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Month: January, 2018

ROCKY OUTCROPS

Milan, 28 January 2018

I’ve just come back from Yangon, where I was giving a training course on the implementation of cleaner production methods. An interesting topic, but not actually the subject of this post. It so happens that on the first night I was there I stumbled across this picture.

This is Popa Taung Kalat, a monastery perched atop an old volcanic plug some 50 km away from Bagan. I immediately sent my wife a WhatsApp asking why we had not visited this place on our visit to Bagan. The question was rhetorical since I know the answer: we didn’t go because neither of us knew that Popa Taung Kalat existed until I came across this photo.

Which is a great pity, because I have a certain fascination for places perched on knolls, buttes, tors, or other rocky outcrops, especially if they sit in a flat plain and are visible from miles around. My wife and I recently spent a very pleasant evening in a similar place to Popa Taung Kalat, the small town of Laon close to Reims, when we did our tour of French battlefields of the First World War.

In this case, although it sports a magnificent 12th-13th Century cathedral

the outcrop’s original use by the Gauls was martial rather than religious; they built a fortress on the top. The outcrop’s military vocation continued for centuries thereafter. Given its position, this is not really surprising. Whoever commanded Laon controlled one of the major entry points into the Île de France.

Polignac, in the Auvergne, is another rocky outcrop where military considerations seem to have been paramount in its original colonization. The Velay family built the first castle in the 11th Century and continued to live there and rule the surrounding country for some six centuries.

Edinburgh, too, where my wife and I met more years ago than I care to remember, when we were both university students there, sports a magnificent castle atop an ancient volcanic plug.

Here, though, that rather special effect of being able to see it from miles away is lost, the old sight lines having been obscured by the urban jumble that has spread out from the historic core of the city which lay huddled at the base of the castle or which clustered along the long road, the Royal Mile, that led down from the castle to the royal palace below.

A similar stony promontory lies close to my French grandmother’s (now my sister’s) house near Mâcon, the Roche de Solutré, one which I spent many happy hours in my youth climbing.

It was first used by our ancestors 20,000 years ago to kill wild animals in large numbers. They would drive the poor beasts up towards the edge where, in their panic, they would fall off to their deaths below, to be butchered on the spot. The archaeological finds gave the name Solutrean to a phase in the Upper Paleolithic. But coming back to our martial theme, it is of greater interest that a certain Raoul de Bourgogne built a castle on its top in 930, and his descendants used its dominating position to harass those passing by and demand protection money. Philip the Fair, Duke of Burgundy, finally decided that enough was enough and ordered its destruction in 1434. Popular jubilation was such that several people were killed in the crazed desire to rip the castle apart, stone from stone. Since then, no human constructions have gone up on the Roche; as the picture above shows it only sports vineyards on its lower slopes, vineyards which, I may say, make excellent wines – Pouilly-Fuissé, Saint-Véran, Mâcon-Solutré – and which have made millionaires of the local viticulturists.

Thousands of kilometers away, in Sri Lanka, another outcrop similar to that of Popa Taung Kalat, Sigiriya, is now the site of peaceful gardens.

There was a time, though, back in the 5th Century, when it was a fortress built by King Kashyapa. But it seems he was also a lover of the arts. There is only a small piece of fresco left now in a concavity

but apparently the whole western side of the rock was once frescoed. It must have been an incredible sight. Perhaps for the good of his soul King Kashyapa turned his palace over to monks at his death, who installed a monastic community. They stayed until the 14th Century, then moved on. It’s a pity that the last time I was in Sri Lanka the country was still being torn apart by the civil war, making travel outside of the capital Colombo risky. Who knows, one day maybe I’ll go back there with my wife and we can go and visit this enchanting place.

But actually, coming back to where I started this piece, at Popa Taung Kalat in Myanmar, while I understand the cold logic which drove warlords to view these outcrops as natural fortresses, I prefer the more mystical impulses which have driven men, and sometimes women if they have been allowed to, to perch a monastery, a church, or just a simple hermitage on top of such outcrops, where they can pray in peace far from the madding crowd. It’s given us some wonderful blends of nature and architecture. There are the Orthodox monasteries in Meteora in Greece.

There is the chapel of Saint Michel d’Aiguilhe in Le Puy-en-Velay, in France, which was first established in 969.

There is the little hermitage/monastery in Katskhi, Georgia.

The last picture makes me think of Simeon Stylites, the 5th Century Christian monk who, it is reported, spent some 30 years on top of a column, and who started quite a craze in holy men perching themselves on columns. There is of course no picture from the period but this is an imaginative rendering.

As for his column, this is all that is left of it after centuries of devout pilgrims chipping off pieces as relics.

Over the ages, monks have shown an enduring enthusiasm to climb up to inaccessible places to be left alone, leaving behind wonderful creations in the process. When my wife and I were in China, we once visited the Hanging Temple near Datong, a Buddhist monastery literally clinging to the side of a cliff.

The monks had excavated a series of caves in the cliff face, connected by a series of suffocatingly narrow internal staircases or alarmingly rickety walkways pegged to the rock, and then had clamped a temple facade onto the exterior. The effect is quite magical.

Meanwhile, in Cappadocia in what is now Turkey, Christian monks had also burrowed into mountain sides to create their communities far from the world.

Some of the churches they dug out of the rock still carry their frescoes.

And up in the Ethiopian highlands monks have built their churches high up on cliff faces, like the Abuna Yemata Guh church in Tigray province, which can only be reached after an arduous climb

and some sphincter-clenching shuffling along narrow ledges with long, long, long falls if you take a false step.

But once there, you are greeted with delightful frescoes in the Ethiopian style.

How much trouble those monks went to to get away from it all! I can’t complain since they created such wonderful places for me to visit one day. But surely they could have made their lives a little bit easier and still managed to pray and contemplate to their heart’s content. But hey, who am I to judge? The contemplative life never attracted me; the real world, with all its troubles and vicissitudes, but also with all its joys and satisfactions, is much more my scene.

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Popa Taung Kalat: http://www.wondermondo.com/Countries/As/Burma/Mandalay/PopaTaungKalat.htm
Laon: https://www.tourisme-paysdelaon.com/Cote-histoire/Historique-du-Pays-de-Laon/La-mutation-en-ville-prefectorale
Laon cathedral exterior: https://www.taringa.net/posts/info/18971189/A-que-no-sabias-esto-lince.html
Polignac: http://www.panoramio.com/photo/33272295
Edinburgh Castle: https://erasmusu.com/en/erasmus-edinburgh/erasmus-photos/princes-street-gardens-and-edinburgh-castle-75483
Old print of Edinburgh: https://phrenologyandcrime.com/2014/08/31/edinburgh/
Solutre: https://www.geo.fr/environnement/france-nature/les-paradis-nature-de-bourgogne/solutre-rocher
Sigiriya: http://www.gocaribou.com/blog/2015/7/4/the-cultural-triangle-of-sri-lanka
Sigiriya frescoes: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sigiriya#Frescoes
Holy Trinity Monastery, Meteora, Greece: http://www.touropia.com/meteora-monasteries/
St-Michel de l’Aiguilhe: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Le_Puy-en-Velay,_%C3%89glise_Saint-Laurent_et_Aiguilhe_PM_48569.jpg
Katskhi Pillar Church: http://orthochristian.com/89130.html
Simeon Stylites: https://www.vimaorthodoxias.gr/theologikos-logos-diafora/agios-simeon-o-stilitis/
Remains of the column of Simeon Stylites: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Church_of_Saint_Simeon_Stylites
Hanging temple, China: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hanging_Temple
Cave churches of Cappadocia: https://www.expedia.com/things-to-do/full-day-tour-of-cappadocia-region-goreme-open-air-museum-with-lunch.a395058.activity-details
Cappadocia cave church frescoes: http://www.aydinligoremetravel.com/goreme-open-air-museum/
Climbing to Abuna Yemata Guh: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pN67Zsxx-Vo
Arriving to the Abuna Yemata Guh: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y_GxzdGS84M
Abuna Yemata Guh inside: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/travel/travel_news/article-2823326/Abuna-Yemata-Guh-church-sky-Ethiopia-world-s-inaccessible-place-worship.html

COFFEE AND ORANGE, COFFEE AND LEMON

Milan, 7 January 2018

Our son, who happens to be staying with us at the moment, is currently really into a new variant of our standard way of making our post-lunch instant coffee. Yes, in this country which gave the world cappuccino, espresso, macchiato, and dozens of other glorious versions of coffee, we use instant coffee at home. Let me leave aside any discussion as to why we do this and share with readers the variant in question. It is the addition to the coffee of some zest from the mounds of orange peels which we regularly generate at this time of year. The zest adds a slight citrus flavour to the coffee, which pleasantly smoothens the coffee taste. Our son was taught the trick by my wife, who in turn learned it from her mother, who used it very often when she was drinking her caffè d’orzo, her barley coffee – this is Italy’s non-caffeinated alternative to coffee, made from ground roasted barley; it is similar in function to, although better in taste than, chicory. This picture of caffè d’orzo with a twist of orange zest was tweeted by an Italian lady who was waxing enthusiastic about the cup she was just having.

Knowing the rather louche reputation that chicory has, I throw in this picture which clearly shows that caffè d’orzo is considered a very respectable drink in Italy.

While we do not drink caffè d’orzo, our main use of instant coffee is in its decaffeinated form. This makes it pretty close in spirit to caffè d’orzo, so the orange zest works well with it too. I recommend that any of my readers who drink instant coffee and who happen to be eating oranges should try it.

As is my habit when writing posts, I cruised around the internet a little, this time to see what other coffee-orange combinations have been tried or are being suggested. There are quite a number, but I will cite just one or two. One that takes my fancy is actually more of a liqueur. Take a bottle of grappa, add three strips of orange zest and six freshly toasted coffee beans, and then leave the whole for about 15 days to allow the grappa to imbibe both the orange and the coffee flavours (in the first few days, turn the bottle once a day to ensure that the beans get waterlogged and sink down into the grappa).

I suspect that this is not really Italian – the net reports a similar liqueur made in the Netherlands using vodka (I would have thought that it should be made with jenever to be really Dutch, but perhaps I’m quibbling here).

For reasons which will become clear in a minute, another coffee-orange combination which caught my eye goes as follows. Peel off the zest of half an orange, put it in a small pan with eight teaspoons of sugar, two cloves, a piece of cinnamon, and four small glasses of rum. Heat the pan over low heat until the mixture is piping hot and the sugar completely dissolved. Add to the hot mixture four small cups of boiling espresso coffee. Mix in and drink. The recipe helpfully suggests to accompany the coffee with some biscuits.


While I was doing my searches for orange-coffee combinations, I decided to do a similar search for lemon-coffee combinations. Many years ago, when we were in the US we went to an Italian restaurant. At the end of the meal they served us an espresso with a small twist of lemon zest. I was somewhat surprised by this, but my wife explained that it was actually a Neapolitan habit – my reading for this blog suggests a somewhat wider localization, since it seems to also be a habit on the Sorrentine peninsula.

The reason for adding lemon zest to coffee seems to be to soften its bitterness. Apparently, one should also rub the lip of the cup with the zest, to disinfect it – I have to presume that cups were not that well washed in the old days … From the comments I found on the net, there must be many Italians who do not know of this Neapolitan-Sorrentine use of lemon zest. A number of entries written by Italians described similar experiences to mine in the US and put it down to the general barbarity of the Americans. Yet all it seems to show is that a lot of Neapolitans and Sorrentines emigrated to the US and took their culinary habits with them.

Here too I cruised around the net to see what other lemon-coffee combinations I could discover. The one that really captured my fancy is the Ponce di Livorno, the Leghorn Punch (how on earth did the English transpose the Italian name Livorno into Leghorn? A mystery to resolve another day). There was a time when Livorno, a port city in Tuscany, had a sizable British expat community, merchants for the most part. As British expats always do, they brought their gastronomic habits with them, one of these being the imbibing of punch.  By the time the local Livornese population was introduced to this drink in the early 19th Century, it had become quite genteel, being made with tea, rum, sugar, lemon and cinnamon. Since the Livornese, like Italians in general, were coffee drinkers rather than tea drinkers they decided to substitute the tea with coffee (they also substituted the rum either with Mastice, a local aniseed-based liqueur, or with “Rumme”, a fake rum made by mixing together alcohol, sugar and dark-coloured caramel. Nowadays, since rum is easily available they have gone back to using that). It’s become so much part of Livorno that the drink has been given a Protected Designation of Origin certification. To make it, put half a large cupful of rum into a small pan, add two teaspoons of sugar and some cinnamon (or Mastice), and heat. When hot, add an equivalent amount of espresso coffee, mix, and pour into a large cup. Add a twist of lemon zest.

It’s just as well that lemon juice is not added, as it presumably would have been to the original British punch. Many entries in the net refer to coffee-lemon juice combinations as a great emetic (people refer to their grandmothers using this with their grandchildren when they were sick to their stomach), or as a great cure for hangovers, or as a great cure for headaches. I’m not quite sure lemon-coffee can have all these effects, but clearly we must have no more than a faint trace of lemon in the coffee (I’m rather reminded of puffer fish sushi. Puffer fish contains a deadly venom. If not properly prepared and even a small trace of venom remains, that puffer fish sushi will be your last meal)

Well, with this, I wish my readers fun in combining either orange or lemon with their coffee, whether properly brewed or instant!

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caffe d’orzo with orange zest: https://twitter.com/alexethno/status/719877692846444544
caffe d’orzo Lavazza: http://www.areavendingcasa.it/cat0_14907_4780/cialde-and-capsule/lavazza-espresso-point-cialde/p28132-caffe-dorzo-espresso-point-50-capsule.php
grappa con caffe e arancia: http://www.vinibertot.it/index.php/it/grappe-e-liquori/grappa-con-caffe-e-arancia-gr-40-bott-cc-700-detail
caffe with rum and orange: http://ricette.donnamoderna.com/caffe-rum-arancia
caffe with lemon zest: http://www.dersutmagazine.it/cucina/caffe-e-limone-caffe-al-limone/
Ponce alla livornese: http://www.alamy.com/stock-photo-ponce-alla-livornese-ponce-al-rum-livorno-leghorn-tuscany-italy-ponce-32108130.html
people drinking coffee: http://nutritionadvance.com/drinking-coffee-every-day-good-bad/

ABDOULAYE KONATÉ, MALIAN ARTIST

Milan, 31 December 2017

My wife and I went for a walk the other day in Milan’s so-called Fashion Quadrilateral, the zone in the city centre bounded by four roads – Via Montenapoleone, Via della Spiga, Via Manzoni and Corso Venezia. Here, you will find the boutiques (shops seems too vulgar a word) of the greatest Italian fashion brands as well as of quite a number of the best-known foreign brands. I won’t name names, I don’t feel like giving even an iota of publicity to these temples of conspicuous consumption.

I should clarify that I dislike visiting shops, and the higher the price tags on the merchandise the more I dislike them. Visits to places like Milan’s Fashion Quadrilateral therefore turn me into a rabid Socialist. In moments like these, my wife just ignores me and enjoys the window-gazing.

As I stumped grumpily along streets whose windows were stuffed with items the sale of any one of which could cover a Bangladeshi garment worker’s salary for several decades, I spied something out of the ordinary in a window. Now this was something intriguing indeed!

Seeing another one inside the boutique in question, I metaphorically held my nose and entered. It was somewhat smaller but just as striking.

A sign stenciled on the boutique’s window helpfully informed me that the works were by a certain Abdoulaye Konaté. I had never heard of this artist, but a quick search on the Internet revealed the bare bones of his life: he is a Malian artist, one year older than ourselves, and resides in Mali’s capital city, Bamako.

And what lovely pieces he creates! He works primarily with textiles, with one thread of his work – if I may put it that way – veering towards abstract compositions made with small rectangular stripes of highly coloured cotton textiles, much like his works in the boutique. I give here a little gallery of these works, drawn from the Internet.

This final one has recently been purchased by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York:

The other main thread of his work veers more towards the figurative, as these examples show:

Thoroughly excited by these discoveries, after Christmas I headed to the gallery in town which was lending the pieces to the boutique. Alas! The gallery only held the pieces loaned to the fashion boutique. Instead, it was holding a show dedicated to Gianfranco Zappettini, an Italian artist from the so-called Analytical school of the 1970s. Paintings like these surrounded us as the young, enthusiastic fellow on duty told us more about Konaté and eventually about Zappettini.

Analytic painting, and I quote, “wished to conduct an analysis of the material components of paintings (the canvas, the frame, the material of the paint, the colour, signs) and the material relationship that takes place between the work as physical object and its author. Painting therefore became the subject of investigation of itself and lost the references which linked it to reality (in figurative painting), to expressiveness (in abstract painting) and to the underlying significance (in conceptual art)”. Well, that pretty much sums up the complete dead-end that modern Western art has finished up in. A feeling that was underscored for me by a visit to a new art venue in Milan, the Pirelli Bicocca, once – as its name implies – a factory of the Pirelli Group, now a large ex-industrial space given over to art. The space is wonderful. But this is what we saw there – piles of old clothes passed off as art.

Konaté takes textiles and turns them into lovely pieces of art. We in the west can only make untidy piles out of these textiles and call it art.  It seems to me that contemporary art is like an old tree, rotted away at its heart but still living around its edges which are supporting an exuberant  foliage.

Thank God for Malian artists like Abdoulaye Konaté, or Inuit artists like Kananginak Pootoogook, or Malagasy artists like Joel Andrianomearisoa, or a dozen other artists from the so-called periphery of the world, who are keeping art alive!

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Shopping in Via Montenapoleone: http://www.wheremilan.com/discover-milan/sightseeing/montenapoleone-district/
Abdoulaye Konaté: http://www.artesmundi.org/artists/abdoulaye-konate
Abdoulaye Konaté-abstract-1: https://www.blainsouthern.com/artists/abdoulaye-konat%C3%A9
Abdoulaye Konaté-abstract-2: https://it.pinterest.com/sztukaafryki/abdoulaye-konat%C3%A9/?lp=true
Abdoulaye Konaté-abstract-3: https://www.wallpaper.com/art/abdoulaye-konat-exhibits-merges-music-and-colour-at-blainsouthern-gallery
Abdoulaye Konaté-abstract-4: https://www.widewalls.ch/abdoulaye-konate-at-blain-southern-berlin-solo-exhibition-useful-dreams-2015/
Abdoulaye Konaté-abstact-5: https://it.pinterest.com/pin/461689399276917735/
Abdoulaye Konaté-abstract-6: https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/655979
Abdoulaye Konaté-figurative-1: http://biennaleartmagazine.com/1986/04/18/abdoulaye-konate-arken-21-april-18-september-2016-dk/
Abdoulaye Konaté-figurative-2: https://it.pinterest.com/sztukaafryki/abdoulaye-konat%C3%A9/?lp=true
Abdoulaye Konaté-figurative-3: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-16308012
Abdoulaye Konaté-figurative-4: https://www.artsy.net/artwork/abdoulaye-konate-fete-africaine-the-men-and-the-marionettes
Abdoulaye Konaté-figurative-5: https://scope-art.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/SMB14-NL-03-v5.html
Gianfranco Zappettini paintings: http://www.primomarellagallery.com/it/mostre/63/la-luce-prima/
Old hollowed-out tree: https://www.shutterstock.com/video/clip-6904222-stock-footage-old-hollowed-out-oak-tree-was-struck-by-lightning-about-years-ago-and-despite-having-a-lost-it.html