Thursday, 23 December 2010

Merry Christmas!

Christmas is nearly upon us again, and as I sign off for a few days, I'll take this opportunity to  make a few wishes for you...





Have a very Happy Christmas - in whatever way you celebrate, I wish you the very best of everything. 

Christmassy photos of my house, by me.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Happy Birthday Miss Austen!

Watercolour of Jane Austen by her sister, Cassandra.

Today is Jane Austen's 235th birthday, and although accurate images of the lady herself are infuriatingly scarce, her legacy lies in her much-loved and oft-quoted words: words lovingly crafted and subsequently pored over.. words that have stood the harshest test of all: time. Social conventions may have changed and manners may have altered, but Austen's greatest theme remains as important today as it ever was.


"I cannot fix on the hour, or the look, or the words, which laid the foundation. It is too long ago. I was in the middle before I knew that I had begun." (Mr.Darcy - in response to Elizabeth's question as to when he first fell in love with her- , Pride & Prejudice, Chapter 60).

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

History Lover's Gift Guide: The Eighteenth Century

Anybody know an eighteenth century fanatic in need of a lovely Christmas gift? It's not something I would usually do, but it's the season to give, and I wanted to share a few finds inspired by the 1700s that may help you in your shopping quest...

Ladies in Waiting Bone China Plate, Anthropologie, £22

There are four be-hatted and be-wigged ladies to choose from (designed by Florence Balducci), and it seems a shame to cover the designs with dinner...but once the turkey and sprouts are eaten, these lovely ladies will appear once more.

Glass Tumblers, Waddesdon Manor Shop, £20 each

Designed by Hanne Enemark, these tumblers are inspired by four paintings that hang at Waddesdon Manor. From left: The Pink Boy by Thomas Gainsborough, Lady Jane Halliday by Joshua Reynolds, Captain St. Leger by Reynolds, and Lady Sheffield by Gainsborough. The real paintings maybe priceless, but for £20 apiece, you can enjoy a scaled down version with your drink.

Beatrice & Violet Champagne Flutes, William Yeoward Crystal

Based on an eighteenth century design, these crystal flutes will allow you to coif champagne like a true eighteenth century socialite.

Sarah Siddons Silhouette Christmas Cards, National Portrait Gallery, £6 for 10

The dancing, silhouetted likeness of eighteenth century actress Sarah Siddons graces these National Portrait Gallery Christmas Cards.

Handmade French Masque Earrings, Etsy, $7 USD

I can't decide if these quirky earrings remind me of a masquerade costume or a lady highway-robber, but I like them all the same!

Masquerade Belle Nail Polish, Essie (Prices Vary)

Nail Polish and an Eyeshadow palette may not be very eighteenth century, but in the spirit of the other finds, it's the inspiration that counts!

Masquerade Eye Palette, Smashbox, $35 USD

Rosetta by Barbara Ewing

If a well written eighteenth century-set novel is what you're after, Barbara Ewing's Rosetta comes highly recommended. I've read and re-read this sweeping yet fantastically detailed tale of the title character Rosetta, and her travels to Egypt. It never disappoints. 

Best of luck with your Christmas shopping! 

All images (and for further details) courtesy of AnthropologieWaddesdon ManorWilliam Yeoward CrystalThe National Portrait Gallery, EtsyEssieSmashbox Amazon.

Monday, 6 December 2010

An Ode To Pie

We're a few days into December, so I feel it now only right and proper to talk about one of my great Christmas loves: The Mince Pie. Most countries have their own pastry or sweet treat that is traditionally served at this time of year, but the Mince Pie is peculiarly British, and as my (Canadian) boyfriend reminds me, something of an oddity which requires delicate elaboration. If your love of Mince Pies is as well established as mine, then grab yourself a cup of tea and another Mince Pie (If you take two, I won't say anything). For the uninitiated,  let me be your guide...

Festive Still Life, a joint effort between Laura & André.
The precise origin of the Mince Pie is one of those quirks of circumstance now lost to time, but the modern version bears only a little resemblance to its forbears. The similarities are, 1. Pastry 2. Spices and fruit. For example, Gervase Markham's 1615 recipe from The English Huswife calls for parboiled "legge of Mutton", or failing that, "you may also bake Beef or Veal." Added to the meat was also shredded suet, currants, dates, raisins and prunes, orange peel and sugar, which would then be baked in a pastry case. 

How they came to be associated with Christmas has long been debated, but never definitively answered. They were sometimes called Christmas Pies, and for a time, during the rule of Oliver Cromwell, outlawed along with other Catholic and Pagan symbols of celebration. Oddly enough, eating a Mince Pie on Christmas Day is still illegal (according to The Law Commission and this BBC article from 2006), although it would take Ebeneezer Scrooge in a police officer's uniform to enforce the rule!

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Mince Pie recipes still included meat that was added to a mixture of dried fruits, orange or lemon peel, sugar and sweet spices like cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and mace. Somewhere along the way the size of the pies shrunk from large to the small, individual pies we bake today, and more importantly, the meat was removed from proceedings altogether. 

Most modern recipes (such as Delia Smith's version here) also now include alcohol of some kind, but still have the same spices, fruits and suet. (For a vegetarian version by the ever-decadent Nigella Lawson, see here). Nowadays, the mincemeat (as it is still called despite containing no meat at all) is usually made ahead of time, simmered on a stove and then stored and left to mature before being spooned out into individual pastry cases which are then baked. You can also buy ready prepared jars of mincemeat, and I happened upon a very spirited debate in Marks & Spencer the other day between two elderly ladies who had themselves stumbled across jars of chocolate mincemeat for sale. The thought of it genuinely horrified them, and I can't say I was much taken by the idea of it either.

I love Mince Pies and often say that I could eat them all year round, but perhaps one of their joys is that they're not made or sold all year. I have no definitive recipe myself; my excuse is that my pastry making skills border on the abysmal, and I'm more than happy to stuff myself with the lovely ones that my Mum bakes for as long as she keeps on churning them out of the oven. Her pastry is light as a feather and she always serves them with a sprinkle of icing sugar. It's an even more barefaced and shameless admission when I also admit to buying and eating shop-bought pies. I don't really enjoy Christmas Pudding or cake the way some people do, but there are not many mince pies I won't eat. Besides, I've always been told that it's rude to refuse one...