THE MOULD RUNNERS

I believe most of us have a few cherished heirloom plates, bowls or cups in our cupboard which may have been handed down from loved ones, or which caught our eye in an antique shop, or even a thrift store.  From the shelf they call out to us with their beauty, their intricate design or depth of color.  We turn them over to inspect the maker’s mark.  Who was the potter?  When was it made?  Could it be a highly-desirable collectible?

Admittedly, I have also sold quite a few pieces on EBay, but I also have quite a few pieces with which I will not part.  Do I bring them out when guests come over?  No … but I love to display them, inspect them and wonder what story lies behind their manufacture.  I conjure up images of a romantic industry of rugged, muscular potters, each in their drafty factories, sitting at their wheel throwing  on a rough ball of clay and shaping it until the clay morphs into the symmetrical shape the potter had intended, creating the stunning pieces we have come to revere.

What I’ve never thought about was how could these individual potters produce thousands of pieces of pottery, in the over 300 factories located in the six-town area which made up the “pottery district” of Stoke-on-Trent.  It had to have taken hundreds if not thousands of people, working continuously, to keep up with the demand of the Victorian era.  Who were these people?

Burleigh Ware Factory, Middleport, England 1888

Sadly, the majority of people who worked in the potteries were children.  Some as young as five or six … with most children in the area employed by the age of eight.  Why?  Because children were cheap.  Most of the factory owners saw nothing wrong with children working to run errands, carry raw materials, and provide power for the potters machines.

Of course, adults were employed too by the factories, quite often the children’s parents.  The adults were paid on a ‘piece-meal’ basis, which meant their earnings were dependent on how many saleable pieces they actually produced, but not the children.  The children were the ‘batters’, the ‘jiggers’ and worst of all, ‘mould runners’.

For individual pieces, a typical potter or thrower would need three helpers … one to actually turn the wheel, one to cut the clay into the right-size balls, and another to carry the finished pieces to the stove or kiln where they would be fired.  As the demand grew, more and more pottery was made using molds.  The plate-maker or presser would press the balls of clay into a plaster mold while it was spinning on a ‘jigger’ wheel.  The plate-maker also required three helpers … a ‘jigger’ turner, a ‘batter’ to prepare the clay, and finally a ‘mould runner‘ who would take the plaster molds, each with clay plates on them and then run the molds to the stove buildings.

The young boy would place the molds on the shelves in the oven rooms, and then pick up two dried molds with plates on them and run back.  This would continue for 12 to 14 hours a day, six days a week, with Sundays off.

Many of the children worked much longer hours because they were expected to be in the factories before the adults arrived in order to have the fires lit, the water brought in, and the clay ready for the potters.  Working a 72-hour week for an eight or ten-year old was commonplace.  And many employers saw nothing wrong with this.  Let’s not forget that, at the end of the day, the children then had to walk home, sometimes two to three miles.  Because of the long work days, children could not attend school, most never learning to read or write.  If they did, it was through Sunday school.

Of course, there were  many other dangerous jobs being done by young children in the potteries including carrying 60 lb. baskets of clay up to the workshops … or working in the 100 degree oven rooms … stacking the earthenware to be fired and then bringing it out again when finished … but the most dangerous of all jobs at the factories was dipping the fired pots into the liquid glaze which contained raw lead.  Needless to say, mistakes by tired children happened often.  But these would not be tolerated … the children would be beaten, or not allowed to take their meal breaks.

I’m sure , by now, you’re asking yourself how could the parents allow their children to work under these circumstances.  Because poverty was everywhere and families needed every penny they and their children could earn, regardless of how dirty or dangerous the work.   And ‘pennies’ were just about what they did earn.


During Victorian times, children not only worked in the potteries and factories, they worked in the mines, as chimney sweeps, as ‘ratters’ and even as ‘pickpockets’ as we’ve learned from Charles Dickens novel, OLIVER TWIST.  In 1840 a commission was set up to inquire into the state of employed children.  Adults and children were interviewed by the Commissioner in 1841 as were employers, religious leaders and school teachers.

This is an interview with Robert Hood, age 10:

“I run moulds for father; have been employed three years for Mr. Hood.  I cannot read; I cannot write; never went to day school ; I go to Sunday school. My father is a saucer- maker; he is always in work; don’t know how much he gets a week; but I get 3s.

Have no mother. Have one sister and one brother. My sister stops at home to look after house; she cannot read. My brother goes to school, but he is young yet. I go home to breakfast, and have milk-meat ; and go home to dinner, when I get bacon and tatees.

I like my work very well; would like to work in the warehouse better, cause they are paid there for working till nine, and I am not; I think ours harder: and get so much a day. I am always very tired when I go home at night, get my supper, and be glad enough to go to bed. 

‘Tis very hot in the mould-room, and a good deal hotter in summer; it makes us sweat, and we drink plenty of water. I catch cold very often, but have never been laid up with it. Father flogs me some-times, if I let go a mould or break a saucer ; nobody else. Master is very good to me.”

Reformers like Lord Shaftesbury were very worried about children at work, and he, and other politicians tried to change the laws in the “Factory Acts” so that children under nine were not permitted to work, and that they must have schooling.  But potteries were not classified as factories until the 1860s.  Unfortunately, changes did not happen as quickly as they should have and as recently as WWII children under the age of 16 were still finding work in the potteries.

So, the next time I pick up that Wedgewood, Burleigh Ware or Royal Doulton figurine or plate, I’ll be thinking about the young boy or girl slogging away in the potteries for pennies a week to bring home to their families, for their not having the opportunity to go to school, or even to play with other children.  I won’t romanticize about brawny potters creating magnificent pieces of porcelain, but rather the “mould runners” without whom I wouldn’t be holding that plate.

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References:  Wikipedia, BBC – Staffordshire Potteries, Fun Kids Live, The PotteriesVictorian Children

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GINGERBEAD – THE RECIPE

Just a few months ago I posted a blog titled “Gingerbread“.  In case you think I might be losing my mind, I’m not (hopefully), this blog is about making (and eating) Gingerbread.  If you want to know the origins of how this exotic spice became such an important part of the culture in Great Britain, please click on this link … GINGERBREAD.  It will give you all the background you’ve ever wanted to know about ginger and the making of this confection.  Meanwhile, I’m actually making my own moist, dense, rich ‘GINGERBREAD‘.

As always, before making any recipe, I go through all my cookbooks (of which I have more than I can count) as well as check all the internet foodie blogs to find the ‘best of the best’ recipes.  Some recipes were more like a light, fluffy spice cake with cream cheese frosting.  Not what I was looking for at all.  What I wanted was an old-fashioned, dense, rich cake-like bread.  It should be easily held in your hand, not requiring a plate.  It should be packed full of peppery ‘ginger’ flavor … not cinnamon, cloves or allspice.  It should be moist … not dry.  And, most of all, it should be delicious.

I’ve tried more recipes than I want to admit.  And culled from a few different recipes, here is MY favorite by far.  It is quite easy to make, but it’s not for the timid.  It’s for ginger lovers everywhere.  If you want more or less ginger, feel free to adjust the quantities.

GINGERBREAD
Bake at 350°  Makes one large round bundt pan, or two or more loaf pans.

3/4 cup butter, cubed
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup water
3/4 cup molasses
1/2 cup cane syrup, or corn syrup or honey
1 cup packed dark brown sugar

2-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup cocoa
3 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons ground ginger (more or less to taste)
1 teaspoon cinnamon

3 large eggs, room temperature
1/2 cup full-fat milk
2 tablespoons grated fresh ginger

About an hour before you want to make the Gingerbread, combine the following ingredients in a saucepan:  Cubed butter, vegetable oil, water, molasses, brown sugar, golden syrup or honey.  Simmer over low heat until the butter is melted, the sugar has dissolved and everything is well combined.

Cool completely before adding this mixture to the dry ingredients.  It should be just warm to the touch.  If you want to cool this mixture quickly, set the pan into a bowl of ice water.

Preheat the oven to 350° and prepare your baking pans – a large round pan, or as many smaller pans as you’d like.  Grease well.

In a large mixing bowl, combine all the dry ingredients:  flour, cocoa, baking soda, salt, ground ginger and cinnamon.

In a separate, smaller bowl, lightly beat together the eggs, milk and grated ginger.

When the syrup mixture has cooled, add it slowly to the dry ingredients.  Blend well, but don’t beat.  Then add the egg/milk/ginger combination to the batter.  Again, be sure to  blend well, but be sure not to overbeat the batter.  Low speed on an electric mixer is fine.  You don’t want to build up the gluten.

Pour the batter into the greased pan(s) and bake.  Depending upon the pan size and shape, it could take between 45 and 60 minutes.  Check for doneness when a tester comes out clean.

Cool for 15 minutes before removing from the pan.  Then put on the kettle and don’t be afraid to dive in.  It freezes well if you want to wrap it tightly in foil.  Or it will keep nicely in the frig for a week, wrapped in cling film.

Dense, gingery and moist.  I love this Gingerbread warm with a dusting of powered sugar and a big mug of tea!   This is perfect for the holidays.  Keep one on hand ready to serve for anyone who drops by … or just make to enjoy all by yourself!!
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THE PILGRIMS … THE PLANTATION

I’ve visited the Plimoth Plantation many times, but it had been a few years since my last visit.  Recently, having been housebound because of Covid, all of us needed a bit of stimulation.  So after picking up the grandkids, off we went to experience, once again, the living history museum replicating where the Pilgrims first settled.

If you are unfamiliar with the story of the pioneers who came to America for religious freedom, its a fascinating tale of how people, feeling so strongly about their need to make their own decisions, felt forced to leave the only country they had ever known and a life where everything was very familiar to them, and risk everything for what they believed.  Their journey, however, was far more difficult and complex than we were taught in school.

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In England in the late 16th century, a group of people, who had finally come to the decision that the Church of England was not a true church, banded together and formed a “separate” congregation.  Then, after years of persecution, in 1608 (twelve years before sailing for the new world), more than 300 of these Separatists left England and settled in Holland, a much more religiously tolerant country.  But, as foreigners, regardless of their wealth or previous positions, they were all forced into accepting the most menial of jobs and living in squalid conditions.  Prejudices against this group were evident everywhere.  Even more abhorrent to these Separatists was the fact that their children were becoming “Dutch”.

These people were families, laymen, farmers with no prior experience for what lay ahead.  What they did have was a powerful connection and belief in God.  Going to the New World was not, however, going to be as easy as they originally thought.  They needed a strong leader, a sound ship, an experienced captain and crew, and funding.  Also, negotiations had to be made with England giving these settlers the right to establish a colony in a world which England had already claimed.

Now ready for their adventure, in May of 1619 the Separatists began preparing for their voyage.  After accumulating all the necessary provisions, fishing supplies, tools, clothing and food, on three different occasions they were duped by ‘carpetbaggers’ who took advantage of their naivety.  After months of disappointment and frustration, running out of resources and time,  they somehow continued to forge ahead.

Finally, in July of 1620, leaving many of the original Separatists behind, the remaining Pilgrims sailed from Holland to Southampton England, on board the Speedwell.  This ship proved to be ‘as leaky as a sieve’ with water spouting through every plank.  Many of them had, by this time, lost everything and were willing to abandon their quest.  After trying three more times to set sail, they put in at Plymouth as the Speedwell went in for repairs.  The weeks turned into months.  Time was running out and if they didn’t leave immediately, they’d have to wait until Spring.

Then finally on September 6th, after twelve long years, having given up on the Speedwell and now on board an older, much-smaller, cargo ship known as the “May floure“, 50 of the original 320 Separatists, along with 52 others, set out for the two month, 3,000 mile journey across the Atlantic Ocean.

~ ~ ~

Although our visit to this historic re-enactment village was much-needed, it was both a good and disheartening  visit, as the effects of Covid were evident everywhere.  Yes, it was still the authentic reproduction of the first village the Pilgrims had created when they came to start their new life in America.  Seven timber-framed, thatch-roofed cottages on either side of the dirt road, each encased by a roughly-hewn wooden fence surrounding their modest kitchen gardens.  But, everything needed a little bit of love, as the homes, the grounds, the gardens were all showing signs of wear and tear.  Since Covid, attendance is practically none existent, and the subsequent lack of income is starting to show.


The characters are still authentic in their dress and their interaction with visitors.  None were ‘tripped up’ when we asked about current events.  But there were just a few.  In the past, each tiny cottage would have had a ‘goodwife’ preparing a meal at the open hearth, or tending to the kitchen garden, eager to share with you their recipes or what herbs were best for chilblains.  Children would have been tending the pigs, or rolling barrel staves down the hill.  The men would have been standing guard at the fort, or mending the thatch on a roof.  It was truly an interactive experience.

Now the houses are roped off . . . no entrance allowed.  You may ‘look’ in, but not enter.  Just six short months ago, visitors could go into each home, sit on a chair by the hearth, sample the homemade butter, learn how to card wool.  The children could put on period clothing, lie on the straw-filled mattresses, climb the rickety ladder to the loft.  Visitors once came from all over the country, and the world, to experience how these pioneers lived and survived in the 1600s.  For some, they may never get the chance to visit again.  What a shame, it can’t be experienced the way it was meant to be.

Erinn sewing homesite

The Wampanoag village is still there, in its entirety.  Here, you can enter the mat-covered wetu (house), and the bark-covered nush wetu (large house) where an entire family would live.  And, a male member of the Wampanoag tribe was in full dress, busy burning the inside of a pine log to create a mishoon (canoe).  He was lean, proud and eager to answer any and all questions and share unknown facts about how his ancestors lived at that time.  But … the mask!  It was so distracting … and so difficult for the little ones to hear and understand.  Was it really necessary?  I guess so, but the few visitors who were there were very respectful, keeping the required distance from each other.

Plimoth Plantation really can transport you back to another time.  It can give you an appreciation of what life was truly like for these brave people.  I know there is an aggressive campaign to raise funds for the recent restoration of the Mayflower II, the on-going educational programs, as well as to help cover the ever-increasing operational costs.  I’m also aware that the museum is growing and wants to provide new residences for interns and a research center, but it just seems to me, that the main attraction “The Plantation” is being neglected and perhaps care and attention should be given to it before some of these other projects.

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References:  History, MAYFLOWER by Nathaniel Philbrick, Ancient History, Plimoth Plantation,

LAPSANG SOUCHONG

Lapsang Souchong, the tea that infuses fear and terror into the most seasoned tea drinkers.  But why?

This time of year my tastes change and I begin looking for deeper, darker, richer flavors – regardless of what foods it might be.  Light, refreshing salads are gone from my table to be replaced by hearty soups and stews.  The seasons have changed.  The sun sets earlier and earlier every day.  The days are cooler and quite often damp and at night I just want to curl up with a good book, a blanket  . . .  and a cup of Lapsang Souchong!

Have you ever been camping  . . .  especially in the Fall?  Is there anything more comforting and inviting than a campsite on a cool October morning when someone has just started the fire for breakfast  . . . or in the evening after a day of hiking and the smoky fire just envelops you.  You can’t help but be drawn to it.  The billows of heady, smoke that comes from a fire is so welcoming.  That same smoky flavor gets imparted into our food (and sometimes into our clothing) and we love it.  So why then do so many tea drinkers say “no thank you” to a cuppa Lapsang Souchong!

Lapsang Souchong … I just love the name!  It’s exotic, unique, rhythmic.  The name comes from the Chinese Fuzhou dialect combining “la” or “pine” and “sang” or “wood” with the size of the leaf, “souchong“, which is the largest or  third leaf in a fine pluck.  The trade name for this tea then became Lapsang Souchong or “smoky, piney large leaf” tea.

This  dark, rich black tea is said to have originated in the Wuyi Mountains of China, as so many distinguished teas have.  The legends about how this tea originated are many.  The one I like most says that during the Qing dynasty in the early 17th century, the Wuyi area was overrun with Manchu soldiers who were terrorizing the local villagers.  The tea growers were already selling teas to the Dutch by that time.  Gathering all their belongings to flea this invasion and not knowing how long they were going to be gone, the farmers quickly dried their tea leaves over open fires in order to speed up the drying process.   Throwing the tea leaves into sacks, they were then able to bury the sacks of teas to keep the soldiers from getting them.  When the farmers returned to their village, they found that their teas were dark and had a smoky flavor . . . ruined, or so they thought.  But to their surprise, not only did they preserve the tea leaves, the Dutch buyers actually liked the flavor better.

The truth, however, is that the Dutch had been importing Lapsang Souchong or bohea tea since long before then.  By the time the East India Company began trading in tea, Lapsang Souchong, was already being drunk in Europe . . .  and happened to be Princess Catherine of Braganza’s favorite tea.  It was, in fact, this Portuguese Princess who is credited with making tea the sought-after beverage of aristocrats in England.   Catherine had grown up drinking tea in Portugal, and in 1662, when she was betrothed to British Prince Charles, along with her other possessions was a chest of tea.  Then, as Queen Consort of England, she helped promote tea into upper-class society with her much-sought-after afternoon tea parties.

Loose Leaf Lapsang Souchong

Lapsang Souchong is available everywhere, on supermarket shelves, through Amazon and from your local tea purveyor.  If you are still unsure about whether or not you might like it, do yourself a favor and invest in the best quality you can find.  There are  ways to produce Lapsang Souchong, which I really don’t want to get into, using artificial smoke flavorings and additives, but you can still find high-quality Lapsang Souchong made the traditional way . . .  in China, in wooden smoking sheds.

After plucking, the large leaves are heated and rotated every 20 minutes until they are pliable.  They are then rolled and, after panfrying, are placed into wooden barrels and covered with canvas, until they are copper in color and have a pleasant fragrance.  The next step is to spray the tea leaves with water, place them into baskets over smoking pine fires to dry and absorb the smoke flavor.  Controlling the withering, oxidation as well as the amount and timing of smoke is critical to producing a great Lapsang Souchong.  A tea which I love.

In the culinary world, the complex piney flavor of Lapsang is a great flavor enhancer.  Add it as an ingredient in marinades or in your next dry rub for meats or fish, or toss a teaspoon into a pot of stew.  The richness and depth of flavor it imparts is wonderful.  Even vegetarian recipes can benefit from a bit of Lapsang Souchong.

Here are a couple of ideas for you.  For a dry rub, mix one tablespoon salt, 3 tablespoons each of brown sugar, paprika and Lapsang Souchong with 2 teaspoons black pepper and ground cumin.  Grind them all in a mill and keep in a closed jar in the cupboard until you’re ready to use.  Or try infusing olive oil with this tea to be used in marinades or to dress vegetables or fish – 2 teaspoons crushed Lapsang into 4 oz. of olive oil, let sit for a week or two and then strain out the tea leaves.  Wonderful!

But, of course, I divert from what is the best way to experience this dark, piney, smoky-flavored tea and that is in your cup!  Steep with boiling water for approximately 3 to 4 minutes.  No milk, no sugar, just hot, comforting and wonderful!!  And should you want to experience this full-bodied brew for yourself, I can recommend the following tea purveyors:

The Larkin Tea Company
Mrs. Kelly’s Teas
The Cozy Tea Cart
Upton Teas
The Tea House

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References:  Wikipedia, Vicony Teas, Boston Tea Party, New World Encyclopedia, Greenhalge,

A STOVE, RANGE, HOB, OR COOKER?

Whatever you call it, you can’t live without it … and we just got a new one.  But, I had no idea it was going to be such a challenging purchase.  Assuming you have a specific size and know you need it to be fueled by gas or electricity (or do you want duel-fuel), you then have to decide between a cooktop, built-in, free-standing, drop-in or slide-in range.  Now, if you want an electric stove, do you want coil or induction?  If its gas, how many btu’s do you need?  How many burners?  A standard 4 or maybe 6?  Or how about a built-in griddle that doubles as two burners?

Then, of course, comes the design … do you want the controls in the front or the back?  Or would you prefer a touch screen?  What about baking … conventional or convection?  How many oven compartments do you want?  Do you want them to cook at the same or different temperatures?  Do you want a broiler drawer, warming drawer or storage drawer?  What about a temperature probe?  And we haven’t even started to talk about finishes …

It was so confusing … but what I really wanted was a classic, cast-iron English AGA cooker.  I’d be surprised if you’re not familiar with this icon of a cooker.  For over 100 years, the AGA has commanded attention in most English kitchens, from the largest manor houses to the more modest cottages.  Chefs including Marco Pierre White, Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry wouldn’t think of cooking on anything else.  Jamie Oliver said AGAs “make people better cooks”.   Food writer, William Sitwell, said using one was a “much more natural way of cooking”, and actor Gerard Depardieu describes his AGA simply as “fabulous”.

Although the AGA has been a British icon for decades, it was invented and originally manufactured in Sweden.  Its inventor was a Swedish physicist, Dr. Gustaf Dalén.  Dalén was a brilliant, self-taught inventor who began his impressive career managing the family farm.  His first invention was a machine to test the quality of milk.  That invention alone caught the eye of others who encouraged him to get a formal education.  Gustaf went on to earn a Masters and subsequently a Doctorate degree, earning a Nobel Prize in Physics in 1912.

Gustaf Dalen, Managing Director of AGA – 1926

Gustaf became employed by the Svenska Aktiebolaget Gas Accumulator company in 1906 and within three years became Managing Director.  Dalén worked exclusively with a highly flammable and sometimes explosive hydrocarbon gas.  This hydrocarbon gas produced a bright white light perfect for illuminating lighthouses.  This important safety device for the fishing and shipping industries led the way for similar products for lighthouses . . . the Dalén Light, the Sun Valve and then the Dalén Flasher, a device which created a small pilot light, reducing gas consumption by 90%.  These inventions were a huge success and AGA lighthouses were mass- produced and sold all over the world.

Unfortunately, in 1912 during a test for one of these highly-flammable devices, an explosion occurred which caused Gustaf to lose his sight.  This physical setback did not deter him, however.  Over the course of his lifetime he had over 100 successful patented inventions . . .  his most memorable was the AGA cooker.

Although there were many styles of British ranges being used, from wood to coal fired, they tended to be dirty, time consuming and, occasionally, dangerous.  They had ovens to bake in and hot plates to simmer things on and they kept the kitchen toasty warm.  For proper venting, the ranges needed to be installed into a fireplace opening.  The biggest disadvantage was soot falling down the chimney into the food, and the amount of work it took to clean them.  The range had to be cleaned every day, carefully removing the ashes and cinders, which were still combustible.  The oven had to be swept out, and any grease which splattered needed to be scraped off.  The flue needed to be cleaned constantly.

Gustaf’s wife, Elma, was in the kitchen cooking on a typical soot-producing, dirty and sometimes very dangerous coal-fired range.  Realizing that this was not only dirty, dangerous and incredibly time consuming to use, Gustaf began conceiving a new style of cooker.  He wanted one that was clean, easy-to-use, economical and not at all dangerous.  Using the principle of heat storage, Dalén combined a heat source, two large hotplates and two ovens in one cast-iron cooker.  In doing so, he invented a range that changed the lives of cooks not only in Great Britain but all over the world.

AGA cooker. Circa 1939

Originally manufactured in Sweden, the AGA cooker wasn’t introduced to England until 1929, but it didn’t reach its height of popularity until after World War II.  During the war years, the British government used AGA cookers in feeding centers, hospitals and munitions factories, and the public fell in love with them.  After that, the demand for these cookers skyrocketed and manufacturing moved from Sweden to England . . . where they are still made today.

Over the years, as with other ranges, much has changed.  Today, depending upon the model, this massive beast of a cooker can have from two to six oven compartments, and from one to two hot plates on top (or the hob).  It is available as gas-fueled or by electricity.  You also have as many decisions to make as I’ve had to make in purchasing my new not-AGA range.  But, whichever size, model, color, options, etc. you choose, you can be sure you’ve made a lifetime purchase.


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References: Wikipedia, Cosi, House Logic, Victorian Decorating, 1900s, AGAliving,
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BLUE WILLOW

Do you have any “Blue Willow” dinnerware in your cupboards, or maybe tucked away in the attic?  The “Blue Willow” pattern in dinnerware is one of the most popular patterns ever produced.  At one time, most every household in the U.K. and U.S. had a set.  Early on, it was used only for special occasions, but then as pieces were lost or broken, damaged or chipped, it ended up relegated to the kitchen cupboards.  I know, growing up, we had a set (and I still have a few cups and saucers in my attic).

This dinnerware was not delicate porcelain or bone china, but a more sturdy, mass produced ceramic ware, with an infinite number of pieces, from salt and pepper shakers and gravy boats, to butter dishes, creamers, pitchers, teapots, etc.  Today, Blue Willow dishware continues to be very popular, but now as a highly popular collectible … even Martha Stewart boasts of having a cupboard full of antique pieces.

Although called “Blue Willow”, this nostalgic dinnerware was not always made in ‘blue’, occasionally it was also made in red or brown.  I’m sure you’ve heard the term “blue plate special” typically used in diners to indicate a great meal for a low price.  Yup, Blue Willow was the plate!

I actually remember “dish night” at the movie theaters.  A very popular promotional event where movie theaters would give away a dish to get theater goers to come in on a slow night.  If you went to the movies often enough, it was possible to collect a complete set.  In the 1970s supermarkets used this same type of promotion with “Blue Willow”, giving away a different piece each week based upon how much money you spent.  Before long, you had the complete set.  Blue Willow wasn’t the only pattern given away.  Another very popular chinaware was various scenes from Currier & Ives, as well as Blue Liberty.

You may have pieces of Blue Willow and love the detailed Asian pattern, but do you know the romantic legend behind the design?  Simply put, it is the story of a beautiful daughter of a powerful Chinese Mandarin.  The daughter fell in love with her father’s clerk, but the father felt the young man was not worthy of his daughter and erected a fence to keep the two apart.  The young man came by boat and found the young woman on a bridge looking for him.  The couple escaped and settled on an island.  The father eventually found them and ordered the young man killed.  Upon hearing this, the young woman killed herself.  The gods, touched by their love and devotion, transformed the couple into doves and they flew off into the sunset. (The original legend follows.)

Neither the pottery, nor the design, however, was made in China.  The pottery originated in the UK in 1779 by Thomas Turner at the Caughley Pottery Works in Shropshire.  Turner, a creative artist, designer and engraver, took over the pottery factory in 1754 and made it into a well-respected manufacturer of fine china, specializing in finely detailed blue transferware on white plates.

Thomas Turner by Lemuel Francis Abbott, oil on canvas, circa 1790

This particular Chinese-inspired design was created by Thomas Minton on copper plate.  The original of which is on view at the Coalport China Museum in Shropshire.  The intricate image needed a romantic legend and so the story of the two star-crossed lovers was created.  The pottery became a huge success and wanted by everyone.  By the end of the 18th century, not only the Caughley Pottery Works made it, but several other English potteries.  Since that time, it has been determined that there have been over 400 manufacturers of Blue Willow worldwide … and still available today.  Take a look at Amazon!

If you have some of original English-made Blue Willow, it does command a hefty price at auction.  Weather you are buying or selling, turn the piece over and take a look at the potter’s mark or back stamp. There are many sites which will give you information on each mark, and if the piece is in good condition, with no chips or glazing, you may have yourself a little treasure.

~~ The Willow Legend ~~

There was once a Mandarin who had a beautiful daughter, Koong-se. He employed a secretary, Chang, who, while he was attending to his master’s accounts, fell in love with Koong-se, much to the anger of the Mandarin, who regarded the secretary as unworthy of his daughter.

The secretary was banished and a fence constructed around the gardens of the Mandarin’s estate so that Chang could not see his daughter and Koong-se could only walk in the gardens and to the water’s edge. One day a shell fitted with sails containing a poem, and a bead which Koong-se had given to Chang, floated to the water’s edge. Koong-se knew that her lover was not far away.

She was soon dismayed to learn that she had been betrothed to Ta-jin, a noble warrior Duke. She was full of despair when it was announced that her future husband, the noble Duke, was arriving, bearing a gift of jewels to celebrate his betrothal.

However, after the banquet, borrowing the robes of a servant, Chang passed through the guests unseen and came to Koong-se’s room. They embraced and vowed to run away together. The Mandarin, the Duke, the guests, and all the servants had drunk so much wine that the couple almost got away without detection, but Koong-se’s father saw her at the last minute and gave chase across the bridge.

The couple escaped and stayed with the maid that Koong-se’s father had dismissed for conspiring with the lovers. Koong-se had given the casket of jewels to Chang and the Mandarin, who was also a magistrate, swore that he would use the jewels as a pretext to execute Chang when he caught him.

One night the Mandarin’s spies reported that a man was hiding in a house by the river and the Mandarin’s guards raided the house. But Chang had jumped into the ragging torrent and Koong-se thought that he had drowned. Some days later the guards returned to search the house again. While Koong-se’s maid talked to them, Chang came by boat to the window and took Koong-se away to safety.

They settled on a distant island, and over the years Chang became famous for his writings. This was to prove his undoing. The Mandarin heard about him and sent guards to destroy him. Chang was put to the sword and Koong-se set fire to the house while she was still inside.

Thus they both perished and the gods, touched by their love, immortalised them as two doves, eternally flying together in the sky.

 

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References:  The Willow Collection, Home & Garden, Country Living, Simple Most, Food Notes, Wikipedia

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THE LAND ROVER

What a great name!  It tells you everything you need to know … for outdoor people everywhere, to go anywhere, at any time, over any sort of terrain.  And, if you are British, you either own one or you’d like to own one.  Well, my hubby doesn’t own one, but has always wanted to.  So, when I saw the Land Rover Experience while perusing activities available to us while in the U.K., I immediately booked it.

If you are unfamiliar with the Land Rover (which would surprise me), let me just say that it is probably, except for perhaps the Rolls Royce or Aston Martin, Britain’s best known automobile.  Marketed as the “go anywhere option for the farmer, the countryman and general industrial use”, it is and has been, since its introduction in 1948, Queen Elizabeth’s favorite vehicle.  Not only is this the Queen’s favorite car, it has been a favorite of other royals as well as well-known political figures and celebrities from Winston Churchill to Marilyn Monroe, Fidel Castro, Sean Connery and Paul McCartney.

Although Queen Elizabeth is not, by law, required to have a driver’s license, she did learn to drive in 1945 as a member of the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) where she trained as a mechanic and military truck driver.  For official engagements, she often rides in the backseat of her custom-built Bentley, but her vehicle of choice is her Land Rover.  On occasion, the Queen can still be seen navigating the streets of London, or cruising across the fields of her Balmoral Estate in her 2015 Land Rover.

Queen Elizabeth II driving a Range Rover at the International Carriage Driving Grand Prix.
Max Mumby/Indigo/Getty Images Europe/Getty Images

This boxy 4-wheel drive, off-road icon was actually inspired by the then American Motors Corporation’s Jeep.  The AMC Jeep, created in 1940, was designed to be an off-road army vehicle specifically to be used in WWII.  It was so popular, the Jeep became even more in demand after the war.  Designers everywhere loved the basic utilitarian look of this vehicle, calling it a “masterpiece”.

Land Rover on Jeep Chassis 1948

Maurice Wilks was chief designer at the Rover Company, a British car manufacturing company known for high-quality vehicles.  Maurice’s brother, Spencer was managing director.  Inspired by the American war vehicle, on his farm in Anglesey, Maurice and Spencer built a prototype in 1947, using a Jeep chassis, and military surplus supplies from the war.

I don’t think I need to go over the Land Rover‘s unique features and specifications, nor do I think I need to cite all its military capabilities and its combat tours with not only the British Armed Forces, but also the Australian Armed Forces.  You might be interested to know, however, road accident statistics show the Land Rover to be one of the safest cars on British roads.  But, what I do want to talk about is the Land Rover Experience.

It is one thing to buy a Land Rover.  It is quite another to know how to drive a Land Rover.  Established in 1990, Land Rover organized a network of centers throughout the world to help customers learn how to get the most out of their vehicles’ on and off-road capability.  Not only do they instruct customers in driving their cars, they also offer a fun, exciting adventure in off-road driving for those of us who do not own one of these all-terrain automobiles.

We booked the experience in the beautiful countryside of North Yorkshire.  Pulling up to the castle, there they were, a fleet of white vehicles all lined up and ready for you to take out.  After all the necessary paperwork, licenses, waivers, etc., we were introduced to our co-pilot and handed the keys.  Our personable instructor could not have been more experienced or a better host.  Fully versed in all the vehicles capabilities, off we went onto Mother Nature’s “track”, with our qualified co-pilot up front, hubby nervously driving and me tucked safely away in the back.

Starting the drive, you’re taken in by the beauty of the area, from dense, lush forests to open fields and pastures.  You can spot deer who perk up when they hear the automobile coming.  Pheasant and grouse dart across the terrain.  It’s quite beautiful.

The terrain was, however, challenging to say the least.  With typical British weather, the recent rains had certainly added an element of breath-taking moments, negotiating the rivulets that ran through the forest.  There were times I was sure, while balancing on a rock, that we were going to topple over, but the automobile took on each obstacle with the tenacity of a warrior.  If you want to pull over, take photos, swap drivers, that’s not a problem.  It’s your day to enjoy.  Now let’s be clear, this is not a ‘test drive in the hopes that you are going to purchase this car’ ride.  This is a bonafide adventure course with an experienced instructor who, with his guidance, takes you over some of the most difficult terrain you’ll ever come across while driving.  It was exhilarating, challenging and so much fun!

This British icon has always been ‘a car of the people’, from Royals to the dairy farmer and there are very few vehicles which can actually wear that title.  If you are traveling in England and looking for something a bit different to do, I  recommend this experience to everyone.  We chose North Yorkshire for our drive, but there are other centers around the country.  And, they offer half-day to full-day experiences.  Would we do it again?  Absolutely!  And now I’ve learned that Land Rover offers the Land Rover Experience here in the States, as well as longer adventure travel packages.  From the warm welcome to the confidence boosting off-road driving challenges, I couldn’t recommend this unique adventure more.

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References:  Jeep-Wikpedia, Cheat Sheet, CNN, LandRoverUSA, Yorkshire Experience, Wikipedia Rover,
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THE BROWN BETTY

I become practically apoplectic when I watch someone prepare tea using a microwave, a mug and a teabag.  I want to shout “stop, what are you doing?”  But, of course, I don’t.  The reason why is because it really doesn’t matter to them that what they are doing is not preparing tea, but making some sort of hot beverage, quickly.  Am I a tea snob?  Some might say ‘yes’, but I don’t think so.  Would that same person think mixing a teaspoon of instant coffee powder into a mug of water and zapping that in the microwave is a good cup of coffee?  I hope not.

I love all things tea … from the origins of the leaf to the ritualistic preparations, the variety of ethnic traditions, as well as the fascinating accoutrements.  For preparation, the simple unadorned, unpretentious Brown Betty is one of my favorite teapots.  I know its a name that is familiar to a lot of tea drinkers, but I wonder if anyone knows how this modest, round-bellied pot got its name and why some devout tea drinkers think it the only vessel worthy of steeping a perfect cuppa.

Although quintessentially British, the origins of the teapot are actually Chinese.  As more and more tea was being imported from China into Europe and Great Britain beginning in the 1600s, a vessel in which to steep the tea became necessary.  The first teapot ever created was in China in the 15th century, but the Chinese primarily steep their tea individually in small porcelain bowls called gaiwans.  Europeans, however, wanted to steep larger quantities and demanded a more practical way of preparing and serving their tea.  Knowing this, the East India Company commissioned the Chinese to come up with a larger, more useful vessel.

Chinese artisans designed these pots, each with a spout, handle and lid. These vessels were small, unadorned, round pots, made from the red clay of the Yixing area … and ideal for preparing a good cuppa tea.  The teapots were packed in crates by the thousands and placed in the cargo holds in the bottom of the large sailing ships, which also helped to provide ballast, while the teas were then packed on top.  Everything was sure to arrive safely to ports throughout Europe and England.

Ming Dynasty Yixing Teapot

As we all know, tea was incredibly expensive at that time, and kept under lock and key, to be enjoyed only by the wealthy.  As tea pots started appearing, the aristocracy demanded these as well.  The Dutch were the first to request permission to try to reproduce these tea steeping ‘pots’.  In 1679 two potters from Delft sent a letter to the court of the Count of Holland stating: “we, associates, have discovered production techniques which make it possible to copy the teapots from the East Indies. We request permission to produce these pots for 15 years and to be the only ones to market them”.  But it was two silversmiths from Holland, brothers John and David Elers, who also saw the potential for this new industry and relocated to England to become potters.

In the Stoke-on-Trent area, the Elers brothers were able to find veins of fine red clay, the clay most like the red clay the Chinese were using.  The brothers then quickly and secretly established a factory in the area, and began producing some of the finest pottery to be found … some of which is on display today in the Victory Albert Museum in London.  Although their  “fine pottery” business was not financially profitable, they had a huge influence on the growth of this industry, making Staffordshire the ceramics capital of the world.

Two Teapots by the Elers Brothers 1627.  Photograph by David Jackson, CC BY-SA 2.0

As tea became more affordable, teapots became more in demand.  Artisans from Swinton pottery developed a unique glaze from iron and manganese that was brushed on the outside of the clay  pot. The excess glaze was allowed to run down the sides, creating an elegant streaky finish when it was fired.  That shiny brown glaze, referred to as the Rockingham glaze, in combination with the natural color of the clay, helped give the Brown Betty pot its name.

So, we’ve learned how “Brown”, became part of the name of this teapot, but what about “Betty”?

During the Victorian era, every affluent household had servants.  In the grander homes, there were servants who worked “downstairs” and servants who worked “upstairs”.   The “downstairs” servants generally were not known by their name and were usually referred to by their job, “cook” or “boots”, but the “upstairs” servants were well known to the lords and ladies of the house and would probably be referred to by a ‘nick name’.  MaryJane would become “Mary”.  Abigail would become “Abby”.  Elizabeth would become “Betty”.

The name Elizabeth, shortened to “Betty” was a very popular name then.  The hugely successful Betty’s Tearooms were begun (and still very popular today) by Swiss baker, Fritz Butzer, but there was no “Betty” in his family.  Perhaps he was inspired to name his tearoom for Betty Lupton, the queen of Harrogate, or the popular theater production about a maid named “Betty”, or could it have been “Betty” Rose, the granddaughter of his first investor in Betty’s Tearooms.  As Elizabeth was such a popular name, chances were that at least one servant was called “Betty” … and, “Betty” probably served tea.

By the mid-1800s, with many Staffordshire Pottery factories producing them, the teapot had evolved somewhat and became considerably more affordable.  And by 1926, it was estimated that the industry was producing approximately 500,000 Brown Betty Teapots per week … making it the most popular, widely used teapot in the country.

And what is it about this teapot that makes the Brown Betty my favorite pot for steeping tea?  Not particularly colorful or decorative, this unpretentious, utilitarian pot has a big round belly which allows the loose leaves to swirl around and infuse the water properly.  The clay retains the heat from the boiling water, holding the tea at the perfect temperature for me.  The handle is big and comfortable and the spout is dripless.  What more could anyone want in a teapot?

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References:  Hoteliers, Cauldon Ceramics, Wikipedia, VisitStoke, Bettys, Coffeeteaclub, thebrownbetty,

What’s In a Name?

TEA … what a strange name for a beverage.  A beverage which originated in China over 5,000 years ago.  A beverage which comes from infusing the leaves of a specific plant into hot water.  A beverage which has been drunk and enjoyed around the world for centuries.  Where did this simple name come from?

The word for “tea” can be quite different in many languages.  In China, the word for tea is “cha”.  In India and other Far East countries, the word for tea is very similar … “chai”.  In Great Britain and parts of Europe, however, the word for this amber-colored liquor is the word we in the U.S. use … “tea”.   How is it that this, the most popular beverage in the world, can have two completely different names?

Legend tells us that more than 5,000 years ago, the Chinese emperor, Shen Nung, was sitting under a tree in his garden boiling water when the wind picked up and leaves from the tree drifted down into his pot.  Intrigued by the fragrant aroma and beauty of the golden liquid, he drank the infusion and enjoyed it.  Tea has played a vital role in the Chinese culture ever since.

The Chinese character for tea is  .   Written from top to bottom, this calligraphic character is quite beautiful.  The top strokes, which I’ve always thought were shaped like a house, really represents “grass” or a “plant”.  Although Mandarin is the most common language in China, there are over 300 different languages and dialects.  In Mandarin Chinese this “house-shaped” character is pronounced “cha”.  In Min Chinese, however, this very same character is pronounced “te”.
Why is this important?  Because China is a very large country, with different languages spoken in different regions, and depending upon the port from which the tea was shipped, is how this beverage got its name.

China had two primary shipping locations:  Guangzhou (Canton) to the North, and Xiamen in Fujian Province, to the South.  If the tea leaves were exported from the northern route, they went overland, and they were referred to by their Mandarin name, “cha”.  If the very same leaves were exported from the southern route, they went by sea and were referred to by their Min name, “te”.

The northern route, known as the Tea-Horse Road, traveled over 6000 rugged miles through Tibet and on to India, eventually linking up with the infamous Silk Road.  Ultimately this route became vital for, not only trade, but for the sharing of information, religion, and the arts.  The Silk Road crossed into the Middle East, where some goods, including tea … “cha” … were loaded onto ships destined for Mediterranean ports.  With the introduction of the faster and more efficient Clipper ships in 1840, however, the use of this road lessened.

The southern trade route, which was discovered by the Portuguese in the 15th century, actually introduced England to tea.  This dangerous and long voyage traveled from China through Java to Europe around the Cape of Good Hope up the coast of Africa to Europe.  It was these very same Portuguese and Dutch traders who first imported tea … “te” … into Europe.  Regular shipments of “te” had begun reaching England by 1610.  And with the use of Clipper ships, traveling at over 250 miles a day, the race was on.

So, if you lived along the Northern route and into the Middle East, your beverage of choice was “cha” taken from the Mandarin name.  If you lived along the Southern route and into Europe, your beverage of choice was “te” taken from the Min name.  But regardless of where you live and whether you refer to this wonderful elixir as  thé in Paris …or in Rome … chay in Moscow … or chai in Nairobi, just know that you are enjoying the oldest and most popular beverage in the world.

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References:  Wikipedia, History of Tea, Trade Routes, Siam teas, Mental Floss
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GINGERBREAD

Who thinks of “gingerbread” in April?  In America, “gingerbread” doesn’t seem to enter our thinking until the holidays start approaching.  And even then, we tend to think of gingerbread only in the form of gingerbread men cookies and gingerbread houses.  In the U.K. and throughout Europe, however, gingerbread is available, purchased, baked and enjoyed year round.  This may be of no interest to anyone, but I find it fascinating.

Illustration depicting Christopher Columbus’s fleet departing from Spain in 1492.

We’re all familiar with ginger, even if its only in the dried, powdered form.  But did you know the ginger plant, from which we use the root, was discovered in the Indonesian islands, along with many similar plants, as early as 2000 B.C.  Knowing its medicinal benefits even then, ginger was already being cultivated by the indigenous people.  Along with turmeric, cardamom, cinnamon and cassia, ginger was among the first spices to be transported from the Far East over land and by sea to the Middle East and Europe.

From burning the spices in religious ceremonies, to creating ointments and potions to ward off the plague, as well as to hide putrid household smells and make unpalatable food edible, spices were in high demand.  We all know Christopher Columbus was trying to find a shorter route to the spice islands when he ‘bumped’ into this land mass.  The trade routes were so coveted, battles were fought over them and spice merchants became extremely wealthy and powerful.  Ginger was so expensive n the Middle Ages, one pound was the same price as one sheep.  But once the trade routes became established during the 15th and 16th centuries, prices stabilized … and by the 17th century, the Spanish were able to cultivate ginger and were growing it in the West Indies, making it affordable for all.

So, now that we know where ginger came from, let’s find out where “gingerbread” came from and why it’s so important in European cuisine . . .

I’ve read that the first known recipe for ‘gingerbrede’ came from Greece in 2400 BC.  Really?  How do they know that?  I do know, however, that food historians have traced ginger as a seasoning since antiquity.  From my research,  it seems an Archbishop from Armenia, in the 1st century, is credited with serving his guests a cake made of spices.  By the tenth century, its proven that Chinese recipes for ‘spice breads’ were developed using ginger, and by the 13th century European nuns in monasteries were known to be baking ‘gingerbredes’ to ease indigestion.  As spices, and in particular ginger, made their way throughout Northern and Western Europe, these breads baked in monasteries became so popular professional bakers began to make them.  The ingredients, of course, were a bit different from what we would expect.  Ground almonds, breadcrumbs, rosewater, sugar and ginger were mixed together and baked.  It wasn’t until the 16th century when eggs and flour were added.

Did you know Queen Elizabeth I is credited with creating the first “gingerbread man”?  Known for her outlandish royal dinners, Queen Elizabeth employed a ‘Royal gingerbread baker’.  Among her array of fancy desserts were not only birds, fruits, and castles shaped out of marzipan, but also of gingerbread. The first documented gingerbread-shaped biscuit actually came from the court of Queen Elizabeth when she commissioned figures to be made in the likeness of some of her important guests.  They were the hit of the court and soon these biscuits made their way into the bakeries.

Still not an inexpensive treat, gingerbread became widely popular at Medieval fairs all over Europe.  They were sold not only as delicious snacks, but as souvenirs and good luck charms.  Gingerbread became so popular, cities in France and England began holding “gingerbread fairs” and even formed Gingerbread Guilds, with strict baking guidelines and competitions.   Nuremberg, Germany was actually recognized as the “Gingerbread Capital of the World” and the quality of their gingerbread was so high that it was even used as currency for paying city taxes.  The oldest recorded gingerbread recipe, dating back to the 16th century, is on display in the Germanic National Museum in Nuremberg.

Elaborately decorated gingerbread became so synonymous with all things fancy and elegant that the Guilds began hiring master bakers to create works of art from gingerbread.  Bakers began carving wooden boards to create elaborately designed molds to shape individual images.  The shapes included not only flowers, birds, and animals, but even people.  They were in such demand, kings and queens, lords and ladies, knights and bishops wanted their images captured in “gingerbread”.  Should a young woman want to improve her chances of attracting a husband, she would have a “gingerbread man” made for her in the likeness of her gentleman’s image.  The hope was that if she could get him to eat the spicy delicacy, he would then fall in love with her.  Decorated gingerbread was given as a wedding gift, or to celebrate a birth or special occasion.

Gingerbread became such a specialized and highly prized item, only professional ‘gingerbread’ bakers were allowed to make it, unless, of course, it was a holiday such as Christmas or Easter, then anyone would be given permission.  The gingerbread house, as we all know and love, was created in Germany to replicate Hansel and Gretel’s foray into the woods.  Can we say Brothers Grimm?  This tradition of creating gingerbread houses at Christmastime is as strong today as it was 300 years ago.

In England, the small town of Market Drayton has been making gingerbread since the 1640s, and by 1793 had four gingerbread bakeries.  The town is so proud of its gingerbread heritage its displayed on their welcome sign.

In many European countries, gingerbread is still considered an art form, and the antique mold collections are on display in many museums.  According to the Guiness Book of World Records, the largest gingerbread man was made in Norway in November 2009 and weighed 1,435 lbs. And the largest gingerbread house was made in Texas, November 2013 by the Traditions Club – 60 ft. long, 42 ft. wide and 10 ft. tall – all to raise money for St. Joseph’s Hospital.

Whether you enjoy your gingerbread soft and chewy, as a crispy biscuit, or as a dense cake sweetened with molasses or honey, this tummy-warming treat is hard to resist.  Now that I’ve uncovered these little known facts about gingerbread, I think I better understand why its so popular in Europe . . . from Norway to Switzerland, Poland to Germany, Bulgaria to England,  gingerbread is available, loved, and eaten year round, and not just at Christmastime.

 

As Shakespeare said, “An I had but one penny in the world,
thou should’st have it to buy ginger-bread
…”

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References:  Britannica, Unesco, Vegetable Facts, Wikipedia, Confectionary Chalet, BBC,
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