As my wife and I were walking down into Vernazza on our latest hike along the trail which links together the Cinque Terre, I noticed this on the steeple of the village church.
I suspect it’s a little difficult for readers to see what I mean, so I throw in this close-up photo of the steeple.
“This” is a weathervane. As I’m sure many of my readers will know, in the pre-modern world, where weather satellites didn’t exist and TV channels didn’t give you weather forecasts every hour on the hour, the function of weathervanes was to tell people which way the wind was blowing, a pretty good indicator of what the weather was going to be like. And of course peering at weathervanes went along with some of the weather-related sayings people were fond of quoting, like this one about the winds:
“When the wind is in the east, it’s good for neither man nor beast.
When the wind is in the north, the old folk should not venture forth.
When the wind is in the south, it blows the bait in the fishes’ mouth.
When the wind is in the west, it is of all the winds the best.”
I can imagine some great-great-great grandfather of mine looking up at the weathervane on the barn and saying “Aah, wind today’s from the north. Like they say, ‘old folk shouldn’t venture forth’”, no doubt using this as a good excuse to wend his way to the village pub to fritter his time (and money) away.
But weathervanes are also excellent examples of how we human beings transform functional objects into art. Take that weathervane on Vernazza’s church. If readers look again at my photo, they’ll see that the weathervane-maker turned the sail, which a weathervane needs if it is to work, into a rather pudgy angel. The things which weathervane-makers have turned the sail into, and continue to turn them into (this is by no means a dead art), are endless. I throw in here, in no particular order, some of the designs which have caught my fancy.
The eventual owners of weathervanes will often choose designs that comment on something: their profession, their beliefs, their interests, the times they live in, even the racehorses they have bet on … No doubt it was in that spirit that Pope Nicholas I, way back in the 9th century, ordered that the rooster be the emblem used on weathervanes placed on Christian churches. It seems that Pope Nicolas was harking back to a comment made by Pope Gregory the Great even further back in time, in the 6th Century. Gregory had decreed that the rooster was the most suitable emblem of Christianity, being the emblem of St Peter – he is referring to the story in the Gospel where Jesus predicted that Peter would deny him three times before the rooster crowed at dawn, here captured in a painting by Francesco Rosa in San Zachariah church in Venice.
Personally, I find this a rather strange reason to choose the rooster as an emblem on churches, referencing as it does a moment of shameful betrayal by the man who was to become the first Pope. I rather think that Popes Gregory and Nicolas were doing something which Christians had been doing since the dawn of their religion, putting a Christian gloss on what were actually thriving pagan traditions (“if you can’t beat them, join them”). For the Goths and no doubt other “barbarians”, the rooster, crowing as it does at dawn, was an emblem of the sun. What better emblem to put on churches! Wasn’t Jesus (apparently) born at the winter solstice, when the sun is reborn?
In any event, from the 9th Century on, rooster-themed weathervanes became the norm on Christian churches (which no doubt explains why, in English, another name for the weathervane is the weathercock). The oldest surviving weathervane in Europe – from the 9th Century – is a rooster which, until 1891, graced the Church of Saints Faustino and Giovita in the city of Brescia.
And the Bayeux tapestry, my favourite tapestry and one I’ve mentioned several times in these posts, clearly shows a man installing a rooster weathervane on Westminster Abbey (the scene is actually about the burial of King Edward the Confessor; I presume the nuns who made the tapestry were adding local colour).
Now, I’m sure that at this point my alert readers are saying, “Hang on a minute, why does the weathervane on that church in Vernazza have an angel and not a rooster, then?” Well, it seems that at some point the Church authorities relaxed the rooster rule somewhat. Other emblems were possible, although normally ones which were linked to the saint or saints to which the church was dedicated. In the case of the church in Vernazza, it is dedicated to Saint Margaret of Antioch. A quick zip around the Internet tells me that a weathervane emblem connected to her (completely apocryphal) life could be a dragon: one of the more dramatic moments in her life was that she was swallowed by the Devil in the form of a dragon. Dragons are popular emblems for weathervanes. Here’s a nice example.
Or the emblem could be a hammer. She is often depicted, especially in Orthodox icons, as hammering the Devil – once no doubt she had been regurgitated alive by him. My wife and I saw a great example of such an icon in a museum in Athens a few years ago (for some reason, the Orthodox call her Marina rather than Margaret).
Here’s a nice example of a hammer, although it’s put together with a saw (“hammer and saw”).
But no, we have an angel. OK, I guess angels are pretty saintly and so a good emblem for a church – as long as they look serious, like this emblem (for some reason, most of the weathervanes have the angel blowing a horn).
But no, if readers go back to my original photo, they will see that the weathervane-maker seems to have made more of a cherub. Raphael painted the most iconic of cherubs.
And here we have a nice weathervane example (also tooting a horn; it seems that angelic figures are expected to be horn players).
The example on Vernazza’s church doesn’t seem nearly as cute. As far as I can make out, the cherub there has gone to seed; a cherub who has spent rather too much of his lockdown time eating and drinking and not enough time working out in his living room.
I’m not sure how the weathervane-maker got this pretty non-religious weathervane past the parish priest. Perhaps the weathervane-maker was the parish priest. Or perhaps the parish priest was a jolly fellow who liked a good laugh. I have in mind someone like don Camillo as played by Fernandel.
The parish priest must also have calculated that his bishop would never come to this Godforsaken village during his tenure – until quite recently it was pretty difficult to get to Vernazza and the other Cinque Terre; you either walked over the hills or you took a fishing boat, neither of which I see any self-respecting bishop doing.
I don’t suppose we’ll ever know the backstory on this weathervane. In the meantime, I’ve gone back in my mind’s eye to see where I might have come across weathervanes in my life. Only one episode comes back to me, from my days at prep school (in British vernacular this being a boarding school for primary-school-age children). As I ascertained after a quick zip around the Internet, the school still exists. The only change I can see is that it has gone co-ed in the intervening years, an excellent thing. The school has taken over a building with venerable origins, as this picture of the main lawn attests.
But the main reason for my putting in this photo is that discrete weathervane on that small tower in the centre of the photo. I throw in here an enlargement.
It’s a rather boring weathervane, taking the shape of a flag (the first instruments used to figure out which way the wind was blowing were no doubt flags; indeed, the English word “vane” is derived from the Old English word fana, meaning flag). Nevertheless, I know that weathervane well. One year, my dormitory gave onto the roof covering the gallery (those windows we see to the left of the base of the tower). I was a naughty boy and friends with other naughty boys. We would regularly sneak out of the dormitory window at night onto that roof and go for a walk, just for the dare. Sometimes, that weathervane would be silhouetted against the moon. I see it still … aahh, the good old days!
One other memory I have of weathervanes is their figurative use in cartoons, especially political cartoons. As we all know too well, politicians are notorious for going “whichever way the wind blows” (a popular wind-related saying). Cartoonists have always had a field day with weathervanes, using them to show politicians who chop and change their opinions, “trimming their sails” to prevailing opinion (another popular wind-related saying). I remember a British cartoon mocking the British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan for acting like a weathervane over the independence of British colonies in Africa. I couldn’t find that particular one on the Internet. But political cartoonists have been busy with the weathervane metaphor in the intervening years. Here are some recent examples.
For some reason, the use of weathervanes seems to be especially popular among American cartoonists. Could it be that the extensive use of interest groups in American politics makes American politicians chop and change their opinions more frequently – and, given the pervasiveness of TV news teams, the evidence of their chopping and changing is more obviously there for everyone to see?
Politicians are of course sensitive to the charge of behaving like weathervanes. Quebecan politicians are so sensitive to the charge that the provincial Assembly has banned the use of the term, considering it a slur. I never knew politicians were quite that thin-skinned …
Well, that still leaves the mystery of my pudgy angel. Maybe, next time my wife and I are in Vernazza, I’ll drop into the church and try to find an answer.
One of the things which my wife and I agree went up during our first Covid lockdown last spring was our consumption of wine. Those long evenings when we couldn’t go out anywhere tended to encourage larger suppers accompanied by copious servings of wine, servings which were repeated when we had finished eating and had settled down for our evening’s entertainment – old TV series which we found on YouTube. When we got out of lockdown, our wine consumption went back down to normal. But when we went into our second lockdown, the wine consumption went up again. What to do, we have to pass the time as pleasantly as possible.
We get our wines from the two or three local mini-markets which are close at hand. I make a bee-line for the sections devoted to red wines from the south of Italy – Sicily, Sardinia, Puglia, some Calabria, some Basilicata. I always prefer red wines – white wines give me stomach burns – and I find that that red wines from the south of the country have more depth and body to them than the better-known reds from northern Italy; they are considerably cheaper, too. My wife is quite happy to follow me in my choices, although from time to time she’ll splash out and get herself a bottle of white wine. One day, I will write a post about southern Italian red wines, but today I want to write about something quite different.
A few weeks ago, as I was scouring the shelves of one of the mini-markets, looking for a wine we hadn’t tried, I came across this:
“This” is a bottle of red wine from Puglia, with a classification of Indicazione Geografica Tipica, i.e., pretty good but not up there among the stars. Nothing out of the ordinary so far. But what caught my attention was the phrase on the label da uve leggermente appassite: “from grapes that have been slightly dried”. I vaguely knew about the “passito” method of making wine, which meant that the grapes have been dried out before being crushed and pressed. After polishing off the bottle with my wife (more on this later), I decided to do a bit of research on the “passito” method (which for the most part consisted of reading a bunch of Wikipedia articles). I can now happily share my newfound knowledge with those of my readers who, like me, are not super experts on wine (those who are super experts had better just skip to the end).
The first thing I discovered is that “appassimento” (the procedure of drying grapes and making them “passiti”) is actually one of three procedures which are used in grape-growing regions with the primary purpose of concentrating the sugars in the grapes. And the reason for concentrating the sugars is to be able to make strong, sweet wines, usually drunk with desserts (hence often being called “dessert wines” in English).
“Appassimento” is the most obvious, and therefore the oldest, of these three procedures: there is evidence of sweet wines being made this way already 6,000 years ago in Cyprus. There are various ways of carrying out “appassimento”. One is simply to leave the grapes on the vine longer than you normally would, so that they overripen and have higher than normal sugar levels; they also tend to lose water and shrivel, which also increases sugar concentrations. Canny wine-makers can play with the amount of “appassimento” they allow. They can have just a bit of “appassimento” (which is probably how the Puglia wine I mentioned earlier was made).
Or they can go the whole hog and choose extreme “appassimento”.
Of course, the longer wine-makers wait, the greater the risk that something will go wrong (bad weather, mould, etc.). But the more interesting can be the flavours so generated. A variant to this approach is to leave the grape bunches on the vine but twist their stem, to “strangle” them as it were. If I understood correctly, this hastens the “appassimento” process, so that you can avoid the risks but enjoy the advantages – having your cake and eating it.
You can also harvest the grapes at the normal time but then let them dry in the sun.
Or, if you’re not too sure of the weather, you can do it inside.
Wines made this way are called straw wines (vin de paille in the original French), because the grape bunches were originally laid down on straw to dry out.
As readers can imagine, all this works better in places with lots of sun, which is no doubt one of the reasons why Cyprus holds the prize for the earliest use of the procedure.
Let me at this point throw in some examples of sweet wines made this way. Since my investigations were started with an Italian wine, I’ll give Italy pride of place, while recognizing that all of the southern European countries, as well as the New World wine-making countries, make this kind of wine. Even in Italy, there are numerous such wines, so I’ll just mention a couple, chosen for the completely banal reason that they are from lovely places. Thus, we have the various Vinsanti from Tuscany.
And then we have Malvasia delle Lipari passito, made in the small islands of Lipari and Eolie off the coast of Sicily.
In the second procedure used to concentrate sugars in grapes, you allow your grapes to be attacked by a fungus, the Botrytis cinerea. The fungus shrivels the grapes and increases sugar concentrations, thus allowing wine-makers to make a sweet wine. For rendering this useful service, the fungus has been named the “noble rot”.
For the noble rot to work properly, you need specific humidity conditions at specific times of the day at specific times of the year, so there are only a few places in the world where you can use this procedure. And you have to be damned careful that the fungus doesn’t run riot in your vineyards, otherwise you get another form of the fungus, “grey rot”, which completely ruins your harvest. It seems that Hungarian winemakers were the earliest to figure out how to harness Botrytis cinerea to make sweet wines, having done so by the 16th Century.
You really have to ask yourself how anyone – Hungarian or otherwise – figured this procedure out. My assumption is that when one year some wine makers found themselves with a harvest of grapes on their hands which had been attacked by the fungus, rather than just throw the grapes away they decided to go ahead and make wine anyway, reasoning that even a bad wine was better than none at all, and were pleasantly surprised by the result.
As examples of what are, sensibly enough, called botrytised wines, I’ll mention Tokaji from Hungary, because that seems to be the granddaddy of this kind of wine.
And I’ll mention Sauternes from the Bordeaux region of France, perhaps the most famous of the botrytised wines.
The third and final procedure is used to make so-called ice wines. Here, you leave the grapes on the vines until January/February. The precise time you pick the grapes crucially depends on the outside temperature: picking must take place the first time the temperature drops to -7°C, which normally means picking the grapes at night, picking them quickly, and pressing them immediately.
What is happening is that the water in the grapes is turned to ice but not the sugars. When you press the grapes, the iced water stays with the must, and the resulting grape juice has very high levels of sugars. The procedure is a relative newbie: it was only discovered at the very end of the 18th Century, in Germany.
As an example of an ice wine, I’ll mention Canadian ice wines.
This may seem a surprising choice, but it allows me to slip in a mention of what is probably the greatest environmental disaster staring us in the face: climate change. Because of climate change, it is getting more and more difficult to make ice wine reliably in the northernmost wine-growing regions of Europe where the procedure was first developed, because it is becoming rarer and rarer for the temperatures there to drop sufficiently low. But because temperatures still drop reliably every year to -7°C in Canada, its wine regions, particularly those in Ontario, have stepped into the breach and have become the world’s major producers of ice wine.
Readers will no doubt have noticed that all the examples I have given so far are of white wines, and indeed most of the wines made in these three ways are white, using grape varieties like muscat, malvasia, and riesling. But – as my discovery in the mini-market shows – some red wines are also made this way. Since, as I pointed out earlier, I’m more of a fan of red wines than white wines, I want to finish this post by fighting for the red corner, and will do so by mentioning three red wines, all from northern Italy, and all passito wines.
Two come from the Valpolicella region, which lies north of Verona and east of Lake Garda – in this photo, you can see the lake in the distance.
The first of the two red passito wines from here is Recioto della Valpolicella. This, like most passito wines, is a sweet wine, and indeed this photo suggests its use as a dessert wine.
Perhaps at this point I should reveal that I’m not a great fan of sweet wines. I don’t deny that they can be very tasty, but I feel that somehow – and I’m sure this is just a ridiculous prejudice – sweet wines are not serious. This prejudice of mine is most extreme when it comes to red wines; I’ve signaled this already in an earlier post about sparkling Italian red wines, most of which are sweet. To my mind, for red wines to be serious they must be dry. So it comes as a relief for me to able to introduce the second wine from Valpolicella, the Amarone della Valpolicella.
This is a dry wine. Its name signals this, Amarone being derived from the Italian word “amaro”, which means bitter or sour. The wine is not really bitter or sour; it probably refers to the fact that this wine originally came from batches of Recioto della Valpolicella where the fermentation hadn’t stopped and so the sugars had all been turned into alcohol: so from sweet to sour.
Which leads me naturally to my final red passito wine, another dry wine, the Sfursat. This comes from the Valtellina valley in upper Lombardy, upstream of Lake Como (and of the hike along the Sentiero del Viandante which my wife and I did last year).
Let me throw in here a photo of grapes drying in readiness to become sfursat.
And here is a photo of a bottle of sfursat, which gives me an excuse to have a photo of that inescapable part of the wine world, a wine cellar.
At this point, I have to make another revelation. Neither my wife nor I have ever tried any of these three wines. But now we have an excuse to try some different wines during lockdown! (we’ll have to accept to fork out considerably more cash than we are used to, though, but hey! no pain, no gain).
And what about the Puglia wine that started this whole post? As I poured it into our glass wines I was half afraid that it would be sweet, but no, it turned out to be a dry wine, which was a relief. As we sipped it, we felt that the intense and bright red colour of the wine, characterized by delicate purplish hues, was the perfect expression of its complex and fruity bouquet. Balsamic notes of blackberries, spirited cherries and plum jam were smartly dressed by elegant sweet spicy scents. It was warm, round, and with a good balance of tannins … OK, I confess, I just copied all that last bit from the label on the back. As I commented in a post written years ago, I’m always impressed by the bullshit wine merchants come up with. My wife and I, we just went mmm, yummy! And the next day, I bought another couple of bottles.
“The holly and the ivy,
When they are both full grown,
Of all the trees that are in the wood,
The holly bears the crown.”
Holly is a nice plant. With its lovely shiny green leaves and strongly red berries, it really does bring a brightness to our lives just when we most need it. I was struck by this most forcefully last December, when my wife and I were hiking through the woods around Lake Maggiore and Lake Como (a pleasure that is currently denied us by the latest round of Covid lockdowns). The trees were all bare and drear, the rustling underfoot as we trod over dead leaves reminding us of the lovely greenery that had covered them just a few months before. Suddenly, we spied a bright cheerful green among the trees. It was a holly tree.
Quite soon, a few more popped up between the bare trees.
No doubt we were traversing a zone where soil and climate conspired to give the holly a competitive advantage.
It was a pleasure to see holly in the wild. Before then, I’d only ever seen holly trees tamed and manicured to within an inch of their lives in a garden, a splash of dark green against the lighter green of lawn
Or used as a well-trained, well-trimmed hedge.
And of course I’d seen holly as part of the wreaths which people hang on their doors at Christmastime.
This connection between Christmas and holly is very old. When you strip away all the layers of religiosity that envelop Christmas, it’s really a feast about the winter solstice, a celebration of when the sun, which has been dying and allowing the days to get ever shorter and nature to die, is reborn, slowly making the days become longer and nature come alive again. In our festivities welcoming the rebirth of the sun, it made perfect sense for us to use plants like holly which are still green at the winter solstice, to remind the sun of the job it had to do to make everything else green again.
Thus we have the Romans decorating their homes with holly during their feast of Saturnalia, a winter solstice feast where there was a lot of gift-giving, feasting and merrymaking (a lot of other things happened during Saturnalia which need not detain us here, but any reader interested in Roman goings on can read about them here).
Funnily enough, when early Christians followed Roman practice and hung holly in their homes and churches, the pagans around them told them not to – I suppose they thought these bloody Christians were desecrating their festival. But at the same time the Church Fathers were also telling them not to, finding this ritual really too pagan for words. Luckily for us, the Christian-on-the- street ignored both the pesky pagans and kill-joy Church Fathers and continued to hang holly in their homes and houses of worship. Which in turn has allowed us to sing over the ages (in my case, somewhat off-key),
“Deck the halls with boughs of holly
Fa la la la la, la la la la
‘Tis the season to be jolly
Fa la la la la, la la la la”
Presumably, as the legions marched outwards from the Roman heartlands they took with them their Saturnalia festival. Holly (at least the species which grows around Rome) is present in just about all the European regions and some of the North African regions which the Romans conquered (the green crosses mean isolated populations, and the orange triangles indicate places where the holly was introduced and became naturalized).
So no doubt halls were also decked with holly in the Roman colonies of western Europe and North Africa. In fact, it is possible that our Christmas love affair with holly in Western Europe has its roots in the Romans’ Saturnalia festival.
Or perhaps not. Because holly was also a special plant for the Celtic tribes of Northern Europe: the map above shows that holly was very much present in their heartlands. They too decked their halls with holly, and for much the same reasons as the Romans: the plant’s evergreen leaves and bright red berries brought cheer to an otherwise dreary time of the year, and they were a reminder that greenery had not disappeared for ever, that it would soon be back, warmed by a re-born and newly vigorous sun.
The Celts saw holly as a symbol of fertility and eternal life, and imparted many magical powers to the plant. Hanging holly in homes was believed to bring good luck. During winter, branches of holly in the house would provide shelter from the cold for fairies, who in return would be kind to those who lived in the dwelling. In the same vein, holly was believed to guard people against evil spirits. So Druids wore holly garlands on their heads, as did chieftains. Holly trees were often planted around homes; because holly was believed to repel lightning this would protect homes from lightning strikes. Just as the oak tree was considered the ruler of summer, so the holly was seen as the ruler of winter, the dark time. As such, holly was associated with dreams and Druids would often invoke the energy of holly to assist them in their dream work and spiritual journeying. Here is one rather fanciful modern depiction of the magical powers of holly.
Holly is not the only evergreen plant which has been caught up in our Christmas celebrations. There’s the Christmas tree, of course.
“O Christmas tree, o Christmas tree
Thy leaves are so unchanging
Not only green when summer’s here
But also when it’s cold and drear”
The custom of using pine trees in Christmas celebrations started in modern-day Estonia and Latvia, by the way, during the Middle Ages and spread out from there. The trees were traditionally decorated with flowers made of colored paper, apples, wafers, tinsel and sweetmeats. I would say that the original idea was to remind us that trees would soon be a-fruiting again.
Then there’s the mistletoe.
“When I close my eyes
It’s just you and I
Here under the mistletoe
Magic fills the air
Standin’ over there
Santa hear my prayer
Hеre under the mistlеtoe”
Our wanting to steal a kiss under the mistletoe is a pale reflection of an ancient belief that mistletoe brought fecundity into a home – its white berries were considered to be the sperm of the oak tree.
Kissing under the mistletoe will never feel the same again now that I’ve read that.
I actually have a sense that just about any evergreen plant was made part of Christmas celebrations in some place and at some time – after all, if the point of having evergreen plants around was to remind us of the newly green world just around the corner, any evergreen plant should surely do the trick. I rather like a Christmas decoration that was once popular and summed up all the ideas around the use of evergreens in a celebration of the re-birth of the sun. This was the Kissing Bough. It was a popular Christmas decoration before the pine tree dethroned it and came to dominate our Christmases. To make one, five wooden hoops were tied together in the shape of a ball (four hoops vertical to form the ball and the fifth horizontal to go around the middle). The hoops were then covered with whatever evergreen plants were at hand: holly, ivy, rosemary, bay, fir or anything else (signifying the vegetation to come). An apple was hung inside the ball (signifying the fruits to come) and a candle was placed inside the ball at the bottom (signifying the re-birth of light). The Bough was finished by hanging a large bunch of mistletoe from the bottom of the ball (signifying the fecundity to come).
Coming back to holly, before we get carried away with all this magical imagery and mystical meanings (and let me tell you, the Internet is awash with reams of magico-mystico stuff on holly), let’s go back even beyond our Celtic and Roman forebears to a time when we were mere hunter-gatherers. Etymologists believe that the word “holly” has its origins in the Old English word hole(ġ)n. This is related to the Old Low Franconian word *hulis, and both are related to Old High German hulis, huls. These Germanic words appear to be related to words for holly in the Celtic languages, such as Welsh celyn, Breton kelen(n) and Irish cuileann. Probably all come from Proto-Indo-European root *kel- “to prick”.
What an eminently sensible lot, the hunter-gatherers were, to give this plant a name which stressed its prickliness! Yes, holly is nice to look at, but get close and you immediately notice something else: its leaves have very sharp spines.
This is not a tree to hide under or climb: something I learned as a child when I was once violently pushed into a holly hedge by another, very nasty, child. Ouch, it bloody hurt!
Wagram: A region close to the River Danube upstream of Vienna, where there are steep terraces made up of deposits of loess laid down millions of years ago.
“Wagram” is a composite of two Middle High German words: “wac” (moving water, river) and “rain” (meadow, slope). So Wagram means Slope by the Water or Bank. No doubt these terraces were created centuries ago by a meander of the Danube which then changed course at some point, because there’s not much water by these slopes now. Vineyards have been planted on many of the terraces where the slopes are not too abrupt.
I suppose the sandy soil of the loess is good for vines. The wine – mostly made with Grüner Veltliner grapes – is good enough to have given the region its own wine name, “Wagram”. In some of the steeper slopes wine cellars have been dug directly into the loess.
We’ve been climbing up and down these terraces throughout the summer, principally because we’ve been hiking along sections of the pilgrim path to St. James of Compostela, known as Jacobsweg in this part of the world. The path happens to run along the loess terraces.
Many a village which stands at the foot of these terraces has added “Wagram” to its name. So we’ve walked through Fels am Wagram, Kirchberg am Wagram, Königsbrunn am Wagram, Stetteldorf am Wagram, Eggendorf am Wagram, … (there’s even a Wagram am Wagram, which seems a bit exaggerated).
Deutsch-Wagram: Sharp-eyed readers will no doubt have noticed that on the map above, a village of this name is marked. It is across the Danube from Vienna and a little to the north-east of it. It too sits on deposits of loess, although the slopes of the terraces here are very gentle, almost imperceptible. The village stands on the northern edge of a flat plain, the Marchfeld plain, which is rich agricultural land. There’s really nothing much to say about this village. I’ve looked at its Wikipedia entry and sifted through photos of the place online, but I could find nothing of any substance to report – except for one thing: it gave half of its name to one of Napoleon I’s major battles.
Battle of Wagram: It was fought in early July 1809 not too far from where I’m writing this. Napoleon had captured Vienna in May, but the Austrian Emperor had not capitulated, and the bulk of the Austrian army was undefeated and was camped on the Marchfeld plain across the Danube from Vienna. Napoleon concluded that until he had beaten this army no peace could be concluded. He therefore decided to get his army across the Danube onto the Marchfeld plain and give battle. His first attempt, in May, using the island of Lobau as his entry point into the plain, was a costly failure. This has come down in history as the battle of Essling, taking its name from the village of Essling around which much of the fighting took place.
Learning from his mistakes, Napoleon prepared his army’s crossing of the Danube through Lobau with far more care and this time the crossing was successful. And so by the early hours of 5 July the two armies were facing each other across the Marchfeld plain. This rather fine old map shows the battleground nicely.
The Austrian commander, Archduke Charles, knew that Napoleon would cross again at Lobau and had set up his positions along the slight ridge of loess, placing himself at the centre of the Austrian line, in the village of Deutsch-Wagram. That slight ridge, along with a marshy stream which ran at its foot and which acted as a fine defensive barrier, put the Austrians in a good position. I do not propose to give a detailed blow-by-blow account of the battle. A few fanciful paintings of a propagandist nature will suffice.
The reality of the battle was grimmer. After two days of hard fighting, the Austrian army retired in good order while the French army was too knackered to properly pursue it. The French claimed victory, and although that was technically correct the “victory” didn’t change the strategic situation. After another inconclusive battle 5 days later at Znaïm, the two sides agreed to an armistice.
The battle of Wagram and the previous battle of Essling had been very costly. The casualties were very high on both sides, but for the French, after more than 10 years of almost continuous fighting, it was harder to make up the losses. Napoleon’s enemies had finally understood his strategies and were beginning to emulate them. There were going to be no more spectacular victories with relatively light losses as there had been in the past. Many see the battle of Wagram as the beginning of the end for Napoleon.
Avenue de Wagram: One of the twelve avenues that radiate out from the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Although now largely forgotten, the avenue’s naming in 1864 was originally a piece of propaganda by the-then Emperor Napoleon III. It was always useful for him to glorify the deeds of his uncle Napoleon I, it was a way of burnishing his rather more doubtful credentials. Baron Haussmann was busy creating a new urban landscape for Paris at the time, which, among other things, meant that the area around the Arc de Triomphe was being remodeled. The Arc had originally been built as a memorial to one of Napoleon I’s greatest victories, the battle of Austerlitz. When his ashes were returned from the island of St. Helena in 1840, they passed through the Arc de Triomphe on their way to his final resting place in Les Invalides.
Why not, then, turn the area around the Arc into a memorial to the first Napoleon’s military genius? And so, in 1864, a number of the new avenues radiating out from the Arc were named after Emperor Napoleon’s more famous battles (his earlier battles when he was a mere revolutionary general or even First Consul were ignored): along with the Avenue de Wagram, there was the Avenue d’Essling which I’ve already mentioned, the Avenue d’Iéna, celebrating the battle of 1806 fought at Jena in Thuringia, during which Napoleon pulverized the Prussian army, the Avenue de Friedland, celebrating the battle of 1807 fought in what was then eastern Prussia, during which Napoleon decisively beat the Russian army, and the Avenue d’Eylau, commemorating a battle fought four months prior to Friedland in the same neck of the woods. One other avenue was named the Avenue de la Grande Armée, to commemorate Napoleon’s imperial army which had fought in all of these battles and more during his campaigns from 1804 to 1814. To cap it off, a circular road which runs around the Arc de Triomphe had one half of the circle named rue de Presbourg, commemorating the treaty of Presbourg signed with Austria after the victory at Austerlitz, and the other half named rue de Tilsit, commemorating the treaty of Tilsit signed with Russia after the victory at Friedland. As a cherry on the Napoleonic propaganda cake, a number of the remaining avenues were named after members of the Napoleonic clan. Quite understandably, all these last avenues had their names changed later when Napoleon III was toppled, along with the avenues commemorating the battles of Essling and Eylau (not surprising really; as we’ve seen, Napoleon actually lost the battle of Essling and he only just won the battle of Eylau).
I’m sure all this propaganda from the past is lost on the avenue’s current inhabitants. The only thing that seems to matter today is that Avenue de Wagram is a very chic place to live. While not situated in the “seizième arrondissement”, the 16th district of Paris, the city’s toniest district, it is still a very desirable place to put on your calling card. Real estate on the avenue is eyewateringly expensive. This is a view of the avenue from the top of the Arc de Triomphe.
As befits such a moneyed area, it is represented in Parliament by a member of the right-of-centre party Les Républicains, Ms. Brigitte Kuster.
Salle Wagram: Whatever the Napoleonic propagandists might have wanted, for the people of Paris the area around what became Avenue de Wagram near the Arc de Triomphe had been a place where you went and had fun ever since the Revolution. The ball got rolling with a drinking hole where you could also dance. Then came theatres, music halls, concert-cafés, and then cinemas. Perhaps the most famous of these palaces of fun was the Salle Wagram, a large hall built in 1865. It was located at 39bis, avenue de Wagram.
It was famous as a place where Gay Paree went to dance the night away.
But it was also a place for exhibitions and other “serious” shows, like the First Cycling Exhibition of 1894.
The money took over from the fun. All the places of entertainment other than Salle Wagram and a couple of others have disappeared, leaving space for expensive offices and apartments. C’est la vie, as the French philosophically remark.
Station Wagram: The name of a station in Paris’s subway system, one of many.
It serves Avenue de Wagram, although it’s actually located on a small street that crosses the avenue – the avenue’s greater name recognition decided the station’s naming. Opened in 1911, many of the initial travellers no doubt used the station to go to Salle Wagram or the other entertainment spots in the area. But now it probably only services workers whose offices are in the area and the cleaners and other domestics who work in the surrounding rich apartments. The station itself is nothing to write home about. Perhaps it was more interesting architecturally when first opened, but the modernizations of the 1960s have left it a bog-standard station.
Its one saving grace is its entrance, which harbours one of Hector Guimard’s delightful Art Nouveau floral designs.
So it is that by the vagaries of history, loess terraces in eastern Austria were transmuted into a dot on the Parisian subway map 1200 km away.
Just look at that maple! What a magnificent yellow its leaves turned!
My wife and I walked under it during a hike we did a couple of weeks ago. We were following the edge of a wood and lo and behold! there it was.
As I mentioned in an earlier post, as we have been walking the woods these last few weeks the trees have been putting on their autumnal colours. We have been bathed in yellows of all hues, turning to russet, and finally to dark brown.
But what we have not been bathed in is reds. We have not witnessed the wonders of a North American Fall
or the splendour of an East Asian Autumn.
“Why is that?” I asked myself as I sat there gazing at my photo of that yellow maple tree, “why is it that North Americans and East Asians have splendid red hues in their autumn colours and we in Europe do not?”
To answer this, we are going to use a version of Root Cause Analysis called the “5 Whys”. This was something invented by Sakichi Toyoda, the father of the founder of Toyota, who claimed that you had to ask “Why?” (more or less) five times before you got to the root cause of something. His son used it extensively in his car factories as a quality control tool, to discover the fundamental reason – the root cause – for a quality failure (and at a much more modest scale I have used it to discover the root cause of a source of pollution or waste). A simple example goes as follows:
“Why the hell isn’t my car working?!”
Because the alternator isn’t functioning.
“Well why is the bloody alternator not functioning?!”
Because the alternator belt has broken.
“Oh. Why did the alternator belt break?”
Because it was well beyond its useful service life but has never been replaced.
“Ah. Why wasn’t it ever replaced?”
Because you, idiot that you are, didn’t maintain your car according to the recommended service schedule.
“Ah, right, OK, sorry about that.”
OK, so now we can start using the method on our little problem:
“Why do the leaves of many species in North America and East Asia go red, whereas so few do so in Europe?”
We see leaves as green because of the chlorophyll they contain. But leaves also contain other pigments, which if the chlorophyll were not there would make the leaves look yellow, orange, or all hues in between. The chlorophyll simply masks them.
In Europe, when autumn comes and the chlorophyll begins to disappear, these other pigments are finally allowed to “express themselves”, giving the leaves the beautiful hues of yellow that we see. This explains the fact that the maple we came across went from green to lovely canary yellow.
In North America and East Asia, something else happens when the chlorophyll begins to disappear from the leaves. There, trees begin to produce – from scratch – a red pigment, anthocyanin, in their leaves. This pigment masks – or perhaps “mixes with” – the yellow or orange pigments already there, to give various shades of red. Thus do North American and East Asian maples go from green to red.
“OK, but why do North American and East Asian species produce this red pigment at the end of their leaves’ lives?”
Yes indeed, it does seem that the trees and bushes which do this are penalizing themselves. Just when their leaves are about to fall off, part of the general shut-down for their winter slumber, the trees start expending precious energy to pump their dying leaves full of red pigment. The reason for this apparently foolish behaviour has to do with pest control and especially control of aphids (which I happened to mention in an earlier post on wood ants). Aphids have this nasty habit (as far as trees are concerned) of sucking amino acids from them in the Fall season, and then laying their eggs on them; the eggs hibernate along with the trees and give birth to a new generation of aphids in the Spring. So the trees get hit twice: they lose precious amino acids to those pesky aphids, and then the next year they have to endure attacks by the next generation of aphids! Now, it so happens that aphids believe that a brightly-coloured tree is a tree that is chemically well defended against predators, so they tend to avoid laying their eggs on such trees. So of course trees in North America and East Asia have evolved to turn themselves bright red in the Fall, just when the aphids are laying their eggs, by pumping their dying leaves full of anthocyanin.
“Why do aphids think a brightly-coloured tree is a chemically well defended tree?”
I thought you might ask that. The answer is, I don’t know. Stop being a smart-ass and move on to the next question.
“A bit touchy are we? Well OK, why don’t European trees make their leaves go red then?”
Because they don’t they have aphids which prey on them.
“Why is that? How can it be that aphids prey on the North American and East Asian trees and not on the European trees? What’s so special about European trees?”
Yes indeed, this is where it gets really interesting. To answer this, we have to go back 35 million years. At about this time, the northern hemisphere began to go through a series of ice ages and dry spells. Most trees reacted to this by going from being evergreen to deciduous. They also retreated southwards when the ice sheets advanced and returned northwards when the ice sheets retreated. In North America and East Asia, their predators of course went with them, evolving to deal with the fact that trees now lost their leaves and went dormant during the winter. In turn, the trees evolved to fight off these predators by, among other things, turning their leaves red in the Fall. This struggle between tree and predator continued even as the trees moved northwards or southwards as the ice sheets advanced or retreated. Thus, still today, the trees in those parts of the world go a glorious red in the Fall.
But in Europe, there were the Alps and their lateral branches, which ran east-west. In North America and East Asia, the mountain ranges, where they existed, ran north-south, so the trees in their periodic advances and retreats could “flow around” these mountains. In Europe, though, as the trees moved southwards to escape the ice sheets they hit the barrier of the Alps; there, they could go no further and so perished in the piercing cold. And so of course did the predators which they harboured. Only seeds were carried southwards, by birds or the wind or in some other fashion, and of course these seeds harboured no predators. Thus it was that European trees did not need to make red leaves and so they give us glorious shades of yellow in the Autumn.
There is at least one exception to this rule, and these are dwarf shrubs that grow in Scandinavia. They still colour their leaves red in autumn. Unlike the trees, dwarf shrubs managed to survive the ice ages; in the winter they would be covered by a layer of snow, which protected them from the extreme conditions above. But that blanket of snow also protected the insect predators! So the plants had to continue their struggle with their predators, and thus evolved to colour their leaves red. We have here an example, the smooth dwarf birch.
Well, that was an interesting use of the 5 Whys method! I must see if there are other issues I could use it on.
Often in past years, on this day – 11 November, the day on which the First World War ended on the Western Front – I have published a post in memory of those who died in that war or who were permanently scarred by it. But this year, since my wife and I are spending November in Vienna, I published this year’s memorial post a few days ago, in recognition of the fact that the war ended about a week earlier for the Austro-Hungarian Empire. So instead, I shall use this post to celebrate rather than grieve. I shall write about a food dish, the Martinsgans (which for some strange reason becomes Martinsgansl in Austria).
Martinsgans is a dish from the German lands and is traditionally eaten today, 11 November (but of course nowadays, as a way of increasing sales, it gets offered in restaurants for a couple of weeks around that date – although this year, because of Covid, all the restaurants are now closed in Vienna). It is a dish based on goose – Martinsgans translates into English as Martin’s goose. Why Martin’s goose rather than anyone else’s goose? Well, that’s because 11 November happens to be feast day of St. Martin in the Christian calendar.
A Martinsgans made according to tradition consists of roast goose served with cooked red cabbage and potato dumplings. This is what it will look like when it is placed on the table to the oohs and aahs of the assembled family and guests.
For those of my readers who feel the need for an adventure in the kitchen, here is a recipe for making Martinsgans.
Wash the goose thoroughly inside and out and dry. Cut a couple of apples and an orange into eights, mix well with some thyme and marjoram, and stuff the goose with the mix. Tie the goose up and seal with wooden skewers. Rub the goose well on the outside with salt, pepper, marjoram and thyme, and then place the bird, breast side down, in a large greased roasting pan or baking dish. Roast the goose in the oven, preheated to 220°C, for about half an hour. Brush the goose with honey several times and pour a bottle of beer over it. Turn the oven down to 180°C, deglaze with a little water, and roast the goose in the oven for about 2 hours. Pour its own juice over the goose while it is roasting. Take the roasted goose out of the oven, and let it rest for a while before serving.
While the goose is roasting, you can prepare the red cabbage and the potato dumplings.
Clean, wash and finely chop the red cabbage. Mix with some orange juice and red wine, a dash of lemon juice, salt and caraway seeds, and let it all steep for a while. Then cook in a saucepan over medium heat until soft (30 minutes or so).
Peel some potatoes, cook them until soft, then squash them. Mix in some potato starch, semolina, salt and nutmeg. Let the dough rest for half an hour. Then form the dumplings, and let them simmer in a saucepan with salted water for 15 minutes.
I could leave it there and invite my readers to go celebrate life with a Martinsgans night out, as these folk are.
But I’m afraid I can’t. Too many questions were buzzing through my mind when I was reading up on Martinsgans. Why is the goose eaten on 11 November and not 11 October or 11 December, or indeed the 11th of any other month? And why goose rather than duck or swan – or chicken or turkey or any other fowl? I had to investigate further, and as is my habit I feel a bursting desire to share what I have learned with my readers (and I fervently hope that they have a bursting desire to listen).
On the question of why November 11. As usual, there are several reasons given on the net. The one which I think makes most sense is that it is the result of the Catholic Church’s liturgical calendar. There was a time, long, long ago (from the 7th to 12th centuries CE, to be precise), when the Church required all good Christians to do three days of fasting a week from St. Martin’s day (i.e., 11 November) to Christmas, to prepare themselves for that great feast. Very sensibly in my opinion, people decided that they would have one last good meal before starting to fast. Thus was born the tradition of having a slap-up meal on St. Martin’s day.
What’s odd, though, is that the Church authorities eventually decided to cut this period of preparation before Christmas – which is now called Advent – to four weeks, with the start date being in the very last days of November. So why didn’t the slap-up meal migrate to the end of November?
It could be because, together with the decision to shorten the Advent period, the Church authorities dropped the requirement to fast (a very sensible decision in my opinion; I never could understand why fasting would make you more religious). So perhaps there was no longer any need (or excuse) to have a slap-up meal just before Advent started.
But then why continue with the slap-up meal on St. Martin’s day? And here I think we have to look to some of the other reasons proposed on the net. In the old agricultural calendar, the beginning of November was when in many European countries excess livestock was slaughtered and the meat salted or otherwise preserved (I wrote about one such product, the Italian cotechino, in an earlier post). As a result, it was also a period when many peasants (I dare hardly call them farmers) paid some of the rents which they owed to their lords, payments nearly always made in kind rather than in cash.
St. Martin’s day was traditionally the day when these payments were made. Early November also happens to be the time when domesticated geese are at their fattest. Hence, payments were often made in live geese (in the picture above, one of the peasants is making his payment with what looks suspiciously like a swan).
It’s a little off the point, but I remember well a story which my mother used to tell us when we were young. My maternal grandparents owned some lands, which they rented out to local farmers. The day when the farmers paid their rents was St. Martin’s day. One such farmer was a farmer with red hair (this point was stressed in the story, because – quite unfairly, I think – my mother considered red-haired people to be excitable). In my imagination, I see him something like this.
Like many rural folk of the time (we’re talking the late 1920s, early 1930s), this farmer had received little formal education – probably primary school, if that – before starting to work the land. The discussion would always start pleasantly enough. My grandfather would work his way through the accounts, showing the farmer, let’s call him Mr. Dupont, how he had arrived at the amounts due. As long as my grandfather kept to addition Mr. Dupont could follow. But whenever my grandfather strayed into multiplication, Mr. Dupont got nervous, he would go red in the face, raise his voice, and start objecting vociferously, with my grandfather vainly trying to placate him: “but no, Mr. Dupont, really, if you multiply 20 by 5 you get 100” – all to no avail. My grandfather had to keep to addition with Mr. Dupont.
But back to the subject at hand. Since the lords now had live geese on their hands, and since lords were always eager to eat fresh meat, we can understand that at least a few of the geese would have been sent to the lord’s kitchen for neck-wringing (or throat-cutting?), plucking and roasting, with a fine feast to follow.
Luckily for us (because most of us had peasants as ancestors, no?), the industrial revolution came along and wealth got much better distributed. So it’s not only lords now who can afford to eat goose on 11 November, it’s most of us. Which is a Good Thing – except, of course, for the poor geese which end up roasted on our dining room tables.
As I look these geese waddling to their roasted fate, I am reminded of a song in Carmina Burana (admittedly about a swan, but the principle is the same). The original is in Latin, but I will spare the readers the trauma of reading the original and give them an English translation:
Once I lived on lakes,
Once I looked beautiful
When I was a swan.
And roasting fiercely!
The servant is turning me on the spit;
I am burning fiercely on the pyre:
The steward now serves me up.
Now I lie on the platter,
And can fly no longer,
I see bared teeth.
Spare a thought for the goose as you bare your teeth to tuck into your Martinsgans.
It’s been many years since my wife and I have been in Vienna in November – 12, to be exact; I have to go back to the year before we left for China. Like many things which have been done differently this year, the cause lies in Covid. Had it not been for that damned virus, we would have flown to Japan in early October for my teaching course, and we would have flown back to Milan in late October. As it is, constrained by the “new normal”, I am giving my course online, from my living room.
I see, though, that one advantage of being here in Vienna during the month of November is that I can continue my annual habit of memorializing the end of the First World War. But this time, rather than writing about the Western Front with which I am more familiar, I can write about the fronts in which the Austro-Hungarian Empire was involved, principally the Eastern Front.
Not that I know terribly much about the war on the Eastern Front, which was for the most part a war between the Germans and Austro-Hungarians, on one side, and the Russians, on the other. I have bought books on the subject over the years, but by a twist of Fate those books are down in Milan: all the books which we put into storage when we left for China went to Milan and all the books which we bought in China have ended up here in Vienna, and of course I bought books on the Eastern Front when we lived in Vienna before going to China.
So little do I know about the war in this part of the world that I got the date of the ceasefire between the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Allies wrong. I thought it was on 7 November and was planning to post on that day, but actually it was on 3 November, so this post is actually two days late.
I’ve read that the Eastern Front was so long – it stretched all the way from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea, so some 1,600 km – that trench warfare never really developed there. The density of soldiers along the Front was much lower than it was along the Western Front, so it was easier to break through the enemy’s lines, and then once a breakthrough was made it was difficult to stop it because the very sparse lines of communication made it difficult to rush the necessary reinforcements to plug the hole in the line. The result was a much more fluid Front.
That’s as may be, but a few years ago I took pity on a very faded aquarelle by the Austrian painter Rudolf Weber, an official War artist for Austro-Hungary, which was on sale at the Dorotheum Auction House. Its subject was a scene from 1916 on the Eastern Front, in Galicia to be precise. I felt that I owed it to the men who died there to give the aquarelle a decent home. It now hangs on the wall, in the shadows to protect it from the light. Although the colours are bleached, you can see a trench snaking across what appears to be a high plateau.
Weber must have been capturing a moment just after a local skirmish. In the lower left-hand corner one can make out dead soldiers lying on the edge of the trench as well as in it.
So there must have been some trench warfare on the Eastern Front.
What happened to those dead soldiers, I wonder? I suppose most of them must have been buried close to the front, just as they were on the Western Front. But are there military cemeteries like those lovely, well tended cemeteries that we see on the Western Front?
I fear not. The Eastern Front runs through the modern-day countries of Latvia, Poland, Bielorussia, Ukraine, and Romania. A number of these countries suffered through the Russian Revolution and its many years of chaotic aftermath. Then this whole region was embroiled in the incredibly bitter fighting of the Second World War. I suspect that whatever military cemeteries were created along the Eastern Front vanished in the decades that followed.
Even if they had existed, they would have been too far away from Austria for most parents to visit and mourn over the graves of their dead sons. The Eastern Front was some 600 km away from Vienna at its nearest point, and as we’ve seen the means of communication we’re not good in that region.
Where did parents mourn their dead sons, then? I suppose they had to make do with the war memorials that dot every Austrian town and village (memorials that a mere 25 years later were lengthened, sometimes by a good deal, through the addition of the names of those who died in the Second World War).
And what of the grand public memorials, by which the warring States memorialized the citizens which they sent to the slaughter? Austria has two. It has a War Memorial, erected in 1925 in the Central Cemetery, which is not central at all, being located on the edges of the city.
And it has a Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which has been placed within the building of the old city gates that give access to the old Imperial Palace, the Hofburg.
Perhaps I’m reading too much into this, but I can’t help but wonder if the locations of these two monuments reflect the differing political contexts of the years in which they were built. Of course, there is a logic in having a memorial to the war dead in a cemetery, but in 1925 the elites were struggling to make a go of the new democratic Republic of Austria. Perhaps these politicians didn’t want any reminder too near the centres of power of the war which destroyed the Empire, leaving them with a small runt of a country to run: better to tuck it away in a cemetery on the outskirts of the city. By 1934, however, Austria was effectively a Fascist dictatorship, and no doubt the elites of this dictatorship wanted a monument glorifying the valiant “warriors” who fought and died for the fatherland in that war. Thus are monuments used to project political ideas.
The First World War spawned a slew of war poetry and war art in the UK and, to a lesser degree, in France, which wrestled with the moral outrage of this war. Did the same thing happen in Austria? I cannot judge if Austrians created any war poetry (I know the Germans did; I have translations of some of it). As for war art, few if any of the well-known Austrian artists who lived through the war seem to have produced anything war-related. Egon Schiele painted a few portraits of the Russian POWs that he was in contact with (because of his weak heart and his excellent handwriting, Schiele was given a job as a clerk in a POW camp).
Gustav Klimt doesn’t seem to have created any war paintings – but then he was not personally involved in the war effort. Oskar Kokoschka, who actually fought on the Eastern Front, seems to have created only one painting, Knight Errant, with the war as its theme, but I find it too heavy on the symbolism for my taste.
The same with Alfred Kubin, who seems to have only created this illustration, End of the War from 1918 – but, like Klimt, he was too old and had no direct experience of the fighting.
Only Albin Egger-Lienz seems to have created some great war paintings. Here is his painting The Nameless.
Every time I see it, I am reminded of a commentary I read on the American Civil War, about an attack by Unionist troops on a Confederate-held fort. As they ran towards the fort, the soldiers leaned forward as if running against a strong hailstorm – which in a way they were, although it was a hail of lead rather than of ice.
Here we have The Dead Soldier.
This is Finale from 1918 (compare to Kubin’s lame attempt on the same theme).
Egger-Lienz was also sensitive to the havoc the war wrought on home life. Here is his painting War Women, the women left behind when the men left for the war.
And here is his painting The Blind, his commentary on the mutilations meted out by the war.
Otherwise, we have to go down a level, to artists who are not all that well known outside Austria. A number of these were official war artists like Rudolf Weber, others fought in the war. Here, in no particular order, are some of the better paintings (and drawings) which I found on the net.
Rudolf Höger’s Fight at Doberdo
Höger was an official war artist and no doubt was trying to show the soldiers in a good light, as brave “warriors”. But all I see is the sheer brutish thugishness of it all.
Alfred Basel’s Fighting in the Carpathians
Basel was also an official war artist. In a way, his subject is no different from Höger’s, yet it seems more of a ballet in his hands.
This other work by Basel, After the Breakthrough at Tagliamento, reminds me of the work of another war artist, C.R.W. Nevinson, about whom I’ve written an earlier post.
A painting by Wilhelm Dachauer
Dachauer was assigned to a medical team as an orderly. No doubt this subject was drawn from his experience.
Stephanie Hollenstein’s Dying Soldier
Pretending to be a man, Hollenstein joined a rifle brigade in 1915. After a few months, her officers discovered the deception and threw her out. But she returned to the Front, this time as an official war artist. No doubt she drew this on one of her visits to the Front.
Robert Angerhofer’s Dead Soldier in Barbed Wire
As these paintings show, soldiers suffered and died in the same way on the Eastern Front as they did on the Western Front. But if there is one thing that has always struck me living here is how little the Austrians commemorate their war dead compared to the UK. Are the Austrians trying to forget their past? Or is it simply that they have decided that they cannot forever lament the dead? I sometimes think the British commemorate their war dead too much, in the process glorifying war. That is not good. But I don’t think we can just blank out the death and suffering of millions. We owe it to them not to forget. So I’m glad that, once again – although a little late in this case – I have spent some time this year remembering the millions who died or were maimed, physically and mentally, in the war that was meant to end all wars.
Question: What connects this tumbledown church, which my wife and I stumbled across during a multi-day hike we did this summer in the Wachau region of Austria
and this train station in London, well known to all those who take Eurail to go to London?
Answer: Their names: they are both called Saint Pancras.
I must say, when we came across that half-ruined church and discovered its name my curiosity was piqued. I mean, Pancras is a funny name, no? I’ve never met anyone face-to-face called Pancras, I’ve never even heard of someone called Pancras. And those websites which will breathlessly list you famous persons having a certain name all came up blank for Pancras. I had only ever heard the name due to the station, and that only because it’s right next to King’s Cross Station, which I used a lot at a certain moment of my life. And I only remember the name because of its close similarity to the name of that organ we all have and whose precise purpose I have never really understood. Yet here were two places some 1,500 km apart with the same name. Yes, my curiosity was piqued, I had to investigate – “Google it!”, as my son always says. And I am now ready to report.
First of all, who was this Saint Pancras? Well, he was an obscure fellow about whom relatively little is known. Like Saint Blaise, another obscure fellow whom I have written about in an earlier post, he was born in what is now central Turkey some time in the 3rd Century. When still a boy and after his parents died, he moved to Rome to be with his guardian. There, again like Saint Blaise, he was caught up in one of the periodic persecutions against Christians, in this case by the Emperor Diocletian. It seems that he and his guardian were giving shelter to Christians and as a result he (and presumably his guardian, but he disappears from the story) were arrested. Pancras was 14. Here, the story gets fanciful. His hagiographer claims that Pancras was hauled in front of the Emperor himself, that the two had a long discussion during which Pancras impressed the Emperor with his youth and determination. Finally, annoyed (enraged, says the hagiographer) by the teenager’s refusal to refute his Christianity, he ordered Pancras’s execution. Pancras was promptly dragged off and beheaded. I find it hard to believe that the Emperor ever bothered to speak to this unknown youth; in fact, as one of the commentators diplomatically put it, it would have been very difficult for him to do so since he was not actually in Rome in the year that Pancras was beheaded. Whatever actually happened, it seems that Pancras was buried along the Via Aureliana.
For reasons that are just as obscure to me as the details of his life, his grave became a hub of pilgrimage and supposed miracles. Pope Symmachus built a basilica over the grave in 500 AD, a basilica that was expanded and much remodeled over the centuries. A church still stands on the spot (a church which, I must admit, I have never visited; perhaps the next time I’m in the Eternal City …).
If things had remained there, Pancras might have ended up as simply a minor regional saint. But for reasons which are yet again obscure to me Saint Gregory of Tours in France wrote in a famous book on Christian martyrs which was published in about 590 AD, that anyone making a false oath at the saint’s tomb would be seized by a demon and would collapse and die. Well! In an age where oaths were taken incredibly seriously and where everyone believed in the existence of demons and Hell, this was equivalent to saying that Saint Pancras was a divine lie detector: who in their right minds would dare to lie if asked to take an oath on the saint’s tomb? An oath on Saint Pancras’s tomb was considered so potent that it could be held up in court as proof of a witness’s testimony.
There was one slight problem: Saint Pancras’s tomb was in Rome and Rome was far away. No matter! In an age in which trade in the relics of saints flourished, relics of Saint Pancras were considered just as potent. There was therefore a huge and urgent demand from all over Western Christendom for relics of Saint Pancras to be sent to them. The Romans were not slow to oblige, and soon relics purported to be of Saint Pancras were on their way to every corner of Western Europe. As one source I read commented: “The whole body of the Saint was apparently in at least twenty churches; the head, in at least ten cities. As for the individual bones, they were without number. Of course, only a small part of these relics could be authentic .”
Of course, such potent relics needed to be housed appropriately! As a result, many a church was built and dedicated to Saint Pancras, with his relics enclosed in the main altar. In great pomp and ceremony, swearers of oaths could be solemnly brought before the altar and required to take their oaths. In our more cynical age, we can smile at the credulity of our ancestors but I have to say if I had been around in the Middle Ages and had been required to take an oath before the relics of Saint Pancras I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have lied. Who wants to spend eternity in Hell, even if you are being asked to swear that you didn’t kill someone?
It wasn’t just churches who owned relics. Rich aristocrats also had their collections of relics, housed in richly made reliquaries like this one.
I have absolutely no basis for making the following claim, but I would like to believe that one of the most famous of all oaths taken during the Middle Ages, that taken by Harold Godwinson in Normandy in 1064 before Duke William, was taken on relics of Saint Pancras. For readers who are not familiar with this story, let me quickly summarize the salient points. In 1064, the-then king of England, Edward the Confessor, was clearly nearing the end of his life and didn’t have a son to succeed him. Various regional powers were jockeying to get into position to take the crown on Edward’s death. One of these was Duke William of Normandy, who was related to Edward, although in a rather indirect way. Another was Harold Godwinson, head of the most powerful family in England. For reasons which are not entirely clear, Harold went to Normandy (some say he was actually on his way to France but got shipwrecked on the Normandy coast). Duke William promptly laid hands on him and held him prisoner, although he went through the motions of treating him as a valued guest. Harold’s “stay” ended with him swearing an oath on a series of relics. The Bayeux tapestry captures this moment.
Quite what he swore is not clear. William claimed that Harold swore fealty to him and agreed that he would support him to be king. Consequently, he cried foul when Edward died and Harold took the throne. Harold retorted that he had been made to take the oath under duress and therefore (whatever it was that he was made to promise) it was not valid. William took this “betrayal” as an excuse to legitimize his invasion of England. We all know how that finished. The two armies met at Hastings, Harold took an arrow in the eye and died, and his army collapsed. Again, this key moment in English history was caught in the Bayeux tapestry.
We’ll never know what oath Harold really took. As they say, history is written by the victors. But coming back to the relics that Harold took his oath on, it certainly seemed to have been important enough to have warranted the use of Saint Pancras’s relics. The poet Lord Alfred Tennyson believed that they were of Saint Pancras. In his verse-drama “Harold,” when it comes to the moment of the oath he has William exclaim:
“Lay thou thy hand upon this golden pall!
Behold the jewel of St. Pancratius
Woven into the gold. Swear thou on this!”
Continuing in the obscurity department, when the Church hierarchy got around to assigning saints to all the days in the year, something which they seemed to have done quite early on, they assigned St. Pancras to 12th May. Why St. Pancras got 12th May is completely mysterious to me. In any event, 12th May was already St. Pancras day in 896 AD, when the Holy Roman Emperor Arnulf of Carinthia conquered Rome. Arnulf belonged to that delightful period of European history when everyone had fantastic names, something I have noted in an earlier post about Saint Radegund (itself a wonderful name). His father was called Carloman, his mother Liutswind, his son Zwentibold. He deposed Charles the Fat as Holy Roman Emperor and took his place, he was saving Pope Formosus from the clutches of Lambert and his mother Ageltrude when he conquered Rome. And on and on: there are literally dozens more such colourful names attached to Arnulf’s life and times.
But I digress. Arnulf attributed his success in conquering Rome to the intercession of that day’s saint, that is to say Saint Pancras. This made Saint Pancras even more popular than he already was in the German lands, and could well explain in a roundabout way why my wife and I came across this dilapidated church in the Wachau dedicated to him.
The fact that May 12th is Saint Pancras’s day meant that for centuries he also played an important role in the agricultural calendar of large swathes of Europe, from Lombardy and Liguria as well as Slovenia and Croatia in the south to Sweden and Poland in the north, from Belgium and France to the west to Hungary in the east. He, St. Mamertus (May 11th), St. Servatius (May 13th), and St. Boniface of Tarsus (May 14th) became collectively known as the Ice Saints, and Saint Sophia (May 15th) as Cold Sophy. They were so called because the middle days of May were believed to often bring a brief spell of colder weather, and there were warnings against sowing too early in case young crops were caught in a frost. These were translated into a series of colourful sayings, no doubt repeated around the hearth by the wise men (and perhaps wise women) of the village:
Pankraz, Servaz, Bonifaz
only make way for summer.
No summer before Boniface
No frost after Sophie.
You’re never safe from night frost
Until Sophie is over.
Servaz must be over
If you want to be safe from night frost.
Pankrazi, Servazi and Bonifazi are three frosty Bazi.
And finally, Cold Sophie is never missing.
Pankraz and Servaz are two bad brothers
What spring brought they destroy again.
Never plant before Cold Sophie.
Readers get the picture. Alas, science seems to disprove peasants’ belief that there was a tendency to a cold spell in that period. In fact, science has generally stopped us from giving any credence to saints. Which is generally a good thing. But it does mean that names like Pancras, Mamertus, Servatius, and Boniface have sunk into obscurity, so much so that when I came across a church dedicated to Pancras I scratched my head and muttered to myself “Who on earth was he?” Luckily there was Google to help me find the answer.
Oh, in case any readers are asking themselves why the railway station in London is called after St. Pancras, it seems that it was so called because the surrounding district was so called, and the district was so called because there was once in the vicinity a very ancient church dedicated to Saint Pancras. So there you are.
My wife and I have been doing a lot of hiking since I retired. It’s a great way to keep fit, and it’s a great way to see Nature – slowly, with the time to appreciate what you are seeing. Initially, we hiked without sticks but alas! Time has taken its toll, in my case especially in the knees. So we finally bit the bullet and bought ourselves a set of walking sticks each.
Shortly afterwards, when we were out on hikes I would often hear a low moaning, coming seemingly from close by. It sounded like the noise a kid would make on Halloween when dressed up as a ghost, a sort of ‘woo-hoo-oo’ noise.
To make matters more confusing, the moaning came and went. After a bit, when I did hear it I would look around me to see what the source of the sound could be, but I could never identify anything. I began to think I was imagining the sound. Perhaps something was going wrong with my inner ear? Or was a tumour growing in my brain and pressing on some part of the brain that had to do with hearing sounds?
Luckily for my sanity, I finally figured out was going on. To explain, I need to throw in a picture of the upper part of our walking sticks.
Those holes allow me to modify the length of my sticks, by moving a button clip from hole to hole. It was the wind blowing over the holes that was causing the sound – my sticks were acting as flutes. This discovery led first to relief that I was neither mad nor sick, and then to a certain curiosity about flutes. As is my habit, I began to investigate (God, what a hopeless nerd I am …). I discovered a whole world out there that I had never known existed. I read that flutes belong to a bewilderingly complex family of musical instruments called aerophones. Someone even nerdier than me has come up with a scientific classification of musical instruments (the Hornbostel-Sachs system, so presumably the nerds in question are Messrs Hornbostel and Sachs). Aerophones are allocated the number 4, ‘non-free’ aerophones (“the vibrating air is contained within the instrument”) the number 42, and ‘edge-blown’ aerophones, which is the scientific name for flutes, the number 42.1. So as not to bore readers, I will at this point stop drilling down into the Hornbostel-Sachs classification system, but they should be aware of the fact that I could go down five – yes, five – more levels: the permutations on the design and operation of flutes seem almost endless.
Out of this welter of information, I have seized upon one comprehensible fact: that while all cultures on all continents have at some point in time come up with ‘end-blown’ flutes (“the player blows against the sharp rim at the upper open end of a tube”; number 421.11 ), only Asian cultures came up with ‘side-blown’ (or transverse) flutes (“the player blows against the sharp rim of a hole in the side of the tube”; number 421.12). Since my sticks were making a noise because the wind was blowing across the sharp rim of my sticks’ holes, and if therefore I were mad enough to classify them as a musical instrument it would be somewhere under number 421.12, I have decided to focus on this family of flutes (I also happen to very much like the music from one member of this family in particular, as we shall see in a minute).
Before I go off to explore transverse flutes, I want to pause a minute and muse on how come our very distant ancestors ever invented flutes in the first place. I mean, what possessed someone to take a hollow tube, drill some holes in it, and start blowing into it? And we are talking about very distant ancestors. The earliest known flutes are some 43,000 years old. They were unearthed in a cave in Germany. Two are made from mute swan bones, the third from a mammoth’s ivory tusk. This is one of those flutes.
Since bone seems to have been a common initial material flutes were made from, I am now going to make a huge mental jump, unsubstantiated by any evidence that I know of, and suggest that actually the holes in bones were made by a predator with large, sharp incisors, that the bone dried out and the marrow disappeared thus hollowing out the bone, that the wind, blowing over the holes, made the same kind of noise I was hearing on our hikes, that an ever-curious early ancestor, attracted by the noise, picked up the bone and started playing around with it, blowing into it, trying to imitate the noise, … The rest is history, as we say. I also have to presume that the creation story of flutes happened independently many times over in different places and that Stone-age bone flutes will eventually be found in many places other than Germany. I should also say that I have not created this story completely out of nothing. There is a cave bear femur with holes in it that was uncovered in a cave in Slovenia, also about 43,000 years old.
Initially, it was thought to be a primitive flute. This is now questioned, with the current argument being that the holes were made by some predator or other.
I can’t figure out if these German Paleolithic flutes were end-blown flutes or transverse flutes. There is a video online showing a pretend-Paleolithic woman playing one of these flutes (or presumably a copy) transversely.
Which makes sense to me: if my story of how flutes first started is at all correct, our ancestors who picked up “singing bones” would have imitated the wind and blown across the holes. But then why did most cultures end up with end-blown flutes? Or perhaps more accurately, why did our ancestors, except those in Asia, abandon initial transverse flute playing for end-blown flute playing? I will let that question hang there, because I have absolutely no idea of the answer. Any readers who have an insight to this puzzle are welcome to weigh in.
Well, after those musings on the Ur-story of the flute, I can finally turn my attention to transverse flutes. My research (i.e., the reading of Wikipedia entries) have led me to identify some 20 types of transverse flutes. Here again, I do not propose to bore readers with breathless descriptions of each and every one of them. I will just mention two, for reasons which I hope will become clear.
I start with India. There, the bansuri reigns supreme. It’s been an integral part of Indian music for at least 3,500 years. It has an almost mystical standing among instruments, being closely associated with the God Krishna. We have here a modern take on this, from a temple in Singapore.
And here we have an older take on the theme, a statue from the 15th Century.
The bansuri does indeed produce divine music, although that of course is a very personal judgement and has as much to do with the instrument as it has with Indian music in general. I’m not sure when I became aware of Indian flute music. All I can say is that I have a very clear recollection of seeing an Indian black-and-white film in my early twenties, no doubt in some rundown arty cinema somewhere, where the soundtrack was this achingly lovely, haunting flute music. I tried to rediscover the film and its music while writing this post but failed. I throw in instead this video of the bansuri being played.
Close your eyes and let the music flow over you, let it envelop you, let it transport you to some secret place in your soul where the music of heaven resides. Without being too morbid about it, I would be more than happy if such a piece of Indian flute music were to be played at my funeral.
My old Chinese connection brings me to the second transverse flute which I want to write about, the dizi. It’s been in use in China for at least 7,000 years, although I throw in here a photo of it being played considerably more recently. This is a late 15th-early 16th Century painting of the Daoist Immortal Han Xiangzi nonchalantly walking on water as he plays his dizi.
It’s not only because of my connection with China that I mention the dizi, it’s also because of a very distinctive design feature this flute has. The dizi uses a mokong, which is a paper-thin membrane traditionally made from the inner skin of bamboo cells that is pasted over a hole located between the hole across which the player blows (the “embouchure” – such an elegant way of saying it, try saying it a few times, you sound really erudite) and the finger holes.
Don’t ask me to explain what exactly this does to the sound, I simply quote here what someone else has said: ”The mokong has a distinctive resonating effect on the sound produced by the dizi, making it brighter and louder, and adding harmonics to give the final tone a buzzing, nasal quality”. Readers may judge for themselves from this recording.
Like many things Chinese, the dizi (and flutes in general) migrated to the surrounding countries: Japan, Korea, and Viet Nam all have dizi-like flutes with the membrane and/or transverse flutes which had a membrane but where it has been abandoned. I throw in a couple of photos to record the use of transverse flutes in these countries. Here we have a transverse flute being played at a convivial meeting (a meal, I suspect) of Japanese men in the pre-modern era.
Here we have a group of Koreans playing various instruments together, one of which is a transverse flute.
Of course, there is a question as to where the Chinese in turn got the transverse flute from. I’m sure the Chinese would argue that they invented it locally. They certainly invented the use of the mokong – the earliest dizis didn’t have it. But as for the flute itself some music historians think that actually the Chinese got it from Central Asia. I will carefully refrain from taking any position on this issue. Let’s simply say that it is an open question.
Which leads me – sort of – to my last point. The transverse flute, I’m happy to say, allows me to bring up one of my favourite topics, covered many times in these posts, namely the transfer across Eurasia of various products and ideas. The transfer mainly took place along the Silk Road, that network of trading routes which stretched out across Central Asia from China to Europe, with most of the transfer going from east to west, but sometimes in the other direction. Readers will no doubt remember what I wrote above, that the transverse flute only existed in Asia. However, any reader who has been to a concert hall knows that the transverse flute is often used in Western classical music. So am I mistaken? Was the transverse flute also invented in Europe? It seems not, according to historians of music. They believe that the bansuri somehow made its way to Byzantium (they think it was the bansuri rather than the dizi, say, or some other transverse flute from Asia, because of how the flute is depicted in Byzantine sources) and from there spread slowly to the rest of Europe. I find this intriguing. There were contacts, although indirect as far as I know (i.e., through some intermediary country), between Rome and India, contacts which no doubt would have continued with Byzantium. I have to assume that as part of these contacts Indian flautists came to Byzantium and showed the Byzantines how to make and play the transverse flute. In any event, here we have someone – probably Orpheus – playing a transverse flute in an 11th Century Byzantine manuscript.
From Byzantium, the transverse flute made its way to Germany and France first, and from there – a good deal later – to the rest of Western Europe. The mention of Germany allows me to slip in a mention of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. Most representations have him playing an end-blown flute, but some have him playing a transverse flute.
The use of transverse flutes got a big leg up from the military use of fifes. Armies in southern Germany and Switzerland began using fifes in the 15th Century, as a way of signaling maneuvers (fifes can be extremely piercing in the higher registers and so can be heard over the noise of battle). From then on, every serious European army began to have a fifing unit. It was only in the early 19th Century that fifes were displaced as a military signaling device. Nevertheless, many regiments continued to have a band of fifers (which is where the musical use of the word “band” comes from – a useless factoid which readers can cite at their next party). If I report all this, it’s only because it gives me an excuse to insert a photo of that wonderful painting by Manet of a young military fifer.
The Baroque period saw a makeover of the transverse flute, with it being completely redesigned. Various types of transverse flute were created. Music was written especially for the flute. And – once again – the rest is history. Just to round out the story, I throw in here a picture from an opera which has as one of its main protagonists a flute, Mozart’s Magic Flute. Without going into the details of its highly convoluted plot, the prince Tamino is given a magic flute which he plays at various moments. The opera is a delightful piece of nonsense, allowing Opera companies to go over the top with decors and costumes, as is the case here with a production by the Metropolitan Opera in New York.
As readers can see, in at least some productions the flute in question is a transverse flute (although I seem to remember that in the production I saw it was an end-blown flute).
Well, I leave my readers with a link to a lovely piece of Western, modern flute music: Claude Debussy’s “Syrinx”.
In the meantime, my wife and I will be plotting our next hike, where perhaps our sticks will sing in the wind.
A little while back, I wrote a post about balsamic vinegar – a disapproving post, since I don’t like the stuff. But I used the post to confess to a hankering to make my own vinegar. I attribute this to the fact that my French grandmother made her own vinegar, down in that dark cellar of hers which I’ve had occasion to describe in an even earlier post. She used the local Beaujolais wine as her raw material, putting it in a miniature barrel and leaving it there to sour to vinegar. From time to time, she would send me down the cellar to replenish the dining room’s vinegar cruet. I tried making vinegar once, in our early years in Vienna, following the rather vague instructions I had been given by a colleague. As my wife and children will attest, it was a miserable failure. The resulting liquid had a strange taste and not much of that vinegary punch. Although I put a brave face on it and determinedly continued drizzling it on my salads until it was all gone, I half expected to keel over dead at any moment, poisoned by some mysterious fermentation product I had unknowingly created. So, as readers can imagine, my hankering to make vinegar remains.
It really shouldn’t be all that difficult, I keep saying to myself. Vinegar making has been around since at least Babylonian times and it’s been made just about everywhere in the world where there is a source of sugars (the route to vinegar being first a yeast-catalyzed fermentation of sugars to alcohol and then a bacterial-catalyzed fermentation of the alcohol so produced to acetic acid, which is what gives vinegar its sour taste). In fact, it’s been truly fascinating to discover what people have made vinegar out of. Personally, I have always consumed vinegar made from grapes via wine, preferably red wine, although I’m intrigued to see that people are making vinegar with fortified wines like port, madeira, sherry, and marsala. In the Middle East, they even make vinegar with raisins (it’s famous in Turkish cuisine).
I’m also familiar with vinegars made from apples via cider and pears via perry, which have been commonly made in northern Europe. But actually just about every fruit known to man (and woman) has been used at some point to make vinegar. I just mention here the ones which intrigued me – or allowed me to create links to some of my earlier posts. The Babylonians used dates, which continue to be used for vinegar-making in the Middle East. The Israelis use pomegranates, testimony to an enduring relationship between this fruit and Judaism. The South Koreans use persimmon. The Chinese use jujube and wolfberry. The New Zealanders use kiwi fruits.
A couple of enterprising Italian and German companies even use tomato to make vinegar. I must say, I find this one strange. I know that tomato is technically a fruit, but I just can’t imagine a vinegar made from it. I would really like to try it one day, to see what it tastes like (as I would like to try tomato oil extracted from the seeds).
Sort of linked to fruit-based vinegar is honey vinegar made via the production of mead. It’s made in a couple of countries in Southern Europe (France, Spain, Italy, Romania), although it’s not all that common.
Grains of one sort or another are also used to make vinegar (an extra step is needed here, to turn the starches in the grain into sugars). This kind of vinegar is made primarily in East Asia, where rice, wheat, millet or sorghum (or a mix of these) are used. many of these vinegars are black, but there are red and white rice vinegars too.
The East Asians have been making vinegar for a very long time. Already two and a half thousand years ago, royal and noble households in China’s Zhou dynasty had a professional vinegar maker on their staff. Perhaps there were also professional vinegar tasters. Such tasters certainly became metaphors for the three main religions in China, leading to a very common depiction (the one I insert here is actually Japanese, from the Edo period, but I rather like the style).
The three men dipping their fingers in a vat of vinegar and tasting it are Confucius, Buddha, and Laozi, leaders of China’s three main religions. The expression on the men’s faces represents the predominant attitude of each religion. Confucius reacts with a sour expression – Confucianism sees life as sour, in need of rules to correct the degeneration of people. Buddha reacts with a bitter expression – Buddhism sees life as bitter, dominated by pain and suffering due to desires. Laozhi reacts with a sweet expression – Taoism sees life as fundamentally perfect in its natural state. I leave it to my readers to work out who is who in the painting I’ve inserted, based on their expressions.
But coming back to vinegar from grains, Europe also has its grain-based vinegars. For instance, the British have been making vinegar from malted barley for ever and a day. In my youth, no self-respecting fish-and-chip shop was without a bottle of malt vinegar which patrons could use to drown their fish and chips in – I cannot deny that I did this in my wild and foolish youth.
A series of vinegars which I find quite intriguing are made in South-East Asia and to some degree South Asia, from the sweet sap of various types of palms: coconut, nipa, and kaong palms (and to a lesser degree buri palms; so lesser I wasn’t able to find a picture of it).
The Philippines is the big producer and user; I read that Malaysia and Indonesia are smaller markets because the palm sap must first be transformed into an alcoholic beverage, something which is forbidden in these Muslim countries. Perhaps. But then why is Saudi Arabia, the strictest of all Muslim countries, a big producer of date vinegar?
The Philippines is also a big user of sugar cane vinegar. Well, it certainly makes sense to make vinegar from the mother of all sugar sources.
I would imagine that all sugar-cane growing countries make vinegar that way. Brazil certainly does. I wonder if anyone makes vinegar from beetroots? (as opposed to pickling beetroots in vinegar) An odd vinegar that I suppose can be classified as a sugar-based vinegar is kombucha vinegar. Kombucha is a Mongolian drink. It is made by fermenting sugary tea with a SCOBY – a Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast. This yucky slimy mat will ferment the sugar in your tea to alcohol and start fermenting the alcohol to acetic acid. Normally, you drink the fermented tea before too much acetic acid is produced, but if you let the SCOBY carry on its work all the alcohol will be turned into acetic acid and you will have a vinegar.
I find it intriguing that in all the articles on vinegars which I’ve read, there is no mention of traditional vinegars being made in Africa or the Americas (as opposed to them copying vinegars originally made in Europe). Neither continent lacks traditional alcoholic beverages. The Africans made them (and to some degree continue to make them) from fermented honey water, fermented fruits, fermented sap of various species of palm (as well as a species of bamboo), fermented milk, as well as from grains and other starch sources. As for the Americas, alcoholic beverages existed in at least Mesoamerica. There, the common alcoholic beverages were pulque, which was made out of fermented agave sap, chicha, which was a kind of maize-based beer, and fermented drinks made out of cacao beans and sometimes honey. I cannot believe that these drinks didn’t sometimes get inoculated with acetic-acid making bacteria and turn into vinegar. And I cannot believe that the Africans and Amerindians didn’t figure out ways to use this vinegar, as people everywhere else did. At a minimum, they surely would have discovered – as did everyone else – that vinegar can be used to pickle food and so extend its useful life, a vitally important discovery for societies in the days before refrigeration. If any of my readers are from Africa or the Americas and have information on this point, I would be glad to hear from them.
It’s not only the making of vinegar which I find interesting, it’s also how it’s used. But here one could write a book! (and in fact a quick whip around the internet shows me that several people already have) Since I’ve already written a couple of posts, on mustard and Lea & Perrins Worcestershire sauce, showing how vinegar can be used to make condiments, I reckon I’ve covered the use of vinegar as a condiment on food. I have also mentioned pickling in several posts, in my post on capers for instance, so I will skip the use of vinegar as a pickling agent. I will instead explore its use as a drink, for the simple reason that at first sight I find it rather incredible that anyone would ever want to drink vinegar. I certainly never have; the closest I have got to it is gargling once with vinegar when I had a sore throat, and even then I spat it out; I wasn’t going to swallow it. But people have drunk vinegar, and continue to do so.
The trick, of course, is to dilute it. Roman legionaries did this the simplest way, by just adding water (and maybe some herbs). This drink was known as posca and was drunk during military campaigns, as a thirst-quencher. There was a popular saying about posca: posca fortem, vinum ebrium facit – posca gives you strength, wine makes you drunk. No doubt these legionaries on Trajan’s column in Rome made heavy use of posca during their campaigns.
Interestingly enough, soldiers at the very other end of the Eurasian continent, the samurai in Japan, also believed in the restorative effects of drinking vinegar, in this case rice vinegar. They drank it (whether straight or diluted, I do not know) to relieve fatigue and for an energy boost.
By the way, this business of posca being a drink of Roman legionaries gives quite a different slant to one of the stories in the narrative of the Crucifixion of Christ. All four Gospels say that as Jesus hung, dying, on the cross, someone put vinegar on a stick and held it to his lips to drink. Luke is the only one who says explicitly that it was one of the soldiers on guard at the crucifixion; the others say “one of the people there” or simply “they”. But it would have had to be one of the soldiers, no-one else would have been allowed to get that close. In the three synoptic Gospels, this simple gesture was turned into a gesture of mockery. John, on the other hand, has a more credible line. Jesus said “I thirst” and he was given vinegar. So now I see here a gesture of simple humanity on the part of the soldiers. They had a job to do, to crucify Jesus and the two robbers. But that didn’t stop them from trying to alleviate just a little the agony of being crucified by offering Jesus some posca for his thirst. It’s a moment in the Crucifixion story that has not often been painted, but here is a fresco by Fra Angelico.
The next step up in efforts to make vinegar drinkable is to mix the vinegar with something sweet. Here, too, the Romans had a popular drink, called mustum. It was a mix of low-quality must, fresh from the press, and vinegar. The must sweetened the vinegar, the vinegar clarified the turbid must (a case of “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours”).
For their part, the Ancient Greeks mixed vinegar with honey and water to make a drink called oxymel. The beverage passed into European Medieval and Renaissance medicine as a medicament, and indeed the internet is full of articles promoting the health benefits of oxymel as well as bottles of the stuff. Here is a typical example.
But the Ancient Greeks simply drank it for enjoyment. The Iranians still do. They have a drink called sekanjabin, which is a mix of vinegar and honey, to which mint leaves are often added. Apparently, a side order of fresh, crisp lettuce is a must.
It’s an ancient drink, quaffed by Iranians when they were still called Persians. Perhaps the richest and most powerful Persians drank their sekanjabin from magnificent cups like this one (my wife and I saw similar cups in a wonderful museum near Kyoto).
It wasn’t just the Ancients who drank sweetened, diluted vinegar. Under the name of shrubs, drinks like these were drunk quite often until relatively recently in Europe and North America. It was only the rise of carbonated drinks that killed them off, and now they are a bit of a recherché drink. I suspect there is currently a bit of a comeback because apple cider vinegar is being touted widely for its supposed health benefits. As the Ancients had discovered, it’s easier to drink vinegar when it’s been sweetened. Here is one example of the current commercial offer of shrubs.
For those who, like the Iranians, want to make their own drinks, shrubs are made by simply mixing honey water or sugar water with a small amount of vinegar. Or they can be made by soaking fruit in vinegar for several days, sieving off the solid part, and adding a lot of sugar.
For those readers who, like I was, are puzzled by the name “shrubs”, allow me to explain the etymology. It is actually a corruption of the Arabic word sharab, which means “to drink”. The Arabic version of this drink hails back to the use of vinegar as a pickling agent. In cases where fruit was pickled, the vinegar drew out the taste from the fruit during the pickling. So once the pickled fruit had been consumed, people would drink the fruity vinegar – after adding water to dilute it.
I must say, I thoroughly approve of this reuse of the pickling liquid. I have been telling my wife for some time now that we should find something to do with the pickling liquid left over after we’ve eaten pickled gherkins or onions or even olives. So far, she has ignored me, pouring the pickling liquid down the drain. Perhaps I can get her to reconsider if I argue that we can turn the liquids into some kind of shrub. Of course, our pickling liquids are salty rather than sweet, but no fear, I have a solution to this! In order to explain it I have to introduce another set of soldiers, the Spartans this time.
The Roman legionaries had posca, the Spartan soldiers had melas zomos, a black brothy soup (or perhaps black soupy broth). Made of boiled pigs’ trotters, blood, salt, and vinegar, it was an integral part of their diet. We could make melas zomos! Our various spent pickling liquids could give the salt and vinegar, we would just need to find the blood and the pigs’ trotters. Of course, if we still lived in China, we wouldn’t have any problems finding these (I remember several times eating a delicious Chinese dish of pigs’ trotters in a restaurant around the corner from our place in Beijing, and I’m sure we could have found blood if we’d looked for it). But in Europe, as I’ve related elsewhere, we’ve become more fastidious about the meat products we eat, so finding these ingredients might be a problem.
Of course, even if we could find the ingredients and made the soup, would it be yummy? Well, I can only report here a comment made by a citizen of Sybaris, an Ancient Greek city located on the coast of what is now Puglia (but which has since disappeared, alas), which I’ve mentioned in passing in an earlier post. After tasting a bowl of melas zomos, this man declared disgustedly, “Now I do perceive why it is that Spartan soldiers encounter death so joyfully; dead men require no longer to eat; black broth is no longer a necessity.” Now, given that the citizens of Sybaris were famous for their luxury and gluttony (so famous that they gave us theword “sybarite”), this confrontation of polar opposites is perhaps merely an Ancient urban legend. However, it is true that the Spartans gave us the word “spartan”, which suggests that yumminess in their soldiers’ food was not necessarily high in the order of priorities of the Spartan army’s high command. The idea was to give them strength, to beat the shit out of, say, those weakling Persians who drank sekanjabin, as we saw so thrillingly in the film 300 – the Spartans in that film must have been stuffed full of melas zomos.
Luckily, if we weren’t able to find pigs’ trotters and blood (and if I wasn’t able to persuade my wife to eat the soup, a highly probable outcome since she doesn’t much like these kinds of meat products), a quick whip around the Internet has shown me that many vinegar-containing soup recipes exist which involve perfectly ordinary ingredients like vegetables (I suspect that the craze for apple cider vinegar and its purported health properties has struck again; how to find pleasant ways to ingest apple cider vinegar). I can bring to bear my skills in making soups from left-overs and find a yummy way of recycling our pickling liquids into soups. Watch this space!
This second mention of mine of apple cider vinegar makes me think that before I finish I must just touch upon the supposed medicinal benefits of vinegar. In Europe at least, this love affair with vinegar-as-medicine has been going on since the Ancient Greeks; the current touting of apple cider vinegar is merely the latest iteration in a very ancient tradition. I do not propose to go through all the health benefits that are claimed for vinegar. In this time where we are living through a modern plague, Covid-19, I will only mention vinegar’s use during the bubonic plagues that regularly swept through Europe from the 14th to the 18th centuries. For some reason, people felt that vinegar would keep the terrible distemper at bay, so anyone who came into contact with people sick with plague, or with the bodies of people who had died of it, would wash their hands in vinegar, or put towels soaked in vinegar around their heads, or cover their mouths with a handkerchief soaked in vinegar, or gargle with vinegar. It was mostly doctors or nurses who did this, as well as the poor bastards (many of them convicts) who had to load the bodies onto the carts to take them to the cemeteries. I throw in here a picture from the Italian book I Promessi Sposi by Alssandro Manzoni, which takes place during an outbreak of the plague in Milan. We see the men loading up the dead bodies onto the cart.
My wife will no doubt be thrilled to bits to see this reference to I Promessi Sposi, a book which was a Must Read for all schoolchildren of her generation. In a sillier vein, I also throw in a still from the Monty Python film The Holy Grail, where a man is trying to get rid of his old father who isn’t dead.
Anyway, it’s not clear if this use of vinegar helped at all – it indubitably has disinfectant properties, but would they have been enough to kill Yersinia pestis, the bacterium that causes the plague? At some point, people began to add herbs to the vinegar to increase its plague-killing power. Eventually, these vinegar concoctions got a name, Four Thieves vinegar, as well as a legend to go with the name. The legend goes like this: Four of the poor bastards picking up the dead bodies, who also happened to be thieves (it was a “profession” which tended to attract the criminal classes), hit upon a herb mixture which kept them safe. They therefore began robbing the houses they entered with impunity. Caught and threatened with horrible punishment, they offered to give up their secret recipe in exchange for leniency. The judge promptly accepted. Here is a recipe that was posted on the walls of Marseilles, site of the last great outbreak of the plague in Europe in 1720:
“Take three pints of strong white wine vinegar, add a handful of each of wormwood, meadowsweet, wild marjoram and sage, fifty cloves, two ounces of campanula roots, two ounces of angelic, rosemary and horehound and three large measures of camphor. Place the mixture in a container for fifteen days, strain and express, then bottle.”
Here is a 17th Century bottle of this stuff.
And here is a modern version of the stuff, using apple cider vinegar (and with a different bunch of herbs: rosemary, sage, thyme, mint, cinnamon, pepper, garlic, clove)
Hey, you never know, it might help keep Covid-19 at bay, although the producers are careful not to claim this. Soak your face mask in the stuff before putting it on.