OLIVES

Dedicated to my daughter, who loves olives as much as I do

Sori, 27 January 2020

A week or so ago, I accompanied my wife to a supermarket that we go to from time to time – it’s bigger than the ones just down the road from us but somewhat further away, so we only go there for certain items which the closer supermarkets don’t stock. But I don’t want to discuss shopping strategies in this post, fascinating as these are to retirees like ourselves. I want to discuss table olives.

This particular supermarket has an olive bar, where you can buy olives loose by the gram (or kilogram if you’re an olive fanatic).

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It’s a delightful spot in this otherwise bog-standard supermarket. I like to linger there, looking over these glistening globules of yumminess. From time to time – when I’m in a mood to splash out – I will take the plunge, grab the beckoning spoons, and fill a few plastic tubs to take home and munch my way through. I hasten to add that I remember what we taught the children: I will share, with my wife if her diet allows it and with my children if they happen to be around.

This supermarket is proudly patriotic and offers only Italian olives. For the uninitiated, it is offering, among others:

Green olives from Cerignola in Puglia

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These gigantic green olives are probably my favourite. They are crisp, not too strongly flavoured, almost buttery.

Green Nocellara olives, from the flanks of Mount Etna in Sicily

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These olives are cut, crushed, seasoned with oil, spices and hot sauce and garnished with whole chillies. The use of chillies (which I profoundly dislike) and their slightly bitter taste mean that I skip these when I get some tubfuls of olives at the supermarket.

Black olives from Gaeta in Puglia.

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These small, purplish-brown olives have a soft, tender flesh and a tart, citrusy taste. The Gaetas in the supermarket are brine-cured, but they can also be dry-cured, in which case they are more shrivelled and chewy, somewhat like the next ones.

Black Nocellara olives from the Belice valley in western Sicily.

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These olives are harvested when completely ripe (in November). After an initial brining to desiccate them somewhat, they are placed in an oven at low temperature to further desiccate them.

There are more varieties of olive in the supermarket’s olive bar but I will stop there, for fear of boring readers with my purplish prose. And anyway, while I respect the supermarket’s patriotic choice of only offering Italian olives, I feel I must point out that other parts of the Mediterranean basin offer equally delicious olives.

There are the Greek Agrinion and Amfissa olives, for instance, both coming from the same variety of olive tree, but the former grown at lowish altitudes near the Ionian Sea / Gulf of Corinth and the latter grown at higher altitudes around Delphi in central Greece. They come in the green and black forms as well as every hue in between, depending on when they are picked, and both have a wide range of tastes. After some debate with myself I have chosen to insert a photo of the Amfissa olive as the emblem of these two olives, but only because I liked the farmer’s hands cradling the olives.

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Or there are Gordal olives from Andalusia in Spain.

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True to their name (gordal means “fatty” in Spanish), these olives are big and plump, with plenty of firm, meaty richness.

Or we have Lucques olives from the Languedoc region of France.

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These olives marry an interesting external appearance – bright green and crescent shaped – with a mild nutty taste and buttery texture inside.

From further east in France, around the Côte d’Azur, come Niçoise olives.

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We know these olives because of the Salade Niçoise, of which they are an integral part. In truth, the Niçoise is none other than the Taggiasca olive, which is grown across the border in Liguria and which is the olive my wife and I buy when we go down to the sea. They both come from the same variety of olive tree and grow in the same climate. On both sides of the – artificial – border growers pick the olives while they are in the process of changing from green to black, giving them a striking medium to dark brown color.

I’ve only mentioned olives from the Mediterranean’s northern seaboard. The southern and eastern seaboards have equal variety, but they are just not as well known. Canny marketing hasn’t created brands there yet, so they are rarely consumed beyond their local area of production. Beldi olives from central Morocco are an exception.

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These olives, picked when they are fully ripe, are then salt-cured. This gives them a shriveled appearance and a chewy texture. They are wildly, intensely flavorful.

From the eastern end of the Mediterranean, I’ve picked Gemlik olives from the Zeytinbaği region on the Sea of Marmara in the north of Turkey, close to Istanbul.

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These too are picked when they are fully ripe. Because of their high oil content, they can be cured in a number of different ways, giving rise to olives with different tastes:

    • oil-cured (rotated in drums with a little salt; the agitation causes the olive to exude oil), then dry stored; this gives a rich, low-salt-tasting olive;
    • purely brine-cured olive, which gives a firm, salty olive;
    • dried in a basket of rock salt, which draws all the water out of the olive, leaving a firm, crinkly olive with hardly any salty taste.

There are good olives produced in other parts of the world where Europeans have transported the olive tree, the Americas especially, but I will be proudly patriotic and focus only on olives from the Mediterranean basin, which is the tree’s original home.

Olives joins that long list of plants which were basically inedible but out of which our ancestors were able to extract extremely yummy foodstuffs. In these posts, I have written about five such plants – the caper bush, cole, sea beet, common chicory, and cardoon – and there must be hundreds of others. I’m always amazed by the cleverness which was shown by armies of anonymous farmers over the millennia in patiently coaxing the DNA of plants which grew around them to evolve in a direction which expanded the range of foods available to them and to us, their descendants.

The edibility problem with wild olives is that they contain a number of incredibly bitter chemicals which go by such names as oleuropein, ligstroside, and dimethyl oleuropein. The levels of these chemicals are high in a just ripening olive, enough to impart such a bitter taste as to make you desist eating it immediately. As the fruit ripens further, the levels of these nasty chemicals drop. In most cases, though, their levels never drop low enough to make eating an olive straight off the tree a pleasant experience (there are a couple of domesticated varieties where the bitterness levels are low enough in the fully ripe olive to make them edible, but they are the exception). It’s a defence mechanism: the plant doesn’t want predators other than birds to eat its fruit because they could crack and therefore ruin the seeds (this is not a problem in the case of birds, which swallow the olives whole).

But actually, edibility is a secondary issue for the olive. The first use of olives was not as food but as a source of oil. Olives are rich in oil and by at least 5,000 years ago some bright spark (or sparks) had figured out ways of squeezing the oil out of ripe olives. It’s not even clear that the oil was used initially as a foodstuff. The same problem of bitterness rears its head with olive oil: if the olives are picked too early this will impart a bitter taste to the oil. It could well be that olive oils were first used as a source of fuel in lamps or as a raw material in soap making, or were used as a skin-care product or in medicines or in perfumes. It was olive oil that really drove the domestication of the olive tree. The economies of at least two Mediterranean civilizations – the late Minoan and the Mycenaean – were probably based in good part on the production of olive oil and its trade around the Mediterranean. Olives to eat became a by-product of the oil industry. That is still the case today: the great majority of olives which are grown around the world are turned into oil, with only a small percentage being eaten.

Luckily for us olive lovers, though, at some point some other bright spark (or sparks) stumbled on the discovery that steeping olives in brine for a good few months cut the bitterness levels to acceptable levels, because the nasty chemicals were leached out. Even better, the fermentation processes which brining kicked off gave the olives a better taste. On top of that, brining dealt with the familiar problem which our ancestors were confronted with everywhere: the fruit (or grain, or vegetables) ripen all at the same time; how can we conserve them so that in the weeks and months ahead we can eat the excess that we don’t eat straight away? By acidifying them a bit, brining meant the olives would last quite some time without going bad. A win-win-win situation, as we would say today!

After this fundamental breakthrough, olive eating could take off. Human beings being the way they are, our ancestors continued to tinker away. Various things were added (herbs, spices, wine, vinegar, …) to make the final product even more yummy. It was discovered that cutting or cracking the olive – basically, splitting open the flesh – allowed the leaching to happen faster. Different methods for leaching were developed (water – very slow; salt – gives rise to chewy olives like the Beldi). And, more importantly, they tried brining not quite ripe olives, picked when they were going from green to black and when the dreaded levels of bitterness were still high. Well, by gum, it worked! Sufficient leaching took place so that you could pick the olives somewhat earlier – maybe a month earlier – and still have a yummy product to eat. That allowed the development of olives like the Taggiasca or the Niçoise.

The next big breakthrough was the discovery by yet another bright spark or sparks that if you used a weak solution of lye (or caustic soda, to use a more modern appellation), you could turn green olives with very high levels of bitterness 6+in them into an edible product. In this case, rather than encouraging the nasty chemicals to leach out as brine does, the lye penetrates the olive and chemically destroys them. As readers might suspect, olives subjected just to processing with lye don’t taste very good, so there is still a brining step involved. This treatment was developed in Spain, apparently; it’s called the Spanish or Sevillian approach. I’m not sure if I should congratulate the Spaniards who came up with lye processing. On the one hand, it has allowed us olive lovers to eat green olives like the Cerignola and the Lucques. On the other hand, it does begin to feel more like chemical processing than food preparation, the first step on a slippery slope.

I feel confirmed in my fears by the next big advance in olive processing – the so-called California style of processing (presumably because that was where it was invented) – which smacks even more of chemical processing. It is used with green and semi-ripe olives. It adds a step between the lye treatment and the brining, and consists of washing the olives in water injected with compressed air. This intense exposure to air oxidises the skin and flesh of the olives, turning them black. In other words, it’s a way of taking green olives and artificially “ripening” them. Olives treated in this way are the ones most favoured by fast-food pizza makers, those olives which are chewy and have no taste but look good sitting on the pizza.

And it’s not finished! An article I read which summarizes the state of play in olive processing reports that people are looking into the use of ultrasound during lye treatment to accelerate debittering; adding absorptive resins to the brine; running treatment processes under a vacuum; blanketing green olives in carbon dioxide; blanketing them in pure oxygen; using potassium and calcium chloride solutions instead of normal brine (sodium chloride solutions); exposing olives while still on the tree to aminoethoxyvinylglycine to delay ripening and so allowing levels of the bitterness-causing chemicals to reduce more than they normally would. And I’ve skipped a few.

Reading this list makes me look at my olives in a different light now. Rather than food, I see lumps of chemicals. Why can’t we just prepare food the good old way?

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KEBABS AND GEOPOLITICS

Milan, 22 December 2019

One of the fonder memories of my Boy Scout days is roasting a whole pig over a wood fire

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and eating the resultant roasted pork, together with piles of crackling and apple sauce.

Not only was the food extremely yummy, but the aroma of the meat while roasting was … well, intoxicating, I think best describes it. I have already written elsewhere about this culinary experience, which I suspect tapped into something really primordial, the hunter-gatherer buried deep in us all.

Perhaps because of this experience, or perhaps simply because of who I am, I have always been extremely fond of roasted meat, both the eating of it as well as the preparing of it. My wife is the same. Unfortunately, having been inner-city dwellers for most of our lives means that we don’t get to roast meat too often. I don’t find that grilling a piece of meat in an apartment oven is a very satisfying roasting experience, and we have never had a backyard where we could roll out the barbecue set and grill the nights away. And, alas, along with old age have come restrictions on eating meats with too much fat attached to them (the cholesterol levels, you know …). This lessens the fun of meat-roasting even further: I think we can all agree that fat – melting and bubbling under the flames – is an integral part of the roasting experience, especially the olfactory part of it.

So it is only from time to time, and always in restaurants, that we indulge in a piece of roast meat. European cuisine of course has many offerings in this department. Apart from the roast pork of my Boy Scout days, which can stand in for any four-footed animals roasted whole, we have roast chicken, which can stand in for all those roasted fowl we see in paintings (or in manuscript miniatures as in this case).

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It doesn’t have to be whole animals which are roasted. We can have cuts of meat which are roasted, such as grilled steaks.

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They can stand in for all the meats grilled in barbecues like this one (although this lot do seem to be having excessive amounts of fun).

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I think we can even throw in grilled fish.

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Yes, all most delicious!

But actually, what I want to write about in this post is roasted meat from another region of the world: the kebab.

What prompted me to write this post in praise of the kebab was a quick visit we made a few weeks ago to Vienna – our daughter flew in for the wedding of one of her best friends, so we thought we would use the occasion to see her. As usual we took our daily strolls around town, and as usual we spent time admiring the döner kebab shops we passed (well, drooling over their offerings might be a better description) – without, I should hasten to add, actually partaking (the cholesterol levels, you know …). Here is a photo of  one of these döner kebab shops.

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For readers who may not be familiar with this type of kebab, its trademark is a long inverted cone of meat on a vertical spit. The cone is made up of thin slices of lamb, beef, or chicken. The spit rotates slowly, with the meat being kept close to a heat source to cook it.

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When you put in your order, the server will slice thin pieces off the meat cone with a very long knife.

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They will serve you your portion inserted into a bread bun or wrapped in pita or some other flatbread.

I have used the long winter nights since our visit to Vienna to read up about the döner kebab and all its cousin kebabs, and I have discovered a world of astonishing variety. I was partly aware of this variety from the visits which my wife and I made in the distant past to Persian and Turkish restaurants in Vienna (we don’t go so often anymore; the cholesterol levels, you understand …). The list of kebabs on offer was always long, a bit like in a Pizza joint, except that we could always understand the pizzas’ names while here we were faced with a gobbledygook of mysterious and unpronounceable names; we would choose our kebabs more or less at random. But now my reading has shown me the true depths of my ignorance.  Kebabs flourish over a huge region, which starts at the eastern seaboard of the Mediterranean and stretches all the way to the farthest reaches of Central Asia, but which also extends down into the northern regions of the Indian subcontinent, as well as along the southern seaboard of the Mediterranean. This region maps closely onto the regions of the world which are Muslim, and indeed the kebab is considered archetypal Muslim cuisine. It is now, but actually the kebab predates Islam. It already existed in the Middle East long before Islam came into being, and it spread out of there to all the lands where the newly Islamicized traders and conquering armies brought their religion.

I do not propose to summarize breathlessly what I have discovered. I want instead to focus on the intersection of the kebab with another interest of mine, the global movement of foodstuffs and all the geopolitics which can surround that.

Take the döner kebab – which I should really call döner kebap since that is the Turkish way of spelling the name and this is a Turkish kebab. It appeared quite late on the scene, probably the middle of the 19th century, in the town of Bursa, which is on the Asian side of the Sea of Marmara, quite close to Istanbul. There was already an established kebab in the Turkish lands that roasted stacks of meat on a horizontal spit (there is still a kebab roasted on a horizontal spit, the cağ kebab). I suppose someone had the insight that if the spit could be made to turn vertically the juices would run down the meats rather than into the fire. The rotating nature of this kebab gave it its name: döner comes from the Turkish word dönmek, which means “to turn” or “to rotate”.

This new style of kebab-making caught on in the Levant, which was of course part of the Ottoman Empire at the time. They didn’t call it the döner kebab, though, they called it the shawarma – which is actually the same thing, since shawarma is an Arabic transliteration of the Turkish çevirme, “turning”. Shawarma has become an extremely popular street food throughout the Middle East, as this photo from Egypt attests.

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And of course, as has been the case since the beginning of time, immigrants took their foods with them. We have here, for instance, a shawarma-based restaurant in Boston, Massachusetts.


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The döner kebab also spread to Greece, taken there by Greek refugees from the ancient, ancient Greek populations in Anatolia and immigrants from the rest of the Middle East (victims, no doubt, of the rise of nationalism in countries which were created by the collapse of the previously multi-ethnic, relatively tolerant Ottoman Empire). Initially, it was sold a street food under the name döner kebab and became extremely popular. But politics intervened. The tense relations between Greece and Turkey precluded the Greeks tolerating the use of Turkish words, so in the 1970s, when relations were particularly tense, this street food became the gyros – which is really the same thing, since the name comes from the Greek γύρος, “circle” or “turn”.

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The shift out of Muslim lands to Christian lands meant that the Greeks could also introduce a significant change to the meat used. Originally based on lamb (as are most kebabs), the Greeks started using pork as well as chicken for their gyros.

New Greek immigrants, this time to the US, took the gyros with them, so now Americans had two versions of the döner kebab available to them.

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But the penetration of the American market has not finished! And here I have to go back to the shawarma, which was, as I said, popular in the Levant, including, of course, in Lebanon. The Lebanese have always been great travelers of the globe, and in the late 19th, early 20th centuries there was a wave of Lebanese immigration to Mexico. They took shawarma with them. Succeeding generations “domesticated” the shawarma, adding spices typical to the Americas to those from the Middle East which their parents had been using. Thus was born the taco al pastor, where strips of pork cooked on a vertical spit are served in a classic maize taco. We have here the server and the product, in Mexico City.

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But Mexico was the host of two waves of immigration from the Middle East! The second was centred on the city of Puebla, where the taco arabe was born in the 1930s. Here, the dish stayed closer to its roots and is served in a pita-style bread.

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And now of course, with the waves of Mexican immigration into the US, these two dishes have also entered into that country.

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So now, Americans have four different types of döner kebab to choose from, each hiding under a different name! (plus probably the original döner kebab, which no doubt some enterprising Turks have brought to the US)

The flow has not been all out of the Middle East. The taco al pastor has been the subject of a reverse migration. In the early 2000s, it went back to its homeland, the Levant, where it is sold as shawarma mexici! It uses the same set of spices as in Mexico, but of course dietary prohibitions have meant that the pork is substituted with chicken, and it is served in Middle Eastern flatbread rather than the maize taco of the Americas.

Meanwhile, the döner kebab itself has been the subject of migration. When the Germans called on Turks to come and work in Germany under their Gastarbeiter, or Guest Worker, programme, they came with their food. Over time, döner kebab has become a hugely popular street food, so popular that an Association of Turkish Döner Producers in Europe has been set up to look after the interests of those involved in the döner kebab trade. Just to give readers an idea of the size of the market, the Association has estimated that in 2010, more than 400 tonnes of döner kebab meat was produced in Germany every day by around 350 firms, and in 2011 there were over 16,000 establishments selling döner kebabs in Germany. Why, the döner kebab is so popular in Germany that Angela Merkel has graciously allowed herself to be photographed slicing meat off a döner kebab cone (but do I detect a slight anxiety in the set of her mouth?).

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According to the same Association, the story of the döner kebab’s rise and rise in Germany started at West Berlin’s Zoological Garden station, where an enterprising Turkish guest worker by the name of Kadir Nurman set up shop in 1972. He had emigrated to Germany in 1960, and had moved to West Berlin from Stuttgart in 1966. His döner kebabs were a hit with Berliners, fellow Turks took note, piled into the business, carried the döner kebab all over Germany, and the rest, as they say, is history. Part of the Turkish community in Germany migrated to Vienna (a peaceful invasion unlike the earlier Turkish attacks on the city centuries earlier). They of course carried the döner kebab business with them. Which is why my wife and I find ourselves drooling over the döner kebab offerings when we are in Vienna. And the Berlin connection explains why the Viennese döner kebab stand in the earlier photo is proudly called Berliner Döner.

Of course, when you say “kebab”, most people think of pieces of meat roasted on a skewer. And many would reply “ah yes, shish kebab”. But shish kebab, or şiş kebap to give it its Turkish spelling, is simply a generic term meaning skewered roast meat – şiş means skewer or sword in Turkish. There are probably hundreds of different types of skewered roast meat dishes eaten by the local populations between Istanbul in Turkey to the west and Dhaka in Bangladesh to the east. They vary by type of meat of course (lamb is the most popular, but just about any other meat – except pork – will be used somewhere; fish is also used, as are offal like liver). They vary in the vegetables and other servings that come with them. And – probably the most important – they vary in the marinades used on the meat. Every region, every province, every village almost, seems to have its own type of shish kebab. In despair at all this variety, I throw in one photo to stand in for all these types of kebabs, that of a Çöp Şiş, which as the name suggests is a Turkish variety of the shish kebab.

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As if that were not enough, there are hundreds of  skewered kebabs where it’s not cubes of meat which are used but minced meat. This adds another dimension to the possible variations, that of the ingredients kneaded into the minced meat. Here, too, in desperation I choose just one kebab to stand in for this group, kabab koobideh from Iran.

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And then there are all the kebabs where the meat, or minced meat, is roasted but not on skewers. And there are kebabs which are more like meat stews. But I will draw a line here, otherwise this post would go on far too long. And anyway, as I said earlier, I want to focus on the global movement of kebabs, and there is more than enough to write about on this topic when considering just skewered kebabs.

Consider souvlaki, which I have read is considered the national dish of Greece.

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As the photo shows, it looks uncomfortably like that Turkish kebab whose photo I put in above. Is it another import from the hated Turk, like the döner kebab-turned-into-gyros? This is the subject of much heated discussion between Greeks and Turks, with the Greeks arguing that their ancestors were roasting skewered meat long before they were conquered by the Turks. They point to the fact that Homer mentions pieces of meat being roasted on spits in the Iliad. If that is not enough, they also point out that there are mentions of this in the works of Aristophanes, Xenophon, Aristotle, and others. And if that is not enough, they draw your attention to an archaeological find in some Minoan ruins in the island of Santorini, dated to the 17th Century BC, which they claim was used to roast skewers of meat. I show a photo of the find, to let readers judge for themselves.

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(I’m afraid that the cynic in me feels that putting skewers on the notches rather pushes observers to see what promoters of this view would like you to see)

On the other hand, if the Greeks have been roasting skewered meat since the 17th Century BC, why doesn’t there seem to be any rather more modern evidence that this has been a continuing tradition? The modern souvlaki only turned up after World War II, more or less at the time as the döner kebab.

But I will leave the Greeks and Turks to their quarrels and go further west, to Spain. There, there is a dish of skewered meat called the pincho moruno, the Moorish skewer.

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Although it is now found throughout the country, its focus is in the south of the country. As the name suggests, this is a dish that was brought to Spain by the Arabs, either when they conquered the peninsula or later through trading relations; there is a very similar dish on the other side of the Mediterranean. Of course, the meat used is different: lamb in the Muslim lands, pork or chicken in Spain. Once the Spaniards turned from being conquered to being conquerors, they were a vector for a further migration of the pincho westward, as they brought it to the lands in the Americas which they had colonized. It didn’t take root everywhere in Latin America. It flourished in particular in Puerto Rico and Venezuela. I don’t know about Puerto Rico, but I suspect its popularity in Venezuela has to do with the fact that there was a very large migration of Spanish Republicans to that country just after the Second World War, after they ended up on the losing side of the Spanish Civil War.

But now let me cross over to the far eastern end of the Eurasian landmass, to the Chinese province of Xinjiang. Given their Muslim roots, the Uighurs there have a tradition of eating roasted skewered meat – in fact, I remember distinctly seeing a Uighur grilling them on a street corner during our visit to Xinjiang back in 2010. He looked a bit like this.

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The Chinese authorities may not like the Uighurs, but the Chinese like Uighur food, and this kebab, under the name Chuan, has become a popular street food all over the north and west of China. However, with the usual Chinese inventiveness in all matters culinary, Chinese cooks have greatly expanded the type of foodstuffs being threaded onto their skewers. We have here, for instance, sweet sausages and baby octopus.

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I finish with the story of the satay, from South-East Asia. Satay is now considered a national dish in Indonesia. We have here a satay street vendor somewhere in the country.

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But roasting meat on small skewers was only introduced to the country in the 18th Century, with the arrival of Arab and Indian traders and immigrants. However, Indonesians took to the dish with a vengeance and then its own traders spread it throughout South-East Asia, so that it now is common in Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam. They also made one very significant change in the recipe, the use of peanut sauce (the peanut itself being one of the foodstuffs originally from Latin America and spread from there by the colonial powers to the rest of the world during the Great Columbian Exchange).

Malay traders then took the satay further afield, working back, it seems to me, along the shipping routes which led from the Netherlands – the colonial power in Indonesia – to Indonesia itself. Malay traders brought the satay to Sri Lanka (another Dutch colony before the British wrested it from their grasp), where a Malay community put down roots.  It is now a common street food there. They took it to South Africa (another Dutch colony before the British wrested it from their grasp), where they also formed a small community. It goes under the name of sosatie there: a combination of the words sauce and sate (the Indonesian form of the word). The Malays put down roots there too, and the dish has now been thoroughly localized.

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Indonesian immigrants even took the satay back to the Netherlands itself, where it has become a popular mainstay of Dutch cuisine. This link, for instance, gives you the addresses of the 11 best places in Amsterdam to find satay.

Well there you have it, nice examples of how food dishes have followed in the steps of people as they have moved around the globe, for conquest, trade, or simply to find a better life. In the meantime, I have built up a formidable list of all the kebabs which are cooked in the Muslim lands. I propose to take it with me whenever we travel in those parts of the world, so that I can know what kebabs to try rather than just choose them at random from the menu. Always assuming that the cholesterol levels will allow us this dip into the world of kebabs …

JERUSALEM ARTICHOKES

Milan, 18 November 2019

A few days ago, my wife entered a greengrocer’s to get some fruit and came out with fruit but also with a gleam in her eye. “I have bought some Jerusalem artichokes”, she announced, and I was delighted to hear it.

It was a University flatmate who many, many (many …) years ago introduced us to this tuber. One evening, it must have been about this time of the year, he appeared in the kitchen with these strange-looking things.

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As we looked at them curiously, he asked us if we had ever tried them. When we confessed that we had not, he promised us a plateful. He was as good as his word. I cannot remember now how he cooked them – more on this later – but it allowed us to appreciate that delicate artichoke taste which is the hallmark of this tuber.

Its name in English recognizes this gustatory affinity to the artichoke. And it is that artichoke taste which drew me to this lumpy, knobbly little tuber; as I have written in a previous post, I am very partial to artichokes.

Not that we’ve eaten Jerusalem artichokes all that often since that first tasting 40-plus years ago. It is one of the few foodstuffs that is still only found seasonally – it’s available from late Autumn to late Winter, and very difficult to keep once out of the earth – so unless you maintain a sharp lookout, you’re liable to miss it. Because of that, and because, frankly, of a bad press – it has a reputation of being something you feed to animals and only eat if you’re literally starving – it’s not grown in large quantities and supermarkets rarely stock it. Once, I bought a whole load of ginger because I thought they were Jerusalem artichokes. They really do look quite similar, as I think this photo shows; the resemblance between the two has often been noted.

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I cannot remember where it was that I bought this ginger, but it must have been somewhere where I couldn’t read the labels – Thailand, maybe? I also cannot remember what we did with all the ginger: probably, after a few half-hearted attempts to drink tea with a lot of ginger in it, we threw it away.

I must confess to also rather liking the name, which I find satisfyingly quirky. I initially thought that the “Jerusalem” part of the name indicated a Levantine origin for the tuber; maybe, I romantically mused, it was a foodstuff brought to Europe by returning Crusaders. But no, I discovered, North America is its place of origin. It is actually the tuber to a rather lovely flower, the Helianthus tuberosus.

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It is part of the Great Columbian Exchange, that massive intercontinental move of plants and animals (and diseases … and people) which took place after we Europeans discovered the Americas: plants and animals mostly travelling from the Americas to Europe and the rest of the world, and vice versa for diseases and people. I’ve written an earlier post about a minor representative of this exchange, the prickly pear. The Jerusalem artichoke is another minor representative. It is the relative of a much more important representative, also an emigrant from North America, the common sunflower, planted in vast quantities for its oil-bearing seeds.

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The French explorers of North America seem to have been the first Europeans to report on this tuber, and French colonists the first to send exemplars back to Europe. Samuel de Champlain, the explorer of the Saint Lawrence River and the Great Lakes, first came across it on Cape Cod.  As related on the US National Park Service website, “after rounding the headlands of Cape Cod in 1605, the French explorers sailed south along the ocean side of the outer Cape. Avoiding shoals and sandbanks, they managed to enter the first embayment they encountered. They called the place Malle Barre and left the ship to go onshore to inspect the Native American settlement. Champlain described the scene:

Before reaching their wigwams we entered a field planted with Indian corn … The corn was in flower and some five and a half feet in height. There was some less advanced, which they sow later. We saw an abundance of Brazilian beans, many edible squashes of various sizes, tobacco, and roots which they cultivate, the latter having the taste of artichoke. The woods are full of oaks, nut-trees, and very fine cypresses, which are of reddish colour and have a very pleasant smell. There were also several fields not cultivated, for the reason that the Indians let them lie fallow … Their wigwams are round, and covered with heavy thatch made of reeds. In the middle of the roof is an opening, about a foot and a half wide, through which issues the smoke of their fire.”

Champlain helpfully included a map of the embayment in his printed report.

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Another Frenchman, Marc Lescarbot, met Champlain soon after this in Port-Royal, a new settlement on the coast of what is now Nova Scotia. I throw in here a map of Port-Royal which Lescarbot included in the book he wrote some years later.

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Among other things, Champlain introduced him to the tuber. Lescarbot described it as follows: “a sort of root, as big as a beet or truffle, tasting rather like chard but more agreeable”. Chard is a vegetable which I’m fond of, fond enough to have written a post about it a little while back. Lescarbot was onto something, I think: the two share a similarly delicate taste. Nevertheless, in the end I would plump for the artichoke connection, so Jerusalem artichoke it should be, not Jerusalem chard.

Europeans were responsible for the global redistribution of the Jerusalem artichoke, but in truth humans had already started to move the plant out of its natural range before Europeans discovered the Americas. When Champlain, Lescarbot, and all the other anonymous European colonists came across the native plantations of the Jerusalem artichoke on the East coast, it looked to them like the plant had always been there. But actually that was not so. The plant’s natural range is somewhere in central North America, straddling the modern US-Canada border. However, the American Indians, recognizing the tuber’s value as a foodstuff, and especially its availability during the winter months when other food is often scarce, had centuries earlier carried it out of its natural range, all the way to the east and west coasts of North America, and down south into Mexico too.

Fascinating stuff, but none of it explains that “Jerusalem” bit of the name. Unfortunately, the chroniclers of the 17th century – the time when the Jerusalem artichoke arrived in Europe and was diffusing across the Continent – were more interested in the Great Men (and possibly Great Women) as well as the Great Events of their time rather than in the names being given to new vegetables. So it has been left to modern historians and etymologists to make some educated guesses. I give two of these guesses here, the two that seem to me the most likely – or perhaps the least unlikely. The first guess has it that the tuber made its way to Rome, as a foodstuff which had miraculously saved the French (Catholic) colonists of North America from starvation. It was planted in the Vatican gardens, whose gardeners gave the plant the name girasole articiocco – “girasole” being the Italian name for the sunflower (readers will recall that the plant is a cousin to the sunflower). The usual mangling of foreign words in British mouths meant that girasole articiocco became Jerusalem artichoke. This is quite neat and is the guess I would normally lay my money on, but I can’t explain to myself how Protestant Britain would have picked up a name being bandied about in the Catholic Vatican. The second guess has it that the tuber originally entered the UK from the Netherlands and more specifically from the town of Terneuzen (the Dutch botanist Petrus Hondius, who lived there, reported in the early 1600s on having successfully planted a shriveled tuber which he had received, no doubt from Dutch colonists in North America). In British mouths, Terneuzen artisjokken got mangled into Jerusalem artichokes. Trade between the two countries was brisk, so a transfer such as this of a new foodstuff sounds quite reasonable to me. But a mangling of Terneuzen into Jerusalem seems a bit of a stretch.

One of the rare places where my wife and I came across the Jerusalem artichoke was in Paris. The French name for the tuber is equally quirky: topinambour. Here again the mists of time have veiled over the origin of the name. The best guess is that the tuber began to appear on Parisian plates at around the time that a delegation of three Amerindians from the Tupinambá tribe, which had settled on the Brazilian coastline, were paraded before King Louis XIII and his court in the Tuileries (three others had died en route). They were sent there by some missionaries, who were competing with the Portuguese for the souls of the local “savages”.  No doubt the idea was to get the king interested in defending French interests in Brazil. I’m not sure they succeeded in that, but the Tupinambá created a sensation. One of the missionaries commented enthusiastically: “Who would have thought that Paris, used to the strange and the exotic, would go so wild over these Indians?”. After being paraded before the king and his court, no doubt in their “savage” state, the three Tupinambá were taken off to a church, baptized, and dressed in more “civilized” garb.

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Parisians, being vague about the geography of this New World that was being discovered before their very eyes but knowing that the tuber came from somewhere over there, simply decided that the Topinambá had brought the tuber with them and began to call it the topinambour.

Helianthus tuberosus grows extremely well in Europe, it is very easy to grow, and as I said earlier its tuber is available in the winter months when other foods can be scarce. As a result, the plant’s popularity grew, especially in France, where it saw its heyday in the 18th Century. Not only were people eating it, but it was given as feed to livestock. It was so widespread in France that one of the days in the Revolutionary calendar – the thirteenth day in the month of Brumaire, to be precise – was dedicated to it. But by then, its days were numbered. The potato (another representative of the Great Columbian Exchange), after facing a century or so of hostility in France, finally won wide acceptance. It eventually completely eclipsed the topinambour.

Which is sad really, because the Jerusalem artichoke/topinambour is really quite good to eat. I personally prefer the tubers steamed (they can be boiled, too, but they risk crumbling in the water).

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There’s Jerusalem artichoke soup, too, which I have yet to try.

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Then they can be roasted

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fried

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or prepared in just about any other way one can think of – there are recipes out there for all tastes.

I feel that I cannot in all fairness finish this post without mentioning one negative thing about the Jerusalem artichoke: the plant has a tendency to be invasive, a problem I’ve written about several times. It’s the tubers – if you leave just one little piece in the ground, they will proliferate. This is fine if you have them planted in your garden or in a field; it means you don’t have a problem getting another harvest next year. But it is not fine if the tuber somehow jumps the garden fence or the field boundary. Like another invasive species which I recently wrote about, the Himalayan balsam, Helianthus tuberosus is particularly troublesome if the plant colonizes river banks, for the same reason. It dies back during winter, leaving the river banks much more exposed to the danger of erosion during winter and spring floods.

So, dear readers, bon appetit! But if you want to grow these tubers please make sure they don’t escape from your garden!

KABANOSY/CABANOSSI

Vienna, 9 September 2019

I think my son was joking when he sent me a note after reading my post on Almdudler telling me that I should now write a post about cabanossi.

To quickly fill in readers who may not be familiar with the cabanos (by the way, one cabanos, two cabanossi), it is a form of dried sausage. It’s great for an after-school snack, and I’m sure there were many occasions when my wife bought the children a kabanos or two after school, washed down with an Almdudler (hence my son’s mischievous remark that a post on Almdudler necessarily required me to prepare a post on cabanossi). My wife would buy what seems to be the most popular brand for children, the KnabberNossi.

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As for the contents of the package, the dried sausage waiting to be eaten, it looks like this.

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There was a Russian girl at the children’s school who – my son claimed – was so enamoured by this brand that she was heard to exclaim, with a rather particular Russian accent, “Ah, Ke-Naber Nossi, they’re sooo gooood!” This expression of love for cabanossi became a bit of a family joke, but actually the Russian girl was completely right. The cabanossi my wife bought were really very good: dry but not too dry, spicy but not too spicy, crunchy but not too crunchy. If you were not careful, a good dozen of these thin dry sausages could quite easily disappear down one’s lug-hole in one sitting.

As I say, I think my son was joking when he suggested that I should write a post on cabanossi, but the problem is that I’m a bit of a nerd and after chuckling a little at my son’s suggestion I began to wonder what exactly this cabanos was. Recalling my son’s dictum every time we ask him to explain something that we think he knows something about (“Google it!”), my fingers strayed to the Safari button on my phone and I was soon off down one rabbit hole after another chasing the elusive cabanos.

What I found was a fascinating tale reflecting the general history of Central Europe from the 18th century down to modern times.

It seems that some form of cabanos-like dried sausage has existed in the Slavic regions of Central Europe since the Middle Ages. The great advantage of this kind of sausage – fruit of the particular way it is cured and smoked – is that it has a very long shelf-life. This, together with the fact that it is quite lightweight, made it an ideal food for travelers to carry on long journeys, hunters to carry on their expeditions into the forests, and armies and navies to carry as supplies for the troops and sailors.

Superimposed on these largely anonymous developments made by a myriad of humble people about a foodstuff which was useful in their lives were the geopolitical struggles of the warrior elites – all those emperors and kings and aristocrats in  Central Europe who pursued their various goals of land-grabbing and aggrandizement over the centuries. I don’t propose to summarize what went on since the records began, it would be far too tedious and anyway not terribly relevant to our story. I will start in 1750, with this political map of Central Europe in that year.

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As every reader can see, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth dominated the region, at least as far as size goes. But it was a brittle, fragile polity, run in a most inefficient way. Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia, and Frederick the Great, King of Prussia, desired its territories, while Maria-Theresa, ruler of the traditional Hapsburg lands – Austria, Hungary and Bohemia, plus a few other bits and pieces – wanted to keep a balance between the powers in the region. The net result of all these maneuverings was the Partition of Poland. In three steps – executed in 1772, 1793, and 1795 – Russia, Prussia, and Austria carved the country up between them. Here is a cartoon of the time, showing the rulers of the three countries at work on the first of these partitions: Catherine, one one side, and Frederick and Joseph II (co-regent with his mother Maria-Theresa of Austria), on the other side (the fellow in between seeming to  take off his crown is the last king of Poland, Stanisław August Poniatowski).

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Frederick and Catherine were quite cheerful as they each grabbed a piece of the Polish pie. Maria-Theresa, who was really in charge and told her son Joseph what to do, felt guilty about it all but couldn’t let the other two get too big at her expense. As the cynical Frederick said, “she cries, but she takes”.

This was how political maps looked after the three partitions were completed. Poland was no more.

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There was a moment of hope for the Poles when Napoleon entered the scene and tore up the political maps of Europe, but his defeat and the subsequent Congress of Vienna restored everything pretty much to the way it was. In Central Europe, the only thing that changed was that Russia managed to get an even bigger slice of Poland at the expense of Prussia and Austria.

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Many of the political, intellectual and cultural elite of Poland emigrated (among them Adam Mickiewicz, who wrote the great nationalistic poem Pan Tadeusz). Bohemia, which had managed to keep some independence under the Hapsburgs, was now integrated into the newly-created Austrian Empire. To use language from later, nationalistic times, the Slavs of Central Europe groaned under the yoke of Vienna, Berlin, and Moscow (while the Slavic regions of South-Eastern Europe groaned under the yoke of Istanbul – but they do not seem to be part of the cabanos story, so we shall ignore them).

And what of the cabanos in all of this?

To answer that question, I have to switch to an alternative spelling of the sausage, kabanos (plural, kabanosy). It seems that the kabanos as such (as opposed to other cured and smoked sausages having kabanos-style properties) originated in Poland. Specifically, its homeland is in what is now eastern Poland, around the borders of what are now Lithuania and Russia. Farmers in that region bred pigs in a special way, making them eat potatoes (this marbles their meat, which gives – it is said – the kabanos a distinct taste). Since the Poles of that region called these pigs kaban, the sausage they made from it was called kabanos.

In the decades after Poland’s disappearance from the map, the kabanos migrated westward and southward, to Germany (through Prussia, I would imagine) and to Austria and Hungary in the heart of the Austro-Hungarian Empire via the Czech lands. I would imagine that it was brought along by Poles who set off to find their fortunes in the domains of their new masters, or perhaps members of the new master races came to Poland, discovered the kabanos, and took it back home. When the kabanos arrived in Germanic (and Hungarian) lands, the spelling changed to the more Germanic cabanos.

The basic recipe changed too. While in Poland the kabanos was made purely from pork, the cabanos became a mix of beef and pork (there have been kabanosy/cabanossi made with other meats – mutton, chicken, even horse and donkey – but these are minor variants and seem to have died out). The spices added to the sausage also varied as it migrated out of Poland, but this seems to have been more an issue of what spices were available locally and of personal tastes.

In the meantime, Poles never gave up their dream of once more having an independent Poland. There were various uprisings, which were all put down, and more emigrations of Poles. Pan Tadeusz was published in Paris, where Adam Mickiewicz was living in exile. The poem mentions the kabanos; perhaps it had become the comfort food of Polish émigrés. There was also one very large change to the political map of Europe, when Germany was unified in 1870 as an Empire.

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Then we fast-forward to the 1920s. World War I came and went and with it the three Empires that had dominated central Europe.

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Poland was resurrected as a country. Czechoslovakia was created, a country cobbled together from the smaller Slavic regions of Bohemia, Moravia, and Slovakia. Hungary also emerged once more as a separate country, although much smaller; it was shorn of Slavic regions on its borders which were handed over to the new Slavic states which surrounded it.

During all this mayhem, the kabanos/cabanos kept on being made in Poland and in all the countries, new and old, to which it had spread. In particular, it became particularly popular in Poland. The 1920s and ’30s saw a large growth in the kabanos market, a slow standardization of the product, and the emergence of brands: all outcomes of the country’s growing population and its industrialization.

Then came the disaster of the Second World War, when Poland and Czechoslovakia disappeared once again. They reappeared after the war, although Poland’s borders were shifted westward – the Soviet Union took a bite out of its eastern marches, while Poland took a bite out of Germany’s eastern marches – and all the countries of Central Europe fell behind the Iron Curtain.

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The Poles’ love for kabanosy was not diminished by Communism. It could even be than in the Proletarian Paradise that Poland had become, the kabanos’s humble origins increased its popularity. The fact is, everyone bought kabanosy, for every occasion, from the grandest to the most humble. Poland’s government may have been communist but it saw a good business in the kabanos. It further strengthened the product’s standardization, and it was one of the few things Poland exported (along with vodka and ham).

Then came the fall of the Berlin wall, the fall of the Iron Curtain, and the fall of the Soviet Union itself. Out of all this came a clutch of new (or renewed) countries to the south and east of Central Europe.

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The Central European countries all hurriedly joined the EU, to protect them from Russia. And so started the latest drama in the life of the kabanos. Quite soon after its accession, Poland applied to the EU to register the kabanos as a Polish Traditional Speciality Guaranteed (TSG), one of the three trademarks championed by the EU. And here the drift of the kabanos westward out of Poland, which had happened without much fuss during the 19th century, suddenly came into focus. Germany fiercely resisted Poland’s application, claiming that its producers had equal rights to the trademark (the fierceness of Germany’s resistance might have had to do with the touchy relationships between the two countries about the shift eastwards of the Polish-German border). Austria also protested, as did the Czech Republic. Poland discovered that the kabanosy was not its alone; other countries had a claim to it, claims created by the shifting of borders over the last 200 years. The wrangling went on for 10 years before it was finally settled. The deal was that while other countries could call their sausage kabanos (or cabanos), only Polish kabanos (made according to EU standards) could sport the distinctive blue and yellow TSG label.

With that, I leave my readers with a photo of a Polish kabanos I bought in a Polish delicatessen close to the Polish church patronized by many of the Poles who have recently emigrated to Vienna (I took a bite out of it before taking the photo; I couldn’t wait).

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And as a counterpart, I add a photo of a proper Austrian cabanos purchased a few days later in my local supermarket.

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Delicious, both of them! (although my wife, the other taster, deems the Polish version to be tastier). I urge readers to hunt out their nearest Polish delicatessen (or German or Austrian or Czech delicatessen, if they have one) and try this sausage. And have an Almdudler along with it!

COMMON CHICORY

Vienna, 5 September 2019

There is a flower which I much admire. I come across it quite often on our walks. This is a photo of it made by a professional photographer, with good lighting and a nice background.

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But in truth, I come across it more often in this kind of context.

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It is a flower which grows along the sides of fields, in waste land along the side of paths, in cracks in roads, … It is, in a word, the botanical embodiment of grace and beauty under pressure. And for that I am one of its greatest fans.

I have always called it the cornflower, but in preparing this post I have discovered that I have been terribly mistaken. Yes, it is sometimes called cornflower, but the real cornflower, the real McCoy as it were, is this.

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What I have been admiring for its grit and determination as well as its beauty is the common chicory, Cichorium intybus. As is the case with pretty flowers that sprinkle our countryside, it has been given lots of delightful names over the centuries apart from cornflower: blue daisy, blue dandelion, blue sailors, blue weed, bunk, coffeeweed, hendibeh, horseweed, ragged sailors, succory, wild bachelor’s buttons, and wild endive. And that’s only in English! It being native to Europe, I’m sure that every European language has a similar suite of names for this delightful flower.

What I have also discovered through my readings is that the common chicory is one of those plants out of which humble, anonymous people whose names we will almost certainly never know have over the centuries coaxed various foodstuffs. I want to salute these people, and in that sense this post has become a continuation of previous posts I have written about the slew of vegetables coaxed out of the mustard plant and the sea beet.

People have worked on two parts of the plant: its leaf and its root. Out of its leaf they have extracted several vegetables. I start with catalogna chicory. I do so because it is an Italian vegetable. My wife being Italian and my most faithful reader, I want to begin with a salute to the genius of her countrymen and women (it also so happens that her mother used to eat catalogna chicory from time to time, and it’s nice to use this occasion to remember the good woman). I also start with it because the photo shows up the common chicory’s very obvious relationship to the dandelion (the two are part of the same family) in the shape of the catalogna chicory’s leaves. And that shape allows me to note that catalogna chicory leaves, like dandelion leaves, are quite bitter (in fact, the reason my mother-in-law didn’t eat catalogna all that often was because my father-in-law disliked its bitter taste).

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I throw in here a popular Roman recipe which uses catalogna chicory, insalata di puntarelle alla romana

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Cut out the white, less bitter stems. Slice them into narrow strips. Let them sit in iced water for an hour (this further reduces the bitterness). In the meantime prepare the salad sauce. Add together crushed garlic, anchovies, vinegar, and olive oil, and whip together. Drain the catalogna chicory stems. Drizzle with the salad sauce. Enjoy!

Then there is another Italian spin-off of the common chicory, the radicchio.

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Although something like the radicchio may have already been enjoyed by the Romans, it is actually men and women living in the north-east of Italy during the fifteenth century, in the regions of Veneto, Friuli Venezia Giulia, and Trentino, who started its modern cultivation. But it is a Belgian agronomist by the name of Francesco Van den Borre (where there is a name, let us highlight it) who engineered the radicchio’s typical deep-red colour. He used a technique where the plants are taken from the soil and placed in water in darkened sheds; the lack of light causes the plants to lose their green pigmentation and turn red.

There is also the sugarloaf, which I must confess I have never eaten and had until I read up for this post never even heard of, and whose origins are a mystery to me – I can’t find anything about them on the internet. This is what it looks like.

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As far as I can make out, sugarloaf is eaten in much the same way as most chicories are: braised or in salad. I might nose around some of the higher-end grocery shops here to see if I can find any to try.

Finally, there is the Belgian endive.

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Like the radicchio, this is a rather artificial vegetable. To prevent the leaves from turning green and opening up, it is grown just below the soil surface or indoors in the absence of sunlight. It seems that this technique was accidentally discovered in the 1850s at Brussels’ Botanical Garden, which no doubt explains why it’s called Belgian endive (just to confuse things, I should note that the true endive is another species, Cichorium endivia).

That’s what people have done with the leaf of the common chicory. Then there is its root.

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It’s best known as the source of chicory coffee. The root is chopped up and then roasted, to give something like this.

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It can either be used as is or mixed with real coffee. Personally, I don’t like the stuff. My wife doesn’t either, but my mother-in-law was quite partial. So was my French grandmother; I remember her drinking this rather bitter drink in the morning at breakfast with evident relish. As I recall, she drank this brand of chicory coffee – given the dates, I would imagine I saw her dipping into the second tin from the left.

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I read that the French got a taste for chicory coffee during the Napoleonic wars. “Perfidious Albion” (i.e., the British) used its navy to blockade France so that coffee couldn’t get through. In desperation, the French turned to chicory to satisfy their craving for coffee. They got rather fond of it and continued drinking it after Waterloo.

Well, all very interesting, but let me finish where I started, with a very pretty flower with great determination to grow in the most hostile of environments.

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And with that, let me get ready for our next walk and probable meeting with the common chicory.

ALMUDLER

Vienna, 27 August 2019

My last post on a liquid refreshment (mead) has moved me to write this next post about another liquid refreshment, this time a non-alcoholic one: Almdudler. Unless readers have spent some time in Austria or the other Germanic lands – Germany and the German part of Switzerland – they will never have heard of this drink, created some 60 years ago here in Austria. I certainly hadn’t until I came to live in Vienna 20 years ago. But in this country it is very popular, second only in popularity, in the sweet carbonated drinks category to which it belongs, to Coca Cola.

For readers who don’t know the drink at all, let me throw in a photo of a bottle of Almdudler.

Readers will immediately notice the cute Austrian couple on the bottle dressed the traditional Austrian way – she in a dirndl, he in lederhosen and a jacket, both wearing an ethnic hat of some sort – but let’s leave that aside for the moment. We’ll come back to it later. Let’s concentrate on the straw-coloured liquid in the bottle, whose drinking is after all the whole point of buying the product.

I’m not particularly fond of carbonated soft drinks but if I’ve bothered to write this post it’s because this particular example of the genre is actually quite good. It is certainly a wonderful drink to have on these hot summer days as we walk the woods around Vienna. What is it about Almdudler, I’ve been asking myself these last 20 years, which makes it so pleasant to drink? The sweetness, of course, gives you a pleasant kick if you’ve been walking and sweating a lot. The fizz excites the palate. But behind the sweetness, behind the fizz, there’s a certain something, a faint, light aftertaste. What could it be?

The company which owns the recipe is predictably coy about the ingredients. The whole money-making machine that is Almdudler rests on those ingredients remaining a secret. The official website merely states that Almdudler is made of water, sugar, carbon dioxide, citric acid (as an “acidifier”, which I presume means giving the drink a slightly acidic taste but maybe to also act as a preservative), ammonia sulphite-based caramel colouring (that must be what gives the drink its straw colour), and “natural herbal extracts”. “Natural herbal extracts” … that must be the key ingredient, the one that intrigues and titillates the palate. The rest of the ingredients are just bog-standard, artificial stuff, pretty much taken off a chemical lab shelf.

So what natural herbs could Almdudler be using? I searched around on the internet for clues, particularly – given where it’s drunk – in the German section of the internet (sweating over translations with Google Translate). The search was heartening in that it showed that I was not alone in wondering what herbs are used in Almdudler, it was disheartening in that no-one had a clue. There is one faint chink of light in all the gloom. In one part of its website, the company specifies that 32 Alpine herbs are used. So let’s focus the search on Alpine herbs. The problem is, I can’t find an article on the internet which lists the Alpine herbs which are typically used in foodstuffs. Instead, what I’ve discovered is that Alpine herbs is big business. A good number of products, from throat lozenges to facial creams to digestive liqueurs, claim to use Alpine herbs – and of course are all very coy about which herbs exactly they use (I’ve also discovered that growing these herbs now occurs at agro-industrial scale in at least one Swiss canton – so much for my vision of Alpine maidens setting off in the early morning with a wickerwork basket to collect the herbs in woodland and meadow). The one exception to all this secrecy and dissimulation is the throat lozenge Ricola. The company’s web site informs us that 13 Alpine herbs are used in the lozenges, to whit: horehound, burnet, cowslip, elder, lady’s mantle, mallow, marshmallow plant, peppermint, plantain, sage, speedwell, thyme, and yarrow. I’m so pleased with the company for giving out this information that I shall give them some free publicity and throw in a photo of their product (I also happen to like the lozenges).

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That being said, this list doesn’t really help me much with the Almdudler puzzle. Do any of these 13 herbs get used, and if so which? Or are we talking about a completely different set of Alpine herbs? Any readers with inside information are welcome to drop me a line, but I fear that short of breaking into the Company’s HQ and blowing open the vault where the recipe is kept (I read somewhere that this is how Coca Cola’s recipe is hidden away from prying eyes, so I presume it will be the same for Almdudler), I will never know the answer to this question.

So let me turn to the cute Austrian couple on the label. There has always been such a couple on the bottle, although as this old poster for Almdudler attests they have been somewhat sleekened and modernized since the product first came onto the Austrian market in 1957.

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Readers will note the typically Alpine setting of the scene – all further pointers to the Alps being the source of the herbs in the drink (in fact, those strange-looking plants at the feet of the couple may be one of the herbs!). According to the company web-site, the name, too, has Alpine roots. Almdudler is a shortening of the phrase auf der Alm dudeln, which means “yodeling in the Alpine pasture”.  I rather think that’s what the couple are doing in the poster. Yodeling always makes me think of a scene in Asterix in Helvetia (where he and Obelix are sent to get a secret Alpine herb for one of Druid Panoramix’s potions – we always come back to the Alpine herbs!). At some point in their adventures, the two meet a group of Swiss having a day out in the mountains and yodeling.

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So a very Alpine drink, then! Which is funny, because the inventor of Almdudler, Erwin Klein, was as Viennese as they come. But that’s OK, because in the end he was selling post-war Austrians a dream: the little Alpine country, proud of its bucolic, rustic roots, just wanting to be left alone by everyone. And the selling of that dream made him a fortune.

Interesting fellow, Klein. Born in 1924, into a family already in the soft drinks business (his father ran a company which made carbonated lemonade), he was actually trained from an early age for the stage. An odd choice by his parents, it seems to me; but perhaps his father was a frustrated actor, and anyway there was already an older son ready to step into his father’s shoes and take over the family business. He somehow avoided being called up – he was 18 in 1942 – and survived the war (as did his father’s business). Immediately after the war, he made good on his training and became a cabaret artist for a couple of years. But for some reason he abandoned the stage in 1947 and joined the family firm. In around 1954, he started tinkering in the company’s lab on the recipe for Almdudler. At his wedding in 1957, so the story goes, he presented his wife with the first bottle of Almdudler. Through savvy marketing, he grew the brand. His biggest marketing coup was at the 1964 Winter Olympics in Innsbruck, where he took over the food and beverage supply of the entire event – allowing him, of course, to feature Almdudler prominently.  In 1973, he capped his success by stopping to make Almdudler himself. Instead, he sold other bottlers the rights to use the recipe. All he had to do was sit at home and let the royalties roll in. Great business model!

But the stage – at least the more vulgar end of it – never left him. Looking at this picture of him on the company web-site, that doesn’t surprise me too much.

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In 1959, he opened a restaurant with a permanent cabaret stage program. Among other things, this became the permanent venue of the “Drei Spitzbuben”, the three Bad Boys, a very popular act in Austria.

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According to Wikipedia, the threesome “were the ‘master of the rough joke’ and parodied all sorts of then-current hits. Many of the gross jokes are about sex, homosexuality, and alcohol.” I think we get the picture. Klein himself was involved in writing the texts of the Bad Boys. He also wrote for TV and radio – I don’t want to think what non-PC stuff he wrote. He even directed a sex film! For anyone who is interested, it was entitled Dornwittchen und Schneeröschen, and was a sex film in the guise of a fairy tale movie. It was, alas, poorly received.

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And then, in 1983, at the age of 59, he killed himself. Apparently, he was suffering from a serious illness and decided to end it all. His son took over the business and he got himself a nice grave in one of Vienna’s fancier graveyards.

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Well, I lift a glass of Almdudler to its creator. I may never know what mix of Alpine herbs he came up with in that lab 60 years ago but I will continue to enjoy the taste they impart to his product on these hot summer days. And I must try what the old poster invites us to try: mit oder ohne Wein, with or without wine. Prost!

QUAFFING MEAD

Vienna, 18 August 2019

Back in April, I was up in Vienna to make a presentation at a workshop on ecodesign and its role in promoting circular economies. Fascinating topic, but what I actually want to write about is the fact that at this meeting I met an old contact of mine, Wolfgang, who many years ago had run a training programme for me on ecodesign in Sri Lanka. After the workshop, we repaired to a bar to catch up on the past 15 years or so over a beer. Wolfgang first told me all about what he’s been up to in the ecodesign world, but then added, “What’s really exciting me at the moment is my production of mead.”

Mead … I don’t know what visions this conjures up in my readers, but for me I immediately see Vikings wassailing the dark Nordic nights away, drinking mead out of horns or possibly the skulls of their enemies, and preparing for the battle of tomorrow where they will die heroically and go to Valhalla. These fine fellows will stand in nicely for such a scene.

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I had certainly never drunk the stuff myself; I didn’t know anyone made it anymore.

Thoroughly intrigued, I pressed Wolfgang for more information. As is the case with all enthusiasts, I didn’t have to press very hard. With a pint of beer inside him, he waxed lyrical on the subject. He had to start at the very beginning, with what mead is made from – I didn’t even know that. It’s a mixture of honey and water to which yeast is added to turn the sugars in the honey into alcohol. The relative ratios of honey to water will determine the level of sweetness of the final product. Sweetness can be further increased by the addition of fruits. On the other hand, the mix can be made dryer by adding astringent berries or herbs. Wolfgang was very dismissive about the modern trend of making sweet meads. In fact, he said, he started making mead because he was appalled at how horribly sweet most modern meads are, which in his opinion obliterates the wonderful underlying tastes of the honey. He decided he was going to swim against the current and make a dry mead. He had been at it for a couple of years, and was beginning to sell his product to other enthusiasts.

Well, this all sounded very interesting! I was definitely going to have to try this stuff. Unfortunately, I was going back down to Milan the next day. But we agreed that when my wife and I came up to Vienna for the summer, I would contact him and we would arrange a mead-tasting event.

In the meantime, down in Milan, I did some research. Mead, it turns out, is very ancient, probably the first alcoholic drink that human beings ever quaffed. It’s also a pretty universal drink. The tribes that settled Europe certainly all drank mead. I’ve already mentioned the Vikings. They loved mead so much, they wrote a whole saga about it – Kvasir and the Mead of Poetry. It’s a story that has dwarves, giants, the god Odin, thievery, murder, and various other bits and bobs. A shaggy dog story if ever I heard one, good to while away those long Nordic nights while quaffing mead. The bottom line of the saga is that mead can turn you into a poet or a scholar: a feeling that I’m sure all of us have had when we have drunk too much alcohol; a feeling we normally have just before we are sick or pass out, or both. And much of Beowulf, that Anglo-Saxon poem greatly revered by lovers of the English language, takes place in a mead hall; it was in these specially-built halls that Viking chieftains and their retinue of warriors drank mead, listened to long, long – long – sagas, and generally wassailed the nights away, before collapsing onto the benches or even onto the floor in a drunken stupor. Here is an artist’s representation of a mead hall.

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And here is an excellent summary of the first part of Beowulf: “The fantastical mead hall of Heorot forms an integral part of the epic Old English poem Beowulf, serving as both the setting and instigation of the action. It is the carousing of Heorot’s denizens as they slug back mead in the hall which awakens the terrible ire of the monster Grendel – with predictably gruesome results. The solution to the problem – in typical Old English style – was not to put down the mead horns and cease partying, but to slay the monster (and his mother) before throwing an even bigger and more mead-soaked party to celebrate.”

The Vikings may be the best known quaffers of mead, but the Celts were no slouches, and nor were the Germanic tribes. There is riddle-poem in the Exeter Book, a 10th-century anthology of Anglo-Saxon poetry, about honey and mead. I quote the first couple of lines:

Ic eom weorð werum, wide funden,
brungen of bearwum ond of burghleoþum,
of denum ond of dunum. Dæges mec wægun
feþre on lifte, feredon mid liste …

But since I’m sure that 99.99% of my readers are like me not able to read Anglo-Saxon, I insert here a translation of the poem into modern English:

I am valuable to men, found widely,
brought from groves and from mountain slopes,
from valleys and from hills. By day, was I carried
by feathers up high, taken skillfully
under a sheltering roof. A man then washed me
in a container. Now I am a binder and a striker;
I bring a slave to the ground, sometimes an old churl.
Immediately he discovers, he who goes against me
and contends against my strength,
that he shall meet the ground with his back,
unless he ceases from his folly early;
deprived of his strength, loud of speech, his power bound,
he has no control over his mind, his feet, or his hands.
Ask what I am called, who thus binds slaves
to the earth with blows, by the light of day.

The Anglo-Saxons clearly recognized the power of mead to bring you crashing to the floor of the mead hall or any other establishment where you drank the stuff in excess.

The Slavs also drank the stuff – they still do, with Poland having an especially developed culture of mead drinking. We have here a painting of a couple of early 19th Century Polish noblemen enjoying a flagon of mead, a scene inspired by that great nationalist Polish poem, Pan Tadeusz by Adam Mickiewicz. I don’t even bother with the Polish here, I just launch straight into an English translation, and cut out much of the saga-like talk between the two old men who are our subject:

Two old men sat outside the house, tankards
of strong mead resting on their knees; …
The old men drink their mead and dip their snuff
from a bark case, continuing their chat.
“Yes, yes, Protazy, it is true enough,”
said the Warden. “I can agree with that,”
replied Protazy the Apparitor.
“Yes,” they repeated in unison, “Yes,”
nodding their heads. …
…. The turf bench in the yard
on which they sat adjoined the kitchen wall;
from an open window, steam filled the air,
billowing like a conflagration. When all
the smoke was gone, a white chef‟s hat was there,
flitting like a dove. It was the Seneschal,
who stuck his head out through the kitchen window,
eavesdropping on this private conversation.
Finally, he handed them a plate with two
biscuits. “Have this cake with your libation,”
He said …

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It wasn’t just tribes in Europe’s north who drank mead. The Ancient Greeks drank it – I read that Dionysios was the God of mead before becoming the God of wine. Greek followers of Dionysios, and Roman followers of Bacchus (same God, different name), used to hold festivals – the Dionysia or Bacchanalia – where much drinking and dancing and cavorting about (nudge, nudge, wink, wink, say no more) was the key. Here is a take on a Bacchanalia by Hendrik Balen (he did the figures) and Jan Breughel the Elder (he did the landscape), painted in about 1620.

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As I say, the Romans partook enthusiastically in Bacchanalia, but there were more sober Roman citizens who left us some serious commentary on mead. Here is my favourite, by the Roman naturalist Lucius Junius Moderatus Columella, who included a recipe for making mead in his tome on agriculture, De re rustica, which he wrote in about 60 CE (again, I skip the Latin and go straight into an English translation).

Take rainwater kept for several years, and mix a sextarius [ca. ½ litre] of this water with a [Roman] pound [ca. ⅓ kg] of honey. For a weaker mead, mix a sextarius of water with nine ounces [ca. ¼ kg] of honey. The whole is exposed to the sun for 40 days, and then left on a shelf near the fire. If you have no rain water, then boil spring water.

I am appalled and fascinated in equal measure by this idea that one could take several-year old rainwater and use it to make something to drink; I suppose this was a way of inoculating the honey-water mix with natural yeasts which somehow found their way into the rainwater. I presume Columella drank his own mead and survived, so it cannot have been as deadly as it sounds.

And it wasn’t just the Europeans who drank it. The Chinese did – in fact, the oldest archaeological evidence tentatively pointing to mead drinking has been found in China: some honey, rice, and fermentation residues found on the inside of a pot 9,000 years old. The Mandaya and Manobo people in the island of Mindanao in the Philippines still drink mead, which they call bais.

In Africa, the Xhosa in South Africa have an ancient tradition of drinking mead, or iQhilika in Xhosa, and the Ethiopians have been, and continue to be, enthusiastic drinkers of mead (or tej as it’s called locally). Here we have Ethiopians enjoying a wee dram of the stuff.

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And I love this picture, done in the traditional Ethiopian style, of what appears to be a priest and his acolytes getting ready to down some tej.

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What I find particularly delicious in this painting is that normally the figures in Ethiopian paintings are very solemn; no-one breaks into a smile. Yet here, at the thought of the pleasures to come, we see a hint of a smile on the acolytes’ faces (while the priest looks troubled, which is perhaps how it should be: “Guys, should we be doing this? What if someone sees me drinking this stuff? I have an important position in the community.”).

Even in the Americas mead was, and still is consumed. Prior to the Spanish conquest, the Maya made a drink called balché made by soaking the bark of a special tree in a honey-water mix and allowing it to ferment. Apparently, the Maya consumed balché in enema form to maximize its inebriating effect (just think if the Vikings had cottoned on to that …). For some reason, the Conquistadores banned the drink, but it never went away completely. Here is an Amerindian from the Chiapas region of Mexico making balché the old way: in a hollowed log, place the bark of the tree, add water and honey, cover and wait.
Balché may be making a comeback, although one of the reasons the Spaniards didn’t like it is that it smelled foul to them. They popularized a variant, xtabentún, which replaced the tree bark with anise (they also added rum, which makes the drink more of a liqueur).

In a way, it’s not surprising that mead is drunk in so many parts of the world. Honey, its basic ingredient, is to be found pretty much everywhere on this planet, as this map of the global distribution of the honeybee attests (the different colours refer to sub-species of the honeybee; the pinkish colour, the most dominant, gives the range for apis mellifera).

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For reasons that are not completely clear to me, the drinking of mead went into steep decline in Europe some time after the Middle Ages. Somehow, it got squeezed out by wine on one side and beer on the other. So now there are a few traditional hold-outs where mead never completely died out and enthusiasts like Wolfgang who are trying to bring mead back.

Coming back to Wolfgang, when June came around and my wife and I came up to Vienna for the summer, I contacted him. But one thing and another – he was away, then I was away; he was busy, then I was busy – meant that we weren’t able to arrange the mead tasting until last week. But it was finally arranged! Wolfgang keeps his mead in an old wine cellar in a small village outside Vienna, so we took a bus with him one evening and sallied forth. It was a lovely cellar, very deep, at the end of which he had a table with chairs where we sat down to do our mead tasting.
He got us some glasses and a bottle of his best mead.
He uncorked it, poured us a generous portion, and invited us to taste. We ceremonially picked up the glass, sniffed it, swirled it around, and took a sip.

It was … interesting. I think that’s the best I can say. I don’t know if readers can imagine this, but it tasted like honey without the sweet taste. What gets left behind if you take out the honey’s sweetness is a slightly acrid, slightly “waxy” taste. If any of my readers have ever nibbled at wax, that was the predominant taste of the mead.

The first mead we tried was made with honey where the bees had been feeding on the nectar from lime-tree (linden) flowers (I have waxed lyrical about the flower of the linden tree in a past post). We then tried a mead made with honey where the bees had feasted on rhododendron nectar up in the Alps. It was much clearer in colour, but the taste did not change much. As a finale, we tried a mead to which chokeberries had been added. These turned the mead’s colour redder and made the taste smokier – but it did not change the basic facts.
Well, we bought two bottles from Wolfgang. We felt we owed him that for the trouble he had gone to. We plan to take the bottles down to Milan, where we’ll try them on our son and see what he thinks.

In the meantime – but I have to hide this from Wolfgang – I think we should find some sweet mead to try. I feel that despite Wolfgang’s tut-tutting, people are not so wrong to drink their mead sweet. And that Ethiopian mead looks really interesting! I wonder if the Ethiopian restaurant we go to in Milan has any?

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