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.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~
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

_____________________________________________________________________________

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.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~
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.

_____________________________________________________________________________

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.
_____________________________________________________________________________

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.

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

 

ECCLES CAKES

What a strange name … Eccles Cakes (especially when you consider they aren’t cakes at all). On one of our early trips to England, hubby said “I know you’re going to love these things.  Don’t ask. Just try one.” Knowing me as well as he does, I fell in love with them.  These hand-held puff pastry confections are flaky and full of dried fruits.  Made well, they are delicious.  Made badly, they are cloyingly sweet and sticky.

These puff pastries were quite a success when they were first sold in a little shop in Eccles, a small town just west of Manchester, England, in 1793 by James Birch.  Mr. Birch is thought to have come across the recipe for “sweet patties” in the best selling cookbook of that time, “THE EXPERIENCED ENGLISH HOUSEKEEPER.  The original recipe for “sweet patties” consisted of a mincemeat filling wrapped with puff pastry and then fried or baked.  The mincemeat, which this recipe called for, was “the meat of a boiled calf’s foot, plus apples, oranges, nutmeg, egg yolk, currants and French brandy”.

Artist Joseph Parry, Manchester Art Gallery

But neither Mr. Birch, nor The Experienced English Housekeeper invented these flat patties.  It seems they date as far back as the 1500’s. Every year the townsfolk would celebrate the construction of the “Eccles” church.  As part of the church fair, these brandy and mincemeat “cakes” were served.  The fairs were so popular they attracted people from all over and became quite rowdy, often resulting in bloody mayhem.  But when the Puritan, Oliver Cromwell, came into power in 1650, he banned the Eccles celebrations and he banned the very popular Eccles Cakes.

I just love learning about the sometimes bizarre origins of traditional foods.  The next step, of course, is learning how to make them so we can enjoy them at home and not have to wait for our next trip to England.  I know Eccles Cakes are available in export shops and international food stores, but the packaged ones aren’t that good …. sorry!

Traditional recipes for Eccles Cakes call for a large circle of pastry, which is then filled, sealed, turned upside down and baked … hoping that they’ve been sealed tightly so that the filling does not run out of the pastry.  My recipe uses far less sugar than standard recipes and uses two pastry circles – one for the top and one for the bottom – which is then crimped and sealed (easier and less chance of seepage).  I think Eccles Cakes also need some crunch and a little acid (they can be cloyingly sweet), so I’ve added the zest of one lemon and toasted walnuts.  Now this is a recipe worth making!  Enjoy

ECCLES CAKES
Pre-heat the oven to 400°.  Makes 24 3″ pastries.

4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter
1-1/4 cup dried fruits (any blend of currants, raisins, sultanas, etc.)
½ cup brown sugar
2 tablespoons cane syrup or honey
½ tsp allspice
½ tsp nutmeg
½ tsp cinnamon
zest of one lemon
½ cup chopped walnuts, toasted

1 box (17.5 oz. package) frozen puff pastry, thawed
1 egg white, beaten
Demerara sugar (or table sugar)

In a small saucepan, over medium heat, melt the butter and stir in all the other ingredients.  After the sugar has dissolved, take it off the heat to cool and add the zest of one lemon.

Using one sheet at a time (put the other into the frig to stay cold), on a floured board, roll out the pastry to approximately 12” or ¼” thick.

With a pastry cutter, biscuit cutter, or whatever you like to use, cut out approximately 24 circles. One will be for the bottom, one for the top.  Brush all the pastry circles with the beaten egg white.  Place a heaping teaspoonful of filling in the center of 12 circles.   Take the top circle, place it on top of the bottom, covering the filling completely and then seal or crimp the edges together.

Place the filled, sealed circles of pastry onto a parchment lined baking sheet.  Brush the tops with more egg white.  With a sharp knife, make two slits into the top for the steam to escape. Sprinkle each with Demerara sugar.  Then place the baking sheet into the refrigerator to keep cold while you prepare the second sheet of puff pastry.

After you’ve finished the second sheet, you should have two trays with approximately 12 Eccles cakes on each … ready to bake.  Puff pastry bakes up lighter and fluffier when its really cold, so be sure to put the finished trays into the refrigerator while you preheat the oven.

Bake them on at 400° for about 15 to 20 minutes or until they are golden brown. Move to a wire rack to cool.  They’ll keep beautifully for about three to four days (but not in my house).

You can certainly make larger cakes, if you’d like, but for me, these sweet little confections are the perfect size for your afternoon tea.  And I must say one of these Eccles Cakes with a cup of one of my most favorite teas, a Golden Yunnan, is so satisfying!

~ ~ ~ ~ ~
References:  Lancashire Eccles Cakes, Salford, Eccles Historic Society
_____________________________________________________________________________

 

Chocolate – The Elixir of Love

Every February we are inundated with tv, internet, magazine and newspaper ads all selling the “passion” of chocolate, not to mention Facebook posts and blogs about this desirable substance (including this one). Roses have been pushed aside, Valentine cards are a thing of the past, and now chocolate has become the one true symbol of love and romance.  I need to find out not only how our obsession with chocolate began, but  where our love for chocolate started.

If you’ve read my blog “The John Company” then you know how “tea came to Great Britain.  It was Queen Elizabeth I who gave the East India Company a charter to go out in search of spices, competing with the Spanish and the Dutch.  Not only were spices necessary for preserving foods, spices made spoiled foods taste better. Spices were also used for embalming the dead, in religious practices, and as medicine.   Nutmeg was the most cherished of all spices because it was believed to be a miracle cure for the plague, which killed more than 35,000 people in London in 1603.

Over the 60 years during which they had a monopoly, The East India Company did bring back spices … pepper, cinnamon, clove, saffron, ginger and nutmeg … and they also brought back tea, coffee and cacao beans.  But it was actually the Spanish who are credited with introducing “Chocolate” to Europe.

Coffee House – 17th century

By the mid-17th century coffee houses were well established in London. These male-dominated “penny universities” were the social and political centers of London.  No woman would dare enter.  Although alcohol was not served, these places were not always ‘high brow’ destinations. In fact, King Charles II made an attempt to ban them altogether by 1675, but the public was so outraged, it was withdrawn.

Coffee was served, tea was just being introduced and alongside coffee and tea a new “hearty drink called “Chacolate” was starting to peak London’s curiosity.  In 1659 Thomas Rugg wrote in his Diurnal … “And theire ware also att this time a Turkish drink to bee sould, almost evry street, called coffee, and another kind of drink called tee, and also a drink called Chacolate, which was a very harty drink.”

Historians have been able to trace the origins of “Chocolate”, which is the result of roasting the ground beans of the cacao plant, back to as early as 1900 B.C. in Mexico, Central America and South America.  The Mayans and Aztecs used the pulverized seeds of the cacao plant, together with water and chili pepper, to brew ceremonial drinks.  They actually believed the cacao bean had divine and magical properties, which made it suitable for use in the most sacred rituals of birth, marriage and death.   The word “Chocolate” comes from the Maya word “xocoatl” which means “bitter water”.

Cacao beans were also used in trade as currency.  In 1545 a list of Aztec prices illustrates the value of this precious bean:  1 good turkey hen for 100 cacao beans, 1 turkey egg for 3 cacao beans, 1 fully ripe avocado for 1 cacao bean, 1 large tomato for 1 cacao bean.   Unfortunately, according to a report at that time from Hernando de Oviedo y Valdez, cacao beans also bought:  a slave for 100 cacao beans. services of a prostitute for 10 cacao beans, and a rabbit dinner for 4 cacao beans.

It’s hard to know who to credit in the mid-16th century with introducing Spain to the cacao bean and the “hot beverage” that was made from it.  Was it the explorer Christopher Columbus, the conqueror Hernán Cortés, or was it the returning missionary Dominican friars?  Whoever it was certainly made an impression on the Spanish court.  This hot, bitter beverage made from the pressed blocks of dried cacao beans and hot water became a hit with Spanish aristocracy, but only after they began adding honey or sugar to it.  They found it most enjoyable when mixed with milk and flavorings such as vanilla, cinnamon, ground cloves, allspice and chilies.

“Chocolate” then migrated from Spain to France because of the marriage of Spanish King Philip IV’s daughter, Marie Thérèse, who, when she married French King Louis XIV, introduced these hot and hearty drinks to her French entourage.  King Louis XIV became so very fond of chocolate, he actually granted a monopoly for manufacturing this beverage to David Chaillou, a French importer.

Back in England, it was an entrepreneurial Frenchman now familiar with this wonderful elixir who, wanting to elevate the chocolate experience in London, removed it from the bawdy coffee house atmosphere and in 1657 opened the first “chocolate house”.  As always, the wealthy elite were the only ones who could afford this luxurious experience.  Tea was very dear, selling at approximately £26 per pound … which, when you consider the average income was less than £10 per year, was outrageous … and chocolate was just as expensive!

But where did the allure of chocolate as an aphrodisiac come from? The Spanish were quite observant in noticing that the Aztec emperor, Montezuma, drank copious amounts of this cacao bean beverage before he visited his harem.  Montezuma, is said to have drunk cold, thick chocolate from golden goblets daily, which were thrown away after only one use.  And when returning to Spain with the new elixir these Spanish explorers were quite eager to tout the aphrodisiac properties to the Spanish court.  The explorers also described this native “food of the gods” as a drug, able to treat a variety of ailments.

It is said that the French aristocrat, Marquis de Sade, became quite proficient in using chocolate to disguise potions.  The following is taken from a guest’s diary at an elaborate ball given in 1772 by the Marquis:

“Into the dessert he slipped chocolate pastilles so good that a number of people devoured them. There were lots of them, and no one failed to eat some, but he had mixed in some Spanish fly. The virtue of the medication is well known. It proved to be so potent that those who ate the pastilles began to burn with unchaste ardor and to carry on as if in the grip of the most amorous frenzy. The ball degenerated into one of those licentious orgies for which the Romans were renowned…”

Needless to say, the European’s love for chocolate grew, especially when they believed it to have nutritious, medicinal and properties able to increase their libido.  But, like tea, it remained a privilege of the rich.  In the 1700’s, the British obsession for chocolate (and sugar) grew to such proportions they established colonial plantations in tropical regions around the world just to grow cacao and sugar.  Sadly, we all know what happened when European diseases were transmitted into these countries which, to the then privileged Europeans, didn’t stop them from going in search of cheap labor.

Chocolate was always a hot (or iced) drink until 1828 when Dutch chemist, Coenraad Johannes van Houten, invented a specialized hydraulic press  to squeeze the fatty cocoa butter from the roasted cacao beans, leaving behind a dry cake which could then be pulverized into a fine powder.  (We still see “Dutch process” as a way of branding cocoa today.)  This fine powder could be mixed with liquids, poured into molds and solidified into edible, easily digestible chocolate which paved the way for the solid chocolate we all know and love.  This also resulted in making chocolate affordable to everyone. And in 1830, J. S. Fry and Sons, a British chocolate maker, is credited with making the first solid, edible chocolate candy bar.

50 years later, J. S. Fry and Sons merged with another company you may have heard of … Cadbury.  In 1824 John Cadbury opened a grocery store in Birmingham, England.  In addition to groceries, he sold drinking chocolate, which he prepared himself using a pestle and mortar.  Van Houten’s 1828 invention allowed for a much more affordable and versatile product, enabling Cadbury to sell 16 flavors of drinking chocolate.  And when Daniel Peter from Switzerland puts the first milk chocolate on the market, the appeal for chocolate skyrocketed. In 1913 another enterprising Swiss, Jules Sechaud, introduced the process for filling chocolates.  We haven’t looked back since!

So how did we get from there to being the one true symbol of love and romance?  English philosopher, James Wadsworth, translated the Spanish works Treatise (1640), which poetically combined the descriptions of this new hot chocolate beverage with the promise that if you drank enough chocolate anyone would become “faire and amiable.”  Both England and France used this statement as a powerful marketing tool.

Cadbury’s Valentine’s Day Box

St. Valentine’s Day, as a romantic holiday, was well established by the 1840’s.  It first appeared in the writings of Chaucer during the medieval period in 1382 with knights giving roses to their maidens and serenading them with songs.  By the 1840s, the Victorian era of excess was well underway and they were indulging in chocolate, tea, Cupid and romance.  Richard Cadbury recognized this as a great marketing opportunity and designed an elaborately decorated box in which he would put their Cadbury chocolates.  From that moment on, Cupids and roses were put on heart-shaped boxes everywhere.

In 1907, the American chocolate company, Hershey, launched production of its revolutionary tear-dropped shaped “kisses,” (named because of the smooching noise made by the machines as the chocolate was manufactured). Let’s not forget from the earliest days of movies, chocolate has been an important cast member.  Jean Harlow’s seductive performance in the 1933 film Dinner at Eight linked chocolate and sexuality forever, as she suggestively nibbles her way through a giant box of chocolates.  And who will ever forget the classic episode of “I Love Lucy” when Lucy and Ethel worked on a chocolate factory assembly line?

Chocolate lovers are passionate about chocolate, but does chocolate really create passion? Scientists have isolated phenylethylamine (PEA) which is a stimulant found in chocolate (as well as many other foods), and also in the brain.  A minuscule amount of this stimulate is released at moments of emotional euphoria, which raises blood pressure and heart rate.  Although we have learned about the many antioxidant benefits of high-percentage cacao in chocolate, there really is no scientific proof that chocolate is an aphrodisiac.

Does any of this matter?  Not really, because who doesn’t love the luscious, pleasurable sensation of chocolate as it melts in your mouth? And, for me, a velvet-covered, heart-shaped box full of divine chocolates is the quintessential Valentine’s gift.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

References:  Wikipedia, Message to Eagle, Chocolate of the Month, Cornell University, History, Cadbury, Public Domain Review, Smithsonian,
_____________________________________________________________________________

“DOLLAR PRINCESSES”

“Dollar Princesses” … until today I had never heard that term before.  Fascinating when you consider I’ve watched every single episode of Downton Abbey (maybe twice) and thought I had a very good grasp of every character and plot line.   But, today I learned about “dollar princesses”, and I am fascinated.

Lady Grantham, Cora Crawley

Lady Grantham, Cora Crawley

Cora Crawley was a “dollar princess” … coming from an extremely wealthy American home, “new” money or the “nouveau riche” as they were often called, yet with none of the social standing that the aristocracy or “old money” could provide.  Cora may have been a fictitious character, but she was based on a composite of many American heiresses who could not find acceptance at home.

After the Civil War, from about 1870 to 1910, America changed quite drastically.  With the rapid growth of railroading, mining and the steel industry, simple men who saw the future, worked hard and invested wisely became millionaires. The American wage rose much higher than those in Europe and Europeans from impoverished countries started flocking to the shores of the United States.  Termed the “Gilded Age” by Mark Twain, a man who was appalled during this time of extremes –  from abject poverty to excessive wealth.  Julian Fellowes, creator of Downton Abbey, said about The Gilded Age, “This was a vivid time with dizzying, brilliant ascents and calamitous falls, of record-breaking ostentation and savage rivalry; a time when money was king.”   

If the now ended British series, Downton Abbey, is new to you, I’ll give you a little bit of a background on Cora.  She was (as we have now learned) an American Gilded Age “dollar princess“, who at the age of 20, was pressured by her very rich Jewish father into marrying Robert Crawley, the Earl of Grantham and member of aristocracy.  Cora’s dowry was controlled through the marriage contract by the head of the Grantham family (a man, of course).  Cora and Robert had three daughters, but not a son (who would eventually be heir to the fortune). It’s 1914, the world is in conflict, the Grantham estate’s money is beginning to run out, and so the story begins …

There were quite a few “dollar princesses” who had a large impact on Great Britain. And, it seems, that today every old aristocratic British family has a connection to at least one of these young American women … from Prince Charles on down.

One of the most important “dollar princess” who, without question, made the biggest impact not only for Great Britain but for the world, is Jennie Jerome.   Born in Brooklyn, New York (before Brooklyn was part of New York City), Jennie was the second of Leonard and Clarissa Jerome’s four daughters.  Through his successes in business and investments in this Gilded Age, Leonard became one of the richest men in New York.  But despite his wealth he was shunned by the New York elite, known as the Knickerbockers.  These “old money” families were run by the matriarchs, none of whom would have anything to do with Clarissa.  Having had enough of this snubbing, Clarissa decided to take her daughters to Europe, where she hoped they would be welcomed by the upper levels of society and perhaps gain a title.

Jennie Jerome

Jennie Jerome

Europe opened her arms to the Jerome’s and the other American “swells” who began to cross the pond looking for social acceptance.  It was at a grand ball in 1873 where the beautiful, dark-haired Jennie, aged 19, met the dashing and handsome, 24 year old Lord Randolph Spencer-Churchill. Lord Randolph fell for the dark-haired beauty immediately.  After three days they considered themselves “engaged to be married”, but the wedding wouldn’t take place for another year.

During their marriage, Jennie gave birth to two sons, Winston and John.  The name, Winston Churchill, may sound familiar to you as he later became Prime Minister of England and one of the most powerful men in the world.

Although Jennie was the first and probably most well known of the “dollar princesses”, she wasn’t the only one.  Young American heiresses, mostly prompted by their families, we eager be introduced to European aristocracy and to started consulting publications like The Titled American, a quarterly magazine which listed all the eligible bachelors from British noble families.  Europeans knowing these newly minted fortunes would help prop up their costly estates were also eager to participate.  Ultimately many other young, rich American women found their lives and loves in Europe. Jennie’s husband, Randolph’s brother became infatuated and later married the wealthy American widow, Lily Hammersley, to become Duchess of Marlborough.  Jennie’s close friend, Consuelo Yznaga, whose father owned several plantations and a sugar mill, married George Montague, 8th Duke of Manchester to become the Countess of Manchester.

Minnie Stevens

Minnie Stevens

Daughter of the famed hotelier, Paran Stevens, 20 year old Minnie Stevens left New York City bound for Europe in 1872 and found love with Sir Arthur Henry Fitzroy Paget, later to become Commander-in-Chief of Ireland.  Minnie was actually responsible for introducing quite a few American heiresses to wealthy European suitors and earned the nickname “the American Queen of British society” playing the million dollar matchmaker to British men.

Not every marriage was built on love, however. One very famous arrangement was that the wealthiest of the “dollar princesses”, heiress to the Vanderbilt railroad millions, Consuelo Vanderbilt.  Ms. Vanderbilt, whose godmother, Consuelo Yznaga, and for whom she was named, married the 9th Duke of Marlborough, Charles Spencer-Churchill, at the insistence of her mother.  Although she loved another, Ms. Vanderbilt couldn’t stand up to her powerful mother and the ‘deal’ was made.  As part of the marriage contract, Charles Spencer-Churchill collected a dowry worth approximately $2.5 million (about $67 million today).

Other “dollar princesses” included:  Mary Leiter, Lady Curzon and Vicereine of India; Mary Goelet, the Duchess of Roxburghe; and Cara Rogers, Lady Fairhaven.  Even Princess Diana was descended from New York heiress Frances Ellen Work.  I’m sure quite a few of us remember the American socialite (and twice-divorced) Wallis Simpson and her powerful love affair with Edward, the  Prince of Wales, who abdicated his throne as King of England.

Many of these women went on to make solid contributions to society.  They were active in politics, social and charitable causes, establishing schools and raising funds for hospitals.  They participated in the war efforts, started magazines and were the inspiration for many novels, as well as a musical play.

1911
Americans were fascinated by British Royalty and British Royalty was fascinated by the impulsive, free spirited, and very wealthy young American beauties.  “Cash for Class” as it was called.  During this period between 1870 and 1905 approximately 350 “dollar princesses” married into British aristocracy contributing over £40 million to the British economy.  Today the equivalent would be more than £1 billion.  Is it possible these young British men, most of whom had never worked a day in their lives, would be considered fortune hunters?  Yes.  But it is also possible that these young American “dollar princesses” wanting to wear a tiara and be presented at court were able to save country estates struggling with debt and dilapidated castles, many of which would have just shriveled up and died?

~ ~ ~ ~ ~
References:  Edwardian Promenade, Newsweek, Smithsonian, Scandalous Women, Wikipedia

_____________________________________________________________________________

Christmas Pudding

Christmas Pudding is deep, dark and dense.  This moist, sweet dessert is stuffed with dried fruits and nuts, and served with a rich, creamy sauce.  Much like a fruitcake, Christmas Pudding is one of those ‘love or hate’ desserts.  In our home, we love it!  And it’s the season, or at least it will be in a very short time, and my hubby couldn’t enjoy Christmas without it.  To be clear “pudding” in England is not defined as the sweet, dairy dessert we have here in the States. Although “puddings” in the U.K. are usually served at the end of the meal, they can be sweet or savory, and can also be encrusted in a pastry shell … or not.

Originating in medieval times, Christmas Pudding known then as Plum Pudding  or Figgy Pudding (for some reason all dried fruits were either called “plums” or “figs”), still holds true to those medieval roots.  To preserve fruits, they were dried … animal fats were also used as a means of preserving foods … and spices were used to cover up the taste of rancid foods.  Yummy!  Cooking appliances, of course, were very limited.  An open hearth was about all you had where you could set a boiling pot or skillet.

christmas-pudding-card

The beloved Queen Victoria and Prince Albert adored Christmas and all things traditional.  A grand, flaming “Plum Pudding” always took center stage on their table.  Perhaps that is one of the reasons why this sweet, dense dessert is still seen on tables all around the U.K.

Christmas Puddings or Plum Puddings are certainly available to purchase.  You can find them in the international aisles in most grocery stores and you can certainly findchristmas-pudding-buy them in British import stores.  They can be a bit pricey, but if cooking is not your ‘thing’ or you don’t have time, be sure to pick one up.  They are delicious!

Now it’s time to make my Christmas Pudding.  As with every traditional recipe, each family or region has their own version.  To write down exactly how much of what ingredient is almost impossible.  Both my grandmothers, who were very good cooks, could never tell you “exactly” how much to use of any recipe.  It was always a pinch of that, or a handful of this.  That’s pretty much what this old-fashioned pudding recipe consists of … a pinch of this and a handful of that.

Although this pudding can be made and served the same day, it does much better when made two to three weeks in advance to allow the flavors to deepen.  When you are ready to make the pudding, you do need to plan your day. This will require 5 to 7 hours of steaming on top of the stove.  The larger the pudding, the longer the steaming time.   It was the style during Victorian times to use grand, ornate molds to steam the puddings.  Not having one, I used a bundt pan, making one large pudding, which required 7 hours of steaming.

Adding a gold coin for good luck in the coming year has become a tradition in some homes.  If you are going to add a coin or a charm, be sure it has been thoroughly cleaned.  Lastly, the pound of dried fruits can consist of any combination of fruits you like.  I used 1/4 lb. each of sultanas, pineapple, mango and prunes.  Mix it up and use whatever you like.

Now have a go!

CHRISTMAS PUDDING
You will need to know how many you’re going to make … one large, two or more?  Be sure the bowls or molds are heatproof and can fit into your covered pot.  You will also need parchment paper and aluminum foil.  

  • ¾ cup rum or brandy or vodka or sherry
  • 1 pound of mixed dried fruits – currants, golden raisins, sultanas, pitted prunes, dates, apricots, pineapple, mango, candied peel, glace cherries, etc.  Any assortment will do.
  • 8 oz. melted butter
  • ¾ cup dark brown sugar
  • 3 large eggs
  • 2 tablespoons honey
  • zest and juice from one orange
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour (more or less)
  • 2 ½ cups fresh breadcrumbs
  • ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • ¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • ¼ teaspoon ground cloves
  • ½ teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 cup chopped nuts, walnuts/almonds/pecans (optional)
  • Grated rind and juice of one orange
  • ½ cup vodka (to flame the pudding)

christmas-pudding-1Cut the pound of dried fruits up into even-sized pieces.  Kitchen shears or scissors is the easiest way to do this.  Make sure all the pieces are about the same size.

christmas-pudding-2Put the mixed fruits into a bowl and pour the liquor over.  Mix well, cover and let steep overnight or up to a week.  I used a sweet liquor made from the tamarind fruit.  Soooo good!

christmas-pudding-3aThe next day, or later that same day, combine the dry ingredients and spices in a small bowl.  In another bowl, mix together the brown sugar, orange peel, orange juice, honey and melted butter.

christmas-pudding-4Beat in the eggs one at a time.  The batter will appear to have curdled.  Not to worry.  Add the dry ingredients and mix well.

christmas-pudding-5When combined, add the steeped fruits and nuts and mix to combine thoroughly.  If the batter is too wet, add more flour.  Now you can add the “lucky charm”.  Put a large pan of water or steamer on to boil. Place a saucer in the bottom to keep the pudding mold from touching the bottom of the pan.  Generously grease the pudding mold(s).

christmas-pudding-6Pour the batter in the prepared mold or bowl, pressing the mixture down and tapping it to get rid of any air bubbles. Then wrap it with a layer of parchment paper and foil so that it is completely watertight.  It will rise a bit and needs room at the top.

christmas-pudding-8It’s also important to trim away any excess parchment paper and foil.  You don’t want any steam traveling into the mold and making your pudding soggy.

christmas-pudding-9Put a small plate upside down inside the pan to keep the mold/bowl from touching the bottom of the pam.  Then place the mold into the pan of water. The water should come at least halfway or more up the side of the bowl or mold.

christmas-pudding-10Bring the water to a boil, cover tightly and steam for 5 to 7 hours, checking every now and again to make sure the water hasn’t bubbled away.  The longer you let it steam, the darker it will get. After 5 to 7 hours, remove the mold carefully and let it cool completely. Discard the paper and foil and rewrap with fresh.  Store in a cool, dry place or the refrigerator for up to four weeks.

I can’t show you a photo of the finished product because this pudding is getting wrapped up and going into the frig for a couple of weeks.  It’s not Christmas yet!!  But when you are ready to serve, put the pudding (still in its mold) and still wrapped tightly into the pot to steam again, for about an hour just to reheat.

                                                                                    ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

plum-pudding-on-plate

This isn’t my pudding, but I’ll replace this photo at Christmas with my own! Thank you “living the pie life”.

To serve it, remove the mold from the pan, remove the lid, put a large plate on top and turn it upside down. Give the mold a little tap to help it out.  Decorate the top with a sprig of holly. Then bring the pudding to the table while you heat the brandy, rum or vodka in a small pan until its very hot, but not boiling.  Pour the liquor over the pudding at the table and light it.  So impressive!  Be sure to serve it with an Eggnog Cream, Brandy Cream or sweetened whipped cream.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
References:  History of Christmas Pudding,  Livin the Pie Life, English Christmas Cakes
_____________________________________________________________________________

 

Pubs and Their Signs

I LOVE pub signs!  From the unimaginative to the incredibly creative, a pub sign gives you a glimpse into what lies behind the door.  All across the U.K. pub signs abound.  They beckon you to enter, to relax, make yourself comfortable and enjoy a pint.   From the U.K. pub signs crossed the Atlantic and made their way to the U.S. and throughout all (of what were and some still are) British territories.  How did pubs (or public houses) get such interesting names?  Where did these names come from?

The Pony and Trap  .  The Bird in Hand  .  The Fighting Cocks
The Adam and Eve  .  The Blind Beggar  .  The Hare and Hounds
The Bricklayers Arms

Let’s start at the beginning.  Public houses (pubs) originated almost 2,000 years ago, during the time of the Roman occupation of Great Britain.  To  make it easier for their armies to travel across the country, the Romans began building roads and creating infrastructure throughout the land … and people began to travel in greater numbers.  Whether walking, on horseback or in a horse-drawn carriage, travel was tiring and difficult.  A weary traveler needed a place to rest.  By the 12th century, monasteries provided travelers with these services, but after the Dissolution of the Monasteries, travelers were at a loss.  Seeing the opportunity to make a few guineas, enterprising women (of course) opened their homes and welcomed travelers with food, home brewed ale, and often times a place to sleep.

"The Alehouse Door" by Henry Singleton 1790

“The Alehouse Door” by Henry Singleton 1790

The literacy rate at this time in Great Britain was very low.  Most people couldn’t read.  Education was for the upper classes only.  To advertise and ‘signify’ their services, tradesmen began to hang pictorial siblacksmith-signgns outside their shop or home, something that could easily be identified.  A blacksmith might hang the sign of an anvil.  A joiner (carpenter) might hang a hammer.  If a home was open to the “public”, some foliage or a green bush was hung outside the door to signify that ale was served.

Public homes had very distinct categories … an “ale” house served ale and cider.  A “tavern” served wine.  And if an ale house or tavern also provided sleeping arrangements, they became known as an “inn”.  Eventually all public homes, ale houses, taverns and inns melded into being called “pubs”.

In an effort to control what was fast becoming a growing industry, and to make these public “pub” homes more visible, King Richard II ruled in 1393 that outdoor signs were mandatory, stating “Whosoever shall brew ale in the town with intention of selling it must hang out a sign, otherwise he shall forfeit his ale.”  

A sign for a pub?  What kind of sign?  Where should the image come from?  Simply painted on wooden boards, the first signs came from the inspiration and images of the church … angels, demons, saints.  From there, inspiration came from the monarchy and landowners … kings, queens, lords and ladies.  Many public house owners paid homage to the monarchy and aristocracy by naming their establishments “The King’s Arms” , “Lord Crewe”, and more.

The king was an avid sportsman so signs began to be created honoring his favorite pastime or his pets … “Fox and Hounds”, “The Dog and Duck”.  Sometimes signs were to associate the establishment with a local trades group, such as “The Carpenter’s Arms” where local carpenters would meet in the hopes of finding work, or “The Golden Fleece” for wool traders.  The symbol of an ark or a ship became widely popular in coastal communities, not to mention “The Mermaid”.

thegeorgesouthwarksignAlong with the church, pubs became the hub of social activity.  Villagers would meet to share stories, exchange ideas, relax and enjoy a home-brewed pint. With many people not knowing how to read, you simply mentioned the sign of the public house, such as “The Pig and Fiddle” and it was very easy to find. Lettering on signs didn’t come for quite some time.

Pubs became an outlet for not only sharing the news of the day, but where locals would play and be entertained. Fiddlers sang and games were played … darts, cribbage, and dominoes are as popular today as they were 200 years ago.

By the 16th century, “pubs” were in every village and town.  They were so popular, town officials had to pass a law requiring a license in order to operate a “pub” and then they needed to limit the number of licenses that were issued.

There are so many romantic and sometimes frightening stories surrounding pubs from ghosts and highwaymen walking the halls at night to priests hiding in tunnels to avoid the King, objects moving about on their own, even a large black dog who guards the stoop.  The 750 year old “Ye Olde Man and Scythe” pub claims the 7th Earl of Derby, who originally owned the public house, causes mayhem at night when the pub is closed.  To have a resident ghost just adds to the charm … none of this,of course, keeps pub goers away.

the-swan

Original pub signs are highly collected works of art, commanding high price tags.  But should you want your own personalized pub sign, that’s not a problem at all.  Today there are many local artisans who specialize in creating hand-painted, high-quality pub signs.

Meanwhile, should you be walking down the street in any of the big cities or small villages in the U.K., be sure to look up.  You’ll get a brief glimpse into Great Britain, and the cultural and historic events of past times.   I’m hoping you now have a little better understanding of the significance of these treasures and will grow to LOVE them as I do.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
References:  History of Pubs, Great British Pub, Historic UK, Wikipedia, Antique Pub Signs,
_____________________________________________________________________________