WOOD AND FIRE

Vienna, 14 November 2020

As befits a mountainous country with a coolish climate, Austria has acres of forests covering its many hills and mountains. As a consequence, it once had a vibrant tradition of building in wood. Nowadays, of course, wood as a building material has been almost completely superseded by stone, brick and concrete. The only places you still see wooden buildings are in the small villages which dot the countryside, wooden barns being still quite common there. My wife and I come across them quite often on our hikes, as these photos taken on a couple of recent hikes attest.

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I love these old barns. My French grandmother had one just like them attached to the side of her house. We went in there often because that was where the bicycles and the ping-pong table were kept. It was – to the small me – a vast, cavernous place. All sorts of weather-beaten garden tools and other odds-and-ends lurked in the shadows. There was a pile of hay – quite why I don’t know; my grandmother had no animals. But it made the barn smell of hay, into which was mixed the smell of beaten earth rising from the floor. Then one summer I arrived for the summer holidays, only to find the barn gone. My grandmother told me that it had been sagging sideways and threatening to pull the rest of the house down with it. But this perfectly rational explanation didn’t take away the desolation I felt at the disappearance of this wonderful building.

As I say, there was a time when many more buildings in this country were made of wood, especially in the mountain regions. A number of Austrian artists have captured them on their canvases. Oskar Mulley was especially assiduous in his painting of mountain huts and barns, partly or wholly made of wood.

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Alfons Walde also often included these buildings in his paintings, although snow was more his thing.

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Alas, as we all know only too well, wood burns very well. The older and drier it is, the better it burns, as we all learnt watching the roof of the cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris go up in flames.

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The previously common use of wood in construction in Austria and its tendency to burn well must explain why every municipality in this country, down to the smallest village it would seem, has a fire station. As an extreme example, a couple of days ago my wife and I passed through a small village on one of our hikes, which had not one

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not two

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but three fire stations!

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And each one is bigger than the last. Are fires getting bigger in this village, I wonder, or is it that fire engines are getting bigger and need a more spacious building to house them, or (a somewhat uncharitable thought) have municipal budgets been growing?

Of course, as befits a traditionally Catholic country, Austrians have a saint whom they can invoke to protect them from fire: St. Florian. Austrians should be particularly proud of this saint since he is a native son. The annals tell us that he was born in the latter part of the 3rd Century C.E. in Lorch, near Linz, on what was then the edges of the Roman Empire – the Danube River, which flows just north of Lorch, was the frontier of that Empire. Since so many Roman army units were garrisoned along the frontier his father could have been an army officer. Florian was active, possibly also as an army officer, in St. Pölten (or Aelium Cetium, as it was then called) when one of the periodic rounds of persecution against Christians broke out. This one occurred in 303–304 C.E., under the Emperor Diocletian (the same round of persecution that put paid to St. Pancras, about whom I wrote an earlier post). Without going into the details, which are anyway of dubious validity, it is recorded that Florian was arrested as a Christian. After a trial and various tortures, he was drowned in the Danube by being thrown off a a bridge with a stone tied around his neck. Thus did he become a martyr and a saint.

Sensibly enough, Florian was initially invoked to protect people from the dangers of water. At some point, though, he was pivoted (to use that most modern of terms) and used instead to protect people from fire. My theory – for which I have absolutely no evidence – is that another saint, John of Nepomuk, about whom I’ve written in an earlier post and who died in almost exactly the same way as Florian – thrown from a bridge and drowned – won the competition for protecting people from the dangers of water, leaving Florian without a role. Well of course, one critical use of water was to put out fires, so hey presto! he became the protector from the dangers of fire.

The Austrians have not only used wood to build, they have used it to carve, and their churches (and museums) are full of wonderfully carved statues and bas-reliefs. I throw in here a couple of bas-reliefs (from southern Germany in this case) which were recently auctioned at Vienna’s Dorotheum auction house.

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Naturally enough, the saints who got a place in churches tended to be people’s favourites, ones whom they prayed to regularly. Given the ever-present danger of fire, one of these is St. Florian. My wife and I came across this lovely example of a St. Florian statue during one of our hikes this Autumn, down by Neusidler See (the same hike where we picked up bagfuls of walnuts).

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We see here all the typical attributes of such a statue. Florian is dressed as a Roman soldier and gripping a banner, he is holding a bucket of water, and he is thoughtfully pouring that water over a little burning house situated at his feet. Delightful! My wife and I have come across scores of such statues during our wanderings over Austria’s hills and dales. In fact, we came across a fresco of him on the wall of a house just this afternoon.

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One statue of St. Florian which we haven’t seen, though, and which I have put on my bucket list stands in the town of Bad Tölz in Upper Bavaria. The statue was set up in a square, in front of the town’s tax office. Since the statue gave its back to the tax office the sculptor thought it fitting to have the saint flash his bum to the tax men, to show them what he – and the rest of the town – thought of them.

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I think we can all sympathize with the citizens of Bad Tölz, especially since St. Florian’s feast day is 4th May, a few days after 30th April, which for many in the world is the deadline for turning in their income tax returns.

By extension of his duties as heavenly fireman, St. Florian is the patron saint of many trades where fire was once used: bakers, brewers, coopers (the staves which coopers used to make barrels were steamed to make them pliable), potters, forges, soap boilers (who knew that was once a profession?). He is also, naturally enough, the patron saint of chimney sweeps, which, dear readers, contrary to coopers, soap boilers, and the rest is not a profession that has disappeared – not in Austria, at least. They are alive and well and thriving here.

When my wife and I first came to Austria, we were struck by these young blokes we would see (there have also been some young ladies in recent years) walking the streets and wearing this strange outfit: black overalls with a white head covering.

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Upon enquiry, we were told that they were chimney sweeps. Chimney sweeps?! Well, both my wife and I have been around the block a couple of times (I won’t admit to how many) and neither of us have any memory of our parents calling in chimney sweeps. I don’t know about my readers, but to me the term “chimney sweeps” conjures up a Dickensian vision of little boys being forced to climb down narrow chimneys by a nasty master and getting stuck and dying.

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At a minimum, chimney sweeps should be dirty-looking, like coal miners.

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In fact, they should have died out along with the coal industry. But no, these Austrian fellows are around in large numbers and are lick-spittle clean; they don’t give the impression of ever getting within a mile of an actual chimney. What is going on here?

I don’t want to be uncharitable, but I rather get the impression that we have here a great example of a union using its political muscle to avoid extinction. The way I see it, when chimney sweeps saw that their days were numbered, they got the governments – municipal, for the most part – to pass laws requiring homeowners to have their chimneys – used for gas water heaters for the most part these days – as well as the water heaters themselves checked at least once a year by a “chimney sweep”. As a homeowner in Vienna, I have had the doubtful pleasure of having Viennese “chimney sweeps” come over, solemnly open a little trap door in the wall, perfunctorily have a look in, declare all to be well, and require to paid handsomely for this service. And on top of it all they expect a tip at Christmas! This year, I found this “service” particularly grating because just a few days before the “chimney sweep” had come around we’d had the water heater maintained by a man who spent a good deal more time on the job and got paid proportionately a good deal less. But we can’t get out of it, because if we were to have a fire – Oh St. Florian, spare us this disaster! – and if it turned out to have been due to something the chimney sweep would have checked if we had called him, then the insurance wouldn’t pay – they have you over a barrel (made by one of those coopers who have since disappeared).

Not wishing to end on this sour note, writing about chimney sweeps reminds me that in the old days, when they really did sweep chimneys out, they would have cleaned chimneys connected to those wonderful tiled stoves which they used to have here in Austria. Some places actually still have them. We came across one this summer while staying in a hotel on a hike near Innsbruck; the stove is at the back of the room in the picture.

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As readers can see, they have a bench around the bottom where one can sit with one’s back against the stove wall keeping nice and warm. I understand people would even sleep on these benches. But what is really lovely about these stoves is their decoration. I throw in a few pictures of such stoves.

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Once, when we were looking for an apartment in Vienna to rent, my wife and I were shown one with such a stove. For one mad moment, we thought of taking the apartment just for the stove. But good sense prevailed; it would have been too small, the children wouldn’t have had their own rooms. Sometimes, though, my wife and I reminisce about that stove we never had. Another thing on our bucket list.

MARTIN’S GOOSE

Vienna, 11 November 2020

Often in past years, on this day – 11 November, the day on which the First World War ended on the Western Front – I have published a post in memory of those who died in that war or who were permanently scarred by it. But this year, since my wife and I are spending November in Vienna, I published this year’s memorial post a few days ago, in recognition of the fact that the war ended about a week earlier for the Austro-Hungarian Empire. So instead, I shall use this post to celebrate rather than grieve. I shall write about a food dish, the Martinsgans (which for some strange reason becomes Martinsgansl in Austria).

Martinsgans is a dish from the German lands and is traditionally eaten today, 11 November (but of course nowadays, as a way of increasing sales, it gets offered in restaurants for a couple of weeks around that date – although this year, because of Covid, all the restaurants are now closed in Vienna). It is a dish based on goose – Martinsgans translates into English as Martin’s goose. Why Martin’s goose rather than anyone else’s goose? Well, that’s because 11 November happens to be feast day of St. Martin in the Christian calendar.

A Martinsgans made according to tradition consists of roast goose served with cooked red cabbage and potato dumplings. This is what it will look like when it is placed on the table to the oohs and aahs of the assembled family and guests.

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For those of my readers who feel the need for an adventure in the kitchen, here is a recipe for making Martinsgans.

The goose:

Wash the goose thoroughly inside and out and dry.  Cut a couple of apples and an orange into eights, mix well with some thyme and marjoram, and stuff the goose with the mix. Tie the goose up and seal with wooden skewers. Rub the goose well on the outside with salt, pepper, marjoram and thyme, and then place the bird, breast side down, in a large greased roasting pan or baking dish. Roast the goose in the oven, preheated to 220°C, for about half an hour. Brush the goose with honey several times and pour a bottle of beer over it. Turn the oven down to 180°C, deglaze with a little water, and roast the goose in the oven for about 2 hours. Pour its own juice over the goose while it is roasting. Take the roasted goose out of the oven, and let it rest for a while before serving.

While the goose is roasting, you can prepare the red cabbage and the potato dumplings.

Red cabbage:

Clean, wash and finely chop the red cabbage. Mix with some orange juice and red wine, a dash of lemon juice, salt and caraway seeds, and let it all steep for a while. Then cook in a saucepan over medium heat until soft (30 minutes or so).

Potato dumplings:

Peel some potatoes, cook them until soft, then squash them. Mix in some potato starch, semolina, salt and nutmeg. Let the dough rest for half an hour. Then form the dumplings, and let them simmer in a saucepan with salted water for 15 minutes.

I could leave it there and invite my readers to go celebrate life with a Martinsgans night out, as these folk are.

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But I’m afraid I can’t. Too many questions were buzzing through my mind when I was reading up on Martinsgans. Why is the goose eaten on 11 November and not 11 October or 11 December, or indeed the 11th of any other month? And why goose rather than duck or swan – or chicken or turkey or any other fowl? I had to investigate further, and as is my habit I feel a bursting desire to share what I have learned with my readers (and I fervently hope that they have a bursting desire to listen).

On the question of why November 11. As usual, there are several reasons given on the net. The one which I think makes most sense is that it is the result of the Catholic Church’s liturgical calendar. There was a time, long, long ago (from the 7th to 12th centuries CE, to be precise), when the Church required all good Christians to do three days of fasting a week from St. Martin’s day (i.e., 11 November) to Christmas, to prepare themselves for that great feast. Very sensibly in my opinion, people decided that they would have one last good meal before starting to fast. Thus was born the tradition of having a slap-up meal on St. Martin’s day.

What’s odd, though, is that the Church authorities eventually decided to cut this period of preparation before Christmas – which is now called Advent – to four weeks, with the start date being in the very last days of November. So why didn’t the slap-up meal migrate to the end of November?

It could be because, together with the decision to shorten the Advent period, the Church authorities dropped the requirement to fast (a very sensible decision in my opinion; I never could understand why fasting would make you more religious). So perhaps there was no longer any need (or excuse) to have a slap-up meal just before Advent started.

But then why continue with the slap-up meal on St. Martin’s day? And here I think we have to look to some of the other reasons proposed on the net. In the old agricultural calendar, the beginning of November was when in many European countries excess livestock was slaughtered and the meat salted or otherwise preserved (I wrote about one such product, the Italian cotechino, in an earlier post). As a result, it was also a period when many peasants (I dare hardly call them farmers) paid some of the rents which they owed to their lords, payments nearly always made in kind rather than in cash.

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St. Martin’s day was traditionally the day when these payments were made. Early November also happens to be the time when domesticated geese are at their fattest. Hence, payments were often made in live geese (in the picture above, one of the peasants is making his payment with what looks suspiciously like a swan).

It’s a little off the point, but I remember well a story which my mother used to tell us when we were young. My maternal grandparents owned some lands, which they rented out to local farmers. The day when the farmers paid their rents was St. Martin’s day. One such farmer was a farmer with red hair (this point was stressed in the story, because – quite unfairly, I think – my mother considered red-haired people to be excitable). In my imagination, I see him something like this.

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Like many rural folk of the time (we’re talking the late 1920s, early 1930s), this farmer had received little formal education – probably primary school, if that – before starting to work the land. The discussion would always start pleasantly enough. My grandfather would work his way through the accounts, showing the farmer, let’s call him Mr. Dupont, how he had arrived at the amounts due. As long as my grandfather kept to addition Mr. Dupont could follow. But whenever my grandfather strayed into multiplication, Mr. Dupont got nervous, he would go red in the face, raise his voice, and start objecting vociferously, with my grandfather vainly trying to placate him: “but no, Mr. Dupont, really, if you multiply 20 by 5 you get 100” – all to no avail. My grandfather had to keep to addition with Mr. Dupont.

But back to the subject at hand. Since the lords now had live geese on their hands, and since lords were always eager to eat fresh meat, we can understand that at least a few of the geese would have been sent to the lord’s kitchen for neck-wringing (or throat-cutting?), plucking and roasting, with a fine feast to follow.

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Luckily for us (because most of us had peasants as ancestors, no?), the industrial revolution came along and wealth got much better distributed. So it’s not only lords now who can afford to eat goose on 11 November, it’s most of us. Which is a Good Thing – except, of course, for the poor geese which end up roasted on our dining room tables.

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As I look these geese waddling to their roasted fate, I am reminded of a song in Carmina Burana (admittedly about a swan, but the principle is the same). The original is in Latin, but I will spare the readers the trauma of reading the original and give them an English translation:

Verse 1:
Once I lived on lakes,
Once I looked beautiful
When I was a swan.

Chorus:
Misery me!
Now black
And roasting fiercely!

Verse 2:
The servant is turning me on the spit;
I am burning fiercely on the pyre:
The steward now serves me up.

Chorus

Verse 3:
Now I lie on the platter,
And can fly no longer,
I see bared teeth.

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Spare a thought for the goose as you bare your teeth to tuck into your Martinsgans.

THE EASTERN FRONT

Vienna, 5 November 2020

It’s been many years since my wife and I have been in Vienna in November – 12,  to be exact; I have to go back to the year before we left for China. Like many things which have been done differently this year, the cause lies in Covid. Had it not been for that damned virus, we would have flown to Japan in early October for my teaching course, and we would have flown back to Milan in late October. As it is, constrained by the “new normal”, I am giving my course online, from my living room.

I see, though, that one advantage of being here in Vienna during the month of November is that I can continue my annual habit of memorializing the end of the First World War. But this time, rather than writing about the Western Front with which I am more familiar, I can write about the fronts in which the Austro-Hungarian Empire was involved, principally the Eastern Front.

Not that I know terribly much about the war on the Eastern Front, which was for the most part a war between the Germans and Austro-Hungarians, on one side, and the Russians, on the other. I have bought books on the subject over the years, but by a twist of Fate those books are down in Milan: all the books which we put into storage when we left for China went to Milan and all the books which we bought in China have ended up here in Vienna, and of course I bought books on the Eastern Front when we lived in Vienna before going to China.

So little do I know about the war in this part of the world that I got the date of the ceasefire between the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Allies wrong. I thought it was on 7 November and was planning to post on that day, but actually it was on 3 November, so this post is actually two days late.

I’ve read that the Eastern Front was so long – it stretched all the way from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea, so some 1,600 km – that trench warfare never really developed there. The density of soldiers along the Front was much lower than it was along the Western Front, so it was easier to break through the enemy’s lines, and then once a breakthrough was made it was difficult to stop it because the very sparse lines of communication made it difficult to rush the necessary reinforcements to plug the hole in the line. The result was a much more fluid Front.

That’s as may be, but a few years ago I took pity on a very faded aquarelle by the Austrian painter Rudolf Weber, an official War artist for Austro-Hungary, which was on sale at the Dorotheum Auction House. Its subject was a scene from 1916 on the Eastern Front, in Galicia to be precise. I felt that I owed it to the men who died there to give the aquarelle a decent home. It now hangs on the wall, in the shadows to protect it from the light. Although the colours are bleached, you can see a trench snaking across what appears to be a high plateau.

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Weber must have been capturing a moment just after a local skirmish. In the lower left-hand corner one can make out dead soldiers lying on the edge of the trench as well as in it.

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So there must have been some trench warfare on the Eastern Front.

What happened to those dead soldiers, I wonder? I suppose most of them must have been buried close to the front, just as they were on the Western Front. But are there military cemeteries like those lovely, well tended cemeteries that we see on the Western Front?

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I fear not. The Eastern Front runs through the modern-day countries of Latvia, Poland, Bielorussia, Ukraine, and Romania. A number of these countries suffered through the Russian Revolution and its many years of chaotic aftermath. Then this whole region was embroiled in the incredibly bitter fighting of the Second World War. I suspect that whatever military cemeteries were created along the Eastern Front vanished in the decades that followed.

Even if they had existed, they would have been too far away from Austria for most parents to visit and mourn over the graves of their dead sons. The Eastern Front was some 600 km away from Vienna at its nearest point, and as we’ve seen the means of communication we’re not good in that region.

Where did parents mourn their dead sons, then? I suppose they had to make do with the war memorials that dot every Austrian town and village (memorials that a mere 25 years later were lengthened, sometimes by a good deal, through the addition of the names of those who died in the Second World War).

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And what of the grand public memorials, by which the warring States memorialized the citizens which they sent to the slaughter? Austria has two. It has a War Memorial, erected in 1925 in the Central Cemetery, which is not central at all, being located on the edges of the city.

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And it has a Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which has been placed within the building of the old city gates that give access to the old Imperial Palace, the Hofburg.

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Perhaps I’m reading too much into this, but I can’t help but wonder if the locations of these two monuments reflect the differing political contexts of the years in which they were built. Of course, there is a logic in having a memorial to the war dead in a cemetery, but in 1925 the elites were struggling to make a go of the new democratic Republic of Austria. Perhaps these politicians didn’t want any reminder too near the centres of power of the war which destroyed the Empire, leaving them with a small runt of a country to run: better to tuck it away in a cemetery on the outskirts of the city. By 1934, however, Austria was effectively a Fascist dictatorship, and no doubt the elites of this dictatorship wanted a monument glorifying the valiant “warriors” who fought and died for the fatherland in that war. Thus are monuments used to project political ideas.

The First World War spawned a slew of war poetry and war art in the UK and, to a lesser degree, in France, which wrestled with the moral outrage of this war. Did the same thing happen in Austria? I cannot judge if Austrians created any war poetry (I know the Germans did; I have translations of some of it). As for war art, few if any of the well-known Austrian artists who lived through the war seem to have produced anything war-related. Egon Schiele painted a few portraits of the Russian POWs that he was in contact with (because of his weak heart and his excellent handwriting, Schiele was given a job as a clerk in a POW camp).

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Gustav Klimt doesn’t seem to have created any war paintings – but then he was not personally involved in the war effort. Oskar Kokoschka, who actually fought on the Eastern Front, seems to have created only one painting, Knight Errant, with the war as its theme, but I find it too heavy on the symbolism for my taste.

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The same with Alfred Kubin, who seems to have only created this illustration, End of the War from 1918 – but, like Klimt, he was too old and had no direct experience of the fighting.

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Only Albin Egger-Lienz seems to have created some great war paintings. Here is his painting The Nameless.

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Every time I see it, I am reminded of a commentary I read on the American Civil War, about an attack by Unionist troops on a Confederate-held fort. As they ran towards the fort, the soldiers leaned forward as if running against a strong hailstorm – which in a way they were, although it was a hail of lead rather than of ice.

Here we have The Dead Soldier.

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This is Finale from 1918 (compare to Kubin’s lame attempt on the same theme).

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Egger-Lienz was also sensitive to the havoc the war wrought on home life. Here is his painting War Women, the women left behind when the men left for the war.

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And here is his painting The Blind, his commentary on the mutilations meted out by the war.

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Otherwise, we have to go down a level, to artists who are not all that well known outside Austria. A number of these were official war artists like Rudolf Weber, others fought in the war. Here, in no particular order, are some of the better paintings (and drawings) which I found on the net.

Rudolf Höger’s Fight at Doberdo

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Höger was an official war artist and no doubt was trying to show the soldiers in a good light, as brave “warriors”. But all I see is the sheer brutish thugishness of it all.

Alfred Basel’s Fighting in the Carpathians

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Basel was also an official war artist. In a way, his subject is no different from Höger’s, yet it seems more of a ballet in his hands.

This other work by Basel, After the Breakthrough at Tagliamento, reminds me of the work of another war artist, C.R.W. Nevinson, about whom I’ve written an earlier post.

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A painting by Wilhelm Dachauer

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Dachauer was assigned to a medical team as an orderly. No doubt this subject was drawn from his experience.

Stephanie Hollenstein’s Dying Soldier

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Pretending to be a man, Hollenstein joined a rifle brigade in 1915. After a few months, her officers discovered the deception and threw her out. But she returned to the Front, this time as an official war artist. No doubt she drew this on one of her visits to the Front.

Robert Angerhofer’s Dead Soldier in Barbed Wire

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As these paintings show, soldiers suffered and died in the same way on the Eastern Front as they did on the Western Front. But if there is one thing that has always struck me living here is how little the Austrians commemorate their war dead compared to the UK. Are the Austrians trying to forget their past? Or is it simply that they have decided that they cannot forever lament the dead? I sometimes think the British commemorate their war dead too much, in the process glorifying war. That is not good. But I don’t think we can just blank out the death and suffering of millions. We owe it to them not to forget.  So I’m glad that, once again – although a little late in this case – I have spent some time this year remembering the millions who died or were maimed, physically and mentally, in the war that was meant to end all wars.

THE OBSCURE NAMES DEPARTMENT

Vienna, 14 October 2020

Question: What connects this tumbledown church, which my wife and I stumbled across during a multi-day hike we did this summer in the Wachau region of Austria

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and this train station in London, well known to all those who take Eurail to go to London?

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Answer: Their names: they are both called Saint Pancras.

I must say, when we came across that half-ruined church and discovered its name my curiosity was piqued. I mean, Pancras is a funny name, no? I’ve never met anyone face-to-face called Pancras, I’ve never even heard of someone called Pancras. And those websites which will breathlessly list you famous persons having a certain name all came up blank for Pancras. I had only ever heard the name due to the station, and that only because it’s right next to King’s Cross Station, which I used a lot at a certain moment of my life. And I only remember the name because of its close similarity to the name of that organ we all have and whose precise purpose I have never really understood. Yet here were two places some 1,500 km apart with the same name. Yes, my curiosity was piqued, I had to investigate – “Google it!”, as my son always says. And I am now ready to report.

First of all, who was this Saint Pancras? Well, he was an obscure fellow about whom relatively little is known. Like Saint Blaise, another obscure fellow whom I have written about in an earlier post, he was born in what is now central Turkey some time in the 3rd Century. When still a boy and after his parents died, he moved to Rome to be with his guardian. There, again like Saint Blaise, he was caught up in one of the periodic persecutions against Christians, in this case by the Emperor Diocletian. It seems that he and his guardian were giving shelter to Christians and as a result he (and presumably his guardian, but he disappears from the story) were arrested. Pancras was 14. Here, the story gets fanciful. His hagiographer claims that Pancras was hauled in front of the Emperor himself, that the two had a long discussion during which Pancras impressed the Emperor with his youth and determination. Finally, annoyed (enraged, says the hagiographer) by the teenager’s refusal to refute his Christianity, he ordered Pancras’s execution. Pancras was promptly dragged off and beheaded. I find it hard to believe that the Emperor ever bothered to speak to this unknown youth; in fact, as one of the commentators diplomatically put it, it would have been very difficult for him to do so since he was not actually in Rome in the year that Pancras was beheaded. Whatever actually happened, it seems that Pancras was buried along the Via Aureliana.

For reasons that are just as obscure to me as the details of his life, his grave became a hub of pilgrimage and supposed miracles. Pope Symmachus built a basilica over the grave in 500 AD, a basilica that was expanded and much remodeled over the centuries. A church still stands on the spot (a church which, I must admit, I have never visited; perhaps the next time I’m in the Eternal City …).

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If things had remained there, Pancras might have ended up as simply a minor regional saint. But for reasons which are yet again obscure to me Saint Gregory of Tours in France wrote in a famous book on Christian martyrs which was published in about 590 AD, that anyone making a false oath at the saint’s tomb would be seized by a demon and would collapse and die. Well! In an age where oaths were taken incredibly seriously and where everyone believed in the existence of demons and Hell, this was equivalent to saying that Saint Pancras was a divine lie detector: who in their right minds would dare to lie if asked to take an oath on the saint’s tomb? An oath on Saint Pancras’s tomb was considered so potent that it could be held up in court as proof of a witness’s testimony.

There was one slight problem: Saint Pancras’s tomb was in Rome and Rome was far away. No matter! In an age in which trade in the relics of saints flourished, relics of Saint Pancras were considered just as potent. There was therefore a huge and urgent demand from all over Western Christendom for relics of Saint Pancras to be sent to them. The Romans were not slow to oblige, and soon relics purported to be of Saint Pancras were on their way to every corner of Western Europe. As one source I read commented: “The whole body of the Saint was apparently in at least twenty churches; the head, in at least ten cities. As for the individual bones, they were without number. Of course, only a small part of these relics could be authentic .”

Of course, such potent relics needed to be housed appropriately! As a result, many a church was built and dedicated to Saint Pancras, with his relics enclosed in the main altar. In great pomp and ceremony, swearers of oaths could be solemnly brought before the altar and required to take their oaths. In our more cynical age, we can smile at the credulity of our ancestors but I have to say if I had been around in the Middle Ages and had been required to take an oath before the relics of Saint Pancras I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have lied. Who wants to spend eternity in Hell, even if you are being asked to swear that you didn’t kill someone?

It wasn’t just churches who owned relics. Rich aristocrats also had their collections of relics, housed in richly made reliquaries like this one.

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I have absolutely no basis for making the following claim, but I would like to believe that one of the most famous of all oaths taken during the Middle Ages, that taken by Harold Godwinson in Normandy in 1064 before Duke William, was taken on relics of Saint Pancras. For readers who are not familiar with this story, let me quickly summarize the salient points. In 1064, the-then king of England, Edward the Confessor, was clearly nearing the end of his life and didn’t have a son to succeed him. Various regional powers were jockeying to get into position to take the crown on Edward’s death. One of these was Duke William of Normandy, who was related to Edward, although in a rather indirect way. Another was Harold Godwinson, head of the most powerful family in England. For reasons which are not entirely clear, Harold went to Normandy (some say he was actually on his way to France but got shipwrecked on the Normandy coast). Duke William promptly laid hands on him and held him prisoner, although he went through the motions of treating him as a valued guest. Harold’s “stay” ended with him swearing an oath on a series of relics. The Bayeux tapestry captures this moment.

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Quite what he swore is not clear. William claimed that Harold swore fealty to him and agreed that he would support him to be king. Consequently, he cried foul when Edward died and Harold took the throne. Harold retorted that he had been made to take the oath under duress and therefore (whatever it was that he was made to promise) it was not valid. William took this “betrayal” as an excuse to legitimize his invasion of England. We all know how that finished. The two armies met at Hastings, Harold took an arrow in the eye and died, and his army collapsed. Again, this key moment in English history was caught in the Bayeux tapestry.

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We’ll never know what oath Harold really took. As they say, history is written by the victors. But coming back to the relics that Harold took his oath on, it certainly seemed to have been important enough to have warranted the use of Saint Pancras’s relics. The poet Lord Alfred Tennyson believed that they were of Saint Pancras. In his verse-drama “Harold,” when it comes to the moment of the oath he has William exclaim:
“Lay thou thy hand upon this golden pall!
Behold the jewel of St. Pancratius
Woven into the gold. Swear thou on this!”

Continuing in the obscurity department, when the Church hierarchy got around to assigning saints to all the days in the year, something which they seemed to have done quite early on, they assigned St. Pancras to 12th May. Why St. Pancras got 12th May is completely mysterious to me. In any event, 12th May was already St. Pancras day in 896 AD, when the Holy Roman Emperor Arnulf of Carinthia conquered Rome. Arnulf belonged to that delightful period of European history when everyone had fantastic names, something I have noted in an earlier post about Saint Radegund (itself a wonderful name). His father was called Carloman, his mother Liutswind, his son Zwentibold. He deposed Charles the Fat as Holy Roman Emperor and took his place, he was saving Pope Formosus from the clutches of Lambert and his mother Ageltrude when he conquered Rome. And on and on: there are literally dozens more such colourful names attached to Arnulf’s life and times.

But I digress. Arnulf attributed his success in conquering Rome to the intercession of that day’s saint, that is to say Saint Pancras. This made Saint Pancras even more popular than he already was in the German lands, and could well explain in a roundabout way why my wife and I came across this dilapidated church in the Wachau dedicated to him.

The fact that May 12th is Saint Pancras’s day meant that for centuries he also played an important role in the agricultural calendar of large swathes of Europe, from Lombardy and Liguria as well as Slovenia and Croatia in the south to Sweden and Poland in the north, from Belgium and France to the west to Hungary in the east. He, St. Mamertus (May 11th), St. Servatius (May 13th), and St. Boniface of Tarsus (May 14th) became collectively known as the Ice Saints, and Saint Sophia (May 15th) as Cold Sophy. They were so called because the middle days of May were believed to often bring a brief spell of colder weather, and there were warnings against sowing too early in case young crops were caught in a frost. These were translated into a series of colourful sayings, no doubt repeated around the hearth by the wise men (and perhaps wise women) of the village:

Pankraz, Servaz, Bonifaz
only make way for summer.

No summer before Boniface
No frost after Sophie.

You’re never safe from night frost
Until Sophie is over.

Servaz must be over
If you want to be safe from night frost.

Pankrazi, Servazi and Bonifazi are three frosty Bazi.
And finally, Cold Sophie is never missing.

Pankraz and Servaz are two bad brothers
What spring brought they destroy again.

Never plant before Cold Sophie.

Readers get the picture. Alas, science seems to disprove peasants’ belief that there was a tendency to a cold spell in that period. In fact, science has generally stopped us from giving any credence to saints. Which is generally a good thing. But it does mean that names like Pancras, Mamertus, Servatius, and Boniface have sunk into obscurity, so much so that when I came across a church dedicated to Pancras I scratched my head and muttered to myself “Who on earth was he?” Luckily there was Google to help me find the answer.

Oh, in case any readers are asking themselves why the railway station in London is called after St. Pancras, it seems that it was so called because the surrounding district was so called, and the district was so called because there was once in the vicinity a very ancient church dedicated to Saint Pancras. So there you are.

 

SINGING STICKS

Vienna, 5 October 2020

My wife and I have been doing a lot of hiking since I retired. It’s a great way to keep fit, and it’s a great way to see Nature – slowly, with the time to appreciate what you are seeing. Initially, we hiked without sticks but alas! Time has taken its toll, in my case especially in the knees. So we finally bit the bullet and bought ourselves a set of walking sticks each.

Shortly afterwards, when we were out on hikes I would often hear a low moaning, coming seemingly from close by. It sounded like the noise a kid would make on Halloween when dressed up as a ghost, a sort of ‘woo-hoo-oo’ noise.

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To make matters more confusing, the moaning came and went. After a bit, when I did hear it I would look around me to see what the source of the sound could be, but I could never identify anything. I began to think I was imagining the sound. Perhaps something was going wrong with my inner ear? Or was a tumour growing in my brain and pressing on some part of the brain that had to do with hearing sounds?

Luckily for my sanity, I finally figured out was going on. To explain, I need to throw in a picture of the upper part of our walking sticks.

my photo

 

Those holes allow me to modify the length of my sticks, by moving a button clip from hole to hole. It was the wind blowing over the holes that was causing the sound – my sticks were acting as flutes. This discovery led first to relief that I was neither mad nor sick, and then to a certain curiosity about flutes. As is my habit, I began to investigate (God, what a hopeless nerd I am …). I discovered a whole world out there that I had never known existed. I read that flutes belong to a bewilderingly complex family of musical instruments called aerophones. Someone even nerdier than me has come up with a scientific classification of musical instruments (the Hornbostel-Sachs system, so presumably the nerds in question are Messrs Hornbostel and Sachs). Aerophones are allocated the number 4, ‘non-free’ aerophones (“the vibrating air is contained within the instrument”) the number 42, and ‘edge-blown’ aerophones, which is the scientific name for flutes, the number 42.1. So as not to bore readers, I will at this point stop drilling down into the Hornbostel-Sachs classification system, but they should be aware of the fact that I could go down five – yes, five – more levels: the permutations on the design and operation of flutes seem almost endless.

Out of this welter of information, I have seized upon one comprehensible fact: that while all cultures on all continents have at some point in time come up with ‘end-blown’ flutes (“the player blows against the sharp rim at the upper open end of a tube”; number 421.11 ), only Asian cultures came up with ‘side-blown’ (or transverse) flutes (“the player blows against the sharp rim of a hole in the side of the tube”; number 421.12). Since my sticks were making a noise because the wind was blowing across the sharp rim of my sticks’ holes, and if therefore I were mad enough to classify them as a musical instrument it would be somewhere under number 421.12, I have decided to focus on this family of flutes (I also happen to very much like the music from one member of this family in particular, as we shall see in a minute).

Before I go off to explore transverse flutes, I want to pause a minute and muse on how come our very distant ancestors ever invented flutes in the first place. I mean, what possessed someone to take a hollow tube, drill some holes in it, and start blowing into it? And we are talking about very distant ancestors. The earliest known flutes are some 43,000 years old. They were unearthed in a cave in Germany. Two are made from mute swan bones, the third from a mammoth’s ivory tusk. This is one of those flutes.

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Since bone seems to have been a common initial material flutes were made from, I am now going to make a huge mental jump, unsubstantiated by any evidence that I know of, and suggest that actually the holes in bones were made by a predator with large, sharp incisors, that the bone dried out and the marrow disappeared thus hollowing out the bone, that the wind, blowing over the holes, made the same kind of noise I was hearing on our hikes, that an ever-curious early ancestor, attracted by the noise, picked up the bone and started playing around with it, blowing into it, trying to imitate the noise, … The rest is history, as we say. I also have to presume that the creation story of flutes happened independently many times over in different places and that Stone-age bone flutes will eventually be found in many places other than Germany. I should also say that I have not created this story completely out of nothing. There is a cave bear femur with holes in it that was uncovered in a cave in Slovenia, also about 43,000 years old.

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Initially, it was thought to be a primitive flute. This is now questioned, with the current argument being that the holes were made by some predator or other.

I can’t figure out if these German Paleolithic flutes were end-blown flutes or transverse flutes. There is a video online showing a pretend-Paleolithic woman playing one of these flutes (or presumably a copy) transversely.

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Which makes sense to me: if my story of how flutes first started is at all correct, our ancestors who picked up “singing bones” would have imitated the wind and blown across the holes. But then why did most cultures end up with end-blown flutes? Or perhaps more accurately, why did our ancestors, except those in Asia, abandon initial transverse flute playing for end-blown flute playing? I will let that question hang there, because I have absolutely no idea of the answer. Any readers who have an insight to this puzzle are welcome to weigh in.

Well, after those musings on the Ur-story of the flute, I can finally turn my attention to transverse flutes. My research (i.e., the reading of Wikipedia entries) have led me to identify some 20 types of transverse flutes. Here again, I do not propose to bore readers with breathless descriptions of each and every one of them. I will just mention two, for reasons which I hope will become clear.

I start with India. There, the bansuri reigns supreme. It’s been an integral part of Indian music for at least 3,500 years. It has an almost mystical standing among instruments, being closely associated with the God Krishna. We have here a modern take on this, from a temple in Singapore.

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And here we have an older take on the theme, a statue from the 15th Century.

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The bansuri does indeed produce divine music, although that of course is a very personal judgement and has as much to do with the instrument as it has with Indian music in general. I’m not sure when I became aware of Indian flute music. All I can say is that I have a very clear recollection of seeing an Indian black-and-white film in my early twenties, no doubt in some rundown arty cinema somewhere, where the soundtrack was this achingly lovely, haunting flute music. I tried to rediscover the film and its music while writing this post but failed. I throw in instead this link to a video of the bansuri being played. Close your eyes and let the music flow over you, let it envelop you, let it transport you to some secret place in your soul where the music of heaven resides. Without being too morbid about it, I would be more than happy if such a piece of Indian flute music were to be played at my funeral.

My old Chinese connection brings me to the second transverse flute which I want to write about, the dizi. It’s been in use in China for at least 7,000 years, although I throw in here a photo of it being played considerably more recently. This is a late 15th-early 16th Century painting of the Daoist Immortal Han Xiangzi nonchalantly walking on water as he plays his dizi.

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It’s not only because of my connection with China that I mention the dizi, it’s also because of a very distinctive design feature this flute has. The dizi uses a mokong, which is a paper-thin membrane traditionally made from the inner skin of bamboo cells that is pasted over a hole located between the hole across which the player blows (the “embouchure” – such an elegant way of saying it, try saying it a few times, you sound really erudite) and the finger holes.

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Don’t ask me to explain what exactly this does to the sound, I simply quote here what someone else has said: ”The mokong has a distinctive resonating effect on the sound produced by the dizi, making it brighter and louder, and adding harmonics to give the final tone a buzzing, nasal quality”. Readers may judge for themselves from this recording.

Like many things Chinese, the dizi (and flutes in general) migrated to the surrounding countries: Japan, Korea, and Viet Nam all have dizi-like flutes with the membrane and/or transverse flutes which had a membrane but where it has been abandoned. I throw in a couple of photos to record the use of transverse flutes in these countries. Here we have a transverse flute being played at a convivial meeting (a meal, I suspect) of Japanese men in the pre-modern era.

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Here we have a group of Koreans playing various instruments together, one of which is a transverse flute.

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Of course, there is a question as to where the Chinese in turn got the transverse flute from. I’m sure the Chinese would argue that they invented it locally. They certainly invented the use of the mokong – the earliest dizis didn’t have it. But as for the flute itself some music historians think that actually the Chinese got it from Central Asia. I will carefully refrain from taking any position on this issue. Let’s simply say that it is an open question.

Which leads me – sort of – to my last point. The transverse flute, I’m happy to say, allows me to bring up one of my favourite topics, covered many times in these posts, namely the transfer across Eurasia of various products and ideas. The transfer mainly took place along the Silk Road, that network of trading routes which stretched out across Central Asia from China to Europe, with most of the transfer going from east to west, but sometimes in the other direction. Readers will no doubt remember what I wrote above, that the transverse flute only existed in Asia. However, any reader who has been to a concert hall knows that the transverse flute is often used in Western classical music. So am I mistaken? Was the transverse flute also invented in Europe? It seems not, according to historians of music. They believe that the bansuri somehow made its way to Byzantium (they think it was the bansuri rather than the dizi, say, or some other transverse flute from Asia, because of how the flute is depicted in Byzantine sources) and from there spread slowly to the rest of Europe. I find this intriguing. There were contacts, although indirect as far as I know (i.e., through some intermediary country), between Rome and India, contacts which no doubt would have continued with Byzantium. I have to assume that as part of these contacts Indian flautists came to Byzantium and showed the Byzantines how to make and play the transverse flute. In any event, here we have someone – probably Orpheus – playing a transverse flute in an 11th Century Byzantine manuscript.

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From Byzantium, the transverse flute made its way to Germany and France first, and from there – a good deal later – to the rest of Western Europe. The mention of Germany allows me to slip in a mention of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. Most representations have him playing an end-blown flute, but some have him playing a transverse flute.

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The use of transverse flutes got a big leg up from the military use of fifes. Armies in southern Germany and Switzerland began using fifes in the 15th Century, as a way of signaling maneuvers (fifes can be extremely piercing in the higher registers and so can be heard over the noise of battle). From then on, every serious European army began to have a fifing unit. It was only in the early 19th Century that fifes were displaced as a military signaling device. Nevertheless, many regiments continued to have a band of fifers (which is where the musical use of the word “band” comes from – a useless factoid which readers can cite at their next party). If I report all this, it’s only because it gives me an excuse to insert a photo of that wonderful painting by Manet of a young military fifer.

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The Baroque period saw a makeover of the transverse flute, with it being completely redesigned. Various types of transverse flute were created. Music was written especially for the flute. And – once again – the rest is history. Just to round out the story, I throw in here a picture from an opera which has as one of its main protagonists a flute, Mozart’s Magic Flute. Without going into the details of its highly convoluted plot, the prince Tamino is given a magic flute which he plays at various moments. The opera is a delightful piece of nonsense, allowing Opera companies to go over the top with decors and costumes, as is the case here with a production by the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

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As readers can see, in at least some productions the flute in question is a transverse flute (although I seem to remember that in the production I saw it was an end-blown flute).

Well, I leave my readers with a link to a lovely piece of Western, modern flute music: Claude Debussy’s “Syrinx”. In the meantime, my wife and I will be plotting our next hike, where perhaps our sticks will sing in the wind.

VINEGAR

Vienna, 13 September 2020

A little while back, I wrote a post about balsamic vinegar – a disapproving post, since I don’t like the stuff. But I used the post to confess to a hankering to make my own vinegar. I attribute this to the fact that my French grandmother made her own vinegar, down in that dark cellar of hers which I’ve had occasion to describe in an even earlier post. She used the local Beaujolais wine as her raw material, putting it in a miniature barrel and leaving it there to sour to vinegar. From time to time, she would send me down the cellar to replenish the dining room’s vinegar cruet. I tried making vinegar once, in our early years in Vienna, following the rather vague instructions I had been given by a colleague. As my wife and children will attest, it was a miserable failure. The resulting liquid had a strange taste and not much of that vinegary punch. Although I put a brave face on it and determinedly continued drizzling it on my salads until it was all gone, I half expected to keel over dead at any moment, poisoned by some mysterious fermentation product I had unknowingly created. So, as readers can imagine, my hankering to make vinegar remains.

It really shouldn’t be all that difficult, I keep saying to myself. Vinegar making has been around since at least Babylonian times and it’s been made just about everywhere in the world where there is a source of sugars (the route to vinegar being first a yeast-catalyzed fermentation of sugars to alcohol and then a bacterial-catalyzed fermentation of the alcohol so produced to acetic acid, which is what gives vinegar its sour taste). In fact, it’s been truly fascinating to discover what people have made vinegar out of. Personally, I have always consumed vinegar made from grapes via wine, preferably red wine, although I’m intrigued to see that people are making vinegar with fortified wines like port, madeira, sherry, and marsala. In the Middle East, they even make vinegar with raisins (it’s famous in Turkish cuisine).

various sources

I’m also familiar with vinegars made from apples via cider and pears via perry, which have been commonly made in northern Europe. But actually just about every fruit known to man (and woman) has been used at some point to make vinegar. I just mention here the ones which intrigued me – or allowed me to create links to some of my earlier posts. The Babylonians used dates, which continue to be used for vinegar-making in the Middle East. The Israelis use pomegranates, testimony to an enduring relationship between this fruit and Judaism. The South Koreans use persimmon. The Chinese use jujube and wolfberry. The New Zealanders use kiwi fruits.

various sources

A couple of enterprising Italian and German companies even use tomato to make vinegar. I must say, I find this one strange. I know that tomato is technically a fruit, but I just can’t imagine a vinegar made from it. I would really like to try it one day, to see what it tastes like (as I would like to try tomato oil extracted from the seeds).

Sort of linked to fruit-based vinegar is honey vinegar made via the production of mead. It’s made in a couple of countries in Southern Europe (France, Spain, Italy, Romania), although it’s not all that common.

Grains of one sort or another are also used to make vinegar (an extra step is needed here, to turn the starches in the grain into sugars). This kind of vinegar is made primarily in East Asia, where rice, wheat, millet or sorghum (or a mix of these) are used. many of these vinegars are black, but there are red and white rice vinegars too.

various sources

The East Asians have been making vinegar for a very long time. Already two and a half thousand years ago, royal and noble households in China’s Zhou dynasty had a professional vinegar maker on their staff. Perhaps there were also professional vinegar tasters. Such tasters certainly became metaphors for the three main religions in China, leading to a very common depiction (the one I insert here is actually Japanese, from the Edo period, but I rather like the style).

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The three men dipping their fingers in a vat of vinegar and tasting it are Confucius, Buddha, and Laozi, leaders of China’s three main religions. The expression on the men’s faces represents the predominant attitude of each religion. Confucius reacts with a sour expression – Confucianism sees life as sour, in need of rules to correct the degeneration of people. Buddha reacts with a bitter expression – Buddhism sees life as bitter, dominated by pain and suffering due to desires. Laozhi reacts with a sweet expression – Taoism sees life as fundamentally perfect in its natural state. I leave it to my readers to work out who is who in the painting I’ve inserted, based on their expressions.

But coming back to vinegar from grains, Europe also has its grain-based vinegars. For instance, the British have been making vinegar from malted barley for ever and a day. In my youth, no self-respecting fish-and-chip shop was without a bottle of malt vinegar which patrons could use to drown their fish and chips in – I cannot deny that I did this in my wild and foolish youth.

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A series of vinegars which I find quite intriguing are made in South-East Asia and to some degree South Asia, from the sweet sap of various types of palms: coconut, nipa, and kaong palms (and to a lesser degree buri palms; so lesser I wasn’t able to find a picture of it).

various sources

The Philippines is the big producer and user; I read that Malaysia and Indonesia are smaller markets because the palm sap must first be transformed into an alcoholic beverage, something which is forbidden in these Muslim countries. Perhaps. But then why is Saudi Arabia, the strictest of all Muslim countries, a big producer of date vinegar?

The Philippines is also a big user of sugar cane vinegar. Well, it certainly makes sense to make vinegar from the mother of all sugar sources.

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I would imagine that all sugar-cane growing countries make vinegar that way. Brazil certainly does. I wonder if anyone makes vinegar from beetroots? (as opposed to pickling beetroots in vinegar) An odd vinegar that I suppose can be classified as a sugar-based vinegar is kombucha vinegar. Kombucha is a Mongolian drink. It is made by fermenting sugary tea with a SCOBY – a Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast. This yucky slimy mat will ferment the sugar in your tea to alcohol and start fermenting the alcohol to acetic acid. Normally, you drink the fermented tea before too much acetic acid is produced, but if you let the SCOBY carry on its work all the alcohol will be turned into acetic acid and you will have a vinegar.

I find it intriguing that in all the articles on vinegars which I’ve read, there is no mention of traditional vinegars being made in Africa or the Americas (as opposed to them copying vinegars originally made in Europe). Neither continent lacks traditional alcoholic beverages. The Africans made them (and to some degree continue to make them) from fermented honey water, fermented fruits, fermented sap of various species of palm (as well as a species of bamboo), fermented milk, as well as from grains and other starch sources. As for the Americas, alcoholic beverages existed in at least Mesoamerica. There, the common alcoholic beverages were pulque, which was made out of fermented agave sap, chicha, which was a kind of maize-based beer, and fermented drinks made out of cacao beans and sometimes honey. I cannot believe that these drinks didn’t sometimes get inoculated with acetic-acid making bacteria and turn into vinegar. And I cannot believe that the Africans and Amerindians didn’t figure out ways to use this vinegar, as people everywhere else did. At a minimum, they surely would have discovered – as did everyone else – that vinegar can be used to pickle food and so extend its useful life, a vitally important discovery for societies in the days before refrigeration. If any of my readers are from Africa or the Americas and have information on this point, I would be glad to hear from them.

It’s not only the making of vinegar which I find interesting, it’s also how it’s used. But here one could write a book! (and in fact a quick whip around the internet shows me that several people already have) Since I’ve already written a couple of posts, on mustard and Lea & Perrins Worcestershire sauce, showing how vinegar can be used to make condiments, I reckon I’ve covered the use of vinegar as a condiment on food. I have also mentioned pickling in several posts, in my post on capers for instance, so I will skip the use of vinegar as a pickling agent. I will instead explore its use as a drink, for the simple reason that at first sight I find it rather incredible that anyone would ever want to drink vinegar. I certainly never have; the closest I have got to it is gargling once with vinegar when I had a sore throat, and even then I spat it out; I wasn’t going to swallow it. But people have drunk vinegar, and continue to do so.

The trick, of course, is to dilute it. Roman legionaries did this the simplest way, by just adding water (and maybe some herbs). This drink was known as posca and was drunk during military campaigns, as a thirst-quencher. There was a popular saying about posca: posca fortem, vinum ebrium facitposca gives you strength, wine makes you drunk. No doubt these legionaries on Trajan’s column in Rome made heavy use of posca during their campaigns.

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Interestingly enough, soldiers at the very other end of the Eurasian continent, the samurai in Japan, also believed in the restorative effects of drinking vinegar, in this case rice vinegar. They drank it (whether straight or diluted, I do not know) to relieve fatigue and for an energy boost.

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By the way, this business of posca being a drink of Roman legionaries gives quite a different slant to one of the stories in the narrative of the Crucifixion of Christ. All four Gospels say that as Jesus hung, dying, on the cross, someone put vinegar on a stick and held it to his lips to drink. Luke is the only one who says explicitly that it was one of the soldiers on guard at the crucifixion; the others say “one of the people there” or simply “they”. But it would have had to be one of the soldiers, no-one else would have been allowed to get that close. In the three synoptic Gospels, this simple gesture was turned into a gesture of mockery. John, on the other hand, has a more credible line. Jesus said “I thirst” and he was given vinegar. So now I see here a gesture of simple humanity on the part of the soldiers. They had a job to do, to crucify Jesus and the two robbers. But that didn’t stop them from trying to alleviate just a little the agony of being crucified by offering Jesus some posca for his thirst. It’s a moment in the Crucifixion story that has not often been painted, but here is a fresco by Fra Angelico.

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The next step up in efforts to make vinegar drinkable is to mix the vinegar with something sweet. Here, too, the Romans had a popular drink, called mustum. It was a mix of low-quality must, fresh from the press, and vinegar. The must sweetened the vinegar, the vinegar clarified the turbid must (a case of “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours”).

For their part, the Ancient Greeks mixed vinegar with honey and water to make a drink called oxymel. The beverage passed into European Medieval and Renaissance medicine as a medicament, and indeed the internet is full of articles promoting the health benefits of oxymel as well as bottles of the stuff. Here is a typical example.

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But the Ancient Greeks simply drank it for enjoyment. The Iranians still do. They have a drink called sekanjabin, which is a mix of vinegar and honey, to which mint leaves are often added. Apparently, a side order of fresh, crisp lettuce is a must.

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It’s an ancient drink, quaffed by Iranians when they were still called Persians. Perhaps the richest and most powerful Persians drank their sekanjabin from magnificent cups like this one (my wife and I saw similar cups in a wonderful museum near Kyoto).

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It wasn’t just the Ancients who drank sweetened, diluted vinegar. Under the name of shrubs, drinks like these were drunk quite often until relatively recently in Europe and North America. It was only the rise of carbonated drinks that killed them off, and now they are a bit of a recherché drink. I suspect there is currently a bit of a comeback because apple cider vinegar is being touted widely for its supposed health benefits. As the Ancients had discovered, it’s easier to drink vinegar when it’s been sweetened. Here is one example of the current commercial offer of shrubs.

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For those who, like the Iranians, want to make their own drinks, shrubs are made by simply mixing honey water or sugar water with a small amount of vinegar. Or they can be made by soaking fruit in vinegar for several days, sieving off the solid part, and adding a lot of sugar.

For those readers who, like I was, are puzzled by the name “shrubs”, allow me to explain the etymology. It is actually a corruption of the Arabic word sharab, which means “to drink”. The Arabic version of this drink hails back to the use of vinegar as a pickling agent. In cases where fruit was pickled, the vinegar drew out the taste from the fruit during the pickling. So once the pickled fruit had been consumed, people would drink the fruity vinegar – after adding water to dilute it.

I must say, I thoroughly approve of this reuse of the pickling liquid. I have been telling my wife for some time now that we should find something to do with the pickling liquid left over after we’ve eaten pickled gherkins or onions or even olives. So far, she has ignored me, pouring the pickling liquid down the drain. Perhaps I can get her to reconsider if I argue that we can turn the liquids into some kind of shrub. Of course, our pickling liquids are salty rather than sweet, but no fear, I have a solution to this! In order to explain it I have to introduce another set of soldiers, the Spartans this time.

The Roman legionaries had posca, the Spartan soldiers had melas zomos, a black brothy soup (or perhaps black soupy broth). Made of boiled pigs’ trotters, blood, salt, and vinegar, it was an integral part of their diet. We could make melas zomos! Our various spent pickling liquids could give the salt and vinegar, we would just need to find the blood and the pigs’ trotters. Of course, if we still lived in China, we wouldn’t have any problems finding these (I remember several times eating a delicious Chinese dish of pigs’ trotters in a restaurant around the corner from our place in Beijing, and I’m sure we could have found blood if we’d looked for it). But in Europe, as I’ve related elsewhere, we’ve become more fastidious about the meat products we eat, so finding these ingredients might be a problem.

Of course, even if we could find the ingredients and made the soup, would it be yummy? Well, I can only report here a comment made by a citizen of Sybaris, an Ancient Greek city located on the coast of what is now Puglia (but which has since disappeared, alas), which I’ve mentioned in passing in an earlier post. After tasting a bowl of melas zomos, this man declared disgustedly, “Now I do perceive why it is that Spartan soldiers encounter death so joyfully; dead men require no longer to eat; black broth is no longer a necessity.” Now, given that the citizens of Sybaris were famous for their luxury and gluttony (so famous that they gave us the word “sybarite”), this confrontation of polar opposites is perhaps merely an Ancient urban legend. However, it is true that the Spartans gave us the word “spartan”, which suggests that yumminess in their soldiers’ food was not necessarily high in the order of priorities of the Spartan army’s high command. The idea was to give them strength, to beat the shit out of, say, those weakling Persians who drank sekanjabin, as we saw so thrillingly in the film 300 – the Spartans in that film must have been stuffed full of melas zomos.

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Luckily, if we weren’t able to find pigs’ trotters and blood (and if I wasn’t able to persuade my wife to eat the soup, a highly probable outcome since she doesn’t much like these kinds of meat products), a quick whip around the Internet has shown me that many vinegar-containing soup recipes exist which involve perfectly ordinary ingredients like vegetables (I suspect that the craze for apple cider vinegar and its purported health properties has struck again; how to find pleasant ways to ingest apple cider vinegar). I can bring to bear my skills in making soups from left-overs and find a yummy way of recycling our pickling liquids into soups. Watch this space!

This second mention of mine of apple cider vinegar makes me think that before I finish I must just touch upon the supposed medicinal benefits of vinegar. In Europe at least, this love affair with vinegar-as-medicine has been going on since the Ancient Greeks; the current touting of apple cider vinegar is merely the latest iteration in a very ancient tradition. I do not propose to go through all the health benefits that are claimed for vinegar. In this time where we are living through a modern plague, Covid-19, I will only mention vinegar’s use during the bubonic plagues that regularly swept through Europe from the 14th to the 18th centuries. For some reason, people felt that vinegar would keep the terrible distemper at bay, so anyone who came into contact with people sick with plague, or with the bodies of people who had died of it, would wash their hands in vinegar, or put towels soaked in vinegar around their heads, or cover their mouths with a handkerchief soaked in vinegar, or gargle with vinegar. It was mostly doctors or nurses who did this, as well as the poor bastards (many of them convicts) who had to load the bodies onto the carts to take them to the cemeteries. I throw in here a picture from the Italian book I Promessi Sposi by Alssandro Manzoni, which takes place during an outbreak of the plague in Milan. We see the men loading up the dead bodies onto the cart.

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My wife will no doubt be thrilled to bits to see this reference to I Promessi Sposi, a book which was a Must Read for all schoolchildren of her generation.  In a sillier vein, I also throw in a still from the Monty Python film The Holy Grail, where a man is trying to get rid of his old father who isn’t dead.

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Anyway, it’s not clear if this use of vinegar helped at all – it indubitably has disinfectant properties, but would they have been enough to kill Yersinia pestis, the bacterium that causes the plague? At some point, people began to add herbs to the vinegar to increase its plague-killing power. Eventually, these vinegar concoctions got a name, Four Thieves vinegar, as well as a legend to go with the name. The legend goes like this: Four of the poor bastards picking up the dead bodies, who also happened to be thieves (it was a “profession” which tended to attract the criminal classes), hit upon a herb mixture which kept them safe. They therefore began robbing the houses they entered with impunity. Caught and threatened with horrible punishment, they offered to give up their secret recipe in exchange for leniency. The judge promptly accepted. Here is a recipe that was posted on the walls of Marseilles, site of the last great outbreak of the plague in Europe in 1720:

“Take three pints of strong white wine vinegar, add a handful of each of wormwood, meadowsweet, wild marjoram and sage, fifty cloves, two ounces of campanula roots, two ounces of angelic, rosemary and horehound and three large measures of camphor. Place the mixture in a container for fifteen days, strain and express, then bottle.”

Here is a 17th Century bottle of this stuff.

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And here is a modern version of the stuff, using apple cider vinegar (and with a different bunch of herbs: rosemary, sage, thyme, mint, cinnamon, pepper, garlic, clove)

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Hey, you never know, it might help keep Covid-19 at bay, although the producers are careful not to claim this. Soak your face mask in the stuff before putting it on.

Stay safe!

KETCHUP

Vienna, 9 August 2020

A few posts ago, while I was describing the origins of Lea & Perrins sauce, I mentioned in passing that the story of tomato ketchup was an equally fascinating tale and thought that its telling could be the subject of one of my posts. Well, that moment has come!

I find the story of tomato ketchup worth telling because it intertwines two themes which I am passionate about and which have been the subject of a number of my posts in the past: the rich history of the humble, mundane articles which we have surrounded ourselves with, and the role which global trade has played in spreading such articles around the planet – for better or for worse. The story of tomato ketchup serves up both of these themes in spades.

Tomato ketchup is of course primarily associated with the United States, and indeed it is there that we have seen the greatest growth in the consumption of ketchup. But the roots of ketchup are buried in a land far, far away, on the other side of the world, in southern China.

The word ketchup is an Anglicisation of the Hokkien word kôe-chiap (as written in its Romanised form; 鮭汁 in Chinese characters). The homeland of Hokkien speakers, the Hoklo, is southern Fujian, although Hoklo communities also exist in Guangdong and Hainan. In southern Fujian, they live cheek by jowl with other groups like the Hakka (I only mention the latter because my wife has never forgiven me for visiting the typical Hakka roundhouses near Xiamen without her). Hokkien is only one of a mass of different languages and dialects that are found in China.

Kôe-chiap means “brine of pickled fish or shell-fish”. We have the Chinese-English Dictionary of the Vernacular or Spoken Language of Amoy (now called Xiamen), published in 1873, to thank for this explanation; I throw in a picture of the dictionary’s title page, along with the relevant entry in the dictionary.

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“Brine of pickled fish” basically means a sauce made by fermenting fish in salt and collecting the liquid which is so created. So we can consider kôe-chiap to be a fermented fish sauce. The same sauce is still made in southern China, although it’s now often called yu lu (which translates as “fish dew” – such a poetic name! especially since the sauce probably smells strongly …). Here is a picture of a modern version.

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In its most elemental form, as simply the liquid which oozes from brined fermenting fish, this kind of sauce is found in all the cultures in South-East Asia. So we have nuoc-mam in Viet Nam, naam-plaa in Thailand, tuk-trey in Cambodia, padaek in Laos, patis in the Philippines, budu in Malaysia, ngapi in Myanmar, and – very importantly for our story – kechap ikan in Indonesia. It’s also found in Japan (shottu kuru), Korea (aek jeot) to the east, Iran (mahyawa) and Italy (colatura di alici) to the west. In fact, until the 18th Century or thereabouts, fermented fish sauce was common in the UK and throughout the rest of Europe, after which its use died out (and it was incredibly popular in Roman times, when it was known as garum; the Romans put it in just about everything). To show the sauce’s ubiquity, I throw in a photo of the cover of a cookery book dedicated to recipes from around the world which use fish sauce.

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I would ask my readers to make a mental note of the fact that fermented fish sauces also existed in Europe and in particular in the UK, because I will come back to this point later. But right now, I want to focus on how the Hoklo version of fermented fish sauce, kôe-chiap, spread throughout South-East Asia, because it is almost certainly there and not in southern Fujian that English traders and sailors came across it and liked it so much that they brought it back to the UK.

The Hoklo were intrepid traders. They traded throughout South East Asia and beyond. They also emigrated to all the polities making up South East Asia. They did this even though successive Chinese dynasties blew hot and sometimes very cold about their subjects trading overseas and emigrating, going so far in some moments as to declare that Chinese who emigrated were no longer worthy of being considered Chinese. The Hoklo were no doubt firm believers in the Chinese proverb, 山高皇帝远 shān gāo, huángdì yuǎn, meaning “the mountains are high and the emperor is far away” (a proverb which is still relevant in China today; I heard it uttered quite a few times in my time there): Beijing (or whatever was the Imperial capital of the moment) was far away and communications were difficult, so they could safely ignore emperors’ fulminations. I hasten to add that they were not the only southern Chinese people to trade and emigrate. Other peoples from the south, like the Cantonese and the Hakka, did the same. But the Hoklo people seem to have done it more than any other group, so they are now the largest (Indonesia, Singapore, Philippines, southern Thailand) or one of the largest (Malaysia, Viet Nam, Myanmar) groups in the various Chinese diasporas in South East Asia. For the most part, the Hoklo settled in the bigger trading ports in these countries.

As emigrants from all parts of the world have done in all times, the Hoklo no doubt took their foodstuffs with them, and that will have included their fermented fish sauce. At least in Indonesia, it looks like the local population took to the sauce with such enthusiasm that the word kôe-chiap entered the Indonesian language as kechap (or kicap, or kecap, or ketjap; I presume there is some difficulty in finding a satisfactory Romanised form of the Indonesian word). This seems to be another example of Indonesians’ enthusiasm for adopting foreign words, something I have written an earlier post about. Over time, the meaning of kechap has evolved to cover just about any type of sauce, which is why the modern Indonesian name for fermented fish sauce is kecap ikan (“ikan” meaning fish in Indonesian); they now have to specify that the sauce is fish-based.

So by the 1500s (the relevance of this date will become clear in a minute), kôe-chiap was probably present throughout South-East Asia, particularly in the region’s trading ports, thanks to Hoklo traders settling in these ports. What happened next?

Well, by the early 1500s, European ships finally began to arrive in South-East Asia, having managed to make it around Africa’s Cape of Good Hope and across the Indian Ocean. They were after eastern spices, especially pepper, nutmeg, mace and cloves. These spices had always arrived in Europe via India and the Middle East, and European traders wanted to go direct to the source, thus cutting out all the middlemen and making themselves huge fortunes in the process (just to give readers an idea of the size of the profits, in 1620 a cargo of 250,000 pounds of pepper, bought for ₤26,401 in the “East Indies”, was sold for ₤208,333 in London, a profit of 690%; in the same period, a cargo of 150,000 pounds of cloves, bought for ₤5,126, was sold in London for ₤45,000, a profit of 780%). The Portuguese arrived first, followed by Spaniards (who actually arrived the other way, finding a route around the tip of South America and sailing across the Pacific). The Portuguese ruled the roost for about a hundred years; the Spaniards contented themselves with the Philippines and left the rest of South-East Asia alone. Then the Dutch and English arrived on the scene (as did the French, but they quickly disappeared). The Dutch eventually strong-armed the Portuguese out of the way. As for the English, they were actually quite modest players. They managed to do some trading and to set up a few “factories” (which in this case meant warehouses where they could store their spices and other merchandise and hold markets with the locals) in the Indonesian islands of Java and Sumatra; these islands were at the very centre of the spice trade. But the Dutch squeezed them out by the 1600s (so the English focused on India instead, as a consolation prize; they ended up controlling the whole of the subcontinent and used that as a stepping stone to the foundation of a global Empire – what an irony).

Just for the fun of it, I throw in here a painting of a factory – it is actually a Dutch factory, in India, but I think it rather nicely gives the idea of what the factories looked like.

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And for the hell of it, I add a print of Batavia, modern-day Jakarta, which was the centre of Dutch power in South-East Asia, as the town looked like in 1754.

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Of course, even as they were busy trading and fighting one another, the European sailors and traders had to fill their stomachs. In their idle moments in the various South-East Asian ports they visited, or during their down time in the factories, they must have been sampling local cuisine, as modern tourists do today. Certainly in the case of the English, this included a sauce which they variously spelled as catchup, katchup, ketchup, kitchup, and maybe in a few more ways. They really liked it! In the case of sailors, it was certainly sufficiently part of their lives that a dictionary of slang used by British sailors, the New Dictionary of the Terms Ancient and Modern of the Canting Crew, published in 1698, had an entry for catchup (as it is spelled), where it is described simply as “A high East-India Sauce”. I include a photo of the relevant page of the dictionary (the relevant word is highlighted).

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(by “high”, the writers of the dictionary were no doubt referring to the fact that the fermented fish in the sauce made it smell “off” or quite strong)

At this point, then, this ketchup sauce made the jump from South East Asia to England, as traders or sailors or both brought it back home. Once it arrived in England, it caught on big time. But now we have to ask ourselves what exactly was this sauce that English sailors and traders got so excited about? I cannot believe that it was just plain fermented fish sauce. As I said earlier, that already existed in the UK, where it was known as fish pickle and was made much in the same way as kôe-chiap was. Why would English sailors and traders get enthusiastic about a sauce they already knew, and more importantly why would they bother to bring it home? And why would people in England get excited about it? I have to think that as kôe-chiap moved around South-East Asia in the trunks of Hoklo traders and emigrants, other ingredients began to be added to the original sauce. My money would be on this having happened most in Indonesia. After all, many different kinds of kechap sauce began to be made there, to the point where the word kechap simply came to mean any sauce (and interestingly enough, it seems that until the 1950s the Chinese community in Indonesia, the majority of whom were Hoklo, made most of the different kechaps consumed in the country). So in my romantic mind’s eye, I see English traders and sailors in their Javan and Sumatran factories, or in some port somewhere in those islands, tasting the local kechap and saying “Yum! Must bring this back to Blighty”.

But what ingredients might have been added? Unfortunately, no-one in the 1600s, when the sauce caught on with the English, thought of publishing the recipe somewhere (or if they did, I haven’t found it). From the recipes which appeared in English cookery books, examples of which I give below, my guess is that a lot of spices – that pepper, nutmeg, mace and cloves which the Europeans had sailed to South-East Asia to find – were added.

In any event, English cooks began to try to copy this kechap sauce which appeared on their shores, with locally available ingredients. Here, for instance, is the earliest published recipe for katchup (as it was spelled) in an English cookery book. The book in question is The Compleat Housewife; or, Accomplished Gentlewoman’s Companion, written by Eliza Smith and published in 1727. I love the book’s frontispiece, so I’ll throw it in here.

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And here is the recipe.

To Make English Katchup.

Take a wide-mouth’d bottle, put therein a pint of the best white-wine vinegar ; then put in ten or twelve cloves of eschalot peeled and just bruised ; then take a pint of the best Langoon white-wine [a French white wine], boil it a little, and put to it twelve or fourteen [salted] anchovies wash’d and shred, and dissolve them in the wine, and when cold put them in the bottle ; then take a quarter of a pint more of white-wine, and put in it mace, ginger sliced, a few cloves, a spoonful of whole pepper just bruised, let them boil all a little ; when near cold, slice in almost a whole nutmeg, and some lemon-peel, and likewise put in two or three spoonfuls of horse-radish ; then stop it close, and for a week shake it once or twice a day ; then use it: T’is good to put into fish sauce, or any savoury dish of meat ; you may add to it the clear liquor that comes from mushrooms.

So we have the fish (although not in the form of fish sauce but rather as the fish itself) and the spices from South-East Asia (now readily available thanks to those brave English sailors), to which some local spices have been added (horse radish and shallots). Interestingly, alcohol, in the form of wine in this case (beer was used in other recipes), has been added; I suspect alcohol was not present in the original kechap.

Quite quickly, mushrooms – or rather the liquid extracted from mushrooms – which was mentioned almost as an afterthought in Eliza Smith’s recipe, started playing a more important role. In fact, in some recipes the fish disappeared completely, to be replaced by mushrooms. An example is a recipe from the cookery book The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy by Hannah Glasse, published in 1747. Before giving the recipe, let me show the book’s frontispiece, another wonderful piece of minor art.

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And now the recipe.

To make Ketchup.

Take the large Flaps of Mushrooms, pick nothing but the Straws and Dirt from it, then lay them in a broad earthen Pan, strew a good deal of Salt over them, let them lie till next Morning, then with your Hand brake them, put them into a Stew-pan, let them boil a Minute or two, then strain them thro’ a coarse Cloth, and wring it hard. Take out all the Juice, let it stand to settle, then pour it off clear, run it thro’ a thick Flannel Bag, (some filter it thro’ brown Paper, but that is a very tedious Way) then boil it, to a Quart of the Liquor put a quarter of an Ounce of whole Ginger, and half a quarter of an Ounce of whole Pepper, boil it briskly a quarter of an Hour, then strain it, and when it is cold, put it into Pint Bottles ; in each Bottle put four or five Blades of Mace, and six Cloves, cork it tight, and it will keep two Years. This gives the best Flavour of the Mushrooms to any Sauce. If you put to a pint of this Ketchup a pint of Mum [Beer], it will taste like foreign Ketchup.

In fact, as far as the UK was concerned mushroom ketchup became the norm. It was in common use until some 30 years ago. It’s rather disappeared from view now, although you can still buy it online, as “Geo. Watkins Mushroom Ketchup”.

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I suppose cooks are infinitely curious and will try all sorts of variations to true and tried recipes. Certainly, once people got over their diffidence about eating tomatoes (for a long while, it was thought they were poisonous), cooks tried making a ketchup with tomatoes. And here it is time to finally bring in the United States. At about the same time as English sailors and traders were going east to search for spices, they were also going west, to the newly discovered continent of America. Emigrants were going too and eventually set up the American colonies. The English colonists tended to look back to the Mother Country for their cooking habits and recipes. Both The Compleat Housewife and The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy were published in the American colonies. On both sides of the Atlantic, cooks were experimenting with tomatoes. It seems that the prize for First Published Recipe for Tomato Ketchup goes to an American, a certain James Mease. In his book Archives of Useful Knowledge, published in 1812, he gave the following recipe for a tomato ketchup (he called tomatoes love apples, an early name for them):

Slice the apples thin, and over every layer sprinkle a little salt; cover them, and let them lie twenty-four hours; then beat them well, and simmer them half an hour in a bell-metal kettle; then add mace & allspice. When cold, add two cloves of raw shallots cut small, and half a gill of brandy to each bottle, which must be corked tight, and kept in a cool place.

Mease had already dropped the fish (a recipe for “tomata catsup”, in the cookery book Apicius Redivivus, or the Cook’s Oracle, published in the UK in 1817, is quite similar to Mease’s but still includes the fish) and considerably reduced the spices. It sounds more like what I would call a tomato sauce. A recipe for “tomato catsup”, given in The Virginia Housewife, written by Mary Randolph (Thomas Jefferson’s cousin) and first published in 1824, is even more like a tomato sauce, with the brandy now dropped.

TOMATO CATSUP

Gather a peck of tomatoes, pick out the stems, and wash them; put them on the fire without water, sprinkle on a few spoonfuls of salt, let them boil steadily an hour, stirring them frequently; strain through a colander, and then through a sieve; put the liquid on the fire with half a pint of chopped onions, half a quarter of an ounce of mace broke into small pieces; and if not sufficiently salt, add a little more — one table-spoonful of whole black pepper; boil all together until just enough to fill two bottles; cork it tight. Make it in August, in dry weather.

At some point, Americans began adding sugar to their tomato ketchup. By the time, Mr. Henry J. Heinz began making his tomato ketchup in the mid 1870s, sugar was standard. Here is a handwritten description of the recipe Heinz was using in 1895.

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It’s a little difficult to read and the picture doesn’t have the whole write-up, but it seems to say the following:

100 gals of thin tomato pulp
8 oz Ambonia cloves broken
7 oz Garden Allspice
6 oz broken Saigon cinnamon
4½ oz broken Penang mace
1½ oz powd Cayenne pepper
3 oz fresh chopped garlic
4½ lbs fresh chopped onions
This is all put into a 250 gal capacity kettle and boiled fast. After a while, add 4 gals of 10 %[?] vgr [vinegar] and cook, again for a while, when having almost the proper thickness add 38 lbs sugar … [I cannot read the rest]

Heinz seems to have stayed with the spicier types of ketchups. According to those who have recreated this sauce, this is a sauce with some punch to it, much more than the “timid smooth sauce” of today.  But in 1895, hamburgers, hot dogs and french fries weren’t where tomato ketchup was mainly being used. No doubt the spiciness has had to be toned down.

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In any event, Heinz’s tomato ketchup was a huge success and continues to be so. The company caught the wave of women no longer wanting to slave over the stoves to make their sauces at home when they could buy perfectly good ready-made sauces in the shops and then the supermarkets.

So there we have it. By the twists and turns of history, what started out as a sauce oozing out of fermenting fish ended up as a thickish sweet tomato-sugar-vinegar-based sauce, changing as different cultures met, swapped foodstuffs, and people carried new foodstuffs home and modified them to meet their needs.

MUSTARD

Vienna, 18 July 2020

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

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

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

various sources

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

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

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

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

Sources: various Amazon sites

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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What did you use instead of wine vinegar?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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, it 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 pretty agitated: “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
Revised in Vienna, 20 October 2020

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

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

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

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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 …

POSTSCRIPT 20 October 2020

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

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