Sunday, 25 July 2010

Baking Bones

...a colourful catch-up of the past week.

1. Alchemical Magic
Picture the scene: a sunny day in July; Aberdonian architecture; a packed audience; and four alchemists. All right, all right, four historians of alchemy, then. A series of talks discussing the connections between alchemical texts and practice; the idea of forgery and fraud relating to alchemically produced gold coins; the future of research on the history of alchemy-cum-medicine; and desiderata of research from an archaeologist-chemist's point of view. If you weren't there, believe me: this year's BSHS conference was sparkling with possibilities, enthusiasm, ideas and laughter. A warm thank-you to the organiser, the audience, and the participants, who discussed alchemical matters with the perfect balance of serious thought, blue skying and humour. Here's to the future of the history of alchemy.

(If you love the history of science as much as I do, check out the BSHS's travel wiki, which lists scientifically historical sites around the UK. Do I need to say more than Camera Obscura, or Lepers? Um... better check it out for yourselves, methinks).

From Antiquity, December 2003

2. What I (re)Learned This Weekend, or: how alchemists separated metals and made their own vessels for that purpose which would be quite yucky but I cannot wait to try sometime...
Long title, short story: Marcos Martinon-Torres, abovementioned archaeologist-chemist, a dear colleague and someone who has snatched a job and research topic that makes us all go green in the face with envy, has been working on the remains of medieval and early modern alchemical laboratory equipment at UCL for some time now. His insights into what alchemists actually did in the workshop (something often barely accessible to those of us who read those rather obscure manuscripts) are constantly evolving. And given my blogging activities, I could not help listening very carefully when Marcos explained the gadget that is the bone ash cupel.

The idea is pretty simple: you have a composite metal or metal ore, in other words a substance that is made of two parts, one of which you want to extract from the other, but they are difficult to separate. Think oil film on gravy - but then someone invented those bi-level spoony things to solve that problem. Well, alchemists had their own solution for separating silver from dirty useless metal bits: bone ash cupels. These are vessels (see above) made from ground bones (or wood ash), and bound with water or urine. They are porous like a hard sponge in dish form. Actually, a pumice comes to mind. When a composite metal is heated up in such a cupel, one component sinks into the dish, never to see the light of day again; the other remains as a nugget at the top. The cupel can now be thrown out, and the silver or what-have-you retrieved. Nifty, no?

The really cool thing is that alchemists made those cupels themselves. They were much too brittle to be transported and really rather easy to make, so home production was the thing to do. Here's hoping I'll see the whole process from bone to stone in an interdisciplinary workshop sometime!

3. The Baking Connection: Drunken Cake
In the absence of bone grinding, the principle behind the bone ash cupel can be observed in the species of drunken cakes (and I do not mean the above, taken from the always fabulous Cakewrecks, but rather cakes soaked with booze). I won't post a recipe just now, because I am all abuzz with alchemical goodness and eager to do some work before the week starts - but consider one (or more?) of the following:


  • sponge cake
  • pound cake
  • orange juice mixed with cointreau
  • some liqueur of your choice
  • lemon juice
  • (you get the drift without further superfluous variations)
Floaty bits
  • fruit zest
  • granulated sugar
  • sprinkles
  1. make the cake
  2. let cool a little
  3. meanwhile, mix the booze/liquid with the chosen floaty bits
  4. consider whether the combination is a good one; if not, return to 1)
  5. pour 3) slowly but with flourish over the cake
  6. marvel at the floaty bits staying at the top of the cake, while the cake itself gets saturated with boozy fluids
  7. eat cake
  8. sense how everything gets absorbed in a cakey booze fest inside your body.
That's it for today! But soon this blog will be sent from a shiny new kitchen, with many more recipes and the usual zest for bad puns and alchemicality. Cheerio for now!

Saturday, 17 July 2010

Prime Infusion

Huzzah! The First, Fabulous Competeation has produced marvellous results: tea concoctions that are a true elixir of life this summer, no matter whether you find yourself in cold or hot climates. So, without further ado (but some embellishment by yours truly), let me send you adrinking: here are the winners!

From the Cabala mineralis manuscript,
courtesy of the AlchemyWebsite

Thea Regia
This is so wrong it works - thanks to Lorraine the Lemonator.
Take some Lemon Ice Tea and pour over vanilla ice. Add some mint leaves. Slurp slowly and with gusto in hot weather.
Thea Fortis
This is simple and intriguing, and comes with a recommendation from Deena the Drinkess:
Qi (tea liqueur).
Yep, that's it. But here's a little more background: it is a San Franciscan concoction, comes in white and black, and looks nice on their website. Mind you, I will hold out on my verdict until I've tasted it.

Thea Vitae
Long Island Iced Tea - cunningly not containing any tea: how magical is that?
Take equal parts of vodka, gin, white rum and lemon juice; add a little sugar syrup and lots of crushed ice. Top up with cola. Enjoy with some appropriate music playing in the background.
Not my cup of tea, but there it is. Thanks to David the Drinkmaster.

Thea Miraculosa
This was sent by Konoisseur Katie - a G and Tea!
Make lemon verbena tea, chill it, and serve with a dash of gin.
And if that does not get you dashing to the nearest tea shop, here's the final, ingenious

Thea Philosophorum
This was sent by the Delightful Dagmar, who openly admits to adapting this recipe from a ready-made product she saw at Tea Gschwendner:
Mix equal parts of peppermint tea and apple juice, and a good dash of lemon juice. Drink chilled (both you and the tea).
And that's what I am sipping right now!


The winners will receive a little something in the mail. In other news, I just produced some almond biscotti with lemon zest to go with all of the above. Here's to you, dear readers: have a fabulous week!

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Tea Break

This post is short and sweet - almost the opposite of a perfect cup of tea, which should be bottomless and, to my taste, unsweetened, but there it is!

1. A reminder: the Fabulous Competeation (see last post) ends this Friday at midnight. Get brewing now, and share your tips via email, in a post or by pigeon.

2. Talking about tea making tips, check out this fabulous clip from 1941, published by the BFI for our education-cum-entertainment (click the link below the image to watch):

Sipping happily,


Saturday, 10 July 2010

Coffee, Cogitation & Competeation

It's been a busy week, and business does not necessarily like company - unless it comes in the form of a good cup of coffee. My office cafetiere is probably one of the best investments I have made in the past few months: my afternoon mug of hot, comforting brew is consistently up to my admittedly high standards.

It may just be me, but at weekends I enjoy an experimental cup of coffee: a different type of milk, frothing and heating procedure, slowly slurped from an unfamiliar mug (that one that's been hiding in the back of a cupboard) or even a bowl, French style. At this point I cannot resist pointing a cocoa dusted finger at the 'bol' offered by Manufactum:

This bowl is made in the old glazed pottery workshop »Moulin de Loup« near Valenciennes, in a style typical of the 19th century, with a raised pedestal base. They were more often seen in less well-off households in the poorer region around Horchis, where people were more likely to drink coffee made from chicory rather than coffee beans. The pattern, which is characteristic of rural artefacts, dates from the beginning of last century.
In case you are wondering, Manufactum is a marvellous shop which unearths all those places where skill meets quality, where really nice, functional things that will last a lifetime (and more) are on offer. Alchemy, indeed!

And while I am sipping from a rather inferior cereal bowl, I can almost imagine rubbing shoulders with the young, the rich and the beautiful in a Parisian 19th-century cafe...


Kelvingrove Art Museum, Glasgow

Manuscripts open
Thought meets historical thought
Nods to lives long past

It's summer, and while Glasgow is seasonally cool and calm, other parts of the world are awash with heat and sweat. Attention spans are short, days are long, and drinks in ample supply (matching the need for hydration). And let's be honest: the best drinks do often involve tea in one form or another. Therefore, I want to know:

What is your recipe for a good summer drink involving tea?

Leave a comment or, if you know me well enough to know my email, send me a ditto.

Deadline: Friday, 16 July 2010.

The best entry will be published in next week's Pinch of Arsenic and receive a surprise thingumabob. So, get brewing and writing! Ta.

Saturday, 3 July 2010

The Real Thing: Jamie vs. The Alchemists

Oh, s*d the nice introduction and eloquent transition into blog topic. Guess what I did today? Here's a hint:

And of course
Jamie's Italian is opening on George Square (see reflection) in Glasgow, and I had the privilege, thanks to a well-connected friend and two more lovely people, of sampling it in a pre-eat, at half price - - an absolutely fabulous lunch.

Allow me to gush for a bit: the staff were very friendly and knowledgeable, especially our waiter, who kindly pointed out that the cheese was not vegetarian (low point there, but thanks for mentioning it!), knew all about the origin of ingredients and the preparation of the dishes, and made us feel very welcome. The food was divine, and lived up to the Jamie Oliver philosophy: simple, good ingredients prepared immaculately and presented in a share-inducing manner. Voila exhibit A - the vegetarian antipasti starter:

The mains were lovely fresh pasta dishes, mine with butter and truffles. Voila exhibit B - the fresh pasta on display:

All washed down with a fabulous house white, an organic Chardonnay which should make any other wine blush; and followed by a strong, appropriately serious Lavazza coffee. Add a space populated with rustic tables, surrounded by the bar, hanging hams and shelves full of Jamie's books and Italian tins and boxes; and consider also the loos that produced oohing and aaahing from the interiorally designy among us (no, seriously - there's a marriage of style and functionality if ever I saw one!), and some lovely company, and you have the perfect Saturday. Call me a lady who lunches.

Apropos recent news about schools' reactions to Mr Oliver's school dinner revolution, you might be curious what I think about his ideas, his idealism and his general approach to educating people about food. But all I say is: I like his food. A lot. Can I live there, please? Nuff said!

Then came the bill. But even at regular prices, it would make the sorry 'Italian' restaurants in the neighbourhood blush! A perfect place to take friends and gush over simply delicious food - and certainly a place that will see me more often.

What do they have to do with Jamie? I hear you cry. Well, eating at Jamie's Italian after reading his recipes (and not actually cooking any yet) was an experience that matched the palate of the mind (the faculty that kicks in whenever you hear about food and think you can taste it with your mind's, um, tongue). Being a somewhat experienced cook, I could imagine the taste as the menu was elaborated by our waiter: and I maintain that a good restaurant should manage to write a menu that is neither pretentious nor elliptic, neither too clever nor unimaginative, but simply describes what you get in an appetising manner. In this case: Menu + waiter = recipe.

Alchemical recipes, in spite of their many similarities to other recipes, do not quite work that way. Even reading through the whole thing does not help! Alchemical style is very metaphorical, so that ingredients are often referred to by other names ('king' for gold; 'queen' for silver, and many animals like eagles and pelicans feature, too), and the method is not necessarily written down in a straightforward manner, either. Often alchemical recipes read more like inscrutable, dark fairy tales than instructions for craftsmen, and there is no recipe to deciphering them.

Furthermore, alchemical recipes were not filmed for an Alchemy Channel; there was no celebrity alchemists who knocked others into shape in his own show, or tried to teach others how to do good alchemy. Quite contrariwise: alchemy was taught from master to apprentice, and the tips and tricks stayed between the two of them. Overall, it is very difficult for us today to figure out how a specific alchemical recipe was applied, what it produced, and what the product would look like.

This is what archaeologists who analyse finds of alchemical materials find out these days: they look at residues that remain in vessels alchemists threw away, and then work their way backwards to chemical processes that produce these finds. The step thence to identifying an original recipe in a manuscript and matching it with the real thing is yet another story. But until we find a recipe for gold, a little of Jamie's Italian goes a long way...