MARTIN’S GOOSE

Vienna, 11 November 2020

Often in past years, on this day – 11 November, the day on which the First World War ended on the Western Front – I have published a post in memory of those who died in that war or who were permanently scarred by it. But this year, since my wife and I are spending November in Vienna, I published this year’s memorial post a few days ago, in recognition of the fact that the war ended about a week earlier for the Austro-Hungarian Empire. So instead, I shall use this post to celebrate rather than grieve. I shall write about a food dish, the Martinsgans (which for some strange reason becomes Martinsgansl in Austria).

Martinsgans is a dish from the German lands and is traditionally eaten today, 11 November (but of course nowadays, as a way of increasing sales, it gets offered in restaurants for a couple of weeks around that date – although this year, because of Covid, all the restaurants are now closed in Vienna). It is a dish based on goose – Martinsgans translates into English as Martin’s goose. Why Martin’s goose rather than anyone else’s goose? Well, that’s because 11 November happens to be feast day of St. Martin in the Christian calendar.

A Martinsgans made according to tradition consists of roast goose served with cooked red cabbage and potato dumplings. This is what it will look like when it is placed on the table to the oohs and aahs of the assembled family and guests.

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For those of my readers who feel the need for an adventure in the kitchen, here is a recipe for making Martinsgans.

The goose:

Wash the goose thoroughly inside and out and dry.  Cut a couple of apples and an orange into eights, mix well with some thyme and marjoram, and stuff the goose with the mix. Tie the goose up and seal with wooden skewers. Rub the goose well on the outside with salt, pepper, marjoram and thyme, and then place the bird, breast side down, in a large greased roasting pan or baking dish. Roast the goose in the oven, preheated to 220°C, for about half an hour. Brush the goose with honey several times and pour a bottle of beer over it. Turn the oven down to 180°C, deglaze with a little water, and roast the goose in the oven for about 2 hours. Pour its own juice over the goose while it is roasting. Take the roasted goose out of the oven, and let it rest for a while before serving.

While the goose is roasting, you can prepare the red cabbage and the potato dumplings.

Red cabbage:

Clean, wash and finely chop the red cabbage. Mix with some orange juice and red wine, a dash of lemon juice, salt and caraway seeds, and let it all steep for a while. Then cook in a saucepan over medium heat until soft (30 minutes or so).

Potato dumplings:

Peel some potatoes, cook them until soft, then squash them. Mix in some potato starch, semolina, salt and nutmeg. Let the dough rest for half an hour. Then form the dumplings, and let them simmer in a saucepan with salted water for 15 minutes.

I could leave it there and invite my readers to go celebrate life with a Martinsgans night out, as these folk are.

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But I’m afraid I can’t. Too many questions were buzzing through my mind when I was reading up on Martinsgans. Why is the goose eaten on 11 November and not 11 October or 11 December, or indeed the 11th of any other month? And why goose rather than duck or swan – or chicken or turkey or any other fowl? I had to investigate further, and as is my habit I feel a bursting desire to share what I have learned with my readers (and I fervently hope that they have a bursting desire to listen).

On the question of why November 11. As usual, there are several reasons given on the net. The one which I think makes most sense is that it is the result of the Catholic Church’s liturgical calendar. There was a time, long, long ago (from the 7th to 12th centuries CE, to be precise), when the Church required all good Christians to do three days of fasting a week from St. Martin’s day (i.e., 11 November) to Christmas, to prepare themselves for that great feast. Very sensibly in my opinion, people decided that they would have one last good meal before starting to fast. Thus was born the tradition of having a slap-up meal on St. Martin’s day.

What’s odd, though, is that the Church authorities eventually decided to cut this period of preparation before Christmas – which is now called Advent – to four weeks, with the start date being in the very last days of November. So why didn’t the slap-up meal migrate to the end of November?

It could be because, together with the decision to shorten the Advent period, the Church authorities dropped the requirement to fast (a very sensible decision in my opinion; I never could understand why fasting would make you more religious). So perhaps there was no longer any need (or excuse) to have a slap-up meal just before Advent started.

But then why continue with the slap-up meal on St. Martin’s day? And here I think we have to look to some of the other reasons proposed on the net. In the old agricultural calendar, the beginning of November was when in many European countries excess livestock was slaughtered and the meat salted or otherwise preserved (I wrote about one such product, the Italian cotechino, in an earlier post). As a result, it was also a period when many peasants (I dare hardly call them farmers) paid some of the rents which they owed to their lords, payments nearly always made in kind rather than in cash.

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St. Martin’s day was traditionally the day when these payments were made. Early November also happens to be the time when domesticated geese are at their fattest. Hence, payments were often made in live geese (in the picture above, one of the peasants is making his payment with what looks suspiciously like a swan).

It’s a little off the point, but I remember well a story which my mother used to tell us when we were young. My maternal grandparents owned some lands, which they rented out to local farmers. The day when the farmers paid their rents was St. Martin’s day. One such farmer was a farmer with red hair (this point was stressed in the story, because – quite unfairly, I think – my mother considered red-haired people to be excitable). In my imagination, I see him something like this.

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Like many rural folk of the time (we’re talking the late 1920s, early 1930s), this farmer had received little formal education – probably primary school, if that – before starting to work the land. The discussion would always start pleasantly enough. My grandfather would work his way through the accounts, showing the farmer, let’s call him Mr. Dupont, how he had arrived at the amounts due. As long as my grandfather kept to addition Mr. Dupont could follow. But whenever my grandfather strayed into multiplication, Mr. Dupont got nervous, he would go red in the face, raise his voice, and start objecting vociferously, with my grandfather vainly trying to placate him: “but no, Mr. Dupont, really, if you multiply 20 by 5 you get 100” – all to no avail. My grandfather had to keep to addition with Mr. Dupont.

But back to the subject at hand. Since the lords now had live geese on their hands, and since lords were always eager to eat fresh meat, we can understand that at least a few of the geese would have been sent to the lord’s kitchen for neck-wringing (or throat-cutting?), plucking and roasting, with a fine feast to follow.

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Luckily for us (because most of us had peasants as ancestors, no?), the industrial revolution came along and wealth got much better distributed. So it’s not only lords now who can afford to eat goose on 11 November, it’s most of us. Which is a Good Thing – except, of course, for the poor geese which end up roasted on our dining room tables.

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As I look these geese waddling to their roasted fate, I am reminded of a song in Carmina Burana (admittedly about a swan, but the principle is the same). The original is in Latin, but I will spare the readers the trauma of reading the original and give them an English translation:

Verse 1:
Once I lived on lakes,
Once I looked beautiful
When I was a swan.

Chorus:
Misery me!
Now black
And roasting fiercely!

Verse 2:
The servant is turning me on the spit;
I am burning fiercely on the pyre:
The steward now serves me up.

Chorus

Verse 3:
Now I lie on the platter,
And can fly no longer,
I see bared teeth.

Chorus

Spare a thought for the goose as you bare your teeth to tuck into your Martinsgans.

KARAOKE ON THE GRASSLANDS

Beijing, 31 July 2013

Well not really the grasslands. We were more where the grasslands of Inner Mongolia meet one of the province’s deserts, whose dunes are gradually invading the grasslands.

mission 001

The government has been struggling for decades to stop the dunes in their tracks. It has had some success, but only some. We were visiting a man who was trying something new. He wanted to make a sustainable business of desert-control (something which the government is incapable of). He was contracting local farmers to plant sand willow bushes on the dunes, paying them to coppice the willows every three-four years, burning the resulting biomass in a small power plant, and selling the electricity to the local grid. Finally, with a small portion of the carbon dioxide emissions he was growing Spirulina in ponds around the power plant to sell as a food supplement.

Very impressive. But actually what I want to write about today is the cultural highlight of the trip, the evening’s karaoke session. After the usual banquet, with its toasts and pledges of eternal friendship, we were all ushered downstairs into the hotel’s rec room. It actually wasn’t clear to either me or my colleague what was going on until an English-speaking member of the company staff brightly informed us that we were going to have a karaoke session. My colleague looked at me. This is not what we had signed on for. But what to do, you have to follow local practice. So putting a brave face on it, we followed everyone into the room and took our seats facing the screen. What would we be invited to sing, we timidly asked? “Edelweiss”, we were informed. Well at least I roughly knew that song. The first couple of songs were Chinese – popular ones, by the smiles and nods around the room – and were belted out, first by the General Manager and then by the Deputy General Manager (I felt that the GM looked somewhat peeved with the DGM’s performance; was it somewhat better than his?). Then came our turn. My hands gripping the mike were slightly sweaty. Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer, dressed to the nines in their Austrian costumes from “The Sound of Music”, danced onto the screen, the music swelled, the words appeared helpfully on the screen, and it was all systems go.

sound of music

In all modesty, I think our performance was quite creditable. My colleague and I managed to follow the verses more or less in tune and in time, and I was able to give a satisfying Frank Sinatra-like croon to the chorus. We certainly got enthusiastic applause at the end – perhaps in the manner that parents energetically clap at performances in kindergartens, to encourage the little ones. This gave us the courage to accept to do another song later in the evening. Here, my colleague took the lead. He knew the song, while I had no idea of either tune or words and just hummed along helpfully. Shortly afterwards, the session wound down and we all stumbled off to our rooms.

It’s a rum thing, this karaoke. I remember back in the 70s when it first appeared on our radar screens in the West as another Japanese export, along with Sony walkmans. I remember how we tittered at these pictures of staid, middle-aged Japanese businessmen singing what we were told were pop love songs, somewhat out of tune. I mean really, did these people feel no embarrassment?

Japanese Businessmen in Karaoke Bar

We might have tittered, but karaoke swept through the rest of Asia, becoming all the rage. My first (and until Inner Mongolia, my only) encounter with karaoke had been in the 90s, in Malaysia. There too our hosts had declared what fun it would be to spend an evening karaoking and dragged me and two very reluctant English colleagues off to a karaoke bar. We got away with singing Beatles songs – “Michelle, Ma Belle” went down particularly well with our hosts, as I recall. And as far as I can make out, karaoke is now making serious inroads everywhere else in the world. The film “Duets”, with that wonderful, wonderful actor Paul Giamatti who plays a stressed-out businessman going AWOL from job and family and becoming a karaoke devotee, is surely showing us that the desire for singing our hearts out in front of others is spreading.

paul giamatti-1

What is it that makes people willing to bare their souls through singing? Well, music – like sex, delicious food and (alas!) certain drugs – increases the levels of dopamine in our brains, which we feel as pleasure. So when we sing we increase our pleasure levels, and hopefully those of others around us (if we don’t sing too awfully …). And why would music have this effect? Because probably it thereby helped our ancestors to share emotions, to work together, in a word to bond. And that helped us to survive. Those readers who are interested in all this should read “The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind and Body” by Steven Mithen. Great book.

singing neanderthals

So I suppose this explains why I liked singing around the campfire in the Scouts, the closest I have ever got to living like a Cro-Magnon man …

bot scout campfire

.. why the massed choir which I heard singing Carmina Burana decades ago at York University brought out goosebumps all over my body …

carmina burana choir

… and why my heart is torn from its place every time Violetta in Verdi’s “La Traviata” sings to the loss of her love, whom she is giving back to his father and to bourgeois respectability.

la traviata

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Sand dunes of Inner Mongolia: my picture
Sound of music: http://24.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_mdtx7kdI111qc1i8lo1_500.gif
Japanese businessmen karaoking: http://www.corbisimages.com/images/Corbis-42-15959733.jpg?size=67&uid=b4af3e21-08c3-4b08-be43-4e83d45b134a
Paul Giamatti-1: http://images.dailyfill.com/7f3ed4d25d034a68_9ea55287e2c98de4_o.jpg
Singing Neanderthals: http://www.hachette.com.au/cover/large/9780753820513.jpg
Boy scouts campfire: http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-aMXEdTSATSU/UAbGYL5LNgI/AAAAAAAAFAE/7TPQ72FLd5k/s400/campfire.jpg
Carmina burana choir: http://sz-n.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/0192-e1370696994658.jpg
La Traviata: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/f7/La_Traviata_-_Giorgio_Germont,_Violetta_Valerie_und_Annina.jpg