Bread Basket

Egypt

Egypt was the most valuable province of Rome for two reasons.  The first is obvious, in a time when any food surplus was highly valued Egypt was the bread basket of the Mediterranean world, churning out a regular, highly dependable surplus of wheat.

Secondly it operated out of step with the Northern summer season.  The monsoons hit Ethiopia in the Summer causing the Nile flood, so the Egyptians were planting when the Italians and Greeks were harvesting.  This allowed the Empire to stagger the deployment of transport.  Ships that transported grain from Sicily and Africa in Autumn could switch to the Egyptian trade in Spring.

When Rome lost Italy, Sicily, North Africa, Sardinia and ruled from Constantinople Egypt gained in importance.

As a result the 6th of July was a black day for the Romans when, in 640 AD a small force of Arabs under the brilliant general Amr ibn al-As al-Sahmi routed the Byzantines at the battle of Heliopolis on the outskirts of Cairo.

The Romans had, after a lifetime of war by Emperor Heraclius, defeated their arch nemesis, the Sassanid Empire, in 622.  As the two punch-drunk empires reeled away from each other the newly unified Arabs exploded out of the Arabian Peninsula and overran the Sassanid lands; the ancient Persian Empire.

The Romans believed themselves safe for at least a generation as the Arabs assimilated the feuding elements of the Persian empire.  They met the Arabs properly for the first time at the battle of Yarmouk in Syria in a battle that lasted for six days.  Rome lost Syria, but that was not a complete disaster.  Rome could survive without troublesome Syria.

But Egypt was another matter.  The loss of Egypt was a near deathblow to the Roman Empire.  Ultimately the Byzantine Empire could only survive by re-organisation of the entire economy.  The grain dole that marked out the highs of Roman Civilization had to cease when Egypt was lost.  Roman dominance of Mare Nostrum, the Mediterranean Sea ended as the Arabs gained a coastline with well defended harbours.

The Arabs by contrast, were unleashed.  Their cavalry thundered across the North African Deserts to Morocco and Spain.  Where horses and camels galloped the ships followed.  The failings of the Byzantines at Heliopolis were felt by Christians across the entire Western World.

 

The Northern Penguin

Auk

The final confirmed sighting of a nesting pair of Great Auks was off Iceland on July 3rd, 1844 when a pair were killed.  The Auk became a victim of it’s increasing rarity.  As the species dwindled museums and collectors across Europe competed with each other to secure specimens of the birds and their eggs.  As the prices rose the collectors stepped up the hunt until the last birds were found and killed.

Icelandic sailors Jón Brandsson and Sigurður Ísleifsson strangled the adults and Ketill Ketilsson accidentally cracked the last egg of the species with his boot during the struggle on the island of Eldey.

The Great Auk was the only “modern” bird in the genus Pinguinus.  None of the Antarctic Penguins alive today are related to the Auk and none of them belong to the genus pinguinus.  But it was the resemblance of southern penguin species to the Great Auk that led to them being called Penguins.

An important source of food for humans since neanderthals walked the earth they provided much needed winter protein for native american tribes.  But it was their downy feathers that doomed them.  They were harvested widely for feathers.  They were also used as a convenient source of fresh food by explorers and fishermen, who would herd flocks of them on to their ships for provisions.

The feather collectors used the oily birds as fuel for cooking fires on the desolate rocks on which they lived.

Ah, but those were different times, you say.  We wouldn’t do that these days.  Would we?

Man is still wiping the planet clean of species after species in our pursuance of depletion economics.  Every  business targets growth, and few of them ever pause to consider how this growth impacts the planet.  How much is too much?  How much is enough.  When will we begin to live on this planet within our means?

Because if mankind cannot live within our means, we will go the way of the Auk.

A caution to everybody by Ogden Nash

Consider the auk;
becoming extinct because he forgot how to fly, and could only walk.
Consider man, who may well become extinct
because he forgot how to walk and learned how to fly before he thinked.

 

 

Poor Dad

Fava Beans

Fava beans are one of the oldest foods known to man.  In the middle east they are known as foul medames, and they are the basis for a bean soup or stew served from Morocco to Central Asia.  Foul is pronounced, usually, as “fool”.

These days most people reference fava beans to Hannibal the Cannibal of Red Dragon fame.  Hannibal Lecter is the doctor, serial killer and advisor to the FBI in Silence of the Lambs.  He famously told of the census taker who tried to quantify him “I ate his liver with some fava beans and a big Amarone”.  When the book was made into a film the research demonstrated that the audience did not know what expensive Amarone was, so they changed it to a cheap Chianti.

If you come from Southern Italy or Sicily you might know about the association of fava beans with the Feast of St. Joseph.  Today is American Fathers day, a Hallmark holiday.  The Catholic Fathers day was always St. Joseph’s Day on March 19th.

In Ireland since we had St. Patricks Day on March 17th the feast of St. Joseph was not a thing.  But it was very popular in Italian, Spanish and Portuguese Catholic Communities.  One of the symbols of Joseph is the “lucky bean”.  If you bring a dried fava bean to the church on St. Joseph’s Day and have it blessed by the priest it serves as a charm against poverty.  You keep the lucky bean in your wallet or purse and you will never completely run out of money.

The feast is preserved these days in the saying “I haven’t got a bean” meaning that you have no money.

 

 

 

Chicken Marengo

ChickenMarengo

One of my bucket list meals is to eat a proper Chicken Marengo on the 14th of June.  It is very difficult to get the dish, and this is reflected in the difficulty of getting a decent free to view photo of it.  The free photos of Chicken Marengo on the internet are dreadful, and seem to be taken by people who don’t know what they are cooking.

First let’s understand the Battle of Marengo and why it was such a celebration and so important to Napoleon.  Bonaparte had just returned from his victories in Egypt and was appointed First Consul of France, but he was at this stage just another lucky general.  Defeating Mamelukes was just not the same as defeating a scientific Western army like the Prussians, Russians or the mighty Austrians.

Napoleon took his army over the Alps into Italy in a moment subsequently celebrated with heroic portraits of the Emperor astride a prancing stallion on the mountainous tracks.  In fact he crossed on a mule.

His army was in bad shape.  Many of his troops were barefoot, starving and sick.  The French moved over the country in loose formation to maximize the ability of the men to live off the land.  This spread a wide net to catch the Austrian Army, but ensured that the French would be weak when the two sides engaged.

The French fought a number of battles in the Italian campaign but matters came to a decisive head at Marengo on June 14th, 1800.  At first when the retreating Austrian army turned to fight Napoleon thought it was merely a diversionary tactic by the rear-guard to cover the retreat.  But the Austrians had other ideas.

Napoleon spent the morning fighting, and losing, and praying that his calls to his distributed divisions would bring him reinforcements in the afternoon.  The Austrian commander Von Melas, was so sure of victory that he handed mopping up operations to his inferiors and retired from the field with his senior staff.  When Louis Desaix, commander of Bonaparte’s reinforcements arrived ahead of his 6,000 men Napoleon asked his opinion of the situation.  The legendary comment:  “This battle is completely lost. However, there is time to win another.”

And win they did, an unexpected and highly significant victory that assured Napoleon of his place at the top table in France.  The Austrians came to the negotiation table and ceded Italy.

After the battle the story goes, Napoleon’s chef was in a conundrum.  He was supposed to make a meal to celebrate a great victory but had little to work with.  He sent his foragers out in the local area to see what they could find.  They came back with a chicken and some eggs, crayfish, tomatoes, onions, garlic, herbs, oil.  The chef chopped up the chicken using a military sabre because his cooking equipment was miles away, escaping an expected defeat.

He made a sauce of the tomato, onion, garlic and herbs and “borrowed” some Cognac from Napoleon’s personal supply. He fried the chicken in olive oil, boiled the crayfish, fried the eggs and added some rough bread from the military supplies.

Although the chef was embarrassed at the rude assembly Napoleon loved it and refused to permit changes to the recipe.  He considered it a lucky dish and called for it frequently.

The truth is a proper Chicken Marengo is just not very photogenic.  It is a rough peasant meal and that’s how it should look.

If you go to a restaurant and they offer you Marengo with pasta, rice, or potatoes, it’s not Marengo.  If they replace the crayfish with lobster thermidor or Dublin bay prawns then it’s not Marengo.  If they serve it in a Provencal sauce – not Marengo.

 

 

 

Friday Night Dinner

Friday Night

Last night we tried out a new restaurant:  Féte du Vendredi Soir.  It’s a bijou (very small) bistro hidden away in the countryside of County Tipperary, near Cashel.  Very hard to find, they have no website and are not on Trip Advisor.  Even harder to get reservations.  But they say you can find all the best people here.  Tamsin Greig is a regular and I heard that Simon Bird and Tom Rosenthal have dined here.

We were lucky to get a table for our Wedding Anniversary.  The menu is set, there is no choice.  The chefs decide on it based on what they have available.  One week it could be squirrel, the next it could be soused herrings, always a surprise.  Louise, being a vegetarian, was delighted that our main was a mezze maniche rigate with a wild mushroom sauce.  I love the name of that pasta “striped half sleeves”.

When we arrived we were greeted with cocktails, a big G&T for me and a Mojito for Louise.  Her mint clearly came from the restaurant kitchen garden.  In the bistro you are dining in a half open kitchen, so you can see the chefs at work, smell the bread baking and hear all the clitter-clatter of a busy restaurant kitchen.  A little bit of “Gordon Ramsay” style shouting was going on between the head chef and the maître D which is a form of entertainment in itself, like watching Fawlty Towers.

The vibe was very chill, some great music playing in the background, Lou Reed, Kinks, ELO, Bryan Adams, Mungo Jerry, Rolling Stones etc.  Kind of a psychedelic rock theme.

The food was quite simple, but truly excellent.  When someone gives you a dish of salt, oil and bread it doesn’t sound like much.  But the bread is fresh baked out of the oven, first cold pressed extra virgin olive oil and Breton grey sea salt – Gros Sel de l’ile de Ré.  When you taste it you understand the difference between what you can do in your own kitchen and the magic of a trained professional chef who selects the best ingredients.  That attention to the smallest details is what Michelin Stars are awarded for.

The service was excellent, a good balance between personable attentiveness without being intrusive.  Our glasses were never allowed to run dry.

Our journey through the menu was a voyage of the senses.  In a period of quarantine lockdown we had a tour of the Mediterranean.  Olives from Greece, white wine and pasta from Italy, red wine wine from Southern France, then to Canada for the Moose.

Dining here is not cheap, but let’s say no more about the price, because it is worth every penny.

As Bread and Salt; Janina Degutytė (trans Marija Stankus-Saulaitis)

Through a high gate, decorated
with wreaths and slogans…
Through a high gate
I enter
like a guest
the dale,
encompassed by woods, clouds, and flights of swans.
And I accept
with lips chapped by north winds
the black night and the white day
as bread and salt.

Bread and salt

Happy Birthday Jacques Cousteau

Cousteau

As a scuba diver myself I am eternally grateful to the father of the Aqualung, the pioneer of sport diving Jacques Cousteau.  Born on this day in Aquitaine, France in 1910.

His contribution to diving, and to marine conservation, cannot be overstated.  He was also hugely influential in the film industry and bringing nature documentaries to a mainstream audience.

If you look up the town of Kilkee in Ireland on Wikipedia you will see a note that Cousteau considered Kilkee the finest dive site in Europe.  He probably said it too.  He regularly dived there with the local Scuba fanatic, the owner of the fish and chip shop: Manuel Dilucia.   As you can tell from his surname Manuel was not a Kilkee native; he was born in Belfast.  Indeed so were his parents.  It was his grandparents who emigrated from Italy.

Manuel’s was the “good” chipper in Kilkee.  A bit more expensive but worth it if you had a spare penny.  Manuel Dilucia was involved in all things marine in Kilkee.  He brought his love of seafood to the Irish people, who rated the fruits of the sea low on the scale of things to eat.  Manuel brought his Italian delight of seafood together with his love of marine sport.  He eventually opened a gourmet seafood restaurant in Kilkee when the locals were ready for more than battered cod after the pub.

He helped the Gardai with underwater searches, he pioneered scuba diving, he worked tirelessly on conservation of the natural environment and he founded the marine rescue service. It is no surprise that Jacques Cousteau would seek him out if he was interested in diving the West of Ireland.  So it may be unaccredited but I believe that Jacques Cousteau said that Kilkee was the best place to dive in Europe.

 

Dover Beach; by Matthew Arnold

The sea is calm tonight.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
upon the straits; on the French coast the light
gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
listen! you hear the grating roar
of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
at their return, up the high strand,
begin, and cease, and then again begin,
with tremulous cadence slow, and bring
the eternal note of sadness in.

Sophocles long ago
heard it on the Aegean, and it brought
into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
of human misery; we
find also in the sound a thought,
hearing it by this distant northern sea.

The Sea of Faith
was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
retreating, to the breath
of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
and naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true
to one another! for the world, which seems
to lie before us like a land of dreams,
so various, so beautiful, so new,
hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
and we are here as on a darkling plain
swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
where ignorant armies clash by night.

Black Irish

Black Irish

On June 7th 1832 the Asian Cholera arrived in Quebec.  The devastating disease took the lives of some 6,000 people, which was bad for the French and English Canadians who died.  It was worse for the Irish Canadians who were blamed for the disease.

It was not only in Canada that Irish were blamed for the Cholera.  All over the USA Irish Immigrants were held responsible for outbreaks of the disease.  Where Irish communities were absent the White Anglo Protestant ascendancy blamed the blacks.

From the caricatures above you can see that the Irish Immigrant on the right is portrayed with many of the features of the black reconstruction era politicians on the left.  Thick lips, vacant protruding eyes, aggressive postures; stupid, violent people.

The second cholera pandemic, also known as the Asiatic Cholera Pandemic, originated in Asia and spread to Eastern Russia.  From there it was tracked across the European continent.  The British Government quarantined vessels from Russia and Poland in 1831.  The symptoms were reported to the British Government from St Petersburgh, Russia by two English Doctors.

Yet when the disease reached Canada and the USA it was blamed on the minority groups of Irish and Negroes.  This is still happening today.  The English people want to blame the Coronavirus on Asian students.  Irish nationalist idiots attacked a fruit farm for employing Bulgarian strawberry pickers.  Donald Trump wants to blame the Chinese.

Populists harness diseases to push their agendas.  With Cholera this was quite easy.  Poor immigrants tend to live in the cheapest slums in the most unsanitary conditions.  They suffer worst from a water borne disease like Cholera.  It is easy to point the finger at them as a source of the illness.

This racism of 1832 was to have enduring consequences for the Irish.  When the Great Hunger struck in 1845 with the collapse of the Irish Potato Crop one route for the starving people was across the Atlantic to the New World.  But the memories were fresh of the Cholera outbreak and nobody was welcoming starving Irish to the Americas.

No_Irish_Need_Apply

 

Sail Oil

Kilkee

Kilkee in County Clare on the West Coast of Ireland has an amazingly scenic beach, Moore Bay.  The strand is a perfect horseshoe open to the vastness of the North Atlantic.  On the north fringe of the beach is a small pier and boat slip used by the local fishermen.  Fishing is heavily weather dependent and Kilkee is not a bay in which you can keep a fleet due to it’s exposure to Western Storms.  And most of the storms on this coast are Western Storms.

Growing up I spent many years on holidays in Kilkee and our days were planned around the tides.  We went swimming almost every day.  If the tides were high we would walk out the headland to the North side of the bay to Byrne’s Cove.  For low tide days the pollock holes came into play, natural rock pools that lie just below this photo above on the bottom left corner.

The long channel gives some protection to Moore Bay, but not much.  I have seen breakers ten feet tall on the beach.

Sail Oil was a nickname given to the local village idiot.  That term is not used these days, but Jerry McDermott filled that role in the town.  He attempted to be a fisherman, but had the good sense to remain on his little boat within the bay so he didn’t catch a lot.

My oldest brothers went out in his currach with him once when they were young teenagers.  Along the way they encountered a basking shark, the second biggest fish in the world.  Basking sharks are enormous but placid plankton feeders.  When the boys tried to attract the shark by splashing their hands in the water poor Sail Oil had a meltdown.

If they had a good catch the real fishermen would toss Jerry a few mackerel or pollock to sell on the street corner beside Hickey’s Guesthouse.  When he gathered a few shillings he would nip into May Naughten’s Pub for a pint or two.  When the money ran short he would throw cow eyes at the locals and tourists in the hope of scamming a free pint.

He had a wooden pole with a bent metal hook for crabbing at the Pollock Holes.  Apparently he knew all the best spots for the plate sized brown crabs you can find there.

After storms he would walk the strand beach-combing for anything valuable that might have washed ashore.  That was how he found the mysterious cylinder that was behind the Thresher Hoax.  But that’s another story.

 

 

 

Peak Consumerism

Beaujolais_nouveau_wine

If you ask Irish people when they think consumerism was most out of control they will generally refer to the Celtic Tiger years of the early noughties, peaking in the property bubble of 2007 and the subsequent crash.

For me that was simply a repeat of the 1980’s.  My symbols of peak consumerism are Nouvelle Cuisine and Beaujolais Nouveau.

Nouvelle Cuisine was developed in France in the post war years in response to shortages of certain ingredients, but also in a quest for lighter, fresher and more elegantly presented food.  Nouvelle Cuisine attained its height of ridiculousness in the 1980’s when it reached the executive dining rooms of major corporations.  C-suite executives of the day were comparing heart bypass operations and it was clear that the culture of steaks, chips and pints after work was unsustainable.

Enter the Nouvelle Cuisine extreme version:  a fantastically expensive plate of up to a dozen ingredients presented like a work of art, but gone in two bites.

Nouvelle cuisine

Then, to go one further, we had the excesses of the Beaujolais Nouveau races.  Beaujolais Nouveau is a fresh wine, something to be consumed in the year it is made.  One wine critic described it as something unfinished, decadent and a bit naughty, like eating cookie dough.

It is a red wine served fresh and chilled slightly.  It is the perfect foil to nouvelle cuisine, new wine for new money.  Each year the producers set a day to release the wine, in November, and the races begin.  At the peak you would see helicopters delivering wine to restaurants in London, Concorde jetting it across the Atlantic to New York,  and a plethora of sports cars and private aircraft bringing caches to clubs all over Ireland and the UK.

Beujolais Nouveau was, and remains, an excuse to flash the cash for a fleeting fad.  Good wines cost hundreds of Euro because time is money and time in the bottle is required to ripen a claret or a port.  Beaujolais Nouveau costs hundreds because … loadsa money!  If you have it flash it.  Loadsamoney became a stock comedy character in the Harry Enfield show in the 1980s.  A barrow-boy become stock trader with no class but lots of cash.

In November 1984 nine Irish men died in the Beaujolais Crash in Eastbourne en-route to France to collect their stash.  On board were four journalists, a wine merchant, a restaurant owner,  hotel owner, hotel manager and the pilot.  For me that was the day when consumerism went out of control.

Stranger Children

ho-chi-minh

A friend of mine wrote a sci-fi story called Stranger Children based on the quote “Politics makes for strange bedfellows”.  She thought that strange bedfellows would make for even stranger children.  There is truth in that.  Some very strange situations have emerged from political couplings.  If it is strangeness you desire play on, if it is history you seek you will gain little satisfaction from this tissue of lies.

I digress; back to strange situations, and none stranger than the American relationship with a man born on this day in 1890 by the name of Nguyễn Sinh Cung.  In the course of his life and his travels the Vietnamese revolutionary leader claimed four different birthdays and dozens of names, aliases and nicknames, from 50 to 200 names.  To his own people he is fondly remembered as Bác Hó (Uncle Ho) or simply Bác (Uncle).

In the western world he is recognised by some as Colonel Saunders, and by people who know something about history as Hó Chí Minh.  Honestly he never worked in KFC, although he did work in the USA as a cook, and a baker and as a supervisor in General Motors.  That is possibly where he learned how to be a General.

Ho Chi Minh came to be recognised by the American people as the face of Vietnam during the Vietnam War.  That was a strange war indeed.  The Americans refused to accept it was a war and tried to classify it as a police action, or technical support to defend the democratically elected government of South Vietnam against global communism.

John McCain, the Presidential Candidate, learned to his regret the very rocky ground on which you stand as a US Bomber Pilot when you are shot down over a country with which you are not at war.  He spent almost 6 years under house arrest in the 5 star Hilton Hotel in Hanoi, North Vietnam.  But he put his time to good use and he invented McCain’s Oven Chips, possibly inspired by Ho Chi Minh’s Southern Vietnamese Fried Chicken.

To the North Vietnamese, and to many in the South this was simply a war of independence.  Ho Chi Minh himself said that his loyalty was to independence and not to communism.  And this is attested to by what happened during WW2.

Ho Chi Minh helped the Americans to defeat the Japanese during the second world war.  He hoped the Americans, that bastion of freedom and democracy, would help the Vietnamese to shake off the colonial chains of their French occupiers after the war.  So in the 1940’s the USA and Ho Chi Minh were strange bedfellows.  Indeed the USA saved Uncle Ho’s life by treating him for malaria.  They saved his life so they could fight him later.  The OSS officers may also have given him the recipe for Southern Fried Chicken during this period.

The origin of the strange bedfellows quote is actually William Shakespeare in the Tempest when Trinculo, a shipwrecked sailor, beds down with Caliban, a beast, remarking “Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows”.

 

What have we here? A man or a fish?
Dead or alive? A fish.
He smells like a fish, a very ancient and fish-like smell,
a kind of not-of-the-newest poor-john.
A strange fish!
Were I in England now, as once I was,
and had but this fish painted,
not a holiday fool there but would give a piece of silver.
There would this monster make a man.
Any strange beast there makes a man.
When they will not give a doit to relieve a lame beggar,
they will lay out ten to see a dead Indian.
Legged like a man and his fins like arms!
Warm, o’ my troth. I do now let loose my opinion,
hold it no longer: this is no fish,
but an islander that hath lately suffered by a thunderbolt.

Thunder.

Alas, the storm is come again! My best way is to creep under his gaberdine.
There is no other shelter hereabouts.
Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows.
I will here shroud till the dregs of the storm be past.

(crawls under gaberdine)