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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Does the Answer Lie in the Leaves?

Last night I watched the first episode of Outlander.  Yes, I know, where have I been the past year? I’m not quite sure if I’m going to like the series or not, but I must admit there was one scene which caught my attention … Claire and the minister’s assistant sitting in the kitchen having tea and then reading the tea leaves left in Claire’s cup.

Tea leaf reading, or Tasseography (from the French tasse, for cup, and the Greek suffix graph, for writing), is the ancient art of predicting the future by reading images formed from the tea leaves left in the bottom of a teacup.  The origins are a bit unclear.  Was it the Chinese or was it Greek gypsies who saw the “future” in these images?  What is clear is that you must be a bit of a mystic or clairvoyant to accurately interpret these images.

By the 17th century, tea leaf reading had traveled, along with tea, up through Europe into Great Britain.  “Tossing the cup” as it was called in Victorian England had become a very popular parlor game, but in Scotland, it was taken a little more seriously.  One of the oldest books on the subject, TEA-CUP READING AND FORTUNE TELLING BY TEA LEAVES, was written anonymously by a Highland Scotsman.  From the book,  “… (reading tea leaves) is one of the most common forms of divination practised by the peasants of Scotland and by village fortune-tellers in all parts of this country.” Perhaps this is one of the reasons why the tea-leaf reading scene was included in the tv series.

Reading-Tea-Leaves

To read the tea leaves, you must first prepare a good pot of loose leaf tea.  No, you cannot use teabags. You must use loose leaf tea and let it steep in the pot without infusers or tea balls.   I love this passage from TEA-CUP READING“China tea, the original tea imported into this country and still the best for all purposes. Indian tea and the cheaper mixtures contain so much dust and so many fragments of twigs and stems as often to be quite useless for the purposes of divination, as they will not combine to form pictures, or symbols clearly to be discerned.”

Before serving, stir the tea in the teapot and then pour a cup.  You also must use a “proper” teacup with saucer – not a mug.  The inside of the teacup must be white to see the leaves clearly and have sloping sides. The person who drinks the tea and wants to know the future is the “seeker”.  The person who will read the leaves is, obviously, the “reader”.  The seeker is asked by the reader to concentrate on what question she wants answered, or what she wants to know.

After the seeker has finished the tea and left the dregs behind, the reader takes the cup in her left hand, and turns it counter-clockwise three times, swirling the dregs, and then turns the cup over onto the saucer.  After a moment or two, the reader picks up the cup to see what images have been made by the tea leaves left in the cup.  The interpretation of these symbols is, of course, based upon the talent and divining abilities of the reader.  He or she must be intuitive, focused and creative.  Seeing images in the tea leaves takes quite an imagination.

reading tea 2The reader begins reading from the rim down.  The rim signifies those events happening soonest, while the images closer to the bottom will be further in the future.  The tea leaves which settle closer to the cup’s handle suggest home and family.

Anchor:  a good sign, symbolizing prosperity.
Arrow:  a disagreeable letter coming from the direction it points to.
Bird:  a flying bird indicates good news; a resting bird symbolizes an end to a journey.
Boat:  an upcoming journey or a removal of something from the seeker’s life.
Circles:  money, gifts or presents are expected.
Clover:  a very lucky sign; happiness and prosperity.
Cross:  a sign of trouble and delay or even death.
Dog:  a begging dog indicates someone will ask for a favor; a sad dog represents an injustice.
Heart:  love and affection
Horse-shoe:  a lucky journey or success in marriage and choosing a partner.
Human:  people in a positive stance is a good sign; aggressive stance signifies evil.
Line:  a straight, unbroken line means good progress; a broken line challenges the journey.
Numbers:  must be looked at with other symbols; numbers could signify days of the week, time, or amounts.
Ring:  at the top, means offer of marriage; at the bottom means long engagement; if broken means engagement broken off
Snake:  spiteful enemies; bad luck; illness.
Square:  being boxed in, limited or oppressed.
Sun, Moon, Stars:  all signify happiness and success.
Turtle:  a slow but profitable journey.

If you are interested in learning about tea-leaf reading, there are many books and websites on the subject.  Tea-leaf reading teacups, with the symbols on the inside of the cup and on the saucers and an instruction booklet, are available for sale online and at book stores.  Great fun if you want to have a tea leaf reading party at home.

reading teaI’ve been to many tea rooms which offer Tasseography, as well as Tarot card reading, Palmestry and other forms of seeing into the future … all of which I find absolutely fascinating.  Whether I believe it or not certainly doesn’t take away from my enjoyment of, not only the tea, but the experience.  For a fun afternoon, I recommend visiting a tea room where they have Tasseographers and enjoying a little divination from the leaves.

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References:  Newfound Info, TEA CUP READING, The Daily Tea

Treacle Pudding

Hubby wanted “treacle pudding”.  I know it’s available in some international markets sold under the U.K. brand of Heinz in tin cans, but I don’t want to open a can.  I want to make Treacle Pudding.  What I was not sure about was what exactly is “treacle”?  I looked in the grocery stores and couldn’t find it.  I asked family and friends.  They’ve never heard of it.  I checked all my cookbooks and there was no recipe either using it, or for it.  Even hubby wasn’t sure what it was or where you bought it. How am I going to make this classic English dessert if I don’t have any treacle?  Time to go online and do a little research.  Here’s what I learned . . .

When sugar cane is harvested, it is crushed to squeeze out the juice. That juice is then boiled down (very similar to making maple syrup).  Depending upon how many times, and for how long the juice is boiled, will produce the depth of color and flavor of the syrup. The syrup can range from a light golden color and flavor, to a medium amber color with deeper flavor to a very dark, thick syrup with almost sweet bitter flavor.  The first boiling produces golden syrup or light treacle, similar to honey in color.  The second boiling produces treacle, which we call molasses. The third boiling produces ‘dark treacle’ which we call blackstrap molasses.

Lyle's Golden Syrup

Lyle’s Golden Syrup

“Golden Syrup” is produced by the Abram Lyle & Sons company and sold everywhere in the U.K.  In the U.S., however, it did take a bit of hunting, but I found it.  I also found out it is available through Amazon, but, honestly, who wants to wait for a UPS delivery before making dessert.

Now to find a ‘good’ recipe for Treacle Pudding.  After looking through all my English, Scottish, Irish and Welsh cookbooks, I found ONE recipe.  Thank you Paul Hollywood!  But why, if this dessert is so popular can’t I find more than one recipe?  It seems this dessert isn’t as popular as hubby had thought. More research has shown that it’s a regional favorite, only popular in northern England and Scotland.  Okay, back to the “world wide web”.

Recipes appear to be either the very same, copied from website to website, or completely hard-to-understand.  What exactly is a 900ml pudding basin?  And do I really want to use suet?  Or a splash of brandy?  No, I don’t think so.  This is suppose to be a nostalgic, humble steamed pudding made from flour, eggs, butter and this sweetener they call “treacle”.

My first attempt was a simple recipe from the BBC FOOD website, very similar to Paul Hollywood‘s.  Quite basic.  Nothing I couldn’t handle.  Throw everything in a bowl, mix and steam for 1-1/2 hours.  But when I unmolded it, the whole pudding fell into a big, soggy heap. Undercooked and cloyingly sweet.  Back to the “world wide web”.

My second attempt was just a little more complicated, beat the butter and sugar til fluffy and add eggs one at a time.  The ingredients were just about the same.  Steamed for 1-1/2 hours, and when I unmolded it, it looked fabulous.  But, it was very dry and not very sweet at all.  Okay, let’s try once more.

Here’s the one we liked . . .

TREACLE PUDDING
Serves 4 to 6
4 tablespoons golden syrup (light treacle)
1 stick butter, softened (plus more for greasing)
1-1/2 cups all purpose flour
3 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup brown sugar
1 tablespoon molasses (treacle)
3 large eggs, room temperature
grated lemon peel

 First get a very large pot with tightly fitting cover.  Put a saucer, ramekin or something in the bottom of the pot so that the bowl you are going to steam your pudding in doesn’t sit directly on the bottom of the pot.  Fill the pot halfway with water and bring to a boil.

While the water comes to temperature generously grease a large bowl, 4 cups or more, in which your pudding will cook.

 Pour the Golden Syrup into the bottom of the bowl.  Mix together the dry ingredients.  In a mixing bowl beat the softened butter with the sugars and molasses (treacle) til light and fluffy. Add the eggs and beat well.  Add the dry ingredients and grated lemon peel and blend til well combined.


The batter should be like thick pancake batter.  If it’s too thick, add a bit of milk to loosen.  Pour the batter into the bowl. Take a piece of aluminum foil and wrap it tightly around the bowl.  This needs to be sealed tight so that the moisture doesn’t get in when boiling.

 Place the bowl into the pot, setting on top of the saucer or ramekin.  I used a steamer basket, which worked beautifully.  Make sure the water comes up to the middle of your pudding bowl. Cover the pot and steam for about 1-1/2 hours.  The water should be a soft boil.  If the water isn’t hot enough, the pudding won’t cook.  Check the water level every now and then.  You don’t want the water to boil away.

After 1-1/2 hours your pudding should be done.  Carefully remove the bowl and lift the foil.  With a cake tester, puncture the the pudding to see if it is ready.  If the tester comes out clean and dry, the pudding is ready.

Carefully run the tip of a knife around the top of the pudding, then place a plate on top of the bowl and invert. Pour a bit more Golden Syrup around the top of the pudding and serve warm. Traditionally this dessert is served with custard, but we like vanilla ice cream with ours.

 Sticky, sweet and gooey, everyone will love this humble, old fashioned dessert.

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References:  Lyle’s Golden Syrup, Wikipedia, BBC Food

A Burns Night Celebration

“Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face
Great chieftain o the puddin’-race!
Aboon them a’ ye tak your place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm:
Weel are ye worthy o’ a grace
As lang’s my arm.”

Which translates to …
“Fair and full is your honest, jolly face,
Great chieftain of the sausage race!
Above them all you take your place,
Stomach, tripe, or intestines:
Well are you worthy of a grace
As long as my arm.”


Yes, that is the beginning of Robert Burns’ famous ADDRESS TO A HAGGIS.  If you’ve ever visited Scotland, hopefully, you’ve put aside your squeemishness and ‘tucked in’ to Scotland’s most famous dish,  “Haggis”.*

January 25th all of Scotland will be celebrating their national poet laureate, Robert Burns. Unless you are of Scottish decent, or have visited Scotland, you’re probably unaware of what a national celebrity Robert Burns was.  Rabbie, as he was called, was born in 1759 (on January 25th, of course) to a poor family.  As any young  lad is expected to do, he began his working with his father on the farm.  But, Rabbie’s father recognized that the young Burns was quite talented and decided to invest in hiring a teacher for him.  Young Burns loved listening to stories, especially those of the supernatural, and when he was older he began turning the stories he heard as a child into poems and songs.

Robert BurnsRabbie’s father died when Rabbie was 25.  He was now responsible for the family and the farm. Unfortunately, young Burns was not very successful at either. Two years later, not only was the farm in receivership, he made two young women pregnant (the first of many).  Burns’ hopes were to leave the country and go to Jamaica.  In order to do so, he had to raise money which he did by selling his first collection of poems,  ‘Poems Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect’.

His poems were an immediate success and he was persuaded to not leave the country after all. A year later Burns married, Jean Armour (who was also pregnant at the time).  Jean was a very forgiving woman because Robert was not a faithful husband.  When his eldest child was born to Jean, Robert already had three illegitimate daughters.  In celebration of this birth, Burns wrote a poem entitled “Welcome to a Bastard Wean.”

Robert Burns was not only an amazingly talented writer, he was a romantic, he held strong political views, and he loved his whiskey and his women.  Although Burns life was cut short at the young age of 37, he had managed to write over 500 songs and poems.  I’m certain everyone knows Robert Burns’ most famous song of all, sung all over the world on New Year’s Eve . . .  Auld Lang Syne.

A few years after Burns’ death his friends began celebrating his life.  That same celebration continues to this very day, each year on the day of his birth, January 25, now known as Burns Night.  If you are in Scotland on January 25, please join in the celebration.  You will find everything from very formal affairs to just laughter and toasting at the local pub.  It’s great fun!!

To  hold your own Burns Night, you will need the following:

Scottish bagpipe music – for the ceremonial processional of the Haggis.
Master of Ceremonies – for the Selkirk Grace, “Addressing” the Haggis,
and the “Toast to the Lassies”
“Haggis” – and plenty of it, presented on a silver platter
A Ceremonial Knife – to plunge into the Haggis
Neeps and Tatties – to accompany the Haggis (potatoes and turnips)
Genuine Scotch whiskey – a wee dram for toasting and enjoying
Traditional Scottish Music – for dancing, toasting and cheering
A Quiz – could be fun to find out who actually knows Robert Burns
And, of course, everyone must wear a bit of tartan!

* And what is “Haggis”?
Haggis is a traditional Scottish dish, much like a sausage, made from the organ meats of a sheep, chopped up and mixed with oatmeal, suet and spices.  The mixture is then stuffed into the casing of a sheep’s stomach, tied with twine and cooked for several hours.  Delicious!

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References:  The Complete Works of Robert Burns, Historic U.K., Robert Burns Night,

From the Wine Trail to the Whisky Trail

While in New Hampshire this past weekend, we thought it might be nice to visit some local wineries. New Hampshire’s wine industry is in its infancy, with the oldest vineyard, Jewell Towne Vineyard of South Hampton, opening in 1994.  Although there were two previous to Jewell Towne, they’ve since ceased operations.

Our day out took us to the Haunting Whispers winery in Danbury.  As we drove up along the winding, tree-lined, immaculately manicured road, we were unsure about what we were going to discover.  But there at the top of the hill was a large impressive home with imposing stone fireplace looking out over a magnificent vista.  The vineyard was at the bottom of the grassy knoll enclosed in a Jurassic Park-like wire fence, laid out in perfectly aligned rows, with young trellised vines just starting to show their fruit.

Our host was very gracious and took us on a detailed tour of the winery, from the fermentation room to the bottling area.  But what was most interesting, after touring the wine-making process, was being escorted into the distillery.  Distillery?  This, it seemed to us, was where his passion lie …. making whisky!

Scottish bagpipersThis visit brought us right back to our tour of the whisky distilleries in Scotland and how magnificent those distilleries were.  There are approximately 10 different, organized whisky trail tours in Scotland, with over 50 distilleries.  Because we were in the Aberdeen area at the time, we took a self-drive tour of the distilleries in that region.   From Strathisla, established in 1786 to Glen Moray established in 1897, each distillery was unique in its approach to providing an impressive atmosphere where you could walk through the historic buildings and watch the intrinsic processes of malting, milling, mashing, and distillation of the barley.  From there you proceed to the barrel storage cellars and then to the tasting rooms where an informative presentation is made and where you would be schooled in the art of tasting whisky, each with its distinctive taste, texture, color and smell.

Single Malt Whisky Casks

Single Malt Whisky Casks

The word “whisky” evolved from the Gaelic “uisge beatha” meaning “aqua vitae” or the “water of life”.   According to Wikepedia, the ‘art of distillation’ began in Ireland but was not recorded until the 12th century in Scotland.  Some historians believe that the ‘Heather Ale’ drink could have been brewed since 2000 B.C.  In the 12th century, however, whisky was being produced in Scotland, in monasteries by monks for the relief of colic, palsy and even smallpox.  It’s amazing how beverages, such as tea, coffee, and whisky, were introduced to us for their beneficial and medicinal  qualities. The practice of distilling grains solely for medical purposes eventually became a beverage to be enjoyed by the aristocracy.  In 1494 James IV, King of Scotland, so enjoyed this “water of life” he ordered approximately 500 bottles “To Friar John Cor, by order of the king, to make aquavitae“.

Henry VIII, King of England

Henry VIII, King of England

With the cold raw winters in Great Britain, it doesn’t surprise me that whisky became very popular very quickly.  And when in 1536 King Henry VIII, self-proclaimed Supreme Head of the Church of England, forced the closure of the monasteries, monks had nowhere to go and needed to find a way to earn money. That was when whisky production moved into the farms and homes.  With the merging of England and Scotland in “The Act of Union” in 1707, taxes were applied to this now very popular beverage.  This is when the government, realizing the potential for additional taxation, introduced the English Malt Tax, forcing most of the distilleries underground, where they remained for the next 150 years.

Then let us toast John Barleycorn,
Each man a glass in hand
And may his great prosperity
Ne’er fail in old Scotland!

By definition, we are not ‘whisky drinkers’ (although we do enjoy a wee dram now and then), we did, however, come away with a new appreciation for this beverage and the dedication of the men and women who have been working in this industry for over 300 years.  With its breathtaking landscape, warm and generous people,  should you get the opportunity to visit Scotland this summer, or any time, you MUST make the Scottish Whisky Tour part of your journey.

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References:  Scotch Whisky Association, Wikipedia.org, Biography.com, Visit Scotland