BUCKWHEAT

Milan, 24 December 2018

Since we came down to Milan for the winter, my wife and I have been exploring the walks available to us around Lake Como, that lake an hour’s train ride north of Milan whose shape resembles that of a very skinny, headless and armless man striding along at the feet of the Alps. Or, a bit more simply, a three-branched star.
The town of Como sits at the far end of the south-eastern branch, and up to now we have only tried out what is on offer in the hills which plunge down into the waters of this branch of the lake.
I might write a post about these walks later. Right now, I want to report about something completely different which took place on a walk we did yesterday with the children (who are staying with us for Christmas). We were taking them along the Greenway, a walk developed by a couple of canny municipalities with an eye to developing new forms of tourism. It runs between the villages of Colonno and Menaggio. I throw in here a photo to whet readers’ appetite.

Talking of appetite, since we arrived in Menaggio at midday and since we were all hungry, we decided to first have lunch in the local trattoria before embarking on the walk. Having judiciously studied the menu, my son and I both decided to take pizzoccheri alla valtellinese.
It is this pasta – or rather, the flour from which it is made – that I want to write about here.

Pizzoccheri are a form of tagliatelle-looking pasta, flat and long. Their particularity is that they are made, not with wheat flour, but with the flour of buckwheat. Despite its name, buckwheat bears no relation to wheat or to any of the other grains we are familiar with. Unlike them, it is not a grass. It is a plant which flowers

and which then forms dark brown triangular seeds.

For those of my readers who are, like me, interested in etymology, their shape explains their English name. It is very similar, on a smaller scale, to the shape of the nut of the beech tree, and “buck” is a derivation of an early form of the name of the beech tree. So beech-like in shape, wheat-like in use => buckwheat. Voilà!

When these seeds are milled, they form a brownish flour which can also include dark flecks.
This darker colour translates into dark products, like the dark brown pizzoccheri which my son and I ate.
This darker colouration explains buckwheat’s Italian name, grano saraceno, Saracen grain. For Italians, Saracens were people from the coast of North Africa and consequently were considered to be darker skinned. One can see this very clearly in the traditional marionettes used in Sicily, of which one stock figure is a Saracen soldier. The photo below has a series of such marionettes lined up, with the Saracen soldier on the far left.
So far, so good. But what really set me off on this post is that buckwheat originated in Yunnan in China! This gets me onto one of my favourite topics, the transfer of many, many goods as well as ideas along the old Silk Road, mostly in the East to West direction. While I lived in China, I covered the westward travel of the hollyhock, the persimmon, the ginkgothe magnoliathe willow, the wisteria, and the paulownia. Later, I added playing cards, the citron, garlic , and the carrot. I am happy to now add buckwheat to the list.

Buckwheat has an interesting characteristic, that of having a short growing season and preferring cooler temperatures in which to grow. For this reason, it has been a popular crop to plant in high latitudes or high altitudes. It was its tolerance for high altitudes that ensured its migration from Yunnan to the Tibetan plateau next door, where buckwheat noodles have been a staple for centuries.

From Tibet, the buckwheat moved westwards along the trade routes. By the late Middle Ages, it had arrived on the shores of the Black Sea. From there, it moved to Russia which historically has been the world’s largest producer of buckwheat. It also kept moving westwards. It is recorded in the mountainous Black Forest region of Germany in the 16th Century. Not surprisingly, it also filtered up into the valleys of the Alps, and – this being of immediate relevance to my son and me sitting in a trattoria on Lake Como eating pizzoccheri – it had arrived in Valtellina by at least the middle of the 17th Century.

Valtellina is an alpine valley running westward from the topmost branch of Lake Como; the main river feeding the lake, the River Adda, runs along the valley floor.
It is well-known for a number of foodstuffs. In the buckwheat category, apart from pizzocheri we have manfrigoli, a sort of little crêpe mixed with local cheese and shredded bresaola (see below).
There is also sciatt, a cheese fritter.
All these dishes require generous portions of melted cheese, of which Valtellina produces a good many. Foremost among them are Bitto and Casera, pictured here.

It was Casera, I suspect, that was slathered onto the pizzoccheri we ate on the shores of Lake Como. It is the traditional accompaniment of all the buckwheat foodstuffs of the Valtellina. It makes for calorically heavy meals which, though, were excellent in the old days when the locals were doing a lot of manual labour outside in the cold (and, as my wife will attest from her skiing days, is not bad for those spending a cold winter day on the slopes).

Bresaola, a form of air-dried beef, is another glory of Valtellina. Both my wife and I are great aficionados of Bresaola. I’ve written an earlier post about it, while my wife currently eats a lot of it as part of her very successful diet.
And then of course there are the valley’s wines – nearly all red, all made with the Nebbiolo grape: Inferno, Grumello, Sassella, Valgella, Maroggia.
Luckily for us, neither my son nor I washed our pizzoccheri down with Valtellina wines, otherwise I’m sure neither of us would have been able to walk the walk or even necessarily talk the talk …

But after this foray into the culinary wonders of Valtellina, it is time to get back to buckwheat. The rest of the story can be summarized quickly. European colonists took it with them to North America, where it played an important role in the early agricultural economy of the two countries which emerged from the colonies. It fell out of favour there, as well as in Europe, in the last century when massive amounts of artificially produced nitrogen fertilizers came onto the market: wheat and maize respond strongly to large doses of nitrogen fertilizers, buckwheat does not. And then, to close the loop, a variety of buckwheat developed in Canada was exported to China in the noughties and widely planted there. So for once the flow wasn’t all east to west.

There is much chatter about buckwheat seeing a resurgence, riding the wave of renewed interest in grains which our ancestors ate but which modern industrial agriculture has pushed to the margins. We’ll see. In the meantime, I wish all my readers a merry Christmas, and should they eat – as is quite probable – a calorically heavy meal, I highly recommend a post-prandial walk along a lake or any other natural feature situated in their immediate environs. It will work wonders for the digestion and the hips.

Merry Christmas!
___________________________

Lake Como map: https://holidaylakecomo.com/access/sala-map.htm
View of Lake Como: https://www.paesionline.it/italia/foto-immagini-brunate/50345_vista_del_lago_di_como_dal_boletto
Greenway: https://greenwaylagodicomo.com/en/
Pizzoccheri alla valtellinese: https://www.buonissimo.org/lericette/5132_Pizzoccheri_di_Teglio
Buckwheat in flower: https://english.vietnamnet.vn/fms/vietnam-in-photos/113500/photos–early-buckwheat-flowers-on-ha-giang-plateau.html
Buckwheat seeds: https://finance.yahoo.com/news/5-grains-apos-ll-help-140000969.html?guccounter=1
Buckwheat flour: https://www.thecheeseshopva.com/product/buckwheat-flour/
Dry pizzoccheri: https://www.gustissimo.it/scuola-di-cucina/impasti-e-pastelle/pizzoccheri.htm
Tibetan field of buckwheat: https://www.flickr.com/photos/33879196@N03/3170162360
View of Valtellina: https://www.viagginews.com/2018/09/25/ponte-tibetano-piu-alto-deuropa-italia/
Manfrigoli: https://www.tripadvisor.it/LocationPhotoDirectLink-g1193610-d2468200-i146914500-Agriturismo_Le_case_dei_baff-Ardenno_Province_of_Sondrio_Lombardy.html
Sciatt: https://www.bormio.eu/en/2015/11/recipe-sciatt/
Casera: http://www.weareitaly.net/it/product/Valtellina-Casera/lombardia/Valtellina_Casera.html
Bresaola: https://gourgisfinefood.store/products/bresaola
Vineyards, Valtellina: http://www.winetouristmagazine.com/wt-blog/2016/6/12/discovering-the-wines-of-valtellina-valtellina-italy
Christmas dinner: https://www.pianetadonna.it/notizie/attualita/vigilia-di-natale.html

A WALK UNDER THE STRAWBERRY TREES

Milan, 12 December 2018

A couple of days ago, when we were down at the sea in Liguria, my wife and I went for a walk on the Monte di Portofino, one of our favourite places to go walking. I’ve written earlier about other walks on this mountain, and it’s always a joy to go back and sample the different paths which wind around the mountain which stands at the centre of this promontory jutting out into the sea.

One of the pleasures of walking there, apart from having the sea ever-present in the background, is experiencing the different biomes that co-exist on the mountain. On the slopes to the north-east, where the conditions are generally shadier, cooler and more humid, a mixed forest grows with oak trees dominating and the undergrowth mostly consisting of ferns, brambles, and ivy.

On the southwestern slopes, on the other hand, which give onto the sea, and where the conditions are generally hotter and dryer, and the soils poorer and rockier, a Mediterranean maquis of low, scrubby bushes and trees predominates.

Within short spaces, as the paths twist and turn around the mountain, one can pass from a landscape which would not be out of place in the UK to one which could not be anywhere but on the Mediterranean.

It was as we began to traverse the first of the Mediterranean maquis biomes that I noticed these small, very red fruits lying along the path, sometimes very thickly.

They were dropping off trees like this.

The fruits were an intense red and looked a little like strawberries.

This is what they look like on the tree.

When you open them, they have a lovely golden interior.
I asked my wife what these fruit were. Corbezzole, she replied, with the tree being the corbezzolo. Well, that didn’t help me much, so I checked what the English names are. Internet informed me that the tree is called the strawberry tree. Given the look of the fruit, that certainly makes sense, although what is the fruit of the tree then called? Just “fruit of the strawberry tree”, it seems, or “strawberry fruit”, which is a bit unsatisfactory. But then this is not a problem of nomenclature which the British have to face because the tree doesn’t grow naturally in the UK. As this map shows, its favourite haunts are the rim of the Mediterranean, with an extension along the southwestern Atlantic coast of France.

So I shall adopt the Italian name here and simply call the fruits corbezzole.

I asked my wife if corbezzole were edible, and she replied that her mother used to eat them. Thus comforted, I plucked two off a tree and tried them. I found them somewhat granular and not particularly sweet. I then tried two which had dropped off their tree. I still found them granular, but now they were sweeter, although the sweetness was weak and evanescent. They were also rather mushy, rather like persimmon which I’ve written about earlier. Pliny the Elder mentioned the strawberry tree in his Natural History, and his comment on the fruit was “The fruit is held in no esteem, and this is the reason for its name being that a person will only eat one” (the fruit’s Latin name is unedo, a shortening “unum edo”, “I eat one”; boy, those Romans were real jokers!). On the basis of the four corbezzole I ate as we walked along, I side with Pliny on this one.

I suspect that the corbezzole’s weakly sweet taste explains why I have never seen them being sold in a supermarket or a greengrocer’s shop in Italy. I can’t see people getting terribly excited about the taste. That being said, patient selection over centuries could no doubt have led to a more enduringly sweet fruit, much as it has with many of the other fruit we happily munch on. But here I think another factor comes into play: the incredible softness of the corbezzole when ripe. They are so soft that it is almost impossible to hold them without damaging them. Their softness also means that they are quite mushy to chew on, which I’m sure many people don’t appreciate much.

This softness and mushiness means that a way people commonly use corbezzole is to make jams: just mash it all up and no-one will notice the mushiness.

This seems to be a strictly homemade product; I could find no mention of a commercial jam on the internet. For any of my readers who are interested in making this jam, here is a thumbnail recipe. Put the corbezzole in a pan, crush them a little, bring the pan to a boil, boil for 10 minutes. The corbezzole should have become a puree by now. Pass the puree through a fine sieve, to get rid of all those little granules. Put the puree back into the pan, add sugar (1 gm for every 4 of puree), add cinnamon if you want, heat the mix, stirring continuously, until it’s thickened sufficiently.

Various people living in the Mediterranean region have also made alcoholic drinks with corbezzole. One of the better known is the Portuguese fruit brandy Aguardente de Medronhos (so called because the fruit is called medronho in Portuguese). Should any readers be interested in making this particular fruit brandy, here are some brief instructions. Collect 7 to 10 kilos of fruit (that will make make one litre of brandy). Put them into a barrel and let them ferment for 2-3 months, making sure to always keep them humid. Using a copper alambique, heat the fermented mess over a low fire. The distillate is your Aguardente de Medronhos. You’ve made a good batch if you can smell the fruit after you have put a little of the Aguardente on your skin and let the alcohol evaporate off.

I don’t get to say much about Albania in my posts, so I want to make pitch here for the Albanians’ equivalent fruit brandy, raki kocimareje (kocimare being the Albanian name for the fruit). Unfortunately, I could find no photo of it on the internet, even in the Albanian pages of Wikipedia. Nevertheless, I urge my readers to support the Albanian economy by buying this firewater whenever they have the occasion.

Another approach is to marinate the corbezzole in alcohol. Here’s a recipe from Sardinia, which includes lemon rind and cloves. Put the corbezzole, the lemon rind (just the yellow part!) and cloves in a container. Cover with alcohol. Leave in a cool, dark place for a month to steep. Prepare a syrup of sugar and water. Strain the contents of the container. Add the syrup. Let the mix stand, in a cool, dark place as before, for two weeks. Strain again. Bottle. (I shall ask our Sardinian cleaner if she is familiar with this concoction; she once brought us a bottle of her own home-made limoncello).

Of course, if readers want to try any of these recipes, or if they just want to taste the fruit, they will need to head out to their nearest patch of Mediterranean maquis to find it. And they have to go some time between late October and mid December. For instance, if they had been in the region of Ancona on 28 October last, the feast day of Saints Simon and Jude, they could have joined the worthy citizens of that city on their annual hike out to the nearby Monte Conero, a mountain which, rather like Monte di Portofino, juts out into the sea, in this case the Adriatic Sea.

The mountain is rich in strawberry trees (so rich that its name derives from the Greek name for the corbezzola, kòmaros, while the coat of arms of nearby Ancona sports an arm holding a branch of the tree with fruit).

Nowadays, this is just a hike like any other, with the difference that there is a bit of corbezzole picking. But there was a time when the Anconese would spend the day not only gathering and eating corbezzole, but also wrapping young branches of the tree around their heads, singing lustily, and generally behaving in a rather Bacchanalian way. I suspect we see here the remains of an old Pagan feast dressed up in Christian clothing.

Alternatively, my readers could go to Killarney or Lough Gill on Ireland’s western coast.

In those two spots, relict populations of strawberry trees have hung on. There was a time, some 5 to 8,000 years ago, when temperatures in Europe were higher than today and the strawberry tree’s range extended into northern Europe. But then, as temperatures dropped, the tree retreated southward, leaving behind these two embattled outposts.

Wherever they decide to go, corbezzole-pickers will find themselves faced with an interesting puzzle: trees covered with both flowers and fruit.

I was certainly puzzled, because I’m used to fruit trees flowering in Spring and fruiting in late Summer, early Autumn. I have since learned that the strawberry tree does it differently. It flowers in late Autumn, with the fruit then developing from a pollinated flower. But the fruit takes its own sweet time to develop, arriving at maturation a full year later, just when the next batch of flowers bursts forth. I’m sure there is a very clever biological reason why the strawberry tree has chosen this cycle, but I haven’t yet managed to find it out. If there are any readers out there who know, I’ll be very happy to hear from them.

The flowers are really quite charming, coming in clusters of small, white, bell-shaped flowers.

Bees love the flowers and will home in on them – if they happen to still be around in this late period of the year; bees will not leave their hives if temperatures drop below 5-10°C. If they are around, they will make honey from the corbezzole nectar they gather.
This honey has a certain reputation, simply because of its rarity: some years you get it, some years you don’t. But our friend Pliny the Elder was not terribly enthusiastic about the honey, writing that it has a rather bitter taste. In case any of my readers are beginning to think that Pliny is a bit of a sourpuss, I should say that others echo his sentiment. In this case, I can only report what I have read, since I have no independent experience of eating the honey.

The fact that both (white) flowers and (red) fruit are present simultaneously on an evergreen tree meant that Italian patriots imbued the tree with great symbolic importance in the decades leading up to the country’s unification in the 1860s. For red, white, and green were the colours of Italy’s tricolour flag of unification!

Patriotic poets in particular wove the tree into poems which were thinly veiled proclamations of the coming unification of Italy which they ardently hoped was imminent. I won’t bore readers with their purple prose. At the risk of being flippant, I much prefer another edible symbol of the Italian tricolour. It is reported that some years after unification a canny pizza maker in Naples realized that his pizza, made with (red) tomatoes, (white) mozzarella, and (green) basil, proclaimed the colors of the new Italian flag and so he named it Pizza Margherita, after the wife of Victor Emmanuel I, first king of unified Italy.

I don’t know if it’s the patriotic overtones or simply because the pizza is so yummy, but Pizza Margherita has remained a constant in the average Italian’s life.

But back to the strawberry tree. I read with sadness and anger that the delegates of the world’s nations cannot agree on a text committing everyone to limiting global temperature rise to no more than 1.5°C. I might weep, but strawberry trees will no doubt be rubbing their woody hands together at the thought that higher temperatures will allow them to march back north again and recapture the lands that were once theirs.

_____________________________

Monte di Portofino: https://www.tripadvisor.it/Attraction_Review-g187827-d2356844-Reviews-Parco_Naturale_Regionale_di_Portofino-Santa_Margherita_Ligure_Italian_Riviera_Lig.html
Forest, Monte di Portofino: http://www.parcoportofino.com/parcodiportofino/it/eventdetail.page?contentId=EVN12955#.XBAxoHRKhPY
Mediterranean maquis, Monte di Portofino: https://montiliguri.weebly.com/promontorio-di-portofino.html
Corbezzole on the ground: our photo
Strawberry tree: our photo
Close-up of corbezzole on the ground: my photo
Close-up of corbezzole on the tree: https://it.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arbutus_unedo
Corbezzola interior: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arbutus_unedo
Range of the strawberry tree: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arbutus_unedo
Corbezzola jam: https://blog.giallozafferano.it/giusy89/marmellata-di-corbezzoli/
Aguardiente de Medronho: https://www.uvinum.it/acquavite/aguardente-de-medronho-premium-50cl
Sardinian corbezzole liqueur: https://www.lacambusadeisapori.com/tare-50-cl/526-liquore-di-corbezzolo-artigianale-di-sardegna-confezione-medium.html
Monte Conero: http://www.marchemaraviglia.it/struttura/71/hotel-monteconero
Ancona coat of arms: https://it.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arbutus_unedo
Strawberry trees on Lough Killarney: https://www.mindenpictures.com/search/preview/strawberry-tree-arbutus-unedo-habit-growing-beside-lough-killarney-county/0_80146177.html
Strawberry tree fruit and flower: https://www.giardinaggio.org/giardino/piante-da-giardino/corbezzolo-pianta.asp
Strawberry tree flowers: https://it.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arbutus_unedo
Corbezzolo honey: https://www.imprentas.eu/it/miele-sardo-e-confetture/158-miele-di-corbezzolo.html
Italian Tricolour: https://www.tempostretto.it/news/risorgimento-tavola-rotonda-messina-sicilia-dopo-unit-d-italia.html
Pizza Margherita: https://www.groupon.it/deals/taverna-del-cuore-6

THE NAKASENDO WAY

Milan, 24 November 2018

I have a weakness for Japanese woodblock prints, that art form which we in the West tend to associate with Katsushika Hokusai. I mean, who hasn’t seen somewhere, in some form, his Great Wave off Kanagawa?

or his Fine Wind, Clear Morning?
Or even his Kajikazawa in Kai Province

So when my wife and I were preparing for the week-long walk we undertook along the Nakasendo Way in Japan a few weeks ago it was with pleasure that I read that another artist well known for his woodblock prints, Utagawa Hiroshige, had, together with yet another artist, Keisai Eisen, made a series of prints specifically about this highway, The Sixty-nine Stations of the Kisokaido.

I should perhaps step back and explain to readers what the Nakasendo Way is. In Japan, as everywhere else where there has been a history of centralized government, rulers were anxious to build and maintain highways between important points in the country to ensure better control. The Japanese shogunate maintained a network of five such highways, all radiating out of the capital Edo (now Tokyo), with a series of officially-approved post towns along each route where the weary traveler could rest for the night, and change horses and obtain porters for the next stage of the journey.

Two of these highways led to Kyoto. One we could call the low road, because it ran along the coast (E in the map), and the other we could call the high road since it threaded its way through the Japanese Alps, a block of mountains standing between Edo/Tokyo and Kyoto (C and D in the map). The latter is the Nakasendo Way.

This print by Hiroshige, which shows a view across rice paddies of the post town of Nakatsugawa, gives a sense of what the road must have looked like in the shogunate period.

The prints were prepared in the late 1830s, early 1840s, in the dying days of the shogunate. Some ten years later, in 1853, Commodore Matthew Perry entered Tokyo Bay with his black ships and forced the country to open up.

This was the start of the cataclysmic changes which led to modern Japan. Much of the Nakasendo Way was wiped out in the country’s ensuing rush to modernity. This map, which overlays the trace of the Nakasendo Way on a modern map of Japan, shows the problem.

Many of the modern roads followed the course of the old road and thereby obliterated long stretches of it when they were built, while Japan’s skyrocketing population meant that every post town expanded way beyond its original limits, further obliterating the old road, and the calls for modern housing meant many of the old inns, shops, and houses in the post towns were razed to the ground to make way for brick and concrete.

If I write all this, it is because I had hoped to be able to match up at least some of views along our walk with Hiroshige’s and Eisen’s prints. We read that the portion of the Nakasendo Way which we were going to walk along, from Oi to Karuizawa, was the most unspoiled. So when, on the first day of our walk, my wife and I visited a museum dedicated to Hiroshige, I took photos of all the prints covering our section of the walk, in the pleasurable anticipation that at least at a few points along the way I would be able to stop and say “Ooh look, see how it’s changed since Hiroshige’s/Eisen’s time!”

Alas, it was not to be. We didn’t see a single view which I could relate in any way to any of the two men’s prints. Partly it was because so much has changed in the built environment along the route. Partly it was because the organizers of the walk actually made us do large chunks off the Nakasendo Way proper so that we wouldn’t be walking along modern roads and highways. But partly it was because, as I came to realize, the two artists were not interested in giving the viewer faithful renderings of places along the road; rather, they wanted to record the sensations of being a traveler on the road.

With that in mind, let me give the readers a sense of what my wife and I saw as we hiked along highway and byway from Oi to Karuizawa. We started in Oi on a beautiful day, not at all like the day Hiroshige chose for his print of Oi, where we see luckless travelers tramping along through deep snow.

Our guidance notes informed us that nowadays the trace of the Nakasendo Way is marked by the road sporting a special top of asphalt mixed with little yellow stones.

Following this trace (which in truth we really only had for the first day or two) made me feel a bit like Dorothy and her friends on the Yellow Brick Road.

Following our speckled roadway, we passed through the old post towns of Nakatsugawa and Ochiai. These were once two distinct post towns but now have expanded outwards and bled into each other, so it is difficult to know where one ends and the other begins. I have already inserted Hiroshige’s print of Nakasendo. Here is his print for Ochiai.

The two can be compared to this photo of the modern town of Nakatsugawa.
It’s a little hard not to feel a sense of loss.

At the exit of Ochiai, we crossed a bridge from which we had this perspective of a waterfall.

Charming – but not as dramatic as this print by  Eisen of the river at Nojiri
Something has been lost in the taming of nature.

Thereafter, we climbed steadily up towards Magome Pass, along an old piece of flagged roadway through a pine forest

before stopping for the night at an inn.

As in all the inns we stayed at, we were invited to wash off the aches and pains of the journey in the common hot tub and change into yukatas for dinner – something travelers had been doing along the Nakasendo Way for centuries, as this print by Hiroshige attests (note the man at the back soaking in the tub).

From the window of our room – strictly tatami, and no en-suite bathroom – we had a view of the inn’s garden.

I was reminded of a haiku by the master poet Matsuo Bashō

furu ike ya
kawazu tobikomu
mizu no oto

an ancient pond
a frog jumps in
the splash of water

Bashō traveled the old highways of Japan in the late 1600s and composed haiku along the way. Two seem particularly apposite for this autumn walk of ours:

No one travels along
this way but I
this autumn evening

Autumn evening: on a withered bough
A solitary crow is sitting now.

The next morning, the weather had turned bad and we left the inn under the rain.

With all our modern gear, we had it much better than some of the poor travelers depicted by Hiroshige tramping along under the rain

or running for shelter in a downpour.

We passed a Shinto shrine buried deep in the trees, whose entrance was guarded by a torii gate.

The same timeIess torii gate worked its way into one of Hiroshige’s prints.

The happy peasants are not so timeless, it seems. We saw no-one, throughout our entire walk, working in the fields.

We arrived in the old post town of Magome which, our guidance notes observed, is one of the better preserved post towns. And we arrived early enough to avoid the hordes of tourists which normally flood the place.


Magome is the birthplace of the novelist Shimazaki Toson. One of his most famous novels, Before the Dawn, is set in Magome at the time of the wrenching change from the Tokugawa shogunate to Meiji Restoration. As one review puts it, “Shimazaki shows that the Tokugawa shogunate, for all its repressiveness, had much to commend it; that the restoration, for all its successes, created a great deal of frustration and disillusion.” I must confess to having never read the book, but now that I’ve walked the Walk and seen all the changes that Japan’s opening up has wrought I think it’s time for me to do so.

We now began the walk up to Magome Pass. The higher altitudes were finally bringing the autumns colours to us.


The Magome Pass is nothing today but a tricky point where the walker has to be careful in crossing the road so as not to end up as roadkill.  But Eisen and Hiroshige each presented the pass as backbreaking work for those carrying heavy loads along the route.


As we walked down the other side, carrying just a small rucksack

I could not but reflect that our lives had been made much easier by the modern road: while we walked, the bulk of our luggage was being transferred from inn to inn by car.

We soon came across an old tea house, which has been serving weary travelers tea on their way up to, or down from, the Pass since time immemorial.

Hiroshige preserved one such stopping-off place in one of his prints.

Local volunteers keep the tea house going, offering tea (and, our guidance notes informed us, sometimes songs) to the walker who is willing to tarry a while, which we willingly did.

After a cup of tea, we were on our way again, reaching our inn on the outskirts of the old post town of Tsumago. As we saw later that afternoon, Tsumago was another post town which has elected to preserve itself for the tourist trade.


The only thing that struck me about the place was the strange habit which the locals had of hanging persimmons, ripe now all over Japan, outside their houses to dry. If nothing else, it made for a pretty photo.

After Tsumago, our walking deviated from the Nakasendo Way. The next day, on our walk from Tsumago to Kiso-Fukushima, we took an alternative route through the mountains, which in the old days was used when rock slides and other hazards blocked the normal route. Gone was the speckled roadway. It was rougher, wilder, and altogether more beautiful.





This brought us to Nojiri, from where, with a bow to modernity, we took a train to Kiso-Fukushima. Our entry to the town was this.

This is how the town’s entry looked like in Hiroshige’s time.

After an evening session in the inn’s Onsen (that Japanese institution of public bathing in mineral waters channeled from hot springs) and a good sleep, we started our next day with a visit to Kiso-Fukushima’s Zen rock garden, reputed to be the biggest in Japan. As an aficionado of rock gardens, I couldn’t miss it.

Well, as they say “bigger is not necessarily better”. I’m not sure I approve of that use of white lines in the design.

Here again, we strayed off the Nakasendo Way, taking the old Hida Way, a salt and medicinal herb trade route. We started at the Karasawa no taki falls.

We climbed up through some beautiful forest

to the Jizo Pass. It was marked by a little statue which someone had thoughtfully covered with a hat and a bib to keep it warm during the winter.

Just before heading down the other side, I gave a thought to those other travelers which Eisen had depicted also taking a break at the top of a pass.

After a lunch in beautiful sunshine gazing out at Mount Ontake in the distance (a volcano, I have since learned, which blew its top not too long ago)

we headed out for our afternoon walk over Nishino-toge pass, about which I have no memory and no photos – I must have been tired.

And so to our final day of walking, which saw us coming back to Kiso-Fukushima by bus, take a train to Yabuhara, and from there walk to the old post town of Narai. The walk took us to the top of Torii-toge Pass

and from there down to Narai. Narai is one long street of well preserved houses.


I could see no relation whatever with Eisen’s print of Narai

although what I saw rather reminded me of his print of another post town, Sakamoto.

A final reminder, if ever I needed one, that my initial dream of matching woodblock prints by either men to what I was seeing on the ground was an exercise doomed to failure.

After a late lunch, we hurried to the station to catch a series of trains to our final destination, the old post town of Karuizawa. As in Hiroshige’s print of Karuizawa

we arrived in darkness, although we enjoyed a slap-up meal at our inn rather than smoking what looks to me suspiciously like opium pipes. Perhaps the poor buggers didn’t have the cash for a good nosh.

The next day, we took that super-modern form of transportation, the bullet train, and headed to Osaka to catch our plane back home. My wife and I have already agreed that next year, if we go back to Japan, we will do another walk. The question is where.

________________________________

Photos: all ours, except:

Hokusai, Great Wave off Kanagawa: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Great_Wave_off_Kanagawa
Hokusai, Fine Wind Clear Morning: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fine_Wind,_Clear_Morning
Hokusai, Kajikazawa in Kai Province: https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/39656
Edo five routes: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edo_Five_Routes
Perry’s ship enters Tokyo Bay: https://medium.com/tomorrow-in-progress/when-black-ships-bring-the-future-9c7456050fcc
Nakasendo route on modern map: https://sites.google.com/site/kisokaido/presentation-nakasendo-kisokaido
Yellow Brick Road: http://fortune.com/2018/11/08/wizard-of-oz-script-auction/
Modern Nakatsugawa: https://photorator.com/photo/57577/spring-day-nakatsugawa-japan-
Kiso-Fuskushima station: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kiso-Fukushima_Station
Karasawa no Taki falls: https://www.getaway.co.za/travel-ideas/walking-through-japan/

MUSINGS ON CLIMATE CHANGE

Milan, 14 November 2018

I recently finished the three-week course which I give annually at Kyoto University, on sustainable industrial development – or rather, lack thereof. Summarizing rapidly, my thesis is that current patterns of industrial development, indeed current patterns of economic development as a whole, are fundamentally unsustainable, and that if we don’t change course soon climate change as well as various other attacks on our planetary ecosystems will lead to their collapse and this to the collapse of our civilizations. The rest of the course outlines how we might change direction.

For the students it’s an intensive course, but for me it’s not so intensive: two three-hour classes a week, plus a bit here and there. So I and my wife, who always accompanies me on these trips, have a lot of spare time on our hands. In past years, we’ve visited the city’s museums but none of the exhibitions this year grabbed our attention. The only exception was the Miho museum, which we had discovered last year. It had a strange (well, to us strange) exhibition, obsessively focused on bamboo tea scoops, used in the traditional Japanese tea ceremony to scoop powdered green tea out of its holder and transfer it to the pot of hot water. We see one here together with its bamboo holder.

Seeing one or two tea scoops is OK, but after the sixth or seventh my interest began to pall; yet this exhibition must have had a hundred of the things. Nevertheless, the building itself and the permanent exhibition was definitely worth another visit. I refer interested readers to an earlier post of mine on this museum.

We’ve also visited all the temples in and around Kyoto (and one year even took in the temples at nearby Nara), so by now we’re pretty much templed out. The only exception this year, because it continues to fascinate, was the Fushimi Inari shrine with its long avenues of torii gates snaking their way up and down the hill at whose feet the shrine stands.


Climbing up through all those torii gates was also useful exercise for us, helping as it did to maintain our fitness in readiness for the week-long walk we were booked in to do after I’d finished my course (and which, with a bit of luck, will be the subject of a future post).

In fact, walking the hills ringing Kyoto became the focus of much of our attention this year. Through serendipity we discovered a network of trails in those hills, and in the days I wasn’t teaching we would set off to explore them. They were quite hard going, their navigation not made easier by the many trees which this summer’s severe typhoons had brought crashing down over the trails. The typhoons were unusually severe this year in Kyoto, as was the summer in general; the climate change I was talking to my students about is making summers hotter and extreme weather events all the more extreme.


Luckily, many sections of the trails were easier on the legs, and it was on one of these sections, as we rounded a corner, that we suddenly found ourselves on the edge a steep wooded slope carpeted by intensely green ferns.


I have a great fondness for ferns. Partly it’s because of their innate elegance.

Partly it’s because of the beauty of young ferns as they uncoil.

Partly it’s because of their great age; as I have written in previous posts, I have a soft spot for those very ancient species which have survived to the present time.

Ferns first appear in the fossil record during the Carboniferous period, some 300 million years ago. The first evidence of ferns related to several modern families appeared in the Triassic period, some 250 million years ago. The great fern radiation occurred 70 million years ago in the late Cretaceous period, when many modern families of ferns first appeared. I should point out that in all these periods, CO2 levels were far higher than they are now. No doubt when that climate change I was talking to my students about, induced by rapidly increasing levels of CO2, brings our civilizations to their knees and wipes us out as a species ferns will once more conquer the world. Who laughs last laughs longest.

________________________________

Pictures: all ours, except:
fern elegance: https://www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/beauty/ferns/structure.shtml
fern uncoiling: https://www.bestphotosworld.com/15-lovely-unfurling-ferns/
fossil fern: http://www.tiedyedfreaks.org/ace/natural/natural.html

MUSINGS ON BRAMBLES

Kyoto, 15 October 2018

As I struggle with jet lag on our annual trip to Kyoto and watch the night sky pale into day, my mind wanders to a previous post that I wrote about stinging nettles. I mentioned there in passing that brambles are also a bitch because of their thorns. And now my tired brain latches onto brambles.

Wicked little bastards those thorns are, capable of slicing with ease through clothing, never mind more delicate tissues like your skin. Look at the damned things!

Talking of which, there was a story doing the rounds of Medieval England which offered an intriguing alternative to the standard narrative of the start of the universal war between Good and Evil. As we all know, that war started with Satan daring to claim that he was the equal of God. Thereupon, in majestic rage, God, through the good offices of his Archangel Michael, threw Satan and his horde out of Heaven – a most dramatic rendition of which scene my wife and I recently came across in Antwerp Cathedral.

The standard story has Satan and his devils all falling into Hell. As John Milton put it so memorably in his opening lines of Paradise Lost

                             Him the Almighty Power
Hurled headlong flaming from the ethereal sky
With hideous ruin and combustion down
To bottomless perdition, there to dwell
In adamantine chains and penal fire,
Who durst defy the Omnipotent to arms.

In Medieval England instead, they had the poor devils land in bramble bushes, presumably as a pit stop on their way down to their eventual hellish destination. The pain was such that every year, on Michaelmas Day, the feast day of their nemesis the Archangel Michael, the devils would go round all the bramble bushes in England and spit, pee, and fart on the blackberries. I sense that on their satanic rounds, the devils would have looked something like this.

Now, there was actually a moral to this story, to whit: one should not eat blackberries off the bush after Michaelmas Day. A very sensible suggestion, I would say; who would want to pick and eat blackberries after they had been so treated? The precise date when this interdict should come into effect is the subject of some confusion. When the story started on its rounds, England followed the old Julian calendar, in which Michaelmas Day fell on 10th October (in today’s Gregorian calendar). In the Gregorian calendar, though, Michaelmas Day falls on 27th September. The key question is: have the devils continued to follow the Julian calendar or did they switch to the Gregorian calendar like everyone else? While my readers ponder over this conundrum, I should note that, like many fanciful stories from our past, a good scientific reason exists for eschewing blackberry eating after end-September, early-October: the damper autumnal weather encourages the growth of molds on blackberries, grey botrytis cinerea in particular, the eating of which could be perilous for the health of the eater.

It’s typical of devils that they would try to spoil the one fun thing there is about brambles, which is collecting ripe blackberries. Luckily, this is done – or should be done – late-August, early-September, before the devils get around to their nasty business. This summer, when my wife and I were walking the Vienna woods,we got few occasions to pick blackberries; there simply weren’t that many growing along the paths we took. But I still remember my siblings and I going blackberrying some fifty years ago. We would head out to the bramble bushes lining the small country lane which passed by my French grandmother’s house, each of us with a container, slowly moving down the bushes and picking the darkest, juiciest berries. This young girl epitomizes that perilous and sometimes painful search for juicy goodness among the thorns.

She at least managed to come home, with purple fingers (and probably purple mouth), with her finds.

We never seemed to come home with any; eating them on the spot was simply too irresistible, and we would troop home with nothing to show for our work but purple mouths and hands, much to the irritation of our grandmother who had been planning to conserve our blackberries for the winter. My memory fails me at this point but no doubt we would be sent off to the bramble bushes again, with strict orders to bring back the blackberries this time.

Seamus Heaney, the Irish poet and Nobel Laureate for literature, captured well the joys of blackberrying in his poem Blackberry picking, although he speaks too of the heartbreak of his treasured finds going moldy, no doubt with the help of the devils.

Late August, given heavy rain and sun
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
Picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
Sent us out with milk cans, pea tins, jam-pots
Where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.
Round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills
We trekked and picked until the cans were full
Until the tinkling bottom had been covered
With green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned
Like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered
With thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard’s.
We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair
That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.

Luckily, by the beginning of last century the terrors of the supernatural had been tamed by science, so that Cicely Mary Barker, in her collection of seasonal flower fairies, was able to transform the nasty devils of the past into this very twee Bramble Fairy.

The fairy was accompanied by an equally twee little poem.

My berries cluster black and thick
For rich and poor alike to pick.

I’ll tear your dress and cling, and tease,
And scratch your hands and arms and knees.

I’ll stain your fingers and your face,
And then I’ll laugh at your disgrace

But when the bramble-jelly’s made
You’ll find your troubles well repaid.

Twee it might be, but the poem’s last lines point us to the next step in the blackberry adventure, namely the eating of them in various yummy forms.

In my opinion, one can do no better than eat blackberries fresh with a dollop or two – or three – of whipped cream.

I’m sure my wife would agree. She once spent a Wimbledon championship selling strawberries and whipped cream to those going in to watch the tennis, and since she no doubt scarfed down a portion of her product when the manager wasn’t looking she will testify to the deliciousness of the cream-berry combination.

The English, however, also swear by the blackberry-apple combination, cooked together in a pie. The ideal is to use windfall apples, so slightly tart, with fully ripe blackberries; the tart-sweet combination which results cannot be beaten, I am assured in article after article.

I’m moved to throw in here a brief recipe for this delicious dish. Start by making the dough for the pie. Put 250g of plain flour into a large mixing bowl with a small pinch of salt. Cut 75g of butter and 75g of lard into small chunks and rub into the flour using thumb and fingertips. Add no more than a couple of tablespoons of cold water. You want a dough that is firm enough to roll but soft enough to demand careful lifting. Set aside in the fridge, covered with a tea towel, for 30 minutes.

In the meantime, preheat the oven to 180°C. Peel, core and quarter 6 Bramley apples, cutting them into thick slices or chunks. Put 20g butter and 100g caster sugar into a saucepan and, when the butter has melted, add the apples. Slowly cook for 15 minutes with a lid on. Then add 150g blackberries, stir and cook for 5 more minutes with the lid off.

Meanwhile, remove the pastry from the fridge. Cut the pastry in half and roll one of the pieces out until it’s just under 1cm thick. Butter a shallow 25cm pie dish and line with the pastry, trimming off any excess round the edges.

Tip the cooled apples and blackberries into a sieve, reserving all the juices, then put the fruit into the lined pie dish, mounding it in the middle. Spoon over half the reserved juices. Roll out the second piece of pastry and lay it over the top of the pie. Trim the edges as before and crimp them together with your fingers. Make a couple of slashes in the top of the pastry. Place the pie on the bottom of the preheated oven for 55 to 60 minutes, until golden brown and crisp.

In these troubled times of Brexit, when there are those Little Englanders who would question the UK’s belonging to a wider European culture, I feel that I should point out that this pie is not uniquely English. Already some 450-500 years ago, the Dutch painter Willem Heda lovingly painted a half-eaten apple and blackberry pie (unfortunately, my wife and I did not see this particular painting during our trip this summer to the Netherlands).

I feel I must include here a variation on the pie theme, the blackberry-apple crumble, only because my Aunt Frances used to make the most sublime crumble, whose magnificence I remember even now, more than half a century after the fact.

Once again, pre-heat the oven to 180°C. To make the crumble, tip 120g plain flour and 60g caster sugar into a large bowl. Cut 60g unsalted butter into chunks, then rub into the flour using your thumb and fingertips to make a light breadcrumb texture. Do not overwork it or the crumble will become heavy. Sprinkle the mixture evenly over a baking sheet and bake for 15 mins or until lightly coloured. Meanwhile, prepare and cook the apple-blackberry compote as before. Spoon the warm fruit into an ovenproof gratin dish, top with the crumble mix, then reheat in the oven for 5-10 mins.

Since the Bramble Fairy speaks about bramble jelly, and since something like it was the reason my grandmother sent us out to collect blackberries, I feel I should mention this preserve too.

Staying with the apple-blackberry combination, I give here a recipe which contains apples. But the purpose of the apples is different. It is to naturally add pectin to the mix so as to make a firmer jelly.

Put 2 cooking apples, washed, cored, and diced, and 450ml of water in a large saucepan. Bring to the boil, then simmer over a low heat for 20-25 minutes or until the fruit is completely soft. Tip the soft fruit and juice into a jelly bag (which has been previously boiled to sterilize) and leave to drip for 8 hours or until all the juice has been released. Prepare the jam jars by washing in hot soapy water and leaving to dry and warm in a cool oven for 10-15 minutes. Measure the juice. For every 600ml weigh out 450g sugar. Put the juice and sugar back into the clean pan, heat over a low heat until all the sugar has dissolved. Bring to the boil and simmer for 10-15 minutes or until setting point is reached. Skim away any scum from the top of the jelly and fill the jam jars to the brim. Cover, seal and label. Store in a cool, dark place until required.

It goes without saying that the juice of blackberries can be drunk too, in many forms. I will only mention one of these, blackberry wine, and only because I once made the closely related elderberry wine at school, with a couple of friends. More on this later. Let me focus first on the making of blackberry wine. If any of my readers want to try this, they can use the following recipe which I lifted from Wikihow.

To make 6 bottles of wine:
– 4½-6 lbs of fresh blackberries
– 2½ lbs of sugar
– 7 pints water
– 1 package yeast (red wine yeast is recommended)

Crush the berries by hand in a sterile plastic bucket. Pour in 2 pints of cooled distilled water and mix well. Leave the mixture for two hours.

Boil ⅓ of the sugar with 3 pints water for one minute. Allow the syrup to cool. Add the yeast to 4 oz of warm (not boiling) water and let it stand for 10 minutes. Pour the cooled syrup into the berries. Add the yeast. Make sure the mixture has properly cooled, as a hot temperature will kill the yeast. Cover the bucket with a clean cloth and leave in a warm place for seven days.

Strain the pulp through fine muslin or another fine straining device, wringing the material dry. Pour the strained liquid into a gallon jug. Boil a second ⅓ of the sugar in 1 pint water. Allow it to cool before adding it to the jug. Plug the top of jug with cotton wool and stretch a pin-pricked balloon to the neck. This allows CO2 to escape and protects the wine from oxidization and outside contamination (the demijohn in the photo has a much more sophisticated stopper for the same purpose).

Let the wine sit for ten days. Siphon or rack the wine to a container. Sterilize the jug, then return the wine. Boil the remaining ⅓ of the sugar in the last pint of water, allowing to cool before adding to the wine. Plug the jug with the cotton wool and balloon and leave until the wine has stopped fermenting. The wine will stop bubbling when fermentation has stopped.

Siphon the wine as before. Sterilize the wine bottles and add a funnel. Pour the wine into the bottles, filling each bottle to the neck. Cork and store the bottles.

Cheers!

Reading this, I realize why our attempt at making elderberry wine fifty years ago was such a miserable failure. Readers should first understand that what we were doing – making an alcoholic drink – was strictly prohibited, so we were exceedingly furtive in everything we did. With this premise, let me describe the steps we went through. As I recall, we mashed the elderberries with water and yeast, a packet of which we bought down in the village (Lord knows what the lady behind the counter thought we were doing with the yeast; she was too polite to ask). I don’t remember parking the resulting liquid somewhere warm to ferment, we simply put the mash into (unsterilized) bottles that we purloined from somewhere; did we even strain out the solids? I have my doubts. Our most pressing problem was where to hide the bottles while the juice was fermenting into (we dreamed) wine. Our first idea was to put them in a sack and haul this to the top of a leafy tree where it was well hidden. But we had forgotten that trees lose their leaves in Autumn. So readers can imagine our horror when our sack became increasingly visible – from the Housemaster’s room, no less – as the leaves dropped off. We hastily brought the sack down one evening and buried it in a little wood behind our House. Later, when we reckoned the fermentation must be over, we furtively dug up the sack. Two out of the three bottles had exploded. We took the remaining bottle into the toilet and drank it. Of course, we pretended to be drunk, although in truth the potion we had concocted had little if any effect on us; the levels of alcohol in it must have been miserably low. And the taste was distinctly blah. I’ve had it in for elderberries ever since.

Unsurprisingly, we humans have been eating blackberries for thousands of years. Swiss archaeologists have discovered the presence of blackberries in a site 5,000 years old while the Haralskaer woman was found to have eaten blackberries before she was ceremonially strangled and dumped in a Danish peat bog 2,500 years ago.

As usual, our ancestors not only ate the fruit but believed that the rest of the plant had medicinal properties of one form or another. As a son of the scientific revolution, I have grave doubts about the purported therapeutic value of berries (ripe or unripe), leaves, and flowers, when no rigorous scientific testing has ever been carried out to support the claims. However, there is one medicinal property which I will report, simply because two widely divergent sources, who could not possibly have known of each other’s existence, mention it. The first is a book of herbal remedies, the Juliana Anicia Codex, prepared in the early 6th Century in Constantinople by the Greek Dioscorides, and which is now – through the twists and turns of fate that make up history – lodged in Austria’s National Library in Vienna. This is the page in the book dedicated to the bramble.

The text relates, among other things: “The leaves are chewed to strengthen the gums ”. For their part, the Cherokee Indians in North America would chew on fresh bramble leaves to treat bleeding gums. The same claim by Byzantine Greeks and Cherokee Indians? That seems too much to be a mere coincidence. When the world has gone to hell in a handbasket because we were not able to control our emissions of greenhouse gases, and when my gums begin to bleed because there will be no more dentists to go to for my annual check-ups, I will remember this claim and chew on bramble leaves.

On that pessimistic note, I will take my leave of my readers with a poem by the Chinese poet Li Qingzhao. She lived through a period of societal breakdown, when the Song Dynasty was defeated by the nomadic Jurchens in the early 12th Century and retreated southward to create an impoverished rump of its empire, known to us as the Southern Song, around the city of Hangzhou. Li Qingzhao reflected on this period of decline and decay in her later poems. I choose this particular poem, her Tz’u Song No. 1, because it happens to mention blackberry flowers and blackberry wine.

Fragrant grass beside the pond
green shade over the hall
a clear cold comes through
the window curtains
crescent moon beyond the golden bars
and a flute sounds
as if someone were coming
but alone on my mat with a cup
gazing sadly into nothingness
I want to call back
the blackberry flowers
that have fallen
though pear blossoms remain
for in that distant year
I came to love their fresh fragrance
scenting my sleeve
as we culled petals over the fire
when as far as the eye could see
were dragon boats on the river
graceful horses and gay carts
when I did not fear the mad winds
and violent rain
as we drank to good fortune
with warm blackberry wine
now I cannot conceive
how to retrieve that time.

_______________________

Blackberry thorns: http://iuniana.hangdrum.info
Frans Floris, “Fall of the Rebel Angels”: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/ File:Fall_of_rebel_Angels_(Frans_Floris)_September_2015-1a.jpg
Devil: https://www.etsy.com/sg-en/listing/517991225/the-devil-ceramic-decal-devil-ceramic
Blackberry fairy: https://flowerfairies.com/the-blackberry-fairy/
Blackberry picking: https://spiralspun.com/2013/10/29/blackberry-picking-one-of-lifes-simple-pleasures/
Jug of blackberries: https://spiralspun.com/2013/10/29/blackberry-picking-one-of-lifes-simple-pleasures/
Blackberries with whipped cream: https://depositphotos.com/80606340/stock-photo-fresh-blackberries-with-whipped-cream.html
Apple and blackberry pie: https://www.thespruceeats.com/british-apple-and-blackberry-pie-recipe-434894
Willem Claesz. Heda, Still Life with a Fruit Pie: https://www.masterart.com/artworks/502/willem-heda-still-life-with-a-blackberry-pie
Apple and blackberry crumble: https://www.taste.com.au/recipes/apple-blackberry-crumble/837e5613-3708-42f2-8835-dcd9dd3b3876
Blackberry jelly: https://www.bbc.com/food/recipes/bramblejelly_13698
Demijohn of blackberry wine: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/371476669246000245/
Bottled blackberry wine: http://justintadlock.com/archives/2018/01/27/bottled-blackberry-wine
Glass of blackberry wine: https://www.pinterest.pt/pin/573294227542445354/
Haraldskaer woman: http://legendsandlore.blogspot.com/2006/01/haraldskaer-woman.html

AUTUMN CROCUSES

Milan, 1 October 2018

We’ve had a hot, hot summer this year in Vienna, with very little rain. It seemed as if the summer was never going to end. But then, quite suddenly, it did. We had three days of heavy rain in the first week of September and summer’s back was broken. Temperatures tumbled overnight, as they can in this part of the world, by 10-15 degrees. The rains passed, the sun shone again, but now there was an autumnal chill in the air.

This weather pattern has been a godsend to mushroom pickers. I had lunch with an old colleague a week or so after the rains. He and his wife are dedicated mushroom pickers. As we tucked into our Wiener schnitzels, he told me that this year it was like manna from heaven: mushrooms were popping up everywhere. They had picked and pickled enough steinpilze to last them through to next September, he exclaimed, with a dreamy look in his eye. For those of my readers who are also into eating mushrooms, steinpilze are penny buns in English, although nowadays I suspect many people know them by their Italian name porcini. I throw in a picture of this delicacy in its natural state.

Even my wife and I, who like the occasional mushroom but are definitely not aficionados, had noticed on our last walks in the Vienna woods a sudden profusion of mushrooms everywhere we looked. But since neither of us would know a steinpilz from a eierschwammerl (chanterelle in English – actually French, but the Brits seem to have adopted the name), we did not dare to collect any: stories from our youth of whole families wiped out from eating the wrong mushrooms continue to resonate.

What my wife and I really noticed on our late-September walks were the Autumn crocuses. The Vienna woods are dotted with meadows large and small.

I think most of them were created for a very utilitarian purpose. During the hunting season, they allowed a clear shot of any poor beast which made the mistake of breaking cover, and in fact many of the meadows have a hide at one end.

But at this time of the year, a good number of the meadows are speckled with Autumn crocuses. We came across a particularly lovely display on a walk we did behind Klosterneuburg, the little town on the Danube to the north of Vienna clustered around its venerable monastery. We climbed the ridge which abuts the town, pausing to catch our breath, admire the surrounding vineyards, and take this photo of the monastery below us.

We then walked a long way along the ridge, on the suitably named Lange Gasse, Long Lane.

We ambled on through some woods, and then suddenly found ourselves in this meadow. It was carpeted with Autumn crocuses.

Crocuses are really lovely little flowers, so delicate, so tender. A much better photographer than I posted this close-up photo of an Autumn crocus, which shows off to perfection its subtle traits.

When I was growing up in the UK, Spring crocuses were my delight, beautiful in and of themselves but also a harbinger of the Spring and daffodils to come, banishing the grey cold of Winter. But in Vienna, it is the Autumn crocus which dominates, a last extravagant splurge by Nature before Winter starts closing in.

Like the birds whose inner clock tells them in August that it is time to fly south

the Autumn crocuses told my wife and I that the moment had come for us to migrate down to Italy. And so we have packed our bags, flown across the Alps, and are now ensconced in Milan for the winter.

___________________________

Steinpilze: https://apollo.tvnet.lv/5095184/senu-trakums
Meadow in wood: https://www.bundesforste.at/nc/produkte-leistungen/jagd/jagdreviere/detail.html?tx_jagd_dfb%5Brevier%5D=3&tx_jagd_dfb%5Baction%5D=show&tx_jagd_dfb%5Bcontroller%5D=Revier&cHash=36e512ac3435f6026d5490ce7c4e6882
Klosterneuburg: our pic
Lange Gasse: our pic
Autumn crocuses in a meadow: our pic
Autumn crocus close up: https://www.gardeningexpress.co.uk/colchicum-autumnale-autumn-crocus
Birds heading south: http://www.nhpr.org/post/heading-south-bird-migration-and-human-impact#stream/0

NETTLES

Vienna, 25 September 2018

On the walks which my wife I have been enjoying this summer in the Wiener Wald, Vienna’s woods, we have from time to time come across nettles along the side of the path. Here’s a picture of one large patch which we came across recently.

Whenever I see nettles, I instinctively move to one side and slow to a deliberate pace to make sure that I don’t get stung by the little bastards. I suppose that those of us who live in parts of the world where stinging nettles flourish – and that’s pretty much everywhere except sub-Saharan Africa – have learned the necessary defensive tactics to adopt in order to avoid being stung, probably learned the hard way after ill-fated encounters with the plant when we were young and innocent of the evil ways of the world. To be fair to the nettle, I should note in passing that not all nettles sting; there is one species, the fen nettle, which is stingless. I read that it is a European species. I suppose I have never been to those parts of Europe where it grows, which is a great pity.

The stinging sensation comes from the plant lathering biochemical irritants on your skin, such as histamine, serotonin, and choline, and from its tiny sharp hairs piercing your skin – look at those nasty little buggers, glitteringly evil and just waiting to slice into you!

The result is, of course, those horribly itchy, hot, blotches on your skin.

Poor kid, I feel so much for him! I say this because I have a particularly painful memory from when I was a Boy Scout; I must have been 11 or 12. We had gone off on our annual week’s camp, and two groups of us found ourselves one afternoon at the bottom of a hill thickly covered with bushes, long grass, brambles – and large swathes of nettles. We made a bet as to who could arrive at the top first. For some reason, I found myself at the head of our group and so had the task of hacking a path through the wilderness. At some point, taken by a sort of frenzy, I charged ahead with minimal covering of my exposed limbs. We arrived first at the top, but by then my arms were covered with nettle welts. At first, the congratulations of my group members made up for the pain, but after a while the pain dominated my thinking. I stiffened my trembling upper lip, though, and carried on. I was a Boy Scout, after all. But the memory of the pain has lingered on all these years.

Well, I was a boy then and my behaviour can be put down to juvenility. But in preparing this post I have learned that there are actually adults who run through nettles! There is a race in the UK, called the Tough Guy Nettle Warrior contest, where the contestants not only run through nettle patches but also through fire, and through wires delivering electric shocks. They also do more mundane things like race up and down steep hillsides, run in and out of muddy ditches, clamber up 15ft rope nets, and worm their way under barbed wire perilously close to their face. Here we have them running through the nettles.

Well, all I can say is, there is one born every day.

The nettle doesn’t even have a nice flower or yummy fruit to offset its nasty stinging habits. The bramble, for instance, which is also a mean son-of-a-bitch to fall into or to traverse, has both. Does the nettle have any redeeming features? Well, it seems it does have one or two, none of which, I have to say, I have experienced personally. So I can only pass on what I’ve read.

You can eat nettles. If you’re a masochist, you can eat them by entering the World Nettle Eating Championships, another competition held annually in the UK. Competitors are served 2-foot long stalks of stinging nettles from which they pluck and eat the leaves. After an hour the bare stalks are measured and the winner is the competitor with the greatest accumulated length of stripped nettle stalks. Here we see the competitors at work.

The men’s champion in 2017 munched his way through 70 feet of nettles …

It takes all sorts to make the world, they say.

If, like me, you are not into self-harm, you can cook the nettles first; that takes their sting away. I’ve often heard of nettle soup, although not only have I never tried it but I’ve never met anyone who has. Here is a Swedish recipe for this soup (nässelsoppa in Swedish, in case readers visiting the country want to ask for it). For some reason, I sense that the Swedes make a “purer” version of it than others; I mean, isn’t Noma, the Michelin-starred restaurant where you are served pickings from field and forest, just across the waters, in Copenhagen? (and they serve nettles in various forms, according to one blogger who ate there)

  1. Pick the nettle leaves – WITH GLOVES! Pick the top four or six leaves on each spear, they are the most tender.
  2. Clean the leaves well of any grass and beasties which you might have unintentionally picked up as well.
  3. Blanch the nettle leaves, and then strain them from the liquid. Don’t throw away the liquid!
  4. Make a roux with butter and flour. Pour the water in which the nettles were blanched onto the roux.
  5. Chop the blanched nettle leaves very finely, along with the other ingredients, which typically include chives (or ramson or garlic), and chervil or fennel. Or you purée them, although this must be a modern alternative, born with the advent of mechanical blenders.
  6. Put the chopped (or puréed) nettles and herbs into the nettle water-roux mixture. Bring to a boil and then leave to simmer for a few minutes.
  7. Serve, with a sliced boiled egg and/or a dollop of fresh cream.

The result should look something like this.

Njut av! (which, if Google Translate got it right, is the Swedish for “Enjoy!” – although if Bergman’s films are anything to go by, the Swedes don’t enjoy much of anything)

I read that nettle leaves can also be consumed as a spinach-like vegetable, puréed, or added to things like frittate or vegetable and herb tarts (the latter being a Yotam Ottolenghi recipe; not a word about nettles in Jamie Oliver’s recipes). It is also an ingredient in herbal teas. And of course – but here we are drifting into Medieval beliefs (literally) – nettles have been used as traditional medicine to treat a wide spectrum of disorders: disorders of the kidneys and urinary tract, gastrointestinal tract, locomotor system, skin, cardiovascular system, hemorrhage, influenza, and gout. Take your pick. Or if you have rheumatism you can have someone flog you with nettles. In preparing this post, I came across a report by someone in the UK who had himself flogged with nettles for his bad back.

Whatever takes your fancy … (my country is full of some really strange people – no wonder it voted for Brexit).

You can also make a linen-like textile with nettles; the plant’s fibres have very similar properties to flax and hemp (and I need hardly mention that the processing of nettles into textiles eliminates their stinging properties). In fact, in Europe, our ancestors were making nettle textiles at least 2,800 years ago. A piece of textile from a Bronze Age burial in Denmark, a photo of which I insert here, has been identified as made of nettles.

The clever scientists involved in the research have gone one step further and figured out that these particular nettles came from Steiermark, which in today’s political geography is in southern Austria, just down the road from where I am sitting writing this. They argue, with some justification it seems to me, that if this textile made its way from southern Austria to Denmark it must mean that nettle textiles were considered a luxury item in the Bronze Age. Quite why this is so is not clear to me, however. Nettles grow in Denmark too, so what was so extraordinary about nettle textiles made in southern Austria? I guess we will never know.

After the advent of cotton, nettles fell out of favour, along with flax and hemp. There were moments, when wars made access to cotton difficult, when the use of nettle textiles was revived. It seems that one such moment was in France during the Napoleonic wars, when the UK’s maritime blockade meant that France’s access to cotton was restricted. So perhaps La Vieille Garde, Napoleon’s elite troops, about which we heard so much during our visit to the battlefield of Waterloo, wore uniforms made from nettles?

The Germans too, it seems, made use of nettle textiles in their soldiers’ uniforms during World War I, again because the UK’s blockade cut off the country’s supplies of cotton.

Nowadays, it’s niche designers who are making clothes from nettles, promoting their greenness and sustainability. Here are a couple photos of such clothes which I found during a random surf of the web.


There seems to be a whiff of the alternative lifestyle here. We appear to still be a long way from mainstream clothes being made of nettles. But the EU, I read, is deadly serious about trying to promote a greater use of nettles, as well as of flax and hemp, as an alternative to cotton, both as a stab at greater sustainability and as a way of getting farmers to grow more non-agricultural crops, thus reducing Europe’s over-production of food while still maintaining farmers’ incomes. Perhaps fields of nettles like this will soon become common.

As an environmentalist, I of course would welcome this move towards more local production – but I would agitate for a law making signs like this a legal requirement, upon pain of the farmer being flogged with his produce if he fails to put them up.

28/9/2108: POSTSCRIPTUM

After I had posted this, an old friend of mine quickly reminded me that nettles also play a very important role in supporting butterflies, or rather the caterpillars which will become butterflies; these critters will happily feed on the leaves. Suitably chastened, I did a quick search and found a page on the Woodland Trust site which explained this important nettle-butterfly nexus. To make amends, I add here pictures of those butterflies most commonly associated with nettles.

The small tortoiseshell:

The peacock:

The red admiral:

The comma:

The painted lady:

The Woodland Trust exhorts gardeners to keep that patch of nettles which they have in their gardens, to help the butterflies. Hmm, I wonder if the fen nettle would support these butterflies? If yes, I’m all in favour of it. We would have a win-win situation here: supporting our beleaguered butterfly populations but not risking getting stung in our own gardens.
_______________________

Nettles on our walks: my pic
Nettle hairs: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Urtica_dioica
Nettle rash: http://blog.shopprice.co.nz/10-health-benefits-of-stinging-nettle/
Running though nettles: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2021411/Tough-Guy-Nettle-Warrior-4-000-endure-cross-country-hell-Britains-bizarre-races.html
Nettle eating championship: https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/weird-news/world-nettle-eating-championships-held-8246974
Nettle soup: http://www.swedishfood.com/swedish-food-recipes-starters/92-nettle-soup
Flogging with nettles: https://wildfoxwildfire.wordpress.com/2015/09/08/how-i-fixed-my-bad-back-using-stinging-nettles/
Bronze Age textile from Denmark: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3460533/
Member of the Vieille Garde: http://www.wikiwand.com/hr/Grenadir
German soldier WWI: https://www.quora.com/Why-were-Germans-called-Jerry-in-WWI
Nettle wrap: https://www.etsy.com/listing/590489032/grounding-nettle-wrap?ga_order=most_relevant&ga_search_type=all&ga_view_type=gallery&ga_search_query=nettle%20clothing&ref=sr_gallery-1-7
Nettle man’s vest: https://www.etsy.com/listing/280624084/mens-vest-handwoven-nettle-fabric?ga_order=most_relevant&ga_search_type=all&ga_view_type=gallery&ga_search_query=nettle%20clothing&ref=sr_gallery-1-13
Field of nettles: https://herbaloo.org/experimence/the-nettles-experiment/
Stinging nettle sign: https://tmagazine.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/05/21/nettle-dandelion-greens-mint-soup-recipe-nettle-tea/
Butterflies: https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/blog/2016/05/butterflies-need-nettles/

MARSH HORSETAIL

Vienna, 25 August 2018

I’ve always been a sucker for the underdog. Maybe it’s because I’m British – well, half British. When I was young, it used to be said that fighting for the underdog was a distinctively British trait, the prime example always given being the UK indignantly declaring war on Germany in 1914 to protect poor little Belgium. Given our history as the biggest colonialist power of all time, I find this claim a little hard to swallow. Still, I offer it as a possible explanation. Or maybe it’s because of all the years I spent working in the UN – its main job seems to be to stand up for the downtrodden of this world, as typified by the main slogan of its new Sustainable Development Goals: “No-one left behind”. Of course, there are those who would point out the rather large gap between the UN’s rhetoric and its actions … Or perhaps working for more years than I care to remember in the environmental field has made me intensely aware of the wholesale destruction that our species is raining down on every other hapless species that co-exists on this planet of ours.

Whatever the reason, I am, as I said, a sucker for the underdog. This tendency of mine to root for “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore” (to cite the poem by Emma Lazarus inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty) extends to the biological world. Simply put, I have a soft spot for really old species which once flourished on our planet but which for various reasons have been overtaken by other species and often thrust into small niches where they eke out a continued precarious existence. I was recently reading with sadness and indignation about the coelacanth, a fish older than the dinosaurs, which has managed to hang on 400 million years but whose last known representatives in waters off South Africa are now threatened by oil and gas drilling.

I have written in the past in these posts about the ginkgo. 150 million years or so ago, it was a thriving family of some eleven species but is now represented by only one, the ginkgo biloba, which has managed to hang on, simply because of the kindness of Buddhist monks it would seem.

I have also written about dragonflies, which first appeared in the fossil record some 325 million years ago. To be fair, they seem to be in quite a healthy state, represented as they are still by some 3,000 species. But there was a time when very large dragonflies with wingspans of 70 centimeters buzzed around – shrinkage seems to be the fate of species under attack.

The walks which my wife and I have been taking this summer in the Vienna woods (training for a long walk we will be undertaking in Japan in November) have brought me face to face with another such biological relic, the marsh horsetail.


Immediately I saw it, I sensed that I was in front of something very ancient. And indeed I was. Ancestors of the marsh horsetail and its brethren (there are some fifteen species still in existence) once dominated the understory of the forests in the late Paleozoic period some 300-350 million years ago, the time when many of our coal beds were being laid down – no doubt many a kilo of coal owes its existence to horsetail ancestors ringing down the curtain in those steamy Paleozoic forests. Here is the ghost of one such ancestor, caught in the fossil record.

And I show here an artist’s illustration of what these forests might have looked like.

Sic transit gloria mundi, “Thus passes the glory of the world”, I am fond of muttering at such moments, while my wife rolls her eyes at the oft repeated phrase.

Another name, at least in English, for the marsh horse tail is bottle-brush. I think readers will agree that it does indeed have a passing resemblance to a bottle brush. I throw in a picture here of such a brush for confirmation.

There was a time when I was very familiar with the shrunken version of the bottle brush, the test-tube cleaner. That was during the years when I spent a lot of time in chemistry labs, thinking that chemistry was the life for me. But it was not to be.

While the marsh horsetail could never actually be used to clean bottles, until quite recently one of its cousins, the shaving-rush horsetail, was used as sandpaper.

As my wife and I have noticed, this particular horsetail currently is becoming popular as a plant in public spaces, along house boundaries, used almost as a fence.

But since the plant contains high levels of crystalline silica, which is what coats sandpaper, our more practical ancestors used it to sand down furniture. Given our recent museum-soaked trip to the Netherlands, where we saw numerous paintings of homely scenes hanging on various walls, I was moved to find a painting from the Dutch Golden Age of a cabinet maker at work. This is the best I could find, a painting of a still life of musical instruments on a piece of furniture, all of which would have required fine sanding in their making. The painter is Pieter Gerritsz van Roestraten.
Well, as temperatures have soared this summer in Europe, generating much anguished comment that finally we are faced with the evidence of climate change when it is too late to really do anything about it, perhaps the marsh horsetail and its brethren are cheering us stupid humans on. I’m sure that a world where average global temperatures are 2oC and more higher will be very agreeable to them and once again they will be able to flourish and kick out the upstarts, including us, which shoved them aside: he who laughs last laughs longest, as they say.

____________________

coelacanth: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/aug/17/older-than-dinosaurs-last-south-african-coelacanths-threatened-by-oil-exploration
https://www.boredpanda.com/1400-old-ginkgo-tree-yellow-leaves-buddhist-temple-china/?utm_source=google&utm_medium=organic&utm_campaign=organic
ancient dragonfly: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dragonfly#/media/File:Meganeura_monyi-Museum_Toulouse.png
marsh horsetails: my photos
horsetail fossil: https://www.alamy.com/stock-photo-fossil-horsetail-equisetum-italy-10869299.html
Paleozoic forest: https://www.deviantart.com/abelov2014/art/Meganeura-Arthropleura-581872049
Scouring rush: http://www.illinoiswildflowers.info/grasses/plants/scouring_rush.htm
Scouring rush in public places: http://www.budgetplants.com/shrubs/accent/horsetail-equisetum-hyemale
Still life of musical instruments: https://pixels.com/featured/still-life-with-musical-instruments-pieter-gerritsz-van-roestraten.html

THE CHERRY, SWEET AND SOUR

Vienna, 20 July 2018

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

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

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

Was this a cherry tree gone feral, I wondered?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

__________________________

wild cherry tree: https://www.waldwissen.net/waldwirtschaft/waldbau/pflege/lwf_waldbau_vogelkirsche/index_DE
wild cherry tree bark: https://www1.wdr.de/verbraucher/wohnen/service-garten-borken-100.html
wild cherry fruit: https://vollwert-blog.de/wilde-vogelkirschen/
bird eating cherries: https://www.fotocommunity.de/photo/kirschen-essen-vogel-chrisi-online/17347944
wild versus domesticated cherry: https://vollwert-blog.de/wilde-vogelkirschen/
Pliny’s Natural History: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Natural_History_(Pliny)
Lucullus: https://www.istockphoto.com/at/vektor/lucius-licinius-lucullus-gm686730586-126174385
Villa Borghese gardens: http://www.garden.it/chicotti/i-giardini-segreti-di-villa-borghese-giardino-dei-fiori
Prunus avium range: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prunus_avium
Sour cherry: https://gourmandistan.com/2012/05/20/short-sour-cho-chweet-cherry-season/
Glass jar full of cherries: http://lesgourmandesastucieuses.blogspot.com/2011/07/comment-conserver-vos-cerises-2eme.html
Cherry tree in bloom: https://www.istockphoto.com/at/fotos/wild-cherry-tree
Cherry trees blooming in Japan: https://www.redduckpost.com/cherry-blossoms-in-japan-can-you-rely-on-the-forecast/
Cherry trees blooming in Washington DC: https://washington.org/DC-guide-to/national-cherry-blossom-festival
Nicolson square: https://www.facebook.com/lostedinburgh/posts/nicolson-square-spring-1972-lovely/1530993553624989/

GERANIUMS – SORRY, PELARGONIUMS

Sori, 14 May 2018

I’ve written about cacti in an earlier post. In that case it was in a plug for more cactus growing in LA. The micro (really micro) climate on the balcony of our apartment at the sea, coupled with the long periods when no-one is here to water plants, also makes this an ideal space for cactus growing. My mother-in-law introduced cacti to the balcony several decades ago, and my wife expanded the collection by borrowing a few cacti from our next-door neighbour. However, I am saddened to report that a particularly harsh winter this year, when Jack Frost managed to lay his bony fingers on the balcony, has put paid to some of the cacti. We were faced with blackened cacti corpses when we arrived a few days ago and have been mournfully wondering what to do ever since. As part of this wondering, we visited the local flower shop, to see if they had any suggestions about how we might be able to breathe some life back into our blackened cacti – and to see if they sold any cacti should we decide that there was nothing for it but to replace them. The answer was negative in both cases.

In any event, as is usual in these cases the discussion went off on several tangents. For reasons which I can no longer remember now, one of these tangents was geraniums. I’m rather fond of geraniums. My mother had large beds (or what I remember as large beds) of geraniums in her garden in Eritrea, which the memory bank of my mind suggests looked something like this.

The bright red of the flowers pleased me no end – I suppose bright primary colours appeal to five and six year-olds – and I really liked the scent which emanated from broken leaves and stems. I must confess to having been a terror in the garden. I was not above decapitating flowers or casually tearing off leaves and stems. I must have driven my mother wild with my antics.

But coming back to our local flower shop: the lady in charge said that geraniums had a hard time in this climate because it was too humid. This rather surprised me, I thought that all geraniums needed was a lot of sun. I started looking around, and I discovered that it was indeed rare to see geraniums around here. Her comments also got me to engage in my favourite pastime: surfing the web to find out more about geraniums. I am ready to report back.

The first thing I discovered is that geraniums should not actually be called geraniums. Their correct name is pelargoniums. It seems that when the first pelargoniums were brought back to Europe in the 17th Century, gardeners thought they were cousins to the geraniums already present here. By the time botanists realized their mistake, it was too late. The name geranium has stuck. To make up for this mistake, let me throw in a picture here of one of the many real geraniums, the Geranium platypetalum.

The introduction of pelargoniums to Europe is the story of European colonization of the rest of the world. It was the Dutch who first brought pelargoniums back to Europe, after they had established themselves in what was to become Cape Town.

They, like European colonizers everywhere, looked around to see what plants they could find that might have a utility back home – and this included selling them to wealthy individuals who cultivated large gardens full of exotic plants. Over the years, they and the English who came after them found many different species of pelargonium in South Africa – some 90% of the 300 or so species in the family are to be found in South Africa. But I will concentrate here on the three pelargoniums which are the ancestors of pretty much all the pelargoniums we grow today.

There is Pelargonium inquinans, seen here in the wild

and here somewhat closer up.

There is Pelargonium zonale.

These two, hybridized together, have formed all the “common geraniums” or “zonal geraniums” which you will find in flower beds. My mother’s geraniums must have been of this type.

Then there is Pelargonium peltatum

which is the ancestor of all those “ivy-leaved geraniums” which trail delightfully from balconies such as the ones we shall shortly be seeing in Vienna and in every Austrian town and village.

As I said earlier, it was wealthy individuals with a passion for gardening who in the early decades of European colonization drove the domestication and spread of the myriad foreign plants which poured into Europe from every corner of the globe. In the pelargonium story, two in particular stand out. The first is the Right Reverend Henry Compton, Bishop of London.

Compton was born in 1632 into an aristocratic family, being the sixth and youngest son of the 2nd Earl of Northampton. At the age of 43 he was appointed, in short order, Lord Bishop of London, Dean of the Chapel Royal, and member of the Privy Council, and he was entrusted with the education of the two royal princesses, Mary and Anne, nieces of the King, Charles II. He clearly moved in high circles! His career suffered a dip when, ten years later, Charles’s brother, James II, acceded to the throne. Compton was strongly opposed to Roman Catholicism. Consequently, James, a Catholic convert, relieved him of all his political positions. Luckily for him, James II lasted a mere six years before being ousted during the “Glorious Revolution” by James’s daughter Mary and her Dutch husband William of Orange (great-grandson of William the Silent, Prince of Orange, whom I mentioned in an earlier post). As might be expected, Compton fervently embraced the cause of William and Mary; in fact, he was one of the “Immortal Seven” who invited William to invade England. In recognition of his support, he got to perform the ceremony of their coronation (normally, this duty falls to the Primate, the Archbishop of Canterbury, but the-then Archbishop refused to take the oath to the new monarchs, so he was “deprived of his office”, i.e., was kicked out). The new monarchs also restored Compton to all his old political positions. And so Compton lived out the remaining 24 years of his life holding high religious and political offices (although, to his bitter disappointment, his hopes to become the Archbishop Canterbury were twice dashed). He died in 1713 at the ripe old age of 81.

Throughout all this political ferment, Compton managed to maintain a 36-acre garden at Fulham Palace, the country home of the Bishops of London, which stood on the edges of the Thames River.

The building still exists. The garden also still exists, though much reduced, and is a lovely corner of London.

Compton was an avid plant collector and was the first in Britain to grow many imported species. Because his diocese included the American colonies, his focus was very much on North America. He used his parish priests and missionaries in the colonies to send home seeds. Among other North American plants, he was the first in Europe to grow the Virginia Magnolia

the jacaranda

and the catalpa.

But Compton also built up a large collection of the-then rare pelargoniums, including Pelargonium inquinans pictured above. He probably was able to do this because through his support for William and Mary he had built up a good network of contacts in the Netherlands – remember that it was the Dutch, first settlers in Cape Town, who had sent the first pelargonium species back to Europe.

The second important early cultivator of pelargoniums was Mary Capell, daughter of Sir Arthur Capell, 1st Baron Capell of Hadham, who through marriage became first Mary Seymour, Lady Beauchamp, and then, after her husband’s death and her remarriage, Mary Somerset, Duchess of Beaufort. She was born two years before Henry Compton, in 1630. Here we have her with her sister Elizabeth – Mary is on the left of the painting.

Mary’s political vicissitudes started somewhat earlier than Henry Compton’s. Her father supported Charles I and lost his head for it, while her first husband, also a Royalist, was imprisoned. Her second husband successfully navigated the politically choppy waters of Cromwell’s Protectorate, during which he lost his titles, and ended up supporting the successful restoration of Charles II. The King eventually rewarded him with a Dukedom. He loyally supported James II but managed to avoid exile for this when William and Mary took the throne. He died in 1700 with his head still on his shoulders and none of his estates forfeited, which was pretty good going for a highly political man such as he. Mary was a loyal wife throughout all this, following him through all the twists and turns of his political fortunes and all the while bearing him six children. She survived her husband by fifteen years, dying in 1715 at the seriously old age of 84.

Mary began serious plant collection some ten years before her second husband died, and her interest in gardening intensified in her widowhood. She gradually accumulated one of the largest collections of exotic plants in England, with the support, it must be said, of some well-known gardeners. Through her aristocratic circles she traded and swapped in seeds (much like I did, in far less hallowed circles at primary school, in stamps). For instance, Compton sent specimens to his sister-in-law, Mary Compton, Countess of Dorset, who passed them on to Mary. But she also managed to have seeds sent to her from all the corners of Britain’s growing empire and trading interests: the West Indies, South Africa, India, Sri Lanka, China, Japan. In the specific case of pelargoniums, she too, like Compton, built up a large collection of them. She is credited with introducing into British gardens the other two pelargoniums of major interest which I mentioned above, Pelargonium zonale and Pelargonium peltatum. She did her plantings in the gardens of two houses owned by the Duke, Badminton House in Gloucestershire and Beaufort House in Chelsea. The Duke was rich enough and high enough in the aristocratic hierarchy to have Badminton House painted by Canaletto

although this more humble picture shows the all-important gardens as well as the house.

Badminton House still exists. Beaufort House does not. It was a large property in Chelsea, right on the Thames River – no doubt Mary could have gone to visit Henry’s garden by boat if she had wanted to (and maybe she did, for all I know).

Later urban developments wiped out the house and gardens, although Mary might be pleased to know that the Chelsea flower show takes place not too far from where she was – with the help of her gardeners – busily growing wondrous plants come from far and wide.

Well, while I have been whiling away my time researching this post, my wife has been busy and pulled out the dead cacti which started this post. We now have to decide what to put in the gaping holes which have been left. Not geraniums –  sorry, pelargoniums – dear! It’s too damp.

_____________________________

Red “geraniums”: http://www.parkswholesaleplants.com/spring-plants/annuals-ai/geranium-zonal-americana-dark-red/
Geranium platypetalum: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geranium#/media/File:Geranium_platypetalum1.jpg
Cape Town 1790s: http://www.artvalue.com/auctionresult–english-school-18-united-kingd-view-of-cape-town-with-table-m-1538907.htm
Pelargonium inquinans: http://natureswow2.blogspot.it/2013/10/scarlet-pelargonium-pelargonium.html
Pelargonium zonale: http://www.africanbulbs.com/page67.html
Pelargonium peltatum: https://kumbulanursery.co.za/plants/pelargonium-peltatum
Ivy-leaf “geraniums”: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/226094843769770841/
Henry Compton: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_Compton_(bishop)
Fulham Palace: http://www.fulhampalace.org/palace/history/
Fulham Palace Gardens: https://sequinsandcherryblossom.com/2016/05/15/five-fabulous-london-gardens-to-visit-this-spring/
Virginia Magnolia: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/413627547007792612/
Jacaranda: https://www.pinterest.com/royaljewel36/jacaranda-trees/
Catalpa: http://www.7arth.com/?product=50-%D8%A8%D8%B0%D9%88%D8%B1-%D8%B4%D8%AC%D8%B1%D8%A9-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%83%D8%AA%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A8%D8%A7
Mary and Elizabeth Capell: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Peter_Lely_portrait_of_Mary_and_Elizabeth_Capel.jpg
Badminton House by Canaletto: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Canaletto_-_Badminton_House,_Gloucestershire.jpg
Badminton House: https://landscapenotes.com/2015/10/31/book-review-a-natural-history-of-english-gardening-by-mark-laird/
Beaufort House: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/463518986626622713/