Mother’s Milk

I am the grandmother of yet another grandbaby … which number it is, honestly, I’ve forgotten.  All that matters is each one is perfect and I love them all.  Their name, however, may occasionally slip away from me (but just for a moment).  While visiting with the new Momma recently, it was necessary to reassure her that she’s doing ‘a wonderful job’ and, ‘yes, it will get easier’.   It was quite fascinating to discuss how many beliefs, ideas and customs have changed since I had my first baby (some 50 odd years ago) to today.  From swaddling to breast feeding to when to introduce solid foods – on and on.  Today, the issue at hand was ‘breast feeding’ … and not necessarily ‘should I or should’t I’, but how there was a time when it wasn’t an issue to be decided by the new mother at all.  Doctors discouraged it, opting instead for the “modern and scientific” way to nourish your newborn … “formula”.

When I think of it now, why was this manufactured substitute for mother’s milk the recommended method and why was it referred to as “formula”.  A name which has stuck to this very day.   Did a marketing genius decide the name “formula” would comfort the then new mother who only wanted to give her newborn all the nutrition and love it needed, or was it just a tag name that ‘stuck’.

It really wasn’t that long ago when, if a new mother did not have milk to nurse her newborn, or did not survive childbirth, there were very few choices.  In Israel, 2000 BC, breastfeeding was considered a religious obligation.  Wet nurses were not only practical, but necessary, and in biblical times, held in very high esteem.  From an Egyptian medical encyclopedia, 1550 BC …

“To get a supply of milk in a woman’s breast for suckling a child:
Warm the bones of a sword fish in oil and rub her back with it.
Or: Let the woman sit cross-legged and eat fragrant bread of 

soused durra, while rubbing the parts with the poppy plant
.” 

A recent scene from the PBS program, Queen Victoria, showed Lehzen, Queen Victoria’s secretary, interviewing new, lactating mothers from the village to see who had the largest breasts and could possibly nurse the future heir to the throne for the soon-to-give-birth Queen.  Queen Victoria was never interested in breast feeding any of her nine babies, so a “wet nurse” had to be found for each of them.

The scene was actually quite disturbing when you consider that should the lactating new mother be chosen she would have been required to give up nursing her own infant in order to be available at a moment’s notice to feed the infant of the Queen.  Queen Victoria was not alone in her decision.  For many aristocratic women of those times, this was quite a common occurrence.  Because of the necessity of wet nurses, for some poorer women, it was actually a means of providing an income for their families … yes, a career choice.  But by the early 1900s, with the introduction of modern and scientific ways to feed infants, the career of wet nursing had pretty much disappeared.

Although feeding bottles of one sort or another had been in use in every culture since the beginning of time, it wasn’t until the 19th century when Elijah Pratt invented a functional and successful rubber nipple so that orphaned newborns could “latch” on simulating a mother’s breast.  Now the problem was what to put into those bottles that didn’t result in so many infant deaths.  They needed a “formula”.

Obviously, animal milk (cows, sheep, goats) was the most common source of replacing mother’s milk but nutritionally, it was inferior to breast milk.  In 1865 a German scientist,  Baron Justus von Liebig, suggested that if foods consisted of protein, carbohydrates, and fats, couldn’t these nutrients then be combined to replicate mother’s milk?  He did not challenge the idea that mother’s milk was the perfect food for an infant, but rather he claimed he had succeeded in concocting an emergency food, a “formula”, whose chemical makeup was identical to that of mother’s milk.  Two years later, the Baron introduced “Liebig’s Soluble Food for Babies” to the European market and by the next year it was being manufactured and sold in London by the Liebig’s Registered Concentrated Milk Company.


Many doctors began proclaiming these “formula foods” (which consisted of dried cow’s milk, wheat malt flour, and potassium bicarbonate) to be superior to the milk of wet nurses.  With the Industrial Revolution now well underway and many women in the workforce, it’s easy to understand how this now “doctor recommended” infant formula food became so appealing.  Unfortunately, with the lack of necessary nutrients missing, “formula” fed babies did not thrive as babies nourished with mother’s milk.

Baby “formulas” continued to be improved and, with the introduction of evaporated milk in the 1910’s, began to be widely commercially available.  Milk corporations began funding clinical studies which suggested that babies fed with evaporated milk formulas thrived “as well as breastfed babies”.  Soon there were dozens of companies manufacturing these products.  The best known of which was Nestle.  Nestle’s advertisements said it was better for babies than milk, for “impure milk in hot weather is one of the chief causes of sickness among babies.”  Their most effective marketing campaign was giving away free samples.  Another company, Mellin’s, combined this offer with free handbooks on proper infant care.  Not only did these handbooks convince new mothers of the reasons to feed their infants “formula”, they convinced many doctors as well.

By the 1940s, bottle designs had also improved, from those which lay flat with openings on either sides, to those which stood up straight, each with detachable rubber nipples.  Whatever the design, they were becoming very popular, and by the 1950s, the U.S. and Britain welcomed the introduction of heat-resistant upright Pyrex bottles.  These newly-improved, hygenic bottles could be sanitized, adding another layer of safety for newborns.

The aggressive marketing of “formulas” in not only the U.S. and Europe, but in developing countries as well, contributed to a global decline in breastfeeding.  This decline generated negative publicity for many manufacturers of baby “formulas”, and beginning in the 1970s, the movement to promote breastfeeding began.

The controversy of whether to feed your baby naturally or with “formula” was not my intent.   My intention was merely to examine the original question of why do we call this alternative food for mother’s milk “formula”  and why was I never given the choice of whether to nurse my babies or not.  I think I’ve found the answers.

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References:  Food Timeline, Alimentarium, Domestic Geek Girl, The Journal of Perinatal Education,

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BREAKFAST TEAS

Have you ever had one of those nights when you’re laying in bed and your head becomes full of the most bizarre, unrelated thoughts.  As hard as you try to toss them aside, you can’t.  Those thoughts just keep coming back into your consciousness … rolling around and around and around.  Well, that’s exactly what happened to me last night.  And, for some reason, the subject was breakfast teas.  Yes, I know … bizarre!   English Breakfast and Scottish Breakfast to be exact.

What kept occurring to me was, “why do they exist?”  Although I’ve traveled through all the wonderful countries of Great Britain, never have I seen (except in grocery stores), been offered or served a “breakfast tea”.  I’ve been served PG Tips, Yorkshire Gold, Barry’s, Twining’s, A&P, Tetley and a variety of unknown bagged teas.  I’ve also been served, on one occasion, a very nice Ceylon.  But never anything for breakfast called “breakfast tea” whether it’s from England, Scotland, Ireland or Wales. That doesn’t mean they don’t exist or aren’t being sold in grocery stores.  Barry’s now has an English Breakfast and Taylor’s even has a Scottish Breakfast.

Here in the States, however, many tea drinkers think you need to start the day with a breakfast tea … most often, English Breakfast, but, of course, if you are a “real tea drinker” then it’s Irish Breakfast.  Why would all of this be running around in my head at 3am?  I don’t know.  But the more I tried to put it away, the more I tried to understand it.

As a tea retailer, my English Breakfast tea … a bright blend of assertive Ceylon and hearty Assam with a burgundy-like Keemun … was by far my most popular seller until that is, customers started asking for something stronger.  They needed a tea that packed the punch of a cuppa coffee … something that would stand up better to milk and sugar.   Knowing that Barry’s packed a punch, I created a tea much like it … a rich, dark blend of high-quality CTC (cut, torn and curled) malty Assams … Irish Breakfast it was!  And it was a huge hit.  But now other customers said it was too assertive, too rich, too dark.  You cannot please everyone, I guess, so back to the blending table.

I felt like Goldilocks and the Three Bears … if the Daddy Bear Irish Breakfast was too strong, and the Baby Bear English Breakfast was too weak, then we needed a Momma Bear.  How about … Scottish Breakfast!

Scottish Breakfast became an even bigger success than English or Irish.  Every customer loved it.  A blend of orthodox full-bodied Assams with just a hint of Ceylons, it struck the right balance between the two.  It held its own with milk and sugar, or dark right from the pot.  It was such a success that orders for 2, 3 and 5 lbs. were coming in continuously.  Customers didn’t want to run out.  Even today, although I’ve closed up shop, I still get requests for “Scottish Breakfast” tea.

But the question still remains unanswered.  With more than 3500 varieties of teas available including Assams, Keemuns, Ceylons, Yunnans, Darjeelings, white teas, green teas, pu-erhs and oolongs, teas from countries all over the world, China, India, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Nepal, Kenya, Japan, then why are breakfast teas still so much in demand here in the States?

And as I sit here this morning enjoying a delicate cup of fragrant, light  Silver Needles with its hint of sweetness, this question remains unanswered and still continues to run through my head.

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HIGHLAND GAMES

The Highland Games and Festival has been taking place in New Hampshire for 42 years.  We’ve been in New Hampshire for 24 years … and this was our first visit.  Why we haven’t made it a point to attend before I’m really not quite sure.  Could have been the fact that I was working most weekends.  But, we finally made it.  And, it was fantastic!

One of the  countries largest Scottish festivals, this three-day event, held at the base of Loon Mountain in New Hampshire, attracted visitors from, not only all over the country, but from all over the world (well, the U.K. mostly).   From the sheep dog trials, the whisky tastings, Ceilidh (pronounced ‘kay-lee’) dancing, caber tossing and hammer throws, to the fiddle contests, traditional foods, crafts and music, it did not disappoint.

Tossing the Caber

The highlights for us were the ‘heavy lifting’ games.  These ‘games’ … caber tossing, hammer throws, dead lifts, shot put … are, after all, the reason for the festival.  And Hafthor* was there to participate and break world records.  Who is Hafthor* you are asking?  Honestly, I had no idea either, but he was impressive … not only throwing cabers and tossing hammers, but lifting a car – with four men in it!  This event gave new meaning to the image of “men in skirts”.

The Highland Games and Festival has been held in New Hampshire for 42 years, but the oldest of the Highland Games are believed to be the Ceres Games of Fife which began in Scotland in 1314.  Although competitive games can be traced back to Greece more than 1,000 years B.C., Scottish games are very specific.  They focus solely on strength and stamina, designed to test the endurance of Scottish warriors.  Clan leaders needed to keep their men sharp and ready for battle.  They would build their strength using simple, easily found objects.  A tree trunk would be made into a pole or wooden beam called a “caber”, to be thrown end over end as far as possible.  Heavy, smooth rocks would be gathered from river beds and would be used to lift and throw.  Lead weights would be tossed underhand over a bar more than twice as high as the athlete.  Each event would be assigned points and the competitor who accumulated the most points would, of course, be the Champion.

Highland Sword Dance

I don’t think anything captures the spirit of the Scottish culture more than Highland dancing though.  Dancing was not only enjoyed by men and women at celebrations and feasts, it was also a form of practice for battle.  Warriors needed to be fast and light on their feet.  Imagine the wailing cry of the bagpipes in the background on a cold, damp battlefield as the warriors quickly and silently pounced on their enemy.  Let’s also imagine that same cold, damp battlefield at night … dancing must have been a great way to keep warm around the fire.

As the men focused on competing in games of strength, women began participating in pipe and fiddling contests and the Highland dance competitions.  These ritualistic solo dances have, for so many Scottish migrants around the world, become an obsession.  Of the most famous of these competitive dances, such as the Highland Fling, the Sailors Hornpipe and the Reel of Tulloch, I believe, is the Highland Sword Dance, which depicts the defeat of the enemy with one sword crossed over the other.  If a dancer touches the sword, they are disqualified.

Photo credit to Pam Sullivan

Today, however, women can and do participate in the heavy lifting events.  Shannon Hartnett broke the gender barrier by convincing organizers to allow women to compete in the heavy lifting events, although only against other women.  Hartnett won every competition she entered.

As are shortbread,”Auld Lang Syne”, Scottish bagpipes, kilts and whisky, the Highland Games are a Scottish icon.  The event was great fun, but more than that, it showcased the strength, dignity and pride of a culture that celebrates traditions which transcends time.  You may never get the opportunity to visit Scotland (and I hope you do), but if possible, make the time to visit New Hampshire next September.

The Highland Games and Festival has been held at Loon Mountain for 42 years and you can be sure we won’t miss another one!  It was fantastic!

 

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References:  Wikipedia, Caber, Highland Sword Dance, Scotland Traditions, Historic UK 

* Hafthor … Hafþór Júlíus “Thor” Björnsson is an Icelandic professional strongman, actor, and former professional basketball player. He plays Ser Gregor “The Mountain” Clegane in the HBO series Game of Thrones.
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Why Was the Hatter MAD?

Who doesn’t love the nonsensical story of a bored little girl, Alice in Wonderland?  This classic book, “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”, written by Lewis Carroll (Charles L. Dodgson) in 1871, has been translated in over 100 languages, has never been out of print and from which 17 movies have been made, the first being filmed in 1903.

I’ve written about Alice before … to mark her 150th Anniversary.  Check out the link if you are interested in learning more.  This time, however, I’m more interested in the less-than-subtle character of The Mad Hatter. You have to admit Carroll’s characters are incredibly delightful and entertaining.  Each character is a vivid portrayal of the people in Charles Dodgson’s (Lewis Carroll) world.  As Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Oscar Wilde, etc. each wrote about people with whom they were familiar, interesting characters who were actually part of their lives. How could you not love the Queen of Hearts (Queen Victoria) or the Cheshire Cat?  Of course, the tea party wouldn’t be complete without the Dormouse and the March Hare.

My favorite, and apparently Tim Burton’s as well, is The Mad Hatter.  But my question is, “why was the Hatter mad?”  In the book, he was never referred to as The Mad Hatter.  He is referred to only as “The Hatter”.   It is certainly apparent, however, with his constant barrage of questions, reciting silly poetry and songs, darting in and out of seats at the never-ending tea party, that he is without a doubt, MAD as a HATTER.   Where did this catch phrase and this character come from?

After visiting a “living history” (their words, not mine) museum this past weekend, I learned that “hat manufacturers” from the 18th and 19th century were ‘mad’, with acute cases of dementia, tremors and the like.  It seems the chemicals used to cure the felt used in hat-making included mercurious nitrate.  And we all now know the dangers of being exposed to mercury.  Mercury poisoning from the prolonged exposure to the vapors of mercury causes uncontrollable muscular tremors, distorted vision and confused speech, not to mention hallucinations and other psychotic symptoms.  Dementia was a common ailment for Victorian-era hat makers.  Hence the term “mad as a hatter”.

Theophilus Carter – 1824-1904

Carroll knew one such interesting character by the name of Theophilus Carter, who, it is believed, could have been the inspiration for “the hatter”. Theo wasn’t actually a ‘hatter’ himself, but rather an upholsterer and furniture maker, and a very eccentric and flamboyant one at that.  Often seen standing at the door to his Oxford shop with his infamous top hat perched on the back of his head.  Could Theo have come in contact with mercury vapors while making and upholstering furniture?  Possibly.

How did the process for using mercury to cure felt begin?  It seems that it can be traced back to the Middle East where camel hair was used for the felt material from which fez hats are made. The demand for these hats was tremendous after Sultan Mahud made them fashionable and mandatory for his military.  It was discovered, quite by accident, that the felting process could be hurried up if the pelts were soaked with urine, camel urine to be specific.

19th Century Hat Making

The fashion for felt hats moved north into Europe and with it the manufacturing.  But, camel urine was unavailable.  It is believed that workmen in France, not having camels handy, used their own urine.  Interestingly, one workman in this particular French factory seemed to produce a consistently superior felt. This workman, it was discovered, was being treated for syphilis, with regular doses of a mercury compound.   The connection between the mercury in his urine and the improved fibers of the felt were made and thus began the widespread use of mercury nitrate in felt making.

As a result, mercury poisoning became endemic with hat makers.  Although the hatters were exposed to the mercury fumes in the making of the felt, the wearers were not.  The vapors would have dissipated long before the hat was worn. Needless to say, this process is now banned in the U.S. and Europe.  And now we know why “the hatter was MAD“.

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“In that direction,” the Cat said, waving its right paw round,
“lives a Hatter: and in that direction,” waving the other paw,
“lives a March Hare. Visit either you like: they’re both mad.”

“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.

“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here.
I’m mad. You’re mad.”

“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.

“You must be, said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”

 

The March Hare and the Hatter put the Dormouse’s head in a teapot, by Sir John Tenniel.

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References:  Wikipedia, Corrosion Doctors, Alice in Wonderland, American Chemical Society,

The Diminutive Lady Who Ruled the World

I’ve been fascinated by Queen Victoria since watching “VICTORIA” the new Masterpiece series which began on PBS this past year.  Jenna Coleman, who rose to fame as the adorable side-kick on the on-so-popular British tv series, Dr. Who, plays the young, diminutive, but strong-willed Queen beautifully.  The series so intrigued me that when I saw the book, VICTORIA, THE QUEEN by Julia Baird, I just had to pick it up.  Described as “An intimate biography of the woman who ruled an empire” it is just that.  At 695 pages, it wasn’t a weekend read, but, I have to admit, once I delved into the pages, I couldn’t put it down.

At the age of 18 and just under 5′ tall, Alexandrina Victoria was never suppose to rule Great Britain.  This tiny teenager was actually fifth in line under her father, Edward, the Duke of Kent . When Edward realized that his siblings were not producing any heirs and that the throne might, in fact, become his, at the age of 51 he choose a young woman to wed, who gave birth the following year to the future monarch.  One year later, Edward died and it seemed his vision was to become reality.

Victoria never wanted to become Queen and, as a young girl, when faced with the possibility that this would become reality, would burst into tears.  Sinister plots and threats to kill her always loomed over her head.  Victoria’s mother would never allow Victoria to be alone or play with other children without a guardian, and made sure Victoria had an official ‘food taster’.

Of course, as Victoria blossomed into a young woman and her ascension to the throne became more evident, many a young man sought her hand in marriage. Although some of her suitors were dazed by the possibility of power, her mate had already been selected … by her Uncle Leopold … his son, Albert (yes, her cousin*).

     *Aristocratic families often intermarried.  It wasn’t until the mid 1800’s that the medical           establishment began to be opposed to the practice, citing developmental issues.

Potential heirs to the throne were not surviving.  Victoria was next in line.  And it was with the announcement by private courier at 6am on the morning of June 20th of King William IV’s death did this 18 year-old teenager become the “Queen”.

Victoria immediately rose to the job of monarch of this vast nation, despite the thrashing and naysaying of the ministers, clergy and noblemen.  With her very first address before Parliament, strong-willed and determined, Victoria proved that this little slip of a girl, whose feet could not reach the floor when she sat o the throne, was a formidable force, to be respected and admired. But, could she rule alone?  Queen Victoria also needed to be married.

Although the marriage was, more or less, a foregone conclusion, Victoria did fall madly in love with (her cousin) Albert … and he with her.   Despite her concerns about being a wife and mother and not the decisive, powerful, ruling Monarch that she thrived to be, three years after meeting the tall, dark and handsome Albert, they were wed.

The Wedding of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, February 10, 1840

Victoria had a fight on her hands, however, because she wanted the intellectual and ambitious Albert to be recognized not just as her husband, but as a well-respected and well-paid, member of her Kingdom.  She also wanted her husband to realize that SHE was the Sovereign and that nothing could stop her from ruling her country.  Slowly, Prince Albert began immersing himself in assisting Victoria with her ever-increasing duties as Queen.  Victoria loved being married and loved being Monarch of Great Britain.  She was devastated, however, to find out, after only a few weeks of being married that she was pregnant.  How was she to balance being a Queen with being a wife and mother?

Nine months later Victoria gave birth to a healthy baby girl, Victoria Adelaide, the first of her nine children. Surviving childbirth at that time was a challenge, with approximately 5 in 1,000 women dying from complications during labor and delivery.  Infant mortality was much higher, about 75 in 1,000.

Within the year, baby number two was on the way and despite her earlier protestations, Victoria was becoming less and less interested in political matters.  Meanwhile, Albert, a dedicated husband and father, took a greater role in handling matters of State, especially regarding slavery, working conditions and education, as well as the arts and sciences. Unfortunately, Albert suffered his whole life with, what we know today as Crohn’s disease.

The royal family divided their life between Buckingham Palace, the Isle of Wight and their beloved Balmoral Castle in Scotland, where they could relax and be at peace. The children were growing and setting off on their own with schooling, marriage, adventures and misadventures.  Although Victoria was strong-willed and well educated, she depended upon Albert more and more, frequently referring to him as her “Lord and Master”. Her confidence as a ruler was slipping and she questioned her decisions.  But as Albert was taking a stronger hold in politics, his health was declining rapidly.  Then after 21 years of marriage, at the age of 42, Albert died.

Victoria was heartbroken.  She did not attend her husband’s funeral and threw herself into mourning, referring to herself not as the Queen, but as the “brokenhearted Widow”.  Dressed now only in black, with no adornments, for four years she was unwilling to appear in public. Then around the fifth year, although Victoria still continued to insist she was weak and feeble, politically, she slowly came back to being the force she was before marriage.

Never again would Queen Victoria wear anything but a simple black frock.  She would go on to rule the then most powerful country in the world until her death at the age of 82.  The “people’s Princess”, Victoria, was the longest reigning monarch until the present Queen Elizabeth II.

Beginning as a young child, Victoria recorded her most intimate thoughts and actions.  She was religious in keeping a calendar of all events, good and bad, to which she looked back on and celebrated continuously.  She was a voracious letter writer, and a very talented artist.  She loved to dance, play the piano and she cared very much about animals.

Edward, Prince of Wales, by Queen Victoria 1843

One of the reasons we know so much about Queen Victoria is because of the very important diaries and letters she wrote.  It is believed that, upon her death, Victoria had written a total of 60,000,000 words (2,500 per day), amounting to volumes of material (most of which have now been edited, some destroyed) which remain in the Royal Archives.

My point in writing this blog was not to give you more information about Victoria the Queen, but to share with you a woman, who, like the rest of us, loved deeply and emotionally, enjoyed fun and laughter, as well as serene, quiet moments, and upon whom extreme responsibility and pressure was forced.  She was not perfect, by any means.  She could be brash and selfish … certainly self-absorbed and obstinate … and battled depression for years.  But, Victoria, like most of us, was fragile and needy at times, and gave of herself, perhaps too much, at other times. Keeping her weight under control was a battle she ultimately gave up on.  She despised racial prejudice and injustice.  She loved to surround herself with beauty.

Yes, Victoria was the ruler of an empire who left a very impressive legacy, but she was a lover, a wife, and a mother, and admittedly not the best mother she could have been.  She was also a strong and passionate lover of her family, her country and the responsibility that was hers.  I think I would have liked Victoria!

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References:  Too many references to mention, but some included:  Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine,  Albert Prince Consort, Queen Victoria, NY Times,  History, Julia Baird
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Watercress …

I know what you’re saying “Huh, watercress?”  I said the same thing when a dear friend suggested that “watercress”  could be an interesting topic for my blog.  “But, watercress? Whatever could watercress have to do with the U.K. which would make it unique or interesting?” The only association I could make was, of course, tea sandwiches.   But after watching an episode of the fascinating PBS series, VICTORIAN SLUM HOUSE, suddenly watercress seems as if it could be an interesting topic.  And now after doing my research, I’m writing about … “watercress”.

Watercress is known to have been growing wild along shallow wetland areas in the Mediterranean since before recorded time.  It has been cultivated in that region since 500 B.C. The botanical name for watercress is “Nasturtium Officinale” or “twisted nose” and with its pungent, mustardy tang, the flavor sort of makes you do that … wrinkle your nose.

Artaxerxes, the king of Persia (Iran today), loved watercress and ordered his soldiers to eat this cruciferous greenery to keep them healthy during their long marches.  The ancient Romans and Greeks believed that this aromatic plant would give you courage, strength and character. Although they didn’t know it then, watercress is rich in vitamins and essential minerals like iodine, sulpher, iron and vitamin C, and it is part of what today we call “super foods”.  I do believe, however, that Hippocrates, the father of Western medicine, knew all this when he built his first hospital on the Greek island of Kos alongside a stream where wild watercress grew.  Hippocrates was a strong believer that disease had natural causes and he used various plant-based remedies to treat his patients … referring to “watercress” as the “cure of all cures”.

Watercress is very easy to grow, so as people migrated north, the seeds traveled with them … from the Middle East to Italy, Germany and ultimately to the U.K.  Slowly, British aristocracy began to recognize the value of eating this spicy micro-green.  Scientist, philosopher and statesman, Francis Bacon, touted the belief that eating watercress would “restore youth to ageing women”.  The most notable botanist in London, John Gerard, recommended watercress as a remedy for, among other ailments, gallstones and, more importantly, scurvy.  Because of this recommendation, Captain James Cook added watercress in the diet of his sailors, and as a result, was able to circumnavigate the world three times.

The first British crop was grown in Kent in 1808 by an enterprising entrepreneur, William Bradbury, who saw the potential of this diminutive plant.  With each successful crop, he would gather the cress and take it to the London markets to sell.  It was during the Victorian era when the plant’s popularity really soared.   If you’ve been watching the VICTORIAN SLUM HOUSE series on PBS, now you know how and when I had that “ah ha” moment.  Thousands of people living in London during the Victorian era were living in abject poverty. Because of the ever-growing population and the huge influx of imported goods, with no money and little work available, women and children took to the streets selling whatever they could to survive.

Watercress Girl by Johann Zoffany

In the center of London was the Farringdon market.  Not as large as Covent Garden, but a rather expansive market for food wholesalers, most of whom were selling watercress to these street urchins, now known as ‘watercress sellers’. Each day, hundreds of watercress sellers, mostly young girls, dressed in rags and shoeless, but armed with their wicker baskets, would line up before dawn at the entrance to this market, waiting for the iron gates to open.  When that moment came, they would run to the stalls to be the first to get their watercress for that day, hopefully before the cress was gone.  Then these young watercress sellers would walk the streets each and every day, regardless of the weather, selling bunches of watercress … to the working man who would eat it on the way to his job, or delivering fresh watercress to the homes of the middle class for their cleansing ‘watercress soup’. Known as the ‘poor man’s bread’ “Fresh wo-orter-creases here” was heard as early as 5am.

One street urchin became a legend in the watercress trade and was nicknamed “The Watercress Queen”.  Eliza James, at the age of five, was given 40 bunches of watercress each day, by her family, to sell to the workers in the factories in Birmingham.  For years, little Eliza would rise before dawn, go down to the factories, selling more and more watercress.  Moving from Birmingham to London, as she grew into adulthood, Eliza’s drive and determination continued.  Still selling watercress, she began buying watercress farms, one after another.  At the time of her death in 1927, Ms. James was the biggest owner of watercress farms anywhere in the world, handling up to 50 tons of watercress in just one weekend.  She was the only watercress supplier to nearly every hotel and restaurant in London, and still with all that success every morning, before dawn, up to the day she died, Eliza James would be at her stall at Covent Garden market selling watercress.  The Daily Mirror reported: “… by selling watercress (this) is surely one of the most wonderful romances of business London has ever known”.

In 1861, the Winchester Railway Company built a new railway to connect London and Southampton.  Although it was primarily a military transport, it also moved goods, mainly watercress … from the nation’s watercress capital of Alresford to London.  The railway transported so much watercress it was soon lovingly referred to as The Watercress Line. Today, thanks to the selfless endeavors of many volunteers, the railway is open as a museum and tourist attraction in the market town of Alresford.

The watercress industry continued to thrive during both World Wars. Watercress was a staple ingredient … in schools, at home, and, of course, at “afternoon tea”.  In the 1940s more than 1,000 acres of watercress were under cultivation in the U.K.  Unfortunately, by the end of the 20th century, less than 150 acres remain.

Realizing the nutritional value of watercress, small U.K. farmers have joined together to bring awareness to this once great British ingredient.  Each spring Alresford, the “watercress capital of the U.K.”, holds a Watercress Festival highlighting this versatile and delicious veg … with cooking demonstrations, watercress eating contests, a parade and, of course, the crowning of a watercress queen.

World Record Watercress Eating Championships 2016 (Image: James Newell)

A promotional campaign, “Not Just a Bit on the Side”, was launched in 2003, in the hopes of spurring interest in this, the original super food. Packed with essential vitamins and minerals, gram for gram, watercress contains more vitamin C than oranges, more calcium than milk, more iron than spinach and more folate than bananas. Current scientific research has shown that the high levels of antioxidants can increase the ability of cells to resist damage to their DNA, helping to protect against the cell changes that can lead to some diseases.  Perhaps Francis Bacon was right!

A big ‘thank you’ to Judy for suggesting this topic for my blog.  I didn’t realize, at the time, how culturally significant watercress actually was to Great Britain.  Needless to say, my curiosity is piqued even more and I’ll be adding watercress recipes very soon.

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References: Cambridge World History of Food, History of Food, BQ Quality Growers, Food Timeline, Wikipedia, The Victorianist, Geri Walton, Watercress Queen, Watercress Festival, Watercress Line

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The Great British Tea Break

What has happened to the great British tea break?  The “tea break” was just a mere 15 minutes, mid-morning and mid-afternoon, where all work stopped to allow workers to regroup, relax for a few moments, and share in a cuppa.  And it seems this lack of preserving traditions that were once very important is sadly happening all over the world.  In the States we’ve also done away with the once mandatory, twice-daily coffee break.  The lowly, but very important, tea break is just another British tradition that is slowly becoming extinct.  In today’s fast-paced, head-down, remote-access, work-at-home workplace, people, not only in Great Britain, but around the globe, just don’t have the time to stop and put the kettle on.

During the industrial revolution, a typical British laborer would start their day around 5 or 6 am. By mid-morning, a bit of fatigue would set in and employers realizing that their employees needed a bit of bolstering, would let their workers have a 15-minute break. Realizing that this “tea break” was a way of boosting productivity, they implemented a 15-minute afternoon break as well. Considering where most laborers worked – cold, drafty factories, warehouses and mines – coupled with England’s often damp and bone-chilling weather, you can understand how much a hot, hearty cuppa would be looked forward to.

For the better part of two hundred years, these 15-minute breaks where a worker could ‘have a sit down‘ with a hot cuppa and a biscuit, and share a story or two with a fellow co-worker, were an integral part of the workday.

The industrial revolution also brought with it ‘trade unions’.  Working conditions were, for the most part, so deplorable that people began to organize in an attempt to implement labor guidelines and safety measures, provide higher wages and benefits. Over time, however, the trade unions grew so large and powerful they became some of the biggest political forces in Great Britain.

In the 1970s, British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, aka “Iron Lady”, began to break up the stronghold these powerful trade unions had on the economy and political scene.  To many people, especially those who worked in heavy industry and the public sector, this was a devastating move.  Workers took to the streets, from the north to the south, and began to strike.  “Tea Breaks” became the battle cry.

During the strikes, people endured electricity shortages and trying to buy candles … three-day work weeks and not earning enough money to afford heat … baking your own bread because bakers were on strike … rat-infested piles of garbage lining the street … the army recruited to put out fires because firemen were striking.  It’s amazing the U.K. survived such turbulent times.  But through it all, there was the “tea break”.

The traditional ‘tea break’ was once upheld as an important social activity in the workplace, but no more.  A recent study in the U.K. of over 2,000 workers were asked about ‘tea breaks’ and, sadly, 76% responded they were to busy to take a proper break.  Stepping away from the desk or workstation for a short break has actually been shown to increase productivity in workers, not to mention the valuable social aspect and morale boost that comes from a good cuppa, shared with colleagues.

Tea improves concentration, mood, and energy, as well as relaxation.  According to research studies by Unilever, people who drank tea four times a day for six weeks were found to have lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol.  Their lead scientist, Suzanne Einother, said of these findings: “… they appear to confirm what many of us suspect; that the close to sacred ritual of the tea break can effectively boost your mood, which in turn can lead to other benefits such as improved problem solving.”

It seems to me that in this fast-paced, hurry-up world, we may have lost something important. Traditional tea breaks, or coffee breaks, seem to be a lost tradition as workers today tend to just  ‘grab and go’.  If only businesses and employees realized the benefits.  A short break every day can lead to a happier, healthier workforce. When I’m sitting at my desk, jotting down my thoughts, or in the kitchen whipping up something whether quick and easy, or intensely complicated, you can be sure there’s always a cuppa tea next to me.

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References:  Royal Voluntary Service, Washington Post, Wikipedia, BBC News, Daily Mail

The Tea Cup Story

I didn’t write this.  I’m not sure who did.  It’s just a lovely, inspirational story and I wanted to share it with you.

There was a couple who went to England to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary. They both liked antiques and pottery, especially tea cups. While shopping in an antique shop, they spotted an exceptional tea cup and asked, “May we see that cup? We’ve never seen one quite so beautiful.” 

As the shopkeeper handed it to them, the tea cup suddenly spoke. “You don’t understand,” the tea cup said. “I have not
always been a tea cup. There was a time when I was just a lump of clay.  My master took me and rolled me, pounded and patted me, over and over and I yelled out, ‘Don’t do that. Leave me alone,’ but he only smiled and said, ‘Not yet!’ ‘Then, WHAM, I was placed on a spinning wheel and was spun around and around and around.  ‘Stop it!  I’m getting so dizzy! I’m going to be sick!,’ I screamed.  But the master only nodded and said quietly, ‘Not yet.’

He spun me and poked and prodded and bent me out of shape to suit himself.  Then he put me in the oven. I never felt such heat. I yelled and knocked and pounded at the door.  ‘Help! Get me out of here!’ I could see him through the opening and I could read his lips as he shook his head from side to side, ‘Not yet’.

When I thought I couldn’t bear it another minute, the door opened. He carefully took me out and put me on the shelf, and I began to cool.  Oh, that felt so good!  Ah, this is much better, I thought.  But, after I cooled, he picked me up and brushed and painted me all over.  The fumes were horrible.  I thought I would gag. ‘Oh, please, stop it, stop it!’ I cried. He only shook his head and said, ‘Not yet!’

Then he put me back into the oven. Only it was not like the first one. This was twice as hot and I just knew I would suffocate. I begged and pleaded; I screamed and cried. I was convinced I would never make it. I was ready to give up.  But then the door opened and he took me out and placed me on the shelf, where I cooled and waited and waited and wondered, ‘What’s he going to do to me next?”

“After an hour, he handed me a mirror and said ‘Look at yourself.’ And I did. I said, ‘That’s not me; that couldn’t be me. I’m beautiful!’

Quietly he spoke, ‘I want you to remember, I know it hurt to be rolled and pounded and patted, but had I just left you alone, you’d have dried up. I know it made you dizzy to spin around on the wheel, but if I had stopped, you would have crumbled. I know it hurt and it was hot and disagreeable in the oven, but if I hadn’t put you there, you would have cracked. I know the fumes were bad when I brushed and painted you all over, but if I hadn’t done that, you never would have hardened. You would not have had any color in your life. If I hadn’t put you back in that second oven, you wouldn’t have survived for long because the hardness would not have held. Now you are a finished product. Now you are what I had in mind when I first began with you.”

The moral of the story:  God knows what He’s doing. He is the potter, and we are His clay. He will mold us, shape us, and expose us to just enough pressures so that we may be made into a flawless piece of work. So when life seems hard, and you are being pounded and patted and pushed almost beyond endurance; when your world seems to be spinning out of control, when you feel like you are in a fiery furnace, when life seems to “stink”, try this …. steep a cup of of your favorite tea in your prettiest teacup, and have a talk with the potter.

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Cheese and Onion Pasties

Pasties … Great Britain’s most popular ‘grab and go’ food.  Chock full of fillings, pasties or hand pies are available in bakeries, sandwich shops, convenience stores, grocery stores, food trucks and carts … just about everywhere.  Counted among one of hubby’s top favs is the “Cheese and Onion Pasty“.  For the history and origins of the “pasty”, please check out my “CORNISH PASTIES” page.

Some pasties are made with a short crust (basically a pie crust dough), and others are made using a puff pastry dough.  The difference between the two is puff pastry is lighter and flakier and has a much higher ratio of butter to flour.  As delicious as it is, it can be quite challenging to make.  Short crust pastry is very easy to make especially if you have a food processor.  I’ve used a short crust many times before, but for Cheese and Onion Pasties I’ve decided to use something even easier than short crust pastry … pre-made puff pastry from the grocery store.

If you decide to make these (and, yes I recommend you try them), when you read the ingredients you’ll notice there are potatoes.  Yes, potatoes are part of the filling, but for some reason, they are never called “Cheese, Onion and Potato Pasties“.  The potato adds just enough bulk to the filling so that the cheese doesn’t just melt right out.  These are very easy to make, but will take about 40 minutes to prepare.  Well worth the effort.

CHEESE AND ONION PASTIES  
Bake at 400° for 20 to 25 minutes.  Makes 6 (or more)

1 lb. puff pastry sheet (thawed)
1 lb. potatoes, peeled and diced
6 oz. good quality aged cheddar cheese, grated
1 large onion, diced
2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon fresh parsley, chopped
1 egg, beaten
salt and pepper

This is a great recipe if you happen to have leftover boiled potatoes.

If not, bring the potatoes to a boil in salted water and cook til tender (about 10 to 12 minutes).  Drain and set aside.

In a saute pan, melt the butter and add the diced onion.

Saute over medium heat until transparent (also about 10 to 12 minutes) but not browned.


In a large bowl, combine the cooked, diced potatoes with the cooked, cooled onions, parsley and the grated cheddar cheese.

Don’t skimp and buy low-quality cheese.  Good, aged, cheddar is what you want.

Season with salt and pepper.  Mix well, but lightly.  You don’t want mashed potatoes.

On a lightly floured board, roll the sheet of puff pastry out until its about 10″ x 12″.  You don’t want the pastry too thin or the filling will pop through.

Cut the pastry into six long, evenly sized rectangles.

If you’d rather make circles, or any other shape, feel free. There are no rules.  Just be sure to place the filling on one half of the pastry.

Divide the mixture evenly among the six pastries, placing the filling on one end only.

Brush the edges with the beaten egg.  Fold the other end of the pastry over the top and seal the edges securely.

Either press the edges together with your fingers or crimp with a fork.


Place the six pasties on a parchment lined baking pan (or two pans, as I did).

Brush the tops with the egg wash.  Bake in the center of the oven for about 20 minutes, or until the pasties are puffed up, crisp and golden brown.

Transfer them to a wire rack to cool.

Serve these hearty hand pies hot out of the oven for a delicious lunch, or pack them away to be eaten later.

I hope you enjoy them as much as we do.  Hearty, cheesy and delicious!

Cheese and Onion Pasties

I think to be enjoyed at their best, they should be served warm in all their cheesey gooeyness.
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Portmeirion . . . ?

On the southern coast of northern Wales lies the magical village of Portmeirion … and I couldn’t wait to visit.   As a subscriber to many travel magazines, Snowdonia and Portmeirion always seemed to pop up as a feature in one or another.  The photographs looked amazing, but I must admit I had never bothered to delve into the articles.  Many friends have visited and told me if we were going to visit Wales, I had to put Portmeirion on my “must visit” list.  We did.

The Prisoner – Patrick McGoohan

If you happened to be around in the 60’s, then you know Portmeirion was the location for the short-lived, cult tv series THE PRISONER, starring the oh so handsome Patrick McGoohan. That’s where my knowledge ended.

We had been staying in Snowdonia National Park for the week and, now I’m ready to visit this “interesting, but-not-really-sure-what-it-is” place.  Armed with only a map, no travel brochures to be found, we took an afternoon to visit … again not really sure what it was we were going to. Easy enough to find, but signage made it appear to be some sort of amusement park … ‘where to park’ and ‘where not to park’, admission times and prices, ‘no dogs allowed’.  This ‘lack of welcome’ was a little off putting.  Still confused about what type of place this was … a residential village, an amusement park, or a museum?  After parking our car, paying the admission and picking up a couple of brochures, we walked down the path into the village … and this unique, quirky, colorful little village unveiled itself.

Inspired by the Portofino village which lies on the Amalfi coast in Italy, Portmeirion was the brain-child of Welsh architect, Sir Clough Williams-Ellis, who set out to recreate his own personal idyllic community.

A very successful and ambitious architect as well as avid sailor, Sir Clough’s dream was “to erect a whole group of buildings on my own chosen site for my own satisfaction – an ensemble that would in fact be me.Since the age of 6, he had imagined “creating clusters of architecturally imaginative buildings”, which is a great description for Portmeirion’s charm. The footpaths crisscross from this way to that and what appears to be one thing from a distance, is actually something else entirely when you get closer to it. Windows are painted on.  Doors lead to nowhere.  A boat which appears to be docked, isn’t a boat at all.  The colors on the buildings are bright, warm and Mediterranean.  The gardens, of which there are many, from the small, clipped formal gardens to a 70-acre sub-tropical forest, are truly magnificent.  All of this lying on a small sandy peninsula overlooking the Traeth Bach tidal estuary, in northern Wales.

Aerial View of Portmeirion Village

Sir Clough Williams-Ellis began looking for the perfect site years before buying this location and, after visiting 22 islands some as far away as New Zealand, ended up finding the perfect spot not far from where he lived.  The ideal location was a private peninsula off the coast of Snowdonia, where a neglected hundred-year-old mansion on an overgrown, weed-choked plot of land was for sale.

Clough bought this “neglected wilderness” in 1925 for £20,000 and spent the next 50 years creating the place of his dreams.  It was never easy.  World War II saw a ban on all building. Finding, buying and transporting the glorious buildings, columns, ceilings, plasterwork, stones, all took time and money.  He knew that eventually the only way this place was going to succeed financially would be with tourist dollars.  He was right.

This unique, little hamlet of tranquility attracted quite a few creative people seeking refuge and solace.  Noel Coward, George Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells and Bertrand Russell were frequent guests.  But the one who is responsible for unveiling this idylic retreat was Patrick McGoohan, who hid away in Portmeirion while writing his new tv series, The Prisoner. When Portmeirion was given credit at the end of the series as the filming location, fans of the series thronged to this village, and they haven’t stopped.

We were there for the day, but for those wanting a longer stay, there is the Hotel Portmeirion, where you can choose from a lovely room overlooking the estuary, or perhaps one of the 13 cottages.  If you are there for the day, and are not planning to have a (rather expensive) meal at the (rather expensive) hotel, there are a couple of eateries, The Town Hall Cafe, Caffi Glas and Caffi Sgwar.  They do get quite busy, so plan in advance.

For shopping, of course there is Portmeirion Pottery.  In New England you can find world-class Portmeirion pottery in every high-end gift shop.  But, honestly, I wasn’t quite clear on the connection between “Portmeirion the village” and “Portmeirion the dishware”.

Portmeirion Pottery was founded by Sir Clough’s daughter, Susan Williams-Ellis.  As artistic as her father, Susan graduated from the Chelsea Art School and began by working as a book illustrator, but pottery was soon to become her passion.  At a small pottery shop in Stoke-on-Trent, Susan began by applying her designs to other people’s pottery.  Portmeirion the village wasn’t quite the tourist attraction it is now, but it did have a small souvenir shop, which was doing poorly.  Susan and her husband took over the running of this small shop in 1953 and began creating the iconic designs we have all come to love and recognize.

Do I recommend a trip to Snowdonia National Park?  Absolutely!  It is magnificent in its steely greyness, mirror blue lakes, wooley pine trees and rocky coastline.  And while there, do I recommend a trip to Portmeirion?  How could you not visit this unique little peninsula of creativity.   And if I were to define Portmeirion … would I say it’s ‘a residential village, an amusement park, or a museum’?  I’m still not sure.  What I do know is that it is an elegant, strange, magical place that, once you grasp its meaning, leaves you in childlike wonder.

Clough’s motto “Cherish the past, adorn the present, construct for the future” lives on at Portmeirion.

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References: Snowdonia National Park, Portmeirion Village, Susan Williams-Ellis, Portmeirion Pottery
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