Monday, 30 November 2009

What Christmas memory comes back to you at the beginning of December?

Cold weather, crispy grass under our feet, icy puddles, our breaths leaving vapour trails, dark outlines of bare trees, variegated holly with masses of berries ... inside warming fires, toasting marshmallows, crumpets by that fire, spicy delights coming from the kitchen – has your Christmas pudding and cake already been made – ready for that last minute decoration?

Are the children or (perhaps and/or!) grandchildren under your feet getting in your way, or asking to help .. their little fingers into every pie going, greedily tasting all edible goodies available? Looking under every bed, in every cupboard, every nook and cranny to see if their wish has come true?

Christmas market in Jena, Germany

Those were the days the excitement of the weeks before – Carol Services to sing in and go to, Nativity plays to watch applauding our nearest and dearest become little angels for a few dear minutes!! The gathering of the Christmas tree, the decorating the house with holly, mistletoe and decorations .. so much to happen in the four weeks of December starting tomorrow.
Where did it all start? and now .. what do we experience ...? The Roman festival of Saturn was held in December when the temples were decorated with the fir, the pine and the slow growing evergreen box (boxwood in the States); the Druids are associated with mistletoe, while the Saxons used holly and ivy. These customs have been transferred to the Christian festival. The holly or holy-tree is called Christ’s thorn in Germany and Scandinavia from its use in church decorations and its putting forth its berries about Christmas time.

The ancient Roman Saturnalia festival was celebrated on 19 December, eventually being prolonged for seven days, and was a time of freedom from restraint and merrymaking, and often riot and debauchery. During its continuance public business was suspended, the law courts and schools were closed and no criminals were punished .. lucky them – especially in those days of ‘being thrown to the lions’!
Mistletoe in a Silver Birch tree

The Romans also decorated a Christmas tree, though the Christmas tree as we know it today, was introduced by Prince Albert to Queen Victoria, influencing the way Victorian households provided a focal point for decorations, present gathering and general festivities around the fire hearth and the tree.

Christmas as a season, we in the western world have become accustomed to, began in the days of heathen peoples ... when the winter solstice was a time of festival; the Church fixed this day in AD 440 as what to the Anglo Saxons would have been known as the beginning of the year .. when the circle of life, according to the sun and moon, started again as the daylight hours increased.

So for the Anglo Saxons the 25th December was the start of the year, but from the 12th century until the adoption of the Gregorian calendar by the British and the Protestant world in 1752, the year began on Lady Day, 25th March. Did you know we “lost” ten days doing this?

Detail of the tomb of Pope Gregory XIII celebrating the introduction of the Gregorian calendar

The druids, a priestly and learned class active in Gaul (France and Belgium) and Celtic Britain during the final centuries BC, were suppressed by the Romans and had all but disappeared from the written record by the 2nd century, although outlying nomadic groups may have survived, particularly in Britain and Ireland as they feature prominently here in mythology. In the 18th and 19th centuries there was a revival of interest in Druidism, and a new romantic and unhistorical cult grew up, which has become known as Neo-Druidism.
Woodcut published in The Legendary Lore of the Holy Wells Of England, including Rivers, Lakes, Fountains and Springs (Carrawbrough: Covertina's Well)

Society was settling down and developing during the next 1300 years before countries, or provinces came to be more established, populated with settlements, and brought with them their traditions and cultures they had been absorbing over the centuries. Today regional aspects of Christmas are still, and no doubt will continue to change over the future years to come.

The Christmas tree is an established part of our English Christmas time, while other traditions are entrenched in different countries – Mexico brought us the poinsettias, possibly because the Mexican Franciscan monks included the flower in their Christmas celebration in the 1600s and they thus became popular, and were brought back to Europe by the Spanish – remember then we were going through three Little Ice Ages (1650, 1770 and 1850) , when it was definitely colder than it has been during my lifetime. In the 1950s and 1960s it was also colder than it is today.
Pointsettia tree (with star on top) in San Diego

So many cultures and traditions have grown up in different countries of the world that I am sure most of us have not got a clue about .. when we start Christmas .. St Nicholas Day, or Christmas Eve .. or ... what we eat, what we do, and what little quirks we have each developed within our own families and that have been passed down through the generations. Is it Father Christmas, or Santa Claus, or Noel ... or, or, or ...

So much to find out in the month ahead – what we all do, what foods we eat, what are our expectations.... I have just been in Manchester about 250 miles (400 km) north from here where the population of the environs is approximately 2.5 million – so a city worth a street market for the month before Christmas.

There were stalls from Italy – with salami (including hazelnut ... see my last post), nougat from France, delicious Dutch ‘cookies’, carved wooden toys and small items from Nuremberg, Germany – famous too for spicy gingerbread - and I am sure many more .. I had a lovely time in the few breaks we had wandering through the Christmassy stalls savouring the days to come and remembering the days gone by of our childhood Christmas times.

So much to tell you and so much to find out from you, dear Readers, about your traditional and cultural celebrations – I remember my times in South Africa .. and it is seriously difficult to become enamoured about plum pudding when the sun is beating down – but we did and had the works .. though the Christmas tree was an aloe branch, painted silver, and decorated with Christmas baubles .. my best Christmas tree so far!

Dear Mr Postman – haven’t we had such terrible weather – floods in the north, floods in the south – we have floods here .. my brother’s village has been flooded – they are alright they’re high on the hill above .. but the last time it happened this badly nine years ago – a car was floating in the street – now that is a site to behold. They had 65mm of rain in the last 24 hours, while the monthly average is 80 mm. We count our blessings we do not have to deal with that aftermath. My mother is very sleepy .. so my visits are short ..

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Witches, Hazels and helmets ...

Those Romans again .. they brought the “Greek Helmets” to England – the husk which partly covers the fruits – the hazelnuts - became known by the Greek generic word for a helmet. The hazel may well have already been here when the Romans came to conquer, as it is known to be one of the first plants to reclaim the lands when the glaciers withdraw. Stone Age man would also have included these nuts in his seasonal diet.

The hazel is one of the few trees to have been credited with magical properties: it was one of Thor’s trees and so the Saxons chose hazel groves as holy places. Thor was the Scandinavian god of thunder, as well as the god of the household and of peasants, while his name is perpetuated in our Thursday and in a number of place names.

The Filbert variety from America

The association of hazel becoming known as witch hazel probably arose from the Anglo Saxon word “wic-en” meaning to bend, which referred to the hazels pliant wands, or in Middle English “wiche” for witch. Both species of hazel twigs were used as divining rods, the American, a completely different type, and the English variety on the two continents.

Interestingly witch hazel as an astringent is produced from this different shrub, called “Witch Hazel” by the North Americans, which grows naturally in Nova Scotia west to Ontario and south to Florida and Texas. The plant was widely used for medicinal purposes by American Indians. The witch hazel extract was obtained by steaming the twigs.

Linnaeus gave the “wild nut of Avella” the scientific name of “avellana” from the Italian town, snugly perched high in the foothills, inland from Naples. Virgil recorded that the territory was not fertile in corn, but rich in fruit-trees, while the neighbourhood abounded in filberts or hazelnuts of a very choice quality.

The Romans almost certainly called for and were sent the Avellananux sylvestris species of hazelnut to stock the lands supplying this seasonal delicacy to the garrisons. The Kentish cobnut is a cultivated hazelnut (much as a Cox is a type of apple), with its long green husk (the helmet) encasing a milky-white, crunchy, moist kernel. Roman bakers were famous for their varieties of breads, fruit tarts, sweet buns and cakes – sadly none of these recipes exist today. Much as sweets are today, nuts were thrown to the crowds at festival times.

Dacquoise sandwiched with chocolate souffle cake layers, coffee buttercream and whipped cream: Picture by Kate of A Merrier World - an English cook and blogger

Wherever new lands were conquered stocks were sent for, so plants crossed the continents and Filbert seeds were among the list of Old World plants requested to be sent to the colonies by the Massachusetts Company in 1629. The Filbert nut is edible, and is very similar to the Common Hazel nut (or cob nut – as they have become known after cultivation in the 1800 and early 1900s).

The garden county of England - Kent – became the centre for the cobnut orchards supplying Victorian and Edwardian grand houses with a nutty gem to finish off their fine meals with the port and cheese: the railway line in 1838 had greatly facilitated Kent’s ability to transport its produce straight to the heart of London’s markets.

An English CobNut - bursting with nutty bunches

The Greensand Ridge with its free-draining soil is ideal for the short, gnarly cobnut trees frown in plantations (locally known as “platts”) and on a sunny day, the platts resemble a Tuscan olive grove. The demand for cobnuts waned after the First World War, when labour became much more expensive, and there were enormous technological changes in indudstrial machinery available for working the land, as well as a requirement for more profitable horticultural production.

Now seventy years later cobnuts are once again being championed as a seasonal local fresh food. The cob platts went into decline, apples first, soft fruits following, before in the new millennium today’s farmers are looking to different crops from which to make a profit. Kent now has a wider range of marketable produce available to the London markets, but also importantly to the local farmers’ markets and local restaurants.

The Romans were wise – six of today’s cobnuts are said to contain the same amount of protein as 4 oz sirloin steak, while they are brimful of vitamin E, calcium and other life-enhancing substances. They’re ideal for vegetarians and can be eaten fresh in salads, chopped up lightly, mixed with a little olive oil and a dash of flaky salt and then spread over a salad, or freshly boiled vegetables. They can be pounded with bread, garlic and oil, lightly fried and once again make a topping for vegetables, or casserole.

The garden county of Kent in south east England

Chocolate is the word we might well associate with nuts today – as in praline, or Quality Street’s hazelnut with caramel (“the purple one” - as below), or fruit and nut bars, home-made hazelnut truffles sound good to me, as do chocolate filled hazelnut meringues, or how about a gold foil wrapper revealing a silky milk chocolate with hazelnut praline and small pieces of roasted hazelnuts.

Tradition and culture still remain with us – the lore of the 7th century French monk, St Philbert, whose saint’s day is August 20th, reminds us that for centuries this is the earliest that the cobnut can be picked. In September ripe cobnuts abound ready for the picking. They will keep fresh, and if placed in the fridge with a tiny pinch of salt will keep until Christmas and the New Year – a good fresh nutritious snack readily available to take away some of the Christmas richness.

Dear Mr Postman, amongst these continuing gales and heavy rains, we are having a quiet period .. my mother is sleeping much more – but seems in reasonable health.

Happy Thanksgiving to all Americans ..

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

Saturday, 21 November 2009

What is a Persian Palette...? Turquoise, Seagreen, Magenta ...

Turquoise, Persian palette, manganese carnations, Spanish-Moorish lustres all hues, colours, and techniques that brightened and enhanced pottery over the last five hundred years. William de Morgan, a great friend of William Morris – the textile designer, were both hugely influential in the Arts and Craft Movement, and both had enormous energy designing, writing, painting, translating, furniture making and more.

De Morgan explored the Persian patterns and medieval designs, experimented with innovative glazes and firing techniques. His designs included dragons, galleons, fish and popular motifs, as well as ‘fantastical’ birds and other animals. He created pictures with his tiles that could be built up to become intricate patterns when placed together.

These Victorians with their insatiable curiosities experimented with all things, testing and developing skills that we see all around us now – their architecture, furniture, textiles, ancient and medieval text translations, stained glass, art and novels. I am sure you will have seen William Morris textile designs still in use today, and very probably been aware of de Morgan’s work through the reproduction of his tiles into greeting cards: this is how we came across him and as is my mother’s wont – please find out more! I see my print-outs are over two years old now! So her interest hasn’t waned.

The Arts and Craft Movement sprang from this period (the late 1800s and early1900s) as a reformist movement that influenced architecture, interior design, cabinet making, decorative arts and even the “cottage” garden designs of Gertrude Jekyll that prevailed between the dominant eras of Art Nouveau and Art Deco.
Fantastic ducks on 6-inch tile with lustre highlights, de Morgan - Fulham period

The Arts and Craft Movement was a British, Canadian, Australian and American aesthetic movement inspired by the writings of John Ruskin and a romantic idealisation of a craftsman taking pride in their personal handiwork. Art Nouveau became global, and Art Deco started in Europe, spread to America and then went global with the industrial architectural elements of the period.

William de Morgan’s speciality was as a British potter and tile designer, but he’d started out experimenting with stained glass, ventured into pottery before shifting his interest wholly to ceramics. In 1872 he set up a pottery works in Chelsea, so that he could explore every technical aspect of his craft: this insistent curiosity and inventive streak was encouraged by the arts and crafts ideology he was exposed to, particularly through his friendship with William Morris.

De Morgan became drawn to Eastern tiles with their Indian colours, their richness of design and their depiction of geometric motifs entwined with creatures of the wild. The limited range of oxide colours available in the 17th century did not deter delftware potters from painting exotic flowers, covered by an expensive opaque-white-tin-glaze while the back is simply lead-glazed, which made large numbers available from the potteries of the day in Southwark and Lambeth.
Turquoise pebble, one inch (25 mm) long. This pebble is greenish and therefore low grade

A breakthrough occurred with de Morgan’s rediscovery of the technique ”lustre ware” (characterised by a reflective, metallic surface) known as tin-glazed pottery. This glazing technique had been found in the Mediterranean being practised in Malaga or Majorca, before spreading the knowledge into Sicily and Italy, where it is known as Italian Maiolica, during the Renaissance period in the 14th to 16th centuries. Once Spain conquered Mexico, the tin-glazed maiolica wares came to be reproduced in the Valley of Mexico as early as 1540 and are famously know as ‘Talavera’.
Tin-glazed pottery example - blue and white vase with oak-leaf decor, Florence, 1430 (Louvre Museum)
The influences of the East, particularly India, Asia Minor and Persia, permeated de Morgan’s notions of design and colour. The “Persian” palette became his preferred choice: dark blue, turquoise, manganese purple, green, Indian red, and lemon yellow – and he mixed these in what we now know as his unmistakeable style, in which fantastic creatures are entwined with rhythmic geometric motifs float under luminous glazes.

His works inspire me as they are so attractive and so imaginative that today we can see some of these non mythological creatures for real .. I found these geckos and was inspired enough to save the pictures, which seem to resonate with the colours of the “Persian” palette – the Smith’s Green Eyed Gecko from Asia, which seems turquoise to me and fairly or otherwise has multiplied across the net as National Geographic wallpaper - but it's copyrighted, so I'd better leave it - sorry!

Or how about the Gold Dust Day Gecko (left) found in Madagascar... or even better these incredible reptilian eyes (above) – where are they from and to whom do they belong – other than once again National Geographic and some amazing photographer - I cannot trace.

The de Morgan centre has an amazing collection but I see the Museum itself is closed for relocation – but we can still see some incredible tiles, tile panels and other work – I recommend scrolling down the first page of the Centre here to see a galleon representation and on the page here as above the dragon tile – but truer to its roots at the Museum.

I see that de Morgan did a lot of work for the Pacific and Orient Shipping Line in their heyday ... think about the luxuriousness of travelling the seas in those days with these kinds of tiles just as decoration on the walls!

Persian Palette – I rather fancy that description for a range of colours .. turquoise, sea green, Tyrian purple, Arabian red, ochre yellows .. my mind races on to tapestries new ...

Dear Mr Postman – thank you for delivering this – my mother when she’s awake is very interested and involved, other times she sleeps; my neighbour is improving. Our minds are occupied by the torrential rains we’ve had – and the damage it has done to homes and infrastructure, let alone one poor family, whose policeman father was swept away when a bridge collapsed. More rain and sea surges are forecast let’s hope more disaster is averted by the powers that be.

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Iron Curtain or a rich Green Natural Wilderness

The great divide – that Iron Curtain separating Western Europe from Eastern Europe – is now known as the European Green Belt – who would have thought it? That border defence symbolising the ideological and physical boundary dividing Europe from the end of World War II in 1945 until the end of the Cold War in 1991 has now with the foresight of a German doctor become a Nature Reserve.
above: Panoramic image of Danube pictured in Ritopek, suburb of Belgrade, Serbia.
Growing up within sight of the wall a young West German boy with an interest in nature used to roam the boundary and hinterland jotting down and recording all possible wildlife sightings – and as anyone with a hobby knows it slowly grows into a passion until it is a part of their life. Dr Kai Frobel became a man, a family man, a doctor, an ornithologist and conservationist – and as such realised the significance of these so-called restriction zones and the way the ‘Wall’ had been constructed.

Border post watch tower, rusted barbed wire
Churchill had coined the phrase “iron curtain” from the antagonism between the Soviet Union and the West – fortunately it was never a curtain, nor an iron one .... but the imagined vision of chain mail hanging from the clouds somewhat bemuses me. The “wall” was in fact a series of strips of land fenced with barbed wire, watch towers etc – different sections sometimes hundreds of yards wide, one barren strip, while the rest were almost untouched by human hand for 37 years had become natural wildernesses.

These strips of land containing small bushes and grasses, which had been wiped out with industrial farming on the western side of the iron curtain, became wildlife havens for threatened species of birds, mammals, insects and plants. A treasure trove of wildlife, including black storks, wild cats and whinchats, wood grouse, and a range of rare mosses.

The actual start of the “fall of the Wall” was in Poland with Solidarity’s historic victory in June 1989, before Gorbachev had visited Berlin later in the year, criticising the East German regime which precipitated the domino-like effect of the collapse of other eastern bloc countries’ defences, that we saw portrayed in the news on 9th November 2009, with the painted dominos depiction in Berlin.

Giant dominos lining a segment of the route of the Berlin Wall were toppled Monday during a ceremony commemorating the 20th anniversary of the wall's fall. c/o Axel Schmidt / AFP - Getty Images

These swathes, off limits to most personnel, of prohibited and deadly strips in the aftermath of the Iron Curtain’s collapse, left behind a refuge, a haven for wildlife and nature to flourish in: an ironically uniquely natural fertile world, where many rare and endangered species flourished.

Dr Frobel’s early observations became suddenly “an Eureka moment” – a realisation that his special patch of Iron Curtain, with its abundance of undisturbed wealth of plants, birds, insects, reptiles, and small mammals would presumably have also occurred down its entire length. A different hunt was on – an urgency to secure this unique landscape as a nature reserve.

With Kai Frobel’s foresight, his knowledge of the land, his enthusiasm, his lobbying in high places has ensured a pan European effort of a green belt connection, consisting of National Parks, Nature Parks, Biosphere Reserves and trans-boundary protected areas transcending the potentially narrow thinking. The aim now is to turn the Iron Curtain’s entire 4,250 mile length into what is already being called the Central European Green Belt.
Whinchat: Adult male in breeding plumage

Two decades after the fall of the Iron Curtain, the creators of this amazing ecological treasure trove are celebrating the fact that 23 European countries are currently engaged in the project to turn or keep its entire length into the reserves naturally occurring after the 37 year period of non-interference.

It will run from the Barents Sea within the Arctic Circle, south down the Finnish – Russian borders, through the Black Sea, down through Germany and central Europe, with three spurs to the Adriatic Sea, finally east along the border of Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey to the Black Sea – some journey, some nature reserve, some brilliant thinking to tie all these together into a natural swathe for wildlife through the middle of the European Union landmass.

The national ecological networks, the biosphere parks, wetlands, floodplain meadows, riverine habitats, deltas, wildflower meadows are where many species, that have disappeared in extensively agricultural or industrial areas, can feel at home and have flourished in these quiet and undisturbed parts of middle Europe.

Where else, to name but a few, would you get wild daffodil meadows, alluvial forests, fish spawning grounds because the standing water stays so warm, traditional scythed meadows, fens, oak, poplar and willow forests, river banks for nesting sand martins and kingfishers, the return of the European Lynx, originally living all over Europe, but returning today?

Eurasian Lynx

The legacy of this unique and extraordinarily rich chain of ad hoc nature reserves will be enormous to the scientific community – the botanists, the biologists, the geologists, geographers, conservationists, environmentalists – who will revel in this natural world and can record and gather all sorts of information for posterity about these unique areas that remain within this once reviled landscape, now reborn as a jewel of nature.

Dear Mr Postman – the gales and rainfall continue, but I gather we’re not alone the same is happening in the States. We’re well – I have had another trip to the hospital with my neighbour who inadvertently had tripped her latch, so we needed to break in to let the ambulance crew in – she hasn’t broken anything .. but another day! Her son has arrived today – we go on and my mother is quite sleepy.

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

Saturday, 14 November 2009

A is for Apple - an Apple a day keeps the doctor away ...

Harvest time is over, the mists, damp, grey skies are here, the cooling rain is in the air waiting to knock the final full fruits off their boughs, above the gnarled trunks, into the long damp grass beneath. The autumn offers us free foods in the hedgerows – the apples abound in the lanes, or are hidden in the back gardens or estates of larger properties lying on the ground providing essential fodder for insects, larvae, small mammals who can lay up extra nourishment before the winter sets in.

Cox’s Orange Pippin

The apple has seeded itself all over this England of ours, descended from the wild ancestors of the pomaceous fruit tree (“pomum” – Latin for apple) found growing in the mountains of western Asia (the species Malus domestica is part of the rose family, Rosaceae). Alexander the Great (356 – 323 BC) is credited with bringing the apple back to Macedonia (north of Greece), from where it spread, as exploration occurred, to the rest of the world.

Red Gravensteins

Winter apples, picked in the late autumn stored just above freezing, have been an important food in Asia and Europe for thousands of years, as well as the Americas with the arrival of the Europeans in 1492. Storage of the apple enabled it to become possibly the most versatile and ubiquitous fruit we have in the world. The Gravenstein apple, still considered the choicest apple by many Nova Scotians, for instance was possibly introduced by Russian fur traders travelling via Jutland, Denmark to the New World early in the 19th century.

Fairs and fetes bring the fun of apples out, or at home with the children participating in the making of toffee apples here in England .. an apple coated in hot toffee, left to cool before tucking in to that delicious mix of gooey toffee and fresh apple; or in the States as candy apples (a coating of hard crystallised sugar syrup) or even caramel apples.

The proverb “An apple a day keeps the doctor away” reputedly dates from 19th Century Wales .. came to remind us that there are enormous health benefits in an apple, particularly antioxidants, albeit there may be relatively low amounts of vitamin C, the fibrous content of apples may reduce the risk of bowel, prostate and lung cancer.

Five hundred years ago Henry VIII with his voracious appetite and vast court, needed to be fed at each of his palaces, or when a nobleman was honoured by a kingly visit, ensured continuation of the fashion for planting orchards filled with the fruit and nut trees of the day, also importing new species from the continent, guaranteeing a plentiful fresh larder at all times of the year.

Our two thousand year association with the apple and its various cultivars is still as strong today as it was then – in the last century it was realised that a great many of the old non-commercial varieties of tree were being lost, let alone the orchards themselves. These fields of fruit trees, with an undergrowth of meadow like habitat, have over the centuries provided symbiotic havens, for insect life, wild flowers, reptiles, small mammals and on the fringes the hedge rows provided natural plantings for use by blackbirds, song thrushes, woodpeckers and the like.

Alexander fighting the Persian king Darius III From Alexander Mosaic, from Pompeii, Naples Naples National Archaeological Museum (Battle of Issus 333BC - Mosaic detail)

There are 3,000 or so different types of apple, dessert apples and cookers, some readily available, others almost forgotten, surviving in old gardens or places that are tucked away – such as Bardsey Island. A gnarled and twisted trunk growing within ancient monastery boundaries on the island, was probably tended by the monks who lived there a thousand years ago: the Bardsey Apple has had cuttings taken, which will raise funds for the Island Trust, as well as save a singular apple species.

A Cider Press Jersey, Channel Islands

Who would think that names such as Slack-M-Girdle, Pig’s Snout and Hangy Down Cluster would refer to misshapen, tannic and rough-skinned apples ideal for making our English cider. While other ‘pomologists’ have been recording, crossing, classifying these fruits of the earth, these tempters of fate: as Eve found out – to ensure that we keep a rootstock of these delicious and subtly flavoured apples.

A dumpling – a Norfolk one – is an apple that has been brought back to life in the garden of a former rectory. A retired doctor found an ageing specimen, along with over 50 other varieties, in his orchard and it has taken this apple expert over 25 years to grow a young tree, which has finally fruited: the Norfolk Dumpling. We need dedication like this doctor in this day and age, with so much grubbing out and our lack of knowledge of these ancient natural plants, to ensure that these special varieties are preserved.

Apples do not grow true from seed, so in order to propagate a new tree a bit of the old is required: a piece of budded “scionwood” must be hand-grafted onto sturdy rootstock and nurtured as it grows. Think of the thousands of hands that have lovingly created countless new trees, since the Roman Naturalist, Pliny the Elder praised “the Lady apple” a tiny fruit in the first century AD.

Fresco from Pompeii with fruit. Annurca apples believed to be the apple depicted in frescoes at ruins of Herculaneum and mentioned in Pliny the Elder's "Naturalis Historia".

By the 1600s the French were devouring this succulent wee treasure, as it may be “eaten greedily with all its coat on” - the small fruits were able to be secreted about a courtier’s person in their pockets. Today in the States they ripen late in the season – hence being known as Christmas apples, or Annurca variety. Our ancestors knew the best way to eat these treats – raw as the peel adds to the winey, semi-sweet taste of the flesh.
Claude Monet's Still Life with Apples and Grapes (1880) Art Institute of Chicago

Cox’s Orange Pippins are our Christmas apples in England, their creamy-coloured flesh is crisp, fine-grained, hinting of Christmas tastes - honey, nuts and pears – they store well and can be used in a variety of ways. These too are relatively small, albeit commercial cultivars tend to have become larger fruits. As a child I remember shaking the ripe apple to see if their pips rattled, as they are only loosely held in, whereas other apples have their pips contained as part of the apple flesh.

The French Orchards in Normandy very possibly came from the pips dispersed by the Romans and Norsemen (early Normans!) in the pomace (the residue of skins, pulp, seeds and stems of the fruit), which was spread in the pastures as manure – resulting in many seedlings. The Normans brought large quantities of these apples trees to Britain after 1066.

Apple trees of many varieties live on, new cross variants being tested are so versatile and can be used in all sorts of recipes both savoury and sweet, soups, starters, breakfast, as a vegetable or a sauce, stuffed inside a game bird to give a bit of flavour and juice – or as an early cure for keeping the doctor away. Apples also have other attributes – such as keeping potatoes from budding, by including an apple amongst their midst; or how about putting an apple in the bag to ripen avocados or bananas? Such a treasure of a fruit ....

Dear Mr Postman on this weekend of gales and floods – thank you for delivering this story up to my mother – I have been taking my time as the apple is an enormous subject, and as I’ve a great many letters to write on my mother’s behalf for her birthday, together with the letters that I have felt I wanted to do for my uncle to let everyone, who was unable to attend the funeral, have ‘a feel’ of the day: which seems to have been appreciated: though I’m lettered out!

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Fireworks and Bonfire Night - November 5th

Guy Fawkes really started the Bonfire and Firework parties that we now have throughout Britain during the early part of November, while Halloween has always been a much more American thing! Though there is definitely a cultural mix now – as our children enjoy the dressing up for the spooky Halloween nights, or the ghost hunts.

Sydney leads the world in one of the first major New Year celebrations each year.
Guy Fawkes and a number of Catholic conspirators entered Parliament, where they had previously stored 36 barrels of gunpowder, which they intended to set fire to with the intention of blowing up the government buildings, killing King James 1 and most of the protestant aristocracy in 1605: to this day the vaults are checked before each State Opening of Parliament.

A fiat (in Latin “let it be”) was enforced until 1859 “to celebrate the deliverance of the King of England” – hence ensuring that November 5th would ‘forever’ be a part of our culture. The concept of fireworks and bonfire night spread across the world to the various English speaking countries, where either the celebrations continue, or where, if fireworks have been banned, celebratory commercial firework displays occur under licence.

Guy Fawkes

Bonfires were originally pagan bone-fires and recorded as such in 1493 – bone-fires being of clean animal bones, wood-fires being of wood, while bone and wood fires were built in “the worship of St John”. Now we have effigies made, which are burnt on the enormous popular bonfires lit for the occasion; when I was small at home it was always a ‘Guy Fawkes’ effigy .. but now our Bonfire Societies select notable infamous peoples from the present year .. recently, for example Saddam Hussein.

Chinese alchemists discovered gunpowder in the 9th century and practised using it with hollowed bamboo shoots to scare away evil spirits. Coloured fire was also know n then as saltpetre gave off a purplish flame – but until smokeless gunpowder was invented in the late 19th century – fireworks to be appreciated were unknown, except for the bangs and white fiery emissions.

It is thought that Marco Polo, the Venetian, during his travels to Mongolia met the Kublai Khan, the Great Khan of the Mongol Empire 1260 – 1294, established trade routes for the future and learnt much about the Chinese culture and traditions, which it is thought at this time he brought back gunpowder (amongst many other new technologies) into Europe.

A Mongol bomb thrown against a charging Japanese samurai during the Mongol invasions of Japan, 1281

The first recorded Firework Display was at the wedding of King Henry VII in 1486 and was so popular by Elizabethan times that the post of Fireworks Master was created. We know that Handel composed the Music for the Royal Fireworks in 1749, (which remains a favourite to this day), for a firework display in London’s Green Park on 27th April 1749. Green Park, by Buckingham Palace, was at that time a swamp, and formed an open area of land beyond the boundaries of the city of London.

By the 1830s chemists had found that various chemicals added made different colours, and different explosive elements – so copper salts made blue, aluminium and magnesium made gold and white, barium salts gave green, strontium salts gave reds, while sodium salts made yellow, and the addition of calcium deepens the colours, the addition of titanium produces sparks while zinc gives us the white smoke.
A VIEW of the FIRE-WORKES and ILLUMINATIONS at his GRACE the Duke of RICHMOND'S at WHITEHALL and on the River Thames on Monday 15 May 1749. Performed by the direction of Charles Fredrick Esq. A hand-coloured etching.

Now fireworks tend to be displays of pyrotechnical effects staged at world events, or celebrating some major local performances while there are still some small family firework parties.
Fireworks have become so sophisticated – these paper or cardboard tubes filled with a combustible material, often pyrotechnic stars – can be combined to make various sparking shapes, variously coloured. The sky rocket, as an aerial shell, is a common form of firework used as the backbone of today’s commercial aerial display. I’m quite certain we’ve all seen a number of these – the welcome in of the year 2,000, other New Years, the winter and summer Olympic Games and they certainly are spectacular – a work of art as displayed above by the artist recording these images in 1749.

Guy Fawkes’ original dark lantern (see picture) made of sheet iron was donated in 1641 to the Tradescant collection at Lambeth, London, before being donated to the Ashmolean, and is now held in the revamped Museum in Oxford to be opened to the public this weekend – as described here in this traditional rhyme, which we continue to say:

Remember, remember the Fifth of November,
The Gunpowder Treason and Plot,
I know of no reason
Why the Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot.
Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes, t'was his intent
To blow up the King and Parli'ment.
Three-score barrels of powder below
To prove old England's overthrow;
By God's providence he was catch'd (or by God's mercy*)
With a dark lantern and burning match.
Holloa boys, holloa boys, let the bells ring. (Holla*)
Holloa boys, holloa boys, God save the King!
And what should we do with him? Burn him!

Beautiful sparkles in the sky but I must say the explosive noise can be really too loud – I walked through Eastbourne last night as a fireworks display went on in the local sports ground, which I could see showing in the bedroom windows, but the noises were tremendous – ear splitting, and I wasn't nearby.

Dear Mr Postman – I am pleased to hear that the strike has been called off for the time being, as my mother enjoys getting her letters and news from family and friends. We had a brief stint at the hospital yesterday – fortunately this time it was just a few hours, as last time we’d been down it went on for six weeks! Mum regaled the staff on her return last night – and seemed to have ‘enjoyed’ the trip .. today she was sleeping – understandably.

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

Sunday, 1 November 2009

Rough Diamonds and Baroque Pearls ....

Rough diamonds – know any? An uncultivated person of intrinsically great merit with a good character, who is lacking social polish .. someone who may become a “Diamond of the First Water”: this is actually an especially fine diamond, one of the greatest value for its size (the colour or lustre of a diamond is called its “water”).

World Famous Diamonds: A group of multi-colored diamonds

Diamonds have been known in India for at least 3,000 years, but probably much earlier, where the alluvial deposits made mining easy and supplies accessible. The name ‘diamond’ is derived from the ancient Greek word meaning “unalterable", "unbreakable”, or “untamed”, while the diamond itself as a tool had been used by early humans for engraving, while once cut and cleaned the stones were used for adornment by the ancient Indians on their religious icons.

India led the world in diamond production from the time of their discovery to the mid-18th century, when diamonds were found in Brazil in 1725, then were found by explorers and miners in other parts of the world starting notably in Southern Africa: large deposits being found in the cooled igneous kimberlite rocks of South Africa and Botswana. Large holes being excavated under crude conditions – such as the Big Hole at Kimberley.

World famous diamonds have also been uncovered at the Alexander Bay alluvial diamond mines – where the Orange River flows into the Atlantic Ocean. De Beers Mining of South Africa owns the rights to these mineral rich river deposits. When they were first found in the 1920s it is recorded that 14,000 carats were once unearthed in only six weeks’ mining. The diamonds found here have been of extraordinary quantity, quality and diversity.

Red Giant: Can dying stars known as red giants spawn diamonds? Some scientists think so.

In recent years gemology experts have been able to grade diamonds creating more value to the different characteristics that are used as the basic descriptors of the stones: carat, cut, colour and clarity.

Diamond has remarkable optical characteristics because of its extremely rigid lattice, and is only contaminated by a very few types of impurities. Normally the stones are transparent with a relatively high optical dispersion, shining like rainbows with their natural lustre or brilliance.

The colour range is truly incredible, but we lesser mortals are unlikely to see, these amazing jewels – blues, pinks, reds, purples, browns, yellows, greens ..on the day after Halloween if you want to be bewitched please visit famous diamonds .. and be left truly wondering.

The Millennium Star - c/o Famous Diamonds

Diamonds in the Sky are probably not farfetched as we might think; glittering stars in the night sky aside, scientists have long known that there are diamonds in the heavens. Black diamonds, (“carbonados”) named after the Portuguese word for burned or carbonized, carbonados were first found in Brazil in the 1800s and have since turned up elsewhere. Unlike our normal expectations of clear diamonds, which are single crystals, black diamonds consist of aggregations of individual crystals, giving the gem its depth of dark colour. There are black pearls, but these are cultured and do not grow naturally.

A black pearl and a shell of the black-lipped pearl oyster

Oysters are found in the clear waters of the seas, which provided an essential food for man living on, trading along, or exploring the coastal waters. Pearl oysters are not edible. The name pearl came from the Persian “morvarid” (sea-daughter), becoming “markarit” in Armenian, then “margarites” in Greek, and finally “margarita” in Latin (hence our name Margaret). The Romans adopted the slang ‘pirla’ referring to the elongated shape of the pearls worn as pendants, which has been retained by our modern tongues of today.

The Portuguese also influenced the naming of the misshapen pearls by calling them baroque pearls, after their word “barocco”, which strikingly characterised the architecture of the 1600s to 1750 period – so called the Baroque style.

Pearls like diamonds have been retrieved from the waters of the Indian Ocean and South China Sea before Christopher Columbus, opened the doors to the Americas for the Spanish Conquistadors to take advantage of the abounding riches in the new lands. Columbus discovered Margarita Island, some 200 km north off the Venezuelan coast, so named after its extensive pearl beds, which amounted to almost a third of the ‘tribute’ to the Spanish Crown.

Girl with a Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer (c. 1665)

As with diamonds, pearls are also defined by a combination of the lustre, colour, size and lack of surface flaw and symmetry that are appropriate for the type of pearl under consideration. Lustre however is the most important differentiator of pearl quality.

Pearls too, as you would expect, come in different shapes – the perfectly round pearls are the rarest and most valuable. Natural pearls are nearly 100% calcium carbonate, and those which are large, perfectly round are rare and highly valued. Teardrop-shaped pearls are often used in pendants, and as with diamonds, the other shapes are used in other ways to enhance their value, despite their flaws.

A blister pearl, a half-sphere, formed flush against the shell of the pearl oyster

A pearl of great price is something highly treasured or especial value – as are diamonds as a girl’s best friend, or diamonds being forever – all recorded in our cultural history be it art, music, film or words .. “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”. Have you rough diamonds in your mix along with pearls of great price – we all have and we should value them each and every one.

Dear Mr Postman – it is kind of you to deliver this letter by hand, as you are still on strike – especially on this wet and windy first of November. My uncle’s funeral was very simple and touchingly English with about 70 of his old friends and family – so it was a sad, but joyous occasion – and the autumn colours at their house enhancing the setting over the pond, made for an empathetic goodbye.

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories