VINEGAR

Vienna, 13 September 2020

A little while back, I wrote a post about balsamic vinegar – a disapproving post, since I don’t like the stuff. But I used the post to confess to a hankering to make my own vinegar. I attribute this to the fact that my French grandmother made her own vinegar, down in that dark cellar of hers which I’ve had occasion to describe in an even earlier post. She used the local Beaujolais wine as her raw material, putting it in a miniature barrel and leaving it there to sour to vinegar. From time to time, she would send me down the cellar to replenish the dining room’s vinegar cruet. I tried making vinegar once, in our early years in Vienna, following the rather vague instructions I had been given by a colleague. As my wife and children will attest, it was a miserable failure. The resulting liquid had a strange taste and not much of that vinegary punch. Although I put a brave face on it and determinedly continued drizzling it on my salads until it was all gone, I half expected to keel over dead at any moment, poisoned by some mysterious fermentation product I had unknowingly created. So, as readers can imagine, my hankering to make vinegar remains.

It really shouldn’t be all that difficult, I keep saying to myself. Vinegar making has been around since at least Babylonian times and it’s been made just about everywhere in the world where there is a source of sugars (the route to vinegar being first a yeast-catalyzed fermentation of sugars to alcohol and then a bacterial-catalyzed fermentation of the alcohol so produced to acetic acid, which is what gives vinegar its sour taste). In fact, it’s been truly fascinating to discover what people have made vinegar out of. Personally, I have always consumed vinegar made from grapes via wine, preferably red wine, although I’m intrigued to see that people are making vinegar with fortified wines like port, madeira, sherry, and marsala. In the Middle East, they even make vinegar with raisins (it’s famous in Turkish cuisine).

various sources

I’m also familiar with vinegars made from apples via cider and pears via perry, which have been commonly made in northern Europe. But actually just about every fruit known to man (and woman) has been used at some point to make vinegar. I just mention here the ones which intrigued me – or allowed me to create links to some of my earlier posts. The Babylonians used dates, which continue to be used for vinegar-making in the Middle East. The Israelis use pomegranates, testimony to an enduring relationship between this fruit and Judaism. The South Koreans use persimmon. The Chinese use jujube and wolfberry. The New Zealanders use kiwi fruits.

various sources

A couple of enterprising Italian and German companies even use tomato to make vinegar. I must say, I find this one strange. I know that tomato is technically a fruit, but I just can’t imagine a vinegar made from it. I would really like to try it one day, to see what it tastes like (as I would like to try tomato oil extracted from the seeds).

Sort of linked to fruit-based vinegar is honey vinegar made via the production of mead. It’s made in a couple of countries in Southern Europe (France, Spain, Italy, Romania), although it’s not all that common.

Grains of one sort or another are also used to make vinegar (an extra step is needed here, to turn the starches in the grain into sugars). This kind of vinegar is made primarily in East Asia, where rice, wheat, millet or sorghum (or a mix of these) are used. many of these vinegars are black, but there are red and white rice vinegars too.

various sources

The East Asians have been making vinegar for a very long time. Already two and a half thousand years ago, royal and noble households in China’s Zhou dynasty had a professional vinegar maker on their staff. Perhaps there were also professional vinegar tasters. Such tasters certainly became metaphors for the three main religions in China, leading to a very common depiction (the one I insert here is actually Japanese, from the Edo period, but I rather like the style).

Source

The three men dipping their fingers in a vat of vinegar and tasting it are Confucius, Buddha, and Laozi, leaders of China’s three main religions. The expression on the men’s faces represents the predominant attitude of each religion. Confucius reacts with a sour expression – Confucianism sees life as sour, in need of rules to correct the degeneration of people. Buddha reacts with a bitter expression – Buddhism sees life as bitter, dominated by pain and suffering due to desires. Laozhi reacts with a sweet expression – Taoism sees life as fundamentally perfect in its natural state. I leave it to my readers to work out who is who in the painting I’ve inserted, based on their expressions.

But coming back to vinegar from grains, Europe also has its grain-based vinegars. For instance, the British have been making vinegar from malted barley for ever and a day. In my youth, no self-respecting fish-and-chip shop was without a bottle of malt vinegar which patrons could use to drown their fish and chips in – I cannot deny that I did this in my wild and foolish youth.

Source

A series of vinegars which I find quite intriguing are made in South-East Asia and to some degree South Asia, from the sweet sap of various types of palms: coconut, nipa, and kaong palms (and to a lesser degree buri palms; so lesser I wasn’t able to find a picture of it).

various sources

The Philippines is the big producer and user; I read that Malaysia and Indonesia are smaller markets because the palm sap must first be transformed into an alcoholic beverage, something which is forbidden in these Muslim countries. Perhaps. But then why is Saudi Arabia, the strictest of all Muslim countries, a big producer of date vinegar?

The Philippines is also a big user of sugar cane vinegar. Well, it certainly makes sense to make vinegar from the mother of all sugar sources.

Source

I would imagine that all sugar-cane growing countries make vinegar that way. Brazil certainly does. I wonder if anyone makes vinegar from beetroots? (as opposed to pickling beetroots in vinegar) An odd vinegar that I suppose can be classified as a sugar-based vinegar is kombucha vinegar. Kombucha is a Mongolian drink. It is made by fermenting sugary tea with a SCOBY – a Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast. This yucky slimy mat will ferment the sugar in your tea to alcohol and start fermenting the alcohol to acetic acid. Normally, you drink the fermented tea before too much acetic acid is produced, but if you let the SCOBY carry on its work all the alcohol will be turned into acetic acid and you will have a vinegar.

I find it intriguing that in all the articles on vinegars which I’ve read, there is no mention of traditional vinegars being made in Africa or the Americas (as opposed to them copying vinegars originally made in Europe). Neither continent lacks traditional alcoholic beverages. The Africans made them (and to some degree continue to make them) from fermented honey water, fermented fruits, fermented sap of various species of palm (as well as a species of bamboo), fermented milk, as well as from grains and other starch sources. As for the Americas, alcoholic beverages existed in at least Mesoamerica. There, the common alcoholic beverages were pulque, which was made out of fermented agave sap, chicha, which was a kind of maize-based beer, and fermented drinks made out of cacao beans and sometimes honey. I cannot believe that these drinks didn’t sometimes get inoculated with acetic-acid making bacteria and turn into vinegar. And I cannot believe that the Africans and Amerindians didn’t figure out ways to use this vinegar, as people everywhere else did. At a minimum, they surely would have discovered – as did everyone else – that vinegar can be used to pickle food and so extend its useful life, a vitally important discovery for societies in the days before refrigeration. If any of my readers are from Africa or the Americas and have information on this point, I would be glad to hear from them.

It’s not only the making of vinegar which I find interesting, it’s also how it’s used. But here one could write a book! (and in fact a quick whip around the internet shows me that several people already have) Since I’ve already written a couple of posts, on mustard and Lea & Perrins Worcestershire sauce, showing how vinegar can be used to make condiments, I reckon I’ve covered the use of vinegar as a condiment on food. I have also mentioned pickling in several posts, in my post on capers for instance, so I will skip the use of vinegar as a pickling agent. I will instead explore its use as a drink, for the simple reason that at first sight I find it rather incredible that anyone would ever want to drink vinegar. I certainly never have; the closest I have got to it is gargling once with vinegar when I had a sore throat, and even then I spat it out; I wasn’t going to swallow it. But people have drunk vinegar, and continue to do so.

The trick, of course, is to dilute it. Roman legionaries did this the simplest way, by just adding water (and maybe some herbs). This drink was known as posca and was drunk during military campaigns, as a thirst-quencher. There was a popular saying about posca: posca fortem, vinum ebrium facitposca gives you strength, wine makes you drunk. No doubt these legionaries on Trajan’s column in Rome made heavy use of posca during their campaigns.

Source

Interestingly enough, soldiers at the very other end of the Eurasian continent, the samurai in Japan, also believed in the restorative effects of drinking vinegar, in this case rice vinegar. They drank it (whether straight or diluted, I do not know) to relieve fatigue and for an energy boost.

Source

By the way, this business of posca being a drink of Roman legionaries gives quite a different slant to one of the stories in the narrative of the Crucifixion of Christ. All four Gospels say that as Jesus hung, dying, on the cross, someone put vinegar on a stick and held it to his lips to drink. Luke is the only one who says explicitly that it was one of the soldiers on guard at the crucifixion; the others say “one of the people there” or simply “they”. But it would have had to be one of the soldiers, no-one else would have been allowed to get that close. In the three synoptic Gospels, this simple gesture was turned into a gesture of mockery. John, on the other hand, has a more credible line. Jesus said “I thirst” and he was given vinegar. So now I see here a gesture of simple humanity on the part of the soldiers. They had a job to do, to crucify Jesus and the two robbers. But that didn’t stop them from trying to alleviate just a little the agony of being crucified by offering Jesus some posca for his thirst. It’s a moment in the Crucifixion story that has not often been painted, but here is a fresco by Fra Angelico.

Source

The next step up in efforts to make vinegar drinkable is to mix the vinegar with something sweet. Here, too, the Romans had a popular drink, called mustum. It was a mix of low-quality must, fresh from the press, and vinegar. The must sweetened the vinegar, the vinegar clarified the turbid must (a case of “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours”).

For their part, the Ancient Greeks mixed vinegar with honey and water to make a drink called oxymel. The beverage passed into European Medieval and Renaissance medicine as a medicament, and indeed the internet is full of articles promoting the health benefits of oxymel as well as bottles of the stuff. Here is a typical example.

Source

But the Ancient Greeks simply drank it for enjoyment. The Iranians still do. They have a drink called sekanjabin, which is a mix of vinegar and honey, to which mint leaves are often added. Apparently, a side order of fresh, crisp lettuce is a must.

Source

It’s an ancient drink, quaffed by Iranians when they were still called Persians. Perhaps the richest and most powerful Persians drank their sekanjabin from magnificent cups like this one (my wife and I saw similar cups in a wonderful museum near Kyoto).

Source

It wasn’t just the Ancients who drank sweetened, diluted vinegar. Under the name of shrubs, drinks like these were drunk quite often until relatively recently in Europe and North America. It was only the rise of carbonated drinks that killed them off, and now they are a bit of a recherché drink. I suspect there is currently a bit of a comeback because apple cider vinegar is being touted widely for its supposed health benefits. As the Ancients had discovered, it’s easier to drink vinegar when it’s been sweetened. Here is one example of the current commercial offer of shrubs.

Source

For those who, like the Iranians, want to make their own drinks, shrubs are made by simply mixing honey water or sugar water with a small amount of vinegar. Or they can be made by soaking fruit in vinegar for several days, sieving off the solid part, and adding a lot of sugar.

For those readers who, like I was, are puzzled by the name “shrubs”, allow me to explain the etymology. It is actually a corruption of the Arabic word sharab, which means “to drink”. The Arabic version of this drink hails back to the use of vinegar as a pickling agent. In cases where fruit was pickled, the vinegar drew out the taste from the fruit during the pickling. So once the pickled fruit had been consumed, people would drink the fruity vinegar – after adding water to dilute it.

I must say, I thoroughly approve of this reuse of the pickling liquid. I have been telling my wife for some time now that we should find something to do with the pickling liquid left over after we’ve eaten pickled gherkins or onions or even olives. So far, she has ignored me, pouring the pickling liquid down the drain. Perhaps I can get her to reconsider if I argue that we can turn the liquids into some kind of shrub. Of course, our pickling liquids are salty rather than sweet, but no fear, I have a solution to this! In order to explain it I have to introduce another set of soldiers, the Spartans this time.

The Roman legionaries had posca, the Spartan soldiers had melas zomos, a black brothy soup (or perhaps black soupy broth). Made of boiled pigs’ trotters, blood, salt, and vinegar, it was an integral part of their diet. We could make melas zomos! Our various spent pickling liquids could give the salt and vinegar, we would just need to find the blood and the pigs’ trotters. Of course, if we still lived in China, we wouldn’t have any problems finding these (I remember several times eating a delicious Chinese dish of pigs’ trotters in a restaurant around the corner from our place in Beijing, and I’m sure we could have found blood if we’d looked for it). But in Europe, as I’ve related elsewhere, we’ve become more fastidious about the meat products we eat, so finding these ingredients might be a problem.

Of course, even if we could find the ingredients and made the soup, would it be yummy? Well, I can only report here a comment made by a citizen of Sybaris, an Ancient Greek city located on the coast of what is now Puglia (but which has since disappeared, alas), which I’ve mentioned in passing in an earlier post. After tasting a bowl of melas zomos, this man declared disgustedly, “Now I do perceive why it is that Spartan soldiers encounter death so joyfully; dead men require no longer to eat; black broth is no longer a necessity.” Now, given that the citizens of Sybaris were famous for their luxury and gluttony (so famous that they gave us the word “sybarite”), this confrontation of polar opposites is perhaps merely an Ancient urban legend. However, it is true that the Spartans gave us the word “spartan”, which suggests that yumminess in their soldiers’ food was not necessarily high in the order of priorities of the Spartan army’s high command. The idea was to give them strength, to beat the shit out of, say, those weakling Persians who drank sekanjabin, as we saw so thrillingly in the film 300 – the Spartans in that film must have been stuffed full of melas zomos.

Source

Luckily, if we weren’t able to find pigs’ trotters and blood (and if I wasn’t able to persuade my wife to eat the soup, a highly probable outcome since she doesn’t much like these kinds of meat products), a quick whip around the Internet has shown me that many vinegar-containing soup recipes exist which involve perfectly ordinary ingredients like vegetables (I suspect that the craze for apple cider vinegar and its purported health properties has struck again; how to find pleasant ways to ingest apple cider vinegar). I can bring to bear my skills in making soups from left-overs and find a yummy way of recycling our pickling liquids into soups. Watch this space!

This second mention of mine of apple cider vinegar makes me think that before I finish I must just touch upon the supposed medicinal benefits of vinegar. In Europe at least, this love affair with vinegar-as-medicine has been going on since the Ancient Greeks; the current touting of apple cider vinegar is merely the latest iteration in a very ancient tradition. I do not propose to go through all the health benefits that are claimed for vinegar. In this time where we are living through a modern plague, Covid-19, I will only mention vinegar’s use during the bubonic plagues that regularly swept through Europe from the 14th to the 18th centuries. For some reason, people felt that vinegar would keep the terrible distemper at bay, so anyone who came into contact with people sick with plague, or with the bodies of people who had died of it, would wash their hands in vinegar, or put towels soaked in vinegar around their heads, or cover their mouths with a handkerchief soaked in vinegar, or gargle with vinegar. It was mostly doctors or nurses who did this, as well as the poor bastards (many of them convicts) who had to load the bodies onto the carts to take them to the cemeteries. I throw in here a picture from the Italian book I Promessi Sposi by Alssandro Manzoni, which takes place during an outbreak of the plague in Milan. We see the men loading up the dead bodies onto the cart.

Source

My wife will no doubt be thrilled to bits to see this reference to I Promessi Sposi, a book which was a Must Read for all schoolchildren of her generation.  In a sillier vein, I also throw in a still from the Monty Python film The Holy Grail, where a man is trying to get rid of his old father who isn’t dead.

Source

Anyway, it’s not clear if this use of vinegar helped at all – it indubitably has disinfectant properties, but would they have been enough to kill Yersinia pestis, the bacterium that causes the plague? At some point, people began to add herbs to the vinegar to increase its plague-killing power. Eventually, these vinegar concoctions got a name, Four Thieves vinegar, as well as a legend to go with the name. The legend goes like this: Four of the poor bastards picking up the dead bodies, who also happened to be thieves (it was a “profession” which tended to attract the criminal classes), hit upon a herb mixture which kept them safe. They therefore began robbing the houses they entered with impunity. Caught and threatened with horrible punishment, they offered to give up their secret recipe in exchange for leniency. The judge promptly accepted. Here is a recipe that was posted on the walls of Marseilles, site of the last great outbreak of the plague in Europe in 1720:

“Take three pints of strong white wine vinegar, add a handful of each of wormwood, meadowsweet, wild marjoram and sage, fifty cloves, two ounces of campanula roots, two ounces of angelic, rosemary and horehound and three large measures of camphor. Place the mixture in a container for fifteen days, strain and express, then bottle.”

Here is a 17th Century bottle of this stuff.

Source

And here is a modern version of the stuff, using apple cider vinegar (and with a different bunch of herbs: rosemary, sage, thyme, mint, cinnamon, pepper, garlic, clove)

Source

Hey, you never know, it might help keep Covid-19 at bay, although the producers are careful not to claim this. Soak your face mask in the stuff before putting it on.

Stay safe!

SMILE!

Vienna, 2 September 2020

My wife and I have been doing quite a lot of hiking in high alpine meadows this year, which of course means that we’ve been passing a lot of cows. Here is a photo I took of one such cow at one of the huts we recently stayed in.

my photo

Every time I see cows, I am struck by the same thing: they never smile (or laugh, for that matter). I am particularly aware of this lack of hilarity in cows because of the French cheese product, La Vache Qui Rit, the Laughing Cow.

For readers who may not know this product, it’s a delicious spreadable cheese that comes in wedges. Each wedge is wrapped in silver foil; the foil is removed by pulling on a red plastic thread. It’s normally given to children. That was certainly the case for me; my French grandmother routinely fed her grandchildren pieces of French baguette thickly spread with this cheese: mmmm, soo good!

But it’s not the cheese I want to talk about. It’s the round box which holds the wedges.

Source

As readers can see, the box is covered by a picture of a cow laughing heartily (she also has a faintly gypsy-esque look, with boxes of the cheese dangling from her ears like large earrings). I would always study the picture as I munched on my cheese-smothered piece of baguette, fascinated by that laugh. Why couldn’t the cows in the field below the house laugh like that, I wondered? Or at least smile. Or the neighbour’s dog? Or the rabbits my grandmother kept in a hutch in the vegetable garden? Or the horse I would pass on my way to get milk at the nearby farm?

As one does as a child, I quickly forgot these philosophical musings. But during my recent continued meetings with cows in high alpine meadows the question has resurfaced, although since I am now considerably older and (I hope) wiser, I ask myself the question differently: why do human beings appear to be the only species who smile?

sources – see below

I should say at this point that my response to this question is completely based on an article by Michael Graziano, who is a Professor of Neuroscience at Princeton University, entitled The First Smile.

I should also remind readers that we are, for all of the airs and graces that we give ourselves, fundamentally great apes. We share 99% of our DNA with chimpanzees and bonobos, 98% with gorillas, and 97% with orangutans. When Charles Darwin first revealed this relationship to horrified Victorians, one wit came up with this cartoon.

Source

One aspect that we share with all the other great apes (and indeed with all primates) is our sociability. We are intensely social animals and much of our instinctive (DNA-driven) behaviour comes from us having lived in bands on the African veld. This behaviour regulated the all-important interpersonal relations. One such relation was when someone else in the band approached you and entered your personal space. Here, I let Professor Graziano take up the tale.

“Imagine two monkeys, A and B. Monkey B steps into the personal space of Monkey A. The result? … a classic defensive reaction. Monkey A squints, protecting his eyes. His upper lip pulls up. This exposes the teeth, but only as a side-effect: in a defensive reaction, the point of the curled lip is … to bunch the facial skin upward, further padding the eyes in folds of skin. The ears flap back against the skull, protecting them from injury. The head pulls down and the shoulders pull up to protect the vulnerable throat and jugular. The head turns away from the impending object. The torso curves forward to protect the abdomen. Depending on the direction of the threat, the arms may pull across the torso to protect it, or may fly up to protect the face. The monkey snaps into a general defensive stance that shields the most vulnerable parts of his body.

Monkey B can learn a lot by watching the reaction of Monkey A. If Monkey A makes a full-blown protective response, cringe and all, it’s a pretty good sign that Monkey A is frightened. He’s uneasy. … He must view Monkey B as a threat, a social superior. On the other hand, if Monkey A reveals only a subtle response, perhaps squinting and slightly pulling back his head, it’s a good sign that Monkey A is not so frightened. He does not consider Monkey B to be a social superior or a threat.

That kind of information is very useful to members of a social group. Monkey B can learn just where he stands with respect to Monkey A. And so the stage is set for a social signal to evolve: natural selection will favour monkeys that can read the cringe reactions of their peers and adjust their behaviour accordingly. This, by the way, is perhaps the most important point of the story: the primary evolutionary pressure is on the receiver of the signal, not the sender. The story is about how we came to react to smiles.

Then again, nature is often an arms race. If Monkey B can glean useful information by watching Monkey A, then it’s useful for Monkey A to manipulate that information and influence Monkey B. Evolution therefore favours monkeys that can, in the right circumstances, pantomime a defensive reaction. It helps to convince others that you’re non-threatening. Finally we see the origin of the smile: a briefly flashed imitation of a defensive stance.

In people, the smile has been pared down to little more than its facial components — the lifting of the upper lip, the upward bunching of the cheeks, the squint. These days we use it mainly to communicate a friendly lack of aggression rather than outright subservience.

And yet we can still see the monkey gesture in us. We do sometimes smile to express subservience, and that servile smile can come with a hint of the whole-body protective stance: head pulled down, shoulders up, curved torso, hands pulled in front of the chest. Just like monkeys, we react to such signals automatically. We can’t help feeling warmer towards someone who beams [a genuine, friendly smile involving the eyes]. We can’t help feeling contemptuous of a person who makes a servile cringe, or suspicious of someone who fakes a warmth that never reaches those vulnerable eyes.”

To underline Professor Graziano’s point about the servile cringe, I insert here a picture of Uriah Heep from Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield, the epitome of the servile cringer.

Source

As for people with the fake smile which never reaches the eyes, I can think of a few people I’ve worked with over the decades who would fit that description very well – I name no names so as not to be sued for libel.

In any event, Professor Graziano’s explanation of why we smile seems to me a good one. And it turns out that chimps and monkeys have something which looks remarkably like a human smile.

Source

So we may not be the only ones who can smile. Maybe a lot of monkeys have something like a smile.

But it is a pity that cows don’t smile. It would be so nice if they would smile at me and my wife as we cross the high alpine meadows on our hikes.

Source

And we would definitely smile back.

P.S. Any reader who is interested in an explanation of why we laugh and cry should consult Professor Graziano’s article.

_____________________________________________
Sources for the photos of people smiling:
White woman smiling: https://dissolve.com/stock-photo/Mid-thirties-white-woman-smiling-camera-park-royalty-free-image/101-D430-47-955
African woman smiling: https://www.flickr.com/photos/mytripsmypics/8099320008/
Asian woman smiling: https://www.shutterstock.com/video/clip-7618840-young-asian-woman-smile-happy-face-portrait
Indian woman smiling: https://dear-kim.com/2012/11/29/i-did-celban-i-think-i-messed-up-with-my-writing/smiling-indian-woman/
Aboriginal woman smiling: https://www.mydr.com.au/diabetes/diabetes-in-indigenous-australians
Andean woman smiling: https://travel.mongabay.com/pix/peru/andes-Chinchero_1017_0541.html
Middle Eastern woman smiling: https://depositphotos.com/42508065/stock-photo-smiling-middle-eastern-woman.html
Southeast Asian woman smiling: https://depositphotos.com/320288532/stock-video-portrait-of-a-smiling-indonesian.html
White man smiling: https://www.shutterstock.com/it/video/clip-14867809-portrait-od-smiling-handsome-caucasian-man-using
African man smiling: https://www.gettyimages.no/detail/news-photo/happyl-smiling-nigerian-man-waiting-for-friends-at-news-photo/53043863
Asian man smiling: https://www.freepik.com/premium-photo/smiling-young-asian-man-face-close-up_1647809.htm
Indian man smiling: https://www.trekearth.com/gallery/Asia/India/South/Tamil_Nadu/Mallanginar/photo260886.htm
New Guinean man smiling: https://www.alamy.com/stock-photo/handsome-papua-new-guinea-man.html
Andean man smiling: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Andean_Man.jpg
Middle Eastern man smiling: https://www.alamy.com/stock-photo/saudi-arabian-man.html
Southeast Asian man smiling: https://dissolve.com/video/Portrait-smiling-Cambodian-royalty-free-stock-video-footage/001-D205-1-086

WOOD ANTS

Vienna, 22 August 2020

It was during the hike which my wife and I did in the Dolomites this year that we first noticed these large, cone-shaped piles of dead pine needles on the side of the path.

Source

They mini Mt. Fujis were really quite arresting in their symmetry among the gentle anarchy of the forests.

A closer look at them told us that these were ant nests; there were columns of ants radiating out from them into the surrounding undergrowth and their surfaces were pullulating with ants.

Source

A bit like the statues of John of Nepomuk that I have written about earlier, once we noticed one nest we began noticing them everywhere we went on our subsequent walks. We always came across them in wooded areas, mostly among conifers or mixed woodland. Sometimes the nests were modest mounds, at other times they were really quite large.

A little surfing of the web has taught me that these nests belong to wood ants, of which there are some 32 species distributed in the colder reaches of the northern hemisphere: 13 in the Eurasian continent, spread all the way from Japan to Ireland, and 19 in North America. My favourite of all these species has to be Formica lugubris, the lugubrious ant. I wonder what its namer had in mind when they came up with that name. This particular species seems no more lugubrious than any of the others. I throw in a close-up of another species, Formica rufa.

Source
Source

I must confess to putting in this close-up photo simply to gross out my wife, like I did with close-ups of crickets and dragon flies in earlier posts (so childish of me …). However, the first of these photos also allows me to point out the ants’ black and red colouring – although I must confess not to have noticed this colouring scheme when inspecting the ants milling about on top of the nests.

Coming back to Formica lugubris, I have to say if I were a wood ant I think I would feel pretty lugubrious. The great majority of the ants are – female – worker ants. They spend their whole short lives (a couple of months) looking after the queens and their babies (or grubs, to give them their more scientific name), feeding them, moving them from one good spot in the nest to another, watching over them as they finally pupate and metamorphose into adult ants, and generally fussing over everyone; marching off into the surrounding forest to collect food; building up the nest, mending its thatch (more on that in a minute) … and all this and more with hardly a moment’s rest (a power nap from time to time is all they get). No wonder they croak after a few months! As for the few males, they are of course completely feckless, doing bugger-all to maintain the nest or feed the kids (typical …). Mind you, they have even shorter lives than worker ants – a couple of weeks. They have only one role in life, which is to impregnate the queens. This they do with savage abandon, with these mating rites becoming a huge free-for-all. Once that is over, they expire – if they haven’t already become lunch for birds and other predators who hang around during the mating rites and pick them off. As for the even fewer queens, they only need to go through the mating rite once in their much longer lives (they can live up to 15 years or so); the sperm they so collect lasts them a lifetime. Thereafter, they bunk down in the nests, and spend the rest of their lives begetting children and sleeping. What a life, for all of them!

Of course, to think of ants in human terms is very silly: ants are ants, humans are humans. But this tendency of projecting human foibles onto animals has a very honourable history. Take the French poet Jean de La Fontaine, for instance. He wrote many animal-centered poems whose point was to skewer human weaknesses and stupidities. One of his best-known poems is La Cigale et la Fourmi, the Cricket and the Ant:

La Cigale, ayant chanté
Tout l’été,
Se trouva fort dépourvue
Quand la bise fut venue
Etc.

The point of the poem is that the cricket spent the whole summer singing the days away while the ant industriously spent it collecting food to see it through the winter.

Source

Come autumn, the cricket comes piteously to the ant, asking it to give it some food, and the ant tells the cricket to bugger off (the moral of the tale for us humans is made clear in this old drawing, by dressing up both cricket and ant in humans’ clothes and having the ant live in a human house).

Source

My French grandmother often quoted the poem in approving tones, making it clear to me that I should be the industrious ant and not the feckless cricket. Personally, I think the story lacks Christian charity, but perhaps in La Fontaine’s day, when most people lived very close to the edge, they simply didn’t have enough to be able to generously share with feckless idiots who had failed to lay in the necessary provisions.

But back to the wood ants.

Let me describe their nests, which are marvels of engineering. First let me insert a cut-away diagram of a nest.

Source

The whole structure is designed to maintain optimum temperature and humidity levels for the grubs and pupae. So, the nests are somewhat flatter on their southern side, to have the sun’s rays hit the nest as directly as possible; the worker ants lay the pine needles and other debris which make up the nest’s thatch in the direction which maximizes the latter’s ability to heat up in the sun’s rays; the nests are often built around a tree stump – the heat given off by the rotting process adds to the nest’s heat; and if that is not enough, worker ants will “sunbathe” on the thatch and when they are nice and hot will go back into the nest and cool down where heat is needed. As for control of dampness, the ants carefully choose sites which are not damp in the first place. Then the same thatch will act as thatch on a human house, keeping out the rain. Since the bottom of the nest, which is in the ground, tends to be damper the worker ants will carry damp material from the lower floors to the upper floors to even out dampness differences.

These wonderful nests have attracted a number of hangers-on. Some are useful, like the worm Dendrodrilus rubidus, for instance. It gets (steals?) food in the nest but it keeps moulds and fungi in check. So it pays for its keep, as it were. Others are not, like several species of beetles, which spend their larval stage in wood ant nests. Most are just a nuisance, eating plant food they find there. Several species of beetle, though, are real little bastards. They eat the pupae, and to avoid being killed by the ants they produce chemicals which disguise their presence. Some of these little buggers go so far as to secrete a scent which the ants can’t resist. The poor ants then allow the beetle to roam freely about the nest unharmed. Little shits … In the case of other species, it’s not clear if they play a role – bad or good – in the nests. There’s the tiny shining guest ant, for instance. It has its own tiny nests and tiny broods in the wood ants’ nests. If a queen and a bunch of worker ants take off to set up a new test, a bunch of shining guest ants will go with them. But when the going gets tough – when conditions in the nest deteriorate – the shining guest ants get going: “hasta la vista, baby, been nice knowin’ ya!” And then there’s a species of woodlouse which has been cohabiting with wood ants in the dark chambers of their nests for so long that it has lost its eyes and colouring (I remember reading about the same thing happening to some species of fish which were discovered living in completely dark caverns off the coast of Mexico somewhere).

As I said, if you look at a nest you’ll see columns of ants marching off to forage – and marching back with what they’ve foraged. Wood ants play an incredibly important role in keeping in check certain species which are bad for the health of the trees – more on this in a minute. But they actually get most of their food from stroking the bums of aphids. This is an absolutely fascinating relationship, probably the only known example of farming by a species other than humans.

Aphids feed by sucking the sap from trees and shrubs. They extract what they need from the sap and excrete the rest as “honeydew” – the name gives one an idea of the taste of this stuff, which is packed with sugars, acids, salts and vitamins. Wood ants love this stuff, and it makes up the major portion of their diet. Over time, wood ants and aphids have developed a symbiotic relationship. Wood ants look after the aphids; they protect them from predators and they move them around to places with more or better sap.

Source

In return, aphids will excrete their honeydew when gently stroked by the ants. It’s hard not to think of human beings and their cows when you read about this relationship.

Source

The ants will fill themselves up with the honeydew, march back to the nest, disgorge it and feed it to the queens and grubs.

One reads lurid stories about ants biting and stinging people. Wood ants can certainly bite – they have the necessary mandibles – but they also have a secret chemical weapon. They keep a store of formic acid in their gaster (that bulbous end section of theirs), which they can spray at attackers or prey.

Source

As the photo shows, they can shoot our their formic acid over quite a considerable distance, relatively speaking. If they were my size, they would be squirting formic acid over a distance of 20 metres – not half bad! As you can imagine, a concerted attack like the one in the photo would be enough to keep most predators away. But some birds have figured out how to turn this spray of formic acid to their advantage. They alight close to the nest, and use the resulting formic acid shower as a way of killing off parasites which they’ve picked up. This European Jay, for instance, is having its formic acid spray-over and seems to be quite enjoying the experience.

Source

Of course, formic acid gets its name from the Latin name for the ant, formica. Formic acid was discovered by one John Ray, an English naturalist, in 1671. He obtained the acid by getting hold of a large number of wood ants, crushing them, and distilling off the acid from the resulting mess. Poor ants! sacrificed to the advancement of science. Here is the painting of the man about to do something awful to a foxglove.

Source

I’m sure myrmecologists (which I have learned is what experts in ants are called) would find a thousand and one other things which are fascinating about the wood ant. But I’ll stop here. There is one final thought, though, which I want to leave with my readers because it goes close to the work I’ve been doing these last forty years.

The fate of wood ants is a great example of human beings thinking they are very clever and know everything when in fact they know very little. This is particularly true of the workings of the natural world. Thus, in the case of wood ants, people didn’t realize that they probably play a key role in the health of forests. I say “probably” because actually we don’t know all that much about the life and times of wood ants, so it’s difficult to judge their true role in forest health. Nevertheless, they certainly seem to keep down the populations of insects which would otherwise attack trees, like caterpillars of moths such as the pine looper and sawfly. Their farming of sap-sucking aphids also appears to affect tree growth. They help in distributing the seeds of plants. They of course provide food to a whole suite of animals. Yet we have thoughtlessly – and ignorantly – been destroying their habitat. As a result, wood ants are on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List, although thankfully at the milder end of that List. Some species are already extinct locally – the black-backed meadow ant, for instance, is extinct in the UK since 1988. Not only is it really troubling that these ants could be facing extinction (“extinction is forever”), but foresters are also finding that the health of forests has been impacted as a result of the drops in ant population. In this day and age, when we desperately need every tree we have to combat climate change, that is truly worrying. In fact, efforts are now underway to protect these ants and get them to help us protect our forests. I can only hope for the best.

KETCHUP

Vienna, 9 August 2020

A few posts ago, while I was describing the origins of Lea & Perrins sauce, I mentioned in passing that the story of tomato ketchup was an equally fascinating tale and thought that its telling could be the subject of one of my posts. Well, that moment has come!

I find the story of tomato ketchup worth telling because it intertwines two themes which I am passionate about and which have been the subject of a number of my posts in the past: the rich history of the humble, mundane articles which we have surrounded ourselves with, and the role which global trade has played in spreading such articles around the planet – for better or for worse. The story of tomato ketchup serves up both of these themes in spades.

Tomato ketchup is of course primarily associated with the United States, and indeed it is there that we have seen the greatest growth in the consumption of ketchup. But the roots of ketchup are buried in a land far, far away, on the other side of the world, in southern China.

The word ketchup is an Anglicisation of the Hokkien word kôe-chiap (as written in its Romanised form; 鮭汁 in Chinese characters). The homeland of Hokkien speakers, the Hoklo, is southern Fujian, although Hoklo communities also exist in Guangdong and Hainan. In southern Fujian, they live cheek by jowl with other groups like the Hakka (I only mention the latter because my wife has never forgiven me for visiting the typical Hakka roundhouses near Xiamen without her). Hokkien is only one of a mass of different languages and dialects that are found in China.

Kôe-chiap means “brine of pickled fish or shell-fish”. We have the Chinese-English Dictionary of the Vernacular or Spoken Language of Amoy (now called Xiamen), published in 1873, to thank for this explanation; I throw in a picture of the dictionary’s title page, along with the relevant entry in the dictionary.

Source

“Brine of pickled fish” basically means a sauce made by fermenting fish in salt and collecting the liquid which is so created. So we can consider kôe-chiap to be a fermented fish sauce. The same sauce is still made in southern China, although it’s now often called yu lu (which translates as “fish dew” – such a poetic name! especially since the sauce probably smells strongly …). Here is a picture of a modern version.

Source

In its most elemental form, as simply the liquid which oozes from brined fermenting fish, this kind of sauce is found in all the cultures in South-East Asia. So we have nuoc-mam in Viet Nam, naam-plaa in Thailand, tuk-trey in Cambodia, padaek in Laos, patis in the Philippines, budu in Malaysia, ngapi in Myanmar, and – very importantly for our story – kechap ikan in Indonesia. It’s also found in Japan (shottu kuru), Korea (aek jeot) to the east, Iran (mahyawa) and Italy (colatura di alici) to the west. In fact, until the 18th Century or thereabouts, fermented fish sauce was common in the UK and throughout the rest of Europe, after which its use died out (and it was incredibly popular in Roman times, when it was known as garum; the Romans put it in just about everything). To show the sauce’s ubiquity, I throw in a photo of the cover of a cookery book dedicated to recipes from around the world which use fish sauce.

Source

I would ask my readers to make a mental note of the fact that fermented fish sauces also existed in Europe and in particular in the UK, because I will come back to this point later. But right now, I want to focus on how the Hoklo version of fermented fish sauce, kôe-chiap, spread throughout South-East Asia, because it is almost certainly there and not in southern Fujian that English traders and sailors came across it and liked it so much that they brought it back to the UK.

The Hoklo were intrepid traders. They traded throughout South East Asia and beyond. They also emigrated to all the polities making up South East Asia. They did this even though successive Chinese dynasties blew hot and sometimes very cold about their subjects trading overseas and emigrating, going so far in some moments as to declare that Chinese who emigrated were no longer worthy of being considered Chinese. The Hoklo were no doubt firm believers in the Chinese proverb, 山高皇帝远 shān gāo, huángdì yuǎn, meaning “the mountains are high and the emperor is far away” (a proverb which is still relevant in China today; I heard it uttered quite a few times in my time there): Beijing (or whatever was the Imperial capital of the moment) was far away and communications were difficult, so they could safely ignore emperors’ fulminations. I hasten to add that they were not the only southern Chinese people to trade and emigrate. Other peoples from the south, like the Cantonese and the Hakka, did the same. But the Hoklo people seem to have done it more than any other group, so they are now the largest (Indonesia, Singapore, Philippines, southern Thailand) or one of the largest (Malaysia, Viet Nam, Myanmar) groups in the various Chinese diasporas in South East Asia. For the most part, the Hoklo settled in the bigger trading ports in these countries.

As emigrants from all parts of the world have done in all times, the Hoklo no doubt took their foodstuffs with them, and that will have included their fermented fish sauce. At least in Indonesia, it looks like the local population took to the sauce with such enthusiasm that the word kôe-chiap entered the Indonesian language as kechap (or kicap, or kecap, or ketjap; I presume there is some difficulty in finding a satisfactory Romanised form of the Indonesian word). This seems to be another example of Indonesians’ enthusiasm for adopting foreign words, something I have written an earlier post about. Over time, the meaning of kechap has evolved to cover just about any type of sauce, which is why the modern Indonesian name for fermented fish sauce is kecap ikan (“ikan” meaning fish in Indonesian); they now have to specify that the sauce is fish-based.

So by the 1500s (the relevance of this date will become clear in a minute), kôe-chiap was probably present throughout South-East Asia, particularly in the region’s trading ports, thanks to Hoklo traders settling in these ports. What happened next?

Well, by the early 1500s, European ships finally began to arrive in South-East Asia, having managed to make it around Africa’s Cape of Good Hope and across the Indian Ocean. They were after eastern spices, especially pepper, nutmeg, mace and cloves. These spices had always arrived in Europe via India and the Middle East, and European traders wanted to go direct to the source, thus cutting out all the middlemen and making themselves huge fortunes in the process (just to give readers an idea of the size of the profits, in 1620 a cargo of 250,000 pounds of pepper, bought for ₤26,401 in the “East Indies”, was sold for ₤208,333 in London, a profit of 690%; in the same period, a cargo of 150,000 pounds of cloves, bought for ₤5,126, was sold in London for ₤45,000, a profit of 780%). The Portuguese arrived first, followed by Spaniards (who actually arrived the other way, finding a route around the tip of South America and sailing across the Pacific). The Portuguese ruled the roost for about a hundred years; the Spaniards contented themselves with the Philippines and left the rest of South-East Asia alone. Then the Dutch and English arrived on the scene (as did the French, but they quickly disappeared). The Dutch eventually strong-armed the Portuguese out of the way. As for the English, they were actually quite modest players. They managed to do some trading and to set up a few “factories” (which in this case meant warehouses where they could store their spices and other merchandise and hold markets with the locals) in the Indonesian islands of Java and Sumatra; these islands were at the very centre of the spice trade. But the Dutch squeezed them out by the 1600s (so the English focused on India instead, as a consolation prize; they ended up controlling the whole of the subcontinent and used that as a stepping stone to the foundation of a global Empire – what an irony).

Just for the fun of it, I throw in here a painting of a factory – it is actually a Dutch factory, in India, but I think it rather nicely gives the idea of what the factories looked like.

Source

And for the hell of it, I add a print of Batavia, modern-day Jakarta, which was the centre of Dutch power in South-East Asia, as the town looked like in 1754.

Source

Of course, even as they were busy trading and fighting one another, the European sailors and traders had to fill their stomachs. In their idle moments in the various South-East Asian ports they visited, or during their down time in the factories, they must have been sampling local cuisine, as modern tourists do today. Certainly in the case of the English, this included a sauce which they variously spelled as catchup, katchup, ketchup, kitchup, and maybe in a few more ways. They really liked it! In the case of sailors, it was certainly sufficiently part of their lives that a dictionary of slang used by British sailors, the New Dictionary of the Terms Ancient and Modern of the Canting Crew, published in 1698, had an entry for catchup (as it is spelled), where it is described simply as “A high East-India Sauce”. I include a photo of the relevant page of the dictionary (the relevant word is highlighted).

Source

(by “high”, the writers of the dictionary were no doubt referring to the fact that the fermented fish in the sauce made it smell “off” or quite strong)

At this point, then, this ketchup sauce made the jump from South East Asia to England, as traders or sailors or both brought it back home. Once it arrived in England, it caught on big time. But now we have to ask ourselves what exactly was this sauce that English sailors and traders got so excited about? I cannot believe that it was just plain fermented fish sauce. As I said earlier, that already existed in the UK, where it was known as fish pickle and was made much in the same way as kôe-chiap was. Why would English sailors and traders get enthusiastic about a sauce they already knew, and more importantly why would they bother to bring it home? And why would people in England get excited about it? I have to think that as kôe-chiap moved around South-East Asia in the trunks of Hoklo traders and emigrants, other ingredients began to be added to the original sauce. My money would be on this having happened most in Indonesia. After all, many different kinds of kechap sauce began to be made there, to the point where the word kechap simply came to mean any sauce (and interestingly enough, it seems that until the 1950s the Chinese community in Indonesia, the majority of whom were Hoklo, made most of the different kechaps consumed in the country). So in my romantic mind’s eye, I see English traders and sailors in their Javan and Sumatran factories, or in some port somewhere in those islands, tasting the local kechap and saying “Yum! Must bring this back to Blighty”.

But what ingredients might have been added? Unfortunately, no-one in the 1600s, when the sauce caught on with the English, thought of publishing the recipe somewhere (or if they did, I haven’t found it). From the recipes which appeared in English cookery books, examples of which I give below, my guess is that a lot of spices – that pepper, nutmeg, mace and cloves which the Europeans had sailed to South-East Asia to find – were added.

In any event, English cooks began to try to copy this kechap sauce which appeared on their shores, with locally available ingredients. Here, for instance, is the earliest published recipe for katchup (as it was spelled) in an English cookery book. The book in question is The Compleat Housewife; or, Accomplished Gentlewoman’s Companion, written by Eliza Smith and published in 1727. I love the book’s frontispiece, so I’ll throw it in here.

Source

And here is the recipe.

To Make English Katchup.

Take a wide-mouth’d bottle, put therein a pint of the best white-wine vinegar ; then put in ten or twelve cloves of eschalot peeled and just bruised ; then take a pint of the best Langoon white-wine [a French white wine], boil it a little, and put to it twelve or fourteen [salted] anchovies wash’d and shred, and dissolve them in the wine, and when cold put them in the bottle ; then take a quarter of a pint more of white-wine, and put in it mace, ginger sliced, a few cloves, a spoonful of whole pepper just bruised, let them boil all a little ; when near cold, slice in almost a whole nutmeg, and some lemon-peel, and likewise put in two or three spoonfuls of horse-radish ; then stop it close, and for a week shake it once or twice a day ; then use it: T’is good to put into fish sauce, or any savoury dish of meat ; you may add to it the clear liquor that comes from mushrooms.

So we have the fish (although not in the form of fish sauce but rather as the fish itself) and the spices from South-East Asia (now readily available thanks to those brave English sailors), to which some local spices have been added (horse radish and shallots). Interestingly, alcohol, in the form of wine in this case (beer was used in other recipes), has been added; I suspect alcohol was not present in the original kechap.

Quite quickly, mushrooms – or rather the liquid extracted from mushrooms – which was mentioned almost as an afterthought in Eliza Smith’s recipe, started playing a more important role. In fact, in some recipes the fish disappeared completely, to be replaced by mushrooms. An example is a recipe from the cookery book The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy by Hannah Glasse, published in 1747. Before giving the recipe, let me show the book’s frontispiece, another wonderful piece of minor art.

Source

And now the recipe.

To make Ketchup.

Take the large Flaps of Mushrooms, pick nothing but the Straws and Dirt from it, then lay them in a broad earthen Pan, strew a good deal of Salt over them, let them lie till next Morning, then with your Hand brake them, put them into a Stew-pan, let them boil a Minute or two, then strain them thro’ a coarse Cloth, and wring it hard. Take out all the Juice, let it stand to settle, then pour it off clear, run it thro’ a thick Flannel Bag, (some filter it thro’ brown Paper, but that is a very tedious Way) then boil it, to a Quart of the Liquor put a quarter of an Ounce of whole Ginger, and half a quarter of an Ounce of whole Pepper, boil it briskly a quarter of an Hour, then strain it, and when it is cold, put it into Pint Bottles ; in each Bottle put four or five Blades of Mace, and six Cloves, cork it tight, and it will keep two Years. This gives the best Flavour of the Mushrooms to any Sauce. If you put to a pint of this Ketchup a pint of Mum [Beer], it will taste like foreign Ketchup.

In fact, as far as the UK was concerned mushroom ketchup became the norm. It was in common use until some 30 years ago. It’s rather disappeared from view now, although you can still buy it online, as “Geo. Watkins Mushroom Ketchup”.

Source

I suppose cooks are infinitely curious and will try all sorts of variations to true and tried recipes. Certainly, once people got over their diffidence about eating tomatoes (for a long while, it was thought they were poisonous), cooks tried making a ketchup with tomatoes. And here it is time to finally bring in the United States. At about the same time as English sailors and traders were going east to search for spices, they were also going west, to the newly discovered continent of America. Emigrants were going too and eventually set up the American colonies. The English colonists tended to look back to the Mother Country for their cooking habits and recipes. Both The Compleat Housewife and The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy were published in the American colonies. On both sides of the Atlantic, cooks were experimenting with tomatoes. It seems that the prize for First Published Recipe for Tomato Ketchup goes to an American, a certain James Mease. In his book Archives of Useful Knowledge, published in 1812, he gave the following recipe for a tomato ketchup (he called tomatoes love apples, an early name for them):

Slice the apples thin, and over every layer sprinkle a little salt; cover them, and let them lie twenty-four hours; then beat them well, and simmer them half an hour in a bell-metal kettle; then add mace & allspice. When cold, add two cloves of raw shallots cut small, and half a gill of brandy to each bottle, which must be corked tight, and kept in a cool place.

Mease had already dropped the fish (a recipe for “tomata catsup”, in the cookery book Apicius Redivivus, or the Cook’s Oracle, published in the UK in 1817, is quite similar to Mease’s but still includes the fish) and considerably reduced the spices. It sounds more like what I would call a tomato sauce. A recipe for “tomato catsup”, given in The Virginia Housewife, written by Mary Randolph (Thomas Jefferson’s cousin) and first published in 1824, is even more like a tomato sauce, with the brandy now dropped.

TOMATO CATSUP

Gather a peck of tomatoes, pick out the stems, and wash them; put them on the fire without water, sprinkle on a few spoonfuls of salt, let them boil steadily an hour, stirring them frequently; strain through a colander, and then through a sieve; put the liquid on the fire with half a pint of chopped onions, half a quarter of an ounce of mace broke into small pieces; and if not sufficiently salt, add a little more — one table-spoonful of whole black pepper; boil all together until just enough to fill two bottles; cork it tight. Make it in August, in dry weather.

At some point, Americans began adding sugar to their tomato ketchup. By the time, Mr. Henry J. Heinz began making his tomato ketchup in the mid 1870s, sugar was standard. Here is a handwritten description of the recipe Heinz was using in 1895.

Source

It’s a little difficult to read and the picture doesn’t have the whole write-up, but it seems to say the following:

100 gals of thin tomato pulp
8 oz Ambonia cloves broken
7 oz Garden Allspice
6 oz broken Saigon cinnamon
4½ oz broken Penang mace
1½ oz powd Cayenne pepper
3 oz fresh chopped garlic
4½ lbs fresh chopped onions
This is all put into a 250 gal capacity kettle and boiled fast. After a while, add 4 gals of 10 %[?] vgr [vinegar] and cook, again for a while, when having almost the proper thickness add 38 lbs sugar … [I cannot read the rest]

Heinz seems to have stayed with the spicier types of ketchups. According to those who have recreated this sauce, this is a sauce with some punch to it, much more than the “timid smooth sauce” of today.  But in 1895, hamburgers, hot dogs and french fries weren’t where tomato ketchup was mainly being used. No doubt the spiciness has had to be toned down.

Source

In any event, Heinz’s tomato ketchup was a huge success and continues to be so. The company caught the wave of women no longer wanting to slave over the stoves to make their sauces at home when they could buy perfectly good ready-made sauces in the shops and then the supermarkets.

So there we have it. By the twists and turns of history, what started out as a sauce oozing out of fermenting fish ended up as a thickish sweet tomato-sugar-vinegar-based sauce, changing as different cultures met, swapped foodstuffs, and people carried new foodstuffs home and modified them to meet their needs.

MUSTARD

Vienna, 18 July 2020

A week or so ago, I accompanied my wife to an upscale (i.e., swanky) supermarket in the central district of Vienna to buy bresaola (an Italian delicacy which I have covered in an earlier post). As she waited to be served, I wandered around looking idly at what was on offer in the condiments section, where I was much struck by this array of mustards.

my photo

Mustards of all types, from all corners of the world, were on display. So many, so inviting! (I have touched upon the delights of mustard in at least one previous post). I had to investigate this wonderful condiment, I decided. Now, after many hours of surfing the internet’s electronic waves, I am ready to report back.

We have to begin, of course, at the beginning, that is to say with the plant which produces the mustard seeds. Actually, it’s three plants: Brassica nigraBrassica juncea, and Sinapis alba, and they produce black, brown, and white mustard seeds, respectively. The first two are closely related, the third is a distant cousin of the other two. This is what the plants look like (from left to right Brassica nigraBrassica juncea, Sinapis alba)

various sources

Those readers who see a distinct resemblance to the rapeseed plant will be right. Rapeseed is a close relative to the black and brown mustard plant. A rarity until the 1970s, it is now grown in huge quantities around the world, giving rise to field after monotonous field of the stuff

Source

as well as to the questionable delights of colza and canola oil (why this sudden rise to fame of the rapeseed is a story for another day).

(A quick parenthesis: the Brassica family, to which black and brown mustard as well as rapeseed belong, seems to have a hugely elastic genome; farmers have managed to coax all sorts of different yummy foodstuffs from members of this family, as I have related in a previous post. The precise genomic relationships between the various members of the family were first described in the delightfully-named Theory of U, so called because it was published in 1935 by the Korean botanist Woo Jang-choon, writing under the Japanized name Nagaharu U – readers will recall that Korea was a Japanese colony in 1935).

Anyway, back to mustard. For readers – like me – who have never actually seen mustard seeds in the flesh (as it were), I throw in a mug shot of all three together. From left to right, we have black, brown, and white mustard seeds; I think the photo explains the colour-coded names they have been given.

Sources: various Amazon sites

The seeds are tiny, by the way, 1 mm or so in diameter. Readers with a Christian background will no doubt recall the parable in the synoptic Gospels (I quote here the version from Matthew): “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and sowed in his field; which indeed is smaller than all seeds. But when it is grown, it is greater than the herbs, and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and lodge in its branches.” Most people believe the parable refers to the black mustard plant, which can grow up to 3 m tall.

The seeds not only differ in colour, they also differ in “punch”, that sharp, hot, pungent flavour which we associate with mustard, with white mustard seeds being milder than the other two. Here I have to explain a little where that punch comes from, because it is important to our story of mustard condiment. The seed itself has punch, so if you ate a seed or two you would feel a bite in your mouth. But much of the punch that we associate with mustard actually comes from a series of chemicals which are produced when an enzyme naturally present in the seeds reacts with other chemicals also naturally present in the seeds. These reactions only occur when the enzyme is activated by the presence of water. Thus, the real kick from mustard only comes if you break up the seeds and mix them with water or with a liquid containing water. The enzyme can be denatured, thus making the mustard’s kick milder, by applying heat (using hot water or heating the mixture) or by using acid – the more concentrated the acid, the more denatured the enzyme.

Interestingly enough, of all our ancestors only the Romans stumbled onto this trick for getting mustard to pack a more powerful punch – or at least they were the only ones who used the trick routinely. Others – the Indians and the Ethiopians, for instance – used mustard seeds as a spice and so relied mainly on the seeds’ “dry” punch, while others still – the East Asians in particular – used mustard plants as a leaf vegetable and ignored the seeds.

The name “mustard” gives us a possible clue to what liquid the Romans used to make their mustard condiment. “Mustard” derives from the old French word “moustarde” (which has become the modern French “moutarde”), which in turn comes from the Latin “mustum ardens”, or “fiery must”. Must is the fresh juice that is squeezed out of grapes in the wine presses. Here we have a Roman mosaic showing men merrily (and probably somewhat tipsily) stomping on the grapes to expel the must, which is flowing into receptacles below.

Source

The ground mustard seeds presumably added piquancy to the must. I find this quite intriguing, because as far as I know no-one makes mustard in this way anymore. It just so happens that come Autumn, when the grape harvest is in, must is a popular drink to quaff in the wine taverns which dot the outskirts of Vienna and the woods surrounding it.

Source

I must make a mental note to try making my own Roman-style mustard this Autumn, to see what it tastes like. Since must is quite sweet, I would imagine that I would end up with a sweet mustard.

On the other hand, the two recipes for making mustard which are to be found in surviving Roman cookbooks actually use vinegar as the liquid. I quote here (in translation) the shorter of these recipes, from Palladius’s book on agriculture, Opus agriculturae, written some time in the late 4th, early 5th Century AD.

“Grind one sextarium [2 quarts] of mustard seeds with five pounds of honey and one of Hispanic oil, diluting with one sextarium [2 quarts] of strong vinegar. Grind everything together diligently and use.”

The honey suggests to me that this mustard would also be sweet. Perhaps the Romans liked their mustard sweet.

So what “accelerant” (to use a term from fire-making) did the Romans use to fire up their ground mustard seeds? Must? Vinegar? Perhaps they used either one or the other, depending on the tastes of the cook. Perhaps they used both; a popular Roman drink was must clarified with vinegar. Perhaps they used other liquids, now lost to us in the mists of time. We shall probably never know.

What is important for the history of mustard is that the Romans took both vines and winemaking, and probably their mustard seeds as well, north into Gaul after they had conquered it, and the making of both wine and mustard took hold there. There was a certain desire – at least among the Gaulish elites – to emulate their Roman conquerors, as Goscinny and Uderzo brilliantly showed us in their Asterix album Le Combat des Chefs.

Source

Luckily for us, the Gauls, who were soon to become the French, continued with their love of mustard long after the Romans had departed and their Empire had collapsed. The symbiotic relationship between wine and mustard seed continued. Must as the accelerant seems to have been forgotten and vinegar took its place; mustard making was a good way of using wine that had soured and turned to vinegar.

While many of the emerging wine regions of France also became mustard making regions, the prince among them all was Burgundy, with its capital Dijon. For want of a photo of Dijon mustard from the 14th Century, I thrown in a photo of the delightfully coloured roofs of Dijon’s cathedral instead.

Source

Dijon mustard seems to have become the gold standard for mustard makers, with everyone else around Europe trying to emulate them. But what did you do if you lived in a part of Europe to the north of where vines would grow? The following map shows roughly where the current northernmost boundary of vine growing is. I don’t think it’s changed much over the centuries, although it is now creeping northwards because of climate change (but that is a discussion for another day).

my map

What did you use instead of wine vinegar?

Well, of course these northern regions all had fruit or grain, and you can ferment either to make alcohol, and you can ferment alcohol to make vinegar. As an example, let me use the English mustard from Tewkesbury (which, for those readers who are somewhat hazy about English geography is a quiet market town in the county of Gloucestershire). I choose this particular mustard for a number of reasons, as will become clear in a minute.

I haven’t talked at all about all the other herbs, spices, and other goodies which mustard makers have added over the centuries, and continue to add, to their mustards, to amend the taste. As readers can imagine, though, they all have their secret list of additional ingredients. Tewksebury mustard is interesting in that its makers added large amounts of horseradish (and for this reason it got a mention in an earlier post about this potent root). This seems to me to be an example of creating a double-whammy, because the chemicals created by that enzyme in mustard are very similar to the chemicals in horseradish. From which I deduce that Tewkesbury mustard must be pretty damned strong. So that’s one reason for my choosing to talk about Tewkesbury mustard.

To make Tewkesbury mustard, its citizens would steep grated horseradish in vinegar made from apple cider for some two days and then mix this infusion with powdered mustard seed (ground, I am delighted to report, by using an iron cannonball as the pestle in a mortar). So here we have an example of a non-wine vinegar being used as the accelerant. Other vinegars have been used by other mustard makers.

Tewkesbury mustard was famous all over England. Why, it was famous enough to get mentioned by the Bard of Avon himself! The citation comes from Shakespeare’s Henry IV, part II, where at some point Falstaff says of his companion Ned Poins, “He a good wit? Hang him, baboon. His wit’s as thick as Tewksbury mustard. There’s no more conceit in him than is in a mallet” (for readers interested in looking the citation up, it appears somewhere in Act 2, scene 4).

To get around the tricky problem of how to transport their mustard all around the kingdom, the citizens of Tewkesbury rolled it into balls and then allowed them to dry. The dried balls could then be transported quite easily and would keep a long time. Customers would purchase a ball, cut off a slice whenever needed, and then steep it once again in any manner of liquids of their choosing: water, milk, cider, cider vinegar, wine, ale, beer, or fruit juice. Once soft enough, it would be whipped to a thick, creamy consistency (as we know from the quote from Shakespeare).

At some point, the round shape of the product, allied to its horseradish-enhanced pungency, led wits to use Tewkesbury mustard as slang to describe incendiary fire-balls. Here, for instance, we have the great philosopher David Hume, in his History of England, writing about a rumour that the Great Fire of London of 1666 was started by foreign arsonists trained by Jesuits: “Fire-balls were familiarly called among them Tewkesbury mustard pills”. That certainly tells us something about their fiery nature …

I find this idea of offering mustard in the form of balls quite delightful. Sadly, the manufacture of Tewkesbury mustard died out at the beginning of the 19th century, possibly under the pressure of having to compete with newfangled powdered mustards liked Colman’s. Luckily, however, some brave souls are trying to revive its manufacture in Tewksebury (although also wisely offering the mustard in the modern form: ready-made in jars, ready to slather on). They are also trying to brand the mustard by applying for Protected Geographic Indication status. Here is a photo of a pile of these balls.

Source

It’s certainly the case that for some reason finely powdered mustard became the norm in England (as well as in certain British colonies like Australia). Colman’s mustard dominated the market, selling its mustard in these iconic yellow tins.

Source

One of my first memories of mustard was a small yellow tin just like these in my English grandmother’s kitchen cupboard. She used it in her vinaigrettes and she taught little 8-year old me how to make them (I still remember the recipe: “1 teaspoon of vinegar, dissolve in a pinch of salt, a pinch of sugar, 2 pinches of Colman’s mustard powder, add 3 teaspoons of oil”). A whip around the web shows me many people of about my age fondly recalling their mothers using Colman’s mustard powder in all manner of dishes. It seems to me, though, that those mothers of yesteryear were using mustard powder more like a spice – like a curry powder – than a condiment. Interestingly enough, the first Mr. Colman, Jeremiah Colman, was not in the vinegar business as were many of the mustard makers of the time. He was a miller instead; clearly, he was only interested in the milling of the mustard seeds; what liquid was used to fire up the powder didn’t interest him (this connection between mustard and milling rather than mustard and vinegar was at the basis of at least one other well-known mustard, la moutarde de Meaux in France; Meaux was well-known since Carolingian times as a place which sat on a rock formation which made excellent grinding stones).

In 1756, some 60 years before Jeremiah Colman set up his mustard grinding business in Norwich, a revolution occurred in the heart of the mustard business, Dijon. There, a certain Jean Naigeon switched from using vinegar to using “verjus”, or verjuice in English. Verjuice is an acidic juice made from pressing unripe fruit or sour fruit of one variety or other (“verjus” translates as “green juice”). During the Middle Ages it was widely used all over Europe as an ingredient in sauces, as a condiment, or to deglaze preparations. Over time it fell out of fashion, with cooks replacing it with either wine or some variety of vinegar or lemon juice. Jean Naigeon moved in the other direction, shifting from vinegar to verjuice. Specifically, he used verjuice prepared with green, unripe grapes hailing from the Côte d’Or (home to most of the greatest Burgundy wines). For readers who are curious about what this verjuice might look like, I throw in a photo of a bottle of the stuff made by one of the few local mustard manufacturers left in the Dijon area, Edmond Fallot. It looks quite like a normal white wine; it is simply much more acidic.

Source

From then on, mustard makers in Burgundy, as well as in many other places which were copying Burgundy’s mustards, used verjuice, possibly mixed with vinegar, possibly mixed with wine, as the accelerant in their preparations. When mustards proclaim on their labels that they are made with wine, they may have some real wine in them, but most of the “wine” will actually be verjuice.

This shift to verjuice leaves me thinking. As I said, verjuice can be made from any unripe or sour fruit. A quick whip around the web has shown me that there are makers of crab apple verjuice and apple verjuice. Perhaps other fruits have been used. Has anyone tried making mustard with other verjuices? I have not found any being marketed on the web. Is there a reason for this, I wonder? I cannot think of one. Perhaps some clever entrepreneur will give it a go (and if I find a bottle of non-grape verjuice here in Vienna, I might also give it a go, before I try making my mustard with must).

The one other big change that happened to mustards took place in Munich, in the mid-19th Century. This was the development of Bayerischer Süßer Senf, or Bavarian sweet mustard, a mustard which goes exceedingly well with the traditional Bavarian white sausage, or Weißwurst (normally eaten with a large soft pretzel, the Laugenbrezel).

Source

This is the type of mustard we currently have on our dining table. We don’t eat it with white sausage (we wish!); my wife uses it to give taste to her rather bland diet of chicken and turkey (which I suppose has always been the purpose of mustard, ever since Roman times, to give otherwise bland food some oomph).

This mustard was developed by one Johann Conrad Develey. He was from an old Huguenot family which had escaped from France to Switzerland (hence his French-sounding name). He himself came to Munich from Switzerland via Lindau and Augsburg, where he had done his schooling. He started by making Dijon-style mustard, but he sensed that there was an unfulfilled demand for a sweet mustard. He played around with various ingredients, of which sugar was naturally one. He finally hit the jackpot when he caramelized the sugar by plunging red-hot pokers into it. The caramelization process gave his concoction a depth of taste he couldn’t get with sugar alone. Thus, it seems, that mustard development had gone back to where it started in Roman times, with a sweet mustard.

The rest of the mustard story is rather depressing. It is a story of industrialization, developing machines that could make mustard ever more quickly and in ever greater quantities (this is what made Maurice Grey, of Grey-Poupon mustard, famous), which in turn meant ever greater concentration: the micro mustard makers didn’t have sufficient capital to buy the new machines and went to the wall, allowing the remaining firms to capture more market and grow ever bigger. It is then a story of building up brands through advertizing of one form or another.

Source

Notice the stoneware pots in this ad; this became a very popular way of branding mustards.

Source

Amora started selling its mustard in pots which housewives could reuse as drinking glasses. Themed glasses were made, where you could collect the whole set.

It is finally a story of ever bigger companies buying up the smaller companies.

Source

Now all that’s left are vast, faceless multinationals which have no sense of place, of “terroir” as the French call it, which are only interested in owning famous mustard brands – made famous through clever advertizing – and which will make the mustards wherever it is cheaper to make them, with ingredients it will source from the cheapest place, and will look to substitute the more expensive ingredients with others which “give more or less the same taste”. I know, I’ve been there. I once did environmental due diligence work for a multinational company whose name will not pass my lips, which was intent on buying up an Italian shoe polish company with a well-known brand. The company had been making the polish from the very start in Padova, using a local workforce. The purchase went through. The last time I passed Padova by car – you could see the factory from the motorway – the factory was gone; the polish is probably now made in China or somewhere similar.

Luckily, though, there are courageous entrepreneurs fighting back, trying to make mustards again locally, with local ingredients where possible, aiming to put on the market a product which is good and not just branded. I wish them luck. I urge all my readers to buy these non-branded mustards. I also urge them to have a go at making their own mustard rather than getting it off a supermarket shelf. There are tons of recipes online for making mustard at home. And I will try to make mustard with must this Autumn and with non-grape verjuice if I can find it. I will report back if I succeed (a big part of the success will be to persuade my wife to help).

 

BACK IN THE DOLOMITES

Vienna, 11 July 2020

Last year, at about this time, my wife and I undertook our first hike in the Dolomites. Readers can see the commented photos of that hike in an earlier post. At the time, we promised ourselves to come back this year, to explore another part of the Dolomites. We were true to our promise, even though Covid-19 threatened to upset our plans, particularly since we were joined by one of my French cousins and his wife: would the borders be open on time? would they  have to quarantine in Italy? or in France on their way back? But all was well; restrictions on travel were lifted in time. And it was great that they could come, because I have shamelessly used a good number of the photos they took.

This year, we explored the Dolomites around the Val Pusteria as well as the Ampezzine Dolomites close to Cortina d’Ampezzo. I have a fondness of bird’s-eye view maps like the one below, but they do allow me to mark the route we took.

Cousins’ photo

We started in San Candido at the bottom of the map (which is Innichen to the local, mostly German-speaking population; we are in the South Tyrol here). We hiked over the group of mountains south of the town, where the Tre Cime di Lavaredo, the Three Peaks, were the star of the show, and down into Cortina d’Ampezzo at the top right of the map. Then we hiked around another group of mountains to the west of Cortina; I’ll show a map of that in a minute. But let’s have the photos tell the rest of the tale!

21 June

On the evening we arrive, the setting sun brightens the tops of the mountains behind San Candido / Innichen

our photo

22 June

First stage, hiking up the Val Campo di Dentro up to the Drei Schuster Hütte / Rifugio Tre Scarperi: gradual climb of about 450 m. Here we are, arriving at the hut in time for lunch.

Cousins’ photo

The mountain blocking the end of the valley. After lunch we climbed up to the top of the saddle to the left of that mountain: a brutally steep climb of 840 m!

Our photo

We have started climbing. The valley floor is dropping away below us

Cousins’ photo

Clambering over an impossibly lovely stream, hoping not to fall in …

Cousins’ photo

And we climb …

Our photo

The valley is far below now …

Our photo

… but still we climb … we begin to hit snow patches …

Cousins’ photo

Last sighting of the valley far, far below

Cousins’ photo

… and still we climb …

Our photo

Finally, the top!

Cousins’ photo

Our first sighting of the Three Peaks of Lavaredo. We will be walking to the saddle to the left of them, to reach the mountain hut we will be sleeping in.

our photo

Our first clear view of of these three majestic peaks

Cousins’ photo

Getting closer to them, while the weather is turning …

Cousins’ photo

… also looking back at the route we’ve taken.

Cousins’ photo

Nearly at the top of the saddle …

Our photo

Looking over the other side of the saddle, down onto the Rifugio Lavaredo where we will be staying the night. Nearly the end of a long day.

Our photo

23 June

Beautiful day. We go back to the top of the saddle.

That’s the path we’ll be taking today, snaking away to the far left.

Our photo

The Three Peaks keep us company on our left as we walk

Our photo

We pass a lovely spray of pink flowers

Cousins’ photo

A last look at the Three Peaks …

Our photo

… and at the panorama behind us, with the path we’ve just taken winding across it

Our photo

Lake Misurina, glinting in the sunlight, beckons to us from far below in the valley. It is time to start climbing down.

Our photo

We drop about 600 m before finally arriving at the lake.

Source

We take the chairlift to the Rifugio Col de Varda, the mountain hut where we will be staying the night.

24 June

Today is taken up with a walk to the Rifugio di Città di Carpi and back via Lake Misurina. It’s a walk primarily through forest but with some fine views across the valley …

Cousins’ photo

… as well as sightings of some beautiful flowers – this is a particularly lovely example of the globe flower

our photo

We arrive at the Rifugio di Città di Carpi in time for coffee – to be purchased with masks on the face; Covid-19 haunts us even here.

Source

After coffee, a final look at the view …

our photo

… before we plunge once more into the forest, walking down to Misurina.

Source

25 June

Today the weather forecast is for rain, so we kit ourselves up. We are walking mostly through forest, up to the Passo Tre Croci and then down to Cortina d’Ampezzo.

A tank trap near the pass, built by Mussolini to keep out the Germans – the most obvious sign we came across of this area being a border region, with all the tensions that come with that. During our walks around the Tre Cime we were crossing now vanished World War I trenches and spied dugouts carved into the rocks.

Cousins’ photo

Some lovely forest land around the Agritur El Brite de Larieto (closed, alas, when we passed by; I had rather been hoping to have lunch there), which mixed woods and pastures – a delightful combination, especially when we saw the cows wandering between the trees; and what a heavenly smell they gave off! Of fresh milk.

Source

By the time we reached the Rifugio Mietres (also closed), the weather was turning decidedly to the stormy, with thunder rumbling away in the mountains above us.

Our photo

Our first view of Cortina d’Ampezzo in the valley below, our objective for today

Our photo

Going down a ski track. In the middle distance a flock of sheep

Cousins’ photo

A closer look at the sheep. They must be on their way to the high alpine meadows for the summer

Cousins’ photo

The main street in Cortina d’Ampezzo, where we had a late lunch before driving up to the hotel at the Passo Falzarego

Source

26 June

I said I would show another map of the trail we did on this last day of our hike, so here it is.

Cousins’ photo

We start at Lagazuói, taking the cable car from the Pass up to it.

View of the Pass far below from the top of the cable car

Cousins’ photo

View of the other side, where we would be walking down and then going off to the right

Cousins’ photo

We’ve walked down, over extensive beds of snow, to this first pass

Our photo

Further on, a plunging view down to our left

Cousins’ photo

Striding across a soggy meadow

Cousins’ photo

The clouds are billowing up from the valley below …

our photo

… which means that we are soon climbing down into mist

Cousins’ photo

Soon, the world around us turns milky

Cousins’ photo

But we eventually break out from the mist and can look up at the heights we came down from

Our photo

The path wends its way through dwarf pines

Cousins’ photo

We go on until we reach the cable car you can see in the distance.

Cousins’ photo

So ended this year’s hike to the Dolomites. I’m sure we will be back next year – Covid-19 permitting.

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.

various sources

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.

Source

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.

Source

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.

Source

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.

Source

Now the place is just a mass of romantic ruins, but in its heyday, from about 600 BCE to about 200 CE, it 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.

Source

Now, this was not like having a pleasant conversation with someone. The Pythia would be pretty agitated: “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.

Source

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.

Source

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.

Source
Source
Source
Source

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.

Source

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.

My photo

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

Source

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.

My photo

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

Source

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

Source

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.

Source

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.

Source

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!

Source

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.

Source

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.

Source

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.

Source

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.

my photo
my photo
my photo

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

my photo

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).

Source

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.

Source

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

Source

Spanish jasmine

Source

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.

Source

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.

Source

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).

Source

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).

Source

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.

Source

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.

Source

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.

Source

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.

Source

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.

Source

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

Source

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.

Source

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.

Source

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).

Source

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.

Source

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.

Source

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.

Source

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

Source

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:

Source

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

Source

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).

Source

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.

Source

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

Source

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.

Source

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.