Milan, 10 March 2023

Sharp-eyed readers will no doubt have noticed that in my last post I mentioned the Mexican State of Tabasco; I was saying in passing that we had visited the state’s capital Villahermosa.

Source: Google Maps

As I wrote that, a little voice in my head asked, “What’s the connection, I wonder, between the State of Tabasco and Tabasco sauce?” I am, of course, referring to the world-famous little bottle of red, and very spicy, sauce that one frequently comes across in restaurants, in people’s spice and condiment racks, in bars (to add to Bloody Marys), and who knows where else.


I personally never, ever use the stuff. As I’ve mentioned in an earlier post, I hate hot spices with a passion. But you’d have to be a hermit living on top of some remote mountain since the age of five to never have come across this cute little bottle at some point in your life.

In any event, a short answer to the little voice in my head is that Tabasco, the State, and Tabasco, the Sauce, are connected by tabasco, the chilli peppers, which are used in the sauce.

For those of my readers who are not majorly into chilli peppers, the tabasco pepper is a domesticated cultivar of the wild species Capsicum frutescens. It’s actually quite a pretty plant, with its strangely upright fruit (a characteristic of all C. Frutescens cultivars) going from pale yellow-green to yellow, to orange, and finally to bright red when the fruit is fully ripe. In fact, some people choose it as an ornamental plant.


In terms of heat, the tabasco pepper scores 30,000-50,000 on the so-called Scoville scale, which is a way of measuring scientifically the heat levels of chilli peppers. That’s mildly hot, in the same range as cayenne pepper. There are peppers with insanely higher scores on the Scoville scale: 1,000,000 and more. I simply don’t understand why people let such chilli peppers get anywhere near their mouths. But they do.

Just when the tabasco pepper was domesticated is unknown, although it was surely before the Europeans arrived in the Americas. Where it was domesticated is equally unknown, although one can guess that it was somewhere in the natural range of C. frutescens. As this map shows, that range is strongly focused on the region which is now the State of Tabasco, although it also extends quite a bit into the neighbouring State of Veracruz.


As I said, that was the short answer. But it doesn’t tell us how a chilli pepper domesticated in the general region of Tabasco ended up being put in a sauce created in the late 1860s in coastal Louisiana.

I have to tell my readers that the fame of Tabasco sauce is such that it has led to a bunch of armchair historians trying to figure out every aspect of the sauce’s life and times as well as to a multitude of people spinning yarns about the sauce to liven up their websites. I am merely reporting what I’ve read, although I have tried to sort the grain from the chaff.

There is a general consensus among the armchair historians that tabasco peppers had turned up in New Orleans by the late 1840s. I throw in a few prints of the city to set the scene.


How the peppers got there is unknown, and probably unknowable. But that hasn’t stopped various theories being propounded.

The fanciest of these is that the pepper’s arrival was linked somehow to the Mexican-American War of 1846-48. I invite any readers who are curious about this rather obscure war to google it. For our purposes, all we need to know is that an American army disembarked in Veracruz to march on Mexico City, that in parallel there was a navy blockade of Mexico’s Gulf coast which resulted on two attacks by American marines on Villahermosa (at that time called San Juan Bautista), and that at the end of the war many of the American soldiers were shipped back home via the port of New Orleans. Just to get us in a military mood, I throw in photos of paintings from this war. The first shows an assault on the city of Veracruz, the second of the second assault on San Juan Bautista.


The thinking is that someone involved in those military actions – and there were a good number of volunteers from Louisiana who fought in the war – still took time out to sample the local cuisine and, appreciating this new chilli pepper, decided to bring some of its seeds back to Louisiana to grow on the family farm (we have to remember that most of the volunteers were rural folk).

Now, I don’t want to be a party pooper – I like the storyline of army veterans coming home with their pockets stuffed with tabasco pepper seeds, I really do – but I’m thinking that the explanation could just as well be something much more prosaic, like a Louisiana merchant who was doing business in Tabasco before the war thinking that the pepper would be popular back home and bringing back some seeds.

In any event, we know that the tabasco pepper was present in the coastal area of Louisiana by the late 1840s. We now fast forward 20 years to Avery Island, located some 200 km west of New Orleans in the heart of Cajun Country. It’s actually not really an island, just a piece of higher ground rising out of the surrounding bayous and marshes. Here we have a rather suggestive photo of Avery Island from the mid 1970s.


And here we have an even more suggestive photo of a bayou.


It was here that a certain Edmund McIlhenny created Tabasco sauce in 1867-68, a few years after the end of the American Civil War. McIlhenny originally hailed from Maryland but had moved to New Orleans in around 1840. He got into banking, made a small fortune, and started a bank of his own. He married into the Avery family, who owned the eponymous island and ran a sugar plantation there. Here, we have what he looked like in this period, a solid member of the New Orleans bourgeoisie.


Unfortunately for McIlhenny, the South’s economic collapse after its defeat in the American Civil War ruined him; having no more than the proverbial shirt on his back, he was forced to go and live with his in-laws on their island. There, with time on his hands, he started cultivating tabasco peppers and turning them into a fiery sauce, which he immediately started selling through grocers in New Orleans.

Quite what brought him, a banker by profession, to the idea of making a chilli pepper based sauce is not clear, at least not in the documentation available on the internet. But he did. For what it’s worth, my take is that in 1869, when McIlhenny’s Tabasco sauce first came out on the market, there “was something in the air”, as the band Thunderclap Newman sang in my youth: somehow, either through the increasing presence on dining tables of similar home-made sauces, or because of chatter among the Right Sort of People, a demand for a spicy sauce had been created and McIlhenny saw a business opportunity – and he was unemployed, broke, and had a family to maintain.

It’s time to see how McIlhenny made his fiery sauce. But before even the processing, there was the picking. McIlhenny was most particular that only fully ripe, bright red peppers should be used to make his sauce.


Initially, all of the peppers McIlhenny used in his sauce making were grown on Avery Island. To ensure high levels of ripeness, McIlhenny gave his labourers a “little red stick” by which they could judge if a pepper was ready to pick or not. A cute idea. The McIlhenny Company says that while their peppers are now grown in many different parts of the world, they still insist on their peppers being picked by hand and still give their growers a little red stick to judge pepper ripeness.


Once picked, the ripe chilli peppers were crushed and the resulting “mash” mixed with salt (the salt was actually mined on the island, which sits atop a huge dome of rock salt). The mixture was then left to ferment for a month, using whatever containers were at hand – earthenware crocks and jars, recycled molasses barrels. At the end of the month, the fermented mixture was skimmed to remove the layer of mold that had formed on top. The skimmed mash was then mixed with white wine vinegar. The resulting mixture was aged for another month. Finally, any new mold that had formed was removed, the chilli skins and seeds were strained out through a fine sieve, and the sauce was bottled.

Interestingly enough, the little bottles which McIlhenny used were actually cologne bottles. As far as I can make out, because the sauce was so strong, he wanted a bottle from which the sauce could be sprinkled onto the food, not poured; cologne bottles were perfect for the task because the necks were so small. To make doubly sure that users only sprinkled the sauce, he also had a sprinkler system fitted onto the bottles. Finally, he designed a diamond-shaped label to put on his bottles. In 1869, he sent out 658 of his little bottles to grocers in and around New Orleans, under the name Tabasco brand pepper sauce.

We need not dwell long on the rest of the little bottle’s history. Through savvy marketing, the sauce spread throughout the US and then the world. The look of the product has hardly changed at all in the intervening years; here we have an early bottle next to a modern one.


As I said earlier, the peppers are now grown elsewhere. However, peppers are still grown on the island to produce seed stock.


As for the process to make the sauce, that has not changed materially. The one big difference is that the initial mash of peppers and salt is now aged for three years rather than the original month. It is still only made in the factory on Avery Island, which looks pleasingly retro.


That being said, I wonder how long production of the sauce will manage to stay on the island? Because of climate change, the storms crashing through southern Louisiana are getting more and more extreme. Already back in 2005, the island was hit so hard by Hurricane Rita that the company built a 5 m-high levee around the low side of the factory to protect it.

What is heartening is that the company is still a family-owned business, with the current CEO being a cousin of some sort of Edmund McIlhenny’s direct descendants. As I’ve bewailed in an earlier post, it’s a tragedy that once proud brands have simply become part of the large “portfolios” of multinational behemoths, to be traded between themselves like schoolboys trading marbles in the schoolyard.

What is less nice is that ever since the death of Edmund McIlhenny, the company, with the help of a bevy of lawyers, has aggressively gone after any other company which dared use the word “Tabasco” in the name of a sauce, even if was made with tabasco peppers. Somehow, with the agreement of the courts, they managed to turn a place-name, something which by definition is in the public sphere, into a Trademarked name! The wonders of commercial law … I wonder if this legal transmutation doesn’t explain why the company has also done a verbal transmutation and always writes Tabasco in capital letters, as in TABASCO®.

Normally, I would stop this post here, having replied in considerable detail to my original question. But I ask for readers’ indulgence to go back a little in this story, because one of the many things which my “research” (i.e., falling down rabbit holes on the internet) did was to throw a harsh light on the issue of slavery, a topic much in the news these days.

As I said earlier, the tabasco pepper had arrived in southern Louisiana by the late 1840s. However it arrived, once there it found an enthusiastic supporter in a certain Col. Maunsel White. White had come to the US from Ireland as a penniless teenager, but he had lived the American dream. Through hard work (and no doubt some luck), he first became a successful businessman and then entered Louisiana’s political establishment. By the time he posed for this painting he was a well-known personage in New Orleans’s upper crust.


And of course, this being antebellum Louisiana, no doubt as a mark of the fact that he had made it, White had bought himself several plantations as well as the slaves to go with them. He was a large slave owner; on one of his plantations alone, lying close to the Mississippi River downstream of New Orleans, he had nearly 200 slaves (to give readers an idea, less than 1% of white Southerners owned more than 100 slaves, so White was definitely a one-percenter).

In this same plantation, White grew sugar. We have here a Louisiana sugar plantation from that period.


When he discovered tabasco peppers, he put aside several acres to grow them. White actually seems to have made the first sauce from tabasco peppers, for use at his, and his friends’, table as a condiment. But from what I can make out, that was not his main objective at all. White seems to have primarily seen the peppers as a cheap way of keeping his slaves healthy. In 1849, a letter was printed in the New Orleans Daily Delta newspaper.


It purported to be from a visitor to White’s plantation, in which the letter writer said the following: “I must not omit to notice the Colonel’s pepper patch, which is two acres in extent, all planted with a new species of red pepper, which Colonel White has introduced into this country, called Tobasco [sic] red pepper. The Colonel attributes the admirable health of his [slave] hands to the free use of this pepper.” In the same newspaper, in 1850, the same or another letter writer reported, “Col. White has not had a single case of cholera among his large gang of negroes since the disease appeared in the south. He attributes this to the free use of this valuable agent.” In this, White was merely following a common belief of the time that the well-known cayenne chilli pepper was a convenient and inexpensive “medicine” that helped keep slaves fit for work. In fact, his enthusiasm for tabasco peppers may have had to do with the fact that he mistakenly believed them to be hotter than cayenne peppers (the letter writer of 1850 referred to “the celebrated tobasco red pepper, the very strongest of all peppers”) and therefore likely to work even better as a “medicine”.

And why the sauce? The letter writer of 1850 helpfully explains: “Owing to [the pepper’s] oleaginous character, Col. White found it impossible to preserve it by drying” (tabasco peppers are indeed the only variety of chilli pepper which is “juicy”, not dry, on the inside). The letter writer went on to say: “but by pouring strong vinegar on it after boiling, he has made a sauce or pepper decoction of it, which possesses in a most concentrated form all the qualities of the vegetable. A single drop of the sauce will flavor a whole plate of soup or other food. The use of a decoction like this, particularly in preparing the food for laboring persons, would be found exceedingly beneficial in a relaxing climate like this.” Again, the stress is on the pepper’s beneficial effects for “laboring persons”. I’m not sure if the word “relaxing” is being used more or less as it is used today, but I certainly read between the lines that not only did White believe that having his slaves eat tabasco peppers avoided them getting sick but the kick of the chilli also made them work harder.

It’s hard not to read these lines with great discomfort, but before casting stones at White and his kind I for one am minded to remember the Biblical injunction: “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” I don’t know if any of my readers have read the articles which have been appearing recently in the British press, telling of well-to-do families which have been shocked to discover that their current financial security was greatly enhanced if not originally created by their forefathers building their fortunes on the backs of slaves. Do I have any slave owners in my family tree, I wonder?

Taking a strictly patriarchal view and looking only at the male line of descent, I think not. Those ancestors of mine were part of the rural poor in Derbyshire when British fortunes were being made in the sugar plantations of the Caribbean. But what if I were to look more broadly, taking all the lines of descent to lil ol’ me?


Would I find a slave owner or two lurking somewhere back there? I have a memory of my father saying that there was some connection to slavery in the family – not on the British side, actually, but on the French side. I have made a mental note to ask my brother, who is the historian in the family, what he knows. But even if I were to find that some part of my DNA comes from slave owners, what would I do?

A discussion for another day.


Vienna, 20 February 2023

I’m normally quite good at writing posts about the wonderful experiences which my wife and I have enjoyed as we pass through this Autumn of our lives. Sometimes, though, they escape me. We get carried along by the River of Life as it rolls remorselessly on and soon something else has happened which becomes the topic of my next post. That experience disappears from the rear-view mirror and is gone for ever.

This post is about one such experience, which I am determined will not wriggle free of my electronic pen, because it was simply too wonderful not to document. It’s been eight years since it occurred but it has never quite disappeared from my mind’s eye. Every time the memories resurface, I castigate myself for my laziness and vow to write That Post. I am finally making good on that vow.

As I said, I have to take my readers back eight years, when we went to spend the Christmas break in Mexico with our son and daughter – he was working there, and she flew down from New York where she was working. As a last trip before we went back to Bangkok, where I was stationed at the time, the two of us along with our son (our daughter had had to go back) flew down to the state of Chiapas, which borders with Guatemala. We had arranged for a car and driver to pick us up in Tuxtla Gutiérrez, from which we were to take a one-week tour. The itinerary was put together by an agency, with limited input from our side; we were happy to go along with their recommendations. And so we found ourselves going to the Sumidero Canyon, San Cristobal de las Casas, Palenque, a couple of Mayan ruins in the Reserva de la Biósfera Monte Azules down by the Guatemalan border, and finishing off in Villahermosa in the neighbouring state of Tabasco (I had to check our photos floating around in the i-cloud to remember where we’d been).

Ever since my wife and I, together with my mother-in-law, had toured central and southern Mexico back in the early 1980s, I have had an enduring fascination for the ruins of pre-Hispanic Mesoamerican civilisations. On that earlier trip, we had visited Palenque, so I looked forward to revisiting the site. Alas, the intervening years have not been kind. The site was in good shape, I hasten to say; that wasn’t the problem. Actually, the site was in too good a shape, very much tamed, with the surrounding semi-tropical vegetation cut back and kept under control, a far cry from my memory of Palenque as a place where the ruins poked out of the jungle. And it was terribly crowded! The curse of having been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, I’m sure. So I’m afraid to say I felt slightly deflated after the visit.

The next day, the driver announced that we would be visiting two other Mayan sites today. They were quite remote, requiring us to drive a good long way down to the Guatemalan border. It all sounded very intriguing, but after Palenque I, for one, was game for a little adventure. So off we went, down this rather minor road, with our driver doing some alarming overtaking along the way. After a while, we reached the first site, Bonampak, which lay just off the road.


Its main claim to fame are its murals, which are indeed quite remarkable. I thought of inserting here some of our photos of these murals which are adrift in my i-cloud, but I find that other photos available on the internet are much better, so as is my habit I have instead shamelessly lifted these two photos, showing some of the murals.


On we drove, until finally we reached a river (I later learned that Guatemala started on the other side). Our driver parked the car and we got out. Where was the site, we asked, looking around. Oh no, he said, you could only get to the site by boat. We would be taking one of the boats (rather frail-looking, I found) pulled up on the bank, and it would take us about 40 minutes to get there.

out photo

And with that, he handed us over to the skipper of one of the boats and brightly informed us that he’d be waiting for us. Right, we said, and took our seats somewhat gingerly in the boat. As the skipper roared off upstream, I was feeling quite like Indiana Jones setting off into the jungle to discover a long-lost temple stuffed with gold.


A sudden squall of rain dampened the thrill, especially as our trousers and shoes began to get seriously wet. But the rain left mist trailing romantically through the increasingly thick jungle on the Mexican side of the river.

Finally, our skipper pulled up to a jetty and motioned us to take a path which disappeared off into the jungle. And so we climbed up through thick vegetation until we finally entered some moss-covered ruins jutting out of the jungle.

Our photo

The path led us to a dark, creepy corridor, which we felt our way along

Our photo

until we finally exited back into the light.

Our photo

We walked into a clearing, where we could see other ruins peaking out of the surrounding jungle.

Our photo

We had entered the ancient Mayan city of Yaxchilán.

I find any ancient ruin fascinating – the pull of a place once the centre of a vibrant life but now just a tumbled pile of mouldering stones. Others before me have captured this melancholy fascination of ruins in words much better than mine. Sultan Mehmet II, the Ottoman conqueror of Constantinople, is said to have murmured a distich by the Persian poet Ferdowsi as he surveyed the ruins of what had been the Sacred Palace of the emperors of Byzantium:

The Spider has wove her web in the imperial palace,
The Owl has sung her watch song upon the towers of Samarkand.

While an anonymous Anglo-Saxon penned these lines about Roman ruins he encountered somewhere in Britain:

Wondrous is this wall-stead, wasted by fate.
Battlements broken, giant’s work shattered.
Roofs are in ruin, towers destroyed,
Broken the barred gate, rime on the plaster,

Walls gape, torn up, destroyed, consumed by age.
A hundred generations have passed.
Earth-grip holds the proud builders, departed, long lost,
In the hard grasp of the grave. How often has this wall,

Hoary with lichen, red-stained, outlasted the passing reigns,
Withstanding the storms; the high arch now has fallen …

(At this point, there is a gap, for the parchment on which the poem was written has itself suffered badly from the passage of time).

But there is something very special about ruins like Yaxchilàn immersed in jungle. It has to do, I think, with Nature much more obviously reclaiming what is hers, a powerful reminder of the warning uttered endlessly by the catholic priests of my boyhood on Ash Wednesday as they crossed your forehead with ash, “Remember, man, that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return.” That sense of Nature slowly growing back and smothering men’s foolish dreams in stone is overpowering in Angkor Wat, of which this one photo, endlessly reproduced, is a potent example.


But it was also there in Yaxchilàn, all the more so since the overcast weather gave the site a brooding feel.

And so, with the site more or less to ourselves, we wandered from ruin to ruin.

Our photo
Our photo
Our photo

Finally, we climbed a long flight of stairs that disappeared up into the surrounding vegetation.

Our photo

At the top of which there was this structure.


And beyond which rolled away to the horizon the thick jungle of the Reserva de la Biósfera Monte Azules.

As we walked around we came across carved stone steles showing the proud rulers of this once thriving city state.

Our photo
Our photo
Our photo
Our photo

Looking at them, it was hard not to murmur Shelley’s Ozymandias:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away

And so we travellers walked back down to the river, got into our boat, and skimmed along the river to our waiting driver.


Los Angeles, 29 November 2022

Our daughter is currently in the sleep-eat-repeat mode with her newborn. Since she is breast-feeding and the little one is somewhat dilatory at the breast, she spends a lot of her time sitting on the sofa either feeding him or having skin-time with him. Which in turn means that my wife and I have taken over a lot of the routine household tasks. One of these is doing the shopping at the local supermarket.

It was while we were on one of these shopping trips, traipsing up and down aisles trying to find things, that I came across these displays.

my photo
my photo

As sharp-eyed readers will see (especially if they blow up the photos), what we have here is a wide array of different brands of beef jerky (along with a couple of bags of turkey jerky and other dried meat products thrown in).

For those of my readers who are not familiar with jerky, it’s basically thin strips of lean meat which have been dried out to stop spoilage by bacteria. In the past, this drying was done by laying the meat out in the sun.


Alternatively, it could be smoked.


Nowadays, it is more often than not salted. It can be marinated beforehand in spices and – in my opinion, most unfortunately – sugar. The net result looks like this.


Contrary to what one might think, the meat is not that hard or tough; crumbly might be a better description. Depending on what marinades are used, it can be salty or – yech! – sweetish. If prepared and stored properly, jerky can remain edible for months.

My discovery of this display of jerkies got me all excited. Nowadays, it is marketed as a protein-rich snack. But in the old days, when the Europeans were moving west across North America it was a great way of carrying food around with you on your travels: light but rich in protein, long shelf-life, no need for refrigeration. I’m sure it was used by the pioneers as their carriages creaked slowly across the prairies.


But for me, it evokes more romantic visions of old-time cowboys out on the range driving cattle to the rail heads.


Or perhaps out in a posse hunting down Billy the Kid or some other outlaw.


I’m sure my boyhood cowboy hero Lucky Luke would have eaten jerky, although I don’t recall any of his stories showing this.


The drying of meat (and fish) as a way of preserving it has of course been used in many cultures all over the world, but jerky specifically has its roots in the Americas. The word itself hails from the Andes, coming from the language of the Quechua people.


When the Spaniards conquered the Incan Empire, they found the Quechua making a dried-meat product from the llamas and alpacas which they had domesticated. The Quechua called it (as transliterated into the Roman alphabet) ch’arki, which simply means “dried meat”.


The Spaniards must have been very impressed with this product because they adopted both the product as well as its name, hispanicised to charqui, and spread its use throughout their American dominions. Not surprisingly, though, the source of meat changed along the way, with beef coming to predominate. So did the methods of preparation and drying. The Quechua dried pieces of meat with the bone still in place and they relied on the particular climate of the high Andes for the drying, with the meat slow-cooking in the hot sun during the day and freezing during the night. The Spaniards instead ended up cutting the meat into small thin strips and smoke-drying them.

I have to assume that when, in their migrations through the Americas, other Europeans collided with the Spaniards, they adopted this practice of preparing and eating dried beef; they also adopted the name, although the English-speaking among them eventually anglicized it to jerky. The Romantic-In-Me would like to think that American cowboys picked up the jerky habit from Mexican vaqueros somewhere out in the Far West.


But there is probably a more mundane explanation. Take, for instance, John Smith, who established the first successful colony in Virginia, at Jamestown, in 1612 (and who Disney studios had looking like this in the animated film Pocahontas


but who in reality looked more like this).


Smith had obviously heard of jerky. He had this to say about the culinary habits of the local Native American tribes he met living around the new colony: “Their fish and flesh … after the Spanish fashion, putting it on a spit, they turne first the one side, then the other, til it be as drie as their ierkin beefe in the west Indies, that they may keepe it a month or more without putrifying.” Which suggests that the name “jerky” may have come to North America via the Caribbean island colonies and a good deal earlier than the cowboys.

John Smith’s comment also tells us that the habit of drying fish and meat to preserve it was prevalent throughout the Americas – which is not really surprising; as I said, many cultures the world over have discovered this method for preserving fish and meat. Having no domesticated animals (apart from dogs), the First Nations of North America sourced their meat from the wild animals that roamed free around them: bison, deer, elk, moose, but also sometimes duck. Which brings me in a rather roundabout way to another foodstuff that makes me dream, pemmican.

For those of my readers who may not be familiar with this foodstuff, it is made by grinding jerky to a crumble and then mixing it with tallow (rendered animal fat) and sometimes with locally available dried berries. Like jerky, it can last a long time. This is what pemmican looks like.


The word itself is derived from the Cree word pimîhkân – other First Nation tribes had different names for it, but I suppose the Europeans only started using it when they entered into contact with the Cree people.

Why, readers may ask, does pemmican make me dream? Here, I have to explain that there was a time in my life, in my early teens, when my parents lived in Winnipeg, capital of the Canadian province of Manitoba. Winnipeg became an important link in the beaver fur trade routes which linked the north-west of Canada with both Montreal and Hudson Bay. A book I read when I was a sober adult, titled “A Green History of the World”, informed me that the trade itself was a catastrophe, leading to collapse after collapse of local beaver populations as they were hunted out of existence in one river system after another. But when I was a young teen, it wasn’t the poor little furry animals that interested me, it was the voyageurs. These were the men (and only men) who held the fur trade together. It was they who paddled the big canoes which in the Spring carried goods out west to trade for the beaver furs and in the Fall carried the furs back east.


To the Young Me, the lives of these voyageurs seemed impossibly romantic: paddling through the vast wilderness that was then Canada


sleeping by the fire under the stars


meeting people of the First Nations when they were still – more or less – living their original lives …


I had one, tiny taste of this life when I was 14 going 15, paddling a canoe for a couple of weeks along the Rainy River and across Lake of the Woods, camping at night on the shore of the river and on islands in the middle of the lake


and one day meeting a very old man on one island who thrillingly remembered as a child hiding from the local First Nations tribes who had gone on the warpath.


Of course, the voyageurs’ life was considerably harder than I ever imagined it as a boy. For instance, coming back to pemmican, they didn’t have space in their canoes to carry their own food, nor did they have time to forage for it. They were expected to work 14 hours a day, paddling at 50 strokes a minute or carrying the canoes and their load over sometimes miles-long portages, from May to October. So they had to be supplied with food along the way. In the region around Winnipeg that meant being supplied with pemmican.

A whole industry sprang up to supply the large quantities of pemmican needed by the voyageurs. It was run by the Métis, another fascinating group of people. As the Frenchmen (mostly, if not all, men) pushed out into the Canadian West, many married, more or less formally, First Nations women from the local tribes. The primary purpose of these marriages was to cement trading relations with local tribes; it was also a way of creating the necessary interpreters. The children of these marriages were the Métis (which is French for people of mixed heritage). They in turn intermarried, or married First Nations people, and over time, created what were essentially new tribes. Although the Métis retained some European customs, the most important of which being the speaking of French, for the most part they adopted the customs of the First Nations.


There were especially large groupings of Métis around what was to become Winnipeg. One of the bigger groupings lived in St. Boniface on the Red River.


This has now become one of the quarters of Winnipeg, and is where my parents used to live. At that time (we are talking the late 1960s), most of the population of St. Boniface was still Francophone and I suspect that many were descendants of the Métis, although they would not have publicized the fact. Being Métis was rather looked down on at the time.

One of the customs which the Métis adopted from the First Nations was the making and eating of pemmican, hunting the numerous bison which then still roamed the central plains of North America for both the meat and the tallow they required. But the demand from the fur trade business upped the ante, and the Métis started producing pemmican on a quasi-industrial scale. Twice yearly, large hunting groups left the Winnipeg area and moved south and west looking for the bison herds. Here we have a series of paintings, watercolours, and lithographs showing the various phases of these bison hunts.

The Métis encamped out on the plains.


The hunts.


Drying the bison meat and creating the tallow, preparatory to mixing them to make pemmican.


It all seemed glorious to me when I was a boy – a sort of souped-up, months-long Scout camp – but as a sober adult I learned of the very dark side of these twice-yearly hunting expeditions. Huge numbers of bison were killed during these hunts, especially females, which were the preferred target; this was a significant factor in the near-extinction of the bison in North America. Luckily, they have survived, although in much diminished numbers. One summer in Winnipeg, my father took us to a park where bison ranged free; we were able to get quite close – magnificent animals.


On that same trip, we spied a beaver dam somewhat like this one in the photo below through the trees and decided to go and have a peek.


But we were driven back by the swarms of voracious mosquitoes which, literally smelling blood, rose up from the ground as one and closed in on us. The voyageurs were also much troubled by mosquitoes and black flies during the few hours of sleep allowed to them; they used smudge fires to keep them away. As a result, many suffered from respiratory problems – another side to their not-so romantic lives.

My father also used to take us for rides down towards the American border, where the Métis had once travelled for their bison hunts, trekking across prairies which – as the paintings above intimate – had stretched to the horizon. But they’ve nearly all disappeared too; a few shreds remain in some national parks.


What we saw was wheat stretching to the horizon.


Ah, memories, memories … I’ve told my wife that one day I’ll take her to Winnipeg. We can visit St. Boniface and talk French. And drive through the endless waves of wheat towards Saskatchewan. Perhaps go north to Lake Winnipeg, so big you can’t see the other side of it from the shore. And camp out in a provincial park, under the stars.


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.


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.

our photo



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.


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.


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.


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.


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).


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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”).


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


  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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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).


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.


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.


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.


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”.


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.


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).


But so do peanuts.


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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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).


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!


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!


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

my photo

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.



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.


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


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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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.

my photo

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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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.

Sources: here, here, here, here, here, here

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!


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.


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.


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.


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.




Sori, 20 November 2021

I am at war!

I am Skanda






and Mars


all rolled into one!

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

My photo

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


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


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


Gone! Out of the way! Vanquished!

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


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.