BRANDY FROM KYRGYZSTAN

Milan, 19 February 2019

My wife and I have a problem. This problem is a bottle of brandy from Kyrgyzstan, which has been sitting on a shelf, still in its wrapping, since early last summer.
It was given to me during my visit to Kyrgyzstan last May, as a token of appreciation from my local counterpart for having come. I murmured thanks when it was given to me – one mustn’t be rude on such occasions – but already on the flight back home I was wondering what to do with it.

The fact is, neither my wife nor I are a fan of brandy. We don’t even like Cognac, probably the most revered of all brandies, made since the 16th Century from grapes grown in vineyards like these in the southwest of France
distilled in copper alembic stills like these
aged in oak barrels like these
to be finally blended into products like these.
And if that’s how we feel about the crème-de-la-crème of the brandy universe, the apex of the brandy culture, then readers can understand why we are distinctly unenthusiastic about a brandy made in Central Asia in the shadow of the Himalayas
by a people who were traditionally horse-riding herdsmen
and who had the culture of grape-growing and wine and brandy production forced on them by Russian colonialists in the 19th Century.
Our first idea was to offload the bottle onto our son, who happens to live down the road from us at the moment, but he politely declined. We then tried to do the same thing with our cleaner, but she too politely declined. After that, we really couldn’t think of anyone else we could give it to; it would have smacked too much of palming off the unwanted gift (“A bottle of … Kyrgyz brandy? What a nice thought …”) For a moment, I even considered taking the bottle to the bar across the street, inviting them to add it to their row of liquor bottles on the shelf behind the bar.
But I don’t really know them well enough and I fear they might suspect me of wanting to poison the neighbourhood.

My next idea was to drink away the brandy in cocktails, cocktails with wonderful names like Brandy Sour, Brandy Alexander, Sidecar, and Brandy Daisy. I’ll let this picture of a Brandy Sour stand in for all of them.
To me, these names are redolent of a certain period: men in sharp suits, slicked-back hair, toothbrush mustaches; women in smart dresses; both with a cocktail glass in one hand. This particular couple is our most popular couple from the 1930s: William Powell and Myrna Loy, who made a series of films as a husband-and-wife detective team.
Yes, I could see myself whiling away the evenings with my wife, engaging in bright and bubbly banter about nothing much in particular while sipping on a Brandy Sour. There is only one slight problem with this: I don’t have the equipment (the shakers and whatnot), I don’t have the technique
and I don’t have any of the weird and wonderful ingredients required to make cocktails: just for those four cocktails I mention above Angostura bitters, crème de cacao, Cointreau, Grand Marnier, Curaçao, and yellow Chartreuse. I’m not going to start buying these things, because I would only end up, like my father, with a cupboard full of bottles which would sit there for years on end taking up space and gathering dust.

Since drinking the stuff didn’t seem to be the answer, I began to think about using it in our cooking. So I’ve been scouring the internet for recipes involving brandy. The most brandy-intensive recipe I’ve found is for Christmas Cake.
In the first place, you use a generous portion of brandy in the actual making of the cake. But it doesn’t stop there! You should make the cake a while before Christmas and then “feed” it a couple of tablespoons of brandy every fortnight (“to build the flavour and keep it moist”) until you plonk it on the table at Christmas lunch. I’m sure you could also use a couple of tablespoons to flambé the cake once it’s on the table (making sure to keep your head well back to avoid singeing your eyebrows). Now I’d love to make such a brandy-impregnated cake for Christmas, and I think one cake would pretty much wipe out the whole of the bottle i have. But Christmas is not for another 8 months and I’m not sure I want the bottle hanging around on my shelf until then.

Another possibility would be for us to make a lot of onion soup.
The brandy is used to deglaze the pan after the onions have been sautéd, that is to say, it is used to dissolve away the nice brown residue which the onions have left on the bottom of the pan. The resulting jus is added to the soup, giving it extra taste.

We could decide to treat ourselves to onion soup once a week until we’d finished that damned bottle. At half a cup of brandy a go, the amount suggested by a couple of the recipes I’ve read, I reckon that in two, maybe three, weeks we would would have got rid of the bottle’s contents. My only hesitation in putting this scheme into effect is its potential impacts on my digestive system – I must confess to having difficulties in digesting onions.

Brandy’s traditional role in deglazing pans points to a solution. My wife likes to brown food, which leads of course to nice brown residues in the pans.
I tend to discourage this habit because I have found that browning can easily segue into burning (a finding, I should say, that my wife stoutly denies). Now, if we can use my wife’s browning habits to get rid of that Kyrgyz brandy I think I could drop my objections and actually encourage her to brown. I will pass this by her and see what she says.

That’s as far as my thinking has gone into ways of getting rid of that bottle of Kyrgyz brandy. If any of my readers have any other suggestions, I’d be more than glad to hear them.

____________________________________

Kyrgyz brandy: my picture
Cognac vineyards: http://lejournaldelevasion.com/newsletters/item/1731-s%C3%A9jours-et-d%C3%A9couvertes-au-c%C5%93ur-du-vignoble-de-cognac
Copper alembic still: ww.pediacognac.com/en/la-distillation-dela-distillation-enla-distillation/das-charentaiser-brennverfahrencharentaise-distillationla-distillation-charentaise/
Oak barrels: https://blog.cognac-expert.com/double-matured-cognac/
glass of cognac: https://depositphotos.com/35751055/stock-photo-glass-of-brandy.html
Kyrgyzstan: https://www.lonelyplanet.com/kyrgyzstan
Kyrgyz horseman: https://kalpak-travel.com/tour/multi-active-tour-kazakhstan-kyrgyzstan/
Russians conquering Kyrgyz: https://eurasianet.org/russias-colonial-allergy
Liquor bottles in a bar: https://vinepair.com/wine-blog/cleaning-out-the-liquor-cabinet-how-to-understand-the-shelf-life-of-your-alcohol/
Brandy sour: https://www.esquire.com/food-drink/drinks/recipes/a3664/brandy-sour-drink-recipe/
William Powell and Maureen O’Sullivan: https://www.phillyvoice.com/bryn-mawr-film-institute-to-screen-the-thin-man-with-martinis/
Bar tender shaking cocktail: https://pt.videoblocks.com/video/bartender-with-shaker-making-cocktail-in-modern-bar-handsome-barman-shake-drink-blevjkhwxivn6ohgi
Christmas cake: https://sortedfood.com/recipe/christmascake
Onion soup: http://www.eatingwell.com/recipe/253016/slow-cooker-french-onion-soup/
Browned pan: http://infonline.over-blog.it/article-come-disincrostare-pentole-e-teglie-111011705.html

THE BEAUTIFUL GAME

Sori, 12 February 2019

“Pass the ball!”

“Over here!”

“Shoot!!”

“GOOOAAAAL!!!”

The children’s voices float up to me from the little soccer patch – “pitch” seems too big a word for that scrap of land – squeezed in between the village church and the houses across the lane, here in this village on the Ligurian coast.
A place where the village boys – and sometimes girls – can dream that one day they will be the nation’s heroes, idolized by millions.
In the meantime, though, their misplaced kicks are filling the gutters of the church.
In this land of steep hills falling straight into the sea, it’s difficult to carve out a decent soccer pitch, but the village elders do their best.
In truth, though, children can make do with very little to dream their dreams of future greatness.
Let them dream while they can. We adults know only too well that although many will hope to be called few will ever be chosen. And that those few will shine brilliantly in the heavens for but a few years before lapsing into obscurity for ever.

But while they shine they will dazzle us all with the sheer elegance, the almost balletic beauty, of their playing.
Yes, let the little ones dream. We adults will think instead about how to get the balls out of the church’s gutters without breaking our necks.

___________________________

France wins World Cup: https://indianexpress.com/article/fifa/fifa-world-cup-2018-winner-is-france-5260828/
Children playing in a park: https://www.delo.si/druzba/panorama/prehrana-za-vase-mlade-olimpijske-upe.html
Cuban children playing in the street: https://www.alamy.com/stock-photo-cuban-children-playing-soccer-or-football-in-the-street-in-havana-138416743.html
S. African children playing football: https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x202z1v
Cambodian children playing football: http://sydney.edu.au/news/482.html?newsstoryid=10712
Diego Maradona dribbling: https://www.storypick.com/41-iconic-football-photos/
Rooney’s scissors kicks: https://www.storypick.com/41-iconic-football-photos/
Header: https://www.mensjournal.com/sports/soccer-heads-13-best-header-goals-all-time/

BUTTERFLIES

Milan, 8 February 2019

If your mother tongue happens to be a European language, one of the things which always happens when you learn another European language is that you begin to see words very similar to those in your mother tongue used to describe the same object: “well how about that, the German word for cow is kuh” or “whaddaya know, the French word for quay is quai”. In some cases, like for the word quay, the similarity is caused by straight borrowing: “the French call this new thing they build these days a quai, so let’s call it the same”. But in other cases, experts believe the similarities point to deeper connections between European languages, as in the case of cow and kuh. And these connections span languages from Ireland in the west to northern India in the east, the family of so-called Indo-European languages.

I won’t go into the details of how experts believe the Indo-European languages developed and spread, fascinating as they are. Suffice to say that in Europe we now have three major families of languages – the Romance, Germanic, and Slavic languages – one minor family of languages – the Celtic languages – and a number of loners – Albanian and Armenian (there are also a few non-Indo-European languages, like Hungarian and Finnish).
A lot of basic words – words that our ancestors would have used thousands of years ago – have remained quite constant across different European languages. Look at “cat” in this table, for instance.
Pretty much every European language has got the same word. The two languages out of step here are Serbo-Croat and Romanian, which seem to have gone off together in another direction.

And how about that other friend of us human beings, the dog? (or hound, using the somewhat old-fashioned English name for it – Elvis Presley reminds us of their connection in his inimitable song “You ain’t nothin’ but a hound-dog”)
We see in this case how the words fall very clearly into their Romance, Germanic, Slavic, and Celtic clusters. I think, though, that linguists would tell us that there is actually an underlying connection between the Germanic cluster and the Romance and Celtic clusters, in that the “k” sound being used in the Romance and Celtic languages can slide into the “h” sound used in the Germanic languages. They might even tell us that by some strange alchemy of linguistics the Slavic root word was also connected long ago with their Germanic, Romance and Celtic colleagues.

The same clustering holds for the word “cow” I mentioned at the beginning.
In this case, the Celtic languages seem the odd ones out, although I suspect their root is another term for cow, the one we have in the English word “bovine”. The Romance languages, which superficially also look different, probably connect with the others – I would say that somewhere along the line, someone added a “va” to the “ca” sound.

I could go on at great length, giving other examples, but I don’t want to bore my readers and, anyway, these examples are enough to discuss the real subject of this post: butterflies.

All my meditating on the similarities which one finds across European languages was set off when my wife and I walked by the Butterfly House in Vienna a week or so ago – beautiful place, by the way; an old greenhouse from Vienna’s Art Nouveau days
whose space has been transformed into a home for butterflies.
On the door, in large lettering, was written Schmetterling Haus, Butterfly House in German. Readers will immediately see the house-haus connection. But butterfly-schmetterling? And then I thought of the equivalent words in French and Italian: papillon and farfalla. No noticeable connection between any of the four. This table shows the larger picture, with other languages thrown in.
Hardly any connections anywhere!

How was that possible, I wondered? It’s not as if we humans have just recently discovered butterflies. They fluttered around our ancestors living on the Pontic-Caspian steppes, where the experts believe the original Indo-European language was created some 5,000 years ago. Here is one such butterfly whose range covers that part of the world, the Parnassius apollo.
Surely they gave these creatures a name?

Butterflies such as this Orange Oak Leaf were also there to welcome the arrival of Indo-Europeans in India
as was this Peacock when they arrived in in Ireland
and indeed in every place in between. Surely, when our Indo-European ancestors saw new butterflies, they didn’t say “Oh look, it’s those thingies again!”

Pondering about this, I have arrived at a theory. It is based on the assumption that in those far-off days (actually not so far-off for many of our ancestors) we humans were supremely utilitarian, viewing the world around us primarily in terms of what material value it brought to us. Under these conditions, my theory says that words stayed the same – they were conserved – if they were for things which we humans felt were really important, which added value to our lives. And the animals I’ve given above as examples did indeed add great value to our lives: cats, to fight off rodents which otherwise invaded our food stores; dogs, as useful adjuncts to the hunt and to corralling those pesky cows, and for our defence; cows, as givers of milk, as givers of meat, as signals of wealth.

In this optic, butterflies brought us nothing, so our ancestors did not feel it was important to conserve their name. And so their name just drifted. At some point, though (my increasingly fanciful theorizing continues), butterflies began to be appreciated aesthetically, for their beauty alone. So butterflies began to be given fancy names:
– butterfly: “from butter + fly; perhaps from the cream or yellow colour of common species, or from an old belief that the insects stole butter”
– schmetterling: “from schmetten (cream) due to an old belief that witches transformed themselves into butterflies to steal cream and other milk products”
–  mariposa: “the union of Maria and posate, perhaps from a children’s song”
– babochka: “seems to be a diminutive of baba ‘(old) woman,’ a doublet of babushka ‘grandmother’—a fact that seems to strengthen the alleged connection between witches and butterflies”
– glöyn byw: “literally ‘living coal’
And on and on … I think readers get the picture.

At some point, the artists weighed in, especially the still life painters who liked to decorate their fruit and vegetable compositions with beautiful butterflies.

Van Gogh later put butterflies in their more natural habitat, as in this Long Grass with Butterflies:
The poets also weighed in. For instance, we have William Wordsworth’s poem To a Butterfly:

I’ve watched you now a full half-hour;
Self-poised upon that yellow flower
And, little Butterfly! indeed
I know not if you sleep or feed.
How motionless!–not frozen seas
More motionless! and then
What joy awaits you, when the breeze
Hath found you out among the trees,
And calls you forth again!

This plot of orchard-ground is ours;
My trees they are, my Sister’s flowers;
Here rest your wings when they are weary;
Here lodge as in a sanctuary!
Come often to us, fear no wrong;
Sit near us on the bough!
We’ll talk of sunshine and of song,
And summer days, when we were young;
Sweet childish days, that were as long
As twenty days are now.

Or Emily Dickinson’s From Cocoon forth a Butterfly, one of many poems she wrote about butterflies:

From Cocoon forth a Butterfly
As Lady from her Door
Emerged — a Summer Afternoon —
Repairing Everywhere —

Without Design — that I could trace
Except to stray abroad
On Miscellaneous Enterprise
The Clovers — understood —

Her pretty Parasol be seen
Contracting in a Field
Where Men made Hay —
Then struggling hard
With an opposing Cloud —

Where Parties — Phantom as Herself —
To Nowhere — seemed to go
In purposeless Circumference —
As ’twere a Tropic Show —

And notwithstanding Bee — that worked —
And Flower — that zealous blew —
This Audience of Idleness
Disdained them, from the Sky —

Till Sundown crept — a steady Tide —
And Men that made the Hay —
And Afternoon — and Butterfly —
Extinguished — in the Sea —

Or Robert Frost’s Blue-Butterfly Day:

It is blue-butterfly day here in spring,
And with these sky-flakes down in flurry on flurry
There is more unmixed color on the wing
Than flowers will show for days unless they hurry.

But these are flowers that fly and all but sing:
And now from having ridden out desire
They lie closed over in the wind and cling
Where wheels have freshly sliced the April mire.

Yes, all very beautiful …

But of course our ancestors didn’t know everything. Beautiful they may be, but butterflies add value to our planet. A number of plants need butterflies for their pollination (a process we humans didn’t understand until the early 19th Century). They are prey to some insects and in turn are predators for other insects, helping to keep everything in its natural balance. So its name should never have drifted, we Europeans should always have had one common name.

I guess this is yet another example of how our half-knowledge of the world around us is leading us to destroy it. I write this as butterfly numbers continue to drop precipitously, with pesticide use, changes in land use, climate change, and who knows what else decimating them. Just as an example, take the monarch, a lovely butterfly native to North America.
Its populations have plummeted by 90+% over just the last few years. It is facing extinction.

Will we ever learn, I wonder?

___________________________

Map of Indo-European languages: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indo-European_languages
Schmetterling Haus – exterior: http://farewell-owl.blogspot.com/2010/08/imperial-butterfly-house-vienna.html
Schmetterling Haus – interior: https://www.tripadvisor.it/LocationPhotoDirectLink-g190454-d591133-i80628931-Schmetterlinghaus-Vienna.html
Butterflies in Schmetterling Haus: https://www.flickr.com/photos/dainsk/5726792178
Parnassius apollo: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apollo_(butterfly)#Distribution_and_habitat
Orange oak leaf: http://indiasendangered.com/7-spectacular-butterflies-of-india-photos/
Peacock: http://butterflyconservation.ie/wp/
Jean Mortel, Still Life with Apricots, Grapes, Fig and Butterfly: https://www.pinterest.it/pin/291045194650938994/?lp=true
Laurens Craen, Still Life with a Lobster on a Pewter Plate, Lemons, Grapes, Apricots, Oysters and a Gold-Mounted Blue and White Porcelain Ewer, all on a Wooden Table Top with a Swallowtail Butterfly: http://www.sothebys.com/en/auctions/ecatalogue/2011/important-old-master-paintings-sculpture-n08712/lot.173.html
Vincent Van Gogh, Long Grass with Butterflies: https://theartstack.com/artist/vincent-van-gogh/long-grass-butterflies
Monarch butterfly: https://sovasgottalent.com/10931-pic-of-butterfly/now-pic-of-butterfly-new-jersey-s-key-role-in-the-monarch-migration-conserve-wildlife/

TWO PANETTONI FOR THE PRICE OF ONE

Dedicated to my son, who too often gets strep throat

Milan, 3 February 2019

Today is February 3rd!

This exclamation of mine will, I’m sure, leave all of my readers puzzled, so I need to explain: February 3rd is the feast day of Saint Blaise!

I fear, though, that this piece of information will still not help my readers much, so let me plough on.

Saint Blaise is one of those delightfully obscure early Christian martyrs, lost to us in the mists of time and fog of hagiography. His story is quickly told. He lived in the late 2nd, early 3rd Centuries AD. He was the Bishop of Sebastea, now Sivas, deep in the heart of modern Turkey. He was a holy man and a miracle worker. It is one miracle in particular that interests us here. A young mother came rushing to Blaise with her son, who was dying from a fish bone (or possibly a fish scale) stuck in his throat. As someone who, at the age of 12 or 13, got a fish bone stuck in my throat, I can deeply empathize with the poor boy. Luckily, I wasn’t dying but it was an incredibly painful experience. After various home remedies had been tried, I was taken to a doctor who extracted it. It so happens that Blaise had also trained as a doctor, but it seems he favored a faith-based approach to healing (I don’t know whether this was merely a reflection of his strong faith or a commentary on the parlous state of medicine at the time). So he laid his hands on the boy’s throat and uttered the – extremely sensible – words: “either come up or go down”. The fish bone (or scale) duly came up, or went down, and the boy was saved. This is the best painting I have found, by the Neapolitan painter Pacecco de Rosa, commemorating this touching scene.
Blaise was caught up in a final burst of persecution in the Roman Empire against Christians, which was the fruit of a vicious power struggle between the co-Emperors Constantine and Licinius. It is narrated that Blaise was arrested and dragged before the local governor and “invited” to abjure his faith. Here we have the scene commemorated in a stained glass window from Picardie, in northern France.
Of course, Blaise did no such thing. In fact, he used the occasion to lambaste idolatry (no doubt using strong and colourful language to make his point). At which, the governor in a fury ordered his men to torture Blaise. Which they did, with gusto, using combs or brushes with pointed metal teeth to tear his flesh to pieces. This is the best painting, by Filippo Vitale, another Neapolitan painter, which I could find of this painful event. I particularly like the Caravaggesque approach adopted by the painter. I have to say, I also find the pop-eyed torturer fantastic.
I feel moved, however, to also add a picture here of a section of the Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel where Michelangelo painted Saint Blaise, because he made a great a depiction of the saint holding a wicked-looking pair of combs. Imagine having your skin scraped with those things!
In passing, I have to say that I am always amazed at the wonderfully inventive tortures early Christian hagiographers came up with for their martyrs. The muscular-looking lady in the green dress below Saint Blaise in the Last Judgement is Saint Catherine, holding the spiked wheel which she was meant to be broken on. I have written an earlier post about the flaying of St. Bartholomew. I went to a school whose patron saint was St. Laurence; he was basically grilled like a pork chop over a fire. The list of incredible tortures is endless …

But I digress. For some reason – no doubt because he was a saint – Blaise survived this harrowing of the flesh. He was thrown into jail, presumably to give his jailers time to think up even more hideous ways of torturing him. But they were clearly not up to the task, for the next thing we are told is that the governor ordered Blaise to be drowned in the nearby river. His men duly threw him into the river, where he miraculously floated. In frustration, they hauled him to the shore and cut off his head. And that was the end of Blaise (although I have to ask myself, if he could miraculously float in the river why could he not also miraculously stop the sword from cutting his head off? But, as they say, God moves in mysterious ways).

Blaise might have been dead but his reputation lived on. Over the centuries, he became the patron saint of various things. The one that interests us here is that he is the saint to whom one prays if one has a sore throat. Well, sore throats are a very common ailment for us humans, especially at this time of the year, but they are not life-threatening. So initially I found it somewhat surprising that people in the old days felt the need for a saint to intercede specifically for sore throats. But then it occurred to me that perhaps I was actually just reflecting the modern state of our health. Perhaps in the old days a sore throat was actually often the harbinger of something much more deadly creeping up on us, especially if we were children. For instance, there is whooping cough, which I would assume has a component of sore throat (luckily, never having had whooping cough, I wouldn’t know). Until quite recently pretty much every child caught whooping cough and a not insignificant number died as a result (and still do in developing countries, because they don’t get vaccinated as we do in the developed world). Strep throat also comes to mind. This is another disease that predominantly strikes children – it is responsible for as much as a third of their sore throats. It is incredibly painful, as I remember from my one run-in with the disease at the age of 10. To make the point, I throw in here a picture of a nice case of strep throat.
Strep throat is now treatable with antibiotics, but perhaps in the pre-antibiotic days, i.e., any time before World War II, strep throat was more deadly. And perhaps there are other diseases out there where sore throats are a warning signal of death around the corner, especially for children – I welcome further elucidation from any of my readers with a medical background.

In any event, my fancy tells me that early Christians had noticed a sometimes deadly correlation between youth and sore throats, and concluded – based on his miracle with the little boy and the fish bone – that Saint Blaise was the ideal saint to pray to when sore throats reared their ugly heads. Out of all this grew a custom that had the faithful flocking to churches on February 3rd, Saint Blaise’s feast day, to have their throats protected for the rest of the year with a special blessing. Although not so common now (I would say that we generally have greater faith in our doctors being able to cure us), it is a custom that lives on. And it’s not just any old blessing that one receives, no sirree! A pair of lit candles are crossed at one’s throat while the blessing is pronounced.
I have never been blessed in this way, so I don’t quite understand how it is that one’s hair isn’t set alight in the process; I would be extremely nervous about the whole thing. Where the idea of involving candles in the ceremony came from I have no idea, although it must be an old tradition. Here is a painting of Saint Blaise by Hans Memling, where readers can see that the Saint is serenely holding a candle.
All of this brings me to the real reason why I’m writing this post. It has to do with Milan, where I am currently spending the winter. The Milanese, like all other good Christians, firmly believed in Saint Blaise’s powers to cure sore throats. Indeed, there is a saying in Milanese dialect which proclaims: San Bias el benediss la gola e el nas, “Saint Blaise, he blesses the throat and the nose” (it seems that the Milanese sensibly extended the saint’s miraculous powers to the nose, or perhaps they simply wanted to make the rhyme). Nevertheless, the Milanese have added a special twist to this credence. Somewhere along the line, they concluded that eating panettone was just as good at protecting their throats as were two crossed candles and a priest’s benediction. So the ceremony in church was followed by a sit-down at home to eat a slice of panettone.

For those of my readers who are not familiar with this glory of Milanese cuisine, I throw in a picture.
Panettone is a type of sweet bread loaf. It’s been around since at least 1599, date of the first credible mention of it in the written records. What we see today, though, is not what our ancestors would have seen in 1599 or indeed at any time before 1919. In that year, the manufacture of panettone was revolutionized. An enterprising Milanese baker by the name of Motta introduced a new proofing step, where the dough was allowed to rise in not one but in three separate stages over a period of 20 hours. It is that which ensures the panettone’s tall domed shape as well as its wonderful fluffiness. A few years later, he was copied (“the recipe was adapted”) by another enterprising Milanese baker called Alemagna. The Motta and the Alemagna brands of panettone have been battling it out ever since.

I suspect that panettone originally looked more like a fruitcake (or plum cake to the English), which my French grandmother was very fond of and liked to buy for the Christmas festivities.
This too was the original role of panettone. It was a special, sweet bread that the Milanese made for Christmas. Like all these things, I would imagine that the “fruit” that Milan’s housewives and bakers added to their panettoni were closely guarded family secrets. Nowadays, as the Italian Government strives to give the panettone a DOP certification, the additions have been standardized: raisins – dry and not soaked! – as well as the candied zests of orange, lemon, and citron (the last of which I have written about in an earlier post).

I’m sure my alert readers will have noticed a problem. Panettone was originally made only at Christmas while the feast day of Saint Blaise is on February 3rd. Undeterred, the Milanese made it a habit of setting aside part of their Christmas panettone to eat on Saint Blaise’s day after they had braved their annual encounter with the crossed – and lighted! – candles. How exactly they kept their panettone from going stale in the meantime I don’t know. The web is full of suggestions on this topic for fruitcake, my favourite being to wrap it in towels soaked in brandy or wine and then in something like oiled paper. And anyway, as my wife sensibly remarked, if the panettone had become a trifle stale it could always be dunked in milk or tea or coffee.

But nowadays the Milanese don’t need to bother putting aside a piece of their Christmas panettone. No foodstuff is seasonal anymore, and panettone is no exception; you can buy it any time of the year. In fact, in a canny marketing move, sellers of panettone in Milan will offer two panettoni for the price of one on Saint Blaise’s day. Which is really why I’m so excited that it’s 3rd February today. I can buy two wonderfully delicious panettoni for the price of one! The moment I’ve posted, I’m off down the road to buy them, like this gentleman has (although he seems to have scarfed down half a panettone before even leaving the shop).
And maybe on the way back I’ll pop into a church to have my throat blessed. You never know …

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Saint Blaise blessing the child: http://necspenecmetu.tumblr.com/post/46439176152/giovanni-francesco-de-rosa-pacecco-de-rosa-the
Saint Blaise before the governor: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Blaise
Saint Blaise being harrowed: https://www.flickr.com/photos/91590072@N04/15982366258
Saint Blaise in Michelangelo’s Last Judgement: http://www.everypainterpaintshimself.com/galleries/michelangelo_last_judgment
Strep throat: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Streptococcal_pharyngitis
Blessing of the throat: https://www.gazzettadiparma.it/scheda/246883/San-Biagio—la-benedizione.html
Saint Blaise holding a candle: https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blaise_de_S%C3%A9baste
Panettone: https://www.buy-me.it/panettone-classico-1kg-pasticceriabiasetto/
Fruitcake: http://dish.allrecipes.com/holiday-baking-fruitcakes/
Two panettoni: http://gateau.catamarcainfo.com/what-to-eat-with-panettone/