perhaps sharing a plate of cookies.  Mention “tea” to most people and you’re likely to hear “when I’m not feeling well, I’ll have a cup” … “my mother used to give it to me when I had a cold” … “no thanks, I’m a coffee drinker”.

Tea is still perceived to be a ‘snobby’ or ‘aristocratic’ beverage.  Tea houses also continue to be perceived as feminine ‘women-owned’ and operated establishments for the sole enjoyment of tea for women by women.  Unfortunately, many men I know will not accept an invitation to a tea house, because of that perceived femininity.

Sadly, tea does have a feminine image … in this country.  Around the world, however, it is completely different.  In India, China and Sri Lanka, tea is a male-dominated industry.  For the most part, tea plantations are owned by corporations, managed primarily by men.  Although women have begun to crack the glass ceiling a bit, auction houses are still dominated by men.  The highly-regarded profession of tea tasting is another male-dominated segment of the tea industry.  You may see men in the fields transporting the freshly plucked leaves, but it is women who are in the fields plucking the leaf.  You’d be hard pressed to see a woman manager at any of these plantations.  The heavy equipment in the factories are all operated by men while the women sit at tables sorting the leaf.

Visiting a tea sorting room in China.

Again, in every other country, tea is prepared by men, shared and enjoyed by men.  There is no ‘perceived femininity’.  In the middle East, haggling over a purchase doesn’t even begin until the tea is served.  Chaiwallahs in India are men who each day prepare and serve this spicy, rich elixir.  The American Revolution began with the Sons of Liberty making a political statement by throwing crates of tea into Boston Harbor.  In Japan, Samurai warriors were masters of the Chanoyu tea ceremony, brewing tea before discussing important matters of state.  The “mustache cup” was invented during Victorian times so that men who sported virile, elegantly-shaped mustaches could drink their tea without the fear of the wax melting.


In her 1951 book,  A Thirst for Empire: How Tea Shaped the Modern World, after surveying men and women, in this country, of all ages , author Erika Rappaport reported that 72% of them “believed tea was for women.”   Sadly, that perceived femininity of tea still exists.  So why is it in this country, in order to have men drink tea, the feeling is that we need to create either a ‘manly-blend’ of tea, or we need to have a marketing campaign to convince men that tea isn’t ‘for women only’.  Well, it has happened.

After doing a little research to see if there were any “man-only” tea blends available, I came across two, which I found interesting.  (I’m sure there are others.)  One product is pretty straight forward, with the masculine name of Man Tea.  Yup, a full-bodied blend, packaged for and with an advertising campaign targeted specifically to … men.  There will be no confusion with this message:  “Man Tea is designed for those looking to increase their physical strength and health … increasing stamina and strength, enhancing energy, calming digestion, etc.”

Another new tea with a very masculine-sounding name is Ekön, “the first ever functional tea line designed for men.”  What is Ekön’s message?  Providing men with the opportunity to drink loose leaf tea “without the stigma, the embarrassment, or the feeling that you’re less of a man.”   With blends called “Clean Machine”, “Pound Hacker” and “Dayholic”, they’re obviously trying to appeal to the testosterone-building male.

Over the years I think many other companies have tried to target the male-tea drinker, in the hopes of building that base.  The only product which appears to have gained mass appeal is the ready-to-drink iced tea market.  Arnold Palmer certainly has crossed the gender barrier with his now hugely popular iced tea line.  Lipton has tried over the years with lesser success with Dallas Cowboys quarterback, Don Meredith, as the spokesperson.

I can certainly expound on all the health benefits of tea (rich in antioxidants and polyphenols), and why everyone should be drinking it … regardless of gender, age, or physical limitations.  But, this discussion was purely on whether there is gender inequality in “tea”.  And, yes, I believe, in this country, the perception does exist.  What do you think?
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