My wife and I have recently come back from a quick trip to Geneva. The official purpose of the trip was for me to film a short video as an introduction to an online course on Green Industrial Policy, which a UN Agency is putting together. It was an interesting experience, but not what I want to write about here.
We decided to use the occasion to stay on a few days and visit Geneva, which we had last visited some 20 years ago – and very rapidly at that. For instance, we hadn’t visited any of the city’s museums. We decided to make good on this lacuna and visit two museums. One was the Museum of Far Eastern Art created by the Fondation Baur, which has an acclaimed collection of Chinese and Japanese ceramics (as I have written in previous posts, I have a particular fondness for Chinese ceramics). The other was the Museum of Art and History, which contains among other things the city of Geneva’s art collection. It is this collection which I want to write about in this post.
I don’t want to get readers’ hopes up. This collection doesn’t hold a candle to, say, the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. But it is a very worthy collection: to use the Michelin Guide’s terminology, it doesn’t merit a trip (3 stars), but it is worth the detour if you are already in the area (2 stars). I propose to highlight one painting and two artists who caught my fancy.
The painting, in the first room dedicated to Medieval and Early Renaissance paintings, is “The Miraculous Draft of Fishes”, painted by Konrad Witz in 1444. Witz was German-born but was active mainly in Basel (and must have visited Geneva, as we shall see). His painting recounts a story from the Gospel of John. Jesus, resurrected, appears to seven of his disciples who have gone fishing on Lake Galilee. They have been fishing all night and caught nothing. He tells them to put down their nets once more, which they do, and immediately they haul in a large catch. They recognize him, and Peter in his enthusiasm to reach him throws himself into the water and swims over to him.
What attracts me about this painting is the way Witz has transposed the scene to a lake in Switzerland, probably Lake Geneva itself (the painting was part of an altarpiece Witz made for the Cathedral of Geneva). The buildings, the landscape, the weather, all have a distinctly Swiss feel to them. I always find it very satisfying when artists transpose stories from the New Testament to the living conditions of the people who would have been looking at their works: “bring religion to the people” as it were. It’s what I like about Neapolitan nativities. It’s what I liked about the sculpted pulpit – also about fishermen on Lake Galilee – which I came across in Traunkirchen last summer.
Of the two artists I will highlight, I came across the first in the room devoted to Rococo art. This artist goes by the name of Jean-Étienne Liotard. He was Swiss; in fact, he was Genevan, having been born and died there, and done much of his work there. Liotard was primarily a portraitist. As this self-portrait shows, he must have been a very merry fellow.
He seemed to have made merriness his calling card. He painted many of his clients with a small smile, like this no doubt otherwise very serious personage.
There’s a whole wall in the museum devoted to his portraits and they all have this small smile playing on their lips. I can imagine Liotard starting his sittings by cracking jokes until his subjects, who had no doubt struck a serious pose suitable to their important position in society, began giggling. Only then would he capture their physiognomy for posterity. His sittings must have been fun. Way to go, J-E!
I came across the second artist in the section devoted to 19th Century art. In fact, the museum has a whole room just for him. His name is Ferdinand Hodler, a Swiss painter who was active for some 45 years until his death in 1918. He was one of the important influences on German Expressionists and Austrian Secessionists. I had first come across him in “The Art Book”, someone’s compilation in the 1990s of “500 great painters and sculptors from medieval to modern times” (both Witz and Liotard made the cut, I have just noticed). The editor included one painting for each of the 500. The one chosen for Hodler is his “Lake Thun with Symmetrical Reflections”, of 1905.
I just loved his use of colour and light in this landscape, so uplifting of the spirits! I made a mental note to see more of him one day. Well, now I had my chance: a whole roomful of his paintings! I share some of them with my readers.
“The Eiger, the Monch, and the Jungfrau”, of 1908
“The Jungfrau seen from Murren”, of 1914
“Lake Geneva seen from Chexbres”, of 1904
“Lake Geneva and the Mont Blanc with Swans”, of 1918
Not a landscape exactly, but an element of landscape: “Stream at Champery”, of 1916
Yet another element of landscape, “The Cherry Tree”, of 1915
I should point out that Hodler has a large body of work to his name, only part of which I find appealing. As the dates I give above indicate, this phase runs from about 1904 to his death in 1918. He was also painting in the Symbolist style during this period, and the Museum has some of these works, but I’m not really touched by that type of painting.
Since I threw in a self-portrait of Liotard, let me finish with one of Hodler, painted in 1916, two years before he died.
More melancholic than Liotard, but then he had more to be melancholic about. He had lost the woman he loved to cancer and was unwell himself.
Well, that’s it for Geneva’s Museum of Art and History. As I said, 2 stars not 3, but with some 3-star highlights, particularly the room dedicated to Hodler. Researching this post, I discovered that the Art Museum in Zurich also has a good collection of Hodler’s works. We’ve never visited Zurich. I wonder if I can persuade my wife to go there one of these days …
One of the fonder memories of my Boy Scout days is roasting a whole pig over a wood fire
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).
It doesn’t have to be whole animals which are roasted. We can have cuts of meat which are roasted, such as grilled steaks.
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).
I think we can even throw in grilled fish.
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.
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.
When you put in your order, the server will slice thin pieces off the meat cone with a very long knife.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
And now of course, with the waves of Mexican immigration into the US, these two dishes have also entered into that country.
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?).
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.
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.
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.
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.
(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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 …
My wife and I recently accompanied our son on a short business trip he was making to a small place to the north of Milan, near Lake Maggiore. He was going there to look over a company. We went along to share the driving and visit the local area. The company he was visiting happened to be very close to the point where a few weeks previously we had given up a walk in the area (the one where we had stumbled across several very lovely varieties of mushrooms), so we decided that we would use the occasion to visit what would have been the end point of our walk had we finished it.
That end point was the village of Orta San Giulio, which sits on a peninsula jutting out into Lake Orta. This is a small lake, the most westward of that series of lakes which form a necklace at the base of the Alps, between Verona to the east and Novara to the west. Readers with good eyes will see Lake Orta, marked with a red pin, to the far left on the map below.
Once we had deposited our son at the gates of the company he was visiting, we set off to Orta San Giulio. It was not, truth be told, the best day to visit anything: it was grey and drizzly, the kind of day that in my mind will be forever linked to the UK. But that didn’t stop us appreciating the scene that unfolded before our eyes as we arrived at the lake’s southernmost tip and took the road which hugged its eastern coast. My wife and I took no photos during our little tour, and the lake under the rain seems to have no fans among the legions of persons who post photos on the internet, so I can only describe to readers what we saw.
As we wound our way along the coast, with the wipers sweeping regularly across the windscreen, the trees covering the slopes which fell steeply into the lake’s waters – trees vested in their brown and reds of late autumn – began to give way to large estates with equally steep but more manicured grounds, the kinds of estates which I associate with the late 19th Century. Out on the water, dimly at first but ever more visible as we got closer to the village of Orta San Giulio, we discerned through the drizzle an island, the Isola San Giulio. The road began to climb to the top of the ridge of the peninsula along whose outer edge Orta San Giulio is built. Once we reached the top, we turned off the main road and made our way down to the village itself, passing as we did other, smaller estates climbing the side of the hill. When the road reached the water’s edge, it turned cobbled and narrowed into a single lane. We found a place to park and continued on foot, huddling under our umbrellas. Apart from a cat or two, we had the place to ourselves. Soon we were walking between rows of old houses on both sides of the street and only got an occasional glimpse of the lake down a side alley. But all at once, we entered the village’s main square, Piazza Motta, and there had a full view, across the square’s wet and windswept flagstones, of the lake and Isola San Giulio hovering on its waters in the middle distance. We could now make out the buildings on the island, in particular a Romanesque campanile on the water’s edge and a big hulking building, looking in all respects like an army barracks, which dominated the island’s centre point. We admired the view, looked curiously at an old hotel, now very much worse for wear, which occupied one whole side of the square, noted the street at the back of the square which, the signposts informed us, took one up to the Sacro Monte d’Orta, the Sacred Mountain of Orta, and then headed back to the car. It was time to go and pick up our son, and anyway it really was too wet and cold to explore any further. “For another time!” we promised each other. Maybe this Spring; there is a train we can take from Novara to Orta San Giulio.
In the meantime, though, I feel I must give my readers some idea of what we saw, or perhaps more accurately what we might be seeing when we come back in better weather. As is my habit, I’ve also been mugging up on the lake’s history and so can use this occasion to tell my wife – faithful reader of my posts – and any other interested readers about what I’ve learned.
So here is a photo album which I’ve cobbled together with other people’s pictures posted on the internet.
This is what the lake looks like on a good day from its south end, the end that we first saw it from.
Isola San Giulio is visible, along with a few houses of Orta San Giulio to the right. The pre-Alps rise up in the background.
As we turned off the main road down to Orta San Giulio, we passed this frothy building.
It is Villa Crespi. It was commissioned in 1879 by a wealthy cotton merchant by the name of Cristoforo Crespi and built in the Moorish Revival style. I suppose it is a somewhat outlandish example of what was happening around all of northern Italy’s lakes during that period: rich (or enriched) industrialists and bourgeois joined the aristocracy in building summer homes on the lakes. The same phenomenon certainly happened on Lakes Como and Maggiore (we see those villas every time we walk around those two lakes) and no doubt on Lake Garda (which still awaits a visit from us). Quite frankly, this particular building reminds me of some of the cinemas which dotted British cities when I was young, but at least this one continues to serve a decent purpose: it is a luxury hotel and home to the restaurant of one Antonino Cannavacciuolo (a well-known chef on Italian TV, I have read).
Certainly Lake Orta must have been a popular playground for the wealthier classes of the late 19th Century. It hosted the first ever European Rowing Championship in 1893 (rowing in Italy being considered a very aristocratic sport) and various national rowing championships thereafter, as this poster of 1909 attests (for an event, readers will note, “under the patronage of HM the King” [of Italy, of course]).
What happened in the following decades is a classic example of how not to manage a lake – but we will get to that later.
This was the narrow street we walked down after parking the car: Via Giovanetti.
It was pleasant to walk along under the rain; it looks even more pleasant on a sunny day.
And this is the village’s main square, Piazza Motta.
I’m not an expert on real estate but it does seem strange to me that the old hotel we see across the square in the photo (called, rather prosaically, Hotel Orta) has not been snapped up by someone and refurbished. There cannot be many places which have this nice a view when one steps out of the lobby onto the street:
Down by the lakeside at the foot of the square one catches the boat to go over to the Isola San Giulio, which, as we get closer, will look like this,
while we leave Orta San Giulio literally in our wake.
I think a little bit of history is in order here, because Isola San Giuglio has always been at the centre of the lake’s story.
The island gets its name from St. Julius, a possibly legendary saint who is said to have christianized the area around the end of the 4th Century AD. It is narrated that Julius and his brother Julian were two Greeks who somehow made it to Italy and were instructed by Emperor Theodosius I to destroy pagan altars and sacred woods and to build Christian churches. Which they did with a vengeance. The little church which Julius built on the island is said to have been the hundredth – and last – church he built. There are the usual colourful stories of his doings like, for instance, this one: having decided that he would build his last church on the island but finding no-one willing to take him there he laid his mantle on the water and miraculously sailed over to the island. As a final aside on this saint, he made it to sainthood, but – rather unfairly, I think, since the two worked hand-in-hand in their proselytizing mission – his brother Julian did not.
In any event, the first little church was succeeded by a larger one built in the 6th Century, which itself was succeeded by an even larger one built in the 12th Century; it was later nominated a basilica. That is the building we see today (although it has been much remodelled inside, as we will see, and squeezed in between houses built in later centuries). It is its campanile which we noticed when we were standing in Piazza Motta that cold and rainy day gazing out towards the island.
The island’s religious vocation was always in conflict with its obvious military importance. As this map shows, Lake Orta was one of two natural passageways for anyone crossing the Alps at the Simplon Pass to get down into the Po River plain and all its riches – the other was along the shores of Lake Maggiore. The red pin shows the location of the Simplon Pass in the map.
Having crossed the Simplon, armies would march down (or peaceful merchant trains would lumber down) the valley of the River Ossola and then either go along Lake Maggiore or march up to Lake Orta and then pass through the valley at the other end. A Frankish army did that in 590 AD, marching into territory that was claimed by the Longobards. A Longobard Duke, Mimulfo by name, who was entrenched in the island, seems to have just let the Franks through. For this betrayal, the Longobard King Childebert had Mimulfo beheaded on the island. (A French Corps also crossed the Simplon in 1800, as part of Napoleon’s campaign in Italy; I have no idea which of the two routes they used to get to Milan)
The island was also a useful place to hole up if hostile armies were around. To this end, a castle was built there as early as the 900s AD, reconverting some of the church buildings to military use and generally constricting how the church and its buildings could be expanded. By then, the Longobards had been defeated by the Carolingian Franks and northern Italy had become part of the Holy Roman Empire. The Emperors were traditionally also Kings of Italy, and northern Italy was therefore impacted by Imperial policies and politics. Around the turn of the first millennium, a struggle started in northern Italy between the smaller noble houses, many of Longobard origin, and the larger noble houses and the bishops, who owed their positions and land to the Emperors. The smaller nobles wanted – not unsurprisingly – to have their own, local king, while the bigger nobles and bishops wanted to continue to be beholden to an Emperor far away on the other side of the Alps who left them to pretty much run the show as they wanted. In 945, at a time of Imperial weakness, the smaller nobles got the upper hand and elected one their own, Lothair, as King of Italy. He was quickly replaced by Berengar, whose family was powerful in the region around Lake Orta. By this time, the Empire was back on an even keel and, at the request of the Northern Italian bishops, the new Emperor Otto I sent his son Liudolf with a large army over the Alps to deal with this upstart. Berengar’s family split up and holed up in various castles which the family controlled. Berengar, together with one of his sons, chose the castle on Isola San Giuglio. There, he was besieged by Liudolf and eventually surrendered. For some reason, Liudolf let both Berengar and his son go free. They went off and holed up in another castle of theirs in Romagna. Several months later, Liudolf died, officially of a fever although it was whispered that Berengar’s people had got to him and poisoned him. With Liudolf’s death his army melted away, and Berengar came out of his castle in Romagna to proclaim himself King of Italy once more. More Italian bishops headed north over the Alps, besieging Otto to come personally to deal with Berengar. This he did in 961, but first he went to Rome to have the Pope proclaim him Emperor and then to Pavia to have himself proclaimed King of Italy. By 962 he was ready to deal with Berengar, who adopted the same strategy: split up the family and hole up in various castles, except that this time it was his wife Willa who got to be in the castle on Isola san Giuglio (together with the family treasure) while Berengar headed for the castle in Romagna. Otto decided to go after Willa and history repeated itself: a siege of several months of the castle on Isola San Giulio followed by its capitulation. Again, Willa was allowed to go free (but not the family treasure) and she joined her husband. This time, though, Otto made sure that the castle stayed under Imperial control. As for Berengar, he died four years later and none of his sons seem to have made any attempts to retake the throne. There was another revolt by the small nobles some 40 years later, when Berengar’s grand-nephew, Arduin, was proclaimed King of Italy, and Northern Italy was put through the same circus: The Emperor (this time Henry II) came over the Alps with a large army and put Arduin in his place; he went back to Germany with his army and Arduin came out of whatever castle he was hiding in and proclaimed himself King again; Henry II came back over the Alps with another large army and dealt with Arduin again, this time for good (without, though, putting him to death; I think the Longobard king Childebert had the right approach: off with their heads!) Italy was not to have an independent King again until Italian unification nearly 900 years later.
After that, Isola San Giulio seems to have been pivoted away from its martial use back to its religious vocation and the whole area became a bit of a rural backwater. Over the next two hundred years, the successive bishops of Novara maneuvered to gradually have the Emperor give over to them the southern part of the lake as a feudal principality, which they then ruled with what seems to have been distant benevolence for some five hundred years; the local notables were generally allowed to rule themselves as long as they paid the necessary tithes and taxes to the prince-bishop. I don’t know if the prince-bishops used any of these funds to make life better for the peoples of their little principality. They certainly did use some of their funds, as did pious pilgrims, to make the basilica ever more beautiful. From the 14th to the 18th centuries, the church’s look was “modernized”, with the latest Baroque additions giving the inside of the basilica its current look, and frescoes were added on every available surface, with the later ones sometimes obliterating the earlier ones. We have here the “modern” frescoes in the vault and dome (the picture also shows the baroque “scarification”).
while here we have one of the earlier frescoes, which are now tucked away out of sight in the lateral aisles.
I have already made my feelings abundantly clear about baroque and later religious art in earlier posts, so I need hardly say that I prefer the earlier frescoes.
While all this religiosity was going on, life was not completely trouble-free in Isola San Giorgio and the surrounding principality. The end of the 15th, beginning of the 16th Centuries were agitated times in Italy and while this quiet corner of northern Italy was largely able to avoid the troubles, for a decade or so, 1520-30, the troubles came to it. In 1523, the plague broke out, in all likelihood brought to the area by refugees from Novara which had been sacked and pillaged by French troops fighting the Spaniards. But worse were the predations by the neighbouring lordlets, many of them from the Visconti family, who were attracted by the relative prosperity of the principality. Although officially the Duke of Milan was exhorting the lordlets to be good boys – these were church lands, after all – he probably unofficially supported them in their rapine, because he had his own quarrel with the Bishop of Novara over the ownership of this little principality: Novara and its province had come under Milanese dominion some two hundred years earlier. On some excuse, Orta San Giulio was sacked in 1524 by one Visconti lordlet and prisoners taken for ransom. In 1526 and ’27, the principality was forced by another Visconti lordlet to put up, for free, a company of Imperial soldiers. In 1528, the same Visconti lordlet decided to become Governor of the principality and moved into the castle on Isola San Giulio. When the locals besieged him there, a third Visconti lordlet came to his rescue and sacked Orta San Giulio a second time. In early 1529, a random Imperial army invaded the principality and demanded a huge payment to leave. The locals refused to pay and escaped to the island and the relative safety of its castle. After trying to take the castle a few times, the army gave up and left, sacking and pillaging as it went. A few months later, the third Visconti lordlet decided it was time to pillage some more and marched into the principality at the head of a band of soldiers. This time, the locals were “mad as hell and weren’t going to take it anymore”, as the saying goes; they were determined to resist. Grabbing what arms they had, they met the invaders and brought them to battle. The invaders made the classic mistake of thinking that these were just a bunch of peasants who would run away when the going got tough. But they didn’t; they fought like madmen. They were helped, it has to be said, by the marshy ground they had chosen, which meant that the invaders’ horsemen were neutralized. The result was that the Visconti lordlet and a good portion of his men were massacred. The other lordlets of the area took heed and desisted in their predations (probably aided by the fact that a general peace was finally brokered between the Great Powers fighting over Italy).
Thereafter, Isola San Giorgio and the rest of the principality slipped back into its state of feudal somnolence for another two hundred years. In 1735, Novara and its province were handed over by the Austrians to the House of Savoy. The-then Duke of Savoy (and King of Sardinia) Charles-Emmanuel III had no patience with quaint feudal relics in his lands like the Bishop of Novara’s principality around Lake Orta. Pressure was brought to bear and slowly, slowly the bishops divested themselves of their feudal rights to the principality in favour of the House of Savoy. By 1819, the deed was done: the principality was no more. It was just one more district in the lands of Piedmont and, after 1861, in the newly-unified kingdom of Italy.
As a sign of the changes, the remains of the castle on the island were dismantled completely in 1841 and in their place a huge seminary was built – it is that big blockhouse of a building which I thought were old army barracks. We have here an old postcard celebrating the seminarists.
The seminary is no more; it lasted a little less than a hundred years. But the religious vocation of the island continues. The basilica and seminary have been handed over to a congregation of Benedictine nuns – we have one here going through the rite of becoming a Bride of Christ.
The nuns have an interesting vocation. They study and translate ancient texts, and restore ancient fabrics and tapestries.
It is time to go back to Orta San Giulio and take that street at the back of Piazza Motta which we had noticed that cold and drizzly day, and which carries one up past this church to the Sacred Mountain of Orta.
The Sacred Mountain of Orta is one of a number of Sacred Mountains which were created in the late 16th, early 17th Centuries in Northern Italy. They were very much promoted by San Carlo Borromeo, Cardinal of Milan (whose very large nose I have mentioned in an earlier post). The original idea was to create places of pilgrimage which could stand in for the Medieval pilgrimages to the Holy Land, which was becoming harder and harder for pilgrims to reach. For San Carlo Borromeo, the Sacred Mountains were also to be a way to teach the little people, who had not had the benefit of an education, in an easily understandable way such mysteries as the Trinity but also the lives of Christ, the Virgin Mary, and great saints. To this end, the Sacred Mountains were made up of a series of chapels containing life-sized models in terracotta, backed up by frescoes on the chapel walls, each telling a story in a holy person’s life or making a point about some tricky theological concept: little theatrical pieces, if you will. I have mentioned the use of art to teach illiterate people about religion in an earlier post. With the growth of Protestantism, the Sacred Mountains took on a third purpose, that of combating these horrible heresies. That no doubt explains why there are so many Sacred Mountains in Northern Italy, where they were created as bulwarks against the tide of Protestantism that could be washing over the Alps at any minute. In fact, the Sacred Mountain of Orta is part of nine such Sacred Mountains in northern Italy which are now inscribed in UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites. In September, my wife and I visited another of these nine sites, at Varallo in Piedmont (where, coincidentally, we were once again accompanying our son on one of his business trips). I mentioned another of these sites, at Varese, in an earlier post I wrote about the fondness of religions around the world for sacrilizing mountains.
The Sacred Mountain of Orta is dedicated to the life of St. Francis, which pleases me no end since he must be my favourite saint, as I have mentioned in an earlier post. There are 20 chapels, laid out in a wooded landscape.
I don’t propose to show readers photos of them all. Just two can give readers a sense of what would await them were they to visit this Sacred Mountain (or any of the other Sacred Mountains for that matter).
I hope these scenes are in better shape than the ones we saw at Varallo, which were really rather tatty. Luckily, they were in the midst of being restored when we visited.
You get beautiful views over the lake from the Sacro Monte.
As you gaze down on this sunny scene, it’s hard to believe that a mere thirty years ago the lake was dead. Everything in it had been killed off by industries which were discharging their crap into the lake, turning it into the most acidic lake in the world. It started back in 1927, when the German company Bemberg, which was making rayon fibre using the cuprammonium process, set itself up on the lakeside. The plant’s copper and ammonium discharges quickly acidified the lake, killing all life in it in about two years. Bemberg made limp efforts to control the discharges, which did begin to finally show noticeable reductions in the late 1950s. But by then Bemberg had been joined by a host of small plants making metal consumer products; two of these companies, incidentally, went on to become global brands: Bialetti and Alessi.
Many of these plants included electroplating in their processes (that Alessi kettle is heavily chromed, for instance) and consequently toxic heavy metals such as chromium, zinc, copper and nickel were added to the filthy mix being discharged into the lake. As if that weren’t enough, the acidic waters of the lake released aluminium from the natural and normally harmless imissions of aluminosilicate into the lake, adding yet another toxic metal to the stew. Things only got better when the legislators eventually banged their fist on the table and passed Italy’s first water protection law in 1976 (the Legge Merli; I know it well, I referred to it countless times when as an environmental consultant I would tell Italian companies they needed to control their water discharges). Suddenly, companies which had claimed for years that it was impossible to control their discharges and remain in business found – surprise, surprise – that actually it was possible to control them and stay in business. But it took more than just forcing companies to properly control their discharges to get the lake’s pH back to normal. A massive liming operation was required, where calcium carbonate was added to the lake. A boat was specially made for the purpose. Lime was first sprayed on the surface.
But that wasn’t enough. Lime had to be injected deep into the lake, below the thermocline. It took twenty years to restore what had taken a mere two to destroy. The lake is now more or less OK: “fishable, swimmable”, in the catchy phrase of the US’s first water protection law, although the planctonic populations are not quite right yet.
Well, on that somewhat hopeful note, I leave my readers. Maybe some of them will make it to Lake Orta one day. My wife and I certainly will, when Spring comes rolling round again.
A few days ago, my wife entered a greengrocer’s to get some fruit and came out with fruit but also with a gleam in her eye. “I have bought some Jerusalem artichokes”, she announced, and I was delighted to hear it.
It was a University flatmate who many, many (many …) years ago introduced us to this tuber. One evening, it must have been about this time of the year, he appeared in the kitchen with these strange-looking things.
As we looked at them curiously, he asked us if we had ever tried them. When we confessed that we had not, he promised us a plateful. He was as good as his word. I cannot remember now how he cooked them – more on this later – but it allowed us to appreciate that delicate artichoke taste which is the hallmark of this tuber.
Its name in English recognizes this gustatory affinity to the artichoke. And it is that artichoke taste which drew me to this lumpy, knobbly little tuber; as I have written in a previous post, I am very partial to artichokes.
Not that we’ve eaten Jerusalem artichokes all that often since that first tasting 40-plus years ago. It is one of the few foodstuffs that is still only found seasonally – it’s available from late Autumn to late Winter, and very difficult to keep once out of the earth – so unless you maintain a sharp lookout, you’re liable to miss it. Because of that, and because, frankly, of a bad press – it has a reputation of being something you feed to animals and only eat if you’re literally starving – it’s not grown in large quantities and supermarkets rarely stock it. Once, I bought a whole load of ginger because I thought they were Jerusalem artichokes. They really do look quite similar, as I think this photo shows; the resemblance between the two has often been noted.
I cannot remember where it was that I bought this ginger, but it must have been somewhere where I couldn’t read the labels – Thailand, maybe? I also cannot remember what we did with all the ginger: probably, after a few half-hearted attempts to drink tea with a lot of ginger in it, we threw it away.
I must confess to also rather liking the name, which I find satisfyingly quirky. I initially thought that the “Jerusalem” part of the name indicated a Levantine origin for the tuber; maybe, I romantically mused, it was a foodstuff brought to Europe by returning Crusaders. But no, I discovered, North America is its place of origin. It is actually the tuber to a rather lovely flower, the Helianthus tuberosus.
It is part of the Great Columbian Exchange, that massive intercontinental move of plants and animals (and diseases … and people) which took place after we Europeans discovered the Americas: plants and animals mostly travelling from the Americas to Europe and the rest of the world, and vice versa for diseases and people. I’ve written an earlier post about a minor representative of this exchange, the prickly pear. The Jerusalem artichoke is another minor representative. It is the relative of a much more important representative, also an emigrant from North America, the common sunflower, planted in vast quantities for its oil-bearing seeds.
The French explorers of North America seem to have been the first Europeans to report on this tuber, and French colonists the first to send exemplars back to Europe. Samuel de Champlain, the explorer of the Saint Lawrence River and the Great Lakes, first came across it on Cape Cod. As related on the US National Park Service website, “after rounding the headlands of Cape Cod in 1605, the French explorers sailed south along the ocean side of the outer Cape. Avoiding shoals and sandbanks, they managed to enter the first embayment they encountered. They called the place Malle Barre and left the ship to go onshore to inspect the Native American settlement. Champlain described the scene:
Before reaching their wigwams we entered a field planted with Indian corn … The corn was in flower and some five and a half feet in height. There was some less advanced, which they sow later. We saw an abundance of Brazilian beans, many edible squashes of various sizes, tobacco, and roots which they cultivate, the latter having the taste of artichoke. The woods are full of oaks, nut-trees, and very fine cypresses, which are of reddish colour and have a very pleasant smell. There were also several fields not cultivated, for the reason that the Indians let them lie fallow … Their wigwams are round, and covered with heavy thatch made of reeds. In the middle of the roof is an opening, about a foot and a half wide, through which issues the smoke of their fire.”
Champlain helpfully included a map of the embayment in his printed report.
Another Frenchman, Marc Lescarbot, met Champlain soon after this in Port-Royal, a new settlement on the coast of what is now Nova Scotia. I throw in here a map of Port-Royal which Lescarbot included in the book he wrote some years later.
Among other things, Champlain introduced him to the tuber. Lescarbot described it as follows: “a sort of root, as big as a beet or truffle, tasting rather like chard but more agreeable”. Chard is a vegetable which I’m fond of, fond enough to have written a post about it a little while back. Lescarbot was onto something, I think: the two share a similarly delicate taste. Nevertheless, in the end I would plump for the artichoke connection, so Jerusalem artichoke it should be, not Jerusalem chard.
Europeans were responsible for the global redistribution of the Jerusalem artichoke, but in truth humans had already started to move the plant out of its natural range before Europeans discovered the Americas. When Champlain, Lescarbot, and all the other anonymous European colonists came across the native plantations of the Jerusalem artichoke on the East coast, it looked to them like the plant had always been there. But actually that was not so. The plant’s natural range is somewhere in central North America, straddling the modern US-Canada border. However, the American Indians, recognizing the tuber’s value as a foodstuff, and especially its availability during the winter months when other food is often scarce, had centuries earlier carried it out of its natural range, all the way to the east and west coasts of North America, and down south into Mexico too.
Fascinating stuff, but none of it explains that “Jerusalem” bit of the name. Unfortunately, the chroniclers of the 17th century – the time when the Jerusalem artichoke arrived in Europe and was diffusing across the Continent – were more interested in the Great Men (and possibly Great Women) as well as the Great Events of their time rather than in the names being given to new vegetables. So it has been left to modern historians and etymologists to make some educated guesses. I give two of these guesses here, the two that seem to me the most likely – or perhaps the least unlikely. The first guess has it that the tuber made its way to Rome, as a foodstuff which had miraculously saved the French (Catholic) colonists of North America from starvation. It was planted in the Vatican gardens, whose gardeners gave the plant the name girasole articiocco – “girasole” being the Italian name for the sunflower (readers will recall that the plant is a cousin to the sunflower). The usual mangling of foreign words in British mouths meant that girasole articiocco became Jerusalem artichoke. This is quite neat and is the guess I would normally lay my money on, but I can’t explain to myself how Protestant Britain would have picked up a name being bandied about in the Catholic Vatican. The second guess has it that the tuber originally entered the UK from the Netherlands and more specifically from the town of Terneuzen (the Dutch botanist Petrus Hondius, who lived there, reported in the early 1600s on having successfully planted a shriveled tuber which he had received, no doubt from Dutch colonists in North America). In British mouths, Terneuzen artisjokken got mangled into Jerusalem artichokes. Trade between the two countries was brisk, so a transfer such as this of a new foodstuff sounds quite reasonable to me. But a mangling of Terneuzen into Jerusalem seems a bit of a stretch.
One of the rare places where my wife and I came across the Jerusalem artichoke was in Paris. The French name for the tuber is equally quirky: topinambour. Here again the mists of time have veiled over the origin of the name. The best guess is that the tuber began to appear on Parisian plates at around the time that a delegation of three Amerindians from the Tupinambá tribe, which had settled on the Brazilian coastline, were paraded before King Louis XIII and his court in the Tuileries (three others had died en route). They were sent there by some missionaries, who were competing with the Portuguese for the souls of the local “savages”. No doubt the idea was to get the king interested in defending French interests in Brazil. I’m not sure they succeeded in that, but the Tupinambá created a sensation. One of the missionaries commented enthusiastically: “Who would have thought that Paris, used to the strange and the exotic, would go so wild over these Indians?”. After being paraded before the king and his court, no doubt in their “savage” state, the three Tupinambá were taken off to a church, baptized, and dressed in more “civilized” garb.
Parisians, being vague about the geography of this New World that was being discovered before their very eyes but knowing that the tuber came from somewhere over there, simply decided that the Topinambá had brought the tuber with them and began to call it the topinambour.
Helianthus tuberosus grows extremely well in Europe, it is very easy to grow, and as I said earlier its tuber is available in the winter months when other foods can be scarce. As a result, the plant’s popularity grew, especially in France, where it saw its heyday in the 18th Century. Not only were people eating it, but it was given as feed to livestock. It was so widespread in France that one of the days in the Revolutionary calendar – the thirteenth day in the month of Brumaire, to be precise – was dedicated to it. But by then, its days were numbered. The potato (another representative of the Great Columbian Exchange), after facing a century or so of hostility in France, finally won wide acceptance. It eventually completely eclipsed the topinambour.
Which is sad really, because the Jerusalem artichoke/topinambour is really quite good to eat. I personally prefer the tubers steamed (they can be boiled, too, but they risk crumbling in the water).
There’s Jerusalem artichoke soup, too, which I have yet to try.
Then they can be roasted
or prepared in just about any other way one can think of – there are recipes out there for all tastes.
I feel that I cannot in all fairness finish this post without mentioning one negative thing about the Jerusalem artichoke: the plant has a tendency to be invasive, a problem I’ve written about several times. It’s the tubers – if you leave just one little piece in the ground, they will proliferate. This is fine if you have them planted in your garden or in a field; it means you don’t have a problem getting another harvest next year. But it is not fine if the tuber somehow jumps the garden fence or the field boundary. Like another invasive species which I recently wrote about, the Himalayan balsam, Helianthus tuberosus is particularly troublesome if the plant colonizes river banks, for the same reason. It dies back during winter, leaving the river banks much more exposed to the danger of erosion during winter and spring floods.
So, dear readers, bon appetit! But if you want to grow these tubers please make sure they don’t escape from your garden!
Picking up where I left off at the end of my last post, my wife and I were on our way back to our hotel from our little tour of Traunkirchen when I spied on the side of the road these beds of wild flowers.
They were really very pretty, with the flowers going from magenta to almost white, passing through a candy pink. Even as I admired and took a couple of photos I had to admit to myself that I no idea what they were.
The next day, at breakfast, I showed our host the pictures. Ah, she said, that’s a Drüsige Springkraut. She had no idea what its English name was, but the German name was enough for my wife. A few clicks later, she handed me her iPad and I was reading a Wikipedia entry on the flower.
Its official name is Impatiens glandulifera. It has many colourful names in English. Three – Policeman’s Helmet, Bobby Tops, Copper Tops – reflect the flower’s apparent resemblance to British policemen’s helmets. Here’s a close-up of the flower itself.
I leave my readers to decide, but I really don’t see this resemblance – unless the helmets have changed considerably since I last lived in the UK. Another name, Gnome’s Hatstand, makes more sense to me. It presumably harks back to the decidedly florid hats which some gnomes in children’s books sometimes sport, and I definitely can see a florid hat in the flower’s shape. And of course the plant then becomes the hatstand for these florid hats. Two other names, Himalayan Balsam and Kiss-me-on-the-mountain, refer to the mountainous origin of the plant; more on this later. Another name listed in Wikipedia is Ornamental jewelweed. I’m guessing this was inspired by the fact that we have a beautiful flower grafted onto a decidedly weedy-looking stem.
The English-speaking world seems to have been particularly poetic in its choice of names. The names in German and French (the only other two languages I checked) are decidedly more prosaic and seem mostly variations on balsam and glands (the latter being also found in the official name). I read that the plant does indeed carry glands, under the leaf stem, which produce a sticky, sweet-smelling, and edible nectar (the latter presumably being the origin of the balsam names). Eager to try this nectar, I poked around under various leaf stems the next time we walked past the flowers but failed to detect anything; a puzzle to be solved another day. The only exception to the list of prosaic Franco-German names is the German Bauernorchidee, Farmer’s orchid. We’ll come back to this link to orchids in a minute.
A beautiful flower – but alas an invasive species! Invasive species are a terrible problem; they have been the subject of an earlier post of mine. The flower’s original home is the Himalayas, specifically to the areas between Kashmir and Uttarakhand. I am ashamed to say that it was an Englishman who unleashed this particular botanical scourge on the rest of the world in 1839. He was no doubt part of that legion of Europeans who followed in the footsteps of conquering European armies, scouring the newly-colonized lands for plants. Initially, they were looking for plants from which some monetarily useful product could be extracted but later they also looked for pretty plants which they could sell to the growing ranks of gardeners looking for an extra splash of colour or texture in their gardens.
The Himalayan Balsam, to use one of its many names, was thus first grown outside of its natural range in the UK but eventually spread to many other parts of the world. Coming back to that German name, Farmer’s orchid, it seems that its popularity was at least in part due to it allowing gardeners of modest income to have a flower that looked very orchid-like; I throw in here a photo of an orchid, to allow readers to see the resemblance.
Real orchids were the playthings of the rich, who could afford not only the stiff purchase price but also the high maintenance costs (and by the way, the picture above is actually of a Victorian orchid hunter; orchids commanded prices which allowed serious expeditions to be funded).
As with water hyacinth which I wrote about in that earlier post on invasive species, the Himalayan balsam eventually escaped from the confines of gardens and began to spread through the countryside. As far as the UK is concerned, it has become one of the country’s most invasive species. It colonizes damp woodlands (which is where we came across it in Traunkirchen, although in beds that were not nearly as thick as this).
It also colonizes the banks of waterways – this is a view of the River Monnow, which makes up part of the England-Wales border.
The flower’s crowding along the banks of rivers is particularly problematical. When the plants die back in autumn they leave the banks bare and subject to erosion from winter and spring floods. I read that the plant is a terrible pest in the Norfolk Broads. That gives me pause; I used to go there as a young boy – 50+ years ago – and I never remember seeing it. The Himalayan balsam is marching across the landscape …
People are trying to do what they can to stop the plant. In some places, there are regular “balsam bashes”, where volunteers go out and physically pull up the plant. Here, for instance, we have a group of volunteers in Yorkshire, who by the size of the pile in front of them have had a hard day’s work.
More extreme measures are required, though, if the invasion is truly to be stopped. The basic problem is that the plant has escaped from all those predators which back home in the Himalayas keep it in check, and none have taken their place in the rest of the world. Researchers in the UK have gone off to the Himalayas to see if they can’t bring at least one of the original predators back to the UK. They have found a very promising candidate: the Himalayan balsam rust. It attacks the plant at various points: the stem, the leaves, the seedlings. This is what the leaves look like once they are under attack.
The scientists are currently conducting field tests. I wish them the best of luck. And I really pray that they will not unwittingly release into the British environment a rust that will find other, native species much more to their liking and which will then forget about attacking the Himalayan balsam. As I pointed out in my previous post on invasive species, this has happened before, and you end up with two invasive species instead of one!
While we wait for the results of the tests to come in, I invite readers to locate their nearest “balsam bash”, or whatever they might be called in the local language, and take part. You will be doing us all a favour and getting a breath of fresh air at the same time.
A beautiful flower, but to be admired in its native habitat and not in our gardens.
I had never heard of this particular saint until my wife and I came to this part of the world, but once here we saw him repeatedly, not only in Austria but also in the Czech Republic, in Slovakia, and in Hungary (and Wikipedia informs me that we could come across statues of his in Germany, Poland, Lithuania, and even further afield). Here is a photo of a typical statue of him.
This particular photo comes from a web site devoted to statues. The site has listed a little over 200 photos of statues of John of Nepomuk, mostly from the catholic lands of Central Europe but with a smattering from elsewhere, which gives some idea of the saint’s popularity in this part of Europe. The photo shows a “typical” statue of John: bearded, clothed as a priest, wearing the priest’s three-peaked biretta, holding a cross, and with a halo of five stars around his head (what is also often found, but is missing from this particular statue, is a martyr’s palm). The statues are often found on bridges or close to them, for reasons which will become clear in a moment. They often look lost and forlorn, engulfed by modern expansions of what were once little villages.
I suppose John of Nepomuk really came into focus for me when, relatively soon after our move to Vienna, my wife and I decided to visit Prague with the children. As anyone who has been to that city knows, no visit is complete without a crossing of the Charles Bridge.
The most striking thing about the bridge (apart from the fine views it affords of both the old and the less old parts of the city) is the thirty or so statues which line both parapets.
For the most part, they are of various saints who presumably were important to the city – or to the donors who paid for them. One of them – actually, the oldest of them all – is a statue of St. John of Nepomuk.
The reasons why some of the other saints got a privileged position on the bridge may not be entirely clear, but in John’s case it is crystal clear. He is the patron saint of the Czech Republic (and, before the Czech Republic existed, of Bohemia). As if that weren’t enough he was killed by being thrown off this very same bridge, which was nearing the end of its construction when he was summarily tipped over the parapet.
Well! It’s not every day that you stand on the very same spot (more or less) from which a saint was dispatched to his death. And such an interesting death! I don’t want to sound too morbid, but the way he was killed – according to my guide-book, sewn into a goatskin bag before being heaved into the river below – was considerably more quirky than most run-of-the mill deaths of saints I’ve come across. Thoroughly intrigued, I began asking myself what John of Nepomuk had done to deserve being declared a saint (being killed isn’t enough, otherwise we would have millions if not billions of saints).
After reading various accounts of his life, I’m afraid I have to conclude that he did nothing to deserve his title of saint. His sainthood was an act of pure politics.
Perhaps it is time for me to give a thumbnail sketch of John’s life and times. He was born in the 1340s in the Czech (Bohemian) town of Pomuk (later renamed Nepomuk). I would guess that his father – a burgher of the town – decided that his son should make his career in the Church. John must have been a bright lad because after the usual schooling he was sent to the University of Prague, completing his studies of theology and jurisprudence in 1374. Somehow he caught the eye of John of Jesentein, who later became archbishop of Prague. Here is a statue of the good Archbishop on the cathedral of St. Vitus in Prague (if this is a true likeness, he seems to have been a merry fellow).
John of Jesenstein became Archbishop in 1378 and made John his first secretary. Presumably the Archbishop decided that John needed to further his studies and he went off to the University of Padua in 1383, returning home in 1387 with a doctorate in canon law in his pocket. Upon his return, he received – no doubt from the Archbishop – various positions: canon in the church of St. Ægidius in Prague, canon of the cathedral in Wyschehrad in 1389, Archdeacon of Sasz and canon of the Cathedral of St. Vitus in Prague in 1390, president of the ecclesiastical court shortly afterwards, and finally the Archbishop’s vicar-general (a sort of deputy for administrative matters) in 1393. It all sounds like the very rapid ascent of a very able fellow in the Church hierarchy. No doubt a brilliant career beckoned.
All this was taking place against a turbulent political background. Wenceslaus IV was King of Bohemia at the time. We see him here with his wife Sophia (more of her later), in a miniature from his bible.
From what I read, he was a rather weak man. He certainly didn’t seem able to control his overweening family members, who were constantly undercutting him. His nobles, perhaps already restive but perhaps sensing his weakness, spent their time being obstreperous. He made matters worse by relying on favourites, something which nobles everywhere have always disliked; they feel that by reason of their birth they should be getting the positions being doled out to lower-born favourites. I have to say, Wencelsaus reminds me a lot of Richard II of England.
It was Wenceslaus wanting to reward a favourite which brought him on a collision course with the Church. The crisis came to a head pretty much immediately after John took up his post as the Archbishop’s vicar-general. Wenceslaus wanted to found a new bishopric for one of his favourites. His eyes fell on the rich and powerful Benedictine Abbey of Kladruby, an abbey which still exists. This picture gives us an idea of what a juicy piece of real estate it must have been.
It so happened that its abbot was dying. Wenceslaus ordered that upon his death no new abbot was to be elected. Instead, the abbey’s territories were to be turned into a bishopric and his favourite installed as its bishop (his idea was that the bishop could then return the favour, using the abbey’s resources to support the King in his struggles with family and aristocracy). Now, if there was one thing the Church hierarchy really objected to, that was having Kings telling them who should fill what Church posts, especially when those posts carried with them rich benefices which would be lost to the Church. So when the old abbot finally copped it, the monks of Kladruby held an election post haste and chose one of their own monks to be the new abbot; John, as vicar-general, promptly confirmed the election.
When he heard the news, Wenceslaus blew his top; I am reminded of Henry II of England who, driven to distraction by his Archbishop Thomas à Becket, cried out “Will no-one rid me of this turbulent priest?”, a cry which led four knights to travel to Canterbury and slaughter Thomas on the steps of the cathedral’s high altar. In this case, Wenceslaus had John and three other top Church officials who had played some role in the decision arrested and thrown into gaol. In good medieval fashion, they were all tortured to get them to change the decision. The three others cracked and agreed. But John of Nepomuk held firm. So finally Wenceslaus ordered that he be placed in chains, paraded through the city with a block of wood in his mouth, and thrown from the Charles Bridge into the river. His executioners added the bit about being sewn into a goatskin bag. This fateful final event in John’s story occurred in March of 1393.
I’m not quite sure what the fall-out of all this was. The Archbishop certainly hot-footed it down to Rome, accompanied by the new abbot of Kladruby, to make a formal exposition of all that had happened (thus giving us the earliest written account of John’s death). In that exposition, he wrote of John being a martyr, presumably wanting to clothe in holiness a death that was really about quarrels between Church and State and who was more powerful, swirling around what was – let’s face it – a nice juicy piece of real-estate.
Regardless of what went on in the corridors of power, John’s death caught the imagination of the “little people” of Bohemia. A cult gradually grew up around him. By 1459, so some 70 years after John’s death, a more fanciful – and somewhat more holy – story appeared about the reason for his death; I suppose grubby little arguments about power and money didn’t seem suitable. It was now said that John had been Queen Sophia’s father confessor, that Wenceslaus had pressured him to tell if the Queen had confessed to having a lover, that John had refused to spill the beans citing the secrecy of the confessional, and that the King had lost it, leading to John being tossed into the river. This story is why John is quite often shown with his finger on his lips, as in this painting in the Church of Santa Maria Anima in Rome.
When, after Emperor Ferdinand II smashed the Protestant forces of Bohemia at the Battle of White Mountain in 1620 and the forces of the Counter-Reformation were in full flow to forcibly turn Bohemia back into a Catholic state, it was decided to build on John’s popularity with the little people and push for his canonization. A very thick report was put together which emphasized the fanciful story of his death over the real reason for his death, and it was forwarded to the relevant authorities in Rome. The Roman Curia was happy to comply, so John was beatified in 1721 and canonized in 1729.
John’s sainthood of course drove the creation of art. Some of this was what we could call High Art. For instance, the years between his beatification and canonization saw the building of the Pilgrimage Church of St John of Nepomuk, a church that is famous in the Czech Republic and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site (its rather fanciful shape is apparently based on an interpretation of the Cabbala).
My wife and I have never seen this church, although it looks like a good candidate for a visit; I shall talk to her about it. On the other hand, I am firmly of the opinion that John’s Baroque tomb in the cathedral of Saint Vitus in Prague can be skipped.
Not only does it have in spadefuls all that I dislike about Baroque art – all flash and no substance – I really disapprove of the fact that two tonnes of silver were used to make the tomb; the money used to purchase the silver should have been distributed to the poor.
That’s the High Art. The Low Art generated by John are all those thousands of statues of him scattered around Central Europe and beyond. As readers can imagine, based on the fanciful explanation of his death, John of Nepomuk is the patron saint of good confession, confessors and penitents. But – more interestingly, to my mind – because of the way he died, he is also believed to protect against floods and troubled waters, and so is considered a patron saint of bridges and fords. Certainly the latest statue of him that my wife and I came across was in Lilienfeld during our walk along the so-called Via Sacra between Vienna and Mariazell. The statue was situated on the bank of a river, next to a bridge.
This statue is somewhat more exciting than most statues of this type, showing John in the act of being thrown over the bridge’s parapet by a fellow who looks quite mean and nasty.
The river itself flowed quite placidly when we crossed the bridge.
But the news is often filled with stories of rivers which have flooded and killed tens or hundreds of people. Why, only a few days ago we were treated to pictures of extreme flooding in Spain.
I can imagine that the little, humble people have always had great respect for the power of rivers. They bring life-saving water to the crops, but they also unleash death and destruction when angry. I’m sure rites to propitiate the river gods are as old as civilization itself. The Greeks and Romans had their river gods and goddesses. So did the Celts. In fact, so did just about every other culture: Wikipedia has an entry on all these deities. I’m sure that the medieval Bohemians used John as a way of christianizing their age-old river gods.
Of course, if you have a saint to whom you pray to stop floods and the heavy rain which creates them, it is not a great step to also ask him to intercede in the opposite case, the case of drought. That’s why you will also find statues of John in the middle of farmland, like this one from a place called Burlo in Germany (although the field behind looks rather sodden in this case).
So there we have it. An actor in a Shakespearean drama of power and money who was, over the centuries and for various political reasons, turned into a saint. But below the official Catholic radar, a man who by chance became the means for a mostly rural population to officialize their magic to try to manage water, one of their most precious resources.
P.S. After reading this post, my wife began to see statues of John of Nepomuk everywhere we hiked. They really are common in this part of the world!
I think my son was joking when he sent me a note after reading my post on Almdudler telling me that I should now write a post about cabanossi.
To quickly fill in readers who may not be familiar with the cabanos (by the way, one cabanos, two cabanossi), it is a form of dried sausage. It’s great for an after-school snack, and I’m sure there were many occasions when my wife bought the children a kabanos or two after school, washed down with an Almdudler (hence my son’s mischievous remark that a post on Almdudler necessarily required me to prepare a post on cabanossi). My wife would buy what seems to be the most popular brand for children, the KnabberNossi.
As for the contents of the package, the dried sausage waiting to be eaten, it looks like this.
There was a Russian girl at the children’s school who – my son claimed – was so enamoured by this brand that she was heard to exclaim, with a rather particular Russian accent, “Ah, Ke-Naber Nossi, they’re sooo gooood!” This expression of love for cabanossi became a bit of a family joke, but actually the Russian girl was completely right. The cabanossi my wife bought were really very good: dry but not too dry, spicy but not too spicy, crunchy but not too crunchy. If you were not careful, a good dozen of these thin dry sausages could quite easily disappear down one’s lug-hole in one sitting.
As I say, I think my son was joking when he suggested that I should write a post on cabanossi, but the problem is that I’m a bit of a nerd and after chuckling a little at my son’s suggestion I began to wonder what exactly this cabanos was. Recalling my son’s dictum every time we ask him to explain something that we think he knows something about (“Google it!”), my fingers strayed to the Safari button on my phone and I was soon off down one rabbit hole after another chasing the elusive cabanos.
What I found was a fascinating tale reflecting the general history of Central Europe from the 18th century down to modern times.
It seems that some form of cabanos-like dried sausage has existed in the Slavic regions of Central Europe since the Middle Ages. The great advantage of this kind of sausage – fruit of the particular way it is cured and smoked – is that it has a very long shelf-life. This, together with the fact that it is quite lightweight, made it an ideal food for travelers to carry on long journeys, hunters to carry on their expeditions into the forests, and armies and navies to carry as supplies for the troops and sailors.
Superimposed on these largely anonymous developments made by a myriad of humble people about a foodstuff which was useful in their lives were the geopolitical struggles of the warrior elites – all those emperors and kings and aristocrats in Central Europe who pursued their various goals of land-grabbing and aggrandizement over the centuries. I don’t propose to summarize what went on since the records began, it would be far too tedious and anyway not terribly relevant to our story. I will start in 1750, with this political map of Central Europe in that year.
As every reader can see, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth dominated the region, at least as far as size goes. But it was a brittle, fragile polity, run in a most inefficient way. Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia, and Frederick the Great, King of Prussia, desired its territories, while Maria-Theresa, ruler of the traditional Hapsburg lands – Austria, Hungary and Bohemia, plus a few other bits and pieces – wanted to keep a balance between the powers in the region. The net result of all these maneuverings was the Partition of Poland. In three steps – executed in 1772, 1793, and 1795 – Russia, Prussia, and Austria carved the country up between them. Here is a cartoon of the time, showing the rulers of the three countries at work on the first of these partitions: Catherine, one one side, and Frederick and Joseph II (co-regent with his mother Maria-Theresa of Austria), on the other side (the fellow in between seeming to take off his crown is the last king of Poland, Stanisław August Poniatowski).
Frederick and Catherine were quite cheerful as they each grabbed a piece of the Polish pie. Maria-Theresa, who was really in charge and told her son Joseph what to do, felt guilty about it all but couldn’t let the other two get too big at her expense. As the cynical Frederick said, “she cries, but she takes”.
This was how political maps looked after the three partitions were completed. Poland was no more.
There was a moment of hope for the Poles when Napoleon entered the scene and tore up the political maps of Europe, but his defeat and the subsequent Congress of Vienna restored everything pretty much to the way it was. In Central Europe, the only thing that changed was that Russia managed to get an even bigger slice of Poland at the expense of Prussia and Austria.
Many of the political, intellectual and cultural elite of Poland emigrated (among them Adam Mickiewicz, who wrote the great nationalistic poem Pan Tadeusz). Bohemia, which had managed to keep some independence under the Hapsburgs, was now integrated into the newly-created Austrian Empire. To use language from later, nationalistic times, the Slavs of Central Europe groaned under the yoke of Vienna, Berlin, and Moscow (while the Slavic regions of South-Eastern Europe groaned under the yoke of Istanbul – but they do not seem to be part of the cabanos story, so we shall ignore them).
And what of the cabanos in all of this?
To answer that question, I have to switch to an alternative spelling of the sausage, kabanos (plural, kabanosy). It seems that the kabanos as such (as opposed to other cured and smoked sausages having kabanos-style properties) originated in Poland. Specifically, its homeland is in what is now eastern Poland, around the borders of what are now Lithuania and Russia. Farmers in that region bred pigs in a special way, making them eat potatoes (this marbles their meat, which gives – it is said – the kabanos a distinct taste). Since the Poles of that region called these pigs kaban, the sausage they made from it was called kabanos.
In the decades after Poland’s disappearance from the map, the kabanos migrated westward and southward, to Germany (through Prussia, I would imagine) and to Austria and Hungary in the heart of the Austro-Hungarian Empire via the Czech lands. I would imagine that it was brought along by Poles who set off to find their fortunes in the domains of their new masters, or perhaps members of the new master races came to Poland, discovered the kabanos, and took it back home. When the kabanos arrived in Germanic (and Hungarian) lands, the spelling changed to the more Germanic cabanos.
The basic recipe changed too. While in Poland the kabanos was made purely from pork, the cabanos became a mix of beef and pork (there have been kabanosy/cabanossi made with other meats – mutton, chicken, even horse and donkey – but these are minor variants and seem to have died out). The spices added to the sausage also varied as it migrated out of Poland, but this seems to have been more an issue of what spices were available locally and of personal tastes.
In the meantime, Poles never gave up their dream of once more having an independent Poland. There were various uprisings, which were all put down, and more emigrations of Poles. Pan Tadeusz was published in Paris, where Adam Mickiewicz was living in exile. The poem mentions the kabanos; perhaps it had become the comfort food of Polish émigrés. There was also one very large change to the political map of Europe, when Germany was unified in 1870 as an Empire.
Then we fast-forward to the 1920s. World War I came and went and with it the three Empires that had dominated central Europe.
Poland was resurrected as a country. Czechoslovakia was created, a country cobbled together from the smaller Slavic regions of Bohemia, Moravia, and Slovakia. Hungary also emerged once more as a separate country, although much smaller; it was shorn of Slavic regions on its borders which were handed over to the new Slavic states which surrounded it.
During all this mayhem, the kabanos/cabanos kept on being made in Poland and in all the countries, new and old, to which it had spread. In particular, it became particularly popular in Poland. The 1920s and ’30s saw a large growth in the kabanos market, a slow standardization of the product, and the emergence of brands: all outcomes of the country’s growing population and its industrialization.
Then came the disaster of the Second World War, when Poland and Czechoslovakia disappeared once again. They reappeared after the war, although Poland’s borders were shifted westward – the Soviet Union took a bite out of its eastern marches, while Poland took a bite out of Germany’s eastern marches – and all the countries of Central Europe fell behind the Iron Curtain.
The Poles’ love for kabanosy was not diminished by Communism. It could even be than in the Proletarian Paradise that Poland had become, the kabanos’s humble origins increased its popularity. The fact is, everyone bought kabanosy, for every occasion, from the grandest to the most humble. Poland’s government may have been communist but it saw a good business in the kabanos. It further strengthened the product’s standardization, and it was one of the few things Poland exported (along with vodka and ham).
Then came the fall of the Berlin wall, the fall of the Iron Curtain, and the fall of the Soviet Union itself. Out of all this came a clutch of new (or renewed) countries to the south and east of Central Europe.
The Central European countries all hurriedly joined the EU, to protect them from Russia. And so started the latest drama in the life of the kabanos. Quite soon after its accession, Poland applied to the EU to register the kabanos as a Polish Traditional Speciality Guaranteed (TSG), one of the three trademarks championed by the EU. And here the drift of the kabanos westward out of Poland, which had happened without much fuss during the 19th century, suddenly came into focus. Germany fiercely resisted Poland’s application, claiming that its producers had equal rights to the trademark (the fierceness of Germany’s resistance might have had to do with the touchy relationships between the two countries about the shift eastwards of the Polish-German border). Austria also protested, as did the Czech Republic. Poland discovered that the kabanosy was not its alone; other countries had a claim to it, claims created by the shifting of borders over the last 200 years. The wrangling went on for 10 years before it was finally settled. The deal was that while other countries could call their sausage kabanos (or cabanos), only Polish kabanos (made according to EU standards) could sport the distinctive blue and yellow TSG label.
With that, I leave my readers with a photo of a Polish kabanos I bought in a Polish delicatessen close to the Polish church patronized by many of the Poles who have recently emigrated to Vienna (I took a bite out of it before taking the photo; I couldn’t wait).
And as a counterpart, I add a photo of a proper Austrian cabanos purchased a few days later in my local supermarket.
Delicious, both of them! (although my wife, the other taster, deems the Polish version to be tastier). I urge readers to hunt out their nearest Polish delicatessen (or German or Austrian or Czech delicatessen, if they have one) and try this sausage. And have an Almdudler along with it!
Back in April, I was up in Vienna to make a presentation at a workshop on ecodesign and its role in promoting circular economies. Fascinating topic, but what I actually want to write about is the fact that at this meeting I met an old contact of mine, Wolfgang, who many years ago had run a training programme for me on ecodesign in Sri Lanka. After the workshop, we repaired to a bar to catch up on the past 15 years or so over a beer. Wolfgang first told me all about what he’s been up to in the ecodesign world, but then added, “What’s really exciting me at the moment is my production of mead.”
Mead … I don’t know what visions this conjures up in my readers, but for me I immediately see Vikings wassailing the dark Nordic nights away, drinking mead out of horns or possibly the skulls of their enemies, and preparing for the battle of tomorrow where they will die heroically and go to Valhalla. These fine fellows will stand in nicely for such a scene.
I had certainly never drunk the stuff myself; I didn’t know anyone made it anymore.
Thoroughly intrigued, I pressed Wolfgang for more information. As is the case with all enthusiasts, I didn’t have to press very hard. With a pint of beer inside him, he waxed lyrical on the subject. He had to start at the very beginning, with what mead is made from – I didn’t even know that. It’s a mixture of honey and water to which yeast is added to turn the sugars in the honey into alcohol. The relative ratios of honey to water will determine the level of sweetness of the final product. Sweetness can be further increased by the addition of fruits. On the other hand, the mix can be made dryer by adding astringent berries or herbs. Wolfgang was very dismissive about the modern trend of making sweet meads. In fact, he said, he started making mead because he was appalled at how horribly sweet most modern meads are, which in his opinion obliterates the wonderful underlying tastes of the honey. He decided he was going to swim against the current and make a dry mead. He had been at it for a couple of years, and was beginning to sell his product to other enthusiasts.
Well, this all sounded very interesting! I was definitely going to have to try this stuff. Unfortunately, I was going back down to Milan the next day. But we agreed that when my wife and I came up to Vienna for the summer, I would contact him and we would arrange a mead-tasting event.
In the meantime, down in Milan, I did some research. Mead, it turns out, is very ancient, probably the first alcoholic drink that human beings ever quaffed. It’s also a pretty universal drink. The tribes that settled Europe certainly all drank mead. I’ve already mentioned the Vikings. They loved mead so much, they wrote a whole saga about it – Kvasir and the Mead of Poetry. It’s a story that has dwarves, giants, the god Odin, thievery, murder, and various other bits and bobs. A shaggy dog story if ever I heard one, good to while away those long Nordic nights while quaffing mead. The bottom line of the saga is that mead can turn you into a poet or a scholar: a feeling that I’m sure all of us have had when we have drunk too much alcohol; a feeling we normally have just before we are sick or pass out, or both. And much of Beowulf, that Anglo-Saxon poem greatly revered by lovers of the English language, takes place in a mead hall; it was in these specially-built halls that Viking chieftains and their retinue of warriors drank mead, listened to long, long – long – sagas, and generally wassailed the nights away, before collapsing onto the benches or even onto the floor in a drunken stupor. Here is an artist’s representation of a mead hall.
And here is an excellent summary of the first part of Beowulf: “The fantastical mead hall of Heorot forms an integral part of the epic Old English poem Beowulf, serving as both the setting and instigation of the action. It is the carousing of Heorot’s denizens as they slug back mead in the hall which awakens the terrible ire of the monster Grendel – with predictably gruesome results. The solution to the problem – in typical Old English style – was not to put down the mead horns and cease partying, but to slay the monster (and his mother) before throwing an even bigger and more mead-soaked party to celebrate.”
The Vikings may be the best known quaffers of mead, but the Celts were no slouches, and nor were the Germanic tribes. There is riddle-poem in the Exeter Book, a 10th-century anthology of Anglo-Saxon poetry, about honey and mead. I quote the first couple of lines:
Ic eom weorð werum, wide funden,
brungen of bearwum ond of burghleoþum,
of denum ond of dunum. Dæges mec wægun
feþre on lifte, feredon mid liste …
But since I’m sure that 99.99% of my readers are like me not able to read Anglo-Saxon, I insert here a translation of the poem into modern English:
I am valuable to men, found widely,
brought from groves and from mountain slopes,
from valleys and from hills. By day, was I carried
by feathers up high, taken skillfully
under a sheltering roof. A man then washed me
in a container. Now I am a binder and a striker;
I bring a slave to the ground, sometimes an old churl.
Immediately he discovers, he who goes against me
and contends against my strength,
that he shall meet the ground with his back,
unless he ceases from his folly early;
deprived of his strength, loud of speech, his power bound,
he has no control over his mind, his feet, or his hands.
Ask what I am called, who thus binds slaves
to the earth with blows, by the light of day.
The Anglo-Saxons clearly recognized the power of mead to bring you crashing to the floor of the mead hall or any other establishment where you drank the stuff in excess.
The Slavs also drank the stuff – they still do, with Poland having an especially developed culture of mead drinking. We have here a painting of a couple of early 19th Century Polish noblemen enjoying a flagon of mead, a scene inspired by that great nationalist Polish poem, Pan Tadeusz by Adam Mickiewicz. I don’t even bother with the Polish here, I just launch straight into an English translation, and cut out much of the saga-like talk between the two old men who are our subject:
Two old men sat outside the house, tankards
of strong mead resting on their knees; …
The old men drink their mead and dip their snuff
from a bark case, continuing their chat.
“Yes, yes, Protazy, it is true enough,”
said the Warden. “I can agree with that,”
replied Protazy the Apparitor.
“Yes,” they repeated in unison, “Yes,”
nodding their heads. …
…. The turf bench in the yard
on which they sat adjoined the kitchen wall;
from an open window, steam filled the air,
billowing like a conflagration. When all
the smoke was gone, a white chef‟s hat was there,
flitting like a dove. It was the Seneschal,
who stuck his head out through the kitchen window,
eavesdropping on this private conversation.
Finally, he handed them a plate with two
biscuits. “Have this cake with your libation,”
He said …
It wasn’t just tribes in Europe’s north who drank mead. The Ancient Greeks drank it – I read that Dionysios was the God of mead before becoming the God of wine. Greek followers of Dionysios, and Roman followers of Bacchus (same God, different name), used to hold festivals – the Dionysia or Bacchanalia – where much drinking and dancing and cavorting about (nudge, nudge, wink, wink, say no more) was the key. Here is a take on a Bacchanalia by Hendrik Balen (he did the figures) and Jan Breughel the Elder (he did the landscape), painted in about 1620.
As I say, the Romans partook enthusiastically in Bacchanalia, but there were more sober Roman citizens who left us some serious commentary on mead. Here is my favourite, by the Roman naturalist Lucius Junius Moderatus Columella, who included a recipe for making mead in his tome on agriculture, De re rustica, which he wrote in about 60 CE (again, I skip the Latin and go straight into an English translation).
Take rainwater kept for several years, and mix a sextarius [ca. ½ litre] of this water with a [Roman] pound [ca. ⅓ kg] of honey. For a weaker mead, mix a sextarius of water with nine ounces [ca. ¼ kg] of honey. The whole is exposed to the sun for 40 days, and then left on a shelf near the fire. If you have no rain water, then boil spring water.
I am appalled and fascinated in equal measure by this idea that one could take several-year old rainwater and use it to make something to drink; I suppose this was a way of inoculating the honey-water mix with natural yeasts which somehow found their way into the rainwater. I presume Columella drank his own mead and survived, so it cannot have been as deadly as it sounds.
And it wasn’t just the Europeans who drank it. The Chinese did – in fact, the oldest archaeological evidence tentatively pointing to mead drinking has been found in China: some honey, rice, and fermentation residues found on the inside of a pot 9,000 years old. The Mandaya and Manobo people in the island of Mindanao in the Philippines still drink mead, which they call bais.
In Africa, the Xhosa in South Africa have an ancient tradition of drinking mead, or iQhilika in Xhosa, and the Ethiopians have been, and continue to be, enthusiastic drinkers of mead (or tej as it’s called locally). Here we have Ethiopians enjoying a wee dram of the stuff.
And I love this picture, done in the traditional Ethiopian style, of what appears to be a priest and his acolytes getting ready to down some tej.
What I find particularly delicious in this painting is that normally the figures in Ethiopian paintings are very solemn; no-one breaks into a smile. Yet here, at the thought of the pleasures to come, we see a hint of a smile on the acolytes’ faces (while the priest looks troubled, which is perhaps how it should be: “Guys, should we be doing this? What if someone sees me drinking this stuff? I have an important position in the community.”).
Even in the Americas mead was, and still is consumed. Prior to the Spanish conquest, the Maya made a drink called balché made by soaking the bark of a special tree in a honey-water mix and allowing it to ferment. Apparently, the Maya consumed balché in enema form to maximize its inebriating effect (just think if the Vikings had cottoned on to that …). For some reason, the Conquistadores banned the drink, but it never went away completely. Here is an Amerindian from the Chiapas region of Mexico making balché the old way: in a hollowed log, place the bark of the tree, add water and honey, cover and wait. Balché may be making a comeback, although one of the reasons the Spaniards didn’t like it is that it smelled foul to them. They popularized a variant, xtabentún, which replaced the tree bark with anise (they also added rum, which makes the drink more of a liqueur).
In a way, it’s not surprising that mead is drunk in so many parts of the world. Honey, its basic ingredient, is to be found pretty much everywhere on this planet, as this map of the global distribution of the honeybee attests (the different colours refer to sub-species of the honeybee; the pinkish colour, the most dominant, gives the range for apis mellifera).
For reasons that are not completely clear to me, the drinking of mead went into steep decline in Europe some time after the Middle Ages. Somehow, it got squeezed out by wine on one side and beer on the other. So now there are a few traditional hold-outs where mead never completely died out and enthusiasts like Wolfgang who are trying to bring mead back.
Coming back to Wolfgang, when June came around and my wife and I came up to Vienna for the summer, I contacted him. But one thing and another – he was away, then I was away; he was busy, then I was busy – meant that we weren’t able to arrange the mead tasting until last week. But it was finally arranged! Wolfgang keeps his mead in an old wine cellar in a small village outside Vienna, so we took a bus with him one evening and sallied forth. It was a lovely cellar, very deep, at the end of which he had a table with chairs where we sat down to do our mead tasting. He got us some glasses and a bottle of his best mead. He uncorked it, poured us a generous portion, and invited us to taste. We ceremonially picked up the glass, sniffed it, swirled it around, and took a sip.
It was … interesting. I think that’s the best I can say. I don’t know if readers can imagine this, but it tasted like honey without the sweet taste. What gets left behind if you take out the honey’s sweetness is a slightly acrid, slightly “waxy” taste. If any of my readers have ever nibbled at wax, that was the predominant taste of the mead.
The first mead we tried was made with honey where the bees had been feeding on the nectar from lime-tree (linden) flowers (I have waxed lyrical about the flower of the linden tree in a past post). We then tried a mead made with honey where the bees had feasted on rhododendron nectar up in the Alps. It was much clearer in colour, but the taste did not change much. As a finale, we tried a mead to which chokeberries had been added. These turned the mead’s colour redder and made the taste smokier – but it did not change the basic facts. Well, we bought two bottles from Wolfgang. We felt we owed him that for the trouble he had gone to. We plan to take the bottles down to Milan, where we’ll try them on our son and see what he thinks.
In the meantime – but I have to hide this from Wolfgang – I think we should find some sweet mead to try. I feel that despite Wolfgang’s tut-tutting, people are not so wrong to drink their mead sweet. And that Ethiopian mead looks really interesting! I wonder if the Ethiopian restaurant we go to in Milan has any?
I left readers at the end of my last post promising to cover the rest of our stay in Munich as well as our stay in Bregenz in another post. Well, I am a man of his word, here is that post!
In truth, the post will be more of a showing of photos than anything else, the e-equivalent of having your friends round for dinner after your latest holiday and boring them with your holiday snaps. I hope my readers will not be too bored and slip away early from this post …
With that, let us begin!
Well, I can’t say that I was carried away by the overall look and feel of the city. Pleasant enough, but Vienna for instance is a much more striking city overall. So what follows is a string of individual things that stuck in my mind as we criss-crossed the city.
The Nymphenburg Palace, the little summer pad of the Dukes-Kings-Electors of Bavaria.
It was once out in the countryside but is now in the suburbs of Munich. Considerably more dramatic than the Hapsburgs’ little summer pad at Schönbrunn (now also marooned in Vienna’s suburbs).
The outside may have been dramatic, but the palace’s interiors weren’t up to much. On the other hand, the interior of Amalienburg, a little hunting lodge hidden among the trees of the Palace’s park, was quite something.
“One of the finest examples of Rococo architecture in Germany” intones the Michelin Green Guide. I’m quite ready to believe it.
A riot of colour at the city’s botanical gardens, situated on the edge of Nymphenburg Palace’s park.
A striking painting by Alexej Jawlensky (Portrait of the Dancer Sacharoff), at Villa Lenbach, one of the museums we visited.
The museum has a whole section devoted to members of the Blaue Reiter group. A worthy collection indeed, but nothing other than this painting grabbed me.
Villa Lenbach also had a room devoted to paintings from after 1945, which is where I saw this one.
The Seated Man, by Jean Hélion, a French painter whom I had never, ever heard of prior to entering the Villa Lenbach. Well, you learn something new every day …
We also visited the Modern Art Gallery (Pinakothek der Moderne). Again, a very worthy collection, but only this painting by Max Beckmann (Dance in Baden-Baden) has stayed with me.
On our wanderings, we entered the Burgersaal church by mistake (I misread the map and thought we were visiting St. Michael’s church, “the first Renaissance church built north of the Alps” the Michelin Green Guide dixit – the serendipity of tourism).
The paintings on the ceiling were a pleasingly modernized take on an old art form.
The church is dedicated to Blessed Rupert Mayer (kneeling to the left on that ceiling painting), a priest who stood up to the Nazis. He was one of the very few German Catholics who did so …
The new main Jewish synagogue in St. Jakobs Platz in the old town.
The previous main synagogue was pulled down by the Nazis in 1938. We didn’t get to visit inside, but the brooding, rugged exterior was impressive enough. It reminded me of the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. The Jewish Museum next door was interesting, too, but more as a collection of memories of a community scythed down by the Nazis. Many were sent to Dachau, a mere 20 km to the north of Munich.
The Hofbräuhaus Beer Hall in the old town.
This was one of several such halls in Munich in which Hitler used to speak in the early days of his political career. I don’t know what I was expecting; a sense of menace or of dread in the air? No doubt I was influenced by a painting I had seen in Los Angeles’s County Museum of Art: The Orator, by Magnus Zeller.
The location of that painting could easily have been the Hofbräuhaus.
But all I saw were a lot of people enjoying a beer, and all I heard was a lot of cheerful babble.
And that’s it for Munich! Next stop:
I must confess that I was expecting more. Its location on Lake Constance, its venerable and ancient past (it was originally a Roman town by the name of Brigantium), all led me to think it would be an interesting place to visit. But no, there really wasn’t much to it, and what there was, was ruined by bad town planning: the railway station and a busy through road effectively cut the city off from the lake. So again, just a few photos of some individual places.
A view of the upper town, a charming and quiet little corner of the city.
That tower in the background with the squat onion dome is St. Martin’s Tower; this charming fresco is one of several which adorn its interior.
A view of the city and the lake from up a mountain outside the city. We discovered some beautiful walks in the mountains surrounding the city.
The spectacular set for the opera; it was the fact that our friend from Bregenz had extra tickets that brought us to the city in the first place.
The stage is a little way out in the lake, just off the shore, and the audience takes its place on seating put up along the shore. We were seeing Verdi’s Rigoletto, but the opera itself was completely overshadowed by the set. That giant head went up and down and turned this way and that, the eyes opened and closed, as did the mouth, people entered and exited the mouth, the hands moved, fluttering here and there, the tethered balloon went up and down … All this while the sun was setting over the lake and darkness came creeping up on us. It was jaw-dropping. Was the singing good? I don’t know, I was so concentrated on that head and its next move.
And that’s it for Bregenz!
I hope you’re still with me and that you enjoyed our holiday snaps. See you next time!
My wife and I were in Bolzano two weeks ago. For readers who are not familiar with Italy’s geography, that’s the main city of the Autonomous Province of Bolzano. This is a mainly German-speaking region of Italy in the Alps, wedged up against Austria.
Italians call it Alto Adige but many of its inhabitants call it South Tyrol, it having been part of the County of Tyrol since time immemorial; it was only prised away from the Austro-Hungarian Empire and given to Italy after the former collapsed at the end of the First World War. Over the last hundred years this fateful decision has led to much agitation, repression by the Italian State, and consequent acts of terrorism, although all the brouhaha has pretty much died down by now.
Fascinating as it is, the region’s history was not what brought us to Bolzano. It was Ötzi, the Stone Age mummy discovered in a glacier high up in the Ötzal Alps (hence the mummy’s nickname) nearly thirty years ago. Ever since a museum dedicated to him opened in Bolzano in 1998, I have been hankering to visit it. Our planned hiking trip to the valley next door (which will be the subject of my next post) gave me my chance to drop by Bolzano to look over Ötzi, and my wife – although not an Ötzi fan like me – was willing to come along.
Some words of introduction. Ötzi was discovered in September 1991 by a German couple who were hiking up in the Ötzal Alps. They were crossing the Tisenjoch Pass (Giogo di Tisa in Italian), where a small glacier is located. Climate change and a particularly hot summer had led to much shrinkage in the glacier and the couple spotted a body poking out through the ice.
They reported the matter to the owners of a mountain hut close by, who in turn reported it to the authorities – the initial assumption was that it must be the body of someone who had perished on a climb or hike. The man – as he turned out to be – died very close to the Italian-Austrian border. Initially, it was thought that the body’s location was in Austria and he was therefore taken down to Innsbruck (capital of the Austrian province of [northern] Tyrol) for examination. Later, after some careful measurements were made, it was concluded that he had actually been found within Italy, some 95 metres south of the border.
Under normal circumstances, if it had just been some poor bastard who had died on a hike or climb, this problem of which country he had actually been recovered in would not have been such a big deal. But it rapidly became apparent that the mummy was actually very, very old; it has since been calculated that Ötzi is some 5,000 years old. At that point, everyone began to see the dollar (or euro) signs
and the question about which country “owned” the mummy became vitally important. Luckily for the rest of the world, the issue was resolved by people who were actually “cousins”, whatever modern borders might say. The Governors of (Italian) Alto Adige/South Tyrol and (Austrian) Tyrol sat down around a table and (in German) hammered out an agreement. The scientists at Innsbruck (who were much better equipped anyway to study such an ancient mummy) would take the lead on all the scientific studies while the authorities in Bolzano would prepare the museum to house it. And so it was. In 1998, Ötzi was solemnly brought back from Innsbruck to his new home in Bolzano.
While all this had been going on, and in fact ever since Ötzi has been back in Bolzano, scientists from a multitude of disciplines have been busily at work on Ötzi as well as on all the things he was wearing or carrying. I have to say, these scientists seem to have squeezed poor old Ötzi and the tattered remnants of his clothes and equipment like a lemon; squeezed him so hard that his pips have squeaked as they say. But they have come up with an astonishing amount of information. Let me start, though, with a scientific work of art: a statue of what scientists believe Ötzi looked like, which now stands at the very end of the museum tour.
This work is scientific in that it has used the latest technology to measure Ötzi very precisely, to rebuild his bones, to cover those bones with muscles and skin, and then cover those with reconstitutions of his leggings and his shoes; it is artistic in that its creators have made Ötzi look incredibly human. They have given him an expression of someone you might just have met on the street and who is not completely sure who you are.
A few words about what we would have noticed about Ötzi if we had met him 5,000 years ago just before he died. He was about 160 cm (5 ft 3 in) tall (small by today’s standards, perhaps big by the standards of the day). His shoe size would have been an EU 38 (I will let readers translate that into whatever shoe size system they are familiar with; they can use this site, for instance, to do this). He weighed about 50 kilos (110 lbs), nicely within his BMI. He had brown eyes. He had dark hair. He was gap-toothed. His teeth in general were not in particularly good condition, badly worn down and with cavities (probably due to a diet based on heavily processed grains). As to his age when he died: about 45 – young by today’s standards, old by the standards of his time; the makers of the statue have made him look weatherbeaten, which he probably was. And he was tattooed; in all, he carried 61 tattoos on his body! This photo of the rear of the statue shows where he had some of them on his back.
As readers can see, they are not really decorative tattoos. From where they are found on Ötzi’s body, scientists believe that they probably had a therapeutic function; they were a way for Ötzi to deal with the aches and pains in his joints, an early form of acupuncture, especially since the tattoos are located along acupuncture lines still used today. For instance, scientists can see that his knee joints were well worn; I’m sure his knees ached as a result (something I can deeply sympathize with given the current state of my knees). So he had a good number of tattoos around his knees; I generally disapprove of tattoos but maybe I should try these kinds of tattoos around my knees …
From their high-tech prodding and probing, scientists have also discovered a number of things about Ötzi which you can’t see. The poor man had been sick several times in the last six months of his life; scientists can tell this from the Beau’s lines on his three remaining nails which they found (any readers who are doctors will no doubt understand this; it’s gibberish to me). He had worms – whipworms to be precise. This would have given him frequent bouts of painful diarrhea. He also had Lyme disease, while his clothes carried fleas. He had broken several ribs and his nose some time during his lifetime. His blood group was O positive. He was lactose intolerant. By rights, we should all be; it’s the “natural” default position for us humans in adulthood. But in Europe our herding culture and its dependence on milk products led to some of us eventually becoming lactose tolerant through a genetic mutation. Talking of mutations, Ötzi carried a rare genetic trait which meant that he was missing two ribs. His DNA links him to small populations of people living in remote parts of Sardinia and Corsica: testimony to his being part of the earlier populations of Europe which were later pushed aside by later immigrants.
It’s not just the man who has been thoroughly investigated, it’s also his clothes and equipment. What mainly transpires for me was that in today’s language, Ötzi was a completely sustainable guy. He relied heavily on animal hides for all his needs; scientists have identified bear skin, deer skin, goat skin. These were used not only for his clothes but also parts of his equipment (fascinating factoid: at least one of the hides which he used was tanned with bear brains and fat; better than the human carcinogen Chromium VI which is almost universally used nowadays). Animal sinews were used to sew the pieces of hide together (I’m no expert on sewing, but for those who are interested there are sites, e.g., this one, which explain the kind of sewing that was used). Grasses of various kinds were used to both make twine and as a thermal stuffing. Here is a close-up of the reconstituted leggings and shoes on the statue of Ötzi
while this photo shows the coat he was wearing – scientists think that the dark-pale-dark look was not serendipitous; it was a statement of some sort.
I’ll skip the weapons Ötzi was carrying except for one – his axe – which I will come back to in a minute. I find more fascinating the stuff he was carrying to make himself a fire: a fungus called tinder fungus. I’ve diligently read explanations of how to light a fire with a flint and some tinder fungus. It sounds easy, but I very much doubt it is. Unfortunately, making fires without matches is something they never taught me to do in the Scouts, and I am always fascinated by the apparent magic of people making fire from nothing. In such situations, I always think of Tom Hanks in the film Cast Away when he managed to start his first fire without matches: I can empathize with his sense of triumph at having cracked this problem.
And so we come to the great mystery of Ötzi’s death, the first murder that we know of. For it was murder: scientists discovered that an arrow had penetrated Ötzi just below his left shoulder. Someone shot him from behind. The arrowhead sliced through his subclavian artery, so medics have concluded that he would have bled out quite quickly. We can surmise that he dropped face down on his left arm (which was the position the mummy was found in) and died. From the depth of penetration, scientists estimate that the arrow was shot from 30 m (or 100 ft) away. That sounds to me like a pretty lucky shot. But then I’ve never tried killing anyone with a bow and arrow; maybe 30 m is no big deal for someone who is adept at using a bow and arrow. The fatal arrowhead is still in the mummy, but there was no sign of the arrow shaft, from which the scientists conclude that Ötzi’s killer pulled it out.
And now to the big question: Why? Why was Ötzi killed? Towards the end of the museum tour, visitors are invited to write down and submit their own theory about the reasons surrounding Ötzi’s death. My wife and I have been watching a lot of episodes from the British TV show Inspector Morse recently, whom we see here with his faithful sidekick Sergeant Lewis.
So I decided that this was an excellent opportunity to Think like Morse. Having sieved through the available facts, I have come up with the following story line:
A day or so before his death, Ötzi was involved in a vicious fracas with someone. We know this because scientists discovered a very deep cut between his thumb and forefinger as well as other cuts on his hands. These are typical of someone trying to protect themselves during a close-in fight involving weapons with a cutting edge, a knife attack for instance. I surmise that he successfully defended himself and in the process killed his assailant.
What was this deadly fracas about? “Cherchez la femme”, that’s what I say! As I already mentioned, Ötzi’s knee joints were well worn, indicating a lifestyle that required a lot of walking. This has led some scientists to suggest that he was a shepherd and so spent much of his time moving his flocks around the area’s Alpine pastures. I’m not convinced. The reason for that is his axe. The axe has a copper head; at the time of his death, this would have been a very rare, and therefore very valuable, item: until it was found it was thought that the Age of Metals had not yet started in Italy. So I conclude that he must have been a VIP of some sort. That in itself is not important to his murder, I believe. What is important is that his position required a lot of time away from home walking the mountains. My guess is that he returned home unexpectedly to find his wife canoodling with another man – or maybe his daughter. He got into a fight with the man and killed him. In the language of our time, it was an honour killing.
What next? There has been speculation that Ötzi was escaping when he was killed. That certainly could fit my story; it is not unusual in cases of honour killing for the murderer to quickly go into hiding until passions have subsided. But Ötzi doesn’t seem to have been in a hurry on his last journey. Scientists can tell that Ötzi’s deep cut to his hand occurred a day or so before his death, so he clearly hung around for a while before leaving. They also have figured out that he had quite a heavy meal about an hour before he died: not the behaviour one would expect from a man on the run. So I surmise that after putting his house in order Ötzi headed out again calmly, without a sense that his life was in danger. How wrong he was!
In my scenario, the family of the man he killed vowed revenge. I also posit that they didn’t live in the same village as Ötzi, so it took a while for the news to reach them, which explains why there wasn’t an immediate reaction. I also think that they couldn’t be too open about wanting revenge because of Ötzi’s VIP position. So they hurried over in secret, discovered that he had already left, and hurried after him. They caught up with him at the Pass. Maybe he saw them coming, realized what was happening, and started running, which would explain the decision to take a long bow shot before he disappeared over the horizon. After checking he was dead and pulling out the arrow shaft from where it was buried below his left shoulder, Ötzi’s killers then hurried back to their village, leaving him where he fell. If Ötzi was always traveling, it could have been a while before his family realized something was wrong, by which time early summer snows had already covered the body and hidden it from view – and started the long, slow process of mummification (by the way, scientists know it was early summer when he died because of the types of pollen that he swallowed with his last meal: such clever fellows, these scientists …).
There you have it, ladies and gentlemen, my theory on Ötzi’s untimely death! If you are not convinced, I suggest you find time one day to visit his museum in Bolzano to come up with your own theories. Or you can just read the wealth of stuff on the net about it all – Ötzi has created a veritable cottage industry around his life and death.
Whatever you do, though, spare a thought for poor old Ötzi, who is now hardly visible anymore in his own museum, lying as he is in a specially-created cold cell recreating the conditions he lay in for 5,000 years in the Tisenjoch Glacier, visible only through a small window.