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!

Posted in botany, Food history, Gardening, History, Plants, Travelling | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

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.



Posted in History, Poetry | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

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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Pain à la grecque

In my last post, I told you that we moved, and that we now have a garden, which I am sure will feature regularly in this blog. Another lovely part of the house, which by the way is late Victorian (1898),  is the kitchen. It has been extended and modernised over the years, but it still retains some Victorian charm. For the first few weeks, we were so busy that we hardly cooked. But time has now come to make something nicer.

I felt it would be proper to make something Greekish-themed: the Brussels delicacy that is pain à la grecque. This sweet bread actually has nothing to do with Greece.  “Grecque” stands for the word “grecht“, which in the Brussels dialect means “canal”. This is canal bread, perhaps because it can be kept on board barges.

The pain baking in our fancy (but only partially working) oven - I am not entirely sold to it.

The pain baking in our fancy (but only partially working) oven – I am not entirely sold to it.

I had never made pain à la grecque, but I rarely let such small challenges stop me. I could have used a modern recipe found on the Web,  but instead I referred to an old recipe book, which I inherited from my Belgian grandmother. Her best friend Ninette gave it to her to celebrate her 24th birthday in 1945. The book contains recipes ‘tried and tested’ by the students at the School of Housekeeping at the Institute Marie-Thérèse in Liege.  Interestingly, the School still exists, but no longer is a finishing institute for young ladies.

Now my Bonne Maman was not particularly interested in cooking and baking. The pristine state of this recipe book might be a testament to that. There are no annotations here, but there is a lovely dried edelweiss and some rose petals.

Big boy T and Little Boy G helped me make the bread. It is still rather challenging to get G (aged 4) involved, and T did lose his patience a few times, but we got there in the end. Our sweet bread was really tasty. Here is the adapted recipe. Do let me know if you try it and if you have suggestions for improvement.

Some of our pain ὰ la grecque cooling down. They don't look particularly pretty, but they are very tasty!

Some of our pain à la grecque cooling down

Pain à la grecque, slightly adapted from Recettes de cuisine expérimentées au Cours Supérieur de Travaux du Ménage et à l’Ecole Normale Ménagère (8th edition, Liège, 1945)


  • 500 g of plain flour + extra flour for rolling
  • 10 g of dried yeast (more if you use fresh yeast)
  • 250 g of unsalted butter at room temperature
  • 5 g of cinnamon (a teaspoon)
  • 5 g of baking powder (a teaspoon)
  • 300 g of crystallised sugar (the traditional recipe requires white sugar, but I couldn’t find any, and used brown sugar crystals instead – worked a treat)
  • approximately 250 ml of milk (full fat of course) at room temperature
  1. Mix the yeast with a little bit of milk. Make a well in the middle of the flour. Pour the yeast mixture in the well. Mix the yeast mixture with a little flour and cover it with flour.
  2. Leave to rest. When the flour has become cracked, it is ready to be kneaded. I used an electric mixer, but this should be feasible by hand.
  3. While mixing, add the milk little by little. Then add the butter little by little. Then add the cinnamon and the baking powder. If the mixture is too dry, add some milk. The dough should be firm.
  4. Leave to rise for at least two hours.
  5. Divide the dough into balls of 50 g each.
  6. For each ball, use a pinch of flour and a spoonful of crystallised sugar. Work the flour and the sugar into the ball. Roll the ball into a sausage of approximately 20 cm. Cut the sausage in two. Flatten it onto a non-stick cooking sheet.
  7. Cook the bread in a moderate oven (gas mark 7) for approximately 20 minutes. The bread is ready when it is golden.
  8. Leave to cool on a rack.
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Trimming hedges

It has been a very long time since I last wrote. In fact, this has been the longest interval since I started blogging. The last few months have been rather difficult, for various reasons. On the positive side, Little Boy G has started school and seems to be adapting very well. And we moved! After seven years in a lovely rented flat, we have moved to a house we bought.

This is the first time in my life I have a garden. I have always lived in flats (and once in a shared house with a courtyard). For a historian of botany, with a true passion for plants, I seriously lack gardening experience. Our garden is small, but it is a garden nevertheless. Unfortunately, it suffered some neglect for several years. We now have the task to transform it into something acceptable. A challenge I welcome! I started with a basic task: trimming the hedges.

Our hedges after an initial trim. Much work to be done!

Our hedges after an initial trim. Much work to be done!

Serendipity being what it is, as I was attacking the unruly bay tree, I came across a ‘delightful’ Greek passage on tree trimming. It is found in the pseudo-Hippocratic Letters. These are letters allegedly written to and by the great physician Hippocrates. They form a sort of novella, whose main story-line is the madness of the philosopher Democritus.

Democritus has lost his mind: he laughs at everything and anything. The people of his home city, Abdera, call upon Hippocrates to come and heal their great mind. After much preparation, Hippocrates sets on his way to Abdera, but not before having left his wife in the capable hands of his friend Denys. He assures him that his wife is usually well-behaved, but…

…a woman always needs someone who tempers her, for she has in herself, by nature, an unbridled character, which, unless it is lopped on a daily basis, runs all to wood, like trees. [Pseudo-Hippocrates, Letters 13].

So women are like trees: they need pruning on a regular basis. The most common Greek verb for pruning was kolouō, a word that is phonetically very close to the verb kolazō, to chastise,  to punish. The ancients played on the similarity between the two words, comparing tree pruning to some ‘beneficial’ punishment of family dependents: slaves, children, women. While the author of the Letter does not use the word kolouō, he is playing on the same set of assumptions.

Wonderful wild hedges!

Wonderful wild hedges!

Domesticated trees were usually considered to be female in the Greek world: like women, they carried fruits, but in order to do so, they needed constant care and constant chastisement. Pesky things…

With this Hippocratic passage in mind, I could not help but feel pain for the bay tree that I was hacking, especially since that tree is Laurus nobilis, my namesake. I found comfort in a new charity shop acquisition: a lovely tea-cup and saucers with wonderful scenes from Jill Barklem’s Brambly Hedge Autumn Story.


Posted in Ancient Greece, Ancient History, Gardening, Plants | Leave a comment