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 |
Mar
18
2014
0

Garibaldi’s plans to divert the River Tiber

Paris has the Seine, London the Thames and Rome the Tiber. But the last of these seemingly eternal city and river connections was once in question. In the nineteenth century, Italians seriously considered diverting the River Tiber away from Rome. 

‘Those graceful groves that shade the plain, 
Where Tiber rolls majestic to the main,
And flattens, as he runs, the fair campagne.’

Ovid, Metamorphoses

David Gilmour notes the importance of the River Tiber in The Pursuit of Italy: A History of a Land, its Regions and their Peoples. “The most hallowed river [in Italy] is Virgils gentle Tiber, the second-longest in the country, whose relationship with Rome is as famous as that of the Seine flowing through Paris or the Thames progressing through London”.

The Tiber, the bridge and the Castel Sant'Angelo in Rome, Italy by Jean-Pol GRANDMONT (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

The river is mentioned in poetry stretching back to Ovid, and is evoked in key passages in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and Antony And Cleopatra. How then to square the importance of the capital’s river with the plans of Giuseppe Garibaldi to divert the river away from Rome?

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Written by Ian Curry in: History |
Mar
13
2014
0

Why does Hawaii’s flag include the Union Flag?

Each of the states of the United States of America has its own flag. Many are nothing more than drab depictions of the state seal against a navy blue background. Some are a little more adventurous, such as Maryland’s heraldry-inspired riot of colour and shapes. But one sticks out more than any of the others; Hawaii is the only flag to depict the Union Flag of the United Kingdom in its design.

It is one of the more vibrant state flags, with three red stripes, three white stripes and two blue stripes. The choice of red, white and blue stripes makes it a recognisably American design. One prominent feature, however, is arrestingly un-American – the unmistakable Union Flag of the United Kingdom is displayed in the canton.

Flag of the state of Hawaii flying at Haleakalā National Park on Maui, Hawaiʻi By The uploader (Own work; taken by the uploader) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The story of Hawaii’s state flag tells the story of competing claims for the Pacific island group. As Hawaii, they became the most recent of the 50 states of the United States in 1959. They had, however, been annexed as the Territory of Hawaii in 1898. But as the Sandwich Islands, the territory had been eyed by Britain for their naval significance.

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Written by Ian Curry in: History |
Mar
11
2014
0

Why did Italy join the Allies in 1915?

On 23 May 1915, Italy declared war on its former ally, Austria-Hungary. The Triple Alliance was reduced to an alliance between Germany and Austria-Hungary and Europe no longer seemed quite as finely balanced into two opposing camps as it had at the outbreak of war. But why did Italy abandon the Central Powers? 

Italy had always been the shakiest member of the European alliance system. By 1914, the Triple Entente of Russia, France and the United Kingdom had developed into a working alliance. They faced the Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy. Germany and Austria-Hungary’s military alliance was solid. Its strength was forged from a messy combination of compromise, necessity, exigency and shared geographic and political goals.

Cartoon showing the disparity between the Triple Alliance members - Italy strains to reach the heights of Germany and Austria-Hungary

These factors did not apply as clearly to Italy. In fact, there were real tensions between Italy and Austria-Hungary – a shared border, competing irredentist claims over Alpine and Adriatic territory and the prospect of territorial gains in the Balkans as a crumbling Ottoman Empire rolled back to its Anatolian heartlands.

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Written by Ian Curry in: British History,History |

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