SOÑAR NADA CUESTA

Bangkok, 23 April 2016

There is a small olive orchard abutting the path that runs behind our apartment in Liguria. It’s in a sorry state, seemingly sorrier every time my wife and I pass it on our way into the hills. I’ve never taken a picture of it, but it looks something like this, only worse.
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It’s the sad fate of many of the terraced olive orchards in Liguria. It makes no economic sense any more to harvest olives in this part of Italy, and as the peasant-farmers who own them die off their children and grandchildren abandon the orchards to their fate. And so the brambles and nettles and vines and finally maybe some scrubby oaks recolonize the land. Harvesting Ligurian olives is now a labour of love.

My wife and I could lavish that love on that derelict olive orchard, once I’m retired. I have a dream of us identifying the owners and making a deal with them. Let us clear the orchard, I tell them, let us give those poor olive trees a bit of TLC, so that they can once again shake out their branches and drink in the Mediterranean sun.
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In return, I say in this dream dialogue with the owners, let us have the olives which those trees, in their gratitude, will give birth to.
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Neither my wife nor I have ever picked an olive in our lives, but in my dream this is not a problem. My wife and I would extend under the spreading olive branches those orange and green nets I’ve seen so often in Liguria to catch the olives as they fall (would we have to shake the branches, I wonder?)
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And then, arm-in-arm, we would bring our harvest of olives to the local olive press.
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Actually, an internet search has informed me that the nearest local olive press is 10 km away, so a car ride rather than a stroll would be in order. Also, it doesn’t use stone presses, that is passé; something along these lines is used – more modern, more sterile, but, the internet assures me, more efficient.

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No matter, one way or another the oil from our olives would be squeezed out

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and after some filtering, some racking, and some other things (I’m going to have to learn the olive oil lingo), we would become the proud owners of several bottles like these of cold-pressed, organic, extra-virgin olive oil.image
We would drizzle this nectar of the gods on our salads for a year, until the next harvest was brought in.
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Or might we want to pickle the olives? A quick whip around the internet persuades me that it’s not that difficult to pickle olives; you just need time and brine.

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OK, it’s decided: we will follow what happens in the global olive market, we will pickle 10% of our olive harvest and use the rest to make our very own olive oil.

Lovely dream. Of course, there might be a few snags in the real world. We may never find the owners, the owners may tell us to bugger off, the trees may be too old or too sick to fruit any more, the fruit or even the trees themselves may be attacked and destroyed by what seems on cursory reading to be a vast army of animalcules just waiting to sink their fangs or similar organs into fruit, leaf, or bark. But like a colleague of mine in Colombia recently wrote to me, “soñar nada cuesta”, to dream costs nothing.
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Abandoned olive orchard: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=6n7eBKRLQ80
Clean olive orchard: http://www.vinoemozioni.com/blog/tag/anfosso/
Olives on olive tree: http://www.tavoladautore.it/contenuti/id/22/Gli-ulivi-di-Liguria–cultivar-e-caratteristiche.html
Nets under olive trees: http://www.casalefiliberto.com/gallery/gallery_oliveto/index.html
Old olive press: http://www.casait.it/it/toscana-grande-villa-vendita-vigneto-uliveto-S96J/
Modern olive press: http://www.oliofrantoioamoretticarlo.it/frantoio-da-olive.html
First press oil: http://novellaevignolo.com
Bottled olive oil: http://www.mraxani.it/prodotto/olio-extravergine-di-oliva-agrintec/
Olive oil on salad: http://www.foodinitaly.com/news/fotogallery/OLIO_EXTRAVERGINE_D’OLIVA_LE_REGOLE_D’ORO_PER_SCEGLIERLO-2527.html?start=4
Pickled olives: http://www.yaffa.co.uk/product_p/ogt1.htm

CITRON

Bangkok, 19 March 2016

In the recent trip which my wife and I made to Italy, we managed to squeeze in a visit to our apartment near Genoa, where I was particularly delighted to see so many lemon trees in fruit. It’s wonderful to see trees heavy with lemons peeping over a wall or hanging over a garden fence.

lemons Liguria

Once back in Bangkok, I decided to do some research on the lemon and its history: how did this lovely yellow fruit end up in Liguria? But delving into the lemon’s history inevitably dragged me into the history of the citrus family. It turns out that the lemon does not have a long or distinguished pedigree. It is the citrus equivalent to a mutt, a fairly recent hybrid. In fact, most citrus fruits with which we are familiar are fairly recent hybrids. It seems that the members of this family love to hybridize, and of course humans – being intrusive busybodies by nature – have been only too willing to assist them. The result is a family tree of bewildering complexity.

As I tried to make sense of all this, my attention was diverted by something I read about the citron. I think I need to insert here a few words about the citron, since I’m sure there are many readers who are not familiar with this citrus fruit. It is relatively difficult to find these days since it has little use – except for one very special one, which I will come to in a minute. It looks like a large, warty, lemon.citron

Coming to what I read, it seems that during a ceremony in the Temple of Jerusalem marking the Feast of the Tabernacles, or Sukkot, in one of the years around 100 BC, the Jews pelted the High Priest with citrons and got massacred for doing so. Now that was something worth finding more about! How I would have loved to use citrons, rotten tomatoes, eggs, dog-eared hymn books – anything, really – to pelt the priests with for subjecting me to excruciatingly boring sermons during the Sunday Masses of my childhood! It turns out, though, that the Jews were not horribly bored with what the High Priest was saying, but horrified by what he was doing. It is reported that he deliberately poured the water of libation over his feet rather than over the sacrificial animals. I can’t say that I can get quite as excited about this action as the Jews did, but the fact is that they did, and satisfyingly peppered the High Priest with citrons.

Of course, it does come spontaneously to ask oneself why on earth the Jews were carrying citrons around in the Temple in the first place. It’s certainly not the item that would immediately come to my mind as expecting to see in the hands of Jews within the sacred precincts of the Temple. It turns out that the citron plays an extremely important role in the ceremonies of Sukkot. Every morning of this seven-day Feast, Jews are required to ceremoniously wave the “four species”. Citron is one of these, the other three being the date palm, the myrtle, and the willow. We see here the Tosher Rabbi of Montreal waving the four species.

tosher rabbi of montreal

One can therefore assume that the Jews were carrying their four species when the High Priest poured the water of libation over his feet, and in the horror of the moment they blindly grabbed their citrons and threw them at the impious prelate. It seems that they must have also thrown something harder – stones, no doubt – since it is reported that the stone altar was damaged. I can’t really see citrons doing damage to a stone altar.

It’s a bit of a mystery to me why the citron ever became one of the four species, because it is not native to the Near East, whereas the other three species are. The citron, like all the original citrus fruits, originated somewhere in the region of South-East Asia-Yunnan in southern China-the Himalayan slopes of India. So how did it end up in the Near East? There is general agreement that the fruit was first cultivated in northern India. From there, it migrated, presumably along trade routes, to Persia. What happened next is a hotly debated issue – at least, in certain circles. One hypothesis has the citron migrating to Egypt, where its essential oils were used in embalming, and from whence the Jews brought it with them to the Promised Land when they escaped from bondage in Egypt. A second hypothesis has the citron being carried from Persia to the Mediterranean basin in the baggage of Alexander the Great’s returning soldiers, who somewhere along the way dropped it off in the Levant. Yet another hypothesis has the citron migrating from Persia to Babylonia, where the Jews came across it during their Babylonian captivity and brought it with them when they came back to Israel.

These are all suppositions, with no real evidence to back them up. A very clever piece of archaeological sleuthing suggests a more concrete hypothesis. We need to first recall that after the Persians defeated the Babylonians and allowed the exiled Jews to return home, Israel was a Persian province for several hundred years. Israeli archaeologists have been excavating a site quite close to Jerusalem which turns out to have been a Persian palace with an extensive garden around it. Here is a reconstruction of the site.

persian palace

The archaeologists wanted to see if they could find evidence of what was planted in this garden. They therefore looked for traces of ancient pollen. None could be found in the earth of the garden – whatever had been there had decomposed long ago. So they decided to try their luck in the plaster with which the walls of an ancient pool in the garden had been coated. The thinking was that pollen grains could have got stuck in the plaster while it was drying and been preserved. They were right – and one of the types of pollen they found was that of the citron. From the other types of pollen found – a number from species not present in Israel – the archaeologists deduced that this was a garden planted with rare plants, designed to show off the wealth and power of the palace’s resident, either a Persian satrap or a Babylonian Jew close to the Persians and sent there to keep an eye on the locals. Perhaps it was here that the Jerusalem Temple elites, coming to pay their respects to the Palace’s resident, first saw the citron and admired this strange and exotic fruit. Maybe it became the rage to have a citron tree in one’s garden in emulation of the Persian masters.

Assuming this is somewhere near correct, how did the chicness of the citron eventually segue into its strong religious symbolism? Here, I shall hazard an explanation which I found written nowhere but which satisfies my fertile imagination. One has to know that the adoption by the Jews of the four species in the rituals of Sukkot derives from a text in the Book of Leviticus, where it is said (in the English translation):

“And you shall take on the first day the fruit of beautiful trees, branches of palm trees and boughs of leafy trees and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God for seven days.”

The text specifically names two of the plants: the palm tree and the willow. For the other two, though, it is quite vague. Talmudic tradition eventually settled on the citron as the “fruit of beautiful trees” and on myrtle as “boughs of leafy trees”.

The choice of myrtle makes sense to me – it is satisfyingly leafy.

myrtle

But the choice of citron as the fruit of a beautiful tree? That is really quite odd. In no way can the citron tree be considered a beautiful tree. It is low and scrubby, more bush-like.

citron tree

It seems, though, that the Hebrew text is grammatically ambiguous. Although the phrase in Leviticus is typically translated as “fruit of a beautiful tree”, it can also be rendered as “a beautiful fruit of a tree.” At first sight, this doesn’t seem to fit the citron either. As the picture above shows only too well, it is warty and knobbly, really quite ungraceful. But beauty, as they say, is in the eye of the beholder. The citron’s name in Persian, turunj, derives from the Sanskrit suranga, “beautifully coloured”. In today’s world, our lives are so saturated in bright colours that it is difficult for us to appreciate the impact on our ancestors of the few naturally brightly coloured things. As the photo above also reveals, the citron does indeed have a lovely yellow colour, and there really aren’t that many fruits that are so beautifully yellow (lemons come to mind, but that doesn’t count because they are a hybrid of the citron). Maybe the Persians, and the Indians before them, and the Jews after them, found the citron’s colour captivating.

If that explanation doesn’t satisfy my readers, let me suggest another reason. Under proper conditions, the citron is the only tree that can flower and bear fruit throughout the year. Even more distinctively, it can retain its fruit from one year to the next. So the citron tree can have buds, blossoms, and mature fruit all at the same time. This is a unique property, and one which may have aroused awe and reverence in our ancestors.

If that explanation doesn’t satisfy my readers, how about this one? Both the Greek philosopher, Theophrastos, and the Roman natural philosopher, Pliny the Elder, mention the citron in their botanical writings. And both stress the fact that the citron, fruit and leaves, has a very strong scent, that typical scent which you also get from the zest of the lemon. It is so strong, they say, that if the fruit is put among clothes it acts as a moth-repellent. This seems a little weak as a reason for nominating the citron as a “beautiful fruit”, although as every woman knows scent can be an important ingredient in beauty. And maybe the elites of India, Persia, and Israel were particularly receptive to the idea that their magnificent – and expensive – clothes could be protected from those pesky moths by the citron.

Either one of these explanations, or all three, must explain not only why the Jews adopted the citron as a religious symbol but also why anyone bothered to cultivate the citron in the first place and then bothered to carry it along to different parts of the world. From a utilitarian point of view, and our ancestors were nothing if not supremely utilitarian when it came to their natural environment, the citron really does seem a singularly useless plant. As I’ve said, the tree is low, scrubby, and bush-like, so it cannot be used as a shade tree. It is sickly and prone to disease, so is difficult to cultivate. The wood is no good for timber. Even the fruit is not much good to eat. It is mostly pith with hardly any flesh, and what flesh there is, is dry with relatively little juice.

cut citron

Whatever the reason, by the time the High Priest poured the water of libation over his feet (no doubt with a sneer on his lips) the practice of using the citron as one of the four species in the ceremonies of Sukkot was fixed.

It was this deliberately offensive act at the altar of the Temple which set me off on this quest to know more about the citron. But I can’t stop here, because the continuing history of the citron is equally fascinating. So I hope my readers will bear with me if I take them on a journey into the fruit’s more recent history.

From the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70,  the European history of the citron has been indissolubly bound up with that of the Jewish communities in Europe, so let me switch to using its Hebrew name, etrog (which, by the way, derives from the citron’s Persian name, turunj, via Aramaic, strengthening the idea that somehow it was the Persians who brought it into the lives of the Jews). The Romans’ destruction of Jerusalem, which ended Temple-centred worship for the Jews, meant that the feast of Sukkot began to be celebrated wherever the Jews happened to live. Since the citron was now indispensable in the celebrations of Sukkot, it followed the Jewish diaspora as the latter spread out through the Roman Empire into Greece, Italy, and Spain. With time, more and more attention was given to ensuring that the etrogim used in Sukkot were the most beautiful: after all, they were offerings to the Lord our God and nothing but the most beautiful should be offered. Detailed guidelines were issued about what constituted a “perfect” etrog, and considerable sums of money were paid for the most perfect ones.

All was under control until the Diaspora began to move northwards into parts of Europe where the climate was too cool for the citron to grow. These more northerly Jewish communities therefore urgently needed etrogim to be brought to them from lands further to the south – no other fruit would do since the four species had been prescribed in the Talmud. This brings us back to where this post started, Genoa. Because of its climate, but also presumably because of its flourishing, and ancient, Jewish community, there were citron orchards around Genoa. It also happened to be a dynamic trading port, so it wasn’t long before Genoa dominated the trade in etrogim to northern Europe. With time, Genoa seems to have gotten out of the business of actually growing etrogim. Instead, it picked up etrogim as far south as Calabria, still a source of etrogim for some Jewish communities, and all points in between, as well as in Corsica, a Genoese colony, and shipped them north.

Genoa’s monopoly on the etrog trade began to be undermined when the Sephardic Jews, expelled from Spain, filtered eastward across the Mediterranean to Italy, Greece, and Turkey, and discovered the etrogim being grown in Corfu and other Ionian islands, presumably for the very ancient Jewish communities of Greece. These were very beautiful as defined by the guidelines on etrog beauty, and they began to seriously compete with the Genoese etrogim. At first, there was resistance in some of the Ashkenazic communities in northern Europe. To explain why, I have to go back to what started me on this post initially, the lemon. The first substantial cultivation of the lemon in Europe only occurred in the mid-15th Century, in Genoa – Genoa again (the sour or bitter orange arrived earlier, in the 11th Century, while the sweet orange arrived somewhat later, in the early 16th Century). European growers of citrons discovered – or maybe they picked it up from the Arabs – that grafting citrons onto lemon stock gave plants which were much hardier than pure citron trees. But grafting created an enormous problem for the Jews because the mixing of species was non-kosher, and etrogim used in a religious Feast had to be kosher. We now know that grafting doesn’t actually lead to a mixing of genes, or hybridization, although 400 years ago it was quite easy to think that it did; after all, everyone knew that if you crossed a horse and a donkey, you got a hybrid, the mule. Many in the Ashkenazic communities suspected that the Greek etrogim were actually so beautiful because they were grafted onto lemon trees. Various rabbis were prepared to certify that they were not, and anyway the Napoleonic wars cut off the traditional supply of etrogim from Genoa. And the Greek etrogim really were so very beautiful …

So the Greek etrog triumphed and trade from Corfu flourished. Eventually, this got the Greek farmers greedy. They calculated that they had the Jewish communities over a barrel – they needed beautiful etrogim, the etrogim from Corfu were the most beautiful, hence they would pay whatever it took to get them. In 1875, they therefore created a cartel and jacked up the price. They turned out to be wrong. The Jewish communities reacted vigorously and successfully boycotted the Greek etrogim. They bought from Calabria, from Corsica, and more importantly from Israel, to where we now turn.

As more and more European Jews immigrated to Palestine in the 1800s, they discovered a local variety of etrogim. They surmised that these must be descended from the etrogim used in Temple worship before the Temple’s destruction. A number of rabbis therefore decided to promote these etrogim from Palestine, which were surely more authentic than etrogim grown elsewhere. They also thought it would help the poverty-stricken economy of Palestine to be able to export high-priced etrogim to Jewish communities in Europe. The problem was that although these etrogim might be more authentic they weren’t nearly as beautiful as the Greek etrogim. On top of it, Sephardic communities which had immigrated to Palestine brought in seeds of Greek citron trees and started planting orchards of the beautiful Greek etrog there. The stand-off with Corfu helped boost sales in Palestine, both of the original as well as of the Greek etrogim transferred there. However, authentic Palestinian etrogim were suffering from the competition.

Coming back to Corfu, the Greek farmers eventually backed down and brought their prices down again. But they didn’t forget or forgive. Some 15 years later, when the body of an unknown woman was found just outside the Jewish quarter in Corfu, the local etrog growers claimed that the woman had been murdered by Jews. This sparked off a pogrom against the local Jewish community, which left 139 people dead. And then it was discovered that the dead woman was actually Jewish. That finished off the etrogim trade from Corfu.

Meanwhile, back in Palestine, the transplanted Greek etrog was pushing the local variety off the market. Eventually, the Greek etrog, which did not adapt very well to the climate in Israel, began to be grafted onto stock of the original etrog, a graft which is kosher. This was a marriage made in heaven: the beautiful Greek etrog with the original, Temple-era etrog. It is this variety which now dominates the modern etrog market, and is no doubt the one being intensely studied by these Orthodox Jews prior to an eventual purchase.

jews purchasing etrogim

I cannot finish my story of the citron without mentioning the one way of usefully consuming it that was eventually discovered. For this, I have to back up a little and say a few words about the history of cane sugar. Cane sugar, brought west from India by, once again, Alexander the Great’s troops (they seem to have been great collectors of plants …), was first exploited in the Near East. It was the Crusaders, who came across caravans of this “sweet salt”, and who brought sugar to the attention of Europe. Until then, Europeans had only had honey as a sweetener. Genoa’s fiercest rival, Venice, was the first to make sugar available in Europe. It also brought another Arab invention, candying of fruit, to Europe. Not to be outdone by its hated rivals, the Genoese also finally got into the candying business. Somewhere along the line, someone had the idea of candying the citron, or rather its pith, of which there is so much, as the photo above shows. Leghorn (Livorno) became the centre of production: citrons from the south all the way to Sicily, from Corfu and the other Ionian islands in the east, and from Corsica in the west, were sent, de-pulped and brined, to Leghorn. There, the citron pith was de-brined and steeped in progressively more concentrated solutions of cane sugar. Once dried and chopped into small pieces, it was shipped, no doubt in Genoese ships, all over Europe to be added to cakes, sweet bread loaves, and other patisseries. I have a particular reason to mention all this because the panettone, that glory of my wife’s home town, Milan, was originally made with candied citron pith (as well as candied orange and sultana raisins).

Panettone

More humbly, the original recipes of the English plum pudding of my youth also called for candied citron from Leghorn.

Plum-Pudding

Alas! I believe this market has declined drastically – or perhaps citrons from elsewhere have cornered the candying market. The fact is, Leghorn is no longer a centre for candied citron production, the Calabrian citron hangs on by managing to keep a foot in the etrog market, while the Corsican and Corfu citron production is down almost to nothing; the few which are grown there are only used to make a local liqueur. Here’s the Corsican variety. Somehow, it seems apt that the bottle stands next to one made with myrtle, another of the four species.

cedratine and myrtheLet’s lift a glass to the citron a.k.a. the etrog! Cin-Cin!

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Lemons in Liguria: https://i0.wp.com/www.bbfauno.com/wp-content/gallery/amalfi/limoni-amalfi-coast.jpg (in https://misshome.wordpress.com/tag/italian-language/)

Citron: http://whileshenaps.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/09/6a00d834515cdc69e20133f4767038970b-pi.jpg (in http://whileshenaps.com/2010/09/make-a-paper-mache-etrog.html)

Tosher Rabbi of Montreal: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Four_species#/media/File:Fourspecies.jpg (in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Four_species)

Persian palace: http://www.haaretz.com/polopoly_fs/1.410535.1328143655!/image/3938862120.jpg_gen/derivatives/headline_857x482/3938862120.jpg (in http://www.haaretz.com/jerusalem-dig-uncovers-earliest-evidence-of-local-cultivation-of-etrogs-1.410505#acid)

Myrtle: http://www.polyvore.com/cgi/img-thing?.out=jpg&size=l&tid=65106807 (in http://www.polyvore.com/outdoor_plants/collection?id=3359765)

Citron tree: in gardening.stackexchange.com

Cut citron: http://www.tropcrop.nl/citr02fr.jpg (in http://www.tropcrop.nl/citron.htm)

Orthodox Jews purchasing etrogim: http://pix.avaxnews.com/avaxnews/64/a4/0001a464_medium.jpeg (in http://avax.news/fact/Symbolic_Citrus_Israeli_Jews_Inspect_Fruit_for_Sukkot.html)

Panettone: http://www.italianfoodexcellence.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/27/2014/09/Panettone-Vergani-Enrico-Su—-Ummarino.jpg (in http://www.italianfoodexcellence.com/tag/panettone/)

Plum pudding: http://cookdiary.net/wp-content/uploads/images/Plum-Pudding_12165.jpg (in http://cookdiary.net/plum-pudding/)

Cédratine and myrthe, Corsica: http://c8.alamy.com/comp/A8WYT4/myrthe-and-cedratine-liqueurs-for-sale-in-a-shop-corte-haute-corse-A8WYT4.jpg (in http://www.alamy.com/stock-photo-myrthe-and-cedratine-liqueurs-for-sale-in-a-shop-corte-haute-corse-6963651.html)

MIMOSA

Sori, 25 February 2016

We’re in Italy at the moment, spending a week here to get things in order for my impending retirement. We decided to make a quick visit to our apartment on the sea, by Genova, to check if all was well but also to see the mimosa in flower. The flowering of mimosa on the Ligurian coast is a wondrous sight to behold
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especially when you’re toiling up a hill like these hikers are and find yourself in front of a flash of canary yellow, a harbinger of the Spring to come.
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All was well with the apartment but alas! we were too late for the mimosa. It had reached its peak some two weeks before and the flowers were already very much past their best.

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Disconsolate, I decided to do the next best thing, a little internet surfing to learn more about mimosa.

I had half expected to discover that mimosa originally came from China. After all, that had already been my experience with several plants, from wisteria to the willow. But no! I was delighted to learn that mimosa comes from south-eastern Australia. Here is a photo of it in the State of Victoria, in what is probably its natural state, cohabiting in this case with mountain gums.

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Mimosa is actually a bit of a misnomer, for which it seems we have to thank Carl Linnaeus, the inventor of the modern system for giving scientific names to living things.
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What I call mimosa is actually an acacia (or perhaps was an acacia; more on that in a moment). For some reason, Linnaeus decided to also give the genus acacia the name mimosa. The confusion was cleared up later, but not before this particular type of acacia got stuck with the name mimosa. Confusion on nomenclature doesn’t stop there, for it seems that acacia is also a misnomer in this case. I don’t follow taxonomic decisions with bated breath, but Australian acacias should apparently now be called racosperma. The august scientific body which makes these kinds of decisions decided so back in the late 1990s or thereabouts, but the Australian botanists, indignant at the thought of having to change the name of their cherished acacias, managed to get the vote reversed in 2005. However, I now understand that the vote was re-reversed. In all of this confusion, I think we should just go with the common name, the wattle. Since there are nearly 1,000 species of wattle in Australia, I have to be a little more specific and say that the “mimosa” planted here in Liguria is the silver wattle.

How mimosa got to this part of the world is not that clear – at least, I didn’t find any clear description of that journey. Another distinguished botanist, Joseph Banks
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who accompanied James Cook on his first voyage to the Pacific and whom I have had cause to mention in an earlier post on kangaroos, brought the wattles to the attention of the Western world. But who actually brought the living plant back, or its seeds, and propagated it I don’t know. Whoever it was, the peoples from Portugal to the west all around the rim of the Mediterranean and up into the Aegean Sea and on into the Black Sea to the east have a huge debt to him (or, who knows? her). Every spring, they can enjoy magnificent bursts of yellow, like this one in Odessa in the Ukraine.

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Actually, given that the golden wattle, another member of the large wattle tribe, is now the floral emblem of Australia, I was expecting to find a photo on the net of a mimosa in flower in the ANZAC cemeteries of Gallipoli. But no. Photos there are of the cemeteries
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but none with a flowering mimosa. Perhaps no-one visits the cemeteries in the early Spring. But if instead it’s because mimosas are not planted in Gallipoli, I think a move in this direction is in order. Should not an earlier immigrant to Europe from Australia welcome the Spring every year in that corner of the Mediterranean where Australians lie in their eternal sleep?

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Mimosa in Liguria: http://helpilivewithmyitalianmotherinlaw.com/2013/03/07/the-magic-of-liguria/
Mimosa on the hills: http://lemiegite.escursioniliguria.it/gita_per_gita/gita_per_gita_2014_2016/2015-02-01_sori_cordona_nervi.html
Mimosa in Australia: http://www.gettyimages.it/detail/foto/mountain-gums-and-silver-wattle-victoria-australia-fotografie-stock/128394637
Linnaeus: http://linnaeus.sourceforge.net
Joseph Banks: http://lggardendesign.com/it/linvasione-della-rosa-banksiae/
Mimosa in Odessa: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/365143482264046608/
ANZAC cemetery, Gallipoli: http://www.cwgc.org/find-war-dead/casualty/621860/FIGGIS,%20SAMUEL%20DOUGLAS%20JOHNSTONE

SPADES, CLUBS, HEARTS, DIAMONDS

Bangkok, 8 January 2016

In a previous post, I sketched out a rough agenda for my retirement. I think my wife was pleased with it. But she does have certain anxieties about this upcoming event. She has recently been reading about some Japanese syndrome called Retired Husbands Syndrome which attacks Japanese housewives. Suddenly, this guy whom you’ve hardly seen in the last 40 years – being a good Salaryman, he’s been leaving the house at 6 am and not getting home till midnight – is now constantly hanging around, getting in your way, messing up your routines, and expecting you to do things for him. Not unnaturally, the stress levels rocket up. While we’ve maintained a more balanced lifestyle, she does have fears of me moping around the house, lounging around on the sofa, eating natchos and watching TV all day. This dystopian view of hers is not helped by a number of films we’ve seen recently, describing exactly this situation. Nor is it helped by my fondness (my wife thinks more obsession) for playing Spider Solitaire on my iPad. She’s afraid that come retirement all I’ll do all day is compulsively play Spider Solitaire, with a little Freecell on the side.

It is true that I tend to play the game whenever I have a spare moment. I do admit that it can get a little out of hand. But I’m sure it’s good for my aging brain to carefully plot my strategy for getting the cards out. And those little electronic cards, with their glossy black spades and clubs and glowing red diamonds and hearts, and kingly Kings and queenly Queens and knavish Jacks, are really very pretty.
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I was thinking about their prettiness the other day during a Spider Solitaire game, and when it became clear that I was dribbling towards defeat I decided to quit and do a little research on the history of playing cards, principally to understand where the suit design of hearts, diamonds, spades, and clubs originally came from. I was very pleased that I did so, because I discovered that what we have here is yet another example of the Great East-West Exchange which took place along the Silk Road and other trade routes that once criss-crossed the Eurasian continent. Of course, most of what was exchanged was traditional goods, but ideas also flowed along these routes. So did less obvious things, like the the willow tree and the pomegranate, both of which I’ve had occasion to write about in the past. Now I can with pleasure write about a third such item, playing cards.

Our story starts in China. Some time in the Tang Dynasty, around the 7th-8th Century, it seems that someone in the Imperial Court came up with the idea of a pack of playing cards, divided into four suits. The suits were Coins, Strings of (1,000) coins, Myriads of strings (10,000), and Tens of myriads. Like our modern cards, each suit contained cards with different numbers of pips. Here we have a Three of Coins and a Three of Strings-of-coins.
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These packs also included face cards, like this one from the Ming dynasty.
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These ‘chi-pai’, which is Chinese for playing cards, are still in use. This next photo shows the cards from a three-suited variant. Note how the design of the suits became highly stylized – this is important for our story.
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I’ve no idea what games exactly were played with these cards back in Tang Dynasty times, I’m not sure anyone knows, and actually it’s not important for our story. What is important is that the use of cards spread westward. This could have happened through trade; I can imagine Chinese merchants whipping out a pack of cards to while away their down time in the caravanserai that dotted the Silk Road.
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Alternatively, it could have happened through conquest, with conquering soldiers picking up new habits from the conquered. In this case, the Mongols, who conquered China in the 13th Century, seem a very good candidate. At its height, the Mongol Empire stretched from Korea to Ukraine.
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Any new fads picked up by Mongol troops in China could have spread, through many an evening around soldiers’ camp fires, all the way to Kiev.

I don’t think the two diffusion mechanisms are necessarily exclusive. I could imagine that the Mongol conquest also amplified diffusion of card playing through trade. The two maps above superimpose quite well, and in fact the period of the Mongol Empire brought political stability to Asia which in turn encouraged a surge of trade along the Silk Road.

Whichever way, Chinese playing cards diffused westward. Some time in the 13th-14th Century, maybe earlier, so-called Ganjifa playing cards started being used in Persia. The etymology of the word Ganjifa is uncertain. Some see its root in the Persian word gunj, which connotes treasure, treasury, or money, and suggest that this connects them to the money-suited Chinese playing cards. Others see a more elaborate etymology, proposing that Ganjifa is actually a corruption of ‘han-chi-pai’, or ‘Chinese playing cards’. In this case, there would be a very clear line of descent from China. In any event, variants of Ganjifa playing cards began to be used throughout the Muslim world, as well as in India (brought there in the saddle bags of the Mughal conquerors). What interests us most is the variant used by the Mamluk in Egypt.

The Egyptian Mamluk were an interesting bunch of people. Initially, they were slave soldiers recruited by the Ayyubid dynasty. For the most part, they were drawn from the Cumans-Kipchaks, a nomadic group who controlled the steppes north of the Black Sea. They were conquered by the Mongols and then absorbed into the Mongol Empire as the Golden Horde. Some time in the 13th Century, the Mamluk slave-soldiers kicked the Ayyubids out and reigned in their place. This happy state of affairs continued until they were in turn defeated by the Ottomans and their territories subsumed into the Ottoman Empire. Luckily for them, the Ottomans kept them on as governors of Egypt.

Perhaps because of their Mongol connection, or in some other way, the Mamluk picked up this new fad of card playing and brought it to Egypt some time in the 14th Century. What is of interest to us here is the fact that Mamluk packs of cards had four suits: Coins, Polo-sticks (the Mamluks were great polo players), Cups, and Swords. In addition, each suit had three face cards, the king, the first vizir, and the second vizir. Some clever people, who know more about the history of playing cards than I do, see a link between these four suits and those used in Chinese playing cards. Their thinking goes as follows. There is no problem in seeing the Mamluk Coin suit being derived from the Chinese Coin suit, that’s an easy equivalence to envisage. After that, it gets trickier. The clever people propose that the Chinese String-of-coins suit was transformed into the Mamluk Polo-stick suit, on the grounds that a String-of-coins pip could easily be misinterpreted as a stick to those unfamiliar with this very Chinese way of dealing with coins. It is true that the String-of-coins suit in the photo of Chinese playing cards above has been so stylized as to look stick-like. Then the clever people suggest that the Chinese Myriad-of-strings suit became the Mamluk cup suit, on the grounds that the Chinese character for myriad, 万, which was often used as a sort of pip, was simply inverted by the Mamluks, at which point it does indeed look cup-like. Finally, the clever people suggest that the Chinese Tens-of-myriads suit, where the Chinese numeral for ten, 十, was often used as the pip, was simply interpreted as a sword by the Mamluk and so gave rise to their suit of Swords. The ice over which we have been scrabbling these last few sentences is indeed thin, but the romantic in me is willing to believe this wonderful story of Central Asians scratching their heads over these strange-looking cards which had come all the way from China and giving their own interpretations to the drawings on them. To enliven all this text, I throw in here a photo of one of the rare Mamluk playing cards to have survived, a Six of Coins, found in Istanbul’s Topkapi palace.
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The next leg of our journey is somewhat easier to envisage, the transit of the Mamluk playing cards to Italy. I’m guessing that Venice was the entry point, although there could have been more than one. Until the Portuguese rounded the Cape of Good Hope and made for the Spice Islands, most of the spices which Europeans lusted for entered Europe through Venice, which in turn picked them up in Egypt. In addition to picking up spices, I can imagine Venetian sailors and merchants picking up packs of Mamluk playing cards to while away the long journeys back to Venice. Once in Italy, the use of playing cards spread rapidly, with each region having its own particularities. Here, for instance, is a pack of cards from Bergamo.
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Italian playing cards basically adopted the Mamluk suits, except that they changed Polo-sticks to Clubs – the game of polo was unknown in Europe at that time and I suppose the polo-sticks looked club-like to the Italians. They also adopted the idea of three face cards per suit but Europeanized them into king, upper marshal, and lower marshal.

There followed a fairly rapid diffusion of playing cards throughout Europe as the craze for card playing caught on. The Southern Europeans – Spain and Portugal – kept to the Italian design for their suits, with some minor modifications. The Northern Europeans instead experimented with a lot of different suit designs. Given the aristocratic background of many players, the suits were often hunting-themed like this pack from Flanders.
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Through the newfangled technology of printing, in which they were leaders, and through which they were the first to produce cheap packs of cards, the German lands popularized the use of the following suits:
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Personally, I don’t see much connection between these suits and the Italian versions. I think the Germans just used their fantasy. In any event, here are some old German playing cards with suits of Bells and of Acorns.
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Not to be outdone, the French came up with a somewhat different set of suits.
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The Hearts suit was taken as-is from the German suits. The Spades suit seems to be a slight modification of the German Leaf suit. The Clubs suit could be considered a geometric transformation of the Acorns suit – the sides of the acorn shell pulled out, the acorn itself shortened. The circular Bells suit of the Germans was replaced by a different shape, the diamond. As the cards above show, the French also introduced Queens, who displaced the upper marshal.

The French suits have since become those most used worldwide. Why that should be is not completely clear to me. I think it probably has something to do with the fact that the French suits are easier to read; I would have got really confused using those German cards I show above – “wait, is that an Eight of Acorns I have in my hand, or a Nine?” Or perhaps it was because the French were the arbiters of good taste in Europe until World War I. Or perhaps it was because the British adopted the French suits and happened to become the most powerful country in the world with the biggest colonial Empire, which allowed them to impose their choice of card suits and card games on their colonial subjects. Or perhaps it was because the Americans, who took over the title of the most powerful nation, followed the British in choosing French suits for their playing cards. For any or all of these reasons, or maybe others again, French suits now stare up at me from my games of Spider Solitaire and Freecell.

Well, now that I’ve figured all that out, I can go back to what I was doing and actually win my Spider Solitaire game.

____________________
Old Chinese cards, coins and strings of coins: http://www.gamesmuseum.uwaterloo.ca/Archives/Wilkinson/Wilkinson.html
Old Chinese cards, face card: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Playing_card
Chi-pai three-suited cards: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_playing_cards#Money-suited_cards
Silk Road: http://archive.silkroadproject.org/tabid/177/defaul.aspx
Mongol Empire: https://mapcollection.wordpress.com/2012/06/27/the-mongol-empire/
Mamluk card: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Playing_card#Egypt
Bergsmasche deck: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Italian_playing_cards#/media/File%3ACarte_bergamasche.jpg
Flemish hunting deck: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flemish_Hunting_Deck
German suites: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/German_playing_cards
Old German playing cards, acorn: http://www.spielkarten24.de/flohm.htm
Old German playing cars, bells: http://deerbe.com/unt/59680-___alte_spielkarten_playing_cards_dondorf_301_deutsche_spielkarte_1868___.html
Old French playing cards: http://www.culture.gouv.fr/public/mistral/joconde_fr?ACTION=CHERCHER&FIELD_98=AUTR&VALUE_98=BERGERET%20Pierre%20Nolasque&DOM=All&REL_SPECIFIC=1

TROMPE L’OEIL AND STINGINESS

Bangkok, 27 July 2015

Trompe l’oeil is a very respectable art form, with a long and distinguished presence in the world of art, at least in Western art. I am told that the Greeks and Romans practiced it, although I do not recall ever having seen an example. In any event, artists took it up again with a vengeance during the Renaissance, and art thereafter is littered with pieces which “fool the eye”, tricking the viewer to see three-dimensional depth where there is none. We have a beautiful example just up the road from our apartment in Milan, in the church of Santa Maria presso San Satiro. My not-yet wife took me there on my first trip to Milan in 1975 and my eyes were indeed fooled.
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What I had taken to be a deep apse behind the altar is actually an almost flat wall. The clever artist in question was Bramante, who painted it in the 1480s. In this case, he didn’t do it just to show how good he was, it was to give a feeling of greater depth to a church which was squeezed in between the adjoining buildings.

I could go on giving other examples from High Art, but actually I want to focus on a lower form of the art found in the province of Liguria. We’ve just come back from spending a week by the sea, near Genova, the province’s capital (and from where I managed to launch several of the previous posts).

One of my recurring pleasures as I walk the streets of any conurbation in Liguria, from Genova down to the smallest village, is to come across houses like these.
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This form of trompe l’oeil is only found in Liguria, to the extent that the practice is almost a D.O.C.. In these cases, the painter (I hesitate to call him artist) embellishes what is otherwise the drab and flat facade of a house (you see an example to the right in the photo) with architectural elements which are painted so cleverly as to fool the eye into thinking that they are three-dimensional and “real”. The result is to make an ordinary house look more imposing, which in the old days no doubt (and perhaps even today) raised the residing family’s social standing a notch or two. It is even a way of making up for unfortunate blemishes in a facade, like the absence of a window which mars the symmetry of a house.
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What is nice is to see is examples which run from the fresh and new to various states of weathering and finally decrepitude brought about by sun, rain, and more recently pollution.
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Of course, one has to ask oneself why this art form is so popular in Liguria and nowhere else. My theory, for what it’s worth, is that it is a reflection of the well-known stinginess of the Genoese (and more generally Ligurians). In Italy, the Genoese have the same reputation as the Scots in England for being tight fisted, and there are loads of jokes about it, as indeed there are in the case of the Scots (“There was an Englishman, an Irishman, and a Scotsman in a pub. The Englishman stood a round, the Irishman stood a round, but the Scotsman just stood around”; sorry, I thought I would just quickly throw that one in). According to this theory, then, the Genoese (and by reflection the Ligurians) preferred to paint architectural elements onto their facades à la trompe l’oeil rather than go with the real things, because it cost them less.

I’m sure the Genoese must feel that this typing of them as scrooges by the rest of Italy is grossly unfair and they probably find it very irritating to be the butt of incessant jokes about it. But as they say, “there is no smoke without fire”. There must surely be some reason why they got this reputation. Curious to see what I could find out, I did an internet search on the topic (in truth, my wife did it since she’s very good at internet searches). Several suggestions popped up. One is that Liguria is in general a very poor land, made up of steep hills and little good agricultural land. People who live in such lands tend to be more careful with their hard-earned wealth scratched out of an unforgiving earth than those of us from richer lands (I’m sure this is the basis for the Scots’ reputation for stinginess). Another suggestion is that the Genoese in particular made much of their wealth in banking (they were the bankers of the Spaniards in the 16th century), and like all bankers got into the habit of not throwing their money around like we foolish non-bankers do. A third, which I like so much that I have adopted it, is a variant on the second (I have to thank Grimaldina, a citizen of Genova, for bringing it to my attention).

In 1586 or thereabouts Philip II, King of Spain, decided that he was going to invade England, to uphold the Catholic cause of course, but also to teach the damned English a lesson for attacking Spanish treasure fleets and shipping more generally. The worst offender was this gentleman, Sir Francis Drake

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A great Englishman for the English, but nothing more than a damned pirate for the Spaniards.

To invade England, Phillip was going to need a navy, and a big one. As I said, the Genoese were the bankers of the Spaniards, so he came to them for the funds to build the necessary ships. I suspect the King made the Genoese an offer they couldn’t refuse. In any event, after much hesitation because it was a huge amount of money, and no doubt after extracting juicy concessions about trading monopolies for Genova in England once conquered, the Genoese accepted to fund the venture. Thus was built the Spanish Armada, or the Grande y Felicísima Armada, the “Great and Most Fortunate Armada”, as the Spaniards called it. And here, just for the hell of it, I throw in pictures of Philip II and Elizabeth I (it’s clear already from the pictures who’s going to win; I mean, look at Phillip II, have you ever seen such a nasty scowl?)
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Alas, the Spanish Armada was perhaps great but it was not fortunate. After several engagements in the English Channel, where overall the Spaniards got the worst of it
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the Armada was driven by the winds up into the North Sea, all the way up to Scotland. At that point, the Spanish commander decided to give up and go home. His idea was to round the top of Scotland, head out into the Atlantic, and then turn south. He turned too soon. His remaining ships found themselves too close to the west coast of Ireland, where, hit by terrible Atlantic gales, many were driven ashore. Of the 130 ships which left Spain only 67 limped home. The English cheered, but the Genoese cried; their fortunes had sunk to the bottom of the sea along with the ships. Genova went into a steep economic decline thereafter, from which it never really recovered. Thus was born the Genoese’s parsimony (and not stinginess, as stressed by Grimaldina). Like all great families which fall on hard times, it had to keep up appearances with less money in its pocket: ideal conditions for heavy adoption of trompe l’oeil.

________________

Santa Maria presso San Satiro: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/27/Sansatiro5.jpg (in https://it.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bramante#Santa_Maria_presso_San_Satiro_.281482-1486.29)
Genoese facade-1: http://www.sampierdarena.ge.it/joomla/images/phocagallery/villesamp/litoraneo/pallavicinocreditoitaliano/thumbs/phoca_thumb_l_dsc_0617.jpg (in http://www.sampierdarena.ge.it/joomla/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=94:villa-pallavicino-sec-xvi-via-sampierdarena-71&catid=48:litoraneo&Itemid=59)
Fake windows: https://dearmissfletcher.files.wordpress.com/2015/03/finestre-6.jpg (in https://dearmissfletcher.wordpress.com/2015/03/page/5/)
Genoese facade-2: https://timelessitaly.files.wordpress.com/2013/11/20131103-175731.jpg (in http://timelessitaly.me/tag/nervi/)
Genoese facade-3: http://rotellando.vanityfair.it/files/2015/06/IMG_6719.jpg (in http://rotellando.vanityfair.it/2015/06/16/piemonte-10/)
Genoese facade-4: http://cdn.pleinair.it/wp-content/uploads/106011.jpg (in http://www.pleinair.it/meta/viaggi-camper-l-impero-dipinto/)
Genoese facade-5: http://www.liguria.beniculturali.it/getImage.php?id=779&w=100&h=100&c=0&co=1&f=0 (in http://www.liguria.beniculturali.it/index.php?it/136/percorsi-tematici/3/5/3)
Sir Francis Drake: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spanish_Armada#/media/File:Gheeraerts_Francis_Drake_1591.jpg (in https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spanish_Armada)
Phillip II: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spanish_Armada#/media/File:Philip_II,_King_of_Spain_from_NPG.jpg (in https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spanish_Armada)
Elizabeth I: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spanish_Armada#/media/File:Elizabeth_I_(Armada_Portrait).jpg ( in https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spanish_Armada#/media/File:Elizabeth_I_(Armada_Portrait).jpg)
Spanish Armada fighting English ships: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spanish_Armada#/media/File:Invincible_Armada.jpg (in https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spanish_Armada)

DREAM JOURNEY: PART IV

Bangkok, 22 May 2015

Normally, we would be rather groggy as we drive our MG off the ferry in Bari at 8 am in the morning, coming in from Dürres and the previous post. I certainly would be; I never sleep well on ships. But this is a dream, so I decree that we are bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as we roar off the ferry. Our goal is Otranto, very near the end of Italy’s high heel. We head down the old Via Traiana, now more boringly called the Strada Statale 16, as far as Brindisi. There we take the SS 613, which follows the trace of a previous local Roman road that was too modest to have a name. We pass through Lecce, where we pause. Lecce is known for its plentiful baroque buildings constructed in the 1600s, all using a beautiful local white stone, so I throw in a picture of a square there as a visual memorial to this city.

Lecce

We continue on to Otranto, and drive straight up to the Cathedral. For this is the objective of our visit to Otranto – or rather the floor of the church is. When visitors enter the church, they are greeted by this magnificent floor.

otranto-mosaic-1

It is the largest floor mosaic in Europe. It brings me back to that other floor mosaic which we visited in the first leg of our trip in Aquileia, although eight centuries separate them. Some clever fellow took this photo from the ceiling, showing more or less the full extent of the mosaic.

otranto-mosaic-2

The subject of the mosaic is a Tree of Life, and you can indeed see the trunk of the tree working its way up the nave. Strangely enough, the narrative of this tree flows from the top down, and so near the high altar we have various scenes from the story of Adam and Eve, of which I throw in one photo.

otranto-mosaic-3-adam eve snake

Honestly speaking, the story is difficult to read, so I shall just insert a couple of photos of other parts of the floor. This is King Arthur

otranto-mosaic-4-King Arthur

and this, Satan

otranto-mosaic-5-Great Satan

while this is said to be a self-portrait of the floor’s designer, a monk by the name of Pantaleone who hailed from the monastery of San Nicola di Casole, a little to the south of Otranto.

otranto-mosaic-6-Pantaleone_ self-portrait

The mosaic was laid down in the 12th Century when this part of Italy was Norman, along with Sicily. In fact, the design of the floor rather reminds me of that other great masterpiece of Norman art, the Bayeux tapestry. I include here one photo of that tapestry, the famous scene where Harold Godwinson is killed by a Norman arrow through his eye.

Tapisserie de Bayeux - Scène 57 : La mort d'Harold

Next stop: Palermo in Sicily. We’ll get there by cutting across Italy’s heel to Taranto and then along the instep and sole of the Italian boot all the way to Reggio Calabria, where we’ll catch the ferry over to Sicily. I take the back roads to get to Taranto, because I want to drive through the small town of Copertino. As far as I know, this town is known for nothing special except a large castle and a saint. But to us, it has a great importance: my wife’s maternal grandfather came from Copertino and so it is the source of one-eighth of my children’s DNA. He emigrated to Milan in the early 1900’s, part of the massive migrations out of the south of Italy at the turn of the 20th Century. In typical migratory fashion, his departure eventually brought all his brothers and sisters up north. Family lore has it that his father ruined the family by taking the new Italian State to court over the expropriation of some of his land. He took the case all the way to the Court of Cassation, where he eventually lost the case, by which time he had also burned through all his money. Even though this is a very modest place with nothing special to write home about, I feel I must throw in a photo to commemorate it.

copertino

Onwards to Taranto, although in truth as we approach the city we turn our heads away and drive on. Taranto has been devastated by the plans of successive Italian government in the post-war period to develop the south of Italy through the implantation of heavy industry (I’ve already mentioned this in another post on Sicily). What were then the biggest steel works in Europe were plonked down here in the 1960s, and other heavy industry followed. By the 1980s, when my wife and I went to Taranto for the first time, the investment was in trouble. But the government couldn’t let it go down the tubes, it was politically too important. So money – half of it wasted through corruption and graft – was poured in to prop everything up. It’s stayed propped up – just – but in the meantime the industrial complex has poisoned half the population. Talk about sustainable development …

taranto

We are now driving through what was once Magna Graecia, Greater Greece, that string of Greek colonies which dotted the underside of the Italian boot as well as the coasts of Sicily (and even the shin and calf of that shapely Italian boot). The glittering stone in this string of cities was undoubtedly Syracuse in Sicily, where Archimedes – he of the original eureka moment – was born and was killed. But all the cities along here, from Taranto in the East to Selinunte in the West, were once flourishing and prosperous city-states. One of them, Sybaris, even became a byword for self-indulgent opulence – it was said of one of its citizens that he slept on a bed of rose petals, and if even one of them was folded over he could not sleep. The town’s name has entered the English language, a sybarite being a voluptuary or a sensualist. Now, Sybaris lies under four meters of mud. The only claim to fame of the surviving Calabrian towns is that they are infested by the ‘Ndrangheta, Calabria’s answer to Sicily’s mafia. It is said that John Paul Getty III, kidnapped in Rome back in 1973, was kept hidden in these parts. He was returned after his family forked over a ransom of $3 million – paid a good deal reluctantly (his grandfather is reported to have said, “I have 14 grandchildren. If I pay one penny now, I’ll have 14 kidnapped grandchildren”) and only after one of his ears had been cut off and sent to a newspaper. It is whispered that many a new house around here was built with Getty money.

We stop for a moment in Crotone, on the ball of Italy’s foot, not because it’s any less dreary than the other towns we’ve passed through, but because something momentous happened here: Pythagoras set up his first school and came up with all those clever mathematics, among which was his theorem which I, like every child of 11 or so, learned in geometry class: “a2 + b2 = c2“, or in plain English, “in a right triangle, the square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the square of the other two sides”. At least, that’s what I was told by proud Crotonesi when I was here 20 years ago to do an environmental audit. Alas! It was not so. Pythagoras did indeed come to Crotone, but all he did was to set up some sort of mystical, esoteric sect which dabbled in the quasi-magic of whole numbers. It’s very unlikely that he personally came up with any of the mathematical cleverness attributed to him; his disciples did, but later. I think this painting, by a 19th Century Russian painter, captures nicely the strongly mystical (and to my way of thinking, rather weird) overtones of the initial Pythagorean movement.

pythagoreans celebrating sunrise

What Pythagoras and his sect did do in Crotone was to eventually take over the city’s government, and it was during his time in office that Crotone destroyed Sybaris. Several other cities in the area also espoused Pythagorean forms of government, but after a while there was a backlash. Back in Crotone Pythagoras was chased out, to end his days in nearby Metapontum, another city now lying under meters of mud. But Pythagorean schools continued, although they restricted themselves to maths and “natural philosophy” and left politics to others. Probably better that way …

I take one last look at the industrial plant I audited all those years ago – another industrial works plonked down here, and another one that has closed, leaving nothing but bitterness in its wake.

pertusola

It’s time to move on.

When we reach Reggio Calabria, although my wife is reluctant I insist: we must go to the Museum of Magna Graecia to see the two Bronzes of Riace. Neither of us have ever seen them, and it would be a pity not to take advantage of our passing through Reggio to have a peek. I know the objective of our trip is early Christian mosaics, but other wonders along the way should not be ignored. No sooner said than done! With a click of the mouse, I have us parked in front of the museum and magically transported past the queues of people waiting to enter the climate-controlled, earthquake-proofed room where they stand.

bronzi di riace

What magnificence! And what we see today are stripped down versions of the original. Each would have been coiffed with a Corinthian-style helmet, would have carried a shield on that raised left arm, and would have held a lance in the other. The latest theories hypothesize that they represent two of the Seven Heroes who set off from Argos to fight against Eteocles, king of Thebes and son of Oedipus (he of the complex), and died at the city’s seven gates. One expert suggests that they were originally part of a group of seven statues which stood in the Agora of the city of Argos. How they ended up on the sea bed off the coast of Calabria is anyone’s guess. My guess, for what it’s worth, is that during Roman times Argos was hard up, and rich Romans, avid for Greek art, came along and offered to buy the statues. Why not … In later centuries hard-up Italians sold their Renaissance treasures to rich Englishmen, avid for Italian art, and later still these Englishmen, hard up in their turn, sold these same treasures to rich Americans. In any event, they were being shipped to Rome, but when the ship was off the coast of Calabria a violent storm blew up, and the captain, rather than losing his ship and his life, tossed the heavy stuff overboard.

Time to catch the ferry over to Sicily, home to some of the most beautiful Byzantine-style mosaics still extant, created when the Normans controlled Sicily. The web helpfully informs us that there is a ferry over to Messina every hour or so. In this dream trip, we will not have any difficulty in catching the ferry, unlike real life 30 years ago when my wife and I decided to take her mother to spend Christmas and the New Year in Sicily. We arrived in Reggio Calabria on the evening of 23 December, along with a horde of Sicilian migrant workers returning home from Northern Europe for the holidays. We discovered to our horror that the ferry boat crews had just decided to strike for more pay. Those bastards had chosen this particular time to strike because they knew it put the owners under huge pressure to settle. Settle they did, but not before we had spent a miserable night in the ferry car park. When those ferry boat crews arrive, as they assuredly will one day, before the Pearly Gates, I hope they will be kicked off down to Hell, to roast in its fires for Eternity (anyone curious to know what that might look like can refer back to the posting with which I started this dream journey and study the photo I inserted there from the back wall of the church on the island of Torcello).

Once on the other side,  we set off for Palermo. I firmly decide that we will take the normal roads to get there. In this dream we’re in no hurry, and I prefer by far the “reeling roads”, the “rolling roads”, that “ramble round the shire”, as G.K. Chesterton wrote in his most famous poem “The Rolling English Road”. Yes, I prefer by far his “merry roads” and his “mazy roads” to the smooth monotony of sterile highways. We pass Milazzo, where you can catch the boat to the Aeolian Islands – a trip for another day – and where I did yet another environmental audit 20 years ago for another struggling industrial complex, which mercifully has not closed – yet. We hum along until we arrive at the small town of Cefalù, nestling under the mighty headland which gives it its (Greek) name. We head, yet again, for the Cathedral, constructed by the Normans in the first half of the 1100s. There, some beautiful mosaics still cling to the apse and the last bay of the choir.

cefalu-duomo-1

The Pantocrator gracing the apse is “for many the greatest portrait of Christ in all Christian art”, in the words of John Julius Norwich (I am quoting from his history of Sicily).

cefalu-duomo-2

The style is clearly mature Byzantine, a style we’ve already seen in Istanbul as well as in the lagoons of Venice, and would have seen in Daphni and Saint Luke in Greece had we made the detour from Thessaloniki. The Normans got Byzantine artists, or artists trained in Byzantine workshops, to make the mosaics.

It’s time to go on to Palermo, which is our final destination on this leg of the journey. We hug the coast, coming into the city on its seaward side. Once we reach the port, we swing up Via Vittorio Emanuele (there’s one of these in every village, town, and city in Italy, along with a Via Garibaldi), which is the main thoroughfare through the city’s old center. When we get near the Martorana church, we miraculously find – free! – parking (this is a dream, after all) for our little MG and head over to the church.

The church has been much modified over the centuries, not least of which by a brutal Baroque make-over in the front part of the nave in the 17th Century. But once we get past these horrors and enter the upper nave, we are greeted by some lovely mosaics: Christ in majesty in the dome of the church

palermo-martorana-1

the annunciation

palermo-martorana-4

the nativity

palerno-martorana-7

the dormition of the Virgin Mary

palerno-martorana-6

As we leave, I want particularly to see these two mosaics. In this first one, we have the greatest of all the Norman kings of Sicily, Roger II, having himself cheekily crowned by Christ himself, as if he were a Byzantine emperor

palermo-martorana-2

It was he who first brought this Byzantine art form to Sicily.

And here we have the original donor of the church, George of Antioch, Roger II’s admiral, humbly offering his church to the Virgin Mary (much like we saw in Cariye Kamii in Istanbul)

palermo-martorana-5

A final note about this church: it belongs to the Italian-Albanian community in Sicily, the remnants of the Albanians who fled to Italy in the 15th and later Centuries as the Ottomans methodically went about conquering their home country. So it is not just geographical proximity which led the modern Albanians back in late 1990s to escape by their thousands to Italy as Albania imploded after the collapse of Communism (with many of these new arrivals squatting in and around Otranto, as it so happens).

We go back to the car and continue up Via Vittorio Emanuele to the Palazzo dei Normanni, the Palace of the Normans, which actually was originally built by the Arabs. This rather severe building houses the Cappella Palatina, which was built by Roger II as the King’s private chapel. It houses some magnificent 12th Century mosaics.

palermo-cap-palatina-1

palermo-cap-palatina-6

palermo-cap-palatina-5

This last one shows also the ceiling, a wonderful piece of Arab carpentry work, an example of which we last saw in the Alhambra palace in Granada.

palermo-cap-palatina-4

Roger II understood that in this island with large Greek and Arab populations, he had to be open to their cultures if he was going to maintain the peace. Indeed, he welcomed this mixing of cultures. It is part of Sicily’s tragedy that later rulers did not continue this practice of toleration and openness.

We are not finished yet! We vault into the car (after constant badgering by our children we’ve taken to doing a lot of exercise recently, so I can imagine ourselves vaulting jauntily over the doors and dropping into our seats) and we keep on going up Via Vittorio Emanuele, which has now morphed into Via Calatafimi. We go on and on until we hit the hills behind Palermo, at which point we start climbing and finally find ourselves in Monreale, once a village on the outskirts of Palermo but now a suburb. We head – of course – for the cathedral and casually park the car in front of the cathedral. We walk into this late 12th Century church and I suddenly feel that I am back in the church of Sant’Apollinare in Ravenna, where we started our dream journey.

monreale-duomo-1

Biblical scenes on fields of gold unfurl along upper tiers of the nave

monreale-duomo-6

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to reach the theological high point in the apse, with its assembled saints and angels presided over by a rather severe Pantocrator.

monreale-duomo-2

But how the styles have changed in the intervening six centuries! Then, it was still Roman art, although of a rough-and-ready sort. Now, it is early medieval art in all its stiff, hieratic splendour.

After all that gold, we go up on the roof of the church and drink in the astringent blue of the sky, which is rather like eating a lemon sorbet after a heavy main course so as to cleanse the mouth of all that richness. We gaze out across Palermo and over the “wine-dark” Tyrrhenian Sea beyond (to borrow Homer’s rather strange description of the sea’s colour).

monreale-panoramic-view

Tonight, we will catch the ferry and cross that sea to Naples – another Greek colony long, long ago – and from there drive up to Rome, our last stop on this exhaustive, and mentally exhausting, tour of early Christian mosaics.

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Lecce: https://youthfullyyoursgr.files.wordpress.com/2013/05/lecce-it.jpg (in https://youthfullyyoursgr.wordpress.com/%CF%80%CF%81%CE%BF%CE%B3%CF%81%CE%AC%CE%BC%CE%BC%CE%B1%CF%84%CE%B1/get-up-stand-up-be-healthy-guys-youth-exchange-lecce-%CE%B9%CF%84%CE%B1%CE%BB%CE%AF%CE%B1-22-29072013/)
Otranto-mosaic-1: http://www.paradoxplace.com/Perspectives/Sicily%20&%20S%20Italy/Puglia/Otranto/Cattedrale/Images_Mosaics/800/Mosaic_Floor-Nov06-DC9997sAR800.jpg (in http://www.paradoxplace.com/Perspectives/Sicily%20&%20S%20Italy/Puglia/Otranto/Otranto.htm)
Otranto mosaic-2: http://www.swide.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/Reasons-to-travel-puglia-apulia-italy-mosaics-Otranto.jpg (in http://www.swide.com/food-travel/reasons-to-travel-to-puglia-apulia-italy-top-20-things-to-do/2014/06/30)
https://canvas.harvard.edu/courses/305/pages/the-mosaic-of-otranto
Bayeux Tapestry: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/bb/Bayeux_Tapestry_scene57_Harold_death.jpg (in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bayeux_Tapestry)
Copertino: http://www.amedeominghi.info/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/PiazzaMazzini.jpg (in http://www.amedeominghi.info/nuovedate/)
Taranto: http://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ilva#/media/File:ILVA_-_Unit%C3%A0_produttiva_di_Taranto_-_Italy_-_25_Dec._2007.jpg (in http://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ilva#Unit.C3.A0_produttiva_di_Taranto)
“Pythagoreans celebrating the sunrise”, by Fyodor Bronnikov(1827–1902): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pythagoras#/media/File:Bronnikov_gimnpifagoreizev.jpg (in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pythagoras)
Pertusola: http://www.ilcirotano.it/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/Ex-Pertusola.jpg (in http://www.ilcirotano.it/2012/10/09/viaggio-nella-pertusola-sud/)
Bronzi di Riace: https://news.artnet.com/wp-content/news-upload/2014/08/Riace-bronzes-e1408562456865.jpg (in https://news.artnet.com/art-world/italy-risks-priceless-riace-bronzes-for-cash-82747)
Cefalù-duomo-1: http://commondatastorage.googleapis.com/static.panoramio.com/photos/original/74677063.jpg (in https://geolocation.ws/v/P/74677063/abside-del-duomo-di-cefal-cristo/en)
Cefalù-duomo-2: http://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Duomo_di_Cefal%C3%B9#/media/File:Cefalu_Christus_Pantokrator_cropped.jpg (in http://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Duomo_di_Cefalù)
Palermo-Martorana-1: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/c/c0/Chiesa_della_Martorana_cupola.jpg/640px-Chiesa_della_Martorana_cupola.jpg (in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martorana#Interior)
Palermo-Martorana-2: http://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chiesa_della_Martorana#/media/File:Palerme_Martorana168443.JPG (in http://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chiesa_della_Martorana)
Palermo-Martorana-3: https://classconnection.s3.amazonaws.com/848/flashcards/3299848/jpg/palermo_chiesa_20martorana_mosaic_nativity-13F311CF74763DF1FB7.jpg (in https://www.studyblue.com/notes/note/n/ecb-final-review/deck/8598474)
Palermo-Martorana-4: http://www.wga.hu/art/zgothic/mosaics/8/2martor2.jpg (in http://www.wga.hu/html_m/zgothic/mosaics/8/2martor2.html)
Palermo-Martorana-5: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/b3/Chiesa_della_Martorana_Christus_kr%C3%B6nt_Roger_II.jpg (in http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Chiesa_della_Martorana_Christus_kr%C3%B6nt_Roger_II.jpg)
Palermo-Martorana-6: http://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chiesa_della_Martorana#/media/File:George_of_Antioch_and_Holy_Virgin_2009.jpg (in http://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chiesa_della_Martorana)
Palermo-Cappella Palatina-1: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cappella_Palatina#/media/File:Cappella_Palatina_in_Palermo_Sicily.JPG (in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cappella_Palatina)
Palermo-Cappella Palatina-2: http://www.scherminator.com/italy/sicily/cappellaPalatina/cappellaPalatina5.jpg (in http://www.scherminator.com/italy/sicily/cappellaPalatina/cappellaPalatina.html)
Palermo-Cappella Palatina-3: http://www.scherminator.com/italy/sicily/cappellaPalatina/cappellaPalatina0.jpg (in http://www.scherminator.com/italy/sicily/cappellaPalatina/cappellaPalatina.html)
Palermo-Cappella Palatina-4: http://www.scherminator.com/italy/sicily/cappellaPalatina/cappellaPalatina10.jpg (in http://www.scherminator.com/italy/sicily/cappellaPalatina/cappellaPalatina.html)
Monreale-Duomo-1: http://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Duomo_di_Monreale#/media/File:MonrealeCathedral-pjt1.jpg (in http://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Duomo_di_Monreale)
Monreale-duomo-2: https://ofsplendourinthegrass.files.wordpress.com/2012/08/p1110054.jpg (in https://ofsplendourinthegrass.wordpress.com/2012/08/30/monreale/)
Monreale-duomo-3: http://giazza.se/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/pal-dome-2.jpg (in http://giazza.se/?p=1506)
Monreale-duomo-4: http://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Duomo_di_Monreale#/media/File:Sicilia_Monreale2_tango7174.jpg (in http://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Duomo_di_Monreale)
Monreale-panoramic view: http://media-cdn.tripadvisor.com/media/photo-s/07/87/3f/dc/panoramic-view-from-the.jpg (in http://www.tripadvisor.it/LocationPhotoDirectLink-g666663-d4470498-i126304220-Norman_Cathedral_of_Monreale-Monreale_Province_of_Palermo_Sicily.html)

DREAM JOURNEY: PART III

Bangkok, 6 May 2015

May has arrived, the most beautiful month in the Mediterranean. It’s time for my wife and I to come out of our long, long hibernation in Istanbul and continue on our dream journey, the next leg of which will be Greece.

It’s warm enough now for us to travel by open-topped car again, so with a click of my mouse I materialize the little MG which carried us so long ago from Venice to Aquileia.

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I have it pop up in front of the Hagia Sophia (probably not possible in real life but hey, this is a dream). We hop in and drive off. We will be following the trace of the Via Egnatia, the Roman road which once linked Constantinople to Dyrrachium (now Durrës in Albania) on the Adriatic coast, from whence a short ship ride could bring Roman legions and you to Bari in Italy. As always where map reading is required, my wife is driving. I have her take Divanyolu Avenue, which overlies the trace of the Mese, the main Roman street of Constantinople. Like the Mese, the Divanyolu Avenue starts just in front of Hagia Sophia. When we reach Murat Pasha Mosque, at what was once Constantinople’s Forum of the Ox, and where the Mese angled south-west, I have my wife turn left down Cerrapasha Avenue (never mind that the web informs me that the street is one way against us: this is a dream). The traffic is heavy I would imagine, we are inching along. At Koca Mustafa Pasha Mosque, things get complicated. The modern street plan no longer follows the old streets. Looking at the city map on the web, I muse on what to do next. The cars are beeping behind us, my wife is asking urgently, “which way?” I decide: go left, keep going until you somehow manage to reach Imrahor Ilyas Bey Avenue, turn right and keep going until you come to the old Theodosian city walls, which protected the city until its fall to the Ottomans. There, pass through a break in the walls, leaving to our left the remains of the Golden Gate, through which the Via Egnatia once entered the city.

golden gate theodosian walls istanbul

We are now at the official starting point of the Via Egnatia. But I must say everything is very confused. The recent huge, jumbled expansion of the city has completely effaced any traces of the ancient road. What the hell, I know where I want to go, so I tell my wife to hang a left and head down to John Kennedy Avenue, which runs along the Sea of Marmara. After a while we pick up the trace of the Via Egnatia, and so we bowl along to Tegirdağ, where we regretfully leave the sea’s edge and cut across to Ipsala at the border with Greece (a border which has only existed a hundred years or so and whose creation left much bitterness behind). Now in Greece, we go on through Komotini and Kavala (close to which, at the Battle of Philippi, in 42 BC, Mark Antony and Octavian beat the assassins of Julius Caesar, Brutus and Longinus, thus starting the process which destroyed the Roman Republic and put in its place the Roman Empire). Finally, we arrive at our destination, Thessaloniki.

Thessaloniki … Thessalonica to the Roman and Byzantine elites, just plain old Salonika to the locals, Selânik to the Ottomans. Its nascent Christian community the recipient in the first decades of the Christian era of two of St. Paul’s most famous Epistles, the First and Second Epistles to the Thessalonians. Birthplace in the 9th Century of Saints Cyril and Methodius, who converted Eastern Europe to Orthodox Christianity, but also in the 19th Century of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founding father of modern Turkey.

Like Ravenna and Aquileia where I started this dream journey, Thessaloniki has suffered from the ravages of man and nature ever since it was founded by King Cassander of Macedon in 315 BC. Its history under the Romans and early Byzantines was relatively peaceful, apart from some raiding by Thracian tribes in the 50s BC, and a terrible incident in 390 AD, when some 10,000 of its citizens were massacred in the hippodrome as a punishment for starting a revolt. Its troubles really started when the Roman Empire weakened and the Barbarian tribes from the north began their incursions. Like Aquileia, it suffered from repeated attacks in the 7th Century by Barbarian tribes, Slavs in this case, but unlike Aquileia it managed to hold them off. As if the Slavs were not enough, the city suffered a catastrophic earthquake in 620, which did much damage. There followed a few centuries of respite, but after the Byzantines lost control of the Aegean Sea, Saracens seized the city in 904. After a ten day sack they left, but not before freeing thousands of Muslim prisoners while enslaving thousands of Christians and carrying off huge amounts of booty. In 1185, at another moment of Byzantine weakness, it was the turn of the Normans of Sicily to attack and take the city. Their rule, though short, led to considerable destruction. After Constantinople was captured by the Fourth Crusade in 1204, the city became the centre of one of the feudal fiefs which the Crusaders created. It was short-lived. The city and its territory were seized in 1224 by the Greek Despot of Epirus (who in turn was subjugated by the Tsar of Bulgaria). In 1246, a reinvigorated Byzantine Empire recovered the city. After a century and a half, the Byzantines lost it again, this time to the new regional power, the Ottomans. The Ottomans’ tenure was initially short-lived. They were forced to hand the city back to the Byzantines after their disastrous defeat by Tamerlane the Lame in 1402 at the gates of Ankara. But too weak by now to hold it, the Byzantines sold the city to Venice in 1423. Seven years later, in 1430, the Ottomans definitively recaptured the city.

There followed nearly five centuries of relative tranquility, during which the city became one of the great emporia of the Mediterranean and a melting pot of different ethnicities: Greeks of course, but also Turks, as well as Jews – the Ottomans welcomed the Sephardic Jews fleeing from Spain and Portugal – and later Bulgarians. Then, as Ottoman power went into terminal decline, irredentist feelings in Greece and Bulgaria grew. Both felt the city and its surrounding territory was theirs. After various acts of provocation and terrorism, matters came to a head in the two Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913. For a while, things hung in the balance but the city finally went to Greece. In 1917, during the First World War, a huge fire, accidentally started in a kitchen, destroyed almost the entire city. This led to an exodus of the city’s Jewish population, many of whom lost everything in the conflagration. They were soon followed by the Moslem, Turkish population as a result of the massive exchange of populations which followed the end of the Greco-Turkish War in 1922. In their place came Greeks expelled from Asia Minor, making the city once again a predominantly Greek city. During the Second World War, the Germans occupied it. As a result, its port facilities were heavily if haphazardly bombed by the Allies. For their part, the SS rounded up what was left of the city’s ancient Jewish population and shipped them all off to the gas chambers. After two millennia of presence (Jews had chased St. Paul out of the city after he had preached there), the Jews effectively vanished from Thessaloniki. The city had not finished to suffer. In 1978, it was hit by a powerful earthquake, which did considerable damage to its structures, both old and new.

With this history, it’s little short of a miracle if any of the city’s early Christian mosaics are left at all. I direct my wife to enter the city along the trace of the Via Egnatia, which leads us straight to the Arch of Galerius and the Rotunda of St. George. Google Maps doesn’t show any parking lots around there, but this is a dream, so we easily find a little parking spot in one of the side streets for our MG. We enter the Rotunda, and walk through to the main cupola. This is what greets us: a badly damaged band of mosaics in its upper registry.

St. George-0St. George-1a

St. George-2

Sad. But what can you expect, these mosaics were installed 1700 years old, in the late 300s AD. Funnily enough, the little that there is left of them may have been saved by the church becoming a mosque. The Turks just whitewashed over mosaics and frescoes, after pilfering whatever gold tesserae there still were.

But let’s get up close – which we can, since this is a dream, we can just float up there. Look at the faces!

St. George-5

St. George-3

St. George-4

Here, we still have Roman art, but with Christian characteristics.

The internet warns me that traffic is terrible in Thessaloniki, so I decide that we will walk to the other churches. On strictly chronological grounds, I further decide that the next church we will visit is St. David’s, built in the late 4th Century. I open Google Maps’ Street View and find that we are walking through a modern, really quite pleasant city, the product of the Great Fire of 1917 and modern planning for the city’s reconstruction. Anyway, we plunge into St. David’s. It has one remarkable mosaic left, tucked away in a lunette in a corner, depicting the vision of Ezekiel

St David-1

After admiring it for a while, we head on to St. Demetrius, which celebrates the city’s patron saint. The church has just a few, rather wonderful mosaic panels left, probably installed in the late 600s, early 700s, just after the Slavs had given up trying to sack the city.

St. Demetrios-2

St. Demetrios-4

St. Demetrios-3

The first is still Roman art, while the other two are beginning to look Byzantine.

Next stop: Hagia Sophia, Thessaloniki’s not Istanbul’s (although it seems that the design of the Thessalonian version was based on its Constantinopolitan namesake). On the way, we pop into the early 5th Century Church of Acheiropoietos, but there are really only shreds of mosaics left. Discouraged, we go on. And so we come to Hagia Sophia, built in the 8th Century, and whose glory is the late 8th Century mosaic in the cupola.

Hagia Sofia-1

As we can in dreams, my wife and I drift up to see the Christ up close.

Hagia Sofia-2

And we see a Christ who is becoming ever more Byzantine in his look and posture. The glories of Rome seem to be becoming a distant memory. This is even more apparent in this Virgin Mary, which reminds me of that other Virgin Mary we visited on the island of Torcello in the lagoons of Venice on the first leg of this dream trip.

Hagia Sofia-3

At this point, I have to make a decision. My original idea for this dream trip was for my wife and I to go south and visit the walled monastery of St. Luke in Boeotia and further south still to the convent of Daphni, close to Athens. They have lovely, if late-style, mosaics, this one an example from St. Luke’s, a rendering of the Pentecost

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and this one from Daphni, of Christos Pantocrator, Christ the All-Powerful

Daphni-Christ Pantrocrator

I also wanted to take this road to follow a little in the footsteps, or rather the tyre marks, of my father. In 1937, when still a university student, he spent the Easter holidays driving his Ford, in company of a cousin, all the way from Cambridge to Athens and on to Sparta, and then back. To get there, he drove through the old lands of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, across Bulgaria, and down to Thessaloniki. I feel his young shadow passing by us and want to follow it a little while. But it’s too much of a detour, and I want to get to Italy before it gets too hot. So I choose. We will continue along the trace of the Via Egnatia, to the Adriatic, and pick up the ferry to Bari.

No sooner said than done. We are whisked over to the car and are now heading out of the Thessaloniki. Studying Google maps in conjunction with Omnes Viae (“The Roman Route Planner”, which I had occasion to use in the first leg of this dream journey), I get my wife to make for Edessa, which in ancient times guarded the entrance of the Via Egnatia to the Pindus mountains but is now known more picturesquely as the “city of waters”. On the web, I watch people cavort in the city’s waters (highly mineralized by the look of it)

Edessa

before continuing on. We skirt the pretty lakes of Vegoritida and Petron

lake Vegoritida

and veer northwards. We cross the border into Macedonia (sorry, “the Former Yugolsav Republic of Macedonia”; political tempers run high in this region), a border which only came into existence in 1918, and we arrive at the city once called Heraclea Lyncestis but now known more prosaically as Bitola. It was an important way station on the Via Egnatia, so I take a pause and look at a panoramic view

Bitola Panorama

before moving on. We’re heading west now, towards the Adriatic Sea. We skirt the beautiful Lake Ohrid

Lake Ohrid

passing through the city of Ohrid, once Lychnidos, another important stop on the Via Egnatia. I’m tempted to visit the 5th Century Polyconch Basilica to see the remains of its mosaic floor, but everything I read suggests that the remains are too fragmentary. We take to the road again and soon find ourselves crossing yet another border that only came into existence in 1918, this one into Albania.

We pass over gloriously wild mountains

Librazhad

before dropping into the narrow valley of the Shkumbin River, known to the Romans as the Flumen Genusus.

Shkumbin river

We follow the river as it hurries down to the sea, but shortly before getting there we turn sharp right and head for the port of Durrës. In the summer, the place is submerged in beach-goers

Durres

but luckily there aren’t so many people yet. We drive to the ferry port. The web helpfully informs me that there is a ferry leaving tonight at 10 pm, which gets into Bari at 8 am tomorrow morning. Ferrying my wife, me, and our little MG over to Italy will cost us the princely sum of £131.72 (for some reason, the site I visited quotes the prices in pounds sterling). We have time for a bite to eat before we leave. But what do you eat in Albania?

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MG: http://www.mgownersclub.co.uk/sites/default/files/member-images/1105377623_27223.jpg (in http://www.mgownersclub.co.uk/member-images/mg-t-series/1954-tf-0)
Golden gate Istanbul: http://www.livius.org/a/turkey/istanbul/walls/istanbul_wall_theodosius_s_of_golden_gate.JPG (in http://www.livius.org/cn-cs/constantinople/constantinople_land_walls.html)
St. George Rotunda-1: http://cdn1.vtourist.com/4/5034576-St_Georges_Rotunda_Thessaloniki.jpg
St. George Rotunda-2: http://www.sacred-destinations.com/greece/thessaloniki-rotunda/photos/mosaic-sts-onesiphoros-and-porphyrios-c5-wc-pd)
St. George Rotunda-3: http://dic.academic.ru/pictures/wiki/files/84/ThessHagGeorgMosCosDamien.jpg
St. George Rotunda-4-Saint Cosmas: http://www.ics.forth.gr/isl/fayum/images/image_59.jpg
St. George Rotunda-5-Saint Therinos: http://www.ics.forth.gr/isl/fayum/images/image_60.jpg
St. George Rotunda-6-Saint Philip Bishop: http://www.ics.forth.gr/isl/fayum/images/image_57.jpg
St David: https://yameee.files.wordpress.com/2014/09/hd1.jpg (in https://yameee.wordpress.com/2014/09/20/сравнительный-анализ-мозаик-церквей/
St Demetrios-1-dedicating children to Demetrios: http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-EYa9zdAwg9w/Ty_EdArv9MI/AAAAAAAAAJM/Bgpaw1ttHAU/s1600/03.jpg
St. Demetrios-2-Demetrios and children: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-i536vAoKGRc/Ty_FkFneuOI/AAAAAAAAAJs/I68I0jWcfxU/s1600/07.jpg
St. Demetrios-3-Demetrios and donor: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-0C51ycpEZKQ/Ty_FNdSgPEI/AAAAAAAAAJk/rl66Pq0HZlA/s1600/06.jpg
Hagia Sophia-1: http://www.inthessaloniki.com/images/Churches/AgiasSofias/Inthessaloniki_Hagia_Sofia_C.jpg (in http://www.inthessaloniki.com/en/agia-sofia)
Hagia Sophia-2-cupola-christ detail: http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-TgUH5cPxxv0/T3i6LzYE-TI/AAAAAAAABj8/5B_CxlT_GcM/s1600/%CE%91%CE%93%CE%99%CE%91+%CE%A3%CE%9F%CE%A6%CE%99%CE%91+%CE%A8%CE%99%CE%A6%CE%97%CE%94.8.JPG
Hagia Sophia-3-catino-Virgin: http://farm6.staticflickr.com/5104/5737609091_a1ff106e1b_z.jpg
Convent of Daphni: Cupola-2-detail: http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3131/2618506302_de85e9decf.jpg
St. Luke-cupola-pentecost: http://users.sch.gr/geioanni/sel-ekpaideusi/sxolikes_ergasies/TRITH-GYMNASIOY-THRHSKEYTIKA/EIKONES_ENOTHTA_1/PENTHKOSTH_8.jpg
Edessa: http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-R7o-WczsSEk/UT85DRLhV2I/AAAAAAAAUPs/X5W2oHAFcLs/s1600/lydialith.jpg (in http://paspartounews.blogspot.com/2013/03/blog-post_8742.html)
Lake Vegoritida: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lake_Vegoritida#/media/File:Ostrovskoto_ezero.JPG (in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lake_Vegoritida)
Bitola: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/4/4e/BitolaPanorama.jpg/950px-BitolaPanorama.jpg (in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bitola)
Lake Ohrid: http://www.rego-bis.pl/bin/images/c77bd7ecc_d95f83717734355.jpeg (in http://www.rego-bis.pl/hotel,hotelcaliforniaresortpobytobjazd2w1,ALBCALR.html?ofrid=0e04c3c867866ee4b5a8f79f6b760f260257028d331141b288f4e709ba8a3720)
Librazhd: http://mw2.google.com/mw-panoramio/photos/medium/40520594.jpg (in http://www.panoramio.com/user/4935966/tags/Shebenik%20National%20Park)
Shkumbin river: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shkumbin#/media/File:Shkumbin.jpg (in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shkumbin)
Durrës beach: http://www.shkendijatravel.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/durres_albania_plaze.jpeg (in http://www.shkendijatravel.com/durres-port/)

PRICKLY PEAR AND THE COLUMBIAN EXCHANGE

Bangkok, 23 January, 2015

One of the most far-reaching effects of Christopher Columbus’s discovery of the Americas was the so-called Columbian Exchange, the exchange of plants and animals (and bacteria and viruses) between the Americas and the rest of the world. This map shows some of the major crops and livestock which made the journey in either direction between the Americas and Europe.
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We see, for instance, that the tomato crossed to Europe from the Americas, along with the turkey and corn (and possibly syphilis), while the cow, the horse, and the onion, went the other way, along with smallpox, measles, typhus, and a whole series of other diseases (the diseases nearly wiping out the Amerindian populations).

But I want to focus on a plant which normally doesn’t get mentioned in discussions of the Columbian Exchange: the prickly pear, a plant whose history is very much centered on Mexico. Here, we have an exemplar standing guard, as it were, at the site of Teotihuacan.
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In fact, the prickly pear is so centered on Mexico that it graces the Mexican flag as part of the latter’s central emblem (for those with “mature” eyesight like mine, it’s what the eagle is grasping with its talons at the same time as it grasps that snake in its beak).
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Maybe the prickly pear’s low profile in Columbian Exchange discussions is because it’s such a nasty, spiny plant, which really doesn’t endear itself to anyone.
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Or maybe because it’s not much of a commercial crop; the Food and Agricultural Organization, which collects global statistics on some 160 crops, collects no statistics on the prickly pear, for instance.

Whatever the reason, I wish to right this injustice and pay tribute to the prickly pear and its role in the great Columbian Exchange. It may perhaps have played a modest economic role, but it helped to fill many an empty stomach, and it sure as hell has played an important ecological role, sometimes wreaking havoc in the ecosystems into which it was thoughtlessly thrust.

I first met our prickly friend in the country of my birth, Eritrea. Here, you see a specimen in front of the delightful little train which runs from Asmara down to the seaport of Masawa on the Red Sea.
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I have a vivid memory of taking that train to go down to the coast for a holiday on the beach.

It was the Italians who, as colonial masters
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introduced the prickly pear (please note the plant waving at us from behind the colonial troops and their Italian officer). The Italian colonialists brought it from the mother country, of course, where it grows in profusion in the more arid southern regions of the country. We have here an example gracing the ruins of Agrigento in Sicily.
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But southern Italy was just a later stop on the prickly pear’s journey out of Mexico. It must surely have reached Italy from Spain, which was the first port of call for many of the biological journeys out of the Americas. Here we have a Spanish prickly pear, nudging its way into a photo of Sagunto castle in the province of Valencia.
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In truth, I have chosen pictures which show off the prickly pear to advantage, but normally the plant is much more unprepossessing. This photo of a ragged, messy patch of prickly pear in a village of Ethiopia is much more typical of how the plant presents itself
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especially when its population levels begin to explode out of control in some foreign ecosystem which has no natural biological defenses against it. The Global Invasive Species Database lists several countries where the prickly pear is now considered an invasive species. Eritrea is one of them, along with the neighboring countries of Ethiopia and Somalia – the Italians, who colonized all three countries had little idea of the damage they were wreaking. But South Africa also considers it an invasive species (here is a picture of prickly pear invading the Kruger national park).
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And Australia had a catastrophic invasion. The prickly pear was initially introduced as an ornamental plant for gardens. Then some bright spark thought of using the plant as natural fencing (sensibly enough, cattle and other animals desist from pushing through breaks of prickly pear because of the nasty spines, and they don’t eat them for the same reason) and to start a cochineal dye industry (the little beasties from which the dye is extracted munch the prickly pear’s pads). But the prickly pear went crazy. It eventually converted some 260,000 square kilometers of farmland (which for those readers, who like me don’t think in square kilometers, is more or less equivalent to a square 500 km by 500 km) into an impenetrable green jungle. Farmers were driven off their land by this “green hell” and their abandoned homes were crushed under the cactus growth.
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The authorities finally managed to get the plague under control in the 1920s by introducing a South American moth, the Cactoblastis cactorum, whose larvae feast on prickly pear. This led to a crash in prickly pear populations, and while the plant has not been eradicated from Australia it has been brought under control (the Australians were lucky, by the way; there is always a risk in this kind of biological control that the agent will find another native plant much more to its liking and wipe that out instead, or once it’s dealt with the original pest will turn its hungry eye on to something else and become an invasive species in its own right).

Why did some Spaniard ever bring the prickly pear back to Europe in the first place? Because, as far as I can tell, he thought he could brighten up a Spanish garden somewhere. But it cannot have been because of the beauty of the plant itself. More likely it was the flowers, for indeed the web is full of pictures of the flower of the prickly pear. Here are a few of the more pleasing examples.
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At some point, though, people, especially the poor with bellies to fill, began to also focus on the fruit, the “figs” of the prickly pear
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These had been enjoyed by the Mesoamericans for millennia before Hernan Cortes and his conquistadores arrived and have been enjoyed by the Mexicans ever since.
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I add here a close-up of the fruit
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first because it’s a nice photo, but second because the sharp-eyed reader will notice the hair-thin spines which nestle lovingly around the crown of the fruit. Their scientific name is glochids. They are the nastiest little buggers imaginable. They come off easily and lodge under the skin of the unwary picker, where they cause exquisite and unending agony as the said picker tries and tries and tries again to extract them, always in vain. Bloody little bastards … Readers may have gathered from this little burst of ill humour that I have personally experienced this exceedingly painful trial. It was in Eritrea as a matter of fact, where as a young and foolish lad I tried picking the fruit.  I then ran to my Mummy to get the horrible little things out, which she eventually did after much wailing on my part and cross admonitions on her part for me to keep still. I had tried picking the fruit because my mother had earlier bought some, perhaps from a lady like this
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and I had liked them – a little too many seeds perhaps but nicely fresh and sweet.

Personally, while I like the taste, that early brush with glochids has always made me wary of the fruit. The pain in the hands was bad enough but the thought of those things getting stuck in your tongue or gums because the fruit was badly cleaned is dreadful. And the thought of them getting stuck in your throat is simply too horrible to contemplate.

But others around the world consume the fruit without a second thought, especially around the Mediterranean rim. Here, we have some cheerful young lads selling the fruit in Egypt

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While here we have a more solemn Moroccan doing the same
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And here a smiling Sicilian ditto
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As readers can imagine, over the centuries people in the countries where the prickly pear was introduced eventually got around to putting the fruit into alcoholic drinks – at least in those countries where such drinks are tolerated. Thus, we have a prickly pear-flavoured liqueur called “Ficodi” in Sicily, we have a prickly-pear flavored herbal liqueur called “bajtra” in Malta (another country, by the way, where the prickly pear has been declared an invasive species), out in the lonelier reaches of the Atlantic, on the island of St. Helena (where Napoleon Bonaparte was banished), the potent “Tungi Spirit” is produced with the fruit, while prickly pear fruit is the main ingredient of a popular Christmas beverage in the British Virgin Islands called “Miss Blyden”. Looking at how all these various drinks are made, I think I would plump for Miss Blyden: prickly pear steeped in rum and sweetened with sugar. Mmm, sounds good …Yohoho, and a bottle of Miss Blyden, is what I say.

But actually, these drinks are all derivative, if I can put it that way: you just plunk prickly pear fruit in an alcoholic medium; it could actually be any fruit that is plunked. The Mesoamericans, on the other hand, came up millennia ago with colonche, an alcoholic drink using just the juice of the prickly pear fruit, fermenting it over a number of days. I have read that it is a sweet, fizzy, red beverage. Here’s a photo of a glass of colonche, together with the fruit from which it is derived.
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I regret to say that I did not try the drink while I was in Mexico. However, I have asked my son to try it and report back. If the feedback is good, we can discuss about getting into the business of exporting it!

What I will not promote, through export or otherwise, is the eating of the pads (that is to say the fleshy leaves) of the prickly pear. They eat them in Mexico – and in New Mexico too (and perhaps some of the other southwestern States of the US). The original peoples of Mexico were eating them when Cortes burst in on the scene, and it’s still quite popular. I saw them sold in the supermarket around the corner from where we were staying in Mexico City and took a photo, but I prefer this more sympathetic photo of a Mexican lady on the street selling them.
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I mentioned in an earlier post that I had tried the pads, cooked and with melted cheese, in a taco. I also tried them, with cheese but without the taco. It didn’t change the taste much.
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I’m all for trying things once (with the exception of insects). But not necessarily more than once. Pads of the prickly pear fall into the latter category.

But who knows? As the Mediterranean countries slowly go down the economic drain, and more generally as we 99 percenters slowly get poorer, perhaps we will join our Mesoamerican friends and start eating prickly pear pads – as the poor of the Mediterranean lands turned to the fruits of the prickly pear some three hundred years ago to fill their empty stomachs.

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Columbian exchange: http://globerove.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/03/Columbian-Exchange.jpg (in http://www.slideshare.net/mobile/cbgobble/columbian-v-triangle)
Prickly pear in Teotihuacan: https://farm1.staticflickr.com/214/444712763_0a91a8353e.jpg (in https://www.flickr.com/photos/eternal_sunshine_of_the_spotless_mind/444712763/
Mexican flag: http://www.freepressers.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/mexican-flag-640.jpg (in http://www.worldtribune.com/worldtribune/WTARC/2011/k1302_10_21.asp)
Prickly pear: https://seekraz.files.wordpress.com/2012/10/prickly-pear-cacti-in-tucson-desert.jpg (in https://seekraz.wordpress.com/tag/prickly-pear-cactus/)
Prickly pear by Asmara-Masawa railway: https://c1.staticflickr.com/9/8633/16089064905_44b9e68e48_b.jpg (in https://www.flickr.com/photos/dave-hill/16089064905/)
Italian colonial masters: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/it/6/6c/Ascari_penne_di_falco.jpg (in http://it.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Regio_corpo_truppe_coloniali_d’Eritrea)
Prickly pear in Sicily: https://c1.staticflickr.com/9/8299/7826141194_33f0e36a8d_b.jpg (in https://www.flickr.com/photos/mari-mora/7826141194/)
Prickly pear in Spain: https://themostbeautifulplacesineurope.files.wordpress.com/2013/07/dsc_0048.jpg (in https://themostbeautifulplacesineurope.wordpress.com/tag/castle/)
Prickly pear in Ethiopian village: http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-YutF1G9Qjbo/Up44cIZUf_I/AAAAAAAAMPA/fydBOTfLCNY/s1600/00041775.jpg (in http://jhodgesagame.blogspot.com)
Prickly pear in Kruger National Park: http://academic.sun.ac.za/cib/news/images/20120611_opuntia_stricta_impacts_fig1.jpg (in http://academic.sun.ac.za/cib/news/20120611_opuntia_stricta_impacts.htm)
Prickly pear in Australia – the green hell: http://chinchillalibrary.chinchilla.org.au/Images/Local%20History/johnty%20turner’s.jpg (in http://chinchillalibrary.chinchilla.org.au/HTML/HeritagePricklyPear.html)
Prickly pear in flower-1: http://www.fotothing.com/photos/4aa/4aa38f6709881bcb9b0dc2f7bce87dea.jpg (in http://www.fotothing.com/AzViper/photo/4aa38f6709881bcb9b0dc2f7bce87dea/)
Prickly pear in flower-2: http://photosbygarth.com/travels/DesertGardens4-23-11/prickly_pear_cactus_flowers_0887.jpg (in http://photosbygarth.com/wordpress/)
Prickly pear in flower-3: http://www.summitpost.org/prickly-pear-cactus-flower/294673
Prickly pear fruit-1: http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-_NFH_ZhWJCU/T1kjB-HTOWI/AAAAAAAAA84/rBf30_8f5qg/s1600/5.jpg (in http://docsfitnesstips.blogspot.com/2012/03/prickley-pear.html)
Mexicans selling prickly pear fruit:
http://i.gonoma.net/i/destinations/1106/zacatecas-images/prickly.jpg (in http://gonomad.com/destinations-xxx/3205-zacatecas-mexico-rsquo-s-overlooked-colonial-gem)
Prickly pear fruit-2: http://cdn.c.photoshelter.com/img-get/I0000O2m8f8jI.vU/s/600/600/PPCA-021548.jpg (in http://rolfnussbaumer.photoshelter.com/image/I0000O2m8f8jI.vU)
Ethiopian lady selling prickly pear: http://jamminglobal.com/2012/05/ethiopia-part-6-historical-axum-and-mountainous-twisties.html
Prickly pear seller Egypt: http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/Media/NewsMedia/2013/7/16/2013-635095893366005272-600_resized.jpg (http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/News/3357/25/The-fruit-beneath-the-thorns.aspx)
Prickly pear seller Morocco: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/b1/Prickly_pear_seller.jpg (in http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Opuntia_ficus-indica)
Prickly pear seller Italy: http://www.fotografieitalia.it/foto/3126/3126-08-20-44-1557.jpg (in http://www.fotografieitalia.it/foto.cfm?idfoto=65383&idfotografo=3126&crono=1)
Colonche: http://173.236.14.43/fotos/nota/2014/9/18/4d68094af571428.jpg (in http://www.am.com.mx/aguascalientes/especiales/espiritus-de-la-republica-144117.html)
Seller of cactus pads: http://holeinthedonut.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/Nopal_Cactus_Seller_Mercado_Hidalgo_Guanajuato.jpg (in http://holeinthedonut.com/2010/06/01/mexico-food-nopal-cactus/)

Cactus pad and cheese: http://s3.amazonaws.com/foodspotting-ec2/reviews/846163/thumb_600.jpg?1315336866 (in http://www.foodspotting.com/150802-amandahugnkiss)/)

 

CAPERS

Beijing, 7 June 2014

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

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

orata pomodorini capperi olive

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

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

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

caper bush-1

and here’s another from near Brindisi in southern Italy

caper bush-2

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

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

caper flowers-2

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

caper buds

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

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

graded capers

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

caper berries-2

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

caper berries-natural state

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

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

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

caper leaves

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

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

TROUBLES IN THE MEDITERRANEAN

Beijing, 27 May 2014

Ten days ago, this was.

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

Recco-Camogli

We walked down to the harbour, skirted its edge.

camogli port

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

camogli-boardwalk

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

san rocco from the sea

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

Camogli-San Rocco path-2

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

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

monte di portofino-1

and north-west towards Genova.

monte di portofino-2

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

Egypt

egypt-2

The West Bank

west bank

Syria

syria

Lebanon

lebanon

Turkey

turkey

Morocco

morocco

Algeria

algeria

Tunisia

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

and finally Libya

libya

libya-2

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

pantelleria

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

Greece Financial Crisis

but also Italy itself

italy

as well as France

France Strike

and Spain

spain

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

san rocco-1

____________________________

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