Apr 092019
 

Today is the birthday (1336) of Timur (Persian: تیمور‎ Temūr, Chagatai: Temür), historically known as Amir Timur and Tamerlane (Persian: تيمور لنگ‎ Temūr(-i) Lang, “Timur the Lame”), the founder of the Timurid Empire in Persia and Central Asia, and the first ruler in the Timurid dynasty. It is not normally my custom to celebrate brutal conquerors, and I am not going to spend much time on his bloody exploits. I’ll give a brief potted history, and then turn to the fact that he was the focus of so many works of stage and literature from soon after his death to the present day – with the ever-lingering question hovering: WHY?

Timur was born in Transoxiana (in modern-day Uzbekistan), speaking Chagatai as his native language, and by the age of 34 had gained control of the western Chagatai Khanate. From that base, he led military campaigns across Western, South and Central Asia, the Caucasus and southern Russia, and emerged as the most powerful ruler in the Muslim world after defeating the Mamluks of Egypt and Syria, the emerging Ottoman Empire, and the declining Delhi Sultanate. From these conquests, he founded the Timurid Empire, but this empire fragmented shortly after his death. Timur was the last of the great nomadic conquerors of the Eurasian Steppe, and his empire set the stage for the rise of the more structured and lasting Gunpowder Empires in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Timur envisioned the restoration of the Mongol empire of Genghis Khan (d. 1227) even though he was not ethnically related to, nor a descendant of, Genghis Khan. For example he justified his Iranian, Mamluk, and Ottoman campaigns as a re-imposition of legitimate Mongol control over lands taken by usurpers. To legitimize his conquests, Timur relied on Islamic symbols and language, referred to himself as the “Sword of Islam”, and patronized educational and religious institutions. Timur also decisively defeated the Christian Knights Hospitaller at the Siege of Smyrna, styling himself a ghazi (holy warrior). By the end of his reign, Timur had gained complete control over all the remnants of the Chagatai Khanate, the Ilkhanate, and the Golden Horde, and even attempted to restore the Yuan dynasty in China. Timur’s armies were inclusively multi-ethnic and were feared throughout Asia, Africa, and Europe, sizable parts of which his campaigns laid to waste. Scholars estimate that his military campaigns caused the deaths of 17 million people, amounting to about 5% of the world population at the time.

Timur was the grandfather of the Timurid sultan, astronomer and mathematician Ulugh Beg (http://www.bookofdaystales.com/ulugh-beg/ ), who ruled Central Asia from 1411 to 1449, and the great-great-great-grandfather of Babur (1483–1530), founder of the Mughal Empire, which ruled parts of South Asia for over three centuries, from 1526 until 1857. Timur was a great patron of art and architecture, and interacted with intellectuals such as Ibn Khaldun (http://www.bookofdaystales.com/ibn-khaldoun/ ) and Hafiz-i Abru.

Literary versions of the life of Timur abound. Tamburlaine the Great, written by Christopher Marlowe (1587) was a milestone in Elizabethan drama, breaking new ground with its use of blank verse, strong passions, and larger-than-life characters. It could well have been one of the first London plays that Shakespeare saw (and was influenced by). Marlowe’s play was successful enough to prompt the writing of a sequel. Marlowe was not concerned about historical accuracy, and portrayed Timur as a Scythian shepherd who rose to great heights, and mostly invented the events in his life. Still, the theme was popular for a time.

The 18th century saw numerous musical productions, including Tamerlano (1724), an opera by George Frideric Handel, in Italian, based on the 1675 play Tamerlan ou la mort de Bajazet by Jacques Pradon; Bajazet (1735), an opera by Antonio Vivaldi that portrays the capture of Bayezid I by Timur; and Il gran Tamerlano (1772): opera by Josef Mysliveček that also portrays the capture of Bayezid I by Timur.

Tamerlane (1827) is the first published poem of Edgar Allan Poe. It is epic in length, but mostly concerns Timur’s abandonment of his first love, a peasant girl, in favor of conquest and fame. On his deathbed he laments trading an empire for a broken heart. In the 20th century we have Tamerlane, an historical novel by Harold Lamb, Lord of Samarkand by Robert E. Howard, and Tamerlan, a novel in Spanish by Colombian writer Enrique Serrano. Into the 21st century we have Tamburlaine: Shadow of God, a BBC Radio 3 play by John Fletcher, broadcast 2008, a fictitious account of a meeting between Tamburlaine, Ibn Khaldun, and Hafez.

It is said that Timur’s favorite food was plov (i.e. pilaf) and nowadays you can easily get a dish called (something like) Timur’s plov in many parts of Central Asia. I was invited to an impromptu cooking class in Kyrgyzstan to make a version, and was happy to primarily take photos and taste the result (rather than spend holiday time peeling and chopping vegetables). The good part of the lesson was that the local cook had an enormous vessel for cooking the plov that looked like a giant cast iron wok over a wood fire.  The quantities here are not quite banquet sized, but the recipe will feed 10 royally. This is not a complex plov, as many are, with cascades of ingredients, but perfectly basic. It is not, however, easy to make unless you know what you are doing. After the recipe I will give a video.  You will see that the experience comes in when it comes to adding liquid to cook the rice.

Timur’s Plov

Ingredients

1 kg rice, thoroughly washed in cold running water
500 gm lamb, cut in chunks
1 kg carrots, peeled and cut into strips
4 onions, peeled and sliced
vegetable oil
salt, cumin, and cayenne pepper

Instructions

Heat some oil in a cauldron until a little smoke appears. Add the onions and cook, stirring often, until they take on a little color. Add the meat and continue the browning process. Finally add the carrots and continue to cook until they are browned a little. Add water to cover plus salt, cumin, and cayenne to taste, bring to a boil, and cook for about 45 minutes.

Add the rice plus more water to come slightly above the surface of rice. The amount of water is critical. Cook uncovered until the rice has absorbed all the liquid, and then cover and cook over very low heat for about 20 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