Saturday 28 March 2015


“Talent is God given. Be humble. Fame is man-given. Be grateful. Conceit is self-given. Be careful.” - John Wooden

Francesco Onofrio Manfredini (22 June 1684 – 6 October 1762) was an Italian Baroque composer, violinist, and church musician. He was born at Pistoia to a trombonist. He studied violin with Giuseppe Torelli in Bologna, then a part of the Papal States, a leading figure in the development of the concerto grosso. He also took instruction in composition from Giacomo Antonio Perti, maestro di capella of the Basilica of San Petronio from 1696 when the orchestra was temporarily disbanded. Although he composed oratorios, only his secular works remain in the repertoire.

A contemporary of Johann Sebastian Bach and Antonio Vivaldi, his extant work shows the influence of the latter. He became a violinist, around 1700, in the orchestra of the Church of San Spirito in Ferrara. In 1704, however, he returned to Bologna, employed again in the re-formed orchestra of San Petronio. He became a member of the Accademia Filarmonica in the same year he published his first compositions, a set of twelve chamber sonatas he named Concertini per Camera, Op. 1. In 1709, he also published Sinfonie da Chiesa, Op. 2; ostensibly chamber pieces, they, in fact, complemented the earlier chamber sonatas.

After 1711, Manfredini spent an extended stay in Monaco, apparently in the service of Prince Antoine I. The prince had been a pupil of Louis XIV’s favourite composer Jean Baptiste Lully, whose conductor’s baton he had inherited. The precise nature of his relationship to the court of Monaco, and the length of his stay, are not known. Manfredini is first mentioned in court records in 1712. In 1718 he would publish, in Bologna, his Concerti Grossi for two violins and basso continuo, Op. 3, Nos. 1-12, which are dedicated to that ruler. Also copies of his Sinfonie, Op. 2 were found in the princely library. One indication of the nature of the relationship is that Prince Antoine stood as godfather to Manfredini's son Antonio Francesco; four other children were born to him during his stay in the principality.

Given even this slim evidence, it can be inferred that both parties were satisfied by the arrangement since the composer does not reappear in the historical records until the year 1727, when he had returned to Pistoia as maestro di capella at St. Phillip’s Cathedral, a post he would hold until his death in 1762. Much of his music is presumed to have been destroyed after his death; only 43 published works and a handful of manuscripts are known. To quote his Naxos biography: “His groups of Concerti Grossi and Sinfonias show a highly accomplished composer, well versed in the mainstream Italian school of composition. Manfredini’s name may have disappeared had he not composed a Christmas Concerto (No. 12 of Op. 3). These concerti grossi demonstrate a gift for easy melodic invention.”

Here are these twelve op. 3 Concerti Grossi:
Concerto Grosso in F major, Op. 3/1  0:00
Concerto Grosso in D minor, Op. 3/5  5:21
Concerto Grosso in D major, Op. 3/9  11:05
Concerto Grosso in A minor, Op. 3/2  19:19
Concerto Grosso in D major, Op. 3/6  24:02
Concerto Grosso in G minor, Op. 3/10 30:22
Concerto Grosso in E minor, Op. 3/3  39:52
Concerto Grosso in G major, Op. 3/7  45:11
Concerto Grosso in C minor, Op. 3/11  51:44
Concerto Grosso in B flat major, Op. 3/4  59:27
Concerto Grosso in F major, Op. 3/8 1:04:37
Concerto Grosso in C major, Op. 3/12 “Christmas Pastorale”  1:11:14

Friday 27 March 2015


“Rice is born in water and must die in wine.” - Italian Proverb

Food Friday is devoted to rice as yesterday we had a lovely risotto at home (recipe later!). Rice is one of the world’s staple foods and to give you an idea of the enormous scale of its cultivation, here are some astounding figures: In the year 2003, the world produced about 589 million tonnes of paddy rice. Most of that (≈534 million tonnes) was grown in Asia. In 2002, it is estimated that rice fields covered almost 1.5 million square km of land. Again, most of those fields are in Asia - around 1.3 million square km. When all developing countries are considered together, rice provides 30% of people’s energy intake and 20% of their dietary protein. Whenever I have visited SE Asian countries I have been impressed by the enormous tracts of land that are devoted to rice cultivation. I guess that is why most people have a typical image of the Far East in their mind and this image at some point includes a flooded rice paddy…

Rice (Oryza sativa) is a grain belonging to the grass family. The plant, which needs both warmth and moisture to grow, measures about 2 metres tall and has long, flat, pointed leaves and stalks bearing clusters of flowers producing the grain. It takes between 3 and 6 months for a rice plant to reach maturity. On average, farmers need 2,000 litres of water to produce one kilogram of rice, the plant needing to grow in flooded fields (rice paddies). Rice is one of the few foods that is non-allergenic and gluten-free. Scientists believe there are about 140,000 varieties of cultivated rice.

Historians believe that rice was first domesticated in the area covering the foothills of the Eastern Himalayas (north-eastern India), and stretching through Burma, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Southern China. Traces of early rice cultivation have been found in the Yangtze valley dating to about 8500 B.C. Cultivation and cooking methods are thought to have gradually spread to the West so that by medieval times, southern Europe saw the introduction of rice as a popular and nutritious grain. The rice fields of northern Italy are a picture that comes to my mind with the classic 1949 Italian film “Bitter Rice” with Vittorio Gassman and Silvana Mangano. However, rice still remains a food that is associated with an Asian way of life: For example, in Myanmar, people eat an average of half a kilogram of rice every day. The average European consumes much less, only about 3 kilogram per year! Three of the world’s four most populous nations use rice as their staple food: China, India and Indonesia. Together, these countries have 2,500 million people.

Brown rice is unpolished whole grain rice that is produced by removing only the outer husk. It becomes white rice when the bran layer is stripped off in the milling process. Compared with white rice, brown rice is more nutritious because it contains bran, which is a source of fibre, oils, B vitamins, and important minerals. Just a clarification, the black “wild rice” comes from a completely different plant (Zizania palustris) and is native to North America growing predominantly in the Great Lakes region. See this link for an erudite review of wild rice.

Today, rice is grown and harvested on every continent except Antarctica, where conditions make its growth impossible (not much is grown as a crop in Antarctica!). The majority of all rice produced comes from India, China, Japan, Indonesia, Thailand, Burma, and Bangladesh. Asian farmers still account for 92% of the world's total rice production. Talking with a Chinese colleague, I was told that rice in Asian countries is viewed very much as bread is viewed by the European. Just as in the Southern Mediterranean countries bread was the basis of every meal, in Asian countries boiled or steamed rice is the basis of every meal.

Rice and its by-products are used for making straw and rope, paper, wine, crackers, beer, cosmetics, packing material, and even toothpaste! Now for that risotto recipe. Risotto is a classic dish of Italy prepared with special varieties of rice rich in starch, especially the Arborio type, and there are a multitude of recipes and variations. They all have as common feature the toasting of the rice with butter or olive oil, before broth is added to cook the grains thoroughly.

(Mushroom Risotto) 

2 tablespoonfuls of butter
2 tablespoonfuls of olive oil
2 cups oyster or morel mushrooms (may substitute any other full-flavoured mushrooms), wiped clean, trimmed, and chopped
1 cup white wine
3/4 cup dairy cream
7 and 1/2 cups vegetable or chicken stock

2 tablespoonfuls of butter
1 tablespoonfuls of olive oil
4 medium Spanish onions, peeled and minced
1 and 3/4 cups arborio rice
1/3 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Ground mace to taste
Chopped fresh parsley (optional)

Put the butter and two tablespoonfuls of the oil in a frying pan over medium-high heat. Add mushrooms and cook for about 5 minutes. Add the wine, bring to a boil, and reduce liquid by half, about 3-4 minutes. Lower heat to medium, add cream, and simmer 5 minutes. Remove skillet from heat and set aside.

Boil the stock and then reduce to a simmer in a saucepan.
In another deep, heavy, saucepan, heat the second lot of oil and butter. Add the onions and cook until soft. Add the rice and ground mace, and stir to coat with butter and oil, toasting for two to three minutes. Add the simmering stock, stirring to keep the rice from sticking to the edges of the pan. The stock should be almost completely absorbed in about 20 minutes. The rice should be cooked and creamy, but still in separate grains.

Stir in the mushroom mixture and the Parmesan cheese. Season to taste with salt and pepper and garnish with parsley if desired.

Please add your own favourite recipes using the Linky tool below:

Thursday 26 March 2015


“Do vegetarians eat animal crackers?” - Author Unknown

An acquaintance told us this anecdote the other day: He was at the supermarket shopping and he bought a frozen chicken together with his other grocery items. When he got to the check out, the young cashier looked at the chicken with revulsion and asked the customer to handle the chicken himself and put it in a bag, as she couldn’t do it. Our acquaintance complied and placed the chicken in a plastic bag. He was intrigued enough to ask why. The cashier (a young woman of about 16 years) explained that she was a vegetarian and she couldn’t bring herself to touch a “dead animal”. This intrigued and perplexed our friend who is a staunch omnivore.

Vegetarians do not eat meat, fish, and poultry. Vegans are vegetarians who abstain from eating or using all animal products, including milk, cheese, other dairy items, eggs, honey, wool, silk, and leather. Dieticians agree that it is possible to be a vegetarian or a vegan and meet all known nutrient needs. The key to a healthy vegetarian diet, as with any other diet, is to eat a wide variety of foods, including seasonal fruits and vegetables, plenty of leafy greens, whole grain products, nuts, seeds, and legumes. Sweet and fatty food intake is best limited. Some other terms that may be seen in relation to vegetarianism:
Ovovegetarian - eats eggs; no meat
Lactovovegetarian - eats dairy and egg products; no meat
Lactovegetarian - eats dairy products; no eggs or meat.

Vitamin B12 deficiency is often seen in vegans, as this vitamin comes primarily from animal-derived foods. Vegetarians don’t have a problem as a diet containing dairy products or eggs provides adequate vitamin B12. Vegans can consume fortified foods, such as some brands of cereal, nutritional yeast, soymilk, or other soy products, that are good non-animal sources. Tempeh and sea vegetables are not a reliable source of vitamin B12. To be on the safe side, if you do not consume dairy products, eggs, or fortified foods regularly, you should take a non-animal derived vitamin supplement.

Many cultures and religions around the world espouse vegetarianism as a matter of course and long tradition. An excellent web page on religion and vegetarianism can be found here.  Amongst the lay Westerners, some of the many reasons for being a vegetarian are for health, ecological, and religious concerns, dislike of meat, compassion for animals, belief in non-violence, and economics.

Although I am not a vegetarian, my meat consumption is minimal. I love all sorts of vegetables, fruits, grains, pulses and consume all of these in many ways. The Greek Orthodox faith has several strict fasts throughout the year and what this boils down to essentially is that the faithful need to be vegetarians or vegans during these times. Biologically speaking, human beings have been designed as omnivores. The ancient maxim of Cleobulus, one of the seven sages of ancient Greece, springs to mind: “The mean is best in all things.”

As far as the check out girl is concerned, I respect her vegetarianism and would defend to the death her right to it, however, I think her attitude of “no see, no touch, no think” dead animals is a trifle affected, but after all she is young and she still has to learn a lot about this world and its curiosities…

An amusing and interesting article to read:  “Why I Hate Vegetarians” by Julie Bindel in the “The Guardian” (13/6/2005) 

Wednesday 25 March 2015


“I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.” - T. S. Eliot

Poetry Jam this week sets as its theme the doublet tea/coffee. Contributors are invited to: “Write about your first cup in the morning, or a special event that happened when you were drinking either at home or in a café. Share your fist cup of the day with us.”

Although I love tea and drink quite a bit of it, coffee is what I choose to start my day with. As far as the way that I drink it is concerned, typically a caffé latte in the morning, and if I have another cup during the day, it is usually an espresso or a double espresso without any sugar – coffee that is dark, strong, bitter and aromatic. Occasionally I will have a Vienna coffee or rarely a cappuccino.

Here is my poetic contribution:

Haiku for an Autumn Morning

Look! The East’s on fire
Darkness is quickly dispelled:
I start to think of work.

A crowded train; packed
Escalators, hubbub, din –
Cold streets are empty.

Fragrance of coffee
Warm cup; steam in the cold air.
Bitter taste, absence.

Words, numbers, papers:
My desk chaotic. Your call
Orders my morning.

A full day ahead,
The diary’s crammed, I talk on,
Loth to lose your voice.

A sunny morning,
Cool air and leaves that yellow:
Work as clouds gather.

Monday 23 March 2015


“Do not applaud me. It is not I who speaks to you, but history which speaks through my mouth.” - Fustel de Coulanges

Do you ever feel as though the whole world is crumbling around you? Do you see the news on TV and wonder how long this current situation can last before we all perish? That we are at point in history where something momentous and disastrous is waiting to happen? A crisis, a turning point where the slightest ill-considered action of our leaders will bring upon us a doom worse than that experienced before by our forebears? If so, you are not alone, there are others around the world who are watching the current state of the world and feel the same way.

What must have been the thoughts of the last civilised Romans as the hordes of the Barbarians were clamouring outside the gates of Rome? How did the Florentines feel when the plague was upon their city and decimated their friends and relatives? The images in the mind of the soldier in the trenches of WWI as the flashes of the bombs and deafening sounds crashed around him, and the first whiff of poison gas was smelt? The emotions of the beautiful dark-eyed woman as she was shuffled on the train bound for Mauthausen? Can they have been so different from the thoughts of the terrified people of Baghdad as the bombs exploded around them daily? The businessman who is travelling on the London underground as the special operations squad men barge in looking for suspicious packages on the train? The woman in the US hearing the report on the radio of gunmen having opened fire in a school – her own children’s school?

“Things have never been more like they are today in history.” - Dwight D. Eisenhower said and he was restating the old dictum “History repeats itself” rather prettily. I read a novel lately that takes as its premise this endless spiral of history repeating itself as it corkscrews through time. The novel is “The Dream of Scipio” (2002) by Iain Pears. It is a historical novel, but it is set in three different time periods. Periods of crisis and doom and the stories the author weaves share a common theme, and are all set in Avignon in France. There are three protagonists: A Roman nobleman, Manlius, owner of a villa in the Gaulish provinces of the Roman Empire as the barbarians are about to descend upon it; Olivier de Noyes, a poet, in the fourteenth century plague; and Julien Barneuve, a historian, under the Vichy government and the German occupation of France in the WWII. The title of the novel “The Dream of Scipio” is taken from a Neoplatonic philosophical work by Manlius (based on that by Cicero), which is read by the other two heroes later in time.

The author tells three interwoven stories that any reader knows from the start cannot have a “happy end”. All three of Pears’ heroes are doomed – they know it, we know it. That is the tragedy of their existence and as we continue to read, we come to dread our own future, as Lamartine says: “History teaches everything including the future.” The novel has as one of its major themes that of intolerance, more specifically, anti-Semitism. In all three cases, the heroes’ abstract interest in maintaining the culture around them is counterpointed by a personal desire to protect a Jewish woman close to their hearts.

“Culture and civilisation,” Pears says, “is equivalent to breadth of knowledge, tolerance and understanding of others, dissimilar to oneself.” This is a novel that despite its obvious literary merit, historical allusions, philosophical questioning about what is culture and how we maintain our civilised state in the midst of adversity, is also one that is easy to read and enjoyable as a work of fiction should be. It is a novel of ideas, philosophical ponderings, a treatise on history but also a moving love story that repeats itself three times in the span of the 1500 years that the novel encompasses.

“Are you civilised if you read the right books,” Manlius asks himself, “yet stand by while your neighbours are massacred?”  This sentence in the book touched me greatly – as I felt it was addressed to me personally. It is not enough to think rightly, be well read and be civilised by reading the “right” books. One’s moral obligation is to also align oneself on the side of right as dictated by ethical benchmarks drawn by one’s ideas and ideals, and make a stand, act – whatever the price may be… A fascinating book that makes one think and feel, a book of great poignancy and an extended deliberation of how one resolves ethical conflicts, emotional commitments, and the quest for the true meaning of human life. A complex but lucid book by a highly civilised and literate author.

Sunday 22 March 2015


“While seeking revenge, dig two graves - one for yourself.” - Douglas Horton

Soap operas are an extremely popular and an immensely prolific genre of TV program. This type of serial drama and suspense features related story lines about the lives of multiple characters. They can be found locally produced in almost every country of the world and reflect that particular society’s culture, mores and values. The stories typically focus on emotional relationships to the point of extreme melodrama. Usually, the lives of the rich and poor are contrasted, the soapie often allowing the “common people” viewing it to live vicariously the lives of the rich and famous. The term “soap opera” originated from this type of drama series having been sponsored by soap manufacturers in the past.

We have watched a large variety of soap operas, originating from the USA, Australia, UK, Scandinavia, Greece, Spain, Italy, Turkey, Mexico, Argentina, etc, and it is surprising how similar they all are in terms of characters, plot lines and conclusion. They all seem to pander to basic human needs and desires: Desire to be rich (and perhaps, famous); need to be loved and to love; desire to be desirable and to feel wanted; need to live in a society where justice is served; desire to allow people to reach their full potential; a wish for the good to be rewarded and the bad to be punished; and of course for the heroes and heroines to live happily ever after…

Production values vary immensely, with some extremely polished series where good actors sink their teeth into interesting and involving plots of some originality, to series that are ludicrous, with bad actors hamming up stock melodramatic situations or wading their way through badly disguised fairy tales. And of course, there is everything in between. It does depend a lot on the creative team behind the series, and not so much on the country of origin, as one may see extreme bathos and surprising quality in any one country’s output of soapies.

At the moment, we are watching the USA soapie “Revenge” whose first season began in 2011 and it is still going strong this year, in its fourth season. It stars Madeleine Stowe, Emily VanCamp, Gabriel Mann, Nick Wechsler, Josh Bowman, Christa B. Allen and Henry Czerny. The series was created by Mike Kelley and as is usual with soapies, it is written and directed by a whole team of people, who obviously keep the suspense up and ensure that enough plot twists and turns maintain viewer interest.

“Revenge”, as the title implies, takes as its premise a common desire of many of us to avenge ourselves on those who have done us wrong. The plot commences thus: As a summer to remember begins in the exclusive Hamptons of Long Island NY, new arrival Emily Thorne dazzles the members of high society by making herself known in the exclusive social circle of Grayson Global CEO Conrad Grayson and his socialite wife Victoria. But it soon becomes clear that the beguiling young philanthropist has a dark past. Emily was once known as Amanda Clarke, a young nine-year-old whose life was torn apart when her father (Grayson Global hedge fund manager David Clarke) was falsely accused of channelling money to a terrorist organisation responsible for the downing of a commercial airliner. Now living under an assumed identity, she is determined to seek vengeance on the people who destroyed her father’s life (the two main conspirators being Conrad and Victoria Grayson) by making their lives come crashing down around them.

The production values are high, the acting is excellent, direction tight and the pace rapid and with few pauses for reflection. Unlike many other soapies, there is not much time wasted and the viewer is kept engaged without becoming bored. We are watching this on DVD, without ads and we are enjoying it much more than watching it on commercial television. Of course there are numerous clichés, many stock dramatic situations and predictable character traits. However, there is enough originality, humour and likeable characters to maintain viewer interest in what is proving to be a very long-lived series. The IMDB score for this series is 8/10 from about 90,000 voters.

This series started being remade in 2013 in Turkey as “Intikam”. Yagmur Ozden moves to a yali (Bosporus mansion) at a rich neighborhood on the shore of the Bosporus in Istanbul. Her real name is Derin Celik. Her father, Adil was framed for a crime he didn’t commit and sent to prison. Derin was sent to an orphanage and believed that her father was guilty. Adil wanted her daughter to learn the truth and kept a diary to be given to her. Derin learned the truth about her father when she was 18. But it was too late. He died in jail as an innocent man. Derin comes to her childhood neighbourhood with a different identity to seek revenge against the people who betrayed her father. The lead role is played by the captivating Turkish star Beren Saat who has in many other quality Turkish TV soapies.