Tuesday, 23 June 2009

The Supersizers Eat... Medieval

In the BBC series The Supersizers Eat... restaurant critic Giles Coren and writer and comedian Sue Perkins experience the food culture of years gone by. Last night they went back to medieval England to live the life of a Lord and Lady in their country manor.

It was up to Anglo-Saxon lookalike Martin Blunos (who also just happens to be a Michelin-starred chef) to cook all their food for the week, which included everything from roast cockentrice - a creation made from the forepart of a chicken sewn to the rear of a piglet - to peacock, coqz heaumez (helmeted cock), suckling pig, boar's head and hippocras.

Now, it just so happens that recipes for a number of things they ate can be found in What is Myrrh Anyway? So, if you fancy finding out what frumenty tastes like for yourself or you're curious about the health benefits of hippocras (a.k.a. ypocras) then why not pick up a copy today?

There was also much discussion - mainly with monks - about fasting and what the Medieval mind considers to be fish. This is also covered in What is Myrrh Anyway? as Christmas Eve was a fast day, and fish could be eaten on fast days.

What is Myrrh Anyway? - it's not just for Christmas!

Monday, 22 June 2009

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Shown as part of the BBC's poetry season, I watched a very interesting programme the other week about the poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

The story begins in Camelot as King Arthur's court is feasting and exchanging gifts. A large Green Knight armed with an axe enters the hall and proposes a game. He asks for someone in the court to strike him once with his axe, on the understanding that the Green Knight will return the blow one year and one day later.

Sir Gawain, the youngest of Arthur's knights and nephew to the king, accepts the challenge. He severs the giant's head in one stroke, expecting him to die. The Green Knight, however, then proceeds to pick up his own head, and having reminded Gawain to meet him at the Green Chapel in a year and a day (New Year's Day the next year) rides away.

The reason I make mention of this legend here is because the events related in the poem are framed by Christmas festivities.

If you don't know the story of the Green Knight's infamous challenge yourself, you can find out more about the poem here and here. Alternatively, you could watch this rather unnerving animation that I first saw shown on schools' TV! (It features a Latin version of the Boar's Head Carol, which you can learn more about in What is Myrrh Anyway? published in the States this November as A Christmas Miscellany.)

Sunday, 21 June 2009

The Longest Day

Today - 21 June - is the longest day of the year, otherwise known as the summer solstice. The solstice is an astronomical event that happens twice a year, when the tilt of the Earth's axis is most inclined toward or away from the Sun, causing the Sun's apparent position in the sky to reach its northernmost or southernmost extreme.

It is on this the day - also known as Midsummer's Day - that the sun appears at its most northerly point, which results in it being the longest day, with the most hours of daylight. From here on it the nights start to get shorter again until we reach the winter solstice in December.

The name 'solstice' is derived from two Latin words, sol, meaning 'sun', and sistere, meaning 'to stand still', because at the solstice, the Sun appears to stand still in declination - in other words, the apparent movement of the Sun's path north or south comes to a stop before reversing direction.

Every 21 June hundreds of people travel to Stonehenge in Wiltshire to watch the sun rise. At this moment, the sun shines on the famous Heel Stone. For those of the Druidic faith, this is a very important moment of the year. Druidic celebrations also take place on Midsummer's Eve. Bonfires are lit to show respect for the Sun God, whose power is greatest at the Summer Solstice. The fires also represent an attempt to ward off the coming winter. Practice of this ancient ritual, which also includes a Summer Solstice Circle Dance, is now mainly confined to Cornwall, the West Country, and London's Hampstead Heath.

And of course it just so happens that today is also Father's Day, which is celebrated on the third Sunday of June in 52 countries around the world, and on other days elsewhere. It complements Mother's Day and was inaugurated in the early twentieth century. Father's Day is believed to have been held for the first time on 5 July 1908, in a church located in Fairmont, West Virginia, by Dr. Robert Webb at the Williams Memorial Methodist Episcopal Church South of Fairmont.
So, depending on who you are and what you've been doing today, Happy Father's Day/Midsummer's Day/Summer Solstice*.
* delete as applicable

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

The Christmas Tree Worm

This unusual submarine dweller is the aptly-named Christmas Tree worm.

The Christmas tree worm (spirobranchus giganteus) is a Christmas tree-shaped tube-dwelling worm with magnificent twin spirals of plumes used for feeding and respiration.

These cone-shaped worms come in many colours including orange, yellow, blue, and white and, though they are small, with an average span of less than 4cm, they are easily spotted due to their shape, beauty, and striking hues.

The colourful plumes - or tentacles - are used for passive feeding, the worm living off suspended food particles and plankton floating by in the water. The plumes are also used for respiration. Though the plumes are visible, most of the worm is anchored in its burrow that it bores into a live coral.

Christmas tree worms are very sensitive to disturbances and will rapidly retract into their burrows at the slightest touch or even a passing shadow. They typically re-emerge a minute later, very slowly, to test the water before fully extending their plumes.

And they really do look just like Christmas trees...