Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Enjoy Thomas the Tank Engine Books, DVDs and Toys

Who is Thomas the Tank Engine?

Are you a Thomas the Tank Engine fan? We all have treasured memories from childhood; memories of our favourite toys and favourite characters from books. One of these fictional characters that remains a perennial favourite with kids is the lovable blue railway engine Thomas the Tank Engine. This popular character was the creation of the Reverend W Awdry in the 1940s who started inventing the stories about railway engines with human faces and human personalities to entertain his son Christopher while he was recovering from scarlet fever. Christopher apparently begged to have these stories retold so many times that the Reverend Awdry started writing them down on scraps of paper and started to sketch pictures of  the various locomotive characters with their different faces and expressions.  The Reverend Awdry’s wife convinced him that his railway engine tales deserved to be read by a wider audience, so he sent them to a distant relative who was a publisher. The result was that his first book ‘The Three Railway Engines’ containing three different stories and illustrations was published in 1945.

Thomas the Tank Engine
Thomas the Tank Engine

However, the iconic Thomas the Tank Engine did not appear on the scene until the second book was published in 1946.  These gentle tales of the life and trials of the railway engines and their friends were so popular that a new book was published every year.  The original illustrations in the early books were all executed by C. Reginald Dalby who adapted the Reverend Awdry’s hastily scribbled drawings into the locomotive characters and based them on real designs of British steam engines of the time.  The railway engine used for the character of Thomas was a little known 0-6-0T Class E2 shunting engine from Victorian times, while the illustrations of Gordon were based on the engine class that contained the altogether more dashing ‘Flying Scotsman’. The family of railway engines grew over time as more characters were added, forever trundling over the railway tracks of the mythical Island of Sodor and being overseen by the imposing Fat Controller.

Thomas the Tank Engine Books

The Rev. W Awdry continued to write books about the adventures of Thomas the Tank Engine and his friends in his Railway Series until 1972.  All of these books were beautifully illustrated and designed so that they could comfortably fit into small children’s hands, be easy to read and be simple to turn the pages over.  The Rev. Awdry’s son Christopher took over from his father and started writing new tales in 1983. To add to these children’s books there are now Thomas the Tank Engine Annuals published yearly and other Thomas and Friends picture and pop-up books that have been published.  This lovable train even features in his very own comic.  The books are just as popular with kids today as they were in the 1940s and 50s and one of the easiest ways to find them is online. There are collections of the Thomas the Tank Engine stories, the individual railway tales, special anniversary editions, ABC books and many more.  These kids books make great gifts and if you know a child who is collecting them, why not get them the next one in the series for their birthday or Christmas present?  Also, little girls love Thomas the Tank Engine as much as the boys do, so one of these books makes the perfect stocking filler for your daughters and young relatives.

Thomas the Tank Engine on TV and Thomas & Friends DVDs

As the fame and popularity of Thomas the Tank Engine grew, it was almost inevitable that he would end up starring in his very own TV show. Originally called Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends, this new TV show for kids was first aired in Britain on ITV in 1984. The name of the TV show was changed for Series 7 in 2003 to Thomas & Friends.  The TV show also proved popular in the United States, and both in the US and in the UK has attracted some high profile celebrity narrators including Ringo Starr, Alec Baldwin, Michael Angelis and Pierce Brosnan. He also starred on the big screen when his movie ‘Thomas and the Magic Railroad’ was released in 2000.  Inevitably, Thomas’s adventures on screen have migrated onto video and DVD and you can now watch the tales of Thomas and Friends with your kids at home.  These DVDs make great gifts and if your kids get bored in the school holidays or on long journeys, why not get some to while away the time? Online is a good place to look for, so have a browse today and find your child’s favourite story on DVD.

Thomas & Friends Toys, Games and Puzzles

The huge popularity of the books and the Thomas & Friends TV showed, led to an explosion in merchandise of all kinds.  For kids there is now literally hundreds of toys, games and puzzles featuring your favourite train that you can buy. One of the best selling toys is the Thomas the Tank Engine Wooden Railway.  This is a toy that is especially recommended for very young children as it is very easy to put together and the wooden railway engine moves smoothly round the tracks. It is also sturdily built, so it is not easy to break.  You can get all of the railway locomotive characters separately, including Thomas, Percy, Salty, Gordon and Toby the Tram Engine and also wooden train tracks and accessories packs. Everything you need, in fact, to have your very own Thomas the Tank Engine railway network.  As for other toys, you can get play vehicles, Sit and Rides, jigsaw puzzles, backpacks, stuffed toys, games, fork and spoon sets and even tents.  If your child has been nagging you for a Thomas the Tank Engine themed bedroom it could not be simpler, as you can buy bedding, drapes, pictures and rugs on online. Your kids can even dress-up as Thomas the Tank Engine this Halloween, if they are looking for a more unusual dress-up costume.

So if your kids love Thomas the Tank Engine, you will be able to find them everything that they could want online.  You will find a huge selection of books, DVDs and merchandise, so have a look today and ensure that you order everything Thomas that you want for upcoming birthdays and Christmas presents.

Thomas the Tank Engine image Gemma Longman Wikimedia Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic 

Sunday, 13 January 2013

What is Ice Cream - The History of Gelato

What is Ice Cream?

One of my earliest memories is waiting to hear the chimes of the ice cream van on a hot summer afternoon and impatiently watching it trundle around the corner and pull to a stop near our house.  Clutching my money in my little sweaty paw, I would run over to the brightly painted van and weigh up my choices.  Would it be a cone filled with soft, whippy ice cream with a chocolate flake stuck in it to make it a ‘99’? Or maybe an ice lolly or a biscuit oyster shell filled with ice cream and topped with clotted cream?  This has always been my favourite treat and it makes the perfect dessert for any occasion.  So what is ice cream?  It is a frozen dessert that is usually made from milk or cream, with fruit, flavourings, colourings and sugar being added to give it taste.  Nowadays, for those who are intolerant of dairy products, it can also be made from soy milk or rice milk. It comes in many different flavours, with the most popular probably being vanilla, chocolate and strawberry.

Strawberry Ice Cream
Strawberry Ice Cream

The History of Ice Cream

Humans have enjoyed eating frozen desserts for thousands of years.  The Chinese were eating a dish made of frozen milk and rice as long ago as 200BC, and it is said that Marco Polo brought the secret of making ice cream to Europe in the 13th century from his travels in China. The Ancient Persians were fond of syrups and sherbets cooled with mountain snow and around 400BC created a frozen treat made from rose water and vermicelli. The Ancient Persians used structures called yakchals for refrigeration that stored the ice and snow that they needed for their frozen desserts and kept the storage rooms at freezing point by using tall windcatchers. The Roman emperor Nero had snow transported down from the Appenine Mountains, and used to eat it smothered in fruit. The Arabs were the first to use milk and sugar in order to make ice cream, and they flavoured their frozen desserts with rosewater, nuts and dried fruits.

During the 16th century Moghul Emperors in India used to employ relays of fast horseman to bring ice back from the Hindu Kush, and Catherine de Medici’s Italian chefs introduced ices and sorbets into France. The first French recipe for flavoured ice cream dates to 1674 and then English and American recipes started appearing from the 18th century. In Georgian England, high society ate their ices in the famous Gunter’s Tea Shop in Berkeley Square while they traded gossip and eyed up eligible bachelors.  From the late 19th century onwards, the uses of ice cream became more innovative, and treats like ice cream sundaes and ice cream sodas were introduced.  In the US, soda fountains and ice cream parlours became widespread, especially with the introduction of Prohibition.  It started to be sold from stalls and from the mobile vans, with their distinctive chimes that alerted people to their arrival. The first ice cream bicycles were seen on the streets of London in the early 1920s, with Walls Ice Cream using the slogan ‘Stop Me and Buy One’.

How Ice Cream Was Made Before Refrigeration

These days we tend to take it for granted that we have a fridge and freezer in our home and that making our own ice cream or storing shop-bought frozen desserts will not be a problem.  But before the days of refrigeration, it was a luxury reserved only for the wealthy.  Those who could afford it built ice houses in their grounds, which consisted of either a pit dug into the ground and lined with straw and covered or a brick or wooden structure also insulated with straw and covered.  During the winter months, ice would be chopped from frozen ponds and lakes and carefully stored in the ice houses to be used in the hot summer months to make ice cream and cool drinks. A man from Boston called Frederic Tudor turned this process into a business, by collecting ice in New England and exporting it all around the world.

How they made ice cream before the days of refrigeration and electrically powered ice cream makers was by placing a large bowl in a tub that was filled with ice and salt, which was known as the pot-freezer method.  All the different ingredients were placed in the bowl, where the combination of the ice and salt brought the temperature of the mixed ingredients to below freezing, thus creating the ice cream. A variation of this method was practised by the French who used a covered bucket with a handle attached to the lid that was called a sorbetiere.  The pot-freezer method was replaced by a hand-cranked churn in around 1843, which also employed salt and ice to lower the temperature of the ingredients enough to freeze them. This method produced the ice cream a lot faster and the resulting frozen dessert was also a lot smoother and creamier.

During the 19th century it was mainly produced and sold by confectioners, caterers and cafes.   The first ice cream factory wasn’t built until 1851 in Pennsylvania, when Jacob Fussell frequently had a surplus of cream and needed to do something with it. Fussell went on to open several factories and taught his ice cream making methods to others, who also opened factories.  With ice cream becoming produced in larger quantities, it brought the price down and for the first time you did not need to be rich to enjoy this frozen treat.  The invention of industrial refrigeration in the 1870s, made the cutting of ice and the old ice houses obsolete, and modern ice cream production was born in 1926 with the invention of the continuous-process freezer. Soft ice cream was invented later in the 20th century, where the amount of air in the product was doubled which reduced the costs of production for manufacturers as less ingredients needed to be used.  This soft ice cream is usually served in a cone that is filled from a spigot in an ice cream parlour or from a van on the street.

Making Ice Cream Today

Making ice cream is actually a fairly simple process.  Once all the ingredients have been mixed together, they are then stirred slowly while being cooled.  This stirring stops large ice crystals from forming, and ensures that the ensuing dessert is smooth and creamy. The easiest way to make your own today is to use an ice cream maker that is powered by electricity and churns the ingredients until they are smooth and then either cools them inside a freezer, uses a solution of pre-frozen salt and water which melts to freeze it or the more expensive ice cream makers have a freezing element incorporated into them. One of the latest methods for making your own at home is to stir liquid nitrogen into your ingredients in order to freeze them.

Where Does The Best Ice Cream Come From?

Where the best ice cream in the world is made is a hotly contested issue.  Many believe that the gelato made in Italy is the very best that you will ever taste. Italian gelato typically contains less fat than ice cream and much of it is still made in individual shops called gelaterias.  The US has a huge market and is the home of companies such as Baskin Robbins that have a huge range flavours for sale, where you can choose different flavours for double and triple scoops.. Australians and New Zealanders are also very large consumers of ice cream, and the distinctive hokey pokey flavour, which is vanilla containing lumps of honeycomb toffee, was created in New Zealand.

So whether you like making your own ice cream at home or buy it at the store or from a van, you can now enjoy ice cream or gelato as an everyday treat.  If you want to try your hand at making your own, you can now buy an amazing range of recipe books, ice cream makers, scoops, glasses and spoons online.  So whether your favourite flavour is vanilla, strawberry, chocolate, pistachio, tutti frutti or toffee, enjoy your favourite treat and appreciate the fact that all you have to do these days is get the tub out of the freezer!

Strawberry Ice Cream Image Lotus Head Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike 3.0 Unported