Travels with Food

wine and cheese tablePat here:

I’m just back from a two-week vacation and wondering why we call it a vacation. Perhaps in the days of maids and butlers time away from chores was a relaxing getaway, but I spent a year of research on the itinerary, and weeks on packing, and now that I’m home. . . I’m sure you all can relate to the stacks of laundry and bills, overgrown grass and weeds, and all the work (like this blog) that didn’t get done while I was away. Where are the magical fairies when we need them?

But in exchange for mounds of unfinished work, we had two wonderful weeks of maid service and catering, so I really have no reason to complain. I’m five pounds heavier and I’m here to tell you, the food was worth every ounce. Well, it was France, after all. If only I could bring that cheese home with me. . .

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Welcoming Summer

Christina here. So apparently summer has arrived in the northern hemisphere even if it doesn’t really feel like it much! Last week was May Day which is supposedly the beginning of summer, and it has been celebrated in various ways since ancient times. Most of us don’t bother to mark it these days, but in the past it was important as it heralded the warmer months to come.

One of the earliest known celebrations was Floralia, the Roman festival of Flora, goddess of flowers, spring and fertility. This took place during the last days of April and the first of May and included the Ludi Florae, the special “Games of Flora” that lasted for days.

Floralia – Hobbe Smith 1898

The festival was all about pleasure-seeking and was plebeian, rather than patrician as most other festivals were (even prostitutes took part). There were various spectacles like theatrical performances and other entertainments and it all sounds like great fun! (If you want to know more about Roman spring celebrations, check out this post on Alison Morton’s blog.)

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Model Villages!

Nicola here. A couple of months ago I stayed in a model village. It wasn’t the sort I used to love as a child and still find quite charming, the miniature houses and tiny streets. This was a full-sized village built by a wealthy landowner for fun. And it was very interesting but also quite odd.

There are a number of different sorts of model villages in the UK and I’m interested to know if it’s the same in other countries, so perhaps someone can tell me if you have them where you are. As I mentioned, when I was small, I adored the tiny reproduction villages such as the ones at Blackpool and Bekonscot, loving the little houses, castles, shops and people. Almost always they would have a working train set, which made it even more fun. And of course, because the miniature village is so small, even as a child you feel like a giant! On one memorable holiday in Holland, we also went to Madurodam, the Dutch model village in The Hague built in 1952, which was so exciting I remember it to this day! And in the photo here you can see our old dog, Angus, enjoying the miniature village just up the road from us at Faringdon.

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Historical Food Crazes

This is a cronut!

Nicola here. The latest food trend has passed me by until now but at the weekend I read about something called a “Crookie.” The crookie was preceded by the cronut and the cruffin, which for those readers like me who are clueless of food fashions, is croissant dough crossed with various other sweet foods: cookies, doughnuts and muffins. I haven’t tried any of them but I’m told they are delicious.

The fashion for trying out new things in food is as old as the human race, according to food historians. When the Romans came to Britain, they brought with them fruit such as grapes and figs and herbs including coriander, which must have been an eye-opener for British-Romano cuisine. More spices entered the British diet after the Norman Conquest of 1066, with cinnamon, cloves and saffron from Mediterranean and Middle Eastern trade.

Can you imagine the excitement in Tudor England when both tomatoes and turkeys appeared on the menu (though not necessarily at the same time?) The Italians had tried the tomato out first and weren’t too keen to start with, having munched on the leaves and pronounced them inedible (they are actually poisonous in large quantities.) Nor was the potato initially welcome. The Spanish introduced them in the second half of the 16th century. The Histoires de legumes by Pitrat and Foury states that the first written mention of the potato was a receipt for delivery dated 28th November 1567 when they travelled from Las Palmas in Grand Canarias to Antwerp. Sir Walter Raleigh brought them to England in 1588 but initially they were treated with suspicion and considered no better than animal feed. As one of my favourite meals is a baked potato with cheese, I can only be grateful that eventually they caught on. And where would we be without chips/fries?

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Life in a Roman Legion

Christina here. Do you believe in serendipity? I definitely do! I happen to be working on another book set during Roman times (although in Britain, not Italy) and guess what happened? The British Museum put on an exhibition about Roman legions! Although my hero is not a legionary, the villain is, so this was the perfect research opportunity and naturally, I had to go and see it.

The exhibition was called Legion – Life in the Roman Army – and it was amazing! A collection of fabulous artefacts, with plenty of backstory and historical information. Here’s a brief summary of what I learned, including my favourite exhibits:-

Rome’s first emperor, Augustus (63 BC – AD 14), ruled over a vast empire, based on military dominance. To maintain power everywhere, he created the first professional army of full-time career soldiers divided into regiments – legions. Together these consisted of approximately 150,000 male Roman citizens, plus an equal number of non-citizens in so-called auxiliary units. This vast army was incredibly efficient and well-trained, and for the most part invincible. Although not always – in AD 9 on the Danube frontier at Teutoburg Forest three whole legions (around 20,000 men) were completely annihilated by ‘barbarians’ (Germanic tribes)!

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