Thursday, 20 October 2016

Herbs, Spices and Herbalists - part 4: Vanilla ...

My mother for some reason hated vanilla … and never used it in cooking … now of course I’d like to know why – but that will have to wait til I’m in those higher regions of life beyond.

Vanilla Slice

Once I’d tasted a vanilla slice, or mille feuille, as a ‘greedy’ growing teenager – any chance for another piece was always taken up … or searched for.

The climbing vanilla orchid

I knew nothing about its history, or growth, or for that matter how to use it – as I’ve never been bothered … I can get my fix easily enough at the patisserie or here, more likely, the bakery.

Vanilla apparently is the second-most expensive spice after saffron … because growing the seed pods is labour intensive.  It has plenty of uses … in baking, perfume manufacture and aromatherapy.

It is another of those plants, a climbing orchid, originating in the humid forests of tropical America which was brought over by the Spanish after they had seen the Incas use it as flavouring in chocolate.

Vanilla mentioned in the Florentine Codex (c 1580)

Attempts to cultivate vanilla outside Central America proved futile because of the symbiotic relationship between the vanilla orchid and its natural pollinator, the local species of Melipona bee, was unknown.

The Melipone Bee

But, there’s always a ‘but’, in 1836, botanist Charles Francois Antoine Morren was drinking coffee on a patio in Veracruz, Mexico and noticed black bees flying around the vanilla flowers next to his table:  these were the social and stingless Melipone bees.

He watched as they would land and work their way under the flap inside the flower, transferring pollen in the process.  This Belgian botanist started hand pollination ... but it was a time consuming job … although its discovery showed that artificial pollination was possible …

Charles Morren
… to make matters somewhat more difficult the vanilla flower only lasts about one day, sometimes less, so growers have to inspect their plantations every day for open flowers, a labour intensive task.

The ‘poor old’ Melipona bee is now only known for the honey it produces … the fact it was a symbiotic necessity to grow vanilla has, in Wikipedia, largely gone unnoticed …

Edmond Albius

Five years later, in 1841, Edmond Albius (1829 – 1880), a slave who lived on the French island of Reunion in the Indian Ocean, discovered, at the age of 12, a quicker way to pollinate the plant using a thin stick or blade of grass and a simple thumb gesture … leading to global cultivation.

Albius’ manual technique is still in use today … France, in 1848, outlawed slavery in its colonies … Albius became a domestic servant … with a sorry life ahead, dying in poverty.  He has at least been remembered though …

Unripe pods

The long yellow pods are picked unripe, fresh pods have no vanilla flavour … this develops only as a result of internal chemical activity (by enzymes) during a curing process.

Vainilla, or “little pod” as it was described only entered the English language in 1754, when the botanist Philip Miller (1691 – 1771) wrote about the genus in his Gardener’s Dictionary – he was chief gardener at the Chelsea Physic Garden.

Prior to that Hugh Morgan (1530 – 1613) is credited with the introduction of vanilla to England … Morgan was apothecary to Queen Elizabeth I.

Vanilla flower with its parts ...
see Wikipedia 
Formerly, vanilla was used in medicine, as a nerve stimulant and along with other spices had a reputation as an aphrodisiac.  It was also used for scenting tobacco.

Natural vanilla is expensive, reflecting the labour intensive production, while the synthetic form is widely used.  Make sure you’re getting the type you want and need …

Cornish Cream
Ice Cream cone

Now we know it as a flavouring … essential for ice-cream, vital in chocolate manufacture … an increasingly popular addition to savoury dishes, but is most lovingly used as a background flavour in desserts and liqueurs.

In 1874 it was one of the first flavours to be synthesised, using material from coniferous trees … today vanillin is extracted from many sources … and is used in a range of extracts and essences.  

Illustration of vanilla planifolia by
Matilda Smith (1854 - 1926)
from Curtis' Botanical magazine via Kew
Originally vanilla was purely used as an additional flavouring – now we know it is widely used in many processes – natural and artificial … and can be detected in sponges, custards … but remember check your source … vanillin can be produced synthetically from lignin, a natural polymer found in wood … and most synthetic vanillin is a by-product from the pulp used in papermaking …  

Want to eat less? … apparently if you smell a delicious whiff of rich vanilla extract before eating your meal … you might not eat so much … worth a try, I guess.

c/o Vanilla pods in various stages of curing in alcohol
So vanilla – that ubiquitous of aromas … has many applications … from tobacco to possibly quelling your appetite – with an interesting history … from its early unique start in Central America to its total global dominance in some form today.

The best vanilla essence is made by extracting crushed vanilla pods with alcohol … but cured vanilla pods may be used over and over again … even after flavouring custard … just wash and re-dry.  The easiest way though is to have vanilla sugar on hand … a pod left in some sugar …

Vanilla Victoria Sponge ... 

Some suggested recipes … apple crumble or pie with vanilla ice-cream or custard, vanilla with other fruits … bananas, cherries, berry fruits ... or as a baking spice: vanilla with clove … and I’m sure you have some others …

That is the second most expensive spice … but one we can’t seem to do without … now when do I get my next custard slice?

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

Saturday, 15 October 2016

Bran Tub # 5: Difficult Words ...

Life Sciences … our (University of the Third Age) Geology Group has morphed into Life Sciences … and with it, as you would expect, the course will be looooong … so the words in use will be of extended length too … no doubt with many worryingly challenging ideas.

The Use of Difficult Words

I eschew arcane, esoteric and recondite exemplifications of

Notwithstanding, in erudite and sedulous graphomania, 

oftentimes and habitually replete with ephemera,

this be not customarily so felicitious,

where it behoves one to be veritable, manifest and unequivocal.

To translate ….

I avoid obscure, mysterious and difficult examples of

the use of words containing many syllables;

However, in academic and complex writing,

frequently and regularly full of seldom-used material,

this is not always so easy

where it is necessary to be true, clear and explicit.

Our friend and class-taker … not good English - sorry! … advised:

I will do my best to avoid


but in scientific discussion,

with many detailed definitions,

it is not easy

where detail is important.

As a by - note ... the above will be arduous and laborious to adhere to ....

Environmental Life Sciences

Then he goes into definitions … one of which is magnificently worth letting you know about … I just feel your school might not have advised you about this ….

A Definition of Life:

“A sexually-transmitted, terminal disease”

… I’ll add – while you’re still alive – enjoy it!

c/o Despicable Minions

Some members did leave somewhat bewildered ... me I was taking notes for my blog! and thankfully I did comprehend most of it ... 

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

Friday, 7 October 2016

Ellen Terry and her Iridescent Beetlewing Dress ...

I had already come across the ‘beetlewing costume’ via posts I had written about closing up Kipling’s home – Batemans – particularly the conservation of its contents.
Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth -
painting by John Singer Sargent

I knew Ellen Terry’s name (1847 – 1928) … but really nothing about her life or the magnificent glistening dress she wore when performing Lady Macbeth.

So when hearing a talk on Ellen at our Social History group … I was enchanted to learn more. 

Terry came from an acting family … and began performing in her childhood … she was one of 11 children … at least five became actors – Kate, her elder sister, was the grandmother of Sir John Gielgud, who along with Sir Laurence Olivier and Sir Ralph Richardson were the trinity of actors dominating the British stage for much of the 20th century …

'Choosing' - portrait of Ellen
Terry, by George Watts c. 1864
The Terry family gave performances around the country … with Ellen taking parts from the early age of 9 … it seems she never stopped.

An eminent artist, George Watts, painted the two sister’s portraits … and then despite the age difference (46 – 17) – Watts and Terry married: it didn’t last, but the time allowed Terry to meet various luminaries of the time: Browning, Tennyson, Gladstone and Disraeli … which opened new doors and gained her more admirers.

Julia Margaret Cameron's photo of
Ellen Terry, aged 16

While the portraits painted by Watts and the early photographs by the renowned photographer, Julia Margaret Cameron, ensured she became a cult figure for the poets and painters of the later Pre-Raphaelite and Aesthetic movements, including Oscar Wilde.

Terry lived life to the full … beginning a relationship with a progressive architect-designer, by whom she had two children, Edward William Godwin (1833 – 1886).  Godwin had a particular interest in medieval costume … which led him to design theatrical costumes and scenery for Terry and her performances, even after their affair cooled.

Northampton Guildhall - designed in the
Ruskinian-Gothic style by Godwin

Terry had two further marriages, and other liaisons over her long life … one where she married an American, James Carew, who was 30 years her junior … that lasted only two years.

Two other partnerships developed – not of the romantic kind – for a short while with George Bernard Shaw – they had struck up a friendship and conducted a famous correspondence …. they weren’t so keen when they met!

Henry Irving (1838 - 1905)
The other was with Henry Irving who had worked hard to become a successful actor-manager-theatre director … particularly after his association and subsequent partnership with Ellen.

She remained popular regardless of how much and how often her behaviour defied the strict morality expected by her Victorian audiences … it is unknown whether Terry had a romantic relationship with Irving – who was considered the doyen of English classical theatre, even, in 1895, being the first actor to be knighted.

Much of Ellen Terry’s life has been recorded in art and photography … often wearing gowns designed by Godwin.  The most spectacular, and one which was worn and worn over the years – here and in America – is the Iridescent Beetle Wing costume she wore as Lady Macbeth.

The costume in dire need of repair ... 

The gown was made in crochet using a soft green wool and blue tinsel yarn from Bohemia to create an effect similar to chain mail.

Part of the portrait by John Singer Sargent
John Singer Sargent on seeing Terry in her performance in 1888 was compelled to paint her portrait, hence we have a detailed image to refer to.  It is in the Tate Gallery – where it had been donated in 1906; there is a contemporaneous photograph of Ellen Terry wearing the dress in the National Portrait Gallery.

Beetle wings

The costume was embroidered with gold and decorated with over a thousand of those sparkly wings from the green jewel beetle.  By the way the beetles shed their wings naturally – thank goodness for that clarification!

The Bejewlled Beetle

I found that the Victoria and Albert Museum have an article on Ellen Terry, the actress, her designer and her costumes … well worth a read.

Henry Irving watching a rehearsal -
illustration c. 1893

Irving died in 1905 leaving Terry distraught however she returned to the theatre in 1906.  She continued to perform, appeared in her first film in 1916, travelled back and forth to America, toured Australasia … while also lecturing on the Shakespearean heroines. 

She continued to participate in the theatrical world, though after WW1 withdrew more and more … she was recognised by society and appointed a Dame Grand Cross of the Order of the British Empire – only the second actress to be so honoured.

Smallhythe Place

Terry, in 1899, had bought Smallhythe Place, near Tenterden on the Kent/Sussex border – which she first saw with Henry Irving.  Terry’s daughter, Edith Craig, opened the house in 1929 as a memorial to her mother. 

A walk through the gardens at Smallhythe
It is now owned by the National Trust who maintain the many personal and theatrical mementos, the house, garden and the Barn Theatre in the grounds … where the tradition of putting on a Shakespearean play every year on the anniversary of Ellen Terry’s death (21 July) has been maintained.

The Barn Theatre
That costume, transforming the beautiful red-haired actress into a cross between a jewelled serpent and a medieval knight, was the talk of the town in 1888 after the first night … and was, after one hundred years (with all the wear and tear of tours, behind the scenes change of costumes, and packing crates), desperately in need of a touch of conservation.

Ellen Terry c 1880 - aged 33

This Guardian article explains that the repairs proved as muchcostume archaeology as needlework … it was restored to its present glory by a specialist textile conservator, Zenzie Tinker – whom I had across as the expert used by Batemans, in Rudyard Kipling’s, home.

I so enjoyed learning about Ellen Terry, which led me to look at theatre in the 1800s, actors and actresses, society, art and literary works, epistolary collections, textile conservation … and then the history of it all, ending with Smallhythe Place – which I have never visited … definitely something I need to correct.

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

Friday, 30 September 2016

Trains: Films with Railway Connections, Exbury Gardens and Britain’s Great Little Railways …

Our Under Ground Theatre puts on a season of 4 films with railway connections presented by a railway enthusiast … we are lucky in Eastbourne … 

The Underground's poster for these films

... the town is relatively small yet large enough to accommodate people with lots of interesting ideas.  We have other theatres, cinemas and event arenas … The Under Ground puts on a variety of smaller and select events …

We were also probably the first ‘seaside town’ … in June 1780, the children of George III (1738 – 1820) spent their summer holiday at the Round House, near where the pier is today … the sea encroached and ‘pinched it back’!  One of those children would become father to Queen Victoria.  I’ll publish a post fairly soon on Eastbourne’s beginnings …

Brief Encounter (1946) B/W 86 minutes:

David Lean’s magnificent film version of a short story by Noel Coward, starring Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard … being filmed just north of Lancaster in north-west England.

Mike at a Bit About Britain – wrote a post on Carnforth Station – the locals and public insisted the iconic stop be refurbished: now a wonderful Heritage Centre for the film.  See links to his ‘Brief Encounter’ post, and to the main Heritage Centre’s site …

I had never seen the whole film … but was delighted to enjoy a 30 minute portion of the film - the romantic weepie bit made in 1945 … when necessity was the mother of invention … and when filming  no-one yet had invented the term ‘health and safety’ … somewhat superfluous just after the War.

The Titfield Thunderbolt (1952) Colour 84 minutes:

Why didn’t or haven’t they changed the name of this film … like Titty in Swallows and Amazons?!

London and Manchester Railway 57
Lion    (LMR 57 Lion)  in 1980
A wonderful very British Ealing Comedy Film about the community of Titfield trying to save their railway by running it themselves, but the rival bus company sets out to sabotage the venture.

Filmed near Bath, but was inspired after the restoration of the narrow gauge Talylyn Railway in Wales – the world’s first heritage railway run by volunteers.

The train featured in the film is ‘LMR 57 Lion’, an engine built in 1838 – the year of Queen Victoria’s Coronation.

Oh Mr Porter! (1937) 85 minutes B/W: 

This pre-War film stars Will Hay and is regarded as one of his best and funniest films.  It was mainly set in Ireland (but filmed here in Hampshire).

William Porter, an inept railway worker, who due to family connections – is given the job of stationmaster at a remote and ramshackle rural Northern Irish railway station in the (fictitious) town of Buggleskelly, situated on the border with the then Irish Free State.

He is inept … yet manages to discover all sorts of strange railway practices and a gang of gun-runners – beats them all … much to the staggered amazement of the powers that be and his family.

The Great St Trinian’s Train Robbery (1966) Colour 93 minutes.

Ronald Searle drew the first St Trinian cartoons … but in 1941 had to fulfil his military career.  I hadn’t realised Searle started off his satirical school drawings to ‘amuse’ two daughters of some friends he visited … he also couldn’t understand their desire to return to a boarding school!

The film was made after the actual Great Train Robbery of 1963 and parodied the technocratic ideas of the Harold Wilson government and its support of the comprehensive school system.  This is the fourth film in a series of five St Trinian’s films.

It is a hair-raising fast-moving series of events … totally off- the planet in comedic terms … just so much hilarity – one is ‘bursting one’s seams’ with joy …

The book issued with some
of Searle's St Trinian's illustrations
There are three trains involved – with all the farce that could be mustered when three trains starred in a film – the line used was the Longmoor Military Railway … which was a British Military Railway in Hampshire, built by the Royal Engineers in 1903 in order to train soldiers on railway construction and operations.

When they were filming these farcical scenes – there were the odd ‘disasters’ … including one when an engine derailed – the actors, film crew etc had ‘heart attacks’ – the Army, who had been fully co-operating, said ‘no worries’ … just lifted the engine back into place – common practise in the theatre of war.

Change of size now … to Little Railways … Sherry Ellis from GoneGarden.blogspot … writes about gardens and up pops Exbury Gardens with its miniature railway … with connections to the Rothschilds who have and had much influence on British culture … their bequests to the British Museum, the Natural History Museum at Tring, now part of the main London NHM, other estates and gardens … 

"Naomi" with three carriages
at Exbury Gardens central

TheExbury Steam Railway (at the gardens) that goes on a journey across the pond in Summer Lane Garden, along the top of the rock gardens and into the American Garden.  It was built in 2000 – 2001 as an additional attraction to the gardens. 

The narrow gauge tender tank locos were built specially by the Exmoor Steam Railway in Somerset.  Both are members of Britain’s Great Little Railways organisation.

It does look as though it has been
set up beautifully ... I really wouldn't mind
being the train driver here!

Four films … links to railways, renovated stations, interesting challenging links – the Great Train Robbery in 1963, when over pounds 2.6 million (equivalent to about pounds 49 million today) was stolen from the train.

Britain's Great Little Railways … sound fun to know about and at some stage travel on … while Exbury Gardens looks to be beautiful with a fascinating history …

Exbury Gardens

Perhaps you’ll be inspired to check out one or two or more of the films, visit Exbury or one of Britain's Great Little Railways … miniature versions ... and  I hope have time to visit Sherryover at her blog ... 

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories