Vienna, 25 January 2019

A while back, while my wife and I were drinking an Earl Grey tea, I wondered out loud what gave the tea its particular taste. Bergamot, my wife replied. Bergamot? Since then, I have been wondering off and on – more off than on – just what exactly this Bergamot stuff was. When, a few days ago, we were cozily ensconced in a café having an Earl Grey tea, I decided that the moment had come to act. It was time for me to open the internet and disappear down one of those on-line rabbit holes I am so fond of falling down, this time in search of the elusive bergamot.

It wasn’t actually all that elusive. I immediately discovered that “bergamot” was actually the bergamot orange, one member of that seemingly vast and global tribe of citrus fruits. I was no end pleased to find this out, since I am very fond of the citrus family. I had great fun writing a post some time ago about one of its members, the citron. As seems to be usual in this family of fruits which happily and incestuously hybridize with each other, the bergamot orange’s precise genealogy is somewhat confused, but the consensus currently is that it is a hybrid of sweet lime and sour orange. This photo shows the fruit on the tree.
And this photo is a close-up of the ripe fruit.
I think the family resemblance is fairly clear, no?

90% of the bergamot trees grown commercially in the world are to be found in one small corner of southern Italy, in the ball of Italy’s foot to be precise: in the communes of Brancaleone, Bruzzano Zeffirio and Staiti in the province of Reggio Calabria. Here is a photo of one of the bergamot orchards in Brancaleone, down along the banks of a very dry river bed.
For those of my readers who, like me, have never seen the fruit and have never tasted it, I can report that “the juice tastes less sour than lemon but more bitter than grapefruit”. As readers can imagine, such a taste does not lend itself to the fruit being eaten like a sweet orange. The best one can do is to substitute it for lemon wherever one might use lemon juice: tea, for instance, since tea started this post. And if any of my readers find themselves in the island of Mauritius, they should ask around because it seems that the islanders do make a drink out of it there.

No, the real glory of this fruit, and the primary reason why anyone bothers to grow it commercially, is the essential oil which can be squeezed out of its rind: a dark green elixir of chemicals with such names as limonene, linalool, and bergamottin (I love these wonderful names they used to give chemicals! Not like the dreary modern ones: (E)-4-[(3,7-Dimethyl-2,6-octadienyl)oxy]- 7H-furo[3,2-g][1]benzopyran-7-one – the “proper” name of bergamottin, for instance).
Its major use is as an ingredient in perfumes, fragrances, colognes, and the like. But before getting into that, let me complete the story of Earl Grey tea, which after all kicked off this post.

To answer my own question, Earl Grey tea gets its particular taste from the addition of bergamot essential oil to its base of black tea leaves. The question is, why was this essential oil ever added to tea leaves in the first place? And here I have to say that a lot of fanciful if not downright ridiculous stories have been invented. Before describing them – briefly, they are so silly – I need to introduce the Earl Grey whose name got attached to the tea. He was 2nd Earl Grey, who lived from 1764 to 1845.
He was active in politics, eventually ending up as Prime Minister for a few years. He’s not terribly well known (at least, I don’t remember his name ever being mentioned in my English history classes at primary school). Yet he was responsible for one very great thing during his premiership: the abolition of slavery throughout the British Empire. He was also author of the Great Reform Bill.

So, then, how did the name of this very worthy member of the British aristocracy get associated with a bergamot-flavoured tea? I cite here a paragraph from a tea-related site, which I think sums up the silly stories doing the rounds: “There are stories of good deeds in China that resulted in the recipe for the tea coming to his ownership. Another version tells how the blend was created by accident when a gift of tea and bergamot oranges were shipped together from diplomats in China and the fruit flavour was absorbed by the tea during shipping. Yet another version of the story involves a Chinese mandarin friend of the Earl blending this tea to offset the taste of minerals in the water at his home”. None of which is credible because Earl Grey never had any real connections with China. But ignoring that, his wife, Lady Grey, the stories go on, used the tea in her tea parties. It proved so popular with her posh friends that they asked if they could get it too. So then Lord Grey graciously shared the recipe with Jacksons of Piccadilly, a purveyor of fine teas to the posh classes. The latter part of this story was certainly pushed by Jacksons, as this ad from the 1920s attests.
However, the reality appears to be much seamier. It seems that British tea merchants were surreptitiously adding bergamot essential oil to their low-value black teas to pass them off as a superior – and therefore more expensive – product (at least one company faced charges for doing so in 1837). And the superior product which it is speculated they might have been trying to emulate was … lapsang souchong! It pleases me no end to know that since I have written a post about this tea, which happens to be our favourite tea. At some point, perhaps through Jacksons of Piccadilly’s vigorous marketing efforts, flavoring black tea with bergamot became respectable, and the rest, as they say, is history. In case any of my readers decide to rush off and find themselves some Earl Grey tea made by Jacksons of Piccadilly, I regret to inform them that the company was bought up by Twinings in the 1990s. The nearest you will get to Jacksons of Piccadilly’s Earl Grey tea is this:
Or perhaps readers might decide they want to try making their own Earl Grey tea, in which case here is a recipe that I picked up on the net.

Add 5-20 drops of bergamot essential oil into a wide-mouthed mason jar: 5 drops yields a light bergamot flavour while 20 drops will make a strong version. Swirl the oil around the inside of the jar to coat the sides evenly. Next, pour in one cup of black tea leaves. Cap the jar and shake vigorously to help spread the essential oil over all of the tea leaves. Let it sit for anywhere from 12 hours to 3 days to allow the oil to properly infuse the leaves.

For those who like a really light Earl Grey tea – and who happen to have access to fresh bergamot oranges – I also saw a suggestion of adding air-dried bergamot rind to black tea leaves.

I can now return to the major use of bergamot essential oil, in the perfumery business. It may interest readers to know that bergamot is used in more than 65% of women’s perfumes and nearly half of men’s fragrances. I suspect that the one perfume I ever wrote a post about, Chanel’s Chance Eau Fraîche, contains it, although the ingredient is listed generically as “citrus”. This popularity of bergamot with perfumers started with eau de Cologne, so it seems right to explore this eau a little.

Here, we have another product whose genesis is shrouded in a certain amount of confusion, although not quite as much as in the case of Earl Grey tea. As the name suggests, eau de Cologne was invented in Cologne, Germany, in the first years of the 1700s. But its inventor was not German (or Colognian since Germany did not yet exist), he was Italian (or Savoyard since Italy did not yet exist). His name was Giovanni Paolo Feminis.
Feminis looks like a prosperous burgher in this painting, but that was after he had made his money from his perfume. He was born poor in the tiny village of Crana on the outskirts of the somewhat bigger village of Santa Maria Maggiore, located in an Alpine valley in the Duchy of Savoy (now the province of Piedmont).
He left his natal village quite young. I think I can understand why he decided to up sticks – historically, poverty levels in Alpine valleys were always high – but quite why he ended up in Germany I do not know, nor why he decided to make a perfume, nor why he decided to add bergamot essential oil to the mix. But all of these things he did, and in doing so he changed the face of perfumery for ever. His product became all the rage with Kings and Queens, Dukes and Duchesses, Barons and Baronesses – in a word, all the posh classes – throughout Europe. Its brightness, its lightness, compared favourably with the perfumes then on offer, and the bottles flew off the shelves as they say.

Inevitably, many competitors sprang up in Cologne itself and, with time, in other cities (as, by the way, they did in the case of Early Grey tea; the small print at the end of the Jacksons ad above attests to this). A good portion of these competitors all belonged to a large Italian family with the surname Farina. Amazingly, not only were they Italian like Feminis but they all hailed from the same village as he did: it seems they were attracted like bees to an especially good nectar when one of their own made it good. One of the Farinas, Giovanni Antonio Farina, was actually Feminis’s second-in-command. On Feminis’s death, he inherited the business and the recipe. But industrial espionage must have been rife in Cologne, because all the other competing Farinas, in fact everyone in the eau de Cologne business, had similar recipes. And all included bergamot essential oil.

One of the most successful of this large tribe of Farinas was Giovanni Maria Farina, uncle to Giovanni Antonio Farina. He built a factory in Cologne, the Johann Maria Farina gegenüber dem Jülichs-Platz, which looked like this.
This company still exists, and still offers its eau de Cologne in the originally designed flacons – this photo shows flacons from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, respectively.
For any readers who are interested in making their own more-or-less original eau de Cologne, I translate below the recipe from an old Italian book from the late 19th Century which claims it to be Giovanni Maria Farina’s recipe:

Take the tops of dried lemon balm or marjoram, of thyme, of rosemary, of hyssop and of wormood, in the amount of 27 grams each, 54 grams of lavender flowers, 27 grams of the root of wild celery, 54 grams of small cardamom, 27 grams, by type of dried berry, of juniper, of seeds of anise, caraway, cumin, and fennel, 54 grams of fine cinnamon, 54 grams of nutmeg, 27 grams of clove, 54 grams of fresh citron rind, one dram of bergamot essential oil, and 12.192 kilos of spirits.

Grind the hard parts and mince the soft parts, after which soak the whole in the amount of spirits indicated above for the period of four or five days. Then distill in a bain-marie to the point where there is but little residue.

The remaining uses of bergamot oranges are few and far between. There are continuing attempts to extract various useful chemicals from bergamots; the latest move is a claim that the juice bursts with cholesterol busting chemicals. As readers might guess, the essential oil is popular in aromatherapy.  But let me focus more on the food and drink side, since that is so much more interesting! Since I’ve already taken up so much of my readers’ time, I’ll just mention a few.

A marmalade is made from the fruit – here is a Calabrian brand. Given one of bergamot’s genetic parents is the sour orange, used in making traditional marmalade, this seems an obvious choice.
Various alcoholic drinks are also made from it, with the fruit being steeped for some period of time in alcohol – here is one such drink, also made in Calabria.
Before readers begin to think that I’m promoting Calabrian agro-products, let me also say that bergamot is used in flavouring Turkish Delight. And I want to finish with this sweet confection, for two reasons.

First, the mention of Turkey gives me an excuse to discuss briefly the etymology of this fruit’s name. The word “bergamot” is ultimately of Turkish origin, the original being bey armudu or bey armut, “prince’s pear” or “prince of pears”. Quite why pears got to name a citrus is not very clear to me, but what a Turkish name does suggest to me is that Europe originally got the fruit tree from Turkey (where Turkey got it from is another matter – the tree’s deepest tap root seems to be in South-East Asia somewhere). In fact, as might therefore be expected, bergamot is used to some degree in Turkish cuisine. For instance, the Turks make a marmalade out of it. They also use it to flavour Turkish Delight.

Which leads us to Turkish Delight. On the face of it, it is actually odd that I should want to finish with Turkish Delight; I don’t actually like it very much. But the reason I dislike Turkish Delight is that its commercial varieties – at least the varieties I’ve sampled – almost always use rosewater as the flavourant and I very much dislike rosewater: such a sweetly sickly taste, I find! I have bad memories from my youth of trying a particularly sickly British variety, Fry’s Turkish Delight, a confection of Turkish Delight enclosed in a milk chocolate casing. I still shudder at the thought of it. They had nice ads, though.
My thinking here is that I might actually like bergamot-flavoured Turkish Delight because I generally like citrus flavours, so I shall use use this platform to push for this particular version of the confection.

Perhaps I should start by calling this sweet by its Turkish name, lokum or more formally rahat-ul hulküm (these are both Arabic words at their root, which suggests that the Turks took something which was originally Arabic and made it theirs). Lokum means “morsel”, which at least originally was a generic term for various kinds of tasty morsels, while rahat-ul hulküm means “comfort of the throat”. As in the case of Earl Grey tea (and to a certain degree eau de Cologne), there is a creation myth: one man (never woman, of course) who made it all happen. The man in this case goes by the name of Hacı Bekir. The story goes that after having performed the Hajj, Bekir moved to Istanbul, where in 1777 he opened a confectionery shop in the district of Bahçekapı. He produced candies and various kinds of lokums. So far so good. But then came his genius moment, when he invented a unique form of lokum made with starch and sugar – this is the core culinary concept of our Turkish-Delight lokum, as we shall see in a minute. The business prospered. At his death, it was taken over by the next generation. Now, five generations later, the business is still going, under the founder’s name.
Here is a close-up of some of the lokums which the shop offers.
Unfortunately, as far as I can make out there is no existing portrait of Hacı Bekir, so I will make do with a rather romantic watercolour painted by the Maltese painter Amedeo Preziosi some 100 years after Hacı Bekir’s death, which has Bekir Efendi behind his counter serving his clients.
So that’s the story. But what really happened here? It seems that there are Arab and Persian recipes which include the key to our type of lokum, the use of starch and sugar, from several centuries before Bekir Effendi. So it can’t be said that he invented the recipe. It could be that he learned about these lokums during stays in the more Arab part of the Ottoman Empire and brought them to Istanbul where they were unknown, perhaps refiguring them to local tastes. Or  perhaps he, and/or his children, were just better marketers than their rivals. Whatever happened, they have ended up being seen as the inventors of Turkish Delight.

So it is now time to give my readers a recipe for making Turkish Delight lokum. Even if they never use the recipe, it shows what real, rather than industrially-made, lokum should be. The quantities cited in this recipe should be sufficient to make 20 lokums.

The first step is to prepare a syrup of sugar and lemon. Dissolve 400 grams of sugar in 200 ml of water. Add 1 teaspoon of lemon. Bring to a boil and keep boiling until a temperature of 115°C is reached. In a small pan with a thick bottom, add 250 ml of water and dissolve in it 70 grams of corn starch and half a teaspoon of cream of tartar, mixing them in with a spoon. The corn starch is key here, because when it gets to a temperature of about 80°C it begins to form a gel. It is this gel which gives lokum its typical gumminess. Start heating the mixture over a medium flame, mixing it with a whisk. Keep mixing continuously and at a constant speed. The mix will start thickening, from the bottom up. Keep up a constant, even mixing until you see the first signs of ebullition, at which point turn off the heat immediately. Pour the syrup into the starch gel a little at a time, incorporating it well with the whisk. Turn on the heat again, and the moment it comes to the boil, reduce the heat to the lowest temperature which still allows a very slow but constant ebullition. With a spoon, keep mixing continuously, slowly and evenly, for 40 minutes to an hour, being very careful that the mix doesn’t burn on the bottom and keeping it all uniformly mixed. The mix will become progressively transparent, yellowish and dense, so dense that it becomes very difficult to stir. The mix is ready when it gives the impression that it could be lifted up in one bloc but actually isn’t yet ready for that. At this point, most recipes instruct one to add rosewater, but I urge you to use bergamot essential oil instead! Add the oil – no more than a teaspoon! – and, if you are so inclined, some chopped nuts (hazelnuts, peeled almonds, or pistachios). Mix them in well, and then pour the whole into a non-stick frying pan. Spread it out with wetted hands until it is all a couple of centimetres thick – work quickly to avoid burning your hands! When the mixture has completely cooled, remove it from the pan and cut it into squares. As you cut them, dust them with a mix of corn starch and icing sugar (to keep the cubes from sticking together).

The result should look something like this.
Well, I think I’ve disappeared down enough of the Internet’s rabbit-holes for one day. There were piles more rabbit-holes with bergamot signs on them, but I think it is time to draw a line under this particular piece of research. At least I now know what bergamot is and why it’s in the Earl Grey tea we drink from time to time.


Bergamot tree in fruit:
Bergamot fruit:
Bergamot orchards, Brancaleone:
Bergamot essential oil:
2nd Earl Grey:,_2nd_Earl_Grey
Jacksons of Piccadilly ad:
Twinings Earl Grey tea:
Giovanni Paolo Feminis:
Santa Maria Maggiore:
Farina factory in Cologne:
Eau de Cologne flacons:
Bergamot marmalade:
Liquore al bergamotto:
Fry’s Turkish Delight ad:
Haci Bekir shop:
Haci Bekir’s Turkish Delights:
Haci Bekir by Preziosi:
Homemade lokum:


Vienna, 25 September 2018

On the walks which my wife I have been enjoying this summer in the Wiener Wald, Vienna’s woods, we have from time to time come across nettles along the side of the path. Here’s a picture of one large patch which we came across recently.

Whenever I see nettles, I instinctively move to one side and slow to a deliberate pace to make sure that I don’t get stung by the little bastards. I suppose that those of us who live in parts of the world where stinging nettles flourish – and that’s pretty much everywhere except sub-Saharan Africa – have learned the necessary defensive tactics to adopt in order to avoid being stung, probably learned the hard way after ill-fated encounters with the plant when we were young and innocent of the evil ways of the world. To be fair to the nettle, I should note in passing that not all nettles sting; there is one species, the fen nettle, which is stingless. I read that it is a European species. I suppose I have never been to those parts of Europe where it grows, which is a great pity.

The stinging sensation comes from the plant lathering biochemical irritants on your skin, such as histamine, serotonin, and choline, and from its tiny sharp hairs piercing your skin – look at those nasty little buggers, glitteringly evil and just waiting to slice into you!

The result is, of course, those horribly itchy, hot, blotches on your skin.

Poor kid, I feel so much for him! I say this because I have a particularly painful memory from when I was a Boy Scout; I must have been 11 or 12. We had gone off on our annual week’s camp, and two groups of us found ourselves one afternoon at the bottom of a hill thickly covered with bushes, long grass, brambles – and large swathes of nettles. We made a bet as to who could arrive at the top first. For some reason, I found myself at the head of our group and so had the task of hacking a path through the wilderness. At some point, taken by a sort of frenzy, I charged ahead with minimal covering of my exposed limbs. We arrived first at the top, but by then my arms were covered with nettle welts. At first, the congratulations of my group members made up for the pain, but after a while the pain dominated my thinking. I stiffened my trembling upper lip, though, and carried on. I was a Boy Scout, after all. But the memory of the pain has lingered on all these years.

Well, I was a boy then and my behaviour can be put down to juvenility. But in preparing this post I have learned that there are actually adults who run through nettles! There is a race in the UK, called the Tough Guy Nettle Warrior contest, where the contestants not only run through nettle patches but also through fire, and through wires delivering electric shocks. They also do more mundane things like race up and down steep hillsides, run in and out of muddy ditches, clamber up 15ft rope nets, and worm their way under barbed wire perilously close to their face. Here we have them running through the nettles.

Well, all I can say is, there is one born every day.

The nettle doesn’t even have a nice flower or yummy fruit to offset its nasty stinging habits. The bramble, for instance, which is also a mean son-of-a-bitch to fall into or to traverse, has both. Does the nettle have any redeeming features? Well, it seems it does have one or two, none of which, I have to say, I have experienced personally. So I can only pass on what I’ve read.

You can eat nettles. If you’re a masochist, you can eat them by entering the World Nettle Eating Championships, another competition held annually in the UK. Competitors are served 2-foot long stalks of stinging nettles from which they pluck and eat the leaves. After an hour the bare stalks are measured and the winner is the competitor with the greatest accumulated length of stripped nettle stalks. Here we see the competitors at work.

The men’s champion in 2017 munched his way through 70 feet of nettles …

It takes all sorts to make the world, they say.

If, like me, you are not into self-harm, you can cook the nettles first; that takes their sting away. I’ve often heard of nettle soup, although not only have I never tried it but I’ve never met anyone who has. Here is a Swedish recipe for this soup (nässelsoppa in Swedish, in case readers visiting the country want to ask for it). For some reason, I sense that the Swedes make a “purer” version of it than others; I mean, isn’t Noma, the Michelin-starred restaurant where you are served pickings from field and forest, just across the waters, in Copenhagen? (and they serve nettles in various forms, according to one blogger who ate there)

  1. Pick the nettle leaves – WITH GLOVES! Pick the top four or six leaves on each spear, they are the most tender.
  2. Clean the leaves well of any grass and beasties which you might have unintentionally picked up as well.
  3. Blanch the nettle leaves, and then strain them from the liquid. Don’t throw away the liquid!
  4. Make a roux with butter and flour. Pour the water in which the nettles were blanched onto the roux.
  5. Chop the blanched nettle leaves very finely, along with the other ingredients, which typically include chives (or ramson or garlic), and chervil or fennel. Or you purée them, although this must be a modern alternative, born with the advent of mechanical blenders.
  6. Put the chopped (or puréed) nettles and herbs into the nettle water-roux mixture. Bring to a boil and then leave to simmer for a few minutes.
  7. Serve, with a sliced boiled egg and/or a dollop of fresh cream.

The result should look something like this.

Njut av! (which, if Google Translate got it right, is the Swedish for “Enjoy!” – although if Bergman’s films are anything to go by, the Swedes don’t enjoy much of anything)

I read that nettle leaves can also be consumed as a spinach-like vegetable, puréed, or added to things like frittate or vegetable and herb tarts (the latter being a Yotam Ottolenghi recipe; not a word about nettles in Jamie Oliver’s recipes). It is also an ingredient in herbal teas. And of course – but here we are drifting into Medieval beliefs (literally) – nettles have been used as traditional medicine to treat a wide spectrum of disorders: disorders of the kidneys and urinary tract, gastrointestinal tract, locomotor system, skin, cardiovascular system, hemorrhage, influenza, and gout. Take your pick. Or if you have rheumatism you can have someone flog you with nettles. In preparing this post, I came across a report by someone in the UK who had himself flogged with nettles for his bad back.

Whatever takes your fancy … (my country is full of some really strange people – no wonder it voted for Brexit).

You can also make a linen-like textile with nettles; the plant’s fibres have very similar properties to flax and hemp (and I need hardly mention that the processing of nettles into textiles eliminates their stinging properties). In fact, in Europe, our ancestors were making nettle textiles at least 2,800 years ago. A piece of textile from a Bronze Age burial in Denmark, a photo of which I insert here, has been identified as made of nettles.

The clever scientists involved in the research have gone one step further and figured out that these particular nettles came from Steiermark, which in today’s political geography is in southern Austria, just down the road from where I am sitting writing this. They argue, with some justification it seems to me, that if this textile made its way from southern Austria to Denmark it must mean that nettle textiles were considered a luxury item in the Bronze Age. Quite why this is so is not clear to me, however. Nettles grow in Denmark too, so what was so extraordinary about nettle textiles made in southern Austria? I guess we will never know.

After the advent of cotton, nettles fell out of favour, along with flax and hemp. There were moments, when wars made access to cotton difficult, when the use of nettle textiles was revived. It seems that one such moment was in France during the Napoleonic wars, when the UK’s maritime blockade meant that France’s access to cotton was restricted. So perhaps La Vieille Garde, Napoleon’s elite troops, about which we heard so much during our visit to the battlefield of Waterloo, wore uniforms made from nettles?

The Germans too, it seems, made use of nettle textiles in their soldiers’ uniforms during World War I, again because the UK’s blockade cut off the country’s supplies of cotton.

Nowadays, it’s niche designers who are making clothes from nettles, promoting their greenness and sustainability. Here are a couple photos of such clothes which I found during a random surf of the web.

There seems to be a whiff of the alternative lifestyle here. We appear to still be a long way from mainstream clothes being made of nettles. But the EU, I read, is deadly serious about trying to promote a greater use of nettles, as well as of flax and hemp, as an alternative to cotton, both as a stab at greater sustainability and as a way of getting farmers to grow more non-agricultural crops, thus reducing Europe’s over-production of food while still maintaining farmers’ incomes. Perhaps fields of nettles like this will soon become common.

As an environmentalist, I of course would welcome this move towards more local production – but I would agitate for a law making signs like this a legal requirement, upon pain of the farmer being flogged with his produce if he fails to put them up.


After I had posted this, an old friend of mine quickly reminded me that nettles also play a very important role in supporting butterflies, or rather the caterpillars which will become butterflies; these critters will happily feed on the leaves. Suitably chastened, I did a quick search and found a page on the Woodland Trust site which explained this important nettle-butterfly nexus. To make amends, I add here pictures of those butterflies most commonly associated with nettles.

The small tortoiseshell:

The peacock:

The red admiral:

The comma:

The painted lady:

The Woodland Trust exhorts gardeners to keep that patch of nettles which they have in their gardens, to help the butterflies. Hmm, I wonder if the fen nettle would support these butterflies? If yes, I’m all in favour of it. We would have a win-win situation here: supporting our beleaguered butterfly populations but not risking getting stung in our own gardens.

Nettles on our walks: my pic
Nettle hairs:
Nettle rash:
Running though nettles:
Nettle eating championship:
Nettle soup:
Flogging with nettles:
Bronze Age textile from Denmark:
Member of the Vieille Garde:
German soldier WWI:
Nettle wrap:
Nettle man’s vest:
Field of nettles:
Stinging nettle sign:


Bangkok, 3 February 2016

After reading my last post, my wife asked me a very simple but very penetrating question: “But why are jeans blue?”

One can of course be nit-picking and respond that actually not all jeans are blue. This is undoubtedly true but let’s face it, the huge majority of jeans are dyed some shade of blue. Jeans are not called blue jeans for nothing.

One can also give the trivial answer “because blue dye is used”, which rightfully elicits the riposte “Ha-ha, very funny”. But actually, an interesting tale does hang on the dye used, which I learned while preparing the previous post and which I can’t resist recounting here.

We have to go to Europe for an answer to my wife’s question, because it was from there that the denim material used for blue jeans came to America. So what is the history of blue dye in Europe?

I was delighted to learn that the original blue dye of choice in Europe was extracted from woad. For those – I’m sure many – readers who have no idea what woad is, it is a plant native to many parts of Europe from whose leaves indigo dye can be extracted. I throw in a picture here in case any of my readers might wish to go searching for it.

woad plant

Personally, I must admit that I only knew woad as the stuff which Julius Caesar, in his De Bello Gallico, tells us the Britons smeared themselves with: “Omnes vero se Britanni vitro inficiunt, quod caeruleum efficit colorem, atque hoc horridiores sunt in pugna aspectu”, “In truth, all the Britons stain themselves with woad that occasions a bluish colour, and thereby they have a more terrible appearance in battle”. But I prefer the way it is put in that sublime history of Great Britain, 1066 And All That: “Julius Caesar advanced energetically, throwing his cavalry several thousand paces over the River Flumen; but the Ancient Britons, although all well over military age, painted themselves true blue, or woad, and fought heroically under their dashing queen, Woadicea, as they did later in thin red lines under their good queen, Victoria.” Mel Gibson in Braveheart shows us how it should be done.

mel gibson

Trivia aside, woad was actually economically a very important crop in many parts of Medieval Europe and made some communities very wealthy. In France, for instance, the trade in the dye from woad built many of the more beautiful buildings in Toulouse


while in Germany woad paid for the University of Erfurt, established back in 1389.

erfurt university

The indigo from woad coloured the best of medieval tapestries.

medieval tapestry

In sum, all seemed to be going swimmingly for the woad sector!

But there was a worm in the rose: the same indigo dye, but extracted from the leaves of another plant, in much larger quantities per leaf, in India.


This stuff was already arriving in small and very costly amounts onto Greek, and later Roman, markets, along those same trade routes which I’ve had cause to mention in earlier posts. Because it was so expensive it was used primarily as a pigment in paint and not as a dye of fabrics. The Greeks called it indikon, the Indian dye. The Romans latinized this to indicum, which eventually gave us our indigo. Once the Europeans rounded the Cape of Good Hope and made it safely across the Indian Ocean, they could buy the stuff directly from the producers and cut out all the middle men. Nice packets like this began to arrive in Europe in the hold of European ships.

Indian_indigo_dye_lumpThe price in the European market places duly dropped, woad producers saw their livelihoods threatened, and they resorted to the classic weapons of getting pliant governments to forbid its use (it’s called anti-dumping these days) and putting around rumours that using indigo from India severely affected the quality of the fabric. All to no avail. The higher transportation costs from India were more than offset by the much higher productivity of the Indian plant. Transportation and production costs were then further slashed when the Spaniards started growing the Indian plant in their Latin American colonies and the British in their southern American colonies (Carolina and Georgia), both with slave labour.

Indigo Processing Carolinas

The British then went on to use their early stranglehold on Bengal to create vast indigo estates, turning the local farmers into de facto slaves in the process, which further reduced costs.

indigo processing bengal

Woad was doomed and disappeared from the scene.

But at this moment of triumph for Asian indigo, there was another worm in the rose, this time in the form of the nascent organic chemical industry. In the early 1800s, when woad was fighting its final rearguard actions against Asian indigo, Europe and North America were starting to adopt town gas to light and later heat homes and businesses. Town gas was produced from coal.

town gas manufacture

Its production also created various very nasty wastes, some of which I have stumbled across in my professional career buried in old gasworks sites. One of these wastes was coal tar, a nasty, gooey, stinking waste which looks like this.

coal tar

Chemists started dabbling with coal tar to see what they could extract from it. The breakthrough occurred in 1856 when a young British chemist by the name of Henry Perkin, while trying to make quinine from coal tar, serendipitously produced a purple dye that he later commercialized under the name mauveine.

mauveineIt must have been so thrilling, almost magic, for Mr. Perkin to extract this beautiful colour from that horrible, nasty black gunk. For sure, in the chemistry lab as a boy I found those moments when the liquid in my test tube turned a beautiful colour to be the most memorable. But perhaps Mr. Perkins only saw the commercial possibilities in this lovely mauve.

In any event, the race was on! Chemists piled in to see what other dyes (and later other organic products) they could make by fiddling around with coal tar. The Germans soon dominated the field, accounting for almost 90% of synthetic dye production at the outbreak of World War I. It took a while for synthetic indigo to be produced, because coal tar didn’t contain a suitable “carbon skeleton”. Finally, in the late 1870s, early 1880s, the German chemist Adolf Baeyer managed to find several routes to synthetic indigo. His Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1905 was partially based on this work. Chemists at the Badische Anilin und Soda-Fabrick (better known to us as BASF) came up with yet another, commercially more viable, route, and BASF marketed its first synthetic indigo in 1897. By the way, just to close the circle, BASF was created in 1865 by one Friedrich Engelhorn, who had established the gasworks for the town of Mannheim in 1861 and saw in Perkin’s discovery of mauveine a way of turning this damned coal tar waste into something useful. As BASF’s name suggests, the company initially focused on aniline-based dyes. This is the original BASF plant at Ludwigshafen in 1866.


Natural indigo was doomed. Synthetic indigo’s better quality, the greater reliability of its supplies, and its lower cost all drove natural indigo off the market, despite the usual attempts, which we’ve seen already with woad, by sympathetic governments to try and block the use of synthetic indigo by fair means or foul. In 1897, the year that synthetic indigo first came onto the market, 19,000 tons of natural indigo were produced. By 1914, this had plummeted to 1,000 tons and the free fall was not over. Asian indigo followed woad-based indigo into oblivion.

At this moment of triumph for synthetic indigo, there lurked yet another worm ready to devour the rose’s heart: other blue synthetic dyes. Indanthrene Blue RS was patented in 1901, Hydron Blue was developed in 1908, and maybe there were others – the world of textile dyes is bewilderingly complex. I’m not quite sure how these various dyes fought it out for the denim market, but in the 1950s BASF and other indigo producers seriously considered promoting other blue dyes for denim because of indigo’s poor fastness properties. This is jargon for meaning that textiles dyed with indigo tend to fade rather easily. What stopped them was the fact that this very property of fading was what was so earnestly desired by the young owners of blue jeans, the product in which indigo was most used. So indigo was saved and the worm crawled off to devour other roses. Because of the popularity of jeans, indigo is in fact king of the heap. It is the textile dye with the highest production volumes in the world, some 30,000 tons a year (when you think that most of it is used to dye jeans and that it only takes 10 grams of indigo to dye one pair of jeans, readers with good mathematical skills will quickly figure out that literally billions of jeans must be made every year).

But after that tour through the world of dyes and its cut-throat competition, I am afraid to say that I still haven’t properly answered my wife’s question: “why are jeans blue?” Why are they not red or green or black or yellow? Well I think we have established why they are blue today: because of indigo’s quirk of fading in interesting patterns. But why did the Amoskeag Mills in New Hampshire, which initially supplied Levi Strauss with his denim, use indigo dye? Despite my best efforts, I have not been able to find a satisfactory answer. I suspect it was because by the 1860s, when the mill started supplying Mr. Strauss with his denim, this particular fabric had “always” been dyed with indigo or woad or some other blue dye. “Always” seems to mean at least since the 16th Century. One article I came across says that it was at this time that blue in the UK became the poor’s colour of choice for their clothing. Judging by the paintings of the Master of the Blue Jeans, it was the colour of choice for the poor in Europe more generally.

master of the blue jeans

Why? I don’t know. I have to assume that cost was a factor, but it could also have been simply a fashion trend.

So I’m afraid that I have failed to answer my wife’s question at the deepest level. But I shall keep an eye out, and maybe one day I will come across the answer and be able to update this post. Any leads will be welcome. In the meantime, I invite my readers to enjoy some blue.

Blue Spectrum


Woad plant: (in
Mel Gibson: (in
Medieval tapestry: (in
Hôtel particulier, Toulouse:’Ass%C3%A9zat,_toulouse_%28panorama%29.jpg
Erfurt University: (in
Indigofera tinctoria: (in
Packet of natural indigo dye:
Indigo processing Carolinas: (in
Indigo processing Bengal: (in
Town gas manufacturing: (in
Coal tar: (in
Mauveine: (in
Old BASF plant: (in
Master of the Blue Jeans painting: (in
Blue spectrum:×455.jpg (in


Bangkok, 25 January 2016

I have a wonderful pair of jeans. I bought them God knows how many years ago and ever since, through a constant cycle of wearing and washing, they have softened, whitened, shredded, and micro-ripped. They are the very epitome of distressed jeans (“Distressed (of fabric): visibly aged and worn, from long, steady use, but still intact and functional”).


I laugh scornfully at those half-starved ladies who mince around in what are obviously fake distressed jeans, jeans that have been subjected to Lord knows what processes (stone washing, sand blasting, chemical bleaching, cutting, slashing, and on and on) in some sweat shop in a poverty-stricken part of the planet.

woman in distressed jeans

This pair of jeans are still relatively OK. The next pair seems to have been subjected to the tender mercies of Edward Scissorhands.

imageUsing a metaphor, my jeans are comparable to a great wine, aged over years in a cool cellar

bottle of good wine

while theirs are just alcopop.

alcopopAnd the funniest thing is that my jeans cost me little, while theirs cost hundreds of dollars. Ha!

Actually, this business of cost, as well as the deliberate mutilation of the fabric that we see in the previous pictures, both give me pause. Let’s remind ourselves that until relatively recently the denim of my trousers, along with the closely related jean fabric, were almost entirely used to make work clothes for working people. Levi Strauss made his fortune manufacturing tough, long-lasting, affordable denim trousers for men like this: gold panners caught up in the California gold rush (the forty-niners, “was a miner, forty-niner, and his daughter Clementine”)


or for the miners in the gold and silver mines out in Colorado, Arizona, and Nevada


as well as, of course, for the cowboys who roamed the Western range.


In a word, jeans were made for tough men who worked in the great outdoors.

The original ads for Levi jeans gloried in this toughness. The company was making trousers that even horses couldn’t tear apart!


How did this tough, no-nonsense, affordable piece of clothing morph into expensive rags clinging to the legs of elegant, half-starved women? Tasteful rags, I grant you, and clean, but still rags.

Step 1 in this transformation, it would seem, was the dude ranch phenomenon. For those of my readers who don’t know what dude ranches were, they were working ranches in the American West, where city people from the East (called dudes by the locals) would come for a vacation to enjoy a romantic outing to cowboy land without having to suffer the discomforts and dangers of the original immigrants. The popularity of dude ranches soared after the First World War with the advent of the car and easier travel. Here’s the cover of a popular magazine from the early 1940s, which shows what most people probably thought of dudes (notice the laughing cowboys in the back). But what is of even greater interest to us is what this fashionable young lady is wearing – undoubtedly a pair of blue jeans.


When on the ranch, these city slickers (another term used for dudes, along with greenhorns and tenderfoots) clearly wanted to dress like the cowboys which they met there, and then they started bringing these exotic clothes back East: most readers probably don’t know that Levi jeans were not sold east of the Mississippi until maybe the 1930s or even 1940s. Presumably, though, it was still a small minority of Easterners who wore jeans and then only out in the countryside.

Step 2 in the transformation from a good, honest piece of clothing to an expensive rag was the adoption of blue jeans by Bad Boys – bikers and such, of which Marlon Brando in the 1953 film The Wild One became the epitome. Please note the scruffy jeans he is wearing.


James Dean, in the 1955 film Rebel Without A Cause upped the ante, in an equally scruffy pair of jeans but looking cuddlier than Brando.


(You see the jeans rather more clearly in this poster of the film)


Middle class parents hated everything about these films, including the jeans, therefore of course their teenage children loved them. It didn’t help that righteous school principals, cinema managers, and the like were banning jeans from their premises. That just added fuel to the fire.

The wearing of jeans as a sign of youthful rebellion, and of being youthful generally, culminated in the 1960s with the surfing, the flower power, the anti-Vietnam War movement of that decade. Here, for instance, is a hippie couple getting hitched – “married” would not be the correct word I think. I throw the photo in because the officiator is wearing a fine pair of jeans.


And here’s one of the gigs at Woodstock, where most of the band members seem to be wearing jeans. Note the serious flare on the jeans in the back of the photo – my very first pair of jeans, which I must have bought in the early ’70s, were so flared.


Even when things turned ugly, as they did in Kent State a year after Woodstock, jeans were being worn. I think everyone in this photo, including the Dead Student, is wearing jeans.


Note also how the Mourner has adorned her jeans with graffiti (art work is too big a word) – something which jeans wearers of the ’60s liked doing and something which the fashion world caught on to quite quickly. Already in the latter half of the ’60s, a New York boutique called Limbo hired impoverished, out-of-work East Village artists to embellish its jeans with patches, decals, and other touches, and sold them for the-then princely sum of $200. Jeans wearing was on the way to becoming trivialized.

By this point, I think it’s safe to say that jeans had pretty much entered the mainstream. The definitive proof of that is that I, who was never that alternative, was wearing them. They were still casual wear rather than formal wear, but they had “arrived”. There was, however, still an important step to take, namely the wearing of ripped jeans. I suppose we’re so used to wearing anything nowadays that the sight of ragged clothes on obviously well-off people doesn’t shock us. But not all that long ago, and by that I mean in my lifetime, wearing ripped and ragged jeans would have meant only one thing: you were poor, if not downright down-and-out. To stress this point, let me throw in here a picture of a painting by an unknown Italian artist of the late 17th Century, who goes by the soubriquet of “The Master of the Blue Jeans”. He is so known because of the ten or so paintings which are known to be from his hand, and which all have as their subjects people (poor people I should add) wearing blue jean fabric.


As readers can see, the child in this painting is very obviously poor, and the jean jacket which he is wearing is ripped. In today’s world, this child could probably sell this garment for a good price (after a strong fumigation and a good wash I would think). But in his day, and indeed even today in many parts of the world, ragged clothes meant poverty. Which is why my grandmothers obsessively darned and mended every hole they found in our clothes. And which is why there are many paintings recording this part of a woman’s work.


Yet in some mysterious way, some two-three decades ago it started to become chic, at least in certain circles, to wear ragged denim. Why?

It seems that we have the punks to thank for this. It was they, with their anti-conformist, anti-establishment, anti-everything attitudes who popularized the slashing of jeans. This picture gives a good example of the genre – both punks and slashed jeans.


I suppose slashing one’s jeans was just another, very obvious, way of giving the finger to our social conventions, in this case that rags were shameful; no doubt punks’ mums were horrified to see their children going around in rags and were mortified by what the neighbours might think.

But why didn’t this fashion statement just remain in the shadows of the sub-culture of punk? To answer that, I think we must acknowledge a modern trend in the fashion world. For centuries, the trend setters in fashion were the social elites, people like Louis XIV


or Beau Brummell, intimate of the Prince Regent, later George IV


or Edward VII, inventor of, among other things, the Homburg hat


or even someone like Mona Bismarck, American socialite of the 1930s


Beginning in the 1930s, though, we can see a shift towards a less elitist view, with film stars, for instance, becoming fashion trendsetters. By the 1960s, the shift seems to have been complete. The fashion trendsetters are now people on the street, like the punks, who are pushing fashion boundaries. Which has brought not just rag-wearing but also body-piercing and tattooing into the mainstream.

Personally, I think an important but overlooked element in the road of rags to riches is the introduction of an elastic component like spandex into the denim, which has allowed jeans to become very tight around the leg. Let’s face it, while the punks may have been giving us all the finger, the fashion industry doesn’t want to do that. It wants slashed jeans to send a nice message, and what’s nice about slashed jeans is that it allows one a sight of the shapely legs of the half-starved women inserted in those jeans. And one doesn’t get a good sight of the legs unless the jeans adhere tightly to them.

That, I think, concludes the journey of jeans from serious work clothing to chi-chi vestment. What can be next, I wonder? Well, there is talk of jeans disappearing altogether. Many young things, it seems, are opting more and more for the cute sounding athleisure, which is cutting into jeans’s traditional markets. If this goes on, everyone will be dressed like this


or this


or other variations, and Levi Strauss will either be making these or will have gone out of business.

I must keep my jeans for another 30 years. They will probably be a very rare piece by then and be worth a fortune.


My jeans: my photo
Woman wearing “distressed jeans”: (in
Extremely distressed denim:
Bottle of good wine: (
Bottle of alcopop: (in
Gold panner:
Gold miners:–montanamineoldwest1889goldminersphoto.html
Old Levis poster:
Woman dude:
Marlon Brando in The Wild One:
James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause:
Rebel Without A Cause poster:
Hippies getting married:
Kent State shooting:
Boy in jeans jacket:
Woman darning socks:
Louis XIV:
Beau Brummell:
Edward VII:
Mona Bismarck:


Bangkok, 5 April 2015

Picking up on the theme of my last post, the application of cosmetics to certain parts of the face (eyebrows in that case), I feel that I should also comment on one fashion statement which I have come across in this part of the world and which, contrary to the fashion of strong eyebrows that seems to be sweeping the world, I hardly see being adopted any time soon away from its place of birth. The part of the world in question is Myanmar, and the fashion statement in question is the daubing by women (but not only) of their cheeks with a beige-coloured paste.
Yangon, Burma, Myanmar. Streets.It really is something that foreigners cannot fail to notice the moment they arrive in Myanmar, and indeed the internet is full of comments along the lines of “what on earth is that stuff on the women’s faces?”  The last time my wife and I were in the country, I finally got around to asking what this stuff was exactly. Thanatka, I was told (or thanat-ka, or thanaka, or thanakha; transliteration of Burmese words into English is quite approximate, rather like Shakespeare spelling his own name in three or four different ways – but I digress). Our hotel had a little exhibition on thanatka in the lobby, which frankly didn’t explain anything at all. Time to scour the internet, and as is normally the case Wikipedia threw up some useful material.

First, the why: why are women (and children to some degree) putting thanatka on? The answer seems to be primarily for beauty, rather like Amerindians paint their faces as decoration.
amerindian with painted faceIndeed, while the photo which starts this post has the lady in question just giving herself a brushstroke’s worth of thanatka on each cheek, others seem far more creative. Painted leaves seem popular (although I wonder if this is simply catering to the tourist trade?)
painted leaveswhile simple whorls
whorlsor circles also appear frequently in the cannon.
circlesIt seems that thanatka is not only about beauty. It is also said to provide protection from sunburn. But then I would have thought that application to the whole face would be more appropriate, the way I slathered sunscreen on every piece of my exposed skin during our recent trip to Myanmar. Claims are also made that it removes acne, and there are “before and after” photos to that effect on the net – although, rather strangely, of white people only. It is also claimed to have anti-fungal properties, although luckily there are no “before and after” pictures of that.

“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder”, they say, and I have to assume that Myanmar men find this wash of beige on their women’s cheeks attractive. After all, Myanmar women have been pasting themselves in this way for at least 700 years. Personally, though, I find it difficult to see anything beautiful in the habit. Every time I see one of these ladies, my instinctive reaction is to think “Ooh, they need to wash their faces”.  Of course, it’s not as if European women don’t paint (or powder) their faces. Rouging one’s cheeks is a fashion that goes back centuries, as attested by all those portrait paintings hanging in various museums of Europe of aristocratic ladies or royal mistresses (or both) with nicely rouged cheeks. For instance, this slightly racy painting of Nell Gwynn, mistress to Charles II of England, shows her with lovely red cheeks (and strong eyebrows, I am pleased to see, given my last post!)
nell gwynn(as I mentioned in an earlier post, there was a time when European aristocratic men also liberally rouged their cheeks)

The fashion statement has continued. For instance, I still remember from my youth those little powder cases which every woman had in their handbag, and which they would whip out from time to time to rouge their cheeks or generally give their face a powdering over.
powder caseAnd as far as I can make out, the fashion still goes strong. Women with cosmetically highlighted cheeks are a dime a dozen on any street in the world (except Myanmar …), although the powder case has given way to other delivery mechanisms.

But there is a difference, no? These women were and are highlighting the natural colouring of their cheeks. Myanmar women, on the other hand, are just daubing themselves. I wonder if the original idea was not simply to make the skin look paler, that universal obsession of women in all Asian countries.

Now for the what: what exactly is thanatka? It is an exceedingly natural cosmetic, made from grinding the bark, wood, or roots of a tree together with a small amount of water.
thanatka preparation 003As modernism marches through the country, a Myanmar lady can go to her supermarket and buy a jar of ready-made product. But she can also still go out and buy the wood (with this particular seller advertising her wares)
wood for saleas well as the stone grinder, and make it at home. No doubt the artisanal aspects of the trade will die out soon.

I finish by saluting the humble trees at the start of the chain: the thanatka tree (a species of Murraya)
thanakta treewith these particular individuals standing in front of some venerable temple, as well as the theethee tree (Limonia acidissima)
theethee treeI just hope that in the rush to slather their faces with paste, the Myanmarians are not chopping these trees down with wild abandon, thus denuding the landscape in the process. Beauty, however defined, is not worth that.


Woman with painted cheeks: (in
Woman Amerindian: (in
Thanatka painted leaves: (in
Thanatka whorls:é-birmanie.jpg (in
Thanatka circles: (in
Nell Gwynn: (in
Woman with powder case: (in
Thanatka preparation: (in
Thanatka wood: (in
Murraya tree: (in
Theethee tree: (in


Beijing, 2 February 2014

It’s quiet at the moment in Beijing. The Chinese New Year has just passed and the city is still deserted, with the locals staying at home and the migrants off in their home towns or villages. So when we went out for our usual Sunday afternoon coffee to The Place, a mall whose main claim to fame is that it hosts a ginormous TV screen, it was singularly empty. We decided to eschew our usual coffee houses such as Starbucks and Costa Coffee, both of which grace The Place, and took our coffee instead at a branch of (the South Korean-based) Paris Baguette.

paris baguette 003

As the name suggests, this chain of stores offers a vaguely French eating experience, the most obvious of which being the sale of baguettes – they’re not bad, although the Vietnamese, after their bout of colonization by the French, bake better ones. The stores also sell French pastries: croissants, of course, madeleines, and various others (they also sell a lot of pastries which my French grandmother would never have recognized as French in any way). And, as I discovered today, the staff wear berets basques
paris baguette 001
At least, I think that is what they are meant to be wearing. They are certainly modeled on the beret basque, although they look more like the floppy hats that popular and upwardly mobile painters sported in the 19th Century.

As everyone knows, the beret basque is as French as … well, the baguette
basque beret-2
or the gauloise cigarette and glass of red wine …
beret basque et gauloises
… or onions and garlic. I remember when I was young coming across the last gasps of an old tradition: Frenchmen bicycling around the UK selling onions. Lord knows why this tradition started, but as every Englishman knows the French eat a lot of onions – and garlic – so maybe the English thought that French onions purchased from a Frenchman were better than onions grown in the UK. So legions of canny Frenchmen set out every summer to bicycle door-to-British door and sell French onions. And of course branding rules required them to wear a beret basque.
basque beret-onion sellers
The funny thing is, only once in my life do I ever remember seeing a Frenchman actually wear a beret basque, and that was the driver of a car who, just north of Dunkerque, ran smack into the right-hand side of the deux-chevaux which my English friend was driving.

Since, as everyone knows, the deux-chevaux is as French as the beret basque, the baguette, and the gauloise

Citroen 2CV

the driver presumably thought that my friend knew the typically French road rule of “priorité à droite”, priority to the right: a car coming from the right always has priority unless otherwise specified. Unfortunately, my friend knew the much more sensible English road rule that a car on a big road has priority over a car on a little one, and since our road was a least three times as wide as his road, she thought … The resulting clash of cultures left a very big dent in her car door.

In any event, the only place I ever really saw the beret basque being worn regularly was in northern Italy, and that was only in the early years of my going there, some 30-plus years ago. Quite quickly, the younger generation abandoned the beret, as well as any other head coverage, presumably for one or more of the reasons which I listed in an earlier post. But I am very fond of a couple of photos lying around our apartment in Milan.  In one, my father-in-law is wearing his basco (as it is called in Italy) and smiling into the camera. In another, we see him sporting the beret and holding my wife, just a small girl at the time, by the hand. Whenever we come across them, my wife smiles and begins to reminisce. They were on holidays, it was the mid-sixties, times were good then in Italy, there was optimism in the air. The Good Old Days …

What about the region which gave its name to the beret? Do they wear it? Alas, as these photos suggest, it’s only the older folk who wear it any more:

basques with berets-2

basques with berets-3

basques with berets-1

basques with berets-5

basques with berets-4

Hmm, we still have my father-in-law’s beret, in some corner of a cupboard. Maybe when I’m nearing the end of my road, I’ll start wearing it.


Paris Baguette, inside and out: my pics
Basque beret and baguette: [in
Basque beret, gauloises and red wine: [in
Basque beret-onion sellers: [in
Citroën 2CV:×700/media/5716157/Citroen%202CV%20%281%29.jpg [in
Basques with berets-1: [in
Basques with berets-2: [in
Basques with berets-3: [in
Basques with berets-4: [in
Basques with berets-5: [in


Beijing, 16 January 2014

A few days ago, my wife was showing me a website she had discovered: “Before They Pass Away”. It’s a wonderful site, kept by the photographer Jimmy Nelson, who has travelled to many of the remoter parts of the world to document the world’s vanishing tribes. I really recommend my readers to visit it.

As I was studying his photographs of the Kalam tribe in Papua New Guinea, I was thunderstruck by the absolutely wonderful headgear they are wearing:


It rather reminds me of a headgear I’ve referred to in an earlier post, being worn by a donor depicted in a 14th century mosaic in the Kariye camii church in Istanbul:


but the Kalam tribesmen’s headgear is much, much more magnificent! For a crazy moment, I imagined myself wearing such a headgear to the office. Boy, would I look impressive! But quickly, though reluctantly, I dismissed the idea because (a) I would have difficulty passing through the doors, and (b) my staff would conclude that I had definitively lost my marbles.

This train of thought led me to start reflecting on the wearing of hats. Because I could wear a hat to the office. Hats fit through doors and my staff wouldn’t think it’s time to call in the men in white if I wore one. Yes, I could easily be a smooth operator like Humphrey Bogart (“Here’s lookin’ at you, kid”)

humphrey bogart with fedora

or Spencer Tracy

Spencer Tracy

or a little closer to home and in time, Jean-Paul Belmondo and Alain Delon

belmondo and delon

I would definitely avoid the top hat, which is really too formal

top hat

or the boater, which is really too silly, as Bertie Wooster amply demonstrates (played here masterfully by Hugh Laurie to Stephen Fry’s Jeeves)


or the bowler hat, which is really too English

M.P.'s at Kings Cross

and was amply mocked by Monty Python in their Ministry of Silly Walks sketch

ministry of silly-walks

although one could argue that the 1960s TV show The Avengers gave the bowler hat and attendant umbrella a certain air of glamour.

bowler hat-the Avengers 3

I was certainly moonstruck when I was young by la belle Diana Riggs.

bowler hat-the Avengers 2

But the fact is, I wouldn’t even wear the more normal of these hats to the office. I mean, who wears a hat any more? And that’s really rather extraordinary, because there was a time – before my time, I will admit, but still not that long ago – when no man in the Western world ever went out on the street without a hat on his head. Look at this picture, taken during some demonstration in New York in the early 1900s. There isn’t a single uncovered head.

crowd 1900s

And that was how things were until at least the 1940s and even into the 1950s. Then suddenly, hats disappeared.

Many theories have been put forward for this sudden eclipse of the hat: the rapid rise of the car culture (hard to wear a hat in a car); a reaction to having had to wear helmets and other hats as soldiers during the War; a general trend towards nonconformity (wearing hats was what the older generation did, ergo …); changes in hair styles: from the short-back-and-sides to Elvis quiffs in the 1950s and long hair in the 1960s (hard to wear hats on that); trends towards more casual clothing (hats being seen as a formal piece of clothing), etc. Take your pick.

My father would have been of the generation that abandoned hats. And in fact, I don’t remember seeing a single photo of him wearing a hat, nor do I ever remember seeing him wear a hat. Except once. In London. In the early 1960s, when I started going to boarding school. I have a distinct memory of him striding ahead of me, dressed like a city gent

bowler hat-5

while I trailed behind wearing my ill-fitting school uniform – a hand-me-down from my elder brother – and sporting the only hat I’ve ever worn, if it can be called a hat, the school cap. I looked something like this youngster

school cap-1

although, at the age of 8, I was 4 years older than this little chappie.

In the meantime, regular hat-wearing has become the preserve of the religiously inclined, from Roman Catholic clergy


bishop mitre

to Christian Orthodox clergy

orthodox priests

to Orthodox, Conservative Jews, here seen in their Sabbath finest

Jewish shtreimel-2

to conservative Muslims, here seen preparing for Friday prayers

taqiyah and keffiyeh in london

to Sikhs

Sikhs in Toronto

to certain Buddhist sects.

buddhist yellow hats-2

Sad, really. Unless I convert to a hat-wearing religion, this piece of clothing, which men in the Western world have been wearing in one form or another since at least the Middle Ages, will pass me by. The best I can hope for is a baseball cap to protect me from the sun in the summer and a woolen cap to protect me from the cold in winter.

But I’m sure the hat will come back. All things go round. The current crop of film stars is now being photographed looking glamorously unshaven and wearing some form of hat

brad pitt in hat

a good sign that the fashion of hat-wearing is on the way back. But will hats come back before I too, like the Kalam tribesmen, pass away?


Kalam-PNG: [in—papua-new-guinea#journeytribe0%5D
Kariye Camii-theodore metochites:
Humphrey Bogart with fedora: [in
Spencer Tracy with fedora: [in
Belmondo and Delon: [in
Top hat: [in]
Boater hat-Bertie Wooster and Jeeves: [in
Bowler hat: [in
Ministry of silly walks: [in
Bowler hat – the Avengers 1: [in
Bowler hat-the Avengers 2: [in
Crowd 1900s: [in
City gent: [in
School cap: [in
Bishop mitre: [in
Orthodox priests: [in
Jewish shreimel-2: [in
Taqiyah and keffiyeh in London: [in
Sikhs in Toronto:!.jpg [in
Buddhist yellow hats-2: [in
Brad Pitt in hat: [in


Beijing, 21 December 2013

I was 13 when I started wearing jackets. They were part of our school uniform. I shucked them off when I went to University, along with many other habits both material and spiritual, but in the case of jackets it was a brief reprieve. Once I entered the workforce, it was back to wearing jackets. I suffered at first but now I don’t mind anymore. Whenever I see my wife rummaging around in her bag muttering under her breath that she could swear she put it in (“it” being any number of things) and where on earth was it?, I thank Fate that men wear jackets. Because to me jackets have become the equivalent of a handbag, except that contrary to handbags the pockets are all handily separated. This makes it so much easier to retrieve my stuff: mobile phone in the left-hand external pocket, packet of paper handkerchiefs in the right-hand external pocket, glasses and computer stick (you never know when you might need to copy a document) in the inside left-hand pocket, passport and pens in the inside right-hand pocket, clip-ons in the breast pocket, business cards in that little inside pocket down towards the left, from which you can fish out a card and present it to your interlocutor in one smooth, fluid, business-like movement.

This close relationship in my mind between the handbag and the jacket has meant that I am relatively insensitive to the sartorial aspects of jacket wearing. Frankly, I would just keep wearing the same jacket for ever if I could – such a nuisance to have to shift everything to the pockets of the new jacket! And having to make choices in the morning about what new jacket to wear, when really all I want to do is to go back to bed, is very tough. But luckily my wife is at hand to firmly guide me through the relatively frequent decision-making process of jacket-changing.

At this point, you would be excused if you thought that I am completely uninterested in jackets as fashion statements. But actually from time to time I have been able to appreciate a style in jackets. This happened, for instance, when we moved to Vienna. I noticed with great interest that many men wore jackets like this

Trachten jacket

Commonly called a Styrian jacket, its cut is a cross between the traditional gear which hunters wore in the Alpine valleys of the Austrian province of Styria


and early 19th Century military uniforms, which we see here (for reasons which will soon become apparent) being shown off by Archduke Johann of Austria, 13th child (no less) of Emperor Leopold II.

Archduke Johann

To my mind, the collar is what makes the Styrian jacket very distinctive, although as the last photo shows it has been reduced considerably compared to its military forebear.

Unfortunately, wearers of this type of jacket in Austria are normally making a strong social statement. They are usually advertising their conservative credentials, which is why many wearers are of the older generation:

old fogey

Although its distant roots are in the Styrian peasantry, the jacket’s recent pedigree is very aristocratic. It was brought from the Styrian farms to Vienna’s imperial court in the early 19th Century by the same Archduke Johann I just mentioned. Initially considered with suspicion by Crown and aristocracy (Archduke Johann was a tad too close to the people for them), it eventually caught on and was popularized (if that’s the word) by the Austrian upper classes and their hangers-on in the middle classes. Which is no doubt why Christopher Plummer’s Captain von Trapp  is shown wearing one in The Sound of Music

Christopher Plummer-sound of music

Wearing the jacket can also have strong political overtones, declaring the wearer’s oh-so Austrian credentials, a rampart against the sea of dubious Eastern European influence lapping up against the edges of the country’s pristine Alpine ranges. Which is why Jörg Haider, the far Right governor of the province of Carinthia, liked being seen in the Carinthian version of this jacket (the earth tones, the “good earth of Carinthia” is what makes the jacket specifically Carinthian).


But actually you don’t have to belong to the huntin’-and-shootin’ set, or want to make a political statement about smelly foreigners, to wear this jacket. To my mind, it works brilliantly well in more casual “modern” settings


where the somewhat militaristic cut of the jacket contrasts pleasingly with the relaxed style of the rest of the outfit.

I have one such Styrian jacket, a light summer one, but I left that behind in Vienna. I have another winter jacket with me in Beijing, which is actually a Bavarian Miesbacher jacket (so I suppose strictly speaking the title of this piece is wrong – but the Bavarians and the Austrians are very similar, even in their sartorial preferences, sharing as they do the same Alpine history).


The Chinese look at me curiously when I wear the jacket, and sometimes they ask me what it is. I explain, but I don’t think they really appreciate; I suppose you need to have seen an Alpine valley or two.

The interesting thing is that the Chinese, or rather the Manchu of the Qing imperial court, created a style which was a precursor for a similar jacket in the UK, where the collar is often called the Mandarin collar. This picture of Qing dignitaries nicely shows the collar in its original setting:

Manchu men

After the collision of East and West in China, with the West coming out on top, this traditional dress morphed into a jacket, in response to the “modern” forms of Western wear invading China. It is commonly thought that Mao Zedong popularized the new style – and in fact the collar is often referred to as a Mao collar – but actually it is to Sun Yat Sen, the first President of modern China and founder of the Kuomintang, that this honour should go:

Sun Yat Sen

(which, as a trivial aside, I suppose must be the model for the jacket worn by Dr. No, the arch-evil adversary of James Bond in the 1962 film of the same name.)


This sartorial strand is somehow mixed up with another strand emanating from India. There, during the 1940s the Indians developed the Band Gale Ka Coat, Urdu for “Closed Neck Coat”, an apt name indeed.  This coat became a global star thanks to another leader, Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of modern, post-colonial India, who was often seen wearing a version of it.


All of this gave rise to the British variant of the “closed neck” jacket, the so-called Nehru jacket:


The interesting thing is that while the Austrian version of the jacket tends to be favoured by the right-wing elements of society, in its heyday – the Swinging Sixties – the British version was favoured by the left-wing elements, or at least the cooler, hipper set. Taking rock bands as a good indicator of all things cool, we have here a photo of The Who, where you will notice Roger Daltry wearing a Nehru jacket

The Who

while in this photo, we have – gasp! shriek! tearing of hair! – John and Paul of the Fab Four sporting Nehru jackets during a concert

The Beatles

Why, even in the US the Nehru jacket made its appearance among the modish set, as this ad with Sammy Davis Jr attests!

Sammy Davis Jr

So with such stellar support I don’t suppose I can be very far off the mark in thinking that the closed neck style for a jacket is kinda nice. Nowadays, though, in the UK the style seems to be more in the purview of women, as shown by this photo from last year of Catherine Ashton at one of the many meetings she held with the-then Iranian negotiator on nuclear issues, Saeed Jalili:

European Union foreign policy chief Ashton and Iran's chief negotiator Jalili pose for the media before their meeting in Baghdad

No matter. I will continue to beat my lonely path with my Bavarian jacket in China.

And I need to look into the shirt which Jalili is wearing. It’s pretty nifty, eliminating as it does the need for a tie, which is no bad thing. Another piece of clothing which I was required to start wearing, along with jackets, when I was 13 …

Trachten jacket: [in
Styrian hunter: [in
Archduke Johann: [inÖsterreich%5D
Old fogey: [in
Christopher Plummer-Sound of Music: [in
Haider: [in
Steireranzug: [in
Miesbacher jacket: [in
Manchu men: [in
Sun Yat Sen: [in
Dr. No: [in
Nehru and Jackie Kennedy: [in
Nehru jacket: [in
The Who: [in
The Beatles: [in
Sammy Davis Jr: [in
Ashton and Jalili: [in


Beijing, 20 August 2013

As we go around gasping for air in the currently hot and humid weather, like fish flopping around on a river bank, my wife and I cannot but notice the common Chinese fashion statement at this time of year of men (never women) rolling up their T-shirts


and – if they are wearing them – their trousers.


In the past, when I’ve seen Chinese men stroll past me so attired, I’ve always wondered if I couldn’t make a T-shirt which is specifically designed to be rolled up – in a somewhat more elegant way than the way Chinese men currently do it. Alas, some searching on the internet has shown me that a Japanese designer, Kaoru Inoue, has already come up with a Venetian blind design for a T-shirt!

tshirt-venetian blind-2

Story of my life, someone always beats me to the good ideas … But I do think that I could perhaps improve on this design – a circle of some stiff material around the bottom perhaps, to ensure that the whole T-shirt gets pulled up?

But actually, rather than think about how to roll up T-shirts in a more elegant way, we should think about why we are wearing T-shirts, or shirts, or even worse shirts, ties and jackets, in this kind of weather in the first damned place. The modern way of dealing with hot weather is to turn every building into a refrigerator – already standard fare in North America for at least 50 years (one of my enduring memories of my first visit to Canada, 40+ years ago, was my going into a supermarket on my second day there and being astonished at the frigid temperature); and fast becoming standard fare in China.

So we scurry from refrigerated building to refrigerated building, and then we sit in our offices and freeze


while outside the world is turning to toast.

burning world

What stupidity. What folly.

Why don’t we do it the way of the few remaining Amazonian Indians do, just wear few clothes?

amazon indians-2

although I think we could avoid the rather small loin cloths these gentlemen are sporting …

A great advantage of this approach is that it would allow those of us who like painting (not tattooing) the skin to do so, with the certainty that our neighbours would see our designs and admire them.

amazon indians-5

amazon indians-1

amazon indians-4


Rolled-up T-shirt-1:
Rolled-up T-shirt-2:
venetian-blind T-shirt:
Air conditioning:
Burning world:
Amazonian Indians-1:
Amazonian Indians-2:
Amazonian Indians-3:
Amazonian Indians-4:


2 June 2013

On our last visit to Hong Kong, my wife and I wandered into an antiques shop to poke around among the offerings. The owner, an ethnic Chinese, struck up a conversation with us. After discovering that I came from the UK, she lit up and became positively garrulous. It turned out that her son was completing a Masters at Oxford University, and she described, lovingly and in great detail, a trip she had recently made to the UK to see him. It soon became clear that she regretted Hong Kong no longer being British. In short order, her misty-eyed regrets over the UK leaving turned into a rant against the “Mainlanders”, Chinese from mainland China. This is a common topic of converstation in Hong Kong, where many of its ethnically Chinese residents determinedly stress that they are different from the Mainlanders. This determination is becoming fiercer as Mainlanders come in ever larger numbers to Hong Kong to gawp, buy, and generally get in the way. For this lady, there were two things which symbolized all the differences between Her and Them. She proceeded to tick them off on her fingers with disdain: “they spit, and they squat”.

I think we can all agree that the generalized Chinese habit of spitting is really quite revolting, particularly when it is preceded by a noisy hawking of the throat and – most disgusting of all – a blowing of the nose without a handkerchief. And it is true to say that you see very little of this in Hong Kong.

Our interlocutor’s hostility to the prevalent Chinese habit of squatting is more interesting. Everywhere in China – on pavements, in malls, at bus stops, in railway stations; anywhere, really, where people stand and wait – you will see people who have dropped down onto their haunches for a rest

squatting men beijing-wangfujing

reading, more often than not these days, their text messages.

squatting woman-5

I have to say that I also find this habit disquieting. It seems such a … humiliating posture, is the only way I can describe it. Every time I see people squatting, I scold them mentally: “Get up, get up! You are not a slave!”

And yet … when you think about it, in a world where chairs didn’t exist, which must have been 99.9% of the time that we have been human beings, it was really quite natural for us to drop down  onto our haunches when we were tired of standing and when there wasn’t a nice log or large stone to sit on. So I’ve come to the conclusion that I think the way I do about squatting because of the chair.

The chair, or rather the throne, was obviously an instrument used by Kings and Emperors, from the earliest times, to overawe their subjects. Here we have an Assyrian emperor lording it over some subject of his

throne-assyrian throne

And the temple of Abu Simbel in Egypt must surely be the epitome of rulers lording it over their lands while sitting on thrones

throne-abu simbel

Shelley’s poem Ozymandias, which I quoted in an earlier post, comes to mind when I look at these statues.

Egypt’s dry desert air, in which buried things do not rot, allows us to contemplate today a real Egyptian throne, this one from King Tut’s tomb (“Tutankhamun, King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Lord of the forms of Re, Strong bull, Perfect of birth, He whose beneficent laws pacify the two lands, He who wears the crowns, who satisfies the gods” to you, mere mortal, and don’t you forget it …):

throne-king tut-1

Even in more modern times have thrones played their part in elevating the splendour of the sitter, as in this case of the Qing emperor Kangxi

throne-Qing Emperor Kangxi

And of course Chinese emperors, along with many copy-cat Asian emperors, liked to have their subjects not just squat in front of them but to really debase themselves by kowtowing:

kowtowing before the emperor

Which led to the famous diplomatic incident of 1793, when, Lord Macartney, King George III’s envoy to the Chinese Emperor, refused to kowtow but did accept to get down on one knee as he would have before his King:

kowtowing before the emperor-English ambassador

Even more recently, thrones have played their part to prop up monarchies. The last Shah of Iran, for instance, was fond of using the Naderi throne to impart some sheen to his tawdry reign.

throne-peacock throne-Shah in front

And of course we in the UK have our venerable King Edward’s Chair in which all English, and then British, monarchs (bar two) have been crowned since 1308 – by the way, King Edward I commissioned the chair to house the Stone of Scone after he stole it (a.k.a. war booty) from the Scots.

throne-king edwards

Those of us who have the seen the film The King’s Speech will recognize the throne, which appears at some point in the story and whose portentous humbug is mercifully taken down a peg or two by the egalitarian Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue (played by that wonderful actor Geoffrey Rush), who slouches around in it provoking a burst of monarchist anger from King George VI:

throne-king edwards-Geoffrey Rush in it

Luckily, Lionel Logue’s egalitarian comments about the chair in question was preceded a century or so ago (not more, I suspect) by a move to make the chair a product of mass consumption, which meant that I (but probably not the Chinese of my generation) have spent my whole life sitting on chairs and not squatting on the ground. I try to remember the chairs of my childhood but fail. A chair’s a chair, some of you might say, it’s a functional object. True, but even functionality for the masses can be beautiful. It took my wife to introduce me to Italian furniture design and to make me realize that a chair could be both beautiful and functional. The moment we could – in the early 1980s – we bought ourselves a set of dining chairs. My wife has scoured the internet for photos of the model of our chairs but has found none. This photo of the spaghetti chair is the closest I can find:

chair-sled based-spaghetti

I designed and put together a dining room table to go with our chairs, the only thing I have ever designed in my life. All slumber in a warehouse in Vienna, awaiting our return to Europe.

Later, when we were living in New York, we came across Shaker chairs (and other furniture) during a weekend trip in upstate New York which took us to an old Shaker colony. Beautiful things.


We would have bought some reproductions if we hadn’t already had our chairs – and if they hadn’t been so expensive.

Over the years, we’ve seen some “trophy” chairs (chairs which don’t just sit quietly around a dining room table) which we wouldn’t have minded buying, if the price had been right (and if we’d had the space).

The Danish harp chair:

chair-danish harp chair

The Mondrian chair (this would have been more my choice than my wife’s):

Chair-Mondrian chair

Chairs designed by the Glaswegian architect, designer and artist Charles Mackintosh (again, my choice I think):

chair-Mackintosh chair

Here in China, chairs from the Ming period:


The reader will have noted by now that our tastes in chairs (indeed, all furniture) lean towards the simple and clean line …

I suppose that with consumption on the rise in China, the habit of squatting will disappear, as will – I fervently hope and pray – the habit of spitting.  In the meantime, I will continue to mentally exhort my fellow Beijingers to stand up straight and proud every time I see them squatting on the ground.


Squatting men:
Squatting woman:
Assyrian throne:
Abu Simbel:
King Tut throne:
Qing Emperor Kangxi:,Qing,Emperor,Kangxi,Painting,Color.jpg
Kowtowing before the emperor:
English ambassador Lord Macartney before the Emperor:
Shah of Iran in front of peacock throne:
King Edward’s Chair:
Geoffrey Rush sitting in King Edward’s Chair:
Spaghetti chair with sled base:
Shaker chair:
Danish harp chair:
Mondrian chair:
Mackintosh chair:
Ming chair: