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MASSEY is published by Massey University, Private Bag 11-222, Palmerston North, New Zealand

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MASSEY has a circulation of 75,000.

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Just the Answer

Questions should be emailed to

One of the capping magazine cartoons reproduced in the last MASSEY featured a certain well known and indelicate gesture. I have heard that the gesture has its origins in Hundred Years War between England and France. Is this correct?

Essentially yes, although the insult, which is delivered with the index and middle fingers, has changed its meaning considerably since it was first used in the fifteenth century.

The origin of the gesture derives from the appearance of the longbow towards the end of the thirteenth century. The longbow, which soon became the standard armament of English infantry, was a weapon of tremendous accuracy and power. An English archer was expected to be able to hit a person-sized target more than 200 yards distant. The power in the bow, derived from the 100 foot-pounds of pressure required to draw the bowstring, could penetrate the very expensive armour of a noble knight with ease. At Crecy in 1346 and at Poitiers, 10 years later, attacking French cavalry fell in large numbers before a hailstorm of English arrows. The French aristocracy was somewhat concerned at seeing the cream of their society laid low by this devastating weapon. In their next big battle they decided that drastic action was needed.

It was at Agincourt in 1415 that the ‘two finger salute’ appeared. The French, with their superiority of numbers, expected an easy victory. They therefore felt it safe to proclaim that henceforth any captured English archers would have their index and middle fingers cut off. As these were the fingers required to draw back a bowstring, the archer’s career would be ruined and any prospects of future employment severely limited. Unfortunately for the French though, Agincourt was a decisive English victory. The English archers took a severe toll of the dismounted knights advancing to meet them and then, not relishing the prospect of being separated from their fingers, drew their swords to have a go at hacking the knights to death at close quarters. After the battle, and in future ones, English archers held up their two fingers and waved them at the French. It was a sign intended as an insult and a warning and as such was an effective gesture. It showed the French that the archer’s two fingers remained intact and he still remained a deadly adversary.

The gesture is still effective today, but its meaning has significantly changed.

Dr Glyn Harper
Centre for Defence Studies

I am a tea drinker, but just occasionally I make coffee for guests. Is it best to keep the ground coffee in the freezer, or just in an air-tight container?

There’s nothing more delectable than the aroma and taste of freshly roasted and ground coffee, and I am afraid there is no way round it, fresh is best.

The roasting of coffee beans, a process that takes place at temperatures of 200C or above, rids the beans of most of their moisture and causes a wide range of chemical reactions. The sugars caramelise and eventually begin to char, and aromatic chemicals are formed. The longer the roast, the darker the colour, and the stronger the flavour. The beans in espresso coffee are generally roasted longest of all.

From here on, oxidation takes its toll. Unground and left exposed to the air, the roasted coffee beans will go stale over a period of one to two weeks. Freshly ground coffee will begin to go stale in just a few hours. If you really like your coffee, grind the beans as you need them.

Coffee lovers without a coffee outlet nearby or a grinder to hand can buy packaged ground coffee. Flushed with a nitrogen/carbon dioxide gas mixture to exclude oxygen – and hence oxidation – the ground coffee is vacuum-sealed into tin cans or very thick, flexible aluminium-foil-based sachets. The opaque packaging excludes sunlight, a very important cause of oxidation in foods.

Oxidation is a chemical reaction, so the colder the storage temperature, the longer the shelf life. If you keep the sealed bags in a freezer you can add several weeks on to the shelf life of most coffee beans. There is, however, a proviso: allow the beans to warm up to room temperature before opening the package. If moisture gets into the beans — and a really cold bean will invite moisture condensation — then very fast and undesirable flavour changes will occur. Once these fancy packages have been opened the shelf life of the coffee is very short.

For tea drinkers who only bring out the ground coffee for the occasional guests, I am sorry, there really is no good long-term way of storing ground coffee once it has been opened to the air. Go and buy some fresh coffee beans. After all, you wouldn’t serve your guests flat beer.

Ray Winger, Professor of Food Technology
Institute of Food, Nutrition and Human Health

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