O Tannenbaum!

Well, it’s been a very long time! I needed a little time off public writing in order to concentrate on other projects. But here I am.

The house of the Brothers Grimm in Marburg

Last week, I went to Marburg in Germany for a great conference on Greek biology in the Roman empire. Marburg is a lovely university town in Hesse. Imagine a medieval town, complete with its castle on the hill and its two Christmas markets, and you won’t be far off. Let’s not dwell on the fact that most houses were built in the nineteenth century in a neo-medieval style. Or perhaps the pseudo-medieval feel makes sense when we learn that the Brothers Grimm studied in Marburg. I was certainly enchanted, especially when the snow started to fall. 

My conference paper was on botanical passages in the writings of Aelian. Aelian (Claudius Aelianus) is a third century author who wrote in a Greek genre known as poikilia, that is, a collection of variegated anecdotes, woven together without much overarching structure. The chair for my panel drew an analogy between poikilia and blogging when she kindly introduced me. And what a wonderful analogy!

Christmas market in Marburg

One of my favourite stories in Aelian’s works is that of the Persian King Xerxes the Great (486-465 BCE), who fell in love with a plane tree:

The famous Xerxes was laughable, if indeed he treated with contempt sea and land, the artwork of Jupiter, and manufactured for himself novel roads and abnormal sea-ways, and yet enslaved himself to a plane tree, which he admired. In Lydia, they say, he saw a large plane tree specimen, and he stayed there for the day without wanting for anything. He used the wilderness around the plane tree as his camp. He also hung costly ornaments on to her, honouring her branches with necklaces and bracelets. He left a guardian for her, as if a guardian and protector for a beloved woman. But what good did that do to the tree? For the ornaments it had gained, which were entirely inappropriate, hung there, adding nothing to its appearance. For the beauty of a tree resides in its noble branches, thick foliage, strong trunk, roots reaching deep, pliant in the winds, its wide-reaching shade, the changing seasons, and nourishing water brought by channels and rains. But Xerxes’ robes, barbarian gold, and other gifts did not ennoble the plane tree or any other tree. [Aelian, Varia Historia 2.14]

The story of Xerxes and the plane tree was first told in Greek by Herodotus in the fifth century BCE (Histories 7.31). There are no references there to Xerxes’ love for the tree: Herodotus simply notes that the king chose to adorn the tree and have it guarded because of its beauty. Aelian (or one of his sources) imagines Xerxes falling in love with the plane tree, and treating it like a beautiful woman. One is reminded of stories of metamorphoses, such as those recorded by Ovid.

Tween T and Big Boy G were responsible for the decoration of our Christmas tree this year

Aelian deems tree veneration ridiculous, and it is very easy  to laugh with him. However, before we do so, we may wish to pause a minute and think of our own traditions. Every year, around the beginning of December, we go to buy a fir tree, which we decorate with baubles, tinsel and other ornaments. The decorated tree has pride of place in our living room. It is at the bottom of the tree that presents will be left for us to open on Christmas day. None of these ornaments adds to the beauty of the tree; in fact the garish tree is far less attractive (in my opinion) than it would be in a forest, standing tall, swaying in the wind. But such are our traditions. What would the sharp-tongued Aelian say?

Merry Christmas everyone!




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The Man in the Kitchen

On Monday, I went to the Wellcome Library for the concluding event of The Recipes Project’s Virtual Conversation ‘What is a Recipe?’ The Virtual Conversation was a new form of conference, which the co-editors of The Recipes Project (Amanda Herbert, Elaine Leong, Laura Mitchell, Lisa Smith and myself) organised to mark the fifth anniversary of this wonderful blog. We made use of as many forms of social media as possible (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, and Pinterest) and attempted to open the discussion beyond the ivory towers of academia.

I have enjoyed our Conversation immensely. Many of the contributions we showcased were extremely innovative and really fun, while also making important points about – among other things – gender, colonialism, consumerism and advertising, family traditions, literacy and orality, and embodied knowledge. I also liked the spontaneity of Twitter chats (check out #recipesconf), where we encouraged participants to share with us their favourite historical recipes, ingredients, and recipe books.

My shelfie. Could do with some tiding…

In one of our events, Amanda asked us to send in shelfies of our cookbook collections. I was unable to do so as I was away from home at the time. My recipe book shelfie probably reveals a lot about me and our family. The books belong to me (for the most part) and to Tween T – we are the cooks in the house. P can make a meal, but I have never seen him read a cookbook.

My cookbooks are for the vast majority authored by women, and by authors who do not (or did not) have restaurants or beautiful patisseries. I like to buy into (and I am painfully aware that I am buying into something here) the idea of blissful domesticity. I have no interest whatsoever in books that will tell me how to present a pretty plate of food. While I understand that beautifully-presented food can also taste good, I am often suspicious of perfect appearances.

The Man in the Kitchen

The gendering of my collection does worry me slightly. I do not want to send the message to my sons that cooking is a woman’s job. I will make a concerted effort to buy more male-authored books in the future. And I may have started already… or maybe not. Today, in Oxfam, I found a 1952 book by a certain Malcolm LaPrade entitled The Man in the Kitchen: How to Teach that Woman to Cook. The book is meant to be humorous, as testified by the cartoons it contains. The author was from Tennessee, USA, and had French ancestry.

The casual racism displayed in this work is rather striking:

From the outset my methods were similar to those of the coloured cooks with whom I spent so many agreeable and rewarding hours… On numerous occasions I have asked my coloured friends how they prepared this or that tasty dish, and invariably the reply was the same: ‘I don’ zackly know how I makes it. I jes’ makes it’.  (p. 19)

The premise of the book is as follows: women often find cooking a chore. Men go out to work in plushy offices where they can relax all day. If they help their wives, even a little at the weekend, they will achieve domestic bliss. The recipes in the book are simple in order to avoid the drudgery associated with endless chopping and stirring. Who knows, in the end, the reader might find himself in a situation where he will teach the woman in his life how to cook.

The road to marital bliss, however, is a hard one:

It must be admitted that a man who undertakes to teach his wife to cook, faces much the same handicaps a woman might face in trying to show her husband how to repair the radio set or to take apart and clean his double-barrelled shotgun. His first problem is to gain her confidence and impress her with the fact that he knows what he is talking about, yet she must not be made to feel entirely inferior.

A wife should always be encouraged to cook by intuition, otherwise she will never be really capable, for women have poor mathematical minds and are apt to crack under the strain, if they attempt to measure ingredients in factions as required by many cookery-book recipes. (p. 205)

I rest my case.


Posted in Food history, History | Tagged | 2 Comments

An apple a day

This year (I tend to think in academic years rather than calendar ones) has not been easy, for many reasons. I have felt exhausted a lot, and have lacked confidence on many occasions. As the teaching session ended, I was absolutely drained and ready for a break. That break has not been particularly restful, but as they say, a change is as good as a rest. We went on a tour of the Cotswolds and the Marches (the border between Wales and England, although  the definition is rather loose). Over the next few posts, I will share with you some of the wonderful things we saw, including some Roman sites.

However, it is with apples that I want to start. Apples strangely divide our family, as Big Boy T (soon to become Tween T) has an apple phobia. That phobia may not be a recognised medical phenomenon, but I can assure you that it is a fact. Since he nearly choked on a piece of apple as a young child, he cannot bear the sight of someone eating the fruit. Little Boy G (soon to become Big Boy G) often taunts his brother by devouring apples in front of his brother.

The orchard at Berrington Hall, Herefordshire on a very overcast afternoon

I  have recently taken a great interest in the history of apples and their cultivation. That interest was somewhat theoretical until I read Tracy Chevalier’s great latest novel At the Edge of the Orchard, where apple trees and the art of grafting play a central part. This is the story of the Goodenough family trying to settle in the Great Black Swamp of Ohio in the early nineteenth century. Apples divide the family: the father wants to plant eating apples, which he grows through grafting; the mother prefers ‘spitters’, apples that can be made into alcohol, and which grow from seed. The fate of the family and that of its orchard intertwine, and ultimately it is the human grafted scion, the illegitimate child, who thrives. Or at least, that is how I interpret the story…

The eating apple that is grown by the Goodenough family is the exotically named Pitmaston Pineapple, which originated in Worcester, and apparently has a pineapple aftertaste. I have never tasted the Pitmaston Pineapple, but I was very pleased to see some Pitamston Pineapple trees in the beautiful orchards we visited last week at Berrington Hall and Croft Castle, both in Herefordshire. The number of apple varieties in those orchards is simply astounding, and the apple names are enchanting: Ladies’ Finger of Hereford; Doctor Hare’s; Blenheim Orange; Catshead; Court Pendu Plat; Sweeney Nonpareil; Pomeroy of Hereford; Christmas Pearmain; King’s Acre Bountiful; Crimson Queening; Maiden’s Blush; Ten Commandments; Pig’s Nose Pippin; Ashmead’s Kernel; Orleans Reinette; Nutmeg Pippin; Gascoyne’s Scarlet; Newton Wonder; Cockle’s Pippin; Court of Wick; and so on and so forth. What ingenuity in those names!

In Antiquity too there were numerous varieties of apples, with interesting names to boot. Pliny the Elder (first century CE) devotes a long section of Book 15 of his Natural History to the topic. He tells us that, through grafting, people have developed new varieties of fruit, to which they have given their own name, thereby preserving it for posterity (15.49). Pliny is critical of that practice, and expresses preference for naming apples after their place of origin or some other interesting characteristic. He lists the Amerian apple, the Little Greek; the Syrian red; the pear-apple; the honey-apple; the round apple; the leaf-apple; the ragged apple; the lung-apple; the flour-apple; and my two favourite:

The orchard at Croft Castle, Herefordshire

The orthomastium (literally in Greek, the pert breast) named for its resemblance to breasts; and that which the Belgians call ‘eunuch’ because of its absence of seed. (Pliny, Natural History 15.51).

Perhaps not on the same level as the Maiden’s Blush, but not far off!

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Grandmas and Breastfeeding in Antiquity and Beyond

Victorian murder bottles. The one on the right still has the remains of the tube that was almost impossible to clean.

One of the great pleasures of working in academia is to collaborate with people from different disciplines. Over the last eighteen months, I have had the great privilege to work with sociologist Heather Trickey (@HeatherTrickey) and consultant midwife Julia Sanders on a project, funded by the Wellcome Trust, on the history and sociology of infant feeding in Wales. We used historical artefacts and images relating to baby feeding (breast pumps, bottles, formula tins, adverts, etc.) to prompt discussions about this emotionally-charged topic within families. History can play a part in these discussions, as it will create a safe space in which to share opinions. For instance, people will feel much more at ease discussing hygiene issues in relation to  Victorian ‘murder bottles’ (those bottles that were impossible to wash properly and therefore became breeding grounds for bacteria) than in relation to modern sippy cups.

We were particularly keen to work with people who identified as grandparents, and interviewed around 30 Welsh grandparents about their experiences of baby feeding across the generations. It is important to work with grandparents for two reasons. First, they are very much neglected in baby feeding debates, which tend to focus on mothers. Second, grandparents strongly influence feeding choices in their children (and grown grandchildren). In particular, mothers will influence the choices of their daughters. It is quite likely that, if a grandmother has bottle-fed, her daughter will bottle-feed. However, it is possible to change people’s attitudes by opening up discussions. You can read more about our research in the following article, which is open access.

There are two fascinating ancient sources that show us that grandmothers did influence their daughters’ choices (not) to breastfeed in antiquity. The first is an account by the orator Favorinus (c. 80-160 CE), preserved in the writings of Aulus Gellius (c. 125-180 CE). Favorinus had gone to visit a friend’s wife who had recently given birth to a son. The friend, we are told, was of senatorial rank and from a very noble family. His wife had experienced a difficult labour and was extremely tired as a result. Favorinus was keen to hear how the baby would be fed: ‘I have no doubt she will breastfeed her son herself’, he exclaimed. The grandmother of the new born, however, had other plans. She wanted to fetch wet-nurses ‘in order that to the pains which she [her daughter] had suffered in childbirth they might not be added the wearisome and difficult task of nursing’ (Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights 12.1). Upon hearing this, Favorinus launched into an impassioned – and long winded – defence of maternal feeding. We do not know whether Favorinus was successful in convincing this family to opt for maternal feeding instead of entrusting their precious son to a hired hand. I hope (and that is as a defender of breastfeeding) that the grandmother took out her rolling pin and kicked out this sententious mansplainer.

Terracotta figurine of Isis feeding Harpocrates. Roman Egypt. Credit: the British Museum.

The second source about the influence of grandparents on feeding choices is a papyrus letter from Roman Egypt, dating to the late third century CE. The recipient of the letter is named Rufinus. The beginning of the letter – and the name of the sender – is lost, but we then read:

I heard that you are compelling her to breastfeed. If she wants, let the baby have a nurse, for I do not want my daughter to breastfeed. [P. Lond. 9.351, lines 2-5]

We can hypothesise that the parent who felt so adamant about their daughter’s feeding was a mother, now a grandmother. She believed (but might have been wrong) that her son-in-law was forcing her daughter to breastfeed, an act she felt her daughter should abstain from. This grandmother too may have had concerns over her daughter’s health. Alternatively, she may have considered breastfeeding to be below her daughter’s standing. For to be able to afford a wet-nurse was a sign of social standing in the ancient world.

The grandmothers in the two sources I have examined had good reasons to prevent their daughters from breastfeeding. They acted out of concern. Today, the debate might have shifted from ‘maternal feeding vs wet-nursing’ to ‘breast vs bottle’, but grandmothers still advise their daughters out of love and worry. This advice can at times be misguided or out-of-date, but it must be understood and acknowledged.


Posted in Ancient History, History of the body, Papyri | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

The Hermit’s Rock Cakes


Our new vintage Welsh dresser

We have been living in our ‘new’ house (which is still a 1888 Victorian house) for five months now. It is starting to feel very much like home. Last week, I was – finally – able to unpack my recipe books. This had not been possible previously, as we simply did not have enough furniture. However, thanks to a generous Christmas gift from my parents, we were able to purchase a vintage Welsh dresser (not quite the antique eighteenth-century dresser I had in mind, but that can perhaps wait). It now stands proudly in our kitchen and carries our cherished books.

What a joy to rediscover these after so many months! And of course, I could not resist buying a few more while my old friends were in their boxes. Among these is a facsimile of The Welsh Cookbook, a recipe book written by the Honourable Lady Llanover, following an encounter with the ‘Welsh hermit of the Cell of St Gover’ in 1867. That book contains one of the funniest footnotes I have ever read: a criticism of a useless kitchen gadget, the bain-marie. That footnote deserves a post in itself – watch this space. It also contains some very clear and mouth-watering recipes, which is not always the case in historical recipe books.

Original recipe for the Hermit's Rock Cakes

Original recipe for the Hermit’s Rock Cakes

I was tempted to make some mushroom ketchup, but it is not quite the season, and it takes a long time. Instead, we opted for something simpler: the Hermit’s rock cakes. I made these with Big Boy T, who was very worried about quantities given in ounces (and anyway, how many ounces to a pound?). This is a perfect recipe to make with children, as it is not too messy. The recipe includes a helpful N.B.: ‘two persons are required to beat these cakes by turns for an hour.’ Thankfully, with a modern gadget, the electric whisker, our beating time was reduced to 10 minutes. Here is our adapted recipe. Be warned: these are really moreish.

Hermit’s Rock Cakes with Caraway Seeds


Makes approximately 20 rocks

Delicious Rock Cakes

Delicious Rock Cakes

  • Four ounces of fresh better (120 g)
  • Six ounces of caster sugar (150 g)
  • Six egg yolks
  • One pound of plain flour (450 g)
  • Two tablespoons of caraway seeds (roughly – we didn’t measure)
  • Four egg whites


  1. Add the caraway seeds to the flour and keep aside.
  2. Cream the butter in a large bowl.
  3. Add the sugar and beat with the electric whisker (if you want to do this by hand – be my guest).
  4. While continuously beating with the electric whisker, add the egg yolks little by little to the sugar and butter mixture.
  5. Still beating with the electric whisker, add the flour little by little to the mixture. The mixture will now look a little like bread crumbs.
  6. Continue beating with the electric whisker and add the egg whites little by little.
  7. When the egg whites are well incorporated to the mixture, continue beating with the electric mixer for ten minutes.
  8. When the mixture is firm and elastic, divide it into small balls, which you will place on baking sheets covered with baking parchment.
  9. Cook in a hot over (gas mark 8) for 20 minutes. The rocks will be risen, golden and firm.

Keep in an airtight container.

Posted in Baking, Food history, Wales | Tagged , | 2 Comments

In Marguerite’s shadow

Prizes and awards come with weight and responsibilities. I believe they should only be accepted in full recognition of this. I can’t say I have always had this opinion, but it has matured over the years.

When I was 19, I received  a prize named after Marguerite Bervoets. She was a member of the Belgian Resistance in the Second World War. She died decapitated by hatchet for a cause she felt just (and of course History weighed on her side, but I understand that sometimes we embrace causes that History dismisses). 

For a long time that is all I knew about Marguerite. There was nothing much to be found about her life online. But often I thought of her, her courage, and the role she played in my life (more on that below).

This year on Armistice Day, I decided to learn more. On that day, the passing of Leonard Cohen, one of the greatest lyricists of the twentieth century, was announced. I indulged in a little bit (OK – a lot) of melancholy music listening. One of Cohen’s song is The Partisan, which is a French Resistance song, translated into English by Hy Zaret. Cohen’s version is particularly moving because it combines the French and the English versions, and because the French is sung by Cohen and a female singer (whose name I do not know). In the French verses, the person who offers shelter to the partisans, and is killed as a result, is a woman – in the English it is a man. The gender changes remind us that the Resistance involved both men and women. Bravery is gender blind.

Marguerite Bervoets. Source: Wikipedia

Marguerite Bervoets. Source: Wikipedia

As I listened to The Partisan, I remembered Marguerite Bervoets, and did some more research on her life. She studied at my alma mater, the Free University of Brussels (ULB). She started a PhD on a Belgian symbolist poet, André Fontainas. She spent a year in Cambridge, where she learnt English. While studying for her PhD, she became a French teacher in Tournai. All this was interrupted by the war. Marguerite joined the Resistance. She was captured in August 1942, and was soon deported to the Nazi prison of Wolfenbüttel. She was decapitated on the 7th of August 1944.

Marguerite was a poet. Some poems from her Chromatisme collection can be found online. I judged them rather harshly at first: the alexandrins are rather clunky; the similes laboured; the language over-complicated. Then I realised Marguerite had written those poems when she was 16! I cannot write formal French verse – who am I to judge? Here is my laboured, clunky translation of Marguerite’s ‘nocturne romantique‘ into English free verse:

Tonight, the moon dreams in heaven, indolently
And on the lake, polished like a troubling mirror,
The night star, wan and curious, descends
And drags the dullness of her mournful eye.

A wind, fragrant with the scent of carnations,
Caresses my tresses with a quivering hand,
And its brushing breath, like a fluttering wing,
Softly closes my eyes with a discreet finger.

An exhilarating murmur fills my empty room,
An invisible zephyr has brushed the curtains,
made the tepid air vibrate in concentric rings,
Then, in my heart, descends a languid stupor.

Chromatisme 1930

When she was older, Marguerite abandoned French formal verse in favour of free verse. Unfortunately, I could not find any of her more mature poems, but I felt that a celebration of the moon was in order in a week that witnessed the Supermoon.

Marguerite is a relatively well-known figure of the Belgian Resistance. Her name survives as that of a Secondary School in Mons and as that of a ULB prize (that to which I referred at the beginning of the post). Several monuments in her honour exist. She has no doubt inspired many to be brave in their everyday lives.

She also deeply influenced my life in a coincidental way. After the award ceremony in which I received the eponymous prize, I suddenly became ill. Shivering, I sat an exam. I did very badly. I was not used to doing very badly at exams. That hurt. Eventually, it also meant that I was unable to do a PhD in my alma mater – I was not deemed good enough. I found a different path, an excellent one. That ‘failure’ also helped me to become a better teacher: one who understands that people have their bad days, that an excellent student can badly mess up a piece of assessment, that academic talent does not define people.

And of course, more directly, being awarded a Marguerite Bervoets prize made me conscious of the value of resistance – with a small ‘r’. The value of standing for a cause. The value of questioning received ideas. The value of being brave when I feel nothing but. I may not always be a worthy recipient of the Marguerite Bervoets prize, but I try – and I will continue to do so.

If you wish to learn more about Marguerite Bervoets, you can read her biography here (in French).

PS: an early version of this post was released by mistake (I was writing on my phone and must have clicked something by mistake). My apologies.



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Kiss me

In the last few weeks, I think I can be forgiven for almost forgetting that my job is to be a lecturer: to go to a class and interact with young people. I have been literally buried under piles of admin, occasionally coming out for air. This has been very detrimental to my health. That is not what I trained to be: I trained to be a researcher and a teacher. I love to teach. I would not presume to be a good teacher, but I try my hardest.

What makes a good lecture? It’s so hard to pinpoint. Sometimes I prepare so well, but the lecture does not come off. On other occasions, I just throw together a few slides and talk, and the students seem genuinely interested. It’s really like cooking. Sometimes, I follow a recipe to the letter and the result is mediocre. On other occasions, I just mix some ingredients in a pan, and it’s delicious.

Teaching let’s me think. It gives me ideas. Teaching helps me make links between things I had previously placed in separate compartments of my brain. And this happened to me again today. I was giving a broad one-hour introduction to Greek and Latin poetry to first year students in Ancient History: an almost impossible task if there is one. I simply tried to convey how much I love Greek and Latin poetry, especially those poems that are painfully beautiful in their simplicity. I chose one poem to read. Catullus’ fifth poem, the one about kisses – here in the perfectly fine Wikisource translation:

Let us live, my Lesbia, and let us love,
and let us value all the rumors of
more severe old men at only a penny!
Suns are able to set and return:
when once the short light has set for us
one perpetual night must be slept by us.
Give me a thousand kisses, then a hundred,
then another thousand, then a second hundred,
then immediately a thousand then a hundred.
then, when we will have made many thousand kisses,
we will throw them into confusion,
or lest we know anyone bad be able to envy
when he knows there to be so many of kisses.

I read this rather badly. Rather badly because I struggle with reading English poetry aloud (I do not know why), but also because a thought was bubbling up in a corner of my brain. This poem I had read thousands of times in several languages (Latin, French, English) suddenly revealed itself to have striking similarities with one of my  very favourite poems: Jacques Prévert‘s Kiss Me. I couldn’t find a good English translation online, so here is my attempt:

‘Twas in a street of the City of Lights
Where ’tis always dark, where there’s no air
And winter like summer, there ’tis always winter.

She was on the stairs
Him next to her, her next to him
‘Twas night
And she told him:

Here ’tis dark
There’s no air
Winter like summer, ’tis always winter
God’s sun don’t shine our way
He’s got too much to do where the rich stay

Take me in your arms
Kiss me
Kiss me long
Kiss me
Later, ’twill be too late
Our life, ’tis now

Here we die of everything:
of heat, of cold
We freeze, we suffocate
There’s no air

If you stopped kissing me
I feel I’d die, suffocate
You’re 15, I’m 15
Put together, that’s 30
At 30, we ain’t kids

We’ve the right to work
We’ve that to kiss
Later, ’twill be too late
Our life, ’tis now
Kiss me.

Jacques Prévert, 1946

And as the links formed in my brain, I felt the stress of endless meetings washing away. I stopped feeling guilty for not managing to learn Managerese (the baffling language used in so many university memos). I knew what mattered. And the students listened.

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