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Category: Austria

FULL OF SOUND AND FURY, SIGNIFYING NOTHING

Vienna, 29 December 2016

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Nice, isn’t it? It’s Karlskirche, Charles Church, fronting the square of the same name, Karlsplatz, in Vienna. In this picture, the church is reflected in a large pool situated in front of it, making an even prettier picture of it all.

It’s also very nice-looking at night, when cleverly-placed lights dramatically illuminate the facade and dome.
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It really looks like the backdrop of some Mozart opera.

It so happens that we pass through Karlsplatz every time we take the tram into the city centre, and I always give Karlskirche an admiring look as we pass by.

It was the Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI who ordered it to be built, in 1713, just after what turned out to be the last great plague epidemic had swept through these lands. He had it built as thanks for the pestilence having spared him and his family. He dedicated the new church to San Carlo Borromeo, Cardinal of Milan, who not only was his personal patron saint but was also revered as a healer of plague sufferers. The church was completed by 1737.

Karlskirche was built in pure Baroque style. A few quotes are in order here, to hopefully answer the question “what exactly is the Baroque style?”:
– a style “characterized by new explorations of form, light and shadow, and dramatic intensity”
– a style which “used exaggerated motion and clear, easily interpreted detail to produce drama, tension, exuberance, and grandeur”
– “Baroque architecture and its embellishments were on the one hand more accessible to the emotions and on the other hand, a visible statement of the wealth and power of the Church” (as well as of the secular Princes, I should add)

Well, Karlskirche certainly produces drama, tension, exuberance, and grandeur on the outside. We have that dominating dome with its green copper sheath, along with the two columns flanking the front.
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Those columns are modeled on Trajan’s column in Rome
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but substitute tales of Trajan’s victories in the Dacian wars with pious scenes from the life of that great “Prince” of the Church, San Carlo Borromeo.
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We have the pediment crowning the front, where we see the cardinal virtues sucking up to San Carlo standing on the apex of the pediment.
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So it is in a state of high tension and of great exuberance that one enters the church – only to find oneself in a small chapel. It is really the strangest feeling: all that architectonic might and majesty on the outside, clothing a really very modestly-sized internal space.
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Oh, I grant you, there is also dramatic intensity on the inside: the fresco in the dome, for instance
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or the altarpiece portraying the ascension of San Carlo.
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But the overall effect is: “Really? That’s all there is to this church? This tiddly little space?” I have to say, the only time I went in I felt quite cheated.

In the name of full disclosure, I should state at this point that I am anyway not a great fan of Baroque decoration. My general feeling about this style of art can be summed up in Macbeth’s words, “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”. Even if the scale of the church’s interior had been on a par with the outside I probably wouldn’t have liked it. I find Baroque decoration, especially in Catholic churches, pompous and overblown. On top of that, for a religion that claims to value poverty, I find Baroque’s in-your-face glitter – gold and silver everywhere – particularly offensive. There is a toe-curling example of this blingy over-the-top quality in Baroque in Vienna’s Jesuit church, whose interior was completed some five years before Charles VI decided to have Karlskirche built.
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All this being said, there is one example of church baroque that I have come across which I really loved, and that was in the cathedral of Saint Gall in the Swiss canton of Saint Gallen. Our visit to it was completely serendipitous. We were driving from Vienna to my parents’ house in France, and Saint Gallen happened to be a good place to stop for the night. The next morning, I decided that we should take the occasion to visit the cathedral and dragged a rather unwilling family with me. What a revelation!


There were the usual dramatic and intense frescoes on the ceiling, but the rest of the church was quite bare. Instead of the glittering gold, the marble, the overwrought statuary, we found ourselves in a space of mostly bare white walls carrying only a few highly curlicued decorations painted a lovely pale blue-green. It was so wonderful that it put me in a good mood for the next nine hours of driving and the thought of having to spend a long weekend with my parents.

The cathedral was remodeled into its current form in the 1750s-60s, so some 20-30 years after Karlskirche. That lapse of time might explain the more rococo style that was used, along with the fact that the cathedral stood at the border with Protestantism – literally, since the town that had sprung up around the cathedral and its abbey had turned Protestant while the abbey itself remained Catholic; Protestant baroque tends to be more restrained than the Catholic version.

Whatever the reason, Saint Gall Cathedral has partially reconciled me to baroque. Since that magic moment some 15 years ago when I first entered the cathedral, I have been inclined to simply grimace and shrug at excesses like those in Vienna’s Jesuit church rather than dream of taking the iconoclast’s hammer to it all. Or maybe I’m simply getting older and perhaps a little bit wiser.

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Karlskirche panoramic: http://www.thousandwonders.net/Karlskirche
Karlskirche at night: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karlskirche
Karlskirche dome: http://www.123rf.com/photo_13006441_dome-of-the-karlskirche-st-charles-s-church–vienna-austria.html
Trajan’s column: https://www2.bc.edu/~kenth/honors4.html
Karlskirche columns’ detail: https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Karlskirche_column_detail_-_Vienna.jpg
Karlskirche pediment: http://www.panoramio.com/m/photo/93052486
Karlskirche interior: https://www.studyblue.com/notes/note/n/lecture-21/deck/5993225
Karlskirche dome fresco: https://www.pinterest.com/soledadvilchez/monumental-ceilings/
Karlskirche altar: https://www.flickr.com/photos/57669468@N00/3252233159
Jesuit church, Vienna, interior: https://www.flickr.com/photos/time-to-look/18903468079
Cathedral of St. Gall, interior: https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:St-gall-interior-cathedral_1.jpg

GLÜHWEIN

Vienna, 18 December 2016

Christmas cheer is all around us here in Vienna! Hordes of tourists wander the streets, the shops are doing good business, the more popular streets have their bright decorations, the town hall is graced with a large Christmas tree, Christmas markets have sprung up in various squares, selling the twee and the bling for last-minute Christmas presents … and then there are these little huts dispensing with brisk efficiency the German world’s equivalent to mulled wine: glühwein (which translates as glow wine; I thought this referred to the glow it imparts to the drinker, but apparently not. It refers to the original way of heating the spiced wine, with glowing pokers).
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Aaahh, now that’s Christmas cheer for you! After a mug (or two) of glühwein, the world seems a cheerier place, the early grey dusk of a December day not quite so drear, the people around you considerably pleasanter. And what’s more, the cheer can start quite early. Normally, my wife and I wouldn’t pour ourselves our evening glass of wine until at least 6 pm, but we have no qualms in hitting the glühwein bottle at 4 pm, as the early dusk deepens around us and the cold begins to bite. I, for one, am then in a much better mood for the slow wandering through all the other elements of Christmas good cheer: people, shops, Christmas trees, bright lights, etc.
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It seems that many if not all European countries have their local equivalent of mulled wine: glögg, gløgg, glögi in the Nordic countries (the different spellings no doubt caused by the mental confusion brought about by too much quaffing of said glögg, gløgg, and glögi), bisschopswijn (bishop’s wine) in the Netherlands (I presume this is a post-Reformation slur by the Dutch on the drinking habits of their old Roman Catholic bishops), and many, many names which are variants on the temperature of the wine: hot or heated wine (Belgium, Bulgaria, France, Latvia, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Turkey), which seems reasonable; boiled wine (Czech Republic, Hungary, Macedonia, Romania), which seems excessive but perhaps due to too much cheer in the kitchen and consequent inattention to the stove; and even burnt wine (Italy), which seems frankly contrarian (but the Italians’ name for the drink, vin brulé, is French, so perhaps something got lost in translation as the fumes of delicious mulled wine circulated the translator’s brain).

In this day and age when so many Europeans shout that they are different from each other, it’s nice to point to common traditions. So let’s lift up our mugs of steaming glühwein, mulled wine, glögg-gløgg-glögi, bisschopswijn, vin chaud, vin brulé, kuvano vino, vino caliente, vinho quente, греяно вино , svařené víno, forralt bor, karstvīns, варено вино, grzane wino, vin fiert, Глинтвейн, Sıcak Şarap, and I’ve missed a good few, and wish ourselves a good 2017 – we surely need it.
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Glühwein: http://www.chowhound.com/recipes/german-mulled-wine-gluhwein-30925/amp
Christmas lights: http://styleture.com/2009/12/22/beautiful-2009-christmas-decorations/
Toasting with glühwein: http://www.laurelkallenbach.com/lkblog/tag/eiserloh-almonds/

HORSERADISH

Turin, 12 October 2016

I’ve just had a yummy lunch at the airport, which is a bit surprising since airport eateries are not known for quality. It was nothing special; actually, it was very ordinary for this part of the world (this part of the world being Austria). It was two sausages of the frankfurter variety (although longer and thinner than the classic frankfurter), a bread roll, a dollop of mustard, and some grated horseradish. Voilà!

What really made the dish for me was the horseradish. It was the first time I ate horseradish like this, and I found that its slightly sweet tartness calmed the excesses of the mustard.

I have to confess to being a great fan of horseradish, although I joined this particular fan club latish in life: I only discovered the culinary delights of the root once I moved to Austria, when I was already over 40. For those of my readers who (like me) have never seen a horseradish in the flesh (as it were), I throw in a picture.
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It’s rather surprising that I came to horseradish so late, because it’s actually quite popular in the UK. A common way of eating it is to mix it with vinegar and use it as a condiment with meat or fish. This commercial offering looks very fancy.
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Fancy or plain, I never partook; the closest I ever got was lamb with a vinegar-based mint sauce, the glories of which I have extolled in an earlier post. I’m guessing that the British picked up the habit from the Germans: Wikipedia informs us that a certain John Gerrard, in his Herball, or Generall Historie of Plantes of 1597, writes that “the Horse Radish stamped with a little vinegar put thereto, is commonly used among the Germans for sauce to eat fish with and such like meats as we do mustard.” I wonder if, rather than classic mustard, John Gerrard meant Tewksebury mustard (another British condiment which I have never tried). It seems that the British, since at least the Middle Ages, have been fond of this blend of mustard and grated horseradish. No less than Shakespeare mentions it in Henry IV Part II, where he has Falstaff say of Poins: “his wit’s as thick as Tewkesbury Mustard”. Here’s a modern version, sold by the ASDA supermarket chain, so it can’t be too fancy a condiment.
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Just to close the circle, a very similar horseradish-mustard blend, called Krensenf, is popular in Austria. I suppose the cook in my airport eatery was expecting me to make my own blend before slathering it onto the frankfurter; ignorant at that moment of Krensenf, I just blended it in my mouth.

I haven’t mentioned in what dish I first discovered horseradish. It was that great, that glorious, Austrian dish, Tafelspitz. It’s actually a very simple dish: boiled beef, served with boiled root vegetables (carrots, parsnips, celeriac) and re-fried boiled potatoes.
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To my mind, what elevates it above similar dishes, like pot au feu in France or bollito misto in Italy, is the sauce into which you dip your morsels of meat: it must be a blend of thickish apple sauce and grated horseradish. The horseradish wakes up what is otherwise a rather bland apple sauce, and this jazzed-up sauce wakes up the otherwise slightly bland meat, to the delight of one’s taste buds. I see that this mixing of sweet with horseradish seems quite popular. Several parts of Eastern Europe (which seems to be the original home of the horseradish, by the way) mix it with beet roots, as do the Ashkhenazi Jews, who often use it as a condiment for gefillte fish. Another recipe from Franconia in southern Germany blends horseradish with lingonberries.

No discussion of horseradish is complete without a mention of wasabi, that wonderful green paste which, together with ginger, accompanies sushi and sashimi.
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I’m not particularly keen on the ginger, but wasabi is a must for me – whenever my wife eat sushi or sashimi, she gives me her wasabi and I give her my ginger, which she loves; it’s a deal made in heaven. As anyone who has eaten both horseradish and wasabi will know, there is a definite relationship; the tastes are too similar for it to be coincidental. In fact, the two plants are close botanical cousins; the picture above shows the greenish root which is the source of wasabi. But here I have to reveal a mournful truth. In this era of globalized cuisine, where sushi bars seem to be sprouting up everywhere, when we eat wasabi we are nearly always eating horseradish paste mixed with green colourant. The wasabi plant is difficult to grow, so production cannot keep up with demand, hence the substitution. Sad in a way. An Italian friend of mine was recently telling me of a similar case, for a foodstuff I am particularly fond of, bresaola, which has also become a global food-star. In principle, bresaola should be made from cattle reared in the Valtellina, in the Italian Alps. But cattle production in this really quite small Alpine valley cannot possibly keep up with demand, so cattle is shipped in from Brazil to be processed in the Valtellina and stamped “bresaola”.

My wife and I are going to Japan in November. Let’s see if we can find a place which serves real wasabi.

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Horseradish: http://www.herbalextractsplus.com/horseradish-root.html
Horseradish and vinegar: http://www.handmade-treats.co.uk/shop/horseradish-vinegar/
Tewksebury mustard: https://groceries.asda.com/product/mustard/asda-extra-special-tewkesbury-mustard/80755029
Tafelspitz: http://www.lecker.de/tafelspitz-19222.html
Wasabi: http://www.seriouseats.com/2014/03/pantry-essentials-all-about-wasabi.html

POINTILLISM

Vienna, 1 October 2016

The Albertina Museum in Vienna is currently holding an exhibition on pointillism and its reverberations in later art. My wife and I decided to visit it, as a treat for successfully becoming residents of Austria and for finding our apartment in good shape after our tenants had handed it over. We were glad we went. Never had we been exposed to this many Pointillists in one go; the larger collections of Impressionists and Post-Impressionists we have seen generally have just a few pointillist paintings sprinkled into the mix. Not only were there paintings by Seurat, the originator of the technique, Signac, his best-known follower, and other French Pointillists, there were also a roomful or two of Belgian and Dutch Pointillists whom we had never heard of. There was also a whole section devoted to pointillist portraits; pointillism was never a style I had connected with portraiture. There were some examples of late pointillism, by then renamed divisionism, where the earlier dots were replaced by longer and broader paint strokes. And then the final room had a brace of Van Goghs, some Matisses, a couple of Picassos and Mondrians, and a few other odds and ends, to show how divisionism had affected later artists.

All exceedingly interesting. And yet … my wife and I both had the same reaction to the show. After an initial burst of enthusiasm, doubts set in. The effect of seeing so many pointillist paintings together was to have a chocolate-box sensation. The paintings were all preternaturally bright, the skies of the many landscapes were a uniformly blank cerulean blue, and the other colours seemed to all veer towards the pastel. Here’s a couple of pointillist paintings that exemplify what we found before us. The first is by Seurat, the second by Signac.
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All this in large doses eventually becomes rather sickly. There was also an eerie stillness in many of the paintings, perhaps because by their nature pointillist works were carefully and patiently crafted in the studio. This stillness, emptiness almost, is obvious in what is probably the most famous pointillist painting, Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, which shows what should be a scene full of life and movement but gives the impression of being peopled by mannequins put there for the occasion.
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It seems that after an initial burst of enthusiasm contemporary painters also turned away from pointillism, but more because creating these paintings took so much time. Certainly Van Gogh was never convinced by pointillism, although he experimented with it a bit, because it eliminated any spontaneity in painting.

A footnote to the exhibition: many of the paintings were on loan from the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo, the Netherlands. I had never heard of this museum (as for my wife, after an initial bout of amnesia, on seeing pictures of the museum she suddenly remembered visiting it more than forty years ago). Yet this museum has, among other things, the second largest collection of Van Goghs in the world. The collection was put together by Helene Kröller-Müller in the first decades of the last century. She was born into a wealthy German industrialist family and married a Dutch mining and shipping tycoon, a combination which made her the richest woman in the Netherlands.
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She used her money wisely to put together a great collection of what was then modern art. Towards the end of her life she donated it to the Dutch state.

When I read such stories, I sigh and wish my father had been a tycoon. I would have loved to spend inherited millions putting together an art collection. Maybe in my next life.
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Seurat: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Georges_Seurat
Signac: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Signac
A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of la Grande Jatte: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Île_de_la_Jatte
Helene Kröller-Müller: http://www.betergeven.nl/over-filantropie/filantropen-in-beeld/helene-kroller-muller/

SAINT RADEGUND

Vienna, 19th September 2016

There is a small street which gives on to Piazza Duomo in Milan, which goes by the name of via Santa Radegonda. It’s a very modest, narrow, little street, really quite boring. Its main claim to fame is that it runs alongside the posh department store La Rinascente.

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But I like the street, for the quite frivolous reason that I like the name. Radegonda, Radegund in the original German: now that’s a girl’s name with some whoomph to it! Not like Amelia, or Olivia, or Emily, which are currently some of the most popular names for little British girls.

This particular Radegund was a 6th Century princess from Thuringia, in what is now central Germany. Her life story was as colourful as her name. Her father, Berachtar, was one of three kings in Thuringia. Her uncle, Hermanfrid, one of the other Thuringian kings, killed her father in battle, took over his part of the Thuringian lands, and while he was at it took Radegund into his household. Hermanfrid then made a deal with the Frankish king, Theuderic, to share sovereignty of the whole of Thuringia, subject to material aid from Theuderic. Having sealed the deal, Hermanfrid attacked, defeated, and killed the third king of Thuringia, his brother Baderic. He then promptly reneged on his agreement with Theuderic. Not surprisingly, Theuderic sought revenge of this perfidy. Together with his brother Chlothar, he defeated Hermanfrid and took over Thuringia. In the ensuing carve-up, Clothar took charge of Radegund and brought her back to Gaul. All this happened before Radegund was 11, by the way.

Clothar packed Radegund off to one of his villas until she was of a more marriageable age. When she was 19 or so, he married her himself. No doubt it made his claims to Thuringia stronger to have her as his wife. She joined Clothar’s five other wives – Guntheuca, Chunsina, Ingund, Aregund, and Wuldetrada – in what may, or may not, have been a cozy concubinage. In any event, she bore Clothar no children.

By the time Radegund was 30, her only remaining brother was the last surviving male member of the Thuringian royal family. Presumably to head off any pesky competing claims to the Thuringian lands, Clothar had him murdered. At which point, either because she feared for her own life or because she was fed up with all this mayhem, Radegund fled and sought the protection of the Church, eventually founding, when she was about 40, a nunnery in Poitiers. Initially, Clothar tried to get her back but eventually left her alone and focused on expanding his lands at the expense of all those around him, including his brothers (although he had the grace not to kill them to obtain his ends, good manners which did not extend to their sons). By the time he died, he was master of a kingdom stretching from the Pyrenees to Thuringia, and from Brittany to French-speaking Switzerland.

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All these Franks and Thuringians may have been a lying, traitorous, murderous lot, but they had wonderful names. This all rather reminds me of my Favourite History Book, 1066 And All That, my copy of which recently came to light, among many a delighted cry on my part, from the storage box in which it has been lying these last seven years.
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In that book, we are reminded that Anglo-Saxon England was peopled with persons carrying wonderful names:

“Wave of Egg-Kings

Soon after this event Egg-Kings were found on the thrones of all these kingdoms, such as Eggberd, Eggbreth, Eggfroth, etc. None of them, however, succeeded in becoming memorable except in so far as it is difficult to forget such names as Eggbirth, Eggbred, Eggbeard, Eggfish, etc. Nor is it even remembered by what kind of Eggdeath they perished.”

The authors were exaggerating, but not by much.

The murderous goings-on around Radegund also remind me of that other Great Source of Early European History, Asterix. In the album Astérix chez les Goths
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the endemic fighting among the Germanic tribes is well captured.
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(Please note the authors’ take on Gothic names – they exaggerate but not by much)

But I digress, and I think my wife feels I’m letting my childish side get the upper hand here. Let us focus on the saintly Radegund. Already when queen, she was noted for her almsgiving. Once a nun, she cared for the local lepers and other infirm of Poitiers. She was also known for eating nothing but legumes and green vegetables: no fish, no eggs, not even fruit. I’m sure the vegans of today would approve (although even they might find her decision to foreswear fruit a trifle extreme) but to the meat-eating Germanic elites, who spent much of their time hunting, this must have been pretty weird. Here is the most ancient representation of this saintly lady that I found, from a 10th-11th Century manuscript in the Municipal library of Poitiers, where we see Radegund getting herself to the nunnery (to misquote Hamlet).
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As far as I can make out, though, her main claim to religious fame, at least in the Dark and Middle Ages, is that the Byzantine Emperor Justin II gave her a fragment of the True Cross. I hasten to add that he did not do so because he was much taken by Radegund’s saintliness. It was, I’m afraid, a purely political maneuver. Justin wanted to wrest control of the north of Italy from the barbarian Lombards, but for this he needed the help of the (equally barbarian) Franks. The relic, given to an ex-wife of the Frankish king who, though, was still on friendly terms with said king, was the bribe, or, to put it more kindly, the bait. Whatever the reason, the relic which Justin handed over to Radegund was a Really Good relic, and any Medieval religious institution with a Really Good relic was sitting on a goldmine as the pilgrims poured in and spent their money locally. This no doubt was the happy fate of Poitiers, helped along by the fact that Radegund was widely believed to have the gift of healing. Indeed, several miracles around her tomb greatly helped to increase the pilgrim traffic. The result was the building of a church which is a combination of Romanesque and Angevin Gothic styles.
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Sadly, the vicissitudes of history, and more specifically a sack by Huguenots in the 16th Century and the ravages of the French Revolution, combined with some heavy-handed restoration in the 19th Century, has scarred the original splendour.

The pilgrim traffic to Poitiers had the happy side-effect of carrying Radegund’s name far and wide as the pilgrims returned home, and new churches and other religious institutions sprang up all over Europe dedicated to her name. This was certainly the case in Milan, where on the site on which now stands that temple to consumerism, La Rinascente, there once stood a nunnery dedicated to Santa Radegonda. No trace of this nunnery remains today save in the name of that modest, narrow, little street which I like so much.

I give just one further example of the many places in Europe which adopted her name, and that is the small village of Sankt Radegund in Upper Austria. In the next few years, readers will see a new film come out, with the title “Radegund”. It is the story of Franz Jägerstätter, a native of Sankt Radegund, who was the only one in his village to vote against the Anschlüss and was courageous enough to be a conscientious objector during World War II.
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My readers will no doubt convene that this was a dangerous thing to declare oneself to be under the Nazi regime, and in fact Jägerstätter ended up being guillotined in 1943, for the crime of “undermining military morale”. The recent (German) Pope, Benedict XVI, had Jägerstätter beatified: a more appropriate saint for our age, I think.
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Yesterday afternoon, I noticed that behind Milan’s Duomo there is a small road called via Santa Tecla. What an interesting name! I wonder who she was?

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La Rinascente: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/25/fashion/in-milan-with-handbags-and-tongs-under-one-roof.html?_r=0
Clothar I: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chlothar_I
“1066 And All That”: http://rogerandfrances.eu/books/1066-and-all-that
“Asterix chez les Goths”: http://www.asterix.com/the-collection/albums/asterix-and-the-goths.html
Goths fighting: my photo
Radegund entering nunnery: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radegund
Eglise Sainte-Radégonde, Poitiers: https://www.poitiers.fr/c__244_788__Poitiers_capitale_romane.html
Franz Jägerstätter: http://voiceseducation.org/content/franz-jagerstatter-austrian-world-war-ii-resistance
Icon with Franz Jägerstätter: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Franz_Jägerstätter

AMBER AND ITS ROAD

Bangkok, 15 August 2016

I’ve just finished a fascinating book about the peopling of Europe, entitled Ancestral Journeys: The Peopling of Europe from the First Venturers to the Vikings, by Jean Manco. The book describes the various waves of people who have settled Europe, peacefully or not, from 40,000 BC to 1,000 AD.

One thread in the rich tapestry of the peopling of Europe is the trade networks which sprang up as neighbouring tribes traded whatever useful or interesting resources they controlled inside their territories. The really high-value resources could in this way travel very long distances from their point of origin, as people passed them on – at ever-increasing value, no doubt – to people further away from the original source. In an earlier post, I’ve mentioned the Stone Age long-distance trade in obsidian, which made excellent, sharp arrowheads. Gold, the subject of my next-to previous post, was also traded over long distances. Amber was another such material.

In the early days of Europe’s history, by far the richest source of amber was the Baltic coast of Poland (it probably still is), where nuggets of amber would wash up on the beach, broken off from the amber deposits on the sea bottom.
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The biggest market for amber, on the other hand, and from time immemorial, were the civilizations around the Mediterranean Sea and in the Middle East. Tutunkhamun’s breast ornament contains pieces of Baltic amber, for instance
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while Heinrich Schliemann found necklace beads of Baltic amber in the Mycenaean tombs he excavated.
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Thus sprang up several “amber roads”, trade routes which brought Baltic (and other Northern European) amber south.
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The one that most interests me is the amber road which led from the general region of Gdansk down to the Roman provincial capital of Carnuntum on the Danube River (the Danube became the Roman Empire’s frontier in 9 BC), on down along the network of Roman roads to Aquileia in North-Eastern Italy, the terminus. This map shows, more or less, a detailed trace of this amber road.
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I say “more or less” because while the route taken by the amber after the Danube River crossing is pretty clear – it followed the Roman roads down to the Italian peninsula – how it got to the Danube River from the Baltic coast is less so. There were just tracks through the forests and around the bogs in this part of Europe, and I’m sure every Germanic trader followed his fancy, depending on what else he was buying or selling along the way, as well as what the weather was like and who was fighting who. There seem to have been a few fixed points on the itinerary: Wroclaw (Breslau in German; the British historian Norman Davies, in collaboration with Roger Moorehouse, has written a fascinating biography of this city, Microcosm: Portrait of a Central European City), the Moravian Gate (a pass between the Carpathian and Sudeten mountains, used since remotest antiquity as a passageway), and the Morava River which flows into the Danube just across from Carnuntum.

Once the raw amber arrived in Aquileia, it was turned over to workshops which turned it into desirable luxury products. Aquileia’s amber products were famous not just in the Italic heartlands but throughout the Roman world. In his Natural History, Pliny the Elder – rather dismissively, it seems to me – says they were in demand among women only. He also says that amber was thought to have protective properties for illnesses of the throat, which might explain why so many of the amber products found in the Italian peninsula are pendants.

I have to say I’m not a big fan of amber, at least as used in modern jewelry. But I must admit that some of the amber pieces made in the Italian peninsula, both before its domination by Rome and after, are really very lovely. Here, in no particular order, are some pieces whose photos I found on the net. The first two are pre-Roman (Italic and Etruscan, respectively, to be precise)
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while the remainder are from the Roman period; a number of them, if not all, were made in Aquileia’s workshops. This is Dionysius
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while this must be Pan.
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This is a perfume bottle
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while this little set-piece is “Eros and a bitch”.
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Lovely little pieces …

Let me go back a step now and explain my interest in this particular amber road. Or rather interests, for there are several. I first got to know about it, and the ancient amber trade in general, when my wife and I lived in Vienna. It so happens that Vienna is located close to Carnuntum. It always tickled me pink to think that Vienna, which gives itself such airs as the capital of the (defunct) Austro-Hungarian Empire, was once upon a time no more than a minor garrison town called Vindobona on the far edges of the much mightier Roman Empire. I’m sure officers and soldiers alike in little Vindobona looked with envy at their more powerful neighbour Carnunutum, which not only had the rich amber trade passing through it but also was the capital of the province. So many more important things went on there! The Emperor Marcus Aurelius chose Carnuntum as his base for three years during one of the periodic campaigns against Germanic tribes across the Danube River (he also wrote part of his famous Meditations there, a copy of which graces my bookshelves). Another Emperor, Septimius Severus, was also based in Carnuntum when governor of Pannonia, and he was proclaimed Emperor there by his troops. Carnuntum hosted a historic meeting between the Emperor Diocletian and his co-emperors Maximian and Galerius, to solve rising tensions within the tetrarchy. Among other things, the meeting led to freedom of religion for the Roman Empire. And on, and on.

In contrast, like in all garrison towns, probably nothing much ever happened in Vindobona (although Marcus Aurelius’s death there in 180 AD must have caused a ripple of excitement). W.H. Auden caught well the tedium of garrison life on the Empire’s frontier for the ordinary soldier, in his poem Roman Wall Blues. The poem is about another of the Empire’s frontiers, Hadrian’s Wall, but I’m sure the tedium was the same, whichever frontier you were assigned to.

Over the heather the wet wind blows,
I’ve lice in my tunic and a cold in my nose.

The rain comes pattering out of the sky,
I’m a Wall soldier, I don’t know why.

The mist creeps over the hard grey stone,
My girl’s in Tungria; I sleep alone.

Aulus goes hanging around her place,
I don’t like his manners, I don’t like his face.

Piso’s a Christian, he worships a fish;
There’d be no kissing if he had his wish.

She gave me a ring but I diced it away;
I want my girl and I want my pay.

When I’m a veteran with only one eye
I shall do nothing but look at the sky.

But I suppose Vienna had the last laugh. It still exists, whereas Carnuntum is now but a very modest pile of ruins, having been systematically sacked by Germanic tribes in the 4th Century (I suppose in a way the Germanic tribes had the last laugh too, after all the denigration they received from the Romans). Sic transit gloria mundi, as I am ever fond of repeating: “thus passes the glory of the world”.

This particular amber road also caught my attention because it gave me an alternative route to the ones we always took to go back to my wife’s home town of Milan: either head south out of Vienna over the mountains to Graz and then over more mountains to Klagenfurt and Villach, slip through the Alps at the Tarvisio pass, then speed past Udine down to Venice, whence turn right and make for Milan; or, head west out of Vienna towards Linz, then Salzburg, and then into Bavaria, turn left at the River Inn and enter Austria again, at Innsbruck turn left again and climb up to the Brenner pass, down the other side to zip by Bolzano and Trento, exit from the Alps at Verona, and turn right there to head for Milan. Now my wife and I could take a lower road (a considerable benefit when traveling in winter, when both the other routes can be unpleasant), as well as one steeped in history. Travelling along the ghosts of old Roman roads (all of which disappeared long ago) we would head south past the tip of Lake Neusidler, shared by Austria and Hungary, to Šopron and then Szombalethy, both in Hungary, on to Ptuj, Celje, and Lubljana in Slovenia, to finally slip through the Julian Alps at Gorizia and on to Aquileia, where we would need to finally get on the A4 motorway and speed on to Milan!

Great idea, except for one slight problem – time. There is no speedy highway linking all these towns, so it would take far longer to get to Milan. Since we were working, we couldn’t afford the time; we were always time-starved. But that will all change in a mere two weeks’ time, when I retire! Then, we will have all the time in the world, and I am determined to finally follow in the footsteps of the legions and pass through what were once the Roman towns of Scarbantia, Savariensum, Poetovium, Celeia, and Emona. There’s not much Roman left in them, though. Like Carnuntum, and like the terminal point Aquileia (of whose total destruction I wrote about in an earlier post), they were all thoroughly sacked and resacked by Germanic, Gothic, Hun, Lombard, Slav, or Hungarian war parties (or some combination of these) during the period of the “Barbarian Invasions” or the “Migration of the Peoples”, the Völkerwanderung (take your pick, depending on your ideological point of view).

I always feel a point of melancholy when faced with these moments of destruction in history. And it’s not just in the remote past. On the northern end of this amber road, tremendous destruction, of places but also of people, was wreaked a mere 70 or so years ago as first, German troops swept through on their way to enacting Hitler’s policy of lebensraum, expanding the living space of the Aryan, Germanic people at the expense of Slavic people, and then again, as the Soviet troops fought their way back to Berlin. Along with many other Polish cities, Gdansk, Wroclaw, Poznan, all sitting astride the amber route, were almost totally destroyed, their Jewish populations annihilated, their Polish populations much depleted, their industrial infrastructure stripped away. What a waste … so much human creativity swept away by the animal desire to destroy.

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Raw amber on a Baltic beach: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baltic_amber#/media/File%3ABaltic_beach_sand_containing_amber.jpg
Tutunkhamun’s breast ornament: https://hu.pinterest.com/pin/249598004324238999/
Amber necklace, Mycenae: http://en.natmus.dk/historical-knowledge/denmark/prehistoric-period-until-1050-ad/the-bronze-age/north-south-exchanges-in-the-bronze-age/amber-the-gold-of-the-north/
Amber routes map: http://www.ambergallery.lt/en/disp.php?itm=en_museums_3%2Fen_museums_3_9
Amber road through Carnuntum: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amber_Road
Ram’s head, Italic, 500-400 BC: http://museumcatalogues.getty.edu/amber/intro/16/
Boar’s head, Etruscan, 525-480 BC: http://articles.latimes.com/2013/jan/19/entertainment/la-et-getty-ambers-20130119
Mask of Dionysius, Roman, 1st C AD: http://amberregina.blogspot.com/2011_03_01_archive.html
Perfume bottle, Roman, Aquileia workshop, 2nd C AD: http://www.antiquitiesexperts.com/rome138.html
Eros and bitch, Roman: https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:1128_-_Archaeological_Museum,_Udine_-_Ancient_Roman_amber_Eros_and_bitch_-_Photo_by_Giovanni_Dall%27Orto,_May_29_2015.jpg

TAKING THE D TRAM TO NUSSDORF

Vienna, 24 July 2016

We’re in Vienna briefly, on our way back to Bangkok from the annual training course I give in Budapest and using the occasion to visit the warehouse where our stuff has been stored away these last seven years to agree on when to start moving it and to where when I retire in a month’s time. We’ve used the occasion to spend the weekend here.

On Saturday morning, we visited an exhibition of Ai Wei Wei’s work, my wife’s favourite modern artist, which is spread between the 21er Haus and the Upper Belvedere. While we were at it, we also had a quick zip around the Upper Belvedere’s permanent collection – there is a lovely set of Schieles and Klimts. Then, footsore and thirsty, we took a D tram back into the city centre and headed for a café to have a drink and a rest.

Once revivified, we pondered where to go next. I suggested the Leopold Museum, which is holding an exhibition of a rather minor Austrian painter of the 19th Century, and so we dragged ourselves rather slowly in that direction. But on the way, we saw another D tram clank past, and since it was a glorious day we decided on the spur of the moment to hop on and ride to the end of the line, to Nussdorf, which lies at the foot of the hills that overlook the city. As the name suggests, Nussdorf, Nut Village, was indeed once an independent village but is now a suburb of Vienna. Presumably it once was known for its walnuts or hazelnuts, but several hundred years ago it planted vineyards on the slopes above it and thereby made its fortune selling thirsty Viennese Grüner Veltliner wines.

Now, as we got off the tram at the final stop, we trailed after our fellow passengers, all ramblers, who were making their way determinedly towards those vineyards and the woods beyond them, the Wienerwald. We found a path which followed a stream
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and started ambling slowly upwards – the walk was in no way strenuous.

The path first coasted houses buried at this time of year in luxuriant vegetation
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but then it became more solitary.
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At one point, we passed a little park dedicated to Beethoven.
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It is said that he used to come over from nearby Heiligenstadt, where he spent many summers in his later years, to walk along this same path, which of course the marketing-savvy locals have named Beethovengasse, Beethoven Lane.

Further on, we passed the dead of Nussdorf, sleeping their eternal sleep at the foot of the vineyards
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and now finally we were among the vineyards.
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A few yards further on, we arrived at our destination, a heuriger
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(a buschenschank in Styria; the owner of this heuriger must be a Styrian immigrant)

Heurigers, or wine taverns, dot the countryside around Vienna, selling the local wine, as well as simple food so that their patrons do not drink on an empty stomach. We had chosen this one from a map thoughtfully provided along the path by the local authorities, anxious to ensure that a good time was had by all
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We settled down in the tavern’s garden
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and pleasantly whiled a way an hour or so, sipping on our wine mixes (it was a bit early for straight wine), nibbling at our dried sausages, cheese plate, and Greek salad, gazing out over the neighbouring vineyards
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and generally enjoying that sense of gemütlichkeit – warmth, friendliness, and good cheer – which is the trademark of heurigers.

Suitably refreshed, and full of good cheer, we ambled slowly down the hill again, where I for one took advantage of the old-fashioned toilets, or pissoirs as the Austrians so picturesquely call them, helpfully provided at the tram stop by the local authorities
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before climbing back into the D tram

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and clanking slowly back into the city centre.

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The stream Schreiberbach: https://www.tripadvisor.co.za/LocationPhotoDirectLink-g190454-d260626-i134059629-Vienna_Woods-Vienna.html
All other photos: ours

VIENNA, “WORTH THE TRIP”

Phnom Penh, 7 December 2015

My wife and I have just come back from a trip to Vienna. I had to be there for work, but luckily we also got to stay over a weekend. This allowed us to taste once more the artistic delights of the city. Wonderful, truly wonderful … Enough to give one heart palpitations.

We had first tasted the artistic glories of the city back in March of 1985 (I am certain of the date, because I was in Vienna to witness the signing of the Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer). That time too we had had a weekend to ourselves, which we used to first visit the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Austria’s national Museum of Fine Arts. I have to tell you, we were gobsmacked – that’s the only word – as we walked from room to room and saw one marvel after another hanging on the walls. It was one of those cases of “Really? They have this painting here? Wow …” I just can’t stop myself from showing you some of my favourites; there are many, many more, for all tastes.

Here’s Raphael’s “Madonna del Prato”
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Lotto’s “Portrait of a Young Man with a Lamp”
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Arcimboldo’s “Summer”
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Canaletto’s “Vienna, seen from the Belvedere”
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A whole slew of Titians, most of which are of disagreeably sucrose blondes, but which also include this powerful portrait of Johann Frederich, Elector of Saxony
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Caravaggio’s “Madonna of the Rosary”
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as well as one of his several versions of “David with the head of Goliath” (another of which I’ve mentioned in an earlier post)
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A wondrous collection of Peter Bruegel the Elder, of which I throw in only his “Hunters in the Snow (Winter)”

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and his “Peasant Wedding”

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A magisterial self-portrait by Rembrandt
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Vermeer’s “The Art of Painting”
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Cranach the Elder’s “Judith with the Head of Holophernes” (although I still prefer the same scene which I came across years ago in the Queen’s Gallery in London)
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Dürer’s “Kaiser Maximilian I”
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as well his “Portrait of a Venetian Lady”
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I stop, otherwise I will bore my readers. But, without wanting to sound too much like an advert for Vienna, I would really urge any of them who are lovers of art but have somehow never made it to Vienna to hurry on over, if only to visit the Kunsthistorisches Museum. As the Michelin Guides would say, it alone “is worth the trip”.

But Vienna has much, much more. That same weekend back in 1985 we discovered Egon Schiele. We saw an exhibition of his paintings somewhere in the Grinzing area of Vienna, and I was just blown away. This particular painting of his, “The Embrace”, has remained imprinted in my memory ever since.
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The most extensive collection in the world of Egon Schiele’s work is in the Leopold Museum, part of Vienna’s Museums Quartier, MQ. MQ opened when we were living in Vienna, some 20 years after our first visit. Along with the Leopold Museum, MQ houses MUMOK, the Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien. Personally, I always preferred the Leopold Museum; MUMOK was a little too aggressively modern for my tastes. So I suppose it comes as no surprise to hear that after visiting the Kunsthistorisches Museum last week we visited the Leopold. The Egon Schieles are wonderful. This one painting of his, “Seated Male Nude”, can stand in for the whole collection.
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You cannot go to the Leopold just for the Schieles, wonderful as they are. You must visit the whole collection. This is where I discovered a host of Austrian artists from the late 1800s up to World War II: Gustav Klimt of course, but also Richard Gerstl, Koloman Moser, Oskar Kokoschka, Albin Egger-Lienz, Anton Kolig, and many others. The Leopold holds the painting of Gustav Klimt which I adopted as my gravatar for this blog. Those who are interested to see it can visit my Home Page. Here, I will insert another of his paintings in the museum’s collection, a beautiful painting of early morning on Lake Attersee
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and I add to this, as a stand-in for all the others, a painting by Richard Gerstl, “Semi-Nude Self-Portrait” with its hypnotic eyes.
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It’s not finished! Vienna also has the Belvedere Museum. We wanted to visit it too last week – they were holding an Exhibition on “The Women of Klimt, Schiele and Kokoschka”, which included Schiele’s “Embrace” – but we ran out of time. The Belvedere has a collection which stretches all the way from the Middle Ages to the present day. It competes strongly with the Ludwig Museum, having an excellent collection of paintings from the late 19th Century to the Second World War (the Klimts and Schieles are not to be missed), but it also has interesting paintings from the Baroque to the Biedermeier period. I will not show any of these, however. Instead, I will throw in a picture of a piece from its Medieval collection, a statue of St. Leonhard, from South Tyrol.
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I chose this picture because the Belvedere has some beautiful pieces of that most Germanic of art forms, religious sculpture made of wood, originally painted in bright polychrome. The picture also gives me an excuse to cycle back to the Kunsthistorisches Museum. Because that museum is more, much more, than a gallery of paintings! There’s the collection of arms and armour, which one has to visit simply to gawp at the brilliant metalworking skills of past armourers. There’s the collection of historical musical instruments, which my mother-in-law, a lover of music, frothed at the mouth about. And then there’s the collection of sculpture and decorative arts, a disparate collection of artifacts, ranging from the seriously bling to the exquisite. Probably the most well-known piece in this collection is Benvenuto Cellini’s salt cellar, currently famous because it was recently stolen dramatically, only to dramatically reappear, unharmed, a few years later.
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I prefer, though, this “Vanitas”, made, like St. Leonhard above, of wood and beautifully polychromed.
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It reminds us that while we may be beautiful now, and well-toned, one day we will be old and sag in all directions (in my case, I’m already at that point, so I suppose the piece reminds me regretfully of what I once was).

I like these two ivory pieces even more. The first shows Gregory the Great feverishly scribbling away (he was a very prolific writer, this Pope), with scribes below him feverishly joining in.
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The second shows the Ascension of Jesus, with the disciples weeping bitterly below. But rather than having Jesus levitate, which is the way this scene is normally depicted, Jesus is being swept up by God (note His hand), rather like a gymnast being elegantly swept up by a trapeze artist.
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If readers were to think that it finishes there, they would be wrong! The Kunsthistorisches also runs the Imperial Treasury, another smorgasbord of golden baubles smothered in precious stones. Because of my fondness of cabochon stones, I only show here the Crown of the Holy Roman Emperor, of the 10th-11th Centuries
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and St. Stephan’s  Purse, actually a reliquary, from the 9th Century.
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Along with various other items, these were taken in the early 1800s from Aachen, Charlemagne’s original Imperial capital, to keep them from falling into the hands of the revolutionary French, and somehow they never made it back.

I suspect that my readers’ attention might be beginning to drift, so I quickly throw in two other wonders to be found in Vienna. One, located in the Museum für Völkerkunde or the Museum of Ethnology, is the so-called headdress of Montezuma, an exquisite piece from Mexico made of the feathers of quetzals and other birds mounted in a base of gold studded with precious stones.
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As we once heard from Austria’s Ambassador to Mexico (whose apartment we were renting at the time), the piece is a source of continuing friction between the two countries, Mexico claiming that it was somehow stolen and Austria claiming that it was legitimately purchased (by the Archduke Ferdinand of Austria in at least 1575 and maybe before, i.e., no more than 90 years after Columbus discovered America – how did our good Archduke lay his hands on it?).

The second piece is actually to be found a little outside Vienna, in the imperial abbey of Klosteneuburg. It is the 12th Century Verdun altar, so called because it was made by Nicholas of Verdun, one of the most famous goldsmiths and enamelists of the Middle Ages.

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The altar consists of 45 beautifully enameled panels, telling the biblical story. This one, for instance, relates the kiss of Judas (a theme I have mentioned in a previous post, in this case in a painting by Caravaggio).
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If any of my readers have finished visiting the altar and still feel ready for more, they can always consider visiting the Samlung Essl, a museum of (very) modern art in Klosteneuburg, which, like the MQ, opened while we were living in Vienna. On the other hand, if like me they find this museum’s art too aggressively modern, or if they are simply too tired, they can just head back into town and with a bit of luck they will sight a most interesting piece of art, the municipal incinerator of Spittelau, decorated by the Austrian artist Hundertwasser.
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I’ve seen many municipal incinerators in my time, and I must say this is definitely one of the prettiest; it certainly helped to gain its acceptance by the local population.

There’s more, much more art to visit in Vienna, but I’ll leave it at that. Like I’ve already said, I don’t want to sound like an advert for Vienna, but really it’s a wonderful destination for lovers of art.

And don’t get me started on the music …

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Paintings in the Kunsthistorisches Museum: http://www.khm.at/en/visit/collections/picture-gallery/selected-masterpieces/
Egon Schiele “The Embrace”: http://www.wikiart.org/en/egon-schiele/the-embrace-1917
Egon Schiele “Seated Male Nude”: http://www.leopoldmuseum.org/en/leopoldcollection/masterpieces/35
Gustav Klimt, “Attersee”: http://www.leopoldmuseum.org/en/leopoldcollection/focus/Klimt
Richard Gerstl “Semi-Nude Self-Portrait”: https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Richard_Gerstl_-_Semi-Nude_Self-Portrait_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg
St. Leonhard, Belvedere: https://www.belvedere.at/en/sammlungen/belvedere
KHM, Collection of Sculpture and Decorative Arts: http://bilddatenbank.khm.at/
Imperial Treasury: http://www.kaiserliche-schatzkammer.at/en/visit/collections/secular-treasury/selected-masterpieces/
Moctezuma’s crown: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Montezuma%27s_headdress#/media/File%3AFeather_headdress_Moctezuma_II.JPG (in https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Montezuma%27s_headdress#)
Verdun altar: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Klosterneuburg_Monastery
Verdun altar – detail: http://armourinart.com/248/397/
Spittelau Incinerator: http://www.epd.gov.hk/epd/english/environmentinhk/waste/prob_solutions/WFdev_overseas.html

SALT AND SWEET

Bangkok, 5 February, 2015

A few weeks ago, I visited a couple of electric arc furnaces which were recycling scrap steel. It was a very interesting visit, the first time I had seen this type of furnace in action.

EAF

They are a nice example of a vital step in what the Chinese call a “circular economy”, an economy in which the materials we use do not simply get thrown away after we’ve finished with them, but are collected, recovered, and reused.

But actually, what I want to focus on in this post is the dinner we were served during the visit, or rather on one course of that dinner. I should explain that since these furnaces work on electricity and since electricity is expensive in Thailand during the day, the furnaces are run at night. So the visit of the furnaces started at 8 o’clock in the evening, and the first company we visited kindly offered us dinner to fortify us for the hot and dusty visit which awaited us. Since this was a Chinese-owned company, we were served a Chinese-style dinner which, after my five years spent in China, brought a nostalgic mist to my eye. As is usual in China, the dinner ended with fresh fruit. But this fruit course had an interesting twist. We were served fresh pineapple with a soy sauce dip. Soy sauce! That is not something I had ever thought of combining with pineapple. But actually it was delicious.

Pineapple and Soy Sauce

This is the only photo I could find on the (English-language) web which in any way resembled what we found before us at dessert time, but even this is for a recipe where the pineapple is fried, which explains the presence in the photo of the coriander (to be used as a final garnish). I take this lack of photos to be an indicator that I may be one of the few in the English-speaking world who has tried this particular combination of sweet and salt. But readers are free to disabuse me of my belief.

In any event, as I let my taste buds deal with this interesting sweet-salt combination, I remembered a conversation we had had around the Christmas lunch table about precisely this issue: the mixing of salt and sweet. Our son had maintained that it was not natural to mix sweet and salt, and more generally that different flavours should be kept separate. Our daughter maintained that there were many dishes where salt and sweet were combined, which suggested that actually it was quite natural to mix sweet and salt. I was torn. As my long-suffering wife knows only too well, I object to mixing things on my plate: the vegetables are to be kept neatly separated from the meat and from each other, the dressing from the salad should not be allowed to leak over to the meat, etc. So on these grounds, I also feel that sweet and salt should not mix. Yet I have to acknowledge that there are dishes where the sweet and salt combination is exceedingly pleasing. After the pineapple and soy sauce dip experience, I resolved to do some research (a.k.a. web browsing) on the topic.

I’ve now done the research and am ready to report back, although I must confess to not having much to report. All agree that “common sense” suggests that salt and sweet do not mix, yet all agree that actually many of us do like to mix the two. Why is this? As far as I can make out, no-one has really figured it out. One possible answer is biochemical. The sodium ions of salt somehow enhance all taste buds: “there’s evidence that applying a sodium-channel blocker (TTX) can dramatically inhibit the activity of all taste receptors, suggesting that sodium plays a key role in the cellular detection of every taste (and not just the taste of salty things) … This would explain why food without any salt is so hopelessly boring: it might be literally harder for our various taste receptors to get excited.” So mixing salt with sweet enhances sweet because of a biochemical pathway we are born with. Just to make the whole discussion sound even more scientific, I throw in here a close-up of a taste bud on a tongue, which is what sodium ions seem to be enhancing.

tongue-taste-bud

But why would we have evolved to have that biochemical pathway? One possible answer is that because we humans are omnivores, we’re wired to desire many different foods and tastes. It’s bad for us to eat just one thing, so our sense of taste has evolved to give us greater gratification if we mix tastes. My wife will be very pleased to hear that there is a scientific underpinning to her insistence on mixing foods and tastes.

Let me celebrate this new understanding on my part of my biological processes by sharing with readers some of the wonderful sweet-salt dishes which I have stumbled across in my life. Where to start? Well, at the beginning, I guess, with the first such dish I ever remember trying, lamb with mint sauce. My English grandmother had taken me to visit an uncle and aunt and assorted cousins, and my aunt served us lamb with mint sauce for lunch.

lamb and mint

She served it with two veg, as is de rigeur for any English meat dish. In this case, I remember distinctly that the veg in question were that most English of combinations, peas and potatoes (she also made a magnificent apple crumble, by the way; no apple crumble I have ever eaten since has tasted so good).

Mint sauce is really easy to make, by the way, about as easy as lamb chops. I give an executive-summary recipe at the end of the post for those readers who are interested. What I think is important to point out here is that the recipe calls for a mix of sugar and vinegar. In my humble opinion the best combination is actually sweet, salt, and acid or tartness. To my mind, that’s what made the pineapple and soy sauce so good, the fact that the pineapple is also tart. Dragon fruit, a much milder fruit, was being served along with the pineapple. When I asked if that too should be dipped in the soy sauce, our hosts pursed their lips and gave it as their considered opinion that it wouldn’t work.

Lamb with mint sauce is incredibly English (and I mean English. I don’t think the Scots or the Welsh eat it). It is so English that the French made fun of Les Anglais because of it – the French consider the use of mint sauce to be beyond the cooking pale. Our friends Goscinny and Uderzo, who wrote the Asterix and Obelix stories, had mint sauce play a major role in our heroes’ adventures in Britain, with the governor of province at one point shouting that if his men did not find the pair (who had just disappeared from prison) he would have his commanders boiled and served with mint sauce to the lions. To which the commanders commented how horrible that would be – for the lions.

asterix sauce a la menthe

The French loved it, lapping up the fun being poked at English cuisine. But I will ignore the smirking French and concentrate on another great example of English cuisine which is also a sweet-salt dish, roast pork and apple sauce. I first had this delicious dish as a boy scout. It was summer, the end of the school year, that time in the calendar when England can often be bathed in golden light rather than be grey and sodden.  For our last outing of the year, the scout master had the brilliant idea of buying a whole pig and roasting it on a spit in the woods. I have this crystal clear memory of sitting around the spit, listening to the fat crackle, breathing in the smell of cooking meat, watching the scout master sharpen the large carving knife, while the sunlight dappled the ground all around us. It’s the closest I have ever felt to being a Cro-Magnon man.

roasted pig

And then there was the discovery of the exquisite taste of roast pork and apple sauce, a large dollop of which was dumped onto our metal field plates along with a big slab of pork meat and crackling.

roast pork and apple sauce

Those readers interested in knowing how to make this sauce should scroll down to the end of the post. I just want to note that cooking apples should be used. They are tarter than eating apples. It’s the tartness thing again. One can also add lemon zest, presumably to add yet more tartness.

Of course, the English do not have a monopoly in Europe on sweet-salt dishes. Allow me to introduce here a dish I discovered and came to love when we moved to Vienna: Tafelspitz. There is a venerable ritual to cooking Tafelspitz, but when you reduce it to its essentials it is beef meat (topside or top round) boiled slowly over many hours with a medley of root vegetables – carrot, celeriac, parsnip and the like – and a piece of marrow bone. It is normally served like this:

tafelspitz

You can start with a cup of the broth which is engendered by the boiling of the meat, just to whet your appetite. You can then turn your attention to the meat proper, which you will eat with the vegetables, possibly some fried grated potatoes, and – to spice up what is otherwise a rather bland dish – two types of sauce, a cream-based chive sauce and apple-horseradish sauce.

tafelspitz sauces

My earnest suggestion is that you ignore the chive sauce in the front of the photo and go with the apple-horseradish sauce behind it. It is just a variant of the apple sauce I described earlier; you simply add grated horseradish. If you make this sauce at home, my further suggestion is to be generous with the amount of horseradish you add. The best Tafelspitz I ever had was served with an apple-horseradish sauce that made my eyes water slightly. I don’t want to sound like a broken record, endlessly repeating myself, but tartness really helps appreciation of the sweet-salt taste.

Both the French and the Italians have a similar dish of boiled meat, pot-au-feu in the first case and bollito misto in the second. My French grandmother made an excellent pot-au-feu and I am very fond of it, but since it is normally eaten with mustard I will drop it from this discussion. We shall focus instead on bollito misto, a dish which is very popular in northern Italy and (as the name suggests) consists of a variety of boiled meats: cuts of beef and veal, cotechino (a pork-based sausage), and sections of hen or capon.

bollito misto

My wife reminisces from time to time that her father was very fond of bollito misto, eating it like most northern Italians do with a sauce called mostardaactually, mostarda di Cremona. In a country known for the fierce independence of its cities, it will come as no surprise to the readers that probably every city in northern Italy has its own variety of mostarda. Despite its name, the sauce has only a little to do with mustard. It is really a mix of candied fruit which is given a kick by the addition of mustard powder (that tartness thing again…). Those slices of fruit in the photo above are the mostarda, but I give here a more direct picture.

mostarda di cremona

My wife confesses to never having liked mostarda; she can’t even stand the smell. Personally, I have never tried it, but a number of sites do support my wife’s assertion, mentioning that the taste of mostarda is an “acquired taste”. This is normally code for saying that something tastes revolting the first several/many times you try it. In any event, if my wife says it’s not nice, then that’s good enough for me! No spoonful of it shall ever pass my lips. For those readers who will ignore these warnings and wish to try it, though, I give a brief recipe at the end of the post.

I feel that I cannot move away from mostarda without mentioning the somewhat similar chutney sauce one finds in the UK, or at least one found when I was a boy. Although “chutney” as a word has Indian roots, what I ate as a boy was several removes from things Indian. The most popular brand back then was a mango chutney which went by the name of Major Grey’s Chutney and was sold by Crosse & Blackwell. The story went that a certain Major Grey, a British officer in India, had surveyed the local Indian chutneys and then invented his own, more British, chutney, which he proceeded to bring back to the motherland when he retired, to remind him of the Good Old Days. When I was a boy I rather imagined this Major Grey to look like this

British soldier India-1

fighting heroically against savage natives on the Northwest frontier and getting a VC for his –quite literal – pains. But alas! this appears to be pure legend. It seems that something similar to mostarda, some sort of fruit conserve, existed already in the UK and the Brits in India took the idea with them and adapted it to local ingredients. So what this chutney will usually have as ingredients is mangoes, raisins, vinegar, onions, sugar, and spices. Crosse & Blackwell also include lime juice and tamarind juice. As you can imagine from the ingredients, this chutney is both sweet and tart. Again, for heroic readers who want to make this sauce from scratch, scroll to the end of the post.

I haven’t eaten this kind of chutney in many decades, but when I was young my favourite way of eating it was with slices of cold meat (the chutney is in the round bowl to the left of the photo below).

cold meat and chutney

This was an especially popular dish in pubs, where this photo was taken. Sitting here in Thailand, I feel a sudden nostalgia for the English country pubs whose bars I propped up in my youth, so I am moved to throw in a photo of a nice country pub.

Bridge Inn

Like Superman, I now vault over to the US and alight somewhere in the open ranges of the Midwest, for no better reason than having this feeling that my next salt-sweet sauce – barbecue sauce – was invented around there somewhere. That being said, my wife and I didn’t try it there. We were just discussing this point and we reckon that it was somewhere between Boston and Washington in the early 1980s. Wherever it was, we stared open-mouthed at these large racks of ribs smothered in this dark reddish brown sauce.

ribs and barbecue sauce

But very soon we were closing our mouths over those ribs. Ah, that sauce! … But I should say: those sauces. In this little research I’ve done I have discovered that there are dozens of different barbecue sauces. I thought the Italian quarrels about where the best mostarda is made were fierce, but boy! the arguments about what place in the US makes the best barbecue sauce are right up there. I’m going to keep my head low without backing any particular sauce. I’m merely going to say that wherever the sauces are made they all seem to have sugar (preferably brown), tomato ketchup, vinegar, and some salt, to which various spices are added in varying levels and in different combinations (Worcestershire sauce, pepper, paprika, mustard, chili, cayenne, and on and on). That combination of sweet and tart again, to challenge the salt of the meat. Readers can look at the end of a post for condensed recipe of an excellent sauce from Kansas City (but don’t tell anyone I said it).

Deary me, I seem to have gone on for quite a while here, and I’m sure I haven’t covered one-hundredth of the sweet-salt dishes enjoyed around the world. On top of it, I’ve only mentioned meat dishes; it makes me sound a total carnivore, red in tooth and claw. But there was that fish dish in Shanghai … and there are all those sweet salad sauces to pour on vegetables … But I have to stop. I’ll just add two final combinations of salt and sweet which show that meat (or fish) is not the only food the delight of which is heightened by the salt-sweet experience: one which probably every person on the planet has enjoyed by now, what with the prevalence of fast food joints, french fries and ketchup

french fries and ketchup

and one which I’ve mentioned in an earlier post, chocolate and French baguette

chocolate and baguette

Mmm, so good!

So give your taste buds a whirl and douse them with sugar and salt – and a dash of vinegar, or horseradish, or something tart. Enjoy!

-o0o-

Mint sauce: Strip the leaves off a bunch of mint, sprinkle them with a pinch of salt, and chop finely. Place the result in a bowl, add 1 level tablespoon of caster sugar and pour over the mix 4 tablespoons of boiling water. Stir and leave to cool. Stir in 4 tablespoons of vinegar. Add more water or vinegar to suit your taste.

Apple sauce: Take a number of cooking apples, peel them, core them, and chop them up. Put the apples in a saucepan and add water. Once can also add lemon zest. Cover and cook over a low heat until the apples have gone soft and mushy. At which point take off the heat and beat in a knob of butter and a teaspoon of sugar. Cool.

Mostarda di Cremona: Begin by washing the various fruit: pears, quinces, cherries, apricots, figs, and peaches (although I’m sure you can vary the fruit as you wish). Cut the apricots and peaches into halves or quarters (depending on their size) and remove their stones, peel. Core and quarter the pears and quinces. Dry all the fruit after preparation. Add the sugar – a lot of sugar! half a kilo for every kilo of fruit, more if you want your mostarda sweet (but for reasons suggested above, I would go easy on the sweetness and maybe go heavier on the mustard powder). Pour some squeezed orange juice over it. Let the whole rest for 24 hours, gently turning the pieces a couple of times. By the end of this time the sugar will have dissolved. Drain the fruit well – without losing the syrup! Bring the syrup slowly to a boil, and let it boil gently until its volume is reduced by half. Pour the remaining syrup back over the fruit. The sugar in the now-concentrated syrup will extract more moisture from the fruit, which will begin to shrink and firm up. Concentrate the syrup again and steep the fruit in it overnight again. Dissolve several tablespoons of mustard powder in some white wine vinegar. Bring the mixture gently to a boil and let it bubble for a few minutes. In the meantime, drain the fruit again, and concentrate the syrup again. Put the candied fruit into jars, add the mustard powder infusion, and then add the hot syrup. The amount of infusion you add will determine of course how much of a kick your mostarda will have. Cover the jars and put them on a cool dark shelf. The mostarda will be ready to eat in two weeks’ time.

Major Grey’s chutney: (this is one of many recipes for this kind of chutney) Combine 4 cups of 5-6 medium-sized chopped mangoes, 1 cup of brown sugar, half a cup of molasses, 1 cup of vinegar, 1 cup of coarsely chopped onions, three-quarters of a cup of golden raisins, half a cup of seeded and chopped limes, half a cup of peeled, seeded and chopped orange, a quarter of a cup of peeled, seeded and chopped lemon, and finally a bunch of spices: half a cup of grated ginger root , 3 cloves of minced garlic, 1 tablespoon of mustard seed, 1 tablespoon of dried red pepper flakes. Cook for about 30 minutes, stirring often. Add 2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh cilantro, 1 teaspoon of ground cinnamon, a quarter of a teaspoon of ground cloves, a quarter of a teaspoon of ground allspice. Cook for another 10 minutes or so, until chutney starts to thicken. Ladle chutney into a jar and close it air-tight.

Barbecue sauce: (from Kansas City) In a saucepan over medium heat, stir together ½ cup of ketchup, 2 tablespoons of brown sugar, 1 tablespoon of cider vinegar, 2 tablespoons of Worcestershire sauce, ¼ teaspoon of salt, ¼ teaspoon of mustard powder, 1 teaspoon of garlic powder, and a dash of hot pepper sauce. Bring to a simmer, then remove from heat and allow to cool.

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Electric arc furnace: http://ih.constantcontact.com/fs163/1101151826392/img/505.jpg (in http://ricorant.blogspot.com/2014/11/fwd-dominance-of-steel-111114.html)

Pineapple and soy sauce: http://static.squarespace.com/static/51107688e4b0e3b888c1183b/t/519f0a2ee4b0bb6d74d9bdcf/1369377327493/Grilled+Soy-Sauce+Pineapple (in http://larkspurcompany.com/blog/2013/5/20/grilled-soy-sauce-pineapple)

Taste bud closeup: http://cdn1-www.webecoist.momtastic.com/assets/uploads/2010/01/tongue-taste-bud1.jpg (in http://webecoist.momtastic.com/2010/01/11/biological-photography-magnificent-microscopic-ultraminiature-photos/)

Lamb and mint sauce: http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/multimedia/archive/00050/table_townsend_74217_50069c.jpg (in http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/life/food/recipes/article2701689.ece)

Asterix sauce a la menthe: http://www.prise2tete.fr/upload/NickoGecko-Saucementhe.jpg (in

Roasted pig: http://previews.123rf.com/images/azlightning/azlightning0908/azlightning090800003/5315340-whole-golden-roasted-pig-on-a-spit-spit-roasting-is-a-traditional-hawaiian-luau-method-of-cooking-a-.jpg (in http://www.123rf.com/photo_5315340_whole-golden-roasted-pig-on-a-spit-spit-roasting-is-a-traditional-hawaiian-luau-method-of-cooking-a-.html)

Roast pork and apple sauce: http://www.growingagreenerworld.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/10/123-dishAppleSauce_Pork.jpg (in http://www.growingagreenerworld.com/pork-tenderloin-spiced-applesauce-recipe/)

Tafelspitz: http://www.plachutta.at/typo3temp/pics/1115b4ecd0.jpg (in http://www.plachutta.at/en/about/)

Tafelspitz sauces: http://thepassionatecook.typepad.com/sauces.jpg (in http://thepassionatecook.typepad.com/thepassionatecook/traditional_austrian_food/page/2/)

Bollito misto: http://www.buonissimo.org/archive/borg/XRqDUZ2JX8O3MtcV7PuMgNvG9IvTytvNm6Rhlcw8yOzcxGV4vWA1kg%253D%253D (in http://www.buonissimo.org/lericette/5685_Bollito_misto)

Mostarda di Cremona: http://www.cremonacitta.it/intranet/immagini/_resized/1/scheda/58/w/490x/Prodotti_De_Co_di_Cremona_la_Mostarda_cremonese-img58-01-1.jpg (in http://www.cremonacitta.it/it/gusto_e_sapori_a_cremona/prodotti_de_co_a_cremona_mostarda_tradizionale_sc_58.htm)

Cold meat and chutney: http://media-cdn.tripadvisor.com/media/photo-s/07/0d/d8/5a/blairs-inn.jpg (in http://www.tripadvisor.ie/LocationPhotoDirectLink-g186599-d2014376-i118347866-Blairs_Inn-Blarney_County_Cork.html)

Bridge Inn: http://www.hallflatfarm.co.uk/IMAGES/The%20local%20-%20the%20Bridge%20Inn.jpg (in http://www.hallflatfarm.co.uk/location.html)

British officer in India: http://i80.photobucket.com/albums/j199/matteaston/Afghan1.jpg (in http://www.fioredeiliberi.org/victorian/)

Ribs and sauce: http://www.cooldeals.es/Images/deal-images/eef5c31f-f992-46a5-8993-db0198715a35/20140818133044604.jpg (in http://www.cooldeals.es/Deals/Marbella-Estepona/9fd8ffad-612a-42de-8755-55153751c9e6)

French fries and ketchup: http://scms.machteamsoft.ro/uploads/photos/652×450/652x450_7b63084e7d5012a126811947191414.jpeg (in http://stiri.acasa.ro/social-125/afla-ce-alimente-ascund-sute-de-kilocalorii-110745.html)

Baguette with chocolate: http://a142.idata.over-blog.com/600×449/2/90/63/97/Autrefois-./Chocolat/Le-Bon-Chocolat–13-.JPG

MAGNOLIA

Beijing, 4 April 2014

One of my abiding memories of Vienna is the magnolias in flower. I suppose it’s always the case that the first months you spend in a new place imprint themselves more forcefully on your brain’s virtual retina than the remaining years. We arrived in Vienna in February, two months later the magnolias were in bloom. It seemed that every garden and every park had its magnolia tree.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
We would pass one particularly magnificent specimen as we drove the children up to school every day. It was like living in a multiple exposure photo. Every day, as we swept by, we would note its progress, as the buds opened fully, and then the decay, as the flowers wilted and scattered their petals over the pavement.

A month or so later, it was the turn of the city’s multitude of lilac bushes to bloom, another fond memory which I have of Vienna and one about which I have had cause to write an earlier post.

Yes, they were good times.

And then, when my wife and I came to Beijing, we found our friends the magnolia trees here, waiting to greet us with their blooms after we emerged from our first Chinese winter. A sight for sore eyes, let me tell you, after all that grey dryness of a Beijing winter. There was a pure white variety
magnolia trees dajue western temple
as well as a pinker type which we were familiar with from Vienna.
Tanzhe western Temple
Then, with the passage of time, I discovered that this tree, which I had, without really thinking about it, assumed was European, was actually Chinese! Actually, it’s a bit more complicated than that. There are nearly hundred different types of magnolia native to China (out of 200-plus native to Asia). The beautiful white magnolia pictured above, which comes from central and eastern China, grabbed the Chinese headlines early on. With its flower rightly regarded as a symbol of purity, it was planted in Buddhist temple gardens and the gardens of the emperors from as early as 600 AD during the Tang dynasty. It is called the Yulan, or jade lily, magnolia; I presume the name refers to the jade-like glossy smoothness of the magnolia’s petals and the sometimes lily-like look of the flower.

A second magnolia which has also been very popular in China for centuries is the Mulan magnolia
magnolia lillliflora
which comes from Sichuan and Yunnan provinces.

Magnolias of course became favourite subjects of the poets, seeing as they spent hours haunting such gardens.

???

Here is the poem Magnolia Slope by Wang Wei, who lived in the 700s AD and is considered “the consummate master of the short imagistic landscape poem that came to typify classical Chinese poetry” (in the words of David Hinton, who made the admirable translation below).

Lotus blossoms adrift out across treetops
flaunt crimson calyces among mountains.

At home beside this stream, quiet, no one
here. Scattered. Scattered open and falling.

As with many things Chinese which were considered the nec plus ultra by the East Asian fashionistas and trend followers of yesteryear, the cultivation of these magnolias was taken up with enthusiasm by the Japanese, from whence – like the Chinese ginkgo tree of which I have written earlier – it made its way to Europe. And there, in 1820, in the grounds of his château of Fromont near Paris, an ex-cavalry officer turned plantsman, Étienne Soulange-Bodin, crossed the Yulan with the Mulan and created the hybrid saucer magnolia.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
With its large, early-blooming flowers in various shades of white, pink, and purple, this cultivar became immensely popular and spread around Europe (including Austria, no doubt, because I’m sure the Viennese magnolia I described above is one of these), the US, and eventually – I suspect – China, in hundreds of different cultivars as plant breeders continued to play with its gene pool.

Here I have to pause, to consider that other great reservoir of magnolias, the Americas. I said earlier that Asia boasts 200 or more types of magnolias. The Americas are host to another 90 or so. In fact, it was in the Americas, in the Caribbean island of Martinique to be exact, that in the 1690s a French botanist by the name of Charles Plumier discovered and named – in the modern scientific nomenclature; of course it already had a native name, the talauma – the magnolia, after yet another French botanist Pierre Magnol (a lot of French botanists in this story …). I haven’t found a picture of his original drawing of the magnolia which he came across but this one will do as a substitute.
talauma
This picture, with its flower surrounded by a thick crown of leaves, sums up nicely a perplexity I had until I did some reading for this post. When we had been in the US, we had come across the southern magnolia, which looked something like this specimen
southern magnolia
that is to say, very thick foliage with a few flowers sprinkled over the whole.

Very beautiful flowers, by the way.
southern magnolia-flower
I couldn’t relate all this to the magnolias like those above, which are first completely covered with flowers and only get their leaves after the flowers have fallen. Well, the fact is, they are – botanically speaking – part of the same family. It’s just that it’s a very large family (some 300 members all told), and like in all large families distant cousins don’t necessarily resemble each other very much.

Which brings me to my final coda. The magnolia cousins have drifted so far apart because it is an old – very old – genus. It branched off the main tree of trees, if you get my drift, 100 million years or so ago. Fossils of plants identifiably belonging to the Magnoliaceae have been found dating back to 95 million years ago, while a 20 million year-old fossil has been found of the cucumber magnolia, which is native to the Eastern US and has this small flower with lovely yellow hues (in fact, these yellow hues as well as the tree’s cold hardiness have been exploited to create new yellow-flowered hybrid magnolias).
magnolia acuminata
Magnolias are so ancient that they came on the scene as flowering plants before bees, or butterflies, or moths, existed to help along with pollination. So magnolias have evolved to use for pollination the only insects which were around at the time, beetles or flies.
beetle in magnolia-1
And this co-existence with beetles explains the rather leathery petals magnolias have. Compared to bees, beetles are clumsy insects, clomping around all over the flower and with a tendency to snack on the petals as well as the nectar. The leathery petals protect the flowers from these lumbering but necessary partners in the act of procreation.

Oh, and by the way, magnolia flowers don’t actually have petals, they have tepals. And that’s because the flowers are quite primitive, so their sepals and petals are not distinct and differentiated (no idea what that really means, but it sounds impressive).

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Magnolia in Vienna: http://farm3.staticflickr.com/2542/3753020942_3f6c39bb5f_o.jpg [in https://www.flickr.com/%5D
Yulan Magnolia tree in Dajue western temple: http://www.beijingrelocation.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/magnolia.jpg [in http://www.beijingrelocation.com/blog/beijing-trees/%5D
Magnolia tree in Tanzhe temple: http://www.travelchina.gov.cn/picture/0/1403261604282295162.png [in http://www.travelchina.gov.cn/art/2014/3/26/art_15_1202.html%5D
Mulan Magnolia: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/d/d6/Magnolienbluete_freiburg.jpg/800px-Magnolienbluete_freiburg.jpg [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magnolia_liliiflora%5D
Poet in garden: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/1a/Wang_Xizhi_by_Qian_Xuan.jpg [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_garden%5D

Magnolia soulangeana: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/3e/Magnolia_x_soulangeana.jpg [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saucer_magnolia%5D

Talauma: http://www.plantillustrations.org/illustration.php?id_illustration=90190 [in http://www.plantillustrations.org/epithet.php?epithet=plumieri&lay_out=1&hd=0%5D

Southern magnolia: http://whangareiflora.weebly.com/uploads/8/4/3/9/8439522/6466041_orig.jpg [in http://whangareiflora.weebly.com/exotic-trees.html%5D
Southern magnolia-flower: http://www.magnoliasociety.org/resources/Pictures/images/cultivars/msieboldi8422.JPG [in http://www.magnoliasociety.org/MagnoliaResources%5D

Magnolia acuminata: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-yf82eYSuRd4/T6gSQGfe2bI/AAAAAAAAAnI/6SgLRh0exIY/s1600/DSCF7584.JPG [in http://welkinweir.blogspot.com/2012/05/may-flowers.html%5D

Beetle in a magnolia: http://blogging.la/wp-content/uploads/2009/06/gjb.jpg [in http://blogging.la/2009/06/28/it-caught-my-eye-the-beetle-the-blossom/%5D