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Category: Food

MUSINGS ON BRAMBLES

Kyoto, 15 October 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The fairy was accompanied by an equally twee little poem.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Put 1.3kg, 2 cooking apples, washed, cored, and diced, and 450ml of water in a large saucepan. Bring to the boil, then simmer over a low heat for 20-25 minutes or until the fruit is completely soft. Tip the soft fruit and juice into a jelly bag (which has been previously boiled to sterilize) and leave to drip for 8 hours or until all the juice has been released. Prepare the jam jars by washing in hot soapy water and leaving to dry and warm in a cool oven for 10-15 minutes. Measure the juice. For every 600ml weigh out 450g sugar. Put the juice and sugar back into the clean pan, heat over a low heat until all the sugar has dissolved. Bring to the boil and simmer for 10-15 minutes or until setting point is reached. Skim away any scum from the top of the jelly and fill the jam jars to the brim. Cover, seal and label. Store in a cool, dark place until required.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cheers!

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

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

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

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

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

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

_______________________

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

NETTLES

Vienna, 25 September 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The result should look something like this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

28/9/2108: POSTSCRIPTUM

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

The small tortoiseshell:

The peacock:

The red admiral:

The comma:

The painted lady:

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

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

THE CHERRY, SWEET AND SOUR

Vienna, 20 July 2018

In one of my wanderings through the Vienna woods with my wife, I noticed a tree like this one growing along the side of the path.

The bark, with those typical striations, almost scarifications, suggested strongly to me that it was a cherry tree.

The leaves looked cherry-like too. There was a cherry-like fruits hanging on the branches, but they were really small.

Was this a cherry tree gone feral, I wondered?

Cautiously, oh so cautiously, I tried one of the fruits. There was hardly any pulp, although what there was tasted cherry-like. And the small seed looked cherry-like too. I pronounced to my wife, who was standing anxiously by, waiting for me to keel over from eating some deadly poison, that in my opinion we were standing before a wild cherry tree.

Now that I had noticed the tree, I began to see them everywhere along our walks – a nice change from the drifts of wild garlic. Later on, one of the entries along a little “Nature Walk” at Hermesvilla (a large country house built by Emperor Franz-Josef for his beloved Sissi on the outskirts of Vienna) informed me that these were indeed wild cherry trees. In German, they have a charming name, Vogel Kirsche, a name that Linnaeus echoed in the Latin name he gave it, Prunus avium. I say charming, because I can indeed imagine birds feasting on these small fruit. What a lovely banquet Nature has given them! Here, a clever photographer has caught one in the act.

I have since read that small mammals also eat them, spreading – like the birds – the seeds far and wide, this no doubt explaining why I was discovering the trees far and wide in the woods around Vienna.

When I was a much smaller mammal than I am now, I distinctly remember climbing into the cherry tree which my French grandmother had in a corner of her garden – a big, stately old tree which had been there many a-year – and scarfing down its plump purple cherries, spitting out the cherry seeds far and wide. Ah, how sweet those cherries were! Even now, fifty and more years later, I can remember their taste. So I salute the Lords of the Universe, who in their infinite wisdom created the Vogel Kirsche for the delectation of the Vogels and small mammals!

Well, after that flight of poetic fancy, let me return to earth and to a more sober turn of phrase. For those among my readers who are as interested as I am in etymology, it may interest them to know that the English word “cherry” derives from the Old Northern French or Norman word for the tree and fruit “cherise”, which itself is derived from the Latin word “cerasum”, which in turn is a derivation of the ancient Greek word “kerasous”. The etymology tracks the journey of the domesticated cherry tree into Europe.

Kerasous was actually the name of one of the Pontic Greek provinces lying on the southern shores of the Black Sea, east of Trebizond. It was here that the Greek world got to know the domesticated cherry tree that we are familiar with, with its much larger cherries than the tiny fruit of the wild cherry tree which I had nibbled at cautiously. Somewhere in the Anatolian highlands behind Kerasous, farmers had domesticated the wild cherry tree, patiently coaxing it over generations to deliver up bigger fruits more on the scale of us big mammals, and sweeter and juicier into the bargain.

I would assume that Ancient Greeks brought back some trees and planted them in the Greek heartlands. From there, I would have thought it no great flight of the imagination to think that the cherry tree spread to Magna Graecia, Greater Greece, that string of Greek colonies that ran along the insole and heel of the Italian boot and the southern coasts of Sicily, and from there a skip, hop, and a jump would have brought the tree to the expanding Roman world.

Not so, according to Gaius Plinius Secundus, known to us as Pliny the Elder. In his Natural History

written in the late 70s AD, he holds that the cherry tree entered the Roman world in a much more Roman way, as spoils of war. In his words (translated, I hasten to add, by someone much more learned in Latin than I), “before the victory of L. Lucullus in the war against Mithridates, that is down to 74 BC, there were no cherry trees in Italy. Lucullus first imported them from Pontus”. Lucius Licinius Lucullus (to give the man his full name) was a Roman consul in the sunset years of the Roman Republic.

He was, it seems, a brilliant general. Among his other accomplishments, he comprehensively thrashed Mithridates, king of Pontus. In the process, he gained for himself untold riches in loot, which, along with the domesticated cherry tree, he brought back to Rome. He used his riches to live a life of luxury, something which was still frowned upon in Republican Rome but was to become the norm in Imperial Rome. Apart conspicuous consumerism (which included that typical expense of the Roman rich and powerful, the organization of extravagant games), Lucullus created a number of gardens, a fragment of one of which still exists in the Villa Borghese gardens in Rome.

This was another “spoil” of war – Lucullus had picked up the Persian love of gardens during his Eastern campaigns; I have had cause to mention Persian gardens in an earlier post, in quite another context. No doubt it was in his gardens that he planted his imported cherry trees and invited the Roman rich and powerful to partake of its fruit. As might be expected, the fruit became incredibly popular and plantings of the cherry tree grew apace. As the Roman legions moved north carrying the Pax Romana and civitas with them, the administrators who followed carried along cherry trees to plant in the conquered lands. Citing Pliny again, “in 120 years they have crossed the ocean and got as far as Britain”.

Of course, strictly speaking Pliny was wrong when he said that there were no cherry trees in Italy before Lucullus brought them. There were, but of the type which I had come across in the Vienna woods. The natural habitat of Prunus avium stretches from Ireland to the Iranian Plateau.

Our ancestors were eating their little fruits at least two thousands years before Pliny wrote his Natural History – we know this because various Bronze Age sites across Europe have yielded up the tiny little stones – and no doubt Italian peasants were still eating them. But aristocrats like Pliny would surely not have deigned to touch such poor food – much as I do not touch the elderberries which currently weigh purple and heavy on their bushes here in Vienna but whose weak and watery taste I came to despise when I picked them as a schoolboy in the English hedgerows.

Coming back to Lucullus, he was also known for his eating habits. His over-the-top banquets in particular were to become legendary, giving rise to the English word “lucullan”, as in “that dinner was lucullan” meaning that it was particularly large, lavish, and ostentatious (I add this etymological factoid because my wife is fond of using the equivalent Italian word “luculliano” of certain meals; it might interest her to know its provenance). If I mention this aspect of Lucullus’s lifestyle it is because of a recent lunch – not lucullan but definitely many notches above the ordinary – which I shared with an old colleague. After a starter of marinaded char with beer radish, apple and woodruff, followed by a main dish of grilled sturgeon with baby kohlrabi, Risina beans, Meyer lemon and stewed onions, all washed down with a glass of white wine, we both took for dessert a curd-sour cherry tart with hay milk ice cream. It was actually that delicious sour cherry tart that precipitated this post, not my meeting in the woods with the wild cherry.

I must admit to having been a bit sneaky with my readers, having written up to now as if there were only one type of edible cherry. In fact, as all cherry lovers will know, there are two: the sweet cherry, Prunus avium, and the sour cherry, Prunus cerasus.

For the biologically-minded among my readers, it might interest them to know that P. cerasus is actually a hybrid between our friend P. avium and another species of cherry tree, P. fruticosa, or dwarf cherry. This friendly intermingling of genes must have occurred on the Iranian Plateau or in Eastern Europe where the two species’s natural habitats overlap. As its common name suggests, P. fruticosa is believed to have provided the sour cherry tree its smaller size, but it is also thought to be responsible for its tarter tasting fruit. It seems that the hybrids took on a life of their own (“stabilised”, I believe is the scientific word for this) and interbred to form a new, distinct species. The wonders of biology …

I can personally vouch to the smaller stature of the sour cherry tree and to the greater tartness of its fruit. As a young boy, staying at my French grandmother’s house over a summer holiday, it came to pass that my grandmother decided to visit a first cousin of hers who was staying in her country house some kilometers away. She took me and my sister along with her. It was a delightfully faded house with furnishings that were rather threadbare and old fashioned: my mother rather reluctantly inherited it many years later, commenting that it would be more work than it was worth. Having politely pecked the old lady on the cheek and suffered through comments about how much we had grown since last we had met, we were allowed to run off into the garden, leaving the two old biddies to settle down to a nice cup of tea and a gossip. In that garden, tucked away in a corner, we discovered this small tree covered with bright red cherries, all very easy to reach – no clambering up ladders into this tree. Alas! A couple of cherries were enough to dissuade me from going further. They were too sour for my little mouth. I was disconsolate, although when my grandmother took a large bag of the cherries back home with her, I realized that I had stumbled across the source of those fabulous cherries that filled glass jars such as this one which stood in serried ranks on a shelf in the cellar.

My grandmother made assiduous use of those cherries, baking tarts such as the one I had eaten in my non-lucullan but still exceedingly yummy lunch. Memories, memories …

Of course, we love cherries not just for their fruit but also for their flowers in Spring.

Here, the Chinese, Koreans, and Japanese have surpassed us all. They have taken their local species of cherry tree (I should note in passing that there are at least 60 species of cherry worldwide) and over the ages have coaxed them into giving fabulous blooms in Spring.

In turn, cherry blossoms have coaxed wonderful poems out of Asian poets. Here, for instance, is a short poem by the late 9th century Japanese poet Otomo no Juronushi.

Everyone feels grief
when cherry blossoms scatter.
Might they then be tears –
those drops of moisture falling
in the gentle rains of spring?

While here we have Li Yu, terrible ruler (he was the last ruler of the Southern Tang dynasty in the late 10th century) but wonderful poet.

Beneath the moon, before the steps, all cherry blossom has fallen,
Enwreathed in smoke, she looks sorrowful lying in bed.
She feels the same regret today as one long year ago.
Both braids like cloud in disarray, her face is wan and sallow,
The crimson corset wet from wiping tears.
But what’s the reason why she suffers so?
She lies in a drunken dream before the window.

These biological wonders have been carried all over the world to amaze and delight. Many years ago, when we lived in Washington DC, we tried to see the cherry trees in bloom there.

But the crowds were so impossibly large that we beat a hasty retreat. I have a more intimate memory from my university days in Edinburgh. There was a little square, Nicolson Square, just across from the University Drama Society’s theatre space which I used to haunt. I would often pass through the square on my way to and from the other university buildings. It was densely planted along its sides with cherry trees which had an intensely pink flower. In the Spring it was a delight, as you walked first under sprays, then, as the petals fell, through drifts, of pink. This photo, from those years, gives a small idea of the loveliness.

That brief blaze of pink was a harbinger of the (weak) sun and (relative) warmth to come after the long, long, dark, dark, cold, cold months of the Scottish winter. And it always happened just when we had to hole up in the library to study for our end-of-year exams! Such is life …

__________________________

wild cherry tree: https://www.waldwissen.net/waldwirtschaft/waldbau/pflege/lwf_waldbau_vogelkirsche/index_DE
wild cherry tree bark: https://www1.wdr.de/verbraucher/wohnen/service-garten-borken-100.html
wild cherry fruit: https://vollwert-blog.de/wilde-vogelkirschen/
bird eating cherries: https://www.fotocommunity.de/photo/kirschen-essen-vogel-chrisi-online/17347944
wild versus domesticated cherry: https://vollwert-blog.de/wilde-vogelkirschen/
Pliny’s Natural History: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Natural_History_(Pliny)
Lucullus: https://www.istockphoto.com/at/vektor/lucius-licinius-lucullus-gm686730586-126174385
Villa Borghese gardens: http://www.garden.it/chicotti/i-giardini-segreti-di-villa-borghese-giardino-dei-fiori
Prunus avium range: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prunus_avium
Sour cherry: https://gourmandistan.com/2012/05/20/short-sour-cho-chweet-cherry-season/
Glass jar full of cherries: http://lesgourmandesastucieuses.blogspot.com/2011/07/comment-conserver-vos-cerises-2eme.html
Cherry tree in bloom: https://www.istockphoto.com/at/fotos/wild-cherry-tree
Cherry trees blooming in Japan: https://www.redduckpost.com/cherry-blossoms-in-japan-can-you-rely-on-the-forecast/
Cherry trees blooming in Washington DC: https://washington.org/DC-guide-to/national-cherry-blossom-festival
Nicolson square: https://www.facebook.com/lostedinburgh/posts/nicolson-square-spring-1972-lovely/1530993553624989/

GARLIC

Manila, 6 June 2018

A few days ago, my wife and I went for a walk in the Wiener Wald, those woods which drape the hills ringing Vienna on its northern and western sides. It was a public holiday, the Feast of Corpus Christi, so it seemed an excellent excuse to go for a ramble in the woods. On top of it, it was a beautiful day, bright, sunny, with a slight breeze.

We were not disappointed. We found surprisingly few people. The beech trees were splendid

with sunlight filtering through their leaves.

Wildflowers peeped out from the undergrowth

Deer crossed our path …

In a word, it was perfect.

Except for one thing: the fetid smell that periodically wafted up from the forest floor.

The source of the smell was these plants, which carpeted the ground in many parts of the woods.

They are wild garlic, Allium ursinum, so readers will not be surprised if I say that the smell they emanated made me think of rancid garlic cloves. It was quite similar to the nauseous smell given off by some of the hole-in-the-wall kebab joints in Vienna, where garlic powder is used with wild abandon.

Our walk was too late in the season for us to at least enjoy the delicate white flower they display.

For that, you need to go into the woods in April, early May. But it was just as well we had come late: previous experience had shown me that when the plant is flowering the smell is even more penetrating.

I remember talking with a German colleague of mine about my first brush with wild garlic’s exhalations in the Viennese woods. He sympathized, but waxed eloquent about the soup which can be made from its leaves. As previous postings record, I am no fan of garlic and so have never tried this soup. But for readers who are better disposed to garlic than I am and who happen to have a wood nearby in which wild garlic grows, I throw in an Austrian version of the soup’s recipe (the amounts cited here should serve four people). Pick 200 grams of wild garlic leaves (one source suggests picking them young and tender, even before the plant flowers, to get the most delicate taste). Wash, drain, and chop finely. Melt 50 grams of butter in a saucepan, stir in 3 tablespoons of flour, and slowly add 1 litre of vegetable stock. Bring to a boil. Stir in the chopped wild garlic leaves. Bring to a boil again. Simmer gently, all the while seasoning with salt, pepper, a shot of lemon juice, and a pinch of anchovy paste. Finally, stir in 1/8 litre of sour cream and two tablespoons of whipped cream, season to taste with a pinch of nutmeg. The soup should look something like this.

I should note that a number of recipes from the German-speaking world suggest adding some cubed potatoes rather than flour and cream, but I feel that the recipe I’ve cited sounds more authentic (a number of recipes also suggest adding onions and/or shallots and/or garlic cloves, but this really seems to be exaggerating the presence of this malodorous family!).

My favourite source of information – Wikipedia – tells me that wild garlic is native to the temperate regions of Europe, from Britain in the west to the Caucasus in the east. Wikipedia also informs me that we Europeans have been munching on wild garlic leaves in one form or another for the last 10,000 years or so – an impression of a wild garlic leaf was found in a Mesolithic settlement in Denmark. Did our European forebears also munch on the bulb? Perhaps only if they were very hungry, because the bulb of wild garlic is very small.

No, it’s not Allium ursinum which gave us the garlic cloves that we are so – unfortunately – familiar with today. We have to thank a Central Asian cousin, Allium longicuspis, for that.

Early farmers in Central Asia cultivated the wild variety, and as has happened so many times with other plants they played around with it and slowly turned it into the plant we know today, with that pungent – oh, so pungent! – bulb.

It seems that garlic was one of the very first plants that our farming ancestors tinkered with. Their tinkering was so successful that the plant got carried out of Central Asia along the Silk Road and other trade routes, east to China and south-east Asia, south to the Indian subcontinent, west to the kingdoms of the Near East, followed by Egypt and later Greece and Rome. As the plant was moved out of its homeland, farmers kept tinkering so that today there is a bewildering number of sub-variants.

Now, I know this will raise hackles among garlic lovers, but really, what on earth possessed those early farmers to spend their precious time in developing this bulb?! It tastes really strong (“pungent” is the word used in the garlic literature), it leaves a metallic taste in your mouth after you’ve eaten it (well, in mine at least), it makes your breath – indeed, your whole person – smell “pungently” after partaking of it, and it – hmm, let me see how best to put this – it disrupts your digestive system resulting in odorous wind and other unpleasant side effects in the bathroom (at least, it does so in my case).

But develop it they did. And they found enthusiastic consumers far and wide. The ancient Egyptians consumed particularly enthusiastically. The poor buggers who slaved away to put these up

were, it seems, paid with the stuff – garlic was believed to give one strength, and what did these guys need but strength, and a lot of it? It’s not as if the workers were forced to eat it, either. It seems they loved it. One of the only two known slave revolts in Egypt occurred after the failure of the annual garlic harvest.

Generally speaking, in all places and at all times garlic was believed to be good for your health and a cure for all sorts of maladies, from the plague to the pox. In fact, this may have been why garlic was originally developed – for its supposed health effects rather than as a food additive. There must be people who still believe in garlic’s curative powers; why else would companies offer these sorts of over-the-counter products for sale?

One persistent belief is that garlic has antiseptic properties. It seems that garlic was used during both World Wars as an antiseptic and a cure for dysentery. I can hardly believe it; doctors in the mid-20th Century had no better medicine than that?! What I do know is that until very recently the Chinese were using garlic as a sort of antiseptic mouthwash. A friend of ours who had been already living in China for some years before we arrived told me that in the early noughties it was common for people to rub their gums with a garlic clove in the morning before going to work. He said that taking the bus in the morning was not for the faint of heart. I shudder inwardly every time I think of his story.

Talking of shuddering, in ancient Greek and Roman times (and probably even before) it was believed that garlic was a powerful aphrodisiac. Quite how anyone could have come to this conclusion is beyond me. But then the human mind has an infinite capacity for self-delusion. And of course it must have been men who believed this. I can imagine the scene: a randy old goat who munches on the ancient world’s equivalent of a little blue pill and then rushes off to bed to perform. Pity the poor woman who is the recipient of his performance!

In fact, smelling of garlic has always been associated with being uncouth. Those Egyptian priests who eagerly fed their workers garlic never touched the stuff themselves. Upper caste Indians never let garlic pass their lips in case it made them smell like their lower caste compatriots. In ancient Greece, it was generally believed that the gods disliked the smell of garlic. In temples dedicated to the goddess Cybele, this was taken to extremes. Those who wished to enter one of her temples had to pass the garlic breath test. King Alfonso of Castille ruled that any gentle person coming into court smelling of garlic was banished for a week. In the US until the 1940s the reek of garlic was used as an ethnic slur, being called such things ‘Italian perfume’.

I suppose that the thinking which led Greeks to conclude that the gods disliked the smell of garlic also led to the belief that garlic could ward off witches, evil spirits and the like. Which belief no doubt underlies the use of garlic to ward off vampires. All this tells me is that vampires have good taste.

Readers may protest and say that garlic’s main role is surely now in the kitchen. True. And to show that even with garlic I can be broadminded let me throw in here a famous recipe where garlic plays the main role, for the garlic lovers out there to try if they have not done so already. It is the recipe for another soup, Sopa de Ajo, Garlic Soup, which is eaten throughout Spain. Once again, the amounts cited here will serve four. Heat 4 tablespoons of olive oil in a saucepan over a low heat. Add 4 to 5 large garlic bulbs (yes, four to five), broken into the cloves – do not remove their skin. Fry gently, stirring often, for 15-20 minutes, until the skins are golden brown and the flesh is soft. Remove them from the hot oil. Wait until they have cooled a little, then squeeze out the garlic flesh, discarding the skins. Puree and set aside. Meanwhile, add 100g of cooking chorizo, cut into little pieces, to the pan and fry until crisp and caramelized. Add 1 teaspoon of fresh thyme leaves, fry for a few seconds. Then add the pureed garlic and stir it in well. Add ½ teaspoon of sweet smoked Spanish paprika, and pour on 1 litre of chicken stock. Bring to a boil, gently simmer, and season to taste. About two minutes before serving, poach four eggs in the soup and add 8 slices of ciabatta, toasted and torn into rough pieces. The finished product should look something like this.

Four to five garlic bulbs … For all my broadmindedness, I cannot suppress yet another inward shudder. What the consumers of this soup must smell like when they rise from the dining table! Quite possibly, it was this soup which had been eaten by the Spanish gentlemen who plays the lead role in my most searing memory of garlic breath. I invite my readers to dip into the post where I write about this painful episode in my life. In the meantime, once I am back from my travels my wife and I will go for other long and pleasant walks in the Wiener Wald. The wild garlic plants were already wilting when we took our walk on Corpus Christi Day. Hopefully, they will all soon be dead and I can enjoy the woods without my nostrils being assailed by the smell of rancid garlic.

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Woods photos: ours, except:
Deer in woods: https://viennalife.wordpress.com/tag/vienna-woods/

Kebab shop, Vienna: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Wien_Bellaria_Kebab_Pizza_Dez2006.jpg
Wild garlic in flower: https://www.flickr.com/photos/sarfrazh/26388112004
Wild garlic soup: https://www.chefkoch.de/rezepte/25941006183503/Baerlauchsuppe.html
Wild garlic plant with bulb: https://scottishforestgarden.wordpress.com/2013/04/19/growing-and-eating-wild-garlic/
Allium longicuspis: https://thebetter.wiki/en/Garlic
Garlic: https://www.shopevoo.com/products/infused-garlic-1
Building the pyramids: https://exploredia.com/top-10-shocking-facts-ancient-egypt/
Garlic pills: https://www.amazon.com/Natures-Bounty-Extract-Release-Softgels/dp/B002Y27JD8
Garlic breath: https://dailykale.com/2011/09/16/foods-that-heal-garlic/garlic-cartoon/
Garlic and vampires: https://horror.media/four-theories-about-why-vampires-hate-garlic
Sopa de Ajo: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2013/may/04/10-best-garlic-recipes

ORANGE CARROTS

Istanbul airport, 5 May 2018

I was in the capital of Kyrgyzstan, Bishkek, over the last few days, working with some old colleagues on supporting the government to develop a national action plan to minimize the effects on the population of the country’s pollution. Fascinating stuff, but not the subject of this post.

As part of the work, it was necessary to schmooze with the local diplomatic community, preparing the ground for future requests of assistance to deal with the country’s pollution. I therefore found myself one evening attending the event put on by the Dutch to celebrate the King’s National Day. As is customary on such occasions, the Dutch Ambassador made a speech, thanking us for coming, listing the important Dutch-Kyrgyz partnerships, and of course – given the occasion – mentioning the Royal family. He did so in an interesting way. Having mentioned partnerships in the agricultural field, he segued smoothly from this to inform those of us who didn’t know it that carrots were orange because patriotic Dutch farmers had selectively bred this root crop to turn it orange, in honor of William the Silent, Prince of Orange, patriarch of the Dutch Royal family.

Well! This was interesting indeed. As anyone who has even a passing interest in sporting events knows, the Dutch national color is indeed orange.


And this patriotic show of orange is indeed linked to William the Silent’s feudal title of Prince of Orange, although the orange in this case is the pretty little town of Orange in southern France, which was William’s fiefdom (and an old Roman city).

But to say that Dutch farmers had turned carrots orange as a patriotic gesture … Such is the dominance of orange carrots in our supermarkets, groceries, and farmers’ markets that it had never, ever occurred to me that carrots could have been anything but orange!

In other posts, I have demonstrated my interest in the humble history of vegetables. The Ambassador had now given me a wonderful opportunity to study the history of the carrot. So these last few days I have been spending time which I should have been more usefully devoting to the pollution problems of Kyrgyzstan to happily digging into the carrot’s history instead. I am now ready to report back.

The first thing I have to say is that the Ambassador was indeed correct in his basic contention, that Dutch farmers had turned the carrot orange. This happened in the 17th Century and, for reasons that I shall explain in a minute, the orange carrot took over the carrot world. But first let me throw in some pictures of different colored carrots:
Purple carrots


Yellow carrots

Red carrots

White carrots

Black carrots, even!

Here we can see all these different carrots in glorious technicolour.

Personally, I have never seen any of these. I suppose they are like heirloom tomatoes: there are some enthusiastic aficionados out there who are growing these in their vegetable plots and trading seeds with other carrot enthusiasts. Perhaps one day, like I’ve seen in upscale Californian supermarkets, there will be a corner of the vegetable section devoted to these – to my eye – strange and wonderful carrots.

But why did the Dutch farmers breed these orange carrots? Here, I have to say that, with all due respect to his august person, the Ambassador seems to have got it wrong (along with 99% of the Dutch population). The farmers did not do it to honor William the Silent and his House of Orange. They were looking to breed carrots which were sweeter and whose core was smaller and less woody. The root of wild carrot is actually quite bitter, so since time immemorial farmers had been trying to breed the bitterness out of the root, and as anyone knows who has eaten a big and mature carrot, its core can take up a good part of the carrot and be disagreeably tough to eat.

It just so happened that the carrot they bred was orange. I suppose the carotene which gives the carrot its color also gives it its sweetness. It was only later generations of Dutch who saw the political dimension of the carrot’s color, and actually saw it in a negative sense. Dutch burghers of strong Republican sentiment frowned upon carrots because of their too Royal orangeness – in their Republican zeal they also went after other orange plants, discouraging the planting of marigolds for instance.

Another example of the politics of color.

Before I leave orange carrots, I should report that analysis of carrot genomes strongly suggest that the Chinese independently bred orange carrots. It pleases me no end to know this, because in my years in China I was always puzzled by Chinese carrots. They somehow seemed different from the European carrots that I was familiar with. I throw in a picture of Chinese carrots to show what I mean.

They are a darker orange – the fact that the Chinese obtained the orange color by changing different genes from the ones which give European carrots their orange color probably explains this. And they were much stockier than European carrots, a fact that I put down to the Chinese breeding carrots more as animal feed (like the wonderfully named mangelwurzels) than as human food.

I could not resist the temptation of using this research into the orangeness of carrots to carry out research into the broader history of the carrot. It turns out that the wild carrot is at home in Central Asia – so it is indeed apposite that this little piece of research was kicked off by a chance remark made in Kyrgyzstan, which happens to be one of the homes of the wild carrot. For those of my readers who, like me, have never seen a wild carrot, I throw in a picture.

It seems that its root is bitter and woody, but I suppose that hunger makes one tolerant of not-so-tasty food – better than having nothing in one’s stomach. The wild carrot, perhaps in some domesticated form, was carried far and wide from its Central Asian homeland. Carrot seeds have turned up in archaeological digs of prehistoric lake dwellings in Switzerland.

The Babylonians knew of it; it is mentioned in a cuneiform tablet listing the plants growing in the garden of King Marduk-apla-iddina (King Merodach-baladan in the Old Testament).

Seemingly, the Egyptians knew of it, although the evidence is rather weak. The Greeks and the Romans knew of it. But in all these cases, it seems that it was the leaves and seeds which they were interested in; the root was too bitter. They used the root or the seeds for medicinal purposes and ate the leaves much as we would eat spinach (I am reminded of a story my mother used to tell us young children, of how during the War, when she was trapped in occupied France, one could not find carrots in the market. Only the leaves were on sale. She and her mother made do and ate those – better than having nothing in one’s stomach).

All this time, our ancestors were tinkering with this foodstuff as they were tinkering with all their foodstuffs. Finally, possibly as early as the 6th Century, one or more farmers somewhere in today’s Iran and Afghanistan bred a carrot with a sweeter, less woody, more edible root. This plant was destined to become the ancestor of all modern carrots. From there, the seeds were carried by passing traders and travelers both east and west, no doubt along the Silk Roads which I have had cause to mention in earlier posts. In the case of its carriage to the west, Arab traders seem to have been the vector after the Arab conquest of Persia in the 7th Century, much as was the case for the lilac bush, the subject of an earlier post. More tinkering and crossbreeding took place in today’s Turkey before a carrot with an even more edible root continued on its journey to Europe. It arrived there in the 10th Century, eventually ending up in Northern Europe in the 13th Century. It came in two colours, yellow and purple, with a rarer white variety thrown in. For some reason, the Dutch got heavily into carrot production and the rest is orange history.

Since the Dutch started this post, let me finish by throwing in some of those still lives so beloved by the Dutch, of kitchens full of vegetables and fruit. Normally, I pass these over with a yawn (I have never understood our ancestors’ fascination with this type of paintings), but it seems appropriate to admire them in this case. I invite my readers to locate the carrot in each of the paintings.



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William the Silent: https://owlcation.com/humanities/The-Death-of-William-the-Silent
Dutch football players: http://www.football-oranje.com/sweden-v-netherlands-match-preview/
Dutch fans: http://www.newsweek.com/dutch-men-latvian-women-are-tallest-world-study-483868
The city of Orange: http://be.france.fr/fr/a-decouvrir/orange
orange carrots: https://www.well-beingsecrets.com/health-benefits-of-carrots/
purple carrots: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HU03lczH6mk
yellow carrots: https://www.bukalapak.com/p/hobi-koleksi/berkebun/benih-tanaman/fs8sg5-jual-biji-2-benih-wortel-kuning-yellow-carrot
Red carrots: http://www.gardenpicsandtips.com/18-vegetables-that-are-colorful-and-worth-eating/2/
White carrots: http://blue-myhanh.blogspot.com.tr/2014/08/khi-trai-cay-co-mau-khac-voi-chung-ta.html
Black carrots: https://www.amazon.co.jp/%E8%BE%B2%E6%A5%AD%E5%B1%8B-%E3%81%AB%E3%82%93%E3%81%98%E3%82%93-%E7%A8%AE-%E3%83%96%E3%83%A9%E3%83%83%E3%82%AF%E3%82%AD%E3%83%A3%E3%83%AD%E3%83%83%E3%83%88-%E5%B0%8F%E8%A2%8B%EF%BC%88%E7%B4%84300%E7%B2%92%EF%BC%89/dp/B00NHD5BCY
Carrot spectrum: http://sezahrana.tumblr.com/page/130
Split carrot: http://www.thesweetbeet.com/carrot-recipes/
Marigold: http://www.thesweetbeet.com/carrot-recipes/
Chinese carrot: https://www.pinterest.com/kurskinlab/spa-men/
Wild carrot: https://myediblebackyard.net/2014/05/02/wild-carrot/
Swiss prehistoric lake dwellings: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Swiss_prehistoric_lake_dwellings._Wellcome_M0015374.jpg
Cuneiform tablet: http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=3066115&partId=1&searchText=Merodach-Baladan+II&view=list&page=1
Pieter Aersten, Christ in the House of Martha and Mary: https://www.tumblr.com/search/christ%20in%20the%20house%20of%20mary%20and%20martha
Anonymous, Kitchen scene in Parable of Rich Man and Lazarus: http://www.carrotmuseum.co.uk/art1.html
Pieter Cornelizs. Van Rijk, Kitchen Scene: http://www.carrotmuseum.co.uk/art1.html

SPARKLING MINERAL WATERS

Milan, April 24 2018

When I first lived in Italy, in 1980, a wonderful ad campaign was launched for the Italian mineral water Ferrarelle. This poster greeted us all over Milan:

To understand the joke, readers must understand that “liscia” has a double meaning in Italian: flat, as in water, but also straight, as in hair. Thus, through the medium of Mona Lisa’s hair-do, passers-by were invited to decide if they preferred her hair straight, frizzy, or just slightly curled as in the original painting. By inference, it was being suggested that mineral waters such as Ferrarelle with modest amounts of gas were surely better than those which were either flat or strongly carbonated.

After the success of this ad campaign, Ferrarelle introduced another, based this time on a second great Italian icon, Garibaldi.

In this case, we were asked if we preferred the Hero of Two Worlds smooth-chinned, bushy-bearded, or with the sensible beard and mustache which he had in real life. And again, it was suggested that a mineral water like Ferrarelle with modest amounts of sparkle was surely preferable to its competitors with either no or too much sparkle.

I believe Ferrarelle followed up these very successful ads with a couple more in the same series, although at that point my wife and I left Italy for some eight years and so we never experienced them.

Cleverness aside, these ads spoke to a profound truth: that mineral water, like most things in life, should follow Aristotle’s rule of the Golden Mean. It should be neither flat nor highly carbonated but just somewhat effervescent. Like that, the sparkle enhances taste without giving the unpleasant, almost painful, prickles of tongue and mouth which come from strong carbonation.

This was brought home to me again a few days ago when our daughter took us to an Ethiopian restaurant in LA (Ethiopian food being an eminent subject for a post, but not this time). We were served a mineral water whose name I will not utter (although I will give a hint: two words make up the name, the first starts with an S, the second with a P) and which seems to have a monopoly on sparkling mineral waters in American restaurants. There was nothing for it but to dilute the mineral water with flat water to arrive at the correct levels of carbonation, an experience which is becoming distressingly common for us.

In our lives, my wife and I have come across only one other mineral water with the right level of sparkle: the French mineral water Badoit. Since I celebrated Ferrarelle with some ads, I will do the same with Badoit:

These too focus around a play on words, although somewhat more difficult to explain in English. Nevertheless, I will endeavour to do so. There is a French expression “et patati et patata” which can be roughly translated “etc., etc.” or “and so on and so forth”. The ads take this phrase and modify it to “et badadi et badadoit”. Cute, but not as clever as the Ferrarelle ads.

I’m sure there are other mineral waters out there with only mild levels of carbonation. We just haven’t come across them yet. Feedback from readers on this point will be gratefully received (but please do not tell us about that dreadful, but dreadfully popular, French mineral water whose levels of carbonation are so high that I cannot even bear to pronounce its name although I will say that it begins with a P). In the meantime, we will continue to mix our waters in those restaurants we frequent which offer us neither Ferrarelle nor Badoit.

SPARKLING RED ITALIAN WINES

Milan, 1 March 2018

Many, many years ago, when I first came to Italy, my wife to-be introduced me to a wine from the Oltrepo’ Pavese, that tongue of land in the south of Lombardy wedged between its sister regions of Piedmont, Liguria, and Emilia-Romagna. It was a Bonarda, a red wine. A sparkling red wine, to be precise.

This was a revelation to me. I had never known that red wines could be sparkling. Certainly, in France, land of my mother, I had never come across such a wine. It seemed to me almost a heresy to have red bubbly. But I was made to understand that Italy had a long tradition of sparkling red wines, so I tried it.

I can’t say I was bowled over. But I think that was simply an extension of my distaste for sparkling white wine. My New Year’s Eves have never been made jollier by having to quaff bubbly, and I try to avoid the stuff whenever I can. Over the years, I’ve experimented with various sparkling Italian reds, and it’s always been the same. The one exception is the sparkling sweet red wines, good as dessert wines. Lambrusco is probably the most well-known of these, its vineyards clustered around the town of Modena in Reggio-Emilia.

But there is also Brachetto d’Acqui from around Acqui Terme in Piedmont, a town known also for its thermal baths.

And then there is Sangue di Giuda, the Blood of Judas, made on the hills around Broni, a fairly nondescript place in the Oltrepo’ Pavese.

It was trying a bottle of Sangue di Giuda recently that set me off onto writing this post. As I sat there rolling this sweet wine around my mouth, I couldn’t understand how it could possibly have been given this name. I mean, the man who sold Christ to his enemies for thirty silver talents, who betrayed him with a kiss, the man whom early European artists depicted like so:

this man’s blood must have been dark, bitter, acidic, thoroughly undrinkable! In contrast, Sangue di Giuda tastes sweet and happy, and like all the sweet sparkling red wines, has a lovely dark red colour and a wonderfully dark pink foam.

The locals have come up with a thoroughly preposterous story to explain the name. According to them, Christ in his immense goodness resurrected Judas after he’d committed suicide by hanging himself, to give him a chance to redeem himself. Judas turned up – what a coincidence! – in Broni. The townspeople recognized him and wanted to kill him. Judas saved himself by curing the surrounding vineyards of some disease they had, and the Bronians, in their joy, named the wine after his blood. A completely silly story! I prefer an alternative explanation, which has it that the name was given to the wine by local monks, who believed that drinking the wine would lead you to betray yourself and do naughty things, especially of a sexual nature.

Or perhaps the name can be linked to a similar idea that floated around in Champagne, at a time when no-one had any idea of the chemistry behind wine-making. The seemingly random process by which bottles of wine sometimes turned out sparkling and, worse, could blow up, often in a chain reaction with one bottle setting off the others, was seen as the work of the devil. It’s no great step to go from devil to Judas.

Whatever the explanation, Sangue di Giuda is a delicious wine, and its grapes grow in a zone visible from the train line and motorway which lead from Milan to Genoa. Over the years, as we have sped by on our way to the sea, I have gazed at those vine-covered hills, thinking to myself that one day, one day, my wife and I would go for a nice little trip into those hills which so remind me of the vine-draped hills of the Beaujolais, home to my French ancestors, where I spent many a happy summer a-roaming. I have made a mental itinerary for this trip, and I insert here a map with its trace.

As readers can see, after starting in the Piedmontese pre-Alps, it would meander along the northern face of the Apennines. Taking sparkling red wines as our guide, we could start in Piedmont, at Alto Monferrato, whose surrounding vines make Barbera del Monferrato DOC frizzante.

After a glass of this Barbera (it would seem that Monferrato is the birthplace of the Barbera grape), we would move on to Acqui Terme.

I’m sure we could find a nice cafè on whose terrace we could dreamily sip on a glass of Brachetto d’Acqui.

After which, we would curve into the Oltrepo’ Pavese, home to Sangue di Giuda, but also to that Oltrepo’ Pavese Bonarda which I first tried so many years ago.

We would loop back around into the Colli Piacentini, the hills behind Piacenza.

We could find somewhere there a welcoming taverna and settle down to a nice glass of Colli Piacentini Gutturnio DOC frizzante.

After which, we would make our way along to the zone behind Modena.

There, we could ease ourselves into seats at a bar and order ourselves a glass or two of Lambrusco. Which one to try? Lambrusco di Sorbara? Or Lambrusco Salamino di Santa Croce, perhaps. Or, why not?, Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro.

Finally, we would wend our way, unsteadily no doubt by this point and hoping not to meet a police patrol with breathalyzer at the ready, to the Colli Bolognesi, the hills behind Bologna.

There, we could sink down onto a banquette in a restaurant and while we eat we could finish with a Barbera just as we started with one, trying a Barbera Colli Bolognesi frizzante.

Yes, I think this will do nicely. I will work on my wife to turn this little trip into reality. We can think of doing it in May perhaps, when the weather is good but not too hot.

________________

Glass of sparkling red wine: https://www.vinook.it/vino-rosso/curiosita-vino-rosso/il-vino-frizzante.asp
Modena: http://misure2017.ing.unimore.it/Modena.html
Acqui Terme: https://www.gogoterme.com/terme-di-acqui.html
Broni: http://ilpattodeibuongustai.it/broni-il-re-dei-paesi
Judas: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/biteintheapple/judas/
Sparkling red wine with foam: https://culturecheesemag.com/cheese-pairings/great-28-pairings-cheese-sparkling-red-wines
Medieval love-making: https://it.pinterest.com/jamieadairwrite/medieval-love-making/?lp=true
Northern Italy: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Northern_Italy_topographic_map-blank.png
Alto Monferrato: http://www.terredavino.it/en/il-territorio/lalto-monferrato-acqui-terme/
Acqui Terme vitigni: https://www.vinook.it/uva-e-vitigni/vitigni-rossi/brachetto-d-acqui.asp
Oltrepo’ Pavese: https://www.contevistarino.it/en/the-vineyards/
Colli Piacentini: http://www.rgvini.it/it/colli-piacentini
Lambrusco: https://www.vinook.it/vino-rosso/vino-rosso-emiliano-romagnolo/lambrusco-grasparossa-di-castelvetro.asp
Colli Bolognesi: http://www.spreafotografia.it/photo-7724-ma-come-bello-andare-in-giro-sui-colli-bolognesi.html

COFFEE AND ORANGE, COFFEE AND LEMON

Milan, 7 January 2018

Our son, who happens to be staying with us at the moment, is currently really into a new variant of our standard way of making our post-lunch instant coffee. Yes, in this country which gave the world cappuccino, espresso, macchiato, and dozens of other glorious versions of coffee, we use instant coffee at home. Let me leave aside any discussion as to why we do this and share with readers the variant in question. It is the addition to the coffee of some zest from the mounds of orange peels which we regularly generate at this time of year. The zest adds a slight citrus flavour to the coffee, which pleasantly smoothens the coffee taste. Our son was taught the trick by my wife, who in turn learned it from her mother, who used it very often when she was drinking her caffè d’orzo, her barley coffee – this is Italy’s non-caffeinated alternative to coffee, made from ground roasted barley; it is similar in function to, although better in taste than, chicory. This picture of caffè d’orzo with a twist of orange zest was tweeted by an Italian lady who was waxing enthusiastic about the cup she was just having.

Knowing the rather louche reputation that chicory has, I throw in this picture which clearly shows that caffè d’orzo is considered a very respectable drink in Italy.

While we do not drink caffè d’orzo, our main use of instant coffee is in its decaffeinated form. This makes it pretty close in spirit to caffè d’orzo, so the orange zest works well with it too. I recommend that any of my readers who drink instant coffee and who happen to be eating oranges should try it.

As is my habit when writing posts, I cruised around the internet a little, this time to see what other coffee-orange combinations have been tried or are being suggested. There are quite a number, but I will cite just one or two. One that takes my fancy is actually more of a liqueur. Take a bottle of grappa, add three strips of orange zest and six freshly toasted coffee beans, and then leave the whole for about 15 days to allow the grappa to imbibe both the orange and the coffee flavours (in the first few days, turn the bottle once a day to ensure that the beans get waterlogged and sink down into the grappa).

I suspect that this is not really Italian – the net reports a similar liqueur made in the Netherlands using vodka (I would have thought that it should be made with jenever to be really Dutch, but perhaps I’m quibbling here).

For reasons which will become clear in a minute, another coffee-orange combination which caught my eye goes as follows. Peel off the zest of half an orange, put it in a small pan with eight teaspoons of sugar, two cloves, a piece of cinnamon, and four small glasses of rum. Heat the pan over low heat until the mixture is piping hot and the sugar completely dissolved. Add to the hot mixture four small cups of boiling espresso coffee. Mix in and drink. The recipe helpfully suggests to accompany the coffee with some biscuits.


While I was doing my searches for orange-coffee combinations, I decided to do a similar search for lemon-coffee combinations. Many years ago, when we were in the US we went to an Italian restaurant. At the end of the meal they served us an espresso with a small twist of lemon zest. I was somewhat surprised by this, but my wife explained that it was actually a Neapolitan habit – my reading for this blog suggests a somewhat wider localization, since it seems to also be a habit on the Sorrentine peninsula.

The reason for adding lemon zest to coffee seems to be to soften its bitterness. Apparently, one should also rub the lip of the cup with the zest, to disinfect it – I have to presume that cups were not that well washed in the old days … From the comments I found on the net, there must be many Italians who do not know of this Neapolitan-Sorrentine use of lemon zest. A number of entries written by Italians described similar experiences to mine in the US and put it down to the general barbarity of the Americans. Yet all it seems to show is that a lot of Neapolitans and Sorrentines emigrated to the US and took their culinary habits with them.

Here too I cruised around the net to see what other lemon-coffee combinations I could discover. The one that really captured my fancy is the Ponce di Livorno, the Leghorn Punch (how on earth did the English transpose the Italian name Livorno into Leghorn? A mystery to resolve another day). There was a time when Livorno, a port city in Tuscany, had a sizable British expat community, merchants for the most part. As British expats always do, they brought their gastronomic habits with them, one of these being the imbibing of punch.  By the time the local Livornese population was introduced to this drink in the early 19th Century, it had become quite genteel, being made with tea, rum, sugar, lemon and cinnamon. Since the Livornese, like Italians in general, were coffee drinkers rather than tea drinkers they decided to substitute the tea with coffee (they also substituted the rum either with Mastice, a local aniseed-based liqueur, or with “Rumme”, a fake rum made by mixing together alcohol, sugar and dark-coloured caramel. Nowadays, since rum is easily available they have gone back to using that). It’s become so much part of Livorno that the drink has been given a Protected Designation of Origin certification. To make it, put half a large cupful of rum into a small pan, add two teaspoons of sugar and some cinnamon (or Mastice), and heat. When hot, add an equivalent amount of espresso coffee, mix, and pour into a large cup. Add a twist of lemon zest.

It’s just as well that lemon juice is not added, as it presumably would have been to the original British punch. Many entries in the net refer to coffee-lemon juice combinations as a great emetic (people refer to their grandmothers using this with their grandchildren when they were sick to their stomach), or as a great cure for hangovers, or as a great cure for headaches. I’m not quite sure lemon-coffee can have all these effects, but clearly we must have no more than a faint trace of lemon in the coffee (I’m rather reminded of puffer fish sushi. Puffer fish contains a deadly venom. If not properly prepared and even a small trace of venom remains, that puffer fish sushi will be your last meal)

Well, with this, I wish my readers fun in combining either orange or lemon with their coffee, whether properly brewed or instant!

___________

caffe d’orzo with orange zest: https://twitter.com/alexethno/status/719877692846444544
caffe d’orzo Lavazza: http://www.areavendingcasa.it/cat0_14907_4780/cialde-and-capsule/lavazza-espresso-point-cialde/p28132-caffe-dorzo-espresso-point-50-capsule.php
grappa con caffe e arancia: http://www.vinibertot.it/index.php/it/grappe-e-liquori/grappa-con-caffe-e-arancia-gr-40-bott-cc-700-detail
caffe with rum and orange: http://ricette.donnamoderna.com/caffe-rum-arancia
caffe with lemon zest: http://www.dersutmagazine.it/cucina/caffe-e-limone-caffe-al-limone/
Ponce alla livornese: http://www.alamy.com/stock-photo-ponce-alla-livornese-ponce-al-rum-livorno-leghorn-tuscany-italy-ponce-32108130.html
people drinking coffee: http://nutritionadvance.com/drinking-coffee-every-day-good-bad/

COTECHINO FOR NEW YEAR’S DINNER

Milan, 28 December 2017

Many posts ago, I promised that I would render public the recipe for mashed potatoes which had been handed down for generations from mother to daughter on my mother’s side (at least, that’s what I would like to think; I certainly got the recipe from my sister, who in turn got it from our grandmother). I will finally unveil it today – but first, I will dreamily describe the meal which it accompanied, which happens to have been our Christmas lunch.

The centerpiece of the lunch, the pièce de resistance as the French would say, was two cotechini. For readers who have no idea what a cotechino is, let me first say that I completely understand; I too had no idea what it was before I had slices of one put on my plate some forty years ago, when I passed my first year’s end in Italy. Let me go on to say that it is a sausage – such an ugly term for this glorious dish! the Italian term salume is so much more elegant, I will use that.

It is made with pork meat, both lean (shoulder, neck, leg, shank) and fatty (throat, cheek, bacon) as well as rind. The meat portion is chopped coarsely, the rind finely. Nowadays, the lean meats predominate in the recipe, with about a fifth each by weight of fatty meat and rind added, but I suspect that in the old days there was much more rind since the salume’s name derives from cotica, the Italian word for rind. In any event, salt, pepper, spices and herbs, and even sometimes wine, are added to the mix. The precise types and amounts of spices and herbs are of course closely guarded secrets handed down from generation to generation in the hush of rural kitchens, but nutmeg, cloves and sometimes cinnamon are present in modern recipes. This fragrant mix is then squeezed into a casing of pig’s intestines. The resulting salume is cured for about a month, after which it is ready to eat. But first it needs to be cooked, which luckily is easy though slow: place the cotechino in boiling water over low heat for some four hours, first pricking the casing to allow the fats inside to ooze out. Et voilà! (I feel I must inform those readers who are pressed for time that there are now modern pre-cooked cotechini which can be ready for the table in half an hour, but I would really urge them to make time in their busy lives to purchase a raw cotechino and cook it the full four hours).

Today, the cotechino is a very respectable dish, but I suspect this is because it has been subjected to the culinary equivalent of gentrification. It must have started life as the ingenious response by poor people to the pressing need to use every bit of their pigs, even the hard, gristly, tough bits. In fact, the region of Friuli-Venezia-Giulia, which until recently was a very poor region of Italy, has always claimed the paternity of the cotechino. In truth, though, it is found in substantially the same form throughout the whole of north-eastern Italy, and has spread west to Lombardy and south to the Apennines. Northern Italy was full of very poor people until comparatively recent times. Some years ago, riding the wave of sourcing your food locally, Modena has cannily parlayed the greater notoriety of its variant of cotechino into a certification of Protected Geographical Indication, no doubt much to the annoyance of all the regions in the north-east who believe that the cotechino was born in their region.

Well, I don’t object to this social upgrading of the cotechino. I’ve always thought that simple “peasant” food is much nicer than the fussy, overwrought creations invented for aristocrats with nothing useful to do with their lives and always looking for something new to excite their jaded palates.

In northern Italy, cotechino is the dish par excellence for Christmas and New Year meals. It is joined in this distinction by the zampone from Emilia Romagna, which is identical to the cotechino except for the casing used: the pig’s front foot rather than its intestines.

It is probably its role in year’s end festivities that has turned the cotechino into a respectable, middle-class dish. But I suspect that its place on the Christmas or New Year table in the first place is actually due to simple chance. In the old days, it was customary in the countryside to slaughter the household pig at the beginning of winter. The meat and offal were then cured or otherwise preserved to build up food supplies for the lean winter and spring months. Cotechino, which is cured within a month, would have been ready by the end of the year, just in time for the festive season. Thus did it happen to become, in my humble opinion, the centerpiece – the piece de resistance – on the Christmas or New Year table.

What of the side dishes to be eaten with cotechino? This year, we followed the time-honored tradition of eating it with lentils.

I personally think this is an excellent culinary pairing. Cotechino has rather a sharp taste, which is admirably offset by the relative blandness of lentils. The relative dryness of lentils also soaks up the cotechino’s tendency to excess fattiness. But I’m not sure this was necessarily the reason for which the pairing originally occurred. Since time immemorial, lentils have been the poor person’s food, so it seems natural to me that it should have been paired with cotechino, the poor person’s salume. It could also be that there was already a tradition of eating lentils at the new year. It seems that since at least Roman times there has been the belief that eating lentils at the new year will ensure your prosperity in the year to come. This credence is based on the shape of the lentils – they look like (very) small coins. I suppose this must be based on a belief in some sort of sympathetic magic: eat coin-shaped food and real coins will soon be clinking in your pocket. I wish it were that simple …

Which brings us back to where this post started: mashed potatoes.

We decided to add this to the basic pairing of cotechino and lentils. I feel that the gentle sweetness of mashed potatoes helps the lentils in its task of smoothing out that bite and tartness which is an essential part of the cotechino’s identity. I’m convinced that our mashed potatoes’ sweetness is enhanced by the way we prepare it (I say “we” because I have passed on the age-old secret recipe to my wife and daughter): mash the potatoes, preferably in one of those old-fashioned manual food-grinders, add enough milk to nearly liquefy the mash, add an extremely large nob of butter, stir. That’s it.

And so we all tucked into our Christmas lunch of cotechino, lentils, and mashed potatoes.


Nothing fancy, just damned good food. And of course followed by that glory of Milanese cuisine, panettone.


Well, it’s taken me a little time to prepare this post, but readers still have just enough time to rush out and buy themselves a cotechino for their New Year’s lunch or dinner. I suggest going to your nearest Italian Deli to see if they have it – you can buy a zampone if they stock that. If not, you might just have time to buy it on-line. But hurry! Time is running out!

__________________

cotechino: http://www.academiabarilla.com/italian-recipes/second-courses/cotechino-with-lentils.aspx
cotechino di Modena IGP: http://www.pubblicitaitalia.com/eurocarni/2007/2/7179.html
zampone: http://www.salepepe.it/ingredienti/tipi-di-carne/zampone/
lentils: http://www.lacasadellericette.com/2011/12/lenticchie-felice-anno-nuovo.html
mashed potatoes: http://www.cookingchanneltv.com/recipes/mashed-potatoes-with-roasted-garlic-and-mascarpone-cheese-1947695
cotechino, lentils, and mashed potatoes: https://cucina.doki.it/secondi-piatti/cotechino-pure-patate-bimby-tm31-ricetta
Panettone: http://www.alimentipedia.it/panettone.html
New Year’s dinner: http://www.grubstreet.com/2016/12/where-to-make-last-minute-new-years-eve-reservations-in-nyc.html

WIENER SCHNITZEL vs COTOLETTA ALLA MILANESE

Vienna, 14 July 2017

As readers of my posts may know, since I retired last year my wife and I have pretty much divided our time between Vienna and Milan, having roots in both places. I therefore think it is time for me to wade into the Battle of the Wiener Schnitzel and the Cotoletta alla Milanese. As their names indicate, these delicious dishes are at home in Vienna and Milan, respectively. To get everyone’s juices flowing, I throw in here a photo of each: wiener schnitzel first

cotoletta alla milanese next.

For those of my readers who may not be conversant with one or both of these dishes, I should explain that both take a veal cutlet, dunk the veal in a beaten egg (sometimes preceded by a dunk in flour), cover it with a generous portion of breadcrumbs, and fry the result in butter (Milan) or lard (Vienna). They are for all intents and purposes the same dish, although the cognoscenti will insist on the differences: I have just mentioned the different frying medium, to which can be added: boned vs. deboned, Milan’s version still having the rib bone attached, while in Vienna’s version the bone has been detached; and as a consequence of this, different thicknesses, the Viennese version being pounded thin while the Milanese version, being still attached to the bone, is a few centimeters thick.

As I said, they are for all intents and purposes the same dish, and naturally enough the question has been raised if the chefs of one city did not at some point copy the chefs of the other. Well, let me tell you, much ink, and perhaps a little blood, has been spilled over this vital question: who copied who? Is the wiener schnitzel the son of the cotoletta alla milanese, or on the contrary did the wiener schnitzel sire the cotoletta alla milanese? Readers who think that this is an interesting academic question but surely hardly one over which to draw the kitchen knives don’t know the history of this little corner of the world. Allow me to give them a thumbnail sketch.

From 1525 to 1860, with the exception of some decades during the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Empire that followed, Milan, along with much of northern Italy, was ruled by the Hapsburgs, first the Spanish branch of the family and then, from 1706 onwards, the Austrian branch. And so, by an accident of history, the Austrian was the Enemy when the Milanese, along with many other northern Italians, rallied behind the cause of Italian unification in the first decades of the 19th Century. Things first boiled over in 1848. Every Milanese, my wife included, will tell you of Le Cinque Giornate, the glorious five days in March of that year when the Milanese rose up and drove the Austrian Governor, Field Marshal Radetzky (he of Johan Strauss’s Radetzky March), and his troops out of Milan.

Alas! A few months later, Radetsky defeated the troops of the Piedmontese King of Sardinia, who had eagerly stepped forward to help his Lombard brothers (with the idea, of course, of incorporating Lombardy into his kingdom), and regained control of Milan and Austria’s other northern Italian territories. Not surprisingly, Radetzky is not seen with a terribly favourable eye in Milan.

Northern Italy was forced to remain under the yolk of the Austro-Hungarian Empire for another 11 years. In the meantime, Count Cavour, Prime Minister of the Piedmontese kingdom, had cut a deal with Napoleon III, which led to a Franco-Piedmontese war against the Austrians in 1859. The Austrians were beaten at the extremely bloody Battle of Solferino (it was his witnessing of the battle that caused the Swiss Henry Dunant to found the Red Cross).

After the battle, Lombardy was incorporated into the Kingdom of Sardinia, soon to be renamed the Kingdom of Italy.

I will skip the rest of the struggle against Austria, which only really concluded at the end of World War I with the cession of Trento and Alto Adige to the kingdom of Italy after the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918.

I think my potted history of Italian unification – at least its northern ramifications – will suffice to explain the sensitivities (especially in Milan, I have to say) about the relationship between the wiener schnitzel and the cotoletta alla milanese. I mean, just imagine how the Indians would feel if, for instance, someone claimed that chicken masala was actually a copy of a British dish: a dish of the ex-colonialist! The sensitivities are such that in the late 1960s a Sicilian who had emigrated to Milan and had become more Milanese than the natives published a completely fabricated story about how Radetzky, in the middle of a report to the Imperial Court about the military situation in northern Italy, had started rhapsodizing about a wonderful veal dish he had been introduced to in Milan. This piqued the Emperor’s attention, and when Radetzky next came back to Vienna to report, the Emperor packed him off to the Imperial kitchens to give the chef the recipe. Thus was born the wiener schnitzel, our Sicilian claimed, sired by the cotoletta alla milanese.

For many years, the story that Radetzky brought the cotoletta alla milanese to Vienna was widely believed, on both sides of the debate, but it has now been debunked. I won’t go into the details, suffice to say that our Sicilian’s story was a tissue of lies from one end to the other. But then this has meant that the question of which of the two dishes came first reared its ugly head again and sent food historians scrambling to do more research.

A face-saving solution seemed to have been found in the form of a French cookery book from 1749, “La Science du Maître d’Hôtel Cuisinier”.

It was pointed out that the book contained a recipe where a veal cutlet was dipped in a beaten egg, covered in bread crumbs, and fried. Surely this meant that the French had invented the dish? That was alright, after all French cuisine is the mother of all cuisines and to be descended from a French dish is an honour. After which, various theories were put forward to explain how this French dish arrived both in Milan and in Vienna.

However, other – Italian – food historians have pointed out that the technique of breading and frying meat was already in use in Italy in the 16th-17th Centuries, as evidenced in the cookery book published in 1570 by Bartolomeo Scappi, noted chef to Cardinals and Popes.

The same technique is to be found in the cookery book published by the Bolognese Vincenzo Tanara in 1653.

Both cookery books give this technique as a way of using up various cuts of meat.

These food historians have gone one step further. Tanara lived all his life in Bologna and Scappi spent many years there as a cook to a Bolognese cardinal. They therefore suggest that the ancestor of the cotoletta alla milanese (and maybe by some tortuous path the wiener schnitzel) is none other than … the cotoletta alla bolognese! For those readers who, like me, had never heard of this dish before today, I can quickly report that it is a veal cutlet prepared just like a cotoletta alla milanese or a wiener schnitzel but on which slices of raw cured ham have been placed, followed by flakes of Parmesan cheese, the whole then being placed in the oven and heated until the Parmesan has melted (aficionados pop a shaving of truffle on the top at the end). This is what it looks like.

Well! Here, we will plunge into an even earlier period of the Italian peninsula’s history, when the city-states were all quarreling and fighting with each other,

a competitiveness which lingers on in Italy’s football championship; here we have Inter Milan against Bologna last year (Inter Milan won 2-1).

Will the Milanese ever be able to accept that they received anything good from Bologna? I’ve asked my wife about the cotoletta alla bolognese and she says she’s never heard of it, even though she lived a year in Bologna during her student days and the dish is reported as being a very important, very ancient Bolognese dish.

This does not bode well for how this theory will be greeted as it percolates down from the small clique of food historians to the general Milanese public. Already other food historians claim to have found evidence that a predecessor of the cotoletta alla milanese already existed in Milan in the 12th Century. There is a Milanese document which lists in macaronic Latin the dishes eaten by the cannons of the Basilica of Sant’Ambrogio in 1148. One of these dishes is “lombolos cum panitio”. No-one seems to have a problem with the word lombolos, which all agree is a cut of meat. The problem is with “cum panitio”. The more optimistic interpreters think it means breaded, and on the basis of this interpretation Milan’s city fathers passed a city decree a few years ago giving the cotoletta alla milanese a denomination of local origin. The more skeptical interpreters shrug their shoulders and say “cum panitio” could mean any one of a series of bread-based foodstuffs which were simply accompanying the lombolos.

The arguments will no doubt rage on. My personal take, for what it’s worth, is that the technique of breading a piece of meat could well have been invented in many places independently. Why couldn’t cooks in different places and at different times have figured out that bread crumbs will attach to a piece of meat when it’s been dipped in beaten egg and that the breaded meat can then be fried? I mean, we’re not talking rocket science here. But hey, who am I? Just a guy who enjoys eating wiener schnitzel and cotoletta alla milanese from time to time. What do I know about anything?

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Wiener Schnitzel: http://wanderlusttips.com/2015/11/03/nhung-dac-san-khong-bo-qua-tren-khap-gioi/
Cotoletta alla Milanese: http://mangiarebuono.it/la-cotoletta-o-costoletta-alla-milanese/
Cinque Giornate: http://duomo24.it/2018/03/18/le-cinque-giornate-di-milano/
Battle of Solferino: http://www.experiences-plus.it/extra/extra_risorgimento_3.htm
Science du Maître d’Hôtel Cuisinier: https://nouveauservice.wordpress.com/category/recherche/
Opera di Bartolomeo Scappi: http://bibliodyssey.blogspot.co.at/2009/03/renaissance-kitchen.html?m=1
Vincenzo Tanara, L’economia del Cittadino I Villa: https://www.maremagnum.com/libri-antichi/l-economia-del-cittadino-in-villa-del-signor-vincenzo-tanara/105032152
Cotoletta bolognese: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/ricette.donnamoderna.com/cotolette-alla-bolognese%3Famp%3Dtrue
Battle between Italian city states: http://www.medievalists.net/2008/11/the-rise-and-decline-of-italian-city-states/
Inter Milan-Bologna, 2016: http://www.ilrestodelcarlino.it/bologna/sport/calcio/inter-bologna-2016-diretta-1.1970445