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”.

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!

PRETTY INDUSTRIAL CHIMNEYS

Milan, 12 December 2021

If there’s one thing that will always depress me when I see them, it’s those tall industrial chimneys belching out white clouds of steam (sometimes tinged a faint orange by the oxides of nitrogen they can contain, depending on which way the sun is shining). Here’s a typical example of the genre, this one a frequent sight on our hikes upstream of Vienna – it belongs to a power plant.

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It’s all that grey concrete that does it, often topped with garish red and white stripes to keep planes from flying into them. Just so ugly! And so damned tall that you can’t ignore them!! So in your face!!! They just drain any brightness and colour out of the surrounding landscape.
I almost think that the older designs of brick chimneys were nicer on the eye. They were less high for one thing, and – at least in some models – took the form of long thin cones, which are considerably more elegant than mere cylinders. But that black smoke which they routinely belched out! Like in this British painting from about 1830.

View of Rotherham, South Yorkshire (c. 1830) by William Cowen (1791-1864). Photo credit: Rotherham Heritage Services

The fact that someone actually painted all that black muck shows how our sensitivities have changed in the last fifty years or so. When the artist painted this, black smoke was a thing to be celebrated, it meant the economy was growing. Now, we think instead that the company’s top managers should be in jail for allowing it to happen.

But back to today’s industrial chimneys. Among all the gloom they have brought to my life, there have been two bright shafts of light over the years, caused by chimneys which I’ve actually enjoyed looking at. The first of these is a chimney in Vienna which belongs to a waste incinerator.

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Wonderful piece of work! The design, both of the chimney as well as the rest of the facility, is due to an Austrian artist by the name of Friedensreich Hundertwasser. His normal output looks like this.

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I’m sure readers can see the relation between this type of work and his chimney design.

The incinerator has been originally built in the late 1960s, but needed extensive repairs after a fire broke out in 1987. I was told that the mayor of Vienna brought Hundertwasser in to redesign the facades of the facility as well as the chimney, because the local community was up in arms about the city fathers’ plan to continue having a working incinerator in their neighbourhood. Hundertwasser, who was quite an environmentalist, was only persuaded to accept the commission when he was promised that the most up-to-date emissions abatement technology would be installed – and in fact the chimney hardly ever gives off anything. I must say I’m quite glad Hundertwasser accepted the commission, because he created what must be the jauntiest waste incinerator in the world. It makes you almost want to work there (almost …)

It was the second sighting, that of the chimney of another waste incinerator on the outskirts of Milan, which moved me to write this post, although it has taken me nearly nine months to get around to it. Last April, after the success of the hike my wife and I did from Milan to Monza, I decided to do a similar hike in another direction. I chose the direction pretty much at random, which meant, among other things, that there was one stretch where we had to walk along a very busy road with trucks thundering by and no space on the edge of the road for us to walk on. My wife regularly reminds me of this walk whenever I suggest doing a hike sight unseen around the edges of Milan … In any event, it was on this grim stretch of road that we stumbled across the waste incinerator. Its chimney immediately caught my attention. It had been painted a most extraordinary colour, a sort of shimmering, silvery grey blue, merging, but not quite, with the surrounding sky. It was really lovely to look at. I took several photos of it between the thundering trucks. I’m not sure any of them do justice to the chimney’s colour but I throw in the best one.

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By one of those extraordinary coincidences that make one believe that there is some order after all in the chaos of the universe, this chimney happens to have been painted by another Austrian artist! Jorrit Tornquist is his name; his Wikipedia entry informs me that he is a color theorist and color consultant (no doubt it was in this latter role that he was called in by Milan’s waste management company to paint the chimney). As an artist, he does works like this.

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Again, readers can surely see the relation between this type of work and the chimney.

As I say, these are the only two industrial chimneys which have ever brought some happiness into my life. But writing this post has moved me to search the Internet to see what other painted industrial chimneys await me and my wife on hikes we might one day do around the world. Here’s what I found, in no particular order.

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A couple of chimneys in the Paris suburb of Bagnolet, being finished up in classic trompe l’oeil style.

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A chimney at the sewage works in Milwaukee, where the art is actually part of the city’s water management system. The chimney is normally blue-coloured but turns red when heavy rain is forecast, warning people to reduce their water use so that the city’s drains are not overwhelmed.

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An old chimney in Mount Vernon, Virginia, now hosting two graceful tulips.

I finish with a chimney which happens to be in Milan! It’s the chimney of the old factory where the Italian amaro, or bitter, Fernet Branca used to be produced.

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For those of my readers who might not be too familiar with this drink, this is what a bottle of Fernet Branca looks like.

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This particular bitter was first formulated in 1845 in Milan. It is made by steeping 27 herbs and other ingredients in alcohol. Which herbs and ingredients are used is of course a tightly-held secret, a pesky problem I have already come across for these kinds of drinks. But apparently at least some of the herbs are pictured on the chimney, so perhaps a close reading of the chimney will lead me to figure out what herbs are used in this drink.

As readers have no doubt understood, I am planning to view this chimney. It can be the object of one of the urban walks my wife and I will take this winter. I’ve already checked on Google Maps to see how to get there, and I’m happy to report that we will not need to walk along busy roads with trucks thundering by. I’m going to have to wait for the right moment in which to casually suggest to my wife that we go for this walk, without spilling the beans about what we are going to see – and of course I will have to reassure her about the absence of busy roads with thundering trucks.

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.

IRISES

Milan, 4 June 2021

On the hikes which my wife and I have been doing around Lake Como, we frequently come across irises blooming in people’s gardens. They are very nice, of course, but what I really admire are those irises which we spy on the side of the path, normally growing out of a small mound of garden waste. Clearly, someone in the vicinity did some clearing in their gardens, which included pulling up some iris rhizomes (their tuber-like roots), and then they just chucked the waste by the side of the path. But these irises are tough. In the face of adversity, they’ve just kept going, rooting into their new environment and continuing to bloom, to the delight of passersby. Unfortunately, the photos which I took at the time of these feral irises have disappeared into the Photo Black Hole in my iPhone, so I throw in this stock photo instead.

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I really admire the irises’ toughness. They remind me rather of a similarly tough plant with lovely flowers which I’ve written about earlier, common chicory.

Irises also reach back deep into my subconscious. My mother had planted irises in her garden in the house of my early childhood in Eritrea – or maybe she inherited them from previous renters of the house; that will to survive which I was just mentioning – and small child though I was (I could not have been more than six years’ old), I was awestruck by these lovely, bright, complex-looking flowers, with their sword-like leaves. My memory may be playing tricks with me but I remember them being yellow irises.

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Yet another encounter during a walk last week around Lake Como with irises growing out of waste piles has finally persuaded me to take up my electronic pen and write about them.

Not that there’s a huge amount to write about, unless you’re fixated about irises (and a good number of people do seem to be fixated by them). I was rather astonished to discover that taxonomists recognize something like 280 species of iris (there are also thousands of hybrids – the iris is a flower which enthusiasts have loved to fiddle with – but I won’t bother with them; it’s the Real Thing that interests me). Their natural distribution spans much of northern Eurasia, although there are also a number of species which are native to North America. I throw in some photos of irises in their natural habitat, not imprisoned in someone’s garden: as I’ve remarked in an earlier post about tulips, it’s so much nicer to see flowers in their natural state.
A field of irises in North America:

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Iris sibirica in Central Europe

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Iris haynei in the Middle East

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The Nazareth iris, also from the Middle East

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Iris lortetii, also from the Middle East

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With 280 species to choose from, I suppose I could have added a good deal more photos of wild irises. But I think that will do. I’m struck by the colours I chose; I rather suspect that I wanted to get away from the typical purple and yellow irises one sees in gardens.

Talking of natural states, it seems to me that iris is a bit of a fancy name for a flower, at least in English. Something like mugwort or yellow flag (actually an alternative name for one of the irises) seems more English. In fact, it appears that we owe the flower’s name to the French. Someone there, some time in the 13th Century, noticing that the flower’s petals had iridescent reflections gave the flower the Greek name for rainbow. Perhaps the deep violet colour of many of the species, resembling the violet and indigo bands of the rainbow, also played a part in this naming exercise.

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I’m not completely convinced by this explanation of the name; my inspections of the flower don’t show any obvious iridescence; maybe it was the flowers’ way of shading from colour to colour that inspired the French to name it iris.

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In any event, I find that this explanation makes more sense to me than the other explanation bouncing around the Internet, namely that the flower was called iris because it comes in all the shades of the rainbow; this clearly is not the case.

Whatever the right explanation, a connection has been made with a Greek goddess, which has given me an excuse to explore this member of the Greek pantheon. She is, I must admit, a very minor member. Her sole role in life was to carry messages from the gods to other gods or mortals. But she did this very prettily, by laying down a rainbow and walking along it to whoever she was delivering a message to. Apparently, there are no ancient statues of her bar one; one of the statues on the frieze of the Parthenon now in the British Museum – I will skate over the passionate arguments that this relocation to London has generated.

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Yes, well, I mutter under my breath, how can anyone know who this very bashed up piece of stone is meant to represent? Nevertheless, I bow to the Experts and accept their attribution.

We seem to be on firmer ground when it comes to paintings on Greek pottery. Here we have a picture of Iris on this vase from the 5th Century BC.

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Iris was also depicted by those European artists of the 17th, 18th and 19th Centuries who went in for classical themes – not my cup of tea, but hey! it takes all sorts to make a world. This particular painting from 1811, by Pierre Narcisse Guerin, falls into this category.

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I have to say, it seems to me that the painting is verging on soft porn. In any event, it claims to be portraying a story from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, where Juno sends Iris to give a message to Somnus, the god of sleep – the message is, “send a dream to Alcyone that her husband Ceyx is dead” (any reader who wants to know the backstory is welcome to read the Metamorphoses). Iris throws down a rainbow and walks along it (or slides down it?) into the underworld, where Somnus sleeps away his days and nights. She can barely rouse him from his slumbers but finally manages and delivers the message. She then gets the hell out of there as she feels she is about to fall asleep, and clambers back up her rainbow. I should explain at this point that Somnus has one thousand sons, whose job it is to deliver dreams to us mortals. He summons his son Morpheus, the best deliverer of dreams, instructs him to pass on Juno’s message, and promptly falls back to sleep. Guerin got the story wrong by depicting Iris delivering the message directly to Morpheus.  But Somnus was presumably middle-aged while Morpheus was a strapping young fellow, so no doubt Guerin took some artistic license so as to be able to paint a nakedly handsome young man as a worthy companion to the nakedly pretty young woman.

The French not only gave the flower its modern name, they also brought the flower’s heraldic representation, the fleur-de-lys, to great prominence, through the adoption by the French kings of the fleur-de-lys as their heraldic emblem. I have to admit to have been really surprised to discover this connection. Why are fleur-de-lys not called fleur-de-iris, then? The best explanation I’ve come across is that the French kings were descended from a line of Frankish chiefs who had lived originally around the river Lies in Belgium before they invaded France. These Frankish chiefs took as their heraldic symbol the yellow Iris pseudacorus, which grows in abundance along the edges of the River Lies, and which is known in Frankish – their original tongue – as Lieschbloem, the bloom of the Lies. It’s easy to see how that could have been frenchified to fleur-de-lys. Here, we have the Lieschbloem in its natural riverine habitat.

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And here we have a comparison of a Lieschbloem in close-up and a fleur-de-lys.

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I think one can appreciate that the fleur-de-lys could well be a stylized Lieschbloem. As a clincher, readers should note that the background of the French kings’ armorials was blue (“azure” in heraldic lingo) – a representation of the River Lies? Here are the arms of King Louis XVI.

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The kings changed their the number of fleur-de-lys on their arms quite frequently, and I chose him because everyone has probably heard of him – the one who got his head cut off during the French Revolution.

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Talking of fleur-de-lys, it was also – still is, actually – the centrepiece of the arms of Florence. But there’s an interesting story to the colour scheme. Originally – we’re talking before 1251 – the colours were a white fleur-de-lys on a red background.

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The white Iris florentina grew wild in the area around Florence.

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It even grew, it is said, on the city’s walls – this is no longer the case, alas, for the few stretches of the walls still left around Florence.

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So I suppose it was quite reasonable for the City Fathers to choose a white iris as the city’s heraldic symbol (why they placed it on a red background I don’t know).

In 1251, the government of the city was in the hands of the Ghibelline faction. I hope my readers are at least vaguely familiar with the fighting between Guelphs and the Ghibellines that roiled pretty much all of the city-states in northern and central Italy in the 12th and 13th Centuries. Here, for instance, we have Guelphs and Ghibellines duking it out in Bologna.

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Formally, the Guelphs supported the Popes and the Ghibellines the Holy Roman Emperors in the never-ending feud of these two about who controlled who. But in many cities this was just an excuse to cover local quarrels. In Florence, for instance, it was more about the patricians (Ghibellines) versus the plebs (Guelphs). In 1251, the Guelph faction wrested control of the city from the Ghibellines, and to signal that there had been a definitive political change, the Guelphs switched the colours around on the city’s armorial bearings. I suppose they were in power for long enough for the switch to become definitive, because still today we have a red fleur-de-lys on a white background.

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One side-effect of this colour switch was people trying to breed a truly red bearded iris (the group of irises to which Iris florentina belongs) and failing dismally. The judgement of Those Who Know is that there is no truly red iris, bearded or otherwise.  Well of course the experts know, but the copper iris from North America looks pretty red to me.

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But, once again, I bow to the Experts.

It would seem that the Florentines discovered another interesting thing about their Iris florentina, namely that if you take the plant’s rhizome and dry it for a very long time – 3 to 5 years – reactions slowly take place in the rhizome which eventually lead to the production of chemicals with the fragrance of violets. This fragrance is liberated by crushing the now rock-hard rhizomes to a powder. Catherine de’ Medici brought this alchemist-like knowledge to the French court when she married Henry II of France in 1533. Mixed with rice powder, it eventually became a popular way for Europe’s upper crust to perfume their faces, clothes, and eventually wigs when these later came into fashion. Nowadays, perfumers plant huge fields of a light purple cousin of Iris florentinaIris pallida.

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They dig up the rhizomes, dry them, and then steam distill them to obtain a thick, buttery oil known as orris oil. Eyewateringly expensive stuff – like €100,000 a kilo – it’s used by perfumers to give a base note to their creations.

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After all of this, though, I’m sure my readers will agree with me when I say, let’s just forget all the metaphorical, allegorical, or representational bla-bla with which irises have been enveloped, and let’s just enjoy the flowers as they are. So let me close with a couple of paintings of irises by Vincent Van Gogh.

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PASSITO WINES, BOTRYTISED WINES, ICE WINES

Milan, 7 February 2021

One of the things which my wife and I agree went up during our first Covid lockdown last spring was our consumption of wine. Those long evenings when we couldn’t go out anywhere tended to encourage larger suppers accompanied by copious servings of wine, servings which were repeated when we had finished eating and had settled down for our evening’s entertainment – old TV series which we found on YouTube. When we got out of lockdown, our wine consumption went back down to normal. But when we went into our second lockdown, the wine consumption went up again. What to do, we have to pass the time as pleasantly as possible.

We get our wines from the two or three local mini-markets which are close at hand. I make a bee-line for the sections devoted to red wines from the south of Italy – Sicily, Sardinia, Puglia, some Calabria, some Basilicata. I always prefer red wines – white wines give me stomach burns – and I find that that red wines from the south of the country have more depth and body to them than the better-known reds from northern Italy; they are considerably cheaper, too. My wife is quite happy to follow me in my choices, although from time to time she’ll splash out and get herself a bottle of white wine. One day, I will write a post about southern Italian red wines, but today I want to write about something quite different.

A few weeks ago, as I was scouring the shelves of one of the mini-markets, looking for a wine we hadn’t tried, I came across this:

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“This” is a bottle of red wine from Puglia, with a classification of Indicazione Geografica Tipica, i.e., pretty good but not up there among the stars. Nothing out of the ordinary so far. But what caught my attention was the phrase on the label da uve leggermente appassite: “from grapes that have been slightly dried”. I vaguely knew about the “passito” method of making wine, which meant that the grapes have been dried out before being crushed and pressed. After polishing off the bottle with my wife (more on this later), I decided to do a bit of research on the “passito” method (which for the most part consisted of reading a bunch of Wikipedia articles). I can now happily share my newfound knowledge with those of my readers who, like me, are not super experts on wine (those who are super experts had better just skip to the end).

The first thing I discovered is that “appassimento” (the procedure of drying grapes and making them “passiti”) is actually one of three procedures which are used in grape-growing regions with the primary purpose of concentrating the sugars in the grapes. And the reason for concentrating the sugars is to be able to make strong, sweet wines, usually drunk with desserts (hence often being called “dessert wines” in English).

“Appassimento” is the most obvious, and therefore the oldest, of these three procedures: there is evidence of sweet wines being made this way already 6,000 years ago in Cyprus. There are various ways of carrying out “appassimento”. One is simply to leave the grapes on the vine longer than you normally would, so that they overripen and have higher than normal sugar levels; they also tend to lose water and shrivel, which also increases sugar concentrations. Canny wine-makers can play with the amount of “appassimento” they allow. They can have just a bit of “appassimento” (which is probably how the Puglia wine I mentioned earlier was made).

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Or they can go the whole hog and choose extreme “appassimento”.

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Of course, the longer wine-makers wait, the greater the risk that something will go wrong (bad weather, mould, etc.). But the more interesting can be the flavours so generated. A variant to this approach is to leave the grape bunches on the vine but twist their stem, to “strangle” them as it were. If I understood correctly, this hastens the “appassimento” process, so that you can avoid the risks but enjoy the advantages – having your cake and eating it.

You can also harvest the grapes at the normal time but then let them dry in the sun.

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Or, if you’re not too sure of the weather, you can do it inside.

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Wines made this way are called straw wines (vin de paille in the original French), because the grape bunches were originally laid down on straw to dry out.

As readers can imagine, all this works better in places with lots of sun, which is no doubt one of the reasons why Cyprus holds the prize for the earliest use of the procedure.

Let me at this point throw in some examples of sweet wines made this way. Since my investigations were started with an Italian wine, I’ll give Italy pride of place, while recognizing that all of the southern European countries, as well as the New World wine-making countries, make this kind of wine. Even in Italy, there are numerous such wines, so I’ll just mention a couple, chosen for the completely banal reason that they are from lovely places. Thus, we have the various Vinsanti from Tuscany.

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And then we have Malvasia delle Lipari passito, made in the small islands of Lipari and Eolie off the coast of Sicily.

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In the second procedure used to concentrate sugars in grapes, you allow your grapes to be attacked by a fungus, the Botrytis cinerea. The fungus shrivels the grapes and increases sugar concentrations, thus allowing wine-makers to make a sweet wine. For rendering this useful service, the fungus has been named the “noble rot”.

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For the noble rot to work properly, you need specific humidity conditions at specific times of the day at specific times of the year, so there are only a few places in the world where you can use this procedure. And you have to be damned careful that the fungus doesn’t run riot in your vineyards, otherwise you get another form of the fungus, “grey rot”, which completely ruins your harvest. It seems that Hungarian winemakers were the earliest to figure out how to harness Botrytis cinerea to make sweet wines, having done so by the 16th Century.

You really have to ask yourself how anyone – Hungarian or otherwise – figured this procedure out. My assumption is that when one year some wine makers found themselves with a harvest of grapes on their hands which had been attacked by the fungus, rather than just throw the grapes away they decided to go ahead and make wine anyway, reasoning that even a bad wine was better than none at all, and were pleasantly surprised by the result.

As examples of what are, sensibly enough, called botrytised wines, I’ll mention Tokaji from Hungary, because that seems to be the granddaddy of this kind of wine.

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And I’ll mention Sauternes from the Bordeaux region of France, perhaps the most famous of the botrytised wines.

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The third and final procedure is used to make so-called ice wines. Here, you leave the grapes on the vines until January/February. The precise time you pick the grapes crucially depends on the outside temperature: picking must take place the first time the temperature drops to -7°C, which normally means picking the grapes at night, picking them quickly, and pressing them immediately.

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What is happening is that the water in the grapes is turned to ice but not the sugars. When you press the grapes, the iced water stays with the must, and the resulting grape juice has very high levels of sugars. The procedure is a relative newbie: it was only discovered at the very end of the 18th Century, in Germany.

As an example of an ice wine, I’ll mention Canadian ice wines.

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This may seem a surprising choice, but it allows me to slip in a mention of what is probably the greatest environmental disaster staring us in the face: climate change. Because of climate change, it is getting more and more difficult to make ice wine reliably in the northernmost wine-growing regions of Europe where the procedure was first developed, because it is becoming rarer and rarer for the temperatures there to drop sufficiently low. But because temperatures still drop reliably every year to -7°C in Canada, its wine regions, particularly those in Ontario, have stepped into the breach and have become the world’s major producers of ice wine.

Readers will no doubt have noticed that all the examples I have given so far are of white wines, and indeed most of the wines made in these three ways are white, using grape varieties like muscat, malvasia, and riesling. But – as my discovery in the mini-market shows – some red wines are also made this way. Since, as I pointed out earlier, I’m more of a fan of red wines than white wines, I want to finish this post by fighting for the red corner, and will do so by mentioning three red wines, all from northern Italy, and all passito wines.

Two come from the Valpolicella region, which lies north of Verona and east of Lake Garda – in this photo, you can see the lake in the distance.

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The first of the two red passito wines from here is Recioto della Valpolicella. This, like most passito wines, is a sweet wine, and indeed this photo suggests its use as a dessert wine.

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Perhaps at this point I should reveal that I’m not a great fan of sweet wines. I don’t deny that they can be very tasty, but I feel that somehow – and I’m sure this is just a ridiculous prejudice – sweet wines are not serious. This prejudice of mine is most extreme when it comes to red wines; I’ve signaled this already in an earlier post about sparkling Italian red wines, most of which are sweet. To my mind, for red wines to be serious they must be dry. So it comes as a relief for me to able to introduce the second wine from Valpolicella, the Amarone della Valpolicella.

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This is a dry wine. Its name signals this, Amarone being derived from the Italian word “amaro”, which means bitter or sour. The wine is not really bitter or sour; it probably refers to the fact that this wine originally came from batches of Recioto della Valpolicella where the fermentation hadn’t stopped and so the sugars had all been turned into alcohol: so from sweet to sour.

Which leads me naturally to my final red passito wine, another dry wine, the Sfursat. This comes from the Valtellina valley in upper Lombardy, upstream of Lake Como (and of the hike along the Sentiero del Viandante which my wife and I did last year).

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Let me throw in here a photo of grapes drying in readiness to become sfursat.

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And here is a photo of a bottle of sfursat, which gives me an excuse to have a photo of that inescapable part of the wine world, a wine cellar.

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At this point, I have to make another revelation. Neither my wife nor I have ever tried any of these three wines. But now we have an excuse to try some different wines during lockdown! (we’ll have to accept to fork out considerably more cash than we are used to, though, but hey! no pain, no gain).

And what about the Puglia wine that started this whole post? As I poured it into our glass wines I was half afraid that it would be sweet, but no, it turned out to be a dry wine, which was a relief. As we sipped it, we felt that the intense and bright red colour of the wine, characterized by delicate purplish hues, was the perfect expression of its complex and fruity bouquet. Balsamic notes of blackberries, spirited cherries and plum jam were smartly dressed by elegant sweet spicy scents. It was warm, round, and with a good balance of tannins … OK, I confess, I just copied all that last bit from the label on the back. As I commented in a post written years ago, I’m always impressed by the bullshit wine merchants come up with. My wife and I, we just went mmm, yummy! And the next day, I bought another couple of bottles.

WHAT’S IN A NAME?

Vienna, 30 November 2020

Wagram: A region close to the River Danube upstream of Vienna, where there are steep terraces made up of deposits of loess laid down millions of years ago.

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“Wagram” is a composite of two Middle High German words: “wac” (moving water, river) and “rain” (meadow, slope). So Wagram means Slope by the Water or Bank. No doubt these terraces were created centuries ago by a meander of the Danube which then changed course at some point, because there’s not much water by these slopes now. Vineyards have been planted on many of the terraces where the slopes are not too abrupt.

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I suppose the sandy soil of the loess is good for vines. The wine – mostly made with Grüner Veltliner grapes – is good enough to have given the region its own wine name, “Wagram”. In some of the steeper slopes wine cellars have been dug directly into the loess.

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We’ve been climbing up and down these terraces throughout the summer, principally because we’ve been hiking along sections of the pilgrim path to St. James of Compostela, known as Jacobsweg in this part of the world. The path happens to run along the loess terraces.

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Many a village which stands at the foot of these terraces has added “Wagram” to its name. So we’ve walked through Fels am Wagram, Kirchberg am Wagram, Königsbrunn am Wagram, Stetteldorf am Wagram, Eggendorf am Wagram, … (there’s even a Wagram am Wagram, which seems a bit exaggerated).

Deutsch-Wagram: Sharp-eyed readers will no doubt have noticed that on the map above, a village of this name is marked. It is across the Danube from Vienna and a little to the north-east of it.  It too sits on deposits of loess, although the slopes of the terraces here are very gentle, almost imperceptible. The village stands on the northern edge of a flat plain, the Marchfeld plain, which is rich agricultural land. There’s really nothing much to say about this village. I’ve looked at its Wikipedia entry and sifted through photos of the place online, but I could find nothing of any substance to report – except for one thing: it gave half of its name to one of Napoleon I’s major battles.

Battle of Wagram: It was fought in early July 1809 not too far from where I’m writing this. Napoleon had captured Vienna in May, but the Austrian Emperor had not capitulated, and the bulk of the Austrian army was undefeated and was camped on the Marchfeld plain across the Danube from Vienna. Napoleon concluded that until he had beaten this army no peace could be concluded. He therefore decided to get his army across the Danube onto the Marchfeld plain and give battle. His first attempt, in May, using the island of Lobau as his entry point into the plain, was a costly failure. This has come down in history as the battle of Essling, taking its name from the village of Essling around which much of the fighting took place.

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Learning from his mistakes, Napoleon prepared his army’s crossing of the Danube through Lobau with far more care and this time the crossing was successful. And so by the early hours of 5 July the two armies were facing each other across the Marchfeld plain. This rather fine old map shows the battleground nicely.

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The Austrian commander, Archduke Charles, knew that Napoleon would cross again at Lobau and had set up his positions along the slight ridge of loess, placing himself at the centre of the Austrian line, in the village of Deutsch-Wagram. That slight ridge, along with a marshy stream which ran at its foot and which acted as a fine defensive barrier, put the Austrians in a good position. I do not propose to give a detailed blow-by-blow account of the battle. A few fanciful paintings of a propagandist nature will suffice.

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The reality of the battle was grimmer. After two days of hard fighting, the Austrian army retired in good order while the French army was too knackered to properly pursue it. The French claimed victory, and although that was technically correct the “victory” didn’t change the strategic situation. After another inconclusive battle 5 days later at Znaïm, the two sides agreed to an armistice.

The battle of Wagram and the previous battle of Essling had been very costly. The casualties were very high on both sides, but for the French, after more than 10 years of almost continuous fighting, it was harder to make up the losses. Napoleon’s enemies had finally understood his strategies and were beginning to emulate them. There were going to be no more spectacular victories with relatively light losses as there had been in the past. Many see the battle of Wagram as the beginning of the end for Napoleon.

Avenue de Wagram: One of the twelve avenues that radiate out from the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Although now largely forgotten, the avenue’s naming in 1864 was originally a piece of propaganda by the-then Emperor Napoleon III. It was always useful for him to glorify the deeds of his uncle Napoleon I, it was a way of burnishing his rather more doubtful credentials. Baron Haussmann was busy creating a new urban landscape for Paris at the time, which, among other things, meant that the area around the Arc de Triomphe was being remodeled. The Arc had originally been built as a memorial to one of Napoleon I’s greatest victories, the battle of Austerlitz. When his ashes were returned from the island of St. Helena in 1840, they passed through the Arc de Triomphe on their way to his final resting place in Les Invalides.

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Why not, then, turn the area around the Arc into a memorial to the first Napoleon’s military genius? And so, in 1864, a number of the new avenues radiating out from the Arc were named after Emperor Napoleon’s more famous battles (his earlier battles when he was a mere revolutionary general or even First Consul were ignored): along with the Avenue de Wagram, there was the Avenue d’Essling which I’ve already mentioned, the Avenue d’Iéna, celebrating the battle of 1806 fought at Jena in Thuringia, during which Napoleon pulverized the Prussian army, the Avenue de Friedland, celebrating the battle of 1807 fought in what was then eastern Prussia, during which Napoleon decisively beat the Russian army, and the Avenue d’Eylau, commemorating a battle fought four months prior to Friedland in the same neck of the woods. One other avenue was named the Avenue de la Grande Armée, to commemorate Napoleon’s imperial army which had fought in all of these battles and more during his campaigns from 1804 to 1814. To cap it off, a circular road which runs around the Arc de Triomphe had one half of the circle named rue de Presbourg, commemorating the treaty of Presbourg signed with Austria after the victory at Austerlitz, and the other half named rue de Tilsit, commemorating the treaty of Tilsit signed with Russia after the victory at Friedland. As a cherry on the Napoleonic propaganda cake, a number of the remaining avenues were named after members of the Napoleonic clan. Quite understandably, all these last avenues had their names changed later when Napoleon III was toppled, along with the avenues commemorating the battles of Essling and Eylau (not surprising really; as we’ve seen, Napoleon actually lost the battle of Essling and he only just won the battle of Eylau).

I’m sure all this propaganda from the past is lost on the avenue’s current inhabitants. The only thing that seems to matter today is that Avenue de Wagram is a very chic place to live. While not situated in the “seizième arrondissement”, the 16th district of Paris, the city’s toniest district, it is still a very desirable place to put on your calling card. Real estate on the avenue is eyewateringly expensive. This is a view of the avenue from the top of the Arc de Triomphe.

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As befits such a moneyed area, it is represented in Parliament by a member of the right-of-centre party Les Républicains, Ms. Brigitte Kuster.

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Salle Wagram: Whatever the Napoleonic propagandists might have wanted, for the people of Paris the area around what became Avenue de Wagram near the Arc de Triomphe had been a place where you went and had fun ever since the Revolution. The ball got rolling with a drinking hole where you could also dance. Then came theatres, music halls, concert-cafés, and then cinemas.  Perhaps the most famous of these palaces of fun was the Salle Wagram, a large hall built in 1865. It was located at 39bis, avenue de Wagram.

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It was famous as a place where Gay Paree went to dance the night away.

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But it was also a place for exhibitions and other “serious” shows, like the First Cycling Exhibition of 1894.

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The money took over from the fun. All the places of entertainment other than Salle Wagram and a couple of others have disappeared, leaving space for expensive offices and apartments. C’est la vie, as the French philosophically remark.

Station Wagram: The name of a station in Paris’s subway system, one of many.

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It serves Avenue de Wagram, although it’s actually located on a small street that crosses the avenue – the avenue’s greater name recognition decided the station’s naming. Opened in 1911, many of the initial travellers no doubt used the station to go to Salle Wagram or the other entertainment spots in the area. But now it probably only services workers whose offices are in the area and the cleaners and other domestics who work in the surrounding rich apartments.  The station itself is nothing to write home about. Perhaps it was more interesting architecturally when first opened, but the modernizations of the 1960s have left it a bog-standard station.

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Its one saving grace is its entrance, which harbours one of Hector Guimard’s delightful Art Nouveau floral designs.

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So it is that by the vagaries of history, loess terraces in eastern Austria were transmuted into a dot on the Parisian subway map 1200 km away.

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C’est la vie, as the French say.

MUSTARD

Vienna, 18 July 2020

A week or so ago, I accompanied my wife to an upscale (i.e., swanky) supermarket in the central district of Vienna to buy bresaola (an Italian delicacy which I have covered in an earlier post). As she waited to be served, I wandered around looking idly at what was on offer in the condiments section, where I was much struck by this array of mustards.

my photo

Mustards of all types, from all corners of the world, were on display. So many, so inviting! (I have touched upon the delights of mustard in at least one previous post). I had to investigate this wonderful condiment, I decided. Now, after many hours of surfing the internet’s electronic waves, I am ready to report back.

We have to begin, of course, at the beginning, that is to say with the plant which produces the mustard seeds. Actually, it’s three plants: Brassica nigraBrassica juncea, and Sinapis alba, and they produce black, brown, and white mustard seeds, respectively. The first two are closely related, the third is a distant cousin of the other two. This is what the plants look like (from left to right Brassica nigraBrassica juncea, Sinapis alba)

various sources

Those readers who see a distinct resemblance to the rapeseed plant will be right. Rapeseed is a close relative to the black and brown mustard plant. A rarity until the 1970s, it is now grown in huge quantities around the world, giving rise to field after monotonous field of the stuff

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as well as to the questionable delights of colza and canola oil (why this sudden rise to fame of the rapeseed is a story for another day).

(A quick parenthesis: the Brassica family, to which black and brown mustard as well as rapeseed belong, seems to have a hugely elastic genome; farmers have managed to coax all sorts of different yummy foodstuffs from members of this family, as I have related in a previous post. The precise genomic relationships between the various members of the family were first described in the delightfully-named Theory of U, so called because it was published in 1935 by the Korean botanist Woo Jang-choon, writing under the Japanized name Nagaharu U – readers will recall that Korea was a Japanese colony in 1935).

Anyway, back to mustard. For readers – like me – who have never actually seen mustard seeds in the flesh (as it were), I throw in a mug shot of all three together. From left to right, we have black, brown, and white mustard seeds; I think the photo explains the colour-coded names they have been given.

Sources: various Amazon sites

The seeds are tiny, by the way, 1 mm or so in diameter. Readers with a Christian background will no doubt recall the parable in the synoptic Gospels (I quote here the version from Matthew): “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and sowed in his field; which indeed is smaller than all seeds. But when it is grown, it is greater than the herbs, and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and lodge in its branches.” Most people believe the parable refers to the black mustard plant, which can grow up to 3 m tall.

The seeds not only differ in colour, they also differ in “punch”, that sharp, hot, pungent flavour which we associate with mustard, with white mustard seeds being milder than the other two. Here I have to explain a little where that punch comes from, because it is important to our story of mustard condiment. The seed itself has punch, so if you ate a seed or two you would feel a bite in your mouth. But much of the punch that we associate with mustard actually comes from a series of chemicals which are produced when an enzyme naturally present in the seeds reacts with other chemicals also naturally present in the seeds. These reactions only occur when the enzyme is activated by the presence of water. Thus, the real kick from mustard only comes if you break up the seeds and mix them with water or with a liquid containing water. The enzyme can be denatured, thus making the mustard’s kick milder, by applying heat (using hot water or heating the mixture) or by using acid – the more concentrated the acid, the more denatured the enzyme.

Interestingly enough, of all our ancestors only the Romans stumbled onto this trick for getting mustard to pack a more powerful punch – or at least they were the only ones who used the trick routinely. Others – the Indians and the Ethiopians, for instance – used mustard seeds as a spice and so relied mainly on the seeds’ “dry” punch, while others still – the East Asians in particular – used mustard plants as a leaf vegetable and ignored the seeds.

The name “mustard” gives us a possible clue to what liquid the Romans used to make their mustard condiment. “Mustard” derives from the old French word “moustarde” (which has become the modern French “moutarde”), which in turn comes from the Latin “mustum ardens”, or “fiery must”. Must is the fresh juice that is squeezed out of grapes in the wine presses. Here we have a Roman mosaic showing men merrily (and probably somewhat tipsily) stomping on the grapes to expel the must, which is flowing into receptacles below.

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The ground mustard seeds presumably added piquancy to the must. I find this quite intriguing, because as far as I know no-one makes mustard in this way anymore. It just so happens that come Autumn, when the grape harvest is in, must is a popular drink to quaff in the wine taverns which dot the outskirts of Vienna and the woods surrounding it.

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I must make a mental note to try making my own Roman-style mustard this Autumn, to see what it tastes like. Since must is quite sweet, I would imagine that I would end up with a sweet mustard.

On the other hand, the two recipes for making mustard which are to be found in surviving Roman cookbooks actually use vinegar as the liquid. I quote here (in translation) the shorter of these recipes, from Palladius’s book on agriculture, Opus agriculturae, written some time in the late 4th, early 5th Century AD.

“Grind one sextarium [2 quarts] of mustard seeds with five pounds of honey and one of Hispanic oil, diluting with one sextarium [2 quarts] of strong vinegar. Grind everything together diligently and use.”

The honey suggests to me that this mustard would also be sweet. Perhaps the Romans liked their mustard sweet.

So what “accelerant” (to use a term from fire-making) did the Romans use to fire up their ground mustard seeds? Must? Vinegar? Perhaps they used either one or the other, depending on the tastes of the cook. Perhaps they used both; a popular Roman drink was must clarified with vinegar. Perhaps they used other liquids, now lost to us in the mists of time. We shall probably never know.

What is important for the history of mustard is that the Romans took both vines and winemaking, and probably their mustard seeds as well, north into Gaul after they had conquered it, and the making of both wine and mustard took hold there. There was a certain desire – at least among the Gaulish elites – to emulate their Roman conquerors, as Goscinny and Uderzo brilliantly showed us in their Asterix album Le Combat des Chefs.

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Luckily for us, the Gauls, who were soon to become the French, continued with their love of mustard long after the Romans had departed and their Empire had collapsed. The symbiotic relationship between wine and mustard seed continued. Must as the accelerant seems to have been forgotten and vinegar took its place; mustard making was a good way of using wine that had soured and turned to vinegar.

While many of the emerging wine regions of France also became mustard making regions, the prince among them all was Burgundy, with its capital Dijon. For want of a photo of Dijon mustard from the 14th Century, I thrown in a photo of the delightfully coloured roofs of Dijon’s cathedral instead.

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Dijon mustard seems to have become the gold standard for mustard makers, with everyone else around Europe trying to emulate them. But what did you do if you lived in a part of Europe to the north of where vines would grow? The following map shows roughly where the current northernmost boundary of vine growing is. I don’t think it’s changed much over the centuries, although it is now creeping northwards because of climate change (but that is a discussion for another day).

my map

What did you use instead of wine vinegar?

Well, of course these northern regions all had fruit or grain, and you can ferment either to make alcohol, and you can ferment alcohol to make vinegar. As an example, let me use the English mustard from Tewkesbury (which, for those readers who are somewhat hazy about English geography is a quiet market town in the county of Gloucestershire). I choose this particular mustard for a number of reasons, as will become clear in a minute.

I haven’t talked at all about all the other herbs, spices, and other goodies which mustard makers have added over the centuries, and continue to add, to their mustards, to amend the taste. As readers can imagine, though, they all have their secret list of additional ingredients. Tewksebury mustard is interesting in that its makers added large amounts of horseradish (and for this reason it got a mention in an earlier post about this potent root). This seems to me to be an example of creating a double-whammy, because the chemicals created by that enzyme in mustard are very similar to the chemicals in horseradish. From which I deduce that Tewkesbury mustard must be pretty damned strong. So that’s one reason for my choosing to talk about Tewkesbury mustard.

To make Tewkesbury mustard, its citizens would steep grated horseradish in vinegar made from apple cider for some two days and then mix this infusion with powdered mustard seed (ground, I am delighted to report, by using an iron cannonball as the pestle in a mortar). So here we have an example of a non-wine vinegar being used as the accelerant. Other vinegars have been used by other mustard makers.

Tewkesbury mustard was famous all over England. Why, it was famous enough to get mentioned by the Bard of Avon himself! The citation comes from Shakespeare’s Henry IV, part II, where at some point Falstaff says of his companion Ned Poins, “He a good wit? Hang him, baboon. His wit’s as thick as Tewksbury mustard. There’s no more conceit in him than is in a mallet” (for readers interested in looking the citation up, it appears somewhere in Act 2, scene 4).

To get around the tricky problem of how to transport their mustard all around the kingdom, the citizens of Tewkesbury rolled it into balls and then allowed them to dry. The dried balls could then be transported quite easily and would keep a long time. Customers would purchase a ball, cut off a slice whenever needed, and then steep it once again in any manner of liquids of their choosing: water, milk, cider, cider vinegar, wine, ale, beer, or fruit juice. Once soft enough, it would be whipped to a thick, creamy consistency (as we know from the quote from Shakespeare).

At some point, the round shape of the product, allied to its horseradish-enhanced pungency, led wits to use Tewkesbury mustard as slang to describe incendiary fire-balls. Here, for instance, we have the great philosopher David Hume, in his History of England, writing about a rumour that the Great Fire of London of 1666 was started by foreign arsonists trained by Jesuits: “Fire-balls were familiarly called among them Tewkesbury mustard pills”. That certainly tells us something about their fiery nature …

I find this idea of offering mustard in the form of balls quite delightful. Sadly, the manufacture of Tewkesbury mustard died out at the beginning of the 19th century, possibly under the pressure of having to compete with newfangled powdered mustards liked Colman’s. Luckily, however, some brave souls are trying to revive its manufacture in Tewksebury (although also wisely offering the mustard in the modern form: ready-made in jars, ready to slather on). They are also trying to brand the mustard by applying for Protected Geographic Indication status. Here is a photo of a pile of these balls.

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It’s certainly the case that for some reason finely powdered mustard became the norm in England (as well as in certain British colonies like Australia). Colman’s mustard dominated the market, selling its mustard in these iconic yellow tins.

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One of my first memories of mustard was a small yellow tin just like these in my English grandmother’s kitchen cupboard. She used it in her vinaigrettes and she taught little 8-year old me how to make them (I still remember the recipe: “1 teaspoon of vinegar, dissolve in a pinch of salt, a pinch of sugar, 2 pinches of Colman’s mustard powder, add 3 teaspoons of oil”). A whip around the web shows me many people of about my age fondly recalling their mothers using Colman’s mustard powder in all manner of dishes. It seems to me, though, that those mothers of yesteryear were using mustard powder more like a spice – like a curry powder – than a condiment. Interestingly enough, the first Mr. Colman, Jeremiah Colman, was not in the vinegar business as were many of the mustard makers of the time. He was a miller instead; clearly, he was only interested in the milling of the mustard seeds; what liquid was used to fire up the powder didn’t interest him (this connection between mustard and milling rather than mustard and vinegar was at the basis of at least one other well-known mustard, la moutarde de Meaux in France; Meaux was well-known since Carolingian times as a place which sat on a rock formation which made excellent grinding stones).

In 1756, some 60 years before Jeremiah Colman set up his mustard grinding business in Norwich, a revolution occurred in the heart of the mustard business, Dijon. There, a certain Jean Naigeon switched from using vinegar to using “verjus”, or verjuice in English. Verjuice is an acidic juice made from pressing unripe fruit or sour fruit of one variety or other (“verjus” translates as “green juice”). During the Middle Ages it was widely used all over Europe as an ingredient in sauces, as a condiment, or to deglaze preparations. Over time it fell out of fashion, with cooks replacing it with either wine or some variety of vinegar or lemon juice. Jean Naigeon moved in the other direction, shifting from vinegar to verjuice. Specifically, he used verjuice prepared with green, unripe grapes hailing from the Côte d’Or (home to most of the greatest Burgundy wines). For readers who are curious about what this verjuice might look like, I throw in a photo of a bottle of the stuff made by one of the few local mustard manufacturers left in the Dijon area, Edmond Fallot. It looks quite like a normal white wine; it is simply much more acidic.

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From then on, mustard makers in Burgundy, as well as in many other places which were copying Burgundy’s mustards, used verjuice, possibly mixed with vinegar, possibly mixed with wine, as the accelerant in their preparations. When mustards proclaim on their labels that they are made with wine, they may have some real wine in them, but most of the “wine” will actually be verjuice.

This shift to verjuice leaves me thinking. As I said, verjuice can be made from any unripe or sour fruit. A quick whip around the web has shown me that there are makers of crab apple verjuice and apple verjuice. Perhaps other fruits have been used. Has anyone tried making mustard with other verjuices? I have not found any being marketed on the web. Is there a reason for this, I wonder? I cannot think of one. Perhaps some clever entrepreneur will give it a go (and if I find a bottle of non-grape verjuice here in Vienna, I might also give it a go, before I try making my mustard with must).

The one other big change that happened to mustards took place in Munich, in the mid-19th Century. This was the development of Bayerischer Süßer Senf, or Bavarian sweet mustard, a mustard which goes exceedingly well with the traditional Bavarian white sausage, or Weißwurst (normally eaten with a large soft pretzel, the Laugenbrezel).

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This is the type of mustard we currently have on our dining table. We don’t eat it with white sausage (we wish!); my wife uses it to give taste to her rather bland diet of chicken and turkey (which I suppose has always been the purpose of mustard, ever since Roman times, to give otherwise bland food some oomph).

This mustard was developed by one Johann Conrad Develey. He was from an old Huguenot family which had escaped from France to Switzerland (hence his French-sounding name). He himself came to Munich from Switzerland via Lindau and Augsburg, where he had done his schooling. He started by making Dijon-style mustard, but he sensed that there was an unfulfilled demand for a sweet mustard. He played around with various ingredients, of which sugar was naturally one. He finally hit the jackpot when he caramelized the sugar by plunging red-hot pokers into it. The caramelization process gave his concoction a depth of taste he couldn’t get with sugar alone. Thus, it seems, that mustard development had gone back to where it started in Roman times, with a sweet mustard.

The rest of the mustard story is rather depressing. It is a story of industrialization, developing machines that could make mustard ever more quickly and in ever greater quantities (this is what made Maurice Grey, of Grey-Poupon mustard, famous), which in turn meant ever greater concentration: the micro mustard makers didn’t have sufficient capital to buy the new machines and went to the wall, allowing the remaining firms to capture more market and grow ever bigger. It is then a story of building up brands through advertizing of one form or another.

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Notice the stoneware pots in this ad; this became a very popular way of branding mustards.

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Amora started selling its mustard in pots which housewives could reuse as drinking glasses. Themed glasses were made, where you could collect the whole set.

It is finally a story of ever bigger companies buying up the smaller companies.

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Now all that’s left are vast, faceless multinationals which have no sense of place, of “terroir” as the French call it, which are only interested in owning famous mustard brands – made famous through clever advertizing – and which will make the mustards wherever it is cheaper to make them, with ingredients it will source from the cheapest place, and will look to substitute the more expensive ingredients with others which “give more or less the same taste”. I know, I’ve been there. I once did environmental due diligence work for a multinational company whose name will not pass my lips, which was intent on buying up an Italian shoe polish company with a well-known brand. The company had been making the polish from the very start in Padova, using a local workforce. The purchase went through. The last time I passed Padova by car – you could see the factory from the motorway – the factory was gone; the polish is probably now made in China or somewhere similar.

Luckily, though, there are courageous entrepreneurs fighting back, trying to make mustards again locally, with local ingredients where possible, aiming to put on the market a product which is good and not just branded. I wish them luck. I urge all my readers to buy these non-branded mustards. I also urge them to have a go at making their own mustard rather than getting it off a supermarket shelf. There are tons of recipes online for making mustard at home. And I will try to make mustard with must this Autumn and with non-grape verjuice if I can find it. I will report back if I succeed (a big part of the success will be to persuade my wife to help).

 

STRAWBERRY

Milan, 14 June 2020
Revised in Vienna, 20 October 2020

In the recent hikes which my wife and I have been doing, we’ve come across a lot of these.

My photo

“These” are woodland strawberries (but see the Postscript at the end). I throw in here a much more professional photo of this plant, to give readers a better view.

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The fact is, though, that they are really very small, no more than half a centimetre across, as this photo of a whole sheet of them shows: they are just bright red dots against the green of the leaves.

My photo

Those bright red dots always catch my eye as we walk along. From time to time, I’ve picked one of the bigger ones and eaten it. They are pretty bland, I have to say. Their taste is really nothing to write home (or a post) about.

Which – as I tramped along – got me thinking: who were the people who laboured so hard to turn these small, not very tasty berries into the big, juicy and wonderfully sweet berries that we eat today?

Readers of my posts will know that I have a fondness of saluting the almost always anonymous folk who over the millennia have coaxed tasty foodstuffs which we eat today out of small and not so tasty wild plants. The last such foodstuff whose creation I have saluted is the common chicory. I decided to do the same thing for the strawberry. And so I have been beavering away on my computer these last few weeks, surfing the web and seeing what I could find.

The first thing I found was that I had been completely wrong. Today’s strawberries do not descend from those little woodland strawberries we had been spotting on our walks. They are not the result of countless generations of rural people patiently selecting woodland strawberry plants with ever sweeter and ever bigger fruits. The story of today’s plump and juicy strawberries is much more complex. They are actually the result of Europe having colonised much of the rest of the planet.

But let me start where all good stories start, at the beginning. It is true that Europeans had at one time domesticated woodland strawberries. Perhaps the Romans had done so, but if they did these domesticates were lost during the Dark Ages. Medieval Europeans certainly started domesticating them. King Charles V of France, for instance, has his gardeners transplant 1,200 woodland strawberry plants into his gardens some time in the late 1300s. Europeans also started domesticating the other species of strawberries which are found in Europe, the musk, or hautbois, strawberry, which is somewhat bigger than the woodland strawberry

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and the creamy strawberry, which as its name suggests can be quite pale; it’s about the same size as the woodland strawberry.

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It’s hard to tell from surviving documents, but Medieval and Renaissance gardeners do seem to have created strains of strawberries which were bigger and sweeter than their wild cousins. But by “bigger” I mean something as big as a plump blackberry, no more than that.

Then started the period of European colonisation. In the Americas this led to, among other things, the transfer of a wealth of new foodstuffs to Europe, a phenomenon I’ve touched upon in a couple of past posts. Maize, tomato, and potato are probably the most well known of these arrivals from the Americas. Like these three, most of the new foodstuffs came from Central and South America, but a few also made their way from North America. The best known of these is the sunflower, while I recently wrote a post about another, more modest transfer from North America, the Jerusalem artichoke. And now I have discovered that there was yet another transfer from North America: the Virginian (or scarlet) strawberry! This species of strawberry grows throughout much of North America, but it was of course first seen by Europeans in the colonies strung along the eastern seaboard.

These colonists must have been quite pleased to have this new strawberry plant at hand. We’re still not talking of berries the size of those we’re now used to – its berries were about the same size as those of the European musk strawberry. But no doubt they would have seen them as a useful adjunct to their diet.

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When exactly someone brought plants of the Virginia strawberry back to Europe is not clear – the early 1600s seem to be the most probable time frame. And what country they brought them back to is not clear either – the British, French and Dutch all had colonies in the strawberry’s range, so any of these three countries could have been the original entry point, and maybe the plant was introduced into Europe more than once. Wherever its entry point (or points) was, the Virginia strawberry didn’t spread that quickly through the rest of Europe. It seems to have been more of a curiosity, and certainly didn’t replace the European species with which people were familiar.

While the French, British, and Dutch were busy colonising North America, the Spaniards were busy colonising Central and South America. In South America, they first smashed the Inca Empire. Then they turned their attention further southward. It made strategic sense for them to control the whole of the Pacific seaboard down to the Straits of Magellan, to keep an eye on other pesky European nations coming through those straits for who knows what nefarious reasons. So they went on to conquer what is now Chile. In the south of Chile, the Spaniards encountered the Mapuche and Huilliche peoples, who put up a stiff resistance but who were eventually overcome and subjugated.

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The Spaniards discovered that these two tribes had domesticated another local species of strawberry, the Chilean (or beach) strawberry. And in this case the berry was pretty damned big!

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The Spanish colonists were very happy to add the Chilean strawberry to their local diet, to the point that it was commonly available in local markets in the new Spanish towns of southern Chile. It remained, however, a local delicacy. If anyone ever tried to bring back plants to Spain, there is no sign of them having succeeded.

So things stood until 1712. In that year, King Louis XIV of France sent a certain Amédée François Frézier on a secret mission to Chile. We have here a portrait of Frézier in old age, after a long and successful career.

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His orders were to find out all he could about the Spanish military presence there: forts, harbours, military units, and so on (this was part of Louis XIV’s ongoing struggles with Spain). For nearly two years, Frézier followed his orders most diligently, posing as a merchant looking for trading opportunities. But Frézier was a man of many interests, one of these being botany. Naturally enough, the Chilean strawberry, with its very big fruit, caught his attention. As he was to write later:

They there cultivate entire fields of a type of strawberry differing from ours by their rounder leaves, being fleshier and having strong runners. Its fruit are usually as large as a whole walnut, and sometimes as a small egg. They are of a whitish-red colour and a little less delicate to the taste than our woodland strawberries.

Frézier determined to bring some plants back with him when he returned to France. So it was that when in 1714 he finally boarded the ship which would be taking him home, he took five plants of the Chilean strawberry with him, and managed to keep alive on the long – and hot – trip home. When he arrived in France, he kept one of the plants for himself and sent the others to various friends and patrons. News of this new species of strawberry quickly made the rounds among Europe’s little circle of amateur botanists, especially after Frézier’s book was published in which he gave a detailed account of his doings in Chile and included a description of this strawberry plant with such large fruits. Strawberry plants are easy to propagate, so not only did news about the Chilean strawberry get around; so did clones of the various plants he brought back. Anyone with a serious botanical garden had to have the plant in their collection!

Alas! Great disappointment lay in store for many of those eminent botanists who planted the Chilean strawberry in their garden and eagerly awaited it to flower and – especially – to fruit (“usually as large as a whole walnut, and sometimes as a small egg”, Frézier had written). For the most part, their plants yielded nothing – nada, zero! They began to think that maybe the plant’s transfer to Europe had made it sterile.

Here, with the advantage of hindsight, I shall cut through all the intellectual confusion that pervaded the minds of Europe’s finest botanists for several decades. The fundamental problem was this: they hadn’t realized that some species of plants are hermaphrodites, and so can self pollinate, while in other species there are separate male and female plants, so both have to be present – and relatively close to each other – for pollination to occur. It just so happens that all the European species of strawberries are hermaphrodites, as is the Virginian strawberry, but the Chilean strawberry is not. There are both male and female plants in that species. Frézier must have taken only plants which were fruiting, and therefore females. This was sensible enough, given his (and everyone else’s) knowledge of strawberries; he wanted to be sure that the plants he nicked were fertile. But what this meant is that there was no way that those poor female Chilean strawberry plants, along with their clones which all the botanists were busy sending each other, were ever going to fruit in Europe without a male plant handy. This mystery was finally elucidated in the early 1760s by a young Frenchman called Antoine Nicolas Duchesne, who had a fascination for natural history. He was lucky to have access to King Louis XV’s gardens at Versailles and to be mentored by the “Assistant Demonstrator of the Exterior of Plants at the King’s Garden”, Bernard de Jussieu. After making a detailed study of strawberries, he explained all in his book Histoire naturelle des fraisiers published in 1766, when he was a mere 19 years old! Here is picture of him in old age.

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But actually there was a way to make the Chilean strawberry produce berries! The discovery had been made some time in the first half of the 1700s by those anonymous farmers whom I love to salute. While all those well-off, educated botanists were tearing their hair out at the Chilean strawberry’s obdurate refusal to fruit, they had found a way to coax it to do so – by interplanting the plants with either Virginian strawberry plants or musk strawberry plants. The pollens of these species were closely related enough to that of the Chilean strawberry to pollinate it. Presumably, by chance a farmer (or his wife) had planted these various species close together in their strawberry patch, had seen that the Chilean strawberry fruited under these conditions, and were sharp enough to draw the right conclusion. Who exactly these clever farmers were will of course never be known. But the chances are that it was one or more farmers from around the French city of Brest, in Brittany (Frézier was posted to Brittany on his return from Chile, which probably explains this Breton connection), although it could (also) have been farmers in the Netherlands.

And what fruits they were! Big, juicy, sweet – everything that Frézier had said of the strawberries he had eaten in Chile. Further experimentation showed that the two species from the Americas, the Virginian strawberry and the Chilean strawberry, gave birth to a fertile hybrid, which could be grown as a separate species. On top of this, this hybrid was hermaphroditic so no need for all that fiddly stuff of making sure to plant males and females together! This hybrid is the garden strawberry, the modern strawberry eaten all around the world today.

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An industry was created, which currently produces some 9 million tonnes of garden strawberries per year, (with – sign of the times – 40% of that being in China).

And what of the strawberries which this hunking hybrid of a strawberry displaced? The woodland strawberry has disappeared back into the woods from whence it came and where I found it at the beginning of this post. As far as I can tell, the same fate has befallen the Virginian strawberry. There is apparently still a small but devoted following of the musk strawberry in gourmet circles in Italy (of which my wife and I are clearly not part since no restaurant in this country has ever offered us this delicacy). And the Chilean strawberry is still eaten in certain parts of southern Chile.

And what of the other species of strawberries? Because there are something like 15 other species of strawberries around the world. Not surprisingly (strawberry plants liking cool to cold conditions), most of these are native to northern Eurasia, in an arc going from western Siberia to northern Japan. But a number are also to be found in the high areas of western China, all the way from Qinghai in the north to Yunnan in the south. A couple of species are also found in the Himalayas proper. There is even one species which inhabits the hill country of southern India and the mountainous regions of the Philippines.

A good few of these species don’t produce a fruit worth eating. Others do, but the steamroller of the garden strawberry hybrid has meant that they have never had a chance to develop commercially. They are only eaten locally. This is especially true in China. I find that a pity. Rather than becoming the biggest global producer of what is essentially an American hybrid, China should look to its own strawberries and bring them to its people, and to the rest of the world. Just a thought.

As for me and my wife, I think we should plan an enormously long hike from Yunnan to Qinghai, sampling the local strawberries along the way. That would certainly keep us busy for quite a while …

POSTSCRIPT 20 October 2020

A sharp-eyed, and knowledgeable, reader recently informed me that I had made a fundamental mistake when I thought that the little red fruits I was seeing on those hikes with my wife were woodland strawberries. Actually, he kindly told me, they were false strawberries (or mock strawberries), Potentilla indica. The fruits look like the Real McCoy, the leaves look like the Real McCoy, but it ain’t the Real McCoy! After a moment of indignation against this plant masquerading as another, I actually felt relieved. I wrote above that the fruits which I had tasted were bland tasting. Actually, eating them was like eating paper filled with sand (the keen-eyed reader felt it was like eating styrofoam; the few times I’ve bitten into styrofoam makes me think that that taste is quite nice compared to what I was tasting). I kept on wondering how our ancestors could ever have thought they were nice to eat. Now I know that what they were eating – the Real Mccoy – probably tastes quite nice, and I look forward to coming across some in next year’s hikes.

This discovery that what I had been looking at was actually Potentilla indica led me of course to do my usual (Wikipedia-based) research. Which in turn led me to discover that this false-friend is actually native to southern and eastern Asia. Another invasive species! Any faithful reader of mine will know that this has been a topic on which I’ve written several posts over the years. If any of my readers happen to live in Minnesota, they should be aware of the fact that that State’s Department of Natural Resources invites people to report this plant (and any other invasive species) to the authorities. I’m not sure if Italy has any such reporting system, but if it does I will be sure to report any more patches of this fake strawberry which I come across to the right authorities, and will gladly help them in uprooting the little bastards.