OLIVES

Dedicated to my daughter, who loves olives as much as I do

Sori, 27 January 2020

A week or so ago, I accompanied my wife to a supermarket that we go to from time to time – it’s bigger than the ones just down the road from us but somewhat further away, so we only go there for certain items which the closer supermarkets don’t stock. But I don’t want to discuss shopping strategies in this post, fascinating as these are to retirees like ourselves. I want to discuss table olives.

This particular supermarket has an olive bar, where you can buy olives loose by the gram (or kilogram if you’re an olive fanatic).

my photo

It’s a delightful spot in this otherwise bog-standard supermarket. I like to linger there, looking over these glistening globules of yumminess. From time to time – when I’m in a mood to splash out – I will take the plunge, grab the beckoning spoons, and fill a few plastic tubs to take home and munch my way through. I hasten to add that I remember what we taught the children: I will share, with my wife if her diet allows it and with my children if they happen to be around.

This supermarket is proudly patriotic and offers only Italian olives. For the uninitiated, it is offering, among others:

Green olives from Cerignola in Puglia

Source

These gigantic green olives are probably my favourite. They are crisp, not too strongly flavoured, almost buttery.

Green Nocellara olives, from the flanks of Mount Etna in Sicily

Source

These olives are cut, crushed, seasoned with oil, spices and hot sauce and garnished with whole chillies. The use of chillies (which I profoundly dislike) and their slightly bitter taste mean that I skip these when I get some tubfuls of olives at the supermarket.

Black olives from Gaeta in Puglia.

Source

These small, purplish-brown olives have a soft, tender flesh and a tart, citrusy taste. The Gaetas in the supermarket are brine-cured, but they can also be dry-cured, in which case they are more shrivelled and chewy, somewhat like the next ones.

Black Nocellara olives from the Belice valley in western Sicily.

Source

These olives are harvested when completely ripe (in November). After an initial brining to desiccate them somewhat, they are placed in an oven at low temperature to further desiccate them.

There are more varieties of olive in the supermarket’s olive bar but I will stop there, for fear of boring readers with my purplish prose. And anyway, while I respect the supermarket’s patriotic choice of only offering Italian olives, I feel I must point out that other parts of the Mediterranean basin offer equally delicious olives.

There are the Greek Agrinion and Amfissa olives, for instance, both coming from the same variety of olive tree, but the former grown at lowish altitudes near the Ionian Sea / Gulf of Corinth and the latter grown at higher altitudes around Delphi in central Greece. They come in the green and black forms as well as every hue in between, depending on when they are picked, and both have a wide range of tastes. After some debate with myself I have chosen to insert a photo of the Amfissa olive as the emblem of these two olives, but only because I liked the farmer’s hands cradling the olives.

Source

Or there are Gordal olives from Andalusia in Spain.

Source

True to their name (gordal means “fatty” in Spanish), these olives are big and plump, with plenty of firm, meaty richness.

Or we have Lucques olives from the Languedoc region of France.

Source

These olives marry an interesting external appearance – bright green and crescent shaped – with a mild nutty taste and buttery texture inside.

From further east in France, around the Côte d’Azur, come Niçoise olives.

Source

We know these olives because of the Salade Niçoise, of which they are an integral part. In truth, the Niçoise is none other than the Taggiasca olive, which is grown across the border in Liguria and which is the olive my wife and I buy when we go down to the sea. They both come from the same variety of olive tree and grow in the same climate. On both sides of the – artificial – border growers pick the olives while they are in the process of changing from green to black, giving them a striking medium to dark brown color.

I’ve only mentioned olives from the Mediterranean’s northern seaboard. The southern and eastern seaboards have equal variety, but they are just not as well known. Canny marketing hasn’t created brands there yet, so they are rarely consumed beyond their local area of production. Beldi olives from central Morocco are an exception.

Source

These olives, picked when they are fully ripe, are then salt-cured. This gives them a shriveled appearance and a chewy texture. They are wildly, intensely flavorful.

From the eastern end of the Mediterranean, I’ve picked Gemlik olives from the Zeytinbaği region on the Sea of Marmara in the north of Turkey, close to Istanbul.

Source

These too are picked when they are fully ripe. Because of their high oil content, they can be cured in a number of different ways, giving rise to olives with different tastes:

    • oil-cured (rotated in drums with a little salt; the agitation causes the olive to exude oil), then dry stored; this gives a rich, low-salt-tasting olive;
    • purely brine-cured olive, which gives a firm, salty olive;
    • dried in a basket of rock salt, which draws all the water out of the olive, leaving a firm, crinkly olive with hardly any salty taste.

There are good olives produced in other parts of the world where Europeans have transported the olive tree, the Americas especially, but I will be proudly patriotic and focus only on olives from the Mediterranean basin, which is the tree’s original home.

Olives joins that long list of plants which were basically inedible but out of which our ancestors were able to extract extremely yummy foodstuffs. In these posts, I have written about five such plants – the caper bush, cole, sea beet, common chicory, and cardoon – and there must be hundreds of others. I’m always amazed by the cleverness which was shown by armies of anonymous farmers over the millennia in patiently coaxing the DNA of plants which grew around them to evolve in a direction which expanded the range of foods available to them and to us, their descendants.

The edibility problem with wild olives is that they contain a number of incredibly bitter chemicals which go by such names as oleuropein, ligstroside, and dimethyl oleuropein. The levels of these chemicals are high in a just ripening olive, enough to impart such a bitter taste as to make you desist eating it immediately. As the fruit ripens further, the levels of these nasty chemicals drop. In most cases, though, their levels never drop low enough to make eating an olive straight off the tree a pleasant experience (there are a couple of domesticated varieties where the bitterness levels are low enough in the fully ripe olive to make them edible, but they are the exception). It’s a defence mechanism: the plant doesn’t want predators other than birds to eat its fruit because they could crack and therefore ruin the seeds (this is not a problem in the case of birds, which swallow the olives whole).

But actually, edibility is a secondary issue for the olive. The first use of olives was not as food but as a source of oil. Olives are rich in oil and by at least 5,000 years ago some bright spark (or sparks) had figured out ways of squeezing the oil out of ripe olives. It’s not even clear that the oil was used initially as a foodstuff. The same problem of bitterness rears its head with olive oil: if the olives are picked too early this will impart a bitter taste to the oil. It could well be that olive oils were first used as a source of fuel in lamps or as a raw material in soap making, or were used as a skin-care product or in medicines or in perfumes. It was olive oil that really drove the domestication of the olive tree. The economies of at least two Mediterranean civilizations – the late Minoan and the Mycenaean – were probably based in good part on the production of olive oil and its trade around the Mediterranean. Olives to eat became a by-product of the oil industry. That is still the case today: the great majority of olives which are grown around the world are turned into oil, with only a small percentage being eaten.

Luckily for us olive lovers, though, at some point some other bright spark (or sparks) stumbled on the discovery that steeping olives in brine for a good few months cut the bitterness levels to acceptable levels, because the nasty chemicals were leached out. Even better, the fermentation processes which brining kicked off gave the olives a better taste. On top of that, brining dealt with the familiar problem which our ancestors were confronted with everywhere: the fruit (or grain, or vegetables) ripen all at the same time; how can we conserve them so that in the weeks and months ahead we can eat the excess that we don’t eat straight away? By acidifying them a bit, brining meant the olives would last quite some time without going bad. A win-win-win situation, as we would say today!

After this fundamental breakthrough, olive eating could take off. Human beings being the way they are, our ancestors continued to tinker away. Various things were added (herbs, spices, wine, vinegar, …) to make the final product even more yummy. It was discovered that cutting or cracking the olive – basically, splitting open the flesh – allowed the leaching to happen faster. Different methods for leaching were developed (water – very slow; salt – gives rise to chewy olives like the Beldi). And, more importantly, they tried brining not quite ripe olives, picked when they were going from green to black and when the dreaded levels of bitterness were still high. Well, by gum, it worked! Sufficient leaching took place so that you could pick the olives somewhat earlier – maybe a month earlier – and still have a yummy product to eat. That allowed the development of olives like the Taggiasca or the Niçoise.

The next big breakthrough was the discovery by yet another bright spark or sparks that if you used a weak solution of lye (or caustic soda, to use a more modern appellation), you could turn green olives with very high levels of bitterness 6+in them into an edible product. In this case, rather than encouraging the nasty chemicals to leach out as brine does, the lye penetrates the olive and chemically destroys them. As readers might suspect, olives subjected just to processing with lye don’t taste very good, so there is still a brining step involved. This treatment was developed in Spain, apparently; it’s called the Spanish or Sevillian approach. I’m not sure if I should congratulate the Spaniards who came up with lye processing. On the one hand, it has allowed us olive lovers to eat green olives like the Cerignola and the Lucques. On the other hand, it does begin to feel more like chemical processing than food preparation, the first step on a slippery slope.

I feel confirmed in my fears by the next big advance in olive processing – the so-called California style of processing (presumably because that was where it was invented) – which smacks even more of chemical processing. It is used with green and semi-ripe olives. It adds a step between the lye treatment and the brining, and consists of washing the olives in water injected with compressed air. This intense exposure to air oxidises the skin and flesh of the olives, turning them black. In other words, it’s a way of taking green olives and artificially “ripening” them. Olives treated in this way are the ones most favoured by fast-food pizza makers, those olives which are chewy and have no taste but look good sitting on the pizza.

And it’s not finished! An article I read which summarizes the state of play in olive processing reports that people are looking into the use of ultrasound during lye treatment to accelerate debittering; adding absorptive resins to the brine; running treatment processes under a vacuum; blanketing green olives in carbon dioxide; blanketing them in pure oxygen; using potassium and calcium chloride solutions instead of normal brine (sodium chloride solutions); exposing olives while still on the tree to aminoethoxyvinylglycine to delay ripening and so allowing levels of the bitterness-causing chemicals to reduce more than they normally would. And I’ve skipped a few.

Reading this list makes me look at my olives in a different light now. Rather than food, I see lumps of chemicals. Why can’t we just prepare food the good old way?

Source

LAGO D’ORTA

Milan, 29 November 2019

My wife and I recently accompanied our son on a short business trip he was making to a small place to the north of Milan, near Lake Maggiore. He was going there to look over a company. We went along to share the driving and visit the local area. The company he was visiting happened to be very close to the point where a few weeks previously we had given up a walk in the area (the one where we had stumbled across several very lovely varieties of mushrooms), so we decided that we would use the occasion to visit what would have been the end point of our walk had we finished it.

That end point was the village of Orta San Giulio, which sits on a peninsula jutting out into Lake Orta. This is a small lake, the most westward of that series of lakes which form a necklace at the base of the Alps, between Verona to the east and Novara to the west. Readers with good eyes will see Lake Orta, marked with a red pin, to the far left on the map below.

Google maps

Once we had deposited our son at the gates of the company he was visiting, we set off to Orta San Giulio. It was not, truth be told, the best day to visit anything: it was grey and drizzly, the kind of day that in my mind will be forever linked to the UK. But that didn’t stop us appreciating the scene that unfolded before our eyes as we arrived at the lake’s southernmost tip and took the road which hugged its eastern coast. My wife and I took no photos during our little tour, and the lake under the rain seems to have no fans among the legions of persons who post photos on the internet, so I can only describe to readers what we saw.

As we wound our way along the coast, with the wipers sweeping regularly across the windscreen, the trees covering the slopes which fell steeply into the lake’s waters – trees vested in their brown and reds of late autumn – began to give way to large estates with equally steep but more manicured grounds, the kinds of estates which I associate with the late 19th Century. Out on the water, dimly at first but ever more visible as we got closer to the village of Orta San Giulio, we discerned through the drizzle an island, the Isola San Giulio. The road began to climb to the top of the ridge of the peninsula along whose outer edge Orta San Giulio is built. Once we reached the top, we turned off the main road and made our way down to the village itself, passing as we did other, smaller estates climbing the side of the hill. When the road reached the water’s edge, it turned cobbled and narrowed into a single lane. We found a place to park and continued on foot, huddling under our umbrellas. Apart from a cat or two, we had the place to ourselves. Soon we were walking between rows of old houses on both sides of the street and only got an occasional glimpse of the lake down a side alley. But all at once, we entered the village’s main square, Piazza Motta, and there had a full view, across the square’s wet and windswept flagstones, of the lake and Isola San Giulio hovering on its waters in the middle distance. We could now make out the buildings on the island, in particular a Romanesque campanile on the water’s edge and a big hulking building, looking in all respects like an army barracks, which dominated the island’s centre point. We admired the view, looked curiously at an old hotel, now very much worse for wear, which occupied one whole side of the square, noted the street at the back of the square which, the signposts informed us, took one up to the Sacro Monte d’Orta, the Sacred Mountain of Orta, and then headed back to the car. It was time to go and pick up our son, and anyway it really was too wet and cold to explore any further. “For another time!” we promised each other. Maybe this Spring; there is a train we can take from Novara to Orta San Giulio.

In the meantime, though, I feel I must give my readers some idea of what we saw, or perhaps more accurately what we might be seeing when we come back in better weather. As is my habit, I’ve also been mugging up on the lake’s history and so can use this occasion to tell my wife – faithful reader of my posts – and any other interested readers about what I’ve learned.

So here is a photo album which I’ve cobbled together with other people’s pictures posted on the internet.

This is what the lake looks like on a good day from its south end, the end that we first saw it from.

Source

Isola San Giulio is visible, along with a few houses of Orta San Giulio to the right. The pre-Alps rise up in the background.

As we turned off the main road down to Orta San Giulio, we passed this frothy building.

Source

It is Villa Crespi. It was commissioned in 1879 by a wealthy cotton merchant by the name of Cristoforo Crespi and built in the Moorish Revival style. I suppose it is a somewhat outlandish example of what was happening around all of northern Italy’s lakes during that period: rich (or enriched) industrialists and bourgeois joined the aristocracy in building summer homes on the lakes. The same phenomenon certainly happened on Lakes Como and Maggiore (we see those villas every time we walk around those two lakes) and no doubt on Lake Garda (which still awaits a visit from us). Quite frankly, this particular building reminds me of some of the cinemas which dotted British cities when I was young, but at least this one continues to serve a decent purpose: it is a luxury hotel and home to the restaurant of one Antonino Cannavacciuolo (a well-known chef on Italian TV, I have read).

Certainly Lake Orta must have been a popular playground for the wealthier classes of the late 19th Century. It hosted the first ever European Rowing Championship in 1893 (rowing in Italy being considered a very aristocratic sport) and various national rowing championships thereafter, as this poster of 1909 attests (for an event, readers will note, “under the patronage of HM the King” [of Italy, of course]).

Source

What happened in the following decades is a classic example of how not to manage a lake – but we will get to that later.

This was the narrow street we walked down after parking the car: Via Giovanetti.

Source

It was pleasant to walk along under the rain; it looks even more pleasant on a sunny day.

And this is the village’s main square, Piazza Motta.

Source

I’m not an expert on real estate but it does seem strange to me that the old hotel we see across the square in the photo (called, rather prosaically, Hotel Orta) has not been snapped up by someone and refurbished. There cannot be many places which have this nice a view when one steps out of the lobby onto the street:

Source

Down by the lakeside at the foot of the square one catches the boat to go over to the Isola San Giulio, which, as we get closer, will look like this,

Source

while we leave Orta San Giulio literally in our wake.

Source

I think a little bit of history is in order here, because Isola San Giuglio has always been at the centre of the lake’s story.

The island gets its name from St. Julius, a possibly legendary saint who is said to have christianized the area around the end of the 4th Century AD. It is narrated that Julius and his brother Julian were two Greeks who somehow made it to Italy and were instructed by Emperor Theodosius I to destroy pagan altars and sacred woods and to build Christian churches. Which they did with a vengeance. The little church which Julius built on the island is said to have been the hundredth – and last – church he built. There are the usual colourful stories of his doings like, for instance, this one: having decided that he would build his last church on the island but finding no-one willing to take him there he laid his mantle on the water and miraculously sailed over to the island. As a final aside on this saint, he made it to sainthood, but – rather unfairly, I think, since the two worked hand-in-hand in their proselytizing mission – his brother Julian did not.

In any event, the first little church was succeeded by a larger one built in the 6th Century, which itself was succeeded by an even larger one built in the 12th Century; it was later nominated a basilica. That is the building we see today (although it has been much remodelled inside, as we will see, and squeezed in between houses built in later centuries). It is its campanile which we noticed when we were standing in Piazza Motta that cold and rainy day gazing out towards the island.

Source

The island’s religious vocation was always in conflict with its obvious military importance. As this map shows, Lake Orta was one of two natural passageways for anyone crossing the Alps at the Simplon Pass to get down into the Po River plain and all its riches – the other was along the shores of Lake Maggiore. The red pin shows the location of the Simplon Pass in the map.

Google maps

Having crossed the Simplon, armies would march down (or peaceful merchant trains would lumber down) the valley of the River Ossola and then either go along Lake Maggiore or march up to Lake Orta and then pass through the valley at the other end. A Frankish army did that in 590 AD, marching into territory that was claimed by the Longobards. A Longobard Duke, Mimulfo by name, who was entrenched in the island, seems to have just let the Franks through. For this betrayal, the Longobard King Childebert had Mimulfo beheaded on the island. (A French Corps also crossed the Simplon in 1800, as part of Napoleon’s campaign in Italy; I have no idea which of the two routes they used to get to Milan)

The island was also a useful place to hole up if hostile armies were around. To this end, a castle was built there as early as the 900s AD, reconverting some of the church buildings to military use and generally constricting how the church and its buildings could be expanded. By then, the Longobards had been defeated by the Carolingian Franks and northern Italy had become part of the Holy Roman Empire. The Emperors were traditionally also Kings of Italy, and northern Italy was therefore impacted by Imperial policies and politics. Around the turn of the first millennium, a struggle started in northern Italy between the smaller noble houses, many of Longobard origin, and the larger noble houses and the bishops, who owed their positions and land to the Emperors. The smaller nobles wanted – not unsurprisingly – to have their own, local king, while the bigger nobles and bishops wanted to continue to be beholden to an Emperor far away on the other side of the Alps who left them to pretty much run the show as they wanted. In 945, at a time of Imperial weakness, the smaller nobles got the upper hand and elected one their own, Lothair, as King of Italy. He was quickly replaced by Berengar, whose family was powerful in the region around Lake Orta. By this time, the Empire was back on an even keel and, at the request of the Northern Italian bishops, the new Emperor Otto I sent his son Liudolf with a large army over the Alps to deal with this upstart.  Berengar’s family split up and holed up in various castles which the family controlled. Berengar, together with one of his sons, chose the castle on Isola San Giuglio. There, he was besieged by Liudolf and eventually surrendered. For some reason, Liudolf let both Berengar and his son go free. They went off and holed up in another castle of theirs in Romagna. Several months later, Liudolf died, officially of a fever although it was whispered that Berengar’s people had got to him and poisoned him. With Liudolf’s death his army melted away, and Berengar came out of his castle in Romagna to proclaim himself King of Italy once more. More Italian bishops headed north over the Alps, besieging Otto to come personally to deal with Berengar. This he did in 961, but first he went to Rome to have the Pope proclaim him Emperor and then to Pavia to have himself proclaimed King of Italy. By 962 he was ready to deal with Berengar, who adopted the same strategy: split up the family and hole up in various castles, except that this time it was his wife Willa who got to be in the castle on Isola san Giuglio (together with the family treasure) while Berengar headed for the castle in Romagna. Otto decided to go after Willa and history repeated itself: a siege of several months of the castle on Isola San Giulio followed by its capitulation. Again, Willa was allowed to go free (but not the family treasure) and she joined her husband. This time, though, Otto made sure that the castle stayed under Imperial control. As for Berengar, he died four years later and none of his sons seem to have made any attempts to retake the throne. There was another revolt by the small nobles some 40 years later, when Berengar’s grand-nephew, Arduin, was proclaimed King of Italy, and Northern Italy was put through the same circus: The Emperor (this time Henry II) came over the Alps with a large army and put Arduin in his place; he went back to Germany with his army and Arduin came out of whatever castle he was hiding in and proclaimed himself King again; Henry II came back over the Alps with another large army and dealt with Arduin again, this time for good (without, though, putting him to death; I think the Longobard king Childebert had the right approach: off with their heads!) Italy was not to have an independent King again until Italian unification nearly 900 years later.

After that, Isola San Giulio seems to have been pivoted away from its martial use back to its religious vocation and the whole area became a bit of a rural backwater. Over the next two hundred years, the successive bishops of Novara maneuvered to gradually have the Emperor give over to them the southern part of the lake as a feudal principality, which they then ruled with what seems to have been distant benevolence for some five hundred years; the local notables were generally allowed to rule themselves as long as they paid the necessary tithes and taxes to the prince-bishop. I don’t know if the prince-bishops used any of these funds to make life better for the peoples of their little principality. They certainly did use some of their funds, as did pious pilgrims, to make the basilica ever more beautiful. From the 14th to the 18th centuries, the church’s look was “modernized”, with the latest Baroque additions giving the inside of the basilica its current look, and frescoes were added on every available surface, with the later ones sometimes obliterating the earlier ones. We have here the “modern” frescoes in the vault and dome (the picture also shows the baroque “scarification”).

Source

while here we have one of the earlier frescoes, which are now tucked away out of sight in the lateral aisles.

Source

I have already made my feelings abundantly clear about baroque and later religious art in earlier posts, so I need hardly say that I prefer the earlier frescoes.

While all this religiosity was going on, life was not completely trouble-free in Isola San Giorgio and the surrounding principality. The end of the 15th, beginning of the 16th Centuries were agitated times in Italy and while this quiet corner of northern Italy was largely able to avoid the troubles, for a decade or so, 1520-30, the troubles came to it. In 1523, the plague broke out, in all likelihood brought to the area by refugees from Novara which had been sacked and pillaged by French troops fighting the Spaniards. But worse were the predations by the neighbouring lordlets, many of them from the Visconti family, who were attracted by the relative prosperity of the principality. Although officially the Duke of Milan was exhorting the lordlets to be good boys – these were church lands, after all – he probably unofficially supported them in their rapine, because he had his own quarrel with the Bishop of Novara over the ownership of this little principality: Novara and its province had come under Milanese dominion some two hundred years earlier. On some excuse, Orta San Giulio was sacked in 1524 by one Visconti lordlet and prisoners taken for ransom. In 1526 and ’27, the principality was forced by another Visconti lordlet to put up, for free, a company of Imperial soldiers. In 1528, the same Visconti lordlet decided to become Governor of the principality and moved into the castle on Isola San Giulio. When the locals besieged him there, a third Visconti lordlet came to his rescue and sacked Orta San Giulio a second time. In early 1529, a random Imperial army invaded the principality and demanded a huge payment to leave. The locals refused to pay and escaped to the island and the relative safety of its castle. After trying to take the castle a few times, the army gave up and left, sacking and pillaging as it went. A few months later, the third Visconti lordlet decided it was time to pillage some more and marched into the principality at the head of a band of soldiers. This time, the locals were “mad as hell and weren’t going to take it anymore”, as the saying goes; they were determined to resist. Grabbing what arms they had, they met the invaders and brought them to battle. The invaders made the classic mistake of thinking that these were just a bunch of peasants who would run away when the going got tough. But they didn’t; they fought like madmen. They were helped, it has to be said, by the marshy ground they had chosen, which meant that the invaders’ horsemen were neutralized. The result was that the Visconti lordlet and a good portion of his men were massacred. The other lordlets of the area took heed and desisted in their predations (probably aided by the fact that a general peace was finally brokered between the Great Powers fighting over Italy).

Thereafter, Isola San Giorgio and the rest of the principality slipped back into its state of feudal somnolence for another two hundred years. In 1735, Novara and its province were handed over by the Austrians to the House of Savoy. The-then Duke of Savoy (and King of Sardinia) Charles-Emmanuel III had no patience with quaint feudal relics in his lands like the Bishop of Novara’s principality around Lake Orta. Pressure was brought to bear and slowly, slowly the bishops divested themselves of their feudal rights to the principality in favour of the House of Savoy. By 1819, the deed was done: the principality was no more. It was just one more district in the lands of Piedmont and, after 1861, in the newly-unified kingdom of Italy.

As a sign of the changes, the remains of the castle on the island were dismantled completely in 1841 and in their place a huge seminary was built – it is that big blockhouse of a building which I thought were old army barracks.  We have here an old postcard celebrating the seminarists.

Source

The seminary is no more; it lasted a little less than a hundred years. But the religious vocation of the island continues. The basilica and seminary have been handed over to a congregation of Benedictine nuns – we have one here going through the rite of becoming a Bride of Christ.

Source

The nuns have an interesting vocation. They study and translate ancient texts, and restore ancient fabrics and tapestries.

It is time to go back to Orta San Giulio and take that street at the back of Piazza Motta which we had noticed that cold and drizzly day, and which carries one up past this church to the Sacred Mountain of Orta.

Source

The Sacred Mountain of Orta is one of a number of Sacred Mountains which were created in the late 16th, early 17th Centuries in Northern Italy. They were very much promoted by San Carlo Borromeo, Cardinal of Milan (whose very large nose I have mentioned in an earlier post). The original idea was to create places of pilgrimage which could stand in for the Medieval pilgrimages to the Holy Land, which was becoming harder and harder for pilgrims to reach. For San Carlo Borromeo, the Sacred Mountains were also to be a way to teach the little people, who had not had the benefit of an education, in an easily understandable way such mysteries as the Trinity but also the lives of Christ, the Virgin Mary, and great saints. To this end, the Sacred Mountains were made up of a series of chapels containing life-sized models in terracotta, backed up by frescoes on the chapel walls, each telling a story in a holy person’s life or making a point about some tricky theological concept: little theatrical pieces, if you will. I have mentioned the use of art to teach illiterate people about religion in an earlier post. With the growth of Protestantism, the Sacred Mountains took on a third purpose, that of combating these horrible heresies. That no doubt explains why there are so many Sacred Mountains in Northern Italy, where they were created as bulwarks against the tide of Protestantism that could be washing over the Alps at any minute. In fact, the Sacred Mountain of Orta is part of nine such Sacred Mountains in northern Italy which are now inscribed in UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites. In September, my wife and I visited another of these nine sites, at Varallo in Piedmont (where, coincidentally, we were once again accompanying our son on one of his business trips). I mentioned another of these sites, at Varese, in an earlier post I wrote about the fondness of religions around the world for sacrilizing mountains.

The Sacred Mountain of Orta is dedicated to the life of St. Francis, which pleases me no end since he must be my favourite saint, as I have mentioned in an earlier post. There are 20 chapels, laid out in a wooded landscape.

Source

I don’t propose to show readers photos of them all. Just two can give readers a sense of what would await them were they to visit this Sacred Mountain (or any of the other Sacred Mountains for that matter).

Source
Source

I hope these scenes are in better shape than the ones we saw at Varallo, which were really rather tatty. Luckily, they were in the midst of being restored when we visited.

You get beautiful views over the lake from the Sacro Monte.

Source

As you gaze down on this sunny scene, it’s hard to believe that a mere thirty years ago the lake was dead. Everything in it had been killed off by industries which were discharging their crap into the lake, turning it into the most acidic lake in the world. It started back in 1927, when the German company Bemberg, which was making rayon fibre using the cuprammonium process, set itself up on the lakeside. The plant’s copper and ammonium discharges quickly acidified the lake, killing all life in it in about two years. Bemberg made limp efforts to control the discharges, which did begin to finally show noticeable reductions in the late 1950s. But by then Bemberg had been joined by a host of small plants making metal consumer products; two of these companies, incidentally, went on to become global brands: Bialetti and Alessi.

Sources

Many of these plants included electroplating in their processes (that Alessi kettle is heavily chromed, for instance) and consequently toxic heavy metals such as chromium, zinc, copper and nickel were added to the filthy mix being discharged into the lake. As if that weren’t enough, the acidic waters of the lake released aluminium from the natural and normally harmless imissions of aluminosilicate into the lake, adding yet another toxic metal to the stew. Things only got better when the legislators eventually banged their fist on the table and passed Italy’s first water protection law in 1976 (the Legge Merli; I know it well, I referred to it countless times when as an environmental consultant I would tell Italian companies they needed to control their water discharges). Suddenly, companies which had claimed for years that it was impossible to control their discharges and remain in business found – surprise, surprise – that actually it was possible to control them and stay in business. But it took more than just forcing companies to properly control their discharges to get the lake’s pH back to normal. A massive liming operation was required, where calcium carbonate was added to the lake. A boat was specially made for the purpose. Lime was first sprayed on the surface.

Source

But that wasn’t enough. Lime had to be injected deep into the lake, below the thermocline. It took twenty years to restore what had taken a mere two to destroy. The lake is now more or less OK: “fishable, swimmable”, in the catchy phrase of the US’s first water protection law, although the planctonic populations are not quite right yet.

Well, on that somewhat hopeful note, I leave my readers. Maybe some of them will make it to Lake Orta one day. My wife and I certainly will, when Spring comes rolling round again.

MUSHROOMS A-FRUITING!

Milan, 3 November 2019

Our son has gone on a “tartufata” today with some of his friends to a place called Ovada, a town in southern Piedmont. I’m not sure if this word really exists in Italian, but what it means is that they have gone to a restaurant in Ovada, where they will order various dishes seasoned with tartufo, or truffle in English. ‘Tis the truffle season! Many an Italian is fanning out over the country where truffles grow to taste this delicacy. Alas! neither my wife nor I are terribly fond of the use of truffle in cooking. I’m sure some readers will gasp in horror at this admission. Our son certainly shook his head sadly when we admitted this to him – he, of course, is a great fan. My beef with truffle is that its taste is very intense, far too intense for me; even my son, fan though he is, admits that he can only eat a small number of dishes seasoned with truffle before it’s too much for him.

For those of my readers who have never seen a truffle, they grow in the ground, normally around the roots of certain trees.

Source

They are not at all handsome-looking. They resemble pebbles, with a roughly roundish shape and rather knobbly. Normally, a number of them will fit into the palm of one’s hand. This next photo shows the two most common species of truffle, the white and the black (there are number of other types of truffles, but we’ll keep it simple).

Source

An enduring image from my youth is the use of pigs to find truffles. It was one of those stories I heard, about French farmers – a pig on a leash in one hand, a basket in the other (and no doubt a smoldering gitane in the side of the mouth) – wandering the woods of the Perigord (a region of France famous for its truffles) looking for this culinary delicacy.

Source

With their fine sense of smell, pigs are exceedingly good at locating the truffles buried in the soil. I don’t suppose pigs are used much any more. Clever people have figured out how to farm truffles, so I presume the foraging for wild truffles is mostly a thing of the past.

For those of a biological turn of mind the truffle is a fungus, one of perhaps 2 to 4 million fungi species (this is an estimate; only some 120,000 species have been formally described). It belongs to the Ascomycota phylum of the fungi kingdom, along with “good” fungi like morels, brewer’s and baker’s yeasts, and the penicillins, as well as “bad” fungi like the Candida fungi and ringworm, which infect us humans, as well various plant pathogens with colourful names like black mold, apple scab, rice blast, black knot and powdery mildews.

What actually set me off on this post was not truffles; it just so happened that our son went off on his gastronomic adventures at this time. It was actually mushrooms, which are members of another phylum of the fungi kingdom, the Basidiomycota, that got me to pick up my pen, figuratively speaking. As is our habit when we are in Milan, we’ve been walking the woods around Lake Como, and in recent days we’ve stumbled across a good number of very striking mushrooms.  Perhaps the weather conditions have been particularly propitious, perhaps we have just happened to walk across mushroom-rich grounds. I have no idea if any of the mushrooms we’ve seen are edible; I’m certain that one of them definitely is not. They just struck me as being particularly handsome. Seeing handsome mushrooms actually started on our walk along the Kumano Kodo trail in Japan. Here is a lovely one we almost tripped over, growing as it was right along the path we were following.

our photo

Aren’t they just beautiful?!

We also saw a very nice species of bracket fungus on a large cypress tree on our last day.

Our photo

Passersby had put 10-yen coins on the bracket fungus; this was the entryway to a large Shinto shrine, so I presume they play a role in animistic religions. I took the coins off, feeling that the fungus looked much better without them (and I hastily add that I put them back once I had taken my photo).

I’m very fond of bracket fungi. Years ago, when we were living in Washington D.C., my wife and I came across a lovely set of bracket fungi growing on a dead branch, during a walk in the woods. We brought the branch back to our apartment, where it brightened up the place. With great regret, when we left for Europe, we gave the branch and its fungi to a friend. I’ve always wondered what became of them.

But coming back to Lake Como, the first set of mushrooms we saw were these, growing under a pine tree.

Our photo

Unfortunately, since they were in someone’s garden I couldn’t get any close-up photos. I rather suspect, though, that at least some of them – the ones to the left – were the fly agaric  mushroom. This is a truly beautiful mushroom – but a hallucinogen if eaten in small amounts, and deadly if eaten in larger amounts.

Source

These are the mushrooms that gnomes will often be pictured sitting under or on.

Source

A little later, when we had entered the woods, we were lucky enough to come across a fly agaric in its mature stage on the side of the path.

our photo

It looks like something took a bite out of it; I hope it had nice hallucinations.

After that, we saw a number of other mushrooms peeking out from the forest floor as we walked along.

our photo
our photo
our photo

Lovely … But I have no idea what their names are (or their toxic or hallucinogenic properties) – I welcome any reader who knows them to tell me. In the meantime, my wife and I will continue traipsing through the woods and perhaps we’ll see a few more species of mushrooms to admire.

LAND OF WATER, LAND OF MOSS

Milan, 30 October 2019

After I had finished giving my course on sustainable industrial development at Kyoto University, my wife and I took a week off to walk the woods of Japan. Last year, we walked the Nakasendo Way. This year, we hiked along the old Kumano Kodo pilgrim trail. Just as had been the case when we walked the Nakasendo Way, we were struck by just how much water Japan has. In all its forms – rills, brooks, streams, rivers, waterfalls – the water welled out of the mountains we traversed and trickled, ran, poured off their flanks. The noise of water running across rock and stone was our constant companion.

our photo
our photo
our photo
our photo
Our photo

No wonder water is such an integral part of Japanese gardens, from falls

source

to streams and ponds

our photo

to small water elements.

our photo

All this water, and the rain which is the source of it, means that there are high levels of humidity in Japan, excellent conditions for the growing of moss. I have read that of the roughly 12,000 species of moss known worldwide, some 2,500 varieties are found in Japan alone: one-fifth! That’s pretty good going. And they certainly beautify Japan. Moss casts a lovely green sheen on everything it touches. This is true everywhere but it is particularly true in Japan. On our walks there, we’ve seen it growing luxuriantly on felled trees and tree stumps.

our photo
our photo

We’ve seen it clustering thickly around the base of standing trees.

our photo

and throwing a gauzy veil over their trunks.

our photo

We’ve seen it throw a light mantle over rocks.

our photo

It doesn’t stay in the forests. It will colonize the artifacts created by man.

Our photo

We’ve even seen it make the ugly concrete edges of a road look lovely!

Our photo

The genius of Japanese garden designers is to have fought off the instinct, which we seem to have in the West, of banishing moss from their gardens. Instead, they have welcomed it in with open arms and integrated it into their designs. As a result, no self-respecting Japanese garden is without its moss.

Our photo
our photo

Given my weakness for Zen gardens, I love the way the designers of these gardens have incorporated moss into their designs.

our photo
our photo
our photo

Some gardens use moss the way we would use grass, creating “lawns” of moss.

our photo
our photo

If the light is right, the effect can be quite magical.

our photo

A good number of temples have extensive moss gardens, where moss covers the floor of the whole garden. The most famous of these is Saiho-ji temple in the western outskirts of Kyoto. It’s become a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s difficult to visit. You have to book months in advance, using a system of return postcards, which is really primitive in this day and age and very difficult to do if you don’t live in the country. But we managed it this time.

our photo

A good number of years ago, as I relate in a previous post, I built my own Zen garden in a corner of our balcony. I had no moss, though, in that garden. The micro-climate on the balcony was too dry and harsh. But maybe, one day, somewhere, I’ll make myself another Zen garden, and this time I will try to incorporate moss.

A STRIKINGLY HANDSOME SPIDER

Milan, 26 October 2019

My wife and I have just come back from our annual trip to Kyoto, where I teach a two-week intensive course on sustainable industrial development. As usual, when I was not giving classes we were either visiting Kyoto or walking the ring of hills which surround the city. And as usual, we’ve been coming across a good many examples of this representative of the insect world.

Source

This, dear readers, is the Nephila clavata, or the Joro spider. It is found throughout most of Japan, as well as in Korea, China and Taiwan. And this is the time of year when they spin their webs. They are everywhere! If you’re not careful, you will walk into the webs as you walk along, getting those silky threads all over your face. Here is an especially dense set of webs which we had to navigate.

my photo

I have to say, this species of spider is really quite striking. Look at those green and black markings!  And that dark red stripe around its abdomen!  I am definitely not a fan of the spider family, but even I have to admit that the Joro spider is beautiful, even if in a rather sinister sort of way. And it does spin lovely webs, the classic ones, a series of concentric circles with radiating spokes. My wife and I were lucky enough to catch this one in the morning sunlight when it was still wet with dew.

my photo

The Joro spider is a champion for matriarchal societies. The female is much bigger than the male, and it is she who sits, in deathly stillness, at the centre of the web, waiting for hapless insects to blunder into it and become her next meal.

As for the males, a couple of them will be found on the edges of the web, waiting anxiously for their chance to copulate with the female. After copulation, the female will spin an egg sack, fill it with anything from 400 to 1500 eggs, and then attach it to a tree or other suitable surface. After which, with the onset of winter, all the adults die, leaving the eggs to hatch the following May. The juveniles scatter through the underbrush and the cycle starts again.

And that’s all there is to say, really, about the Joro spider. I’m sure arachnothologists could natter on excitedly for hours about various aspects of the spider’s life cycle and behaviour but I’m assuming my readers are, like me, just ordinary folk with no more than a passing interest in spiders. So I will say no more about the Joro spider – except for one thing.

Readers may be interested to know that the Joro spider has over the centuries become one of Japan’s many yokai – these are the supernatural monsters, spirits, and demons that haunt Japanese folklore. I have this theory that it is the dominance of the female over the male along with her vivid colouration that has led to the Joro spider being turned into a yokai. The name in Japanese, Jorogumo, actually means “woman spider”. The name can also be written to mean more negatively “entangling bride” or even “whore spider”. The common role of the Jorogumo yokai in folk tales is to shapeshift into a beautiful woman who will set herself up in a cave, in the forest, or in an empty house in town, and will wait there for unwary men to pass by. She will seduce them, tie them up in her silken web, and then devour them. We have here several modern takes on these ancient storylines, with the second bordering on the pornographic.

Source
Source

A common finale to these folk tales is that one young man, more astute than the rest, will figure out that the beautiful woman who is trying to inveigle him is actually the dreaded entangling woman/whore spider and will take her out with a sword or other suitable weapon. Here we have a strapping samurai doing just that, in a 19th century woodblock by Utagawa Kuniyoshi.

Source

It is interesting that a number of folk tales from other parts of the world include wicked seducing women from the supernatural world, ready to kill or otherwise neuter healthy young men. Just off the top of my head, I can think of the enchantress Circe in the Odyssey, who turned Odysseus’s men into pigs and whose plot to visit the same fate on Odysseus was foiled by the hero.

Source

Or in the same Odyssey, we have the (female) Sirens whose beautiful songs drove (male) sailors mad and incited them to smash their ships onto the rocks.

Source

Without getting too anthropological about it, I have to assume that these tales are a product of the patriarchal societies in which they were developed. In a strongly male-dominated society, the worst thing that can happen to a man is to find himself dominated by a woman. The best excuse a man can give to explain why this happened is for him to say that the woman seduced him. To make it an even better excuse, give the woman supernatural powers of seduction – “if she’d been a normal woman, I could have resisted her female lures”.

As I walked along, ducking out of the way of the Joro spiders’ webs, I found myself wondering how one of these tales would have been told in a matriarchal society.

AUTUMN GOLDEN CUP

Sori, 30 September 2019

Last year, I marked the annual migration which my wife and I make from Austria to Italy with a post celebrating the autumn crocuses which we saw sprinkled across the meadows we were crossing on our last walks around Vienna.

So this year, when on our first walk back in Italy – we came down from Austria a few days ago – I spotted a profusion of yellow crocuses it seemed to me that they would be an excellent topic for my first post of the winter season in Italy.

my photo

As it turned out, there was a slight hiccup in this plan. I have just discovered that the plants are not crocuses. They look terribly like them, as this photo demonstrates (the purple plant is a real crocus). But they are not.

Source

A number of the plant’s common names make the same mistake. For instance, one of the plant’s common names in English is yellow autumn crocus, as it is in French (crocus jaune d’automne). But actually the plant is more closely related to the daffodil than it is to the crocus. And in fact a couple of the common English names refer to the daffodil – autumn daffodil, winter daffodil – although I suspect that this has more to do with the plant’s daffodil-yellow colour than with any botanical relationships. I don’t want to use these names because I really see nothing daffodil-like in the plant (apart from the colour). The plant’s official name is Sternbergia lutea, but I don’t want to use that, it makes me sound like a stuffy old bore. After looking around at what various (European) languages call the plant, I think I shall plump for the German Herbst-Goldbecher, Autumn Golden Cup.

So now let me celebrate the Autumn Golden Cup with a couple of photos of it by  photographers who are way better than me at taking photos.

Source
Source

For anyone who might be interested, this map shows the geographic distribution of the Autumn Golden Cup.

Source

The plant is native from Spain through to the southern shores of the Caspian Sea (and it’s been naturalized for quite a while in France, Morocco and Algeria). These photos of the Autumn Golden Cup show it in a rather more natural setting, the first in an old olive grove in southern Greece, the second on some stony ground in southern Italy.

Source
Source

There is only one dark cloud in all of this. The Autumn Golden Cup is one of a handful of plants whose bulbs are made commercially available mostly through collection in the wild rather than through artificial propagation. This has put terrible pressure on wild populations. In my last post, I wrote about the problem of species being moved to new ecosystems and running amok. Here we have the problem of over-exploitation of native populations, leading – if we are not careful – to their extinction in the wild. The situation for the Autumn Golden Cup is sufficiently worrisome that it has been listed in the global Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) as a species that can only be traded internationally with the proper permits. The problem is that many of the countries where this bulb harvesting is going on have weak enforcement authorities, so the trade is not being managed as it should.

What I don’t understand in all of this is why the Autumn Golden Cup cannot be propagated, as happens with the great majority of bulbous plants. Some efforts are being made to teach farmers in Turkey, for instance, to do just this. But why don’t Italian farmers, where the species is native, also do it? My rather uncharitable thought is that everyone has pretty much left bulb propagation and sale to the Netherlands (those tulips, you know …), which as a result controls the great majority of the trade in flower bulbs. It so happens, my thinking continues, that since the Netherlands falls outside the geographic range of the Autumn Golden Cup it has never bothered to get into the business of propagating this particular plant. And so we are left with harvesting in the wild.

Well, I just hope that we can change this situation before it’s too late.

BEAUTIFUL FLOWER, DEADLY PLANT

Vienna, 27 September 2019

Picking up where I left off at the end of my last post, my wife and I were on our way back to our hotel from our little tour of Traunkirchen when I spied on the side of the road these beds of wild flowers.

my photo

They were really very pretty, with the flowers going from magenta to almost white, passing through a candy pink. Even as I admired and took a couple of photos I had to admit to myself that I no idea what they were.

The next day, at breakfast, I showed our host the pictures. Ah, she said, that’s a Drüsige Springkraut. She had no idea what its English name was, but the German name was enough for my wife. A few clicks later, she handed me her iPad and I was reading a Wikipedia entry on the flower.

Its official name is Impatiens glandulifera. It has many colourful names in English. Three – Policeman’s Helmet, Bobby Tops, Copper Tops – reflect the flower’s apparent resemblance to British policemen’s helmets. Here’s a close-up of the flower itself.

Source

I leave my readers to decide, but I really don’t see this resemblance – unless the helmets have changed considerably since I last lived in the UK. Another name, Gnome’s Hatstand, makes more sense to me. It presumably harks back to the decidedly florid hats which some gnomes in children’s books sometimes sport, and I definitely can see a florid hat in the flower’s shape. And of course the plant then becomes the hatstand for these florid hats. Two other names, Himalayan Balsam and Kiss-me-on-the-mountain, refer to the mountainous origin of the plant; more on this later. Another name listed in Wikipedia is Ornamental jewelweed. I’m guessing this was inspired by the fact that we have a beautiful flower grafted onto a decidedly weedy-looking stem.

The English-speaking world seems to have been particularly poetic in its choice of names. The names in German and French (the only other two languages I checked) are decidedly more prosaic and seem mostly variations on balsam and glands (the latter being also found in the official name). I read that the plant does indeed carry glands, under the leaf stem, which produce a sticky, sweet-smelling, and edible nectar (the latter presumably being the origin of the balsam names). Eager to try this nectar, I poked around under various leaf stems the next time we walked past the flowers but failed to detect anything; a puzzle to be solved another day. The only exception to the list of prosaic Franco-German names is the German Bauernorchidee, Farmer’s orchid. We’ll come back to this link to orchids in a minute.

A beautiful flower – but alas an invasive species! Invasive species are a terrible problem; they have been the subject of an earlier post of mine. The flower’s original home is the Himalayas, specifically to the areas between Kashmir and Uttarakhand. I am ashamed to say that it was an Englishman who unleashed this particular botanical scourge on the rest of the world in 1839. He was no doubt part of that legion of Europeans who followed in the footsteps of conquering European armies, scouring the newly-colonized lands for plants. Initially, they were looking for plants from which some monetarily useful product could be extracted but later they also looked for pretty plants which they could sell to the growing ranks of gardeners looking for an extra splash of colour or texture in their gardens.

Source

The Himalayan Balsam, to use one of its many names, was thus first grown outside of its natural range in the UK but eventually spread to many other parts of the world. Coming back to that German name, Farmer’s orchid, it seems that its popularity was at least in part due to it allowing gardeners of modest income to have a flower that looked very orchid-like; I throw in here a photo of an orchid, to allow readers to see the resemblance.

Source

Real orchids were the playthings of the rich, who could afford not only the stiff purchase price but also the high maintenance costs (and by the way, the picture above is actually of a Victorian orchid hunter; orchids commanded prices which allowed serious expeditions to be funded).

As with water hyacinth which I wrote about in that earlier post on invasive species, the Himalayan balsam eventually escaped from the confines of gardens and began to spread through the countryside. As far as the UK is concerned, it has become one of the country’s most invasive species. It colonizes damp woodlands (which is where we came across it in Traunkirchen, although in beds that were not nearly as thick as this).

Source

It also colonizes the banks of waterways – this is a view of the River Monnow, which makes up part of the England-Wales border.

Source

The flower’s crowding along the banks of rivers is particularly problematical. When the plants die back in autumn they leave the banks bare and subject to erosion from winter and spring floods. I read that the plant is a terrible pest in the Norfolk Broads. That gives me pause; I used to go there as a young boy – 50+ years ago – and I never remember seeing it. The Himalayan balsam is marching across the landscape …

People are trying to do what they can to stop the plant. In some places, there are regular “balsam bashes”, where volunteers go out and physically pull up the plant. Here, for instance, we have a group of volunteers in Yorkshire, who by the size of the pile in front of them have had a hard day’s work.

Source

More extreme measures are required, though, if the invasion is truly to be stopped. The basic problem is that the plant has escaped from all those predators which back home in the Himalayas keep it in check, and none have taken their place in the rest of the world. Researchers in the UK have gone off to the  Himalayas to see if they can’t bring at least one of the original predators back to the UK. They have found a very promising candidate: the Himalayan balsam rust. It attacks the plant at various points: the stem, the leaves, the seedlings. This is what the leaves look like once they are under attack.

Source

The scientists are currently conducting field tests. I wish them the best of luck. And I really pray that they will not unwittingly release into the British environment a rust that will find other, native species much more to their liking and which will then forget about attacking the Himalayan balsam. As I pointed out in my previous post on invasive species, this has happened before, and you end up with two invasive species instead of one!

While we wait for the results of the tests to come in, I invite readers to locate their nearest “balsam bash”, or whatever they might be called in the local language, and take part. You will be doing us all a favour and getting a breath of fresh air at the same time.

A beautiful flower, but to be admired in its native habitat and not in our gardens.

TRAUNKIRCHEN

Vienna, 25 September 2019

My wife and I recently spent a long weekend on Traunsee (Lake Traun), which is one of several lakes which sprinkle the Salzkammergut region of Austria. Here is an aerial photo of the lake, looking from south to north.

Source

Readers will notice that the topography around the lake is generally mountainous other than a section of relatively gentle hills on the lake’s northwestern shore. We were staying on the edges of the village of Traunkirchen, down south on the western shore, where gentle hill meets steep mountain. This gave us the opportunity to try out both topographies for our hikes, these being the main purpose of our visit.

Traunkirchen is wonderfully located, clustered as it is around a rocky spit perched on the edge of the lake – readers with sharp eyes may notice that spit in the photo above. I add in here a closer aerial view of the village.

Source

On the afternoon we arrived, we took advantage of a pedal boat, which our hotel kept moored at its little piece of beachfront, to pedal slowly over to the spit and admire the church built on it from the water.

my wife’s photo

We later visited the church, whose interior was the usual Baroque confection. As I have frequently mentioned, the last time no later than my last post, I am no great fan of the Baroque. But this church does have one splendid piece, the pulpit. It is built in the form a boat, into which fishermen are hauling their catch.

Source

An apt iconography for a village by a lake, but also no doubt the artist was recalling the words of Jesus on Lake Galilee: “As he was going along by the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and Andrew, the brother of Simon, casting a net in the sea; for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you become fishers of men.’ Immediately they left their nets and followed Him.”

Our visit to the church was part of a longer itinerary thoughtfully provided by the local tourist office to explore the village. Our next port of call was a small chapel on the highest point of the spit. Up close the chapel was no great shakes, but from afar it made for a wonderful view, as we saw the next day at the start of one of our hikes.

my photo

The local tourist office’s itinerary then carried us away from the water front and up the hill that backed the village. There, perched on a ridge, was a large house built in the early 1850s and known by the locals as the Russian Villa.

Source

The house got its nickname from its first owner. She was the daughter of a Russian prince and went by the delightful name of Sophie Baroness Pantschoulidzeff. The name immediately evokes in me pictures of a languid lady with a Slavic cut to the cheekbones, toying with an enormously long cigarette holder and calling everyone “Daahlingh”. Despite my best efforts, I have been unable to discover anything about this Baroness on the internet. But she kept good company in her villa. Many of Vienna’s artistic elites spent time with her there.

After Baroness Pantschoulidzeff’s death, the villa passed through various hands. Whoever owns it now has a collection of Ancient Greek or Roman statues (or copies thereof) in the garden. Among these, there is one which is – how shall I put it? – particularly intriguing: it is a huge phallus. Of course I had to take a photo.

my photo

From writing which I glimpsed carved into its base, I think it also was of Graeco-Roman origin (or a copy of one such).

We saw it because the itinerary recommended by the tourist office took us along a path which passed by the gate to the villa’s garden. The path then went on to become Traunkirchen’s Via Crucis. I can only hope that anyone walking the path for religious purposes, and not – like us – to follow a tourist itinerary, will keep their eyes firmly fixed on the horizon and ignore that giant male member as they pass the villa’s garden gate.

After this glimpse of the surreal, we went on to follow the Via Crucis, which led us eventually to its final chapel in the woods.

Source

After a look at the crucifixion scene in the chapel, we wended our way back down to the waterfront, where we sat down at the cafe outside the Hotel Post.

Source

While we rested, we enjoyed a good cup of Earl Grey tea served to us by a very friendly waiter dressed in lederhosen – we were in Austria, after all – before we heaved ourselves back on our feet and headed back to our Pension.

COMMON CHICORY

Vienna, 5 September 2019

There is a flower which I much admire. I come across it quite often on our walks. This is a photo of it made by a professional photographer, with good lighting and a nice background.

Source

But in truth, I come across it more often in this kind of context.

my photo

It is a flower which grows along the sides of fields, in waste land along the side of paths, in cracks in roads, … It is, in a word, the botanical embodiment of grace and beauty under pressure. And for that I am one of its greatest fans.

I have always called it the cornflower, but in preparing this post I have discovered that I have been terribly mistaken. Yes, it is sometimes called cornflower, but the real cornflower, the real McCoy as it were, is this.

Source

What I have been admiring for its grit and determination as well as its beauty is the common chicory, Cichorium intybus. As is the case with pretty flowers that sprinkle our countryside, it has been given lots of delightful names over the centuries apart from cornflower: blue daisy, blue dandelion, blue sailors, blue weed, bunk, coffeeweed, hendibeh, horseweed, ragged sailors, succory, wild bachelor’s buttons, and wild endive. And that’s only in English! It being native to Europe, I’m sure that every European language has a similar suite of names for this delightful flower.

What I have also discovered through my readings is that the common chicory is one of those plants out of which humble, anonymous people whose names we will almost certainly never know have over the centuries coaxed various foodstuffs. I want to salute these people, and in that sense this post has become a continuation of previous posts I have written about the slew of vegetables coaxed out of the mustard plant and the sea beet.

People have worked on two parts of the plant: its leaf and its root. Out of its leaf they have extracted several vegetables. I start with catalogna chicory. I do so because it is an Italian vegetable. My wife being Italian and my most faithful reader, I want to begin with a salute to the genius of her countrymen and women (it also so happens that her mother used to eat catalogna chicory from time to time, and it’s nice to use this occasion to remember the good woman). I also start with it because the photo shows up the common chicory’s very obvious relationship to the dandelion (the two are part of the same family) in the shape of the catalogna chicory’s leaves. And that shape allows me to note that catalogna chicory leaves, like dandelion leaves, are quite bitter (in fact, the reason my mother-in-law didn’t eat catalogna all that often was because my father-in-law disliked its bitter taste).

Source

I throw in here a popular Roman recipe which uses catalogna chicory, insalata di puntarelle alla romana

Source

Cut out the white, less bitter stems. Slice them into narrow strips. Let them sit in iced water for an hour (this further reduces the bitterness). In the meantime prepare the salad sauce. Add together crushed garlic, anchovies, vinegar, and olive oil, and whip together. Drain the catalogna chicory stems. Drizzle with the salad sauce. Enjoy!

Then there is another Italian spin-off of the common chicory, the radicchio.

Source

Although something like the radicchio may have already been enjoyed by the Romans, it is actually men and women living in the north-east of Italy during the fifteenth century, in the regions of Veneto, Friuli Venezia Giulia, and Trentino, who started its modern cultivation. But it is a Belgian agronomist by the name of Francesco Van den Borre (where there is a name, let us highlight it) who engineered the radicchio’s typical deep-red colour. He used a technique where the plants are taken from the soil and placed in water in darkened sheds; the lack of light causes the plants to lose their green pigmentation and turn red.

There is also the sugarloaf, which I must confess I have never eaten and had until I read up for this post never even heard of, and whose origins are a mystery to me – I can’t find anything about them on the internet. This is what it looks like.

Source

As far as I can make out, sugarloaf is eaten in much the same way as most chicories are: braised or in salad. I might nose around some of the higher-end grocery shops here to see if I can find any to try.

Finally, there is the Belgian endive.

Source

Like the radicchio, this is a rather artificial vegetable. To prevent the leaves from turning green and opening up, it is grown just below the soil surface or indoors in the absence of sunlight. It seems that this technique was accidentally discovered in the 1850s at Brussels’ Botanical Garden, which no doubt explains why it’s called Belgian endive (just to confuse things, I should note that the true endive is another species, Cichorium endivia).

That’s what people have done with the leaf of the common chicory. Then there is its root.

Source

It’s best known as the source of chicory coffee. The root is chopped up and then roasted, to give something like this.

Source

It can either be used as is or mixed with real coffee. Personally, I don’t like the stuff. My wife doesn’t either, but my mother-in-law was quite partial. So was my French grandmother; I remember her drinking this rather bitter drink in the morning at breakfast with evident relish. As I recall, she drank this brand of chicory coffee – given the dates, I would imagine I saw her dipping into the second tin from the left.

Source

I read that the French got a taste for chicory coffee during the Napoleonic wars. “Perfidious Albion” (i.e., the British) used its navy to blockade France so that coffee couldn’t get through. In desperation, the French turned to chicory to satisfy their craving for coffee. They got rather fond of it and continued drinking it after Waterloo.

Well, all very interesting, but let me finish where I started, with a very pretty flower with great determination to grow in the most hostile of environments.

Source

And with that, let me get ready for our next walk and probable meeting with the common chicory.

QUAFFING MEAD

Vienna, 18 August 2019

Back in April, I was up in Vienna to make a presentation at a workshop on ecodesign and its role in promoting circular economies. Fascinating topic, but what I actually want to write about is the fact that at this meeting I met an old contact of mine, Wolfgang, who many years ago had run a training programme for me on ecodesign in Sri Lanka. After the workshop, we repaired to a bar to catch up on the past 15 years or so over a beer. Wolfgang first told me all about what he’s been up to in the ecodesign world, but then added, “What’s really exciting me at the moment is my production of mead.”

Mead … I don’t know what visions this conjures up in my readers, but for me I immediately see Vikings wassailing the dark Nordic nights away, drinking mead out of horns or possibly the skulls of their enemies, and preparing for the battle of tomorrow where they will die heroically and go to Valhalla. These fine fellows will stand in nicely for such a scene.

Source

I had certainly never drunk the stuff myself; I didn’t know anyone made it anymore.

Thoroughly intrigued, I pressed Wolfgang for more information. As is the case with all enthusiasts, I didn’t have to press very hard. With a pint of beer inside him, he waxed lyrical on the subject. He had to start at the very beginning, with what mead is made from – I didn’t even know that. It’s a mixture of honey and water to which yeast is added to turn the sugars in the honey into alcohol. The relative ratios of honey to water will determine the level of sweetness of the final product. Sweetness can be further increased by the addition of fruits. On the other hand, the mix can be made dryer by adding astringent berries or herbs. Wolfgang was very dismissive about the modern trend of making sweet meads. In fact, he said, he started making mead because he was appalled at how horribly sweet most modern meads are, which in his opinion obliterates the wonderful underlying tastes of the honey. He decided he was going to swim against the current and make a dry mead. He had been at it for a couple of years, and was beginning to sell his product to other enthusiasts.

Well, this all sounded very interesting! I was definitely going to have to try this stuff. Unfortunately, I was going back down to Milan the next day. But we agreed that when my wife and I came up to Vienna for the summer, I would contact him and we would arrange a mead-tasting event.

In the meantime, down in Milan, I did some research. Mead, it turns out, is very ancient, probably the first alcoholic drink that human beings ever quaffed. It’s also a pretty universal drink. The tribes that settled Europe certainly all drank mead. I’ve already mentioned the Vikings. They loved mead so much, they wrote a whole saga about it – Kvasir and the Mead of Poetry. It’s a story that has dwarves, giants, the god Odin, thievery, murder, and various other bits and bobs. A shaggy dog story if ever I heard one, good to while away those long Nordic nights while quaffing mead. The bottom line of the saga is that mead can turn you into a poet or a scholar: a feeling that I’m sure all of us have had when we have drunk too much alcohol; a feeling we normally have just before we are sick or pass out, or both. And much of Beowulf, that Anglo-Saxon poem greatly revered by lovers of the English language, takes place in a mead hall; it was in these specially-built halls that Viking chieftains and their retinue of warriors drank mead, listened to long, long – long – sagas, and generally wassailed the nights away, before collapsing onto the benches or even onto the floor in a drunken stupor. Here is an artist’s representation of a mead hall.

Source

And here is an excellent summary of the first part of Beowulf: “The fantastical mead hall of Heorot forms an integral part of the epic Old English poem Beowulf, serving as both the setting and instigation of the action. It is the carousing of Heorot’s denizens as they slug back mead in the hall which awakens the terrible ire of the monster Grendel – with predictably gruesome results. The solution to the problem – in typical Old English style – was not to put down the mead horns and cease partying, but to slay the monster (and his mother) before throwing an even bigger and more mead-soaked party to celebrate.”

The Vikings may be the best known quaffers of mead, but the Celts were no slouches, and nor were the Germanic tribes. There is riddle-poem in the Exeter Book, a 10th-century anthology of Anglo-Saxon poetry, about honey and mead. I quote the first couple of lines:

Ic eom weorð werum, wide funden,
brungen of bearwum ond of burghleoþum,
of denum ond of dunum. Dæges mec wægun
feþre on lifte, feredon mid liste …

But since I’m sure that 99.99% of my readers are like me not able to read Anglo-Saxon, I insert here a translation of the poem into modern English:

I am valuable to men, found widely,
brought from groves and from mountain slopes,
from valleys and from hills. By day, was I carried
by feathers up high, taken skillfully
under a sheltering roof. A man then washed me
in a container. Now I am a binder and a striker;
I bring a slave to the ground, sometimes an old churl.
Immediately he discovers, he who goes against me
and contends against my strength,
that he shall meet the ground with his back,
unless he ceases from his folly early;
deprived of his strength, loud of speech, his power bound,
he has no control over his mind, his feet, or his hands.
Ask what I am called, who thus binds slaves
to the earth with blows, by the light of day.

The Anglo-Saxons clearly recognized the power of mead to bring you crashing to the floor of the mead hall or any other establishment where you drank the stuff in excess.

The Slavs also drank the stuff – they still do, with Poland having an especially developed culture of mead drinking. We have here a painting of a couple of early 19th Century Polish noblemen enjoying a flagon of mead, a scene inspired by that great nationalist Polish poem, Pan Tadeusz by Adam Mickiewicz. I don’t even bother with the Polish here, I just launch straight into an English translation, and cut out much of the saga-like talk between the two old men who are our subject:

Two old men sat outside the house, tankards
of strong mead resting on their knees; …
The old men drink their mead and dip their snuff
from a bark case, continuing their chat.
“Yes, yes, Protazy, it is true enough,”
said the Warden. “I can agree with that,”
replied Protazy the Apparitor.
“Yes,” they repeated in unison, “Yes,”
nodding their heads. …
…. The turf bench in the yard
on which they sat adjoined the kitchen wall;
from an open window, steam filled the air,
billowing like a conflagration. When all
the smoke was gone, a white chef‟s hat was there,
flitting like a dove. It was the Seneschal,
who stuck his head out through the kitchen window,
eavesdropping on this private conversation.
Finally, he handed them a plate with two
biscuits. “Have this cake with your libation,”
He said …

Source

It wasn’t just tribes in Europe’s north who drank mead. The Ancient Greeks drank it – I read that Dionysios was the God of mead before becoming the God of wine. Greek followers of Dionysios, and Roman followers of Bacchus (same God, different name), used to hold festivals – the Dionysia or Bacchanalia – where much drinking and dancing and cavorting about (nudge, nudge, wink, wink, say no more) was the key. Here is a take on a Bacchanalia by Hendrik Balen (he did the figures) and Jan Breughel the Elder (he did the landscape), painted in about 1620.

Source

As I say, the Romans partook enthusiastically in Bacchanalia, but there were more sober Roman citizens who left us some serious commentary on mead. Here is my favourite, by the Roman naturalist Lucius Junius Moderatus Columella, who included a recipe for making mead in his tome on agriculture, De re rustica, which he wrote in about 60 CE (again, I skip the Latin and go straight into an English translation).

Take rainwater kept for several years, and mix a sextarius [ca. ½ litre] of this water with a [Roman] pound [ca. ⅓ kg] of honey. For a weaker mead, mix a sextarius of water with nine ounces [ca. ¼ kg] of honey. The whole is exposed to the sun for 40 days, and then left on a shelf near the fire. If you have no rain water, then boil spring water.

I am appalled and fascinated in equal measure by this idea that one could take several-year old rainwater and use it to make something to drink; I suppose this was a way of inoculating the honey-water mix with natural yeasts which somehow found their way into the rainwater. I presume Columella drank his own mead and survived, so it cannot have been as deadly as it sounds.

And it wasn’t just the Europeans who drank it. The Chinese did – in fact, the oldest archaeological evidence tentatively pointing to mead drinking has been found in China: some honey, rice, and fermentation residues found on the inside of a pot 9,000 years old. The Mandaya and Manobo people in the island of Mindanao in the Philippines still drink mead, which they call bais.

In Africa, the Xhosa in South Africa have an ancient tradition of drinking mead, or iQhilika in Xhosa, and the Ethiopians have been, and continue to be, enthusiastic drinkers of mead (or tej as it’s called locally). Here we have Ethiopians enjoying a wee dram of the stuff.

Source

And I love this picture, done in the traditional Ethiopian style, of what appears to be a priest and his acolytes getting ready to down some tej.

Source

What I find particularly delicious in this painting is that normally the figures in Ethiopian paintings are very solemn; no-one breaks into a smile. Yet here, at the thought of the pleasures to come, we see a hint of a smile on the acolytes’ faces (while the priest looks troubled, which is perhaps how it should be: “Guys, should we be doing this? What if someone sees me drinking this stuff? I have an important position in the community.”).

Even in the Americas mead was, and still is consumed. Prior to the Spanish conquest, the Maya made a drink called balché made by soaking the bark of a special tree in a honey-water mix and allowing it to ferment. Apparently, the Maya consumed balché in enema form to maximize its inebriating effect (just think if the Vikings had cottoned on to that …). For some reason, the Conquistadores banned the drink, but it never went away completely. Here is an Amerindian from the Chiapas region of Mexico making balché the old way: in a hollowed log, place the bark of the tree, add water and honey, cover and wait.
Balché may be making a comeback, although one of the reasons the Spaniards didn’t like it is that it smelled foul to them. They popularized a variant, xtabentún, which replaced the tree bark with anise (they also added rum, which makes the drink more of a liqueur).

In a way, it’s not surprising that mead is drunk in so many parts of the world. Honey, its basic ingredient, is to be found pretty much everywhere on this planet, as this map of the global distribution of the honeybee attests (the different colours refer to sub-species of the honeybee; the pinkish colour, the most dominant, gives the range for apis mellifera).

Source

For reasons that are not completely clear to me, the drinking of mead went into steep decline in Europe some time after the Middle Ages. Somehow, it got squeezed out by wine on one side and beer on the other. So now there are a few traditional hold-outs where mead never completely died out and enthusiasts like Wolfgang who are trying to bring mead back.

Coming back to Wolfgang, when June came around and my wife and I came up to Vienna for the summer, I contacted him. But one thing and another – he was away, then I was away; he was busy, then I was busy – meant that we weren’t able to arrange the mead tasting until last week. But it was finally arranged! Wolfgang keeps his mead in an old wine cellar in a small village outside Vienna, so we took a bus with him one evening and sallied forth. It was a lovely cellar, very deep, at the end of which he had a table with chairs where we sat down to do our mead tasting.
He got us some glasses and a bottle of his best mead.
He uncorked it, poured us a generous portion, and invited us to taste. We ceremonially picked up the glass, sniffed it, swirled it around, and took a sip.

It was … interesting. I think that’s the best I can say. I don’t know if readers can imagine this, but it tasted like honey without the sweet taste. What gets left behind if you take out the honey’s sweetness is a slightly acrid, slightly “waxy” taste. If any of my readers have ever nibbled at wax, that was the predominant taste of the mead.

The first mead we tried was made with honey where the bees had been feeding on the nectar from lime-tree (linden) flowers (I have waxed lyrical about the flower of the linden tree in a past post). We then tried a mead made with honey where the bees had feasted on rhododendron nectar up in the Alps. It was much clearer in colour, but the taste did not change much. As a finale, we tried a mead to which chokeberries had been added. These turned the mead’s colour redder and made the taste smokier – but it did not change the basic facts.
Well, we bought two bottles from Wolfgang. We felt we owed him that for the trouble he had gone to. We plan to take the bottles down to Milan, where we’ll try them on our son and see what he thinks.

In the meantime – but I have to hide this from Wolfgang – I think we should find some sweet mead to try. I feel that despite Wolfgang’s tut-tutting, people are not so wrong to drink their mead sweet. And that Ethiopian mead looks really interesting! I wonder if the Ethiopian restaurant we go to in Milan has any?