Wednesday, December 30, 2009


Come oh traveller to our home
The home of other ways
Travel to Avalon's misty shore
And look at her smiling face.

My island of Avalon lies out there on the other side of the bay. In the real world it is the island of Samsø, but this doesn't matter if the imagination is strong. I like to walk down to the bay at Århus in the morning. The island is often floating on shimmering air out there in the mist.

At present, the celebration of New Year is a major celebration worldwide. Many large-scale events are held in major cities around the world New Year's Eve being accompanied by the largest fireworks events. In the western culture of the 21th century New Year's Eve is celebrated with fireworks and champagne. In Denmark New Year's Eve also often includes marzipan ring cake, the Queen's New Year's speech and on TV: "The 90 year's birthday". The culmination is when the clock at the Town Hall of Copenhagen strikes 24 and the new year begins.

Celebrating New Year's Eve is not an old tradition in Denmark. In the old days people followed the church year, which meant that new year was celebrated on the first Sunday of Advent. Alternatively they could also consider the new year opening on 25. December on the birth of Christ. In the old agriculture society the custom was to eat dried cod and making fun on the evening of 31. December - the farm people might fire blanks or make noise by the help of empty buckets and jars covered in swine-blatter. The fun was mostly like teasing, and in the end the troublemakers had to be caught and invited into the house to have apple-pie, beer and snaps etc.

In Denmark is a special tradition in having boiled cod with mustard sauce for New Year's dinner. This has brought another tradition, in which the tabloid paper "Ekstrabladet" each year gives a prize "Cod of the Year" to a person who has been extremely stupid in the past year. They have never had any difficulties in finding a prize winner!

Happy New Year to Everyone and thank you for your interest and your nice letters in 2009!


Monday, December 28, 2009


Agrimonia eupatoria

Agrimony is native for Denmark. It grows along roadsides, wasteland, hedges and banks. Its natural habitat is woods and fields, but it takes to cultivation easily. Both the yellow flowers and the notched leaves give off a faint characteristic lemony scent when crushed.

In Greek Agrimone means ' to heal the eyes' and the Greeks used the plant to treat ailments affecting the eyes. The Anglo Saxons used the plant for snake bites and treatment for wounds. It contains tannin and bitter substance plus ethereal oil. It was used for leather tanning and dyeing. The whole plant yields a yellow dye.

The medicinal use of Agrimony in Denmark goes probably back to the Viking period, since its fruits were found in the Oseberg ship. It was a common used medicinal plant in monastery gardens. Monks and physicians used it for many ailments: liver and gallblatter disease, inflammation of the urinary system, compress for wounds and other skin damage, and as gargling water for inflammation in mouth and throat.

In the 1400s: the seeds were eaten as a protection against various diseases, they seeds were cruched and mixed with honey and goat's milk rubbed against headache, the leaves were used in compresses against fever and lung diseases, the juice from the plant in stomach trouble , warts were rubbed with the plant crushed in vinegar, a "blue eye" was treated with agrimony and egg white, etc.
Christiern Pedersen in 1533: the plant juice mixed with destilled water from Rumex to drink against the plague, winedecoct against malaria, juice against snake bite.
Henrik Smid 1546: destilled water from the plant stops cough, good for patients with malaria, kill intestinal worms.
Simon Paulli 1648: the doctors gave a syrup or a decoct of agrimony for a blocked up liver, the plant mixed in a herbal extract against syphilis, cooked with the root of alant used for bathing frost-bites in hands and feet.

Agrimony was also used as a tea or mixed in herbal teas.

Dried agrimony hung in beer prevents it from getting sour. The plant was also used in fodder for sheep.

Agrimony is not commonly used today, but has its place in traditional herbal medicine. It is frequently used in alternative medicine as a herbal mouthwash and a gargle ingredient and is applied externally in the form of a lotion to minor sores and ulcers.
Caution: this is an astringent herb, do not use if constipated. Do not use internally during pregnancy without discussing with your obstetrician.

Witches used it in spells to dispel negative energies and to ward off hexes. Agrimony was said to cause deep sleep. When placed beneath a man's head this sleep would last until it was removed. This passage is from an old English medical manuscript:

'If it be leyd under mann's heed
He shal sleepyn as he were deed;
He shal never drede ne wakyn
Till fro under his heed it be takyn.'

It was also said that the Anglo Saxons included Agrimony in charms and dubious preparations of blood and pounded frogs.

Dried spikes are poured over with a neutral snaps (in bottle or jar). Drawing time is about one week, then filter it and let it draw for some time. Thin your drink according to your taste.

Source: V.J. Brøndegaard, Folk og Flora, Dansk Etnobotanik 3, 1979
: grethe bachmann

Church Bells

Skanderup Church, Mid Jutland

Church bells became common in Europe in the early Middle Ages. They were first common in northern Europe, reflecting Celtic influence, especially that of Irish missionaries. Before the use of church bells, Greek monasteries would ring a flat metal plate to announce services. The signa and companae used to announce services before Irish influence may have been flat plates like the semantron rather than bells. The oldest surviving circle of bells in the world is housed in St. Lawrence Church, Ipswich.

In World War II in Great Britain, all church bells were silenced, to ring only to inform of an invasion by enemy troops. The episode "The Battle of Godfrey's Cottage" of the BBC sitcom Dad's Army included a scene where the church bells rang by mistake, leading the Home Guard to believe that an invasion was taking place.

The process of casting bells is called bellmaking or bellfounding, and in Europe dates to the 4th or 5th century. The traditional metal for these bells is a bronze of about 23% tin. Known as bell metal, this alloy is also the traditional alloy for the finest Turkish and Chinese cymbals. Other materials sometimes used for large bells include brass and iron.

Bells are also associated with clocks, indicating the hour by ringing. Indeed, the word clock comes from the Latin word cloc meaning bell. Clock towers or bell towers can be heard over long distances which was especially important in the time when clocks were too expensive for widespread use. In many languages the same word can mean both "clock" and "bell". In the case of clock towers and grandfather clocks a particular sequence of tones may be played to represent the hour. One common pattern is called the "Westminster Quarters", a sixteen-note pattern named after the Palace of Westminster which popularized it as the measure used by Big Ben.

Ræhr church, North Jutland

Some church bells are electronically timed to chime automatically. Clocks generally automatically strike, but in the United Kingdom, bells for services, etc., are still almost always rung by people. Some churches use recorded or digitally synthesized bells. In the Eastern Orthodox Church there is a long and complex history of bell ringing, with particular bells being rung in particular ways to signify different parts of the divine services, Funeral tolls, etc. This custom is particularly sophisticated in the Russian Orthodox Church. Russian bells are usually fixed, and are tolled by pulling on a rope that is attached to the clapper so that it will strike the side of the bell.

In the Western world its most classical form is a church bell or town bell, which is hung within a tower and sounded by having the entire bell swung by ropes, whereupon an internal hinged clapper strikes the body of the bell. A set of bells, hung in a circle for change ringing is known as a ring of bells. In the Eastern world, the traditional forms of bells are temple and palace bells, small ones being rung by a sharp rap with a stick, and very large ones rung by a blow from the outside by a large swinging beam.

Tæbring church , Mors, North Jutland, outside bell tower.

The striking technique is employed worldwide for some of the largest tower-borne bells, because swinging the bells themselves could damage their towers. In the Roman Catholic church and among some High Lutherans and Anglicans, small hand-held bells, called Sanctus or sacring bells, are often rung by a server at Mass when the priest holds high up first the host, and then the chalice immediately after he has said the words of consecration over them. This serves to indicate to the congregation that the bread and wine have just been transformed into the body and blood of Christ, or, in the alternative Reformation teaching, that Christ is now bodily present in the elements, and that what the priest is holding up for them to look at is Christ himself.

Famous Bells

The Great Bell of Dhammazedi (1484) may have been the largest bell ever made. It was lost in a river in Myanmar after being removed from a temple by the Portuguese in 1608. It is reported to have been about 300 tonnes in weight. The Tsar bell by the Morotorin Bellfounders is the largest bell still in existence. It weighs 160 tonnes, but it was never rung and broke in 1737. It is on display in Moscow, Russia, inside the Kremlin. The Great Mingun bell is the largest functioning bell. It is located in Mingun, Myanmar and weighs 90 tonnes.

Pummerin in Vienna's Stephansdom is the most famous bell in Austria and the fifth largest in the world. The South West tower of St. Paul's Cathedral in London, England houses Great Paul, the largest bell (16,5 tons) in the British Isles. One can hear Great Paul booming out over Ludgate Hille at 1300 every day. Big Ben is the third largest bell in the British Isles. It is the hour bell of the Great Clock in the Clock Tower at the Palace of Westminster, the home of the Houses of Parliament in the United Kingdom.

The Liberty bell is an American bell of great historic signifance, located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It previous hung in Independence Hall and was rung on July 4, 1776 to mark American Independence. Little John, named after the character from the legends of Robin Hood is the bell within the clock tower of Nottingham Council House. It was the deepest toned clock bell in the United Kingdom until Great Peter of York Minster was incorporated into a new clock chime to celebrate the Queen Mother's centenary. Great Peter is deeper than Little John by only a few Hz. The sound of Little John is said to be heard over the greatest distance of any bell in the UK, occassionally on quiet days being heard in Derby.

photo: gb

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Happy New Year!
Various Customs Around New Year

The New Year is celebrated worldwide with great fun and fervor, it's a perfect time to think of the year ahead and forget the past and at the same time remember to enjoy the celebrations with family and friends. New year is a time for new hopes, festivities and indulgences. The exact date of New Year was not known until the Romans gave the date for the New Year celebrations to be January 1st. It depends on the time zone of the country for the exact time of the New Years Eve.

The regional traditions and customs like taking part in the New Year parade, dancing, singing, enjoying fire works and indulging in parties are all a part of the New Year celebrations worldwide. Gifts are exchanged and people wear gorgeous clothes to make the New Year celebration worldwide more complete. New year is the time to visit families and friends and enjoy eating delicious mouthwatering recipes. Making New Years resolutions on New Year is a custom that is observed worldwide. This custom dates back to the early Babylonians.

Various New Year Customs
Medieval Feast of Fools
In Medieval Britain, January 1. was the Feast of Fools, also celebrated in Paris from about 1198-1438, a day of licensed jesting – a kind of religious April Fool's Day. It was a crazy day on which low clerical officials could swap places with the higher ones, a mock pope was elected and churchmen parodied religious rituals - for just one day. It harkens back to the feast of Saturnalia in ancient Rome, for several days from December 17. when a Lord of Misrule was appointed to rule temporarily for Saturn. It was also known in Latin by various names, including festum fatuorum, festum stultorum and festum hypodiaconorum and was like various other celebrations, such as the Feast of Asses, and the Feast of the Boy Bishop.

Although the festivities often became anti-ecclesiastical, anti-clerical and even blasphemous, for centuries, the Church allowed the people to revel on this day. In 1440, theologians in Paris argued, in defence of the Feast of Fools, that even a wine vat would burst if the bung-hole were not opened occasionally to let out the air. However, there were often objections raised: In Paris in 1199, Bishop Eudes de Sully imposed regulations to ensure that the abuses committed in the celebration of the January 1 Feast of Fools at Notre-Dame didn’t happen again, and perhaps they didn’t for a time. The Bishop of Lincoln, England, was another who condemned the feast mercilessly. The celebration of the Feast of Fools was eventually outlawed in 1555.

When Scots and northern English people welcome a first-footer (the first person into their home after the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Day), they hope it is a fair-haired man for luck. He must enter by the front door and leave by the back, symbolising the old and new years.
The people of Yorkshire and northern England have among their many old customs the tradition of guising on New Year’s Eve. Guising is a centuries-old practice of going from door to door singing songs - trick or treating at Halloween derives from guising. The Welsh open the back door before midnight on New Year’s Eve to let the Old Year out, then they lock it. At the last stroke of midnight on the clock they open the front door to welcome the New Year.
Ancient Britain gives us many well and sacred spring customs. The first water drawn from a well on January 1 is supposed to bring fortune and happiness, and is called the Cream of the Well. It is customary to leave petals floating on the water. The wells at Wark, in Northumberland, UK, are supposed to have magical powers on New Year’s Day. In Wales, drawing fresh spring water as a New Year’s Day custom might have survived at the town of Tenby as late as the 1950s.

Polish tradition is for vagabond players to put on street pantomimes on New Year’s Day. Gypsies, too, are on the streets, fortune telling. A century ago the Sicilians on New Year’s Day ate lascagne cacate, or “crappy noodles”, a kind of lasagne. To eat any other sort of pasta today was considered bad luck. Their saying went “Whoever eats macaroni today will have a bad year”. People of Madrid, Spain, have an interesting old New Year’s custom: at the stroke of midnight each person eats twelve grapes. The cinemas will even stop running a movie at midnight to allow the patrons to eat their grapes.

As in many parts of the world, in Japan the New Year is brought in with noise. Here, temple bells sound, ringing out the old year. Then the joyano-kane, or nightwatch bell, rings in the new with precisely 108 chimes. This, according to Buddhist tradition, helps free mankind from the 108 “earthly desires”. A good idea has swift feet - the chiming of bells rings in the New Year in Japan and England as well as in Bulgaria, Serbia, Macedonia and Romania. As in many parts of the world, in Thailand the New Year is brought in with the tolling of bells – temple bells. People say "Kwam Suk Pee Mai!", meaning Happy New Year! Today Thai children will exchange presents with family and friends, and the general populace will present Buddhist monks a thanks offering of rice and other food.

The Russians don’t have Santa Claus, even though Saint Nicholas is patron of Moscow. They have Grandfather Frost (D’yed Moroz) at New Year, with his comely and daintily named assistant, Snegourka the Snow Maiden. They bring presents to children on this day. The people of the former Yugoslavia have their Deda Mraz. Like Santa, he brings presents to the children. He arrives a week before Christmas and asks what gifts they would like, delivering them on January 1. The Russian have New Year trees instead of Christmas trees, with more than 50,000 decorated trees erected in Moscow public places and 700,000 in private homes of Moscovites.

photo: gb

Friday, December 25, 2009

Yellow Wagtail/Gul Vipstjert

Motacilla flava

The Yellow Wagtail is a small passerine in the wagtail family Motacillidae, which also includes the pipits and longclaws.This species breeds in much of temperate Europe and Asia and has a foothold in North America in Alaska. It is resident in the milder parts of its range, such as western Europe, but northern and eastern populations migrate to Africa and southern Asia.
Yellow wagtail is like the other wagtails characterized byt its long tail, which gave the bird its name. There are various species with very varied looks, but what is shared is the male bird's yellow belly and olive back, the belly of the female birds is light yellow. The head pattern of the male is various in various species. The most common wagtail in Denmark is yellow wagtail (M.flava) with a blue-grey head with a clear white eye and beard-stripe. The male of northern yellow wagtail (M.thunbergi) which is a common migrating bird in Denmark, lacks the white eyestripe, and the head is darker than the common yellow wagtail. The male of yellow-headed yellow wagtail (M. flavissima) which is sporadicly seen in West Jutland, has an olive head with a yellow eye stripe. Neighbouring wagtails differ most, maybe because the female bird prefers the male of their own species with the clearest features - pairs of the same species have a better breeding succes than mixed pairs.
In Denmark the wagtail mostly breeds in meadows with a low grass growth, mainly along the coast and at fjorde with beach meadows. It also breeds in inland moors. The largest population in Denmark is at the birds' sanctuaries Vejlerne and Tipperne in North Jutland and at coast areas near Copenhagen and along the bay of Køge. The Danish breeding birds mainly belong to common Yellow Wagtail.
In migrations time the northern Yellow Wagtail is a common guest in Denmark. It is seen at the migration areas or resting at meadows and large grass areas, i.e. golf courses all over the country. The European wagtails overwinter in tropical Africa, while the East Asian wagtails overwinter i India and South East Asia.
The yellow wagtail's food is insects which it catches upon the ground or in the air. Lesser flocks can hunt mosquitoes in the morning- and evening hours above waters, while they in the day hours separately hunt manure flies which gets easily started from cow pats. The long tail supports the balance when the bird catches insects in the air or while running on the ground.
The yellow wagtail has declined as a breeding bird in Denmark during the last decades. This is due to that its preferred habitat, grazed moist areas have decreased either by draining, cultivating or overgrowth.
Dansk Ornitologisk Forening

Photo Margrethekog, Vadehavet : grethe bachmann
Twelfth Night in England

Keldby Church, Møn

Some European and Scandinavian cultures had combined the twelfth night of Christmas with pagan festivals celebrating the changing of the year. These were usually associated with driving away evil spirits for the start of the new year. From its earliest days the twelve days of Christmas festival involved masked dancers and play actors, who cavorted through the streets and visited homes unannounced to beg for holiday treats and drink. In Tudor England the Twelfth Night marked the end of a winter festival that started on All Hallow's Eve.

The twelfth night of the twelve days of Christmas is the official end of the winter holiday season and one of the traditional days for taking down the Christmas decorations. In England people used to have parties on Twelfth Night, and it was traditional to play practical jokes. This was also a traditional day for wassailing the apple trees. Wassail the drink of good wishes and holiday cheer has been associated with Twelfth Night since the 1400s. The name comes from an Old English term "Waes hael", meaning "be well". The popular song "Twelve days of Christmas" is usually seen as simply a nonsense song for children. Some have suggested that it was dating from the 16th century wars in England, but there are many theories.

A King or Lord of Misrule would be appointed to rule the Christmas festivities and the Twelfth Night was the end of his period of rule. The common theme was that the normal order of things were reversed. This tradition can be traced back to the pre-Christian Europe like in the Celtic festivals of Samhain and the Ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia. Twelfth Night itself was a traditional day for plays or "mummings", and it is thought that Shakespeare's play "Twelfth Night" took its name from the fact that it was first performed at Middle Temple Hall, London, during the Twelfth Night celebrations of 1602.

Twelfth Night elsewhere in Europe

Prague, Old Town Square

In the old Czechoslovakia the Christmas tree was taken down after Twelfth Night, and the wood from the tree would be put into the woodstove - and good coffee should be made on the stove. This custom was said to bring joy and happiness. Costumed kings would visit all the farmsteads, not exactly regally dressed; they wore long furs and hats woven from thick sheaves of straw with berry branched. The kings brought each house good wishes and the farmers showered them with gifts. In exchange for the gifts the farmers received the blessings of enjoyment, love and peace.

In Russia this was a night for divination. Everyone put a ring into a dish and then traditional songs were sung, which predicated events like bereavement or marriages. Then a ring was chosen random from the dish and the fate of the song ascribed to its owner.

In the South European tradition Twelfth Night was celebrated with marches and music in the streets, where men dressed in Oriental costumes gave candy or small gifts to the children.
In Italy it was considered the beginning of Carnival, associated with jokes and tricks. An Italian tradition was also an old "witch"woman , called La befana, who came with gifts in a sack for the children. Naughty children got coal in the sack instead of gifts. La befana rode reverse on a broomstick, and in some places in Italy a figure of La befana was burnt at stake, which might be a trace from ancient rituals celebrating the beginning of a new year.

In Denmark a tradition was to read signs from the period. The weather in the next year's twelve months could be predicted by the weather in the twelve days of Christmas. People had special symbols, "Sun signs", for the weather, which they wrote with chalk upon the beams in the living room. On Twelfth Night the girls had to stand by an open window looking into a mirror, and then they were able to see their future husband. The Christmas tree must not be taken down until the day after Twelfth Night- or else grief would come to the house. A custom still used is to lit the candles on the Christmas tree for the last time on Twelfth Night and to eat small round apple cakes baked in fat and served with blackberry jam. Another traditon was to celebrate Twelfth Night and the end of Christmas with a special candle formed like a fork divided in three. 3 kings and 12 apostles and one "star carrier" with the special candle marched through town. This traditon is still kept alive in a few places in Denmark

photos Møn & Prague: grethe bachmann

Twelfth Night, The King's Cake

The ancient Roman tradition of choosing the master of the Saturnalia revels by baking a good luck bean inside a cake was transferred to Twelfth Night. French and English celebrations included a Kings' cake.

In England the cake was usually a rich and dense fruit cake which contained both a bean and a pea. If you got the bean you were King or Queen of the Bean, and everyone had to do what you told them to do. But there were also other items in the cake. If you got a glove, you were a villain, if you got a twig you were a fool, and if you got a rag you were a tarty girl.
In France the special cake served on Twelfth Night was the Galette des Rois. It was thin and round and cut into pieces in the pantry, always one more piece than there were guests, and carried into the room covered with a white napkin. A small china doll was baked into the cake, and the person receiving this became the Queen or King and got to choose a consort. The extra piece was called "le part a Dieu", and was set aside for the first person to come through the door.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Parsnip/Almindelig Pastinak

Pastinaca sativa var. sativa

In Denmark: Parsnip/Almindelig Pastinak (Pastinaca sativa var. sativa) is common in the glacial land. In the heath and sanded land it is mostly found along roads and more sparsely.

Wild parsnip/Vild Pastinak (Pastinaca sativa ssp. sylvestris) has a vigorous hairy stem, and it might be found in Denmark, but not yet for certain.

Like carrot, celery, parsley etc. parsnip belongs to the Umbelliferae. It origins from wild parsnip in Central and southern Europe. It is not for certain described as a cultivated plant until the 1600s. In the 1700s an attempt was made to have it imported to Denmark as a fodder for cattle, sheep and fat pigs, and in Italy it is still used as a fodder plant. The parsnip is richer in vitamins and minerals than its close relative, the carrot, and it is also a good source of dietary fiber.

The name comes from Latin pastinum, a kind of fork, whose ending was changed to -nip by analogy with turnip because it was assumed to be a kind of turnip. Greek and Roman literary sources are a major source about its early use, but there are some difficulties in distinguishing between parsnip and carrot in classical writings, since both vegetables seem to have been sometimes called pastinaca. In Roman times, parsnips were believed to be an aphrodisiac. When the Roman Empire expanded north through Europe, the Romans brought the parsnip with them. They found that the parsnip grew bigger the farther north they went.Parsnips are not grown in warm climates, since frost is necessary to develop their flavor. The parsnip is a favorite with gardeners in areas with short growing seasons.

Until the potato arrived from the New World, its place in dishes was occupied by the parsnip and other root vegetables such as the turnip. Parsnips can be boiled, roasted, microwaved or used in stews, soups and casseroles. Roasted parsnip is considered an essential part of Christmas dinner in some parts of the English-speaking world and frequently features in the traditional Sunday Roast.In the United States, this plant was introduced fairly early in history by British colonists as a root vegetable. In the mid-19th century, it was replaced in popularity by the potato and consequently escaped from cultivation. Today, most states have wild parsnip on their list of noxious weeds or invasive species.

Parsnip is a biennial, which develops the eatable root in the first year. If it is allowed to stay, it will in the second year develop into a plant as tall as a man with large yellow-green flower umbels in July-august. They are very decorative and are visited by hoverflies. Parsnip is used as a food plant by the larvae of some Lepidoptera species.

Parsnip/Almindelig pastinak is found wild in the nature and is considered unwanted. The sap of the plant combined with sunlight can give burns and sores on the skin, but in a milder degree than hogweed.

When picking wild vegetables it is easy to mistake poison hemlock (Conium maculatum) for parsnip. This can have deadly consequences since all parts of hemlock are poisonous. Poison hemlock contains volatile alkaloids that have been used as poisons since ancient times, notably in the death of Socrates. A reliable source should be consulted to differentiate the two.

photo Rebild 30. July 2007: grethe bachmann

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Four Spices of Christmas

A Lovely Scent in the House at Christmas Time.......

Viggo Johansen, Familiejul , 1881, Hirschsprung-samlingen
A very special scent during Chistmas time is the aroma of clove, vanilla, cinnamon and cardamom. Most of the spices we use today- and especially around Christmas - origin from the Far East, one of the reasons why the Arabs during the Middle Ages and later the Dutch grew very rich on the spice trade. The Arabs dominated the world's spice trade from the eleventh century
Antique Persian spice box
while the Dutch were the dominating part about six centuries later. For hundreds of years spices were so expensive that only rich people could afford them. They were kept in a locked box to which only the lady of the house had the important key in her bunch of keys. Today spices are available to everyone, and especially around Christmas the kitchen is a place with a lovely scent that fills the whole house.

Clove/Nellike/Eugenia caryophyllata
Clove is dried flower buds from an evergreen tree, originally from the group of islands, the Moluccas, but it is also cultivated in other tropic places. Clove was one of the first spices arriving in Europe. It came with the Portuguese after the discovery of the sea route to India.

The custom placing clove in an orange derives from the nineteenth century where people placed the clove-covered orange in the closet to make their clothes smell good. Today we often hang the clove-orange in a red silken band at Christmas. It is best to cover the orange in full with cloves. In this way the orange will not rotten but will be completely conserved and continue to spread its delicious scent in the room for a long time.

Many lard the pork roast with whole clove, it is also good in a roasted smoked ham, eventually finished with a mustard glazing, a custom for the Swedish Christmas-Ham. Clove has a very strong taste and is easy to overdose. It has to be used with care and suit the other spices in a dish.

Grounded clove is used for baking and in various delicatessen and in Christmas cookies and many sorts of spiced cakes. It is also good in fruit dishes and in stewed fruit and it gives a perfect finishing touch on apple-pies. Grounded clove is also good in strong soups and sauces - or put two whole cloves in an onion to boil it together with the dish. Whole clove is especially fine in vinegar pickling and in green pickled tomatoes, hips, pumpkins and plums - and it is indespensable together with the other good spices in the Christmas Punch (Juleglögg).

Old advice: Spice oil rubbed upon a sore tooth is said to remove the worst pain - and chewing a couple of whole cloves reduces the urge for alcohol. No guarantee!

Vanilla/Vanilje/Vanilla planifolia
Vanilla comes originally from Mexico. The Totonaco-indians were the first to use it, they considered it a gift from the gods. Later the Azteks used it in chocolat. In the 1500s the Spanish conqueror Hernando Cortez brought vanilla to Spain and then it spread throughout Europe, but in the beginning it was used mainly in cocoa-drinks. First around 1600 vanilla became an independent spice. The first time vanilla is mentioned in Denmark was in 1770 in a book about Natural history.The biggest production today comes from Madagaskar. The vanilla sticks are dried seed capsules from a tropical orchid, vanilla planifolia. The fine flavouring is extracted in a complicated process and the genuine vanilla is rather expensive. Bourbon vanilla is considered the best , followed by Tahiti-vanilla. A good vanilla-stick has to be dark, soft and lustrous. The seeds and the fruit pulp is scraped out from the vanilla-stick and used in creme, icecreme, fruit-dishes, baking, pickled green tomatoes and pumpkins.

Vanilla sugar is made from vanilla seeds and sugar.Vanilla-essence is dealed in small bottles and easy to dose. The empty vanilla-stick keeps the scent for a long time -put it in the sugar jar and the sugar can be used as vanilla-sugar. The vanilla-stick can also be halved and cooked in milk for pudding - or simmer with the milk for hot cocoa.

Vanilla is indispensable in the dessert-kitchen like the salt is in the salt-kitchen. Like salt vanilla brings out the taste from other ingredienses. Vanilla-stick is usual in desserts and cakes, but is also delicious in general baking and a thrilling spice in hot dishes where it is not expected, fx in poultry together with orange, basil and onion.

Vanilla is used in cakes, icecreme and candy all over the world. In Mexico vanilla is also used in sauces and in Paris in perfume. The sweet and strong taste of vanilla is good for more than cookies and dessets. The spice is also used in sauces and fish soups, since it brings out the full taste of the whole dish. And the lovely scent of vanilla is easy to recognize and it also brings good memories of Christmas time and the Christmas kitchen.

Cinnamon/Kanel/Cinnamomum zeylanicum.

The best and the most expensive cinnamon is from Sri Lanka. The spice is the bark from a tree which after peeling and drying rolls together into a little reed. Another cinnamon species is the Cassia-cinnamon which derives from China and mainly is cultivated there. The genuine cinnamon from Sri Lanka is easy to recognize since the reed is light brown and in more layers, while the Cassia-cinnamon-reed is dark brown and only has one layer.

Cinnamon was known as a spice for thousands of years. In the Old testament cinnamon is mentioned as the most distinguished of all spices and a gift for gods and princes. The Chinese knew about cinnamon about 4-7.000 years ago - it is mentioned in the earliest Chinese herbal books. The Chinese call it "kwei" - and it is mentioned in the Chinese emperor's herbal book from ab. 2.700 b.c. and again in the herbal book "Rha-ya" from ab. 1.200 b.c.
Cinnamon came to Eruope in the 1400s.

Cinnamon is especially in England used for adding a fine sweet taste to hot buns, fruitcakes and raisin-apple dishes and spiced wine. Both whole cinnamon-reed and grounded cinnamon is used, the grounded cinnamon mostly for baking purpose. Cinnamon is also used in stewed fruit and in various pickling - and for the Christmas punch, (juleglögg) and toddy. Grounded cinnamon in apple pie and mixed with sugar strewed upon the rice porridge. A mix of grounded cinnamon, nutmeg and clove is often used in spiced bread and cakes, and the same mix is good in a dish with fat meat. But cinnamon can also give a fine effect in fish dishes and fried meat dishes. In India cinnamon is commonly used in meat- and rice dishes and as an ingrediense in the spice mix garam masala and in curry-mix.

An old advice: Cinnamon prevents wind in the stomach. And if people strewed cinnamon and cardamom upon a buttered roast piece of bread it was a good means against indigestion.

Cardamom/Kardemomme/ Elettaria cardamomum
Cardamom is the seeds from a tropical plant from India. The small seeds are inside triangular capsules , they are dried and used either whole or grounded. The grounded cardamom is the cheapest, but there is a grounded variety called "decorticated" made from the seeds only.

Cardamom is fine together with orange and lemon either in cakes or in various orange-desserts, and it is an important ingrediense in curry mix and in garam masala. An extra additon of cardamom to a curry dish brings out the good taste. The spice is also a good ingrediense in forcemeat for poultry eventual with parsley. But only in small quantities.

Commonly used in yeast bread, spiced cakes, apple dessert, panncakes, patés, and as mentioned also in oriental curry dishes and in some forcemeat dishes with parsley. In Scandinavia and in Russia cardamom is used for promoting the taste of Liqueur, and in the Middle East coffee is made tasty and spicy with a couple of cardamom-seeds. Some spiced buns (Krydderboller) with cardamom are very popular in Denmark.

Through 3.000 years cardamom was used in Chinese medicine. It was imported to Greece in the 4th century b.c. and was later used by Greek physicians. The English herbalist William Cole described in the 1700s cardamom as the "seed above all seeds" and told that it removed a phlegmatic temper, both from head and stomach.

copyright grethe bachmann

Friday, December 18, 2009

Great Spotted Woodpecker/Stor Flagspætte

Great-spotted woodpecker/Stor Flagspætte

Dendrocopos major

The great-spotted woodpecker is a striking black and white bird with bright red under the tail. Males have a distinctive red patch on top of the head and young birds have a red crown. This bird is distributed over an immense range covering almost the entire Palearctic from Britain in the west to Japan in the east and reaching North Africa and the Canary Islands in the south-west. In recent times the great spotted has become the most familiar woodpecker due to regularly visiting bird tables in observer's gardens. The Great spotted woodpecker is an exciting garden visitor, and during the summer adult woodpeckers may be accompanied by their youngsters learning about the food available and how to obtain it.

In summer the great woodpecker live mainly of insects, especially caterpillars , in winter mostly of cones. A cone is harvested by the woodpecker holding it with one foot while attacking the stalk until it breaks. After wedging the cone in the anvil it is worked by rotation at regular intervals in order to obtain the seeds from all sides. An ornithologist recorded a single woodpecker which used two adjacent anvil trees and dealt with some 2000 cones in a single winter.

When hidden by the foliage, its presence is often advertised by the mechanical drumming, a vibrating rattle, produced by the rapidly repeated blows of strong bill upon a trunk or branch. This is not merely a mating call or challenge, but a signal of either sex. It is audible from a great distance, depending on the wind and the condition of the wood, a hollow bough naturally producing a louder note than living wood. The call is a sharp quet, quet.

Great woodpecker has like other woodpeckers some adjustments for its special habits. A unique cranium-construction does that the bird gets no concussion from drumming. This work combined with opening the cones in winter wear out the horn of the beak - and three beak-lengths are worn out during one year.

Great Woodpecker/Dansk Ornitologisk Forening

photo 2007: grethe bachmann

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Winter Solstice in the Ancient North

Latin: Solstice = Standing-still-sun.
Danish: Vintersolhverv, Solhverv from Old Norse: hverfa = vende (turn).

The winter solstice marks a crucial part of the natural cycle. In a real sense, the sun begins to renew its journey toward longer days, times of new growth and renewal of the world once again. In a spiritual sense, it is a reminder that in order for a new path to begin the old one must end and that spring will come again. No one is really sure how long ago humans recognized the winter solstice and began heralding it as a turning point - a day that marks the return of the sun. The ancient fear was that the failing light would never return unless humans intervened with celebrations.

According to ancient belief people thought that everything fastened would loosen in the moment the sun turned at winter solstice. It was strictly forbidden to do some work which required to turn round something.

Poskær Dyssen, Djursland
In old times the evening of dec. 21. was called Mother's Night and the feast Jólablot (Christmas Ceremony) began. This big blót or feast was held for several days. The number of days varies from source to source and the days have presumably adjusted to regional circumstances, since the feast lasted, until all the brewed mead had been consumed. In Olaf Haraldsson's Saga is described, how two brothers-in-law spent half Christmas in one brother's house and the other half in the other's. People went Christmas visiting like people do today (jólavist), and they had Christmas lunch (jólabod). The purpose of the days of Christmas was to celebrate a fertile and peaceful (jólafridh) year.
When king Olaf's skjald Sigvard in the beginning of the 11th century was on a travel in Norway and Värmland, he experienced that people sacrificed to the elves; they were also worshipped in connection to winter solstice, which from ancient days was a feast for the deceased. The elf cult might have been a death cult, but there are some disagreements among experts about this theory. In several sources is mentioned that the elves lived in hills, and most legends about the underground elves are connected to burial mounds or to places of executions, and maybe also where murders had been committed.

Yggdrasil (Old Norse) The World's Tree, Yggdrasil ("Odin's Support") was the link between the humans upon Mother Earth and the ancestors/the gods in Heaven. It is the ash tree - because of the production of "honey dew" for mead - which is considered to be the World's Tree. During the celebration of winter solstice (jólahald) , a pine was until 1810 used as an outdoor Christmas tree/ World's Tree.

The winter solstice, also known as Midwinter, occurs around December 21 or 22 each year in the Northern hemisphere, and June 20 or 21 in the Southern Hemisphere. It occurs on the shortest day or longest night of the year, sometimes said to astronomically mark the beginning or middle of a hemisphere's winter. The word solstice derives from Latin, Winter Solstice meaning Sun set still in winter. Worldwide, interpretation of the event varies from culture to culture, but most hold a recognition of rebirth, involving festivals, gatherings, rituals or other celebrations. Many cultures celebrate or celebrated a holiday near the winter solstice; examples of these include Christmas, Hanukkah,Kwanzaa, New Years, Pongal, Yalda and many other festivals of light.

The solstice itself may have remained a special moment of the annual cycle of the year since neolithic times. This is attested by physical remains in the layouts of late Neolithic and Bronze Age archeological sites like Stonehenge and New Grange in the British Isles. The primary axes of both of these monuments seem to have been carefully aligned on a sight-line framing the winter solstice sunrise (New Grange) and the winter solstice sunset (Stonehenge). The winter solstice may have been immensely important because communities were not assured to live through the winter, and had to be prepared during the previous nine months. Starvation was common in winter between January to April, also known as the famine months.

In temperate climates, the midwinter festival was the last feast celebration, before deep winter began. Most cattle were slaughtered so they would not have to be fed during the winter - it was nearly the only time of year when a supply of fresh meat was available. The majority of wine and beer made during the year was finally fermented and ready for drinking at this time. The concentration of the observances were not always on the day commencing at midnight or at dawn, but the beginning of the pre-Romanized day, which falls on the previous eve.

photo Mindeparken/Poskær stenhus: grethe bachmann

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Iceland Pony

The Iceland Pony descends from the horses brought to Iceland by the Vikings, when they settled in Iceland in the 9th and 10th century. Supposedly the Vikings brought with them horses various in looks and colours, and therefore the Iceland horse breed has such a fine colour variation today. There hasn't been any import of horses to Iceland since the Viking-period, and therefore this unique horse breed exists today - the original thorough breed of Scandinavia.

Those Viking horses have through centuries lived in a tough climate which made them healthy and tough, and the Icelanders' demand for a versatile horse for transport has created an unusual reliable, strong and comfortable horse , incredibly safe on its legs and with lots of temper and will to run.

In ab. 1920 they began to write closed studbooks, which have to be traced back to Iceland. There have been no new blood in the Icelandic pony since 1240. An Iceland pony must of course have an Icelandic name, therefore people often use words from the Icelandic language, which describe colour or state of mind, or names from Norse mythology or from the nature in Iceland.

The Iceland Pony is first of all a horse for everyday use, where the riding abilities are the most essential. It has to be brave and independent, willing and cooperative. It has to be easy to keep, it must have a good adaptability and first of all - a good disposition. All in all - a fantastic and pretty little horse. Good for both children and grown-ups. No wonder it was the Viking's horse - and no wonder it is still so popular today.

photo Strands, Begtrup Vig, Mols August 2007: grethe bachmann
A Medieval Banquet at the Bishop's House

Spøttrup, a bishop's castle, North Jutland

The chancellor started the banquet by saying grace, and later the curate read from the Holy Scripture. During dinner was entertainment by folk musicians with fifes and drums and some appeareances by the jester. It was a principal concept to let music and other cultural experiences accompany a high gastronomic cuisine. The ten-course dinner was served in several dining rooms in the hishop's house. The bishop himself was dining in the biggest room ('borgstuen') together with his highly trusted staff and special guests. Only the bishop was served every course on a daily basis, but on a big festival all courses were shared by everyone.

Table cloth in several layers covered the tables in the dining rooms. The service were mainly ceramics or wood and eventual pewter, and the cutlery were knives, spoons and the fingers, since the fork had not yet arrived. Glass ware was seldom in use by the Norse Tables, as people had a bad habit of crushing the valuable glass after drinking. A cupbearer, called the 'Kredens', had the job to cut meat and bread - and also to taste food and drink, before it was served to the bishop and the party. A comprehensive domestic staff was present at a ceremony like this; they were young men from the nobility. This was a part of their good breeding in order to be able to serve Royal visitors and other VIPs in the most distinguished way in their own manor one day.

The water bowl for dipping hands at some special parties today is not a new invention. During and after meals servants carried basins with rose water and towels for the party to have their hands washed and dried. Between meals several festive sights were shown to the guests. Servants carried along magnificent show dishes, large decorated centrepieces with peacocks and other animals, together with decorated patés with ingenious lids, indicating the contents.

Example of a menu:
1) spit-roast leg of lamb (spices: thyme, sage, parsley, cinnamon, garlic, wine vinegar, salt)
2) wine soup (egg yolks, sugar, grated nutmeg, saffron, white wine, a stick of cinnamon, grated ginger, butter roasted bread squares)
3) boiled beed (salt, vinegar, chopped sage)
4) poched eggs
5) fried venison tenderloin (fresh ginger, pepper, salt, butter, venisonstock, white bread without crust)
6) boiled pike ( Hamburg parsley, parsley, white bread without crust, white wine, white vinegar, fresh grated ginger, white pepper, crushed cinnamon, sugar, cloves and saffron)
7) paté venison (deer shoulder, fat, salt, black pepper, fresh ginger)
8) fried pigeons ( butter, vinegar, red wine, fresh ginger, a stick of cinnamon, black pepper, sugar, salt, saffron, white bread without crust)
9) fresh cheese
10) fig dessert ( dried figs, evt. mead, white bread without crust, almonds, currants, fresh grated ginger, a stick of cinnamon, sugar, saffron, whipped cream)

For some courses were served vegetables, i.e. all sorts of root and leguminous fruits and cabbage, and leek, onion, garlic. Some of the bread, served for religious feasts were small 'sacred' breads.

Spøttrup, a bishop's castle, North Jutland

Herbs and Spices.
Common medicine plants in Denmark in the Middle Ages were angelica, parsley, chives, horse-radish, Danish cumin, mustard, dill, fennel, cress, dandelion etc. Some other herbs, used to grow in warmer climate, arrived with the monks, who cultivated them in the closter gardens from about 1100s; they were rosemary, basil, lavender, hyssop, savory, marjoram, oregano, currant, sage, thyme, borage, curled mint, peppermint and lovage. The Oriental spices arrived to the North via the Hansa. Black pepper seems to have been most widely spread. Bachelors worked for the Hansa selling pepper and other spices, and they were not allowed to marry. From this custom origins the Danish expression 'Pebersvend' (Pepper Boy). The word Pebersvend is still in use in Denmark, and if a guy is not yet married on his 30th birthday, then his presents might still be some fine pepper pots.

All these herbs and spices are mentioned in the Danish physician Henrik Harpestræng's herbal book, but there is no doubt that only very well-off people could afford such luxury. In the Middle Ages pepper and other Oriental spices were very precious, and spices like saffron , cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, mace, cardamom, ginger etc. were imported to Denmark in a limited quantity. In the Danish king Christoffer III of Bayern's court accounts from 1447 is told about some purchase of precious spices for a festival.

The doctors at court were very important. From medieval courts at Richard II of England and Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, is described how the doctor at court had to take care of the prince and his family's good health.The doctor and the cooks prepared the food together, and the choice of medicinal herbs played a big part, since they contributed to give the course an intentional balance. During dinner the doctor stood by the prince's table, where he gave instructions as to the proper composition concerning the well-being of the prince.

But there were also other reasons for taking care of the prince and other important persons by the dinner table. A serious problem was the safety around food and drinks, as the period was known for poisoning royalties and other significant people. The 'Kredens' /cupbearer had to taste all food and drinks, before they were served. A preventive means, an antidote, Theriak, was placed upon the table in a fine vessel, often formed like a ship and made in silver, but also the salt and pepper were being watched over. The salt vessel had to be covered, and between meals it was kept in the 'Silver Chamber'.

Theriak was an Arabic invention from the late 1100s, which is also described in the Danish physician Henrik Smith's herbal book. It consisted of birthwort (Aristolochia) , gentian, laurel, the best and noblest myrrh and honey. The original Arabic theriak contained snake, but this was replaced by crushed powder from the strong and poisonous herb birthwort. (Danish name: slangerod =snake's root) It was also a common advise to use the powder of the root against snake bites and as an emetic. In the morning it was recommended to take theriak in the size of a hazelnut. This would protect humans from plague etc., and it was said in general to be suitable for both man and beast.

Medicine puré:
Some medicine puré mentioned in a medical adviser like 'Conserva' and 'Electuarum' and 'Latverge' (German) showed to be a forerunner for today's assorted chocolates and other goodies. In Queen Christina's court accounts from 1510-12 was bought cinnamon- and ginger candy, almond- and anis candy etc. Henrik Smith's collection of recipes from 1546 gave common people the opportunity to make these goodies themselves. A medicine puré could be barley groat puré with figs and raisins, cooked with water into a consistency like a thick syrup, and when cool, sprayed with grounded cinnamon - and maybe served with crême fraiche!

Source: Bente Leed: Danskernes mad i middelalderen, 1999.

photo Spøttrup: grethe bachmann

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Vejlerne, North Jutland

Marsh harrier

Vejlerne is a huge nature area situated between Lønnerup fjord to the west, Lund fjord to the north, Bygholm Vejle to the east and Limfjorden to the south. The area is about 6000 hectare, and it covers various nature types like meadow, reed wood, moor and fjord. The many fjords in the area were earlier connected to Limfjorden, and the areas with the byname Vejle (Bygholm Vejle, Arup Vejle, Krap Vejle etc) were a section of the waters close to the coasts of Limfjorden.

A drainage project had its beginning in 1866. Engineers, entrepreneurs, landowners tried with lesser succes during 40 years to drain the low waters of Limfjorden (Østerild fjord, Vesløs/Arup Vejle, Tømmerby fjord, Lund fjord and Bygholm Vejle), but they had to give up after having fought against weather, wind and the power of nature - and at last they had to admit that it was an almost impossible task to drain the earlier sea-bed.(with the technique from those days).

Krap Vejle

Krap Vejle, I heard but didn't see the Eurasian bittern

Krap Vejle, a young one

The area has since the stop of the drainage project been laid out as a protected nature reserve with national and international rules, and it is now assigned to the rules for EU-bird-protection-areas, Ramsar- areas and hunting-free areas. The varied nature in Vejlerne has a special chapter of Danish history, and many books have been written about the flora and fauna in this district. The area is now almost untouched, except the yearly cattle grazing and mowing in the largest meadow areas.

Vejlerne are visited all year by large bird populations. The amounts of ice and snow in winter decide how many birds are in the area. If the winter is mild there will be large flocks of pink-footed goose and whooper swan, various ducks and over wintering birds of prey, like blue harrier, white-tailed eagle and peregrine falcon. Upon meadows and fields are flocks of snow buntings and shore larks. If the winter is hard, Vejlerne might not be rich in birds.

Kærup Holme

Kærup Holme, a view from the tower

Kærup Holme, a nice little family

In spring come large populations of ducks if the waterlevels are ideal. Numerous are i.e. widgeon and teal. The pink-footed goose culminate in March, the same does the barnacle-goose. The spring migration guests arrive at the same time, Eurasian spoonbill, Common Crane, Black-tailed godwit and Pied Avocet. The wading birds' spring migration are dominated by various sandpipers, Eurasian golden plover, ruffs. Temminck's stint has one of the best localities in Vejlerne. As for breeding birds Vejlerne is unique, since the area has some of the most important populations of Eurasian bittern, greylag goose, spotted crake, common dunlin, black-tailed godwit, pied avocet, ruff, and black Tern. Little gull breeds occassionally.

Bygholm Vejle, a popular place for bird watching.

Bygholm Vejle, two towers connected

Bygholm Vejle, cattle-grazing

Bygholm Vejle, geese

Bygholm Vejle, Mute swan

During summer the birds are dominated by wading birds, common shelduck, and usually seen little egret, great egret, Caspian tern etc. At the same time the Eurasian spoonbills arrive from the breeding place in Nibe bredning and gather at the meadow in Bygholm Vejle with their young ones. More than 100 birds at the same time (200/ 162). Little gulls are often numerous in Kærup Holme area. Late summer come more and more cranes and they culminate usually in the end of September or start of October with up till 121 birds (in 2006). The cranes are easiest to see from the Kraptårnet, where they come flying across the Bygholm meadow for overnighting or fouraging in the fields east of Vejlerne. Autumn is like spring, but often the populations are much larger, i.e. up till 40.000 ducks, 13.000 greylag geese and 18.000 golden plovers. Peregrine falcon is seen regularly and up till nine have been seen at the same time on a September's day. In September and October are large numbers of bearded tits with their characteristic flying up and down.

Over 300 various bird species are seen in Vejlerne, the list of accidental guests is very long. American bittern, black-crowned night heron, purple heron, glossy ibis, red-breasted goose, blue-winged teal, Braillon's crake, Demoiselle crane, black-necked stilt, collared pratincole, black-winged pratincole, American golden plover, white-tailed lapwing, stilt sandpiper, lesser yellowleg, long-billed dowitcher, whiskered tern, snowy owl, red-rumped swallow, Blyth's pipit, citrine wagtail , Siberian stonechat, White's thrush, Pallas's warbler, lesser grey shrike, rosy starling, rustic bunting, little bunting - just to mention a few.

Vejlerne: grethe bachmann