SAINT HUBERT, PARTRON SAINT OF FORESTS

Vienna, 10 October 2021

My son commented to me yesterday morning that I hadn’t posted in a while, and he’s right. It’s been over a month! The fact is, I’ve been busy these days (or B-U-S-Y as my son used to write in reply when we fond parents sent him a WhatsApp message suggesting a chat; luckily, he wasn’t B-U-S-Y yesterday morning). I’ve been helping students at a school in Wales figure out how the school could reduce its carbon footprint and I’ve had to prepare and deliver quite a number lectures for webinars on the topic of Circular Economies. All fascinating stuff, but it has eaten into my blogging time.

Anyway, it seems to me that as the days shorten, the temperatures fall, and my wife and I have our last hikes in the woods around Vienna before we migrate south to Italy for the winter, it would be good to celebrate Saint Hubert, the patron saint of all things linked to forests:

– Of hunters and their hounds, here painted by Paolo Uccello.

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– Of archers (because they originally used their bows to hunt in the forests; Robin Hood comes to mind).

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– Of trappers (another type of hunter who lurked in forests trapping beavers and other animals for their furs), here seen in a painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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– Of loggers and other forest workers, seen here in a photo from the late 1800s.

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Here is a photo of Hubert on one side of a small forest shrine that we came across during one of our recent hikes.

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And this is the shrine.

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Hubert’s story, which explains why he was made patron saint of all things to do with forests, is quickly told. He was born in the 650s AD in Toulouse, into a family that was part of the high Frankish aristocracy. Initially, he joined the Neustrian court centered on Paris, but because of quarrels with the Mayor of the Neustrian palace he transferred to the Austrasian court centered on Metz, where he was warmly welcomed by the Mayor of the Austrasian palace, on the grounds of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” – the two Mayors were constantly fighting each other. He seems to have quickly inserted himself into the local elites, marrying the daughter of the Duke of Leuven (if you’re a Flemish speaker, Louvain if you’re a French speaker).

Like all good aristocrats of the time (indeed, like all good aristocrats of all ages), Hubert loved to hunt, and he seems to have spent most of his time roaming the forests of the Ardennes looking for some red meat to shoot. His predilection for hunting only increased after his wife died in child birth, to the point that one Good Friday, when he really should have been in a church on his knees praying for his soul, he instead vaulted onto his horse and rode off into the forest in pursuit of game.

The story goes that he spied a magnificent stag and was riding full tilt after it, when the animal suddenly turned. Hubert was astounded to see a crucifix hovering between its antlers. This scene has captivated various artists over the centuries – or more probably, it captivated their clients and the artists merely executed their clients’ wishes. Here’s a version by Albrecht Dürer.

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Here’s one by Jan Brueghel the Elder

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Even Egon Schiele painted a version!

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In any event, the story goes on that Hubert heard a Voice, telling him to clean up his act or else he would be going straight to Hell. When he humbly asked the Voice what he should do, It told him to go find Lambert, Bishop of Maastricht, who would straighten him out.

And straighten him out he did! Under Lambert’s direction, Hubert gave away all his worldly possessions, entered a monastery, led an ascetic life, evangelized among the heathen folk who lived in the depths of the forest of Ardennes where he had once joyously hunted, etc., etc.

In about 705 AD, Lambert was assassinated, the victim of some quarrel between different Frankish factions. The event is depicted in all its gory detail in this painting by Jan van Brussel.

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Hubert became bishop in Lambert’s place. At some point, he moved Lambert’s remains from Maastricht to Liège, where Lambert had been killed, as we see here in this manuscript miniature.

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He built a magnificent basilica, which was soon turned into a cathedral, of which he naturally became the bishop (in the process, he kick-started the rise to greatness of Liège, which was then just a pissy little village). Alas, this cathedral was demolished by revolutionaries in 1794.

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Much to his disappointment, Hubert wasn’t martyred but died peacefully in his bed in the late 720s AD. He was, as might be expected, initially buried in Liège, but about 100 years later his bones were dug up and transferred to the Benedictine Abbey of Amdain. This event was depicted in this wonderful painting by Rogier van der Weyden.

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Not surprisingly, the town around the abbey renamed itself Saint-Hubert in his honour and became a focus for pilgrimages over the succeeding centuries (no doubt making the Abbey rich in the process).

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I think readers will now understand why Hubert is patron saint of all things forest. He was a very popular saint among the little people in the Middle Ages, probably because forests played an important role in people’s livelihoods until deforestation shrunk those forests, first to woods and then to woodlots on the margins of rural lives. Not surprisingly, given his passion for hunting, Hubert was also very popular among the aristocracy, and several Noble Orders dedicated to hunting were named after him. Take, for instance, the Venerable Order of Saint Hubertus, which was founded in 1695 by Count Franz Anton von Sporck.

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The Order brought together the Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI and hunting enthusiasts from various other noble families throughout the Holy Roman Empire. It still exists, its current Grand Master being Istvan von Habsburg-Lothringen.

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Given that in the early days of the European presence in Canada so many French Canadians were involved in the fur trade as trappers, I also now understand why Saint Hubert was a popular saint in French Canada; in the teen years I spent there, I was intrigued by the number of places called Saint-Hubert (there is even a chain of chicken restaurants in Quebec called Saint Hubert). No doubt the saint’s protection was invoked by the Catholic trappers as their canoes set off on their way to the beaver grounds out west.

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Of course, since the regions we now call Belgium and southern Netherlands were the saint’s favoured hunting grounds, both literally and figuratively, many places there are also called Saint-Hubert (French) or Sint Hubertus (Flemish/ Netherlandish). One beer has taken its name from the town of Saint-Hubert around the abbey where Hubert was eventually buried. Here is a bottle of one of the company’s brews (triple amber for any beer enthusiasts among my readers).

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There is also a brew that is popular here in Vienna, the Hubertus Bräu.

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I’m not sure why it’s called Hubert’s Brew. It’s certainly not named after the place it’s brewed in, which is Laa an der Thaya (nice area; we’ve been on a couple of hikes around there). But it has a very distinguished pedigree. The town obtained the right to brew it back in 1454, from Ladislaus Postumus, Duke of Austria (and for this privilege they had to deliver the good Duke a keg of beer on each holiday, which doesn’t sound much – but maybe there were lots of holidays back then).

As readers will note, both these beers have as a symbol the famous stag’s head with the crucifix hovering between its antlers. So does the digestive Jägermeister, that concoction of herbs macerated in alcohol, which for some strange reason became popular with the student crowd.

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In this case, the connection to Hubert is via its name, which means Master of the Hunt.

Of course, I understand why any alcoholic drink which has some sort of connection to Hubert would use the symbol of the stag with the hovering crucifix. But I wonder if the makers of these drinks have thought this idea through. For me, the implication is that drinking the beer or digestive will make you see things which aren’t there (rather like that hoary chestnut that alcoholics see pink elephants).

Not perhaps the best image one wants to give to an alcoholic drink. On the other hand, putting a picture of Hubert as a bishop, like the one in the photo which I started this post with, could well put a damper on one’s enthusiastic desire to drink. A tricky marketing conundrum …

With that, I lift a good glass of wine to my readers and go and join my wife to do the packing. Auf wiedersehen, arrivederci, we will see each other again once we’ve moved down to Italy!

VANILLA

This post is dedicated to my dearest wife,

the most faithful of my readers

Vienna, 4 September 2021

Some months ago, I was asked by the Student Sustainability Committee of a school in Wales which I’m involved with to help them estimate the carbon footprint of the food eaten in the school. In the case of prepared food, which made up a substantial portion of the food consumed at the school, this exercise required me to plough through a lot of recipes to understand what were the raw ingredients of these prepared foodstuffs (so as to calculate the carbon footprint of each ingredient). Apart from this being a hell of a lot of work, as my wife will testify (“have you still not finished that stuff?!”), I discovered with surprise that many, many prepared foodstuffs of the sweet variety (biscuits, cakes, chocolate, and various sundry others) have vanilla extract as one of their ingredients (and as a side note, I was very surprised to see that these sweet foodstuffs made up a large portion of all the food consumed in the school; it didn’t seem to be a very healthy diet).

These constant references to vanilla extract intrigued me, and I decided that one day I would investigate vanilla a bit more. This decision crystallized into action over the last few weeks, because it so happens that my wife is very fond of vanilla. In the Bad Old Days, before we started our rigorous dieting, she consumed a fair amount of vanilla-based ice creams, normally those covered with a chocolate casing (I will not give free publicity to her favourite brand by naming it; I will leave my readers to guess). Now, in these more virtuous times, diet-wise, her vanilla consumption mainly takes the form of vanilla-flavored yogurt, and this only for lunch on our hikes (which these summer days has meant quite frequently). For the sake of complete transparency, I should state that she still consumes a chocolate-covered vanilla ice cream from time to time, whenever a hike is judged to have been particularly strenuous.

The brand of vanilla-flavored yoghurt which my wife generally favours is this one – I should add that she favours it simply because our local supermarket offers it, at a very reasonable price.

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Sharp-eyed readers will have noticed the flower on the tub. This is the vanilla orchid, Vanilla planifolia. Here’s a photo of the Real Thing.

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And here is the plant more or less in its natural state (readers will note that this orchid is a type of vine; in Nature it will grow up trees, like the pepper vine).

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It’s really a very pretty flower, but it is only of passing interest to the vanilla aficionado. She or he is after the “fruit”, a seed pod really, that the flower creates once it has been pollinated. The three dark-coloured stringy things pictured behind the flower on the yoghurt tub are these seed pods. Again, here is a photo of the Real Thing.

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But even the seed pod, if in its natural state, just picked from the vine, does not interest the vanilla aficionado, because it contains very low levels of vanilla flavour and aroma (these, by the way, come mostly from the chemical vanillin, although there are a number of other chemicals present which it is claimed enhance both flavour and aroma). It is only once the seed pod has been cured that the vanilla aficionado becomes interested, because now the levels of vanillin are considerably higher, high enough to add that distinct vanilla flavour and aroma to foods and drinks.

The curing of vanilla seed pods is a rather complicated, months-long process, whose purpose is to bring about an enzymatic reaction in the pods which turns the glucovanillin they contain into vanillin proper (in case any readers were asking themselves, glucovanillin has no flavour or aroma). Curing consists of four basic steps: killing, sweating, slow-drying, and conditioning. In the killing step, the seed pods are generally heated (in hot water or in an oven or by exposing the pods to the sun).

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This stops any further vegetative growth in the pods and initiates the necessary enzymatic reactions.

In the sweating step, the pods are kept at temperatures of 45–65°C and at high humidity levels by stacking them densely and insulating them in wool or other cloth. The pods are subjected to this Turkish bath regime for 7 to 10 days, possibly with a daily exposure to the sun or a dip in hot water.

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The desired enzymatic reactions love these conditions, so by the end of the sweating step the seed pods have attained much of the desired vanilla flavour and aroma. However, they still have a high moisture content. Which brings us to drying.

To prevent the pods from rotting and to lock in the vanilla aroma, drying is required. And so, over a period of three to four weeks, the pods are exposed to air and to periods of shade and sunlight.

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In the final, conditioning step, the dried pods are stored for five to six months in closed boxes, where the fragrance further develops.

The end result looks like this.

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This is what vanilla aficionados lust after, what they dream of incorporating into their dishes, from soup to sweet dishes.  And they are willing to pay top money. Vanilla is the second most expensive spice, after saffron. Those wrinkled-up beans can set you back anywhere from $50 to $500 per kilogram.

When I look at these kinds of convoluted processes, I always ask myself, “How on earth did anyone discover this process?” I mean, really, how did the first vanilla producers stand in front of those aroma-less and flavour-less seed pods and figure out that this long and complicated process would eventually lead them to seed pods with a wonderful aroma and flavour of vanilla? I would have to ask this question to the ancestors of the Totonacs, an Amerindian people who live on the east coast of Mexico. It was they who first “made” vanilla-flavoured seed pods from the vanilla orchid – the orchid’s natural habitat is in this part of the world. Here, we have Diego Rivera’s take on the Totonacs, as part of one of his murals in the National Palace in Mexico City.

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Unfortunately, I’m sure today’s Totonacs have no idea; I just have to accept that the answer is lost in the mists of time.

Readers might think that since the vanilla orchid is natural to Mexico’s eastern seaboard, that country would be a major producer of vanilla. Alas, not so! The reason for that is the great Columbian exchange, that massive movement of plants, animals, humans – and diseases – which took place between the New and Old Worlds after the discovery of the Americas by Christopher Columbus. The vanilla orchid was part of that exchange. The Conquistadors, like the Totonacs (and like the Aztecs) loved the flavour and aroma of vanilla and figured that people back home would love it too. They exported the pods back to Europe, where they caused a sensation, at least among the elites, who had the money to burn on this rare and expensive novelty. They put it in everything, from chocolate (also a product of Mexico) to soup. They adopted the Spanish name for it (vanilla is a corruption of the Spanish vainilla, meaning “little pod”). Other Europeans looked on enviously. Eventually, the French laid their hands on some exemplars of the plant and took them to their colonies which had similar climates to Mexico’s eastern seaboard, namely those in the Caribbean and the Indian Ocean, especially the islands of Madagascar, Réunion, and Mauritius.

For a while, Mexico continued to be the main global producer of vanilla, because this transplant of the vanilla orchid to other places was a failure. The plant flowered alright, but it never produced pods. The reason for this is an exquisite example of specialized evolution: vanilla flowers can only be pollinated by this little critter, Eulaema meriana, one of some 25 species of orchid bees.

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No other insect is attracted by the sex pheromones emitted by the flower, nor can any other insect successfully navigate the orchid’s complicated geometry and pollinate the flower along the way.

Once non-Mexican wannabe vanilla producers realized the problem, they tried the obvious thing, which was to transplant the vanilla-pollinating orchid bee along with the orchid. But it didn’t work; the bee couldn’t survive outside of its native habitat. The wannabe vanilla producers were stumped. Until 1841.

In that year, a 12-year old slave called Edmond (no surname, he was a slave), who had been born into slavery on the Island of Réunion, came up with a quick and easy way of pollinating the vanilla orchid flower by hand. He had been lent out by his master to a botanist by the name of Ferreol Bellier-Beaumont, to help him out. Beaumont had shown him how to hand pollinate a watermelon plant and the boy went off and successfully applied his new skills to the vanilla orchid. (For anyone considering hand-pollinating a vanilla orchid flower, here’s what you do: with a small sliver of bamboo or wood (or even a stem of grass), lift the membrane separating the flower’s anther and stigma; then, using your thumb, transfer the pollinia from anther to stigma.)

Edmond never got anything out of his discovery. Who did were all the the slave-owning planters on Réunion who now got into vanilla growing: for a while, Réunion became the world’s largest producer of vanilla. But the French authorities made sure the method was transferred to its other island colonies in the Indian Ocean and in the Caribbean. Since then, Madagascar has dominated world production (Indonesia, which muscled into the market in the 1980s, is now second in the producers’ league table). Mexico, on the other hand, has pretty much vanished from the scene, which is a crying shame.

As for Edmond, seven years after his discovery, at the age of 19, he got his freedom; the French government finally outlawed slavery in its colonies in 1848. He left the world of plantations to work as a kitchen hand in the island’s main city, and adopted the surname Albius, from the Latin alba or white, in reference to the vanilla orchid’s colour. Beaumont tried to get the governor of Réunion to give Edmond a stipend or at least a reward for his great discovery but the governor ignored the petition. No doubt, he didn’t think it was worth spending public monies on a black ex-slave.

Unfortunately, Edmond fell in with a bad crowd in his new life and got involved in a theft of jewelry. He was caught and sentenced to 10 years in jail, which, after an appeal by Beaumont to the governor, was reduced to five. After doing his time, Edmond moved back to a village close to the plantation and got married.

Edmond’s travails were not over. It seems to have been an irritation in certain quarters that where white professional botanists had failed, a black slave, and a child to boot, had succeeded. Some time in 1860s a well-known French botanist and plant collector by the name of Jean Richard claimed that actually, he had come up with this revolutionary pollination method in the late 1830s, that he had taught it to some planters in Réunion, and that Edmond must have sneaked into the meeting and heard his explanation. Luckily, Beaumont and a few others vigorously defended Edmond’s primacy to the discovery, although Richard’s false claim did get some traction for a while. May Richard’s name be damned forever …

Edmond died in poverty in 1880, at the age of 51. Luckily, he left a physical trace of himself in history, rare for ex-slaves. Here we have a rather grainy photograph of him when young.

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And here we have a lithograph of him from a book published in 1863, standing gravely in front of a vanilla orchid vine.

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Wonderful story, the vanilla story, no? Except that as far as the vanilla in my wife’s yoghurt is concerned, it is all a big red herring.

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I’m afraid to tell her, and any other readers who might be vanilla lovers, that the vast majority of the vanillin used commercially in the world is fake – well, artificial might be a less inflammatory word. Most of the world’s vanillin is produced from crude oil derivatives in chemical plants: benzene is alkylated with propylene to form cumene, which is then oxidized to phenol. Phenol is hydroxylated into catechol, which is further methylated into guaiacol. Finally, guaiacol is reacted with glyoxilic acid by electrophilic aromatic substitution to produce vanillylmandelic acid, which is converted to vanillin by oxidative decarboxylation. The remainder of the world’s artificial vanillin is made from a waste stream generated in the sulphite process to make paper pulp.

Yes, I know, very disappointing. And the worst of it is that when Cooks Illustrated ran some taste tests which pitted natural vanilla against artificial vanillin used in baked goods and other applications, tasters could not tell the difference! Don’t know what the world is coming to … Luckily, the tasters could tell the difference where ice cream was concerned, with natural vanilla winning out; l’onore è salvo, honour has been saved, as my wife might say.

BEECH TREES

24 August, 2021

This post is a hymn of praise to the European beech tree.

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The tree has been a constant companion on our hikes this summer as we explore the western reaches of the Wienerwald, the woods encircling Vienna to its north and west. Apart from the odd oak, wild cherry, and conifer, the European beech reigns supreme in the Wienerwald.

My memories of the beech start at the age of 10 or so, at my Prep school (Brit-speak for a private, boarding, primary school). Just outside the school gates, at the bottom of a field, was a magnificent copper beech; we would pass it every time we made our way to the school’s playing fields which were down the road. I have no photo of this tree, it may even no longer stand, so this photo will have to stand in for it and for all these magnificent variants of the beech.

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I used to think the copper beech was a different species, but no, all the world’s copper beeches are fruit of a single spontaneous mutation that occurred in a beech tree in a forest in Thuringia, in Germany. It was noticed back in 1690 and was carried from there around the world. One single mutation … like blue eyes.

My next memory of beech is a long beech hedge at my Public school (Brit-speak for a private, boarding, secondary school), which bordered the campus’s entrance road. It was lovely during the summer, with that long solid block of tender green running along the road. Again, I don’t have a photo of this hedge, so this photo of a wonderful hedge somewhere in the UK will have to stand in for it.

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It was really only when we moved to Vienna and got to know the Wienerwald that my wife and I discovered beech woods. And what magnificent woods they are! I insert here one photo we took, where the sun dappled the trunks that stretched off into the distance.

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But our iPhones can’t do these woods justice, so I’ve also picked out a few photos from the Internet taken by people who’ve got the right equipment and know what they are doing.

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That last photo could be of us, following the marked paths through the woods, rather like Hansel and Gretel following Hansel’s white pebbles.

Having been enchanted by these beech woods, my wife and I have decided that some day we will visit some of Europe’s primeval beech forests. These are beech forests which have never, ever been cut or otherwise exploited by human beings, the kind of beech forests through which our hunter-gatherer ancestors would have wandered ten thousand and more years ago. There are 94 such forests in Europe, and as a group they have become a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Austria has five of the 94, Italy 13. In one way or another, we’ll figure out a way of getting to a couple of them. In the meantime, I throw in a photo of one of the Austrian forests, Hintergebirg.

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Interestingly enough, the UK has no primeval beech forests (nor does Ireland, for that matter). It could be that over the centuries the British have simply not been able to leave any of their beech forests alone, cutting them, clearing them, or otherwise fiddling around with them. Or it could be that there never were any primeval beech forests in the first place. The beech is considered natural in the southern part of the island. However, some voices have been raised wondering if this is actually correct. These voices suggest that perhaps the beech was brought to the UK by our Iron Age ancestors, who wanted to have it with them as a source of food – the food in question in this case being the beech tree’s nuts, or mast as it is called. Here we have a (very) close-up – the nuts are quite small.

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And here we see them as my wife and I would probably see them, if we went looking for them, half hidden among dead leaves on the ground.

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I must confess to having been surprised to read that our ancestors ate mast. But that only goes to show how alienated I have become from natural sources of food – “if it ain’t on supermarket shelves it ain’t food”. By my reckoning, it’s five generations since any of my ancestors might have foraged for beech mast. But foraging is becoming popular, with many websites dedicated to this lost art form. A good number of them mention beech mast, claiming that the nuts are good to eat (although small and time-consuming to gather). Other, probably more objective sites warn that the nuts can taste bitter because of their high levels of tannins, but that they can be ground to a flour and the tannins leached out – that’s probably how my more recent ancestors would have eaten mast, if and when they ate it. I now know that I should start looking out for fresh nuts on our hikes in a few weeks’ time; they fall in late August, early September. I’ll try a couple – and see if I can’t persuade my wife to try them too – and will report back.

Coming back to beech woods, one of their characteristics is that they are – relatively speaking – quite dark; the crown of leaves at the top of the trees are dense enough to keep out a lot of the incoming sunlight. As a result, little if anything grows in the shade of the towering beech trunks. The most common sight is a carpet of bronze-coloured beech leaves lying on the forest floor, the product of the trees losing their leaves year after year. My wife and I see this most spectacularly on the hikes we do during the winter months through a beech wood high above Lake Como, when the dead beech leaves on the ground are the only colour present.

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But from time to time we walk through sections of beech woods where a beautiful field of grass lies at the feet of the trees.

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I don’t know what grass this is, or why it only grows in certain places, but the sight of these lawns stretching off into the distance between the trees is a joy to behold. But perhaps not as breathtaking as the fields of bluebells in some of the UK’s beech woods.

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The bluebells escape the deadly shade of the beeches by flowering before the trees are fully in leaf. I’m ashamed to say that I have never visited any of these bluebell groves – another item on our bucket list.

The other characteristic of beech woods is the trees’ smooth bark. It’s quite a striking sight to see all these pale grey, smooth trunks towering up into the sky above our heads. And one can immediately spot the lone oak or cherry or conifer skulking among the beeches; their rough barks stand out. This smoothness actually signals a fragility in the beech’s bark; it is easily scarred and the marks remain forever as the bark cannot heal. Many of the beech trees we cross are marked by scars in their bark, no doubt caused by branches of other trees or bushes scraping against them when they were young. But on our walks we also see examples of silly boys, and perhaps some silly girls, using the inability of the beech’s bark to heal to carve their initials into it, quite often combined with the initials of a loved one and the whole enclosed within a heart; they will stay, more and more distorted as the tree grows, until it is cut or blown down.

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Initials carved in a beech’s bark is another of my beech memories. This particular beech was in my French grandmother’s garden and the initials carved into its bark my uncle’s. He must have done it 30-40 years before I saw it. Family lore has it that my grandmother was furious with him when she discovered this disfigurement of her tree – “so vulgar!” – and gave him a good thrashing. The tree has gone, alas. It died some 15 years after my grandmother died, shaded out, I suspect, by the mighty sequoia nearby, but also probably suffering from a drop in the area’s aquifer: too much water is being pumped out.

Scratching initials on beech bark allows me to make a connection between this wonderful tree and another wonderful item of which I have many exemplars: the book. Beech and book actually come from the same root, the Old English bōc. This has the primary sense of “beech” but also a secondary sense of “book”. The connection is perhaps more obvious in other modern Germanic languages. In modern German, the word for “book” is Buch, with Buche meaning “beech tree”. In modern Dutch, the word for “book” is boek, with beuk meaning “beech tree”. In Swedish, the word bok means both “beech tree” and “book”. This connection allows me to hold forth on another favourite topic of mine, trade – or rather, the exchange of ideas that comes with trade.

When the Germanic tribes migrated into Europe, pushing out the Celts, they were illiterate, with no culture of writing and no alphabet of their own. When they met the Romans, they fought them of course, but they also traded with them and in so doing came into contact both with writing and with the waxed wooden tablets on which traders (and many others in the Roman Empire) made notes or wrote short missives. As far as the alphabet was concerned, the Germanic tribes adopted a precursor to the Roman alphabet, the old Italic alphabet, to create their runes. As for the tablets, the Germanic tribes used the tree that surrounded them, the beech, to make them, and called these tablets after the tree from which they came. Later, when the Germanic tribes shifted to using parchment, they continued to call what they wrote in books.

Being made of wood, these tablets have normally decayed away, but some examples of Roman tablets have been unearthed along Hadrian’s Wall, somehow miraculously avoiding the normal decay processes.

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So from now on the books which surround me will remind me every day of the beech trees which surround us on our walks in the Wienerwald.

SCENT OF A FIG TREE

Vienna, 6 August 2021

I’ve mentioned in previous posts the migratory habits which regulate our lives since we retired: when it begins to get cold in the late autumn we migrate south to Italy, when it begins to get hot in the early summer we migrate north to Austria.

It’s me, really, that’s imposed this pattern on our lives. I have a great dislike of intense cold, so I prefer to abandon Austria to its fate in the winter. But equally, I have a great dislike of intense heat, so I hasten to vacate Italy when the mercury begins to climb vertiginously. I suppose it’s my Anglo-Saxon genes that dictate this behaviour: the breeding of generations have led them to feel most at home in places with mild, not too sunny weather.

I was thinking of this as my wife and I hiked this last week in the Hohe Tauern region of Austria, high up along the edges of the Salzach valley. The weather was cool, cloudy, with patches of sun, but also a little rain now and then, ideal weather for hiking. I throw in a couple of photos which we took.

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Yes, I was glad to be out of the furnace that is Italy at this time of the year. Even the lure of the Mediterranean Sea in Liguria, our favourite site for hiking, cannot overcome my dislike of Italy’s summer heat.

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That being said, there is one thing I do miss from our hikes in Liguria: the scent of fig trees. It’s actually one tree in particular which I miss. It borders the path leading from behind our apartment up to the village of Pieve Alta.

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I cannot even begin to describe the cloud of scent that will suddenly envelop us as we pass that fig tree in late May, early June. It is a scent which for me evokes a dollop of fig jam dissolved in coconut milk, with a pinch of vanilla added, along – perhaps – with a sprinkling of cinnamon. It is like someone passing under my nose a plateful of very ripe figs, all cut open.

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I used to think that it was the fruit giving off this scent, but after reading up on fig trees I now think it is more likely to be the tree’s beautiful, deeply lobed leaves that are emitting the scent.

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Wherever the scent is coming from, and for whatever reason the tree is giving it off (surely not to attract me), I thank the Good Lord that I can get such pleasure from passing a fig tree. Sometimes, as I stride across high Alpine pastures or thread my way through dark stands of tall fir trees, I feel a point of nostalgia for that humble fig tree growing along the path between our apartment and Pieve Alta.

A IS FOR APPLE

Vienna, 23 July 2021

I coincidentally started this blog when the London Olympics were opening – my first post was about the opening ceremony – so with the start today of the Games of the XXXII Olympiad in Tokyo, it seems appropriate to celebrate the II Olympiad of my scribbling with a piece on the act of writing itself. Or more specifically, on the symbols which I use to commit my scribbles to (electronic) paper, the letters of the Latin alphabet. Their creation is a fascinating example of the untiring efforts of people the world over to give permanence to the sounds emanating from their mouths: verba volant, scripta manent, the old Latin proverb intones, “spoken words fly away, written words remain”.

The creation of the Latin alphabet, my alphabet if I may call it that, is also a fascinating story of trade as we shall see. Assiduous readers of my posts will know that I have often written about the material things as well as ideas that have been transmitted by trade.

The overall arc of development of my alphabet can be summarized by the letter
Turn that letter upside down, and you have:


I think readers will agree that this could be considered a very schematic drawing of a cow’s or ox’s head. And that is exactly where my A originally comes from, the Egyptian hieroglyph for ox’s head.

By what twists and turns did that hieroglyph morph over the millennia into my letter A?

The story starts somewhere in the Sinai peninsula in about 2000-1800 BC. A Semitic people there were in contact with the Egyptian civilization and were familiar with their hieroglyphic method of writing. They adopted those hieroglyphs to write down their own language. The earliest example we have is from a place now called Serabit el-Khadim in the Sinai, which in antiquity was the location of a very rich turquoise mine.

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This is part of some of the inscriptions there, scratched out on a rock, probably by the turquoise miners, at the beginning of the 16th Century BC.

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Initially, this Semitic people followed the basic Egyptian principle of hieroglyphs being pictograms: a picture of an ox stood for the word ox. In this, they were no different from the peoples of East Asia, for instance, who adopted the Chinese writing system – also at its base a pictogramic system – to write down their, very different, languages.

But then, relatively quickly, this Semitic people made one very crucial change: they made the picture of an ox stand for the first sound in their word for “ox”. In other words, their signs began to stand for sounds rather than whole words. This was revolutionary, because it meant that with a relatively small number of signs – some 20 in all – this people could cover all the sounds they used, and then they could string those signs together to write the thousands of words they used. This approach made it much, much easier to learn how to write because it was much easier to memorize such a small number of signs. Compare that to an Egyptian scribe, who had to memorize 1,000 or so hieroglyphs. It democratized writing: only a tiny proportion of Ancient Egyptians could ever hope to be able to write, while – in theory, at least – every one of our Semitic people could become a writer (theory only really became practice in our age, and tragically even today in many parts of the world people have not been able to learn to write).

The Phoenicians, who lived along the eastern coast of the Mediterranean in present-day Lebanon and northern Israel, and who were descendants of those Semitic people in the Sinai, perfected this method of writing. They came up with a group – an alphabet as we would come to know it – of 22 signs, with which they could write any word in their language. Here, for instance, is their “ox” sign; they actually flipped the sign onto its side, like so, probably because it was easier to write with a stylus.
The Phoenician word for “ox” was ‘alep. So this sign represented the “a”-like guttural which was the first sound in the word (Phoenician, like the modern Semitic languages, used a lot of gutturals). With time, ‘alep also became the name of this sign.

For their “b” sound, the Phoenicians used this sign, which stood for beth, or “house” in Phoenician. And again, beth too eventually became the name of the sign.
This sign was ultimately derived from the Egyptian hieroglyph for “house”, although the sign seems to have got bent out of shape over the centuries.

For their hard “g”-sound (like in “go”), the Phoenicians used this sign, which stood for giml, or “throwing stick” in Phoenician. And giml became the sign’s name.
Again, the Egyptian hieroglyph for “throwing stick” was at the origin of this sign.
I could go on, but I think readers will have got the point by now. I do think, though, that the Phoenicians deserve to have their whole alphabet shown here.

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In a wave of enthusiasm about the fantastic work they did, I have also decided to show an example of an actual text in Phoenician.

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This tablet comes from a temple that was built in about 500 BC on the Tyrrhenian coast of what is now central Italy. It is there because the Phoenicians were present in the whole of the Mediterranean basin. Which brings us to trade.

The Phoenicians were inveterate traders, trading with their neighbours to the east as well as across the whole of the Mediterranean basin; they also established a string of colonies along the shores of the Mediterranean, the most famous of which was Carthage. Not surprisingly, they took their writing system with them wherever they went, and their trading counterparts got to know about it. Many of them quickly twigged to its power and adopted it for their language. The ones who interest me are the Greeks. Around the 8th Century BC, they adopted the Phoenician alphabet wholesale, even transliterating the Phoenician names of the letters into something more Greek sounding. So ‘aleph became alpha, beth became beta, giml became gamma, and so on (and we thus got our name for a group of such signs, or letters as we can now call them: the alphabet, a merging of the names of the first two letters alpha and beta).

The Greeks did have to bring in some modifications to the Phoenician alphabet, because the sounds they used were not quite the same as the sounds the Phoenicians used. The biggest difference was in the vowels. Greek had more obvious vowel sounds than did Phoenician, which relied on gutturals. There was also the hard-“th”, the “ks” and the “ps” sounds. In most cases, the Greeks repurposed Phoenician letters for sounds which did not exist in Greek, in a few others they created new letters.

Actually, because of different dialects spoken among the Greeks, which meant that there were some variations in the sounds used, there were three somewhat different alphabets created by the Greek polities, as shown on this map.

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It’s the western Greek alphabet (used in the parts of Greece coloured orange in the map) which interests us most, for reasons which will become clear in a minute. I show this alphabet here, along with the original Phoenician “template”.
One can see the outlines of the classical Greek alphabet peeping out – the one I used as an unhappy student of ancient Greek at school. With time, the Greeks dropped some of these letters and added others, like omega. In some cases, where I show two letters in the Western Greek column, there were variants. And in those variants, one can see the outlines of letters which were to be found in the Latin alphabet and not in the classical Greek alphabet: the C, the D with the rounded “tummy”, the beginnings of the P (the loop still needed to be fully closed), the beginning of the R (the downward slanting stroke was miniscule), the S. The importance of these variants will become apparent in a minute.

The Euboean Greeks, who used this western Greek alphabet, were also, like the Phoenicians, traders and colonists. In particular, they had set up what are probably the oldest Greek colonies in Italy, around the bay of Naples: one on the island of Ischia (Pithekoussai) and one on the mainland (Cumae).

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They set them up in the 8th Century BC, pretty much when the Greeks adopted the Phoenician alphabet. No doubt the Western Greek alphabet arrived very quickly in these two colonies. There, the Euboeans came into contact with the Etruscans, who were at the time the major power in the Italian peninsula and, as this map shows, were poised to expand their power and influence even further up and down the peninsula.

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The contacts which the Euboeans had with the Etruscans were primarily through trade but, given that the Etruscans eventually enveloped both colonies, these could also have led to political alliances.

When the Etruscans got to know the Euboean alphabet they, like the Euboeans before them, must have realized the power of this writing system and adopted it, although they too had to bring in a good number of modifications to deal with the different sounds which they had in their language. I won’t list their alphabet, for the very cruel reason that their language was extinguished – so thoroughly that its vocabulary and grammar are still only partly known, in spite of more than a century of intense research.

Which brings us to the Romans, who did the extinguishing. Early on in their history, this upstart, but aggressive, tribe from the middle of the Italian peninsula were ruled over by the Etruscans, but they took them on and eventually beat them comprehensively. Along the way, though, in a pattern which must be familiar to readers by now, the Romans also recognized the power of alphabets and adopted the Etruscan one – with the usual modifications to account for different sounds in their language, including the readoption of some of the letters in the Greek alphabet which the Etruscans has dropped as not useful to them.

And so, coming back to the letter A with which I started, let me use it to show the arc of development that took place, from the Egyptian hieroglyph to the Latin letter.

Of course, the story doesn’t end with the Romans. The Latin alphabet could have disappeared at the fall of the Western Roman Empire, along with so much else that did disappear. That it didn’t is a testimony to writing’s utility to the Western Christian Church, the only organization left standing from the Roman era. Apart from the ability to more easily transmit religious ideas, the alphabet allowed the Church to – once again – give written form to languages without writing, in this case all the languages which the Germanic and Slavic tribes brought with them, often mixed in with the remains of Latin and its offshoots. As usual, there was the usual problem of dealing with sounds which didn’t exist in Latin, but interestingly enough no new letters were created. There was just fiddling around with the existing ones. So, for instance, we have Å, Ê, Ï, Ø, Ù to deal with various long vowels, and Č, Š, Ñ, to deal with the “ch”, “sh”, and “ny” consonants, in various European languages (there are lots of other fiddles, but for the sake of brevity I will leave them out). The process of using the Latin alphabet to create writing systems for various languages has gone on in modern times as the European powers colonized other parts of the world which didn’t have writing – the North American tribes, for instance, or the tribes in Sub-Saharan Africa – or even which did, for instance in Vietnam.

All of this has given me the puerile desire to create my own alphabet. I’ll use the same process of development: assign to each letter in my alphabet an object which starts with that letter, create pictograms for each of those objects, and then simplify those pictograms into letters. To identify the necessary objects, I’ll use one of those songs with which parents teach their children the alphabet, songs which go something like this:

A is for apple, a a apple
B is for ball, b b ball
C is for cat, c c cat
etc.

As an added plus, I can use the exercise to ruthlessly cull my alphabet of unnecessary letters: C, because S can be used for soft-C, K can be used for hard-C; X, because you can simply write X as KS. And I’ll come up with standardized ways of dealing with diphthongs. In the process, I’ll make English writing sound the way it’s spoken: as any non-English native will tell you, English has one of the craziest spellings in the world, there is no way in hell that you can tell what a word sounds like by the way it’s spelled.

Mind you, I’m not sure what I’ll do with my new alphabet once I have it. I’m not 10 years old anymore, with a BFF with whom I could pass notes back and forth during classes in our own secret code. And I’m past the age of being a spy, sending my minders coded messages about where the weapons of mass destruction have been stashed away.

No worries, I’ll think of something! Watch this space …

Oh, and enjoy the Tokyo Olympics!

TOTENTANZ, THE DANCE OF DEATH

Sori, 4 July 2021

During this year’s week-long hike in the Dolomites (which I also mentioned in passing in my previous post), I managed to squeeze in a visit to the parish church of Sesto (or Sexten, to give its German name; we are in Sud Tirol, after all). Let me repeat here a message I have tried to pass in previous posts: always visit every church you come across in Europe, no matter how small it is, because there is a good chance that you will discover an artistic gem (or two). The church in Sesto / Sexten was no exception.

The church itself was OK – it had some interesting frescoes on the ceiling.

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But what really made the visit worth while was the cemetery. My wife will tell you that I have a morbid streak, and indeed I don’t deny having a certain preoccupation with death – a preoccupation which, naturally enough I think, is growing with age. But cemeteries do also often contain wonderful art, as people try to lessen the pain caused by the departure of loved ones and reduce the fear of death itself through art. Things started with a bang at the entrance to the cemetery, which took the form of a small circular pavilion reached by a covered staircase from the road.

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The ceiling of the pavilion was adorned with a Totentanz, or Dance of Death (danza macabra in Italian). This type of artistic depiction flourished in Europe during the 15th and 16th Centuries, probably in response to the Black Death and the lesser outbreaks of the plague which continued to periodically sweep through the continent. They were a form of memento mori, a reminder to us that we must all die sooner or later: “Remember, man, that thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return”. I came across a typical example of the form several years ago, in a church in Milan.

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The phrase on the left says “I was what you are”, while the one on the right says “You will be what I am” (I emailed the photo to a dear friend of mine as an attachment to a lighthearted note; he died a year later – death catches us all, some of us sooner than later).

Dances of Death were different because they stressed that Death was the Great Leveller: whatever your social position, however powerful you were, you could not hide from Death. I suppose this idea was thrown into sharp relief by the Plague: here was a disease which made no distinctions, remorselessly scything down rich and poor, powerful and powerless, old and young, sick and healthy. And so Dances of Death would depict men and women – and children – from all ranks of society and all walks of life dancing with, being embraced by, skeletons. Here are typical examples of the genre.

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In the earlier versions, each person would be accompanied by a short poem, often written in an ironic tone, commenting on him or her and their incipient death. And the skeletons would be quite jolly, not only dancing but frolicking about.

Even though the example on the ceiling of that pavilion in the cemetery of Sesto / Sexten was quite modern – it was painted soon after the First World War – its author, Rudolf Stolz, followed the traditional iconography quite faithfully. Thus, we have a ruler.

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He is accompanied by a rhyming couplet in German, which states (in my rather free translation)
“The sands have run out,
Lay aside your scepter.”
The skeleton is holding an hourglass, so we can interpret these couplets as something the skeletons are saying to their charges.

Then we have a mature woman, a “matron” as they used to be called.

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Her skeleton is saying to her
“Woman, your devotions are over
Idly burns your candle”
To make the point, it pinches the candle’s wick. Like many a matron in a village like Sesto, she must have been a regular churchgoer.

Next we have a mature man, no doubt a local farmer, dressed the way locals would have dressed until quite recently.

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With a scythe slung over its shoulder, his skeleton is intoning
“Your virility, your creativity
Cut like grass by a stroke of my scythe”

He is followed by the most poignant of the depictions, that of a baby.

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The skeleton is crooning to the baby
“Sleep, my angel, sleep sweetly
You’ll awake in paradise”
At a time when the death of babies and children was still quite common, I can only hope that this painting was of some comfort to grieving mothers on their way to tend the graves of their children.

On goes the dance! We move on to a young man.

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His friendly skeleton, bony arm wrapped around his shoulder, is telling him
“Not so sad, young blood
Go homewards with cheerful heart”
Presumably “homewards” in this context means home to the kingdom of God.

Which brings us to a young woman.

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Her skeleton is telling her
“Fair maiden with the myrtle wreath
Follow me to the wedding dance”
And indeed the skeleton seems to be about to start the kind of square dance that was common in these parts. But no doubt it is referring to a wedding with Death.

And so we come to the final character, a bishop.

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His skeleton is telling him
“Bishop with the shepherd’s crook
Set aside your heavy burden”
and is helpfully taking away his crosier (his crook), no doubt as a first step in divesting him of his other accoutrements.

When I saw this Dance of Death, I was immediately reminded of another Dance of Death which recently went under the hammer at the Dorotheum auction house in Vienna, a version of Albin Egger-Lienz’s “Totentanz 1809”.

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The affinity between these paintings is no surprise. As his name indicates, Egger-Lienz was born just down the road from Sesto / Sexten, in Lienz, now in Austria. Most of the themes of his paintings were Tyrolese. Rudolf Stolz was a great fan of his.

Suitably reminded of my own approaching demise, I passed into the cemetery itself. Tyrolese cemeteries are a joy to visit. Each grave is a little garden, carefully tended by relatives. This one was particularly well kept, and the view on the Dolomites of Sesto was magnificent.

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In addition, the crosses over the graves are often masterpieces of ironwork. I throw in a few examples I came across.

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I have to assume that all those flowery curlicues are to remind the Christian viewer that the wooden cross is the bearer of (eternal) life, rather like a stick which – when stuck in the ground – sprouts leaves.

Behind the first cross you can see an example of the frescoes that are painted on some of the cemetery’s family tombs. Rudolf and his two brothers Albert and Ignaz painted a good number of these (Albert also painted the frescoes on the ceiling of the church). I rather like this fresco by Ignaz Stolz, a nice take on the story of the Sermon on the Mount.

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In the end, though, I rather preferred the sculptures in wood – another great art form in the Tirol; not surprising, given the wealth of wood here – that adorned some of the family tombs.

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I’m not sure I would want a sculpture on my family tomb strongly suggesting that I would be burning in Hell …

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The story of the women coming to the grave of Jesus to prepare him, only to find an angel sitting at the mouth of the tomb.

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A pietà.

Yes, if I am finally laid to rest in a cemetery – which is not a given; cremation is a strong possibility – I think a Tyrolese grave, surrounded by mountain flowers, will do me very well. And I want a brass band to see me off! Once, many years ago, when I was convalescing at home after a knee operation, my wife took me for a spin through the countryside around Vienna. Quite by chance, we came across a funeral procession that had just reached the village cemetery. We stopped to watch. Suddenly, the sombre silence was broken by a duet between trumpet and trombone. What a way to go, to the sound of brass!

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I have often told my wife of this desire, but I suspect she has been dismissing it as an emanation of the Monty-Pythonesque side of me, not to be taken seriously. But really, what better way to say that that final goodbye than through the booming notes of a brass band? Since she and I like jazz so much, maybe she could fly in one of those New Orleans funeral bands. Now that would be something!

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TUBING DOWN THE DRAVA RIVER

Milan, 28 June 2021

My wife and I, together with our daughter this year, have just finished our annual week-long hike in the Dolomites. We went back to the valley where we had started our hike last year, the Val Fiscalina in Alto Adige (or Sud Tirol).

I will hopefully post my usual photo-essay of the hikes we did, once our daughter sends us the photos – as she repeatedly reminded us, the camera in her iPhone is way better than ours, so she took most of the photos. But here I want to talk about something that happened during an easy hike we took on one of our five days of hiking, to give our muscles a rest. It was along the side of the valley between Sesto and Dobbiaco. Along the way, we crossed this panel.

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It was announcing that we were crossing the sources of the Drava River. The Drava River! … I knew this river as a tributary of the Danube, somewhere in the Balkans. Yet here was its source, some 500 km away as the crow flies. To memorialize the moment, I took this picture, just when a young boy happened to be messing around with the stream of water.

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I immediately recognized that pastime from my own childhood, damming and undamming streams; I still enjoy undamming the rivulets that trickle down the side of tracks we hike along, poking away at the amassed debris with my walking sticks. I would also float sticks on streams and watch them disappear around the nearest bend. Where would those sticks end up, I wondered.

Once, when I was a bit older, I spent hours poring over maps of England, trying to figure out how I might be able to kayak down the stream which ran along the bottom of the valley in front of my school, all the way to London. Ah, the foolishness of youth! I’m not sure a kayak would have even fitted in that stream.

A few years later again – I was in my mid teens by then – I was consumed with envy when I discovered that my two cousins had spent a couple of weeks tubing down some river in France. Just the thing I had wanted to do with my kayak!

That evening, I was once again studying maps, to see where the Drava river went. And suddenly, I found myself dreaming up an imaginary tubing journey down the Drava with my wife, all the way to its mouth on the Danube. This picture gives my readers an idea of what I’m talking about, although this particular tubing expedition is taking place in Tuscany.

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I decide that we will start our imaginary tubing journey in San Candido. At its very beginning, the Drava is really a miserable little stream, there’s no way we could float two tubes in it – plus a third one carrying our stuff. But at San Candido, it receives the waters of the much bigger Sextner Bach.

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So off we go, down the Drava!

After some 8 kilometers of going east the Drava stream will carry us out of Italy at Prato alla Drava and into the province of East Tyrol in Austria.

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30 kilometers later, the stream will bring us to the town of Lienz. Here, the Drava meets the much more powerful Isel River, which bulks it up.

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After Lienz, the Drava, a river now, although still a small river, will carry us into the upper Drava valley. We’ll first pass through the Kärntner Tor, or Carinthian Gate, which is a narrowing in the Drava Valley and the entry point into the province of Carinthia.

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The river runs between the Kreuzeck range of the High Tauern in the north and the Gailtal Alps in the south. After carrying us past various picturesque villages like the village of Greifenburg

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the river will turn sharp left and squeeze through the Sachsenburger Narrows.

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We’ll be traveling faster on the more rapid currents and we’ll burst out of the narrows, spinning perhaps in our tubes, to find ourselves floating past Sachsenburg itself.

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We will have travelled some 50 km by now since we plonked our tubes down in the stream at San Candido.

Just after Sachsenburg, the river receives the Möll river, swelling it still further.

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Maybe a few flecks of gold will cling to our tubes at this point! The Möll, but also the Isel earlier and other streams coming out of the High Tauern Mountains, carry alluvial gold out of these mountains. For several thousand years, pan handlers have earned a modest but honest living along the Drava River downstream of the High Tauern Mountains, panning the river’s detritus for gold, all the way down into Croatia. Even today, some hardy souls try their luck.

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We will now be floating by Spittal an der Drau.

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Soon after, Villach, the biggest town we’ll have seen so far, will hove into view.

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After Villach, the Drava River becomes more of a lowland river, running slower and beginning to twist and turn across the landscape. Our tubes will follow it in these twists and turns, eventually entering the Rosental valley and running along the northern side of the Karawanken mountain ranges. Here, the river, and my wife and I, will end our travels in Austria. We will float gently by Völkermarkt

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before following the river south as it slips through a gap in the mountains and enters Slovenia. In total, we will have travelled 255 kilometres in Austria.

Onwards into Slovenia! We will soon reach our first Slovenian town, Dravograd.

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The river, and us, will now turn eastward, and after running through a sparsely populated area we will arrive to Maribor.

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After admiring the quays of Maribor as we slip by, we will let the river take us southward to Ptuj.

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Shortly thereafter, after traveling some 120 kilometres in Slovenia, the river will carry us across the border into Croatia.

Croatia, here we come!

We cruise by Varaždin, which we don’t really see, it being set back from the river. Quite soon after, the Drava is joined by the Mur River.

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For 130 kilometers or so, the river now becomes the border between Croatia and Hungary. It has become a very slow-moving river, meandering its way across the landscape, which has become a pleasant forest- and marsh-filled environment.

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We will patiently follow the meanders, moving sluggishly past the Hungarian border town of Barcs.

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From now on, we’ll have to be careful not to be run over by the ships which begin to ply the Drava for trade. Further on, we will glide past the small Croatian town of Donji Miholjac.

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The river now stops being the border with Hungary. On it goes, looping and relooping as it crosses the region of Slavonia.

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It will eventually bring us to Osijek.

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I think I’ll stop our imaginary journey here. We’ve already travelled some 160 kilometres through Croatia, and some 7 kilometres beyond Osijek the Drava finally flows into, and loses itself in, the Danube.

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I don’t think there would be anywhere for us to get off the river there, and I don’t feel like continuing all the way down the Danube to the Black Sea.

Well, that was a nice dream! Alas, I suspect that doing a trip like this in real life wouldn’t be possible. For one thing, the river has been dammed to within an inch of its life, for hydropower. There are no less than 22 hydroelectric stations along the river. Assuming one is even allowed onto the lakes behind the dams, at some point we would somehow have to schlepp our tubes around the dams and down onto the river again – assuming that there would be enough water downstream of the dams to plonk our tubes into. For another, I rather suspect that having one’s bum in the water all day, for something like two weeks (my guess as to how long this little trip would take), might not be too good for the skin of the bum. For a third, the waters of the Drava up to at least the Möll River are all from glacial or snow melt and so would be pretty damned cold. But hey! What would life be like without dreams?

I read, however, that they are constructing a bike path all the way down the river. Maybe it would be more sensible for my wife and me to simply bike down the Drava …

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CATCHING A FUNICULAR

Milan, 15 June 2021

It’s not often that I write about technologies, they are mostly workhorses of some sort without much else to commend them. But from time to time I come across a technology that catches my eye. Sometimes it’s because the technology in question is genuinely lovely to look at – solar power towers come to mind – but sometimes it’s simply because it’s quirky and fun and brings a smile to my world-weary, seen-it-all-before, been-there-done-that face. Funiculars fall into the latter category.

My wife and I have been taking funiculars quite often this last month or so. Actually, we’ve been taking one specific funicular quite often, the one between Como and Brunate, the village perched high above Como, on the steep hills – cliffs, almost – that plunge into the lake. It is the jump-off point for a number of our hikes.

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Wikipedia informs me that the line was inaugurated in 1894, and certainly the style of the station in Como fits with that date.

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We pile into one of those weird carriages that all funiculars have.

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They are the only thing I’ve ever come across in the real world which look just like those parallelograms we used to draw in geometry classes at primary school.

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Entering a funicular carriage is like entering a world where everything leans to one side. Luckily for us, as readers can see from the picture of the carriage its’ designers have rigged up the inside into a series of flat platforms connected by steps, so we can sit in a normal position and not like those astronauts who are about to take off from Cape Canaveral.

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At departure time, a bell rings sonorously, the doors slide shut, and the steel cable starts dragging us up this impossibly steep hillside.

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Halfway up the climb, the down-going carriage hoves to on the horizon.

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It’s on the same track as ours, and coming straight at us.

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But just before the inevitable head-on crash, the two carriages veer sideways – one to the left, one to the right – they slide past each other

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and continue on their way. Soon after, we ease slowly into the upper station at Brunate, the doors open, and we stride off to yet another hike, after briefly stopping to admire the view.

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It’s not just their quirkiness that makes me like funiculars. They are also clever pieces of design. The key design principle behind them is to have two carriages attached to the same cable. I personally haven’t dragged anything up a very steep hill, but I would imagine that it’s pretty hard work, requiring the outlay of a lot of energy – and an overseer to whip the bejeezus out of me to make me pull harder. A picture from Asterix and Cleopatra shows what I mean.

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Attaching another carriage to the cable means that at least the weight of the carriage being dragged up the hill is now counterbalanced by the weight of the carriage sliding down it, so the only energy you need to add to the system is the energy required to drag the people sitting in the carriage up the hill. And if you can get people into the carriage going down the hill, they can pretty much balance the people coming up, reducing even more the energy required to get the upcoming carriage to the top of the hill.

I can’t find any claim on the internet to an inventor for this key idea. I suspect it’s an old idea, with the inventor lost in the mists of time. The most immediate precursor comes from the golden age of canals, where similar systems were used to drag boats up from a lower canal to a higher one, counterbalanced by boats being let down from the higher canal to the lower one. My wife and I have walked down the slope of one such system, the Keage Incline, in Kyoto. It used to connect the canal from Lake Biwa to the canal 36 meters lower which ran through Kyoto.

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It was taken out of use in 1948. Now only tourists like us use it, especially during the Spring when the cherry trees, which have been planted along it, are in bloom.

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This clever idea of the counterbalancing act was taken one step further in a few funiculars, where a water tank was attached to the carriages. An operator at the top of the funicular would fill the tank of the downward-going carriage with enough water to make it just a bit heavier than the upward-coming carriage, so that the downward-moving carriage could pull the upward-coming carriage up the hill without the need for any extra energy input. At the bottom, the tank was emptied out, and the whole cycle started over. Unfortunately, this alternative to the funiculars’ basic balancing act was never very common, because it needs a good (cheap) source of water at the top of the hill, whereas most sources of water are at the bottom of hills. I also suspect these types of funiculars were more complicated to manage. Over the years, a good number have been switched to more conventional hauling engines, but a few still exist, for instance the Bom Jesus funicular in Braga, Portugal (the water tank is below the carriage)

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and the Neuveville-St-Pierre funicular in Fribourg, Switzerland.

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The Fribourg funicular has reached a maximum of cleverness. It uses the treated wastewater from a treatment plant located on the top of the hill to fill the tanks. At a minimum, that makes it a win-win-win solution, and I think there must be another “win” in there somewhere.

The next important invention in the funicular story does have a name and a face attached to it. Originally, cables were made of hemp or other natural fibres. As readers can imagine, they were not that strong. If the weight being pulled was too great they would snap. In practice, this meant that the hills up which things were dragged could not be too steep or the loads too heavy. This limitation was overcome when the German Wilhelm Albert figured out how to make stranded steel cables, with the first steel cable being put into use in 1834.

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Initially, the steel cables were stranded by hand, which obviously limited output, but in 1837 an Austrian by the name of Wurm developed a machine to strand cables. The German rope-makers Felten & Guillaume then got into the game and by the 1840s were churning out more, and cheaper, steel cables. We see here their factory in Cologne in the 1860s.

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This greatly expanded the scope of where funiculars – and anything else being dragged up inclines – could be used.

The final important invention had to do with track layout. In the first funiculars, each carriage had its own set of tracks. This funicular in Hastings in the UK, which was actually built quite late in the day – 1902 – shows the principle.

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Two tracks laid side by side, plus four platforms – each track had to have its own top and bottom platforms – took up a lot of space, space which was often carved out of the living rock. If only one track could be used (and only two platforms), the construction costs could be lowered considerably. But how to get the two carriages past each other when they met at the midpoint? This knotty problem was solved by a Swiss engineer by the name of Carl Roman Abt.

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He came up with this set-up for the tracks.

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As the diagram shows, to make it work the wheels on the left of one carriage are flanged on both sides, while it’s the other way around on the other carriage. Like that, when the carriages come to the passing point, the carriage flanged on the left always veers left, the carriage flanged on the right always veers right. The inner wheels aren’t flanged at all. Quite simple, really – although I’m sure the execution in real life is more complex than that two-sentence description.

Abt first used this system in 1886 on the funicular in Lugano which connects the old town to the railway station. Which is great, because it allows me to throw in a picture of one of the funiculars which my wife and I have used in our lives. Readers can see that the cars are thoroughly modern, fruit of a makeover in 2016.

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While I’m at it, I can throw in pictures of the two other funiculars we have travelled on:
The Angel’s Flight in Los Angeles (which uses a 3-rail track layout)

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The Eizan Cable Car, to the north-east of Kyoto

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I’m racking my brains to think of other funiculars we’ve travelled on but I think that’s it: four in total, counting the one in Como. Not a huge number given that there are some 300 funiculars around the world. We really have to do better. I shall review with my wife Wikipedia’s list of funiculars around the world, to see which ones we should try to ride (this could be an excuse to visit places we haven’t been to yet, like Rio de Janeiro or Santiago in Chile). And then, when (if) COVID-19 is brought under control, we can be on our way!

IRISES

Milan, 4 June 2021

On the hikes which my wife and I have been doing around Lake Como, we frequently come across irises blooming in people’s gardens. They are very nice, of course, but what I really admire are those irises which we spy on the side of the path, normally growing out of a small mound of garden waste. Clearly, someone in the vicinity did some clearing in their gardens, which included pulling up some iris rhizomes (their tuber-like roots), and then they just chucked the waste by the side of the path. But these irises are tough. In the face of adversity, they’ve just kept going, rooting into their new environment and continuing to bloom, to the delight of passersby. Unfortunately, the photos which I took at the time of these feral irises have disappeared into the Photo Black Hole in my iPhone, so I throw in this stock photo instead.

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I really admire the irises’ toughness. They remind me rather of a similarly tough plant with lovely flowers which I’ve written about earlier, common chicory.

Irises also reach back deep into my subconscious. My mother had planted irises in her garden in the house of my early childhood in Eritrea – or maybe she inherited them from previous renters of the house; that will to survive which I was just mentioning – and small child though I was (I could not have been more than six years’ old), I was awestruck by these lovely, bright, complex-looking flowers, with their sword-like leaves. My memory may be playing tricks with me but I remember them being yellow irises.

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Yet another encounter during a walk last week around Lake Como with irises growing out of waste piles has finally persuaded me to take up my electronic pen and write about them.

Not that there’s a huge amount to write about, unless you’re fixated about irises (and a good number of people do seem to be fixated by them). I was rather astonished to discover that taxonomists recognize something like 280 species of iris (there are also thousands of hybrids – the iris is a flower which enthusiasts have loved to fiddle with – but I won’t bother with them; it’s the Real Thing that interests me). Their natural distribution spans much of northern Eurasia, although there are also a number of species which are native to North America. I throw in some photos of irises in their natural habitat, not imprisoned in someone’s garden: as I’ve remarked in an earlier post about tulips, it’s so much nicer to see flowers in their natural state.
A field of irises in North America:

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Iris sibirica in Central Europe

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Iris haynei in the Middle East

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The Nazareth iris, also from the Middle East

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Iris lortetii, also from the Middle East

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With 280 species to choose from, I suppose I could have added a good deal more photos of wild irises. But I think that will do. I’m struck by the colours I chose; I rather suspect that I wanted to get away from the typical purple and yellow irises one sees in gardens.

Talking of natural states, it seems to me that iris is a bit of a fancy name for a flower, at least in English. Something like mugwort or yellow flag (actually an alternative name for one of the irises) seems more English. In fact, it appears that we owe the flower’s name to the French. Someone there, some time in the 13th Century, noticing that the flower’s petals had iridescent reflections gave the flower the Greek name for rainbow. Perhaps the deep violet colour of many of the species, resembling the violet and indigo bands of the rainbow, also played a part in this naming exercise.

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I’m not completely convinced by this explanation of the name; my inspections of the flower don’t show any obvious iridescence; maybe it was the flowers’ way of shading from colour to colour that inspired the French to name it iris.

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In any event, I find that this explanation makes more sense to me than the other explanation bouncing around the Internet, namely that the flower was called iris because it comes in all the shades of the rainbow; this clearly is not the case.

Whatever the right explanation, a connection has been made with a Greek goddess, which has given me an excuse to explore this member of the Greek pantheon. She is, I must admit, a very minor member. Her sole role in life was to carry messages from the gods to other gods or mortals. But she did this very prettily, by laying down a rainbow and walking along it to whoever she was delivering a message to. Apparently, there are no ancient statues of her bar one; one of the statues on the frieze of the Parthenon now in the British Museum – I will skate over the passionate arguments that this relocation to London has generated.

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Yes, well, I mutter under my breath, how can anyone know who this very bashed up piece of stone is meant to represent? Nevertheless, I bow to the Experts and accept their attribution.

We seem to be on firmer ground when it comes to paintings on Greek pottery. Here we have a picture of Iris on this vase from the 5th Century BC.

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Iris was also depicted by those European artists of the 17th, 18th and 19th Centuries who went in for classical themes – not my cup of tea, but hey! it takes all sorts to make a world. This particular painting from 1811, by Pierre Narcisse Guerin, falls into this category.

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I have to say, it seems to me that the painting is verging on soft porn. In any event, it claims to be portraying a story from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, where Juno sends Iris to give a message to Somnus, the god of sleep – the message is, “send a dream to Alcyone that her husband Ceyx is dead” (any reader who wants to know the backstory is welcome to read the Metamorphoses). Iris throws down a rainbow and walks along it (or slides down it?) into the underworld, where Somnus sleeps away his days and nights. She can barely rouse him from his slumbers but finally manages and delivers the message. She then gets the hell out of there as she feels she is about to fall asleep, and clambers back up her rainbow. I should explain at this point that Somnus has one thousand sons, whose job it is to deliver dreams to us mortals. He summons his son Morpheus, the best deliverer of dreams, instructs him to pass on Juno’s message, and promptly falls back to sleep. Guerin got the story wrong by depicting Iris delivering the message directly to Morpheus.  But Somnus was presumably middle-aged while Morpheus was a strapping young fellow, so no doubt Guerin took some artistic license so as to be able to paint a nakedly handsome young man as a worthy companion to the nakedly pretty young woman.

The French not only gave the flower its modern name, they also brought the flower’s heraldic representation, the fleur-de-lys, to great prominence, through the adoption by the French kings of the fleur-de-lys as their heraldic emblem. I have to admit to have been really surprised to discover this connection. Why are fleur-de-lys not called fleur-de-iris, then? The best explanation I’ve come across is that the French kings were descended from a line of Frankish chiefs who had lived originally around the river Lies in Belgium before they invaded France. These Frankish chiefs took as their heraldic symbol the yellow Iris pseudacorus, which grows in abundance along the edges of the River Lies, and which is known in Frankish – their original tongue – as Lieschbloem, the bloom of the Lies. It’s easy to see how that could have been frenchified to fleur-de-lys. Here, we have the Lieschbloem in its natural riverine habitat.

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And here we have a comparison of a Lieschbloem in close-up and a fleur-de-lys.

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I think one can appreciate that the fleur-de-lys could well be a stylized Lieschbloem. As a clincher, readers should note that the background of the French kings’ armorials was blue (“azure” in heraldic lingo) – a representation of the River Lies? Here are the arms of King Louis XVI.

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The kings changed their the number of fleur-de-lys on their arms quite frequently, and I chose him because everyone has probably heard of him – the one who got his head cut off during the French Revolution.

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Talking of fleur-de-lys, it was also – still is, actually – the centrepiece of the arms of Florence. But there’s an interesting story to the colour scheme. Originally – we’re talking before 1251 – the colours were a white fleur-de-lys on a red background.

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The white Iris florentina grew wild in the area around Florence.

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It even grew, it is said, on the city’s walls – this is no longer the case, alas, for the few stretches of the walls still left around Florence.

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So I suppose it was quite reasonable for the City Fathers to choose a white iris as the city’s heraldic symbol (why they placed it on a red background I don’t know).

In 1251, the government of the city was in the hands of the Ghibelline faction. I hope my readers are at least vaguely familiar with the fighting between Guelphs and the Ghibellines that roiled pretty much all of the city-states in northern and central Italy in the 12th and 13th Centuries. Here, for instance, we have Guelphs and Ghibellines duking it out in Bologna.

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Formally, the Guelphs supported the Popes and the Ghibellines the Holy Roman Emperors in the never-ending feud of these two about who controlled who. But in many cities this was just an excuse to cover local quarrels. In Florence, for instance, it was more about the patricians (Ghibellines) versus the plebs (Guelphs). In 1251, the Guelph faction wrested control of the city from the Ghibellines, and to signal that there had been a definitive political change, the Guelphs switched the colours around on the city’s armorial bearings. I suppose they were in power for long enough for the switch to become definitive, because still today we have a red fleur-de-lys on a white background.

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One side-effect of this colour switch was people trying to breed a truly red bearded iris (the group of irises to which Iris florentina belongs) and failing dismally. The judgement of Those Who Know is that there is no truly red iris, bearded or otherwise.  Well of course the experts know, but the copper iris from North America looks pretty red to me.

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But, once again, I bow to the Experts.

It would seem that the Florentines discovered another interesting thing about their Iris florentina, namely that if you take the plant’s rhizome and dry it for a very long time – 3 to 5 years – reactions slowly take place in the rhizome which eventually lead to the production of chemicals with the fragrance of violets. This fragrance is liberated by crushing the now rock-hard rhizomes to a powder. Catherine de’ Medici brought this alchemist-like knowledge to the French court when she married Henry II of France in 1533. Mixed with rice powder, it eventually became a popular way for Europe’s upper crust to perfume their faces, clothes, and eventually wigs when these later came into fashion. Nowadays, perfumers plant huge fields of a light purple cousin of Iris florentinaIris pallida.

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They dig up the rhizomes, dry them, and then steam distill them to obtain a thick, buttery oil known as orris oil. Eyewateringly expensive stuff – like €100,000 a kilo – it’s used by perfumers to give a base note to their creations.

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After all of this, though, I’m sure my readers will agree with me when I say, let’s just forget all the metaphorical, allegorical, or representational bla-bla with which irises have been enveloped, and let’s just enjoy the flowers as they are. So let me close with a couple of paintings of irises by Vincent Van Gogh.

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RED WINES FROM SOUTHERN ITALY

Milan, 24 May 2021

In an earlier post, I confessed that the amount of wine my wife and I consumed during the two lockdowns which we have endured over the past year was considerable. In that same post, I said that we focused much of our wine drinking on 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. 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.

I chose to buy wines from southern Italy because I didn’t know them very well, which fed into my general tendency to support the underdog and be contrarian. After sampling a few bottles, I also felt that the red wines of southern Italy had more oomph to them than wines from northern and central Italy – I beg readers not to ask me to translate that into the flowery language of the wine connoisseur because I can’t. As I once confessed in an earlier post, my general method of assessing wines is “mmh! that’s a nice wine!” or “mm … not a good wine”.

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Also – and this was important with the tightening of household budgets under lockdown – they were generally cheaper than other Italian wines.

I also felt virtuous in supporting local grape varieties. Not for me the Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, Syrah, Grenache Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, and the few others which dominate wine-making worldwide! No sirree, I was going to support the more than 1,500 grape varieties (yes, I kid you not, 1,500) which exist in Italy.

So from Sardinia I was buying wines made with Cannonau grapes (or to be more precise, where the Cannonau made up the largest share; the great majority of Italian wines are blends).

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From Sicily, it was wines made with Nero d’Avola grapes.

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From Puglia, it was wines made with Primitivo grapes.

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From time to time, though, we branched out into wines made with Nero di Troia grapes.

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From Basilicata, it was wines made with Aglianico grapes.

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From Calabria, it was wines made with Gaglioppo grapes.

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(For reasons which are now not clear to me through the haze of history, I chose few if any wines from Campania – a lapse to be rectified in any future lockdowns!)

At some point, though, through the wine fumes, I began to wonder how many of these grape varieties really were local. One can make the case that actually no domesticated grape varieties are really autochthonous. Archaeologists tell us that domestication and the related discovery of wine-making took place somewhere in the region between the Black Sea and Iran, between the seventh and the fourth millennia BC. The earliest evidence of domestication has been found in Georgia (the country, not the US state) and of wine production in Iran in the northern Zagros Mountains.

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Subsequently, domesticated vines and wine-making knowledge spread to other civilizations in the region, first Egypt and Lower Mesopotamia, and then to the Assyrians, Phoenicians and Greeks (at a later period vine and wine-making moved along the Silk Road to China and Japan, but that is a story for another day). The Greeks and the Phoenicians, continues this story, transferred the domesticated grape vine and wine-making technologies further west, to Italy, Spain, and the south of France. The Romans then carried the vine and wine-making further north in Europe to what are more-or-less its northernmost borders today. And then when Europe colonized the rest of the world, the Europeans took their vine and wine-making knowledge with them. So in this view of history, no domesticated grape vines are really autochthonous.

But that’s one Creation Story. Another Creation Story points to the fact that the vine species which was domesticated for wine-making (called, appropriately enough, Vitis vinifera) grows wild from Georgia to Portugal.

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So why could wine-making not have been independently discovered in several places?

A third Creation Story, and the one – for what it’s worth – that I feel is most credible, is that wine-making did indeed start in Iran or thereabouts, and cuttings of the domesticated vines were indeed carried westwards. But in their new homes, these vines could well have crossed spontaneously with local wild forms of the vine (or have been made to cross with them by the local viticulturists), thus shaking up their DNA a little and possibly affecting berry size, ripening time, sweetness, and whatever other characteristics viticulturists prized at the time. In this view of history, each locality can have vines which are hybrids of immigrant vines and local ones, which makes them pretty local. And anyway, even if a vine was brought in from somewhere else, if it’s been around in one locality for a long time surely it’s become local? (a bit like all Americans of immigrant stock nevertheless considering themselves locals) And anyway, the grape vine’s DNA is subject to spontaneous mutations (like American immigrants), which over time will distinguish it from its neighbors. All excellent reasons, I think, for declaring that grape vines which have been grown in one locality long enough can be considered autochthonous.

Of course, one could argue that all these Creation Stories are irrelevant because of the American pest phylloxera which devastated vineyards planted with Vitis vinifera in the late 19th Century (we have here a cartoon of the time, whose caption was “The phylloxera, a true gourmet, finds out the best vineyards and attaches itself to the best wines”)

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Ever since then, pretty much all commercial vineyards are Frankensteins, with Vitis vinifera grafted onto a root stock of one of the American members of the grape vine family which are resistant to the pest. Under the circumstances, I can hear some people ask, can one really call any commercial vine autochthonous?

I reject this latter argument because first, if I did accept it I wouldn’t have a story to tell, and second, because even with an American rootstock the grapes still express only the DNA of the grafted Vitis vinifera. Just as a person who has had their heart replaced is still expressing their old DNA.

So with all that out of the way, we can now focus on those wines which my wife and I (and not infrequently our son) were imbibing during lockdown, and ask ourselves the question: are the grapes that went into making them local or not? As usual in life, the answer is yes in some cases, no in others.

As one might expect, many of the local vines in southern Italy have their own Creation Stories. The cynic in me suggests that a good number of these were invented to increase a wine’s marketability, although I could well imagine that there is a desire on the part of the local people to have the stories of their vines reflect their own Creation Stories. Thus, many of the Creation Stories reflect the south of Italy’s ancient history as Magna Graecia, that arc of Ancient Greek colonies which stretched from Puglia all the way to Sicily. They suggest that the vines were brought from Greece by these early colonists. Others look to the Phoenicians as the source of their vines; Phoenicians also had colonies in Sicily and further afield. This map shows the situation in about 500 BC.

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If these Creation Stories are true, they would place the original migration episodes for the vines in question at some two and a half thousand years ago, quite long enough to claim that they are now fully local. Other Creation Stories suggest instead that the local vines are crosses between local wild stock and immigrant stock. Who can deny that such vines are fully local? Ampelographers have weighed in (these are experts in the study and classification of cultivated varieties of grape). They have given savant judgements on the heredity of countless vines by comparing the shape and colour of their leaves and their grape berries. Wonderful word, ampelographer! It rolls off the tongue like a good wine rolls down the throat. In my next life, I want to be an ampelographer, it must look so cool on a CV.

Anyway, along have come DNA studies, to cut through all the bullshit. We finally have a scientific basis for making judgements about a vine’s genealogy.

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And the white-coated scientists in their labs have discovered some very interesting things.

Take Cannonau, the grape variety that is the Sardinian grape par excellence (editorial note: since photos of bunches of grapes get pretty boring pretty quickly, I will instead be throwing in nice photos of the places where the various grapes grow).

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DNA studies have shown that actually, it is none other than Garnacha from Spain! (which, by the way, is also none other than Grenache; the French brought the vine from Spain and then frenchified the name) The most likely Creation Story in this case is that the Spaniards brought Garnacha to the island some time during their centuries-long dominion, from 1324 to 1718. Some Sardinians have tried to claim that the move was actually in the other direction, from Sardinia to Spain, but I don’t think that will wash, especially since a number of other “local” Sardinian grape varieties have also turned out to have a Spanish origin. On the one hand, I’m saddened by the fact that although I thought I was supporting a local variety when I bought Cannonaus in fact I wasn’t. On the other hand, I was pleased to learn of this Spanish connection, because I recall thinking, when I first tried Cannonau, that it reminded me of Rioja, and Garnacha grapes are one of the constituent grapes of Rioja.

Skipping to the island of Sicily, what about the Nero d’Avola grape?

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Well there, I’m happy to say, I have been supporting an autochthonous variety – that is to say, a variety which could well have been introduced several thousands of years ago by the Dorian Greeks who colonized the part Sicily where the town of Avola is located; the town does indeed seem to be the center of this grape’s distribution. The original immigrant grape could actually have been a forefather of today’s Nero d’Avola, since DNA studies have revealed a cousin-like relationship between it and two other ancient Sicilian grapes, Catarratto and Inzolia. As far as I know (although the white-coated scientists publish many of their DNA studies in scientific journals which I don’t have access to), no relationship has (yet) been found between Nero d’Avola and Greek grape vine varieties. It could well be that the forefather has vanished, as old vine varieties were replaced with newer ones; phylloxera also put paid to a large number of varieties.

Vaulting now over to Puglia, in Italy’s heel, we can have a look at the Primitivo grape.

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And here I must start by admitting that my wine choices were not supporting autochthonous grapes; Primitivo is not an Italian variety. Nevertheless, we have a fascinating story here. DNA studies have shown that actually Primitivo is a Croatian grape variety, more specifically one from the Dalmatian coast. Unfortunately, the devastations of phylloxera mean that there is hardly anything left now of the variety in its homeland – a few vines here and there. We can imagine some adventurous southern Italian sailing across the Adriatic Sea to Dalmatia and bringing cuttings back home. As far as can be judged, this was quite recent, some time in the 18th Century. The grape’s Italian name points to why viticulturists were interested in it – it was an early (“primitive”) ripener.

What makes the Primitivo story really fascinating is that DNA studies have also confirmed that it is pretty much the same as the “Californian” grape Zinfandel! (bar a mutation or two) How a Dalmatian grape variety ended up in southern Italy is not hard to imagine. But how on earth did it end up in California?! The best guess is by quite a circuitous route. Step 1 is that the variety was transferred to the Hapsburgs’ greenhouses in Vienna, when Dalmatia was part of the Austrian Empire. Step 2 is that, as part of a burgeoning global trade in plant species, horticulturalists living on the US’s eastern seaboard requested the Imperial greenhouses to send them cuttings, which they did. They probably also requested cuttings from British greenhouses, which had earlier requested them from the Viennese greenhouses. Step 3 is that one or more of these horticulturalists from the Eastern US joined the gold rush to California but took care to take vine cuttings with them. Presumably, they found that in the end it was more profitable to make wine in California than to pan for gold. (As a quick aside, one of my French cousins many times removed, who came from our family of vignerons in the Beaujolais, did something similar. He joined the gold rush to Australia but ended up making wine; I don’t know if he took cuttings with him or used the vine varieties which others had already brought to Australia. In any event, I have a whole bunch of Franco-Australian cousins whom I have never met)

But let’s get back to Puglia, to consider the Nero di Troia grape variety, which we tried from time to time during lockdown.

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DNA studies have shown that this grape has an equally fascinating genealogy – and luckily for me and my determination to support autochthonous grape varieties, I think I can safely say that it is definitely an Italian variety. DNA studies have shown that Nero di Troia’s mother is Bombino bianco, an ancient white grape variety found all along the Adriatic coast but especially in Puglia, while its father is Uva rosa antica, now only found as a very minor variety in the province of Salerno in Campania.

So far, so good. But what makes Nero di Troia more interesting than most varieties is that DNA studies have also shown that it has two full siblings (same father vine, same mother vine): Bombino nero and Impigno. Which just goes to show that grapes are like humans: you and your siblings can have the same parents but you can be quite different from each other.

What’s even more interesting is that comparisons of the DNA profile of the father, Uva rosa antica, to those in DNA libraries have revealed that this minor variety from Salerno is one and the same with another minor variety called Quagliano found only in a few Alpine valleys in Piedmont, in the very north of Italy, which in turn is one and the same with a variety called Bouteillan noir found in Provence, in France. Which just goes to show that there must have been quite a vigorous, though completely informal and unmonitored, trade in vine cuttings throughout southern Europe.

Moving on to Basilicata, the wines we tried from that region during the long months of lockdown were based mostly on the Aglianico grape.

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This is definitely one of the grapes where the locals have a Creation Story involving its introduction to the region by the Ancient Greeks through their colonies in Basilicata. Alas, DNA studies have revealed little if any relation to other existing Greek varieties, so if Aglianico was imported to Basilicata the original Greek plantings have all disappeared. Which suggests that perhaps Aglianico is actually a cross between some immigrant vine from somewhere and local wild stock. In any event, I think we can count this one as an autochthon.

Finally, Calabria. The wines we were drinking from this region are mostly made with the Gaglioppo grape.

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This is another grape variety that the local inhabitants wish to believe came originally from Greece, through the Ancient Greek colonies on the Calabrian coast. However, DNA studies have clarified that Gaglioppo is a very Italian grape, being a cross of the Sangiovese and Mantonico grapes. The latter is a very typical and ancient Calabrian grape. As for Sangiovese, viticulturists have used this grape to sire a whole series of grape varieties. At least ten are known at the moment, including Gaglioppo. There must have been something about Sangiovese grapes that viticulturists liked; if any ampelographer reads this, please tell me what it was. It doesn’t finish there, because in turn DNA studies have revealed that Sangiovese is itself the product of a cross between the Ciliegiolo and Calabrese Montenuovo grape varieties. Ciliegiolo is an ancient variety from Tuscany. Calabrese Montenuovo, on the other hand, has its origins in Calabria; sadly, it is now an almost-extinct relic. We have here another example of the vigorous trade in vine cuttings, this time up and down the Italian peninsula.

I could go on. For instance, each of these grape varieties is blended with various other grapes, and many of these have had their DNA studied. But I’m running out of steam and I fear that I will soon be losing my readers – there’s a limit to how much information about DNA one can absorb before one’s mind begins to whirl like a double helix.

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I leave my readers with a final plea: considering that there are 1,500 varieties of grape in Italy, please ignore any wines made with the Top Ten grape varieties and concentrate on trying out all 1,500 Italian varieties. Cin-cin!

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