A PUDGY CHERUB AS A WEATHERVANE

Sori, 14 February 2021

As my wife and I were walking down into Vernazza on our latest hike along the trail which links together the Cinque Terre, I noticed this on the steeple of the village church.

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I suspect it’s a little difficult for readers to see what I mean, so I throw in this close-up photo of the steeple.

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“This” is a weathervane. As I’m sure many of my readers will know, in the pre-modern world, where weather satellites didn’t exist and TV channels didn’t give you weather forecasts every hour on the hour, the function of weathervanes was to tell people which way the wind was blowing, a pretty good indicator of what the weather was going to be like. And of course peering at weathervanes went along with some of the weather-related sayings people were fond of quoting, like this one about the winds:
“When the wind is in the east, it’s good for neither man nor beast.
When the wind is in the north, the old folk should not venture forth.
When the wind is in the south, it blows the bait in the fishes’ mouth.
When the wind is in the west, it is of all the winds the best.”

I can imagine some great-great-great grandfather of mine looking up at the weathervane on the barn and saying “Aah, wind today’s from the north. Like they say, ‘old folk shouldn’t venture forth’”, no doubt using this as a good excuse to wend his way to the village pub to fritter his time (and money) away.

But weathervanes are also excellent examples of how we human beings transform functional objects into art. Take that weathervane on Vernazza’s church. If readers look again at my photo, they’ll see that the weathervane-maker turned the sail, which a weathervane needs if it is to work, into a rather pudgy angel. The things which weathervane-makers have turned the sail into, and continue to turn them into (this is by no means a dead art), are endless. I throw in here, in no particular order, some of the designs which have caught my fancy.

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The eventual owners of weathervanes will often choose designs that comment on something: their profession, their beliefs, their interests, the times they live in, even the racehorses they have bet on … No doubt it was in that spirit that Pope Nicholas I, way back in the 9th century, ordered that the rooster be the emblem used on weathervanes placed on Christian churches. It seems that Pope Nicolas was harking back to a comment made by Pope Gregory the Great even further back in time, in the 6th Century. Gregory had decreed that the rooster was the most suitable emblem of Christianity, being the emblem of St Peter – he is referring to the story in the Gospel where Jesus predicted that Peter would deny him three times before the rooster crowed at dawn, here captured in a painting by Francesco Rosa in San Zachariah church in Venice.

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Personally, I find this a rather strange reason to choose the rooster as an emblem on churches, referencing as it does a moment of shameful betrayal by the man who was to become the first Pope. I rather think that Popes Gregory and Nicolas were doing something which Christians had been doing since the dawn of their religion, putting a Christian gloss on what were actually thriving pagan traditions (“if you can’t beat them, join them”). For the Goths and no doubt other “barbarians”, the rooster, crowing as it does at dawn, was an emblem of the sun. What better emblem to put on churches! Wasn’t Jesus (apparently) born at the winter solstice, when the sun is reborn?

In any event, from the 9th Century on, rooster-themed weathervanes became the norm on Christian churches (which no doubt explains why, in English, another name for the weathervane is the weathercock). The oldest surviving weathervane in Europe – from the 9th Century – is a rooster which, until 1891, graced the Church of Saints Faustino and Giovita in the city of Brescia.

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And the Bayeux tapestry, my favourite tapestry and one I’ve mentioned several times in these posts, clearly shows a man installing a rooster weathervane on Westminster Abbey (the scene is actually about the burial of King Edward the Confessor; I presume the nuns who made the tapestry were adding local colour).

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Now, I’m sure that at this point my alert readers are saying, “Hang on a minute, why does the weathervane on that church in Vernazza have an angel and not a rooster, then?” Well, it seems that at some point the Church authorities relaxed the rooster rule somewhat. Other emblems were possible, although normally ones which were linked to the saint or saints to which the church was dedicated. In the case of the church in Vernazza, it is dedicated to Saint Margaret of Antioch. A quick zip around the Internet tells me that a weathervane emblem connected to her (completely apocryphal) life could be a dragon: one of the more dramatic moments in her life was that she was swallowed by the Devil in the form of a dragon. Dragons are popular emblems for weathervanes. Here’s a nice example.

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Or the emblem could be a hammer. She is often depicted, especially in Orthodox icons, as hammering the Devil – once no doubt she had been regurgitated alive by him. My wife and I saw a great example of such an icon in a museum in Athens a few years ago (for some reason, the Orthodox call her Marina rather than Margaret).

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Here’s a nice example of a hammer, although it’s put together with a saw (“hammer and saw”).

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But no, we have an angel. OK, I guess angels are pretty saintly and so a good emblem for a church – as long as they look serious, like this emblem (for some reason, most of the weathervanes have the angel blowing a horn).

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But no, if readers go back to my original photo, they will see that the weathervane-maker seems to have made more of a cherub. Raphael painted the most iconic of cherubs.

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And here we have a nice weathervane example (also tooting a horn; it seems that angelic figures are expected to be horn players).

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The example on Vernazza’s church doesn’t seem nearly as cute. As far as I can make out, the cherub there has gone to seed; a cherub who has spent rather too much of his lockdown time eating and drinking and not enough time working out in his living room.

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I’m not sure how the weathervane-maker got this pretty non-religious weathervane past the parish priest. Perhaps the weathervane-maker was the parish priest. Or perhaps the parish priest was a jolly fellow who liked a good laugh. I have in mind someone like don Camillo as played by Fernandel.

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The parish priest must also have calculated that his bishop would never come to this Godforsaken village during his tenure – until quite recently it was pretty difficult to get to Vernazza and the other Cinque Terre; you either walked over the hills or you took a fishing boat, neither of which I see any self-respecting bishop doing.

I don’t suppose we’ll ever know the backstory on this weathervane. In the meantime, I’ve gone back in my mind’s eye to see where I might have come across weathervanes in my life. Only one episode comes back to me, from my days at prep school (in British vernacular this being a boarding school for primary-school-age children). As I ascertained after a quick zip around the Internet, the school still exists. The only change I can see is that it has gone co-ed in the intervening years, an excellent thing. The school has taken over a building with venerable origins, as this picture of the main lawn attests.

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But the main reason for my putting in this photo is that discrete weathervane on that small tower in the centre of the photo. I throw in here an enlargement.

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It’s a rather boring weathervane, taking the shape of a flag (the first instruments used to figure out which way the wind was blowing were no doubt flags; indeed, the English word “vane” is derived from the Old English word fana, meaning flag). Nevertheless, I know that weathervane well. One year, my dormitory gave onto the roof covering the gallery (those windows we see to the left of the base of the tower). I was a naughty boy and friends with other naughty boys. We would regularly sneak out of the dormitory window at night onto that roof and go for a walk, just for the dare. Sometimes, that weathervane would be silhouetted against the moon. I see it still … aahh, the good old days!

One other memory I have of weathervanes is their figurative use in cartoons, especially political cartoons. As we all know too well, politicians are notorious for going “whichever way the wind blows” (a popular wind-related saying). Cartoonists have always had a field day with weathervanes, using them to show politicians who chop and change their opinions, “trimming their sails” to prevailing opinion (another popular wind-related saying). I remember a British cartoon mocking the British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan for acting like a weathervane over the independence of British colonies in Africa. I couldn’t find that particular one on the Internet. But political cartoonists have been busy with the weathervane metaphor in the intervening years. Here are some recent examples.

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For some reason, the use of weathervanes seems to be especially popular among American cartoonists. Could it be that the extensive use of interest groups in American politics makes American politicians chop and change their opinions more frequently – and, given the pervasiveness of TV news teams, the evidence of their chopping and changing is more obviously there for everyone to see?

Politicians are of course sensitive to the charge of behaving like weathervanes. Quebecan politicians are so sensitive to the charge that the provincial Assembly has banned the use of the term, considering it a slur. I never knew politicians were quite that thin-skinned …

Well, that still leaves the mystery of my pudgy angel. Maybe, next time my wife and I are in Vernazza, I’ll drop into the church and try to find an answer.

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If I find one I will report back.

COQ AU VIN

Bangkok, 8 June 2015

Yesterday evening, my wife and I went over to the Central World mall to see a film (“Spy”, a hilarious film, well worth seeing). Afterwards, feeling peckish, we decided to stay and have dinner in the mall – at least it was well refrigerated there, a decided plus in this hot season when the promised rains are failing to come to cool us. The problem is, most of the restaurants in the mall are of Asian extraction – Japanese is a definite favourite, followed by Korean, and then trailing far behind a few Chinese, Thai, and “international” (i.e., mixed Asian) – and that’s not what I felt like eating. I wanted something “different”, although I wasn’t quite sure what that “different” might be. We made a bee line for a French restaurant advertised on the information board, but it had disappeared since they had last updated the board. We sighted an Italian restaurant, although something called “Spaghetti Factory” surely is to be avoided like the plague. We got a fleeting glimpse of a Mexican restaurant tucked away in a corner, but Mexican food didn’t entice me … You get the picture. I was being finicky, and time was passing. Eventually, we saw a bar-cum-restaurant called “1881”, which looked nice enough. We rapidly checked the menu, and since it looked suitably international we went for it.

Ensconced at our table, we scanned the menu more closely. For the main course, we both happily plumped for the coq au vin. It had been an age since we had eaten this, we both exclaimed. To keep us going while we waited, we ordered some starters, and of course a glass of red wine. The starters were delicious, the wine was good, everything looked set for a memorable dinner. Alas! it was not to be. When the coq au vin arrived, we found ourselves faced with a chicken leg, deep fried à la manière KFC, sitting on some sort of thick tomato-based sauce peppered with carrots and onions, maybe something which had been recycled from an osso buco dish, and which had obviously never seen a drop of vin. We glumly ate our poulet à une sauce indéfinie, agreeing with each other that something had definitely got lost in translation. The dessert, a great pannacotta with some sort of balsamic-strawberry gelée, partially made up for the very disappointing main dish, but it was undeniable that the coq au vin had been a black hole in our sensory experiences of the evening.

I feel I owe it to my genes, to my heritage, to right the balance, to advertise from the rooftops the greatness of coq au vin. At least describing how the dish is made might allow me to partially enjoy, if only in my imagination, the taste of the Real Thing.

Let me start by saying that in the olden days coq au vin was not a dish that would have been served to the Great Sun King, Louis XIV

Louis_XIV_of_France

or some other such august personage, unless of course you wanted to be sent to the Mediterranean galleys or to rot away on L’île du Diable. The great French chef of the mid-19th Century, Marie-Antoine Carême, author of the encyclopedic L’Art de la Cuisine Française and other works, never mentioned it, nor did the even greater French chef of the late 19th-early 20th Century, Auguste Escoffier, in his various publications. No, this was above all a peasant’s dish, a way of recycling that rooster in the yard which had reached the end of the rooster road. It was people like these who created coq au vin, making a virtue out of necessity.

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CHT216766 Peasant family of the Sarthe area at a baptism, late 19th century (photo); by French Photographer, (19th century); photograph; Private Collection; Archives Charmet; French, out of copyright

So now let us see how this wonderful dish is made. The paysan (or paysanne) will first have laid his (or her) hands on a rooster like this one

https://i1.wp.com/monia2009.m.o.pic.centerblog.net/gg7spkhz.jpg

and wrung its neck. We modern men and women are squeamish about killing to eat, but what to do: unless you hang around prides of hunting lions and scavenge what they are kind enough to leave behind, to eat meat you need to kill; simple as that. Oh, and by the way, it’s good to slit the rooster’s throat and drain its blood, which you will use later in making the dish. If you can’t bring yourself to do all this, you can subcontract the task to a butcher. You can also subcontract him the task of plucking the bird, which the paysanne would have done herself (I remember my French grandmother doing this, while she sat on the balcony discussing this, that, and the other with my mother). The wonderful feathers of the rooster should be conserved, although I’m not quite sure what to do with them. In any event, in one way or another you should end up with something like this:

coq-fermier-pret-a-cuire

Personally, to support the Home Team, that is to say Burgundy, where the French side of me comes from, I would want a rooster from Bresse, which is on the other side of the River Saône from Burgundy: the Burgundians gave the people of Bresse their wine and in return got farm products like chickens.

Now we can start the cooking.

First, you will cut up the rooster. Place the pieces in some container, to which you will add diced carrots, onions, and shallots, and – if you really must – chopped garlic (personally, I would drop the garlic; I’m not a fan of this particular bulb). The paysan would have collected these from his vegetable garden like the one my French grandmother had hidden behind her lilac bushes, but I recognize that in our modern, highly urbanized society most of us do not have access to vegetable gardens, so we will have to make do with the local grocery store, or even the local supermarket. Add laurel, thyme and parsley. Add a little stock. Salt and pepper. And now we come to the wine.

Obviously, this is a key ingredient, so some thought needs to go into its choice. Nothing too fancy, of course – not going to waste a $100 bottle of wine to cook our rooster. Something with a good body but not too tannic should do the trick. I would go for a red wine, although there are parts of France (Alsace, for instance, or the Jura) where the dish is made with white. Since, as I’ve mentioned, I’m batting for the Home Team, I would personally go for a red Burgundy, maybe shading into a Beaujolais, something just down the road from where my Grandmother lived.

macon rouge

Our paysanne would have gone down into the cellar of the kind my Grandmother had and taken a bottle of wine made from grapes growing in one of the surrounding vineyards and bottled in that very cellar or at least locally. But we – with a sigh – will make do with what we find at our local wine store.

In any event, pour in enough wine to just cover the rooster. Cover the container and leave it in a cool place. You will let the rooster and the vegetables marinate for a full 24 hours.

The next day, fresh from a good night’s sleep, you will begin the next phase.

As a first step, fish the rooster pieces out of the marinade, draining them well. Do the same for the vegetables. Do not throw away the marinade! Very important.

Put all these aside, and take a large skillet, in which you will heat a little butter and oil. Frankly, I don’t think the paysanne would have used oil, at least not in Burgundy. Traditionally, Burgundy was not an oil country. I would guess, from a perusal of an old French cookery book from 1651, that she would have used butter and/or lard. Nevertheless, we will go with butter and oil since nowadays oil you find in shops but lard only with difficulty.

Once the butter-cum-oil is hot enough, slide in the rooster pieces, together with some chunks of bacon, and let the whole brown nicely. Throw in the vegetables from the marinade and let them colour a bit. Sprinkle with flour and let it all cook a moment. Move the skillet off any open flame, take a small glass of cognac, sprinkle it over the rooster pieces, and light it up with a match – taking care, of course, that your face is not too close; the last thing you need is to find yourself eating the final product without eyebrows. In Burgundy, the paysanne would probably have used a Marc de Bourgogne, which is a brandy made with the solid leftovers from the grape presses. But unless you actually live in Burgundy, you probably do not have this at hand, so go with cognac. Once the flames have died down, add in the marinade, and bring the whole back to a boil for a few minutes.

You will now let the mix simmer slowly for a long, long time: aim for six hours. Let it fill your kitchen with a gorgeous aroma, but don’t hang around there because otherwise you will soon no longer be able to stand it and you will throw yourself on the cooking rooster and wolf it down. As would have done the paysanne, go and busy yourself in the garden, in the studio, anywhere that is some distance from the kitchen. Keep your mind and hands busy with other things, just popping in from time to time to check. As the hours pass, the meat softens and falls off the bone, it absorbs the wonderful aromas it is basting in, and the sauce itself slowly thickens. Towards the end of this long simmering period, you will take the blood you collected when you killed the rooster (remember that?) and add it to the sauce to thicken it. You will also prepare boiled potatoes a little while before the end, to accompany the coq au vin.

The coq au vin is now ready to eat. Lay out the pieces of coq in a serving plate, pour the sauce au vin over them.

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Place the potatoes on the side, bring out that special bottle of Burgundy you’ve been keeping for an exceptional moment, call in the family and your special friends, and enjoy!

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Mmm, there’s a rooster I keep hearing over the other side of the lane, in a building site. Maybe tonight, I’ll go out with this cleaver which we bought in China

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And find me a rooster for a nice coq au vin

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Louis XIV: http://media.tumblr.com/tumblr_lkzid3Jvkb1qggdq1.jpg (in http://wtfarthistory.com/post/5361387982/red-high-heels-for-him)
French peasants-1: http://www.myartprints.co.uk/kunst/french_photographer_19th_century/peasant_family_of_the_sarthe_a_hi.jpg (in http://www.myartprints.co.uk/a/frenchphotographer19thcen/peasantfamilyofthesarthea.html)
French peasants-2: http://img.over-blog-kiwi.com/0/81/05/67/201311/ob_9bbe36_conde-sur-noireau-calvados-comice-agricole.jpg (in http://stephane.guillard.over-blog.com/2013/11/l-histoire-des-comices-agricoles-en-france-xixe-xxe-si%C3%A8cles.html)
French peasants-3: http://tnhistoirexix.tableau-noir.net/images/scene-de-moissons.jpg (in http://tnhistoirexix.tableau-noir.net/pages/campagnes-xix-siecle.html)
Rooster: http://monia2009.m.o.pic.centerblog.net/gg7spkhz.jpg (in http://lenissa.musicblog.fr/3467011/France-Allemagne-C-est-fini/
Rooster ready to cook: http://www.lesplaisirsdegargantua.com/419/coq-fermier-pret-a-cuire.jpg (in http://www.lesplaisirsdegargantua.com/sitemap.xml)
Mâcon rouge: http://sohowine.co.uk/import/images/B-MACON.jpg (in http://sohowine.co.uk/?c=products&deptno=2&country=France&region=Burgundy&page=2)
Coq au vin: http://www.joyce-farms.com/topics/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/coqauvin.jpg (in http://www.mairie-reffannes.fr/news/soireecoqauvinaumuguet)
Meal: https://labelleassiette.fr/blog/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/DSCN0568.jpg (in https://labelleassiette.fr/blog/diner-lba-3-avec-philippe-engammare/)
Cleaver: http://img92.imageshack.us/img92/7854/shun9wy.jpg (in http://www.knifeforums.com/forums/showtopic.php?tid/771029/)