POSTS

SERENDIPITY

Milan, 20 January 2023

I love serendipity, those moments in life when, quite by chance, something wonderful happens to you. Such a moment occurred a month or so ago now, when my wife and I, free for the day from our babysitting duties, headed off to LA’s Chinatown, to have our hair cut and to nose around a little. Pleasant as this all was, it was not where the serendipitous moment occurred. It was later, when we decided to walk from Chinatown to Bunker Hill, hoping to catch an exhibition at the Broad Museum or the Museum of Contemporary Art, which both sit on that hill. There was indeed a wonderful exhibition at MOCA, but fascinating as it was, it was also not there that the serendipitous moment occurred. It happened on the way; by sheer chance, I chose a route which took us past LA’s Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.

I cannot stress strongly enough, one should never go past a church without visiting it. For two thousand years, churches have been the repositories of some of the best art our cultures have produced (as indeed have temples and other sites of worship the world over), so there are very good chances that there will be something interesting to see in every church. The Cathedral of our Lady of the Angels was a brilliant example of the truth of my injunction, “Enter that church! Do not walk past it!”

The cathedral itself, opened in 2002, is certainly an interesting example of postmodern design by the Spanish architect Rafael Moneo (who also designed the fantastic museum of Roman Art in Merida, Spain, which my wife and I visited some 15 years ago; but that is another story). These two photos give an idea of what the cathedral looks like inside and out.

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As I said, interesting. But the real jewel – that serendipitous moment – were the tapestries that lined the two walls of the nave. They were magnificent. They were designed by the Californian artist John Nava and woven in Belgium, a country with a centuries-old tradition in the making of tapestries.

This photo shows their general layout.

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Readers with good eyes will be able to see that the tapestries depict a procession of people – women, men, children – moving towards the cross above the high altar. Closer inspection shows that most of these people are saints (or in certain cases blesseds). These photos show some of the panels (there are 26 of them in all).
Some of the tapestries on the southern wall:

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Sone of the tapestries on the northern wall:

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With the more modern saints, Nava used photos or contemporary paintings to create their likeness, otherwise he used family members, acquaintances, and models. He wanted his saints to look like real people, where we the viewers could say “hey, that looks awfully like so-and-so”.

The tapestries show quite a mix of saints and blesseds, from all over the world (although Europe does predominate) and across all ages. A good number I’m familiar with. My mother, may she rest in peace, used to ply me with comic books (graphic novels might be a more respectable term, given the subject matter) of the lives of various saints, to give me good examples to live up to. So, for instance, I’m familiar with Jean Vianney, the Curé d’Ars (the saint on the far right in this photo).

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Then there’s Saint Francis, a saint I am particularly fond of as I’ve written about in an earlier post (again, the saint on the far right of this photo).

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Then there’s San Carlo Borromeo; you cannot live in Milan for any length of time without coming across him multiple times (he’s the second from the left in the photo below).

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I’ve mentioned San Carlo a few times in my posts, and I think Nava has made his nose too small – all the paintings of the saint I’ve ever seen show that he had a monstrous conk.

Some are saints who were alive during my lifetime and with whom I have a certain familiarity – Mother Theresa and Pope John XXIII, for instance.

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I like the fact that Nava has mixed in a number of anonymous people with his saints and blesseds – mostly children, as we see in the first of these close-up photos – to remind us that we can all be saints (although, as history has sadly taught us, we can all be devils too; but we’ll draw a veil over that today).

Readers will see that while the faces which Nava created are intact, the clothes of many show gaps and scars, reminiscent of old frescoes which have been partly destroyed; a nice touch, I found.

Stumbling across these tapestries was wonderful enough. But what was even more delightful was that this modern procession of saints immediately brought to my mind another such procession, in a church nearly 10,000 km away and erected some 1,500 years before the cathedral of our Lady of the Angels: Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, a church which has been the subject of several of my earlier posts.

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Ravenna is one of my most favorite places in the world, filled as it is with early Christian churches whose interiors house mosaics. Any long-term readers of my blog will know that early Christian mosaics hold a special place in my heart. I still remember that morning in early July of 1975 when I walked into Sant’Apollinare Nuovo for the first time: another serendipitous moment. Callow youth that I was, I had put Ravenna on my itinerary because the Michelin Green Guide, which I was religiously following, assigned the town its maximum of three stars. I had no idea what to expect, and I was overcome by what I found before me. The walls of Sant’Apollinare glitter with wonderful mosaics showing a line of virgins and martyrs processing solemnly towards the high altar. In a sign of how things have changed in the intervening 1,500 years, whereas in the tapestries all the saints are mixed companionably together, in Ravenna they are rigorously segregated by gender, with the virgins processing down one wall and the martyrs (all male) processing down the other (they are also all white, showing the much more local reach of the Christian church then than now).

Here we have the procession of the virgins.

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And here, a little less clearly, we have the procession of the martyrs.

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I throw in a couple of close-ups to give readers a better sense of what the mosaics are like. Here, are some of the virgins, with names that we would recognize today – Christina, Caterina, Paulina.

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And here are some of the martyrs, with names like Clement and Laurence but also others which are far less familiar to us today – Sistus, Hypolitus, Cornelius.

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The other mosaics I discovered that day – in the churches of Sant’Apollinare in Classe and of San Vitale, in the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, in the Baptistery of Neon and the Arian Baptistery – were just as magnificent and are forever etched in my mind.

Ah, the thrill of serendipity! Remember, readers: never pass a church (or a mosque, or a synagogue, or a temple, or a gurdwara) without going in! (if they allow you, that is) Chances are you’ll see something interesting, and sometimes you’ll find something wonderful.

LIMONCELLO

Los Angeles, 24 December 2022

One of the duties which my wife and I have as grandparents is to walk our newborn grandchild around, mostly to put him asleep but also just to keep him occupied while his mother gets herself ready to feed him. When it’s my turn, I like to take him into the back garden to admire the plants there – well, I fondly imagine that he’s looking at the plants, although in my more sober moments I recognize that he hardly distinguishes colours and shapes yet.

One of the plants in the back garden is a lemon tree – more of a lemon bush, actually, but still covered in lemons.

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We pick the lemons off the bush and use them in the typical way, on fish, in sauces, in tea. But we have difficulty keeping up with the bush’s production and I’ve been thinking on and off about what other – easy – uses my daughter could put the lemons to (in principle, they could be used to make lemon tarts and what have you, but that requires far too much work). It just so happens that we’ve returned from a lightning visit to a couple who live in Seattle, old friends from the distant, distant past. As we chatted about this and that, they happened to mention that they would soon be getting a couple of bottles of home-made limoncello from a friend. A light went on in my head.

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Could my daughter and her partner be making limoncello with their lemons?

For those of my readers who are not familiar with limoncello, it is a lemon-based liqueur whose origins lie somewhere in the south of Italy. Here’s some shelves with a number of different limoncello brands on them.

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On the face of it, it’s quite easy to make. Drop lemon zest into pretty much pure alcohol. Let the zest steep for several weeks to make sure that the alcohol extracts all the essential oils and aromatics in the zest, by which point the alcohol will have taken on the product’s characteristic yellow hue which you see in the photo above. Add syrup, that is to say, water with a lot of sugar dissolved in it. Let the mixture stand for another couple of weeks. Strain out the zest. Bottle. Voilà! Or actually, since we are talking about an Italian product, Ecco!

Of course, it’s not really ecco!; the devil, as they say, is in the details.

Let’s start with the lemons. Since their whole purpose is to imbue the alcohol with essential oils, the sources insist on using types of lemons whose zest is packed with these oils. That’s one thing I learned in researching for this post, that there are many types of lemons. In my ignorance, I had assumed that a lemon is a lemon is a lemon. Eh no, amici miei! There are actually many types of lemons, 30 to 40 depending on the source you read. And – vital for our story – some have more essential oils in their zest than others.

Now, I have no idea what type of lemons are growing in my daughter’s garden. I just have to hope that they contain sufficient amounts of essential oils for a passable limoncello to be made from them. But if my readers are are interested and have a choice, a good lemon to use is the limone di Sorrento which, as the name suggests, originally came from the Sorrentine peninsula and now grows all around the bay of Naples (and has been exported around the world, so it is almost certainly available somewhere in California).

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Somehow, the locals living on the Amalfi coast managed to get the lemon certified as having Protected Geographical Indication under the name of sfusato amalfitano; they must have enjoyed taking over the name and thumbing their collective noses at the Sorrentini! One of those wonderful stories of local rivalries in Italy, which I’ve mentioned in an earlier post.

In any event, it’s certainly true that the little towns along the Amalfi coast have been most vociferous in their claims to be the source of limoncello, although there is no solid evidence to this effect. Here, we have one of those vociferating towns.

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There is a rather fanciful Creation Story doing the rounds, which involves the grandmother of the owner of a bar on the Amalfi coast. He offered his clients this wonderful lemon-based liqueur made the way his dear old grandmum used to make it, using the same lemons from the old lemon trees which grew in her lovely little garden … the rest is history! I rather cynically suspect that the Amalfi coast’s claims have something to do with the locals’ pressing need to find an outlet for all the lemons that grew there. There was a time when the various navies of Europe bought them to deal with scurvy, and the steep, rocky hillsides were turned into a tapestry of tiny lemon orchards to meet the demand.

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With the bottom of that market dropping out, another outlet was needed if all these slips of lemon orchards were not to go to rack and ruin. Limoncello seems to have saved the day. I read that more than half of the Amalfi coast’s lemon crop is now used to make the liqueur. In passing, I should note, in case any of my readers are interested, that some enterprising people have organised a Sentiero dei Limoni, or Lemon Trail, which runs from the village of Maiori to the village of Minori through the lemon orchards, under the trellises over which the trees grow.

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Having good lemons is a necessary but not sufficient condition for making a good limoncello. The manner in which the zest is removed is also key. The sources are most insistent on this. No pith must make its way into the brewing limoncello! It will add bitterness. One source suggests that even a vegetable peeler is too risky, a microplane should be used, and the zested lemons should look like this at the end of the process (also showing the zest and the microplane).

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But that leaves a lot of wounded lemons. I’m sure my daughter could make a lemonade, or a sauce for a fish dish, but what, I wonder, do commercial producers of limoncello do with the tonnes of lemons they’ve zested? The sources are silent on this point.

Pithless lemon zest is also a necessary but not sufficient condition to make a good limoncello. There’s the alcohol into which you put the zest. As I said earlier, the sources talk about using pretty much pure alcohol, what’s called rectified spirits in the trade, with some sources strongly suggesting to use an alcohol with nothing less than 90% alcohol by volume, i.e., 90 ABV or, to use the older system, 180-proof. For me, that’s like saying that your alcohol should come from a place like this.

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I would prefer to use something more natural, something distilled from fruit or grain or tubers, out of a pot still like this.

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And I would like this equipment to be used by some farmer somewhere, like these French farmers, so-called “bouilleurs de cru”, who were caught in the act of making eau-de-vie by the French painter Henri-Edmond Cross in this painting of 1893 (by the way, “bouilleurs de cru” were farmers who were given a tax-free, and hereditary, privilege by Napoleon to make eau de vie, in order to boost production of strong alcohol for his troops).

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A number of sources suggest using vodka (no doubt because it has little or no taste of its own, a fact well-known by those who are in need of an early-morning shot but don’t want others to smell it on their breath). But, alas, I read that a number of vodka brands are actually made by taking industrially-made ethanol and simply adding water to reduce its strength to more drinkable levels. So I suspect that going for a cheap brand of vodka to make limoncello (no point buying an expensive brand…) would not actually avoid using alcohol produced in a chemical refinery.

In any event, I think there is something fundamentally wrong in using a Polish-Russian alcohol to make an Italian liqueur. We need an Italian alcohol! Which really means using either grappa or acquavite (both made with grapes, but grappa uses the pomace generated during wine-making, while acquavite is made with grape must and pomace). Of the two, I would plump for acquavite, for two reasons. First, grappa is primarily made in the north of Italy, so that wouldn’t do for a southern Italian product – see my comment above about local rivalries in Italy. Second, I was thrilled to learn that the technique of distillation was reintroduced into Europe in the 11th Century by the doctors at the medical school in Salerno, who in turn picked up the technique from the Muslims in Andalusia. Here’s a Medieval miniature showing the good doctors at work.

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What’s so wonderful about this is that Salerno is a mere hop, skip and a jump from the Amalfi coast, and those worthy doctors used the newfound distillation technique to make acquavite! Well! Even though the good doctors made their acquavite for medical purposes, that’s enough of a coincidence to make me say that acquavite has to be the go-to alcohol base for limoncello. There is a small-scale producer of limoncello on the Amalfi coast by the name of L’Alambicco who agrees with me; its owner declares that his product is made with acquavite made in-house. That being said, I’m embarrassed to say that as far as I can make out the only commercial producers of acquavite are all from the north of Italy and generally also make grappa. So, rather unwillingly, I throw in here a photo of a bottle of acquavite from one of these northern Italian producers, chosen, I have to say, more for the pleasant shape of the bottle than for the quality of its contents.

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After all that, though, my daughter might have to opt for vodka. The fact is, I’m not sure she can find acquavite in LA (there’s a fancy Eataly store here, which carries grappa – at hideously high prices – but no acquavite).

So now we are at the last step in the process. Two things are happening here: sweetening and dilution. To this effect, the sources suggest using a concentrated solution of sugar in water. As far as dilution is concerned, I suppose that depends on what the ABV or proof of the original alcohol was. Anything with an ABV of around 40 (proof of around 80) probably won’t need dilution, while anything with ABVs above that, will. But that depends on whether or not one likes one’s liquor that grows hairs on one’s chest, as they say.

As for the sugar, the quantities added is a matter of taste. The couple in Seattle, for example, prefer the limoncello made by their friend because his product is less sweet than commercial brands. I would tend to agree with them, commercial limoncelli do tend to be too much on the sweet side. But hey, sweetness is on the tongue of the taster (to mangle the saying about beauty being in the eye of the beholder). As for the type of sugar to use, most people – my daughter included, I’m sure – would stretch out their hand for the cane sugar they have in their kitchen cupboard. And I understand that; why make your life more difficult than it has to be? But since I took the high road of localism with the alcohol, I feel I should point out that cane sugar actually originated in New Guinea and South-East Asia (and was then exported all around the world), so I now make a plea for using a more local source of sweetness. For instance, staying with the grape theme, one can now find grape sugar on the market. I throw in here a photo of one such product, made by an American company – but with Italian grapes! A very pleasing coda, I find, to this post dedicated to an Italian product.

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Here’s a more romantic photo of this type of sugar.

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Well, with that, I make a toast to all my readers, may you all have wonderful end-of-the-year festivities! cin-cin!

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JERKY AND PEMMICAN

Los Angeles, 29 November 2022

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

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

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

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

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Alternatively, it could be smoked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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but who in reality looked more like this).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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sleeping by the fire under the stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Métis encamped out on the plains.

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The hunts.

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

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

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

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

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

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What we saw was wheat stretching to the horizon.

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

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 about 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, the Count 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.

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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”.