LOQUATS

Sori, 29 May 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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While here is one from the late Qing dynasty.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“OH NO, BALSAMIC VINEGAR!”

Milan, 21 May 2019

That was the thought which crossed my mind when in our last AirBnB my wife and I were going through the kitchen cupboards to see what had been left behind by previous occupants. I looked at the bottle glumly.
I like having my vegetables in salad, and my sauce of choice is a simple vinaigrette: olive oil, vinegar, salt. I dislike having to use balsamic vinegar. I don’t care for the sweet taste it imparts. Salads, in my humble opinion, require astringency, not sweetness. I hasten to add that I am not against the mixing of sweet and salt per se on my plate, as this previous post attests to. I’m just against sweet sauces on salads. So, as I say, I stared at the bottle glumly. It looked like I was going to have to use balsamic vinegar on my salads during our stay; who wants to buy a whole bottle of vinegar for a short AirBnB stay? Luckily, our daughter, whom we were visiting, came to the rescue, lending us some of her vinegar, the real stuff, made from red wine.

Where did all the real vinegar go to? There was a time, not so long ago – we’re talking 15-20 years ago – when waiters brought you real vinegar when you asked for “oil and vinegar” for your salad. Then, mysteriously, balsamic vinegar appeared out of nowhere, and the waiters would start asking: “balsamic or normal?” Then, after a bit, the waiters simply brought you balsamic; if you wanted real vinegar, you had to beg for it and they would bring it with evident ill-will if they had it at all. I think I know what the pagans in the Roman Empire must have felt like, just after Christianity became the State religion. One moment, your religion is mainstream, then along comes this upstart religion and suddenly everyone is looking at you askance, your favourite temple is being torn down or turned into a church, and you can’t get a job in government anymore! (an experience well described by Stephen Greenblatt in his book The Swerve).

I’ve always had a love for vinegar, ever since I tasted my French grandmother’s homemade brew. Down in her cellar – its earth-packed floor exuding a special scent of centuries-old dry dust and its dark corners packed with the fascinating flotsam and jetsam from the many generations who had lived in the house – there was a long wooden table, on which she kept her store of little round local goat’s cheeses as well as a small wooden barrel in which she made her vinegar. When the vinegar in the dining room was finished my grandmother would send me down to the cellar (which has already been the subject of a previous post) to fill the little vinegar pitcher. Of course, I never took a picture of her vinegar barrel. After a search on the web, though, I found this image which gives an idea of what I would find before me after I had walked down the old stone steps and opened the heavy cellar door.

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As I would open the tap in the barrel, a lovely winey but slightly acidic scent would rise to my nostrils as the vinegar ran into the pitcher. Ah, that lovely, lovely smell! Never forgotten, even though half a century and more has passed. How can it be that people prefer balsamic vinegar to this elixir of the gods?!

After much thought on the matter, I have put it down to the fact that, contrary to my preferences, most people like a sweet sauce on their salads. I still remember with a shudder the sickly white, creamy, sweet sauces that the Brits spread with wild abandon on their salads. I see the same types of sauces in the Germanic and Nordic lands of Europe. In my youth, I had this theory that there was a salad-sauce border that ran across Europe, between the countries or parts thereof which spoke Romance languages plus Greece – all oil-and-vinegar salad sauce countries – and the remaining Germanic and Slavic speaking countries – all sweet creamy salad sauce countries. The US and Canada, reflecting their immigration history, have always seemed to me to be mixed in their tastes in salad sauce although I feel that the sweet creamy salad sauces predominate; even the non-creamy sauces are horribly sweet. Here is a picture of an array of such sauces in the posh supermarket that was up the road from our AirBnB.
But the tsunami of balsamic vinegar which has flooded over bastions of the oil-and-vinegar salad sauce countries like Italy has led me to bitterly conclude that even most Italians – and probably most French and most Iberians – like their salad sauces sweet. I am the old 4th Century pagan left bewildered and embittered by the mass conversion of my compatriots to Christianity …

The ridiculous thing is, I’m sure that most people who liberally drizzle their salads with balsamic vinegar don’t realize that they are actually consuming a FAKE. We have all read and heard that balsamic vinegar has its roots in the Italian towns of Modena and Reggio-Emilia (I throw in here a photo of Modena’s main square).

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It does indeed, but the original is hugely different from the vast majority of the stuff people call balsamic vinegar. First of all, it is not made from wine in the way vinegar is. Instead, a must of (locally grown) crushed grapes – pulp, seeds, skin, stems and all – is slowly reduced to a thick syrup over an open flame. This is then allowed to ferment to create some alcohol, at which point the acetic acid bacteria are allowed to get to work to turn that alcohol into acetic acid. After which, the acetified syrup goes through a long, long aging process, during which the acid levels rise. A series of at least five progressively smaller barrels (each made of different woods) are used for this.

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Once a year, part of the syrupy vinegar in the smallest barrel is withdrawn as final product. The barrel is topped up with vinegar from the next largest barrel, and so on, in a cascade mode; at the end, the latest batch of acetified syrup is used to top up the biggest barrel. The procession of syrupy vinegar from largest to smallest barrel can take anywhere from 12 to 25 years or more to complete. All this is now regulated by a Protected Designation of Origin certification (DOP in Italian) for “Traditional Balsamic Vinegar” (Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale). If readers would like to pick up the product in a shop (or online), it looks something like this.

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Such smart-looking (and very small!) bottles come with a correspondingly high price tag. They can be yours for no less than 150€ and for as much as 300€! At those prices, do readers think it gets drizzled on salads? No way José!! Discerning Modenese and Reggio-Emilians will place a few drops on shards of Parmesan cheese as an appetizer, or on a plate of simple pasta like tortelli di zucca, or on a grilled fish, or on fresh fruit such as strawberries, or on a dessert like panna cotta. They will even drink it from a tiny glass to conclude a meal as an after-meal digestive, especially on special occasions such as weddings. But they will definitely not waste a single drop of this precious liquid on a vulgar salad.

As readers might appreciate, a product which takes this long to make doesn’t have a huge annual production. But when, after what I suspect was a canny global marketing campaign, balsamic vinegar became the thing to have in your home and at the restaurant, demand grew hugely. How to satisfy this voracious – and highly profit-making – demand? Very simple. Make grape must from any old grape variety, reduce it a bit (or maybe not), add any old normal vinegar to give the vinegary taste, add caramel to give it the dark look, and corn starch to give it the syrupy look, of the real thing, slap on a label proclaiming it to be balsamic vinegar, et voilà! I’ve simplified a bit, but that is more or less what happened in the heady days of the late 20th Century when demand for balsamic vinegar shot up.

Some order was brought into all of this by the EU creating two certifications: the highly prestigious DOP, which I’ve already mentioned, and a Protected Geographic Indication (IGP in Italian) for “Balsamic Vinegar of Modena” (Aceto Balsamico di Modena), which in its name recognizes the origin of all this balsamic vinegar. In fact, when people buy “high-end” balsamic vinegar, they normally buy the IGP variety. If readers refer back to the first photo in this post, they will see that the bottle I stared at glumly is IGP certified. And I took this photo in the condiment aisle of the same posh supermarket I mentioned earlier.
All the balsamic vinegars were, without exception, IGP-certified “Balsamic Vinegar of Modena”.

But I’m afraid this product is also rather a fake. You see, to get this certification all the producer really needs to do is to make sure that one stage of production occurs in or around Modena. So the must could be made in California with Californian grapes, and the vinegar could be made in Australia using Australian wine, but as long as the last required step – aging the resulting mixture for a minimum of 60 days – is carried out in a warehouse in an industrial park on the outskirts of Modena, the producer can quite legally claim it to be a “Balsamic Vinegar of Modena” and use the mark of IGP certification on the label. (Oh, and the product would have to have at least 20% by volume of must, and at least 10% of vinegar, and at least 6% acidity, and no more than 2% of caramel for colouring.) And of course I leave it to my readers’ imaginations to think where any other product with just the words “balsamic vinegar” came from and what it contains (and doesn’t contain).

Well, with a bit of luck, this exposé of the nefarious ways of the world of balsamic vinegar producers may have persuaded some of my readers to abandon balsamic vinegar and go back to the one true faith of real vinegar on their salads. I can hear readers objecting that much of what passes for “wine vinegar” is also the product of some chemical refinery somewhere. I cannot deny this; my only answer is “caveat emptor and read the label” – and I make a mental note to myself to write a post in the future on how to make your very own, real, vinegar at home.

 

BRANDY FROM KYRGYZSTAN

Milan, 19 February 2019

My wife and I have a problem. This problem is a bottle of brandy from Kyrgyzstan, which has been sitting on a shelf, still in its wrapping, since early last summer.
It was given to me during my visit to Kyrgyzstan last May, as a token of appreciation from my local counterpart for having come. I murmured thanks when it was given to me – one mustn’t be rude on such occasions – but already on the flight back home I was wondering what to do with it.

The fact is, neither my wife nor I are a fan of brandy. We don’t even like Cognac, probably the most revered of all brandies, made since the 16th Century from grapes grown in vineyards like these in the southwest of France
distilled in copper alembic stills like these
aged in oak barrels like these
to be finally blended into products like these.
And if that’s how we feel about the crème-de-la-crème of the brandy universe, the apex of the brandy culture, then readers can understand why we are distinctly unenthusiastic about a brandy made in Central Asia in the shadow of the Himalayas
by a people who were traditionally horse-riding herdsmen
and who had the culture of grape-growing and wine and brandy production forced on them by Russian colonialists in the 19th Century.
Our first idea was to offload the bottle onto our son, who happens to live down the road from us at the moment, but he politely declined. We then tried to do the same thing with our cleaner, but she too politely declined. After that, we really couldn’t think of anyone else we could give it to; it would have smacked too much of palming off the unwanted gift (“A bottle of … Kyrgyz brandy? What a nice thought …”) For a moment, I even considered taking the bottle to the bar across the street, inviting them to add it to their row of liquor bottles on the shelf behind the bar.
But I don’t really know them well enough and I fear they might suspect me of wanting to poison the neighbourhood.

My next idea was to drink away the brandy in cocktails, cocktails with wonderful names like Brandy Sour, Brandy Alexander, Sidecar, and Brandy Daisy. I’ll let this picture of a Brandy Sour stand in for all of them.
To me, these names are redolent of a certain period: men in sharp suits, slicked-back hair, toothbrush mustaches; women in smart dresses; both with a cocktail glass in one hand. This particular couple is our most popular couple from the 1930s: William Powell and Myrna Loy, who made a series of films as a husband-and-wife detective team.
Yes, I could see myself whiling away the evenings with my wife, engaging in bright and bubbly banter about nothing much in particular while sipping on a Brandy Sour. There is only one slight problem with this: I don’t have the equipment (the shakers and whatnot), I don’t have the technique
and I don’t have any of the weird and wonderful ingredients required to make cocktails: just for those four cocktails I mention above Angostura bitters, crème de cacao, Cointreau, Grand Marnier, Curaçao, and yellow Chartreuse. I’m not going to start buying these things, because I would only end up, like my father, with a cupboard full of bottles which would sit there for years on end taking up space and gathering dust.

Since drinking the stuff didn’t seem to be the answer, I began to think about using it in our cooking. So I’ve been scouring the internet for recipes involving brandy. The most brandy-intensive recipe I’ve found is for Christmas Cake.
In the first place, you use a generous portion of brandy in the actual making of the cake. But it doesn’t stop there! You should make the cake a while before Christmas and then “feed” it a couple of tablespoons of brandy every fortnight (“to build the flavour and keep it moist”) until you plonk it on the table at Christmas lunch. I’m sure you could also use a couple of tablespoons to flambé the cake once it’s on the table (making sure to keep your head well back to avoid singeing your eyebrows). Now I’d love to make such a brandy-impregnated cake for Christmas, and I think one cake would pretty much wipe out the whole of the bottle i have. But Christmas is not for another 8 months and I’m not sure I want the bottle hanging around on my shelf until then.

Another possibility would be for us to make a lot of onion soup.
The brandy is used to deglaze the pan after the onions have been sautéd, that is to say, it is used to dissolve away the nice brown residue which the onions have left on the bottom of the pan. The resulting jus is added to the soup, giving it extra taste.

We could decide to treat ourselves to onion soup once a week until we’d finished that damned bottle. At half a cup of brandy a go, the amount suggested by a couple of the recipes I’ve read, I reckon that in two, maybe three, weeks we would would have got rid of the bottle’s contents. My only hesitation in putting this scheme into effect is its potential impacts on my digestive system – I must confess to having difficulties in digesting onions.

Brandy’s traditional role in deglazing pans points to a solution. My wife likes to brown food, which leads of course to nice brown residues in the pans.
I tend to discourage this habit because I have found that browning can easily segue into burning (a finding, I should say, that my wife stoutly denies). Now, if we can use my wife’s browning habits to get rid of that Kyrgyz brandy I think I could drop my objections and actually encourage her to brown. I will pass this by her and see what she says.

That’s as far as my thinking has gone into ways of getting rid of that bottle of Kyrgyz brandy. If any of my readers have any other suggestions, I’d be more than glad to hear them.

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Kyrgyz brandy: my picture
Cognac vineyards: http://lejournaldelevasion.com/newsletters/item/1731-s%C3%A9jours-et-d%C3%A9couvertes-au-c%C5%93ur-du-vignoble-de-cognac
Copper alembic still: ww.pediacognac.com/en/la-distillation-dela-distillation-enla-distillation/das-charentaiser-brennverfahrencharentaise-distillationla-distillation-charentaise/
Oak barrels: https://blog.cognac-expert.com/double-matured-cognac/
glass of cognac: https://depositphotos.com/35751055/stock-photo-glass-of-brandy.html
Kyrgyzstan: https://www.lonelyplanet.com/kyrgyzstan
Kyrgyz horseman: https://kalpak-travel.com/tour/multi-active-tour-kazakhstan-kyrgyzstan/
Russians conquering Kyrgyz: https://eurasianet.org/russias-colonial-allergy
Liquor bottles in a bar: https://vinepair.com/wine-blog/cleaning-out-the-liquor-cabinet-how-to-understand-the-shelf-life-of-your-alcohol/
Brandy sour: https://www.esquire.com/food-drink/drinks/recipes/a3664/brandy-sour-drink-recipe/
William Powell and Maureen O’Sullivan: https://www.phillyvoice.com/bryn-mawr-film-institute-to-screen-the-thin-man-with-martinis/
Bar tender shaking cocktail: https://pt.videoblocks.com/video/bartender-with-shaker-making-cocktail-in-modern-bar-handsome-barman-shake-drink-blevjkhwxivn6ohgi
Christmas cake: https://sortedfood.com/recipe/christmascake
Onion soup: http://www.eatingwell.com/recipe/253016/slow-cooker-french-onion-soup/
Browned pan: http://infonline.over-blog.it/article-come-disincrostare-pentole-e-teglie-111011705.html

TWO PANETTONI FOR THE PRICE OF ONE

Dedicated to my son, who too often gets strep throat

Milan, 3 February 2019

Today is February 3rd!

This exclamation of mine will, I’m sure, leave all of my readers puzzled, so I need to explain: February 3rd is the feast day of Saint Blaise!

I fear, though, that this piece of information will still not help my readers much, so let me plough on.

Saint Blaise is one of those delightfully obscure early Christian martyrs, lost to us in the mists of time and fog of hagiography. His story is quickly told. He lived in the late 2nd, early 3rd Centuries AD. He was the Bishop of Sebastea, now Sivas, deep in the heart of modern Turkey. He was a holy man and a miracle worker. It is one miracle in particular that interests us here. A young mother came rushing to Blaise with her son, who was dying from a fish bone (or possibly a fish scale) stuck in his throat. As someone who, at the age of 12 or 13, got a fish bone stuck in my throat, I can deeply empathize with the poor boy. Luckily, I wasn’t dying but it was an incredibly painful experience. After various home remedies had been tried, I was taken to a doctor who extracted it. It so happens that Blaise had also trained as a doctor, but it seems he favored a faith-based approach to healing (I don’t know whether this was merely a reflection of his strong faith or a commentary on the parlous state of medicine at the time). So he laid his hands on the boy’s throat and uttered the – extremely sensible – words: “either come up or go down”. The fish bone (or scale) duly came up, or went down, and the boy was saved. This is the best painting I have found, by the Neapolitan painter Pacecco de Rosa, commemorating this touching scene.
Blaise was caught up in a final burst of persecution in the Roman Empire against Christians, which was the fruit of a vicious power struggle between the co-Emperors Constantine and Licinius. It is narrated that Blaise was arrested and dragged before the local governor and “invited” to abjure his faith. Here we have the scene commemorated in a stained glass window from Picardie, in northern France.
Of course, Blaise did no such thing. In fact, he used the occasion to lambaste idolatry (no doubt using strong and colourful language to make his point). At which, the governor in a fury ordered his men to torture Blaise. Which they did, with gusto, using combs or brushes with pointed metal teeth to tear his flesh to pieces. This is the best painting, by Filippo Vitale, another Neapolitan painter, which I could find of this painful event. I particularly like the Caravaggesque approach adopted by the painter. I have to say, I also find the pop-eyed torturer fantastic.
I feel moved, however, to also add a picture here of a section of the Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel where Michelangelo painted Saint Blaise, because he made a great a depiction of the saint holding a wicked-looking pair of combs. Imagine having your skin scraped with those things!
In passing, I have to say that I am always amazed at the wonderfully inventive tortures early Christian hagiographers came up with for their martyrs. The muscular-looking lady in the green dress below Saint Blaise in the Last Judgement is Saint Catherine, holding the spiked wheel which she was meant to be broken on. I have written an earlier post about the flaying of St. Bartholomew. I went to a school whose patron saint was St. Laurence; he was basically grilled like a pork chop over a fire. The list of incredible tortures is endless …

But I digress. For some reason – no doubt because he was a saint – Blaise survived this harrowing of the flesh. He was thrown into jail, presumably to give his jailers time to think up even more hideous ways of torturing him. But they were clearly not up to the task, for the next thing we are told is that the governor ordered Blaise to be drowned in the nearby river. His men duly threw him into the river, where he miraculously floated. In frustration, they hauled him to the shore and cut off his head. And that was the end of Blaise (although I have to ask myself, if he could miraculously float in the river why could he not also miraculously stop the sword from cutting his head off? But, as they say, God moves in mysterious ways).

Blaise might have been dead but his reputation lived on. Over the centuries, he became the patron saint of various things. The one that interests us here is that he is the saint to whom one prays if one has a sore throat. Well, sore throats are a very common ailment for us humans, especially at this time of the year, but they are not life-threatening. So initially I found it somewhat surprising that people in the old days felt the need for a saint to intercede specifically for sore throats. But then it occurred to me that perhaps I was actually just reflecting the modern state of our health. Perhaps in the old days a sore throat was actually often the harbinger of something much more deadly creeping up on us, especially if we were children. For instance, there is whooping cough, which I would assume has a component of sore throat (luckily, never having had whooping cough, I wouldn’t know). Until quite recently pretty much every child caught whooping cough and a not insignificant number died as a result (and still do in developing countries, because they don’t get vaccinated as we do in the developed world). Strep throat also comes to mind. This is another disease that predominantly strikes children – it is responsible for as much as a third of their sore throats. It is incredibly painful, as I remember from my one run-in with the disease at the age of 10. To make the point, I throw in here a picture of a nice case of strep throat.
Strep throat is now treatable with antibiotics, but perhaps in the pre-antibiotic days, i.e., any time before World War II, strep throat was more deadly. And perhaps there are other diseases out there where sore throats are a warning signal of death around the corner, especially for children – I welcome further elucidation from any of my readers with a medical background.

In any event, my fancy tells me that early Christians had noticed a sometimes deadly correlation between youth and sore throats, and concluded – based on his miracle with the little boy and the fish bone – that Saint Blaise was the ideal saint to pray to when sore throats reared their ugly heads. Out of all this grew a custom that had the faithful flocking to churches on February 3rd, Saint Blaise’s feast day, to have their throats protected for the rest of the year with a special blessing. Although not so common now (I would say that we generally have greater faith in our doctors being able to cure us), it is a custom that lives on. And it’s not just any old blessing that one receives, no sirree! A pair of lit candles are crossed at one’s throat while the blessing is pronounced.
I have never been blessed in this way, so I don’t quite understand how it is that one’s hair isn’t set alight in the process; I would be extremely nervous about the whole thing. Where the idea of involving candles in the ceremony came from I have no idea, although it must be an old tradition. Here is a painting of Saint Blaise by Hans Memling, where readers can see that the Saint is serenely holding a candle.
All of this brings me to the real reason why I’m writing this post. It has to do with Milan, where I am currently spending the winter. The Milanese, like all other good Christians, firmly believed in Saint Blaise’s powers to cure sore throats. Indeed, there is a saying in Milanese dialect which proclaims: San Bias el benediss la gola e el nas, “Saint Blaise, he blesses the throat and the nose” (it seems that the Milanese sensibly extended the saint’s miraculous powers to the nose, or perhaps they simply wanted to make the rhyme). Nevertheless, the Milanese have added a special twist to this credence. Somewhere along the line, they concluded that eating panettone was just as good at protecting their throats as were two crossed candles and a priest’s benediction. So the ceremony in church was followed by a sit-down at home to eat a slice of panettone.

For those of my readers who are not familiar with this glory of Milanese cuisine, I throw in a picture.
Panettone is a type of sweet bread loaf. It’s been around since at least 1599, date of the first credible mention of it in the written records. What we see today, though, is not what our ancestors would have seen in 1599 or indeed at any time before 1919. In that year, the manufacture of panettone was revolutionized. An enterprising Milanese baker by the name of Motta introduced a new proofing step, where the dough was allowed to rise in not one but in three separate stages over a period of 20 hours. It is that which ensures the panettone’s tall domed shape as well as its wonderful fluffiness. A few years later, he was copied (“the recipe was adapted”) by another enterprising Milanese baker called Alemagna. The Motta and the Alemagna brands of panettone have been battling it out ever since.

I suspect that panettone originally looked more like a fruitcake (or plum cake to the English), which my French grandmother was very fond of and liked to buy for the Christmas festivities.
This too was the original role of panettone. It was a special, sweet bread that the Milanese made for Christmas. Like all these things, I would imagine that the “fruit” that Milan’s housewives and bakers added to their panettoni were closely guarded family secrets. Nowadays, as the Italian Government strives to give the panettone a DOP certification, the additions have been standardized: raisins – dry and not soaked! – as well as the candied zests of orange, lemon, and citron (the last of which I have written about in an earlier post).

I’m sure my alert readers will have noticed a problem. Panettone was originally made only at Christmas while the feast day of Saint Blaise is on February 3rd. Undeterred, the Milanese made it a habit of setting aside part of their Christmas panettone to eat on Saint Blaise’s day after they had braved their annual encounter with the crossed – and lighted! – candles. How exactly they kept their panettone from going stale in the meantime I don’t know. The web is full of suggestions on this topic for fruitcake, my favourite being to wrap it in towels soaked in brandy or wine and then in something like oiled paper. And anyway, as my wife sensibly remarked, if the panettone had become a trifle stale it could always be dunked in milk or tea or coffee.

But nowadays the Milanese don’t need to bother putting aside a piece of their Christmas panettone. No foodstuff is seasonal anymore, and panettone is no exception; you can buy it any time of the year. In fact, in a canny marketing move, sellers of panettone in Milan will offer two panettoni for the price of one on Saint Blaise’s day. Which is really why I’m so excited that it’s 3rd February today. I can buy two wonderfully delicious panettoni for the price of one! The moment I’ve posted, I’m off down the road to buy them, like this gentleman has (although he seems to have scarfed down half a panettone before even leaving the shop).
And maybe on the way back I’ll pop into a church to have my throat blessed. You never know …

____________________________________

Saint Blaise blessing the child: http://necspenecmetu.tumblr.com/post/46439176152/giovanni-francesco-de-rosa-pacecco-de-rosa-the
Saint Blaise before the governor: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Blaise
Saint Blaise being harrowed: https://www.flickr.com/photos/91590072@N04/15982366258
Saint Blaise in Michelangelo’s Last Judgement: http://www.everypainterpaintshimself.com/galleries/michelangelo_last_judgment
Strep throat: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Streptococcal_pharyngitis
Blessing of the throat: https://www.gazzettadiparma.it/scheda/246883/San-Biagio—la-benedizione.html
Saint Blaise holding a candle: https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blaise_de_S%C3%A9baste
Panettone: https://www.buy-me.it/panettone-classico-1kg-pasticceriabiasetto/
Fruitcake: http://dish.allrecipes.com/holiday-baking-fruitcakes/
Two panettoni: http://gateau.catamarcainfo.com/what-to-eat-with-panettone/

BERGAMOT ORANGE

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.

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Bergamot tree in fruit: https://www.123rf.com/photo_50262296_yellow-and-green-fruits-of-bergamot-orange-on-tree-citrus-bergamia.html
Bergamot fruit: https://www.specialtyproduce.com/produce/Bergamot_Oranges_2637.php
Bergamot orchards, Brancaleone: http://www.ilgiardinodelbergamotto.it/
Bergamot essential oil: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bergamot_orange
2nd Earl Grey: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Grey,_2nd_Earl_Grey
Jacksons of Piccadilly ad: https://public.oed.com/blog/early-grey-the-results-of-the-oed-appeal-on-earl-grey-tea/
Twinings Earl Grey tea: https://www.englishteastore.com/tweagr3ozlot.html
Giovanni Paolo Feminis: https://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Giovanni_Paolo_Feminis
Santa Maria Maggiore: http://santamariamaggiore.info/santa-maria-maggiore/
Farina factory in Cologne: https://farina.org/simply-enjoy-travel-you-must-visit-farina-fragrance-museum-in-cologne/
Eau de Cologne flacons: https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Datei:Farina-Rosoli.jpg
Bergamot marmalade: https://www.artimondo.co.uk/bergamot-orange-marmalade-100g.html
Liquore al bergamotto: https://www.artimondo.it/liquore-bergamotto-berga-spina-50cl.html
Fry’s Turkish Delight ad: https://www.pinterest.at/pin/463870830351577028/
Haci Bekir shop: https://www.tripadvisor.co.nz/LocationPhotoDirectLink-g293974-d4587456-i272658946-Ali_Muhiddin_Haci_Bekir-Istanbul.html
Haci Bekir’s Turkish Delights: http://www.istanbulinspired.com/2017/08/the-ottoman-confection-turkish-delight/haci-bekir-turkish-delight/
Haci Bekir by Preziosi: http://ucelma.blogspot.com/2010/04/benim-vazgecilmez-mekanlarmdan-biri-ali.html
Homemade lokum: https://goodfood.uktv.co.uk/recipe/turkish-delight-1/

BUCKWHEAT

Milan, 24 December 2018

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

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

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

and which then forms dark brown triangular seeds.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Merry Christmas!
___________________________

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

ARTICHOKES

Milan, 17 December 2018

I never ceased to be amazed by the ingenuity of my fellow human beings. The latest thing that has set me off on this train of thought is … the artichoke.

Because, dear readers, when one is eating an artichoke, one is essentially eating a  thistle.

The family resemblance is a little clearer if one looks at an artichoke whose thorns have not been cut off.

It is even clearer if one sees an artichoke in flower (I for one didn’t know that artichokes could flower; and a beautiful flower too).

So there you go. We artichoke eaters are at one with Eeyore. True to character, that totally gloomy, pessimistic, and depressed stuffed donkey,  friend to Winnie the Pooh, loves to eat thistles.

I suppose A.A. Milne, creator of Winnie the Pooh and the related cast of characters, had in mind the kind of thistle I pictured above, the spear thistle, common throughout the British Isles. But actually, the artichoke is a descendant of the cardoon, which is a cousin to that thistle.

Now, how on earth did generations of humble but ingenious farmers coax that spiny little bell-shaped bud supporting the cardoon flower into becoming the, sometimes huge, artichokes which we artichoke-lovers delight in eating today? How did it even cross their minds to try?

This train of thought was started in me a few days ago when my wife bought the first artichokes of the winter season and served them up steamed for lunch. There I was, following my usual routine with artichokes. I picked off the leaves one by one, dipping them in my oil and vinegar sauce, and scraping off the tender pulp at the base of each leaf with my teeth.
As I spiraled round the artichoke, working my way through the leaves, they were getting more and more tender, with more pulp on each to eat, until I finally reached the artichoke’s inner sanctum. By then, the leaves had become small and delicate.
I plucked them all off at once, dipped, and ate them whole. Now, the artichoke’s flower was exposed.
This fibrous mass would have turned into the beautiful purple bloom I gave a picture of above if the farmers had left the artichoke in peace in the field. But it had been sacrificed to my animal desires and now I took my knife to this fuzz and scraped it all away to reveal the artichoke’s heart.
Ah! The most delicious part of the artichoke! I reverently dipped it in my oil and vinegar sauce and ate it meditatively, not forgetting to eat the stem, just as delicious. And as I reveled in this almost religious ceremony, the question popped into my mind: Who on earth invented this endearingly strange vegetable, and why?

After a little bit of digging, I can inform readers that we don’t really know. As I have reported in at least one previous post on the history of a vegetable, I’m afraid that the history of how vegetables got created was of little interest to ancient historians, who were much more interested in the goings-on of the elites. What humble little farmers were up to did not interest them much. So we have to piece together a history from shards of evidence left behind in the historical records, cross-checked with more recent genetic evidence.

As I have said, the artichoke’s ancestor is the wild cardoon, which has much the same range as the strawberry tree which I wrote about in the previous post, that is to say, the western part of the Mediterranean basin, from Greece to Spain and from Libya to Morocco. We know this because cardoons and artichokes are very similar genetically, so close that they can interbreed. Quite why someone ever bothered to try eating this viciously thorned plant is not clear to me. I have to assume that hunger led our ancestors to try anything and everything that grew around them, although the preparation time required to make wild cardoon edible must have been daunting. I can only think that our ancestors persisted because they felt that the taste was worth the effort. As an aficionado of artichokes, I would have to agree with that. Or – in an era where there was no corner drugstore – they believed it had valuable medicinal properties of some kind.

Quite how long ago farmers started experimenting is also unclear. Genetic analysis suggests that these humble folk were fiddling in two ways with the wild cardoon. Some were trying to make the flower bud more edible, leading to the artichoke. Others were trying to make the stem more edible, their efforts leading to the domesticated cardoon – for readers, who like me before writing this post, have no idea what domesticated cardoon looks like, I throw in here a photo of the plant.

The artichoke developers seem to have succeeded in their efforts by the “beginning of the first millennium” of our era, and these anonymous developers seem to have toiled away in Sicily or thereabouts. So perhaps artichokes were available some time in the first couple of centuries AD, in what was then the Roman Empire? As for the domesticated cardoon, this process doesn’t seem to have been completed until “the first half of the second millennium”, somewhere in Spain. So 1300-1400 AD in what could still have been Arabic Spain but was fast becoming Christian Spain?

As for the written evidence, our friend Pliny the Elder (whom I mentioned in my previous post) had a brief section in his Natural History, written before he was killed in the eruption of Vesuvius that wiped out Pompeii in 79 AD, on a plant he called carduus, which is the general Latin term for thistle. He wrote that this plant was grown in Carthage (in today’s Tunisia) and in Cordoba, Spain. But did he mean the artichoke or the domesticated cardoon? Or maybe some predecessor of the two which was not quite either? Then there is a Roman mosaic of the 3rd Century AD in Tunis whose frieze seems to be showing artichokes, although some people have argued that they could just as well be cardoons with largish heads.

As far as the artichoke is concerned, the etymologies of the various European names for it are not terribly helpful either. One strand of names – carciofo in modern Italian, alcachofa in Spanish, alcachofra in Portuguese – seem to be derived from the artichoke’s Medieval Arab name al-ḫaršūf. Another strand of names – artichaut in French, artichoke in English, artischocke in German, and similar names in other northern European languages – seem instead to be derived from the plant’s old Italian name articoca (which in turn derives from the late Latin name alcocalum).  Meditating on that, my guess is that when the Arabs invaded Sicily in the 9th Century, they found the artichoke already implanted, under its old Italian name. They arabized the name and carried it to Arabic Spain, where it entered Spanish gastronomy under its Arabic name. Then, in both places, when the Arabs were pushed out, the Arabic name was italianized and hispanified. In the meantime, the rest of Italy, to which the Sicilian-developed artichoke had spread, continued to use the old Italian name. This then spread – along with the vegetable itself – into other European countries to the north. But then, back in Italy, at some point the new Italian name, developed in Sicily, overtook the old Italian name. Complicated …

That’s about where things stand with the artichoke. I will leave the reader with one of the earliest representations in paint of this vegetable, by that really strange artist Giuseppe Arcimboldo, whose paintings, however, were wildly popular in his time; they now adorn the best museums in Europe. This particular one, l’Estate, hangs in Vienna’s Kunst Historisches Museum.
Readers will see that the “man” has an artichoke as a buttonhole.

As to the way I eat artichokes, I’m sure some readers would object. I know there are other dips that can be used. And artichokes can be cooked in other ways – carciofi alla romana come to mind, or maybe carciofi alla giudia. And the hearts can be conserved in oil and used in salads. But I am more than content with my simple approach. It’s stood by me for some 50 years. I will let others explore other ways of eating artichokes.

I can’t say the same for domesticated cardoons. I must confess to having never eaten this plant. My French grandmother – one source for my culinary experiments – never cooked them, and nor did my Italian mother-in-law, another source of my culinary experiments. Spain and North Africa seem to be the places to go to try cardoons. So with that, I will leave my readers with the recipe for a well-known Spanish dish, Cardos en Salsa de Almendras, Cardoons with Almond Sauce. My excuse for choosing this one is that it is popular in the Christmas season. The amounts quoted here are for four people.

Take a kilo of cardoons. They come in bunches like this.

Discard any hard outer stalks. Separate all the stalks from the base. Peel off the strings on the outside of each stalk of cardoon (like one does with celery) and the thin skin which is on the inside of the stalks. Once peeled, cut the stalks into 10-cm pieces and drop them into a bowl with water and lemon juice (the juice of 1 lemon for every 4 cups of water) and let sit.

Meanwhile, stir ½ tablespoon of flour into a small amount of water. Add the mix to a pot with 4 cups of water and a teaspoon of salt. Squeeze a chunk of lemon into the pot and throw in the lemon chunk too. Bring the pot to a boil. Add the cardoons, cover and simmer until the cardoons are tender when pierced with a knife (45-60 minutes). Remove from the heat, allow to cool in the cooking liquid, drain well.

Heat 1½ tablespoons for olive oil in a skillet and fry ¼ cup of skinned almonds and a clove of chopped garlic until they are lightly toasted and golden. Skim them out. Place them in a blender with some chicken stock. Blend until smooth. Stir a little flour into the oil in the skillet and let it cook for 2 minutes. Stir in the drained cardoons, the almond mixture from the blender, a cup of chicken stock. Salt to taste.

Enjoy!

______________________________________

Artichoke: https://www.fitday.com/fitness-articles/nutrition/healthy-eating/the-nutrition-of-artichokes.html
Spear thistle: http://wildflowerfinder.org.uk/Flowers/T/Thistle(Spear)/Thistle(Spear).htm
Thorny artichoke: http://www.wetheitalians.com/web-magazine/italian-flavors-thorny-artichoke-from-sardegna
Artichoke in flower: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/artichoke-flowers_n_56eafabce4b03a640a69e41b
Eeyore: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/artichoke-flowers_n_56eafabce4b03a640a69e41b
Cardoon: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cardoon
Eating artichoke: https://www.simplyrecipes.com/recipes/how_to_cook_and_eat_an_artichoke/
Innermost artichoke leaves: https://www.simplyrecipes.com/recipes/how_to_cook_and_eat_an_artichoke/
Artichoke heart: https://www.simplyrecipes.com/recipes/how_to_cook_and_eat_an_artichoke/
Domesticated cardoon: https://worcesterallotment.wordpress.com/2010/09/01/discover-cardoon/
Roman mosaic, Tunis: https://www.agefotostock.com/age/en/Stock-Images/Rights-Managed/DAE-BL022894
Arcimboldo, l’Estate: http://www.khm.at/it/objektdb/detail/71/?offset=2&pid=2582&back=&lv=listpackages-283
Cardoon bunch: http://mykitcheninspain.blogspot.com/2013/12/christmas-dinner-with-side-of-cardoons.html
Cardoons with almond sauce: http://mykitcheninspain.blogspot.com/2013/12/christmas-dinner-with-side-of-cardoons.html

A WALK UNDER THE STRAWBERRY TREES

Milan, 12 December 2018

A couple of days ago, when we were down at the sea in Liguria, my wife and I went for a walk on the Monte di Portofino, one of our favourite places to go walking. I’ve written earlier about other walks on this mountain, and it’s always a joy to go back and sample the different paths which wind around the mountain which stands at the centre of this promontory jutting out into the sea.

One of the pleasures of walking there, apart from having the sea ever-present in the background, is experiencing the different biomes that co-exist on the mountain. On the slopes to the north-east, where the conditions are generally shadier, cooler and more humid, a mixed forest grows with oak trees dominating and the undergrowth mostly consisting of ferns, brambles, and ivy.

On the southwestern slopes, on the other hand, which give onto the sea, and where the conditions are generally hotter and dryer, and the soils poorer and rockier, a Mediterranean maquis of low, scrubby bushes and trees predominates.

Within short spaces, as the paths twist and turn around the mountain, one can pass from a landscape which would not be out of place in the UK to one which could not be anywhere but on the Mediterranean.

It was as we began to traverse the first of the Mediterranean maquis biomes that I noticed these small, very red fruits lying along the path, sometimes very thickly.

They were dropping off trees like this.

The fruits were an intense red and looked a little like strawberries.

This is what they look like on the tree.

When you open them, they have a lovely golden interior.
I asked my wife what these fruit were. Corbezzole, she replied, with the tree being the corbezzolo. Well, that didn’t help me much, so I checked what the English names are. Internet informed me that the tree is called the strawberry tree. Given the look of the fruit, that certainly makes sense, although what is the fruit of the tree then called? Just “fruit of the strawberry tree”, it seems, or “strawberry fruit”, which is a bit unsatisfactory. But then this is not a problem of nomenclature which the British have to face because the tree doesn’t grow naturally in the UK. As this map shows, its favourite haunts are the rim of the Mediterranean, with an extension along the southwestern Atlantic coast of France.

So I shall adopt the Italian name here and simply call the fruits corbezzole.

I asked my wife if corbezzole were edible, and she replied that her mother used to eat them. Thus comforted, I plucked two off a tree and tried them. I found them somewhat granular and not particularly sweet. I then tried two which had dropped off their tree. I still found them granular, but now they were sweeter, although the sweetness was weak and evanescent. They were also rather mushy, rather like persimmon which I’ve written about earlier. Pliny the Elder mentioned the strawberry tree in his Natural History, and his comment on the fruit was “The fruit is held in no esteem, and this is the reason for its name being that a person will only eat one” (the fruit’s Latin name is unedo, a shortening “unum edo”, “I eat one”; boy, those Romans were real jokers!). On the basis of the four corbezzole I ate as we walked along, I side with Pliny on this one.

I suspect that the corbezzole’s weakly sweet taste explains why I have never seen them being sold in a supermarket or a greengrocer’s shop in Italy. I can’t see people getting terribly excited about the taste. That being said, patient selection over centuries could no doubt have led to a more enduringly sweet fruit, much as it has with many of the other fruit we happily munch on. But here I think another factor comes into play: the incredible softness of the corbezzole when ripe. They are so soft that it is almost impossible to hold them without damaging them. Their softness also means that they are quite mushy to chew on, which I’m sure many people don’t appreciate much.

This softness and mushiness means that a way people commonly use corbezzole is to make jams: just mash it all up and no-one will notice the mushiness.

This seems to be a strictly homemade product; I could find no mention of a commercial jam on the internet. For any of my readers who are interested in making this jam, here is a thumbnail recipe. Put the corbezzole in a pan, crush them a little, bring the pan to a boil, boil for 10 minutes. The corbezzole should have become a puree by now. Pass the puree through a fine sieve, to get rid of all those little granules. Put the puree back into the pan, add sugar (1 gm for every 4 of puree), add cinnamon if you want, heat the mix, stirring continuously, until it’s thickened sufficiently.

Various people living in the Mediterranean region have also made alcoholic drinks with corbezzole. One of the better known is the Portuguese fruit brandy Aguardente de Medronhos (so called because the fruit is called medronho in Portuguese). Should any readers be interested in making this particular fruit brandy, here are some brief instructions. Collect 7 to 10 kilos of fruit (that will make make one litre of brandy). Put them into a barrel and let them ferment for 2-3 months, making sure to always keep them humid. Using a copper alambique, heat the fermented mess over a low fire. The distillate is your Aguardente de Medronhos. You’ve made a good batch if you can smell the fruit after you have put a little of the Aguardente on your skin and let the alcohol evaporate off.

I don’t get to say much about Albania in my posts, so I want to make pitch here for the Albanians’ equivalent fruit brandy, raki kocimareje (kocimare being the Albanian name for the fruit). Unfortunately, I could find no photo of it on the internet, even in the Albanian pages of Wikipedia. Nevertheless, I urge my readers to support the Albanian economy by buying this firewater whenever they have the occasion.

Another approach is to marinate the corbezzole in alcohol. Here’s a recipe from Sardinia, which includes lemon rind and cloves. Put the corbezzole, the lemon rind (just the yellow part!) and cloves in a container. Cover with alcohol. Leave in a cool, dark place for a month to steep. Prepare a syrup of sugar and water. Strain the contents of the container. Add the syrup. Let the mix stand, in a cool, dark place as before, for two weeks. Strain again. Bottle. (I shall ask our Sardinian cleaner if she is familiar with this concoction; she once brought us a bottle of her own home-made limoncello).

Of course, if readers want to try any of these recipes, or if they just want to taste the fruit, they will need to head out to their nearest patch of Mediterranean maquis to find it. And they have to go some time between late October and mid December. For instance, if they had been in the region of Ancona on 28 October last, the feast day of Saints Simon and Jude, they could have joined the worthy citizens of that city on their annual hike out to the nearby Monte Conero, a mountain which, rather like Monte di Portofino, juts out into the sea, in this case the Adriatic Sea.

The mountain is rich in strawberry trees (so rich that its name derives from the Greek name for the corbezzola, kòmaros, while the coat of arms of nearby Ancona sports an arm holding a branch of the tree with fruit).

Nowadays, this is just a hike like any other, with the difference that there is a bit of corbezzole picking. But there was a time when the Anconese would spend the day not only gathering and eating corbezzole, but also wrapping young branches of the tree around their heads, singing lustily, and generally behaving in a rather Bacchanalian way. I suspect we see here the remains of an old Pagan feast dressed up in Christian clothing.

Alternatively, my readers could go to Killarney or Lough Gill on Ireland’s western coast.

In those two spots, relict populations of strawberry trees have hung on. There was a time, some 5 to 8,000 years ago, when temperatures in Europe were higher than today and the strawberry tree’s range extended into northern Europe. But then, as temperatures dropped, the tree retreated southward, leaving behind these two embattled outposts.

Wherever they decide to go, corbezzole-pickers will find themselves faced with an interesting puzzle: trees covered with both flowers and fruit.

I was certainly puzzled, because I’m used to fruit trees flowering in Spring and fruiting in late Summer, early Autumn. I have since learned that the strawberry tree does it differently. It flowers in late Autumn, with the fruit then developing from a pollinated flower. But the fruit takes its own sweet time to develop, arriving at maturation a full year later, just when the next batch of flowers bursts forth. I’m sure there is a very clever biological reason why the strawberry tree has chosen this cycle, but I haven’t yet managed to find it out. If there are any readers out there who know, I’ll be very happy to hear from them.

The flowers are really quite charming, coming in clusters of small, white, bell-shaped flowers.

Bees love the flowers and will home in on them – if they happen to still be around in this late period of the year; bees will not leave their hives if temperatures drop below 5-10°C. If they are around, they will make honey from the corbezzole nectar they gather.
This honey has a certain reputation, simply because of its rarity: some years you get it, some years you don’t. But our friend Pliny the Elder was not terribly enthusiastic about the honey, writing that it has a rather bitter taste. In case any of my readers are beginning to think that Pliny is a bit of a sourpuss, I should say that others echo his sentiment. In this case, I can only report what I have read, since I have no independent experience of eating the honey.

The fact that both (white) flowers and (red) fruit are present simultaneously on an evergreen tree meant that Italian patriots imbued the tree with great symbolic importance in the decades leading up to the country’s unification in the 1860s. For red, white, and green were the colours of Italy’s tricolour flag of unification!

Patriotic poets in particular wove the tree into poems which were thinly veiled proclamations of the coming unification of Italy which they ardently hoped was imminent. I won’t bore readers with their purple prose. At the risk of being flippant, I much prefer another edible symbol of the Italian tricolour. It is reported that some years after unification a canny pizza maker in Naples realized that his pizza, made with (red) tomatoes, (white) mozzarella, and (green) basil, proclaimed the colors of the new Italian flag and so he named it Pizza Margherita, after the wife of Victor Emmanuel I, first king of unified Italy.

I don’t know if it’s the patriotic overtones or simply because the pizza is so yummy, but Pizza Margherita has remained a constant in the average Italian’s life.

But back to the strawberry tree. I read with sadness and anger that the delegates of the world’s nations cannot agree on a text committing everyone to limiting global temperature rise to no more than 1.5°C. I might weep, but strawberry trees will no doubt be rubbing their woody hands together at the thought that higher temperatures will allow them to march back north again and recapture the lands that were once theirs.

_____________________________

Monte di Portofino: https://www.tripadvisor.it/Attraction_Review-g187827-d2356844-Reviews-Parco_Naturale_Regionale_di_Portofino-Santa_Margherita_Ligure_Italian_Riviera_Lig.html
Forest, Monte di Portofino: http://www.parcoportofino.com/parcodiportofino/it/eventdetail.page?contentId=EVN12955#.XBAxoHRKhPY
Mediterranean maquis, Monte di Portofino: https://montiliguri.weebly.com/promontorio-di-portofino.html
Corbezzole on the ground: our photo
Strawberry tree: our photo
Close-up of corbezzole on the ground: my photo
Close-up of corbezzole on the tree: https://it.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arbutus_unedo
Corbezzola interior: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arbutus_unedo
Range of the strawberry tree: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arbutus_unedo
Corbezzola jam: https://blog.giallozafferano.it/giusy89/marmellata-di-corbezzoli/
Aguardiente de Medronho: https://www.uvinum.it/acquavite/aguardente-de-medronho-premium-50cl
Sardinian corbezzole liqueur: https://www.lacambusadeisapori.com/tare-50-cl/526-liquore-di-corbezzolo-artigianale-di-sardegna-confezione-medium.html
Monte Conero: http://www.marchemaraviglia.it/struttura/71/hotel-monteconero
Ancona coat of arms: https://it.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arbutus_unedo
Strawberry trees on Lough Killarney: https://www.mindenpictures.com/search/preview/strawberry-tree-arbutus-unedo-habit-growing-beside-lough-killarney-county/0_80146177.html
Strawberry tree fruit and flower: https://www.giardinaggio.org/giardino/piante-da-giardino/corbezzolo-pianta.asp
Strawberry tree flowers: https://it.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arbutus_unedo
Corbezzolo honey: https://www.imprentas.eu/it/miele-sardo-e-confetture/158-miele-di-corbezzolo.html
Italian Tricolour: https://www.tempostretto.it/news/risorgimento-tavola-rotonda-messina-sicilia-dopo-unit-d-italia.html
Pizza Margherita: https://www.groupon.it/deals/taverna-del-cuore-6

MUSINGS ON BRAMBLES

Kyoto, 15 October 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The fairy was accompanied by an equally twee little poem.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cheers!

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

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

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

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

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

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

_______________________

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

NETTLES

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.

28/9/2108: POSTSCRIPTUM

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: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Urtica_dioica
Nettle rash: http://blog.shopprice.co.nz/10-health-benefits-of-stinging-nettle/
Running though nettles: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2021411/Tough-Guy-Nettle-Warrior-4-000-endure-cross-country-hell-Britains-bizarre-races.html
Nettle eating championship: https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/weird-news/world-nettle-eating-championships-held-8246974
Nettle soup: http://www.swedishfood.com/swedish-food-recipes-starters/92-nettle-soup
Flogging with nettles: https://wildfoxwildfire.wordpress.com/2015/09/08/how-i-fixed-my-bad-back-using-stinging-nettles/
Bronze Age textile from Denmark: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3460533/
Member of the Vieille Garde: http://www.wikiwand.com/hr/Grenadir
German soldier WWI: https://www.quora.com/Why-were-Germans-called-Jerry-in-WWI
Nettle wrap: https://www.etsy.com/listing/590489032/grounding-nettle-wrap?ga_order=most_relevant&ga_search_type=all&ga_view_type=gallery&ga_search_query=nettle%20clothing&ref=sr_gallery-1-7
Nettle man’s vest: https://www.etsy.com/listing/280624084/mens-vest-handwoven-nettle-fabric?ga_order=most_relevant&ga_search_type=all&ga_view_type=gallery&ga_search_query=nettle%20clothing&ref=sr_gallery-1-13
Field of nettles: https://herbaloo.org/experimence/the-nettles-experiment/
Stinging nettle sign: https://tmagazine.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/05/21/nettle-dandelion-greens-mint-soup-recipe-nettle-tea/
Butterflies: https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/blog/2016/05/butterflies-need-nettles/