STRAWBERRY

Milan, 14 June 2020
Revised in Vienna, 20 October 2020

In the recent hikes which my wife and I have been doing, we’ve come across a lot of these.

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“These” are woodland strawberries (but see the Postscript at the end). I throw in here a much more professional photo of this plant, to give readers a better view.

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The fact is, though, that they are really very small, no more than half a centimetre across, as this photo of a whole sheet of them shows: they are just bright red dots against the green of the leaves.

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Those bright red dots always catch my eye as we walk along. From time to time, I’ve picked one of the bigger ones and eaten it. They are pretty bland, I have to say. Their taste is really nothing to write home (or a post) about.

Which – as I tramped along – got me thinking: who were the people who laboured so hard to turn these small, not very tasty berries into the big, juicy and wonderfully sweet berries that we eat today?

Readers of my posts will know that I have a fondness of saluting the almost always anonymous folk who over the millennia have coaxed tasty foodstuffs which we eat today out of small and not so tasty wild plants. The last such foodstuff whose creation I have saluted is the common chicory. I decided to do the same thing for the strawberry. And so I have been beavering away on my computer these last few weeks, surfing the web and seeing what I could find.

The first thing I found was that I had been completely wrong. Today’s strawberries do not descend from those little woodland strawberries we had been spotting on our walks. They are not the result of countless generations of rural people patiently selecting woodland strawberry plants with ever sweeter and ever bigger fruits. The story of today’s plump and juicy strawberries is much more complex. They are actually the result of Europe having colonised much of the rest of the planet.

But let me start where all good stories start, at the beginning. It is true that Europeans had at one time domesticated woodland strawberries. Perhaps the Romans had done so, but if they did these domesticates were lost during the Dark Ages. Medieval Europeans certainly started domesticating them. King Charles V of France, for instance, has his gardeners transplant 1,200 woodland strawberry plants into his gardens some time in the late 1300s. Europeans also started domesticating the other species of strawberries which are found in Europe, the musk, or hautbois, strawberry, which is somewhat bigger than the woodland strawberry

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and the creamy strawberry, which as its name suggests can be quite pale; it’s about the same size as the woodland strawberry.

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It’s hard to tell from surviving documents, but Medieval and Renaissance gardeners do seem to have created strains of strawberries which were bigger and sweeter than their wild cousins. But by “bigger” I mean something as big as a plump blackberry, no more than that.

Then started the period of European colonisation. In the Americas this led to, among other things, the transfer of a wealth of new foodstuffs to Europe, a phenomenon I’ve touched upon in a couple of past posts. Maize, tomato, and potato are probably the most well known of these arrivals from the Americas. Like these three, most of the new foodstuffs came from Central and South America, but a few also made their way from North America. The best known of these is the sunflower, while I recently wrote a post about another, more modest transfer from North America, the Jerusalem artichoke. And now I have discovered that there was yet another transfer from North America: the Virginian (or scarlet) strawberry! This species of strawberry grows throughout much of North America, but it was of course first seen by Europeans in the colonies strung along the eastern seaboard.

These colonists must have been quite pleased to have this new strawberry plant at hand. We’re still not talking of berries the size of those we’re now used to – its berries were about the same size as those of the European musk strawberry. But no doubt they would have seen them as a useful adjunct to their diet.

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When exactly someone brought plants of the Virginia strawberry back to Europe is not clear – the early 1600s seem to be the most probable time frame. And what country they brought them back to is not clear either – the British, French and Dutch all had colonies in the strawberry’s range, so any of these three countries could have been the original entry point, and maybe the plant was introduced into Europe more than once. Wherever its entry point (or points) was, the Virginia strawberry didn’t spread that quickly through the rest of Europe. It seems to have been more of a curiosity, and certainly didn’t replace the European species with which people were familiar.

While the French, British, and Dutch were busy colonising North America, the Spaniards were busy colonising Central and South America. In South America, they first smashed the Inca Empire. Then they turned their attention further southward. It made strategic sense for them to control the whole of the Pacific seaboard down to the Straits of Magellan, to keep an eye on other pesky European nations coming through those straits for who knows what nefarious reasons. So they went on to conquer what is now Chile. In the south of Chile, the Spaniards encountered the Mapuche and Huilliche peoples, who put up a stiff resistance but who were eventually overcome and subjugated.

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The Spaniards discovered that these two tribes had domesticated another local species of strawberry, the Chilean (or beach) strawberry. And in this case the berry was pretty damned big!

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The Spanish colonists were very happy to add the Chilean strawberry to their local diet, to the point that it was commonly available in local markets in the new Spanish towns of southern Chile. It remained, however, a local delicacy. If anyone ever tried to bring back plants to Spain, there is no sign of them having succeeded.

So things stood until 1712. In that year, King Louis XIV of France sent a certain Amédée François Frézier on a secret mission to Chile. We have here a portrait of Frézier in old age, after a long and successful career.

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His orders were to find out all he could about the Spanish military presence there: forts, harbours, military units, and so on (this was part of Louis XIV’s ongoing struggles with Spain). For nearly two years, Frézier followed his orders most diligently, posing as a merchant looking for trading opportunities. But Frézier was a man of many interests, one of these being botany. Naturally enough, the Chilean strawberry, with its very big fruit, caught his attention. As he was to write later:

They there cultivate entire fields of a type of strawberry differing from ours by their rounder leaves, being fleshier and having strong runners. Its fruit are usually as large as a whole walnut, and sometimes as a small egg. They are of a whitish-red colour and a little less delicate to the taste than our woodland strawberries.

Frézier determined to bring some plants back with him when he returned to France. So it was that when in 1714 he finally boarded the ship which would be taking him home, he took five plants of the Chilean strawberry with him, and managed to keep alive on the long – and hot – trip home. When he arrived in France, he kept one of the plants for himself and sent the others to various friends and patrons. News of this new species of strawberry quickly made the rounds among Europe’s little circle of amateur botanists, especially after Frézier’s book was published in which he gave a detailed account of his doings in Chile and included a description of this strawberry plant with such large fruits. Strawberry plants are easy to propagate, so not only did news about the Chilean strawberry get around; so did clones of the various plants he brought back. Anyone with a serious botanical garden had to have the plant in their collection!

Alas! Great disappointment lay in store for many of those eminent botanists who planted the Chilean strawberry in their garden and eagerly awaited it to flower and – especially – to fruit (“usually as large as a whole walnut, and sometimes as a small egg”, Frézier had written). For the most part, their plants yielded nothing – nada, zero! They began to think that maybe the plant’s transfer to Europe had made it sterile.

Here, with the advantage of hindsight, I shall cut through all the intellectual confusion that pervaded the minds of Europe’s finest botanists for several decades. The fundamental problem was this: they hadn’t realized that some species of plants are hermaphrodites, and so can self pollinate, while in other species there are separate male and female plants, so both have to be present – and relatively close to each other – for pollination to occur. It just so happens that all the European species of strawberries are hermaphrodites, as is the Virginian strawberry, but the Chilean strawberry is not. There are both male and female plants in that species. Frézier must have taken only plants which were fruiting, and therefore females. This was sensible enough, given his (and everyone else’s) knowledge of strawberries; he wanted to be sure that the plants he nicked were fertile. But what this meant is that there was no way that those poor female Chilean strawberry plants, along with their clones which all the botanists were busy sending each other, were ever going to fruit in Europe without a male plant handy. This mystery was finally elucidated in the early 1760s by a young Frenchman called Antoine Nicolas Duchesne, who had a fascination for natural history. He was lucky to have access to King Louis XV’s gardens at Versailles and to be mentored by the “Assistant Demonstrator of the Exterior of Plants at the King’s Garden”, Bernard de Jussieu. After making a detailed study of strawberries, he explained all in his book Histoire naturelle des fraisiers published in 1766, when he was a mere 19 years old! Here is picture of him in old age.

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But actually there was a way to make the Chilean strawberry produce berries! The discovery had been made some time in the first half of the 1700s by those anonymous farmers whom I love to salute. While all those well-off, educated botanists were tearing their hair out at the Chilean strawberry’s obdurate refusal to fruit, they had found a way to coax it to do so – by interplanting the plants with either Virginian strawberry plants or musk strawberry plants. The pollens of these species were closely related enough to that of the Chilean strawberry to pollinate it. Presumably, by chance a farmer (or his wife) had planted these various species close together in their strawberry patch, had seen that the Chilean strawberry fruited under these conditions, and were sharp enough to draw the right conclusion. Who exactly these clever farmers were will of course never be known. But the chances are that it was one or more farmers from around the French city of Brest, in Brittany (Frézier was posted to Brittany on his return from Chile, which probably explains this Breton connection), although it could (also) have been farmers in the Netherlands.

And what fruits they were! Big, juicy, sweet – everything that Frézier had said of the strawberries he had eaten in Chile. Further experimentation showed that the two species from the Americas, the Virginian strawberry and the Chilean strawberry, gave birth to a fertile hybrid, which could be grown as a separate species. On top of this, this hybrid was hermaphroditic so no need for all that fiddly stuff of making sure to plant males and females together! This hybrid is the garden strawberry, the modern strawberry eaten all around the world today.

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An industry was created, which currently produces some 9 million tonnes of garden strawberries per year, (with – sign of the times – 40% of that being in China).

And what of the strawberries which this hunking hybrid of a strawberry displaced? The woodland strawberry has disappeared back into the woods from whence it came and where I found it at the beginning of this post. As far as I can tell, the same fate has befallen the Virginian strawberry. There is apparently still a small but devoted following of the musk strawberry in gourmet circles in Italy (of which my wife and I are clearly not part since no restaurant in this country has ever offered us this delicacy). And the Chilean strawberry is still eaten in certain parts of southern Chile.

And what of the other species of strawberries? Because there are something like 15 other species of strawberries around the world. Not surprisingly (strawberry plants liking cool to cold conditions), most of these are native to northern Eurasia, in an arc going from western Siberia to northern Japan. But a number are also to be found in the high areas of western China, all the way from Qinghai in the north to Yunnan in the south. A couple of species are also found in the Himalayas proper. There is even one species which inhabits the hill country of southern India and the mountainous regions of the Philippines.

A good few of these species don’t produce a fruit worth eating. Others do, but the steamroller of the garden strawberry hybrid has meant that they have never had a chance to develop commercially. They are only eaten locally. This is especially true in China. I find that a pity. Rather than becoming the biggest global producer of what is essentially an American hybrid, China should look to its own strawberries and bring them to its people, and to the rest of the world. Just a thought.

As for me and my wife, I think we should plan an enormously long hike from Yunnan to Qinghai, sampling the local strawberries along the way. That would certainly keep us busy for quite a while …

POSTSCRIPT 20 October 2020

A sharp-eyed, and knowledgeable, reader recently informed me that I had made a fundamental mistake when I thought that the little red fruits I was seeing on those hikes with my wife were woodland strawberries. Actually, he kindly told me, they were false strawberries (or mock strawberries), Potentilla indica. The fruits look like the Real McCoy, the leaves look like the Real McCoy, but it ain’t the Real McCoy! After a moment of indignation against this plant masquerading as another, I actually felt relieved. I wrote above that the fruits which I had tasted were bland tasting. Actually, eating them was like eating paper filled with sand (the keen-eyed reader felt it was like eating styrofoam; the few times I’ve bitten into styrofoam makes me think that that taste is quite nice compared to what I was tasting). I kept on wondering how our ancestors could ever have thought they were nice to eat. Now I know that what they were eating – the Real Mccoy – probably tastes quite nice, and I look forward to coming across some in next year’s hikes.

This discovery that what I had been looking at was actually Potentilla indica led me of course to do my usual (Wikipedia-based) research. Which in turn led me to discover that this false-friend is actually native to southern and eastern Asia. Another invasive species! Any faithful reader of mine will know that this has been a topic on which I’ve written several posts over the years. If any of my readers happen to live in Minnesota, they should be aware of the fact that that State’s Department of Natural Resources invites people to report this plant (and any other invasive species) to the authorities. I’m not sure if Italy has any such reporting system, but if it does I will be sure to report any more patches of this fake strawberry which I come across to the right authorities, and will gladly help them in uprooting the little bastards.

JASMINE

Sori, 6 June 2020

All the walks my wife and I do around Lake Como (and now Lake Maggiore, to change a bit) start in an urban setting. We take trains, or buses, or boats, to get to our starting points and we are perforce dropped off in small towns or villages. In the last couple of weeks, as we have walked up through the back roads of these towns or villages to get to the woods and meadows above them, we have noticed a marvelous thing: whole walls of the sweetest smelling jasmine.

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This person has even made a tunnel covered in jasmine (I’m guessing it’s the garage).

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The scent of so much jasmine has quite gone to my head and my fingers have automatically begun doing a little research on the flower.

Truth to tell, I already did a little research on jasmine for an earlier post, when I researched the only perfume of my wife’s which I have ever liked: Chance Eau Fraîche, by Chanel. One of its ingredients is jasmine oil.

As I noted in that post, there are a large number of different species of jasmine. Some 200 have been catalogued, and who knows how many more are out there waiting to be discovered. My guess, though, is that those walls of jasmine which we have been passing are Jasminum officinale, the common, or white, or summer, or poet’s jasmine (and that’s just the English names).

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The logic for my choice is simple: it’s the most common jasmine in Europe.

But it’s not native to Europe. In fact, there is only one species of jasmine which is native to Europe, and only the Mediterranean part of Europe at that, the common yellow jasmine.

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Even in this case it’s difficult to say it’s a European flower. Its range stretches all the way to northern Iran.

The biggest “hotspot” of jasmine species is actually in South and Southeast Asia, although the west of China, especially Yunnan, hosts quite a few species. A number of species are present in Central Asia, but I suspect they may have been carried there from the Indian subcontinent. Australia is home to a few species, I suppose as a southward extension of their presence in Southeast Asia. And then there’s a good dozen species in Africa, especially southern Africa. To complete this world tour, no jasmine species are native to the Americas, alas.

If the jasmine my wife and I are seeing is not native to Europe, how did it get here? It seems that common jasmine, along with a couple of other jasmine species – sambac (or Arabian) jasmine, and Spanish (or Royal, or Catalan) jasmine – originally entered Europe via Sicily and Spain, when these were Arabian kingdoms: common and sambac jasmines through Sicily, and Spanish jasmine through (appropriately enough) Spain. Since I inserted a picture of the common jasmine earlier, I feel I owe it to these two other species to insert a picture of them too:
sambac jasmine

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Spanish jasmine

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But none of these jasmines were native to the Arabian-dominated lands either. The Arabs had discovered them even further to the east and had brought the flowers back to their homelands. They brought common jasmine back from Persia after they conquered it (a similar post-conquest westward transfer occurred with the lilac, as I narrated in an earlier post). In fact, the European name “jasmine” is a corruption of the flower’s Arabic name, which is itself a corruption of the Persian name for the flower, Yasameen, which means “gift from God” (such poets, the Persians!). And it’s possible that the Persians had come across the flower further east still. As for sambac and Spanish jasmines, it seems that trade, not conquest, brought them westwards, in the holds of the ships of Arab traders doing business with the Indian subcontinent.

Jasmines didn’t just ride westwards on trade routes. Common jasmine and sambac jasmine also rode on them out to the east, into China (another result of the ancient trade routes across the Eurasian continent – the “Silk Roads” – about which I’ve written previously). Here, too, the Chinese adopted the Persian name: Yeh-hsi-ming.

It’s interesting that the Chinese felt the need to import jasmines, given that they had quite a few of their own. Perhaps it was the pure white colour of these imported jasmines which attracted the Chinese – many of their jasmines are yellow as far as I can tell; I throw in a photo of one of the more common Chinese jasmines, winter jasmine.

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By the way, it’s called winter jasmine because it actually flowers from November to March. In fact, its Chinese name, Yingchun, means “the flower that welcomes Spring” (the Chinese, too, can be quite poetic). This quirk has meant that winter jasmine has now also been carried off to many a corner of the world.

But coming back to the jasmines imported into China, no doubt their heady scent helped too; perhaps they had a stronger scent than the native species. Or perhaps it was these jasmines’ close links with Buddhist ritual (something which the early Indian Buddhists had no doubt picked up from the Hindus). Anyone who has been to a Buddhist (or Hindu) temple in South and South-East Asia will have noticed the liberal use they make of jasmine flowers.

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By this reasoning, the use of these jasmines entered into China along with Buddhism, something else which was transported along trade routes (I have written earlier about a slightly different botanical story, the cooption by Chinese Buddhists of the ginkgo tree as a replacement for the bo-tree tree so beloved of South Asian Buddhists).

No doubt the Arabs were attracted by the colour of the jasmines (white seems to symbolise purity in so many cultures). But they were assuredly also attracted by their scent (which, I have to say, is indeed sublime). The name “sambac” points to this. It is a corruption of the Medieval Arabic term “zanbaq”, which means jasmine oil. As attested by the perfume Chance Eau Fraîche, which I mentioned earlier, the modern thirst for jasmine oil in perfumery is as great as it was in the Arabian kingdoms – actually far greater, since there are so many billions more of us on this planet now. Here is a field of  jasmine flowers in Grasse, in the south of France, waiting for their oils to be extracted (a field owned, by the way, by Chanel).

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But there is so little oil in each flower! As many as 8,000 flowers will have perished to produce this little, 1ml vial of jasmine oil (jasmine absolute, in the jargon of perfumery).

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Perhaps the way the Chinese use jasmine to scent tea is a little more “humane”. I watched a no-nonsense Chinese video on the making of jasmine tea. Cutting out all the marketing bla-bla, they mix together about an equal measure of tea (usually green tea) and jasmine buds (common or sambac), they let the mixture sit for a while so that the tea leaves get impregnated with the jasmine’s scent, and then they dry it. The result looks something like this.

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In truth, I’m not a great fan of jasmine tea. I like the scent of the flower on the air, but the scent of it in tea I find rather sickly. But perhaps this is because I have never had a really high-quality jasmine tea. I am ready to be pleasantly surprised one day.

Is it possible that such lovely flowers with such a delightful scent could have an evil side? Alas, it is possible: some species of jasmine have been declared invasive species in a couple of countries and are subject to eradication programmes. It is not the fault of the jasmines. It is our desire to fill our gardens with foreign flowers that is to blame. Take Brazilian jasmine, a lovely member of the family.

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For starters, it’s not Brazilian at all. It’s one of the African jasmines, no doubt taken to Brazil from one of Portugal’s African colonies (remember that the Americas have no native jasmines; perhaps a colonial administrator wanted to enliven his garden in Brazil). In the 1920s, the “Brazilian” jasmine was imported into Florida. Initially, it was planted in people’s gardens, but inevitably – as I’ve recounted in other posts in the case of other invasive species – the “Brazilian” jasmine “jumped over” the garden fence and began to spread. It has now invaded intact, undisturbed hardwood forests in the south of Florida, where it can climb high into the tree canopy, completely enshrouding native vegetation and reducing native plant diversity. Here is a picture of this jasmine at work in the forests of Florida.

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I was thinking about this this afternoon as my wife and I were walking high up in the hills. We were surrounded by beautiful wild flowers of all descriptions. Why do gardeners have to fill their gardens with foreign flowers when there are so many beautiful ones right on their doorstep? Another mystery to be solved one day.

Well, the evening is drawing in. It’s time for me to get ready to test something. I’ve read that the jasmine flower opens at night, so the scent is most powerful then. I shall persuade my wife to accompany me on a hunt for a wall – or just a modest bush – of jasmine, to see if this is true. I shall report back.

 

THE HUMAN BODY

Milan, 20 April 2020

13 days to go before we are let out on the streets again – if we are let out; the Government is being very cautious about relaxing the lockdown, for fear that the virus will spring to life again. Here’s to hoping.

Anyway, as I continue my wanderings from room to room in the apartment, I’ve decided to do an extension of my previous post on the human face, this time looking at pieces which celebrate the whole of the human body – in other words, statues (or base reliefs in a couple of cases) of one form or another.

I start with the biggest statue that we possess, our “nail man”.

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As I said, he is big: a little over a metre tall. My wife bought it at an auction of African art at the Dorotheum auction house in Vienna. The blurb we received at the time of sale states: “Nail fetish, tribe: Bakongo, Democratic Republic of Congo, wood, on a plinth, one foot set on a small animal as an expression of power, right hand lifted and holding a spear to defend from evil influences [the spear has disappeared], large oversized head with a wide-open mouth and all-seeing glass eyes, body covered all around with nails and iron pieces, with a glass-locked belly box filled with magic substances giving the figure power, suspended amulets, dark patina, age damage, 2nd half of 20th Century”.

We refer to him fondly as the nail man, but he’s actually a Nkondi. The purpose of a Nkondi was to house a spirit (living in the belly box) which could leave the statue to hunt down and attack wrong-doers, witches, or enemies (this hunting role explains why the statue has his arm raised and used to hold a spear; pity that got lost). People would drive nails into the figures as part of a petition for help, healing, or witness – particularly of contracts and oaths. The purpose of the nailing was to “awaken” the spirit to the task in hand and sometimes to “enrage” it if nasty guys needed to be hunted down (before nails were common, it seems that this awakening was done by banging two Nkondi together).

Staying with Africa, the next piece originated in Gabon.

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My wife also bought this, at the Dorotheum (she has been in charge of buying our African art). The Dorotheum’s blurb has this to say about it: “Ritual house door leaf, tribe: Tsogho, Gabon, wood, polychrome, front decorated with a relief-like, very stylized “stick figure”, tribe-typical facial features, lattice pattern, age damage, 2nd half of the 20th century”.

Africa also brought us this next piece, once again bought by my wife at the Dorotheum.

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Once again, I turn to the Dorotheum’s description: “Wall plaque, tribe: Yoruba, Nigeria. Wood, polychrome, two carved out column-figures in relief, in caricature fashion: Colonial officer in white uniform with tropical helmet, walking stick and briefcase, next to schoolgirl in a carrier skirt with book in hand, recognizable age damage, 2nd half of 20th century”.

All the previous pieces are probably no more that eighty years old. The next piece, in and of itself very young, is a copy of a far, far older piece which is held in the Louvre Museum in Paris.

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My wife and I bought the piece at the Museum Art shop in Vienna (which I mentioned in my previous post). The original came from Cyprus, where it was made in about 2100-2000 BC. The piece I have is made of resin, but the original was modelled terracotta, with a polished red slip. The description which the shop gave us states: “This figurine has a rectangular body and is decorated with necklaces. The arms and facial features are stylized by engraved furrows ending in cupules. The ears are treated as pierced projections. These figurines used to be placed in tombs and should be interpreted as a female symbol of fertility. Given their size and shape, they might also have been worn by women as pendants.”

Well, those were the pieces in the living room. I shall now move to the kitchen, where we have a series of shelves where we keep many of our knick-knacks.

The first piece I will present is this ceramic clown.

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This was another piece which we inherited from my mother-in-law (readers can refer back to my previous two posts to understand better the role of this good woman in our knick-knack collection). It’s a fun piece, although I’m not sure I understand how it is meant to be used. My wife says that it’s a candlestick; you put the candle into that little bowl which the clown is balancing on his extended foot. I must try it one day, to see if works.

Staying with the circus theme, we have this piece.

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I imagine the young lady to be one of those women which I remember in my youth seeing in circuses jumping on and off cantering horses.

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It was given to my wife as a present by her colleagues when she left her job here in Italy to move to Vienna. It’s actually a calendar. You move the red, green, and yellow balls to indicate the right date (outside circle) of the right month (middle circle), and the right day (inner circle). It doesn’t really serve its purpose, since it’s so very easy to forget to change. I reset it just before taking the photo yesterday, and it will probably remain frozen at yesterday’s date for several months until someone else decides to set it right. But it is cheerful to look at.

Moving from one female figure to another takes us to this piece.

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It’s actually a grater. My wife and I were so enamoured by the design that we bought two of them, one for each of our children. We gave our son his. This one is our daughter’s, waiting patiently to be picked up some day. Since it’s such a fun piece, we’re quite happy that it stays with us sine die.

The next piece was another one handed down to us by my mother-in-law.

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It’s a wonderful piece of ceramic, depicting as it does two Daughters of Charity singing. Until the reforms of Vatican II, Daughters of Charity used to wear this very striking wimple. Lord knows why they wore it, though.

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We have no idea where my mother-in-law picked the piece up, but I silently bless her whenever my eyes happen to fall on it.

We also inherited the next piece from my mother-in-law.

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I’m guessing that it’s Don Quixote. I find the caricature rather well done: a noble-looking head above, thin bandy legs below. Some 15 years ago, my wife and I visited Burgos during a tour of Spain. I was astonished to see a shop offering pretty much identical pieces as this one, in all sizes. My wife reckoned that our piece must have been brought back from Spain by her father. She had a memory of him going to Burgos for a conference. I was suddenly assailed by a sense of his ghost walking down the road ahead of us.

I definitely know where this quartet comes from.

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My wife and I bought them in Poland, in the main square in Cracow.

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We happened to be there on market day, with stalls laid out in the square. Together with our daughter, we were on our way to pick up our son, who was playing in a baseball tournament somewhere in the middle of Poland. (We went on from there to have a holiday in Finland, but that story is for another day).

I’ve said several times in this and the last two posts that my mother-in-law made some admirable choices of knick-knacks to buy. But not always. This quintet of figurines is a case in point.

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As far as I can make out, they represent soldiers from the 18th, possibly early 19th Centuries. The Dorotheum is full of this stuff, and I always give it a wide berth. I simply find pieces of this kind to be too “precious”. But we have them and I’m not going to throw away things which someone took quite a lot of trouble and time to make (but I might see if we can’t sell them one of these days).

My mother-in-law did much better with the next trio.

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Formally, they are candlestick holders, although I’ve never seen them used as such. They are clearly Italian pieces; the statue to the right indubitably represents a carabiniere. The statue to the left looks vaguely military. I don’t know if the woman in the middle represents anything except a nice housewife off to do her shopping. My wife wonders if they are not characters from some old Italian folk tale. Unfortunately, my mother-in-law never explained – or if she did explain we weren’t listening – so we will probably never know.

My mother-in-law also bought the very Baroque-looking bishop in this next photo.

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Normally, I would have tut-tutted and put it away in some dark corner out of view, but I rather like the way it contrasts with the African statue next to it. Both men are bearded. Both are somebody important – The African is possibly a chief. And both hold a staff of office. But the solemnity, the gravitas, of the African piece just highlights the essential frivolity of the Baroque piece. The contrast between the two encapsulates everything I disapprove of in the Baroque.

Up to now, the statues have all been standing. But we have a few pieces where the subject is sitting. This first example is quite splendid.

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It’s one of our more recent acquisitions; we bought it a few years ago during our annual visit to Kyoto (I give a course at the University on sustainable industrial development). It caught my wife’s eye as we were nosing around a flea market which was being held in the compound of one of the temples there. It is some type of Japanese doll, made of papier maché, and seems to represent a Japanese lord or warrior.

The next example is more traditional, but it has great sentimental value for my wife and me.

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My wife found them in a little shop in Vienna which sold bric-a-brac, a short while after I was informed that I would be going to Beijing to take over my organization’s office there. Her buying them was a way of celebrating our move to China, a move which neither of us never regretted. I started this blog there and many of the earlier posts were about China.

In this final example of seated figures, both come from my mother-in-law.

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They are not pieces that I would buy, but I recognize the wonderful workmanship that went into both of them. I’m not sure what the old man represents. He has by his side a bag of gifts and toys, so I wonder if he’s not meant to be Saint Nicholas.

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But my figurine doesn’t have a mitre on his head, which as the picture above shows, he really should have. I also don’t understand why he would be holding a sheet of music, apparently composing. So the jury is out on that one.

It’s very clear, on the other hand, what the old lady represents. She’s an old peasant woman with a delicious cheese in her hands and a crate of vegetables at her feet.

My mother-in-law was rather fond of figurines representing peasants in one garb or another.

my photo
my photo

Of course, there is a strong tradition in Italy of having figurines such as these peopling the Christmas crèches or presepi. As I have discussed in an earlier post, these presepi are wonderful and I enthusiastically set up our family presepe every year, lovingly setting out the figurines in the necessary “tableau”. But I’m not too fond of them on their own, so I’m afraid all these figurines of my mother-in-law’s have been relegated to a dark corner of the living room.

I’m rather more tolerant of this other figurine which my mother-in-law bought, also of a peasant, but this time of a Chinese peasant. Since he’s holding a fish, I presume it’s a fisherman.

my photo

Since I started with the biggest statue that we have in the apartment, I will finish with the smallest statue that we have, a standing Buddha.

my photo

It’s a mere 9 cm high. I bought it in Sri Lanka while there on a business trip. It was the first of several Buddhas which I have bought over the years. Perhaps one day I will write a post devoted to them (all the other Buddhas are in Vienna, so that post will have to wait until we manage to get back to Vienna – Covid-19 has currently closed the border between Italy and Austria). Ever since I bought it, I have been looking for a suitable plinth on which to place the statue, but so far I have found nothing.

Well, that finishes this particular wander around the apartment. Over the next 13 days of lockdown maybe I can come up with a couple of other trips through the knick-knacks we have here.

KEBABS AND GEOPOLITICS

Milan, 22 December 2019

One of the fonder memories of my Boy Scout days is roasting a whole pig over a wood fire

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and eating the resultant roasted pork, together with piles of crackling and apple sauce.

Not only was the food extremely yummy, but the aroma of the meat while roasting was … well, intoxicating, I think best describes it. I have already written elsewhere about this culinary experience, which I suspect tapped into something really primordial, the hunter-gatherer buried deep in us all.

Perhaps because of this experience, or perhaps simply because of who I am, I have always been extremely fond of roasted meat, both the eating of it as well as the preparing of it. My wife is the same. Unfortunately, having been inner-city dwellers for most of our lives means that we don’t get to roast meat too often. I don’t find that grilling a piece of meat in an apartment oven is a very satisfying roasting experience, and we have never had a backyard where we could roll out the barbecue set and grill the nights away. And, alas, along with old age have come restrictions on eating meats with too much fat attached to them (the cholesterol levels, you know …). This lessens the fun of meat-roasting even further: I think we can all agree that fat – melting and bubbling under the flames – is an integral part of the roasting experience, especially the olfactory part of it.

So it is only from time to time, and always in restaurants, that we indulge in a piece of roast meat. European cuisine of course has many offerings in this department. Apart from the roast pork of my Boy Scout days, which can stand in for any four-footed animals roasted whole, we have roast chicken, which can stand in for all those roasted fowl we see in paintings (or in manuscript miniatures as in this case).

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It doesn’t have to be whole animals which are roasted. We can have cuts of meat which are roasted, such as grilled steaks.

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They can stand in for all the meats grilled in barbecues like this one (although this lot do seem to be having excessive amounts of fun).

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I think we can even throw in grilled fish.

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Yes, all most delicious!

But actually, what I want to write about in this post is roasted meat from another region of the world: the kebab.

What prompted me to write this post in praise of the kebab was a quick visit we made a few weeks ago to Vienna – our daughter flew in for the wedding of one of her best friends, so we thought we would use the occasion to see her. As usual we took our daily strolls around town, and as usual we spent time admiring the döner kebab shops we passed (well, drooling over their offerings might be a better description) – without, I should hasten to add, actually partaking (the cholesterol levels, you know …). Here is a photo of  one of these döner kebab shops.

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For readers who may not be familiar with this type of kebab, its trademark is a long inverted cone of meat on a vertical spit. The cone is made up of thin slices of lamb, beef, or chicken. The spit rotates slowly, with the meat being kept close to a heat source to cook it.

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When you put in your order, the server will slice thin pieces off the meat cone with a very long knife.

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They will serve you your portion inserted into a bread bun or wrapped in pita or some other flatbread.

I have used the long winter nights since our visit to Vienna to read up about the döner kebab and all its cousin kebabs, and I have discovered a world of astonishing variety. I was partly aware of this variety from the visits which my wife and I made in the distant past to Persian and Turkish restaurants in Vienna (we don’t go so often anymore; the cholesterol levels, you understand …). The list of kebabs on offer was always long, a bit like in a Pizza joint, except that we could always understand the pizzas’ names while here we were faced with a gobbledygook of mysterious and unpronounceable names; we would choose our kebabs more or less at random. But now my reading has shown me the true depths of my ignorance.  Kebabs flourish over a huge region, which starts at the eastern seaboard of the Mediterranean and stretches all the way to the farthest reaches of Central Asia, but which also extends down into the northern regions of the Indian subcontinent, as well as along the southern seaboard of the Mediterranean. This region maps closely onto the regions of the world which are Muslim, and indeed the kebab is considered archetypal Muslim cuisine. It is now, but actually the kebab predates Islam. It already existed in the Middle East long before Islam came into being, and it spread out of there to all the lands where the newly Islamicized traders and conquering armies brought their religion.

I do not propose to summarize breathlessly what I have discovered. I want instead to focus on the intersection of the kebab with another interest of mine, the global movement of foodstuffs and all the geopolitics which can surround that.

Take the döner kebab – which I should really call döner kebap since that is the Turkish way of spelling the name and this is a Turkish kebab. It appeared quite late on the scene, probably the middle of the 19th century, in the town of Bursa, which is on the Asian side of the Sea of Marmara, quite close to Istanbul. There was already an established kebab in the Turkish lands that roasted stacks of meat on a horizontal spit (there is still a kebab roasted on a horizontal spit, the cağ kebab). I suppose someone had the insight that if the spit could be made to turn vertically the juices would run down the meats rather than into the fire. The rotating nature of this kebab gave it its name: döner comes from the Turkish word dönmek, which means “to turn” or “to rotate”.

This new style of kebab-making caught on in the Levant, which was of course part of the Ottoman Empire at the time. They didn’t call it the döner kebab, though, they called it the shawarma – which is actually the same thing, since shawarma is an Arabic transliteration of the Turkish çevirme, “turning”. Shawarma has become an extremely popular street food throughout the Middle East, as this photo from Egypt attests.

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And of course, as has been the case since the beginning of time, immigrants took their foods with them. We have here, for instance, a shawarma-based restaurant in Boston, Massachusetts.


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The döner kebab also spread to Greece, taken there by Greek refugees from the ancient, ancient Greek populations in Anatolia and immigrants from the rest of the Middle East (victims, no doubt, of the rise of nationalism in countries which were created by the collapse of the previously multi-ethnic, relatively tolerant Ottoman Empire). Initially, it was sold a street food under the name döner kebab and became extremely popular. But politics intervened. The tense relations between Greece and Turkey precluded the Greeks tolerating the use of Turkish words, so in the 1970s, when relations were particularly tense, this street food became the gyros – which is really the same thing, since the name comes from the Greek γύρος, “circle” or “turn”.

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The shift out of Muslim lands to Christian lands meant that the Greeks could also introduce a significant change to the meat used. Originally based on lamb (as are most kebabs), the Greeks started using pork as well as chicken for their gyros.

New Greek immigrants, this time to the US, took the gyros with them, so now Americans had two versions of the döner kebab available to them.

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But the penetration of the American market has not finished! And here I have to go back to the shawarma, which was, as I said, popular in the Levant, including, of course, in Lebanon. The Lebanese have always been great travelers of the globe, and in the late 19th, early 20th centuries there was a wave of Lebanese immigration to Mexico. They took shawarma with them. Succeeding generations “domesticated” the shawarma, adding spices typical to the Americas to those from the Middle East which their parents had been using. Thus was born the taco al pastor, where strips of pork cooked on a vertical spit are served in a classic maize taco. We have here the server and the product, in Mexico City.

Source 1; source 2

But Mexico was the host of two waves of immigration from the Middle East! The second was centred on the city of Puebla, where the taco arabe was born in the 1930s. Here, the dish stayed closer to its roots and is served in a pita-style bread.

Source 1; Source 2

And now of course, with the waves of Mexican immigration into the US, these two dishes have also entered into that country.

Source 1; Source 2

So now, Americans have four different types of döner kebab to choose from, each hiding under a different name! (plus probably the original döner kebab, which no doubt some enterprising Turks have brought to the US)

The flow has not been all out of the Middle East. The taco al pastor has been the subject of a reverse migration. In the early 2000s, it went back to its homeland, the Levant, where it is sold as shawarma mexici! It uses the same set of spices as in Mexico, but of course dietary prohibitions have meant that the pork is substituted with chicken, and it is served in Middle Eastern flatbread rather than the maize taco of the Americas.

Meanwhile, the döner kebab itself has been the subject of migration. When the Germans called on Turks to come and work in Germany under their Gastarbeiter, or Guest Worker, programme, they came with their food. Over time, döner kebab has become a hugely popular street food, so popular that an Association of Turkish Döner Producers in Europe has been set up to look after the interests of those involved in the döner kebab trade. Just to give readers an idea of the size of the market, the Association has estimated that in 2010, more than 400 tonnes of döner kebab meat was produced in Germany every day by around 350 firms, and in 2011 there were over 16,000 establishments selling döner kebabs in Germany. Why, the döner kebab is so popular in Germany that Angela Merkel has graciously allowed herself to be photographed slicing meat off a döner kebab cone (but do I detect a slight anxiety in the set of her mouth?).

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According to the same Association, the story of the döner kebab’s rise and rise in Germany started at West Berlin’s Zoological Garden station, where an enterprising Turkish guest worker by the name of Kadir Nurman set up shop in 1972. He had emigrated to Germany in 1960, and had moved to West Berlin from Stuttgart in 1966. His döner kebabs were a hit with Berliners, fellow Turks took note, piled into the business, carried the döner kebab all over Germany, and the rest, as they say, is history. Part of the Turkish community in Germany migrated to Vienna (a peaceful invasion unlike the earlier Turkish attacks on the city centuries earlier). They of course carried the döner kebab business with them. Which is why my wife and I find ourselves drooling over the döner kebab offerings when we are in Vienna. And the Berlin connection explains why the Viennese döner kebab stand in the earlier photo is proudly called Berliner Döner.

Of course, when you say “kebab”, most people think of pieces of meat roasted on a skewer. And many would reply “ah yes, shish kebab”. But shish kebab, or şiş kebap to give it its Turkish spelling, is simply a generic term meaning skewered roast meat – şiş means skewer or sword in Turkish. There are probably hundreds of different types of skewered roast meat dishes eaten by the local populations between Istanbul in Turkey to the west and Dhaka in Bangladesh to the east. They vary by type of meat of course (lamb is the most popular, but just about any other meat – except pork – will be used somewhere; fish is also used, as are offal like liver). They vary in the vegetables and other servings that come with them. And – probably the most important – they vary in the marinades used on the meat. Every region, every province, every village almost, seems to have its own type of shish kebab. In despair at all this variety, I throw in one photo to stand in for all these types of kebabs, that of a Çöp Şiş, which as the name suggests is a Turkish variety of the shish kebab.

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As if that were not enough, there are hundreds of  skewered kebabs where it’s not cubes of meat which are used but minced meat. This adds another dimension to the possible variations, that of the ingredients kneaded into the minced meat. Here, too, in desperation I choose just one kebab to stand in for this group, kabab koobideh from Iran.

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And then there are all the kebabs where the meat, or minced meat, is roasted but not on skewers. And there are kebabs which are more like meat stews. But I will draw a line here, otherwise this post would go on far too long. And anyway, as I said earlier, I want to focus on the global movement of kebabs, and there is more than enough to write about on this topic when considering just skewered kebabs.

Consider souvlaki, which I have read is considered the national dish of Greece.

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As the photo shows, it looks uncomfortably like that Turkish kebab whose photo I put in above. Is it another import from the hated Turk, like the döner kebab-turned-into-gyros? This is the subject of much heated discussion between Greeks and Turks, with the Greeks arguing that their ancestors were roasting skewered meat long before they were conquered by the Turks. They point to the fact that Homer mentions pieces of meat being roasted on spits in the Iliad. If that is not enough, they also point out that there are mentions of this in the works of Aristophanes, Xenophon, Aristotle, and others. And if that is not enough, they draw your attention to an archaeological find in some Minoan ruins in the island of Santorini, dated to the 17th Century BC, which they claim was used to roast skewers of meat. I show a photo of the find, to let readers judge for themselves.

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(I’m afraid that the cynic in me feels that putting skewers on the notches rather pushes observers to see what promoters of this view would like you to see)

On the other hand, if the Greeks have been roasting skewered meat since the 17th Century BC, why doesn’t there seem to be any rather more modern evidence that this has been a continuing tradition? The modern souvlaki only turned up after World War II, more or less at the time as the döner kebab.

But I will leave the Greeks and Turks to their quarrels and go further west, to Spain. There, there is a dish of skewered meat called the pincho moruno, the Moorish skewer.

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Although it is now found throughout the country, its focus is in the south of the country. As the name suggests, this is a dish that was brought to Spain by the Arabs, either when they conquered the peninsula or later through trading relations; there is a very similar dish on the other side of the Mediterranean. Of course, the meat used is different: lamb in the Muslim lands, pork or chicken in Spain. Once the Spaniards turned from being conquered to being conquerors, they were a vector for a further migration of the pincho westward, as they brought it to the lands in the Americas which they had colonized. It didn’t take root everywhere in Latin America. It flourished in particular in Puerto Rico and Venezuela. I don’t know about Puerto Rico, but I suspect its popularity in Venezuela has to do with the fact that there was a very large migration of Spanish Republicans to that country just after the Second World War, after they ended up on the losing side of the Spanish Civil War.

But now let me cross over to the far eastern end of the Eurasian landmass, to the Chinese province of Xinjiang. Given their Muslim roots, the Uighurs there have a tradition of eating roasted skewered meat – in fact, I remember distinctly seeing a Uighur grilling them on a street corner during our visit to Xinjiang back in 2010. He looked a bit like this.

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The Chinese authorities may not like the Uighurs, but the Chinese like Uighur food, and this kebab, under the name Chuan, has become a popular street food all over the north and west of China. However, with the usual Chinese inventiveness in all matters culinary, Chinese cooks have greatly expanded the type of foodstuffs being threaded onto their skewers. We have here, for instance, sweet sausages and baby octopus.

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I finish with the story of the satay, from South-East Asia. Satay is now considered a national dish in Indonesia. We have here a satay street vendor somewhere in the country.

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But roasting meat on small skewers was only introduced to the country in the 18th Century, with the arrival of Arab and Indian traders and immigrants. However, Indonesians took to the dish with a vengeance and then its own traders spread it throughout South-East Asia, so that it now is common in Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam. They also made one very significant change in the recipe, the use of peanut sauce (the peanut itself being one of the foodstuffs originally from Latin America and spread from there by the colonial powers to the rest of the world during the Great Columbian Exchange).

Malay traders then took the satay further afield, working back, it seems to me, along the shipping routes which led from the Netherlands – the colonial power in Indonesia – to Indonesia itself. Malay traders brought the satay to Sri Lanka (another Dutch colony before the British wrested it from their grasp), where a Malay community put down roots.  It is now a common street food there. They took it to South Africa (another Dutch colony before the British wrested it from their grasp), where they also formed a small community. It goes under the name of sosatie there: a combination of the words sauce and sate (the Indonesian form of the word). The Malays put down roots there too, and the dish has now been thoroughly localized.

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Indonesian immigrants even took the satay back to the Netherlands itself, where it has become a popular mainstay of Dutch cuisine. This link, for instance, gives you the addresses of the 11 best places in Amsterdam to find satay.

Well there you have it, nice examples of how food dishes have followed in the steps of people as they have moved around the globe, for conquest, trade, or simply to find a better life. In the meantime, I have built up a formidable list of all the kebabs which are cooked in the Muslim lands. I propose to take it with me whenever we travel in those parts of the world, so that I can know what kebabs to try rather than just choose them at random from the menu. Always assuming that the cholesterol levels will allow us this dip into the world of kebabs …

ARTICHOKES

Milan, 17 December 2018

I never ceased to be amazed by the ingenuity of my fellow human beings. The latest thing that has set me off on this train of thought is … the artichoke.

Because, dear readers, when one is eating an artichoke, one is essentially eating a  thistle.

The family resemblance is a little clearer if one looks at an artichoke whose thorns have not been cut off.

It is even clearer if one sees an artichoke in flower (I for one didn’t know that artichokes could flower; and a beautiful flower too).

So there you go. We artichoke eaters are at one with Eeyore. True to character, that totally gloomy, pessimistic, and depressed stuffed donkey,  friend to Winnie the Pooh, loves to eat thistles.

I suppose A.A. Milne, creator of Winnie the Pooh and the related cast of characters, had in mind the kind of thistle I pictured above, the spear thistle, common throughout the British Isles. But actually, the artichoke is a descendant of the cardoon, which is a cousin to that thistle.

Now, how on earth did generations of humble but ingenious farmers coax that spiny little bell-shaped bud supporting the cardoon flower into becoming the, sometimes huge, artichokes which we artichoke-lovers delight in eating today? How did it even cross their minds to try?

This train of thought was started in me a few days ago when my wife bought the first artichokes of the winter season and served them up steamed for lunch. There I was, following my usual routine with artichokes. I picked off the leaves one by one, dipping them in my oil and vinegar sauce, and scraping off the tender pulp at the base of each leaf with my teeth.
As I spiraled round the artichoke, working my way through the leaves, they were getting more and more tender, with more pulp on each to eat, until I finally reached the artichoke’s inner sanctum. By then, the leaves had become small and delicate.
I plucked them all off at once, dipped, and ate them whole. Now, the artichoke’s flower was exposed.
This fibrous mass would have turned into the beautiful purple bloom I gave a picture of above if the farmers had left the artichoke in peace in the field. But it had been sacrificed to my animal desires and now I took my knife to this fuzz and scraped it all away to reveal the artichoke’s heart.
Ah! The most delicious part of the artichoke! I reverently dipped it in my oil and vinegar sauce and ate it meditatively, not forgetting to eat the stem, just as delicious. And as I reveled in this almost religious ceremony, the question popped into my mind: Who on earth invented this endearingly strange vegetable, and why?

After a little bit of digging, I can inform readers that we don’t really know. As I have reported in at least one previous post on the history of a vegetable, I’m afraid that the history of how vegetables got created was of little interest to ancient historians, who were much more interested in the goings-on of the elites. What humble little farmers were up to did not interest them much. So we have to piece together a history from shards of evidence left behind in the historical records, cross-checked with more recent genetic evidence.

As I have said, the artichoke’s ancestor is the wild cardoon, which has much the same range as the strawberry tree which I wrote about in the previous post, that is to say, the western part of the Mediterranean basin, from Greece to Spain and from Libya to Morocco. We know this because cardoons and artichokes are very similar genetically, so close that they can interbreed. Quite why someone ever bothered to try eating this viciously thorned plant is not clear to me. I have to assume that hunger led our ancestors to try anything and everything that grew around them, although the preparation time required to make wild cardoon edible must have been daunting. I can only think that our ancestors persisted because they felt that the taste was worth the effort. As an aficionado of artichokes, I would have to agree with that. Or – in an era where there was no corner drugstore – they believed it had valuable medicinal properties of some kind.

Quite how long ago farmers started experimenting is also unclear. Genetic analysis suggests that these humble folk were fiddling in two ways with the wild cardoon. Some were trying to make the flower bud more edible, leading to the artichoke. Others were trying to make the stem more edible, their efforts leading to the domesticated cardoon – for readers, who like me before writing this post, have no idea what domesticated cardoon looks like, I throw in here a photo of the plant.

The artichoke developers seem to have succeeded in their efforts by the “beginning of the first millennium” of our era, and these anonymous developers seem to have toiled away in Sicily or thereabouts. So perhaps artichokes were available some time in the first couple of centuries AD, in what was then the Roman Empire? As for the domesticated cardoon, this process doesn’t seem to have been completed until “the first half of the second millennium”, somewhere in Spain. So 1300-1400 AD in what could still have been Arabic Spain but was fast becoming Christian Spain?

As for the written evidence, our friend Pliny the Elder (whom I mentioned in my previous post) had a brief section in his Natural History, written before he was killed in the eruption of Vesuvius that wiped out Pompeii in 79 AD, on a plant he called carduus, which is the general Latin term for thistle. He wrote that this plant was grown in Carthage (in today’s Tunisia) and in Cordoba, Spain. But did he mean the artichoke or the domesticated cardoon? Or maybe some predecessor of the two which was not quite either? Then there is a Roman mosaic of the 3rd Century AD in Tunis whose frieze seems to be showing artichokes, although some people have argued that they could just as well be cardoons with largish heads.

As far as the artichoke is concerned, the etymologies of the various European names for it are not terribly helpful either. One strand of names – carciofo in modern Italian, alcachofa in Spanish, alcachofra in Portuguese – seem to be derived from the artichoke’s Medieval Arab name al-ḫaršūf. Another strand of names – artichaut in French, artichoke in English, artischocke in German, and similar names in other northern European languages – seem instead to be derived from the plant’s old Italian name articoca (which in turn derives from the late Latin name alcocalum).  Meditating on that, my guess is that when the Arabs invaded Sicily in the 9th Century, they found the artichoke already implanted, under its old Italian name. They arabized the name and carried it to Arabic Spain, where it entered Spanish gastronomy under its Arabic name. Then, in both places, when the Arabs were pushed out, the Arabic name was italianized and hispanified. In the meantime, the rest of Italy, to which the Sicilian-developed artichoke had spread, continued to use the old Italian name. This then spread – along with the vegetable itself – into other European countries to the north. But then, back in Italy, at some point the new Italian name, developed in Sicily, overtook the old Italian name. Complicated …

That’s about where things stand with the artichoke. I will leave the reader with one of the earliest representations in paint of this vegetable, by that really strange artist Giuseppe Arcimboldo, whose paintings, however, were wildly popular in his time; they now adorn the best museums in Europe. This particular one, l’Estate, hangs in Vienna’s Kunst Historisches Museum.
Readers will see that the “man” has an artichoke as a buttonhole.

As to the way I eat artichokes, I’m sure some readers would object. I know there are other dips that can be used. And artichokes can be cooked in other ways – carciofi alla romana come to mind, or maybe carciofi alla giudia. And the hearts can be conserved in oil and used in salads. But I am more than content with my simple approach. It’s stood by me for some 50 years. I will let others explore other ways of eating artichokes.

I can’t say the same for domesticated cardoons. I must confess to having never eaten this plant. My French grandmother – one source for my culinary experiments – never cooked them, and nor did my Italian mother-in-law, another source of my culinary experiments. Spain and North Africa seem to be the places to go to try cardoons. So with that, I will leave my readers with the recipe for a well-known Spanish dish, Cardos en Salsa de Almendras, Cardoons with Almond Sauce. My excuse for choosing this one is that it is popular in the Christmas season. The amounts quoted here are for four people.

Take a kilo of cardoons. They come in bunches like this.

Discard any hard outer stalks. Separate all the stalks from the base. Peel off the strings on the outside of each stalk of cardoon (like one does with celery) and the thin skin which is on the inside of the stalks. Once peeled, cut the stalks into 10-cm pieces and drop them into a bowl with water and lemon juice (the juice of 1 lemon for every 4 cups of water) and let sit.

Meanwhile, stir ½ tablespoon of flour into a small amount of water. Add the mix to a pot with 4 cups of water and a teaspoon of salt. Squeeze a chunk of lemon into the pot and throw in the lemon chunk too. Bring the pot to a boil. Add the cardoons, cover and simmer until the cardoons are tender when pierced with a knife (45-60 minutes). Remove from the heat, allow to cool in the cooking liquid, drain well.

Heat 1½ tablespoons for olive oil in a skillet and fry ¼ cup of skinned almonds and a clove of chopped garlic until they are lightly toasted and golden. Skim them out. Place them in a blender with some chicken stock. Blend until smooth. Stir a little flour into the oil in the skillet and let it cook for 2 minutes. Stir in the drained cardoons, the almond mixture from the blender, a cup of chicken stock. Salt to taste.

Enjoy!

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Artichoke: https://www.fitday.com/fitness-articles/nutrition/healthy-eating/the-nutrition-of-artichokes.html
Spear thistle: http://wildflowerfinder.org.uk/Flowers/T/Thistle(Spear)/Thistle(Spear).htm
Thorny artichoke: http://www.wetheitalians.com/web-magazine/italian-flavors-thorny-artichoke-from-sardegna
Artichoke in flower: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/artichoke-flowers_n_56eafabce4b03a640a69e41b
Eeyore: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/artichoke-flowers_n_56eafabce4b03a640a69e41b
Cardoon: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cardoon
Eating artichoke: https://www.simplyrecipes.com/recipes/how_to_cook_and_eat_an_artichoke/
Innermost artichoke leaves: https://www.simplyrecipes.com/recipes/how_to_cook_and_eat_an_artichoke/
Artichoke heart: https://www.simplyrecipes.com/recipes/how_to_cook_and_eat_an_artichoke/
Domesticated cardoon: https://worcesterallotment.wordpress.com/2010/09/01/discover-cardoon/
Roman mosaic, Tunis: https://www.agefotostock.com/age/en/Stock-Images/Rights-Managed/DAE-BL022894
Arcimboldo, l’Estate: http://www.khm.at/it/objektdb/detail/71/?offset=2&pid=2582&back=&lv=listpackages-283
Cardoon bunch: http://mykitcheninspain.blogspot.com/2013/12/christmas-dinner-with-side-of-cardoons.html
Cardoons with almond sauce: http://mykitcheninspain.blogspot.com/2013/12/christmas-dinner-with-side-of-cardoons.html

GARLIC

Manila, 6 June 2018

A few days ago, my wife and I went for a walk in the Wiener Wald, those woods which drape the hills ringing Vienna on its northern and western sides. It was a public holiday, the Feast of Corpus Christi, so it seemed an excellent excuse to go for a ramble in the woods. On top of it, it was a beautiful day, bright, sunny, with a slight breeze.

We were not disappointed. We found surprisingly few people. The beech trees were splendid

with sunlight filtering through their leaves.

Wildflowers peeped out from the undergrowth

Deer crossed our path …

In a word, it was perfect.

Except for one thing: the fetid smell that periodically wafted up from the forest floor.

The source of the smell was these plants, which carpeted the ground in many parts of the woods.

They are wild garlic, Allium ursinum, so readers will not be surprised if I say that the smell they emanated made me think of rancid garlic cloves. It was quite similar to the nauseous smell given off by some of the hole-in-the-wall kebab joints in Vienna, where garlic powder is used with wild abandon.

Our walk was too late in the season for us to at least enjoy the delicate white flower they display.

For that, you need to go into the woods in April, early May. But it was just as well we had come late: previous experience had shown me that when the plant is flowering the smell is even more penetrating.

I remember talking with a German colleague of mine about my first brush with wild garlic’s exhalations in the Viennese woods. He sympathized, but waxed eloquent about the soup which can be made from its leaves. As previous postings record, I am no fan of garlic and so have never tried this soup. But for readers who are better disposed to garlic than I am and who happen to have a wood nearby in which wild garlic grows, I throw in an Austrian version of the soup’s recipe (the amounts cited here should serve four people). Pick 200 grams of wild garlic leaves (one source suggests picking them young and tender, even before the plant flowers, to get the most delicate taste). Wash, drain, and chop finely. Melt 50 grams of butter in a saucepan, stir in 3 tablespoons of flour, and slowly add 1 litre of vegetable stock. Bring to a boil. Stir in the chopped wild garlic leaves. Bring to a boil again. Simmer gently, all the while seasoning with salt, pepper, a shot of lemon juice, and a pinch of anchovy paste. Finally, stir in 1/8 litre of sour cream and two tablespoons of whipped cream, season to taste with a pinch of nutmeg. The soup should look something like this.

I should note that a number of recipes from the German-speaking world suggest adding some cubed potatoes rather than flour and cream, but I feel that the recipe I’ve cited sounds more authentic (a number of recipes also suggest adding onions and/or shallots and/or garlic cloves, but this really seems to be exaggerating the presence of this malodorous family!).

My favourite source of information – Wikipedia – tells me that wild garlic is native to the temperate regions of Europe, from Britain in the west to the Caucasus in the east. Wikipedia also informs me that we Europeans have been munching on wild garlic leaves in one form or another for the last 10,000 years or so – an impression of a wild garlic leaf was found in a Mesolithic settlement in Denmark. Did our European forebears also munch on the bulb? Perhaps only if they were very hungry, because the bulb of wild garlic is very small.

No, it’s not Allium ursinum which gave us the garlic cloves that we are so – unfortunately – familiar with today. We have to thank a Central Asian cousin, Allium longicuspis, for that.

Early farmers in Central Asia cultivated the wild variety, and as has happened so many times with other plants they played around with it and slowly turned it into the plant we know today, with that pungent – oh, so pungent! – bulb.

It seems that garlic was one of the very first plants that our farming ancestors tinkered with. Their tinkering was so successful that the plant got carried out of Central Asia along the Silk Road and other trade routes, east to China and south-east Asia, south to the Indian subcontinent, west to the kingdoms of the Near East, followed by Egypt and later Greece and Rome. As the plant was moved out of its homeland, farmers kept tinkering so that today there is a bewildering number of sub-variants.

Now, I know this will raise hackles among garlic lovers, but really, what on earth possessed those early farmers to spend their precious time in developing this bulb?! It tastes really strong (“pungent” is the word used in the garlic literature), it leaves a metallic taste in your mouth after you’ve eaten it (well, in mine at least), it makes your breath – indeed, your whole person – smell “pungently” after partaking of it, and it – hmm, let me see how best to put this – it disrupts your digestive system resulting in odorous wind and other unpleasant side effects in the bathroom (at least, it does so in my case).

But develop it they did. And they found enthusiastic consumers far and wide. The ancient Egyptians consumed particularly enthusiastically. The poor buggers who slaved away to put these up

were, it seems, paid with the stuff – garlic was believed to give one strength, and what did these guys need but strength, and a lot of it? It’s not as if the workers were forced to eat it, either. It seems they loved it. One of the only two known slave revolts in Egypt occurred after the failure of the annual garlic harvest.

Generally speaking, in all places and at all times garlic was believed to be good for your health and a cure for all sorts of maladies, from the plague to the pox. In fact, this may have been why garlic was originally developed – for its supposed health effects rather than as a food additive. There must be people who still believe in garlic’s curative powers; why else would companies offer these sorts of over-the-counter products for sale?

One persistent belief is that garlic has antiseptic properties. It seems that garlic was used during both World Wars as an antiseptic and a cure for dysentery. I can hardly believe it; doctors in the mid-20th Century had no better medicine than that?! What I do know is that until very recently the Chinese were using garlic as a sort of antiseptic mouthwash. A friend of ours who had been already living in China for some years before we arrived told me that in the early noughties it was common for people to rub their gums with a garlic clove in the morning before going to work. He said that taking the bus in the morning was not for the faint of heart. I shudder inwardly every time I think of his story.

Talking of shuddering, in ancient Greek and Roman times (and probably even before) it was believed that garlic was a powerful aphrodisiac. Quite how anyone could have come to this conclusion is beyond me. But then the human mind has an infinite capacity for self-delusion. And of course it must have been men who believed this. I can imagine the scene: a randy old goat who munches on the ancient world’s equivalent of a little blue pill and then rushes off to bed to perform. Pity the poor woman who is the recipient of his performance!

In fact, smelling of garlic has always been associated with being uncouth. Those Egyptian priests who eagerly fed their workers garlic never touched the stuff themselves. Upper caste Indians never let garlic pass their lips in case it made them smell like their lower caste compatriots. In ancient Greece, it was generally believed that the gods disliked the smell of garlic. In temples dedicated to the goddess Cybele, this was taken to extremes. Those who wished to enter one of her temples had to pass the garlic breath test. King Alfonso of Castille ruled that any gentle person coming into court smelling of garlic was banished for a week. In the US until the 1940s the reek of garlic was used as an ethnic slur, being called such things ‘Italian perfume’.

I suppose that the thinking which led Greeks to conclude that the gods disliked the smell of garlic also led to the belief that garlic could ward off witches, evil spirits and the like. Which belief no doubt underlies the use of garlic to ward off vampires. All this tells me is that vampires have good taste.

Readers may protest and say that garlic’s main role is surely now in the kitchen. True. And to show that even with garlic I can be broadminded let me throw in here a famous recipe where garlic plays the main role, for the garlic lovers out there to try if they have not done so already. It is the recipe for another soup, Sopa de Ajo, Garlic Soup, which is eaten throughout Spain. Once again, the amounts cited here will serve four. Heat 4 tablespoons of olive oil in a saucepan over a low heat. Add 4 to 5 large garlic bulbs (yes, four to five), broken into the cloves – do not remove their skin. Fry gently, stirring often, for 15-20 minutes, until the skins are golden brown and the flesh is soft. Remove them from the hot oil. Wait until they have cooled a little, then squeeze out the garlic flesh, discarding the skins. Puree and set aside. Meanwhile, add 100g of cooking chorizo, cut into little pieces, to the pan and fry until crisp and caramelized. Add 1 teaspoon of fresh thyme leaves, fry for a few seconds. Then add the pureed garlic and stir it in well. Add ½ teaspoon of sweet smoked Spanish paprika, and pour on 1 litre of chicken stock. Bring to a boil, gently simmer, and season to taste. About two minutes before serving, poach four eggs in the soup and add 8 slices of ciabatta, toasted and torn into rough pieces. The finished product should look something like this.

Four to five garlic bulbs … For all my broadmindedness, I cannot suppress yet another inward shudder. What the consumers of this soup must smell like when they rise from the dining table! Quite possibly, it was this soup which had been eaten by the Spanish gentlemen who plays the lead role in my most searing memory of garlic breath. I invite my readers to dip into the post where I write about this painful episode in my life. In the meantime, once I am back from my travels my wife and I will go for other long and pleasant walks in the Wiener Wald. The wild garlic plants were already wilting when we took our walk on Corpus Christi Day. Hopefully, they will all soon be dead and I can enjoy the woods without my nostrils being assailed by the smell of rancid garlic.

___________________

Woods photos: ours, except:
Deer in woods: https://viennalife.wordpress.com/tag/vienna-woods/

Kebab shop, Vienna: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Wien_Bellaria_Kebab_Pizza_Dez2006.jpg
Wild garlic in flower: https://www.flickr.com/photos/sarfrazh/26388112004
Wild garlic soup: https://www.chefkoch.de/rezepte/25941006183503/Baerlauchsuppe.html
Wild garlic plant with bulb: https://scottishforestgarden.wordpress.com/2013/04/19/growing-and-eating-wild-garlic/
Allium longicuspis: https://thebetter.wiki/en/Garlic
Garlic: https://www.shopevoo.com/products/infused-garlic-1
Building the pyramids: https://exploredia.com/top-10-shocking-facts-ancient-egypt/
Garlic pills: https://www.amazon.com/Natures-Bounty-Extract-Release-Softgels/dp/B002Y27JD8
Garlic breath: https://dailykale.com/2011/09/16/foods-that-heal-garlic/garlic-cartoon/
Garlic and vampires: https://horror.media/four-theories-about-why-vampires-hate-garlic
Sopa de Ajo: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2013/may/04/10-best-garlic-recipes

ROCK ART

Bangkok, 18 June 2016

As readers of this blog cannot have failed to notice, I’m a bit of a history buff. I suppose it runs in the family. My father had an extensive collection of history books, which as I grew up I filched for a quiet read in bed, and my elder brother actually teaches the subject.

As perhaps we all do, my interest in history started with the grand events, the Kings, the Queens, the battles. But with age, I became more interested in the history of the voiceless: the poorer segments of society, the goods and chattel which we humans have enslaved and used for our own material comforts, and – the topic of this post – our forefathers from the time when there were no written records: pre-history. Precisely because they have no written history, the latter can only talk to us through the material remains they have left behind, and through the chemical and biological tracers they have scattered about, from our genetic codes to such mundane things as pollen records. This post is about a particular material remain left to us by the voiceless, rock art.

My first meeting nearly half a century ago with this art form was not very propitious. They were rock paintings, in the middle of Lake of the Woods, on the US-Canadian border, where I was spending a week canoeing. They were painted on a small overhang on the water’s edge of one of the many small islands that dot the lake, so that we could bring the canoe alongside to study them. They looked something like this.
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If I’m to be honest, I didn’t think much of them. They were pretty crude drawings, and awfully faded. I was far more excited by the very old man we met on another island, who told us that he remembered as a child being hurriedly bundled off into a hiding place because the local Indians had gone on the warpath. Wow! Indians on the warpath! To a boy of 15, that was something to talk about, not those crude, faded rock paintings.

At about the same time as I was gazing with a certain skepticism at the rock paintings on Lake of the Woods, I came across my first rock engraving. It was the White Horse, carved in the mid-19th Century into the escarpment of the Yorkshire Moors near my high school.
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I have to say, though, that I was more taken by the gliders soaring silently on the updrafts created by the escarpment than the White Horse carved into it.

Well, time passed, I grew up, and I became wiser (I hope). My growing fascination with pre-history meant that I became more interested in rock art. Not that I saw that much rock art in the flesh, as it were. For instance, I have never managed to see the rock engravings in Valcamonica up in the Alps, not that far from my wife’s home town of Milan, even though it was one of the first places to be declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
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On the other hand, when my wife and I visited Canyon de Chelly National Monument in Arizona early on in our marriage
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we came across some rock engravings among the old American Indian pueblos.
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I may not have been seeing much rock art, but I was reading up on whatever new finds were being made. For instance, new caves were being found in France and Spain with art from the Paleolithic era, adding to what was already known. I give here just a few examples from some of the better-known caves:
Lascaux
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Altamira
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Chauvet
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Now this is really art! Visiting these caves is on my retirement bucket list – if we can manage to get in. Many of them are closed, or access to them is severely restricted, to protect the paintings. Forget the problem of stray fingers touching where they shouldn’t. Even our innocent breath deteriorates the artwork.

Several of the articles I read were about rock art in Australia. For instance, there was much excitement several years ago when it was announced that some rock art in the Northern Territories had been dated to 28,000 years ago, which made it Australia’s oldest dated rock art, and some of the earliest in the world.
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Then there were articles a few years before that about the fascinating rock art in Kakadu National Park, also in the Northern Territories, which goes from the ancient
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to the modern – Australian rock art didn’t stop tens of thousands of years ago.
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All this meant that I approached the rock art which we visited on our recent tour of the Kimberley with a lively interest. We found ourselves confronted with two quite different styles of painting. The more recent, Wandjina art, is dominated by these alien-like faces.
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To my mind, these paintings were only mildly interesting. Of much greater interest was the considerably older Gwion Gwion art, which is peopled with stencil-like figures like these.
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In contrast to many of the representations of people in rock art, where they tend to be reduced to mere stick figures, Gwion Gwion art shows them dressed and coiffed. I don’t think it’s too fanciful to say that one can get an idea of what the painters of this art might have looked like if we had met them.

There are very recent articles reporting scientific analyses which suggest that these paintings could be 50,000 years old. This very much favors the theory which I mentioned in my previous post, the author of which argues not only that African peoples sailed to the Kimberley and brought the baobab tree with them but also that they were the authors of the Gwion Gwion art. He claims similarities between this art and the rock art of the Sandawe people, hunter-gatherers from Tanzania.
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Personally, I’m not convinced. But hey, I’m no expert. In any event, reporting this claim has allowed me to segue smoothly to Africa, a major storehouse of rock art. And here I will leave my readers with some remarkable rock art from the Sahara, once a green and verdant land full of game and peopled by the humans who hunted them and who recorded their lives on the rock.
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____________________
Lake of the Woods rock painting: http://www.panoramio.com/m/photo/8653359
White Horse, Kilburn: http://www.jdw-fitness.co.uk/ben-campbell-5k-10k-trail-races/
Rock engraving Valcamonica: http://www.italia.it/it/idee-di-viaggio/siti-unesco/valcamonica-larte-rupestre.html
Rock engraving Valcamonica: http://www.invasionealiena.com/misteri/articoli-misteri/963-arte-rupestre-delle-alpi-la-valcamonica.html
Canyon de Chelly: http://www.thousandwonders.net/Canyon+de+Chelly+National+Monument
Canyon de Chelly pictographs: http://www.inn-california.com/arizona/apacheC/canyondechelly/rockart.html
Cave wall, Lascaux: https://www.reddit.com/r/Showerthoughts/comments/2xfe1z/what_if_cave_drawings_are_done_by_cavechildren/
Hunters, Lascaux: https://hartogsohn.com/category/טכנופוביה/
Bisons, Altamira: https://www.pinterest.com/gfrilli/prehistoric-art-altamira/
Horses, Chauvet: http://popular-archaeology.com/issue/september-2011/article/prehistoric-cave-paintings-of-horses-were-spot-on-say-scientists
Bears, Chauvet: http://www.ancient-wisdom.com/francechauvet.htm
Rhinoceros, Chauvet: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/france/10920920/French-cave-paintings-inscribed-on-Unesco-World-Heritage-list.html
Reindeer, Font-de-Gaume: http://artdiscovery.info/rotations/rotation-1/packet-1/
Nawarla Gabarnmang: http://www.sundayobserver.lk/2012/06/24/spe31.asp
Kakadu woman: http://fr.123rf.com/photo_10231459_aboriginal-rock-art-namondjok-at-nourlangie-kakadu-national-park-northern-territory-australia.html
Kakadu kangaroo: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/521502831831829461/
Kakadu boat: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2008/10/photogalleries/australia-aboriginal-art-photos/photo4.html
Wandjina art: https://www.pinterest.com/rosadevaux/wandjina/
Gwion Gwion 1: our photo
Gwion Gwion 2: http://www.bradshawfoundation.com/bradshaws/bradshaw_paintings.php
Gwion Gwion 3: http://www.bradshawfoundation.com/bradshaws/photographs/
Sandawe rock art: http://africanrockart.org
Giraffe, Dabous, Algeria: http://www.bradshawfoundation.com/giraffe/
Cattle, Djanet, Algeria: http://africanrockart.org/rock-art-gallery/algeria/
Antelope, Oued Dider, Algeria: http://africanrockart.org/rock-art-gallery/algeria/
Man and dog, Djanet, Algeria: http://africanrockart.org/rock-art-gallery/algeria/
Archer, Oued Djaret, Algeria: http://africanrockart.org/rock-art-gallery/algeria/

TROMPE L’OEIL AND STINGINESS

Bangkok, 27 July 2015

Trompe l’oeil is a very respectable art form, with a long and distinguished presence in the world of art, at least in Western art. I am told that the Greeks and Romans practiced it, although I do not recall ever having seen an example. In any event, artists took it up again with a vengeance during the Renaissance, and art thereafter is littered with pieces which “fool the eye”, tricking the viewer to see three-dimensional depth where there is none. We have a beautiful example just up the road from our apartment in Milan, in the church of Santa Maria presso San Satiro. My not-yet wife took me there on my first trip to Milan in 1975 and my eyes were indeed fooled.
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What I had taken to be a deep apse behind the altar is actually an almost flat wall. The clever artist in question was Bramante, who painted it in the 1480s. In this case, he didn’t do it just to show how good he was, it was to give a feeling of greater depth to a church which was squeezed in between the adjoining buildings.

I could go on giving other examples from High Art, but actually I want to focus on a lower form of the art found in the province of Liguria. We’ve just come back from spending a week by the sea, near Genova, the province’s capital (and from where I managed to launch several of the previous posts).

One of my recurring pleasures as I walk the streets of any conurbation in Liguria, from Genova down to the smallest village, is to come across houses like these.
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This form of trompe l’oeil is only found in Liguria, to the extent that the practice is almost a D.O.C.. In these cases, the painter (I hesitate to call him artist) embellishes what is otherwise the drab and flat facade of a house (you see an example to the right in the photo) with architectural elements which are painted so cleverly as to fool the eye into thinking that they are three-dimensional and “real”. The result is to make an ordinary house look more imposing, which in the old days no doubt (and perhaps even today) raised the residing family’s social standing a notch or two. It is even a way of making up for unfortunate blemishes in a facade, like the absence of a window which mars the symmetry of a house.
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What is nice is to see is examples which run from the fresh and new to various states of weathering and finally decrepitude brought about by sun, rain, and more recently pollution.
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Of course, one has to ask oneself why this art form is so popular in Liguria and nowhere else. My theory, for what it’s worth, is that it is a reflection of the well-known stinginess of the Genoese (and more generally Ligurians). In Italy, the Genoese have the same reputation as the Scots in England for being tight fisted, and there are loads of jokes about it, as indeed there are in the case of the Scots (“There was an Englishman, an Irishman, and a Scotsman in a pub. The Englishman stood a round, the Irishman stood a round, but the Scotsman just stood around”; sorry, I thought I would just quickly throw that one in). According to this theory, then, the Genoese (and by reflection the Ligurians) preferred to paint architectural elements onto their facades à la trompe l’oeil rather than go with the real things, because it cost them less.

I’m sure the Genoese must feel that this typing of them as scrooges by the rest of Italy is grossly unfair and they probably find it very irritating to be the butt of incessant jokes about it. But as they say, “there is no smoke without fire”. There must surely be some reason why they got this reputation. Curious to see what I could find out, I did an internet search on the topic (in truth, my wife did it since she’s very good at internet searches). Several suggestions popped up. One is that Liguria is in general a very poor land, made up of steep hills and little good agricultural land. People who live in such lands tend to be more careful with their hard-earned wealth scratched out of an unforgiving earth than those of us from richer lands (I’m sure this is the basis for the Scots’ reputation for stinginess). Another suggestion is that the Genoese in particular made much of their wealth in banking (they were the bankers of the Spaniards in the 16th century), and like all bankers got into the habit of not throwing their money around like we foolish non-bankers do. A third, which I like so much that I have adopted it, is a variant on the second (I have to thank Grimaldina, a citizen of Genova, for bringing it to my attention).

In 1586 or thereabouts Philip II, King of Spain, decided that he was going to invade England, to uphold the Catholic cause of course, but also to teach the damned English a lesson for attacking Spanish treasure fleets and shipping more generally. The worst offender was this gentleman, Sir Francis Drake

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A great Englishman for the English, but nothing more than a damned pirate for the Spaniards.

To invade England, Phillip was going to need a navy, and a big one. As I said, the Genoese were the bankers of the Spaniards, so he came to them for the funds to build the necessary ships. I suspect the King made the Genoese an offer they couldn’t refuse. In any event, after much hesitation because it was a huge amount of money, and no doubt after extracting juicy concessions about trading monopolies for Genova in England once conquered, the Genoese accepted to fund the venture. Thus was built the Spanish Armada, or the Grande y Felicísima Armada, the “Great and Most Fortunate Armada”, as the Spaniards called it. And here, just for the hell of it, I throw in pictures of Philip II and Elizabeth I (it’s clear already from the pictures who’s going to win; I mean, look at Phillip II, have you ever seen such a nasty scowl?)
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Alas, the Spanish Armada was perhaps great but it was not fortunate. After several engagements in the English Channel, where overall the Spaniards got the worst of it
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the Armada was driven by the winds up into the North Sea, all the way up to Scotland. At that point, the Spanish commander decided to give up and go home. His idea was to round the top of Scotland, head out into the Atlantic, and then turn south. He turned too soon. His remaining ships found themselves too close to the west coast of Ireland, where, hit by terrible Atlantic gales, many were driven ashore. Of the 130 ships which left Spain only 67 limped home. The English cheered, but the Genoese cried; their fortunes had sunk to the bottom of the sea along with the ships. Genova went into a steep economic decline thereafter, from which it never really recovered. Thus was born the Genoese’s parsimony (and not stinginess, as stressed by Grimaldina). Like all great families which fall on hard times, it had to keep up appearances with less money in its pocket: ideal conditions for heavy adoption of trompe l’oeil.

________________

Santa Maria presso San Satiro: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/27/Sansatiro5.jpg (in https://it.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bramante#Santa_Maria_presso_San_Satiro_.281482-1486.29)
Genoese facade-1: http://www.sampierdarena.ge.it/joomla/images/phocagallery/villesamp/litoraneo/pallavicinocreditoitaliano/thumbs/phoca_thumb_l_dsc_0617.jpg (in http://www.sampierdarena.ge.it/joomla/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=94:villa-pallavicino-sec-xvi-via-sampierdarena-71&catid=48:litoraneo&Itemid=59)
Fake windows: https://dearmissfletcher.files.wordpress.com/2015/03/finestre-6.jpg (in https://dearmissfletcher.wordpress.com/2015/03/page/5/)
Genoese facade-2: https://timelessitaly.files.wordpress.com/2013/11/20131103-175731.jpg (in http://timelessitaly.me/tag/nervi/)
Genoese facade-3: http://rotellando.vanityfair.it/files/2015/06/IMG_6719.jpg (in http://rotellando.vanityfair.it/2015/06/16/piemonte-10/)
Genoese facade-4: http://cdn.pleinair.it/wp-content/uploads/106011.jpg (in http://www.pleinair.it/meta/viaggi-camper-l-impero-dipinto/)
Genoese facade-5: http://www.liguria.beniculturali.it/getImage.php?id=779&w=100&h=100&c=0&co=1&f=0 (in http://www.liguria.beniculturali.it/index.php?it/136/percorsi-tematici/3/5/3)
Sir Francis Drake: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spanish_Armada#/media/File:Gheeraerts_Francis_Drake_1591.jpg (in https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spanish_Armada)
Phillip II: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spanish_Armada#/media/File:Philip_II,_King_of_Spain_from_NPG.jpg (in https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spanish_Armada)
Elizabeth I: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spanish_Armada#/media/File:Elizabeth_I_(Armada_Portrait).jpg ( in https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spanish_Armada#/media/File:Elizabeth_I_(Armada_Portrait).jpg)
Spanish Armada fighting English ships: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spanish_Armada#/media/File:Invincible_Armada.jpg (in https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spanish_Armada)

PRICKLY PEAR AND THE COLUMBIAN EXCHANGE

Bangkok, 23 January, 2015

One of the most far-reaching effects of Christopher Columbus’s discovery of the Americas was the so-called Columbian Exchange, the exchange of plants and animals (and bacteria and viruses) between the Americas and the rest of the world. This map shows some of the major crops and livestock which made the journey in either direction between the Americas and Europe.
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We see, for instance, that the tomato crossed to Europe from the Americas, along with the turkey and corn (and possibly syphilis), while the cow, the horse, and the onion, went the other way, along with smallpox, measles, typhus, and a whole series of other diseases (the diseases nearly wiping out the Amerindian populations).

But I want to focus on a plant which normally doesn’t get mentioned in discussions of the Columbian Exchange: the prickly pear, a plant whose history is very much centered on Mexico. Here, we have an exemplar standing guard, as it were, at the site of Teotihuacan.
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In fact, the prickly pear is so centered on Mexico that it graces the Mexican flag as part of the latter’s central emblem (for those with “mature” eyesight like mine, it’s what the eagle is grasping with its talons at the same time as it grasps that snake in its beak).
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Maybe the prickly pear’s low profile in Columbian Exchange discussions is because it’s such a nasty, spiny plant, which really doesn’t endear itself to anyone.
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Or maybe because it’s not much of a commercial crop; the Food and Agricultural Organization, which collects global statistics on some 160 crops, collects no statistics on the prickly pear, for instance.

Whatever the reason, I wish to right this injustice and pay tribute to the prickly pear and its role in the great Columbian Exchange. It may perhaps have played a modest economic role, but it helped to fill many an empty stomach, and it sure as hell has played an important ecological role, sometimes wreaking havoc in the ecosystems into which it was thoughtlessly thrust.

I first met our prickly friend in the country of my birth, Eritrea. Here, you see a specimen in front of the delightful little train which runs from Asmara down to the seaport of Masawa on the Red Sea.
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I have a vivid memory of taking that train to go down to the coast for a holiday on the beach.

It was the Italians who, as colonial masters
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introduced the prickly pear (please note the plant waving at us from behind the colonial troops and their Italian officer). The Italian colonialists brought it from the mother country, of course, where it grows in profusion in the more arid southern regions of the country. We have here an example gracing the ruins of Agrigento in Sicily.
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But southern Italy was just a later stop on the prickly pear’s journey out of Mexico. It must surely have reached Italy from Spain, which was the first port of call for many of the biological journeys out of the Americas. Here we have a Spanish prickly pear, nudging its way into a photo of Sagunto castle in the province of Valencia.
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In truth, I have chosen pictures which show off the prickly pear to advantage, but normally the plant is much more unprepossessing. This photo of a ragged, messy patch of prickly pear in a village of Ethiopia is much more typical of how the plant presents itself
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especially when its population levels begin to explode out of control in some foreign ecosystem which has no natural biological defenses against it. The Global Invasive Species Database lists several countries where the prickly pear is now considered an invasive species. Eritrea is one of them, along with the neighboring countries of Ethiopia and Somalia – the Italians, who colonized all three countries had little idea of the damage they were wreaking. But South Africa also considers it an invasive species (here is a picture of prickly pear invading the Kruger national park).
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And Australia had a catastrophic invasion. The prickly pear was initially introduced as an ornamental plant for gardens. Then some bright spark thought of using the plant as natural fencing (sensibly enough, cattle and other animals desist from pushing through breaks of prickly pear because of the nasty spines, and they don’t eat them for the same reason) and to start a cochineal dye industry (the little beasties from which the dye is extracted munch the prickly pear’s pads). But the prickly pear went crazy. It eventually converted some 260,000 square kilometers of farmland (which for those readers, who like me don’t think in square kilometers, is more or less equivalent to a square 500 km by 500 km) into an impenetrable green jungle. Farmers were driven off their land by this “green hell” and their abandoned homes were crushed under the cactus growth.
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The authorities finally managed to get the plague under control in the 1920s by introducing a South American moth, the Cactoblastis cactorum, whose larvae feast on prickly pear. This led to a crash in prickly pear populations, and while the plant has not been eradicated from Australia it has been brought under control (the Australians were lucky, by the way; there is always a risk in this kind of biological control that the agent will find another native plant much more to its liking and wipe that out instead, or once it’s dealt with the original pest will turn its hungry eye on to something else and become an invasive species in its own right).

Why did some Spaniard ever bring the prickly pear back to Europe in the first place? Because, as far as I can tell, he thought he could brighten up a Spanish garden somewhere. But it cannot have been because of the beauty of the plant itself. More likely it was the flowers, for indeed the web is full of pictures of the flower of the prickly pear. Here are a few of the more pleasing examples.
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At some point, though, people, especially the poor with bellies to fill, began to also focus on the fruit, the “figs” of the prickly pear
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These had been enjoyed by the Mesoamericans for millennia before Hernan Cortes and his conquistadores arrived and have been enjoyed by the Mexicans ever since.
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I add here a close-up of the fruit
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first because it’s a nice photo, but second because the sharp-eyed reader will notice the hair-thin spines which nestle lovingly around the crown of the fruit. Their scientific name is glochids. They are the nastiest little buggers imaginable. They come off easily and lodge under the skin of the unwary picker, where they cause exquisite and unending agony as the said picker tries and tries and tries again to extract them, always in vain. Bloody little bastards … Readers may have gathered from this little burst of ill humour that I have personally experienced this exceedingly painful trial. It was in Eritrea as a matter of fact, where as a young and foolish lad I tried picking the fruit.  I then ran to my Mummy to get the horrible little things out, which she eventually did after much wailing on my part and cross admonitions on her part for me to keep still. I had tried picking the fruit because my mother had earlier bought some, perhaps from a lady like this
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and I had liked them – a little too many seeds perhaps but nicely fresh and sweet.

Personally, while I like the taste, that early brush with glochids has always made me wary of the fruit. The pain in the hands was bad enough but the thought of those things getting stuck in your tongue or gums because the fruit was badly cleaned is dreadful. And the thought of them getting stuck in your throat is simply too horrible to contemplate.

But others around the world consume the fruit without a second thought, especially around the Mediterranean rim. Here, we have some cheerful young lads selling the fruit in Egypt

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While here we have a more solemn Moroccan doing the same
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And here a smiling Sicilian ditto
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As readers can imagine, over the centuries people in the countries where the prickly pear was introduced eventually got around to putting the fruit into alcoholic drinks – at least in those countries where such drinks are tolerated. Thus, we have a prickly pear-flavoured liqueur called “Ficodi” in Sicily, we have a prickly-pear flavored herbal liqueur called “bajtra” in Malta (another country, by the way, where the prickly pear has been declared an invasive species), out in the lonelier reaches of the Atlantic, on the island of St. Helena (where Napoleon Bonaparte was banished), the potent “Tungi Spirit” is produced with the fruit, while prickly pear fruit is the main ingredient of a popular Christmas beverage in the British Virgin Islands called “Miss Blyden”. Looking at how all these various drinks are made, I think I would plump for Miss Blyden: prickly pear steeped in rum and sweetened with sugar. Mmm, sounds good …Yohoho, and a bottle of Miss Blyden, is what I say.

But actually, these drinks are all derivative, if I can put it that way: you just plunk prickly pear fruit in an alcoholic medium; it could actually be any fruit that is plunked. The Mesoamericans, on the other hand, came up millennia ago with colonche, an alcoholic drink using just the juice of the prickly pear fruit, fermenting it over a number of days. I have read that it is a sweet, fizzy, red beverage. Here’s a photo of a glass of colonche, together with the fruit from which it is derived.
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I regret to say that I did not try the drink while I was in Mexico. However, I have asked my son to try it and report back. If the feedback is good, we can discuss about getting into the business of exporting it!

What I will not promote, through export or otherwise, is the eating of the pads (that is to say the fleshy leaves) of the prickly pear. They eat them in Mexico – and in New Mexico too (and perhaps some of the other southwestern States of the US). The original peoples of Mexico were eating them when Cortes burst in on the scene, and it’s still quite popular. I saw them sold in the supermarket around the corner from where we were staying in Mexico City and took a photo, but I prefer this more sympathetic photo of a Mexican lady on the street selling them.
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I mentioned in an earlier post that I had tried the pads, cooked and with melted cheese, in a taco. I also tried them, with cheese but without the taco. It didn’t change the taste much.
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I’m all for trying things once (with the exception of insects). But not necessarily more than once. Pads of the prickly pear fall into the latter category.

But who knows? As the Mediterranean countries slowly go down the economic drain, and more generally as we 99 percenters slowly get poorer, perhaps we will join our Mesoamerican friends and start eating prickly pear pads – as the poor of the Mediterranean lands turned to the fruits of the prickly pear some three hundred years ago to fill their empty stomachs.

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Columbian exchange: http://globerove.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/03/Columbian-Exchange.jpg (in http://www.slideshare.net/mobile/cbgobble/columbian-v-triangle)
Prickly pear in Teotihuacan: https://farm1.staticflickr.com/214/444712763_0a91a8353e.jpg (in https://www.flickr.com/photos/eternal_sunshine_of_the_spotless_mind/444712763/
Mexican flag: http://www.freepressers.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/mexican-flag-640.jpg (in http://www.worldtribune.com/worldtribune/WTARC/2011/k1302_10_21.asp)
Prickly pear: https://seekraz.files.wordpress.com/2012/10/prickly-pear-cacti-in-tucson-desert.jpg (in https://seekraz.wordpress.com/tag/prickly-pear-cactus/)
Prickly pear by Asmara-Masawa railway: https://c1.staticflickr.com/9/8633/16089064905_44b9e68e48_b.jpg (in https://www.flickr.com/photos/dave-hill/16089064905/)
Italian colonial masters: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/it/6/6c/Ascari_penne_di_falco.jpg (in http://it.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Regio_corpo_truppe_coloniali_d’Eritrea)
Prickly pear in Sicily: https://c1.staticflickr.com/9/8299/7826141194_33f0e36a8d_b.jpg (in https://www.flickr.com/photos/mari-mora/7826141194/)
Prickly pear in Spain: https://themostbeautifulplacesineurope.files.wordpress.com/2013/07/dsc_0048.jpg (in https://themostbeautifulplacesineurope.wordpress.com/tag/castle/)
Prickly pear in Ethiopian village: http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-YutF1G9Qjbo/Up44cIZUf_I/AAAAAAAAMPA/fydBOTfLCNY/s1600/00041775.jpg (in http://jhodgesagame.blogspot.com)
Prickly pear in Kruger National Park: http://academic.sun.ac.za/cib/news/images/20120611_opuntia_stricta_impacts_fig1.jpg (in http://academic.sun.ac.za/cib/news/20120611_opuntia_stricta_impacts.htm)
Prickly pear in Australia – the green hell: http://chinchillalibrary.chinchilla.org.au/Images/Local%20History/johnty%20turner’s.jpg (in http://chinchillalibrary.chinchilla.org.au/HTML/HeritagePricklyPear.html)
Prickly pear in flower-1: http://www.fotothing.com/photos/4aa/4aa38f6709881bcb9b0dc2f7bce87dea.jpg (in http://www.fotothing.com/AzViper/photo/4aa38f6709881bcb9b0dc2f7bce87dea/)
Prickly pear in flower-2: http://photosbygarth.com/travels/DesertGardens4-23-11/prickly_pear_cactus_flowers_0887.jpg (in http://photosbygarth.com/wordpress/)
Prickly pear in flower-3: http://www.summitpost.org/prickly-pear-cactus-flower/294673
Prickly pear fruit-1: http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-_NFH_ZhWJCU/T1kjB-HTOWI/AAAAAAAAA84/rBf30_8f5qg/s1600/5.jpg (in http://docsfitnesstips.blogspot.com/2012/03/prickley-pear.html)
Mexicans selling prickly pear fruit:
http://i.gonoma.net/i/destinations/1106/zacatecas-images/prickly.jpg (in http://gonomad.com/destinations-xxx/3205-zacatecas-mexico-rsquo-s-overlooked-colonial-gem)
Prickly pear fruit-2: http://cdn.c.photoshelter.com/img-get/I0000O2m8f8jI.vU/s/600/600/PPCA-021548.jpg (in http://rolfnussbaumer.photoshelter.com/image/I0000O2m8f8jI.vU)
Ethiopian lady selling prickly pear: http://jamminglobal.com/2012/05/ethiopia-part-6-historical-axum-and-mountainous-twisties.html
Prickly pear seller Egypt: http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/Media/NewsMedia/2013/7/16/2013-635095893366005272-600_resized.jpg (http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/News/3357/25/The-fruit-beneath-the-thorns.aspx)
Prickly pear seller Morocco: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/b1/Prickly_pear_seller.jpg (in http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Opuntia_ficus-indica)
Prickly pear seller Italy: http://www.fotografieitalia.it/foto/3126/3126-08-20-44-1557.jpg (in http://www.fotografieitalia.it/foto.cfm?idfoto=65383&idfotografo=3126&crono=1)
Colonche: http://173.236.14.43/fotos/nota/2014/9/18/4d68094af571428.jpg (in http://www.am.com.mx/aguascalientes/especiales/espiritus-de-la-republica-144117.html)
Seller of cactus pads: http://holeinthedonut.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/Nopal_Cactus_Seller_Mercado_Hidalgo_Guanajuato.jpg (in http://holeinthedonut.com/2010/06/01/mexico-food-nopal-cactus/)

Cactus pad and cheese: http://s3.amazonaws.com/foodspotting-ec2/reviews/846163/thumb_600.jpg?1315336866 (in http://www.foodspotting.com/150802-amandahugnkiss)/)

 

MEXICO: BASHING THE PIÑATA

Mexico City, 4 January, 2015

As my wife and I wandered around Mexico City this last week, we were struck by these strange ornaments which we saw hanging in many places. This particular one, for instance, was hanging in a street somewhere

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while this one, somewhat incongruously, swung over the cars in a gas station.

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Intrigued, I asked our son what they were. Piñata, he told us.

Ah. I had never heard of them.

Undeterred, I rolled up my sleeves and did some research (i.e., browsed the web). I am now ready to report my findings.

What we have here is an example of the strategy used by the Catholic church in the early years of the Spanish conquest of Mexico to christianize the local populations. The church adopted, with the necessary adaptations, those local religious traditions which happened to have similarities with Catholic traditions. The thinking was that this would make Catholicism more familiar, more “user friendly” for the local populations, who would therefore convert more readily (and if necessary, a little gentle pressure from the sharp end of a sword could no doubt be used to help along in the decision-making process).

In the case of the piñata, the local religious tradition in question was part of the Aztec festival for their patron god Huitzilopochtli, sun god, god of war, and god of human sacrifice.
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The whole of the Aztec month of Panquetzaliztli, which ran from 7 to 26 December in today’s calendar, was dedicated to this festival. The people decorated their homes and trees with paper flags, there were ritual races, processions, dances, songs, prayers, and to top it all off there were human sacrifices.

Only one of the festival’s activities is of interest us here. In it, priests would place a clay pot on a pole in front of the statue of the god. The pot was filled with tiny treasures inside and decorated with colorful feathers outside. The pot would be ritually broken with a stick or club, and the treasures would fall to the feet of the statue as an offering.

It so happened that the Spaniards had a very similar custom, the Dance of the Piñata, which took place during Lent. There, too, a decorated clay pot, the piñata, was suspended and during some kind of dance routine got broken with a stick. Quite what the religious significance of this was is unclear to me, nor do I know if there was anything in the pot.

The canny Franciscan monks who were spearheading the conversion efforts in Mexico (along with Dominicans) figured that they could harness this Lenten custom from Old Spain to a new Christmas custom in New Spain and in so doing help to draw away the indigenous people from their old, “pagan”, “idolatrous”, “devil-worshipping”, etc. religion. They also borrowed from a superficially similar Mayan custom. The Mayans had a game rather like blind man’s buff, where a player was blindfolded, perhaps spun around to disorient him, and then left to try and hit and break a suspended clay pot. No doubt his blundering misses made spectators roar with laughter. Again, I don’t know if there was anything in the pot.

The Franciscans used all these threads to weave together a new, fun custom which the indigenous people were encouraged to practice, in the church grounds no doubt, in the run-up to Christmas. A clay pot, filled with sweets and other goodies, and decorated on the outside, was suspended. The “players” were blindfolded, and guided by the onlookers, would try and bash the pot and release the goodies. If successful, everyone would throw themselves on the goodies. But of course the Franciscans gave the whole thing a religious twist, using the new piñata “game” to inculcate in the locals some Christian catechism. Thus, the clay pot represented Satan, with the outer decorations now transmuted into seven colorful cones or horns representing the seven deadly sins (for those of my readers who have momentarily forgotten which these are, we have, in alphabetical order: envy, gluttony, greed, lust, pride, sloth, and wrath). The outside was made beautiful to remind the viewer that evil is tempting, and the goodies inside the pot represented the temptations of wealth and earthly pleasures. Once the game started, it became a morality play for demonstrating the three theological virtues of Faith, Hope, and Charity. The blindfolded players represented Blind Faith, groping their way towards salvation. The piñata now represented Hope. The onlookers looking up at the hanging piñata were actually gazing towards Heaven, yearning for the salvation that would come from the smashing the pot and the triumph of Faith over Evil. The sweets and other goodies that showered forth now suddenly became the rewards of maintaining the Faith. But everyone shared in the goodies, thus symbolizing Charity. After this dose of religion, it seems to me only correct to include this statue of a Franciscan monk having a bash at a piñata.

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If any of the players impatiently waiting to have a go at smashing the pot understood any of these theological subtleties I take my hat off to them. If my own youthful experience of catechism is anything to go by, I would guess that they quietly let the priest blather on about whatever he wanted to blather on about and then they got down to the serious business of having some fun. These two photos, which I took in the Museo de Arte Popular (about which more later in a future post), capture nicely the fun aspect of this religious game.

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I’m sure it is the jolliness of smashing something and scrambling around for goodies that makes older Mexicans remember piñata with fondness rather than the catalogue of the seven deadly sins and the triumph of Faith over Evil. In fact, at some point it seems to me that the piñata lost much of its religious connotations and simply became a game to play at parties, and at the same time there was a switch from a ceramic pot to hold the goodies to one made of papier-mâché or cardboard – no doubt fond mothers were worried about having their dear ones and those of their neighbors showered with pottery shards during the children’s parties they organized.
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Indeed, I have this vague memory of a similar game being played at the birthday party of one of my son’s friends years ago in Italy. By the way, for those of you who like me are fond of useless facts, the Spaniards borrowed the piñata from the Italians, where it was called pignatta. And it seems that the ultimate source of the custom was China, although how it got from the Middle Kingdom to Italy is a bit of a mystery to me (my sources suggest Marco Polo, but he gets mentioned whenever no-one has a good idea how things got transmitted from China to Europe).

In any event, it now looks like the piñata is morphing into a simple Christmas decoration. I certainly don’t think that all the piñatas we’ve seen hung up are there to be bashed vigorously with a stick. In this new identity they have become the equivalent of those stars which seem such a popular Christmas street decoration.
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Soon, they will morph once more, becoming tame Christmas tree decorations. Indeed, if this Christmas tree at one of Mexico City’s bus stations is anything to go by, the morphing has started already.
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From reverent offering to the sun god to cheesy decoration on a Christmas tree, the fall has been long and hard.

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Piñata: my photo
Huitzilpochtli: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/cb/Huitzilopochtli_telleriano.jpg (in http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Huitzilopochtli)
Franciscan monk hitting piñata: http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Piñata#/image/File:MonkPiñataAcolman1.JPG (in http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Piñata)
pix from the museo de arte popular: mine
Children hitting a piñata: http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Las_Posadas#/image/File:Las_Posadas_Pinata.jpg (in http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Las_Posadas)
Christmas street decorations: http://wallpaperest.com/wallpapers/street-outdoor-christmas-decorations_074228.jpg (in http://toplowridersites.com/iphone-5-38528-christmas-christmas-street-decoration-jpg/)
piñata on Christmas tree: my picture