This post was going to be about the oleander, but as often happens when I surf the web I disappeared down some fascinating rabbit holes along the way. So while I will discuss the oleander I will also throw in a couple of disparate facts linked more or less tenuously to the oleander.
First the oleander. The walks which my wife and I have been taking recently on the Ligurian coast have led us past many an example of this fine plant, whose showy red and pink flowers have lit up our way, especially when we have been traversing urban sections of our walks.
As usual, after quietly enjoying at this display from Nature, I looked to the plant’s history, to see where it had originally come from (not believing for a minute that it could be native to Liguria). What I found was, I suppose, a testimony to its enduring attraction to humans as well as to its toughness and endurance: enduring attraction to humans because it’s been domesticated for such a long time that no-one can make out its original home – South to South-West Asia seems to the best guess; toughness and endurance because even when taken out of its native habitat it has survived and thrived and created new homes for itself – here is a picture of oleander which has gone native in northern Israel, growing along the side of streams.
It has gone similarly native in many places, from Portugal and Morocco in the west to Yunnan in China in the east.
Its toughness and endurance has made it a popular plant to use in unforgiving environments, like the median strips of highways: you can’t get much tougher than that – poor, stony soil, little water, fumes from the passing cars, collection point for all the rubbish that people throw out of their cars, or that drop off their cars. As a bonus, it almost makes highways look pretty.
One of the first things that struck me when I went to Sicily was the oleander bushes along the highways there, the flowers turning what was really a very sterile environment into a pleasure to look at as the car whizzed down the highway.
The only other thing to note about oleander is its poisonous effects on humans and other animals. Every part of the plant is poisonous: in a word, beautiful but deadly. A couple of books have had as plot devices the murder of someone with oleander. For me, the best is Dragonwyck, not so much for the book as for the 1946 film made from the book. It has Vincent Price, a slimy smoothie if there ever was one, who does in his wife with oleander. We have him here staring broodingly at the fatal oleander plant.
Actually, oleander’s deadliness has been exaggerated. It’s not really that bad. Very few people have certifiably died from ingesting oleander. The worst that normally happens is that you feel horribly sick, you vomit, you get diarrhea … I’m sure I don’t have to spell it out, readers get the picture.
And that’s it, really, for the oleander. Now I can turn to the rabbit holes I fell down!
The first is related to the plant’s effects on humans. But I must start with a little bit of context. I want to take my readers to Delphi, in Greece.
Now the place is just a mass of romantic ruins, but in its heyday, from about 600 BCE to about 200 CE was really famous in the Ancient World, a place to go to if you wanted divine advice about something important to you: should our city go to war with our neighbour? should we start a new colony? or, on a more personal level, should I marry her? The temple there was dedicated to the god Apollo, and one of the temple’s priestesses, the Pythia, would answer your question. After offering a splendid goat for sacrifice and paying a suitable tribute (there’s no such thing as a free lunch), supplicants would be led down into the inner sanctum of the temple, this dark small room, where they would find the Pythia sitting on a tripod and flanked by a couple of priests. The tripod was placed across a cleft in the floor through which vapours or fumes would be rising and enveloping the Pythia. She would be holding a branch of laurel in one hand (the laurel was sacred to Apollo) and a small basin of clear water from a nearby sacred stream in the other. Rustling the laurel branch and gazing into the basin of water, she would answer your question. Here is the scene depicted on the bottom of an ancient Greek drinking cup, the supplicant to the right, the Pythia to the left.
Now, this was not like having a pleasant conversation with someone. The Pythia would be “her hair stood on end, her complexion changed, her heart beat hard, her bosom swelled, and her voice became seemingly more than human”. Here is a much more satisfyingly dramatic rendering, painted by a certain John Collier in 1891, of what the Pythia might have looked like.
The whole experience must have been quite unnerving and overpowering for the supplicants. On top of it, the answer they got was often quite cryptic, leaving the supplicants scratching their heads trying to understand the true meaning of what Apollo had told them through the Pythia.
Why am I recounting all this? Because there has been considerable discussion about how the Pythia got herself all worked up. What was she eating, drinking, or smoking to get herself into that state? Some of the ancient sources say that the Pythia was chewing laurel leaves. But as we all know – bay leaves, which are actually laurel leaves, being used in cooking – laurel leaves don’t have any effect on someone who eats them. Which is where oleander comes in. The Greeks were rather slipshod in their use of the name “laurel”, using it to denote several plants including the oleander (the leaves of the oleander and the laurel do look quite similar). So one clever chap has suggested that the Pythia was actually chewing oleander leaves, which could indeed give you all the symptoms the Pythias exhibited.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the vapours and fumes emanating from the cleft under the Pythia’s seat (and which are very evident in the painting by John Collier). Some have argued that it could have been these that (also) set the Pythia off. Given that Delphi sits on two geological faults which cross each other, it is thought in certain circles that the cleft which the Pythia sat astride was a natural opening into the bowels of the Earth. There has therefore been much discussion about what naturally formed fumes and vapors could have been seeping out from the Earth’s interior and been having this effect on the Pythia – ethylene? benzene? something else? – but it’s all been quite inconclusive. The above-mentioned clever chap suggests what seems to me a much simpler solution, that maybe under the room where the Pythia sat was another room, connected to the former through the cleft, and in which a priest was burning oleander leaves. By inhaling these fumes the Pythia was adding to the effects from chewing the leaves.
That’s one interesting rabbit hole connected to the oleander.
The other involves Hiroshima. As I would hope everyone knows, the first atom bomb ever dropped came down on Hiroshima on 6 August 1945. Here is a picture of the dreaded mushroom cloud which formed over the city.
The city was totally devastated. Here are a few pictures of what the city looked like in the days and months after the dropping of the bomb.
The city’s botanical gardens were not spared. So bad was the destruction that the garden’s directors thought that nothing would grow there again for decades. Yet lo and behold, the year after the bomb was dropped the oleanders in the gardens grew out from their blasted roots and flowered! The oleanders became a symbol of hope for Hiroshima’s citizens, convincing them that the city could be reborn even after this terrible catastrophe – as indeed it has. Ever since, the oleander has been the city’s official flower.
I’ve become a bit of a cynic in my old age, but this little story does warm the cockles of my heart.
In the recent hikes which my wife and I have been doing, we’ve come across a lot of these.
“These” are woodland strawberries. I throw in here a much more professional photo of this plant, to give readers a better view.
The fact is, though, that they are really very small, no more than half a centimetre across, as this photo of a whole sheet of them shows: they are just bright red dots against the green of the leaves.
Those bright red dots always catch my eye as we walk along. From time to time, I’ve picked one of the bigger ones and eaten it. They are pretty bland, I have to say. Their taste is really nothing to write home (or a post) about.
Which – as I tramped along – got me thinking: who were the people who laboured so hard to turn these small, not very tasty berries into the big, juicy and wonderfully sweet berries that we eat today?
Readers of my posts will know that I have a fondness of saluting the almost always anonymous folk who over the millennia have coaxed tasty foodstuffs which we eat today out of small and not so tasty wild plants. The last such foodstuff whose creation I have saluted is the common chicory. I decided to do the same thing for the strawberry. And so I have been beavering away on my computer these last few weeks, surfing the web and seeing what I could find.
The first thing I found was that I had been completely wrong. Today’s strawberries do not descend from those little woodland strawberries we had been spotting on our walks. They are not the result of countless generations of rural people patiently selecting woodland strawberry plants with ever sweeter and ever bigger fruits. The story of today’s plump and juicy strawberries is much more complex. They are actually the result of Europe having colonised much of the rest of the planet.
But let me start where all good stories start, at the beginning. It is true that Europeans had at one time domesticated woodland strawberries. Perhaps the Romans had done so, but if they did these domesticates were lost during the Dark Ages. Medieval Europeans certainly started domesticating them. King Charles V of France, for instance, has his gardeners transplant 1,200 woodland strawberry plants into his gardens some time in the late 1300s. Europeans also started domesticating the other species of strawberries which are found in Europe, the musk, or hautbois, strawberry, which is somewhat bigger than the woodland strawberry
and the creamy strawberry, which as its name suggests can be quite pale; it’s about the same size as the woodland strawberry.
It’s hard to tell from surviving documents, but Medieval and Renaissance gardeners do seem to have created strains of strawberries which were bigger and sweeter than their wild cousins. But by “bigger” I mean something as big as a plump blackberry, no more than that.
Then started the period of European colonisation. In the Americas this led to, among other things, the transfer of a wealth of new foodstuffs to Europe, a phenomenon I’ve touched upon in a couple of past posts. Maize, tomato, and potato are probably the most well known of these arrivals from the Americas. Like these three, most of the new foodstuffs came from Central and South America, but a few also made their way from North America. The best known of these is the sunflower, while I recently wrote a post about another, more modest transfer from North America, the Jerusalem artichoke. And now I have discovered that there was yet another transfer from North America: the Virginian (or scarlet) strawberry! This species of strawberry grows throughout much of North America, but it was of course first seen by Europeans in the colonies strung along the eastern seaboard.
These colonists must have been quite pleased to have this new strawberry plant at hand. We’re still not talking of berries the size of those we’re now used to – its berries were about the same size as those of the European musk strawberry. But no doubt they would have seen them as a useful adjunct to their diet.
When exactly someone brought plants of the Virginia strawberry back to Europe is not clear – the early 1600s seem to be the most probable time frame. And what country they brought them back to is not clear either – the British, French and Dutch all had colonies in the strawberry’s range, so any of these three countries could have been the original entry point, and maybe the plant was introduced into Europe more than once. Wherever its entry point (or points) was, the Virginia strawberry didn’t spread that quickly through the rest of Europe. It seems to have been more of a curiosity, and certainly didn’t replace the European species with which people were familiar.
While the French, British, and Dutch were busy colonising North America, the Spaniards were busy colonising Central and South America. In South America, they first smashed the Inca Empire. Then they turned their attention further southward. It made strategic sense for them to control the whole of the Pacific seaboard down to the Straits of Magellan, to keep an eye on other pesky European nations coming through those straits for who knows what nefarious reasons. So they went on to conquer what is now Chile. In the south of Chile, the Spaniards encountered the Mapuche and Huilliche peoples, who put up a stiff resistance but who were eventually overcome and subjugated.
The Spaniards discovered that these two tribes had domesticated another local species of strawberry, the Chilean (or beach) strawberry. And in this case the berry was pretty damned big!
The Spanish colonists were very happy to add the Chilean strawberry to their local diet, to the point that it was commonly available in local markets in the new Spanish towns of southern Chile. It remained, however, a local delicacy. If anyone ever tried to bring back plants to Spain, there is no sign of them having succeeded.
So things stood until 1712. In that year, King Louis XIV of France sent a certain Amédée François Frézier on a secret mission to Chile. We have here a portrait of Frézier in old age, after a long and successful career.
His orders were to find out all he could about the Spanish military presence there: forts, harbours, military units, and so on (this was part of Louis XIV’s ongoing struggles with Spain). For nearly two years, Frézier followed his orders most diligently, posing as a merchant looking for trading opportunities. But Frézier was a man of many interests, one of these being botany. Naturally enough, the Chilean strawberry, with its very big fruit, caught his attention. As he was to write later:
They there cultivate entire fields of a type of strawberry differing from ours by their rounder leaves, being fleshier and having strong runners. Its fruit are usually as large as a whole walnut, and sometimes as a small egg. They are of a whitish-red colour and a little less delicate to the taste than our woodland strawberries.
Frézier determined to bring some plants back with him when he returned to France. So it was that when in 1714 he finally boarded the ship which would be taking him home, he took five plants of the Chilean strawberry with him, and managed to keep alive on the long – and hot – trip home. When he arrived in France, he kept one of the plants for himself and sent the others to various friends and patrons. News of this new species of strawberry quickly made the rounds among Europe’s little circle of amateur botanists, especially after Frézier’s book was published in which he gave a detailed account of his doings in Chile and included a description of this strawberry plant with such large fruits. Strawberry plants are easy to propagate, so not only did news about the Chilean strawberry get around; so did clones of the various plants he brought back. Anyone with a serious botanical garden had to have the plant in their collection!
Alas! Great disappointment lay in store for many of those eminent botanists who planted the Chilean strawberry in their garden and eagerly awaited it to flower and – especially – to fruit (“usually as large as a whole walnut, and sometimes as a small egg”, Frézier had written). For the most part, their plants yielded nothing – nada, zero! They began to think that maybe the plant’s transfer to Europe had made it sterile.
Here, with the advantage of hindsight, I shall cut through all the intellectual confusion that pervaded the minds of Europe’s finest botanists for several decades. The fundamental problem was this: they hadn’t realized that some species of plants are hermaphrodites, and so can self pollinate, while in other species there are separate male and female plants, so both have to be present – and relatively close to each other – for pollination to occur. It just so happens that all the European species of strawberries are hermaphrodites, as is the Virginian strawberry, but the Chilean strawberry is not. There are both male and female plants in that species. Frézier must have taken only plants which were fruiting, and therefore females. This was sensible enough, given his (and everyone else’s) knowledge of strawberries; he wanted to be sure that the plants he nicked were fertile. But what this meant is that there was no way that those poor female Chilean strawberry plants, along with their clones which all the botanists were busy sending each other, were ever going to fruit in Europe without a male plant handy. This mystery was finally elucidated in the early 1760s by a young Frenchman called Antoine Nicolas Duchesne, who had a fascination for natural history. He was lucky to have access to King Louis XV’s gardens at Versailles and to be mentored by the “Assistant Demonstrator of the Exterior of Plants at the King’s Garden”, Bernard de Jussieu. After making a detailed study of strawberries, he explained all in his book Histoire naturelle des fraisiers published in 1766, when he was a mere 19 years old! Here is picture of him in old age.
But actually there was a way to make the Chilean strawberry produce berries! The discovery had been made some time in the first half of the 1700s by those anonymous farmers whom I love to salute. While all those well-off, educated botanists were tearing their hair out at the Chilean strawberry’s obdurate refusal to fruit, they had found a way to coax it to do so – by interplanting the plants with either Virginian strawberry plants or musk strawberry plants. The pollens of these species were closely related enough to that of the Chilean strawberry to pollinate it. Presumably, by chance a farmer (or his wife) had planted these various species close together in their strawberry patch, had seen that the Chilean strawberry fruited under these conditions, and were sharp enough to draw the right conclusion. Who exactly these clever farmers were will of course never be known. But the chances are that it was one or more farmers from around the French city of Brest, in Brittany (Frézier was posted to Brittany on his return from Chile, which probably explains this Breton connection), although it could (also) have been farmers in the Netherlands.
And what fruits they were! Big, juicy, sweet – everything that Frézier had said of the strawberries he had eaten in Chile. Further experimentation showed that the two species from the Americas, the Virginian strawberry and the Chilean strawberry, gave birth to a fertile hybrid, which could be grown as a separate species. On top of this, this hybrid was hermaphroditic so no need for all that fiddly stuff of making sure to plant males and females together! This hybrid is the garden strawberry, the modern strawberry eaten all around the world today.
An industry was created, which currently produces some 9 million tonnes of garden strawberries per year, (with – sign of the times – 40% of that being in China).
And what of the strawberries which this hunking hybrid of a strawberry displaced? The woodland strawberry has disappeared back into the woods from whence it came and where I found it at the beginning of this post. As far as I can tell, the same fate has befallen the Virginian strawberry. There is apparently still a small but devoted following of the musk strawberry in gourmet circles in Italy (of which my wife and I are clearly not part since no restaurant in this country has ever offered us this delicacy). And the Chilean strawberry is still eaten in certain parts of southern Chile.
And what of the other species of strawberries? Because there are something like 15 other species of strawberries around the world. Not surprisingly (strawberry plants liking cool to cold conditions), most of these are native to northern Eurasia, in an arc going from western Siberia to northern Japan. But a number are also to be found in the high areas of western China, all the way from Qinghai in the north to Yunnan in the south. A couple of species are also found in the Himalayas proper. There is even one species which inhabits the hill country of southern India and the mountainous regions of the Philippines.
A good few of these species don’t produce a fruit worth eating. Others do, but the steamroller of the garden strawberry hybrid has meant that they have never had a chance to develop commercially. They are only eaten locally. This is especially true in China. I find that a pity. Rather than becoming the biggest global producer of what is essentially an American hybrid, China should look to its own strawberries and bring them to its people, and to the rest of the world. Just a thought.
As for me and my wife, I think we should plan an enormously long hike from Yunnan to Qinghai, sampling the local strawberries along the way. That would certainly keep us busy for quite a while …
All the walks my wife and I do around Lake Como (and now Lake Maggiore, to change a bit) start in an urban setting. We take trains, or buses, or boats, to get to our starting points and we are perforce dropped off in small towns or villages. In the last couple of weeks, as we have walked up through the back roads of these towns or villages to get to the woods and meadows above them, we have noticed a marvelous thing: whole walls of the sweetest smelling jasmine.
This person has even made a tunnel covered in jasmine (I’m guessing it’s the garage).
The scent of so much jasmine has quite gone to my head and my fingers have automatically begun doing a little research on the flower.
Truth to tell, I already did a little research on jasmine for an earlier post, when I researched the only perfume of my wife’s which I have ever liked: Chance Eau Fraîche, by Chanel. One of its ingredients is jasmine oil.
As I noted in that post, there are a large number of different species of jasmine. Some 200 have been catalogued, and who knows how many more are out there waiting to be discovered. My guess, though, is that those walls of jasmine which we have been passing are Jasminum officinale, the common, or white, or summer, or poet’s jasmine (and that’s just the English names).
The logic for my choice is simple: it’s the most common jasmine in Europe.
But it’s not native to Europe. In fact, there is only one species of jasmine which is native to Europe, and only the Mediterranean part of Europe at that, the common yellow jasmine.
Even in this case it’s difficult to say it’s a European flower. Its range stretches all the way to northern Iran.
The biggest “hotspot” of jasmine species is actually in South and Southeast Asia, although the west of China, especially Yunnan, hosts quite a few species. A number of species are present in Central Asia, but I suspect they may have been carried there from the Indian subcontinent. Australia is home to a few species, I suppose as a southward extension of their presence in Southeast Asia. And then there’s a good dozen species in Africa, especially southern Africa. To complete this world tour, no jasmine species are native to the Americas, alas.
If the jasmine my wife and I are seeing is not native to Europe, how did it get here? It seems that common jasmine, along with a couple of other jasmine species – sambac (or Arabian) jasmine, and Spanish (or Royal, or Catalan) jasmine – originally entered Europe via Sicily and Spain, when these were Arabian kingdoms: common and sambac jasmines through Sicily, and Spanish jasmine through (appropriately enough) Spain. Since I inserted a picture of the common jasmine earlier, I feel I owe it to these two other species to insert a picture of them too:
But none of these jasmines were native to the Arabian-dominated lands either. The Arabs had discovered them even further to the east and had brought the flowers back to their homelands. They brought common jasmine back from Persia after they conquered it (a similar post-conquest westward transfer occurred with the lilac, as I narrated in an earlier post). In fact, the European name “jasmine” is a corruption of the flower’s Arabic name, which is itself a corruption of the Persian name for the flower, Yasameen, which means “gift from God” (such poets, the Persians!). And it’s possible that the Persians had come across the flower further east still. As for sambac and Spanish jasmines, it seems that trade, not conquest, brought them westwards, in the holds of the ships of Arab traders doing business with the Indian subcontinent.
Jasmines didn’t just ride westwards on trade routes. Common jasmine and sambac jasmine also rode on them out to the east, into China (another result of the ancient trade routes across the Eurasian continent – the “Silk Roads” – about which I’ve written previously). Here, too, the Chinese adopted the Persian name: Yeh-hsi-ming.
It’s interesting that the Chinese felt the need to import jasmines, given that they had quite a few of their own. Perhaps it was the pure white colour of these imported jasmines which attracted the Chinese – many of their jasmines are yellow as far as I can tell; I throw in a photo of one of the more common Chinese jasmines, winter jasmine.
By the way, it’s called winter jasmine because it actually flowers from November to March. In fact, its Chinese name, Yingchun, means “the flower that welcomes Spring” (the Chinese, too, can be quite poetic). This quirk has meant that winter jasmine has now also been carried off to many a corner of the world.
But coming back to the jasmines imported into China, no doubt their heady scent helped too; perhaps they had a stronger scent than the native species. Or perhaps it was these jasmines’ close links with Buddhist ritual (something which the early Indian Buddhists had no doubt picked up from the Hindus). Anyone who has been to a Buddhist (or Hindu) temple in South and South-East Asia will have noticed the liberal use they make of jasmine flowers.
By this reasoning, the use of these jasmines entered into China along with Buddhism, something else which was transported along trade routes (I have written earlier about a slightly different botanical story, the cooption by Chinese Buddhists of the ginkgo tree as a replacement for the bo-tree tree so beloved of South Asian Buddhists).
No doubt the Arabs were attracted by the colour of the jasmines (white seems to symbolise purity in so many cultures). But they were assuredly also attracted by their scent (which, I have to say, is indeed sublime). The name “sambac” points to this. It is a corruption of the Medieval Arabic term “zanbaq”, which means jasmine oil. As attested by the perfume Chance Eau Fraîche, which I mentioned earlier, the modern thirst for jasmine oil in perfumery is as great as it was in the Arabian kingdoms – actually far greater, since there are so many billions more of us on this planet now. Here is a field of jasmine flowers in Grasse, in the south of France, waiting for their oils to be extracted (a field owned, by the way, by Chanel).
But there is so little oil in each flower! As many as 8,000 flowers will have perished to produce this little, 1ml vial of jasmine oil (jasmine absolute, in the jargon of perfumery).
Perhaps the way the Chinese use jasmine to scent tea is a little more “humane”. I watched a no-nonsense Chinese video on the making of jasmine tea. Cutting out all the marketing bla-bla, they mix together about an equal measure of tea (usually green tea) and jasmine buds (common or sambac), they let the mixture sit for a while so that the tea leaves get impregnated with the jasmine’s scent, and then they dry it. The result looks something like this.
In truth, I’m not a great fan of jasmine tea. I like the scent of the flower on the air, but the scent of it in tea I find rather sickly. But perhaps this is because I have never had a really high-quality jasmine tea. I am ready to be pleasantly surprised one day.
Is it possible that such lovely flowers with such a delightful scent could have an evil side? Alas, it is possible: some species of jasmine have been declared invasive species in a couple of countries and are subject to eradication programmes. It is not the fault of the jasmines. It is our desire to fill our gardens with foreign flowers that is to blame. Take Brazilian jasmine, a lovely member of the family.
For starters, it’s not Brazilian at all. It’s one of the African jasmines, no doubt taken to Brazil from one of Portugal’s African colonies (remember that the Americas have no native jasmines; perhaps a colonial administrator wanted to enliven his garden in Brazil). In the 1920s, the “Brazilian” jasmine was imported into Florida. Initially, it was planted in people’s gardens, but inevitably – as I’ve recounted in other posts in the case of other invasive species – the “Brazilian” jasmine “jumped over” the garden fence and began to spread. It has now invaded intact, undisturbed hardwood forests in the south of Florida, where it can climb high into the tree canopy, completely enshrouding native vegetation and reducing native plant diversity. Here is a picture of this jasmine at work in the forests of Florida.
I was thinking about this this afternoon as my wife and I were walking high up in the hills. We were surrounded by beautiful wild flowers of all descriptions. Why do gardeners have to fill their gardens with foreign flowers when there are so many beautiful ones right on their doorstep? Another mystery to be solved one day.
Well, the evening is drawing in. It’s time for me to get ready to test something. I’ve read that the jasmine flower opens at night, so the scent is most powerful then. I shall persuade my wife to accompany me on a hunt for a wall – or just a modest bush – of jasmine, to see if this is true. I shall report back.
In these days of Covid-19, when the rules here in Italy forbid us from traveling from one region of the country to another, my wife and I have been cut off from the usual hikes we do at this time of the year along the sea in Liguria. We’ve had to make do with hikes in Lombardy, which in practice has meant hiking along the edges of Lake Como. Not that we’re complaining (too much), it’s a beautiful part of the world to be hiking in. Anyway, a week or so ago, my wife and I decided to retrace our steps along one of the segments of the Wayfarer’s Trail which we had first attempted back in January (for any readers who are interested, I mention our hikes along the Wayfarer’s Trail in an earlier post). Towards the end of the walk we passed through a small village called Corenno Plinio, which lies just north of a somewhat larger village by the name of Dervio, where we were planning to catch the train to go back home.
The last time we passed through Corenno Plinio, back in January, the light had been failing and we were in a hurry to get to Dervio station before dark. So we had ignored the village’s sights and pressed on. And quite some sights there are, to whit a castle from the 14th Century, a little church from the late 12th-early 13th Century attached to the castle, plus the winding cobbled streets of what was once a Medieval village huddling under the castle’s protective walls. This time, with the days being considerably longer, we decided to take a little break when we hit Corenno Plinio and at least visit the church.
For such a little church, it was quite a treat. Before we even went inside, there were three funerary monuments, dating from the 13th and 14th Centuries, to inspect. Readers can see two of them in the photo above. As for the interior of the church, there were some charming frescoes from the 14th Centuries on both walls of the nave. I particularly liked this Adoration of the Wise Men.
Opposite the Wise Men was a fresco with Saints Gotthard (he of the Gotthard Pass in the Alps) and Apollonia.
I’ve mentioned Saint Gotthard in an earlier post, but I had never come across Saint Apollonia before. For those of my readers who are not up to speed on their Christian martyrology, Saint Apollonia was one of a group of virgin martyrs from Alexandria who was caught up in a riot by the Alexandrian mob against Christians in the early 200s AD. In her case, the mob pulled out her teeth. This explains that mean-looking fellow who is shoving a large pair of pliers into the her mouth (she is, by the way, the patroness of dentistry, which I find highly appropriate; I feel just like that painting every time I sit in my dentist’s chair).
Further along the same wall, there was this line of apostles. I rather liked their piercing gaze.
The only one I recognized was the one holding the knife. That’s Saint Bartholomew, who met with a particularly hideous end by being flayed alive (readers who are interested in knowing more can read my post on him).
And then, next to the apostles, there was this bishop.
It is St. Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, slain on 29 December 1170 in his cathedral. In fact, I discovered, my wife and I were in the Church of St. Thomas of Canterbury.
Well! It gave me a little turn to find a church dedicated to this oh, so English saint on the shores of Lake Como. I had learned about him in my history classes many, many years ago in primary school. At University I had read T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral and Jean Anouilh’s Honour of God, plays which both explored his tortuous relationship with his king, Henry II. It seemed such an English story. Why would the Italians be interested in Thomas Becket?
For any of my readers who might not know his story, it is quickly told. Born into a London merchant family, Thomas rose to become Chancellor to Henry II. He served the king faithfully, but more than that, he and the king were genuinely friends. When the Archbishop of Canterbury died, Henry had the bright idea of putting Thomas up for the post. He thought Thomas would enthusiastically implement his agenda of strengthening royal powers at the expense of the Church’s. Henry felt – with some merit, I would say – that the Church was too powerful and independent: a state within a state, as it were. But the moment Thomas became Archbishop, he became a zealous defender of the Church’s independence and prerogatives. Not surprisingly, Henry was outraged and relations between the two men soured rapidly, to the point where Thomas finally fled England and sought the protection of the French king. For six long years thereafter, the two men brought to bear against each other all the punitive measures in their power short of violence. Finally a peace, or rather an armed truce, was negotiated and Thomas came back to England. But just before he landed, he excommunicated three bishops for reasons which are not completely apparent. When Henry heard the news, he flew into a towering rage and is said to have cried out, “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” Actually, he is more likely to have shouted, “What miserable drones and traitors have I nourished and brought up in my household, who let their lord be treated with such shameful contempt by a low-born cleric?”, which I feel sounds rather better. In any event, four knights (who play a major role in Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral) interpreted this royal outburst as an invitation if not an order to act. They immediately saddled up and left for Canterbury.
When they arrived, they placed their weapons under a tree outside the cathedral before entering to challenge Thomas, who was on his way to Vespers. They demanded that he submit to the king’s will and come with them to Winchester to give an account of his actions. Thomas of course refused. The knights then rushed out, grabbed their weapons, and rushed back inside, shouting “Where is Thomas Becket, traitor to the King and country?!”. When they found him, one knight grabbed him and tried to pull him outside, but Thomas held fast to a pillar. One eyewitness, who was wounded in the attack, wrote this about what happened next: “…the impious knight… suddenly set upon him and shaved off the summit of his crown which the sacred chrism consecrated to God… Then, with another blow received on the head, he remained firm. But with the third, the stricken martyr bent his knees and elbows, offering himself as a living sacrifice, saying in a low voice, “For the name of Jesus and the protection of the church I am ready to embrace death.” But the third knight inflicted a grave wound on the fallen one; with this blow… his crown, which was large, separated from his head so that the blood turned white from the brain yet no less did the brain turn red from the blood; it purpled the appearance of the church… The fifth – not a knight but a cleric who had entered with the knights… placed his foot on the neck of the holy priest and precious martyr and (it is horrible to say) scattered the brains with the blood across the floor, exclaiming to the rest, “We can leave this place, knights, he will not get up again!””
Well!! That is a most satisfyingly dramatic end to a story of a Medieval bromance gone terribly, horribly wrong.
It may have been a very English story (although in truth the French were a good deal involved, as was the papacy), but this hideous murder, in a cathedral of all places, of the highest prelate in the land of all people, apparently on the orders of a king of all things, sent shock waves around Europe. Not only was it a damned good yarn, to be declaimed to a rapt audience around the evening fire, but it contained – for Medieval Europeans steeped in Christianity – the elements of sacrilege: murder in the holiest of places, of Christ’s highest representative in England. A delicious shiver of horror must have travelled up every Medieval European spine when the spines’ owners heard the tale, and many signs of the cross must have been rapidly made and prayers breathlessly uttered to keep the devil at bay.
The fallout was immediate and immense. Almost overnight, the spot where Thomas was murdered became a place of pilgrimage. The Church made the most of it and had Thomas canonized in the record time of two and a bit years. The murderers fled to safety in Yorkshire, but eventually gave themselves up and submitted to a heavy penance. As for Henry, like any modern politician he tried to distance himself from the whole affair and urged everyone to move on, but like all modern electorates no-one really believed him and didn’t want to move on. So he made peace with the Pope, swearing to go on a crusade (a promise he never kept), and scaling back some of his more anti-Church policies. And he bought off the Becket family by making Thomas’s sister the abbess of a rich nunnery. But it wasn’t enough. When his three surviving sons, Geoffrey, Richard the Lionheart, and John Lacklands, along with his estranged wife Eleanor of Aquitaine, rebelled against him, Henry found the rebels were supported by many people who were still shocked by the murder of Thomas. Henry’s difficult relations with his wife and sons is recounted in the play Lion in Winter – I show here Christopher Walken in the first production of the play in 1966 (for no better reason than my wife is a great fan of Walken).
So Henry decided that more extreme measures were required. In 1174, four and a half years after Thomas’s murder, he went to Canterbury, publicly confessed his sins, and then received five blows from a rod from each bishop present, and three blows from each of the 80 monks of Canterbury Cathedral (that seems an awful lot of blows, but I’m sure they went easy on him; I mean, how hard would you hit a king?). Then Henry offered gifts to Thomas’s shrine and spent a night at vigil at his tomb (which is where Anouihl’s Honour of God starts).
In the rest of Europe, scores of churches were dedicated to the now Saint Thomas of Canterbury, the little church in Corenno Plinio being one of them, and some wonderful artwork was created recording scenes of his life and death. In truth, his death seems to have excited artists (and no doubt their patrons) much more than his life. That seems perfectly in keeping with an age which enjoyed seeing paintings of St. Apollonia having her teeth pulled out and St. Bartholomew being flayed alive. In any case, let me run through a selection of these artworks, starting from the moment Thomas was consecrated archbishop.
This panel, of alabaster, was made in the second half of the 15th Century and was originally brightly painted. Many such panels were produced in England – the country was famous for them – and exported all around Europe.
Here, in a contemporary manuscript, we have Thomas now arguing with Henry.
In this other manuscript from the 1220s, the relationship between the two men has completely broken down and Thomas is excommunicating some of the king’s men.
This second alabaster panel shows the moment when peace was made and Thomas finally came back to England.
And now, the moment we’ve all been waiting for, Thomas’s murder in the cathedral, in full technicolor.
From a psalter made in East Anglia in the mid-thirteenth century:
A fresco from the late 12th century in the Church of Saints John and Paul, in Spoleto, Italy.
From a reliquary, also of the late 12th Century, decorated with champlevé enamel. It was made in Limoges, France, which was a centre for this kind of work in Europe (I mention another wonderful piece of enamel work, this time made in the north of France, in an earlier post).
Finally, we have Thomas, now St. Thomas, joining the pantheon of saints in heaven, in a mosaic from the late 12th Century in the apse of the Cathedral of Monreale in Sicily (a church which I have mentioned at some length in a previous post). This is a wide view of a rows of saints on the apse’s wall – Thomas is the one in green to the right of the window.
Here is a closer view of him, in the company of Saint Sylvester.
Once all the fuss died down, what happened? I think the fashion of dedicating churches to Thomas died away, but Canterbury became a high place of European pilgrimage, rather like Compostella in Spain is today. I’m sure there were many people who went on pilgrimages for religious reasons. But I’m sure there were just as many who went for the fun of it – Medieval Europe’s equivalent to our mass tourism of today. Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, written in the late 1300s, supports this. It follows a party of pilgrims on their way to Canterbury. To pass the time, they regale each other with stories. Some are religious. Most are not. And they are hilarious.
Then, another king came along, another Henry, Henry VIII this time. Another king who believed that the church should be a servant of the State, who broke with Rome and “nationalised” English Christianity. As readers might imagine, he didn’t care for Thomas Becket. In 1540, he had Thomas’s shrine in Canterbury Cathedral destroyed and he ordered that what was left of his bones were to be destroyed. He then had all mention of his name obliterated.
Now, all that is left in Canterbury Cathedral is this sculpture and a stone set in the floor where he was killed, bearing his name.
And there still are, scattered across Europe, churches like the one in Corenno Plinio dedicated to him and some wonderful artwork in these churches or in museums celebrating his life – and death.
My wife and I are in the middle of a multi-day hike down the eastern shore of Lake Como, walking a 45-km long trail which links Colico, located more or less where the River Adda flows into the lake at its northern end, to Lecco which straddles the River Adda as it flows out of the southern end of the lake on its way to join the River Po. It’s called the Sentiero del Viandante, the Wayfarer’s Trail. For any of my readers who might be hikers, I throw in a couple photos to whet their appetite.
Since the trailheads feeding the trail can easily be reached by train from Milan, we’ve been doing it in stages, closely watching the weather forecasts and going only when the sun is predicted to be shining. We’ve done three stages so far, with one more to go.
On the latest stage, as we were crossing a clearing, we came across this flower.
Of course, it gladdens the heart to see flowers blooming in February. It tells us that the Earth – at least in the Northern hemisphere – is waking up from its winter slumber. But this flower was particularly beautiful: large white petals surrounding a yellow-green centre. It was also quirky: this large flower was perched on a tiny stem, with no leaves that I could discern; it seemed almost to spring straight out of the ground.
As usual, once we’d seen one we saw many. Some were just opening. In others, the petals looked fly-blown, ready to fall. In others again, the petals were pink-veined.
On the train back, we started chatting with another couple whom we’d met along the trail. Suddenly remembering the flower, I pulled out my phone and showed them the photo of the flower. Ah, they said, in Italian that’s called elleboro. Pulling up my trusty Google Translate, I discovered that its English name is hellebore.
Hellebore … this stirred up vague memories in me, of poison and death. As the train racketed along towards Milan Central Station, I passed the time reading up on hellebore and saw that the plant is indeed horribly poisonous. “All hellebores are toxic, and all parts of the hellebore plant are toxic”, I read in Wikipedia. “Poisonings will occur through ingestion or handling … Poisoning cases are most severe when the plants are eaten … causing tinnitus, vertigo, stupor, thirst, anaphylaxis, emesis (vomiting), catharsis, bradycardia (slowing of the heart rate), and finally, collapse and death from cardiac arrest.” Bloody charming … And it doesn’t finish there! “Dermatitis may also occur from handling the hellebore plants without protection. … The poison on the outside of the plant will cause irritation and burning sensations on the skin.” Jeez Louise …
Wikipedia also informed me that there are a good number of different hellebores. The particular hellebore we came across on the walk is the Helleborus niger, or black hellebore. I find this a strange name, given the snowy whiteness of the flower, seen here in a particularly appealing photo (also showing, incidentally, its natural range, the Alps, in the background).
The blackness, it seems, refers to its roots, which are indeed somewhat black.
It is the roots, suitably dried, that are ground to a powder and fed to unsuspecting victims: “hubble, bubble, toil and trouble…”, to misquote the three witches in Macbeth, whom we have here in an especially dramatic painting by a Victorian painter by the name of William Edward Frost.
I had hoped that Shakespeare might have had them mention hellebore as one of the ingredients in their magic brew. But no. They mention eye of newt, toe of frog, wool of bat, tongue of dog, adder’s fork, blind-worm’s sting, lizard’s leg, howlet’s wing. Oh, and fillet of fenny snake. But no hellebore. Nor is the plant mentioned in any of his other plays where magic and magicians play a part.
I was quite disappointed that the Bard passed hellebore over in silence. Because it did play a role in the magic of his time and earlier (and still does, if I’m to believe some of the web sites I’ve visited). It could be used to cause madness, or put a good curse on someone. It was good for both raising demons as well as banishing or exorcising them. Carrying it on your person could stop demons possessing you. Planting it near the entrance to your house would deter demons from entering. It was often planted in graveyards to gain the allegiance of the dead. It seemed especially popular in healing swine and cattle from illness and protecting them from evil spells (cast, no doubt, by jealous neighbours): “a piece of the root being drawne through a hole made in the eare of a beast troubled with cough or having taken any poisonous thing cureth it, if it be taken out the next day at the same houre”, wrote a certain Parkinson in 1641. Two properties attributed to it which I particularly like is the ability to make you invisible (scatter powdered hellebore in the air around you as you walk along) and to make you fly to witches’ sabbaths and suchlike (make an ointment of it and spread it liberally on yourself. There actually seem to have been quite a number of recipes for these so-called flying ointments; one I particularly like was given by Francis Bacon: “the fat of children digged out of their graves, of juices of smallage, wolfe-bane, and cinque foil, mingled with the meal of fine wheat”).
I have a great fondness of medieval witches and sorcerers, my vision of them having been determined by the comic books of my youth regaling me with the stories of two medieval boys by the names of Johan and Pirlouit. I throw in here a picture from the story “La Guerre des Sept Fontaines” to give an idea of the treatment of witches and sorcerers in these books.
But enough with this childishness! Let me finish on a more positive note. A legend about black hellebore revolves around another name for it, Christmas rose. We are in Palestine. The Christ child has recently been born. A poor shepherdess, Madelon by name, has seen the three Wise Men passing through on their way to see the child. She has followed them and seen them presenting him with their valuable gifts of myrrh, frankincense and gold. She also wants to give the child a gift, but being very poor cannot afford to. So she stands at the door of the manger, weeping quietly. The angel hovering over the manger takes pity on her and decides to help with a little miracle. He gently brushes aside the snow at her feet and where her tears have fallen, spring up a beautiful cluster of waxen white winter roses. Then he softly whispers into the shepherdess’s ear, “these Christmas roses are far more valuable than any myrrh, frankincense or gold, for they are pure and made of love”. Madelon joyfully gathers the flowers and offers them to the Holy Infant, who, seeing that the gift was reared with tears of love, smiles at her.
Hmm, having just read about all the dermatitis you can get from just touching these plants, I can only assume that Madelon, poor though she was, was wearing gloves … This irreverent thought leads to another. I took this photo of a modern take on the three Wise Men, painted on the wall of a Milan house by a wannabee Milanese Banksy.
One of the more enduring habits which my wife and I have taken up in our retirement is to go out for a morning walk to a local bar and have ourselves a cappuccino. It’s always a pleasure to watch the barman or woman go smoothly through the motions of making it:
1) Brew the necessary shot of espresso with the espresso machine.
2) Steam the milk and foam it, using the wand on the espresso machine to do this. The wand must not go more than 2 cm below the surface of the milk! Otherwise, you won’t create the necessary microfoam.
3) Gently pour the steamed milk and foam over the espresso, to get the necessary layering: proportions should be one-third of espresso at the bottom, one-third of steamed milk in the middle, one-third of microfoam floating serenely on the top.
4) If you want, sprinkle some cocoa or cinnamon or chocolate powder over the foam
5) If you’re feeling really artistic, create nice figurines on the foam.
It seems almost a shame to destroy all of that handiwork by drinking it. But that’s what we do every morning (and afternoons sometimes)
Aaaah, cappuccino, that most Italian of beverages!
Except that it isn’t.
At least, its origins are most definitely not Italian.
I have to say, I was completely gobsmacked when I discovered this. I mean, cappuccino is as Italian as pasta, right? But no. All agree that the Italian cappuccino is a direct descendant of one of the products of Vienna’s 18th-century coffee houses, the kapuziner.
As this photo shows, the modern kapuziner will often have a head of whipped cream on it, but in its original form the kapuziner was simply a shot of coffee to which a small amount of cream had been added. This had the effect of turning the coffee dark brown. It was this colour which led to this drink’s name: kapuziner is the German name (and cappuccino the Italian name) of the order of Capuchin monks, whose habit is the same dark brown. I throw in here a picture of a Capuchin monk, so that readers can see what colour the Viennese had in mind.
This is actually a painting of Blessed Marco d’Aviano, a Capuchin monk well known in Vienna. A native of Friuli in the north-east of Italy, he became – by one of those strange twists and turns that make up history – a close friend and advisor to the Austrian Emperor Leopold I. He played an important role in stitching together the coalition of forces which broke the Ottomans’ second and final siege of Vienna in 1683, and he was behind the Austrian Emperor going on the offensive after the siege and starting the slow and steady expulsion of the Ottomans from south-eastern Europe. He is buried in the Kapuzinerkirche in Vienna (along with a bunch of the Hapsburgs, I might add). I chose to exhibit him rather than any other Capuchin monk for two reasons. First, because it allows me to refer readers to a post I wrote about the breaking of that 1683 siege of Vienna. Second, because there is a story circulating on the net and elsewhere that the Viennese named the kapuziner in his honour. Supposedly, he was carrying out his mediation efforts over a cup of coffee. Finding it too bitter, he added cream.
Personally, I don’t believe in this link with Marco d’Aviano. I think that the colour of the kapuziner simply reminded its drinkers of all those Capuchin monks they would have seen buzzing around Vienna. For any doubters, I would point out that there is another coffee beverage which was common in the old days in Vienna, which had more cream added to it and which therefore was of a lighter brown colour. It was called the franziskaner, a reference in this case to the order of Franciscan monks, whose habit is indeed of a lighter brown colour.
They too would have been a common sight around Vienna.
Clearly, colour was an important distinguishing feature for Viennese coffee drinkers. I read that initially all these different mixtures of coffee and cream or milk had no name. The customers of Vienna’s coffee houses simply chose the mixture they wanted from a colour-shaded chart. What an absolutely splendid idea! Something to be brought back into use; like that, we can consign to the dustbin all those fancy names which communication agencies have dreamed up for what are after all merely differing mixes of coffee and milk. Here is a suitable modern take on this idea.
As the photo above shows, the kapuziner’s initial simple recipe – black coffee with a dribble of cream well stirred in – had to get more complicated of course: human beings simply can’t leave a good thing alone. Sugar or honey was added early on, spices like cinnamon later, and a topping of whipped cream later still. It’s worth noting in passing that whipped cream has become a popular addition to various coffee drinks in Austria, to the point that in the rest of Europe a “Viennese coffee” often is understood to mean a coffee with an island of whipped cream floating on it.
But how did the kapuziner, a product of the Austrian Empire, become the cappuccino, that most Italian of coffee drinks? The answer lies in the Austrian possessions in Italy.
Already in the 1700s, when coffee drinking was growing in popularity in Vienna (as it was in the rest of Europe), a good chunk of northern and central Italy was governed from Vienna. This became even more marked after the Congress of Vienna of 1815, when the Austrian Empire was given the central and eastern regions of northern Italy (what are now Lombardy, Trentino-Alto Adige, Veneto, and Friuli-Venezia-Giulia, as well as parts of Emilia-Romagna), plus Tuscany in central Italy.
Some theorize that it was Austrian soldiers who, garrisoned in Italy, brought to the country the coffee beverages they knew from home, including the kapuziner. Others think it was Italians who, after visiting Vienna either for work or for fun, brought back with them the coffee beverages they had discovered in Vienna. But I think there is a much simpler answer: export of the Vienna coffee house culture.
The habit of drinking coffee had brought with it the building of coffee houses, or cafés as they came to be called. This development became particularly marked in Vienna. By the 1850s, the city was famous throughout Europe for its cafés. The best took on a certain look: large rooms, red-velvet seats, magnificent chandeliers, smartly-dressed waiters. No visit to Vienna was complete without a visit to one of its famous cafés. Here, we have a view of one of these cafés in the early 1900s.
As always in Empires, there must have been a desire in the provinces to ape the manners of the Imperial capital. It is certainly the case that Viennese-style cafés opened in many of the Austrian Empire’s provincial capitals: Bratislava, Prague, Budapest, Zagreb, and – in Italy – Verona, Trieste and Venice, to name just a few. Not only did these provincial cafés copy the interior decoration of the smarter Viennese cafés, they adopted their menu of coffee beverages too. Thus, in my opinion, did the kapuziner make its way into Italy.
At some point, it became the cappuccino. The translation might have occurred after the Austrians were kicked out of most of their Italian possessions with Italian unification; national pride could have required that the menu in the cafés drop the language of the evicted colonizer. Or it might have occurred during the early Fascist period when there was a determined effort to stamp out non-Italian languages in all the areas along the country’s northern borders: French to the west, German and Serbo-Croat to the east.
But this kapuziner-turned-cappuccino was a far cry from the cappuccino my wife and I drink every morning. I read that there are photographs of cappuccini from the 1930s (which, alas, I have not found) which still depict a Viennese-type coffee, topped with whipped cream sprinkled with cinnamon or chocolate. What changed everything was the invention of the espresso machine.
The first commercially successful espresso machine was produced in Milan, where I am writing this post, in the early 1900s by the Pavoni company (my wife will be interested to know that the production site was on the same street as her old high school). But these were crude machines and much tinkering took place in subsequent decades. One of the more successful tinkerers was Francesco Illy, creator of the eponymous coffee company (who was, incidentally, a typical product of the Austrian Empire and its collapse: born into a Hungarian family from Timișoara, now in Romania, after fighting for Austria in World War I he settled in Trieste, now in Italy). But it wasn’t until the 1950s, when espresso machines were finally able to scald and foam milk properly, that the cappuccino as we know it today was born. Scalded milk could take the place of the cream and foamed milk could take the place of the whipped cream.
So is the cappuccino Italian, or is it Austrian? I feel the same way as I felt when I wrote a post about whether the wiener schnitzel was the parent of the cotoletta alla milanese or vice versa: a bit nervous about getting attacked by some furious internet trolls regardless of the decision I came to. But I really think that in this case we can say that while it may have Austrian roots the cappuccino in its modern form is Italian – without the espresso machine, invented and perfected in Italy, we would not have it.
I hope this Solomonic judgement will satisfy everyone. And now it is time for my wife and I to set out for our daily cappuccino!
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!