Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Pomanders - Oranges in all their splendor!

Giving some thought to my Williamsburg-themed Christmas decorating endeavor, and found this wonderful tutorial on Pomanders, those beautiful clove-studded oranges that look lovely and smell even better! Check this out:

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

A Kiss to Build A Dream On!

Mistletoe is a hemiparasitic plant, genus Viscum Album, attached to trees, especially oaks, and having no root, the ancient Greeks referred to it as a "thief". During ancient Roman times, during the festival of Saturnalia, a tribute to the god Saturn, mistletoe was used and said to promote fertility, and so began the practice of kissing under the mistletoe. Some say the word is from "mistiltang", Mist from the German "dung", and Tang from Old English for "branch", as the parasite was thought to spread from tree to tree by bird feces. Branches and leaves were used by herbalists for medicinal purposes, for circulatory and respiratory conditions.

The Druids in Britian were the first in Europe to use mistletoe in their rituals during the winter and midsummer soltices, practices that included prayer and animal sacrifice. A golden sickle was used to cut mistletoe branches, and good luck was ensured if the plant did not fall to the ground, so it was hung on high.  It was also given out, and all who recieved a branch were said to enjoy good health and blessings from the gods. Sprigs were hung under doorways or above baby cribs to prevent evil spirits.
So by extension, the Christian tradition frowned on the plant as pagan,  and its use was banned. But by the 18th Century, the ban was lifted on the humble sprig and kissing under it could once more commence. In fact, if a girl passed beneath it and was NOT kissed, it was said she would have bad luck in love for one year. All the more reason to get under the "kissing ball" quick! Interestingly enough, by 18th Century standards, that kiss constituted a real commitment, so on the 12th Night of Christmas, the branches were burned to ensure true love would prevail!

Below see an old botanical print of the plant, and also see the following link of a mistletoe poem (rather long, but enjoyable) It was written by Mary Darby Robinson (1758-1800) English, dubbed the "English Sappho", known for her role as Perdita in Shakespeare's A Winter's Tale, and finally notoriously known as the first public mistress of King George IV. She must have spent some quality time under the mistletoe!

Monday, November 28, 2011

A Revolution of My Own!

Back now from the four-day holiday. It was great, celebrated with family and friends. Besides the traditional festivities and delicious food, I had the chance to begin getting organized for Christmas, doing a bit of Spring Cleaning as well. Down came the pumpkins and gourds, and though I will NOT start Christmas decorating for a couple weeks, I did begin planning some decoration. I like waiting a little while after Thanksgiving before bringing out the red and green. Why rush? It's fun to anticipate (something long gone from our modern society, where folks think if they haven't completed Christmas shopping by now, something is very wrong.)

Anyway, I started my pine cone wreaths. I have collected, over October and November, a myriad of cones on my morning walks. A good friend has gathered even more for me, so I definitely have enough. Now, they are not easy to work with. I can see now, why they are so expensive to purchase in the stores. A lot of man hours. I wired each cone individually to the wreaths. They were all wobbly until I had enough on the form. Then they began coming to life. I have made 2 large wreaths so far.
They look like photo above. Now, I will begin to see what I can do with them to make them beautiful and very 18th Century Colonial, like at right. You can use nuts, oranges, lemons, cranberries, pine boughs. Anything! But it must not be anything manufactured, or commercial. Just all natural elements. In Colonial Williamsburg, they even used shells, because they lived by the sea! Lovely!

People have asked me why I am simplifying this year, and my answer is to bring back some of the REAL Christmas spirit. When you hear of shoppers pepper-spraying other people ahead of them in line in order to be first to get a deal, or sleeping outside a store to be the first in, well, something about Christmas has been lost. So, I am planning my own American Revolution, and seeing what it will yield. I am excited about the prospect of a candle-lit holiday, enjoying friends and family, and making gifts and decorations and sharing time with those I love.
Look at this 18th Century Christmas tree scene from Colonial Williamsburg. Look at the size of the tree. It is small and sparse, but the family's love and tenderness looks very large to me!

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Gold, Ambergris and all the Jewels of Araby!

I was talking with friends the other day about perfumes, the real ones, not the cheap, watered-down fragrances the stores are offering today. We talked about essential oils, and other unusual and not-often-used ingredients (by today's standards), including musks, frankincense, and ambergris. A quote in Master and Commander refers to prize ships holding, "Gold and ambergris and all the jewels of Araby!" Well we all can imagine a poor sailor getting his share of the prize money from gold, or from a treasure trove of emeralds, rubies and sapphire gems, but ambergris? Ambergris? What is that?!
Well, interestingly enough,  is regurgitated material from sperm whales! Ehwwww, you say!
So I spent a bit of time looking into this, and here goes: It is a solid, dull grey, waxy and flammable substance produced in the digestive system of the whales. When freshly produced it has a marine, fecal odor, but when it has a chance to age, and cure by the sun and the salt of the ocean, it has a sweet, earthy scent, likened to rubbing alcohol without the astringency, and so it became a fixative for perfumes.
Once the whale has rid itself of the ambergris, it floats on the sea, or can be found in the sand at the shoreline. It can be found in lumps from a half ounce in size to incredibly, 100 pounds! One chuck found in the Dutch East Indies weighed over 1,000 lbs!  they say that whales develops this as a way to cover pieces of sharp and harmful objects that they ingest, so that pieces like bone, shell, tusks, etc don't tear their insides as they are expelled.
Though it was discovered in the mid-1300's, it became a big item for sailing ships to look out for to bring back home. The name comes from the French for Grey Amber, as opposed to brown amber of vegetal form. Ambergris is primarily found in the Atlantic Ocean, the Bahamas, the East Indies, Asia.
Today, with the conservation efforts to restore endangered species like the whale, it is no longer appropriate to use. Synthetics are substituted, but they are not quite the same.
As a point of interest, ambergris is still used in Chanel No. 5, not everybody's favorite, but you can see why it is lasting and enduring. It has a little something different and unusual to offer!
And finally, the word "perfume" comes from the Latin, for "through smoke", as it was originally intended as incense.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

A Tall Coffee, with "room", and an small helping of gossip on the side!

Yesterday I breakfasted with a friend at a local coffee house....Starbuck's, to be exact, and it got me to thinking about the Coffee House, and its importance in the 18th Century. So, I diligently delved into the history of this popular destination, and found some interesting bits of information.

In the beginning, this establishment existed in the Middle East where coffee is a BIG deal. Men would meet to discuss the latest news and events, drink some coffee, and perhaps, indulge in a little hookah. The operative word here is MEN, as women were definitely not allowed.

Eventually, the wonderful brew found its way through Western Europe to Venice, an important stop for travellers along their way from the Ottoman Empire.

The first official coffee house in England was established in 1652 in Oxford; the first in London came also in that year, located in St. Michael's Alley, Cornhill area. By 1675,  there were over 3,000 coffee houses in England!

By 1739, There were over 550 in London, and the humble establishment had grown into a center for commerce! By the way, Lloyd's of London, the famous insurance underwriters, was originally a coffee house, where the elite, including Tories, Whigs, stock jobbers, booksellers met to discuss all facets of business. Such was the importance of the place! Another establishment, Johnathan's Coffee House, eventually became the London Stock Exchange!

The coffee house preceded the "club", an 18th Century staple, which siphoned off a good deal of the aristocracy, leaving the coffee house to the middle and lower classes.
Instead of paying for drinks, anyone could come in for a penny. Then they had access to coffee, as well as newspapers, pamphlets, reports. There were reporters called "runners" who ran to each house gathering the latest news to disseminate among the coffee patrons.
In America, the coffee house played an important role as a meeting place to organize and conspire against the British royals. The "Bunch of Grapes" in Boston was a hot-bed of politics, as was the "Long Wharf" that stood until 1780 when it burned down. The "Exchange" was another well-known establishment of commerce in Boston, too, also burned down. Conspiracy theories, anyone?!?!?
The coffee house in America held a thin line between the serving of coffee and of its being a tavern serving ale, whisky and wine. But the important bit here is that it was a meeting place, and look what happened once the Colonist had a plan!

At left, see a typical coffee set. A far cry from the paper cups and plastic lids we see today, although when I was in London, even the Starbuck's serves coffee in a ceramic cup, with saucer and metal spoon, if you choose to stay and partake! Nice, huh?
And so it goes. People go to the coffee house for alot more than the drink, though I am a coffee hound, my favorite being a nice round medium-bold brew like Espresso Blend, or soon now, Starbie's Christmas Blend. Have one soon there, and keep an ear open. You never know what you may hear!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

A Self-Indulgence

Since this is my blog, I am taking the liberty today to talk about something that brings me joy, even if it is not from the Enlightened Age, though I find it enlightening, and I will endeavor to make it fit!

Last night I received a DVD in the mail that I recently ordered, "Marsalis and Clapton Play the Blues", a live concert taped at Carnegie Hall this past April. With great anticpation, I put it on, and was transported to New Orleans, to Bourbon Street in all its glory. From snappy, light-hearted tunes to those soul-wrenching funeral dirges that break into the sunlight with horns and strings taking their turns at brilliant solos, I enjoyed every minute. See link for a taste:

I just love Eric Clapton! He is a consummate professional, who doesn't compromise, who is constantly learning and growing, and who is genuinely grateful for each opportunity to play with the greats of the craft, whether they be from the rock, blues or jazz genre. Eric has always been brilliant as a cover artist; he has composed some very good tunes, but he shines as an interpreter of the music he loves, respectfully bringing new life to old standards, and always faithful to their origin. He is keeping traditional blues alive, but he is now taking the time to look into jazz as well, and the results are "good fun" as he would put it.

Eric has come a long way since his days with John Mayall, Cream, Delany and Bonnie, and from his own solo career that was for the most part popular and commercially viable, a good deal of it produced in a drug haze. However, he could always play.....even in that state, his fingers never failed him.

But, now he plays, sober and clear-headed, what he loves. I think he has earned the right. A good lesson in there for us all, once we have paid our dues. There is always learning to achieve and practice to attend to, but in the end, there is, or should be, a letting go, and a running with it. Freedom to be who we really are. That comes with age perhaps. Eric will be 67 in March of 2012. Though you don't see much of him around the Top 40 pseudo-society, he is working as much as ever, and his music is fresh, and as I said before, joyful. He is enjoying his time around the "glitterati" of timeless music.

So, how now, do I connect Eric with the Enlightenment? Hmmmm. Well, just like Mozart, he has always been a clothes-horse, displaying a fashion-forward statement. In the 60's he was very bohemian, in the 80's, elegant and bold in big-shouldered, shawl-collared jackets. Today, he plays the blues in a conservative Bond Street suit and tie. He has worn many different specs, from horn-rims to wire-rims, to rimless, and I think these days, back to horn-rims. His hair has been long, or frizzed, or short; brown and now very grey! He has played a myriad of guitars, some hand painted, some created specifically for him by Fender, or Gibson.

Mozart had his favorite instruments and his favorite suits, too, one in particular, a red coat that he yearned for. He describes it in a letter to Baroness Von Waldstatten (1781), " I must really have a coat like that, as it's worth it just for the buttons that I've been hankering after for some time.....They're mother of pearl with some white stones around the edge and a beautiful yellow stone in the center". The Baroness had the coat made for him as a thank you for his concert!

The Artist is always looking for new expression, and that is rather Revolutionary, too!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

A Little Something!

I love to take pictures. In fact, among those I know, I've been dubbed the "family photographer". I like to record the events I share with family and friends, to savor over at a later date and reminisce, or to give as gifts at year end. One way, before the camera, to enjoy "pictures" of loved ones was through the development of the PORTRAIT MINIATURE. Though the idea was conceived in 16th Century Europe, these little likenesses flourished by the 18th Century. Originally, they were painted with vitreous enamel or watercolors on vellum or copper. Later, in the 18th Century, ivory was introduced. One of the noted early artists was Nicholas Hilliard (1547-1619), English. See his lady with veil below. It's SO elaborate, and it's probably only about 1" x 1-1/2"!
Portrait miniatures were particularly valuable in introducing people at a distance to one another (a kind of 18th Century Soldiers and sailors often carried one with them when travelling, as well as kept by those they left behind as a remembrance. They were often worn as pieces of jewelry, or an ornament to a snuff box, watch fob, etc.

Some of them have incredible detail, especially when painted by an expert in the technique. One such artist was Richard Cosway (1742-1841), shown at right, self-portrait, a contemporary of Thomas Jefferson. As you may recall, Jefferson was extremely enamored of Cosway's wife, Maria. Some of these portraits are downright luminous!

The Victoria and Albert Museum in London has a beautiful and extensive collection. See the link below for examples as well as techniques:

Just above is a little treasure of a snuff box with Maria Cosway's portrait gracing the top! What a beautiful ornament she is to this delicate enamel work of art, even if it only housed that foul smokeless tobacco! At least there was no second-hand smoke to deal with in the Salon!!

Monday, November 14, 2011

Musical Musings

Reading some of Mozart's letters last eve, written at this time of year; the first written to his father on November 12, 1778, and the second, again to this father Leopold, on November 13, 1782.  Mozart's letters bring him alive to us, with all their detail of his daily life. We know VERY much about him because he wrote all the time to his wife Constanze while he was "on the road", but mostly to his father who he wrote to voraciously, with an almost religious fervor. He wrote about EVERYTHING, including his compositions, what he ate, what he bought (clothes-horse that he was), cities he travelled to and people he visited with. He added spice and wit to all his descriptions, including his scatological ramblings which he is famous for. They are very funny. Even when his life was troubled, and monies running low, he still had an amazing capacity to be good-natured and hopeful.

In his letter November 12, 1778, he writes from Mannheim, and states proudly that he was in his "beloved Mannheim, and I have been unable to lunch at home as there is a regular scramble to have me." He was very popular there, obviously, though he asks his father to let the Archbishop back home in Salzburg know of his popularity that he might entice the cleric to offer him a "better salary even if I might be enslaved in Salzburg." He says, "The Archbishop had better not begin to play high and mighty with me as he is used to, for it is not at all unlikely that I shall pull a long nose at him!" Geez, he was full of himself at that point.

On November 13, 1782, he writes again to Leopold telling him of his planned departure from Vienna, though the weather is so "odious that carriages could scarely make their way through the town. Not only would each stage take 4 or 5 hours, but not be able to get much beyond the first, and have to turn back." Traffic jam, 18th Century style! He reports that Constanze has a terrible headache so it would be better not to travel anyway, and his pupils back home will have to wait. He was probably relieved, as he HATED giving lessons, though they would have supplied a regular income.

By this time, he was 26 years of age. He was at the peak of his independence. Previously, he had struggled against his father who was rather domineering, but he followed his lead (which was perhaps best, as Wolfgang was rather impetuous). But at this period in his life, he broke free, leaving for Vienna and a life of free-lance composition and performance. He got heavily into writing opera, which the Viennese loved. He was a success even if not financially so! He married his beloved Constanze in April 1782 at St. Stephen's Cathedral, and about a year later his first son was born, Raimond Leopold, who only lived a couple months. Wolfgang and Constanze had six children, with only two surviving to adulthood.

Vienna is sometimes called "The City of Dreams", and I guess for Mozart, his success there was a dream come true! (Stay tuned; more to follow .......................)

Friday, November 11, 2011

Marine Corp Salute!

I was so busy yesterday with my "day" job that I didn't have a chance to do a bit of blogging, and to say Happy Birthday to our US Marines, established on November 10th, 1775, known at the time as the Continental Marines during the American Revolution.  They were created by the Second Continental Congress calling for the "raising of two battalions". Though they disbanded in 1783, their first and only Commandant was Captain Samuel Nicholas (at right). By the way, in his honor, 3 US Navy ships have been named USS Nicholas in his honor.

The Marines were founded to conduct ship-to-ship fighting, provide shipboard security, and assist landing parties. Owing to their presence at sea, they have been involved in practically every US conflict since the beginning. When they were formed, there were only 131 Colonial Marine officers, and about 2,000 enlisted men. During engagements at sea, they were positioned high in the masts, and did sharp-shooting work aagainst enemy ship's officers, naval gunners, and helmsmen. One of their first actions, in March 1776, was against the British, in the Bahamas, capturing gunpowder for General Washington . They captured 4 small prize ships in the process! They came back in April 1776, with 7 dead Marines, 4 wounded. A small, but successful band of brothers!

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Name is Bancroft......Ed Bancroft!

Last Sunday evening, I watched an excellent Masterpiece Contemporary movie on PBS called "Page Eight", about an aging spy uncovering a plot to possibly bring down the British government. It was suspenseful, pulled you in immediately, with a great cast of British stage and film actors, and filmed on location in London (an added plus).
Got me to thinking about espionage in the 18th Century compared with 20th Century spies and new technology. I found some very interesting stuff. During the Revolutionary War, spies were skulking around America and England in full force, transmitting information on troop movements, supplies, all types of political manuevering. Technological trends included invisible ink, secret codes and blind drops which seem quite tame, but for their day, they were state-of-the-art.

One kind of invisible ink was heat activated. The person wrote regular correspondence, and wrote again between the lines with the chemical that when heated, would appear! Pretty progressive for the times (see example below).

Ciphers, or codes, were very complex. One source was a book entitled "Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England". Another was "Nathan Bailey's Dictionary. Benedict Arnold used one of these codes to composed his cryptic letters, including cross-referencing the page number, word number and line number in place of words.

Sometimes spies used a pre-determined drop, like a hollowed out tree, or sliced up messages and put them into quill pens, or musket balls.

Spying went so far as against family members, with William Franklin, who was a Tory (royal loyalist) spying on his father Benjamin!
One undercover agent, Edward Bancroft (at right) spied for Britian, and was not discovered until well after his death about a century later!

Monday, November 7, 2011

Spotted Dick, ......or Don't Laugh! It's good!

Pudding is the traditional word for dessert in Britian, and no more traditional or classic is the Spotted Dick, or Spotted Dog, the "spotted" refering to the raisins and currants in the cough. The word "dick" is the colloquialism for pudding, stemming from the "ding", or puddink, or a corruption of the word "dough" or "dog".
Also, interestingly enough, the term might have come down from the Romans, from the word "botellus" or sausage, from which came "boudin" (French), then "Puddink" (English). Puddings were originally of meat composition, wrapped in skin, or stomach lining, i.e. Haggis, or blood saugage, and steamed. Later on, meat was substituted at times for sweet ingredients. And, the rest is history!

Spotted Dick is made from suet (mutton or beef fat, particularly from the loins or kidneys), flour and dried fruit, and is high in calories, though very tasty. It takes about 30 minutes to prepare, about 2 hours to steam.

4 oz. raisins
2 oz. currants
3 oz. dark brown sugar
grated zest of one lemon
8 oz. self-rising flour
4 oz. shredded suet
Pinch salt
2 oz. milk

In a small bowl, mix fruit, brown sugar and lemon zest. In another bowl, mix flour, suet and rub to combine. Add the milk, and use a knife to help mix. Finally, use your hands to combine into a dough. On a lightly floured board, roll out dough about 8" by 12". Spread fruit filling on dough, leaving about a 1/2 inch all the way around. Paint the border with water and roll up from the short end. Wet a clean tea towel with boiling water, and squeeze out the excess when warm. Wrap the pudding in the towel, securing the ends with kitchen string. Steam the roll in a steamer for two hours, remove cloth, then wrap the pudding in tin foil, and bake for an hour and a half in a hot oven (400oF). Unwrap immediately, slice and serve with hot custard or cream.
So, after a traditional British meal, enjoy some Spotted Dick, and don't laugh! It's good!

Friday, November 4, 2011

Pineapple Pomp!

Though I refuse to look at Christmas decor before Thanksgiving, I must admit that this year, I am THINKING about Christmas at this time! A Williamsburg Christmas, to be precise. In other words, foregoing the glitz and glam of our modern, commercial Christmases, in favor of an authentic Colonial-style holiday, with handmade garlands and decorations made from fruit and nuts and seedpods and leaves and evergreen (and of course, the appropriate food to go with!)

I have been researching some of these things in order to prepare, and am looking forward to bringing more meaning to this most special holiday by simplifying it! Actually, I'm quite excited about sitting down in the evening, perhaps by candlelight (if my eyes can take it), and stringing leaves into garlands, studding oranges with cloves, listening to good Celtic or lute music softly playing in the background. I am collecting pine cones on my morning walk and have a goodly supply at present.

One of the interesting finds in my research is the inclusion of a pineapple into the decor, the pineapple being the Colonial symbol of hospitality. And, why? Well, in Europe, exotic fruits of this type were non-existent until the explorers crossed the seas into the Tropics. The pineapple was first introduced to Europe from Columbus' voyage to the New World. In the the Caribbean, on Guadalupe Island he encountered the pineapple and brought it back.

As it was rare and unusual and expensive, it represented the highest degree of concern for one's guests if included. Colonial hostesses graced their tables with a pineapple as decor, and then served it at dessert time. Colonial grocers even rented pineapples to hostesses who could not afford them! Competing hosts even went so far as having it carved above doorways, on bedposts, and gave over-night visitors these beds to sleep in.

I guess if you really wanted to impress, you might WEAR some pineapple on you person, like the image shown above! (A forerunner of Carmen Miranda, who I guess must have been considered extremely hospitable!)

Have a good weekend, and see you next week!

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Lobscouse on a Chilly Night

As the weather turns, and there's now a chill in the air, a great idea for a hearty meal is "Lobscouse!" What, you might say. Yes, lobscouse, the traditional stew of meat and potatoes and root vegetables, in a savory gravy. Yumm!
Frankly, I have heard of lobscouse, and read about sailors being served it, in naval stories. But I never knew what it was. I even thought it might have lobster in it, but no!
"Scouse" comes from the Norwegian word "lapskaus" for stew. The "Lob" comes from the word "Lobby" or an ad hoc meal (from North Staffordshire, England, also North Wales) where everything is "thrown in" (maybe, lobbed in!). In other words, spruced up left-overs!
Lobscouse came with the Norwegian sailors across the sea to Liverpool ports, and with the influx of Norwegians into the area, also came this tasty stew. In fact, today, Liverpudlians are often referred to as "scouses". Interesting how terms from elsewhere become entrenched into another culture.
Below, see a good recipe for Lobscouse (4 hours of slow cooking):

1/2 lb of stewing steak
1/2 lb. of lamb
1 large onion, chopped
5 lb. potatoes, peeled
1 lb. carrots, chopped
2 Oxo cubes
2 tsp vegetable oil
Worchester Sauce
Salt, Pepper to taste
Cut the meat into large cubes, fry in vegetable oil until lightly browned. You can add Worchester sauce for extra taste. Transfer the meat into a large saucepan, add the onion and then the carrots. Place on top of meat. Then add 1 lb of finely diced potatoes on top of the carrots. Fill the pan with water half way up. Break up the Oxo cubes and sprinkle around in the water. Add salt and pepper to taste, and simmer gently, stirring occasionally. Simmer for two hours, then add the remaining potatoes, more heavily chopped. Add more Worchester if desired. Simmer another two hours, covered. Serve piping hot with crusty bread, perhaps some red cabbage, and a hearty ale.

For dessert, you might like to indulge in some Spotted Dick...What!? More on that later.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

I Go Before Thee

Figureheads are the carved wooden decorations located at the prow of the ship, reaching their zenith between the 16th and 19th centuries. In ancient times, Viking ships carried a menacing full figure at the front end to ward off evil spirits. Egyptian barges used an "eye" decoration, in order for the ship to find its way through the seas. Figureheads were also employed to indicate the name of the ship to an iliterate population.
By the Baroque period, the 1600's, these figures became quite emmense, weighing several tons, adversely affecting the quality of sailing, so by the 18th Century, more often busts were used. Quite elaborately carved, painted and gilt with gold, they struck quite a pose as ships made their way down the emerald catwalk.
Above is the figurehead from Lord Nelson's HMS Victory, very impressive, though they began to die out with the sailing ship.
At left, this gallery of figureheads is featured at the Mystic Seaport Museum in Connecticut.

For more history, see

Also, you might enjoy the following video. In September, I saw a particularly interesting maritime exhibit at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA. This video talks about conservation of one of the pieces from their collection.