STRAWBERRY

Milan, 14 June 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. 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 …

ANIMALS

Milan, 25 April 2020

Nine days to go before – maybe – we’re let out onto the streets again …

Well, I’ve gone for another wander around the apartment, this time looking for pieces involving animals – that seems to me a suitable way to follow up the last two posts devoted to humans.

I should start by pointing out that neither my wife nor I are really animal people. My wife’s parents never had any pets when she grew up. My mother used to tell me that we had a dog in the house when I was very young, but I have no memory of it. My wife used to go riding as a child and liked it. I used to go and hated it. We never had pets when the children were growing up – apart from a goldfish which our daughter brought home triumphantly after a field trip somewhere and which very rapidly died. We still don’t have any pets. As a result, I think, we don’t really have that many pieces in the apartment that have to do with animals. But let me show readers what we have!

As usual, I start this wander in the living room, with a piece we bought – once again – in the Museum Art shop in Vienna (several pieces I mentioned in the last two posts were also bought in the shop; there was a time when I visited it very often).

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Like all the pieces we bought in the Museum Art shop, it is a modern copy of a very old original, which in this case is in the Louvre Museum in Paris. My copy is made of resin, but the original is in terracotta covered with a red slip. It comes from the Iranian plateau and dates from the 12th Centry BC. The Louvre’s website has this to say about the piece: “their terracotta objects were highly original. Used for funerary libations, they were often in the shape of animals, the most remarkable being the hump-backed bulls with a “beak” for the ritual pouring of water”. I love it for the simplicity of its lines, while still portraying the power of the animal. Here’s a photo of the real thing, a magnificent Zebu bull.

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The next piece takes us to Africa.

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It was once again bought at the Museum Art shop, by my son and wife, as a birthday present for me. It is also, once again, a copy. The original, a Chi Wara Bamana headdress made of wood, hails from Mali. It is held in the Musée des Arts Africains et Oceaniens in Paris. The blurb which the shop gave us states: “Originally fixed to a wicker cap, this sculpture is a headdress that is used in the agricultural rites of the Bambara, organized by a society of initiates called Chi Wara, “champion of cultivation”. This figure is a combination of three animals that inhabit the bush: the antelope, the pangolin, and the anteater.” Here is a photo of one of them in use.

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My wife and I bought the next piece during a trip we made (with my mother-in-law) to Mexico in the early 1980s.

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I definitely don’t like cats (I tolerate dogs), but I’ve always been fond of this ceramic stand-in. We’ve had him quietly sit on a shelf wherever we’ve been.

We bought this next piece at the UN in New York, back in the mid to late 1980s.

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At the time, there was a shop in the building well stocked with “ethnic art”. It’s a delightful piece, from Peru if I remember correctly. Formally it is a candlestick, and we have used it for that purpose a couple of times. But really it’s just a wonderful piece of art, with a cheerful bird as its crowning figure (which is of course the reason why I include it here).

We move on to the kitchen, where we have several animal-themed knick-knacks on our shelves. My favourite is this one.

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It is a ram with extremely long fleece standing on a pile of rocks. My wife and my mother-in-law bought it when they went for a holiday to Scotland in the mid to later 1970s. It stayed with my mother-in-law and we inherited it when the good woman died. It is signed “P. Nelson” on the bottom, but who he or she is I have no idea.

My mother-in-law bought the next two pieces.

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For obvious reasons, we have the two rabbits sitting on the same shelf. Interestingly, they both serve the same function, as a receptacle. The rabbit to the right is ceramic, but I’m not sure what the rabbit to the left is made of. Could it be zinc? My wife thinks it’s silver; if it is, it must be alloyed with something else. Rabbits are animals I’m quite fond of. My French grandmother had a number of them in a hutch, and I would go and stroke them. I was shattered when one of their babies died of myxomatosis. I remember still my wails when the poor thing was taken out and buried. Of course, my grandmother didn’t keep rabbits because she was fond of them, she kept them to eat. And I have to say that rabbit is very yummy.

These next two cups were a gift – along with two other cups – from a friend of my wife’s. There was one cup for each member of our family. The two seen in the photo are the cups of our children.

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They were made by the Hadley Pottery Company, which is based in Louisville, Kentucky. My wife’s friend chose the duck for our son and the lamb for our daughter (their names are on the other side of the cups, that’s how I know). I let readers guess what might have been the reasoning behind the choice, although I suspect that it might be something as prosaic as the lack of any other suitable animals to choose from. The cups are too precious a memory for us to use them now. In fact, one them (mine!) fell to the floor one day and broke. I glued it back together again, but there are pieces missing.

Gluing things back brings me to the last piece (sharp-eyed readers will notice that the beak has been glued back on).

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It is a loon, a common bird on the lakes of North America, and one with a wonderfully haunting cry. I remember it vividly from my little canoe trip on Lake of the Woods (which I wrote about in an earlier post). It was made by an Inuit artist, although which one I don’t know. Because of this Arctic connection, I insert here a photo of an Arctic loon.

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I bought it as a Christmas present for my soon-to-be-wife in the same shop, the Snow Goose, where some six months later we bought the much larger Inuit piece which kicked off my post on the human face. In fact, it was because I had bought this piece there that we went back to that shop. Fate then led my wife to the Face Spirit.

Well, that completes that tour. I let my readers guess what the subject of my next post will be.

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.

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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.

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

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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 …

JERUSALEM ARTICHOKES

Milan, 18 November 2019

A few days ago, my wife entered a greengrocer’s to get some fruit and came out with fruit but also with a gleam in her eye. “I have bought some Jerusalem artichokes”, she announced, and I was delighted to hear it.

It was a University flatmate who many, many (many …) years ago introduced us to this tuber. One evening, it must have been about this time of the year, he appeared in the kitchen with these strange-looking things.

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As we looked at them curiously, he asked us if we had ever tried them. When we confessed that we had not, he promised us a plateful. He was as good as his word. I cannot remember now how he cooked them – more on this later – but it allowed us to appreciate that delicate artichoke taste which is the hallmark of this tuber.

Its name in English recognizes this gustatory affinity to the artichoke. And it is that artichoke taste which drew me to this lumpy, knobbly little tuber; as I have written in a previous post, I am very partial to artichokes.

Not that we’ve eaten Jerusalem artichokes all that often since that first tasting 40-plus years ago. It is one of the few foodstuffs that is still only found seasonally – it’s available from late Autumn to late Winter, and very difficult to keep once out of the earth – so unless you maintain a sharp lookout, you’re liable to miss it. Because of that, and because, frankly, of a bad press – it has a reputation of being something you feed to animals and only eat if you’re literally starving – it’s not grown in large quantities and supermarkets rarely stock it. Once, I bought a whole load of ginger because I thought they were Jerusalem artichokes. They really do look quite similar, as I think this photo shows; the resemblance between the two has often been noted.

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I cannot remember where it was that I bought this ginger, but it must have been somewhere where I couldn’t read the labels – Thailand, maybe? I also cannot remember what we did with all the ginger: probably, after a few half-hearted attempts to drink tea with a lot of ginger in it, we threw it away.

I must confess to also rather liking the name, which I find satisfyingly quirky. I initially thought that the “Jerusalem” part of the name indicated a Levantine origin for the tuber; maybe, I romantically mused, it was a foodstuff brought to Europe by returning Crusaders. But no, I discovered, North America is its place of origin. It is actually the tuber to a rather lovely flower, the Helianthus tuberosus.

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It is part of the Great Columbian Exchange, that massive intercontinental move of plants and animals (and diseases … and people) which took place after we Europeans discovered the Americas: plants and animals mostly travelling from the Americas to Europe and the rest of the world, and vice versa for diseases and people. I’ve written an earlier post about a minor representative of this exchange, the prickly pear. The Jerusalem artichoke is another minor representative. It is the relative of a much more important representative, also an emigrant from North America, the common sunflower, planted in vast quantities for its oil-bearing seeds.

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The French explorers of North America seem to have been the first Europeans to report on this tuber, and French colonists the first to send exemplars back to Europe. Samuel de Champlain, the explorer of the Saint Lawrence River and the Great Lakes, first came across it on Cape Cod.  As related on the US National Park Service website, “after rounding the headlands of Cape Cod in 1605, the French explorers sailed south along the ocean side of the outer Cape. Avoiding shoals and sandbanks, they managed to enter the first embayment they encountered. They called the place Malle Barre and left the ship to go onshore to inspect the Native American settlement. Champlain described the scene:

Before reaching their wigwams we entered a field planted with Indian corn … The corn was in flower and some five and a half feet in height. There was some less advanced, which they sow later. We saw an abundance of Brazilian beans, many edible squashes of various sizes, tobacco, and roots which they cultivate, the latter having the taste of artichoke. The woods are full of oaks, nut-trees, and very fine cypresses, which are of reddish colour and have a very pleasant smell. There were also several fields not cultivated, for the reason that the Indians let them lie fallow … Their wigwams are round, and covered with heavy thatch made of reeds. In the middle of the roof is an opening, about a foot and a half wide, through which issues the smoke of their fire.”

Champlain helpfully included a map of the embayment in his printed report.

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Another Frenchman, Marc Lescarbot, met Champlain soon after this in Port-Royal, a new settlement on the coast of what is now Nova Scotia. I throw in here a map of Port-Royal which Lescarbot included in the book he wrote some years later.

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Among other things, Champlain introduced him to the tuber. Lescarbot described it as follows: “a sort of root, as big as a beet or truffle, tasting rather like chard but more agreeable”. Chard is a vegetable which I’m fond of, fond enough to have written a post about it a little while back. Lescarbot was onto something, I think: the two share a similarly delicate taste. Nevertheless, in the end I would plump for the artichoke connection, so Jerusalem artichoke it should be, not Jerusalem chard.

Europeans were responsible for the global redistribution of the Jerusalem artichoke, but in truth humans had already started to move the plant out of its natural range before Europeans discovered the Americas. When Champlain, Lescarbot, and all the other anonymous European colonists came across the native plantations of the Jerusalem artichoke on the East coast, it looked to them like the plant had always been there. But actually that was not so. The plant’s natural range is somewhere in central North America, straddling the modern US-Canada border. However, the American Indians, recognizing the tuber’s value as a foodstuff, and especially its availability during the winter months when other food is often scarce, had centuries earlier carried it out of its natural range, all the way to the east and west coasts of North America, and down south into Mexico too.

Fascinating stuff, but none of it explains that “Jerusalem” bit of the name. Unfortunately, the chroniclers of the 17th century – the time when the Jerusalem artichoke arrived in Europe and was diffusing across the Continent – were more interested in the Great Men (and possibly Great Women) as well as the Great Events of their time rather than in the names being given to new vegetables. So it has been left to modern historians and etymologists to make some educated guesses. I give two of these guesses here, the two that seem to me the most likely – or perhaps the least unlikely. The first guess has it that the tuber made its way to Rome, as a foodstuff which had miraculously saved the French (Catholic) colonists of North America from starvation. It was planted in the Vatican gardens, whose gardeners gave the plant the name girasole articiocco – “girasole” being the Italian name for the sunflower (readers will recall that the plant is a cousin to the sunflower). The usual mangling of foreign words in British mouths meant that girasole articiocco became Jerusalem artichoke. This is quite neat and is the guess I would normally lay my money on, but I can’t explain to myself how Protestant Britain would have picked up a name being bandied about in the Catholic Vatican. The second guess has it that the tuber originally entered the UK from the Netherlands and more specifically from the town of Terneuzen (the Dutch botanist Petrus Hondius, who lived there, reported in the early 1600s on having successfully planted a shriveled tuber which he had received, no doubt from Dutch colonists in North America). In British mouths, Terneuzen artisjokken got mangled into Jerusalem artichokes. Trade between the two countries was brisk, so a transfer such as this of a new foodstuff sounds quite reasonable to me. But a mangling of Terneuzen into Jerusalem seems a bit of a stretch.

One of the rare places where my wife and I came across the Jerusalem artichoke was in Paris. The French name for the tuber is equally quirky: topinambour. Here again the mists of time have veiled over the origin of the name. The best guess is that the tuber began to appear on Parisian plates at around the time that a delegation of three Amerindians from the Tupinambá tribe, which had settled on the Brazilian coastline, were paraded before King Louis XIII and his court in the Tuileries (three others had died en route). They were sent there by some missionaries, who were competing with the Portuguese for the souls of the local “savages”.  No doubt the idea was to get the king interested in defending French interests in Brazil. I’m not sure they succeeded in that, but the Tupinambá created a sensation. One of the missionaries commented enthusiastically: “Who would have thought that Paris, used to the strange and the exotic, would go so wild over these Indians?”. After being paraded before the king and his court, no doubt in their “savage” state, the three Tupinambá were taken off to a church, baptized, and dressed in more “civilized” garb.

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Parisians, being vague about the geography of this New World that was being discovered before their very eyes but knowing that the tuber came from somewhere over there, simply decided that the Topinambá had brought the tuber with them and began to call it the topinambour.

Helianthus tuberosus grows extremely well in Europe, it is very easy to grow, and as I said earlier its tuber is available in the winter months when other foods can be scarce. As a result, the plant’s popularity grew, especially in France, where it saw its heyday in the 18th Century. Not only were people eating it, but it was given as feed to livestock. It was so widespread in France that one of the days in the Revolutionary calendar – the thirteenth day in the month of Brumaire, to be precise – was dedicated to it. But by then, its days were numbered. The potato (another representative of the Great Columbian Exchange), after facing a century or so of hostility in France, finally won wide acceptance. It eventually completely eclipsed the topinambour.

Which is sad really, because the Jerusalem artichoke/topinambour is really quite good to eat. I personally prefer the tubers steamed (they can be boiled, too, but they risk crumbling in the water).

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There’s Jerusalem artichoke soup, too, which I have yet to try.

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Then they can be roasted

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fried

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or prepared in just about any other way one can think of – there are recipes out there for all tastes.

I feel that I cannot in all fairness finish this post without mentioning one negative thing about the Jerusalem artichoke: the plant has a tendency to be invasive, a problem I’ve written about several times. It’s the tubers – if you leave just one little piece in the ground, they will proliferate. This is fine if you have them planted in your garden or in a field; it means you don’t have a problem getting another harvest next year. But it is not fine if the tuber somehow jumps the garden fence or the field boundary. Like another invasive species which I recently wrote about, the Himalayan balsam, Helianthus tuberosus is particularly troublesome if the plant colonizes river banks, for the same reason. It dies back during winter, leaving the river banks much more exposed to the danger of erosion during winter and spring floods.

So, dear readers, bon appetit! But if you want to grow these tubers please make sure they don’t escape from your garden!

OH NO, IT’S HALLOWEEN AGAIN!

Kyoto, 31 October 2018

Halloween is upon us once again! Time to don the costumes of ghosts, goblins, zombies, skeletons, witches, and other assorted weirdos which we’ve been storing in our wardrobes since last year, and roam the streets drinking booze and checking out each other’s costumes!

Time to light the candles in those pumpkins which we’ve been patiently carving into hideous faces (or we just bought ready-made in plastic at the local store) and plonk them down in front of our door!

A dim and distorted reflection indeed of the beliefs of our ancestors that this was the night when for a short while the thin membrane separating the world of the living from the world of the dead became permeable, allowing the spirits of the dead to roam the land.

A time not to be out and about, risking to be set upon by evil spirits. A time to stay safe at home with your family.

Our ancestors also thought that, born as they were at that moment when real world and spirit world temporarily connected, Halloween babies had the ability in later life to commune with the spirits. When, 32 years ago, I wrote to our friends telling them that our son had been born in the early hours of 31st October, I jovially added that I looked forward to him having a successful career as a medium. Somewhat like Whoopi Goldberg in the film Ghost, although she initially was frightened stiff by her gift.

As of this writing, our son has shown no such gift although he has done well enough in other ways.

I am no believer in spirits – I am, as I have said in other posts, a child of the Scientific Revolution and the rationalism that came with it – but I do find it sad that what was for our ancestors an important and holy feast day has degenerated into a twee happening fueled by companies egging us on to consume.

Even the Japanese are getting into the act! Here in Kyoto we are constantly coming across the same Halloween-related consumeristic crap that we see now from Seattle to Budapest and beyond.

Halloween, it seems, is following in the steps of Christmas and going global: any excuse is good to get us out of the house and do some shopping.

Better by far that we just stay at home and enjoy each other’s company over a glass of wine. That’s certainly what my wife and I intend to do.

___________________________

Halloween party: https://sf.funcheap.com/marin-singles-halloween-costume-party-san-rafael/
Jack-o-lanterns: http://www.maniacpumpkincarvers.com/jackolanterns/
Medieval living and dead: http://www.medievalists.net/2013/10/the-medieval-walking-dead/
Whoopi Goldberg: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PsI5bREF20Y
Halloween shopping: http://www.halloween-online.com/articles/halloween-articles-budgeting.html
Holiday shopping: https://me.me/i/fox-10-holiday-countdown-days-until-halloween-400-days-until-2900508

CACTUS RULES, OK!

Los Angeles, 19 April 2018

As we did last year, during our latest stay in Los Angeles my wife and I visited the old house and grounds of Arabella and Henry Huntington, now the grandly-named Huntington Library, Arts Collection, and Botanical Gardens. The arts collection, which we visited thoroughly last year, is well worth a visit. It holds some very famous pieces of European art, such as the Blue Boy by Thomas Gainsborough.

It also has a really great collection of American art, especially early American art, holding this piece for instance.

But this year we ignored the art and headed for the gardens. Because the gardens are equally wonderful. During their lifetimes, the Huntingtons had already laid out several gardens around the house. One was a traditional rose garden (primarily so that Arabella Huntington could fill the house with cut roses). Henry Huntington also started a camellia garden along the edges of the Vista which the couple created in front of the house. He also surfed what was then a popular trend and created a Japanese garden. He was also an admirer of palm trees, so he started a palm garden. And after some prodding from his head gardener, he agreed to start a desert garden. The same head gardener, presumably with Mr. Huntington’s approval, also installed lily ponds in an unsightly corner of the garden.

Some of these original gardens have been expanded over the years, while new gardens have been added: a Chinese garden, a semi-tropical garden, a tropical (“jungle”) garden, and an Australian garden (along with a couple of much smaller gardens: a herb garden and a Shakespeare garden, the latter housing all the plants mentioned in one way or another in Shakespeare’s works). All in all, this complex of gardens give the visitor a taste of the sights and scents of many of the world’s biomes (they also give people a lovely scenography for picnics and general lazing around on lawns).

The desert garden is what interests me today. As we wandered the paths which crisscross it, we marveled at the wonderful cacti and succulents which populate this garden. We are not the only ones to have been struck by them. I throw in here some of the better pictures which other visitors have posted on-line.



If I focus on the desert garden rather than on any of the other gardens at the Huntington it is because of water, or rather – in this part of the world – the lack of it. As most people probably know, Los Angeles and southern California in general is a semi-desert; in fact, the region wouldn’t have been able to develop nearly as much as it has if its politicians hadn’t managed to filch large amounts of water from the northern part of the State. But this grand water larceny has only put off the day of reckoning. Southern California is running out of water. Something must be done to contain water use.

Under the circumstances, it makes eminent sense for everyone in this city who has a garden to stop planting water-thirsty plants, especially those lawns so beloved by Americans. Here are a few prime examples from the swank properties surrounding the Huntington.


The Huntington itself has its fair share of thirsty lawns.


To their credit, the people running the Huntington are now pushing the idea that Angeleno gardeners should opt for water tolerant plants in their gardens. And what the desert garden shows is that a garden of cacti and succulents can be every bit as beautiful as a traditional garden. These poor plants get a lot of bad press, probably because of the spines which most cacti sport and perhaps because they can often look somewhat bedraggled. Certainly, it seems that Mr. Huntington’s initial reluctance to have a desert garden had to do with unspecified bad memories of run-ins with prickly pear cacti from the days when he was building his uncle’s railroads across the country. My guess is that his horse threw him into a patch of prickly pear – but that’s only a guess.

As we walk around the city, my wife and I notice an encouraging trend towards more cacti and succulents in gardens and public spaces.


Among all the drought-tolerant plants on show, the one I am most fond of is this one, which I have been seeing a good deal of this year.  This example, for instance, graced a space near a bus stop which we were waiting at.
These examples, instead, are part of a more general planting of cacti and succulents which we have often been walking by as we stroll along the boardwalk at Venice Beach.

It is called, I have discovered, firesticks (or variations thereon: sticks-of-fire, sticks-on-fire, and probably others). The name obviously refers to the plant’s crown of very pretty red, pink, and orange stick-like twigs. It’s really very lovely. But beware! The white sap which oozes from a twig when broken can irritate the skin and is especially dangerous if rubbed into the eyes. I should know. The firestick is a direct descendant of the pencil tree.

This tree can be found throughout East and South Africa. And in fact it grew in our garden in Eritrea. I still remember my mother’s frantic screams when she realized that my little fingers one day had broken a twig and I was busily spreading the sap on the palm of my little hand.

Even though they don’t have a garden, my daughter and her boyfriend are moving towards cacti and succulents on their balcony. They have planted a bunch of flower pots with them. I’m pleased to see that the firestick is one of their choices.

Truth to tell, they have chosen these plants not so much as a commitment to a more sustainable lifestyle but rather for their low maintenance requirements. Neither of them are particularly diligent in watering and previous planting attempts ended badly because of this. Let’s hope that when we come back next year, they are still flourishing: cacti and succulents rule, OK! (at least in Los Angeles)

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The Blue Boy: http://huntington.org/webassets/templates/general.aspx?id=14392
Early American art: http://www.huntington.org/WebAssets/Templates/content.aspx?id=22779
Picnicking, Huntington gardens: https://www.facebook.com/HuntingtonLibrary/photos/a.70860174880.63671.51018909880/10156013615919881/?type=3
Desert garden-1: http://www.huntington.org/desertgarden/
Desert garden-2: http://fr.gde-fon.com/download/huntington_jardin-botanique-de-San-Marino/433151/2395×1590
Desert garden-3: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/www.gardenista.com/posts/escape-to-a-desert-garden-in-pasadena-huntington-library-garden/amp/?source=images
Desert garden-4: https://www.tripadvisor.com/LocationPhotoDirectLink-g33029-d110203-i41542481-The_Huntington_Library_Art_Collections_and_Botanical_Gardens-San_Marino_Cal.html
Desert garden-5: https://www.pinterest.com/amp/pin/107875353549586117/
Desert garden-6: https://www.flickr.com/photos/27398485@N08/3280510696
Desert garden-7: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/www.pinterest.com/amp/pin/561331541042981128/?source=images
Desert garden-8: https://www.visitpasadena.com/businesses/the-huntington/
Desert garden-9: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/christophvi.wordpress.com/2015/08/30/more-than-reading-at-the-huntington-library/amp/?source=images
Desert garden-10: https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Golden_Barrels_%26_Senecio_mandraliscae_Blue_Chalk_Stick_succulents,_Huntington.jpg
Desert garden-11: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/www.gardenista.com/posts/escape-to-a-desert-garden-in-pasadena-huntington-library-garden/amp/?source=images
Desert garden-12: http://huntingtonblogs.org/2014/01/torch-bearers-of-the-desert-garden/
Desert garden-13: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/christophvi.wordpress.com/2015/08/30/more-than-reading-at-the-huntington-library/amp/?source=images
Desert garden-14: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/christophvi.wordpress.com/2015/08/30/more-than-reading-at-the-huntington-library/amp/?source=images
San Marino property-1: http://www.pasadenacarealestatehomes.com/blog/san-marino-ca-real-estate-market-reports/
San Marino property-2: http://activerain.com/blogsview/4681118/san-marino-ca-homes-for-sale-and-recent-market-activity-june-7–2015
Northern vista: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/www.pinterest.com/amp/pin/280278776779445390/?source=images
Rose garden: http://www.huntington.org/webassets/templates/general.aspx?id=15523
Gardens around LA with cacti and succulents: my photos
Firesticks: my photos
Pencil tree: http://patioplants.com/product/pencil-tree-cactus-euphorbia-tirucallii-big-7-deep-plug/
My daughter’s cacti: my photo

THE LATE AFTERNOON OF ONE’S LIFE

Los Angeles, 10 April 2018

A few days ago, my wife and I joined our daughter and her boyfriend at a concert being given at Los Angeles’s Walt Disney Concert Hall. The piece we heard was das Lied von der Erde, the Song of the Earth, by Gustav Mahler. As its name suggests, the piece is composed of six songs. The word “songs” risks to simplify the nature of what we heard. Perhaps musical meditations might describe it better. Mahler built his music around the texts of several Chinese poems from the Tang dynasty. He wove the music and words together to tell us a story of ineffable sadness, of regret of things not done, of memories of youth, of premonitions of one’s mortality, all things which I, at the age of 64, occasionally suffer from; who doesn’t, in the late afternoon of their lives? Aged 48 when he wrote it, Mahler was younger than I am today, but had recently suffered grievous blows: his eldest daughter had died of scarlet fever and diphtheria, he had been diagnosed with a potentially fatal congenital heart defect, and he was being forced out of his position as Director of the Vienna Court Opera by the antisemitic element in Viennese society.

I cite here an English translation of the first and last of these songs, the two which spoke to me most.

The drinking song of earth’s sorrow

The wine beckons in golden goblets
but drink not yet; I’ll sing you first a song.
The song of sorrow shall ring laughing in your soul.
When the sorrow comes, blasted lie the gardens of the soul, wither and perish joy and singing.
Dark is life, dark is death!

Master of this house,
your cellar o’erflows with golden wine!
Here, this lute I call mine.
A lute to strike and glasses to drain,
these things go well together.
A full glass of wine at the right time is worth more than all the realms of this earth.
Dark is life, dark is death!

The heavens are ever blue and the Earth
shall stand sure, and blossom in the spring.
But you O man, how long your life?
Not one hundred years may you delight
in all the rotten baubles of this earth.
See down there! In the moonlight, on the graves squats a wild ghostly shape;
an ape it is! Hear you his howl go out
in the sweet fragrance of life.
Now! Drink the wine! Now ‘tis time, friends.
Drain your golden goblets to the last.
Dark is life, dark is death!

The farewell

The sun drops down behind the mountains.
In every valley evening descends,
Bringing its shadows, full of coolness.
Look! like a silver bark
The moon floats in heaven’s blue lake.
I sense a delicate breeze stirring
Behind the dark fir trees.

The brook sings out clear through the darkness.
The flowers pale in the twilight.
The earth breathes, in full rest and sleep;
All desire now turns to dreaming.
Weary folk turn homewards,
So that, in sleep, they may learn anew
Forgotten joy and youth.
The birds huddle silent on their branches.
The world falls asleep.

A cool breeze blows in the shadow of my fir trees.
I stand here and wait for my friend.
I wait for him to take a last farewell.
I yearn, my friend, at your side,
To enjoy the beauty of this evening.
Where are you? You leave me long alone!
I wander to and fro with my lute
On pathways which billow with soft grass.
O beauty! O eternal-love-and-life-intoxicated world!

He dismounted and I handed him the drink of farewell.
I asked him where he was going,
And also why it had to be.
He spoke, his voice was veiled:
‘Ah! my friend – Fortune was not kind to me in this world!
Where am I going? I will wander in the mountains,
I seek rest for my lonely heart!
I journey to the homeland, to my resting place;
I shall never again go seeking the far distance.
My heart is still and awaits its hour!’

The dear earth everywhere
Blossoms in spring and grows green again!
Everywhere and forever the distance shines bright and blue!

Forever . . . forever . . .

As I bathed in the music and the words, another poem about the consciousness of time passing and of regret at things not done floated into my mind, A.E. Housman’s How Clear, How Lovely Bright.

How clear, how lovely bright,
How beautiful to sight
Those beams of morning play;
How heaven laughs out with glee
Where, like a bird set free,
Up from the eastern sea
Soars the delightful day.

To-day I shall be strong,
No more shall yield to wrong,
Shall squander life no more;
Days lost, I know not how,
I shall retrieve them now;
Now I shall keep the vow
I never kept before.

Ensanguining the skies
How heavily it dies
Into the west away;
Past touch and sight and sound
Not further to be found,
How hopeless under ground
Falls the remorseful day.

I only recently learnt of this poem, through Morse, that most intellectual of police chief inspectors on British television, who cites the last stanza in the very last episode of the series. He speaks it as the sun goes down over the Meadows at Oxford and as he faces the bleakness of his imminent retirement, little knowing that death awaits him the next day.

Housman’s metaphor of the sun rising and setting is echoed in a poem by Sara Teasdale, which I quoted in an earlier post, The River

I came from the sunny valleys
And sought for the open sea,
For I thought in its gray expanses
My peace would come to me.

I came at last to the ocean
And found it wild and black,
And I cried to the windless valleys,
“Be kind and take me back!”

But the thirsty tide ran inland,
And the salt waves drank of me,
And I who was fresh as the rainfall
Am bitter as the sea.

My discovery of this poem several years ago resulted from a student giving me a modern Chinese poem, a poem on departures, in this case from Cambridge. Funny that. In that roundabout way so typical of life, Tang Dynasty poems a thousand years old have been connected by way of Vienna, Los Angeles, and two ancient English university towns back to a modern Chinese poem.

Come on, old man, time to have another glass of wine.

CARLSBAD CAVERNS

Los Angeles, 7 April 2018

Alert readers of my previous posting may have been asking themselves what was the origin of the gypsum strata in the San Andres and Sacramento mountain ranges, which had played such a crucial role in the creation of the White Sands dunes (because, of course, they had not been magically created out of nothing, nor had they been lying there since the birth of the Earth). I’m not sure I can give a categorical answer to this question, but our visit to the nearby Carslbad caverns suggested one possible answer.

A little bit of background is in order here for the uninitiated. Carlsbad caverns constitute a very large underground limestone cave system in the Guadalupe Mountains of New Mexico. This little diagram gives an idea of the extent of the caves. As one can see, it is a series of large chambers connected by passageways.

Videos in the Visitors’ Centre helpfully inform the interested viewer that these chambers were formed by our friend gypsum! Many millions of years ago, as the Guadalupe Mountains were being uplifted, the limestone strata making them up cracked and fissured as the rocks twisted and turned. Rainwater percolated downwards through the cracks until it reached the water table, while hydrogen sulphide percolated upwards, given off by the crude oil and natural gas lying far below (and which we saw being pumped out on our way to the caverns).

When the hydrogen sulphide met the groundwater, it reacted with the oxygen in the water to form sulphur dioxide which then reacted with the water to form sulphuric acid. So the limestone cracks and fissures now found themselves bathing in sulphuric acid. This unforgiving acid attacked the limestone and turned it into calcium sulphate, which is none other than our friend gypsum. The gypsum washed away, leaving fresh limestone to be attacked by the sulphuric acid. And then the cycle repeated itself until the small cracks and fissures had turned into huge caverns. I imagine a similar process created the gypsum strata with which I started this post: hydrogen sulphide bubbling up into a sea above, the sulphuric acid so created attacking coral formations and turning the sea into a vast pool of dissolved gypsum, the sea drying out thereby creating beds of crystallized gypsum. Something along those lines.

Coming back to the Carlsbad caverns, as the uplifting of the Guadalupe Mountains continued the caverns were raised out of the water table and drained of their acid. The caverns would no longer grow. But the rainwater kept percolating down, and in so doing filled the caverns with those formations which make such caves a wonder: the stalagmites and stalactites of course, but also the sheets, the draperies, the ribbons, the flowstones, … Carlsbad caverns have their share of these wonders. But first one has to get to them. The caves have a natural opening at the surface

through which Mexican free-tail bats stream in and out at night

as do cave swallows during the day.

But so do human visitors, who walk down, down, down


into the central chamber of the cave system, the Lunch Room, a huge cavern rather oddly decked out as a cafeteria.

From there, visitors can explore – guided or unguided – other chambers. We chose to take the tour of the King’s Palace, which offered us these views.

This cavern was also home to some strange-looking formations, which I had never seen before. The formations looked somehow gnarled and knotty.

It seems that these proturbances have been formed by convective patterns in the cavern’s air streams gently pushing the drops of water in directions other than down.

I hope I haven’t bored my readers with all this science. I find it fascinating, although I recognize that others may find it tedious or, even worse, that it may bring back bad memories of sitting benumbed in chemistry classes at school. To make it up to them, let me talk about art, or more specifically prehistoric cave art. Of which, unfortunately, there is hardly any at Carlsbad caverns. There is no prehistoric art in the caves themselves. It seems that the Native Americans were afraid of entering the cave, from which they believed their ancestors had originated. There are reports of Native American pictographs around the natural opening, although I didn’t see them and found no photos of them on the web. No matter! I’ll transport ourselves thousands of kilometers eastward to the caves in France and Spain on whose walls our Paleolithic ancestors painted some 40,000 years ago, and I’ll throw in some pictures of the cave art one can find there.


These paintings are very interesting, no doubt about it, but what impresses me even more is that the artists ventured so deep into the earth to paint them. At some point during our tour of the King’s Palace, our guide turned off all the lights. The resulting darkness was absolute. Your eyes never accustomed themselves to the dark as they would outside, allowing your eyes to eventually see something, even if only indistinctly. It was instead unremittingly pitch black, an extremely disagreeable sensation. Of course, our Paleolithic ancestors would not have painted in the dark, they would have taken torches down. But even a torch would have given off precious little light; our guide lit a lantern powered by a candle and such light is faint indeed.

How did our ancestors create such lovely sketches in such a tremulous light? And how did they overcome their fear in going so deep into the inky blackness of these caves? Questions without answers.

________________
Map of Carlsbad caverns: http://carlsbadnewmexico.com/places/carlsbad-caverns-maps/
Oil derrick in New Mexico: https://fronterasdesk.org/content/9902/new-mexico-lawmaker-faces-challenge-strengthening-oil-regulation
Natural opening: https://www.tripsavvy.com/new-mexico-honeymoon-activities-1863221
Bats at natural opening: https://miraimages.photoshelter.com/image/I0000Zbbmp9jYDCc
Cave swallows at natural opening: https://www.tripadvisor.com/LocationPhotoDirectLink-g60761-i23159610-Carlsbad_New_Mexico.html
Path down through natural opening: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/www.pinterest.com/amp/pin/138556126016751944/?source=images
Main Corridor: https://www.nps.gov/cave/planyourvisit/fees.htm
Lunch Room: https://www.flickr.com/photos/46062921@N00/442216196
King’s Palace-1: my wife’s photo
King’s Palace-2: http://rv-dreams.typepad.com/rvdreams_journal/2007/06/carlsbad_cavern.html
King’s Palace-3: http://traveltips.usatoday.com/rv-parks-carlsbad-caverns-52061.html
Gnarled, knotty formations: my wife’s photo
Prehistoric art-1: https://www.archaeological.org/tours/europe/25009
Prehistoric art-2: https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/cave-of-lascaux
Prehistoric art-3: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/phys.org/news/2011-11-ancient-dna-insights-cave-horses.amp?source=images
Prehistoric art-4: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/www.pinterest.com/amp/pin/513551163733767543/?source=images
Candle in a cave: https://www.dragonsdawn.org/nmtCaver/El_Malpais_Feb_2017/index.html

WHITE SANDS NATIONAL MONUMENT

Los Angeles, 30 March 2018

Like most children who have spent holidays on a beach somewhere, both my wife and I have memories of playing in sand dunes, I in Norfolk

she along Italy’s Adriatic coast.

Then, after we met and started traveling the world we visited a number of large-scale sand dune systems, far away from any sea. The first we saw, at the start of our lives together, were the sand dunes of Death Valley.

On a business trip a few years ago, I visited the sand dunes of Inner Mongolia which are remorselessly engulfing farmland; I commented on these in an earlier post.

And then there were the sand dunes of Namibia, which we visited one Christmas some ten years ago with our children.

The most awesome of these dunes were a dull red, with the biggest towering over us.

But the blindingly white dunes of the White Sands National Monument in New Mexico, which we visited last week with our daughter and her boyfriend, are in a class of their own. The eerie beauty of these dunes has led better photographers than I to surpass themselves, and I have shamelessly pinched some of the best of their photos to insert here.



We walked in a big circle, from dune crest to dune crest, marveling at the vistas before us of undulating whiteness, all the way, so it seemed, to the surrounding mountain ranges.

I’ve been careful not to refer to these dunes as sand dunes, because they are not sand as we normally understand that term, that is to say silicate. These are dunes of gypsum (calcium sulphate to the chemically inclined of my readers).

In the morning, we had visited Lake Lucero, which lies to the southwest of the dunes. It is an evanescent lake; it appears during the rainy season in late summer and is gone by the time the windy season in the spring rolls around. When we visited it, there was no sign of any water.

Here we could see how the gypsum “sand” had been created. It all started 24,000 years ago, when a new ice age started and the climate in this corner of New Mexico began to be much wetter than it is today. For nigh on 14,000 years frequent rains lashed the nearby San Andres and Sacramento mountain ranges. The rainwater nibbled away at strata of gypsum which had been exposed by the mountains’ uplifting, and streams carried the dissolved gypsum into a lake at the foot of the mountains. This lake has been named Lake Otero. The lake had no exit, so it grew in size until the water evaporating balanced the stream water entering. But the gypsum (and other salts) carried into the lake remained and slowly concentrated. Then, some 10,000 years ago, the ice age came to an end, and the climate here became dryer. Less rainwater fell on the mountains, streams got smaller or disappeared, and Lake Otero began to shrink. As it shrunk, the dissolved gypsum became ever more concentrated until finally the lake water was saturated. The gypsum started precipitating out of the lake water, forming huge crystals of selenite in the process, which then settled onto the lake’s bed. This picture shows a very pure crystal of selenite, which is colourless.


But during our ramble along the shores of Lake Lucero we saw selenite crystals in their more natural state, jutting out of the ground. They were various shades of brown; other substances that were present in the lake water have colored the crystals.

 

And still Lake Otero kept shrinking, until nothing but Lake Lucero – sometimes there, often not – was left.

With the climate change of 10,000 years ago came strong winds. For the last 10,000 years they have been scouring the alkaline flats left bare when Lake Otero disappeared. They first carried away the thin crust of clay and fine particles, which exposed the selenite. Freezing and thawing cycles went to work on the crystals, breaking them along their weakest plane. The process continues to this day. We saw these crystals of selenite down at Lake Lucero being slowly split open.


The shores of Lake Lucero are littered with fragments of selenite crystals, broken up by wind, frost and heat.

On and on went the work of breaking down the crystals until they had become flakes light enough to be carried along by the prevailing southwesterly winds. As the flakes bowled along over the alkaline flats, tumbling over and over, they cracked and crumbled further until only small sand-like grains were left.

The winds have pushed the grains up into the dunes that we see today. And all that tumbling has so scratched and scarred and pitted the surface of the grains that they reflect back sunlight in all its wavelengths so that we see them as intensely white.

Unbeknownst to us, my wife and I have been living with selenite around us in the apartment in Milan, although in this case in the form of desert roses.

My mother-in-law picked them up in Algeria, where she visited some of the oases south of the Atlas Mountains and walked the dunes of the Saharan desert, like these at the Biskra oasis.

Another dune system for my wife and I to visit – once Isis no longer roams the Sahara desert, kidnapping and beheading hapless tourists.

____________________

Norfolk dunes: http://www.bringingtheoutsidein.co.uk/landscape_photography/holkham.html
Dunes Adriatic coast: https://www.rentbyowner.com/property/hotel-le-dune/BC-268102
Sand dunes Death Valley: https://www.tripadvisor.com/LocationPhotoDirectLink-g143021-d2255762-i116167540-Mesquite_Flat_Sand_Dunes-Death_Valley_National_Park_California.html
Sand dunes Inner Mongolia: my picture
Sand dunes Namibia-1: https://it.pinterest.com/pin/6685099420949300/?lp=true
Sand dunes Namibia-2: https://travelservice.tips/attractions/africa/sossusvlei-dunes.html
White sands-1: https://www.nationalparks.org/connect/blog/wave-dunes-white-sands
White sands-2: http://www.magazinusa.com/us/states/show.aspx?state=nm&doc=10&dsc=White_Sands_National_Monument
White sands-3: http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20160517-the-beautiful-white-sand-dunes-that-should-not-exist
White sands-4: https://www.newmexico.org/listing/white-sands-national-monument/218/
Lake Lucero: my wife’s picture
Selenite-pure: http://www.crystallinephoenix.com
Selenite crystals in the ground: my pictures
Selenite crystals on Lake Lucero shore: my picture
Gypsum grains: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/White_Sands_National_Monument#/media/File%3AWhiteSandsGypsum.jpg
White sands-5: my picture
Desert rose: https://www.feelcrystals.com.au/product-category/crystal-meanings/desert-rose-crystal/
Tadrart, Algeria: https://www.tripadvisor.com/LocationPhotoDirectLink-g293717-d504734-i300952025-Algerian_Sahara-Algeria.html
Biskra oasis, Algeria: https://plus.google.com/105463517722617181754

FOSSILS IN THE STAIRS

Vienna, 29 June 2017

A few days ago, just as my wife and I were setting out from the apartment, it started to rain. It was my wife who had decreed that it wouldn’t rain, but it was I who went back to get the umbrellas. As readers can imagine, I was a little grumpy as I ascended the stairs, glaring at the individual steps. Perhaps it was my acute attention of the steps, perhaps it was the light; whatever it was, I suddenly noticed in the sixth step from last, which had been worn smooth by countless feet treading on it, something which I had never noticed before on my walks up and down those stairs: a fossil.

At first sight it looked like a leaf, but I now think it could be a coral of some sort. I walked up and down all six flights of stairs in our building looking intently at each step,

and I now see what I had never really noticed before, that the limestone used for them is made up of a mass of shells and other marine remains, fallen randomly on top of each other and then squeezed tight by the monstrous weight of later rocks above them.

As we discovered when we bought the apartment and picked through the Land Register, our building was constructed at the turn of the century. It was, and has remained, a modest building – no Belvedere Palace for us

just a modest lower middle-class building, one of many outside Vienna’s swank 1st District.

Consequently, even at a time when long-distance travel had been made a thousand times easier by the booming rail system and nascent road system, I would imagine that the stone for our steps came from a local quarry. Which is more than possible, there being quite a number of old limestone quarries around Vienna, a number of which – I have been breathlessly informed by an Austrian fossil-hunter website – are good sources of marine fossils.

An Austrian map of the country’s geology informs me – if my rudimentary German is correct – that the rock formations in question are Late Tertiary.

Specifically, according to a mind-numbing report prepared for the 26th International Geological Congress which I leafed through electronically, they belong to the Neogene beds in the Vienna basin; these were laid down some some 10-15 million years ago, between the Upper Eggenburgian and Lower Badenian stages of the Middle Miocene epoch, as a result of at least two marine incursions into the Vienna basin.

Setting aside all the arcane – and, frankly, incomprehensible – scientific mumbo-jumbo with which this report is filled, we can happily conclude that the jumbled marine fossils locked forever more into the steps of our building’s stairway are the result of the area around Vienna twice being a sea. It must have been a nice warm sea too, since corals flourished in its waters. In fact, this map of mid-Miocene Europe shows that much of Central Europe was under water during this Epoch, this being the far western end of the wonderfully-named Tethys Sea.

In cases like these, I am always taken by a sense of wonder. Here I am, living on the edges of a rich agricultural plain 350 kilometers from the nearest sea.

Yet once upon a time there was sea all around me, probably quite like the sea which my wife and I snorkeled over a year ago in Thailand, with coral outcrops, starfish and sea urchins clinging to their rocks, crabs scuttling along the sea floor, fish flashing in and out of the coral, and from time to time the passing shadow of a shark.

That same sense of wonder came over me many years ago, when we visited Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park. The park sits in the middle of a harsh, dry, desert region.

Yet all around us lay the petrified remains of a once mighty forest.


Artists imagine that these 200 million year-old forests looked something like this.

All that teaming life in this now almost dead environment …

It was more with a sense of fascinated horror than awe that I first gazed on the “fossils” (mummies is perhaps the better term) of people and animals dug up at Pompeii.



They were overtaken, submerged, in the 1000°C-hot pyroclastic flow that swept down the sides of Mt. Vesuvius and howled through the city at 700 km/hr.

What a terrible, terrible death! But perhaps it was a mercifully quick death, with them being flash-cooked, basically.

Hmm, I didn’t want to finish on this rather depressing note. But hey, that’s life! In the meantime, I need to escogitate a plan to persuade my wife join me on a visit to Vienna’s Natural Science Museum (sheathed in a very nice stone, I should add) so that I can study the area’s geology better.

_______________

Our building’s steps: our photos
Belvedere Palace: http://www.austriawanderer.com/the-belvedere-palace-in-vienna/
Our apartment building: our photo
Geological map of Europe: http://www.gifex.com/detail-en/2011-06-29-13972/Geological-map-of-Austria.html
Miocene Europe: http://www.dandebat.dk/eng-klima4.htm
Vienna plain: http://www.donau.com/de/roemerland-carnuntum-marchfeld/detail/marktgemeinde-goetzendorf-an-der-leitha/c53b2a6b0c75fed4d809b78b888830d9/
Tropical sea: https://fineartamerica.com/featured/coral-reef-in-thailand-louise-murray-and-photo-researchers.html
Petrified Forest NP: http://kids.nationalgeographic.com/explore/nature/petrifiedforest/#petrified-forest-hills.jpg
Petrified tree-1: http://www.alamy.com/stock-photo/petrified-forest-national-park-arizona.html
Petrified tree-2: http://www.van-tramp.com/wp/petrified-forest-national-park-revisit/
Forest 100 million years ago: https://jerry-coleby-williams.net/2015/02/15/bunya-prehistoric-plant-ancient-australian-food-tradition/araucaroid-forest-ca-100-million-years-ago/
Pompeii mummies-1: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/www.pinterest.com/amp/pin/535224736949021987/
Pompeii mummies-2: http://hesed.info/blog/pompeii-lava-statues.abp
Pompeii mummies-3: https://forums.arrowheads.com/forum/general-discussion-gc5/fossils-paleontology-old-bones-gc30/25828-reposting-pam-s-odd-rock-fossil-2nd-opinion
Pompeii and Mt Vesuvius: https://it.pinterest.com/agcinnamongirl/pompeii-italy/
Natural History Museum, Vienna: https://ictca2017.conf.tuwien.ac.at/index.php/natural-history-museum-vienna