What We’re Watching in September

Howdy.  Joanna here.

This month I’m doing a little departure from the usual Wenches’ What We’re Reading.  This month it’s What We’re Watching.  What movie, what TV, what paintings, what real life scenes have impressed and moved us recently?

Fair_House_Farm_cropFor me … I love non-fiction. The life of the duckbilled platypus. The Mongol Empire. The genetics of cats.

Recently I’ve been filling my leisure time with BBC and A&E documentaries on British History. One of my exciting finds — I get excited by history — is Tales From the Green Valley.  Five archeologists and historians live for a year on a farm on the Welsh border, wearing the clothing, eating the food, using the farming techniques and following the household customs of 1620. It’s exact, detailed, authentic

(Well … I caught them in one bit of  ‘folk etymology’ error — the origin of the phrase ‘upper crust’ to mean ‘rich folks’. Not 1620. It’s Nineteenth Century.)

This Tales From the Green Valley is a nitty-gritty, hands-on-the-plough, realistic view of a way of life that continued in some aspects till Victorian times. Interesting for its own sake. Interesting as the background upon which our stories are enacted. Fascinating to watch. 


Andrea also recommends a non-fiction TV series. She says:  09-2388M

I very rarely watch television. I know there are really good shows, with fabulous writing, but when I have some down time, I always gravitate toward curling up with a book to relax.
However, a friend of mine recommended that I watch the PBS special seven part series on "The Roosevelts—An Intimate History" (the wonderful thing is you can download and watch all the episodes on your computer!) So I tuned in for the first one—and was absolutely hooked. 


IMG_4294Nicola takes us right to Real Life.

Nicola here. This month I am watching the sea at Bamburgh Castle on the north east coast of England. We've had the most glorious weather and calm seas so far but tomorrow there is a storm promised. I find the sea so soothing and refreshing and walking along the beach has filled me with ideas and inspiration. It's wonderful to be here and see the geese flying overhead on their journey north and the castle silhouetted against the sky.

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Spicing Up the Regency

DSCN1964Joanna here.

 I was fumbling through my spice shelf the other day, as one does, trying to decide whether I wanted to make some kind of fancy beet salad to go with my last burrata cheese ball — this turned out to be a non-problem because I left Catonporch5the cheese on the counter while I was thinking all this and the cat jumped up, seized the cheese ball in her little white teeth, and went running off to scarf it down in secret under the forsythias.

Anyway, I got to wondering which of my spices I got here in my house would be in the kitchen cabinet of your well-supplied Regency housewife or cook.

Up above there’s my spice cabinet, which I have over the sink because having it over the stove is harder on the spices, them getting heated up and damp from the steam and all. As you will see, there is a bit of a crowd of spices.

So what spices and herbs do I hold in common with my Regency housewife?

She would have had access to all the herbs that grew in hedgerows and kitchen gardens since the first modern people walked across a land bridge into the British Isles about 40,000 years ago … though they didn’t so much go in for DSCN1986kitchen garden at that time.

A Regency woman would have easily matched my pitiful little array of traditional herbs. See them pictured in a line: sage, rosemary, mint, thyme, and oregano. She would have called the oregano ‘wild marjoram’, just to make everybody’s life interesting.

Wiki HerbsThe Regency housewife would have had many more of these traditional herbs at hand — dried or fresh parsley, (thus the ‘parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme’ that are headed to Scarborough Fair,) ordinary marjoram, dill, sweet basil, coriander, (of which more below,) fennel, garlic, scallions, mustard, saffron, and caraway. And she’d use herbs we don’t necessarily associate with everyday cuisine any more, like marigolds, lavender, roses, and violets, tansy, and angelica.


Coriandrum_sativum_-_Köhler–s_Medizinal-Pflanzen-193Speaking of coriander (and I add this because I find it charming and when was the last time you were charmed by an herb?):


The Plant that bears Coriander is cultivated in Gardens, upon the Account of its Seed, which is much us'd for Food, and Physic ; they are us'd in Comfits, Spirituous Liquors, and Beer, They are green upon the Plant, but grow whitish as they dry ; they are of an aromatic and very agreeable Taste and Smell; but for the rest of the Plant, it has an unpleasant Smell, like that of Buggs, and that is the Reason that 'tis neither us'd in Physic, nor Food.
                            A Treatise of All Sorts of Food, Louis Lémery, 1745


Now we come to the fine selection of spices that would have been imported DSCN1976into England in 1800. Me, I have nutmeg, ginger, (I have crystalized ginger also,) cinnamon, vanilla, chocolate, cloves, black pepper, and sesame oil. These would all have been readily available in the Regency … maybe a bit of a luxury, but one a lot of folks could indulge in. My two-centuries-ago cook could have had all those imported goodies and a double handful more that I don’t buy — tumeric, cassia, allspice, anise, caraway, sesame seeds, and mace ….

There are doubtless others I’m not calling to mind.

DSCN1978What else? Dried lemon peel, which she would probably have made for herself from imported lemons she bought in the market.

Salt, DSCN1981necessary to man from the dawn of time. Hers would have been made by the seashore in England. DSCN1980

And I have a bit of cherry cordial. The early 19th century cook would  probably have a number of liquors and used them with a freer hand than I do.

WhaDSCN1979t do I have that wouldn’t have found a place in the Regency kitchen? My food dyes for one thing. These are synthetic formulations made from aromatic petroleum products. Not so 1800-ish.


And then there’s the exotics. My shelves hold a little flock of spices and herbs for dishing up Indian and Mexican foods. Lookit here. Red pepper, garam masala, cumin, cilantro, cardamom, paprika and soy sauce. In the 1800’s household it was still a bit early for the ordinary cook to be putting together currieDSCN1995s, mulligatawny soup, and kedgeree. There was no stir-fry with snow-peas. Tex-Mex was not even on the horizon.

So there you have it. I peek into the cupboard of a London housewife in the past and it looks pretty familiar. If she glanced at my shelves it wouldn’t be all that strange.


Are you a spicy-foods person? What spices and herbs do you use a lot? Any new ones you’ve just discovered?

One random commenter will win a book of mine — any book of their choice, including the upcoming Rogue Spy if they are willing to wait 60 days till I get some copies.

Garden Bells

Wenches cloche copped colonial williamsburg attribe MizGingerSnapsIt's cold outside on the mountains today.  Last night it froze, amazing the poor silly daffodils.

I was thinking about how gardening folks dealt with these early, cold, unpredictable springs in Georgian and Regency days in England when greenhouses or hothouses were fairly rare and expensive. 

Wenches terrac ota cloche modern cc attrib jo-marshallThe English had a characteristically common-sense solution.  They used what we call a gardeners cloche.

Cloches were sort of a poor man's mini-greenhouse.  They could hold about one plant, so you needed a goodly number of them.  You had to keep an eye on them so as not to scorch a delicate plant in the sun.  Keep another eye on to guard from moisture build-up and mildew.  But, oh, how useful.  Cloches didn't just protect against the cold, they held in moisture and kept the wind out, they stand between the tasty succulent little plants and birds, deer, slugs and such hungry beasts like that. 

 The name 'cloche' comes from the shape of it — it's the French word for 'bell'.  In fact, when these glass shapes lived inside in a somwhat less robust form, our historical people called them 'bell jars'. Wenches cloche cc attrib smabssputzer

 These glasses seems to have reached England from French early in the 1600s.  In our Georgian and Regency times, cloches joined cold frames, forcing boxes of many kinds, terra cotta cloches and even woven baskets, in keeping plants warm and safe across the British Isles.

I think kindly of these homely glass hats sitting in the midst of our protagonist's kitchen garden.  How pretty, and how unexpected to come across while sneaking out to adventure in the early light of dawn.

attrib: coldframesmabsputzer; terracotta jomarshall;
cloche Mizgingersnaps' pair of cloches MaggieMcCain Wench cloche colonial williamsburg attrib Maggie McCain


What do you remember from some childhood garden in the spring?
          What are you going to admire and use in your garden this next month?



Those Lively Regency Streets

Rowlandson_Thomas_Elegant_Company_On_Blackfriars_Bridge artrenewal
Regency streets would have been fairly active and interesting places, what with knife grinders, pot  menders and chimney sweeps, milkmaids and streets sellers hawking everything from cherries to hot codlins — not to mention the miscellany of enterprising pickpockets and cut purses and those generally operating on the windy side of the law.

Exciting, those Regency streets.

Hot-Codlins-q100-432x701'Hot Codlins' are roasted apples, in case you didn't know and were wondering.

There was a little woman, as I've been told,

Who was not very young, nor yet very old;

Now this little woman her living got

By selling codlins, hot, hot, hot!

But I digress.

Along with all those buyers and sellers, intent upon the mystery of commerce, there were artists out there hustling a living.

You had your street musicians.  Most often, they'd be playing something portable, like a violin or a hurdy gurdy.  I do not feel impelled to discuss what a violin is, but hurdy gurdy's are kinda interesting.   

Hurdy gurdys, are instruments played by skill, to borrow phraseology from the insurance business.  When you turn a crank, this rubs a wheel against the strings to make the music.  A couple strings make a constant drone.  The little keyboard on the side presses other strings tVielle a roue en forme de luth last quarter C18 at jacondeo change the pitch and play a melody.

There's a performance on a hurdy gurdy here.

To my mind, this sounds a little like a bagpipe. 

Ferdinand_Marohn_Wanderzirkusknabe_mit_ÄffchenWhen I was playing bagpipe music on my computer a while back, my son came in and said, "Mom, there's something wrong with your sound card."
Which kinda sums it up.


The hurdy gurdy player and the barrel organ grinder were often accompanied by capuchin monkeys who entertained the customers and 'passed the hat'.

Hurdy gurdys aren't to be confused with barrel organs which are altogether larger affairs.  (The words were used interchangeably in the Regency, which is confusing.)  Barrel organs are also played by turning a crank, but barrel organs use pipes and bellows to play a tune encoded by pins.  Think music box. With a single tune. Very loud.  DoreOrganGrinderR

The barrel organ exists in the Regency, but it's more a Victorian institution.  This to the right is a Victorian engraving of a barrel organ being played.

The music of barrel organs was not universally loved.  As one writer put it:

As our nerves are rather delicate (fine minds are in general attended with fine nerves) the faintest and most distant squeaking of a hurdy-gurdy is sufficient, so to speak, to knock us off our perch. The very instant that we hear it, the fear of coming horrors completely overpowers us; and throwing down our pen we make a frantic rush to our remotest coal-cellar, where with cotton in our ears we tremblingly abide until we think the danger past.  Punch 1860

What else?  — You hadJohann Ferdinand Schlez Tanzbär_1810 your street singers, often accompanied by an instrument.  Yer jugglers.  Conjurors set up a table and showed off feats of magic and slight of hand.  There were dancing bears and trained dogs doing tricks.  There were even entire theatrical performances put on in the public streets by strolling players. 

There was the raree show or 'rarity show'.

1800 raree show
The raree show was a portable peep show, carried around on a man's back.  It's described as: 

a raree-show . . .  has a very plain and mean external appearance; but if we look into it intently, the prospect inlarges by degrees, and gives us a most surprising and delightful entertainment, successively presenting to our view the greatest variety of nature and of art."  Memoirs of the Society of Grub Street 1737

The raree show box would have glass spyholes in it.  The pictures inside were set into viewing position by the operator pulling a string.  The great attraction was the raree operator's patter, explaining the wonders within for whoever was lucky enough to pay his farthing and look through the glass.  

And what was within?  Illustrations of the wonders of nature.  Art.  Drawings of topical interest.  Views of distant places. 

One writer describes a raree show as being, " really very comical and diverting."

And another says:

AS I was going through Smithfield the other day, I observed an old fellow with a wooden leg, drest in a sailor's habit, who courteously invited the passer-by to peep into his raree-show, for the small price of an halfpenny. His exhibitions, I found, were very well suited to the times, and quite in character for himself: for among other particulars, with which he amused the little audience of children that surrounded his box, I was mightily pleased to hear the following; "— There you see the British fleet "persuing the French ships, which are running "away—There you see Major-General Johnson beating the French soldiers in America, and "taking Count Dieskau prisoner — There you "see the Grand Monarque upon his knees before "King George, begging his life."   The Connoisseur, 1755

Raree shows were considered good fun, but a little . . . vulgar.  Contemporary writers speak of someone bombastic as "bawling out with the tone and gestures of raree show men."   The word itself was used to mean an empty amusement.  

Last but not least … Punch and Judy.

Punch and Judy go way back.  Back to Sixteenth Century Italian Commedia del'arte.  Back to Seventeenth Century London.  Samuel Pepys attended an early version of Punch and Judy as a marionette show at Covent Garden.

By the Regency, the Punch and Judy performance had moved onto the  streets.  Marionettes, with the heavy equipment and multiple operators, had been replaced by a single puppeteer and hand puppets.    

The single puppeteer means only two puppets on stage, so Punch and Judy consists of a number of short scenes between two characters, one of them Punch.

Something about squawking, outraged Mr. Punch appealed to the Regency audience up and down the
Thomas_Rowlandson_-_A_Punch_and_Judy_Show_-_Google_Art_Projectsocial scale.  Punch — the puppet with the personality disorder.  Wild, cantankerous, so-much-not-a-pacifist Mr. Punch.  He carries a stick — called a slapstick — as big as himself and whaps it about freely.   He is gleefully self-satisfied.  "That's the way to do it," he says, pleased — of course — as Punch.


Big cities still have a vibrant street life.  What's your favorite 'free show' in the city?