GHEE AND THE NEW GRANDCHILD

Our daughter has just given birth! Our first grandchild. Everyone is OK. We have been summoned to Los Angeles, where she lives, to help out over the first couple of months, which of course we are more than happy to do! It allows us to drool over this little, little being – I had forgotten quite how small they are at birth.

But that’s not what I want to write about here! No, not at all. It’s about something that our daughter fished out of her fridge during one of our almost daily WhatsApp conversations with her during the months of her pregnancy, during which we offered much moral support and little advice (it had been too long since we had had our two children; we couldn’t remember anything of any value).

I should explain that the time difference between Los Angeles and Europe is such that our WhatsApp sessions took place in the evening our time and early morning her time. So as we talked she would often be preparing her breakfast. And fascinating dishes she prepared for herself! A little bit of this, a little bit of that, some leftovers from the previous day’s dinner, a drizzle of various sauces, and on and on, until she had a little mountain of food in front of her. And it always all disappeared! That baby was certainly well nourished.

One time, she pulled out a large glass jar full of some yellowish substance and plopped a large dollop of the stuff on her plate. Upon being asked what it was, she replied “ghee”.

Ghee … I had until that moment only had one run-in with ghee, many, many years ago, when my wife and I were living in Paris for a while. My wife was taking French classes – she felt that she had to brush up her school-level French, although I always thought it was perfectly serviceable. In any event, many of her classmates were recent immigrants trying to make a new life for themselves in France. Among them was a young woman from Ethiopia. One day, she invited us round to her place and offered us what she said was an Ethiopian delicacy: a cup of tea laced with ghee. What it looked like was tea with a scum of melted butter floating on its surface. It was … disgusting, is the only word I can use to describe it. It gave off an ineffably sickening smell. Nevertheless, we both managed to down the liquid but politely declined seconds. I for one swore that I would never, ever touch ghee again. When I told our daughter that I definitely did not like the stuff, she declared herself surprised and said she found it delicious.

This radical difference of opinion intrigued me. Of course, there is no reason why me and my daughter shouldn’t disagree on things, but generally on food we were on the same wavelength. So had I been wrong all these years? I decided I needed to investigate ghee a bit further. This I have done in between bouts of feeding the newborn and changing diapers, and I am now ready to report back – and I had better be quick, before the little one wakes up and wails for the bottle.

First, for those who, like me before writing this post, have only a vague idea about what ghee looks like, here’s a photo of a jar of the stuff. This is actually my daughter’s jar; as readers can see, it is well used.

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Ghee proper actually hails from the Indian subcontinent, where people use it extensively in their cuisine. In fact, although I swore many decades ago never to touch the stuff, it is more than probable that I have unknowingly eaten ghee in Indian restaurants, perhaps in a chicken biryani

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or brushed onto a naan.

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But ghee is just one member of the broader family of clarified butters. Just about everywhere in the world where there is a history of pastoralism, there is a history of butter-making. Before the really quite recent advent of refrigeration, one of the big problems with butter – especially in places like India with a hot climate – was how to stop butter going rancid. Clarifying it is one answer, because clarified butter has very long shelf lives, even in hot climates.

Clarifying butter is actually quite a simple operation – or at least it seems to be from everything that I’ve read online (I will immediately confess to never having done it myself). You heat the butter to evaporate the water it contains – it’s this water that makes butter go rancid; the spoiling bacteria need water to do their nasty work. This heating also separates out the whey which butter contains – it floats to the surface and is skimmed off – as well as the casein in the butter – which settles as solids on the bottom. The remaining liquid is clarified butter, or butterfat. These photos show the various phases of the process.

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That’s the basic clarifying operation. Ghee makers go one step further. The butterfat and the casein solids are simmered together for a while. This caramelizes the solids, which then impart a nutty taste to the butterfat. It also gives the clarified butter a darker colour. Only once caramelized are the solids filtered out – and often they are eaten by the ghee makers as a yummy snack. We see the two products in the right-hand photo below.

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So that’s ghee.

PROMEMORIA: Talk to daughter about trying to make ghee herself. She loves messing around in the kitchen. Maybe this could be a joint project while my wife and I are here.

This being India, ghee doesn’t just play a culinary role. It has important religious functions in Hinduism. For instance, in marriages, funerals and other such ceremonies, ghee is poured into sacred fires, a practice considered to be auspicious. This means, of course, that ghee used in this way can only be made with the milk of zebu cows, animals which are sacred in Hinduism.

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That’s fine, but zebu cows don’t produce all that much milk, which makes for a rather restricted supply of ghee. Luckily, given India’s huge population and the latter’s huge appetite for the stuff, ghee can also be made from butter made with the milk of water buffaloes.

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These animals give a much more plentiful supply of milk, and – cherry on the cake – their milk contains a distinctly higher level of butterfat than does the milk from zebu cows.

PROMEMORIA: Talk to daughter about her trying ghee made with water buffalo milk the next time (I checked and her current batch is made with cow’s milk). There’s a pretty big population from the Indian subcontinent in Los Angeles, so it’s not impossible that a shop in their neighbourhood imports ghee made with buffalo milk from the Old Country.

Like I said, ghee is but one member of a larger family. The peoples of the Middle East and North Africa also have a great fondness for clarified butter, which they call smen (or sman, or semn, or semneh, or sminn – I have to assume that those transliterating the word into the Roman alphabet have had difficulties capturing its precise pronunciation).

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Smen makers go one further than manufacturers of ghee. They will often add herbs during the process, straining them out at the end. This adds further taste notes to the butterfat. Roasted fenugreek seeds are popular, with thyme and oregano also often being added. A lot of salt is often also added, because – again, different from gheesmen is very often aged, which adds a fermenting step to the process and of course new taste notes. The aging process can sometimes be decades long. The Yemenis certainly make very aged smen, as do the Berbers of North Africa. They bury jars of smen in the ground and leave them there for a good long time – it’s a tradition among the Berbers to bury a jar at the birth of a daughter, then to dig it up when she gets married and use it in the cooking of the bridal feast.

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I read that a well-aged smen “has a characteristically strong, rancid, and cheesy taste and smell”. I further read that matured smen tastes very similar to blue cheese. If any of my readers happen to be going to Fez in Morocco, they might be interested to know that there is a square in the old city which is dedicated to the making and selling of smen. Much commentary online notes the “funky smell” of the smen being sold there.

PROMEMORIA: Talk to daughter about trying to track down a local source of smen, to compare and contrast with ghee. There must be quite a large population of people of Middle Eastern and North African origin in the Los Angeles area, and they surely will have their shops. And if it’s the Real McCoy, the smen should be made of goat’s or sheep’s milk, which could allow comparison with ghee made with cow’s milk.
PROMEMORIA: Check with daughter if she likes blue cheese. I think not, but in case she does, discuss if it’s worth trying to get a very mature smen. Question: Is there a Yemeni community in LA?? (or Berber community???)

Since a chance encounter with clarified butter in an Ethiopian context was the start of my (negative) involvement with this foodstuff, I feel I have to mention what the peoples of the Horn of Africa do in this culinary space. Not only Ethiopians but also Eritreans use clarified butter (called niter kibbeh in Ethiopia and tesmi in Eritrea). Like the peoples of the Middle East and North Africa, they add various spices and herbs during the simmering process. These can be spices native to the region, such as Ethiopian sacred basil, koserēt, and Ethiopian cardamon, and/or more universal spices such as our friend fenugreek, garlic, cumin, coriander, turmeric, or even cinnamon and nutmeg. I read that these impart “a distinct, spicy aroma”.

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PROMEMORIA: Talk to daughter about also trying to track down a local source of niter kibbeh or tesmi. I know for sure that there is a significant Ethiopian community in Los Angeles. Our daughter took us once to “Little Ethiopia”, to eat in an Ethiopian restaurant. Not sure about the existence of an Eritrean community.
PROMEMORIA: Check daughter’s spice racks, to see what spices she has, which – if she wants – she could add to her home-made ghee to turn into smen or niter kibbeh-slash-tesmi.

I don’t think that the young Ethiopian woman of yesterdecade had put niter kibbeh in our tea, or even ghee; there was no spicy aroma or nutty flavour to that revolting drink. My sense is that she had just made her own batch of clarified butter, but for reasons known only to herself omitted the herbs. I should also say that despite intensive searches on the Internet, I turned up no mention of Ethiopians putting niter kibbeh in their tea, so I’m wondering what my wife’s co-student was up to. I did, though, find a mention of the Mongolians (another pastoralist society) putting clarified butter in their tea, or süütei tsai in Mongolian, so someone really does do it. That being said, the Mongolians don’t make their süütei tsai the way I make tea. A basic recipe would be one quart of water, one quart of milk, a tablespoon of green tea, and a teaspoon of salt. Black tea can be exchanged for the green tea. Our friend clarified butter can be added. Another common addition is fried millet. I wonder if Anthony Bourdain ever tried this concoction in his culinary wanderings around the globe?

Other pastoralist cultures use clarified butter, for instance the Hausa and Fulanis of West Africa (who, I note in passing, call it manshanu, which means cow’s oil).

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But I won’t spend time on these other versions of clarified butter, because the app which my daughter uses to record all feedings and nappy changes tells me that the grandchild will soon wake up for the next feed and I have one more extremely important topic to cover.

This post was kicked off by my daughter and me having diametrically opposite opinions about ghee, which as I say intrigued me. Now that I know what ghee is, I have no excuse to make the final plunge: actually eat something with ghee in it, to check: could I have been wrong all those decades ago?

PROMEMORIA: Talk to my daughter about her preparing a dish with ghee in it, that I can try.

Uh-oh, I hear a wail from down the corridor. Time for the next feed, which my daughter will do, with my wife and I hovering around to help out.

ELDERBERRIES, ELDERFLOWERS

Vienna, 13 July 2022

I’m sitting in a doctor’s reception room, nervously waiting to see the good doctor. It’s a routine annual check-up, but at my age you never know what might emerge!

To while away the time and keep my mind on other things, I’ve decided to start a new post. The topic for this one is the elder tree. I was inspired to write it by the sighting I had on a recent hike with my wife in the woods around Vienna. It was of a branch of an elder tree hanging over the path, rich with berries – still green, but full of promise for the autumn.

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The elder family is actually quite large, containing many different species. So just to be clear, I’m talking about Sambucus nigra, the European elder. It has a wide range, stretching from the Caspian Sea in the east to the Atlantic Ocean in the west.

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If I’m to be honest, it’s not a particularly pretty tree. It doesn’t grow very high, its leaves are nothing much to look at, and it evinces a rather fetid smell. But for reasons which are not really clear to me, it caught the imagination of the ancient peoples of Europe. A couple of thousand years ago or more, they invested the tree with magic powers. Then Christianity came along, and then the Enlightenment, and then the Scientific Revolution, and all these “pagan” beliefs became quaint folklore. Here’s one such tale about the elder tree, which was still quite prevalent in rural areas of Britain and Scandinavia in the early parts of the last century:

It was said that a spirit known as the Elder Mother (Hyldemoer in Danish) lived in elder trees.

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If you were foolish enough to cut down an elder tree, or even cut a branch off it, you would release the Elder Mother. She would follow the wood – her property, after all – and bring bad luck on the owners of whatever was made from it. You could safely cut the tree only after chanting a rhyme to the Elder Mother:
“Elder Mother, Elder Mother,
Give me some of your wood,
And I will give you some of mine when I grow into a tree.”
Silence after you made the request meant that she had given permission.

As I said, quaint.

J.K. Rowling picked up on the elder’s supposed magical properties when she had a wand made of elder wood play a pivotal role in the last book of the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

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Let me immediately say that, contrary to what seems to be 90% of the human race, I have never read a single Harry Potter book, so I have no idea what pivotal role the wand played. One of these days, I’ll ask my daughter, who I believe has read all the Harry Potter books; I certainly remember her lying on her bed devouring the first couple of volumes. What follows was gleaned from various Harry Potter fan sites I browsed. Elder was the rarest wand wood of all, and reputed to be deeply unlucky (which fits with my previous quaint story – the Elder Woman surely wouldn’t appreciate her wood being turned into a wand). As a result, elder wands were trickier for witches and wizards to master than any other. Harry’s Elder Wand (please note the capital letters) was said to have been the most powerful wand ever to have ever existed, able to perform feats of magic that would normally have been impossible even for the most skilled witches and wizards. Only a highly unusual person would find their perfect match in an elder wand, and on the rare occasion when such a pairing occurred, it might be taken as certain that the witch or wizard in question was marked out for a special destiny. Which means Harry, of course. As a final touch, the Elder Wand’s core contained the tail hair of a Thestral. This animal was a breed of winged horse with a skeletal body, face with reptilian features, and wide, leathery wings that resemble a bat’s (it makes me think of Chinese dragons).

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If I bring up this last point, it’s because it allows me to segue smoothly back into the real world. Placing a Thestral’s tail hair in the core of the wand would have required hollowing out the elder branch being used to make the wand. It just so happens that young elder branches are easy to hollow out; their pith is soft and tender, and can be easily pushed out or burned out. People discovered this characteristic of the elder a long, long time ago, and took advantage of it to make all sorts of products which needed hollow tubes. For instance, shepherds in many parts of Europe used young elder branches to make simple flutes, to while away the hours looking after their sheep. In fact, the Latin name for the elder, sambucus, seems to be derived from the Ancient Greek word σαμβύκη (sambúkē) for flute. The shepherd playing a flute has certainly been a recurring theme in art over the ages.

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Another use of hollowed elder branches was as bellows to blow air into fires, and it is this habit which seems to be at the source of the tree’s English name. It has nothing to do with old-age pensioners like myself and all to do with the Anglo-Saxon word æld for fire.

Of course, as one can easily imagine with a tree so laden with magic, various bits of it have been used over the centuries for folk remedies. Which is intriguing, because every part of the tree except the flowers and the ripe berries – so unripe berries, leaves, twigs, branches, seeds (even in ripe berries), roots – are mildly poisonous. Ingest enough and you will suffer from nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps, diarrhea, and generally feel horribly weak. That didn’t stop our ancestors, though, in using various elder-based concoctions to try to cure a wide array of diseases. And elder-based remedies – updated with smart packaging and slick advertising – continue to be offered. Here is one such offering for coughs.

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I don’t propose to argue the merits of these folk remedies or their lack of them, I will merely cite a phrase I came across in my readings on the elder: “there is no high-quality clinical evidence that such practices provide any benefit”. My readers can come to their own conclusions about the medical efficacy of these modern versions of age-old nostrums.

Whether it was through their searches for remedies to the ills that afflicted them, or simply because of plain old hunger, or both, our ancestors also discovered that the elder could give them some nourishment. Archaeological digs in Switzerland at lakeside Neolithic pile-dwellings have unearthed elder seeds, seeming to show that these early Swiss lakeside dwellers were cultivating the elder 4000 years ago. We have here an artist’s representation of these lakeside dwellings.

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If that is indeed true, we can imagine that hunter gatherers were collecting and eating wild elderberries considerably earlier than this.

In my opinion, based on my one experience of eating elderberries, you’d have to be pretty damned hungry to eat them. I tried the berries once when I was 13 years old and had just started high school. Elder trees lined one of the roads near the school, and the berries were ripe when the new school year started in early September (in fact, ripened elderberries were once considered an indicator that autumn – which officially starts on 1st September in the northern hemisphere – had begun). Frankly, the berries were pretty tasteless, which is not surprising since they have very low sugar levels. I must have also swallowed the seeds which I now know are poisonous, although I have no memories of throwing up or getting the runs. I guess I didn’t eat all that many – not surprising given their tastelessness.

This hasn’t stopped Europeans of centuries past from using elderberries as well as elderflowers in foods and drinks, and I want to celebrate the culinary inventiveness of our ancestors in the rest of this post. I suppose I also want to celebrate localism, the making do with what is available to you locally.

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Elderberries and elderflowers can give a rather pleasant taste to things they are added to, and I suspect it is for this taste rather than any calories they impart that they have been used. Since I mentioned the berries first, let me quickly zip through some of the more interesting drinks and foods which people have created that involve them.

There’s elderberry wine, of course.

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This is the only type of wine I have ever tried to make, a year after my attempt at eating the berries. It was a total disaster. I have recounted the whole sorry episode in an earlier post, so I won’t say anymore about it. For any readers who, come September, will have a whole lot of elderberries available, I annex at the very end of this post one of the many recipes to be found online for making elderberry wine.

In my youth in the UK, elderberry wine was associated with parsons’ daughters and genteel old maids.

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This gentility is given a sinister twist in the hilarious film Arsenic and Old Lace of 1944 starring Cary Grant. SPOILER ALERT!! SPOILER ALERT!! Cary Grant’s character, Mortimer Brewster, discovers that his two spinster aunts, Abby and Martha, who are really lovely old dears, have taken to murdering lonely old men by poisoning them with a glass of home-made elderberry wine laced with arsenic, strychnine, and “just a pinch” of cyanide.

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Somewhere between food and drink lie sweet soups. These are popular in Scandinavia, and indeed the Swedes use elderberry in one of their sweet soups. I must say, I’m rather intrigued by this concept of sweet soups, I really must try one one day. Is it a dessert or a starter? (Note to IKEA: time to add one of these soups to your menu, I’m getting tired of your Swedish meatballs). As one might expect of a berry that is commonly found in northern Europe, the northern Germans also make an elderberry-based soup. They call it Fliederbeersuppe (or lilac berry soup; not sure why “lilac”).

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Interestingly enough, the Austrians make the same soup under the name Hollersuppe. In all the years my wife and I have lived in Austria, we have never, ever come across this dish. We clearly do not travel in the right circles. But now that I have been alerted to this dish I will keep a weather eye out for it. If readers with a stash of berries available to them in September want to try their hand at this soup, they will find a recipe at the end of the post.

Elderberries are of course used for making jams and jellies, but that is pretty run-of-the-mill, so I’ll skip them. They are also used to make a chutney, which is intriguing.

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However, it is not quite intriguing enough to write anymore about it. Nevertheless, anyone wanting to try and make this chutney will find a recipe at the end.

And then there’s Pontack sauce.

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Makers of it claim that it can give Lea & Perrins sauce a run for its money, which intrigues me because I am sufficiently into L&P sauce to have written a post about it. Anything that can stand up to L&P is worth looking into. The sauce also has a fun back story, which goes like so. Since the 1550s, the French family de Pontac owned vineyards in the Bordeaux region, exporting their wine to England. In 1666, taking advantage of the recent Great Fire in London, Arnaud III de Pontac sent his son François-Auguste to the city with instructions to buy one of the many now-vacant lots there. His idea was to build a tavern which would not only sell the Pontacs’ Bordeaux wine but also serve French food. François-Auguste completed his instructions to the letter, opening a tavern he called À l’Enseigne de Pontac. On the sign over the tavern’s door, François-Auguste depicted his father.

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So Londoners nicknamed the tavern Pontack’s Head. This proto-French restaurant was a hit with all the Great and the Good, and it thrived. As part of the offerings, clients were served a sauce with their food. It came to be known as Pontack sauce, although whether François-Auguste invented the sauce or simply popularized it is unclear. The core of this sauce is elderberry juice and cider vinegar, to which are added various spices. Apparently, it marries very well with game. If there is any reader out there who wants to try making it, you know by now where to find the recipe!

And so we come to the flowers. Many drinks are made which involve elder flowers, primarily as a way to impart a distinct “elder” taste to them. The simplest is a concentrated sugar syrup in which elderflowers have been steeped for a while. Lemon juice or some other source of citric acid is add to give tartness. To drink it, a good deal of water is added to dilute the syrup to a drinkable concentration. I recently had one of these drinks at the local Anker café where we often go to have a coffee. It’s really very refreshing.

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Recipe for the syrup at the end.

An interesting variation on this basic theme is where the drink is allowed to ferment – just enough to give it fizz but not enough to make it alcoholic. It is best known under its Romanian name, Socată.

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However, all the Balkan countries make the same drink under a variety of different names, while Germany has a similar drink, this one mildly alcoholic and known as elderflower champagne. The non-alcoholic version of the drink has proved popular enough for commercial soft drinks manufacturers to market vulgar copies – I won’t deign to give them publicity by citing their names.

As one might imagine, this elderflower syrup is also used in various alcoholic drinks but I won’t bother with those. More interesting are a couple of ways to eat elderflowers. The first way is to dip the flowers in batter and fry them – rather like zucchini flowers, I suppose.

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One finds this dish in the German-speaking lands, under the names Hollerküchel in Germany and Hollerstrauben in Austria. Once again, I have to confess to never having seen this dish during all my years in Austria. I could argue that this is because it is a seasonal dish, made when the elder trees flower in May, a time when we are almost never here, but I’m afraid I think it shows once again that we do not travel in the right circles. Recipe, as usual, at the end.

As readers will no doubt have noticed, pride of place in the creation of elder-based food and drinks has to be given to Northern Europe. However, my final entry comes from way down in southern Europe, from Calabria in Italy to be precise. There, they make a bread using olive oil in which elderflowers have been steeped. It’s known as pane col sambuco “elder bread” in Italian and pane è maju “May bread” in the local dialect, reflecting the month the trees flower.

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Well, I finished my appointment with the doctor a long time ago; everything is in a satisfactory state of repair for a man my age, which is some comfort. There’s lots more to write about on the elder, but I will leave that to elder buffs to do; I think you could write a book about the elder. I saw an acronym for something or other a few days ago, which I think perfectly sums up this post: KKK. Not those hooded crazies from the US, but “Kunst, Kultur, Kulinarik”, Art, Culture, Cuisine. And now I leave my readers to the Cuisine part.

RECIPES

Elderberry wine

To make 1 l elderberry wine, you will need:
270g elderberries
1 litre water
250g sugar
1/2 tsp Acid Blend
1/4 tsp Yeast Nutrient
1/8 tsp Pectic Enzyme
1/4 Campden tablet
1/4 sachet of yeast

  1. Once you get the elderberries back home after picking, remove the berries from the slightly toxic stems. Using a fork, gently comb the berries away from the stems a few at a time into a bowl. Fill the bowl with cold water. The ripe and mature berries will sink to the bottom. Any green, damaged berries will float, as will any leaves and bugs. Remove the bad berries and debris with a sieve and drain the well-cleaned elderberries.
  2. Heat the water, add the sugar and stir to dissolve. Bring to the boil for a minute and then turn off the heat.
  3. Take the prepared elderberries and place them in a straining bag inside a bucket. Use a potato masher to thoroughly crush the berries.
  4. Pour the boiling water over the crushed elderberries and give them a good stir. Allow to cool for a few hours and then add the yeast nutrient, acid blend and the crushed Campden tablet. Mix thoroughly, cover and fit the airlock and wait for at least 12 hours.
  5. After 12 hours add the pectic enzyme, mix thoroughly and wait for a further 24 hours.
  6. After 24 hours add the yeast onto the surface of the must, there is no need to stir. Cover and fit the airlock and wait for fermentation to begin.
  7. Stir the wine daily for the first week of fermentation, after 2 weeks lift out the straining bag and allow the wine to drain from the berries. Avoid squeezing the bag.
  8. Leave the wine to settle for a day and then syphon the wine into a demijohn.
  9. Allow the wine to condition in the demijohn for at least 3-4 months, racking when any sediment builds up. After the conditioning, sample the wine. You may want to back sweeten the wine if you prefer a sweeter taste. If not, rack straight to bottles.

Elderberry wine ages very well and will continually evolve so try and hold onto a few bottles for a year or more. You will be pleasantly surprised at how good an elderberry wine can get.

Fliederbeersuppe

Boil fresh elderberries with sugar and sieve the result. Thicken the remaining juice with corn starch, and cook with lemon zest (or lemon juice if necessary), peeled pieces of apple and pear and semolina dumplings (if flour dumplings are used instead of semolina dumplings, thickening is usually unnecessary). Cinnamon and clove are occasionally added as spices. In Carinthia, the soup is cooked with wild marjoram and possibly with honey instead of sugar. In Upper Austria, pitted stewed plums are also added, while in Vorarlberg the elderberries are cooked with some red wine.

Elderberry Chutney

You will need:
2lbs elderberries,
1 large onion,
1 pint vinegar,
1 tsp. salt,
1 tsp. ground ginger,
2 Tbsp. sugar,
a spoonful of cayenne, mustard seeds and any other spices you wish to add.

1) Put the elderberries into a pan and mash them with a spoon, chop the onion and add all the ingredients along with vinegar into the pan.
2) Bring the mix to a boil and simmer until thick, making sure to stir well to prevent burning.
3) Put into jars.

Pontack sauce

To make two small bottles of the sauce, you will need:
500g elderberries
500ml cider vinegar
250g finely chopped or grated shallots
Small piece of ginger, grated
4 allspice berries
4 cloves
1 tbsp black peppercorns
1 tsp nutmeg (or mace)
1 tsp salt

  1. Wash the elderberries and de-stalk them with a fork – see above.
  2. Heat the oven to 120°C. Put the berries in a casserole and cover with the vinegar, put on the lid, and cook for 4-6 hours.
  3. When cool, strain the juices through a sieve, pressing firmly. Discard the skin and seeds of the berries.
  4. Put the remainder into a pan with the shallots and other ingredients, bring to a boil and simmer, with the lid on, for about 10 minutes.
  5. Turn off, let cool and strain again and bottle.
  6. This will give you a thinnish liquid. You can reduce it to make it thicker or ‘blitz’ with some onion in a processor, which will give you something resembling a brown sauce.

Elderflower syrup (or cordial)

  1. Collect the flower heads fresh and new when the tiny buds have just opened and come to bloom before the fragrance is tainted with bitterness.
  2. Steep the elderflower heads in a concentrated sugar solution so that their aroma infuses the syrup.
  3. Add a source of citric acid and lemon juice to help preserve the syrup and to add tartness.
  4. Cover the mixture and then leave it for a few days so that the aromas of the flowers infuses into the syrup.
  5. Strain to release as much juice as possible.

For drinking, the cordial is typically diluted with either water or sparkling water.

Socată

  1. Steep the elder flowers in a lemon and sugar (traditionally honey) solution for a day.
  2. Add the other ingredients. These can be raisins, mint, lemon or orange zest, basil leaves, ginger.
  3. Leave for 2-4 days for primary fermentation to take place, in a covered but not airtight recipient.
  4. Filter the drink, and consume within 1-2 days.

Fried elderflowers

  1. Make a thin batter made from flour, eggs, beer or Prosecco and other ingredients, for example wine or beer batter.
  2. Dip the blossoms, still on their stalks in the batter, and fry in a pan.
  3. Before serving, dust the flowers with powdered cinnamon sugar, and serve with jam.
  4. Use the thicker parts of the stalks to hold the food. Be careful not to eat the stalks when you eat the flowers.

Pane col sambuco

You will need:
300 g durum wheat flour
300 g flour 0
350 ml of water
1/2 Tbsp. salt
7 g fresh brewer’s yeast
1 tsp sugar
1 1/2 jar of elderberry flowers in oil (this is made by steeping elderflowers in virgin olive oil and salt)

  1. Sift the two flours together and prepare the dough. Dissolve the brewer’s yeast in half a glass of lukewarm water.
  2. Make a hollow in the center of the flour and start pouring a part of this lukewarm water, mix, add the dissolved yeast and sugar. Slowly pour more water. Put the salt on the edges so that it does not come into direct contact with the yeast.
  3. Add the elderflowers under oil, knead them in until you have a nice smooth dough.
  4. Oil a bowl and put the dough in it, cover it with plastic wrap and a cloth to keep it warm until it is well risen, which will take an hour or even two depending on the temperature at which you keep it.
  5. When the dough is ready, make the shapes you like best. Put the shapes on a floured baking sheet and wait for them to rise for the second time, usually half an hour is enough.
  6. Cook in a preheated oven at 240°C for the first 15 minutes, then lower the temperature to 200°C for another 25/35 minutes.

TURKEY – THE BIRD, NOT THE COUNTRY

Milan, 24 June 2022

I’m catching up with the last couple of week’s news – I’ve been much taken writing a rather heavy report on policy support for eco-industrial parks. Fascinating stuff, but pretty time-consuming.

Anyway, my eye was caught by an article about Turkey’s decision to change its official name (in English, at least) from Turkey to Türkiye. This is in line with an honourable tradition, as various places slough off names given to them during colonial times to adopt more local names. So some decades ago, for instance, Bombay became Mumbai and Madras Chennai (those are the changes I’m most familiar with in India, although I gather that quite a number of places there have localised their names). And quite recently, Swaziland became eSwatini. According to the king, the change was driven by a desire to fully break with the country’s colonial past, while ending international confusion between Swaziland and Switzerland.

In the case of Turkey, it’s not a reaction to a colonial past, or at least not obviously so. Rather, it seems that the country’s leader, Mr. Erdoğan, objects to the country having the same name as a vulgar fowl fit only to be eaten. Worse, “turkey” is used as an epithet to describe people who are (according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary) “stupid, foolish, or inept”. This is what I suspect Mr. Erdoğan – a proud and prickly person – really objects to. He senses that English-speaking people – and Americans in particular, given that this is an Americanism – unconsciously apply the epithet to his country (for the record, the epithet is also used of theatrical productions which are a flop, as in “Well, that musical is a real turkey!”, as well as of three successive strikes in bowling, as in “Wow, Bob, that’s your second turkey this evening, lucky for us you’re not on our bowling team!”).

I rather suspect that the epithet is linked to the bird, since at least the domesticated variety has a reputation for being pretty dumb. I remember once reading that turkeys are so stupid that when it rains they’ll look up and drown.

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I’m sure this is an urban legend, but it gives readers a flavour of the generally low esteem in which the bird is held. It doesn’t help that we are shown photos like this of poor battery-raised turkeys.

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I feel moved to come to the defence of this much maligned fowl. In its natural state, out in the wild, it’s a magnificent looking bird.

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Here, we see a male turkey “strutting”, raising his feathers, like peacocks, as a mating ritual. The brilliantly coloured face is an absolute marvel. Here is a close-up.

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And by the way, these colours can change, depending on whether the bird is calm or excited.

The female, as is often the case with birds, is more modest in her appearance.

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Contrary to domesticated turkeys, the wild progenitors can fly  – not far, but very fast.

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So I really think we should stop thinking of the turkey as a stupid, dumb bird.

Coming back now to the issue which started this post, readers may be asking themselves why on earth the bird came to have the same name as Mr. Erdoğan’s country (well, I certainly asked myself that, which is why I’m writing this post …). It doesn’t come from Turkey or anywhere near there. The wild progenitor of today’s domesticated turkey was once very common throughout much of the United States and Central America.

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Its spread to the rest of the world is yet another example of the Columbian Exchange, which I’ve written about in several previous posts: all those foodstuffs, plants and animals which were shipped from the Americas to Europe and then to the rest of the world (and all the diseases and enslaved people which were shipped the other way).

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The Spaniards found an already domesticated turkey when they conquered Mexico and they brought it back to Europe, from whence it spread throughout the rest of the world.

At this point, let’s imagine that we come across new foodstuffs we’ve never seen before. Basically, there are two ways we’ll give names to these foodstuffs. Either we’ll adopt the local name (often modifying it in the process to fit our modes of speech) or we’ll give it a name based on other things we know which it reminds us of. Both approaches were used with the new foodstuffs which the Europeans discovered in the Americas. For instance, just considering English names, maize, potatoes, cassava, tomatoes, avocados, cacao, are all Anglicized versions of the local names – mahiz, batata, cazzábbi, in the language of the Taino people of the Caribbean islands (whose annihilation I alluded to a few posts ago); tomatl, ahuacatl, cacaua in Nahuatl, the language spoken in the Valley of Mexico and central Mexico at the time of the Spanish conquest. On the other hand, pineapples, peanuts, and bell peppers were given their names based on similarities in looks or tastes to known objects: pineapple was a name already used for pine cones, which look quite similar to smaller pineapples; peanuts were nuts that were pea-sized; anything with a peppery taste was called pepper.

The name “turkey” falls into the latter category. When the bird finally arrived in England, people confused it with another imported bird, the helmeted guineafowl.

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Originally from Sub-Saharan Africa, the guineafowl was being imported to England from the Ottoman Empire by the Turkey Company, an English chartered company. Because of that, people often called them turkey cocks or turkey hens. The new arrival from the Americas quickly displaced the guineafowl and added insult to injury by also appropriating to itself the nickname. Thus did the British start raising a bird originally from the Americas which they called “turkey”, much to the future chagrin of Mr. Erdoğan.

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His chagrin doesn’t finish with the British. There are of course all the other English-speaking countries which have adopted the same name for this American bird, foremost among them the United States. And then there are the other ex-British colonies; many of these have also adopted the name, suitably transliterated to fit their local languages. Thus, most of the languages from the Indian subcontinent call the bird ṭarki or turkee. So too have a number of languages used in ex-British colonies in Africa: for instance, we have toki in Igbo, tọki in Yoruba, tɔki in Krio, dɔkɔ in Ewe, uturuki in Swahili. And then we have a good number of countries which have no obvious connection to the UK but which for some reason have nevertheless adopted, with the usual linguistic adaptations, the British name for the bird: tierkei in Luxembourgish; ćurka in Serbian and Bosnian; turketi in Georgian; tirka in Kurdish; turīki in Amharic; tuorki in Khmer; tu la ki in Lao. All told, about 40% of the world’s population use the name “turkey” or some variant of it – although, in truth, some of the names have drifted so far from “turkey” as to be almost unrecognizable – some comfort, perhaps, to Mr. Erdoğan.

Luckily, another proud and prickly leader, Mr. Narendra Modi, Prime Minister of India, doesn’t seen to have noticed that a whole series of countries – including, I should note, Turkey – have instead named this “stupid bird” after India! Perhaps he has been too busy beating up on his country’s Muslim population.

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I think this naming is the fault of the French, who named the American bird coq d’Inde (or poule d’Inde in the feminine). Later the coq and poule were dropped, as was the apostrophe, and the French simply called the bird dinde (with, as a further modification, dindon becoming the masculine version).

As usual, the French’s logic was impeccable – if we remember that Christopher Columbus confused everyone in Europe by claiming that he had reached the Indies when actually he had stumbled across the Americas. For quite a while thereafter, everything that came from the Americas was thought to come from the Indies (and in English at least this confusion lingers on in our calling the Caribbean islands the West Indies and calling the native populations of the Americas Indians). So when the French said this new bird came from the Indies they were correct given the knowledge of the time. But they were fundamentally wrong: a great example of “rubbish in, rubbish out”.

Unfortunately for any proud and prickly Indians – the real ones, the ones from India – the French’s innocent mistake has percolated into various other languages. Two of these are languages on France’s border, Catalan and Basque, where we have gall dindi and indioilarra, respectively. Then we have a cluster of languages from the ex-Russian Empire: Polish (indyk), Russian (indeyka), Ukrainian (indychka), Belarusian (indyčka), Kyrgyz (ündük), and Armenian (hndkahav). Finally, we have three countries – Turkey, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan – with close linguistic and cultural ties, which all use the name hindi. Luckily for Mr. Modi, only some 12% of the world’s populations use this potentially offensive name for our bird from the Americas.

That being said, there may be more here to potentially offend Mr. Modi, and we have the Dutch to thank for that. For reasons which I don’t understand at all, the Dutch called our bird from the Americas Kalkoense haan, or “chicken from Calcoen”, the then-used name for the Indian city of Calicut in the state of Kerala (which, in another example of India decolonizing its place names, is now called Kozhikodez). Calcoen-Calicut was a big trading partner in Europe’s first interactions with India, and in the early 1600s the Dutch entered into a treaty with the local ruler to boot out the Portuguese. But none of that explains – to me at least – why the Dutch seemed to think that this bird came from Calcoen. But they did.

The Dutch eventually shortened the name to kalkoen, and in closely related forms it spread far and wide. I suppose because the Dutch were very active traders in the Baltic Sea and took the bird with them on their trading ventures, almost all the countries along that sea’s shores have adopted the Dutch name in the form of kalkun or something similar. But the Dutch also took the bird with them on their colonizing ventures. Thus, Sri Lankan speakers of Sinhalese call the bird kaḷukumā (Sri Lanka was Dutch for a while, after they kicked out the Portuguese, before they were themselves kicked out by the British). For their part, the Indonesians appropriated the name from their former colonial masters and call the bird kalkun (I’ve commented on Indonesian’s cheerful appropriation of foreign words in an earlier post). As you would expect, the descendants of the Dutch settlers in South Africa, the Afrikaaners, call the bird kalkoen, and the name has percolated into at least one of the languages of southern Africa, northern Shona, as kalakune. Still, at the end of the day, only about 5% of the world’s population use this name for our bird from the Americas. On top of it, the connection to India is really not that obvious, so I think Mr. Modi can breathe easy – assuming he has spent any time at all thinking about this potential slight to Indian pride.

If Mr. Modi were ever to get exercised by the link between India and the supposedly stupid bird from the Americas, I really don’t think he could adopt the course taken by Mr. Erdoğan. I just can’t see what changes could be brought to his country’s name which would sufficiently distance it from the India-like names which have been given to our bird. It would be far better for Mr. Modi to initiate an international process (through the UN, perhaps) to change the bird’s name. And I have just the name to propose: huehxōlōtl! This is the Nahuatl name for our bird. It seems to me to fit beautifully with the general move to decolonize our languages. Each language could take this name and fit it into their way of speaking. The Spanish-speaking Latin Americans already did this a while back. Contrary to the Spaniards, who call our bird pavo, they call it guajolote, a hispanicized form of the original Nahuatl name. In English, it could be transliterated to “whexolot”. That’s a bit awkward, but knowing people’s tendency to shorten and simplify words, I’m guessing that over time this could become “whellot”. That rolls off my English tongue fairly easily: “500 grams of whellot, please. I’ll have it tonight with maize and potatoes”.

PISTACHIO

Sori, 24 May 2022

There are certain foods that somehow, without our being quite being aware of it, my wife and I will methodically demolish if they are put in front of us. Kabanosy sausages very much fall into this category for me.

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As for the both of us, berries definitely have this effect (it’s strawberries at the moment, they are pouring into the shops and they are cheap).

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But so do peanuts.

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And – the subject of this post – so do pistachios.

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Put a bowl of pistachios in front of us and before we know it, one will smoothly follow the other until we have popped every single one of them into our mouths – except the pesky ones where the shells are firmly closed and stubbornly resist being cracked open by our aging teeth.

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This is really the only way I eat pistachios, and I rather sense that it is the best way to eat them if you want to truly appreciate their unique taste. Sometimes, when I’m eating a slice of mortadella (a rare occurrence in these diet-dominated days, alas!), I will come across thin slices of pistachio embedded in the mortadella.

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Quite honestly, it seems to be a waste of pistachios; they don’t materially alter the taste of the mortadella as far as I can make out. My wife will occasionally have pistachio as one of the two tastes she chooses for her post-hike celebratory ice creams.

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Researching for this post, I recently tried pistachio ice cream, twice. I was not impressed. In the first case, even though the shop claimed that the ice cream was made with high-quality Italian pistachios with a Protected Designation of Origin title – see below – I could detect no pistachio taste at all. In the second case, there was a pistachio taste but it all came from the pistachio crumbs sprinkled on the ice cream; the ice cream itself had no pistachio taste to it at all. Talking of pistachio crumbs, Middle Eastern and Indian desserts will often be sprinkled with them. For instance, this is a pistachio-sprinkled kulfi from India.

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And this is a pistachio-sprinkled mouhallibieh from Turkey – although this dessert originated in Sassanid Persia.

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If my experience with pistachio ice cream is anything to go by I’m not sure how much the pistachios add to these desserts; they act more like a garnish. But there are lots of Middle Eastern pastries where pistachios play a more important role as a stuffing, often mixed with various other things. Baklava, for instance, will often have pistachios as the stuffing.

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I rather suspect, though, that all the honey and other sugary additions to these stuffings overwhelm that delicate pistachio taste.

On the salty side of things, Moroccans will add a fistful of pistachios to their tajines.

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But again, it seems to me that the strong tastes of the tajine will drown out the delicate tastes of the pistachios. Of course, I may be wrong; time to find a Moroccan restaurant here in Milan which makes tajine the right way, to perform a taste test. On top of it, we haven’t had a tajine in a long time – but is it diet-friendly??

I read that Clever Persons Out There have commercialized pistachio butter, the pistachio equivalent to peanut butter. This intrigues me. As I recall from my youth, peanut butter tastes pretty peanutty, so maybe pistachio butter tastes pretty pistachio-y. This needs to be followed up – and pistachio butter definitely exists in Italy, although it goes by the much fancier name of crema di pistacchio (everything about pistachios in Italy is fancier, as we shall see).

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BUT, when all is said and done, what is crystal clear is that an excellent way of eating pistachios is one after another: crack open the shell, scoop out the nut, and pop it into your mouth. Mmm-mmm!

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In this, we are merely following in the footsteps of our most remote ancestors. Archaeologists have discovered pistachio shells in a dig in Jordan dating back 780,000 years. We’re not even talking Homo sapiens here, but Homo erectus!

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So we are in very venerable company when it comes to the scarfing of pistachios off the trees (although it is true to say that we tend to eat them roasted and slightly salted, while our ancestors ate them fresh. On this point, I have read that fresh pistachios are delicious – something else my wife and I need to try; somehow, we need to be near some trees when the nuts are being picked).

I should clarify at this point that there are several species of pistachio trees and that they all offer us hungry humans edible nuts. The nuts which our Homo erectus ancestors were eating in Jordan came from the Pistacia Atlanticus tree, whereas the pistachios we find in our shops today come from the Pistacia vera tree. The nuts from P. vera are much bigger than the nuts from the other Pistacia trees (and the shell harder, which makes their transportation much easier), so no-one really eats these other types of pistachio nuts anymore.

The original home of P. vera is the dry steppe lands that go from north-east Iran through southern Turkmenistan, northern Afghanistan, southern Uzbekistan, and on into Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan – more or less the region which the Ancient Greeks called Bactria.

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Our hunting and gathering ancestors who lived in the area happily munched on wild P. vera nuts. There are still stands of wild P. vera in the area, although they are sadly depleted from their glory days.

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Then someone, or probably someones, decided to domesticate the tree. Quite when this happened is unclear, but certainly no earlier than 2000 BCE. After that came the tree’s slow westward migration. It was the Persians who were responsible for that; the eastern marches of their Empires overlapped with the tree’s western range. They brought the domesticated tree to the rest of their Empire. In the process, they gave the nut the name we all know it by: pistak was the nut’s name in Ancient Persian.

It is possible that during this drift westwards the Persians made a fundamental change to the tree’s life cycle, systematically grafting it onto the root stock of one of its cousins, either P. atlanticus or P. terebinthus. If it wasn’t them, it was people in the eastern part of the Roman Empire who did it, where the tree eventually arrived as it continued its slow shift westwards. The Ancient Greek philosopher Theophrastos, whose life saddled the 4th and 3rd Centuries BCE, mentioned the habit of grafting the tree (as well as pointing to Bactria as its original homeland). It is certainly a fact that nowadays almost all commercial orchards of P. vera the world over are grafted onto a root stock. These root stocks are hardier than P. vera, thus allowing the tree to be moved successfully out of its original ecological niche into new ones. But it does mean that all commercially grown P. vera trees are a sort of botanical Frankenstein.

The tree was brought to Italy and Spain in the western part of the Roman Empire during the reign of the Emperor Tiberius. P. vera is still grown there commercially, although production is quite modest compared to other parts of the world. But what these orchards lack in quantity they make up for in quality. The Italians especially have turned their tiny output, mostly grown near Mount Etna, into a high quality product, which has received the EU’s Protected Designation of Origin title and is being aggressively promoted through some savvy branding and promotion.

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The fact is, though, that P. vera is a desert plant. The trees can survive temperatures up to 48°C in summer; in fact, the trees actively need long, hot summers for the nut to properly ripen (and of course because temperatures can plunge in desert regions the trees are equally tolerant at the other end of the temperature scale, being able to survive winter temperatures as low as −10°C). Consistent with their desert nature, the trees dislike high humidity levels and their roots prefer to receive modest amounts of water and sit in a well-draining soil. They are also highly tolerant of saline water and saline soil, a big advantage in desert-like areas. All of this to say that the Arabs first, and the Ottomans later, recognized the potential of P. vera in many of the lands they had newly conquered and promoted the tree extensively. As a result, historically the major production area other than Persia was in Syria, around Aleppo, with Turkey also getting into the act. Here is a photo of one of Syria’s pistachio orchards.

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Even though, as I have said, there was modest production in southern Europe, it was from Syria that most of the pistachios eaten in Europe came from. The Venetians, those inveterate traders with the eastern rim of the Mediterranean, were the first in this trade. They delivered the Aleppo pistachios they purchased to northern and central Italy (and much later to northern European countries via trade routes across the Alps). In later centuries, when French ships out of Marseilles challenged the Venetians in their trade with the Ottoman Empire, Aleppo pistachios also began to be imported into France. I use this occasion to show what Aleppo looked like several hundred years ago. I don’t want to even think about what it looks like now.

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It is from this trade in pistachios – not just to Europe, but more generally – that came the habit of dyeing the shells red  or green.

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Now, if it’s done at all, it’s just an aesthetic touch. But in the old days, it was a way of masking stains on the shell caused by mishandling during manual harvesting.

So that’s how the global production of pistachios stood until quite recently: Persia, now called Iran, first; Syria second; Turkey third.

Then along came California.

It had long been recognized that California’s Central Valley, with its hot, dry summers, moderately cold winters, and well drained soils, offered ideal growing conditions for the pistachio.

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Already back in 1929, an American botanist had gone to Persia to collect about 10 kilograms’ worth of various pistachio nuts from the country’s orchards, taking them back to California, and planting them. After nearly ten years (it takes that long for a pistachio tree to give its first harvest of nuts), he found that only one of his nuts had worked out. That one nut gave rise to California’s pistachio industry. But it wasn’t until the 1980s that the industry really took off – it took quite a while to find the right root stock. Since then, though, Californian production has grown meteorically. This, coupled with the sanctions on Iran (and general economic mismanagement) and the civil war in Syria, has meant that California is now Top Dog in world pistachio production.

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But who knows for how long? All sorts of places with the right climatic and soil conditions are looking to grow pistachios, drawn by the high value of the crop (as well as its relatively modest requirements in water). In full production, the trees guarantee more than €10,000 per hectare: I’m not a farmer, but my readings assure me that this is a very good return for an agricultural crop.

In this pistachio Gold Rush, there is one place I’m rooting for: the tree’s original homeland. I mean, doesn’t natural justice tell us that this is really where we should be getting our pistachios from? What right do these other countries have of making money from someone else’s genetic heritage? (this is basically the argument behind the Convention on Biological Diversity). In addition, the ex-Soviet republics of Central Asia need to move away from the environmentally unsustainable crops which central economic planning from the Soviet era foisted on them (think cotton, whose continued production in this region is destroying the Aral Sea). In the arid foothills where the wild P. vera originated, the raising of livestock is particularly harmful, as the animals overgraze the land and lead to desertification – all made worse by climate change. So bring it on! Here we see the land being prepared for pistachio planting in Uzbekistan.

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I’m particularly chuffed to see that an international fund, the Global Environment Facility, is actively involved in promoting the return of P. vera to its natural range. I should explain that there was a period in my life when I was deeply involved with this fund; I still wear a cap on my hikes which I picked up at one of their do’s.

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The one cloud on the horizon that I see is that if everyone and their dog piles into pistachio growing, then of course supply will soar. So, unless the demand for pistachio soars by an equal amount, the price of pistachios will fall, thus wiping out one of the main reasons people want to grow pistachio trees. The same thing happened in the coffee business. Some two decades ago, the World Bank financed enormous increases in coffee plantations in Viet Nam, with the net result that coffee prices dropped vertiginously and coffee farmers in various parts of the developing world who had been doing quite well up to then, thank you, suddenly found they could no longer make ends meet.

With this sobering thought in mind, let me toss another handful of pistachios into my mouth.

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ICE CREAM, SORBET, GRANITA

Milan, 2 May 2022

Whenever my wife and I complete a hike, we like to give ourselves a little treat. In my last post, I described the rum baba I will have after hiking in Liguria, coming off the Monte di Portofino and rolling into Santa Margherita. But the more common treat we’ll give ourselves for completing a hike in Italy is an ice cream. I mean, after a long hike in Italy, when you’re tired and hot, is there any better treat you could give yourself than a gelato?

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Given the enjoyment we get from consuming ice creams (my wife especially), I’ve been meaning to dig deeper into this delicious foodstuff for some time now, but have never quite got around to it. My writing of the previous post on the rum baba finally turned thought into action.

Let me immediately be completely up front. For decades now, I have been eating ice cream but I have never, ever made the stuff. The making of ice cream has been a completely closed book for me. Until now.

As usual, I began to read; not just on the making of ice cream but also – given my natural proclivities – on its history. And the more I read – or rather, the more rabbit holes I fell down – the more I realized that the story of ice cream was intimately linked to the stories of the sorbet and the granita.

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Not only that, but the stories of all three were intimately linked to the story of the trade in ice and snow. Since it was the latter that allowed the creation of the former, let me start with this.

We are all now so used to artificial refrigeration that we don’t give a second thought to going over to that white, quietly humming box in our kitchens on a devilishly hot day and pulling out cold food and drinks.

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But in the history of mankind, that’s a really recent phenomenon – artificial refrigeration has only been around for some 120 years. Before that, on that hot day you could only sweat and dream of that cool, cool beer, and if you had fresh produce you made sure to eat it as quickly as possible before it spoilt. Unless, that is, you were a king or emperor or other potentate, or generally were incredibly rich; one of the 1%, or more likely the 0.001%.

In this case, you had another option, that of paying people to climb high mountains where snow lay even in summer, to collect that snow and bring it back to your palace or other rich man’s pad.

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Once there, you would store it in an ice house. Your servants (or probably your slaves) would pack the snow in, insulating it as well as possible (straw seems to have been a popular insulating material; sawdust is also mentioned). Here is a type of ice house used in Persia.

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After which, it could be doled out during the hot months to keep food fresh or to make cold desserts with which to turn your guests green with envy when you invited them around for a banquet. I suppose it was the ancient equivalent of a Russian oligarch inviting guests for a spin in his super yacht.

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This practice has a long history. There are cuneiform tablets which show that snow was already being carried down to the plains of Mesopotamia in about 1750 B.C.E. The Persians were carrying snow down from the Taurus mountains in about 400 B.C.E. The Greeks did it, as did the Romans, bringing snow down from Vesuvius and Etna, as well as from the Apennines. Snow was carried down from the mountains of Lebanon to Damascus and Baghdad. The Mughal emperors had snow carried down from the Himalayas to Delhi. Granada and Seville had corporations which were tasked with carrying snow down from the Sierra Nevada to these cities. The Spaniards brought the practice to the New World, both to their Andean colonies as well as to Mexico.

In regions where climates were sufficiently cold in the winter for good ice formation on water bodies, a different strategy could be adopted: the ice was harvested during the winter and stored in ice houses for use during the summer. The Chinese were doing this by the time of the Tang Dynasty, if not before. Kings and aristocrats from Europe were doing it by the 16th Century, using ponds or lakes on their large estates to create the necessary ice, which they would then store in their ice houses. My wife and I recently came across this on one of our hikes around Lake Como. We happened to visit one of the old villas on the lake, Villa del Balbianello.

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Tucked away in the corner of the grounds, on the cold side of the hill, was this ice house (in which, I should note in passing, the last owner had himself buried).

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Rich colonialists in New England and the Canadian provinces copied the practice. But the democratic (and capitalist) spirit of the colonies was too strong. By 1800, businessmen in New England democratized the practice, harvesting ice on a large enough scale to make it affordable for modest households, who could use it in primitive refrigerators.

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The ice was delivered to one’s doorstep by ice vendors.

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These New England “ice entrepreneurs” even began to export their ice, eventually exporting it as far as Australia! Norway learnt from the Americans and got into the act on a big scale, exporting ice to many countries in Europe. Other European countries got involved in this international trade on a more modest scale: Switzerland exported ice to France, ice harvested in the mountains along what is now the Italian-Slovenian border were exported through the port of Trieste to countries further south in the Mediterranean, …

This flourishing ice business came to a crashing halt when artificial refrigeration came along in the early 1900s. The take-over by artificial refrigeration came in stages. Until quite recently, ice was still being delivered to households (I remember my parents receiving their deliveries of ice in the 1960s in West Africa), but now that ice was being made in a centralized refrigeration plant and not in a lake. And then even the local trade in ice disappeared as just about every household eventually owned their own refrigerator.

Coming back now to the Holy Trinity of ice cream, sorbet, and granita, as I said earlier one of the things all those rich Mesopotamians, Chinese, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Indians and other moneyed folk could do with the ice they had had collected was to have their cooks make cold desserts. What exactly these cold desserts were composed of is a bit of a mystery, but we can guess that the ice, no doubt crushed in a mortar, was mixed with honey or various fruit-based syrups and served to guests, perhaps sprinkled with petals, seeds and other such niceties. Something like this – without all the niceties, though – was quite a common summer street food in Italy in the 19th and early 20th centuries, made affordable by a plentiful supply of cheap ice – indeed, you can still find it to this day in one or two places in Rome, under the name of grattachecca.

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Basically, ice is grated from an ice block and put into a glass, onto which are then poured various types of syrups – black cherry, tamarind, mint, orgeat, coco, lemon, you name it …. Simple, cheap, and cooling on a hot summer’s day. If any of my readers are in Rome on a hot summer’s day and want to try a grattachecca, this is one of the places you can still get it.

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I’ve never had a grattachecca, but I can imagine one drawback with it. When it’s still cold you take a mouthful of the mixture and end up swallowing the now-watery syrup and then sucking on tasteless pieces of ice. And when it’s warmed up all you’re having is a cold drink.

Then, in the 16th Century in Europe, came a revolutionary discovery. Someone, somewhere discovered that if you put salt on ice you can actually drop the temperature to below 0°C. Anyone living in a country with cold winters is familiar with this phenomenon. It’s behind the use of salt on roads to melt black ice. I won’t go into the science behind the phenomenon, fascinating though it is. I’ll just say that you can drop the temperature to as low as -20°C in this way! I can’t stop myself throwing in a so-called phase diagram for salt solutions. They’re kind of neat, and any of my readers who have studied some science at some point in their lives can have fun looking at it. Other readers can skip it.

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It may not be immediately obvious to readers why this was important to our particular story. But what it meant was that cooks finally had a way of freezing things rather than only being able to cool them using ice from the ice house. We’re so used to having artificial refrigeration at our fingertips that we can have difficulties understanding what a revolution this was.

As far as our story is concerned, this was the key to making granita, sorbet, and ice cream. That snow brought down from the mountains or the ice harvested from a nearby lake were now no longer an intimate part of the dessert; instead, mixed with salt, they became merely an operational material in the making of that dessert. Center place was now given to various sweet concoctions which cooks came up with and which they then froze.

Or actually, as far as our Holy Trinity is concerned, partially froze. Because if granite, sorbets, and ice creams were truly frozen, they would be hard as rock and completely inedible. They needed to be cold but soft enough to be scooped up with a spoon  – or bitten or licked off, as we see these French ladies, post French Revolution, doing with gusto.

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Here, sugar is key. Just as salty solutions of water freeze at lower temperatures than pure water so do sugary solutions. In effect, what happens as you cool sugary solutions below 0°C is that the water molecules freeze, creating crystals of ice, while the sugar molecules do not. The result of this is that as more and more water molecules are pulled out of the sugary solution to form crystals, so the remaining sugary solution gets more and more concentrated. In addition, the sugar molecules get in the way of the crystallizing water molecules and impede them from ever creating big ice crystals. The net result of this is a whole lot of small to tiny ice crystals scattered throughout a very sugary syrup. It is primarily this that gives granite, sorbets, and ice creams their cold but semi-solid consistency (primarily, but not wholly; another ingredient, which we’ll get to in a minute, is present in sorbets and ice creams, and is very important in ensuring that semi-solid consistency).

But what were the sugary solutions that cooks began to freeze? And to answer this, we have to look at the history of a sweet drink called sharbat. The roots of this drink are in Persia, where it continues to be drunk to this day.

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Originally, it was simply sugarcane juice (sugarcane had been brought to the Persian lands from India in the 8th Century). But to this base Persians added various things: syrups, spices, herbs, nuts, flower petals, and what have you. And, if you were a very rich Persian, it was cooled with that snow and ice which you had paid handsomely to have brought down from the high mountains. The Turks adopted the drink, calling it şerbet. And then the Venetians, and possibly other Italian traders who traded with the Ottoman Empire, brought the drink back to Italy, calling it sorbetto. The Turks helpfully created ready-mixed, transportable şerbet bases to which water could be added; these came in the form of syrups, pastes, tablets, and even powders. Since cane sugar was not yet readily available in Europe, I’m guessing that it was in one of these forms that şerbet first entered Italy and then other European countries. Certainly in the 17th Century the UK was importing “sherbet powders” from the Ottoman Empire (and no doubt these powders are the ancestors of that revolting powder now sold in the UK as “sherbet”, which tastes horribly sugary and fizzes in your mouth when you eat it).

This sugary drink was perfect for our new freezing process. Without wanting to fly any flag too ostentatiously, I think it was the Italians who first applied the process to the sorbetto drink and basically turned this drink into a semi-solid dessert. Recognizing the origin, the granita was initially called the sorbetto granito while the sorbet was called the sorbetto gelato. With time, the former simply became known as the granita and the latter as the sorbetto (while the gelato bit got assigned to the ice cream).

But what actually is the difference between the granita and the sorbet? Two things. The first is the size of the ice crystals. In the granita, they tend to be larger than in the sorbet – but not too large! Otherwise, you would end up with something like the grattachecca. It’s the larger crystals that give granita its granulous feel in the mouth (hence the name). One can fix ice crystal size by playing around with the amount of sugar (the less sugar, the larger the crystals) and by the amount of stirring one does as the solution is freezing (the more stirring, the smaller the crystals). You have here a strawberry granita. Notice the bun in the background; in Sicily especially, where the granita is very popular, it is common to eat one’s granita with a bun.

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The sorbet, on the other hand, has tiny crystals. And it has a secret ingredient: air. Someone, somewhere had the idea of constantly churning their sorbetto as it was freezing, rather than churning it from time to time as is the case with the granita. Not only did this constant churning stop the ice crystals from growing, it also introduced a lot of air into the mix. The tiny ice crystals made for a much smoother sensation in the mouth, while the air led to a softer product (and to higher profit margins since the air was free and it puffed up the volume). Staying with strawberries, here is a strawberry sorbet.

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Another someone, somewhere invented a machine specifically for making sorbets, known of course as a sorbettiera in Italian and a sorbetière in French. Here’s a model from the late 1800s.

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Which brings us to ice cream. Yet another someone, somewhere had the bright idea of adding cream and egg yolks to the sorbet mix. This complicates the science even more, because with the cream you have added fats to the mix and as we know fat and water don’t mix, which is where the egg yolks come in. They act as an emulsifier, which is a fancy term for something that gets molecules unwilling to mix to do so. I suppose the idea was to make sorbets “creamier”, or maybe someone was playing around in a kitchen, decided to see what would happen if you added cream and egg yolks and hey presto! ice cream was born.

Otherwise, ice cream was made like sorbet: constant churning and dragging in of air. Voilà! Or maybe I should say Ecco! because I’m almost certain Italians invented ice cream. Staying on theme, here is a strawberry ice cream.

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As I said earlier, since air is free and puffs up the volume of the product it’s very much in the interests of manufacturers of low quality ice cream to get as much air into their product as possible. Which leads to that disgusting ice cream which comes out of a machine like toothpaste and looks like this.

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This revolting product is my first memory of ice cream, bought from a truck like this one.

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They nearly put me off ice cream for life. It was only when I came to Italy that I began to enjoy ice cream.

Now as I say, I’m almost certain that it was the Italians who invented both sorbet and ice cream. But it was the French who really put them on the map – the must things to serve your guests. And in those days at least, as far as tastes were concerned, where the French went the others followed.

It was a café – another novelty of the age – that made sorbet and ice cream all the rage. The Café Procope opened its doors in 1686, in the reign of Louis XIV. It was established by an Italian, a Sicilian to be precise, by the name of Francesco Procopio Cutò.

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Cutò emigrated to Paris at the age of 19. After working for a couple of years as a garçon in someone else’s café, he managed to scrape enough money together to buy the-then oldest café in Paris at the tender age of 21 and had enough hubris to give it his name. It was a fantastic success; all the chattering classes of the time came running to his café, and devoured its famous sorbets and ice creams. As far as sorbets were concerned, the café offered 80 different types! Some of the more popular tastes were mint, clove, pistachio, daffodil, bergamot, and grape. I’ve not been able to discover how many types of ice cream the café offered but presumably the listing was just as long.

From the Café Procope the sorbet and ice cream entered the kitchens of the Parisian moneyed classes, and from there they entered the kitchens of the European moneyed classes more generally: all the rich Europeans wanted to ape the French rich folk. And from there, they spread to the kitchens of more modest middle class households: everyone wanted to ape their social superiors. And from there, the industrial revolution turned the ice cream especially (not so much the sorbet) into a cheap and not terribly good product, to be consumed by the masses on their day out at the seaside.

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So it is with many, many products. Luckily, though, the Italians still make high-quality but affordable ice creams, which my wife and I can enjoy after a long, hot and tiring hike. Thank God for that!

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RUM BABA

Vienna, 9 April 2022

One of my guilty pleasures (the weight! the diet!) is eating a rum baba with my tea in the afternoon when my wife and I have walked off the Monte di Portofino down to Santa Margherita. There’s a little café in the pedestrian zone there, which offers a variety of sweet pastries. One of these is rum baba. We always make a bee-line for the café, plonk ourselves down at one of the tables outside it, and order two teas – milk for my wife, lemon for me – and a rum baba for me (depending on the weight situation, my wife will either look on enviously, or take a bite, or order her own pastry). Ah, the silky, squishy, sugary deliciousness of it!!

I had my first rum baba at the age of 10 or thereabouts, one of the times I was staying with my English grandmother on the way to, or on the way back from, boarding school. She had bought two of them specially – I now rather suspect that she had a weakness for rum babas and used my presence as a good excuse to buy them. Apart from the deliciousness of them, there was the excitement of slurping down Something Forbidden: rum! A highly alcoholic drink, with thrilling connections to the most dubious characters, as I knew from reading Treasure Island (“Yo, ho, ho, and a bottle of rum” sang the pirates) and Tintin’s Rackam Le Rouge.

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There was also the name, baba, which was satisfyingly quirky, vaguely evoking in my young mind something exotic.

After that momentous first time, I came across this pastry occasionally. I have a vague memory from my teenage years of my mother ordering one in a French high-end café, this time in its French form, le baba au rhum. But overall it has been quite a rarity in my culinary experiences, so it is a pleasure to have found a place where with relatively little effort I can sample this delight more frequently, in its Italian form, il babà.

But what, some of my readers may be asking impatiently, is a rum baba?! It’s basically a small cake, made with Brewer’s yeast so that the dough will rise, which, after it is baked, is allowed to dry out a little and then is imbibed with a mix of sugar syrup and rum. The shape of the rum baba depends on the country: in France, it’s normally doughnut-shaped (ditto in the UK, because they copied all their ote kwizeen from the French). Note the heavy dose of Chantilly cream, which is often ladled onto rum babas.

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The Italians, on the other hand, tend to make it mushroom-shaped (or like the cork of a champagne bottle). Note in this case, too, the heavy dose of cream.

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And where was the rum baba invented, readers might also be asking? (at least, I hope they’re asking this vital question). Well, to answer that, I have to introduce my readers to a sad prince, Stanisław Leszczyński.

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Born in 1677 into a high-ranking Polish family, he had the bad luck of being on the losing end of the perpetual political quarrels in Poland. His undoing was the Great War of the North, a war which involved Sweden on one side and Russia, Denmark, and Saxony on the other. Just for the hell of it, I throw in here a picture of a painting of one of the battles in this war; for some reason, these paintings always show officers prancing around on horses.

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Charles XII of Sweden initially had the upper hand militarily. Among other things, he pushed out the-then King of Poland, August II (who was also Prince Elector of Saxony), and in 1704 put Leszczyński in his place with the dynastic name of Stanisław I. In 1709, however, Charles XII was soundly beaten by the Russians. The result was that August II was back on the Polish throne and Leszczyński was out on his ear. With his wife and two daughters in tow, he took the road to exile. In 1714, either out of pity or because he was a bit embarrassed, Charles XII let Leszczyński live in one of his holdings, the Palatinate of Zweibrücken, in what is now southern Germany close to the modern French border of Lorraine. Here, Leszczyński could live the life of a Prince Palatine of the Holy Roman Empire.

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Alas, he was only allowed four years of the princely life. In 1718, Charles XII was killed still fighting the Great War of the North, the Palatinate passed to a cousin of his, and Leszczyński was once more out on his ear. This time, his neighbour the Duke of Lorraine came to the rescue and took him and his family in. But this could only be temporary and after some negotiations with the French Regent (Louis XV being under age at the time) Leszczyński was given a modest pension and allowed to settle on French territory. The place chosen was Wissembourg, a small town close to the far northern border of Alsace. It was 1719 and Leszczyński was to live there until 1725, surrounded by an ever-diminishing coterie of Polish nobles playing at being the Polish court in-exile.

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Which brings us back to the rum baba. For it was in Wissembourg, in Leszczyński’s kitchens, that the rum baba, or rather its immediate ancestor, was born. Stanisław Leszczyński was probably not the best candidate for Polish king. That position needed a man of cunning and resourcefulness, with a ruthless streak, able to ride herd on the quarrelsome Polish nobles and juggle the competing aggressions of the countries surrounding Poland. That was not Leszczyński. He was a Man of Letters, at home in libraries (of which he built several during his lifetime) and author of a book or two. He saw himself as an Ambassador of the Enlightenment, writing various philosophical essays to promote its ideas. He was also a bon vivant, as the French say, a man who liked the pleasures of the flesh, particularly his food. With his modest pension, he couldn’t afford the best cooks, but his staff did what they could with what was locally on offer. Luckily for us, they hired a young Alsatian from the local region who went by the name of Nicolas Stohrer. He was 14 when he entered Leszczyński’s kitchens as a kitchen boy, but he must have been pretty damned good because he quickly became the chef in charge of cold and hot pastries and stews and desserts. Unfortunately, Stohrer left no pictures of himself behind, at least not on the internet, so I’m afraid readers will just have to imagine what he might have looked like.

One of the desserts Leszczyński loved was kougelhopf, a local Alsatian cake.

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It’s actually a cake that is found throughout a wide swathe of Central Europe, from southern Germany through Switzerland, Austria, Hungary, and the ex-Yugoslavian countries, to the Czech Republic and Poland. It goes by various names; my wife and I know it as Gugelhupf, its name in Austria, which is where we first came across it (and I can certainly understand why Stanisław loved it so much, for it is indeed a very yummy cake). Important for our story, in Poland this cake is known as babka, or by the diminutive baba. And Leszczyński loved his kougelhopf in part because it reminded him of the baba he used to eat in Poland: like many exiles and immigrants, he no doubt found comfort in food from the Old Country.

The story goes that one day Leszczyński found his kougelhopf too dry (one source adds that he had lost his teeth by now, making it difficult for him to eat anything hard; a nice touch, but I’m not sure how much to believe it). He reminisced out loud – presumably in the presence of Stohrer – of how in the Old Country one sometimes drenched the baba in tokay wine from Hungary. Inspired by this tale, Stohrer went off to the kitchen, played around with the kougelhof, and eventually came up with the idea of a smaller cake, left to dry out a little, which could then be drenched by diners with a sauce based on fortified wine – here, the sources diverge somewhat: some say Madeira wine, others Malaga wine, yet others a mix of Malaga wine and an infusion of Tansy (for those readers who, like me before writing this post, have no idea what Tansy is, it’s a plant with a rather nice yellow flower which can be steeped in alcohol to give an infusion with a strong, camphor-like and bitter taste; no doubt it was used in small quantities to give sweet things a slight edge). To (literally) top off this creation, diners would add a (large) dollop of crème pâtissière, which is a thicker form of custard.

Leszczyński just loved this new cake. When asked by Stohrer what to name it, he declared it should be known as baba. One half of rum baba’s name was now in place.

Leszczyński’s family loved it too; in fact, more than 100 years later (and just a few years after the rum baba was finally invented in its entirety), a writer reported that Leszczyński’s descendants still served the dessert the original way, with a sauce boat being handed around and diners liberally saucing the cake with a sweet-wine based sauce. Leszczyński’s guests, when served it, loved it too. Some 30 years after the baba’s creation, the philosopher and encyclopedist Diderot wrote enthusiastically to one of his friends about the baba after he had been invited to dine with the Leszczyńskis. But what really led to a dramatic increase in the cake’s popularity was the marriage between 15-year old Louis XV and Leszczyński’s 22-year old daughter Maria Leszczyńska.

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This was definitely not a marriage made in heaven. As readers have seen, the Leszczyńskis were not a great dynasty; a short reign on a modest throne was all Leszczyński père could boast of. At this point they had neither lands nor money; they “depended on the kindness of strangers”, living off a very modest pension. Louis XV, on the other hand, was la crème pâtissière de la crème pâtissière, dynastically speaking, and had lands, properties, and funds to match. The simple fact is, Maria Leszczyńska was the only Catholic princess of marriageable age whom all the opposing factions surrounding the young king had nothing against. And the Regent was in a hurry to marry Louis off; the child had always been sickly and there were real fears that he would die young and childless, precipitating a succession crisis.

So an envoy was dispatched to Wissembourg with the king’s offer of marriage. Readers can imagine that when she read the offer, Maria Leszczyńska fell over herself to accept it, and no doubt Stanisław Leszczyński executed a little Polish jig in his living room upon hearing the news. His fortunes were definitely turning for the better!

Leszczyński fades out of our story at this point. But not to leave readers hanging, wondering what happened to him, let me zip through the rest of his long, long life. As befitted the parents-in-law of the king, who, though, didn’t have two coins of their own to rub together, Leszczyński and his wife were lent one of the king’s many grand residences to live in, in this case the Château de Chambord in the Loire valley, and they were given a considerably bigger pension to live on. He was now a fully-fledged French aristocrat.

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About ten years after Maria Leszczyńska married, August II of Poland died. Leszczyński saw his chance and rushed to Poland. But this second attempt to haul himself onto the Polish throne was an even more miserable failure than the first and within two years he was back in France with his tail between his legs. At the time, Louis XV was trying to bring a related war with the Austrian Emperor to a close. After some difficult negotiations, it was agreed, among other things, that the-then Duke of Lorraine (who happened to be married to the future Empress Maria Theresa of Austria) would give up his Duchy (and be given the Grand Duchy of Tuscany in return), that Leszczyński would take over the Duchy of Lorraine and the ducal title, but that the Duchy would revert to the kingdom of France upon his death. Thus did Lorraine become part of France. Leszczyński occupied the ducal throne for nearly 30 years. Since officers of the French King actually ran the Duchy, he spent much of his time beautifying its capital, Nancy, which is indeed a very beautiful city – my wife and I visited it a number of years ago before starting a tour of the French sector of the Western Front. At the exceedingly venerable age of 88, he died – but in a horrible way, alas! He fell asleep near his fire, a cinder fell on his dressing gown, which started to burn fiercely. He died of his burns after several days of agony. RIP Stanisław Leszczyński.

But coming back now to the rum baba. At her wedding, Maria Leszczyńska asked her father if she could take Nicolas Stohrer with her to Versailles. It must have been a wrench, but Leszczyński agreed; he probably didn’t have much else to give her as a dowry. And so Stohrer joined the kitchens of Versailles, helping to serve up meals at glittering court events.

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He introduced the court to the baba, but he also invented other pastry dishes in the kitchens of Versailles, some of which are still with us today, notably la bouchée à la reine.

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For reasons which are not clear – at least from the records available to me – after five years at Versailles Stohrer handed in his notice (or whatever one did in those days) and set himself up in his own pâtisserie in Paris, at 51 rue Montorgueil, in the 2ème arrondissement.

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Amazingly enough, it’s still there! Although no longer owned by the original family, alas …

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I have to think that the idea of pre-soaking the baba in the sweet wine sauce must have occurred now if it had not already occurred in the kitchens of Versailles. I can’t see Nicolas Stohrer saying to a customer as he sells them the baba, “take this dried-out cake home and ladle the sauce I’m giving you in this crock over the cake when you serve it. That’ll be 3 francs, 5 sous, please.” I really don’t see that as a sellable proposition. In any event, we can now leave Stohrer and his descendants happily selling babas and other pastries from their shop, and consider the second vital ingredient of our dessert, rum.

Rum is essentially a by-product of the sugar industry. At some point in the refining process, molasses is generated.

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Unless some use can be found for it, it is a waste. From the beginning of the slave-based sugar industry in South America and the Caribbean islands, plantation owners were asking themselves what to do with this molasses.

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About 50 years before Leszczyński was born, rum began to be made with it.

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Initially, the distillation technology was crude, so the rum produced was very rough: “a hot, hellish, and terrible liquor” is how one document, written in Barbados in 1651, described it. Its main consumers seem to have been slaves, who were allowed to inebriate themselves with it and temporarily forget their terrible lot. With time, its customer base spread to the poor white trash of the colonies, sailors (and of course pirates, as I mentioned earlier), and other riffraff. Sadly, it also became one of the main currencies of exchange in the slave trade. The local slave traders in Africa, the ones who captured the slaves inland and brought them down to the coast, sold their “cargo” to the European slave traders for rum.

Plantation owners of course also eyed the much larger markets in their home countries and tried to export their rum there, or to export their molasses to local rum makers. In the case of France, they came up against the determined resistance of the brandy makers. The making of brandy was a wonderful way for French vintners and others involved in the wine trade to deal with poor quality grapes and soured wine. They already had a good market and were damned if these bloody colonial upstarts and their partners in France were going to cut into their sales. So they launched a strong lobbying effort (what else is new?) and eventually, in 1713 (more or less when Leszczyński became an exile), they persuaded the government to ban the production in France, and sale on the French market, of any alcoholic spirit not made with grapes (which therefore included other spirits like gin, which was also becoming popular).

And that was that for rum in France for nearly 100 years. It was only in 1803 that Napoleon finally allowed rum back onto the French market. By then, distillation techniques had considerably improved and along with them the quality of the rum brought to market. Apart from the population drinking it, I suppose French chefs tinkered with it in their kitchens, to see how it could be used in cooking. Included amongst these tinkerers must have been the Stohrer descendant who now owned that pâtisserie on rue Montorgeuil, or one of his staff. Whoever it was, they had the idea of substituting rum diluted in a syrup of sugar for the sweet-wine mixtures used up to then. The tinkering succeeded and finally the momentous day arrived. In 1835, the new baba au rhum began to be served to the clientele!

The rum baba was of course an immediate success. Other chefs and pâtissiers got into the game.

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Recipes were included in cook books and knock-offs were created (the most famous being the savarin, which is to all intents and purposes a baba but soaked in a different sauce). It spread to other regions in Europe, one of the most notable being the Bourbon kingdom of Naples. For some reason, il babà (as it was known) became wildly popular there, and over the years it has become an integral part of the food landscape in the Region of Campania, to the point that it has been denominated a Traditional Italian Food Product (Prodotto agroalimentare tradizionale italiano) by the Italian Ministry of Agriculture. Well! That’s pretty cheeky of the Campanians! Talk about cultural appropriation. I wonder what the French think about that? (but then maybe the Poles have something to say about the French taking their baba …) At least the Campanians make it in a different shape (as I noted above) and often use a different liqueur to soak it in, for instance limoncello. But still … In any event, this is the kind of rum baba which I eat in that little café in Santa Margherita, and after tut-tutting about the issue of cultural appropriation, I happily tuck in.

So that’s the story of this wonderful pastry. I urge all my readers to immediately go out and also tuck into a rum baba. As for me, since I happen to be writing this in Vienna where my wife and I have come to spend the month of April, all this research I’ve done has made me hanker after the original cake, the Gugelhopf. I think we should use the time we’re here to have a nice slice of this yummy cake somewhere. I’ll bring this up with my wife – and diet be damned!

JOUMOU SOUP

Milan, 27 January 2022

Long-term readers of my blog will know that I have a love-hate relationship with Unesco (the United Nations Educational, Science and Cultural Organization in full), and especially with its World Heritage Sites list. This list is composed of actual, tangible sites (“brick-and-mortar” sites, as it were) from all around the world which have been judged to contain “cultural and natural heritage of outstanding value to humanity”. We’re talking about things like the Parthenon in Athens

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or Angkor Wat in Cambodia

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or the Grand Canyon in the US.

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In several of my posts, though, I have frothed at the mouth about some of the other sites which have been listed, considering them to be unworthy of the honour. However, I do not propose to use this post to do more frothing on the subject. My focus instead will be a companion list which Unesco has compiled of so-called intangible cultural heritage. This has been defined as “the practices, representations, expressions, as well as the knowledge and skills (including instruments, objects, artifacts, cultural spaces), that communities, groups and, in some cases, individuals recognise as part of their cultural heritage”. In this case, we’re talking about things like oral traditions, performing arts, and traditional craftsmanship. Worthy examples of entries on this list are Bunraku puppet theatre in Japan

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or sericulture and silk craftsmanship in China.

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If any of my readers are unaware of which forms of intangible cultural heritage have been listed for their country, I invite them to go to the Unesco website on the topic. I’m sure there are also unworthy examples on the list, which – if I ever come across them – will cause me to start frothing at the mouth.

In any event, the reason I’m bringing all this up is that on 17 December last, I saw an article in the Guardian entitled “Culture in a bowl: Haiti’s joumou soup awarded protected status by Unesco”. Given my love-hate relationship with Unesco, I was intrigued to find out what the organization had been up to and clicked on the link. It turned out that the relevant Unesco Committee had just voted to include Haiti’s joumou soup on the list of intangible cultural heritage. “It is Haiti’s first inclusion on the list, and the country’s ambassador, Dominique Dupuy, cried as the announcement was made”, the article intoned. The article intoned about much more, showing that the Committee meeting had clearly been a love-fest between Ms. Dupuy and the delegates of the other countries sitting around the table – although as I read I doubted Haiti would be getting any increase in the development aid which its people so desperately need. Oh dear, the cynic within me, fed on years of watching the rank hypocrisy on show in UN meetings, was coming to the surface – down, boy!

Luckily, as I read on, the positive Me got the better of the cynical Me. To explain this, I need to clarify that “elements” (that’s Unesco-speak) on the intangible cultural heritage list which are food-related don’t get listed just because they’re food and yummy to eat. Otherwise, the list would be a mile long. No, to be listed, a foodstuff has to have a strong cultural value. This is just what joumou soup has, in spades, and it’s that cultural value which brought out the optimist Me.

Joumou soup is inextricably entwined with Haiti’s history as a former slave state. As elsewhere in the Caribbean, the planters in this French colony became immensely rich on the backs of a large population of African slaves growing sugar and coffee for them. The slaves were worked mercilessly and died quickly, so the slave population had to be constantly replenished from West Africa. Here, we have a picture of a slave market in the nearby island of Martinique.

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The French planters also took African women as concubines and over time this created a population of coloured people, free but second-class citizens compared to the white planters.

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The French Revolution started a struggle among the black and coloured people of Haiti, who took the Revolution’s message of Liberty, Equality, Fraternity seriously. Here we have a picture of their first leader, Toussaint L’Ouverture; he was captured and died in France.

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The struggle, which towards the end turned really vicious with both sides committing atrocities, culminated in 1804 with the black and coloured people gaining their independence and throwing out the white population. They went on to create the first black republic in the world, with Jean-Jacques Dessalines their first head of government.

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This story really resonates in this day and age of Black Lives Matter.

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And what of joumou soup in all this? It became a potent symbol of the slave population’s freedom from servitude. Prior to 1804, joumou soup was prepared by the slaves for their masters but only eaten by the masters; slaves were forbidden to eat it. Naturally enough, the eating of that soup by ex-slaves and their descendants became a strong symbol of their continued freedom. And in fact, it is now a solemn tradition for all Haitians to eat joumou soup on 1st January, the country’s day of independence. Here we have Haitians eating the soup on Independence Day.

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But what exactly is in this soup, readers might be asking? Well, the core ingredient of the soup, the one that gives it its name, is a variety of squash, the giraumon, which is found in the Caribbean.

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The word “joumou” is probably the Creole version of “giraumon”, which is itself derived from “jirumum”, the name given to the squash by the island’s original Amerindian inhabitants, the Taìno. Therein lies another layer of cultural meaning in this soup, which no-one seems to have remarked upon. Christopher Columbus and his crew were the first Europeans to meet Taino people when he reached the Caribbean in 1492. We have here a rather fanciful engraving showing this fateful encounter.

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At the time of Columbus’s arrival, the Taìno probably numbered a million or so and were the principal inhabitants of what are now the islands of Cuba, Hispaniola (shared today by Haiti and the Dominican Republic), Jamaica, Puerto Rico, the Bahamas, and a few other islands. By the late 1500s if not before, the Taìno had disappeared, killed off by a combination of forced labour for the Spaniards, starvation, and Old World diseases vectored by the Spaniards and against which the Taino had no resistance. Some historians have labeled this the world’s first genocide. The Taìno have left but a shadow of themselves, in the DNA of many of the islands’ modern populations as well as in words adopted into the languages of their destroyers to describe things they had never seen before reaching the Caribbean: tobacco, hurricane, potato, maize, hammock, barbecue, canoe, cassava, and many others. Joumou soup too carries the ghosts of the Taino.

But back to the making of this soup! The giraumon is pureed, which gives us something very much like the classic pumpkin soup.

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To this core of pureed giraumon is added marinated beef. It is no doubt this ingredient which explains why slaves were forbidden to eat the soup. Meat, especially beef, has historically been the preserve of the rich and powerful, the elites. To these two base ingredients are added a host of others. All recipes call for the addition of root vegetables, although which ones precisely varies quite a bit: I’ve seen malanga, mirlitons, yams, turnips, carrots, potatoes (sweet and not), and onions listed in various recipes. I see here another layer of meaning in this soup, since it marries – probably without meaning to – vegetables from different parts of the world. Their use together in this soup is a reflection of the Great Columbian Exchange which took place after Columbus discovered the Americas and which I’ve written about in previous posts. Some of these root vegetables – malanga, mirlitons, some species of yam, potatoes – are native to the Caribbean or the wider American region, the others – turnips, carrots, onions – are Old World imports. Other vegetables are also added, the ones most often mentioned being cabbage, celery, and leeks – again, Old World imports. Pasta – Old World import – of various shapes are also part of the mix. This must be a modern addition to the soup’s recipe; I can’t see it being present in the soup eaten in 1804. Various herbs and spices are of course thrown in, parsley, thyme, and so on, along with pepper. And the cherry on the cake – as it were – is the addition of one of those hideously hot chilis which I so hate, although they do have the merit of originating from this region of the world. A Scotch bonnet or habanero chili are the most often suggested. The result of cooking all these things together looks like this.

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As I say, I read about joumou soup on 17 December. I got all excited about it and thought we could try making it on 1 January in Los Angeles, where my wife and I were spending the end of the year with our daughter and her fiancé. I suggested it to our daughter, who is very much into cooking, but she had other plans for the cuisine of that day. So this dish is still to be tried in our household. We could wait until 2 December to make it. That’s the UN’s International Day for the Abolition of Slavery, which seems a very suitable moment to be eating this particular soup. But that’s a long way down the road; I feel we should strike while the iron is hot. I’ve read that many Haitians also eat joumou soup on Sundays, for breakfast. I’m not sure about breakfast but my wife and I could make it for a Sunday lunch. We could invite our son to partake. I’ll go and talk to my wife about it now. In the meantime, though, should any of my readers want to give it a go, I give below a recipe for making the soup; it’s a mishmash of a number of recipes I found online.

Bon appétit … and BLM!

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Recipe for joumou soup

Joumou soup is meant to be a festive dish eaten by crowds of people, as attested by this enormous cauldron of joumou soup prepared somewhere in Haiti.

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So I give here amounts required for a mere 8 people. You will of course adjust the amounts to your requirements.

Ingredients:

    • ½ kg stew beef (preferably chuck) cut into smallish cubes
    • 2 limes
    • 1 cup épis
    • 10 cups broth (beef broth preferably, but chicken or vegetable broth will do)
    • 1 kg squash, peeled and cubed (ideally, of course, you should use giraumon squash, but here it really depends on what is available to you locally)
    • 2 carrots, peeled and sliced
    • 1 celery stalk, chopped coarsely
    • 1 leek, white and pale-green parts only, finely chopped (you can use scallions instead)
    • 1 medium onion, sliced
    • 2 small turnips, peeled and diced (if you can get it, use malanga instead)
    • 2 potatoes, cubed
    • 5 parsley sprigs
    • 2 tsps salt, plus more if you want
    • ½ tsp freshly ground black pepper, plus more if you want
    • Pinch of cayenne pepper, plus more if you want
    • 1 Scotch Bonnet chili pepper (habanero chili pepper can be used instead)
    • 1½ cups of pasta (of a type like rigatoni or maccheroni; but if all you have in your cupboard is spaghetti, then use that broken into short pieces)
    • ½ kg cabbage, sliced very thinly

Preparation:

Step 1: Make the épis. Épis is a blend of various herbs, spices, and vegetables which is used a lot in Haitian cuisine. You will be using it to marinade the beef. You can buy ready-made épis, but I am assuming that you will be brave and choose to make it from scratch. Well done! And this is what you will need for 1 cup of épis – you may not use it all up for the marinade, and can use the remainder in the soup.

    • ½ bell pepper (colour of your choice), coarsely chopped
    • 2 garlic cloves, coarsely chopped
    • 3 scallions, coarsely chopped
    • ½ small onion, coarsely chopped
    • Herbs of your choice. I suggest 1/2 cup parsley (leaves and tender stems), coarsely chopped, and 2 basil leaves. But you can consider partially substituting the parsley with cilantro and/or thyme.
    • 3 tbsp oil (I prefer olive oil, but it’s your choice)

To make the épis, simply put all the ingredients into a food processor or blender and purée until smooth. Or if you’re feeling traditional – and have the equipment – use a mortar and pestle.

Step 2: You will now marinade the beef. Place the beef chunks in a large bowl. Juice the limes. Pour the juice (should be at least 3 tbsp) over the beef chunks and massage the juice into the meat. Add a good portion of the epis to the bowl and mix it well with the beef; the beef chunks should be well coated. Put the meat in a refrigerator and let it marinate: ideally overnight, at a minimum one hour.

Step 3: Next – ideally, as I say, the next day – take 6 of the 10 cups of broth and cook the squash in them over medium heat until fork-tender, 20–25 minutes. Purée the squash in the broth.

Step 4: In parallel, you will brown the beef. Place a heavy-bottomed frying pan or casserole dish over a high heat and add a little oil. When the pan is very hot, add the meat to the pan in batches. The oil should ‘sizzle’ as the meat is added. Cook the meat for 1-2 minutes on each side of the cubes.

Step 5: Add the browned beef cubes to the pureed squash. Top up with the remaining broth. Bring to a boil and simmer for 20 minutes.

Step 6: Add, the carrots, celery, leeks, onion, turnips, potato and parsely to the soup, bring to a boil, then simmer for 1 hour with a whole scotch bonnet on top. Remember that the whole scotch bonnet is there for flavoring not to make the soup “hot”. Make sure you don’t burst it as you stir the soup, and remove it at the end of the hour.

Step 7: Add the pasta of your choice and cook it until it is soft and tender (15 minutes or so).

Step 8: add the cabbage and cook for an additional 5-10 minutes; the cabbage should just become wilted. Taste and adjust for seasoning.

À table!

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CHINOTTO

Milan, 20 January 2022

Dedicated to my son, who has a predilection for chinotto

My wife and I have just returned home from visiting our daughter and her fiancé in Los Angeles over the Christmas-New Year break. One of the things we did while we were there was to visit the Huntington Gardens. For any of my readers who like gardens and who happen to be in LA, I highly recommend a visit to these gardens. We’ve been to them several times now, and we never tire of going back. There is always something new to see – as was indeed the case this time, when we stumbled across this tree.

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This is a Citrus myrtifolia, or the myrtle-leaved orange tree in English. Or – more importantly for this post – the chinotto in Italian. And indeed that was the name given on the plaque below the tree, which is why I took a photo of it (why I did do this will become clear in a minute). As sharp-eyed readers will notice, the fruits do indeed look quite orange-like, and in fact the chinotto came about from a spontaneous mutation at some point in the past of the bitter, or sour, orange (the one used to make orange marmalade, and which is itself probably a cross between the pomelo and the mandarin orange; as I’ve mentioned in a previous post on the citron, citrus family members absolutely love hybridising among themselves). Where precisely this mutation event took place is unclear. There is a romantic version, much repeated throughout the Internet, that it took place in China and a plant or two was brought to Italy in the late 1500s-early 1600s by an Italian sailor hailing either from Livorno in Tuscany or from Savona in Liguria. Since it is a Chinese plant, the story continues, that explains the name.  More sober-headed people have pointed out that there is no trace of this tree in China – or in South-East Asia, the original home of the sour orange, for that matter – which suggests that the mutation took place elsewhere, probably somewhere in the Mediterranean basin since it is only found there. According to this version of events, the plant got its Italian name because to the Italians it “looked Chinese-like”, referring to the fact that the fruit looks quite like a mandarin orange, which does indeed come from China. I throw in here a close-up photo of the fruit, which I think readers will agree looks quite mandarin-like.

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Personally, I am more inclined to the sober-headed creation story, although in the end the origin of the plant is not of any importance to the rest of my story.

Moving on, then.

As readers might surmise, since the sour orange is bitter in taste so will its offspring be. And indeed the chinotto is very bitter, even more so than the sour orange.  Given this state of affairs, I can’t quite understand why anyone would have bothered to grow the plant, but people did. Perhaps it’s because we are so inundated with sugar and sweet tastes nowadays that we can’t imagine that our ancestors might have had a greater inclination to search out sourer, bitterer tastes than we do. That being said, the use of chinotto really took off when it was combined with sugar, leading to various plays in foods and drinks between sweet and sour (a concept which was the subject of a post I wrote some years ago).

Which leads me to chinotto – the drink this time, not the tree or the fruit. It is this which my son has a predilection for and why I dedicate this post to him.

Unless my readers are Italian or have an immense curiosity about foods and drinks from around the world, they will never have heard of this drink. I certainly never had until I met my wife and arrived in Italy. One day, when we were in a bar, she suggested that I try it, which of course I did (I always do everything my wife suggests me to do …). I will be frank, I did not like it. It rather reminded me of another drink I had tried many, many years ago in Canada, root beer, which I also rapidly put aside. But in Italy, chinotto has an enthusiastic following (my son being among them). So that readers may have an idea of what we’re talking about here, I throw in a picture of several of the better known brands of chinotto currently on the Italian market.

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To give readers a few more details, it’s a non-alcoholic drink, fizzy, dark in colour, sweet with a hint of bitterness given to it (supposedly, as we shall see) by chinotto. In all this, it is quite similar to Coca Cola, and in fact in the initial periods of its life it was often advertised as Italy’s response to Coca Cola.

When exactly chinotto was invented is a matter of intense debate among the small band of chinotto aficionados. It might have been in the early 1930s (when it could have been a response to the Fascist government’s desire to rid Italy of all foreign barbarisms, in this case Coca Cola), or it might have been in the late 1940s (when it could have been created through a desire by local entrepreneurs to cash in on the enthusiasm for all things American, in this case Coca Cola). Whichever it was, it became immensely popular in the 1950s and 60s. Here we have a group of young men drinking chinotto at a bar in the 1950s.

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While here we have one of the more popular brands of chinotto being delivered to those bars.

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And here we have a photo of another of the more popular brands of chinotto advertising its wares with huge bottles installed on cars which cruised through towns and cities as they delivered their bottles to bars.

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Which brings me of course to the bright and cheerful posters which were used in those years to persuade people to buy chinotto; as I said in my previous post on Aperol, no-one needed to buy this kind of product, they had to be made to want it. Here is a medley of such posters, taken from the 1950s.

Sources: here, here, here, here, here, here

In the decades at the end of the last century, chinotto drinking went into decline, being viewed by the younger generations as something only yokels from the countryside would drink. But it is now having something of a comeback! And as the photo above shows, Italian drinks companies have been quick to jump on the bandwagon and offer updated versions of chinotto worthy of the 21st Century. This comeback, though, has been accompanied by a drumbeat of criticism from people who say that these commercial products actually have little if any of the chinotto fruit in them, being mostly sugar and fizzy water with lemon and orange aromas being added in the place of chinotto.  Which may well be true because at the same time there are alarms being sounded at the disappearance of the chinotto tree; it is becoming an endangered species.

All this leads me to report here a recipe for any brave souls (like my son, for instance) who would like to make their own chinotto at home.

Start by making a good strong espresso coffee (yes, I was also surprised by this, but there you go) – two espressos for a litre of chinotto should do nicely. While still hot, dissolve some 4 tablespoons of raw sugar into the coffee (yes, it’s a pretty sugary drink; you can try molasses if you can locate any). Add about 4 tablespoons of syrup of chinotto (which adds even more sugar, as we will see). Mix well. Pour into a litre bottle. Add the juice from one sweet orange and one lemon. Slowly fill up the remainder of the bottle with sparkling water. Turn the bottle upside down a few times, to mix everything – of course, you must do this slowly so as not to lose the fizziness! Put in the fridge to chill, et voilà!

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I will admit that readers may find it hard to lay their hands on syrup of chinotto. There are some companies which are devoted to the chinotto cause and still make it. Readers can try ordering it online.

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Here too, though, I can suggest a recipe for making the syrup at home (which does, however, presuppose having a source of chinotto fruit; all I can say is, buy a tree, it will help to save it from extinction and it makes for a very nice balcony plant). Place several green, unripe chinotti in salt water for 25 days or so, changing the water every five to six days. Fish the fruit out and shave off a thin layer of rind (this contains much of the fruit’s bitterness). Put the fruit back in salt water for another week or so, after which boil them for 30 minutes to an hour. Now place them in fresh water for four-five days, changing the water 2-3 times a day (this is to get rid of the salt). At this point, prepare a syrup of sugar – two parts sugar to every part water – boiling it to get the sugar to dissolve. Place the chinotti in the syrup for two weeks. You will end up with a sugar syrup with a sharp taste of chinotto. The now candied chinotti can be taken out and left aside or used in pastries.

Mentioning these candied chinotti allows me to introduce what seems to me to have been a wonderful habit in Italian (and to some extent French) bars in the 19th Century. The bars would have looked something like this.

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On the counter, clients would find a ceramic bowl – the best came from the Savona region with its typical blue and white designs. This photo gives an idea of what we are talking about, although I’m sure the bowls on the counters wouldn’t have been nearly so grand.

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The bowl would contain candied chinotti drowned in Maraschino – this is a liqueur made with Marasca cherries, which are slightly sour cherries. At the end of a meal as a digestive, the client would ceremoniously fish out a candied chinotto from the bowl, using a ceramic spoon to do so, and eat the chinotto, thereby giving himself a shot of both sweet and sour.

You can make other products with chinotti: a liqueur, of course; given its relation to the sour orange, a marmalade, naturally enough; sweets; chocolate-covered candied fruit; even a perfume. I would suggest to readers to buy all these products, to save the chinotto from extinction; they are all available on-line. Savona, in Liguria, which was once a major producer of chinotti, seems to be at the vanguard of these efforts to save the plant. I will suggest to my wife that we visit Savona one of the next times we go down to the sea (it’s a train ride away), to explore all these chinotto products and do our part in saving the plant for posterity.

 

 

APEROL SPRITZ

Los Angeles, 26 December 2021

A Chinese reader very kindly sent me a comment recently on a post I had written about tomato ketchup. After reading his comment, and re-reading the post in question (I must confess to have forgotten much of what I’d written in that post), I started thinking fondly of the five years my wife and I spent in China (where, incidentally, I started this blog). And as my mind wandered over the Good Old Days, it alighted – in that odd way which wandering minds do – on a bar on the edges of Sanlitun in Beijing where we would go from time to time to have an Aperol Spritz. Yes, I know, it’s odd for a mind meandering through Chinese recollections to land on Aperol Spritz, but there you go, that’s globalization for you.

The thing is, once my mind had alighted on Aperol Spritz I had to investigate: What is this Aperol? What are its origins? And where did this Aperol Spritz thing come from? etc., etc.. What to do, for better or for worse that’s the way my mind works. In any event, I am now ready to report back on the results of my investigations.

I will start my story in Paris, towards the end of the 19th Century. After Baron Haussmann had brutally driven his wide, straight boulevards through the city’s hodgepodge of medieval streets, a thriving café culture sprung up along them, with people of all classes loitering at the tables to sip a drink and natter with friends. We have here a painting by Manet depicting the café scene.

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This happy lady appears to be drinking a traditional beer, but a new drink also made its appearance at this time: the apéritif . This apéritif was actually a retooling of a drink originally invented in the Middle Ages as a medicinal product, something to open your body up and let the bad vapours and whatnot escape (aperire being the Latin for “to open”). It was made by steeping and macerating various herbs and roots in wine (first) and alcohol (later). By the time the café culture along Paris’s boulevards came along, the apéritif had lost its medicinal connotations and was promoted instead as something to take before a meal to “open up” your appetite. We have a painting here by Degas of this new custom.

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Important for our story is the fact that the French quickly shortened the rather formal word apéritif into apéro, as in “Hey Jean, see you this afternoon at the Café du Peuple on the Boulevard de la Paix for an apéro”.

We now turn our attention to the town of Padova in northern Italy; for reasons which will become apparent in a second, I throw in a photo of the Basilica Sant’Antonio which is located in the city.

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There, in 1880, a certain Giuseppe Barbieri set up a liquor business, making and selling various alcoholic concoctions. One of his more popular offerings was Liquore Sant’Antonio, a liqueur made by steeping various herbs and roots in alcohol (“a sugar cube soaked in Liquore Sant’Antonio is an excellent sedative to take before going to bed” used to proclaim the label).

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In 1912, Giuseppe handed over the reins of the business to his two sons, Silvio and Luigi. We have a photo of them here in later life.

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The two brothers spent the next seven years developing a new drink to add to the company’s line-up. Following the company’s experience with products like Liquore Sant’Antonio, it was to be a concoction of herbs and roots steeped and macerated in alcohol. But Silvio, who had spent many years in France where he had got to know the culture of the apéritif, persuaded Luigi that they should be developing an aperitif-like drink, not too alcoholic, to be taken before a meal to “open up” the appetite. After much tinkering, they came up in 1919 with a bright orange drink which, in honour of its connection to the French apéro culture, was baptized Aperol.

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What, readers might well ask, is in Aperol? The label only admits to the presence of alcohol (well, duhh!), water (ditto), sugar, and “flavourings”, which of course come from all those herbs and roots which are left to steep and macerate in the alcohol. Of these, the label only identifies quinine, although various internet sites add gentian, rhubarb, and cinchona, as well the rind of both sweet and sour oranges. One site also claims that a drop or two of absinthe is added to counteract the slightly bitter taste which all these ingredients would otherwise leave. All the other ingredients are, as usual, a tightly held secret (my eyes roll at this point; as I have intimated in earlier posts, I’m no fan of secrecy when it comes to ingredients).

None of these ingredients explain Aperol’s main visual characteristic, its bright orange colour. That no doubt comes from two food colourants which the label confesses to be present in the brew: the yellow E110 and the red E124. Now, it’s claimed that Aperol’s recipe has remained unchanged since its birth in 1919, but the Barbieri brothers cannot possibly have used these two modern, synthetic, colourants. My guess is that for their yellow colouring they used curcumin, extracted from turmeric, and for red they used cochineal.

Whatever gave Aperol its taste, it was an instant hit with the good citizens of Padova, where it was drunk either pure or mixed with a shot of soda water. Its fame spread quickly to other parts of northern Italy, and the serious money started rolling in. Thereafter, the trajectory followed by the Barbieri brothers was very similar to that taken by Davide Campari for his eponymous drink, a story which I have told in an earlier post.

First, like Davide Campari, the brothers abandoned their father’s artisanal approach and built a modern factory to make their Aperol on an industrial scale.

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Second, again like Campari, recognizing that they were selling a product based on desire and not on need, Silvio and Luigi invested heavily in the black arts of enticement – or, if we are to be more polite, in what was then the new art form of advertising. Here are a few examples of the posters which the company created in the interwar years.

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If I’m to be honest, I think Campari did a better job in its advertising. I think readers would agree with this if they go to my post on Campari and look at the examples I give there of the advertising posters which Campari commissioned. The last one at least has the advantage of admitting publicly to three of Aperol’s ingredients.

The Second World War was not kind to the Barbieri brothers. Apart from the fact that sales must have been down, the Barbieri lost their factory to a bombing raid (the Campari family was luckier; they managed to keep their original factory, now a museum dedicated to the Campari story). Luckily for us, the Barbieri were undeterred and rebuilt after the War.

Which brings us – finally – to the Aperol Spritz, the drinking of which all those years ago in Beijing set me off on this post. The story of Aperol Spritz starts in the 1950s. But actually, we first need go back a little further. Originally, a spritz – a common drink in the Veneto region (of which Padova is part) – consisted of a glass of white wine into which sparkling water had been splashed (spritzen in Austrian German; Veneto was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the time). Then, in the 1950s, and specifically in the province of Padova, bars began adding a shot of bitters to the traditional spritz. One of these bitters – but only one – was Aperol. Depending on the barman’s or drinker’s inclinations and on what was available behind the bar, the bitter added could be Cynar, Select, Campari, China Martini, maybe some locally-made bitter, as well as Aperol. In fact, it is still possible to find barmen in the Veneto region who will serve you a spritz with one of these other bitters. In any event, this new take on the spritz went well with the dolce vita which took hold of Italy in the fifties and sixties, captured so well in Fellini’s film of the same name.

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By dint of persistent advertising, especially in the new medium of television, Aperol became a national brand. There was an incredibly famous (for Italians) TV show called Carosello which ran pretty much every day of the year for all of the 1960s and much of the 1970s. The show was basically a way for the Italian Television monopoly RAI to get around the strict rules on advertising. Carosello was made up of a series of skits which each ended with an advert for some product or other. Aperol was a regular contributor. My wife used to religiously watch the show every evening and speaks very fondly of it. Even today, nearly fifty years after last seeing it, she can quote some of the more famous advertising tag lines. I’m sure she remembers Aperol’s, which had the presenter smack his forehead and exclaim “Ah! Aperol!” Here we have him doing it with a bunch of young people who of course were now the intended target audience for Aperol.

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In parallel, the Barbieri (by now, the next generation had taken over) aggressively pushed Aperol as the bitter of choice for the new-type spritz. Here are some examples of the advertising posters they used to promote the Aperol Spritz.

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As we can see, the ads began to appeal to a hipper, cooler, more chilled set. This was typified by a famous (to Italians) TV ad from the late 1980s, featuring a pretty woman in Miami hitching up her miniskirt provocatively before getting on her motorbike and setting out to meet her cool, chilled friends for an Aperol Spritz.

Watch the video here

In the meantime, the Barbieri got caught up in the Great Game of brand purchases by Corporate behemoths, which I have bemoaned in previous posts. In 1991, the family sold Aperol and a few other brands to the Irish company Cantrell & Cochrane, itself part of the multinational Allied Lions. The new owners began to internationalize Aperol and Aperol Spritz. The German world was an early market (where the Aperol Spritz was germanized to Aperol Gespritz), and then the US market opened its arms to the orange concoction.

In 2003, the Great Game of brand buying and selling saw Cantrell & Cochrane sell Aperol to Campari (which explains why I have sneakily been making comparisons to Campari as I went along). Campari put heavyweight advertising behind Aperol and the Spritz, which turbocharged Aperol’s global diffusion. Thus, hopping from one bar to another, the Aperol Spritz eventually made its way to that bar in Sanlitun where my wife and I would go from time to time to sample an Aperol Spritz, sitting at the bar’s terrace, watching the world go by. Since we are neither hip, nor cool, nor chilled, by this time (we are talking 2010 or thereabouts) Aperol Spritz had clearly gone mainstream.

I have since discovered that we had joined a Global Movement! On 29 June 2012, some 2,600 Aperol fans descended on Piazza San Marco in Venice to attempt a Guinness World Record for the “Largest Aperol Spritz Toast”. Here we have the joyous crowd clinking their glasses (I like the T-shirt! Wonder where I can get one?)

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And so we come to 2019, the centenary of Aperol. To celebrate this earth-shaking event, Campari commissioned a series of designs for centenary labels.

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So, dear readers, buy yourselves a bottle of Aperol! Go ahead and make yourselves an Aperol Spritz this evening! Bring in the New Year with an Aperol Spritz! FYI, in case you’ve never made one yourselves, the International Bartender Association’s recipe for the Aperol Spritz has you mixing 9 cl of prosecco with 6 cl of Aperol and as much as soda water or seltzer as necessary.

Cheers!

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VANILLA

This post is dedicated to my dearest wife,

the most faithful of my readers

Vienna, 4 September 2021

Some months ago, I was asked by the Student Sustainability Committee of a school in Wales which I’m involved with to help them estimate the carbon footprint of the food eaten in the school. In the case of prepared food, which made up a substantial portion of the food consumed at the school, this exercise required me to plough through a lot of recipes to understand what were the raw ingredients of these prepared foodstuffs (so as to calculate the carbon footprint of each ingredient). Apart from this being a hell of a lot of work, as my wife will testify (“have you still not finished that stuff?!”), I discovered with surprise that many, many prepared foodstuffs of the sweet variety (biscuits, cakes, chocolate, and various sundry others) have vanilla extract as one of their ingredients (and as a side note, I was very surprised to see that these sweet foodstuffs made up a large portion of all the food consumed in the school; it didn’t seem to be a very healthy diet).

These constant references to vanilla extract intrigued me, and I decided that one day I would investigate vanilla a bit more. This decision crystallized into action over the last few weeks, because it so happens that my wife is very fond of vanilla. In the Bad Old Days, before we started our rigorous dieting, she consumed a fair amount of vanilla-based ice creams, normally those covered with a chocolate casing (I will not give free publicity to her favourite brand by naming it; I will leave my readers to guess). Now, in these more virtuous times, diet-wise, her vanilla consumption mainly takes the form of vanilla-flavored yogurt, and this only for lunch on our hikes (which these summer days has meant quite frequently). For the sake of complete transparency, I should state that she still consumes a chocolate-covered vanilla ice cream from time to time, whenever a hike is judged to have been particularly strenuous.

The brand of vanilla-flavored yoghurt which my wife generally favours is this one – I should add that she favours it simply because our local supermarket offers it, at a very reasonable price.

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Sharp-eyed readers will have noticed the flower on the tub. This is the vanilla orchid, Vanilla planifolia. Here’s a photo of the Real Thing.

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And here is the plant more or less in its natural state (readers will note that this orchid is a type of vine; in Nature it will grow up trees, like the pepper vine).

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It’s really a very pretty flower, but it is only of passing interest to the vanilla aficionado. She or he is after the “fruit”, a seed pod really, that the flower creates once it has been pollinated. The three dark-coloured stringy things pictured behind the flower on the yoghurt tub are these seed pods. Again, here is a photo of the Real Thing.

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But even the seed pod, if in its natural state, just picked from the vine, does not interest the vanilla aficionado, because it contains very low levels of vanilla flavour and aroma (these, by the way, come mostly from the chemical vanillin, although there are a number of other chemicals present which it is claimed enhance both flavour and aroma). It is only once the seed pod has been cured that the vanilla aficionado becomes interested, because now the levels of vanillin are considerably higher, high enough to add that distinct vanilla flavour and aroma to foods and drinks.

The curing of vanilla seed pods is a rather complicated, months-long process, whose purpose is to bring about an enzymatic reaction in the pods which turns the glucovanillin they contain into vanillin proper (in case any readers were asking themselves, glucovanillin has no flavour or aroma). Curing consists of four basic steps: killing, sweating, slow-drying, and conditioning. In the killing step, the seed pods are generally heated (in hot water or in an oven or by exposing the pods to the sun).

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This stops any further vegetative growth in the pods and initiates the necessary enzymatic reactions.

In the sweating step, the pods are kept at temperatures of 45–65°C and at high humidity levels by stacking them densely and insulating them in wool or other cloth. The pods are subjected to this Turkish bath regime for 7 to 10 days, possibly with a daily exposure to the sun or a dip in hot water.

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The desired enzymatic reactions love these conditions, so by the end of the sweating step the seed pods have attained much of the desired vanilla flavour and aroma. However, they still have a high moisture content. Which brings us to drying.

To prevent the pods from rotting and to lock in the vanilla aroma, drying is required. And so, over a period of three to four weeks, the pods are exposed to air and to periods of shade and sunlight.

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In the final, conditioning step, the dried pods are stored for five to six months in closed boxes, where the fragrance further develops.

The end result looks like this.

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This is what vanilla aficionados lust after, what they dream of incorporating into their dishes, from soup to sweet dishes.  And they are willing to pay top money. Vanilla is the second most expensive spice, after saffron. Those wrinkled-up beans can set you back anywhere from $50 to $500 per kilogram.

When I look at these kinds of convoluted processes, I always ask myself, “How on earth did anyone discover this process?” I mean, really, how did the first vanilla producers stand in front of those aroma-less and flavour-less seed pods and figure out that this long and complicated process would eventually lead them to seed pods with a wonderful aroma and flavour of vanilla? I would have to ask this question to the ancestors of the Totonacs, an Amerindian people who live on the east coast of Mexico. It was they who first “made” vanilla-flavoured seed pods from the vanilla orchid – the orchid’s natural habitat is in this part of the world. Here, we have Diego Rivera’s take on the Totonacs, as part of one of his murals in the National Palace in Mexico City.

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Unfortunately, I’m sure today’s Totonacs have no idea; I just have to accept that the answer is lost in the mists of time.

Readers might think that since the vanilla orchid is natural to Mexico’s eastern seaboard, that country would be a major producer of vanilla. Alas, not so! The reason for that is the great Columbian exchange, that massive movement of plants, animals, humans – and diseases – which took place between the New and Old Worlds after the discovery of the Americas by Christopher Columbus. The vanilla orchid was part of that exchange. The Conquistadors, like the Totonacs (and like the Aztecs) loved the flavour and aroma of vanilla and figured that people back home would love it too. They exported the pods back to Europe, where they caused a sensation, at least among the elites, who had the money to burn on this rare and expensive novelty. They put it in everything, from chocolate (also a product of Mexico) to soup. They adopted the Spanish name for it (vanilla is a corruption of the Spanish vainilla, meaning “little pod”). Other Europeans looked on enviously. Eventually, the French laid their hands on some exemplars of the plant and took them to their colonies which had similar climates to Mexico’s eastern seaboard, namely those in the Caribbean and the Indian Ocean, especially the islands of Madagascar, Réunion, and Mauritius.

For a while, Mexico continued to be the main global producer of vanilla, because this transplant of the vanilla orchid to other places was a failure. The plant flowered alright, but it never produced pods. The reason for this is an exquisite example of specialized evolution: vanilla flowers can only be pollinated by this little critter, Eulaema meriana, one of some 25 species of orchid bees.

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No other insect is attracted by the sex pheromones emitted by the flower, nor can any other insect successfully navigate the orchid’s complicated geometry and pollinate the flower along the way.

Once non-Mexican wannabe vanilla producers realized the problem, they tried the obvious thing, which was to transplant the vanilla-pollinating orchid bee along with the orchid. But it didn’t work; the bee couldn’t survive outside of its native habitat. The wannabe vanilla producers were stumped. Until 1841.

In that year, a 12-year old slave called Edmond (no surname, he was a slave), who had been born into slavery on the Island of Réunion, came up with a quick and easy way of pollinating the vanilla orchid flower by hand. He had been lent out by his master to a botanist by the name of Ferreol Bellier-Beaumont, to help him out. Beaumont had shown him how to hand pollinate a watermelon plant and the boy went off and successfully applied his new skills to the vanilla orchid. (For anyone considering hand-pollinating a vanilla orchid flower, here’s what you do: with a small sliver of bamboo or wood (or even a stem of grass), lift the membrane separating the flower’s anther and stigma; then, using your thumb, transfer the pollinia from anther to stigma.)

Edmond never got anything out of his discovery. Who did were all the the slave-owning planters on Réunion who now got into vanilla growing: for a while, Réunion became the world’s largest producer of vanilla. But the French authorities made sure the method was transferred to its other island colonies in the Indian Ocean and in the Caribbean. Since then, Madagascar has dominated world production (Indonesia, which muscled into the market in the 1980s, is now second in the producers’ league table). Mexico, on the other hand, has pretty much vanished from the scene, which is a crying shame.

As for Edmond, seven years after his discovery, at the age of 19, he got his freedom; the French government finally outlawed slavery in its colonies in 1848. He left the world of plantations to work as a kitchen hand in the island’s main city, and adopted the surname Albius, from the Latin alba or white, in reference to the vanilla orchid’s colour. Beaumont tried to get the governor of Réunion to give Edmond a stipend or at least a reward for his great discovery but the governor ignored the petition. No doubt, he didn’t think it was worth spending public monies on a black ex-slave.

Unfortunately, Edmond fell in with a bad crowd in his new life and got involved in a theft of jewelry. He was caught and sentenced to 10 years in jail, which, after an appeal by Beaumont to the governor, was reduced to five. After doing his time, Edmond moved back to a village close to the plantation and got married.

Edmond’s travails were not over. It seems to have been an irritation in certain quarters that where white professional botanists had failed, a black slave, and a child to boot, had succeeded. Some time in 1860s a well-known French botanist and plant collector by the name of Jean Richard claimed that actually, he had come up with this revolutionary pollination method in the late 1830s, that he had taught it to some planters in Réunion, and that Edmond must have sneaked into the meeting and heard his explanation. Luckily, Beaumont and a few others vigorously defended Edmond’s primacy to the discovery, although Richard’s false claim did get some traction for a while. May Richard’s name be damned forever …

Edmond died in poverty in 1880, at the age of 51. Luckily, he left a physical trace of himself in history, rare for ex-slaves. Here we have a rather grainy photograph of him when young.

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And here we have a lithograph of him from a book published in 1863, standing gravely in front of a vanilla orchid vine.

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Wonderful story, the vanilla story, no? Except that as far as the vanilla in my wife’s yoghurt is concerned, it is all a big red herring.

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I’m afraid to tell her, and any other readers who might be vanilla lovers, that the vast majority of the vanillin used commercially in the world is fake – well, artificial might be a less inflammatory word. Most of the world’s vanillin is produced from crude oil derivatives in chemical plants: benzene is alkylated with propylene to form cumene, which is then oxidized to phenol. Phenol is hydroxylated into catechol, which is further methylated into guaiacol. Finally, guaiacol is reacted with glyoxilic acid by electrophilic aromatic substitution to produce vanillylmandelic acid, which is converted to vanillin by oxidative decarboxylation. The remainder of the world’s artificial vanillin is made from a waste stream generated in the sulphite process to make paper pulp.

Yes, I know, very disappointing. And the worst of it is that when Cooks Illustrated ran some taste tests which pitted natural vanilla against artificial vanillin used in baked goods and other applications, tasters could not tell the difference! Don’t know what the world is coming to … Luckily, the tasters could tell the difference where ice cream was concerned, with natural vanilla winning out; l’onore è salvo, honour has been saved, as my wife might say.