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A Grain of Mustard

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MustardYesterday my husband and I discussed mustard (as one does).  Specifically, he had been on Google Earth and mentioned that he saw rapeseed fields near Dijon; I replied that they were more likely to be mustard fields.  He was under the impression that mustard was a bush, or a tree, and we wondered if there might be varieties of the plant that ranged in size, especially if left to grow wild.  And thus, a bit of research into the mustard plant ensued (naturally).
First, a bit of history on Dijon mustard:  Originating in 1856, the first Dijon mustard was made by substituting green (unripe) grape juice for the more typical vinegar, though today that unripe grape juice is a spade called a spade, white wine.  Surprisingly, 90% of the mustard seed used in local Dijon production comes (mainly) from Canada – so those yellow flowering fields near Dijon could be rapeseed after all!

Dijon Hand-Painted JarDijon, France doesn’t just make the eponymous mustard, but has dozens of speciality mustards; when travelling through a few years ago, we picked up jars of orange mustard, fig mustard, lavender mustard and tomato mustard.  They often come in hand-painted pots, though plain glass jars are common as well.  The word mustard itself comes from Old French mostarde, which comes from Latin mustum, meaning “new wine”.  This may also be related to a Swiss-German term Most, meaning apple juice that’s nearly fermented; it’s often sold in the autumn from farmer’s shops, if they have an apple orchard from which to produce it.

Mustard seeds come in white, brown or black.  White seeds contain fewer volatile oils and so are milder than brown or black.  Years ago I consulted a doctor for remedies I could recommend to singing students who often struggle with sore throat issues; she told me to have them put 1 teaspoon of dark mustard seeds into a hot foot bath and soak the feet for 10-15 minutes; the mustard oils draw out the infection.

Mustard, as a condiment, was likely first made in Rome, appearing in cookbooks as far back as the 4th or 5th centuries.  They probably exported the seeds to France (Gaul), and by the 10th century monks were experimenting with recipes.  Grey-Poupon was established in 1777 between the partners Maurice Grey and Auguste Poupon.

So were those French fields rapeseed or mustard?  Well, actually, both:  Rapeseed is a bright-yellow flowering member of the family Brassicaceae (mustard or cabbage family).  While both rapeseed and mustard are harvested for their oils, they are as similar as mustard is to cabbage; rapeseed oil is the third-largest source of vegetable oil in the world, while mustard seeds are usually prepared as mustard condiment (though mustard oil is also popular in cuisines such as Indian).

Now we know..!

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The Corryvreckan

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The world’s third largest maelstrom, the Corryvreckan, lies in wait between the isles of Jura and Scarba, Scotland.  Being where it is, it is bound to not only have a history worth repeating, but is bound to have stories, myths and tales attached to it.

The Western Isles of Scotland, and location of the Corryvreckan

The Western Isles of Scotland, and location of the Corryvreckan

One mention of the whirlpool comes from Donald Munro in 1549:  “ther runnes ane streame, above the power of all sailing and rowing, with infinit dangers, callit Corybrekan. This stream is aught myle lang, quhilk may not be hantit bot be certain tyds.1 (“There runs one stream, above the power of all sailing and rowing, with infinite dangers, called Corryvreckan.  This stream is eight miles long, which may not be handled but by certain tides.”).  Donald was a Scottish clergyman with the honorary title of “Dean of the Isles”; his father was chief of the clan Munro and 10th Baron of Foulis, and most importantly to history, Donald wrote a description of the Western Isles of Scotland.  Included in that is the Hebrides (Inner and Outer), which have been noteworthy since at least AD 83, when Demetrius or Tarsus wrote about his journey to one such island, the retreat of holy men.

The name itself comes from the Gaelic Coire Bhreacain – “Cauldron of the Plaid”, and is connected with a myth of Cailleach Bheur, an old hag who was said to stir the waters of the strait in order to wash her plaid.  Breacan was also thought to be the name of a Norse king – whether he gave his name to the maelstrom, or the modern name of the strait is a pun on his name, is debatable.  But he is said to have tried to escape from his father (another tale claims he was trying to impress a local princess – but perhaps there’s an element of truth in both the tales) and was swept into the current.

In 1947, George Orwell was nearly drowned in the Corryvreckan along with his three-year-old son and two companions; only because the currents changed were they able to row away from the danger, sans motor that got eaten by the maelstrom, and were then shipwrecked on an uninhabited rock, with no supplies.  They were rescued by a passing fisherman, and three months later the first draft of Nineteen Eighty-Four was complete.2

1(Source:  Wikipedia)

2 (Source: Taylor, D.J. (2003). Orwell: The Life. London: Chatto & Windus. pp. 385–7)

The Uffington White Horse

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Uffington White HorseI like to go “flying” occasionally with Google Earth; it is how my husband and I discovered the Scilly Isles (I’ll tell you more about that sometime), and how I’ve found several hill figures across the UK; here’s one of my favourites:

Dating from the late Bronze Age (1000–700 BC), the Uffington White Horse (in Oxfordshire, nearest the town of Uffington) is a stylized hill figure of 110 metres long, created by deep trenches filled with crushed white chalk. It is protected and maintained by the National Trust as a Scheduled Ancient Monument (if it is not cleaned regularly it would disappear rapidly, the chalk being washed away by rain or the trenches filling in with local vegetation).

Iron Age Celtic CoinsThese coins pictured are Iron Age Celtic coins (the currency of the pre-Roman population), and the designs are comparable to the White Horse, supporting the early dating (it was thought for some time that the figure could have been constructed as late as the Iron Age, 800 BC–AD 100, but samples from silt of the figure supported the earlier date).  The White Horse is by far the oldest such figure in Britain, but certainly not the only one; ancient figures are scattered throughout the British Isles, though Wiltshire alone has at least eight.  When you have a few minutes to spare, take a Google Earth flight over the UK, and see if you can spot any other figures!

 

Lines of Desire

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Photo Credit:  Unknown

Photo Credit: Unknown

No, this isn’t about how to write romance novels – it’s about architectural landscaping.  The previous article on the topic of paper towns and trap streets reminded me of this term that I’d come across while researching for a novel (in draft currently, in the queue of manuscripts to complete!).

Also known as desire lines / paths, social trails, goat tracks, cow paths or bootleg trails, these unnamed ways are the path of least resistance and most direct distance between their origin and destination.  The wider the path and deeper the erosion, the more proven a path it is.  By some landscape architects they are seen as a failure in proper planning of physical space, but by others they are seen as simple proof that one cannot always impose an empirical will on human choice.  If you zoom in on any large park in Google Earth, such as Hyde Park in London, you’ll see desire paths criss-crossing their shortest-path way throughout the park.

There are all kinds of urban legends about retroactive paving; I leave the verification to those who have expertise in this area, but here are two examples:  New York’s Central Park’s networks of paths are said to be designed around these desire lines, pavement making them retroactively official; however, it actually seems like a poor example as the paths marked do not readily fit the criteria of straightest path or path of least resistance.  Also, Columbia University is said to have turned the desire lines into sidewalks under the guidance of its president Dwight Eisenhower (before he became the 34th president of the US).  Whether such stories are true or not, it would seem like a logical solution to the problem of worn grass patches, rather than needing to re-seed them each spring as people forge their own lines of desire through winter snow.  Why fight human nature?  Or animal instinct.  In Scotland one is wise to follow the sheep paths up in the bonnie highlands; they are proven, solid paths avoiding the hidden streamlets, gigantic holes of souterrain entrances, and the mire of a hidden bog (usually – though the latter seems to bother sheep less than it does me).

Do you know of any “desire lines” in your town?  Have you taken them yourself, or are you one to stick to official paths?

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