Thursday, 30 October 2014


“We could never have loved the earth so well if we had had no childhood in it.” - George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss, 1860

Whenever I remember my grandmother’s kitchen, the smell of it is what comes to mind first. Not the smell we associate with food cooking and which would vary according to the dish prepared. Rather, what I loved was the general, ambient smell one could appreciate first thing in the morning, for example. It was a wonderful mixture of herbal aromas of the bunches that were hanging to dry from the rafters near the pantry, the smell of bread toasting and milk being warmed, the wafting floral perfumes from the garden outside as they entered from the open window. A heady mix, a homely, warm, comfortable smell, fresh and pungent at the same time. Sweet and aromatic, but with a tinge of bitterness and refreshing vigour.

In the last few years, herbs have been becoming increasingly popular. Their curative properties, well known for centuries, have been rediscovered and herbalists or natural medicine practitioners enjoying an ever-increasing clientele. But despite this recent herb-fascination, herbs have been used widely, often ignored by most people. Herbs have been flavouring our most basic foods. What would pizza be if it weren’t for the tang of oregano? Could pesto be made without basil? What about the flavour of pickles without dill? Basil, rosemary, French tarragon, oregano and parsley are amongst the most versatile and popular cooking herbs, but the list of herbs numbers in the hundreds, especially if we look at cuisines all over the world.

Herbs are aromatic plants whose leaves, stems and flowers are used as flavouring. Spices also come from aromatic plants, but are derived from the bark, roots, seeds, buds and berries. Many herbs were first cultivated in the warmer climates of Europe along the Mediterranean, which explains the more savoury aspect of Mediterranean cooking compared to some of the blander traditional dishes of Northern Europe, for example. Here are five herbs that are essential to have in a pantry or growing in your garden:

Parsley (Petroselinum crispum) is one of the most popular herbs worldwide and the world’s oldest breath freshener. Chewing a couple of sprigs of fresh parsley after one has eaten garlic is said to be helpful in freshening the breath. It is a crucial ingredient in the Middle Eastern dish of tabbouleh. The curly variety of parsley is often used as a garnish, while the flat-leafed parsley is almost exclusively reserved for cooking. The flavour of this herb complements raw salads or simmered soups well. Parsley blends well with both mild and strong-flavoured herbs, so it is often used in combination with many others. Parsley does well in sunny spots, but will tolerate partial shade. It will not tolerate long periods in dry soils.

Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) is a perennial bush with spiky, short leaves. Rosemary sprigs are quite aromatic and used for flavouring lamb and pork, sausages and pâtés. Rosemary sprigs can also be sprinkled over open coals before grilling so the meat will absorb the roasted herb flavour. Like basil, this herb is often used in Italian but also in Greek cooking. It is popular in oil infusions with vinegar or wine. Rosemary can be used well both fresh and dried. The plant prefers warm climates and well-drained soil. The bluish-mauve flowers of rosemary are an added bonus at the end of summer.

Basil (Ocimum basilicum) is a small annual bush with bright green leaves and spikes of small white flowers. Basil is best paired with tomato dishes and is most popular in Italian cooking. It also forms the basis for pesto. Basil is best used fresh as its flavour diminishes and alters when dried. Basil makes a popular plant for herbal gardens and sunny windowsills. To keep the leaves sprouting, and to prevent the plant from going to seed early, pinch off the flower stems the minute they appear.

French Tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus) is one of the most versatile herbs. It is typically used dried, and is rich in flavour. It is a classic for sauces like Béarnaise, but also useful for adding flavour to fish and eggs. Tarragon and rosemary do not mix well together and should not be used in the same dish. Parsley and chives can on the other hand be successfully combined with tarragon. Like most herbs, tarragon plants love sunny positions and the flavour intensifies when exposed to direct heat.

Oregano (Origanum vulgare) grows wild in Mediterranean countries and is used widely in the region’s cooking. Oregano has a savoury flavour that works well with tomatoes, salads (especially the fresh herb), soups (minestrone!) and pasta, as well as with fish and game. Most pizza sauces are flavoured with oregano. The herb is quite pungent, but it will quickly lose flavour if cooked too long and may actually turn bitter if overcooked. When the flower buds are visible and just about to open, oregano leaves are said to be at their most flavoursome. Again like most herbs, oregano loves open, sunny garden spots. Its leaves are well adapted to drying if left in a warm, but dry and shady spot. For drying, the herb should be allowed to set seed and then collected and dried.

Although I like most herbs very much, one herb the flavour of which I rather dislike is fresh coriander (cilantro). Its smell can be overpowering and slightly nauseating for me. On the other hand, ground coriander seed I rather like! Go figure… Are there any herbs that you particularly dislike?

Wednesday, 29 October 2014


“Doctoring her seemed to her as absurd as putting together the pieces of a broken vase. Her heart was broken. Why would they try to cure her with pills and powders?” - Leo Tolstoy

For this week, Poetry Jam has selected the theme of “Broken” in order to inspire the participants of the poetic challenge.

In Japan, when an object is mended, the damaged part is highlighted by decorating it with precious metal. The presence of the flaw highlights the history of the object, with its value and beauty perceived as being greater than before. We too can repair ourselves and wear proudly our scars, as if they are adorned with gold. Here is my offering:

Closed for Renovations

My heart is closed for renovations:
Your residence therein
Was somewhat indelicate,
And much needed be done
To make it habitable once again.

I’ve left my heart vacant, for now:
Following your eviction,
The cracks in its walls will be repaired,
Fresh coats of paint applied
And a new colour scheme chosen.

It is a barren place, my heart:
Since you left, you left it empty –
Save for your rubbish, cast-offs,
And your unwanted lumbering baggage
That none would want, not even me, now.

It’s worse for wear and tear, my heart:
But I’ll mend it and renew it,
Recondition and repair it.
And this time around, I’ll be more careful,
I won’t give it away for free…

My freshly painted, remodelled heart,
Is now for sale; not for rent, nor to be given away –
Sold, as paint jobs are expensive and renovations costly.
My heart is more precious now,
An old thing broken and repaired
Is more beautiful than a thing brand new.

Tuesday, 28 October 2014


“Colour has taken possession of me; no longer do I have to chase after it. I know that it has hold of me forever... Colour and I are one. I am a painter.” - Paul Klee

For Literary Tuesday today I have an extremely interesting book for you. It is written by Victoria Finlay and it is called “Colour: Travels Through the Paintbox.” (2002). I recommend it highly for reading by anyone who has an interest in art, painting, anthropology, history, politics, social science or anyone who has a curious and active mind. It is well written and full of charming anecdotes, picaresque details, interesting trivia and scholarly (yet never dull!) research.

The book is a history of colour, especially the colours used by artists - but not only. Finlay takes us through ancient times in her travels in Northern and Central Australia in order to uncover the secrets of the most fundamental of colours, the earthy ochres. In Prehistorical and Classical Europe looking at the origins of our blacks and browns. She then shifts to the elusive and often deadly searches for the perfect white.

We travel to exotic places for encounters with the fiery reds and oranges, with many secret recipes for these pigments still remaining unknown. We are exposed to unsavoury practices in the manufacture of Indian yellow, while we delight in the joys of saffron and the mystery of Chinese green and the deadly arsenical greens. Precious blue is sought in Afghanistan and the book finishes with the various synthetic pigments that have given us magnificent purples and magentas, by the way of Tyrian purples and Indigo plants.

I was fascinated by this book and it proved to be unputtable-down! There is romance and intrigue, mystery and adventure, murder and passion in colour. A wealth of information is in the book, but the erudite work is presented in an engaging and amusing way, with many anecdotes involving famous (an infamous!) people.

If this subject interests you, here is a web site about colour:

Monday, 27 October 2014


“What greater grief than the loss of one’s native land.”  - Euripides

One of the most amazing things about ancient Greek plays is their relevance to today’s world, even though they were written nearly two-and-a-half millennia ago. They deal with human situations that are familiar to us, and their characters are oddly modern in their emotions and the ideas that they struggle with. The tragedies in particular, can wreak havoc with our emotional stability as the raw power that they are packed with makes us participate in the plot’s twists and turns and we can only but sympathise with the vicissitudes of the protagonists’ lives.

Greek tragedy on the stage can be extremely powerful and well-produced, but it can also be ridiculous. Film adaptations of Greek tragedy are not common, and can also fall into these two extreme groups – the excellent or the very bad. Yesterday we watched Michael Cacoyannis’ excellent 1971 filmic adaptation of Euripides’ The Trojan Women. I was glad to say that it was a magnificent adaptation. The film was entirely stripped of its supernatural baggage (for example there is no prologue by Poseidon, god of the sea and no introductory episode with Athena and Poseidon talking about divine punishment), and thus was made entirely human and we could concentrate directly on the tragic situation of the fall of Troy.

Euripides’ play “The Trojan Women”, is not so much a tragic story as a portrayal of a tragic situation. Euripides dramatises the postwar conditions of the women of Troy, who become spoils of war. They are assembled in front of the ruins of their once-great city and await to be shipped to Greece where they will become slaves and concubines to the victors. The protagonists are Hecuba, the widowed queen of Troy; Cassandra, her half-mad daughter and seer; Andromache, Hecuba’s daughter-in-law, widow of Hector; and of course, Helen of Troy.

The play was produced in 415 BC shortly after the capture of Melos by the Athenians, in what was a particularly terrible time as far as hostilities between Athens and Sparta are concerned. Euripides’ purpose for writing this anti-war play is patent in the context of the brutal destruction of Melos and enslavement of its population. Euripides’ plays are largely a departure from the typical tragedies of Aeschylus and Sophocles. Euripides is often revolutionary in that he chooses to dramatise unconventional views, he takes the part of the underdog, exposes nobility of character in the humblest individual. In “The Trojan Women” this is exemplified, as he shows that slave women possess a nobility of mind that stands in striking contrast to the inhumanity of the victorious Greek warriors.

The ruthless drama portrays hope as self-delusion and folly, and the doomed women are shown as being resigned to their fate, with forbearance and acceptance of an injustice they see as their abandonment by their gods. Hecuba and the Trojan Women have to deal with the brutality of war and the irrefutable lack of compassion by the victorious Greeks. The callous disregard for the lives of innocent women and children is highlighted by Euripides. Hecuba is a woeful woman in a postwar environment full of terror and destruction. She never considers the possibility of female rebellion against corrupt yet superior male forces, although Cassandra may be said to do so, but is driven by vengeance.

The film has a star-studded cast led by Katharine Hepburn as Hecuba, Vanessa Redgrave as Andromache, Geneviève Bujold as Cassandra and Irene Papas as Helen. All act superbly and the film is carried by each of these spectacular performances that dovetail into one another and enliven wonderfully Euripides’ play. Brian Blessed as the messenger and Patrick Magee as Menelaus, Helen’s husband, have good supporting roles. However, this movie is an ensemble piece for the actresses who carry it off with great panache and talent.

Cacoyannis wrote the scenario based on Edith Hamilton’s translation of Euripides and also directed and edited the film. There is a unity of vision in the finished product when this happens. A scenarist, director who also edits the film gives us a product of his creativity that is truly part of himself. A play is a vehicle for the actors’ art, with the director being reduced to a technician. A film allows the director to assume the role of the artist and the actors are his paints, with whom he can create the art on the screen.

The music is by Mikis Theodorakis and complements the action well. Maria Farandouri sings with passion and her contralto voice provides a strong support to the drama on the screen. The locations and cinematography are excellent and the parched, dusty landscape on which the towering ruinous walls of Troy lay is extremely evocative.

When you see this film, don’t expect an epic. There are no chariot races, no nail-biting gladiatorial combats, no battle scenes with thousands of extras. There is no sex, no special effects, no scenes of popular appeal or mawkish sentimentality. The film has in common with the play the basic elements of a Greek tragedy: The viewer is involved in the action, and together with the characters experiences a personal transformation. A great anti-war film with a powerful message delivered in a raw, emotionally charged and violent way. See it if you can lay your hands on it. 

Sunday, 26 October 2014


“In trial or difficulty I have recourse to Mother Mary, whose glance alone is enough to dissipate every fear.” - Saint Thérèse of Lisieux

Albrecht Dürer was born May 21, in 1471, in the Imperial Free City of Nürnberg, Germany and died April 6, 1528, Nürnberg. He was a painter, printmaker, draughtsman and art theorist, generally regarded as the greatest German Renaissance artist. His vast body of work includes altarpieces and religious works, numerous portraits and self-portraits, and copper engravings. His woodcuts, such as the Apocalypse series (1498), retain a more Gothic flavour than the rest of his work.

Dürer was the third child of between fourteen and eighteen children. His father was a goldsmith. Albrecht’s godfather, Anton Koberger, became a printer and publisher in the same year that Albrecht was born. His most famous publication was the Nürnberg Chronicle, which included many woodcut illustrations. Albrecht may have learned about woodcuts and printing while working on this publication.

Albrecht, at the age of 13, was the first artist to create a self-portrait. Using a mirror he worked to draw his likeness. He said, “I drew it when I was still a child”. In later years he produced three more portraits of himself. At the age of 15 Albrecht was showing a talent for drawing. His talent was recognised, and he became an apprentice to Michael Wolgemut, an important artist in Nürnberg at the time. His workshop created a variety of art works, particularly woodcuts for books.

Dürer made many drawings, watercolours and oil paintings during his lifetime. Sixty of his oil paintings remain. His most celebrated works include “Young Hare” (1502), “The Praying Hands” (1508), and “Rhinoceros” (1515). Albrecht Dürer is regarded as one of the greatest artists of the Renaissance Era, and the greatest printmaker of all time.

“The Feast of the Rosary” (German: “Rosenkranzfest”) is a 1506 oil painting by Albrecht Dürer, now in the National Gallery, Prague, Czech Republic. The work dates to Dürer’s sojourn in Venice, and had been commissioned by Jacob Fugger, intermediary between emperor Maximilian I and Pope Julius II, during the painter's stay as the banker's guest in Augsburg.

The painting shows the Virgin Enthroned holding the Child in the centre, with two flying angels who are holding, above her, an elaborate royal crown made of gold, pearls and gems; this was a Flemish art scheme already widespread in the German area at the time. The throne’s backrest is covered with a green drape and by a baldachin which is also held by two flying cherubim. Below is an angel playing a lute, an evident homage to Giovanni Bellini’s altarpieces.

Mary is depicted in the act of distributing rose garlands to two groups of kneeling worshippers, portrayed on two symmetrical rows at the sides. The two rows are headed, on the left, by Pope Julius II (who had been approved the German brotherhood with a bull in 1474), crowned by the Child and followed by a procession of religious figures; and, on the right, by the German emperor Frederick III (portrayed with the face of his son and patron of Dürer, Maximilian I), crowned by Mary and followed by a lay procession.

Dürer likely based his portrait of the emperor on a drawing by Ambrogio de’ Predis, who had worked for Maximilian at Innsbruck. The pope and the emperor, considered at the time the supreme authorities of the Catholic world, have previously deposed the papal tiara and the imperial crown, and are now kneeling to receive the Madonna’s blessing. Other angels are distributing crowns of flowers, as is St. Dominic of Guzman (protector of the adoration of Mary and of the Rosary), who stands at the side of the Virgin.

Near the left border is the patriarch of Venice, Antonio Soriano, with the hands joined, and, next to him, Burkard von Speyer, then chaplain of the church of San Bartolomeo, who was also portrayed by Dürer in another painting. On the right, nearby a lush Alpine landscape, is the artist’s self-portrait with a cartouche in a hand: Here is the signature with a short inscription, reporting the time needed to complete the work (five months).

The characters next to the painter are likely Leonhard Vilt, founder of the Brotherhood of the Rosary in Venice, and (in black) Hieronymus of Augsburg, the architect of the new Fondaco dei Tedeschi. Annexed is the donor’s portrait. The style of the work is reminiscent of some Bellini’s works featuring the same quiet monumental appearance, such as the San Giobbe Altarpiece (1487) or the San Zaccaria Altarpiece (1505), especially regarding the guitar playing angel in the centre. Most the work was subject to later repainting, including the great part of the heads and some half of the panel.

Friday, 24 October 2014


“Patriotism is when love of your own people comes first; nationalism, when hate for people other than your own comes first.” - Charles de Gaulle

Franz Liszt (22 October 1811, Doborján, Hungary [now Raiding, Burgenland, Austria] - 31 July 1886, Bayreuth, Germany [pneumonia]), the virtuoso pianist and composer, was the most famous concert superstar of the 19th century. He was born in what was then the Austrian Empire. His father was Hungarian and his mother was Austrian. At age 6 he took music lessons from his father, Adam Liszt, who worked at the Court of Count Esterhazy, the main sponsor of Liszt’s education and career.

Liszt continued his music studies in Vienna under Carl Czerny and Antonio Salieri. In 1823, at the young age of 12, Liszt moved with his parents to Paris. There he enjoyed an early friendship with Frédéric Chopin, but later they became rivals. At that time young Liszt began his career of a travelling virtuoso. He was adulated all-over Europe, from Ireland to Russia. His concert performances included his own compositions, regarded by many as the most difficult piano music ever written.

His elegant, worldly manners in combination with diabolic cynicism and his impressive stage presence and supernatural virtuosity gave cause for rumors, that he must have made a deal with the Devil. His “Mephisto Waltz” depicts the Devil playing a Paganini-style violin on the piano. Franz Liszt became a friend of many important cultural figures of his time. He attended the Paris premiere of the “Symphonie Fantastique” by Hector Berlioz and the two composers became good friends. Liszt shared mutual respect with Mikhail Glinka. He also admired Aleksandr Borodin and promoted his first symphony for performances in Western Europe.

Liszt was a friend of Richard Wagner, who was Liszt’s son-in-law, until their differences led to cooler relationship in their later years. Liszt’s influence on his fellow musicians was legendary. He made superb piano transcriptions of symphonies, operas and large orchestral works of other composers, such as Ludwig van Beethoven, Hector Berlioz, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Richard Wagner. Operas and symphonies in Liszt’s transcriptions became valuable repertoire of many pianists. Liszt lived and travelled with the married Countess Marie D’Agoult for 12 years and they had three children.

In 1847, in Russia, Liszt met the beautiful and wealthy Princess Carolyne Wittgenstein, who soon left her husband for Liszt. In 1848 he became the Director of Music at the Court of Weimar. There, living with Carolyne in her mansion, he composed and revised his most important music, including the “Dream of Love”, dedicated to Carolyne. The Church did not allow Liszt to marry Carolyne and also did not allow Carolyne to divorce Wittgenstein, with whom she had a daughter.

In 1861 Liszt settled in Rome where Carolyne bought a home and they tried to marry again, but the Church did not terminate Carolyne’s marriage until her husband died in 1864. She then changed her mind and lived with unmarried Liszt, who was stuck in this painful situation until the end of his life. Under her influence, he became a religious man and in 1865 Pope admitted Liszt into Holy Orders and commissioned the church music. Since 1870s Liszt taught at the Budapest Conservatory and also participated with Wagner in several concert events in Bayreuth. He spent his last years between Rome, Weimar, Budapest and Bayreuth, where he died in 1886.

Here is Franz Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No.2, originally written for solo piano, which comes to life in its orchestral version in this fiery performance by the Cologne New Philharmonic conducted by Volker Hartung. Recorded live at Laeiszhalle Hamburg, Germany in March 2012.


“If only one could tell true love from false love as one can tell mushrooms from toadstools.” - Katherine Mansfield

For Food Friday today, a vegetarian dish perfect for my Northern Hemisphere readers who are in the midst of Autumn with lots of mushrooms available!

Vegetarian Mushroom Pies
50 mL olive oil
180 g Swiss brown mushrooms, chopped
180 g field mushrooms, chopped
2 shallots, peeled and finely chopped
30 mL sherry
1 tsp dry mustard powder
1 tsp Dijon mustard
100 mL cream
6 tbsp fresh chopped parsley
1 tbsp fresh chopped thyme
1 x 500g packet puff pastry
1 egg, beaten, to glaze (if desired)

Heat the oil in a large frying pan and cook the prepared mushrooms and shallots, stirring over a high heat for 5 minutes until golden and cooked through. Add the sherry and dry mustard and cook again for 1 minute.
Remove from the heat and stir in the cream, Dijon mustard, parsley and thyme and season well with freshly ground black pepper. Set aside to cool. Preheat the oven to 200°C.
Roll out the pastry on a lightly floured surface and cut 4 circles, large enough to line a 4 hole pie tin. Fill each with the mushroom mixture, then cut a further 4 circles for the lids, lightly brushing the rims with a little water to enable them to stick. Make a slit in the top of each lid using a sharp knife, then rough up the edges of the pies using a sharp knife – this makes sure the base and the lids stay together throughout cooking.
Use the egg to glaze the pies (if desired), and bake in the preheated oven for 20 to 25 minutes, until golden and well risen.

Please link your favourite recipes in the Mr Linky tool below: