Monday, 30 April 2012

Playing for Time

I began to collect tin-plate toys about twenty-five years ago. Brand new ones were reasonably cheap then, and although you’ll still find such things as wind-up mice for a couple of quid, prices have risen sharply.

Tin-plate toys were first made in Germany in the 1850s. As lithographic printing on metal improved, the price of the toys fell, and their light weight made them cheap to export. German antique toys, especially those by E P Lehmann, are now very collectible, and bring high prices.

I bought this rocket for about a fiver back then, and they are selling for about £15 today. It’s a friction drive model – pull it back, let it go and it trundles along until the tip hits an obstacle, whereupon it rises to an upright position and the stairs drop down, revealing the cosmonaut inside.

Here are a couple of frogs; the large one is Russian, the smaller one is Chinese.

This is a Chinese sparrow, with a fixed key, with its box. I paid less than £5 for it new – I have seen them for sale today, in the box, for over £40.

Similarly, these goldfinches are Russian – I think they were £5 the pair – and again I’ve seen them being offered online for over £40 each.

This is a Rakuten ‘Happy Bunny’ drumming rabbit, made in China in the 1990s, which I think is fantastic – wind him up and he goes on for ages, drumming furiously and rocking his head madly from side to side. His splendid retro look has led to this model being offered for sale by some less than scrupulous sellers as genuine vintage toys, with matching prices – into the hundreds of pounds. This one, even though being honestly offered as a reproduction, I’ve seen on sale for between £44 to £65. If you find one for about a tenner, buy it – not even as an investment, you’ll get ten quid’s worth of pleasure from it.

Three cars; two MGs from Japan, and an ambulance from China. All three are pull-back-and-go friction models.

Another friction model – this one is a Japanese fish. Pull out the small fish, set him down and off he goes, with the big fish in hot pursuit. When the mechanism winds down, he catches up to, and swallows, his prey.

This is a Chinese ‘phut-phut’ boat. The idea is you light a fuel pellet in the body and the heat produces steam, which drives the boat through the water. I haven’t had the nerve to try it out.

This is a Chinese chicken. There should be a joke in this, somewhere. I’ll leave it to you to make up your own.

And a penguin.


Sunday, 29 April 2012

Trompe L'oeil

            In addition to myrioramas, there were many other visual entertainments, puzzles and curiosities to delight the eye. There is a resurgence of 3D cinema at present, but it is nothing new. Three-dimensional images were developed by Charles Wheatstone, stemming from his research into stereopsis in the 1830s. Wheatstone invented the stereoscope, which used two different perspectives of a subject to achieve enhanced depth perception in the viewer. Improvements by David Brewster (who also invented the kaleidoscope), and in photography, led the stereoscope to become very popular from the mid-19th century.

Here is a scan of a typical stereogram from 1904, showing a view of the Grand Canyon.

Stereograms were viewed by putting them in a stereoscope. Here is a more modern example, a Vistascreen viewer from the 1960s.

Another familiar method of 3D viewing is the anaglyph image, developed in Leipzig by Wilhelm Rollmann in 1852. These are colour-separated images, seen through colour-filtered glasses – usually red and cyan – which are combined in the visual cortex of the brain to give the impression of a three-dimensional picture.

Typical anaglyph glasses.

Scans of  3D anaglyph pictures.

3 D Tyrannosaurus

3 D Mosquito Head

Two different forms of illusion are the reversible face and the hidden face. I’ve quite a collection of these – here are a couple of examples. The reversible face shows a different image if the picture is turned through 180 degrees, thus: -

Four Heads ...

The same four heads turned over.

On the other hand, the distance from which the picture is seen usually governs the hidden face type. From a distance, one sees the image of a face, as you get nearer, more details emerge, and hidden faces, or figures, can be seen.

The illusion of seeing faces or figures in other things is called pareidolia – this is the phenomenon by which people ‘see’ Christ’s image burnt into toast or the name of Allah in a slice of aubergine.

Here is a Green Man. If you look closely at his face, you will see two lovers.

He reminds me of this Wade Green Man. This is part of Wade’s British Myths and Legends series. Expect to pay about £15 for one of these.

Saturday, 28 April 2012

Figures in a Landscape

In the early years of the 19th century a fashionable form of popular entertainment was the peristrephic ‘Moving Panorama’. The Moving Panorama was a large painted landscape sheet wound onto spools, which would be cranked across a slightly convex surface, framed by a theatre style proscenium, whilst a speaker provided a narrative description of the mural. Starting at about 100 feet, some panoramas extended to over 1000 feet in length, and depicted all manner of subjects, from cityscapes and ocean voyages, to battles, arctic explorations or even an interpretation of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. Marshall Brothers of Edinburgh introduced moving Panoramas to the UK; the travelling shows eventually became theatrical productions, incorporating music, live performers, and visual and audio sound effects. They continued to remain popular  - in 1912, Poole Brothers produced the Loss of the Titanic in eight tableaux – until cinema eventually superseded the panorama in the 1920s. Molly Bloom, in James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) recalls, “I saw him and he not long married flirting with a young girl at Pooles Myriorama and turned my back on him.”

Smaller versions, at about twelve inches tall, were made as children’s toys; one of the earliest was sold as the Panoramacopia or Endless Landscape Scenery of the Isle of Wight, from 1820, which gave a continuous topographical representation of cottages, grain fields, carriages, people, soldiers, fishermen and the beach from the island, which was being promoted at the time as a new tourist resort. A drawing teacher, T T Dales, made a variant of the panorama on eighteen interchangeable cards at about the same time, which he also called a Panoramacopia.

In 1824, John Clarke of London designed a set of sixteen cards, which were manufactured by Samuel Leigh and sold for 15 shillings (75p) per set. Clarke called his design, ‘The Myriorama’ selling it with the description that it “ … is a moveable Picture, capable of forming an almost endless variety of Picturesque Scenery". The cards were fully interchangeable, giving an almost limitless assortment of possible combinations.

4 cards from Clarke's original Myriorama

There are modern interpretations available today from ‘vintage’ toyshops – this first one is a twenty-four-card set based closely on an 1830s original from Leipzig.

4 cards from this set in one variation ...

... the same 4 cards in a different order.

This next set was made in Germany in 1977 by F-J Holler. The box claims that there are a possible 1,686,553,615,927,922,354,187,744 variations of the cards, which seems a phenomenally large number but, of course, you do not have to use all 24 cards at the same time. It also claims that if the (then) worldwide population of 5 billion people laid out a combination once a second, it would take them 10,696,000 years to complete the possible variations.

Seven cards in combination.

Friday, 27 April 2012

There Will be Time

Back to Eliot’s procrastinating Prufrock,

“… time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.”

What else do you need on your tea table, alongside the cruet, the milk jug and the sugar bowl? Why, a toast rack, of course.

I bought this one on eBay for a mere £3.20 + £2.83 p&p. It is EPNS (Electro-plated Nickel Silver), with five-bars and a circular handle.

The marks tell me that it was made by Robert Pringle of London in about 1882, (after that date, it became Robert Pringle & Co., Robert Pringle & Sons in 1899, and Robert Pringle & Sons (London) Ltd. in 1931). The 02195 stamp is the pattern number.

Toast racks are, of course, used to keep the toast crisp, by separating the slices and stopping the moisture that evaporates from them making them soggy. They can also be used as a letter rack.

The thing is, what do you spread on your toast? Do you go sweet or savoury? Sweet – is it jam, marmalade or honey? If you go for jam, what flavour? My favourite jams are made by Wilkin and Sons, Tiptree. If you can find it, I recommend their Little Scarlet strawberry jam – I say if you can find it, as they only make a limited amount each year. Wilkins are the only makers to grow, and make jam from, the Little Scarlet variety of strawberry, a tiny berry but full of intense flavour. They are picked during a three-week period in mid-June and cooked in small batches before bottling. The firm reckon that they can produce enough for four or five months supply, and after that – well, you just have to wait until next year. Or you can do what I did – go for their Morello Cherry preserve.

I only hesitate from recommending Little Scarlet for one reason. In From Russia, With Love (1957), Ian Fleming writes: - Breakfast was Bond's favourite meal of the day. When he was stationed in London it was always the same. It consisted of very strong coffee . . . two slices of wholewheat toast, a large pat of deep yellow Jersey butter and three squat glass jars containing Tiptree 'Little Scarlet' strawberry jam; Cooper's Vintage Oxford marmalade and Norwegian Heather Honey from Fortnum's.

James Bond is one of the most boorish characters in English fiction. He is a horrible, horrible creation. But that said, his taste of breakfast is exquisite. Wholewheat toast – yes, please. Jersey butter – absolutely. Little Scarlet – see above. Frank Cooper’s Vintage Oxford marmalade – undoubtedly. Norwegian Heather Honey from Fortnum’s – well, now you’re just being silly.

Frank Cooper’s marmalade has been made since 1874. It is the Queen’s marmalade of choice, Captain Scott took Cooper’s with him on his ill-fated 1911 Antarctic expedition, and Sir Edmund Hillary took it to Everest in 1953.
‘Marmalade’ comes from the Portuguese marmelo – ‘quince’, and was first imported into England in 1495. It deserves a separate post of its own.

You could go savoury, though. There are only two real options here – Marmite or Gentlemen’s Relish. Marmite sells itself on the ‘love it or hate it’ idea, which is fair enough. A soft boiled egg without Marmite soldiers is unthinkable. Marmite is a by-product of the brewing industry – it is made from the spent yeast that has been used to make beer, and takes its name from the French marmite cooking pot, the shape of which the jar echoes and a picture of which appears on the label.

Patum Peperium, or Gentlemen’s Relish, is an anchovy paste, made to a secret recipe from 1828, by Elsenhams. It contains 60% anchovies, salt, spices, herbs and butter and is another acquired taste. It has a very strong flavour but spread thinly on hot, buttered toast is delicious. You can pick up a small plastic pot for just over £1.50 in many supermarkets, or lash out £15.00 for a porcelain jar. What is not often realised is that it can also be used to flavour other foods. The fishy taste of the anchovies breaks down whilst cooking, and it adds a welcome umami tang to cottage pie or grilled chops.

Talking of fishy food, it’s back to the Romans. An essential ingredient in Roman cookery was garum, a condiment made from fermented fish intestines. It sounds disgusting, but apparently the finished product was mild and tasty, and not at all fishy. Romans added garum to almost everything, sweet and savoury, and good quality garum brought high prices. Fish sauces remain popular to this day – nam pla is widely used in Thai cooking, oyster sauce from Cantonese cuisine, saeujeot in Korean food. What is not often realised is that the English Worcestershire sauce is a variety of fish sauce – it too is fermented and contains anchovies. I must use gallons of the stuff – try it in stews, casseroles, ragus and chillis, or add a splash to either cheese or beans on toast.

Thursday, 26 April 2012

Cutting the ...

                          We’re back with the Romans again with this one. When they were making wine, they called the freshly crushed grape juice vinum mustum – ‘young wine’ (in today’s winemaking, it’s still called ‘must’). Mustum was widely used in Roman cookery, and when mixed with the ground seeds of sinapis (the Roman name for the mustard plant), it produced ‘burning must’ - mustum ardens - which, over time, was conflated to ‘mustard’; ardens is the root of the word ‘ardent’ – if you are passionate or fervent, you are ‘burning’.

The Romans introduced mustard into Gaul, where the monks there grew the plant alongside their vines. Mustard arrived in England with the Normans; moutarde from the Dijon area was so highly regarded that Pope John Paul XXII of Avignon (1244-1334) created the post of Grand Moutardier du Pape – Grand Mustard-maker to the Pope. Unlike many spices, mustard grows readily in the European climate, and so there was no need to import it from the East, and so was available to all.

Tewkesbury, in Gloucestershire, was famous for its mustard – in Henry IV Part II, Shakespeare has Falstaff describe Poins with the line “His wit’s as thick as Tewksbury mustard.” Tewkesbury mustard contains grated horseradish root (and sometimes other herbs and spices), and was formed into balls and dried, to be broken up and dissolved later in water, vinegar, cider or other liquid as required.

The accounts rolls of the monks on the Farne Islands for 1436 mention mystert qweryngs – ‘mustard querns’, (querns are grindstones), and it was usual to grind mustard at home. About 1720, a Mrs Clements from Durham developed a new method of milling and refining mustard and she sold her wares nationwide, including to the court of George I – from where the fashion spread. Messers Keen and Sons opened a rival mustard factory at Garlick Hill London in 1742, and sold to taverns and chophouses, spreading the demand further (but in spite of what some may say, this is not the origin of the phrase ‘As Keen as Mustard’, which was first recorded in 1672, and is maybe a variant of ‘the keenest mustard’ dating from 1658).

In 1814, Jeremiah Colman, a flour miller, branched out with a mustard mill at Bawburgh near Norwich. Colman’s introduced their famous bull’s head logo and yellow packaging in 1855, and in 1866 received the Royal Warrant to supply mustard to Queen Victoria. His family continued to produce mustard, buying out Keen’s in 1903, until the firm itself was bought out by Unilever in 1995. When he was asked how he had made a fortune from something as modest as mustard, Jeremiah Colman replied it was not from the mustard that people ate, but from what they left on the side of the plate.

English mustard is a wonderful, robust accompaniment to roast beef (as an alternative to horseradish sauce), cold meats, cheese, pies, sausages and so on. French mustard is more versatile, and works well in vinaigrettes, dressings and mayonnaise, with charcuterie and coquilles Saint Jacques. I’ll be honest and say outright I am not fond of German mustard – but that’s just a question of personal taste. American mustard should only be eaten on burgers and hot dogs. There are many ‘fancy’ mustards available, with fruit and honey and wine and heaven knows what else – if you find one you like, stick with it. I like to add wholegrain honey mustard to barbeque marinades.

For a mass-produced product, Colman’s English mustard is very, very good indeed (if it’s good enough for the Queen, it’ll do for me), but if I had to mention an alternative I’d go for Tracklements Strong English, however it is pricey for what it is.

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Put some Pep in your Step

          Unlike salt, pepper is not essential for life, but the two have been inextricably linked for millennia. Pepper was well known to the Romans, (to them, it was piper), and was so popular that Pliny the Elder complained that: - “… in no year does India drain our empire of less than five hundred and fifty millions of sesterces, giving back her own wares in exchange, which are sold among us at fully one hundred times their prime cost.” (Pliny, Natural History, Book VI, Ch. 26). In contemporary terms, that is £1,400,000 per annum; today, pepper still accounts for over 20% of the worldwide spice trade. 

Black pepper is produced from the unripe green seeds of the pepper tree. The seeds are briefly boiled in water and then left to dry. To make White pepper, the ripe red seeds are boiled in water and then left to soak for about a week (a process called retting), before rubbing to remove the flesh. These are then dried and ground later.

One of earliest cookery books is Apicius (De re coquinaria) (“On Cookery”), which includes pepper in 349 of its 468 recipes. Apicius is a collection of ten separate recipe books, (not, as some think, written by the notorious Roman gourmand Marcus Gavius Apicius), compiled in about the 4th Century CE, and includes such gems as this: -
For Flamingo
Scald the flamingo, wash and dress it, put it in a pot, add water, salt, dill, and a little vinegar, to be parboiled. Finish cooking with a bunch of leeks and coriander, and add some reduced must to give it colour. In the mortar crush pepper, cumin, coriander, laser root, mint, rue, moisten with vinegar, add dates, and the fond of the braised bird, thicken, strain, cover the bird with the sauce and serve. Parrot is prepared in the same manner.
 Apicius Bk. VI, 231.

After Rome fell, pepper continued to be traded from the Malabar coast of India, via Arab traders into Italy, the city states of which had a virtual monopoly on it. In a bid to break this monopoly, other European nations sought a sea-route to the East, in particular the English, the Dutch and the Portuguese. Such were the vast quantities that were bought from them, the people of the Spice Islands believed that the houses of the English must be so cold that in order to make them warm, they plastered the walls with crushed pepper. The marvelous story of the Spice trade, and the wars it caused, is told in the wonderful book Nathaniel’s Nutmeg by Giles Milton, a book I cannot recommend too highly.

In a letter to Cuthwin, the monk Cuthbert wrote that when the Venerable Bede (remember him) was on his deathbed, he said to him “I have certain things of value in my casket, that is some pepper, napkins and incense; but run quickly and bring the priests of our monastery unto me hither, that I also may distribute to them the little gifts such as God hath granted me.” This indicates how valuable pepper was regarded at the time.

A common fallacy is that, in the past, people would use spices to disguise the taste of rotten meat. Spices were phenomenally expensive in the past, and people may well have over-used them in a display of conspicuous consumption and to impress their fellows, but the same people who could afford to buy the spices could certainly afford top-quality meat too. And our ancestors were not stupid – they knew fine well that eating rotten food would make them ill. Further to which, there were stringent regulations in the past regarding the quality of food – in 1319, for example, one William Sperlyn was sentenced to the pillory for selling two bad carcasses of beef.

Mulligatawny soup gets its name from the Tamil milagu tanni – 'pepper water'. Eliza Acton gives a recipe for Mullagatawny [sic] Soup in the Modern Cookery for Private Families. This book, published in 1845, was the first cookery book aimed at the domestic cook (rather than the professional). It was also the first to include lists of ingredients and suggested cooking times, (and the first recorded recipe for Brussels Sprouts!). Later writers, including Mrs Beeton, used Acton’s book as a model for their own works.

Tomorrow – mustard.