Dec 242020
 

Today is Juleaften in Denmark, the main event of Jul (Yule), which spans most of December, and dates back centuries to old Nordic customs.  Before I get into Yule traditions in Denmark – and today’s recipe – I will celebrate one of the most famous Danish painters of the Danish Golden Age, Nicolai Wilhelm Marstrand who was born on this date in 1810.

Marstrand studied at Copenhagen’s Metropolitan School (Metropolitanskolen), but had little interest in books, and left around 16 years of age. Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg, painter and professor at the Royal Danish Academy of Art (Det Kongelige Danske Kunstakademi) in Copenhagen, was a close friend of Wilhelm’s father, and it was to all appearance Eckersberg who recommended an artistic career for young Wilhelm. Wilhelm had already shown artistic talent, tackling difficult subjects such as group scenes with many figures and complicated composition.

At 16 years of age Marstrand thus began his studies at the Academy under Eckersberg, attending the school from 1826 to 1833. Although his interests had a firm hold in genre themes – depiction of the daily life he observed around him in Copenhagen’s streets, especially middle-class society – he would soon reach for the pinnacle of Academic acceptability: the history painting.

In August 1836 he began the first of his many travels, going by way of Germany to Rome, stopping on the way at Berlin, Dresden, Nuremberg and Munich. In Italy, where he stayed for four years, he painted many idealized depictions of daily life, especially festivities. He returned to Italy several times, the last visit being in 1869, and when in Rome he spent summer months each year in the hill towns Olevano Romano, Civitella and Subiaco. He was enchanted with Italy and with the ways of life of the Italian people. He portrayed a colorful, joyous, and romantic view of them, infused with a newfound ideal of beauty.

He also painted a number of portraits during this first stay in Italy. Among these are portraits of other travelling Danish artists, such as Christen Købke and traveling partner Johan Adolph Kittendorff.

Marstrand returned to Denmark at the end of 1841, stopping in Munich and Paris on the way. In Denmark he strove to bring back that which he learned in Italy, and allow it to develop in his home culture. He became a member of the art Academy on 19th June 1843, after submitting the painting “Erasmus Montanus” as his admissions piece. He became a professor at the Academy in 1848. He endeavored to let his students evolve according to their own skills and interests. Among these were the two most renowned Skagen painters Peder Severin Krøyer and Michael Ancher, as well as Carl Bloch and Kristian Zahrtmann. Marstrand continued to travel regularly around Europe throughout his life, to (London, Vienna, Belgium, but especially to Italy and Rome), at times in the company of such fellow artists such as P. C. Skovgaard and Johan Adolph Kittendorff, or of art historian and critic Niels Lauritz Høyen.

History painting displayed what was grand – classical themes from mythology and history, rather than daily life. The traditions, and the taste of traditional art critics, strongly favored it. It was therefore something to strive for, in spite of Marstrand’s equal skill at depicting more modest themes, and of the enjoyment he had in portraying the crowds, the diversions of the city, and the humor and story behind the hustle and bustle. Marstrand’s creative production, throughout his life, never abandoned this inclination toward displaying the simple life of his times.

In the evening of Juleaften Danes traditionally eat a family meal consisting of roast pork, roast duck, or – more rarely – roast goose, with caramelized potatoes, red cabbage and brown gravy. The dessert should be risalamande, a cold rice pudding dish, with a hot cherry sauce. The name is based on French riz à l’amande meaning “rice with almonds,” although the dessert has a Danish origin (copying French styles of cuisine in the 19th century). Rice pudding is a favorite dessert in Denmark throughout the year, but risalamande is reserved for Juleaften.  A whole almond is added to the dessert, and the person who finds it wins a small prize such as a marzipan pig, a chocolate heart or a small board game. The finder may conceal their discovery as long as possible, so that the rest of the company is forced to eat the entire dish of risalamande, even after they have already eaten a large dinner.

After the meal is complete, (or sometimes before) the family dances around the Juletræ singing Christmas carols and hymns like “Nu er det jul igen” (Now it is Yule again) and “Et barn er født i Bethlehem” (A child has been born in Bethlehem). Thirty years ago I was invited to a Juleaften dinner by some Danes and we all joined hands in a circle around the tree, which was lit exclusively by candles (superb sight, but a fire hazard), and danced while singing.  After the singing the presents are handed out in turn, followed by more snacks and sweets and the traditional Gløgg.

This video gives the general idea of making risalamande, followed by a more detailed recipe:

Risalamande

Ingredients

2.25 dl short-grained white rice
1 dl water
1 l milk
2 vanilla beans
150 g almonds
2 tbsp sugar
5 dl heavy cream
1 can cherry sauce

Instructions

In a saucepan; add the rice and water. Heat it up and let it boil for about 2 minutes.  Add the milk to the pudding and heat until boiling, stirring constantly. Cut open the vanilla beans, scrape out the seeds and add them to the pot. This is done by slicing the vanilla beans and scrape out the seeds using a knife. Also add 2 tablespoons of sugar and the empty vanilla bean skins.

Cover and simmer on low heat for about 35 minutes. The rice has a tendency to burn to so to stir regularly. Remove the empty vanilla beans. The rice pudding part is now done. Let it cool in the refrigerator before you proceeding.

Heat some water until boiling point and pour it in a small bowl. Add the almonds and let them soak in the hot water for about 5-7 minutes. One-by-one take the almonds up and press them between two fingers so that the peel separates from the almond.  Coarsely chop the almonds and mix them with the cold rice pudding. In a separate bowl, whisk the heavy cream and gently mix the it with the rice pudding. Refrigerate until serving.

Heat cherry sauce in a saucepan until it is warm (not hot).  Divide the rice pudding between bowls and pour the cherry sauce over the top. (The video shows how to make the cherry sauce if you prefer it to readymade).

 

 

Dec 212017
 

Today is the December solstice, which, astronomically speaking, is not a day but a moment, and can fall anywhere from December 20th to December 22nd. This year it happens to occur very late on the 21st here in Cambodia, and rather earlier in Europe and the Americas, so we’re good to go. Without going into excruciating detail (nor being entirely accurate), the solstice occurs when the sun appears to stand still, from the Latin sol (“sun”) and sistere (“to stand still”), in its apparent movement north to the tropic of cancer once per year, and south to the tropic of capricorn 6 months later. Changing directions is the matter of a mere moment, but historically cultures have celebrated the entire day when the change occurs, because the moment is not really detectable as such. It can be calculated, but you can’t see it happening. If it’s cloudy that day, you can’t actually see it at all, and even if you can see the sun, its apparent change of direction can take a day or two to be obvious. Assigning a day is convenient for everyone.

The solstice is called the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere and the summer solstice in the southern hemisphere because they are diametrically opposite.  This is the shortest day in the year in the north, and the longest day in the year in the south.  Consequently, I don’t generally like to be ethnocentric about solstices, but this year I will make an exception and focus on the wintry side of things because we are in Christmastide, and Christmas makes more sense as a winter festival than as a summer one, even though I’ve celebrated them in both summer and winter.  Winter suits me better for Christmas. Likewise spring suits Easter much better than autumn.

Marking the solstice probably goes back to Neolithic times; certainly it was an important time in northern latitudes where crops were sown, and animals tended. Neolithic and Bronze Age archaeological sites, such as Stonehenge in England and Newgrange in Ireland attest to this fact, as do Inca, Aztec, and Mayan sites. It is naïve in the extreme to think that “primitive” peoples were afraid every winter that the sun was dying and would never return unless certain magical rituals were performed. People are not that stupid. Did they also think the sun died every night? Of course not. Experience tells you it will rise again the next day. Likewise, “primitive” people knew about the cycle of the seasons. They built Stonehenge, and like monuments, not so much to worship the sun (although that may have been a component), but to predict its course year to year so that they could plan their annual activities accordingly.

The primary axes of both of ancient monuments seem to have been carefully aligned on a sight-line pointing to the winter solstice sunrise (Newgrange) and the winter solstice sunset (Stonehenge). It is significant that at Stonehenge the Great Trilithon was oriented outwards from the middle of the monument, that is, its smooth flat face was turned towards the midwinter Sun. The winter solstice was immensely important because the people were economically dependent on monitoring the progress of the seasons. Starvation was common during the first months of the winter, January to April (northern hemisphere) or July to October (southern hemisphere), also known as “the famine months”. In temperate climates, the midwinter festival was the last feast celebration, before deep winter began. Most cattle were slaughtered so they would not have to be fed during the winter, so it was almost the only time of year when a plentiful supply of fresh meat was available. The bulk of wine and beer made during the year was finally fermented and ready for drinking at this time.

Iranian people celebrate the night of the Northern Hemisphere’s winter solstice as, “Yalda night”, which is known to be the “longest and darkest night of the year”. On this night all the family gather together, usually at the house of the oldest, and celebrate it by eating, drinking and reading poems (esp. Hafez). Nuts, pomegranates and watermelons are especially served during this festival.

The pagan Scandinavian and Germanic people of northern Europe celebrated a midwinter (winter solstice) holiday called Yule (also called Jul, Julblot, jólablót, midvinterblot, julofferfest) and also called the season or one of the winter months by the same name. Scandinavians still use a cognate of “Jul” for this time of year. In English, the word “Yule” is often used in combination with the season “yuletide” a usage first recorded in the 9th century. The Norse god associated with Jul was Jólner, which is one of Odin’s many names. The concept of Yule occurs in a tribute poem to Harold Hårfager from about 900, where “drinking Jul” is referred to. Julblot is the most important feast. At the “julblotet”, sacrifices were given to the gods to earn blessing on the forthcoming germinating crops.

Sol Invictus (“The Unconquered Sun”) was originally a Syrian god who was later adopted as the chief god of the Roman Empire under emperor Aurelian. He too was worshipped and feasted around the Midwinter solstice. What we have to be careful of is believing that Christmas evolved out of traditions such as Sol Invictus celebrations and the like.  It did not, even though in some cultures some Midwinter customs, such as decorating with holly and mistletoe, were transferred over. Christmas is a Christian tradition – end of story. The activities associated with Christmas in different cultures may have been picked up from Midwinter celebrations in general. That’s only natural. Is eating a big festive meal somehow a pagan tradition, or is it just something we all do on significant holidays?

I think making a chocolate Yule log is a merry thing to do today if you live in the northern hemisphere. I used to make one every year as part of my Christmas baking. I’ll confess that I usually cheated, but it was fun anyway. I would buy a chocolate Swiss roll and cut it and shape it so that it resembled a log with a branch coming off one side. Then I would slather it with a chocolate icing, mark the icing with a fork to resemble bark, let it dry a little, dust it with icing sugar for snow, and add a sprig of holly from the garden for decoration. It never lasted long in my house.