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Sunday, 27 December 2015

10 anniversaries we could have celebrated in 2015

2015 has been a year of major anniversaries, the battles of Waterloo and Agincourt, and the drawing up of Magna Carta, the great charter on which the USA's Bill of Rights is based. There have been other anniversaries though, not of such great note but still deserving of attention. After all, small events, quirky achievements and doomed ventures also  shape history. Here are a few; if you have any to add, I'd love to hear about them.

Davy's Lamp: 1815

If you walk up the high street at Penzance in Cornwall, linger a moment by the statue of Sir Humphrey Davy. A pioneering chemist who cared about ordinary people even though he was a toff, while Wellington was busy defeating Napoleon, Davy set about making life safer for coal miners. He invented a lamp that wouldn't ignite the lethal methane gas that infested mines. Sadly, his efforts were only partly successful as the lamps lulled miners into a false sense of security and gave unscrupulous owners an excuse not to install proper ventilation fans.

Jane Austen's Emma

1815 saw the publication of the novel that many think is Austen's best, combining the sparkle and wit of her earlier work with her most perceptive and mature delineation of character. It has been filmed several times, including once as Clueless, and recently dramatized for radio with the setting transported to India.

The Barber of Seville

Rossini was commissioned to start work on this perennially popular opera in 1815.

Rhinoceros: 1515

Possibly the greatest animal illustration ever, Albrecht Durer's his famous woodcut is based on the description of an Indian rhino that had been shipped to Lisbon. It was probably the first to arrive in Europe for a 1000 years. The poor creature was dispatched from there as a gift to the pope but died in a shipwreck on the way. Even though Durer never actually saw the rhino, his picture bursts with a sense of the rhino's awesome power.

Umbrella Wars: 1715

In Paris 300 years ago, it was brollies at dawn when Jean Marius' royal patent on the world's first 'modern' umbrella - small lightweight and foldable - ran out. Three rival guilds claimed the right to manufacture the brollies and the ensuing legal battle lasted for most of the rest of the century. Umbrellas became expensive status symbols. King Louise Philippe, the 'Citizen King', who sat on the French throne as a constitutional monarch after the Revolution, was famous for his green one.

Nahum Tate: 1715

Next year we celebrate the anniversary of Shakespeare's death but give a hand to this far less well known dramatist who died 300 years ago. He rewrote King Lear so that almost everyone in the play had a happy ending. He also penned the carol While shepherds watched their flocks by night.

King Cnut: 1015

Most famous for attempting to hold back the sea to demonstrate that he could not control the elements , King Cnut was also one of the most successful kings of Anglo-Saxon England. He ushered in an age of prosperity after years of warfare between Saxons and Vikings. His victorious campaign to become king began in summer 1015, when he landed in Wessex with an invasion force.

F***: 1965

The expletive was broadcast on British TV for the first time on a late-night BBC TV show by the theatre critic, Ken Tynan. Outrage followed and Mary Whitehouse, that self-appointed guardian of public morality, said he should have his bottom spanked. As he was known to indulge in flagellation, he might have been happy to agree.

I'm on the train: 1985 Comedian Ernie Wise made the first mobile phone call in the UK. He called Vodafone's head office in Berkshire from St Katharine's Docks in London.

 Parlez vous franglais? 1990 The workers on the French and British sections of the Channel Tunnel met 120 feet beneath the seabed. Britain was at last linked to the Continent by land.

Thursday, 17 December 2015

A Christmas Quarrel

A loud rap at the door induced a sinking feeling in Mr Dickens’ breast. He had been struggling with his story since breakfast and now he was to be interrupted.
‘Come in,’ he called out wearily.
The door opened and he peered over his pince-nez at his wife; she seemed flustered. ‘Ah,’ he murmured, ‘Catherine, my dear.’
His wife frowned. ‘The goose, Charlie. You promised to collect it today.’
‘So I did, but I’ve been very busy.’ He stretched out his left arm to hide the sheets of paper he had spent the last two hours covering with doodles and caricatures of his mother-in-law. ‘Is there any chance the boy could go for it?’
She shook her head and her ringlets danced. ‘I’ve set him to chopping logs.’
‘She’s up to her elbows in plum puddings.’
‘Maybe the downstairs maid?’
‘Blacking the grate in the parlour.’
‘The upstairs maid?’
‘Not the way she flirts with the butcher’s boy. I won’t encourage such nonsense.’
‘Perhaps, my love… if you’re not too busy that is….’
 Sparks flew from the ringlets. ‘As if I haven’t enough to do.’ Her skirt flounced. ‘It’s Christmas, Charlie. Have you forgotten?’
‘Of course not. That’s just the trouble. The publisher wants a Christmas story.’
Her brows knitted. ‘But you write stories all the time.’
‘I know, and I have the plot in my head ready. It’s about a miser who’s visited by ghosts on Christmas Eve; they teach him the meaning of Christmas.’
His wife sniffed. ‘Well, to me Christmas means having a nice roast goose to put on the table on Christmas Day, and if you know the plot, I don’t see the problem.’
‘The name… the main character’s name. It’s important, you see, to get it right. I’ve tried all sorts but the best I can come up with are Mr Meany, Mr Stingy or Mr Grouchy and I can't see any of them catching on.'
There was a moment's pause; the fire crackled. Then, ‘My mother had a neighbour called Scroggie,' his wife said thoughtfully. 'He was a Scotsman. She said he was the meanest man you could meet in a month of Sundays.’
Dickens closed his eyes. It was just the kind of tired old phrase his mother-in-law would use, but the name had possibilities. He turned it over in his mind. Scroggie, Scraggie, Scrags, Scrouge, Screwge? Not quite right yet. Then a flash of inspiration: Scrooge! That was the one. His mother-in –law had her uses after all. He stood up, reached for his hat, clapped it on his head and kissed his wife’s cheek. ‘Where would I be without you, my love? I’ll be off and fetch the goose now, shall I?’

I hope you enjoyed this little story, my Christmas gift to readers who've been so kind as to visit the blog over the year. In fact, Dickens found the tombstone of Ebeneezer Scroggie in an Edinburgh churchyard and noted the name in the book where he was in the habit of collecting names for future use. Poor Ebeneezer didn't deserve to become a byword for meanness. He was apparently a generous man and bestowed charity on his community. It was Dickens' misreading of the weathered inscription describing Scroggie as 'a meal man' for 'a mean man', that led to the injustice.  

Happy Xmas Everyone!

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Sweet Dreams are made of Cheese

Due to expanding waistlines, cheese only tends to be a treat in our house these days, but with Christmas approaching, it's a good excuse to plan a lovely cheeseboard. That set me thinking about cheese in general and some facts that might interest readers of this blog.

The origins of cheese are lost in the mists of time but scholars think it was probably discovered by nomadic tribes who stored their sheep's or goats' milk in animal hides for transport. The movement would have separated the curds and whey which interacted with the bacteria already present to make cheese. Cheese was probably very salty originally as a lot of salt would have been needed to preserve it. Very likely it wouldn't have appealed to modern tastes.

The Ancient Greeks and Romans developed the art of cheese making. In great Roman houses, it was customary to have a separate kitchen for preparing cheese. They experimented with smoking and flavouring it with all kinds of spices and herbs. At the Roman palace at Fishbourne in Sussex recently, I tried some smoked cheese prepared by a food historian. Mashed with garlic, coriander seed and parsley, it was absolutely delicious. (Recipe below.)

The Latin word for cheese - caseus - gives us the modern cheese and its variants, for example the Dutch kaas. The Romans called the hard cheese the legionaries were supplied with caseus formatus, from whence come the French and Italian words, fromage and formaggio.

Does cheese really give you nightmares? No one is quite sure where the idea came from but it may have to do with Charles Dickens' Christmas Carol where Scrooge blamed his ghostly visitors on the crumb of cheese he had eaten before bedtime. A study by the British Cheeseboard has, however, cast doubt on the theory. They invited 200 volunteers to eat a small piece of cheese before going to sleep and no nasty dreams were reported. Dr Judith Brian, a nutrition scientist at The Diary Council, explains that 'one of the amino acids in cheese, tryptophan, has been shown to reduce stress so cheese may actually help you to have a good night's sleep.' 

But the type of cheese you eat may affect the dream you have. The Stilton eaters reported the craziest, including a vegetarian crocodile upset because it couldn't eat children! If you want to dream of celebrities, apparently Cheddar works best. Almost two-thirds of volunteers reported meeting one, including Johnny Depp. Apparently, if you don't want to dream at all, try Cheshire.

Roman Smoked Cheese

250g oak or applewood smoked Cheddar
2 cloves garlic
1 - 2 teaspoons coriander seed (to taste)
A handful of parsley, finely chopped
A little olive oil and white wine vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste

Cur the cheese into small pieces. Crush the coriander seed and garlic and add these to the cheese with the rest of the ingredients. Mash well and serve as part of a cheeseboard or with a salad.

"How can anyone govern a nation that has two hundred and forty-six different types of cheese?" Charles de Gaulle former President of France.

"A dinner party without cheese is like a beautiful woman with only one eye." Antoine Brillat Savarin, French gastronome and author.