Beijing, 26 August 2014

Suddenly, there are vendors on every street corner of Beijing hawking pomegranate juice.

pomegranate pressers 004

As certainly as the appearance of vendors selling pineapples on Beijing’s streets is a signal that Spring is coming, so this new apparition is a sign that Summer is drawing to a close, with the pomegranate trees now heavy with fruit.

pomegranate orchard

My wife and I have bought our cup of pomegranate juice. Peering down into that dark red liquid


I have as usual begun to ask myself questions about this fruit. It’s not from my basket of inherited foods. I never remember eating it as a child. Which is not surprising, really. It doesn’t grow well in the UK or France – certainly, my French grandmother had no pomegranate trees in her garden; peaches, plums, apples and pears, but no pomegranates. I have never eaten them in Italy either, even though they were brought to Italy during Roman times; their cultivation is limited to the far south.

That’s the thing, pomegranates are not a European fruit. I thought for a moment – given my previous discoveries – that they originated in China. But actually their historical tap root is sunk in Persia (today’s Iran), and the Himalayan foothills of the Indian subcontinent.

It’s been cultivated as a fruit for an awfully long time; they say it’s probably one of the very first fruits which we humans cultivated. And it caught on, being carried enthusiastically along the ancient trade routes. It was already being eaten in Jericho in 3,000 BC or thereabouts and in Cyprus some while later (in both cases, archaeologists found remains of the fruit in the cities’ ancient garbage dumps).

From the Middle East, it was but a hop, skip and a jump to bring the pomegranate to Greece in one direction and to Egypt in the other. This piece of fresco from a tomb painting in Egypt shows the delights of a private garden, with a pomegranate tree tucked away in one corner, no doubt a prelude of the delights which awaited Nebamun, the owner of this particular tomb, in the after-life.

Egyptian wall painting 'Pond_in_a_Garden'

Meanwhile, from their base in Lebanon, the Phoenicians carried the fruit to their overseas territories, notably Carthage. And it was from Carthage that the pomegranate arrived in Rome. Everything comes full circle in this picture, where a mosaic in the Roman style, laid down in the city of Caesarea in Rome’s near eastern province of Judaea (in what is now Israel)

Roman Bird-Mosaic-in-Caesarea

depicts among other delights a pomegranate tree.

Roman Bird-Mosaic-detail

For their part, having welcomed the pomegranate into the homeland – the delights of the pomegranate are mentioned no less than three times in the Quran – the Arabs carried the pomegranate with them in their conquests of North Africa. Later on, the Muslimised Berbers of North Africa brought it to Spain. And it is in their palace of Alhambra in the city of Grenada, the last Muslim stronghold in Spain, that we find, weaved into the intricate designs on the walls, this pomegranate


To be found in the palace’s Golden chamber.

alhambra-cuarto dorado

Perhaps it comes as no surprise to know that Spain is now Europe’s biggest producer of pomegranates.

Meanwhile, the pomegranate also travelled east from Persia, along the fabled Silk Road, through Central Asia and finally entered China through Xinjian. But after becoming one of the three blessed fruits of Buddhism, it also tumbled off the Himalayas and travelled into the heart of India, and probably from there it sailed, via the Maritime Silk Route, to south China and Southeast Asia. And from China it was but another hop, skip, and a jump for the pomegranate to be carried to Japan and Korea, where in truth it was appreciated more as a good candidate for bonsai-ism than for its fruit.

bonsai pomegranate

In passing, we should acknowledge that the pomegranate tree does have beautiful flowers


another reason that the ancients loved the tree, as evidenced by this other wall painting from Egypt

Egyptian wall painting pomegranate in flower

To be honest, I’m not sure I understand what all the enthusiasm is about. I mean, the juice is OK, but what I really like about a fruit is to sink my teeth into it. And all those seeds in the pomegranate


make that an unpleasant experience – bits of seeds getting stuck in my teeth, a sort of gritty munching experience, that sort of thing … I know the seeds are edible, but psychologically I’m not ready to crunch my way through a whole bunch of seeds. I’ll pick up a peach instead, thank you.

In my opinion, though, it’s precisely those seeds that made it so popular in the old days and encouraged its dissemination out of its Persian-Himalayan homeland. Not, I should clarify, because people liked to crunch their way through a pile of seeds 5,000 years ago (although maybe they did), but because those seeds were a potent symbol of fertility to those eaters. Remember one of the cardinal principles of sympathetic magic, which was potent then: if I eat something (or spread it on my skin, or wear it), I will absorb its powers. Clearly, all those seeds meant that the pomegranate was suffused with fertility. So it would be good to eat it, for instance, if I wanted to have lots of children. This old, old idea has been continued as a quaint custom played out in Greek and Armenian weddings

greek wedding

where at some point the bride breaks open a pomegranate and the seeds spill out (I’m sure I do not need to explain the symbolism of this). But this wish for fertility can be more generalized, and in this guise the pomegranate tree has been cast in the role of Tree of Life. Here, for instance, on this ancient Assyrian seal we see priests standing before a pomegranate as the tree of life, with the sun – another symbol of life – gently beaming down

Assyrian priests with pomegranate tree

And here we see the same symbolism woven into this carpet, made several thousand years later and several thousand kilometres away in the southern corner of the Chinese province of Xinjian.

Khotan carpet

Good ideas have staying power.

The fertility attributed to the pomegranate led to even more abstruse symbolism. Already in Egypt the pomegranate’s fertility transmuted it into a symbol of life after death: eternal fertility – which is why they liked having it represented in their tombs. Somehow, somewhere along the line, the pomegranate took on a similar symbolism for Christians, becoming a representation of Christ’s resurrection and promise of life after death. So here we have a pomegranate along with Christ in a Roman mosaic (again) from the 4th Century AD, from, of all places, a small village in Dorset.

Christian mosaic hinton st mary-detail

Christian mosaic hinton st mary

And here we have an incomparably more beautiful version from 1487 by Sandro Botticelli



Botticelli is telling us that both the Madonna and her child know of the suffering to come, but the pomegranate tells us that it will not have been in vain.

All of this doesn’t change the fact that pomegranates have too many seeds in them to make them a nice eat.


Pomegranate presser: my picture
Pomegranate orchard: [in
Pomegranate juice: [in
Egyptian wall painting “Pond in a garden”:”Pond_in_a_Garden”_(fresco_from_the_Tomb_of_Nebamun).jpg [in (fresco from the Tomb of Nebamun, Thebes, 18th Dynasty).jpg
Roman bird mosaic:
Roman bird mosaic-pomegranate: [in
Alhambra-detail: [in (Alhambra: Cuarto Dorado, detail of stucco decoration, Date: 14th century, Alhambra: Cuarto Dorado (Golden Chamber), detail of carved stucco decoration with pomegranate motifs, 14th century, Nasrid period.)
Alhambra-cuarto dorado: [in
Bonsai pomegranate: [in
Pomegranate flower: [in
Egyptian wall painting pomegranate tree in flower: [in
Pomegranate seeds: [in
Greek wedding: [in
Assyrian priests with pomegranate tree: [in
Khotan carpet: [in
Christian mosaic Hinton St Mary: [in
Christian mosaic Hinton St Mary-detail: [in
Botticelli: [in
Botticelli-detail: [in


Beijing, 21 August 2015

When I was young (“so much younger than today” as the Beatles sang so long ago), I was a fanatic of the bike. Well, at least during the summer holidays I was. I would spend them at my grandmother’s house in France, where there were always a bunch of bicycles, big and small, old and new, lying around and ready to be grabbed and ridden. My cousins spent the summer next door, so we would spend endless afternoons bicycling around the Beaujolais countryside which surrounded us – I’ve already written about this in a previous post.

When I was 10 or 11, my parents decided that it was time for me to have my own bike. They took me down to the main bicycle shop in the nearby market town. After a certain amount of negotiation, we agreed on a Peugeot bike. How I loved that bike! It was an exquisite light green colour, with a real leather saddle, four gears, silver mudguards, white-walled tyres, a little satchel hanging behind the saddle with all the equipment needed to mend a puncture, a pump hooked to the crossbar, lights that worked with a dynamo which clicked into place on the front wheel and which purred as I flew down the darkened lanes at night… As you can see, that bike has been etched deeply into my memory. I spent many a happy moment cleaning it, burnishing it, oiling it, pumping its tyres. Whenever I arrived for a holiday, after a hasty peck on my grandmother’s cheek, it was to my bike that I rushed, to give it a loving wipe and the first whirl of the holidays down the lanes.

Well, I grew up and moved on. The bike stayed mournfully propped against the garage wall, while I graduated to motorized transport – the moped first, then the car. I would give it a pat from time to time, and then nephews and nieces began to use it, then I stopped going to my grandmother’s house, then one day it was gone.

It’s not as if I betrayed my bike with another. Apart from a year or two when my wife and I were living near Lake Maggiore and did everything by bike – going to work of course, but also the shopping, the post office, the cleaning, and simply touring around – I just stopped riding bikes. It’s difficult to ride a bike in cities, you know, and then the kids came along, and then, and then … Even in China, empire of the bicycle (well, fast becoming the empire of the car), I never rode a bicycle.

Until now.

I won’t go into the details, suffice to say that by pure happenstance I’ve been given the use of a bike, and I have a place to park it safely, both at work and at home. So now every day, I ride to and from work. On this sweet little thing.

the bike i get to use

OK, it’s not a cool racing bike like this one

racing bike-3

or this one

racing bike-2or even this one (whose green rather reminds me of the green of my Peugeot bicycle)

futuristic bike-7

And it doesn’t give me an excuse to dress up in this unutterably cool way


Nor does it allow me to go around in this intriguing way


or this extraordinary way (apparently this bike works on water too)

futuristic bike-3

But that’s OK, it allows me to reconnect with the bike. And it gives my thighs a really good work-out! My daughter will be very pleased to hear that. She’s always telling me and my wife to do more exercise.


the sweet bike: my pic
Racing bike-1: [in
Racing bike-2: [in
Futuristic bike-1: [in
Racer: [in
Racer-horizontal: [in
Futuristic bike-2: [in


Beijing, 14 August 2014

There was a board game I used to play when I was young, I forget its name, but it had to do with pirates and their treasure. I suspect that the game was loosely based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, which the boys of my generation had all read.

Treasure.Island frank godwin 1925

“Harr, me hearties, pull strong, pull straight! Yohoho an’ a bottle o’ rum!” etc.

The purpose of the game was to capture the treasure, and like all good board games it had miniature treasure – miniature gold bars, miniature rubies, miniature diamonds, and so on. You stockpiled your treasure on islands, and you attacked each other to lay your grubby hands on everyone else’s treasure. I was fascinated by all that miniature treasure. I most lusted after the rubies. “Get in thar, lads, and grab t’ treajaye!”

This fascination of small boys like me with pirates and treasure was brilliantly tapped into by Hergé, the author of Tintin, who in two volumes caught the whole buccaneering spirit


and the subsequent hunt for buried treasure


Ah, look how that evil pirate Rackham the Red shows off his treasure to Captain Haddock!

rackham montre le tresor

And look how his great-great-great etc. grandson Captain Haddock’s head is sent spinning when he finally finds this treasure!

Capt Haddock trouve le tresor de Rackham le rouge

All that glinting gold! All those sparkling gems!

But I grew up, and grew more sensible, and found that I didn’t actually like sparkling gems (I still like gold, though …). I’m told that gemstones are cut and faceted to bring out their sparkle – or to use the correct language, their brilliance and their fire. Some fellow called Marcel Tolkowsky even went so far as to work out mathematically the best faceting to give gems so as to use the light’s reflection and refraction to maximize their fire and brilliance. But when I now look at my once-favourite rubies

WellsFargoInsertRuby, July

or sapphires

sapphires-blueor emeraldsemeraldsor diamonds


I see nothing but cold, hard precision, stuff for the Rich Bitch.

This was forcefully brought home to me last Christmas when my wife and I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art during what has become our annual visit to our daughter in New York. The museum happened to be holding an exhibition of the medieval treasures from the Cathedral of Hildesheim in Germany. At that time – we are talking the 1100s – people didn’t know how to facet stones, so gems were mainly polished and rounded into cabochons. Take a look at these photos to see what I mean.

Here is a bible cover.

photo 012

This is a cross.

photo 004

This a reliquary.

photo 010

This a liturgical fan.

photo 007

The rounded shape in a gem is so much more simpatico, I feel, warmer, more approachable, so much more like us. I mean, we’re sort of round – more round than faceted. OK, it’s all a bit fanciful, but it is true that cabochons are much more like all those rounded, smooth, coloured pebbles that I’m sure we all picked up as kids on the beach and dreamily turned over and over in our hands.

boy on beach

I was certainly an assiduous pebble collector, a habit which I have kept up all my life. Everywhere I have gone, I have collected stones smoothed by the passage of water. I am always looking for interesting colours, striking striations, or curious shapes. Every time I find myself on a beach, my eyes will automatically drop and scour the sand or pebbles for interesting stones (or shells, or any curious flotsam thrown up by the sea). Even here in Beijing, far away from any beach, I have my collection of smooth stones, collected here and there.

So you can understand that in my sensible adulthood I have not been so interested in Rich Bitch jewelry like this

emerald necklace elizabeth-taylorpreferring “ethnic jewelry” like this.

ethnic necklace

(there is also a small matter of the price tag, but we’ll put that aside for the time being)

I insert here a photo of a wonderful necklace I bought my wife some five years ago. It’s a string of red agate stones. Very pebble-like, don’t you think? You see it here gracing her wonderful neck. I bought it in a little shop in Vienna which specializes in Asian ethnic jewelry.

my wifes necklace 001

In these preferences I feel a bond with my faraway ancestors. But back, back we have to go, beyond the Romans

Roman necklace

and the Greeks

Helenistic gem and gold necklace

where too much gold intrudes.

Beyond even the Egyptians, where silver gets in the way

Egyptian Electrum Cowrie Shell Necklace

We have to go back to the Celts two Centuries before Christ.

celtic necklace 2nd C BC Switzerlandand even further back to our prehistoric ancestors, 4,000 BC in this case

Late Prehistoric Beadsand 2,600 BC in this case

Late Prehistoric Beads-2

I’ve always felt myself to be a bit of a Cro-Magnon man. I think my wife sometimes agrees …


Treasure Island book cover: [in
Le Secret de la Licorne: [in
Le Trésor de Rackham le Rouge: [in
Rackham shows Haddock the treasure: [in
Capt. Haddock finds the treasure: [in
Rubies: [in
Sapphires-blue:×737.jpg [in
Emeralds: [in
Diamonds: [in
The Hildesheim treasures: my photos
Boy on beach: [in
Emerald necklace (Elizabeth Taylor): [in
Ethnic necklace: [in
Necklace on my wife: my pic.
Roman necklace: [in
Hellenistic necklace: [in
Egyptian electrum and beads necklace: [in in
Celtic necklace 2nd C BC Switzerland: [in
Late prehistoric necklace: [in
Late prehistoric beads-2: [in


Beijing, 3 August 2014

I’m very boring when it comes to using after-shaves, eaux de cologne, or similar perfumes. I use none. I don’t even like to use perfumed soaps. I prefer to smell of nothing. Very boring.

This dislike of perfumes extends to perfumes on others. For instance, I wince and move rapidly out of the way if I happen, on the street or in a corridor, to find myself walking into the scented wash following a heavily perfumed person. And I always stare disapprovingly at scented people if I find myself with them in elevators or other enclosed spaces from which I cannot escape.

As you can imagine, this scentophobia of mine, if I can call it that, is the despair of my wife. Whenever we are taking an international flight she always makes a bee-line for the perfumery section of the Duty Free shop, where she will try a spray of this and a squirt of that. She always asks me my opinion, and like any good husband I always take a sniff and murmur something unintelligible. She sighs and asks out loud why she bothers. Indeed, why does she bother? I suppose hope springs eternal.

But actually, once, just once, she tried a perfume, she asked me my opinion, I dutifully sniffed … and I blinked. I liked it! I actually liked it! It had a lemony-sort of scent which my nose really found quite attractive. Terribly pleased by this exciting development, my wife promptly purchased the perfume in question and has been using it ever since. Since my readers are no doubt on the edge of their seats by now, wondering what perfume it was, I am glad to announce that it was Chance Eau Fraîche, by Chanel.

Chanel Chance Eau FraicheI’m not sure that its use filled my wife with quite as much delirious happiness as this young lady is showing, but it did put a spring in her step and a twinkle in her eye. It also allowed me to close my eyes and go “mmm-aaah” whenever she gave herself a spray.

man smelling perfume-2

All was well until the perfume began to run out. A replacement became an impelling necessity. An inspection of shops in Beijing showed that prices were ridiculously high here, so I was given the task – gladly taken on, since I liked the perfume – of getting a new bottle on my upcoming trip to Europe. Which I did, in the Duty Free shop at Vienna airport. I triumphantly presented it to my wife upon my arrival. She ceremoniously opened the packaging, fished out the bottle, and gave herself a spray.

OMG, not the same! We sniffed, we conferred, we checked the packaging (I could have got the wrong product, it wouldn’t have been the first time), we compared it to the remaining dregs in the old bottle … No doubt about it, something was different. But what?

I went off in a frenzy of searching on the internet, starting with Chanel perfumes’ own website. Allow me to quote the blurb about Chance Eau Fraîche which I found there

A vibrant incarnation of the unexpected fragrance, now takes on a sparkling freshness. The unexpected floral bursts with a lightness and zest as notes of Citrus, Water Hyacinth and Jasmine Absolute are highlighted and energized with woody notes of Amber, Patchouli and Fresh Vetiver.

I must say, I thought I had reached the maximum levels of BS in descriptions of wines, which I commented on in an earlier post, but the BS written about perfumes beats them all. In any event, this description didn’t help me in figuring out what was wrong.

Another site, after breathlessly quoting the Chanel site blurb almost word for word, added this:

Top Notes: Citron, Water Hyacinth
Middle Notes: Jasmine Absolute, White Musk
Base Notes: Vetiver, Amber, Patchouli, Teak

What was this stuff about notes? A bit more research on my part taught me that there is such a thing as a fragrance pyramid, which looks like this:


This chart explains what all these notes mean (BTW, middle notes are also called heart notes, and top notes head notes), but it’s rather scholastic, the sort of thing a teacher would put on the board at school. Here’s a more colourful version of the same pyramid

olfactive pyramid-2Coming back to our problem with Chance Eau Fraîche, something must have happened to the top notes, because we smell the difference immediately. My wife thinks the Chanel people have cut back on the citron note. I think it’s something else – have they fiddled with the water hyacinth note? I wouldn’t be able to say because I have no idea what water hyacinth smells like. The closest I’ve come to the plant is clumps of it floating past the window on the Chao Phraya River last week in Bangkok.

water hyacinths 001

In fact, I only know it as a horribly invasive species, which has more or less choked Lake Victoria in Africa to death. But it has a beautiful flower

Water Hyacinth Flowerwhich, it seems, was the reason it was taken away from its original homeland in South America and spread the world over.

But now that I’ve learned this stuff about notes, I shall have to sneak up on my wife some 10-15 minutes after she has applied the perfume and see if I can smell the middle notes, jasmine absolute and white musk – which are what, exactly?

Well jasmine I know, and I know that my wife loves it. But there are a bewildering number of jasmine species, several of which are used for fragrances, so completely randomly I’ve chosen a picture of the flower from jasminum multiflorum to represent the species.

jasmineAs for this word “absolute”, I have learned that some flowers, jasmine being one of them, are too delicate to have their oils extracted through distillation. Instead, they are extracted with solvents or through enfleurage, a process where the petals are pressed or stirred into fats.

I think I would recognize jasmine if I smell it on my wife, but I’ve no idea what white musk would smell like. I have this idea that it would be very penetrating as a smell – “animalic”, as they put it in that second fragrance pyramid I give above. Come to think of it, I don’t even really know what musk is, or at least I didn’t until I read up for this post. Now I know a bit more. For starters, white musk is the name given to synthetic musk. For economic, and I would hope ethical, reasons, musk is no longer taken from its natural source, which is a gland of the male musk deer (I had vaguely thought it came from civet cats, don’t know why).

musk deer

Nice looking creatures, although what strange fangs they have! The famous musk gland lies in a sac located between the poor animal’s genitals and its navel. Presumably, you had to kill the animal to get to this gland.

So that does the middle notes. After three-four hours, I can sneak up on my wife again and try to detect the base notes. And here again, I have to confess to much ignorance. I know what amber and teak are, although I have difficulties in understanding what essential oils could be extracted from them, but what, I asked myself, are vetiver and patchouli?

They are both plants, it turns out, which come from India or thereabouts. Vetiver is a grass, related to sorghum.

vetiverThe essential oil used in perfumes comes from its roots.

vetiver roots

The oil is described as smelling “warm and dry, and conveying earthy, woody, leather, balsamic and smoky notes”. I’m not sure how exactly that would register in my nose; I guess I will see.

As for patchouli, it is a bushy herb of the mint family with small, pale purple flowers.

patchouli plantIf you thought like I did that the essential oil comes from the flowers, you would be wrong. It comes from a distillation of the plant’s leaves. It seems that it has a heavy and strong scent, so I guess I will recognize it when I take that surreptitious sniff at my wife’s neck.

As for amber, I quickly understood that we were not talking about real amber. Instead, the word is used to loosely describe a fragrance that is “warm, musky, rich and honey-like”, and also “somewhat oriental and earthy”. Like everything nowadays, it can be made completely synthetically. But I prefer to believe that the master perfumer who created Chance Eau Fraîche, Jacques Polge, used natural resins. In that case, the basis of the “amber” in my wife’s perfume will probably be labdanum, which comes from a species of rockrose found in the Mediterranean. The shrub has a lovely flower


but actually what is used in perfumes is the plant’s resin, which is usually extracted by boiling the leaves and twigs. To this can be added benzoin resin (obtained from the bark of several species of trees in the genus Styrax), copal (another type of tree resin), Dammara resin (from the kauri or dammar trees), vanilla, cloves and who knows what else. Labdanum’s fragrance is described as “animalic, sweet, woody, ambergris, dry musk, or leathery” and “very rich, complex and tenacious”. OK, let’s see what my nose tells me.

And teak? I guess that will be a woody smell …

Right, it’s time to go sniffing around my wife.


Chanel Chance Eau Fraiche: [in
Man smelling perfume: [in
Fragrance Pyramid: [in
Fragrance pyramid-2: [in
Water hyacinth on the Chao Phraya River: my photo
Water hyacinth flower: [in
Jasmine flower: [in
Musk deer: [in
Vetiver: [in
Vetiver roots: growth2.JPG [in
Patchouli: [in
Labdanum flower: [in