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Category: History

Rome – City of Emperors, God and la Dolce Vita…

RomeAlthough 21st century Rome is a living museum of centuries of history and culture, it is a modern city that is as much about the people who live here now as it is about those who lived here in the past.

So whether that’s the hip dude in his sharp suit and Armani sunglasses with his pretty amore in her Dolce e Gabbana outfit, staggering heels and toy dog tucked under her arm, or  the duo of elderly matrons with their wheelie shopping bags, gossiping on their way back from market, or a flock of nuns in their white habits stopping for refreshments at the local café, they all typify Roman life against a backdrop that seems straight out a movie set.

Of all European cities, Rome is the ‘one stop shop’ of the entire history of Western civilisation, a layer cake if you like, with each era added on alongside or on top of the previous one, and all in the space of a few square miles. The sheer amount of history and culture, from Emperors and God to incredible art, sculpture, and architecture would weigh down the communal mindset if we were anywhere but Italy, causing the locals to take themselves seriously and reverently.

But it doesn’t.

Instead, Rome is a city of fun and passion, light heartedness, in your face fashionistas and good living (la dolce vita to be sure). It’s a city of immense depth and beauty and significance, but it’s also a manageable city, a city you can easily explore on foot without losing yourself.

The periods butt up against each other good-naturedly, forming an architectural pattern that is reminiscent of a patchwork quilt created over a long lifetime: that piece of Imperial Roman Villa in the wall of that beautiful 15th Century palace, that pagan temple cut and adjusted to accommodate that Baroque church, and that gorgeous picture window and roof garden cut into the roof of a medieval tenement overlooking that fabulous landmark, all with shining gems scattered throughout, such as the Trevi fountain, the theatrical stage set that is the Piazza Navona, and the beautiful Pantheon.

In fact, absolutely everywhere you look there is something amazing, so plan on ambling between key points of interests so you don’t miss anything… that roof garden above your head… a fabulous fountain… cherubs carved into a street corner… an alter to the Virgin Mary tucked in a tiny archway… a view through a doorway into an oasis of a courtyard. And luckily some of the most amazing are all within a relatively small area, so getting your fill of incredible art and architecture is easily achieved just by strolling your way through a long weekend.

Piazza NavonaThe History of Rome

According to legend, the twins Romulus and Remus founded the City of Rome in 753 BC. The city was the cradle of Roman civilization, producing the most enduring empire in the known history of the world, and responsible for the spread of Greco-Roman culture that endures throughout much of the world to this day. Rome is also the home of the Catholic Church, and the State of the Vatican City, lying within the boundaries of Rome, is the smallest independent nation in the world at 44 hectares (108.7 acres), and has it’s own radio station, publishing house, newspaper, and postal service.

Spread across its seven hills, and buzzing with life and activity, 21st century Rome is thoroughly modern and cosmopolitan. As one of the few major European cities that escaped World War II relatively unscathed, central Rome remains essentially Renaissance and Baroque in character, through which you can catch glimpses of the other eras that have shaped it.

Etrusan Rome

Collections of artifacts from Rome’s earliest period of settlement from 800-500BC, including fabulous jewellery, can be seen in the Vatican Museum. Most famously, the bronze statue of the She-Wolf who legend tells as suckling Romulus and Remus after their evil uncle tried to drown them in the Tiber, can be seen in the Capitoline Museum, as well as in replica on signs and buildings throughout the city. The 16th century Villa Giulia in the Campo de’ Fiori area houses an amazing collection of Etruscan tomb artifacts, and the detail and craftsmanship of this artwork from 2,800 years ago will absolutely astonish you – you’ve never seen stuff so old looking so good!

Roman Republic 500-44BC

During the Republican period, Rome’s troops conquered the surrounding tribes and her skilled engineers developed the city itself to accommodate the increasing population. While most of what remains lies underground, like the Tomb of Scipios in the Caracalla district, you can also see remains above ground at the Area Sacra at the Largo di Torre Argentina, the square on the corner of the Campo de’ Fiori area at the top of Via Arenula.

The Ponte Fabricio, located at the edge of the Ghetto on the far eastern corner of the Campo de’ Fiori area, also dates from this era. This bridge was built to link Rome to the Isola Tiberina (Tiber Island), where the sick were sent in to quarantine. There is still a hospital, as well as a beautiful medieval church, St Bartolomeo all’Isola, on the island, and from here you can carry on across to medieval Trastevere, so it’s a great place to see the different layers of Rome all together, including modern Romans sunbathing and playing frisbee.

Imperial Rome

Caesar was assassinated a mere month after he became dictator in 44BC and so began a civil war that ended 17 years later with the formation of Imperial Rome, headed up by the first Emperor, Augustus.

By the 3rd century, the Roman Empire was immense, spreading from Britain in the north to Africa in the south, and this richness and diversity was reflected and celebrated in lavish buildings throughout Rome, as well as in the proliferation of goods and jewellery.

The Colosseum, Rome

The Colosseum, Rome

There remain relics of the period throughout the city, such as in the Jewish ghetto quarter where you can see the remains of the Porto of Octavia, but the sheer magnificence of the time of the Emperors is undoubtedly best conveyed by the Pantheon and the Colosseum.

Early Christian Rome

From the 1st century onwards, Jesus’ teachings of a religion based on ‘One God’ rather than ‘Many Gods’ spread slowly from the outskirts of the Roman Empire. At first Christians were persecuted, yet slowly the new religion gained in converts until it had permeated right to the top of Roman hierarchy by the 4th century, when the first Christian Pope was appointed as Head of State. There are many beautiful churches from the period, many of them converted Roman temples or built on the site of martyrs, such as that of St Cecilia in Trastevere. St Cecilia, patron saint of music (because she sang throughout the hours it took to kill her), was an aristocrat who was martyred here in AD230, and her house can still be seen beneath the gem-like church that was built in her memory in the 4th century.

Medieval Rome

As power shifted east from Rome to Constantinople (modern day Istanbul) in the 4th century, Rome’s population plummeted to a few thousand inhabitants. Throughout the Middle Ages, the importance of the papacy kept the city alive, although violent conflicts and invasions throughout the 10th, 11th and 12th centuries took their toll, resulting in the papacy moving to Avignon in France in 1309. Regardless of the conflicts, many fine churches were built, including Rome’s only remaining Gothic church, Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, near the Pantheon.

Renaissance and Baroque Rome

The Middle Ages saw a shift back towards wealth and power for Rome, but this time it centred on religion rather than political or armed force. The papacy inspired some of the finest artists and craftsmen to work for the glorification of God, leaving an amazing legacy, such as the Sistine Chapel and its frescoes, plus many other fabulous works by such giants as Michelangelo, Bernini, and Botticelli.

Unified Rome

The civil war in Rome in the 1820s centred on the fight to make Rome the capital of Italy and unify the country as a single entity. The rebels eventually succeeded in storming the city wall near Porta Pia, the Pope retreated and Rome was made the Italian capital. Italy’s first King, Victor Emmanuel, was crowned in 1861 and the Victor Emmanuel Monument was completed in 1911. Known rather insultingly as the ‘wedding cake’ or ‘typewriter’, this austere white marble building is one of modern central Rome’s landmarks – there seems to be no point in the City where you can’t spot one or both of the white winged charioteers on top of its two columns, which is great for orientating yourself.

Getting there

There are daily flights to Rome from all the major UK airports: check out Air Alitalia and BA for direct flights; the flight takes about 2.5 hours and you can expect to pay about £150 return. Once you arrive, you can take the train into the centre of the city (€11 euros; takes nearly an hour), which is a great way to get the feel of Rome, although the bustle and confusion of the main train station once you arrive can be off-putting, especially if you don’t speak Italian.

A taxi from the airport to the city centre will cost about €50, with extra charges for lots of luggage and Sunday pick ups, although it does have the advantage of taking you door-to-door and can actually be the cheaper option if there is more than one of you.

If you book in advance you can arrive in style in a Mercedes, as well as it often being a little bit cheaper than an ad hoc taxi – try U.A.R.A. (www.limousineuara.com) or Nando Cese (he speaks decent English) at Limousine Service (Italy +347 8200487).

Tips and recommendations

It’s a friendly place, Rome. The people smile a lot and most will go out of their way to help you. It’s generally clean and extremely civilised, with few of the usual beggars or menacing gangs of youths you can come across in the centres of other cities. The roads are fast and furious, for sure, and the average Italian driver does seem to have a death wish on first glance, but even this is more part of the bravado of the Roman psyche than any desire to do you real harm (even the police ride around on their bikes with their arms in the air!). Act as confidently as they do, swagger your way across the road when you have every right to, and all will be well.

The bus service is okay and once you’re familiar with where you are staying it can be a great way to get ‘home’ if you are fed up with walking at the end of the day, although they can be crowded and when they arrive can be more down to personal whim than the timetable! The metro system is limited and somewhat chaotic, as ancient ruins keep getting unearthed every time the city tries to build an extension!

Many guides include a bus and metro map, which is helpful, and bus and subway tickets are interchangeable. These can be purchased at tobacco shops (tabacchis), news stands, and some bars. Ticket vending machines are also located in stations, on street corners, and at major bus stops. Keep an eye out for the ‘ATAC’ logo. Tickets cost €1 and are valid for either one Metro ride or unlimited bus travel within 75 minutes of validation. A Biglietto Integrato Giornaliero (BIG) ticket allows for unlimited bus or train travel within one day and costs €4. A Biglietto Turistico Integrato (BTI, or a three-day tourist ticket) costs €11.

Taxis are everywhere and very convenient, but will cost you more – there’s a minimum charge of €2.50 during the day and roughly €5 after 10pm, plus a 10% tip as standard.

At most of the major attractions you will also find horse-drawn carriages (carrozzelle) patiently waiting. These will take you from site to site, or can be hired for an hour, half days, or full days. They carry up to five people and the price can be negotiable, especially for longer trips, but do make sure you understand whether it is per person, per hour or for the full trip before moving off.

You can also hire scooters if you want to pretend you’re starring in ‘Roman Holiday’! They, and the helmets, can be hired by the day, and they can be delivered to wherever you want – try www.scooterhire.it for further details.

However, if you are staying in the centre you are unlikely to need to take any transportation at all. Everything major is situated so cheek-by-jowl that walking is the very best way to get around. It also means you get to see the hidden gems and immerse yourself in Roman life.

One word of warning – the entire centre of Rome is cobbled, but the infilling between most of the cobbles has worn away over time, which makes them deadly for walking on in any sort of heel. You will see the diplomatic wives and fashionistas slowly tiptoeing their way down the streets in their stilettos, but it’s not a good move if you want to cover more than one street per day! So ladies, ditch your heels in favour of flat boots, pumps, or trainers.

Walking boots are practical but look so out of place given the overall stylishness of Rome that you may want to give them a miss. And if you haven’t anything flat, funky and comfy in the footware department, don’t worry, Rome has loads of shops specialising in just that type of footware (how else do you think the locals cope?) – try along the Via Giubbonari in Campo de’ Fiori for starters.

So what are you waiting for?
Grab your most stylish clothes and funkiest shoes, pack your guidebook and your sense of adventure, and make an appointment with yourself and a significant other to go on the most passionate, lighthearted and cultural weekend of your life.

Just one word of warning: Once you’ve been to Rome you will want to visit again and again and again because, yes, it truly hold the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven.


© Claire Burdett.

First published in Citylife magazine, 2008. Photos taken by myself and Frank Tyson to go with this article can be seen at http://www.flickr.com/photos/funkyangelclaire/sets/72157622213506899/


The Train Line

The fastest train so far, The Maglev, is powered by magnets

The fastest train so far, The Maglev, is powered by magnets

The history of trains is beloved of every young trainspotter and uber-geek, and it does make fantastic reading.

From the revolutionary Rocket through to the high speed journeys of the Mallard and the Flying Scotsman, Japan’s sleek electric Bullet and France’s pride and joy, the TVRs, and on to the mindblowingly-fast Maglev, it is true to say that train travel has come along way, baby.

Of them all, the world’s fastest train, the Maglev, is perhaps the longest- and most eagerly- awaited. Because despite it being a frankly futuristic concept of a train running on magnetic tracks, there has been an astonishing seven decades between the first (German) patent in 1934 and the first commercial service launched in Shanghai, China, in 2004. Other commercially operated lines now exist in Japan, most famously the Linimo, a magnetic levitation train line in Aichi, near the city of Nagoya.

Unbelievably quiet apart from the ‘whoosh’ of air as it passes, the sleek Maglev train ‘flies’ – yes, it really is officially described as flying – at an incredible 300 kilometres per hour in two minutes flat, tops 400 kph in three minutes, and has been known to go over 500kph during test runs. That’s just over two hours from Paris to Rome, making it only 10 minutes slower than taking the plane!

Ahhh, the plane, yes, that’s what it reminds you of, because despite having no wings (or engine or wheels either, but more of that later), the Maglev is much more like a plane than it is a train, and so is as revolutionary as the Stephenson’s Rocket was back in 1829. Transrapid, the German firm that developed the system, describes the Maglev as “the first fundamental innovation in the field of railway technology since the invention of the railway.”

So how does it do it? Maglev is short for magnetic levitation, and magnets are the magic ingredients. In practice this means that the trains float a centimetre above the guideway that replace the old train tracks using the basic principles of magnets. Known as electromagnetic suspension (EMS), it’s just like the science you did at school or when you played around with those ladybird or frog magnets when you were a kid – basically the opposite poles attract and the like poles repel each other. Electromagnets are similar to other magnets in that they attract metal objects, but the magnetic pull is temporary, and the magnetic field that this creates is how the Maglev train rail system works. Even its components are simple, comprising of:

• A large electrical power source (no conventional engine)

• Metal coils lining the guideway (no overhead cables)

• Large guidance magnets attached to the underside of the train (no wheels)

No conventional engine, huh? So how does it move? Back to your frog magnetic ‘running’ (ie being pushed) away from it’s twin across your school desk. Basically the train runs the same way – the magnetic field created by the electrified coils in the guideway walls and the track combine to propel the train as it floats on a cushion of air. And that completely eliminates friction, which when combined with the trains’ aerodynamic design allows these trains to reach unprecedented ground transportation speeds.

The best-known high-speed maglev currently operating commercially is the IOS (initial operating segment) demonstration line of the German-built Transrapid train in Shanghai, China, that transports people 30 km (18.6 miles) to the airport in just 7 minutes 20 seconds, achieving a top velocity of 431 km/h (268 mph), averaging 250 km/h (150 mph).

However, all of the operational implementations of maglev technology have had little, or no, overlap with wheeled train technology and so are not compatible with conventional rail tracks. Consequently, Maglevs must be designed as new and complete transportation systems, which have proved one of the main stumbling blocks to their development to date.

So why with all this exciting futuristic train travel in other parts of the world, why hasn’t a new age of the train dawned right here in Britain? Let’s not go in to another “Britain is rubbish” fest here, because it simply isn’t true, despite the inescapable dire state of our nation’s railway. It’s simply that we pushed out the frontiers of the train so fast and so early that is an engineering, logistical and financial nightmare to add electric cabling, such as is needed for the TVRs, to most of our existing railways because of the tunnels and bridges and other factors.

Just think of Victorian technological breakthroughs, such as Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s extension to the Great Western Railway along the south Devon coast to Plymouth, which still uses a system of five tunnels through cliffs and a four-mile sea wall, and you’ll understand the engineering problems inherent in converting our train system. Basically the whole thing needs scrapping and rebuilding, instead of patching and adapting, and the cost of that would be prohibitive. So probably not something that is likely to happen in our lifetime.

However, in the here and now, countries like China, the United States or Australia, where there is a vast expanse of open country largely unconnected by train, could easily opt for a Maglev system. And let’s not forget that the Maglev is pollution-free, so if the megapowers take advantage of its technology, at least it will benefit the rest of us at the same time, even if we can’t just step on and enjoy the flight.

© Claire Burdett. Please only reproduce this article with permission, in its entirety and with a hyperlink to www.claireburdett.com. Thank you.


The History of the Easter Bunny

History of the Easter Bunny

History of the Easter Bunny

The cute white rabbit used so frequently as a symbol of Easter has its roots in the pagan fertility festivals celebrated at the time of the Spring equinox. The rabbit was actually a hare, an animal that was traditonally seen as being sacred and mystical.

The hare was often associated with moon and goddesses in the ancient world, and was the symbol of the Egyptian moon. The hare was always been portrayed with its eyes open, watching the moon.

In fact, the Egyptian word for hare is ‘un’ which means ‘open’. Hares are born with their eyes open, rabbits are born with them closed. The hare was also considered a symbol of fertility, and specifically signifying spring and rebirth.

Mad March Hares
It is probably not a coincidence that it is at this time of year that the usually shy and solitary animals suddenly become highly visible as the bucks leap and fight each other for the does, when they are collectively called ‘Mad March Hares’, hence the saying “As mad as a March hare”.

Oschter Haws
When German settlers arrived in America, they brought with them the legend of ‘Oschter Haws’, the white Easter Hare. Children behaved themselves in the lead up to Easter, believing that, if they were good, Oschter Haws would lay colourful eggs (which were the symbols of rebirth) for them in a nest the children had provided, usually in a secluded place in the home, the barn or the garden. Boys would use their caps and girls their bonnets to make the nests. The use of elaborate Easter baskets would come later as the tradition of the Easter bunny spread throughout the country. The arrival of ‘Oschter Haws’ was considered “childhood’s greatest pleasure” next to a visit from Christ-Kindel on Christmas Eve.

Traditionally German children are told that it is the Easter hare that lays all the Easter eggs. In order for the Easter hare to come to the house with the eggs, the children are encouraged to make a soup from green leaves specially for the hare. Without it, the Easter hare will not come into the garden and build the special egg nests needed. The Easter hare is believed to colour the eggs, making the dyes by lighting little bonfires and heating water with flowers and grasses. The luckiest child was the one who received an Easter hare’s egg that hatched to find a baby bird with the head of a hare. As you might expect this was very rare! If the child has been naughty it was likely that he or she would find nothing but hare droppings in the nest. Nowadays most children find the more modern form of chocolate Easter eggs they go on an egg hunt in the garden.

Hares lay eggs?
The legend that suggests the hare lays the eggs is something most people find absurd, but it is believed that this idea may stem from the fact that a bird known as a plover, which would often make a nest on the ground near to a hare’s form (which lies above the ground, unlike a rabbit’s burrow, which is below ground. If, for some reason, the hare deserted its form, it is known that the plover will hijack the form and lay its eggs in comfort, so perhaps this is how the myth came about.

Chocolate bunnies
By the 19th Century, the ‘Easter Hare’ had become the ‘Easter Rabbit’. American families would later adapt the nest tradition, using baskets, chocolate, and money. Easter itself was not widely celebrated until after the Civil War, and the arrival of the Easter Bunny in the UK happened after the 2nd World War. In Australia, they hate rabbits because when rabbits were introduced they quickly became an ecological disaster. There have been recent attempts to replace the Easter bunny with the Easter bilby, a small marsupial.

The first edible Easter bunnies, made out of pastry and sugar, were made in Germany during the early 1800s, and chocolate Easter bunnies are now nearly as popular as chocolate Easter eggs.

© Claire Burdett. Please only reproduce this article with permission, in its entirety and with a hyperlink to www.claireburdett.com. Thank you.

First published by Primary Times, 2007. Reproduced on www.funkyangel.co.uk, the ultimate lifestyle website for WAHM and Home Businesses, 2008.


The Great British Pub

The great British pub

The great British pub

For most Brits, think summer and the image of sitting outside your favourite pub with a glass of something thirst quenching in your hand will immediately flash into your head. Ahh the pub… it’s such an institution it’s almost a way of life, and actually, in the past this was true because the life of whole communities would centre on the pub, from trade or society headquarters, village meeting place, and local banking services.

This is reflected in many of the pub names that survive to this day, as is the nature of what they sold, where they sold it, as well as cultural, historical and the political events. Pub names are, in fact, an amazing open book of our history and culture.

The word “pub” is actually a constriction of the Victorian term, public house, while the first recorded drinking houses were the taveners set up by the Romans in the 1-4th centuries, where either beer or wine, or both, were sold.

These would have been advertised by placing objects representing the drink they served outside the building – so hops for beer (“The Hop Pole”) or vine leaves for wine, although in reality this would have been a bush of anything green in Britain since our climate didn’t support vines (“The Green Bush”), and (mainly female) publicans would have continued doing this throughout the Middle Ages as painted inn signs were far from commonplace, hence you might find have seen a boot strung up outside a house that sold its ale, or a copper kettle, perhaps even a harrow or a plough.

Pubs that were built near a theatre, or frequented by the actors, became known as “The Globe” in honour of Shakespeare’s theatre, while the Rampant Cat is actually another name for the heraldic lion of England and British royalty, as is the Red Lion, which is one of the most popular pub names in England, along with The Crown and the Royal Oak. The latter is a reference to the historical myth of King Charles I hiding up an oak tree to evade capture by the Roundheads. It seems the English are an inherently Royalist nation, not withstanding the Civil War, or perhaps they are just pragmatic.

In Wales we often find the patriotic ‘Red Dragon’ of Prince Cadwaladr and the symbol of Wales, while in England there is the ‘George and the Dragon’, named after the patron saint, and the ‘Green Man’, named after a more ancient sacred spirit, the spirit of the land, known as ‘Jack of the Green’ or the ‘Will of the Wisp’, which links with the stories acted out by traditional Morris Dancers and Mummers.

Publicans were also savvy about whom and what had an influence on their trade…so a pub with ‘arms’ (short for ‘coat of arms’) in the name reflected the landowner on whose land the pub stood or where the allegiance of the owner lay. The trades that drank in the pub were often behind the name, too – so we find ‘Coopers Arms’ for example, which would be the pub where coopers (barrel makers from a nearby brewery) came and drank, and which was on the land of a particular lord. Equally we often find pubs simply named after bricklayers, masons, carpenters, blacksmiths, and other trades and manual work, although rarely lawyers, accountants, or scribes, which probably says more about the numbers of people employed in certain occupations rather than any inherent pub snobbery! Many pub names starting with the word ‘Three’ are usually based on the arms of one of the 12 great London Livery Companies (trade guilds), so we find:

• Three Arrows: The Worshipful Company of Fletchers
• Three Bucks: Leathersellers
• Three Castles: Masons
• Three Compasses: Carpenters
• Three Crowns: Drapers, although it can also refer to the Magi who visited the Christ child
• Three Cups: Salters
• Three Goats’ Heads: Cordwainers (makers of shoes and leather goods)
• Three Hammers: Blacksmiths
• Three Horseshoes: Farriers
•Three Tuns: Brewers and Vinters (wine makers)
• Three Wheatsheafs: Bakers

What services the pub offered could also be reflected in the name, such as ‘Checkers’ or ‘Chequers’, which originated in ancient Rome when a chequer board indicated that a bar also provided banking services. The checked board was use as an aid to counting and is the origin of the word exchequer. The ‘Coach and Horses’ is a very common name that reflects that fact that the pub was also a coaching inn (had stabling and lodgings).

In Ireland pubs are frequently named after the publican as much as for the trade or in honour or something, so you find a lot of O’Leary’s and O’Donovan’s, and these can also mutate into nicknames, as in the case of the two ‘Grumpy’ pubs that are found in Dublin!

So, we have the pub, we hope for the weather…now let’s get the drinks in.

© Claire Burdett. Please only reproduce this article with permission, in its entirety and with a hyperlink to www.claireburdett.com. Thank you.

First published in Citylife magazine, 2008.


History of The Easter Egg

History of the Easter Egg

Decorated Easter Eggs

From earliest times and in most cultures, the egg has signified birth and resurrection. The Egyptians buried eggs in their tombs. The Greeks placed eggs on top of graves. The Romans coined a proverb: “Omne vivum ex ovo”, which means “All life comes from an egg.”

By Medieval times, giving decorated hen, goose or duck eggs as gifts was a popular custom, and these eggs were known as ‘Pace Eggs’. In wealthy Medieval homes, the Pace Eggs would have filled a large bowl in the centre of the feast table on Easter Sunday, and were gorgeously decorated. As Madeleine Pelner Cosman says in ‘Medieval Holidays and Festivals’:

“ At their tapered ends are borders of lace, embroidery, and tiny glass jewels. Some eggs are painted with each guest’s family design: four gold lions are on one pace egg, coloured half purple and half red; three black crescents surround a wheel on another egg dyed gold and bright blue.”

In simpler homes, the tinting was achieved by boiling the eggs with certain flowers or leaves, particularly onion skins as these turned the eggs gold – the eggs were first wrapped in onionskins and then boiled, which gave the shells a golden, mottled effect. Today they are most often painted.

The name ‘Pace’ comes from Pasch, from the Hebrew word for Passover. In many European languages the name Easter comes from the word Passover, such as
Pascha in Greek and Latin,
Pasqua in Italian,
Pacques in French,
Pascua in Spanish.

In England, Pace Eggs would be eaten on Easter Sunday, as well as being used to ‘egg roll’, whether that was in straight lines or through hoops and wickets (like croquet!). Some of the eggs would be decorated especially to hand out to ‘Pace Eggers’, the performers who would come round the houses and perform a dance or a fight. Morris Dancers and Mystery Plays are part of this Easter tradition.

Pace Egging was taken seriously. For example, in the household accounts of King Edward I there is an item of ‘one shilling and sixpence for the decoration and distribution of 450 Pace-eggs.’ The Pace Eggers were until recently a common sight in Lancashire villages, where groups of fantastically dressed ‘mummers’ complete with blackened faces, wearing animal skins and festooned with ribbons and streamers, processed through the streets singing the traditional Pace-egger’s song and collecting money as a tribute. The procession usually included various characters… the Noble Youth, the Lady Gay, the Soldier Brave and the Old Toss-Pot! The Old Toss-Pot was a drunken buffoon who wore a long straw tail stuffed with pins. It was not wise to grab the Old Toss-Pot’s tail!

In Preston, the crowds still gather at Avenham Park on Easter Sunday to watch the old traditional egg-rolling contest down the grassy slopes, while at Grasmere in the Wordsworth Museum there can be seen a collection of highly decorated eggs originally made for the poet’s children.

More generally, the custom of decorating hard-boiled eggs survives throughout much of the UK, although it is eclipsed the more recent custom of giving decorated or brightly wrapped chocolate Easter eggs. Wooden and glass eggs are also sometimes exchanged, and custom that dates from the 17th century, when manufactured eggs became available to purchase at Easter as Easter gifts and presents.

Easter eggs continued to evolve through the 18th and into the 19th century, with hollow cardboard Easter eggs being filled with Easter gifts and beautifully decorated. This reached its pinnacle with the fabulous Faberge Eggs, which were made for the Czar’s of Russia by Carl Faberge, a French jeweller. Each was encrusted with jewels and cost several millions of pounds to buy today.

The Chocolate Easter Egg
In the early 1800s the first chocolate Easter egg appeared in Germany and France, and these soon spread to the rest of Europe and beyond. The first chocolate eggs were solid, as the technological production of chocolate was still very primitive, but by the turn of the 19th Century the invention of the modern chocolate making process and improved mass manufacturing methods meant that the hollow chocolate Easter egg came in to being and, by the middle of the 20th century, had become the Easter gift of choice.

© Claire Burdett. Please only reproduce this article with permission, in its entirety and with a hyperlink to www.claireburdett.com. Thank you.


Chocolate – May the Gods be With You

The History of Chocolate
Originally cacao trees were native to the tropical rain forests of South America. The ancient societies who held sway here during the 1st to 16th Centuries considered the beans of the cacao tree so precious that they used them as currency, as well as making them into a sacred drink, latterly known as xocoatl. Depending on the rate at the time, an egg cost between one and three beans, a rabbit cost between four and 10 beans, and a slave as much as 100 beans, so to actually grind the beans and make the xocoatl was something only the rich and powerful could afford to do. And it was what the beans contain naturally that was so important: the stress-relieving, feel-good chemicals, phenylethylamine, alongside the ‘energy rush’ of the theobromine and caffeine, gave rise to the belief that it gave those that drank it ‘special’ (ie intellectual and sexual) strength.

To be honest, Xocoatl was not much like drinking chocolate as we know it. For a start it was bitter (cacao beans are, naturally, and no sugar was added) and gritty (the grinding process was very primitive), and it was very spicy, with such ingredients as musk, vanilla, pepper, maize, pimento, chilli, and cinnamon, added to the drink – the number of different ingredients increased with the status of the person drinking it. Before serving, the cocoa mass and water had to be whipped into a froth to stop the cocoa separating.

Montezuma II, emperor of the Aztecs, didn’t drink anything but the frothy, spicy xocoatl, which was served to him in a golden goblet from which he ate it with a golden spoon. It is said that at least 50 pitchers of it were prepared for the emperor each day, and a further 2000 for the rest of the court. It must have tasted very bizarre to those unfamiliar with it, and indeed Christopher Columbus couldn’t help spitting it out at the first taste! Later, however, the Spanish conquistador, Herman Cortes, quickly came to realise the cacao bean’s special properties as a tonic, and in a land where wine, the mainstay of an army, was restricted if not non-existent, chocolate came to take its place, albeit often sweetened with honey to make it more palatable. As Cortes noted…“just one cup was enough to refresh a soldier for the whole day.”

By the mid 16th century, chocolate drinking in the afternoon salons of well-to-do Spanish ladies, who were excited by the idea that it increased desire and fertility, had become de rigeour, to the point where the creation of beautiful copper and silver chocolate pots was a thriving industry. These were shaped like a bulb towards the base and designed with a spout and handle, plus a hole in the lid through which a whisk could be inserted so that the chocolate could be easily whipped before being poured into exquisite porcelain cups and saucers. The chilli, musk, maise and pimento had been lost from the mix, although the vanilla and cinnamon were retained, and each lady added her own sugar and milk to counteract the bitterness.

However, the chocolate drink still remained a far cry from the hot, smooth, and mouth-rich beverage we know today. This started to change by the end of the century, however, when Sir Hans Sloane, eminent collector and physician and after whom Sloane Square is named, invented ‘hot chocolate’ while collecting plant species in Jamaica. In the Caribbean the locals liked to drink cocoa in the traditional manner, mixed with cold water. Sloane found this nauseating, but he regarded chocolate as an important tonic and so mixed the cocoa powder with hot milk to make it more palatable. He liked the result so much that he bought the recipe back with him to England and started to prescribe it to his patients… and thus changed the way we drink chocolate forever.

By the end of the 19th century, British manufacturers, especially Quaker families, such as the Fry family and the Cadbury brothers, had further refined and developed chocolate for British tastes, creating such well-known brands as Dairy Milk. Chocolate was here to stay, and in all parts of society. Children for example, were routinely given ‘hot chocolate’ at bedtime despite the caffeine content, while by the mid 20th century, children’s adventure stories, such as Enid Blyton’s ‘Famous Five’ series, weren’t complete without the obligatory chocolate bar tucked in the pocket!

The UK has always had a thriving chocolate tradition, not just the mass market appeal of Cadburys and Fry’s (now owned by Cadbury’s), but also specialist and artisan producers ranging from the long-established, such as Bendick’s and Charbonnel et Walker, through organic Green and Black (now owned by Cadbury’s – see www.greenandblacks.com) and the ever-popular Thornton’s. There is also a strong tradition of artisan chocolatiers in the UK, such as Brighton’s Choccywoccydoodah, Aphrodite Chocolates in Essex, Browne’s chocolates in Devon, and London’s Rococo, Amelie Chocolate and Paul A Young. France has an even stronger artisan tradition, with most towns boasting at least one specialist chocolatier, and in the 1980s the wine term ‘grand cru’ was coined by French company Valrhona, when they pioneered the use of a single couveture (ground chocolate mass) made from one type of bean from one plantation – the first ‘origin chocolatier’. This has opened the floodgate to specialist and gourmet chocolates of all sorts, such as those produced by UK gourmet ‘origin chocolatier’ Hotel Chocolate.

• Criollo (also known as the Caracas) – the original cacao tree, makes up 5% of world production as is fragile and difficult to grow. The beans are exquisite and highly aromic.

• Trinitario – cross between the other two.

As the trees are pretty delicate, the pods are fragile and easily damaged, and the yield low (each tree produces roughly 1,500 beans each harvest), production as a whole is exacting and very labour intensive. Disease can be a problem, with fungus thriving in the humidity, for example. As chemical control is too difficult for many small farmers, a bad attack can wipe out a year’s income in one go, while swings in fashion and demand can also affect the profits of smaller producers. Child slavery has commonly been used in chocolate production as a way of covering the lower profit margin, and government statistics indicate that more than 109,000 children were working on cocoa farms in Côte d’Ivoire in ‘the worst forms of child labour’ in 2002. Hardly an angelic process for this most heavenly foodstuff, and this has led to cocoa and chocolate being available as ‘fair trade’ items in some countries, including the UK, although Fair Trade chocolate (www.fairtrade.org.uk) still only represents a tiny percentage of the total trade.

So choose your favourite chocolate. Take a bite. Let it melt in your mouth … and know that the gods are with you.

© Claire Burdett. Please only reproduce this article with permission, in its entirety and with a hyperlink to www.claireburdett.com. Thank you.

First published in Citylife magazine, 2007


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