Category Archives: Garden

Objects histories from my garden #10 – 19th century mocha and annular ware sherds

Mochaware sherd from the garden

This satisfyingly chunky piece of glazed earthenware, featuring a roughly beaded rim, was once a fairly large, open vessel, probably a pot or a tall-sided bowl.  Mocha ware, produced between the mid 1700s and the early 1900s, was relatively cheap and cheerful, pottery for using rather than admiring.  Its defining features include its colouring, the linear decoration (usually combined with panels of colour or white background) and the “dendritic” design. “Dendritric” means “branching,” and in mochaware refers to a pattern consisting of a feathery fern-like tendrils, usually emanating from a main stem, typically coloured either black or blue.  Vessels without the dendritic design are usually referred to simply as banded creamware or annular (ring-like) ware, in both cases due to the encircling bands of colour.  It is only those vessels with the dendritic design that are supposed to be referred to as mochaware.   We have found both in the garden, but the piece of mochaware is the most impressive, both in terms of solidity and distinctiveness.

Polished moss agate pebble. Source: Wikipedia

The name mocha derives from an imported stone known as moss agate, which was also known as mocha stone due to its export from the port of Mocha (al Mukha) in Yemen, on the southwestern end of the Arabian peninsula.  The stone is not actually found in that part of the world, and was imported from India and some parts of central Europe. Many of the first examples to find their way into western Europe were brought back by the East India Companies of Britain and the Netherlands.  Although the appearance suggested to its European admirers that plant remains had been preserved in the stone, moss agate consists of quarts with mineral inclusions, usually manganese and iron oxides.  It is not actually an agate at all.  

Fabergé box with moss agate lid. Source: Royal Collection Trust

In the 18th century the belief that the stone preserved plant remains indefinitely suggested that it had special health-preserving properties, providing good luck to the wearer.  Many were accordingly turned into jewellery, particularly as polishing techniques improved, and they were often accompanied by gemstones in settings.  The ability to cut the stone into thin sheets that could be polished encouraged its incorporation into various decorative objects.  The Royal Collection Trust has in its collection a piece of sliced moss agate formed into the lid of a box, by Fabergé, which shows clearly how the pottery emulates the stone, and how it might be used in luxury goods.  There are many similar examples.

The Greengates Works in Tunstall during the 1780s. Source: thepotteries.org

It is thought that the comparatively humble mochaware pottery was first made by William Adams of the Greengates factory, Tunstall, England (1745-1805).  Production moved to the factory of his cousin, also William Adams, at Brickhouse, Burselm and later at Cobridge Hall in Cobridge.  Many English factories were soon turning out large quantities of mocha, mainly in Staffordshire into the early years of the 20th Century.  Other factories were set up in Bristol, Hull, Leeds, Glasgow, Swansea and Llanelly.

Banded Creamware. Source: Lot-Art

Annular and mochaware vessels usually combine a limited repertoire of colours.  The concentric rings include yellow,  yellow ochre, blue, black and and beige.  More rarely some feature terracotta, orange and green bands.  The background is usually cream or white, and the dendritic design is usually blue or black. In some cases the mochaware decoration remained purely abstract, but on some vessels the acidic solution is controlled to create images representing trees.  Some examples of both abstract and more representational uses of the style are shown below.

Being so inexpensive, and at the same time so attractive, it became extremely widespread.  It was often used to make pint mugs for pubs, marked with an imperial symbol confirming the correct volume, and ordinary domestic items like cups, mugs jugs, jars, lidded pots and mixing bowls, and even chamber pots.   It was almost never used for flat items like dishes, plates or platters.  Because the patterns made could be influenced but not precisely determined, each piece was unique. Mocha and banded creamware were exported in large amounts to the United States, which was soon manufacturing its own mochaware.

Mochaware mixing bowl. Source: 1stDibs

On the pottery, the tendril effect of the moss agate is achieved by dripping a dark acidic colouring (which could include urine, tobacco juice, lemon juice, ground iron scale, hops or vinegar) onto the alkaline slip (mixture of water and clay) of the pot, whilst still wet.  The alkaline liquid splits, and the result was thought to resemble the moss agate.  Here’s a description of the technique from the University of Toronto’s Physics department:

The original recipe involves a “tea” made by boiling tobacco, which is then colored with e.g. Iron oxide. The piece is first coated with a wet “slip” (very runny clay/water mixture). Then the tea mixture is touched onto the wet surface. The acidic tea reacts with the alkaline slip and the dendrites grow quickly from the point of contact.  The dendritic pattern is clearly the result of a dynamic process in which the contact line between the two liquids, tea and slip, becomes unstable. The surface tension of the tea is less than that of the slip. The instability is probably driven by a combination of capillary and Marangoni (surface tension gradient) stresses, coupled somehow to the acid/base chemical reaction. Similar looking instabilities are known in surfactant driven flows.

A decisive contributor to the production of both mochaware and annular ware was the rose-and-crown engine-turning lathe, developed by Josiah Wedgwood.  There was a hefty up-front cost, but it allowed a mechanized approach to the otherwise hand-applied concentric rings of coloured slip.

Experiments described by The Ceramic Arts Network website, explain how the techniques have been used to make modern mochaware in modern experiments:

Pint tankard with an imperial stamp. Source: 1stDibs

The mixture that is used to form the patterns is called “mocha tea.” It was originally made by boiling tobacco leaves and forming a thick sludge that was then thinned with water and mixed with colorant. However, nicotine solutions are only one form of mild acid; many others will work, such as citric acid, lemon juice, urine, coffee or vinegar, particularly natural apple-cider vinegar. One of these would be mixed with colorant. Most colorants work quite well, although carbonates and stains are usually better than oxides, since they are typically a physically lighter precipitate than oxides. Heavy materials such as black copper oxide, black cobalt oxide and black iron oxide do not work well, because the acid can’t adequately hold them in suspension. A ratio of about one heaping teaspoon of colorant to a quarter cup of mild acid is usually a good starting point. However, a good deal of individual testing has to be done to get the two liquids to work together to create significant dendritic formations or diffusions. 

The Copeland (formerly Spode) pottery works in 1834. Source: Spode Museum Trust

The Colonial Sense website tells how Charles Dickens visited the Copeland Pottery Works at Stoke on Trent in the Potteries:

I am well persuaded that you bear in mind how those particular jugs and mugs were once set upon a lathe and put in motion, and how a man blew the brown color (having a strong natural affinity with the material in that condition) on them from a blow pipe as they twirled; and how his daughter, with a common brush, dropped blotches of blue upon them in the right places; tilting the blotches upside down, she made them run into rude images of trees.

Mochaware sherd from the garden

The sherd from my garden shows a band of yellow ochre on and beneath the rim with a beaded or rouletted design impressed into the surface below the rim, produced by using an embossed rouletting wheel.  The beading was achieved by a simple cylinder attached to a handle and rolled onto the surface of the ceramic.  It took a very steady hand.  Some rouletting is very subtle and complex, but this is clearly not.  Still, it is another decorative aspect to the vessel.   A segment of black dendritic patterning is visible on a cream background, separated from the wide band of yellow ochre by a thin band of blue.  It is a solid, utilitarian piece of earthenware, almost 1cm (a third of an inch) thick at the rim, narrowing into the body of the vessel.  The vessel originally had a diameter of 25.5cm (10 ins), which makes it a fairly substantial object.  Its walls show very little vertical curvature, unlike most mixing bowls, so it may have been a large pot of some description.

Yellow ochre reverse side (interior) and section of the sherd showing the fabric and glaze

Today,whole and undamaged items of  mochaware attracts collectors on both sides of the Atlantic.  My sherd, though part of a fascinating story, is of course worthless.  As usual, apart from trying to find out information about the odds and ends in the garden, together these objects are combining to form a sense of who lived here before and what sort of livings they may have had.

There’s a truly illuminating video of dendritic mochaware being produced by a modern artisan on YouTube, showing how the acid reacts when it meets the alkaline, as follows:

 

For other objects in the series,
see the History in Garden Objects page


Sources:

Books and papers

Wright, K.F. 2021. Artifacts.  In Loske, A. (ed.) A Cultural History of Color in the Age of Industry.  Bloomsbury Academic.

Websites

Ceramic Arts Network
Mocha Diffusion Acid/Color Mixture
https://ceramicartsnetwork.org/daily/article/Slipware-Decoration-Mocha-Diffusion-and-Slip-Dotting-Pottery

Colonial Sense website
Mochaware – The Hidden Utiitarian Gem. By Bryan Wright
http://www.colonialsense.com/Antiques/Other_Antiques/Mochaware.php

The Potteries
Greengates Pottery, Tunstall
http://www.thepotteries.org/potworks_wk/027.htm

Regency Redingote
Moss agates: pictures and power. By Kathryn Kane
https://regencyredingote.wordpress.com/2018/02/09/moss-agates-pictures-and-power/

Ceramic – Pottery Dictionary
Roulette wheel
http://ceramicdictionary.com/en/r/513/roulette-wheel-roller+tools

Royal Collection Trust
Box with moss agate panel 1903-08
https://www.rct.uk/collection/40155/box-with-moss-agate-panel

St Mary’s University
Mocha Ware
https://www.smu.ca/academics/departments/anthropology-mocha-ware.html

University of Toronto, Physics Department
Dendritic patterns on mochaware pottery
https://www.physics.utoronto.ca/~smorris/edl/mochaware/mochaware.html

 

Big Garden Birdwatch 2022

I only started doing the Big Garden Birdwatch when I moved out of London, but it has become a real pleasure since then. This is my fourth go at it, but my first in Churton, done on 30th January.  At this time of year with the unpredictable weather, it can be a bit hit or miss, particularly as we now experience so many more storms.  Luckily, in spite of Storm Malik, in which one of my bird feeders vanished completely in spite of my efforts to locate it, there have been long dry periods and the birds have been out and about, stocking up with calories whilst the going is good.  Because it has been so dry, I had to refill the bird bath, and they were soon drinking from it.

Of the birds that paraded themselves for one hour this year, there was nothing rare, but that’s not what it’s all about.  Any and all Birdwatch observations contribute importantly to the statistics that have been collected by the RSPB for over 40 years and help to chart trends in bird populations.  In 2021 over a million people took part.

Just a selection of my visitors on the day. My kitchen windows seriously need cleaning 🙂

I was in the kitchen, looking out of the window due to the cold, so I was mainly watching the bird feeders on the Japanese maple about 10ft away.  The robin that fights for the patio territory with ferocity was there, scooping everything that the almost ubiquitous blue tits and great tits drop so untidily on the floor.  Male and female house sparrows have mastered the bird feeders, some even performing the rudimentary forms of gymnastics that the tits perform so sublimely.  Male and female blackbirds bounced around the ground, scattering the smaller birds.  I was so pleased to have three chaffinches, a male and two females, for the first time ever, and they arrived very handily in the hour that I was doing my official watch.  They scurried around underneath the bird feeders in the shade of the shrubs, and I couldn’t capture  them with the camera.  Another time.  Missing from the usual suspects were the collared doves and the  sole dunnock that often visits.

My garden is quite long so I could not see what else was dashing around in the trees and shrubs in the rest of the garden, but splendid magpies, raucous crows and enormous waddling pigeons were all visible in a patch of fugitive sunshine at the end of the garden, as were two squirrels competing for territory in the beech tree. 

One of my recent visitors

Over the last few weeks, I’ve had some more unusual visitors recently.  A week ago I saw a spotted woodpecker who was sitting in the big Japanese maple on my patio, trying to work out whether or not the bird feeders were at all feasible (not).  On the same day I walked downstairs to find a pheasant standing at my back door looking in.  I assume that someone else is feeding him from their back door, because he looked so expectant.  In my last house, in Aberdovey (west Wales) I had a community of pheasants daily in my garden during the winter, which I used to feed on peanuts, but although pheasants roam the fields around here, I’ve never before seen one in the garden.  Once in a while I hear and then see a thrush, but so far none have established a territory here.  I have been trying to encourage goldfinches into the garden with nyjer seeds, because I had a community of them at my last house and they are enchanting, but so far they are resistant to all my efforts, although I saw some splashing in a pool of water in Pump Lane last year.
——

Object histories in my garden #7: Little fragments of willow pattern china – what are the stories?

Willow Pattern sherds found in a Churton garden

I defy any gardener, even in a modern home, to do any digging without finding a few pieces of willow pattern china.  It is so common that one barely notices it, whether it is found as garden fragments, encountered in antique shops or viewed as eBay listings.  It comes in all forms – plates, jugs, bowls, cups, saucers, tureens in all sorts of shapes and sizes, varying in quality from fine early examples to increasingly poor imitations as well as a few modern reinventions on fine china.  Early examples were hand-painted on porcelain, but as it became popular, transfers (described below) were used to cheaply replicate their finer predecessors.

Pieces of willow pattern found in a garden in Darland

The examples shown in the photo at above left were all found in my garden, and could date to any time between the 19th Century to relatively recent times.  None of them are fine porcelain, all stoneware, which means that they were built to be durable.  This does not mean that they were any less valued by their owners than finer bone china pieces, which are almost translucent, but either that their purchasers were unable to afford finer pieces, or that these were intended for everyday use.  In either case the sheer volume of china that we have dug out of the garden argues that if finer pieces were purchased, they were kept safely on display or only used for special occasions, because so far we have only found two finer pieces of translucent china.  It is a similar story with china dug out of a Darland garden by my parents (shown right).  In that early Georgian garden, belonging to a large house built by a prosperous land-owner, the pottery was all fairly coarse, although there is no reason to suppose that the owners did not purchase finer wares that were better cared for.

1930s willow pattern in red on white

In America, willow pattern is known as “blue willow,” but although the vast majority produced was in cobalt blue on white, there are also examples of red or brown, and even green on white, and there are some much later examples that were painted with multiple colours (and look both exceedingly odd and rather unpleasant).  Today willow pattern has fallen out of fashion, presumably because it is so formulaic and so commonplace, in spite of  attempts by some modern producers to reinvent it, but the history of willow pattern is an interesting one, even if the design itself has become rather tedious to the modern eye.

There are two strands to the invention of willow pattern, three stories to tell.  The first is how and when willow pattern developed, what influenced it, and why it became so ubiquitous.  The second story concerns the tale told by the pattern itself, which narrates a forbidden romance, a dictatorial father and an unwanted, ultimately vengeful suitor.

At the end I have a look at why the tale embedded into the willow pattern is fundamentally in opposition to Chinese morality, using two examples from Chinese literature.

A random sample of the smaller objects found in the garden

I have already used the terms “china” and “porcelain,” and will go on to mention stoneware, so here are some quick and dirty definitions:

  • Ceramics:  all items made by clay and hardened by heat.  A generic term used interchangeably with pottery.
  • China:  another generic term, referring to ceramics that have a pure white fabric, of the sort first seen in Europe on items imported from China
  • Porcelain:  from the Italian “porcellana.”  Porcelain is made of fine-grained clay which is then fired at very high temperatures that causes a transformation of the material called vitrification.  It is very thin, and semi-translucent.
  • Pottery:  objects made of fired clay
  • Stoneware:  fired at much lower temperatures than porcelain using inferior clays, and made into much thicker fabrics without any translucence.  Similar to earthenware, which is also made with coarse clays but fired at a higher temperature than earthenware and is superior in quality.
  • Transfers (discussed in more detail below):  Replacing hand-painting to speed up the process of pottery manufacture, transfers produce a cheaper, less refined method of decorating ceramics.  A copperplate engraved with the required design is inked and pressed on to paper that, while still wet, is in turn pressed on to a ceramic surface.  The design left on the piece of pottery is the transfer.

The development and spread of the willow pattern design

This or a similar type of Nanking ware scene could have been the prototype for English willow pattern. Source: The Culture Concept Circle

I had always assumed that the willow pattern design was invented in China for the European export market in the late 18th Century, but this is not true.  It is certainly true that decorated china had been finding its way into Europe and America for two centuries before willow pattern was invented.  The East India Company began to purchase Chinese blue and white ceramics for the British market in the 16th Century when it was a luxury item.  It swiftly became very popular and continued to be in high demand even after the East India Company was deprived of its right to trade in 1833.  Private ships that began to import Chinese tea, still a high value import during the 19th Century, also brought back ceramics that were increasingly standardized and mass-produced for the European market.  Chinese producers had swiftly developed a sense of what themes, colours and designs Europeans and Americans liked, and they began to make them in great quantities.  Willow pattern was inspired by a type of blue and white porcelain called Nanking or Nankin Pattern.  It was made at Ching-te-chen / Jingdezhen and then sailed down the river Yangtze to the coastal port of Nanking from where it was shipped to Canton.  Canton was the main port at which foreign ships were allowed to trade, (the sole trading port until 1842) and here it was loaded on to European and American ships for the export market.  

An early design similar to the willow pattern on a creamware teapot.  Attributed to John Warburton, Staffordshire, England, c. 1800. Victoria and Albert Museum, London.  Source: Encyclopaedia Britannica

Although influenced by Nanking,  willow pattern was not imported from China; it was an English invention based on Chinese patterns.  The first version appears to have been produced in 1779 for Thomas Turner and his Caughley works in Shropshire, originally for a teapot, and then in the late 1780s on other objects, probably by apprentice Thomas Minton. 

Robert Copeland, in Spode’s Willow Pattern, acknowledges Caughley but points out that this was not the standard willow pattern, which he argues persuasively was developed by Josiah Spode, and initially called the Mandarin pattern.  It is not known if Turner, Minton or Spode had a particular story in mind when they began to produce their versions of the formulaic pattern, but a story soon emerged, and probably helped sales, raising the decoration from the level of a  mere pattern to the encapsulation of an exotic legend (albeit one thought up in an English porcelain factory).  It would otherwise be difficult to account for how popular the design became.  Other manufacturers also went on to make willow pattern.


The main features of the willow pattern design

The plates shown above exemplify the most common arrangement of the motifs that make up the willow pattern design, although there are sometimes minor variations.

A 19th century anonymous poem, of which there are numerous versions, summarizes the main themes as follows:

Two birds flying high,
A Chinese vessel, sailing by.
A bridge with three men, sometimes four,
A willow tree, hanging o’er.
A Chinese temple, there it stands,
Built upon the river sands.
An apple tree, with apples on,
A crooked fence to end my song.

The story behind the features on the plate can be fairly short or tediously long, but the essentials of the story can be summarized quite briefly.  Let’s have a closer look first at the main motifs that provide the cues for narrating the story.

The main anchoring feature of the composition is a two- or occasionally three-storey pagoda, usually just right-of-centre, approached by a path and a short flight of steps.  To the left of it is a smaller pagoda on the edge of the river.  A fence zig-zags across the front of the scene, blocking access to the approach path to the pagoda in its garden.

Behind the pagodas is a tree with big round discs that look like enormous pizzas.  Susan Ferguson has researched these and concludes that although they are usually referred to as apples (heaven help you if an apple of that size landed on you), and sometimes oranges, they are probably abstractions of circular spans of a Chinese conifer (needle clusters), a design that over the centuries has become so simplified that on the willow pattern the species of tree is completely unidentifiable.  In the absence of any other explanation that makes sense, I’m convinced.  A lush arboretum surrounds the pagoda.

A huge willow tree leans over the bridge, to the left of the pagoda, which gives the design its name, and usually has some sort of rosette- or round-shaped growths on the trunk.  Its long branches appear to blow lightly in the breeze.

The bridge crosses a narrow strait of water, met by a small building on the other side.  The bridge is being crossed by a woman at the front, a man in the middle holding a long thin box, and another man raising a stick at the rear.

Above left of the willow is a large expanse of water crossed by a man navigating a boat, heading towards the pagoda.  One or more cabins on the boat suggests that another person is inside.

In the distance at top left is an island with another pagoda, again surrounded by lush vegetation.

Overhead in the sky are a pair of birds facing each other, their wings spread to catch the breeze.

If the composition graces a plate, a tureen or a lid, the whole thing is usually circled with a loosely Chinese-themed geometric pattern, sometimes elaborated with leaves and flowers.  On teapots, cups and jugs only favoured portions of the entire composition may be shown.


The story of a forbidden romance and how to read a plate

The story is an invention, and English interpretation of scenes on Chinese export ceramics that had no such narrative.  It is probable that the story gained momentum as the willow pattern became more popular, becoming more elaborate over time.  The basics are these, although there are multiple alternatives:

  1. The pagoda, right-of-centre, the garden, and the weeping willow:  Once upon a time, there was a beautiful girl named Koong-see who lived in a palace in China, a delightful sprawling pagoda in lovely ornamental gardens, with cherry blossom, apple trees, willows, streams, wildlife and birdsong.  Hidden within the pagoda, she is in love with a lowly office clerk named Changwho serves her father, a mandarin (senior official), and is far beneath her social standing. They meet every night beneath the willow.  Forbidden to marry by the Mandarin, she and Chang are in despair.  Both console themselves by caring for the birds in the garden, to which they are devoted and which are, in turn, devoted to them
  2. The mandarin’s daughter is promised to a warrior duke against her wishes:  The Mandarin has arranged for Koong-see to be married to the warrior Duke (a Ta-jin), who is even now approaching.  Much older than Koong-see, he brings a treasure chest as a gift for his future bride.  Deaf to Koong-see’s pleas, her father insists on the marriage, erects a huge fence around the house and garden and imprisons her in a small pagoda overlooking the lake.  When the cherry blossom eventually blooms on the tree in the garden, the marriage will take place. 
  3. Three individuals are seen crossing the bridge.  When the Duke arrives, he, the Mandarin and guests celebrate with an excess of food and alcohol.  Chang enters the compound and seeing that the inebriated gathering has fallen asleep, he goes to Koong-see and they flee, taking with them the duke’s treasure, crossing the bridge over the river.  Koong-see is at the front, carrying a staff, the emblem of virtue.  Chang follows her, carrying the stolen treasure in a rectangular box.  They are pursued by the mandarin, brandishing a whip.  Sometimes a a fourth figure is shown, and this is the duke seeking to retrieve both his bride and, probably more importantly, his treasure.
  4. The pagoda in a distant land, top left.  Chang steals a small boat, and they couple sail to the north.  Having made good their escape, the couple sell the duke’s treasure and buy a pagoda in a distant place.  Having failed to find his daughter in spite of employing spies to track her down, the mandarin has the brilliant idea of releasing the birds that were so loved by Koong-see and Chang. The birds fly straight to the couple, with the mandarin’s warriors following close behind.  When the warriors discover the hideaway they set it alight. 
  5. The turtle doves in the sky.  Koong-see and Chang die in the flames, but unspecified gods looking down on the scene take pity on the devoted couple and transform them into birds so that they can remain together for eternity. 

The boat shown crossing the sea is alternatively interpreted as the approach of the duke, steered by a boatman, or as the departure of the lovers, steered by Chang.

An extended version, tears-and-all version of the tale, was published in The Family Friend, volume I, in 1849, and is extremely long-winded and tedious (as well as slightly sickly), but obviously pushed some of the right buttons in the 19th Century.  As well as the anonymous poem quoted above, there were a number of others as well, some of which are posted on the Potteries website here and the Willow Collectors website here.

Chinese morality versus English romanticism

The willow pattern design that grew out of these imports was not merely an English invention, but the romantic tale of runaway lovers that was developed to sell the design would almost certainly have offended Chinese morality.  The story was born of an unmistakeably western tradition, recognizable in the narrative concerns of star-crossed lovers, persecution by unwanted suitors and unreasonable parents, all of which are solidly  familiar from the Classical Greek tale of Hero and Leander, the 16th Century Os Lusíadas by Luís de Camões, Shakespeare’s 1597 Romeo and Juliet, and many, many more.

The Butterfly Lovers. Source: ShenYunShop

There are some tales from Chinese literature that are superficially somewhat similar, but a closer look at them reveals culturally significant differences.  Two good examples are “The Butterfly Lovers” and “Han Ping and His Wife.”  

The story of the butterfly lovers concerns a rather complicated story about a woman disguised as a man, Zhu Yingtai, and her unsuspecting friend Liang Shanbo who eventually fall in love with one another.   Although women were usually prevented from becoming scholars, Zhu was allowed to study in the guise of a young man.  She meets a fellow scholar, and they become close friends, studying together for the following three years.  Liang remains none the wiser, but Zhu begins to fall in love with him.   Although tolerant enough to allow his daughter to study as a man, Zhu’s father expects her to return when he writes to tell her that he is ill.  She departs, and Liang accompanies his dear friend for part of the route.  Although she drops hints about her true sex, Zhu is unable to reveal her secret to Liang directly and intend invents a sister to whom she proposes that Liang should become betrothed.  She offers to set up a meeting.  Liang eventually visits Zhu, and finds that there is no sister and that Zhu is a woman.  Liang realizes he loves Zhu and they are both overjoyed for a brief period, but Zhu now reveals that her father’s illness was a ruse and he has betrothed her to a wealthy merchant.  Liang leaves, heartbroken, and although he tries to lead a normal life, soon dies.  Zhu, meanwhile, is prepared for her wedding.  The wedding procession forms, its route due to pass Liang’s grave.  As they reach the grave, a great wind blows up, stopping the marriage party in its tracks.  Taking the opportunity to pay her final respects to Liang at his grave, she begs for the grave to swallow her too, and in response to her pleas, it opens up and takes her in.  Zhu and Liang rise as butterflies, and fly away together for eternity.  

A second tragic romance, from a collection of early legends (The Man Who Sold A Ghost), is the tale of Han Ping and his wife also concerns lovers who were transformed into birds following the successful completion of their suicide pact.  Han Ping and his wife were deeply in love.  Han Ping worked for Prince Xang as steward.  His wife was very beautiful and the king, inevitably attracted, took her for himself.   Han Ping’s anguished protests were answered with imprisonment and hard labour.  Eventually his wife managed to send Han Ping a letter, a cryptic message written using allusions to lay out her plan for suicide, which each carried out.  In a separate letter to the king, she requested burial alongside her husband, but this was denied her.  They were buried in the same cemetery but far apart.  All was not lost. Two trees sprung up overnight and within only days were tall and strong, leaning towards each other, their branches intertwining.  Two inseparable lovebirds nested in the branches of the entwined trees, the spirits of the wronged Han Ping and his  wife.

A silk bed covering from Canton, showing the type of artistic device used to represent clusters of fir spines.  This might be the source of the enormous disks in the trees behind the pagoda in the willow pattern design  Source: Ferguson 2017

Although Chinese literature has stories of star-crossed lovers, acting on a forbidden love was counter to Chinese ideas of obedience and arranged marriage and would never be celebrated.  In the first case, even though Zhu is in love with someone else, she obediently, albeit unhappily, accepts marriage.  The gods intervene to allow the couple to live together as butterflies, but only after Zhu has behaved with honour according to her father’s wishes.  Although the couple were not married, they came to represent fidelity in marriage.  In the story of Han Ping and his wife, the two are already married and it is only when the wife is dishonoured by the prince that they are reunited as birds, again demonstrating the power of marital fidelity.

All of this is far more subtle than the rather simplistic willow pattern narrative, which celebrates love conquering all, but ignores the Chinese morality that would have seen the willow pattern story and its outcome as abhorrent.  Daughterly disobedience and unmarried, prohibited love would have been a serious breach of decency and integrity.  Fleeing paternal control would have been unthinkable, particularly as it left behind and honourable and broken-hearted father.  The theft of the Duke’s treasure would have appalled most Chinese people; the Duke, after all, was not the bad guy in the scenario, because arranged marriages were perfectly normal and his gift to his prospective bride was a gesture of great generosity.  A happy-ever-after outcome for the disobedient and ungrateful runaways, even in the form of turtle doves, would not have been sanctioned by Chinese moralists or the authors of Chinese literature.

Stoneware and transfers

Mid 19th Century transferware willow pattern trivet. Source: Inessa-Stewart’s

All of the willow pattern from my garden is robust transferware.  We have found porcelain pieces in other designs, some of them very fine, but the vast majority of it, including all of the willow pattern, is transfers applied to stoneware and earthenware.  Porcelain, almost translucent, was time-consuming to produce, often shattered during production, was usually hand-decorated and was therefore expensive to buy.  Stoneware an earthenware were much easier to manufacture, fired at lower temperatures and not hand-painted.  These solid wares were far more robust and suitable for everyday domestic use.  

It is often possible to find the edge of the transfer on bigger pieces of transferware, as on this corner of a large 1930s red-on-white Royal Venton plate.

Replacing hand-painting to speed up the process of pottery manufacture in the second half of the 18th Century, transfers produce a cheaper, less refined method of decorating ceramics that could be produced by relatively unskilled workers rather than craft specialists.  Chinese-influenced ceramics, like many product that were once luxury products due to their exotic source and/or their expensive manufacturing process, began to be produced in inferior fabrics, became more affordable, and were therefore in more demand, both in Britain and America.  Once an appropriate fabric was developed, a quicker way of decorating the ceramics was required, and transfers were developed to meet this need.  A copperplate engraved with the required design is inked and pressed on to paper that, while still wet, is in turn pressed on to a ceramic surface.  The design left on the piece of pottery is the transfer.  The meeting of the demand for transfer wares was helped by the roll-out of the canal network and the improvement of trade networks that accompanied the Industrial Revolution.  

Final Comments

A more recent interpretation of willow pattern (microwave safe, dishwasher proof).  Although it is a nice, clean design, there is a gap in the fence in front of the path to the pagoda, which rather defeats the object (and is more evocative of an English country cottage than a defensive barrier to prevent a daughter escaping).

The history of the willow pattern design is far more interesting than the design itself and its narrative.  Some of the earliest patterns, evoking original Chinese designs, had considerable charm, but very soon a fairly rigid formula was developed that was repeated over and over again, with only a little occasional variation from one piece to the next.  As such it is more than a little tiresome.

It is anything but tiresome when the story emerges piece by piece from one’s garden, all of them minute fragments contributing to the house’s own narrative.  Over time, the people who lived here broke an awful lot of pottery!  The house, originally two neighbouring cottages, was probably occupied by families working for the local farms in the 19th and early 20th centuries, with a sign of increased prosperity when the two cottages were linked up to become a single building.   The earliest finds from the garden belong to the later 19th Century, well into the period when most willow pattern was stoneware.   Not the sort of thing that a farm labourer’s family would be able to indulge in, but probably affordable as Sunday Best for a slightly more affluent rural family.  I need to find out a lot more about who lived in the house before speculating further. 

Pealrich clock in the form of a willow pattern plate. Source: Amazon UK

It is interesting that willow pattern continues to be made and purchased.  The above picture shows a simplified version of the traditional formulaic design, much less elaborate than earlier versions, much cleaner but also more sterilized.  I would not have thought that it is  the sort of story that would carry much appeal today, but the design itself obviously continues to be attractive to a modern audience.  A quick search on Amazon produced willow pattern oven gloves, a willow pattern mug that could be personalized, an embroidery kit, a large tea set, a “collectible” thimble, a cushion cover and even a clock in the form of a willow pattern plate (shown left).  A company called PRSC specializes in “deconstructed” willow pattern products, which take the motifs and arrange them in aesthetically pleasing combinations that abandon the narrative completely.

Deconstructed willow pattern. Source: PRSC

In the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, willow pattern obviously spoke to something in people’s imaginations.  Perhaps the very standardization and mass-production of the design enabled the more exotic to become both familiar and comprehensible, even offering some level of reassurance by its very familiarity.  By developing new and improved ways of manufacturing pottery and decorating it, and taking advantage of new modes of transport and communication, potteries making ceramics in the English Midlands were able to spread willow pattern throughout the UK and into America.  A decorative phenomenon, it is difficult to account for its success, but a success it certainly was.  It has left a legacy that continues to attract collectors and re-interpreters alike.

For other posts in my History in Garden Objects series click here or see the
link of the same name in the Categories list on the right.


Sources:

Books and papers

Copeland, R. 1999 (3rd edition). Spode’s Willow Pattern And Other Designs After the Chinese.  Studio Vista

Ferguson, S. 2017.  “Blue Willow”: Apples or Oranges?  Transferware Collectors Club Bulletin, 2017 Vol. XVIII No. 1.
https://www.transferwarecollectorsclub.org/bulletin_previews/articles/17_TCC_XVIII_No1_Blue_Willow_Apples_or_Oranges.pdf

Hsien-Yi, Y. and Yang, G. 1958.  The Man Who Sold A Ghost.  Foreign Language Press
Available online at:  https://www.bannedthought.net/China/MaoEra/Arts/Literature/TheManWhoSoldAGhost-ChineseTalesOfThe3rd-6thCenturies-1958.pdf

O’Hara.  P.  “The Willow Pattern That We Knew”: The Victorian Literature of Blue Willow.  Victorian Studies. Vol. 36, No. 4 (Summer, 1993), pp. 421-442
Available online with the academic site JSTOR digital library if you register (free): https://www.jstor.org/stable/3828644?seq=1

Websites

East India company at home 1757-1857, University College London
The Willow Pattern Case Study:  The Willow Pattern Explained
https://blogs.ucl.ac.uk/eicah/the-willow-pattern-dunham-massey/the-willow-pattern-case-study-the-willow-pattern-explained/comment-page-1/

Encyclopaedia Britannica
Willow pattern pottery
https://www.britannica.com/art/Willow-pattern#ref235738

Popular Culture in Modern China
The Butterfly Lovers – Response.  By Dr Liang Luo
http://chi430.blogspot.com/2014/01/the-butterfly-lovers-response.html

The Potteries – An A-Z of Stoke on Trent Potteries
The Willow Pattern Story
http://www.thepotteries.org/patterns/willow.html

Spode History
Spode and Willow Pattern. By Pam Woolliscroft
https://spodehistory.blogspot.com/2013/06/spode-and-willow.html

Transferware Collectors Club
What is transferware?
https://www.transferwarecollectorsclub.org/news-information/faqs

Victoria Gallery and Museum, University of Liverpool
Story of the Willow Pattern, 15 January 2021 by Amanda Draper
https://vgm.liverpool.ac.uk/blog/2021/willow-pattern/

 

Adventures with Churton honesty eggs: A user guide to Hollandaise and Béarnaise sauce

Both of these butter- and egg-based sauces, hollandaise and béarnaise, only take about five minutes to make, but an awful lot longer to prepare.  You will see many alternative recipes in books, but Mum’s was based on Elizabeth David’s French Provincial Cooking, and that’s where I went when I had to start from scratch.  Hollandaise and béarnaise are based on a mix of base ingredients, but add different flavourings.   The basics usually include the following:  egg yolks, white wine vinegar, butter, peppercorns, and bay leaves.  The differences are described below.

Hollandaise is usually served used with fish and/or vegetables, and is traditionally made with egg yolks, butter and lemon juice.  It is a rich, buttery sauce that gives the kiss of heavenly life to poached salmon and asparagus.

Béarnaise accompanies steak and is defined mainly by armfuls of tarragon.   Another traditional differentiator is that it is  usually made with white wine and vinegar instead of lemon juice.

Breaking with tradition, my hollandaise and béarnaise both have the same base by using a same reduction as the base for both sauces.  I combine all three liquids, the lemon juice, wine vinegar and white wine and mix them together as a base for the reduction in both hollandaise and béarnaise.  The only differentiator in my version is that lots of tarragon is added to make béarnaise.  My reason for this blending of the two recipes stems from a comment of Elizabeth David’s that an hollandaise based on just butter, egg yoks and lemon juice is “apt to be insipid” and consequently she recommends the addition of a reduction of white wine or vinegar (as in béarnaise).  It works splendidly for me, but I would suggest that you experiment.  The only time I feel like doing an hollandaise the original way is with poached salmon, where the simplicity of the lemon, egg and butter mix is perfect.

Cover of the hardback version of Elizabeth David’s “French Provincial Cooking,” Grub Street, 1960, 2007

On this occasion I was cooking a béarnaise sauce, so I used a huge handful of tarragon from my garden.  A couple of nights ago I found a ribeye steak from Bellis (farm shop and butcher in Holt) in the freezer.  The Bellis ribeye is wonderful, although I have no idea where they source it from.  It deserved special treatment, and as I have three big pots of French tarragon in the garden, and had a box of Churton eggs at the ready, here’s how I did it, resulting in a happily successful outcome.

 

A couple of weeks ago I was very gung-ho about how easy it is to make mayonnaise in my post on the subject,  which I think is fair enough because it is so easy when you know the two basic rules about how to handle it.  However, I am never gung-ho about Hollandaise or béarnaise, because they can go seriously wrong.  I’ve only screwed it up a couple of times, and I have now learned some excellent risk-avoidance techniques and one or two rescue solutions.  Preparation minimizes the risks, but  things can still go wrong, especially when you are starting out.  On the other hand. WOW is it wonderful, so the best thing to do is to prepare well and experiment on someone who won’t mind being a guinea pig.  Once you have the knack, and you will have it for life.

Important Preparation 

There are a couple of technical points to take into consideration, other than briefly editing out the conversation of your friends.  Hollandaise and béarnaise are all about preparation, and that’s not just about lining up your ingredients and equipment, but understanding how it’s all going to work, and how you may attempt to to recover it when/if it goes wrong.

First, both sauces have a terrible reputation for splitting, which means that after being heated, the oil in the butter separates from the other ingredients and you end up with a big oily mess on your hands.  Eggs should be at a nice cool room temperature before you start.  This is only a small part of the prep work, but it is an essential one.

Two, I have experimented and found that clarifying the butter makes life a lot easier.  I have no idea what the proper way of doing it may be, but I simply heated butter in a saucepan and poured it into a small jug.  White bits (solids) drop to the bottom of the jug leaving a translucent, bright yellow liquid on top.  The yellow bit is the clarified butter and the white bits need to be left in the bottom of the jug.  It means that you use a lot less butter, because it emulsifies much more efficiently, which is much better for the health.  That in turn means that it forms more quickly.  As a technique, it is also easier to prevent separation of the oil from the egg because you can easily control the addition of the butter, in drops and a slow trickle, to the egg and vinegar mix.  So I now always start off by separating my egg/s.  Keep the clarified butter somewhere warm so that it does not solidify.

Three, make sure you have some ice cubes in the freezer.  If everything starts to overheat you will end up with scrambled egg.  A bit of cold water helps, but if it is going too far too fast, lob in an ice cube, stir it rapidly until the sauce starts to go slightly lighter in colour and then haul it out.  That usually does the trick.

My impromptu bain marie, at the back, consisting of a glass bowl over a small saucepan of simmering water that heats the sauce, reducing the chance of splitting. The asparagus is steamed, but here it is waiting in cold water prior to cooking, after having its ends trimmed. Don’t worry – not all of this went on to my plate!  Some of it made a leek and asparagus soup.

Four, if you don’t have a bain marie (I don’t) you need to sort out a glass bowl (not metal) that will sit over one of your small saucepans.  Anyone who has worked with chocolate will be familiar with this.  The water in the pan must not come into contact with the glass bowl, and should simmer, not boil.  You are cooking your eggs with indirect heat, not direct heat, a bit like steaming.  However, no lid is required.  A wooden spoon must be to hand for almost constant stirring, so that the sauce is moved constantly into and away from the heat.

Five, and assuming that you are making a béarnaise for steak (which means a lot of tarragon), take hold of your tarragon and divide it in half, finely chopping all of the leaves.  Do not throw away the stalks, but snap them into short sections.  Keep half of the leaves on one side and put the other half of the leaves and all the stalks into a bowl of white wine vinegar, shallot, bay and white wine.  Leave it to infuse flavour into the vinegar for an hour or so.

SixWhatever gas  you are cooking on, what you want for the sauce is a light simmer, absolutely not a boil.  If the water is boiling, you run the risk of creating scrambled eggs, not a sauce.  I am cooking on Calor gas, not mains gas.  Calor and Butane burn hotter and make it difficult to maintain a low temperature.  I have a set of round, diffusing metal plates with handles that  sit over the top of my hob and diffuse the heat, allowing the water to become hot but preventing it from boiling.  

Seven, if you are intending to serve this in a jug rather than just plonking it onto plates alongside whatever else you are eating, remember that the jug (as well as the plates) needs to be warmed through.  If you pour warm hollandaise/béarnaise into a cold jug you will instantly lose the heat and end up with a cold sauce and, more importantly, you will raise the chances of it separating before it reaches the table.  

Eight, there are conflicting views in the literature on whether you should use salted or unsalted butter.  I use salted.  Salt helps the emulsification (thickening) process but you can also add salt to a sauce made with unsalted butter to taste.  Just be sure to add it early on in the sauce-making process so that it helps to emulsify the sauce.  I’ve tried it and it works, but unsalted butter with no additional salt is risky.

Nine, keep some cold water in a jug at the side so that if your sauce starts to over-thicken you can loosen it up.  Add a teaspoon at a time until you have the right consistency.  Cold water also helps to prevent the sauce over-heating and separating.

Ten, the vinegar mixture must go into the egg and butter hot.  Do not let it cool down.

Finally, bear in mind that the whole process is only going to take a few minutes once you have added the hot vinegar mix to the egg yolk and started adding the butter, no more than five minutes, possibly less.  Most of the time is taken up with preparation.  Whatever you are intending to serve it with, you either need to be good at delivering multiple time-sensitive dishes in one go, or alternatively persuade someone to look after the rest of the meal while you concentrate on the Hollandaise or béarnaise, because the latter can turn against you in just a few seconds.

If this is your first attempt, I would suggest that you keep an emergency back-up sauce or herb butter on one side.  For the latter, finely chopped herbs added into soft butter, and rolled in clingfilm to form a cylindrical tube of butter, and placed in the freezer for half an hour to solidify before putting it in the fridge works well.  Before serving you can chop it into disks that sit on top of your steak or fish and melt beautifully to form a gentle butter sauce.  If I was planning to do a béarnaise, as in this case, the herbs chopped into the butter would be tarragon.  If the béarnaise works, you can keep the herb butter in the freezer for a quick way to liven up a piece of steak or fish, or use it to make unusual, flavourful sandwiches.


Getting on with it

Everything else is fairly straight-forward, but there are a number of steps that cannot be avoided.   I usually avoid writing down step-by-step instructions because whatever the recipe, the outcomes depend so much on the ingredients used and the equipment employed, but there are some things that really must be taken into account.

  • I recommend clarifying the butter.  Like mayonnaise, the key trick here is to add the butter so slowly that you begin to seize up.  Mum used to add small lumps one by one and not add another until fully incorporated, the system that I used until just recently when I read that if you clarify the butter, it reduces the risk of separation and stabilizes it at the end.  That end moment, where the sauce is ready but you may be waiting for vegetables, fish or steak to cook, is a terrible waiting game when you hope that the sauce stays in one piece, but worry that it might split.  Clarifying the butter reduces the risk and the stress at one and the same time.  Keep it warm until you need it so that it doesn’t solidify.
  • Remember that if you are using a jug, this needs to be nice and warm to receive the sauce, as do the serving plates.
  • When you are ready to cook, first you need to heat up your vinegar mix until it just threatens to boil.  Turn down the heat until it is just simmering and keep a careful eye on it.  You are aiming to reduce it in order to intensify the flavour.  If you’re cooking for two, you’ll need about a tablespoon and a half of clear liquid, but a dessert spoon for one.
  • When it has reduced, strain out the flavourings and retain the flavoured vinegar.  The vinegar needs to be hot (very warm rather than boiling hot) when you add it to the egg yolk.
  • Make sure that the water in the pan of your assembled bain marie arrangement is hot and place your glass dish over the top.  By sealing the water pan with the bowl you will cause the water temperature to rise, so keep an eye on it to stop it boiling.
  • Separate your eggs and put your egg yolks (one per person) into your glass dish.  Add your vinegar (still warm) and mix it very rapidly into the yolks.  You now have a beautiful yellow fluid that will start to heat in the bowl over the water.
  • Add the remaining fine-chopped tarragon and give it a good stir
  • The sauce heating in a glass bowl set over a pan of simmering water, a quickly assembled bain marie

    Now your clarified butter (or small dice-sized chunks of butter) needs to be added, but oh-so slowly.  If your butter is clarified add it first in drips and then in a very slow and fine stream, stirring gently all the time and breaking now and again to ensure that it is fully incorporated.  If you are using chunks, make sure that each is melted before adding the next. I cannot repeat enough that you should go slowly.

  • Pause occasionally to ensure that the butter is being incorporated into the egg and vinegar mix.  Adding the butter is very much suck-it-and-see, but if you go slowly enough and keep stirring you should be safe.  There’s no clear guideline, because different butters emulsify the yolks at different rates, and egg yolks are different sizes.  
  • If it doesn’t emulsify properly, add another egg yolk and keep adding the butter.  That might produce rather more sauce that you were aiming for, but hey – it’s lovely stuff!
  • Continually make sure that the water is simmering, to heat the eggs, but not so hot that you end up with scrambled eggs.  If it begins to cook rather than heat, add either a little cold water or an ice cube to the egg mix.  Don’t forget to retrieve the ice cube before it melts.  You want to cool it down, not liquefy it.

Rescue

I’ve modified Elizabeth David’s recipes, as did Mum, but here are her originals on pages 118-9. Click to expand.

Don’t forget that if the water in the pan is too hot and the sauce starts to scramble, you can take it off the heat for a moment, and use ice cubes or cold water to help cool it down, stirring, and ensuring that the water in the pan has calmed down before placing the bowl back over the pan.  If the sauce is thickening too much, cold water is again a good solution, added gradually.

I have never successfully recovered an Hollandaise or béarnaise that has split completely (where the butter abandons the sauce and forms rivers of oil over a lumpy egg mixture).  I only ever twice split it in my early days of making this sauce.  Even following all the advice about rescuing a split Hollandaise, it was a matter of chucking it away and starting again or providing an alternative sauce.   But if you have used a rescue method that works, please do let me know.

The Final Product

Not an elegant presentation, but it tasted heavenly.  As I said, I was doing mine with rib-eye steak (with loads of black pepper ground over it), tender stem broccoli, asparagus and baby new potatoes (which, apparently unusually, I peel).  I like my steak cooked on an iron griddle pan, super-heated very quickly on the outside, which chars it but leaves it pink and moist in the middle.  The spuds were boiled, the vegetables steamed and the plate heated beforehand.  Terrible presentation, but in spite of that, it was a really  luxurious treat.

A classic vegetarian option that I have often served as a starter just because it’s so good, is asparagus Hollandaise (no tarragon).  Most fish works for a pescatarian option with Hollandaise, but salmon and swordfish are particularly good.  Strongly flavoured fish like tuna and mackerel won’t work.

Health and Safety

Your egg yolks will be cooked through when it comes to serving them, so don’t worry about serving raw egg.  You won’t.

Fat and cholesterol:  When I was editing this, I had also  been editing images of gravestones in Aldford and Farndon churchyards to go with a post on 19th Century Churton directory listings.  It reminded me that both hollandaise and béarnaise are exclusively for special occasions 🙂  All that egg yolk and butter!  To be handled with care, and reserved for special occasions, and avoid completely if you are trying to shed a few kilos.  But one of the most delicious things ever.  And don’t forget that if you clarify your butter you will use less than if you add it in chunks.

You can see my previous Churton egg adventures by clicking here.

For fun: Dolmades made with locally grown vine leaves

Whenever I see Ann Davidson, who runs the free magazine My Village News, we discuss gardens and she nearly always brings me cuttings and little plants grown from seed, of which a yellow dahlia is a particular favourite.  I haven’t seen her for a couple of months, but she remembered that I had said I would like to grow vines in the future, partly for the grapes but also for the vine leaves, which can be stuffed.  Yesterday I heard the doorbell go when I was in the shower, and by the time I emerged, no-one was there of course, but there was a bag in my parcel box with lots of vine leaves and several bunches of tiny red grapes.  The excitement!

Ann grows the vines herself in Bulkeley (probably best known as the home of The Bickerton Poacher, but perhaps that’s just me).  The vine is a variety called Black Hamburg (Vitis vinifera Schiava Grossa) that Ann found at Wroxeter Roman Vineyard (which lies partly over the Roman site of Viroconium Cornoviorum).   Wasting no time, I tried some of the grapes, which are tiny little explosions of massive flavour, utterly delectable, and I started looking at recipes for stuffed vine leaves (Greek dolmades).

I have had a love of Greek cooking for decades, due to the emphasis on quality ingredients and simple but big and well-matched flavours that taste, above all, fresh.  Dolmades were a feature of rural cooking, usually vegetarian, quick, easy and inexpensive to prepare, but full of taste.   In the vegetarian version the flavour comes from the onion, garlic, fresh herbs (including a selection from dill, mint, parsley, thyme, coriander, bay and oregano) and the stock in which the rice is cooked (which can be herb or vegetable stock).  In a meat-based version, the flavour comes mainly from the meat and a less lavish combination of herbs, but may have more spices  (such as cumin, paprika, fennel seed, nutmeg and cinnamon) and a vegetable-, herb- or meat-based stock.  The meat used is usually minced lamb or goat.  Coastal Greece and its islands have a shrubby, Mediterranean landscape that favours livestock that will browse on low quality vegetation.

Vine leaves are available in tins or vacuum-packed online and in some supermarkets, although I’ve never tried them.  Those need no preparation.  Ann’s, being fresh, needed to be softened a little, and the conventional wisdom of various recipes suggested that placing them in just-boiled water, taken off the heat, to poach for 5 minutes should do the trick, and it worked perfectly.  The green of the leaf becomes a little yellower in the hot water, in spite of lemon juice being added, but this is normal.

I didn’t have any lamb or goat mince, and at this time of year there are not enough herbs in the garden for a fully flavoured vegetarian version, but I did have some beef mince, so went with that.  I kept the spices and herbs simple:  ground cumin, dried oregano, plus fresh marjoram and a bay leaf from the garden and a heaped teaspoon of sun-dried tomato paste.

Onion and garlic are fried with raw long-grained rice, and when the rice begins to go golden, the mince is added.  Once the mince is browned, enough water is added to reach just below the top of the mince mix, and this is simmered off, so that a stodgy mix is left, and the rice has taken in some of the water to plump up a little.  At this stage I stirred in some chilli flakes, some cassia bark (a bit like cinnamon) and some paprika, just to give it a bit more pizazz.

You will need an oven-proof dish with a lid.  Place unused vine leaves on the base (the tatty ones or the ones that are too deeply lobed to hold the stuffing), and place tomato slices over the top.  The vine leaves and tomato slices act as a lining and trivet to prevent the dolmades from burning and impart flavour into the water or stock that you pour over before putting it into the oven.  I also added lemon slices to mine.

The rice mix is then added to the surface of the softened leaves.  The leaf is laid out with the untidy side facing upwards so that when stuffed it is the smooth side that shows.  Leave enough room for rice to continue expanding as it cooks.  The vine leaf is like a sycamore leaf, an upside-down heart.  I did mine by bringing together the two lobes of the heart across the mix, bringing in the two sides to cover it, and then pulling the pointed end over the top.  Place seam-side down on the tomato layer, and when all the dolmades are in, preferably tightly fitting.  I had a vine leaf left over, so aid it over the top, just for decorative effect.

Next add a  good glug of olive oil and the juice of half a lemon, then place an oven-proof plate or equivalent on top to prevent them unravelling when you add the water.  I used an all-metal pan lid.  Then pour over hot water or stock. This should reach the top of the dolmades.

Some people do theirs on the hob, some in the oven.  I did mine in a pre-heated oven at 190ºC (conventional oven).  Recipes vary on how you should proceed from here but I simply let mine cook for 40 minutes, checking every 10 minutes to make sure that the dolmades didn’t dry out.  There was still some liquid left at the end of the process, which will make an excellent stock, having incorporated not only the dolmades stuffing flavours, but the tomato and lemon from the base too.

Vegetarian dolmades are usually served slightly warm, at room temperature, or cold whereas meat ones are often served hot, but may also be warm or cold. I had mine straight out of the oven, but I cooked double what I needed to ensure that I would have half left over to try cold, and will be trying it tomorrow.  The photo at the bottom of the page shows a tidy display, but that was before I drizzled the stock over the top of the dolmades, just to add some more flavour and interest.  The tzatziki, recommended by every recipe I read, worked superbly.

Traditionally dolmades are served with lemon slices and tzatziki (mint in yogurt), and I served mine with both, as well as olives and a mixed herb salad with feta.  It was not, however, a Greek salad, but a very English garden salad with mint, buckler-leaf sorrel, little gem, sweet cicely, marjoram and a lot of lovage, with some cucumber.  I drizzled the whole lot with chilli oil and lemon juice, with lots of black pepper.

It was all a bit cobbled together but it was nevertheless a resounding success.  I would like to do it with lamb and a different combination of accompanying herbs, and I must have a go at a vegetarian version, but the beef version was really excellent and will remain in my repertoire.  Of course, I have now added a Black Hamburg vine to my must-have plant list!  A visit to the Wroxeter Roman Vineyard might not be a bad idea either 🙂

The vine leaves before being drizzled with the Chilli oil and lemon juice.

Thank you Ann!

 

Grown in my garden last week and already eaten

For no better reason than I am so chuffed that I actually grew vegetables, lettuces and cucumbers in this, the first summer after moving in.  Showing off, in other words, although none of them are ever going to win any prizes.  I don’t actually have a vegetable plot, because I have turned everything over to flowers, shrubs and a small orchard, so these were grown in pots on a small south-facing side-patio.

The marrow speaks for itself (my fourth so far).  At the back, the little yellow globes are cucumbers (I promise you).  At the front is one of many golden beetroot, which have the lovely earthy taste of purple beetroot, perhaps a little more subtle, but don’t leak colour into everything you eat.  I like them steamed or roasted.  Once steamed, they are great cold too, with vinaigrette.

The salad and vegetable plants, except for the globe cucumbers, were all bought as tiny plugs from Bellis in Holt, but my goodness they grew!  The cucumbers were bought from the Grosvenor garden centre.  All were planted in general purpose compost, with mycorrhizal and bonemeal (in a ratio of 1:3 handfuls) placed in the hole in the compost before the plant was added.  Then slow-release plant food was scattered over the top.   

I have grown herbs outside in pots for years, as well as nasturtiums.  The ones above are lollo rosso and little gem.  Oregano, marjoram, mint, thyme and particularly lovage and the fluffy bits of fennel foliage make for a really special salad.  The round nasturtium leaves and flowers are excellent in salads, and their seeds are a little like capers.  I have also grown lettuces in the past, but not on such a grand scale.  

Feeling rather pleased with myself 🙂

 

Object histories in my garden #6: A piece of a Hamilton / torpedo bottle

On the left is a complete Hamilton or torpedo bottle now in the Dumfries Museum. On the right is the fragment of a torpedo bottle found in my back garden. Source of image of Dumfries Museum bottle: Future Museum

I suspect we are coming to the end of the most interesting finds in my garden.  The new beds have been dug out and apart from three lilacs that are destined for the lawn, which will each have a circular bed around them for flowers, the digging has mainly stopped and we are now into laying membrane around trees and shrubs, over the top of which we are putting slate, wood bark and gravel.  This will help to keep down the weeds, and provide a variety of textures throughout the garden, but will seal any remaining objects in the ground, perhaps for future gardeners to find.  There are, however, still one or two pieces worth talking about in the existing collection of objects derived from the garden.

The torpedo bottle fragment from the garden

One of these finds, distinguished by the twist in the glass and its distinctive shape, is a fragment of a Hamilton / torpedo bottle.  Like the Codd bottle, described in a previous post, it was designed to keep gas in bottles of fizzy water.  The Codd bottle in some cases replaced the torpedo, which died out in the 19th Century and early 20th Century. Both were eventually replaced by crown caps that still seal many fizzy drinks today, particularly beers.

Joseph Priestley by Henry Fuseli. Source: The Bridgeman Art Library, Object no.42670, via Wikipedia

Fizzy (aerated, effervescent or carbonized) water, occurs naturally in the form of springs.  My favourite is San Pellegrino.  In 1772 Joseph Priestly set out to produce an equivalent of the natural sparkling water from a famous spring in Pyrmont in Germany, and achieved success by dissolving carbon dioxide in water.  This achievement was considered so important that Priestly, a radical minister, was awarded the Copley Medal, the Royal Society’s most prestigious honour.  The Science History Institute’s website describes the process as follows: “He had dripped a little oil of vitriol (sulfuric acid) on a mixture of chalk and water, caught the fixed air (carbon dioxide) that fizzed from the chalk in a bladder, and bubbled the fixed air through a column of water, which he then agitated at intervals.”  Natural spring waters, each with different properties, were used for their medicinal and therapeutic benefits from antiquity, and were similarly popular in Europe in the 17th and 18th Centuries.  Artificially produced carbonated water was also initially sold for its medicinal properties by pharmacists like J.F. Edisbury of Wrexham, who had his own mineral water works in Llangollen (and who has been discussed on a previous post), it was eventually mixed with fruit-flavoured syrups and sold to general consumers as a soft drink.

J.F. Edisbury and Co (Wrexham) advert showing a range of the carbonated waters that was stocked.  Source: The Wellcome Collection

It quickly became obvious that a solution was needed to keep the gas in the water once it was placed in a container.  At first earthenware bottles were employed by early producers such as Joseph Schweppe (the founder of Schweppes, of course), who set up his business in Bristol in 1794.  At that time, Bristol was a thriving port, third in importance only to London and Liverpool, and a hub for businesses of all sorts.  As Schweppe and other discovered, in earthenware bottles the gas soon escaped and the drink went flat.

Glass bottles closed with corks followed, but there were two potential problems with this approach.  First, a build-up of pressure in the bottle could cause the corks to fly out, resulting not only in a mess but, again, a flat drink.  Second, if the corks were not kept moist they shrank, with the same result – a flat drink and an unhappy customer.  This caused something of a problem between supplier and retailer.  The solution was to store bottles on their sides, but retailers were reluctant to go to this trouble because of the problems of stacking the bottles.

In 1809, William Francis Hamilton of Dublin filed a patent for a method of producing mineral water, which included a description of storage devices employed, one of which was a torpedo-shaped bottle with a tapering, rounded end that had to be stored on its side.  Torpedo-shaped bottles had already been in existence before Hamilton’s patent, and he seems to have been using torpedo bottles as one of a number of storage solutions.  However, the torpedo obviously won out and he apparently went into production of the bottles in 1814.  It took time for them to become popular, but by  the 1840s they were widely in use and they were used until the First World War.

Not all bottles are marked with manufacturer details.   Embossing only became popular in the latter half of the 19th Century, when it became something of a mania following the introduction of hinged moulds.  Usually the manufacturer’s name was added to the bottle, and was sometime accompanied by details of the product that the bottle contained.  The one in the photograph at the top of the page had none, but my fragment has embossed letters, which were built into the mould into which the molten glass was poured to produce the bottle.  The letters on my bottle are incomplete and show either “TERE” or “IERE” (the bottom of the T or I is missing).  It is possible that, if TERE, it read CHESTER, MANCHESTER, LEICESTER etc (all areas where mineral waters were produced), with the E representing the beginning of a new word.   Equally, the TER could be the last letters of WATER, and the E again the beginning of a new word.  The fragment of the final letter can only be a B, D, E, F or P.  Any guesses, anyone?

Lion Brewery (Chester) and Edisbury Chemist (Wrexham) bottles

The heavy embossing of the bottle indicates that this bottle was made in the late 19th Century, or later.  This is in keeping with the other bottles found in the garden:  from the Lion Brewery, Chester, J.F. Edisbury, Wrexham (both heavily embossed, the latter with a crossed-fox logo) and the Codd bottle.  Both the Hamilton / torpedo and Codd bottles were eventually made redundant with the introduction of crown caps, which Joseph Schweppe first employed in 1903.

For other objects in the series,
see the History in Garden Objects page

Sources:

Books and papers

Hedges, A.A.C. 1975. Bottles and Bottle Collecting.  Shire Publications Ltd.

Hamilton, W.F. 1810.  Specification of the Patent granted to William Frances Hamilton.  The Repertory of Arts, Manufactures, and Agriculture, Sixteenth Volume, Second Series.
Available on Google Books: https://tinyurl.com/35bcf5tm

Websites

Future Museum
Hamilton Bottle
http://www.futuremuseum.co.uk/collections/life-work/social-history/home-life/housekeeping/hamilton-bottle.aspx

Science History Institute
Powerful Effervescence
https://www.sciencehistory.org/distillations/powerful-effervescence

The Big Butterfly Count 2021

The Big Butterfly Count runs i Britain between 16th July to the 8th August, so we are just in time to join in.  Every year I do the Big Garden Birdwatch, counting birds that land in the garden in a given hour.  It ran this year in January 2021, before I moved to Churton, but I’ll be talking about that next year when it comes around again.

I had not, however, heard of the Big Butterfly Count.  It was reported in the latest edition of the magazine New Scientist, so I fired up my web browser to get the details.

The Big Butterfly Count “is a UK-wide survey aimed at helping us assess the health of our environment simply by counting the amount and type of butterflies (and some day-flying moths) we see.”  The idea is to sit in a promising spot (for example, in your garden, in a park or along a footpath) for 15 minutes and take note of everything you see in that time.

You will need to register for an account, which is free, after which you can download and print off a butterfly identification chart (which also lists the species in which they are interested), and then send in your results.  You can do this via a free smartphone app or via your web browser (computer, tablet, etc).

I am going to spend my 15 minutes in front of my Black Knight buddleia, which is a great butterfly attractor.  A tremendously good excuse for abandoning the weeding and mellowing out with the wildlife 🙂  I had to chase out a peacock butterfly from the living room only this morning.  On a recent walk there were many types in the hedges flanking the footpath section of Knowl Lane at its western end as it approaches the Dee, and I suspect that I will find that the species that prefer those hedges and the ones gracing my garden will be very different.

Find out the details on the Big Butterfly Count website.

 

Friendly Friday: Wildflowers in my garden (a.k.a. weeds that I like)

I’ve never joined a blog challenge before, but I was invited to join this particular Friendly Friday  challenge and it is such a warm and super idea that I jumped at the chance.  Whoever hosts Friendly Friday declares a theme, and all those participating on their own blogs post something concerned with that theme.  It doesn’t have to be photographic.  It can, for example, be a recipe, poem, illustration or anything that can be posted on a blog.   This week’s host is forestwood, whose challenge is posted here.

I have chosen to select four wildflowers that I have permitted to run free in my garden.  Officially, they are weeds, but the choice to let one or two of them remain where they landed makes them part of my garden, and I choose to dignify them with the name wildflower rather than weed 🙂 Friday 2nd July, 21:53.

Weeds love my garden, and most of them are hauled out with extreme prejudice, using a mattock, spade or archaeological trowel, depending on how big they are and how deeply rooted.  I have become more of an expert on the annoying weeds than on those treasured flowers and shrubs that what I’ve so carefully planted, mainly because I am very intimate with what the weeds are doing underground.  The worst of my weeds have huge tubers that, even when the plant is small, have to be dug out rather than pulled out.  When I inherited my garden, it majored on ivy, holly and stinging nettles, and their unchecked spread are still a legacy problem, but some of the self-setters are much more welcome.

It has taken a long time to recover a rose bed full of mature rose bushes from giant holly trees and ground ivy but it is now looking beautiful, with two buddleias to provide additional colour and texture.  As I was pulling up some of the worst self-invited weedy offenders I recognized corn / common poppy leaves.  That bed had no poppies last year, meaning that these had blown in on the wind and settled down to establish themselves in amongst my roses.  Allowing poppies (Papaver rhoeas) to seed is always disastrous, because they spread like crazy and are so hard to remove in the long-term.  But I have a weakness for them and although I may be kicking myself this time next year, they are so glorious that right now I feel no regrets.  They are almost as tall as me, bright red with black centres, wending their way through the branches of a white rose.  This bed has been considerably disturbed in the last few years as we have restored it, and disturbed soil is a favoured habitat for the common poppy.  The effect is truly spectacular.  It has been used for medicinal uses throughout history in many cultures and is well known for its narcotic properties.

 

My second garden wildflower is also a newcomer to my garden.  It likes to set itself along the edges of rivers and around the edges of ponds and lakes, where it has a freshness and lightness that draws attention to both itself and the water that it frames.  It has small yellow flowers that cluster together and a decorative green leaf that is best known for capturing dewdrops and rain water which, trapped on the leaf, creates prisms of fabulous colour in the sun.   The sun had just vanished as I left the poppies, and the sudden clouds brought a sudden shower of good old English rain, but here they are:  Common Lady’s Mantle (Alchemilla vulgaris), a previously absent herbaceous perennial clustering in an uninvited fringe around my leaking pond with tiny yellow-green flowers and lobed pale green, slightly hairy leaves.  Connecting from one to the next by rhizomes, it is going to be a beast to eradicate from other parts of the garden, but it looks very good around the pond.   It was used for a number of medicinal purposes in the past (and may be in the present too).

 

A firm family favourite, which we have always encouraged into our gardens, is the red campion (Silene dioica).  I used to collect them in bunches as a child before we moved abroad, and I always associate them with good childhood things, like walking the family dog and running around without a care in the world.

Blasting off in all directions from the ground, they are truly exuberant, and their lovely pink flowers, here there and everywhere, warm the heart.  As shown here, the petals form five sets of two pairs, almost heart-shaped, with a green and white centre holding them together.  The stem is hairy.  They grow everywhere around the UK, particularly at home in woodland and in verges.  Their seeds spread from the dry capsule after the flowers have fallen, and they establish easily.  Flowers are male and female.  They look similar but grow on different plants.

 

Finally, Herb Robert (Geranium robertianum, a member of the geranium family) is an old favourite, and a real weed.  It pulls out very easily, and I have been dragging it up in bag-fulls all year, but I have allowed one or two to remain where they decided to set themselves, in some of the less formal parts of the garden, just because I like them.  I am probably making a rod for my own back, but given that they pull up so easily I will almost certainly forgive myself next year.  Little pink  and red-striped flowers sit on top of bright red stems, with deeply lobed leaves that are sometimes also fringed with red, and they spread across the ground in a joyful, albeit straggly network of colour.  I’ve never seen stems so very red as the ones here.  Also shown at the top of this post.

 

Sources:

de Sloover, J. and Goossens, M. (English translation Lucia Wildt).  Wild Herbs. A Field Guide.   David and Charles

Fletcher, N. 2004. Wild Flowers. Dorling Kindersley

Grey-Wilson, C. 1994.  Wild Flowers of Britain and Northwest Europe.  Dorling Kindersley