Vienna, 13 September 2020

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

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

various sources

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

various sources

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

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

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

various sources

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


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

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


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

various sources

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

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


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

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

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

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


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


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


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

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


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


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


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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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


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

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

Here is a 17th Century bottle of this stuff.


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


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

Stay safe!


Milan, 27 June 2020

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

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

various sources

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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


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


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

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

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

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

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


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


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


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


Sori, 6 June 2020

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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


Spanish jasmine


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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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


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


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

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


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


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

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



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

Sori, 27 January 2020

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

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

my photo

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

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

Green olives from Cerignola in Puglia


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

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


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

Black olives from Gaeta in Puglia.


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

Black Nocellara olives from the Belice valley in western Sicily.


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

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

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


Or there are Gordal olives from Andalusia in Spain.


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Sori, 30 September 2019

Last year, I marked the annual migration which my wife and I make from Austria to Italy with a post celebrating the autumn crocuses which we saw sprinkled across the meadows we were crossing on our last walks around Vienna.

So this year, when on our first walk back in Italy – we came down from Austria a few days ago – I spotted a profusion of yellow crocuses it seemed to me that they would be an excellent topic for my first post of the winter season in Italy.

my photo

As it turned out, there was a slight hiccup in this plan. I have just discovered that the plants are not crocuses. They look terribly like them, as this photo demonstrates (the purple plant is a real crocus). But they are not.


A number of the plant’s common names make the same mistake. For instance, one of the plant’s common names in English is yellow autumn crocus, as it is in French (crocus jaune d’automne). But actually the plant is more closely related to the daffodil than it is to the crocus. And in fact a couple of the common English names refer to the daffodil – autumn daffodil, winter daffodil – although I suspect that this has more to do with the plant’s daffodil-yellow colour than with any botanical relationships. I don’t want to use these names because I really see nothing daffodil-like in the plant (apart from the colour). The plant’s official name is Sternbergia lutea, but I don’t want to use that, it makes me sound like a stuffy old bore. After looking around at what various (European) languages call the plant, I think I shall plump for the German Herbst-Goldbecher, Autumn Golden Cup.

So now let me celebrate the Autumn Golden Cup with a couple of photos of it by  photographers who are way better than me at taking photos.


For anyone who might be interested, this map shows the geographic distribution of the Autumn Golden Cup.


The plant is native from Spain through to the southern shores of the Caspian Sea (and it’s been naturalized for quite a while in France, Morocco and Algeria). These photos of the Autumn Golden Cup show it in a rather more natural setting, the first in an old olive grove in southern Greece, the second on some stony ground in southern Italy.


There is only one dark cloud in all of this. The Autumn Golden Cup is one of a handful of plants whose bulbs are made commercially available mostly through collection in the wild rather than through artificial propagation. This has put terrible pressure on wild populations. In my last post, I wrote about the problem of species being moved to new ecosystems and running amok. Here we have the problem of over-exploitation of native populations, leading – if we are not careful – to their extinction in the wild. The situation for the Autumn Golden Cup is sufficiently worrisome that it has been listed in the global Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) as a species that can only be traded internationally with the proper permits. The problem is that many of the countries where this bulb harvesting is going on have weak enforcement authorities, so the trade is not being managed as it should.

What I don’t understand in all of this is why the Autumn Golden Cup cannot be propagated, as happens with the great majority of bulbous plants. Some efforts are being made to teach farmers in Turkey, for instance, to do just this. But why don’t Italian farmers, where the species is native, also do it? My rather uncharitable thought is that everyone has pretty much left bulb propagation and sale to the Netherlands (those tulips, you know …), which as a result controls the great majority of the trade in flower bulbs. It so happens, my thinking continues, that since the Netherlands falls outside the geographic range of the Autumn Golden Cup it has never bothered to get into the business of propagating this particular plant. And so we are left with harvesting in the wild.

Well, I just hope that we can change this situation before it’s too late.


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:
Bergamot fruit:
Bergamot orchards, Brancaleone:
Bergamot essential oil:
2nd Earl Grey:,_2nd_Earl_Grey
Jacksons of Piccadilly ad:
Twinings Earl Grey tea:
Giovanni Paolo Feminis:
Santa Maria Maggiore:
Farina factory in Cologne:
Eau de Cologne flacons:
Bergamot marmalade:
Liquore al bergamotto:
Fry’s Turkish Delight ad:
Haci Bekir shop:
Haci Bekir’s Turkish Delights:
Haci Bekir by Preziosi:
Homemade lokum:


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.



Spear thistle:
Thorny artichoke:
Artichoke in flower:
Eating artichoke:
Innermost artichoke leaves:
Artichoke heart:
Domesticated cardoon:
Roman mosaic, Tunis:
Arcimboldo, l’Estate:
Cardoon bunch:
Cardoons with almond sauce:


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.


Monte di Portofino:
Forest, Monte di Portofino:
Mediterranean maquis, Monte di Portofino:
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:
Corbezzola interior:
Range of the strawberry tree:
Corbezzola jam:
Aguardiente de Medronho:
Sardinian corbezzole liqueur:
Monte Conero:
Ancona coat of arms:
Strawberry trees on Lough Killarney:
Strawberry tree fruit and flower:
Strawberry tree flowers:
Corbezzolo honey:
Italian Tricolour:
Pizza Margherita:


Vienna, 20 July 2018

In one of my wanderings through the Vienna woods with my wife, I noticed a tree like this one growing along the side of the path.

The bark, with those typical striations, almost scarifications, suggested strongly to me that it was a cherry tree.

The leaves looked cherry-like too. There was a cherry-like fruits hanging on the branches, but they were really small.

Was this a cherry tree gone feral, I wondered?

Cautiously, oh so cautiously, I tried one of the fruits. There was hardly any pulp, although what there was tasted cherry-like. And the small seed looked cherry-like too. I pronounced to my wife, who was standing anxiously by, waiting for me to keel over from eating some deadly poison, that in my opinion we were standing before a wild cherry tree.

Now that I had noticed the tree, I began to see them everywhere along our walks – a nice change from the drifts of wild garlic. Later on, one of the entries along a little “Nature Walk” at Hermesvilla (a large country house built by Emperor Franz-Josef for his beloved Sissi on the outskirts of Vienna) informed me that these were indeed wild cherry trees. In German, they have a charming name, Vogel Kirsche, a name that Linnaeus echoed in the Latin name he gave it, Prunus avium. I say charming, because I can indeed imagine birds feasting on these small fruit. What a lovely banquet Nature has given them! Here, a clever photographer has caught one in the act.

I have since read that small mammals also eat them, spreading – like the birds – the seeds far and wide, this no doubt explaining why I was discovering the trees far and wide in the woods around Vienna.

When I was a much smaller mammal than I am now, I distinctly remember climbing into the cherry tree which my French grandmother had in a corner of her garden – a big, stately old tree which had been there many a-year – and scarfing down its plump purple cherries, spitting out the cherry seeds far and wide. Ah, how sweet those cherries were! Even now, fifty and more years later, I can remember their taste. So I salute the Lords of the Universe, who in their infinite wisdom created the Vogel Kirsche for the delectation of the Vogels and small mammals!

Well, after that flight of poetic fancy, let me return to earth and to a more sober turn of phrase. For those among my readers who are as interested as I am in etymology, it may interest them to know that the English word “cherry” derives from the Old Northern French or Norman word for the tree and fruit “cherise”, which itself is derived from the Latin word “cerasum”, which in turn is a derivation of the ancient Greek word “kerasous”. The etymology tracks the journey of the domesticated cherry tree into Europe.

Kerasous was actually the name of one of the Pontic Greek provinces lying on the southern shores of the Black Sea, east of Trebizond. It was here that the Greek world got to know the domesticated cherry tree that we are familiar with, with its much larger cherries than the tiny fruit of the wild cherry tree which I had nibbled at cautiously. Somewhere in the Anatolian highlands behind Kerasous, farmers had domesticated the wild cherry tree, patiently coaxing it over generations to deliver up bigger fruits more on the scale of us big mammals, and sweeter and juicier into the bargain.

I would assume that Ancient Greeks brought back some trees and planted them in the Greek heartlands. From there, I would have thought it no great flight of the imagination to think that the cherry tree spread to Magna Graecia, Greater Greece, that string of Greek colonies that ran along the insole and heel of the Italian boot and the southern coasts of Sicily, and from there a skip, hop, and a jump would have brought the tree to the expanding Roman world.

Not so, according to Gaius Plinius Secundus, known to us as Pliny the Elder. In his Natural History

written in the late 70s AD, he holds that the cherry tree entered the Roman world in a much more Roman way, as spoils of war. In his words (translated, I hasten to add, by someone much more learned in Latin than I), “before the victory of L. Lucullus in the war against Mithridates, that is down to 74 BC, there were no cherry trees in Italy. Lucullus first imported them from Pontus”. Lucius Licinius Lucullus (to give the man his full name) was a Roman consul in the sunset years of the Roman Republic.

He was, it seems, a brilliant general. Among his other accomplishments, he comprehensively thrashed Mithridates, king of Pontus. In the process, he gained for himself untold riches in loot, which, along with the domesticated cherry tree, he brought back to Rome. He used his riches to live a life of luxury, something which was still frowned upon in Republican Rome but was to become the norm in Imperial Rome. Apart conspicuous consumerism (which included that typical expense of the Roman rich and powerful, the organization of extravagant games), Lucullus created a number of gardens, a fragment of one of which still exists in the Villa Borghese gardens in Rome.

This was another “spoil” of war – Lucullus had picked up the Persian love of gardens during his Eastern campaigns; I have had cause to mention Persian gardens in an earlier post, in quite another context. No doubt it was in his gardens that he planted his imported cherry trees and invited the Roman rich and powerful to partake of its fruit. As might be expected, the fruit became incredibly popular and plantings of the cherry tree grew apace. As the Roman legions moved north carrying the Pax Romana and civitas with them, the administrators who followed carried along cherry trees to plant in the conquered lands. Citing Pliny again, “in 120 years they have crossed the ocean and got as far as Britain”.

Of course, strictly speaking Pliny was wrong when he said that there were no cherry trees in Italy before Lucullus brought them. There were, but of the type which I had come across in the Vienna woods. The natural habitat of Prunus avium stretches from Ireland to the Iranian Plateau.

Our ancestors were eating their little fruits at least two thousands years before Pliny wrote his Natural History – we know this because various Bronze Age sites across Europe have yielded up the tiny little stones – and no doubt Italian peasants were still eating them. But aristocrats like Pliny would surely not have deigned to touch such poor food – much as I do not touch the elderberries which currently weigh purple and heavy on their bushes here in Vienna but whose weak and watery taste I came to despise when I picked them as a schoolboy in the English hedgerows.

Coming back to Lucullus, he was also known for his eating habits. His over-the-top banquets in particular were to become legendary, giving rise to the English word “lucullan”, as in “that dinner was lucullan” meaning that it was particularly large, lavish, and ostentatious (I add this etymological factoid because my wife is fond of using the equivalent Italian word “luculliano” of certain meals; it might interest her to know its provenance). If I mention this aspect of Lucullus’s lifestyle it is because of a recent lunch – not lucullan but definitely many notches above the ordinary – which I shared with an old colleague. After a starter of marinaded char with beer radish, apple and woodruff, followed by a main dish of grilled sturgeon with baby kohlrabi, Risina beans, Meyer lemon and stewed onions, all washed down with a glass of white wine, we both took for dessert a curd-sour cherry tart with hay milk ice cream. It was actually that delicious sour cherry tart that precipitated this post, not my meeting in the woods with the wild cherry.

I must admit to having been a bit sneaky with my readers, having written up to now as if there were only one type of edible cherry. In fact, as all cherry lovers will know, there are two: the sweet cherry, Prunus avium, and the sour cherry, Prunus cerasus.

For the biologically-minded among my readers, it might interest them to know that P. cerasus is actually a hybrid between our friend P. avium and another species of cherry tree, P. fruticosa, or dwarf cherry. This friendly intermingling of genes must have occurred on the Iranian Plateau or in Eastern Europe where the two species’s natural habitats overlap. As its common name suggests, P. fruticosa is believed to have provided the sour cherry tree its smaller size, but it is also thought to be responsible for its tarter tasting fruit. It seems that the hybrids took on a life of their own (“stabilised”, I believe is the scientific word for this) and interbred to form a new, distinct species. The wonders of biology …

I can personally vouch to the smaller stature of the sour cherry tree and to the greater tartness of its fruit. As a young boy, staying at my French grandmother’s house over a summer holiday, it came to pass that my grandmother decided to visit a first cousin of hers who was staying in her country house some kilometers away. She took me and my sister along with her. It was a delightfully faded house with furnishings that were rather threadbare and old fashioned: my mother rather reluctantly inherited it many years later, commenting that it would be more work than it was worth. Having politely pecked the old lady on the cheek and suffered through comments about how much we had grown since last we had met, we were allowed to run off into the garden, leaving the two old biddies to settle down to a nice cup of tea and a gossip. In that garden, tucked away in a corner, we discovered this small tree covered with bright red cherries, all very easy to reach – no clambering up ladders into this tree. Alas! A couple of cherries were enough to dissuade me from going further. They were too sour for my little mouth. I was disconsolate, although when my grandmother took a large bag of the cherries back home with her, I realized that I had stumbled across the source of those fabulous cherries that filled glass jars such as this one which stood in serried ranks on a shelf in the cellar.

My grandmother made assiduous use of those cherries, baking tarts such as the one I had eaten in my non-lucullan but still exceedingly yummy lunch. Memories, memories …

Of course, we love cherries not just for their fruit but also for their flowers in Spring.

Here, the Chinese, Koreans, and Japanese have surpassed us all. They have taken their local species of cherry tree (I should note in passing that there are at least 60 species of cherry worldwide) and over the ages have coaxed them into giving fabulous blooms in Spring.

In turn, cherry blossoms have coaxed wonderful poems out of Asian poets. Here, for instance, is a short poem by the late 9th century Japanese poet Otomo no Juronushi.

Everyone feels grief
when cherry blossoms scatter.
Might they then be tears –
those drops of moisture falling
in the gentle rains of spring?

While here we have Li Yu, terrible ruler (he was the last ruler of the Southern Tang dynasty in the late 10th century) but wonderful poet.

Beneath the moon, before the steps, all cherry blossom has fallen,
Enwreathed in smoke, she looks sorrowful lying in bed.
She feels the same regret today as one long year ago.
Both braids like cloud in disarray, her face is wan and sallow,
The crimson corset wet from wiping tears.
But what’s the reason why she suffers so?
She lies in a drunken dream before the window.

These biological wonders have been carried all over the world to amaze and delight. Many years ago, when we lived in Washington DC, we tried to see the cherry trees in bloom there.

But the crowds were so impossibly large that we beat a hasty retreat. I have a more intimate memory from my university days in Edinburgh. There was a little square, Nicolson Square, just across from the University Drama Society’s theatre space which I used to haunt. I would often pass through the square on my way to and from the other university buildings. It was densely planted along its sides with cherry trees which had an intensely pink flower. In the Spring it was a delight, as you walked first under sprays, then, as the petals fell, through drifts, of pink. This photo, from those years, gives a small idea of the loveliness.

That brief blaze of pink was a harbinger of the (weak) sun and (relative) warmth to come after the long, long, dark, dark, cold, cold months of the Scottish winter. And it always happened just when we had to hole up in the library to study for our end-of-year exams! Such is life …


wild cherry tree:
wild cherry tree bark:
wild cherry fruit:
bird eating cherries:
wild versus domesticated cherry:
Pliny’s Natural History:
Villa Borghese gardens:
Prunus avium range:
Sour cherry:
Glass jar full of cherries:
Cherry tree in bloom:
Cherry trees blooming in Japan:
Cherry trees blooming in Washington DC:
Nicolson square:


Milan, 10 March 2018

A couple of days ago, my wife declared that I needed to buy some books since my supply of unread books was running low. No sooner said than done: we popped down into the basement of the large bookshop in the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele in Piazza Duomo and I spent a happy half hour perusing their shelves of English books. As I walked off with five or six new volumes to read, I spied a book whose title was “Odyssey”.

And suddenly I was 10-11 years old again, sitting in the school library, breathlessly reading a simplified version of the Odyssey which was written in installments in some boys’ weekly magazine. Week by week, I followed the crafty Odysseus as he and his men sailed away from the still smouldering ruins of Troy in his “racing warships across the wine-dark sea”, bound for Ithaca and his wife Penelope and son Telemachus. I absorbed his adventures, some of which I illustrate here with Greek pottery or Roman mosaics or sculpture (and in one case with a much more recent print because I couldn’t find an example from the Classical period); I accompany the illustrations with passages from the text of the Odyssey translated by Robert Fagles:

In the land of the Lotus Eaters

Any crewmen who ate the lotus, the honey-sweet fruit,
their only wish was to linger there with the Lotus-eaters,
grazing on lotus, all memory of the journey home
dissolved forever. But I brought them back—I forced them,
hauled them under the rowing benches, lashed them fast
and shouted out commands to my other, steady comrades:
‘Quick, no time to lose, embark in the racing ships!’—
so none could eat the lotus, forget the voyage home.

In the cave of the cyclops Polyphemus, who is now in a drunken sleep after tossing down several large bowls of wine given to him by Odysseus

Now, at last, I thrust our stake in a bed of embers
to get it red-hot and rallied all my comrades:
‘Courage—no panic, no one hang back now!’
And green as it was, just as the olive stake
was about to catch fire—the glow terrific, yes—
I dragged it from the flames, my men clustering round
as some god breathed enormous courage through us all.
Hoisting high that olive stake with its stabbing point,
straight into the monster’s eye they rammed it hard—
and bored it round and round in the giant’s eye
till blood came boiling up around that smoking shaft
and the hot blast singed his brow and eyelids round the core
and the broiling eyeball burst—its crackling roots blazed
and hissed. He loosed a hideous roar, the rock walls echoed round
and we scuttled back in terror. The monster wrenched the spike
from his eye and out it came with a red geyser of blood —
he flung it aside with frantic hands, and mad with pain.

On Circe’s enchanted island

She opened her gleaming doors at once and stepped forth,
inviting them all in, and in they went, all innocence.
She ushered them in to sit on high-backed chairs,
then she mixed them a potion—cheese, barley
and pale honey mulled in Pramnian wine—
but into the brew she stirred her wicked drugs
to wipe from their memories any thought of home.
Once they’d drained the bowls she filled, suddenly
she struck with her wand, drove them into her pigsties,
all of them bristling into swine—with grunts,
snouts—even their bodies, yes, and only
the men’s minds stayed steadfast as before.
So off they went to their pens, sobbing, squealing
as Circe flung them acorns, cornel nuts and mast,
common fodder for hogs that root and roll in mud.

Sailing by the sirens

I stopped the ears of my comrades one by one.
They bound me hand and foot in the tight ship—
erect at the mast-block, lashed by ropes to the mast—
We were just offshore as far as a man’s shout can carry,
scudding close, when the Sirens sensed at once a ship
was racing past and burst into their high, thrilling song:
‘Come closer, famous Odysseus—Achaea’s pride and glory—
moor your ship on our coast so you can hear our song!’
So they sent their ravishing voices out across the air
and the heart inside me throbbed to listen longer.
I signaled the crew with frowns to set me free—
they flung themselves at the oars and rowed on harder.
But once we’d left the Sirens fading in our wake,
once we could hear their song no more, their urgent call—
my steadfast crew was quick to remove the wax I’d used
to seal their ears and loosed the bonds that lashed me.

Sailing between Scylla and Charybdis

Now wailing in fear, we rowed on up those straits,
Scylla to starboard, dreaded Charybdis off to port,
her horrible whirlpool gulping the sea-surge down, down
the whole abyss lay bare and the rocks around her roared,
terrible, deafening— bedrock showed down deep, boiling
black with sand— and ashen terror gripped the men.
But now, fearing death, all eyes fixed on Charybdis—
now Scylla snatched six men from our hollow ship,
the toughest, strongest hands I had, and glancing
backward over the decks, searching for my crew
I could see their hands and feet already hoisted,
flailing, high, higher, over my head, look—
wailing down at me, comrades riven in agony,
shrieking out my name for one last time!

Odysseus killing the suitors

With that he trained a stabbing arrow on Antinous …
just lifting a gorgeous golden loving-cup in his hands,
just tilting the two-handled goblet back to his lips,
about to drain the wine—and slaughter the last thing
on the suitor’s mind: who could dream that one foe
in that crowd of feasters, however great his power,
would bring down death on himself, and black doom?
But Odysseus aimed and shot Antinous square in the throat
and the point went stabbing clean through the soft neck and out—
and off to the side he pitched, the cup dropped from his grasp
as the shaft sank home, and the man’s life-blood came spurting
out his nostrils— thick red jets— a sudden thrust of his foot—
he kicked away the table— food showered across the floor,
the bread and meats soaked in a swirl of bloody filth.

Ah, what stories, what stories!

Then, a few years later, when I was 13-14 years old, I caught the bug of trying to figure out the route which Odysseus had taken in the ten years he wandered the seas trying to reach home: just where were the land of the Lotus Easters, the cave of Polyphemus the Cyclops, the rocks on which the Sirens sat and sang, Scylla and Charybdis? Sitting in the quiet school library

I would surreptitiously shove my homework aside – Latin, Greek, French, History, whatever it was – and go get myself the Times Atlas. This was a very large atlas with a lovely dark blue cover. It had maps of every corner of the world, but I zeroed in on the maps of the Mediterranean: the Aegean Sea

the North African coast up to Tunisia

Italy, especially the area around Sicily

and a glance or two across the western Mediterranean to Spain.

I pored over a translation of the Odyssey, which I found in some corner of the library, trying to tease out clues as to travel time and direction. Then, having got some information somewhere about how fast a sailing ship could go, I would examine the maps with furrowed brow, trying to turn this information into travel distance and direction. I read up on competing theories of Odysseus’s itinerary, which had maps looking like this.

I spent hours on this. But eventually reality stepped in. Either my grades were slipping or I realized that it was impossible to work out Odysseus’s itinerary with any level of certainty; I was slipping into the world of cranks. But it wasn’t all for naught: I was left with a love of maps and of the Mediterranean. And from time to time, when I have a chance encounter such as that in the bookshop, good memories flood back of this brief passion of mine.

Escaping the Lotus Eaters:
Odysseus blinding the Cyclops:
Odysseus blinding the Cyclops:
Circe turning Odysseus’s men into swine:
Odysseus and the Sirens:
Odysseus and the Sirens-mosaics:
Odysseus and Scylla:
Odysseus and Scylla (reconstruction):
Odysseus kills suitors:
Times Atlas Greece:
Times Atlas Italy:
Times Atlas Libya and Egypt:,-Plate-85,-V–IV
Map with journey: