the heart thrills

there is beauty all around us

Month: March, 2016


Bangkok, 27 March 2016

I said in my last post that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. In that case, I was talking about citrons. But this homey dictum is that much truer about the subject of this post, betel chewing. To explain what I mean, consider this picture of a betel chewer.

Betel chewer

Now, if I were to meet such a fellow, I would be nervously looking for an escape route, half expecting the man to make a lunge with his pointed canines at my jugular. But in the village where he comes from, where no doubt half the population have red goo drooling from their lips, this man would be seen as a nice, friendly village elder. Perhaps a little less on the extreme side of things, if I were to meet this smiling Indian gentleman

indian betel chewer

my earlier post on teeth would come to mind and I would make a mental note that he badly needed to see a dentist rather than thinking what a lovely smile he had and what a nice man he must be. As I said, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

I first came across the habit of betel chewing in Delhi. I was there for a meeting of some sort, and after it was over and I was being walked back to my hotel my colleague stopped at a betel stand such as this one


and ordered himself a betel quid to chew. He asked me if I wished to try one, but I politely declined. I watched with curiosity to see what might happen to him, but nothing untoward did. I did realize, though, that this habit explained his somewhat orange teeth.

I was reminded of this scene from long ago when I was in Myanmar recently and saw the tell-tale signs of betel chewing all around me in Yangon – the orange teeth, the betel stands, and most revolting of all these bright red splotches on the pavements.

spit from betel chewing

Betel chewing generates a lot of saliva, which the chewers either swallow or spit out (which if not done vigorously enough no doubt leads to dribbles on the chin as in the case of the old gentleman with whom we started this post). The fact that these are spit is revolting enough, but their bright red colour further gives the impression that half the population have advanced cases of TB and are coughing their lungs out (my childhood memories have retained stories of older generations with consumption coughing hard into their handkerchiefs and seeing with horror that the handkerchiefs were stained by bright red blood from their lungs; the end was nigh for them).

For those – I hope – many readers who have no idea what is in a betel quid, allow me to elucidate. At its most basic, the betel consists of slices of the “nut” (actually fruit) of the Areca palm

Ripe and Raw Betel Nut Or Areca Nut Palm On Tree

wrapped in leaves of the betel vine

betel leaves

which have been liberally smeared beforehand with slaked lime. Depending on your fancy and which part of the world you come from, your local betel stand holder can add tobacco, spices, and various other ingredients – note the various little pots which our betel stand holder in the picture above has spread out before him.

Since I had first come across the betel chewing habit in India, and since every betel stand holder in Yangon seemed to be of Indian extraction, I sort of assumed that this was an Indian tradition which had been exported elsewhere. Not a bit of it! It’s actually the other way around. Although it’s not yet clear where the Areca palm and the betel vine originated from exactly, there is general agreement that it was in South-East Asia somewhere. But they didn’t originate in the same place. Evidence points to the betel vine and Areca nut being initially consumed separately, their use spreading out from their point of origin until they overlapped, at which point some bright spark had the idea of putting the two together. Early trade between South-East Asia and India brought betel chewing and then the plants to the subcontinent – and migration brought them out to New Guinea and the Pacific Islands, where the dreaded signs of betel chewing are to be found.

PNG betel chewer

But why, some readers may be asking themselves, does anyone bother to chew betel quids in the first place? Because both plants contain mild stimulants: arecoline in the case of the Areca nut, eugenol in the case of the betel leaf. So chewing the quid gives the chewer a mild high. It joins a number of other plants which are chewed for their stimulating (in some cases very stimulating) effects: coca leaves in the Andes,

coca leaf chewing

khat leaves in the Horn of Africa and the Arabian peninsula (I remember a colleague once telling me that Djibouti came to a halt on Fridays as everyone waited for the weekly supply of khat to be flown in from Ethiopia)

khat chewing

kola nuts in West Africa.

cola chewing

And then there are the plants that are smoked, those that are swallowed, those that are made into infusions and drunk … Early humans were exceedingly resourceful in figuring out how to get a high from the plants which surrounded them. I wonder, though, how they ever figured out which of the thousands of plants around them gave them highs.

Luckily, the practice of betel chewing seems to be dying out. For instance, Thailand was once a hot-spot of betel chewing, but I have never seen anyone in Bangkok, or anywhere else for that matter, chewing it. Nor have I ever seen anyone chewing betel quids in Cambodia or Laos. I say “luckily”, even though this perhaps betrays a cultural imperialism. I mean, one could argue that if people want to chew betel why shouldn’t they, as long as they don’t kill me or their family or themselves in the process, and don’t become a burden on the public purse because of it. Normally, I would indeed be tolerant of cultural diversity, but for this particular practice I draw the line: people with red mouths and teeth à la Dracula generating bright red spit marks all over pavements are beyond the civilized pale. This should be the new normal, everywhere.

indian lady smiling


Betel chewer: (in

Indian betel chewer: (in

Betel quid seller: (in

Spit from betel chewing: (in

Areca nuts: (in

Betel leaves: (in

PNG betel chewer: (in

Coca leaf chewing: (in

khat chewing: (in

kola chewing: (in

Indian lady smiling: (in


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


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

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

tosher rabbi of montreal

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

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

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

persian palace

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

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

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

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

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


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

citron tree

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

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

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

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

cut citron

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

jews purchasing etrogim

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


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


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!


Lemons in Liguria: (in

Citron: (in

Tosher Rabbi of Montreal: (in

Persian palace:!/image/3938862120.jpg_gen/derivatives/headline_857x482/3938862120.jpg (in

Myrtle: (in

Citron tree: in

Cut citron: (in

Orthodox Jews purchasing etrogim: (in

Panettone:—-Ummarino.jpg (in

Plum pudding: (in

Cédratine and myrthe, Corsica: (in