This post was going to be about the oleander, but as often happens when I surf the web I disappeared down some fascinating rabbit holes along the way. So while I will discuss the oleander I will also throw in a couple of disparate facts linked more or less tenuously to the oleander.
First the oleander. The walks which my wife and I have been taking recently on the Ligurian coast have led us past many an example of this fine plant, whose showy red and pink flowers have lit up our way, especially when we have been traversing urban sections of our walks.
As usual, after quietly enjoying at this display from Nature, I looked to the plant’s history, to see where it had originally come from (not believing for a minute that it could be native to Liguria). What I found was, I suppose, a testimony to its enduring attraction to humans as well as to its toughness and endurance: enduring attraction to humans because it’s been domesticated for such a long time that no-one can make out its original home – South to South-West Asia seems to the best guess; toughness and endurance because even when taken out of its native habitat it has survived and thrived and created new homes for itself – here is a picture of oleander which has gone native in northern Israel, growing along the side of streams.
It has gone similarly native in many places, from Portugal and Morocco in the west to Yunnan in China in the east.
Its toughness and endurance has made it a popular plant to use in unforgiving environments, like the median strips of highways: you can’t get much tougher than that – poor, stony soil, little water, fumes from the passing cars, collection point for all the rubbish that people throw out of their cars, or that drop off their cars. As a bonus, it almost makes highways look pretty.
One of the first things that struck me when I went to Sicily was the oleander bushes along the highways there, the flowers turning what was really a very sterile environment into a pleasure to look at as the car whizzed down the highway.
The only other thing to note about oleander is its poisonous effects on humans and other animals. Every part of the plant is poisonous: in a word, beautiful but deadly. A couple of books have had as plot devices the murder of someone with oleander. For me, the best is Dragonwyck, not so much for the book as for the 1946 film made from the book. It has Vincent Price, a slimy smoothie if there ever was one, who does in his wife with oleander. We have him here staring broodingly at the fatal oleander plant.
Actually, oleander’s deadliness has been exaggerated. It’s not really that bad. Very few people have certifiably died from ingesting oleander. The worst that normally happens is that you feel horribly sick, you vomit, you get diarrhea … I’m sure I don’t have to spell it out, readers get the picture.
And that’s it, really, for the oleander. Now I can turn to the rabbit holes I fell down!
The first is related to the plant’s effects on humans. But I must start with a little bit of context. I want to take my readers to Delphi, in Greece.
Now the place is just a mass of romantic ruins, but in its heyday, from about 600 BCE to about 200 CE was really famous in the Ancient World, a place to go to if you wanted divine advice about something important to you: should our city go to war with our neighbour? should we start a new colony? or, on a more personal level, should I marry her? The temple there was dedicated to the god Apollo, and one of the temple’s priestesses, the Pythia, would answer your question. After offering a splendid goat for sacrifice and paying a suitable tribute (there’s no such thing as a free lunch), supplicants would be led down into the inner sanctum of the temple, this dark small room, where they would find the Pythia sitting on a tripod and flanked by a couple of priests. The tripod was placed across a cleft in the floor through which vapours or fumes would be rising and enveloping the Pythia. She would be holding a branch of laurel in one hand (the laurel was sacred to Apollo) and a small basin of clear water from a nearby sacred stream in the other. Rustling the laurel branch and gazing into the basin of water, she would answer your question. Here is the scene depicted on the bottom of an ancient Greek drinking cup, the supplicant to the right, the Pythia to the left.
Now, this was not like having a pleasant conversation with someone. The Pythia would be “her hair stood on end, her complexion changed, her heart beat hard, her bosom swelled, and her voice became seemingly more than human”. Here is a much more satisfyingly dramatic rendering, painted by a certain John Collier in 1891, of what the Pythia might have looked like.
The whole experience must have been quite unnerving and overpowering for the supplicants. On top of it, the answer they got was often quite cryptic, leaving the supplicants scratching their heads trying to understand the true meaning of what Apollo had told them through the Pythia.
Why am I recounting all this? Because there has been considerable discussion about how the Pythia got herself all worked up. What was she eating, drinking, or smoking to get herself into that state? Some of the ancient sources say that the Pythia was chewing laurel leaves. But as we all know – bay leaves, which are actually laurel leaves, being used in cooking – laurel leaves don’t have any effect on someone who eats them. Which is where oleander comes in. The Greeks were rather slipshod in their use of the name “laurel”, using it to denote several plants including the oleander (the leaves of the oleander and the laurel do look quite similar). So one clever chap has suggested that the Pythia was actually chewing oleander leaves, which could indeed give you all the symptoms the Pythias exhibited.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the vapours and fumes emanating from the cleft under the Pythia’s seat (and which are very evident in the painting by John Collier). Some have argued that it could have been these that (also) set the Pythia off. Given that Delphi sits on two geological faults which cross each other, it is thought in certain circles that the cleft which the Pythia sat astride was a natural opening into the bowels of the Earth. There has therefore been much discussion about what naturally formed fumes and vapors could have been seeping out from the Earth’s interior and been having this effect on the Pythia – ethylene? benzene? something else? – but it’s all been quite inconclusive. The above-mentioned clever chap suggests what seems to me a much simpler solution, that maybe under the room where the Pythia sat was another room, connected to the former through the cleft, and in which a priest was burning oleander leaves. By inhaling these fumes the Pythia was adding to the effects from chewing the leaves.
That’s one interesting rabbit hole connected to the oleander.
The other involves Hiroshima. As I would hope everyone knows, the first atom bomb ever dropped came down on Hiroshima on 6 August 1945. Here is a picture of the dreaded mushroom cloud which formed over the city.
The city was totally devastated. Here are a few pictures of what the city looked like in the days and months after the dropping of the bomb.
The city’s botanical gardens were not spared. So bad was the destruction that the garden’s directors thought that nothing would grow there again for decades. Yet lo and behold, the year after the bomb was dropped the oleanders in the gardens grew out from their blasted roots and flowered! The oleanders became a symbol of hope for Hiroshima’s citizens, convincing them that the city could be reborn even after this terrible catastrophe – as indeed it has. Ever since, the oleander has been the city’s official flower.
I’ve become a bit of a cynic in my old age, but this little story does warm the cockles of my heart.
In the recent hikes which my wife and I have been doing, we’ve come across a lot of these.
“These” are woodland strawberries. I throw in here a much more professional photo of this plant, to give readers a better view.
The fact is, though, that they are really very small, no more than half a centimetre across, as this photo of a whole sheet of them shows: they are just bright red dots against the green of the leaves.
Those bright red dots always catch my eye as we walk along. From time to time, I’ve picked one of the bigger ones and eaten it. They are pretty bland, I have to say. Their taste is really nothing to write home (or a post) about.
Which – as I tramped along – got me thinking: who were the people who laboured so hard to turn these small, not very tasty berries into the big, juicy and wonderfully sweet berries that we eat today?
Readers of my posts will know that I have a fondness of saluting the almost always anonymous folk who over the millennia have coaxed tasty foodstuffs which we eat today out of small and not so tasty wild plants. The last such foodstuff whose creation I have saluted is the common chicory. I decided to do the same thing for the strawberry. And so I have been beavering away on my computer these last few weeks, surfing the web and seeing what I could find.
The first thing I found was that I had been completely wrong. Today’s strawberries do not descend from those little woodland strawberries we had been spotting on our walks. They are not the result of countless generations of rural people patiently selecting woodland strawberry plants with ever sweeter and ever bigger fruits. The story of today’s plump and juicy strawberries is much more complex. They are actually the result of Europe having colonised much of the rest of the planet.
But let me start where all good stories start, at the beginning. It is true that Europeans had at one time domesticated woodland strawberries. Perhaps the Romans had done so, but if they did these domesticates were lost during the Dark Ages. Medieval Europeans certainly started domesticating them. King Charles V of France, for instance, has his gardeners transplant 1,200 woodland strawberry plants into his gardens some time in the late 1300s. Europeans also started domesticating the other species of strawberries which are found in Europe, the musk, or hautbois, strawberry, which is somewhat bigger than the woodland strawberry
and the creamy strawberry, which as its name suggests can be quite pale; it’s about the same size as the woodland strawberry.
It’s hard to tell from surviving documents, but Medieval and Renaissance gardeners do seem to have created strains of strawberries which were bigger and sweeter than their wild cousins. But by “bigger” I mean something as big as a plump blackberry, no more than that.
Then started the period of European colonisation. In the Americas this led to, among other things, the transfer of a wealth of new foodstuffs to Europe, a phenomenon I’ve touched upon in a couple of past posts. Maize, tomato, and potato are probably the most well known of these arrivals from the Americas. Like these three, most of the new foodstuffs came from Central and South America, but a few also made their way from North America. The best known of these is the sunflower, while I recently wrote a post about another, more modest transfer from North America, the Jerusalem artichoke. And now I have discovered that there was yet another transfer from North America: the Virginian (or scarlet) strawberry! This species of strawberry grows throughout much of North America, but it was of course first seen by Europeans in the colonies strung along the eastern seaboard.
These colonists must have been quite pleased to have this new strawberry plant at hand. We’re still not talking of berries the size of those we’re now used to – its berries were about the same size as those of the European musk strawberry. But no doubt they would have seen them as a useful adjunct to their diet.
When exactly someone brought plants of the Virginia strawberry back to Europe is not clear – the early 1600s seem to be the most probable time frame. And what country they brought them back to is not clear either – the British, French and Dutch all had colonies in the strawberry’s range, so any of these three countries could have been the original entry point, and maybe the plant was introduced into Europe more than once. Wherever its entry point (or points) was, the Virginia strawberry didn’t spread that quickly through the rest of Europe. It seems to have been more of a curiosity, and certainly didn’t replace the European species with which people were familiar.
While the French, British, and Dutch were busy colonising North America, the Spaniards were busy colonising Central and South America. In South America, they first smashed the Inca Empire. Then they turned their attention further southward. It made strategic sense for them to control the whole of the Pacific seaboard down to the Straits of Magellan, to keep an eye on other pesky European nations coming through those straits for who knows what nefarious reasons. So they went on to conquer what is now Chile. In the south of Chile, the Spaniards encountered the Mapuche and Huilliche peoples, who put up a stiff resistance but who were eventually overcome and subjugated.
The Spaniards discovered that these two tribes had domesticated another local species of strawberry, the Chilean (or beach) strawberry. And in this case the berry was pretty damned big!
The Spanish colonists were very happy to add the Chilean strawberry to their local diet, to the point that it was commonly available in local markets in the new Spanish towns of southern Chile. It remained, however, a local delicacy. If anyone ever tried to bring back plants to Spain, there is no sign of them having succeeded.
So things stood until 1712. In that year, King Louis XIV of France sent a certain Amédée François Frézier on a secret mission to Chile. We have here a portrait of Frézier in old age, after a long and successful career.
His orders were to find out all he could about the Spanish military presence there: forts, harbours, military units, and so on (this was part of Louis XIV’s ongoing struggles with Spain). For nearly two years, Frézier followed his orders most diligently, posing as a merchant looking for trading opportunities. But Frézier was a man of many interests, one of these being botany. Naturally enough, the Chilean strawberry, with its very big fruit, caught his attention. As he was to write later:
They there cultivate entire fields of a type of strawberry differing from ours by their rounder leaves, being fleshier and having strong runners. Its fruit are usually as large as a whole walnut, and sometimes as a small egg. They are of a whitish-red colour and a little less delicate to the taste than our woodland strawberries.
Frézier determined to bring some plants back with him when he returned to France. So it was that when in 1714 he finally boarded the ship which would be taking him home, he took five plants of the Chilean strawberry with him, and managed to keep alive on the long – and hot – trip home. When he arrived in France, he kept one of the plants for himself and sent the others to various friends and patrons. News of this new species of strawberry quickly made the rounds among Europe’s little circle of amateur botanists, especially after Frézier’s book was published in which he gave a detailed account of his doings in Chile and included a description of this strawberry plant with such large fruits. Strawberry plants are easy to propagate, so not only did news about the Chilean strawberry get around; so did clones of the various plants he brought back. Anyone with a serious botanical garden had to have the plant in their collection!
Alas! Great disappointment lay in store for many of those eminent botanists who planted the Chilean strawberry in their garden and eagerly awaited it to flower and – especially – to fruit (“usually as large as a whole walnut, and sometimes as a small egg”, Frézier had written). For the most part, their plants yielded nothing – nada, zero! They began to think that maybe the plant’s transfer to Europe had made it sterile.
Here, with the advantage of hindsight, I shall cut through all the intellectual confusion that pervaded the minds of Europe’s finest botanists for several decades. The fundamental problem was this: they hadn’t realized that some species of plants are hermaphrodites, and so can self pollinate, while in other species there are separate male and female plants, so both have to be present – and relatively close to each other – for pollination to occur. It just so happens that all the European species of strawberries are hermaphrodites, as is the Virginian strawberry, but the Chilean strawberry is not. There are both male and female plants in that species. Frézier must have taken only plants which were fruiting, and therefore females. This was sensible enough, given his (and everyone else’s) knowledge of strawberries; he wanted to be sure that the plants he nicked were fertile. But what this meant is that there was no way that those poor female Chilean strawberry plants, along with their clones which all the botanists were busy sending each other, were ever going to fruit in Europe without a male plant handy. This mystery was finally elucidated in the early 1760s by a young Frenchman called Antoine Nicolas Duchesne, who had a fascination for natural history. He was lucky to have access to King Louis XV’s gardens at Versailles and to be mentored by the “Assistant Demonstrator of the Exterior of Plants at the King’s Garden”, Bernard de Jussieu. After making a detailed study of strawberries, he explained all in his book Histoire naturelle des fraisiers published in 1766, when he was a mere 19 years old! Here is picture of him in old age.
But actually there was a way to make the Chilean strawberry produce berries! The discovery had been made some time in the first half of the 1700s by those anonymous farmers whom I love to salute. While all those well-off, educated botanists were tearing their hair out at the Chilean strawberry’s obdurate refusal to fruit, they had found a way to coax it to do so – by interplanting the plants with either Virginian strawberry plants or musk strawberry plants. The pollens of these species were closely related enough to that of the Chilean strawberry to pollinate it. Presumably, by chance a farmer (or his wife) had planted these various species close together in their strawberry patch, had seen that the Chilean strawberry fruited under these conditions, and were sharp enough to draw the right conclusion. Who exactly these clever farmers were will of course never be known. But the chances are that it was one or more farmers from around the French city of Brest, in Brittany (Frézier was posted to Brittany on his return from Chile, which probably explains this Breton connection), although it could (also) have been farmers in the Netherlands.
And what fruits they were! Big, juicy, sweet – everything that Frézier had said of the strawberries he had eaten in Chile. Further experimentation showed that the two species from the Americas, the Virginian strawberry and the Chilean strawberry, gave birth to a fertile hybrid, which could be grown as a separate species. On top of this, this hybrid was hermaphroditic so no need for all that fiddly stuff of making sure to plant males and females together! This hybrid is the garden strawberry, the modern strawberry eaten all around the world today.
An industry was created, which currently produces some 9 million tonnes of garden strawberries per year, (with – sign of the times – 40% of that being in China).
And what of the strawberries which this hunking hybrid of a strawberry displaced? The woodland strawberry has disappeared back into the woods from whence it came and where I found it at the beginning of this post. As far as I can tell, the same fate has befallen the Virginian strawberry. There is apparently still a small but devoted following of the musk strawberry in gourmet circles in Italy (of which my wife and I are clearly not part since no restaurant in this country has ever offered us this delicacy). And the Chilean strawberry is still eaten in certain parts of southern Chile.
And what of the other species of strawberries? Because there are something like 15 other species of strawberries around the world. Not surprisingly (strawberry plants liking cool to cold conditions), most of these are native to northern Eurasia, in an arc going from western Siberia to northern Japan. But a number are also to be found in the high areas of western China, all the way from Qinghai in the north to Yunnan in the south. A couple of species are also found in the Himalayas proper. There is even one species which inhabits the hill country of southern India and the mountainous regions of the Philippines.
A good few of these species don’t produce a fruit worth eating. Others do, but the steamroller of the garden strawberry hybrid has meant that they have never had a chance to develop commercially. They are only eaten locally. This is especially true in China. I find that a pity. Rather than becoming the biggest global producer of what is essentially an American hybrid, China should look to its own strawberries and bring them to its people, and to the rest of the world. Just a thought.
As for me and my wife, I think we should plan an enormously long hike from Yunnan to Qinghai, sampling the local strawberries along the way. That would certainly keep us busy for quite a while …
All the walks my wife and I do around Lake Como (and now Lake Maggiore, to change a bit) start in an urban setting. We take trains, or buses, or boats, to get to our starting points and we are perforce dropped off in small towns or villages. In the last couple of weeks, as we have walked up through the back roads of these towns or villages to get to the woods and meadows above them, we have noticed a marvelous thing: whole walls of the sweetest smelling jasmine.
This person has even made a tunnel covered in jasmine (I’m guessing it’s the garage).
The scent of so much jasmine has quite gone to my head and my fingers have automatically begun doing a little research on the flower.
Truth to tell, I already did a little research on jasmine for an earlier post, when I researched the only perfume of my wife’s which I have ever liked: Chance Eau Fraîche, by Chanel. One of its ingredients is jasmine oil.
As I noted in that post, there are a large number of different species of jasmine. Some 200 have been catalogued, and who knows how many more are out there waiting to be discovered. My guess, though, is that those walls of jasmine which we have been passing are Jasminum officinale, the common, or white, or summer, or poet’s jasmine (and that’s just the English names).
The logic for my choice is simple: it’s the most common jasmine in Europe.
But it’s not native to Europe. In fact, there is only one species of jasmine which is native to Europe, and only the Mediterranean part of Europe at that, the common yellow jasmine.
Even in this case it’s difficult to say it’s a European flower. Its range stretches all the way to northern Iran.
The biggest “hotspot” of jasmine species is actually in South and Southeast Asia, although the west of China, especially Yunnan, hosts quite a few species. A number of species are present in Central Asia, but I suspect they may have been carried there from the Indian subcontinent. Australia is home to a few species, I suppose as a southward extension of their presence in Southeast Asia. And then there’s a good dozen species in Africa, especially southern Africa. To complete this world tour, no jasmine species are native to the Americas, alas.
If the jasmine my wife and I are seeing is not native to Europe, how did it get here? It seems that common jasmine, along with a couple of other jasmine species – sambac (or Arabian) jasmine, and Spanish (or Royal, or Catalan) jasmine – originally entered Europe via Sicily and Spain, when these were Arabian kingdoms: common and sambac jasmines through Sicily, and Spanish jasmine through (appropriately enough) Spain. Since I inserted a picture of the common jasmine earlier, I feel I owe it to these two other species to insert a picture of them too:
But none of these jasmines were native to the Arabian-dominated lands either. The Arabs had discovered them even further to the east and had brought the flowers back to their homelands. They brought common jasmine back from Persia after they conquered it (a similar post-conquest westward transfer occurred with the lilac, as I narrated in an earlier post). In fact, the European name “jasmine” is a corruption of the flower’s Arabic name, which is itself a corruption of the Persian name for the flower, Yasameen, which means “gift from God” (such poets, the Persians!). And it’s possible that the Persians had come across the flower further east still. As for sambac and Spanish jasmines, it seems that trade, not conquest, brought them westwards, in the holds of the ships of Arab traders doing business with the Indian subcontinent.
Jasmines didn’t just ride westwards on trade routes. Common jasmine and sambac jasmine also rode on them out to the east, into China (another result of the ancient trade routes across the Eurasian continent – the “Silk Roads” – about which I’ve written previously). Here, too, the Chinese adopted the Persian name: Yeh-hsi-ming.
It’s interesting that the Chinese felt the need to import jasmines, given that they had quite a few of their own. Perhaps it was the pure white colour of these imported jasmines which attracted the Chinese – many of their jasmines are yellow as far as I can tell; I throw in a photo of one of the more common Chinese jasmines, winter jasmine.
By the way, it’s called winter jasmine because it actually flowers from November to March. In fact, its Chinese name, Yingchun, means “the flower that welcomes Spring” (the Chinese, too, can be quite poetic). This quirk has meant that winter jasmine has now also been carried off to many a corner of the world.
But coming back to the jasmines imported into China, no doubt their heady scent helped too; perhaps they had a stronger scent than the native species. Or perhaps it was these jasmines’ close links with Buddhist ritual (something which the early Indian Buddhists had no doubt picked up from the Hindus). Anyone who has been to a Buddhist (or Hindu) temple in South and South-East Asia will have noticed the liberal use they make of jasmine flowers.
By this reasoning, the use of these jasmines entered into China along with Buddhism, something else which was transported along trade routes (I have written earlier about a slightly different botanical story, the cooption by Chinese Buddhists of the ginkgo tree as a replacement for the bo-tree tree so beloved of South Asian Buddhists).
No doubt the Arabs were attracted by the colour of the jasmines (white seems to symbolise purity in so many cultures). But they were assuredly also attracted by their scent (which, I have to say, is indeed sublime). The name “sambac” points to this. It is a corruption of the Medieval Arabic term “zanbaq”, which means jasmine oil. As attested by the perfume Chance Eau Fraîche, which I mentioned earlier, the modern thirst for jasmine oil in perfumery is as great as it was in the Arabian kingdoms – actually far greater, since there are so many billions more of us on this planet now. Here is a field of jasmine flowers in Grasse, in the south of France, waiting for their oils to be extracted (a field owned, by the way, by Chanel).
But there is so little oil in each flower! As many as 8,000 flowers will have perished to produce this little, 1ml vial of jasmine oil (jasmine absolute, in the jargon of perfumery).
Perhaps the way the Chinese use jasmine to scent tea is a little more “humane”. I watched a no-nonsense Chinese video on the making of jasmine tea. Cutting out all the marketing bla-bla, they mix together about an equal measure of tea (usually green tea) and jasmine buds (common or sambac), they let the mixture sit for a while so that the tea leaves get impregnated with the jasmine’s scent, and then they dry it. The result looks something like this.
In truth, I’m not a great fan of jasmine tea. I like the scent of the flower on the air, but the scent of it in tea I find rather sickly. But perhaps this is because I have never had a really high-quality jasmine tea. I am ready to be pleasantly surprised one day.
Is it possible that such lovely flowers with such a delightful scent could have an evil side? Alas, it is possible: some species of jasmine have been declared invasive species in a couple of countries and are subject to eradication programmes. It is not the fault of the jasmines. It is our desire to fill our gardens with foreign flowers that is to blame. Take Brazilian jasmine, a lovely member of the family.
For starters, it’s not Brazilian at all. It’s one of the African jasmines, no doubt taken to Brazil from one of Portugal’s African colonies (remember that the Americas have no native jasmines; perhaps a colonial administrator wanted to enliven his garden in Brazil). In the 1920s, the “Brazilian” jasmine was imported into Florida. Initially, it was planted in people’s gardens, but inevitably – as I’ve recounted in other posts in the case of other invasive species – the “Brazilian” jasmine “jumped over” the garden fence and began to spread. It has now invaded intact, undisturbed hardwood forests in the south of Florida, where it can climb high into the tree canopy, completely enshrouding native vegetation and reducing native plant diversity. Here is a picture of this jasmine at work in the forests of Florida.
I was thinking about this this afternoon as my wife and I were walking high up in the hills. We were surrounded by beautiful wild flowers of all descriptions. Why do gardeners have to fill their gardens with foreign flowers when there are so many beautiful ones right on their doorstep? Another mystery to be solved one day.
Well, the evening is drawing in. It’s time for me to get ready to test something. I’ve read that the jasmine flower opens at night, so the scent is most powerful then. I shall persuade my wife to accompany me on a hunt for a wall – or just a modest bush – of jasmine, to see if this is true. I shall report back.
We’re out at last! First day post-lockdown in Italy. Like Basil Fotherington-Tomas, I was saying, “Hello clouds! Hello sky!” as I skipped (well, walked) along.
For those of my readers who are not familiar with this character, he appears in the book “Down with Skool!”, written in the 1950s, purportedly by one Nigel Molesworth, a boy in an English Prep school.
The delightful cartoons which pepper the book’s pages are by the great Ronald Searle.
Molesworth’s judgement of Fotherington-Tomas is severe: “you kno he say Hullo clouds hullo sky he is a girlie and love the scents and sounds of nature … he is uterly wet and a sissy” (Molesworth’s spelling is also quite erratic).
Well, I’m not utterly wet and a sissy (although I do admit to being a bit of a nerd), but my joy of finally being let out of my apartment is uncontainable.
Hello birds! (even if they are filthy urban pigeons)
Hello ancient church!
Hello canal of Milan!
Hello bridge over the canal! (even if you are a pretty ugly bridge)
It’s great to be out here and see you all again!
We now just have to hope that we don’t get too much of a spike back up in the numbers, otherwise they’ll send us once more into lockdown …
Two days to go until we can roam the streets again …
Well, having covered the animal kingdom in my last two wanderings around the apartment, it seems fair to now cover the vegetable kingdom. And here’s an interesting thing I’ve discovered on my wanders: while humans and animals often take centre stage in the pieces which I reported on earlier – they are the piece – plants are almost always – at least in this apartment – relegated to the role of mere decoration of something else. Let me show my readers what I mean.
For starters, many of our plates, bowls, and jugs are decorated with plants or flowers or fruit. Take this plate, for instance, which I bought many years ago in New York and which I’ve mentioned in previous posts.
The plate itself is a copy of an old Ottoman design, depicting a spray of wild flowers. I spy a tulip, a carnation of some sort, a sweet William perhaps. Lovely. But still, only decoration on a plate. In theory, we could cover all those flowers with a greasy meat sauce (I say in theory, because we never actually use this plate, it would feel sacrilegious to do so).
Or take this plate, which my mother-in-law bought.
Plants are much more aggressively centre stage here. We have four large leaves surrounding a small fruit. Lovely piece of design. But still only a plate. We’ve sometimes covered those leaves with olives, small onions, and other hors-d’oeuvres, to serve at table.
Or how about this little milk jug, which once must have been part of a larger tea set (and which I recently discovered, by studying the marks on the bottom of it, to have been made by Richard-Ginori).
Simple but beautiful design. But only decoration on a jug.
From the other side of the world but the same idea: a sake bowl and its companion cups, which my wife and picked up on our travels in Asia.
Here, we have the ever popular presence of bamboo in Asian design. Very handsome. But only there to be admired as one drinks one’s sake from them – which my wife and I have often done.
At a larger, more rustic scale, we have this series of water pitchers, all of which use plants and flowers as their decoration.
All, except for the pitcher with the wisteria, were bought by mother-in-law, who had a great fondness for pitchers. The pitcher-covered wisteria was instead given to us by a friend. They were made by her aunt, a potter. It came with a similarly decorated oil and vinegar cruet and salt cellars. Every time I shake salt on my food, I admire those wisteria, a flower I adore. Lovely – but still only decoration on a utilitarian object.
Sometimes, the vegetal decoration gets so abstract as to almost disappear from view. Take this vase, for instance, another piece which my mother-in-law bought.
It’s really very handsome. But you have to study the vase a bit to see the flowers and the leaves. The more distracted eye, using it perhaps to hold cut flowers, just sees a swirl of browns and yellows.
It’s the same with this glass ashtray.
Only a closer look will discern a leaf in the rippling glass. The distracted smoker will see nothing but a receptacle for his butt-ends.
The fading of vegetal decoration into abstraction is even more marked in other objects. Take this carpet, for instance (another of my mother-in-law’s purchases), which in these days of confinement my wife and I are regularly using as a exercise mat.
It’s the same with the massive cupboard in our bedroom, inherited from my in-laws. Only sometimes, as I open one of its doors searching for a piece of clothing, will I register the rather stylized vegetal design carved in the wood.
I wonder why it is that the vegetable kingdom plays such a modest, secondary role in the pieces with which we surround ourselves. Why don’t we have a statue of a flower in the apartment, for instance? Perhaps it’s because we can more easily have the real thing – the potted plant, a living statue as it were. At the moment, for example, we have this splendid bunch of flowers slowly opening up before us.
If you can have the real thing, why bother with inanimate copies?
A virus stalks the land, it goes by the name of Covid-19.
For weeks it has been spreading quietly, behind our backs, skipping from hand to hand, riding on droplets we cough out. Now it is out in the open. The patients are pouring into the hospitals. The hospitals are struggling. The frailest – the old, the weak – are dying. The government has enacted drastic measures. Here in Milan, we are in lock-down. No-one can enter or leave the region without a good and serious reason, no-one can even move around within the region. The government exhorts us to stay home. In fact, if we have even a small temperature it orders us to stay home. If we are infected, we are to go to the hospital only if we can no longer breathe. These are anxious times for us all.
True to the philosophy behind this blog, I have been looking around me for beauty and the peace it can bring the anxious soul. I have found it, in a magnolia tree behind Milan’s cathedral.
As a previous post of mine attests, I love magnolias – who does not? I discovered this particular magnolia tree a few years ago. It grows on a small lawn tucked away between the cathedral’s gothic apse and its southern transept. Last year, I happened to pass by when it was in full bloom. Here, I took the photo with the apse behind.
Here, I took it with the transept behind.
On impulse, I decided to watch the tree cycle through the seasons, finding excuses to walk this way from time to time. The next time I came by it was summer. The flowers had given way to thick foliage.
As a previous post attests, I have a weakness for this shade of green, but I found the contrast between the green of the leaves and the white of the cathedral’s stone particularly stunning. So entranced was I that I snapped several photos of this symphony of green and white.
Shortly after taking this photo, we moved up to Vienna for the rest of the summer, and the autumn took us to Japan once more. So it was only in the dead of winter that I saw the tree again. I saw it at night, its skeleton of branches barely lit by the lights illuminating the cathedral.
The delicate tracery of the cathedral’s gothic windows took pride of place.
And now, in these dark times, I have gone back to see the tree in flower once more, to draw solace from it.
“I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.”
Except that, contrary to William Wordsworth, I wasn’t lonely as a cloud, I was with my wife, and it wasn’t daffodils that I saw crowded on the hillside but primroses. My wife and I were finishing the last stage of the Traveler’s Trail along Lake Como when we turned a corner and found before us this star-burst of yellow.
True to their name — prim-rose; first “rose”, or flower — the primroses have been one of the first flowers to burst out of their winter hibernation into this Year of Our Lord 2020. They have been a constant companion along the paths we have travelled these last days of February, coming up through the forest floor litter of last year.
But it is not only them which have been keeping us company. For every primrose we have seen, it seems there has been a small purple flower close by. A few minutes after seeing that crowd of primroses, we saw a heavy sprinkling of these purple flowers along the side of the path.
Some investigation on my part has revealed that they are liverworts. They are so small that I had to crouch down low to get this picture, with my old bones protesting all the while.
We have seen them showing off hues ranging from this violet to washed-out jeans-blue.
Nature, slowly coming alive again, has continued to give. Today, as we travelled a trail from Como which wends its way through the woods north of the town, we came across a few bunches of this flower.
My internet searches failed to come up with a name for this lovely green flower with yellow pistils. Luckily, however, my initial plea for help led one helpful reader to point out that I had another hellebore on my hands, the helleborus viridis, or green hellebore (I happen to have written about the black hellebore in my previous post). This flower hangs its head modestly on its stalk, so to get this picture I had to lie down on the path – I must confess to having had difficulties getting back up; luckily, my wife was at hand …
A little further, we came across another tiny purple flower. For a moment, I thought it was a liverwort, but on closer inspection I concluded that it was a violet.
And a little further on, we came across a white version of this same flower.
And now, riding back on the train to Milan, writing this up, I think I can say about all these flowers, paraphrasing Wordsworth (and severely harming his rhythm in the process), that
“… when on my couch I will lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They will flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure will fill,
And dance with the primroses, liverworts, violets, and green hellebores” .
My wife and I are in the middle of a multi-day hike down the eastern shore of Lake Como, walking a 45-km long trail which links Colico, located more or less where the River Adda flows into the lake at its northern end, to Lecco which straddles the River Adda as it flows out of the southern end of the lake on its way to join the River Po. It’s called the Sentiero del Viandante, the Wayfarer’s Trail. For any of my readers who might be hikers, I throw in a couple photos to whet their appetite.
Since the trailheads feeding the trail can easily be reached by train from Milan, we’ve been doing it in stages, closely watching the weather forecasts and going only when the sun is predicted to be shining. We’ve done three stages so far, with one more to go.
On the latest stage, as we were crossing a clearing, we came across this flower.
Of course, it gladdens the heart to see flowers blooming in February. It tells us that the Earth – at least in the Northern hemisphere – is waking up from its winter slumber. But this flower was particularly beautiful: large white petals surrounding a yellow-green centre. It was also quirky: this large flower was perched on a tiny stem, with no leaves that I could discern; it seemed almost to spring straight out of the ground.
As usual, once we’d seen one we saw many. Some were just opening. In others, the petals looked fly-blown, ready to fall. In others again, the petals were pink-veined.
On the train back, we started chatting with another couple whom we’d met along the trail. Suddenly remembering the flower, I pulled out my phone and showed them the photo of the flower. Ah, they said, in Italian that’s called elleboro. Pulling up my trusty Google Translate, I discovered that its English name is hellebore.
Hellebore … this stirred up vague memories in me, of poison and death. As the train racketed along towards Milan Central Station, I passed the time reading up on hellebore and saw that the plant is indeed horribly poisonous. “All hellebores are toxic, and all parts of the hellebore plant are toxic”, I read in Wikipedia. “Poisonings will occur through ingestion or handling … Poisoning cases are most severe when the plants are eaten … causing tinnitus, vertigo, stupor, thirst, anaphylaxis, emesis (vomiting), catharsis, bradycardia (slowing of the heart rate), and finally, collapse and death from cardiac arrest.” Bloody charming … And it doesn’t finish there! “Dermatitis may also occur from handling the hellebore plants without protection. … The poison on the outside of the plant will cause irritation and burning sensations on the skin.” Jeez Louise …
Wikipedia also informed me that there are a good number of different hellebores. The particular hellebore we came across on the walk is the Helleborus niger, or black hellebore. I find this a strange name, given the snowy whiteness of the flower, seen here in a particularly appealing photo (also showing, incidentally, its natural range, the Alps, in the background).
The blackness, it seems, refers to its roots, which are indeed somewhat black.
It is the roots, suitably dried, that are ground to a powder and fed to unsuspecting victims: “hubble, bubble, toil and trouble…”, to misquote the three witches in Macbeth, whom we have here in an especially dramatic painting by a Victorian painter by the name of William Edward Frost.
I had hoped that Shakespeare might have had them mention hellebore as one of the ingredients in their magic brew. But no. They mention eye of newt, toe of frog, wool of bat, tongue of dog, adder’s fork, blind-worm’s sting, lizard’s leg, howlet’s wing. Oh, and fillet of fenny snake. But no hellebore. Nor is the plant mentioned in any of his other plays where magic and magicians play a part.
I was quite disappointed that the Bard passed hellebore over in silence. Because it did play a role in the magic of his time and earlier (and still does, if I’m to believe some of the web sites I’ve visited). It could be used to cause madness, or put a good curse on someone. It was good for both raising demons as well as banishing or exorcising them. Carrying it on your person could stop demons possessing you. Planting it near the entrance to your house would deter demons from entering. It was often planted in graveyards to gain the allegiance of the dead. It seemed especially popular in healing swine and cattle from illness and protecting them from evil spells (cast, no doubt, by jealous neighbours): “a piece of the root being drawne through a hole made in the eare of a beast troubled with cough or having taken any poisonous thing cureth it, if it be taken out the next day at the same houre”, wrote a certain Parkinson in 1641. Two properties attributed to it which I particularly like is the ability to make you invisible (scatter powdered hellebore in the air around you as you walk along) and to make you fly to witches’ sabbaths and suchlike (make an ointment of it and spread it liberally on yourself. There actually seem to have been quite a number of recipes for these so-called flying ointments; one I particularly like was given by Francis Bacon: “the fat of children digged out of their graves, of juices of smallage, wolfe-bane, and cinque foil, mingled with the meal of fine wheat”).
I have a great fondness of medieval witches and sorcerers, my vision of them having been determined by the comic books of my youth regaling me with the stories of two medieval boys by the names of Johan and Pirlouit. I throw in here a picture from the story “La Guerre des Sept Fontaines” to give an idea of the treatment of witches and sorcerers in these books.
But enough with this childishness! Let me finish on a more positive note. A legend about black hellebore revolves around another name for it, Christmas rose. We are in Palestine. The Christ child has recently been born. A poor shepherdess, Madelon by name, has seen the three Wise Men passing through on their way to see the child. She has followed them and seen them presenting him with their valuable gifts of myrrh, frankincense and gold. She also wants to give the child a gift, but being very poor cannot afford to. So she stands at the door of the manger, weeping quietly. The angel hovering over the manger takes pity on her and decides to help with a little miracle. He gently brushes aside the snow at her feet and where her tears have fallen, spring up a beautiful cluster of waxen white winter roses. Then he softly whispers into the shepherdess’s ear, “these Christmas roses are far more valuable than any myrrh, frankincense or gold, for they are pure and made of love”. Madelon joyfully gathers the flowers and offers them to the Holy Infant, who, seeing that the gift was reared with tears of love, smiles at her.
Hmm, having just read about all the dermatitis you can get from just touching these plants, I can only assume that Madelon, poor though she was, was wearing gloves … This irreverent thought leads to another. I took this photo of a modern take on the three Wise Men, painted on the wall of a Milan house by a wannabee Milanese Banksy.
Dedicated to my daughter, who loves olives as much as I do
Sori, 27 January 2020
A week or so ago, I accompanied my wife to a supermarket that we go to from time to time – it’s bigger than the ones just down the road from us but somewhat further away, so we only go there for certain items which the closer supermarkets don’t stock. But I don’t want to discuss shopping strategies in this post, fascinating as these are to retirees like ourselves. I want to discuss table olives.
This particular supermarket has an olive bar, where you can buy olives loose by the gram (or kilogram if you’re an olive fanatic).
It’s a delightful spot in this otherwise bog-standard supermarket. I like to linger there, looking over these glistening globules of yumminess. From time to time – when I’m in a mood to splash out – I will take the plunge, grab the beckoning spoons, and fill a few plastic tubs to take home and munch my way through. I hasten to add that I remember what we taught the children: I will share, with my wife if her diet allows it and with my children if they happen to be around.
This supermarket is proudly patriotic and offers only Italian olives. For the uninitiated, it is offering, among others:
Green olives from Cerignola in Puglia
These gigantic green olives are probably my favourite. They are crisp, not too strongly flavoured, almost buttery.
Green Nocellara olives, from the flanks of Mount Etna in Sicily
These olives are cut, crushed, seasoned with oil, spices and hot sauce and garnished with whole chillies. The use of chillies (which I profoundly dislike) and their slightly bitter taste mean that I skip these when I get some tubfuls of olives at the supermarket.
Black olives from Gaeta in Puglia.
These small, purplish-brown olives have a soft, tender flesh and a tart, citrusy taste. The Gaetas in the supermarket are brine-cured, but they can also be dry-cured, in which case they are more shrivelled and chewy, somewhat like the next ones.
Black Nocellara olives from the Belice valley in western Sicily.
These olives are harvested when completely ripe (in November). After an initial brining to desiccate them somewhat, they are placed in an oven at low temperature to further desiccate them.
There are more varieties of olive in the supermarket’s olive bar but I will stop there, for fear of boring readers with my purplish prose. And anyway, while I respect the supermarket’s patriotic choice of only offering Italian olives, I feel I must point out that other parts of the Mediterranean basin offer equally delicious olives.
There are the Greek Agrinion and Amfissa olives, for instance, both coming from the same variety of olive tree, but the former grown at lowish altitudes near the Ionian Sea / Gulf of Corinth and the latter grown at higher altitudes around Delphi in central Greece. They come in the green and black forms as well as every hue in between, depending on when they are picked, and both have a wide range of tastes. After some debate with myself I have chosen to insert a photo of the Amfissa olive as the emblem of these two olives, but only because I liked the farmer’s hands cradling the olives.
Or there are Gordal olives from Andalusia in Spain.
True to their name (gordal means “fatty” in Spanish), these olives are big and plump, with plenty of firm, meaty richness.
Or we have Lucques olives from the Languedoc region of France.
These olives marry an interesting external appearance – bright green and crescent shaped – with a mild nutty taste and buttery texture inside.
From further east in France, around the Côte d’Azur, come Niçoise olives.
We know these olives because of the Salade Niçoise, of which they are an integral part. In truth, the Niçoise is none other than the Taggiasca olive, which is grown across the border in Liguria and which is the olive my wife and I buy when we go down to the sea. They both come from the same variety of olive tree and grow in the same climate. On both sides of the – artificial – border growers pick the olives while they are in the process of changing from green to black, giving them a striking medium to dark brown color.
I’ve only mentioned olives from the Mediterranean’s northern seaboard. The southern and eastern seaboards have equal variety, but they are just not as well known. Canny marketing hasn’t created brands there yet, so they are rarely consumed beyond their local area of production. Beldi olives from central Morocco are an exception.
These olives, picked when they are fully ripe, are then salt-cured. This gives them a shriveled appearance and a chewy texture. They are wildly, intensely flavorful.
From the eastern end of the Mediterranean, I’ve picked Gemlik olives from the Zeytinbaği region on the Sea of Marmara in the north of Turkey, close to Istanbul.
These too are picked when they are fully ripe. Because of their high oil content, they can be cured in a number of different ways, giving rise to olives with different tastes:
oil-cured (rotated in drums with a little salt; the agitation causes the olive to exude oil), then dry stored; this gives a rich, low-salt-tasting olive;
purely brine-cured olive, which gives a firm, salty olive;
dried in a basket of rock salt, which draws all the water out of the olive, leaving a firm, crinkly olive with hardly any salty taste.
There are good olives produced in other parts of the world where Europeans have transported the olive tree, the Americas especially, but I will be proudly patriotic and focus only on olives from the Mediterranean basin, which is the tree’s original home.
Olives joins that long list of plants which were basically inedible but out of which our ancestors were able to extract extremely yummy foodstuffs. In these posts, I have written about five such plants – the caper bush, cole, sea beet, common chicory, and cardoon – and there must be hundreds of others. I’m always amazed by the cleverness which was shown by armies of anonymous farmers over the millennia in patiently coaxing the DNA of plants which grew around them to evolve in a direction which expanded the range of foods available to them and to us, their descendants.
The edibility problem with wild olives is that they contain a number of incredibly bitter chemicals which go by such names as oleuropein, ligstroside, and dimethyl oleuropein. The levels of these chemicals are high in a just ripening olive, enough to impart such a bitter taste as to make you desist eating it immediately. As the fruit ripens further, the levels of these nasty chemicals drop. In most cases, though, their levels never drop low enough to make eating an olive straight off the tree a pleasant experience (there are a couple of domesticated varieties where the bitterness levels are low enough in the fully ripe olive to make them edible, but they are the exception). It’s a defence mechanism: the plant doesn’t want predators other than birds to eat its fruit because they could crack and therefore ruin the seeds (this is not a problem in the case of birds, which swallow the olives whole).
But actually, edibility is a secondary issue for the olive. The first use of olives was not as food but as a source of oil. Olives are rich in oil and by at least 5,000 years ago some bright spark (or sparks) had figured out ways of squeezing the oil out of ripe olives. It’s not even clear that the oil was used initially as a foodstuff. The same problem of bitterness rears its head with olive oil: if the olives are picked too early this will impart a bitter taste to the oil. It could well be that olive oils were first used as a source of fuel in lamps or as a raw material in soap making, or were used as a skin-care product or in medicines or in perfumes. It was olive oil that really drove the domestication of the olive tree. The economies of at least two Mediterranean civilizations – the late Minoan and the Mycenaean – were probably based in good part on the production of olive oil and its trade around the Mediterranean. Olives to eat became a by-product of the oil industry. That is still the case today: the great majority of olives which are grown around the world are turned into oil, with only a small percentage being eaten.
Luckily for us olive lovers, though, at some point some other bright spark (or sparks) stumbled on the discovery that steeping olives in brine for a good few months cut the bitterness levels to acceptable levels, because the nasty chemicals were leached out. Even better, the fermentation processes which brining kicked off gave the olives a better taste. On top of that, brining dealt with the familiar problem which our ancestors were confronted with everywhere: the fruit (or grain, or vegetables) ripen all at the same time; how can we conserve them so that in the weeks and months ahead we can eat the excess that we don’t eat straight away? By acidifying them a bit, brining meant the olives would last quite some time without going bad. A win-win-win situation, as we would say today!
After this fundamental breakthrough, olive eating could take off. Human beings being the way they are, our ancestors continued to tinker away. Various things were added (herbs, spices, wine, vinegar, …) to make the final product even more yummy. It was discovered that cutting or cracking the olive – basically, splitting open the flesh – allowed the leaching to happen faster. Different methods for leaching were developed (water – very slow; salt – gives rise to chewy olives like the Beldi). And, more importantly, they tried brining not quite ripe olives, picked when they were going from green to black and when the dreaded levels of bitterness were still high. Well, by gum, it worked! Sufficient leaching took place so that you could pick the olives somewhat earlier – maybe a month earlier – and still have a yummy product to eat. That allowed the development of olives like the Taggiasca or the Niçoise.
The next big breakthrough was the discovery by yet another bright spark or sparks that if you used a weak solution of lye (or caustic soda, to use a more modern appellation), you could turn green olives with very high levels of bitterness 6+in them into an edible product. In this case, rather than encouraging the nasty chemicals to leach out as brine does, the lye penetrates the olive and chemically destroys them. As readers might suspect, olives subjected just to processing with lye don’t taste very good, so there is still a brining step involved. This treatment was developed in Spain, apparently; it’s called the Spanish or Sevillian approach. I’m not sure if I should congratulate the Spaniards who came up with lye processing. On the one hand, it has allowed us olive lovers to eat green olives like the Cerignola and the Lucques. On the other hand, it does begin to feel more like chemical processing than food preparation, the first step on a slippery slope.
I feel confirmed in my fears by the next big advance in olive processing – the so-called California style of processing (presumably because that was where it was invented) – which smacks even more of chemical processing. It is used with green and semi-ripe olives. It adds a step between the lye treatment and the brining, and consists of washing the olives in water injected with compressed air. This intense exposure to air oxidises the skin and flesh of the olives, turning them black. In other words, it’s a way of taking green olives and artificially “ripening” them. Olives treated in this way are the ones most favoured by fast-food pizza makers, those olives which are chewy and have no taste but look good sitting on the pizza.
And it’s not finished! An article I read which summarizes the state of play in olive processing reports that people are looking into the use of ultrasound during lye treatment to accelerate debittering; adding absorptive resins to the brine; running treatment processes under a vacuum; blanketing green olives in carbon dioxide; blanketing them in pure oxygen; using potassium and calcium chloride solutions instead of normal brine (sodium chloride solutions); exposing olives while still on the tree to aminoethoxyvinylglycine to delay ripening and so allowing levels of the bitterness-causing chemicals to reduce more than they normally would. And I’ve skipped a few.
Reading this list makes me look at my olives in a different light now. Rather than food, I see lumps of chemicals. Why can’t we just prepare food the good old way?
My wife and I recently accompanied our son on a short business trip he was making to a small place to the north of Milan, near Lake Maggiore. He was going there to look over a company. We went along to share the driving and visit the local area. The company he was visiting happened to be very close to the point where a few weeks previously we had given up a walk in the area (the one where we had stumbled across several very lovely varieties of mushrooms), so we decided that we would use the occasion to visit what would have been the end point of our walk had we finished it.
That end point was the village of Orta San Giulio, which sits on a peninsula jutting out into Lake Orta. This is a small lake, the most westward of that series of lakes which form a necklace at the base of the Alps, between Verona to the east and Novara to the west. Readers with good eyes will see Lake Orta, marked with a red pin, to the far left on the map below.
Once we had deposited our son at the gates of the company he was visiting, we set off to Orta San Giulio. It was not, truth be told, the best day to visit anything: it was grey and drizzly, the kind of day that in my mind will be forever linked to the UK. But that didn’t stop us appreciating the scene that unfolded before our eyes as we arrived at the lake’s southernmost tip and took the road which hugged its eastern coast. My wife and I took no photos during our little tour, and the lake under the rain seems to have no fans among the legions of persons who post photos on the internet, so I can only describe to readers what we saw.
As we wound our way along the coast, with the wipers sweeping regularly across the windscreen, the trees covering the slopes which fell steeply into the lake’s waters – trees vested in their brown and reds of late autumn – began to give way to large estates with equally steep but more manicured grounds, the kinds of estates which I associate with the late 19th Century. Out on the water, dimly at first but ever more visible as we got closer to the village of Orta San Giulio, we discerned through the drizzle an island, the Isola San Giulio. The road began to climb to the top of the ridge of the peninsula along whose outer edge Orta San Giulio is built. Once we reached the top, we turned off the main road and made our way down to the village itself, passing as we did other, smaller estates climbing the side of the hill. When the road reached the water’s edge, it turned cobbled and narrowed into a single lane. We found a place to park and continued on foot, huddling under our umbrellas. Apart from a cat or two, we had the place to ourselves. Soon we were walking between rows of old houses on both sides of the street and only got an occasional glimpse of the lake down a side alley. But all at once, we entered the village’s main square, Piazza Motta, and there had a full view, across the square’s wet and windswept flagstones, of the lake and Isola San Giulio hovering on its waters in the middle distance. We could now make out the buildings on the island, in particular a Romanesque campanile on the water’s edge and a big hulking building, looking in all respects like an army barracks, which dominated the island’s centre point. We admired the view, looked curiously at an old hotel, now very much worse for wear, which occupied one whole side of the square, noted the street at the back of the square which, the signposts informed us, took one up to the Sacro Monte d’Orta, the Sacred Mountain of Orta, and then headed back to the car. It was time to go and pick up our son, and anyway it really was too wet and cold to explore any further. “For another time!” we promised each other. Maybe this Spring; there is a train we can take from Novara to Orta San Giulio.
In the meantime, though, I feel I must give my readers some idea of what we saw, or perhaps more accurately what we might be seeing when we come back in better weather. As is my habit, I’ve also been mugging up on the lake’s history and so can use this occasion to tell my wife – faithful reader of my posts – and any other interested readers about what I’ve learned.
So here is a photo album which I’ve cobbled together with other people’s pictures posted on the internet.
This is what the lake looks like on a good day from its south end, the end that we first saw it from.
Isola San Giulio is visible, along with a few houses of Orta San Giulio to the right. The pre-Alps rise up in the background.
As we turned off the main road down to Orta San Giulio, we passed this frothy building.
It is Villa Crespi. It was commissioned in 1879 by a wealthy cotton merchant by the name of Cristoforo Crespi and built in the Moorish Revival style. I suppose it is a somewhat outlandish example of what was happening around all of northern Italy’s lakes during that period: rich (or enriched) industrialists and bourgeois joined the aristocracy in building summer homes on the lakes. The same phenomenon certainly happened on Lakes Como and Maggiore (we see those villas every time we walk around those two lakes) and no doubt on Lake Garda (which still awaits a visit from us). Quite frankly, this particular building reminds me of some of the cinemas which dotted British cities when I was young, but at least this one continues to serve a decent purpose: it is a luxury hotel and home to the restaurant of one Antonino Cannavacciuolo (a well-known chef on Italian TV, I have read).
Certainly Lake Orta must have been a popular playground for the wealthier classes of the late 19th Century. It hosted the first ever European Rowing Championship in 1893 (rowing in Italy being considered a very aristocratic sport) and various national rowing championships thereafter, as this poster of 1909 attests (for an event, readers will note, “under the patronage of HM the King” [of Italy, of course]).
What happened in the following decades is a classic example of how not to manage a lake – but we will get to that later.
This was the narrow street we walked down after parking the car: Via Giovanetti.
It was pleasant to walk along under the rain; it looks even more pleasant on a sunny day.
And this is the village’s main square, Piazza Motta.
I’m not an expert on real estate but it does seem strange to me that the old hotel we see across the square in the photo (called, rather prosaically, Hotel Orta) has not been snapped up by someone and refurbished. There cannot be many places which have this nice a view when one steps out of the lobby onto the street:
Down by the lakeside at the foot of the square one catches the boat to go over to the Isola San Giulio, which, as we get closer, will look like this,
while we leave Orta San Giulio literally in our wake.
I think a little bit of history is in order here, because Isola San Giuglio has always been at the centre of the lake’s story.
The island gets its name from St. Julius, a possibly legendary saint who is said to have christianized the area around the end of the 4th Century AD. It is narrated that Julius and his brother Julian were two Greeks who somehow made it to Italy and were instructed by Emperor Theodosius I to destroy pagan altars and sacred woods and to build Christian churches. Which they did with a vengeance. The little church which Julius built on the island is said to have been the hundredth – and last – church he built. There are the usual colourful stories of his doings like, for instance, this one: having decided that he would build his last church on the island but finding no-one willing to take him there he laid his mantle on the water and miraculously sailed over to the island. As a final aside on this saint, he made it to sainthood, but – rather unfairly, I think, since the two worked hand-in-hand in their proselytizing mission – his brother Julian did not.
In any event, the first little church was succeeded by a larger one built in the 6th Century, which itself was succeeded by an even larger one built in the 12th Century; it was later nominated a basilica. That is the building we see today (although it has been much remodelled inside, as we will see, and squeezed in between houses built in later centuries). It is its campanile which we noticed when we were standing in Piazza Motta that cold and rainy day gazing out towards the island.
The island’s religious vocation was always in conflict with its obvious military importance. As this map shows, Lake Orta was one of two natural passageways for anyone crossing the Alps at the Simplon Pass to get down into the Po River plain and all its riches – the other was along the shores of Lake Maggiore. The red pin shows the location of the Simplon Pass in the map.
Having crossed the Simplon, armies would march down (or peaceful merchant trains would lumber down) the valley of the River Ossola and then either go along Lake Maggiore or march up to Lake Orta and then pass through the valley at the other end. A Frankish army did that in 590 AD, marching into territory that was claimed by the Longobards. A Longobard Duke, Mimulfo by name, who was entrenched in the island, seems to have just let the Franks through. For this betrayal, the Longobard King Childebert had Mimulfo beheaded on the island. (A French Corps also crossed the Simplon in 1800, as part of Napoleon’s campaign in Italy; I have no idea which of the two routes they used to get to Milan)
The island was also a useful place to hole up if hostile armies were around. To this end, a castle was built there as early as the 900s AD, reconverting some of the church buildings to military use and generally constricting how the church and its buildings could be expanded. By then, the Longobards had been defeated by the Carolingian Franks and northern Italy had become part of the Holy Roman Empire. The Emperors were traditionally also Kings of Italy, and northern Italy was therefore impacted by Imperial policies and politics. Around the turn of the first millennium, a struggle started in northern Italy between the smaller noble houses, many of Longobard origin, and the larger noble houses and the bishops, who owed their positions and land to the Emperors. The smaller nobles wanted – not unsurprisingly – to have their own, local king, while the bigger nobles and bishops wanted to continue to be beholden to an Emperor far away on the other side of the Alps who left them to pretty much run the show as they wanted. In 945, at a time of Imperial weakness, the smaller nobles got the upper hand and elected one their own, Lothair, as King of Italy. He was quickly replaced by Berengar, whose family was powerful in the region around Lake Orta. By this time, the Empire was back on an even keel and, at the request of the Northern Italian bishops, the new Emperor Otto I sent his son Liudolf with a large army over the Alps to deal with this upstart. Berengar’s family split up and holed up in various castles which the family controlled. Berengar, together with one of his sons, chose the castle on Isola San Giuglio. There, he was besieged by Liudolf and eventually surrendered. For some reason, Liudolf let both Berengar and his son go free. They went off and holed up in another castle of theirs in Romagna. Several months later, Liudolf died, officially of a fever although it was whispered that Berengar’s people had got to him and poisoned him. With Liudolf’s death his army melted away, and Berengar came out of his castle in Romagna to proclaim himself King of Italy once more. More Italian bishops headed north over the Alps, besieging Otto to come personally to deal with Berengar. This he did in 961, but first he went to Rome to have the Pope proclaim him Emperor and then to Pavia to have himself proclaimed King of Italy. By 962 he was ready to deal with Berengar, who adopted the same strategy: split up the family and hole up in various castles, except that this time it was his wife Willa who got to be in the castle on Isola san Giuglio (together with the family treasure) while Berengar headed for the castle in Romagna. Otto decided to go after Willa and history repeated itself: a siege of several months of the castle on Isola San Giulio followed by its capitulation. Again, Willa was allowed to go free (but not the family treasure) and she joined her husband. This time, though, Otto made sure that the castle stayed under Imperial control. As for Berengar, he died four years later and none of his sons seem to have made any attempts to retake the throne. There was another revolt by the small nobles some 40 years later, when Berengar’s grand-nephew, Arduin, was proclaimed King of Italy, and Northern Italy was put through the same circus: The Emperor (this time Henry II) came over the Alps with a large army and put Arduin in his place; he went back to Germany with his army and Arduin came out of whatever castle he was hiding in and proclaimed himself King again; Henry II came back over the Alps with another large army and dealt with Arduin again, this time for good (without, though, putting him to death; I think the Longobard king Childebert had the right approach: off with their heads!) Italy was not to have an independent King again until Italian unification nearly 900 years later.
After that, Isola San Giulio seems to have been pivoted away from its martial use back to its religious vocation and the whole area became a bit of a rural backwater. Over the next two hundred years, the successive bishops of Novara maneuvered to gradually have the Emperor give over to them the southern part of the lake as a feudal principality, which they then ruled with what seems to have been distant benevolence for some five hundred years; the local notables were generally allowed to rule themselves as long as they paid the necessary tithes and taxes to the prince-bishop. I don’t know if the prince-bishops used any of these funds to make life better for the peoples of their little principality. They certainly did use some of their funds, as did pious pilgrims, to make the basilica ever more beautiful. From the 14th to the 18th centuries, the church’s look was “modernized”, with the latest Baroque additions giving the inside of the basilica its current look, and frescoes were added on every available surface, with the later ones sometimes obliterating the earlier ones. We have here the “modern” frescoes in the vault and dome (the picture also shows the baroque “scarification”).
while here we have one of the earlier frescoes, which are now tucked away out of sight in the lateral aisles.
I have already made my feelings abundantly clear about baroque and later religious art in earlier posts, so I need hardly say that I prefer the earlier frescoes.
While all this religiosity was going on, life was not completely trouble-free in Isola San Giorgio and the surrounding principality. The end of the 15th, beginning of the 16th Centuries were agitated times in Italy and while this quiet corner of northern Italy was largely able to avoid the troubles, for a decade or so, 1520-30, the troubles came to it. In 1523, the plague broke out, in all likelihood brought to the area by refugees from Novara which had been sacked and pillaged by French troops fighting the Spaniards. But worse were the predations by the neighbouring lordlets, many of them from the Visconti family, who were attracted by the relative prosperity of the principality. Although officially the Duke of Milan was exhorting the lordlets to be good boys – these were church lands, after all – he probably unofficially supported them in their rapine, because he had his own quarrel with the Bishop of Novara over the ownership of this little principality: Novara and its province had come under Milanese dominion some two hundred years earlier. On some excuse, Orta San Giulio was sacked in 1524 by one Visconti lordlet and prisoners taken for ransom. In 1526 and ’27, the principality was forced by another Visconti lordlet to put up, for free, a company of Imperial soldiers. In 1528, the same Visconti lordlet decided to become Governor of the principality and moved into the castle on Isola San Giulio. When the locals besieged him there, a third Visconti lordlet came to his rescue and sacked Orta San Giulio a second time. In early 1529, a random Imperial army invaded the principality and demanded a huge payment to leave. The locals refused to pay and escaped to the island and the relative safety of its castle. After trying to take the castle a few times, the army gave up and left, sacking and pillaging as it went. A few months later, the third Visconti lordlet decided it was time to pillage some more and marched into the principality at the head of a band of soldiers. This time, the locals were “mad as hell and weren’t going to take it anymore”, as the saying goes; they were determined to resist. Grabbing what arms they had, they met the invaders and brought them to battle. The invaders made the classic mistake of thinking that these were just a bunch of peasants who would run away when the going got tough. But they didn’t; they fought like madmen. They were helped, it has to be said, by the marshy ground they had chosen, which meant that the invaders’ horsemen were neutralized. The result was that the Visconti lordlet and a good portion of his men were massacred. The other lordlets of the area took heed and desisted in their predations (probably aided by the fact that a general peace was finally brokered between the Great Powers fighting over Italy).
Thereafter, Isola San Giorgio and the rest of the principality slipped back into its state of feudal somnolence for another two hundred years. In 1735, Novara and its province were handed over by the Austrians to the House of Savoy. The-then Duke of Savoy (and King of Sardinia) Charles-Emmanuel III had no patience with quaint feudal relics in his lands like the Bishop of Novara’s principality around Lake Orta. Pressure was brought to bear and slowly, slowly the bishops divested themselves of their feudal rights to the principality in favour of the House of Savoy. By 1819, the deed was done: the principality was no more. It was just one more district in the lands of Piedmont and, after 1861, in the newly-unified kingdom of Italy.
As a sign of the changes, the remains of the castle on the island were dismantled completely in 1841 and in their place a huge seminary was built – it is that big blockhouse of a building which I thought were old army barracks. We have here an old postcard celebrating the seminarists.
The seminary is no more; it lasted a little less than a hundred years. But the religious vocation of the island continues. The basilica and seminary have been handed over to a congregation of Benedictine nuns – we have one here going through the rite of becoming a Bride of Christ.
The nuns have an interesting vocation. They study and translate ancient texts, and restore ancient fabrics and tapestries.
It is time to go back to Orta San Giulio and take that street at the back of Piazza Motta which we had noticed that cold and drizzly day, and which carries one up past this church to the Sacred Mountain of Orta.
The Sacred Mountain of Orta is one of a number of Sacred Mountains which were created in the late 16th, early 17th Centuries in Northern Italy. They were very much promoted by San Carlo Borromeo, Cardinal of Milan (whose very large nose I have mentioned in an earlier post). The original idea was to create places of pilgrimage which could stand in for the Medieval pilgrimages to the Holy Land, which was becoming harder and harder for pilgrims to reach. For San Carlo Borromeo, the Sacred Mountains were also to be a way to teach the little people, who had not had the benefit of an education, in an easily understandable way such mysteries as the Trinity but also the lives of Christ, the Virgin Mary, and great saints. To this end, the Sacred Mountains were made up of a series of chapels containing life-sized models in terracotta, backed up by frescoes on the chapel walls, each telling a story in a holy person’s life or making a point about some tricky theological concept: little theatrical pieces, if you will. I have mentioned the use of art to teach illiterate people about religion in an earlier post. With the growth of Protestantism, the Sacred Mountains took on a third purpose, that of combating these horrible heresies. That no doubt explains why there are so many Sacred Mountains in Northern Italy, where they were created as bulwarks against the tide of Protestantism that could be washing over the Alps at any minute. In fact, the Sacred Mountain of Orta is part of nine such Sacred Mountains in northern Italy which are now inscribed in UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites. In September, my wife and I visited another of these nine sites, at Varallo in Piedmont (where, coincidentally, we were once again accompanying our son on one of his business trips). I mentioned another of these sites, at Varese, in an earlier post I wrote about the fondness of religions around the world for sacrilizing mountains.
The Sacred Mountain of Orta is dedicated to the life of St. Francis, which pleases me no end since he must be my favourite saint, as I have mentioned in an earlier post. There are 20 chapels, laid out in a wooded landscape.
I don’t propose to show readers photos of them all. Just two can give readers a sense of what would await them were they to visit this Sacred Mountain (or any of the other Sacred Mountains for that matter).
I hope these scenes are in better shape than the ones we saw at Varallo, which were really rather tatty. Luckily, they were in the midst of being restored when we visited.
You get beautiful views over the lake from the Sacro Monte.
As you gaze down on this sunny scene, it’s hard to believe that a mere thirty years ago the lake was dead. Everything in it had been killed off by industries which were discharging their crap into the lake, turning it into the most acidic lake in the world. It started back in 1927, when the German company Bemberg, which was making rayon fibre using the cuprammonium process, set itself up on the lakeside. The plant’s copper and ammonium discharges quickly acidified the lake, killing all life in it in about two years. Bemberg made limp efforts to control the discharges, which did begin to finally show noticeable reductions in the late 1950s. But by then Bemberg had been joined by a host of small plants making metal consumer products; two of these companies, incidentally, went on to become global brands: Bialetti and Alessi.
Many of these plants included electroplating in their processes (that Alessi kettle is heavily chromed, for instance) and consequently toxic heavy metals such as chromium, zinc, copper and nickel were added to the filthy mix being discharged into the lake. As if that weren’t enough, the acidic waters of the lake released aluminium from the natural and normally harmless imissions of aluminosilicate into the lake, adding yet another toxic metal to the stew. Things only got better when the legislators eventually banged their fist on the table and passed Italy’s first water protection law in 1976 (the Legge Merli; I know it well, I referred to it countless times when as an environmental consultant I would tell Italian companies they needed to control their water discharges). Suddenly, companies which had claimed for years that it was impossible to control their discharges and remain in business found – surprise, surprise – that actually it was possible to control them and stay in business. But it took more than just forcing companies to properly control their discharges to get the lake’s pH back to normal. A massive liming operation was required, where calcium carbonate was added to the lake. A boat was specially made for the purpose. Lime was first sprayed on the surface.
But that wasn’t enough. Lime had to be injected deep into the lake, below the thermocline. It took twenty years to restore what had taken a mere two to destroy. The lake is now more or less OK: “fishable, swimmable”, in the catchy phrase of the US’s first water protection law, although the planctonic populations are not quite right yet.
Well, on that somewhat hopeful note, I leave my readers. Maybe some of them will make it to Lake Orta one day. My wife and I certainly will, when Spring comes rolling round again.