OLEANDER AND RABBIT HOLES

Milan, 27 June 2020

This post was going to be about the oleander, but as often happens when I surf the web I disappeared down some fascinating rabbit holes along the way. So while I will discuss the oleander I will also throw in a couple of disparate facts linked more or less tenuously to the oleander.

First the oleander. The walks which my wife and I have been taking recently on the Ligurian coast have led us past many an example of this fine plant, whose showy red and pink flowers have lit up our way, especially when we have been traversing urban sections of our walks.

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As usual, after quietly enjoying at this display from Nature, I looked to the plant’s history, to see where it had originally come from (not believing for a minute that it could be native to Liguria). What I found was, I suppose, a testimony to its enduring attraction to humans as well as to its toughness and endurance: enduring attraction to humans because it’s been domesticated for such a long time that no-one can make out its original home – South to South-West Asia seems to the best guess; toughness and endurance because even when taken out of its native habitat it has survived and thrived and created new homes for itself – here is a picture of oleander which has gone native in northern Israel, growing along the side of streams.

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It has gone similarly native in many places, from Portugal and Morocco in the west to Yunnan in China in the east.

Its toughness and endurance has made it a popular plant to use in unforgiving environments, like the median strips of highways: you can’t get much tougher than that – poor, stony soil, little water, fumes from the passing cars, collection point for all the rubbish that people throw out of their cars, or that drop off their cars. As a bonus, it almost makes highways look pretty.

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One of the first things that struck me when I went to Sicily was the oleander bushes along the highways there, the flowers turning what was really a very sterile environment into a pleasure to look at as the car whizzed down the highway.

The only other thing to note about oleander is its poisonous effects on humans and other animals. Every part of the plant is poisonous: in a word, beautiful but deadly. A couple of books have had as plot devices the murder of someone with oleander. For me, the best is Dragonwyck, not so much for the book as for the 1946 film made from the book. It has Vincent Price, a slimy smoothie if there ever was one, who does in his wife with oleander. We have him here staring broodingly at the fatal oleander plant.

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Actually, oleander’s deadliness has been exaggerated. It’s not really that bad. Very few people have certifiably died from ingesting oleander. The worst that normally happens is that you feel horribly sick, you vomit, you get diarrhea … I’m sure I don’t have to spell it out, readers get the picture.

And that’s it, really, for the oleander. Now I can turn to the rabbit holes I fell down!

The first is related to the plant’s effects on humans. But I must start with a little bit of context. I want to take my readers to Delphi, in Greece.

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Now the place is just a mass of romantic ruins, but in its heyday, from about 600 BCE to about 200 CE was really famous in the Ancient World, a place to go to if you wanted divine advice about something important to you: should our city go to war with our neighbour? should we start a new colony? or, on a more personal level, should I marry her? The temple there was dedicated to the god Apollo, and one of the temple’s priestesses, the Pythia, would answer your question. After offering a splendid goat for sacrifice and paying a suitable tribute (there’s no such thing as a free lunch), supplicants would be led down into the inner sanctum of the temple, this dark small room, where they would find the Pythia sitting on a tripod and flanked by a couple of priests. The tripod was placed across a cleft in the floor through which vapours or fumes would be rising and enveloping the Pythia. She would be holding a branch of laurel in one hand (the laurel was sacred to Apollo) and a small basin of clear water from a nearby sacred stream in the other. Rustling the laurel branch and gazing into the basin of water, she would answer your question. Here is the scene depicted on the bottom of an ancient Greek drinking cup, the supplicant to the right, the Pythia to the left.

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Now, this was not like having a pleasant conversation with someone. The Pythia would be “her hair stood on end, her complexion changed, her heart beat hard, her bosom swelled, and her voice became seemingly more than human”. Here is a much more satisfyingly dramatic rendering, painted by a certain John Collier in 1891, of what the Pythia might have looked like.

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The whole experience must have been quite unnerving and overpowering for the supplicants. On top of it, the answer they got was often quite cryptic, leaving the supplicants scratching their heads trying to understand the true meaning of what Apollo had told them through the Pythia.

Why am I recounting all this? Because there has been considerable discussion about how the Pythia got herself all worked up. What was she eating, drinking, or smoking to get herself into that state? Some of the ancient sources say that the Pythia was chewing laurel leaves. But as we all know – bay leaves, which are actually laurel leaves, being used in cooking – laurel leaves don’t have any effect on someone who eats them. Which is where oleander comes in. The Greeks were rather slipshod in their use of the name “laurel”, using it to denote several plants including the oleander (the leaves of the oleander and the laurel do look quite similar). So one clever chap has suggested that the Pythia was actually chewing oleander leaves, which could indeed give you all the symptoms the Pythias exhibited.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the vapours and fumes emanating from the cleft under the Pythia’s seat (and which are very evident in the painting by John Collier). Some have argued that it could have been these that (also) set the Pythia off. Given that Delphi sits on two geological faults which cross each other, it is thought in certain circles that the cleft which the Pythia sat astride was a natural opening into the bowels of the Earth. There has therefore been much discussion about what naturally formed fumes and vapors could have been seeping out from the Earth’s interior and been having this effect on the Pythia – ethylene? benzene? something else? – but it’s all been quite inconclusive. The above-mentioned clever chap suggests what seems to me a much simpler solution, that maybe under the room where the Pythia sat was another room, connected to the former through the cleft, and in which a priest was burning oleander leaves. By inhaling these fumes the Pythia was adding to the effects from chewing the leaves.

That’s one interesting rabbit hole connected to the oleander.

The other involves Hiroshima. As I would hope everyone knows, the first atom bomb ever dropped came down on Hiroshima on 6 August 1945. Here is a picture of the dreaded mushroom cloud which formed over the city.

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The city was totally devastated. Here are a few pictures of what the city looked like in the days and months after the dropping of the bomb.

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The city’s botanical gardens were not spared. So bad was the destruction that the garden’s directors thought that nothing would grow there again for decades. Yet lo and behold, the year after the bomb was dropped the oleanders in the gardens grew out from their blasted roots and flowered! The oleanders became a symbol of hope for Hiroshima’s citizens, convincing them that the city could be reborn even after this terrible catastrophe – as indeed it has. Ever since, the oleander has been the city’s official flower.

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I’ve become a bit of a cynic in my old age, but this little story does warm the cockles of my heart.

STRAWBERRY

Milan, 14 June 2020

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

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“These” are woodland strawberries. 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.

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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 …

JASMINE

Sori, 6 June 2020

All the walks my wife and I do around Lake Como (and now Lake Maggiore, to change a bit) start in an urban setting. We take trains, or buses, or boats, to get to our starting points and we are perforce dropped off in small towns or villages. In the last couple of weeks, as we have walked up through the back roads of these towns or villages to get to the woods and meadows above them, we have noticed a marvelous thing: whole walls of the sweetest smelling jasmine.

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This person has even made a tunnel covered in jasmine (I’m guessing it’s the garage).

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The scent of so much jasmine has quite gone to my head and my fingers have automatically begun doing a little research on the flower.

Truth to tell, I already did a little research on jasmine for an earlier post, when I researched the only perfume of my wife’s which I have ever liked: Chance Eau Fraîche, by Chanel. One of its ingredients is jasmine oil.

As I noted in that post, there are a large number of different species of jasmine. Some 200 have been catalogued, and who knows how many more are out there waiting to be discovered. My guess, though, is that those walls of jasmine which we have been passing are Jasminum officinale, the common, or white, or summer, or poet’s jasmine (and that’s just the English names).

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The logic for my choice is simple: it’s the most common jasmine in Europe.

But it’s not native to Europe. In fact, there is only one species of jasmine which is native to Europe, and only the Mediterranean part of Europe at that, the common yellow jasmine.

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Even in this case it’s difficult to say it’s a European flower. Its range stretches all the way to northern Iran.

The biggest “hotspot” of jasmine species is actually in South and Southeast Asia, although the west of China, especially Yunnan, hosts quite a few species. A number of species are present in Central Asia, but I suspect they may have been carried there from the Indian subcontinent. Australia is home to a few species, I suppose as a southward extension of their presence in Southeast Asia. And then there’s a good dozen species in Africa, especially southern Africa. To complete this world tour, no jasmine species are native to the Americas, alas.

If the jasmine my wife and I are seeing is not native to Europe, how did it get here? It seems that common jasmine, along with a couple of other jasmine species – sambac (or Arabian) jasmine, and Spanish (or Royal, or Catalan) jasmine – originally entered Europe via Sicily and Spain, when these were Arabian kingdoms: common and sambac jasmines through Sicily, and Spanish jasmine through (appropriately enough) Spain. Since I inserted a picture of the common jasmine earlier, I feel I owe it to these two other species to insert a picture of them too:
sambac jasmine

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Spanish jasmine

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But none of these jasmines were native to the Arabian-dominated lands either. The Arabs had discovered them even further to the east and had brought the flowers back to their homelands. They brought common jasmine back from Persia after they conquered it (a similar post-conquest westward transfer occurred with the lilac, as I narrated in an earlier post). In fact, the European name “jasmine” is a corruption of the flower’s Arabic name, which is itself a corruption of the Persian name for the flower, Yasameen, which means “gift from God” (such poets, the Persians!). And it’s possible that the Persians had come across the flower further east still. As for sambac and Spanish jasmines, it seems that trade, not conquest, brought them westwards, in the holds of the ships of Arab traders doing business with the Indian subcontinent.

Jasmines didn’t just ride westwards on trade routes. Common jasmine and sambac jasmine also rode on them out to the east, into China (another result of the ancient trade routes across the Eurasian continent – the “Silk Roads” – about which I’ve written previously). Here, too, the Chinese adopted the Persian name: Yeh-hsi-ming.

It’s interesting that the Chinese felt the need to import jasmines, given that they had quite a few of their own. Perhaps it was the pure white colour of these imported jasmines which attracted the Chinese – many of their jasmines are yellow as far as I can tell; I throw in a photo of one of the more common Chinese jasmines, winter jasmine.

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By the way, it’s called winter jasmine because it actually flowers from November to March. In fact, its Chinese name, Yingchun, means “the flower that welcomes Spring” (the Chinese, too, can be quite poetic). This quirk has meant that winter jasmine has now also been carried off to many a corner of the world.

But coming back to the jasmines imported into China, no doubt their heady scent helped too; perhaps they had a stronger scent than the native species. Or perhaps it was these jasmines’ close links with Buddhist ritual (something which the early Indian Buddhists had no doubt picked up from the Hindus). Anyone who has been to a Buddhist (or Hindu) temple in South and South-East Asia will have noticed the liberal use they make of jasmine flowers.

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By this reasoning, the use of these jasmines entered into China along with Buddhism, something else which was transported along trade routes (I have written earlier about a slightly different botanical story, the cooption by Chinese Buddhists of the ginkgo tree as a replacement for the bo-tree tree so beloved of South Asian Buddhists).

No doubt the Arabs were attracted by the colour of the jasmines (white seems to symbolise purity in so many cultures). But they were assuredly also attracted by their scent (which, I have to say, is indeed sublime). The name “sambac” points to this. It is a corruption of the Medieval Arabic term “zanbaq”, which means jasmine oil. As attested by the perfume Chance Eau Fraîche, which I mentioned earlier, the modern thirst for jasmine oil in perfumery is as great as it was in the Arabian kingdoms – actually far greater, since there are so many billions more of us on this planet now. Here is a field of  jasmine flowers in Grasse, in the south of France, waiting for their oils to be extracted (a field owned, by the way, by Chanel).

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But there is so little oil in each flower! As many as 8,000 flowers will have perished to produce this little, 1ml vial of jasmine oil (jasmine absolute, in the jargon of perfumery).

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Perhaps the way the Chinese use jasmine to scent tea is a little more “humane”. I watched a no-nonsense Chinese video on the making of jasmine tea. Cutting out all the marketing bla-bla, they mix together about an equal measure of tea (usually green tea) and jasmine buds (common or sambac), they let the mixture sit for a while so that the tea leaves get impregnated with the jasmine’s scent, and then they dry it. The result looks something like this.

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In truth, I’m not a great fan of jasmine tea. I like the scent of the flower on the air, but the scent of it in tea I find rather sickly. But perhaps this is because I have never had a really high-quality jasmine tea. I am ready to be pleasantly surprised one day.

Is it possible that such lovely flowers with such a delightful scent could have an evil side? Alas, it is possible: some species of jasmine have been declared invasive species in a couple of countries and are subject to eradication programmes. It is not the fault of the jasmines. It is our desire to fill our gardens with foreign flowers that is to blame. Take Brazilian jasmine, a lovely member of the family.

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For starters, it’s not Brazilian at all. It’s one of the African jasmines, no doubt taken to Brazil from one of Portugal’s African colonies (remember that the Americas have no native jasmines; perhaps a colonial administrator wanted to enliven his garden in Brazil). In the 1920s, the “Brazilian” jasmine was imported into Florida. Initially, it was planted in people’s gardens, but inevitably – as I’ve recounted in other posts in the case of other invasive species – the “Brazilian” jasmine “jumped over” the garden fence and began to spread. It has now invaded intact, undisturbed hardwood forests in the south of Florida, where it can climb high into the tree canopy, completely enshrouding native vegetation and reducing native plant diversity. Here is a picture of this jasmine at work in the forests of Florida.

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I was thinking about this this afternoon as my wife and I were walking high up in the hills. We were surrounded by beautiful wild flowers of all descriptions. Why do gardeners have to fill their gardens with foreign flowers when there are so many beautiful ones right on their doorstep? Another mystery to be solved one day.

Well, the evening is drawing in. It’s time for me to get ready to test something. I’ve read that the jasmine flower opens at night, so the scent is most powerful then. I shall persuade my wife to accompany me on a hunt for a wall – or just a modest bush – of jasmine, to see if this is true. I shall report back.

 

THOMAS BECKET ON LAKE COMO

Milan, 28 May 2020

In these days of Covid-19, when the rules here in Italy forbid us from traveling from one region of the country to another, my wife and I have been cut off from the usual hikes we do at this time of the year along the sea in Liguria. We’ve had to make do with hikes in Lombardy, which in practice has meant hiking along the edges of Lake Como. Not that we’re complaining (too much), it’s a beautiful part of the world to be hiking in. Anyway, a week or so ago, my wife and I decided to retrace our steps along one of the segments of the Wayfarer’s Trail which we had first attempted back in January (for any readers who are interested, I mention our hikes along the Wayfarer’s Trail in an earlier post). Towards the end of the walk we passed through a small village called Corenno Plinio, which lies just north of a somewhat larger village by the name of Dervio, where we were planning to catch the train to go back home.

The last time we passed through Corenno Plinio, back in January, the light had been failing and we were in a hurry to get to Dervio station before dark. So we had ignored the village’s sights and pressed on. And quite some sights there are, to whit a castle from the 14th Century, a little church from the late 12th-early 13th Century attached to the castle, plus the winding cobbled streets of what was once a Medieval village huddling under the castle’s protective walls. This time, with the days being considerably longer, we decided to take a little break when we hit Corenno Plinio and at least visit the church.

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For such a little church, it was quite a treat. Before we even went inside, there were three funerary monuments, dating from the 13th and 14th Centuries, to inspect. Readers can see two of them in the photo above. As for the interior of the church, there were some charming frescoes from the 14th Centuries on both walls of the nave. I particularly liked this Adoration of the Wise Men.

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Opposite the Wise Men was a fresco with Saints Gotthard (he of the Gotthard Pass in the Alps) and Apollonia.

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I’ve mentioned Saint Gotthard in an earlier post, but I had never come across Saint Apollonia before. For those of my readers who are not up to speed on their Christian martyrology, Saint Apollonia was one of a group of virgin martyrs from Alexandria who was caught up in a riot by the Alexandrian mob against Christians in the early 200s AD. In her case, the mob pulled out her teeth. This explains that mean-looking fellow who is shoving a large pair of pliers into the her mouth (she is, by the way, the patroness of dentistry, which I find highly appropriate; I feel just like that painting every time I sit in my dentist’s chair).

Further along the same wall, there was this line of apostles. I rather liked their piercing gaze.

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The only one I recognized was the one holding the knife. That’s Saint Bartholomew, who met with a particularly hideous end by being flayed alive (readers who are interested in knowing more can read my post on him).

And then, next to the apostles, there was this bishop.

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It is St. Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, slain on 29 December 1170 in his cathedral. In fact, I discovered, my wife and I were in the Church of St. Thomas of Canterbury.

Well! It gave me a little turn to find a church dedicated to this oh, so English saint on the shores of Lake Como. I had learned about him in my history classes many, many years ago in primary school. At University I had read T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral and Jean Anouilh’s Honour of God, plays which both explored his tortuous relationship with his king, Henry II. It seemed such an English story. Why would the Italians be interested in Thomas Becket?

For any of my readers who might not know his story, it is quickly told. Born into a London merchant family, Thomas rose to become Chancellor to Henry II. He served the king faithfully, but more than that, he and the king were genuinely friends. When the Archbishop of Canterbury died, Henry had the bright idea of putting Thomas up for the post. He thought Thomas would enthusiastically implement his agenda of strengthening royal powers at the expense of the Church’s. Henry felt – with some merit, I would say – that the Church was too powerful and independent: a state within a state, as it were. But the moment Thomas became Archbishop, he became a zealous defender of the Church’s independence and prerogatives. Not surprisingly, Henry was outraged and relations between the two men soured rapidly, to the point where Thomas finally fled England and sought the protection of the French king. For six long years thereafter, the two men brought to bear against each other all the punitive measures in their power short of violence. Finally a peace, or rather an armed truce, was negotiated and Thomas came back to England. But just before he landed, he excommunicated three bishops for reasons which are not completely apparent. When Henry heard the news, he flew into a towering rage and is said to have cried out, “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” Actually, he is more likely to have shouted, “What miserable drones and traitors have I nourished and brought up in my household, who let their lord be treated with such shameful contempt by a low-born cleric?”, which I feel sounds rather better. In any event, four knights (who play a major role in Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral) interpreted this royal outburst as an invitation if not an order to act. They immediately saddled up and left for Canterbury.

When they arrived, they placed their weapons under a tree outside the cathedral before entering to challenge Thomas, who was on his way to Vespers. They demanded that he submit to the king’s will and come with them to Winchester to give an account of his actions. Thomas of course refused. The knights then rushed out, grabbed their weapons, and rushed back inside, shouting “Where is Thomas Becket, traitor to the King and country?!”. When they found him, one knight grabbed him and tried to pull him outside, but Thomas held fast to a pillar. One eyewitness, who was wounded in the attack, wrote this about what happened next: “…the impious knight… suddenly set upon him and shaved off the summit of his crown which the sacred chrism consecrated to God… Then, with another blow received on the head, he remained firm. But with the third, the stricken martyr bent his knees and elbows, offering himself as a living sacrifice, saying in a low voice, “For the name of Jesus and the protection of the church I am ready to embrace death.” But the third knight inflicted a grave wound on the fallen one; with this blow… his crown, which was large, separated from his head so that the blood turned white from the brain yet no less did the brain turn red from the blood; it purpled the appearance of the church… The fifth – not a knight but a cleric who had entered with the knights… placed his foot on the neck of the holy priest and precious martyr and (it is horrible to say) scattered the brains with the blood across the floor, exclaiming to the rest, “We can leave this place, knights, he will not get up again!””

Well!! That is a most satisfyingly dramatic end to a story of a Medieval bromance gone terribly, horribly wrong.

It may have been a very English story (although in truth the French were a good deal involved, as was the papacy), but this hideous murder, in a cathedral of all places, of the highest prelate in the land of all people, apparently on the orders of a king of all things, sent shock waves around Europe. Not only was it a damned good yarn, to be declaimed to a rapt audience around the evening fire, but it contained – for Medieval Europeans steeped in Christianity – the elements of sacrilege: murder in the holiest of places, of Christ’s highest representative in England. A delicious shiver of horror must have travelled up every Medieval European spine when the spines’ owners heard the tale, and many signs of the cross must have been rapidly made and prayers breathlessly uttered to keep the devil at bay.

The fallout was immediate and immense. Almost overnight, the spot where Thomas was murdered became a place of pilgrimage. The Church made the most of it and had Thomas canonized in the record time of two and a bit years. The murderers fled to safety in Yorkshire, but eventually gave themselves up and submitted to a heavy penance. As for Henry, like any modern politician he tried to distance himself from the whole affair and urged everyone to move on, but like all modern electorates no-one really believed him and didn’t want to move on. So he made peace with the Pope, swearing to go on a crusade (a promise he never kept), and scaling back some of his more anti-Church policies. And he bought off the Becket family by making Thomas’s sister the abbess of a rich nunnery. But it wasn’t enough. When his three surviving sons, Geoffrey, Richard the Lionheart, and John Lacklands, along with his estranged wife Eleanor of Aquitaine, rebelled against him, Henry found the rebels were supported by many people who were still shocked by the murder of Thomas. Henry’s difficult relations with his wife and sons is recounted in the play  Lion in Winter – I show here Christopher Walken in the first production of the play in 1966 (for no better reason than my wife is a great fan of Walken).

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So Henry decided that more extreme measures were required. In 1174, four and a half years after Thomas’s murder, he went to Canterbury, publicly confessed his sins, and then received five blows from a rod from each bishop present, and three blows from each of the 80 monks of Canterbury Cathedral (that seems an awful lot of blows, but I’m sure they went easy on him; I mean, how hard would you hit a king?). Then Henry offered gifts to Thomas’s shrine and spent a night at vigil at his tomb (which is where Anouihl’s Honour of God starts).

In the rest of Europe, scores of churches were dedicated to the now Saint Thomas of Canterbury, the little church in Corenno Plinio being one of them, and some wonderful artwork was created recording scenes of his life and death. In truth, his death seems to have excited artists (and no doubt their patrons) much more than his life. That seems perfectly in keeping with an age which enjoyed seeing paintings of St. Apollonia having her teeth pulled out and St. Bartholomew being flayed alive. In any case, let me run through a selection of these artworks, starting from the moment Thomas was consecrated archbishop.

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This panel, of alabaster, was made in the second half of the 15th Century and was originally brightly painted. Many such panels were produced in England – the country was famous for them – and exported all around Europe.

Here, in a contemporary manuscript, we have Thomas now arguing with Henry.

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In this other manuscript from the 1220s, the relationship between the two men has completely broken down and Thomas is excommunicating some of the king’s men.

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This second alabaster panel shows the moment when peace was made and Thomas finally came back to England.

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And now, the moment we’ve all been waiting for, Thomas’s murder in the cathedral, in full technicolor.

From a psalter made in East Anglia in the mid-thirteenth century:

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A fresco from the late 12th century in the Church of Saints John and Paul, in Spoleto, Italy.

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From a reliquary, also of the late 12th Century, decorated with champlevé enamel. It was made in Limoges, France, which was a centre for this kind of work in Europe (I mention another wonderful piece of enamel work, this time made in the north of France, in an earlier post).

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Finally, we have Thomas, now St. Thomas, joining the pantheon of saints in heaven, in a mosaic from the late 12th Century in the apse of the Cathedral of Monreale in Sicily (a church which I have mentioned at some length in a previous post). This is a wide view of a rows of saints on the apse’s wall – Thomas is the one in green to the right of the window.

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Here is a closer view of him, in the company of Saint Sylvester.

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Once all the fuss died down, what happened? I think the fashion of dedicating churches to Thomas died away, but Canterbury became a high place of European pilgrimage, rather like Compostella in Spain is today. I’m sure there were many people who went on pilgrimages for religious reasons. But I’m sure there were just as many who went for the fun of it – Medieval Europe’s equivalent to our mass tourism of today. Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, written in the late 1300s, supports this. It follows a party of pilgrims on their way to Canterbury. To pass the time, they regale each other with stories. Some are religious. Most are not. And they are hilarious.

Then, another king came along, another Henry, Henry VIII this time. Another king who believed that the church should be a servant of the State, who broke with Rome and “nationalised” English Christianity. As readers might imagine, he didn’t care for Thomas Becket. In 1540, he had Thomas’s shrine in Canterbury Cathedral destroyed and he ordered that what was left of his bones were to be destroyed. He then had all mention of his name obliterated.

Now, all that is left in Canterbury Cathedral is this sculpture and a stone set in the floor where he was killed, bearing his name.

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And there still are, scattered across Europe, churches like the one in Corenno Plinio dedicated to him and some wonderful artwork in these churches or in museums celebrating his life – and death.

LEA AND PERRINS SAUCE

Milan, 20 May 2020

My wife’s English is really very good. Readers may think I’m biased, but really, it is very good. Whenever we meet British people, they are regularly surprised to learn that she is Italian. She has not a shadow of that “typical” way of speaking English which so many Italians have (“It’s-a not so bad, it’s-a nice-a place. Ah shaddap-a your face!”). She doesn’t even have that sort of indefinable accent which surely isn’t British but which you can’t quite place. Her only weaknesses are that she sometimes gets a typical British phrase slightly wrong (what we call a “Poirotism”, after David Suchet’s Hercule Poirot, who has this same tendency). And there are some words which she regularly has problems pronouncing. One of these is Worcestershire. It’s one of those legions of English words which are enunciated completely differently from the way they are written. A foreigner would be forgiven for thinking that it should be pronounced Wir-ses-ter-shay-r, and not WUUS-teuh-sheuh, which is the way a Brit would pronounce it. My wife does quite well, but she still stumbles a little over the “teuh-sheu” bit.

If I bring this up, it’s because my wife has been saying “Worcestershire” quite often since we went into lockdown more than two months ago, for the simple reason that she was using a lot of Lea & Perrins Worcestershire Sauce in her cooking during lockdown, to add some zest to the food and help us feel a little less mournful. She has since continued on this track.

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She is really quite liberal in her use, judging by the number of little L&P bottles which I have to recycle. Under normal circumstances, we would get through one, possibly two, bottles a year. In just the two months of lockdown, I must have thrown away at least three bottles.

But I have to say, Messrs Lea and Perrins’s sauce did add a je-ne-sais-quoi to the food it was applied to. Which of course is the whole purpose of the sauce, and has been ever since it first came onto the market in 1837 (I know this date because in my moments of idleness I have been reading up on Lea & Perrins Worcestershire Sauce). What was the source of that sweet yet pungent je-ne-sais-quoi, I have been wondering?

The label, of course, doesn’t really answer the question. It merely lists the ingredients in no particular order: malt vinegar, spirit vinegar, molasses, sugar, salt, anchovies, tamarind extract, onions, garlic, spices, flavourings. It doesn’t tell us how much of each ingredient is used, and, in the case of the last two ingredients, what spices and flavourings are used exactly. As I have noted in an earlier post on the Austrian soft drink Almdudler, the recipes for commercial brands tend to be locked away in particularly secure safes.

Except that in this case, by one of those happy twists of fate which make life so interesting, the recipe was divulged – at least the recipe as it was around the turn of the last Century. In 2009, Brian Keogh, who had been an accountant at L&P until his retirement in 1991 and who had then become an archivist for the company, discovered, thrown away in a skip at the company factory, an old ledger, which he retrieved before it was sent off to the dump. Just as well that he did, because it contained, among other things, handwritten write-ups of the recipe! For any readers who are interested, Mr Keogh authored a book called “The Secret Sauce: a History of Lea & Perrins”, where he describes his discovery and also gives a history of the L&P Worcestershire sauce. I include here pictures of the pages in the ledger showing the recipe used in 1907.

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(those interested in seeing the real ledger should go to the Worcester City Art Gallery & Museum)

For those readers whose eyesight is fading, you have my sympathy and I have recreated a table below with all the ingredients as they were in 1907 (although the writer has noted at the top “Return to old formula”, so no doubt these were also the ingredients in earlier decades). As for the quantities, those given in the ledger are “for one cask” and as a result are pretty damned large. They are also given in those cute units of pounds, ounces, and gallons which the British used before they entered the modern age and adopted modern metric units. I’ve translated all the quantities into metric units and scaled the amounts to make 1 litre of the sauce – that seems more than enough sauce for any determined reader to make should he or she decide to rush off to the kitchen and start making Worcestershire sauce à la Lea & Perrins.

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What emerges is that, at least in 1907, Lea & Perrins sauce was in large part vinegar, to which was added a good dollop of soy sauce, water, sugar and anchovies, along with a hearty pinch of tamarind, shallots, salt and garlic, a smaller pinch of red pepper and cloves, and a smidgen of essence of lemon.

Since the vinegar is such an important part of the overall sauce, I throw in a comment about it. I’m not entirely sure what is meant by vinegar F. or by acetic acid, but if readers look closely at the red writing on the second page of the ledger which I inserted above, they will see a calculation on the level of acidity of the mix of vinegars. It would seem that small amounts of a very strong vinegar were used to raise the acidity of the main vinegar. The modern version of the sauce still seems to use this trick, although nowadays malt vinegar and spirit vinegar are used. For anyone dedicated enough to make the sauce at home, please note that they should ensure that the vinegar mix they end up with has an acidity of 6.12% (I’ve just noticed that the wine vinegar we routinely use at home has an acidity of 6%, so maybe there would be no need to diddle around with vinegars of different acidity if you buy the right vinegar).

Since I’m commenting on the ingredients, perhaps I can make a couple of other points. The first is that the modern recipe has abandoned shallots in favour of onions. Why that should be I don’t know. Unavailability due to war led to the second big change, when soy sauce was dropped during World War II and replaced by Hydrolyzed Vegetable Protein, or HVP. This stuff is produced by boiling foods such as maize or wheat in hydrochloric acid. The acid breaks down the protein in the foods into their component amino acids. The resulting acidic solution is then neutralized with sodium hydroxide, leaving behind a dark-coloured, salty liquid. Sounds most unappetizing, but HVP is used in a lot of foodstuffs to give a bouillon-like taste. After the war, L&P continued to use HVP, because it was cheaper and presumably didn’t much affect the taste. From the list of the current ingredients on the label, I also see that at some moment between 1907 and today the company introduced molasses into the recipe. Again, I’ve no idea why they did that – perhaps to cut down on the amount of sugar?

Of course, I will be told that the ingredients is only half the story – maybe even less than half. How you put them together is even more important to the final taste. In the case of L&P sauce, pickling and curing seem to be very important. Today, the anchovies are fermented in salt for 2 years while the onions and garlic are separately pickled for 18 months in vinegar – from entries in the ledger, I get the sense that in the old days the two were pickled together, but I may be wrong. And then, after all the ingredients are thoroughly mixed together and homogenized, and the mash strained , the resulting liquid is put into barrels and left to mature for up to three years. This post-production maturation is a key part of the sauce’s creation story. It is said that when Messrs Lea and Perrins made their first batch, they of course tried it and found it to taste awful. They put it in a barrel, which they shoved in their cellar. They forgot all about it until a few years later, when they were clearing out the cellar. They came across the barrel, tried it again, and oh miracle! it now tasted delicious. And that was the start of Lee & Perrins’s Worcestershire sauce.

To be honest, I find this story somewhat dubious. But the other part of the sauce’s creation story – the part which explains where the sauce came from – is frankly unbelievable. Let me explain why.

But first, I need to introduce Messrs Lea and Perrins a bit more. These two men, born and bred in Worcestershire, were chemists – in today’s language pharmacists – who jointly ran a chemist’s shop in the town of Worcester. Their shop has disappeared, but a very similar shop was rescued and is now to be found in the Worcester City Art Gallery & Museum.

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Here are our two chemists – John Lea to the left, William Perrins to the right – at at time in their lives when they had become prosperous from selling their sauce.
As chemists, they would routinely have made up not just medical prescriptions but also other mixtures which their clients wanted. For instance, the ledger rescued from the dump has listed (on pages 18 and 19, for any reader interested in looking) not only the recipe for Lady Heskeeth’s pills but also recipes for Effervescent Cheltenham Salts, Lemonade Syrup, and Curry Powder. The story which the company put around in the first decades of the sauce’s life was that one day, a certain Lord Marcus Sandys, former Governor of Bengal, had walked into Messrs Lea & Perrins’s chemist shop in the early 1830s and asked them to recreate a sauce which he had encountered during his time in Bengal and which he had come to like enormously. Then he seems to have completely forgotten to come and collect his sauce, and, as I recounted above, our two chemists tried it, found it disgusting, shoved it in a barrel (rather than throw it down the sink, which is what I – and I’m sure most of my readers – would have done), put the barrel in the cellar, and forgot all about it for a couple of years .

Well, a Lord Marcus Sandys certainly existed around that time; he was 3rd Baron Sandys and his seat was in Ombersely, some 10 km from Worcester, so he could have gone into to Worcester to Messrs Lea & Perrins’s chemist shop. I throw in a painting of the Lord by Sir Thomas Lawrence.

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A great story, right? And a masterstroke in marketing. It combines a touch of the exotic (“sauce from Bengal”) with an aristocratic connection. The English were (and maybe still are) terrible social snobs, so manufacturers often tried to connect their products with members of the aristocracy. I have written an earlier post about a similar story in the naming of Earl Grey tea. And during the 1800s, the British were building their Empire, so there was a fascination among the public with the strange and wonderful things pouring in from this Empire.

Unfortunately, there are two problems with this story, one major and one minor. The minor problem is that Lord Marcus was not a Lord in the 1830s when the sauce was developed. He only became a Lord in 1860. But that’s OK. He could have been a mere Esq. when he asked our two chemists to make up the sauce, but he still became a Lord later on.  Our two chemists would merely have stretched the truth a little. But there is the major problem, which is that Lord Marcus was never Governor of Bengal. In fact, he never visited Bengal. Nor did his elder brother, who was the second baron. Nor did his mother, who was the first baroness (and who was baroness at the time the sauce was created). Nor did his father, who was 2nd Marquess of Downshire.

So where did this sauce come from? We have to presume that our friends John Lea and William Perrins picked up the recipe somewhere, or picked up a sauce somewhere and tried to recreate it, sensing a market for such a sauce. When Michael Portillo visited the Lea & Perrins factory a few years ago during the BBC’s Great British Railway Journeys series, the person he interviewed told him  that the original recipe was from Bengal and that Lea and Perrins added fermented fish to it.

This could well be possible. As I discovered on the Food Timeline website, there were certainly a number of sauces based on fermented anchovies doing the rounds in the early 19th Century:  anchovy sauce, essence of anchovy, fish sauce, Quin’s sauce. More or less at random, I have chosen to report here the recipe of a Quin’s sauce reported in William Kitchener’s The Cook’s Oracle, containing Receipts for Plain Cooking, of 1821. To get us into the spirit of things, I insert a photo of the cookbook’s title page.

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Here is the recipe (as we call them nowadays):

“Two wine-glasses of port, and two of walnut pickle, four of mushroom catchup, half a dozen anchovies, pounded, the like number of eschalots sliced and pounded, a table-spoonful of soy, and half a drachm of Cayenne pepper; let them simmer gently for ten minutes; strain it, and when cold, put it into bottles; well corked, and sealed over, it will keep for a considerable time.”

As readers can see, we have in common with the 1907 L&P recipe the anchovies (which are actually pickled, although it’s not clear from the write-up), the shallots, the soy sauce, and the pepper. Other recipes for fish-based sauces contain the garlic, the cloves, the vinegar, and even the lemon. What the 1907 recipe doesn’t have, but was present in nearly all the fish sauces, is mushroom and walnut ketchups (the history of ketchups being a fascinating story in its own right, perhaps the subject of a future post).

So my guess, based on nothing more than a hunch, is that John Lee and William Perrins took one of the many recipes for a sauce based on fermented anchovies floating around – maybe one used by their wives – and made one big change: they substituted the walnut and mushroom ketchups with a tamarind sauce.

That tamarind sauce could well have come from Bengal. Bengali cuisine certainly uses tamarind a lot. And maybe this popular Bengali tamarind-based dish, tamarind chutney (or tetuler chutney in Bengali), whose photo I give below, somehow made its way to Worcester. I could well imagine that Brits who had been to Bengal during the early 1800s got to know this chutney and brought it back to Britain. After all, they brought back a number of chutneys.

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I have no idea why the two partners thought of using this chutney or some other tamarind sauce instead of the walnut and mushroom ketchups in the fermented fish sauces which the Brits slathered on their food. Nor can I guess why they decided to let their concoction cure in a barrel for several years. But they did, and became very rich because of it.

I don’t know if there is a moral in this story: be careful what you throw away; don’t make up silly stories; truth is always stranger than fiction; think out of the box (or barrel in this case) and you’ll get rich; play on people’s snobberies; … I let my readers decide for themselves.

And do all remember that it’s pronounced WUUS-teuh-sheuh sauce.

SAINT PETER AND MY HEADACHES

Milan, Sunday 26 April 2020

My phone gave a ping this morning. It was to remind me that the head of Saint Peter of Verona would be on view today in the basilica of Sant’Eustorgio.

Like in those movies which start by jumping right into a scene that leaves the viewer confused and then write “24 hours earlier …” at the bottom of the screen, I must now write that in order for readers to understand this cryptic statement we need to go back some three months, to the month of January (a blessed time when we were still free to walk around and go wherever we wanted). My wife and I had gone down to the basilica of Sant’Eustorgio (a mere 15 minutes’ walk from our apartment) to visit its small museum, something which we had never done (I should note in passing that Sant’Eustorgio is one of Milan’s oldest churches, having been established in the 4th Century. One day, I might devote a post to it). In any event, the centrepiece of the museum is the Portinari chapel. It was built in Renaissance style in the 1460s, by Michelozzo, or possibly Filarete, or maybe Guiniforte Solari. As readers can see, there is a considerable degree of doubt on the question. What is not in doubt is who paid. That was Pigello Portinari, who made his money as the Medici Bank’s representative in Milan. He had it built as a family chapel cum mortuary, as well as a place to house one of the relics of St. Peter of Verona, his head (more on this later).

We see here an exterior view of the chapel.

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Anyone who has visited Milan will see a certain resemblance with the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, which houses Leonardo’s Last Supper.

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But the chapel’s real interest lies in its interior. There are lots of things to admire, but two things stood out for me. One is the interior decoration of the dome, by Vincenzo Foppa.

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The rainbow effect, I suppose meant to denote the ineffable beauty of heaven, is really striking. It reminds me of a fresco by Bergognone in another Milanese church, San Simpliciano, which I came across quite by chance one day (an adventure which I relate in an earlier post).

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The other stand-out in the chapel is the sepulchure of St. Peter of Verona, by Giovanni di Balduccio, a Pisan sculptor, said to have learned his trade under Giovanni Pisano. He was brought to Milan to sculpt this sepulchure in the later 1330s, some 80 years after the saint’s death.

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It’s a very complex sculpture, full of meanings and theological allusions, as befits a religious sculpture of the Middle Ages. I do not propose to elucidate any of the meanings or allusions, because I want to focus on what I found most enchanting about the sculpture, the bas reliefs around the centre of sepulchure, three of which we see in the photo.

These tell the story of the saint’s miracles, his death, funeral, and canonization. They are gems of storytelling. I’m sorely tempted to insert photos of all the bas reliefs, but I will control myself and only insert four.

Starting with his miracles, we have first the healing of the dumb man: a fairly mainstream depiction, with everyone looking holy.

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Then we have the miracle of the boat. I presume there was a storm and the saint’s intercession was invoked. Look at the man scurrying up the mast and the fear on sailors’ faces.

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Then we have the saint’s murder, in a forest near Seveso: look at the monk running away on the left while the assassin plunges the knife in.

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Finally, we have the saint’s canonization by Pope Innocent IV: look at the two grooms at the bottom holding the horses. I can almost hear one saying the other, “how long are they going to go on in there?”

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Saint Peter of Verona is one of my favourite saints, iconographically speaking (as I’ve noted in an earlier post). He was killed by having his skull split open with a sabre and having a dagger plunged into his chest. This led to a whole string of paintings over the centuries like this one by Guercino.

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I know it’s puerile but I find it hilarious to see these paintings with the man solemnly standing there with a sabre stuck in his head.

In any event, a strange thing happened when the saint was eventually buried in Giovanni di Balduccio’s sepulchure: the head got separated from the rest of the body. One explanation put forward is that Giovanni got the saint’s measurements wrong and made the sepulchure too short. His head was therefore taken off, and the the-then Archbishop of Milan, one of the large Visconti tribe, decided to take it. Another simply has it that the Archbishop wanted to have a piece of the saint near him and comandeered the head – which was probably considered the holiest piece because of that vicious sabre slash. Whatever the reason, the fact is that the saint’s head ended up with the Archbishop, in a nice urn. But then, the story goes, the Archbishop started suffering terrible headaches, and finally realised that he was being punished for keeping Saint Peter’s head separated from the rest of his body. He returned the head to Sant’Eustorgio and hey presto! his headaches disappeared.

Readers can imagine that this story rapidly turned Saint Peter into the saint to be invoked by those who suffer from headaches. Thus started the tradition of bringing the head out once a year, on the last Sunday of April, from the little side-chapel of the Portinari chapel in which it is stored away, and allowing people to come up and touch the casket in which it is kept.

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Well, this is very interesting to me! I have to tell readers that I have suffered from headaches since the age of 14. When I was young they could be very strong, now they are just a nuisance. Of course, I’m a firm believer in modern science! But still, you never know, perhaps a little touch of the saint’s casket could help …(rather like those crossed candles at the throat to protect one from sore throats on St. Blaise’s feast day). So, since today is the last Sunday in April this year, I had been hoping to take part in this ancient ritual. Thus, the reminder which I had put in my calendar way back in January. But it is not to be, Covid-19 has once again screwed up plans.

Goddamned Covid-19 …

CAPPUCCINO: ITALIAN OR AUSTRIAN?

Milan, 9 February 2020

One of the more enduring habits which my wife and I have taken up in our retirement is to go out for a morning walk to a local bar and have ourselves a cappuccino. It’s always a pleasure to watch the barman or woman go smoothly through the motions of making it:

1) Brew the necessary shot of espresso with the espresso machine.

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2) Steam the milk and foam it, using the wand on the espresso machine to do this. The wand must not go more than 2 cm below the surface of the milk! Otherwise, you won’t create the necessary microfoam.

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3) Gently pour the steamed milk and foam over the espresso, to get the necessary layering: proportions should be one-third of espresso at the bottom, one-third of steamed milk in the middle, one-third of microfoam floating serenely on the top.

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4) If you want, sprinkle some cocoa or cinnamon or chocolate powder over the foam

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5) If you’re feeling really artistic, create nice figurines on the foam.

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It seems almost a shame to destroy all of that handiwork by drinking it. But that’s what we do every morning (and afternoons sometimes)

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Aaaah, cappuccino, that most Italian of beverages!

Except that it isn’t.

At least, its origins are most definitely not Italian.

I have to say, I was completely gobsmacked when I discovered this. I mean, cappuccino is as Italian as pasta, right? But no. All agree that the Italian cappuccino is a direct descendant of one of the products of Vienna’s 18th-century coffee houses, the kapuziner.

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As this photo shows, the modern kapuziner will often have a head of whipped cream on it, but in its original form the kapuziner was simply a shot of coffee to which a small amount of cream had been added. This had the effect of turning the coffee dark brown. It was this colour which led to this drink’s name: kapuziner is the German name (and cappuccino the Italian name) of the order of Capuchin monks, whose habit is the same dark brown. I throw in here a picture of a Capuchin monk, so that readers can see what colour the Viennese had in mind.

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This is actually a painting of Blessed Marco d’Aviano, a Capuchin monk well known in Vienna. A native of Friuli in the north-east of Italy, he became – by one of those strange twists and turns that make up history – a close friend and advisor to the Austrian Emperor Leopold I. He played an important role in stitching together the coalition of forces which broke the Ottomans’ second and final siege of Vienna in 1683, and he was behind the Austrian Emperor going on the offensive after the siege and starting the slow and steady expulsion of the Ottomans from south-eastern Europe. He is buried in the Kapuzinerkirche in Vienna (along with a bunch of the Hapsburgs, I might add). I chose to exhibit him rather than any other Capuchin monk for two reasons. First, because it allows me to refer readers to a post I wrote about the breaking of that 1683 siege of Vienna. Second, because there is a story circulating on the net and elsewhere that the Viennese named the kapuziner in his honour. Supposedly, he was carrying out his mediation efforts over a cup of coffee. Finding it too bitter, he added cream.

Personally, I don’t believe in this link with Marco d’Aviano. I think that the colour of the kapuziner simply reminded its drinkers of all those Capuchin monks they would have seen buzzing around Vienna. For any doubters, I would point out that there is another coffee beverage which was common in the old days in Vienna, which had more cream added to it and which therefore was of a lighter brown colour. It was called the franziskaner, a reference in this case to the order of Franciscan monks, whose habit is indeed of a lighter brown colour.

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They too would have been a common sight around Vienna.

Clearly, colour was an important distinguishing feature for Viennese coffee drinkers. I read that initially all these different mixtures of coffee and cream or milk had no name. The customers of Vienna’s coffee houses simply chose the mixture they wanted from a colour-shaded chart. What an absolutely splendid idea! Something to be brought back into use; like that, we can consign to the dustbin all those fancy names which communication agencies have dreamed up for what are after all merely differing mixes of coffee and milk. Here is a suitable modern take on this idea.

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As the photo above shows, the kapuziner’s initial simple recipe – black coffee with a dribble of cream well stirred in – had to get more complicated of course: human beings simply can’t leave a good thing alone. Sugar or honey was added early on, spices like cinnamon later, and a topping of whipped cream later still. It’s worth noting in passing that whipped cream has become a popular addition to various coffee drinks in Austria, to the point that in the rest of Europe a “Viennese coffee” often is understood to mean a coffee with an island of whipped cream floating on it.

But how did the kapuziner, a product of the Austrian Empire, become the cappuccino, that most Italian of coffee drinks? The answer lies in the Austrian possessions in Italy.

Already in the 1700s, when coffee drinking was growing in popularity in Vienna (as it was in the rest of Europe), a good chunk of northern and central Italy was governed from Vienna. This became even more marked after the Congress of Vienna of 1815, when the Austrian Empire was given the central and eastern regions of northern Italy (what are now Lombardy, Trentino-Alto Adige, Veneto, and Friuli-Venezia-Giulia, as well as parts of Emilia-Romagna), plus Tuscany in central Italy.

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Some theorize that it was Austrian soldiers who, garrisoned in Italy, brought to the country the coffee beverages they knew from home, including the kapuziner. Others think it was Italians who, after visiting Vienna either for work or for fun, brought back with them the coffee beverages they had discovered in Vienna. But I think there is a much simpler answer: export of the Vienna coffee house culture.

The habit of drinking coffee had brought with it the building of coffee houses, or cafés as they came to be called. This development became particularly marked in Vienna. By the 1850s, the city was famous throughout Europe for its cafés. The best took on a certain look: large rooms, red-velvet seats, magnificent chandeliers, smartly-dressed waiters. No visit to Vienna was complete without a visit to one of its famous cafés. Here, we have a view of one of these cafés in the early 1900s.

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As always in Empires, there must have been a desire in the provinces to ape the manners of the Imperial capital. It is certainly the case that Viennese-style cafés opened in many of the Austrian Empire’s provincial capitals: Bratislava, Prague, Budapest, Zagreb, and – in Italy – Verona, Trieste and Venice, to name just a few. Not only did these provincial cafés copy the interior decoration of the smarter Viennese cafés, they adopted their menu of coffee beverages too. Thus, in my opinion, did the kapuziner make its way into Italy.

At some point, it became the cappuccino. The translation might have occurred after the Austrians were kicked out of most of their Italian possessions with Italian unification; national pride could have required that the menu in the cafés drop the language of the evicted colonizer. Or it might have occurred during the early Fascist period when there was a determined effort to stamp out non-Italian languages in all the areas along the country’s northern borders: French to the west, German and Serbo-Croat to the east.

But this kapuziner-turned-cappuccino was a far cry from the cappuccino my wife and I drink every morning. I read that there are photographs of cappuccini from the 1930s (which, alas, I have not found) which still depict a Viennese-type coffee, topped with whipped cream sprinkled with cinnamon or chocolate. What changed everything was the invention of the espresso machine.

The first commercially successful espresso machine was produced in Milan, where I am writing this post, in the early 1900s by the Pavoni company (my wife will be interested to know that the production site was on the same street as her old high school). But these were crude machines and much tinkering took place in subsequent decades. One of the more successful tinkerers was Francesco Illy, creator of the eponymous coffee company (who was, incidentally, a typical product of the Austrian Empire and its collapse: born into a Hungarian family from Timișoara, now in Romania, after fighting for Austria in World War I he settled in Trieste, now in Italy). But it wasn’t until the 1950s, when espresso machines were finally able to scald and foam milk properly, that the cappuccino as we know it today was born. Scalded milk could take the place of the cream and foamed milk could take the place of the whipped cream.

So is the cappuccino Italian, or is it Austrian? I feel the same way as I felt when I wrote a post about whether the wiener schnitzel was the parent of the cotoletta alla milanese or vice versa: a bit nervous about getting attacked by some furious internet trolls regardless of the decision I came to. But I really think that in this case we can say that while it may have Austrian roots the cappuccino in its modern form is Italian – without the espresso machine, invented and perfected in Italy, we would not have it.

I hope this Solomonic judgement will satisfy everyone. And now it is time for my wife and I to set out for our daily cappuccino!

OLIVES

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

Sori, 27 January 2020

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

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

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

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

Green olives from Cerignola in Puglia

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

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

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

Black olives from Gaeta in Puglia.

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

Black Nocellara olives from the Belice valley in western Sicily.

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

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

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

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Or there are Gordal olives from Andalusia in Spain.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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KEBABS AND GEOPOLITICS

Milan, 22 December 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I think we can even throw in grilled fish.

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Yes, all most delicious!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LAGO D’ORTA

Milan, 29 November 2019

My wife and I recently accompanied our son on a short business trip he was making to a small place to the north of Milan, near Lake Maggiore. He was going there to look over a company. We went along to share the driving and visit the local area. The company he was visiting happened to be very close to the point where a few weeks previously we had given up a walk in the area (the one where we had stumbled across several very lovely varieties of mushrooms), so we decided that we would use the occasion to visit what would have been the end point of our walk had we finished it.

That end point was the village of Orta San Giulio, which sits on a peninsula jutting out into Lake Orta. This is a small lake, the most westward of that series of lakes which form a necklace at the base of the Alps, between Verona to the east and Novara to the west. Readers with good eyes will see Lake Orta, marked with a red pin, to the far left on the map below.

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Once we had deposited our son at the gates of the company he was visiting, we set off to Orta San Giulio. It was not, truth be told, the best day to visit anything: it was grey and drizzly, the kind of day that in my mind will be forever linked to the UK. But that didn’t stop us appreciating the scene that unfolded before our eyes as we arrived at the lake’s southernmost tip and took the road which hugged its eastern coast. My wife and I took no photos during our little tour, and the lake under the rain seems to have no fans among the legions of persons who post photos on the internet, so I can only describe to readers what we saw.

As we wound our way along the coast, with the wipers sweeping regularly across the windscreen, the trees covering the slopes which fell steeply into the lake’s waters – trees vested in their brown and reds of late autumn – began to give way to large estates with equally steep but more manicured grounds, the kinds of estates which I associate with the late 19th Century. Out on the water, dimly at first but ever more visible as we got closer to the village of Orta San Giulio, we discerned through the drizzle an island, the Isola San Giulio. The road began to climb to the top of the ridge of the peninsula along whose outer edge Orta San Giulio is built. Once we reached the top, we turned off the main road and made our way down to the village itself, passing as we did other, smaller estates climbing the side of the hill. When the road reached the water’s edge, it turned cobbled and narrowed into a single lane. We found a place to park and continued on foot, huddling under our umbrellas. Apart from a cat or two, we had the place to ourselves. Soon we were walking between rows of old houses on both sides of the street and only got an occasional glimpse of the lake down a side alley. But all at once, we entered the village’s main square, Piazza Motta, and there had a full view, across the square’s wet and windswept flagstones, of the lake and Isola San Giulio hovering on its waters in the middle distance. We could now make out the buildings on the island, in particular a Romanesque campanile on the water’s edge and a big hulking building, looking in all respects like an army barracks, which dominated the island’s centre point. We admired the view, looked curiously at an old hotel, now very much worse for wear, which occupied one whole side of the square, noted the street at the back of the square which, the signposts informed us, took one up to the Sacro Monte d’Orta, the Sacred Mountain of Orta, and then headed back to the car. It was time to go and pick up our son, and anyway it really was too wet and cold to explore any further. “For another time!” we promised each other. Maybe this Spring; there is a train we can take from Novara to Orta San Giulio.

In the meantime, though, I feel I must give my readers some idea of what we saw, or perhaps more accurately what we might be seeing when we come back in better weather. As is my habit, I’ve also been mugging up on the lake’s history and so can use this occasion to tell my wife – faithful reader of my posts – and any other interested readers about what I’ve learned.

So here is a photo album which I’ve cobbled together with other people’s pictures posted on the internet.

This is what the lake looks like on a good day from its south end, the end that we first saw it from.

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Isola San Giulio is visible, along with a few houses of Orta San Giulio to the right. The pre-Alps rise up in the background.

As we turned off the main road down to Orta San Giulio, we passed this frothy building.

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It is Villa Crespi. It was commissioned in 1879 by a wealthy cotton merchant by the name of Cristoforo Crespi and built in the Moorish Revival style. I suppose it is a somewhat outlandish example of what was happening around all of northern Italy’s lakes during that period: rich (or enriched) industrialists and bourgeois joined the aristocracy in building summer homes on the lakes. The same phenomenon certainly happened on Lakes Como and Maggiore (we see those villas every time we walk around those two lakes) and no doubt on Lake Garda (which still awaits a visit from us). Quite frankly, this particular building reminds me of some of the cinemas which dotted British cities when I was young, but at least this one continues to serve a decent purpose: it is a luxury hotel and home to the restaurant of one Antonino Cannavacciuolo (a well-known chef on Italian TV, I have read).

Certainly Lake Orta must have been a popular playground for the wealthier classes of the late 19th Century. It hosted the first ever European Rowing Championship in 1893 (rowing in Italy being considered a very aristocratic sport) and various national rowing championships thereafter, as this poster of 1909 attests (for an event, readers will note, “under the patronage of HM the King” [of Italy, of course]).

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What happened in the following decades is a classic example of how not to manage a lake – but we will get to that later.

This was the narrow street we walked down after parking the car: Via Giovanetti.

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It was pleasant to walk along under the rain; it looks even more pleasant on a sunny day.

And this is the village’s main square, Piazza Motta.

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I’m not an expert on real estate but it does seem strange to me that the old hotel we see across the square in the photo (called, rather prosaically, Hotel Orta) has not been snapped up by someone and refurbished. There cannot be many places which have this nice a view when one steps out of the lobby onto the street:

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Down by the lakeside at the foot of the square one catches the boat to go over to the Isola San Giulio, which, as we get closer, will look like this,

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while we leave Orta San Giulio literally in our wake.

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I think a little bit of history is in order here, because Isola San Giuglio has always been at the centre of the lake’s story.

The island gets its name from St. Julius, a possibly legendary saint who is said to have christianized the area around the end of the 4th Century AD. It is narrated that Julius and his brother Julian were two Greeks who somehow made it to Italy and were instructed by Emperor Theodosius I to destroy pagan altars and sacred woods and to build Christian churches. Which they did with a vengeance. The little church which Julius built on the island is said to have been the hundredth – and last – church he built. There are the usual colourful stories of his doings like, for instance, this one: having decided that he would build his last church on the island but finding no-one willing to take him there he laid his mantle on the water and miraculously sailed over to the island. As a final aside on this saint, he made it to sainthood, but – rather unfairly, I think, since the two worked hand-in-hand in their proselytizing mission – his brother Julian did not.

In any event, the first little church was succeeded by a larger one built in the 6th Century, which itself was succeeded by an even larger one built in the 12th Century; it was later nominated a basilica. That is the building we see today (although it has been much remodelled inside, as we will see, and squeezed in between houses built in later centuries). It is its campanile which we noticed when we were standing in Piazza Motta that cold and rainy day gazing out towards the island.

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The island’s religious vocation was always in conflict with its obvious military importance. As this map shows, Lake Orta was one of two natural passageways for anyone crossing the Alps at the Simplon Pass to get down into the Po River plain and all its riches – the other was along the shores of Lake Maggiore. The red pin shows the location of the Simplon Pass in the map.

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Having crossed the Simplon, armies would march down (or peaceful merchant trains would lumber down) the valley of the River Ossola and then either go along Lake Maggiore or march up to Lake Orta and then pass through the valley at the other end. A Frankish army did that in 590 AD, marching into territory that was claimed by the Longobards. A Longobard Duke, Mimulfo by name, who was entrenched in the island, seems to have just let the Franks through. For this betrayal, the Longobard King Childebert had Mimulfo beheaded on the island. (A French Corps also crossed the Simplon in 1800, as part of Napoleon’s campaign in Italy; I have no idea which of the two routes they used to get to Milan)

The island was also a useful place to hole up if hostile armies were around. To this end, a castle was built there as early as the 900s AD, reconverting some of the church buildings to military use and generally constricting how the church and its buildings could be expanded. By then, the Longobards had been defeated by the Carolingian Franks and northern Italy had become part of the Holy Roman Empire. The Emperors were traditionally also Kings of Italy, and northern Italy was therefore impacted by Imperial policies and politics. Around the turn of the first millennium, a struggle started in northern Italy between the smaller noble houses, many of Longobard origin, and the larger noble houses and the bishops, who owed their positions and land to the Emperors. The smaller nobles wanted – not unsurprisingly – to have their own, local king, while the bigger nobles and bishops wanted to continue to be beholden to an Emperor far away on the other side of the Alps who left them to pretty much run the show as they wanted. In 945, at a time of Imperial weakness, the smaller nobles got the upper hand and elected one their own, Lothair, as King of Italy. He was quickly replaced by Berengar, whose family was powerful in the region around Lake Orta. By this time, the Empire was back on an even keel and, at the request of the Northern Italian bishops, the new Emperor Otto I sent his son Liudolf with a large army over the Alps to deal with this upstart.  Berengar’s family split up and holed up in various castles which the family controlled. Berengar, together with one of his sons, chose the castle on Isola San Giuglio. There, he was besieged by Liudolf and eventually surrendered. For some reason, Liudolf let both Berengar and his son go free. They went off and holed up in another castle of theirs in Romagna. Several months later, Liudolf died, officially of a fever although it was whispered that Berengar’s people had got to him and poisoned him. With Liudolf’s death his army melted away, and Berengar came out of his castle in Romagna to proclaim himself King of Italy once more. More Italian bishops headed north over the Alps, besieging Otto to come personally to deal with Berengar. This he did in 961, but first he went to Rome to have the Pope proclaim him Emperor and then to Pavia to have himself proclaimed King of Italy. By 962 he was ready to deal with Berengar, who adopted the same strategy: split up the family and hole up in various castles, except that this time it was his wife Willa who got to be in the castle on Isola san Giuglio (together with the family treasure) while Berengar headed for the castle in Romagna. Otto decided to go after Willa and history repeated itself: a siege of several months of the castle on Isola San Giulio followed by its capitulation. Again, Willa was allowed to go free (but not the family treasure) and she joined her husband. This time, though, Otto made sure that the castle stayed under Imperial control. As for Berengar, he died four years later and none of his sons seem to have made any attempts to retake the throne. There was another revolt by the small nobles some 40 years later, when Berengar’s grand-nephew, Arduin, was proclaimed King of Italy, and Northern Italy was put through the same circus: The Emperor (this time Henry II) came over the Alps with a large army and put Arduin in his place; he went back to Germany with his army and Arduin came out of whatever castle he was hiding in and proclaimed himself King again; Henry II came back over the Alps with another large army and dealt with Arduin again, this time for good (without, though, putting him to death; I think the Longobard king Childebert had the right approach: off with their heads!) Italy was not to have an independent King again until Italian unification nearly 900 years later.

After that, Isola San Giulio seems to have been pivoted away from its martial use back to its religious vocation and the whole area became a bit of a rural backwater. Over the next two hundred years, the successive bishops of Novara maneuvered to gradually have the Emperor give over to them the southern part of the lake as a feudal principality, which they then ruled with what seems to have been distant benevolence for some five hundred years; the local notables were generally allowed to rule themselves as long as they paid the necessary tithes and taxes to the prince-bishop. I don’t know if the prince-bishops used any of these funds to make life better for the peoples of their little principality. They certainly did use some of their funds, as did pious pilgrims, to make the basilica ever more beautiful. From the 14th to the 18th centuries, the church’s look was “modernized”, with the latest Baroque additions giving the inside of the basilica its current look, and frescoes were added on every available surface, with the later ones sometimes obliterating the earlier ones. We have here the “modern” frescoes in the vault and dome (the picture also shows the baroque “scarification”).

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while here we have one of the earlier frescoes, which are now tucked away out of sight in the lateral aisles.

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I have already made my feelings abundantly clear about baroque and later religious art in earlier posts, so I need hardly say that I prefer the earlier frescoes.

While all this religiosity was going on, life was not completely trouble-free in Isola San Giorgio and the surrounding principality. The end of the 15th, beginning of the 16th Centuries were agitated times in Italy and while this quiet corner of northern Italy was largely able to avoid the troubles, for a decade or so, 1520-30, the troubles came to it. In 1523, the plague broke out, in all likelihood brought to the area by refugees from Novara which had been sacked and pillaged by French troops fighting the Spaniards. But worse were the predations by the neighbouring lordlets, many of them from the Visconti family, who were attracted by the relative prosperity of the principality. Although officially the Duke of Milan was exhorting the lordlets to be good boys – these were church lands, after all – he probably unofficially supported them in their rapine, because he had his own quarrel with the Bishop of Novara over the ownership of this little principality: Novara and its province had come under Milanese dominion some two hundred years earlier. On some excuse, Orta San Giulio was sacked in 1524 by one Visconti lordlet and prisoners taken for ransom. In 1526 and ’27, the principality was forced by another Visconti lordlet to put up, for free, a company of Imperial soldiers. In 1528, the same Visconti lordlet decided to become Governor of the principality and moved into the castle on Isola San Giulio. When the locals besieged him there, a third Visconti lordlet came to his rescue and sacked Orta San Giulio a second time. In early 1529, a random Imperial army invaded the principality and demanded a huge payment to leave. The locals refused to pay and escaped to the island and the relative safety of its castle. After trying to take the castle a few times, the army gave up and left, sacking and pillaging as it went. A few months later, the third Visconti lordlet decided it was time to pillage some more and marched into the principality at the head of a band of soldiers. This time, the locals were “mad as hell and weren’t going to take it anymore”, as the saying goes; they were determined to resist. Grabbing what arms they had, they met the invaders and brought them to battle. The invaders made the classic mistake of thinking that these were just a bunch of peasants who would run away when the going got tough. But they didn’t; they fought like madmen. They were helped, it has to be said, by the marshy ground they had chosen, which meant that the invaders’ horsemen were neutralized. The result was that the Visconti lordlet and a good portion of his men were massacred. The other lordlets of the area took heed and desisted in their predations (probably aided by the fact that a general peace was finally brokered between the Great Powers fighting over Italy).

Thereafter, Isola San Giorgio and the rest of the principality slipped back into its state of feudal somnolence for another two hundred years. In 1735, Novara and its province were handed over by the Austrians to the House of Savoy. The-then Duke of Savoy (and King of Sardinia) Charles-Emmanuel III had no patience with quaint feudal relics in his lands like the Bishop of Novara’s principality around Lake Orta. Pressure was brought to bear and slowly, slowly the bishops divested themselves of their feudal rights to the principality in favour of the House of Savoy. By 1819, the deed was done: the principality was no more. It was just one more district in the lands of Piedmont and, after 1861, in the newly-unified kingdom of Italy.

As a sign of the changes, the remains of the castle on the island were dismantled completely in 1841 and in their place a huge seminary was built – it is that big blockhouse of a building which I thought were old army barracks.  We have here an old postcard celebrating the seminarists.

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The seminary is no more; it lasted a little less than a hundred years. But the religious vocation of the island continues. The basilica and seminary have been handed over to a congregation of Benedictine nuns – we have one here going through the rite of becoming a Bride of Christ.

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The nuns have an interesting vocation. They study and translate ancient texts, and restore ancient fabrics and tapestries.

It is time to go back to Orta San Giulio and take that street at the back of Piazza Motta which we had noticed that cold and drizzly day, and which carries one up past this church to the Sacred Mountain of Orta.

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The Sacred Mountain of Orta is one of a number of Sacred Mountains which were created in the late 16th, early 17th Centuries in Northern Italy. They were very much promoted by San Carlo Borromeo, Cardinal of Milan (whose very large nose I have mentioned in an earlier post). The original idea was to create places of pilgrimage which could stand in for the Medieval pilgrimages to the Holy Land, which was becoming harder and harder for pilgrims to reach. For San Carlo Borromeo, the Sacred Mountains were also to be a way to teach the little people, who had not had the benefit of an education, in an easily understandable way such mysteries as the Trinity but also the lives of Christ, the Virgin Mary, and great saints. To this end, the Sacred Mountains were made up of a series of chapels containing life-sized models in terracotta, backed up by frescoes on the chapel walls, each telling a story in a holy person’s life or making a point about some tricky theological concept: little theatrical pieces, if you will. I have mentioned the use of art to teach illiterate people about religion in an earlier post. With the growth of Protestantism, the Sacred Mountains took on a third purpose, that of combating these horrible heresies. That no doubt explains why there are so many Sacred Mountains in Northern Italy, where they were created as bulwarks against the tide of Protestantism that could be washing over the Alps at any minute. In fact, the Sacred Mountain of Orta is part of nine such Sacred Mountains in northern Italy which are now inscribed in UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites. In September, my wife and I visited another of these nine sites, at Varallo in Piedmont (where, coincidentally, we were once again accompanying our son on one of his business trips). I mentioned another of these sites, at Varese, in an earlier post I wrote about the fondness of religions around the world for sacrilizing mountains.

The Sacred Mountain of Orta is dedicated to the life of St. Francis, which pleases me no end since he must be my favourite saint, as I have mentioned in an earlier post. There are 20 chapels, laid out in a wooded landscape.

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I don’t propose to show readers photos of them all. Just two can give readers a sense of what would await them were they to visit this Sacred Mountain (or any of the other Sacred Mountains for that matter).

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I hope these scenes are in better shape than the ones we saw at Varallo, which were really rather tatty. Luckily, they were in the midst of being restored when we visited.

You get beautiful views over the lake from the Sacro Monte.

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As you gaze down on this sunny scene, it’s hard to believe that a mere thirty years ago the lake was dead. Everything in it had been killed off by industries which were discharging their crap into the lake, turning it into the most acidic lake in the world. It started back in 1927, when the German company Bemberg, which was making rayon fibre using the cuprammonium process, set itself up on the lakeside. The plant’s copper and ammonium discharges quickly acidified the lake, killing all life in it in about two years. Bemberg made limp efforts to control the discharges, which did begin to finally show noticeable reductions in the late 1950s. But by then Bemberg had been joined by a host of small plants making metal consumer products; two of these companies, incidentally, went on to become global brands: Bialetti and Alessi.

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Many of these plants included electroplating in their processes (that Alessi kettle is heavily chromed, for instance) and consequently toxic heavy metals such as chromium, zinc, copper and nickel were added to the filthy mix being discharged into the lake. As if that weren’t enough, the acidic waters of the lake released aluminium from the natural and normally harmless imissions of aluminosilicate into the lake, adding yet another toxic metal to the stew. Things only got better when the legislators eventually banged their fist on the table and passed Italy’s first water protection law in 1976 (the Legge Merli; I know it well, I referred to it countless times when as an environmental consultant I would tell Italian companies they needed to control their water discharges). Suddenly, companies which had claimed for years that it was impossible to control their discharges and remain in business found – surprise, surprise – that actually it was possible to control them and stay in business. But it took more than just forcing companies to properly control their discharges to get the lake’s pH back to normal. A massive liming operation was required, where calcium carbonate was added to the lake. A boat was specially made for the purpose. Lime was first sprayed on the surface.

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But that wasn’t enough. Lime had to be injected deep into the lake, below the thermocline. It took twenty years to restore what had taken a mere two to destroy. The lake is now more or less OK: “fishable, swimmable”, in the catchy phrase of the US’s first water protection law, although the planctonic populations are not quite right yet.

Well, on that somewhat hopeful note, I leave my readers. Maybe some of them will make it to Lake Orta one day. My wife and I certainly will, when Spring comes rolling round again.