Jul 242016


Today is the memorial day of St Christina the Astonishing, a 12th/13th century Christian convert from Brustem, near Sint-Truiden, now a city in the Flemish region of Belgium. She has been popularly recognized as a saint from the 12th century to current times although never officially canonized, so has a memorial day rather than a feast day. She was placed in the calendar of the saints by at least two bishops of the Catholic Church in two different centuries (17th & 19th). The Catholic Church allows and recognizes the veneration of saints upheld by the laity even though they have not been officially canonized. Although veneration of Christina the Astonishing has never been formally approved by the Catholic Church, there remains a strong devotion to her in her native region of Limburg. Prayers are traditionally said to Christina to seek her intercession for millers, those suffering from mental illness, and mental health workers.

I’d like to start this post with a little detour into linguistics because her appellation – the Astonishing – amuses me and is the main reason I’ve been attracted to her story for a long time. What does it take to be astonishing? Like so many adjectives these days, “astonishing” – not to mention “awesome,” “fabulous,” “amazing” etc. – has been crassly weakened to the point that it has virtually no force. Etymologically, it comes from the vulgar Latin extonare, a compound of ex (out) and tonare (to thunder), originally meaning to stun or daze as if hit by thunder (i.e. thunderstruck). “Astonishing” nowadays is a pretty tame word, which we use to mean, “really surprising” or the like, and it tickles me to have a saint designated as “astonishing.” Christina the Astonishing is her usual name in English only; her common Latin name is Christina Mirabilis, which we can translate as Christina the Miraculous – much clearer.


Christina was born around 1150 into a non-Christian family, the youngest of three daughters. After being orphaned at the age of 15, she worked taking herds to pasture. She suffered a massive seizure when she was in her early 20s. Her condition was so severe that witnesses assumed she had died. A funeral was held, but during the service, she “arose full of vigor, stupefying with amazement the whole city of Sint-Truiden, which had witnessed this wonder. “She levitated up to the rafters, later explaining that she could not bear the smell of the sinful people there.”

She related that she had witnessed Heaven, Hell and Purgatory, and that as soon as her soul was separated from her body, angels conducted it to a very gloomy place, entirely filled with souls whose torments endured there were such that that it was impossible for them to describe. She claimed that she had been offered a choice to either remain in heaven or return to earth to perform penance to deliver souls from the flames of Purgatory. Christina agreed to return to life and arose that same moment. She told those around her that she returned for the sole purpose of relief of the departed and conversion of sinners.


Thereafter, Christina renounced all comforts of life and reduced herself to extreme destitution. She dressed in rags and lived without a home. At first she avoided human contact, and, under suspicion of being possessed, was jailed. Upon her release, she took up the practice of extreme penance. Thomas of Cantimpré, then a canon regular who was a professor of theology, wrote a report eight years after her death, based on accounts of those who knew her. Cardinal Jacques de Vitry, who met with her, said that she would throw herself into burning furnaces, suffering great tortures for extended times, uttering frightful cries, yet emerge with no sign of burns upon her. In winter she would plunge into the frozen Meuse River for hours (even days and weeks) at a time, all the while praying to God and imploring God’s mercy. She sometimes allowed herself to be carried by the currents downriver to a mill where the wheel “whirled her round in a manner frightful to behold,” yet she never suffered any dislocations or broken bones. She was sometimes chased by dogs which bit her.


After being incarcerated a second time, she moderated her approach somewhat, upon her release. Christina died at the Dominican Monastery of Saint Catherine in Sint-Truiden, of natural causes, aged 74. The prioress there later testified that, despite her behavior, Christina would humbly and fully obey any command given her by the prioress.

Modern scholars are all pretty much in agreement as to Christina’s life. If you strip away the typical Medieval clerical hyperbole and credulousness you see a woman who most likely suffered from frontal lobe epilepsy who went into status epilepticus and was presumed dead, only to spontaneously revive at her funeral. In later life the epilepsy continued along with a powerful conviction that her state was the work of God. I don’t see this naturalistic explanation as diminishing her status in any way. Modern people have a habit of dismissing people simply as “abnormal” or “mentally ill” and not to be bothered with. We live in a mundane world. Historical women are especially treated in this manner. Venerating this kind, loving, and generous person as a saint seems much more human to me than dismissing her as an hysterical loony. Science has made great strides technologically, but it has left us impoverished as people.


Christina’s home town in Limburg lies at the center of the fruit-producing region of modern Belgium, noted especially for apples, pears, and cherries, but also for berries, which are made into juices, syrups and preserves. Hundreds of hikers and bikers flock to the region in Spring to see the abundant blossoms all around. Here’s an old country recipe for Belgian apple pie that is fiddly, but delectable (probably not something Christina would approve of). I cook it quite often but usually modify it by using regular short pastry rather than a yeast dough. I also vary the spices for the apples sometimes. You can use sweet spices such as powdered cloves and allspice, but this is not supposed to be heavily spiced. You want the fresh apple flavor to be dominant. If you like you can omit the spices altogether. I do that sometimes also. If you like you can sprinkle the finished pie with chopped nuts and/or some sliced fruit.


Belgian Country Apple Pie


Apple Filling

3 cups peeled and sliced cooking apples
3 tbsp water
¼ cup sugar
1 tsp cornstarch
1 tsp ground nutmeg
1 tsp ground cinnamon

Cheese Topping

1 cup dry-curd cottage cheese
6 oz softened cream cheese
2 egg yolks
¼ cup sugar
4 tsp lemon juice
light cream (as needed)

Pastry Dough

1 tbsp warm water
4½ tsp sugar
1 egg
¼ tsp salt
3 tbsp light cream, warmed
3 tbsp butter, softened
1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp active dry yeast


Prepare the apple filling.

Simmer the apples in the water over medium heat until they are very tender (45 minutes to an hour) . Combine the sugar, cornstarch, cinnamon, and nutmeg and stir them into the apples. Keep cooking and stirring for about 2 minutes or until the mixture has thickened. Remove from the heat and cool to room temperature. Reserve.

Prepare the cheese topping

In a medium bowl, beat together the cottage cheese and cream cheese with a fork until they are well mixed. Add the egg yolks, sugar, and lemon juice and beat to a spreadable consistency. Add a little light cream if the mix is too dry. Set aside.

Prepare the pastry.

Stir together the yeast, warm water, and ½ teaspoon of sugar in a small bowl. Let it stand for a few minutes until bubbles form.

Beat the egg, 4 teaspoons of sugar, and 4 teaspoons of salt in a mixing bowl until they are well  combined. Add the light cream, butter and yeast mixture and mix well.  Begin adding the flour slowly, stirring all the time until you have a soft dough that is not sticky. The amount of flour you use will depend on a variety of factors which I can never fully gauge. Just use your judgment and don’t add more flour than necessary to make a dry dough.

Cover the dough with a kitchen towel and let it rise in a warm place until doubled in volume (about 45 minutes). Punch the dough down, shape it into a ball, and let it rest, covered, for a further 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, grease a 9-inch pie plate. Place the dough in the center of the pie plate and use your hands to spread it evenly over the bottom and up the sides. You can use a rolling pin to flatten out the dough and fill the pie plate if you prefer, but hand spreading is better. If you’ve had any experience with hot water pastry you’ll know what I am talking about. Cover the dough and let it rise for about 30 minutes, by which time it should have doubled in size.

Preheat the oven to 400°F/200°C.

For assembly and baking, spread the apple filling evenly across the bottom of the pie dough, then spread the cheese topping over the filling to form two layers.

Bake on the middle rack of the oven for 10 to 12 minutes. The crust will brown, but if the exposed parts brown too quickly cover them with foil. You need the dough to cook through completely.

Cool the pie a little on a wire rack, and then serve it warm. It’s also good served cold, but I prefer warm.

Jun 282014


Hooray!!! The migration of this site to a VPS server is complete so I can get back to giving you my daily tale, instead of spending hours on the phone. So . . . today is the birthday (1577) of Peter Paul Rubens, Flemish Baroque painter, and a proponent of an extravagant Baroque style that emphasized movement, color, and sensuality. He is well known for his Counter-Reformation altarpieces, portraits, landscapes, and paintings of religious, mythological, and allegorical subjects.

Rubens was born in the German city of Siegen, Westphalia to Jan Rubens and Maria Pypelincks. His father, a Calvinist, and his mother fled Antwerp for Cologne in 1568, after increased religious turmoil and persecution of Protestants during the rule of the Spanish Netherlands by the Duke of Alba. Jan Rubens became the legal advisor (and lover) of Anna of Saxony, the second wife of William I of Orange, and settled at her court in Siegen in 1570, fathering her daughter Christine who was born in 1571. Jan Rubens was imprisoned for his affair – sort of a no-brainer don’t you think, Jan? Where was your Calvinism? After he was released, his wife bore Peter Paul in 1577. The family returned to Cologne the next year. In 1589, two years after his father’s death, Rubens moved with his mother Maria Pypelincks to Antwerp, where he was raised as a Catholic.

In Antwerp, Rubens received a humanist education, studying Latin and classical literature. By fourteen he began his artistic apprenticeship with Tobias Verhaeght. Subsequently, he studied under two of the city’s leading painters of the time, the late Mannerist artists Adam van Noort and Otto van Veen. Much of his earliest training involved copying earlier artists’ works, such as woodcuts by Hans Holbein the Younger and Marcantonio Raimondi’s engravings after Raphael. Rubens completed his education in 1598, at which time he entered the Guild of St. Luke as an independent master.


In 1600, Rubens travelled to Italy. He stopped first in Venice, where he saw paintings by Titian, Veronese, and Tintoretto, before settling in Mantua at the court of Duke Vincenzo I Gonzaga. The coloring and compositions of Veronese and Tintoretto had an immediate effect on Rubens’s painting, and his later, mature style was profoundly influenced by Titian. With financial support from the Duke, Rubens travelled to Rome by way of Florence in 1601. There, he studied classical Greek and Roman art and copied works of the Italian masters. The Hellenistic sculpture Laocoön and his Sons was especially influential on him, as was the art of Michelangelo, Raphael, and Leonardo da Vinci. He was also influenced by the recent, highly naturalistic paintings by Caravaggio.

Rubens travelled to Spain on a diplomatic mission in 1603, delivering gifts from the Gonzagas to the court of Philip III. While there, he studied the extensive collections of Raphael and Titian that had been amassed by Philip II. He also painted an equestrian portrait of the Duke of Lerma during his stay that demonstrates the influence of works like Titian’s Charles V at Mühlberg. This journey marked the first of many during his career that combined art and diplomacy.

He returned to Italy in 1604, but, upon hearing of his mother’s grave illness in 1608, Rubens planned his departure from Italy for Antwerp. However, she died before he arrived home. His return coincided with a period of renewed prosperity in the city with the signing of Treaty of Antwerp in April 1609, which initiated the Twelve Years’ Truce. In September 1609 Rubens was appointed as court painter by Albert VII, Archduke of Austria and Infanta Isabella Clara Eugenia of Spain, sovereigns of the Low Countries.


He received special permission to base his studio in Antwerp instead of at their court in Brussels, and to also work for other clients. He remained close to the Archduchess Isabella until her death in 1633, and was called upon not only as a painter but also as an ambassador and diplomat. Rubens further cemented his ties to the city when, on 3 October 1609, he married Isabella Brant, the daughter of a leading Antwerp citizen and humanist, Jan Brant.

In 1610, Rubens moved into a new house and studio that he designed. Now the Rubenshuis Museum, the Italian-influenced villa in the centre of Antwerp accommodated his workshop, where he and his apprentices worked. His most famous pupil was the young Anthony van Dyck, who soon became the leading Flemish portraitist and collaborated frequently with Rubens. He also often collaborated with the many specialists active in the city, including the animal painter Frans Snyders who contributed the eagle to Prometheus Bound, and his good friend the flower-painter Jan Brueghel the Elder.


Rubens used the production of prints and book title-pages, especially for his friend Balthasar Moretus, the owner of the large Plantin-Moretus publishing house, to extend his fame throughout Europe during this part of his career. With the exception of a couple of brilliant etchings, he only produced drawings for these himself, leaving the printmaking to specialists, such as Lucas Vorsterman, Paulus Pontius, and Willem Panneels. He recruited a number of engravers trained by Christoffel Jegher, who he carefully schooled in the more vigorous style he wanted.

In 1621, the Queen Mother of France, Marie de’ Medici, commissioned Rubens to paint two large allegorical cycles celebrating her life and the life of her late husband, Henry IV, for the Luxembourg Palace in Paris. The Marie de’ Medici cycle   (which are now in the Louvre, and which I and my son have spent hours admiring), was installed in 1625, and although he began work on the second series it was never completed. Marie was exiled from France in 1630 by her son, Louis XIII, and died in 1642 in the same house in Cologne where Rubens had lived as a child.


After the end of the Twelve Years’ Truce in 1621, the Spanish Habsburg rulers entrusted Rubens with a number of diplomatic missions, and in the years that followed he combined art and diplomacy; a combination I must admit that I find intriguing, as did the courtiers of his day. He often encountered the attitude from his colleagues at various European courts that as a “gentleman” he should not be involved in “manual labor.” Nevertheless, he was welcomed by the crowned heads of Europe. Rubens was twice knighted, first by Philip IV of Spain in 1624, and then by Charles I of England in 1630. He was also awarded an honorary Master of Arts degree from Cambridge University in 1629.

While Rubens’ international reputation with collectors and nobility abroad continued to grow, he and his workshop also continued to paint monumental paintings for local patrons in Antwerp. The Assumption of the Virgin Mary (1625–6) for the Cathedral of Antwerp is one prominent example. Rubens’ last decade was spent in and around Antwerp. Major works for foreign patrons still occupied him, such as the ceiling paintings for the Banqueting House at Inigo Jones’s Palace of Whitehall, but he also explored more personal artistic directions.


In 1630, four years after the death of his first wife, the 53-year-old painter married his niece, the 16-year-old Hélène Fourment. Hélène inspired the voluptuous figures in many of his paintings from the 1630s, including The Feast of Venus, The Three Graces, and The Judgment of Paris. In the latter painting, which was made for the Spanish court, the artist’s young wife was recognized by viewers in the figure of Venus. In an intimate portrait of her, Hélène Fourment in a Fur Wrap, also known as Het Pelsken, Rubens’ wife is partially modeled after classical sculptures of the Venus Pudica, such as the Medici Venus.


Rubens died from heart failure, which was a result of his chronic gout on 30 May 1640. He was interred in Saint Jacob’s church, Antwerp.

When I think of Rubens and his representation of the female figure – usually styled Rubenesque – I have to give you this link. How times change.


The Flemish Baroque was famous for its still life paintings of food (and hunting). Here’s some images for you two are from Rubens himself). I don’t think that is quite right of me to suggest that you bake a swan or grill up a lion steak. But you should think in terms of the wildly exotic and excessive.

ppr8  ppr7

ppr9  ppr3


I’m going to cheat concerning recipes today (pressed for time).  Here’s a great website that features two videos (in French) and a recipe for Flemish hop shoots with poached egg and smoked salmon — suitably exotic, I think. Hop shoots are the newly sprouted shoots of the hop plants that are used in flavoring Belgian beer.  When newly in season they fetch upwards of $500 per pound in Antwerp.




Mar 052014


Today is the birthday (1512) of Gerardus Mercator, Flemish cartographer, instrument maker, philosopher and mathematician. He is best known for his work in cartography, in particular the world map of 1569 based on a new projection, the Mercator projection, which represented sailing courses of constant bearing as straight lines.

Mercator was born Gerard de Kremer or de Cremer in the town of Rupelmonde in the County of Flanders (modern-day Belgium) to parents from Gangelt in the Duchy of Jülich, where he was raised. “Mercator” is the Latinized form of his name. It means “merchant”. He was educated in ‘s-Hertogenbosch by the famous humanist Macropedius and at the University of Leuven (both in the historical Duchy of Brabant). Despite Mercator’s fame as a cartographer, his main source of income came through his craftsmanship of mathematical instruments. In Leuven, he worked with Gemma Frisius and Gaspar Van Der Heyden (Gaspar Myrica) from 1535 to 1536 to construct a terrestrial globe, although the role of Mercator in the project was not primarily as a cartographer, but rather as a highly skilled engraver of brass plates. Mercator’s own independent map-making began only when he produced a map of Palestine in 1537; this map was followed by another—a map of the world (1538) – and a map of the County of Flanders (1540). During this period he learned Italic script because it was the most suitable type of script for copper engraving of maps. He wrote the first instruction book of Italic script published in northern Europe.


Mercator was charged with heresy in 1544 on the basis of his sympathy for Protestant beliefs and suspicions about his frequent travels. He was in prison for seven months before the charges were dropped—possibly because of intervention from the university authorities.

In 1552, he moved to Duisburg, one of the major cities in the Duchy of Cleves, and opened a cartographic workshop where he completed a six-panel map of Europe in 1554. He worked also as a surveyor for the city. His motives for moving to Duisburg are not clear. Mercator might have left Flanders for religious reasons or because he was informed about the plans to found a university. He taught mathematics at the academic college of Duisburg. In 1564, after producing several maps, he was appointed Court Cosmographer to Wilhelm, Duke of Jülich-Cleves-Berg.


In 1569 he devised a new projection for a nautical chart. This cylindrical projection, now called the Mercator projection (although several other cartographers developed earlier versions), used for Mercator’s world map has several major advantages and several disadvantages.  A ship travelling at a constant bearing is, in a sense, travelling in a straight line.  But because the earth is spherical that “straight line” (known as a rhumb line) is really an arc of a circle. When plotted on a flat map on which the lines of latitude are equidistant (as they are on a globe), a rhumb line appears as an arc of a circle.  Mercator’s projection increases the distance between lines of latitude in carefully calibrated increments as they move farther from the equator (becoming infinitely far apart at the two poles). The effect is to make rhumb lines straight on the map.  This was an enormous benefit to maritime navigation.  The disadvantage of the Mercator projection is that is seriously distorts the sizes of countries relatively near the poles.  The map here, for example, shows Greenland as roughly the same size as Africa and larger than Australia, whereas in the later case Australia is over 3 times larger.  In consequence Mercator projection is no longer used for general purpose maps.


Mercator took the word atlas to describe a collection of maps, and encouraged Abraham Ortelius to compile the first modern world atlas – Theatrum Orbis Terrarum – in 1570. He produced his own atlas in a number of parts, the first of which was published in 1578 and consisted of corrected versions of the maps of Ptolemy (though introducing a number of new errors). Maps of France, Germany and the Netherlands were added in 1585 and of the Balkans and Greece in 1588; further maps were published by Mercator’s son Rumold Mercator in 1595 after the death of his father.

Mercator learnt globe making from Gemma Frisius and went on to become the leading European globe maker of the age. Twenty-two pairs of his globes (terrestrial globe and matching celestial globe) have survived.

mercator3  mercator5

Following his move to Duisburg, Mercator never left the city and died there, a respected and wealthy citizen.

Waterzooi is a very old Flemish dish normally associated with the city of Ghent.  It was originally a peasant dish but now can be found in elegant restaurants.  It is loaded with a variety of vegetables, and the choice is really up to you.  I give you here a good example.  Use root vegetables in the main, and do not use leafy ones.  The dish was originally made with river fish, but these days is almost always made with chicken.  I make it with fish usually, but I am giving you the normal modern chicken recipe because river fish can be hard to come by in most parts of the world.  In Argentina it is quite common.


©Gentse Waterzooi


1 chicken
3 leeks, cleaned and chopped
½ celeriac, peeled and coarsely shredded
3 carrots, peeled and diced
1 onion, peeled and diced
4 potatoes, peeled and diced
2 stalks celery, chopped
2 quarts/2 lt chicken stock
1 cup /2 dl cream
juice of 1 lemon
2 egg yolks


Melt the butter in a large heavy pot and sauté the vegetables for 4 to 5 minutes.

Add the chicken and the chicken stock. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Bring to a boil, cover, and simmer for 45 minutes.

Reduce the broth to a slow simmer.  Take the chicken from the pot, remove the skin, and cut the meat from the carcass in large pieces.

Beat the egg yolks and cream in a bowl, and then add ½ ladle of the broth to the mixture, whisking constantly.  Add this mix to the broth while stirring constantly to incorporate it quickly and thoroughly.  If you do not follow these two steps the eggs will curdle.  Add the lemon juice.

Return the chicken pieces to the soup.  Let them heat through and serve the soup in deep bowls with desem (sourdough) rolls, or a baguette.