Mexico City, 25 December, 2014

My wife and I are spending Christmas in Mexico City. Parental love is what draws us to Mexico. Our son has his business here, and this year it is his turn to hold the fort over the busy Christmas period. As the Turkish saying goes, “Dağ sana gelmezse, sen dağa gideceksin”, “If the mountain won’t come to you, you must go to the mountain”. These last few days, together with our daughter (she has been able to escape from her job in New York, but at the price of being often on FaceTime and email with her colleagues), we have been roaming the city and appreciating its delights, both visual and gastronomic. Yesterday, for instance, we visited Frida Kahlo’s house, La Casa Azul, which presents a compact collection of her paintings (including one which I’ve mentioned in a previous post) as well as of paintings by her husband Diego Rivera. And while we stood in the long, long line to get in, we tucked into an assortment of delicious tacos, including one where the filling was a mix of cheese and cactus pads. Cactus pads! That was a first for me.

Everywhere we have been in the city, we have been delighted with great clouds of bougainvillea, mauveimage





clawing their way over roofs, snaking along balconies, tumbling over walls, strangling trees, or simply sculpted into staid bushes.

I’m very fond of bougainvillea. It’s an old friend which I’ve run into in various parts of the world, always places with the sunny, warm climates which I feel very comfortable in, like Eritrea where I was born
or Liguria which my wife introduced me to nearly 40 years ago and to which we return again and again
or Thailand where we live at the moment.

This latest meeting with bougainvillea in Mexico has moved me to use my free time during this holiday period, between visits to the sites and shopping for Christmas lunch and dinner, to explore this beautiful plant’s history. I had always known that its rather fancy name came from the French Admiral Louis Antoine, Comte de Bougainville.
France’s response to Britain’s James Cook, Bougainville was the first Frenchman to circumnavigate the globe, in the late 1760s, and it was during this trip that bougainvillea was discovered (by Europeans; the locals knew it already of course). It was actually Bougainville’s on-board botanist, Philibert Commerson, who discovered it.


The discovery occurred during an enforced stopover in the Bay of Rio de Janeiro, where Bougainville had decided to regroup and carry out urgent repairs to his two ships. Like most European botanists of the time, Commerson was dazzled by the huge biological diversity he found in Brazil: “this country is the most beautiful in the world”, he wrote home. Something of what he found before him can be gathered from this more-or-less contemporary painting.
Commerson took advantage of the stop in Rio to go out botanizing along the coast and islets of the bay. As he reported to a friend in a letter home, one day he stumbled on this vine, “a wonderful plant with big flowers of a sumptuous violet colour”. He decided to honour Bougainville by naming the plant after him (Bougainville also gave his name to a couple of islands, a couple of straits between islands, and a town in the Falkland Islands). Commerson’s dried sample eventually made it back to France, where it can still be viewed, faded but nevertheless recognizable.

We can leave the story of bougainvillea there; suffice to say that the first period of globalization which came with European colonialism spread the pretty plant far and wide. But its discovery in the Bay of Rio de Janeiro gives me pause. That wonderful botanical diversity which so took Commerson’s breath away has been sadly depleted. Before the arrival of the Europeans, the bay of Rio de Janeiro was enveloped by the Mata Atlântica, the Atlantic Forest. This mighty forest stretched unbroken from north-east Brazil all the way down the Atlantic coastline as far as Uruguay, and spread into north-eastern Argentina and eastern Paraguay. It once covered some one and a half million square kilometres, but three hundred years of deforestation for logging and farming have seen it become the second most threatened biome in the world, after Madagascar. Today, less than a tenth of the original forest area remains.

There is some light in all the gloom. Despite all the loss and habitat fragmentation, the region is still ranked in the top five of the world’s biodiversity hotspots. It is particularly remarkable for its bird species. In 2001, wanting to preserve what was left if not reverse some of the damage (to which his own ancestors had contributed), a farsighted owner of farmland at the base of the mountains, in the valley of the Guapiaçu river, some 80 kilometres north-east of Rio, established an ecological Reserve, the Reserva Ecológica de Guapiaçu (REGUA). REGUA’s objective is to protect the remaining forest and biodiversity from deforestation, hunting, and over-extraction of natural resources. With funds from the World Land Trust and others, REGUA has bought land to consolidate and extend the Reserve. Over 100,000 trees, all native species, have been planted, wetlands have been recreated, some animal species have been reintroduced, hunters have been turned into guides, and visitors are encouraged to come and share in this wonderful effort. If I know all this, it is because my wife and I financially supported the planting of a modest number of trees and stayed at the Reserve’s lodge for several days, going out on a birding expedition, inspecting our tree seedlings and the-then nascent wetlands, and just generally enjoying ourselves.
We hope to go back there one day, to see how our trees are doing. And maybe we’ll spot some bougainvillea in its natural state, ruthlessly climbing over some unfortunate tree, choking the life out of it.

Mauve bougainvillea: (in
Red bougainvillea: (in
Orange bougainvillea: (in
White bougainvillea: (in
Eritrean highlands: (in
Liguria: (in
Thailand: (in
Bougainville: (in
Commerson:çon#/image/File:Commerson_Philibert_1727-1773.png (inçon)
Brazilian jungle:
Commerson’s dried sample:
REGUA: (in


New York, 4 January 2013

Like I said in an earlier posting it’s great to be with the kids, and Manhattan is certainly a fun place to ring in the new year, but it has meant that we haven’t followed our usual pattern of spending Christmas and New Year in Italy. Normally, we would all congregate in Milan, pass Christmas there, and then head for Liguria. Milan is quite depressing at year-end; it’s grey and cold and wet, and everyone’s left for somewhere else. But Liguria, especially our little bit of it just south of Genova, is lovely. The crowds of beach tourists have vanished, but the days are still mostly sunny, the temperature is mild, the sea is blue

coast and sky-1

the bougainvillea is still flowering


the church’s campanile is awash in festive colours


… It’s a corner of paradise.

When we get off the bus, our routine is always the same. We walk up to the apartment, drop off the bags, and then head down to the village centre for dinner. There is a restaurant there that we always go to, where we order its specialty: focaccia al formaggio. For the uninitiated, this is a mass of melted soft cheese held very slightly between two very thin strips of flatbread.


The cheese is held so slightly by the flatbread that it is an art to pick up a piece and bring it to one’s mouth without half the cheese ending up on your lap. For the first couple of times, it’s safer to use a knife and fork.

Described like this, it doesn’t sound like much, but I can assure you that focaccia al formaggio is absolutely delicious, so famous now in Europe that the local authorities have applied for, and received, the EU certification of Protected Designation of Origin; in other words, no-one else, anywhere, can claim to make focaccia al formaggio.

The key to a good focaccia al formaggio is of course the cheese. Originally, the locals used a highly local cheese, prescinsêua (as it is known in Genoese dialect).

Unfortunately, high demand for the focaccia over the last several decades has outstripped the meagre supply of this cheese. Local restaurateurs have therefore switched to stracchino, a very similar cheese from Lombardy.

Luckily, it was generally agreed that stracchino makes an even better focaccia. However, its use is currently creating a bit of a crisis. The obtention of the EU certificate was seen as vital to protecting the brand; however, the certificate requires the use of local ingredients, and as any Italian will tell you a Lombard cheese is definitely not local to Liguria. So makers of focaccia al formaggio are now switching to crescenza, a cheese made in a valley behind Genova.

But aficionados are whispering that the resulting focaccia is not so good. We await the unfolding of this drama with baited breath.

Feeling a little homesick, we tried to make focaccia al formaggio for the first time ever over the weekend.  Our daughter did a massive search for stracchino and eventually tracked some down in a shop in the upper east seventies. We thought we were home and dry. That’s when we discovered that how you make the flatbread is equally important. It must be very thin; ours wasn’t thin enough and we ended up with a strange sandwich of two biscuits with clumps of unmelted stracchino in between. We are also still discussing if the oven wasn’t hot enough.

Hope springs eternal. We will try again, but not any time soon. Perhaps we will be back in Italy next year and can simply eat it as we always have, at our favourite restaurant in Liguria.

Coast and sky:
Focaccia col formaggio:
Edo Bar: