POSTS

SAINT NOTBURGA

Los Angeles, 26 September 2022

Just before my wife and I hurried over to Los Angeles to help our daughter, we spent a very pleasant long weekend in Innsbruck, celebrating our wedding anniversary. We actually weren’t visiting Innsbruck itself but rather using it as a base to do some hiking. As the city’s name indicates, it is situated on the river Inn. The valley down which the river flows is flanked on both sides by mountains, and it was these that we were there to hike, up, down and along.

Nevertheless, on the way to and from our hikes we found ourselves enjoying various parts of the old town through which we strode (on the way out) or shuffled (on the way back), and on the last morning we had time enough before our train left for Vienna to visit one museum. Being a fanatic believer in the Green Michelin Guide, I quickly looked up what museums it suggested to visit in Innsbruck, and discovered that this august publication bestowed its maximum encomium, three stars, on only one museum in the city: the Museum of Tyrolean Arts and Handicrafts. So the Museum of Tyrolean Arts and Handicrafts it was!

As usual, the Michelin Green Guide was spot on. I earnestly recommend any of my readers who are spending some time in Innsbruck to visit this museum. But this post is not really the museum. It is about one particular painting which I chanced upon, of St. Notburga.

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Well! As any faithful reader of my posts will know, I have a very soft spot for obscure saints, the obscurer the better. In my time, I have written posts about Saints Radegund, Pancras, Blaise (who is also, incidentally, the subject of a small painting in the museum), John of Nepomuk, Hubert, Peter of Verona, Fructuosus, and a few other odds and ends in the Saints’ Department. So it was clear from the moment I clapped eyes on the painting that I would have to write a post about her. The train journey back to Vienna gave me all the time I needed to do the background research.

St. Notburga’s story is quickly told, and hinges around three miracles. If she existed at all, and I for one have my doubts about that, she was born in 1265 or thereabouts, into a humble family living in the small town of Rattenberg situated on the river Inn some 50 kilometres downstream from Innsbruck. So she was a Tyrolean girl.

Some time in her teens, she went to work as a servant in the household of the local aristocrats, the Count and Countess of Rottenburg. She was – of course – a very good girl and was scandalized by the fact that the leftover food from the Count’s meals was fed to the pigs when there were lots of townsfolk who went hungry. So with the Count and Countess’s blessing, she collected the leftovers and distributed them to the poor. (From here on, I show, very blown-up, some of the scenes which circle the painting above. They are somewhat dark and fuzzy; if I had known about Notburga beforehand, I would have taken close-ups from the painting itself. Ah well …)

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Alas! the Count died, and his son inherited his father’s title, lands, and servants. The new Count and his lady wife didn’t approve of Notburga’s good works at all. They wanted all the leftovers to go to their pigs. So the Countess, who was in charge of running the household, told Notburga to stop.

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Being – of course – a very obedient girl, Notburga did as she was commanded. But how she suffered! So she decided to put aside some of her own food instead, especially on Fridays – being not only good but pious, she fasted on Fridays – and  gave this to the poor. The nasty Count and Countess didn’t like that either. As far as they were concerned, she was giving away their food, not hers, and saw this as theft. The Count decided to catch her in the act of leaving the castle with the food.

FIRST MIRACLE: So one Friday, Notburga was as usual carrying the food she had put aside for the poor in her apron and a jug of wine in her hand, when she encountered the Count and his entourage in the castle’s courtyard. He demanded to know what she was carrying. Notburga replied, “wood shavings and lye, Master”. The Count scoffed and commanded her to open her apron. Notburga obeyed, but in place of food, Henry saw only wood shavings and sawdust! Then he tried the wine, but tasted only lye!

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Of course, the Count being a nasty man, he suspected that Notburga had played a trick on him and fired her. She accepted her fate with forbearance, and left the castle and moved to a small village of Eben on Lake Achen, some 20 kilometres from Ratenberg. Here we have her (I think) walking to Eben.

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There, she was employed as a farm worker by a local farmer. She looked after the cattle and helped with the field work. Being, as I say, a very pious girl, Notburga only asked that the farmer let her stop work to pray when the bell first rang in the evening and let her go to Mass on Sunday and holy days, to which he graciously agreed.

SECOND MIRACLE: One afternoon, as always, Notburga stopped work when the first bell rang. But the weather was threatening to change, so the farmer demanded that no one stop until all the grain had been collected. Seeking divine assistance to make her case, Notburga raised up her sickle and said: “Let my sickle be judge between me and you.” She let go – and the sickle remained suspended in mid-air, caught on a ray of sunshine!

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Frightened half out of his wits, the farmer let her stop working, and he never tried that one again!

In the meantime, things were going very badly for Count Rottenburg. His pigs – the ones to whom the leftover food was given – were ravaged by some mysterious disease. His wife’s half-brother set the castle on fire after a bitter quarrel. Here, we have the half-brother attacking the castle.

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Finally, his wife sickened and died. Many residents decided that the Count had been cursed and left. The Count began to ascribe all his misfortunes to his dismissal of Notburga. He sought her out, together with his new wife, and implored her to return to work for him.

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She accepted, but only on condition that he let her resume her care for the poor. The Count immediately agreed, and of course his fortunes took a great turn for the better when Notburga came back. For 18 years, she served in the castle as nanny for the Count’s children, then cook, all the while continuing her charitable good works. She also succeeded in reconciling the Count with his first wife’s half-brother, the one who had very nearly burned the castle to the ground.

THIRD MIRACLE: In September of 1313, sensing that death was approaching, Notburga requested her master to place her corpse on a wagon drawn by two oxen and to bury her wherever the oxen would stand still. The Count did as she had asked. So off went the oxen, followed by the funeral procession.

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When the cart reached the Inn, the river parted and all the mourners were able to cross to the other shore without harm!

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The oxen continued on their way, covering at a leisurely pace the 20 kilometres to Eben (the mourners must have all had sore feet by now). There, just outside a wayside chapel on the outskirts of Eben they finally stopped. With much pomp and ceremony, she was laid to rest in the chapel; it is even said that angels carried her coffin into the chapel.

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And that’s Notburga’s life wrapped up. Readers will have noted by now the importance of the sickle in Notburga’s life. Hence her being represented in the painting above prominently waving a sickle around. I insert here a statue of her which I also came across in the museum, again waving that sickle around.

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I have told her story somewhat tongue-in-cheek. Quite honestly, it’s difficult for me to see what was so saintly about her life. I find the miracles ascribed to almost akin to conjurors’ tricks. But somethings about her definitely captured the imagination of the rural folk of the Tyrol and contiguous areas. Pilgrimages to that little chapel in Eben started up and became big enough for Maximilian I (whose own mausoleum sits in the church next to the museum) to decide to have a bigger church built in the village at the beginning of the 16th Century. It got a late Baroque makeover a few centuries later. Here is an aerial view of the church, set in the beautiful Tyrolean landscape (it really is a beautiful part of the world).

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And here is a view of the church’s interior.

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Her skeleton (or someone’s skeleton) was unearthed from the original chapel and, dressed in rich clothing, now rather macabrely presides over the church’s interior.

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Notburga was until recently one of the most revered saints in Tyrol and South Bavaria, as well as in East Styria and Slovenia (I would imagine that the general dechristianization of Europe has put paid to this, although a quick search on LinkedIn and Facebook show that there are still quite a lot of people called Notburga). Rural folk would ask for her intervention in many situations of distress, from human or animal sickness to threatening storms. Apart from her representation on religious furniture and furnishings (paintings, votive images, statues, stained glass windows, church bells, even offering boxes and holy water basins) her image could be found on all sorts of objects of everyday use like salt shakers, stove tiles, and cupboards. There are even tiny, 2 by 2.8 cm., pictures of her to be swallowed or “inhaled” from; they were used as part of religious folk medicine and belonged in the home apothecary. It was believed that consuming or breathing in from these little images would release Notburga’s healing powers. Little silver Notburga sickles were worn on watch chains and rosaries as amulets. Many songs, prayers and litanies were dedicated to her.

There are those who say that Notburga was a Christian personification of much older goddesses who were prayed to in the mountains. Her sickle, for instance, is considered as pointing to a connection with a moon goddess, a common goddess throughout Europe and indeed the world; we have here the Roman goddess Luna.

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Notburga’s association with fields, crops, grain and bread recalls the “grain mothers” like the Greek fertility goddess Demeter and the Roman Ceres.

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This could well all be true. But I see another thread in her story, the constant struggle of rural folk with hunger, linked at least in part to their exploitation by landowners, both big (aristocrats) and small (rich farmers). Those rich folk were wasting food? Ha! She took it all and redistributed it to us poor folk! The Count fired her? Ha! He sure suffered for having done that! The farmer insisted that his workers work long hours? Ha! She sure put the fear of God in him for doing that, and after that he behaved himself! It’s no coincidence that she is the patron saint of the downtrodden in rural areas: servants, female agricultural workers, and the peasantry in general. I can understand that people would pray to her to deal with the richer folk making their life miserable. Personally, though, I think unionization is the better way to go.

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Just saying …

GHEE AND THE NEW GRANDCHILD

Our daughter has just given birth! Our first grandchild. Everyone is OK. We have been summoned to Los Angeles, where she lives, to help out over the first couple of months, which of course we are more than happy to do! It allows us to drool over this little, little being – I had forgotten quite how small they are at birth.

But that’s not what I want to write about here! No, not at all. It’s about something that our daughter fished out of her fridge during one of our almost daily WhatsApp conversations with her during the months of her pregnancy, during which we offered much moral support and little advice (it had been too long since we had had our two children; we couldn’t remember anything of any value).

I should explain that the time difference between Los Angeles and Europe is such that our WhatsApp sessions took place in the evening our time and early morning her time. So as we talked she would often be preparing her breakfast. And fascinating dishes she prepared for herself! A little bit of this, a little bit of that, some leftovers from the previous day’s dinner, a drizzle of various sauces, and on and on, until she had a little mountain of food in front of her. And it always all disappeared! That baby was certainly well nourished.

One time, she pulled out a large glass jar full of some yellowish substance and plopped a large dollop of the stuff on her plate. Upon being asked what it was, she replied “ghee”.

Ghee … I had until that moment only had one run-in with ghee, many, many years ago, when my wife and I were living in Paris for a while. My wife was taking French classes – she felt that she had to brush up her school-level French, although I always thought it was perfectly serviceable. In any event, many of her classmates were recent immigrants trying to make a new life for themselves in France. Among them was a young woman from Ethiopia. One day, she invited us round to her place and offered us what she said was an Ethiopian delicacy: a cup of tea laced with ghee. What it looked like was tea with a scum of melted butter floating on its surface. It was … disgusting, is the only word I can use to describe it. It gave off an ineffably sickening smell. Nevertheless, we both managed to down the liquid but politely declined seconds. I for one swore that I would never, ever touch ghee again. When I told our daughter that I definitely did not like the stuff, she declared herself surprised and said she found it delicious.

This radical difference of opinion intrigued me. Of course, there is no reason why me and my daughter shouldn’t disagree on things, but generally on food we were on the same wavelength. So had I been wrong all these years? I decided I needed to investigate ghee a bit further. This I have done in between bouts of feeding the newborn and changing diapers, and I am now ready to report back – and I had better be quick, before the little one wakes up and wails for the bottle.

First, for those who, like me before writing this post, have only a vague idea about what ghee looks like, here’s a photo of a jar of the stuff. This is actually my daughter’s jar; as readers can see, it is well used.

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Ghee proper actually hails from the Indian subcontinent, where people use it extensively in their cuisine. In fact, although I swore many decades ago never to touch the stuff, it is more than probable that I have unknowingly eaten ghee in Indian restaurants, perhaps in a chicken biryani

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or brushed onto a naan.

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But ghee is just one member of the broader family of clarified butters. Just about everywhere in the world where there is a history of pastoralism, there is a history of butter-making. Before the really quite recent advent of refrigeration, one of the big problems with butter – especially in places like India with a hot climate – was how to stop butter going rancid. Clarifying it is one answer, because clarified butter has very long shelf lives, even in hot climates.

Clarifying butter is actually quite a simple operation – or at least it seems to be from everything that I’ve read online (I will immediately confess to never having done it myself). You heat the butter to evaporate the water it contains – it’s this water that makes butter go rancid; the spoiling bacteria need water to do their nasty work. This heating also separates out the whey which butter contains – it floats to the surface and is skimmed off – as well as the casein in the butter – which settles as solids on the bottom. The remaining liquid is clarified butter, or butterfat. These photos show the various phases of the process.

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That’s the basic clarifying operation. Ghee makers go one step further. The butterfat and the casein solids are simmered together for a while. This caramelizes the solids, which then impart a nutty taste to the butterfat. It also gives the clarified butter a darker colour. Only once caramelized are the solids filtered out – and often they are eaten by the ghee makers as a yummy snack. We see the two products in the right-hand photo below.

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So that’s ghee.

PROMEMORIA: Talk to daughter about trying to make ghee herself. She loves messing around in the kitchen. Maybe this could be a joint project while my wife and I are here.

This being India, ghee doesn’t just play a culinary role. It has important religious functions in Hinduism. For instance, in marriages, funerals and other such ceremonies, ghee is poured into sacred fires, a practice considered to be auspicious. This means, of course, that ghee used in this way can only be made with the milk of zebu cows, animals which are sacred in Hinduism.

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That’s fine, but zebu cows don’t produce all that much milk, which makes for a rather restricted supply of ghee. Luckily, given India’s huge population and the latter’s huge appetite for the stuff, ghee can also be made from butter made with the milk of water buffaloes.

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These animals give a much more plentiful supply of milk, and – cherry on the cake – their milk contains a distinctly higher level of butterfat than does the milk from zebu cows.

PROMEMORIA: Talk to daughter about her trying ghee made with water buffalo milk the next time (I checked and her current batch is made with cow’s milk). There’s a pretty big population from the Indian subcontinent in Los Angeles, so it’s not impossible that a shop in their neighbourhood imports ghee made with buffalo milk from the Old Country.

Like I said, ghee is but one member of a larger family. The peoples of the Middle East and North Africa also have a great fondness for clarified butter, which they call smen (or sman, or semn, or semneh, or sminn – I have to assume that those transliterating the word into the Roman alphabet have had difficulties capturing its precise pronunciation).

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Smen makers go one further than manufacturers of ghee. They will often add herbs during the process, straining them out at the end. This adds further taste notes to the butterfat. Roasted fenugreek seeds are popular, with thyme and oregano also often being added. A lot of salt is often also added, because – again, different from gheesmen is very often aged, which adds a fermenting step to the process and of course new taste notes. The aging process can sometimes be decades long. The Yemenis certainly make very aged smen, as do the Berbers of North Africa. They bury jars of smen in the ground and leave them there for a good long time – it’s a tradition among the Berbers to bury a jar at the birth of a daughter, then to dig it up when she gets married and use it in the cooking of the bridal feast.

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I read that a well-aged smen “has a characteristically strong, rancid, and cheesy taste and smell”. I further read that matured smen tastes very similar to blue cheese. If any of my readers happen to be going to Fez in Morocco, they might be interested to know that there is a square in the old city which is dedicated to the making and selling of smen. Much commentary online notes the “funky smell” of the smen being sold there.

PROMEMORIA: Talk to daughter about trying to track down a local source of smen, to compare and contrast with ghee. There must be quite a large population of people of Middle Eastern and North African origin in the Los Angeles area, and they surely will have their shops. And if it’s the Real McCoy, the smen should be made of goat’s or sheep’s milk, which could allow comparison with ghee made with cow’s milk.
PROMEMORIA: Check with daughter if she likes blue cheese. I think not, but in case she does, discuss if it’s worth trying to get a very mature smen. Question: Is there a Yemeni community in LA?? (or Berber community???)

Since a chance encounter with clarified butter in an Ethiopian context was the start of my (negative) involvement with this foodstuff, I feel I have to mention what the peoples of the Horn of Africa do in this culinary space. Not only Ethiopians but also Eritreans use clarified butter (called niter kibbeh in Ethiopia and tesmi in Eritrea). Like the peoples of the Middle East and North Africa, they add various spices and herbs during the simmering process. These can be spices native to the region, such as Ethiopian sacred basil, koserēt, and Ethiopian cardamon, and/or more universal spices such as our friend fenugreek, garlic, cumin, coriander, turmeric, or even cinnamon and nutmeg. I read that these impart “a distinct, spicy aroma”.

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PROMEMORIA: Talk to daughter about also trying to track down a local source of niter kibbeh or tesmi. I know for sure that there is a significant Ethiopian community in Los Angeles. Our daughter took us once to “Little Ethiopia”, to eat in an Ethiopian restaurant. Not sure about the existence of an Eritrean community.
PROMEMORIA: Check daughter’s spice racks, to see what spices she has, which – if she wants – she could add to her home-made ghee to turn into smen or niter kibbeh-slash-tesmi.

I don’t think that the young Ethiopian woman of yesterdecade had put niter kibbeh in our tea, or even ghee; there was no spicy aroma or nutty flavour to that revolting drink. My sense is that she had just made her own batch of clarified butter, but for reasons known only to herself omitted the herbs. I should also say that despite intensive searches on the Internet, I turned up no mention of Ethiopians putting niter kibbeh in their tea, so I’m wondering what my wife’s co-student was up to. I did, though, find a mention of the Mongolians (another pastoralist society) putting clarified butter in their tea, or süütei tsai in Mongolian, so someone really does do it. That being said, the Mongolians don’t make their süütei tsai the way I make tea. A basic recipe would be one quart of water, one quart of milk, a tablespoon of green tea, and a teaspoon of salt. Black tea can be exchanged for the green tea. Our friend clarified butter can be added. Another common addition is fried millet. I wonder if Anthony Bourdain ever tried this concoction in his culinary wanderings around the globe?

Other pastoralist cultures use clarified butter, for instance the Hausa and Fulanis of West Africa (who, I note in passing, call it manshanu, which means cow’s oil).

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But I won’t spend time on these other versions of clarified butter, because the app which my daughter uses to record all feedings and nappy changes tells me that the grandchild will soon wake up for the next feed and I have one more extremely important topic to cover.

This post was kicked off by my daughter and me having diametrically opposite opinions about ghee, which as I say intrigued me. Now that I know what ghee is, I have no excuse to make the final plunge: actually eat something with ghee in it, to check: could I have been wrong all those decades ago?

PROMEMORIA: Talk to my daughter about her preparing a dish with ghee in it, that I can try.

Uh-oh, I hear a wail from down the corridor. Time for the next feed, which my daughter will do, with my wife and I hovering around to help out.

WHERE ARE THE TOILETS, PLEASE?

Vienna, 13 September 2022

As my wife and I go places – bars, restaurants, museums, stores, and general walks around town – given the state of our respective bladders (old age creeping up …) we quite often need to use the toilets of these establishments. On my part, this has led me to study – and in some cases photograph – the signs used on the doors to signal to the desperate which door to open. After several years of taking photos, I think it is time to unveil my collection.

Readers may find this a bizarre preoccupation – I’m sure my wife does, although she’s always been too nice to say it – but actually it’s a very interesting little design challenge: how should one design the symbols used to distinguish the female toilets from the male toilets? I can’t say I’ve seen a huge number of signs which are interesting enough to take a photo of. So in writing this post, I had a quick look around the net to see what other signs I could use to bulk up the post. And of course I have discovered that I am not the only one to have an interest in toilet signs (if there’s one thing the Internet does, it’s to reinforce my melancholic conclusion that none of us are unique). There’s one site in particular that contains a treasure trove of photos of toilet signs, from which I have lifted a good number of the examples I show here. But even a general search through Google Images has thrown up all sorts of interesting examples. Many of the designs I’ve seen are pretty bog-standard (although perhaps this is not the right place to use this very British expression). This example will suffice to stand in for all these.

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Sometimes, there are attempts at humour, which is better than nothing I suppose. I photographed this sign some 7-8 years ago now in Bangkok. It’s quite a popular sign, I have since observed. I find it quite amusing – or at least I did when I first noticed it, although the amusement has now palled since it describes only too well my ever more frequent anguish at not finding a loo handy.

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Much of the humour is more of the toilet humour type (as it were). For instance, in one type of toilet signs phalluses and lack thereof figure prominently as the distinguishing feature between genders (I will slide over for the moment the current arguments about there not being binary genders, but rather a spectrum; we’ll pick up this (very) hot potato in a minute).

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In a hot dog shop. Source
In a pizza parlour. Source
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The next one is a more subtle example of the phallus and lack thereof theme. I will let my readers figure it out – although it does require a basic understanding of vulgar names in English for phalluses and lack-thereofs.

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Another grouping of toilet-humour signs cluster around the basic difference in urine delivery system between genders, as these examples show.

This one is rather obvious.

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These are rather more subtle

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And this one is even more subtle and really rather good.

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Other signs are more cerebral, using various scientific symbols to distinguish the genders.

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I suppose there are no gender-related biases baked into these types of signs, although a lot of people might not find them easily understandable. That includes me. If I’m to be honest, the last one would be hard for me; I can never remember who is XX and who is XY.

Others take the route of children’s drawings.

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Perhaps establishments which use this type of sign think that toilet users will get a warm feeling when they see these signs and forget the quarrels over gender biases which toilet signs can underscore. But this is actually a minefield; much ink has been spilled about the unconscious gender biases which are inculcated in small children: why should girls wear skirts and boys no? why should girls have ribbons in their hair and boys not? and so on and so on.

As for me, I’ve been more interested in symbols which, with an economy of shape and line, elegantly but clearly signal the two genders. If I’m to be honest, I’ve not seen a huge number of signs that meet my exacting standards of good design. Here’s what I have in my collection.

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Same set of elements make up the designs, but by just flipping one of the elements the gender distinction is made.

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Again, same set of elements, but a switch of position conveys the gender distinction.

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A few deft strokes of difference immediately distinguishes the genders.

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Again, just the addition of a few strokes and the repositioning of others, and the gender difference is made.

I can add to this one other sign I found on the internet designed in the same vein. It’s actually a variant on the first in this series which I’ve given above: same set of shapes, some just flipped.

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And now to tackle the very thorny question of gender identity! As anyone reading the papers will know, there are places in the world hotly debating into which toilet people who reject gender binarism should go. I will carefully avoid entering this minefield, and will simply show here a few photos that I’ve collected which apparently tackle this topic.

The first is from the station in Como, the starting point of many of our hikes around the lake. These are toilets which we often use, and I have had the chance of inspecting the signs many times. Looking at the layout of the two toilets – no urinals – I can only think that the symbol to the right in each case is inviting non-binary persons to enter the toilet which they feel most comfortable with.

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The next example is one of several I have collected over the years.

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I actually wonder if this type of sign is not simply signaling unisex toilets, which, if you think about it, is the simplest way of avoiding the gender wars – again, as long as you don’t have urinals. That being said, there are people up in arms about these toilets. I have to say this rather befuddles me, because as far as I can make out that’s what most of us have in our homes. I think the only question really is, do women feel safe in unisex toilets? If they do, then I don’t see where the problem lies – and just so long as we men aim properly.

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LAUGAVEGUR TRAIL, ICELAND

Vienna, 13 August 2020

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

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

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

Day 1: Landmannalaugar to Hrafntinnusker

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

Day 2: Hrafntinnusker to Álftavatn

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

Day 3: Álftavatn to Emstrur

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

Day 4: Emstrur to ƥórsmörk

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

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

our photo

 

10th ANNIVERSARY!

29 July 2022

10 years ago today, I published my first post!

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Yabba-Dabba-Doo!!

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481 posts later, I’m still standing, and I’m still at it!

Time to celebrate!

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Pour out the bubbly!

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Actually, it’s time to take my wife to a nice meal in a restaurant, to thank her for her patience and her support. See you all at the next post!

ELDERBERRIES, ELDERFLOWERS

Vienna, 13 July 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

As I said, quaint.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There’s elderberry wine, of course.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then there’s Pontack sauce.

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

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

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

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Recipe for the syrup at the end.

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

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

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

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

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

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

RECIPES

Elderberry wine

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

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

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

Fliederbeersuppe

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

Elderberry Chutney

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

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

Pontack sauce

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

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

Elderflower syrup (or cordial)

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

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

Socată

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

Fried elderflowers

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

Pane col sambuco

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

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

TURKEY – THE BIRD, NOT THE COUNTRY

Milan, 24 June 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PISTACHIO

Sori, 24 May 2022

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

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

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But so do peanuts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then along came California.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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ICE CREAM, SORBET, GRANITA

Milan, 2 May 2022

Whenever my wife and I complete a hike, we like to give ourselves a little treat. In my last post, I described the rum baba I will have after hiking in Liguria, coming off the Monte di Portofino and rolling into Santa Margherita. But the more common treat we’ll give ourselves for completing a hike in Italy is an ice cream. I mean, after a long hike in Italy, when you’re tired and hot, is there any better treat you could give yourself than a gelato?

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Given the enjoyment we get from consuming ice creams (my wife especially), I’ve been meaning to dig deeper into this delicious foodstuff for some time now, but have never quite got around to it. My writing of the previous post on the rum baba finally turned thought into action.

Let me immediately be completely up front. For decades now, I have been eating ice cream but I have never, ever made the stuff. The making of ice cream has been a completely closed book for me. Until now.

As usual, I began to read; not just on the making of ice cream but also – given my natural proclivities – on its history. And the more I read – or rather, the more rabbit holes I fell down – the more I realized that the story of ice cream was intimately linked to the stories of the sorbet and the granita.

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Not only that, but the stories of all three were intimately linked to the story of the trade in ice and snow. Since it was the latter that allowed the creation of the former, let me start with this.

We are all now so used to artificial refrigeration that we don’t give a second thought to going over to that white, quietly humming box in our kitchens on a devilishly hot day and pulling out cold food and drinks.

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But in the history of mankind, that’s a really recent phenomenon – artificial refrigeration has only been around for some 120 years. Before that, on that hot day you could only sweat and dream of that cool, cool beer, and if you had fresh produce you made sure to eat it as quickly as possible before it spoilt. Unless, that is, you were a king or emperor or other potentate, or generally were incredibly rich; one of the 1%, or more likely the 0.001%.

In this case, you had another option, that of paying people to climb high mountains where snow lay even in summer, to collect that snow and bring it back to your palace or other rich man’s pad.

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Once there, you would store it in an ice house. Your servants (or probably your slaves) would pack the snow in, insulating it as well as possible (straw seems to have been a popular insulating material; sawdust is also mentioned). Here is a type of ice house used in Persia.

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After which, it could be doled out during the hot months to keep food fresh or to make cold desserts with which to turn your guests green with envy when you invited them around for a banquet. I suppose it was the ancient equivalent of a Russian oligarch inviting guests for a spin in his super yacht.

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This practice has a long history. There are cuneiform tablets which show that snow was already being carried down to the plains of Mesopotamia in about 1750 B.C.E. The Persians were carrying snow down from the Taurus mountains in about 400 B.C.E. The Greeks did it, as did the Romans, bringing snow down from Vesuvius and Etna, as well as from the Apennines. Snow was carried down from the mountains of Lebanon to Damascus and Baghdad. The Mughal emperors had snow carried down from the Himalayas to Delhi. Granada and Seville had corporations which were tasked with carrying snow down from the Sierra Nevada to these cities. The Spaniards brought the practice to the New World, both to their Andean colonies as well as to Mexico.

In regions where climates were sufficiently cold in the winter for good ice formation on water bodies, a different strategy could be adopted: the ice was harvested during the winter and stored in ice houses for use during the summer. The Chinese were doing this by the time of the Tang Dynasty, if not before. Kings and aristocrats from Europe were doing it by the 16th Century, using ponds or lakes on their large estates to create the necessary ice, which they would then store in their ice houses. My wife and I recently came across this on one of our hikes around Lake Como. We happened to visit one of the old villas on the lake, Villa del Balbianello.

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Tucked away in the corner of the grounds, on the cold side of the hill, was this ice house (in which, I should note in passing, the last owner had himself buried).

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Rich colonialists in New England and the Canadian provinces copied the practice. But the democratic (and capitalist) spirit of the colonies was too strong. By 1800, businessmen in New England democratized the practice, harvesting ice on a large enough scale to make it affordable for modest households, who could use it in primitive refrigerators.

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The ice was delivered to one’s doorstep by ice vendors.

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These New England “ice entrepreneurs” even began to export their ice, eventually exporting it as far as Australia! Norway learnt from the Americans and got into the act on a big scale, exporting ice to many countries in Europe. Other European countries got involved in this international trade on a more modest scale: Switzerland exported ice to France, ice harvested in the mountains along what is now the Italian-Slovenian border were exported through the port of Trieste to countries further south in the Mediterranean, …

This flourishing ice business came to a crashing halt when artificial refrigeration came along in the early 1900s. The take-over by artificial refrigeration came in stages. Until quite recently, ice was still being delivered to households (I remember my parents receiving their deliveries of ice in the 1960s in West Africa), but now that ice was being made in a centralized refrigeration plant and not in a lake. And then even the local trade in ice disappeared as just about every household eventually owned their own refrigerator.

Coming back now to the Holy Trinity of ice cream, sorbet, and granita, as I said earlier one of the things all those rich Mesopotamians, Chinese, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Indians and other moneyed folk could do with the ice they had had collected was to have their cooks make cold desserts. What exactly these cold desserts were composed of is a bit of a mystery, but we can guess that the ice, no doubt crushed in a mortar, was mixed with honey or various fruit-based syrups and served to guests, perhaps sprinkled with petals, seeds and other such niceties. Something like this – without all the niceties, though – was quite a common summer street food in Italy in the 19th and early 20th centuries, made affordable by a plentiful supply of cheap ice – indeed, you can still find it to this day in one or two places in Rome, under the name of grattachecca.

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Basically, ice is grated from an ice block and put into a glass, onto which are then poured various types of syrups – black cherry, tamarind, mint, orgeat, coco, lemon, you name it …. Simple, cheap, and cooling on a hot summer’s day. If any of my readers are in Rome on a hot summer’s day and want to try a grattachecca, this is one of the places you can still get it.

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I’ve never had a grattachecca, but I can imagine one drawback with it. When it’s still cold you take a mouthful of the mixture and end up swallowing the now-watery syrup and then sucking on tasteless pieces of ice. And when it’s warmed up all you’re having is a cold drink.

Then, in the 16th Century in Europe, came a revolutionary discovery. Someone, somewhere discovered that if you put salt on ice you can actually drop the temperature to below 0°C. Anyone living in a country with cold winters is familiar with this phenomenon. It’s behind the use of salt on roads to melt black ice. I won’t go into the science behind the phenomenon, fascinating though it is. I’ll just say that you can drop the temperature to as low as -20°C in this way! I can’t stop myself throwing in a so-called phase diagram for salt solutions. They’re kind of neat, and any of my readers who have studied some science at some point in their lives can have fun looking at it. Other readers can skip it.

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It may not be immediately obvious to readers why this was important to our particular story. But what it meant was that cooks finally had a way of freezing things rather than only being able to cool them using ice from the ice house. We’re so used to having artificial refrigeration at our fingertips that we can have difficulties understanding what a revolution this was.

As far as our story is concerned, this was the key to making granita, sorbet, and ice cream. That snow brought down from the mountains or the ice harvested from a nearby lake were now no longer an intimate part of the dessert; instead, mixed with salt, they became merely an operational material in the making of that dessert. Center place was now given to various sweet concoctions which cooks came up with and which they then froze.

Or actually, as far as our Holy Trinity is concerned, partially froze. Because if granite, sorbets, and ice creams were truly frozen, they would be hard as rock and completely inedible. They needed to be cold but soft enough to be scooped up with a spoon  – or bitten or licked off, as we see these French ladies, post French Revolution, doing with gusto.

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Here, sugar is key. Just as salty solutions of water freeze at lower temperatures than pure water so do sugary solutions. In effect, what happens as you cool sugary solutions below 0°C is that the water molecules freeze, creating crystals of ice, while the sugar molecules do not. The result of this is that as more and more water molecules are pulled out of the sugary solution to form crystals, so the remaining sugary solution gets more and more concentrated. In addition, the sugar molecules get in the way of the crystallizing water molecules and impede them from ever creating big ice crystals. The net result of this is a whole lot of small to tiny ice crystals scattered throughout a very sugary syrup. It is primarily this that gives granite, sorbets, and ice creams their cold but semi-solid consistency (primarily, but not wholly; another ingredient, which we’ll get to in a minute, is present in sorbets and ice creams, and is very important in ensuring that semi-solid consistency).

But what were the sugary solutions that cooks began to freeze? And to answer this, we have to look at the history of a sweet drink called sharbat. The roots of this drink are in Persia, where it continues to be drunk to this day.

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Originally, it was simply sugarcane juice (sugarcane had been brought to the Persian lands from India in the 8th Century). But to this base Persians added various things: syrups, spices, herbs, nuts, flower petals, and what have you. And, if you were a very rich Persian, it was cooled with that snow and ice which you had paid handsomely to have brought down from the high mountains. The Turks adopted the drink, calling it şerbet. And then the Venetians, and possibly other Italian traders who traded with the Ottoman Empire, brought the drink back to Italy, calling it sorbetto. The Turks helpfully created ready-mixed, transportable şerbet bases to which water could be added; these came in the form of syrups, pastes, tablets, and even powders. Since cane sugar was not yet readily available in Europe, I’m guessing that it was in one of these forms that şerbet first entered Italy and then other European countries. Certainly in the 17th Century the UK was importing “sherbet powders” from the Ottoman Empire (and no doubt these powders are the ancestors of that revolting powder now sold in the UK as “sherbet”, which tastes horribly sugary and fizzes in your mouth when you eat it).

This sugary drink was perfect for our new freezing process. Without wanting to fly any flag too ostentatiously, I think it was the Italians who first applied the process to the sorbetto drink and basically turned this drink into a semi-solid dessert. Recognizing the origin, the granita was initially called the sorbetto granito while the sorbet was called the sorbetto gelato. With time, the former simply became known as the granita and the latter as the sorbetto (while the gelato bit got assigned to the ice cream).

But what actually is the difference between the granita and the sorbet? Two things. The first is the size of the ice crystals. In the granita, they tend to be larger than in the sorbet – but not too large! Otherwise, you would end up with something like the grattachecca. It’s the larger crystals that give granita its granulous feel in the mouth (hence the name). One can fix ice crystal size by playing around with the amount of sugar (the less sugar, the larger the crystals) and by the amount of stirring one does as the solution is freezing (the more stirring, the smaller the crystals). You have here a strawberry granita. Notice the bun in the background; in Sicily especially, where the granita is very popular, it is common to eat one’s granita with a bun.

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The sorbet, on the other hand, has tiny crystals. And it has a secret ingredient: air. Someone, somewhere had the idea of constantly churning their sorbetto as it was freezing, rather than churning it from time to time as is the case with the granita. Not only did this constant churning stop the ice crystals from growing, it also introduced a lot of air into the mix. The tiny ice crystals made for a much smoother sensation in the mouth, while the air led to a softer product (and to higher profit margins since the air was free and it puffed up the volume). Staying with strawberries, here is a strawberry sorbet.

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Another someone, somewhere invented a machine specifically for making sorbets, known of course as a sorbettiera in Italian and a sorbetière in French. Here’s a model from the late 1800s.

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Which brings us to ice cream. Yet another someone, somewhere had the bright idea of adding cream and egg yolks to the sorbet mix. This complicates the science even more, because with the cream you have added fats to the mix and as we know fat and water don’t mix, which is where the egg yolks come in. They act as an emulsifier, which is a fancy term for something that gets molecules unwilling to mix to do so. I suppose the idea was to make sorbets “creamier”, or maybe someone was playing around in a kitchen, decided to see what would happen if you added cream and egg yolks and hey presto! ice cream was born.

Otherwise, ice cream was made like sorbet: constant churning and dragging in of air. Voilà! Or maybe I should say Ecco! because I’m almost certain Italians invented ice cream. Staying on theme, here is a strawberry ice cream.

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As I said earlier, since air is free and puffs up the volume of the product it’s very much in the interests of manufacturers of low quality ice cream to get as much air into their product as possible. Which leads to that disgusting ice cream which comes out of a machine like toothpaste and looks like this.

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This revolting product is my first memory of ice cream, bought from a truck like this one.

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They nearly put me off ice cream for life. It was only when I came to Italy that I began to enjoy ice cream.

Now as I say, I’m almost certain that it was the Italians who invented both sorbet and ice cream. But it was the French who really put them on the map – the must things to serve your guests. And in those days at least, as far as tastes were concerned, where the French went the others followed.

It was a café – another novelty of the age – that made sorbet and ice cream all the rage. The Café Procope opened its doors in 1686, in the reign of Louis XIV. It was established by an Italian, a Sicilian to be precise, by the name of Francesco Procopio Cutò.

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Cutò emigrated to Paris at the age of 19. After working for a couple of years as a garçon in someone else’s café, he managed to scrape enough money together to buy the-then oldest café in Paris at the tender age of 21 and had enough hubris to give it his name. It was a fantastic success; all the chattering classes of the time came running to his café, and devoured its famous sorbets and ice creams. As far as sorbets were concerned, the café offered 80 different types! Some of the more popular tastes were mint, clove, pistachio, daffodil, bergamot, and grape. I’ve not been able to discover how many types of ice cream the café offered but presumably the listing was just as long.

From the Café Procope the sorbet and ice cream entered the kitchens of the Parisian moneyed classes, and from there they entered the kitchens of the European moneyed classes more generally: all the rich Europeans wanted to ape the French rich folk. And from there, they spread to the kitchens of more modest middle class households: everyone wanted to ape their social superiors. And from there, the industrial revolution turned the ice cream especially (not so much the sorbet) into a cheap and not terribly good product, to be consumed by the masses on their day out at the seaside.

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So it is with many, many products. Luckily, though, the Italians still make high-quality but affordable ice creams, which my wife and I can enjoy after a long, hot and tiring hike. Thank God for that!

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RUM BABA

Vienna, 9 April 2022

One of my guilty pleasures (the weight! the diet!) is eating a rum baba with my tea in the afternoon when my wife and I have walked off the Monte di Portofino down to Santa Margherita. There’s a little café in the pedestrian zone there, which offers a variety of sweet pastries. One of these is rum baba. We always make a bee-line for the café, plonk ourselves down at one of the tables outside it, and order two teas – milk for my wife, lemon for me – and a rum baba for me (depending on the weight situation, my wife will either look on enviously, or take a bite, or order her own pastry). Ah, the silky, squishy, sugary deliciousness of it!!

I had my first rum baba at the age of 10 or thereabouts, one of the times I was staying with my English grandmother on the way to, or on the way back from, boarding school. She had bought two of them specially – I now rather suspect that she had a weakness for rum babas and used my presence as a good excuse to buy them. Apart from the deliciousness of them, there was the excitement of slurping down Something Forbidden: rum! A highly alcoholic drink, with thrilling connections to the most dubious characters, as I knew from reading Treasure Island (“Yo, ho, ho, and a bottle of rum” sang the pirates) and Tintin’s Rackam Le Rouge.

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There was also the name, baba, which was satisfyingly quirky, vaguely evoking in my young mind something exotic.

After that momentous first time, I came across this pastry occasionally. I have a vague memory from my teenage years of my mother ordering one in a French high-end café, this time in its French form, le baba au rhum. But overall it has been quite a rarity in my culinary experiences, so it is a pleasure to have found a place where with relatively little effort I can sample this delight more frequently, in its Italian form, il babà.

But what, some of my readers may be asking impatiently, is a rum baba?! It’s basically a small cake, made with Brewer’s yeast so that the dough will rise, which, after it is baked, is allowed to dry out a little and then is imbibed with a mix of sugar syrup and rum. The shape of the rum baba depends on the country: in France, it’s normally doughnut-shaped (ditto in the UK, because they copied all their ote kwizeen from the French). Note the heavy dose of Chantilly cream, which is often ladled onto rum babas.

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The Italians, on the other hand, tend to make it mushroom-shaped (or like the cork of a champagne bottle). Note in this case, too, the heavy dose of cream.

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And where was the rum baba invented, readers might also be asking? (at least, I hope they’re asking this vital question). Well, to answer that, I have to introduce my readers to a sad prince, Stanisław Leszczyński.

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Born in 1677 into a high-ranking Polish family, he had the bad luck of being on the losing end of the perpetual political quarrels in Poland. His undoing was the Great War of the North, a war which involved Sweden on one side and Russia, Denmark, and Saxony on the other. Just for the hell of it, I throw in here a picture of a painting of one of the battles in this war; for some reason, these paintings always show officers prancing around on horses.

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Charles XII of Sweden initially had the upper hand militarily. Among other things, he pushed out the-then King of Poland, August II (who was also Prince Elector of Saxony), and in 1704 put Leszczyński in his place with the dynastic name of Stanisław I. In 1709, however, Charles XII was soundly beaten by the Russians. The result was that August II was back on the Polish throne and Leszczyński was out on his ear. With his wife and two daughters in tow, he took the road to exile. In 1714, either out of pity or because he was a bit embarrassed, Charles XII let Leszczyński live in one of his holdings, the Palatinate of Zweibrücken, in what is now southern Germany close to the modern French border of Lorraine. Here, Leszczyński could live the life of a Prince Palatine of the Holy Roman Empire.

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Alas, he was only allowed four years of the princely life. In 1718, Charles XII was killed still fighting the Great War of the North, the Palatinate passed to a cousin of his, and Leszczyński was once more out on his ear. This time, his neighbour the Duke of Lorraine came to the rescue and took him and his family in. But this could only be temporary and after some negotiations with the French Regent (Louis XV being under age at the time) Leszczyński was given a modest pension and allowed to settle on French territory. The place chosen was Wissembourg, a small town close to the far northern border of Alsace. It was 1719 and Leszczyński was to live there until 1725, surrounded by an ever-diminishing coterie of Polish nobles playing at being the Polish court in-exile.

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Which brings us back to the rum baba. For it was in Wissembourg, in Leszczyński’s kitchens, that the rum baba, or rather its immediate ancestor, was born. Stanisław Leszczyński was probably not the best candidate for Polish king. That position needed a man of cunning and resourcefulness, with a ruthless streak, able to ride herd on the quarrelsome Polish nobles and juggle the competing aggressions of the countries surrounding Poland. That was not Leszczyński. He was a Man of Letters, at home in libraries (of which he built several during his lifetime) and author of a book or two. He saw himself as an Ambassador of the Enlightenment, writing various philosophical essays to promote its ideas. He was also a bon vivant, as the French say, a man who liked the pleasures of the flesh, particularly his food. With his modest pension, he couldn’t afford the best cooks, but his staff did what they could with what was locally on offer. Luckily for us, they hired a young Alsatian from the local region who went by the name of Nicolas Stohrer. He was 14 when he entered Leszczyński’s kitchens as a kitchen boy, but he must have been pretty damned good because he quickly became the chef in charge of cold and hot pastries and stews and desserts. Unfortunately, Stohrer left no pictures of himself behind, at least not on the internet, so I’m afraid readers will just have to imagine what he might have looked like.

One of the desserts Leszczyński loved was kougelhopf, a local Alsatian cake.

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It’s actually a cake that is found throughout a wide swathe of Central Europe, from southern Germany through Switzerland, Austria, Hungary, and the ex-Yugoslavian countries, to the Czech Republic and Poland. It goes by various names; my wife and I know it as Gugelhupf, its name in Austria, which is where we first came across it (and I can certainly understand why Stanisław loved it so much, for it is indeed a very yummy cake). Important for our story, in Poland this cake is known as babka, or by the diminutive baba. And Leszczyński loved his kougelhopf in part because it reminded him of the baba he used to eat in Poland: like many exiles and immigrants, he no doubt found comfort in food from the Old Country.

The story goes that one day Leszczyński found his kougelhopf too dry (one source adds that he had lost his teeth by now, making it difficult for him to eat anything hard; a nice touch, but I’m not sure how much to believe it). He reminisced out loud – presumably in the presence of Stohrer – of how in the Old Country one sometimes drenched the baba in tokay wine from Hungary. Inspired by this tale, Stohrer went off to the kitchen, played around with the kougelhof, and eventually came up with the idea of a smaller cake, left to dry out a little, which could then be drenched by diners with a sauce based on fortified wine – here, the sources diverge somewhat: some say Madeira wine, others Malaga wine, yet others a mix of Malaga wine and an infusion of Tansy (for those readers who, like me before writing this post, have no idea what Tansy is, it’s a plant with a rather nice yellow flower which can be steeped in alcohol to give an infusion with a strong, camphor-like and bitter taste; no doubt it was used in small quantities to give sweet things a slight edge). To (literally) top off this creation, diners would add a (large) dollop of crème pâtissière, which is a thicker form of custard.

Leszczyński just loved this new cake. When asked by Stohrer what to name it, he declared it should be known as baba. One half of rum baba’s name was now in place.

Leszczyński’s family loved it too; in fact, more than 100 years later (and just a few years after the rum baba was finally invented in its entirety), a writer reported that Leszczyński’s descendants still served the dessert the original way, with a sauce boat being handed around and diners liberally saucing the cake with a sweet-wine based sauce. Leszczyński’s guests, when served it, loved it too. Some 30 years after the baba’s creation, the philosopher and encyclopedist Diderot wrote enthusiastically to one of his friends about the baba after he had been invited to dine with the Leszczyńskis. But what really led to a dramatic increase in the cake’s popularity was the marriage between 15-year old Louis XV and Leszczyński’s 22-year old daughter Maria Leszczyńska.

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This was definitely not a marriage made in heaven. As readers have seen, the Leszczyńskis were not a great dynasty; a short reign on a modest throne was all Leszczyński père could boast of. At this point they had neither lands nor money; they “depended on the kindness of strangers”, living off a very modest pension. Louis XV, on the other hand, was la crème pâtissière de la crème pâtissière, dynastically speaking, and had lands, properties, and funds to match. The simple fact is, Maria Leszczyńska was the only Catholic princess of marriageable age whom all the opposing factions surrounding the young king had nothing against. And the Regent was in a hurry to marry Louis off; the child had always been sickly and there were real fears that he would die young and childless, precipitating a succession crisis.

So an envoy was dispatched to Wissembourg with the king’s offer of marriage. Readers can imagine that when she read the offer, Maria Leszczyńska fell over herself to accept it, and no doubt Stanisław Leszczyński executed a little Polish jig in his living room upon hearing the news. His fortunes were definitely turning for the better!

Leszczyński fades out of our story at this point. But not to leave readers hanging, wondering what happened to him, let me zip through the rest of his long, long life. As befitted the parents-in-law of the king, who, though, didn’t have two coins of their own to rub together, Leszczyński and his wife were lent one of the king’s many grand residences to live in, in this case the Château de Chambord in the Loire valley, and they were given a considerably bigger pension to live on. He was now a fully-fledged French aristocrat.

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About ten years after Maria Leszczyńska married, August II of Poland died. Leszczyński saw his chance and rushed to Poland. But this second attempt to haul himself onto the Polish throne was an even more miserable failure than the first and within two years he was back in France with his tail between his legs. At the time, Louis XV was trying to bring a related war with the Austrian Emperor to a close. After some difficult negotiations, it was agreed, among other things, that the-then Duke of Lorraine (who happened to be married to the future Empress Maria Theresa of Austria) would give up his Duchy (and be given the Grand Duchy of Tuscany in return), that Leszczyński would take over the Duchy of Lorraine and the ducal title, but that the Duchy would revert to the kingdom of France upon his death. Thus did Lorraine become part of France. Leszczyński occupied the ducal throne for nearly 30 years. Since officers of the French King actually ran the Duchy, he spent much of his time beautifying its capital, Nancy, which is indeed a very beautiful city – my wife and I visited it a number of years ago before starting a tour of the French sector of the Western Front. At the exceedingly venerable age of 88, he died – but in a horrible way, alas! He fell asleep near his fire, a cinder fell on his dressing gown, which started to burn fiercely. He died of his burns after several days of agony. RIP Stanisław Leszczyński.

But coming back now to the rum baba. At her wedding, Maria Leszczyńska asked her father if she could take Nicolas Stohrer with her to Versailles. It must have been a wrench, but Leszczyński agreed; he probably didn’t have much else to give her as a dowry. And so Stohrer joined the kitchens of Versailles, helping to serve up meals at glittering court events.

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He introduced the court to the baba, but he also invented other pastry dishes in the kitchens of Versailles, some of which are still with us today, notably la bouchée à la reine.

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For reasons which are not clear – at least from the records available to me – after five years at Versailles Stohrer handed in his notice (or whatever one did in those days) and set himself up in his own pâtisserie in Paris, at 51 rue Montorgueil, in the 2ème arrondissement.

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Amazingly enough, it’s still there! Although no longer owned by the original family, alas …

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I have to think that the idea of pre-soaking the baba in the sweet wine sauce must have occurred now if it had not already occurred in the kitchens of Versailles. I can’t see Nicolas Stohrer saying to a customer as he sells them the baba, “take this dried-out cake home and ladle the sauce I’m giving you in this crock over the cake when you serve it. That’ll be 3 francs, 5 sous, please.” I really don’t see that as a sellable proposition. In any event, we can now leave Stohrer and his descendants happily selling babas and other pastries from their shop, and consider the second vital ingredient of our dessert, rum.

Rum is essentially a by-product of the sugar industry. At some point in the refining process, molasses is generated.

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Unless some use can be found for it, it is a waste. From the beginning of the slave-based sugar industry in South America and the Caribbean islands, plantation owners were asking themselves what to do with this molasses.

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About 50 years before Leszczyński was born, rum began to be made with it.

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Initially, the distillation technology was crude, so the rum produced was very rough: “a hot, hellish, and terrible liquor” is how one document, written in Barbados in 1651, described it. Its main consumers seem to have been slaves, who were allowed to inebriate themselves with it and temporarily forget their terrible lot. With time, its customer base spread to the poor white trash of the colonies, sailors (and of course pirates, as I mentioned earlier), and other riffraff. Sadly, it also became one of the main currencies of exchange in the slave trade. The local slave traders in Africa, the ones who captured the slaves inland and brought them down to the coast, sold their “cargo” to the European slave traders for rum.

Plantation owners of course also eyed the much larger markets in their home countries and tried to export their rum there, or to export their molasses to local rum makers. In the case of France, they came up against the determined resistance of the brandy makers. The making of brandy was a wonderful way for French vintners and others involved in the wine trade to deal with poor quality grapes and soured wine. They already had a good market and were damned if these bloody colonial upstarts and their partners in France were going to cut into their sales. So they launched a strong lobbying effort (what else is new?) and eventually, in 1713 (more or less when Leszczyński became an exile), they persuaded the government to ban the production in France, and sale on the French market, of any alcoholic spirit not made with grapes (which therefore included other spirits like gin, which was also becoming popular).

And that was that for rum in France for nearly 100 years. It was only in 1803 that Napoleon finally allowed rum back onto the French market. By then, distillation techniques had considerably improved and along with them the quality of the rum brought to market. Apart from the population drinking it, I suppose French chefs tinkered with it in their kitchens, to see how it could be used in cooking. Included amongst these tinkerers must have been the Stohrer descendant who now owned that pâtisserie on rue Montorgeuil, or one of his staff. Whoever it was, they had the idea of substituting rum diluted in a syrup of sugar for the sweet-wine mixtures used up to then. The tinkering succeeded and finally the momentous day arrived. In 1835, the new baba au rhum began to be served to the clientele!

The rum baba was of course an immediate success. Other chefs and pâtissiers got into the game.

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Recipes were included in cook books and knock-offs were created (the most famous being the savarin, which is to all intents and purposes a baba but soaked in a different sauce). It spread to other regions in Europe, one of the most notable being the Bourbon kingdom of Naples. For some reason, il babà (as it was known) became wildly popular there, and over the years it has become an integral part of the food landscape in the Region of Campania, to the point that it has been denominated a Traditional Italian Food Product (Prodotto agroalimentare tradizionale italiano) by the Italian Ministry of Agriculture. Well! That’s pretty cheeky of the Campanians! Talk about cultural appropriation. I wonder what the French think about that? (but then maybe the Poles have something to say about the French taking their baba …) At least the Campanians make it in a different shape (as I noted above) and often use a different liqueur to soak it in, for instance limoncello. But still … In any event, this is the kind of rum baba which I eat in that little café in Santa Margherita, and after tut-tutting about the issue of cultural appropriation, I happily tuck in.

So that’s the story of this wonderful pastry. I urge all my readers to immediately go out and also tuck into a rum baba. As for me, since I happen to be writing this in Vienna where my wife and I have come to spend the month of April, all this research I’ve done has made me hanker after the original cake, the Gugelhopf. I think we should use the time we’re here to have a nice slice of this yummy cake somewhere. I’ll bring this up with my wife – and diet be damned!