Feast and Phrase

Gastronomy in the world of words.

Month: September 2015

Citrus Fruit

A Scurvy History

Shiver me timbers! I seem to have completely missed out on ‘International Talk Like a Pirate Day’, which took place last weekend: that intriguing observance celebrated every 19 September since 2002, which started out as a joke among some American friends and has gone on to pick up followers worldwide.

(Correction: ‘gone on to pick up crew’. Incidentally, today is Google’s 17th Birthday, but I digress…)

Pirate GuysThe founders of International Talk Like a Pirate Day:  Mark “Cap’n Slappy” Summers (left) and John “Ol’ Chumbucket” Baur (right). Photo by Karl Maasdam, Karl Maasdam Photography; taken from the official website. The fruity featured image for this article is taken from Flickr user Peter Batty.

This got me thinking about scurvy – ‘Avast, scurvy curs!’ having first popped into my head, of course. Individuals deficient in Vitamin C (ascorbic acid) are unable to produce the protein collagen, which makes up bodily tissues like skin, bone, cartilage, and blood vessels. These begin to break down, resulting in fatigue, pain in muscles and joints, red dotting of skin, and most recognisably, swollen, bleeding gums.

Now notorious as a scourge of seafarers – who would run out of Vitamin C-rich fruits and vegetables while travelling – scurvy has in fact been recognised for thousands of years. A description of what is believed to be the disease occurs in the Egyptian Ebers Papyrus, dated to 1550 BCE; onion consumption is apparently given as the cure. The Indian surgeon Sushruta of the 6th century BCE wrote of a condition known as sitada, where ‘the gums of the teeth suddenly bleed and become putrefied, black, slimy and emit a fetid smell. They become soft and gradually slough off’. Similar symptoms were touched on by the Greek physician Hippocrates a century or two later:

‘[…] the patient smells foully from the mouth, the gums separate from his teeth, and blood flows from his nostrils. Sometimes also ulcers break out on his legs – and while some heal, others develop – his colour is dark, and his skin is thin; the patient is eager to walk about and to exert himself.’

Hippocrates, Internal Affections, translated by Paul Potter.

Sushruta-SamhitaSections of the Sushruta-Samhita. This is a 12th or 13th century Nepalese copy written on palm leaves; the watercolour imagery was added in the 18th or 19th century. From LACMA Collections Online.

Following Hippocrates and several other ancient writers, the next mention of what can be identified as scurvy occurred during the Crusades. The majority of nautical references came with the Age of Discovery, when explorers from the 15th century found the disease to be a serious and widespread cause of injury and death on their ships. This period saw the use of the term ‘scorbie’ and ‘scurvie’ as a name for the illness; the word was earlier used as an adjective for someone covered in ‘scurf’: scaly or scabby skin.

The journal of Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama’s first voyage to India describes how his men ‘fell ill […], their feet and hands swelling, and their gums growing over their teeth, so that they could not eat’. The same work gives a record of a fruity remedy called for when the crew dropped anchor off the coast of Malindi (now in Kenya):

‘The captain-major sent a man on shore with these messengers with instructions to bring off a supply of oranges, which were much desired by our sick. These he brought on the following day, as also other kinds of fruit; but our sick did not much profit by this, for the climate affected them in such a way that many of them died here.’

A Journal of the First Voyage of Vasco da Gama, 1497-1499, translated by E. G. Ravenstein (1898).

Vasco_da_Gama_(Livro_de_Lisuarte_de_Abreu)A portrait of Vasco da Gama from Livro de Lisuarte de Abreu (c. 1565). Located via Wikimedia Commons.

Two-thirds of da Gama’s men were lost to scurvy on this voyage. Even so, eating citrus fruits was generally known by sailors to help with recovery from the disease. In 1747, this was clearly demonstrated by Scottish naval surgeon James Lind, who tested different remedies on afflicted sailors, with citrus fruits producing exceptional results. He went on to publish A Treatise of the Scurvy in 1753: a time when more of Britain’s sailors were killed by scurvy than by fighting.

Lind pushed for the Royal Navy to give citrus fruit and juice to its crews, which became standard practice from 1795 onwards. As a result, the disease effectively stopped affecting members of the force. It is also because of this practice that British sailors came to be known as ‘lime-juicers’ or ‘limeys’.

V0003579 James Lind. Stipple engraving by J. Wright after Sir G. ChalA stipple engraving of James Lind by J. Wright, after Sir G. Chalmers (1783). From Wellcome Images.

It was not until Vitamin C was isolated in 1928 that scientists got on their way to definitively establishing it to be the cure – ascorbic’ essentially means ‘not pertaining to scurvy’. Raw fruits and vegetables are now known to be among the top sources of Vitamin C; cooking them leads to a drop in concentration. Oranges, lemons, chillies, broccoli, and many more – take your pick and keep scurvy well away!

Oh, and if you’ve ever wondered why ‘oranges’ are called ‘oranges’…

Victoria Sponge

Queens and Cake

This week saw Queen Elizabeth II become Britain’s longest-ruling monarch, beating her great-great-grandmother Queen Victoria’s record of 63 years and 216 days. Various elements of their respective reigns have been compared, from family size and shape of economy, to the number of coins circulated under each and the number of streets named after them. In that last category, Queen Elizabeth II is well in the lead: 237 to Victoria’s 153!

With all this going on, the first thing that came to my mind (in true foodie fashion) was Victoria Sponge: the classic British teatime cake that gives mouthfuls of summery goodness with its combination of raspberry jam and cream. No, wait – that should read ‘anytime’ cake.

Victoria Sponge TwoVictoria Sponge, photographed by Flickr user Derek E-Jay. The featured image for this article was photographed by Flickr user gordonplant.

Sponge cakes were popular during the 18th century and grew more so with the development of ‘afternoon tea’. This hallowed British tradition supposedly came about in the 1840s thanks to Anna, 7th Duchess of Bedford. Unable to face the long gap between lunch and dinner, she asked to be served a snack of tea, buttered bread, and cake in the middle of the afternoon. Her friends were later called on to enjoy this with her, and the practice spread.

http://www.historic-uk.com/CultureUK/afternoon-tea/An image of Anna, 7th Duchess of Bedford, from around 1820. Located via Wikimedia Commons.

Victoria Sponges were one type of cake served at teatime, said to have been a favourite of Queen Victoria; hence the name. They were then known as ‘Victoria Sandwiches’ – a name which is of course still common today. The first written record of the term can be found in the famed 1861 publication, Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management. Note the lack of cream, which seems to have been a later addition:


  1. INGREDIENTS – 4 eggs; their weight in pounded sugar, butter, and flour; 1/4 saltspoonful of salt, a layer of any kind of jam or marmalade.

Mode.—Beat the butter to a cream; dredge in the flour and pounded sugar; stir these ingredients well together, and add the eggs, which should be previously thoroughly whisked. When the mixture has been well beaten for about 10 minutes, butter a Yorkshire-pudding tin, pour in the batter, and bake it in a moderate oven for 20 minutes. Let it cool, spread one half of the cake with a layer of nice preserve, place over it the other half of the cake, press the pieces slightly together, and then cut it into long finger-pieces; pile them in crossbars on a glass dish, and serve.

Time.—20 minutes.
Average cost, 1s. 3d.
Sufficient for 5 or 6 persons.
Seasonable at any time.

From Chapter 29 of Isabella Beeton’s Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management.

This recipe may not have been thought up by Isabella Beeton, as she plagiarized many of the pieces featured in her book. More importantly, note that even Mrs Beeton (or whoever thought up the original recipe) considered Victoria Sandwiches to be ‘seasonable at any time’. No arguments there!

 Beeton Household ManagementThe title page of Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1861). Located via Wikimedia Commons.

In the spirit of comparison, it should be known that one of Elizabeth II’s favourite afternoon tea cakes is honey and cream sponge, according to her former royal chef, Darren McGrady. Another is chocolate biscuit cake, which also appears to be a family favourite – so much so that the Duke of Cambridge had it prepared for his wedding reception. Here’s the full recipe, taken with permission from McGrady’s website:

Chocolate Biscuit Cake

Makes 1 cake – 10 portions

Her Majesty the Queen’s favourite afternoon tea cake by far. This cake is probably the only one that is sent into the Royal dining room again and again until it has all gone.

4 ounces dark chocolate (for the cake)
4 ounces granulated sugar
4 ounces unsalted butter (softened)
1 egg
8 ounces Rich Tea biscuits
½ teaspoon butter for greasing
8 ounces dark chocolate (for coating)
1 ounce chocolate (for decoration)

  1. Lightly grease a 6 inch by 2 ½ inch cake ring and place on a tray on a sheet of parchment paper.
  2. Break each of the biscuits into almond size pieces by hand and set aside.
  3. Cream the butter and sugar in a bowl until the mixture starts to lighten.
  4. Melt the 4 ounces of chocolate and add to the butter mixture whilst constantly stirring.
  5. Beat in the egg to the mixture.
  6. Fold in the biscuit pieces until they are all coated with the chocolate mixture.
  7. Spoon the mixture into the prepared cake ring. Try to fill all of the gaps on the bottom of the ring because this will be the top when it is un-molded.
  8. Chill the cake in the refrigerator for at least three hours.
  9. Remove the cake from the refrigerator and let it stand while you melt the 8 ounces of chocolate.
  10. Slide the ring off the cake and turn it upside down onto a cake wire.
  11. Pour the melted chocolate over the cake and smooth the top and sides using a palette knife.
  12. Allow the chocolate to set at room temperature.
  13. Carefully run a knife around the bottom of the cake where the chocolate has stuck it to the cake wire and lift it onto a tea plate.
  14. Melt the remaining 1 ounce of chocolate and use to decorate the top of the cake.

Chocolate Biscuit Cake and Victoria SpongeCakes fit for queens: Victoria Sponge and chocolate biscuit cake. Taken from the website of Darren McGrady, former royal chef to Queen Elizabeth II.

Which cake you prefer is a matter of opinion and impossible choice (I suspect ‘both’ is the answer running through your head). That said, one thing is for sure: excellent taste in cakes definitely runs in the Royal Family!

Pomegranate Seeds

Persephone and Pomegranate Seeds

The end of August was crashed by cold September, announcing itself a day early with drizzle and greyness – a Bank Holiday weekend running as expected. As also expected, I layered up and complained: ‘Why, Weather? August is sunshine. September has not officially started. YOU ARE CONFUSED.’

Something like that.

Anyhow, all this got me thinking about pomegranate seeds. Not immediately, of course: I began mulling over how cultures worldwide have been influenced by the inevitable coming and going of the seasons (dreary and grim as Monday was, it also appears to have been rather philosophical. Thank you, Weather). Artistic work of every kind has drawn on the different characteristics of the year. There have also been various explanations for why the seasons exist in the first place – and when my train of thought passed here, I remembered an Ancient Greek myth in which pomegranate seeds play a crucial part in bringing the seasons about.

512px-Bust_Homer_BM_1825_n2A Roman bust of Homer, after a Greek original. Photographed by Marie-Lan Nguyen and located via Wikimedia Commons. The featured image for this article was taken by Flickr user Rebecca Siegel.

That is told in one of the Homeric Hymns: thirty-four poems attributed to Homer which address deities from the Ancient Greek pantheon. The piece in question is dedicated to Demeter, goddess of agriculture, and the story is as follows. Persephone, daughter of Demeter, was gathering flowers in a meadow. Unknown to both, Zeus, King of the Gods, had promised Persephone as a bride for his brother Hades, Lord of the Underworld. As Persephone went to pick a narcissus flower, sprouted up as a lure by Gaia – the female personification of Earth, who was complicit in the act – the ground opened up beneath her, and Hades swept out in his chariot, carrying her away. Devastated, Demeter refused the company of the gods on Mount Olympus and wandered among humankind. Longing for her daughter, she brought about famine:

‘[…] she caused a most dreadful and cruel year for mankind over the all-nourishing earth: the ground would not make the seed sprout, for rich-crowned Demeter kept it hid. In the fields the oxen drew many a curved plough in vain, and much white barley was cast upon the land without avail. So she would have destroyed the whole race of man with cruel famine and have robbed them who dwell on Olympus of their glorious right of gifts and sacrifices, had not Zeus perceived and marked this in his heart.’

From the translation of ‘The Hymn to Demeter’ found in Hesiod, The Homeric Hymns, and Homerica.

843px-Persephone_krater_Antikensammlung_Berlin_1984.40Persephone’s abduction, as featured on a krater – or large vase – from the Greek Southern Italian region of Apulia (c. 340 BCE). Located via Wikimedia Commons

Failing to win her over with entreaties from different deities, Zeus sent the divine messenger Hermes to secure Persephone’s release from Hades: the only thing which would cause Demeter to return. Not one to disobey his brother, Hades agreed – ‘but he on his part secretly gave her sweet pomegranate seed to eat, taking care for himself that she might not remain continually with grave, dark-robed Demeter.’ Reunited, mother and daughter embraced, but all was not well:

‘But while Demeter was still holding her dear child in her arms, her heart suddenly misgave her for some snare, so that she feared greatly and ceased fondling her daughter and asked of her at once: ‘My child, tell me, surely you have not tasted any food while you were below? Speak out and hide nothing, but let us both know. For if you have not, you shall come back from loathly Hades and live with me and your father, the dark-clouded Son of Cronos and be honoured by all the deathless gods; but if you have tasted food, you must go back again beneath the secret places of the earth, there to dwell a third part of the seasons every year: yet for the two parts you shall be with me and the other deathless gods. But when the earth shall bloom with the fragrant flowers of spring in every kind, then from the realm of darkness and gloom thou shalt come up once more to be a wonder for gods and mortal men.’

From the translation of ‘The Hymn to Demeter’ found in Hesiod, The Homeric Hymns, and Homerica.

That, perhaps, is why the land lies barren for part of the year, and bursts into life in another.

Split PomegranateA split pomegranate, photographed by Flickr user Ano Lobb.

Pomegranate’ ultimately derives from the Latin pomum granatum, meaning ‘apple with many seeds’; Middle French variants include pomme grenade and pomme granade, with pome gernate in the later Anglo-Norman language. In the 16th and 17th centuries, it was also referred to as a ‘grenade’ or ‘granade’, coming via French from the Spanish granada. The explosive weapon of the same name takes after this and was supposedly called so for its resemblance to the fruit – possibly through shape, or through comparison of its shrapnel to many seeds. An obsolete sense of ‘grenadier’ is ‘pomegranate tree’; the word now survives in the title of the British Army’s highest ranking infantry regiment: the Grenadier Guards.

While the start of September was dingy, it has a deliciously appropriate pay-off: pomegranates are coming into season, which lasts until around January or February. You can enjoy them at your leisure – no trip to Hades and back required!

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