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.

Sources: various

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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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

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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

WILD TULIPS

Beijing, 24 April 2013

I am lucky to live close enough to the office in Beijing to be able to go home for lunch. Which means that for the last week I have been walking, four times a day, past the bed of tulips that our buildings management had thoughtfully planted outside the front door and which has finally bloomed.

tulip bed by house 001

The bed has attracted considerable attention from the locals, who have stopped to admire, to photograph, and of course to be photographed in front of.

tulip bed by house 004

I must admit, I am not a huge fan of tulips, especially when they are planted in massed beds like this. These massed plantings are not helped by the strong colours of so many commercially available tulips. I mean, look at the colour combination in our building’s bed: bright red and bright yellow. I’m sure the colours were chosen with very deliberate intention: red for happiness in China’s iconography, yellow for wealth. So, “Happy Spring! Be wealthy and be happy” (as my father was fond of repeating, “money may not be the source of all happiness, but it surely helps a lot”). But it’s just too … much.

I believe that the Netherlands tourist board touts tours of its tulip fields when they are in bloom, travelling around – of course – by bike. I cannot think of anything worse: days of bicycling past acres of strong colours.

tulips in Holland-4-field

It would be the visual equivalent of eating, all alone, a large and very rich chocolate cake.

No, I think I would prefer to be riding a horse and come across this sprinkling of wild tulips on the steppes of southern Russia:

wild tulips-9-steppes s russia

or this carpet of wild tulips in Asia Minor:

wild tulips-3-asia minor

or this scattering of wild tulips in Iran:

wild tulips-5-iran

or this bed of wild tulips in Crete:

wild tulips-2-omalos crete

or this achingly beautiful wild tulip in Cyprus:

wild tulips-8-cyprus

I think it is clear by now to the reader that I prefer wild tulips by far. Apart from being integrated into their environment rather than regimented into artificial beds, I find their shape – coming up into a sharp, delicate point – so much more beautiful than the bulk of commercially available tulips. The artisans in Iznik, Turkey, also recognized the beauty of the tulip in their wonderful ceramics. These are ceramic tiles gracing the walls (or rather the pillars) of Rüstem Pasha Mosque in Istanbul:

tiles-4-Rüstem Pasha Camii Istanbul

The interior of this lovely little mosque is completely lined with ceramic tiles:

???????????????????

The tiles pick up on other flowers, leaving delicate arabesques on the walls:

tiles-2-Rüstem Pasha Camii Istanbul

Several years ago, during the business trip to New York which I mentioned in an earlier post, I stumbled across an exhibition in the Turkish Chamber of Commerce of modern ceramic plates using traditional Iznik designs. I fell for a plate, which looked something like this:

plate-2-with tulip and carnation

and bought it on the spot, cash. It sleeps with all our other stuff in a warehouse in Vienna, waiting to be brought back into the light of day and admired.

I always had the impression that tulips originally came from Asia Minor or thereabouts, but their range is much wider. Here is a wild tulip in a national park in Umbria, Italy

wild tulips-10-umbria

and here is one from southern Norway:

wild tulips-4-tananger coast s norway

Lovely …

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Tulips in Beijing: my pix
Tulip fields in Netherlands-4: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-dbs2i3jZ9t0/TbPwj_YIvJI/AAAAAAAAAVI/tMyaQ7M1x40/s1600/Holland%2Band%2BBelgium%2B202.JPG
Wild tulips- steppes of S. Russia: http://static.panoramio.com/photos/1920×1280/35533419.jpg
Wild tulips- Asia Minor: http://www.colorblends.com/img/display/kolpakowskiana.jpg
Wild tulips- Iran: http://icons-ak.wunderground.com/data/wximagenew/p/Photo1224/212-800.jpg
Wild tulips- Omalos, Crete: http://www.west-crete.com/dailypics/photos/1727large.jpg
Wild tulips- Cyprus: http://www.embargoed.org/images/gallery/preview/image_79_1.jpg
Iznik tiles Rustem Pasha mosque Istanbul-1: http://ericrossacademic.files.wordpress.com/2012/05/rustem-pasa-tile.jpg
Rustem Pasha mosque interior: http://sugraphic.com/images/fotolar/2011/08/02/46_1312263234..jpeg
Iznik tiles Rustem Pasha mosque Istanbul-2: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/b/b9/DSC04139_Istanbul_-_R%C3%BCstem_Pasha_camii_-_Foto_G._Dall%27Orto_26-5-2006.jpg/800px-DSC04139_Istanbul_-_R%C3%BCstem_Pasha_camii_-_Foto_G._Dall%27Orto_26-5-2006.jpg
Ceramic plate Iznik style: http://yurdan.com/Content/Uploads/ProductImages/39637/iznik-design-ceramic-plate-tulip-and-carnation–1.jpg
Wild tulips – Umbria, Italy: http://farm1.staticflickr.com/62/185332054_d21bcbf611_z.jpg?zz=1
Wild tulips – Tananger coast, S. Norway: http://mw2.google.com/mw-panoramio/photos/medium/16107947.jpg

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

FLAMING RED HAIR!

Beijing, 30 November 2012

edited in Bangkok, 29 February 2015

I said in my previous post that I currently lived in a country where everyone had black hair. That is not strictly true. Like everywhere else, Chinese women, young and old, as well as young men, have a fondness for dyeing their hair. The great majority of them have wisely settled for adding reddish tints. This gives them hair-dos with varying shades of red-brown, which goes well with the natural colour of their skin. An unfortunate few have dyed their hair blonde which, with the yellow hues of their skin, simply makes them look ill.

In their colour preferences, Chinese hair-dyers are following what seems to me a broader trend worldwide to add more red to one’s hair. My memory tells me that when I was young, the dyeing colour of choice – at least in Europe – was blonde, but some fifteen years ago the shades definitely shifted into the redder part of the spectrum.

And why not? Naturally red hair is a magnificent sight, and the rarest natural colour in us humans. On average, no more than one or two people in every 100 have red hair. Scotland has the highest proportion, with a little more than one every ten Scotsmen or women having red hair. I remember well being struck by the amount of red-heads around me when I first moved to Edinburgh for University.  Ireland follows close behind. And then there is a scattering of red-heads throughout the rest of Europe.

Let me insert here a little photo gallery of some European read heads (probably Scottish or Irish, at least of descent), a young woman

ginger girla young man with a magnificent red beard

red header with bearda baby, readying himself or herself for a life on the red side

red headed baby

a slightly older man, looking back at a life spent on the red side.

ginger haired old man

I feel I have to complete this photo gallery with a picture of the Fair Prince Harry, who has given redness of hair a good name.

The observant reader will have noticed that most of these wonderful red-heads have blue eyes. The gene mutation which leads to red hair is closely linked to the one which gives rise to blue eyes. Fair, non-tanning skin almost always accompanies red hair, to the distress of red-heads when visiting countries with fierce sunlight:

Freckles are also often their lot:

Europe is not the only place to harbour red-heads. Here, in no particular order, are some red-heads from other parts of the world:

Syria:

Turkey:

The Berbers of North Africa, represented here by Morocco’s queen (who is a Berber):

and a small child:

Udmurtia, a small provincial backwater in the Ural mountains of Russia famous for its red-heads:

Afghanistan:

India:

and even Polynesia – this girl is from Tahiti:

Ashkenazi Jews are also well known for their redheads. My representative of this group is Woody Allen; this is a clip from one of his best films, Sleeper:

Nearer to me but also much further back in time are the Tochtarian people who inhabited the Tarim basin of Xingjian Autonomous Region some 4,000 years ago. The bodies of their dead were dessicated and mummified in the desert conditions of the Tarim basin, so many mummies have been unearthed. At least one these, the so-called Beauty of Xiaohe, had what looks like red hair.

Dessicating deserts in Peru have also given the world a share of mummies, some of these being red-heads. These red-headed mummies have had certain archaeologists (notably Thor Heyerdahl) afroth with fancy (and relatively racist) theories of Nordic whites somehow arriving in South America to take the natives in hand. This particular mummy also seems to have been subjected to skull lengthening.

peruvian mummy

Going back even further, from studies of fossil DNA it seems that some of our Neanderthal cousins were also red-heads:

So come join Edinburgh’s annual Ginger Pride Parade! Immerse yourself in a sea of red hair!

ginger pride parade

___________________
Ginger girl: http://i.telegraph.co.uk/multimedia/archive/02510/ginger-girl-13_2510537k.jpg (in http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/culturepicturegalleries/9932654/I-Collect-Gingers-artist-Anthea-Pokroy-photographs-500-red-haired-people.html?frame=2510537)
Red header with beard: https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/736x/96/d0/17/96d017f4374dbd877396ca77e2baf638.jpg (in https://www.pinterest.com/bridgeemelling/bearded-boss/)
Red headed baby: http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-rQ0mt43F_48/UXqtfoVyvGI/AAAAAAAAPow/zK3OEOiHiFI/s1600/150421_343259622462322_454686503_n.jpg (in http://klubkotajasna8.blogspot.com/2013_06_01_archive.html)
Ginger haired old man: https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/564x/02/36/0b/02360b9c030976e4bc871f810ac4aba7.jpg (in https://br.pinterest.com/pin/499899627364000820/)
Prince Harry: http://4.bp.blogspot.com/_tR4bYTcAqeQ/SvI-Hwpk8NI/AAAAAAAABsM/OBj6T465Dlc/s400/princeh.bmp
sunburned boy: http://25.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_ld4t18EDYN1qfs58no1_500.png
freckled boy: http://25.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_mbjiv5TNfp1qer9yuo1_1280.jpg
Syrian baby: http://i45.tinypic.com/260x2xu.jpg
Turkish young man: http://t2.gstatic.com/images?q=tbn:ANd9GcSBd3GBpDXFhzwdCW99RLJk_znIncX8Uaory6HOjMPNSpP6n1Kvag
Moroccan Queen: http://badrhariboxer.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/moroccan-queen.jpg
Berber girl: http://looklex.com/e.o/slides/berbers02.jpg
Udmurt girls: http://russianpickle.files.wordpress.com/2010/03/udmurt_people_red.jpg
Afghan boy: http://fc04.deviantart.net/fs16/f/2007/122/1/a/Afghan_Redhead_and_boy_by_xerquina.jpg
Indian boy: http://mathildasanthropologyblog.files.wordpress.com/2008/06/light-indian.jpg
Polynesian girl: http://t0.gstatic.com/images?q=tbn:ANd9GcS9dYzPU1dcELZO1dZOJTMta43zg-fJO2tGxOcwAqHJ7XKp0iIpTAJGjDAAnA
Woody Allen: http://www.nerve.com/files/uploads/scanner/sleeper_0.jpg
Tochtarian mummy: http://images.mirror.co.uk/upl/dailyrecord3/feb2011/0/7/mummy-image-2-601127141.jpg
Peruvian mummy: https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/736x/2d/43/e4/2d43e4c46a67385e964b409fe38e229a.jpg (in https://www.pinterest.com/aprildherbert/creepy-cool/)
Neanderthal: http://images.nationalgeographic.com/wpf/media-live/photos/000/601/cache/neanderthal-genome_60159_600x450.jpg
Ginger pride parade: http://scrapetv.com/News/News%20Pages/Health/images-3/ginger-rally-uk-support.jpg (in http://scrapetv.com/News/News%20Pages/Health/pages-3/World-misses-prime-opportunity-to-eliminate-gingers-during-pride-parade-Scrape-TV-The-World-on-your-side-2013-08-12.html#.VtRaZEAppEN)