CAPERS

Beijing, 7 June 2014

It never ceases to amaze me that there are certain ingredients which one adds to recipes in small quantities but which make a huge difference to the final taste. Spices are the obvious example – although I often wish that the hot spices had never existed – but there are others. Parsley, for instance, or coriander, or anise. Or capers.

Capers are a particular favourite of mine ever since a business trip I made many years ago to Malta. I was there to do an environmental audit of a factory. After a long day of inspecting the wastewater treatment plant, the waste segregation area, the toxic chemicals storage area, and I don’t know what else, my colleagues and I were finally free for dinner. We left the hotel and wandered around, but it was a dead time of the year and there wasn’t much available. We finally came across a modest restaurant, which proclaimed itself to be a fish restaurant. Why not? we said, after all, we were in an island, presumably the fish would be good. And it was, it was! We all ordered Orata al cartoccio, where a bream is cooked – steamed in its own juices, really – in a closed aluminium foil package together with cherry tomatoes, capers, and olives. It’s really a very simple recipe. Having washed and cleaned the bream, you lay it on a big piece of aluminium foil, you place a little rosemary inside the fish, drizzle it with olive oil, place the sliced cherry tomatoes, rinsed capers, and olives around the bream, wet the whole with a little white wine, wrap up the foil and close it well (so that none of the juices escape), and cook it in the oven at 200°C for about 45 minutes. Voilà!

orata pomodorini capperi olive

Simple, but absolutely delicious. The capers in particular impart a taste to the fish’s flesh which even to this day, after all these years, I can summon up at will for my private delectation.

The marvelous effect of the capers was actually quite a surprise to me. I had first come across capers as a young boy, at my English grandmother’s house. At some earlier moment, my elder brother had evinced a love of capers, so every time he came to stay with her she bought a small jar of them. This time, I was in tow so I got to try some. Salty! So salty! How could anyone like these tiny balls of salt? I made sure to steer clear of them after that, pushing them carefully aside if I came across them in a salade Niçoise, for instance. Until that fateful encounter in a modest fish restaurant in Malta. Such is life …

After that gastronomic epiphany in Malta, I feel that I owe it to the caper to write its hagiography, which like all good hagiographies should start from its birth. The caper comes from a bush, the caper bush to be precise, capparis spinosa. The bush is not much to write home about. Here is an example from the island of Salina, one of the Eolian Islands off the north-west coast of Sicily

caper bush-1

and here’s another from near Brindisi in southern Italy

caper bush-2

Both pictures admirably depict the poor, rocky soils and harsh environments that the bush grows well in. They also tell us that you find the bush around the Mediterranean. But that’s not only place you find C. spinosa; the bush has quite a wide range, down through eastern Africa, across central, southern, and southeastern Asia, all the way out to the Pacific Islands and Australia. But as far as I know, and I’m very willing to be corrected, the caper is not used in the local cuisine in any of these areas.

The last picture also tells us that the bush sports flowers. Small, but actually very lovely, with a cluster of long mauve stamens reaching out to the world (this is one of many beautiful photos of the caper flower on the internet; the efforts of my photographic e-friends have turned me quite poetic).

caper flowers-2

This last picture also modestly introduces us to the hero our story. Because the caper is that green flower bud behind. It gets picked, salted, and pickled for our delight. I think it deserves a picture of its own

caper buds

I have to say, I always marvel at things like this. How did the women in some far-off time think of picking the flower buds of this bush to eat? (I’m sure it was the women; the men were just lazing around the camp fire cracking stupid jokes and farting.) Maybe desperation, to stave off starvation. Or maybe … but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Capers are sold sorted by size. Either because the French got into the game of commercializing capers before anyone else, or because some canny marketer thought French names would sell better, or for some other reason unknown to me, the grades mostly have French names. From smallest to biggest we have: “non-pareil”, incomparable; “surfine”, very delicate (those hideously salty little balls which my grandmother bought for my brother must have been either surfines or non-pareils); “capucine”, which is a little pointed cowl, like the ones worn by Franciscans nuns – looking at the photo below and squinting a little, I suppose you could say that the capers in question look cowl-like; “capote”, which is a rather bigger cowl with a definite point (it is also French slang for a condom for reasons which I’m sure the readers can divine after a little bit of thought); “fine”, delicate (like the oysters). And at the very end of the grades we have “grusas”, which is not a French word. My guess is that it’s Provençal and has a meaning similar to the Spanish “gruesos”, fatty. Of course, the French were not going to use their delicate language for such a coarse member of the caper family. As one could guess from the grading nomenclature, the smallest sizes are considered to be the most desirable; I’m sure it is no coincidence that the smallest sizes come from southern France …

graded capers

Malta brought me my culinary epiphany with the caper. It also introduced me to the caper berry, which I find to be a much more delicious product of the caper bush. My Italian colleague, whom I have had cause to mention in an earlier post as the person who introduced me to durian, was with me on this Maltese environmental audit. Rather than asking the staff of the wastewater treatment plant to see the data on wastewater treatment efficiency he asked them to get him several jars of pickled Maltese caper berries. On the promise of my not revealing this professional faux-pas of his he shared one of the jars with me, which I took home to my wife. We have been hooked ever since.

caper berries-2

As the name suggest, caper berries are the fruit of the caper bush. This photo shows the berry in its natural state.

caper berries-natural state

I understand they are perfectly edible, although I have never seen them sold in a shop. I’ve only eaten the pickled variety. They are much bigger than capers, less salty, more crunchy (because of the seeds they contain) and can be eaten as a snack – and my wife and I have indeed snacked happily and often on them, in front of the TV or other such snack-happy locations.

Coming back to my meditation on how anyone ever came up with the idea of pickling flower buds to eat, I suspect the path was through the berry: step 1 – eat the berries; step 2 – salt the berries to preserve the excedent harvest before they rot; step 3 – hang on, why don’t we try the same thing with the flower buds?

My in-depth research (i.e., Wikipedia) has revealed to me that in Greece and Cyprus they also eat the pickled leaves of the caper bush.

caper leaves

This I have never tried. I read that they are particularly used in salads and fish dishes. A web-site called Good Greek Stuff proclaims that “these tangy cured leaves of the caper plant are less salty than the buds, and lend a citrusy undertone to such foods as Greek country salad, dakos (barley rusks with tomato, olive oil and feta), fish sauces, and cabbage slaws. It gives an astringent, piquant note to herb pestos and pasta dishes. And you’ll be amazed at what it does to the humble spaghetti aglio, olio e peperoncino or how well it works as a garnish to fried squid.”

I have another culinary epiphany awaiting me in some Greek island.
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Orata, pomodorini, capperi, olive: http://www.cucinanonnapapera.it/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/PICT1017.jpg [in http://www.cucinanonnapapera.it/?p=464%5D
Caper bush Salina: http://atasteoftravel.files.wordpress.com/2011/07/20110717-082956.jpg [in http://atasteoftravelblog.com/2011/capers-on-salina/%5D
Caper bush Brindisi: http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-2Nr_U2AWCUs/Uaid3mGYgqI/AAAAAAAAASM/NBQh22nv_Rk/s1600/Caper+Bush+growing+from+Rocks.jpg [in http://lisainitalymay2013.blogspot.com/%5D
Caper flower: http://kojikisans2.files.wordpress.com/2013/01/caper11.jpg?w=1008 [in http://kojikisans2.wordpress.com/%5D
Caper flower buds: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caper#mediaviewer/File:%E1%83%99%E1%83%90%E1%83%9E%E1%83%90%E1%83%A0%E1%83%98_Capparis_spinosa_Kapernstrauch.JPG [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caper%5D
Graded capers: http://www.asofood.com/aso_images/capers.gif [in http://www.asofood.com/capers.html%5D
Caper berries: http://www.photo-dictionary.com/photofiles/list/1401/4818marinated_capers.jpg [in http://www.photo-dictionary.com/phrase/1401/marinated-capers.html%5D
Caper berries-natural state: http://2.bp.blogspot.com/_Okhm7AjHzv8/R1kZdfwxBCI/AAAAAAAAAac/Eu8RWxYi6f4/s320/e-caperberries.jpg [in http://medcookingalaska.blogspot.com/2007/12/recipes-caper-tart-capers-and-eggs.html%5D
Caper leaves: http://eshop-santorini.gr/media/catalog/product/cache/1/image/9df78eab33525d08d6e5fb8d27136e95/k/a/kaparofilla-caper-leaves.jpg [in http://eshop-santorini.gr/index.php/authentic-food-1/more/santorini-wild-capers-1.html%5D

TROUBLES IN THE MEDITERRANEAN

Beijing, 27 May 2014

Ten days ago, this was.

We walked into Camogli from Recco, getting a first glimpse of the little harbour from the road.

Recco-Camogli

We walked down to the harbour, skirted its edge.

camogli port

We passed on to the boardwalk on the other side of the church.  Glancing back, this was the sight which greeted us.

camogli-boardwalk

Our goal was San Rocco, sitting high above Camogli on a steep spur of Monte di Portofino.

san rocco from the sea

We started climbing, slowly, stopping often, huffing and puffing, using one of the old mulattiere, mule trails, which criss-cross the hills around here.

Camogli-San Rocco path-2

We toiled up past rather decrepit houses and semi-abandoned olive groves until we finally reached San Rocco.

There, from the little piazza in front of the church, we had these gorgeous views, south-east towards Punta Chiappa

monte di portofino-1

and north-west towards Genova.

monte di portofino-2

We sank onto the bench and drank in view and sun. And as we sat there, in my mind’s eye I overflew the seaboard of the Mediterranean. Burning, burning, all burning …

Egypt

egypt-2

The West Bank

west bank

Syria

syria

Lebanon

lebanon

Turkey

turkey

Morocco

morocco

Algeria

algeria

Tunisia

Protesters shout slogans during a demonstration to call for the departure of the Islamist-led ruling coalition in Avenue Habib-Bourguiba in central Tunis

and finally Libya

libya

libya-2

from where, amidst all this rage and pain and despair, poor souls are struggling against all odds to cross the Mediterranean and sneak into Europe

pantelleria

a Europe which is itself sinking under its own weight of troubles: Greece of course

Greece Financial Crisis

but also Italy itself

italy

as well as France

France Strike

and Spain

spain

I closed my mind’s eye. Tomorrow, tomorrow, I said to myself, my wife and I would worry about the state of the universe tomorrow. Today, sitting on the bench and enjoying sun and sea, we just let the world go hang.

san rocco-1

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Recco-Camogli: http://www.mareblucamogli.com/images/Camogli_porto_oggi.jpg?129 [in http://www.mareblucamogli.com/page_31.html%5D
Camogli port: http://blog.marinayachting.it/media/458191_246746435438893_111283799_o.jpg [in http://blog.marinayachting.it/ai1ec_event/13-trofeo-challenge-nicola-dodero/?instance_id=%5D
Camogli-boardwalk: http://www.portofinotrek.com/trek/17-category/da-camogli-san-rocco.jpg [in http://www.portofinotrek.com/trek/17-da-camogli-san-rocco%5D
San Rocco from the sea: http://www.villagoduria.it/media/img/dintorni/s-rocco%20dal%20mare.jpg [in http://www.villagoduria.it/i_dintorni.php?lang=it%5D
Camogli-San Rocco path: http://www.alpioccidentali.it/escursioni/images-esc/Camogli-SanFruttuoso_glicine.JPG [in http://www.alpioccidentali.it/escursioni/Camogli-SanFruttuoso.htm%5D
Camogli San Rocco path-2: http://www.portofinotrek.com/trek/10-246-thickbox/da-camogli-a-san-rocco.jpg [in http://www.portofinotrek.com/trek/10-da-camogli-a-san-rocco.html%5D
San Rocco-1: http://static.panoramio.com/photos/large/3427674.jpg [in http://www.panoramio.com/photo/3427674%5D
Egypt: http://www.cairoportal.com/media/k2/items/cache/296cd9de158e249f3870555c2eeb013a_XL.jpg?t=-62169984000 [in http://www.cairoportal.com/news/9739#.U4NTHXYUZ40%5D
West Bank: http://stat.ks.kidsklik.com/statics/files/2011/07/1309663247638250606.jpg [in http://elmustakeem.blogspot.com/2011/07/sekolah-anak-anak-palestina.html%5D
Syria: http://www.dw.de/image/0,,17607086_303,00.jpg [in http://www.dw.de/syrias-war-economies-add-fuel-to-the-conflict/a-17609218%5D
Lebanon: http://gdb.voanews.com/B5FAA55E-7326-4D3F-B6F4-97DD2C6863FA_w974_n_s.jpg [in http://www.zeriamerikes.com/media/photogallery/june-23-2013-day-in-photos/1687666.html%5D
Turkey: http://82.222.152.134/imgsdisk/2014/05/22/220520141648544381677.jpg [in https://twitter.com/gokmen%5D
Morocco: http://i.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2011/WORLD/africa/02/21/morocco.protests/t1larg.morocco.feb20.gi.afp.jpg [in http://www.cnn.com/2011/WORLD/africa/02/21/morocco.protests/%5D
Algeria: http://l1.yimg.com/bt/api/res/1.2/Z.PSaSbzYDbmat1.7F6nKg–/YXBwaWQ9eW5ld3M7Zmk9ZmlsbDtoPTQyMTtweG9mZj01MDtweW9mZj0wO3E9NzU7dz03NDk-/http://media.zenfs.com/en_us/News/ap_webfeeds/cb75ae006f10880a4e0f6a7067006b93.jpg [in http://news.yahoo.com/algeria-activists-stage-rare-anti-govt-protest-145742769.html%5D
Tunisia: http://revolution-news.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/3540ab5d-15a8-49c8-91ff-a9649aea4186_16x9_600x338.jpg [in http://revolution-news.com/category/middle-east/tunisia/%5D
Libya: http://wartime.org.ua/uploads/posts/2012-01/1325936226_vyskova-operacya-v-lvyi-rozkrila-slabku-boyegotovnst-nato-5.jpg [in http://wartime.org.ua/648-vyskova-operacya-v-lvyi-rozkrila-slabku-boyegotovnst-nato.html%5D
Libya-2: http://www.bigpicture.si/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/1241.jpg [in http://www.bigpicture.si/archives/tag/sirija%5D
Pantelleria: http://292fc373eb1b8428f75b-7f75e5eb51943043279413a54aaa858a.r38.cf3.rackcdn.com/world_03_temp-1303281776-4dae8070-620×348.jpg [in http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20110420/world/Nationalism-comes-of-age-in-anti-immigrant-bailout-Europe.361418%5D
Greece: http://latimesphoto.files.wordpress.com/2011/10/greek-crisis08.jpg [in http://framework.latimes.com/2011/10/19/protest-in-greece/%5D
Italy: http://www.ctvnews.ca/polopoly_fs/1.1773564!/httpImage/image.jpg_gen/derivatives/landscape_960/image.jpg [in http://www.ctvnews.ca/world/anti-austerity-protest-in-rome-italy-turns-violent-1.1773562%5D
France-Marseille: http://static.guim.co.uk/sys-images/Guardian/Pix/pictures/2013/9/10/1378816498459/3befa5d8-0b5b-4ca9-be36-9ef459246334-620×421.jpeg [in http://www.theguardian.com/business/2013/sep/10/french-unions-hold-protests-over-pension-reforms—live%5D
Spain: http://img.rt.com/files/news/1e/1d/30/00/000_dv1422028.si.jpg [in http://rt.com/news/spain-protest-austerity-corruption-347/%5D
San Rocco: http://static.panoramio.com/photos/large/3427674.jpg [in http://www.panoramio.com/photo/3427674%5D

SCENT OF ANISE

Beijing, 16 May 2014

Several scents have followed me through my life. I wrote earlier of the scent of water. Another scent which has been a lifelong companion, gladly greeted when met, is the scent of anise.

I first became aware of the scent of anise during those long summer holidays of my youth which I spent at my grandmother’s house in France. To while away the summer days, my cousins and I would go for long bike rides through the surrounding countryside. We would often stop at bistrots in the villages we passed through, to have a break and slake our thirst. Given our young age, we would ask for soft drinks: a lemonade for me, while my cousins would opt for a sirop à la menthe, a peculiar French drink, violently green in colour and based on mint. Propping up the bar, meanwhile, there would always be a couple of locals, drinking, regardless of the time of day, un petit rouge (a glass of red wine), or un petit blanc (ditto, but white), or a beer, or a pastis.
image
They were normally also enveloped in a thick cloud of cigarette smoke which emanated from the unfiltered Gauloises cigarettes hanging from a corner of their mouths.

I was particularly fascinated by the pastis. For those of my readers who are not familiar with this drink, pastis is a typically French liquor very much associated with the south of France.
image
It gives off this wonderful aroma, being flavoured with aniseed (as well as licorice). It is strong (40-45% alcohol by volume), but it is never drunk neat. The drinker will add a fair amount of cold water before drinking it, at which point the liquor’s original dark transparent yellow colour clouds to a milky soft yellow.
image
As a boy, I would never tire of watching this wondrous, almost alchemical, change take place before me and breathe in the sweet scent of anise.

Since my family never used anise or the closely related fennel in cooking, I only next stumbled across the scent of anise when I came to Italy for the first time, nearly forty years ago. My wife to-be (as it turned out, although I didn’t know it then) introduced me to finocchio, or Florence fennel, a special cultivar of the fennel which was developed in Italy.
image
Many people (my late mother-in-law for one) eat finocchio cooked or braised but I prefer it raw, sliced very thin, almost shaved, with a simple oil and vinegar dressing.
image
Like that, it maintains the scent of anise, which begins to waft out as you prepare it in the kitchen, rises appetizingly from the plate as you spear the fennel slices, and is liberated in your mouth as you crunch down on them. Whenever I’m in Italy, and if it’s the right time of year, I will eat finocchio. In fact, it was my having a finocchio in salad last night that moved me to write this post.

Years later, just after coming to China, I stumbled across the scent of anise in another guise. During one of the early banquets to which I was invited, I noticed a star-shaped thing sitting in my dish.
image
Intrigued, I asked what it was. Star anise, I was told, a spice which is commonly used in Chinese cooking (and actually in the cuisine of much of Asia, as I later discovered). It’s actually a very pretty spice:
image
In any event, even more intrigued, I took a tentative bite and suck, and it did indeed taste of anise. But later research showed me that similar taste and scent do not a botanical relationship make. Anise, Pimpinella anisum, and Fennel, Foeniculum vulgare, are flowering plants which are both members of the Apiaceae family, and in fact look quite similar:
Anise:
image
Fennel:
image
Star anise, on the other hand, is the fruit of a medium-sized tree or big bush, Illicium verum, of the Schisandraceae family:
image
image
The same-scentedness arises from the happy chance that all three plants (as well as licorice to some degree) contain the organic chemical anethole – and here I get distinctly nerdy and add a diagram of this chemical
image
Why these unrelated plants should all contain anethole I don’t know – and why we smell it and taste it as pleasant I don’t know either. Somewhere out there in the ether there may be papers which explain. But I have neither the patience nor the energy to trawl through the depths of the internet to find them.

But what I have found out is that there is at least one other plant out there whose leaves contain anethole. This is the rare tree from the Australian rainforest, the ringwood or (appropriately) aniseed tree, Syzygium anisatum – although confusingly, the leaf, which contains the anethole, is called anise myrtle.
image
image
Feeling rather like one of those birders who will travel to the ends of the Earth to sight a bird which they have never seen, I am thinking (although I have not yet told my wife this) that she and I should travel to Australia again, this time to try this new, exotic source of anise scent. I read with interest that anise myrtle is considered a bush tucker spice in Australia, that is to say a spice from a native plant which can be used to spice a dish of native fauna and flora. Anyone for a stew of kangaroo and warrigal greens spiced with anise myrtle, followed by a couple of quandong fruit for dessert?

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A village café: http://wwwdotgretagarburedotcom.files.wordpress.com/2013/04/les-vieux-de-la-vieille-jean-gabin-noc3ablnoc3abl-pierre-fresnay-via-pkcine-com.jpg (in http://gretagarbure.com/tag/comptoir/)
Pastis poster: http://www.posterclassics.com/Images-Drinks-French/bigPastisOlive.jpg (in http://journals.worldnomads.com/theglobetrottingtexan/story/69164/France/Marseille-Pastis-Capital-of-the-World#axzz31oe3iEng)
Pastis going cloudy: http://www.frenchmoments.eu/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/Pastis-©-Peng-CC3.0.jpg (in http://www.frenchmoments.eu/pastis-from-provence/)
Finocchio: http://www.dietagratis.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/Finocchi08-450RCS.jpg (in http://www.dietagratis.com/ricette-light/3552-insalata-di-finocchi/)
Finocchio salad: http://www.ilcuoreinpentola.it/images/stories/ricette/2013/maggio/insalata-finocchi.jpg (in http://www.ilcuoreinpentola.it/ricette/contorni/insalata-di-finocchi/)
Star anise in a dish: http://www.withaglass.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/tenderloinsoyp.jpg (in http://www.withaglass.com/?p=15273)
Star anise alone: http://foodie-isms.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/star-anise1.jpg (in http://foodie-isms.com/?p=5085)
Anise plant:http://herbgardening.com/HerbGardeningImages/AnisePimpinellaanisum.jpg (in http://herbgardening.com/growinganise.htm)
Fennel plant: http://herbgardening.com/HerbGardeningImages/Foeniculum_vulgare520.jpg (in http://herbgardening.com/growinganise.htm)
Illicium verum: http://thegardenpalette.files.wordpress.com/2009/06/watermark_303.jpg?w=500&h=468 (in http://thegardenpalette.wordpress.com/tag/star-anise/)
Star anise on tree: http://www.cnseed.org/wp-content/uploads/Star%20Anise%20seed%20Illicium%20verum.jpg (in http://www.cnseed.org/star-anise-seed-illicium-verum.html)
Anethole structure: http://structuresearch.merck-chemicals.com/cgi-bin/getStructureImage.pl?owner=MDA&unit=CHEM&product=800429 (in http://www.merckmillipore.com/chemicals/trans-anethole/MDA_CHEM-800429/p_BwWb.s1L3_sAAAEWfeEfVhTl)
Aniseed tree: http://floragreatlakes.info/rfsimages/ringwood1.jpg (in http://floragreatlakes.info/html/rfspecies/ringwood.html)
Anise myrtle: http://www.anfil.org.au/wp-content/uploads//flushing-tree.bmp (in http://www.anfil.org.au/key-native-species/flavour-of-the-month-february/)

I LOVE ITALY

Milan, 13 May 2014

My wife and I have finally arrived in Italy. On our way home from the station last night we dropped into our local supermarket to buy stuff for supper. We chose simple fare which required no cooking. We started with mozzarella di bufala, mozzarella made in the south of Italy from the milk of water buffaloes

image

My wife pours a teaspoonful of extra virgin olive oil on her mozzarella, but I like it on its own. Like that you can really appreciate the delicate milky juices oozing from the cheese when you put a slice of it in your mouth.

We then had a plate of bresaola, air-dried beef from the Valtellina, an Alpine valley to the north of Milan. It is at its best with a drizzle of lemon juice and olive oil.
image
We followed this up with a plate of cooked ham and cantaloupe melon. Italians will normally eat their melon with raw ham
image
but I prefer it with cooked. That was always the way I ate it in France.

Our dessert consisted of nespole (loquat in English), a fruit I had never tried before coming to Italy thirty years ago.
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Its yellow flesh is succulent and quite tart, and it contains very beautiful large, brown, glistening stones.

We washed this all down with a Dolcetto red wine from the Langhe region in Piedmont.
image
That’s all. Quite simple, as I said. And all from the local supermarket.

I love Italy.

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Mozzarella di bufala: http://giacomoleopardi.provincia.venezia.it/trasformazioni%20alimentari/IMMAGINI/Formaggi%20Alberto,%20Alessio%20&%20Mattia/mozzarella%20di%20bufala.bmp (in http://giacomoleopardi.provincia.venezia.it/trasformazioni%20alimentari/mozzarella_di_bufala.htm)
Bresaola, lemon, oil: http://www.livingalifeincolour.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/meimanrensheng.com-bresaola.jpg (in http://www.livingalifeincolour.com/recipes/bresaola-air-dried-beef-with-olive-oil-and-lemon-lombardia/)
Melon and ham: http://www.cookingwithpatty.com/italian/wp-content/uploads/2009/11/prosciuttomelone.jpg (in http://www.cookingwithpatty.com/italian/recipe/cantaloupe-with-ham-prosciutto/)
Nespole: http://casabenessere.files.wordpress.com/2013/06/nespole.jpg (in http://casabenessere.wordpress.com/2013/06/11/nespole/)
Langhe region: http://blog.wineowine.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/le-langhe.jpg (in http://blog.wineowine.com/le-langhe/)

ROOTLESS IN BEIJING

London, 4 May 2014

I like George Orwell. His novels are good, no doubt about it – some of them, like 1984 and Animal Farm, are classics – but it is really his non-fiction work that I appreciate the most. When I was young and going to school in the UK, I particularly liked those books of his like Down and Out in Paris and London and The Road to Wigan Pier in which he excoriated the smug, self-satisfied, class-ridden Britain of the 1930s, a Britain which still existed, albeit in a milder form, when I was going to school.

Orwell had a particular animus against colonialism, in part no doubt because of his first-hand experience with it as an officer in the Burmese police. But he still showed a certain compassion for the colonial administrators. I particularly remember his description of one of his superiors who had spent his whole working life in the colonies, who by necessity believed he had a deep connection with the Mother Country (wasn’t he out there on His Majesty’s Service?), but who in his rare visits home would sit friendless and familyless in his Club in London, looking out at a country he no longer recognized or felt part of, nursing a gin and tonic while waiting for the boat to carry him back.

I am not a colonial administrator but I have been out of the UK for nigh on forty years. I didn’t mean it to be so. When I left after University I was quite expecting to come back, but you know how it is, life just takes over. And now, on one of my rare visits back to the UK, I too, like that colonial administrator of long ago, no longer feel any connection to the country. I too sit there, not participating in the social, economic and political life going on around me, but merely observing it. Even my own language is becoming foreign to me. I don’t get many of the jokes any more, referring as they do to situations I am not familiar with. Much of today’s slang is a closed book to me. I’m even beginning to experience difficulties in understanding some of the stronger British accents!

This alienation from Britain sometimes fills me with melancholy, as it did today walking around the streets of London. Where do I belong? I am just a stone rolling around the world gathering no moss. I am Rootless in Beijing today, I will be Rootless in some other city tomorrow.

It’s not as if I can even mourn the loss of British roots, because I’ve never really had any. My parents left the UK before I was born and I only went to school there. When I tell people I’m British, they normally ask me where I’m from in Britain. I just say London. Everyone has heard of London and I did spend some time there with my grandmother. But I’m no real Londoner.

To make it all worse, I’m only half British, with my other half being French. At school, they sometimes called me froggie in that way children have of unerringly picking up differences and using them to pick on you. The fact is, I did feel different from most of my schoolmates. They were so much more English than I was! But my French side gave me no comfort. I was even less French than I was English. I just spent summer holidays there.

When I was younger, I didn’t mind my rootlessness. In fact, I was quite proud to be a citizen of the world, of belonging nowhere and everywhere, and I quite liked the fact that I could often ignore the social conventions of the places I lived in because I was foreign and not expected to conform.

But with age, I feel ever more urgently a need for roots. I want to have a place where I can say, “here, I will lay down my head; here, I will lay my bones to rest”. Luckily, my wife has given me strong roots in Italy. That is where I will finally come to rest when my tour of duty in Beijing is finished.

Goodness me, what is all this maundering self-pity? Time to pour myself another gin and tonic and discuss with my wife what we shall do tomorrow.

TOMB SWEEPING DAY

Beijing, 6 April 2014

I think it must be a universal characteristic of human beings to want to remember their dead. Perhaps it’s part of a refusal, deep down in our psyche, to accept that we die, so remembering the dead is a way to declare defiantly that we too, when we will be among the dead, will not really be dead. Whatever it is, and I’m certainly not competent to explore this side of our collective consciousness, we do have ritual days in our calendars when we are called upon to remember our dearly departed. For us in Western Europe, it’s All Souls’ Day, November 2nd.
All souls day Germany-3
For those following the Christian Orthodox tradition, it’s the Saturday of Souls, commemorated some time in Spring
Greek orthodox saturday of souls-2
For the Chinese, it’s the Qingming Festival, or tomb sweeping day. It falls on the 15th day following the Spring equinox, which this year turned out to be yesterday. The pious Beijingers flocked to the tombs of their loved ones, while the rest of us, who don’t have any tombs to sweep in the immediate vicinity, took the day off. My wife and I fall into the latter category, our parents and grandparents lying in peace (I hope) in Italy, France and the UK. Nevertheless, we thought it would be interesting to observe this Chinese festival at first-hand. So we visited a cemetery in the farther reaches of the city, arriving there after a long journey by bus and under the curious stares of the locals.

The cemetery was indeed full of people
tomb sweeping day-1
and it was fascinating to watch what they did. They burned incense
tomb sweeping day-3
As well as leaving normal flowers, they garlanded the graves with paper flowers (I suppose cheaper than real flowers, and certainly a good deal more colourful)
picture 001
They left food on the graves
picture 005
They left money (fake, alas, as we determined after surreptitiously picking up a few notes under the suspicious gaze of one of the gardeners)
tomb sweeping day-5
They paid their respects
tomb sweeping day-4-woman bowing
And even in one case we heard an old woman talking to her husband (I presume), I suppose updating him on what had been happening since she had last visited. The loneliness of old age can indeed be hard …

Well, the flowers we could relate to. After all, we do that in Europe too on All Souls Day – although the garlands of fake flowers was new to us.
All souls day Austria-2
We could also sort of understand the incense – I remember piles of incense being burned in the churches of my youth, although I never saw it used on tombs.

But the food and the money we found really strange. Especially the food. There was something almost animistic about this. It was like the ancient Egyptians who buried their dead with food for the afterlife.
bringing food to the dead egypt
Mind you, it’s not as if we don’t have our own strange cemetery habits. For instance, what I missed were the little candles which we leave on our graves in Europe
All souls day Germany-2-night
But if a Chinese were to ask me what those candles signify I would have to confess to not knowing. To keep away the bad spirits? To help God remember that they are there? To light up the darkness in which they lie?

Something else I missed was the statuary. The tombs we saw were very sober affairs.
picture 012
Compare this to the almost baroque constructions I’m familiar with, especially in Italy. Here are a few examples from the cemetery where my wife’s parents are buried
Giorno-dei-morti-Milano
statua monumentale Milano-2
statua monumentale Milano-3
From the style of these examples you might think that this was a habit of the past, but one of the tombs near my father-in-law’s has a life-size statue of a fisherman standing on it.

around nonno's grave 003

I presume the tomb’s incumbent loved fishing. Another close by, sadder to contemplate, is the statue of the young man buried there, whose life was tragically cut short.

around nonno's grave 006

My father-in-law’s tomb itself has a beautiful statuary group of angels singing in the heavenly choir.
angels with trumpets
We are going back to Milan in a few weeks to recuperate it after cremating his remains. My father-in-law has had thirty-five years of peaceful repose and now it is the turn of someone else to lie there: the iron law of increasing populations and decreasing real estate in which to rest the dead. But we’ll have the singing angels by which to remember him – and my mother-in-law, who chose the statuary’s theme. They had a common love of music. We will try to have his ashes relocated next to hers, so that after a separation of thirty-five years they can be together in death as they had been in life.

I wish I could say the same for my parents. Deaths ten years apart and the same real-estate forces which I just alluded to has meant that, after a life together, they were buried in different places. It fills me with melancholy and makes me think of Thomas Hardy’s poem In Death Divided

I shall rot here, with those whom in their day
You never knew,
And alien ones who, ere they chilled to clay,
Met not my view,
Will in your distant grave-place ever neighbour you.

No shade of pinnacle or tree or tower,
While earth endures,
Will fall on my mound and within the hour
Steal on to yours;
One robin never haunt our two green covertures.

Some organ may resound on Sunday noons
By where you lie,
Some other thrill the panes with other tunes
Where moulder I;
No selfsame chords compose our common lullaby.

The simply-cut memorial at my head
Perhaps may take
A Gothic form, and that above your bed
Be Greek in make;
No linking symbol show thereon for our tale’s sake.

And in the monotonous moils of strained, hard-run Humanity,
The eternal tie which binds us twain in one
No eye will see
Stretching across the miles that sever you from me.

I hope that, one day, I can bring them together so that finally one robin can haunt their two green covertures.

___________________________

All Souls Day Germany: http://images.fotocommunity.de/bilder/architektur/friedhoefe/allerheiligen-auf-dem-gratweiner-friedhof-1cf8be4b-d04b-430a-93e0-b3685f0f992f.jpg [in http://www.fotocommunity.de/pc/pc/display/14858389%5D
Greek Orthodox Saturday of souls: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-Co-zt3nzWXs/T1EaVmrfyRI/AAAAAAAAAVA/M9gA4b1_m2I/s1600/%CF%83%CE%AC%CF%81%CF%89%CF%83%CE%B70003.jpg [in http://fiestaperpetua.blogspot.com/2012/03/blog-post.html%5D
Tomb sweeping day-1: http://www.wildchina.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2010/04/pb-120404-qingming-da.photoblog900.jpeg [in http://www.wildchina.com/blog/tag/tomb-sweeping-day/%5D
Tomb sweeping day-2: http://www.fashion-bop.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/04/Tomb-Sweeping-Day.jpg [in http://www.fashion-bop.com/fashion-bop-things-about-us/tomb-sweeping-day/%5D
Tomb sweeping day-3: our picture
Tomb sweeping day-4: our picture
Tomb sweeping day-5: http://farm6.static.flickr.com/5193/7044748643_b7415e94a9.jpg [in http://easternjourney.com/2012/04/tomb-sweeping-day-2012/%5D
Tomb sweeping day-6: http://i.telegraph.co.uk/multimedia/archive/01864/Bowing_1864893i.jpg [in http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/picturegalleries/worldnews/8429441/The-Qingming-festival-The-Chinese-honour-their-ancestors-by-sweeping-their-tombs.html%5D
All Souls Day Austria-flowered graves: http://www.mariazellerland-blog.at/wp-content/gallery/allerheiligen/allerheiligen-mariazell_1501.jpg [in http://www.mariazellerland-blog.at/allerheiligen-und-allerseelen-in-mariazell/allgemein/3588/%5D
Bringing food to the dead in Egypt: http://static.guim.co.uk/sys-images/Guardian/Pix/pictures/2010/10/11/1286794872587/Extra-British-Museum-Book-006.jpg [in http://www.theguardian.com/extra/2010/oct/11/extra-event-british-museum-book-of-the-dead%5D
All Souls Day Germany-night lights: http://images.fotocommunity.de/bilder/specials/mystische-orte/allerheiligen-am-friedhof-1436be22-b4bf-4a77-aba9-500ebdb2f3e7.jpg [in http://www.fotocommunity.de/pc/pc/display/19329266%5D
General view of Chinese cemetery: our photo
Statues cemetery Milan-1: http://www.milanospia.it/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/Giorno-dei-morti.jpg [in http://www.milanospia.it/2011/10/31/ponte-di-ognissanti-al-cimitero-di-milano-diventa-un-business/%5D
Statues cemetery Milan-2: http://farm8.staticflickr.com/7141/6655629153_17775801fa_o.jpg [in http://italia-ru.com/blog/ankh/2012/01/25/cimitero-monumentale-di-milano%5D
Statues cemetery Milan-3: http://milanosotto.files.wordpress.com/2013/08/cimitero-monumentale-scorcio.jpg [in http://milanosotto.wordpress.com/2013/08/13/il-cimitero-monumentale-di-milano-tra-storia-leggende-e-simboli-massonici/%5D
Statues cemetery Milan-4, 5 & 6: our photo

THE BASQUE BERET

Beijing, 2 February 2014

It’s quiet at the moment in Beijing. The Chinese New Year has just passed and the city is still deserted, with the locals staying at home and the migrants off in their home towns or villages. So when we went out for our usual Sunday afternoon coffee to The Place, a mall whose main claim to fame is that it hosts a ginormous TV screen, it was singularly empty. We decided to eschew our usual coffee houses such as Starbucks and Costa Coffee, both of which grace The Place, and took our coffee instead at a branch of (the South Korean-based) Paris Baguette.

paris baguette 003

As the name suggests, this chain of stores offers a vaguely French eating experience, the most obvious of which being the sale of baguettes – they’re not bad, although the Vietnamese, after their bout of colonization by the French, bake better ones. The stores also sell French pastries: croissants, of course, madeleines, and various others (they also sell a lot of pastries which my French grandmother would never have recognized as French in any way). And, as I discovered today, the staff wear berets basques
paris baguette 001
At least, I think that is what they are meant to be wearing. They are certainly modeled on the beret basque, although they look more like the floppy hats that popular and upwardly mobile painters sported in the 19th Century.

As everyone knows, the beret basque is as French as … well, the baguette
basque beret-2
or the gauloise cigarette and glass of red wine …
beret basque et gauloises
… or onions and garlic. I remember when I was young coming across the last gasps of an old tradition: Frenchmen bicycling around the UK selling onions. Lord knows why this tradition started, but as every Englishman knows the French eat a lot of onions – and garlic – so maybe the English thought that French onions purchased from a Frenchman were better than onions grown in the UK. So legions of canny Frenchmen set out every summer to bicycle door-to-British door and sell French onions. And of course branding rules required them to wear a beret basque.
basque beret-onion sellers
The funny thing is, only once in my life do I ever remember seeing a Frenchman actually wear a beret basque, and that was the driver of a car who, just north of Dunkerque, ran smack into the right-hand side of the deux-chevaux which my English friend was driving.

Since, as everyone knows, the deux-chevaux is as French as the beret basque, the baguette, and the gauloise

Citroen 2CV

the driver presumably thought that my friend knew the typically French road rule of “priorité à droite”, priority to the right: a car coming from the right always has priority unless otherwise specified. Unfortunately, my friend knew the much more sensible English road rule that a car on a big road has priority over a car on a little one, and since our road was a least three times as wide as his road, she thought … The resulting clash of cultures left a very big dent in her car door.

In any event, the only place I ever really saw the beret basque being worn regularly was in northern Italy, and that was only in the early years of my going there, some 30-plus years ago. Quite quickly, the younger generation abandoned the beret, as well as any other head coverage, presumably for one or more of the reasons which I listed in an earlier post. But I am very fond of a couple of photos lying around our apartment in Milan.  In one, my father-in-law is wearing his basco (as it is called in Italy) and smiling into the camera. In another, we see him sporting the beret and holding my wife, just a small girl at the time, by the hand. Whenever we come across them, my wife smiles and begins to reminisce. They were on holidays, it was the mid-sixties, times were good then in Italy, there was optimism in the air. The Good Old Days …

What about the region which gave its name to the beret? Do they wear it? Alas, as these photos suggest, it’s only the older folk who wear it any more:

basques with berets-2

basques with berets-3

basques with berets-1

basques with berets-5

basques with berets-4

Hmm, we still have my father-in-law’s beret, in some corner of a cupboard. Maybe when I’m nearing the end of my road, I’ll start wearing it.

_____________________________

Paris Baguette, inside and out: my pics
Basque beret and baguette: http://www.labellemeche.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/b%C3%A9ret.jpg [in http://www.labellemeche.com/blog/page/3/%5D
Basque beret, gauloises and red wine: http://wshiell.net/vintage_ads2/original/gauloises.png [in http://wshiell.net/vintage_ads2/original/gauloises.html%5D
Basque beret-onion sellers: http://blog.privateislandparty.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/Onion-Johnnies.jpg [in http://blog.privateislandparty.com/beret-origins-of-style/%5D
Citroën 2CV: http://classics.honestjohn.co.uk/imagecache/file/fit/730×700/media/5716157/Citroen%202CV%20%281%29.jpg [in http://classics.honestjohn.co.uk/reviews/citroen/2cv/%5D
Basques with berets-1: http://www.dkimages.com/discover/Projects/AT876/previews/446914.JPG [in http://www.dkimages.com/discover/Home/Geography/Europe/France/Southwest-France/Pyrenees/Towns-and-Villages/St-Jean-de-Luz/Basque-Men/Basque-Men-1.html%5D
Basques with berets-2: http://www.blog.giuseppelupo.eu/wp-content/uploads/2007/10/d1_louis_the_basque.jpg [in http://www.blog.giuseppelupo.eu/?cat=159%5D
Basques with berets-3: http://www.cephas.com/ImageThumbs/1205630/3/1205630_Men_in_traditional_Basque_dress_Seissan_Gers___France.jpg [in http://theobamadiary.com/2012/03/15/so-whos-tuning-in-tonight/%5D
Basques with berets-4: http://www.concierge.com/images/destinations/destinationguide/europe/spain/bilbao/bilbao_013p.jpg [in http://www.concierge.com/travelguide/bilbao/photos/photoview/61474?sort=-createDate%5D
Basques with berets-5: http://nimgs3.s3.amazonaws.com/others/original700/2008-8-4-3-45-25-35af8c3c35d345aea2744a44c6cf7937-35af8c3c35d345aea2744a44c6cf7937-2.jpg [in http://newshopper.sulekha.com/an-old-man-wearing-the-typical-basque-beret-passes-a-poster-reading-in-basque-inaki-de-juana-welcome-after-21-years-ago-in-pr_photo_246070.htm%5D

KAKI

Beijing, 3 November 2013

My wife and I went to an art show last weekend in an old temple located somewhere in the hutongs behind Beijing’s old drum tower (as a friend whom we met there said, “great space, great mulled wine, average art”). We went for a walk around the area afterwards, and I spied this kaki tree in full fruit peeping over a high wall.

kaki over temple wall 002

For those of my readers who can’t quite make out the tree in my picture, here is a much better take of the same species.

kaki

I realized that it was that time of the year again, when the kaki are fully ripened and ready to eat. And I suddenly noticed that all the Chinese grocers were filled with kaki.

I’ve noted in a much earlier posting that my wife brought much more food and culinary novelty to our marriage than I did. One of these was the kaki, which I first saw in Liguria during one of our trips out to the sea in the late months of the year.

cachi in liguria

My mother-in-law was very fond of this fruit, but I must say I have never been convinced by it. I appreciate neither its mushiness nor its sweetness. I’ve eaten it but rarely during the years since I first discovered it, and every time I have been reinforced in my lack of enthusiasm for the fruit.

kaki fruit

Without really thinking about it much, I assumed that this tree and its fruit were native to the Mediterranean. I adopted the Italian spelling cachi as the original spelling. Imagine my surprise, then, when several years after my initial discovery of the fruit, we came across the tree laden with fruit during the trip which my wife and I made to Japan, and our Japanese companion informed us that it was called kaki. Kaki! The scales fell from my eyes. This must have originally been a Japanese tree, which was brought to Italy at some point – back in the 1800’s, I have since discovered. Another botanical species, like the ginkgo which I’ve written about earlier, which was trekked back to Europe during the first era of globalization.

Actually, I was wrong again! Because, like the ginkgo, the kaki is actually native to China and at some point got transported over to Japan – along with Buddhism perhaps? So if I were a linguistic purist I should switch to calling it shizi, which is its Chinese name. But I’m getting old and set in my habits. Kaki it will remain.

Talking of names, English-speaking readers may be asking themselves what the English name of the tree and fruit is. It was years before I asked myself that question and looked up cachi in an Italian-English dictionary. Persimmon, that’s what it is! Persimmon … that was a word which had hovered on the far horizons of my linguistic knowledge. I’d heard it spoken or maybe seen it written, I knew vaguely it was a fruit, but that was it. It sounds such an upper-class English name, don’t you think? Like Fitzwilliam or the Duke of Buccleuch. So it was another surprise to me to discover that persimmon is actually an English transliteration of the word pasiminan or pessamin, an Algonquian word from the eastern United States. Another result of the first era of globalization, in this case the colonization of North America. Because there is also a species of kaki that is native to Eastern North America, the American Persimmon.

American persimmon-tree

American persimmon-fruit

I prefer the formal Latin name Diospyros virginiana, which suggests to me that it was in the British colony of Virginia that the Brits first came across the tree.

By the way, there is actually a species of Diospyros which is native to the Mediterranean; actually, its range is somewhat broader, stretching from Southeast Europe to Southwest Asia. In English, it’s called the date-plum tree. Apparently, the fruit’s taste reminds one of both plums and dates.

date plum diospyros lotos-tree

Maybe I’m pushing this globalization thing too far, but I see another strand of globalization in that name. It is a literal translation of the Persian name for the tree and its fruit: khormaloo. In the earlier period of globalization, American colonists were content to simply anglicize the Native American name. But in a later, more learned period of globalization, when some more academic Brits actually learned the foreign languages which the expanding British Empire was coming into contact with, rather than call the tree, say, cormalew, they preferred to translate the original name.

Actually, the Latin name of this species of kaki, Diospyros lotos, is even more interesting. It refers to a belief in Greece that this fruit could have been the lotus fruit mentioned in Homer’s Odyssey. According to that story, the lotus fruit was so delicious that those of Odysseus’s men who ate it forgot about returning home and wanted to stay and eat lotus with the native lotus-eaters. I throw in here a screenshot from an electronic game based on Odysseus’s story; the fruit looks vaguely kaki-like (amazing what they will make electronic games about …)

lotus eaters-2

Personally, I can’t think that kaki is the lotus-fruit. All that squishiness and mushiness would definitely not make me stick around.

______________

Kaki over the wall: my picture
Kaki: http://www.flickr.com/photos/giagir/5185254421/sizes/z/in/photostream/ [in http://www.flickriver.com/photos/giagir/5185254421/%5D
Cachi in liguria: http://www.flickr.com/photos/ciric/3032113542/sizes/z/in/photostream/ in [http://www.flickr.com/photos/ciric/3031273027/]
Kaki fruit: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/01/Diospiros_kaki_Fruit_IMG_5472s.JPG [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Persimmon%5D
American persimmon tree: http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-hroimehTRQk/TlPhN7euB8I/AAAAAAAAAds/lBlwEER714k/s1600/persimmon4.jpg [in http://tcpermaculture.blogspot.com/2011/08/permaculture-plants-persimmons.html%5D
American persimmon fruit: http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-b3lVcZ8FOnw/TlPgCINg7VI/AAAAAAAAAdk/LQCyiQYUw2c/s1600/Persimmon3.png [in http://tcpermaculture.blogspot.com/2011/08/permaculture-plants-persimmons.html%5D
Date plum-tree: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/6/63/Diospyros_lotus_01.jpg/800px-Diospyros_lotus_01.jpg [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Date-plum%5D
Odysseus and the lotus eaters: https://lh5.googleusercontent.com/-2uTp30FUU4E/UaHOcmkRBwI/AAAAAAAACsY/UU21szj7LBk/s1280/013_Lotus_Eaters.jpg  [in http://www.gamrgrl.com/2013/05/walkthrough-odyssey-hd.html%5D

SICILY THE LOVELY, SICILY THE DAMNED

Beijing, 12 June 2013

Two weeks ago, when I walked into the apartment in the evening, back from a business trip, my wife announced triumphantly that she had discovered a treasure trove on Youtube, shows from a series on Italian TV that we never even knew existed: Commissario Montalbano.

Readers will be forgiven if they look blank at this announcement. I will allow that Montalbano is not (yet) a household name. Yet my wife’s announcement filled me with great excitement. The detective stories written by the Sicilian-born writer Andrea Camilleri about Salvo Montalbano, Inspector of police in some modest township in western Sicily, have gripped me ever since I stumbled across one of them some six years ago. I read them in the original, which I must say is not easy. Already reading in Italian is slightly more difficult for me than reading in English, and Camilleri writes in an Italian which has been heavily saturated with Sicilian dialect. The first time I ventured into one of Camilleri’s books I was reading like a child of 5 for the first ten pages or so until I got the hang of it and could stop asking my wife every ten seconds what this word or that word meant. It’s still tough going, but the dialect really helps to drop you into Sicily.

Well that evening, after dinner, we settled down on the couch, poured ourselves a glass of wine, opened Youtube, chose one of the shows, and started to watch. For me, there was an initial moment of discomfort; when you have read so many stories about the same characters you create an image of them in your mind’s eye, and I was finding it difficult to adjust to this being Commissario Montalbano:

Commissario-Montalbano

(too handsome!), this being his two main collaborators, Mimí and Fazio:

mimi-e-fazio

(too tall the first, too handsome the second), and this being the klutz of the office, Cattaré:

catarella

(too much of a clown)

(I also have a very distinct picture in my mind of Smiley, Le Carré’s master spy hero – the spitting image of my Latin teacher at school. But I digress)

Quickly, though, I was drawn into the stories and forgot to mentally tut-tut over the faces of the protagonists, and we have now eased into a nightly ritual of hauling out the computer after dinner, pouring ourselves a generous glass of wine, and watching a Montalbano.

I have always thought that this series of detective stories, inserted as they are so deeply into the Sicilian reality, would have little echo outside Italy. Imagine, then, our astonishment when a few days ago (this coincidence of dates must have some cosmic meaning …) my wife read out an article at breakfast from the Guardian newspaper commenting on the popularity of the Italian Montalbano TV series in the UK. The article also commented on the number of Brits doing Montalbano-themed visits to Sicily! I was gobsmacked. When we did a little bit of web surfing, we discovered that actually people from all over the world love Montalbano (much of this coming from comments left on TripAdvisor about Montalbano’s house, which some canny Sicilian has turned into a Bed and Breakfast).

Is it just that we all love a good yarn well told, and a good detective story has all the makings of a good yarn? Is it the Italianness of the character which attracts people? The relative exoticness of the locations? Something else?

As far as I’m concerned, my attachment to Montalbano goes far beyond the thrill of the detective story. It goes even beyond the characters, marvelous as they are. Through Salvo Montalbano, Camilleri depicts wonderfully well that spirit of contrariness which is very definitely part of the human landscape of southern Italy.  The TV show captures this trait of Montalbano’s nicely, as it does the subtle intelligence and cynical sense of humor – such Italian traits! – which Camilleri gives to his creation. And of course Camilleri injects wondrous descriptions of Sicilian food by making Montalbano a gourmet, something which we see a little of in the TV series by having Montalbano spend a fair amount of time sitting at restaurant tables (but we discovered a web-site which lovingly lists the recipes of all the dishes which Montalbano eats!). My only real disappointment with Montalbano’s TV character (apart from him not looking like I imagine he should) is that I haven’t yet seen Salvo Montalbano’s love of the written word (which is, of course, Camilleri’s). Camilleri has peppered the books with his hero’s musings on various works of literature. I love this about him since I also like to muse (muse to excess, my wife might add) on literature.

But what actually draws me most to these detective stories is the melancholy view of Sicily which permeates them. Sicily the beautiful, damned by the gods and abandoned to its fate. So much my feeling of the island! Camilleri shows it mostly by building in a constant, extensive, subliminal presence of the Mafia – truly like a cancer in the island’s body politic – and exposing the total corruption – moral more than monetary – of the island’s political class. I saw it instead through my work. Fate had it that I had to spend most of my time in Sicily in collapsing industrial zones, built in the 1950s and ’60s. These came into existence as part of a political discourse which claimed to be bringing modernity and wealth to the south of the country by implanting heavy industry there: oil refineries, petrochemicals, agro-chemicals, iron and steel, non-ferrous refining … you name it, there was one somewhere in the Mezzogiorno. It was a stupid idea right from the start. The south had neither the infrastructure nor the industrial culture to digest these huge industrial complexes dumped on them: “cathedrals in the desert”, the Italians aptly named them. This is a refinery in the south of Sicily, with Mt. Etna in the back:

raffineria gela

And the actual implementation of the government’s plans made it all so much worse. Corruption was rampant, with every level involved in planning and construction decisions taking its cut. Many companies only located in the south to take advantage of the government’s tax holidays; it made no economic sense for them otherwise. The moment the holidays were over they upped stakes and moved on, leaving the State to hold the baby. The Government couldn’t afford politically the loss of jobs, so many of these industries were nationalized, which made them even more inefficient and drew in even more corruption (and the Mafia). The Trade Unions fought to remove the only advantage the south had, cheaper labour than the north, by insisting on equal pay for equal work. And then came globalization, which was the kiss of death. It now made even less sense to have these kinds of industries in the south. So I was a small part of a larger strategy by the government to quietly sell off – often in fire sales – the miserable remnants of these industries. The Sicilians I spoke to were so angry, so bitter, so sad about the whole thing. Huge investments by the government, which would never come again, which could have raised the island out of its chronic poverty, but which had just been frittered away … Poor Sicily.

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Montalbano: http://www.blogtivvu.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/Commissario-Montalbano.jpg
Mimí and Fazio: http://static.televisionando.it/televisionando/fotogallery/625X0/66329/mimi-e-fazio-fidi-collaboratori-di-salvo-montalbano.jpg
Catarella: http://www.ilbrigante.it/wp-content/uploads/2010/04/angelo-russo_preview.jpg
Refinery in Gela: http://static.blogo.it/ecoblog/IverticidellaRaffineriadiGelaSpaindagatiperomissionedicautelecontrodisastri.jpg

SQUATTING AND CHAIRS

2 June 2013

On our last visit to Hong Kong, my wife and I wandered into an antiques shop to poke around among the offerings. The owner, an ethnic Chinese, struck up a conversation with us. After discovering that I came from the UK, she lit up and became positively garrulous. It turned out that her son was completing a Masters at Oxford University, and she described, lovingly and in great detail, a trip she had recently made to the UK to see him. It soon became clear that she regretted Hong Kong no longer being British. In short order, her misty-eyed regrets over the UK leaving turned into a rant against the “Mainlanders”, Chinese from mainland China. This is a common topic of converstation in Hong Kong, where many of its ethnically Chinese residents determinedly stress that they are different from the Mainlanders. This determination is becoming fiercer as Mainlanders come in ever larger numbers to Hong Kong to gawp, buy, and generally get in the way. For this lady, there were two things which symbolized all the differences between Her and Them. She proceeded to tick them off on her fingers with disdain: “they spit, and they squat”.

I think we can all agree that the generalized Chinese habit of spitting is really quite revolting, particularly when it is preceded by a noisy hawking of the throat and – most disgusting of all – a blowing of the nose without a handkerchief. And it is true to say that you see very little of this in Hong Kong.

Our interlocutor’s hostility to the prevalent Chinese habit of squatting is more interesting. Everywhere in China – on pavements, in malls, at bus stops, in railway stations; anywhere, really, where people stand and wait – you will see people who have dropped down onto their haunches for a rest

squatting men beijing-wangfujing

reading, more often than not these days, their text messages.

squatting woman-5

I have to say that I also find this habit disquieting. It seems such a … humiliating posture, is the only way I can describe it. Every time I see people squatting, I scold them mentally: “Get up, get up! You are not a slave!”

And yet … when you think about it, in a world where chairs didn’t exist, which must have been 99.9% of the time that we have been human beings, it was really quite natural for us to drop down  onto our haunches when we were tired of standing and when there wasn’t a nice log or large stone to sit on. So I’ve come to the conclusion that I think the way I do about squatting because of the chair.

The chair, or rather the throne, was obviously an instrument used by Kings and Emperors, from the earliest times, to overawe their subjects. Here we have an Assyrian emperor lording it over some subject of his

throne-assyrian throne

And the temple of Abu Simbel in Egypt must surely be the epitome of rulers lording it over their lands while sitting on thrones

throne-abu simbel

Shelley’s poem Ozymandias, which I quoted in an earlier post, comes to mind when I look at these statues.

Egypt’s dry desert air, in which buried things do not rot, allows us to contemplate today a real Egyptian throne, this one from King Tut’s tomb (“Tutankhamun, King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Lord of the forms of Re, Strong bull, Perfect of birth, He whose beneficent laws pacify the two lands, He who wears the crowns, who satisfies the gods” to you, mere mortal, and don’t you forget it …):

throne-king tut-1

Even in more modern times have thrones played their part in elevating the splendour of the sitter, as in this case of the Qing emperor Kangxi

throne-Qing Emperor Kangxi

And of course Chinese emperors, along with many copy-cat Asian emperors, liked to have their subjects not just squat in front of them but to really debase themselves by kowtowing:

kowtowing before the emperor

Which led to the famous diplomatic incident of 1793, when, Lord Macartney, King George III’s envoy to the Chinese Emperor, refused to kowtow but did accept to get down on one knee as he would have before his King:

kowtowing before the emperor-English ambassador

Even more recently, thrones have played their part to prop up monarchies. The last Shah of Iran, for instance, was fond of using the Naderi throne to impart some sheen to his tawdry reign.

throne-peacock throne-Shah in front

And of course we in the UK have our venerable King Edward’s Chair in which all English, and then British, monarchs (bar two) have been crowned since 1308 – by the way, King Edward I commissioned the chair to house the Stone of Scone after he stole it (a.k.a. war booty) from the Scots.

throne-king edwards

Those of us who have the seen the film The King’s Speech will recognize the throne, which appears at some point in the story and whose portentous humbug is mercifully taken down a peg or two by the egalitarian Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue (played by that wonderful actor Geoffrey Rush), who slouches around in it provoking a burst of monarchist anger from King George VI:

throne-king edwards-Geoffrey Rush in it

Luckily, Lionel Logue’s egalitarian comments about the chair in question was preceded a century or so ago (not more, I suspect) by a move to make the chair a product of mass consumption, which meant that I (but probably not the Chinese of my generation) have spent my whole life sitting on chairs and not squatting on the ground. I try to remember the chairs of my childhood but fail. A chair’s a chair, some of you might say, it’s a functional object. True, but even functionality for the masses can be beautiful. It took my wife to introduce me to Italian furniture design and to make me realize that a chair could be both beautiful and functional. The moment we could – in the early 1980s – we bought ourselves a set of dining chairs. My wife has scoured the internet for photos of the model of our chairs but has found none. This photo of the spaghetti chair is the closest I can find:

chair-sled based-spaghetti

I designed and put together a dining room table to go with our chairs, the only thing I have ever designed in my life. All slumber in a warehouse in Vienna, awaiting our return to Europe.

Later, when we were living in New York, we came across Shaker chairs (and other furniture) during a weekend trip in upstate New York which took us to an old Shaker colony. Beautiful things.

chair-shaker-2

We would have bought some reproductions if we hadn’t already had our chairs – and if they hadn’t been so expensive.

Over the years, we’ve seen some “trophy” chairs (chairs which don’t just sit quietly around a dining room table) which we wouldn’t have minded buying, if the price had been right (and if we’d had the space).

The Danish harp chair:

chair-danish harp chair

The Mondrian chair (this would have been more my choice than my wife’s):

Chair-Mondrian chair

Chairs designed by the Glaswegian architect, designer and artist Charles Mackintosh (again, my choice I think):

chair-Mackintosh chair

Here in China, chairs from the Ming period:

chair-ming-1

The reader will have noted by now that our tastes in chairs (indeed, all furniture) lean towards the simple and clean line …

I suppose that with consumption on the rise in China, the habit of squatting will disappear, as will – I fervently hope and pray – the habit of spitting.  In the meantime, I will continue to mentally exhort my fellow Beijingers to stand up straight and proud every time I see them squatting on the ground.

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Squatting men: http://mattchalmighty.files.wordpress.com/2012/10/beijing-wangfujing-men-squatting-large.jpg
Squatting woman: http://www.shunya.net/Pictures/China/Beijing/BeijingWoman.jpg
Assyrian throne: http://www.ucl.ac.uk/sargon/images/essentials/kings/sh5-til-barsip-large.jpg
Abu Simbel: http://famouswonders.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/04/abu-simbel.jpg
King Tut throne: http://comeseeegypt.com/images/tutthrone.jpg
Qing Emperor Kangxi: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/1/12/China,Qing,Emperor,Kangxi,Painting,Color.jpg
Kowtowing before the emperor: http://www.mitchellteachers.org/WorldHistory/AncientChinaCurriculum/Images/legendaryemperors/ImperialRobesOfficialsPayingRespect_large.jpg
English ambassador Lord Macartney before the Emperor: http://images.printsplace.co.uk/Content/Images/Products/92648/89219/Reception_of_the_Diplomatique_and_his_Suite_at_the_Court_of_Pekin__c_1793__1.jpg
Shah of Iran in front of peacock throne: http://filelibrary.myaasite.com/Content/26/26343/29921747.jpg
King Edward’s Chair: http://www2.pictures.zimbio.com/gi/Visitors+Look+Coronation+Chair+Westminster+Wk0GK7SFdXnl.jpg
Geoffrey Rush sitting in King Edward’s Chair: http://v020o.popscreen.com/eGhxd3hrMTI=_o_st-edwards-chair.jpg
Spaghetti chair with sled base: http://img.archiexpo.com/images_ae/photo-g/commercial-contemporary-sled-base-stacking-chair-50648-3267845.jpg
Shaker chair: http://www.jkrantiques.com/_images//ShakerCounterChairWeb.jpg
Danish harp chair: http://shard1.1stdibs.us.com//archives/upload/1stdibsA/071607_sb/arensojoldHD/19/xHudJuly07_398.jpg
Mondrian chair: http://www.dorotheum.com/fileadmin/user_upload/bilder/Presse/Gallery_of_Highlights/Rietveldstuhl.jpg
Mackintosh chair: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-_ZjHHv_Nzls/UOP0yApjC4I/AAAAAAAAAI0/yTahn5EI7q0/s1600/1.Charles_Rennie_Mackintosh_Hillhouse_Chair_rfd.jpg
Ming chair: http://www.easterncurio.com/easten%20curio/Afurniture/ItemForOn-Selling/A1S152101.jpg