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History Undusted: The Colour of Carrots

Unless you’ve been living under a rock all your life, chances are you’ve eaten carrots. Orange through and through, they can be eaten sweet, as in a carrot cake, or savoury with dips or in a stew. But where did they come from? Have they always been orange? The short answers are Central Asia, and nope.

Carrots - Carrot-Museum-co-uk

Carrots, which likely originated in the Himalayas and the Hindu Kush ranges and spread along the Silk Road, were white/ivory wild roots gleaned for their leaves and seeds – much like their genetic relatives of coriander and parsley, and it may be that the products of these plants were used medicinally, like many other plants and herbs.

They were first cultivated as a food crop in the Iranian Plateau and Persia, and even today the centre of diversity remains in the region, in Afghanistan. Long before they were cultivated, the wild varieties had become widespread throughout Europe, as far back as 5,000 years ago, though fossilized pollen has been identified as belonging to the carrot family in the Eocene period (55 to 34 million years ago).

These little roots have approximately 32,000 genes, which is more than you and I do; and just two of those genes are recessive, creating a build-up of alpha- and beta-carotene. Over a thousand years ago, purple and yellow varieties began to appear, and around 600 years ago, the orange variety began to dominate the market, appearing in Spain and Germany around the 15th or 16th century.

One apocryphal theory is that the orange coloured carrots were cultivated by the Dutch in honour of William of Orange, a 16th century commander who fought against the Habsburg dynasty; even if this legend isn’t true, the orange carrot did become associated with William of Orange, and during the 18th century, the noticeable display at market stalls was considered to be a provocative political gesture in support of William’s descendant, who had been driven from the English throne. The distaste for the political figure didn’t stem the taste for the root, however, and they grew in popularity. Most modern orange carrots descend from a strain grown in Hoorn, Holland; today’s carrots, more vivid orange, contain 50% more carotene than those of 1970. Modern carrot breeders continue to refine the carrot, improving flavour, colour and texture, as well as reducing bitterness and enhancing sweetness.

Though other varieties of carrots are making a comeback, the beta-carotene and vitamin A which causes the deep orange was thought to improve eyesight (that is a misnomer). This led to a diversion tactic of the British during World War 2: They claimed that eating carrots improved night-vision and that their pilots ate carrots to have that advantage; it was misinformation spread to hide the Royal Air Force’s development of radar technology from the Germans. Aside from the propaganda ploy by the military, carrots were a staple in the diets of the British, who used the humble root as a sweetener and a vegetable staple, and was promoted for health benefits. Food rationing tightened the Brits’ belts, but the carrot came to the rescue; it was a common, home-grown staple, and could be used as a substitute for restricted items as it was not subject to rationing. Carrot was even used as a secret code word, broadcast by the BBC in French to the French Resistance, to warn of the impending D-Day landing in Normandy: On the 4th of June 1944, several messages that seemed nonsensical to listeners were broadcast, including, “les carottes sont cuites, je répète, les carottes sont cuites!” (“The carrots are cooked, I repeat, the carrots are cooked!”) This gave the resistance fighters the signal to carry out their plans to sabotage railway and telephone lines. Carrots were the last vegetables added to a stew; if they were already cooked, it meant that the plans were set – no going back. Normandy landings began the next day, 5 June, which led to the liberation of France and the ultimate defeat of the Nazis.

The word carrot was first recorded in English around 1530 and was borrowed from Middle French carotte, originally from the Indo-European root *ker– (horn), probably due to its horn-like shape. At the time, carrots (white) were visually similar to parsnips, the two being collectively called moru (from the Proto-Indo-European word mork (edible root)); the German for carrot is Möhre).

For more information than most people could possibly use in their lifetime, check out this link to The Carrot Museum, my main source of information for this article (along with the Economist).

The next time you sit down to a good vegetable stew or a plate of crudité and dips, think of the grand history of the humble carrot.

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Science Undusted: Prince Rupert Drops

Let’s talk about shattering glass. As one does.

Probably as far back as molten glass was first produced intentionally by man (i.e. not volcanic glass drops formed naturally, which are known as Pele’s tears) drips of molten glass fell into the glass blower’s water, kept nearby to cool the glass products in. Sometimes, these drops have particular strength, and these alone are true Prince Rupert Drops.

The English name is a classic example of who knew who, and who wrote the history books: The drops had been made Mecklenburg, northern Germany, since 1625, though some think they go back as far as the days of the Roman Empire; they were sold around Europe as toys or curiosities. In 1660, Prince Rupert brought some of them back to London as a gift for King Charles II, who then gave them to the Royal Society to investigate and attempt to reproduce. Thus, Rupert’s name has gone down in history – for bringing back a souvenir for the right person.

Their unusual strength comes from how they cool; when done right, they will come out shaped like a tadpole with a long, thin tail. The heads can be struck with a hammer or shot with a gun, and they will not shatter; but if the tail is knicked or disturbed, the entire drop shatters into glass dust instantly, from the tail down.

Not all drips of glass cooled in water produce Prince Rupert Drops, also known as Dutch tears, Prussian tears, or Batavian tears; the difference is their behaviour and is probably influenced by impurities or inclusions in the mineral composition of the material used. Higher quality glass produces pure Prince Rupert’s Drops; low quality may simply not have the tension created in the cooling process to be a shattering success. I have a drop of molten glass, found on a beach in the Scilly Isles (UK); it is the result of a shipwreck from around the 17th or 18th century, and the drop is full of the impurities of the orginal glassware plus black flecks of cinders from the burning ship. The tail was snapped off over time, yet the head survived – thus, it was not a Prince Rupert Drop.

For a cool video that explains the science behind the drops, including slow motion analysis of the shattering, just click on the image below; the video is from one of my favourite YouTube channels, Smarter Every Day. For further behind-the-scenes footage of another experiment that Destin did with these drops, click here.

Prince Rupert Drop

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Obscurities: Petrichor

Obscure 19Today’s obscure word is one which describes something most of us know and love, but which most of us have probably never even thought about naming: Petrichor. It’s used to describe that delicious scent hanging in the air after rain has fallen on dry ground. The word entered the English language in the 1960s, and is a combination of the Greek terms “petra,” which means stone, and “ichor,” which means the fluid that flows in the veins of the gods in Greek mythology.

I grew up quite aware of nature: We would sit outside on porch swings to soak in the atmosphere of a spring or summer rain, sometimes curled up in blankets and usually silent as we listened to the rain pattering off tree leaves, or grass, or hitting the steaming asphalt of the street in front of our house. I could recognize the smell of approaching rain; I could recognize the signs of a coming tornado (that’s Kansas for you!) and could feel the crackle of electricity in the air prior to a lightning storm. Just before lightning strikes, there’s ominous silence, as if all energy has suddenly been diverted to that interaction; after it releases, the sounds of nature pick up again where they left off.

One sound I miss that was associated in my mind with those spring and summer rains is the chirping of cicadas in the evenings. We don’t really have such insects here in Switzerland, though I still have the sounds of crickets chirping at night, and the rain dancing across the forest and housetops, and the smell of Petrichor hanging in the air.

Rain 2

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10 Natural Phenomena

Whenever I have a few minutes in my schedule, I like to fill it with something interesting; if I’m eating lunch, I’m probably watching a documentary or a video about a particular topic. So I thought I’d toss together a shortlist of natural phenomena that are out there somewhere on our unique and diverse planet. Just click on the links below to learn more – the links will lead you to either a YouTube video or an article. So, here ‘goes!

  1. The Sahara Eye: Also known as the Richat Structure, it is a fascinating geological structure that’s best seen from lower orbit (located at 21.1269° N, 11.4016° W). Because of its concentric circular formations, there have been many claims that it was the fictional Atlantis of Plato’s writings. While the reasoning the supporters of that theory are interesting to me as a novelist, the scientific explanation is fairly straight forward.
  2. Spotted Lake, Canada: This lake has no run-off, which means that water flowing into the lake only leaves through evaporation. Divots in the lake have grown into spotted pools which attract various minerals as snow melt-water enters the lake. The Native tribes used these pools as therapy for physical ailments in a time before modern medicine, just like people in 18th century England went to Bath to drink and bathe in the mineral waters there. On Google Earth, its coordinates are 49°04’40.86″N 119°34’03.01″W; if you use the historical toggle, you’ll see the individual pools more clearly.
  3. Floating Eye Island, Argentina: This is a relatively new discovery from 2016, located at 34°15’07.8″S 58°49’47.4″W. It was discovered by Argentinian film director Sergio Neuspillerm, who was looking for a location to film a horror film and came across the Google map image of this unusual lake; because of his bent toward the purpose of this place, most “reports” have leaned toward the paranormal, and it was difficult to find a serious scientific report on the phenomenon. The actual interpretation is probably simply a combination of geology, botany and hydrodynamics: The lake produces methane gas, and if the floating island of debris and grasses growing atop the fertile strata get pushed around by methane bubbles rising, it will naturally knock off the rough edges of the floating patch and the land it bumps into, creating a circular “island”.
  4. Ice Discs: Similar to the Eye, these rotating discs of ice form in freezing water which is moving slowly; they usually form in eddy currents, where the accelerating water creates the effect called “rotation shear”, breaking off a chunk of ice and twisting it around; the process grinds off the rough edges, leaving a round disc of rotating ice. This disc grows as it cools the water around it and attracts more ice into its vortex.
  5. Sailing Stones, Death Valley, California: For years, people have observed the evidence of large boulders sliding across the surface of Racetrack Playa in Death Valley National Park. The explanation may be relatively simple, but sometimes people just like a mystery.
  6. Fairy Rings/Pixie Rings: These are caused by the processes of the mycelium of fungi, as it spreads outward in a circle while looking for nutrients. Before scientific understanding came along, of course, these were thought to be portals to the magical realms of pixies or fairies and were convenient scapegoats for anything bad happening in a nearby town or village.
  7. Since we’re on the topic of circles, what about the Namibian Fairy Circles? There are conflicting hypotheses about their origins, but the most recent study has discovered that beneath the bare circular patches of earth, distributed evenly over some 1100 miles of the Namib Desert, are colonies of termites. They eat the roots of the plants growing above their territory, removing the competition for the limited rainfall and allowing the water to go directly into the soil above their colony. It’s a complex ecosystem, but scientists are slowly beginning to understand it. In the meantime, the locals just call them the “footprints of the gods”.
  8. Blood Falls, Antarctica: A waterfall in Antarctica flows blood red, caused by the iron-rich waters hitting oxygen and turning to rust. The symbiosis of microbes living in that subterranean water source is the stuff good science fiction is made of.
  9. The Everlasting Storm: Catatumbo Lightning Storm, Venezuela: This lightning storm occurs during 140-160 nights per year, and lightning flashes up to 280 times per hour. Located over the mouth of the Catatumbo River as it empties into Lake Maracaibo, it has become so famous and so persistent that it is even featured in the flag and coat of arms of Zulia, the state which contains the lake, and is mentioned in the national anthem of Venezuela.
  10. Red Crab Migration, Christmas Island: Christmas Island is an Australian external territory in the Indian Ocean, and on this 135 sq km (52 sq mi) patch live literally millions of red land crabs, found only on this island. To spawn, the females make their way down to the beach at high tide to release their eggs into the ocean – at the risk of drowning, as they are not aquatic. The eggs will hatch, and the tiny crabs will eventually return to the island. During this mass migration, the island slows down and makes way for the red river flowing over its streets, stairs, and anything else between the crabs and their goal.
Christmas Island Crab Migration

Baby crabs returning to Christmas Island

 

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Italy: All a Matter of Perspective

Italy Regions MapIt’s been a while since I last blogged; sometimes, life just takes over, but I’m back into “normal” life (though that’s usually just a setting on my washing machine). My husband and I just returned from a week-long wedding in Francavilla al mare, in the region of Abruzzo, Italy; the groom was from England & Chile, and the bride was from Switzerland – so it wasn’t a typical Italian wedding by any stretch of the imagination; it wasn’t a typical wedding period. Languages flew faster than seagulls at the beach resort where we were staying; you could hear English, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, Romansch, French, Swiss-German, High German, Danish, and a host of other tongues – and those were just the wedding guests. What made the wedding even more special was the mix of people: The groom was Daniel Ilabaca, co-founder of the World Parkour and Freerunning Federation, so most of the guests were from that scene; his wife Paula is a good friend of ours who’s lived with us off and on over the years, and we got to know him and the work they do through her. Near the hotel is a permanent Parkour installation on the beach, and at the wedding reception, a slackline was set up on the beach for the guests (whether walking the line or not, we all enjoyed it!). If you’re not familiar with Parkour, or what a slackline is, click here for a video; you’ll see the slackline at 1:10.

I’ve lived in Switzerland for over a quarter of a century; in all that time, we’ve never gone into Italy except the border areas around Como or South Tirol, so a road trip down to the east coast, roughly level with Rome, was a new experience. While there, we experienced a few cultural differences. The saying When in Rome, do as the Romans has never been closer to home than this trip!

The first thing we noticed on Italian streets is the Italian way of driving: Italians love their cars, so you would think they wouldn’t risk life and limb with their driving tactics. I say risk, but that’s obviously not how they see it: In any other country I’ve lived in, a general rule of driving is one car length’s distance per 10 km of speed – this gives you reaction time. But in Italy, regardless of how fast you’re driving, you will have a driver relentlessly glued to your tailpipe. My family history gives me little patience for idiots on the road, dare I say it – for drivers who endanger others with their way of driving. But in Italy, we observed several surprising things over the course of our trip:

  • The traffic, even on stretches of motorway around densely populated areas, flowed uninterruptedly and swiftly. The only times we had to stop on the motorways were when we queued for their toll gates. We didn’t see one accident, and the roads are smooth. Swiss roads tend to be clogged with tons of traffic on narrow roads (less space between the mountains and antique towns to spread out a wide motorway) and construction zones at the slightest hint of a pothole in the road. What usually takes us under three hours to drive home (e.g. from Lugano) took us over five hours this trip (for those of you into numbers, we averaged 84 km/hr in Italy, and 44 km/hr in Switzerland…)
  • Speed limits are just a suggestion there; if you’re not going at least 15 km over the number on the road sign, you’re obviously going too slow. Not even the presence of a police car on the road slowed them down.
  • Tailgaters appear out of thin air. Even in the backwaters of the Italian countryside, without a car in sight, within ten seconds of getting on a road, we had someone so close that we couldn’t even see their front license plate in the rear-view mirrors. We began making up reasons for this behaviour; our most logical one is that Italians are family-oriented, and they just didn’t want us to feel lonely.

Italians are famous for their food; for the most part, we ate excellent meals at restaurants, but just like anywhere else, sometimes food can be indifferent. The ravioli at Restaurant X might not be anything to write home about, but the ice cream? That’s where they really excel! Any flavour you can think of, they probably have it somewhere. Even cheesecake ice cream that really tastes like its namesake!

Did you know that there’s a German-speaking part of Italy? South Tyrol (also called Trentino-Alto Adige) used to be part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire but was given to Italy by the Allies during the Treaty of London in 1915 – a “perk” to entice Italy to join their side in the war. This area now has 18,400 hectares of orchards, making it the largest contiguous apple-producing area in the EU. Driving through the area, we now know where the apples we eat come from – and that their farming practices are organic, rejecting the use of chemical pesticides and fertilisers.

A week in our neighbouring land gave us a small taste for the diversity and beauty of northern and central Italy; it won’t be our last road trip!

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History Undusted: Bells

Recently, my husband was catching up with the articles on my blog, and he made the cheeky comment that I’d written about everything except the history of bells. Now, I know that’s not true – there are other things out there I still have yet to discover – but I took up the challenge; hence, this post. The history of bells, or of anything, for that matter, is an audacious title; as Mark Twain once said, “The very ink with which all history is written is merely fluid prejudice.” At best, such an online article can skim the surface of any historical topic; my purpose is not to give an extensive report – it’s to whet your appetites to search out history for yourself. I “undust” it for you – it’s up to you to grab it by the horns and hang on.

Every country has their favourite bells: Americans have the Liberty Bell (“At noon, on the Fourth of July, 1826, while the Liberty Bell was again sounding its old message to the people of Philadelphia, the soul of Thomas Jefferson passed on; and a few hours later John Adams entered into rest, with the name of his old friend upon his lips.” – Allen Johnson); the Brits have Big Ben (it’s the actual name of the bell, not the clock tower) and other, regional celebrities; the Russians have the Tsar Bell, in Moscow; the Polish have the Sigismund, located in Wawel Cathedral in Krakow, Poland. but where did they come from originally? What was their original purpose?

The oldest known bell is from around 2000 BC, from Neolithic China, and it was made of pottery tiles. As far as historians can deduce, the bell has always been associated with two social functions: As a signal for messages, such as when a work day would begin or end, and for calls to religious ceremonies or as reminders for specific times of day for various rituals. The sound of bells have always been associated with divinity, likely because it was a sound unlike any natural sound known to the people who heard them ringing out over a great distance – they could hear them, but not see the source of the sound. In ancient times, when most people were both uneducated and superstitious, it’s not hard to follow such reasoning.

Bells can range from tiny jingle bells to several tonnes; the Great Bell of Dhammazedi was the largest bell ever made, in 1484, for King Dhammazedi of Hanthawaddy Pegu (Lower Burma), and weighed 327 tonnes. It was placed in the temple of Shwedagon Pagoda and stolen by the Portuguese – whose ship promptly sunk under the weight of the bell.

Today, church bells still ring out across Europe, calling parishioners to church services, as well as ringing out on the hour to mark the passing of time. They ring out in special ways for various celebrations, whether weddings or holidays such as Christmas, New Year’s Eve, and Easter.

16th century Islamic painting of Alexander the Great lowered in a glass diving bell - Wikipedia

16th-century Islamic painting of Alexander the Great lowered in a glass diving bell – Wikipedia

Certain kinds of bells hold special value: Ship’s bells are like catnip to divers – they’re the primary method of identifying ships, as their names are engraved on the bells even long after the painted names on the hulls have succumbed to the sea; they are a wreck-diver’s trophy of desire, and always hold special place in their collections. An interesting link between diving and bells is that the first actual diving bells – the rigid chambers designed to transport divers from the surface to the depths and back – were shaped like ringing bells; the air would be trapped in the upside-down chamber, allowing a person to be underwater and still breathe. The first description of its use is recorded by Aristotle in the 4th century BC; the most famous diver from that period is Alexander the Great.

 

English has many idioms associated with bells: Alarm bells ringing (or set off alarm bells, or warning bells going off – i.e. your mind is warning you about a danger or deception in a particular situation); to be as sound as a bell (to be healthy or in good condition); when something has (all the) bells and whistles (extra or entertaining features or functions that aren’t necessary, but nice-to-haves); Hell’s bells! (an expression when one is surprised or annoyed); something rings a bell (i.e. sounds familiar); saved by the bell (i.e. a difficult situation is ended suddenly by an unforeseen interruption); with bells on (i.e. if you go somewhere or do something with bells on, you do it with great enthusiasm or energy); to bell the cat (i.e. undertake a difficult or dangerous task); something to be as clear as a bell (i.e. clearly understood); pull the other leg/one – it has bells on it (i.e. you don’t fool me); one can’t unring a bell (once something has been said or done, you can’t unsay or undo it); the final bell (the end of an event or, euphemistically, a life). I’m sure there are more – if you know of one, please leave it in the comments below!

There is also a powerful experience written by Corrie Ten Boom, a Holocaust survivor, about the Bells of Forgiveness – you can read her story here.

If you’ve got an hour to spare, BBC has an hour-long “History of Bell Ringing” video on YouTube.

So there you have it: Bells, undusted, to pull your rope cord and get those bells ringing in your head, to find out more for yourself!

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The Salt of the Matter

Recently I was looking into the matter of salt (as one does). Salt is a mineral made mostly of sodium chloride, and in its crystalline state is also known as rock salt or halite. It is essential for life in general, is present in our oceans, and is one of our five basic tastes (sweet, sour, bitter, umami and salty). As a spice, it is the oldest in the world; gathered along dried seashores from evaporated tidal pools, hunter-gatherers soon learned to value it.  Even as far back as 6000 BC, intentional salt production (by boiling or evaporating seawater) was around.  Since ancient times, it has been used as a seasoning, a preservative (whether air-drying in salt or through the brining process), a disinfectant, a unit of exchange, and ceremonial uses. Newborn babies were rubbed with salt to disinfect them (see Ezekiel 16:4 as an example of this ancient practice).

The word brings quite a few things to mind, from culinary to military to spiritual:  One speaks of seasoned soldiers – those who’ve seen action and have learned how to respond rightly in a crisis.  Roman soldiers were given an allowance for the purchase of salt; it’s where we get the word salary (salarius – Latin, pertaining to salt), and worth one’s salt is thought to come from that concept of the Roman soldier’s payment. The phrase above salt, referring to someone high in rank or honour, came from the seating position that a person would be invited to take at a dinner party – the salt being placed in the middle of the long dining table; the more honoured a guest, the closer they sat to the host at the head of the table, above salt (used as far back as AD 1200 in that context).

Salt preserves and adds flavour by bringing out the full bouquet of flavour within the thing it’s added to.  It enhances a sweet melon or a savoury slice of meat.  Seasoned just right, even a lowly carrot or potato can become an explosion of taste.  In Colossians 4:6, the apostle Paul uses this culinary metaphor:  “Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.”  Applying the qualities of salt to our speech, let it always be full of good taste, preserving the honour of those with and about whom we speak, bringing out their potential, enhancing them.  Such speech is applicable in every situation; such a reply is never wrong.  How we say something is at least as important as what we say; that’s the salt of the matter.  Salt was also used by ancient armies to symbolically curse the fields of a conquered area (it is erroneously thought that the salt was sown to make the land unproductive, but it would take a prohibitive amount of salt to accomplish that, so it’s logically rather a symbolic than literal salting).

Salt also gives us several more idioms than those mentioned above:

  • To take something with a grain of salt – from Modern Latin, cum grano salis. It means not to believe something at face value, or take something completely seriously.
  • (To go) back to the salt mines – (To go) back to work
  • To rub salt in (someone’s) wound – To make someone’s problem or bad situation worse
  • Salt of the earth – a good, honest, upright person
  • To salt (something) away – To save money or other item for another time or purpose
  • Salty dog – An experienced sailor (nickname due to the salinity of the sea)

Today, most countries have a wide variety of salt available: The typical salt in western societies is called “table salt”, and it has been iodized with iodine since 1924, to correct the deficiency of iodine in the average diet. The deficiency can lead to thyroid problems in adults and cretinism in children. Another mineral sometimes added is fluoride, to prevent tooth decay. The additives vary from country to country, which may also add to the variety and regional differences in taste.

Salts

The variety of salts found in my own kitchen

Sea Salt is just that – from the sea, including traces of algae, salt-resistant bacteria and also sediment impurities.

Bamboo Salt (Jukyeom) is prepared by roasting salt in a bamboo container plugged with mud at both ends; it absorbs minerals from the bamboo and the mud, which in turn adds a distinct flavour to the salt.

Celtic Sea Salt, also known as grey salt (from French, sel gris), is harvested by raking salt crystals off of the bottom of tidal pools along the coast of France. It’s got a distinctive briny flavour.

Fluer de Sel (Flower salt), is another tidal salt from France, but its crystals are paper-thin flakes taken from the water’s surface. Because of the labour-intensive harvesting, it’s known as the “caviar of salts” as it is the most expensive salt on the market (1 pound of salt can be $20). Any salt harvested from the water’s surface creates flakes, so there are less expensive varieties available.

Kosher, or kitchen, salt is coarse-grained and non-iodized and used for things like cooking or pretzel-making.

Pickling salt has a very fine grain to speed up the dissolving process in cooking or brining.

Gourmet salts often have other spices or elements added or infused into the salt grains.

Kala namak (Nepalese for black salt) is a Himalayan salt that’s been packed into a container with charcoal, herbs, seeds and bark, then fired in a furnace for a full day before it’s cooled, stored and aged. This process gives it a distinctive reddish-black colour, a pungent, salty taste and the faint sulphurous aroma of eggs, which lends vegan dishes the taste of egg.

Pink Himalayan Salt is rock salt mined in the Salt Range mountains of the Punjab region of Pakistan, and the colour comes from trace impurities found in the soil, ranging from transparent to beet-red. It is comparable to table salt in taste, though it lacks the health benefits of the latter. This salt is especially popular as it is erroneously purported to have special health benefits for everything from reducing ageing, clearing up sinus problems, to increasing bone strength and even more dangerous presumptions – a modern-day snake oil medicine. It is fine as a supplement to, but not a replacement of, our salt intake.

Hawaiian Black Lava Salt is a sea salt harvested from the volcanic islands of Hawaii, and it gets its deep, black colour from the additive of activated charcoal. Alaea Salt is an unrefined red Hawaiian salt; its colour comes from the reddish, iron-rich volcanic clay called alaea, and it adds a robust flavour.

Persian Blue Diamond Salt is extracted from salt mines in the Semman province of ancient Persia (now Iran). Mineral deposits add small flecks of blue to some of the crystals, giving it its name.

Smoked Salt is slow-smoked up to two weeks over a wood fire of hickory, mesquite, apple, oak or alder wood, and it adds a smoky flavour to dishes.

Cyprus Black Lava Salt comes from the Mediterranean Sea. These crystals are formed through natural evaporation; mixed with activated charcoal, the grains look like miniature pieces of charcoal and have a very mild salt flavour.

Red Wine Salt comes from France (where else?); I have one called Fleur de Merlot. It is a coarse-grained salt mixed with wine and then allowed to evaporate, infusing the salt grains with a dark red wine flavour. It goes well with robust flavours with which you might serve Merlot wine.

New Zealand Lake Grassmere Salt: Seawater from the deep is brought to seaside ponds surrounding Lake Grassmere in New Zealand, and at the end of the summer, salt crusts are lifted from the bottom of the ponds.

In some cultures, salt is not a staple condiment, replaced instead by high-sodium ingredients that fulfil the function of salt: Soy sauce, fish sauce, or oyster sauce, to name a few. I cook a variety of dishes, and all of these have their place in my kitchen; you can’t cook an authentic-tasting Asian meal without them.

There are probably thousands of types of salt in the world; each one has its own distinct colours and flavours due to the mineral deposits that seep into the water before or during the evaporation process, or because of additives such as wine, crushed tequila worms, rosebuds or herbs.

Because salt is used as a preservative, many processed foods include it. Over-consumption of salt can lead to health problems – just think of a salt-brined fish, and apply that principle to your organs to get an idea of what happens. I use processed foods sparingly – mainly things I cannot process myself, such as canned tuna. Be aware also of the amount of salt included in spice mixtures; it is hidden in most pre-made items (unless sugar is used as the preservative – but that’s another story). The best way to control your salt intake in a day is to eat fresh fruits and vegetables, and make things like spice mixtures and batters from scratch – that way you’ll know exactly what you’re putting into your body!

The next time you reach for the salt, pause a moment and consider where it came from: It could be from the ocean or from a salt mine deep in the earth; it could be from a tidal pool bottom or top or the scum of a pond. It could have intentional additives or random mineral impurities that add to its flavour. Even the humble salt crystal, when seen under a microscope (below), takes on a grandeur that has the thumbprints of a grand Designer.

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History Undusted: Lammas Day

Did any of you celebrate Lammas Day this past Thursday, 1 August?  The original Thanksgiving day, Lammas has a centuries-old tradition in some English-speaking countries.  “Lammas” comes from the Old English hlafmæsse, meaning “loaf mass”, and was a celebration to give thanks for the harvest.  Everyone would bring a loaf of bread to the church on that day, made from freshly-harvested wheat; it would then be blessed by the minister as a symbol of giving thanks for the entire harvest.  Perhaps this is the Eucharistic overtone admitted by J.R.R. Tolkien* in a private letter concerning the Lembas Bread of the Elves; this bread might have been based on Hardtack texture-wise, but the name itself is a  clear nod to Lammas. 

In the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, it’s mentioned several times, where it is referred to as the feast of the first fruits. To read more about this celebration, click on the image below.

And before I close, I will also say, “Happy Birthday, Switzerland!”  Thursday was also our Founding Day, the first being in 1291.  It was perfect weather for fireworks, and we enjoyed the displays of towns and villages from our flat!

Breads, Harvest, Lammas Day

*Carpenter, Humphrey, ed. (1981), The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, ISBN 0-395-31555-7

 

 

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Wallace Hall of Heroes: Margaret MacDonald Mackintosh

After our holidays in Lugano, mentioned in the last post, I went to Scotland with my husband for a five-day whirlwind visit with friends. Spending time together with them morning and evening, we took day trips out in between and were able to see astonishingly much in that short time!

One of the things we went to see was the Wallace Monument, near Stirling; we trekked up the steep, narrow spiral staircase to the top, stopping along the way at each of three levels before reaching the top (with a stunning view). One of the levels was called the “Hall of Heroes”: Filled with marble statues of Scottish scientists, politicians, shakers and makers of the past centuries, without exception, they were all men. Until this year. Two statues of women have been added, along with 6 pillars of women who were chosen by a panel of judges from among the long list of Scottish women who have been influential in Scottish history.

As the saying goes, “Behind every great man, there’s a great woman”. Many of these women were ignored by history, which is more often than not written down by men, from a man’s perspective, for a man’s world. I’m not a feminist by any stretch of the imagination; but I do have a strong sense of justice, and I am a woman who has often been overlooked and marginalized by society, by prospective bosses, and by mentalities that belittle women solely based on gender. So I take pleasure when I see women from the past being acknowledged for the contributions they’ve made, and I take special pleasure in “undusting” their history for you here on my blog. With that said, here’s the first:

How many of you are familiar with Charles Rennie Mackintosh? Perhaps not the name, but certainly the distinctive art style he is known for:

Charles Rennie Mackintosh Rose

He is frequently claimed as Scotland’s most influential and distinguished artist, yet he once reportedly said of his wife (whom he married on 22 August 1900), “Margaret has genius, I have only talent.” If you look at her own work, you see that she was the main inspiration behind his more simplistic designs; the famous “Mackintosh rose” is clearly seen in her works:

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Margaret MacDonald Mackintosh, born 5 November 1864, was part of what was known as the “Glasgow Four”, which included her sister Frances, Herbert MacNair, and Charles Rennie Mackintosh, and during her lifetime, she was recognized for her defining influence in the “Glasgow Art” style of the 1890s, during which period she and her sister opened an art studio together (the MacDonald Sisters Studio at 128 Hope Street, Glasgow) – at a time when women were still very much expected to get married and live a quiet life in submission to a husband. Though she was known and respected in her own lifetime, consequent generations have forgotten her genius; for instance, Charles was famous as an architect, yet in a letter to his wife he wrote, “Remember, you are half if not three-quarters in all my architectural work.” Her interior designs (often mixed mediums, including the use of gesso, beads, metal and textiles) made his buildings typically “Mackintosh”, yet there is not a single mention of her in an article about Mackintosh architecture on a website devoted to architectural design, though they had ample opportunity to give her deserved recognition.

Margaret MacDonald Mackintosh - Interior Design for a Music Room

Margaret MacDonald Mackintosh – Interior Design for a Music Room

Between 1895 and 1924, she contributed to more than forty European and American exhibitions. She exhibited with her husband at the 1900 Vienna Secession, where her work could arguably be described as an influence on the Secessionists Gustav Klimt and Josef Hoffmann, yet again, she is ignored posthumously.

Ill health decreased her artistic output from around 1921, and she passed away in 1933, five years after her husband’s death. Her artwork lives on, and I hope her legacy earns equal recognition with that of her husband’s as times change, and the women of history begin to receive the recognition they truly deserve.

 

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Calligram # 1: Ticino

For those of you unfamiliar with calligrams, they are images created out of spatially-arranged text, usually related to the image they create.

I began doing calligrams several years ago, and enjoy the “bite-sized” research involved in gathering facts, history and general information about a subject. The first one I made was probably a Viking ship or the wassail tree; the latter, I accidentally found being used as the back cover design of an art magazine online out of Romania; I asked them to attach my web address and credit the image to me, and they did so, but it taught me a valuable lesson: embed my name into the calligram!

Below is one that I did recently while on holiday in Lugano. You’ll hear more about that soon, but in the meantime, enjoy this calligram!  Just click on it to enlarge it. The image itself is based on a vintage postcard collage.

If anyone would like to use this in any way, please contact me through the comments below; whenever using any image, please give credit – whenever possible – where credit is due!

Ticino Brighter

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Filed under Articles, Calligram, History, History Undusted, Images, Publications, Research, Writing Exercise