Beijing, 28 June 2014

The first time my wife and I went to North Korea, we were given the royal treatment – well, not royal since we were in a Socialist paradise, but out of the ordinary. We were taken to the place where the Great Leader Kim Il-sung was born. We were taken to the national museum which showed Korea’s glorious history from the earliest times up to the defining moment when the Great Leader (and his family) took over. And we were taken to the International Friendship Exhibition Hall outside of Pyongyang.

international frienship exhibition hall-exterior

The point of this massive building was to show the people of North Korea, and ignorant visitors like ourselves, that contrary to what the cynical capitalists might say about the Great Leader being a political pariah he was actually very much loved by peoples from all over the world. As testimony to this blindingly obvious fact, the building housed the tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, of gifts which he had received during his reign, from the mightiest of mighty personalities (heads of state and suchlike) to the lowliest of the lowly (a local communist youth league from some benighted country, for instance). These are all lovingly laid out in high-end display cabinets which are spread out through hundreds of rooms over seven or eight floors. Someone with a tidy frame of mind, perhaps the Great Leader himself, had neatly divided all the gifts by geographical region of provenance (Africa, Asia, and so on). When we arrived, the guide asked us what region we wanted to visit. Much to her surprise, I plumped for Africa, continent of my birth. Rather disappointed she took us there, but once we had visited that part of the collection, she beamed her approval when we said we now wanted to visit Europe, obviously where we should have been the whole time.

The whole experience was totally surreal. The place was spotlessly clean, so clean, so antiseptic, that we were required to put on shoe-covers. We were there in early November, and it was nice and warm inside the Exhibition Hall, in stark contrast to every other building in the country which we had visited, which were cold and dank – the population was expected to save on precious imported fuel. The lights were motion-sensitive, so rooms instantly lit up the moment we walked in and blacked out the moment we left them (there wasn’t a single window in the place). All of this hoopla for displaying gifts which were really very, very ordinary and in some cases in embarrassingly bad taste. If I had been given these gifts, after thanking the giver politely and waving him off at the door, I would have promptly put 99% of them in the attic for future “recycling”. We had to keep reminding ourselves that the whole point of this grotesque exercise was to show the viewer – again and again, obsessively – that the Great Leader was adored by all the peoples of the world. As a grand finale to all of this, the guide ushered us into a large room with a diorama at one end of Korea’s famous Mount Paektu and a Mme Tussauds-like wax reproduction of the Great Leader standing in front of it with a benign, grandfatherly smile on his face. As we walked in, piped concert music swelled to a crescendo and the North Koreans who were with us bowed deeply (we stood there, not knowing quite what to do, shifting from foot to foot, rather like atheists in a church).

Apart from the discomfort we felt at seeing all this money being poured into a project of pharaonic proportions in a country where the people are dying of hunger, we were amazed by the strangeness, not to say the bad taste, of many of the gifts. I can understand that communist youth leagues might only be able to afford a cheap ashtray as a gift, but even the high and mighty gave odd gifts. How, for instance, did Madeleine Albright, US Secretary of State, arrive at the idea of giving the Great Leader a basketball signed by Michael Jordan?

Kim present-basketball

Maybe President Carter’s gift explains it all: you have no idea what to give, so you choose the most colourless thing you can think of – in his case, literally so:

Kim present-glass bowl

Or you become so desperate trying to figure out what to give that you end up giving something completely ridiculous, like the Sandanistas of Nicaragua, who gave the Great Leader a grinning alligator standing up, holding out a wooden tray of cocktail glasses.

Kim present-alligator

The strange world of official gift-giving …

I was reminded of all this last weekend, when my wife and I visited China’s National Museum on Tiananmen Square. We actually went there to see if we could buy a copy of one of the Tang-era porcelain horses, to complement the copy of a Tang-era camel which we had purchased there a few years ago. Alas! The only one on sale was far too big for our modest dwelling. Disconsolate, we went around seeing what was new. Which brought us to a new exhibition of the official gifts received over the years by China’s Greats: Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, Deng Xiaoping, the recent Presidents and Prime Ministers, and other luminaries whose names meant nothing to me. The same general bad taste which assailed us in North Korea prevailed, although it wasn’t quite as bad as in the International Friendship Exhibition Hall. Either the cheap ashtrays had been quietly and sensibly “recycled” or people were more eager to be friends with China than with North Korea and were more careful about the gifts they made. Or both. But it still amazed us how much bad taste leaders of the world exhibit. I have to put it down to gift choosing being a decision made by a government committee somewhere, and we all know that government committee decisions lead to the Least Common Denominator, and the Great Person not having the time to check the gifts before he or she packs the bags, kisses the partner on the cheek, hugs the kids, pats the pet, and heads for the airport for the next official visit.

Luckily, though, in all this morass of dubious taste a few pieces stood out, pieces which we wouldn’t have minded keeping rather than storing in the attic for “recycling” etc. I note these here for posterity with photos taken with my iPhone.

In general, I feel that the Canadians did better than everyone else in their choice of gifts. Here is the one that Pierre Trudeau gave Zhou Enlai, a beautiful Native Indian double mask, from the style I would guess from the Pacific coast

canadian mask 002

while here is a small but lovely sculpture, also given by Pierre Trudeau but this time to Zhu De, of a seal carved in  bone

canadian seal 001

This piece was given by Governor-General Romeo LeBlanc to Jiang Zemin, a beautiful carving in jade stone of what appears to be a merman dancing.

canadian merman 001

Keeping to the regional focus used in North Korea (the exhibition had the pieces laid out temporally), we can continue with North America, where the only other piece worthy of mention actually came from the same part of the world as the previous two, Alaska. It is a gift from that State’s Government to Deng Xiaoping, of an Inuit ice fishing, made of walrus bone

alaskan inuit 001

There was nothing else of note from the rest of the USA, or from Central America, so we can fly over to South America to land in Bolivia, where President Jaime Paz Zamora gave Yang Shangkun this lovely silver mask

bolivian mask 001

and then to Brazil, where President Jao Baptista de Oliveira Figueiredo gave Deng Xiaoping this delicate gift of a silver crane with crystal feathers

brazilian crane 001

(another Brazilian tried the same style some years later, but the result was not nearly as noteworthy)

After which I propose to fly over to Africa, which gave some of the best – but also many of the worst – gifts. Here are the best:

– a silver warrior riding his camel, from Niger, given by Head of State Seyni Kountche to Deng Xiaoping

nigerois warrior and camel 001

– somewhat in the same style but on a grander scale, a brass horse and rider from Cameroon, given by President Ahmadou Ahidjo to Zhou Enlai

cameroon brass horse 001

– a plate from the Republic of Congo, given by President Alphonse Massamba-Debat to Mao Zedong

congolese plate 001

– bust from Gabon, given by President El Hadj Omar Bongo Ondimba to Jiang Zemin

gabon bust 001

– and finally a gift from North Africa, a painting from Tunisia, given by Prime Minister Hedi Nouira to Zhou Enlai

tunisian painting 001

Tunisia is close to Europe, so why not do a hop, skip and a jump north over the Mediterranean. There was precious little that was nice from there, though. The best was this glass bird, a curlew, from Finland, a gift from Prime Minister Matti Vanhani to Wen Jiaobao

finnish bird 001

(there was another Finnish gift in the same style, but unfortunately the photo came out blurred so I haven’t added it; the Swedes, by the way, also gave a gift in glass, of fish in this case, but of appalling taste)

The Belgians, through the good office of King Baudoin, made a gift to Deng Xiaoping of a small but beautiful statue of a sitting horse

belgian horse 001

while from Portugal came this gift from Prime Minister Jose Socrates to Hu Jintao of a silver plate with a lovely azulejo­-inset of a boat in full sail

portuguese plate 001

Which leaves Asia, from where there was even less than Europe. The best was this silver bowl with a glass liner of a lustrous blue, from Vietnam, a gift from the Government to Liu Shaoqi.

vietnamese silver bowl 001

And that was it, as far as we were concerned. Really sad to see how little taste our Great Leaders have.

By the way, readers might be interested to know that, not to be outdone by his father, the Supreme Leader Kim Jong-il also built himself a hall, next to his father’s, to house his collection of rubbish … I mean, gifts. Luckily, we didn’t have to visit that one. No doubt Kim Jong-un, the current Supreme leader of North Korea, is currently hard at work with a team of architects designing his hall. Meanwhile, his people die of starvation and neglect.


International Friendship Exhibition Hall: [in
Kim present-basketball: [in
Kim present-glass bowl: [in
Kim present-alligator: [in
all other photos: mine


Beijing, 24 June 2014

My wife and I were having our usual chat with our daughter via FaceTime when she announced that she and her flat mate had been discussing the vital question of why cheeses were different from each other.

Well! That was more than enough bait for a nerd like myself to rise to. With eyes a-shinin’ and lips a-lickin’, I started to research the topic. It was actually a question I had also often posed myself: how on earth did you get so many different-tasting products out of the same rather bland starting material, milk?

I am proud to announce the results of my research. The answer is …. “The most important agents include the four following elements: rennet, starter bacteria and associated enzymes, milk enzymes, second starter bacteria and associated enzymes, and non-starter bacteria”. OK, that’s not very clear, so let me expand a little.

The first step in cheese making is curdling. In fresh, unpasteurized milk, curdling happens naturally. Attack by bacteria floating around in the air and settling on the milk leads to the formation of lactic acid, and it is heightened acidity that causes milk to curdle, separating out into solid curds and liquid whey. But we humans have learned to help the process along. Rennet, which is a complex of enzymes, seems to have been an early favourite for inducing curdling. An interesting theory I read is that our ancestors discovered the milk-curdling properties of rennet when they used animal stomachs as storage vessels for milk. FYI, mammalian stomachs naturally contain rennet as an evolutionary response to milk drinking (which is what makes a mammal a mammal rather than, say, a bird or a reptile). It allows young mammals to digest their mothers’ milk.

Or you can use acids. Given that you want to eat the result, you probably don’t want to use sulphuric acid or hydrochloric acid, even though I’m sure they would do the trick. Naturally-occurring (and edible) acids like vinegar and lemon juice will do nicely.

Or you don’t wait for some random bacteria floating around to attack the milk. Instead, you deliberately inoculate milk with so-called starter bacteria (often adding rennet in a second step). Presumably from previous trials and errors which occurred who knows how many centuries ago in monastery cellars or elsewhere

monks in cellar

these various strains of bacteria are known to give specific tastes to the final cheese. They will chemically attack the milk, and later the curds, in differing ways, giving rise to chemical products with different tastes.

In any event, one way or the other you will end up with curds


and whey


Like little Miss Muffet who sat on a tuffet, you can already eat the curds and whey if you so wish, preferably before a spider turns up and spoils your appetite.

little miss muffet

That is basically what cottage cheese is, loose curds

cottage cheese

while after a period when whey was considered only good for poor peasants, whey-based drinks are gaining a certain popularity with the health conscious.

whey-based drink

Alternatively, you can take the curds and start pressing them to get rid of liquid. Depending on how much you press them and process them thereafter, you’ll get a whole series of fresh cheeses: pot cheese, farmer’s cheese, hoop cheese, sour milk cheese, curd cheese, cream cheese, and a thousand others made in non-English cultures. I will mention three of these, the Italian mozzarella (where the curds are actually stretched and kneaded), the French fromage blanc, and the Austrian topfen: mozzarella, because it has to be the best cheese in the world; fromage blanc, because my French grandmother used to serve it when I was young and I always have it when I go back to France; topfen, because I discovered this cheese in the form of the dish topfenstrudel when we moved to Vienna. I will let this photo of farmer’s cheese stand for the whole class of fresh cheeses.

Farmer Cheese

Let me also mention boursin cheese, because (a) my daughter, who set me off on this posting, likes it, (b) it is a good example of the mixing of other ingredients – in this case garlic and fines herbes – with fresh cheese to make a new product (walnuts is another popular ingredient in this category) and (c) when I was young it had a really cool advertising line, “Du pain, du vin, du boursin”

boursin pub

Fresh cheese is just that, fresh. If you don’t process it further, it will spoil. The most basic preserver of cheese is salt, which has been used for millennia to preserve all sorts of food (salt also firms up the texture of cheese, by the way). So as a salute to salt, let me first deal with brined cheeses, which are cheeses that are matured in a brine solution. This is the main type of cheese produced in the Middle East and the Mediterranean areas: Greek feta, Cypriot halloumi, South-Eastern European sirene, Romanian telemea, Middle Eastern akkawi, Egyptian mish (which is also pickled), …. I will let a photo of feta cheese stand in for the class of brined cheeses.


In other cases, … well, the pressed curds seem to be processed in a bewilderingly different number of ways. They will always be salted (to put off spoilage). Some will be heated (which will kill off some, but not all, bacteria). Others will be washed (getting rid of acid and so making them milder to eat). Some are gently set in moulds (soft cheeses), others have the curds ruthlessly crumbled before being subject to moulding (hard cheeses). Then the cheeses are left to ripen for anything from three weeks to several years. But they aren’t left alone, oh no! Many are regularly washed, which helps to form the rinds and keep the cheese moist and no doubt to impart specific tastes. Brine is a common washing solution. In some cases, just to complicate things, the brine is aromatized with herbs. Alcoholic beverages are also popular rinses: wine, cider, beer, and just about any other alcoholic drink known to man. Or the cheeses are sprayed or injected with molds, or smeared with bacteria or molds or yeasts. Or some are smoked. And after all of this, cheese makers still keep fiddling: with humidity levels, with temperature, and with I don’t know what else. All of which gives rise to a dizzying variety of cheeses: they can be soft, or semi-soft, or medium-firm, or firm, or hard; their texture can be brittle, chalky, chewy, creamy, crumbly, flaky, grainy, runny, sticky; they can taste ammoniated, buttery, clean, complex, fermented, herbal, mild, musty, nutty, ripe, robust, salty, smoky, sour, spicy, sweet, tangy, tart, yeasty.

And I haven’t mentioned the effect on taste and texture of what is really the very, very first step in cheese-making, the choice of milk. I think you can make cheese from any mammalian milk (some clever fellows have even made cheese from human milk), but in practice cow’s milk dominates. Goat’s milk is also popular in many parts of the world, while sheep’s milk gets an honourable mention. Water buffalo’s milk is a must for mozzarella. Yak’s milk is used by the Mongolians and Tibetans. The Mongolians also use horse mare’s milk, while Afghanis and Pakistanis use camel’s milk. The Finns use reindeer’s milk, while Serbians have a tradition of making cheese with donkey’s milk. As anyone knows who has eaten goat’s cheese, for instance, the choice of milk sure changes the taste of the cheese. And of course milk isn’t just milk! There are those who insist that what the animals ate – hay versus grass versus any old crap – will affect the milk and therefore the taste of the cheese, so there are cheeses where – it is claimed – only milk from cows eating grass is used. And the time of the year in which the milk is produced, others say, affects its biochemical makeup, so there are cheeses which, I read, should only be made in March, or October, or …

All of this is enough to give one a strong headache …

Out of all of this seeming chaos, I have managed to extract a few categories of ripened cheeses to describe in more detail. Let me start with those cheeses which have molds sprayed onto them, principally of the penicillin family, and which give rise to rinds with white blooms on them. The best known of these has to be the French Camembert, whose surface is sprayed with a mold that is so linked to the cheese that it is named after it, Penicillium camemberti.


After years of eating it too, I feel I should also mention the French Brie.

Then there are the cheeses where the mold is injected into them. The French Roquefort and English Stilton fall into this category, although I will have a picture of the Italian Gorgonzola stand in for this group


for the completely trivial reason that when I drove through the village of Gorgonzola (which is near Milan) for the first time, I belatedly realized that actually the cheese was named after a real place.

Then there are the cheeses whose rinses encourage the growth on the rinds of another bacterium, Brevibacterium linens, which gives these cheeses their characteristic pinkish-reddish tint. This bacterium is ubiquitous on the human skin, so no prizes for guessing how it ended up on the cheeses. It is also why our feet smell when sweaty, which no doubt explains why the cheeses in this category tend to stink (it looks like we weren’t so wrong when as boys at school we accused each other of having socks which smelled of old cheese). There are some well-known cheeses in this category like Munster, Limburger, and Port-du-Salut, but I will use as a stand-in for this group a cheese that sadly no longer seems to exists but was a family favourite when I was young: crotte du diable, devil’s droppings (I have mentioned this cheese in a previous post).

crotte du diable

The cheese was very aptly named, having an incredibly foul-smelling rind, so foul that you had to wash your hands very thoroughly after eating it. But the cheese itself was wonderfully smooth.

I have to mention another cheese in this category, the Swiss Raclette. My wife introduced me to this cheese. She had got to know it well during her skiing days in the Alps. During our time in Paris, in the early 1980s, we discovered a little restaurant just off the Champs Elysées where you could get a glorious raclette, served just the way it should be, scraped (raclé) onto your plate and served with gherkins, pickled onions, and potatoes in their jacket.


When we went back to Paris many years later, we homed in on the place for lunch like bees for their hive. Alas! the restaurant was gone. Glumly, we wandered into a nearby restaurant and had ourselves a totally non-descript lunch. Sic transit gloria mundi.

I can’t think what other categories to extract from this mass of cheeses (over 700 of them according to So I’ll just salute a few cheeses which I personally consider deserve special mention:

The great, the glorious, the incomparable, Parmigiano Reggiano

Parmigiano reggiano

not to be grated onto some anonymous pasta, and not to be shaved onto some anonymous salad, but to be eaten alone, flake by grainy flake, slowly and with hushed reverence. When, a few years ago, my wife and I saw that a rare earthquake in Emilia Romagna had wrecked a couple of Parmigiano Reggiano storehouses, we briefly toyed with the idea of jumping onto the first airplane back to Italy and picking up some slightly damaged wheels of the cheese on the cheap. Good sense eventually prevailed.



which for me somehow is my youth (my mother was a generous purchaser of the cheese), and whose holes (which I have just learned are called “eyes” in the trade) fascinated me. With old age, I have become boringly scientific and now know that the eyes are caused by the use in the starter bacteria of the bacterium Propionibacterium freudenreichii, which consumes lactic acid and excretes CO2; the latter creates bubbles, which we see as eyes (if you get my drift). In the old days, these eyes were considered defects to be avoided, but no doubt after seeing how the eyes made the cheese popular with children and therefore with their parents, emmental makers began to encourage their presence.

Then I pass on to scamorza affumicata, which is not that well-known outside of Italy. Like mozzarella, it’s a stretched curd cheese which is then allowed to ripen. Makers form a ball and then tie a string around it to hang up in the store room, which explains its “strangled” shape.


It looks like this inside.


It is best when smoked, and best eaten grilled on bread. It was one of the Italian foodstuffs which my wife introduced me to when we first met.

And finally, goat’s cheese. Not those fussy little rolls you find in upscale shops, often covered in herbs or pepper or some other thing. No, I mean the goat’s cheese which I would eat at my grandmother’s house in France, which looked like this

fromage de chevre

The ones I ate were made by the farmer’s wife down the road. When we needed some, my mother or grandmother would give me the money, I would hop on my Solex and speed over to the farm, and after a little chit-chat – “how are you? how are the children?’ – she would take me out to the yard, where in an old bird cage sat a number of goat cheeses of differing ages. After some thoughtful discussion, I would choose a few, ranging from the fresh to the somewhat aged. Ah, those cheeses were soooo good!

I cannot end without a mention of Fondue, even though it’s a cheese dish rather than a cheese, because it’s just so … damned … good. It can be made from quite a number of cheeses, often mixed together, produced in the Alps or in the nearby Jura mountains: the Swiss Gruyère, Emmental, Vacherin, Sbrinz, and Appenzeller; the French Comté, Beaufort, and Reblochon; or the Italian Fontina. The key, of course, is the white wine. Here’s how you prepare a fondue: (1) Rub the inside of the pot with garlic. (2) Lightly heat the white wine with cornstarch (used to prevent separation of wine and cheese). (3) Add the grated cheese or cheeses and stir until it is all melted. (4) Top off with a bit of kirsch. Start eating, dipping chunks of bread into the pot.


Fondue has become so linked with Switzerland that Astérix, that bellwether of popular European culture, has fondue playing a prominent part in the album Astérix chez les Hélvètes. But in a bout of creative delirium the writer, Goscinny, and the illustrator, Uderzo, laced this most Swiss of traditions with debauchery borrowed from Federico Fellini’s much-discussed film Satyricon, which came out a year before the Asterix album was published and scandalized many. Satyricon included a series of Roman orgies, full of painted faces, feelings of ennui, mechanical gorging of elaborate food, and sado-masochistic punishments. So the fondue parties organized by Goscinny-Uderzo’s Roman governor of Helvetia take the form of orgies – although, to the governor’s great irritation, they are much too clean; this is Switzerland, after all.

asterix and fondue

The scenes pick up on a tradition that if you lose your bread in the fondue pot, you are punished in some way: for instance, a man has to buy a round of drinks, while a woman has to kiss her neighbours. In the case of Asterix, the young fool is thrown into Lake Geneva with weights attached to his feet, another nod to the casual brutality which filled Satyricon.

Anyway, these are my choices. I’m sure each one of my readers has his or her own list of favourites. I earnestly suggest that they immediately rush out, buy one or more of their favourites, and gorge themselves in a wild bout of cheese-eating.

And I hope I’ve answered my daughter’s question about how cheese is made.


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Beijing, 15 June 2014

My wife and I were watching TV with one eye the other day when the BBC passed a programme which caught our attention. It was about the Yorkshire Sculpture Park in the north of England. I think a few words of explanation are required for those readers who have never heard of this Park (our situation before watching the BBC programme). It was established back in 1977 in the grounds of a stately home the last of whose aristocratic owners (Viscount Allendale) had sold it to the local council after World War II, no doubt to save his financial skin (I mentioned the financial woes of the UK’s stately homes in an earlier posting of mine). The idea is a simple one: rather than displaying modern sculpture in open spaces in cities like plazas
sculpture in cities-1

sculpture in cities-2

or squares

sculpture in cities-3

sculpture in cities-4

or using the atriums of posh buildings

sculpture in cities-6

use the sweeping, open vistas of the countryside to display them. Here are some of the pieces at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park:




My wife and I agree on many things, and one of them is that modern sculptures are enhanced by being seen in a natural, organic setting rather than in the built urban environment. Personally, I think it has to do with the contrast between the dead surfaces of the sculptures and the much softer, living surfaces of the surrounding landscapes. It sounds a bit fancy, but the dead sculpture comes alive when in contact with organic life.

This was brought home to us very strongly when, 25 years ago, and on the advice of a friend who worked at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, we visited the Storm King Art Centre, which is an hour’s drive north of New York City, near the Hudson River. Here again, a few words of introduction. It’s really the classic American story (as much as the history of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park is the classic British story of modern times – decay of the old order and birth of a new one). A certain Mr. Ogden, after a successful career in the family business, purchased the land and property of Storm King and started collecting. He initially bought small sculptures which he exhibited around the house. At some point, he expanded out into the surrounding landscape, installing much bigger pieces. That’s it, in a nutshell. But the result – for us at least – was epiphanic.

In wonder we wandered along the rides mown through the grass, walking from one towering sculpture to another



from hilltops, we discovered long views across the surrounding landscape, where sculpture and land merged into one


we walked through glades in the woods, each with their own sculpture



we entered the woods to find smaller, more intimate sculptures scattered under the trees



we also found a sculpture-wall meandering through them


(better seen in this photo taken during the winter)


we turned our steps back to the house, discovering other smaller sculptures set down in more formal gardens around the house.



And finally, we entered the house and fell upon a sculpture which in all these years I have never forgotten: a group of robotic-looking statues with small motors making their jaws work up and down and with a closed-loop recording of voices quietly droning “chatter, chatter, chatter, chatter, chatter, chatter …” on and on, endlessly. Wonderful.  Every time I find myself in one of those meetings where people blather on and on and on I recall this statue group with intense clarity.

So taken were we with Storm King that the very first time we went back to New York after an absence of fifteen years we made sure to find time to go up there. It cast the same spell over us – although sadly the chattering statues had vanished (smashed to smithereens, no doubt, by an employee crazed by their endless droning).

As I contemplate these photos, it occurs to me that many of the megalithic structures scattered across the face of Europe could pass as modern sculptures set down in the surrounding landscape. Stonehenge, the most iconic of all megalithic structures, is probably too much like a ruin to make this comparison
but Avebury, like Stonehenge located in Wiltshire, has something of the abstraction of sculpture parks



and how about Carnac, in Brittany?

or Badelunda in Sweden?

Badelunda Västmanland

or the Ring of Brodgar, in the Orkney islands?

Ring of Brodgar

And even further afield, although not from the Mesolithic period, we have this intimate collection of upright stones in Toraja, Indonesia


Of course, the people who built these structures were not building sculpture parks, but I have to think that they too were stirred by the same feeling of connectedness between their standing stones and nature as we have between sculpture and nature. They attributed this feeling to a divine grace in the place, we simply enjoy the feeling.


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Beijing, 7 June 2014

It never ceases to amaze me that there are certain ingredients which one adds to recipes in small quantities but which make a huge difference to the final taste. Spices are the obvious example – although I often wish that the hot spices had never existed – but there are others. Parsley, for instance, or coriander, or anise. Or capers.

Capers are a particular favourite of mine ever since a business trip I made many years ago to Malta. I was there to do an environmental audit of a factory. After a long day of inspecting the wastewater treatment plant, the waste segregation area, the toxic chemicals storage area, and I don’t know what else, my colleagues and I were finally free for dinner. We left the hotel and wandered around, but it was a dead time of the year and there wasn’t much available. We finally came across a modest restaurant, which proclaimed itself to be a fish restaurant. Why not? we said, after all, we were in an island, presumably the fish would be good. And it was, it was! We all ordered Orata al cartoccio, where a bream is cooked – steamed in its own juices, really – in a closed aluminium foil package together with cherry tomatoes, capers, and olives. It’s really a very simple recipe. Having washed and cleaned the bream, you lay it on a big piece of aluminium foil, you place a little rosemary inside the fish, drizzle it with olive oil, place the sliced cherry tomatoes, rinsed capers, and olives around the bream, wet the whole with a little white wine, wrap up the foil and close it well (so that none of the juices escape), and cook it in the oven at 200°C for about 45 minutes. Voilà!

orata pomodorini capperi olive

Simple, but absolutely delicious. The capers in particular impart a taste to the fish’s flesh which even to this day, after all these years, I can summon up at will for my private delectation.

The marvelous effect of the capers was actually quite a surprise to me. I had first come across capers as a young boy, at my English grandmother’s house. At some earlier moment, my elder brother had evinced a love of capers, so every time he came to stay with her she bought a small jar of them. This time, I was in tow so I got to try some. Salty! So salty! How could anyone like these tiny balls of salt? I made sure to steer clear of them after that, pushing them carefully aside if I came across them in a salade Niçoise, for instance. Until that fateful encounter in a modest fish restaurant in Malta. Such is life …

After that gastronomic epiphany in Malta, I feel that I owe it to the caper to write its hagiography, which like all good hagiographies should start from its birth. The caper comes from a bush, the caper bush to be precise, capparis spinosa. The bush is not much to write home about. Here is an example from the island of Salina, one of the Eolian Islands off the north-west coast of Sicily

caper bush-1

and here’s another from near Brindisi in southern Italy

caper bush-2

Both pictures admirably depict the poor, rocky soils and harsh environments that the bush grows well in. They also tell us that you find the bush around the Mediterranean. But that’s not only place you find C. spinosa; the bush has quite a wide range, down through eastern Africa, across central, southern, and southeastern Asia, all the way out to the Pacific Islands and Australia. But as far as I know, and I’m very willing to be corrected, the caper is not used in the local cuisine in any of these areas.

The last picture also tells us that the bush sports flowers. Small, but actually very lovely, with a cluster of long mauve stamens reaching out to the world (this is one of many beautiful photos of the caper flower on the internet; the efforts of my photographic e-friends have turned me quite poetic).

caper flowers-2

This last picture also modestly introduces us to the hero our story. Because the caper is that green flower bud behind. It gets picked, salted, and pickled for our delight. I think it deserves a picture of its own

caper buds

I have to say, I always marvel at things like this. How did the women in some far-off time think of picking the flower buds of this bush to eat? (I’m sure it was the women; the men were just lazing around the camp fire cracking stupid jokes and farting.) Maybe desperation, to stave off starvation. Or maybe … but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Capers are sold sorted by size. Either because the French got into the game of commercializing capers before anyone else, or because some canny marketer thought French names would sell better, or for some other reason unknown to me, the grades mostly have French names. From smallest to biggest we have: “non-pareil”, incomparable; “surfine”, very delicate (those hideously salty little balls which my grandmother bought for my brother must have been either surfines or non-pareils); “capucine”, which is a little pointed cowl, like the ones worn by Franciscans nuns – looking at the photo below and squinting a little, I suppose you could say that the capers in question look cowl-like; “capote”, which is a rather bigger cowl with a definite point (it is also French slang for a condom for reasons which I’m sure the readers can divine after a little bit of thought); “fine”, delicate (like the oysters). And at the very end of the grades we have “grusas”, which is not a French word. My guess is that it’s Provençal and has a meaning similar to the Spanish “gruesos”, fatty. Of course, the French were not going to use their delicate language for such a coarse member of the caper family. As one could guess from the grading nomenclature, the smallest sizes are considered to be the most desirable; I’m sure it is no coincidence that the smallest sizes come from southern France …

graded capers

Malta brought me my culinary epiphany with the caper. It also introduced me to the caper berry, which I find to be a much more delicious product of the caper bush. My Italian colleague, whom I have had cause to mention in an earlier post as the person who introduced me to durian, was with me on this Maltese environmental audit. Rather than asking the staff of the wastewater treatment plant to see the data on wastewater treatment efficiency he asked them to get him several jars of pickled Maltese caper berries. On the promise of my not revealing this professional faux-pas of his he shared one of the jars with me, which I took home to my wife. We have been hooked ever since.

caper berries-2

As the name suggest, caper berries are the fruit of the caper bush. This photo shows the berry in its natural state.

caper berries-natural state

I understand they are perfectly edible, although I have never seen them sold in a shop. I’ve only eaten the pickled variety. They are much bigger than capers, less salty, more crunchy (because of the seeds they contain) and can be eaten as a snack – and my wife and I have indeed snacked happily and often on them, in front of the TV or other such snack-happy locations.

Coming back to my meditation on how anyone ever came up with the idea of pickling flower buds to eat, I suspect the path was through the berry: step 1 – eat the berries; step 2 – salt the berries to preserve the excedent harvest before they rot; step 3 – hang on, why don’t we try the same thing with the flower buds?

My in-depth research (i.e., Wikipedia) has revealed to me that in Greece and Cyprus they also eat the pickled leaves of the caper bush.

caper leaves

This I have never tried. I read that they are particularly used in salads and fish dishes. A web-site called Good Greek Stuff proclaims that “these tangy cured leaves of the caper plant are less salty than the buds, and lend a citrusy undertone to such foods as Greek country salad, dakos (barley rusks with tomato, olive oil and feta), fish sauces, and cabbage slaws. It gives an astringent, piquant note to herb pestos and pasta dishes. And you’ll be amazed at what it does to the humble spaghetti aglio, olio e peperoncino or how well it works as a garnish to fried squid.”

I have another culinary epiphany awaiting me in some Greek island.
Orata, pomodorini, capperi, olive: [in
Caper bush Salina: [in
Caper bush Brindisi: [in
Caper flower: [in
Caper flower buds: [in
Graded capers: [in
Caper berries: [in
Caper berries-natural state: [in
Caper leaves: [in