I like writing, but I’ve spent most of my life writing about things that don’t particularly interest me. Finally, as I neared the age of 60, I decided to change that. I wanted to write about things that interested me.
What really interests me is beauty. So I’ve focused this blog on beautiful things. I could be writing about a formally beautiful object in a museum. But it could also be something sitting quietly on a shelf. Or it could be just a fleeting view that's caught my eye, or a momentary splash of colour-on-colour at the turn of the road. Or it could be a piece of music I've just heard. Or a piece of poetry. Or food. And I’m sure I’ve missed things.
But I’ll also write about interesting things that I hear or read about. Isn't there a beauty about things pleasing to the mind?
I started just writing, but my wife quickly persuaded me to include photos. I tried it and I liked it. So my posts are now a mix of words and pictures, most of which I find on the internet.
What else about me?
When I first started this blog, my wife and I lived in Beijing where I was head of the regional office of the UN Agency I worked for. So at the beginning I wrote a lot about things Chinese. Then we moved to Bangkok, where again I headed up my Agency's regional office. So for a period I wrote about Thailand and South-East Asia more generally. But we had lived in Austria for many years before moving to China, and anyway we both come from Europe my wife is Italian while I'm half English, half French - so I often write about things European. Now I'm retired and we've moved back to Europe, so I suppose I will be writing a lot more about the Old Continent, interspersed with posts we have gone to visit.
What else? We have two grown children, who had already left the nest when we moved to China, but they still figure from time to time in my posts. I’ll let my readers figure out more about me from reading what I've written.
As these readers will discover, I really like trees. So I chose a tree - an apple tree, painted by the Austrian painter Gustav Klimt - as my gravatar. And I chose Abellio as my name because he is the Celtic God of the apple tree.
I hope you enjoy my posts.
http://ipaintingsforsale.com/UploadPic/Gustav Klimt/big/Apple Tree I.jpg
My wife and I have recently come back from a quick trip to Geneva. The official purpose of the trip was for me to film a short video as an introduction to an online course on Green Industrial Policy, which a UN Agency is putting together. It was an interesting experience, but not what I want to write about here.
We decided to use the occasion to stay on a few days and visit Geneva, which we had last visited some 20 years ago – and very rapidly at that. For instance, we hadn’t visited any of the city’s museums. We decided to make good on this lacuna and visit two museums. One was the Museum of Far Eastern Art created by the Fondation Baur, which has an acclaimed collection of Chinese and Japanese ceramics (as I have written in previous posts, I have a particular fondness for Chinese ceramics). The other was the Museum of Art and History, which contains among other things the city of Geneva’s art collection. It is this collection which I want to write about in this post.
I don’t want to get readers’ hopes up. This collection doesn’t hold a candle to, say, the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. But it is a very worthy collection: to use the Michelin Guide’s terminology, it doesn’t merit a trip (3 stars), but it is worth the detour if you are already in the area (2 stars). I propose to highlight one painting and two artists who caught my fancy.
The painting, in the first room dedicated to Medieval and Early Renaissance paintings, is “The Miraculous Draft of Fishes”, painted by Konrad Witz in 1444. Witz was German-born but was active mainly in Basel (and must have visited Geneva, as we shall see). His painting recounts a story from the Gospel of John. Jesus, resurrected, appears to seven of his disciples who have gone fishing on Lake Galilee. They have been fishing all night and caught nothing. He tells them to put down their nets once more, which they do, and immediately they haul in a large catch. They recognize him, and Peter in his enthusiasm to reach him throws himself into the water and swims over to him.
What attracts me about this painting is the way Witz has transposed the scene to a lake in Switzerland, probably Lake Geneva itself (the painting was part of an altarpiece Witz made for the Cathedral of Geneva). The buildings, the landscape, the weather, all have a distinctly Swiss feel to them. I always find it very satisfying when artists transpose stories from the New Testament to the living conditions of the people who would have been looking at their works: “bring religion to the people” as it were. It’s what I like about Neapolitan nativities. It’s what I liked about the sculpted pulpit – also about fishermen on Lake Galilee – which I came across in Traunkirchen last summer.
Of the two artists I will highlight, I came across the first in the room devoted to Rococo art. This artist goes by the name of Jean-Étienne Liotard. He was Swiss; in fact, he was Genevan, having been born and died there, and done much of his work there. Liotard was primarily a portraitist. As this self-portrait shows, he must have been a very merry fellow.
He seemed to have made merriness his calling card. He painted many of his clients with a small smile, like this no doubt otherwise very serious personage.
There’s a whole wall in the museum devoted to his portraits and they all have this small smile playing on their lips. I can imagine Liotard starting his sittings by cracking jokes until his subjects, who had no doubt struck a serious pose suitable to their important position in society, began giggling. Only then would he capture their physiognomy for posterity. His sittings must have been fun. Way to go, J-E!
I came across the second artist in the section devoted to 19th Century art. In fact, the museum has a whole room just for him. His name is Ferdinand Hodler, a Swiss painter who was active for some 45 years until his death in 1918. He was one of the important influences on German Expressionists and Austrian Secessionists. I had first come across him in “The Art Book”, someone’s compilation in the 1990s of “500 great painters and sculptors from medieval to modern times” (both Witz and Liotard made the cut, I have just noticed). The editor included one painting for each of the 500. The one chosen for Hodler is his “Lake Thun with Symmetrical Reflections”, of 1905.
I just loved his use of colour and light in this landscape, so uplifting of the spirits! I made a mental note to see more of him one day. Well, now I had my chance: a whole roomful of his paintings! I share some of them with my readers.
“The Eiger, the Monch, and the Jungfrau”, of 1908
“The Jungfrau seen from Murren”, of 1914
“Lake Geneva seen from Chexbres”, of 1904
“Lake Geneva and the Mont Blanc with Swans”, of 1918
Not a landscape exactly, but an element of landscape: “Stream at Champery”, of 1916
Yet another element of landscape, “The Cherry Tree”, of 1915
I should point out that Hodler has a large body of work to his name, only part of which I find appealing. As the dates I give above indicate, this phase runs from about 1904 to his death in 1918. He was also painting in the Symbolist style during this period, and the Museum has some of these works, but I’m not really touched by that type of painting.
Since I threw in a self-portrait of Liotard, let me finish with one of Hodler, painted in 1916, two years before he died.
More melancholic than Liotard, but then he had more to be melancholic about. He had lost the woman he loved to cancer and was unwell himself.
Well, that’s it for Geneva’s Museum of Art and History. As I said, 2 stars not 3, but with some 3-star highlights, particularly the room dedicated to Hodler. Researching this post, I discovered that the Art Museum in Zurich also has a good collection of Hodler’s works. We’ve never visited Zurich. I wonder if I can persuade my wife to go there one of these days …
A week ago, my wife and I were taking a walk from Santa Margherita Ligure up to the National Park of the Monte di Portofino, a park we walk in often when we are in Liguria. At some point, as we climbed, we got a magnificent view over the Gulf of Tigullio – it was a beautiful sunny day, with a little haze. Out there on the waters, I could barely make out the white sails of two sailing boats.
Those sails might have been mere specks on the water’s surface, but the sight of them was enough to bring me back to my – very modest – experience of sailing on the Norfolk Broads when I was a young lad.
I have always been fascinated by the three-dimensional shapes which more-or-less triangular or square sails will take under pressure from the wind. I’m sure there are articles which will give you mathematical descriptions of these three-dimensional shapes – I tried just now to find such an article but failed to find any for which I didn’t have to pay. But the point is that sails taut in the wind are just beautiful shapes to look at, whatever mathematical formulae are used to describe them.
Many artists from ages past have also been touched by the sheer beauty of sails, so in memory of those days which I spent as a young boy looking at those sails taut and humming in the wind, I include here a little gallery of some of the nicer paintings I came across of boats under sail.
Simon de Vlieger’s “A Dutch Ferry Boat before the Breeze”, from the late 1640s
Charles Powell’s “Shipping in the Downs”, from the early 1800s
William Bradford’s “Clipper Ship ‘Northern Light’ of Boston”, of 1854
His “The Kennebec River, Waiting for Wind and Tide”, of 1860
James Webb’s “Seascape”, from the 1860s, 1870s
Konstantinos Volanakis’s “Boat”, from the 1870s or thereabouts
Anton Melbye’s “Laguna di Venezia”, of 1878
Winslow Homer’s “Sailing off Gloucester”, probably from the 1880s
Antonio Jacobsen’s “Sappho vs. Livonia, Americas Cup, 1871”
His “Rounding the Mark, NYCC Regatta”, of 1886
His “Tidal Wave and Dreadnought”, of 1908
His quieter, more reflective “Lumber Schooner in New York’s Lower Bay”, of 1894
In a more “modern” (i.e., Impressionist) key, we have Monet’s “Sailboat at le Petit-Gennevilliers”, of 1873
and Maxime Maufra’s “Tuna Boat at Sea”, of 1907
At this point, photography took over, black and white at first, then colour. So to complete my gallery, I throw in a couple of modern photos of old yachts.
One of the fonder memories of my Boy Scout days is roasting a whole pig over a wood fire
and eating the resultant roasted pork, together with piles of crackling and apple sauce.
Not only was the food extremely yummy, but the aroma of the meat while roasting was … well, intoxicating, I think best describes it. I have already written elsewhere about this culinary experience, which I suspect tapped into something really primordial, the hunter-gatherer buried deep in us all.
Perhaps because of this experience, or perhaps simply because of who I am, I have always been extremely fond of roasted meat, both the eating of it as well as the preparing of it. My wife is the same. Unfortunately, having been inner-city dwellers for most of our lives means that we don’t get to roast meat too often. I don’t find that grilling a piece of meat in an apartment oven is a very satisfying roasting experience, and we have never had a backyard where we could roll out the barbecue set and grill the nights away. And, alas, along with old age have come restrictions on eating meats with too much fat attached to them (the cholesterol levels, you know …). This lessens the fun of meat-roasting even further: I think we can all agree that fat – melting and bubbling under the flames – is an integral part of the roasting experience, especially the olfactory part of it.
So it is only from time to time, and always in restaurants, that we indulge in a piece of roast meat. European cuisine of course has many offerings in this department. Apart from the roast pork of my Boy Scout days, which can stand in for any four-footed animals roasted whole, we have roast chicken, which can stand in for all those roasted fowl we see in paintings (or in manuscript miniatures as in this case).
It doesn’t have to be whole animals which are roasted. We can have cuts of meat which are roasted, such as grilled steaks.
They can stand in for all the meats grilled in barbecues like this one (although this lot do seem to be having excessive amounts of fun).
I think we can even throw in grilled fish.
Yes, all most delicious!
But actually, what I want to write about in this post is roasted meat from another region of the world: the kebab.
What prompted me to write this post in praise of the kebab was a quick visit we made a few weeks ago to Vienna – our daughter flew in for the wedding of one of her best friends, so we thought we would use the occasion to see her. As usual we took our daily strolls around town, and as usual we spent time admiring the döner kebab shops we passed (well, drooling over their offerings might be a better description) – without, I should hasten to add, actually partaking (the cholesterol levels, you know …). Here is a photo of one of these döner kebab shops.
For readers who may not be familiar with this type of kebab, its trademark is a long inverted cone of meat on a vertical spit. The cone is made up of thin slices of lamb, beef, or chicken. The spit rotates slowly, with the meat being kept close to a heat source to cook it.
When you put in your order, the server will slice thin pieces off the meat cone with a very long knife.
They will serve you your portion inserted into a bread bun or wrapped in pita or some other flatbread.
I have used the long winter nights since our visit to Vienna to read up about the döner kebab and all its cousin kebabs, and I have discovered a world of astonishing variety. I was partly aware of this variety from the visits which my wife and I made in the distant past to Persian and Turkish restaurants in Vienna (we don’t go so often anymore; the cholesterol levels, you understand …). The list of kebabs on offer was always long, a bit like in a Pizza joint, except that we could always understand the pizzas’ names while here we were faced with a gobbledygook of mysterious and unpronounceable names; we would choose our kebabs more or less at random. But now my reading has shown me the true depths of my ignorance. Kebabs flourish over a huge region, which starts at the eastern seaboard of the Mediterranean and stretches all the way to the farthest reaches of Central Asia, but which also extends down into the northern regions of the Indian subcontinent, as well as along the southern seaboard of the Mediterranean. This region maps closely onto the regions of the world which are Muslim, and indeed the kebab is considered archetypal Muslim cuisine. It is now, but actually the kebab predates Islam. It already existed in the Middle East long before Islam came into being, and it spread out of there to all the lands where the newly Islamicized traders and conquering armies brought their religion.
I do not propose to summarize breathlessly what I have discovered. I want instead to focus on the intersection of the kebab with another interest of mine, the global movement of foodstuffs and all the geopolitics which can surround that.
Take the döner kebab – which I should really call döner kebap since that is the Turkish way of spelling the name and this is a Turkish kebab. It appeared quite late on the scene, probably the middle of the 19th century, in the town of Bursa, which is on the Asian side of the Sea of Marmara, quite close to Istanbul. There was already an established kebab in the Turkish lands that roasted stacks of meat on a horizontal spit (there is still a kebab roasted on a horizontal spit, the cağ kebab). I suppose someone had the insight that if the spit could be made to turn vertically the juices would run down the meats rather than into the fire. The rotating nature of this kebab gave it its name: döner comes from the Turkish word dönmek, which means “to turn” or “to rotate”.
This new style of kebab-making caught on in the Levant, which was of course part of the Ottoman Empire at the time. They didn’t call it the döner kebab, though, they called it the shawarma – which is actually the same thing, since shawarma is an Arabic transliteration of the Turkish çevirme, “turning”. Shawarma has become an extremely popular street food throughout the Middle East, as this photo from Egypt attests.
And of course, as has been the case since the beginning of time, immigrants took their foods with them. We have here, for instance, a shawarma-based restaurant in Boston, Massachusetts.
The döner kebab also spread to Greece, taken there by Greek refugees from the ancient, ancient Greek populations in Anatolia and immigrants from the rest of the Middle East (victims, no doubt, of the rise of nationalism in countries which were created by the collapse of the previously multi-ethnic, relatively tolerant Ottoman Empire). Initially, it was sold a street food under the name döner kebab and became extremely popular. But politics intervened. The tense relations between Greece and Turkey precluded the Greeks tolerating the use of Turkish words, so in the 1970s, when relations were particularly tense, this street food became the gyros – which is really the same thing, since the name comes from the Greek γύρος, “circle” or “turn”.
The shift out of Muslim lands to Christian lands meant that the Greeks could also introduce a significant change to the meat used. Originally based on lamb (as are most kebabs), the Greeks started using pork as well as chicken for their gyros.
New Greek immigrants, this time to the US, took the gyros with them, so now Americans had two versions of the döner kebab available to them.
But the penetration of the American market has not finished! And here I have to go back to the shawarma, which was, as I said, popular in the Levant, including, of course, in Lebanon. The Lebanese have always been great travelers of the globe, and in the late 19th, early 20th centuries there was a wave of Lebanese immigration to Mexico. They took shawarma with them. Succeeding generations “domesticated” the shawarma, adding spices typical to the Americas to those from the Middle East which their parents had been using. Thus was born the taco al pastor, where strips of pork cooked on a vertical spit are served in a classic maize taco. We have here the server and the product, in Mexico City.
But Mexico was the host of two waves of immigration from the Middle East! The second was centred on the city of Puebla, where the taco arabe was born in the 1930s. Here, the dish stayed closer to its roots and is served in a pita-style bread.
And now of course, with the waves of Mexican immigration into the US, these two dishes have also entered into that country.
So now, Americans have four different types of döner kebab to choose from, each hiding under a different name! (plus probably the original döner kebab, which no doubt some enterprising Turks have brought to the US)
The flow has not been all out of the Middle East. The taco al pastor has been the subject of a reverse migration. In the early 2000s, it went back to its homeland, the Levant, where it is sold as shawarma mexici! It uses the same set of spices as in Mexico, but of course dietary prohibitions have meant that the pork is substituted with chicken, and it is served in Middle Eastern flatbread rather than the maize taco of the Americas.
Meanwhile, the döner kebab itself has been the subject of migration. When the Germans called on Turks to come and work in Germany under their Gastarbeiter, or Guest Worker, programme, they came with their food. Over time, döner kebab has become a hugely popular street food, so popular that an Association of Turkish Döner Producers in Europe has been set up to look after the interests of those involved in the döner kebab trade. Just to give readers an idea of the size of the market, the Association has estimated that in 2010, more than 400 tonnes of döner kebab meat was produced in Germany every day by around 350 firms, and in 2011 there were over 16,000 establishments selling döner kebabs in Germany. Why, the döner kebab is so popular in Germany that Angela Merkel has graciously allowed herself to be photographed slicing meat off a döner kebab cone (but do I detect a slight anxiety in the set of her mouth?).
According to the same Association, the story of the döner kebab’s rise and rise in Germany started at West Berlin’s Zoological Garden station, where an enterprising Turkish guest worker by the name of Kadir Nurman set up shop in 1972. He had emigrated to Germany in 1960, and had moved to West Berlin from Stuttgart in 1966. His döner kebabs were a hit with Berliners, fellow Turks took note, piled into the business, carried the döner kebab all over Germany, and the rest, as they say, is history. Part of the Turkish community in Germany migrated to Vienna (a peaceful invasion unlike the earlier Turkish attacks on the city centuries earlier). They of course carried the döner kebab business with them. Which is why my wife and I find ourselves drooling over the döner kebab offerings when we are in Vienna. And the Berlin connection explains why the Viennese döner kebab stand in the earlier photo is proudly called Berliner Döner.
Of course, when you say “kebab”, most people think of pieces of meat roasted on a skewer. And many would reply “ah yes, shish kebab”. But shish kebab, or şiş kebap to give it its Turkish spelling, is simply a generic term meaning skewered roast meat – şiş means skewer or sword in Turkish. There are probably hundreds of different types of skewered roast meat dishes eaten by the local populations between Istanbul in Turkey to the west and Dhaka in Bangladesh to the east. They vary by type of meat of course (lamb is the most popular, but just about any other meat – except pork – will be used somewhere; fish is also used, as are offal like liver). They vary in the vegetables and other servings that come with them. And – probably the most important – they vary in the marinades used on the meat. Every region, every province, every village almost, seems to have its own type of shish kebab. In despair at all this variety, I throw in one photo to stand in for all these types of kebabs, that of a Çöp Şiş, which as the name suggests is a Turkish variety of the shish kebab.
As if that were not enough, there are hundreds of skewered kebabs where it’s not cubes of meat which are used but minced meat. This adds another dimension to the possible variations, that of the ingredients kneaded into the minced meat. Here, too, in desperation I choose just one kebab to stand in for this group, kabab koobideh from Iran.
And then there are all the kebabs where the meat, or minced meat, is roasted but not on skewers. And there are kebabs which are more like meat stews. But I will draw a line here, otherwise this post would go on far too long. And anyway, as I said earlier, I want to focus on the global movement of kebabs, and there is more than enough to write about on this topic when considering just skewered kebabs.
Consider souvlaki, which I have read is considered the national dish of Greece.
As the photo shows, it looks uncomfortably like that Turkish kebab whose photo I put in above. Is it another import from the hated Turk, like the döner kebab-turned-into-gyros? This is the subject of much heated discussion between Greeks and Turks, with the Greeks arguing that their ancestors were roasting skewered meat long before they were conquered by the Turks. They point to the fact that Homer mentions pieces of meat being roasted on spits in the Iliad. If that is not enough, they also point out that there are mentions of this in the works of Aristophanes, Xenophon, Aristotle, and others. And if that is not enough, they draw your attention to an archaeological find in some Minoan ruins in the island of Santorini, dated to the 17th Century BC, which they claim was used to roast skewers of meat. I show a photo of the find, to let readers judge for themselves.
(I’m afraid that the cynic in me feels that putting skewers on the notches rather pushes observers to see what promoters of this view would like you to see)
On the other hand, if the Greeks have been roasting skewered meat since the 17th Century BC, why doesn’t there seem to be any rather more modern evidence that this has been a continuing tradition? The modern souvlaki only turned up after World War II, more or less at the time as the döner kebab.
But I will leave the Greeks and Turks to their quarrels and go further west, to Spain. There, there is a dish of skewered meat called the pincho moruno, the Moorish skewer.
Although it is now found throughout the country, its focus is in the south of the country. As the name suggests, this is a dish that was brought to Spain by the Arabs, either when they conquered the peninsula or later through trading relations; there is a very similar dish on the other side of the Mediterranean. Of course, the meat used is different: lamb in the Muslim lands, pork or chicken in Spain. Once the Spaniards turned from being conquered to being conquerors, they were a vector for a further migration of the pincho westward, as they brought it to the lands in the Americas which they had colonized. It didn’t take root everywhere in Latin America. It flourished in particular in Puerto Rico and Venezuela. I don’t know about Puerto Rico, but I suspect its popularity in Venezuela has to do with the fact that there was a very large migration of Spanish Republicans to that country just after the Second World War, after they ended up on the losing side of the Spanish Civil War.
But now let me cross over to the far eastern end of the Eurasian landmass, to the Chinese province of Xinjiang. Given their Muslim roots, the Uighurs there have a tradition of eating roasted skewered meat – in fact, I remember distinctly seeing a Uighur grilling them on a street corner during our visit to Xinjiang back in 2010. He looked a bit like this.
The Chinese authorities may not like the Uighurs, but the Chinese like Uighur food, and this kebab, under the name Chuan, has become a popular street food all over the north and west of China. However, with the usual Chinese inventiveness in all matters culinary, Chinese cooks have greatly expanded the type of foodstuffs being threaded onto their skewers. We have here, for instance, sweet sausages and baby octopus.
I finish with the story of the satay, from South-East Asia. Satay is now considered a national dish in Indonesia. We have here a satay street vendor somewhere in the country.
But roasting meat on small skewers was only introduced to the country in the 18th Century, with the arrival of Arab and Indian traders and immigrants. However, Indonesians took to the dish with a vengeance and then its own traders spread it throughout South-East Asia, so that it now is common in Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam. They also made one very significant change in the recipe, the use of peanut sauce (the peanut itself being one of the foodstuffs originally from Latin America and spread from there by the colonial powers to the rest of the world during the Great Columbian Exchange).
Malay traders then took the satay further afield, working back, it seems to me, along the shipping routes which led from the Netherlands – the colonial power in Indonesia – to Indonesia itself. Malay traders brought the satay to Sri Lanka (another Dutch colony before the British wrested it from their grasp), where a Malay community put down roots. It is now a common street food there. They took it to South Africa (another Dutch colony before the British wrested it from their grasp), where they also formed a small community. It goes under the name of sosatie there: a combination of the words sauce and sate (the Indonesian form of the word). The Malays put down roots there too, and the dish has now been thoroughly localized.
Indonesian immigrants even took the satay back to the Netherlands itself, where it has become a popular mainstay of Dutch cuisine. This link, for instance, gives you the addresses of the 11 best places in Amsterdam to find satay.
Well there you have it, nice examples of how food dishes have followed in the steps of people as they have moved around the globe, for conquest, trade, or simply to find a better life. In the meantime, I have built up a formidable list of all the kebabs which are cooked in the Muslim lands. I propose to take it with me whenever we travel in those parts of the world, so that I can know what kebabs to try rather than just choose them at random from the menu. Always assuming that the cholesterol levels will allow us this dip into the world of kebabs …
My wife and I recently accompanied our son on a short business trip he was making to a small place to the north of Milan, near Lake Maggiore. He was going there to look over a company. We went along to share the driving and visit the local area. The company he was visiting happened to be very close to the point where a few weeks previously we had given up a walk in the area (the one where we had stumbled across several very lovely varieties of mushrooms), so we decided that we would use the occasion to visit what would have been the end point of our walk had we finished it.
That end point was the village of Orta San Giulio, which sits on a peninsula jutting out into Lake Orta. This is a small lake, the most westward of that series of lakes which form a necklace at the base of the Alps, between Verona to the east and Novara to the west. Readers with good eyes will see Lake Orta, marked with a red pin, to the far left on the map below.
Once we had deposited our son at the gates of the company he was visiting, we set off to Orta San Giulio. It was not, truth be told, the best day to visit anything: it was grey and drizzly, the kind of day that in my mind will be forever linked to the UK. But that didn’t stop us appreciating the scene that unfolded before our eyes as we arrived at the lake’s southernmost tip and took the road which hugged its eastern coast. My wife and I took no photos during our little tour, and the lake under the rain seems to have no fans among the legions of persons who post photos on the internet, so I can only describe to readers what we saw.
As we wound our way along the coast, with the wipers sweeping regularly across the windscreen, the trees covering the slopes which fell steeply into the lake’s waters – trees vested in their brown and reds of late autumn – began to give way to large estates with equally steep but more manicured grounds, the kinds of estates which I associate with the late 19th Century. Out on the water, dimly at first but ever more visible as we got closer to the village of Orta San Giulio, we discerned through the drizzle an island, the Isola San Giulio. The road began to climb to the top of the ridge of the peninsula along whose outer edge Orta San Giulio is built. Once we reached the top, we turned off the main road and made our way down to the village itself, passing as we did other, smaller estates climbing the side of the hill. When the road reached the water’s edge, it turned cobbled and narrowed into a single lane. We found a place to park and continued on foot, huddling under our umbrellas. Apart from a cat or two, we had the place to ourselves. Soon we were walking between rows of old houses on both sides of the street and only got an occasional glimpse of the lake down a side alley. But all at once, we entered the village’s main square, Piazza Motta, and there had a full view, across the square’s wet and windswept flagstones, of the lake and Isola San Giulio hovering on its waters in the middle distance. We could now make out the buildings on the island, in particular a Romanesque campanile on the water’s edge and a big hulking building, looking in all respects like an army barracks, which dominated the island’s centre point. We admired the view, looked curiously at an old hotel, now very much worse for wear, which occupied one whole side of the square, noted the street at the back of the square which, the signposts informed us, took one up to the Sacro Monte d’Orta, the Sacred Mountain of Orta, and then headed back to the car. It was time to go and pick up our son, and anyway it really was too wet and cold to explore any further. “For another time!” we promised each other. Maybe this Spring; there is a train we can take from Novara to Orta San Giulio.
In the meantime, though, I feel I must give my readers some idea of what we saw, or perhaps more accurately what we might be seeing when we come back in better weather. As is my habit, I’ve also been mugging up on the lake’s history and so can use this occasion to tell my wife – faithful reader of my posts – and any other interested readers about what I’ve learned.
So here is a photo album which I’ve cobbled together with other people’s pictures posted on the internet.
This is what the lake looks like on a good day from its south end, the end that we first saw it from.
Isola San Giulio is visible, along with a few houses of Orta San Giulio to the right. The pre-Alps rise up in the background.
As we turned off the main road down to Orta San Giulio, we passed this frothy building.
It is Villa Crespi. It was commissioned in 1879 by a wealthy cotton merchant by the name of Cristoforo Crespi and built in the Moorish Revival style. I suppose it is a somewhat outlandish example of what was happening around all of northern Italy’s lakes during that period: rich (or enriched) industrialists and bourgeois joined the aristocracy in building summer homes on the lakes. The same phenomenon certainly happened on Lakes Como and Maggiore (we see those villas every time we walk around those two lakes) and no doubt on Lake Garda (which still awaits a visit from us). Quite frankly, this particular building reminds me of some of the cinemas which dotted British cities when I was young, but at least this one continues to serve a decent purpose: it is a luxury hotel and home to the restaurant of one Antonino Cannavacciuolo (a well-known chef on Italian TV, I have read).
Certainly Lake Orta must have been a popular playground for the wealthier classes of the late 19th Century. It hosted the first ever European Rowing Championship in 1893 (rowing in Italy being considered a very aristocratic sport) and various national rowing championships thereafter, as this poster of 1909 attests (for an event, readers will note, “under the patronage of HM the King” [of Italy, of course]).
What happened in the following decades is a classic example of how not to manage a lake – but we will get to that later.
This was the narrow street we walked down after parking the car: Via Giovanetti.
It was pleasant to walk along under the rain; it looks even more pleasant on a sunny day.
And this is the village’s main square, Piazza Motta.
I’m not an expert on real estate but it does seem strange to me that the old hotel we see across the square in the photo (called, rather prosaically, Hotel Orta) has not been snapped up by someone and refurbished. There cannot be many places which have this nice a view when one steps out of the lobby onto the street:
Down by the lakeside at the foot of the square one catches the boat to go over to the Isola San Giulio, which, as we get closer, will look like this,
while we leave Orta San Giulio literally in our wake.
I think a little bit of history is in order here, because Isola San Giuglio has always been at the centre of the lake’s story.
The island gets its name from St. Julius, a possibly legendary saint who is said to have christianized the area around the end of the 4th Century AD. It is narrated that Julius and his brother Julian were two Greeks who somehow made it to Italy and were instructed by Emperor Theodosius I to destroy pagan altars and sacred woods and to build Christian churches. Which they did with a vengeance. The little church which Julius built on the island is said to have been the hundredth – and last – church he built. There are the usual colourful stories of his doings like, for instance, this one: having decided that he would build his last church on the island but finding no-one willing to take him there he laid his mantle on the water and miraculously sailed over to the island. As a final aside on this saint, he made it to sainthood, but – rather unfairly, I think, since the two worked hand-in-hand in their proselytizing mission – his brother Julian did not.
In any event, the first little church was succeeded by a larger one built in the 6th Century, which itself was succeeded by an even larger one built in the 12th Century; it was later nominated a basilica. That is the building we see today (although it has been much remodelled inside, as we will see, and squeezed in between houses built in later centuries). It is its campanile which we noticed when we were standing in Piazza Motta that cold and rainy day gazing out towards the island.
The island’s religious vocation was always in conflict with its obvious military importance. As this map shows, Lake Orta was one of two natural passageways for anyone crossing the Alps at the Simplon Pass to get down into the Po River plain and all its riches – the other was along the shores of Lake Maggiore. The red pin shows the location of the Simplon Pass in the map.
Having crossed the Simplon, armies would march down (or peaceful merchant trains would lumber down) the valley of the River Ossola and then either go along Lake Maggiore or march up to Lake Orta and then pass through the valley at the other end. A Frankish army did that in 590 AD, marching into territory that was claimed by the Longobards. A Longobard Duke, Mimulfo by name, who was entrenched in the island, seems to have just let the Franks through. For this betrayal, the Longobard King Childebert had Mimulfo beheaded on the island. (A French Corps also crossed the Simplon in 1800, as part of Napoleon’s campaign in Italy; I have no idea which of the two routes they used to get to Milan)
The island was also a useful place to hole up if hostile armies were around. To this end, a castle was built there as early as the 900s AD, reconverting some of the church buildings to military use and generally constricting how the church and its buildings could be expanded. By then, the Longobards had been defeated by the Carolingian Franks and northern Italy had become part of the Holy Roman Empire. The Emperors were traditionally also Kings of Italy, and northern Italy was therefore impacted by Imperial policies and politics. Around the turn of the first millennium, a struggle started in northern Italy between the smaller noble houses, many of Longobard origin, and the larger noble houses and the bishops, who owed their positions and land to the Emperors. The smaller nobles wanted – not unsurprisingly – to have their own, local king, while the bigger nobles and bishops wanted to continue to be beholden to an Emperor far away on the other side of the Alps who left them to pretty much run the show as they wanted. In 945, at a time of Imperial weakness, the smaller nobles got the upper hand and elected one their own, Lothair, as King of Italy. He was quickly replaced by Berengar, whose family was powerful in the region around Lake Orta. By this time, the Empire was back on an even keel and, at the request of the Northern Italian bishops, the new Emperor Otto I sent his son Liudolf with a large army over the Alps to deal with this upstart. Berengar’s family split up and holed up in various castles which the family controlled. Berengar, together with one of his sons, chose the castle on Isola San Giuglio. There, he was besieged by Liudolf and eventually surrendered. For some reason, Liudolf let both Berengar and his son go free. They went off and holed up in another castle of theirs in Romagna. Several months later, Liudolf died, officially of a fever although it was whispered that Berengar’s people had got to him and poisoned him. With Liudolf’s death his army melted away, and Berengar came out of his castle in Romagna to proclaim himself King of Italy once more. More Italian bishops headed north over the Alps, besieging Otto to come personally to deal with Berengar. This he did in 961, but first he went to Rome to have the Pope proclaim him Emperor and then to Pavia to have himself proclaimed King of Italy. By 962 he was ready to deal with Berengar, who adopted the same strategy: split up the family and hole up in various castles, except that this time it was his wife Willa who got to be in the castle on Isola san Giuglio (together with the family treasure) while Berengar headed for the castle in Romagna. Otto decided to go after Willa and history repeated itself: a siege of several months of the castle on Isola San Giulio followed by its capitulation. Again, Willa was allowed to go free (but not the family treasure) and she joined her husband. This time, though, Otto made sure that the castle stayed under Imperial control. As for Berengar, he died four years later and none of his sons seem to have made any attempts to retake the throne. There was another revolt by the small nobles some 40 years later, when Berengar’s grand-nephew, Arduin, was proclaimed King of Italy, and Northern Italy was put through the same circus: The Emperor (this time Henry II) came over the Alps with a large army and put Arduin in his place; he went back to Germany with his army and Arduin came out of whatever castle he was hiding in and proclaimed himself King again; Henry II came back over the Alps with another large army and dealt with Arduin again, this time for good (without, though, putting him to death; I think the Longobard king Childebert had the right approach: off with their heads!) Italy was not to have an independent King again until Italian unification nearly 900 years later.
After that, Isola San Giulio seems to have been pivoted away from its martial use back to its religious vocation and the whole area became a bit of a rural backwater. Over the next two hundred years, the successive bishops of Novara maneuvered to gradually have the Emperor give over to them the southern part of the lake as a feudal principality, which they then ruled with what seems to have been distant benevolence for some five hundred years; the local notables were generally allowed to rule themselves as long as they paid the necessary tithes and taxes to the prince-bishop. I don’t know if the prince-bishops used any of these funds to make life better for the peoples of their little principality. They certainly did use some of their funds, as did pious pilgrims, to make the basilica ever more beautiful. From the 14th to the 18th centuries, the church’s look was “modernized”, with the latest Baroque additions giving the inside of the basilica its current look, and frescoes were added on every available surface, with the later ones sometimes obliterating the earlier ones. We have here the “modern” frescoes in the vault and dome (the picture also shows the baroque “scarification”).
while here we have one of the earlier frescoes, which are now tucked away out of sight in the lateral aisles.
I have already made my feelings abundantly clear about baroque and later religious art in earlier posts, so I need hardly say that I prefer the earlier frescoes.
While all this religiosity was going on, life was not completely trouble-free in Isola San Giorgio and the surrounding principality. The end of the 15th, beginning of the 16th Centuries were agitated times in Italy and while this quiet corner of northern Italy was largely able to avoid the troubles, for a decade or so, 1520-30, the troubles came to it. In 1523, the plague broke out, in all likelihood brought to the area by refugees from Novara which had been sacked and pillaged by French troops fighting the Spaniards. But worse were the predations by the neighbouring lordlets, many of them from the Visconti family, who were attracted by the relative prosperity of the principality. Although officially the Duke of Milan was exhorting the lordlets to be good boys – these were church lands, after all – he probably unofficially supported them in their rapine, because he had his own quarrel with the Bishop of Novara over the ownership of this little principality: Novara and its province had come under Milanese dominion some two hundred years earlier. On some excuse, Orta San Giulio was sacked in 1524 by one Visconti lordlet and prisoners taken for ransom. In 1526 and ’27, the principality was forced by another Visconti lordlet to put up, for free, a company of Imperial soldiers. In 1528, the same Visconti lordlet decided to become Governor of the principality and moved into the castle on Isola San Giulio. When the locals besieged him there, a third Visconti lordlet came to his rescue and sacked Orta San Giulio a second time. In early 1529, a random Imperial army invaded the principality and demanded a huge payment to leave. The locals refused to pay and escaped to the island and the relative safety of its castle. After trying to take the castle a few times, the army gave up and left, sacking and pillaging as it went. A few months later, the third Visconti lordlet decided it was time to pillage some more and marched into the principality at the head of a band of soldiers. This time, the locals were “mad as hell and weren’t going to take it anymore”, as the saying goes; they were determined to resist. Grabbing what arms they had, they met the invaders and brought them to battle. The invaders made the classic mistake of thinking that these were just a bunch of peasants who would run away when the going got tough. But they didn’t; they fought like madmen. They were helped, it has to be said, by the marshy ground they had chosen, which meant that the invaders’ horsemen were neutralized. The result was that the Visconti lordlet and a good portion of his men were massacred. The other lordlets of the area took heed and desisted in their predations (probably aided by the fact that a general peace was finally brokered between the Great Powers fighting over Italy).
Thereafter, Isola San Giorgio and the rest of the principality slipped back into its state of feudal somnolence for another two hundred years. In 1735, Novara and its province were handed over by the Austrians to the House of Savoy. The-then Duke of Savoy (and King of Sardinia) Charles-Emmanuel III had no patience with quaint feudal relics in his lands like the Bishop of Novara’s principality around Lake Orta. Pressure was brought to bear and slowly, slowly the bishops divested themselves of their feudal rights to the principality in favour of the House of Savoy. By 1819, the deed was done: the principality was no more. It was just one more district in the lands of Piedmont and, after 1861, in the newly-unified kingdom of Italy.
As a sign of the changes, the remains of the castle on the island were dismantled completely in 1841 and in their place a huge seminary was built – it is that big blockhouse of a building which I thought were old army barracks. We have here an old postcard celebrating the seminarists.
The seminary is no more; it lasted a little less than a hundred years. But the religious vocation of the island continues. The basilica and seminary have been handed over to a congregation of Benedictine nuns – we have one here going through the rite of becoming a Bride of Christ.
The nuns have an interesting vocation. They study and translate ancient texts, and restore ancient fabrics and tapestries.
It is time to go back to Orta San Giulio and take that street at the back of Piazza Motta which we had noticed that cold and drizzly day, and which carries one up past this church to the Sacred Mountain of Orta.
The Sacred Mountain of Orta is one of a number of Sacred Mountains which were created in the late 16th, early 17th Centuries in Northern Italy. They were very much promoted by San Carlo Borromeo, Cardinal of Milan (whose very large nose I have mentioned in an earlier post). The original idea was to create places of pilgrimage which could stand in for the Medieval pilgrimages to the Holy Land, which was becoming harder and harder for pilgrims to reach. For San Carlo Borromeo, the Sacred Mountains were also to be a way to teach the little people, who had not had the benefit of an education, in an easily understandable way such mysteries as the Trinity but also the lives of Christ, the Virgin Mary, and great saints. To this end, the Sacred Mountains were made up of a series of chapels containing life-sized models in terracotta, backed up by frescoes on the chapel walls, each telling a story in a holy person’s life or making a point about some tricky theological concept: little theatrical pieces, if you will. I have mentioned the use of art to teach illiterate people about religion in an earlier post. With the growth of Protestantism, the Sacred Mountains took on a third purpose, that of combating these horrible heresies. That no doubt explains why there are so many Sacred Mountains in Northern Italy, where they were created as bulwarks against the tide of Protestantism that could be washing over the Alps at any minute. In fact, the Sacred Mountain of Orta is part of nine such Sacred Mountains in northern Italy which are now inscribed in UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites. In September, my wife and I visited another of these nine sites, at Varallo in Piedmont (where, coincidentally, we were once again accompanying our son on one of his business trips). I mentioned another of these sites, at Varese, in an earlier post I wrote about the fondness of religions around the world for sacrilizing mountains.
The Sacred Mountain of Orta is dedicated to the life of St. Francis, which pleases me no end since he must be my favourite saint, as I have mentioned in an earlier post. There are 20 chapels, laid out in a wooded landscape.
I don’t propose to show readers photos of them all. Just two can give readers a sense of what would await them were they to visit this Sacred Mountain (or any of the other Sacred Mountains for that matter).
I hope these scenes are in better shape than the ones we saw at Varallo, which were really rather tatty. Luckily, they were in the midst of being restored when we visited.
You get beautiful views over the lake from the Sacro Monte.
As you gaze down on this sunny scene, it’s hard to believe that a mere thirty years ago the lake was dead. Everything in it had been killed off by industries which were discharging their crap into the lake, turning it into the most acidic lake in the world. It started back in 1927, when the German company Bemberg, which was making rayon fibre using the cuprammonium process, set itself up on the lakeside. The plant’s copper and ammonium discharges quickly acidified the lake, killing all life in it in about two years. Bemberg made limp efforts to control the discharges, which did begin to finally show noticeable reductions in the late 1950s. But by then Bemberg had been joined by a host of small plants making metal consumer products; two of these companies, incidentally, went on to become global brands: Bialetti and Alessi.
Many of these plants included electroplating in their processes (that Alessi kettle is heavily chromed, for instance) and consequently toxic heavy metals such as chromium, zinc, copper and nickel were added to the filthy mix being discharged into the lake. As if that weren’t enough, the acidic waters of the lake released aluminium from the natural and normally harmless imissions of aluminosilicate into the lake, adding yet another toxic metal to the stew. Things only got better when the legislators eventually banged their fist on the table and passed Italy’s first water protection law in 1976 (the Legge Merli; I know it well, I referred to it countless times when as an environmental consultant I would tell Italian companies they needed to control their water discharges). Suddenly, companies which had claimed for years that it was impossible to control their discharges and remain in business found – surprise, surprise – that actually it was possible to control them and stay in business. But it took more than just forcing companies to properly control their discharges to get the lake’s pH back to normal. A massive liming operation was required, where calcium carbonate was added to the lake. A boat was specially made for the purpose. Lime was first sprayed on the surface.
But that wasn’t enough. Lime had to be injected deep into the lake, below the thermocline. It took twenty years to restore what had taken a mere two to destroy. The lake is now more or less OK: “fishable, swimmable”, in the catchy phrase of the US’s first water protection law, although the planctonic populations are not quite right yet.
Well, on that somewhat hopeful note, I leave my readers. Maybe some of them will make it to Lake Orta one day. My wife and I certainly will, when Spring comes rolling round again.
A few days ago, my wife entered a greengrocer’s to get some fruit and came out with fruit but also with a gleam in her eye. “I have bought some Jerusalem artichokes”, she announced, and I was delighted to hear it.
It was a University flatmate who many, many (many …) years ago introduced us to this tuber. One evening, it must have been about this time of the year, he appeared in the kitchen with these strange-looking things.
As we looked at them curiously, he asked us if we had ever tried them. When we confessed that we had not, he promised us a plateful. He was as good as his word. I cannot remember now how he cooked them – more on this later – but it allowed us to appreciate that delicate artichoke taste which is the hallmark of this tuber.
Its name in English recognizes this gustatory affinity to the artichoke. And it is that artichoke taste which drew me to this lumpy, knobbly little tuber; as I have written in a previous post, I am very partial to artichokes.
Not that we’ve eaten Jerusalem artichokes all that often since that first tasting 40-plus years ago. It is one of the few foodstuffs that is still only found seasonally – it’s available from late Autumn to late Winter, and very difficult to keep once out of the earth – so unless you maintain a sharp lookout, you’re liable to miss it. Because of that, and because, frankly, of a bad press – it has a reputation of being something you feed to animals and only eat if you’re literally starving – it’s not grown in large quantities and supermarkets rarely stock it. Once, I bought a whole load of ginger because I thought they were Jerusalem artichokes. They really do look quite similar, as I think this photo shows; the resemblance between the two has often been noted.
I cannot remember where it was that I bought this ginger, but it must have been somewhere where I couldn’t read the labels – Thailand, maybe? I also cannot remember what we did with all the ginger: probably, after a few half-hearted attempts to drink tea with a lot of ginger in it, we threw it away.
I must confess to also rather liking the name, which I find satisfyingly quirky. I initially thought that the “Jerusalem” part of the name indicated a Levantine origin for the tuber; maybe, I romantically mused, it was a foodstuff brought to Europe by returning Crusaders. But no, I discovered, North America is its place of origin. It is actually the tuber to a rather lovely flower, the Helianthus tuberosus.
It is part of the Great Columbian Exchange, that massive intercontinental move of plants and animals (and diseases … and people) which took place after we Europeans discovered the Americas: plants and animals mostly travelling from the Americas to Europe and the rest of the world, and vice versa for diseases and people. I’ve written an earlier post about a minor representative of this exchange, the prickly pear. The Jerusalem artichoke is another minor representative. It is the relative of a much more important representative, also an emigrant from North America, the common sunflower, planted in vast quantities for its oil-bearing seeds.
The French explorers of North America seem to have been the first Europeans to report on this tuber, and French colonists the first to send exemplars back to Europe. Samuel de Champlain, the explorer of the Saint Lawrence River and the Great Lakes, first came across it on Cape Cod. As related on the US National Park Service website, “after rounding the headlands of Cape Cod in 1605, the French explorers sailed south along the ocean side of the outer Cape. Avoiding shoals and sandbanks, they managed to enter the first embayment they encountered. They called the place Malle Barre and left the ship to go onshore to inspect the Native American settlement. Champlain described the scene:
Before reaching their wigwams we entered a field planted with Indian corn … The corn was in flower and some five and a half feet in height. There was some less advanced, which they sow later. We saw an abundance of Brazilian beans, many edible squashes of various sizes, tobacco, and roots which they cultivate, the latter having the taste of artichoke. The woods are full of oaks, nut-trees, and very fine cypresses, which are of reddish colour and have a very pleasant smell. There were also several fields not cultivated, for the reason that the Indians let them lie fallow … Their wigwams are round, and covered with heavy thatch made of reeds. In the middle of the roof is an opening, about a foot and a half wide, through which issues the smoke of their fire.”
Champlain helpfully included a map of the embayment in his printed report.
Another Frenchman, Marc Lescarbot, met Champlain soon after this in Port-Royal, a new settlement on the coast of what is now Nova Scotia. I throw in here a map of Port-Royal which Lescarbot included in the book he wrote some years later.
Among other things, Champlain introduced him to the tuber. Lescarbot described it as follows: “a sort of root, as big as a beet or truffle, tasting rather like chard but more agreeable”. Chard is a vegetable which I’m fond of, fond enough to have written a post about it a little while back. Lescarbot was onto something, I think: the two share a similarly delicate taste. Nevertheless, in the end I would plump for the artichoke connection, so Jerusalem artichoke it should be, not Jerusalem chard.
Europeans were responsible for the global redistribution of the Jerusalem artichoke, but in truth humans had already started to move the plant out of its natural range before Europeans discovered the Americas. When Champlain, Lescarbot, and all the other anonymous European colonists came across the native plantations of the Jerusalem artichoke on the East coast, it looked to them like the plant had always been there. But actually that was not so. The plant’s natural range is somewhere in central North America, straddling the modern US-Canada border. However, the American Indians, recognizing the tuber’s value as a foodstuff, and especially its availability during the winter months when other food is often scarce, had centuries earlier carried it out of its natural range, all the way to the east and west coasts of North America, and down south into Mexico too.
Fascinating stuff, but none of it explains that “Jerusalem” bit of the name. Unfortunately, the chroniclers of the 17th century – the time when the Jerusalem artichoke arrived in Europe and was diffusing across the Continent – were more interested in the Great Men (and possibly Great Women) as well as the Great Events of their time rather than in the names being given to new vegetables. So it has been left to modern historians and etymologists to make some educated guesses. I give two of these guesses here, the two that seem to me the most likely – or perhaps the least unlikely. The first guess has it that the tuber made its way to Rome, as a foodstuff which had miraculously saved the French (Catholic) colonists of North America from starvation. It was planted in the Vatican gardens, whose gardeners gave the plant the name girasole articiocco – “girasole” being the Italian name for the sunflower (readers will recall that the plant is a cousin to the sunflower). The usual mangling of foreign words in British mouths meant that girasole articiocco became Jerusalem artichoke. This is quite neat and is the guess I would normally lay my money on, but I can’t explain to myself how Protestant Britain would have picked up a name being bandied about in the Catholic Vatican. The second guess has it that the tuber originally entered the UK from the Netherlands and more specifically from the town of Terneuzen (the Dutch botanist Petrus Hondius, who lived there, reported in the early 1600s on having successfully planted a shriveled tuber which he had received, no doubt from Dutch colonists in North America). In British mouths, Terneuzen artisjokken got mangled into Jerusalem artichokes. Trade between the two countries was brisk, so a transfer such as this of a new foodstuff sounds quite reasonable to me. But a mangling of Terneuzen into Jerusalem seems a bit of a stretch.
One of the rare places where my wife and I came across the Jerusalem artichoke was in Paris. The French name for the tuber is equally quirky: topinambour. Here again the mists of time have veiled over the origin of the name. The best guess is that the tuber began to appear on Parisian plates at around the time that a delegation of three Amerindians from the Tupinambá tribe, which had settled on the Brazilian coastline, were paraded before King Louis XIII and his court in the Tuileries (three others had died en route). They were sent there by some missionaries, who were competing with the Portuguese for the souls of the local “savages”. No doubt the idea was to get the king interested in defending French interests in Brazil. I’m not sure they succeeded in that, but the Tupinambá created a sensation. One of the missionaries commented enthusiastically: “Who would have thought that Paris, used to the strange and the exotic, would go so wild over these Indians?”. After being paraded before the king and his court, no doubt in their “savage” state, the three Tupinambá were taken off to a church, baptized, and dressed in more “civilized” garb.
Parisians, being vague about the geography of this New World that was being discovered before their very eyes but knowing that the tuber came from somewhere over there, simply decided that the Topinambá had brought the tuber with them and began to call it the topinambour.
Helianthus tuberosus grows extremely well in Europe, it is very easy to grow, and as I said earlier its tuber is available in the winter months when other foods can be scarce. As a result, the plant’s popularity grew, especially in France, where it saw its heyday in the 18th Century. Not only were people eating it, but it was given as feed to livestock. It was so widespread in France that one of the days in the Revolutionary calendar – the thirteenth day in the month of Brumaire, to be precise – was dedicated to it. But by then, its days were numbered. The potato (another representative of the Great Columbian Exchange), after facing a century or so of hostility in France, finally won wide acceptance. It eventually completely eclipsed the topinambour.
Which is sad really, because the Jerusalem artichoke/topinambour is really quite good to eat. I personally prefer the tubers steamed (they can be boiled, too, but they risk crumbling in the water).
There’s Jerusalem artichoke soup, too, which I have yet to try.
Then they can be roasted
or prepared in just about any other way one can think of – there are recipes out there for all tastes.
I feel that I cannot in all fairness finish this post without mentioning one negative thing about the Jerusalem artichoke: the plant has a tendency to be invasive, a problem I’ve written about several times. It’s the tubers – if you leave just one little piece in the ground, they will proliferate. This is fine if you have them planted in your garden or in a field; it means you don’t have a problem getting another harvest next year. But it is not fine if the tuber somehow jumps the garden fence or the field boundary. Like another invasive species which I recently wrote about, the Himalayan balsam, Helianthus tuberosus is particularly troublesome if the plant colonizes river banks, for the same reason. It dies back during winter, leaving the river banks much more exposed to the danger of erosion during winter and spring floods.
So, dear readers, bon appetit! But if you want to grow these tubers please make sure they don’t escape from your garden!
Our son has gone on a “tartufata” today with some of his friends to a place called Ovada, a town in southern Piedmont. I’m not sure if this word really exists in Italian, but what it means is that they have gone to a restaurant in Ovada, where they will order various dishes seasoned with tartufo, or truffle in English. ‘Tis the truffle season! Many an Italian is fanning out over the country where truffles grow to taste this delicacy. Alas! neither my wife nor I are terribly fond of the use of truffle in cooking. I’m sure some readers will gasp in horror at this admission. Our son certainly shook his head sadly when we admitted this to him – he, of course, is a great fan. My beef with truffle is that its taste is very intense, far too intense for me; even my son, fan though he is, admits that he can only eat a small number of dishes seasoned with truffle before it’s too much for him.
For those of my readers who have never seen a truffle, they grow in the ground, normally around the roots of certain trees.
They are not at all handsome-looking. They resemble pebbles, with a roughly roundish shape and rather knobbly. Normally, a number of them will fit into the palm of one’s hand. This next photo shows the two most common species of truffle, the white and the black (there are number of other types of truffles, but we’ll keep it simple).
An enduring image from my youth is the use of pigs to find truffles. It was one of those stories I heard, about French farmers – a pig on a leash in one hand, a basket in the other (and no doubt a smoldering gitane in the side of the mouth) – wandering the woods of the Perigord (a region of France famous for its truffles) looking for this culinary delicacy.
With their fine sense of smell, pigs are exceedingly good at locating the truffles buried in the soil. I don’t suppose pigs are used much any more. Clever people have figured out how to farm truffles, so I presume the foraging for wild truffles is mostly a thing of the past.
For those of a biological turn of mind the truffle is a fungus, one of perhaps 2 to 4 million fungi species (this is an estimate; only some 120,000 species have been formally described). It belongs to the Ascomycota phylum of the fungi kingdom, along with “good” fungi like morels, brewer’s and baker’s yeasts, and the penicillins, as well as “bad” fungi like the Candida fungi and ringworm, which infect us humans, as well various plant pathogens with colourful names like black mold, apple scab, rice blast, black knot and powdery mildews.
What actually set me off on this post was not truffles; it just so happened that our son went off on his gastronomic adventures at this time. It was actually mushrooms, which are members of another phylum of the fungi kingdom, the Basidiomycota, that got me to pick up my pen, figuratively speaking. As is our habit when we are in Milan, we’ve been walking the woods around Lake Como, and in recent days we’ve stumbled across a good number of very striking mushrooms. Perhaps the weather conditions have been particularly propitious, perhaps we have just happened to walk across mushroom-rich grounds. I have no idea if any of the mushrooms we’ve seen are edible; I’m certain that one of them definitely is not. They just struck me as being particularly handsome. Seeing handsome mushrooms actually started on our walk along the Kumano Kodo trail in Japan. Here is a lovely one we almost tripped over, growing as it was right along the path we were following.
Aren’t they just beautiful?!
We also saw a very nice species of bracket fungus on a large cypress tree on our last day.
Passersby had put 10-yen coins on the bracket fungus; this was the entryway to a large Shinto shrine, so I presume they play a role in animistic religions. I took the coins off, feeling that the fungus looked much better without them (and I hastily add that I put them back once I had taken my photo).
I’m very fond of bracket fungi. Years ago, when we were living in Washington D.C., my wife and I came across a lovely set of bracket fungi growing on a dead branch, during a walk in the woods. We brought the branch back to our apartment, where it brightened up the place. With great regret, when we left for Europe, we gave the branch and its fungi to a friend. I’ve always wondered what became of them.
But coming back to Lake Como, the first set of mushrooms we saw were these, growing under a pine tree.
Unfortunately, since they were in someone’s garden I couldn’t get any close-up photos. I rather suspect, though, that at least some of them – the ones to the left – were the fly agaric mushroom. This is a truly beautiful mushroom – but a hallucinogen if eaten in small amounts, and deadly if eaten in larger amounts.
These are the mushrooms that gnomes will often be pictured sitting under or on.
A little later, when we had entered the woods, we were lucky enough to come across a fly agaric in its mature stage on the side of the path.
It looks like something took a bite out of it; I hope it had nice hallucinations.
After that, we saw a number of other mushrooms peeking out from the forest floor as we walked along.
Lovely … But I have no idea what their names are (or their toxic or hallucinogenic properties) – I welcome any reader who knows them to tell me. In the meantime, my wife and I will continue traipsing through the woods and perhaps we’ll see a few more species of mushrooms to admire.
After I had finished giving my course on sustainable industrial development at Kyoto University, my wife and I took a week off to walk the woods of Japan. Last year, we walked the Nakasendo Way. This year, we hiked along the old Kumano Kodo pilgrim trail. Just as had been the case when we walked the Nakasendo Way, we were struck by just how much water Japan has. In all its forms – rills, brooks, streams, rivers, waterfalls – the water welled out of the mountains we traversed and trickled, ran, poured off their flanks. The noise of water running across rock and stone was our constant companion.
No wonder water is such an integral part of Japanese gardens, from falls
to streams and ponds
to small water elements.
All this water, and the rain which is the source of it, means that there are high levels of humidity in Japan, excellent conditions for the growing of moss. I have read that of the roughly 12,000 species of moss known worldwide, some 2,500 varieties are found in Japan alone: one-fifth! That’s pretty good going. And they certainly beautify Japan. Moss casts a lovely green sheen on everything it touches. This is true everywhere but it is particularly true in Japan. On our walks there, we’ve seen it growing luxuriantly on felled trees and tree stumps.
We’ve seen it clustering thickly around the base of standing trees.
and throwing a gauzy veil over their trunks.
We’ve seen it throw a light mantle over rocks.
It doesn’t stay in the forests. It will colonize the artifacts created by man.
We’ve even seen it make the ugly concrete edges of a road look lovely!
The genius of Japanese garden designers is to have fought off the instinct, which we seem to have in the West, of banishing moss from their gardens. Instead, they have welcomed it in with open arms and integrated it into their designs. As a result, no self-respecting Japanese garden is without its moss.
Given my weakness for Zen gardens, I love the way the designers of these gardens have incorporated moss into their designs.
Some gardens use moss the way we would use grass, creating “lawns” of moss.
If the light is right, the effect can be quite magical.
A good number of temples have extensive moss gardens, where moss covers the floor of the whole garden. The most famous of these is Saiho-ji temple in the western outskirts of Kyoto. It’s become a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s difficult to visit. You have to book months in advance, using a system of return postcards, which is really primitive in this day and age and very difficult to do if you don’t live in the country. But we managed it this time.
A good number of years ago, as I relate in a previous post, I built my own Zen garden in a corner of our balcony. I had no moss, though, in that garden. The micro-climate on the balcony was too dry and harsh. But maybe, one day, somewhere, I’ll make myself another Zen garden, and this time I will try to incorporate moss.
My wife and I have just come back from our annual trip to Kyoto, where I teach a two-week intensive course on sustainable industrial development. As usual, when I was not giving classes we were either visiting Kyoto or walking the ring of hills which surround the city. And as usual, we’ve been coming across a good many examples of this representative of the insect world.
This, dear readers, is the Nephila clavata, or the Joro spider. It is found throughout most of Japan, as well as in Korea, China and Taiwan. And this is the time of year when they spin their webs. They are everywhere! If you’re not careful, you will walk into the webs as you walk along, getting those silky threads all over your face. Here is an especially dense set of webs which we had to navigate.
I have to say, this species of spider is really quite striking. Look at those green and black markings! And that dark red stripe around its abdomen! I am definitely not a fan of the spider family, but even I have to admit that the Joro spider is beautiful, even if in a rather sinister sort of way. And it does spin lovely webs, the classic ones, a series of concentric circles with radiating spokes. My wife and I were lucky enough to catch this one in the morning sunlight when it was still wet with dew.
The Joro spider is a champion for matriarchal societies. The female is much bigger than the male, and it is she who sits, in deathly stillness, at the centre of the web, waiting for hapless insects to blunder into it and become her next meal.
As for the males, a couple of them will be found on the edges of the web, waiting anxiously for their chance to copulate with the female. After copulation, the female will spin an egg sack, fill it with anything from 400 to 1500 eggs, and then attach it to a tree or other suitable surface. After which, with the onset of winter, all the adults die, leaving the eggs to hatch the following May. The juveniles scatter through the underbrush and the cycle starts again.
And that’s all there is to say, really, about the Joro spider. I’m sure arachnothologists could natter on excitedly for hours about various aspects of the spider’s life cycle and behaviour but I’m assuming my readers are, like me, just ordinary folk with no more than a passing interest in spiders. So I will say no more about the Joro spider – except for one thing.
Readers may be interested to know that the Joro spider has over the centuries become one of Japan’s many yokai – these are the supernatural monsters, spirits, and demons that haunt Japanese folklore. I have this theory that it is the dominance of the female over the male along with her vivid colouration that has led to the Joro spider being turned into a yokai. The name in Japanese, Jorogumo, actually means “woman spider”. The name can also be written to mean more negatively “entangling bride” or even “whore spider”. The common role of the Jorogumo yokai in folk tales is to shapeshift into a beautiful woman who will set herself up in a cave, in the forest, or in an empty house in town, and will wait there for unwary men to pass by. She will seduce them, tie them up in her silken web, and then devour them. We have here several modern takes on these ancient storylines, with the second bordering on the pornographic.
A common finale to these folk tales is that one young man, more astute than the rest, will figure out that the beautiful woman who is trying to inveigle him is actually the dreaded entangling woman/whore spider and will take her out with a sword or other suitable weapon. Here we have a strapping samurai doing just that, in a 19th century woodblock by Utagawa Kuniyoshi.
It is interesting that a number of folk tales from other parts of the world include wicked seducing women from the supernatural world, ready to kill or otherwise neuter healthy young men. Just off the top of my head, I can think of the enchantress Circe in the Odyssey, who turned Odysseus’s men into pigs and whose plot to visit the same fate on Odysseus was foiled by the hero.
Or in the same Odyssey, we have the (female) Sirens whose beautiful songs drove (male) sailors mad and incited them to smash their ships onto the rocks.
Without getting too anthropological about it, I have to assume that these tales are a product of the patriarchal societies in which they were developed. In a strongly male-dominated society, the worst thing that can happen to a man is to find himself dominated by a woman. The best excuse a man can give to explain why this happened is for him to say that the woman seduced him. To make it an even better excuse, give the woman supernatural powers of seduction – “if she’d been a normal woman, I could have resisted her female lures”.
As I walked along, ducking out of the way of the Joro spiders’ webs, I found myself wondering how one of these tales would have been told in a matriarchal society.
Last year, I marked the annual migration which my wife and I make from Austria to Italy with a post celebrating the autumn crocuses which we saw sprinkled across the meadows we were crossing on our last walks around Vienna.
So this year, when on our first walk back in Italy – we came down from Austria a few days ago – I spotted a profusion of yellow crocuses it seemed to me that they would be an excellent topic for my first post of the winter season in Italy.
As it turned out, there was a slight hiccup in this plan. I have just discovered that the plants are not crocuses. They look terribly like them, as this photo demonstrates (the purple plant is a real crocus). But they are not.
A number of the plant’s common names make the same mistake. For instance, one of the plant’s common names in English is yellow autumn crocus, as it is in French (crocus jaune d’automne). But actually the plant is more closely related to the daffodil than it is to the crocus. And in fact a couple of the common English names refer to the daffodil – autumn daffodil, winter daffodil – although I suspect that this has more to do with the plant’s daffodil-yellow colour than with any botanical relationships. I don’t want to use these names because I really see nothing daffodil-like in the plant (apart from the colour). The plant’s official name is Sternbergia lutea, but I don’t want to use that, it makes me sound like a stuffy old bore. After looking around at what various (European) languages call the plant, I think I shall plump for the German Herbst-Goldbecher, Autumn Golden Cup.
So now let me celebrate the Autumn Golden Cup with a couple of photos of it by photographers who are way better than me at taking photos.
For anyone who might be interested, this map shows the geographic distribution of the Autumn Golden Cup.
The plant is native from Spain through to the southern shores of the Caspian Sea (and it’s been naturalized for quite a while in France, Morocco and Algeria). These photos of the Autumn Golden Cup show it in a rather more natural setting, the first in an old olive grove in southern Greece, the second on some stony ground in southern Italy.
There is only one dark cloud in all of this. The Autumn Golden Cup is one of a handful of plants whose bulbs are made commercially available mostly through collection in the wild rather than through artificial propagation. This has put terrible pressure on wild populations. In my last post, I wrote about the problem of species being moved to new ecosystems and running amok. Here we have the problem of over-exploitation of native populations, leading – if we are not careful – to their extinction in the wild. The situation for the Autumn Golden Cup is sufficiently worrisome that it has been listed in the global Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) as a species that can only be traded internationally with the proper permits. The problem is that many of the countries where this bulb harvesting is going on have weak enforcement authorities, so the trade is not being managed as it should.
What I don’t understand in all of this is why the Autumn Golden Cup cannot be propagated, as happens with the great majority of bulbous plants. Some efforts are being made to teach farmers in Turkey, for instance, to do just this. But why don’t Italian farmers, where the species is native, also do it? My rather uncharitable thought is that everyone has pretty much left bulb propagation and sale to the Netherlands (those tulips, you know …), which as a result controls the great majority of the trade in flower bulbs. It so happens, my thinking continues, that since the Netherlands falls outside the geographic range of the Autumn Golden Cup it has never bothered to get into the business of propagating this particular plant. And so we are left with harvesting in the wild.
Well, I just hope that we can change this situation before it’s too late.
Picking up where I left off at the end of my last post, my wife and I were on our way back to our hotel from our little tour of Traunkirchen when I spied on the side of the road these beds of wild flowers.
They were really very pretty, with the flowers going from magenta to almost white, passing through a candy pink. Even as I admired and took a couple of photos I had to admit to myself that I no idea what they were.
The next day, at breakfast, I showed our host the pictures. Ah, she said, that’s a Drüsige Springkraut. She had no idea what its English name was, but the German name was enough for my wife. A few clicks later, she handed me her iPad and I was reading a Wikipedia entry on the flower.
Its official name is Impatiens glandulifera. It has many colourful names in English. Three – Policeman’s Helmet, Bobby Tops, Copper Tops – reflect the flower’s apparent resemblance to British policemen’s helmets. Here’s a close-up of the flower itself.
I leave my readers to decide, but I really don’t see this resemblance – unless the helmets have changed considerably since I last lived in the UK. Another name, Gnome’s Hatstand, makes more sense to me. It presumably harks back to the decidedly florid hats which some gnomes in children’s books sometimes sport, and I definitely can see a florid hat in the flower’s shape. And of course the plant then becomes the hatstand for these florid hats. Two other names, Himalayan Balsam and Kiss-me-on-the-mountain, refer to the mountainous origin of the plant; more on this later. Another name listed in Wikipedia is Ornamental jewelweed. I’m guessing this was inspired by the fact that we have a beautiful flower grafted onto a decidedly weedy-looking stem.
The English-speaking world seems to have been particularly poetic in its choice of names. The names in German and French (the only other two languages I checked) are decidedly more prosaic and seem mostly variations on balsam and glands (the latter being also found in the official name). I read that the plant does indeed carry glands, under the leaf stem, which produce a sticky, sweet-smelling, and edible nectar (the latter presumably being the origin of the balsam names). Eager to try this nectar, I poked around under various leaf stems the next time we walked past the flowers but failed to detect anything; a puzzle to be solved another day. The only exception to the list of prosaic Franco-German names is the German Bauernorchidee, Farmer’s orchid. We’ll come back to this link to orchids in a minute.
A beautiful flower – but alas an invasive species! Invasive species are a terrible problem; they have been the subject of an earlier post of mine. The flower’s original home is the Himalayas, specifically to the areas between Kashmir and Uttarakhand. I am ashamed to say that it was an Englishman who unleashed this particular botanical scourge on the rest of the world in 1839. He was no doubt part of that legion of Europeans who followed in the footsteps of conquering European armies, scouring the newly-colonized lands for plants. Initially, they were looking for plants from which some monetarily useful product could be extracted but later they also looked for pretty plants which they could sell to the growing ranks of gardeners looking for an extra splash of colour or texture in their gardens.
The Himalayan Balsam, to use one of its many names, was thus first grown outside of its natural range in the UK but eventually spread to many other parts of the world. Coming back to that German name, Farmer’s orchid, it seems that its popularity was at least in part due to it allowing gardeners of modest income to have a flower that looked very orchid-like; I throw in here a photo of an orchid, to allow readers to see the resemblance.
Real orchids were the playthings of the rich, who could afford not only the stiff purchase price but also the high maintenance costs (and by the way, the picture above is actually of a Victorian orchid hunter; orchids commanded prices which allowed serious expeditions to be funded).
As with water hyacinth which I wrote about in that earlier post on invasive species, the Himalayan balsam eventually escaped from the confines of gardens and began to spread through the countryside. As far as the UK is concerned, it has become one of the country’s most invasive species. It colonizes damp woodlands (which is where we came across it in Traunkirchen, although in beds that were not nearly as thick as this).
It also colonizes the banks of waterways – this is a view of the River Monnow, which makes up part of the England-Wales border.
The flower’s crowding along the banks of rivers is particularly problematical. When the plants die back in autumn they leave the banks bare and subject to erosion from winter and spring floods. I read that the plant is a terrible pest in the Norfolk Broads. That gives me pause; I used to go there as a young boy – 50+ years ago – and I never remember seeing it. The Himalayan balsam is marching across the landscape …
People are trying to do what they can to stop the plant. In some places, there are regular “balsam bashes”, where volunteers go out and physically pull up the plant. Here, for instance, we have a group of volunteers in Yorkshire, who by the size of the pile in front of them have had a hard day’s work.
More extreme measures are required, though, if the invasion is truly to be stopped. The basic problem is that the plant has escaped from all those predators which back home in the Himalayas keep it in check, and none have taken their place in the rest of the world. Researchers in the UK have gone off to the Himalayas to see if they can’t bring at least one of the original predators back to the UK. They have found a very promising candidate: the Himalayan balsam rust. It attacks the plant at various points: the stem, the leaves, the seedlings. This is what the leaves look like once they are under attack.
The scientists are currently conducting field tests. I wish them the best of luck. And I really pray that they will not unwittingly release into the British environment a rust that will find other, native species much more to their liking and which will then forget about attacking the Himalayan balsam. As I pointed out in my previous post on invasive species, this has happened before, and you end up with two invasive species instead of one!
While we wait for the results of the tests to come in, I invite readers to locate their nearest “balsam bash”, or whatever they might be called in the local language, and take part. You will be doing us all a favour and getting a breath of fresh air at the same time.
A beautiful flower, but to be admired in its native habitat and not in our gardens.