I watched a good movie this week called Ladies in Lavender. The plot is so-so, and I don’t know where the lavender comes in, but my favorite actresses, Judi Dench and Maggie Smith are featured in it, so it makes my Favorites List. The movie was filmed in Cornwall and the coastal scenery is beautiful and the cottage setting and interior also make it worthwhile to see. I went to Cornwall this past summer so it brought back great memories for me. Well, in one scene the women are looking to buy pilchards (a large type of sardine) to make a Stargazy Pie! Oh My! It is made out to be quite a delicacy in the movie. So I had to find out if there was such a thing!
And there is…….
In December every year in the village of Mousehole, Cornwall there is a festival called Tom Bawcock’s Eve. Tom was a local fisherman in the 16th century and the festival is held to remember Tom and his act of heroism. According to legend, one stormy winter when no fishing boats were able to get out, and all in the village were facing starvation, on December 23rd, Tom Bawcock, decided to brave the storms and went out fishing in his boat. Despite the stormy weather and difficult sea, he came back with enough fish to feed the entire village. The entire catch (including seven types of fish) was baked into a pie made of eggs and potatoes with the heads and tails poking through the crust to prove that the fish were inside. The fish appear to be gazing skyward, hence the name of the pie! This allows the oils to be released during cooking to flow back into the pie.
In 1963, another tradition was added to the Mousehole festivities. John Gilchrist, a local artist, strung Christmas lights around the harbor, and the idea was taken up by the local carpenters. Today a group of forty volunteers work months putting up over seven thousand bulbs and six miles of lights! The Lighting is attended by over four thousand people and starts with the village priest blessing the scene. In celebration and memorial to the efforts of Tom Bawcock the villagers parade a huge Stargazy Pie during the evening with a procession of handmade lanterns, before eating the pie itself! One set of lights even represents the pie, showing fish heads and tails protruding from a pie dish underneath six stars!
In the evening all harbor lights are turned off so people can watch the illuminations and lantern parade, followed by caroling on the beach! What fun this would be at Christmas! Well maybe not the pie so much, it would take getting used to. Have any of you ever had Stargazey pie? If you have let me know!
Last year for Christmas I gave myself one of the best gifts ever! Yes, I do give myself Christmas gifts, why not? When you get up in years you can do whatever you want. It was a subscription to Acorn TV, the All British TV Series. I love it and have watched nearly every show presented on there, every month. I get my moneys worth! The very first show I watched was Nigella Lawson’s Cooking Christmas Special, and I was glad to see it was still available to watch this year and I did watch it again this week!
You can’t help, but come away inspired to cook something! Or to look around your kitchen and say, “I need to drape several strings of fairy lights across my cabinets and place Christmas baubles all over my kitchen counters to be able to cook like Nigella.” Or, “I need a black, sexy, low cut gown or sweater to wear when cooking,” to be like Nigella. Need I say, Nigella is a full bodied, well endowed young woman that every cook would like to look like.
During the show she cooks awhile and then scampers out of the house to the local London street markets to buy the most wonderful ingredients to bring back and add to the pot so to speak. So you get to see the cooking aspect as well as the shopping in the food stalls among all the hustle and bustle of Christmas. We go to the cheese market, the fruit and vegetable stand, and the nut stalls. Never once to the grocery. She does all this while re-iterating that cooking for Christmas need not be stressful, just go with the flow.
To prepare for one of her parties, she places some short ribs in a cranberry sauce mixture and then puts them in the oven for her party later that evening. The ribs need to cook for one and a half hours. So as not to stand around and waste time Nigella flies out of her kitchen to go have pre-party drinks with her friends at a favorite pub. Now, I definitely think that is the thing to do to de-stress the cooking for a party. Later in the evening she is shown passing out the ribs wrapped in a paper napkin to each guest, no plates mind you. She lets us know to supply plenty of baby wipes too, for wiping up our sticky fingers. Baby wipes? Well what do I know! Her guests always are shown drinking a lot. I would too, that way I would not care that I dropped cranberry sauce all down the front of my cleavage, in my low cleavage red gown, and went the entire night that way.
She likes to cook with lots of spices and shops in various spice specialty shops. We follow her along as she shops. The spices come in little plastic bags and she keeps them in her pantry. Yes, you’ll see her pantry, her library, her upstairs, her downstairs and her kitchen in her cooking series. I feel like I live with Nigella I know her house so well. In one episode as she gets out the bags of spices and remarks about how long they keep, she looks at the expiration date on one of the packs. Oh, the spice expired about ten years ago! Now weren’t we just at the spice shop? So, she just pitches it in the trash and moves on. Now haven’t we all been there? I guess that means another trip to the spice man. I think he may be selling more than spices!
Then there is the turkey episode which I liked a lot. She brings out this really, large red plastic bin, the size of a laundry basket to brine the turkey in. She adds several, and I mean several, spices, herbs, and clementines, to the brining salt concoction. She sets the turkey in the brining mixture outside for a day or two to meld. Meanwhile, she is making gingerbread stuffing from a store bought gingerbread cake. What? When did she get this? I’ve been with her for all her shopping haven’t I? She says she likes to buy store bought foods and then build on them to save time and this is one of those times, I guess. Adding to the meal she makes her mother’s bread pudding, roasted Brussels sprouts, a crispy, roasted, red potato dish, (one of her favorites), and a mountain of merengue for dessert. And in-between all that she shows us how to decorate and set the festive Christmas table in the library, where she will be entertaining her guests on Christmas Eve no less. All under no stress and in the fine gown.
But, the best part of the show is the following morning, Christmas Day, when Nigella comes down to the kitchen, disheveled, hair tossed about, and wearing her bright red satin, Christmas dressing gown. She pulls out two chunks of thick white bread, slathers a great swag of gingerbread dressing on, followed by a layer of cranberry sauce, (she made that in another episode), then adds a layer of bread pudding and a layer of turkey and a few gherkins thrown in for good measure. She can not celebrate Christmas without gherkins! The sandwich is now about 4 inches thick and she chows down while leaning heavily on the counter. No, no Christmas cooking stress here! I love this show!
PS I went and ordered the companion cook book containing her Christmas Cooking episodes to make sure I’d have all the stress free recipes! See you tomorrow for more Christmas Foods and Traditions!
In Victorian times everyone would want their chimney swept before Christmas. Today we see the chimney sweep displayed on holiday cards as a cherub little boy, broom in hand. But, do we really know what it was like to be a chimney sweep?
The chimney sweep was an essential part of London since 1200 when the customary fire in the middle of the room was replaced with a chimney. The reason for removing the soot and ash was to ensure a free flow of air; any blockage reduced the efficiency of the fire and the chimney itself could catch fire.
The soot was removed by the Master Sweep…… a man who was paid by the parish to teach orphans or paupers the craft, using children as young as four or five, who were boys or girls from the workhouse, or bought from their parents and then trained to climb the treacherous flues. The children were totally reliant on him since their guardians had signed Papers of Indenture, which bound them to him until they were adults. It was the duty of the Poor Law guardians to apprentice as many children of the workhouses as possible, to reduce costs to the parish. The master sweeps’ duties were to teach the craft of chimney sweeping, provide the apprentice with a second suit of clothes, have him cleaned once a week, allow him to attend church and not send him up chimneys that were on fire. The apprentice agreed to obey the master sweeper and work at least 7 years when he then could become a journeyman sweep, and could work for the master sweep of his choice. The child apprentice could be sold on to another sweep with prices ranging from 7 shillings (35 cents) to 4 guineas (4 dollars). This was a dangerous job with sweeps having to negotiate hot chimneys with flues 14 inches by 9 inches, the common standard. An apprentice would do four or five chimneys a day. When they first started they scraped their knees and elbows, so the master would harden up their skin by standing them close to a hot fire and rubbing in strong brine using a brush. This was done each evening until the skin hardened. The boys got no wages, but lived with the master who fed them. They slept together on the floor or in the cellar under the sacks and the cloth used during the day to catch the soot. This was known as “sleeping black.”
In the Industrial Age, buildings were higher and the new chimney tops were grouped together and the routes of flues could involve two or more right angles with horizontal and vertical sections. Buckingham Palace had one flue with 15 angles and the flue narrowed to 9 inches by 9 inches.
Soot was sold and used as manure.
Chimney sweeping was one of the most difficult, hazardous and low-paying occupations of the era. The boys could get stuck with their knees jammed against their chins. The harder they struggled the tighter they became wedged. They could remain in this position for many hours until they were pushed out from below or pulled out with a rope. If their struggling caused a fall of soot they would suffocate. Dead or alive the boy had to be removed and this would be done by removing bricks from the side of the chimney. There was also a high rate of testicular cancer and lung cancer among the boys.
It was 1875 before the practice was outlawed and from this time on the tradition of the chimney boys became romanticized. With the making of the hinged brush the profession became associated with good-natured, agile men as played by Dick Van Dyke in the movie Mary Poppins. The chorus from his song, Chim Chim Cher-ee shows the association of sweeps with good luck. “ Good luck will rub off when I shake ‘ands with you, or blow me a kiss…….and that’s lucky too.”
I think not! Nothing could be lucky for the chimney sweep!
See you tomorrow for more Christmas Foods and Traditions!
The Victorians loved bringing in the countryside for their seasonal decorations. Fresh greenery, such as berried evergreens, mistletoe, ivy and later holly were made into decorations for many weeks before the holiday.
Holly was used in Roman solstice ceremonies and it was believed that the red berries would ward off evil spirits and stormy weather.
Mistletoe was included in secular decoration only due to association with pagan rituals. Druid priests harvested it from sacred oaks on the fifth day of the new moon after the winter solstice. Norse warriors who met underneath it declared a truce. Victorians kissed under the mistletoe, but only while there were berries on it, because a berry is to be removed after each kiss! From Christmas tree to wreath and advent crowns the evergreen symbolizes strength and hope in winter months.
The use of special candles in church services of all denominations and in secular decorating can be traced back to midwinter pagan festivities.
It was believed that light was a way to keep evil spirits away. In Victorian England it was customary to place lighted candles in the windows during the twelve days of Christmas as a sign to weary travelers that food and shelter could be found within. The 12 Days of Christmas start on Christmas Day and last until the evening of the 5th January – also known as Twelfth Night. The 12 Days have been celebrated in Europe since before the middle ages and were a time of celebration.
The tradition of the Advent Candle is a Christian symbolic practice that represents the four weeks of preparation for Christmas. It was customary during the Victorian era to incorporate the candles amongst the evergreen wreath and light them on the Sunday’s leading up to Christmas. Each church denomination has their own variations, but following Victoria’s Lutheran heritage, the first Sunday’s candle was purple and was the Bethlehem candle which represents prophesy or hope. The second purple Bethlehem candle is for peace and or preparation. The third candle, the rose Shepherd Candle symbolized love or the pink Angel Candle represented joy. The final candle on the Sunday before Christmas is the pure white Christ Candle representing the birth of the Son of God.
I hope you are enjoying the Christmas Foods and Traditions Series! See you tomorrow!
The first Christmas tree was a fir tree and is thought to have been planted by St Boniface (675-754) in the center of the German town of Geismar after he had cut down the sacred tree, Thor. Eight hundred years later, the tradition of putting up and decorating a fir tree in the winter months was extremely popular in Northern Germany. The fir tree was the focus of singing, dancing, and feasting before it was set alight.
German nobility were largely responsible for the spread of the Christmas tree in Europe and beyond during the eighteenth and nineteenth century. The first Christmas tree was introduced to England by Queen Charlotte from Mecklenburg-Strelitz, wife of King George III. However, it was Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, who loved decorating the Christmas tree and a woodcut (cutting an image into a piece of wood and then dipping it in ink, before stamping on paper) of the Royal family doing so, popularized the tradition all over the world!
In 1845, Hans Christian Anderson wrote “The Fir Tree”, a story of a fir tree used as a Christmas tree. The story is very short, but reveals a much deeper meaning for life throughout the years. You can read it HERE. It is the perfect story for Christmas. If you read no other story at Christmas I would suggest taking the time to read this one, it is that special. One of my favorite lines from the story is “it made his bark ache, and this pain is as bad for a slender fir-tree, as headache is for us.”
The arrival and lighting of the Christmas tree in Trafalgar Square on the first Thursday of December marks the beginning of Christmas for many Londeners. It is a 65 foot Norwegian spruce between 50 to 60 years old and stands in the square until Twelfth Night. (January 5th) It traditionally has five hundred white fairy lights on it. The tree is a gift every year to the people of London from the City of Oslo, Norway, to express thanks for support during World War II.
Snowflakes are a collection of snow crystals which fall through the earth’s atmosphere in a range of temperatures and humidity fluctuations, developing an infinite number of shapes. Individual snowflakes differ in detail from one another, but may be categorized in eight broad classifications and at least 80 individual variants. The main shapes for ice crystals, from which combinations may occur, are needle, column, plate and rime. Snowflakes appear white in color despite being made of clear ice. The snowflake is often a traditional seasonal image or motif used around Christmas, especially in Europe, the United States and Canada. It represents the traditional White Christmas!
The Guinness Book of Records lists the largest snowflakes as those that fell on Fort Keogh, Montana, in January 1887, when a rancher reported snowflakes that were 15 inches wide and 8 inches thick! Hmm, I am not sure about that………Was that rancher into the whiskey at the time?
Most people believe that each snowflake is unique in design despite the statistical possibility that identical flakes could exist and were recorded in Wisconsin in 1998.
I have to admit I love to watch the snowflakes fall, as long as I am inside near the fireplace, with my hot chocolate and with nowhere to go. I do not like shoveling it or driving in it. And I do not like it when it piles up and turns that nasty grey, from dirt and slush refreezing!
Maybe the best snowflakes are the paper ones we cut out at school from folded white paper and then put on the windows! Do you remember making those?
Or the best of the best snowflake is the snowflake cookie! YUM! Those always look and taste perfect! See you tomorrow with more Christmas Foods and Traditions!
Yesterday we learned about the first Christmas Card so it is fitting that we learn about the post-box and the postman today!
Letterboxes had been known in France from the beginning of the 17th century. In 1653, the first post boxes are believed to have been installed in and around Paris. By 1829, post boxes were in use throughout France. However, the roadside pillar-boxes associated with Great Britain rose to prominence during the Victorian era.
In the UK, before the introduction of pillar-boxes, it was customary to take outgoing mail to the nearest letter receiving house or post office. Such houses were usually coaching inns or turnpike houses where the Royal Mail coach would stop to pick up and drop off mail and passengers. People took their letters, in person, to the receiver, or postmaster, purchased a stamp (after 1840) and handed over the letter.
Post boxes were first brought to the Channel Islands, at the suggestion of the novelist Anthony Trollope, who had been sent to the islands as a surveyor, by Sir Rowland Hill, Secretary of the Post Office. The problem was the collecting of mail on the islands due to the irregular sailing times of the Royal Mail packet boats, the weather, and the tides. Trollope reported back a recommendation to use a device he had seen in Paris, a “letter-receiving pillar.” It was made of cast iron, octagonal in design, and painted olive green. Trollope suggested that four would be needed for Guernsey and five for Jersey. Vaudin & Son Foundry, in Jersey, first produced them and the first four were placed in David Place, New Street, Cheapside, and St Clement’s Road in St Helier and were first used by the public in 1852. They were instantly popular despite problems with rainwater getting in the boxes!
The first standard design was made by Richard Redgrave of the Department of Science and Art in 1856 and was immediately taken up for use in London and other major cities. Green was the usual color of the earliest Victorian post boxes.
A decade later the hexagonal, John Penfold Post Box, became the dominant design and from July 1874, there was a gradual adaptation of red as the color that the world would associate with the British pillar-box. Penfold boxes come in three sizes and altogether there are nine different types. The power of the pillar-box as a cultural icon made this particular red, called pillar-box red, particularly useful to the cosmetic industry when describing lipstick and hair color.
Most traditional British pillar boxes produced after 1905 are made of cast iron and are cylindrical. But, alas I did not have one picture of a cylindrical post box in all my pictures!
This summer while scurrying around the country lanes in Sussex looking for a particular garden in the NGS, (Gardens put on display once a year for charity) we came to a cluster of four lanes each going off in a different direction. AND here at the intersection of Nowhere and Nowhere was the Royal Post Box! I had to stop and get a picture!
And here is a post box in St Ives, convenient to the teas shoppes!
And here is another post box in another small village in the UK. Truly a post box!
Red is still the default color of British post-boxes, but in 2012 the London Olympics organizing committee celebrated British successes by painting selected boxes gold!
What we now refer to as a “penny-farthing,” those odd looking things with the outsized front wheel, was generally known to the Victorians as the bicycle. The nickname came about around 1891 when the machines were nearly outdated. The penny-farthing takes it’s name from two British coins, one larger than the other just like the two wheels. In the 1890s the terms “ordinary” or “high wheel” were the preferred names for this type of bicycle and these are the terms used today by enthusiasts.
The five wheeled bike that the postman used was known as the “Pentacycle.” It was the invention of the architect Edward Burstow in 1882. It was designed for the purpose of carrying mail and this was tested in the county of West Sussex. Although the innovation met with an enthusiastic response from the postmen of Horsham, the idea was not adopted elsewhere. There is a replica of one in the British Postal Museum.
I hope you have enjoyed the post boxes and mailman today! See you tomorrow for more in the Series, Christmas Foods and Traditions!!
The first Christmas Card was created by Sir Henry Cole, in London. Cole was a prominent innovator in the 1800’s. He managed the construction of Albert Hall, arranged for the Great Exhibition in 1851 and was the first director of the Victoria and Albert Museum. In his spare time he ran an art shop on Bond Street, specializing in decorative objects for the home.
In 1837, British postal rates were high. It was normal for the recipient to pay postage on delivery, charged by the sheet of paper and the distance traveled. In 1840, Cole was credited in revamping the postal system and creating the first self-adhesive postage stamp: the Penny Black. He also announced a competition to design the new stamps. There were some 2,600 entries, but none were considered suitable; instead a rough design was chosen, featuring an easily recognizable profile of Princess Victoria. Cole believed the picture of Victoria would be hard to forge. The Penny Black stamp allowed letters up to 1/2 ounce to be delivered at a flat rate of one penny regardless of distance. The stamp lasted less than a year, because the red cancellation was hard to see on the black design and the red ink was easy to remove, which made it possible to re-use cancelled stamps. In February, 1841 the post office switched to the Penny Red and began using black ink for cancellations instead, which was more effective and harder to remove.
During this time people exchanged handwritten holiday greetings, written one by one. Henry Cole decided to design an attractive card so that it was not necessary to compose a Christmas letter to all his friends individually. In 1843, he commissioned John Callcott Horsley to create the first commercial card designed for sale. The design was a wealthy family enjoying a seasonal feast set with a rustic border hung with ivy grapes and leaves and the words, “A Merry Christmas to You.” It caused some controversy with temperance groups, because it depicted a small child drinking wine. Horsley had previously designed the Horsley envelope, a pre-paid envelope that was the precursor to the postage stamp. Even the early Christmas card manufacturers believed Christmas cards to be a vogue which would soon pass. They operated on a quick turn basis and did not bother to document the cards they produced. However, the Christmas card was destined to become an integral part of the holiday season. By 1880 their manufacture was big business, creating previously unknown opportunities for artists, writers, printers, and engravers. Thanks to these two men we have Christmas cards, envelopes and postage stamps!
During the latter years of the Victorian era many people designed their own cards and became increasingly adventurous in their construction. The “trick card” was the most popular Christmas card of the Victorian era. While infinite in variety, it always featured some element of surprise. While seemingly simple at first glance, the turning of a page, the pulling of a string, or the moving of a lever would reveal the unexpected, showing the card to be more complex than first imagined. The cards tended not to focus upon religious or wintry scenes. Nature was the inspiration and colorful scenes of spring and summer dominated. Early cards therefore featured colorful birds or butterflies flying amongst stalks of wheat and even insects landing upon ripening fruit; a timely reminder that the harsh winter weather would soon pass.
More to come in my Christmas Food and Tradition Series!