I’ve mentioned in previous posts the migratory habits which regulate our lives since we retired: when it begins to get cold in the late autumn we migrate south to Italy, when it begins to get hot in the early summer we migrate north to Austria.
It’s me, really, that’s imposed this pattern on our lives. I have a great dislike of intense cold, so I prefer to abandon Austria to its fate in the winter. But equally, I have a great dislike of intense heat, so I hasten to vacate Italy when the mercury begins to climb vertiginously. I suppose it’s my Anglo-Saxon genes that dictate this behaviour: the breeding of generations have led them to feel most at home in places with mild, not too sunny weather.
I was thinking of this as my wife and I hiked this last week in the Hohe Tauern region of Austria, high up along the edges of the Salzach valley. The weather was cool, cloudy, with patches of sun, but also a little rain now and then, ideal weather for hiking. I throw in a couple of photos which we took.
Yes, I was glad to be out of the furnace that is Italy at this time of the year. Even the lure of the Mediterranean Sea in Liguria, our favourite site for hiking, cannot overcome my dislike of Italy’s summer heat.
That being said, there is one thing I do miss from our hikes in Liguria: the scent of fig trees. It’s actually one tree in particular which I miss. It borders the path leading from behind our apartment up to the village of Pieve Alta.
I cannot even begin to describe the cloud of scent that will suddenly envelop us as we pass that fig tree in late May, early June. It is a scent which for me evokes a dollop of fig jam dissolved in coconut milk, with a pinch of vanilla added, along – perhaps – with a sprinkling of cinnamon. It is like someone passing under my nose a plateful of very ripe figs, all cut open.
I used to think that it was the fruit giving off this scent, but after reading up on fig trees I now think it is more likely to be the tree’s beautiful, deeply lobed leaves that are emitting the scent.
Wherever the scent is coming from, and for whatever reason the tree is giving it off (surely not to attract me), I thank the Good Lord that I can get such pleasure from passing a fig tree. Sometimes, as I stride across high Alpine pastures or thread my way through dark stands of tall fir trees, I feel a point of nostalgia for that humble fig tree growing along the path between our apartment and Pieve Alta.
In an earlier post, I confessed that the amount of wine my wife and I consumed during the two lockdowns which we have endured over the past year was considerable. In that same post, I said that we focused much of our wine drinking on red wines from the south of Italy – Sicily, Sardinia, Puglia, some Calabria, some Basilicata. I always prefer red wines – white wines give me stomach burns. My wife is quite happy to follow me in my choices, although from time to time she’ll splash out and get herself a bottle of white wine.
I chose to buy wines from southern Italy because I didn’t know them very well, which fed into my general tendency to support the underdog and be contrarian. After sampling a few bottles, I also felt that the red wines of southern Italy had more oomph to them than wines from northern and central Italy – I beg readers not to ask me to translate that into the flowery language of the wine connoisseur because I can’t. As I once confessed in an earlier post, my general method of assessing wines is “mmh! that’s a nice wine!” or “mm … not a good wine”.
Also – and this was important with the tightening of household budgets under lockdown – they were generally cheaper than other Italian wines.
I also felt virtuous in supporting local grape varieties. Not for me the Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, Syrah, Grenache Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, and the few others which dominate wine-making worldwide! No sirree, I was going to support the more than 1,500 grape varieties (yes, I kid you not, 1,500) which exist in Italy.
So from Sardinia I was buying wines made with Cannonau grapes (or to be more precise, where the Cannonau made up the largest share; the great majority of Italian wines are blends).
From Sicily, it was wines made with Nero d’Avola grapes.
From Puglia, it was wines made with Primitivo grapes.
From time to time, though, we branched out into wines made with Nero di Troia grapes.
From Basilicata, it was wines made with Aglianico grapes.
From Calabria, it was wines made with Gaglioppo grapes.
(For reasons which are now not clear to me through the haze of history, I chose few if any wines from Campania – a lapse to be rectified in any future lockdowns!)
At some point, though, through the wine fumes, I began to wonder how many of these grape varieties really were local. One can make the case that actually no domesticated grape varieties are really autochthonous. Archaeologists tell us that domestication and the related discovery of wine-making took place somewhere in the region between the Black Sea and Iran, between the seventh and the fourth millennia BC. The earliest evidence of domestication has been found in Georgia (the country, not the US state) and of wine production in Iran in the northern Zagros Mountains.
Subsequently, domesticated vines and wine-making knowledge spread to other civilizations in the region, first Egypt and Lower Mesopotamia, and then to the Assyrians, Phoenicians and Greeks (at a later period vine and wine-making moved along the Silk Road to China and Japan, but that is a story for another day). The Greeks and the Phoenicians, continues this story, transferred the domesticated grape vine and wine-making technologies further west, to Italy, Spain, and the south of France. The Romans then carried the vine and wine-making further north in Europe to what are more-or-less its northernmost borders today. And then when Europe colonized the rest of the world, the Europeans took their vine and wine-making knowledge with them. So in this view of history, no domesticated grape vines are really autochthonous.
But that’s one Creation Story. Another Creation Story points to the fact that the vine species which was domesticated for wine-making (called, appropriately enough, Vitis vinifera) grows wild from Georgia to Portugal.
So why could wine-making not have been independently discovered in several places?
A third Creation Story, and the one – for what it’s worth – that I feel is most credible, is that wine-making did indeed start in Iran or thereabouts, and cuttings of the domesticated vines were indeed carried westwards. But in their new homes, these vines could well have crossed spontaneously with local wild forms of the vine (or have been made to cross with them by the local viticulturists), thus shaking up their DNA a little and possibly affecting berry size, ripening time, sweetness, and whatever other characteristics viticulturists prized at the time. In this view of history, each locality can have vines which are hybrids of immigrant vines and local ones, which makes them pretty local. And anyway, even if a vine was brought in from somewhere else, if it’s been around in one locality for a long time surely it’s become local? (a bit like all Americans of immigrant stock nevertheless considering themselves locals) And anyway, the grape vine’s DNA is subject to spontaneous mutations (like American immigrants), which over time will distinguish it from its neighbors. All excellent reasons, I think, for declaring that grape vines which have been grown in one locality long enough can be considered autochthonous.
Of course, one could argue that all these Creation Stories are irrelevant because of the American pest phylloxera which devastated vineyards planted with Vitis vinifera in the late 19th Century (we have here a cartoon of the time, whose caption was “The phylloxera, a true gourmet, finds out the best vineyards and attaches itself to the best wines”)
Ever since then, pretty much all commercial vineyards are Frankensteins, with Vitis vinifera grafted onto a root stock of one of the American members of the grape vine family which are resistant to the pest. Under the circumstances, I can hear some people ask, can one really call any commercial vine autochthonous?
I reject this latter argument because first, if I did accept it I wouldn’t have a story to tell, and second, because even with an American rootstock the grapes still express only the DNA of the grafted Vitis vinifera. Just as a person who has had their heart replaced is still expressing their old DNA.
So with all that out of the way, we can now focus on those wines which my wife and I (and not infrequently our son) were imbibing during lockdown, and ask ourselves the question: are the grapes that went into making them local or not? As usual in life, the answer is yes in some cases, no in others.
As one might expect, many of the local vines in southern Italy have their own Creation Stories. The cynic in me suggests that a good number of these were invented to increase a wine’s marketability, although I could well imagine that there is a desire on the part of the local people to have the stories of their vines reflect their own Creation Stories. Thus, many of the Creation Stories reflect the south of Italy’s ancient history as Magna Graecia, that arc of Ancient Greek colonies which stretched from Puglia all the way to Sicily. They suggest that the vines were brought from Greece by these early colonists. Others look to the Phoenicians as the source of their vines; Phoenicians also had colonies in Sicily and further afield. This map shows the situation in about 500 BC.
If these Creation Stories are true, they would place the original migration episodes for the vines in question at some two and a half thousand years ago, quite long enough to claim that they are now fully local. Other Creation Stories suggest instead that the local vines are crosses between local wild stock and immigrant stock. Who can deny that such vines are fully local? Ampelographers have weighed in (these are experts in the study and classification of cultivated varieties of grape). They have given savant judgements on the heredity of countless vines by comparing the shape and colour of their leaves and their grape berries. Wonderful word, ampelographer! It rolls off the tongue like a good wine rolls down the throat. In my next life, I want to be an ampelographer, it must look so cool on a CV.
Anyway, along have come DNA studies, to cut through all the bullshit. We finally have a scientific basis for making judgements about a vine’s genealogy.
And the white-coated scientists in their labs have discovered some very interesting things.
Take Cannonau, the grape variety that is the Sardinian grape par excellence (editorial note: since photos of bunches of grapes get pretty boring pretty quickly, I will instead be throwing in nice photos of the places where the various grapes grow).
DNA studies have shown that actually, it is none other than Garnacha from Spain! (which, by the way, is also none other than Grenache; the French brought the vine from Spain and then frenchified the name) The most likely Creation Story in this case is that the Spaniards brought Garnacha to the island some time during their centuries-long dominion, from 1324 to 1718. Some Sardinians have tried to claim that the move was actually in the other direction, from Sardinia to Spain, but I don’t think that will wash, especially since a number of other “local” Sardinian grape varieties have also turned out to have a Spanish origin. On the one hand, I’m saddened by the fact that although I thought I was supporting a local variety when I bought Cannonaus in fact I wasn’t. On the other hand, I was pleased to learn of this Spanish connection, because I recall thinking, when I first tried Cannonau, that it reminded me of Rioja, and Garnacha grapes are one of the constituent grapes of Rioja.
Skipping to the island of Sicily, what about the Nero d’Avola grape?
Well there, I’m happy to say, I have been supporting an autochthonous variety – that is to say, a variety which could well have been introduced several thousands of years ago by the Dorian Greeks who colonized the part Sicily where the town of Avola is located; the town does indeed seem to be the center of this grape’s distribution. The original immigrant grape could actually have been a forefather of today’s Nero d’Avola, since DNA studies have revealed a cousin-like relationship between it and two other ancient Sicilian grapes, Catarratto and Inzolia. As far as I know (although the white-coated scientists publish many of their DNA studies in scientific journals which I don’t have access to), no relationship has (yet) been found between Nero d’Avola and Greek grape vine varieties. It could well be that the forefather has vanished, as old vine varieties were replaced with newer ones; phylloxera also put paid to a large number of varieties.
Vaulting now over to Puglia, in Italy’s heel, we can have a look at the Primitivo grape.
And here I must start by admitting that my wine choices were not supporting autochthonous grapes; Primitivo is not an Italian variety. Nevertheless, we have a fascinating story here. DNA studies have shown that actually Primitivo is a Croatian grape variety, more specifically one from the Dalmatian coast. Unfortunately, the devastations of phylloxera mean that there is hardly anything left now of the variety in its homeland – a few vines here and there. We can imagine some adventurous southern Italian sailing across the Adriatic Sea to Dalmatia and bringing cuttings back home. As far as can be judged, this was quite recent, some time in the 18th Century. The grape’s Italian name points to why viticulturists were interested in it – it was an early (“primitive”) ripener.
What makes the Primitivo story really fascinating is that DNA studies have also confirmed that it is pretty much the same as the “Californian” grape Zinfandel! (bar a mutation or two) How a Dalmatian grape variety ended up in southern Italy is not hard to imagine. But how on earth did it end up in California?! The best guess is by quite a circuitous route. Step 1 is that the variety was transferred to the Hapsburgs’ greenhouses in Vienna, when Dalmatia was part of the Austrian Empire. Step 2 is that, as part of a burgeoning global trade in plant species, horticulturalists living on the US’s eastern seaboard requested the Imperial greenhouses to send them cuttings, which they did. They probably also requested cuttings from British greenhouses, which had earlier requested them from the Viennese greenhouses. Step 3 is that one or more of these horticulturalists from the Eastern US joined the gold rush to California but took care to take vine cuttings with them. Presumably, they found that in the end it was more profitable to make wine in California than to pan for gold. (As a quick aside, one of my French cousins many times removed, who came from our family of vignerons in the Beaujolais, did something similar. He joined the gold rush to Australia but ended up making wine; I don’t know if he took cuttings with him or used the vine varieties which others had already brought to Australia. In any event, I have a whole bunch of Franco-Australian cousins whom I have never met)
But let’s get back to Puglia, to consider the Nero di Troia grape variety, which we tried from time to time during lockdown.
DNA studies have shown that this grape has an equally fascinating genealogy – and luckily for me and my determination to support autochthonous grape varieties, I think I can safely say that it is definitely an Italian variety. DNA studies have shown that Nero di Troia’s mother is Bombino bianco, an ancient white grape variety found all along the Adriatic coast but especially in Puglia, while its father is Uva rosa antica, now only found as a very minor variety in the province of Salerno in Campania.
So far, so good. But what makes Nero di Troia more interesting than most varieties is that DNA studies have also shown that it has two full siblings (same father vine, same mother vine): Bombino nero and Impigno. Which just goes to show that grapes are like humans: you and your siblings can have the same parents but you can be quite different from each other.
What’s even more interesting is that comparisons of the DNA profile of the father, Uva rosa antica, to those in DNA libraries have revealed that this minor variety from Salerno is one and the same with another minor variety called Quagliano found only in a few Alpine valleys in Piedmont, in the very north of Italy, which in turn is one and the same with a variety called Bouteillan noir found in Provence, in France. Which just goes to show that there must have been quite a vigorous, though completely informal and unmonitored, trade in vine cuttings throughout southern Europe.
Moving on to Basilicata, the wines we tried from that region during the long months of lockdown were based mostly on the Aglianico grape.
This is definitely one of the grapes where the locals have a Creation Story involving its introduction to the region by the Ancient Greeks through their colonies in Basilicata. Alas, DNA studies have revealed little if any relation to other existing Greek varieties, so if Aglianico was imported to Basilicata the original Greek plantings have all disappeared. Which suggests that perhaps Aglianico is actually a cross between some immigrant vine from somewhere and local wild stock. In any event, I think we can count this one as an autochthon.
Finally, Calabria. The wines we were drinking from this region are mostly made with the Gaglioppo grape.
This is another grape variety that the local inhabitants wish to believe came originally from Greece, through the Ancient Greek colonies on the Calabrian coast. However, DNA studies have clarified that Gaglioppo is a very Italian grape, being a cross of the Sangiovese and Mantonico grapes. The latter is a very typical and ancient Calabrian grape. As for Sangiovese, viticulturists have used this grape to sire a whole series of grape varieties. At least ten are known at the moment, including Gaglioppo. There must have been something about Sangiovese grapes that viticulturists liked; if any ampelographer reads this, please tell me what it was. It doesn’t finish there, because in turn DNA studies have revealed that Sangiovese is itself the product of a cross between the Ciliegiolo and Calabrese Montenuovo grape varieties. Ciliegiolo is an ancient variety from Tuscany. Calabrese Montenuovo, on the other hand, has its origins in Calabria; sadly, it is now an almost-extinct relic. We have here another example of the vigorous trade in vine cuttings, this time up and down the Italian peninsula.
I could go on. For instance, each of these grape varieties is blended with various other grapes, and many of these have had their DNA studied. But I’m running out of steam and I fear that I will soon be losing my readers – there’s a limit to how much information about DNA one can absorb before one’s mind begins to whirl like a double helix.
I leave my readers with a final plea: considering that there are 1,500 varieties of grape in Italy, please ignore any wines made with the Top Ten grape varieties and concentrate on trying out all 1,500 Italian varieties. Cin-cin!
There is a walk which my wife and I take in Liguria (calling it a hike would be a bit of a stretch), which brings us by easy stages to mid level on the hills dropping into the sea, leading us eventually to the small village of San Bernardo perched atop the old fishing port of Bogliasco, from where we can walk down to Bogliasco itself and catch a bus home (after, perhaps, an ice cream to reward us for the walking).
On the way, we pass a wide terrace, which stands out from the surrounding olive terraces and vegetable patches for the simple reason that it is terribly bare. The little grass it has is clipped to within an inch – what am I saying, a centimetre – of its life. This bareness is due to the terrace’s hosting a number of ruminants – a couple of donkeys and three-four sheep – which graze voraciously on any blade of grass that dares to raise its head.
Until a year or so ago, the terrace also used to host half a dozen magnificent palm trees – very old Canary Island date palms judging by their height and girth. Two years ago, we noticed a sign which proudly proclaimed that the palm trees were part of some EU-funded project, leading us to make cynical comments about the wasteful use of EU largesse. Last year, the palm trees were gone; the ruminants had the terrace to themselves. After more cynical comments about wastage of public monies, we began to wonder.
Liguria, like most Italian regions by the sea, has a large population of palm trees. The most common palm tree by far is the Canary Island date palm, and any self-respecting seaside resort will have at least one avenue lined with them, like this one in Taggia, in Liguria.
Many gardens in Liguria, both public and private, will also boast a palm tree or two. Other than the Canary Island date palm, it’s possible to spot, over a garden wall or tucked away in the corner of a park, a whole slew of different palm species: the true date palm, the Chinese windmill palm, the California fan palm, the Mexican fan palm, the Chilean wine palm, and more.
Now, the fact is that in the last year or so during our walks and hikes in Liguria we have been noticing many dead palm trees, either with their fronds dried up and drooping piteously, or with the fronds completely amputated leaving behind a forlorn blackened trunk.
A quick zip around the Internet has shown us that this Great Die-Off of Ligurian palm trees that we have been witnessing is due to this critter.
This is Rhynchophorus ferrugineus, known in English as the red palm weevil. It’s really a very pretty beetle, one which I would be proud to have pinned to the board of a beetles collection if I had such a thing.
But this pretty, pretty beetle has the unfortunate habit of laying its eggs at the base of palm tree fronds, from which larvae hatch, which then burrow down into the trunk to the root of the fronds and live off their lymph, killing them off in the process. The larvae pupate inside the trunks, and when they have metamorphosed into beetles, they crawl out and fly off to find mates and new palm trees to attack. This attack on the fronds is deadly because palm trees, unlike true trees, die when their crown of leaves are killed or are chopped off.
This beetle is originally from tropical Asia, where it attacks many species of palms. But the active international trade in palm trees has brought it to Italy, where it has been overjoyed to find a host of new palm trees to attack. Unfortunately for the palm trees, our beetle friend is not at all finicky about what palm trees it attacks. And it seems to have no complaints about the Italian climate either.
It’s the same old story of invasive species, a topic I’ve covered several times in these posts: the water hyacinth, the prickly pear, the Himalayan balsam, the Jerusalem artichoke, among others. I’m beginning to sound like a broken record, repeating myself over and over again (as I write this, it saddens me to think that only people over the age of 60 will know what I mean, because they might well have owned a vinyl record in their youth and seen how a scratch can lead to the needle jumping backwards and repeating the same piece of music over and over. But I digress.)
Of course, it’s not just Italy which has been attacked by this plague of red palm weevils. Everywhere along the southern rim of Europe, where the climate is mild enough to allow palms to grow, the beetle has arrived and is decimating palm populations. It’s also arrived in the Middle East and North Africa and is decimating their date palm groves.
In this case, there are large, and growing, economic costs attached to this plague – in Italy, palms are merely for show. In fact, I had come across anguished talk of this beetle a year or so ago, when doing some research on date palms for a project I’m involved with in Egypt (the largest producer of dates in the world, in case anyone is interested). It is only now that I have made the connection between the holocaust of palms in Italy and this other massacre of palms in North Africa.
A sighting of the beetle in California was reported back in 2010, but it turned out to be a false alarm. It’s only a matter of time, though, before the beetle arrives in the US, and many of those tall, thin, graceful palm trees my wife and I saw in LA will start dying.
And no other corner of the world where palm trees grow will be spared the red palm weevil’s scourge. Eventually, the pretty red beetle will arrive. We simply live in a world which is far too open to trade; if we and our goods move all around the world so will other species, some of which will turn out to be invasive in their new homes. Simple as that.
As if all this is not depressing enough, Italy’s palm trees are under further attack from another invasive species, a moth this time, which hails from Uruguay and central Argentina. Its formal name is Paysandisia archon, but it’s known in English as the palm moth or palm borer. It too is quite a handsome species.
It attacks palms in more or less the same way as the red palm weevil: it lays its eggs at the base of the palm fronds, the grubs once hatched burrow into the trunk to the root of the fronds, and then they proceed to suck the life out of the fronds. “Luckily” (if that term has any meaning here), this moth has a rather long life cycle, so it’s taking longer to spread through Italy’s palm populations than the red palm weevil (and so is getting less press). But it is spreading, under the radar. Like the red palm weevil, its tastes in palms are quite catholic, so none of the palm species in Italy are spared its attentions.
Of course, one could shrug one’s shoulders and point out that this beetle is wiping out plants that are not themselves natural to Italy but were brought here from somewhere else – a punishment for an earlier disregard of Nature’s ecosystems. Unfortunately, though, the beetle also seems to attack Italy’s one and only endemic species of palm, the dwarf fan palm.
As the name suggests and the photo shows, it’s a bit of a runt of a palm. It doesn’t grow more than 2 metres high, and it grows in clumps, so you can’t use it to line a stately avenue of some seaside resort. But it is actually from this part of the world, and it does have its niche and role to play in Italy’s ecosystems. Right now, the red palm weevil seems to prefer the other species of palm available to it in Italy, so it only occasionally attacks the dwarf fan palm. But imagine what will happen once the weevil has killed off most of the other types of palms around: very sensibly, it will turn to the next best thing to keep going, at which point the dwarf fan palm’s days will be numbered – if it hasn’t already disappeared, that is; contrary to the red palm weevil, the palm moth is very partial to the poor little Italian palm.
I’d like to end this post on a somewhat positive note, but right now it looks like we are losing the battle against weevil and moth. The classic modern response of spraying everything in sight with chemical insecticide is not only dangerous but it’s also not clear how well it works. And on top of that, it appears that the weevil at least is becoming resistant to chemical insecticides. Maybe pheromone traps could work. But maybe not. What I’m really nervous about is that some bright spark will go to tropical Asia (for the weevil) or Uruguay and central Argentina (for the moth) and bring back one of these pests’ natural predators, that the predators will be set free to attack weevil and moth, and that they will promptly attack some other easier target they find, thus becoming an invasive species in their own right – this is not science fiction, it’s happened before.
The best thing is just leave species where they are. We all have perfectly lovely local species. Let’s make our surroundings lovely with them and not with species we have brought from some other corner of the globe.
One of the things which my wife and I agree went up during our first Covid lockdown last spring was our consumption of wine. Those long evenings when we couldn’t go out anywhere tended to encourage larger suppers accompanied by copious servings of wine, servings which were repeated when we had finished eating and had settled down for our evening’s entertainment – old TV series which we found on YouTube. When we got out of lockdown, our wine consumption went back down to normal. But when we went into our second lockdown, the wine consumption went up again. What to do, we have to pass the time as pleasantly as possible.
We get our wines from the two or three local mini-markets which are close at hand. I make a bee-line for the sections devoted to red wines from the south of Italy – Sicily, Sardinia, Puglia, some Calabria, some Basilicata. I always prefer red wines – white wines give me stomach burns – and I find that that red wines from the south of the country have more depth and body to them than the better-known reds from northern Italy; they are considerably cheaper, too. My wife is quite happy to follow me in my choices, although from time to time she’ll splash out and get herself a bottle of white wine. One day, I will write a post about southern Italian red wines, but today I want to write about something quite different.
A few weeks ago, as I was scouring the shelves of one of the mini-markets, looking for a wine we hadn’t tried, I came across this:
“This” is a bottle of red wine from Puglia, with a classification of Indicazione Geografica Tipica, i.e., pretty good but not up there among the stars. Nothing out of the ordinary so far. But what caught my attention was the phrase on the label da uve leggermente appassite: “from grapes that have been slightly dried”. I vaguely knew about the “passito” method of making wine, which meant that the grapes have been dried out before being crushed and pressed. After polishing off the bottle with my wife (more on this later), I decided to do a bit of research on the “passito” method (which for the most part consisted of reading a bunch of Wikipedia articles). I can now happily share my newfound knowledge with those of my readers who, like me, are not super experts on wine (those who are super experts had better just skip to the end).
The first thing I discovered is that “appassimento” (the procedure of drying grapes and making them “passiti”) is actually one of three procedures which are used in grape-growing regions with the primary purpose of concentrating the sugars in the grapes. And the reason for concentrating the sugars is to be able to make strong, sweet wines, usually drunk with desserts (hence often being called “dessert wines” in English).
“Appassimento” is the most obvious, and therefore the oldest, of these three procedures: there is evidence of sweet wines being made this way already 6,000 years ago in Cyprus. There are various ways of carrying out “appassimento”. One is simply to leave the grapes on the vine longer than you normally would, so that they overripen and have higher than normal sugar levels; they also tend to lose water and shrivel, which also increases sugar concentrations. Canny wine-makers can play with the amount of “appassimento” they allow. They can have just a bit of “appassimento” (which is probably how the Puglia wine I mentioned earlier was made).
Or they can go the whole hog and choose extreme “appassimento”.
Of course, the longer wine-makers wait, the greater the risk that something will go wrong (bad weather, mould, etc.). But the more interesting can be the flavours so generated. A variant to this approach is to leave the grape bunches on the vine but twist their stem, to “strangle” them as it were. If I understood correctly, this hastens the “appassimento” process, so that you can avoid the risks but enjoy the advantages – having your cake and eating it.
You can also harvest the grapes at the normal time but then let them dry in the sun.
Or, if you’re not too sure of the weather, you can do it inside.
Wines made this way are called straw wines (vin de paille in the original French), because the grape bunches were originally laid down on straw to dry out.
As readers can imagine, all this works better in places with lots of sun, which is no doubt one of the reasons why Cyprus holds the prize for the earliest use of the procedure.
Let me at this point throw in some examples of sweet wines made this way. Since my investigations were started with an Italian wine, I’ll give Italy pride of place, while recognizing that all of the southern European countries, as well as the New World wine-making countries, make this kind of wine. Even in Italy, there are numerous such wines, so I’ll just mention a couple, chosen for the completely banal reason that they are from lovely places. Thus, we have the various Vinsanti from Tuscany.
And then we have Malvasia delle Lipari passito, made in the small islands of Lipari and Eolie off the coast of Sicily.
In the second procedure used to concentrate sugars in grapes, you allow your grapes to be attacked by a fungus, the Botrytis cinerea. The fungus shrivels the grapes and increases sugar concentrations, thus allowing wine-makers to make a sweet wine. For rendering this useful service, the fungus has been named the “noble rot”.
For the noble rot to work properly, you need specific humidity conditions at specific times of the day at specific times of the year, so there are only a few places in the world where you can use this procedure. And you have to be damned careful that the fungus doesn’t run riot in your vineyards, otherwise you get another form of the fungus, “grey rot”, which completely ruins your harvest. It seems that Hungarian winemakers were the earliest to figure out how to harness Botrytis cinerea to make sweet wines, having done so by the 16th Century.
You really have to ask yourself how anyone – Hungarian or otherwise – figured this procedure out. My assumption is that when one year some wine makers found themselves with a harvest of grapes on their hands which had been attacked by the fungus, rather than just throw the grapes away they decided to go ahead and make wine anyway, reasoning that even a bad wine was better than none at all, and were pleasantly surprised by the result.
As examples of what are, sensibly enough, called botrytised wines, I’ll mention Tokaji from Hungary, because that seems to be the granddaddy of this kind of wine.
And I’ll mention Sauternes from the Bordeaux region of France, perhaps the most famous of the botrytised wines.
The third and final procedure is used to make so-called ice wines. Here, you leave the grapes on the vines until January/February. The precise time you pick the grapes crucially depends on the outside temperature: picking must take place the first time the temperature drops to -7°C, which normally means picking the grapes at night, picking them quickly, and pressing them immediately.
What is happening is that the water in the grapes is turned to ice but not the sugars. When you press the grapes, the iced water stays with the must, and the resulting grape juice has very high levels of sugars. The procedure is a relative newbie: it was only discovered at the very end of the 18th Century, in Germany.
As an example of an ice wine, I’ll mention Canadian ice wines.
This may seem a surprising choice, but it allows me to slip in a mention of what is probably the greatest environmental disaster staring us in the face: climate change. Because of climate change, it is getting more and more difficult to make ice wine reliably in the northernmost wine-growing regions of Europe where the procedure was first developed, because it is becoming rarer and rarer for the temperatures there to drop sufficiently low. But because temperatures still drop reliably every year to -7°C in Canada, its wine regions, particularly those in Ontario, have stepped into the breach and have become the world’s major producers of ice wine.
Readers will no doubt have noticed that all the examples I have given so far are of white wines, and indeed most of the wines made in these three ways are white, using grape varieties like muscat, malvasia, and riesling. But – as my discovery in the mini-market shows – some red wines are also made this way. Since, as I pointed out earlier, I’m more of a fan of red wines than white wines, I want to finish this post by fighting for the red corner, and will do so by mentioning three red wines, all from northern Italy, and all passito wines.
Two come from the Valpolicella region, which lies north of Verona and east of Lake Garda – in this photo, you can see the lake in the distance.
The first of the two red passito wines from here is Recioto della Valpolicella. This, like most passito wines, is a sweet wine, and indeed this photo suggests its use as a dessert wine.
Perhaps at this point I should reveal that I’m not a great fan of sweet wines. I don’t deny that they can be very tasty, but I feel that somehow – and I’m sure this is just a ridiculous prejudice – sweet wines are not serious. This prejudice of mine is most extreme when it comes to red wines; I’ve signaled this already in an earlier post about sparkling Italian red wines, most of which are sweet. To my mind, for red wines to be serious they must be dry. So it comes as a relief for me to able to introduce the second wine from Valpolicella, the Amarone della Valpolicella.
This is a dry wine. Its name signals this, Amarone being derived from the Italian word “amaro”, which means bitter or sour. The wine is not really bitter or sour; it probably refers to the fact that this wine originally came from batches of Recioto della Valpolicella where the fermentation hadn’t stopped and so the sugars had all been turned into alcohol: so from sweet to sour.
Which leads me naturally to my final red passito wine, another dry wine, the Sfursat. This comes from the Valtellina valley in upper Lombardy, upstream of Lake Como (and of the hike along the Sentiero del Viandante which my wife and I did last year).
Let me throw in here a photo of grapes drying in readiness to become sfursat.
And here is a photo of a bottle of sfursat, which gives me an excuse to have a photo of that inescapable part of the wine world, a wine cellar.
At this point, I have to make another revelation. Neither my wife nor I have ever tried any of these three wines. But now we have an excuse to try some different wines during lockdown! (we’ll have to accept to fork out considerably more cash than we are used to, though, but hey! no pain, no gain).
And what about the Puglia wine that started this whole post? As I poured it into our glass wines I was half afraid that it would be sweet, but no, it turned out to be a dry wine, which was a relief. As we sipped it, we felt that the intense and bright red colour of the wine, characterized by delicate purplish hues, was the perfect expression of its complex and fruity bouquet. Balsamic notes of blackberries, spirited cherries and plum jam were smartly dressed by elegant sweet spicy scents. It was warm, round, and with a good balance of tannins … OK, I confess, I just copied all that last bit from the label on the back. As I commented in a post written years ago, I’m always impressed by the bullshit wine merchants come up with. My wife and I, we just went mmm, yummy! And the next day, I bought another couple of bottles.
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).
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.
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.
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).
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 facit – posca 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 theword “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.
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.
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.
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.
This person has even made a tunnel covered in jasmine (I’m guessing it’s the garage).
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:
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).
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?
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.
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.
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]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.