Thursday, December 27, 2018

Wæs hæl! Drinc hæl!

Although synonymous with Christmas, the tradition of wassailing, typically celebrated on Twelfth Night (variously January 5th or 6th), has largely been displaced by carolling.  Both versions share the practice of people going door-to-door and singing, but wassailing also involves offering a drink from the "wassail bowl" in exchange for gifts.

There is another version of wassailing, however, with ancient roots: the custom of visiting orchards in the cider-producing regions of England (chiefly the counties of Devon, Somerset, Dorset, Gloucestershire and Herefordshire).  This form of wassailing involves incantation and singing, the purpose being to awake the cider apple trees and to scare away evil spirits thus ensuring a good harvest of fruit the following Autumn.

Whichever version you favour, the word "wassail" seems to be a contraction of the Anglo-Saxon greeting Wæs þu hæl, meaning "be thou hale" or, if you prefer, “be in good health”.  In the twelfth century, Danish-speakers inhabiting the Danelaw turned Waes hael, and the reply Drinc hæl, into a drinking formula, a toast widely adopted by the rest of England's population.

So, if over this festive season you wish to go a-wassailing you might consider this Victorian recipe for...

The non-alcoholic nature of this recipe can be upgraded by replacing the apple juice with scrumpy or something similar.

Monday, December 24, 2018

From the Supply Reserve Depot

Success! For some time now, I have been searching for a stoneware jar marked with the letters “SRD” to complement Tastes Of History’s Great War themed history displays.  While many stoneware jars have been found, none had the iconic “SRD” lettering.  Just before Christmas Jill and I visited Victoria Mill Antiques Centre in Congleton, a favourite haunt f\of ours or seeking out period props and kitchenalia.  If I am honest, we went there for lunch as chef Ian Woodhouse serves quite superb food in the Loft Café, but it never hurts to have a nose around.  Within minutes, three stoneware jars were spotted at the back of a shelf but, so used to finding such things, I almost ignored them.  That is until I noticed what looked like black marks on one of the jars facing the wall.  Could it be?  The jar pictured is now part of our kit, but why all the fuss and what do those letters mean?

First World War, and later, period British Army stoneware jars were typically marked with the letters “SRD” which, according to the Imperial War Museum (IWM), stood for “Supply Reserve Depot”.  As usual various internet commentators continue to cast doubt on this meaning, but it is safe to say that the alternatives (see InfoBox), which are all too often quoted, are simply incorrect.

Other, more ironic, interpretations of the initials including: “Seldom Reaches Destination”, “Service Rum Diluted” and “Soon Runs Dry” are simply wonderful examples of soldiers' black humour.  If there remains any doubt on the meaning of “SRD”, then consider that the Imperial War Museum was founded in 1917 to record the civil and military war effort and sacrifice of Britain and its Empire during the First World War.  Such a pedigree gives the IWM a certain authority on such matters and thus “Supply Reserve Depot” it is.

That containers and crates for other foodstuffs and drinks/liquids were marked “SRD” is completely understandable and consistent with them being distributed to the front through the Army’s logistical supply system.  Indeed, the iconic "SRD" jars, which are usually assumed to have contained only rum, may have held many different liquids or substances.  These stoneware jars were simply the common storage container of the day.  Variations in the shape and glaze colours of surviving examples is most likely the result of mass production by several different potteries.

The association with rum remains valid, however.  Except for Muslim personnel, British and Commonwealth soldiers were given a daily rum ration of 1/16th of a pint, or a quarter-gill, per man per day.  Given such a small amount, frontline soldiers would find it difficult to get intoxicated on the standard issue ration alone so stories of troops going into battle in an alcoholic stupor are most likely unfounded.  That said, some sources mention the run ration being doled out more frequently, especially when attacks were imminent or if heavy casualties increased the availability of rum.  Typically, however, the ration was issued once per morning at the daily “stand-to” when, just before dawn, soldiers would man their forward trench positions in preparation to counter an enemy attack.

Thursday, December 20, 2018


Ever wondered where Christmas comes from?  After all we have been celebrating a mid-winter festival for millennia.  According to the latest research, even the monumental Neolithic structure known as Stonehenge, completed ca. 2,500 BC, seems geared towards worshipping the setting of the sun at the mid-winter solstice.

From the Neolithic through to the Romans, people have been marking the lengthening of the days post the solstice.  Ensuring that the sun (and by extension, Spring) returned each year might be thought essential for any farming community reliant of the seasons and the cycle of life.  At the darkest point of the year, therefore, when people were increasingly dependent on the stored harvest and hoping they will have sufficient stocks to get through the winter, a celebratory festival would be good for morale.  Combine that with some form of religious observance aimed at placating the sun, or the relevant god or goddess, or whatever, seems eminently sensible.

Step forward Pope Julius I, Bishop of Rome from February 6th, AD 337 to his death on April 12th, AD 352 who found an expedient way to settle a question that had divided Christendom: when was Jesus born?

Throughout the Roman world, and especially in Rome, the great celebration was Saturnalia or, by the 4th century AD, "Dies Natalis Solis Invicti" (birth day of the Unconquered Sun).  The former lasted several days and culminated in the "Brumalia" on December 25th.  The later was also celebrated on  the same day following the dedication of a new temple to Sol by the Emperor Aurelian on December 25th, AD 274.  The longevity and immense popularity of this ancient festival, in fact the major celebration of the year for many people, caused some consternation for the early Christian church.  It just could not stop people enjoying the old rituals.

Pope Julius I thus found himself head of a faith at the heart of which was the resurrection, the defeat of death, by the adult Jesus - and this took place at Easter!  How then to wean the "faithful" off celebrating the old ways at mid-winter and follow the church's teachings?

The early Christians lacked a story of the divine birth of their principal actor, and had actively avoided celebrating the birth of Christ for fear it would mark him "a mere earthly king" (as the early Christian theologian, Origen, wrote ca. AD 245).  Pope Julius' response was to simply superimpose a Christian festival on the "pagan" one. In AD 350, the worship of one sun god was neatly replaced with another at precisely the same time of year, marking December 25th as the birth date of Jesus,  and much of the ancient paraphernalia and ritual was adopted.  Expropriation of the ancient mid-winter solstice festival gave birth to the Nativity.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Dispelling a Myth: Britain's "Secret Service"

Yet another TV drama refers to Britain's Secret Service, but why?  Britain has not had a "secret service" since the end of the Second World War.  At the time of writing that's 73 years ago!  So, why do journalists, media types, film and TV producers continue to confuse the title with the US agency of the same name.  Perhaps they are simply ignorant, or perhaps they are pandering to a US marketplace, or perhaps they think we Britons are too dim-witted to understand who's who.  Can it be that difficult to separate fact from fiction?  As it turns out, no.  A little open source research quickly finds the publicly available history of these two organisations in their own words.

Since their establishment in 1909 both the Security Service and Secret Intelligence Service have had a variety of names, most famously MI5 and MI6, which has often led to confusion about what the Services have been called.  Officially the terms MI5 and MI6 were consigned to history decades ago but their grip on popular culture has been perpetuated by their use by the media and, in the case of MI5, the Security Service itself.

In the early 1900s, the British government was increasingly concerned about the threat to its Empire posed by Germany’s imperial ambitions.  This led to scare stories of German spies and even the Director of Military Operations was convinced that Germany was targeting Britain.  While the rumours proved to be exaggerated, the Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith, reacted to popular concern and ordered the Committee of Imperial Defence to look into the matter.  The Committee established a Secret Service Bureau in July 1909.  It was placed under the nominal supervision of the Directorate of Military Operations (DMO) of the War Office, the predecessor of today's Ministry of Defence.  The branch of the DMO responsible for the Secret Service Bureau was called MO5.

By October 1909 the Bureau was divided into Home and Foreign Sections.  The former was founded by Captain (later Major General) Vernon Kell; the latter was led by Mansfield Cumming, a 50-year-old Royal Navy officer, and inspiration for James Bond's "M".

The Secret Service Bureau was absorbed into the War Office in April 1914 for the duration of the First World War.  Kell’s Home Section became part of section 5 of the Directorate of Military Operations assuming the title MO5(g).  Two and a half years later, in September 1916, MO5(g) was moved to the newly established Directorate of Military Intelligence within the War Office.  It became the fifth branch of the War Office’s Directorate for Military Intelligence, hence the name MI5.  At the start of the First World War MI5 played a central role in the capture of most of Imperial Germany's intelligence agents in the UK.

Following the outbreak of war with Germany in 1914, the Foreign Section worked more closely with Military Intelligence.  Like its counterpart, in 1916 Foreign Section adopted the cover of “MI1(c)”, part of the War Office.  This cover name was just one of many used from its inception and through the Great War. Others included the “Foreign Intelligence Service”, the “Secret Service”, the “Special Intelligence Service” and even “C's organisation”.  Around 1920, the title “the Secret Intelligence Service” (or SIS) was adopted and has remained the official title ever since.

SIS’s sister organisation was renamed as the Defence Security Service in 1929.  Two years later this became the Security Service, the name by which it is still known today.  "MI5" continues to be widely used as a short alternative to the Service’s official name, while the use of “MI6” appears at the start of the Second World War when this abbreviation was adopted as a flag of convenience for the SIS.  It was used extensively throughout the war, especially if an organisational link needed to be made with MI5.  Indeed, by the end of the Second World War, 17 such “MI” branches had been created to perform a variety of functions, but of these only MI5 and SIS (MI6) still exist today.  Officially, however, “MI6” fell into disuse years ago, but many writers and journalists continue to use it to describe the SIS.

Strictly speaking, at no time have either organisation been known as “The Secret Service” despite this term being frequently and erroneously used in TV dramas and films.  The “Secret Service” is very definitely American. Officially called The United States Secret Service (USSS), or more commonly the Secret Service, it is a federal law enforcement agency controlled by the US Department of Homeland Security.  The Secret Service is charged with conducting criminal investigations and protecting the nation's leaders.  Until 2003, it was part of the US Department of the Treasury, as the agency was originally founded to combat the rampant counterfeiting of US currency after the American Civil War.  Over time the agency evolved into the United States' first domestic intelligence and counterintelligence agency.  Many of the it's missions were later taken over by subsequent agencies such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), and IRS Criminal Investigation Division (IRS-CI).

Today the USSS’ investigative mission continues to safeguard the payment and financial systems of the United States from a wide range of financial and electronic-based crimes.  The agency also has a protective mission to ensure the safety of the President of the United States, the Vice President of the United States, the President’s and Vice President’s immediate families, former presidents, their spouses, and their minor children under the age of 16, major presidential and vice- presidential candidates and their spouses, and foreign heads of state.  The USSS also provides physical security for the White House Complex, the neighbouring Treasury Department building, the Vice President’s residence, and all foreign diplomatic missions in Washington, DC.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Home Front 1918

With this year marking the centenary of the end of the Great War, at Waddesdon Manor we recreated a taste of the Home Front in 1918.  Many of the visitors were surprised to discover that many of the things familiarly associated with World War 2 had been instituted just over two decades earlier.  The first German air raid on London, for example, took place on May 31st, 1915.  A further 50 attacks were made by Zeppelin airships on British cities until higher flying fighter aircraft and incendiary bullets brought these aerial bombers down to earth.

Women at War  On the eve of the war, there was serious domestic unrest in the UK particularly amongst the labour and suffrage movements, and a powerful revolt against imperial rule in Ireland.  At the outbreak of war, however, patriotic feeling spread throughout the whole country, with much of the population rapidly rallying behind the government.  Yet as the war ground on, the significant sacrifices made in the name of defeating the enemy slowly but irrevocably weakened many of the class barriers in Edwardian Britain.  It was a time of great change.

Variously throughout the war, serious shortages of able-bodied men ("manpower") led to women taking on many of the traditional male roles.  Indeed, the Great War is credited by some with drawing women into mainstream employment for the first time.  Prime Minister David Lloyd George was
clear about how important women were:

“It would have been utterly impossible for us to have waged a successful war had it not been for the skill and ardour, enthusiasm and industry which the women of this country have thrown into the war.”

The experience of individual women varied greatly, with much depending on locality, age, marital status and occupation.  Many women found work that directly helped the war effort in the munitions factories (as "munitionettes", pictured opposite).  Many more found employment opportunities in the Civil Service and in administrative work, which likewise released men for the front.  Eventually, women could join the armed forces in non-combatant roles, such as nursing and cooking.  By the end of the War some 80,000 women had joined the armed forces in auxiliary roles.  The khaki clad enlistees of The Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) could find themselves driving trucks and mending engines, cooking for frontline troops or performing the vital administration and supply work.  By the end of the war there were some 50,000 women serving in the renamed Queen Mary's Army Auxiliary Corps in the war zones of France, Belgium, Italy and Greece.

Women’s Land Army Born  The British government wanted women to get more involved in the production of food and do their part to support the war effort.  One goal was to attract middle-class women to act as models for patriotic engagement in non-traditional duties.  Many farmers were resistant, so the Board of Agriculture set about encouraging farmers to accept women’s help on the farms.  In March 1917, the Women's Land Army was born; not in World War Two as popularly assumed.  By the end of that year there were over 250,000 women working as farm labourers, with 23,000 in the Land Army itself, performing chores such as milking cows and picking fruit.

This development was not without controversy, however.  The uniform of the Women's Land Army of male overalls and trousers sparked debate on the propriety of cross-dressing.  However odd this may seem today, the British government, desperate not to upset the social mores of the time, employed rhetoric to explicitly feminise the new roles with some success.  Pre-war, for example, it was generally accepted that secretaries were men.  Post-war, and in more recent times, secretarial roles are thought, rightly or wrongly, the preserve of women.

Food and Rationing  In line with its wartime "business as usual" policy, the British government was initially reluctant to try to control the food markets.  It resisted efforts to introduce minimum prices in cereal production, though relenting on the control of essential imports such as sugar, meat and grains.  When changes were introduced, however, they had limited effect.  In 1916, it became illegal to consume more than two courses while lunching in a public eating place or more than three for dinner; fines were introduced for members of the public found feeding the pigeons or stray animals.

In January 1917, in yet another foretaste of World War Two, Germany’s unrestricted submarine warfare programme began to sink ships bringing food to Britain.  Aimed at starving the country into surrender, Britain responded by introducing voluntary rationing the following month.  Bread was subsidised from September 1917, with compulsory rationing introduced in stages between December 1917 and February 1918, as Britain's stores of wheat dropped to just six weeks’ supply.  To assist with rationing, ration books were introduced on July 15th, 1918 for butter, margarine, lard, meat, and sugar.

Women's Suffrage  In the spirit of patriotism, the suffragists of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) and the militant suffragette movement, epitomised by Emmeline Pankhurst’s Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), both suspended their
“Votes for Women” campaigns for the duration of the war.  Today we are probably more familiar with the suffragettes as their campaign of "Deeds not Words" epitomises the power of propaganda and the manipulation of the media to maximise the "oxygen of publicity" such groups need to survive and prosper.  Yet the suffragettes were on the verge of becoming a radicalised, extremist terrorist group in 1914.  While it is true that no person was hurt by the WSPU's arson and bombing attacks, one wonders if the war had not intervened, just how long it would have been before someone was killed by their actions.

Today it is still much debated what impact the activities of the suffrage movements, especially the suffragettes, and the Great War had on women's emancipation.  In the aftermath of the war, millions of soldiers returning home were still not entitled to vote, which posed a dilemma for politicians.  How could they be seen to withhold the vote from the very men who had just fought to preserve the British democratic political system.  The Representation of the People Act 1918 attempted to solve the problem.  When, on February 6th, Royal Assent to the Act gave the right to vote to all adult males over 21 years old who were resident householders, it also gave the vote to women over 30 who met minimum property qualifications.  Until recently, the enfranchisement of this latter group was accepted as recognition of the contribution made by women defence workers.  It is more likely, however, that granting limited, age-restricted women’s suffrage was a by-product of giving the vote to millions of returning male soldiers rather than a reward for women’s participation in war work, or indeed the suffrage campaigns.  Even so, it would take a further ten years before women in Britain finally achieved suffrage on the same terms as men.

1918 was a significant year.  In the post-war “land fit for heroes” many of the social barriers that had pervaded Victorian and Edwardian Britain had been irrevocably broken.  In 1918 women over the age of 30 were given the right to vote.  A year later the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act made it illegal to exclude women from jobs because of their sex.  Yet in the very same year, the Restoration of Pre-War Practices, meant that men should be given priority in employment.  Many women found themselves pushed back into the home, back into caring roles for husbands many bearing the physical and mental scars from the fighting.  The clock could not be turned back entirely, however.  Women had found new independence and had shown themselves and the rest of society that they could do jobs that before the Great War would have been unthinkable.  In 1918 women's emancipation had taken its first steps on the long road to today.

Tuesday, May 08, 2018

An Elizabethan Pageant

In 1563, Elizabeth I (r.1558–1603) granted Kenilworth to her childhood friend and favourite, Robert Dudley, the soon to be Earl of Leicester.  She visited four times during "progresses" through her realm - her visit in the summer of 1575 was the longest she made to any courtier during her reign - and Dudley’s embellishments to the castle and its setting were doubtless intended to impress her.  Pictured opposite is a reconstruction by Peter Urmston for Historic England of what Dudley's castle may have looked like at the time.

Over the bank holiday weekend we took part in English Heritage's celebration of Kenilworth’s Elizabethan heyday as the ultimate party palace with music, falconry displays and a feast of entertainment fit for the Virgin Queen.  Anxious to impress, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, showed off the skills which made him Master of the Royal Horses, but our more modest part was to produce dishes fit a Queen and her subjects alike. Time to party like it's 1575!

Although we often refer to the "Elizabethan period", the Queen was very much a Tudor, and no Tudor meal would be complete without some form of pie.  We duly pre-prepared a "Great Pie" in honour of Her Majesty for visitors to the pageant to sample:

Our homemade Great Pie recipe was not taken from a particular historical source but was inspired by mediaeval and Tudor precedents.  The filling is diced mixed game supplied by The Wild Meat Company based in Woodbridge, Suffolk.  Their mix usually consists of around one third venison, one third pheasant and partridge, and one third a combination of wild duck, pigeon, and rabbit.  Added to a rich gravy, the filling was contained within a hot-water crust for baking.  Such robust pastry had to be used by Tudor cooks to form a pie crust that would hold its shape as they did not use pie tins.

Two further meat dishes were prepared.  The recipe for "Dutch Pudding" was derived from The Court and Kitchen of Mrs Elizabeth Commonly called Joan Cromwell.  It is essentially minced beef mixed with several herbs and spices that is boiled much like one would for a Christmas pudding.  The original recipe states it should be served with mustard, but a fruit sauce - blackberry or red currant - works equally well.

In Tudor England the name collops referred specifically to thick slices of bacon. Just before Lent, with its restrictions on what could and could not be eaten, it was the tradition to use up those foods that would spoil over the period. For the Tudors it soon became the custom for slices of bacon to be fried and served with eggs, usually for breakfast, on Collop Monday. In one way this could be considered the forerunner of today's full English Breakfast. Nevertheless, the leftover bacon fat would be used the following day, Shrove Tuesday, to make pancakes. Our "Scotch Collops" echoes a traditional Scottish dish that uses either mince or thin slices of either beef, lamb or venison. Today Scotch Collops are often served garnished with thin toast and mashed potato. Oddly, having been introduced to Britain around 1588, potatoes were often regarded with suspicion, distaste and even fear. Generally considered unfit for human consumption, they were used only as animal fodder or as sustenance for the starving.

Parsnips have been cultivated and eaten in Europe for thousands of years  For fashionable Tudor tables parsnips might be plain-boiled, then stewed with a variety of flavours often intended to mask their original flavour.  For the Pageant we prepared parsnips in wine vinegar.  Ideally we would have used verjuice, a highly acidic juice made by pressing unripe grapes, crab-apples or other sour fruit.  In the mediaeval and Tudor periods it was widely used as an ingredient in sauces, as a condiment, or to deglaze preparations.

To compliment the parsnips, we introduced pickled mushrooms to the Pageant's visitors.  For those who dislike the texture of mushrooms, but brave enough to try them, the pickling in white wine and spices proved something of a surprise.  The combination of flavours makes an interesting addition to any Tudor (or modern) feast.

To complete the presentation, we pre-prepared a Spice Cake inspired by Robert May's The Accomplisht Cook.  Although strictly speaking a Stuart era recipe, the use of so many expensive imported spices in a fruit cake had been popular with aristocratic Tudors to showcase their wealth.

All in all we spent an enjoyable weekend catching up with old friends, meeting some new ones and revelling in the glorious bank holiday sunshine.  We hope you will be inspired to recreate these wonderful recipes to impress your guest at table.

Monday, April 23, 2018

St George's Day

Today marks the 454th birthday of William Shakespeare (1564-1616).  As he is famously thought to have been born and died on the same date, so April 23rd is also the 402nd anniversary of his death on St George's Day 1616.

This day was once celebrated with feasts much like those we enjoy at Christmas, but its popularity waned in the 18th century after England's union with Scotland.  Parts of England do still honour George with annual fetes and pageants, perhaps with traditional entertainments like Morris dancing or Punch and Judy shows.  Most will undoubtedly involve dragons of some persuasion, but very few will involve feasting.

Unlike in December, where we dine on roast turkey and Christmas pudding, there do not appear to be any traditional recipes associated with St George's Day.  Undeterred, we set about producing some sweet and some savoury Mediaeval dishes for the visitors to The Potteries Museum and Art Gallery to try.  If you would like to recreate these tasty dishes, then here are the recipes: