Feast and Phrase

Gastronomy in the world of words.

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Quinoa Chifa

Chifa: Peru’s Chinese Fusion Cuisine

When a country wins ‘World’s Leading Culinary Destination’ four years in a row, you know it’s definitely time to pay attention. And a visit. Maybe several visits.

Peru has held that title since 2012 thanks to its wide-ranging and varied cuisine: everything from spicy seafood stews and citrus-cured ceviche to wholesome Andean soups and anticuchos skewers. Not to forget the colourful range of corn, potatoes, beans, and peppers, or much-praised but somewhat controversial quinoa. Guinea pig (known as cuy) and alpaca also appear on the menu!

CevicheCeviche: raw fish cured and flavoured with lemon juice, chilli, and onions (eaten cold). Photo from Flickr user Krista.

Mixed in with all that is ‘chifa’: Peruvian-Chinese fusion cuisine. The names of some of the most popular dishes are themselves fusions of Spanish and Chinese words, such as arroz chaufa (stir-fried rice) and sopa wantán (wonton soup). In both cases, a Spanish word is followed by one from Chinese.

I know what you’re thinking: “What’s so special about stir-fried rice and wonton soup? I can get that from the takeaway round the corner!” Even if they are fusions by name, arroz chaufa and sopa wantán understandably come across as fairly ordinary.

Chifa 2Chifa, with ‘arroz chaufa’ in the foreground. Photo from Flickr user Pablo Matamoros.

While all the ‘classic’ Chinese dishes are offered, Chifa is distinguished by the way it mixes Asian and South American cooking styles and ingredients. Diners may encounter Peruvian chita fish steam-cooked with sillao (soy sauce), or juanes prepared with Chinese spices. (Normal juanes consist of rice, egg, chicken, and olives wrapped and cooked in leaves of the Calathea lutea plant – Peruvian tamales eaten on the Feast of San Juan, or Saint John.)

Lomo saltado, widely regarded as a traditional Peruvian dish, features beef stir-fried with potatoes and ají chilli peppers. It is even possible to get guinea pig rolls with sweet and spicy sauces (though pet-lovers may pass!).

Lomo SaltadoLomo saltado – photo from Flickr user Patty Ho.

Chifa developed from the mid-1800s onwards, when Peru saw a large influx of workers from China, most out of Guangdong Province (formerly known as ‘Canton’). Although the first Chinese restaurant opened in Lima during the 1920s, Cantonese cooking was already making a name for itself. As the number of restaurants grew, chifa became very much a part of Peru’s gastronomical scene.

Quinoa ChifaChifa at Aguas Calientes. This appears to use quinoa or kiwicha (amaranth grains). Photo from Flickr user erin.

What about the word itself? It turns out ‘chifa’ derives from the most appropriate Chinese words of all: chi fanin translation, ‘to eat’.

Mince Pies

Mince Pies Through Time

A German colleague was recently telling me about her confusing first try of a mince pie. Tucking in with savoury expectations, she was stunned to find that they were sweet. She described with flailing arms how reality briefly fell apart, exclaiming, ‘Why would you call them mince pies!?’

Mince Pies 3Mince pies and mulled wine. Image from Flickr user Nick Webb.

For a good few centuries, mince pies were just that – pies filled with minced meat. They have an ancestor in ‘chewet or chewette pies: small in size, these medieval specialities had fillings of chopped meat or fish and were baked or fried. ‘To mak chewettes of beef tak beef and cutt it smalle’, instructs the 15th century Noble Boke off Cookry. In general, beef was a very popular filling, and it was common to enhance the flavour with dried fruit and spices.

Mince pie’ (in the meat sense of the term) has its first recorded use in the next century. French Schoole-maister, a French and English conversation guide from 1573, has the line ‘O Lorde, he hath supped up all the brothe of this mince pie.’ Increasingly eaten at Christmas time, mince pies came to be associated more and more with the festive season. So playwright Thomas Dekker writes in his 1604 pamphlet, Newes from Graues-end:

‘Ten thousand in London swore to feast their neighbors with nothing but plum-porredge, and mince-pyes all Christmas.’

What a feast that would have been…

Mince PiesA more homely feast of mince pies in front of the television. Image from Flickr user Simon Cocks.

Mince pies were also called ‘shred’ pies or ‘shrid’ pies, likely referring to the shredded meat inside them. Not surprisingly, ‘Christmas pie’ was another term which was used. During the 1600s, suet started to accompany or take the place of beef, with the sweet-and-spicy dried fruit addition becoming more prominent.

By the Victorian period, recipes for mincemeat largely left out the actual ‘meat’. Only suet remained, giving the mince pies that we know today. Suet may now be replaced with vegetarian alternatives.

Mince Pie FillingHome-made mince pies with their fruity filling. Image from Flickr user Ben Aston.

As Leah Hyslop writes, there have been various theories for why mince pies came to be specifically eaten at Christmas time, with none being particularly certain. For all that, it is clear that while the sticky fillings inside mince pies have changed over time, their name has well and truly stuck.

Bunny South Africa

A Bite of Bunny Chow

I’ll begin by ending your confusion: this is not a piece on the word history of rabbit food. (I’m not even sure how that would work.)

‘Bunny chow’ is not ‘rabbit food’. Apart from the name, it has nothing to do with rabbits. It doesn’t contain rabbits either – though I suppose that depends on your filling of choice! It is, however, downright delicious.

A classic South African grab-to-go speciality, a bunny chow (often more simply referred to as a ‘bunny’) is a hollowed-out section of bread loaf containing meat or vegetarian curry.

Bunny ChowBunny chow in tiger bread (which does not contain tigers). Taken from the Twitter page of Bunnymans Bunnychow. The featured image for this article is from Flickr user fabulousfabs.

The filling is scooped up using pieces from the crusty outside while the inside soaks up juices and flavour. The remaining bread can be eaten up much like an ice-cream cone. Edible container and no washing up? Yes please!

Now enjoyed throughout the country and worldwide, bunnies are believed to have originated with the Indian community of Durban in the mid-20th century. They were supposedly created for plantation workers as a portable alternative to the vegetable dishes and roti (Indian flatbread) which they had for lunch.

They may also have been made as a takeaway option for people who were not allowed to eat in restaurants due to apartheid laws. Meat was added later, as the popularity of the dish spread.

Serving bunny chowEating bunny chow at home. There are many pictures bunny chow being ‘plated up’, with the popular street food being served in sit-down restaurants. Image from Flickr user Amanda Wood.

There have been various suggestions for the origin of the name. The most common is that ‘bunny chow’ may come from bania, a term for a Gujarati merchant caste. This took on the general meaning of ‘Indian shopkeeper’ in South Africa – even if the individuals in question were of another social class. Presumably, the ‘chow’ (or ‘food’) sold by these people came to be known as bania chow, and later, ‘bunny chow’.

Another account tells that the dish was invented at a specific restaurant in Durban as a takeaway option for non-white customers. The owner was called Bhanya, therefore, ‘Bhanya’s chow’.

Some say that bunny chow is named after the banyan trees of Durban, under which it was first sold by street-side sellers. ‘Banyan chow’? Perhaps.

GandhiMahatma Gandhi was part of a Bania caste in Gujarat. Even so, it is highly unlikely that he indulged in bunny chow. Image from Pixabay.

My first and only encounter with bunny chow was on this very day one year ago. Wandering through Southampton’s fairly un-Christmassy Christmas Market, I came across a stall for ‘Bunnymans Bunnychow’, and asked the obvious question of whether it contained any rabbit. The staff explained everything very enthusiastically, but probably added me to a secret below-the-counter tally of people who ask ‘the rabbit question’.

Bunnymans Bunnychow Southampton 1
The Bunnymans Bunnychow stall I came across at Southampton Christmas Market a year ago today.

I gleefully carried off a ‘Vegi Delight’, filled with a meat-free chilli and topped with sour cream and a crunchy garlic bread slice. Incredible.

Bunnymans BunnychowOne ‘Vegi Delight’ bunny ready to go!



B for Bee Trouble

This article is part of ‘A Food Education Alphabet’: an ongoing A to Z look at food and words to help spread the word about food issues like sustainability and healthy eating.

Bees are in trouble. And bee trouble means food trouble.

What kind of trouble?

Bee populations have been rapidly dropping throughout the world. In the United States, for example, there has been a fall in the number of managed colonies from an estimated 5 million in the 1940s to around 2.5 million today.

honey-bee-643878_1920Checking on a beehive. Image from Pixabay.

How are bees connected to gastronomy?

Whether you’re enjoying breakfast at home, snacking on street food, or sitting down to a fancy meal in the evening, there’s a high chance that bees played some part in getting you your grub.

According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, 71 out of 100 of the world’s major food crops rely on bee pollination. Around one third of the food we eat is pollinated by bees, with honey bees being one of the most important pollen-spreading species. Examples of dependent crops include apple, cucumber, almond, pumpkin, buckwheat, and cashew, as well as alfalfa, which is fed to livestock.

Love Braeburns, cashew butter, or steak? Thank the bees!

Honeybee Apple BlossomA honey bee on an apple blossom. Uploaded by Flickr user Orangeaurochs.

Why have bee populations been falling?

The invasion of pests in the 1980s was partly responsible for this, such as the spread of mites like the aptly-named Varroa destructor. Feeding on ‘haemolymph’ – the bee equivalent of blood – and passing on viruses which cause wing deformities, these dot-sized organisms can bring down entire colonies.

From 2006 onwards, beekeepers in Europe and America began reporting widespread cases of ‘Colony Collapse Disorder’ (CCD), where adult bees would abandon the queen and her developing young. There are a number of suggested causes: pesky varroa mites and other parasites are one; global warming and loss of habitats are another.

Pesticides are especially harmful to bees, with neonicotinoids being particularly deadly – these attack the nervous systems of the insects.

1024px-Varroa_destructor_on_honeybee_hostA micrograph of Varroa destructor on a honey bee. Located via Wikimedia Commons.

How can bees be helped?

There are ongoing calls to minimize the use of pesticides, or to ban them completely. The use of three neonicotinoids has been restricted by the European Union since 2013, though this was opposed by the United Kingdom.

‘Integrated Pest Management’ (IPM) is an alternative, which calls for non-toxic methods like using other organisms to eat the mites, or employing ‘drone combs’.

Playing a role in maintaining natural habitats is essential. Planting bee-friendly plants is an excellent place to start – think sunflowers, poppies, mint, honeysuckle, and many more!

sunflower-943961_1280Sunflowers are one example of bee-friendly plants. Image from Pixabay.

As the National Geographic showed earlier this year, genetics could provide an answer, either with scientists creating a better-adapted bee, or with a better-adapted bee developing naturally over time.


A for Aquaponics

This is the first piece in ‘A Food Education Alphabet’: an A to Z look at food and words to help spread the word about food issues like sustainability and healthy eating.

What is aquaponics?

Aquaponics combines ‘aquaculture’ (breeding aquatic creatures, mostly fish) with ‘hydroponics’ (growing plants without soil using a nutrient-rich solution).

Brought up in tanks, fish produce waste. The water containing this is fed past plants, which are grown in floating containers or gravel beds. They take up organic fertilizer compounds from the waste through their roots, cleaning the water in the process. This is then returned to the fish tanks.

Ammonia contained in the waste is converted to nitrates by worms and nitrifying microorganisms. Larger pieces can be removed using filters.

Aquaponics DiagramA simplified diagram of how aquaponics works. Feel free to use – please credit Feast and Phrase and provide a link to this piece. The featured image for this article is from Flickr user IMCBerea College and shows Finnley Hayes at work in the Aquaponics Facility.

What are the benefits of aquaponics?

Two products are gained from one efficient, self-cleaning system, with much higher yields.

Aquaponics calls for significantly less land – about a tenth of what would be needed for conventional agriculture. Aquaponics can therefore be easily adapted for urban locations.

Because aquaponics works in a cycle, it only requires around 5 to 10 percent of the water that would be used in soil-based farming. This makes it ideal for growing produce in areas with limited water, like deserts.

Aquaponics 3A triple-tiered aquaponics system with fish, watercress, and running water. From Flickr user Justin Leonard.

In hydroponics and aquaculture, water must be regularly replaced to avoid the respective build-up of fertilizers and fish waste. This is not the case with aquaponics: in addition to the water taken up by plants, small amounts are lost in transpiration.

Hydroponics uses artificial fertilizers, which can be costly. Those used in aquaponics are organic and produced in the same location.

The lack of soil means no weeds or soil-based insects. As the water is naturally filtered, fish are also provided with a healthier environment and are less prone to disease, reducing the need for antibiotics.

Aquaponics 2This photo nicely illustrates the different levels involved in aquaponics. From Flickr user charlie vinz.

What are the disadvantages of aquaponics?

People may be put off by the cost of setting up the system or by the thought of having to take care of the fish, though these are not difficult to arrange!

There will be electricity costs for the water pumps, and those living in colder areas will need to provide a greenhouse to ensure more stable growing climates – again, not particularly pressing issues.

Is aquaponics ethical?

This may be argued both ways. Those who avoid eating fish may well object to rearing them for food and using them to grow plants. Others may say that providing the fish with a clean, filtered system is perfectly ethical.

Aquaponics 1Another photo of an aquaponics system from Flickr user Justin Leonard.

How long has aquaponics been around?

While the discipline as we know it today began developing in the 1970s, early precursors to aquaponics include the chinampas or cultivation islands of the Aztecs, and Southeast Asian paddy fields.

What kind of aquatic life can you breed?

Varieties of fish which are bred in aquaponics include trout, tilapia, perch, and koi, to name a few. Shrimp and prawns can also be used, as can crayfish.


A Food Education Alphabet 1

A Food Education Alphabet

Feast and Phrase has only been around for a few months and is still a baby in the blogging world. That said, writing and tweeting during this early time has made me quickly realise the urgent need for widening awareness about food-related issues like sustainability and healthy eating – both worldwide awareness, and my own!

From the work of organisations like Food Tank to Jamie Oliver’s call for ‘Food Revolution’, there is much going on to spread the word, and I’d like to be a part of it. Having already started to look at food, words, and society in my ‘Gastronomy and Society’ articles, I think it’s time to go further.

Today marks the start of what will be an ongoing series: ‘A Food Education Alphabet’. ‘The term ‘food education’ usually has people thinking of building food skills for children and young people – getting them cooking at home and improving their knowledge about nutrition. The alphabet will touch on this and more: heading from A to Z, each piece will focus on a word or phrase linked to the likes of food production and consumption, distribution and policy, diet and health.

Some subjects may be well-known, others less so – whatever I share with everyone, I’ll be sure to learn plenty along the way myself. Ultimately, it’s an alphabetical look at food and words to help spread the word about food issues.


Lembas Bread

Lord of the Lembas

20 October 2015 calls for a ‘long-expected party’: The Lord of the Rings turns 60! Back in 1955, this day saw the completion of J. R. R. Tolkien’s high fantasy classic with the publication of The Return of the King, third and last part of the series.

Celebrating the occasion from a Feast and Phrase point of view, I thought I would take a look at some of the food and drink featured in the series. Yes, my nerd level is over 9000. But this would have hobbit approval – hobbits being the foodies of Middle Earth, supposedly fond of ‘six meals a day (when they could get them)’.

Second BreakfastSilly hobbitses. Taken from Giphy.

And what celebration would be complete without food and drink? As Tolkien describes Bilbo’s party:

‘When every guest had been welcomed and was finally inside the gate, there were songs, dances, music, games, and, of course, food and drink. There were three official meals: lunch, tea, and dinner (or supper). But lunch and tea were marked chiefly by the fact that at those times all the guests were sitting down and eating together. At other times there were merely lots of people eating and drinking — continuously from elevenses until six-thirty, when the fireworks started.’

‘A Long-Expected Party’, The Fellowship of the Ring.

Baggins HomeBilbo Baggins’ home in New Zealand (also known as Middle Earth). Uploaded by Flickr user Tom Hall.

With their love of ‘peace and quiet and good tilled earth’, Tolkien’s hobbits are like folk right out of a pleasant English country village, and their food is very much the same – rustic and homely:

‘One or two other hobbits belonging to the farm-household came in. In a short while fourteen sat down to eat. There was beer in plenty, and a mighty dish of mushrooms and bacon, besides much other solid farmhouse fare.’

‘A Shortcut to Mushrooms’, The Fellowship of the Ring.

MushroomHobbits love mushrooms. Image located via Wikimedia Commons.

It’s almost like comforting pub grub. A hobbit-hole does mean comfort, after all. Not something easily forgotten when you’re miles from home, trekking through the wilderness – as is the case when Gollum brings Sam some freshly-caught rabbits:

Gollum withdrew grumbling, and crawled into the fern. Sam busied himself with his pans. ‘What a hobbit needs with coney,’ he said to himself, ‘is some herbs and roots, especially taters – not to mention bread. Herbs we can manage, seemingly.’

‘Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit’, The Two Towers.

Master Gamgee’s carb cravings lead to that ‘famous’ exchange:

‘[…] What’s taters, precious, eh, what’s taters?’
‘Po – ta – toes,’ said Sam. ‘The Gaffer’s delight, and rare good ballast for an empty belly. But you won’t find any, so you needn’t look. But be good Sméagol and fetch me the herbs, and I’ll think better of you. What’s more, if you turn over a new leaf, and keep it turned, I’ll cook you some taters one of these days. I will: fried fish and chips served by S. Gamgee. You couldn’t say no to that.’
‘Yes, yes we could. Spoiling nice fish, scorching it. Give me fish now, and keep nassty chips!’
‘Oh you’re hopeless,’ said Sam. ‘Go to sleep!’

‘Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit’, The Two Towers.

Like ‘They’re Taking the Hobbits to Isengard’, this has also had the Internet honour of being remixed.

Potatoes GIFA classic scene. Taken from Giphy.

One of the main sources of energy for Frodo and Sam is of course lembas, also known as ‘waybread’: the long-lasting, stomach-filling bread of the Elves. It’s almost like a shortbread version of trail-mix, if you go by Tolkien’s description: ‘The food was mostly in the form of very thin cakes, made of a meal that was baked a light brown on the outside, and inside was the colour of cream.’ Not just any shortbread, as the Elves point out:

‘[…] it is much more strengthening than any food made by Men, and it is more pleasant than cram, by all accounts. […] The cakes will keep sweet for many many days, if they are unbroken and left in their leaf-wrappings, as we have brought them. One will keep a traveller on his feet for a day of long labour, even if he be one of the tall Men of Minas Tirith.’

‘Farewell to Lórien’, The Fellowship of the Ring.

Lembas 2Homemade lembas. From a recipe featured on Brielle’s Notions. The featured image for this article is from the same location.

Cram is the human equivalent of lembas, and just doesn’t cut it. That said, there are some interesting fan recipes for lembas online. I guess the Uruk-Hai equivalent is ‘man-flesh’ (needless to say, don’t Google for recipes…). The Uruk-Hai also drink a ‘burning liquid’; one of the troop forces an exhausted Pippin to take a swig, which leaves him with a ‘hot fierce glow’. Where’s a St Bernard when you need one?

The other notable drink is the water of the tree-herding Ents, which puts Miracle-Gro to utter shame. As Gimli remarks on reuniting with Merry and Pippin:

‘Why, your hair is twice as thick and curly as when we parted; and I would swear that you have both grown somewhat, if that is possible for hobbits of your age. This Treebeard at any rate has not starved you.’

‘Flotsam and Jetsam’, The Two Towers.

EntAnother modern re-imagining of Tolkien’s Ents. Uploaded by Pixabay user jetstar101.

And there you have it: a quick sweep of some of Middle Earth’s food and drink. Happy 60th Birthday, Lord of the Rings!

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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