Apr
29
2014
0

The Trafalgar Square Tank Bank

One of the most successful appeals for money to support the British war effort was inspired by the tank. Seen as a wonder weapon that could shorten the war, the cumbersome and ungainly vehicles became popular icons and were ultimately used not only to promote War Bonds, but as kiosks to sell them from.

A watercolour by Sir William Orpen illustrates clearly why the tank initially terrified German defenders. In the painting, a pair of tanks rear up, high above the ridge of the trench line. You can almost sense the next move, as the metal behemoths plunge down to destroy the unfortunate inhabitants of the defensive line.

The Trafalgar Square tank bank is attended by huge crowds

Looming over an apocalyptic landscape of churned mud, charred trees. mutilated bodies and broken buildings, the tanks must have seemed like something conjured out of the furthest depths of H G Wells’s imagination. They are giant, alien and inhuman – so much so that many senior figures in the armies thought they could only have a role in the Great War. Afterwards, they would be consigned to history.

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Written by Ian Curry in: British History,History |
Apr
17
2014
0

Death from the skies

It is a scene from the darkest days of the Blitz. A squadron of German planes flies over the East End and the City releasing a deadly stream of bombs on the people below. A school in Poplar is blown up and more than 162 people in total are killed.

But this is not a story from the Second World War; it is a chapter from the First World War. These were the first air raids against the capital carried out by aeroplanes rather than dirigibles and London’s first daylight raids.

At 11:30 am on Wednesday 13 June 1917, 20 planes appeared over the skies in London. They flew in a tight formation, appearing like colossal birds in migration. People looked up and some began to cheer what they assumed must be British planes. The aeroplane was one of the wonders of the First World War – desperate necessity had been a fertile mother to the numerous inventions that created more reliable and robust planes.

Gotha RG bomber in flight See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In Britain’s Great War, Jeremy Paxman notes that, “many thought they [the planes] were British, and rushed out to wave at them. And then the bombs began to fall. On the streets there was terror, there was shock and there was disbelief.”

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Written by Ian Curry in: British History,History |
Apr
15
2014
0

This is not a test

At 9:33 a.m. on 14 September 1954, a Soviet Tu-4 bomber dropped a 40,000-ton atomic weapon from a height of 25,000 feet just north of Totskoye in the steppes of the southern Urals. In the early years of the Cold War, the testing of nuclear weapons was not unusual – there would be 8 others in that year and over 200 in the same decade. What made the Totskoye nuclear exercise so particularly horrifying was that the bomb was dropped on an army of 45,000 of the Soviet Union’s own troops.

Nuclear tests in the early years of the development of atomic weapons were not safe. Scientists had not fully appreciated the damage caused by exposure to radiation. Even when warnings were provided, military expediency often trumped individual health. Many of those soldiers who were bathed in the blinding light of nuclear explosions would later succumb to cancers.

First Soviet Atomic test, Joe One or Lightening One

But most tests at least had the pretense of protections. Tinted glasses were provided to protect the eyes from the intense blasts. Personnel were evacuated to a presumed zone of safety and often observed the tests behind makeshift blast shelters.

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Written by Ian Curry in: British History,History |
Apr
10
2014
0

The sack of Louvain

In 1914, German soldiers sacked the Belgian city of Louvain. Its population was expelled and some were carried off in freight trains to camps in Germany. Its library, together with its priceless collection of rare manuscripts and early printed books, was deliberately burnt.

A cowed and defeated civilian population watches helplessly as their conquered city is taken and burnt by German soldiers. Prominent citizens are rounded up and then shot whilst others are beaten and publicly disgraced. Tales of brutal atrocities against women and children spread almost as quickly as the flames that are destroying the ancient buildings.

Interior of the Famous Library at Louvain. (Photo by N.J. Boon, Holland.)

The university’s ancient library, filled with irreplaceable volumes of incunabula and glorious illuminated manuscripts, is doused with kerosene and set alight. Wooden beams and millions of pages make perfect fuel for the ferocious flames that soon reduce the building to rubble and its priceless contents to ashes.

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Written by Ian Curry in: British History,History |
Apr
08
2014
0

The people behind the menu – 3

If you are powerful, celebrated or heroic you may be remembered by having things named after you. Schools, airports, roads, squares and public buildings are all dedicated to politicians, royalty, celebrities and heroic figures from a nation’s past. One way to be immortalised is to have a popular food, drink or dish named after you. The only danger is that the product becomes so ubiquitous that the name’s roots are forgotten. So this is the third of three posts to remember the people behind the menu .

Dame Nellie Melba

Dame Nellie Melba’s eating habits have become legend in the music world. She was so famous that she leant her name to two dishes – Melba toast and peach Melba.

When Australian singer Dame Nellie Melba was ill in the late 1890s, she was fed these crisp cracker-like toasts to settle her stomach. These were not any old crackers and they were not created by any old chef.  Auguste Escoffier is reputed to have created the toast and named them after the singer. They became a staple of her diet in the 1890s when she fell ill.

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Written by Ian Curry in: British History,History |
Apr
03
2014
0

The dying nations of the world

In 1898, the British Prime Minister Lord Salisbury gave a speech  on foreign relations. The core message seemed simple enough; weak states become weaker whilst strong states become stronger. But, in the dying days of the European peace, it was a remarkably prescient, perhaps even self-fulfilling prophecy.

On 4 May 1898, Lord Salisbury gave a remarkable speech to the Conservative party faithful. The Prime Minister spoke to a packed audience of the Primrose League (a grassroots mass membership group of Conservative Party supporters) at the Royal Albert Hall on the subject of the life and death of countries.

Robert Cecil - 3rd Marquess of Salisbury By London Stereoscopic Company (NYPL) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

At the end of a rousing, imperial speech, Salisbury made his prophetic remarks: “All I can indicate is that the process is proceeding, that the weak States are becoming weaker and the strong States are becoming stronger.”

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Written by Ian Curry in: British History,History |
Apr
01
2014
0

The people behind the menu – 2

If you are powerful, celebrated or heroic you may be remembered by having things named after you. Schools, airports, roads, squares and public buildings are all dedicated to politicians, royalty, celebrities and heroic figures from a nation’s past. One way to be immortalised is to have a popular food, drink or dish named after you. The only danger is that the product becomes so ubiquitous that the name’s roots are forgotten. So this is the second of three posts to remember the people behind the menu.  

Queen Victoria

Queen Victoria is in no danger of being forgotten. Anyone who has visited London’s top tourist spots will have seen the giant memorial in front of Buckingham Palace. They may also have spotted her unmistakable likeness in statues at the Royal Exchange, Carlton House Terrace or Blackfriars Bridge.

You may catch a train at Victoria Station, not only in London but also in Manchester, Belfast and Southend. She is commemorated in everything from Canadian cities (the capitals of British Columbia (Victoria) and Saskatchewan (Regina)) to Australian states (both Victoria and Queensland are named for the Queen-Empress), Africa’s natural wonders (Victoria Falls and Lake Victoria) to Britain’s highest military decoration awarded for valour (the Victoria Cross).

IMG_1716Queen_Victoria_1887_s

As the iconic and eponymous Queen of the Victorian age, reigning at the apogee of Britain’s imperial reach, it is perhaps unsurprising that her name attached to a staggering long list of places and things. More prosaically, this included foods.

The most obvious of these is the Victoria Sponge. I must confess a conflict of interest when writing about the Victoria Sponge – it is an enduring favourite and an unavoidable weak spot for any diet. In principle, it is a very simple cake – two layers of sponge joined by a jam and cream filling and dusted with sugar.

This apparent simplicity belies some pretty fundamental questions – fresh cream, vanilla cream or buttercream? Strawberry or raspberry jam? Icing or caster sugar?

Victoria was also commemorated in a plum, apple and pea.

Beef Stroganoff

If the Romanovs held the imperial crown, the Stroganovs held its purse strings. Since the days of Ivan the Terrible, the family had been singularly successful at navigating the largely separate worlds of royal court and commercial endeavour.

The result was a dynasty of fabulous wealth. They were elevated to the aristocracy and built one of the finest mansions in the new capital of St. Petersburg (Stroganov Palace on the famous Nevsky Prospekt). They served a succession of Tsars as advisors, ministers and administrators.

stroganoff1Строгановский_дворец_(1)

The Stroganovs’ hold on Russian business ended with the Revolution, but their name lives on in a dish that has become a quintessential symbol of Russian cuisine. It isn’t clear which member of the family the dish is named for. It might even have just been named to honour the dynasty and add some aristocratic sparkle to a menu.

Beef Stroganoff is essentially sautéed pieces of beef served in a sauce with sour cream. Over the decades, however, it has become a favourite around the world and is made to hundreds of different recipes. It has even been used as a topping for baked potatoes, as a filling for crepes and on pizzas.

I’m not sure that Count Stroganoff would have approved of a dish where tomato paste is substituted for ketchup and sweetcorn is added, but I’m sure he would have been happy that at least his illustrious family is remembered, albeit tangentially, in menus around the world.

Carpaccio

In the 1930s, Giuseppe Cipriani, founder of Harry’s Bar in Venice, developed a dish based on the Piedmonetes carne cruda all’albese. It featured raw meat thinly sliced or pounded thin. Soon after, an exhibition dedicated to Venetian painter Vittore Carpaccio was staged in Venice. How did the two become connected? The Daily Telegraph suggests that the recipe took on the painter’s name “possibly because the colours of the dish are reminiscent of his vivid use of reds”

Written by Ian Curry in: History,Society |
Mar
27
2014
0

The people behind the menu – 1

If you are powerful, celebrated or heroic you may be remembered by having things named after you. Schools, airports, roads, squares and public buildings are all dedicated to politicians, royalty, celebrities and heroic figures from a nation’s past. One way to be immortalised is to have a popular food, drink or dish named after you. The only danger is that the product becomes so ubiquitous that the name’s roots are forgotten. So this is the first of three posts to remember the people behind the menu.  

Queen Margherita of Savoy

Margherita of Savoy was part of the most gilded of nineteenth century elites. She was a daughter of the Houses of Savoy and Wettin placing her at the imperial heart of the interconnected royal houses of Europe.  Princess Margherita was, unsurprisingly quite the dynastic catch. In line with the genetically misjudged aristocratic preference for ‘keeping it in the family’, she ended up marrying her first cousin Umberto, Prince of Piedmont.

413px-Queen_Margharitha_di_SavoiaPizza_Margherita,_at_Restaurant_Gusto_(2013.07.13)_2

In a divided, pre-Risorgimento Italy, Piedmont was one of the more powerful states. But it was far from the premier league of great powers. After the unification of Italy, its ruler became the King of Italy and, eventually, Princess Margherita would become the Queen of Italy.

Margherita was well known for her beauty, grace and elegance and she garnered a range of cultural and artistic displays of affection. One of these followed a visit to Naples, when the chef, Raffaele Esposito, designed a patriotic pizza in her honour. As David Gilmour notes in The Pursuit of Italy:

“One Neapolitan chef achieved renown with a pizza of tomato and mozzarella, which he named after Queen Margherita, the most gracious and elegant member of the Savoia dynasty, who accepted the honour.”

It is a bit of a stretch to describe a Margherita pizza as being either gracious or elegant. It is certainly not a beautiful dish. But it was patriotic, featuring the red (tomato sauce), white (mozzarella) and green (basil) of the Italian flag. It is also one of the more enduringly popular, famous and ubiquitous dishes to have emerged from the country. Did it really have a royal connection? Recent detective work in the archives suggests it may have been a twentieth century fabrication to bolster sales hit by the Great Depression.

The House of Savoy no longer has a throne; Italy has been a republic for more than 70 years.  But one of its first Queens is still remembered, albeit mostly unknowingly and perhaps fraudulently, in pizza houses across the world.

Stéphanie and Caroline Tatin

In general, the British do puddings whilst the French do desserts. It reflects an essential difference in national cuisine – solid, hearty, simple and heavy versus fancy, light, delicate and elaborate. When done properly, both can be superlative – I can be driven into dizzying heights of ecstasy by a syrup sponge and custard or a Crème Brûlée.

In a few examples, the French dessert veers dangerously close to the British pudding; a Tarte aux Amandes is essentially a Bakewell Pudding dressed up to the nines whilst a Tarte aux pommes à l’Alsacienne is the apple pie’s loose living half-sister.

And then there is the Tarte Tatin, the supreme crossover – a desert so pudding-like that it has become a favourite in Britain.

In the 1880s, France was recovering from a humiliating defeat in the Franco-Prussian War and the bloody civil war centred on the Paris Commune. All of this seemed far away in Lamotte-Beuvron, a small town in the Loire Valley some 100 miles south of Paris.

soeurs-tatin

In this sleepy town, two sisters, Stéphanie and Caroline Tatin, ran the Hotel Tatin. There are various, probably apocryphal, stories to explain the creation of the tarte. Stéphanie, the sister who did the cooking, had left apples cooking for two long in butter and sugar and tried to rescue the apple pie she had intended to make by putting a pastry case over the filling.

Alternatively, Stéphanie baked an upside-down tart  with accidentally caramelized apples. In all the stories, dessert is rescued, diners are served the novel creation and it becomes an instant, if accidental, hit.

What is more likely is that the sisters improved on a regional classic, the tarte solognote. Whether an intentional creation or a successful mistake, the Tarte Tatin became a French classic. The Hotel Tatin now proudly boasts its gastronomic heritage as the birthplace of the dessert.

Franz Sacher

If the Tarte Tatin was an unintentional creation, Sachertorte was quite the opposite – it was designed to impress. Franz Sacher was a Viennese confectioner working in an Imperial capital that adored cake. The Austro-Hungarian empire was by this point an intricate patchwork of nationalities and languages.

Politically, it was unified by the ruling Habsburg emperors. Socially, it centred on the coffee house. Kaffeeklatsch over kaffee und kuchen was as popular in Budapest and Prague as it was in Vienna.

sachertorteFranz_Sacher

In 1832, Franz Sacher was a 16-year old serving the second year of an apprenticeship at the kitchens of Prince Metternich. Metternich was Austria’s powerful minister for foreign affairs and regularly hosted dinners. One particular evening in 1832, Metternich had assembled a particularly potent mixture of powerful and important guests. The chef of the household was taken ill, and the task of making the signature dessert fell on to Sacher’s young shoulders.

Metternich is reported to have added to the pressure by demanding, ‘dass er mir aber keine Schand’ macht, heut’ Abend!’ (‘Let there be no shame on me tonight!’). Sacher rose to the challenge, creating the eponymous chocolate torte.

Sachertorte became both a signature dish for the Sacher family (Franz’s son would eventually open the Hotel Sacher in Vienna) and a symbol of Viennese coffeehouse culture. It is even celebrated with its own national day in Austria on the 5th of December.

Written by Ian Curry in: History,Society |
Mar
25
2014
0

The State of California or the Province of New Albion?

California is one of the most iconic of America’s 50 states. Its film industry has shaped world culture and ensured that one of the most enduring images of America is the golden sands and rolling waves of its Pacific coastline. But what if America had been thwarted in its westward expansion? Could California, Oregon and Washington have become the 11th Canadian province of New Albion?

In summer 1579, English sea captain Frances Drake explored the Pacific coastline of North America. Whilst it is uncertain exactly where Drake landed, it is clear that the Elizabethan explorer claimed a vast tract of land to the north of New Spain as Nova Albion – New Albion.

Francis Drake in California, 1579

British interest in this remote, rugged and, in places, hostile region was limited – imperial energies were being spent in the more immediately lucrative Caribbean, in the trading riches of India and Asia and in New England – the much closer set of colonies strung along the eastern seaboard of North America.

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Written by Ian Curry in: British History,History |
Mar
20
2014
0

China’s colonial escape

At the end of the nineteenth century, it looked likely that the age of imperialism would reach its apogee with the carve up of China. The world’s most populous and once most powerful state faced colonial rule, as Western powers considered ‘carving the Chinese melon’ following their ‘scramble for Africa’. In the end, China retained her sovereignty, but this was not the most obvious outcome. 

I’m doing a course at the moment on world history since 1760. It is throwing up some pretty interesting concepts and ideas. At the moment, we are studying the dizzying swirl of nationalistic imperialism that swept Western nations at the end of the nineteenth century and resulted in the ‘scramble for Africa’.

1280px-Beijing_Castle_Boxer_Rebellion_1900_FINAL

What I was less aware of was the ‘scramble for Asia’. Of course, Britain had imperial pre-eminence in the region. When it added Burma to its Indian possessions it was merely polishing the so-called jewel in the crown. With interests in modern day Malaysia, Brunei, Hong Kong and Singapore, Britain was well positioned to exploit Asian markets.

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Written by Ian Curry in: History |

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