BITTER CAMPARI

Milan, 26 February 2021

Two weeks ago, my wife and I had decided to go up to Lake Como for a hike. We got ourselves all prepared, we arrived in good time at the train station … only to discover that the railway workers had gone on a half-day strike!

We were floored. It was such a beautiful day! The sun was shining, not a cloud in the sky, we couldn’t let it go to waste! I suggested we do instead a long urban hike through Milan and its suburbs. My wife immediately upped the ante and suggested we walk all the way to Monza. After a moment’s hesitation (“Monza? How far is that!?” Answer: a mere 16 km), I agreed and used Google Maps to find us a route.

It was … an interesting walk, shall we say, taking us as it did past the hulking remains of Milan’s industrial past mixed in with what must have once been smart villas owned by the owners of those same industrial remains; past areas which still showed vestiges of an agricultural past but which now were just dead lands squeezed between train lines and highways; past cheap suburban housing erected in haste in the 1960s and ’70s for all those people who commute to Milan and back every day.

I may one day include this walk in a more general musing about industrial decay in the developed countries. But all I want to say today is that along the way, quite by chance – as I say, I merely followed Google Map’s suggested route – we passed the old factory where, once upon a time (in the early decades of the 20th Century, to be precise) the Italian alcoholic drink Campari was made. (As the photo shows, the building is now enveloped in a massive modern building)

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I made a mental note and carried on walking. Then, a few days later, when my wife and I finally did make it to Lake Como, we came across this fountain, erected in the 1930s, which, as readers can see, also acted as a promotion of Campari.

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I knew immediately that these two chance encounters with Campari within a few days of each other were A Sign. It was clear that I had to write a post about that most Italian of alcoholic drinks! But also a post about a company which did not become one of the hulking ruins that my wife and I walked by on the road to Monza but managed to turn itself into a hulking multinational.

For those of my readers who might have been living in a parallel universe all their lives and never heard of Campari, I start with some basics. First, the look of the drink:

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As readers can see, it is incredibly red, almost scarlet, in colour. This is achieved by adding cochineal to the recipe (at least, in the original; Lord knows what artificial colourant they use nowadays) – cochineal is the protective carapace of a tiny insect that lives on prickly pears (I only mention this irrelevant fact because it allows me to make a link to a previous post I wrote about prickly pears). Here is a pile of carapaces.

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And here is a pile of the colourant extracted from these carapaces.

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As for the other ingredients, we have pure ethanol of course – it wouldn’t be an alcoholic drink without it. We have water – drinking undiluted ethanol would be undrinkable and probably illegal. For taste, we have “bitter herbs” not further specified – as I’ve discovered with other herb-infused drinks, the identity of these “herbs” is always a tightly held secret (although one article I read claimed that during the writer’s visit to Campari’s modern bottling plant outside Milan he was told that two of the herbs used were rhubarb and ginseng). We also have chinotto, a sour citrus fruit closely allied to the bitter orange.

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Those two sets of ingredients make for a bitter taste, and in fact Campari’s proper name is Bitter Campari. Finally, we have the bark of the cascarilla, a plant that is a member of the Croton family and is native to the Caribbean.

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The cascarilla adds to the bitterness but is also a so-called stomachic, something that is supposed to stimulate the taste buds, thus producing reflex secretion of gastric juices, which in turn increases appetite. This is why, rather than being considered a digestif, to be drunk after a meal as an aid to digestion, Campari was touted right from the start as an aperitif to drink before starting the meal; it got your stomach ready for what you were about to eat. I’m not sure if there is any real science behind this claim (or behind similar claims that digestifs aid digestion, for that matter), but in the old days it surely gave men (always men, of course) a good excuse to pop into the local bar and have a drink (or two) before they wended their way – perhaps a little unsteadily – home for lunch or dinner (and then they could wend their way back to the bar for a digestif or two – nice life!).

That’s the basic product. But how do you drink it? Not neat, that’s for sure (maybe there are people who drink it so, but they are weird). Nowadays, of course, when every barman – sorry, barperson – between Milan and San Francisco to the west and Sydney to the east wants to distinguish themselves from every other barperson, there are a variety of concoctions available in bars which include Campari: the Milano Torino (Campari and red Vermouth in equal parts – explanation of nomenclature: Campari was invented in Milan, Vermouth in Turin), the Negroni (Campari, red Vermouth, gin), the Americano (same as the Negroni but replacing the gin with soda water), Negroni sbagliato [Negroni gone wrong] (same as the Negroni but replacing the gin with a sparkling white wine), the Cinque a Zero [5-0] (8 parts white wine, 2 parts Campari), the Pirlo con Campari [Wanker with Campari] (white wine, sparkling water, Campari), the Garibaldi (Campari and orange juice), the Anita (Campari and bitter orange juice – explanation of nomenclature: Anita was Garibaldi’s wife), etc., etc., etc. But the real – the original – the only – way to drink Campari is with a shot of cold soda water: no more, no less. Anything else is just froth and noise.

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That’s the way the originator of Campari, Gaspare Campari, used to serve it, in the 1860s and beyond, in the bar he owned on Piazza Duomo in Milan, at the corner with the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II. The bar was, appropriately enough, called Caffè Campari. Here’s a photo of it in a later period.

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Interesting fellow, Gaspare. Born in 1828 into a family of humble agricultural workers in the province of Pavia, he had a passion for the black arts of distillation. In a different era, I could imagine him ending up as a rural alchemist or sorcerer. Instead, in the 1840s he went off to Turin and learned how to distill properly and make cordials, liqueurs, digestifs, aperitifs, and other alcoholic elixirs. He kept inventing various alcoholic concoctions all his life, giving them colourful names: Elixir for a Long Life, Oil of Rhum, Rose Liqueur, and so on. But with his bright red concoction he hit a sweet spot among his Milanese customers. Originally, he called it Bitter as Used in Holland (in reference to the apparent Dutch fondness for bitter cordials), but it became so popular and so tied to his bar that it became known as Mr. Campari’s Bitter. From there, it was but a short hop, skip and a jump to it simply becoming Bitter Campari.

I don’t know if Gaspare was just lucky or if he had an instinctive understanding of marketing – I want to believe the latter – but his decision to open a bar in Milan’s spanking new, swanky Galleria was a stroke of marketing genius. His bar became the hang-out of the Milanese chatterati, ensuring a bourgeois respectability for his bright red concoction. The business boomed. Here we have a picture of him in his prime, with his family.

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Unfortunately, Gaspare died in the early 1880s when he was in his mid-50s. Without probably meaning to, he had taken the first small steps towards creating an industrial product. While he was first and foremost a caffe owner, he also bottled and sold his beverages. But this was very much an artisanal affair: he had a room behind the bar where he did his “production” and bottling.

It was his son Davide who turned the company into a real industrial business. After taking over after the death of his father, he started by decoupling the production activities from the bar. He built a modern production plant – the one my wife and I walked past – in the outskirts of Milan, selling the products through multiple outlets and not just the bar. He ran the production side, leaving the running of the bar to his younger brother Guido.

Not that the bar was not a good business. It continued to be a mainstay in the lives of Milan’s bourgeoisie. It even was honoured in 1910 by being the backdrop of a painting by the futurist artist Umberto Boccioni, Rissa in Galleria, Fight in the Galleria.

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And Davide even expanded the bar business. In 1915, he opened a new bar, opposite the Caffè Campari on the other side of the Galleria, which he called the Camparino (the little Campari). It still exists. It’s a lovely little bar, decked out in what was then the latest fashion in interior design.

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But about five years after opening the Camparino, Davide decided to sell off both bars and focus the business on making the Campari products. This was where the real money was.

Davide’s next step was to focus the company’s production on its best selling products and shed the rest. This meant dropping all those fancifully-named products his father had created and concentrating on just Bitter Campari and one other popular product, a raspberry-based cordial. After that, he only created one more new product, the Campari Soda, which came onto the market in 1932. It was really a clever knock-off of Bitter Campari, being simply a ready-made mix of Bitter Campari and soda water. A touch of genius was to get a famous futurist artist, Fortunato Depero, to design the bottle. Depero did such a good job that the bottle became iconic and is still in use today.

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Davide also started a global expansion of the company, opening production plants in France and Argentina (in the latter case, no doubt to serve the large Italian immigrant population there pining for products from the Old Country).

Finally, Davide invested heavily in advertising (Gaspare had never used advertising to promote his liquid wares). He had understood that for a product like Campari for which there was no need, but only desire, advertising was key to increase the product’s desirability and therefore its sales. He started with some fairly standard advertising.

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But he went on to use some of the biggest names in the advertising business. Leonetto Cappiello created this poster for Campari, which is still very well known.

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Fortunato Depero – he who designed the bottle for Campari Soda – came up with various proposals, this painting being the one I like best (its title is “Squisito al Selz”, “delicious with soda water”).

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But it seems that Davide preferred using Depero’s style in black and white advertizing in newspapers, like this one (the joke is in what’s written: “If the rain were Bitter Campari”).

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In the same black-and-white vein, Ugo Mochi produced a series of posters. This example brings together in one place a number of individual posters he made for Campari.

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In his more serious (but perhaps less remunerative) moments, Mochi, who was known as the Poet of the Shadows, was an illustrator of animals, like in this example.

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In the same mode of elegance as Mochi, we have this poster by Enrico Sacchetti.

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While in a very sensual mode, we have this poster by Marcello Dudovich.

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I’m actually surprised this poster was allowed by the censorship authorities (we’re talking 1904), but they let it through (perhaps the censorship committee had been at the Campari bottle a little too much before they started their work).

Davide died in 1936, when he was just shy of 70. He and his wife had had no children, so the company was taken over by his younger brother Guido, a sister, and a nephew – as in all good family businesses, the business stayed in the family. They – and later generations – kept following Davide’s business strategy, not really trying anything new, and the company ticked along. So there’s really nothing new to report, not even in the advertising field. Finally, in 1982, the last of the Campari family sold out to two of the company’s senior managers, one of whom – Domenico Garavoglia – came out on top (how the second fellow was eliminated I have failed to establish). It is his son, Luca Garavoglio, who now runs the company.

Actually, he doesn’t run a company, he runs an empire. Like the poet, Luca came to two roads in the wood. It was the 1990s, and the growth strategy for companies in the food and drinks sector (and in the consumer products sector more generally) was to snap up well-known – and profitable – brands and create vast income flows by the savvy management of this stable of brands. Luca was faced with a choice. Either he could continue Davide’s strategy of concentrating on just one product, with the almost mathematical certainty that Campari would be bought up and become just one more brand in someone else’s stable of brands. Or he could start snapping up brands himself and manage his own stable of brands. He chose the latter road in the wood, and his decision paid off handsomely.  Luca is a billionaire and Campari currently owns 38 brands; I list here a few, the ones I am personally familiar with: Aperol, Grand Marnier, Cynar, Cinzano Vermouth, Bisquit, Glen Grant, and Crodino – in addition to, of course, Campari Bitter and Campari Soda.

Is this a good turn of events? Well, on the one hand Campari still exists, it’s not a concrete shell on the road to Monza, with broken windows and weeds growing in the old carpark. On the other hand, it exists only as a soulless multinational, buying and selling brands like kids swap in the school playground the images they find in their breakfast cereal packages. It’s no longer an Italian company – its headquarters have been moved to the Netherlands – it no longer has any real roots in the culture from which it sprang. I have already mourned this loss of local identity in an earlier post on mustard, which I think is especially critical where food is concerned. I mourn it again here.  Foods – and drinks – come from a “terroir”, as the French call it; if their link to that terroir is severed, they are merely an artificiality, a compendium of chemicals. And we are all the poorer for that.

A PUDGY CHERUB AS A WEATHERVANE

Sori, 14 February 2021

As my wife and I were walking down into Vernazza on our latest hike along the trail which links together the Cinque Terre, I noticed this on the steeple of the village church.

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I suspect it’s a little difficult for readers to see what I mean, so I throw in this close-up photo of the steeple.

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“This” is a weathervane. As I’m sure many of my readers will know, in the pre-modern world, where weather satellites didn’t exist and TV channels didn’t give you weather forecasts every hour on the hour, the function of weathervanes was to tell people which way the wind was blowing, a pretty good indicator of what the weather was going to be like. And of course peering at weathervanes went along with some of the weather-related sayings people were fond of quoting, like this one about the winds:
“When the wind is in the east, it’s good for neither man nor beast.
When the wind is in the north, the old folk should not venture forth.
When the wind is in the south, it blows the bait in the fishes’ mouth.
When the wind is in the west, it is of all the winds the best.”

I can imagine some great-great-great grandfather of mine looking up at the weathervane on the barn and saying “Aah, wind today’s from the north. Like they say, ‘old folk shouldn’t venture forth’”, no doubt using this as a good excuse to wend his way to the village pub to fritter his time (and money) away.

But weathervanes are also excellent examples of how we human beings transform functional objects into art. Take that weathervane on Vernazza’s church. If readers look again at my photo, they’ll see that the weathervane-maker turned the sail, which a weathervane needs if it is to work, into a rather pudgy angel. The things which weathervane-makers have turned the sail into, and continue to turn them into (this is by no means a dead art), are endless. I throw in here, in no particular order, some of the designs which have caught my fancy.

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The eventual owners of weathervanes will often choose designs that comment on something: their profession, their beliefs, their interests, the times they live in, even the racehorses they have bet on … No doubt it was in that spirit that Pope Nicholas I, way back in the 9th century, ordered that the rooster be the emblem used on weathervanes placed on Christian churches. It seems that Pope Nicolas was harking back to a comment made by Pope Gregory the Great even further back in time, in the 6th Century. Gregory had decreed that the rooster was the most suitable emblem of Christianity, being the emblem of St Peter – he is referring to the story in the Gospel where Jesus predicted that Peter would deny him three times before the rooster crowed at dawn, here captured in a painting by Francesco Rosa in San Zachariah church in Venice.

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Personally, I find this a rather strange reason to choose the rooster as an emblem on churches, referencing as it does a moment of shameful betrayal by the man who was to become the first Pope. I rather think that Popes Gregory and Nicolas were doing something which Christians had been doing since the dawn of their religion, putting a Christian gloss on what were actually thriving pagan traditions (“if you can’t beat them, join them”). For the Goths and no doubt other “barbarians”, the rooster, crowing as it does at dawn, was an emblem of the sun. What better emblem to put on churches! Wasn’t Jesus (apparently) born at the winter solstice, when the sun is reborn?

In any event, from the 9th Century on, rooster-themed weathervanes became the norm on Christian churches (which no doubt explains why, in English, another name for the weathervane is the weathercock). The oldest surviving weathervane in Europe – from the 9th Century – is a rooster which, until 1891, graced the Church of Saints Faustino and Giovita in the city of Brescia.

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And the Bayeux tapestry, my favourite tapestry and one I’ve mentioned several times in these posts, clearly shows a man installing a rooster weathervane on Westminster Abbey (the scene is actually about the burial of King Edward the Confessor; I presume the nuns who made the tapestry were adding local colour).

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Now, I’m sure that at this point my alert readers are saying, “Hang on a minute, why does the weathervane on that church in Vernazza have an angel and not a rooster, then?” Well, it seems that at some point the Church authorities relaxed the rooster rule somewhat. Other emblems were possible, although normally ones which were linked to the saint or saints to which the church was dedicated. In the case of the church in Vernazza, it is dedicated to Saint Margaret of Antioch. A quick zip around the Internet tells me that a weathervane emblem connected to her (completely apocryphal) life could be a dragon: one of the more dramatic moments in her life was that she was swallowed by the Devil in the form of a dragon. Dragons are popular emblems for weathervanes. Here’s a nice example.

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Or the emblem could be a hammer. She is often depicted, especially in Orthodox icons, as hammering the Devil – once no doubt she had been regurgitated alive by him. My wife and I saw a great example of such an icon in a museum in Athens a few years ago (for some reason, the Orthodox call her Marina rather than Margaret).

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Here’s a nice example of a hammer, although it’s put together with a saw (“hammer and saw”).

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But no, we have an angel. OK, I guess angels are pretty saintly and so a good emblem for a church – as long as they look serious, like this emblem (for some reason, most of the weathervanes have the angel blowing a horn).

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But no, if readers go back to my original photo, they will see that the weathervane-maker seems to have made more of a cherub. Raphael painted the most iconic of cherubs.

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And here we have a nice weathervane example (also tooting a horn; it seems that angelic figures are expected to be horn players).

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The example on Vernazza’s church doesn’t seem nearly as cute. As far as I can make out, the cherub there has gone to seed; a cherub who has spent rather too much of his lockdown time eating and drinking and not enough time working out in his living room.

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I’m not sure how the weathervane-maker got this pretty non-religious weathervane past the parish priest. Perhaps the weathervane-maker was the parish priest. Or perhaps the parish priest was a jolly fellow who liked a good laugh. I have in mind someone like don Camillo as played by Fernandel.

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The parish priest must also have calculated that his bishop would never come to this Godforsaken village during his tenure – until quite recently it was pretty difficult to get to Vernazza and the other Cinque Terre; you either walked over the hills or you took a fishing boat, neither of which I see any self-respecting bishop doing.

I don’t suppose we’ll ever know the backstory on this weathervane. In the meantime, I’ve gone back in my mind’s eye to see where I might have come across weathervanes in my life. Only one episode comes back to me, from my days at prep school (in British vernacular this being a boarding school for primary-school-age children). As I ascertained after a quick zip around the Internet, the school still exists. The only change I can see is that it has gone co-ed in the intervening years, an excellent thing. The school has taken over a building with venerable origins, as this picture of the main lawn attests.

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But the main reason for my putting in this photo is that discrete weathervane on that small tower in the centre of the photo. I throw in here an enlargement.

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It’s a rather boring weathervane, taking the shape of a flag (the first instruments used to figure out which way the wind was blowing were no doubt flags; indeed, the English word “vane” is derived from the Old English word fana, meaning flag). Nevertheless, I know that weathervane well. One year, my dormitory gave onto the roof covering the gallery (those windows we see to the left of the base of the tower). I was a naughty boy and friends with other naughty boys. We would regularly sneak out of the dormitory window at night onto that roof and go for a walk, just for the dare. Sometimes, that weathervane would be silhouetted against the moon. I see it still … aahh, the good old days!

One other memory I have of weathervanes is their figurative use in cartoons, especially political cartoons. As we all know too well, politicians are notorious for going “whichever way the wind blows” (a popular wind-related saying). Cartoonists have always had a field day with weathervanes, using them to show politicians who chop and change their opinions, “trimming their sails” to prevailing opinion (another popular wind-related saying). I remember a British cartoon mocking the British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan for acting like a weathervane over the independence of British colonies in Africa. I couldn’t find that particular one on the Internet. But political cartoonists have been busy with the weathervane metaphor in the intervening years. Here are some recent examples.

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For some reason, the use of weathervanes seems to be especially popular among American cartoonists. Could it be that the extensive use of interest groups in American politics makes American politicians chop and change their opinions more frequently – and, given the pervasiveness of TV news teams, the evidence of their chopping and changing is more obviously there for everyone to see?

Politicians are of course sensitive to the charge of behaving like weathervanes. Quebecan politicians are so sensitive to the charge that the provincial Assembly has banned the use of the term, considering it a slur. I never knew politicians were quite that thin-skinned …

Well, that still leaves the mystery of my pudgy angel. Maybe, next time my wife and I are in Vernazza, I’ll drop into the church and try to find an answer.

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If I find one I will report back.

PASSITO WINES, BOTRYTISED WINES, ICE WINES

Milan, 7 February 2021

One of the things which my wife and I agree went up during our first Covid lockdown last spring was our consumption of wine. Those long evenings when we couldn’t go out anywhere tended to encourage larger suppers accompanied by copious servings of wine, servings which were repeated when we had finished eating and had settled down for our evening’s entertainment – old TV series which we found on YouTube. When we got out of lockdown, our wine consumption went back down to normal. But when we went into our second lockdown, the wine consumption went up again. What to do, we have to pass the time as pleasantly as possible.

We get our wines from the two or three local mini-markets which are close at hand. I make a bee-line for the sections devoted to red wines from the south of Italy – Sicily, Sardinia, Puglia, some Calabria, some Basilicata. I always prefer red wines – white wines give me stomach burns – and I find that that red wines from the south of the country have more depth and body to them than the better-known reds from northern Italy; they are considerably cheaper, too. My wife is quite happy to follow me in my choices, although from time to time she’ll splash out and get herself a bottle of white wine. One day, I will write a post about southern Italian red wines, but today I want to write about something quite different.

A few weeks ago, as I was scouring the shelves of one of the mini-markets, looking for a wine we hadn’t tried, I came across this:

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“This” is a bottle of red wine from Puglia, with a classification of Indicazione Geografica Tipica, i.e., pretty good but not up there among the stars. Nothing out of the ordinary so far. But what caught my attention was the phrase on the label da uve leggermente appassite: “from grapes that have been slightly dried”. I vaguely knew about the “passito” method of making wine, which meant that the grapes have been dried out before being crushed and pressed. After polishing off the bottle with my wife (more on this later), I decided to do a bit of research on the “passito” method (which for the most part consisted of reading a bunch of Wikipedia articles). I can now happily share my newfound knowledge with those of my readers who, like me, are not super experts on wine (those who are super experts had better just skip to the end).

The first thing I discovered is that “appassimento” (the procedure of drying grapes and making them “passiti”) is actually one of three procedures which are used in grape-growing regions with the primary purpose of concentrating the sugars in the grapes. And the reason for concentrating the sugars is to be able to make strong, sweet wines, usually drunk with desserts (hence often being called “dessert wines” in English).

“Appassimento” is the most obvious, and therefore the oldest, of these three procedures: there is evidence of sweet wines being made this way already 6,000 years ago in Cyprus. There are various ways of carrying out “appassimento”. One is simply to leave the grapes on the vine longer than you normally would, so that they overripen and have higher than normal sugar levels; they also tend to lose water and shrivel, which also increases sugar concentrations. Canny wine-makers can play with the amount of “appassimento” they allow. They can have just a bit of “appassimento” (which is probably how the Puglia wine I mentioned earlier was made).

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Or they can go the whole hog and choose extreme “appassimento”.

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Of course, the longer wine-makers wait, the greater the risk that something will go wrong (bad weather, mould, etc.). But the more interesting can be the flavours so generated. A variant to this approach is to leave the grape bunches on the vine but twist their stem, to “strangle” them as it were. If I understood correctly, this hastens the “appassimento” process, so that you can avoid the risks but enjoy the advantages – having your cake and eating it.

You can also harvest the grapes at the normal time but then let them dry in the sun.

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Or, if you’re not too sure of the weather, you can do it inside.

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Wines made this way are called straw wines (vin de paille in the original French), because the grape bunches were originally laid down on straw to dry out.

As readers can imagine, all this works better in places with lots of sun, which is no doubt one of the reasons why Cyprus holds the prize for the earliest use of the procedure.

Let me at this point throw in some examples of sweet wines made this way. Since my investigations were started with an Italian wine, I’ll give Italy pride of place, while recognizing that all of the southern European countries, as well as the New World wine-making countries, make this kind of wine. Even in Italy, there are numerous such wines, so I’ll just mention a couple, chosen for the completely banal reason that they are from lovely places. Thus, we have the various Vinsanti from Tuscany.

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And then we have Malvasia delle Lipari passito, made in the small islands of Lipari and Eolie off the coast of Sicily.

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In the second procedure used to concentrate sugars in grapes, you allow your grapes to be attacked by a fungus, the Botrytis cinerea. The fungus shrivels the grapes and increases sugar concentrations, thus allowing wine-makers to make a sweet wine. For rendering this useful service, the fungus has been named the “noble rot”.

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For the noble rot to work properly, you need specific humidity conditions at specific times of the day at specific times of the year, so there are only a few places in the world where you can use this procedure. And you have to be damned careful that the fungus doesn’t run riot in your vineyards, otherwise you get another form of the fungus, “grey rot”, which completely ruins your harvest. It seems that Hungarian winemakers were the earliest to figure out how to harness Botrytis cinerea to make sweet wines, having done so by the 16th Century.

You really have to ask yourself how anyone – Hungarian or otherwise – figured this procedure out. My assumption is that when one year some wine makers found themselves with a harvest of grapes on their hands which had been attacked by the fungus, rather than just throw the grapes away they decided to go ahead and make wine anyway, reasoning that even a bad wine was better than none at all, and were pleasantly surprised by the result.

As examples of what are, sensibly enough, called botrytised wines, I’ll mention Tokaji from Hungary, because that seems to be the granddaddy of this kind of wine.

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And I’ll mention Sauternes from the Bordeaux region of France, perhaps the most famous of the botrytised wines.

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The third and final procedure is used to make so-called ice wines. Here, you leave the grapes on the vines until January/February. The precise time you pick the grapes crucially depends on the outside temperature: picking must take place the first time the temperature drops to -7°C, which normally means picking the grapes at night, picking them quickly, and pressing them immediately.

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What is happening is that the water in the grapes is turned to ice but not the sugars. When you press the grapes, the iced water stays with the must, and the resulting grape juice has very high levels of sugars. The procedure is a relative newbie: it was only discovered at the very end of the 18th Century, in Germany.

As an example of an ice wine, I’ll mention Canadian ice wines.

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This may seem a surprising choice, but it allows me to slip in a mention of what is probably the greatest environmental disaster staring us in the face: climate change. Because of climate change, it is getting more and more difficult to make ice wine reliably in the northernmost wine-growing regions of Europe where the procedure was first developed, because it is becoming rarer and rarer for the temperatures there to drop sufficiently low. But because temperatures still drop reliably every year to -7°C in Canada, its wine regions, particularly those in Ontario, have stepped into the breach and have become the world’s major producers of ice wine.

Readers will no doubt have noticed that all the examples I have given so far are of white wines, and indeed most of the wines made in these three ways are white, using grape varieties like muscat, malvasia, and riesling. But – as my discovery in the mini-market shows – some red wines are also made this way. Since, as I pointed out earlier, I’m more of a fan of red wines than white wines, I want to finish this post by fighting for the red corner, and will do so by mentioning three red wines, all from northern Italy, and all passito wines.

Two come from the Valpolicella region, which lies north of Verona and east of Lake Garda – in this photo, you can see the lake in the distance.

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The first of the two red passito wines from here is Recioto della Valpolicella. This, like most passito wines, is a sweet wine, and indeed this photo suggests its use as a dessert wine.

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Perhaps at this point I should reveal that I’m not a great fan of sweet wines. I don’t deny that they can be very tasty, but I feel that somehow – and I’m sure this is just a ridiculous prejudice – sweet wines are not serious. This prejudice of mine is most extreme when it comes to red wines; I’ve signaled this already in an earlier post about sparkling Italian red wines, most of which are sweet. To my mind, for red wines to be serious they must be dry. So it comes as a relief for me to able to introduce the second wine from Valpolicella, the Amarone della Valpolicella.

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This is a dry wine. Its name signals this, Amarone being derived from the Italian word “amaro”, which means bitter or sour. The wine is not really bitter or sour; it probably refers to the fact that this wine originally came from batches of Recioto della Valpolicella where the fermentation hadn’t stopped and so the sugars had all been turned into alcohol: so from sweet to sour.

Which leads me naturally to my final red passito wine, another dry wine, the Sfursat. This comes from the Valtellina valley in upper Lombardy, upstream of Lake Como (and of the hike along the Sentiero del Viandante which my wife and I did last year).

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Let me throw in here a photo of grapes drying in readiness to become sfursat.

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And here is a photo of a bottle of sfursat, which gives me an excuse to have a photo of that inescapable part of the wine world, a wine cellar.

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At this point, I have to make another revelation. Neither my wife nor I have ever tried any of these three wines. But now we have an excuse to try some different wines during lockdown! (we’ll have to accept to fork out considerably more cash than we are used to, though, but hey! no pain, no gain).

And what about the Puglia wine that started this whole post? As I poured it into our glass wines I was half afraid that it would be sweet, but no, it turned out to be a dry wine, which was a relief. As we sipped it, we felt that the intense and bright red colour of the wine, characterized by delicate purplish hues, was the perfect expression of its complex and fruity bouquet. Balsamic notes of blackberries, spirited cherries and plum jam were smartly dressed by elegant sweet spicy scents. It was warm, round, and with a good balance of tannins … OK, I confess, I just copied all that last bit from the label on the back. As I commented in a post written years ago, I’m always impressed by the bullshit wine merchants come up with. My wife and I, we just went mmm, yummy! And the next day, I bought another couple of bottles.

WALKING ALONG MILAN’S MARTESANA CANAL

Milan, 18 January 2021

In these times of Covid restrictions, my wife and I have been exploring hikes closer to home, hikes which allow us to more or less stay within the limits of the commune of Milan, or at least not stray too far outside of it. The latest such hike we’ve done has taken us along one of the old canals which radiate out from Milan, the Naviglio della Martesana. I fear we might have exceeded the legal limit of where we could go. In our defence, the designations of which Covid tier Milan is in has been changing from day to day, making it quite hard to know just how far we are allowed to travel outside of Milan. I trust my readers will not snitch on us!

In any event, the hike was some 30 km long, undertaken over several days, and took us from the north-east of Milan out to the river Adda, which drains lake Como. It’s not a physically challenging hike. Following a canal means no brutal climbs or descents, and the path is paved the whole way – the path is actually a bicycle path, and the only real challenge is to keep out of the way of bicyclists who race along at high speeds, their riders no doubt dreaming of fame and glory in the Tour de France or Giro d’Italia.

First, a little bit of history. Building of the canal started in 1460, under Francesco Sforza, the first of the Sforza dynasty to rule over the Duchy of Milan.

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The canal took its waters from the river Adda (which at the time was the Duchy’s eastern frontier with Venice) and carried them over the flat plain that lies between the river Adda and Milan, passing various towns and crossing various rivers along the way. At first, it finished several kilometres to the north of the city, emptying into the river Seveso, but then in 1496 Francesco’s son, Galeazzo Maria, extended it with a short new canal, the Naviglio di San Marco, and joined it up with the series of canals which encircled Milan, the Cerchia dei Navigli.

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This map shows the track of the canal.

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Alert readers will have noticed the trace of the canal is not all that straight, it zigs and zags a bit. The topography certainly didn’t require this – there was no need to go around hills and such like. The land between the river Adda and Milan is as flat as a pancake, so by rights – to reduce construction costs – the canal should have been a straight line between river and city. But all the landowners on that flat plain wanted the canal to come their way so that they could use the water to irrigate their fields. And the towns that dotted the plain wanted the canal as a source of water and to keep their moats topped up. All these different groups brought pressure to bear on the canal’s planners, so the canal ended up winding this way and that way across the plain as those who had the most influence pulled the canal towards them. Which is just as well for me and my wife; walking along a dead straight canal would have been very monotonous.

There were also quarrels right from the start about which uses of the canal should get priority. As we’ve seen, the landowners wanted to use it for irrigation. But a good number of them also wanted to use its energy to drive watermills, as did the towns. And the landowners also wanted the canal as a means of transportation to bring their (mainly) agricultural goods to market. For their part, the rulers of Milan were more interested in the canal as a means of transportation to move goods and so promote the city’s and the Duchy’s economy. They also wanted it to be part of their defensive system against the dratted Venetians to the East. Irrigation tended to drop the level of water in the canal, which was a problem for navigation since the boats wouldn’t have enough draft as well as for the mills because the flow wouldn’t be strong enough to drive the wheels. But maintaining enough draft and a swift enough flow meant cutting back on irrigation, which was bad for the crops. Tempers flared, lawsuits were filed, and no doubt swords were drawn. In the end, though, a modus vivendi was arrived at, and from the 1580s onwards irrigation coexisted more or less peacefully with other uses of the canal’s waters.

At some point, the Milanese aristocracy discovered the delights of the countryside and many built villas along the canal, reachable by boat from their houses in town. So we have this painting from 1790 of one of these villas in Crescenzago (now on the outskirts of Milan), showing also the normal traffic along the canal.

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And we have here a painting from 1834 of the Milanese extension of the canal, the Naviglio San Marco, just before it joined the Cerchia dei Navigli.

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Then the industrial revolution came along. New means of transportation competed with canals, first railways then roads. The Martesana canal steadily lost out to these upstarts and was only able to remain competitive when heavy lifting was required: sand, stone, coal, wood. Here we have one of those loads being moved along the canal (shown in the-then new medium of photography).

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In the meantime, exploding populations meant that villages along the canal grew and became urbanized, as shown in this photo of the same Crescenzago which was the subject of my first painting above.

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These growing villages bled into each other, smothering the farmland that once lay between them, with the ones closer to Milan being in turn submerged by the expansion of that city, eventually becoming its outer suburbs. Much of the growth around Milan was driven by the factories which established themselves on its periphery. A good number of them were located along the Martesana canal and Milan’s other canals, as this photo shows.

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In 1929, the demand for road space to ease vehicle congestion in Milan (along, it must be said, with a need to deal with public health concerns) meant that the Cerchia dei Navigli was covered over, along with the Naviglio San Marco.

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In the late 1950s, the authorities overseeing the canal bowed to reality and decreed that the canal would no longer be used for transportation, only irrigation. Finally, in 1968, after the municipal authorities had concluded that the covers of the Cerchia dei Navigli and the Naviglio San Marco were in danger of collapsing, they decided to simply fill these in and reroute the waters of the Martesana canal into an overflow canal. This went around the inner core of the city and emptied into the dried-up bed of the Seveso river south of the city. The authorities also decided that more space was needed for Milan’s burgeoning car population and so covered another section several kilometers long at the canal’s end and turned this into a wide avenue, via Melchiorre Gioia.

And so out in the countryside, irrigation had finally won the centuries-long arguments about irrigation vs. navigation, while in Milan itself the canal had become a relic of a bygone era, slowly falling apart and becoming for all intents and purposes an open drain.

Luckily, as I’ve also mentioned in a much earlier post about an abandoned railway line, good sense eventually prevailed. Led by Milan, in the 1980s the communes through which the canal passed got their act together. They cleaned up the canal’s towpath and turned it into a cycle path, and generally encouraged their citizens to use the canal as a park. That’s where things stood when my wife and I embarked on our hike along the canal.

We started where the canal’s waters disappear under via Melchiorre Gioia.

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We turned our backs on the city and started walking out towards the distant Adda river. One of the old houses which had graced the canal in its heyday greeted us. As part of the urban renewal which accompanied the upgrading of the canal in the 1980s, its owners had renovated it and painted it a welcoming yellow.

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But already, hulking over this old building, we could see the blocks of flats put up during the 1960s and 70s as the city expanded outwards at breakneck speed. It was a harbinger of things to come, as we walked for kilometres through a jumble of old and abandoned, old but renewed, shining new, and new but already showing signs of wear and tear. Even though drawn in 1945, this cartoon captures beautifully the chaos of today’s urban reality which the old canal now threads its way through.

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Here we have one railway bridge after another spanning the canal.

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New blocks of flats giving onto the canal.

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The jumble of tiny gardens which people have carved out of spaces along the canal.

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Industrial chimneys, relics of factories which once abutted the canal.

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in the next case being recycled into a new use as a pole on which to fix transmitters of the newest means of communication, mobile phones.

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Old houses which have been lucky enough to be renovated

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Others which are struggling against the odds.

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As befits an urban backwater, and as the last photo attests, graffiti on every wall. Most of it the usual ugly, mindless initials, but some eye-catching:

– an impossibly elaborate flower turning into a person on the arch of a railway bridge

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– an amusing reminder that we are walking along a bicycle path

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– a swirl of brightness

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– square upon square of colour

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The first of the villas which used to grace the canal’s edge

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once surrounded by countryside, but now hemmed in and overshadowed by ugly modernity

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The walls again, but this time carriers of messages, most of the lovesick type:

– “I love you Vale”

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but sometimes in a more reflective, philosophical tone, which seemed apt in this urban chaos we were walking through:

– “What a shitty life”

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and a line from Bob Marley and the Wailers’ 1973 song, the aptly titled “Concrete Jungle”

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Finally, on the outskirts of Milan, the first encounter with the countryside, but an encounter showing it to be beleaguered and under threat from the urban sprawl at our backs:

– An example of one of the many crumbling ruins of farmhouses which dot the Italian countryside, victims to rural flight over the last sixty years

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– the use of the countryside as a place to flytip our urban wastes

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We passed under the ring motorway which is effectively the border of Milan. Had we broken out of the concrete jungle? Alas not. The housing continued. We passed the broken down gate of what must once have been the water gate of a fine villa but which now gives onto an ugly, messy, nondescript yard; the villa itself has vanished.

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Spanking new, neat and tidy blocks of flats, but in places which the French call quartiers dortoirs, dormitory districts, places with no shops, no amenities, nothing – just places where commuters can sleep before heading back into town to work.

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But a more rural feel began to creep in.

Cottages along the waterfront.

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And finally, after some 15 kilometres of walking, some real fields! With the snow-capped mountains glistening on the horizon.

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One of the irrigation channels fed by the canal, the water cascading away.

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The last villa we passed, and the most imposing of them all, the Villa Alari.

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Its history is a metaphor for the canal’s history as a whole. It was built at the beginning of the 18th Century on a magnificent scale, as this print shows.

 

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So magnificent was it that the Austrian Governor of Lombardy, Archduke Ferdinand, rented it over several summers and even negotiated, without success, to buy it (his mother, the Empress Maria Theresa, nixed the idea, considering the asking price too high). After passing down through the Alari family and, by marriage, into a branch of the Visconti family, it was donated by its last Visconti owner in 1944 to the Brothers Hospitallers of Saint John of God in Milan. By then, it had lost the lands around it and with them its magnificent gardens. The Brothers first used the villa as a psychiatric hospital and then as a nursing home. In 2007, they palmed it off onto the municipality, which must be asking itself what the hell to do with the building.

Another of those large farm complexes which dot the plains of the River Po and which, like so many others, has been pretty much abandoned (it was so large it needed two photos to capture it).

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In the distance, the new housing complexes of today, feeding their inhabitants to Milan via an extension of one of the city’s subway lines – one of the new forms of transportation which took the place of the canal.

One of the few remaining locks on the canal, which are sadly firmly and irrevocably shut.

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One last look across a ploughed field at the mountains, closer now, their snow glistening in the sun.

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And we finally arrived in Cassano d’Adda, perched on the river, where we took the train back to Milan.

SACRO MONTE DI OSSUCCIO

Milan, 24 December 2020

As is our habit, my wife and I have been spending these dying days of 2020 hiking around the edges of Lake Como. We did the Green Way again recently (this is a walk which goes from Colonno to Griante).

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And once again, as we passed through the village of Ossuccio, we noticed this sign on a wall.

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It was advertising (if that’s the right word) some kind of pilgrims’ path which snaked its way up from the village to a church, the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, located high above it.

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The path was studded with 14 little chapels, which the pilgrim could stop at and pray – or the modern hiker like us could inspect.

My wife and I debated whether or not we should take the path. The last time we had passed through Ossuccio we had been running late. But this time, we were ahead of schedule, and anyway we needed to do a bit of climbing – the Green Way is quite flat. So we decided to make a little detour up the hill.

I had thought that we would be doing a Stations of the Cross – a common thing to find on hills and mountains in this part of the world. But no, the whole enterprise is actually dedicated to the Virgin Mary, and the fourteen chapels plus the church are built around the mysteries of the Rosary. I’m afraid I’m getting into a Catholic tradition which is quite foreign to anyone who has not been brought up a Catholic, but I have to explain these mysteries a little if readers are to understand the iconography of what I am about to describe.

If any of my readers have ever entered a Catholic church in the early evening, they may have encountered the following scene: a darkened church with a pool of light in the first few rows of pews, a handful of older women (and, rarely, a few men) sitting in the light, possibly a priest acting as MC, and a steady drone emanating from the group. They are reciting the Rosary (capital “r”), which is the recital of a couple of different prayers in a certain order. To help them recite the Rosary correctly, the little group in the church will be using a rosary (little “r”). This is a string of beads which looks like this.

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The point of a rosary is to help its users recite the right number of prayers in the right order. The drone emanating from the group in the church is the result of them repeating the prayers over and over again, with the rosary beads slipping through their fingers as they keep count of the prayers.

This litany of prayers is built around the so-called four mysteries of the Virgin Mary: the joyful, luminous, sorrowful, and glorious mysteries. In turn, each mystery is based on five episodes in the life of the Virgin Mary and her son Jesus. As the name of the mysteries imply, these episodes are joyful, luminous, sorrowful, and glorious. As the picture above shows, a rosary normally consists of five groups of ten small beads separated by one bead. Readers with an arithmetical bent will no doubt have understood that one tour of the rosary through the fingers of that little droning group in the church covers the five episodes of a mystery, with one set of prayers being droned out for each episode (somehow, as they drone their way through the prayers, the members of the little group are meant to meditate on the episode in question). Which mystery the droners will be covering when you walk into that darkened church depends on which day of the week it is: Mondays or Saturdays, the joyful mystery; Tuesdays or Fridays, the sorrowful mystery; Wednesdays or Sundays, the glorious mystery; Thursdays, the luminous mystery (as readers can see, the whole Rosary programme is very well organized).

Coming back to the fourteen chapels and church on the hill behind Ossuccio, they are built around three of the four mysteries: the joyful, sorrowful, and glorious mysteries (the luminous mystery is not included, but simply because it didn’t exist when the chapels and church were built; it was only added by Pope John-Paul II in 2002). My arithmetically inclined readers will of course have figured out that fourteen chapels plus a church is 15, which equals the three times five episodes in the mysteries. And in fact it turns out that each chapel (plus the church) are dedicated to one of the episodes covered by the three mysteries.

“But what are these episodes?!” I can hear my readers cry. Well, for that it is best that we visit the chapels and the church. But before we set out on our visit, I just want to say that we are about to see mises-en-scène, pieces of theatre frozen in place by the use of life-sized painted terracotta statues: 230 in all, 163 of people, 52 of angels, and 15 of animals.

Let me start with an overview picture of the chapels and the church.

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The small white structure up the stairs and behind the tree is one of the chapels. In the background on the hill we see the church, the end-point of the pilgrim path. Sharp-eyed readers can spy similar chapels on the hillside below the church – unfortunately, modern houses have also been built on the hillside, so the view is not as harmonious today as it must have been in the late 17th, early 18th centuries when the chapels were first built.

When pilgrims – or modern hikers – approach a chapel, they will see a very closed building: a blank wall, with a locked door and a couple of grated windows on either side of the door.

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It is those grated windows which allow pilgrims – and hikers – to see what’s going on inside the chapels. Peering through them, they will behold a mise-en-scène of statues describing an episode of the mysteries. The grates on the windows are often of fine mesh. On the one hand, this is a good thing, in that it stops birds, rodents, and other pesky animals from entering the chapels and making a mess of the statues and everything else. On the other hand, this is a bad thing, in that it made it difficult for me to take good photos of the mises-en-scène with my i-Phone’s camera.

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So I shall be relying heavily on photos taken by other photographers who were given permission to go inside the chapels and posted their photos online.

Now, finally, we can visit the individual chapels and the church!

We start with five chapels which are dedicated to the five episodes making up the joyous mystery. Thus, we have:

Chapel 1: the Annunciation, where an Angel announces to Mary that she has been chosen to be the mother of Jesus.

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Chapel 2: the Visitation, where Mary visits her much older cousin Elizabeth, who is pregnant with John the Baptist, and where Elizabeth recognizes Mary as the mother of the long-awaited Messiah.

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Chapel 3: the Nativity, where Jesus is born in a manger.

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Chapel 4: the Presentation, where Mary and Joseph present the baby Jesus in the Temple of Jerusalem.

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Chapel 5: Finding Jesus in the Temple at age 12, discussing Mosaic Law with the elders.

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This chapel has the amusing detail of having a young boy sitting in the foreground who seems to be laughing at all these wise old men, and a dog which is crossing the scene. Presumably the artist who created this chapel wanted to give pilgrims a bit of light relief. I also like a detail at the back of the scene, in the dialogue between the young Jesus and the elder next to him.

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That elder is wearing a pince-nez, no doubt as much a symbol in the late 17th, early 18th Centuries of the bookish type as it is today (and on a darker note, let’s remember the Khmer Rouge’s decision to kill anyone who wore glasses, because they clearly had to be bourgeois intellectuals).

The next five chapels are dedicated to the episodes of the sorrowful mystery. So we have:

Chapel 6: the Agony in the garden of Gesthemane, where Jesus prays that he might be spared his impending death.

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Chapel 7: the Scourging, where Jesus is whipped before his execution.

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Chapel 8: the Crown of Thorns, where Jesus is mocked by being crowned “king” with a crown made of branches with long, sharp thorns.

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Chapel 9: Jesus carries the Cross to the place of execution.

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Chapel 10: the Crucifixion, where Jesus dies on the cross.

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I’m sure the pilgrims’ attention would have rapidly shifted from the crucifixion in the background to the soldiers throwing dice for Jesus’s cloak in the foreground. The sculptor created some very interesting-looking characters there. It’s certainly where my attention went.

The final four chapels and the church are dedicated to the five episodes of the glorious mystery:

Chapel 11: the Resurrection, where Jesus rises from the dead.

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The soldier sprawled on the ground in the foreground with his leg in the air is a nice touch, although the statue is in dire need of restoration.

By now, we are high enough to get a good view across the lake and of the mountains – snow-capped at this time of the year – behind it.

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Chapel 12: the Ascension, where Jesus ascends into heaven.

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Chapel 13: the Descent of the Holy Ghost on Mary and the Apostles.

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As we toil our way up to the next chapel, another lovely view opens up across the lake.

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Chapel 14: The Assumption of Mary into heaven after her death.

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Finally, after having huffed and puffed our way up the sometimes very steep path, we reach the church.

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A typically baroque church greets us when we enter – the chairs set at the required safety distances in these times of Covid-19.

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At the far end, over the main altar, we have the representation of the last episode of the glorious mystery, the Crowning of Mary as queen of heaven and earth.

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These little scenes we’ve witnessed as we’ve climbed up the hill are really wonderful pieces of theatre. In fact, that was their purpose, to teach a largely illiterate population the main stories from the New Testament through pictures: another example of the Poor Man’s Bible, which I commented on in a post long ago about San Gimignano in Tuscany.

Set-ups like this one in Ossuccio were very much promoted by San Carlo Borromeo, Archbishop of Milan (known affectionately as “el Nasùn” because of his very large nose).

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He saw these as an important way of reaching out to the poor and downtrodden, who might otherwise be tempted by Protestantism, and as a way to talk to them about Christianity in a “language” which they understood. As a result, Ossuccio is one of a good number of so-called Sacred Mountains that dot the landscape of northern Italy; it bordered Protestant lands in Switzerland and was in danger of Protestant infection. The religious passions have died away but these masterpieces of baroque sculpture have remained. They have been declared a group UNESCO World Heritage site.

The funny thing is, this whole programme was tacked over a much earlier veneration of the Virgin Mary on the site of the church. The current church replaced an earlier church, which archaeological digs have shown in turn replaced an even earlier Roman temple to the goddess Ceres (Ossuccio was originally a Roman township by the name of Ausucium). She was the goddess of agriculture and by extension fertility. But since crop failures could have calamitous repercussions, she was also prayed to to avert catastrophes and was given thanks when catastrophes were averted. Somehow, in the shift to Christianity, this latter aspect of the cult of Ceres was transferred to the only “goddess” which Christians had, the Virgin Mary. It was to her that you prayed if something terrible happened to you, and if you survived you would often donate an ex-voto to her shrine as a memento of her presumed intercession. Since remotest time, then, the church high on the hill above Ossuccio has been a shrine dedicated to the Virgin Mary and it has continued to be a place where people have come to pray for her intercession in times of danger. As a result, there is a little chapel off the main nave of the church which is stuffed full of ex-voto. I love these ex-voto, which tell us, sometimes in touching detail, of terrible misfortunes averted. I include here just some of the ex-voto which lined the walls of that little chapel.

The earlier ones seem to focus on recovery from grave illnesses.

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Later ones seem to focus more on run-ins with modern technologies of one sort or another – I suppose people were getting healthier while their environment was getting more dangerous.

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A couple have to do with falling from great heights.

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This last one speaks to us in particular. I presume the poor man has fallen from some sort of cliff. The area is littered with old quarries, and the slopes can anyway often be very steep. As my wife and I hike above and below these old quarries and along some very steep slopes, we are uncomfortably aware of the steep drops to our sides. One foot wrong …. Oh Blessed Virgin, keep us safe! (hey, you never know, a little prayer might help.)

HOLLY AND CHRISTMAS

Milan, 12 December 2020

It’s that time of the year again! Time to drink nice hot toddies, time to put up the Christmas tree and other sundry decorations, time to set up the nativity, time to put on the CD of Christmas carols and sing along (in my case, somewhat off-key).

“The holly and the ivy,
When they are both full grown,
Of all the trees that are in the wood,
The holly bears the crown.”

Holly is a nice plant. With its lovely shiny green leaves and strongly red berries, it really does bring a brightness to our lives just when we most need it. I was struck by this most forcefully last December, when my wife and I were hiking through the woods around Lake Maggiore and Lake Como (a pleasure that is currently denied us by the latest round of Covid lockdowns). The trees were all bare and drear, the rustling underfoot as we trod over dead leaves reminding us of the lovely greenery that had covered them just a few months before. Suddenly, we spied a bright cheerful green among the trees. It was a holly tree.

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Quite soon, a few more popped up between the bare trees.

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No doubt we were traversing a zone where soil and climate conspired to give the holly a competitive advantage.

It was a pleasure to see holly in the wild. Before then, I’d only ever seen holly trees tamed and manicured to within an inch of their lives in a garden, a splash of dark green against the lighter green of lawn

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Or used as a well-trained, well-trimmed hedge.

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And of course I’d seen holly as part of the wreaths which people hang on their doors at Christmastime.

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This connection between Christmas and holly is very old. When you strip away all the layers of religiosity that envelop Christmas, it’s really a feast about the winter solstice, a celebration of when the sun, which has been dying and allowing the days to get ever shorter and nature to die, is reborn, slowly making the days become longer and nature come alive again. In our festivities welcoming the rebirth of the sun, it made perfect sense for us to use plants like holly which are still green at the winter solstice, to remind the sun of the job it had to do to make everything else green again.

Thus we have the Romans decorating their homes with holly during their feast of Saturnalia, a winter solstice feast where there was a lot of gift-giving, feasting and merrymaking (a lot of other things happened during Saturnalia which need not detain us here, but any reader interested in Roman goings on can read about them here).

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Funnily enough, when early Christians followed Roman practice and hung holly in their homes and churches, the pagans around them told them not to – I suppose they thought these bloody Christians were desecrating their festival. But at the same time the Church Fathers were also telling them not to, finding this ritual really too pagan for words. Luckily for us, the Christian-on-the- street ignored both the pesky pagans and kill-joy Church Fathers and continued to hang holly in their homes and houses of worship. Which in turn has allowed us to sing over the ages (in my case, somewhat off-key),

“Deck the halls with boughs of holly
Fa la la la la, la la la la
‘Tis the season to be jolly
Fa la la la la, la la la la”

Presumably, as the legions marched outwards from the Roman heartlands they took with them their Saturnalia festival. Holly (at least the species which grows around Rome) is present in just about all the European regions and some of the North African regions which the Romans conquered (the green crosses mean isolated populations, and the orange triangles indicate places where the holly was introduced and became naturalized).

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So no doubt halls were also decked with holly in the Roman colonies of western Europe and North Africa. In fact, it is possible that our Christmas love affair with holly in Western Europe has its roots in the Romans’ Saturnalia festival.

Or perhaps not. Because holly was also a special plant for the Celtic tribes of Northern Europe: the map above shows that holly was very much present in their heartlands. They too decked their halls with holly, and for much the same reasons as the Romans: the plant’s evergreen leaves and bright red berries brought cheer to an otherwise dreary time of the year, and they were a reminder that greenery had not disappeared for ever, that it would soon be back, warmed by a re-born and newly vigorous sun.

The Celts saw holly as a symbol of fertility and eternal life, and imparted many magical powers to the plant. Hanging holly in homes was believed to bring good luck. During winter, branches of holly in the house would provide shelter from the cold for fairies, who in return would be kind to those who lived in the dwelling. In the same vein, holly was believed to guard people against evil spirits. So Druids wore holly garlands on their heads, as did chieftains. Holly trees were often planted around homes; because holly was believed to repel lightning this would protect homes from lightning strikes. Just as the oak tree was considered the ruler of summer, so the holly was seen as the ruler of winter, the dark time. As such, holly was associated with dreams and Druids would often invoke the energy of holly to assist them in their dream work and spiritual journeying. Here is one rather fanciful modern depiction of the magical powers of holly.

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Holly is not the only evergreen plant which has been caught up in our Christmas celebrations. There’s the Christmas tree, of course.

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“O Christmas tree, o Christmas tree
Thy leaves are so unchanging
Not only green when summer’s here
But also when it’s cold and drear”

The custom of using pine trees in Christmas celebrations started in modern-day Estonia and Latvia, by the way, during the Middle Ages and spread out from there. The trees were traditionally decorated with flowers made of colored paper, apples, wafers, tinsel and sweetmeats. I would say that the original idea was to remind us that trees would soon be a-fruiting again.

Then there’s the mistletoe.

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“When I close my eyes
It’s just you and I
Here under the mistletoe
Magic fills the air
Standin’ over there
Santa hear my prayer
Hеre under the mistlеtoe”

Our wanting to steal a kiss under the mistletoe is a pale reflection of an ancient belief that mistletoe brought fecundity into a home – its white berries were considered to be the sperm of the oak tree.

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Kissing under the mistletoe will never feel the same again now that I’ve read that.

I actually have a sense that just about any evergreen plant was made part of Christmas celebrations in some place and at some time – after all, if the point of having evergreen plants around was to remind us of the newly green world just around the corner, any evergreen plant should surely do the trick. I rather like a Christmas decoration that was once popular and summed up all the ideas around the use of evergreens in a celebration of the re-birth of the sun. This was the Kissing Bough. It was a popular Christmas decoration before the pine tree dethroned it and came to dominate our Christmases. To make one, five wooden hoops were tied together in the shape of a ball (four hoops vertical to form the ball and the fifth horizontal to go around the middle). The hoops were then covered with whatever evergreen plants were at hand: holly, ivy, rosemary, bay, fir or anything else (signifying the vegetation to come). An apple was hung inside the ball (signifying the fruits to come) and a candle was placed inside the ball at the bottom (signifying the re-birth of light). The Bough was finished by hanging a large bunch of mistletoe from the bottom of the ball (signifying the fecundity to come).

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Coming back to holly, before we get carried away with all this magical imagery and mystical meanings (and let me tell you, the Internet is awash with reams of magico-mystico stuff on holly), let’s go back even beyond our Celtic and Roman forebears to a time when we were mere hunter-gatherers. Etymologists believe that the word “holly” has its origins in the Old English word hole(ġ)n. This is related to the Old Low Franconian word *hulis, and both are related to Old High German hulis, huls. These Germanic words appear to be related to words for holly in the Celtic languages, such as Welsh celyn, Breton kelen(n) and Irish cuileann. Probably all come from Proto-Indo-European root *kel- “to prick”.

What an eminently sensible lot, the hunter-gatherers were, to give this plant a name which stressed its prickliness! Yes, holly is nice to look at, but get close and you immediately notice something else: its leaves have very sharp spines.

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This is not a tree to hide under or climb: something I learned as a child when I was once violently pushed into a holly hedge by another, very nasty, child. Ouch, it bloody hurt!

WHAT’S IN A NAME?

Vienna, 30 November 2020

Wagram: A region close to the River Danube upstream of Vienna, where there are steep terraces made up of deposits of loess laid down millions of years ago.

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“Wagram” is a composite of two Middle High German words: “wac” (moving water, river) and “rain” (meadow, slope). So Wagram means Slope by the Water or Bank. No doubt these terraces were created centuries ago by a meander of the Danube which then changed course at some point, because there’s not much water by these slopes now. Vineyards have been planted on many of the terraces where the slopes are not too abrupt.

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I suppose the sandy soil of the loess is good for vines. The wine – mostly made with Grüner Veltliner grapes – is good enough to have given the region its own wine name, “Wagram”. In some of the steeper slopes wine cellars have been dug directly into the loess.

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We’ve been climbing up and down these terraces throughout the summer, principally because we’ve been hiking along sections of the pilgrim path to St. James of Compostela, known as Jacobsweg in this part of the world. The path happens to run along the loess terraces.

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Many a village which stands at the foot of these terraces has added “Wagram” to its name. So we’ve walked through Fels am Wagram, Kirchberg am Wagram, Königsbrunn am Wagram, Stetteldorf am Wagram, Eggendorf am Wagram, … (there’s even a Wagram am Wagram, which seems a bit exaggerated).

Deutsch-Wagram: Sharp-eyed readers will no doubt have noticed that on the map above, a village of this name is marked. It is across the Danube from Vienna and a little to the north-east of it.  It too sits on deposits of loess, although the slopes of the terraces here are very gentle, almost imperceptible. The village stands on the northern edge of a flat plain, the Marchfeld plain, which is rich agricultural land. There’s really nothing much to say about this village. I’ve looked at its Wikipedia entry and sifted through photos of the place online, but I could find nothing of any substance to report – except for one thing: it gave half of its name to one of Napoleon I’s major battles.

Battle of Wagram: It was fought in early July 1809 not too far from where I’m writing this. Napoleon had captured Vienna in May, but the Austrian Emperor had not capitulated, and the bulk of the Austrian army was undefeated and was camped on the Marchfeld plain across the Danube from Vienna. Napoleon concluded that until he had beaten this army no peace could be concluded. He therefore decided to get his army across the Danube onto the Marchfeld plain and give battle. His first attempt, in May, using the island of Lobau as his entry point into the plain, was a costly failure. This has come down in history as the battle of Essling, taking its name from the village of Essling around which much of the fighting took place.

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Learning from his mistakes, Napoleon prepared his army’s crossing of the Danube through Lobau with far more care and this time the crossing was successful. And so by the early hours of 5 July the two armies were facing each other across the Marchfeld plain. This rather fine old map shows the battleground nicely.

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The Austrian commander, Archduke Charles, knew that Napoleon would cross again at Lobau and had set up his positions along the slight ridge of loess, placing himself at the centre of the Austrian line, in the village of Deutsch-Wagram. That slight ridge, along with a marshy stream which ran at its foot and which acted as a fine defensive barrier, put the Austrians in a good position. I do not propose to give a detailed blow-by-blow account of the battle. A few fanciful paintings of a propagandist nature will suffice.

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The reality of the battle was grimmer. After two days of hard fighting, the Austrian army retired in good order while the French army was too knackered to properly pursue it. The French claimed victory, and although that was technically correct the “victory” didn’t change the strategic situation. After another inconclusive battle 5 days later at Znaïm, the two sides agreed to an armistice.

The battle of Wagram and the previous battle of Essling had been very costly. The casualties were very high on both sides, but for the French, after more than 10 years of almost continuous fighting, it was harder to make up the losses. Napoleon’s enemies had finally understood his strategies and were beginning to emulate them. There were going to be no more spectacular victories with relatively light losses as there had been in the past. Many see the battle of Wagram as the beginning of the end for Napoleon.

Avenue de Wagram: One of the twelve avenues that radiate out from the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Although now largely forgotten, the avenue’s naming in 1864 was originally a piece of propaganda by the-then Emperor Napoleon III. It was always useful for him to glorify the deeds of his uncle Napoleon I, it was a way of burnishing his rather more doubtful credentials. Baron Haussmann was busy creating a new urban landscape for Paris at the time, which, among other things, meant that the area around the Arc de Triomphe was being remodeled. The Arc had originally been built as a memorial to one of Napoleon I’s greatest victories, the battle of Austerlitz. When his ashes were returned from the island of St. Helena in 1840, they passed through the Arc de Triomphe on their way to his final resting place in Les Invalides.

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Why not, then, turn the area around the Arc into a memorial to the first Napoleon’s military genius? And so, in 1864, a number of the new avenues radiating out from the Arc were named after Emperor Napoleon’s more famous battles (his earlier battles when he was a mere revolutionary general or even First Consul were ignored): along with the Avenue de Wagram, there was the Avenue d’Essling which I’ve already mentioned, the Avenue d’Iéna, celebrating the battle of 1806 fought at Jena in Thuringia, during which Napoleon pulverized the Prussian army, the Avenue de Friedland, celebrating the battle of 1807 fought in what was then eastern Prussia, during which Napoleon decisively beat the Russian army, and the Avenue d’Eylau, commemorating a battle fought four months prior to Friedland in the same neck of the woods. One other avenue was named the Avenue de la Grande Armée, to commemorate Napoleon’s imperial army which had fought in all of these battles and more during his campaigns from 1804 to 1814. To cap it off, a circular road which runs around the Arc de Triomphe had one half of the circle named rue de Presbourg, commemorating the treaty of Presbourg signed with Austria after the victory at Austerlitz, and the other half named rue de Tilsit, commemorating the treaty of Tilsit signed with Russia after the victory at Friedland. As a cherry on the Napoleonic propaganda cake, a number of the remaining avenues were named after members of the Napoleonic clan. Quite understandably, all these last avenues had their names changed later when Napoleon III was toppled, along with the avenues commemorating the battles of Essling and Eylau (not surprising really; as we’ve seen, Napoleon actually lost the battle of Essling and he only just won the battle of Eylau).

I’m sure all this propaganda from the past is lost on the avenue’s current inhabitants. The only thing that seems to matter today is that Avenue de Wagram is a very chic place to live. While not situated in the “seizième arrondissement”, the 16th district of Paris, the city’s toniest district, it is still a very desirable place to put on your calling card. Real estate on the avenue is eyewateringly expensive. This is a view of the avenue from the top of the Arc de Triomphe.

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As befits such a moneyed area, it is represented in Parliament by a member of the right-of-centre party Les Républicains, Ms. Brigitte Kuster.

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Salle Wagram: Whatever the Napoleonic propagandists might have wanted, for the people of Paris the area around what became Avenue de Wagram near the Arc de Triomphe had been a place where you went and had fun ever since the Revolution. The ball got rolling with a drinking hole where you could also dance. Then came theatres, music halls, concert-cafés, and then cinemas.  Perhaps the most famous of these palaces of fun was the Salle Wagram, a large hall built in 1865. It was located at 39bis, avenue de Wagram.

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It was famous as a place where Gay Paree went to dance the night away.

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But it was also a place for exhibitions and other “serious” shows, like the First Cycling Exhibition of 1894.

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The money took over from the fun. All the places of entertainment other than Salle Wagram and a couple of others have disappeared, leaving space for expensive offices and apartments. C’est la vie, as the French philosophically remark.

Station Wagram: The name of a station in Paris’s subway system, one of many.

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It serves Avenue de Wagram, although it’s actually located on a small street that crosses the avenue – the avenue’s greater name recognition decided the station’s naming. Opened in 1911, many of the initial travellers no doubt used the station to go to Salle Wagram or the other entertainment spots in the area. But now it probably only services workers whose offices are in the area and the cleaners and other domestics who work in the surrounding rich apartments.  The station itself is nothing to write home about. Perhaps it was more interesting architecturally when first opened, but the modernizations of the 1960s have left it a bog-standard station.

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Its one saving grace is its entrance, which harbours one of Hector Guimard’s delightful Art Nouveau floral designs.

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So it is that by the vagaries of history, loess terraces in eastern Austria were transmuted into a dot on the Parisian subway map 1200 km away.

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C’est la vie, as the French say.

YELLOW AND RED

Vienna, 21 November 2020

Just look at that maple! What a magnificent yellow its leaves turned!

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My wife and I walked under it during a hike we did a couple of weeks ago. We were following the edge of a wood and lo and behold! there it was.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, as we have been walking the woods these last few weeks the trees have been putting on their autumnal colours. We have been bathed in yellows of all hues, turning to russet, and finally to dark brown.

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But what we have not been bathed in is reds. We have not witnessed the wonders of a North American Fall

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or the splendour of an East Asian Autumn.

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“Why is that?” I asked myself as I sat there gazing at my photo of that yellow maple tree, “why is it that North Americans and East Asians have splendid red hues in their autumn colours and we in Europe do not?”

To answer this, we are going to use a version of Root Cause Analysis called the “5 Whys”. This was something invented by Sakichi Toyoda, the father of the founder of Toyota, who claimed that you had to ask “Why?” (more or less) five times before you got to the root cause of something. His son used it extensively in his car factories as a quality control tool, to discover the fundamental reason – the root cause – for a quality failure (and at a much more modest scale I have used it to discover the root cause of a source of pollution or waste). A simple example goes as follows:

“Why the hell isn’t my car working?!”
Because the alternator isn’t functioning.
“Well why is the bloody alternator not functioning?!”
Because the alternator belt has broken.
“Oh. Why did the alternator belt break?”
Because it was well beyond its useful service life but has never been replaced.
“Ah. Why wasn’t it ever replaced?”
Because you, idiot that you are, didn’t maintain your car according to the recommended service schedule.
“Ah, right, OK, sorry about that.”

OK, so now we can start using the method on our little problem:

“Why do the leaves of many species in North America and East Asia go red, whereas so few do so in Europe?”

We see leaves as green because of the chlorophyll they contain. But leaves also contain other pigments, which if the chlorophyll were not there would make the leaves look yellow, orange, or all hues in between. The chlorophyll simply masks them.

In Europe, when autumn comes and the chlorophyll begins to disappear, these other pigments are finally allowed to “express themselves”, giving the leaves the beautiful hues of yellow that we see. This explains the fact that the maple we came across went from green to lovely canary yellow.

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In North America and East Asia, something else happens when the chlorophyll begins to disappear from the leaves. There, trees begin to produce – from scratch – a red pigment, anthocyanin, in their leaves. This pigment masks – or perhaps “mixes with” – the yellow or orange pigments already there, to give various shades of red. Thus do North American and East Asian maples go from green to red.

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“OK, but why do North American and East Asian species produce this red pigment at the end of their leaves’ lives?”

Yes indeed, it does seem that the trees and bushes which do this are penalizing themselves. Just when their leaves are about to fall off, part of the general shut-down for their winter slumber, the trees start expending precious energy to pump their dying leaves full of red pigment. The reason for this apparently foolish behaviour has to do with pest control and especially control of aphids (which I happened to mention in an earlier post on wood ants). Aphids have this nasty habit (as far as trees are concerned) of sucking amino acids from them in the Fall season, and then laying their eggs on them; the eggs hibernate along with the trees and give birth to a new generation of aphids in the Spring. So the trees get hit twice: they lose precious amino acids to those pesky aphids, and then the next year they have to endure attacks by the next generation of aphids! Now, it so happens that aphids believe that a brightly-coloured tree is a tree that is chemically well defended against predators, so they tend to avoid laying their eggs on such trees. So of course trees in North America and East Asia have evolved to turn themselves bright red in the Fall, just when the aphids are laying their eggs, by pumping their dying leaves full of anthocyanin.

“Why do aphids think a brightly-coloured tree is a chemically well defended tree?

I thought you might ask that. The answer is, I don’t know. Stop being a smart-ass and move on to the next question.

“A bit touchy are we? Well OK, why don’t European trees make their leaves go red then?”

Because they don’t they have aphids which prey on them.

“Why is that? How can it be that aphids prey on the North American and East Asian trees and not on the European trees? What’s so special about European trees?”

Yes indeed, this is where it gets really interesting. To answer this, we have to go back 35 million years. At about this time, the northern hemisphere began to go through a series of ice ages and dry spells. Most trees reacted to this by going from being evergreen to deciduous. They also retreated southwards when the ice sheets advanced and returned northwards when the ice sheets retreated. In North America and East Asia, their predators of course went with them, evolving to deal with the fact that trees now lost their leaves and went dormant during the winter. In turn, the trees evolved to fight off these predators by, among other things, turning their leaves red in the Fall. This struggle between tree and predator continued even as the trees moved northwards or southwards as the ice sheets advanced or retreated. Thus, still today, the trees in those parts of the world go a glorious red in the Fall.

But in Europe, there were the Alps and their lateral branches, which ran east-west. In North America and East Asia, the mountain ranges, where they existed, ran north-south, so the trees in their periodic advances and retreats could “flow around” these mountains. In Europe, though, as the trees moved southwards to escape the ice sheets they hit the barrier of the Alps; there, they could go no further and so perished in the piercing cold. And so of course did the predators which they harboured. Only seeds were carried southwards, by birds or the wind or in some other fashion, and of course these seeds harboured no predators. Thus it was that European trees did not need to make red leaves and so they give us glorious shades of yellow in the Autumn.

There is at least one exception to this rule, and these are dwarf shrubs that grow in Scandinavia. They still colour their leaves red in autumn. Unlike the trees, dwarf shrubs managed to survive the ice ages; in the winter they would be covered by a layer of snow, which protected them from the extreme conditions above. But that blanket of snow also protected the insect predators! So the plants had to continue their struggle with their predators, and thus evolved to colour their leaves red. We have here an example, the smooth dwarf birch.

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Well, that was an interesting use of the 5 Whys method! I must see if there are other issues I could use it on.

WOOD AND FIRE

Vienna, 14 November 2020

As befits a mountainous country with a coolish climate, Austria has acres of forests covering its many hills and mountains. As a consequence, it once had a vibrant tradition of building in wood. Nowadays, of course, wood as a building material has been almost completely superseded by stone, brick and concrete. The only places you still see wooden buildings are in the small villages which dot the countryside, wooden barns being still quite common there. My wife and I come across them quite often on our hikes, as these photos taken on a couple of recent hikes attest.

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I love these old barns. My French grandmother had one just like them attached to the side of her house. We went in there often because that was where the bicycles and the ping-pong table were kept. It was – to the small me – a vast, cavernous place. All sorts of weather-beaten garden tools and other odds-and-ends lurked in the shadows. There was a pile of hay – quite why I don’t know; my grandmother had no animals. But it made the barn smell of hay, into which was mixed the smell of beaten earth rising from the floor. Then one summer I arrived for the summer holidays, only to find the barn gone. My grandmother told me that it had been sagging sideways and threatening to pull the rest of the house down with it. But this perfectly rational explanation didn’t take away the desolation I felt at the disappearance of this wonderful building.

As I say, there was a time when many more buildings in this country were made of wood, especially in the mountain regions. A number of Austrian artists have captured them on their canvases. Oskar Mulley was especially assiduous in his painting of mountain huts and barns, partly or wholly made of wood.

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Alfons Walde also often included these buildings in his paintings, although snow was more his thing.

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Alas, as we all know only too well, wood burns very well. The older and drier it is, the better it burns, as we all learnt watching the roof of the cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris go up in flames.

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The previously common use of wood in construction in Austria and its tendency to burn well must explain why every municipality in this country, down to the smallest village it would seem, has a fire station. As an extreme example, a couple of days ago my wife and I passed through a small village on one of our hikes, which had not one

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not two

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but three fire stations!

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And each one is bigger than the last. Are fires getting bigger in this village, I wonder, or is it that fire engines are getting bigger and need a more spacious building to house them, or (a somewhat uncharitable thought) have municipal budgets been growing?

Of course, as befits a traditionally Catholic country, Austrians have a saint whom they can invoke to protect them from fire: St. Florian. Austrians should be particularly proud of this saint since he is a native son. The annals tell us that he was born in the latter part of the 3rd Century C.E. in Lorch, near Linz, on what was then the edges of the Roman Empire – the Danube River, which flows just north of Lorch, was the frontier of that Empire. Since so many Roman army units were garrisoned along the frontier his father could have been an army officer. Florian was active, possibly also as an army officer, in St. Pölten (or Aelium Cetium, as it was then called) when one of the periodic rounds of persecution against Christians broke out. This one occurred in 303–304 C.E., under the Emperor Diocletian (the same round of persecution that put paid to St. Pancras, about whom I wrote an earlier post). Without going into the details, which are anyway of dubious validity, it is recorded that Florian was arrested as a Christian. After a trial and various tortures, he was drowned in the Danube by being thrown off a a bridge with a stone tied around his neck. Thus did he become a martyr and a saint.

Sensibly enough, Florian was initially invoked to protect people from the dangers of water. At some point, though, he was pivoted (to use that most modern of terms) and used instead to protect people from fire. My theory – for which I have absolutely no evidence – is that another saint, John of Nepomuk, about whom I’ve written in an earlier post and who died in almost exactly the same way as Florian – thrown from a bridge and drowned – won the competition for protecting people from the dangers of water, leaving Florian without a role. Well of course, one critical use of water was to put out fires, so hey presto! he became the protector from the dangers of fire.

The Austrians have not only used wood to build, they have used it to carve, and their churches (and museums) are full of wonderfully carved statues and bas-reliefs. I throw in here a couple of bas-reliefs (from southern Germany in this case) which were recently auctioned at Vienna’s Dorotheum auction house.

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Naturally enough, the saints who got a place in churches tended to be people’s favourites, ones whom they prayed to regularly. Given the ever-present danger of fire, one of these is St. Florian. My wife and I came across this lovely example of a St. Florian statue during one of our hikes this Autumn, down by Neusidler See (the same hike where we picked up bagfuls of walnuts).

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We see here all the typical attributes of such a statue. Florian is dressed as a Roman soldier and gripping a banner, he is holding a bucket of water, and he is thoughtfully pouring that water over a little burning house situated at his feet. Delightful! My wife and I have come across scores of such statues during our wanderings over Austria’s hills and dales. In fact, we came across a fresco of him on the wall of a house just this afternoon.

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One statue of St. Florian which we haven’t seen, though, and which I have put on my bucket list stands in the town of Bad Tölz in Upper Bavaria. The statue was set up in a square, in front of the town’s tax office. Since the statue gave its back to the tax office the sculptor thought it fitting to have the saint flash his bum to the tax men, to show them what he – and the rest of the town – thought of them.

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I think we can all sympathize with the citizens of Bad Tölz, especially since St. Florian’s feast day is 4th May, a few days after 30th April, which for many in the world is the deadline for turning in their income tax returns.

By extension of his duties as heavenly fireman, St. Florian is the patron saint of many trades where fire was once used: bakers, brewers, coopers (the staves which coopers used to make barrels were steamed to make them pliable), potters, forges, soap boilers (who knew that was once a profession?). He is also, naturally enough, the patron saint of chimney sweeps, which, dear readers, contrary to coopers, soap boilers, and the rest is not a profession that has disappeared – not in Austria, at least. They are alive and well and thriving here.

When my wife and I first came to Austria, we were struck by these young blokes we would see (there have also been some young ladies in recent years) walking the streets and wearing this strange outfit: black overalls with a white head covering.

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Upon enquiry, we were told that they were chimney sweeps. Chimney sweeps?! Well, both my wife and I have been around the block a couple of times (I won’t admit to how many) and neither of us have any memory of our parents calling in chimney sweeps. I don’t know about my readers, but to me the term “chimney sweeps” conjures up a Dickensian vision of little boys being forced to climb down narrow chimneys by a nasty master and getting stuck and dying.

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At a minimum, chimney sweeps should be dirty-looking, like coal miners.

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In fact, they should have died out along with the coal industry. But no, these Austrian fellows are around in large numbers and are lick-spittle clean; they don’t give the impression of ever getting within a mile of an actual chimney. What is going on here?

I don’t want to be uncharitable, but I rather get the impression that we have here a great example of a union using its political muscle to avoid extinction. The way I see it, when chimney sweeps saw that their days were numbered, they got the governments – municipal, for the most part – to pass laws requiring homeowners to have their chimneys – used for gas water heaters for the most part these days – as well as the water heaters themselves checked at least once a year by a “chimney sweep”. As a homeowner in Vienna, I have had the doubtful pleasure of having Viennese “chimney sweeps” come over, solemnly open a little trap door in the wall, perfunctorily have a look in, declare all to be well, and require to paid handsomely for this service. And on top of it all they expect a tip at Christmas! This year, I found this “service” particularly grating because just a few days before the “chimney sweep” had come around we’d had the water heater maintained by a man who spent a good deal more time on the job and got paid proportionately a good deal less. But we can’t get out of it, because if we were to have a fire – Oh St. Florian, spare us this disaster! – and if it turned out to have been due to something the chimney sweep would have checked if we had called him, then the insurance wouldn’t pay – they have you over a barrel (made by one of those coopers who have since disappeared).

Not wishing to end on this sour note, writing about chimney sweeps reminds me that in the old days, when they really did sweep chimneys out, they would have cleaned chimneys connected to those wonderful tiled stoves which they used to have here in Austria. Some places actually still have them. We came across one this summer while staying in a hotel on a hike near Innsbruck; the stove is at the back of the room in the picture.

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As readers can see, they have a bench around the bottom where one can sit with one’s back against the stove wall keeping nice and warm. I understand people would even sleep on these benches. But what is really lovely about these stoves is their decoration. I throw in a few pictures of such stoves.

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Once, when we were looking for an apartment in Vienna to rent, my wife and I were shown one with such a stove. For one mad moment, we thought of taking the apartment just for the stove. But good sense prevailed; it would have been too small, the children wouldn’t have had their own rooms. Sometimes, though, my wife and I reminisce about that stove we never had. Another thing on our bucket list.

MARTIN’S GOOSE

Vienna, 11 November 2020

Often in past years, on this day – 11 November, the day on which the First World War ended on the Western Front – I have published a post in memory of those who died in that war or who were permanently scarred by it. But this year, since my wife and I are spending November in Vienna, I published this year’s memorial post a few days ago, in recognition of the fact that the war ended about a week earlier for the Austro-Hungarian Empire. So instead, I shall use this post to celebrate rather than grieve. I shall write about a food dish, the Martinsgans (which for some strange reason becomes Martinsgansl in Austria).

Martinsgans is a dish from the German lands and is traditionally eaten today, 11 November (but of course nowadays, as a way of increasing sales, it gets offered in restaurants for a couple of weeks around that date – although this year, because of Covid, all the restaurants are now closed in Vienna). It is a dish based on goose – Martinsgans translates into English as Martin’s goose. Why Martin’s goose rather than anyone else’s goose? Well, that’s because 11 November happens to be feast day of St. Martin in the Christian calendar.

A Martinsgans made according to tradition consists of roast goose served with cooked red cabbage and potato dumplings. This is what it will look like when it is placed on the table to the oohs and aahs of the assembled family and guests.

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For those of my readers who feel the need for an adventure in the kitchen, here is a recipe for making Martinsgans.

The goose:

Wash the goose thoroughly inside and out and dry.  Cut a couple of apples and an orange into eights, mix well with some thyme and marjoram, and stuff the goose with the mix. Tie the goose up and seal with wooden skewers. Rub the goose well on the outside with salt, pepper, marjoram and thyme, and then place the bird, breast side down, in a large greased roasting pan or baking dish. Roast the goose in the oven, preheated to 220°C, for about half an hour. Brush the goose with honey several times and pour a bottle of beer over it. Turn the oven down to 180°C, deglaze with a little water, and roast the goose in the oven for about 2 hours. Pour its own juice over the goose while it is roasting. Take the roasted goose out of the oven, and let it rest for a while before serving.

While the goose is roasting, you can prepare the red cabbage and the potato dumplings.

Red cabbage:

Clean, wash and finely chop the red cabbage. Mix with some orange juice and red wine, a dash of lemon juice, salt and caraway seeds, and let it all steep for a while. Then cook in a saucepan over medium heat until soft (30 minutes or so).

Potato dumplings:

Peel some potatoes, cook them until soft, then squash them. Mix in some potato starch, semolina, salt and nutmeg. Let the dough rest for half an hour. Then form the dumplings, and let them simmer in a saucepan with salted water for 15 minutes.

I could leave it there and invite my readers to go celebrate life with a Martinsgans night out, as these folk are.

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But I’m afraid I can’t. Too many questions were buzzing through my mind when I was reading up on Martinsgans. Why is the goose eaten on 11 November and not 11 October or 11 December, or indeed the 11th of any other month? And why goose rather than duck or swan – or chicken or turkey or any other fowl? I had to investigate further, and as is my habit I feel a bursting desire to share what I have learned with my readers (and I fervently hope that they have a bursting desire to listen).

On the question of why November 11. As usual, there are several reasons given on the net. The one which I think makes most sense is that it is the result of the Catholic Church’s liturgical calendar. There was a time, long, long ago (from the 7th to 12th centuries CE, to be precise), when the Church required all good Christians to do three days of fasting a week from St. Martin’s day (i.e., 11 November) to Christmas, to prepare themselves for that great feast. Very sensibly in my opinion, people decided that they would have one last good meal before starting to fast. Thus was born the tradition of having a slap-up meal on St. Martin’s day.

What’s odd, though, is that the Church authorities eventually decided to cut this period of preparation before Christmas – which is now called Advent – to four weeks, with the start date being in the very last days of November. So why didn’t the slap-up meal migrate to the end of November?

It could be because, together with the decision to shorten the Advent period, the Church authorities dropped the requirement to fast (a very sensible decision in my opinion; I never could understand why fasting would make you more religious). So perhaps there was no longer any need (or excuse) to have a slap-up meal just before Advent started.

But then why continue with the slap-up meal on St. Martin’s day? And here I think we have to look to some of the other reasons proposed on the net. In the old agricultural calendar, the beginning of November was when in many European countries excess livestock was slaughtered and the meat salted or otherwise preserved (I wrote about one such product, the Italian cotechino, in an earlier post). As a result, it was also a period when many peasants (I dare hardly call them farmers) paid some of the rents which they owed to their lords, payments nearly always made in kind rather than in cash.

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St. Martin’s day was traditionally the day when these payments were made. Early November also happens to be the time when domesticated geese are at their fattest. Hence, payments were often made in live geese (in the picture above, one of the peasants is making his payment with what looks suspiciously like a swan).

It’s a little off the point, but I remember well a story which my mother used to tell us when we were young. My maternal grandparents owned some lands, which they rented out to local farmers. The day when the farmers paid their rents was St. Martin’s day. One such farmer was a farmer with red hair (this point was stressed in the story, because – quite unfairly, I think – my mother considered red-haired people to be excitable). In my imagination, I see him something like this.

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Like many rural folk of the time (we’re talking the late 1920s, early 1930s), this farmer had received little formal education – probably primary school, if that – before starting to work the land. The discussion would always start pleasantly enough. My grandfather would work his way through the accounts, showing the farmer, let’s call him Mr. Dupont, how he had arrived at the amounts due. As long as my grandfather kept to addition Mr. Dupont could follow. But whenever my grandfather strayed into multiplication, Mr. Dupont got nervous, he would go red in the face, raise his voice, and start objecting vociferously, with my grandfather vainly trying to placate him: “but no, Mr. Dupont, really, if you multiply 20 by 5 you get 100” – all to no avail. My grandfather had to keep to addition with Mr. Dupont.

But back to the subject at hand. Since the lords now had live geese on their hands, and since lords were always eager to eat fresh meat, we can understand that at least a few of the geese would have been sent to the lord’s kitchen for neck-wringing (or throat-cutting?), plucking and roasting, with a fine feast to follow.

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Luckily for us (because most of us had peasants as ancestors, no?), the industrial revolution came along and wealth got much better distributed. So it’s not only lords now who can afford to eat goose on 11 November, it’s most of us. Which is a Good Thing – except, of course, for the poor geese which end up roasted on our dining room tables.

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As I look these geese waddling to their roasted fate, I am reminded of a song in Carmina Burana (admittedly about a swan, but the principle is the same). The original is in Latin, but I will spare the readers the trauma of reading the original and give them an English translation:

Verse 1:
Once I lived on lakes,
Once I looked beautiful
When I was a swan.

Chorus:
Misery me!
Now black
And roasting fiercely!

Verse 2:
The servant is turning me on the spit;
I am burning fiercely on the pyre:
The steward now serves me up.

Chorus

Verse 3:
Now I lie on the platter,
And can fly no longer,
I see bared teeth.

Chorus

Spare a thought for the goose as you bare your teeth to tuck into your Martinsgans.