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Category: UK

SEA BEET

  • Milan, 11 February 2017

I’ve written much earlier about the culinary dowry which my wife brought to our marriage, a splendidly long list of Italian foods and dishes against which my contribution shriveled to nothingness. The columnn on my wife’s side of the kitchen ledger should have been even longer, though. I wrote that first post when we were living in Beijing and I drew up the list from memory. Now that we are back in Italy a good part of our time, I can closely scan the supermarket shelves to see what delights we have come back to. One of these is the vegetable known in Italian as coste, chard in English (often called Swiss chard, although there is absolutely nothing Swiss about the plant).
img_1857When I first tried coste all those decades ago, cooked by my mother-in-law, I was immediately struck by two certainties: the first, that I had stumbled across a culinary treasure; the second, that this treasure had never crossed my lips either in the UK or in France – neither of my grandmothers seemed to have been familiar with this worthiest of vegetables.

The wonderful thing is that the cooking method for chard which I prefer adheres strictly to my golden rule for all things in life, the KISS principle (Keep It Simple, Stupid!). Strip the stalks of the leaves. Boil each briefly in water. Then briefly fry each separately in butter (oil will also work). Serve. That’s it. Yes, you can add this and that, garlic for instance, but it’s really not necessary.
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The stems are by far the best. Cooking them gives them a delicate, slightly sweet taste that inexorably leads you to eagerly slip the next stalk into your mouth. They are addictive.

Readers looking on line will see that many recipes consider chard a side dish, to be eaten as a complement to something else. I disagree. They stand on their own, as a complete dish. If anything, the stalks can be the main dish, the leaves the side dish. Many other recipes mix it into soups or into quiche-like things or into pasta sauces. Forget it. Just eat them on their own.

I thought perhaps that with the broadening of the British culinary horizons over the last forty years I would now find chard commonly stocked in supermarkets. But no. I went on Sainsbury’s and Tesco’s websites to see what vegetables could be ordered online, and chard was nowhere to be found. I double-checked with a friend of mine in the UK and he confirmed that chard was not readily available in supermarkets (although he did note that his sister, who has a green thumb, grows them in her vegetable garden).

It’s funny, that, because the wild ancestor to chard is sea beet.
Papier beet
For reasons which will become clear in a minute, I also show it uprooted.
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Sea beet can be found along along the coasts of the UK more or less up to Scotland, so it is a plant that surely made its way into the British cooking pot very early on, when people ate whatever the local environment offered and when hunger was a constant companion. From a quick zip through web sites run by enthusiasts dedicated to recreating ancient recipes, chard was certainly eaten in Britain in Medieval and Tudor times (when it was called beet; Lord knows why the name changed). Take this entry from John Gerard’s 1597 Herball:
Beta alba. White Beets….the white Beete is a cold and moist pot-herbe…Being eaten when it is boyled, it quickly descendeth … especially being taken with the broth wherein it is sodden…
Beta rubra, Beta rubra Romana. Red Beets, Red Roman Beets …The great and beautiful Beet last described may be vsed in winter for a salad herbe, with vinegar, oyle, and salt, and is not onely pleasant to the taste, but also delightfull to the eye. The greater red Beet or Roman Beet, boyled and eaten with oyle, vinegar and pepper, is a most excellent and delicate sallad
.

(It seems that by 1597 farmers had already produced beets of varying colours – the earlier photo of uprooted sea beet shows that white was originally the only colour complementing the green.)

For some reason, chard seems to have fallen out of favour with the greater British public in later centuries. I’ve read that spinach, to which chard is often compared, could have been the culprit, displacing chard in the hearts of consumers. Naughty spinach …

The opposite fate has befallen another descendent of see beet, the beetroot.
beetroot isolated on white backgroundThe quote above from Gerard goes on:
But what might be made of the red and beautifull root (which is to be preferred before the leaues, as well in beauty as in goodnesse) I refer vnto the curious and cunning cooke, who no doubt when he hath had the view thereof, and is assured that it is both good and wholesome, will make thereof many and diuers dishes, both faire and good.
From which we can gather that the root of the chard/beet was not eaten by Brits in 1597. But things changed somewhere along the way, for if the selection on offer from Sainsbury’s and Tesco’s is at all a guide to general British preferences in vegetables, beetroot does now have a following in the UK. Perhaps the reason for this change of heart can be traced to the growth in the size of the root. Gerard’s illustration of the Red Roman Beet in his Herball shows it to have a pretty skinny root in his day, much like the root of the sea beet. Perhaps only when a myriad of farmers had patiently coaxed the beet’s root to grow mightily in girth did it become popular.

Not that the British have ever done anything very exciting with the beetroot. The best they have managed to do is to pickle it.
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That sweet-sour combination certainly seems to be a winning combination for the beetroot, and has been brought to a glorious culmination by “curious and cunning cookes” with the borschts of Eastern Europe. Every country from that part of the world has its own borscht tradition, but there is a commonality in all the recipes. Sauté a variety of vegetables including, of course, beetroots. Add stock. Simmer for a bit. Serve with a dollop of sour cream. The result looks something like this.
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Let’s not forget the leaves of the beetroot! Just as much as chard is edible so too are the leaves of the beetroot. Various Italian (and English) recipes show that they can be prepared exactly the same way as chard.
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And there is of course Gerard’s suggestion to eat them with “vinegar, oyle, and salt”.

This celebration of the sea beet and its offspring would not be complete without a mention of two more of its descendants, neither of which are normally eaten by humans: the splendidly named mangelwurzel, developed in Germany as fodder for cattle
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and the sugar beet, developed – also initially in Germany – from the sweetest of the mangelwurzels around at the time, as an alternative to sugar cane.
img_1866I’m not sure we should celebrate the sugar beet, since there is a growing consensus that sugar is a plague.
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Mangelwurzel, on the other hand, deserves to be given a big hand. We don’t eat it, but farm animals like to eat it very much
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(as do their wild cousins)
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and we like eating the farm animals. On top of this, mangelwurzel is used to make jack-o-lanterns in certain parts of the UK
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an art form that is surely worth celebrating.

____________
Chard: http://www.dimeoremo.it/pianta_da_orto.php?idorto=4
Cooked chard: http://blog.cookaround.com/peg930/bieta-a-coste-saltate-in-padella/
Sea beet: https://www.researchgate.net/figure/261719699_fig1_Wild-sea-beet-Beta-vulgaris-subsp-maritima-the-wild-ancestor-of-all-cultivated-beets
Sea beet uprooted: http://www.bushcraftuk.com/forum/showthread.php?t=142391
Beetroot: http://www.realfoods.co.uk/article/so-fresh-and-so-green
British pickled beetroot: http://m.tesco.com/h5/groceries/r/www.tesco.com/groceries/product/details/?id=272309421
Borscht: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Borscht#
Cooked beetroot leaves: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/allrecipes.it/ricetta/5137/foglie-di-barbabietole-saltate-in-padella.aspx/amp/
Mangelwurzel: http://www.naturganznah.com/shop/index.php?sid=x&shp=oxbaseshop&cl=details&anid=c7943302e125e3a84.49084479&tpl=&lang=1
Sugar beet: https://www.gardeningknowhow.com/edible/vegetables/beets/sugar-beet-cultivation.htm
Book on sugar: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Beat-Sugar-Addiction-Now-Cutting-Edge/dp/1592334156
Pigs eating mangelwurzel: https://hisandhershomesteading.wordpress.com/page/2/
Wild boar eating mangelwurzel: http://footage.framepool.com/en/shot/550643113-turnip-field-mangelwurzel-potato-field-pack
Mangelwurzel jack-o-lanterns: http://herbs-treatandtaste.blogspot.it/2012/05/mangel-wurzel-confusing-vegetable.html?m=1

POLITICALLY-CHARGED PUBLIC ART

Milan, 4 November 2016

There is a quiet square not too far from where my wife and I live in Milan which goes by the name of Piazza Affari. As the name suggests, this is meant to be the pulsating business and financial centre of Milan. That was certainly the idea when the square was fashioned back in the early 1930s by demolishing a whole block of buildings in front of the just completed stock exchange, the Palazzo Mezzanotte.
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This quite handsome building clad in white travertine is often considered “typical” Fascist architecture because of when it was constructed, but in truth it is actually a nice exemplar of the Italian architecture of the turn of the century, most famously exemplified by Milan’s main train station.
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Another building opposite the stock exchange, finished in 1939, closed off the new square.
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Well, the war came and went, this corner of Milan survived the intense Allied bombing of the city, Fascism fell, and life went on. Then, in 2011, as part of a plan to make Milan a centre of contemporary art, the-then municipal government wanted to hold an exhibition of the works of Maurizio Cattelan, a famous Italian contemporary sculptor well known for satirical sculptures. As part of the deal, the city commissioned an outdoor work from the artist. After some back and forth, it was decided to place this piece in Piazza Affari and Cattelan came up with this.
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Of course, everyone immediately decided that the artist was giving the finger to Italy’s financial sector – this was a few years after the near meltdown of the banking sector worldwide, whose impacts on the Italian economy were then being felt (and continue to be felt). The denizens of the stock exchange hated it, everyone else loved it. What was meant to be a temporary exhibition has turned out to be permanent. It has been pointed out, and the photo above shows it clearly, that the hand is not actually giving the finger to the stock exchange but, if anything, to the anonymous building on the other side of the square. And the artist himself has said that the sculpture was actually a commentary on the fall of Fascism – some complicated explanation to the effect that the hand really represents the Fascist salute, and the chopped-off fingers represent the fall of Fascism; its positioning in front of a building seen as Fascist is what links it to Fascism. Others have commented that this finely sculpted hand (look at those veins!) in lovely white marble, in a square with its vaguely Roman look (look at those arcades attached to the 1939 building), reminds them of a De Chirico painting.
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None of this matters. What is important is what people think. And people think the finger is being given to all those goddamned bankers who screwed us all over, and they cheer the artist on.

Statuary in public places has always excited intense emotions. Staying in the world of white marble, consider the statue of the naked Alison Lapper, a British artist born without arms and only stubs of legs, and eight months pregnant when the statue was made.
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In 2005, this statue was placed as a temporary exhibit on the fourth plinth at Trafalgar Square in London, which has been empty ever since the square received its current look back in the 1830s.
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Many people hated it (because it was ugly; did those who said this realize the judgement they were passing on handicapped people?), many people loved it (because of its optimistic message about the handicapped and because it brought handicapped people more into the mainstream). A much larger replica was used in the opening ceremonies of the 2012 London Paralympic Games.
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But what about that granddaddy of white marble statuary, Michelangelo’s David?
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(another statue, I note in passing, with lovely hands)
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Today, we look at it simply as a glorious work of art, but at the time of its unveiling it was also a highly charged political statement. Already, David had a special place in the heart of the Florentines. They identified with the puny boy who destroyed the huge, nasty Goliath (seen to represent Rome, the French, the Holy Roman Emperor, or any other power threatening it at any particular moment in time). A committee of notable artists, including Da Vinci and Botticelli, was charged with deciding on its emplacement. They chose to have it stand in Piazza Signoria, at such an angle that the statue glared defiantly towards Rome.
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A statue whose unveiling in 1992 had particular resonance for me was that of Sir Arthur “Bomber” Harris, commander-in-chief during the Second World War of Britain’s Bomber Command.

As the picture shows, it is the typical statue of some Worthy Person which dots every public space in Europe, nothing terribly exciting artistically. But Bomber Command was the group responsible for the so-called area bombing during the War which wiped out entire German cities, many of no military value. Dresden is perhaps the best known.
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There are many people, and I include myself among them, who believe that these bombings were a crime against humanity, so I have difficulty feeling any disapproval for the person who did this to Harris’s statue.
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To be fair to Harris, he was not the only person in high circles (Winston Churchill included) who thought that area bombing was a good idea, but he implemented the plan with particular relish.

The placement of politically-charged art in public spaces continues. Banksy’s painting in the Calais “Jungle” of Steve Jobs as an immigrant trying to get in shows this.

In a rare statement on any of his art, Banksy commented that he wanted to remind people of the value of immigrants. If Jobs’s father, an immigrant from Homs in Syria, hadn’t been let into the US we wouldn’t have Apple. In this day and age of heated debates, especially in Europe, about refugees and how many to let in, Banksy has very publicly taken sides. It’s a pity that his high mindedness has been subverted, first by an entrepreneurial inhabitant of the Jungle demanding to be paid 5 euros to view the painting and then by a nihilistic vandalizing of the painting.
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I presume that the vandalizer was doing no more than celebrating The Clash’s third album. Such is life.

Let’s see what this year will bring us in politically-charged statuary.

____________
Palazzo Mezzanote: http://www.newsly.it/braxit-ultime-notizie-borse-europee-in-rialzo-scommettono-sul-si-1
Stazione centrale: http://www.milanoguida.com/visite-guidate/altri-monumenti-milano/stazione-centrale-milano/
Palazzo on other side: https://ripullulailfrangente.wordpress.com/2012/08/24/ancora-per-milano-al-mattino-presto-targhe/
Il dito: http://www.manageronline.it/articoli/vedi/3359/il-dito-medio-in-piazza-affari/
Giorgio de Chirico: http://www.beniculturali.it/mibac/export/MiBAC/sito-MiBAC/Contenuti/MibacUnif/Eventi/visualizza_asset.html_1741131230.html
Alison Lapper statue: http://www.arupassociates.com/en/projects/trafalgar-square-fourth-plinth/
Alison Lapper statue close-up: http://albertis-window.com/2014/01/
Alison Lapper statue Paralympic Games: http://www.goodtoknow.co.uk/wellbeing/galleries/34626/london-2012-paralympic-games/41
David: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/430234570629286662/
David’s hand: http://www.accademia.org/explore-museum/artworks/michelangelos-david/
David’s head: https://www.pinterest.com/almetrami/renaissance-david/
Sir Arthur Harris: http://www.fotolibra.com/gallery/1172664/sir-arthur-harris/
Dresden bombed: http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/dresden-bombing-70th-anniversary-interactive-then-now-photos-show-scale-destruction-1487817
Harris statue defaced: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-2166966/PETER-HITCHENS-The-heroes-Bomber-Command-deserve-memorial–unlike-butcher-led-them.html
Banksy’s Steve Jobs: http://edition.cnn.com/2015/12/11/europe/banksy-steve-jobs-graffiti/
Banksy’s Steve Jobs defaced: http://www.zeroviolenza.it/component/k2/item/74240-alto-4-metri-e-lungo-un-chilometro-il-nuovo-muro-antimigranti-è-a-calais

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.

_______________

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

LET’S NOT LEAVE THE EU

Bangkok, 18 June 2016

As my country of citizenship moves inexorably towards a historic referendum on whether or not to leave the EU, with there being a damned good chance that a majority will vote yes, my thoughts turn towards what it means to be British. And of course, the first thing that comes to my mind is … cricket (although you can’t really say it’s a British game; it’s the English who developed it while the Scots, for one, hardly play the game at all).

I started playing cricket, at school, in the summer of 1963, and played my last game, at school, in the summer of 1972. I stopped playing with no regret (and anyway went to University in Scotland, where, as I have just mentioned, hardly anyone plays cricket). Truth to tell, I was never very good at the game. I never could get over my nervousness of having someone throw a hard – very hard – ball straight at me, and pretty damned fast at that. In the years I played, batters protected their shins with pads and their testicles with a cup. The rest was naked, unprotected, at the mercy of nasty, vicious hits from the ball. That being said, when I was far out of the line of fire, standing in the far reaches of the field waiting idly for the odd ball to come my way, I could not help but admire the simple beauty of it all: lovely green grass sweeping off into the distance, framed by a venerable tree or two, the field dotted with people kitted out in impeccably white attire, and with luck a beautiful summer sky crowning the whole.
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It’s even better if there is a quaint old pub in the background to which one can retire for a refreshing draught of the local ale.
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And when batsmen were good, it really was a pleasure to the eye to watch them taking clean, easy swings, knocking the ball this way and that, twisting their body elegantly as they followed through their shots.

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Yes, elegant is the word for the best of cricket.

I still remember with great pleasure a match we played when I was 12-13 years old, against the local village. It was an annual affair, where we fielded a side of mixed Masters and boys. For some reason, I was included – someone must have been sick. In any event, I have this memory of politely playing against the local farmers on the village green, a beautiful oval surrounded by great beeches. I batted way down the list and was out pretty quick. Then I watched from the edge of the playing field as we got convincingly trounced. No matter, we were English, and the winners and the losers mingled in good cheer at the end:
“For when the One Great Scorer comes
To mark against your name,
He writes – not that you won or lost –
But HOW you played the Game.”

As the summer sun slowly set and the shadows grew longer across that village green, we ate home-made cakes and quaffed the local cider – we boys quaffing with special permission from the Headmaster.

Well, as much as I have changed, so has cricket. The commercial diktats of TV required that the achingly long Test matches be shortened to much shorter one day-and-night matches. The result is far more exciting to the uninitiated, as slugging has become the norm for batters rather than the patient, incremental build-up of runs of yesteryear; anyone can appreciate slugging. Taking a leaf out of football, all that uniform white in the kits has given way to a rainbow of colours as each national side now goes out in its own distinct colour. I suppose like that it’s easy to tell who is batting and who fielding. To get the evening viewers, matches go on into the night under the glare of lights. No doubt players get paid much more. And cheating during play, so as to make money on the betting, has begun. I’ve not heard of doping scandals in cricket, but if it isn’t happening yet I’m sure it eventually will.
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Sometimes, when I look at a modern match of cricket, I wish we could go back to the old ways. Cricket seemed so much nicer back then.

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Of course, my memory has quietly deleted those much less pleasant memories of cricket, on a nasty windy day, for instance, or under the rain; it really was not as wonderful as I’d sometimes like to think it was.

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And anyway we can’t go back. The world has changed, and so must cricket.

I’m sure much the same nostalgia drives many of my countrymen and women who want to vote to leave the EU. They want to go back to the past, to a time when Britain was great, was self-reliant … and was white. But paraphrasing Karl Marx, history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. Britain’s past history was not necessarily a tragedy, but it wasn’t as glorious as some people might think. My family did well out of Britain’s industrial revolution and later imperial ambitions, but there are many, many, many British families who suffered enormously from the industrial revolution

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and there are a multitude of families in the countries we colonized who suffered enormously from our imperial ambitions.

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As for Britain’s future, trying to go back to its, largely mythical, past will simply condemn the country to be a poor, foggy little island on the outer edges of Europe, which itself is turning into the frazzled outer edge of a renascent Eurasian continent. Britain’s future history will not necessarily turn into a farce, but it will be trivial. With no manufacturing sector to speak of, sacrificed decades ago to the financial services sector, and with no financial services sector to speak of, since an exit from the EU will all make them emigrate to Frankfurt, Britain, like Italy, will have to rely more and more on tourism to make ends meet. It will become one vast Disneyworld
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welcoming hordes of foreign tourists to its shores, to watch – for five minutes – its quaint games of cricket, visit a quaint pub, watch the Queen or King inspect all those nice toy soldiers with their lovely scarlet tunics and tall, funny hats

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visit its majestic museums (while muttering to themselves about how much stuff was stolen from them)

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and send their children to spend a year in one of its quaint universities getting a costly but ultimately meaningless Master’s degrees.

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Let’s not make this our future.

POSTSCIPT 24 June 2016

Well, my (very modest) call to remain fell on deaf ears. By midday today (Bangkok time), it was clear that a majority of my country men and women had decided to leave the EU. A pity.

________________
Cricket on local field: http://blog.acis.com/2013/08/
Cricket in front of the local pub: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/earth/countryside/8695840/The-village-green-is-crickets-soul.html

hitting a six: http://www.gettyimages.com/event/first-test-india-v-south-africa-day-3-51766051#robin-peterson-of-south-africa-hits-a-six-off-harbharjan-news-photo-id51774798

One day international at night: http://colorlibrary.blogspot.com/2012/07/stadium-which-hosted-most-number-of-one.html
Old painting of cricket: http://www.antiquemapsandprints.com/chelmsford-1934-old-vintage-print-nice-view-cricket-match-essex-l-b-bruhl-185061-p.asp

Cricket under the rain: http://www.alamy.com/stock-photo-a-set-of-stumps-at-an-abandoned-village-cricket-match-due-to-the-rain-9630656.html
Social consequences of industrial revolution: http://economistsview.typepad.com/economistsview/2007/08/social-conseque.html
Aborigines in chains: http://nationalunitygovernment.org/content/prisoners-frontier-wars-blackbirding-chain-gangs
British Disneyland: http://www.dailymail.co.uk

Trooping of the colours: http://www.zimbio.com/pictures/GChQyMYbIXr/Trooping+The+Colour

British Museum: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/British_Museum

Cambridge University students: http://www.theguardian.com/education/2016/feb/02/cambridge-university-to-introduce-written-admissions-tests

WATER

Bangkok, 7 May 2016

It’s hot here in Bangkok at the moment, very hot.

And it’s humid, very humid.

We drag ourselves through the day, stumbling from one air-conditioned space to another.

We scout the horizon for clouds. Will the cooling rains ever come?

We sweat, we’re thirsty. We go to the fridge to get that bottle of cold, cold water. We pour ourselves a glass. A film of water immediately forms on it.
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We drink. Aaaah, sooooo good …

In her garden, my French grandmother had a water pump which looked like this.
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When we were children, half a century ago, my cousins and I would amuse ourselves by pumping the handle vigorously till the water poured out. Watching us one day, my mother told us that when she had been a child our age, so some time in the late 1920s, early 1930s, before refrigerators were common, on hot summer days she was sent out by various uncles and aunts who were visiting to get a glass of water from that pump. But she was not to take the first water to gush out, no, she was to pump and pump until the water was “bien frappé”, well chilled, enough to form a film on the glass …

That pump stopped pumping 30 years ago. As ever more water was sucked from the aquifer the level dropped, until one day it dropped so far that the pump ran dry. It never pumped a drop of water again.

At my old primary school in Somerset, whose halls I graced half a century ago, there was a bubbling little stream that ran along the edge of the playing fields. We played for hours on it, floating sticks and leaves, building dams, and generally mucking about. It looked like this, minus the horses.
image
30 years ago, when I visited one summer, it was gone, dried up. The aquifer had dropped too far.

A larger stream ran along the valley floor not too far from my French grandmother’s house. It was a quick bike ride away, and my cousins and I would often go there to catch freshwater crayfish in its clean, clear waters and bathe in a deep, blue pool that had formed in the middle reaches. 20 years later, when I visited, it was turgid and scummy, with froth floating on it.

Bangkok is a water city. It sits on a river and is laced with canals. It should be lovely to travel on its waterways. Instead, it’s like cruising along stinking, fetid sewers. We take a water bus from time to time, when the traffic is really bad, from the Golden Mount Temple to the modern downtown.
image
Instead of enjoying the passing scenery, I live in dread of spray from the canal landing on my face; God knows what viruses and bacteria populate the water. I always scrub my face vigorously when I get off. As for the river, from our apartment terrace we look down on the rubbish of the city which floats by every day.
image
Recently, we visited Halong Bay, in Viet Nam, a World Heritage Site. We gazed on the unutterable beauty of the surroundings. But we also gazed at the rubbish floating around us and at the locals’ pathetic attempts to get rid of it.
image
Are we mad? We guzzle water like there was no tomorrow and treat it like a rubbish dump. Yet we need water, it’s vital to our lives. How can we treat so badly something we absolutely cannot do without?

________________
Glass of water: http://www.healthydietbase.com/does-drinking-ice-cold-water-help-you-lose-weight/
Old water pump: http://fr.123rf.com/photo_20440985_fonte-ancienne-pompe-a-eau-de-fer-humide-dans-le-jardin.html
Small stream: http://www.gettyimages.com/image/photo-2-tarpan-horses-crossing-a-small-brook/508354517

Bangkok canal: http://aspiringwriter.ca/tag=bangkok

Rubbish in Chao Praya River: https://bangkok2birmingham.org/2013/05/30/deteriorated-water-so-what/

collecting rubbish in Halong bay: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/

WILL AND I

Bangkok, 30 April 2016

One of the problems of living abroad is that issues of great moment back home have little if any echo here in Bangkok. So it was with the 400th anniversary of Will Shakespeare’s death, which fell on 23rd April last week. It was only when I was catching up with news from home (to Brexit or not to Brexit?) that I saw the huge amount of chatter on line and realized this.

Well! I cannot let this anniversary go by, even though I am already a week late in celebrating it. I mean, Will and I go back a long way! Before I start my breathless recollections, though, let me throw in a picture of one of the few portraits of Shakespeare which are thought to probably be a good likeness, from his funerary monument in his home town, Stratford-upon-Avon.
image
(my alert readers will have noticed much circumspection in that last phrase; so little is known about the real-life Will)

I saw my first piece of Shakespeare – a mere snippet – when I was a seven-year old. My parents had taken me along to visit my elder brother at his school’s Sports Day. As the name suggests, the day was primarily about sports, but to show some high-browsedness among all this low-browsedness the Headmaster also put on a few scenes from Shakespeare, played by the boys. One of these boys was my brother, who played a scene from Henry VIII. Although I don’t know which scene it was exactly, I do remember sitting next to him afterwards and – pesky child that I was – pulling off strands of his stuck-on beard.

A year later, I was packed off to the same school, and at one of the next Sports Days I got my first role, a walk-on part as a page of Macbeth’s. My moment in the spotlight was short. I preceded Macbeth onto the stage, who then ordered me off to do something. I bowed with dignity and exited left. After which Macbeth launched into that great soliloquy:

“Is this a dagger which I see before me,
The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee.
I have thee not, and yet I see thee still.
Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible
To feeling as to sight? or art thou but
A dagger of the mind, a false creation,
Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain?”

It goes on for several more fevered lines, but we’ll leave it at that.

In later years, I was a regular at these theatrical events on Sports Days, but I never got to do any more Shakespeare. The best I managed was the lead role, as a waiter, in some farce to do with a coconut being mistaken for a bomb. No matter! I was hooked on the acting life.

My school might have been buried in the wilds of Somerset, but that did not stop the Headmaster from trying to expose us to Culture. One way he did this was by taking us to theatrical events. Thus it was that one beautiful summer’s day (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”) we were bussed off to a local Stately Home and watched the Winter’s Tale in its manicured gardens. I can’t say I was terribly impressed by the play, certainly none of the text has remained with me. I appreciated more the strawberries and cream served at the interval. I was probably too young to appreciate the play (I must have been all of eleven at the time). But I did very much appreciate the al fresco setting, and so a number of years later, when I was at high school, I was an enthusiastic member of a small audience watching Waiting for Godot, sitting on the grass of a lonely dirt road on the edges of which Vladimir and Estragon acted out their empty lives.

At that same high school, I acted in my first full-length Shakespeare play, Richard II, as the Duke of York. I’ve mentioned this in an earlier post, so will not elaborate. What has stayed with me all these years, though, apart from dying John of Gaunt’s paeon to England (“This other Eden, demi-paradise … this precious stone set in the silver sea … this blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England”) is Henry Bolingbroke’s icy remark to the captive Richard II, who is wallowing in self-pity: “The shadow of your sorrows hath destroyed the shadow of your face”.

If I’m to be honest, our Richard II was no great shakes. It was a good attempt by amateurs, no more. To prep us, our Director had hired a van and taken us down to Stratford, to see the Royal Shakespeare Company put on Richard II. It was certainly better than what we did, but it was no more than workmanlike, I would say. I had to wait some ten years to see a truly splendid production of Richard II, directed by Ariane Mnouchkine in a large space in the Bois de Vincennes in Paris. Ah, what a wonderful production that was! Mnouchkine used a style that mixed Japanese theatrical traditions with mime, on a large set uncluttered by any of the traditional theatrical props. It was truly magic, one of those theatrical experiences that stays with you forever.
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Back to my own theatrical career at high school! It reached its zenith when I acted in Tom Stoppard’s brilliant comedy Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. I played Rosencrantz (or maybe Guildenstern, I forget; the characters themselves were always getting confused about who they were). This hilarious play is a riff on Shakespeare’s Hamlet, in which R&G play minor and totally inglorious roles. To my great regret, I never acted in Hamlet itself. The closest I got was playing a few scenes on the portico of the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh, during the University’s charity week. I played Polonius as a completely senile old twerp, unashamedly hamming it up for the audience: a disgraceful exhibition – but fun!

In truth, my days treading the theatre boards were even then numbered. I quickly realized at University that I was a mediocre actor and it was time for me to get serious. But before my final curtain call, I did manage get a modest part in Measure for Measure, playing Claudio, a young man sentenced to death for getting his girlfriend pregnant. It’s a strange play, aptly titled a “problem play”, categorized as a comedy but being no such thing. None of the characters are that nice either, so it’s difficult to feel much sympathy for anyone. My character Claudio gets some wonderful lines as he sits in gaol, bathed in a total funk at the idea of dying:

“Ay, but to die, and go we know not where;
To lie in cold obstruction, and to rot;
This sensible warm motion to become
A kneaded clod; and the delighted spirit
To bathe in fiery floods, or to reside
In thrilling region of thick-ribbed ice;
To be imprisoned in the viewless winds
And blown with restless violence round about
The pendant world; or to be worse than worst
Of those that lawless and incertain thought
Imagine howling – ’tis too horrible!
The weariest and most loathed worldly life
That age, ache, penury, and imprisonment
Can lay on nature is a paradise
To what we fear of death.”

And as I grow older, the lines of Duke Vincentio, spoken in his disguise as a monk to Claudio in prison, resonate ever more strongly with me: “when thou art old and rich, thou hast neither heat, affection, limb, nor beauty to make thy riches pleasant”. So true, alas!

And that was the end of my days on the proscenium. From then on, my engagement with Shakespeare was through films and other people’s theatrical productions. The most vivid of my recollections centre around Laurence Olivier. There was a poky little cinema on the Left Bank of Paris which one year when we lived there held a festival of Olivier’s Shakespeare films. My wife and I first watched Olivier’s film version of Hamlet, the first proper Hamlet I had ever seen. Olivier started with his voiced-over summary of Hamlet: “This is the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind”.

Hamlet 1948 rŽal : Laurence Olivier Laurence Olivier Collection Christophel

It was masterly, no doubt about it. Of course, there were all the hoary Hamlet quotes: “Alas, poor Yorrick, I knew him”, “get thee to a nunnery”, “neither a borrower nor a lender be”, and of course probably the hoariest of all hoary Shakespeare quotes, “To be or not to be, that is the question”. Actually, behind all that hoariness lies one of Shakespeare’s most profound, and profoundly beautiful, soliloquies, of which I cite here only some lines, those which have always resonated with me the most:

“………..To die: to sleep;
No more; and, by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub.
For in this sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause …”

In that same poky little cinema on the Left Bank, we got to see Olivier’s wonderful Richard III, which I have commented on in an earlier post, but also his sublime Henry V, a wonderful propaganda piece made in 1944 as a morale booster and dedicated to the “Commandos and Airborne Troops of Great Britain, the spirit of whose ancestors it has been humbly attempted to recapture”. So it is that we have great, reverberating lines like these:

“Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;
Or close the wall up with our English dead!

I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
Straining upon the start. The game’s afoot:
Follow your spirit; and, upon this charge
Cry ‘God for Harry! England and Saint George!'”

“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England, now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.”

image
To my great regret, we missed the showing of Olivier’s film of Othello. But we did later see, in an equally poky cinema somewhere else, Orson Welle’s Othello, filmed in some exotic castle in Morocco. Ah, the terrible torments of jealousy! “beware, my lord, of jealousy; It is the green-ey’d monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on”.
image
“I kissed thee ere I killed thee, no way but this, killing myself, to die upon a kiss.”

And then there was Orson Welles as Macbeth! Rather over the top – a cross, as Welles himself put it, between Wuthering Heights and Bride of Frankenstein
image
but home of some of the most sublime of Shakespeare’s lines, uttered by Macbeth as the power he has sold his soul for crumbles away around him.

“To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.”

Orson Welles did another great Shakespeare film, The Chimes at Midnight, a medley from Henry IV Parts I and II, Henry V, Richard II, and even The Merry Wives of Windsor, and focusing on Sir John Falstaff, to my mind the only Shakespearean character who is really comic in the modern sense.

image
It’s a truly funny film. It’s also the film which brought home to me how Medieval battles were just brutal slugfests, with men bludgeoning each other to death with heavy, and sharp, pieces of metal.
image
But it’s ultimately a film about betrayal. Prince Hal, a Crown Prince who cannot bear to take his responsibilities seriously, strings Falstaff along, making him believe that they are fast friends. But when Prince Hal becomes Henry V and Falstaff thinks he is now in the clover (“My King! My Jove! I speak to thee my heart”), the newly crowned King rejects him, literally turning his back on him (“I know thee not, old man; fall to thy prayers! How ill white hairs become a fool and jester!”).

Over the years, my wife and I have seen a number of other Shakespeare plays in film or theatre. Most, alas, have left little or no mark. Two, though, have stayed with me. One is a stage production of The Tempest directed by Giorgio Strehler, which was visually absolutely stunning. The other is Franco Zefirelli’s lush Romeo and Juliet. I don’t remember it so much for the love story – to my modern, cynical, ear, it all sounds very twee – as for the way Zeffirelli beautifully captured the edgy, ultimately tragic, banter between Mercutio and the Capulets.

image
I may be a cynical old fart, but it’s undeniable that the drama of love across forbidden barriers resonates. There’s Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story, an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet to New York’s gangs
image
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and just recently I was watching an Al Jazeera show following the production of a Romeo and Juliet adaptation in Mali, a country where it is still the norm for parents to decide whom you marry; the, mostly female, audience were captivated. 400 years on, Shakespeare is still relevant.

I’ve focused on Shakespeare the dramatist. There is also Shakespeare the writer of the sonnets. One sonnet in particular is close to my heart at this time of my life:

“That time of year thou may’st in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day,
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by-and-by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire
Consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by.
This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.”

Like I said, Shakespeare still speaks to us 400 years on. I just hope to have a few more goose-bump moments with Will before the sixth and seventh ages of man which he clinically describes kick in:

“The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slippered pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.”

___________________________
Shakespeare’s funerary monument: http://www.hollowaypages.com/Shakespearemonument.htm
Théatre du Soleil, Richard II: https://jeffberryman.com/2009/07/20/finishing-the-story-le-theatre-du-soleil/
Olivier Hamlet: http://www.fanpop.com/clubs/laurence-olivier/images/5111432/title/hamlet-photo
Olivier Henry V: http://hayhistorygroup.co.uk/new-events/2015/9/11/hay-history-weekend-henry-v-at-booths-cinema-olivier-version
Welles Othello: http://filmforum.org/film/othello-welles-film
Welles Macbeth: http://filmforum.org/film/macbeth-scottish-version-welles-film
Welles Chimes at Midnight: http://www.midnightonly.com/2015/04/12/chimes-at-midnight-1965/
Battle Chimes at Midnight: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3bWraOy6Kw4
Romeo and Juliet: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/186125397070342206/
West Side Story love: https://www.filmlinc.org/events/west-side-story/
West Side Story fight: http://cityartsonline.com/blog/2010/06/siff-review-seeing-west-side-story-first-time

INDIGO

Bangkok, 3 February 2016

After reading my last post, my wife asked me a very simple but very penetrating question: “But why are jeans blue?”

One can of course be nit-picking and respond that actually not all jeans are blue. This is undoubtedly true but let’s face it, the huge majority of jeans are dyed some shade of blue. Jeans are not called blue jeans for nothing.

One can also give the trivial answer “because blue dye is used”, which rightfully elicits the riposte “Ha-ha, very funny”. But actually, an interesting tale does hang on the dye used, which I learned while preparing the previous post and which I can’t resist recounting here.

We have to go to Europe for an answer to my wife’s question, because it was from there that the denim material used for blue jeans came to America. So what is the history of blue dye in Europe?

I was delighted to learn that the original blue dye of choice in Europe was extracted from woad. For those – I’m sure many – readers who have no idea what woad is, it is a plant native to many parts of Europe from whose leaves indigo dye can be extracted. I throw in a picture here in case any of my readers might wish to go searching for it.

woad plant

Personally, I must admit that I only knew woad as the stuff which Julius Caesar, in his De Bello Gallico, tells us the Britons smeared themselves with: “Omnes vero se Britanni vitro inficiunt, quod caeruleum efficit colorem, atque hoc horridiores sunt in pugna aspectu”, “In truth, all the Britons stain themselves with woad that occasions a bluish colour, and thereby they have a more terrible appearance in battle”. But I prefer the way it is put in that sublime history of Great Britain, “1066 And All That”: “Julius Caesar advanced energetically, throwing his cavalry several thousand paces over the River Flumen; but the Ancient Britons, although all well over military age, painted themselves true blue, or woad, and fought heroically under their dashing queen, Woadicea, as they did later in thin red lines under their good queen, Victoria.” Mel Gibson in Braveheart shows us how it should be done.

mel gibson

Trivia aside, woad was actually economically a very important crop in many parts of Medieval Europe and made some communities very wealthy. In France, for instance, the trade in the dye from woad built many of the more beautiful buildings in Toulouse

Hôtel_d'Assézat,_toulouse_(panorama)

while in Germany woad paid for the University of Erfurt, established back in 1389.

erfurt university

The indigo from woad coloured the best of medieval tapestries.

medieval tapestry

In sum, all seemed to be going swimmingly for the woad sector!

But there was a worm in the rose: the same indigo dye, but extracted from the leaves of another plant, in much larger quantities per leaf, in India.

Indigofera_tinctoria

This stuff was already arriving in small and very costly amounts onto Greek, and later Roman, markets, along those same trade routes which I’ve had cause to mention in earlier posts. Because it was so expensive it was used primarily as a pigment in paint and not as a dye of fabrics. The Greeks called it indikon, the Indian dye. The Romans latinized this to indicum, which eventually gave us our indigo. Once the Europeans rounded the Cape of Good Hope and made it safely across the Indian Ocean, they could buy the stuff directly from the producers and cut out all the middle men. Nice packets like this began to arrive in Europe in the hold of European ships.

Indian_indigo_dye_lumpThe price in the European market places duly dropped, woad producers saw their livelihoods threatened, and they resorted to the classic weapons of getting pliant governments to forbid its use (it’s called anti-dumping these days) and putting around rumours that using indigo from India severely affected the quality of the fabric. All to no avail. The higher transportation costs from India were more than offset by the much higher productivity of the Indian plant. Transportation and production costs were then further slashed when the Spaniards started growing the Indian plant in their Latin American colonies and the British in their southern American colonies (Carolina and Georgia), both with slave labour.

Indigo Processing Carolinas

The British then went on to use their early stranglehold on Bengal to create vast indigo estates, turning the local farmers into de-facto slaves in the process, which further reduced costs.

indigo processing bengal

Woad was doomed and disappeared from the scene.

But at this moment of triumph for Asian indigo, there was another worm in the rose, this time in the form of the nascent organic chemical industry. In the early 1800s, when woad was fighting its final rearguard actions against Asian indigo, Europe and North America were starting to adopt town gas to light and later heat homes and businesses. Town gas was produced from coal.

town gas manufacture

Its production also created various very nasty wastes, some of which I have stumbled across in my professional career buried in old gasworks sites. One of these wastes was coal tar, a nasty, gooey, stinking waste which looks like this.

coal tar

Chemists started dabbling with coal tar to see what they could extract from it. The breakthrough occurred in 1856 when a young British chemist by the name of Henry Perkin, while trying to make quinine from coal tar, serendipitously produced a purple dye that he later commercialized under the name mauveine.

mauveineIt must have been so thrilling, almost magic, for Mr. Perkin to extract this beautiful colour from that horrible, nasty black gunk. For sure, in the chemistry lab as a boy I found those moments when the liquid in my test tube turned a beautiful colour to be the most memorable. But perhaps Mr. Perkins only saw the commercial possibilities in this lovely mauve.

In any event, the race was on! Chemists piled in to see what other dyes (and later other organic products) they could make by fiddling around with coal tar. The Germans soon dominated the field, accounting for almost 90% of synthetic dye production at the outbreak of World War I. It took a while for synthetic indigo to be produced, because coal tar didn’t contain a suitable “carbon skeleton”. Finally, in the late 1870s, early 1880s, the German chemist Adolf Baeyer managed to find several routes to synthetic indigo. His Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1905 was partially based on this work. Chemists at the Badische Anilin und Soda-Fabrick (better known to us as BASF) came up with yet another, commercially more viable, route, and BASF marketed its first synthetic indigo in 1897. By the way, just to close the circle, BASF was created in 1865 by one Friedrich Engelhorn, who had established the gasworks for the town of Mannheim in 1861 and saw in Perkin’s discovery of mauveine a way of turning this damned coal tar waste into something useful. As BASF’s name suggests, the company initially focused on aniline-based dyes. This is the original BASF plant at Ludwigshafen in 1866.

BASF_Werk_Ludwigshafen_1866

Natural indigo was doomed. Synthetic indigo’s better quality, the greater reliability of its supplies, and its lower cost all drove natural indigo off the market, despite the usual attempts, which we’ve seen already with woad, by sympathetic governments to try and block the use of synthetic indigo by fair means or foul. In 1897, the year that synthetic indigo first came onto the market, 19,000 tons of natural indigo were produced. By 1914, this had plummeted to 1,000 tons and the free fall was not over. Asian indigo followed woad-based indigo into oblivion.

At this moment of triumph for synthetic indigo, there lurked yet another worm ready to devour the rose’s heart: other blue synthetic dyes. Indanthrene Blue RS was patented in 1901, Hydron Blue was developed in 1908, and maybe there were others – the world of textile dyes is bewilderingly complex. I’m not quite sure how these various dyes fought it out for the denim market, but in the 1950s BASF and other indigo producers seriously considered promoting other blue dyes for denim because of indigo’s poor fastness properties. This is jargon for meaning that textiles dyed with indigo tend to fade rather easily. What stopped them was the fact that this very property of fading was what was so earnestly desired by the young owners of blue jeans, the product in which indigo was most used. So indigo was saved and the worm crawled off to devour other roses. Because of the popularity of jeans, indigo is in fact king of the heap. It is the textile dye with the highest production volumes in the world, some 30,000 tons a year (when you think that most of it is used to dye jeans and that it only takes 10 grams of indigo to dye one pair of jeans, readers with good mathematical skills will quickly figure out that literally billions of jeans must be made every year).

But after that tour through the world of dyes and its cut-throat competition, I am afraid to say that I still haven’t properly answered my wife’s question: “why are jeans blue?” Why are they not red or green or black or yellow? Well I think we have established why they are blue today: because of indigo’s quirk of fading in interesting patterns. But why did the Amoskeag Mills in New Hampshire, which initially supplied Levi Strauss with his denim, use indigo dye? Despite my best efforts, I have not been able to find a satisfactory answer. I suspect it was because by the 1860s, when the mill started supplying Mr. Strauss with his denim, this particular fabric had “always” been dyed with indigo or woad or some other blue dye. “Always” seems to mean at least since the 16th Century. One article I came across says that it was at this time that blue in the UK became the poor’s colour of choice for their clothing. Judging by the paintings of the Master of the Blue Jeans, it was the colour of choice for the poor in Europe more generally.

master of the blue jeans

Why? I don’t know. I have to assume that cost was a factor, but it could also have been simply a fashion trend.

So I’m afraid that I have failed to answer my wife’s question at the deepest level. But I shall keep an eye out, and maybe one day I will come across the answer and be able to update this post. Any leads will be welcome. In the meantime, I invite my readers to enjoy some blue.

Blue Spectrum

_______________________

Woad plant: http://woad.weebly.com/uploads/1/5/7/6/1576/1436768_orig.jpg (in http://woad.weebly.com/grow.html)

Mel Gibson: http://media-cdn.timesfreepress.com/img/news/tease/2012/11/02/braveheart-3_t1070_h10b97cb70851af7b29a07a4e9321ac5de746798e.jpg (in http://www.timesfreepress.com/news/sports/columns/story/2012/nov/02/5-10-friday-mailbag-dooley-dynasties-defenses-and-/91886/)

Medieval tapestry: http://www.needlenthread.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/wool-tapestry-01.jpg (in http://www.needlenthread.com/2011/09/pins-and-woad-dyeing-of-textiles.html)

Hôtel particulier, Toulouse: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/43/H%C3%B4tel_d’Ass%C3%A9zat,_toulouse_%28panorama%29.jpg

Erfurt University: http://www.suehnekreuz.de/PHP/ewiki/sk_wiki.php?binary=internal%3A%2F%2F84cd21ee849566f965b0eeaaf15626e8.jpeg (in http://www.suehnekreuz.de/PHP/ewiki/sk_wiki.php?id=Erfurt)

Indigofera tinctoria: http://s3.amazonaws.com/sagebudphotos/INTI/Indigofera_tinctoria2_600.jpg (in http://sagebud.com/true-indigo-indigofera-tinctoria/)

Packet of natural indigo dye: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indigo_dye

Indigo processing Carolinas: https://www.unf.edu/floridahistoryonline/Plantations/images/IndigoProcessingSCMap-lg.jpg (in https://www.unf.edu/floridahistoryonline/Plantations/plantations/Indigo_Cultivation_and_Processing.htm)

Indigo processing Bengal: http://www.columbia.edu/itc/mealac/pritchett/00glossarydata/terms/indigo/iln1869.jpg (in http://eastindiacompany1600-1857.blogspot.com/2015_01_01_archive.html)

Town gas manufacturing: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/a0/Drawing_the_retorts_at_the_Great_Gas_Establishment_Brick_Lane.png (in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_manufactured_gas)

Coal tar: http://www.permastripe.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/coal-tar-16.jpg (in http://www.permastripe.com/coal-tar-parking-lot-sealer-is-it-toxic/)

Mauveine: https://lilyabsinthe.files.wordpress.com/2015/05/6233293ca7d59e6c175f596742cba93b.jpg (in http://lilyabsinthe.com/2015/05/14/mauveine/)

Old BASF plant: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/7c/BASF_Werk_Ludwigshafen_1866.JPG (in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/BASF)

Master of the Blue Jeans painting: http://images.artnet.com/images_us/magazine/reviews/karlins/karlins1-26-11-2.jpg (in http://www.artnet.com/magazineus/reviews/karlins/master-of-blue-jeans1-25-11.asp)

Blue spectrum: http://pl.wallpapersma.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/Blue-Spectrum-728×455.jpg (in http://pl.wallpapersma.com/wallpaper/blue-spectrum.html)

KEEP IT SIMPLE

Bangkok, 19 December 2015

I don’t know what it was, it seems to be happening to me more and more often as I near retirement, but a few days ago my mind wandered off the Worthy but Very Boring Thing I was working on and, light as feather, drifted away on the winds of memory to finally alight in St. George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle, which is the spiritual home of the Order of the Garter.

Yes, I know, very strange. What can I say, that’s where my mind went that day.

My wife and I had visited the chapel some nine-ten years ago. For those of my readers who have never been there, I throw in a photo that gives a generalized view of the chapel’s interior.
image
I could chirrup on about the age of the chapel, its architecture, its history. But I won’t. I invite readers who are interested in these details to go to the relevant websites. Instead, I will focus on the one thing that immediately strikes any sentient being who crosses the chapel’s threshold: the flags hanging from its walls.
image
I need to explain these flags, which in turn requires me to give a brief background to the Order of the Garter. As any English child of my generation will know, if they didn’t spend all their history classes snoozing, the Order of the Garter was created by King Edward III one evening back in the early 1300s, during a dance, when the Countess of Salisbury lost her garter. As the King picked it up, someone sniggered, and the King pronounced (in French; the English kings didn’t speak English yet) “Honi soit qui mal y pense”, which can be loosely translated as “Only dirty buggers would see anything wrong in my simply picking up a garter”. Now, why this story should have led to the creation of an Order of Chivalry (basically, a club of aristocrats), with the reigning monarchs at its head and the original kingly utterance as its motto, was not clear to me when I was a ten year old boy and is still not clear to me as a sixty-one year old adult. But there you go, it did.

The important point as far as the flags are concerned is that the members of the Order were originally all aristocrats, and as we all know one of the many things which distinguished aristocrats from the vulgar hoi polloi like us was the fact that they had the right to a coat of arms. So what we have hanging from the walls are the heraldic banners of the members of the order (which of course means that when the Order began to let in representatives of the vulgar hoi polloi these vulgar persons had to get themselves double quick a title and a coat of arms).

For the purpose of my story, there is another important point to make about the Order’s membership. From the start, there could only be 24 members in addition to the sovereign and the Prince of Wales, and of course the members were only English (and later British). But George III started adding “supernumerary” members, to deal with the pressing problem of him having a whole bunch of sons who all wanted to be members. Then he had the bright idea of adding the Emperor of Russia as a supernumerary member, after which various other members of European royal families got added, then more exotic royalty like the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire and the King of Persia, to finish – importantly for this story – this march to the East with the Emperor of Japan in 1903. The Emperors of Japan have been members ever since (barring, understandably, the World War II years and several decades thereafter when spirits were still bruised by Japanese atrocities).

OK, so what, I hear my readers say. Well, all this allows me to vault onto one of my favourite hobby horses, my insistence that design should be simple. In this case, I am referring to the design of the members’ heraldic banners. To see what I mean, please see below the coat of arms of one of the British members, that of Gerald Grosvenor, 6th Duke of Westminster (I choose him for no other reason than he is stinking rich due to his property holdings around Grosvenor Square in London and elsewhere).
image
So complicated! So fussy! So busy! The formal heraldic description of the shield, which is what is on the banner, says it all:
“Quarterly, 1st and 4th, Azure a Portcullis with chains pendant Or on a Chief of the last between two united Roses of York and Lancaster a Pale charged with the Arms of King Edward the Confessor; 2nd and 3rd, Azure a Garb Or”.

Aïe! Contorted! Confusing! And this is not the most complicated of the Order’s members’ banners. I mean, look at the one of the good Prince of Wales
image
with its heraldic description of the shield “Quarterly 1st and 4th Gules three lions passant guardant in pale Or armed and langed Azure 2nd Or a lion rampant Gules armed and langued Azure within a double tressure flory counterflory 3rd Azure a harp Or stringed Argent overall an inescutcheon of the Royal Badge of Wales”. It hurts my eyes just to read this.

Consider, now, the banner of the Emperor of Japan, which responds to the same original need – signaling who you are on the battlefield – but adopts a completely different design principle:
image

So simple! And simply so beautiful!

The beautiful, essential simplicity of the Japanese banner immediately leapt out at me that summer morning years ago when we visited the chapel. The second photo I’ve inserted shows this, where the Emperor’s banner shines out among all the surrounding fussiness. And I have kept that memory with me ever since, as a vivid reminder of the KISS design principle: Keep It Simple, Stupid (a principle originally enunciated, interestingly enough, by the US Navy in 1960).

It must have been some fussy design which set my mind wandering those few days ago …

__________________________
St. George’s Chapel interior: https://boothancestry.wordpress.com/booth-profiles/knights-of-the-garter/
The flags:
https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/St_George%27s_Chapel,_Windsor_Castle
Duke of Westminster’s coat of arms: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Order_of_the_Garter#List_of_Founder_Knights
Prince of Wales’s coat of arms: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Order_of_the_Garter#List_of_Founder_Knights
Emperor of Japan’s standard: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Akihito

WORLD TOUR WITH MINT

Bangkok, 11th October 2015

A little while back, my wife, bored with the usual round of cooking in the tiny, stuffy, hot kitchen of our apartment and longing to spice things up a bit with some change, espied a fresh herb in the vegetable section of our local supermarket which turned out to be mint. She brought it back and for several weeks now, we have been trying chicken à la mint, pork à la mint, fresh mint in green salad, and – the subject of this post – mint in tomato-based sauce for pasta.

Let me interject here that a basic difference between me and my wife is that she is adventurous, ready to try new things, and I am timorous, fearful of the new and comfortable with the true and the tried. This is as true for food as it is for any other sphere of life. I therefore approached these experiments in our usual cuisine with some diffidence if not suspicion. Actually, apart from the fresh mint in green salad, which I forcefully suggested we not try again, it worked rather well. In the case of mint in tomato-based sauce for pasta, it worked really well. The mint added a sweet overtone to the acidity of the tomato which did wonders to the palate. I have graciously allowed this variation on a theme to be added to our culinary repertoire. It’s very easy to prepare, by the way: replace basil leaves with mint, et voilà! (or you can just add the mint to the basil leaves)

A quick whip around the internet shows me that my wife is not the only one to have stumbled onto this use of mint. Martha Stewart, no less, offers a recipe where the tomato sauce contains mint. I throw in a picture from another recipe – readers are going to have to take it on faith that the little green bits in the sauce are finely chopped mint leaves.

tomato-mint sauce

One thread in these posts of mine has been to salute the humbler ingredients in our food, those which never get much publicity but are actually the ones that make each of our dishes so special. I’ve written on lemongrass recently, and capers and anise a while back (and, at the other end of the spectrum, I’ve written very disapprovingly about the use of hot spices). So I will use this occasion to also sing the praises of mint, reviewing some of its better uses in food.

As I usually do, I began surfing around the internet to see what I could find. I was surprised to not come across a huge use of mint, at least in my part of Europe (Western Europe, to use the Cold War parlance). Of course, there is that most English of dishes, mint sauce, a wonderful, wonderful sauce to put on lamb chops. But this dish has already been the subject (or one of the subjects) of a previous post, in which I sing the praises of the sweet-and-salt combination, so I don’t feel I can go on and on about it again. I will leave readers to refer to that post and move on – but not before throwing in a picture of mint sauce with lamb chops.

lamb sauce and lamb

In my electronic wanderings, I stumbled across the following dish, which also seems incredibly English – at least, it involves peas, and since peas are in my mind as English as Big Ben or HM the Queen (one of the veggies in every meat and two veggies which I had in my youth seemed to be peas), I include it. We are talking of pea soup with mint (I give thumbnail recipes for this and other dishes that I mention at the end of the post).

pea and mint soup

I have a feeling that this soup would be good chilled, like gazpacho.

I also want to add here another dish that I came across as I went around raising electronic rocks to see what was hidden below them. It’s actually an eggplant dish from 16th Century Italy. I add it because I think it’s kind of cool to look at what our ancestors were eating. But it’s also an intriguing dish because it looks to be an ancestor of the modern dish we know as eggplant parmigiana. The big difference between the two is the absence of a tomato-based sauce in the old recipe. I suppose this difference reflects the fact that tomatoes were not yet current in Italian cuisine in the 16th Century. Instead, a mix of herbs (mint, sweet marjoram, salad Burnet, parsley, fresh fennel tips), crushed garlic, a couple of spices (cinnamon and cloves), pepper, and salt, are spread over the eggplant, and the whole is splashed with verjuice (I will let readers look that one up, as I had to) and sprinkled with sugar. Then, like eggplant parmigiana, cheese is spread over the whole. Here’s what it looks like, and the thumbnail recipe is at the end.

pomi sdegnosi

It was at this point that luck came to the rescue. As I was surfing disconsolately around the internet, I came across an interesting article entitled “Mints in Ethnic Cuisines”, written by two ladies from Texas, Madalene Hill and Gwen Barclay. I am indebted to them for much of what follows. It was they, for instance, who taught me that Greek cuisine bucks the (modern?) European trend of using little mint. It seems that Greeks use mint with wild abandon in their cuisine. The two authors mention several dishes in particular: keftedes meatballs, the yoghurt-based tzatziki sauce, the bean stew gigantes plaki, dolmas (stuffed grape vine leaves), hortopita, which is a vegetable and rice pie; even that best known of Greek dishes, moussaka, has mint in it! I give thumbnail recipes of all these dishes at the end, but here I will only post pictures of keftedes meatballs

keftedes

which can be served with the yoghurt-based tzatziki sauce as a dip

Tzatziki

I chose to put pictures of these two dishes with the hope that my wife (and I) can try to make them …

I now leave Europe behind, skimming over the waves of the Aegean Sea to the land of Lebanon, because I want to raise a cheer for that most Lebanese of dishes, tabouleh.

tabouleh

I have very fond memories of eating tabouleh in Beijing – yes, Beijing. There was a little Lebanese restaurant down the road from where we lived, run by a small, tubby Lebanese man with a twinkle in his eye. When Spring came rolling round, it was incredibly pleasant for my wife and I to sit outside the restaurant, under the barely budding trees, in the tepid heat of the midday sun, slowly working our way through a plate of tabouleh. I must say, though, I’m a little surprised that not only chopped parsley but also chopped mint is added. I’m not sure that our tubby Lebanese restaurateur was putting mint in his tabouleh. I will need to hunt down a restaurant which serves tabouleh with both mint and parsley. While I’m at it, I will also see if it serves Arab or Middle-East salad.

arabic-saladLemon segments, diced cucumber and tomatoes, the whole mixed with chopped onions, mint, and parsley. Sounds sooooo good …

I now want to arc over to the Indian subcontinent, but not before pausing for a minute in modern-day Iraq. I’m actually stopping here for Iraq’s Babylonian past. Like any self-respecting university, Yale University has a collection of cuneiform tablets, some of which, like this one, list recipes.

YBC4644

These have been translated by a Frenchman, Jean Botéro (this immediately makes me think of the Egyptologist, Professor Philémon Siclone, in the Tintin album “Les Cigares du Pharaön”

egyptologue-siclone-jpg

but I digress).

One of these, Recipe XXIII, contains mint, to whit: “Leg (of mutton) (?) meat is used. Prepare water; [add] fat […] samidu, coriander (?), cumin (?), and kanašû. Assemble (all the ingredients in the cooking vessel) and sprinkle with crushed garlic. (After cooking,) blend into the pot šuhutinnû and mint […]” As you can see, words are missing, the translation of some of the ingredients is unknown, and to make matters worse the recipe is exceedingly brief compared to our modern ones, leaving much to the skill – and imagination – of the cook. Nevertheless, Laura Kelley and a band of hardy cooks have been piecing together these telegraphic recipes from 4,000 years ago and trying them out. Many of the results are described on the web site “The Silk Road Gourmet”  I post here the picture of a modern take on Recipe XXIII, after someone concluded that šuhutinnû is probably carrot or possibly parsnip, and samidu is barley:

babylonian lamb and mint

I have added the modern version of the recipe to the thumbnail recipes below, for those who might want to try connecting gastronomically with our remote Babylonian ancestors.

After that pit stop in the fertile crescent, we go on to the Indian subcontinent, the land of chutneys – not so much the fruit-based chutneys which the colonial Brits brought back to the UK, but more vegetable-based chutneys. Here is a chutney, mint-coriander chutney, where mint takes pride of place.

mint-coriander chutney

One of the recipes I perused helpfully informs the reader that this chutney can be served with pakoras, samosas, chaat, chole, or even potato chips.

This chutney allows me to segue smoothly into another popular dish from that part of the world, raita, a cold yogurt condiment served to cut the heat of spicy dishes. And here I will throw in a picture of a cucumber-mint raita (with thumbnail recipe at the end).

cucumber-mint raita

Being based on yoghurt (or strictly speaking curds) and looking at how raitas are made, I have to think that they are (perhaps not so) distant cousins of the Greek tzatziki (which itself is part of a broader family of yoghurt-based dishes to be found from the Balkans to the Caucasus). Maybe one day I should write a post on yoghurt …

After this, I soar over the Bay of Bengal back to Thailand. Madalene Hill and Gwen Barclay say that mint is a very popular ingredient in Thai cuisine and in South-East Asian cuisine more generally. Certainly, I recently had a taste of a common use of mint here, where it joins a number of fresh vegetables being served as a side dish to be added to noodle dishes or just eaten along with other main dishes.

side dish fresh vegetables

We were saying bye-bye to a colleague and had lunch together in the office. The food was ordered from outside. My Thai colleagues informed me that most of the dishes I was trying were from the north of the country. I found it interesting to eat fresh mint leaves with some of the spicier dishes. This side dish of fresh vegetables is also common in Vietnam, and I suspect throughout South-East Asia.

I’ll finish with a dish from Thailand, yam nang mu (pork skin salad). This is actually one of many Thai “salads” in which various cuts of meat or offal are sliced small, seasoned with spicy/sour/sweet sauces, and then mixed with herbs of one variety or another. In this particular case, you season boiled, defatted pork skin (there is a cousin to this dish using pig’s ears) with fish and shrimp sauce, lime juice, sugar, and mix it all with a large amount of mint leaves, some lemongrass, some roasted rice, and a number of other ingredients (thumbnail recipe at the end).

pork skin salad

Well, that brings me to the end of my world tour following the trace of mint. There are a lot of dishes which use mint that I’ve not mentioned. I’ve also not touched on the use mint in drinks, for instance Moroccan mint tea with its spectacular pouring technique

moroccan mint tea

or the somewhat more alcoholic mint julep, a favourite of the Kentucky Derby.

mint julep

But I’ll leave these for another day. Right now, my wife is looking at her watch and at the door. Time to go.

THUMBNAIL RECIPES

Pea and mint soup: Soften some onions in a heavy pot over medium heat. Add broth and bring to a boil. Add peas, reduce heat, and simmer gently until tender. Add chopped mint leaves (and parsley if you want). Add more broth. Purée in a blender until smooth. Season with salt and pepper.

Pomi sdegnosi, or braised eggplant: Slice the eggplant lengthwise and let them steep in in lukewarm water for 30 minutes. Rinse. Submerge the eggplant slices in boiling water for about 8 minutes. Remove and drain. Dredge the eggplant slices in flour and layer the bottom of an oiled dish. Chop all of the herbs – fresh mint, marjoram, parsley, salad Burnet, fennel tips – and mix them with minced garlic, spices – cinnamon, cloves, pepper – salt, sugar, and verjuice (for which lemon juice can be substituted). Cover the eggplant with breadcrumbs, drizzle with olive oil, cover with herb/spice mixture and then with provatura cheese (mozzarella, another pulled cheese, can be substituted). Repeat for each layer of eggplant. Bake in the oven for 30 minutes. (Adapted from http://atasteofhistorywithjoycewhite.blogspot.com/2014/08/to-braise-eggplant-historic-food.html)

Keftedes: Combine ground beef, bread dunked in milk, minced onion, minced garlic, finely chopped mint and oregano, some vinegar, some beaten eggs, a small amount of grated nutmeg, salt, and pepper, and mix well. Roll the mixture into balls. Dust the balls with flour. Put them in hot oil in a pan. Brown on all sides.

Tzatziki: Peel cucumbers and dice. To draw out their water, sprinkle them with salt and let them sit for 30 minutes. Drain well. Put them in a blender, along with minced garlic, some lemon juice, some chopped mint (and some chopped dill if you wish), and a little ground black pepper. Process until well blended. Stir the result into Greek yogurt. Salt to taste. Let it stand for at least two hours before serving so flavours can blend.

Gigantes Plaki: Soak gigantes beans (giant butter beans) overnight. Cover with fresh water and bring to the boil. Simmer for a couple of hours until the beans are just tender. In parallel, gently soften chopped onions and garlic for a few minutes. Then stir in some sweet paprika, tinned tomatoes, 100ml water. Salt and pepper. Bring to the boil, then simmer for half an hour. Stir in sea kale or dandelion leaves (or chard as an alternative). Mix the cooked beans with the sauce, adding some more olive oil and chopped mint and parsley. Transfer to a casserole pan, and bake for half an hour or so until the beans are tender and the sauce thickened and bubbling. Can be served hot, warm or at room temperature.

Dolmas: In a little broth, mix ground beef and lamb with uncooked rice, minced onion and garlic, some pine nuts, chopped mint and parsley. Place rinsed grape leaves on a work surface. Place a dollop of the mixture at the center of each leaf. Tuck in the ends and roll tightly toward the leaf point. Layer the wrapped leaves in a large saucepan Cover them with broth mixed with lemon juice. Cook over low heat for three-quarters of an hour.

Moussaka: Place minced lamb, minced onions, crushed garlic, chopped mint and oregano, a couple of bay leaves and a cinnamon stick in a large frying pan and cook over a medium heat for a quarter of an hour. Stir in some flour. Add a glass of wine, canned tomatoes, some tomato purée, and bring to a simmer. Cook for half an hour, until the lamb is tender and the sauce has thickened. Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste. Set aside this meat sauce. Fry eggplant slices for a couple of minutes. Set them aside. Cook potatoes in boiling water for five minutes, then cool under running water. Prepare a white sauce as follows. Melt butter in a saucepan, stir in some flour. Cook for a few seconds, then gradually stir in milk. Add some grated parmesan and grated nutmeg. Simmer the sauce gently for 5 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Remove from the heat and stir in a beaten egg. Spoon some of the meat sauce into a shallow dish. Cover with a layer of potatoes and a layer of eggplant. Repeat the layers twice more, finishing with the eggplant. Pour over the white sauce to cover the whole in a thick, even layer. Sprinkle with a bit more parmesan. Bake in the oven until deep golden-brown and bubbling.

Hortopita: Peel, seed, and shred some pumpkin. Weight it to drain its liquid. Cook it in a skillet until it wilts and most or all of its liquid has evaporated. Transfer to a bowl. Cook in the same skillet a chopped leek and onion until also wilted. Transfer to the bowl with the pumpkin. Cook chopped chard and spinach until wilted; add to the bowl. Add the herbs – mint, sorrel, hartwort, chervil, dill, fennel leaves, parsley, and oregano – to the bowl. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Roll out a first phyllo dough ball and place it inside an oiled roasting pan. Brush with olive oil. Repeat with the second piece of dough. Spread the filling evenly over the dough. Repeat with a third sheet of dough, placing it over the filling. Brush with olive oil. Roll out the last piece of dough to a slightly smaller piece, and place it over the surface of the pie. Join the bottom and top layers of dough. Brush the top of the pie generously with olive oil. Bake until the pastry is golden and crisp. Remove and serve warm or at room temperature.

Tabouleh: Stir together some bulgur and olive oil. Pour boiling water over, and let stand for a quarter of an hour. Drain well. Toss with finely chopped mint and parsley, a couple of chopped tomatoes, half a cucumber, several tablespoons of lemon and of olive oil. Season with salt and pepper.

Arab salad: Cut segments from half of lemon free from membranes and transfer segments to a cutting board, then squeeze juice from the remaining half a lemon into bowl. Put a couple of tablespoons of lemon juice in a bowl. Add finely chopped segments of lemon. Add salt, pepper, and several tablespoons of olive oil. Whisk to combine. Stir in the remaining ingredients: diced cucumber and tomatoes, finely chopped onion, finely chopped mint and parsley.

Babylonian lamb with barley and mint: Marinate lamb steaks in soy sauce for half an hour. Sauté in oil, along with the trimmings. Remove, leaving the trimmings in the pan. Stir barley into the oil and toast for a few moments. Add cumin, coriander, and chopped garlic. Simmer until the barley is cooked. Place the lamb steaks in the pan and cook the desired degree. Add finely sliced carrots and chopped mint for a few minutes. Remove the lamb and slice. Place the carrots in a serving dish, spoon the barley over carrots, add the sliced lamb, and spoon over with the sauce. (adapted from http://lostpastremembered.blogspot.com/2011/07/onions-onions-everywhere.html)

Mint-coriander chutney: In a blender, grind together chopped mint leaves, chopped coriander, a chopped green chili (personally, I would cut out the chili, but can it be Indian without it?), a piece of ginger, a small amount of cumin, and some lemon juice, until smooth, using a little water if necessary. Salt to taste.

Cucumber-mint raita: Coarsely grate a cucumber. Squeeze dry. Whisk curds (yogurt can substitute), chopped mint, a little cumin, even less cayenne pepper in medium bowl to blend. Add cucumbers and mix well. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Yam nang mu (Pork skin salad): Boil pork skin until soft. Cool. Remove any fat from the skin. Slice the skin into thin, short slices. Mix well with a large handful of chopped mint leaves, finely minced lemongrass, lime juice, fish sauce, palm sugar, and ground roasted rice.

_______________________________

Tomato-mint sauce: http://www.seriouseats.com/images/2013/03/20130302-242913-tomato-mint-sauce.jpg (in http://www.seriouseats.com/2013/03/sauced-tomato-mint-sauce.html)

Mint sauce and lamb: http://www.maureenabood.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/Grilled-chops-platter-POST.jpg (in http://www.maureenabood.com/2012/03/29/grilled-lamb-lollipops-with-fresh-mint-sauce-chine-on/)

Pea and mint soup: http://www.epicurious.com/images/recipesmenus/2013/2013_april/51154900.jpg (in http://www.epicurious.com/recipes/food/views/minty-pea-soup-51154900)

Pomi sdegnosi: http://i.ytimg.com/vi/MgcFEo-S8WI/hqdefault.jpg (in https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MgcFEo-S8WI)

Keftedes: https://rencooks.files.wordpress.com/2009/11/100_4063.jpg (in http://ediblearia.com/2009/11/05/lamb-keftedes/)

Tzatziki: http://www.cbc.ca/inthekitchen/assets_c/2012/02/Tzatziki4563-thumb-596×350-174210.jpg (in http://www.cbc.ca/inthekitchen/2012/02/tzatziki-sauce.html)

Tabouleh: http://almarahgrill.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/tabouleh.jpg (in http://almarahgrill.com/product/tabouleh/)

Arabic salad: http://suzyeats.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/arabic-salad.jpg (in http://www.snipview.com/q/Arab_salad)

Cuneiform tablet YBC 4644: http://babylonian-collection.yale.edu/sites/default/files/images/New%20Images/YBC4644_OBV_0004.jpg (in http://babylonian-collection.yale.edu/highlights)

Egyptologist in Tintin: http://s1.e-monsite.com/2009/04/06/06/46230270a-siclone-jpg.jpg (in http://univers-tintin.e-monsite.com/pages/les-personnages/philemon-siclone.html)

Babylonian lamb and mint: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-h-K2nSXnfys/TiNFcYNVuzI/AAAAAAAACSI/5JHqnYlNzv4/s400/DSC_2266.JPG (in http://lostpastremembered.blogspot.com/2011/07/onions-onions-everywhere.html)

Mint-coriander chutney http://crumbsandtales.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/Hari-Green-Chutney-made-with-cilantro-and-mint-21.jpg (in http://crumbsandtales.com/mint-and-coriander-chutney/)

Cucumber-mint raita: https://familynaturally.files.wordpress.com/2012/02/2012-02-26_19-55-59_782.jpg (in https://familynaturally.wordpress.com/2012/02/26/raita-yogurt-with-cucumber-and-mint/)

Side dish fresh vegetables: http://thumbs.dreamstime.com/z/side-dish-vegetable-thai-restaurants-you-see-serves-hot-spicy-food-e-g-som-tam-green-papaya-salad-34668038.jpg (in http://www.dreamstime.com/royalty-free-stock-photos-side-dish-vegetable-thai-restaurants-you-see-serves-hot-spicy-food-e-g-som-tam-green-papaya-salad-image34668038)

Pork skin salad: https://c2.staticflickr.com/4/3038/3047383176_dbdea9103c.jpg (in https://www.flickr.com/photos/jakeslagle/3047383176)

Moroccan mint tea: http://lcmt.topdesert.com/content/photos/travel-guide/authentic-culinary-experiences/pouring-your-mint-tea-without-spilling-a-drop//lowcost-morocco-travel-pouring-your-mint-tea-without-spilling-a-drop1.jpg (in http://lcmt.topdesert.com/index.php?ref=ait-ben-haddou-and-ouarzazate-one-day)

Mint julep: http://ccattache.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/k17_18865809.jpg (in http://chuckcowdery.blogspot.com/2015/04/brown-forman-has-kentucky-derby-locked.html)

TOUCHING MY TOES

Bangkok, 2 August 2015

In a previous post I have mentioned the physical exercise programme which we are currently in the thick of. When I wrote it, I was discouraged by the apparent lack of progress. But now things are better. We haven’t left that vale of tears so dear to the writers of the Psalms, probably we’ll never leave it – no pain, no gain, as Jane Fonda used to trill in her workout videos of the 1980s. But we are definitely out of the darkest section of the vale and our wails and lamentations are not so shrill as they used to be.

However, there is one stretching exercise which defeats me still: touching my toes. It has always defeated me. I can never remember a moment in my life when I could touch those damned toes of mine. And as I strain and heave to touch them, with our trainer urging me on but my hamstrings and every other string and tendon and muscle in my legs screeching to me not to continue, I hear in my memory another voice urging me on, that of Mr Mortimer, the Headmaster at my boarding primary school (prep school in English parlance). This was on those occasions when he was caning me, and I had to bend down in his study to receive “six of the best” (six strokes) or, more rarely, three of the best – I was a rather naughty boy. I was ten-eleven, as I recall.

The administration of the caning was done rather ceremoniously. The boys who were to be caned would get in a nervous, muttering line at the study door at the required time (after lunch, I think), and we would be called in one after the other. The Headmaster would remind you of the crime committed, state once more the number of strokes you would receive for said crime, and then invite you to stand in one particular place, and bend down and touch your toes (“Come on, boy, you can bend down further than that!” was always what I would then hear at this juncture).
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Mr Mortimer used this kind of cane, thin and flexible
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One of my pals, Glover was his name (after all these years I still remember it … but not his first name; we called each other by our surnames), stole this cane as a memento at the end of our final term. Mr Mortimer hauled me in (I was Head Boy) and threatened to cane me with his spare if I didn’t have the original restituted. I leaned on Glover …

In any event, once you had received the caning, you politely thanked the Headmaster for it (we were English, after all), left the study, and then ran like hell. Running sort of let off the pent-up energy caused by the pain of the caning. I remember that in winter sitting on a radiator after running was also quite soothing. After the pain had dissipated you were normally left with stripes on your bottom, war wounds which you proudly displayed in the communal showers.

All this was happening at a time of great social change and ferment in the UK. We were in the mid-sixties, the Beatles were raging, the Rolling Stones were on the up-and-up, the straightened laces were being loosened: hair was growing, clothes were getting louder, skirts were getting shorter, sex was OK, drugs were coming in from the wild side. Little of this percolated through to us in primary school, buried as we were in the depths of Somerset, but when I moved to my boarding secondary school (public school in English parlance) in 1967, I found the winds of change blustering their way down the school’s corridors. Just as a small example, in my first year the Head of School would march around with a phalanx of school monitors, looking grim and army-like. By my third year, the Head of School was a nice, approachable guy who would actually smile. And beating (not caning; since we were now bigger, a bigger, thicker stick was used), was already rare when I arrived, and vanished within a few years.

But not before I was beaten! I believe I and my pal Mike Wallace (another sign of the changing times; we now called ourselves by our first names) were the last boys in the school to be beaten. It was 1969, maybe 1970. In brief, we were caught sneaking back into school with a bottle of wine which we had bought at an off-license even though we were underage. But that wasn’t why we were beaten. Our real crime was that we had skipped a meeting called by the Headmaster for all exam sitters; it had been especially emphasized that there were to be no excuses for not attending. Our Housemaster was instructed to administer the punishment. He beat Mike and me with a swagger stick, one of those things which British officers would tuck under their arm and … well, swagger about with.
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This is what the stick looks like closer up.
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I didn’t have to touch my toes this time. An armchair was thoughtfully placed against the bookshelf whose arms we grasped as we leaned over.
imageWe got four strokes as I recall. And of course we politely thanked our Headmaster at the end.

That was my last brush with corporal punishment.

Was I psychologically scarred by my canings and beatings at school? Honestly, I don’t think so. They were not administered in a sadistic, or even in a cruel or vindictive, way. They were not administered in public. They were for crimes truly committed, so they were not unfair. The pain was not intense or long-lasting. They were on a par with punishments I received at home – my father used to beat me with a wooden metre ruler when I was extra-naughty as a small child, which seems to have been quite often. But, when I’m there, straining and heaving to touch my damned toes, urged on by our trainer, those memories of the little me bending over to receive my canings do come flooding back, along with the butterflies which fluttered in my stomach during the final moments before the cane came swishing down.

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Caning: http://usercontent2.hubimg.com/2456657_f520.jpg (in http://wordperfect.hubpages.com/hub/Why-I-Am-For-Caning-Children-Forever)
Cane: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-aS6kKXlL6VA/U1htg4LgSII/AAAAAAAAAFI/WPW3oZATxEM/s1600/article-2455291-0019D14100000258-114_634x338.jpg (in http://zainal-1932.blogspot.com)
Officer with swagger stick: http://www.alldressedup.net/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/img336-Copy1.jpg (in http://www.alldressedup.net/costume-list/halloween/429-2/character-costumes/costume-images/uniforms/british-army-officer/)
Swagger stick: http://usarmy.vo.llnwd.net/e2/c/images/2013/04/25/292553/size0.jpg (in http://www.army.mil/article/101913)
Beating over an armchair: http://www.corpun.com/16283as.jpg (in http://www.corpun.com/uks00508.htm)