Tag: Museums

Chocolate Week Part I: The Chocolate Museum

“All you need is love. But a little chocolate now and then doesn’t hurt.”
― Charles M. Schulz

Chocolate has played a significant role in our social lives lately, so brace yourselves for a week of it here on Small Dog Cocoa Beans Lovers and Consumers, Inc. First stop on our tour of goodness, the Chocolate Museum in Brixton.

Frankly on its face it a bit…dinky. It’s not the museum’s fault. It’s a tiny, tiny two room independent establishment with about three display cases and a few wall displays of historic artifacts relating to the history of chocolate in Britain.

A couple centuries of British chocolate pots.
A couple centuries of British chocolate pots.
Tools of the chocolatier trade.
Tools of the chocolatier trade.

Which is a fascinating subject! Chocolate and coffee houses were places of major political and social unrest and discourse, particularly in the 17th and 18th centuries. It’s rise as a sweet beverage (instead of its original state as a bitter, odd tasting thing drunk by the people of the New World) coincided directly with the rise of sugar…and therefore the slave trade – which Britain played a major role in both spreading and ending. Cadbury’s supported troops in the First World War with supplies (including chocolate of course), and in World War II converted part of their factory to to making airplane parts. Also during WWII chocolate was deemed an “essential food item” (truth!) and its manufacture and distrubution was carefully monitored, which it became a major black market item until rationing for it ended.  While not on the level of Belgian, German, and Swiss chocolatiers, British candymakers are responsible for a lot of the popular appeal and commercial availability of chocolate. John Cadbury is the man responsible for inventing the method responsible for the creation of solid chocolate bars – for which humanity should be duly grateful.

In other words, yeah! Topic deserving of a museum! A museum with more than a couple of rooms.

Chocolate consumption around the globe, which is pretty interesting!
Chocolate consumption around the globe, which is pretty interesting!

But despite the seemingly limited setting, the Chocolate Museum has quite a few things going for it. First of all it puts on a number of chocolate making workshops and themed events throughout the year. Secondly it stocks some genuinely stellar chocolate items from artisan and free-trade growers and makers.

It was at one such event that Jeff and I made the museum’s acquaintance. Their Christmas Fair to be precise. Along with their wares, on display for nibbling, other artisans were invited to pair their offerings with the chocolates. Wine, beer, coffee, tea, cheese, breads, cured meats, and honey were prominent, but Jeff and I got distracted by a woman selling funky Italian, naturally made sodas.

Hi Jeff!
Hi Jeff!

We came away with lots of chocolate bars (ginger and lime for him, cardamon and nutmeg for me), and a hunk of farmhouse cheddar that was scrumptious. I’ll definitely be heading back to the Chocolate Museum, even though I’ve seen it in its entirety, for two reasons. First of all because I’ve not found cardamon flavored chocolate anywhere else that didn’t cost me an arm and a leg. Secondly because I believe strongly in supporting small museums dedicated to telling narrowly focused historical narratives.

The Middling Sort

“The ornament of a house is the friends who frequent it.”
― Ralph Waldo Emerson

Awkward realization. Without exactly intending it it, this week’s content is moderately themed. Which wouldn’t be so bad if not for the fact that next week’s tales of adventure and mayhem are explicitly themed (and that theme, kittens, is chocolate so you know you’re going to love it). Regardless, the unintentional theme this week is decor!

On Saturday Katie and I met up to go to the Geffrye Museum of the Home, showcasing how the design, decoration, form, and function of British homes have evolved over the last 400 years.

There charmingly are even a couple resident cats who deigned to make my acquaintance in the midst of hunting pigeons.

The building itself is made of almshouses from the 18th century, originally built by Sir Robert Geffrye, but acquired by the London County Council early in the 20th. Instead of demolishing the site, it was turned into a museum and today holds authentic furnishings and home goods stretching from the 1600s right up though today. It’s focus is on the everyday life of the British middle class, which makes a nice change from most institutions which tend to focus on the Great and Important. Walk with me.

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The 18th century buildings really are beautifully preserved and maintained.
A 17th century dining and main family area.
A 17th century dining and main family area.
Early 18th century writing desk.
Early 18th century writing desk.
17th century tea table - note the early teacups sans handles!
18th century tea table – note the early teacups sans handles and the prominently displayed tea caddy!
Georgian card table in a parlor.
Georgian card table in a parlor.
An early Victorian sitting room. I didn't include any late Victorian stuff because frankly I find the design period hideous. I never claimed impartiality.
An early Victorian sitting room. I didn’t include any late Victorian stuff because frankly I find the design period hideous. I never claimed impartiality.
Things calmed down significantly in the Aesthetic movement, so photos are allowed to resume.
Things calmed down significantly in the Aesthetic movement, so photos are allowed to resume.
There was a whole room devoted to Mid-century design which was delightful, but I fell in love with the period television set.
There was a whole room devoted to Mid-century design which was delightful, but I fell in love with the period television set.

It’s a wonderful museum and well worth a look in if you’re design minded. In their galleries there is currently another exhibit that I loved documenting the private history of homes around the UK. Current owners look into their the past of their dwellings and found some amazing things, including children’s toys under floorboard discovered during renovations, and tales of hauntings.
The museum is totally free (donations encouraged) and open Tuesday through Sunday.

This England!

This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,—
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.
– Shakespeare

So!  Flew in to Heathrow on the morning of Christmas Eve, met at airport by Dad and Snickers, drove home to Suffolk.  Day spent hugging, talking, and trying to stay awake.  Christmas Eve feast was superb.  Went to bed.  Woke up Christmas morning (siblings showed infinite patience and let us sleep in longer than I’d ever imagine they’d be able to) and tore into both presents and breakfast.  Rest of day spent in rest and relaxation.

The adventures begin on December 26th, also known as Boxing Day.  It’s part of the Christmas holiday in England and most people keep holiday hours on it, but this was the day chosen to go to London to show J. the sights.  We checked online and it appeared some things would be open, so off we went.

Mum, left in red. Me, middle in red. Gio, right of me in red. Dad, right of Gio in red. Buddy...in black. Snickers, hidden. J., behind camera.

Never trust the internet.  The Tower, which really is the historical base of the city (thanks, William the Bastard/Conquerer) was closed.  Luckily Westminster Abbey was open.  Some of you may recall my raptures at visiting it two years ago?  Well, it was nothing compared to this time.  I was so obnoxiously happy to be back in England that I had a hyper litany of sheer enthusiasm trilling through my head as I forced myself to walk somberly through its hallowed naves.  The Shakespeare alone was particularly thrilling, I may or may not have muttered the St. Crispin’s Day speech as I meandered past Henry V.  Anne of Cleves got a nod and a, “Well done.  Better off without him.  Much,” Congreve got a cheeky grin, Elizabeth I another critical glance over (still not as pretty as she thought she was).

After Westminster we tried for the Tower but that as you know was a fruitless effort.  So we traipsed across the city!  I didn’t make it over to Kensington where I lived but I did stare longingly at the High Street Kensington and Gloucester Road stops on the Tube for a while.  We walked through Trafalgar Square (scene of many a late night revel with Marie, Elizabeth, and AbFab so long ago), made our way to Leicester Square where, completely out of other ideas, we massacred three hours by watching Avatar.  An observation: don’t see this movie in 3D from the second row of the theatre.  Your inner ear thanks me.  After that we saw Stomp and made our way home at a ridiculous hour of the evening.

Sunday we tried to recuperate a bit and celebrated Buddy’s birthday with a quiet family evening at home.  The next day we celebrated it by scampering around the misty wet fields with nearly fifty people, shooting each other with paintballs.  I had only been paintballing once before and been shot in the mouth, so I didn’t have a high opinion of the activity (this time I was shot at point-blank range while guarding a little girl, but it was during our mad dash for glory in a game of capture the flag and we were welcomed to the splotched sidelines like heroes).  The boys loved it.

No, it's not the camera angle, the house really looks like that.

Tuesday we went to Lavenham, which is without question the most charming country village outside of the Lakes District.  I’ve written about it before, but allow me to gush a little bit more!  It’s just delightful, the crooked Tudor houses always make me grin like an idiot.  I rummaged through my favorite antique store (trying on an Edwardian hat, drooling over Victorian jewelry, and rifling through letter boxes and cupboards) and we ate lunch at The Swan.

Wednesday J. and I basely ditched the family and hopped on the train from Cambridge back down to London so he could actually see things.  The train was a necessity because, according to the news, a truck of pigs had gotten into a wreck on the M11 and, far from turning the passengers into bacon, a dozen or so had escaped and were wandering across the highway, grazing on things, and generally causing a bad time of it for the drivers who were backed up for hours waiting for the porcine perils to be rounded up.

We hit the Tower and the British Museum.  Going through it was like visiting an old friend.  J. seemed to especially love the awful imperialism it represented.  “I mean, these guys just showed up and said, ‘I like that wall.  I think I’ll take it!'” he said going through the Parthenon exhibit.  During the evening we walked from Tottenham Court Road to Oxford Circus so I could get in some much needed shopping before we made our way back to Liverpool St. and hopped back on the train to Cambridge.  Then, the next day, back to the States.

I’m going to be honest and admit that as we were driving back from J.’s parents house and I was looking across the valley and snow-covered mountains…I burst into homesick tears.  When we got home I was absolutely howling with misery (or lack of sleep, one of the two).  “I want to live two hours outside of London!” I sobbed, “I want to live where it’s green even in the winter!  I hate the desert!  I don’t want to go back to work on Monday!  I don’t want to live here for two and a half more years while you finish school!  I want my dog!”

J. just hugged me and promised to get me back there someday if he could, and he meant it.  I calmed down, went to bed, and woke up feeling alright about leaving England behind for a while.  In the meantime, I’ll just be here.  Missing it.