Thursday, December 29, 2011

Should Old Aquaintance Be Forgot?!

With the New Year swiftly on its way, we must not forget to review the age-old, and enduring, poem/song by the famous Scottish bard (at right), Robert Burns' "Auld Lang Syne". Written in 1778, it is probably the most famous tradition that can be employed on New Year's Eve...the singing of its words, with friends and family holding hands, and watching the clock to bring in the new year. The Scots like to hold crossed hands as they sing.

The words are poignant. The Scottish words "Auld Lang Syne" mean literally "old long since", or better expressed, "long, long ago", or "days gone by". It is said that Robert Burns sent a copy of the orignal song to the Scots Musical Museum, remarking that "the following song, an old song, of the olden times, and which has never been in print, nor even in manuscript until I took down from an old man". Some of the lyrics were "collected" rather than composed, but it is always attributed to Burns. You can read more about the song, and the lyrics at

Wishing a Very Happy New Year, with health and happiness and prosperity to you and yours!
Signing off for 2010; looking forward to Blogging 2012!

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Eyes Have It!

The Owlery is getting ready for New Year's, and my annual Seeing-In-The-New-Year party. I must say, I thoroughly enjoyed my "Williamsburg" Christmas, with handmade decorations, pomanders, gingerbread, cedar garlands, bay leaves, pinecones. The house still smells good. The holiday was more quiet and reflective, and a breath of fresh air. I am keeping all of the decor up until January 6 (Epiphany), but adding a bit of glitz to the scene in honor of 2012. I'm planning my menu, with small savory snacks, and more desserts, champagne and the Vasilopita (Greek New Year's/St. Basil's bread) to be cut at midnight with friends and family. Who will get the gold coin this year?!?!

One thing I will be serving is the traditional Black Eye Pea soup, always served on December 31st, as a good luck offering. I started looking up its history, and here goes:
The pea is small and pale beige with its black "eye", (a subspecies of the cowpea). It originally came from West Africa, later widely grown in Asia. It was first introduced into the Southern United States as early as the 17th Century, but took a firmer hold in Florida and the Carolinas during the 18th Century, and reached Virginia in full force following the American Revolution.

The soup, made with the peas, onions, carrots, salt, pepper, vegetable or chicken broth,  (and collard greens and ham, if you like Soul Food, Yumm!), is said to bring properity! Who doesn't want that?!

I have been soaking the peas since last evening, and will be making the soup tonight, to let it mellow a bit, flavors congeal, before serving. It is one of my favorite, tasty, hearty soups, and I say, "The eyes have it!"

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

That Hamilton Woman!

Spent some time relaxing yesterday as the proberbial "Day-After-Christmas" couch potato after all the holiday festivities. One of my gifts was the classic movie: That Hamilton Woman, the story of Lord Horatio Nelson and his scandalous affair with Lady Emma Hamilton; Nelson played by Lawrence Olivier and Emma by Vivien Leigh. It's wonderful, with a bit of artistic license, but I love it. From 1941, it is filmed in black and white, and directed by Alexander Korda.                 

The film tells the story of the rise and fall of Emma Hamilton, a dancehall girl/courtesan, charming and clever as she works her way up the social ladder at the royal court in Naples during the Napoleonic Wars, eventually becoming the mistress of Admiral Nelson. She was married, as an ornament, to Lord Hamilton, an old man, the British ambassador to the kingdom of Naples. The plot begins with Emma as an old, drunken, shell-of-her-former-self, with a flashback to her glory days.

Interestingly enough, Leigh and Olivier were newlyweds at the time of the filming and were considered a dream couple. They would have been called "The Beautiful People" in the 80's; today, known as "Leigh-Vier", or "O-Leigh" (I like that one! Ha Ha).

Emma Hamilton was considered the beauty of the age, as was Leigh during her time. But, typical for Hollywood films back in the day, bad behavior breeds bad results. Hamilton's days were numbered, but while she was with Nelson, she had a grand time. After Nelson's famous death at the Battle of Trafalgar, her life sank as there was no compensation for her. They were not married, no one would include her in proper society, and there was no such thing as "palimony" suits. She ended up in Calais, with nothing.

This is the famous portrait of Emma, painted by George Romney, English artist, in 1785. It hangs today in the Huntington Library in Pasadena (San Marino), California.

At left is Vivien Leigh as Lady Hamilton.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Love and Joy come to you, and a Merry Christmas, too!

Christmas is only a couple days away, and all the shopping and preparing should be done. Now it's time to celebrate our Lord's Nativity, with all the wonderful traditions that have been handed down to us, and to partake of those we have made our own.

It's time to lift a glass from the Wassailing Bowl, as did our Colonial forefathers, and toast family and friends! Of course, Wassail is an English tradition, but the American Colonials embraced it, too. "Wassail" comes from the Old Norse word "ves heil"and and the Old English "was hal" which means "good health". This is the greeting that goes along with the ritualized drinking and toasting at Christmastime.

The old Traditional song captures it best:

    Here we come a wassailing
                                                             Among the leaves so green.
And here we come a wand'ring
So fair to be seen.
Love and Joy come to you
And to you your wassailing too,
And God bless you and send you
A Happy New Year!

Hear a lovely, spirited version, for your enjoyment:

And, finally, see a recipe you can make for the great day:

Merry Christmas to All, and to all a Good Night!

(I will be gone a couple days over the holiday, but I will be accumulating stories to tell you.)

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

"Mums" the word!

With Christmas fast approaching, I am intrigued by some off-beat or unusual traditions, one being the Mummer's Play. It has its origins in the Middle Ages, but one of the earliest documented examples, though a fragment of text, is from the play written in 1730, in the city of Exeter, Devon county, England. It was later published in 1770. The earliest complete text is "Alexander and the King of Egypt", published by John White (d. 1769).
These plays reached a pinnacle through the 18th Century, later dying out in the 1800's.

Mummer's plays were colorful, seasonal folk/musical plays performed by mummers or guisers (those performing in disguise), generally with a theme of good and evil, death and ressurection, with a key element that included visitors at Christmas time. There was always the Hero (usually St. George), his Adversary (a satanic figure), the Fool, and finally, a quack doctor who performed miracle cures. They were typically performed in the streets or in the public house (the pub).

The word "mummer" stems from the Middle English word "mum" for silence, as well as the Greek word "mommo" for mask, hence the disguises. The Hero was often killed in the play, later to ressurected by the Doctor. You can imagine the audience, generally simple folk, in the town square cheering and shouting with glee at the miraculous recovery.

In the Royal Court, a new mummer's play was written each year, for the enjoyment of the courtiers. You can imagine the elaborate costumes and sets devised at that level of theatre.
At this time of year, I particularly like a song by Lorenna McKennitt, "The Mummer's Dance", which captures the haunting spirit of this art form. Give it a listen:
And a special thanks to the friend who turned me on to McKennitt's music. (You know who you are.)

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Countdown!

With a little more than a week before Christmas, The Owlery is shaping up. I am getting a bit excited for my annual gathering, and sharing some of the holiday with friends. I am starting to gather up my baking for packaging. This morning I read a bit about the Twelfth Night Cake, which has its origins back to the Middle Ages, but really took hold by the 18th Century, with all the Christmas festivities and merriment. The cake was a sweet cake/bread, decorated beautifully, and within was hidden a bean or pea! Whoever got that piece with the bean was crowned the King or Queen of the party! I may very well institute this for my gathering as well.
I had mentioned that I am an Orthodox Christian, and follow our religious traditions as best I can. Similar to the Twelfth Night Cake, we have a sweet bread that we bring out to share with friends on January 1st, as we celebrate the New Year combined with St. Basil's Day. During his life in early Christian times, he brought gold coins to distribute to the poor. We bring out our Vasilopita (or St. Basil's Bread) at midnight, and cut it for those present as well as a piece for the house (which includes everyone, present or not).
In my home, I have a gold coin that goes into the cake, and whoever gets the coin keeps it for the coming year as a good luck charm. I recently recieved my coin back from its temporary caretaker for the year 2011, and it will now be baked into the 2012 installment! (That's the job my Mom has done for me for many a year now...part of the tradition). My coin has had many ventures out from The Owlery, and has graced mantles, and icon shelves and little particular places of honor in my friend's and family's homes. The Vasilopita is our type of Twelfth Night Cake! It just shows how traditions are passed down and around and made our own!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

I tip my hat to you!

The tricorn hat is the epitome of the 18th Century, and it has a wonderful history. Its characteristic shape is utilitarian, keeping water away from its wearer, by sending it off to the three sides like a scupper, hence it is a favorite of the naval set. Originally a wide round hat worn by Spanish soldiers in Flanders in the 17th Century, by pulling up the brim and fastening it back, it became extremely useful in bad weather. It was brought back to France eventually, and you know the French, it became all the rage, a fashion statement well beyond its useful purpose. Its next incarnation had feathers or braid around the border, or decorated with cockades or rosettes.
Of course the most exquisite decoration, in my opinion, is the Chelengk belonging to Lord Horatio Nelson, the beautiful diamond studded piece that graced his tricorn, a gift from the Sultan Selim III of Turkey. I have posted about it previously. Check it out.
The tricorn had its hey-day in the 18th Century, dying out of style in the early 1800's. Of course, fashion always comes and goes. Look what Johnny Depp (alias Jack Sparrow) has done for the tricorn in recent years! Yo ho, yo ho!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Can I offer you some "Water of Life", with some special ice?

My favorite alcoholic spirit is Scotch Whisky, and I'm not talking the casual blend, commercially found and copiously consumed without regard to the "Water of Life's" fine history, and myriad of tastes depending of the region of Scotland that they come from. Actually, "Scotch Whisky" is a protected term.
Historically, whisky comes from the Gaelic work "usquebaugh" which means "water of life", later shortened to "usky", and much later "whisky" in English. The production of whisky goes way back, in recorded exchequer rolls of the late 1490's, but reached a peak of untaxed production in the 18th Century. Clandestine stills were cleverly organized, and many varieties were distilled. Smuggling and avoiding the excisemen became a way of life for many in the Highlands.
(As an aside, the famed Scottish bard, Robert Burns, spent part of his life as an exciseman in the late 1700's.)
Unfortunately, by 1823, an Excise Act was passed and licensing fees were imposed, however, on the good side of the coin, this change lead to the foundation of the Scotch industry we know it today. There's always an upside, a looking at the glass half full, so to speak!
In the late 1700's, improved methods for farming barley led to the greater possibility of commerical production.
My personal favorites are single malts, and include:

The Balvenie Doublewood 12 year old - See their site, great information. Speyside, Scotland
The McCallum 12 Years - Speyside, Scotland
Caol Ila - from the Islay area
Glenmorangie - Rothshire area

All these distilleries have their founding after 1800, but the tradition and respect of the distillation keeps the historic perspective. Some are sweet, some are peaty, some smoky, some mellow and warm, but they all have their place when sipped alone, or paired with particular foods. This is not the whisky to "guzzle", but to savor. You can drink it neat (without ice), or with a bit of ice (a cube or two). I offer my own "special" ice of pure water, when serving to my guests.

And by the way, "WHISKY" comes from Scotland; "WHISKEY" is Irish or American. And, speaking of Americans, George Washington was producing his own whiskey at Mount Vernon in 1797. He established one of the largest distilleries in the country, with five copper stills, a storage cellar and an office. By 1799, when he died, the distillery produced more than 10,500 of rye whiskey and brandy, valued at $7,600, a very large sum at the time!

So, as the holidays approach, spread some cheer with some "water of life"! Slainte!

Friday, December 9, 2011

A Sweet, Decadent Treat!

The other night, in tribute to Mozart, I watched a bit of Amadeus. I have seen it "too many times", but still enjoy the performances, and looking closely at all the details...the costumes, the set design, etc. The other night I played close attention to the scene where Salieri first encounters Wolfgang, as Salieri spies on the musical genius from behind a fabulous dessert buffet, with all the incredible sweet offerings typical of court life in the 18th Century. The porcelain tureens, compotes with cherubs and harlequins and powdered wig darlings in all their splendor. Salieri is dazzled, too, but has to refrain as he hears Mozart's giggling approach. He crouches low, and must wait to partake.

And worth the wait! These desserts were not only beautiful, but very tasty, too.
And with Christmas approaching, I am inclined to try to replicate one, or more than one, if I get particularly ambitious. Just look at the wonderful 18th Century dessert poster at right. These delights were individual pieces stacked high, or molded in copper. Many desserts included fruit and other new delicacies brought from the New World, i.e. carambola, or "star fruit" as it is generally known.

A Christmas favorite is the croquembuche, the cream puff tower! It was invented by French chef Antoine Careme (1783-1833) in the late 1700's, initially as a wedding cake, but who wouldn't want to use any excuse to bring it on for other festive occasions, especially when you can grace the center of your holiday table with this glittering example of dessert extraordinare. The puffs are filled with pate choux, stacked and cemented with hardened sugar, spun around the tower.

Another great, stackable, choice is the Sugar Plum sweetmeat. Various dried, sugared and slightly spiced fruit can be assembled, or whole slabs of Turkish delight can be cut in squares, dredged in powdered sugar and assembled at your whim.
You can also sculpt marzipan into little fruits, and paint with food coloring.

Also, don't forget about providing actual fruit, small pears, apricots, tangerines, or tiny apples on a lovely compote. There is no end to the possibilities!

And finally, courtesy of I learned of a recent, Incredible (Incredible with a capital "I") runway show from the house of Chanel where the set design features a fantastic banquet, with the guests seated around an enormous glittering table, mermerizingly set with candles, crystal and silver, the models walking by sumptuous displays of delights. Perhaps the models ARE the dessert! So, the fantasy of the fabulous buffet table is still in vogue. Check it out!

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Progress at The Owlery!

Firstly, I think that every home, be it ever so humble, should have a name. My small home is The Owlery, a tribute of sorts to Harry Potter and his beloved owl Hedwig,  and the joy the books and the movies have brought me over the years. Also, my middle name is Athena; she being the goddess of wisdom, and carries with her an owl!
So my Williamsburg Christmas is slowly arriving at The Owlery! I worked a bit on the outside lights and the inside fireplace mantle this past weekend. I purchased cedar garland and noble fir branches from Lowe's of "Let's Build Something Together!" fame. I wired them to my front porch railings, and around my pine cone wreaths. I'm very happy with them so far, though there is still much to do.
While watching Season II of The Tudors, some good, semi-soap-opera fun with Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn (a guilty pleasure), I began studding Clementine "cutie" oranges and lemons from a friend's garden (Thank you!) with beautifully-smelling cloves. I put them on the mantle with the hospitable pineapple, and am pleased with the look thus far. I will be baking gingerbread cookies to hang in the garlands and from my Christmas tree (yet to come). I always use Martha Stewart's gingerbread recipe. It's the best.
It's actually quite refreshing not to see the typical commercial Christmas decor around. My holiday, spartan  by comparison, is starting to shape up nicely. Even my "outdoor" cat, Blackie Norton, is enjoying herself, coming in occasionally to see the progress!

Monday, December 5, 2011

In Memoriam - Wolfgang, 1756- 1791

Let us not forget that on this day in 1791, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart died in Vienna, age 35. Though there are many myths as to his death, the most widely accepted cause is rheumatic fever. He was a genius, and his music endures forever. I'm sure God and the angels in Heaven are enjoying his offerings on a daily basis. He wrote over 600 pieces of secular and church music during his short life. He was prolific, writing for every style and for many instruments (piano, violin, cello, harp, oboe, organ, voice), including symphonies, concertos, sonatas, opera, masses and requiem, one of which he wrote anonymously for another, but is forever associated with him.
Below is a link to one of my very favorite pieces of his music. To me it represents all the drama, grandeur and sweetness that is his signature. Have a listen; it is beyond beautiful!

Yo, Ho, Yo, Ho, An Artist's Life for Me!

The Art of Scrimshaw began with the New England whaling ships from 1745 to 1759 on the Pacific Ocean, when sailors, between whale hunts, having time on their hands, began carving whale bone in their free time. Whale bone was prevalent and easy to carve.
Though the term's etymology is all but lost, the word derives more from the act of carving than the end result. Sailors were said to be scrimshandering, or fiddling around, or wasting time, from Dutch or English slang.

Depicting scenes of their travels, the ships, sea creatures, mermaids, sweethearts left behind, imaginative musings, all kinds of subject matter was fair game. Usually carved with discarded needles from the sailmaker, or pocket knives, then  lines filled with pitch black, soot, gun powder or ink, if available, though ususally too expensive.  To begin, sailors would remove any imperfections with  a knife, then smooth the surface with sharkskin or pumice, and finally oil the bone with a cloth and bring out a sheen.

Herman Melville writes an account of scrimshaw in his famed sea story, Moby Dick, as " lively scetches of whales and whaling scenes graven by the fishermen themselves..."

New Bedford Maritime Museum in Massachusetts has an extensive collection, and Hull Maritime Museum in Kingston Upon Hull, England has the largest collection of scrimshaw in Europe.