Mar 202017
 

The March Equinox occurs in most places on this day. Every year I get irked by the ethnocentrism of people when the equinoxes or solstices come.  Let’s begin with the name.  I call it the March Equinox because it occurs in March all over the world.  In the northern hemisphere it is the vernal (Spring) equinox and in the southern hemisphere it is the autumnal equinox. It would be the height of ethnocentrism to call this post The Vernal Equinox.  That’s leaving out half the world.  Today is the day, the world over, when day and night are almost equal in length.  Here in Mantua the day is 8 minutes longer than the night.  More importantly, today is the day when the sun is directly overhead at the equator – briefly – and that is the actual moment of the equinox.  It occurs at 10:29 UTC (universal time) this year (2017).  An equinox or a solstice is not a day on the calendar, but a moment in time on a specific day.  But it gets more complicated.

Facebook greeted me when I woke up this morning with a cheery message “It’s the first day of Spring.” Leaving aside the fact that it’s autumn in the southern hemisphere, it’s not the first day of anything.  Judging the passage of the seasons by celestial events is ludicrous.  Look around you !!  At the beginning of March here in northern Italy the temperatures were moderating, daffodils were blooming, trees were budding, and migratory birds were starting to appear. SPRING HAD ARRIVED.  I expect that back in my old home in the Catskills in New York they’re still buried in feet of snow. I mean . . . if you want to measure the arrival of the seasons by dates on the calendar, go ahead – but I think it’s a stupid custom. At the very least it points out that a lot of people gauge the world around them by what they are told on mass media, rather than by what their bodies tell them: a sad state of affairs that I am unlikely to do much to change.  For me, Spring comes when it comes, not when the calendar tells me it’s here.  My body tells me that Spring has been here for at least 2 weeks.

Why are there FOUR seasons anyway?  Why not two? [Or in some parts of the world, none]. There are many cultures in the world that divide the year into the warm season and the cold season. That seems perfectly reasonable to me, although I understand the feeling of transition from one to the other, and the desire to give those times of transition special names. Parceling the seasons into exactly 3-month periods makes no sense to me. Winters in Buenos Aires and Mantua are quite short, and the summers long. Some parts of the world, SE Asia for example, traditionally divide the year into the rainy season and the dry season.

All in all, therefore, if you want to claim that today is the first day of Spring because that’s what the calendar says, even though you are neck deep in snow, or sunbathing, go ahead. I’ll pay attention to what my body feels.

For some time the March Equinox was the date for celebrating Earth Day.  The underlying theme was that on the equinox the world evens out for a moment – everywhere in the world day and night are of equal length. John McConnell first introduced the idea of a global holiday called “Earth Day” at the 1969 UNESCO Conference on the Environment to be held on the March Equinox. The first Earth Day proclamation was issued by San Francisco Mayor Joseph Alioto on March 21, 1970. Celebrations were held in various cities, such as San Francisco and in Davis, California with a multi-day street party. UN Secretary-General U Thant supported McConnell’s global initiative to celebrate this annual event; and on February 26, 1971, he signed a proclamation to that effect, saying:

May there be only peaceful and cheerful Earth Days to come for our beautiful Spaceship Earth as it continues to spin and circle in frigid space with its warm and fragile cargo of animate life.

United Nations secretary-general Kurt Waldheim observed Earth Day with similar ceremonies on the March equinox in 1972, and the United Nations Earth Day ceremony has continued each year since on the day of the March equinox (the United Nations also works with organizers of the April 22 global event). Margaret Mead added her support for the equinox Earth Day, and in 1978 wrote:

Earth Day is the first holy day which transcends all national borders, yet preserves all geographical integrities, spans mountains and oceans and time belts, and yet brings people all over the world into one resonating accord, is devoted to the preservation of the harmony in nature and yet draws upon the triumphs of technology, the measurement of time, and instantaneous communication through space.

Earth Day draws on astronomical phenomena in a new way – which is also the most ancient way – by using the vernal Equinox, the time when the Sun crosses the equator making the length of night and day equal in all parts of the Earth. To this point in the annual calendar, EARTH DAY attaches no local or divisive set of symbols, no statement of the truth or superiority of one way of life over another. But the selection of the March Equinox makes planetary observance of a shared event possible, and a flag which shows the Earth, as seen from space, appropriate.

She does slip and say “vernal Equinox” once, but she is trying to say that celebrating the equinox is unifying, not divisive.

At the moment of the equinox, it is traditional to observe Earth Day by ringing the Japanese Peace Bell, which was donated by Japan to the United Nations. Over the years, celebrations have occurred in various places worldwide at the same time as the UN celebration. On March 20, 2008, in addition to the ceremony at the United Nations, ceremonies were held in New Zealand, and bells were sounded in California, Vienna, Paris, Lithuania, Tokyo, and many other locations. Nowadays peace bells all over the world ring out on this day.

I have to give a recipe that uses equal parts of its ingredients to celebrate the equinox..  There aren’t a great number, it is true.  My apple crumble topping uses equal parts of its ingredients, but I have given that recipe already.  Another one is the classic pound cake.  The French call pound cake quatre-quarts (four quarters) because the basic recipe uses equal parts of four ingredients – eggs, flour, butter, and sugar.  Equal parts means equal by volume in this case.  I’m going to leave it up to you what actual measurements you want to use and also how you want to combine the ingredients. Typically you beat the butter and sugar together until they are sufficiently creamed, then add the eggs one at a time, and finally fold in the flour.  You’ll also need a pinch of salt and some flavoring (usually vanilla).  If you separate the eggs and beat the yolks and whites separately to a froth, and fold them in to your batter gently, you’ll end up with a sponge cake. Extra ingredients are up to you.  Candied fruits make a nice addition, as does lemon zest.

 

Mar 182017
 

Today is the birthday (1844) of Nikolai Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov (Никола́й Андре́евич Ри́мский-Ко́рсаков) a Russian composer who was a member of the group of composers known as The Five or The Mighty Handful: a late 19th century group intent on promoting a distinctively Russian style of music. I have covered two other members here:

Borodin: http://www.bookofdaystales.com/alexander-borodin/

Mussorgsky: http://www.bookofdaystales.com/modest-mussorgsky/

Rimsky-Korsakov was known among The Five as a master of orchestration. His best-known orchestral compositions—Capriccio Espagnol, the Russian Easter Festival Overture, and the symphonic suite Scheherazade—are staples of the classical music repertoire, along with suites and excerpts from some of his 15 operas. Scheherazade is an example of his frequent use of folk subjects with magical components. Rimsky-Korsakov believed in developing a nationalistic style of classical music. This style employed Russian traditional lore married to exotic harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic elements and only reluctantly used traditional Western compositional methods. Rimsky-Korsakov appreciated Western musical techniques more after he became professor of musical composition, harmony and orchestration at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory in 1871. He undertook a rigorous three-year program of self-education and became a master of Western methods, incorporating them alongside the influences of Mikhail Glinka and fellow members of The Five.

For much of his life, Rimsky-Korsakov combined his composition and teaching with a career in the Russian military—at first as an officer in the Imperial Russian Navy, then as the civilian Inspector of Naval Bands. He wrote that he developed a passion for the ocean in childhood from reading books and hearing of his older brother’s exploits in the navy. This love of the sea probably influenced him to write two of his best-known orchestral works, the musical tableau Sadko (not to be confused with his later opera of the same name) and Scheherazade. Through his service as Inspector of Naval Bands, Rimsky-Korsakov expanded his knowledge of woodwind and brass playing, which enhanced his abilities in orchestration. He passed this ability to his students, and also posthumously through a textbook on orchestration that was completed by his son-in-law, Maximilian Steinberg.

Rimsky-Korsakov left a considerable body of original Russian nationalist compositions. He prepared works by The Five for performance, which brought them into the active classical repertoire, and shaped a generation of younger composers and musicians during his decades as a teacher. Rimsky-Korsakov is therefore often considered to be the main architect of what the art music world considers the Russian style of composition.  These days I have two problems with Rimsky-Korsakov’s activities in this sphere. On the one hand, his orchestrations of works by other members of The Five, notably Mussorgsky’s, is often considered as meddling these days, and it is sometimes difficult to find the original that Mussorgsky intended under Rimsky-Korsakov’s “improvements.”  On the other hand, nationalism in its many forms is toxic to my soul, not least Russian nationalism (although I hate it wherever it lives). I can certainly appreciate the desire on the part of young Russian composers to break away from the mold of what they saw as German or Italian styles of music, but the nationalism of The Five (as noted below) can get a bit too heavy handed for my tastes at times.

Rimsky-Korsakov is sometimes seen as a transitional figure between the generally self-taught members of The Five and the professionally trained composers who became the norm in Russia by the closing years of the 19th century. Rimsky-Korsakov’s style greatly influenced two generations of Russian composers, but also non-Russian composers such as Maurice Ravel, Claude Debussy, Paul Dukas, and Ottorino Respighi.

For the sake of brevity I am going to focus on Rimsky-Korsakov’s most popular piece “The Flight of the Bumblebee” which is very frequently played on its own as a bravura solo. Isolating the piece from its operatic context and from its original scoring does it an injustice in my humble opinion. Let’s start with a fairly standard solo version for trumpet, preceded by a worthy pep talk from the soloist.

This is familiar stuff, whatever the solo instrument may be.  But Bumblebee is a small, one might say insignificant, part of a large-scale operatic treatment by Rimsky-Korsakov of a Russian folk tale from Pushkin. Pushkin’s original is known in English as The Tale of Tsar Saltan, of His Son the Renowned and Mighty Bogatyr Prince Gvidon Saltanovich, and of the Beautiful Princess-Swan.  The première of Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera was held in Moscow on 3 November (O.S. 21 October) 1900 at the Solodovnikov Theatre.

Pushkin’s narrative, adapted by Rimsky-Korsakov is as follows:

The tale concerns three sisters whom the tsar spies on. He chooses the youngest as his bride (tsaritsa) because when he overhears them discussing what they would do if the tsar were to marry them, the eldest says she would make a sumptuous feast, the middle sister says she would weave fine cloth, and the youngest says she would bear him a son. When he chooses to marry the youngest, he orders the other two sisters to be his royal cook and weaver. They become jealous of their younger sister, so when the tsar goes off to war and the tsaritsa gives birth to a son, Prince Gvidón, the elder sisters arrange to have the tsaritsa and the child sealed in a barrel and thrown into the sea. The sea takes pity on them and casts them on the shore of a remote island, Buyan. The son, having quickly grown while in the barrel, goes hunting. He ends up saving an enchanted swan from a kite bird.

The swan creates a city for Prince Gvidon to rule, but he is homesick, so the swan turns him into a mosquito to help him. In this guise, he visits Tsar Saltan’s court, where he stings his aunt in the eye and escapes. Back in his realm, the swan gives Gvidon a magical squirrel. But he continues to pine for home, so the swan transforms him again, this time into a fly. In this guise Prince Gvidon visits Saltan’s court again and he stings his older aunt in the eye. The third time, the Prince is transformed into a bumblebee and stings the nose of his grandmother.

In the end, The Prince expresses a desire for a bride instead of his old home, at which point the swan is revealed to be a beautiful princess, whom he marries. He is visited by the tsar, who is overjoyed to find his newly married son and daughter-in-law.

In the opera, “The Flight of the Bumblebee” is a musical interlude in Act 3 between scenes 1 and 2 representing the prince’s initial transformation into a bumblebee and his flight to the ship that will carry him to his homeland. In the opera, the Swan-Bird sings during the first part of the “Flight” but her vocal line is melodically unrelated and so can easily be omitted. Because of this feature and the fact that this section conclusively ends scene 1, it can stand alone.  Here is a link to the full opera. I find the heavy-handed nationalism a little hard to stomach, but it is useful to hear “Flight” in its musical context.  You’ll find it at 1.27.00.  If you rewind to 1.25.00 you’ll hear the lead in, and be able to note the leitmotifs that appear in various places throughout the opera, and which are incorporated in “Flight.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FsqZU9y1FMk

For my money “Flight” sounds much richer and more fully developed as an orchestral piece than as a solo act. Here it is extracted  from the opera:

What do you think?

For Borodin and Mussorgsky I gave full blooded Russian recipes from St Petersburg, so there is no need to alter course with Rimsky-Korsakov.  I have chosen pirozhki (Пирожки) for today – a savory or sweet  bread-dough encased pastry that can be baked or fried.  In keeping with Rimsky-Korsakov’s fame as a master of orchestration I am going to give you a choice of three fillings and instructions for baking or frying. In truth they can be stuffed with all manner of things: meat, cabbage, fish, rice, fruit, etc. Take your pick. You can make a decidedly Russian lunch by serving pirozhki with borshcht.

Pirozhki

Ingredients

Dough

1 (⅜ oz) package dry yeast
¼ cup warm water
2 tbsp sugar
1 tsp salt
1 ½ cups milk
1 egg, beaten
¼ cup oil or butter
4 ½ cups flour

Filling #1 (Braised Cabbage)

1 large onion, peeled and diced
2 carrots, peeled and grated
1 tsp paprika
1 small head cabbage, shredded
10 white mushrooms, diced
salt and pepper
3 cloves garlic cloves, finely minced
1 red bell pepper, cored and diced

Filling #2 (Beef and Onion)

1 lb ground beef
1 onion, peeled and finely chopped
1 tbsp flour
½ cup stock
3 tbsp sour cream
2 hard-boiled eggs, chopped
3 tbsp fresh dill, chopped
salt and black pepper

Filling #3 (fruit)

2 ¾ cups peeled, cored and finely diced apples
¼ cup sugar
lemon juice

oil for frying (if necessary)
beaten egg (if necessary)

Instructions

Dough

Dissolve the yeast in the warm water and let it stand 10 minutes.

In a large bowl, combine the flour, sugar and salt. Make a well in the flour and add the milk, egg, oil and yeast. Combine to make a soft dough. Knead for about 10 minutes.

Place the dough in a lightly greased bowl cover with a tea towel and let rise until doubled in size (one half hour to one hour).

Filling #1

Sauté the carrots, onion, mushrooms and bell pepper in a large pan with a tablespoon of butter or oil over medium heat until the onion is translucent. Add the garlic and cook for one more minute. Add the cabbage, paprika, and salt and pepper to taste. Cover the pan and cook over medium heat for about 20 minutes or until the cabbage is tender. Set aside to cool.

Filling #2

Brown the beef in a dry skillet over high heat, then add the onions and continue to cook the mixture for a few minutes until the onions have softened. Combine the flour with the stock and pour over the meat.  Reduce the heat and simmer gently until the sauce has thickened. Remove from the heat.

Add the sour cream, boiled eggs, dill, and salt and pepper to taste and stir thoroughly to mix.  Set aside to cool.

Filling #3

Toss the apples and sugar in a mixing bowl with some lemon juice to prevent browning. Set aside.

To Bake

Pre-heat the oven to 350°F.

Pinch off a golf-ball sized piece of dough, flatten it with your fingers or roll it out in a circle to ⅛” thickness. Place 2 tablespoons of filling in the center and bring the opposite edges of circle together. Pinch the seam securely. (The traditional shape is a plump center with tapering ends). Repeat.

Let the pirozhkis rise on a lightly greased baking tray, seam side down, for 30 minutes.

Brush with beaten egg and bake until golden brown (approx 20 minutes). Serve warm.

To Fry

Heat your deep fryer to 360°F.

Roll out dough circles as for baked pirozhki and fill them in the same way, making sure the seam is tight and no filling is in the seam. Deep fry them in batches immediately until they are golden (that is, do not let them rise).  Drain on wire racks and serve warm.

Mar 172017
 

Today is the birthday (1880) and also, possibly, the date of the death (1912) of Captain Lawrence Edward Grace “Titus” Oates, an English army officer, and later an Antarctic explorer, who died during the Terra Nova Expedition led by Scott. I gave a reasonably detailed accounting of the Terra Nova Expedition here — http://www.bookofdaystales.com/robert-falcon-scott/ — so there’s no need to repeat it.  The members of the Expedition died on their return journey due to an unfortunate combination of errors in judgment and bad luck. There’s no point in rehashing all the details.  No one can doubt the courage of all the men who made it to the pole, and the death of Oates has always stood out in my memory: rightly so. Scott ensured his immortality via his journal.

Oates was born in Putney, London, the son of William and Caroline Oates. His family inherited old money, having had land at Gestingthorpe, Essex, for centuries. His father moved the family there when his children were small after succeeding to the Manor of Over Hall, Gestingthorpe. Oates lived in Putney from 1885–91, from the ages of 5 to 11 at 263 Upper Richmond Road. He was one of the first pupils to attend the prep Willington School around the corner in Colinette Road. He was further educated at Eton College, which he left after less than two years owing to ill health. He then attended an army “crammer” in Eastbourne. His father died of typhoid fever in Madeira in 1896 when Oates was aged 16.

In 1898, Oates was commissioned into the 3rd (Militia) Battalion of the West Yorkshire Regiment. He saw military service during the Second Boer War as a junior officer in the 6th (Inniskilling) Dragoons, having been transferred to that regiment as a second lieutenant in May 1900. He took part in operations in the Transvaal, the Orange River Colony, and Cape Colony. In March 1901, he suffered a gunshot wound to his left thigh which shattered his leg and, when it healed, left it an inch shorter than his right leg. He was recommended for the Victoria Cross for his actions and was brought to public attention at the time.

He was promoted to lieutenant on 8 February 1902, and left Cape Town for England in June that year, after peace had been signed in South Africa the previous month. He was mentioned in despatches by Lord Kitchener in his final despatch dated 23 June 1902. He was promoted to captain in 1906. He later served in Ireland, Egypt, and India. He was often referred to by the nickname “Titus Oates,” after the notorious perjurer – English humor !! In the history books that I read as a boy he was always called “Titus” and I am sure that part of it had to do with the fact that he was legendarily strong and fit.

In 1910, he applied to join Robert Falcon Scott’s expedition to the South Pole, and was accepted mainly on the strength of his experience with horses and, to a lesser extent, his ability to make a financial contribution of £1,000 (over £50,000 in modern currency) towards the expedition. Nicknamed “the soldier” by his fellow expedition members, his role was to look after the nineteen ponies that Scott intended to use for sledge hauling during the initial food depot-laying stage and the first half of the trip to the South Pole. Scott eventually selected him as one of the five-man party who would travel the final distance to the Pole.

Oates disagreed with Scott many times on issues of management of the expedition. ‘Their natures jarred on one another,’ a fellow expedition member recalled. When he first saw the ponies that Scott had brought on the expedition, Oates was horrified at the £5 animals, which he said were too old for the job and ‘a wretched load of crocks.’ He later said: ‘Scott’s ignorance about marching with animals is colossal.’ He also wrote in his diary “Myself, I dislike Scott intensely and would chuck the whole thing if it were not that we are a British expedition….He [Scott] is not straight, it is himself first, the rest nowhere…” However, he also wrote that his harsh words were often a product of the hard conditions. Scott, less harshly, called Oates “the cheery old pessimist” and wrote “The Soldier takes a gloomy view of everything, but I’ve come to see that this is a characteristic of him”.

Captain Scott, Captain Oates and 14 other members of the expedition set off from their Cape Evans base camp for the South Pole on 1 November 1911. At various pre-determined latitude points during the 895-mile (1,440 km) journey, the support members of the expedition were sent back by Scott in teams until on 4 January 1912, at latitude 87° 32′ S, only the five-man polar party of Scott, Edward A. Wilson, Henry R. Bowers, Edgar Evans and Oates remained to walk the last 167 miles (269 km) to the Pole. On 18 January 1912, 79 days after starting their journey, they finally reached the Pole only to discover a tent that Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen and his four-man team had left behind at their Polheim camp after beating them in the race to be first to the Pole. Inside the tent was a note from Amundsen informing them that his party had reached the South Pole on 14 December 1911, beating Scott’s party by 35 days.

Scott’s party faced extremely difficult conditions on the return journey, mainly due to the exceptionally adverse weather, poor food supply, injuries sustained from falls, and the effects of scurvy and frostbite, all slowing their progress. On 17 February 1912, near the foot of the Beardmore glacier, Edgar Evans died, suspected by his companions to be the result of a blow to his head suffered during a fall into a crevasse a few days earlier. Oates’s feet had become severely frostbitten and it has been suggested (but never evidenced) that his war wound had re-opened due to the effects of scurvy. He was certainly weakening faster than the others. In his diary entry of 5th March, Scott wrote “Oates’ feet are in a wretched condition… The poor soldier is very nearly done.”

Oates’ slower progress, coupled with the unwillingness of his three remaining companions to leave him, was causing the party to fall behind schedule. With an average of 65 miles (105 km) between the pre-laid food depots and only a week’s worth of food and fuel provided by each depot, they needed to maintain a march of over 9 miles (14 km) a day to have full rations for the final 400 miles (640 km) of their return journey across the Ross Ice Shelf. However, 9 miles (14 km) was about their best progress any day and this had lately reduced to sometimes only 3 miles (4.8 km) a day due to Oates’ worsening condition. On 15 March, Oates told his companions that he could not go on and proposed that they leave him in his sleeping-bag, which they refused to do. He managed a few more miles that day but his condition worsened that night.

Waking on the morning of 16th March, Oates walked out of the tent into a blizzard, and −40 °F (−40 °C) temperatures, to his death. Scott wrote in his diary, “We knew that poor Oates was walking to his death, but though we tried to dissuade him, we knew it was the act of a brave man and an English gentleman.” Oates’ sacrifice, however, made no difference to the eventual outcome.

Scott, Wilson, and Bowers continued onwards for a further 20 miles (32 km) towards the ‘One Ton’ food depot that could save them but were halted at latitude 79°40’S by a fierce blizzard on 20th March. Trapped in their tent by the weather and too weak, cold and malnourished to continue, they eventually died nine days later, only eleven miles short of their objective. Their frozen bodies were discovered by a search party on 12 November 1912. Oates’s body was never found. Near where he was presumed to have died, the search party erected a cairn and cross bearing the inscription; “Hereabouts died a very gallant gentleman, Captain L. E. G. Oates, of the Inniskilling Dragoons. In March 1912, returning from the Pole, he walked willingly to his death in a blizzard, to try and save his comrades, beset by hardships.” According to Scott’s diary, before Oates exited the tent and walked to his death, he uttered the words “I am just going outside and may be some time.”

We cannot be sure if Oates survived long enough to actually die on his birthday or succumbed the day before. If he died on his birthday he is in good company.  Shakespeare is often said to have been born and died on the same day (ironically, St George’s Day), but his date of birth is only presumed from his baptismal date. We have a similar problem with the Renaissance painter Raphael. Much more assured cases are Ingrid Bergman, Merle Haggard, Betty Friedan, and FDR. I’m not sure how I feel about dying on my birthday. I think it would be fine as long as I was having a party, surrounded by friends, and well into my 90s.

I think it’s a bit morbid to give a recipe for polar survival food on this date given that malnourishment was one of the causes of the party’s slow progress and ultimate death. Besides, I’ve given quite a few already. Instead let’s be a bit more cheery and think about traditional Essex recipes, the county where the Oates family had their hereditary seat. Many Essex recipes focus on oysters and seafood because of the county’s coastline and (former) abundant fisheries. But Gestingthorpe is well inland in farm country, so a farm recipe is in order.  Essex traditional food is not exactly bright with well-known favorites, but there are a few of note.  Essex meat layer pudding looks like a winner.  I will confess that I have not tried it yet, but I will have a go over the weekend and update the post with photos if I have any success. Right now the problem is that suet is impossible to find in Mantua, and I don’t have a pudding basin. The unusual thing about this pudding is that the suet pastry is layered into it, rather than surrounding the pudding.   Judging from the various recipes I’ve read, you can use whatever meat suits.  A mix of pork, veal, and chicken (or 2 out of the 3) is quite common.  This recipe is my version of one taken from this site — https://www.essextouristguide.co.uk/information/in-the-news/articleid/69/favourite-essex-recipes  It looks trustworthy, but I’ve modified it a bit based on experience with steamed puddings.  You can use ground or chopped meat as you prefer.

Essex Meat Layer Pudding

Ingredients

Pastry:

6 oz. flour
¼ tsp salt
3 oz. shredded suet
¼ cup cold water (approx)

Filling:

1 tbsp butter
2 onions, peeled and sliced
½ lb. ground pork
½ lb. minced veal (or chicken)
1 tsp dried sage
1 tsp dried oregano
1 tbsp chopped chives
1 tsp celery salt
1 tbsp flour
2 egg yolks,
2 tbsp heavy cream
salt and pepper

Instructions

For the pastry, sift the flour and salt into a bowl and mix in the suet. Add just enough water to make a stiff but pliable dough. Wrap in foil or greaseproof paper and chill in the refrigerator whilst you make the filling.

For the filling, sauté the onions in butter in a heavy skillet over medium heat, stirring frequently, until they are golden. Add the meats, herbs, seasonings and flour. Continue to sauté for 5 minutes stirring well, then remove the pan from heat. Beat together the egg yolks and cream and add them to the meat mixture. Sauté over low heat for an additional 5 minutes, stirring frequently.

Butter a 2½ pint pudding basin, line it with foil,  greaseproof paper, or (best) cheesecloth. Butter this lining as well.

Roll out the dough on a floured surface to a thickness of about ¼-inch. Cut a small circle to fit the bottom of the basin and put it in place. Spoon on a layer of meat mixture (about 1½-inches deep) then add another circle of dough to fit. (As you proceed you will need to push the scraps of dough together and roll them out again).  Add another layer of meat. Continue until the filling and dough have been used up, finishing with layer of dough. There should be 3 layers of meat mixture. There should be some room at the top of the basin so that the dough can expand while steaming.

Cover the top of the basin with greaseproof paper or pull up the cheesecloth around the top. Then seal the top with foil.  Steam for about 4 hours. [I am a little iffy about this length of time. I will know better when I try it. 3 hours ought to be enough, but 4 hours won’t hurt, especially if you use chopped rather than ground meat.]

Serves 4

Mar 162017
 

Today is commemorated in Lithuania as Knygnešio diena (Book Smugglers Day). The book smugglers were an important part of the Lithuanian National Revival. Book smuggler Jurgis Bielinis, who created a secret distribution network for banned Lithuanian books, was born on 16 March 1846, hence the date of commemoration.

In the late 19th century, smugglers transported Lithuanian language books printed in the Latin alphabet into Lithuanian-speaking areas of the Russian Empire, defying a ban on such materials in force from 1864 to 1904. The book smugglers (Lithuanian: knygnešys, or plural knygnešiai, Polish: kolporterzy książek) opposed imperial Russian authorities’ efforts to replace the traditional Latin orthography with Cyrillic, and transported printed matter from as far away as the United States to do so, becoming a symbol of Lithuanians’ resistance to Russification.  A want to salute them today as a general tribute to ALL people who resist tyranny, especially attempts to control ethnic populations through policies of enforced homogeneity.

After the Polish-Lithuanian insurrection of 1863, the Russian Imperial government intensified its efforts to Russify the Lithuanian population and alienate it from its historic roots, including the Roman Catholic faith, which had become widespread during the years of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. During the summer of 1863 Tsar Alexander II issued Temporary Rules for State Junior Schools of the Northwestern Krai, ruling that only Russian-language education would be allowed there. In 1864, the Governor General of the Vilnius Governorate, Mikhail Muravyov, ordered that Lithuanian language primers were to be printed only in the Cyrillic alphabet. Muravyov’s successor, Konstantin Kaufman, in 1865 banned all Lithuanian-language use of the Latin alphabet. In 1866, the Tsar issued an oral ban on the printing or importing of printed matter in Lithuanian. Although de jure the order had no legal force, it was executed de facto until 1904. During this time, there were approximately 55 printings of Lithuanian books in Cyrillic.

Most of the Latin-alphabet Lithuanian-language books and periodicals published at the time were printed in Lithuania Minor and then smuggled into Lithuania. When caught, the book smugglers were punished by fines, banishment, and exile, including deportation to Siberia. Some were simply shot in the head while crossing the border or executed on the spot.

In 1867, Motiejus Valančius, the Bishop of Žemaitija, began to covertly organize and finance this printing abroad and sponsored the distribution of Lithuanian-language books within Lithuania. In 1870, his organization was uncovered with the help of Prussian authorities, and five priests and two book smugglers were exiled to remote areas of Russia. Other book smugglers carried on his work.

During the final years of the ban, an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 books were smuggled in annually. About one-third of them were seized by authorities. Lithuanian books reached every settlement in Lithuania, and many legal institutions served as undercover transfer points for the books. A number of secret organizations distributed the books throughout Lithuania, including Sietynas, Atgaja, Teisybė, Prievarta, Aušrinė, Atžala, Lizdas, Akstinas, Spindulys, Svirplys, Žiburėlis, Žvaigždė, and Kūdikis.

The ban’s lack of success was recognized by the end of the 19th century, and in 1904, under the official pretext that the minorities within the Russian Empire needed to be pacified after the Russo-Japanese War, the ban on Lithuanian-language publications was lifted. In 1905, soon after the ban was lifted, one of the book smugglers, Juozas Masiulis, opened his own bookstore in Panevėžys. This bookstore is still operational, and a chain of bookstores operates in Lithuania under his name.

This historical episode was widely suppressed during the years when Lithuania was occupied by the Soviet Union. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, book smugglers were honored in Lithuania with museums, monuments, and street names. A statue dedicated to “The Unknown Book Smuggler” stands in Kaunas.

Cepelinai (lit. ‘zeppelins’; singular: cepelinas) or didžkukuliai is a traditional Lithuanian dish of stuffed potato dumplings. The dumplings are made from grated and mashed potatoes and stuffed with ground meat or dry cottage cheese (curd) or mushrooms. They are often served with a cream sauce and bacon bits. It is sometimes called the national dish of Lithuania. Brown button mushrooms have various names throughout the world. I call them crimini mushrooms but they are also known as Swiss brown mushrooms, Roman brown mushrooms, Italian brown mushrooms, brown cap mushrooms, or chestnut mushrooms.  They are used in this recipe but it’s no great disaster to use white button mushrooms instead. A normal Lithuanian main dish would be two dumplings, plus sauce, plus vegetables, plus bread. One dumpling is enough for me.

Cepelinai

Ingredients

400g waxy potatoes
1 large egg, beaten
3 shallots, peeled and chopped
250g  ground pork
½ tsp ground caraway seeds
1 clove garlic, peeled and crushed
plain flour
2 tbsp dried porcini mushrooms
1 tsp butter
200g crimini mushrooms, sliced
200g crème fraîche
2 strips streaky bacon
fresh dill, chopped
salt

Instructions

Divide the potatoes into 2 batches. Peel one batch and dice them small. Boil for 15 to 20 minutes until they are tender. Drain and mash them.

Peel and finely grate the remaining potatoes. Place them in a large bowl lined with a clean tea towel. Bring the edges of the tea towel together and squeeze tightly to expel any liquid.  Keep 2 tablespoons of this juice and discard the rest.

In another large mixing bowl, add the reserved potato juice, the grated potato, mashed potato, and half of the beaten egg. Beat everything together well and season to taste with salt. Set aside to cool, then chill while you prepare the filling.

Mix together the one-third of the shallots, ground pork, caraway seeds, garlic, remaining egg and salt to taste.

Mix 1 tablespoon of flour into the potato mixture and divide it into 8. Dust the work surface and your hands with flour. Lightly shape the potato dough into flat, round patties, approximately 1cm thick. Divide the pork filling into 8. Put 1 portion of the pork filling in the middle of each patty, then gently pull the dough up and around to encase the pork and form a dumpling. Roll them in your hands to achieve the signature zeppelin shape.

Bring a large saucepan of water to a rolling boil, then reduce the heat to a gentle simmer. Carefully lower in the dumplings, cover and cook gently for 30 minutes.  If you do not have a large enough pot you will have to do this step in batches. It is crucial to keep the water at a gentle simmer and not to let it boil, otherwise the dumplings will disintegrate.

Grill or fry the bacon until it is crisp then chop it into bits and set aside.

Pour 100ml of boiling water over the dried porcini and leave them to stand for 5 minutes. Heat the butter over medium heat in a saucepan and add the remaining shallots.  Cook them gently until they are translucent. Add the crimini mushrooms and cook for 5 more minutes. Pour in 1 tablespoon of the water from the porcini mushrooms. Chop the porcini mushrooms and add them to the pan. Fold in the crème fraîche, bring to a simmer. Add salt to taste.

Put 1 or 2 dumplings on each plate and pour over the mushroom sauce. Sprinkle the dill and bacon pieces over just before serving.  Serve with a green vegetable and crusty bread.

Yield: 8 dumplings

 

Mar 142017
 

Today is the birthday (1836) of Isabella Beeton, known now universally as Mrs Beeton, whose recipes from her Book of Household Management I have given here many times.  There’s no great need to review her life and history of publication of her cookbook, which has gone through multiple editions and is still in print. Of course, the recipes from 1861 have gone the way of all things. Later 20th century editions used metric measures, were very precise in their lists of ingredients, and all the recipes were thoroughly kitchen tested.  When I was growing up my mother used a 1939 edition (affectionately known as “Ma Beeton”) which was given to her as a wedding present in 1944, inscribed lovingly by her parents who were born in the Victorian era, and who spent their whole working lives as household servants.  This was my first cookbook too when I was a boy, and I inherited it from my mother after she died.  I always imagined that Mrs Beeton was a starchy mob-capped old Victorian household cook (hence “Ma Beeton”). It never dawned on me that she was a well-to-do woman who died in her twenties until I started exploring her history. I also never realized the vast difference between her recipes and those in later editions until I bought a facsimile of the first edition.  In my oh so humble opinion, the first edition is still the best.  You can peruse it here:

http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/10136

In the 20th century the first edition came in for a lot of criticism for being a work of plagiarism and for the assertion that Isabella herself had little knowledge of cooking. Based on my own research I think that this criticism is unfair.

Isabella’s unmarried name was Mayson, and she was born in Marylebone, London. Shortly after Isabella’s birth the family moved to Milk Street, Cheapside, where her father Benjamin traded linen. He died when Isabella was four years old, and her mother, Elizabeth, pregnant and unable to cope with raising the children on her own while maintaining Benjamin’s business, sent her two elder daughters to live with relatives. Isabella went to live with her recently widowed paternal grandfather in Great Orton, Cumberland, though she was back with her mother within the next two years.

Three years after Benjamin’s death Elizabeth married Henry Dorling, a widower with four children. Henry was the Clerk of Epsom Racecourse, and had been granted residence within the racecourse grounds. The family, including Elizabeth’s mother, moved to Surrey and over the next twenty years Henry and Elizabeth had a further 13 children. Isabella was instrumental in her siblings’ upbringing, and collectively referred to them as a “living cargo of children.” The experience gave her a great deal of insight and experience in how to manage a family and its household at an early age.

After a brief education at a boarding school in Islington, in 1851 Isabella was sent to school in Heidelberg, accompanied by her stepsister Jane Dorling. Isabella became proficient in the piano and excelled in French and German.  She also gained knowledge and experience in making pastry. She had returned to Epsom by the summer of 1854 and took further lessons in pastry-making from a local baker. All in all, therefore, to accuse her of simply compiling recipes and household advice from others and then copying it is a gross distortion.  It’s true that she used recipes from the works of others, but this was (and is) normal practice.  Furthermore there is clear evidence that she kitchen tested most, if not all, of her recipes.  Isabella’s half-sister, Lucy Smiles, was asked after her death concerning her memories of the book’s development. She recalled:

Different people gave their recipes for the book. That for Baroness pudding (a suet pudding with a plethora of raisins) was given by the Baroness de Tessier, who lived at Epsom. No recipe went into the book without a successful trial, and the home at Pinner was the scene of many experiments and some failures. I remember Isabella coming out of the kitchen one day, ‘This won’t do at all,’ she said, and gave me the cake that had turned out like a biscuit. I thought it very good. It had currants in it.

I don’t see how you can read this and still think that Isabella was just a rank plagiarist. I think that her sister probably overstates the case in asserting that every recipe was tested, but I am sure the majority were.  What is more to the point is that her recipes are all clear and relatively easy to follow, unlike those of previous generations. She gives lists of ingredients with exact quantities, straightforward directions, and indications of seasonality and cost per person. Her additional remarks about farming practices, hunting, and the like are a bonus. It is true that you need to have some experience in cooking to follow her recipes, and you need to know something about the Victorian kitchen to make sense of the directions sometimes. If you’re not familiar with cooking on a wood-fired stove (which I am) you can get a little lost from time to time, but experience ought to direct you. The reason I give her recipes here frequently is that they are good recipes, and I applaud her on her birthday.

There is no mention in the first edition of birthday cakes, and very little reference to birthdays at all (only to birthday dinners in ancient Greece).  Never mind. Here is her recipe for yeast cake which I think is quite delectable and well suited as her birthday cake.

A NICE YEAST-CAKE.

  1. INGREDIENTS.—1-1/2 lb. of flour, 1/2 lb. of butter, 1/2 pint of milk, 1-1/2 tablespoonful of good yeast, 3 eggs, 3/4 lb. of currants, 1/2 lb. of white moist sugar, 2 oz. of candied peel.

Mode.—Put the milk and butter into a saucepan, and shake it round over a fire until the butter is melted, but do not allow the milk to get very hot. Put the flour into a basin, stir to it the milk and butter, the yeast, and eggs, which should be well beaten, and form the whole into a smooth dough. Let it stand in a warm place, covered with a cloth, to rise, and, when sufficiently risen, add the currants, sugar, and candied peel cut into thin slices. When all the ingredients are thoroughly mixed, line 2 moderate-sized cake-tins with buttered paper, which should be about six inches higher than the tin; pour in the mixture, let it stand to rise again for another 1/2 hour, and then bake the cakes in a brisk oven for about 1-1/2 hour. If the tops of them become too brown, cover them with paper until they are done through. A few drops of essence of lemon, or a little grated nutmeg, may be added when the flavour is liked.

Time.—From 1-1/4 to 1-1/2 hour. Average cost, 2s.

Sufficient to make 2 moderate-sized cakes.

Seasonable at any time.

If you want to have a sugar fit you can add almond icing; I prefer the cake plain.

ALMOND ICING FOR CAKES.

  1. INGREDIENTS.—To every lb. of finely-pounded loaf sugar allow 1 lb. of sweet almonds, the whites of 4 eggs, a little rose-water.

Mode.—Blanch the almonds, and pound them (a few at a time) in a mortar to a paste, adding a little rose-water to facilitate the operation. Whisk the whites of the eggs to a strong froth; mix them with the pounded almonds, stir in the sugar, and beat altogether. When the cake is sufficiently baked, lay on the almond icing, and put it into the oven to dry. Before laying this preparation on the cake, great care must be taken that it is nice and smooth, which is easily accomplished by well beating the mixture.

Mar 122017
 

Today is the second Sunday of Lent, known as Reminiscere Sunday from the introit Reminiscere miserationum tuarum Domine, which in English can be rendered:

Remember, O Lord, Thy compassions and Thy mercies, which are from the beginning, lest at any time our enemies rule over us: deliver us O God of Israel, from all our tribulations.

I could write a whole post about this time of Lent, but today is also Purim in the Jewish tradition which, by coincidence, exactly reflects the sentiments of the introit which is taken from Psalm 24. This is a day on which Jews celebrate deliverance from persecution. So, whilst being mindful of my overall desire to unpack Easter, I’m going to shift my focus to Purim (folding together the ideals of the Lenten and Jewish traditions). As is true of Jewish celebrations in general, Purim actually began yesterday at sundown and ends at sundown today. Therefore a lot of the parties would have already happened. But in some places, notably Jerusalem (for reasons explained below), Purim begins a day later, which is sundown today. So somewhere in the world all day today there is a party.

Unlike pretty much every other Jewish annual celebration, Purim is just party time these days, although there are a few (minor) solemn notes as well. It has most of the characteristics of Carnival, and, like Carnival, it moves around the Gregorian calendar in the general vicinity of Spring.  I am slightly ambivalent about the holiday. Yes, it celebrates the deliverance of Persian Jews from the hands of the wicked and anti-Semitic Haman, but . . . in the process Haman, his ten sons, and over 75,000 of Israel’s enemies are slaughtered, and I don’t see this as a cause for celebration.

Purim commemorates the events recorded in the Book of Esther (מגילת אסתר‎).  The Hebrew פּוּרִים‎ (plural of פור‎ (pur) related to Akkadian: pūru) refers to lots that are cast by Haman to determine the date on which he planned to kill all the Jews in the Persian Empire. According to the Book of Esther, Haman, royal vizier to King Ahasuerus/Achashverosh (presumed to be Artaxerxes I of Persia, “Artakhsher” in Old Persian), planned to kill all the Jews in the empire, but his plans were foiled by Mordecai and his cousin and adopted daughter Esther, who had risen to become Queen of Persia. The day of deliverance became a day of feasting and rejoicing.

Based on the conclusions of the Scroll of Esther (Esther 9:22): “… that they should make them days of feasting and gladness, and of sending portions one to another, and gifts to the poor,” Purim is celebrated among Jews by:

Exchanging reciprocal gifts of food and drink known as mishloach manot

Donating charity to the poor known as mattanot la-evyonim

Eating a celebratory meal known as a se’udat Purim

Public recitation (“reading of the megillah”) of the Scroll of Esther, known as kriat ha-megillah, usually in a temple

There are also special additions, known as Al HaNissim, to the daily prayers and the prayer after meals

Other customs include drinking wine or any other alcoholic beverage (often to excess), wearing of masks and costumes, and public celebration.  One of my orthodox Jewish students, who was extraordinarily prim and proper, once announced to me that it was her solemn religious duty to get drunk on Purim.

Purim is celebrated annually according to the Hebrew calendar on the 14th day of the Hebrew month of Adar (and on Adar II in Hebrew leap years that take place every 2 to 3 years), the day following the victory of the Jews over their enemies. In cities that were protected by a surrounding wall at the time of the Biblical Joshua, Purim is instead celebrated on the 15th of the month of Adar on what is known as Shushan Purim, since fighting in the walled city of Shushan continued through the 14th  day of Adar. Today, only Jerusalem and a few other cities celebrate Purim on the 15th of Adar.

The Book of Esther begins with a six-month (180-day) drinking feast given by King Ahasuerus (sometimes identified with Artaxerxes) for the army of Persia and Medea and the civil servants and princes in the 127 provinces of his kingdom, concluding with a seven-day drinking feast for the inhabitants of Shushan (Susa), rich and poor, and a separate drinking feast for the women organized by Queen Vashti in the pavilion of the royal courtyard.

At this feast Ahasuerus gets thoroughly drunk, and at the prompting of his courtiers, orders his wife Vashti to display her beauty before the nobles and populace, wearing only her royal crown (i.e. naked), Due to a skin condition she refuses. Her refusal prompts Ahasuerus to have her removed from her post. Ahasuerus then orders all young women to be presented to him, so he can choose a new queen to replace Vashti. One of these is Esther, who was orphaned at a young age and was being fostered by her first cousin Mordecai. She finds favor in the king’s eyes, and is made his new wife. Esther does not reveal her origins and that she is Jewish. Shortly afterwards, Mordecai discovers a plot by two courtiers Bigthan and Teresh to kill Ahasuerus. They are apprehended and hanged, and Mordecai’s service to the king is recorded in the daily record of the court.

Ahasuerus appoints Haman as his viceroy. Mordecai, who sits at the palace gates, falls into Haman’s disfavor because he refuses to bow down to him. Having found out that Mordecai is Jewish, Haman plans to kill not just Mordecai but the entire Jewish minority in the empire. Obtaining Ahasuerus’ permission and funds to execute this plan, he casts lots (“purim”) to choose the date on which to do this – the 13th of the month of Adar. When Mordecai finds out about the plans, he puts on sackcloth and ashes, a sign of mourning, publicly weeping and lamenting, and many other Jews in Shushan and other parts of Ahasuerus’ empire do likewise, with widespread penitence and fasting. Mordecai requests that she intercede with the king on behalf of the Jews but she replies that nobody is allowed to approach the king, under penalty of death. Mordecai warns her that she will not be any safer in the palace than any other Jew, and suggests that she was elevated to the position of queen to be of help in just such an emergency. Esther has a change of heart, says she will fast and pray for three days and will then approach the king to seek his help, despite the law against doing so, and “if I perish, I perish.” She also requests that Mordecai tell all Jews of Shushan to fast and pray for three days together with her. On the third day, she seeks an audience with Ahasuerus, during which she invites him to a feast in the company of Haman. During the feast, she asks them to attend a further feast the next evening. Meanwhile, Haman is again offended by Mordecai’s refusal to bow to him; egged on by his wife Zeresh and unidentified friends, he builds a gallows for Mordecai, with the intention to hang him there the very next day.

That night, Ahasuerus suffers from insomnia, and when the court’s daily records are read to him to help him fall asleep, he learns of the services rendered by Mordecai in the earlier plot against his life. Ahasuerus asks whether anything was done for Mordecai and is told that he received no recognition for saving the king’s life. Just then, Haman appears, and King Ahasuerus asks him what should be done for the man that the king wishes to honor. Thinking that the king is referring to Haman himself, Haman says that the honoree should be dressed in the king’s royal robes and led around on the king’s royal horse. To Haman’s horror, the king instructs Haman to render such honors to Mordecai.

Later that evening, Ahasuerus and Haman attend Esther’s second banquet, at which she reveals that she is Jewish and that Haman is planning to exterminate her people, which includes her. Ahasuerus becomes enraged and instead orders Haman hanged on the gallows that he had prepared for Mordecai. The king allows Mordecai and Esther to write another decree as they wish. They decree that Jewish people may preemptively kill those thought to pose a lethal risk. As a result, on 13 Adar, 500 attackers and Haman’s ten sons are killed in Shushan. Throughout the empire 75,000 of the Jewish peoples’ enemies are killed. On the 14th another 300 are killed in Shushan. Mordecai assumes the position of second in rank to Ahasuerus, and institutes an annual commemoration of the delivery of the Jewish people from annihilation.

Like many modern Biblical scholars I doubt the historicity of this narrative, just as I don’t believe that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Even so I celebrate Christmas (at great length), and I see no reason to downplay the celebration of Purim just because its roots lie in historical fiction. Tradition is tradition.  It is the bedrock of culture.

(AP Photo/Matthew Mead)

Many foods are associated with Purim, but the most widespread are hamentashen a filled-pocket pastry recognizable by its triangular shape. Hamantashen can be made with many different fillings including prune, nut, date, apricot, raspberry, raisins, apple, cherry, fig, chocolate, dulce de leche, halva, or even caramel or cheese. The most traditional, however, is poppy seed. The pastry varies considerably also.

The name hamantash, comes from Yiddish, and is commonly viewed as a reference to Haman (translated as “Haman’s pockets”). This use of “-tasche” in reference to filled pouches of dough is common in modern German, e.g. in “Teigtasche”, “Apfeltasche”, “Maultasche”. Another possible source of the name comes from folk etymology: the Yiddish word montashn and the German word Mohntaschen, both meaning poppyseed-filled pouches, transformed to hamantaschen to associate the pastries with Haman. In Israel, hamantaschen are called oznei Haman (אוזני המן‎‎), Hebrew for “Haman’s ears.”

Here is a recipe for a traditional poppyseed filling.  Use a sweet pastry for the hamantashen that suits you. Cut it in circles and place some filling in the center.  Then fold the pastry to make triangles and bake until golden. I’ve put a good instructional video after the recipe.

Poppyseed Filling

Ingredients

1 cup poppy seeds
½ cup honey
½ cup milk
1 tbsp fresh lemon juice
1 tbsp sugar
¼ tsp salt
½ tsp vanilla extract

Instructions

Finely grind the poppy seeds in spice mill or mortar and pestle.

In a medium saucepan place the ground poppy seeds, honey, milk, lemon juice, sugar, and salt. Bring slowly to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer, stirring often, until the mixture has thickened.  The best test that the filling is done is to drag a spoon across the bottom of the pan. It is ready when it retains a visible trail for a few seconds. This may take between 5 and 10 minutes (or more). Stir in the vanilla extract and let cool.

Mar 112017
 

On this date in 1851 Verdi’s Rigoletto premiered in Venice. I’ve already highlighted Verdi — http://www.bookofdaystales.com/giuseppe-verdi/  — and the post included a brief nod to Rigoletto because it was a milestone in the development of opera, not only intertwining complex dramatic elements but also showcasing a variety of musical styles, not least being the eternal favorite “La donna è mobile” (whose title I used just this week in pointing out the difference to my students in the use of the direct article in English and Italian). I’m not inclined to do a massive analysis of Rigoletto here, but I do feel the need to say something given that I live right behind a museum called “Rigoletto’s House” (opposite palazzo ducale), touristic tribute to the fact that the opera is set in Mantua.

Rigoletto was set in Mantua, in the long past, to escape problems with Austrian censors. Verdi was commissioned to write a new opera by the La Fenice opera house in Venice in 1850. By this time he was already a well-known composer and had a degree of freedom in choosing the works he would prefer to set to music. He then asked Francesco Maria Piave (with whom he had already created Ernani, I due Foscari, Macbeth, Il Corsaro and Stiffelio) to examine the play Kean by Alexandre Dumas, père, but he was not happy with the subject matter. Then Verdi stumbled upon Victor Hugo’s five-act play Le roi s’amuse. He later explained that “The subject is grand, immense, and there is a character that is one of the greatest creations that the theatre can boast of, in any country and in all history.” It was a highly controversial subject, and Hugo himself had already had trouble with censorship in France, which had banned productions after its first performance nearly twenty years earlier (it would not be performed again until 1882). As Austria at that time directly controlled much of Northern Italy, it came before the Austrian Board of Censors. Hugo’s play depicted a king (Francis I of France) as an immoral and cynical womanizer, and this subject did not sit well with the powers that be.

From the beginning, Verdi was aware of the risks, as was Piave. In a letter which Verdi wrote to Piave: “Use four legs, run through the town and find me an influential person who can obtain the permission for making Le Roi s’amuse.” Correspondence between a prudent Piave and an already committed Verdi followed, but the two underestimated the power and the intentions of Austrians and remained at risk. Even the friendly Guglielmo Brenna, secretary of La Fenice, who had promised them that they would not have problems with the censors, was wrong. At the beginning of the summer of 1850, rumors started to spread that Austrian censorship was going to forbid the production. The censors considered the Hugo work to verge on lèse majesté and would never permit such a scandalous work to be performed in Venice. In August, Verdi and Piave prudently retired to Busseto, Verdi’s hometown, to continue the composition and prepare a defensive scheme. They wrote to the theater, assuring them that the censor’s doubts about the morality of the work were not justified but since very little time was left, very little could be done. At the time, Piave and Verdi had titled the opera La maledizione (The Curse), and this unofficial title was used by Austrian censor De Gorzkowski in an emphatic letter written in December 1850 in which he definitively denied consent to its production, calling it “a repugnant [example of] immorality and obscene triviality.”

By January 1851 the parties were able to agree that the action of the opera would be moved from the royal court of France to a duchy of France or Italy, and some of the characters would have to be renamed. In the new version the Duke reigns over Mantua and belongs to the Gonzaga family. The House of Gonzaga had long been extinct by the mid-19th century, and the Dukedom of Mantua no longer existed, thus no one could be offended. So, even though the connexion with Mantua is purely pragmatic and not motivated by any dramatic necessity, we reap the benefit.

Rigoletto premiered on 11 March 1851 to a sold-out La Fenice as the first part of a double bill with Giacomo Panizza’s ballet Faust. Gaetano Mares conducted, and the sets were designed and executed by Giuseppe Bertoja and Francesco Bagnara. The opening night was a complete triumph, especially the scena drammatica and the Duke’s cynical aria, “La donna è mobile”, which was sung in the streets the next morning. Verdi had maximised the aria’s impact by revealing it to the cast and orchestra only a few hours before the premiere, and forbidding them to sing, whistle or even think of the melody outside of the theater. Many years later, Giulia Cora Varesi, the daughter of Felice Varesi (the original Rigoletto), described her father’s performance at the premiere. Varesi was very uncomfortable with the false hump he had to wear. He was so uncertain that, even though he was an experienced singer, he had a panic attack when it was his turn to enter the stage. Verdi immediately realized he was paralyzed and roughly pushed him on the stage, so he appeared with a clumsy tumble. The audience, thinking it was an intentional gag, was very amused

Numerous tenors and sopranos have performed the key roles and there are many recordings to choose from.  This one amuses me. It’s not stellar but I rather dislike Pavarotti’s renditions which are everywhere.  In his earlier years (in the 1960s) he was great, but fame got to him, I fear, and by the time he was a household name, in my oh so humble opinion, he had developed an oversized ego (and body) and an undersized style corrupted by a desire to please audience with cheap theatrics.  I’ll take Caruso (or most any other tenor) any day of the week and twice on Sundays over Pavarotti.

A Venetian dish might be in order given the location of the premiere, but I like Mantuan cuisine and the opera is set here.  So let’s go with another Mantuan specialty, luccio in salsa (pike in sauce). I’m sure you can make a reasonable simulacrum, but without Garda Lake pike and Italian anchovies it won’t be the same.  Pike is not an easy fish to prepare because it is riddled with small epipleural or Y-bones. It is best to get fillets from large fish and inspect them carefully, removing any bones you find with tweezers.

Luccio in Salsa

Ingredients

½ kg pike fillets
1 onion
1 carrot
1 celery stalk
1 cup dry white wine
salt and pepper to taste

150 g salted anchovies
150 g capers
150 g fresh parsley
extra virgin olive oil

Instructions

Poach the fish gently in a pan with the water and wine plus the onion, carrot and celery all cut in large chunks. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Finely chop the capers, parsley and anchovies. Then mix in olive oil to taste. Too little oil will make the sauce over salty.

Separate the fillets into medium-sized pieces, place them on a serving dish and pour over the sauce. Let the fish and sauce rest so that the flavors marry.  Some Mantuan cooks mash the fish slightly with a fork and then add the sauce.

Serve with toasted polenta.

Mar 082017
 

Today’s post is unusual it that I was asked to write it, as opposed to coming up with the idea myself.  My former student, James Knight, asked me to celebrate Jan Potocki on his birthday, so here is my effort James. I will confess that I am mostly flying in the dark. At minimum I expect a comment in the comment section below !!

Count Jan Potocki, nascent ethnologist, traveler, Polish nobleman, captain of army engineers, Egyptologist, linguist, adventurer and popular author, was born on this date in 1761. Potocki is not exactly a household name outside of Poland.  If he is known at all it is chiefly for his novel, The Manuscript Found in Saragossa. A complex work that is somewhat comparable to Arabian Nights or Decameron. The book is unusual in that the original French version is lost and has had to be reconstructed by back translation from a Polish language translation made after his death.  Almost sounds like a Borges novel. In recent years the French edition has been supplemented by early drafts in French found in manuscript collections of his heirs. There are now two French versions because Potocki revised his ideas several times over the years that he was constructing the novel, hence the tone of the two versions is quite different.

Potocki was born into an aristocratic family, that owned vast estates across Poland. He was educated in Geneva and Lausanne, served twice in the Polish Army as a captain of engineers, and spent some time on a galley as novice to the Knights of Malta. He journeyed across Europe, Asia and North Africa, where he got involved in political intrigues, and secret societies, and contributed to the birth of ethnology with his travel diaries. He also investigated the precursors of the Slavic peoples from a linguistic and historical standpoint.

Potocki married twice and had five children. His first marriage ended in divorce, and both marriages were the subject of scandalous rumors. In 1812, disillusioned and in poor health, he retired to his estate at Uładówka in Podolia, suffering from “melancholia” (which today would probably be diagnosed as depression), and during the last few years of his life he completed his novel. Believing he was becoming a werewolf, Potocki committed suicide by fatally shooting himself with a silver bullet that he had blessed by his village priest in December 1815, at the age of 54.

The Manuscript Found in Saragossa is a collection of intertwining stories, set in whole or in part in Spain, with a large and colorful cast of gypsies, thieves, inquisitors, a cabbalist, a geometer, the cabbalist’s beautiful sister, two Moorish princesses (Emina and Zubeida) and others. The book’s outer frame tale is narrated by an unnamed French officer who describes his fortuitous discovery of an intriguing Spanish manuscript during the sack of Zaragoza in 1809, in the course of the Napoleonic Wars. Soon afterwards the French officer is captured by the Spanish and stripped of his possessions. But a Spanish officer recognizes the manuscript’s importance, and during the French officer’s captivity the Spaniard translates it for him into French. The manuscript has been written by a young officer of the Walloon Guard, Alphonse van Worden. In 1739, while en route to Madrid to serve with the Spanish Army, he is diverted into Spain’s rugged Sierra Morena region. There, over a period of sixty-six days, he encounters a varied group of characters who tell him an intertwining series of bizarre, amusing and fantastic tales which he records in his diary.

The bulk of the stories revolve around the gypsy chief Avadoro, whose story becomes a frame story itself. Eventually the narrative focus moves again toward van Worden’s frame story and a conspiracy involving an underground — or perhaps entirely hallucinated — Muslim society, revealing the connections and correspondences between the hundred or so stories told over the novel’s sixty-six days.

The stories cover a wide range of genres and subjects, including the gothic, the picaresque, the erotic, the historical, the moral and the philosophic; and as a whole, the novel reflects Potocki’s far-ranging interests, especially his deep fascination with secret societies, the supernatural and Oriental cultures. The novel’s stories-within-stories sometimes reach several levels of depth, and characters and themes — a few prominent themes being honor, disguise, metamorphosis and conspiracy — recur and change shape throughout.

The national dish of Poland is bigos and I gave a decent commentary and recipe here when celebrating another Pole with a French connexion: Marie Curie — http://www.bookofdaystales.com/marie-curie/  Another great Polish soup/stew is flaki or flaczky which gives me the opportunity to indulge my tripe obsession.  Modern Poles who don’t care for tripe substitute chicken or rabbit, which I consider intolerably craven.  The main seasoning is marjoram, which is an underused herb in most parts these days.  You really need to use it fresh for maximum flavor. It’s hard to find fresh in stores, but easy to grow.

 Flaki

Ingredients

1 lb parboiled tripe, cut into 1½-inch by ¼-inch pieces
1 meaty beef shank
1 stalk celery, chopped small
1 cup chopped leeks (white parts only)
1 carrot, peeled and chopped
2 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
1 bay leaf
2 sprigs of marjoram, leaves only
salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 cups beef stock or use canned
½ teaspoon allspice
1 tbsp tomato paste
1 tbsp butter
1 tbsp flour
1 tsp paprika

Instructions

In a heavy 8- to 10-quart soup pot place the tripe, beef shank, celery, leek, garlic, bay leaves, freshly ground black pepper to taste, beef stock, and water. Simmer partially covered for about 1 to 2 hours.  The time depends on how soft you want the tripe.

Remove the beef shank and chop the meat. Discard the bone and return the meat to the pot.

Add the marjoram, tomato paste, and salt to taste. Simmer for an additional ½ hour, covered.

Prepare a roux by melting the butter in a small frying pan and stirring in the flour and paprika. Cook over medium heat, stirring frequently, until the roux is light brown. Whisk the roux into the pot a small piece at a time and continue to simmer until the flaki thickens.

Serve in deep bowls with rye bread.

Mar 052017
 

Today is the first Sunday in Lent, and, as I did for Christmas, I am going to “unpack” Easter here over the weeks in this blog by following the season all the way from Carnival to Pentecost. In some ways there’s less need to do this for Easter than for Christmas because Easter does not have all the secular, materialistic mayhem associated with it that Christmas does, and most of the church traditions are ignored or generally unknown nowadays.  Easter Sunday remains the best attended church day of the whole year, but much of the rest of the Easter season is forgotten by the secular world.  This is a considerable turnaround from the early days of the church when Easter was the prime holy day and Christmas was of little significance. Thus, unpacking Easter is quite different from unpacking Christmas for me. For Christmas I was trying to soft pedal the chaos and tease out individual strands. For Easter it’s more a matter of bringing key elements into focus that have been soft pedaled too much for my liking in contemporary times. Once, again, therefore, this is a personal journey.

Lent is to Easter as Advent is to Christmas: a time of preparation. But the contours of the two seasons are diametrically opposite. Advent involves a constant building of joyful feelings whereas Lent is more about a continual submerging of joy and material pleasures in favor of penance and introspection. True, there is joy at the end on Easter Sunday, but the first destination of Lent is Good Friday.

In some churches, notably Roman Catholic and Church of England, the Sundays in Lent generally carry Latin names  derived from the opening words of the Sunday’s introit. The first is called Invocabit from:

Invocábit me, et égo exáudiam éum:
erípiam éum, et glorificábo éum:
longitúdine diérum adimplébo éum.
He shall cry to me, and I will hear him: I will deliver him, and I will glorify him: I will fill him with length of days.
Qui hábitat in adjutório Altíssimi,
in protectióne Déi caéli commorábitur.
He that dwelleth in the aid of the Most High shall abide under the protection of the God of Heaven.
Glória Pátri, et Fílio,
et Spirítui Sáncto.
Sicut erat in princípio,
et nunc, et semper,
et in saécula saeculórum. Amen.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.
Invocábit me, et égo exáudiam éum:
erípiam éum, et glorificábo éum:
longitúdine diérum adimplébo éum.
He shall cry to me, and I will hear him: I will deliver him, and I will glorify him: I will fill him with length of days.

 

Here it is as a chant:


For Advent I have an Advent wreath of candles which I progressively light over the course of Advent Sundays.  In recent years a tradition of the Lenten wreath has emerged which I am experimenting with for the first time this year.  They come in a number of forms.

In mine there are 7 candles in the form of a cross (see lead photo), much like the candle cross used in the traditional tenebrae service which I will talk about at length on Maundy Thursday. The seven candles consist of five violet ones (symbolizing penance), one pink one (for mid-Lent Sunday or Mothering Sunday), and one white one (the Christ candle). Lent begins with all the candles lit, and on successive Sundays, one by one, they are extinguished. The lone Christ candle is extinguished on Good Friday. The general feeling is that as we approach the crucifixion the light of the world is steadily going out.

These days I feel that the Lenten wreath is singularly apt. I feel that forces of darkness – greed, selfishness, pride, nationalism, war, famine, poverty etc. – are steadily taking over the world. This is a time for introspection and for reflecting on what we can do as individuals, and collectively, to combat these dark forces. Death and destruction, as symbolized by the crucifixion, are not the final ending points. Easter Sunday brings us resurrection and renewed hope.

The first Sunday in Easter was once celebrated with bonfires in festivities known as Buergbrennen (or the like) throughout northern Europe. The tradition is waning in Belgium, France and Germany, but since the 1930s Luxembourg has revived Buergbrennen festivities, and now about 75% of villages in the country celebrate the occasion. Originally the bonfires consisted simply of a heap of wood and straw but over time a central pillar of tree branches was introduced. Nowadays a crosspiece is attached near the top of the pillar, giving it the appearance of a cross.

Buergbrennen was once celebrated only by the men in the village, women only being admitted under exceptional circumstances. The most recently married men played a special role, the honor of lighting the fire falling on the last man to have wed. But the newlyweds also had the responsibility of collecting wood for the fire or paying others to assist in the work. At the end of the festivities, they were expected to entertain those taking part, either at home or in local inns. The tradition began to die out in the 19th century because of the high costs involved, but in the 20th century local authorities revived the tradition, taking over responsibility for the arrangements and the costs involved.

The national dish of Luxembourg is Judd mat Gaardebounen, or Smoked Collar of Pork with Broad Beans. It’s a hefty dish, but we need to remember that Sundays in Lent are not fasting days in the Catholic tradition. There are 46 days in Lent from Ash Wednesday to Easter Saturday. 40 of them are fasting days, and 6 of them are Sundays when fasting is set aside. ALL Sundays in the year are feast days – even in Lent.

Judd mat Gaardebounen is associated with the village of Gostingen in the south-east of Luxembourg where the inhabitants are sometimes called Bounepatscherten in Luxembourgish, which as best as I can figure (the dialect is impossible), means something like “old broad beans soakers.” I’d be happy to be corrected by a reader.

Smoked pork collar, or pork collar in general, won’t be easy for U.S. residents to come by, but they are both fairly easy to find in Europe. The collar is the shoulder meat from neck to loin.  In Italy the leaner meat is used for capocollo and the fat for lardo. Shoulder is a simple substitute, but it must be smoked. If your butcher can’t provide smoked shoulder you’ll have to do it yourself (instructions follow the recipe).

Judd mat Gaardebounen

Ingredients

1.5 kg smoked pork collar
1 kg fresh broad beans, shelled
1 kg waxy potatoes, peeled, quartered
30 ml sunflower oil
4 garlic cloves, crushed
6 parsley sprigs, chopped
1 leek, chopped
150 g carrot, chopped
150 g onion, whole studded with 4 cloves
4 celery stalks, chopped
125 ml dry white wine
50 g butter
50 g flour
2 bay leaves
15 g summer savory
salt and pepper
stock (optional)

Instructions

Parboil the potatoes for about 5 minutes and set them aside.

Put the smoked collar, carrots, leeks, onion, celery and bay leaves into a large pot, cover with water (or light stock), bring slowly to a simmer, cover and simmer for two hours.

Make a dark roux with the butter and flour. To do this heat the butter in a heavy skillet over medium heat and add the flour. Stirring constantly let the roux heat through until it darkens in color. This may take 15 to 20 minutes depending on how high the heat is.  The darker the roux, the more intense the flavor.  Add 250 ml of strained cooking stock from the meat, whisking rapidly to ensure there are no lumps. Bring to the boil and then simmer for five minutes, stirring occasionally, until the sauce thickens and the flour cooks through.

Blanch the beans in boiling salted water for about five minutes.

Add the wine and savory to the meat sauce, continue to simmer for ten minutes and check the seasonings.

Sauté the potatoes in hot oil in a large frying pan over medium heat until they are golden. Add 250ml of the meat cooking stock and the garlic. Increase the heat and reduce until the liquid has evaporated.

Add the beans to the meat sauce and heat through.

Remove the collar from the cooking water, leave it to stand for two minutes then slice thickly.

Serve the sliced collar with beans and sauce plus the potatoes with parsley a parsley garnish.

Smoked Pork Collar

This is the method for a 1.5 kilo piece.

Use an old large and deep saucepan with a tight lid in which you can fit a rack or steamer.

Line the saucepan with slightly crumpled kitchen foil to protect the base.

Add a tablespoon of rice, a tablespoon of jasmine tea, a large stalk of rosemary, a large sprig of thyme, 6 lightly crushed juniper berries, 12 lightly crushed black peppercorns and a good pinch of coarse salt.

Place the rack on top with the meat on the rack and put the lid on.

Heat the saucepan over the lowest setting. Turn the meat every ten minutes until it is evenly colored, about 40 minutes.

 

Mar 042017
 

Today is the birthday (1678) of Antonio Lucio Vivaldi, composer, virtuoso violinist, teacher, and cleric. He was born in Venice and is generally considered one of the greatest Baroque composers whose influence during his lifetime was widespread across Europe. He composed a number of instrumental concertos, for the violin and a variety of other instruments, as well as sacred choral works and more than forty operas. Here I want to focus on his best-known work(s), the violin concertos known as The Four Seasons, because they were composed in Mantua where I live now. In particular I want to pay special attention to La Primavera (Spring) because Spring is just starting here. The Four Seasons are very early examples of what has become to be known as program music, that is, music with some kind of narrative underpinning it as opposed to “pure” music, that is, music for its own sake. General opinion is that Vivaldi was inspired by the countryside around Mantua as it journeyed through the seasons.

Vivaldi was born in Venice and was baptized immediately after his birth at his home by the midwife, which led to a belief that his life was somehow in danger. Though not known for certain, the child’s immediate baptism was most likely due either to his poor health or to an earthquake that shook the city that day. In the trauma of the earthquake, Vivaldi’s mother may have dedicated him to the priesthood. Vivaldi’s official church baptism took place two months later.

Vivaldi’s, father, Giovanni Battista, who was a barber before becoming a professional violinist, taught his son to play the violin at an early age and then toured Venice playing the violin with his young son. Vivaldi’s health was problematic. His symptoms, strettezza di petto (“tightness of the chest”), have been interpreted as a form of asthma. In 1693, at the age of fifteen, he began studying to become a priest. He was ordained in 1703, aged 25, and was soon nicknamed il Prete Rosso, “The Red Priest” which probably referred to the color of his hair, a family trait. Not long after his ordination, in 1704, he was given a dispensation from celebrating Mass because of his ill health. Vivaldi said Mass as a priest only a few times and appears to have withdrawn from priestly duties in general, though he remained a priest.

In September 1703, Vivaldi became maestro di violino (master of violin) at the Pio Ospedale della Pietà (Devout Hospital of Mercy), an orphange in Venice. Vivaldi was only 25 when he started working at the Ospedale della Pietà. Over the next thirty years he composed most of his major works while working there. There were four similar institutions in Venice; their purpose was to give shelter and education to children who were abandoned or orphaned, or whose families could not support them. They were financed by funds provided by the Republic. The boys learned a trade and had to leave when they reached 15. The girls received a musical education, and the most talented stayed and became members of the Ospedale’s renowned orchestra and choir. Vivaldi composed over 60 pieces for the singers and musicians of the orphanage.

In 1717 or 1718, Vivaldi was offered a prestigious position as Maestro di Cappella of the court of prince Philip of Hesse-Darmstadt, governor of Mantua. He moved there for three years and produced several operas, among which was Tito Manlio (RV 738). During this period Vivaldi wrote the Four Seasons. Three of the concertos are of original conception, while the first, “Spring,” borrows motifs from a Sinfonia in the first act of his contemporaneous opera Il Giustino. They were a revolution in musical conception: in them Vivaldi represented flowing creeks, singing birds (of different species, each specifically characterized), barking dogs, buzzing mosquitoes, crying shepherds, storms, drunken dancers, silent nights, hunting parties from both the hunters’ and the prey’s point of view, frozen landscapes, ice-skating children, and warming winter fires. Each concerto is associated with a sonnet, possibly by Vivaldi, describing the scenes depicted in the music.

Here’s is Spring’s sonnet:

Allegro
Giunt’ è la Primavera e festosetti
La Salutan gl’ Augei con lieto canto,
E i fonti allo Spirar de’ Zeffiretti
Con dolce mormorio Scorrono intanto:
Vengon’ coprendo l’ aer di nero amanto
E Lampi, e tuoni ad annuntiarla eletti
Indi tacendo questi, gl’ Augelletti;
Tornan’ di nuovo al lor canoro incanto:Largo
E quindi sul fiorito ameno prato
Al caro mormorio di fronde e piante
Dorme ‘l Caprar col fido can’ à lato.Allegro
Di pastoral Zampogna al suon festante
Danzan Ninfe e Pastor nel tetto amato
Di primavera all’ apparir brillante.
Allegro
Springtime is upon us.
The birds celebrate her return with festive song,
and murmuring streams are softly caressed by the breezes.
Thunderstorms, those heralds of Spring, roar, casting their dark mantle over heaven,
Then they die away to silence, and the birds take up their charming songs once more.Largo
On the flower-strewn meadow, with leafy branches rustling overhead, the goat-herd sleeps, his faithful dog beside him.Allegro
Led by the festive sound of rustic bagpipes, nymphs and shepherds lightly dance beneath the brilliant canopy of spring.

 

Here is the concerto. The sonnet should guide you through the music. It is not clear whether Vivaldi wrote the sonnets that accompany the concertos nor whether they were written first or later.

A rustic Mantuan dish is suitable for today and I have chosen stracotto d’asino (donkey stew) which is well loved in Mantua. It can be served in two ways: as a first course in which case it is the sauce for pasta such as macaroni, or as a second course where it is the main dish and typically accompanied by polenta. As a first course with pasta you should use very little stracotta as a sauce. You can substitute beef for donkey meat, but, of course, it’s not the same. Donkey is readily available in markets in Mantua and surrounds. It is a tough meat that requires long, slow cooking. In Mantua the recipe calls for lardo di maiale which is prepared pork fat. You can use fatty bacon as a substitute. The wine for marinating is the Lambrusco that originates in the region of Mantua. It is the only Lambrusco produced in Lombardy as opposed to the Emilia Romagna region.

Stracotto D’Asino

Ingredients

1 kg donkey meat
100 g lardo di maiale, coarsely chopped
200 g onions, peeled and coarsely chopped
10 g carrots, peeled and coarsely chopped
100 g of celery, chopped
3 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
3 bay leaves
10 whole peppercorns
1 stick cinnamon
1 sprig fresh rosemary
7.5 dL/ 3 cups Lambrusco mantovano (dry red wine)
2 dL/ ¾ cup  extra virgin olive oil
salt
beef stock

Instructions

Marinate the donkey meat for at least one day in the wine, then remove it and dry it.

Melt the lardo in a Dutch oven with the oil and butter. When completely melted, add the vegetables, bay leaf, rosemary and cloves of crushed garlic. Salt lightly and cook over high heat, stirring often.

Add the donkey meat and brown it on all sides. Then add the wine marinade along with the peppercorns and cinnamon. Add enough broth so that the meat is covered completely. Bring to a slow simmer, cover the pan, and cook slowly until the meat is in shreds. This may take 3 to 4 hours.

Remove the meat from the liquid. Strain the liquid and keep it warm. Shred the meat and add it back to the liquid.  Heat through, making sure the meat and sauce are thoroughly mixed. Serve with macaroni as a first course, or with polenta as a second course.

Serves 6