“OH NO, BALSAMIC VINEGAR!”

Milan, 21 May 2019

That was the thought which crossed my mind when in our last AirBnB my wife and I were going through the kitchen cupboards to see what had been left behind by previous occupants. I looked at the bottle glumly.
I like having my vegetables in salad, and my sauce of choice is a simple vinaigrette: olive oil, vinegar, salt. I dislike having to use balsamic vinegar. I don’t care for the sweet taste it imparts. Salads, in my humble opinion, require astringency, not sweetness. I hasten to add that I am not against the mixing of sweet and salt per se on my plate, as this previous post attests to. I’m just against sweet sauces on salads. So, as I say, I stared at the bottle glumly. It looked like I was going to have to use balsamic vinegar on my salads during our stay; who wants to buy a whole bottle of vinegar for a short AirBnB stay? Luckily, our daughter, whom we were visiting, came to the rescue, lending us some of her vinegar, the real stuff, made from red wine.

Where did all the real vinegar go to? There was a time, not so long ago – we’re talking 15-20 years ago – when waiters brought you real vinegar when you asked for “oil and vinegar” for your salad. Then, mysteriously, balsamic vinegar appeared out of nowhere, and the waiters would start asking: “balsamic or normal?” Then, after a bit, the waiters simply brought you balsamic; if you wanted real vinegar, you had to beg for it and they would bring it with evident ill-will if they had it at all. I think I know what the pagans in the Roman Empire must have felt like, just after Christianity became the State religion. One moment, your religion is mainstream, then along comes this upstart religion and suddenly everyone is looking at you askance, your favourite temple is being torn down or turned into a church, and you can’t get a job in government anymore! (an experience well described by Stephen Greenblatt in his book The Swerve).

I’ve always had a love for vinegar, ever since I tasted my French grandmother’s homemade brew. Down in her cellar – its earth-packed floor exuding a special scent of centuries-old dry dust and its dark corners packed with the fascinating flotsam and jetsam from the many generations who had lived in the house – there was a long wooden table, on which she kept her store of little round local goat’s cheeses as well as a small wooden barrel in which she made her vinegar. When the vinegar in the dining room was finished my grandmother would send me down to the cellar (which has already been the subject of a previous post) to fill the little vinegar pitcher. Of course, I never took a picture of her vinegar barrel. After a search on the web, though, I found this image which gives an idea of what I would find before me after I had walked down the old stone steps and opened the heavy cellar door.

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As I would open the tap in the barrel, a lovely winey but slightly acidic scent would rise to my nostrils as the vinegar ran into the pitcher. Ah, that lovely, lovely smell! Never forgotten, even though half a century and more has passed. How can it be that people prefer balsamic vinegar to this elixir of the gods?!

After much thought on the matter, I have put it down to the fact that, contrary to my preferences, most people like a sweet sauce on their salads. I still remember with a shudder the sickly white, creamy, sweet sauces that the Brits spread with wild abandon on their salads. I see the same types of sauces in the Germanic and Nordic lands of Europe. In my youth, I had this theory that there was a salad-sauce border that ran across Europe, between the countries or parts thereof which spoke Romance languages plus Greece – all oil-and-vinegar salad sauce countries – and the remaining Germanic and Slavic speaking countries – all sweet creamy salad sauce countries. The US and Canada, reflecting their immigration history, have always seemed to me to be mixed in their tastes in salad sauce although I feel that the sweet creamy salad sauces predominate; even the non-creamy sauces are horribly sweet. Here is a picture of an array of such sauces in the posh supermarket that was up the road from our AirBnB.
But the tsunami of balsamic vinegar which has flooded over bastions of the oil-and-vinegar salad sauce countries like Italy has led me to bitterly conclude that even most Italians – and probably most French and most Iberians – like their salad sauces sweet. I am the old 4th Century pagan left bewildered and embittered by the mass conversion of my compatriots to Christianity …

The ridiculous thing is, I’m sure that most people who liberally drizzle their salads with balsamic vinegar don’t realize that they are actually consuming a FAKE. We have all read and heard that balsamic vinegar has its roots in the Italian towns of Modena and Reggio-Emilia (I throw in here a photo of Modena’s main square).

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It does indeed, but the original is hugely different from the vast majority of the stuff people call balsamic vinegar. First of all, it is not made from wine in the way vinegar is. Instead, a must of (locally grown) crushed grapes – pulp, seeds, skin, stems and all – is slowly reduced to a thick syrup over an open flame. This is then allowed to ferment to create some alcohol, at which point the acetic acid bacteria are allowed to get to work to turn that alcohol into acetic acid. After which, the acetified syrup goes through a long, long aging process, during which the acid levels rise. A series of at least five progressively smaller barrels (each made of different woods) are used for this.

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Once a year, part of the syrupy vinegar in the smallest barrel is withdrawn as final product. The barrel is topped up with vinegar from the next largest barrel, and so on, in a cascade mode; at the end, the latest batch of acetified syrup is used to top up the biggest barrel. The procession of syrupy vinegar from largest to smallest barrel can take anywhere from 12 to 25 years or more to complete. All this is now regulated by a Protected Designation of Origin certification (DOP in Italian) for “Traditional Balsamic Vinegar” (Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale). If readers would like to pick up the product in a shop (or online), it looks something like this.

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Such smart-looking (and very small!) bottles come with a correspondingly high price tag. They can be yours for no less than 150€ and for as much as 300€! At those prices, do readers think it gets drizzled on salads? No way José!! Discerning Modenese and Reggio-Emilians will place a few drops on shards of Parmesan cheese as an appetizer, or on a plate of simple pasta like tortelli di zucca, or on a grilled fish, or on fresh fruit such as strawberries, or on a dessert like panna cotta. They will even drink it from a tiny glass to conclude a meal as an after-meal digestive, especially on special occasions such as weddings. But they will definitely not waste a single drop of this precious liquid on a vulgar salad.

As readers might appreciate, a product which takes this long to make doesn’t have a huge annual production. But when, after what I suspect was a canny global marketing campaign, balsamic vinegar became the thing to have in your home and at the restaurant, demand grew hugely. How to satisfy this voracious – and highly profit-making – demand? Very simple. Make grape must from any old grape variety, reduce it a bit (or maybe not), add any old normal vinegar to give the vinegary taste, add caramel to give it the dark look, and corn starch to give it the syrupy look, of the real thing, slap on a label proclaiming it to be balsamic vinegar, et voilà! I’ve simplified a bit, but that is more or less what happened in the heady days of the late 20th Century when demand for balsamic vinegar shot up.

Some order was brought into all of this by the EU creating two certifications: the highly prestigious DOP, which I’ve already mentioned, and a Protected Geographic Indication (IGP in Italian) for “Balsamic Vinegar of Modena” (Aceto Balsamico di Modena), which in its name recognizes the origin of all this balsamic vinegar. In fact, when people buy “high-end” balsamic vinegar, they normally buy the IGP variety. If readers refer back to the first photo in this post, they will see that the bottle I stared at glumly is IGP certified. And I took this photo in the condiment aisle of the same posh supermarket I mentioned earlier.
All the balsamic vinegars were, without exception, IGP-certified “Balsamic Vinegar of Modena”.

But I’m afraid this product is also rather a fake. You see, to get this certification all the producer really needs to do is to make sure that one stage of production occurs in or around Modena. So the must could be made in California with Californian grapes, and the vinegar could be made in Australia using Australian wine, but as long as the last required step – aging the resulting mixture for a minimum of 60 days – is carried out in a warehouse in an industrial park on the outskirts of Modena, the producer can quite legally claim it to be a “Balsamic Vinegar of Modena” and use the mark of IGP certification on the label. (Oh, and the product would have to have at least 20% by volume of must, and at least 10% of vinegar, and at least 6% acidity, and no more than 2% of caramel for colouring.) And of course I leave it to my readers’ imaginations to think where any other product with just the words “balsamic vinegar” came from and what it contains (and doesn’t contain).

Well, with a bit of luck, this exposé of the nefarious ways of the world of balsamic vinegar producers may have persuaded some of my readers to abandon balsamic vinegar and go back to the one true faith of real vinegar on their salads. I can hear readers objecting that much of what passes for “wine vinegar” is also the product of some chemical refinery somewhere. I cannot deny this; my only answer is “caveat emptor and read the label” – and I make a mental note to myself to write a post in the future on how to make your very own, real, vinegar at home.

 

SIX-LEGGED, BACKWARD-LOOKING, FIRE-BREATHING SHAGGY BLACK DOG

Milan, 17 April 2019

One of the nice things about being in Milan at this time of the year is that it allows my wife and me to visit the various exhibitions which make up the city’s annual Design Week. This last week saw us tramping the highways and byways of Milan and dropping into exhibitions of design, mostly of furniture and furnishings, this week also being the time that Milan was holding the Salone del Mobile, its huge international exhibition of furniture and furnishings. I cannot say that I saw anything that knocked my socks off, or even just rolled them down. But it did allow us to visit a good number of old palazzi which were hosting exhibitions and which are out of bounds to the general public the rest of the year. It also allowed us to visit a small botanical garden that is tucked away behind the Brera Academy in the heart of Milan’s fashion district, a garden which neither of us knew existed. It is that visit which started off this post.

Our reason for going to the botanical garden was that ENI, Italy’s huge national oil and gas corporation, was holding an exhibition there on the theme of circular economy. This is an idea that is currently growing in importance in the environmental world and one which I have been running trainings on, and I was curious to see what ENI had to say on the subject. The short answer is: not terribly much. But I came away with this picture.
For readers who might be interested, the white core of this ring is composed of fungal mycelium, which ENI reminds us is completely biodegradable, and the outer casing is made of birch wood, which ENI says will be reused once the exhibition is over. Without much exaggeration, that pretty much sums up what ENI had to say about the circular economy in its exhibition.

Of greater interest for this post is what the makers of this ring have etched into the mycelium: apart from the title of the exhibition and the company’s name, the company’s logo: the six-legged dog. It is this dog which is the subject of this post. Or rather, given where this post started, it is the design history of this dog which I will write about.

My story starts in 1949, when Enrico Mattei, the charismatic boss of Agip, Italy’s national oil company, announced that oil and gas reserves had been discovered in the Po River plain. In truth, the finds were quite modest: the oil fields were to run dry quite quickly, while the gas fields, although they continue to chug along, have only a very modest output. But Mattei talked up the finds, offering a vision of Italy finally being self-sufficient in the fuels it needed to power its economic development, and thereby created a huge national stir. By late 1951, Italian refineries were beginning to produce the first petrol derived from Italian crude oil and Mattei’s PR office had come up with a name for this purely Italian petrol: Supercortemaggiore (Corte Maggiore being the place where the find had been made). In May 1952, Mattei decided to crank up excitement levels by announcing that Agip would hold a public competition open to all Italian citizens, inviting them to come up with, among other things, a publicity poster for Supercortemaggiore petrol. He made 10 million lire (or about 160,000 euros in today’s money) available in prize money to further whet people’s appetites. He composed a jury of very eminent persons to judge the entries; to give readers an idea of their eminence , the chair of the jury was the world-famous architect Giò Ponti.

Creative Italy got to work. By the closure of the competition in September, some 4,000 entries had been received. The jury ploughed through the submissions and for the Supercortemaggiore poster, it plumped for this:

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The caption read: “Supercortemaggiore: the powerful Italian petrol”. But what really dominated the poster was a six-legged shaggy black dog blowing out a red flame over its back. The whole poster had a bright yellow background. The original drawing as submitted actually had the dog facing frontward with the flame shooting out forward. Mattei decreed that this was too aggressive, people could imagine they were faced with a canine version of a flame-thrower. No problem! The head was swiveled 180 degrees so that the flame flared harmlessly back over the dog’s back. The net result was that by late 1952 Italians up and down the land found themselves faced with huge billboards such as these.

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Most advertising ideas work OK, some are a complete flop, and some work spectacularly well. The six-legged, fire-breathing, backward-looking, shaggy black dog falls into the last category; it was an instant hit with Italians. So popular did it become that in 1953, when Mattei created the new national oil and gas holding company, the Ente Nazionale Idrocarburi or ENI, with Agip as one of its subsidiaries, he decided that the dog should become the corporate brand. And so quite soon when Italians went to fill up at their local Agip petrol station they were faced with something like this.

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In fact, this was how I first came across this intriguing dog. This was in Asmara, the capital of Eritrea, where I was born a year or so after the shaggy black dog burst upon the scene. As an ex-Italian colony still full of Italians in the 1950s, Agip had a monopoly on the country’s petrol supply. It took a little while for the new ENI/Agip logo to grace every Agip petrol station, especially when the petrol stations were as far away from the center of the ENI empire as those in Asmara were. But they eventually got there, and I would have first seen the dog in 1958-59, from the back seat of the car as my father filled her up at the petrol station just behind our house.

Just to finish the design part, the dog has gone through some discreet remodelling as ENI has redesigned its look over the years. This is what it now looks like: slightly shorter than it was at the start and half out of the box rather than all in it. But the essentials are all still there.

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At some point, everyone who looks at this dog asks themselves “why six legs?” or the more-or-less equivalent question “what kind of animal is this, actually?” To discuss this properly, I need to take a step sideways and relate a dramatic turn of evens which occurred in 1983, 30 or so years after Mattei held his competition. In that year, the startling news broke that Giuseppe Guzzi, the person who everyone had assumed was the creator of the dog – because the submission to the competition’s jury was in his name – was not in fact its author! He had been merely the front man for the dog’s real creator, Luigi Broggini, a respectable Milanese sculptor. Broggini died in 1983 and his children, who broke the news, felt that it was time for the real creator of the famous dog to get the credit he was due. It seems that Broggini was a bit of a cultural elitist; he felt that being linked to such a vulgar enterprise as designing a publicity poster for a brand of petrol was unworthy of a true artist such as he. This is a typical product of his artistic inclinations.

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The cynic inside of me whispers that he probably didn’t deign to take the prize money; I only hope he shared it fairly with Guzzi to reward him for agreeing to be his front man.

So now we can return to the question of why six legs. Unfortunately, because Broggini died before his true role in this whole affair was revealed, we will never be able to ask the dog’s creator what he had in mind. I presume Broggini never told Guzzi, because it doesn’t seem that Guzzi ever gave any coherent response to this question. Maybe he would just smile mysteriously when asked and invite the questioners to come up with their own theory.

And come up with theories people have. One suggests that Broggini, thinking about the fact that the original crude oil lay underground, looked for possible models to the panoply of Greek and Roman gods and goddesses that peopled the shadowy underworld. Cerberus, the dog which guarded the entry to Hades, is considered one model. Cerberus was normally described as having three heads, a serpent for a tail, and snakes writhing out from his body in various places. But he had the normal amount of legs and he didn’t breathe fire. Here is a Greek vase depicting him.

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The idea to have a fire-breathing animal no doubt comes from petrol’s readiness to burn. But what animal breathes fire? The answer is the dragon.

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So another theory suggests that Broggini took a cue from a local Lombard legend of a dragon named Tarantasio which lived in a lake near Lodi, south-east of Milan (and perhaps not coincidentally quite close to the natural gas finds which Mattei announced in 1949). It was said that its breath was pestilential and it liked to devour little children. The Visconti, Lords of Milan, claimed that their ancestor had killed the terrible child-eating dragon and took it as the symbol on their coat of arms.

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So maybe Broggini was imagining a dog from the underworld with dragon-like characteristics. Adding a dragon to the mix might explain the flaming mouth, but as far as I can make out dragons are, like dogs, four-legged. So we still have no explanation for the six legs. The best I can think of is that Broggini liked the idea of using Cerberus as a model, perhaps allied to a dragon-like ability to breathe fire, but didn’t think having multiple heads was a good idea and so decided on multiple legs. Whatever the reason, the ENI PR office came up with a really pathetic slogan: “the dog with six legs, faithful friend to the man on four wheels”. And the man who came up with this slogan was none other than the great film director, Ettore Scola! As I always say to my wife in cases like these, he surely needed to pay his rent and electricity bills.

Let me finish this post recounting what happened to the man who started the whole business of the competition which brought us the dragon-dog, Enrico Mattei. For Mattei, the real point of the competition was to strengthen public support for a strong national oil and gas company, which he could translate into political support. He succeeded spectacularly well. A year after the competition, he got the politicians to back his idea of creating ENI. He used the profits which Agip petroli and its sister company Agip gas made from the Italian oil and gas finds to fund his ventures in foreign countries rich in oil and gas. His long-term strategy was for ENI to become a competitor to the Seven Sisters (a term he invented to describe the seven – mainly US – corporations which at that time dominated the world’s oil and gas markets). To make this happen, he went to places the Seven Sisters couldn’t or didn’t want to go to, he offered the countries really good deals in the share of profits, and he wasn’t above offering succulent bribes. Judging by ENI’s heft today in the world market, I would say that Mattei got it right. But in the process he stepped on many, many toes. In 1962, he died when his private plane crashed while coming in to land at Milan airport. The inquest was rushed through and arrived at the conclusion that it was an accident. But this is Italy. Rumors continued to circulate that his plane had been sabotaged. In the early 1990s, his body and that of one of the two passengers on the plane with him were exhumed, and examination of metal fragments in their bones showed they had been deformed by an explosion. In 1994, the case was reopened and eventually the episode was reclassified as a homicide by a person or persons unknown. There has been enormous amounts of speculation as to who these “unknown persons” might be. At one time or other, the finger has been pointed at the British Secret Service, the French Secret Service, the OAS (the French irredentists for a French Algeria), the CIA, the Mafia (as a favour to their cousins in America, the Cosa Nostra), one or more of the Seven Sisters, and I’m sure I’ve missed a few. We’ll no doubt never know.

But we can all thank Mattei for that splendid six-legged, backward-looking, fire-breathing, shaggy black dog which he bequeathed the world!

SAN LORENZO ALLE COLONNE

Milan, 1 April 2019

Many, many years ago – it must have been the Easter of 1976 – I visited my wife-to-be in Milan during the Spring holidays. After the dark, cold Scottish winter we had just endured in Edinburgh, the tepid spring temperatures in Milan were a godsend. On my first day there, my wife(-to-be) took me on a walk around the district. We rounded a corner and I found myself confronted with this:
It was even more striking closer up: a froth of tender green partially masking the ruddy red of brick in the walls of a venerable-looking church topped off with a very fine dome.
I took these two pictures from the same spots a week or so ago. Nothing much seems to have changed in the intervening 40+ years.

It was a vision – after that cold, dark winter – of the coming of spring that has remained with me ever since. I put my eventual decision to “pivot” away from grey, rainy, cold UK towards sunny, warm Italy down to that first spring visit to Milan and in particular to this vision of tender green on brick red.

A walk around the back of the church through a little park made the church look even more interesting.
I have always been very fond of this seemingly higgledy-piggledy pile of venerable-looking buildings, all in that warm red brick so common in this part of the world. Over the intervening 40-odd years, whenever I’ve been in Milan I have always tried to find a moment to come back to this spot to admire the view.

The church is just as interesting on the front side. There, the first thing that meets the eye is a row of very worn Roman columns.
They enclose one side of the piazza in front of the church, a piazza which is as orderly as the back of the church is disorderly. Facing the columns, the church’s facade rises up to the church’s imposing dome, adopting the clean lines of classical-looking architecture.
The canon houses on the other two sides of the piazza continue this projection of orderliness, balance, and harmony.
As a finishing touch, in the centre of the piazza stands a statue of a Roman emperor, calmly gazing down on passing visitors.
Meanwhile, in the near distance those same visitors can make out one of Milan’s few remaining gates in its Medieval walls, the Porta Ticinese.
This church is the Basilica of San Lorenzo. It is a very ancient church; the latest archaeological digs put its foundation at the end of the 4th-beginning of the 5th Centuries. Its history is not nearly as orderly as the piazza in front would have us believe; the disorderliness of the back is a better metaphor for its passage through the centuries.

Like many ancient churches in the lands of the old Roman Empire, the church was built atop a Roman temple. This aerial view of what Roman Milan probably looked like has been put together by some clever fellow.
San Lorenzo was built over that square grey temple close to the amphitheatre which readers can see in the bottom left corner. This is a close-up of what the clever fellow thinks that temple might have looked like.
My guess is that the columns now standing guard over the piazza in front of the church were reused from this temple. But it’s just a guess; no-one seems to know for sure where they came from. What is sure is that stones from the nearby amphitheatre were dragged over for use in the foundations of the church.

That reuse of stone and columns strongly suggests that this was an imperial basilica – you needed imperial permission to mine old public buildings for their stone. It’s further believed that the basilica was built close to an imperial palace – at this time Milan was the imperial capital of the Western Roman Empire – as a counterweight to the four basilicas which St. Ambrose, the powerful bishop of Milan, had been busily building in Milan (and which still exist today, although in much modified form).

We don’t know for sure what the first church looked like, although archaeological excavations and the sparse written records have helped the experts form an opinion. Based on this, some other clever fellow has come up with this cut-away drawing of what the first church might have looked like.
Very little remains of this complex today: the four towers (two are visible in this drawing), the two octagonal side chapels, and the recycled Roman columns at the front. What also remains is the ghostly outline of the central part of the church, a very striking space composed of a large square with each side having a shallow apse, and with a wide circular deambulatory corridor around that central space.
Anyone who visits many churches, either for religious reasons or – like me – to admire their art and architecture, cannot but be struck by the uniqueness of this space. Very few old Christian churches have this kind of floor plan.

The drawing above doesn’t give any indication of the decoration of the church, but if this was indeed an imperial basilica then the interior would have been richly decorated with mosaics. If we had been lucky, if San Lorenzo had passed through the centuries relatively unscathed, we might have been able to admire something as glorious as the church of Sant’Apollinare in Classe in Ravenna.
But it was not to be.  Almost all of San Lorenzo’s mosaics are gone, swept away by water leakage, poor maintenance, rebuilding after fires or structural failures, and changing tastes. What little is left is tucked away in one of the old octagonal side chapels, the chapel of St. Aquilinus. The best conserved mosaic is this one, depicting Christ among the Philosophers.
A much more damaged mosaic is tucked away in another corner of the chapel. Experts believe this to have shown the Christ-Sun in his chariot (presumably borrowing from the classical representation of Apollo in his chariot moving the sun through the sky) – one can still see the horses’ legs against a golden background.
Two fires and an earthquake did it for the first church of San Lorenzo, with the central dome probably collapsing. Major rebuilding programmes took place in the 12th and 13th Centuries to rebuild the dome in “modern” style. While the basic plan of the church was left untouched, various other things were added: a few more side chapels and no doubt other things here and there. No-one seems to have committed to paint or paper this newer version of the church. The best we have is some miniatures painted by Cristoforo de Predis in a book of 1476, Leggendario libro della fine del mondo. They show Milan as background to scenes drawn from the New Testament. This one in particular, which depicts Jesus returning to Nazareth where he is presented with a paralyzed man, has Milan standing in for Nazareth. The paralyzed man is being brought out of the Porta Ticinese, which has the old medieval walls attached to it as well as the defensive moat in front of it (now a busy ring road), while in the background we see the church of San Lorenzo with its fine new dome.
The interior decorations were of course also renovated, this time in the “modern” fresco style. Again, if we had been lucky, we might have found ourselves today gazing on something as glorious as the interior of the Collegiata in San Gimignano:
But no. As time went by, these frescoes were also attacked by their enemies: water, fumes from candles, neglect, structural damage, and changes in taste. In the final indignity, someone decided to whitewash over what was left of them to make nice white walls. In the last fifty years or so, modern conservationists have scraped away the whitewash and have revealed some scraps of the frescoes that adorned the church:
Of the first generation of frescoes, we have a Descent from the Cross
St. Helena, holding that same Cross, which she is purported to have found in Jerusalem
The Virgin and the Christ child, enthroned
Later frescoes were added, or substituted the earlier ones, like this Last Supper from the early 16th Century.
Things were definitely not helped by the dome collapsing again in 1573. Once more it was rebuilt, and that is the dome which I admired 40 odd years ago and which we still admire today. But one can imagine that the collapse of the dome brought down a lot of the interior decoration with it and putting it back up again put paid to a good deal more.

Meanwhile, things were changing around the church. At the beginning, the church had been outside the city, but when the city expanded its walls in the Middle Ages, it had been brought within the city boundaries. With the greater protection this afforded, people had decided to build houses all around San Lorenzo. These pressed right up to the church’s walls. In fact, in the front of the church, houses had invaded the space between the church’s front doors and the old Roman columns so that these were now completely isolated from the church, as this painting from about 1815 shows.An exception was the back of the church. There, the ground was marshy, being low-lying and the point where several streams and canals met. As a result, an open no-man’s land was left there, which during normal times was used by the city’s tanners. As anyone knows who has been anywhere near a tannery, the smell in the neighbourhood must have been overpowering, so it was not a place that the good folk would have wanted to live. Tanning was still going on here in the 1830s, as this painting from 1833 attests – note the skins stretched out to dry in the foreground.
To make matters worse, it was on this no-man’s land that until the mid 1800s the city’s authorities carried out their executions, and of course executions included all the hideous tortures that the poor bastards were subjected to before being allowed to die. This print shows vividly what could await those being executed in this space – San Lorenzo stands as a mute witness in the background.
Definitely not an area for the good folk to have their houses! And so the area behind the church was what we might politely call a lower-class neighbourhood, or impolitely call a slum. In the late 1800s, the city authorities decided it was time to spruce up the area. So the no-man’s land was upgraded to a piazza, piazza Vetra, houses were built along its edges and buildings were built in the piazza to house weekly markets. This one, for instance, was built in 1866 for the weekly market in dairy products. We see behind San Lorenzo looking on benignly.
In the first three decades of the 1900s, the city authorities cleaned up the area further. In 1911, as this postcard shows, there were still houses located between the old Roman columns and the front door of the church.
In the 1920s, the city fathers decided to give San Lorenzo back its piazza, and by the 1930s the houses were all gone. In keeping with the period’s desire to stress Italy’s glorious Roman past, a copy of a bronze Roman statue of the Emperor Constantine was placed in the re-formed piazza; no doubt Constantine was chosen because he was the co-author of the Edict of Milan which proclaimed religious toleration throughout the Roman Empire and which led to Christianity becoming the official religion of the Empire.

The city authorities were also busy behind the church clearing the slums but what really did it for that area were the Anglo-American bombings of Milan in 1943 and 1944. The church itself was unscathed but whole swathes of housing were destroyed.
The damage was so extensive that the authorities decided to simply clear away the rubble and create a park. This is what the complex looked like by 1960.
Nothing has really changed since except that the tram lines have been shifted to the other side of the columns.

What of the interior? Did grand paintings and sculptures take the place of the frescoes which disappeared? I’m afraid not. Walking around the church, one rather gets the feeling of being in the church’s attic: various pieces plopped down here and there, many of dubious artistic value. Here are some pictures to show what I mean, from the good
(a Pietà in polychrome terracotta from the late 18th Century)
(a baptism of Christ; the author is not given, nor is the date, but from the style I would guess late 16th Century)

to the bad
(I don’t know why so many Catholic churches insist on having these horribly sucrose statues of the Virgin Mary; the church has a few more statues of this type dotted around)

to the downright ugly
(it took me a few minutes to figure out that this carved wooden statue was meant to be Pope John XXIII).

I must confess to a certain melancholy when I walk around the interior of San Lorenzo. What splendours we could have had, if only the church could have slipped through the ages unscathed! I console myself with not quite a splendour but at least something lively and fun to look at, murals that have been recently painted on the walls surrounding one of the canon houses.
I’m not really sure what the artist is trying to tell us, but they bring a smile to my lips whenever I see them.

THE BEAUTIFUL GAME

Sori, 12 February 2019

“Pass the ball!”

“Over here!”

“Shoot!!”

“GOOOAAAAL!!!”

The children’s voices float up to me from the little soccer patch – “pitch” seems too big a word for that scrap of land – squeezed in between the village church and the houses across the lane, here in this village on the Ligurian coast.
A place where the village boys – and sometimes girls – can dream that one day they will be the nation’s heroes, idolized by millions.
In the meantime, though, their misplaced kicks are filling the gutters of the church.
In this land of steep hills falling straight into the sea, it’s difficult to carve out a decent soccer pitch, but the village elders do their best.
In truth, though, children can make do with very little to dream their dreams of future greatness.
Let them dream while they can. We adults know only too well that although many will hope to be called few will ever be chosen. And that those few will shine brilliantly in the heavens for but a few years before lapsing into obscurity for ever.

But while they shine they will dazzle us all with the sheer elegance, the almost balletic beauty, of their playing.
Yes, let the little ones dream. We adults will think instead about how to get the balls out of the church’s gutters without breaking our necks.

___________________________

France wins World Cup: https://indianexpress.com/article/fifa/fifa-world-cup-2018-winner-is-france-5260828/
Children playing in a park: https://www.delo.si/druzba/panorama/prehrana-za-vase-mlade-olimpijske-upe.html
Cuban children playing in the street: https://www.alamy.com/stock-photo-cuban-children-playing-soccer-or-football-in-the-street-in-havana-138416743.html
S. African children playing football: https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x202z1v
Cambodian children playing football: http://sydney.edu.au/news/482.html?newsstoryid=10712
Diego Maradona dribbling: https://www.storypick.com/41-iconic-football-photos/
Rooney’s scissors kicks: https://www.storypick.com/41-iconic-football-photos/
Header: https://www.mensjournal.com/sports/soccer-heads-13-best-header-goals-all-time/

BERGAMOT ORANGE

Vienna, 25 January 2019

A while back, while my wife and I were drinking an Earl Grey tea, I wondered out loud what gave the tea its particular taste. Bergamot, my wife replied. Bergamot? Since then, I have been wondering off and on – more off than on – just what exactly this Bergamot stuff was. When, a few days ago, we were cozily ensconced in a café having an Earl Grey tea, I decided that the moment had come to act. It was time for me to open the internet and disappear down one of those on-line rabbit holes I am so fond of falling down, this time in search of the elusive bergamot.

It wasn’t actually all that elusive. I immediately discovered that “bergamot” was actually the bergamot orange, one member of that seemingly vast and global tribe of citrus fruits. I was no end pleased to find this out, since I am very fond of the citrus family. I had great fun writing a post some time ago about one of its members, the citron. As seems to be usual in this family of fruits which happily and incestuously hybridize with each other, the bergamot orange’s precise genealogy is somewhat confused, but the consensus currently is that it is a hybrid of sweet lime and sour orange. This photo shows the fruit on the tree.
And this photo is a close-up of the ripe fruit.
I think the family resemblance is fairly clear, no?

90% of the bergamot trees grown commercially in the world are to be found in one small corner of southern Italy, in the ball of Italy’s foot to be precise: in the communes of Brancaleone, Bruzzano Zeffirio and Staiti in the province of Reggio Calabria. Here is a photo of one of the bergamot orchards in Brancaleone, down along the banks of a very dry river bed.
For those of my readers who, like me, have never seen the fruit and have never tasted it, I can report that “the juice tastes less sour than lemon but more bitter than grapefruit”. As readers can imagine, such a taste does not lend itself to the fruit being eaten like a sweet orange. The best one can do is to substitute it for lemon wherever one might use lemon juice: tea, for instance, since tea started this post. And if any of my readers find themselves in the island of Mauritius, they should ask around because it seems that the islanders do make a drink out of it there.

No, the real glory of this fruit, and the primary reason why anyone bothers to grow it commercially, is the essential oil which can be squeezed out of its rind: a dark green elixir of chemicals with such names as limonene, linalool, and bergamottin (I love these wonderful names they used to give chemicals! Not like the dreary modern ones: (E)-4-[(3,7-Dimethyl-2,6-octadienyl)oxy]- 7H-furo[3,2-g][1]benzopyran-7-one – the “proper” name of bergamottin, for instance).
Its major use is as an ingredient in perfumes, fragrances, colognes, and the like. But before getting into that, let me complete the story of Earl Grey tea, which after all kicked off this post.

To answer my own question, Earl Grey tea gets its particular taste from the addition of bergamot essential oil to its base of black tea leaves. The question is, why was this essential oil ever added to tea leaves in the first place? And here I have to say that a lot of fanciful if not downright ridiculous stories have been invented. Before describing them – briefly, they are so silly – I need to introduce the Earl Grey whose name got attached to the tea. He was 2nd Earl Grey, who lived from 1764 to 1845.
He was active in politics, eventually ending up as Prime Minister for a few years. He’s not terribly well known (at least, I don’t remember his name ever being mentioned in my English history classes at primary school). Yet he was responsible for one very great thing during his premiership: the abolition of slavery throughout the British Empire. He was also author of the Great Reform Bill.

So, then, how did the name of this very worthy member of the British aristocracy get associated with a bergamot-flavoured tea? I cite here a paragraph from a tea-related site, which I think sums up the silly stories doing the rounds: “There are stories of good deeds in China that resulted in the recipe for the tea coming to his ownership. Another version tells how the blend was created by accident when a gift of tea and bergamot oranges were shipped together from diplomats in China and the fruit flavour was absorbed by the tea during shipping. Yet another version of the story involves a Chinese mandarin friend of the Earl blending this tea to offset the taste of minerals in the water at his home”. None of which is credible because Earl Grey never had any real connections with China. But ignoring that, his wife, Lady Grey, the stories go on, used the tea in her tea parties. It proved so popular with her posh friends that they asked if they could get it too. So then Lord Grey graciously shared the recipe with Jacksons of Piccadilly, a purveyor of fine teas to the posh classes. The latter part of this story was certainly pushed by Jacksons, as this ad from the 1920s attests.
However, the reality appears to be much seamier. It seems that British tea merchants were surreptitiously adding bergamot essential oil to their low-value black teas to pass them off as a superior – and therefore more expensive – product (at least one company faced charges for doing so in 1837). And the superior product which it is speculated they might have been trying to emulate was … lapsang souchong! It pleases me no end to know that since I have written a post about this tea, which happens to be our favourite tea. At some point, perhaps through Jacksons of Piccadilly’s vigorous marketing efforts, flavoring black tea with bergamot became respectable, and the rest, as they say, is history. In case any of my readers decide to rush off and find themselves some Earl Grey tea made by Jacksons of Piccadilly, I regret to inform them that the company was bought up by Twinings in the 1990s. The nearest you will get to Jacksons of Piccadilly’s Earl Grey tea is this:
Or perhaps readers might decide they want to try making their own Earl Grey tea, in which case here is a recipe that I picked up on the net.

Add 5-20 drops of bergamot essential oil into a wide-mouthed mason jar: 5 drops yields a light bergamot flavour while 20 drops will make a strong version. Swirl the oil around the inside of the jar to coat the sides evenly. Next, pour in one cup of black tea leaves. Cap the jar and shake vigorously to help spread the essential oil over all of the tea leaves. Let it sit for anywhere from 12 hours to 3 days to allow the oil to properly infuse the leaves.

For those who like a really light Earl Grey tea – and who happen to have access to fresh bergamot oranges – I also saw a suggestion of adding air-dried bergamot rind to black tea leaves.

I can now return to the major use of bergamot essential oil, in the perfumery business. It may interest readers to know that bergamot is used in more than 65% of women’s perfumes and nearly half of men’s fragrances. I suspect that the one perfume I ever wrote a post about, Chanel’s Chance Eau Fraîche, contains it, although the ingredient is listed generically as “citrus”. This popularity of bergamot with perfumers started with eau de Cologne, so it seems right to explore this eau a little.

Here, we have another product whose genesis is shrouded in a certain amount of confusion, although not quite as much as in the case of Earl Grey tea. As the name suggests, eau de Cologne was invented in Cologne, Germany, in the first years of the 1700s. But its inventor was not German (or Colognian since Germany did not yet exist), he was Italian (or Savoyard since Italy did not yet exist). His name was Giovanni Paolo Feminis.
Feminis looks like a prosperous burgher in this painting, but that was after he had made his money from his perfume. He was born poor in the tiny village of Crana on the outskirts of the somewhat bigger village of Santa Maria Maggiore, located in an Alpine valley in the Duchy of Savoy (now the province of Piedmont).
He left his natal village quite young. I think I can understand why he decided to up sticks – historically, poverty levels in Alpine valleys were always high – but quite why he ended up in Germany I do not know, nor why he decided to make a perfume, nor why he decided to add bergamot essential oil to the mix. But all of these things he did, and in doing so he changed the face of perfumery for ever. His product became all the rage with Kings and Queens, Dukes and Duchesses, Barons and Baronesses – in a word, all the posh classes – throughout Europe. Its brightness, its lightness, compared favourably with the perfumes then on offer, and the bottles flew off the shelves as they say.

Inevitably, many competitors sprang up in Cologne itself and, with time, in other cities (as, by the way, they did in the case of Early Grey tea; the small print at the end of the Jacksons ad above attests to this). A good portion of these competitors all belonged to a large Italian family with the surname Farina. Amazingly, not only were they Italian like Feminis but they all hailed from the same village as he did: it seems they were attracted like bees to an especially good nectar when one of their own made it good. One of the Farinas, Giovanni Antonio Farina, was actually Feminis’s second-in-command. On Feminis’s death, he inherited the business and the recipe. But industrial espionage must have been rife in Cologne, because all the other competing Farinas, in fact everyone in the eau de Cologne business, had similar recipes. And all included bergamot essential oil.

One of the most successful of this large tribe of Farinas was Giovanni Maria Farina, uncle to Giovanni Antonio Farina. He built a factory in Cologne, the Johann Maria Farina gegenüber dem Jülichs-Platz, which looked like this.
This company still exists, and still offers its eau de Cologne in the originally designed flacons – this photo shows flacons from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, respectively.
For any readers who are interested in making their own more-or-less original eau de Cologne, I translate below the recipe from an old Italian book from the late 19th Century which claims it to be Giovanni Maria Farina’s recipe:

Take the tops of dried lemon balm or marjoram, of thyme, of rosemary, of hyssop and of wormood, in the amount of 27 grams each, 54 grams of lavender flowers, 27 grams of the root of wild celery, 54 grams of small cardamom, 27 grams, by type of dried berry, of juniper, of seeds of anise, caraway, cumin, and fennel, 54 grams of fine cinnamon, 54 grams of nutmeg, 27 grams of clove, 54 grams of fresh citron rind, one dram of bergamot essential oil, and 12.192 kilos of spirits.

Grind the hard parts and mince the soft parts, after which soak the whole in the amount of spirits indicated above for the period of four or five days. Then distill in a bain-marie to the point where there is but little residue.

The remaining uses of bergamot oranges are few and far between. There are continuing attempts to extract various useful chemicals from bergamots; the latest move is a claim that the juice bursts with cholesterol busting chemicals. As readers might guess, the essential oil is popular in aromatherapy.  But let me focus more on the food and drink side, since that is so much more interesting! Since I’ve already taken up so much of my readers’ time, I’ll just mention a few.

A marmalade is made from the fruit – here is a Calabrian brand. Given one of bergamot’s genetic parents is the sour orange, used in making traditional marmalade, this seems an obvious choice.
Various alcoholic drinks are also made from it, with the fruit being steeped for some period of time in alcohol – here is one such drink, also made in Calabria.
Before readers begin to think that I’m promoting Calabrian agro-products, let me also say that bergamot is used in flavouring Turkish Delight. And I want to finish with this sweet confection, for two reasons.

First, the mention of Turkey gives me an excuse to discuss briefly the etymology of this fruit’s name. The word “bergamot” is ultimately of Turkish origin, the original being bey armudu or bey armut, “prince’s pear” or “prince of pears”. Quite why pears got to name a citrus is not very clear to me, but what a Turkish name does suggest to me is that Europe originally got the fruit tree from Turkey (where Turkey got it from is another matter – the tree’s deepest tap root seems to be in South-East Asia somewhere). In fact, as might therefore be expected, bergamot is used to some degree in Turkish cuisine. For instance, the Turks make a marmalade out of it. They also use it to flavour Turkish Delight.

Which leads us to Turkish Delight. On the face of it, it is actually odd that I should want to finish with Turkish Delight; I don’t actually like it very much. But the reason I dislike Turkish Delight is that its commercial varieties – at least the varieties I’ve sampled – almost always use rosewater as the flavourant and I very much dislike rosewater: such a sweetly sickly taste, I find! I have bad memories from my youth of trying a particularly sickly British variety, Fry’s Turkish Delight, a confection of Turkish Delight enclosed in a milk chocolate casing. I still shudder at the thought of it. They had nice ads, though.
My thinking here is that I might actually like bergamot-flavoured Turkish Delight because I generally like citrus flavours, so I shall use use this platform to push for this particular version of the confection.

Perhaps I should start by calling this sweet by its Turkish name, lokum or more formally rahat-ul hulküm (these are both Arabic words at their root, which suggests that the Turks took something which was originally Arabic and made it theirs). Lokum means “morsel”, which at least originally was a generic term for various kinds of tasty morsels, while rahat-ul hulküm means “comfort of the throat”. As in the case of Earl Grey tea (and to a certain degree eau de Cologne), there is a creation myth: one man (never woman, of course) who made it all happen. The man in this case goes by the name of Hacı Bekir. The story goes that after having performed the Hajj, Bekir moved to Istanbul, where in 1777 he opened a confectionery shop in the district of Bahçekapı. He produced candies and various kinds of lokums. So far so good. But then came his genius moment, when he invented a unique form of lokum made with starch and sugar – this is the core culinary concept of our Turkish-Delight lokum, as we shall see in a minute. The business prospered. At his death, it was taken over by the next generation. Now, five generations later, the business is still going, under the founder’s name.
Here is a close-up of some of the lokums which the shop offers.
Unfortunately, as far as I can make out there is no existing portrait of Hacı Bekir, so I will make do with a rather romantic watercolour painted by the Maltese painter Amedeo Preziosi some 100 years after Hacı Bekir’s death, which has Bekir Efendi behind his counter serving his clients.
So that’s the story. But what really happened here? It seems that there are Arab and Persian recipes which include the key to our type of lokum, the use of starch and sugar, from several centuries before Bekir Effendi. So it can’t be said that he invented the recipe. It could be that he learned about these lokums during stays in the more Arab part of the Ottoman Empire and brought them to Istanbul where they were unknown, perhaps refiguring them to local tastes. Or  perhaps he, and/or his children, were just better marketers than their rivals. Whatever happened, they have ended up being seen as the inventors of Turkish Delight.

So it is now time to give my readers a recipe for making Turkish Delight lokum. Even if they never use the recipe, it shows what real, rather than industrially-made, lokum should be. The quantities cited in this recipe should be sufficient to make 20 lokums.

The first step is to prepare a syrup of sugar and lemon. Dissolve 400 grams of sugar in 200 ml of water. Add 1 teaspoon of lemon. Bring to a boil and keep boiling until a temperature of 115°C is reached. In a small pan with a thick bottom, add 250 ml of water and dissolve in it 70 grams of corn starch and half a teaspoon of cream of tartar, mixing them in with a spoon. The corn starch is key here, because when it gets to a temperature of about 80°C it begins to form a gel. It is this gel which gives lokum its typical gumminess. Start heating the mixture over a medium flame, mixing it with a whisk. Keep mixing continuously and at a constant speed. The mix will start thickening, from the bottom up. Keep up a constant, even mixing until you see the first signs of ebullition, at which point turn off the heat immediately. Pour the syrup into the starch gel a little at a time, incorporating it well with the whisk. Turn on the heat again, and the moment it comes to the boil, reduce the heat to the lowest temperature which still allows a very slow but constant ebullition. With a spoon, keep mixing continuously, slowly and evenly, for 40 minutes to an hour, being very careful that the mix doesn’t burn on the bottom and keeping it all uniformly mixed. The mix will become progressively transparent, yellowish and dense, so dense that it becomes very difficult to stir. The mix is ready when it gives the impression that it could be lifted up in one bloc but actually isn’t yet ready for that. At this point, most recipes instruct one to add rosewater, but I urge you to use bergamot essential oil instead! Add the oil – no more than a teaspoon! – and, if you are so inclined, some chopped nuts (hazelnuts, peeled almonds, or pistachios). Mix them in well, and then pour the whole into a non-stick frying pan. Spread it out with wetted hands until it is all a couple of centimetres thick – work quickly to avoid burning your hands! When the mixture has completely cooled, remove it from the pan and cut it into squares. As you cut them, dust them with a mix of corn starch and icing sugar (to keep the cubes from sticking together).

The result should look something like this.
Well, I think I’ve disappeared down enough of the Internet’s rabbit-holes for one day. There were piles more rabbit-holes with bergamot signs on them, but I think it is time to draw a line under this particular piece of research. At least I now know what bergamot is and why it’s in the Earl Grey tea we drink from time to time.

__________________________

Bergamot tree in fruit: https://www.123rf.com/photo_50262296_yellow-and-green-fruits-of-bergamot-orange-on-tree-citrus-bergamia.html
Bergamot fruit: https://www.specialtyproduce.com/produce/Bergamot_Oranges_2637.php
Bergamot orchards, Brancaleone: http://www.ilgiardinodelbergamotto.it/
Bergamot essential oil: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bergamot_orange
2nd Earl Grey: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Grey,_2nd_Earl_Grey
Jacksons of Piccadilly ad: https://public.oed.com/blog/early-grey-the-results-of-the-oed-appeal-on-earl-grey-tea/
Twinings Earl Grey tea: https://www.englishteastore.com/tweagr3ozlot.html
Giovanni Paolo Feminis: https://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Giovanni_Paolo_Feminis
Santa Maria Maggiore: http://santamariamaggiore.info/santa-maria-maggiore/
Farina factory in Cologne: https://farina.org/simply-enjoy-travel-you-must-visit-farina-fragrance-museum-in-cologne/
Eau de Cologne flacons: https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Datei:Farina-Rosoli.jpg
Bergamot marmalade: https://www.artimondo.co.uk/bergamot-orange-marmalade-100g.html
Liquore al bergamotto: https://www.artimondo.it/liquore-bergamotto-berga-spina-50cl.html
Fry’s Turkish Delight ad: https://www.pinterest.at/pin/463870830351577028/
Haci Bekir shop: https://www.tripadvisor.co.nz/LocationPhotoDirectLink-g293974-d4587456-i272658946-Ali_Muhiddin_Haci_Bekir-Istanbul.html
Haci Bekir’s Turkish Delights: http://www.istanbulinspired.com/2017/08/the-ottoman-confection-turkish-delight/haci-bekir-turkish-delight/
Haci Bekir by Preziosi: http://ucelma.blogspot.com/2010/04/benim-vazgecilmez-mekanlarmdan-biri-ali.html
Homemade lokum: https://goodfood.uktv.co.uk/recipe/turkish-delight-1/

LEONARDO IN MILAN

Milan, 19 January 2019

I was accompanying my wife a few weeks ago to do the weekly shopping at the local supermarket, when I once again noticed this painting on the hoardings surrounding a building site.
It’s a painting of Leonardo – not this Leonardo, with his intrepid band members Raphael, Donatello, and Michelangelo
but the other Leonardo, the original Leonardo, Leonardo da Vinci.
I suspect that the artist was basing himself on this portrait of Leonardo or one similar; this particular portrait was found in the back of a cupboard in 2008 somewhere in the south of Italy.

The anonymous street artist is really quite good. I suspect that it is the same artist who used a blank wall at the nearby church of San Lorenzo as his/her canvas.
As I’ve said in an earlier post, it’s so nice to see these paintings on public walls rather than the usual meaningless scribbles with which so many are daubed.

But I digress.

I have walked past this particular painting of Leonardo many times, but this time I paused (and took a photo). The reason was simple: he was mentioned in a book I have recently finished about 50 Italians who made their mark on the world. The book included Leonardo, of course, and what the author wrote about him can best be summarized by saying that Leonardo had been beset by a tendency to never finish things. Or to put it more bluntly, he faffed around. Did this judgement hold for Leonardo’s stay in Milan, I wondered?

For those of my readers who are not necessarily up to speed on Leonardo’s cv, I should explain that although he was Tuscan by birth and started his artistic career in Florence, Leonardo went on to live and work in Milan for nearly 20 years. He arrived in 1481, when he was just shy of 30, “on loan” from Lorenzo de Medici, “The Magnificent”, to Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan. The loan seems to have become permanent – for some reason, Leonardo doesn’t seem to have been interested in going back to Florence, and maybe the Florentines were quite glad to see the back of him. He only quit the city in 1499, when Ludovico was forced out by the French king Louis XII during the Second Italian War and Leonardo had to go find himself a new patron.

So what did Leonardo leave us from his time in Milan? Not much, really. The judgement that he had a tendency to faff around seems to hold quite well for his time here. If we look at his artistic output, for instance, we have two huge failures. The first is the equestrian statue in bronze with which Ludovico wanted to commemorate his father. Ludovico gave the commission to Leonardo some time in the late 1480s. As usual, Leonardo faffed around, making this drawing and that model and finally came up with the design for a colossal statue which would have stood more than 7 metres high and weighed nearly 70 tonnes. Ludovico was incensed by the sheer impracticality of the design and wrote to Lorenzo the Magnificent, asking if he didn’t have someone else under hand who could actually do the work. Luckily for Leonardo, the answer was no. But he got the hint and hastily redimensioned the design to a normal size. He still continued to faff around, though. It was only by the early 1490s that he managed to put together a terracotta version of the work, to use in casting the final bronze version. But then war broke out and Ludovico gave away all the bronze which had been accumulated for the statue to his father-in-law Ercole d’Este to make cannons with. And that was the end of that. The final indignity occurred when the French captured Milan in 1499. They used the terracotta version of the statue for target practice, shattering it to pieces. The pieces disappeared somewhere, never to be seen again.

There is an interesting coda to this story. In 1977, an American by the name of Charles Dent became obsessed with this failed project and decided to recreate at least the huge horse that Leonardo initially had had in mind, using some of Leonardo’s drawings. After two decades (and Dent’s death), the project finally came to fruition and a 7-metre high Leonardesque horse now stands in the San Siro Hippodrome here in Milan. Here’s a picture of it, with a real horse and rider in front of it, to give readers a sense of its enormity.
My wife and I haven’t seen it yet. It’s on my bucket list.

Leonardo’s other big artistic failure from his days in Milan is his fresco, The Last Supper, also commissioned of him by Ludovico Sforza. It took pride of place on a wall of the refectory of the Monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie, where the monks could contemplate it as they ate (and no doubt feel guilty that they were enjoying their food).
It’s got to be one the best known paintings on the planet. God knows why; what you see today is a mere ghost of a painting. In fact, it decayed so rapidly that it was already a ghost of a painting when Giorgio Vasari saw it less than 60 years after it was finished. He wrote that the fresco was so deteriorated that the figures were unrecognizable. Over the centuries, it’s been restored several times, sometimes cackhandedly, the last time being over a 21-year period finishing in 1999. This last restoration was extremely professional and probably did as much as is humanly possible to preserve and enhance the painting. But the fact is, only some 20% of the original has remained intact. One-fifth … not much.

In this case, it wasn’t Leonardo’s congenital faffing around that was the problem, although it did take him three years to finish the work and he only did so after having been pestered by the monastery’s prior to get on with it. It was his ever-present desire to experiment. In fresco painting, you paint onto fresh, still-wet plaster, which dries quickly. This technique does not allow the artist to have ripensamenti, or second thoughts: change a colour here, a line there. It dries too quickly for that. You have one chance and that’s it. That approach to painting was totally inimical to Leonardo, who liked to rework and rework paintings – one of the reasons for his high levels of faffery. So he adopted another technique, where he first added to a layer of dried plaster a coating of white lead and then painted in oil and tempera on top of that. The result looked great initially, so great that it blew away the minds of the little world of artists and art cognoscenti. Here is an early copy of the painting that one of his assistants, Giampetrino, made some 25 years after the original.
But the fresco degraded very quickly. The paint failed to bind with the underlying plaster and started to flake off after just a few years on the wall. The traditional enemies of frescoes – humidity, creation of new doors and windows, and pillaging troops, in this case French Napoleonic troops – did the rest. It didn’t help that the refectory took a direct hit from a bomb during World War II.

I saw the Last Supper in 1975. I was totally unimpressed. I haven’t been back since. I suppose, though, that I should also add a second visit to my bucket list, to check out the restored version.

Leonardo did leave us another fresco in Milan, in the Sala delle Asse, one of the rooms of the Castello Sforzesco, which the Sforzas used as their ducal residence.

The subject is trees, painted in such a way that people in the room are meant to feel they are in a grove of trees.
The fresco was painted on the walls and ceiling of a room where the Duke would greet dignitaries who came to pay their respects. No doubt the purpose of the fresco was to astonish them; this was one of the first uses of trompe l’oeil in decoration. Leonardo doesn’t seemed to have faffed around (much) on this commission, but unfortunately he painted the fresco at the very end of his time in Milan. He’d just finished it when the French threw Ludovico Sforza out and took over Milan. They, and then the other foreign occupiers who came after them – Spaniards and Austrians – used the castle as a barracks. This particular room was turned into a stable and the fresco whitewashed. Presumably, the soldiers decided that horses had no need for trompe l’oeil. I rather suspect the fresco was also falling to pieces since Leonardo seems to have used the same technique – oil and tempera on dried plaster – that he used with the Last Supper. There it stayed until it was rediscovered at the end of the 1800s. It thereupon suffered the indignity of a bad restoration, followed by a better one in the 1950s. It is now in the middle of another restoration, which started in 2006. I shall put it on my bucket list: “to visit once the restoration is finished” – if I don’t die before (keeping in mind that the Last Supper took 21 years to restore).

What of Leonardo’s paintings? Was he able to produce during his Milan days? He certainly painted a number while he was there, although just how many is not always clear: dating his paintings is a pretty approximate affair, first because the records are sketchy, but also because of Leonardo’s constant dilly-dallying; he found it hard to let go of his paintings, he felt they could always be improved. Nevertheless, he seems to have worked on at least the following six paintings during his stay in Milan:

The Virgin of the Rocks, of which he painted two versions, one alone
and one in collaboration with Ambrogio de Predis and possibly others
The Madonna Litta (although in truth there is considerable argument about whether this really is a Leonardo)
Portrait of a Musician (although it is generally thought that Leonardo only painted the face)
Lady with an Ermine
La Belle Ferronière
Since paintings are highly mobile chattel – indeed, Leonardo himself seems to have carried a good number of his paintings around with him as he moved from place to place – and since a Leonardo painting pretty quickly became a highly desirable chattel, all but one of his paintings from his Milan days are now scattered throughout various collections around the world. The one exception is the Portrait of a Musician, which has ended up in the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana (is it possible that I’ve lived so many years in Milan and I’ve still not visited this museum? On the bucket list!)

The Pinacoteca Ambrosiana also holds the Codex Atlanticus, one of six bound sets of Leonardo’s writings and drawings (maybe doodles would be a better description) – there’s another, the Codex Trivulzianus, held in the Castello Sforzesco somewhere. These seem to be typical pages from these codices.
During my lifetime at least, the codices have become a popular topic of discussion whenever the subject of Leonardo is brought up. They have been used to show what a universal genius he was, a man who was interested not only in art, but also engineering, mathematics, botany, metaphysics … in a word, a truly Renaissance Man! My take on them is that these codices instead just show how the man was unable to focus on any one thing, fluttering from one subject to another.

The codices have also been used to show that Leonardo prefigured pretty much every invention we humans have come up with in the last 200 years. In Milan’s “Leonardo da Vinci” National Museum of Science and Technology, there is a section which contains models of many of the weird and wonderful “machines” Leonardo dreamed up and committed to paper.
My take on this is that Leonardo was really a predecessor to William Heath Robinson and his mad machines.
Tinkerers, though, take a delight in Leonardo’s creations. My father-in-law, for instance, who was a very keen tinkerer (the apartment used to be full of his tinkerings), would drag my poor wife to the Leonardo da Vinci museum when she was young and show her the machines – “you see, dear, this clever machine here will bla, bla, bla ….”. She still goes pale when I bring up the possibility of visiting this museum. I guess it will never be on my bucket list.

It’s all very well to say that Leonardo prefigured all out modern machines. To me, the real test is whether or not he actually turned any of his mechanical musings into real machines during his lifetime, in Milan or elsewhere. And the answer to that is, he only did it once: a rather low level of success in turning daydreams into practicality, I would say. Nevertheless, every Milanese, including my wife, will at some point proudly inform you of that one success story, namely that Leonardo invented canal locks during his stay in Milan. This is not quite true. The Chinese were the first to invent locks, for use on their Grand Canal. The Europeans independently re-invented them some 200 years later. All these locks were opened and closed by sluice gates, which had to be pulled up and pushed down – the pulling up especially was very hard work. Since Roman times, the rulers of Milan had been tinkering with the local hydrography, slowly but surely extending the network of canals relaying the city to ever more distant rivers. Ludovico Sforza was no exception. He wanted a bigger navigable canal, which meant bigger locks, bigger – and heavier – sluice gates … a limit to what was physically possible was being reached. Leonardo came up with an ingenious solution: the mitred lock gate. This is the lock gate familiar to us all, which closes at a 45° angle. Closing at an angle means that the pressure of the water pushes the gates together, minimizing leakage, and having them move horizontally rather than vertically makes them much easier to open and close. Here is a picture of the gate from Leonardo’s papers.
And here is such a lock gate on one of the few canals remaining in Milan.
There was one area where Leonardo excelled with his daydreaming and tinkering, and which I suspect was the main reason Ludovico Sforza kept him around: the organization of spectacular festivals for the Duke’s eminent visitors, festivals where Leonardo could use all his mechanical aptitudes to create shows that would amaze and delight the Duke’s visitors. Many of them left detailed accounts of these wonderful, quasi magical, shows. By the end of his time in Milan, the organization of these festivals were Leonardo’s main source of income: he had turned into a magician, albeit a very good one.

Looking back over what I’ve written, I sense that I might have projected a somewhat jaundiced view of the Great Leonardo. His tendency to restlessly flit from one thing to another like a butterfly, without finishing anything on time, or sometimes without finishing them at all, irritated his contemporaries, especially his clients to whom he had promised deliveries by certain dates and who had paid up-front. If I had met Leonardo, I suspect he would have ended up irritating me too. In my 40 years in the workplace, I came across a number of such characters, golden-tongued men (they were all men for some reason) who made many promises but failed to deliver on them, leaving the rest of us having to scramble around to fill the gap. Right royal pains in the ass they were, the lot of them! “But he was brilliant!”, I can hear readers exclaim. Perhaps so, but I don’t think that’s an excuse for unreliability. And with that little sermon, I leave readers with that famous drawing of Leonardo in his old age – I hope his melancholic look shows that he is bitterly regretting a lifetime of faffing around.
_________________________________

Ninja turtle Leonardo: https://turtlepedia.fandom.com/wiki/Leonardo_(Paramount)
Leonardo self-portrait: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Leonardo_da_Vinci_LUCAN_self-portrait_PORTRAIT.jpg
Leonardo Horse, Milan: http://pixdaus.com/size-comparison-leonardo-s-horse-the-symbol-of-milan-italy-a/items/view/524205/
The Last Supper: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Last_Supper_(Leonardo)
The Last Supper copy by Giampetrino: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Giampietrino-Last-Supper-ca-1520.jpg
Castello Sforzesco: https://www.ilcastelletto.com/castello-sforzesco/
Sala delle Asse: http://www.beniculturali.it/mibac/export/MiBAC/sito-MiBAC/Contenuti/MibacUnif/Comunicati/visualizza_asset.html_1655657329.html
Virgin of the Rocks-Louvre: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_works_by_Leonardo_da_Vinci
Virgin of the Rocks-National Gallery: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_works_by_Leonardo_da_Vinci
Madonna Litta: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_works_by_Leonardo_da_Vinci
Portrait of a Musician: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_works_by_Leonardo_da_Vinci
Lady with an Ermine: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_works_by_Leonardo_da_Vinci
La Belle Ferronière: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_works_by_Leonardo_da_Vinci
Codex Atlanticus-1: http://baulitoadelrte.blogspot.com/2017/12/
Codex Atlanticus-2: https://www.researchgate.net/figure/Leonardo-da-Vinci-Codex-Atlanticus-1478-1519_fig4_321113179
Leonardo da Vinci Museum, Milan: http://www.leonardo3.net/en/the-museum/
Heath Robinson cartoon: https://www.wired.co.uk/article/heath-robinson-deserves-a-museum
Leonardo drawing of a lock gate: http://www.italiannotebook.com/places/leonardo-canal-gate/
Lock gate on a Milan canal: http://www.italiannotebook.com/places/leonardo-canal-gate/
Self-portrait of Leonardo as an old man: https://www.fineartone.com/shop/old-masters/self-portrait-6/

NATIVITIES IN THE WOODS

Sori, 1 January 2019

A few days before Christmas, I set up our nativity in Milan. I wrote a post about this tradition last year, and I throw in here the photo I took of it then, because I haven’t memorialized this year’s effort (it really hasn’t changed much; I just added a few figurines).
But, as we discovered on a walk today, my modest efforts have been quite put to shame by the locals around Monte di Portofino (we’re spending the new year down by the sea). They have commandeered a stretch of forest road in the woods. There, in the bank of the road, they have set up charming little nativities, two dozen in all.
They have placed small – in some cases tiny – nativities in natural depressions: among the roots of fallen trees, spaces where stones were once imprisoned in the soil, a natural declivity in the terrain.

These nativities are so modest that they are very easy to miss if you’re not looking out for them.

These al fresco nativities have humbled me. It’s back to the drawing board with my efforts. But in the meantime, I would like to celebrate these small, anonymous scenes with some photos: not all 24 nativities, just a selection of the best.
Let me leave you with a picture of the glorious sunset that greeted us on our return home.
Happy new year.

___________________________

Pictures: all ours

BUCKWHEAT

Milan, 24 December 2018

Since we came down to Milan for the winter, my wife and I have been exploring the walks available to us around Lake Como, that lake an hour’s train ride north of Milan whose shape resembles that of a very skinny, headless and armless man striding along at the feet of the Alps. Or, a bit more simply, a three-branched star.
The town of Como sits at the far end of the south-eastern branch, and up to now we have only tried out what is on offer in the hills which plunge down into the waters of this branch of the lake.
I might write a post about these walks later. Right now, I want to report about something completely different which took place on a walk we did yesterday with the children (who are staying with us for Christmas). We were taking them along the Greenway, a walk developed by a couple of canny municipalities with an eye to developing new forms of tourism. It runs between the villages of Colonno and Menaggio. I throw in here a photo to whet readers’ appetite.

Talking of appetite, since we arrived in Menaggio at midday and since we were all hungry, we decided to first have lunch in the local trattoria before embarking on the walk. Having judiciously studied the menu, my son and I both decided to take pizzoccheri alla valtellinese.
It is this pasta – or rather, the flour from which it is made – that I want to write about here.

Pizzoccheri are a form of tagliatelle-looking pasta, flat and long. Their particularity is that they are made, not with wheat flour, but with the flour of buckwheat. Despite its name, buckwheat bears no relation to wheat or to any of the other grains we are familiar with. Unlike them, it is not a grass. It is a plant which flowers

and which then forms dark brown triangular seeds.

For those of my readers who are, like me, interested in etymology, their shape explains their English name. It is very similar, on a smaller scale, to the shape of the nut of the beech tree, and “buck” is a derivation of an early form of the name of the beech tree. So beech-like in shape, wheat-like in use => buckwheat. Voilà!

When these seeds are milled, they form a brownish flour which can also include dark flecks.
This darker colour translates into dark products, like the dark brown pizzoccheri which my son and I ate.
This darker colouration explains buckwheat’s Italian name, grano saraceno, Saracen grain. For Italians, Saracens were people from the coast of North Africa and consequently were considered to be darker skinned. One can see this very clearly in the traditional marionettes used in Sicily, of which one stock figure is a Saracen soldier. The photo below has a series of such marionettes lined up, with the Saracen soldier on the far left.
So far, so good. But what really set me off on this post is that buckwheat originated in Yunnan in China! This gets me onto one of my favourite topics, the transfer of many, many goods as well as ideas along the old Silk Road, mostly in the East to West direction. While I lived in China, I covered the westward travel of the hollyhock, the persimmon, the ginkgothe magnoliathe willow, the wisteria, and the paulownia. Later, I added playing cards, the citron, garlic , and the carrot. I am happy to now add buckwheat to the list.

Buckwheat has an interesting characteristic, that of having a short growing season and preferring cooler temperatures in which to grow. For this reason, it has been a popular crop to plant in high latitudes or high altitudes. It was its tolerance for high altitudes that ensured its migration from Yunnan to the Tibetan plateau next door, where buckwheat noodles have been a staple for centuries.

From Tibet, the buckwheat moved westwards along the trade routes. By the late Middle Ages, it had arrived on the shores of the Black Sea. From there, it moved to Russia which historically has been the world’s largest producer of buckwheat. It also kept moving westwards. It is recorded in the mountainous Black Forest region of Germany in the 16th Century. Not surprisingly, it also filtered up into the valleys of the Alps, and – this being of immediate relevance to my son and me sitting in a trattoria on Lake Como eating pizzoccheri – it had arrived in Valtellina by at least the middle of the 17th Century.

Valtellina is an alpine valley running westward from the topmost branch of Lake Como; the main river feeding the lake, the River Adda, runs along the valley floor.
It is well-known for a number of foodstuffs. In the buckwheat category, apart from pizzocheri we have manfrigoli, a sort of little crêpe mixed with local cheese and shredded bresaola (see below).
There is also sciatt, a cheese fritter.
All these dishes require generous portions of melted cheese, of which Valtellina produces a good many. Foremost among them are Bitto and Casera, pictured here.

It was Casera, I suspect, that was slathered onto the pizzoccheri we ate on the shores of Lake Como. It is the traditional accompaniment of all the buckwheat foodstuffs of the Valtellina. It makes for calorically heavy meals which, though, were excellent in the old days when the locals were doing a lot of manual labour outside in the cold (and, as my wife will attest from her skiing days, is not bad for those spending a cold winter day on the slopes).

Bresaola, a form of air-dried beef, is another glory of Valtellina. Both my wife and I are great aficionados of Bresaola. I’ve written an earlier post about it, while my wife currently eats a lot of it as part of her very successful diet.
And then of course there are the valley’s wines – nearly all red, all made with the Nebbiolo grape: Inferno, Grumello, Sassella, Valgella, Maroggia.
Luckily for us, neither my son nor I washed our pizzoccheri down with Valtellina wines, otherwise I’m sure neither of us would have been able to walk the walk or even necessarily talk the talk …

But after this foray into the culinary wonders of Valtellina, it is time to get back to buckwheat. The rest of the story can be summarized quickly. European colonists took it with them to North America, where it played an important role in the early agricultural economy of the two countries which emerged from the colonies. It fell out of favour there, as well as in Europe, in the last century when massive amounts of artificially produced nitrogen fertilizers came onto the market: wheat and maize respond strongly to large doses of nitrogen fertilizers, buckwheat does not. And then, to close the loop, a variety of buckwheat developed in Canada was exported to China in the noughties and widely planted there. So for once the flow wasn’t all east to west.

There is much chatter about buckwheat seeing a resurgence, riding the wave of renewed interest in grains which our ancestors ate but which modern industrial agriculture has pushed to the margins. We’ll see. In the meantime, I wish all my readers a merry Christmas, and should they eat – as is quite probable – a calorically heavy meal, I highly recommend a post-prandial walk along a lake or any other natural feature situated in their immediate environs. It will work wonders for the digestion and the hips.

Merry Christmas!
___________________________

Lake Como map: https://holidaylakecomo.com/access/sala-map.htm
View of Lake Como: https://www.paesionline.it/italia/foto-immagini-brunate/50345_vista_del_lago_di_como_dal_boletto
Greenway: https://greenwaylagodicomo.com/en/
Pizzoccheri alla valtellinese: https://www.buonissimo.org/lericette/5132_Pizzoccheri_di_Teglio
Buckwheat in flower: https://english.vietnamnet.vn/fms/vietnam-in-photos/113500/photos–early-buckwheat-flowers-on-ha-giang-plateau.html
Buckwheat seeds: https://finance.yahoo.com/news/5-grains-apos-ll-help-140000969.html?guccounter=1
Buckwheat flour: https://www.thecheeseshopva.com/product/buckwheat-flour/
Dry pizzoccheri: https://www.gustissimo.it/scuola-di-cucina/impasti-e-pastelle/pizzoccheri.htm
Tibetan field of buckwheat: https://www.flickr.com/photos/33879196@N03/3170162360
View of Valtellina: https://www.viagginews.com/2018/09/25/ponte-tibetano-piu-alto-deuropa-italia/
Manfrigoli: https://www.tripadvisor.it/LocationPhotoDirectLink-g1193610-d2468200-i146914500-Agriturismo_Le_case_dei_baff-Ardenno_Province_of_Sondrio_Lombardy.html
Sciatt: https://www.bormio.eu/en/2015/11/recipe-sciatt/
Casera: http://www.weareitaly.net/it/product/Valtellina-Casera/lombardia/Valtellina_Casera.html
Bresaola: https://gourgisfinefood.store/products/bresaola
Vineyards, Valtellina: http://www.winetouristmagazine.com/wt-blog/2016/6/12/discovering-the-wines-of-valtellina-valtellina-italy
Christmas dinner: https://www.pianetadonna.it/notizie/attualita/vigilia-di-natale.html

ARTICHOKES

Milan, 17 December 2018

I never ceased to be amazed by the ingenuity of my fellow human beings. The latest thing that has set me off on this train of thought is … the artichoke.

Because, dear readers, when one is eating an artichoke, one is essentially eating a  thistle.

The family resemblance is a little clearer if one looks at an artichoke whose thorns have not been cut off.

It is even clearer if one sees an artichoke in flower (I for one didn’t know that artichokes could flower; and a beautiful flower too).

So there you go. We artichoke eaters are at one with Eeyore. True to character, that totally gloomy, pessimistic, and depressed stuffed donkey,  friend to Winnie the Pooh, loves to eat thistles.

I suppose A.A. Milne, creator of Winnie the Pooh and the related cast of characters, had in mind the kind of thistle I pictured above, the spear thistle, common throughout the British Isles. But actually, the artichoke is a descendant of the cardoon, which is a cousin to that thistle.

Now, how on earth did generations of humble but ingenious farmers coax that spiny little bell-shaped bud supporting the cardoon flower into becoming the, sometimes huge, artichokes which we artichoke-lovers delight in eating today? How did it even cross their minds to try?

This train of thought was started in me a few days ago when my wife bought the first artichokes of the winter season and served them up steamed for lunch. There I was, following my usual routine with artichokes. I picked off the leaves one by one, dipping them in my oil and vinegar sauce, and scraping off the tender pulp at the base of each leaf with my teeth.
As I spiraled round the artichoke, working my way through the leaves, they were getting more and more tender, with more pulp on each to eat, until I finally reached the artichoke’s inner sanctum. By then, the leaves had become small and delicate.
I plucked them all off at once, dipped, and ate them whole. Now, the artichoke’s flower was exposed.
This fibrous mass would have turned into the beautiful purple bloom I gave a picture of above if the farmers had left the artichoke in peace in the field. But it had been sacrificed to my animal desires and now I took my knife to this fuzz and scraped it all away to reveal the artichoke’s heart.
Ah! The most delicious part of the artichoke! I reverently dipped it in my oil and vinegar sauce and ate it meditatively, not forgetting to eat the stem, just as delicious. And as I reveled in this almost religious ceremony, the question popped into my mind: Who on earth invented this endearingly strange vegetable, and why?

After a little bit of digging, I can inform readers that we don’t really know. As I have reported in at least one previous post on the history of a vegetable, I’m afraid that the history of how vegetables got created was of little interest to ancient historians, who were much more interested in the goings-on of the elites. What humble little farmers were up to did not interest them much. So we have to piece together a history from shards of evidence left behind in the historical records, cross-checked with more recent genetic evidence.

As I have said, the artichoke’s ancestor is the wild cardoon, which has much the same range as the strawberry tree which I wrote about in the previous post, that is to say, the western part of the Mediterranean basin, from Greece to Spain and from Libya to Morocco. We know this because cardoons and artichokes are very similar genetically, so close that they can interbreed. Quite why someone ever bothered to try eating this viciously thorned plant is not clear to me. I have to assume that hunger led our ancestors to try anything and everything that grew around them, although the preparation time required to make wild cardoon edible must have been daunting. I can only think that our ancestors persisted because they felt that the taste was worth the effort. As an aficionado of artichokes, I would have to agree with that. Or – in an era where there was no corner drugstore – they believed it had valuable medicinal properties of some kind.

Quite how long ago farmers started experimenting is also unclear. Genetic analysis suggests that these humble folk were fiddling in two ways with the wild cardoon. Some were trying to make the flower bud more edible, leading to the artichoke. Others were trying to make the stem more edible, their efforts leading to the domesticated cardoon – for readers, who like me before writing this post, have no idea what domesticated cardoon looks like, I throw in here a photo of the plant.

The artichoke developers seem to have succeeded in their efforts by the “beginning of the first millennium” of our era, and these anonymous developers seem to have toiled away in Sicily or thereabouts. So perhaps artichokes were available some time in the first couple of centuries AD, in what was then the Roman Empire? As for the domesticated cardoon, this process doesn’t seem to have been completed until “the first half of the second millennium”, somewhere in Spain. So 1300-1400 AD in what could still have been Arabic Spain but was fast becoming Christian Spain?

As for the written evidence, our friend Pliny the Elder (whom I mentioned in my previous post) had a brief section in his Natural History, written before he was killed in the eruption of Vesuvius that wiped out Pompeii in 79 AD, on a plant he called carduus, which is the general Latin term for thistle. He wrote that this plant was grown in Carthage (in today’s Tunisia) and in Cordoba, Spain. But did he mean the artichoke or the domesticated cardoon? Or maybe some predecessor of the two which was not quite either? Then there is a Roman mosaic of the 3rd Century AD in Tunis whose frieze seems to be showing artichokes, although some people have argued that they could just as well be cardoons with largish heads.

As far as the artichoke is concerned, the etymologies of the various European names for it are not terribly helpful either. One strand of names – carciofo in modern Italian, alcachofa in Spanish, alcachofra in Portuguese – seem to be derived from the artichoke’s Medieval Arab name al-ḫaršūf. Another strand of names – artichaut in French, artichoke in English, artischocke in German, and similar names in other northern European languages – seem instead to be derived from the plant’s old Italian name articoca (which in turn derives from the late Latin name alcocalum).  Meditating on that, my guess is that when the Arabs invaded Sicily in the 9th Century, they found the artichoke already implanted, under its old Italian name. They arabized the name and carried it to Arabic Spain, where it entered Spanish gastronomy under its Arabic name. Then, in both places, when the Arabs were pushed out, the Arabic name was italianized and hispanified. In the meantime, the rest of Italy, to which the Sicilian-developed artichoke had spread, continued to use the old Italian name. This then spread – along with the vegetable itself – into other European countries to the north. But then, back in Italy, at some point the new Italian name, developed in Sicily, overtook the old Italian name. Complicated …

That’s about where things stand with the artichoke. I will leave the reader with one of the earliest representations in paint of this vegetable, by that really strange artist Giuseppe Arcimboldo, whose paintings, however, were wildly popular in his time; they now adorn the best museums in Europe. This particular one, l’Estate, hangs in Vienna’s Kunst Historisches Museum.
Readers will see that the “man” has an artichoke as a buttonhole.

As to the way I eat artichokes, I’m sure some readers would object. I know there are other dips that can be used. And artichokes can be cooked in other ways – carciofi alla romana come to mind, or maybe carciofi alla giudia. And the hearts can be conserved in oil and used in salads. But I am more than content with my simple approach. It’s stood by me for some 50 years. I will let others explore other ways of eating artichokes.

I can’t say the same for domesticated cardoons. I must confess to having never eaten this plant. My French grandmother – one source for my culinary experiments – never cooked them, and nor did my Italian mother-in-law, another source of my culinary experiments. Spain and North Africa seem to be the places to go to try cardoons. So with that, I will leave my readers with the recipe for a well-known Spanish dish, Cardos en Salsa de Almendras, Cardoons with Almond Sauce. My excuse for choosing this one is that it is popular in the Christmas season. The amounts quoted here are for four people.

Take a kilo of cardoons. They come in bunches like this.

Discard any hard outer stalks. Separate all the stalks from the base. Peel off the strings on the outside of each stalk of cardoon (like one does with celery) and the thin skin which is on the inside of the stalks. Once peeled, cut the stalks into 10-cm pieces and drop them into a bowl with water and lemon juice (the juice of 1 lemon for every 4 cups of water) and let sit.

Meanwhile, stir ½ tablespoon of flour into a small amount of water. Add the mix to a pot with 4 cups of water and a teaspoon of salt. Squeeze a chunk of lemon into the pot and throw in the lemon chunk too. Bring the pot to a boil. Add the cardoons, cover and simmer until the cardoons are tender when pierced with a knife (45-60 minutes). Remove from the heat, allow to cool in the cooking liquid, drain well.

Heat 1½ tablespoons for olive oil in a skillet and fry ¼ cup of skinned almonds and a clove of chopped garlic until they are lightly toasted and golden. Skim them out. Place them in a blender with some chicken stock. Blend until smooth. Stir a little flour into the oil in the skillet and let it cook for 2 minutes. Stir in the drained cardoons, the almond mixture from the blender, a cup of chicken stock. Salt to taste.

Enjoy!

______________________________________

Artichoke: https://www.fitday.com/fitness-articles/nutrition/healthy-eating/the-nutrition-of-artichokes.html
Spear thistle: http://wildflowerfinder.org.uk/Flowers/T/Thistle(Spear)/Thistle(Spear).htm
Thorny artichoke: http://www.wetheitalians.com/web-magazine/italian-flavors-thorny-artichoke-from-sardegna
Artichoke in flower: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/artichoke-flowers_n_56eafabce4b03a640a69e41b
Eeyore: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/artichoke-flowers_n_56eafabce4b03a640a69e41b
Cardoon: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cardoon
Eating artichoke: https://www.simplyrecipes.com/recipes/how_to_cook_and_eat_an_artichoke/
Innermost artichoke leaves: https://www.simplyrecipes.com/recipes/how_to_cook_and_eat_an_artichoke/
Artichoke heart: https://www.simplyrecipes.com/recipes/how_to_cook_and_eat_an_artichoke/
Domesticated cardoon: https://worcesterallotment.wordpress.com/2010/09/01/discover-cardoon/
Roman mosaic, Tunis: https://www.agefotostock.com/age/en/Stock-Images/Rights-Managed/DAE-BL022894
Arcimboldo, l’Estate: http://www.khm.at/it/objektdb/detail/71/?offset=2&pid=2582&back=&lv=listpackages-283
Cardoon bunch: http://mykitcheninspain.blogspot.com/2013/12/christmas-dinner-with-side-of-cardoons.html
Cardoons with almond sauce: http://mykitcheninspain.blogspot.com/2013/12/christmas-dinner-with-side-of-cardoons.html

A WALK UNDER THE STRAWBERRY TREES

Milan, 12 December 2018

A couple of days ago, when we were down at the sea in Liguria, my wife and I went for a walk on the Monte di Portofino, one of our favourite places to go walking. I’ve written earlier about other walks on this mountain, and it’s always a joy to go back and sample the different paths which wind around the mountain which stands at the centre of this promontory jutting out into the sea.

One of the pleasures of walking there, apart from having the sea ever-present in the background, is experiencing the different biomes that co-exist on the mountain. On the slopes to the north-east, where the conditions are generally shadier, cooler and more humid, a mixed forest grows with oak trees dominating and the undergrowth mostly consisting of ferns, brambles, and ivy.

On the southwestern slopes, on the other hand, which give onto the sea, and where the conditions are generally hotter and dryer, and the soils poorer and rockier, a Mediterranean maquis of low, scrubby bushes and trees predominates.

Within short spaces, as the paths twist and turn around the mountain, one can pass from a landscape which would not be out of place in the UK to one which could not be anywhere but on the Mediterranean.

It was as we began to traverse the first of the Mediterranean maquis biomes that I noticed these small, very red fruits lying along the path, sometimes very thickly.

They were dropping off trees like this.

The fruits were an intense red and looked a little like strawberries.

This is what they look like on the tree.

When you open them, they have a lovely golden interior.
I asked my wife what these fruit were. Corbezzole, she replied, with the tree being the corbezzolo. Well, that didn’t help me much, so I checked what the English names are. Internet informed me that the tree is called the strawberry tree. Given the look of the fruit, that certainly makes sense, although what is the fruit of the tree then called? Just “fruit of the strawberry tree”, it seems, or “strawberry fruit”, which is a bit unsatisfactory. But then this is not a problem of nomenclature which the British have to face because the tree doesn’t grow naturally in the UK. As this map shows, its favourite haunts are the rim of the Mediterranean, with an extension along the southwestern Atlantic coast of France.

So I shall adopt the Italian name here and simply call the fruits corbezzole.

I asked my wife if corbezzole were edible, and she replied that her mother used to eat them. Thus comforted, I plucked two off a tree and tried them. I found them somewhat granular and not particularly sweet. I then tried two which had dropped off their tree. I still found them granular, but now they were sweeter, although the sweetness was weak and evanescent. They were also rather mushy, rather like persimmon which I’ve written about earlier. Pliny the Elder mentioned the strawberry tree in his Natural History, and his comment on the fruit was “The fruit is held in no esteem, and this is the reason for its name being that a person will only eat one” (the fruit’s Latin name is unedo, a shortening “unum edo”, “I eat one”; boy, those Romans were real jokers!). On the basis of the four corbezzole I ate as we walked along, I side with Pliny on this one.

I suspect that the corbezzole’s weakly sweet taste explains why I have never seen them being sold in a supermarket or a greengrocer’s shop in Italy. I can’t see people getting terribly excited about the taste. That being said, patient selection over centuries could no doubt have led to a more enduringly sweet fruit, much as it has with many of the other fruit we happily munch on. But here I think another factor comes into play: the incredible softness of the corbezzole when ripe. They are so soft that it is almost impossible to hold them without damaging them. Their softness also means that they are quite mushy to chew on, which I’m sure many people don’t appreciate much.

This softness and mushiness means that a way people commonly use corbezzole is to make jams: just mash it all up and no-one will notice the mushiness.

This seems to be a strictly homemade product; I could find no mention of a commercial jam on the internet. For any of my readers who are interested in making this jam, here is a thumbnail recipe. Put the corbezzole in a pan, crush them a little, bring the pan to a boil, boil for 10 minutes. The corbezzole should have become a puree by now. Pass the puree through a fine sieve, to get rid of all those little granules. Put the puree back into the pan, add sugar (1 gm for every 4 of puree), add cinnamon if you want, heat the mix, stirring continuously, until it’s thickened sufficiently.

Various people living in the Mediterranean region have also made alcoholic drinks with corbezzole. One of the better known is the Portuguese fruit brandy Aguardente de Medronhos (so called because the fruit is called medronho in Portuguese). Should any readers be interested in making this particular fruit brandy, here are some brief instructions. Collect 7 to 10 kilos of fruit (that will make make one litre of brandy). Put them into a barrel and let them ferment for 2-3 months, making sure to always keep them humid. Using a copper alambique, heat the fermented mess over a low fire. The distillate is your Aguardente de Medronhos. You’ve made a good batch if you can smell the fruit after you have put a little of the Aguardente on your skin and let the alcohol evaporate off.

I don’t get to say much about Albania in my posts, so I want to make pitch here for the Albanians’ equivalent fruit brandy, raki kocimareje (kocimare being the Albanian name for the fruit). Unfortunately, I could find no photo of it on the internet, even in the Albanian pages of Wikipedia. Nevertheless, I urge my readers to support the Albanian economy by buying this firewater whenever they have the occasion.

Another approach is to marinate the corbezzole in alcohol. Here’s a recipe from Sardinia, which includes lemon rind and cloves. Put the corbezzole, the lemon rind (just the yellow part!) and cloves in a container. Cover with alcohol. Leave in a cool, dark place for a month to steep. Prepare a syrup of sugar and water. Strain the contents of the container. Add the syrup. Let the mix stand, in a cool, dark place as before, for two weeks. Strain again. Bottle. (I shall ask our Sardinian cleaner if she is familiar with this concoction; she once brought us a bottle of her own home-made limoncello).

Of course, if readers want to try any of these recipes, or if they just want to taste the fruit, they will need to head out to their nearest patch of Mediterranean maquis to find it. And they have to go some time between late October and mid December. For instance, if they had been in the region of Ancona on 28 October last, the feast day of Saints Simon and Jude, they could have joined the worthy citizens of that city on their annual hike out to the nearby Monte Conero, a mountain which, rather like Monte di Portofino, juts out into the sea, in this case the Adriatic Sea.

The mountain is rich in strawberry trees (so rich that its name derives from the Greek name for the corbezzola, kòmaros, while the coat of arms of nearby Ancona sports an arm holding a branch of the tree with fruit).

Nowadays, this is just a hike like any other, with the difference that there is a bit of corbezzole picking. But there was a time when the Anconese would spend the day not only gathering and eating corbezzole, but also wrapping young branches of the tree around their heads, singing lustily, and generally behaving in a rather Bacchanalian way. I suspect we see here the remains of an old Pagan feast dressed up in Christian clothing.

Alternatively, my readers could go to Killarney or Lough Gill on Ireland’s western coast.

In those two spots, relict populations of strawberry trees have hung on. There was a time, some 5 to 8,000 years ago, when temperatures in Europe were higher than today and the strawberry tree’s range extended into northern Europe. But then, as temperatures dropped, the tree retreated southward, leaving behind these two embattled outposts.

Wherever they decide to go, corbezzole-pickers will find themselves faced with an interesting puzzle: trees covered with both flowers and fruit.

I was certainly puzzled, because I’m used to fruit trees flowering in Spring and fruiting in late Summer, early Autumn. I have since learned that the strawberry tree does it differently. It flowers in late Autumn, with the fruit then developing from a pollinated flower. But the fruit takes its own sweet time to develop, arriving at maturation a full year later, just when the next batch of flowers bursts forth. I’m sure there is a very clever biological reason why the strawberry tree has chosen this cycle, but I haven’t yet managed to find it out. If there are any readers out there who know, I’ll be very happy to hear from them.

The flowers are really quite charming, coming in clusters of small, white, bell-shaped flowers.

Bees love the flowers and will home in on them – if they happen to still be around in this late period of the year; bees will not leave their hives if temperatures drop below 5-10°C. If they are around, they will make honey from the corbezzole nectar they gather.
This honey has a certain reputation, simply because of its rarity: some years you get it, some years you don’t. But our friend Pliny the Elder was not terribly enthusiastic about the honey, writing that it has a rather bitter taste. In case any of my readers are beginning to think that Pliny is a bit of a sourpuss, I should say that others echo his sentiment. In this case, I can only report what I have read, since I have no independent experience of eating the honey.

The fact that both (white) flowers and (red) fruit are present simultaneously on an evergreen tree meant that Italian patriots imbued the tree with great symbolic importance in the decades leading up to the country’s unification in the 1860s. For red, white, and green were the colours of Italy’s tricolour flag of unification!

Patriotic poets in particular wove the tree into poems which were thinly veiled proclamations of the coming unification of Italy which they ardently hoped was imminent. I won’t bore readers with their purple prose. At the risk of being flippant, I much prefer another edible symbol of the Italian tricolour. It is reported that some years after unification a canny pizza maker in Naples realized that his pizza, made with (red) tomatoes, (white) mozzarella, and (green) basil, proclaimed the colors of the new Italian flag and so he named it Pizza Margherita, after the wife of Victor Emmanuel I, first king of unified Italy.

I don’t know if it’s the patriotic overtones or simply because the pizza is so yummy, but Pizza Margherita has remained a constant in the average Italian’s life.

But back to the strawberry tree. I read with sadness and anger that the delegates of the world’s nations cannot agree on a text committing everyone to limiting global temperature rise to no more than 1.5°C. I might weep, but strawberry trees will no doubt be rubbing their woody hands together at the thought that higher temperatures will allow them to march back north again and recapture the lands that were once theirs.

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Monte di Portofino: https://www.tripadvisor.it/Attraction_Review-g187827-d2356844-Reviews-Parco_Naturale_Regionale_di_Portofino-Santa_Margherita_Ligure_Italian_Riviera_Lig.html
Forest, Monte di Portofino: http://www.parcoportofino.com/parcodiportofino/it/eventdetail.page?contentId=EVN12955#.XBAxoHRKhPY
Mediterranean maquis, Monte di Portofino: https://montiliguri.weebly.com/promontorio-di-portofino.html
Corbezzole on the ground: our photo
Strawberry tree: our photo
Close-up of corbezzole on the ground: my photo
Close-up of corbezzole on the tree: https://it.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arbutus_unedo
Corbezzola interior: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arbutus_unedo
Range of the strawberry tree: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arbutus_unedo
Corbezzola jam: https://blog.giallozafferano.it/giusy89/marmellata-di-corbezzoli/
Aguardiente de Medronho: https://www.uvinum.it/acquavite/aguardente-de-medronho-premium-50cl
Sardinian corbezzole liqueur: https://www.lacambusadeisapori.com/tare-50-cl/526-liquore-di-corbezzolo-artigianale-di-sardegna-confezione-medium.html
Monte Conero: http://www.marchemaraviglia.it/struttura/71/hotel-monteconero
Ancona coat of arms: https://it.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arbutus_unedo
Strawberry trees on Lough Killarney: https://www.mindenpictures.com/search/preview/strawberry-tree-arbutus-unedo-habit-growing-beside-lough-killarney-county/0_80146177.html
Strawberry tree fruit and flower: https://www.giardinaggio.org/giardino/piante-da-giardino/corbezzolo-pianta.asp
Strawberry tree flowers: https://it.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arbutus_unedo
Corbezzolo honey: https://www.imprentas.eu/it/miele-sardo-e-confetture/158-miele-di-corbezzolo.html
Italian Tricolour: https://www.tempostretto.it/news/risorgimento-tavola-rotonda-messina-sicilia-dopo-unit-d-italia.html
Pizza Margherita: https://www.groupon.it/deals/taverna-del-cuore-6