CITRON

Bangkok, 19 March 2016

In the recent trip which my wife and I made to Italy, we managed to squeeze in a visit to our apartment near Genoa, where I was particularly delighted to see so many lemon trees in fruit. It’s wonderful to see trees heavy with lemons peeping over a wall or hanging over a garden fence.

lemons Liguria

Once back in Bangkok, I decided to do some research on the lemon and its history: how did this lovely yellow fruit end up in Liguria? But delving into the lemon’s history inevitably dragged me into the history of the citrus family. It turns out that the lemon does not have a long or distinguished pedigree. It is the citrus equivalent to a mutt, a fairly recent hybrid. In fact, most citrus fruits with which we are familiar are fairly recent hybrids. It seems that the members of this family love to hybridize, and of course humans – being intrusive busybodies by nature – have been only too willing to assist them. The result is a family tree of bewildering complexity.

As I tried to make sense of all this, my attention was diverted by something I read about the citron. I think I need to insert here a few words about the citron, since I’m sure there are many readers who are not familiar with this citrus fruit. It is relatively difficult to find these days since it has little use – except for one very special one, which I will come to in a minute. It looks like a large, warty, lemoncitron

In any event, during a ceremony in the Temple of Jerusalem marking the Feast of the Tabernacles, or Sukkot, in one of the years around 100 BC, the Jews pelted the High Priest with citrons and got massacred for doing so. Now that was something worth finding more about! How I would have loved to use citrons, rotten tomatoes, eggs, dog-eared hymn books – anything, really – to pelt the priests with for subjecting me to excruciatingly boring sermons during the Sunday Masses of my childhood! It turns out, though, that the Jews were not horribly bored with what the High Priest was saying, but horrified by what he was doing. It is reported that he deliberately poured the water of libation over his feet rather than over the sacrificial animals. I can’t say that I can get quite as excited about this action as the Jews did, but the fact is that they did, and satisfyingly peppered the High Priest with citrons.

Of course, it does come spontaneously to ask oneself why on earth the Jews were carrying citrons around in the Temple in the first place. It’s certainly not the item that would immediately come to my mind as expecting to see in the hands of Jews within the sacred precincts of the Temple. It turns out that the citron plays an extremely important role in the ceremonies of Sukkot. Every morning of this seven-day Feast, Jews are required to ceremoniously wave the “four species”. Citron is one of these, the other three being the date palm, the myrtle, and the willow. We see here the Tosher Rabbi of Montreal waving the four species.

tosher rabbi of montreal

One can therefore assume that the Jews were carrying their four species when the High Priest poured the water of libation over his feet, and in the horror of the moment they blindly grabbed their citrons and threw them at the impious prelate. It seems that they must have also thrown something harder – stones, no doubt – since it is reported that the stone altar was damaged. I can’t really see citrons doing damage to a stone altar.

It’s a bit of a mystery to me why the citron ever became one of the four species, because it is not native to the Near East, whereas the other three species are. The citron, like all the original citrus fruits, originated somewhere in the region of South-East Asia-Yunnan in southern China-the Himalayan slopes of India. So how did it end up in the Near East? There is general agreement that the fruit was first cultivated in northern India. From there, it migrated, presumably along trade routes, to Persia. What happened next is a hotly debated issue – at least, in certain circles. One hypothesis has the citron migrating to Egypt, where its essential oils were used in embalming, and from whence the Jews brought it with them to the Promised Land when they escaped from bondage in Egypt. A second hypothesis has the citron being carried from Persia to the Mediterranean basin in the baggage of Alexander the Great’s returning soldiers, who somewhere along the way dropped it off in the Levant. Yet another hypothesis has the citron migrating from Persia to Babylonia, where the Jews came across it during their Babylonian captivity and brought it with them when they came back to Israel.

These are all suppositions, with no real evidence to back them up. A very clever piece of archaeological sleuthing suggests a more concrete hypothesis. We need to first recall that after the Persians defeated the Babylonians and allowed the exiled Jews to return home, Israel was a Persian province for several hundred years. Israeli archaeologists have been excavating a site quite close to Jerusalem which turns out to have been a Persian palace with an extensive garden around it. Here is a reconstruction of the site.

persian palace

The archaeologists wanted to see if they could find evidence of what was planted in this garden. They therefore looked for traces of ancient pollen. None could be found in the earth of the garden – whatever had been there had decomposed long ago. So they decided to try their luck in the plaster with which the walls of an ancient pool in the garden had been coated. The thinking was that pollen grains could have got stuck in the plaster while it was drying and been preserved. They were right – and one of the types of pollen they found was that of the citron. From the other types of pollen found – a number from species not present in Israel – the archaeologists deduced that this was a garden planted with rare plants, designed to show off the wealth and power of the palace’s resident, either a Persian satrap or a Babylonian Jew close to the Persians and sent there to keep an eye on the locals. Perhaps it was here that the Jerusalem Temple elites, coming to pay their respects to the Palace’s resident, first saw the citron and admired this strange and exotic fruit. Maybe it became the rage to have a citron tree in one’s garden in emulation of the Persian masters.

Assuming this is somewhere near correct, how did the chicness of the citron eventually segue into its strong religious symbolism? Here, I shall hazard an explanation which I found written nowhere but which satisfies my fertile imagination. One has to know that the adoption by the Jews of the four species in the rituals of Sukkot derives from a text in the Book of Leviticus, where it is said (in the English translation):

“And you shall take on the first day the fruit of beautiful trees, branches of palm trees and boughs of leafy trees and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God for seven days.”

The text specifically names two of the plants: the palm tree and the willow. For the other two, though, it is quite vague. Talmudic tradition eventually settled on the citron as the “fruit of beautiful trees” and on myrtle as “boughs of leafy trees”.

The choice of myrtle makes sense to me – it is satisfyingly leafy.

myrtle

But the choice of citron as the fruit of a beautiful tree? That is really quite odd. In no way can the citron tree be considered a beautiful tree. It is low and scrubby, more bush-like.

citron tree

It seems, though, that the Hebrew text is grammatically ambiguous. Although the phrase in Leviticus is typically translated as “fruit of a beautiful tree”, it can also be rendered as “a beautiful fruit of a tree.” At first sight, this doesn’t seem to fit the citron either. As the picture above shows only too well, it is warty and knobbly, really quite ungraceful. But beauty, as they say, is in the eye of the beholder. The citron’s name in Persian, turunj, derives from the Sanskrit suranga, “beautifully coloured”. In today’s world, our lives are so saturated in bright colours that it is difficult for us to appreciate the impact on our ancestors of the few naturally brightly coloured things. As the photo above also reveals, the citron does indeed have a lovely yellow colour, and there really aren’t that many fruits that are so beautifully yellow (lemons come to mind, but that doesn’t count because they are a hybrid of the citron). Maybe the Persians, and the Indians before them, and the Jews after them, found the citron’s colour captivating.

If that explanation doesn’t satisfy my readers, let me suggest another reason. Under proper conditions, the citron is the only tree that can flower and bear fruit throughout the year. Even more distinctively, it can retain its fruit from one year to the next. So the citron tree can have buds, blossoms, and mature fruit all at the same time. This is a unique property, and one which may have aroused awe and reverence in our ancestors.

If that explanation doesn’t satisfy my readers, how about this one? Both the Greek philosopher, Theophrastos, and the Roman natural philosopher, Pliny the Elder, mention the citron in their botanical writings. And both stress the fact that the citron, fruit and leaves, has a very strong scent, that typical scent which you also get from the zest of the lemon. It is so strong, they say, that if the fruit is put among clothes it acts as a moth-repellent. This seems a little weak as a reason for nominating the citron as a “beautiful fruit”, although as every woman knows scent can be an important ingredient in beauty. And maybe the elites of India, Persia, and Israel were particularly receptive to the idea that their magnificent – and expensive – clothes could be protected from those pesky moths by the citron.

Either one of these explanations, or all three, must explain not only why the Jews adopted the citron as a religious symbol but also why anyone bothered to cultivate the citron in the first place and then bothered to carry it along to different parts of the world. From a utilitarian point of view, and our ancestors were nothing if not supremely utilitarian when it came to their natural environment, the citron really does seem a singularly useless plant. As I’ve said, the tree is low, scrubby, and bush-like, so it cannot be used as a shade tree. It is sickly and prone to disease, so is difficult to cultivate. The wood is no good for timber. Even the fruit is not much good to eat. It is mostly pith with hardly any flesh, and what flesh there is, is dry with relatively little juice.

cut citron

Whatever the reason, by the time the High Priest poured the water of libation over his feet (no doubt with a sneer on his lips) the practice of using the citron as one of the four species in the ceremonies of Sukkot was fixed.

It was this deliberately offensive act at the altar of the Temple which set me off on this quest to know more about the citron. I can’t stop here, because the continuing history of the citron is equally fascinating. So I hope my readers will bear with me if I take them on a journey into the fruit’s more recent history.

From the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70,  the European history of the citron has been indissolubly bound up with that of the Jewish communities in Europe, so let me switch to using its Hebrew name, etrog (which, by the way, derives from the citron’s Persian name, turunj, via Aramaic, strengthening the idea that somehow it was the Persians who brought it into the lives of the Jews). The Romans’ destruction of Jerusalem, which ended Temple-centred worship for the Jews, meant that the feast of Sukkot began to be celebrated wherever the Jews happened to live. Since the citron was now indispensable in the celebrations of Sukkot, it followed the Jewish diaspora as the latter spread out through the Roman Empire into Greece, Italy, and Spain. With time, more and more attention was given to ensuring that the etrogim used in Sukkot were the most beautiful: after all, they were offerings to the Lord our God and nothing but the most beautiful should be offered. Detailed guidelines were issued about what constituted a “perfect” etrog, and considerable sums of money were paid for the most perfect ones.

All was under control until the Diaspora began to move northwards into parts of Europe where the climate was too cool for the citron to grow. These more northerly Jewish communities therefore urgently needed etrogim to be brought to them from lands further to the south – no other fruit would do since the four species had been prescribed in the Talmud. This brings us back to where this post started, Genoa. Because of its climate, but also presumably because of its flourishing, and ancient, Jewish community, there were citron orchards around Genoa. It also happened to be a dynamic trading port, so it wasn’t long before Genoa dominated the trade in etrogim to northern Europe. With time, Genoa seems to have gotten out of the business of actually growing etrogim. Instead, it picked up etrogim as far south as Calabria, still a source of etrogim for some Jewish communities, and all points in between, as well as in Corsica, a Genoese colony, and shipped them north.

Genoa’s monopoly on the etrog trade began to be undermined when the Sephardic Jews, expelled from Spain, filtered eastward across the Mediterranean to Italy, Greece, and Turkey, and discovered the etrogim being grown in Corfu and other Ionian islands, presumably for the very ancient Jewish communities of Greece. These were very beautiful as defined by the guidelines on etrog beauty, and they began to seriously compete with the Genoese etrogim. At first, there was resistance in some of the Ashkenazic communities in northern Europe. To explain why, I have to go back to what started me on this post initially, the lemon. The first substantial cultivation of the lemon in Europe only occurred in the mid-15th Century, in Genoa – Genoa again (the sour or bitter orange arrived earlier, in the 11th Century, while the sweet orange arrived somewhat later, in the early 16th Century). European growers of citrons discovered – or maybe they picked it up from the Arabs – that grafting citrons onto lemon stock gave plants which were much hardier than pure citron trees. But grafting created an enormous problem for the Jews because the mixing of species was non-kosher, and etrogim used in a religious Feast had to be kosher. We now know that grafting doesn’t actually lead to a mixing of genes, or hybridization, although 400 years ago it was quite easy to think that it did; after all, everyone knew that if you crossed a horse and a donkey, you got a hybrid, the mule. Many in the Ashkenazic communities suspected that the Greek etrogim were actually so beautiful because they were grafted onto lemon trees. Various rabbis were prepared to certify that they were not, and anyway the Napoleonic wars cut off the traditional supply of etrogim from Genoa. And the Greek etrogim really were so very beautiful …

So the Greek etrog triumphed and trade from Corfu flourished. Eventually, this got the Greek farmers greedy. They calculated that they had the Jewish communities over a barrel – they needed beautiful etrogim, the etrogim from Corfu were the most beautiful, hence they would pay whatever it took to get them. In 1875, they therefore created a cartel and jacked up the price. They turned out to be wrong. The Jewish communities reacted vigorously and successfully boycotted the Greek etrogim. They bought from Calabria, from Corsica, and more importantly from Israel, to where we now turn.

As more and more European Jews immigrated to Palestine in the 1800s, they discovered a local variety of etrogim. They surmised that these must be descended from the etrogim used in Temple worship before the Temple’s destruction. A number of rabbis therefore decided to promote these etrogim from Palestine, which were surely more authentic than etrogim grown elsewhere. They also thought it would help the poverty-stricken economy of Palestine to be able to export high-priced etrogim to Jewish communities in Europe. The problem was that although these etrogim might be more authentic they weren’t nearly as beautiful as the Greek etrogim. On top of it, Sephardic communities which had immigrated to Palestine brought in seeds of Greek citron trees and started planting orchards of the beautiful Greek etrog there. The stand-off with Corfu helped boost sales in Palestine, both of the original as well as of the Greek etrogim transferred there. However, authentic Palestinian etrogim were suffering from the competition.

Coming back to Corfu, the Greek farmers eventually backed down and brought their prices down again. But they didn’t forget or forgive. Some 15 years later, when the body of an unknown woman was found just outside the Jewish quarter in Corfu, the local etrog growers claimed that the woman had been murdered by Jews. This sparked off a pogrom against the local Jewish community, which left 139 people dead. And then it was discovered that the dead woman was actually Jewish. That finished off the etrogim trade from Corfu.

Meanwhile, back in Palestine, the transplanted Greek etrog was pushing the local variety off the market. Eventually, the Greek etrog, which did not adapt very well to the climate in Israel, began to be grafted onto stock of the original etrog, a graft which is kosher. This was a marriage made in heaven: the beautiful Greek etrog with the original, Temple-era etrog. It is this variety which now dominates the modern etrog market, and is no doubt the one being intensely studied by these Orthodox Jews prior to an eventual purchase.

jews purchasing etrogim

I cannot finish my story of the citron without mentioning the one way of usefully consuming it that was eventually discovered. For this, I have to back up a little and say a few words about the history of cane sugar. Cane sugar, brought west from India by, once again, Alexander the Great’s troops (they seem to have been great collectors of plants …), was first exploited in the Near East. It was the Crusaders, who came across caravans of this “sweet salt”, and who brought sugar to the attention of Europe. Until then, Europeans had only had honey as a sweetener. Genoa’s fiercest rival, Venice, was the first to make sugar available in Europe. It also brought another Arab invention, candying of fruit, to Europe. Not to be outdone by its hated rivals, the Genoese also finally got into the candying business. Somewhere along the line, someone had the idea of candying the citron, or rather its pith, of which there is so much, as the photo above shows. Leghorn (Livorno) became the centre of production: citrons from the south all the way to Sicily, from Corfu and the other Ionian islands in the east, and from Corsica in the west, were sent, de-pulped and brined, to Leghorn. There, the citron pith was de-brined and steeped in progressively more concentrated solutions of cane sugar. Once dried and chopped into small pieces, it was shipped, no doubt in Genoese ships, all over Europe to be added to cakes, sweet bread loaves, and other patisseries. I have a particular reason to mention all this because the panettone, that glory of my wife’s home town, Milan, was originally made with candied citron pith (as well as candied orange and sultana raisins).

Panettone

More humbly, the original recipes of the English plum pudding of my youth also called for candied citron from Leghorn.

Plum-Pudding

Alas! I believe this market has declined drastically – or perhaps citrons from elsewhere have cornered the candying market. The fact is, Leghorn is no longer a centre for candied citron production, the Calabrian citron hangs on by managing to keep a foot in the etrog market, while the Corsican and Corfu citron production is down almost to nothing; the few which are grown there are only used to make a local liqueur. Here’s the Corsican variety. Somehow, it seems apt that the bottle stands next to one made with myrtle, another of the four species.

cedratine and myrtheLet’s lift a glass to the citron a.k.a. the etrog! Cin-Cin!

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Lemons in Liguria: https://i0.wp.com/www.bbfauno.com/wp-content/gallery/amalfi/limoni-amalfi-coast.jpg (in https://misshome.wordpress.com/tag/italian-language/)

Citron: http://whileshenaps.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/09/6a00d834515cdc69e20133f4767038970b-pi.jpg (in http://whileshenaps.com/2010/09/make-a-paper-mache-etrog.html)

Tosher Rabbi of Montreal: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Four_species#/media/File:Fourspecies.jpg (in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Four_species)

Persian palace: http://www.haaretz.com/polopoly_fs/1.410535.1328143655!/image/3938862120.jpg_gen/derivatives/headline_857x482/3938862120.jpg (in http://www.haaretz.com/jerusalem-dig-uncovers-earliest-evidence-of-local-cultivation-of-etrogs-1.410505#acid)

Myrtle: http://www.polyvore.com/cgi/img-thing?.out=jpg&size=l&tid=65106807 (in http://www.polyvore.com/outdoor_plants/collection?id=3359765)

Citron tree: in gardening.stackexchange.com

Cut citron: http://www.tropcrop.nl/citr02fr.jpg (in http://www.tropcrop.nl/citron.htm)

Orthodox Jews purchasing etrogim: http://pix.avaxnews.com/avaxnews/64/a4/0001a464_medium.jpeg (in http://avax.news/fact/Symbolic_Citrus_Israeli_Jews_Inspect_Fruit_for_Sukkot.html)

Panettone: http://www.italianfoodexcellence.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/27/2014/09/Panettone-Vergani-Enrico-Su—-Ummarino.jpg (in http://www.italianfoodexcellence.com/tag/panettone/)

Plum pudding: http://cookdiary.net/wp-content/uploads/images/Plum-Pudding_12165.jpg (in http://cookdiary.net/plum-pudding/)

Cédratine and myrthe, Corsica: http://c8.alamy.com/comp/A8WYT4/myrthe-and-cedratine-liqueurs-for-sale-in-a-shop-corte-haute-corse-A8WYT4.jpg (in http://www.alamy.com/stock-photo-myrthe-and-cedratine-liqueurs-for-sale-in-a-shop-corte-haute-corse-6963651.html)

CAPERS

Beijing, 7 June 2014

It never ceases to amaze me that there are certain ingredients which one adds to recipes in small quantities but which make a huge difference to the final taste. Spices are the obvious example – although I often wish that the hot spices had never existed – but there are others. Parsley, for instance, or coriander, or anise. Or capers.

Capers are a particular favourite of mine ever since a business trip I made many years ago to Malta. I was there to do an environmental audit of a factory. After a long day of inspecting the wastewater treatment plant, the waste segregation area, the toxic chemicals storage area, and I don’t know what else, my colleagues and I were finally free for dinner. We left the hotel and wandered around, but it was a dead time of the year and there wasn’t much available. We finally came across a modest restaurant, which proclaimed itself to be a fish restaurant. Why not? we said, after all, we were in an island, presumably the fish would be good. And it was, it was! We all ordered Orata al cartoccio, where a bream is cooked – steamed in its own juices, really – in a closed aluminium foil package together with cherry tomatoes, capers, and olives. It’s really a very simple recipe. Having washed and cleaned the bream, you lay it on a big piece of aluminium foil, you place a little rosemary inside the fish, drizzle it with olive oil, place the sliced cherry tomatoes, rinsed capers, and olives around the bream, wet the whole with a little white wine, wrap up the foil and close it well (so that none of the juices escape), and cook it in the oven at 200°C for about 45 minutes. Voilà!

orata pomodorini capperi olive

Simple, but absolutely delicious. The capers in particular impart a taste to the fish’s flesh which even to this day, after all these years, I can summon up at will for my private delectation.

The marvelous effect of the capers was actually quite a surprise to me. I had first come across capers as a young boy, at my English grandmother’s house. At some earlier moment, my elder brother had evinced a love of capers, so every time he came to stay with her she bought a small jar of them. This time, I was in tow so I got to try some. Salty! So salty! How could anyone like these tiny balls of salt? I made sure to steer clear of them after that, pushing them carefully aside if I came across them in a salade Niçoise, for instance. Until that fateful encounter in a modest fish restaurant in Malta. Such is life …

After that gastronomic epiphany in Malta, I feel that I owe it to the caper to write its hagiography, which like all good hagiographies should start from its birth. The caper comes from a bush, the caper bush to be precise, capparis spinosa. The bush is not much to write home about. Here is an example from the island of Salina, one of the Eolian Islands off the north-west coast of Sicily

caper bush-1

and here’s another from near Brindisi in southern Italy

caper bush-2

Both pictures admirably depict the poor, rocky soils and harsh environments that the bush grows well in. They also tell us that you find the bush around the Mediterranean. But that’s not only place you find C. spinosa; the bush has quite a wide range, down through eastern Africa, across central, southern, and southeastern Asia, all the way out to the Pacific Islands and Australia. But as far as I know, and I’m very willing to be corrected, the caper is not used in the local cuisine in any of these areas.

The last picture also tells us that the bush sports flowers. Small, but actually very lovely, with a cluster of long mauve stamens reaching out to the world (this is one of many beautiful photos of the caper flower on the internet; the efforts of my photographic e-friends have turned me quite poetic).

caper flowers-2

This last picture also modestly introduces us to the hero our story. Because the caper is that green flower bud behind. It gets picked, salted, and pickled for our delight. I think it deserves a picture of its own

caper buds

I have to say, I always marvel at things like this. How did the women in some far-off time think of picking the flower buds of this bush to eat? (I’m sure it was the women; the men were just lazing around the camp fire cracking stupid jokes and farting.) Maybe desperation, to stave off starvation. Or maybe … but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Capers are sold sorted by size. Either because the French got into the game of commercializing capers before anyone else, or because some canny marketer thought French names would sell better, or for some other reason unknown to me, the grades mostly have French names. From smallest to biggest we have: “non-pareil”, incomparable; “surfine”, very delicate (those hideously salty little balls which my grandmother bought for my brother must have been either surfines or non-pareils); “capucine”, which is a little pointed cowl, like the ones worn by Franciscans nuns – looking at the photo below and squinting a little, I suppose you could say that the capers in question look cowl-like; “capote”, which is a rather bigger cowl with a definite point (it is also French slang for a condom for reasons which I’m sure the readers can divine after a little bit of thought); “fine”, delicate (like the oysters). And at the very end of the grades we have “grusas”, which is not a French word. My guess is that it’s Provençal and has a meaning similar to the Spanish “gruesos”, fatty. Of course, the French were not going to use their delicate language for such a coarse member of the caper family. As one could guess from the grading nomenclature, the smallest sizes are considered to be the most desirable; I’m sure it is no coincidence that the smallest sizes come from southern France …

graded capers

Malta brought me my culinary epiphany with the caper. It also introduced me to the caper berry, which I find to be a much more delicious product of the caper bush. My Italian colleague, whom I have had cause to mention in an earlier post as the person who introduced me to durian, was with me on this Maltese environmental audit. Rather than asking the staff of the wastewater treatment plant to see the data on wastewater treatment efficiency he asked them to get him several jars of pickled Maltese caper berries. On the promise of my not revealing this professional faux-pas of his he shared one of the jars with me, which I took home to my wife. We have been hooked ever since.

caper berries-2

As the name suggest, caper berries are the fruit of the caper bush. This photo shows the berry in its natural state.

caper berries-natural state

I understand they are perfectly edible, although I have never seen them sold in a shop. I’ve only eaten the pickled variety. They are much bigger than capers, less salty, more crunchy (because of the seeds they contain) and can be eaten as a snack – and my wife and I have indeed snacked happily and often on them, in front of the TV or other such snack-happy locations.

Coming back to my meditation on how anyone ever came up with the idea of pickling flower buds to eat, I suspect the path was through the berry: step 1 – eat the berries; step 2 – salt the berries to preserve the excedent harvest before they rot; step 3 – hang on, why don’t we try the same thing with the flower buds?

My in-depth research (i.e., Wikipedia) has revealed to me that in Greece and Cyprus they also eat the pickled leaves of the caper bush.

caper leaves

This I have never tried. I read that they are particularly used in salads and fish dishes. A web-site called Good Greek Stuff proclaims that “these tangy cured leaves of the caper plant are less salty than the buds, and lend a citrusy undertone to such foods as Greek country salad, dakos (barley rusks with tomato, olive oil and feta), fish sauces, and cabbage slaws. It gives an astringent, piquant note to herb pestos and pasta dishes. And you’ll be amazed at what it does to the humble spaghetti aglio, olio e peperoncino or how well it works as a garnish to fried squid.”

I have another culinary epiphany awaiting me in some Greek island.
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Orata, pomodorini, capperi, olive: http://www.cucinanonnapapera.it/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/PICT1017.jpg [in http://www.cucinanonnapapera.it/?p=464%5D
Caper bush Salina: http://atasteoftravel.files.wordpress.com/2011/07/20110717-082956.jpg [in http://atasteoftravelblog.com/2011/capers-on-salina/%5D
Caper bush Brindisi: http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-2Nr_U2AWCUs/Uaid3mGYgqI/AAAAAAAAASM/NBQh22nv_Rk/s1600/Caper+Bush+growing+from+Rocks.jpg [in http://lisainitalymay2013.blogspot.com/%5D
Caper flower: http://kojikisans2.files.wordpress.com/2013/01/caper11.jpg?w=1008 [in http://kojikisans2.wordpress.com/%5D
Caper flower buds: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caper#mediaviewer/File:%E1%83%99%E1%83%90%E1%83%9E%E1%83%90%E1%83%A0%E1%83%98_Capparis_spinosa_Kapernstrauch.JPG [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caper%5D
Graded capers: http://www.asofood.com/aso_images/capers.gif [in http://www.asofood.com/capers.html%5D
Caper berries: http://www.photo-dictionary.com/photofiles/list/1401/4818marinated_capers.jpg [in http://www.photo-dictionary.com/phrase/1401/marinated-capers.html%5D
Caper berries-natural state: http://2.bp.blogspot.com/_Okhm7AjHzv8/R1kZdfwxBCI/AAAAAAAAAac/Eu8RWxYi6f4/s320/e-caperberries.jpg [in http://medcookingalaska.blogspot.com/2007/12/recipes-caper-tart-capers-and-eggs.html%5D
Caper leaves: http://eshop-santorini.gr/media/catalog/product/cache/1/image/9df78eab33525d08d6e5fb8d27136e95/k/a/kaparofilla-caper-leaves.jpg [in http://eshop-santorini.gr/index.php/authentic-food-1/more/santorini-wild-capers-1.html%5D

TROUBLES IN THE MEDITERRANEAN

Beijing, 27 May 2014

Ten days ago, this was.

We walked into Camogli from Recco, getting a first glimpse of the little harbour from the road.

Recco-Camogli

We walked down to the harbour, skirted its edge.

camogli port

We passed on to the boardwalk on the other side of the church.  Glancing back, this was the sight which greeted us.

camogli-boardwalk

Our goal was San Rocco, sitting high above Camogli on a steep spur of Monte di Portofino.

san rocco from the sea

We started climbing, slowly, stopping often, huffing and puffing, using one of the old mulattiere, mule trails, which criss-cross the hills around here.

Camogli-San Rocco path-2

We toiled up past rather decrepit houses and semi-abandoned olive groves until we finally reached San Rocco.

There, from the little piazza in front of the church, we had these gorgeous views, south-east towards Punta Chiappa

monte di portofino-1

and north-west towards Genova.

monte di portofino-2

We sank onto the bench and drank in view and sun. And as we sat there, in my mind’s eye I overflew the seaboard of the Mediterranean. Burning, burning, all burning …

Egypt

egypt-2

The West Bank

west bank

Syria

syria

Lebanon

lebanon

Turkey

turkey

Morocco

morocco

Algeria

algeria

Tunisia

Protesters shout slogans during a demonstration to call for the departure of the Islamist-led ruling coalition in Avenue Habib-Bourguiba in central Tunis

and finally Libya

libya

libya-2

from where, amidst all this rage and pain and despair, poor souls are struggling against all odds to cross the Mediterranean and sneak into Europe

pantelleria

a Europe which is itself sinking under its own weight of troubles: Greece of course

Greece Financial Crisis

but also Italy itself

italy

as well as France

France Strike

and Spain

spain

I closed my mind’s eye. Tomorrow, tomorrow, I said to myself, my wife and I would worry about the state of the universe tomorrow. Today, sitting on the bench and enjoying sun and sea, we just let the world go hang.

san rocco-1

____________________________

Recco-Camogli: http://www.mareblucamogli.com/images/Camogli_porto_oggi.jpg?129 [in http://www.mareblucamogli.com/page_31.html%5D
Camogli port: http://blog.marinayachting.it/media/458191_246746435438893_111283799_o.jpg [in http://blog.marinayachting.it/ai1ec_event/13-trofeo-challenge-nicola-dodero/?instance_id=%5D
Camogli-boardwalk: http://www.portofinotrek.com/trek/17-category/da-camogli-san-rocco.jpg [in http://www.portofinotrek.com/trek/17-da-camogli-san-rocco%5D
San Rocco from the sea: http://www.villagoduria.it/media/img/dintorni/s-rocco%20dal%20mare.jpg [in http://www.villagoduria.it/i_dintorni.php?lang=it%5D
Camogli-San Rocco path: http://www.alpioccidentali.it/escursioni/images-esc/Camogli-SanFruttuoso_glicine.JPG [in http://www.alpioccidentali.it/escursioni/Camogli-SanFruttuoso.htm%5D
Camogli San Rocco path-2: http://www.portofinotrek.com/trek/10-246-thickbox/da-camogli-a-san-rocco.jpg [in http://www.portofinotrek.com/trek/10-da-camogli-a-san-rocco.html%5D
San Rocco-1: http://static.panoramio.com/photos/large/3427674.jpg [in http://www.panoramio.com/photo/3427674%5D
Egypt: http://www.cairoportal.com/media/k2/items/cache/296cd9de158e249f3870555c2eeb013a_XL.jpg?t=-62169984000 [in http://www.cairoportal.com/news/9739#.U4NTHXYUZ40%5D
West Bank: http://stat.ks.kidsklik.com/statics/files/2011/07/1309663247638250606.jpg [in http://elmustakeem.blogspot.com/2011/07/sekolah-anak-anak-palestina.html%5D
Syria: http://www.dw.de/image/0,,17607086_303,00.jpg [in http://www.dw.de/syrias-war-economies-add-fuel-to-the-conflict/a-17609218%5D
Lebanon: http://gdb.voanews.com/B5FAA55E-7326-4D3F-B6F4-97DD2C6863FA_w974_n_s.jpg [in http://www.zeriamerikes.com/media/photogallery/june-23-2013-day-in-photos/1687666.html%5D
Turkey: http://82.222.152.134/imgsdisk/2014/05/22/220520141648544381677.jpg [in https://twitter.com/gokmen%5D
Morocco: http://i.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2011/WORLD/africa/02/21/morocco.protests/t1larg.morocco.feb20.gi.afp.jpg [in http://www.cnn.com/2011/WORLD/africa/02/21/morocco.protests/%5D
Algeria: http://l1.yimg.com/bt/api/res/1.2/Z.PSaSbzYDbmat1.7F6nKg–/YXBwaWQ9eW5ld3M7Zmk9ZmlsbDtoPTQyMTtweG9mZj01MDtweW9mZj0wO3E9NzU7dz03NDk-/http://media.zenfs.com/en_us/News/ap_webfeeds/cb75ae006f10880a4e0f6a7067006b93.jpg [in http://news.yahoo.com/algeria-activists-stage-rare-anti-govt-protest-145742769.html%5D
Tunisia: http://revolution-news.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/3540ab5d-15a8-49c8-91ff-a9649aea4186_16x9_600x338.jpg [in http://revolution-news.com/category/middle-east/tunisia/%5D
Libya: http://wartime.org.ua/uploads/posts/2012-01/1325936226_vyskova-operacya-v-lvyi-rozkrila-slabku-boyegotovnst-nato-5.jpg [in http://wartime.org.ua/648-vyskova-operacya-v-lvyi-rozkrila-slabku-boyegotovnst-nato.html%5D
Libya-2: http://www.bigpicture.si/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/1241.jpg [in http://www.bigpicture.si/archives/tag/sirija%5D
Pantelleria: http://292fc373eb1b8428f75b-7f75e5eb51943043279413a54aaa858a.r38.cf3.rackcdn.com/world_03_temp-1303281776-4dae8070-620×348.jpg [in http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20110420/world/Nationalism-comes-of-age-in-anti-immigrant-bailout-Europe.361418%5D
Greece: http://latimesphoto.files.wordpress.com/2011/10/greek-crisis08.jpg [in http://framework.latimes.com/2011/10/19/protest-in-greece/%5D
Italy: http://www.ctvnews.ca/polopoly_fs/1.1773564!/httpImage/image.jpg_gen/derivatives/landscape_960/image.jpg [in http://www.ctvnews.ca/world/anti-austerity-protest-in-rome-italy-turns-violent-1.1773562%5D
France-Marseille: http://static.guim.co.uk/sys-images/Guardian/Pix/pictures/2013/9/10/1378816498459/3befa5d8-0b5b-4ca9-be36-9ef459246334-620×421.jpeg [in http://www.theguardian.com/business/2013/sep/10/french-unions-hold-protests-over-pension-reforms—live%5D
Spain: http://img.rt.com/files/news/1e/1d/30/00/000_dv1422028.si.jpg [in http://rt.com/news/spain-protest-austerity-corruption-347/%5D
San Rocco: http://static.panoramio.com/photos/large/3427674.jpg [in http://www.panoramio.com/photo/3427674%5D

MY CRUISE OF FIRSTS

Beijing, 5 April 2013

My previous post about chocolate Easter eggs led me to take a page from Charles Dickens and I allowed myself to be visited by the ghost of Easters past. He took me back through memories of previous Easters, some very pleasant and others not so much. One in particular has stayed with me, the Easter I passed on a cruise in the Mediterranean when I was 14.

My English grandmother had decided that she would like to go on a cruise but wanted company. So she took me and my older brother along with her. It was a wonderful trip, one of those golden-hued memories that each one of us has. Easter itself was celebrated without much fuss and bother in Brindisi, in southern Italy – we were just a few Catholics among a sea of Anglicans and so were packed off to a small room on the ship and a local priest was brought in for the occasion.  A surf through the web tells me that Easter occurred on April 14, two weeks later than this year. We were already towards the end of the cruise. There were a couple more stops in what was then Yugoslavia and is now Croatia, at Split and Dubrovnik, and then it was back to Venice where we had boarded ship. Before Brindisi, we had visited Olympia, Crete, Athens, Istanbul, Ephesus, and then finally Rhodes before starting back (there was also a visit to one of the smaller Ionian islands but I no longer remember which one).

For me, this was a trip of many firsts (well, the whole trip was a first but there were certain things which were more first than others, if you get my drift).

It was my first trip to Venice, one which my wife and I have repeated many, many times, sometimes with the children, first from Milan when we lived there and then later from Vienna. What I fell in love with that first time and keep going back to is not the grand theatricality of St. Mark’s Square

venice-st marks square

or of the laguna, which the cruise ship sailed down as we left Venicevenice-the lagoon

No, what always bring us back is the humbler Venice, the alleys and lanes (it’s hard to talk of streets when there are no cars) far away from the tourist haunts, which widen and narrow with no apparent rhyme or reason, which loop and re-loop over narrow canals, which suddenly bring you, blinking in the light, into small piazzas teeming with life.

venice-calle-1

venice-calle-2

venice-calle-3

venice-calle-4

We spent the afternoon before setting sail wandering around, map in hand – a map is always necessary in Venice, although my wife is not really of that opinion: ask people the way, that’s her motto.

The cruise also took me on my first visit to classical ruins. England and the parts of France I was then familiar with don’t have any Roman ruins to speak of; an odd crumbling wall here and there is about the sum of it. Here, we had a feast!

Olympia

olympia-column-2

Knossos

Knossos-palace-1

Mycenae

mycenae-lion-gate-4

The Acropolis in Athens

athens-acropolis-1

Cape Sounion

cape-sounion

Ephesus

ephesus

Actually, it was more a surfeit than a feast. To be very honest, after I’ve seen three broken columns and five fallen walls the experience begins to pall. Many decades later, when I got to know Shelley’s poem Ozymandias I could relate to all these ruins and many others I have seen since all over the world in a different way:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away

But, in all this blur of broken stone one memory stands out, etched for ever more in my mind: wildflowers growing in profusion among the ruins of Olympia. A search of the web shows that I am not the only traveler to Olympia who has been struck by the flowers there:

olympia-wildflowers-6

olympia-wildflowers-5

SANYO DIGITAL CAMERA

The trip was also my first real exposure to Greek sculpture. My grandmother had taken me a few times to the British Museum but somehow we always seemed to end up in the section of the Egyptian mummies – at least, that’s all I remember of those early visits. But the visit to the National Archaeological Museum in Athens was a real eye-opener for me. Two pieces I remember particularly well. One was the statue of Zeus (or is it Poseidon?):

Athense-bronze_statue_of_Zeus_or_Poseidon-1

Look at that face!

Athense-bronze_statue_of_Zeus_or_Poseidon-3

Speaking of faces, the other piece that impressed itself on me was the gold mask which Schliemann dug up in Mycenae (our Greek and Latin teacher had often quoted the phrase “I have gazed upon the face of Agamemnon”, said to have been uttered by Schliemann when he first set eyes on the mask)

agamemnon-1

Another notable first on this trip was my exposure to Byzantine mosaics, in the cavernous interior of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul.

istanbul-hagia sophia-interior-1

istanbul-hagia sophia-mosaics-1

istanbul-hagia sophia-mosaics-4

istanbul-hagia sophia-mosaics-5

This started an interest – an obsessive interest, my wife might observe – in early Christian mosaics, which I have tracked down in various parts of the Mediterranean basin since then.

Istanbul was the site of yet another first, my first exposure to Muslim architecture, in the form of the incomparably beautiful Sultan Ahmed Mosque.

istanbul-sultan ahmed mosque-exterior-2

Since then, I have been lucky enough to admire Muslim architecture in all its wonderfully different variations in many parts of the world – even here in Beijing, where it has taken on decidedly Chinese characteristics.

beijing mosque

Iran and Central Asia await me still …

On a lighter note, the cruise was the first – and probably last – time I saw the foxtrot being danced. Every evening a three-man band played in the dance room. It started with oldies, and a retired English Major and his wife were assiduous dancers. As the band started up, they would step out, glide through a number of foxtrot numbers, and then retire to the bar.

foxtrot-1

They looked surprisingly like this picture, just somewhat longer in the tooth.

After they had left, the tempo changed and us young things would take over the dance floor and dance the night away. Well, I didn’t. I was far too shy. I would look on enviously at the elder young things. At last, one took pity on me and led me to the floor to dance my first modern dance. Another first …

Last, but definitely not least, it was on that cruise that I first set eyes on the Mediterranean. It was love at first sight.

mediterranean sea-3

______________________

Venice-St Mark’s square: http://www.instablogsimages.com/1/2012/04/25/sunset_on_st_marks_square_image_title_upyro.jpg
Venice-Lagoon: http://cdn2.vtourist.com/4/3990973-looking_back_from_the_water_bus_Venice.jpg
Venice-calle-1: http://renaissancerules.files.wordpress.com/2011/01/venice-2009-294.jpg
Venice-calle-2: http://picasaweb.google.com/lh/photo/Vx_htYT8ClwJ1DwCpMcy1A
Venice-calle-3: http://www.cepolina.com/photo/Europe/Italy/Venice/Venice-mix/3/Venice-street-narrow-calle-rill.jpg
Venice-calle-4: http://farm2.staticflickr.com/1265/5186001188_065ec8a290_z.jpg
Olympia: http://images.fanpop.com/images/image_uploads/Olympia-greece-585497_1024_768.jpg
Knossos-palace: http://ant3145crete.wikispaces.com/file/view/Knossos_1.jpg/68392549/Knossos_1.jpg
Mycenae-lion-gate: http://www.civilization.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/Mycenae-Lion-gate-028.jpg
Athens-acropolis: http://www.limotaxi.gr/wp-content/uploads/2010/10/athens1.jpg
Cape Sounion: http://www.grisel.net/images/greece/sounion11.JPG
Ephesus: http://historyoftheancientworld.files.wordpress.com/2012/09/theatre2.jpg
Olympia-wildflowers-1: http://farm3.staticflickr.com/2245/2331955314_1629efb4ab_z.jpg
Olympia-wildflowers-2: http://farm3.staticflickr.com/2380/2331125289_93eb068ca2_z.jpg
Olympia-wildflowers-3: http://www.touringtykes.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/02/olymipia-flowers.jpg
Athens-statue of Zeus/Poseidon-1: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/67/Bronze_statue_of_Zeus_or_Poseidon.jpg
Athens-statue of Zeus/Poseidon-2: http://cdn.arstechnica.net/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/zeus_or_poseidon_national_archaeological_museum_athens-4ecd0b1-intro.jpg
Athens- Gold Mask “Agamemnon”: http://hernandopages.com/agamemnon.jpg
Istanbul Hagia Sophia-interior: http://hansmast.com/images/istanbul/hagia_sophia/IMG_1846_Enhancer-IMG_1857_Enhancer-2.jpg
Istanbul-Hagia Sophia-mosaics-1: http://www.mosaicartsource.com/Assets/html/artists/lilian/mosaic_hagia_sophia.jpg
Istanbul-Hagia Sophia-mosaics-2: http://www.sacred-destinations.com/turkey/istanbul-hagia-sophia-photos/slides/imperial-entrance-mosaic-c-hbetts.jpg
Istanbul-Hagia Sophia-mosaics-3: http://www.turkey4travel.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/05/hagia-sofia-mosaic.jpg
Istanbul-sultan ahmed mosque: http://www.viitoaremireasa.ro/images/articole/large/2084/Istanbul-Orasul-care-se-intinde-pe-doua-continente-5.jpg
Beijing mosque: http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/cndy/attachement/jpg/site1/20080815/000802ab80450a0f185656.jpg
Foxtrot: http://ssqq.com/archive/images/foxtrot.jpg
Mediterranean Sea-3: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-4O6DVn4JTeQ/UG6WCS6K7yI/AAAAAAAAFaQ/NHquXzafTsA/s1600/43923144.jpg