If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.

- George Washington

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Quiz Question

I know that this blog has readers of great wisdom and wordly experience, and I am hoping that someone can come up with an answer to something that has been puzzling me since I came back from France.

In the traditional kitchen of the house were were 'sitting' was what I would call an egg-timer. In fact, it would be more accurate to call it a sand-glass, as eggs are clearly not what it was built to time. Unless your eggs were dinosaur eggs, that is. I didn't get a picture, but this one is identical:

It was a beautiful object and we couldn't resist turning it over and over as we sat in the kitchen. At some point, one of the kids asked "what is it for?" and we said "it's an egg-timer, you idiot". Then we started wondering what sort of eggs.

We timed it several times, and the time it took for all the sand to fall through was 14 minutes and 20 seconds, plus or minus 10 seconds on repeated tests. No egg that I am aware of takes that long to cook, unless you like your eggs boiled to the consistency of pebbles. Duck eggs? Peacock eggs? Penguin eggs? Not a clue.

It may not be eggs at all, of course. There are a lot of vegetables that would be cooked al dente in that sort of time. But as for specifics, none of us had the faintest idea.

Anyone? Bear in mind it was in France (Normandy, to be precise), in the kitchen of a woman who was a keen and accomplished cuisinière, and it was quite old - at least 20-30 years and possibly much older. It was made of turned wood, as in the image, and the finish (if it ever had one) was gone, leaving a faded bare wooden surface. The glass was of poor quality, with a slight yellow tinge, and the whole item was clearly a utilitarian device rather than an objet d'art.

Over to you.


  1. I don't know. But it sounds like you had a cracking holiday :-)

  2. The good thing about holidays is that we give ourselves the time to ponder things we would otherwise ignore. And to read strings of books we wouldn't bother with in everyday life. And drink quantities that would disable us from our everyday work. I like that.

  3. I know that this blog has readers of great wisdom and wordly experience

    I read it, as well. :o)

    My guess is that it is a general vegetable timer. As you say, there are no end of veggies that need about 15 minutes.

    Are there any clues from wherever you borrowed the image? broccolitimer.jpg?

  4. ?Ostrich egg timer?

    WikiP tells me:

    ".....on average they are 15 centimetres (5.9 in) long, 13 centimetres (5.1 in) wide, and weigh 1.4 kilograms (3.1 lb), over 20 times the weight of a chicken egg. "

  5. It actually came from a callcentre and was used to indicate to new recruits when the call should be answered.
    Alternatively, simmering a medium-large sized egg at 87C / 190F so that it is hard (ie a misnamed "hard-boiled" egg) would take about 14 mins 30 on average. Fresher eggs take slightly longer than older ones.

  6. From the inevitable Wiki:

    "Hourglasses were an early dependable, reusable and accurate measure of time. The rate of flow of the sand is independent of the depth in the upper reservoir, and the instrument will not freeze in cold weather.[4]
    From the 15th century onwards, they were being used in a range of applications at sea, in the church, in industry and in cookery.
    During the voyage of Ferdinand Magellan around the globe, his vessels kept 18 hourglasses per ship. It was the job of a ship's page to turn the hourglasses and thus provide the times for the ship's log. Noon was the reference time for navigation, which did not depend on the glass, as the sun would be at its zenith.[8] More than one hourglass was sometimes fixed in a frame, each with a different running time, for example 1 hour, 45 minutes, 30 minutes, and 15 minutes."

    Clearly, one needed the odd page to turn ones hourglass over but one more than likely had plenty available at the cost of a little thin gruel a couple of times a day - less than a new watch battery in Timpson's.

  7. I'm with Derf - it's clearly a French hour glass calibrated in Napoleonic times for the metric quarter hour. That was based on Paris lying on 0 degree Longitude meridian and all that stuff.

  8. Such an hour-glass would not have been a cheap piece of equipment when originally purchased. It would have been found in the kitchen of a large house owned by a wealthy family.
    Such a kitchen would have been regularly required to produce large meals. A large roast needs basting every quarter-hour or so in order to keep the upper part of the roast from drying and possibly scorching, hence the timing of this hour-glass (or quarter-hour glass!)
    I have a much more modern quarter-hour glass in my kitchen and I use it to time the basting of all roasts (meat, game and poultry) where the roast weighs more than three pounds.

  9. Now, how to sort the wheat from the chaff ...

    Thanks for all your responses. I'm still quite taken with the veg timer idea. It's a shorter time than the British boil-it-to-death approach, but this is France after all. And yet I am very tempted by selsey.steve's idea (welcome to the blog, by the way). The item didn't seem very precious in the way you describe, to be honest, more a utility item, but the point is a good one nevertheless. People have roasts, and roasts need basting, and not everyone has the luxury of standing in the kitchen counting to 900-elephant for the duration.

    I do like the idea of the metric quarter-hour, though. I did once know someone who measured time in things like microfortnights (roughly 20 minutes, or the time it takes to cook parsnips the British Way). Very illuminating.


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