STRAWBERRY

Milan, 14 June 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JASMINE

Sori, 6 June 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Spanish jasmine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

THE HUMAN BODY

Milan, 20 April 2020

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

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

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

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

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

Staying with Africa, the next piece originated in Gabon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The first piece I will present is this ceramic clown.

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

Staying with the circus theme, we have this piece.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I definitely know where this quartet comes from.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

KEBABS AND GEOPOLITICS

Milan, 22 December 2019

One of the fonder memories of my Boy Scout days is roasting a whole pig over a wood fire

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and eating the resultant roasted pork, together with piles of crackling and apple sauce.

Not only was the food extremely yummy, but the aroma of the meat while roasting was … well, intoxicating, I think best describes it. I have already written elsewhere about this culinary experience, which I suspect tapped into something really primordial, the hunter-gatherer buried deep in us all.

Perhaps because of this experience, or perhaps simply because of who I am, I have always been extremely fond of roasted meat, both the eating of it as well as the preparing of it. My wife is the same. Unfortunately, having been inner-city dwellers for most of our lives means that we don’t get to roast meat too often. I don’t find that grilling a piece of meat in an apartment oven is a very satisfying roasting experience, and we have never had a backyard where we could roll out the barbecue set and grill the nights away. And, alas, along with old age have come restrictions on eating meats with too much fat attached to them (the cholesterol levels, you know …). This lessens the fun of meat-roasting even further: I think we can all agree that fat – melting and bubbling under the flames – is an integral part of the roasting experience, especially the olfactory part of it.

So it is only from time to time, and always in restaurants, that we indulge in a piece of roast meat. European cuisine of course has many offerings in this department. Apart from the roast pork of my Boy Scout days, which can stand in for any four-footed animals roasted whole, we have roast chicken, which can stand in for all those roasted fowl we see in paintings (or in manuscript miniatures as in this case).

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It doesn’t have to be whole animals which are roasted. We can have cuts of meat which are roasted, such as grilled steaks.

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They can stand in for all the meats grilled in barbecues like this one (although this lot do seem to be having excessive amounts of fun).

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I think we can even throw in grilled fish.

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Yes, all most delicious!

But actually, what I want to write about in this post is roasted meat from another region of the world: the kebab.

What prompted me to write this post in praise of the kebab was a quick visit we made a few weeks ago to Vienna – our daughter flew in for the wedding of one of her best friends, so we thought we would use the occasion to see her. As usual we took our daily strolls around town, and as usual we spent time admiring the döner kebab shops we passed (well, drooling over their offerings might be a better description) – without, I should hasten to add, actually partaking (the cholesterol levels, you know …). Here is a photo of  one of these döner kebab shops.

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For readers who may not be familiar with this type of kebab, its trademark is a long inverted cone of meat on a vertical spit. The cone is made up of thin slices of lamb, beef, or chicken. The spit rotates slowly, with the meat being kept close to a heat source to cook it.

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When you put in your order, the server will slice thin pieces off the meat cone with a very long knife.

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They will serve you your portion inserted into a bread bun or wrapped in pita or some other flatbread.

I have used the long winter nights since our visit to Vienna to read up about the döner kebab and all its cousin kebabs, and I have discovered a world of astonishing variety. I was partly aware of this variety from the visits which my wife and I made in the distant past to Persian and Turkish restaurants in Vienna (we don’t go so often anymore; the cholesterol levels, you understand …). The list of kebabs on offer was always long, a bit like in a Pizza joint, except that we could always understand the pizzas’ names while here we were faced with a gobbledygook of mysterious and unpronounceable names; we would choose our kebabs more or less at random. But now my reading has shown me the true depths of my ignorance.  Kebabs flourish over a huge region, which starts at the eastern seaboard of the Mediterranean and stretches all the way to the farthest reaches of Central Asia, but which also extends down into the northern regions of the Indian subcontinent, as well as along the southern seaboard of the Mediterranean. This region maps closely onto the regions of the world which are Muslim, and indeed the kebab is considered archetypal Muslim cuisine. It is now, but actually the kebab predates Islam. It already existed in the Middle East long before Islam came into being, and it spread out of there to all the lands where the newly Islamicized traders and conquering armies brought their religion.

I do not propose to summarize breathlessly what I have discovered. I want instead to focus on the intersection of the kebab with another interest of mine, the global movement of foodstuffs and all the geopolitics which can surround that.

Take the döner kebab – which I should really call döner kebap since that is the Turkish way of spelling the name and this is a Turkish kebab. It appeared quite late on the scene, probably the middle of the 19th century, in the town of Bursa, which is on the Asian side of the Sea of Marmara, quite close to Istanbul. There was already an established kebab in the Turkish lands that roasted stacks of meat on a horizontal spit (there is still a kebab roasted on a horizontal spit, the cağ kebab). I suppose someone had the insight that if the spit could be made to turn vertically the juices would run down the meats rather than into the fire. The rotating nature of this kebab gave it its name: döner comes from the Turkish word dönmek, which means “to turn” or “to rotate”.

This new style of kebab-making caught on in the Levant, which was of course part of the Ottoman Empire at the time. They didn’t call it the döner kebab, though, they called it the shawarma – which is actually the same thing, since shawarma is an Arabic transliteration of the Turkish çevirme, “turning”. Shawarma has become an extremely popular street food throughout the Middle East, as this photo from Egypt attests.

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And of course, as has been the case since the beginning of time, immigrants took their foods with them. We have here, for instance, a shawarma-based restaurant in Boston, Massachusetts.


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The döner kebab also spread to Greece, taken there by Greek refugees from the ancient, ancient Greek populations in Anatolia and immigrants from the rest of the Middle East (victims, no doubt, of the rise of nationalism in countries which were created by the collapse of the previously multi-ethnic, relatively tolerant Ottoman Empire). Initially, it was sold a street food under the name döner kebab and became extremely popular. But politics intervened. The tense relations between Greece and Turkey precluded the Greeks tolerating the use of Turkish words, so in the 1970s, when relations were particularly tense, this street food became the gyros – which is really the same thing, since the name comes from the Greek γύρος, “circle” or “turn”.

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The shift out of Muslim lands to Christian lands meant that the Greeks could also introduce a significant change to the meat used. Originally based on lamb (as are most kebabs), the Greeks started using pork as well as chicken for their gyros.

New Greek immigrants, this time to the US, took the gyros with them, so now Americans had two versions of the döner kebab available to them.

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But the penetration of the American market has not finished! And here I have to go back to the shawarma, which was, as I said, popular in the Levant, including, of course, in Lebanon. The Lebanese have always been great travelers of the globe, and in the late 19th, early 20th centuries there was a wave of Lebanese immigration to Mexico. They took shawarma with them. Succeeding generations “domesticated” the shawarma, adding spices typical to the Americas to those from the Middle East which their parents had been using. Thus was born the taco al pastor, where strips of pork cooked on a vertical spit are served in a classic maize taco. We have here the server and the product, in Mexico City.

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But Mexico was the host of two waves of immigration from the Middle East! The second was centred on the city of Puebla, where the taco arabe was born in the 1930s. Here, the dish stayed closer to its roots and is served in a pita-style bread.

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And now of course, with the waves of Mexican immigration into the US, these two dishes have also entered into that country.

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So now, Americans have four different types of döner kebab to choose from, each hiding under a different name! (plus probably the original döner kebab, which no doubt some enterprising Turks have brought to the US)

The flow has not been all out of the Middle East. The taco al pastor has been the subject of a reverse migration. In the early 2000s, it went back to its homeland, the Levant, where it is sold as shawarma mexici! It uses the same set of spices as in Mexico, but of course dietary prohibitions have meant that the pork is substituted with chicken, and it is served in Middle Eastern flatbread rather than the maize taco of the Americas.

Meanwhile, the döner kebab itself has been the subject of migration. When the Germans called on Turks to come and work in Germany under their Gastarbeiter, or Guest Worker, programme, they came with their food. Over time, döner kebab has become a hugely popular street food, so popular that an Association of Turkish Döner Producers in Europe has been set up to look after the interests of those involved in the döner kebab trade. Just to give readers an idea of the size of the market, the Association has estimated that in 2010, more than 400 tonnes of döner kebab meat was produced in Germany every day by around 350 firms, and in 2011 there were over 16,000 establishments selling döner kebabs in Germany. Why, the döner kebab is so popular in Germany that Angela Merkel has graciously allowed herself to be photographed slicing meat off a döner kebab cone (but do I detect a slight anxiety in the set of her mouth?).

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According to the same Association, the story of the döner kebab’s rise and rise in Germany started at West Berlin’s Zoological Garden station, where an enterprising Turkish guest worker by the name of Kadir Nurman set up shop in 1972. He had emigrated to Germany in 1960, and had moved to West Berlin from Stuttgart in 1966. His döner kebabs were a hit with Berliners, fellow Turks took note, piled into the business, carried the döner kebab all over Germany, and the rest, as they say, is history. Part of the Turkish community in Germany migrated to Vienna (a peaceful invasion unlike the earlier Turkish attacks on the city centuries earlier). They of course carried the döner kebab business with them. Which is why my wife and I find ourselves drooling over the döner kebab offerings when we are in Vienna. And the Berlin connection explains why the Viennese döner kebab stand in the earlier photo is proudly called Berliner Döner.

Of course, when you say “kebab”, most people think of pieces of meat roasted on a skewer. And many would reply “ah yes, shish kebab”. But shish kebab, or şiş kebap to give it its Turkish spelling, is simply a generic term meaning skewered roast meat – şiş means skewer or sword in Turkish. There are probably hundreds of different types of skewered roast meat dishes eaten by the local populations between Istanbul in Turkey to the west and Dhaka in Bangladesh to the east. They vary by type of meat of course (lamb is the most popular, but just about any other meat – except pork – will be used somewhere; fish is also used, as are offal like liver). They vary in the vegetables and other servings that come with them. And – probably the most important – they vary in the marinades used on the meat. Every region, every province, every village almost, seems to have its own type of shish kebab. In despair at all this variety, I throw in one photo to stand in for all these types of kebabs, that of a Çöp Şiş, which as the name suggests is a Turkish variety of the shish kebab.

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As if that were not enough, there are hundreds of  skewered kebabs where it’s not cubes of meat which are used but minced meat. This adds another dimension to the possible variations, that of the ingredients kneaded into the minced meat. Here, too, in desperation I choose just one kebab to stand in for this group, kabab koobideh from Iran.

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And then there are all the kebabs where the meat, or minced meat, is roasted but not on skewers. And there are kebabs which are more like meat stews. But I will draw a line here, otherwise this post would go on far too long. And anyway, as I said earlier, I want to focus on the global movement of kebabs, and there is more than enough to write about on this topic when considering just skewered kebabs.

Consider souvlaki, which I have read is considered the national dish of Greece.

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As the photo shows, it looks uncomfortably like that Turkish kebab whose photo I put in above. Is it another import from the hated Turk, like the döner kebab-turned-into-gyros? This is the subject of much heated discussion between Greeks and Turks, with the Greeks arguing that their ancestors were roasting skewered meat long before they were conquered by the Turks. They point to the fact that Homer mentions pieces of meat being roasted on spits in the Iliad. If that is not enough, they also point out that there are mentions of this in the works of Aristophanes, Xenophon, Aristotle, and others. And if that is not enough, they draw your attention to an archaeological find in some Minoan ruins in the island of Santorini, dated to the 17th Century BC, which they claim was used to roast skewers of meat. I show a photo of the find, to let readers judge for themselves.

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(I’m afraid that the cynic in me feels that putting skewers on the notches rather pushes observers to see what promoters of this view would like you to see)

On the other hand, if the Greeks have been roasting skewered meat since the 17th Century BC, why doesn’t there seem to be any rather more modern evidence that this has been a continuing tradition? The modern souvlaki only turned up after World War II, more or less at the time as the döner kebab.

But I will leave the Greeks and Turks to their quarrels and go further west, to Spain. There, there is a dish of skewered meat called the pincho moruno, the Moorish skewer.

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Although it is now found throughout the country, its focus is in the south of the country. As the name suggests, this is a dish that was brought to Spain by the Arabs, either when they conquered the peninsula or later through trading relations; there is a very similar dish on the other side of the Mediterranean. Of course, the meat used is different: lamb in the Muslim lands, pork or chicken in Spain. Once the Spaniards turned from being conquered to being conquerors, they were a vector for a further migration of the pincho westward, as they brought it to the lands in the Americas which they had colonized. It didn’t take root everywhere in Latin America. It flourished in particular in Puerto Rico and Venezuela. I don’t know about Puerto Rico, but I suspect its popularity in Venezuela has to do with the fact that there was a very large migration of Spanish Republicans to that country just after the Second World War, after they ended up on the losing side of the Spanish Civil War.

But now let me cross over to the far eastern end of the Eurasian landmass, to the Chinese province of Xinjiang. Given their Muslim roots, the Uighurs there have a tradition of eating roasted skewered meat – in fact, I remember distinctly seeing a Uighur grilling them on a street corner during our visit to Xinjiang back in 2010. He looked a bit like this.

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The Chinese authorities may not like the Uighurs, but the Chinese like Uighur food, and this kebab, under the name Chuan, has become a popular street food all over the north and west of China. However, with the usual Chinese inventiveness in all matters culinary, Chinese cooks have greatly expanded the type of foodstuffs being threaded onto their skewers. We have here, for instance, sweet sausages and baby octopus.

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I finish with the story of the satay, from South-East Asia. Satay is now considered a national dish in Indonesia. We have here a satay street vendor somewhere in the country.

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But roasting meat on small skewers was only introduced to the country in the 18th Century, with the arrival of Arab and Indian traders and immigrants. However, Indonesians took to the dish with a vengeance and then its own traders spread it throughout South-East Asia, so that it now is common in Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam. They also made one very significant change in the recipe, the use of peanut sauce (the peanut itself being one of the foodstuffs originally from Latin America and spread from there by the colonial powers to the rest of the world during the Great Columbian Exchange).

Malay traders then took the satay further afield, working back, it seems to me, along the shipping routes which led from the Netherlands – the colonial power in Indonesia – to Indonesia itself. Malay traders brought the satay to Sri Lanka (another Dutch colony before the British wrested it from their grasp), where a Malay community put down roots.  It is now a common street food there. They took it to South Africa (another Dutch colony before the British wrested it from their grasp), where they also formed a small community. It goes under the name of sosatie there: a combination of the words sauce and sate (the Indonesian form of the word). The Malays put down roots there too, and the dish has now been thoroughly localized.

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Indonesian immigrants even took the satay back to the Netherlands itself, where it has become a popular mainstay of Dutch cuisine. This link, for instance, gives you the addresses of the 11 best places in Amsterdam to find satay.

Well there you have it, nice examples of how food dishes have followed in the steps of people as they have moved around the globe, for conquest, trade, or simply to find a better life. In the meantime, I have built up a formidable list of all the kebabs which are cooked in the Muslim lands. I propose to take it with me whenever we travel in those parts of the world, so that I can know what kebabs to try rather than just choose them at random from the menu. Always assuming that the cholesterol levels will allow us this dip into the world of kebabs …

QUAFFING MEAD

Vienna, 18 August 2019

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.

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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.

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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 …

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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?

LOQUATS

Sori, 29 May 2019

It’s the month of May! Time for loquats!

I suspect that many of my readers will have no idea of what I’m talking about, especially if they hail from the northern latitudes. I certainly didn’t until I first came to Italy a lifetime ago. Loquats were one of a long list of new food items my wife introduced me to. Except that she didn’t call them loquats, she called them by their Italian name, nespole, and it took me at least thirty years and the internet to figure out their English name.

Loquats are a fruit. They look like this when unopened.

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They’re a bit fussy to prepare. You have to first peel off their thin skin, which tends to break and tear easily, complicating removal. Once you’ve done that, you slice them open, only to find three or four large stones inside.

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The stones are quite beautiful really – warm brown, smooth, glistening – but they take up a lot of the internal space, which of course means less flesh to eat. In any case, once you flip the stones out the fruit is ready to eat. Ah, my friends, such taste! Sweet, but with a slightly tart, acidic note, a very juicy but firm flesh. To die for …

When we lived in Italy, I always looked forward to the month of May as loquat season. Then we went away for some twenty years and loquats remained but a dream. Even in retirement, when we spend a good amount of time here, we tend to leave before loquats come on the market – we have been in the habit of migrating up to Vienna by mid-May. As luck would have it, though, this year we’ve stayed longer than usual, so I’ve had the joy of once again eating loquats.

The fruit’s English name gives us a clue as to where the loquat hails from. “Loquat” is the English rendering of the Cantonese name for the fruit, lou4gwat1 (I believe those numbers are indications of the tones – good luck with that; in my five years in China, I never managed to “hear” a single tone). The fruit’s ancestral homeland is indeed southern China – more strictly the middle and lower valley of the Daduhe River. I throw in a satellite map from Google Maps, where the red pin is stuck in the river’s valley.

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Readers will see that Daduhe River is in the far south-west of China, in Yunnan province. It lies north of Xishuangbanna, which sits on the Mekong River (and which we had the pleasure to visit when we lived in China), and to the south of Pu’er, the location of a rather particular Chinese tea (which I must confess to not liking very much). It doesn’t surprise me that the loquat originates from this part of the world. Yunnan is a globally famous “hot spot” of biodiversity, hosting thousands of different species.

This Chinese connection delighted me when I found it out since over the years I have written a number of posts about various plants which have been carried out of China and spread to the rest of the world. To date, I have written about the Ginkgo tree, Kaki fruit, the Magnolia, the Peking Willow, Wisteria, the Pauwlonia tree, and Osmanthus. As always, Chinese poets and artists celebrated the fruit. We have here a painting from the mid to late Ming dynasty.

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While here is one from the late Qing dynasty.

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The fruit’s English name may be Cantonese but it was not through the port of Canton that it was first transferred to Europe. Like a number of other Chinese plants that reached Europe (from just among the ones I’ve written posts about: the ginkgo tree, kaki fruit, and the magnolia), the transfer occurred via Japan. It seems that the Portuguese, the first Europeans to reach Japan, were also the first to bring the loquat back to Europe. By the time they first set eyes on the fruit and its tree, probably very soon after they arrived in Japan in 1543, it had been growing there for 500 years or so. In all likelihood, it was brought to Japan by Buddhist monks, either Chinese monks going to proselytize in Japan or by Japanese monks returning home after a period of study in China.

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The modern varieties of loquats owe a lot to the patient work by Japanese farmers to develop fruits that were bigger, juicier and sweeter than their wild ancestors. I salute all those anonymous Japanese farmers for their efforts! I throw in here a woodblock by Katsushiga Hokusai of Japanese farmers at work on their more traditional crop, rice.

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Of course, like the Chinese, the Japanese celebrated the loquat in their art. Here is a woodblock by Utagawa Hiroshige (whom I’ve had cause to discuss at length in a previous post) with the same subject of bird and loquats as the Ming-era Chinese painting above.

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In any event, some time in the late 16th, early 17th Century, a Portuguese ship like this one carried the loquat back to Europe.

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The Portuguese didn’t call this new fruit “loquat”, nor did they even call it by some Lusitanian derivation of its Japanese name “biwa”. Instead, like a good number of other countries in Europe, they thought they had to do with a Japanese cousin of an already well-known fruit in Europe, the medlar, whose Portuguese name is nêspera (closely related to its Spanish name, níspero, and more distantly related to its Italian name, nespola – for those interested in linguistics, in all three languages the word derives from the Latin name for the medlar, mespilus, although at some point the “m” drifted to an “n” and the “l” further drifted into an “r” in the Iberian peninsula). The medlar was once quite a well-known fruit in Europe although it has since fallen into obscurity. I certainly had no idea what it looked like when I started this post, and I suspect this to be the case for many of my readers, so I throw in here a photo of this antique fruit.

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Comparing this photo to my first photo of the loquat, I think readers will understand why this confusion arose. By the early 1800s, botanists had understood that it was actually a different plant but by then the damage was done and the Chinese upstart had linguistically dethroned the venerable medlar in about half the European languages.

Loquats have an interesting life-cycle. Like the strawberry tree, which I wrote an earlier post about, the flowers appear in the late autumn or early winter. It seems that the flowers have a sweet, heady aroma that can be smelled at quite a distance; personally, I have never experienced this even though the loquat tree grows in Liguria (from where I am writing this post). The sweet-smelling flowers were also a reason why the tree was a favourite among Chinese and Japanese poets.

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But from a botanical point of view, what is more interesting is that to obtain fruits from these flowers you have to grow the trees in a region where pollinating insects are around at that late time of the year. That is why I never saw the fruit in either the UK or France when I was growing up and had to wait till I came to Italy, where the tree can fruit in the south and along the Ligurian coast, for me to discover it. An advantage of this life-cycle is that the fruit ripens at any time from spring to early summer. It is the first fresh fruit to be available naturally in Italy (i.e., not ripened artificially in some greenhouse somewhere, nor flown in from some remote part of the world), and so can have the monopoly of the fresh-fruit market before the cherries and other fruits appear. Which is why for me the month of May is loquat time.

And now it’s time for me to gorge myself on some more loquats!

NON-WHITES IN BRITISH PAINTINGS – PART I

Venice Beach, 1 May 2019

Several weeks ago, I read about an exhibition opening at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. Titled “Black Models: From Géricault to Matisse”, its purpose is, according to the Guardian where I read the article, to “tackle the depiction of black and mixed-race people in French art from the country’s final abolition of slavery in 1848 until the 1950s.” One of the paintings in the exhibition, for instance, is Manet’s “Olympia”, showing the said Olympia, a courtesan (or high-end prostitute in today’s parlance), naked on her bed and being attended by a black servant.

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The painting has been renamed “Laure” for the exhibition, after the name of the black model who posed for the servant in the background. The exhibition renames several other paintings where the curators managed to discover the name of the black person in the painting. Once more from the Guardian article: “the influence of people of colour has been eclipsed from art history by racism and stereotyping, Murrell [one of the exhibition’s curators] said. Instead their identities were hidden behind “unnecessary racial references” such as negress or mixed-race “mulatresse” – which comes from the French word for mule.” For any readers who are interested in this exhibition, here is the link.

After reading the article, it occurred to me that I could use the data base of Art UK, which I used for a different purpose several posts ago, to carry out the same sort of study: see how non-white folk have been represented in British art over the centuries. Just a quick explanation to those readers who are not familiar with Art UK: it is a pictorial data base of all the pieces of art held by the UK’s public bodies. For those interested in perusing it, this is the link. I would imagine that it is probably a statistically valid sample of the art which has been created in the UK ever since painting started in the country.

Just as I did in my previous foray into Art UK’s data base, I will spread my results over several posts, each with a somewhat different subject. This post will cover the period from the very first representations of non-white people in British paintings until the end of the 18th century, beginning of the 19th. I choose to end it there because in 1772 there was a famous case in England, Somerset vs. Stewart, which in effect concluded that slavery was not allowed under law in England, while in 1833 Parliament passed a law banning slavery throughout the British Empire.

The earliest British painting I found with a non-white person in it is this one. It depicts a certain Lady Tollemache being served by a young black page.

Elizabeth Murray, Lady Tollemache, Later Countess of Dysart and Duchess of Lauderdale with a Black Servant (1651) by Peter Lely (1618-1680). Photo credit: National Trust Images

If one was rich, it must have been quite the thing to have a little black page in one’s household to show off to one’s friends. A number of such paintings are to be found in the Art UK data base, stretching from 1651 to 1740. I don’t think those dates are a coincidence. 1651 is about when there was a large increase in the transatlantic slave trade to feed the sugar plantations in the Caribbean. Many English landowners had important economic interests in these plantations, while English ships – in which, again, landowners had interests – began to dominate the slave trade. It would therefore have been increasingly normal for rich and important families to be involved with black slaves. It is but a small step from this to start thinking that it would be cute to have a black child as your slave-servant. At the other end of this period, 1740 marks the time when abolitionists were becoming increasingly vocal and when it became “not done” to be so visibly seen as involved with black slaves.

The next painting of this type is from about 1660 and is of a certain Elizabeth Risby and her son, being served by both a black page and a maidservant who also looks non-white.

Elizabeth Risby, with John (c. 1660), Anglo/Flemish school. Photo credit: St Edmundsbury Museums. Distributed under a CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 licence

Quite what the ethnicity of the maidservant is, is not clear. I wonder if she was not the companion to the manservant in this next painting, also of Elizabeth Risby but this time with her daughter.

Elizabeth Risby, with Elizabeth (c. 1660), Anglo/Flemish school. Photo credit: St Edmundsbury Museums. Distributed under a CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 licence

Given the date of the painting and the manservant’s hair style, I wonder if he, and therefore she, were not Native Americans, signaling perhaps that either Elizabeth or her husband had lands (and slaves) both in the Caribbean and in the American colonies.

From some 40 years later, 1695, we have this painting of the 3rd Earl of Chesterfield and his family, being served once again by a black page.

Philip Stanhope, 3rd Earl of Chesterfield, with His Wife, Lady Elizabeth Savile, Children and Nubian Slave (c. 1695), British (English) School. Photo credit: Barnsley Arts, Museums and Archives Service

It is interesting to see in this last painting the presence of some exotic bird (a parrot? a cockatoo?), something which you also see in the second of the two paintings of Elizabeth Risby and see again in the painting below of Lady Grace Carteret. I wonder if that puts black pages into the category of exotica, with the families using these paintings to show off all the exotic things they owned?

The next painting, from 1711, is a portrait of Sir John Chardin, a Frenchman. He travelled to Persia and the Near East and wrote learned tomes about these places. He was also a Protestant, who emigrated to the UK because of the persecution of Protestants in France. That experience of persecution didn’t stop him from taking part in the persecution of enslaved Africans, though.

Sir John Chardin (1711), British School. Photo credit: The Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology

This next painting of Lady Grace Carteret, from 1740, is the last I could find of this type.

Lady Grace Carteret, Countess of Dysart with a Child, and a Black Servant, Cockatoo and Spaniel (c. 1740) by John Giles Eccardt (1720-1779). Photo credit: National Trust Images

Apparently, it wasn’t just the aristocracy and the landed gentry who had young black slave-servants. I found one painting of a doctor who is letting the blood from a patient’s arm and whose assistant is a young black boy.

A Surgeon and His Black Slave Letting Blood from a Lady’s Arm (1750-1790), British (English) school. Photo credit: Wellcome Collection

For the sake of completeness, I should say that it wasn’t just black children who were taken on as servants. I’ve already shown one example in the second of the two paintings of Elizabeth Risby. In the Art UK database, there are two other examples of children of other ethnicities being taken on as servants. One is of a certain Colonel Blair and his family. Colonel Blair worked for the East India Company and commanded a brigade at one of the early battles through which the UK eventually took over India.

Colonel Blair with his Family and an Indian Ayah (1768), by Johann Zoffany (1733-1810). Photo credit: Tate. Distributed under a CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 licence

The painting’s title suggests that the little Indian girl in the painting is an ayah, a maid or nursemaid. She looks too young to be either; perhaps she played the same role as the black pages, a cute little addition to the family belongings which also allowed the Blairs to signal to the viewer their connection with India.

The other is of a Lady Staunton and her son George, with a Chinese servant lurking in the background.

Lady Staunton with Her Son George Thomas Staunton and a Chinese Servant (1794), by John Hoppner (1758-1810).  Photo credit: School of Oriental and African Studies

This picture was painted a year after her 12 year old son George had come back from China. George had accompanied his father, who was Secretary on Lord Macartney’s mission to the Chinese imperial court. Macartney’s instructions were to wrest trade concessions from the Emperor, which he signally failed to achieve (I’ve mentioned the diplomatic spat about whether or not Lord Macartney should kowtow to the Emperor in an earlier post). Presumably, George’s father, Sir George Staunton, got himself a young Chinese servant while in China and had him inserted into the painting to show off his connection with that country.

Coming back to the black pages, assuming that the idea of having one was that it was cute, like having a parrot, what happened to these black pages when they grew up and lost their cuteness?

From what I can gather from the painterly record in Art UK’s database, it seems that some of them at least continued on as servants of one kind or another to the rich folk. We have, for instance, this painting by William Hogarth of an aristocratic captain in the Navy, who has, among other appurtenances, a black servant ringing what looks like a dinner gong – or is he giving the beat to the fellow singing?

Captain Lord George Graham in His Cabin (c. 1745), by William Hogarth (1697-1764). Photo credit: National Maritime Museum

We have this painting by Jacopo Amigoni, an Italian painter who spent some ten years in London, of three gentlemen whose precise relationship to each other is not clear to me. In any event, the painting-within-the painting of one of the three is being held up by a black adult servant.

James Howe, Benjamin Tilden and Richard John Thompson (1729-39), by Jacopo Amigoni (c. 1682-1752). Photo credit: York Museums Trust

We have a painting of Baron Nagell’s running footman. The Baron was the Dutch Ambassador to England, while according to Art UK’s entry on this painting “a running footman could be expected to serve as a messenger and to accompany his employer’s coach”. I presume the poor man had to run alongside the coach.

Baron Nagell’s Running Footman (c. 1795), by Ozias Humphry (1742-1810). Photo credit: Tate

Servants to the rich does not seem to have been the only niche that Black slaves or ex-slaves filled. Art UK’s database throws up a few other examples. This next painting suggests that Blacks worked in taverns or inns or maybe even brothels (given that he is trying to attract a soldier), presumably as servants to their owners.

Wallis, George; The Fall of Napoleon (1836), by George Wallis (1811-1891). Photo credit: Wolverhampton Arts and Heritage

The sea also seems to have been a home for Black people. A recent article in the Guardian suggests that already in Tudor times (so 200 or so years before the period we are considering here), foreigners – specifically, North Africans – were present among the sailors in the English fleet. This sympathetic drawing of a Black sailor – the first of our subjects whose name we know: Thomas Williams – suggests that Black men found a profession at sea. Probably, the British Navy, always short of men (we remember stories of the press gangs roaming the countryside and kidnapping men for the Navy), was quite happy to take on Black men in their crews.

Thomas Williams, a Black Sailor (1815), by John Downman (1750-1824). Photo credit: Tate

I think what this next painting is telling us is that Black sailors also took part in the smuggling that was chronic along the UK’s coasts.

Smugglers Alarmed (c. 1830), by John Prescott Knight (1803-1881). Photo credit: Staffordshire Heritage & Arts. Distributed under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 licence

I suspect the next one tells us that some Black sailors, like all sailors, were mutilated at sea, either by cannon fire or in some other way.

The Negro Boat Builder (c. 1850), by William Parrot (1813-after 1891). Photo credit: Brighton and Hove Museums and Art Galleries

It seems appropriate at this point to insert what is thought to be the portrait of Ignatius Sancho, the second black person in all these paintings for whom we have a name.

Portrait of an African (probably Ignatius Sancho) (1757-60), attributed to Allan Ramsay (1713-1784). Photo credit: Royal Albert Memorial Museum. Distributed under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 licence

Ignatius Sancho was well known in his time. I think it instructive to cite a somewhat shortened version of his biography in Wikipedia:

“Charles Ignatius Sancho was born [in about 1729] on a slave ship crossing the Atlantic Ocean. His mother died not long after in the Spanish colony of New Granada. His father reportedly killed himself rather than live as a slave. Sancho’s owner took the young orphan, barely two years old, to England and gave him to three unmarried sisters in Greenwich, where he lived from ca. 1731 to 1749. John, Duke of Montagu, impressed by Sancho’s intellect, frankness, and his amiability, not only encouraged him to read, but also lent him books from his personal library. Sancho’s informal education made his lack of freedom in Greenwich unbearable, and he ran away to the Montagus in 1749. For two years until her death in 1751, Sancho worked as the butler for Mary, Duchess of Montagu, where he flourished by immersing himself in music, poetry, reading, and writing. At her death in 1751 he received an annuity of £30 and a year’s salary, which he quickly squandered.

During the 1760s Sancho married a West Indian woman, Ann Osborne. He became a devoted husband and father. They had seven children. Around the time of the birth of their third child, Sancho became a valet to George, Duke of Montagu, son-in-law of his earlier patron. He remained there until 1773.

In 1766, at the height of the debate about slavery, Sancho wrote to Laurence Sterne encouraging the famous writer to use his pen to lobby for the abolition of the slave trade. Laurence Sterne’s widely publicised response to Sancho’s letter became an integral part of 18th-century abolitionist literature. Following the publication of the Sancho-Sterne letters, Sancho became widely known as a man of letters.

In 1774 with help from Montagu, Sancho opened a greengrocers shop, offering merchandise such as tobacco, sugar and tea. These were goods then mostly produced by slaves. As shopkeeper Sancho enjoyed more time to socialise, correspond with his many friends, share his enjoyment of literature, and he attracted many people to his shop. He wrote and published a Theory of Music and two plays. As a financially independent male householder living in Westminster, he qualified to vote in the parliamentary elections of 1774 and 1780; he was the first person of African origin known to have voted in Britain. At this time he also wrote letters and in newspapers, under his own name and under the pseudonym “Africanus”. He supported the monarchy and British forces in the American Revolutionary War.

Ignatius Sancho died from the effects of gout in 1780. He was the first person of African descent known to be given an obituary in the British press. He gained fame in his time as “the extraordinary Negro”, and to eighteenth-century British abolitionists he became a symbol of the humanity of Africans and immorality of the slave trade. The Letters of the Late Ignatius Sancho, an African, edited and published two years after his death, is one of the earliest accounts of African slavery written in English by a former slave.

Sancho noted that despite being in Britain since the age of two he felt he was “only a lodger, and hardly that.” In other writings he describes: “Went by water – had a coach home – were gazed at – followed, etc. etc. – but not much abused.” On another occasion, he writes: “They stopped us in the town and most generously insulted us.””

His life encapsulates what a Black person could expect his or her life to be at this time in the UK. Although Sancho was unquestionably a man of great intellectual ability, he rose no higher than a greengrocer. Of course, in those times this was not the fate of Black people alone, it was generally true of any poor person: the top 1% controlled every important position. But what I find really chilling is his commentary on how Black persons were treated back then, almost as animals in a zoo. And of course, there was overt racism.

The debates that Sancho was involved in to abolish slavery were intensifying from the 1760s onward and no doubt were putting moral pressure on slave owners in the UK itself. This probably explains why the kinds of paintings I have shown up to now disappeared. It was “not done” anymore to own little black pages – or at least not to be painted with one at one’s side. They were replaced by paintings such as these criticizing slavery and the slave trade.

The Kneeling Slave, ‘Am I not a man and a brother?’ (c. 1800), British (English) School. Photo credit: Bridgeman Images
Slave in Chains (c. 1820), British School. Photo credit: National Maritime Museum
Three Young Women Chained Together at the Neck (Enslaved?) are being Escorted along a Road by Two Men with Guns (Slave Traders?) (undated), by Caton Smith. Photo credit: Wellcome Collection

I add this last painting because it is the only one I found where black women were the subject.

The Capture of the Slaver ‘Formidable’ by HMS ‘Buzzard’, 17 December 1834 (after 1834), by William John Huggins (1781-1845). Photo credit: National Maritime Museum

In the next post, I’ll trace the presence of non-whites in UK art after slavery was formally abolished throughout the British Empire up until the present day.

BUCKWHEAT

Milan, 24 December 2018

Since we came down to Milan for the winter, my wife and I have been exploring the walks available to us around Lake Como, that lake an hour’s train ride north of Milan whose shape resembles that of a very skinny, headless and armless man striding along at the feet of the Alps. Or, a bit more simply, a three-branched star.
The town of Como sits at the far end of the south-eastern branch, and up to now we have only tried out what is on offer in the hills which plunge down into the waters of this branch of the lake.
I might write a post about these walks later. Right now, I want to report about something completely different which took place on a walk we did yesterday with the children (who are staying with us for Christmas). We were taking them along the Greenway, a walk developed by a couple of canny municipalities with an eye to developing new forms of tourism. It runs between the villages of Colonno and Menaggio. I throw in here a photo to whet readers’ appetite.

Talking of appetite, since we arrived in Menaggio at midday and since we were all hungry, we decided to first have lunch in the local trattoria before embarking on the walk. Having judiciously studied the menu, my son and I both decided to take pizzoccheri alla valtellinese.
It is this pasta – or rather, the flour from which it is made – that I want to write about here.

Pizzoccheri are a form of tagliatelle-looking pasta, flat and long. Their particularity is that they are made, not with wheat flour, but with the flour of buckwheat. Despite its name, buckwheat bears no relation to wheat or to any of the other grains we are familiar with. Unlike them, it is not a grass. It is a plant which flowers

and which then forms dark brown triangular seeds.

For those of my readers who are, like me, interested in etymology, their shape explains their English name. It is very similar, on a smaller scale, to the shape of the nut of the beech tree, and “buck” is a derivation of an early form of the name of the beech tree. So beech-like in shape, wheat-like in use => buckwheat. Voilà!

When these seeds are milled, they form a brownish flour which can also include dark flecks.
This darker colour translates into dark products, like the dark brown pizzoccheri which my son and I ate.
This darker colouration explains buckwheat’s Italian name, grano saraceno, Saracen grain. For Italians, Saracens were people from the coast of North Africa and consequently were considered to be darker skinned. One can see this very clearly in the traditional marionettes used in Sicily, of which one stock figure is a Saracen soldier. The photo below has a series of such marionettes lined up, with the Saracen soldier on the far left.
So far, so good. But what really set me off on this post is that buckwheat originated in Yunnan in China! This gets me onto one of my favourite topics, the transfer of many, many goods as well as ideas along the old Silk Road, mostly in the East to West direction. While I lived in China, I covered the westward travel of the hollyhock, the persimmon, the ginkgothe magnoliathe willow, the wisteria, and the paulownia. Later, I added playing cards, the citron, garlic , and the carrot. I am happy to now add buckwheat to the list.

Buckwheat has an interesting characteristic, that of having a short growing season and preferring cooler temperatures in which to grow. For this reason, it has been a popular crop to plant in high latitudes or high altitudes. It was its tolerance for high altitudes that ensured its migration from Yunnan to the Tibetan plateau next door, where buckwheat noodles have been a staple for centuries.

From Tibet, the buckwheat moved westwards along the trade routes. By the late Middle Ages, it had arrived on the shores of the Black Sea. From there, it moved to Russia which historically has been the world’s largest producer of buckwheat. It also kept moving westwards. It is recorded in the mountainous Black Forest region of Germany in the 16th Century. Not surprisingly, it also filtered up into the valleys of the Alps, and – this being of immediate relevance to my son and me sitting in a trattoria on Lake Como eating pizzoccheri – it had arrived in Valtellina by at least the middle of the 17th Century.

Valtellina is an alpine valley running westward from the topmost branch of Lake Como; the main river feeding the lake, the River Adda, runs along the valley floor.
It is well-known for a number of foodstuffs. In the buckwheat category, apart from pizzocheri we have manfrigoli, a sort of little crêpe mixed with local cheese and shredded bresaola (see below).
There is also sciatt, a cheese fritter.
All these dishes require generous portions of melted cheese, of which Valtellina produces a good many. Foremost among them are Bitto and Casera, pictured here.

It was Casera, I suspect, that was slathered onto the pizzoccheri we ate on the shores of Lake Como. It is the traditional accompaniment of all the buckwheat foodstuffs of the Valtellina. It makes for calorically heavy meals which, though, were excellent in the old days when the locals were doing a lot of manual labour outside in the cold (and, as my wife will attest from her skiing days, is not bad for those spending a cold winter day on the slopes).

Bresaola, a form of air-dried beef, is another glory of Valtellina. Both my wife and I are great aficionados of Bresaola. I’ve written an earlier post about it, while my wife currently eats a lot of it as part of her very successful diet.
And then of course there are the valley’s wines – nearly all red, all made with the Nebbiolo grape: Inferno, Grumello, Sassella, Valgella, Maroggia.
Luckily for us, neither my son nor I washed our pizzoccheri down with Valtellina wines, otherwise I’m sure neither of us would have been able to walk the walk or even necessarily talk the talk …

But after this foray into the culinary wonders of Valtellina, it is time to get back to buckwheat. The rest of the story can be summarized quickly. European colonists took it with them to North America, where it played an important role in the early agricultural economy of the two countries which emerged from the colonies. It fell out of favour there, as well as in Europe, in the last century when massive amounts of artificially produced nitrogen fertilizers came onto the market: wheat and maize respond strongly to large doses of nitrogen fertilizers, buckwheat does not. And then, to close the loop, a variety of buckwheat developed in Canada was exported to China in the noughties and widely planted there. So for once the flow wasn’t all east to west.

There is much chatter about buckwheat seeing a resurgence, riding the wave of renewed interest in grains which our ancestors ate but which modern industrial agriculture has pushed to the margins. We’ll see. In the meantime, I wish all my readers a merry Christmas, and should they eat – as is quite probable – a calorically heavy meal, I highly recommend a post-prandial walk along a lake or any other natural feature situated in their immediate environs. It will work wonders for the digestion and the hips.

Merry Christmas!
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Lake Como map: https://holidaylakecomo.com/access/sala-map.htm
View of Lake Como: https://www.paesionline.it/italia/foto-immagini-brunate/50345_vista_del_lago_di_como_dal_boletto
Greenway: https://greenwaylagodicomo.com/en/
Pizzoccheri alla valtellinese: https://www.buonissimo.org/lericette/5132_Pizzoccheri_di_Teglio
Buckwheat in flower: https://english.vietnamnet.vn/fms/vietnam-in-photos/113500/photos–early-buckwheat-flowers-on-ha-giang-plateau.html
Buckwheat seeds: https://finance.yahoo.com/news/5-grains-apos-ll-help-140000969.html?guccounter=1
Buckwheat flour: https://www.thecheeseshopva.com/product/buckwheat-flour/
Dry pizzoccheri: https://www.gustissimo.it/scuola-di-cucina/impasti-e-pastelle/pizzoccheri.htm
Tibetan field of buckwheat: https://www.flickr.com/photos/33879196@N03/3170162360
View of Valtellina: https://www.viagginews.com/2018/09/25/ponte-tibetano-piu-alto-deuropa-italia/
Manfrigoli: https://www.tripadvisor.it/LocationPhotoDirectLink-g1193610-d2468200-i146914500-Agriturismo_Le_case_dei_baff-Ardenno_Province_of_Sondrio_Lombardy.html
Sciatt: https://www.bormio.eu/en/2015/11/recipe-sciatt/
Casera: http://www.weareitaly.net/it/product/Valtellina-Casera/lombardia/Valtellina_Casera.html
Bresaola: https://gourgisfinefood.store/products/bresaola
Vineyards, Valtellina: http://www.winetouristmagazine.com/wt-blog/2016/6/12/discovering-the-wines-of-valtellina-valtellina-italy
Christmas dinner: https://www.pianetadonna.it/notizie/attualita/vigilia-di-natale.html

MUSINGS ON BRAMBLES

Kyoto, 15 October 2018

As I struggle with jet lag on our annual trip to Kyoto and watch the night sky pale into day, my mind wanders to a previous post that I wrote about stinging nettles. I mentioned there in passing that brambles are also a bitch because of their thorns. And now my tired brain latches onto brambles.

Wicked little bastards those thorns are, capable of slicing with ease through clothing, never mind more delicate tissues like your skin. Look at the damned things!

Talking of which, there was a story doing the rounds of Medieval England which offered an intriguing alternative to the standard narrative of the start of the universal war between Good and Evil. As we all know, that war started with Satan daring to claim that he was the equal of God. Thereupon, in majestic rage, God, through the good offices of his Archangel Michael, threw Satan and his horde out of Heaven – a most dramatic rendition of which scene my wife and I recently came across in Antwerp Cathedral.

The standard story has Satan and his devils all falling into Hell. As John Milton put it so memorably in his opening lines of Paradise Lost

                             Him the Almighty Power
Hurled headlong flaming from the ethereal sky
With hideous ruin and combustion down
To bottomless perdition, there to dwell
In adamantine chains and penal fire,
Who durst defy the Omnipotent to arms.

In Medieval England instead, they had the poor devils land in bramble bushes, presumably as a pit stop on their way down to their eventual hellish destination. The pain was such that every year, on Michaelmas Day, the feast day of their nemesis the Archangel Michael, the devils would go round all the bramble bushes in England and spit, pee, and fart on the blackberries. I sense that on their satanic rounds, the devils would have looked something like this.

Now, there was actually a moral to this story, to whit: one should not eat blackberries off the bush after Michaelmas Day. A very sensible suggestion, I would say; who would want to pick and eat blackberries after they had been so treated? The precise date when this interdict should come into effect is the subject of some confusion. When the story started on its rounds, England followed the old Julian calendar, in which Michaelmas Day fell on 10th October (in today’s Gregorian calendar). In the Gregorian calendar, though, Michaelmas Day falls on 27th September. The key question is: have the devils continued to follow the Julian calendar or did they switch to the Gregorian calendar like everyone else? While my readers ponder over this conundrum, I should note that, like many fanciful stories from our past, a good scientific reason exists for eschewing blackberry eating after end-September, early-October: the damper autumnal weather encourages the growth of molds on blackberries, grey botrytis cinerea in particular, the eating of which could be perilous for the health of the eater.

It’s typical of devils that they would try to spoil the one fun thing there is about brambles, which is collecting ripe blackberries. Luckily, this is done – or should be done – late-August, early-September, before the devils get around to their nasty business. This summer, when my wife and I were walking the Vienna woods,we got few occasions to pick blackberries; there simply weren’t that many growing along the paths we took. But I still remember my siblings and I going blackberrying some fifty years ago. We would head out to the bramble bushes lining the small country lane which passed by my French grandmother’s house, each of us with a container, slowly moving down the bushes and picking the darkest, juiciest berries. This young girl epitomizes that perilous and sometimes painful search for juicy goodness among the thorns.

She at least managed to come home, with purple fingers (and probably purple mouth), with her finds.

We never seemed to come home with any; eating them on the spot was simply too irresistible, and we would troop home with nothing to show for our work but purple mouths and hands, much to the irritation of our grandmother who had been planning to conserve our blackberries for the winter. My memory fails me at this point but no doubt we would be sent off to the bramble bushes again, with strict orders to bring back the blackberries this time.

Seamus Heaney, the Irish poet and Nobel Laureate for literature, captured well the joys of blackberrying in his poem Blackberry picking, although he speaks too of the heartbreak of his treasured finds going moldy, no doubt with the help of the devils.

Late August, given heavy rain and sun
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
Picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
Sent us out with milk cans, pea tins, jam-pots
Where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.
Round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills
We trekked and picked until the cans were full
Until the tinkling bottom had been covered
With green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned
Like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered
With thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard’s.
We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair
That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.

Luckily, by the beginning of last century the terrors of the supernatural had been tamed by science, so that Cicely Mary Barker, in her collection of seasonal flower fairies, was able to transform the nasty devils of the past into this very twee Bramble Fairy.

The fairy was accompanied by an equally twee little poem.

My berries cluster black and thick
For rich and poor alike to pick.

I’ll tear your dress and cling, and tease,
And scratch your hands and arms and knees.

I’ll stain your fingers and your face,
And then I’ll laugh at your disgrace

But when the bramble-jelly’s made
You’ll find your troubles well repaid.

Twee it might be, but the poem’s last lines point us to the next step in the blackberry adventure, namely the eating of them in various yummy forms.

In my opinion, one can do no better than eat blackberries fresh with a dollop or two – or three – of whipped cream.

I’m sure my wife would agree. She once spent a Wimbledon championship selling strawberries and whipped cream to those going in to watch the tennis, and since she no doubt scarfed down a portion of her product when the manager wasn’t looking she will testify to the deliciousness of the cream-berry combination.

The English, however, also swear by the blackberry-apple combination, cooked together in a pie. The ideal is to use windfall apples, so slightly tart, with fully ripe blackberries; the tart-sweet combination which results cannot be beaten, I am assured in article after article.

I’m moved to throw in here a brief recipe for this delicious dish. Start by making the dough for the pie. Put 250g of plain flour into a large mixing bowl with a small pinch of salt. Cut 75g of butter and 75g of lard into small chunks and rub into the flour using thumb and fingertips. Add no more than a couple of tablespoons of cold water. You want a dough that is firm enough to roll but soft enough to demand careful lifting. Set aside in the fridge, covered with a tea towel, for 30 minutes.

In the meantime, preheat the oven to 180°C. Peel, core and quarter 6 Bramley apples, cutting them into thick slices or chunks. Put 20g butter and 100g caster sugar into a saucepan and, when the butter has melted, add the apples. Slowly cook for 15 minutes with a lid on. Then add 150g blackberries, stir and cook for 5 more minutes with the lid off.

Meanwhile, remove the pastry from the fridge. Cut the pastry in half and roll one of the pieces out until it’s just under 1cm thick. Butter a shallow 25cm pie dish and line with the pastry, trimming off any excess round the edges.

Tip the cooled apples and blackberries into a sieve, reserving all the juices, then put the fruit into the lined pie dish, mounding it in the middle. Spoon over half the reserved juices. Roll out the second piece of pastry and lay it over the top of the pie. Trim the edges as before and crimp them together with your fingers. Make a couple of slashes in the top of the pastry. Place the pie on the bottom of the preheated oven for 55 to 60 minutes, until golden brown and crisp.

In these troubled times of Brexit, when there are those Little Englanders who would question the UK’s belonging to a wider European culture, I feel that I should point out that this pie is not uniquely English. Already some 450-500 years ago, the Dutch painter Willem Heda lovingly painted a half-eaten apple and blackberry pie (unfortunately, my wife and I did not see this particular painting during our trip this summer to the Netherlands).

I feel I must include here a variation on the pie theme, the blackberry-apple crumble, only because my Aunt Frances used to make the most sublime crumble, whose magnificence I remember even now, more than half a century after the fact.

Once again, pre-heat the oven to 180°C. To make the crumble, tip 120g plain flour and 60g caster sugar into a large bowl. Cut 60g unsalted butter into chunks, then rub into the flour using your thumb and fingertips to make a light breadcrumb texture. Do not overwork it or the crumble will become heavy. Sprinkle the mixture evenly over a baking sheet and bake for 15 mins or until lightly coloured. Meanwhile, prepare and cook the apple-blackberry compote as before. Spoon the warm fruit into an ovenproof gratin dish, top with the crumble mix, then reheat in the oven for 5-10 mins.

Since the Bramble Fairy speaks about bramble jelly, and since something like it was the reason my grandmother sent us out to collect blackberries, I feel I should mention this preserve too.

Staying with the apple-blackberry combination, I give here a recipe which contains apples. But the purpose of the apples is different. It is to naturally add pectin to the mix so as to make a firmer jelly.

Put 2 cooking apples, washed, cored, and diced, and 450ml of water in a large saucepan. Bring to the boil, then simmer over a low heat for 20-25 minutes or until the fruit is completely soft. Tip the soft fruit and juice into a jelly bag (which has been previously boiled to sterilize) and leave to drip for 8 hours or until all the juice has been released. Prepare the jam jars by washing in hot soapy water and leaving to dry and warm in a cool oven for 10-15 minutes. Measure the juice. For every 600ml weigh out 450g sugar. Put the juice and sugar back into the clean pan, heat over a low heat until all the sugar has dissolved. Bring to the boil and simmer for 10-15 minutes or until setting point is reached. Skim away any scum from the top of the jelly and fill the jam jars to the brim. Cover, seal and label. Store in a cool, dark place until required.

It goes without saying that the juice of blackberries can be drunk too, in many forms. I will only mention one of these, blackberry wine, and only because I once made the closely related elderberry wine at school, with a couple of friends. More on this later. Let me focus first on the making of blackberry wine. If any of my readers want to try this, they can use the following recipe which I lifted from Wikihow.

To make 6 bottles of wine:
– 4½-6 lbs of fresh blackberries
– 2½ lbs of sugar
– 7 pints water
– 1 package yeast (red wine yeast is recommended)

Crush the berries by hand in a sterile plastic bucket. Pour in 2 pints of cooled distilled water and mix well. Leave the mixture for two hours.

Boil ⅓ of the sugar with 3 pints water for one minute. Allow the syrup to cool. Add the yeast to 4 oz of warm (not boiling) water and let it stand for 10 minutes. Pour the cooled syrup into the berries. Add the yeast. Make sure the mixture has properly cooled, as a hot temperature will kill the yeast. Cover the bucket with a clean cloth and leave in a warm place for seven days.

Strain the pulp through fine muslin or another fine straining device, wringing the material dry. Pour the strained liquid into a gallon jug. Boil a second ⅓ of the sugar in 1 pint water. Allow it to cool before adding it to the jug. Plug the top of jug with cotton wool and stretch a pin-pricked balloon to the neck. This allows CO2 to escape and protects the wine from oxidization and outside contamination (the demijohn in the photo has a much more sophisticated stopper for the same purpose).

Let the wine sit for ten days. Siphon or rack the wine to a container. Sterilize the jug, then return the wine. Boil the remaining ⅓ of the sugar in the last pint of water, allowing to cool before adding to the wine. Plug the jug with the cotton wool and balloon and leave until the wine has stopped fermenting. The wine will stop bubbling when fermentation has stopped.

Siphon the wine as before. Sterilize the wine bottles and add a funnel. Pour the wine into the bottles, filling each bottle to the neck. Cork and store the bottles.

Cheers!

Reading this, I realize why our attempt at making elderberry wine fifty years ago was such a miserable failure. Readers should first understand that what we were doing – making an alcoholic drink – was strictly prohibited, so we were exceedingly furtive in everything we did. With this premise, let me describe the steps we went through. As I recall, we mashed the elderberries with water and yeast, a packet of which we bought down in the village (Lord knows what the lady behind the counter thought we were doing with the yeast; she was too polite to ask). I don’t remember parking the resulting liquid somewhere warm to ferment, we simply put the mash into (unsterilized) bottles that we purloined from somewhere; did we even strain out the solids? I have my doubts. Our most pressing problem was where to hide the bottles while the juice was fermenting into (we dreamed) wine. Our first idea was to put them in a sack and haul this to the top of a leafy tree where it was well hidden. But we had forgotten that trees lose their leaves in Autumn. So readers can imagine our horror when our sack became increasingly visible – from the Housemaster’s room, no less – as the leaves dropped off. We hastily brought the sack down one evening and buried it in a little wood behind our House. Later, when we reckoned the fermentation must be over, we furtively dug up the sack. Two out of the three bottles had exploded. We took the remaining bottle into the toilet and drank it. Of course, we pretended to be drunk, although in truth the potion we had concocted had little if any effect on us; the levels of alcohol in it must have been miserably low. And the taste was distinctly blah. I’ve had it in for elderberries ever since.

Unsurprisingly, we humans have been eating blackberries for thousands of years. Swiss archaeologists have discovered the presence of blackberries in a site 5,000 years old while the Haralskaer woman was found to have eaten blackberries before she was ceremonially strangled and dumped in a Danish peat bog 2,500 years ago.

As usual, our ancestors not only ate the fruit but believed that the rest of the plant had medicinal properties of one form or another. As a son of the scientific revolution, I have grave doubts about the purported therapeutic value of berries (ripe or unripe), leaves, and flowers, when no rigorous scientific testing has ever been carried out to support the claims. However, there is one medicinal property which I will report, simply because two widely divergent sources, who could not possibly have known of each other’s existence, mention it. The first is a book of herbal remedies, the Juliana Anicia Codex, prepared in the early 6th Century in Constantinople by the Greek Dioscorides, and which is now – through the twists and turns of fate that make up history – lodged in Austria’s National Library in Vienna. This is the page in the book dedicated to the bramble.

The text relates, among other things: “The leaves are chewed to strengthen the gums ”. For their part, the Cherokee Indians in North America would chew on fresh bramble leaves to treat bleeding gums. The same claim by Byzantine Greeks and Cherokee Indians? That seems too much to be a mere coincidence. When the world has gone to hell in a handbasket because we were not able to control our emissions of greenhouse gases, and when my gums begin to bleed because there will be no more dentists to go to for my annual check-ups, I will remember this claim and chew on bramble leaves.

On that pessimistic note, I will take my leave of my readers with a poem by the Chinese poet Li Qingzhao. She lived through a period of societal breakdown, when the Song Dynasty was defeated by the nomadic Jurchens in the early 12th Century and retreated southward to create an impoverished rump of its empire, known to us as the Southern Song, around the city of Hangzhou. Li Qingzhao reflected on this period of decline and decay in her later poems. I choose this particular poem, her Tz’u Song No. 1, because it happens to mention blackberry flowers and blackberry wine.

Fragrant grass beside the pond
green shade over the hall
a clear cold comes through
the window curtains
crescent moon beyond the golden bars
and a flute sounds
as if someone were coming
but alone on my mat with a cup
gazing sadly into nothingness
I want to call back
the blackberry flowers
that have fallen
though pear blossoms remain
for in that distant year
I came to love their fresh fragrance
scenting my sleeve
as we culled petals over the fire
when as far as the eye could see
were dragon boats on the river
graceful horses and gay carts
when I did not fear the mad winds
and violent rain
as we drank to good fortune
with warm blackberry wine
now I cannot conceive
how to retrieve that time.

_______________________

Blackberry thorns: http://iuniana.hangdrum.info
Frans Floris, “Fall of the Rebel Angels”: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/ File:Fall_of_rebel_Angels_(Frans_Floris)_September_2015-1a.jpg
Devil: https://www.etsy.com/sg-en/listing/517991225/the-devil-ceramic-decal-devil-ceramic
Blackberry fairy: https://flowerfairies.com/the-blackberry-fairy/
Blackberry picking: https://spiralspun.com/2013/10/29/blackberry-picking-one-of-lifes-simple-pleasures/
Jug of blackberries: https://spiralspun.com/2013/10/29/blackberry-picking-one-of-lifes-simple-pleasures/
Blackberries with whipped cream: https://depositphotos.com/80606340/stock-photo-fresh-blackberries-with-whipped-cream.html
Apple and blackberry pie: https://www.thespruceeats.com/british-apple-and-blackberry-pie-recipe-434894
Willem Claesz. Heda, Still Life with a Fruit Pie: https://www.masterart.com/artworks/502/willem-heda-still-life-with-a-blackberry-pie
Apple and blackberry crumble: https://www.taste.com.au/recipes/apple-blackberry-crumble/837e5613-3708-42f2-8835-dcd9dd3b3876
Blackberry jelly: https://www.bbc.com/food/recipes/bramblejelly_13698
Demijohn of blackberry wine: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/371476669246000245/
Bottled blackberry wine: http://justintadlock.com/archives/2018/01/27/bottled-blackberry-wine
Glass of blackberry wine: https://www.pinterest.pt/pin/573294227542445354/
Haraldskaer woman: http://legendsandlore.blogspot.com/2006/01/haraldskaer-woman.html

GARLIC

Manila, 6 June 2018

A few days ago, my wife and I went for a walk in the Wiener Wald, those woods which drape the hills ringing Vienna on its northern and western sides. It was a public holiday, the Feast of Corpus Christi, so it seemed an excellent excuse to go for a ramble in the woods. On top of it, it was a beautiful day, bright, sunny, with a slight breeze.

We were not disappointed. We found surprisingly few people. The beech trees were splendid

with sunlight filtering through their leaves.

Wildflowers peeped out from the undergrowth

Deer crossed our path …

In a word, it was perfect.

Except for one thing: the fetid smell that periodically wafted up from the forest floor.

The source of the smell was these plants, which carpeted the ground in many parts of the woods.

They are wild garlic, Allium ursinum, so readers will not be surprised if I say that the smell they emanated made me think of rancid garlic cloves. It was quite similar to the nauseous smell given off by some of the hole-in-the-wall kebab joints in Vienna, where garlic powder is used with wild abandon.

Our walk was too late in the season for us to at least enjoy the delicate white flower they display.

For that, you need to go into the woods in April, early May. But it was just as well we had come late: previous experience had shown me that when the plant is flowering the smell is even more penetrating.

I remember talking with a German colleague of mine about my first brush with wild garlic’s exhalations in the Viennese woods. He sympathized, but waxed eloquent about the soup which can be made from its leaves. As previous postings record, I am no fan of garlic and so have never tried this soup. But for readers who are better disposed to garlic than I am and who happen to have a wood nearby in which wild garlic grows, I throw in an Austrian version of the soup’s recipe (the amounts cited here should serve four people). Pick 200 grams of wild garlic leaves (one source suggests picking them young and tender, even before the plant flowers, to get the most delicate taste). Wash, drain, and chop finely. Melt 50 grams of butter in a saucepan, stir in 3 tablespoons of flour, and slowly add 1 litre of vegetable stock. Bring to a boil. Stir in the chopped wild garlic leaves. Bring to a boil again. Simmer gently, all the while seasoning with salt, pepper, a shot of lemon juice, and a pinch of anchovy paste. Finally, stir in 1/8 litre of sour cream and two tablespoons of whipped cream, season to taste with a pinch of nutmeg. The soup should look something like this.

I should note that a number of recipes from the German-speaking world suggest adding some cubed potatoes rather than flour and cream, but I feel that the recipe I’ve cited sounds more authentic (a number of recipes also suggest adding onions and/or shallots and/or garlic cloves, but this really seems to be exaggerating the presence of this malodorous family!).

My favourite source of information – Wikipedia – tells me that wild garlic is native to the temperate regions of Europe, from Britain in the west to the Caucasus in the east. Wikipedia also informs me that we Europeans have been munching on wild garlic leaves in one form or another for the last 10,000 years or so – an impression of a wild garlic leaf was found in a Mesolithic settlement in Denmark. Did our European forebears also munch on the bulb? Perhaps only if they were very hungry, because the bulb of wild garlic is very small.

No, it’s not Allium ursinum which gave us the garlic cloves that we are so – unfortunately – familiar with today. We have to thank a Central Asian cousin, Allium longicuspis, for that.

Early farmers in Central Asia cultivated the wild variety, and as has happened so many times with other plants they played around with it and slowly turned it into the plant we know today, with that pungent – oh, so pungent! – bulb.

It seems that garlic was one of the very first plants that our farming ancestors tinkered with. Their tinkering was so successful that the plant got carried out of Central Asia along the Silk Road and other trade routes, east to China and south-east Asia, south to the Indian subcontinent, west to the kingdoms of the Near East, followed by Egypt and later Greece and Rome. As the plant was moved out of its homeland, farmers kept tinkering so that today there is a bewildering number of sub-variants.

Now, I know this will raise hackles among garlic lovers, but really, what on earth possessed those early farmers to spend their precious time in developing this bulb?! It tastes really strong (“pungent” is the word used in the garlic literature), it leaves a metallic taste in your mouth after you’ve eaten it (well, in mine at least), it makes your breath – indeed, your whole person – smell “pungently” after partaking of it, and it – hmm, let me see how best to put this – it disrupts your digestive system resulting in odorous wind and other unpleasant side effects in the bathroom (at least, it does so in my case).

But develop it they did. And they found enthusiastic consumers far and wide. The ancient Egyptians consumed particularly enthusiastically. The poor buggers who slaved away to put these up

were, it seems, paid with the stuff – garlic was believed to give one strength, and what did these guys need but strength, and a lot of it? It’s not as if the workers were forced to eat it, either. It seems they loved it. One of the only two known slave revolts in Egypt occurred after the failure of the annual garlic harvest.

Generally speaking, in all places and at all times garlic was believed to be good for your health and a cure for all sorts of maladies, from the plague to the pox. In fact, this may have been why garlic was originally developed – for its supposed health effects rather than as a food additive. There must be people who still believe in garlic’s curative powers; why else would companies offer these sorts of over-the-counter products for sale?

One persistent belief is that garlic has antiseptic properties. It seems that garlic was used during both World Wars as an antiseptic and a cure for dysentery. I can hardly believe it; doctors in the mid-20th Century had no better medicine than that?! What I do know is that until very recently the Chinese were using garlic as a sort of antiseptic mouthwash. A friend of ours who had been already living in China for some years before we arrived told me that in the early noughties it was common for people to rub their gums with a garlic clove in the morning before going to work. He said that taking the bus in the morning was not for the faint of heart. I shudder inwardly every time I think of his story.

Talking of shuddering, in ancient Greek and Roman times (and probably even before) it was believed that garlic was a powerful aphrodisiac. Quite how anyone could have come to this conclusion is beyond me. But then the human mind has an infinite capacity for self-delusion. And of course it must have been men who believed this. I can imagine the scene: a randy old goat who munches on the ancient world’s equivalent of a little blue pill and then rushes off to bed to perform. Pity the poor woman who is the recipient of his performance!

In fact, smelling of garlic has always been associated with being uncouth. Those Egyptian priests who eagerly fed their workers garlic never touched the stuff themselves. Upper caste Indians never let garlic pass their lips in case it made them smell like their lower caste compatriots. In ancient Greece, it was generally believed that the gods disliked the smell of garlic. In temples dedicated to the goddess Cybele, this was taken to extremes. Those who wished to enter one of her temples had to pass the garlic breath test. King Alfonso of Castille ruled that any gentle person coming into court smelling of garlic was banished for a week. In the US until the 1940s the reek of garlic was used as an ethnic slur, being called such things ‘Italian perfume’.

I suppose that the thinking which led Greeks to conclude that the gods disliked the smell of garlic also led to the belief that garlic could ward off witches, evil spirits and the like. Which belief no doubt underlies the use of garlic to ward off vampires. All this tells me is that vampires have good taste.

Readers may protest and say that garlic’s main role is surely now in the kitchen. True. And to show that even with garlic I can be broadminded let me throw in here a famous recipe where garlic plays the main role, for the garlic lovers out there to try if they have not done so already. It is the recipe for another soup, Sopa de Ajo, Garlic Soup, which is eaten throughout Spain. Once again, the amounts cited here will serve four. Heat 4 tablespoons of olive oil in a saucepan over a low heat. Add 4 to 5 large garlic bulbs (yes, four to five), broken into the cloves – do not remove their skin. Fry gently, stirring often, for 15-20 minutes, until the skins are golden brown and the flesh is soft. Remove them from the hot oil. Wait until they have cooled a little, then squeeze out the garlic flesh, discarding the skins. Puree and set aside. Meanwhile, add 100g of cooking chorizo, cut into little pieces, to the pan and fry until crisp and caramelized. Add 1 teaspoon of fresh thyme leaves, fry for a few seconds. Then add the pureed garlic and stir it in well. Add ½ teaspoon of sweet smoked Spanish paprika, and pour on 1 litre of chicken stock. Bring to a boil, gently simmer, and season to taste. About two minutes before serving, poach four eggs in the soup and add 8 slices of ciabatta, toasted and torn into rough pieces. The finished product should look something like this.

Four to five garlic bulbs … For all my broadmindedness, I cannot suppress yet another inward shudder. What the consumers of this soup must smell like when they rise from the dining table! Quite possibly, it was this soup which had been eaten by the Spanish gentlemen who plays the lead role in my most searing memory of garlic breath. I invite my readers to dip into the post where I write about this painful episode in my life. In the meantime, once I am back from my travels my wife and I will go for other long and pleasant walks in the Wiener Wald. The wild garlic plants were already wilting when we took our walk on Corpus Christi Day. Hopefully, they will all soon be dead and I can enjoy the woods without my nostrils being assailed by the smell of rancid garlic.

___________________

Woods photos: ours, except:
Deer in woods: https://viennalife.wordpress.com/tag/vienna-woods/

Kebab shop, Vienna: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Wien_Bellaria_Kebab_Pizza_Dez2006.jpg
Wild garlic in flower: https://www.flickr.com/photos/sarfrazh/26388112004
Wild garlic soup: https://www.chefkoch.de/rezepte/25941006183503/Baerlauchsuppe.html
Wild garlic plant with bulb: https://scottishforestgarden.wordpress.com/2013/04/19/growing-and-eating-wild-garlic/
Allium longicuspis: https://thebetter.wiki/en/Garlic
Garlic: https://www.shopevoo.com/products/infused-garlic-1
Building the pyramids: https://exploredia.com/top-10-shocking-facts-ancient-egypt/
Garlic pills: https://www.amazon.com/Natures-Bounty-Extract-Release-Softgels/dp/B002Y27JD8
Garlic breath: https://dailykale.com/2011/09/16/foods-that-heal-garlic/garlic-cartoon/
Garlic and vampires: https://horror.media/four-theories-about-why-vampires-hate-garlic
Sopa de Ajo: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2013/may/04/10-best-garlic-recipes