ICE CREAM, SORBET, GRANITA

Milan, 2 May 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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, lemon.citron

Coming to what I read, it seems that 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. But 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)

SPADES, CLUBS, HEARTS, DIAMONDS

Bangkok, 8 January 2016

In a previous post, I sketched out a rough agenda for my retirement. I think my wife was pleased with it. But she does have certain anxieties about this upcoming event. She has recently been reading about some Japanese syndrome called Retired Husbands Syndrome which attacks Japanese housewives. Suddenly, this guy whom you’ve hardly seen in the last 40 years – being a good Salaryman, he’s been leaving the house at 6 am and not getting home till midnight – is now constantly hanging around, getting in your way, messing up your routines, and expecting you to do things for him. Not unnaturally, the stress levels rocket up. While we’ve maintained a more balanced lifestyle, she does have fears of me moping around the house, lounging around on the sofa, eating natchos and watching TV all day. This dystopian view of hers is not helped by a number of films we’ve seen recently, describing exactly this situation. Nor is it helped by my fondness (my wife thinks more obsession) for playing Spider Solitaire on my iPad. She’s afraid that come retirement all I’ll do all day is compulsively play Spider Solitaire, with a little Freecell on the side.

It is true that I tend to play the game whenever I have a spare moment. I do admit that it can get a little out of hand. But I’m sure it’s good for my aging brain to carefully plot my strategy for getting the cards out. And those little electronic cards, with their glossy black spades and clubs and glowing red diamonds and hearts, and kingly Kings and queenly Queens and knavish Jacks, are really very pretty.
image
I was thinking about their prettiness the other day during a Spider Solitaire game, and when it became clear that I was dribbling towards defeat I decided to quit and do a little research on the history of playing cards, principally to understand where the suit design of hearts, diamonds, spades, and clubs originally came from. I was very pleased that I did so, because I discovered that what we have here is yet another example of the Great East-West Exchange which took place along the Silk Road and other trade routes that once criss-crossed the Eurasian continent. Of course, most of what was exchanged was traditional goods, but ideas also flowed along these routes. So did less obvious things, like the the willow tree and the pomegranate, both of which I’ve had occasion to write about in the past. Now I can with pleasure write about a third such item, playing cards.

Our story starts in China. Some time in the Tang Dynasty, around the 7th-8th Century, it seems that someone in the Imperial Court came up with the idea of a pack of playing cards, divided into four suits. The suits were Coins, Strings of (1,000) coins, Myriads of strings (10,000), and Tens of myriads. Like our modern cards, each suit contained cards with different numbers of pips. Here we have a Three of Coins and a Three of Strings-of-coins.
image
These packs also included face cards, like this one from the Ming dynasty.
image
These ‘chi-pai’, which is Chinese for playing cards, are still in use. This next photo shows the cards from a three-suited variant. Note how the design of the suits became highly stylized – this is important for our story.
image
I’ve no idea what games exactly were played with these cards back in Tang Dynasty times, I’m not sure anyone knows, and actually it’s not important for our story. What is important is that the use of cards spread westward. This could have happened through trade; I can imagine Chinese merchants whipping out a pack of cards to while away their down time in the caravanserai that dotted the Silk Road.
image
Alternatively, it could have happened through conquest, with conquering soldiers picking up new habits from the conquered. In this case, the Mongols, who conquered China in the 13th Century, seem a very good candidate. At its height, the Mongol Empire stretched from Korea to Ukraine.
image
Any new fads picked up by Mongol troops in China could have spread, through many an evening around soldiers’ camp fires, all the way to Kiev.

I don’t think the two diffusion mechanisms are necessarily exclusive. I could imagine that the Mongol conquest also amplified diffusion of card playing through trade. The two maps above superimpose quite well, and in fact the period of the Mongol Empire brought political stability to Asia which in turn encouraged a surge of trade along the Silk Road.

Whichever way, Chinese playing cards diffused westward. Some time in the 13th-14th Century, maybe earlier, so-called Ganjifa playing cards started being used in Persia. The etymology of the word Ganjifa is uncertain. Some see its root in the Persian word gunj, which connotes treasure, treasury, or money, and suggest that this connects them to the money-suited Chinese playing cards. Others see a more elaborate etymology, proposing that Ganjifa is actually a corruption of ‘han-chi-pai’, or ‘Chinese playing cards’. In this case, there would be a very clear line of descent from China. In any event, variants of Ganjifa playing cards began to be used throughout the Muslim world, as well as in India (brought there in the saddle bags of the Mughal conquerors). What interests us most is the variant used by the Mamluk in Egypt.

The Egyptian Mamluk were an interesting bunch of people. Initially, they were slave soldiers recruited by the Ayyubid dynasty. For the most part, they were drawn from the Cumans-Kipchaks, a nomadic group who controlled the steppes north of the Black Sea. They were conquered by the Mongols and then absorbed into the Mongol Empire as the Golden Horde. Some time in the 13th Century, the Mamluk slave-soldiers kicked the Ayyubids out and reigned in their place. This happy state of affairs continued until they were in turn defeated by the Ottomans and their territories subsumed into the Ottoman Empire. Luckily for them, the Ottomans kept them on as governors of Egypt.

Perhaps because of their Mongol connection, or in some other way, the Mamluk picked up this new fad of card playing and brought it to Egypt some time in the 14th Century. What is of interest to us here is the fact that Mamluk packs of cards had four suits: Coins, Polo-sticks (the Mamluks were great polo players), Cups, and Swords. In addition, each suit had three face cards, the king, the first vizir, and the second vizir. Some clever people, who know more about the history of playing cards than I do, see a link between these four suits and those used in Chinese playing cards. Their thinking goes as follows. There is no problem in seeing the Mamluk Coin suit being derived from the Chinese Coin suit, that’s an easy equivalence to envisage. After that, it gets trickier. The clever people propose that the Chinese String-of-coins suit was transformed into the Mamluk Polo-stick suit, on the grounds that a String-of-coins pip could easily be misinterpreted as a stick to those unfamiliar with this very Chinese way of dealing with coins. It is true that the String-of-coins suit in the photo of Chinese playing cards above has been so stylized as to look stick-like. Then the clever people suggest that the Chinese Myriad-of-strings suit became the Mamluk cup suit, on the grounds that the Chinese character for myriad, 万, which was often used as a sort of pip, was simply inverted by the Mamluks, at which point it does indeed look cup-like. Finally, the clever people suggest that the Chinese Tens-of-myriads suit, where the Chinese numeral for ten, 十, was often used as the pip, was simply interpreted as a sword by the Mamluk and so gave rise to their suit of Swords. The ice over which we have been scrabbling these last few sentences is indeed thin, but the romantic in me is willing to believe this wonderful story of Central Asians scratching their heads over these strange-looking cards which had come all the way from China and giving their own interpretations to the drawings on them. To enliven all this text, I throw in here a photo of one of the rare Mamluk playing cards to have survived, a Six of Coins, found in Istanbul’s Topkapi palace.
image
The next leg of our journey is somewhat easier to envisage, the transit of the Mamluk playing cards to Italy. I’m guessing that Venice was the entry point, although there could have been more than one. Until the Portuguese rounded the Cape of Good Hope and made for the Spice Islands, most of the spices which Europeans lusted for entered Europe through Venice, which in turn picked them up in Egypt. In addition to picking up spices, I can imagine Venetian sailors and merchants picking up packs of Mamluk playing cards to while away the long journeys back to Venice. Once in Italy, the use of playing cards spread rapidly, with each region having its own particularities. Here, for instance, is a pack of cards from Bergamo.
image
Italian playing cards basically adopted the Mamluk suits, except that they changed Polo-sticks to Clubs – the game of polo was unknown in Europe at that time and I suppose the polo-sticks looked club-like to the Italians. They also adopted the idea of three face cards per suit but Europeanized them into king, upper marshal, and lower marshal.

There followed a fairly rapid diffusion of playing cards throughout Europe as the craze for card playing caught on. The Southern Europeans – Spain and Portugal – kept to the Italian design for their suits, with some minor modifications. The Northern Europeans instead experimented with a lot of different suit designs. Given the aristocratic background of many players, the suits were often hunting-themed like this pack from Flanders.
image
Through the newfangled technology of printing, in which they were leaders, and through which they were the first to produce cheap packs of cards, the German lands popularized the use of the following suits:
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Personally, I don’t see much connection between these suits and the Italian versions. I think the Germans just used their fantasy. In any event, here are some old German playing cards with suits of Bells and of Acorns.
image

Not to be outdone, the French came up with a somewhat different set of suits.
image
The Hearts suit was taken as-is from the German suits. The Spades suit seems to be a slight modification of the German Leaf suit. The Clubs suit could be considered a geometric transformation of the Acorns suit – the sides of the acorn shell pulled out, the acorn itself shortened. The circular Bells suit of the Germans was replaced by a different shape, the diamond. As the cards above show, the French also introduced Queens, who displaced the upper marshal.

The French suits have since become those most used worldwide. Why that should be is not completely clear to me. I think it probably has something to do with the fact that the French suits are easier to read; I would have got really confused using those German cards I show above – “wait, is that an Eight of Acorns I have in my hand, or a Nine?” Or perhaps it was because the French were the arbiters of good taste in Europe until World War I. Or perhaps it was because the British adopted the French suits and happened to become the most powerful country in the world with the biggest colonial Empire, which allowed them to impose their choice of card suits and card games on their colonial subjects. Or perhaps it was because the Americans, who took over the title of the most powerful nation, followed the British in choosing French suits for their playing cards. For any or all of these reasons, or maybe others again, French suits now stare up at me from my games of Spider Solitaire and Freecell.

Well, now that I’ve figured all that out, I can go back to what I was doing and actually win my Spider Solitaire game.

____________________
Old Chinese cards, coins and strings of coins: http://www.gamesmuseum.uwaterloo.ca/Archives/Wilkinson/Wilkinson.html
Old Chinese cards, face card: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Playing_card
Chi-pai three-suited cards: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_playing_cards#Money-suited_cards
Silk Road: http://archive.silkroadproject.org/tabid/177/defaul.aspx
Mongol Empire: https://mapcollection.wordpress.com/2012/06/27/the-mongol-empire/
Mamluk card: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Playing_card#Egypt
Bergsmasche deck: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Italian_playing_cards#/media/File%3ACarte_bergamasche.jpg
Flemish hunting deck: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flemish_Hunting_Deck
German suites: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/German_playing_cards
Old German playing cards, acorn: http://www.spielkarten24.de/flohm.htm
Old German playing cars, bells: http://deerbe.com/unt/59680-___alte_spielkarten_playing_cards_dondorf_301_deutsche_spielkarte_1868___.html
Old French playing cards: http://www.culture.gouv.fr/public/mistral/joconde_fr?ACTION=CHERCHER&FIELD_98=AUTR&VALUE_98=BERGERET%20Pierre%20Nolasque&DOM=All&REL_SPECIFIC=1

KAKI

Beijing, 3 November 2013

My wife and I went to an art show last weekend in an old temple located somewhere in the hutongs behind Beijing’s old drum tower (as a friend whom we met there said, “great space, great mulled wine, average art”). We went for a walk around the area afterwards, and I spied this kaki tree in full fruit peeping over a high wall.

kaki over temple wall 002

For those of my readers who can’t quite make out the tree in my picture, here is a much better take of the same species.

kaki

I realized that it was that time of the year again, when the kaki are fully ripened and ready to eat. And I suddenly noticed that all the Chinese grocers were filled with kaki.

I’ve noted in a much earlier posting that my wife brought much more food and culinary novelty to our marriage than I did. One of these was the kaki, which I first saw in Liguria during one of our trips out to the sea in the late months of the year.

cachi in liguria

My mother-in-law was very fond of this fruit, but I must say I have never been convinced by it. I appreciate neither its mushiness nor its sweetness. I’ve eaten it but rarely during the years since I first discovered it, and every time I have been reinforced in my lack of enthusiasm for the fruit.

kaki fruit

Without really thinking about it much, I assumed that this tree and its fruit were native to the Mediterranean. I adopted the Italian spelling cachi as the original spelling. Imagine my surprise, then, when several years after my initial discovery of the fruit, we came across the tree laden with fruit during the trip which my wife and I made to Japan, and our Japanese companion informed us that it was called kaki. Kaki! The scales fell from my eyes. This must have originally been a Japanese tree, which was brought to Italy at some point – back in the 1800’s, I have since discovered. Another botanical species, like the ginkgo which I’ve written about earlier, which was trekked back to Europe during the first era of globalization.

Actually, I was wrong again! Because, like the ginkgo, the kaki is actually native to China and at some point got transported over to Japan – along with Buddhism perhaps? So if I were a linguistic purist I should switch to calling it shizi, which is its Chinese name. But I’m getting old and set in my habits. Kaki it will remain.

Talking of names, English-speaking readers may be asking themselves what the English name of the tree and fruit is. It was years before I asked myself that question and looked up cachi in an Italian-English dictionary. Persimmon, that’s what it is! Persimmon … that was a word which had hovered on the far horizons of my linguistic knowledge. I’d heard it spoken or maybe seen it written, I knew vaguely it was a fruit, but that was it. It sounds such an upper-class English name, don’t you think? Like Fitzwilliam or the Duke of Buccleuch. So it was another surprise to me to discover that persimmon is actually an English transliteration of the word pasiminan or pessamin, an Algonquian word from the eastern United States. Another result of the first era of globalization, in this case the colonization of North America. Because there is also a species of kaki that is native to Eastern North America, the American Persimmon.

American persimmon-tree

American persimmon-fruit

I prefer the formal Latin name Diospyros virginiana, which suggests to me that it was in the British colony of Virginia that the Brits first came across the tree.

By the way, there is actually a species of Diospyros which is native to the Mediterranean; actually, its range is somewhat broader, stretching from Southeast Europe to Southwest Asia. In English, it’s called the date-plum tree. Apparently, the fruit’s taste reminds one of both plums and dates.

date plum diospyros lotos-tree

Maybe I’m pushing this globalization thing too far, but I see another strand of globalization in that name. It is a literal translation of the Persian name for the tree and its fruit: khormaloo. In the earlier period of globalization, American colonists were content to simply anglicize the Native American name. But in a later, more learned period of globalization, when some more academic Brits actually learned the foreign languages which the expanding British Empire was coming into contact with, rather than call the tree, say, cormalew, they preferred to translate the original name.

Actually, the Latin name of this species of kaki, Diospyros lotos, is even more interesting. It refers to a belief in Greece that this fruit could have been the lotus fruit mentioned in Homer’s Odyssey. According to that story, the lotus fruit was so delicious that those of Odysseus’s men who ate it forgot about returning home and wanted to stay and eat lotus with the native lotus-eaters. I throw in here a screenshot from an electronic game based on Odysseus’s story; the fruit looks vaguely kaki-like (amazing what they will make electronic games about …)

lotus eaters-2

Personally, I can’t think that kaki is the lotus-fruit. All that squishiness and mushiness would definitely not make me stick around.

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Kaki over the wall: my picture
Kaki: http://www.flickr.com/photos/giagir/5185254421/sizes/z/in/photostream/ [in http://www.flickriver.com/photos/giagir/5185254421/%5D
Cachi in liguria: http://www.flickr.com/photos/ciric/3032113542/sizes/z/in/photostream/ in [http://www.flickr.com/photos/ciric/3031273027/]
Kaki fruit: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/01/Diospiros_kaki_Fruit_IMG_5472s.JPG [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Persimmon%5D
American persimmon tree: http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-hroimehTRQk/TlPhN7euB8I/AAAAAAAAAds/lBlwEER714k/s1600/persimmon4.jpg [in http://tcpermaculture.blogspot.com/2011/08/permaculture-plants-persimmons.html%5D
American persimmon fruit: http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-b3lVcZ8FOnw/TlPgCINg7VI/AAAAAAAAAdk/LQCyiQYUw2c/s1600/Persimmon3.png [in http://tcpermaculture.blogspot.com/2011/08/permaculture-plants-persimmons.html%5D
Date plum-tree: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/6/63/Diospyros_lotus_01.jpg/800px-Diospyros_lotus_01.jpg [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Date-plum%5D
Odysseus and the lotus eaters: https://lh5.googleusercontent.com/-2uTp30FUU4E/UaHOcmkRBwI/AAAAAAAACsY/UU21szj7LBk/s1280/013_Lotus_Eaters.jpg  [in http://www.gamrgrl.com/2013/05/walkthrough-odyssey-hd.html%5D