OLEANDER AND RABBIT HOLES

Milan, 27 June 2020

This post was going to be about the oleander, but as often happens when I surf the web I disappeared down some fascinating rabbit holes along the way. So while I will discuss the oleander I will also throw in a couple of disparate facts linked more or less tenuously to the oleander.

First the oleander. The walks which my wife and I have been taking recently on the Ligurian coast have led us past many an example of this fine plant, whose showy red and pink flowers have lit up our way, especially when we have been traversing urban sections of our walks.

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As usual, after quietly enjoying at this display from Nature, I looked to the plant’s history, to see where it had originally come from (not believing for a minute that it could be native to Liguria). What I found was, I suppose, a testimony to its enduring attraction to humans as well as to its toughness and endurance: enduring attraction to humans because it’s been domesticated for such a long time that no-one can make out its original home – South to South-West Asia seems to the best guess; toughness and endurance because even when taken out of its native habitat it has survived and thrived and created new homes for itself – here is a picture of oleander which has gone native in northern Israel, growing along the side of streams.

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It has gone similarly native in many places, from Portugal and Morocco in the west to Yunnan in China in the east.

Its toughness and endurance has made it a popular plant to use in unforgiving environments, like the median strips of highways: you can’t get much tougher than that – poor, stony soil, little water, fumes from the passing cars, collection point for all the rubbish that people throw out of their cars, or that drop off their cars. As a bonus, it almost makes highways look pretty.

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One of the first things that struck me when I went to Sicily was the oleander bushes along the highways there, the flowers turning what was really a very sterile environment into a pleasure to look at as the car whizzed down the highway.

The only other thing to note about oleander is its poisonous effects on humans and other animals. Every part of the plant is poisonous: in a word, beautiful but deadly. A couple of books have had as plot devices the murder of someone with oleander. For me, the best is Dragonwyck, not so much for the book as for the 1946 film made from the book. It has Vincent Price, a slimy smoothie if there ever was one, who does in his wife with oleander. We have him here staring broodingly at the fatal oleander plant.

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Actually, oleander’s deadliness has been exaggerated. It’s not really that bad. Very few people have certifiably died from ingesting oleander. The worst that normally happens is that you feel horribly sick, you vomit, you get diarrhea … I’m sure I don’t have to spell it out, readers get the picture.

And that’s it, really, for the oleander. Now I can turn to the rabbit holes I fell down!

The first is related to the plant’s effects on humans. But I must start with a little bit of context. I want to take my readers to Delphi, in Greece.

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Now the place is just a mass of romantic ruins, but in its heyday, from about 600 BCE to about 200 CE was really famous in the Ancient World, a place to go to if you wanted divine advice about something important to you: should our city go to war with our neighbour? should we start a new colony? or, on a more personal level, should I marry her? The temple there was dedicated to the god Apollo, and one of the temple’s priestesses, the Pythia, would answer your question. After offering a splendid goat for sacrifice and paying a suitable tribute (there’s no such thing as a free lunch), supplicants would be led down into the inner sanctum of the temple, this dark small room, where they would find the Pythia sitting on a tripod and flanked by a couple of priests. The tripod was placed across a cleft in the floor through which vapours or fumes would be rising and enveloping the Pythia. She would be holding a branch of laurel in one hand (the laurel was sacred to Apollo) and a small basin of clear water from a nearby sacred stream in the other. Rustling the laurel branch and gazing into the basin of water, she would answer your question. Here is the scene depicted on the bottom of an ancient Greek drinking cup, the supplicant to the right, the Pythia to the left.

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Now, this was not like having a pleasant conversation with someone. The Pythia would be “her hair stood on end, her complexion changed, her heart beat hard, her bosom swelled, and her voice became seemingly more than human”. Here is a much more satisfyingly dramatic rendering, painted by a certain John Collier in 1891, of what the Pythia might have looked like.

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The whole experience must have been quite unnerving and overpowering for the supplicants. On top of it, the answer they got was often quite cryptic, leaving the supplicants scratching their heads trying to understand the true meaning of what Apollo had told them through the Pythia.

Why am I recounting all this? Because there has been considerable discussion about how the Pythia got herself all worked up. What was she eating, drinking, or smoking to get herself into that state? Some of the ancient sources say that the Pythia was chewing laurel leaves. But as we all know – bay leaves, which are actually laurel leaves, being used in cooking – laurel leaves don’t have any effect on someone who eats them. Which is where oleander comes in. The Greeks were rather slipshod in their use of the name “laurel”, using it to denote several plants including the oleander (the leaves of the oleander and the laurel do look quite similar). So one clever chap has suggested that the Pythia was actually chewing oleander leaves, which could indeed give you all the symptoms the Pythias exhibited.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the vapours and fumes emanating from the cleft under the Pythia’s seat (and which are very evident in the painting by John Collier). Some have argued that it could have been these that (also) set the Pythia off. Given that Delphi sits on two geological faults which cross each other, it is thought in certain circles that the cleft which the Pythia sat astride was a natural opening into the bowels of the Earth. There has therefore been much discussion about what naturally formed fumes and vapors could have been seeping out from the Earth’s interior and been having this effect on the Pythia – ethylene? benzene? something else? – but it’s all been quite inconclusive. The above-mentioned clever chap suggests what seems to me a much simpler solution, that maybe under the room where the Pythia sat was another room, connected to the former through the cleft, and in which a priest was burning oleander leaves. By inhaling these fumes the Pythia was adding to the effects from chewing the leaves.

That’s one interesting rabbit hole connected to the oleander.

The other involves Hiroshima. As I would hope everyone knows, the first atom bomb ever dropped came down on Hiroshima on 6 August 1945. Here is a picture of the dreaded mushroom cloud which formed over the city.

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The city was totally devastated. Here are a few pictures of what the city looked like in the days and months after the dropping of the bomb.

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The city’s botanical gardens were not spared. So bad was the destruction that the garden’s directors thought that nothing would grow there again for decades. Yet lo and behold, the year after the bomb was dropped the oleanders in the gardens grew out from their blasted roots and flowered! The oleanders became a symbol of hope for Hiroshima’s citizens, convincing them that the city could be reborn even after this terrible catastrophe – as indeed it has. Ever since, the oleander has been the city’s official flower.

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I’ve become a bit of a cynic in my old age, but this little story does warm the cockles of my heart.

STRAWBERRY

Milan, 14 June 2020

In the recent hikes which my wife and I have been doing, we’ve come across a lot of these.

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“These” are woodland strawberries. I throw in here a much more professional photo of this plant, to give readers a better view.

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The fact is, though, that they are really very small, no more than half a centimetre across, as this photo of a whole sheet of them shows: they are just bright red dots against the green of the leaves.

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Those bright red dots always catch my eye as we walk along. From time to time, I’ve picked one of the bigger ones and eaten it. They are pretty bland, I have to say. Their taste is really nothing to write home (or a post) about.

Which – as I tramped along – got me thinking: who were the people who laboured so hard to turn these small, not very tasty berries into the big, juicy and wonderfully sweet berries that we eat today?

Readers of my posts will know that I have a fondness of saluting the almost always anonymous folk who over the millennia have coaxed tasty foodstuffs which we eat today out of small and not so tasty wild plants. The last such foodstuff whose creation I have saluted is the common chicory. I decided to do the same thing for the strawberry. And so I have been beavering away on my computer these last few weeks, surfing the web and seeing what I could find.

The first thing I found was that I had been completely wrong. Today’s strawberries do not descend from those little woodland strawberries we had been spotting on our walks. They are not the result of countless generations of rural people patiently selecting woodland strawberry plants with ever sweeter and ever bigger fruits. The story of today’s plump and juicy strawberries is much more complex. They are actually the result of Europe having colonised much of the rest of the planet.

But let me start where all good stories start, at the beginning. It is true that Europeans had at one time domesticated woodland strawberries. Perhaps the Romans had done so, but if they did these domesticates were lost during the Dark Ages. Medieval Europeans certainly started domesticating them. King Charles V of France, for instance, has his gardeners transplant 1,200 woodland strawberry plants into his gardens some time in the late 1300s. Europeans also started domesticating the other species of strawberries which are found in Europe, the musk, or hautbois, strawberry, which is somewhat bigger than the woodland strawberry

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and the creamy strawberry, which as its name suggests can be quite pale; it’s about the same size as the woodland strawberry.

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It’s hard to tell from surviving documents, but Medieval and Renaissance gardeners do seem to have created strains of strawberries which were bigger and sweeter than their wild cousins. But by “bigger” I mean something as big as a plump blackberry, no more than that.

Then started the period of European colonisation. In the Americas this led to, among other things, the transfer of a wealth of new foodstuffs to Europe, a phenomenon I’ve touched upon in a couple of past posts. Maize, tomato, and potato are probably the most well known of these arrivals from the Americas. Like these three, most of the new foodstuffs came from Central and South America, but a few also made their way from North America. The best known of these is the sunflower, while I recently wrote a post about another, more modest transfer from North America, the Jerusalem artichoke. And now I have discovered that there was yet another transfer from North America: the Virginian (or scarlet) strawberry! This species of strawberry grows throughout much of North America, but it was of course first seen by Europeans in the colonies strung along the eastern seaboard.

These colonists must have been quite pleased to have this new strawberry plant at hand. We’re still not talking of berries the size of those we’re now used to – its berries were about the same size as those of the European musk strawberry. But no doubt they would have seen them as a useful adjunct to their diet.

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When exactly someone brought plants of the Virginia strawberry back to Europe is not clear – the early 1600s seem to be the most probable time frame. And what country they brought them back to is not clear either – the British, French and Dutch all had colonies in the strawberry’s range, so any of these three countries could have been the original entry point, and maybe the plant was introduced into Europe more than once. Wherever its entry point (or points) was, the Virginia strawberry didn’t spread that quickly through the rest of Europe. It seems to have been more of a curiosity, and certainly didn’t replace the European species with which people were familiar.

While the French, British, and Dutch were busy colonising North America, the Spaniards were busy colonising Central and South America. In South America, they first smashed the Inca Empire. Then they turned their attention further southward. It made strategic sense for them to control the whole of the Pacific seaboard down to the Straits of Magellan, to keep an eye on other pesky European nations coming through those straits for who knows what nefarious reasons. So they went on to conquer what is now Chile. In the south of Chile, the Spaniards encountered the Mapuche and Huilliche peoples, who put up a stiff resistance but who were eventually overcome and subjugated.

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The Spaniards discovered that these two tribes had domesticated another local species of strawberry, the Chilean (or beach) strawberry. And in this case the berry was pretty damned big!

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The Spanish colonists were very happy to add the Chilean strawberry to their local diet, to the point that it was commonly available in local markets in the new Spanish towns of southern Chile. It remained, however, a local delicacy. If anyone ever tried to bring back plants to Spain, there is no sign of them having succeeded.

So things stood until 1712. In that year, King Louis XIV of France sent a certain Amédée François Frézier on a secret mission to Chile. We have here a portrait of Frézier in old age, after a long and successful career.

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His orders were to find out all he could about the Spanish military presence there: forts, harbours, military units, and so on (this was part of Louis XIV’s ongoing struggles with Spain). For nearly two years, Frézier followed his orders most diligently, posing as a merchant looking for trading opportunities. But Frézier was a man of many interests, one of these being botany. Naturally enough, the Chilean strawberry, with its very big fruit, caught his attention. As he was to write later:

They there cultivate entire fields of a type of strawberry differing from ours by their rounder leaves, being fleshier and having strong runners. Its fruit are usually as large as a whole walnut, and sometimes as a small egg. They are of a whitish-red colour and a little less delicate to the taste than our woodland strawberries.

Frézier determined to bring some plants back with him when he returned to France. So it was that when in 1714 he finally boarded the ship which would be taking him home, he took five plants of the Chilean strawberry with him, and managed to keep alive on the long – and hot – trip home. When he arrived in France, he kept one of the plants for himself and sent the others to various friends and patrons. News of this new species of strawberry quickly made the rounds among Europe’s little circle of amateur botanists, especially after Frézier’s book was published in which he gave a detailed account of his doings in Chile and included a description of this strawberry plant with such large fruits. Strawberry plants are easy to propagate, so not only did news about the Chilean strawberry get around; so did clones of the various plants he brought back. Anyone with a serious botanical garden had to have the plant in their collection!

Alas! Great disappointment lay in store for many of those eminent botanists who planted the Chilean strawberry in their garden and eagerly awaited it to flower and – especially – to fruit (“usually as large as a whole walnut, and sometimes as a small egg”, Frézier had written). For the most part, their plants yielded nothing – nada, zero! They began to think that maybe the plant’s transfer to Europe had made it sterile.

Here, with the advantage of hindsight, I shall cut through all the intellectual confusion that pervaded the minds of Europe’s finest botanists for several decades. The fundamental problem was this: they hadn’t realized that some species of plants are hermaphrodites, and so can self pollinate, while in other species there are separate male and female plants, so both have to be present – and relatively close to each other – for pollination to occur. It just so happens that all the European species of strawberries are hermaphrodites, as is the Virginian strawberry, but the Chilean strawberry is not. There are both male and female plants in that species. Frézier must have taken only plants which were fruiting, and therefore females. This was sensible enough, given his (and everyone else’s) knowledge of strawberries; he wanted to be sure that the plants he nicked were fertile. But what this meant is that there was no way that those poor female Chilean strawberry plants, along with their clones which all the botanists were busy sending each other, were ever going to fruit in Europe without a male plant handy. This mystery was finally elucidated in the early 1760s by a young Frenchman called Antoine Nicolas Duchesne, who had a fascination for natural history. He was lucky to have access to King Louis XV’s gardens at Versailles and to be mentored by the “Assistant Demonstrator of the Exterior of Plants at the King’s Garden”, Bernard de Jussieu. After making a detailed study of strawberries, he explained all in his book Histoire naturelle des fraisiers published in 1766, when he was a mere 19 years old! Here is picture of him in old age.

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But actually there was a way to make the Chilean strawberry produce berries! The discovery had been made some time in the first half of the 1700s by those anonymous farmers whom I love to salute. While all those well-off, educated botanists were tearing their hair out at the Chilean strawberry’s obdurate refusal to fruit, they had found a way to coax it to do so – by interplanting the plants with either Virginian strawberry plants or musk strawberry plants. The pollens of these species were closely related enough to that of the Chilean strawberry to pollinate it. Presumably, by chance a farmer (or his wife) had planted these various species close together in their strawberry patch, had seen that the Chilean strawberry fruited under these conditions, and were sharp enough to draw the right conclusion. Who exactly these clever farmers were will of course never be known. But the chances are that it was one or more farmers from around the French city of Brest, in Brittany (Frézier was posted to Brittany on his return from Chile, which probably explains this Breton connection), although it could (also) have been farmers in the Netherlands.

And what fruits they were! Big, juicy, sweet – everything that Frézier had said of the strawberries he had eaten in Chile. Further experimentation showed that the two species from the Americas, the Virginian strawberry and the Chilean strawberry, gave birth to a fertile hybrid, which could be grown as a separate species. On top of this, this hybrid was hermaphroditic so no need for all that fiddly stuff of making sure to plant males and females together! This hybrid is the garden strawberry, the modern strawberry eaten all around the world today.

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An industry was created, which currently produces some 9 million tonnes of garden strawberries per year, (with – sign of the times – 40% of that being in China).

And what of the strawberries which this hunking hybrid of a strawberry displaced? The woodland strawberry has disappeared back into the woods from whence it came and where I found it at the beginning of this post. As far as I can tell, the same fate has befallen the Virginian strawberry. There is apparently still a small but devoted following of the musk strawberry in gourmet circles in Italy (of which my wife and I are clearly not part since no restaurant in this country has ever offered us this delicacy). And the Chilean strawberry is still eaten in certain parts of southern Chile.

And what of the other species of strawberries? Because there are something like 15 other species of strawberries around the world. Not surprisingly (strawberry plants liking cool to cold conditions), most of these are native to northern Eurasia, in an arc going from western Siberia to northern Japan. But a number are also to be found in the high areas of western China, all the way from Qinghai in the north to Yunnan in the south. A couple of species are also found in the Himalayas proper. There is even one species which inhabits the hill country of southern India and the mountainous regions of the Philippines.

A good few of these species don’t produce a fruit worth eating. Others do, but the steamroller of the garden strawberry hybrid has meant that they have never had a chance to develop commercially. They are only eaten locally. This is especially true in China. I find that a pity. Rather than becoming the biggest global producer of what is essentially an American hybrid, China should look to its own strawberries and bring them to its people, and to the rest of the world. Just a thought.

As for me and my wife, I think we should plan an enormously long hike from Yunnan to Qinghai, sampling the local strawberries along the way. That would certainly keep us busy for quite a while …

JASMINE

Sori, 6 June 2020

All the walks my wife and I do around Lake Como (and now Lake Maggiore, to change a bit) start in an urban setting. We take trains, or buses, or boats, to get to our starting points and we are perforce dropped off in small towns or villages. In the last couple of weeks, as we have walked up through the back roads of these towns or villages to get to the woods and meadows above them, we have noticed a marvelous thing: whole walls of the sweetest smelling jasmine.

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This person has even made a tunnel covered in jasmine (I’m guessing it’s the garage).

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The scent of so much jasmine has quite gone to my head and my fingers have automatically begun doing a little research on the flower.

Truth to tell, I already did a little research on jasmine for an earlier post, when I researched the only perfume of my wife’s which I have ever liked: Chance Eau Fraîche, by Chanel. One of its ingredients is jasmine oil.

As I noted in that post, there are a large number of different species of jasmine. Some 200 have been catalogued, and who knows how many more are out there waiting to be discovered. My guess, though, is that those walls of jasmine which we have been passing are Jasminum officinale, the common, or white, or summer, or poet’s jasmine (and that’s just the English names).

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The logic for my choice is simple: it’s the most common jasmine in Europe.

But it’s not native to Europe. In fact, there is only one species of jasmine which is native to Europe, and only the Mediterranean part of Europe at that, the common yellow jasmine.

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Even in this case it’s difficult to say it’s a European flower. Its range stretches all the way to northern Iran.

The biggest “hotspot” of jasmine species is actually in South and Southeast Asia, although the west of China, especially Yunnan, hosts quite a few species. A number of species are present in Central Asia, but I suspect they may have been carried there from the Indian subcontinent. Australia is home to a few species, I suppose as a southward extension of their presence in Southeast Asia. And then there’s a good dozen species in Africa, especially southern Africa. To complete this world tour, no jasmine species are native to the Americas, alas.

If the jasmine my wife and I are seeing is not native to Europe, how did it get here? It seems that common jasmine, along with a couple of other jasmine species – sambac (or Arabian) jasmine, and Spanish (or Royal, or Catalan) jasmine – originally entered Europe via Sicily and Spain, when these were Arabian kingdoms: common and sambac jasmines through Sicily, and Spanish jasmine through (appropriately enough) Spain. Since I inserted a picture of the common jasmine earlier, I feel I owe it to these two other species to insert a picture of them too:
sambac jasmine

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Spanish jasmine

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But none of these jasmines were native to the Arabian-dominated lands either. The Arabs had discovered them even further to the east and had brought the flowers back to their homelands. They brought common jasmine back from Persia after they conquered it (a similar post-conquest westward transfer occurred with the lilac, as I narrated in an earlier post). In fact, the European name “jasmine” is a corruption of the flower’s Arabic name, which is itself a corruption of the Persian name for the flower, Yasameen, which means “gift from God” (such poets, the Persians!). And it’s possible that the Persians had come across the flower further east still. As for sambac and Spanish jasmines, it seems that trade, not conquest, brought them westwards, in the holds of the ships of Arab traders doing business with the Indian subcontinent.

Jasmines didn’t just ride westwards on trade routes. Common jasmine and sambac jasmine also rode on them out to the east, into China (another result of the ancient trade routes across the Eurasian continent – the “Silk Roads” – about which I’ve written previously). Here, too, the Chinese adopted the Persian name: Yeh-hsi-ming.

It’s interesting that the Chinese felt the need to import jasmines, given that they had quite a few of their own. Perhaps it was the pure white colour of these imported jasmines which attracted the Chinese – many of their jasmines are yellow as far as I can tell; I throw in a photo of one of the more common Chinese jasmines, winter jasmine.

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By the way, it’s called winter jasmine because it actually flowers from November to March. In fact, its Chinese name, Yingchun, means “the flower that welcomes Spring” (the Chinese, too, can be quite poetic). This quirk has meant that winter jasmine has now also been carried off to many a corner of the world.

But coming back to the jasmines imported into China, no doubt their heady scent helped too; perhaps they had a stronger scent than the native species. Or perhaps it was these jasmines’ close links with Buddhist ritual (something which the early Indian Buddhists had no doubt picked up from the Hindus). Anyone who has been to a Buddhist (or Hindu) temple in South and South-East Asia will have noticed the liberal use they make of jasmine flowers.

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By this reasoning, the use of these jasmines entered into China along with Buddhism, something else which was transported along trade routes (I have written earlier about a slightly different botanical story, the cooption by Chinese Buddhists of the ginkgo tree as a replacement for the bo-tree tree so beloved of South Asian Buddhists).

No doubt the Arabs were attracted by the colour of the jasmines (white seems to symbolise purity in so many cultures). But they were assuredly also attracted by their scent (which, I have to say, is indeed sublime). The name “sambac” points to this. It is a corruption of the Medieval Arabic term “zanbaq”, which means jasmine oil. As attested by the perfume Chance Eau Fraîche, which I mentioned earlier, the modern thirst for jasmine oil in perfumery is as great as it was in the Arabian kingdoms – actually far greater, since there are so many billions more of us on this planet now. Here is a field of  jasmine flowers in Grasse, in the south of France, waiting for their oils to be extracted (a field owned, by the way, by Chanel).

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But there is so little oil in each flower! As many as 8,000 flowers will have perished to produce this little, 1ml vial of jasmine oil (jasmine absolute, in the jargon of perfumery).

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Perhaps the way the Chinese use jasmine to scent tea is a little more “humane”. I watched a no-nonsense Chinese video on the making of jasmine tea. Cutting out all the marketing bla-bla, they mix together about an equal measure of tea (usually green tea) and jasmine buds (common or sambac), they let the mixture sit for a while so that the tea leaves get impregnated with the jasmine’s scent, and then they dry it. The result looks something like this.

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In truth, I’m not a great fan of jasmine tea. I like the scent of the flower on the air, but the scent of it in tea I find rather sickly. But perhaps this is because I have never had a really high-quality jasmine tea. I am ready to be pleasantly surprised one day.

Is it possible that such lovely flowers with such a delightful scent could have an evil side? Alas, it is possible: some species of jasmine have been declared invasive species in a couple of countries and are subject to eradication programmes. It is not the fault of the jasmines. It is our desire to fill our gardens with foreign flowers that is to blame. Take Brazilian jasmine, a lovely member of the family.

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For starters, it’s not Brazilian at all. It’s one of the African jasmines, no doubt taken to Brazil from one of Portugal’s African colonies (remember that the Americas have no native jasmines; perhaps a colonial administrator wanted to enliven his garden in Brazil). In the 1920s, the “Brazilian” jasmine was imported into Florida. Initially, it was planted in people’s gardens, but inevitably – as I’ve recounted in other posts in the case of other invasive species – the “Brazilian” jasmine “jumped over” the garden fence and began to spread. It has now invaded intact, undisturbed hardwood forests in the south of Florida, where it can climb high into the tree canopy, completely enshrouding native vegetation and reducing native plant diversity. Here is a picture of this jasmine at work in the forests of Florida.

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I was thinking about this this afternoon as my wife and I were walking high up in the hills. We were surrounded by beautiful wild flowers of all descriptions. Why do gardeners have to fill their gardens with foreign flowers when there are so many beautiful ones right on their doorstep? Another mystery to be solved one day.

Well, the evening is drawing in. It’s time for me to get ready to test something. I’ve read that the jasmine flower opens at night, so the scent is most powerful then. I shall persuade my wife to accompany me on a hunt for a wall – or just a modest bush – of jasmine, to see if this is true. I shall report back.

 

THOMAS BECKET ON LAKE COMO

Milan, 28 May 2020

In these days of Covid-19, when the rules here in Italy forbid us from traveling from one region of the country to another, my wife and I have been cut off from the usual hikes we do at this time of the year along the sea in Liguria. We’ve had to make do with hikes in Lombardy, which in practice has meant hiking along the edges of Lake Como. Not that we’re complaining (too much), it’s a beautiful part of the world to be hiking in. Anyway, a week or so ago, my wife and I decided to retrace our steps along one of the segments of the Wayfarer’s Trail which we had first attempted back in January (for any readers who are interested, I mention our hikes along the Wayfarer’s Trail in an earlier post). Towards the end of the walk we passed through a small village called Corenno Plinio, which lies just north of a somewhat larger village by the name of Dervio, where we were planning to catch the train to go back home.

The last time we passed through Corenno Plinio, back in January, the light had been failing and we were in a hurry to get to Dervio station before dark. So we had ignored the village’s sights and pressed on. And quite some sights there are, to whit a castle from the 14th Century, a little church from the late 12th-early 13th Century attached to the castle, plus the winding cobbled streets of what was once a Medieval village huddling under the castle’s protective walls. This time, with the days being considerably longer, we decided to take a little break when we hit Corenno Plinio and at least visit the church.

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For such a little church, it was quite a treat. Before we even went inside, there were three funerary monuments, dating from the 13th and 14th Centuries, to inspect. Readers can see two of them in the photo above. As for the interior of the church, there were some charming frescoes from the 14th Centuries on both walls of the nave. I particularly liked this Adoration of the Wise Men.

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Opposite the Wise Men was a fresco with Saints Gotthard (he of the Gotthard Pass in the Alps) and Apollonia.

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I’ve mentioned Saint Gotthard in an earlier post, but I had never come across Saint Apollonia before. For those of my readers who are not up to speed on their Christian martyrology, Saint Apollonia was one of a group of virgin martyrs from Alexandria who was caught up in a riot by the Alexandrian mob against Christians in the early 200s AD. In her case, the mob pulled out her teeth. This explains that mean-looking fellow who is shoving a large pair of pliers into the her mouth (she is, by the way, the patroness of dentistry, which I find highly appropriate; I feel just like that painting every time I sit in my dentist’s chair).

Further along the same wall, there was this line of apostles. I rather liked their piercing gaze.

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The only one I recognized was the one holding the knife. That’s Saint Bartholomew, who met with a particularly hideous end by being flayed alive (readers who are interested in knowing more can read my post on him).

And then, next to the apostles, there was this bishop.

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It is St. Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, slain on 29 December 1170 in his cathedral. In fact, I discovered, my wife and I were in the Church of St. Thomas of Canterbury.

Well! It gave me a little turn to find a church dedicated to this oh, so English saint on the shores of Lake Como. I had learned about him in my history classes many, many years ago in primary school. At University I had read T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral and Jean Anouilh’s Honour of God, plays which both explored his tortuous relationship with his king, Henry II. It seemed such an English story. Why would the Italians be interested in Thomas Becket?

For any of my readers who might not know his story, it is quickly told. Born into a London merchant family, Thomas rose to become Chancellor to Henry II. He served the king faithfully, but more than that, he and the king were genuinely friends. When the Archbishop of Canterbury died, Henry had the bright idea of putting Thomas up for the post. He thought Thomas would enthusiastically implement his agenda of strengthening royal powers at the expense of the Church’s. Henry felt – with some merit, I would say – that the Church was too powerful and independent: a state within a state, as it were. But the moment Thomas became Archbishop, he became a zealous defender of the Church’s independence and prerogatives. Not surprisingly, Henry was outraged and relations between the two men soured rapidly, to the point where Thomas finally fled England and sought the protection of the French king. For six long years thereafter, the two men brought to bear against each other all the punitive measures in their power short of violence. Finally a peace, or rather an armed truce, was negotiated and Thomas came back to England. But just before he landed, he excommunicated three bishops for reasons which are not completely apparent. When Henry heard the news, he flew into a towering rage and is said to have cried out, “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” Actually, he is more likely to have shouted, “What miserable drones and traitors have I nourished and brought up in my household, who let their lord be treated with such shameful contempt by a low-born cleric?”, which I feel sounds rather better. In any event, four knights (who play a major role in Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral) interpreted this royal outburst as an invitation if not an order to act. They immediately saddled up and left for Canterbury.

When they arrived, they placed their weapons under a tree outside the cathedral before entering to challenge Thomas, who was on his way to Vespers. They demanded that he submit to the king’s will and come with them to Winchester to give an account of his actions. Thomas of course refused. The knights then rushed out, grabbed their weapons, and rushed back inside, shouting “Where is Thomas Becket, traitor to the King and country?!”. When they found him, one knight grabbed him and tried to pull him outside, but Thomas held fast to a pillar. One eyewitness, who was wounded in the attack, wrote this about what happened next: “…the impious knight… suddenly set upon him and shaved off the summit of his crown which the sacred chrism consecrated to God… Then, with another blow received on the head, he remained firm. But with the third, the stricken martyr bent his knees and elbows, offering himself as a living sacrifice, saying in a low voice, “For the name of Jesus and the protection of the church I am ready to embrace death.” But the third knight inflicted a grave wound on the fallen one; with this blow… his crown, which was large, separated from his head so that the blood turned white from the brain yet no less did the brain turn red from the blood; it purpled the appearance of the church… The fifth – not a knight but a cleric who had entered with the knights… placed his foot on the neck of the holy priest and precious martyr and (it is horrible to say) scattered the brains with the blood across the floor, exclaiming to the rest, “We can leave this place, knights, he will not get up again!””

Well!! That is a most satisfyingly dramatic end to a story of a Medieval bromance gone terribly, horribly wrong.

It may have been a very English story (although in truth the French were a good deal involved, as was the papacy), but this hideous murder, in a cathedral of all places, of the highest prelate in the land of all people, apparently on the orders of a king of all things, sent shock waves around Europe. Not only was it a damned good yarn, to be declaimed to a rapt audience around the evening fire, but it contained – for Medieval Europeans steeped in Christianity – the elements of sacrilege: murder in the holiest of places, of Christ’s highest representative in England. A delicious shiver of horror must have travelled up every Medieval European spine when the spines’ owners heard the tale, and many signs of the cross must have been rapidly made and prayers breathlessly uttered to keep the devil at bay.

The fallout was immediate and immense. Almost overnight, the spot where Thomas was murdered became a place of pilgrimage. The Church made the most of it and had Thomas canonized in the record time of two and a bit years. The murderers fled to safety in Yorkshire, but eventually gave themselves up and submitted to a heavy penance. As for Henry, like any modern politician he tried to distance himself from the whole affair and urged everyone to move on, but like all modern electorates no-one really believed him and didn’t want to move on. So he made peace with the Pope, swearing to go on a crusade (a promise he never kept), and scaling back some of his more anti-Church policies. And he bought off the Becket family by making Thomas’s sister the abbess of a rich nunnery. But it wasn’t enough. When his three surviving sons, Geoffrey, Richard the Lionheart, and John Lacklands, along with his estranged wife Eleanor of Aquitaine, rebelled against him, Henry found the rebels were supported by many people who were still shocked by the murder of Thomas. Henry’s difficult relations with his wife and sons is recounted in the play  Lion in Winter – I show here Christopher Walken in the first production of the play in 1966 (for no better reason than my wife is a great fan of Walken).

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So Henry decided that more extreme measures were required. In 1174, four and a half years after Thomas’s murder, he went to Canterbury, publicly confessed his sins, and then received five blows from a rod from each bishop present, and three blows from each of the 80 monks of Canterbury Cathedral (that seems an awful lot of blows, but I’m sure they went easy on him; I mean, how hard would you hit a king?). Then Henry offered gifts to Thomas’s shrine and spent a night at vigil at his tomb (which is where Anouihl’s Honour of God starts).

In the rest of Europe, scores of churches were dedicated to the now Saint Thomas of Canterbury, the little church in Corenno Plinio being one of them, and some wonderful artwork was created recording scenes of his life and death. In truth, his death seems to have excited artists (and no doubt their patrons) much more than his life. That seems perfectly in keeping with an age which enjoyed seeing paintings of St. Apollonia having her teeth pulled out and St. Bartholomew being flayed alive. In any case, let me run through a selection of these artworks, starting from the moment Thomas was consecrated archbishop.

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This panel, of alabaster, was made in the second half of the 15th Century and was originally brightly painted. Many such panels were produced in England – the country was famous for them – and exported all around Europe.

Here, in a contemporary manuscript, we have Thomas now arguing with Henry.

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In this other manuscript from the 1220s, the relationship between the two men has completely broken down and Thomas is excommunicating some of the king’s men.

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This second alabaster panel shows the moment when peace was made and Thomas finally came back to England.

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And now, the moment we’ve all been waiting for, Thomas’s murder in the cathedral, in full technicolor.

From a psalter made in East Anglia in the mid-thirteenth century:

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A fresco from the late 12th century in the Church of Saints John and Paul, in Spoleto, Italy.

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From a reliquary, also of the late 12th Century, decorated with champlevé enamel. It was made in Limoges, France, which was a centre for this kind of work in Europe (I mention another wonderful piece of enamel work, this time made in the north of France, in an earlier post).

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Finally, we have Thomas, now St. Thomas, joining the pantheon of saints in heaven, in a mosaic from the late 12th Century in the apse of the Cathedral of Monreale in Sicily (a church which I have mentioned at some length in a previous post). This is a wide view of a rows of saints on the apse’s wall – Thomas is the one in green to the right of the window.

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Here is a closer view of him, in the company of Saint Sylvester.

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Once all the fuss died down, what happened? I think the fashion of dedicating churches to Thomas died away, but Canterbury became a high place of European pilgrimage, rather like Compostella in Spain is today. I’m sure there were many people who went on pilgrimages for religious reasons. But I’m sure there were just as many who went for the fun of it – Medieval Europe’s equivalent to our mass tourism of today. Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, written in the late 1300s, supports this. It follows a party of pilgrims on their way to Canterbury. To pass the time, they regale each other with stories. Some are religious. Most are not. And they are hilarious.

Then, another king came along, another Henry, Henry VIII this time. Another king who believed that the church should be a servant of the State, who broke with Rome and “nationalised” English Christianity. As readers might imagine, he didn’t care for Thomas Becket. In 1540, he had Thomas’s shrine in Canterbury Cathedral destroyed and he ordered that what was left of his bones were to be destroyed. He then had all mention of his name obliterated.

Now, all that is left in Canterbury Cathedral is this sculpture and a stone set in the floor where he was killed, bearing his name.

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And there still are, scattered across Europe, churches like the one in Corenno Plinio dedicated to him and some wonderful artwork in these churches or in museums celebrating his life – and death.

LEA AND PERRINS SAUCE

Milan, 20 May 2020

My wife’s English is really very good. Readers may think I’m biased, but really, it is very good. Whenever we meet British people, they are regularly surprised to learn that she is Italian. She has not a shadow of that “typical” way of speaking English which so many Italians have (“It’s-a not so bad, it’s-a nice-a place. Ah shaddap-a your face!”). She doesn’t even have that sort of indefinable accent which surely isn’t British but which you can’t quite place. Her only weaknesses are that she sometimes gets a typical British phrase slightly wrong (what we call a “Poirotism”, after David Suchet’s Hercule Poirot, who has this same tendency). And there are some words which she regularly has problems pronouncing. One of these is Worcestershire. It’s one of those legions of English words which are enunciated completely differently from the way they are written. A foreigner would be forgiven for thinking that it should be pronounced Wir-ses-ter-shay-r, and not WUUS-teuh-sheuh, which is the way a Brit would pronounce it. My wife does quite well, but she still stumbles a little over the “teuh-sheu” bit.

If I bring this up, it’s because my wife has been saying “Worcestershire” quite often since we went into lockdown more than two months ago, for the simple reason that she was using a lot of Lea & Perrins Worcestershire Sauce in her cooking during lockdown, to add some zest to the food and help us feel a little less mournful. She has since continued on this track.

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She is really quite liberal in her use, judging by the number of little L&P bottles which I have to recycle. Under normal circumstances, we would get through one, possibly two, bottles a year. In just the two months of lockdown, I must have thrown away at least three bottles.

But I have to say, Messrs Lea and Perrins’s sauce did add a je-ne-sais-quoi to the food it was applied to. Which of course is the whole purpose of the sauce, and has been ever since it first came onto the market in 1837 (I know this date because in my moments of idleness I have been reading up on Lea & Perrins Worcestershire Sauce). What was the source of that sweet yet pungent je-ne-sais-quoi, I have been wondering?

The label, of course, doesn’t really answer the question. It merely lists the ingredients in no particular order: malt vinegar, spirit vinegar, molasses, sugar, salt, anchovies, tamarind extract, onions, garlic, spices, flavourings. It doesn’t tell us how much of each ingredient is used, and, in the case of the last two ingredients, what spices and flavourings are used exactly. As I have noted in an earlier post on the Austrian soft drink Almdudler, the recipes for commercial brands tend to be locked away in particularly secure safes.

Except that in this case, by one of those happy twists of fate which make life so interesting, the recipe was divulged – at least the recipe as it was around the turn of the last Century. In 2009, Brian Keogh, who had been an accountant at L&P until his retirement in 1991 and who had then become an archivist for the company, discovered, thrown away in a skip at the company factory, an old ledger, which he retrieved before it was sent off to the dump. Just as well that he did, because it contained, among other things, handwritten write-ups of the recipe! For any readers who are interested, Mr Keogh authored a book called “The Secret Sauce: a History of Lea & Perrins”, where he describes his discovery and also gives a history of the L&P Worcestershire sauce. I include here pictures of the pages in the ledger showing the recipe used in 1907.

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(those interested in seeing the real ledger should go to the Worcester City Art Gallery & Museum)

For those readers whose eyesight is fading, you have my sympathy and I have recreated a table below with all the ingredients as they were in 1907 (although the writer has noted at the top “Return to old formula”, so no doubt these were also the ingredients in earlier decades). As for the quantities, those given in the ledger are “for one cask” and as a result are pretty damned large. They are also given in those cute units of pounds, ounces, and gallons which the British used before they entered the modern age and adopted modern metric units. I’ve translated all the quantities into metric units and scaled the amounts to make 1 litre of the sauce – that seems more than enough sauce for any determined reader to make should he or she decide to rush off to the kitchen and start making Worcestershire sauce à la Lea & Perrins.

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What emerges is that, at least in 1907, Lea & Perrins sauce was in large part vinegar, to which was added a good dollop of soy sauce, water, sugar and anchovies, along with a hearty pinch of tamarind, shallots, salt and garlic, a smaller pinch of red pepper and cloves, and a smidgen of essence of lemon.

Since the vinegar is such an important part of the overall sauce, I throw in a comment about it. I’m not entirely sure what is meant by vinegar F. or by acetic acid, but if readers look closely at the red writing on the second page of the ledger which I inserted above, they will see a calculation on the level of acidity of the mix of vinegars. It would seem that small amounts of a very strong vinegar were used to raise the acidity of the main vinegar. The modern version of the sauce still seems to use this trick, although nowadays malt vinegar and spirit vinegar are used. For anyone dedicated enough to make the sauce at home, please note that they should ensure that the vinegar mix they end up with has an acidity of 6.12% (I’ve just noticed that the wine vinegar we routinely use at home has an acidity of 6%, so maybe there would be no need to diddle around with vinegars of different acidity if you buy the right vinegar).

Since I’m commenting on the ingredients, perhaps I can make a couple of other points. The first is that the modern recipe has abandoned shallots in favour of onions. Why that should be I don’t know. Unavailability due to war led to the second big change, when soy sauce was dropped during World War II and replaced by Hydrolyzed Vegetable Protein, or HVP. This stuff is produced by boiling foods such as maize or wheat in hydrochloric acid. The acid breaks down the protein in the foods into their component amino acids. The resulting acidic solution is then neutralized with sodium hydroxide, leaving behind a dark-coloured, salty liquid. Sounds most unappetizing, but HVP is used in a lot of foodstuffs to give a bouillon-like taste. After the war, L&P continued to use HVP, because it was cheaper and presumably didn’t much affect the taste. From the list of the current ingredients on the label, I also see that at some moment between 1907 and today the company introduced molasses into the recipe. Again, I’ve no idea why they did that – perhaps to cut down on the amount of sugar?

Of course, I will be told that the ingredients is only half the story – maybe even less than half. How you put them together is even more important to the final taste. In the case of L&P sauce, pickling and curing seem to be very important. Today, the anchovies are fermented in salt for 2 years while the onions and garlic are separately pickled for 18 months in vinegar – from entries in the ledger, I get the sense that in the old days the two were pickled together, but I may be wrong. And then, after all the ingredients are thoroughly mixed together and homogenized, and the mash strained , the resulting liquid is put into barrels and left to mature for up to three years. This post-production maturation is a key part of the sauce’s creation story. It is said that when Messrs Lea and Perrins made their first batch, they of course tried it and found it to taste awful. They put it in a barrel, which they shoved in their cellar. They forgot all about it until a few years later, when they were clearing out the cellar. They came across the barrel, tried it again, and oh miracle! it now tasted delicious. And that was the start of Lee & Perrins’s Worcestershire sauce.

To be honest, I find this story somewhat dubious. But the other part of the sauce’s creation story – the part which explains where the sauce came from – is frankly unbelievable. Let me explain why.

But first, I need to introduce Messrs Lea and Perrins a bit more. These two men, born and bred in Worcestershire, were chemists – in today’s language pharmacists – who jointly ran a chemist’s shop in the town of Worcester. Their shop has disappeared, but a very similar shop was rescued and is now to be found in the Worcester City Art Gallery & Museum.

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Here are our two chemists – John Lea to the left, William Perrins to the right – at at time in their lives when they had become prosperous from selling their sauce.
As chemists, they would routinely have made up not just medical prescriptions but also other mixtures which their clients wanted. For instance, the ledger rescued from the dump has listed (on pages 18 and 19, for any reader interested in looking) not only the recipe for Lady Heskeeth’s pills but also recipes for Effervescent Cheltenham Salts, Lemonade Syrup, and Curry Powder. The story which the company put around in the first decades of the sauce’s life was that one day, a certain Lord Marcus Sandys, former Governor of Bengal, had walked into Messrs Lea & Perrins’s chemist shop in the early 1830s and asked them to recreate a sauce which he had encountered during his time in Bengal and which he had come to like enormously. Then he seems to have completely forgotten to come and collect his sauce, and, as I recounted above, our two chemists tried it, found it disgusting, shoved it in a barrel (rather than throw it down the sink, which is what I – and I’m sure most of my readers – would have done), put the barrel in the cellar, and forgot all about it for a couple of years .

Well, a Lord Marcus Sandys certainly existed around that time; he was 3rd Baron Sandys and his seat was in Ombersely, some 10 km from Worcester, so he could have gone into to Worcester to Messrs Lea & Perrins’s chemist shop. I throw in a painting of the Lord by Sir Thomas Lawrence.

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A great story, right? And a masterstroke in marketing. It combines a touch of the exotic (“sauce from Bengal”) with an aristocratic connection. The English were (and maybe still are) terrible social snobs, so manufacturers often tried to connect their products with members of the aristocracy. I have written an earlier post about a similar story in the naming of Earl Grey tea. And during the 1800s, the British were building their Empire, so there was a fascination among the public with the strange and wonderful things pouring in from this Empire.

Unfortunately, there are two problems with this story, one major and one minor. The minor problem is that Lord Marcus was not a Lord in the 1830s when the sauce was developed. He only became a Lord in 1860. But that’s OK. He could have been a mere Esq. when he asked our two chemists to make up the sauce, but he still became a Lord later on.  Our two chemists would merely have stretched the truth a little. But there is the major problem, which is that Lord Marcus was never Governor of Bengal. In fact, he never visited Bengal. Nor did his elder brother, who was the second baron. Nor did his mother, who was the first baroness (and who was baroness at the time the sauce was created). Nor did his father, who was 2nd Marquess of Downshire.

So where did this sauce come from? We have to presume that our friends John Lea and William Perrins picked up the recipe somewhere, or picked up a sauce somewhere and tried to recreate it, sensing a market for such a sauce. When Michael Portillo visited the Lea & Perrins factory a few years ago during the BBC’s Great British Railway Journeys series, the person he interviewed told him  that the original recipe was from Bengal and that Lea and Perrins added fermented fish to it.

This could well be possible. As I discovered on the Food Timeline website, there were certainly a number of sauces based on fermented anchovies doing the rounds in the early 19th Century:  anchovy sauce, essence of anchovy, fish sauce, Quin’s sauce. More or less at random, I have chosen to report here the recipe of a Quin’s sauce reported in William Kitchener’s The Cook’s Oracle, containing Receipts for Plain Cooking, of 1821. To get us into the spirit of things, I insert a photo of the cookbook’s title page.

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Here is the recipe (as we call them nowadays):

“Two wine-glasses of port, and two of walnut pickle, four of mushroom catchup, half a dozen anchovies, pounded, the like number of eschalots sliced and pounded, a table-spoonful of soy, and half a drachm of Cayenne pepper; let them simmer gently for ten minutes; strain it, and when cold, put it into bottles; well corked, and sealed over, it will keep for a considerable time.”

As readers can see, we have in common with the 1907 L&P recipe the anchovies (which are actually pickled, although it’s not clear from the write-up), the shallots, the soy sauce, and the pepper. Other recipes for fish-based sauces contain the garlic, the cloves, the vinegar, and even the lemon. What the 1907 recipe doesn’t have, but was present in nearly all the fish sauces, is mushroom and walnut ketchups (the history of ketchups being a fascinating story in its own right, perhaps the subject of a future post).

So my guess, based on nothing more than a hunch, is that John Lee and William Perrins took one of the many recipes for a sauce based on fermented anchovies floating around – maybe one used by their wives – and made one big change: they substituted the walnut and mushroom ketchups with a tamarind sauce.

That tamarind sauce could well have come from Bengal. Bengali cuisine certainly uses tamarind a lot. And maybe this popular Bengali tamarind-based dish, tamarind chutney (or tetuler chutney in Bengali), whose photo I give below, somehow made its way to Worcester. I could well imagine that Brits who had been to Bengal during the early 1800s got to know this chutney and brought it back to Britain. After all, they brought back a number of chutneys.

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I have no idea why the two partners thought of using this chutney or some other tamarind sauce instead of the walnut and mushroom ketchups in the fermented fish sauces which the Brits slathered on their food. Nor can I guess why they decided to let their concoction cure in a barrel for several years. But they did, and became very rich because of it.

I don’t know if there is a moral in this story: be careful what you throw away; don’t make up silly stories; truth is always stranger than fiction; think out of the box (or barrel in this case) and you’ll get rich; play on people’s snobberies; … I let my readers decide for themselves.

And do all remember that it’s pronounced WUUS-teuh-sheuh sauce.

HELLO CLOUDS! HELLO SKY!

Milan, 4 May 2020

We’re out at last! First day post-lockdown in Italy. Like Basil Fotherington-Tomas, I was saying, “Hello clouds! Hello sky!” as I skipped (well, walked) along.

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For those of my readers who are not familiar with this character, he appears in the book “Down with Skool!”, written in the 1950s, purportedly by one Nigel Molesworth, a boy in an English Prep school.

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The delightful cartoons which pepper the book’s pages are by the great Ronald Searle.

Molesworth’s judgement of Fotherington-Tomas is severe: “you kno he say Hullo clouds hullo sky he is a girlie and love the scents and sounds of nature … he is uterly wet and a sissy” (Molesworth’s spelling is also quite erratic).

Well, I’m not utterly wet and a sissy (although I do admit to being a bit of a nerd), but my joy of finally being let out of my apartment is uncontainable.

Hello sky!

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Hello birds! (even if they are filthy urban pigeons)

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Hello tree!

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Hello ancient church!

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Hello canal of Milan!

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Hello bridge over the canal! (even if you are a pretty ugly bridge)

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It’s great to be out here and see you all again!

We now just have to hope that we don’t get too much of a spike back up in the numbers, otherwise they’ll send us once more into lockdown …

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PLANTS, FRUITS, FLOWERS

Milan, 2 May 2020

Two days to go until we can roam the streets again …

Well, having covered the animal kingdom in my last two wanderings around the apartment, it seems fair to now cover the vegetable kingdom. And here’s an interesting thing I’ve discovered on my wanders: while humans and animals often take centre stage in the pieces which I reported on earlier – they are the piece – plants are almost always – at least in this apartment – relegated to the role of mere decoration of something else. Let me show my readers what I mean.

For starters, many of our plates, bowls, and jugs are decorated with plants or flowers or fruit. Take this plate, for instance, which I bought many years ago in New York and which I’ve mentioned in previous posts.

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The plate itself is a copy of an old Ottoman design, depicting a spray of wild flowers. I spy a tulip, a carnation of some sort, a sweet William perhaps. Lovely. But still, only decoration on a plate. In theory, we could cover all those flowers with a greasy meat sauce (I say in theory, because we never actually use this plate, it would feel sacrilegious to do so).

Or take this plate, which my mother-in-law bought.

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Plants are much more aggressively centre stage here. We have four large leaves surrounding a small fruit. Lovely piece of design. But still only a plate. We’ve sometimes covered those leaves with olives, small onions, and other hors-d’oeuvres, to serve at table.

Or how about this little milk jug, which once must have been part of a larger tea set (and which I recently discovered, by studying the marks on the bottom of it, to have been made by Richard-Ginori).

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Simple but beautiful design. But only decoration on a jug.

From the other side of the world but the same idea: a sake bowl and its companion cups, which my wife and picked up on our travels in Asia.

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Here, we have the ever popular presence of bamboo in Asian design. Very handsome. But only there to be admired as one drinks one’s sake from them – which my wife and I have often done.

At a larger, more rustic scale, we have this series of water pitchers, all of which use plants and flowers as their decoration.

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All, except for the pitcher with the wisteria, were bought by mother-in-law, who had a great fondness for pitchers. The pitcher-covered wisteria was instead given to us by a friend. They were made by her aunt, a potter. It came with a similarly decorated oil and vinegar cruet and salt cellars.  Every time I shake salt on my food, I admire those wisteria, a flower I adore. Lovely – but still only decoration on a utilitarian object.

Sometimes, the vegetal decoration gets so abstract as to almost disappear from view. Take this vase, for instance, another piece which my mother-in-law bought.

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It’s really very handsome. But you have to study the vase a bit to see the flowers and the leaves. The more distracted eye, using it perhaps to hold cut flowers, just sees a swirl of browns and yellows.

It’s the same with this glass ashtray.

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Only a closer look will discern a leaf in the rippling glass. The distracted smoker will see nothing but a receptacle for his butt-ends.

The fading of vegetal decoration into abstraction is even more marked in other objects. Take this carpet, for instance (another of my mother-in-law’s purchases), which in these days of confinement my wife and I  are regularly using as a exercise mat.

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Only from time to time, as I groan my way through the exercises, will I focus and spy the flowers peeping out from the highly geometric design of the carpet.

It’s the same with the massive cupboard in our bedroom, inherited from my in-laws. Only sometimes, as I open one of its doors searching for a piece of clothing, will I register the rather stylized vegetal design carved in the wood.

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I wonder why it is that the vegetable kingdom plays such a modest, secondary role in the pieces with which we surround ourselves. Why don’t we have a statue of a flower in the apartment, for instance? Perhaps it’s because we can more easily have the real thing – the potted plant, a living statue as it were. At the moment, for example, we have this splendid bunch of flowers slowly opening up before us.

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If you can have the real thing, why bother with inanimate copies?

Stay safe.

SAINT PETER AND MY HEADACHES

Milan, Sunday 26 April 2020

My phone gave a ping this morning. It was to remind me that the head of Saint Peter of Verona would be on view today in the basilica of Sant’Eustorgio.

Like in those movies which start by jumping right into a scene that leaves the viewer confused and then write “24 hours earlier …” at the bottom of the screen, I must now write that in order for readers to understand this cryptic statement we need to go back some three months, to the month of January (a blessed time when we were still free to walk around and go wherever we wanted). My wife and I had gone down to the basilica of Sant’Eustorgio (a mere 15 minutes’ walk from our apartment) to visit its small museum, something which we had never done (I should note in passing that Sant’Eustorgio is one of Milan’s oldest churches, having been established in the 4th Century. One day, I might devote a post to it). In any event, the centrepiece of the museum is the Portinari chapel. It was built in Renaissance style in the 1460s, by Michelozzo, or possibly Filarete, or maybe Guiniforte Solari. As readers can see, there is a considerable degree of doubt on the question. What is not in doubt is who paid. That was Pigello Portinari, who made his money as the Medici Bank’s representative in Milan. He had it built as a family chapel cum mortuary, as well as a place to house one of the relics of St. Peter of Verona, his head (more on this later).

We see here an exterior view of the chapel.

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Anyone who has visited Milan will see a certain resemblance with the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, which houses Leonardo’s Last Supper.

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But the chapel’s real interest lies in its interior. There are lots of things to admire, but two things stood out for me. One is the interior decoration of the dome, by Vincenzo Foppa.

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The rainbow effect, I suppose meant to denote the ineffable beauty of heaven, is really striking. It reminds me of a fresco by Bergognone in another Milanese church, San Simpliciano, which I came across quite by chance one day (an adventure which I relate in an earlier post).

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The other stand-out in the chapel is the sepulchure of St. Peter of Verona, by Giovanni di Balduccio, a Pisan sculptor, said to have learned his trade under Giovanni Pisano. He was brought to Milan to sculpt this sepulchure in the later 1330s, some 80 years after the saint’s death.

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It’s a very complex sculpture, full of meanings and theological allusions, as befits a religious sculpture of the Middle Ages. I do not propose to elucidate any of the meanings or allusions, because I want to focus on what I found most enchanting about the sculpture, the bas reliefs around the centre of sepulchure, three of which we see in the photo.

These tell the story of the saint’s miracles, his death, funeral, and canonization. They are gems of storytelling. I’m sorely tempted to insert photos of all the bas reliefs, but I will control myself and only insert four.

Starting with his miracles, we have first the healing of the dumb man: a fairly mainstream depiction, with everyone looking holy.

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Then we have the miracle of the boat. I presume there was a storm and the saint’s intercession was invoked. Look at the man scurrying up the mast and the fear on sailors’ faces.

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Then we have the saint’s murder, in a forest near Seveso: look at the monk running away on the left while the assassin plunges the knife in.

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Finally, we have the saint’s canonization by Pope Innocent IV: look at the two grooms at the bottom holding the horses. I can almost hear one saying the other, “how long are they going to go on in there?”

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Saint Peter of Verona is one of my favourite saints, iconographically speaking (as I’ve noted in an earlier post). He was killed by having his skull split open with a sabre and having a dagger plunged into his chest. This led to a whole string of paintings over the centuries like this one by Guercino.

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I know it’s puerile but I find it hilarious to see these paintings with the man solemnly standing there with a sabre stuck in his head.

In any event, a strange thing happened when the saint was eventually buried in Giovanni di Balduccio’s sepulchure: the head got separated from the rest of the body. One explanation put forward is that Giovanni got the saint’s measurements wrong and made the sepulchure too short. His head was therefore taken off, and the the-then Archbishop of Milan, one of the large Visconti tribe, decided to take it. Another simply has it that the Archbishop wanted to have a piece of the saint near him and comandeered the head – which was probably considered the holiest piece because of that vicious sabre slash. Whatever the reason, the fact is that the saint’s head ended up with the Archbishop, in a nice urn. But then, the story goes, the Archbishop started suffering terrible headaches, and finally realised that he was being punished for keeping Saint Peter’s head separated from the rest of his body. He returned the head to Sant’Eustorgio and hey presto! his headaches disappeared.

Readers can imagine that this story rapidly turned Saint Peter into the saint to be invoked by those who suffer from headaches. Thus started the tradition of bringing the head out once a year, on the last Sunday of April, from the little side-chapel of the Portinari chapel in which it is stored away, and allowing people to come up and touch the casket in which it is kept.

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Well, this is very interesting to me! I have to tell readers that I have suffered from headaches since the age of 14. When I was young they could be very strong, now they are just a nuisance. Of course, I’m a firm believer in modern science! But still, you never know, perhaps a little touch of the saint’s casket could help …(rather like those crossed candles at the throat to protect one from sore throats on St. Blaise’s feast day). So, since today is the last Sunday in April this year, I had been hoping to take part in this ancient ritual. Thus, the reminder which I had put in my calendar way back in January. But it is not to be, Covid-19 has once again screwed up plans.

Goddamned Covid-19 …

ANIMALS

Milan, 25 April 2020

Nine days to go before – maybe – we’re let out onto the streets again …

Well, I’ve gone for another wander around the apartment, this time looking for pieces involving animals – that seems to me a suitable way to follow up the last two posts devoted to humans.

I should start by pointing out that neither my wife nor I are really animal people. My wife’s parents never had any pets when she grew up. My mother used to tell me that we had a dog in the house when I was very young, but I have no memory of it. My wife used to go riding as a child and liked it. I used to go and hated it. We never had pets when the children were growing up – apart from a goldfish which our daughter brought home triumphantly after a field trip somewhere and which very rapidly died. We still don’t have any pets. As a result, I think, we don’t really have that many pieces in the apartment that have to do with animals. But let me show readers what we have!

As usual, I start this wander in the living room, with a piece we bought – once again – in the Museum Art shop in Vienna (several pieces I mentioned in the last two posts were also bought in the shop; there was a time when I visited it very often).

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Like all the pieces we bought in the Museum Art shop, it is a modern copy of a very old original, which in this case is in the Louvre Museum in Paris. My copy is made of resin, but the original is in terracotta covered with a red slip. It comes from the Iranian plateau and dates from the 12th Centry BC. The Louvre’s website has this to say about the piece: “their terracotta objects were highly original. Used for funerary libations, they were often in the shape of animals, the most remarkable being the hump-backed bulls with a “beak” for the ritual pouring of water”. I love it for the simplicity of its lines, while still portraying the power of the animal. Here’s a photo of the real thing, a magnificent Zebu bull.

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The next piece takes us to Africa.

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It was once again bought at the Museum Art shop, by my son and wife, as a birthday present for me. It is also, once again, a copy. The original, a Chi Wara Bamana headdress made of wood, hails from Mali. It is held in the Musée des Arts Africains et Oceaniens in Paris. The blurb which the shop gave us states: “Originally fixed to a wicker cap, this sculpture is a headdress that is used in the agricultural rites of the Bambara, organized by a society of initiates called Chi Wara, “champion of cultivation”. This figure is a combination of three animals that inhabit the bush: the antelope, the pangolin, and the anteater.” Here is a photo of one of them in use.

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My wife and I bought the next piece during a trip we made (with my mother-in-law) to Mexico in the early 1980s.

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I definitely don’t like cats (I tolerate dogs), but I’ve always been fond of this ceramic stand-in. We’ve had him quietly sit on a shelf wherever we’ve been.

We bought this next piece at the UN in New York, back in the mid to late 1980s.

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At the time, there was a shop in the building well stocked with “ethnic art”. It’s a delightful piece, from Peru if I remember correctly. Formally it is a candlestick, and we have used it for that purpose a couple of times. But really it’s just a wonderful piece of art, with a cheerful bird as its crowning figure (which is of course the reason why I include it here).

We move on to the kitchen, where we have several animal-themed knick-knacks on our shelves. My favourite is this one.

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It is a ram with extremely long fleece standing on a pile of rocks. My wife and my mother-in-law bought it when they went for a holiday to Scotland in the mid to later 1970s. It stayed with my mother-in-law and we inherited it when the good woman died. It is signed “P. Nelson” on the bottom, but who he or she is I have no idea.

My mother-in-law bought the next two pieces.

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For obvious reasons, we have the two rabbits sitting on the same shelf. Interestingly, they both serve the same function, as a receptacle. The rabbit to the right is ceramic, but I’m not sure what the rabbit to the left is made of. Could it be zinc? My wife thinks it’s silver; if it is, it must be alloyed with something else. Rabbits are animals I’m quite fond of. My French grandmother had a number of them in a hutch, and I would go and stroke them. I was shattered when one of their babies died of myxomatosis. I remember still my wails when the poor thing was taken out and buried. Of course, my grandmother didn’t keep rabbits because she was fond of them, she kept them to eat. And I have to say that rabbit is very yummy.

These next two cups were a gift – along with two other cups – from a friend of my wife’s. There was one cup for each member of our family. The two seen in the photo are the cups of our children.

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They were made by the Hadley Pottery Company, which is based in Louisville, Kentucky. My wife’s friend chose the duck for our son and the lamb for our daughter (their names are on the other side of the cups, that’s how I know). I let readers guess what might have been the reasoning behind the choice, although I suspect that it might be something as prosaic as the lack of any other suitable animals to choose from. The cups are too precious a memory for us to use them now. In fact, one them (mine!) fell to the floor one day and broke. I glued it back together again, but there are pieces missing.

Gluing things back brings me to the last piece (sharp-eyed readers will notice that the beak has been glued back on).

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It is a loon, a common bird on the lakes of North America, and one with a wonderfully haunting cry. I remember it vividly from my little canoe trip on Lake of the Woods (which I wrote about in an earlier post). It was made by an Inuit artist, although which one I don’t know. Because of this Arctic connection, I insert here a photo of an Arctic loon.

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I bought it as a Christmas present for my soon-to-be-wife in the same shop, the Snow Goose, where some six months later we bought the much larger Inuit piece which kicked off my post on the human face. In fact, it was because I had bought this piece there that we went back to that shop. Fate then led my wife to the Face Spirit.

Well, that completes that tour. I let my readers guess what the subject of my next post will be.

THE HUMAN BODY

Milan, 20 April 2020

13 days to go before we are let out on the streets again – if we are let out; the Government is being very cautious about relaxing the lockdown, for fear that the virus will spring to life again. Here’s to hoping.

Anyway, as I continue my wanderings from room to room in the apartment, I’ve decided to do an extension of my previous post on the human face, this time looking at pieces which celebrate the whole of the human body – in other words, statues (or base reliefs in a couple of cases) of one form or another.

I start with the biggest statue that we possess, our “nail man”.

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As I said, he is big: a little over a metre tall. My wife bought it at an auction of African art at the Dorotheum auction house in Vienna. The blurb we received at the time of sale states: “Nail fetish, tribe: Bakongo, Democratic Republic of Congo, wood, on a plinth, one foot set on a small animal as an expression of power, right hand lifted and holding a spear to defend from evil influences [the spear has disappeared], large oversized head with a wide-open mouth and all-seeing glass eyes, body covered all around with nails and iron pieces, with a glass-locked belly box filled with magic substances giving the figure power, suspended amulets, dark patina, age damage, 2nd half of 20th Century”.

We refer to him fondly as the nail man, but he’s actually a Nkondi. The purpose of a Nkondi was to house a spirit (living in the belly box) which could leave the statue to hunt down and attack wrong-doers, witches, or enemies (this hunting role explains why the statue has his arm raised and used to hold a spear; pity that got lost). People would drive nails into the figures as part of a petition for help, healing, or witness – particularly of contracts and oaths. The purpose of the nailing was to “awaken” the spirit to the task in hand and sometimes to “enrage” it if nasty guys needed to be hunted down (before nails were common, it seems that this awakening was done by banging two Nkondi together).

Staying with Africa, the next piece originated in Gabon.

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My wife also bought this, at the Dorotheum (she has been in charge of buying our African art). The Dorotheum’s blurb has this to say about it: “Ritual house door leaf, tribe: Tsogho, Gabon, wood, polychrome, front decorated with a relief-like, very stylized “stick figure”, tribe-typical facial features, lattice pattern, age damage, 2nd half of the 20th century”.

Africa also brought us this next piece, once again bought by my wife at the Dorotheum.

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Once again, I turn to the Dorotheum’s description: “Wall plaque, tribe: Yoruba, Nigeria. Wood, polychrome, two carved out column-figures in relief, in caricature fashion: Colonial officer in white uniform with tropical helmet, walking stick and briefcase, next to schoolgirl in a carrier skirt with book in hand, recognizable age damage, 2nd half of 20th century”.

All the previous pieces are probably no more that eighty years old. The next piece, in and of itself very young, is a copy of a far, far older piece which is held in the Louvre Museum in Paris.

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My wife and I bought the piece at the Museum Art shop in Vienna (which I mentioned in my previous post). The original came from Cyprus, where it was made in about 2100-2000 BC. The piece I have is made of resin, but the original was modelled terracotta, with a polished red slip. The description which the shop gave us states: “This figurine has a rectangular body and is decorated with necklaces. The arms and facial features are stylized by engraved furrows ending in cupules. The ears are treated as pierced projections. These figurines used to be placed in tombs and should be interpreted as a female symbol of fertility. Given their size and shape, they might also have been worn by women as pendants.”

Well, those were the pieces in the living room. I shall now move to the kitchen, where we have a series of shelves where we keep many of our knick-knacks.

The first piece I will present is this ceramic clown.

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This was another piece which we inherited from my mother-in-law (readers can refer back to my previous two posts to understand better the role of this good woman in our knick-knack collection). It’s a fun piece, although I’m not sure I understand how it is meant to be used. My wife says that it’s a candlestick; you put the candle into that little bowl which the clown is balancing on his extended foot. I must try it one day, to see if works.

Staying with the circus theme, we have this piece.

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I imagine the young lady to be one of those women which I remember in my youth seeing in circuses jumping on and off cantering horses.

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It was given to my wife as a present by her colleagues when she left her job here in Italy to move to Vienna. It’s actually a calendar. You move the red, green, and yellow balls to indicate the right date (outside circle) of the right month (middle circle), and the right day (inner circle). It doesn’t really serve its purpose, since it’s so very easy to forget to change. I reset it just before taking the photo yesterday, and it will probably remain frozen at yesterday’s date for several months until someone else decides to set it right. But it is cheerful to look at.

Moving from one female figure to another takes us to this piece.

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It’s actually a grater. My wife and I were so enamoured by the design that we bought two of them, one for each of our children. We gave our son his. This one is our daughter’s, waiting patiently to be picked up some day. Since it’s such a fun piece, we’re quite happy that it stays with us sine die.

The next piece was another one handed down to us by my mother-in-law.

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It’s a wonderful piece of ceramic, depicting as it does two Daughters of Charity singing. Until the reforms of Vatican II, Daughters of Charity used to wear this very striking wimple. Lord knows why they wore it, though.

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We have no idea where my mother-in-law picked the piece up, but I silently bless her whenever my eyes happen to fall on it.

We also inherited the next piece from my mother-in-law.

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I’m guessing that it’s Don Quixote. I find the caricature rather well done: a noble-looking head above, thin bandy legs below. Some 15 years ago, my wife and I visited Burgos during a tour of Spain. I was astonished to see a shop offering pretty much identical pieces as this one, in all sizes. My wife reckoned that our piece must have been brought back from Spain by her father. She had a memory of him going to Burgos for a conference. I was suddenly assailed by a sense of his ghost walking down the road ahead of us.

I definitely know where this quartet comes from.

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My wife and I bought them in Poland, in the main square in Cracow.

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We happened to be there on market day, with stalls laid out in the square. Together with our daughter, we were on our way to pick up our son, who was playing in a baseball tournament somewhere in the middle of Poland. (We went on from there to have a holiday in Finland, but that story is for another day).

I’ve said several times in this and the last two posts that my mother-in-law made some admirable choices of knick-knacks to buy. But not always. This quintet of figurines is a case in point.

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As far as I can make out, they represent soldiers from the 18th, possibly early 19th Centuries. The Dorotheum is full of this stuff, and I always give it a wide berth. I simply find pieces of this kind to be too “precious”. But we have them and I’m not going to throw away things which someone took quite a lot of trouble and time to make (but I might see if we can’t sell them one of these days).

My mother-in-law did much better with the next trio.

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Formally, they are candlestick holders, although I’ve never seen them used as such. They are clearly Italian pieces; the statue to the right indubitably represents a carabiniere. The statue to the left looks vaguely military. I don’t know if the woman in the middle represents anything except a nice housewife off to do her shopping. My wife wonders if they are not characters from some old Italian folk tale. Unfortunately, my mother-in-law never explained – or if she did explain we weren’t listening – so we will probably never know.

My mother-in-law also bought the very Baroque-looking bishop in this next photo.

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Normally, I would have tut-tutted and put it away in some dark corner out of view, but I rather like the way it contrasts with the African statue next to it. Both men are bearded. Both are somebody important – The African is possibly a chief. And both hold a staff of office. But the solemnity, the gravitas, of the African piece just highlights the essential frivolity of the Baroque piece. The contrast between the two encapsulates everything I disapprove of in the Baroque.

Up to now, the statues have all been standing. But we have a few pieces where the subject is sitting. This first example is quite splendid.

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It’s one of our more recent acquisitions; we bought it a few years ago during our annual visit to Kyoto (I give a course at the University on sustainable industrial development). It caught my wife’s eye as we were nosing around a flea market which was being held in the compound of one of the temples there. It is some type of Japanese doll, made of papier maché, and seems to represent a Japanese lord or warrior.

The next example is more traditional, but it has great sentimental value for my wife and me.

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My wife found them in a little shop in Vienna which sold bric-a-brac, a short while after I was informed that I would be going to Beijing to take over my organization’s office there. Her buying them was a way of celebrating our move to China, a move which neither of us never regretted. I started this blog there and many of the earlier posts were about China.

In this final example of seated figures, both come from my mother-in-law.

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They are not pieces that I would buy, but I recognize the wonderful workmanship that went into both of them. I’m not sure what the old man represents. He has by his side a bag of gifts and toys, so I wonder if he’s not meant to be Saint Nicholas.

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But my figurine doesn’t have a mitre on his head, which as the picture above shows, he really should have. I also don’t understand why he would be holding a sheet of music, apparently composing. So the jury is out on that one.

It’s very clear, on the other hand, what the old lady represents. She’s an old peasant woman with a delicious cheese in her hands and a crate of vegetables at her feet.

My mother-in-law was rather fond of figurines representing peasants in one garb or another.

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Of course, there is a strong tradition in Italy of having figurines such as these peopling the Christmas crèches or presepi. As I have discussed in an earlier post, these presepi are wonderful and I enthusiastically set up our family presepe every year, lovingly setting out the figurines in the necessary “tableau”. But I’m not too fond of them on their own, so I’m afraid all these figurines of my mother-in-law’s have been relegated to a dark corner of the living room.

I’m rather more tolerant of this other figurine which my mother-in-law bought, also of a peasant, but this time of a Chinese peasant. Since he’s holding a fish, I presume it’s a fisherman.

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Since I started with the biggest statue that we have in the apartment, I will finish with the smallest statue that we have, a standing Buddha.

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It’s a mere 9 cm high. I bought it in Sri Lanka while there on a business trip. It was the first of several Buddhas which I have bought over the years. Perhaps one day I will write a post devoted to them (all the other Buddhas are in Vienna, so that post will have to wait until we manage to get back to Vienna – Covid-19 has currently closed the border between Italy and Austria). Ever since I bought it, I have been looking for a suitable plinth on which to place the statue, but so far I have found nothing.

Well, that finishes this particular wander around the apartment. Over the next 13 days of lockdown maybe I can come up with a couple of other trips through the knick-knacks we have here.