Category Archives: Science

Reaction Of The Week


What is it with cats and cucumbers?

Social media is full of, frankly, inexplicable trends that go viral. One of the lates is videos of cat owners placing a cucumber behind their pet. When the cat turns round, it jumps out of its skin.

While not exactly an ailurophile, I do find the videos a little cruel, but why do cats react in this way when they encounter a cucumber unexpectedly?

According to Jill Goldman, a certified animal behaviourist, I leave you to draw your own conclusions, the cucumbers trigger the cat’s natural startle reflexes. Their natural reaction is to jump out of the way and then have a good luck to see whether the object poses any threat. Some think that they mistake the fruit for a snake and are especially concerned when they encounter one in an area that they regard as a safe haven, such as where they eat.

As with most social media crazes, videos of startled cats will soon be a thing of the past, but it is good to have an explanation of the behaviour.

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Plant-based Milks

A historical perspective gives a lie to the contention that plant-based milks are just a modern fad, whose fortunes will wane as quickly as they have risen. After all, the milk of a coconut has been drunk ever since man first worked out how to crack its hard shell. Etymologically, milk was used as a term to describe the milk-like juices or saps from plants from the early 13th century. Even more intriguingly, the earliest recipe books in English contain references to the use of plant-based milks.

The Forme of Cury, written in 1390, includes a recipe for blank maunger, probably a dish derived from the Arabs but blander due to the paucity of spices available. Along with rice and capons, sugar, salt, this dish, often given to invalids to strengthen them up, used almond milk as its base. Utilis Coquinario, a cookbook written at the beginning of the 14th century instructs the reader on how to make butter of almond milk. In the earliest German cookbook, dating from around 1350, Das Buch von Guter Spise, almost a quarter of its recipes use almond milk.

Almonds were an expensive commodity, even though they were widely grown in England, three times the price of a pint of butter, putting them ordinarily beyond the reach of all but the wealthy. Butter and milk made from almonds were especially favoured by those who wished to observe the letter, if not the spirit, of the Church’s restrictions on the consumption of meat and dairy products during Lent. As they were plant-based, they could be enjoyed with a clear conscience.

Soya milk, made from the soybean, has an equally long pedigree, initially in China, and is the most widely recognised of the plant-based milks. First mentioned in Chinese texts from around 1350 and in recipes in cookbooks from the 17th century, it was also served hot in tofu shops and drunk for breakfast. The bean was “discovered” by occidentals in the late 19th century, the term “soy-bean milk” first appearing in a report produced by the US Department of Agriculture in 1897, comparing its attributes with those of cow’s milk.

An early advocate of the benefits of soya milk was Li Yuying who established the first manufacturing unit in Colombes in France in 1910 and held British and American patents for production processes. What to call it, though, was a question which mired soya milk producers in contentious litigation with authorities and dairy farmers for decades. The issue was only resolved in the United States in 1974 when the courts ruled that it was a “new and distinct food” rather than ersatz milk, while in Britain in the 1970s it had to be called “liquid food of plant origin” and then “soya plant-milk”.

The 1970s and 80s saw improvements in production techniques, enhancements to taste and consistency, and the development of Tetra Pak packaging extended shelf-life, helping soya milk to establish pre-eminence amongst other plant-based milks. The emergence of strong challengers, though, in the form of oat milk and, the new kid on the block, potato milk, looks set to change that.

Potato milk, available from on-line providers and, since February 2022, in Waitrose stores, is even more sustainable than any other plant-based milk currently available. According to its manufacturer, Swedish-based DUG, winner of the “Best Allergy-Friendly Product” in the 2021 World Food Innovation Awards, potatoes are twice as land efficient as other plant-based options and use 56 times less water than almonds. Dairy-free, and minus gluten, casein, fat, cholesterol, and soy, potatoes are a good source of vitamins D and B12 and the milk, which is very creamy and tastes good in coffee, is fortified with important vitamins and minerals.

All nut, bean, or water-base plant-based milks are made using a similar process. The main ingredient is soaked in water for several hours, before being blended into a puree which is then filtered to separate the milk from the plant matter. The milk is then sterilised by boiling and flavours are added to enhance the taste.

Plant-based milks have long been with us and will continue to offer us an alternative for years to come. 

Bottle Of The Week

The drinks industry is slowly embracing sustainability and making strides to reduce its carbon footprint. Single-use glass bottles and their transportation make up 39% of the overall wine industry’s carbon emissions.

An Ipswich-based company, Frugalpac, reckon they have come up with the answer – the Frugal Bottle, which is made from 94% recycled paper and has a carbon footprint that is just a sixth of a single-use bottle. To counter concerns that a soggy paper bottle will cause its contents to leak, it has a recyclable plastic pouch inside. Whether the wine will taste the same as when it is poured out of a dark-green glass bottle is a matter for the drinker to decide.

The first vintner to embrace the paper bottle, although trying not to squeeze it too hard, is alt-format specialist, When in Rome. They have a trio of wines, their Peccorino IGP Terre di Chieti and Rosato, produced by a grower in Aruzzo, and their Primitivo IGP Puglia, produced by Tenuta Viglione, available in the new format through Ocado.

Sir Kenelm Digby will doubtless be amused that it has taken nigh on four centuries to come up with an eco-friendly alternative to his revolutionary glass wine bottle. Let’s see whether it catches on.

Another Slice Of Victoria Sponge

Elizabeth Bird’s poor digestive system also reacted adversely to yeast. Her indefatigable husband, Alfred Bird, he of egg-free custard fame, looked for a solution that would put bread and pastries back on the menu. He found that a mixture of a mild alkali in the form of bicarbonate of soda, and a mild acid, cream of tartar, combined with a filler to absorb moisture, such as cornflour, would, when moistened, produce carbon dioxide. The bubbles from the gas would cause the dough or cake mixture to expand and rise. Alfred had invented what we know as baking powder, an effective substitute for yeast.

His timing could not have been better. In upper class circles luncheon had been introduced in the 18th century to fill the lengthening gap between breakfast and dinner, which was usually served anywhere between seven o’clock and eight-thirty in the evening. Luncheon, though, was normally a light affair, leaving many to endure a long afternoon without any form of refreshment. Anna Russell, the seventh Duchess of Bedford and Queen Victoria’s Lady of the Bedchamber between 1837 and 1841, hit upon an innovation that revolutionised the social world from the 1840s, the taking of afternoon tea.

By four o’clock each afternoon, the Duchess started to feel peckish and would ask her servants to bring a pot of tea and some cakes to her chamber. Finding that this combination filled the gap admirably, she extended invitations to some of her social circle to her rooms at Belvoir Castle at five o’clock to take afternoon tea. On her return to London Anna continued the practice, sending printed cards to her friends inviting them to take tea and a walk with her.

So popular did this novel form of breaking the fast between luncheon and dinner become that other society hostesses soon followed suit. One of whom was Queen Victoria, who, notorious for her very sweet tooth, had, by 1855, made it into a formal occasion by insisting that her ladies wore formal attire. Her table groaned with delicacies, but pride of place was reserved for a light and airy, perfectly risen sponge that was only possible thanks to Alfred Bird’s baking powder. So enamoured was she with the cake that following Albert’s death in 1861 it was named the Victoria sponge in her honour.

Its adoption by the middle classes was assured by its inclusion in Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1861), although to the consternation of many an aspiring hostess Isabella’s recipe in her first edition omitted any reference to eggs.

Alfred’s ingenuity knew no bounds. He developed a formula for jelly powder and an egg-substitute and in 1859 built a water barometer. He also produced a set of harmonised glass bowls boasting a range of over five octaves which, his funeral notice observed, “he played with much skill”. Although he did not patent his baking powder, allowing rivals to take a slice of the market and Henry Jones, a Bristol baker, to incorporate it in his self-raising flour, Alfred’s estate was worth around £9,000 when he died on December 15, 1878.

Next time you take a slice of Victoria sponge, spare a thought for Elizabeth Bird’s delicate digestive system and her husband’s ingenuity.

If you enjoyed this, check out More Curious Questions, available now.

Fart Of The Week (9)

Breaking wind is a natural bodily function, but can be embarrassing, especially if you are in a developing relationship. However, being too embarrassed to let rip can also have unfortunate consequences as Brazilian singer, Viviane de Quieroz Pereira, whose stage name is Pocah, recently discovered.

Not wishing to offend her partner, the plucky Viviane bottled it up, only to wake up early in the morning suffering from excruciating stomach pains. She went off with her partner to the local hospital and was told that the pains were due to an accumulation of trapped farts. Viviane has learned her lesson, now preferring the embarrassment of farting in front of her long-suffering partner to the embarrassment of a diagnosis of trapped farts.

Perhaps Viviane should avoid showering with him. Farts are even smellier in shower cubicles because you do not have clothing to disperse the odour, you are in an enclosed space, hot air rises, water vapour enhances your sense of smell, and hot water causes the gas inside you to expand and be forced out. Apparently, the cabin pressure in an aircraft can also cause our internal gases to expand, giving rise to a phenomenon known as HAFE – High Altitude Flatus Explosion.

Out is better than in is my motto.