LAUGAVEGUR TRAIL, ICELAND

Vienna, 13 August 2020

My wife and I are just back from hiking the Lagavegur Trail in Iceland. For readers who don’t know much if anything about this trail (we certainly knew nothing about it until an acquaintance we met on another hike told us about it), let me throw in a map here of the trail; normally, one starts at Landmannalaugar and one hikes southwards to ƥórsmörk.

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It’s a four-day hike, covering a little over 50 kms. Physically, it’s  not terribly challenging. Much of the trail is flat, with only one ascent and one descent of any length. Because we were doing the hike at the beginning of August, snow wasn’t too much of an issue; there were quite long stretches during the first two days where we had to trudge across snow fields, but that was it. The biggest challenge were the five or so rivers we had to ford. Although incredibly cold, in most cases the water was only shin deep. The fords of two of the rivers were a bit trickier – they were knee deep and the current was strong – but we managed to make it over the other side in one piece. The weather could potentially have been the biggest challenge we would have faced – there is a memorial along the trail to a hiker who died during a sudden snow storm which hit the trail in July – but we were incredibly lucky and didn’t have a drop of rain for the four days we were walking. As for the wind – which can be very strong – it was generally manageable. It was of course cold, but that was also manageable: we permanently wore a wool vest, and routinely wore two layers on top of that, plus a rain jacket. We slept in huts, which was a good thing, because the temperatures dropped quite considerably during the nights; every morning, we would look pityingly at the persons camping as they crept, stiff and cold, out of their tents. Sleeping in huts also meant that we could reduce the weight of our backpacks, and with careful decisions about what we carried we managed to keep their weights to the 5-7 kg range.

But enough of this talk! Let the photos which we took transport my readers along the trail.

Day 1: Landmannalaugar to Hrafntinnusker

Looking back, down on Landmannalaugar (our photo)
Higher up, looking back across the lava field we crossed at the beginning (our photo)
The hills are beginning to colour up, the effect of the area’s volcanic activity (our photo)
Our first patches of snow (our photo)
The hills are painted different hues by the volcanic activity (our photo)
snow and colour (our photo)
hydrothermal vents steam away (our photo)
Brilliant green moss grows where there is water (our photo)
The colours disappear and the lava turns black (our photo)
Tonight’s hut at Hrafntinnusker (our photo)

Day 2: Hrafntinnusker to Álftavatn

Final look back at last night’s hut (our photo)
View of some of the snow fields we’ll be crossing today (our photo)
Another view further on (our photo)
Bright green moss growing by the mineral-rich waters from hydrothermal vents (our photo)
Lake Álftavatn and its plain; tonight’s hut is by the lakeside (our photo)
Dark waters, green moss (our photo)
Tonight’s huts, seen from the lakeside (our photo)
Cotton flowers along a small stream (our photo)
That moss again, this time hugging the banks of a small rivulet (our photo)

Day 3: Álftavatn to Emstrur

Final look back at last night’s hut (our photo)
The way forward (our photo)
The first ford of the day (our photo)
Last greenery before the lava fields (our photo)
The start of the long, long lava fields which we will walk for the rest of the day (our photo)
The second ford of the day (our photo)
The path across the first lava field (our photo)
A waterfall, a welcome break (our photo)
A cheerful dash of colour among the greyness of the lava stones (our photo)
Looking back across the lava field we have just traversed (our photo)
Mountain clothed in green at the edge of the second lava field we crossed (our photo)
The path across the second lava field (our photo)
Tonight’s huts (our photo)
A canyon running close to the huts (our photo)

Day 4: Emstrur to ƥórsmörk

Bye bye Emstrur
A canyon to cross … (our photo)
… and the bridge to cross it (our photo)
We’ll be following this canyon for the rest of our walk today (our photo)
This bright red plant began appearing as we lost altitude (our photo)
The river has left its canyon and is threading its way to the sea in the distance (our photo)
More of the red plant. And we begin to see trees! (small birch trees) (our photo)
The last ford of the hike (our photo)
We enter a forest, one of the few forests in Iceland (our photo)
We have crossed the finishing line! (our photo)

Postscript: We spent one extra day in ƥórsmörk, hiking in the forest and on the surrounding hills. It rained for the first time, but we were rewarded with a beautiful rainbow – a fitting end to a wonderful hike.

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ELDERBERRIES, ELDERFLOWERS

Vienna, 13 July 2022

I’m sitting in a doctor’s reception room, nervously waiting to see the good doctor. It’s a routine annual check-up, but at my age you never know what might emerge!

To while away the time and keep my mind on other things, I’ve decided to start a new post. The topic for this one is the elder tree. I was inspired to write it by the sighting I had on a recent hike with my wife in the woods around Vienna. It was of a branch of an elder tree hanging over the path, rich with berries – still green, but full of promise for the autumn.

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The elder family is actually quite large, containing many different species. So just to be clear, I’m talking about Sambucus nigra, the European elder. It has a wide range, stretching from the Caspian Sea in the east to the Atlantic Ocean in the west.

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If I’m to be honest, it’s not a particularly pretty tree. It doesn’t grow very high, its leaves are nothing much to look at, and it evinces a rather fetid smell. But for reasons which are not really clear to me, it caught the imagination of the ancient peoples of Europe. A couple of thousand years ago or more, they invested the tree with magic powers. Then Christianity came along, and then the Enlightenment, and then the Scientific Revolution, and all these “pagan” beliefs became quaint folklore. Here’s one such tale about the elder tree, which was still quite prevalent in rural areas of Britain and Scandinavia in the early parts of the last century:

It was said that a spirit known as the Elder Mother (Hyldemoer in Danish) lived in elder trees.

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If you were foolish enough to cut down an elder tree, or even cut a branch off it, you would release the Elder Mother. She would follow the wood – her property, after all – and bring bad luck on the owners of whatever was made from it. You could safely cut the tree only after chanting a rhyme to the Elder Mother:
“Elder Mother, Elder Mother,
Give me some of your wood,
And I will give you some of mine when I grow into a tree.”
Silence after you made the request meant that she had given permission.

As I said, quaint.

J.K. Rowling picked up on the elder’s supposed magical properties when she had a wand made of elder wood play a pivotal role in the last book of the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

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Let me immediately say that, contrary to what seems to be 90% of the human race, I have never read a single Harry Potter book, so I have no idea what pivotal role the wand played. One of these days, I’ll ask my daughter, who I believe has read all the Harry Potter books; I certainly remember her lying on her bed devouring the first couple of volumes. What follows was gleaned from various Harry Potter fan sites I browsed. Elder was the rarest wand wood of all, and reputed to be deeply unlucky (which fits with my previous quaint story – the Elder Woman surely wouldn’t appreciate her wood being turned into a wand). As a result, elder wands were trickier for witches and wizards to master than any other. Harry’s Elder Wand (please note the capital letters) was said to have been the most powerful wand ever to have ever existed, able to perform feats of magic that would normally have been impossible even for the most skilled witches and wizards. Only a highly unusual person would find their perfect match in an elder wand, and on the rare occasion when such a pairing occurred, it might be taken as certain that the witch or wizard in question was marked out for a special destiny. Which means Harry, of course. As a final touch, the Elder Wand’s core contained the tail hair of a Thestral. This animal was a breed of winged horse with a skeletal body, face with reptilian features, and wide, leathery wings that resemble a bat’s (it makes me think of Chinese dragons).

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If I bring up this last point, it’s because it allows me to segue smoothly back into the real world. Placing a Thestral’s tail hair in the core of the wand would have required hollowing out the elder branch being used to make the wand. It just so happens that young elder branches are easy to hollow out; their pith is soft and tender, and can be easily pushed out or burned out. People discovered this characteristic of the elder a long, long time ago, and took advantage of it to make all sorts of products which needed hollow tubes. For instance, shepherds in many parts of Europe used young elder branches to make simple flutes, to while away the hours looking after their sheep. In fact, the Latin name for the elder, sambucus, seems to be derived from the Ancient Greek word σαμβύκη (sambúkē) for flute. The shepherd playing a flute has certainly been a recurring theme in art over the ages.

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Another use of hollowed elder branches was as bellows to blow air into fires, and it is this habit which seems to be at the source of the tree’s English name. It has nothing to do with old-age pensioners like myself and all to do with the Anglo-Saxon word æld for fire.

Of course, as one can easily imagine with a tree so laden with magic, various bits of it have been used over the centuries for folk remedies. Which is intriguing, because every part of the tree except the flowers and the ripe berries – so unripe berries, leaves, twigs, branches, seeds (even in ripe berries), roots – are mildly poisonous. Ingest enough and you will suffer from nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps, diarrhea, and generally feel horribly weak. That didn’t stop our ancestors, though, in using various elder-based concoctions to try to cure a wide array of diseases. And elder-based remedies – updated with smart packaging and slick advertising – continue to be offered. Here is one such offering for coughs.

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I don’t propose to argue the merits of these folk remedies or their lack of them, I will merely cite a phrase I came across in my readings on the elder: “there is no high-quality clinical evidence that such practices provide any benefit”. My readers can come to their own conclusions about the medical efficacy of these modern versions of age-old nostrums.

Whether it was through their searches for remedies to the ills that afflicted them, or simply because of plain old hunger, or both, our ancestors also discovered that the elder could give them some nourishment. Archaeological digs in Switzerland at lakeside Neolithic pile-dwellings have unearthed elder seeds, seeming to show that these early Swiss lakeside dwellers were cultivating the elder 4000 years ago. We have here an artist’s representation of these lakeside dwellings.

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If that is indeed true, we can imagine that hunter gatherers were collecting and eating wild elderberries considerably earlier than this.

In my opinion, based on my one experience of eating elderberries, you’d have to be pretty damned hungry to eat them. I tried the berries once when I was 13 years old and had just started high school. Elder trees lined one of the roads near the school, and the berries were ripe when the new school year started in early September (in fact, ripened elderberries were once considered an indicator that autumn – which officially starts on 1st September in the northern hemisphere – had begun). Frankly, the berries were pretty tasteless, which is not surprising since they have very low sugar levels. I must have also swallowed the seeds which I now know are poisonous, although I have no memories of throwing up or getting the runs. I guess I didn’t eat all that many – not surprising given their tastelessness.

This hasn’t stopped Europeans of centuries past from using elderberries as well as elderflowers in foods and drinks, and I want to celebrate the culinary inventiveness of our ancestors in the rest of this post. I suppose I also want to celebrate localism, the making do with what is available to you locally.

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Elderberries and elderflowers can give a rather pleasant taste to things they are added to, and I suspect it is for this taste rather than any calories they impart that they have been used. Since I mentioned the berries first, let me quickly zip through some of the more interesting drinks and foods which people have created that involve them.

There’s elderberry wine, of course.

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This is the only type of wine I have ever tried to make, a year after my attempt at eating the berries. It was a total disaster. I have recounted the whole sorry episode in an earlier post, so I won’t say anymore about it. For any readers who, come September, will have a whole lot of elderberries available, I annex at the very end of this post one of the many recipes to be found online for making elderberry wine.

In my youth in the UK, elderberry wine was associated with parsons’ daughters and genteel old maids.

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This gentility is given a sinister twist in the hilarious film Arsenic and Old Lace of 1944 starring Cary Grant. SPOILER ALERT!! SPOILER ALERT!! Cary Grant’s character, Mortimer Brewster, discovers that his two spinster aunts, Abby and Martha, who are really lovely old dears, have taken to murdering lonely old men by poisoning them with a glass of home-made elderberry wine laced with arsenic, strychnine, and “just a pinch” of cyanide.

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Somewhere between food and drink lie sweet soups. These are popular in Scandinavia, and indeed the Swedes use elderberry in one of their sweet soups. I must say, I’m rather intrigued by this concept of sweet soups, I really must try one one day. Is it a dessert or a starter? (Note to IKEA: time to add one of these soups to your menu, I’m getting tired of your Swedish meatballs). As one might expect of a berry that is commonly found in northern Europe, the northern Germans also make an elderberry-based soup. They call it Fliederbeersuppe (or lilac berry soup; not sure why “lilac”).

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Interestingly enough, the Austrians make the same soup under the name Hollersuppe. In all the years my wife and I have lived in Austria, we have never, ever come across this dish. We clearly do not travel in the right circles. But now that I have been alerted to this dish I will keep a weather eye out for it. If readers with a stash of berries available to them in September want to try their hand at this soup, they will find a recipe at the end of the post.

Elderberries are of course used for making jams and jellies, but that is pretty run-of-the-mill, so I’ll skip them. They are also used to make a chutney, which is intriguing.

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However, it is not quite intriguing enough to write anymore about it. Nevertheless, anyone wanting to try and make this chutney will find a recipe at the end.

And then there’s Pontack sauce.

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Makers of it claim that it can give Lea & Perrins sauce a run for its money, which intrigues me because I am sufficiently into L&P sauce to have written a post about it. Anything that can stand up to L&P is worth looking into. The sauce also has a fun back story, which goes like so. Since the 1550s, the French family de Pontac owned vineyards in the Bordeaux region, exporting their wine to England. In 1666, taking advantage of the recent Great Fire in London, Arnaud III de Pontac sent his son François-Auguste to the city with instructions to buy one of the many now-vacant lots there. His idea was to build a tavern which would not only sell the Pontacs’ Bordeaux wine but also serve French food. François-Auguste completed his instructions to the letter, opening a tavern he called À l’Enseigne de Pontac. On the sign over the tavern’s door, François-Auguste depicted his father.

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So Londoners nicknamed the tavern Pontack’s Head. This proto-French restaurant was a hit with all the Great and the Good, and it thrived. As part of the offerings, clients were served a sauce with their food. It came to be known as Pontack sauce, although whether François-Auguste invented the sauce or simply popularized it is unclear. The core of this sauce is elderberry juice and cider vinegar, to which are added various spices. Apparently, it marries very well with game. If there is any reader out there who wants to try making it, you know by now where to find the recipe!

And so we come to the flowers. Many drinks are made which involve elder flowers, primarily as a way to impart a distinct “elder” taste to them. The simplest is a concentrated sugar syrup in which elderflowers have been steeped for a while. Lemon juice or some other source of citric acid is add to give tartness. To drink it, a good deal of water is added to dilute the syrup to a drinkable concentration. I recently had one of these drinks at the local Anker café where we often go to have a coffee. It’s really very refreshing.

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Recipe for the syrup at the end.

An interesting variation on this basic theme is where the drink is allowed to ferment – just enough to give it fizz but not enough to make it alcoholic. It is best known under its Romanian name, Socată.

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However, all the Balkan countries make the same drink under a variety of different names, while Germany has a similar drink, this one mildly alcoholic and known as elderflower champagne. The non-alcoholic version of the drink has proved popular enough for commercial soft drinks manufacturers to market vulgar copies – I won’t deign to give them publicity by citing their names.

As one might imagine, this elderflower syrup is also used in various alcoholic drinks but I won’t bother with those. More interesting are a couple of ways to eat elderflowers. The first way is to dip the flowers in batter and fry them – rather like zucchini flowers, I suppose.

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One finds this dish in the German-speaking lands, under the names Hollerküchel in Germany and Hollerstrauben in Austria. Once again, I have to confess to never having seen this dish during all my years in Austria. I could argue that this is because it is a seasonal dish, made when the elder trees flower in May, a time when we are almost never here, but I’m afraid I think it shows once again that we do not travel in the right circles. Recipe, as usual, at the end.

As readers will no doubt have noticed, pride of place in the creation of elder-based food and drinks has to be given to Northern Europe. However, my final entry comes from way down in southern Europe, from Calabria in Italy to be precise. There, they make a bread using olive oil in which elderflowers have been steeped. It’s known as pane col sambuco “elder bread” in Italian and pane è maju “May bread” in the local dialect, reflecting the month the trees flower.

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Well, I finished my appointment with the doctor a long time ago; everything is in a satisfactory state of repair for a man my age, which is some comfort. There’s lots more to write about on the elder, but I will leave that to elder buffs to do; I think you could write a book about the elder. I saw an acronym for something or other a few days ago, which I think perfectly sums up this post: KKK. Not those hooded crazies from the US, but “Kunst, Kultur, Kulinarik”, Art, Culture, Cuisine. And now I leave my readers to the Cuisine part.

RECIPES

Elderberry wine

To make 1 l elderberry wine, you will need:
270g elderberries
1 litre water
250g sugar
1/2 tsp Acid Blend
1/4 tsp Yeast Nutrient
1/8 tsp Pectic Enzyme
1/4 Campden tablet
1/4 sachet of yeast

  1. Once you get the elderberries back home after picking, remove the berries from the slightly toxic stems. Using a fork, gently comb the berries away from the stems a few at a time into a bowl. Fill the bowl with cold water. The ripe and mature berries will sink to the bottom. Any green, damaged berries will float, as will any leaves and bugs. Remove the bad berries and debris with a sieve and drain the well-cleaned elderberries.
  2. Heat the water, add the sugar and stir to dissolve. Bring to the boil for a minute and then turn off the heat.
  3. Take the prepared elderberries and place them in a straining bag inside a bucket. Use a potato masher to thoroughly crush the berries.
  4. Pour the boiling water over the crushed elderberries and give them a good stir. Allow to cool for a few hours and then add the yeast nutrient, acid blend and the crushed Campden tablet. Mix thoroughly, cover and fit the airlock and wait for at least 12 hours.
  5. After 12 hours add the pectic enzyme, mix thoroughly and wait for a further 24 hours.
  6. After 24 hours add the yeast onto the surface of the must, there is no need to stir. Cover and fit the airlock and wait for fermentation to begin.
  7. Stir the wine daily for the first week of fermentation, after 2 weeks lift out the straining bag and allow the wine to drain from the berries. Avoid squeezing the bag.
  8. Leave the wine to settle for a day and then syphon the wine into a demijohn.
  9. Allow the wine to condition in the demijohn for at least 3-4 months, racking when any sediment builds up. After the conditioning, sample the wine. You may want to back sweeten the wine if you prefer a sweeter taste. If not, rack straight to bottles.

Elderberry wine ages very well and will continually evolve so try and hold onto a few bottles for a year or more. You will be pleasantly surprised at how good an elderberry wine can get.

Fliederbeersuppe

Boil fresh elderberries with sugar and sieve the result. Thicken the remaining juice with corn starch, and cook with lemon zest (or lemon juice if necessary), peeled pieces of apple and pear and semolina dumplings (if flour dumplings are used instead of semolina dumplings, thickening is usually unnecessary). Cinnamon and clove are occasionally added as spices. In Carinthia, the soup is cooked with wild marjoram and possibly with honey instead of sugar. In Upper Austria, pitted stewed plums are also added, while in Vorarlberg the elderberries are cooked with some red wine.

Elderberry Chutney

You will need:
2lbs elderberries,
1 large onion,
1 pint vinegar,
1 tsp. salt,
1 tsp. ground ginger,
2 Tbsp. sugar,
a spoonful of cayenne, mustard seeds and any other spices you wish to add.

1) Put the elderberries into a pan and mash them with a spoon, chop the onion and add all the ingredients along with vinegar into the pan.
2) Bring the mix to a boil and simmer until thick, making sure to stir well to prevent burning.
3) Put into jars.

Pontack sauce

To make two small bottles of the sauce, you will need:
500g elderberries
500ml cider vinegar
250g finely chopped or grated shallots
Small piece of ginger, grated
4 allspice berries
4 cloves
1 tbsp black peppercorns
1 tsp nutmeg (or mace)
1 tsp salt

  1. Wash the elderberries and de-stalk them with a fork – see above.
  2. Heat the oven to 120°C. Put the berries in a casserole and cover with the vinegar, put on the lid, and cook for 4-6 hours.
  3. When cool, strain the juices through a sieve, pressing firmly. Discard the skin and seeds of the berries.
  4. Put the remainder into a pan with the shallots and other ingredients, bring to a boil and simmer, with the lid on, for about 10 minutes.
  5. Turn off, let cool and strain again and bottle.
  6. This will give you a thinnish liquid. You can reduce it to make it thicker or ‘blitz’ with some onion in a processor, which will give you something resembling a brown sauce.

Elderflower syrup (or cordial)

  1. Collect the flower heads fresh and new when the tiny buds have just opened and come to bloom before the fragrance is tainted with bitterness.
  2. Steep the elderflower heads in a concentrated sugar solution so that their aroma infuses the syrup.
  3. Add a source of citric acid and lemon juice to help preserve the syrup and to add tartness.
  4. Cover the mixture and then leave it for a few days so that the aromas of the flowers infuses into the syrup.
  5. Strain to release as much juice as possible.

For drinking, the cordial is typically diluted with either water or sparkling water.

Socată

  1. Steep the elder flowers in a lemon and sugar (traditionally honey) solution for a day.
  2. Add the other ingredients. These can be raisins, mint, lemon or orange zest, basil leaves, ginger.
  3. Leave for 2-4 days for primary fermentation to take place, in a covered but not airtight recipient.
  4. Filter the drink, and consume within 1-2 days.

Fried elderflowers

  1. Make a thin batter made from flour, eggs, beer or Prosecco and other ingredients, for example wine or beer batter.
  2. Dip the blossoms, still on their stalks in the batter, and fry in a pan.
  3. Before serving, dust the flowers with powdered cinnamon sugar, and serve with jam.
  4. Use the thicker parts of the stalks to hold the food. Be careful not to eat the stalks when you eat the flowers.

Pane col sambuco

You will need:
300 g durum wheat flour
300 g flour 0
350 ml of water
1/2 Tbsp. salt
7 g fresh brewer’s yeast
1 tsp sugar
1 1/2 jar of elderberry flowers in oil (this is made by steeping elderflowers in virgin olive oil and salt)

  1. Sift the two flours together and prepare the dough. Dissolve the brewer’s yeast in half a glass of lukewarm water.
  2. Make a hollow in the center of the flour and start pouring a part of this lukewarm water, mix, add the dissolved yeast and sugar. Slowly pour more water. Put the salt on the edges so that it does not come into direct contact with the yeast.
  3. Add the elderflowers under oil, knead them in until you have a nice smooth dough.
  4. Oil a bowl and put the dough in it, cover it with plastic wrap and a cloth to keep it warm until it is well risen, which will take an hour or even two depending on the temperature at which you keep it.
  5. When the dough is ready, make the shapes you like best. Put the shapes on a floured baking sheet and wait for them to rise for the second time, usually half an hour is enough.
  6. Cook in a preheated oven at 240°C for the first 15 minutes, then lower the temperature to 200°C for another 25/35 minutes.

TURKEY – THE BIRD, NOT THE COUNTRY

Milan, 24 June 2022

I’m catching up with the last couple of week’s news – I’ve been much taken writing a rather heavy report on policy support for eco-industrial parks. Fascinating stuff, but pretty time-consuming.

Anyway, my eye was caught by an article about Turkey’s decision to change its official name (in English, at least) from Turkey to Türkiye. This is in line with an honourable tradition, as various places slough off names given to them during colonial times to adopt more local names. So some decades ago, for instance, Bombay became Mumbai and Madras Chennai (those are the changes I’m most familiar with in India, although I gather that quite a number of places there have localised their names). And quite recently, Swaziland became eSwatini. According to the king, the change was driven by a desire to fully break with the country’s colonial past, while ending international confusion between Swaziland and Switzerland.

In the case of Turkey, it’s not a reaction to a colonial past, or at least not obviously so. Rather, it seems that the country’s leader, Mr. Erdoğan, objects to the country having the same name as a vulgar fowl fit only to be eaten. Worse, “turkey” is used as an epithet to describe people who are (according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary) “stupid, foolish, or inept”. This is what I suspect Mr. Erdoğan – a proud and prickly person – really objects to. He senses that English-speaking people – and Americans in particular, given that this is an Americanism – unconsciously apply the epithet to his country (for the record, the epithet is also used of theatrical productions which are a flop, as in “Well, that musical is a real turkey!”, as well as of three successive strikes in bowling, as in “Wow, Bob, that’s your second turkey this evening, lucky for us you’re not on our bowling team!”).

I rather suspect that the epithet is linked to the bird, since at least the domesticated variety has a reputation for being pretty dumb. I remember once reading that turkeys are so stupid that when it rains they’ll look up and drown.

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I’m sure this is an urban legend, but it gives readers a flavour of the generally low esteem in which the bird is held. It doesn’t help that we are shown photos like this of poor battery-raised turkeys.

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I feel moved to come to the defence of this much maligned fowl. In its natural state, out in the wild, it’s a magnificent looking bird.

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Here, we see a male turkey “strutting”, raising his feathers, like peacocks, as a mating ritual. The brilliantly coloured face is an absolute marvel. Here is a close-up.

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And by the way, these colours can change, depending on whether the bird is calm or excited.

The female, as is often the case with birds, is more modest in her appearance.

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Contrary to domesticated turkeys, the wild progenitors can fly  – not far, but very fast.

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So I really think we should stop thinking of the turkey as a stupid, dumb bird.

Coming back now to the issue which started this post, readers may be asking themselves why on earth the bird came to have the same name as Mr. Erdoğan’s country (well, I certainly asked myself that, which is why I’m writing this post …). It doesn’t come from Turkey or anywhere near there. The wild progenitor of today’s domesticated turkey was once very common throughout much of the United States and Central America.

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Its spread to the rest of the world is yet another example of the Columbian Exchange, which I’ve written about in several previous posts: all those foodstuffs, plants and animals which were shipped from the Americas to Europe and then to the rest of the world (and all the diseases and enslaved people which were shipped the other way).

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The Spaniards found an already domesticated turkey when they conquered Mexico and they brought it back to Europe, from whence it spread throughout the rest of the world.

At this point, let’s imagine that we come across new foodstuffs we’ve never seen before. Basically, there are two ways we’ll give names to these foodstuffs. Either we’ll adopt the local name (often modifying it in the process to fit our modes of speech) or we’ll give it a name based on other things we know which it reminds us of. Both approaches were used with the new foodstuffs which the Europeans discovered in the Americas. For instance, just considering English names, maize, potatoes, cassava, tomatoes, avocados, cacao, are all Anglicized versions of the local names – mahiz, batata, cazzábbi, in the language of the Taino people of the Caribbean islands (whose annihilation I alluded to a few posts ago); tomatl, ahuacatl, cacaua in Nahuatl, the language spoken in the Valley of Mexico and central Mexico at the time of the Spanish conquest. On the other hand, pineapples, peanuts, and bell peppers were given their names based on similarities in looks or tastes to known objects: pineapple was a name already used for pine cones, which look quite similar to smaller pineapples; peanuts were nuts that were pea-sized; anything with a peppery taste was called pepper.

The name “turkey” falls into the latter category. When the bird finally arrived in England, people confused it with another imported bird, the helmeted guineafowl.

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Originally from Sub-Saharan Africa, the guineafowl was being imported to England from the Ottoman Empire by the Turkey Company, an English chartered company. Because of that, people often called them turkey cocks or turkey hens. The new arrival from the Americas quickly displaced the guineafowl and added insult to injury by also appropriating to itself the nickname. Thus did the British start raising a bird originally from the Americas which they called “turkey”, much to the future chagrin of Mr. Erdoğan.

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His chagrin doesn’t finish with the British. There are of course all the other English-speaking countries which have adopted the same name for this American bird, foremost among them the United States. And then there are the other ex-British colonies; many of these have also adopted the name, suitably transliterated to fit their local languages. Thus, most of the languages from the Indian subcontinent call the bird ṭarki or turkee. So too have a number of languages used in ex-British colonies in Africa: for instance, we have toki in Igbo, tọki in Yoruba, tɔki in Krio, dɔkɔ in Ewe, uturuki in Swahili. And then we have a good number of countries which have no obvious connection to the UK but which for some reason have nevertheless adopted, with the usual linguistic adaptations, the British name for the bird: tierkei in Luxembourgish; ćurka in Serbian and Bosnian; turketi in Georgian; tirka in Kurdish; turīki in Amharic; tuorki in Khmer; tu la ki in Lao. All told, about 40% of the world’s population use the name “turkey” or some variant of it – although, in truth, some of the names have drifted so far from “turkey” as to be almost unrecognizable – some comfort, perhaps, to Mr. Erdoğan.

Luckily, another proud and prickly leader, Mr. Narendra Modi, Prime Minister of India, doesn’t seen to have noticed that a whole series of countries – including, I should note, Turkey – have instead named this “stupid bird” after India! Perhaps he has been too busy beating up on his country’s Muslim population.

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I think this naming is the fault of the French, who named the American bird coq d’Inde (or poule d’Inde in the feminine). Later the coq and poule were dropped, as was the apostrophe, and the French simply called the bird dinde (with, as a further modification, dindon becoming the masculine version).

As usual, the French’s logic was impeccable – if we remember that Christopher Columbus confused everyone in Europe by claiming that he had reached the Indies when actually he had stumbled across the Americas. For quite a while thereafter, everything that came from the Americas was thought to come from the Indies (and in English at least this confusion lingers on in our calling the Caribbean islands the West Indies and calling the native populations of the Americas Indians). So when the French said this new bird came from the Indies they were correct given the knowledge of the time. But they were fundamentally wrong: a great example of “rubbish in, rubbish out”.

Unfortunately for any proud and prickly Indians – the real ones, the ones from India – the French’s innocent mistake has percolated into various other languages. Two of these are languages on France’s border, Catalan and Basque, where we have gall dindi and indioilarra, respectively. Then we have a cluster of languages from the ex-Russian Empire: Polish (indyk), Russian (indeyka), Ukrainian (indychka), Belarusian (indyčka), Kyrgyz (ündük), and Armenian (hndkahav). Finally, we have three countries – Turkey, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan – with close linguistic and cultural ties, which all use the name hindi. Luckily for Mr. Modi, only some 12% of the world’s populations use this potentially offensive name for our bird from the Americas.

That being said, there may be more here to potentially offend Mr. Modi, and we have the Dutch to thank for that. For reasons which I don’t understand at all, the Dutch called our bird from the Americas Kalkoense haan, or “chicken from Calcoen”, the then-used name for the Indian city of Calicut in the state of Kerala (which, in another example of India decolonizing its place names, is now called Kozhikodez). Calcoen-Calicut was a big trading partner in Europe’s first interactions with India, and in the early 1600s the Dutch entered into a treaty with the local ruler to boot out the Portuguese. But none of that explains – to me at least – why the Dutch seemed to think that this bird came from Calcoen. But they did.

The Dutch eventually shortened the name to kalkoen, and in closely related forms it spread far and wide. I suppose because the Dutch were very active traders in the Baltic Sea and took the bird with them on their trading ventures, almost all the countries along that sea’s shores have adopted the Dutch name in the form of kalkun or something similar. But the Dutch also took the bird with them on their colonizing ventures. Thus, Sri Lankan speakers of Sinhalese call the bird kaḷukumā (Sri Lanka was Dutch for a while, after they kicked out the Portuguese, before they were themselves kicked out by the British). For their part, the Indonesians appropriated the name from their former colonial masters and call the bird kalkun (I’ve commented on Indonesian’s cheerful appropriation of foreign words in an earlier post). As you would expect, the descendants of the Dutch settlers in South Africa, the Afrikaaners, call the bird kalkoen, and the name has percolated into at least one of the languages of southern Africa, northern Shona, as kalakune. Still, at the end of the day, only about 5% of the world’s population use this name for our bird from the Americas. On top of it, the connection to India is really not that obvious, so I think Mr. Modi can breathe easy – assuming he has spent any time at all thinking about this potential slight to Indian pride.

If Mr. Modi were ever to get exercised by the link between India and the supposedly stupid bird from the Americas, I really don’t think he could adopt the course taken by Mr. Erdoğan. I just can’t see what changes could be brought to his country’s name which would sufficiently distance it from the India-like names which have been given to our bird. It would be far better for Mr. Modi to initiate an international process (through the UN, perhaps) to change the bird’s name. And I have just the name to propose: huehxōlōtl! This is the Nahuatl name for our bird. It seems to me to fit beautifully with the general move to decolonize our languages. Each language could take this name and fit it into their way of speaking. The Spanish-speaking Latin Americans already did this a while back. Contrary to the Spaniards, who call our bird pavo, they call it guajolote, a hispanicized form of the original Nahuatl name. In English, it could be transliterated to “whexolot”. That’s a bit awkward, but knowing people’s tendency to shorten and simplify words, I’m guessing that over time this could become “whellot”. That rolls off my English tongue fairly easily: “500 grams of whellot, please. I’ll have it tonight with maize and potatoes”.

PISTACHIO

Sori, 24 May 2022

There are certain foods that somehow, without our being quite being aware of it, my wife and I will methodically demolish if they are put in front of us. Kabanosy sausages very much fall into this category for me.

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As for the both of us, berries definitely have this effect (it’s strawberries at the moment, they are pouring into the shops and they are cheap).

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But so do peanuts.

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And – the subject of this post – so do pistachios.

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Put a bowl of pistachios in front of us and before we know it, one will smoothly follow the other until we have popped every single one of them into our mouths – except the pesky ones where the shells are firmly closed and stubbornly resist being cracked open by our aging teeth.

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This is really the only way I eat pistachios, and I rather sense that it is the best way to eat them if you want to truly appreciate their unique taste. Sometimes, when I’m eating a slice of mortadella (a rare occurrence in these diet-dominated days, alas!), I will come across thin slices of pistachio embedded in the mortadella.

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Quite honestly, it seems to be a waste of pistachios; they don’t materially alter the taste of the mortadella as far as I can make out. My wife will occasionally have pistachio as one of the two tastes she chooses for her post-hike celebratory ice creams.

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Researching for this post, I recently tried pistachio ice cream, twice. I was not impressed. In the first case, even though the shop claimed that the ice cream was made with high-quality Italian pistachios with a Protected Designation of Origin title – see below – I could detect no pistachio taste at all. In the second case, there was a pistachio taste but it all came from the pistachio crumbs sprinkled on the ice cream; the ice cream itself had no pistachio taste to it at all. Talking of pistachio crumbs, Middle Eastern and Indian desserts will often be sprinkled with them. For instance, this is a pistachio-sprinkled kulfi from India.

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And this is a pistachio-sprinkled mouhallibieh from Turkey – although this dessert originated in Sassanid Persia.

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If my experience with pistachio ice cream is anything to go by I’m not sure how much the pistachios add to these desserts; they act more like a garnish. But there are lots of Middle Eastern pastries where pistachios play a more important role as a stuffing, often mixed with various other things. Baklava, for instance, will often have pistachios as the stuffing.

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I rather suspect, though, that all the honey and other sugary additions to these stuffings overwhelm that delicate pistachio taste.

On the salty side of things, Moroccans will add a fistful of pistachios to their tajines.

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But again, it seems to me that the strong tastes of the tajine will drown out the delicate tastes of the pistachios. Of course, I may be wrong; time to find a Moroccan restaurant here in Milan which makes tajine the right way, to perform a taste test. On top of it, we haven’t had a tajine in a long time – but is it diet-friendly??

I read that Clever Persons Out There have commercialized pistachio butter, the pistachio equivalent to peanut butter. This intrigues me. As I recall from my youth, peanut butter tastes pretty peanutty, so maybe pistachio butter tastes pretty pistachio-y. This needs to be followed up – and pistachio butter definitely exists in Italy, although it goes by the much fancier name of crema di pistacchio (everything about pistachios in Italy is fancier, as we shall see).

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BUT, when all is said and done, what is crystal clear is that an excellent way of eating pistachios is one after another: crack open the shell, scoop out the nut, and pop it into your mouth. Mmm-mmm!

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In this, we are merely following in the footsteps of our most remote ancestors. Archaeologists have discovered pistachio shells in a dig in Jordan dating back 780,000 years. We’re not even talking Homo sapiens here, but Homo erectus!

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So we are in very venerable company when it comes to the scarfing of pistachios off the trees (although it is true to say that we tend to eat them roasted and slightly salted, while our ancestors ate them fresh. On this point, I have read that fresh pistachios are delicious – something else my wife and I need to try; somehow, we need to be near some trees when the nuts are being picked).

I should clarify at this point that there are several species of pistachio trees and that they all offer us hungry humans edible nuts. The nuts which our Homo erectus ancestors were eating in Jordan came from the Pistacia Atlanticus tree, whereas the pistachios we find in our shops today come from the Pistacia vera tree. The nuts from P. vera are much bigger than the nuts from the other Pistacia trees (and the shell harder, which makes their transportation much easier), so no-one really eats these other types of pistachio nuts anymore.

The original home of P. vera is the dry steppe lands that go from north-east Iran through southern Turkmenistan, northern Afghanistan, southern Uzbekistan, and on into Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan – more or less the region which the Ancient Greeks called Bactria.

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Our hunting and gathering ancestors who lived in the area happily munched on wild P. vera nuts. There are still stands of wild P. vera in the area, although they are sadly depleted from their glory days.

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Then someone, or probably someones, decided to domesticate the tree. Quite when this happened is unclear, but certainly no earlier than 2000 BCE. After that came the tree’s slow westward migration. It was the Persians who were responsible for that; the eastern marches of their Empires overlapped with the tree’s western range. They brought the domesticated tree to the rest of their Empire. In the process, they gave the nut the name we all know it by: pistak was the nut’s name in Ancient Persian.

It is possible that during this drift westwards the Persians made a fundamental change to the tree’s life cycle, systematically grafting it onto the root stock of one of its cousins, either P. atlanticus or P. terebinthus. If it wasn’t them, it was people in the eastern part of the Roman Empire who did it, where the tree eventually arrived as it continued its slow shift westwards. The Ancient Greek philosopher Theophrastos, whose life saddled the 4th and 3rd Centuries BCE, mentioned the habit of grafting the tree (as well as pointing to Bactria as its original homeland). It is certainly a fact that nowadays almost all commercial orchards of P. vera the world over are grafted onto a root stock. These root stocks are hardier than P. vera, thus allowing the tree to be moved successfully out of its original ecological niche into new ones. But it does mean that all commercially grown P. vera trees are a sort of botanical Frankenstein.

The tree was brought to Italy and Spain in the western part of the Roman Empire during the reign of the Emperor Tiberius. P. vera is still grown there commercially, although production is quite modest compared to other parts of the world. But what these orchards lack in quantity they make up for in quality. The Italians especially have turned their tiny output, mostly grown near Mount Etna, into a high quality product, which has received the EU’s Protected Designation of Origin title and is being aggressively promoted through some savvy branding and promotion.

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The fact is, though, that P. vera is a desert plant. The trees can survive temperatures up to 48°C in summer; in fact, the trees actively need long, hot summers for the nut to properly ripen (and of course because temperatures can plunge in desert regions the trees are equally tolerant at the other end of the temperature scale, being able to survive winter temperatures as low as −10°C). Consistent with their desert nature, the trees dislike high humidity levels and their roots prefer to receive modest amounts of water and sit in a well-draining soil. They are also highly tolerant of saline water and saline soil, a big advantage in desert-like areas. All of this to say that the Arabs first, and the Ottomans later, recognized the potential of P. vera in many of the lands they had newly conquered and promoted the tree extensively. As a result, historically the major production area other than Persia was in Syria, around Aleppo, with Turkey also getting into the act. Here is a photo of one of Syria’s pistachio orchards.

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Even though, as I have said, there was modest production in southern Europe, it was from Syria that most of the pistachios eaten in Europe came from. The Venetians, those inveterate traders with the eastern rim of the Mediterranean, were the first in this trade. They delivered the Aleppo pistachios they purchased to northern and central Italy (and much later to northern European countries via trade routes across the Alps). In later centuries, when French ships out of Marseilles challenged the Venetians in their trade with the Ottoman Empire, Aleppo pistachios also began to be imported into France. I use this occasion to show what Aleppo looked like several hundred years ago. I don’t want to even think about what it looks like now.

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It is from this trade in pistachios – not just to Europe, but more generally – that came the habit of dyeing the shells red  or green.

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Now, if it’s done at all, it’s just an aesthetic touch. But in the old days, it was a way of masking stains on the shell caused by mishandling during manual harvesting.

So that’s how the global production of pistachios stood until quite recently: Persia, now called Iran, first; Syria second; Turkey third.

Then along came California.

It had long been recognized that California’s Central Valley, with its hot, dry summers, moderately cold winters, and well drained soils, offered ideal growing conditions for the pistachio.

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Already back in 1929, an American botanist had gone to Persia to collect about 10 kilograms’ worth of various pistachio nuts from the country’s orchards, taking them back to California, and planting them. After nearly ten years (it takes that long for a pistachio tree to give its first harvest of nuts), he found that only one of his nuts had worked out. That one nut gave rise to California’s pistachio industry. But it wasn’t until the 1980s that the industry really took off – it took quite a while to find the right root stock. Since then, though, Californian production has grown meteorically. This, coupled with the sanctions on Iran (and general economic mismanagement) and the civil war in Syria, has meant that California is now Top Dog in world pistachio production.

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But who knows for how long? All sorts of places with the right climatic and soil conditions are looking to grow pistachios, drawn by the high value of the crop (as well as its relatively modest requirements in water). In full production, the trees guarantee more than €10,000 per hectare: I’m not a farmer, but my readings assure me that this is a very good return for an agricultural crop.

In this pistachio Gold Rush, there is one place I’m rooting for: the tree’s original homeland. I mean, doesn’t natural justice tell us that this is really where we should be getting our pistachios from? What right do these other countries have of making money from someone else’s genetic heritage? (this is basically the argument behind the Convention on Biological Diversity). In addition, the ex-Soviet republics of Central Asia need to move away from the environmentally unsustainable crops which central economic planning from the Soviet era foisted on them (think cotton, whose continued production in this region is destroying the Aral Sea). In the arid foothills where the wild P. vera originated, the raising of livestock is particularly harmful, as the animals overgraze the land and lead to desertification – all made worse by climate change. So bring it on! Here we see the land being prepared for pistachio planting in Uzbekistan.

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I’m particularly chuffed to see that an international fund, the Global Environment Facility, is actively involved in promoting the return of P. vera to its natural range. I should explain that there was a period in my life when I was deeply involved with this fund; I still wear a cap on my hikes which I picked up at one of their do’s.

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The one cloud on the horizon that I see is that if everyone and their dog piles into pistachio growing, then of course supply will soar. So, unless the demand for pistachio soars by an equal amount, the price of pistachios will fall, thus wiping out one of the main reasons people want to grow pistachio trees. The same thing happened in the coffee business. Some two decades ago, the World Bank financed enormous increases in coffee plantations in Viet Nam, with the net result that coffee prices dropped vertiginously and coffee farmers in various parts of the developing world who had been doing quite well up to then, thank you, suddenly found they could no longer make ends meet.

With this sobering thought in mind, let me toss another handful of pistachios into my mouth.

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L’ORRIDO DI BELLANO

Sori, 2 April 2022

Deary me, it’s been quite a while since I posted. Initially, it was because I was flat on my back – not from Covid, as one might reasonably presume in this day and age, but from a whole series of pulled muscles in my back which all gave at the same time. Which then led me to spending a lot of time doing physiotherapy and having injections of ozone around my lower spine (sounds awful and was indeed quite awful). Then I was rushing around catching up on all the work I had had to put aside because of my back problems. The one silver lining to all this is that my time lying on the sofa allowed me to “file and folderize” (as we used to say decades ago in the office) the photos which my wife and I have taken these last few months.

One set of photos got me writing this post. They were taken in a town called Bellano on Lake Como. The place is known for three things:

A) Being built around the mouth of the Pioverna river which, tumbling down the steep hills behind the town, has, over hundreds of thousands of years, carved a deep, narrow, and tortuous gorge for itself, before flowing swiftly through the town itself.

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B) Being the birthplace of a writer and minor poet by the name of Sigismondo Boldoni, 1597-1630.

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C) Having played host from 1828 to 2004 to a large, handsomely built factory, the Cotonificio Cantoni, owned by what was once one of Italy’s largest textile manufacturers but is now sadly derelict.

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All three things happen to be linked. The gorge is known as the Orrido di Bellano, literally the Horrid of Bellano. It owes its name to the poet Boldoni, who was fascinated by this gorge and once described it as “l’orrore di un’orrenda orrendezza”, literally “the horror of a horrendous horrendousness”, which he then boiled down to the simpler and catchier Orrido. Finally, and more prosaically, the factory was built in Bellano to take advantage of the kinetic energy in the Pioverna river’s racing waters to drive the looms (this, in the days before electricity was commonly available to do the same thing).

It was the Orrido that got me going on this post: not the gorge itself, but the name. To my modern ear, it sounds delightfully strange. For one thing, “horrid” is an adjective, not a noun. But it was, too, when Boldoni coined the gorge’s name, so it’s not as if there has been an “adjectivizing” of a noun in the intervening centuries. I think we can just put this down to – literally – poetic license. More interesting is the change that has taken place in the meaning of the adjective “horrid”. To me, “horrid” conjures up nasty little boys – the ones who, with an evil laugh, pull the cat’s tail or their little sister’s pigtails.

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Or maybe some of the food that’s served in school cafeterias could be described as “horrid”.

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But several centuries ago, “horrid” had an extra, quite different meaning. It was said of places which were uncultivated and wild, which inspired fear or anguish. We have good examples in the diaries of the English writer and diarist John Evelyn, who was born in 1620 (10 years before Boldoni died) and died in 1706.

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His diaries are peppered with the word “horrid” used in this sense. For instance, on a long trip he made down through France and then on to Italy and back again, which he undertook in the late 1640s, he had this to say about various wild places he passed through (to help readers, I have bolded and italicized the “horrids” in question).

“I set forwards with some company towards Fontainebleau, a sumptuous Palace of the King’s, like ours at Hampton Court, about fourteen leagues from the city. By the way, we pass through a forest so prodigiously encompassed with hideous rocks of whitish hard stone, heaped one on another in mountainous heights, that I think the like is nowhere to be found more horrid and solitary. It abounds with stags, wolves, boars, and not long after a lynx, or ounce, was killed amongst them, which had devoured some passengers. On the summit of one of these gloomy precipices, intermingled with trees and shrubs, the stones hanging over, and menacing ruin, is built an hermitage. In these solitudes, rogues frequently lurk and do mischief (and for whom we were all well appointed with our carabines); but we arrived save in the evening at the village, where we lay at the Horne, going early next morning to the Palace.”

“We embarked in a felucca for Livorno, or Leghorn; but the sea running very high, we put in at Porto Venere, which we made with peril, between two narrow horrid rocks, against which the sea dashed with great velocity; but we were soon delivered into as great a calm and a most ample harbour, being in the Golfo di Spetia.”

“On the summit of this horrid rock (for so it is) is built a very strong fort, garrisoned, and somewhat beneath it is a small town; the provisions are drawn up with ropes and engines, the precipice being otherwise inaccessible. At one end of the town lie heaps of rocks so strangely broken off from the rugged mountain, as would affright one with their horror and menacing postures.”

“The next morning, I was furnished with an ass, … we passed through a reasonably pleasant but very narrow valley, till we came to Duomo [Domodossola], where we rested … Here, we exchanged our asses for mules, sure-footed on the hills and precipices, being accustomed to pass them. Hiring a guide, we were brought that night through very steep, craggy and dangerous passages to a village called Vedra, being the last of the King of Spain’s dominions in the Duchy of Milan. … The next morning, we mounted again through strange, horrid, and fearful crags and tracts, abounding in pine trees, and only inhabited by bears, wolves, and wild goats; nor could we anywhere see above a pistol-shot before us, the horizon being terminated with rocks and mountains, whose tops, covered with snow, seemed to touch the skies, and in many places pierced the clouds. Some of these vast mountains were but one entire stone, betwixt whose clefts now and then precipitated great cataracts of melted snow, and other waters, which made a terrible roaring, echoing from the rocks and cavities; and these waters in some places breaking in the fall, wet us as if we had passed through a mist, so as we could neither see nor hear one another, but, trusting to our honest mules, we jogged on our way …”

I’ve personally been along the same path that Evelyn took in two places, the forest of Fontainebleau and the Simplon Pass between Domodossola and Brig. Neither struck me as “horrid” in the old sense. For me, the forest of Fontainebleau was simply a welcome break from Paris’s hyperdense urbanism, while the Simplon Pass looked very pleasant as we swished along through it in the train.

The fact is, in the centuries which separate me and John Evelyn – actually, it’s only really the last two centuries, since that textile factory was built in Bellano – our species has come to so dominate Nature that what was once frightening to us puny humans has become merely intriguing to us Masters of the Universe. Where would I have to go now to feel a “horrid” Nature? Sometimes, when my wife and I are hiking high up on the mountains, with slopes falling away precipitously to our side and not a soul in sight, I feel Nature baring its teeth. Or some of the storms we experienced in Thailand – rain so dense you couldn’t see 20 metres in front of you, accompanied by wild lightning shows – filled me with awe tinged with fear at the power of Nature. Or there was that time my wife and I, with two friends, were sailing on a moonless night from Corsica to Italy. Suddenly, in all of that inky blackness, the boat seemed very frail and the sea very, very deep. If the sea had been rough, I would have been on my knees babbling prayers to the Virgin Mary as I often see sailors do in ex-votos hanging in Italy’s churches.

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As I write this, my decades of working on environmental issues set the alarm bells ringing. We think we’ve become Masters of the Universe, or at least of our globe, but actually we haven’t. We think all our clever gizmos have tamed Nature, but it’s not so. We’ve merely estranged ourselves from Nature, we’ve taken our finger off its pulse. If we go on like this, Nature is going to turn on us and with one massive swipe of its paw will wipe us out. Isn’t Covid a warning sign of that? We encroached on Nature too much and the virus came roaring out of the forests.

It’s time for us to show Nature some awe and fear, time to give “horrid” back its original meaning.

CHINOTTO

Milan, 20 January 2022

Dedicated to my son, who has a predilection for chinotto

My wife and I have just returned home from visiting our daughter and her fiancé in Los Angeles over the Christmas-New Year break. One of the things we did while we were there was to visit the Huntington Gardens. For any of my readers who like gardens and who happen to be in LA, I highly recommend a visit to these gardens. We’ve been to them several times now, and we never tire of going back. There is always something new to see – as was indeed the case this time, when we stumbled across this tree.

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This is a Citrus myrtifolia, or the myrtle-leaved orange tree in English. Or – more importantly for this post – the chinotto in Italian. And indeed that was the name given on the plaque below the tree, which is why I took a photo of it (why I did do this will become clear in a minute). As sharp-eyed readers will notice, the fruits do indeed look quite orange-like, and in fact the chinotto came about from a spontaneous mutation at some point in the past of the bitter, or sour, orange (the one used to make orange marmalade, and which is itself probably a cross between the pomelo and the mandarin orange; as I’ve mentioned in a previous post on the citron, citrus family members absolutely love hybridising among themselves). Where precisely this mutation event took place is unclear. There is a romantic version, much repeated throughout the Internet, that it took place in China and a plant or two was brought to Italy in the late 1500s-early 1600s by an Italian sailor hailing either from Livorno in Tuscany or from Savona in Liguria. Since it is a Chinese plant, the story continues, that explains the name.  More sober-headed people have pointed out that there is no trace of this tree in China – or in South-East Asia, the original home of the sour orange, for that matter – which suggests that the mutation took place elsewhere, probably somewhere in the Mediterranean basin since it is only found there. According to this version of events, the plant got its Italian name because to the Italians it “looked Chinese-like”, referring to the fact that the fruit looks quite like a mandarin orange, which does indeed come from China. I throw in here a close-up photo of the fruit, which I think readers will agree looks quite mandarin-like.

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Personally, I am more inclined to the sober-headed creation story, although in the end the origin of the plant is not of any importance to the rest of my story.

Moving on, then.

As readers might surmise, since the sour orange is bitter in taste so will its offspring be. And indeed the chinotto is very bitter, even more so than the sour orange.  Given this state of affairs, I can’t quite understand why anyone would have bothered to grow the plant, but people did. Perhaps it’s because we are so inundated with sugar and sweet tastes nowadays that we can’t imagine that our ancestors might have had a greater inclination to search out sourer, bitterer tastes than we do. That being said, the use of chinotto really took off when it was combined with sugar, leading to various plays in foods and drinks between sweet and sour (a concept which was the subject of a post I wrote some years ago).

Which leads me to chinotto – the drink this time, not the tree or the fruit. It is this which my son has a predilection for and why I dedicate this post to him.

Unless my readers are Italian or have an immense curiosity about foods and drinks from around the world, they will never have heard of this drink. I certainly never had until I met my wife and arrived in Italy. One day, when we were in a bar, she suggested that I try it, which of course I did (I always do everything my wife suggests me to do …). I will be frank, I did not like it. It rather reminded me of another drink I had tried many, many years ago in Canada, root beer, which I also rapidly put aside. But in Italy, chinotto has an enthusiastic following (my son being among them). So that readers may have an idea of what we’re talking about here, I throw in a picture of several of the better known brands of chinotto currently on the Italian market.

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To give readers a few more details, it’s a non-alcoholic drink, fizzy, dark in colour, sweet with a hint of bitterness given to it (supposedly, as we shall see) by chinotto. In all this, it is quite similar to Coca Cola, and in fact in the initial periods of its life it was often advertised as Italy’s response to Coca Cola.

When exactly chinotto was invented is a matter of intense debate among the small band of chinotto aficionados. It might have been in the early 1930s (when it could have been a response to the Fascist government’s desire to rid Italy of all foreign barbarisms, in this case Coca Cola), or it might have been in the late 1940s (when it could have been created through a desire by local entrepreneurs to cash in on the enthusiasm for all things American, in this case Coca Cola). Whichever it was, it became immensely popular in the 1950s and 60s. Here we have a group of young men drinking chinotto at a bar in the 1950s.

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While here we have one of the more popular brands of chinotto being delivered to those bars.

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And here we have a photo of another of the more popular brands of chinotto advertising its wares with huge bottles installed on cars which cruised through towns and cities as they delivered their bottles to bars.

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Which brings me of course to the bright and cheerful posters which were used in those years to persuade people to buy chinotto; as I said in my previous post on Aperol, no-one needed to buy this kind of product, they had to be made to want it. Here is a medley of such posters, taken from the 1950s.

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In the decades at the end of the last century, chinotto drinking went into decline, being viewed by the younger generations as something only yokels from the countryside would drink. But it is now having something of a comeback! And as the photo above shows, Italian drinks companies have been quick to jump on the bandwagon and offer updated versions of chinotto worthy of the 21st Century. This comeback, though, has been accompanied by a drumbeat of criticism from people who say that these commercial products actually have little if any of the chinotto fruit in them, being mostly sugar and fizzy water with lemon and orange aromas being added in the place of chinotto.  Which may well be true because at the same time there are alarms being sounded at the disappearance of the chinotto tree; it is becoming an endangered species.

All this leads me to report here a recipe for any brave souls (like my son, for instance) who would like to make their own chinotto at home.

Start by making a good strong espresso coffee (yes, I was also surprised by this, but there you go) – two espressos for a litre of chinotto should do nicely. While still hot, dissolve some 4 tablespoons of raw sugar into the coffee (yes, it’s a pretty sugary drink; you can try molasses if you can locate any). Add about 4 tablespoons of syrup of chinotto (which adds even more sugar, as we will see). Mix well. Pour into a litre bottle. Add the juice from one sweet orange and one lemon. Slowly fill up the remainder of the bottle with sparkling water. Turn the bottle upside down a few times, to mix everything – of course, you must do this slowly so as not to lose the fizziness! Put in the fridge to chill, et voilà!

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I will admit that readers may find it hard to lay their hands on syrup of chinotto. There are some companies which are devoted to the chinotto cause and still make it. Readers can try ordering it online.

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Here too, though, I can suggest a recipe for making the syrup at home (which does, however, presuppose having a source of chinotto fruit; all I can say is, buy a tree, it will help to save it from extinction and it makes for a very nice balcony plant). Place several green, unripe chinotti in salt water for 25 days or so, changing the water every five to six days. Fish the fruit out and shave off a thin layer of rind (this contains much of the fruit’s bitterness). Put the fruit back in salt water for another week or so, after which boil them for 30 minutes to an hour. Now place them in fresh water for four-five days, changing the water 2-3 times a day (this is to get rid of the salt). At this point, prepare a syrup of sugar – two parts sugar to every part water – boiling it to get the sugar to dissolve. Place the chinotti in the syrup for two weeks. You will end up with a sugar syrup with a sharp taste of chinotto. The now candied chinotti can be taken out and left aside or used in pastries.

Mentioning these candied chinotti allows me to introduce what seems to me to have been a wonderful habit in Italian (and to some extent French) bars in the 19th Century. The bars would have looked something like this.

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On the counter, clients would find a ceramic bowl – the best came from the Savona region with its typical blue and white designs. This photo gives an idea of what we are talking about, although I’m sure the bowls on the counters wouldn’t have been nearly so grand.

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The bowl would contain candied chinotti drowned in Maraschino – this is a liqueur made with Marasca cherries, which are slightly sour cherries. At the end of a meal as a digestive, the client would ceremoniously fish out a candied chinotto from the bowl, using a ceramic spoon to do so, and eat the chinotto, thereby giving himself a shot of both sweet and sour.

You can make other products with chinotti: a liqueur, of course; given its relation to the sour orange, a marmalade, naturally enough; sweets; chocolate-covered candied fruit; even a perfume. I would suggest to readers to buy all these products, to save the chinotto from extinction; they are all available on-line. Savona, in Liguria, which was once a major producer of chinotti, seems to be at the vanguard of these efforts to save the plant. I will suggest to my wife that we visit Savona one of the next times we go down to the sea (it’s a train ride away), to explore all these chinotto products and do our part in saving the plant for posterity.

 

 

DEATH TO THE BRAMBLES!

Sori, 20 November 2021

I am at war!

I am Skanda

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Hachiman

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Guandi

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and Mars

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all rolled into one!

Armed with my trusty pruning shears (recently discovered gathering dust in a bag)

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I am out on the hiking trails, attacking the brambles and other spiny weeds reaching out greedily for us as we pass

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as well as the overhanging branches which bump into our heads.

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I am Edward Scissorhands! Snip! Snip!! Snip!!!

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Gone! Out of the way! Vanquished!

I lunge at yet another trailing bramble. Hasta la vista, bramble!

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Meanwhile, my wife waits patiently at the next turn in the path, no doubt hoping that this new-found enthusiasm of mine for visiting death and destruction on passing vegetation will soon fade away.

SAINT HUBERT, PATRON SAINT OF FORESTS

Vienna, 10 October 2021

Amended 2 April 2022

My son commented to me yesterday morning that I hadn’t posted in a while, and he’s right. It’s been over a month! The fact is, I’ve been busy these days (or B-U-S-Y as my son used to write in reply when we fond parents sent him a WhatsApp message suggesting a chat; luckily, he wasn’t B-U-S-Y yesterday morning). I’ve been helping students at a school in Wales figure out how the school could reduce its carbon footprint and I’ve had to prepare and deliver quite a number lectures for webinars on the topic of Circular Economies. All fascinating stuff, but it has eaten into my blogging time.

Anyway, it seems to me that as the days shorten, the temperatures fall, and my wife and I have our last hikes in the woods around Vienna before we migrate south to Italy for the winter, it would be good to celebrate Saint Hubert, the patron saint of all things linked to forests:

– Of hunters and their hounds, here painted by Paolo Uccello.

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– Of archers (because they originally used their bows to hunt in the forests; Robin Hood comes to mind).

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– Of trappers (another type of hunter who lurked in forests trapping beavers and other animals for their furs), here seen in a painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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– Of loggers and other forest workers, seen here in a photo from the late 1800s.

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Here is a photo of Hubert on one side of a small forest shrine that we came across during one of our recent hikes.

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And this is the shrine.

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Hubert’s story, which explains why he was made patron saint of all things to do with forests, is quickly told. He was born in the 650s AD in Toulouse, into a family that was part of the high Frankish aristocracy. Initially, he joined the Neustrian court centered on Paris, but because of quarrels with the Mayor of the Neustrian palace he transferred to the Austrasian court centered on Metz, where he was warmly welcomed by the Mayor of the Austrasian palace, on the grounds of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” – the two Mayors were constantly fighting each other. He seems to have quickly inserted himself into the local elites, marrying the daughter of the Duke of Leuven (if you’re a Flemish speaker, Louvain if you’re a French speaker).

Like all good aristocrats of the time (indeed, like all good aristocrats of all ages), Hubert loved to hunt, and he seems to have spent most of his time roaming the forests of the Ardennes looking for some red meat to shoot. His predilection for hunting only increased after his wife died in child birth, to the point that one Good Friday, when he really should have been in a church on his knees praying for his soul, he instead vaulted onto his horse and rode off into the forest in pursuit of game.

The story goes that he spied a magnificent stag and was riding full tilt after it, when the animal suddenly turned. Hubert was astounded to see a crucifix hovering between its antlers. This scene has captivated various artists over the centuries – or more probably, it captivated their clients and the artists merely executed their clients’ wishes. Here’s a version by Albrecht Dürer.

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Here’s one by Jan Brueghel the Elder

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Even Egon Schiele painted a version!

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In any event, the story goes on that Hubert heard a Voice, telling him to clean up his act or else he would be going straight to Hell. When he humbly asked the Voice what he should do, It told him to go find Lambert, Bishop of Maastricht, who would straighten him out.

And straighten him out he did! Under Lambert’s direction, Hubert gave away all his worldly possessions, entered a monastery, led an ascetic life, evangelized among the heathen folk who lived in the depths of the forest of Ardennes where he had once joyously hunted, etc., etc.

In about 705 AD, Lambert was assassinated, the victim of some quarrel between different Frankish factions. The event is depicted in all its gory detail in this painting by Jan van Brussel.

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Hubert became bishop in Lambert’s place. At some point, he moved Lambert’s remains from Maastricht to Liège, where Lambert had been killed, as we see here in this manuscript miniature.

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He built a magnificent basilica, which was soon turned into a cathedral, of which he naturally became the bishop (in the process, he kick-started the rise to greatness of Liège, which was then just a pissy little village). Alas, this cathedral was demolished by revolutionaries in 1794.

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Much to his disappointment, Hubert wasn’t martyred but died peacefully in his bed in the late 720s AD. He was, as might be expected, initially buried in Liège, but about 100 years later his bones were dug up and transferred to the Benedictine Abbey of Amdain. This event was depicted in this wonderful painting by Rogier van der Weyden.

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Not surprisingly, the town around the abbey renamed itself Saint-Hubert in his honour and became a focus for pilgrimages over the succeeding centuries (no doubt making the Abbey rich in the process).

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I think readers will now understand why Hubert is patron saint of all things forest. He was a very popular saint among the little people in the Middle Ages, probably because forests played an important role in people’s livelihoods until deforestation shrank those forests, first to woods and then to woodlots on the margins of rural lives. Not surprisingly, given his passion for hunting, Hubert was also very popular among the aristocracy, and several Noble Orders dedicated to hunting were named after him. Take, for instance, the Venerable Order of Saint Hubertus, which was founded in 1695 by Count Franz Anton von Sporck.

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The Order brought together the Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI and hunting enthusiasts from various other noble families throughout the Holy Roman Empire. It still exists, its current Grand Master being Istvan von Habsburg-Lothringen.

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Given that in the early days of the European presence in Canada so many French Canadians were involved in the fur trade as trappers, I also now understand why Saint Hubert was a popular saint in French Canada; in the teen years I spent there, I was intrigued by the number of places called Saint-Hubert (there is even a chain of chicken restaurants in Quebec called Saint Hubert). No doubt the saint’s protection was invoked by the Catholic trappers as their canoes set off on their way to the beaver grounds out west.

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Of course, since the regions we now call Belgium and southern Netherlands were the saint’s favoured hunting grounds, both literally and figuratively, many places there are also called Saint-Hubert (French) or Sint Hubertus (Flemish/ Netherlandish). One beer has taken its name from the town of Saint-Hubert around the abbey where Hubert was eventually buried. Here is a bottle of one of the company’s brews (triple amber for any beer enthusiasts among my readers).

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There is also a brew that is popular here in Vienna, the Hubertus Bräu.

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I’m not sure why it’s called Hubert’s Brew. It’s certainly not named after the place it’s brewed in, which is Laa an der Thaya (nice area; we’ve been on a couple of hikes around there). But it has a very distinguished pedigree. The town obtained the right to brew it back in 1454, from Ladislaus Postumus, Duke of Austria (and for this privilege they had to deliver the good Duke a keg of beer on each holiday, which doesn’t sound much – but maybe there were lots of holidays back then).

As readers will note, both these beers have as a symbol the famous stag’s head with the crucifix hovering between its antlers. So does the digestive Jägermeister, that concoction of herbs macerated in alcohol, which for some strange reason became popular with the student crowd.

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In this case, the connection to Hubert is via its name, which means Master of the Hunt.

Of course, I understand why any alcoholic drink which has some sort of connection to Hubert would use the symbol of the stag with the hovering crucifix. But I wonder if the makers of these drinks have thought this idea through. For me, the implication is that drinking the beer or digestive will make you see things which aren’t there (rather like that hoary chestnut that alcoholics see pink elephants).

Not perhaps the best image one wants to give to an alcoholic drink. On the other hand, putting a picture of Hubert as a bishop, like the one in the photo which I started this post with, could well put a damper on one’s enthusiastic desire to drink. A tricky marketing conundrum …

With that, I lift a good glass of wine to my readers and go and join my wife to do the packing. Auf wiedersehen, arrivederci, we will see each other again once we’ve moved down to Italy!

VANILLA

This post is dedicated to my dearest wife,

the most faithful of my readers

Vienna, 4 September 2021

Some months ago, I was asked by the Student Sustainability Committee of a school in Wales which I’m involved with to help them estimate the carbon footprint of the food eaten in the school. In the case of prepared food, which made up a substantial portion of the food consumed at the school, this exercise required me to plough through a lot of recipes to understand what were the raw ingredients of these prepared foodstuffs (so as to calculate the carbon footprint of each ingredient). Apart from this being a hell of a lot of work, as my wife will testify (“have you still not finished that stuff?!”), I discovered with surprise that many, many prepared foodstuffs of the sweet variety (biscuits, cakes, chocolate, and various sundry others) have vanilla extract as one of their ingredients (and as a side note, I was very surprised to see that these sweet foodstuffs made up a large portion of all the food consumed in the school; it didn’t seem to be a very healthy diet).

These constant references to vanilla extract intrigued me, and I decided that one day I would investigate vanilla a bit more. This decision crystallized into action over the last few weeks, because it so happens that my wife is very fond of vanilla. In the Bad Old Days, before we started our rigorous dieting, she consumed a fair amount of vanilla-based ice creams, normally those covered with a chocolate casing (I will not give free publicity to her favourite brand by naming it; I will leave my readers to guess). Now, in these more virtuous times, diet-wise, her vanilla consumption mainly takes the form of vanilla-flavored yogurt, and this only for lunch on our hikes (which these summer days has meant quite frequently). For the sake of complete transparency, I should state that she still consumes a chocolate-covered vanilla ice cream from time to time, whenever a hike is judged to have been particularly strenuous.

The brand of vanilla-flavored yoghurt which my wife generally favours is this one – I should add that she favours it simply because our local supermarket offers it, at a very reasonable price.

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Sharp-eyed readers will have noticed the flower on the tub. This is the vanilla orchid, Vanilla planifolia. Here’s a photo of the Real Thing.

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And here is the plant more or less in its natural state (readers will note that this orchid is a type of vine; in Nature it will grow up trees, like the pepper vine).

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It’s really a very pretty flower, but it is only of passing interest to the vanilla aficionado. She or he is after the “fruit”, a seed pod really, that the flower creates once it has been pollinated. The three dark-coloured stringy things pictured behind the flower on the yoghurt tub are these seed pods. Again, here is a photo of the Real Thing.

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But even the seed pod, if in its natural state, just picked from the vine, does not interest the vanilla aficionado, because it contains very low levels of vanilla flavour and aroma (these, by the way, come mostly from the chemical vanillin, although there are a number of other chemicals present which it is claimed enhance both flavour and aroma). It is only once the seed pod has been cured that the vanilla aficionado becomes interested, because now the levels of vanillin are considerably higher, high enough to add that distinct vanilla flavour and aroma to foods and drinks.

The curing of vanilla seed pods is a rather complicated, months-long process, whose purpose is to bring about an enzymatic reaction in the pods which turns the glucovanillin they contain into vanillin proper (in case any readers were asking themselves, glucovanillin has no flavour or aroma). Curing consists of four basic steps: killing, sweating, slow-drying, and conditioning. In the killing step, the seed pods are generally heated (in hot water or in an oven or by exposing the pods to the sun).

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This stops any further vegetative growth in the pods and initiates the necessary enzymatic reactions.

In the sweating step, the pods are kept at temperatures of 45–65°C and at high humidity levels by stacking them densely and insulating them in wool or other cloth. The pods are subjected to this Turkish bath regime for 7 to 10 days, possibly with a daily exposure to the sun or a dip in hot water.

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The desired enzymatic reactions love these conditions, so by the end of the sweating step the seed pods have attained much of the desired vanilla flavour and aroma. However, they still have a high moisture content. Which brings us to drying.

To prevent the pods from rotting and to lock in the vanilla aroma, drying is required. And so, over a period of three to four weeks, the pods are exposed to air and to periods of shade and sunlight.

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In the final, conditioning step, the dried pods are stored for five to six months in closed boxes, where the fragrance further develops.

The end result looks like this.

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This is what vanilla aficionados lust after, what they dream of incorporating into their dishes, from soup to sweet dishes.  And they are willing to pay top money. Vanilla is the second most expensive spice, after saffron. Those wrinkled-up beans can set you back anywhere from $50 to $500 per kilogram.

When I look at these kinds of convoluted processes, I always ask myself, “How on earth did anyone discover this process?” I mean, really, how did the first vanilla producers stand in front of those aroma-less and flavour-less seed pods and figure out that this long and complicated process would eventually lead them to seed pods with a wonderful aroma and flavour of vanilla? I would have to ask this question to the ancestors of the Totonacs, an Amerindian people who live on the east coast of Mexico. It was they who first “made” vanilla-flavoured seed pods from the vanilla orchid – the orchid’s natural habitat is in this part of the world. Here, we have Diego Rivera’s take on the Totonacs, as part of one of his murals in the National Palace in Mexico City.

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Unfortunately, I’m sure today’s Totonacs have no idea; I just have to accept that the answer is lost in the mists of time.

Readers might think that since the vanilla orchid is natural to Mexico’s eastern seaboard, that country would be a major producer of vanilla. Alas, not so! The reason for that is the great Columbian exchange, that massive movement of plants, animals, humans – and diseases – which took place between the New and Old Worlds after the discovery of the Americas by Christopher Columbus. The vanilla orchid was part of that exchange. The Conquistadors, like the Totonacs (and like the Aztecs) loved the flavour and aroma of vanilla and figured that people back home would love it too. They exported the pods back to Europe, where they caused a sensation, at least among the elites, who had the money to burn on this rare and expensive novelty. They put it in everything, from chocolate (also a product of Mexico) to soup. They adopted the Spanish name for it (vanilla is a corruption of the Spanish vainilla, meaning “little pod”). Other Europeans looked on enviously. Eventually, the French laid their hands on some exemplars of the plant and took them to their colonies which had similar climates to Mexico’s eastern seaboard, namely those in the Caribbean and the Indian Ocean, especially the islands of Madagascar, Réunion, and Mauritius.

For a while, Mexico continued to be the main global producer of vanilla, because this transplant of the vanilla orchid to other places was a failure. The plant flowered alright, but it never produced pods. The reason for this is an exquisite example of specialized evolution: vanilla flowers can only be pollinated by this little critter, Eulaema meriana, one of some 25 species of orchid bees.

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No other insect is attracted by the sex pheromones emitted by the flower, nor can any other insect successfully navigate the orchid’s complicated geometry and pollinate the flower along the way.

Once non-Mexican wannabe vanilla producers realized the problem, they tried the obvious thing, which was to transplant the vanilla-pollinating orchid bee along with the orchid. But it didn’t work; the bee couldn’t survive outside of its native habitat. The wannabe vanilla producers were stumped. Until 1841.

In that year, a 12-year old slave called Edmond (no surname, he was a slave), who had been born into slavery on the Island of Réunion, came up with a quick and easy way of pollinating the vanilla orchid flower by hand. He had been lent out by his master to a botanist by the name of Ferreol Bellier-Beaumont, to help him out. Beaumont had shown him how to hand pollinate a watermelon plant and the boy went off and successfully applied his new skills to the vanilla orchid. (For anyone considering hand-pollinating a vanilla orchid flower, here’s what you do: with a small sliver of bamboo or wood (or even a stem of grass), lift the membrane separating the flower’s anther and stigma; then, using your thumb, transfer the pollinia from anther to stigma.)

Edmond never got anything out of his discovery. Who did were all the the slave-owning planters on Réunion who now got into vanilla growing: for a while, Réunion became the world’s largest producer of vanilla. But the French authorities made sure the method was transferred to its other island colonies in the Indian Ocean and in the Caribbean. Since then, Madagascar has dominated world production (Indonesia, which muscled into the market in the 1980s, is now second in the producers’ league table). Mexico, on the other hand, has pretty much vanished from the scene, which is a crying shame.

As for Edmond, seven years after his discovery, at the age of 19, he got his freedom; the French government finally outlawed slavery in its colonies in 1848. He left the world of plantations to work as a kitchen hand in the island’s main city, and adopted the surname Albius, from the Latin alba or white, in reference to the vanilla orchid’s colour. Beaumont tried to get the governor of Réunion to give Edmond a stipend or at least a reward for his great discovery but the governor ignored the petition. No doubt, he didn’t think it was worth spending public monies on a black ex-slave.

Unfortunately, Edmond fell in with a bad crowd in his new life and got involved in a theft of jewelry. He was caught and sentenced to 10 years in jail, which, after an appeal by Beaumont to the governor, was reduced to five. After doing his time, Edmond moved back to a village close to the plantation and got married.

Edmond’s travails were not over. It seems to have been an irritation in certain quarters that where white professional botanists had failed, a black slave, and a child to boot, had succeeded. Some time in 1860s a well-known French botanist and plant collector by the name of Jean Richard claimed that actually, he had come up with this revolutionary pollination method in the late 1830s, that he had taught it to some planters in Réunion, and that Edmond must have sneaked into the meeting and heard his explanation. Luckily, Beaumont and a few others vigorously defended Edmond’s primacy to the discovery, although Richard’s false claim did get some traction for a while. May Richard’s name be damned forever …

Edmond died in poverty in 1880, at the age of 51. Luckily, he left a physical trace of himself in history, rare for ex-slaves. Here we have a rather grainy photograph of him when young.

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And here we have a lithograph of him from a book published in 1863, standing gravely in front of a vanilla orchid vine.

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Wonderful story, the vanilla story, no? Except that as far as the vanilla in my wife’s yoghurt is concerned, it is all a big red herring.

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I’m afraid to tell her, and any other readers who might be vanilla lovers, that the vast majority of the vanillin used commercially in the world is fake – well, artificial might be a less inflammatory word. Most of the world’s vanillin is produced from crude oil derivatives in chemical plants: benzene is alkylated with propylene to form cumene, which is then oxidized to phenol. Phenol is hydroxylated into catechol, which is further methylated into guaiacol. Finally, guaiacol is reacted with glyoxilic acid by electrophilic aromatic substitution to produce vanillylmandelic acid, which is converted to vanillin by oxidative decarboxylation. The remainder of the world’s artificial vanillin is made from a waste stream generated in the sulphite process to make paper pulp.

Yes, I know, very disappointing. And the worst of it is that when Cooks Illustrated ran some taste tests which pitted natural vanilla against artificial vanillin used in baked goods and other applications, tasters could not tell the difference! Don’t know what the world is coming to … Luckily, the tasters could tell the difference where ice cream was concerned, with natural vanilla winning out; l’onore è salvo, honour has been saved, as my wife might say.

BEECH TREES

24 August, 2021

This post is a hymn of praise to the European beech tree.

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The tree has been a constant companion on our hikes this summer as we explore the western reaches of the Wienerwald, the woods encircling Vienna to its north and west. Apart from the odd oak, wild cherry, and conifer, the European beech reigns supreme in the Wienerwald.

My memories of the beech start at the age of 10 or so, at my Prep school (Brit-speak for a private, boarding, primary school). Just outside the school gates, at the bottom of a field, was a magnificent copper beech; we would pass it every time we made our way to the school’s playing fields which were down the road. I have no photo of this tree, it may even no longer stand, so this photo will have to stand in for it and for all these magnificent variants of the beech.

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I used to think the copper beech was a different species, but no, all the world’s copper beeches are fruit of a single spontaneous mutation that occurred in a beech tree in a forest in Thuringia, in Germany. It was noticed back in 1690 and was carried from there around the world. One single mutation … like blue eyes.

My next memory of beech is a long beech hedge at my Public school (Brit-speak for a private, boarding, secondary school), which bordered the campus’s entrance road. It was lovely during the summer, with that long solid block of tender green running along the road. Again, I don’t have a photo of this hedge, so this photo of a wonderful hedge somewhere in the UK will have to stand in for it.

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It was really only when we moved to Vienna and got to know the Wienerwald that my wife and I discovered beech woods. And what magnificent woods they are! I insert here one photo we took, where the sun dappled the trunks that stretched off into the distance.

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But our iPhones can’t do these woods justice, so I’ve also picked out a few photos from the Internet taken by people who’ve got the right equipment and know what they are doing.

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That last photo could be of us, following the marked paths through the woods, rather like Hansel and Gretel following Hansel’s white pebbles.

Having been enchanted by these beech woods, my wife and I have decided that some day we will visit some of Europe’s primeval beech forests. These are beech forests which have never, ever been cut or otherwise exploited by human beings, the kind of beech forests through which our hunter-gatherer ancestors would have wandered ten thousand and more years ago. There are 94 such forests in Europe, and as a group they have become a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Austria has five of the 94, Italy 13. In one way or another, we’ll figure out a way of getting to a couple of them. In the meantime, I throw in a photo of one of the Austrian forests, Hintergebirg.

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Interestingly enough, the UK has no primeval beech forests (nor does Ireland, for that matter). It could be that over the centuries the British have simply not been able to leave any of their beech forests alone, cutting them, clearing them, or otherwise fiddling around with them. Or it could be that there never were any primeval beech forests in the first place. The beech is considered natural in the southern part of the island. However, some voices have been raised wondering if this is actually correct. These voices suggest that perhaps the beech was brought to the UK by our Iron Age ancestors, who wanted to have it with them as a source of food – the food in question in this case being the beech tree’s nuts, or mast as it is called. Here we have a (very) close-up – the nuts are quite small.

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And here we see them as my wife and I would probably see them, if we went looking for them, half hidden among dead leaves on the ground.

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I must confess to having been surprised to read that our ancestors ate mast. But that only goes to show how alienated I have become from natural sources of food – “if it ain’t on supermarket shelves it ain’t food”. By my reckoning, it’s five generations since any of my ancestors might have foraged for beech mast. But foraging is becoming popular, with many websites dedicated to this lost art form. A good number of them mention beech mast, claiming that the nuts are good to eat (although small and time-consuming to gather). Other, probably more objective sites warn that the nuts can taste bitter because of their high levels of tannins, but that they can be ground to a flour and the tannins leached out – that’s probably how my more recent ancestors would have eaten mast, if and when they ate it. I now know that I should start looking out for fresh nuts on our hikes in a few weeks’ time; they fall in late August, early September. I’ll try a couple – and see if I can’t persuade my wife to try them too – and will report back.

Coming back to beech woods, one of their characteristics is that they are – relatively speaking – quite dark; the crown of leaves at the top of the trees are dense enough to keep out a lot of the incoming sunlight. As a result, little if anything grows in the shade of the towering beech trunks. The most common sight is a carpet of bronze-coloured beech leaves lying on the forest floor, the product of the trees losing their leaves year after year. My wife and I see this most spectacularly on the hikes we do during the winter months through a beech wood high above Lake Como, when the dead beech leaves on the ground are the only colour present.

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But from time to time we walk through sections of beech woods where a beautiful field of grass lies at the feet of the trees.

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I don’t know what grass this is, or why it only grows in certain places, but the sight of these lawns stretching off into the distance between the trees is a joy to behold. But perhaps not as breathtaking as the fields of bluebells in some of the UK’s beech woods.

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The bluebells escape the deadly shade of the beeches by flowering before the trees are fully in leaf. I’m ashamed to say that I have never visited any of these bluebell groves – another item on our bucket list.

The other characteristic of beech woods is the trees’ smooth bark. It’s quite a striking sight to see all these pale grey, smooth trunks towering up into the sky above our heads. And one can immediately spot the lone oak or cherry or conifer skulking among the beeches; their rough barks stand out. This smoothness actually signals a fragility in the beech’s bark; it is easily scarred and the marks remain forever as the bark cannot heal. Many of the beech trees we cross are marked by scars in their bark, no doubt caused by branches of other trees or bushes scraping against them when they were young. But on our walks we also see examples of silly boys, and perhaps some silly girls, using the inability of the beech’s bark to heal to carve their initials into it, quite often combined with the initials of a loved one and the whole enclosed within a heart; they will stay, more and more distorted as the tree grows, until it is cut or blown down.

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Initials carved in a beech’s bark is another of my beech memories. This particular beech was in my French grandmother’s garden and the initials carved into its bark my uncle’s. He must have done it 30-40 years before I saw it. Family lore has it that my grandmother was furious with him when she discovered this disfigurement of her tree – “so vulgar!” – and gave him a good thrashing. The tree has gone, alas. It died some 15 years after my grandmother died, shaded out, I suspect, by the mighty sequoia nearby, but also probably suffering from a drop in the area’s aquifer: too much water is being pumped out.

Scratching initials on beech bark allows me to make a connection between this wonderful tree and another wonderful item of which I have many exemplars: the book. Beech and book actually come from the same root, the Old English bōc. This has the primary sense of “beech” but also a secondary sense of “book”. The connection is perhaps more obvious in other modern Germanic languages. In modern German, the word for “book” is Buch, with Buche meaning “beech tree”. In modern Dutch, the word for “book” is boek, with beuk meaning “beech tree”. In Swedish, the word bok means both “beech tree” and “book”. This connection allows me to hold forth on another favourite topic of mine, trade – or rather, the exchange of ideas that comes with trade.

When the Germanic tribes migrated into Europe, pushing out the Celts, they were illiterate, with no culture of writing and no alphabet of their own. When they met the Romans, they fought them of course, but they also traded with them and in so doing came into contact both with writing and with the waxed wooden tablets on which traders (and many others in the Roman Empire) made notes or wrote short missives. As far as the alphabet was concerned, the Germanic tribes adopted a precursor to the Roman alphabet, the old Italic alphabet, to create their runes. As for the tablets, the Germanic tribes used the tree that surrounded them, the beech, to make them, and called these tablets after the tree from which they came. Later, when the Germanic tribes shifted to using parchment, they continued to call what they wrote in books.

Being made of wood, these tablets have normally decayed away, but some examples of Roman tablets have been unearthed along Hadrian’s Wall, somehow miraculously avoiding the normal decay processes.

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So from now on the books which surround me will remind me every day of the beech trees which surround us on our walks in the Wienerwald.