Picking up where I left off at the end of my last post, my wife and I were on our way back to our hotel from our little tour of Traunkirchen when I spied on the side of the road these beds of wild flowers.
They were really very pretty, with the flowers going from magenta to almost white, passing through a candy pink. Even as I admired and took a couple of photos I had to admit to myself that I no idea what they were.
The next day, at breakfast, I showed our host the pictures. Ah, she said, that’s a Drüsige Springkraut. She had no idea what its English name was, but the German name was enough for my wife. A few clicks later, she handed me her iPad and I was reading a Wikipedia entry on the flower.
Its official name is Impatiens glandulifera. It has many colourful names in English. Three – Policeman’s Helmet, Bobby Tops, Copper Tops – reflect the flower’s apparent resemblance to British policemen’s helmets. Here’s a close-up of the flower itself.
I leave my readers to decide, but I really don’t see this resemblance – unless the helmets have changed considerably since I last lived in the UK. Another name, Gnome’s Hatstand, makes more sense to me. It presumably harks back to the decidedly florid hats which some gnomes in children’s books sometimes sport, and I definitely can see a florid hat in the flower’s shape. And of course the plant then becomes the hatstand for these florid hats. Two other names, Himalayan Balsam and Kiss-me-on-the-mountain, refer to the mountainous origin of the plant; more on this later. Another name listed in Wikipedia is Ornamental jewelweed. I’m guessing this was inspired by the fact that we have a beautiful flower grafted onto a decidedly weedy-looking stem.
The English-speaking world seems to have been particularly poetic in its choice of names. The names in German and French (the only other two languages I checked) are decidedly more prosaic and seem mostly variations on balsam and glands (the latter being also found in the official name). I read that the plant does indeed carry glands, under the leaf stem, which produce a sticky, sweet-smelling, and edible nectar (the latter presumably being the origin of the balsam names). Eager to try this nectar, I poked around under various leaf stems the next time we walked past the flowers but failed to detect anything; a puzzle to be solved another day. The only exception to the list of prosaic Franco-German names is the German Bauernorchidee, Farmer’s orchid. We’ll come back to this link to orchids in a minute.
A beautiful flower – but alas an invasive species! Invasive species are a terrible problem; they have been the subject of an earlier post of mine. The flower’s original home is the Himalayas, specifically to the areas between Kashmir and Uttarakhand. I am ashamed to say that it was an Englishman who unleashed this particular botanical scourge on the rest of the world in 1839. He was no doubt part of that legion of Europeans who followed in the footsteps of conquering European armies, scouring the newly-colonized lands for plants. Initially, they were looking for plants from which some monetarily useful product could be extracted but later they also looked for pretty plants which they could sell to the growing ranks of gardeners looking for an extra splash of colour or texture in their gardens.
The Himalayan Balsam, to use one of its many names, was thus first grown outside of its natural range in the UK but eventually spread to many other parts of the world. Coming back to that German name, Farmer’s orchid, it seems that its popularity was at least in part due to it allowing gardeners of modest income to have a flower that looked very orchid-like; I throw in here a photo of an orchid, to allow readers to see the resemblance.
Real orchids were the playthings of the rich, who could afford not only the stiff purchase price but also the high maintenance costs (and by the way, the picture above is actually of a Victorian orchid hunter; orchids commanded prices which allowed serious expeditions to be funded).
As with water hyacinth which I wrote about in that earlier post on invasive species, the Himalayan balsam eventually escaped from the confines of gardens and began to spread through the countryside. As far as the UK is concerned, it has become one of the country’s most invasive species. It colonizes damp woodlands (which is where we came across it in Traunkirchen, although in beds that were not nearly as thick as this).
It also colonizes the banks of waterways – this is a view of the River Monnow, which makes up part of the England-Wales border.
The flower’s crowding along the banks of rivers is particularly problematical. When the plants die back in autumn they leave the banks bare and subject to erosion from winter and spring floods. I read that the plant is a terrible pest in the Norfolk Broads. That gives me pause; I used to go there as a young boy – 50+ years ago – and I never remember seeing it. The Himalayan balsam is marching across the landscape …
People are trying to do what they can to stop the plant. In some places, there are regular “balsam bashes”, where volunteers go out and physically pull up the plant. Here, for instance, we have a group of volunteers in Yorkshire, who by the size of the pile in front of them have had a hard day’s work.
More extreme measures are required, though, if the invasion is truly to be stopped. The basic problem is that the plant has escaped from all those predators which back home in the Himalayas keep it in check, and none have taken their place in the rest of the world. Researchers in the UK have gone off to the Himalayas to see if they can’t bring at least one of the original predators back to the UK. They have found a very promising candidate: the Himalayan balsam rust. It attacks the plant at various points: the stem, the leaves, the seedlings. This is what the leaves look like once they are under attack.
The scientists are currently conducting field tests. I wish them the best of luck. And I really pray that they will not unwittingly release into the British environment a rust that will find other, native species much more to their liking and which will then forget about attacking the Himalayan balsam. As I pointed out in my previous post on invasive species, this has happened before, and you end up with two invasive species instead of one!
While we wait for the results of the tests to come in, I invite readers to locate their nearest “balsam bash”, or whatever they might be called in the local language, and take part. You will be doing us all a favour and getting a breath of fresh air at the same time.
A beautiful flower, but to be admired in its native habitat and not in our gardens.
My wife and I recently spent a long weekend on Traunsee (Lake Traun), which is one of several lakes which sprinkle the Salzkammergut region of Austria. Here is an aerial photo of the lake, looking from south to north.
Readers will notice that the topography around the lake is generally mountainous other than a section of relatively gentle hills on the lake’s northwestern shore. We were staying on the edges of the village of Traunkirchen, down south on the western shore, where gentle hill meets steep mountain. This gave us the opportunity to try out both topographies for our hikes, these being the main purpose of our visit.
Traunkirchen is wonderfully located, clustered as it is around a rocky spit perched on the edge of the lake – readers with sharp eyes may notice that spit in the photo above. I add in here a closer aerial view of the village.
On the afternoon we arrived, we took advantage of a pedal boat, which our hotel kept moored at its little piece of beachfront, to pedal slowly over to the spit and admire the church built on it from the water.
We later visited the church, whose interior was the usual Baroque confection. As I have frequently mentioned, the last time no later than my last post, I am no great fan of the Baroque. But this church does have one splendid piece, the pulpit. It is built in the form a boat, into which fishermen are hauling their catch.
An apt iconography for a village by a lake, but also no doubt the artist was recalling the words of Jesus on Lake Galilee: “As he was going along by the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and Andrew, the brother of Simon, casting a net in the sea; for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you become fishers of men.’ Immediately they left their nets and followed Him.”
Our visit to the church was part of a longer itinerary thoughtfully provided by the local tourist office to explore the village. Our next port of call was a small chapel on the highest point of the spit. Up close the chapel was no great shakes, but from afar it made for a wonderful view, as we saw the next day at the start of one of our hikes.
The local tourist office’s itinerary then carried us away from the water front and up the hill that backed the village. There, perched on a ridge, was a large house built in the early 1850s and known by the locals as the Russian Villa.
The house got its nickname from its first owner. She was the daughter of a Russian prince and went by the delightful name of Sophie Baroness Pantschoulidzeff. The name immediately evokes in me pictures of a languid lady with a Slavic cut to the cheekbones, toying with an enormously long cigarette holder and calling everyone “Daahlingh”. Despite my best efforts, I have been unable to discover anything about this Baroness on the internet. But she kept good company in her villa. Many of Vienna’s artistic elites spent time with her there.
After Baroness Pantschoulidzeff’s death, the villa passed through various hands. Whoever owns it now has a collection of Ancient Greek or Roman statues (or copies thereof) in the garden. Among these, there is one which is – how shall I put it? – particularly intriguing: it is a huge phallus. Of course I had to take a photo.
From writing which I glimpsed carved into its base, I think it also was of Graeco-Roman origin (or a copy of one such).
We saw it because the itinerary recommended by the tourist office took us along a path which passed by the gate to the villa’s garden. The path then went on to become Traunkirchen’s Via Crucis. I can only hope that anyone walking the path for religious purposes, and not – like us – to follow a tourist itinerary, will keep their eyes firmly fixed on the horizon and ignore that giant male member as they pass the villa’s garden gate.
After this glimpse of the surreal, we went on to follow the Via Crucis, which led us eventually to its final chapel in the woods.
After a look at the crucifixion scene in the chapel, we wended our way back down to the waterfront, where we sat down at the cafe outside the Hotel Post.
While we rested, we enjoyed a good cup of Earl Grey tea served to us by a very friendly waiter dressed in lederhosen – we were in Austria, after all – before we heaved ourselves back on our feet and headed back to our Pension.
I had never heard of this particular saint until my wife and I came to this part of the world, but once here we saw him repeatedly, not only in Austria but also in the Czech Republic, in Slovakia, and in Hungary (and Wikipedia informs me that we could come across statues of his in Germany, Poland, Lithuania, and even further afield). Here is a photo of a typical statue of his.
This particular photo comes from a web site devoted to statues. The site has listed a little over 200 photos of statues of John of Nepomuk, mostly from the catholic lands of Central Europe but with a smattering from elsewhere, which gives some idea of the saint’s popularity in this part of Europe. The photo shows a “typical” statue of John: bearded, clothed as a priest, wearing the priest’s three-peaked biretta, holding a cross, and with a halo of five stars around his head (what is also often found, but is missing from this particular statue, is a martyr’s palm). The statues are often found on bridges or close to them, for reasons which will become clear. They often look lost and forlorn, engulfed by modern expansions of what were once little villages.
I suppose John of Nepomuk really came into focus for me when, relatively soon after our move to Vienna, my wife and I decided to visit Prague with the children. As anyone who has been to that city knows, no visit is complete without a crossing of the Charles Bridge.
The most striking thing about the bridge (apart from the fine views it affords of both the old and the less old parts of the city) is the thirty or so statues which line both parapets.
For the most part, they are of various saints who presumably were important to the city – or to the donors who paid for them. One of them – actually, the oldest of them all – is a statue of St. John of Nepomuk.
The reasons why some of the other saints got a privileged position on the bridge may not be entirely clear, but in John’s case it is crystal clear. He is the patron saint of the Czech Republic (and, before the Czech Republic existed, of Bohemia). As if that weren’t enough he was killed by being thrown off this very same bridge, which was nearing the end of its construction when he was summarily tipped over the parapet.
Well! It’s not every day that you stand on the very same spot (more or less) from which a saint was dispatched to his death. And such an interesting death! I don’t want to sound too morbid, but the way he was killed – according to my guide-book, sewn into a goatskin bag before being heaved into the river below – was considerably more quirky than most run-of-the mill deaths of saints I’ve come across. Thoroughly intrigued, I began asking myself what John of Nepomuk had done to deserve being declared a saint (being killed isn’t enough, otherwise we would have millions if not billions of saints).
After reading various accounts of his life, I’m afraid I have to conclude that he did nothing to deserve his title of saint. His sainthood was an act of pure politics.
Perhaps it is time for me to give a thumbnail sketch of John’s life and times. He was born in the 1340s in the Czech (Bohemian) town of Pomuk (later renamed Nepomuk). I would guess that his father – a burgher of the town – decided that his son should make his career in the Church. John must have been a bright lad because after the usual schooling he was sent to the University of Prague, completing his studies of theology and jurisprudence in 1374. Somehow he caught the eye of John of Jesentein, who later became archbishop of Prague. Here is a statue of the good Archbishop on the cathedral of St. Vitus in Prague (if this is a true likeness, he seems to have been a merry fellow).
John of Jesenstein became Archbishop in 1378 and made John his first secretary. Presumably the Archbishop decided that John needed to further his studies and he went off to the University of Padua in 1383, returning home in 1387 with a doctorate in canon law in his pocket. Upon his return, he received – no doubt from the Archbishop – various positions: canon in the church of St. Ægidius in Prague, canon of the cathedral in Wyschehrad in 1389, Archdeacon of Sasz and canon of the Cathedral of St. Vitus in Prague in 1390, president of the ecclesiastical court shortly afterwards, and finally the Archbishop’s vicar-general (a sort of deputy for administrative matters) in 1393. It all sounds like the very rapid ascent of a very able fellow in the Church hierarchy. No doubt a brilliant career beckoned.
All this was taking place against a turbulent political background. Wenceslaus IV was King of Bohemia at the time. We see him here with his wife Sophia (more of her later), in a miniature from his bible.
From what I read, he was a rather weak man. He certainly didn’t seem able to control his overweening family members, who were constantly undercutting him. His nobles, perhaps already restive but perhaps sensing his weakness, spent their time being obstreperous. He made matters worse by relying on favourites, something which nobles everywhere have always disliked; they feel that by reason of their birth they should be getting the positions being doled out to lower-born favourites. I have to say, Wencelsaus reminds me a lot of Richard II of England.
It was Wenceslaus wanting to reward a favourite which brought him on a collision course with the Church. The crisis came to a head pretty much immediately after John took up his post as the Archbishop’s vicar-general. Wenceslaus wanted to found a new bishopric for one of his favourites. His eyes fell on the rich and powerful Benedictine Abbey of Kladruby, an abbey which still exists. This picture gives us an idea of what a juicy piece of real estate it must have been.
It so happened that its abbot was dying. Wenceslaus ordered that upon his death no new abbot was to be elected. Instead, the abbey’s territories were to be turned into a bishopric and his favourite installed as its bishop (his idea was that the bishop could then return the favour, using the abbey’s resources to support the King in his struggles with family and aristocracy). Now, if there was one thing the Church hierarchy really objected to, that was having Kings telling them who should fill what Church posts, especially when those posts carried with them rich benefices which would be lost to the Church. So when the old abbot finally copped it, the monks of Kladruby held an election post haste and chose one of their own monks to be the new abbot; John, as vicar-general, promptly confirmed the election.
When he heard the news, Wenceslaus blew his top; I am reminded of Henry II of England who, driven to distraction by his Archbishop Thomas à Becket, cried out “Will no-one rid me of this turbulent priest?”, a cry which led four knights to travel to Canterbury and slaughter Thomas on the steps of the cathedral’s high altar. In this case, Wenceslaus had John and three other top Church officials who had played some role in the decision arrested and thrown into gaol. In good medieval fashion, they were all tortured to get them to change the decision. The three others cracked and agreed. But John of Nepomuk held firm. So finally Wenceslaus ordered that he be placed in chains, paraded through the city with a block of wood in his mouth, and thrown from the Charles Bridge into the river. His executioners added the bit about being sewn into a goatskin bag. This fateful final event in John’s story occurred in March of 1393.
I’m not quite sure what the fall-out of all this was. The Archbishop certainly hot-footed it down to Rome, accompanied by the new abbot of Kladruby, to make a formal exposition of all that had happened (thus giving us the earliest written account of John’s death). In that exposition, he wrote of John being a martyr, presumably wanting to clothe in holiness a death that was really about quarrels between Church and State and who was more powerful, swirling around what was – let’s face it – a nice juicy piece of real-estate.
Regardless of what went on in the corridors of power, John’s death caught the imagination of the “little people” of Bohemia. A cult gradually grew up around him. By 1459, so some 70 years after John’s death, a more fanciful – and somewhat more holy – story appeared about the reason for his death; I suppose grubby little arguments about power and money didn’t seem suitable. It was now said that John had been Queen Sophia’s father confessor, that Wenceslaus had pressured him to tell if the Queen had confessed to having a lover, that John had refused to spill the beans citing the secrecy of the confessional, and that the King had lost it, leading to John being tossed into the river. This story is why John is quite often shown with his finger on his lips, as in this painting in the Church of Santa Maria Anima in Rome.
When, after Emperor Ferdinand II smashed the Protestant forces of Bohemia at the Battle of White Mountain in 1620 and the forces of the Counter-Reformation were in full flow to forcibly turn Bohemia back into a Catholic state, it was decided to build on John’s popularity with the little people and push for his canonization. A very thick report was put together which emphasized the fanciful story of his death over the real reason for his death, and it was forwarded to the relevant authorities in Rome. The Roman Curia was happy to comply, so John was beatified in 1721 and canonized in 1729.
John’s sainthood of course drove the creation of art. Some of this was what we could call High Art. For instance, the years between his beatification and canonization saw the building of the Pilgrimage Church of St John of Nepomuk, a church that is famous in the Czech Republic and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site (its rather fanciful shape is apparently based on an interpretation of the Cabbala).
My wife and I have never seen this church, although it looks like a good candidate for a visit; I shall talk to her about it. On the other hand, I am firmly of the opinion that John’s Baroque tomb in the cathedral of Saint Vitus in Prague can be skipped.
Not only does it have in spadefuls all I dislike about Baroque art – all flash and no substance – I really disapprove of the fact that two tonnes of silver were used to make the tomb; the money used to purchase the silver should have been distributed to the poor.
That’s the High Art. The Low Art generated by John are all those thousands of statues of him scattered around Central Europe and beyond. As readers can imagine, based on the fanciful explanation of his death, John of Nepomuk is the patron saint of good confession, confessors and penitents. But – more interestingly, to my mind – because of the way he died, he is also believed to protect against floods and troubled waters, and so is considered a patron saint of bridges and fords. Certainly the latest statue of him that my wife and I came across was in Lilienfeld during our walk along the so-called Via Sacra between Vienna and Mariazell. The statue was situated on the bank of a river, next to a bridge.
This statue is somewhat more exciting than most statues of this type, showing John in the act of being thrown over the bridge’s parapet by a fellow who looks quite mean and nasty.
The river itself flowed quite placidly when we crossed the bridge.
But the news is often filled with stories of rivers which have flooded and killed tens or hundreds of people. Why, only a few days ago we were treated to pictures of extreme flooding in Spain.
I can imagine that the little, humble people have always had great respect for the power of rivers. They bring life-saving water to the crops, but they also unleash death and destruction when angry. I’m sure rites to propitiate the river gods are as old as civilization itself. The Greeks and Romans had their river gods and goddesses. So did the Celts. In fact, so did just about every other culture: Wikipedia has an entry on all these deities. I’m sure that the medieval Bohemians used John as a way of christianizing their age-old river gods.
Of course, if you have a saint to whom you pray to stop floods and the heavy rain which creates them, it is not a great step to also ask him to intercede in the opposite case, the case of drought. That’s why you will also find statues of John in the middle of farmland, like this one from a place called Burlo in Germany (although the field behind looks rather sodden in this case).
So there we have it. An actor in a Shakespearean drama of power and money who was, over the centuries and for various political reasons, turned into a saint. But below the official Catholic radar, a man who by chance became the means for a mostly rural population to officialize their magic to try to manage water, one of their most precious resources.
P.S. After reading this post, my wife began to see statues of John of Nepomuk everywhere we hiked. They really are common in this part of the world!
I should have written this post a long time ago, when I first went to see the Batliner collection at the Albertina Museum here in Vienna. But somehow it got left behind. I have been jogged along by the death in June of Mr. Batliner, although even then I am several months late. But hey, better late than never!
A little bit of background is in order. Herbert Batliner was a hideously rich Liechensteiner banker (he was actually half Liechensteiner, half Austrian; his mother was Austrian). It will probably come as no surprise to readers to know that his Liechensteiner father was a banker and that he himself followed his father into banking. He made millions helping seriously rich people stash their wealth away from pesky tax collectors (and others) in “family foundations”. Some of these people had iffy reputations – the son of an African dictator, the partner of an Ecuadorian drug baron, a pardoned fugitive US financier, that sort of thing. Some of his replies when he was asked about these rather grey financial dealings were quite instructive: “I’m not a Father Confessor who has to ask his clients if they have obeyed the laws of their homelands”, and “We don’t take unannounced clients, or those that show up with suitcases full of cash”. At one point, the German tax authorities started investigating him for possible involvement in illegal financial transactions by one of the country’s political parties, but he saw the danger off with the payment of a rather hefty fine. All this assistance to the filthy rich made him rich too. In 2006, his assets were estimated at about 200 million Swiss Francs.
On the plus side, Mr. Batliner, together with his wife Rita, used his millions to build up a remarkable collection of modern and contemporary art. In 2007, he transferred his collection (in the form of a foundation, of course) to the Albertina Museum as a permanent loan. The Museum was, of course, exceedingly grateful. The Director Klaus Albrecht Schröder called the donation a “key event in the history of the Albertina”. We see here Herbert and Rita, together with a beaming Schröder, in front of one of the paintings in their collection, a Monet painting of the water lilies in the pond of his garden at Giverny.
This same painting make up the background to the Albertina’s poster which publicizes the permanent exhibition.
The Albertina then cannily transferred this poster to the long flight of steps leading up to the entrance to the museum.
It has become quite a hit with the public, being a popular spot for photos and selfies.
The poster, and other material related to the exhibition, highlight the presence of paintings by Monet and Picasso, but in truth these were not the paintings that struck me the most when I visited the exhibition. I show here, in the order in which I came across them, the works that caught my attention.
Peace (1915) by Augusto Giacometti, a Swiss painter. He was related to the more well-known Alberto Giacometti, being a cousin of Alberto’s father. This is the only time I’ve ever come across any of his work. Wikpedia informs me that “he was a prominent as a painter in the Art Nouveau and Symbolism movements, for his work in stained glass, as a proponent of murals and a designer of popular posters.”
Forest (1909) by Emil Nolde. Nolde was German-Danish, being born in Schleswig. He was one of the first Expressionists, a member of the Die Brücke movement.
Moonlit Night (1914), again by Emil Nolde.
Unfortunately, Nolde is a prime example of the fact that being a great painter doesn’t mean that you are a nice person. Already in the early 1920s Nolde was a supporter of the Nazi party, expressing anti-semitic opinions about Jewish artists and considering Expressionism to be a distinctively Germanic style. But he was hoist on his own petard. Hitler rejected all forms of modern art as “degenerate”, and the Nazi regime officially condemned Nolde’s work. Over a thousand of his works were removed from museums, more than those of any other artist, and some were included in the 1937 Degenerate Art exhibition. He was not allowed to paint – even in private – after 1941.
Irises in the Evening Shadows (1925) by Max Pechstein. Like Nolde, Pechstein was German and a member of the Die Brücke movement. He fell out with his fellow members, though, in 1912 and went it alone. He too fell foul of the Nazis and had a number of his works exhibited in the Degenerate Art exhibition.
Approach to Löbau Train Station (1911) by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. Also German, also an Expressionist painter, also a member of the Die Brücke movement, also branded as “degenerate” and had a number of his paintings exhibited in the Degenerate Art Exhibition. He committed suicide in 1938.
Yachting on Lake Tegern (1910) by August Macke. Macke was another German Expressionist painter, but he was a founder member of another movement, the Blaue Reiter, which was based in the outskirts of Munich. He died in the first weeks of the First World War, in Champagne.
The Blue Cow (c. 1911) by Natalia Goncharova. A Russian, Goncharova was, according to her Wikipedia entry, “a founding member of both the Jack of Diamonds (1909–1911), Moscow’s first radical independent exhibiting group, the more radical Donkey’s Tail (1912–1913), and with her lifelong partner, Mikhail Larionov, invented Rayonism (1912–1914). She was also a member of the German based art movement known as Der Blaue Reiter.”
Young Girl with a Flowered Hat (1910) by Alexej Jawlensky. Another Russian, Jawlensky moved to Germany, joined the Expressionist trend, and was another founder member of the Blaue Reiter movement. I recently saw a wonderful painting of his in Munich.
Another gorgeous painting by Jawlensky, Cornfield near Carantec, from a bit earlier: 1905. Very different from the “typical” Jawlensky painting, of which the Young Girl with a Flowered Hat is an example.
A third Jawlensky, Abstract Head, from 1928/29. I suppose he felt the need to move with the times. But the colouring is still lovely.
Jawlensky is another example of a great painter but not a very nice man. Early on in his career, he shacked up with a rich woman, Marianne von Werefkin, who gave up her painting to look after him and ensure he could paint without having to work, then at some point he dumped her and married another woman, by whom he had already had a child. Marianne died alone, in poverty and obscurity in 1938.
Hungarian Fields (1919) by László Moholy-Nagy. Moholy-Nagy is not normally an artist that I warm to, but this painting stopped me dead in my tracks. I had noticed this same pattern of small strips of fields in Austria around Lake Neusidl, on the border with Hungary.
On the Hungarian side of the lake, the fields were much larger. I’m sure they were just as small as the fields in Austria until World War II, but collective farming during the Communist period wiped them out.
The exhibition had a number of examples of Austrian painters who adhered to the New Objectivity movement which sprang up after World War I, as a reaction to Expressionism. One strand of New Objectivity was a return to classicism. After the horrors of the war, throughout Europe there was a “return to order” in the arts, which resulted in a turn away from abstraction by many artists towards neoclassicism. I include here one example from the exhibition, The Big Port of 1928 by Herbert von Reyel-Hanisch.
I started with Augusto Giacometti, I finish with his more famous cousin once-removed, Alberto Giacometti.
One photo doesn’t do justice to this remarkable statuette, Slender Bust on Plinth (Amenophis) from 1954. I suspect that when Giacometti refers to Amenophis he has in mind the pharaoh Akhenaten. Akhenaten started reigning as Amenhotep IV, a name which the Greeks translated as Amenophis. As this photo attests, he did have a long thin face with pronounced features like Giacometti’s statuette.
I was certainly much struck by the statues of Akhenaten which we saw during a recent visit to Egypt. I could well imagine that Giacometti would have found his face fascinating.
Well, those were my take-aways from this exhibition. If any of my readers come to Vienna, they should really make time for this exhibition and see what they think. The rest of the Albertina Museum is also worth visiting, they normally have excellent temporary exhibitions.
I think my son was joking when he sent me a note after reading my post on Almdudler telling me that I should now write a post about cabanossi.
To quickly fill in readers who may not be familiar with the cabanos (by the way, one cabanos, two cabanossi), it is a form of dried sausage. It’s great for an after-school snack, and I’m sure there were many occasions when my wife bought the children a kabanos or two after school, washed down with an Almdudler (hence my son’s mischievous remark that a post on Almdudler necessarily required me to prepare a post on cabanossi). My wife would buy what seems to be the most popular brand for children, the KnabberNossi.
As for the contents of the package, the dried sausage waiting to be eaten, it looks like this.
There was a Russian girl at the children’s school who – my son claimed – was so enamoured by this brand that she was heard to exclaim, with a rather particular Russian accent, “Ah, Ke-Naber Nossi, they’re sooo gooood!” This expression of love for cabanossi became a bit of a family joke, but actually the Russian girl was completely right. The cabanossi my wife bought were really very good: dry but not too dry, spicy but not too spicy, crunchy but not too crunchy. If you were not careful, a good dozen of these thin dry sausages could quite easily disappear down one’s lug-hole in one sitting.
As I say, I think my son was joking when he suggested that I should write a post on cabanossi, but the problem is that I’m a bit of a nerd and after chuckling a little at my son’s suggestion I began to wonder what exactly this cabanos was. Recalling my son’s dictum every time we ask him to explain something that we think he knows something about (“Google it!”), my fingers strayed to the Safari button on my phone and I was soon off down one rabbit hole after another chasing the elusive cabanos.
What I found was a fascinating tale reflecting the general history of Central Europe from the 18th century down to modern times.
It seems that some form of cabanos-like dried sausage has existed in the Slavic regions of Central Europe since the Middle Ages. The great advantage of this kind of sausage – fruit of the particular way it is cured and smoked – is that it has a very long shelf-life. This, together with the fact that it is quite lightweight, made it an ideal food for travelers to carry on long journeys, hunters to carry on their expeditions into the forests, and armies and navies to carry as supplies for the troops and sailors.
Superimposed on these largely anonymous developments made by a myriad of humble people about a foodstuff which was useful in their lives were the geopolitical struggles of the warrior elites – all those emperors and kings and aristocrats in Central Europe who pursued their various goals of land-grabbing and aggrandizement over the centuries. I don’t propose to summarize what went on since the records began, it would be far too tedious and anyway not terribly relevant to our story. I will start in 1750, with this political map of Central Europe in that year.
As every reader can see, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth dominated the region, at least as far as size goes. But it was a brittle, fragile polity, run in a most inefficient way. Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia, and Frederick the Great, King of Prussia, desired its territories, while Maria-Theresa, ruler of the traditional Hapsburg lands – Austria, Hungary and Bohemia, plus a few other bits and pieces – wanted to keep a balance between the powers in the region. The net result of all these maneuverings was the Partition of Poland. In three steps – executed in 1772, 1793, and 1795 – Russia, Prussia, and Austria carved the country up between them. Here is a cartoon of the time, showing the rulers of the three countries at work on the first of these partitions: Catherine, one one side, and Frederick and Joseph II (co-regent with his mother Maria-Theresa of Austria), on the other side (the fellow in between seeming to take off his crown is the last king of Poland, Stanisław August Poniatowski).
Frederick and Catherine were quite cheerful as they each grabbed a piece of the Polish pie. Maria-Theresa, who was really in charge and told her son Joseph what to do, felt guilty about it all but couldn’t let the other two get too big at her expense. As the cynical Frederick said, “she cries, but she takes”.
This was how political maps looked after the three partitions were completed. Poland was no more.
There was a moment of hope for the Poles when Napoleon entered the scene and tore up the political maps of Europe, but his defeat and the subsequent Congress of Vienna restored everything pretty much to the way it was. In Central Europe, the only thing that changed was that Russia managed to get an even bigger slice of Poland at the expense of Prussia and Austria.
Many of political, intellectual and cultural elite of Poland emigrated (among them Adam Mickiewicz, who wrote the great nationalistic poem Pan Tadeusz). Bohemia, which had managed to keep some independence under the Hapsburgs, was now integrated into the newly-created Austrian Empire. The Slavs of Central Europe groaned under the yoke (to use language from later, nationalistic times) of Vienna, Berlin, and Moscow (while the Slavic regions of South-Eastern Europe groaned under the yoke of Istanbul – but they do not seem to be part of the cabanos story, so we shall ignore them).
And what of the cabanos in all of this? To answer that question, I have to switch to an alternative spelling of the sausage, kabanos (plural, kabanosy). It seems that the kabanos as such (as opposed to other general cured and smoked sausages having kabanos-style properties) originated in Poland. Specifically, its homeland is in what is now eastern Poland, around the borders of what are now Lithuania and Russia. Farmers in that region bred pigs in a special way, making them eat potatoes (this marbles their meat, which gives – it is said – the kabanos a distinct taste). Since the Poles of that region called these pigs kaban, the sausage they made from it was called kabanos.
In the decades after Poland’s disappearance from the map, the kabanos migrated westward and southward, to Germany (through Prussia, I would imagine) and to Austria and Hungary in the heart of the Austro-Hungarian Empire via the Czech lands. I would imagine that it was brought along by Poles who set off to find their fortunes in the domains of their new masters, or perhaps members of the new master races came to Poland, discovered the kabanos, and took it back home. When the kabanos arrived in Germanic (and Hungarian) lands, the spelling changed to the more Germanic cabanos.
The basic recipe changed too. While in Poland the kabanos was made purely from pork, the cabanos became a mix of beef and pork (there have been kabanosy/cabanossi made with other meats – mutton, chicken, even horse and donkey – but these are minor variants and seem to have died out). The spices added to the sausage also varied as it migrated out of Poland, but this seems to have been more an issue of what spices were available locally and of personal tastes.
In the meantime, Poles never gave up their dream of once more having an independent Poland. There were various uprisings, which were all put down, and more emigrations of Poles. Pan Tadeusz was published in Paris, where Adam Mickiewicz was living in exile. The poem mentions the kabanos; perhaps it had become the comfort food of Polish émigrés. There was also one very large change to the political map of Europe, when Germany was unified in 1870 as an Empire.
Then we fast-forward to the 1920s. World War I came and went and with it the three Empires that had dominated central Europe.
Poland was resurrected as a country. Czechoslovakia was created, a country cobbled together from the smaller Slavic regions of Bohemia, Moravia, and Slovakia. Hungary also emerged once more as a separate country, although much smaller; it was shorn of Slavic regions on its borders which were handed over to the new Slavic states which surrounded it.
During all this mayhem, the kabanos/cabanos kept on being made in Poland and in all the countries, new and old, to which it had spread. In particular, it became particularly popular in Poland. The 1920s and ’30s saw a large growth in the kabanos market, a slow standardization of the product, and the emergence of brands: all outcomes of the country’s growing population and its industrialization.
Then came the disaster of the Second World War, when Poland and Czechoslovakia disappeared once again. They reappeared after the war, although Poland’s borders were shifted westward – the Soviet Union took a bite out of its eastern marches, while Poland took a bite out of Germany’s eastern marches – and all the countries of Central Europe fell behind the Iron Curtain.
The Poles’ love for kabanosy was not diminished by Communism. It could even be than in the Proletarian Paradise that Poland had become, the kabanos’s humble origins increased its popularity. The fact is, everyone bought kabanosy, for every occasion, from the grandest to the most humble. Poland’s government may have been communist but it saw a good business in the kabanos. It further strengthened the product’s standardization, and it was one of the few things Poland exported (along with vodka and ham).
Then came the fall of the Berlin wall, the fall of the Iron Curtain, and the fall of the Soviet Union itself. Out of all this came a clutch of new (or renewed) countries to the south and east of Central Europe.
The Central European countries all hurriedly joined the EU, to protect them from Russia. And so started the latest drama in the life of the kabanos. Quite soon after its accession, Poland applied to the EU to register the kabanos as a Polish Traditional Speciality Guaranteed (TSG), one of the three trademarks championed by the EU. And here the drift of the kabanos westward out of Poland, which had happened without much fuss during the 19th century, suddenly came into focus. Germany fiercely resisted Poland’s application, claiming that its producers had equal rights to the trademark (the fierceness of Germany’s resistance might have had to do with the touchy relationships there were between the two countries about the shift eastwards of the Polish-German border). Austria also protested, as did the Czech Republic. Poland discovered that the kabanosy was not its alone; other countries had a claim to it, claims created by the shifting of borders over the last 200 years. The wrangling went on for 10 years before it was finally settled. The deal was that while other countries could call their sausage kabanos (or cabanos), only Polish kabanos (made according to EU standards) could sport the distinctive blue and yellow TSG label.
With that, I leave my readers with a photo of a Polish kabanos I bought in a Polish delicatessen close to the Polish church patronized by many of the Poles who have recently emigrated to Vienna (I took a bite out of it before taking the photo; I couldn’t wait).
And as a counterpart, I add a photo of a proper Austrian cabanos purchased a few days later in my local supermarket.
Delicious, both of them! (although my wife, the other taster, deems the Polish version to be tastier). I urge readers to hunt out their nearest Polish delicatessen (or German or Austrian or Czech delicatessen, if they have one) and try this sausage. And have an Almdudler along with it!
There is a flower which I much admire. I come across it quite often on our walks. This is a photo of it made by a professional photographer, with good lighting and a nice background.
But in truth, I come across it more often in this kind of context.
It is a flower which grows along the sides of fields, in waste land along the side of paths, in cracks in roads, … It is, in a word, the botanical embodiment of grace and beauty under pressure. And for that I am one of its greatest fans.
I have always called it the cornflower, but in preparing this post I have discovered that I have been terribly mistaken. Yes, it is sometimes called cornflower, but the real cornflower, the real McCoy as it were, is this.
What I have been admiring for its grit and determination as well as its beauty is the common chicory, Cichorium intybus. As is the case with pretty flowers that sprinkle our countryside, it has been given lots of delightful names over the centuries apart from cornflower: blue daisy, blue dandelion, blue sailors, blue weed, bunk, coffeeweed, hendibeh, horseweed, ragged sailors, succory, wild bachelor’s buttons, and wild endive. And that’s only in English! It being native to Europe, I’m sure that every European language has a similar suite of names for this delightful flower.
What I have also discovered through my readings is that the common chicory is one of those plants out of which humble, anonymous people whose names we will almost certainly never know have over the centuries coaxed various foodstuffs. I want to salute these people, and in that sense this post has become a continuation of previous posts I have written about the slew of vegetables coaxed out of the mustard plant and the sea beet.
People have worked on two parts of the plant: its leaf and its root. Out of its leaf they have extracted several vegetables. I start with catalogna chicory. I do so because it is an Italian vegetable. My wife being Italian and my most faithful reader, I want to begin with a salute to the genius of her countrymen and women (it also so happens that her mother used to eat catalogna chicory from time to time, and it’s nice to use this occasion to remember the good woman). I also start with it because the photo shows up the common chicory’s very obvious relationship to the dandelion (the two are part of the same family) in the shape of the catalogna chicory’s leaves. And that shape allows me to note that catalogna chicory leaves, like dandelion leaves, are quite bitter (in fact, the reason my mother-in-law didn’t eat catalogna all that often was because my father-in-law disliked its bitter taste).
I throw in here a popular Roman recipe which uses catalogna chicory, insalata di puntarelle alla romana
Cut out the white, less bitter stems. Slice them into narrow strips. Let them sit in iced water for an hour (this further reduces the bitterness). In the meantime prepare the salad sauce. Add together crushed garlic, anchovies, vinegar, and olive oil, and whip together. Drain the catalogna chicory stems. Drizzle with the salad sauce. Enjoy!
Then there is another Italian spin-off of the common chicory, the radicchio.
Although something like the radicchio may have already been enjoyed by the Romans, it is actually men and women living in the north-east of Italy during the fifteenth century, in the regions of Veneto, Friuli Venezia Giulia, and Trentino, who started its modern cultivation. But it is a Belgian agronomist by the name of Francesco Van den Borre (where there is a name, let us highlight it) who engineered the radicchio’s typical deep-red colour. He used a technique where the plants are taken from the soil and placed in water in darkened sheds; the lack of light causes the plants to lose their green pigmentation and turn red.
There is also the sugarloaf, which I must confess I have never eaten and had until I read up for this post never even heard of, and whose origins are a mystery to me – I can’t find anything about them on the internet. This is what it looks like.
As far as I can make out, sugarloaf is eaten in much the same way as most chicories are: braised or in salad. I might nose around some of the higher-end grocery shops here to see if I can find any to try.
Finally, there is the Belgian endive.
Like the radicchio, this is a rather artificial vegetable. To prevent the leaves from turning green and opening up, it is grown just below the soil surface or indoors in the absence of sunlight. It seems that this technique was accidentally discovered in the 1850s at Brussels’ Botanical Garden, which no doubt explains why it’s called Belgian endive (just to confuse things, I should note that the true endive is another species, Cichorium endivia).
That’s what people have done with the leaf of the common chicory. Then there is its root.
It’s best known as the source of chicory coffee. The root is chopped up and then roasted, to give something like this.
It can either be used as is or mixed with real coffee. Personally, I don’t like the stuff. My wife doesn’t either, but my mother-in-law was quite partial. So was my French grandmother; I remember her drinking this rather bitter drink in the morning at breakfast with evident relish. As I recall, she drank this brand of chicory coffee – given the dates, I would imagine I saw her dipping into the second tin from the left.
I read that the French got a taste for chicory coffee during the Napoleonic wars. “Perfidious Albion” (i.e., the British) used its navy to blockade France so that coffee couldn’t get through. In desperation, the French turned to chicory to satisfy their craving for coffee. They got rather fond of it and continued drinking it after Waterloo.
Well, all very interesting, but let me finish where I started, with a very pretty flower with great determination to grow in the most hostile of environments.
And with that, let me get ready for our next walk and probable meeting with the common chicory.
My last post on a liquid refreshment (mead) has moved me to write this next post about another liquid refreshment, this time a non-alcoholic one: Almdudler. Unless readers have spent some time in Austria or the other Germanic lands – Germany and the German part of Switzerland – they will never have heard of this drink, created some 60 years ago here in Austria. I certainly hadn’t until I came to live in Vienna 20 years ago. But in this country it is very popular, second only in popularity, in the sweet carbonated drinks category to which it belongs, to Coca Cola.
For readers who don’t know the drink at all, let me throw in a photo of a bottle of Almdudler.
Readers will immediately notice the cute Austrian couple on the bottle dressed the traditional Austrian way – she in a dirndl, he in lederhosen and a jacket, both wearing an ethnic hat of some sort – but let’s leave that aside for the moment. We’ll come back to it later. Let’s concentrate on the straw-coloured liquid in the bottle, whose drinking is after all the whole point of buying the product.
I’m not particularly fond of carbonated soft drinks but if I’ve bothered to write this post it’s because this particular example of the genre is actually quite good. It is certainly a wonderful drink to have on these hot summer days as we walk the woods around Vienna. What is it about Almdudler, I’ve been asking myself these last 20 years, which makes it so pleasant to drink? The sweetness, of course, gives you a pleasant kick if you’ve been walking and sweating a lot. The fizz excites the palate. But behind the sweetness, behind the fizz, there’s a certain something, a faint, light aftertaste. What could it be?
The company which owns the recipe is predictably coy about the ingredients. The whole money-making machine that is Almdudler rests on those ingredients remaining a secret. The official website merely states that Almdudler is made of water, sugar, carbon dioxide, citric acid (as an “acidifier”, which I presume means giving the drink a slightly acidic taste but maybe to also act as a preservative), ammonia sulphite-based caramel colouring (that must be what gives the drink its straw colour), and “natural herbal extracts”. “Natural herbal extracts” … that must be the key ingredient, the one that intrigues and titillates the palate. The rest of the ingredients are just bog-standard, artificial stuff, pretty much taken off a chemical lab shelf.
So what natural herbs could Almdudler be using? I searched around on the internet for clues, particularly – given where it’s drunk – in the German section of the internet (sweating over translations with Google Translate). The search was heartening in that it showed that I was not alone in wondering what herbs are used in Almdudler, it was disheartening in that no-one had a clue. There is one faint chink of light in all the gloom. In one part of its website, the company specifies that 32 Alpine herbs are used. So let’s focus the search on Alpine herbs. The problem is, I can’t find an article on the internet which lists the Alpine herbs which are typically used in foodstuffs. Instead, what I’ve discovered is that Alpine herbs is big business. A good number of products, from throat lozenges to facial creams to digestive liqueurs, claim to use Alpine herbs – and of course are all very coy about which herbs exactly they use (I’ve also discovered that growing these herbs now occurs at agro-industrial scale in at least one Swiss canton – so much for my vision of Alpine maidens setting off in the early morning with a wickerwork basket to collect the herbs in woodland and meadow). The one exception to all this secrecy and dissimulation is the throat lozenge Ricola. The company’s web site informs us that 13 Alpine herbs are used in the lozenges, to whit: horehound, burnet, cowslip, elder, lady’s mantle, mallow, marshmallow plant, peppermint, plantain, sage, speedwell, thyme, and yarrow. I’m so pleased with the company for giving out this information that I shall give them some free publicity and throw in a photo of their product (I also happen to like the lozenges).
That being said, this list doesn’t really help me much with the Almdudler puzzle. Do any of these 13 herbs get used, and if so which? Or are we talking about a completely different set of Alpine herbs? Any readers with inside information are welcome to drop me a line, but I fear that short of breaking into the Company’s HQ and blowing open the vault where the recipe is kept (I read somewhere that this is how Coca Cola’s recipe is hidden away from prying eyes, so I presume it will be the same for Almdudler), I will never know the answer to this question.
So let me turn to the cute Austrian couple on the label. There has always been such a couple on the bottle, although as this old poster for Almdudler attests they have been somewhat sleekened and modernized since the product first came onto the Austrian market in 1957.
Readers will note the typically Alpine setting of the scene – all further pointers to the Alps being the source of the herbs in the drink (in fact, those strange-looking plants at the feet of the couple may be one of the herbs!). According to the company web-site, the name, too, has Alpine roots. Almdudler is a shortening of the phrase auf der Alm dudeln, which means “yodeling in the Alpine pasture”. I rather think that’s what the couple are doing in the poster. Yodeling always makes me think of a scene in Asterix in Helvetia (where he and Obelix are sent to get a secret Alpine herb for one of Druid Panoramix’s potions – we always come back to the Alpine herbs!). At some point in their adventures, the two meet a group of Swiss having a day out in the mountains and yodeling.
So a very Alpine drink, then! Which is funny, because the inventor of Almdudler, Erwin Klein, was as Viennese as they come. But that’s OK, because in the end he was selling post-war Austrians a dream: the little Alpine country, proud of its bucolic, rustic roots, just wanting to be left alone by everyone. And the selling of that dream made him a fortune.
Interesting fellow, Klein. Born in 1924, into a family already in the soft drinks business (his father ran a company which made carbonated lemonade), he was actually trained from an early age for the stage. An odd choice by his parents, it seems to me; but perhaps his father was a frustrated actor, and anyway there was already an older son ready to step into his father’s shoes and take over the family business. He somehow avoided being called up – he was 18 in 1942 – and survived the war (as did his father’s business). Immediately after the war, he made good on his training and became a cabaret artist for a couple of years. But for some reason he abandoned the stage in 1947 and joined the family firm. In around 1954, he started tinkering in the company’s lab on the recipe for Almdudler. At his wedding in 1957, so the story goes, he presented his wife with the first bottle of Almdudler. Through savvy marketing, he grew the brand. His biggest marketing coup was at the 1964 Winter Olympics in Innsbruck, where he took over the food and beverage supply of the entire event – allowing him, of course, to feature Almdudler prominently. In 1973, he capped his success by stopping to make Almdudler himself. Instead, he sold other bottlers the rights to use the recipe. All he had to do was sit at home and let the royalties roll in. Great business model!
But the stage – at least the more vulgar end of it – never left him. Looking at this picture of him on the company web-site, that doesn’t surprise me too much.
In 1959, he opened a restaurant with a permanent cabaret stage program. Among other things, this became the permanent venue of the “Drei Spitzbuben”, the three Bad Boys, a very popular act in Austria.
According to Wikipedia, the threesome “were the ‘master of the rough joke’ and parodied all sorts of then-current hits. Many of the gross jokes are about sex, homosexuality, and alcohol.” I think we get the picture. Klein himself was involved in writing the texts of the Bad Boys. He also wrote for TV and radio – I don’t want to think what non-PC stuff he wrote. He even directed a sex film! For anyone who is interested, it was entitled Dornwittchen und Schneeröschen, and was a sex film in the guise of a fairy tale movie. It was, alas, poorly received.
And then, in 1983, at the age of 59, he killed himself. Apparently, he was suffering from a serious illness and decided to end it all. His son took over the business and he got himself a nice grave in one of Vienna’s fancier graveyards.
Well, I lift a glass of Almdudler to its creator. I may never know what mix of Alpine herbs he came up with in that lab 60 years ago but I will continue to enjoy the taste they impart to his product on these hot summer days. And I must try what the old poster invites us to try: mit oder ohne Wein, with or without wine. Prost!
Back in April, I was up in Vienna to make a presentation at a workshop on ecodesign and its role in promoting circular economies. Fascinating topic, but what I actually want to write about is the fact that at this meeting I met an old contact of mine, Wolfgang, who many years ago had run a training programme for me on ecodesign in Sri Lanka. After the workshop, we repaired to a bar to catch up on the past 15 years or so over a beer. Wolfgang first told me all about what he’s been up to in the ecodesign world, but then added, “What’s really exciting me at the moment is my production of mead.”
Mead … I don’t know what visions this conjures up in my readers, but for me I immediately see Vikings wassailing the dark Nordic nights away, drinking mead out of horns or possibly the skulls of their enemies, and preparing for the battle of tomorrow where they will die heroically and go to Valhalla. These fine fellows will stand in nicely for such a scene.
I had certainly never drunk the stuff myself; I didn’t know anyone made it anymore.
Thoroughly intrigued, I pressed Wolfgang for more information. As is the case with all enthusiasts, I didn’t have to press very hard. With a pint of beer inside him, he waxed lyrical on the subject. He had to start at the very beginning, with what mead is made from – I didn’t even know that. It’s a mixture of honey and water to which yeast is added to turn the sugars in the honey into alcohol. The relative ratios of honey to water will determine the level of sweetness of the final product. Sweetness can be further increased by the addition of fruits. On the other hand, the mix can be made dryer by adding astringent berries or herbs. Wolfgang was very dismissive about the modern trend of making sweet meads. In fact, he said, he started making mead because he was appalled at how horribly sweet most modern meads are, which in his opinion obliterates the wonderful underlying tastes of the honey. He decided he was going to swim against the current and make a dry mead. He had been at it for a couple of years, and was beginning to sell his product to other enthusiasts.
Well, this all sounded very interesting! I was definitely going to have to try this stuff. Unfortunately, I was going back down to Milan the next day. But we agreed that when my wife and I came up to Vienna for the summer, I would contact him and we would arrange a mead-tasting event.
In the meantime, down in Milan, I did some research. Mead, it turns out, is very ancient, probably the first alcoholic drink that human beings ever quaffed. It’s also a pretty universal drink. The tribes that settled Europe certainly all drank mead. I’ve already mentioned the Vikings. They loved mead so much, they wrote a whole saga about it – Kvasir and the Mead of Poetry. It’s a story that has dwarves, giants, the god Odin, thievery, murder, and various other bits and bobs. A shaggy dog story if ever I heard one, good to while away those long Nordic nights while quaffing mead. The bottom line of the saga is that mead can turn you into a poet or a scholar: a feeling that I’m sure all of us have had when we have drunk too much alcohol; a feeling we normally have just before we are sick or pass out, or both. And much of Beowulf, that Anglo-Saxon poem greatly revered by lovers of the English language, takes place in a mead hall; it was in these specially-built halls that Viking chieftains and their retinue of warriors drank mead, listened to long, long – long – sagas, and generally wassailed the nights away, before collapsing onto the benches or even onto the floor in a drunken stupor. Here is an artist’s representation of a mead hall.
And here is an excellent summary of the first part of Beowulf: “The fantastical mead hall of Heorot forms an integral part of the epic Old English poem Beowulf, serving as both the setting and instigation of the action. It is the carousing of Heorot’s denizens as they slug back mead in the hall which awakens the terrible ire of the monster Grendel – with predictably gruesome results. The solution to the problem – in typical Old English style – was not to put down the mead horns and cease partying, but to slay the monster (and his mother) before throwing an even bigger and more mead-soaked party to celebrate.”
The Vikings may be the best known quaffers of mead, but the Celts were no slouches, and nor were the Germanic tribes. There is riddle-poem in the Exeter Book, a 10th-century anthology of Anglo-Saxon poetry, about honey and mead. I quote the first couple of lines:
Ic eom weorð werum, wide funden,
brungen of bearwum ond of burghleoþum,
of denum ond of dunum. Dæges mec wægun
feþre on lifte, feredon mid liste …
But since I’m sure that 99.99% of my readers are like me not able to read Anglo-Saxon, I insert here a translation of the poem into modern English:
I am valuable to men, found widely,
brought from groves and from mountain slopes,
from valleys and from hills. By day, was I carried
by feathers up high, taken skillfully
under a sheltering roof. A man then washed me
in a container. Now I am a binder and a striker;
I bring a slave to the ground, sometimes an old churl.
Immediately he discovers, he who goes against me
and contends against my strength,
that he shall meet the ground with his back,
unless he ceases from his folly early;
deprived of his strength, loud of speech, his power bound,
he has no control over his mind, his feet, or his hands.
Ask what I am called, who thus binds slaves
to the earth with blows, by the light of day.
The Anglo-Saxons clearly recognized the power of mead to bring you crashing to the floor of the mead hall or any other establishment where you drank the stuff in excess.
The Slavs also drank the stuff – they still do, with Poland having an especially developed culture of mead drinking. We have here a painting of a couple of early 19th Century Polish noblemen enjoying a flagon of mead, a scene inspired by that great nationalist Polish poem, Pan Tadeusz by Adam Mickiewicz. I don’t even bother with the Polish here, I just launch straight into an English translation, and cut out much of the saga-like talk between the two old men who are our subject:
Two old men sat outside the house, tankards
of strong mead resting on their knees; …
The old men drink their mead and dip their snuff
from a bark case, continuing their chat.
“Yes, yes, Protazy, it is true enough,”
said the Warden. “I can agree with that,”
replied Protazy the Apparitor.
“Yes,” they repeated in unison, “Yes,”
nodding their heads. …
…. The turf bench in the yard
on which they sat adjoined the kitchen wall;
from an open window, steam filled the air,
billowing like a conflagration. When all
the smoke was gone, a white chef‟s hat was there,
flitting like a dove. It was the Seneschal,
who stuck his head out through the kitchen window,
eavesdropping on this private conversation.
Finally, he handed them a plate with two
biscuits. “Have this cake with your libation,”
He said …
It wasn’t just tribes in Europe’s north who drank mead. The Ancient Greeks drank it – I read that Dionysios was the God of mead before becoming the God of wine. Greek followers of Dionysios, and Roman followers of Bacchus (same God, different name), used to hold festivals – the Dionysia or Bacchanalia – where much drinking and dancing and cavorting about (nudge, nudge, wink, wink, say no more) was the key. Here is a take on a Bacchanalia by Hendrik Balen (he did the figures) and Jan Breughel the Elder (he did the landscape), painted in about 1620.
As I say, the Romans partook enthusiastically in Bacchanalia, but there were more sober Roman citizens who left us some serious commentary on mead. Here is my favourite, by the Roman naturalist Lucius Junius Moderatus Columella, who included a recipe for making mead in his tome on agriculture, De re rustica, which he wrote in about 60 CE (again, I skip the Latin and go straight into an English translation).
Take rainwater kept for several years, and mix a sextarius [ca. ½ litre] of this water with a [Roman] pound [ca. ⅓ kg] of honey. For a weaker mead, mix a sextarius of water with nine ounces [ca. ¼ kg] of honey. The whole is exposed to the sun for 40 days, and then left on a shelf near the fire. If you have no rain water, then boil spring water.
I am appalled and fascinated in equal measure by this idea that one could take several-year old rainwater and use it to make something to drink; I suppose this was a way of inoculating the honey-water mix with natural yeasts which somehow found their way into the rainwater. I presume Columella drank his own mead and survived, so it cannot have been as deadly as it sounds.
And it wasn’t just the Europeans who drank it. The Chinese did – in fact, the oldest archaeological evidence tentatively pointing to mead drinking has been found in China: some honey, rice, and fermentation residues found on the inside of a pot 9,000 years old. The Mandaya and Manobo people in the island of Mindanao in the Philippines still drink mead, which they call bais.
In Africa, the Xhosa in South Africa have an ancient tradition of drinking mead, or iQhilika in Xhosa, and the Ethiopians have been, and continue to be, enthusiastic drinkers of mead (or tej as it’s called locally). Here we have Ethiopians enjoying a wee dram of the stuff.
And I love this picture, done in the traditional Ethiopian style, of what appears to be a priest and his acolytes getting ready to down some tej.
What I find particularly delicious in this painting is that normally the figures in Ethiopian paintings are very solemn; no-one breaks into a smile. Yet here, at the thought of the pleasures to come, we see a hint of a smile on the acolytes’ faces (while the priest looks troubled, which is perhaps how it should be: “Guys, should we be doing this? What if someone sees me drinking this stuff? I have an important position in the community.”).
Even in the Americas mead was, and still is consumed. Prior to the Spanish conquest, the Maya made a drink called balché made by soaking the bark of a special tree in a honey-water mix and allowing it to ferment. Apparently, the Maya consumed balché in enema form to maximize its inebriating effect (just think if the Vikings had cottoned on to that …). For some reason, the Conquistadores banned the drink, but it never went away completely. Here is an Amerindian from the Chiapas region of Mexico making balché the old way: in a hollowed log, place the bark of the tree, add water and honey, cover and wait. Balché may be making a comeback, although one of the reasons the Spaniards didn’t like it is that it smelled foul to them. They popularized a variant, xtabentún, which replaced the tree bark with anise (they also added rum, which makes the drink more of a liqueur).
In a way, it’s not surprising that mead is drunk in so many parts of the world. Honey, its basic ingredient, is to be found pretty much everywhere on this planet, as this map of the global distribution of the honeybee attests (the different colours refer to sub-species of the honeybee; the pinkish colour, the most dominant, gives the range for apis mellifera).
For reasons that are not completely clear to me, the drinking of mead went into steep decline in Europe some time after the Middle Ages. Somehow, it got squeezed out by wine on one side and beer on the other. So now there are a few traditional hold-outs where mead never completely died out and enthusiasts like Wolfgang who are trying to bring mead back.
Coming back to Wolfgang, when June came around and my wife and I came up to Vienna for the summer, I contacted him. But one thing and another – he was away, then I was away; he was busy, then I was busy – meant that we weren’t able to arrange the mead tasting until last week. But it was finally arranged! Wolfgang keeps his mead in an old wine cellar in a small village outside Vienna, so we took a bus with him one evening and sallied forth. It was a lovely cellar, very deep, at the end of which he had a table with chairs where we sat down to do our mead tasting. He got us some glasses and a bottle of his best mead. He uncorked it, poured us a generous portion, and invited us to taste. We ceremonially picked up the glass, sniffed it, swirled it around, and took a sip.
It was … interesting. I think that’s the best I can say. I don’t know if readers can imagine this, but it tasted like honey without the sweet taste. What gets left behind if you take out the honey’s sweetness is a slightly acrid, slightly “waxy” taste. If any of my readers have ever nibbled at wax, that was the predominant taste of the mead.
The first mead we tried was made with honey where the bees had been feeding on the nectar from lime-tree (linden) flowers (I have waxed lyrical about the flower of the linden tree in a past post). We then tried a mead made with honey where the bees had feasted on rhododendron nectar up in the Alps. It was much clearer in colour, but the taste did not change much. As a finale, we tried a mead to which chokeberries had been added. These turned the mead’s colour redder and made the taste smokier – but it did not change the basic facts. Well, we bought two bottles from Wolfgang. We felt we owed him that for the trouble he had gone to. We plan to take the bottles down to Milan, where we’ll try them on our son and see what he thinks.
In the meantime – but I have to hide this from Wolfgang – I think we should find some sweet mead to try. I feel that despite Wolfgang’s tut-tutting, people are not so wrong to drink their mead sweet. And that Ethiopian mead looks really interesting! I wonder if the Ethiopian restaurant we go to in Milan has any?
I left readers at the end of my last post promising to cover the rest of our stay in Munich as well as our stay in Bregenz in another post. Well, I am a man of his word, here is that post!
In truth, the post will be more of a showing of photos than anything else, the e-equivalent of having your friends round for dinner after your latest holiday and boring them with your holiday snaps. I hope my readers will not be too bored and slip away early from this post …
With that, let us begin!
Well, I can’t say that I was carried away by the overall look and feel of the city. Pleasant enough, but Vienna for instance is a much more striking city overall. So what follows is a string of individual things that stuck in my mind as we criss-crossed the city.
The Nymphenburg Palace, the little summer pad of the Dukes-Kings-Electors of Bavaria.
It was once out in the countryside but is now in the suburbs of Munich. Considerably more dramatic than the Hapsburgs’ little summer pad at Schönbrunn (now also marooned in Vienna’s suburbs).
The outside may have been dramatic, but the palace’s interiors weren’t up to much. On the other hand, the interior of Amalienburg, a little hunting lodge hidden among the trees of the Palace’s park, was quite something.
“One of the finest examples of Rococo architecture in Germany” intones the Michelin Green Guide. I’m quite ready to believe it.
A riot of colour at the city’s botanical gardens, situated on the edge of Nymphenburg Palace’s park.
A striking painting by Alexej Jawlensky (Portrait of the Dancer Sacharoff), at Villa Lenbach, one of the museums we visited.
The museum has a whole section devoted to members of the Blaue Reiter group. A worthy collection indeed, but nothing other than this painting grabbed me.
Villa Lenbach also had a room devoted to paintings from after 1945, which is where I saw this one.
The Seated Man, by Jean Hélion, a French painter whom I had never, ever heard of prior to entering the Villa Lenbach. Well, you learn something new every day …
We also visited the Modern Art Gallery (Pinakothek der Moderne). Again, a very worthy collection, but only this painting by Max Beckmann (Dance in Baden-Baden) has stayed with me.
On our wanderings, we entered the Burgersaal church by mistake (I misread the map and thought we were visiting St. Michael’s church (“the first Renaissance church built north of the Alps” the Michelin Green Guide dixit – the serendipity of tourism).
The paintings on the ceiling were a pleasingly modernized take on an old art form.
The church is dedicated to Blessed Rupert Mayer (kneeling to the left on that ceiling painting), a priest who stood up to the Nazis. He was one of the very few German Catholics who did so …
The new main Jewish synagogue in St. Jakobs Platz in the old town.
The previous main synagogue was pulled down by the Nazis in 1938. We didn’t get to visit inside, but the brooding, rugged exterior was impressive enough. It reminded me of the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. The Jewish Museum next door was interesting, too, but more as a collection of memories of a community scythed down by the Nazis. Many were sent to Dachau, a mere 20 km to the north of Munich.
The Hofbräuhaus Beer Hall in the old town.
This was one of several such halls in Munich in which Hitler used to speak in the early days of his political career. I don’t know what I was expecting; a sense of menace or of dread in the air? No doubt I was influenced by a painting I had seen in Los Angeles’s County Museum of Art: The Orator, by Magnus Zeller.
The location of that painting could easily have been the Hofbräuhaus.
But all I saw were a lot of people enjoying a beer, and all I heard was a lot of cheerful babble.
And that’s it for Munich! Next stop:
I must confess that I was expecting more. Its location on Lake Constance, its venerable and ancient past (it was originally a Roman town by the name of Brigantium), all led me to think it would be an interesting place to visit. But no, there really wasn’t much to it, and what there was, was ruined by bad town planning: the railway station and a busy through road effectively cut the city off from the lake. So again, just a few photos of some individual places.
A view of the upper town, a charming and quiet little corner of the city.
That tower in the background with the squat onion dome is St. Martin’s Tower; this charming fresco is one of several which adorn its interior.
A view of the city and the lake from up a mountain outside the city. We discovered some beautiful walks in the mountains surrounding the city.
The spectacular set for the opera; it was the fact that our friend from Bregenz had extra tickets that brought us to the city in the first place.
The stage is a little way out in the lake, just off the shore, and the audience takes its place on seating put up along the shore. We were seeing Verdi’s Rigoletto, but the opera itself was completely overshadowed by the set. That giant head went up and down and turned this way and that, the eyes opened and closed, as did the mouth, people entered and exited the mouth, the hands moved, fluttering here and there, the tethered balloon went up and down … All this while the sun was setting over the lake and darkness came creeping up on us. It was jaw-dropping. Was the singing good? I don’t know, I was so concentrated on that head and its next move.
And that’s it for Bregenz!
I hope you’re still with me and that you enjoyed our holiday snaps. See you next time!
My wife and I were in Bolzano two weeks ago. For readers who are not familiar with Italy’s geography, that’s the main city of the Autonomous Province of Bolzano. This is a mainly German-speaking region of Italy in the Alps, wedged up against Austria.
Italians call it Alto Adige but many of its inhabitants call it South Tyrol, it having been part of the County of Tyrol since time immemorial; it was only prised away from the Austro-Hungarian Empire and given to Italy after the former collapsed at the end of the First World War. Over the last hundred years this fateful decision has led to much agitation, repression by the Italian State, and consequent acts of terrorism, although all the brouhaha has pretty much died down by now.
Fascinating as it is, the region’s history was not what brought us to Bolzano. It was Ötzi, the Stone Age mummy discovered in a glacier high up in the Ötzal Alps (hence the mummy’s nickname) nearly thirty years ago. Ever since a museum dedicated to him opened in Bolzano in 1998, I have been hankering to visit it. Our planned hiking trip to the valley next door (which will be the subject of my next post) gave me my chance to drop by Bolzano to look over Ötzi, and my wife – although not an Ötzi fan like me – was willing to come along.
Some words of introduction. Ötzi was discovered in September 1991 by a German couple who were hiking up in the Ötzal Alps. They were crossing the Tisenjoch Pass (Giogo di Tisa in Italian), where a small glacier is located. Climate change and a particularly hot summer had led to much shrinkage in the glacier and the couple spotted a body poking out through the ice.
They reported the matter to the owners of a mountain hut close by, who in turn reported it to the authorities – the initial assumption was that it must be the body of someone who had perished on a climb or hike. The man – as he turned out to be – died very close to the Italian-Austrian border. Initially, it was thought that the body’s location was in Austria and he was therefore taken down to Innsbruck (capital of the Austrian province of [northern] Tyrol) for examination. Later, after some careful measurements were made, it was concluded that he had actually been found within Italy, some 95 metres south of the border.
Under normal circumstances, if it had just been some poor bastard who had died on a hike or climb, this problem of which country he had actually been recovered in would not have been such a big deal. But it rapidly became apparent that the mummy was actually very, very old; it has since been calculated that Ötzi is some 5,000 years old. At that point, everyone began to see the dollar (or euro) signs
and the question about which country “owned” the mummy became vitally important. Luckily for the rest of the world, the issue was resolved by people who were actually “cousins”, whatever modern borders might say. The Governors of (Italian) Alto Adige/South Tyrol and (Austrian) Tyrol sat down around a table and (in German) hammered out an agreement. The scientists at Innsbruck (who were much better equipped anyway to study such an ancient mummy) would take the lead on all the scientific studies while the authorities in Bolzano would prepare the museum to house it. And so it was. In 1998, Ötzi was solemnly brought back from Innsbruck to his new home in Bolzano.
While all this had been going on, and in fact ever since Ötzi has been back in Bolzano, scientists from a multitude of disciplines have been busily at work on Ötzi as well as on all the things he was wearing or carrying. I have to say, these scientists seem to have squeezed poor old Ötzi and the tattered remnants of his clothes and equipment like a lemon; squeezed him so hard that his pips have squeaked as they say. But they have come up with an astonishing amount of information. Let me start, though, with a scientific work of art: a statue of what scientists believe Ötzi looked like, which now stands at the very end of the museum tour.
This work is scientific in that it has used the latest technology to measure Ötzi very precisely, to rebuild his bones, to cover those bones with muscles and skin, and then cover those with reconstitutions of his leggings and his shoes; it is artistic in that its creators have made Ötzi look incredibly human. They have given him an expression of someone you might just have met on the street and who is not completely sure who you are.
A few words about what we would have noticed about Ötzi if we had met him 5,000 years ago just before he died. He was about 160 cm (5 ft 3 in) tall (small by today’s standards, perhaps big by the standards of the day). His shoe size would have been an EU 38 (I will let readers translate that into whatever shoe size system they are familiar with; they can use this site, for instance, to do this). He weighed about 50 kilos (110 lbs), nicely within his BMI. He had brown eyes. He had dark hair. He was gap-toothed. His teeth in general were not in particularly good condition, badly worn down and with cavities (probably due to a diet based on heavily processed grains). As to his age when he died: about 45 – young by today’s standards, old by the standards of his time; the makers of the statue have made him look weatherbeaten, which he probably was. And he was tattooed; in all, he carried 61 tattoos on his body! This photo of the rear of the statue shows where he had some of them on his back.
As readers can see, they are not really decorative tattoos. From where they are found on Ötzi’s body, scientists believe that they probably had a therapeutic function; they were a way for Ötzi to deal with the aches and pains in his joints, an early form of acupuncture, especially since the tattoos are located along acupuncture lines still used today. For instance, scientists can see that his knee joints were well worn; I’m sure his knees ached as a result (something I can deeply sympathize with given the current state of my knees). So he had a good number of tattoos around his knees; I generally disapprove of tattoos but maybe I should try these kinds of tattoos around my knees …
From their high-tech prodding and probing, scientists have also discovered a number of things about Ötzi which you can’t see. The poor man had been sick several times in the last six months of his life; scientists can tell this from the Beau’s lines on his three remaining nails which they found (any readers who are doctors will no doubt understand this; it’s gibberish to me). He had worms – whipworms to be precise. This would have given him frequent bouts of painful diarrhea. He also had Lyme disease, while his clothes carried fleas. He had broken several ribs and his nose some time during his lifetime. His blood group was O positive. He was lactose intolerant. By rights, we should all be; it’s the “natural” default position for us humans in adulthood. But in Europe our herding culture and its dependence on milk products led to some of us eventually becoming lactose tolerant through a genetic mutation. Talking of mutations, Ötzi carried a rare genetic trait which meant that he was missing two ribs. His DNA links him to small populations of people living in remote parts of Sardinia and Corsica: testimony to his being part of the earlier populations of Europe which were later pushed aside by later immigrants.
It’s not just the man who has been thoroughly investigated, it’s also his clothes and equipment. What mainly transpires for me was that in today’s language, Ötzi was a completely sustainable guy. He relied heavily on animal hides for all his needs; scientists have identified bear skin, deer skin, goat skin. These were used not only for his clothes but also parts of his equipment (fascinating factoid: at least one of the hides which he used was tanned with bear brains and fat; better than the human carcinogen Chromium VI which is almost universally used nowadays). Animal sinews were used to sew the pieces of hide together (I’m no expert on sewing, but for those who are interested there are sites, e.g., this one, which explain the kind of sewing that was used). Grasses of various kinds were used to both make twine and as a thermal stuffing. Here is a close-up of the reconstituted leggings and shoes on the statue of Ötzi
while this photo shows the coat he was wearing – scientists think that the dark-pale-dark look was not serendipitous; it was a statement of some sort.
I’ll skip the weapons Ötzi was carrying except for one – his axe – which I will come back to in a minute. I find more fascinating the stuff he was carrying to make himself a fire: a fungus called tinder fungus. I’ve diligently read explanations of how to light a fire with a flint and some tinder fungus. It sounds easy, but I very much doubt it is. Unfortunately, making fires without matches is something they never taught me to do in the Scouts, and I am always fascinated by the apparent magic of people making fire from nothing. In such situations, I always think of Tom Hanks in the film Cast Away when he managed to start his first fire without matches: I can empathize with his sense of triumph at having cracked this problem.
And so we come to the great mystery of Ötzi’s death, the first murder that we know of. For it was murder: scientists discovered that an arrow had penetrated Ötzi just below his left shoulder. Someone shot him from behind. The arrowhead sliced through his subclavian artery, so medics have concluded that he would have bled out quite quickly. We can surmise that he dropped face down on his left arm (which was the position the mummy was found in) and died. From the depth of penetration, scientists estimate that the arrow was shot from 30 m (or 100 ft) away. That sounds to me like a pretty lucky shot. But then I’ve never tried killing anyone with a bow and arrow; maybe 30 m is no big deal for someone who is adept at using a bow and arrow. The fatal arrowhead is still in the mummy, but there was no sign of the arrow shaft, from which the scientists conclude that Ötzi’s killer pulled it out.
And now to the big question: Why? Why was Ötzi killed? Towards the end of the museum tour, visitors are invited to write down and submit their own theory about the reasons surrounding Ötzi’s death. My wife and I have been watching a lot of episodes from the British TV show Inspector Morse recently, whom we see here with his faithful sidekick Sergeant Lewis.
So I decided that this was an excellent opportunity to Think like Morse. Having sieved through the available facts, I have come up with the following story line:
A day or so before his death, Ötzi was involved in a vicious fracas with someone. We know this because scientists discovered a very deep cut between his thumb and forefinger as well as other cuts on his hands. These are typical of someone trying to protect themselves during a close-in fight involving weapons with a cutting edge, a knife attack for instance. I surmise that he successfully defended himself and in the process killed his assailant.
What was this deadly fracas about? “Cherchez la femme”, that’s what I say! As I already mentioned, Ötzi’s knee joints were well worn, indicating a lifestyle that required a lot of walking. This has led some scientists to suggest that he was a shepherd and so spent much of his time moving his flocks around the area’s Alpine pastures. I’m not convinced. The reason for that is his axe. The axe has a copper head; at the time of his death, this would have been a very rare, and therefore very valuable, item: until it was found it was thought that the Age of Metals had not yet started in Italy. So I conclude that he must have been a VIP of some sort. That in itself is not important to his murder, I believe. What is important is that his position required a lot of time away from home walking the mountains. My guess is that he returned home unexpectedly to find his wife canoodling with another man – or maybe his daughter. He got into a fight with the man and killed him. In the language of our time, it was an honour killing.
What next? There has been speculation that Ötzi was escaping when he was killed. That certainly could fit my story; it is not unusual in cases of honour killing for the murderer to quickly go into hiding until passions have subsided. But Ötzi doesn’t seem to have been in a hurry on his last journey. Scientists can tell that Ötzi’s deep cut to his hand occurred a day or so before his death, so he clearly hung around for a while before leaving. They also have figured out that he had quite a heavy meal about an hour before he died: not the behaviour one would expect from a man on the run. So I surmise that after putting his house in order Ötzi headed out again calmly, without a sense that his life was in danger. How wrong he was!
In my scenario, the family of the man he killed vowed revenge. I also posit that they didn’t live in the same village as Ötzi, so it took a while for the news to reach them, which explains why there wasn’t an immediate reaction. I also think that they couldn’t be too open about wanting revenge because of Ötzi’s VIP position. So they hurried over in secret, discovered that he had already left, and hurried after him. They caught up with him at the Pass. Maybe he saw them coming, realized what was happening, and started running, which would explain the decision to take a long bow shot before he disappeared over the horizon. After checking he was dead and pulling out the arrow shaft from where it was buried below his left shoulder, Ötzi’s killers then hurried back to their village, leaving him where he fell. If Ötzi was always traveling, it could have been a while before his family realized something was wrong, by which time early summer snows had already covered the body and hidden it from view – and started the long, slow process of mummification (by the way, scientists know it was early summer when he died because of the types of pollen that he swallowed with his last meal: such clever fellows, these scientists …).
There you have it, ladies and gentlemen, my theory on Ötzi’s untimely death! If you are not convinced, I suggest you find time one day to visit his museum in Bolzano to come up with your own theories. Or you can just read the wealth of stuff on the net about it all – Ötzi has created a veritable cottage industry around his life and death.
Whatever you do, though, spare a thought for poor old Ötzi, who is now hardly visible anymore in his own museum, lying as he is in a specially-created cold cell recreating the conditions he lay in for 5,000 years in the Tisenjoch Glacier, visible only through a small window.