LOQUATS

Sori, 29 May 2019

It’s the month of May! Time for loquats!

I suspect that many of my readers will have no idea of what I’m talking about, especially if they hail from the northern latitudes. I certainly didn’t until I first came to Italy a lifetime ago. Loquats were one of a long list of new food items my wife introduced me to. Except that she didn’t call them loquats, she called them by their Italian name, nespole, and it took me at least thirty years and the internet to figure out their English name.

Loquats are a fruit. They look like this when unopened.

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They’re a bit fussy to prepare. You have to first peel off their thin skin, which tends to break and tear easily, complicating removal. Once you’ve done that, you slice them open, only to find three or four large stones inside.

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The stones are quite beautiful really – warm brown, smooth, glistening – but they take up a lot of the internal space, which of course means less flesh to eat. In any case, once you flip the stones out the fruit is ready to eat. Ah, my friends, such taste! Sweet, but with a slightly tart, acidic note, a very juicy but firm flesh. To die for …

When we lived in Italy, I always looked forward to the month of May as loquat season. Then we went away for some twenty years and loquats remained but a dream. Even in retirement, when we spend a good amount of time here, we tend to leave before loquats come on the market – we have been in the habit of migrating up to Vienna by mid-May. As luck would have it, though, this year we’ve stayed longer than usual, so I’ve had the joy of once again eating loquats.

The fruit’s English name gives us a clue as to where the loquat hails from. “Loquat” is the English rendering of the Cantonese name for the fruit, lou4gwat1 (I believe those numbers are indications of the tones – good luck with that; in my five years in China, I never managed to “hear” a single tone). The fruit’s ancestral homeland is indeed southern China – more strictly the middle and lower valley of the Daduhe River. I throw in a satellite map from Google Maps, where the red pin is stuck in the river’s valley.

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Readers will see that Daduhe River is in the far south-west of China, in Yunnan province. It lies north of Xishuangbanna, which sits on the Mekong River (and which we had the pleasure to visit when we lived in China), and to the south of Pu’er, the location of a rather particular Chinese tea (which I must confess to not liking very much). It doesn’t surprise me that the loquat originates from this part of the world. Yunnan is a globally famous “hot spot” of biodiversity, hosting thousands of different species.

This Chinese connection delighted me when I found it out since over the years I have written a number of posts about various plants which have been carried out of China and spread to the rest of the world. To date, I have written about the Ginkgo tree, Kaki fruit, the Magnolia, the Peking Willow, Wisteria, the Pauwlonia tree, and Osmanthus. As always, Chinese poets and artists celebrated the fruit. We have here a painting from the mid to late Ming dynasty.

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While here is one from the late Qing dynasty.

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The fruit’s English name may be Cantonese but it was not through the port of Canton that it was first transferred to Europe. Like a number of other Chinese plants that reached Europe (from just among the ones I’ve written posts about: the ginkgo tree, kaki fruit, and the magnolia), the transfer occurred via Japan. It seems that the Portuguese, the first Europeans to reach Japan, were also the first to bring the loquat back to Europe. By the time they first set eyes on the fruit and its tree, probably very soon after they arrived in Japan in 1543, it had been growing there for 500 years or so. In all likelihood, it was brought to Japan by Buddhist monks, either Chinese monks going to proselytize in Japan or by Japanese monks returning home after a period of study in China.

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The modern varieties of loquats owe a lot to the patient work by Japanese farmers to develop fruits that were bigger, juicier and sweeter than their wild ancestors. I salute all those anonymous Japanese farmers for their efforts! I throw in here a woodblock by Katsushiga Hokusai of Japanese farmers at work on their more traditional crop, rice.

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Of course, like the Chinese, the Japanese celebrated the loquat in their art. Here is a woodblock by Utagawa Hiroshige (whom I’ve had cause to discuss at length in a previous post) with the same subject of bird and loquats as the Ming-era Chinese painting above.

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In any event, some time in the late 16th, early 17th Century, a Portuguese ship like this one carried the loquat back to Europe.

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The Portuguese didn’t call this new fruit “loquat”, nor did they even call it by some Lusitanian derivation of its Japanese name “biwa”. Instead, like a good number of other countries in Europe, they thought they had to do with a Japanese cousin of an already well-known fruit in Europe, the medlar, whose Portuguese name is nêspera (closely related to its Spanish name, níspero, and more distantly related to its Italian name, nespola – for those interested in linguistics, in all three languages the word derives from the Latin name for the medlar, mespilus, although at some point the “m” drifted to an “n” and the “l” further drifted into an “r” in the Iberian peninsula). The medlar was once quite a well-known fruit in Europe although it has since fallen into obscurity. I certainly had no idea what it looked like when I started this post, and I suspect this to be the case for many of my readers, so I throw in here a photo of this antique fruit.

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Comparing this photo to my first photo of the loquat, I think readers will understand why this confusion arose. By the early 1800s, botanists had understood that it was actually a different plant but by then the damage was done and the Chinese upstart had linguistically dethroned the venerable medlar in about half the European languages.

Loquats have an interesting life-cycle. Like the strawberry tree, which I wrote an earlier post about, the flowers appear in the late autumn or early winter. It seems that the flowers have a sweet, heady aroma that can be smelled at quite a distance; personally, I have never experienced this even though the loquat tree grows in Liguria (from where I am writing this post). The sweet-smelling flowers were also a reason why the tree was a favourite among Chinese and Japanese poets.

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But from a botanical point of view, what is more interesting is that to obtain fruits from these flowers you have to grow the trees in a region where pollinating insects are around at that late time of the year. That is why I never saw the fruit in either the UK or France when I was growing up and had to wait till I came to Italy, where the tree can fruit in the south and along the Ligurian coast, for me to discover it. An advantage of this life-cycle is that the fruit ripens at any time from spring to early summer. It is the first fresh fruit to be available naturally in Italy (i.e., not ripened artificially in some greenhouse somewhere, nor flown in from some remote part of the world), and so can have the monopoly of the fresh-fruit market before the cherries and other fruits appear. Which is why for me the month of May is loquat time.

And now it’s time for me to gorge myself on some more loquats!

WALNUTS IN DALI

Beijing, 24 March 2013

I mentioned in a recent posting that I had just come back from a business trip. This was to Dali, in the province of Yunnan, or to give it its full name the Dali Bai Autonomous Prefecture. My first day was spent in the city of Dali, which sits on the southern shore of Lake Erhai. I was there to hold discussions with the local government. I was pleased to be back in Dali, which is a pleasant city, in contrast to most Chinese cities. For one thing, the site is really quite spectacular.

Erhai Lake-3

There’s also a nice old city, which hasn’t been swept away by revolution or later by capitalism. It’s been considerably prettified for the tourists, but it’s still a nice place to walk around. I didn’t go there this time, but I had seen it during my last visit to Dali. There are some well-known old pagodas

Dali-three-pagodas

and nice “old” roads and buildings – with, of course, lots of shops for tourists.

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What was really nice this time was that, like in this photo, the fruit trees were in bloom: a sight for sore eyes after cold and dreary Beijing. It will be at least a month, possibly a month and a half, before we see the same thing in Beijing.

Last, but not least, this area of China is one of the few, perhaps the only one, where there is a local tradition of eating cheese! They have always had cow and goat herds here and they routinely drink and eat dairy products. The cheese is a bit odd, and they tend to eat it fried, but it is still cheese.

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The local government has a good eye for location. They built the prefecture’s government complex on top of a hill which drops steeply into the lake. So the buildings have a beautiful view of the lake. This is what you see from the car park in front of the buildings.

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It was the same view I had sitting in the government banquet hall that evening. The hall has been built with a huge window giving onto the lake, and so as I and my host carried on a stilted conversation I could watch the night slowly steal over the lake.

But I had not gone down to Yunnan to admire Erhai lake and Dali. I was there to talk … walnuts. It may surprise the reader to know that China is the largest producer of walnuts in the world. A good portion of these are grown in Yunnan, and a good portion of these are grown in Dali prefecture. So the next day, I was driven to a valley on the other side of these mountains

Erhai Lake-1

to visit a walnut orchard and a walnut processing facility. From the discussions I had held the previous day and from further explanations I received on the way, I had a handle on the basic problem. The government had encouraged the local farmers to plant walnut trees, as a way to increase their incomes but also to reforest the prefecture’s hills.

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Now, as more and more trees reached maturity – it takes about ten years for a tree to produce walnuts – the government realized they had to find something to do with all the walnuts which were about to flood on the market and depress prices. They were asking our help to find markets outside China.

To reach the walnut orchard, we climbed up, up, up the steep hills enclosing the valley, through one switchback after another. When we reached the top, I gazed around me and was terribly reminded of Liguria in Italy. I was seeing walnut trees rather than olive trees, and instead of the glint of the Mediterranean Sea far down below me I was seeing rich valley bottomland planted in vegetables. But the feel was very much the same, the feeling of being perched on an edge and risking to tumble down at any moment.

After a few moments, Farmer Liu arrived. He immediately opened a red packet of cigarettes – still the official sign of welcome in rural China – and offered a cigarette to all and sundry. I felt rather bad for him that all us city slickers, Chinese included, politely refused. Before coming, and knowing roughly what the Dali authorities wanted to talk to me about, I had phoned a colleague who knew about walnuts and had him coach me. So I was now able to pepper Farmer Liu with some not-too-stupid questions and understand his answers. After some ten minutes of this, Farmer Liu invited us to enter a small show room where we sat down and ate some of his walnuts. I was struck by how much more pitted the walnut shells were, almost as if they had been dunked in acid

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I think this will be a problem outside of China, where people are used to relatively smooth shells. But the flesh was delicious.

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As I ate, I looked around at the various products on show, wondering which of these could find larger markets if suitably produced. I mentally nixed this product made from sliced walnut shells.

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I don’t see this catching on outside of China, or even outside of Yunnan …

Walnut oil?

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Possible, although it can’t be used for cooking, which would be the big market; when heated it takes on a slightly bitter taste. It can be used in cosmetics, though, which could be a good market

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or in suntanning agents

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There’s also walnut milk, which – like almond milk – is really a mix of very finely ground walnut and water.

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Maybe this should be left to the national market. It’s becoming increasingly popular here, and I’m not sure how easily exportable it is.

How about walnut butter, cousin to the better-known peanut butter?walnut-butter-1

Definitely for the export markets. The Chinese don’t eat nut butters.

And so my eyes wandered around the shelves, while my hand dipped the walnut pieces into a delicious honey dip. The honey was creamy thick and pale yellow, really, really lovely. And then my mind began to wander, as I sat there enjoying the spring sun and the blossoming fruit trees outside the showroom.

We’ll find solutions, but not right now.

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Erhai Lake-1: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/9/97/Erhai_Lake_Dali_07.JPG/1280px-Erhai_Lake_Dali_07.JPG
Dali-three-pagodas: http://i1.trekearth.com/photos/5043/three-pagodas-in-dali.jpg
Dali-old-town-1: http://media-cdn.tripadvisor.com/media/photo-s/03/4e/7d/14/dali-gucheng-the-old.jpg
Dali-old-town-2: http://www.interasia.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/China-yunnan.jpg
Cheese: http://farm8.staticflickr.com/7169/6430350689_80c3790afb_z.jpg
Erhai Lake-2: my photo
Erhai Lake-3: http://www.chinamaps.info/images/Attraction/Dali/Erhai%20Lake.jpg
Walnut orchard: http://en.kunming.cn/index/image/attachement/jpg/site162/20110609/001f29dcfe6f0f5acab506.jpg
Walnuts in shell: http://www.justeasy.com.cn/img/upload/20120312/051416082793.jpg
Walnuts partially unshelled: http://www.yspl.cn/UploadFiles/2011-12/yspl3/2011122009130516038.jpg
Walnut handicraft: http://www.gd-wholesale.com/userimg/23/3568i1/walnut-vase-331.jpg
Walnut oil: http://masvidaquenunca.files.wordpress.com/2013/01/mas_vida_que_nunca_stop_al_catarro_aceites_vegetales_y_frutos_secos.jpg
Walnut-cosmetics: http://www.buycosmo.com/images/products/04/79/59/47959_buyuk_zoom.jpg
Walnut tanning oil: http://www.adoretanning.com/images/detailed/1/Summer-Tan-Self-Tanning-Lotion—Dark.jpg
Walnut milk: http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-Y5j66WGE3zk/UGpSGSLThjI/AAAAAAAAJ1g/9zblIgnPBzg/s1600/milk1-600×576.jpg
Walnut butter: http://cdn.livesuperfoods.com/media/catalog/product/cache/1/thumbnail/9df78eab33525d08d6e5fb8d27136e95/p/r/pre-walnut-butter_1.jpg
Walnut on the tree: http://cdn.livesuperfoods.com/media/catalog/product/cache/1/thumbnail/9df78eab33525d08d6e5fb8d27136e95/w/a/walnuts_30.jpg

EMBROIDERED SWADDLING CLOTHES

Beijing, 23 August 2012

There is a book by a certain Edwin J. Dingle, entitled “Across China on Foot”. It was first published in 1911 and it records a trek which the author undertook in 1909-1910. The title is a little bit of a cheat. Dingle didn’t walk across the whole of China, only 1,600 miles of it, from Chongqing to China’s western border with Myanmar, tracking along Sichuan’s southern border and then across the middle of Yunnan. Before that, he traveled another 1,500 miles, but by boat up the Yangtze River, from Shanghai. He did all of the walking companionless, with only a servant and ever-changing coolies to accompany him. It’s a pretty amazing book, and I highly recommend it to you should you ever come across it.

The book is fascinating on many levels. Most of the regions Dingle walked through were very backward, even by Chinese standards, and he witnessed a China that was almost feudal; some of his descriptions of the practices he saw are eye-opening. The regions he was crossing were really remote, very rugged – in a single day Dingle could climb and descend thousands of feet – but with beautiful, untouched landscapes. His lyrical descriptions of what he was seeing around him make me despair as I look out of my window at the smoggy air of Beijing. He was walking through areas where very few white people had ever been, so he was a phenomenon wherever he went. His descriptions of how the locals reacted to him can be hilarious. And his casual racism – a sort of jokey, imperialistic view of the Chinese – can make you squirm and understand why the Chinese of today have a deep, deep resentment of how they were treated in this period of their history (but it’s not as bad as the blatant racism which Hergé recorded in Tintin’s Le Lotus Bleusee my previous post on this album).

But actually I’m writing about this book because the regions through which Dingle walked were, and still are, home to many of China’s ethnic minorities. Many of his anthropological descriptions, if I may call them that, are about the variegated ethnic groupings he came across, and they constitute a truly colourful background to Dingle’s walk, in every sense of the word: not only do the customs he describes make for a fascinating read, but the peoples he met often wore colourful costumes.

It is the colour of ethnic costumes that is my topic for today. Last weekend, my wife and I went to the National Art Museum of China to see an exhibition of ceramics. We found no such exhibition; what we stumbled into instead was ten times better. Sometimes serendipity works your way.

It was an exhibition of swaddling clothes (and some dresses), made by many of the same ethnic minorities whose territories Dingle walked across a hundred years ago – the Miao, Buyi, Dong, Shui, Yao, Yi, Gejia, and others. For those of you who have never swaddled, it is the habit of wrapping babies tightly in cloths to restrict their movement. This is neither the time nor the place to discuss swaddling and its merits or drawbacks, but in my part of the world no one has swaddled since the seventeenth century while China’s ethnic minorities were still doing it back in the 1970s. Actually, I’m not sure they were swaddling the way we did it. As I understand it, we wound strips of cloth tightly around a baby. What was on exhibit here, though, were squares of cloth about one metre by one with long belts. My guess is that they were used to make pouch-like holders into which the baby was slipped.

But let me get back to the point of the exhibition, which was not swaddling but the decoration of the swaddling cloths. And the decorations were simply lovely: bright colours, complex patterns, bold combinations. I’m not an expert on the decoration of textiles, but there was a lot of very fine embroidery, there was patchwork, there was printing, there was appliqué, and I’m sure I’ve missed a thousand things.  I shall let the photos speak for themselves. Here are a few, just to whet your appetite!

You can see many more at this site.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/abellio-apple-god/with/7838593340/#photo_7838593340

Just to complete the story, this collection was put together by two dedicated Han Chinese who lived in Guizhou. I record the names of these two wonderful people for posterity: Ma Zhengrong and Ma Li. Over a period of some twenty-thirty years, the two Ma’s “ran around” the province (as the English introduction to the exhibition charmingly put it) collecting these swaddling clothes from the province’s ethnic minorities. They chased their collection over hill and dale – or rather mountain and gorge – up in the back country. All this, while the Great Leap Forward and then the Cultural Revolution raged and burned all around. Somehow they, and their collection, survived unscathed and they have now donated it to the Museum. I salute them.

Like everywhere else these ethnic particularities are disappearing under the onslaught of modernity. Numerous groups around the world are fighting to save this hugely rich cultural heritage that we have accumulated over thousands of years. Like I said in my earlier posting on the Lacebark pine, extinction is for ever; if we lose our cultural heritage it will never, ever come back.

Having smashed everything worthy of the name culture and tried to burn every form of individualism out of their citizens during their Communist period, the Chinese elites are now going at cultural preservation with the enthusiasm of the converted. But is it better than the wanton destruction of before, I wonder? As far as I can make out, the Chinese approach to preservation is to create cultural Disneylands, as one element in their enthusiastic promotion of the tourist industry. What they want is for their ethnic minorities to sit in their prettified villages, dress up in their prettified clothes, and have pictures taken of themselves and their villages by Han Chinese. But that is not what the ethnic minorities want. They, like everyone else, want a modern life, all modcoms. And who are we to deny it to them? Surely the answer is to take their cultural heritage and update it, make it part of all our heritage. They should not embroider swaddling clothes but dresses, shirts, ties, pillows, curtains, sofas. Their beautiful art needs a new, modern context, not the embalming of a tourist village. My wife is looking for a local partner to start getting the great fashion houses of the world into ethnic art. Anyone interested, please post a comment!