By Elatia Harris
On the night of March 6, 1983, I traveled by boat from Naples to Palermo. Not only had Goethe done the same, 200 years earlier, it seemed also the safest way. Airplanes did badly at Palermo, in the beginning. The almost new airport, open to international carriers of every size, had short runways, it turned out, leading to flawed landings -- one was advised to give it a few years.
It was my second trip to Sicily, and there were things I wanted to eat.
The season would open in 10 days' time, the weather would warm, and the Northern Europeans would come, legs covered with bright hair, uncapped camera lenses glinting. Americans did not yet come to Sicily in high numbers, but everyone else did. I hoped to get my licks in ahead of all that.
I do not know what it would have taken, remotely to prepare me for the 2nd Mafia War, raging then in Palermo. It was apparently not much of an off-island affair. Years would go by before I, or anyone, could read its true history or know whom to call the victors. Meanwhile, at first light on March 7, my companion and I left cabin number 37 on the Nomentana, the flagship of the Tirennia Navigazione line, debarked, and cabbed to the Grand Hotel et des Palmes in downtown Palermo. A fancier place than usual for either of us, but Wagner had written a big chunk of Parsifal there, and that was worth money -- was it not?
Within a very few hours, I would appreciate as never before being on the third floor of a posh hotel, with television and thick, thick walls. We settled into our room to plan the day. Nothing beats heading out of a hugely comfortable hotel full of wagneriana for a morning of Norman-Sicilian architecture and a good lunch. Except for the Carabinieri with Uzis at all four points of every intersection downtown, not to mention on the parapets of strategic buildings -- in the grey of early morning, we had missed these details -- that's just the kind of day it would have been.
"Smart people would leave now," I said to my companion, as we made for the royal palace to have a look at the throne room of Roger II, where Saracen mosaics depicted a battle of centaurs with believably shaggy legs, a triumph of that art. "Yes," he replied. "But not before lunch."
We turned into the via Archimede for a drink at the Caffe Caflisch, beloved of Giuseppe di Lampedusa. Palermitani spooning gelati gave no attention to the military police. Something powerful and unseen made us aware no inquiries would even be processed. The elephant was firmly lodged in the parlor, as in a Pirandello play.
I got it, I did. Back then, I lived for most of the year in San Francisco, where earth tremors could flip you out of a chair, but in a public place, such as a cafe, everyone pretended nothing was happening. Either there was an emergency that would alter life hideously, that would not end for hours or days, or it was nothing. Not about to commit the brutta figura of appearing on edge, I sipped my Campari and thought about lunch. Was there anything the prospect of an excellent lunch failed to make more cheerful?
Lunching at the Trattoria L'Angolo, in the via Simone Corleo, clarified our situation somewhat. One rang a bell, one did not simply enter. A brave waiter cracked open the door, an eye and a shoulder visible. The long facade was mirror plexiglass recently bolted there -- no one could see in. Boy children on the sidewalk clowned into the mirror, and through the buckling plexi we saw the soles of their sneakers, kicking at us. We declined a table at the window -- who would not have done? -- and got in worse trouble, seated far back near the dark, corpulent man, too sharply dressed and complaining of his fettucine, the man to whom everyone salaamed. The decor put me in mind of Mexico City -- a faux clan plaid on all soft surfaces, ledges of sculpted formica inevitably chipped. We ate there, as we had heard we would eat, the most distinguished pasta sarde of our lives. Nothing could touch it, nothing ever will.
Dulled by a Corvo bianco, we made for the Palazzo Chiaramonte in the Kalsa, Palermo's bombed-out noble neighborhood, not yet recovered from Allied attacks in World War II. Fragments of rococo architecture hung like laundry in the air. A woman in a headscarf lowered a basket from a high window, and drew up oranges from a vendor driving a donkey. Our attention was demanded by the giant ficus magnolioides in the Garibaldi Park, the most advancing tree on earth, that grew not by adding rings but by throwing out a bolus now and then. In time, it would overwhelm the exquisite wrought iron fence with a caccia motif that girdled it, every post a sharp arrow, hare and water fowl bursting from rope bags.
Back in room number 324, which looked out onto the via R. Wagner -- not that one hovered near the windows -- we got into bed. It would be siesta time for hours. The starched, cool sheets were very agreeable. I wrote and drew in my diary, which explains my command of detail all these decades later, and we traded some new thoughts on Parsifal, having one month earlier seen Pier Luigi Pizzi's gala production at the Fenice in Venice. It was one of those rare times when talking about Wagner whilst thinking about something else let us down, and we switched on the TV.
American soaps were evening shows in Palermo. "Another World" appeared as "Altro Mondo," and was dubbed. An actor resembling my sister floated onto the screen, speaking Italian. It was my sister, who is an actor. Any other day, and this would have been the thing. Then, "Ritorno a Brideshead di Evelyn Waugh," a fantastic watch in Italian, I must say. But could we see the evening news? Not the tip of its nose.
Going out to dine felt iffy. So we did a thing unprecedented in our travels together -- phoned the kitchen for a salad of oranges and onions, some involtini di pesce spada with dark greens, and hit the mini-bar. I recorded that it was a dinner not to be regretted, that I was grateful for it. Had it been awful, I would happily have told my diary so.
"Fawlty Towers" ("Basile e Sibilla") came on -- unfunny in Italian, except for the sight gags. Apparently Manuel had to be Spanish, or the whole concept crashed. We sought alternatives to a wild-eyed professor lecturing on the history of Italian Protestantism. A period movie was just the ticket: men in suits heading to the bank, gathering beside the columns for intrigue, coming home to be served by women in long, form-fitting taffeta gowns. And finally, when it looked like a lost cause, the late news. Pay dirt!
An announcer called Michele Mangiafico helmed the broadcast. He had the job, every night at this hour, gravely to recite the names of the war dead, and to explicate the very frank photos that came in, photos that would not have been shown on American television. Men in Western Sicily, in the mountains and in the capital, had been murdered this day. The passionate sorrow of mothers, widows and orphans was intimately real; we knew they were watching, having waited until the middle of the night to learn the almost hidden news, terrible or sublime.
The next morning, we found a train out -- but not before lunch, a refrain in our lives. In the cloisters of a vanished monastery, I wrote later on that train, was the archeological museum of Palermo. There were Greek paintings, from the 4th c. BCE -- banquet scenes, funerary arks, necropolis mice, fishbones on a terra cotta plate. I don't remember a thing about it, but I remember writing it all down.
The Caffe Roney in the via Liberta is more fashionable now than it was, but it has always had the deep porches of an establishment in the tropics. There, dons in dark suits paged through the papers. One was the most powerful looking man I had ever seen, and I almost couldn't look away. But then, my companion observed, what a good idea if the don didn't notice me. I still think about him.
Our last Palermitan lunch was at Chamade, in the via Torrearsa. I had heard about their special chickpea pancakes served with prosciutto and eggplant -- nothing was ever so good. I would have begged the recipe off the chef, but this was not the time. For the duration of the war, Chamade had moved several floors downstairs from itself, to a luxuriously appointed sub-basement, with glass treads in the spiral staircase. No one could descend or ascend unobserved. This was superb massacre prevention, as getting the advantage of surprise and making a clean getaway were both impossible. The raffinati could have a little peace of mind there, and were almost merry. On this day I got around to drinking a Colomba Platino -- an inspired choice with shellfish. Ah, those gambaroni alla griglia. They were to be my last. I have not been able to eat them again.
By late in the decade, 1000 had died in the 2nd Mafia War, also referred to as the Mattanza, or Great Slaughter. A war for dominance among Sicilian Mafia factions, destroying the long primacy of the Palermo bosses, it was about heroin, of course. The Corleonesi, the bosses from the hills, were victorious through sheer slaughter. It would be said, as none of the vanquished lived, that it had been a war without a losing side.
Leaving Palermo by train, one rackets along the Northern coast, past Cefalu, past the Aeolian Islands, through tunnels, past Norman ruins by the sea. In 6 hours' time, we would pull into Taormina, on the flank of the bull mountain, with Etna to look at, and streets like opera sets. There would be dinner.
We'd gotten away.
This story was first published on In Search of Taste http://insearchoftaste.com
By Elatia Harris
Mistress of the Animals
Once inside the big chamber in Xeste 3, at Akrotiri on the island of Thera, it is hard not to look at the goddess on the saffron cushion. Though her state of preservation is less than optimal, she is the focal point of the cycle. Necklaces with a duck and a dragonfly motif hang in an arc from her throat. Her blue and white costume is richly embroidered with a saffron crocus motif, the easily recognizable silhouette of the wild-growing C. cartwrightianus that is everywhere represented in Xeste 3 – clinging to rocks, garlanding its gatherers, piled into baskets, and patterning the creamy white field on which all the images are painted.
The sheer visual inescapability of the crocus on these premises where rituals were enacted may represent its fragrance suffusing the atmosphere. A sign in classical Greek mythology of the presence of a deity is the scent of flowers, and one thousand years earlier on Thera, it may have meant the same, for the Greeks routinely endowed the Olympians with attributes of far older gods.
To us, perhaps the most compelling aspect of the goddess is not her regalia, but her expression. Head turned in profile, her eye is starry with interest, her lips parted as if in speech with the blue monkey to her right offering a handful of saffron. A gryphon flanks her left, present only in paw and wing. She may command girls to gather saffron and bring her tribute, but her companions are animals, on the same platform as herself.
We don’t know her name on Thera, but she is known to us anyhow. She is the Mistress of the Animals -- potnia theron -- one of the oldest mother goddesses of ancient times. And her iterations have been many. She has been seen, gorgon-like of face, suckling gryphons and weilding snakes, grasping leopards by the neck, wasp-waisted, skirted, naked-breasted, a bird of prey on either shoulder, with the height of a mountain between her and any human onlooker. Even fierce animals are in thrall to her, exposing their throats to her occasionally caressing fingers, standing on their hind legs the better to approach her. Six hundred years after she was seated so glamorously in Xeste 3, Homer wrote of her as Aphrodite.
(photos four representations of potnia theron from Ugarit to Knossos to mid-19th century)
First encountered as a mountain deity of Western Asia – the mountain here recalled by the tiered platform – potnia theron ruled over wild animals, the wild and the holy being, for purposes of propitiation, terribly similar. Would worship bring her over to the side of the hunters? Millennia made the Mistress of the Animals lovelier, but not less powerful over animals.
It is possible that the figure represented here is the priestess of a cult – the most highly stationed woman in the town -- standing in for the deity during the ritual, and in a moment of awful mystery, actually ascending the deity’s throne. Understood as a sacred performance, this was one of the major functions of cultic priests. It still is, as with a Catholic priest empowered to forgive, in the name of God, a penitent at the end of a ritual confession, literally to hand out God’s forgiveness in His place.
If cult this was, then what was it all about? History has not said. Linear A, the language of the Minoans, shards of which are found on Santorini, remains untranslated, so hard knowledge is elusive. Most educated conjecture about the meaning of the paintings in Xeste 3 has tended towards the interpretation that fertility rites are being enacted, or coming of age ceremonies performed, even that a goddess is overseeing the production of perfume or spice.
The youngest looking members of the troupe of saffron-gathering girls have curious coiffures not seen elsewhere among Cycladic and Minoan peoples – banded heads with shaven, blue-painted skulls and long black locks at the forehead, ears and crown. Boys on Thera are painted this way too – it seems to have been a youth thing, no doubt fraught with meaning.
Based on documented head-shaving patterns and rituals in Western Asia, more than one scholar has concluded that Xeste 3 might be where the youth of Thera dedicated its hair to the gods – the offering of hair, symbolic of one’s strength, being in many places in the Mediterranean and in Western Asia the maximum offering that one could make.
These guesses speak to Late Bronze Age folkways in a general sense: initiations were known to take place at childhood’s end; spices were ground; plants were processed for perfume and incense; and what the ancients did with their hair – how they considered it -- was deeply meaningful to them, as what we do with ours is to us. A signal matter that has been until recently overlooked is the specific focus on saffron in this large chamber. It’s everywhere, and because the flower that produces it, the saffron crocus, is extremely accurately represented it cannot be a generic flower motif, for lilies, irises and other flowers are elsewhere in Akrotiri painted with the same careful and characteristic attention to plant anatomy. But these others are not shown being handled by humans.
Could the Xeste 3 murals pertain to the dyeing of luxury goods? Prof. Elizabeth Wayland Barber observes in Women’s Work: the First 20,000 Years (1994) that yellow was the color of women’s garments in the ancient world, with the saffron dye that produced tonalities rom radiant warm yellow to deep orange-red reserved for women of high status. Saffron-colored garments are not worn, or shown, in the frescoes in Xeste 3, in any case.
However, the mystery deepens. A young, blue-skulled girl in a saffron robe is found on a wall of the West House, a nearby building, and a long-haired woman suited in a tight-fitting saffron-colored costume raises her arm – signaling what? – on a wall of the House of the Ladies, also near Xeste 3.
Are these high status women, merely? Or cult initiates? Looking closely, it’s possible to see that the youngster’s lips and ear-tips are colored a deep orange-red, and on the cheek of the woman in fitted saffron clothing, there appears an emphatic red stain. It’s probable that these facial markings are cultic, like the smudge of ash on the foreheads of Christians on Ash Wednesday, or the bindi on the foreheads of Hindu women, originally made of saffron paste, and a mark denoting both status and cultic affiliation.
If there was indeed a cult of saffron on Thera, then we still do not know why. Rouged ears and luxury togs, and an overarching decorative motif in a large chamber with a lustral basin do not prove the existence of such a cult. What did the Therans understand about saffron that could have elevated it to a cultic substance?
To be continued...
by Elatia Harris
All photos courtesy of Rachel Laudan
Rachel Laudan is the prize-winning author of The Food of Paradise: Exploring Hawaii’s Culinary Heritage,and a co-editor of the Oxford Companion to the History of Modern Science. In this interview, Rachel and I talk about her new book, Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History, and her transition from historian and philosopher of science to historian of food.
Elatia Harris: I can remember when there was no such academic discipline as food history, Rachel. What was involved in getting there from being a historian of science and technology?
Rachel Laudan: I can remember when there was no such discipline as history of science! In fact, moving to history of food was a breeze. After all, the making of food from plant and animal raw materials is one of our oldest technologies, quite likely the oldest, and it continues to be one of the most important. The astonishing transformations that occur when, for example, a grain becomes bread or beer, or (later) perishable sugar cane juice becomes seemingly-eternal sugar have always intrigued thinkers from the earliest philosophers to the alchemists to modern chemists. And the making of cuisines is shaped by philosophical ideas about the state, about virtue, and about growth, life, and death.
EH: So much widely admired food writing is about how we feel about food, particularly about the pleasure and either comfort or excitement food gives us. That's not your book, is it?
RL: I'm more interested in how we think about food. In fact, I put culinary philosophy at the center of my book. Our culinary philosophy is the bridge between food and culture, between what we eat and how we relate to the natural world, including our bodies, to the social world, and to the gods, or to morality.
Basilica of Saint Mary Magdalene at Vezelay, photo by G. Corret
By Elatia Harris
On Wednesday, October 9, 1974, I had a life-changing day at Vezelay. Or did I?
I revisit my memories so often that I fear I tamper with them. When they involve food, architecture and France, I know I do. I keep them watered, fresh, and underfoot, like the street flotsam cached in Victorian ladies’ trains. Everything that happened to me long ago, if it was any good at all, is happening still, and will keep on happening, until some widely agreed upon end that has not come.
Vezelay, then. The archetypal basilica on the holy hill, the sibling towers flanking the porch, an unmatched pair in long dialogue: They ran low, the north tower concedes, on cash or time or rock; But not on me, they didn’t, the tall south tower rejoins. All this, I can see from behind shut lids. It is my youth, in France, and I intend the sepia eye of nostalgia never to find it.
A few years after I came and went, Father Hugues Delautre, whose order had looked after Vezelay for a decade, observed something that no one, for a very long time, had recorded. On St. John’s Day, 1976, the summer solstice, precisely at noon, the sun coming in from the southern clerestories threw ten rings of light down the length of the nave, from the narthex to the chancel. It could not fail to happen every year there was sun on that day, yet it had been lost from memory, or its significance had been disregarded. Father Delautre, however, knew it for the anagoge it was – the path of light to climb from the western portal, where roiling humanity enters the basilica, to full illumination. To Christ, who must come from the East.
Vezelay, interior, St. John's Day, 1976. Photo on the Via Lucis site, https://vialucispress.wordpress.com/library/
Did 12th century masons know how to arrange this? Oh, they knew it cold. Building the ineffable into an angle was by then a 3000-year old practice, employed at many Romanesque churches throughout Europe. Not understanding, as any villager once did, that over a calendar year, the cosmology of architecture would be picked out by the roaming sun, we have liked artificial light in big dark cathedrals, the better to see them all at once in the time we are prepared to give them.
Was Vezelay dark? Not the day I spent there. Atmospheric conditions were perfect. A bone chilling fog, so familiar to lovers of Burgundy as the most gastronomic weather in the world, rose up the holy hill from the River Cure and veiled the town, diffusing mild light throughout the sandy pink basilica. It was morning, and only the knowledge of distant eras, which I did not then possess much of, would have proclaimed the deeply violent history of the numinous place.
Vezelay, early morning. Photo by Sander Voerman, 2007
My own ardent purpose that day, and every day that year, was to be formed by France. And the worship of Mary Magdalene, to whom Vezelay was consecrated, whose relics were the basis of its glory, was a key aspect of France. Legends vary. The Eastern Church had it that after the death of Christ, the Magdalene, two Maries and a few of their menfolk forsook Judea for Constantinople, where they lived out their days among suitable adherents. However, that was not sufficient to build the Western Church, and the Golden Legend arose: the Magdalene, Lazarus and two Maries were forced from Judea in an oarless boat that made safe passage to Marseille.
Giotto and workshop, from the Magdalen Chapel in the Lower Church at Assisi, 1330s
Here began the cult of the Magdalene in France, and it grew and grew, despite, or because of, the reclusion of the saint, for the last three decades of her life, in a cave in Provence. Those with some traction in the final quarter of the 20th century will remember that female icons began to be re-evaluated in the 1970s, their legends parsed for routes out from under the male stare. Chief among these were the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene, at two poles of the Christian reading of womankind: the humble, grateful Virgin, incapable of even Original Sin, modest in a cloak of blue, her serpent-crushing toes curling gently over the crescent moon in that night outside time where God, before the beginning, had set her; and, Mary of Magdala, either a stalwart of the Jesus cult or a demon-filled whore, or both, whose coppery hair fell over His feet when she bent low, who spiced His body for the grave and was the first to see Him risen, who ran from His tomb, red-purple cloak flying, to proclaim that He was risen, whose turbulent face testifies to the wretchedness of great love, to the long confounding that it brings.
Caravaggio, The Penitent Magdalene, 1595, detail, Galleria Doria-Pamphilj, Rome
To women coming of age in the 1970s, the penitential aspect of the Magdalene was the most troubling of all. Depending on which gospel you read, the saint did nothing much, nothing that Christ did not amply forgive, for her last 30 years to be taken up with austerities in a cave in France. Where, naked, her lustrous cloak gone from her, she aged, turned scrawny and unclean, her still-red hair growing faster than fast to make of her a decent hermit. You could not miss it: the greatest penitent in all Christianity was a woman, stripped and unfed, whose hair would not be restrained, who had known sexual love, and lived to wither in a cave.
Giotto and workshop, Mary Magdalene and Zosimus, the Magdalen Chapel, Lower Church, Assisi, 1330s
It was a deal to think about, dazzled as I was by the sacredness of the space itself, the uncanny light and cold. Also, I was hungry – very. It's hard to feel more than peckish in France, and I had not before been very hungry there, nor would I be again, exactly. It was so pure. Nabokov had recently written about a character “eating like a schoolgirl”– he knew. M.F.K. Fisher and Sybille Bedford knew, but I did not yet know them. And it was good to enter that long sisterhood of girls set free to eat in France, without being already too lettered.
Twentieth century pilgrims to Vezelay, of the Catholic intellectual stripe, a small number of whom, like Romain Rolland, made their final homes there, have written of the link between the physical and the spiritual properties of the place -- the tearing wind, the fog, the cold, the exposure of the eternal hill to ecstasy-inducing forces. Inexplicable things would happen there. I understood. For about 20 minutes that early afternoon, the sandy pink basilica would not let me out the door. I had gone to a Catholic school, and I enjoyed this, especially being so hungry as to find it unbearable. While I can theorize all I like about big wooden doors going sullen with cold, or girls in thrall, pulling when they should push, I have no fix on what held me there. Many buildings won’t let go of you, yet you can leave, even if you have to tear yourself away. Not this time.
In fact, I still belong to Vezelay. It is one of my memory palaces, and I have never seen any reason fully to leave it, or physically to return. The door yielded at last to soft pressure of the natural kind. And I was off, in search of lunch.
Of the village, I recall only slick dark cobblestones I could feel through my shoes, and the downright grim looks that food-seeking strangers in Burgundy collect from the locals. I left the basilica as I had come, via the rue St. Pierre, for a walk of almost 2 kilometers down the rue St. Etienne, out the Porte St. Etienne, and across a departmental highway, to the Place du Champ-de-foire, where they once sold sheep and now sold lunch.
No one has ever suggested that the storied Hotel de la Poste et du Lion d'Or, for several centuries a coaching inn just outside the Porte St. Etienne at Vezelay, operates one of the greatest restaurants in France. I will not suggest that. But I will say there are those who go in for classification, and those who apply hermeneutics to the restaurant experience, and I am one of the latter. What we do when we eat is to turn world into self. The lasting lunch is the one to do that most meaningfully. On this day, I had that lunch.
A postcard of the dining room of the Hotel de la Poste et du Lion d'Or, early 1970s
I remember the brightly lit panes of old wavy glass that formed a thin barrier between worlds -- the fog, the cold, and the hunger outside, and the tremendous sense of reception within. My own aesthetic requires interiors to be a tiny bit frumpy for that contrast to work, at least in France. And everyone there was tres sympa, too. These were good country people once you got indoors. Intelligently for a teenager, I ordered an Irancy -- then merely a local red. A few crudites materialized. Finally, a mushroom omelette, an auratic object even to read about on the menu. Unaware that the risk of hideous disappointment is only increased by specificity of desire, I wanted to eat that omelette more than anything in the world I had ever wanted to eat.
Well. The mushrooms were wild, from a nearby wood, the farm eggs epiphanial, the butter of the grassiest. The memory is so intense that I must take care not to gild it, to make it glisten like a reliquary in the privacy of my own recollections, where anything may happen. To love, and to cease comparing, we must bring to what we eat a sense of encounter. I was ready, that day, for Pan and civilization perfectly to converge: the wood and the farm, the furious industry of the churn.
Basilica of St. Mary Magdalene, Vezelay, the facade before restoration, architectural rendering by Viollet-le-Duc in 1835
It takes such an omelette a long time fully to happen, and that one is happening still. But not because I add to the memory of it, or over-restore it where I note the claw-marks of time. Only because I look back differently from every era that I have lived, on anything I cannot forget.
The basilica at Vezelay, dealt blow after blow by time, may have been over-restored. Numerous authorities contend it has been. A holy site even in the pre-Roman era, it rose and fell many times between its founding, in the 800s, as a Benedictine abbey, and the 1840s, when Prosper Merimee, the first inspector general of historical monuments in France, undertook to bring it back from the noble ruin in Eugene Viollet-le-Duc’s 1840 sketch. Fires, wars of venality and religion, desacralization, plunder in the French Revolution – these were horrifying, but the harshest blow came when Mary Magdalene's remains tumbled from authenticity. In 1280, Dominicans at St. Maximin in Provence, very near to where the Magdalene’s oarless ship had made landfall, produced proof of her internment there – proof a little too cunning, perhaps – but the number of pilgrims to Vezelay thereafter sharply declined. The most petitioned female saint in all of France, the woman in red on the eternal hill, to whom kings and crusaders knelt, had gone off the job.
Viollet-le-Duc pinpointed the problem of architectural restoration -- and of curating long-term memory, too. Restoration, he wrote in his Dictionnaire raisonne, is a means of returning a building to “a finished state, which may in fact never have existed at any given time.”
That sounds familiar. There's a little matter of all those memories I couldn't have, but think I do have. Are these the replacement relics of some vanished saint? In 1876, Vezelay was given such fragments by the kindly Bishop of Sens, and they are deep in the crypt, housed in satin, gold and glass, less splendid than the long bones of 900 years earlier, but with a faintly better chance of being real.
I cannot be sure this will settle the question, but I have 20 years of travel diaries, to which I confided every day, to which I never lied. I wrote about minutiae that I was afraid I would forget, and did forget. And passed quickly over the remarkable, youthfully assuming it would be with me always, as some of it still is. On Wednesday, October 9, 1974, I wrote: “Lunch at the Hotel de la Poste et du Lion d’Or, Vezelay. Irancy, crudités, omelette aux champignons.” And, as was my custom, I smudged the page with the reddish dirt of the town, whether from a patch of earth nearer the basilica or the restaurant, I can no longer say.
Pale dust now. But that's where it all began.
by Elatia Harris
Zev Robinson: It was a long process of discovery. The last place I thought I’d end up, after living in several large cities including New York and London, was a Spanish village of fewer than 800 people, where my wife is from, and where my father-in-law works and harvests his vineyards.
When we lived in London, I remember looking at a bottle of wine in a supermarket that originated from this region, and thinking how few people understood all that went into its making. After we moved here, I was taking a walk through the vineyards one day, and got the idea of making a short film about how the grape gets from the vines here to bottles in the UK.
EH: Are you a wine connoisseur -- in a big way?
ZR: I knew nothing about wine at the beginning of all this, but am always interested in processes, the history that brings an object into being.
At the time, I had been working with video in the context of the art world, installations and experimental shorts, and thought that the piece on wine would be something similar. But within six intense, all-absorbing months, I had 70 hours of materials which was edited into an 80 minute documentary. I discovered wine as a complex culture, with rural and urban environments closely tied and interdependent.
EH: So, the wine route led you to Arribes?
ZR: I was invited to visit Arribes, a region I had never heard of. When I got there, I saw that there wasn’t too much in the way of wine, with only 700 hectares left, albeit with grape varieties not found elsewhere. But as an isolated region with a traditional way of life, it attracted the artist in me.
EH: Arribes is hardly convenient to you, in the Valencia region -- or to anywhere. Yet you came to know it so well, over many trips.
ZR: Each trip was filled with fascinating stories and new discoveries, with the greatest revelation for a city boy like myself was how people lived in a truly self-sufficient and sustainable way. One couple never had a car or tractor, everything was done with donkeys and on foot. A man worked as a smuggler when he was a child, swimming across the Duero River that separates Spain from Portugal to take consumer goods across and then play cat and mouse with the police forces who would confiscate the contraband. One woman wanted to study and become a teacher more than anything else, but could not go to school because she had to tend to her family’s sheep and goats from an early age.
Over the years and decades, my understanding of the importance of food and agriculture has continuously grown, from the harm of pumping our food chain full of various chemicals, to the importance of farmers and their work. But it had always been in the service of those of us - the majority - who live in cities and who may want quality produce, but for whom agriculture is a largely abstract, unseen quantity. Arribes turned the tables on me, and I now see food, agriculture and sustainability as the basis of all things. The basis of survival.
ZR: I was born in Israel, raised in Toronto and Montreal with two main interests, art and film, with the two connected from the beginning. I hesitated over which of the two I’d pursue, but in the end chose paintng, doing my BFA at Concordia University in Montreal, and then going to New York in 1983 to do a MFA at Hunter College. In 1988, I moved to Florence, Italy, for a variety of reasons, including seeing more art, and travelled around Europe for the next couple of years. I visited Madrid in early 1990 and fell in love with the city.
EH: And something fateful happened there...
ZR: I couldn’t stay in Madrid, but had the premonition that I would return and get married. I returned to Madrid to live in early 1991, and by the end of the year I was married. After that, we toggled between different cities in Spain, and London, living in London for about 10 years.
EH: When did you know that film making would become a big part of your life?
ZR: I had often dreamed of doing films, but even 8mm was too expensive and elaborate an undertaking when everything was going toward my painting. But digital technology gave the means to film and edit. I started doing that shortly after forming Art After Science, with Adrian Marshall, to create a variety of time based and interactive art projects. I created some thirty videos, and La Bobal, my first wine documentary we were just talking about, was intended as another one of those.
In 2005, after spending ten years in London, we then moved back to a small inland village in the province of Valencia, about 50 miles east of the city of Valencia. There are few distractions here, and I can continue to develop new projects, many of which were completely unexpected when we moved here.
EH: Did filmmaking get in the way of painting?
ZR: The only conflict is one of time, they each take up too much of it. Outside of that, the two complement each other very well. Painting is a more meditative activity, and sometimes, even if I’m busy with a film, I need to get into the studio and paint. It lets me clear my mind, and allows for a bit of silence.
Filmmaking, on the other hand is a more elaborate, more social, and busier process, involving many steps, including planning trips, filming, editing, showing and promoting the final film. But it is also a process of discovery. By the end of each film, I find my perspective on the world has changed.
EH: What has Spain brought out in you, as an artist?
ZR: Painting in such intense light is always a great experience and pleasure.
EH: That's right on the money. Light like a knife, I've heard it called. But as a film maker, you are engaging with Spanish people, not only the cutural patrimony of Spain. Like the light.
ZR: While working on the documentaries, I have traveled across the country and met hundreds of people, each with a unique story and point of view, and when I edit the material, I feel an obligation to tell those as stories accurately as possible, showing people as unique individuals, but how those individuals add up to a portrait of a culture. So Spain, with a unique history in many ways and a variety of cultures, has posed that challenge. With the deep crisis that Spain is going through now, the challenge is to make what was filmed a few years ago still relevant and include the current situation.
I don’t know if I’d be making documentaries had we had stayed in London, and certainly not documentaries about wine, food and agriculture.
EH: To look at your paintings and to view Arribes, one sees they're not aesthetic strangers.
ZR: I compose my shots, and people have said that my cinematography looks like paintings. I’ve been influenced equally by both media. It’s been an obsession with the visual, whether paintings, films, photography or reality, and I’m constantly looking at the world as if I were going to paint or film it.
EH:The people we meet in Arribes are right at the resource frontier. Some of their problems are timeless, some detail the kind of scarcity we know European peasants lived with more than a century ago, and some are rather futuristic -- and frightening because of that.
ZR: Because Arribes is so isolated, on the edge of Spain, with a river separating it from Portugal, it has always had to do with little, and to be self-reliant. So there’s scarcity in that sense, yet they are self sufficient, and most of the people we met owned and worked the land, or at least their parents did, and had enough to eat. Now, with the crisis hitting Spain very hard, with high levels of unemployment, people are returning to their family homes and land, because at least they have food and shelter, so it depends on what is meant by scarcity.
There is a scarcity of those things that are often aspired to -- nice cars, better paying jobs, luxury items, distracting entertainment. All the classic reasons why people leave the countryside and move to the city. But when those aspirations are taken away for economic or social reasons, and you are left without the possibility of food, all of a sudden Arribes offers a relative abundance, and it is the city where there’s scarcity.
In reality, there is a scarcity of food in cities, as it all has to be brought in from other places, including other countries. And it may very well be an unsustainable situation, so there’s reason to be anxious.
EH: Who would you particularly like to view the film? It's very haunting. Whom should it haunt?
ZR: Everyone should see it. The film deals with a basic question of how we organize our urban and rural spaces, whether can we do so in a healthier way, and what our priorities are.
One of the things I found curious and that made me want to create the film was that we met several people who moved to Arribes from large cities, Madrid, Barcelona, and from the UK, looking for an alternative and a challenge. One of them is an advertising executive who left his job in Madrid, but can still work nationally and internationally via the internet, with an occasional trip for a meeting. So there’s a question of how can we make the countryside more attractive, and the work less harsh and more profitable, and distribute populations in a more sustainable manner.
I’m not interested in preaching to the choir, but to raise questions and open debates about whether we can do things a bit differently.
EH: Tell me a little about the feedback on Arribes so far...
ZR: So far the reaction has been great. I was given unique, sometimes emotive, content to work with, and the audiences have responded, both in Spain and in London. I think it is a glimpse into another world, but also the issue of food and sustainability is gaining urgency.
After showing it in London where it went over well and there was no adverse reaction to the graphic pig slaughter, I was invited to speak about the film at a tourism conference in the Alicante region of Spain. The audience included university students. They were an audible, squeamish audience to the pig slaughter scene when I showed the trailer. I said that I found it odd, because many of those students were only a generation or two from a family tradition that would have included producing some or all of their own food, including the killing of animals.
People at screenings have talked about the cruelty of killing a pig, but I see it as part of an eternal cycle of life. In the film, people talk about their fondness for the animals that they have to kill. The pig slaughter is at the center of community life. Far more cruel to have animals jam-packed in barns, fed hormones and antibiotics, and then killed without having had the chance to live. That is seen as more acceptable because it is out of sight.
We’re divorced from, and in denial of, what is happening to our food systems. If nothing else, I hope the film will make people realize that their meat comes from living animals.
EH: What are you working on now?
ZR: I am now editing the material I filmed across Spain and adding new material for a project called “Made in Spain” that will combine short videos, a video installation or two, and my wife Albertina Torres’ photography project focusing on the old and rural aspects of this country. We'll be ready to start showing that in the spring of 2014.
Web Resources for this Post
Arribes trailer - https://vimeo.com/49137785
Site of Zev Robinson and Adrian Marshall www.artafterscience.com
Albertina Torres photos for the Made in Spain project http://www.albertinatorres.com/
For screenings, European sales and other inquiries, please email email@example.com
Please join us on Facebook for upcoming events https://www.facebook.com/pages/Arribes-Everything-else-is-noise-Arribes-el-resto-es-barullo/505072499521943
Rachel Laudan – The Sustainable Life in Rural Spain? Arribes and Arcadia -http://www.rachellaudan.com/2013/08/sustainable_life.html#more-6380
English translation of “Arribes: This is the Future”, written by Estefanía Vasconcellos in the Spanish national newspaper El Mundo - http://zevrobinson.com/documentary/arribes-this-is-also-the-future/
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Posted by Elatia Harris at 12:38 AM | Permalink
- See more at: http://www.3quarksdaily.com/3quarksdaily/2013/09/arribes.html#sthash.AZ70tpHo.dpuf
Arrow and Cockle Shell. Copyright Alison Harris
By Elatia Harris
Their 50th birthdays in sight, the acclaimed travel writer David Downie, and his wife, the photographer Alison Harris, decided that trekking from Paris, where they live, to Spain, would be just the thing. The Way of St. James, for a millennium one of the world's most celebrated pilgrimage routes, was right at their back door. Neither Alison nor David is religious, so the classical pilgrimage experience was not what they were seeking. What were they seeking? Renewal, changed perspectives. Perhaps to test themselves, over 72 days and 1100 km of -- at times -- very rough terrain. And thereby hangs a tale.Paris to the Pyrenees: A Skeptic Pilgrim Walks the Way of St. James, will launch this week. Permission to post, here, the superb photos from the book was granted by Alison Harris.
ELATIA HARRIS: There has been a lot in the news lately on pilgrimage, however one understands the phenomenon -- a recent New York Times article, for instance. People who do it talk about needing to lose their routine and find themselves. Most set out alone, meeting others en route. You and Alison started together.
DAVID DOWNIE: Our choice to walk together happened organically. I had planned to do this on my own. Alison came along to keep me out of trouble. If you ask her, she’s likely to say it was her idea about 25 years ago, when she suggested we do something similar.
EH: Readers cannot but wonder how they would hold up, in these circumstances. I pictured a leisurely outdoorsy spell, kind of a French countryside movie. Cows, chateaux…oh, perhaps mildly strenuous stints. I was so wrong. This was a test of all your combined resources. It would be for any couple. 72 days of togetherness and real physical hardship. And you had already spent years collaborating on your books.
DD: Like some old couples, we have merged in mind and spirit—if such a thing exists—while remaining very different people, and very pig-headedly independent. So, while we were together on the pilgrimage, we were often apart both in our mental spheres and physically. Alison stopped constantly, ran ahead, took detours, disappeared, got lost—often, though not always, in pursuit of a photograph. She probably walked twice as many miles as I did. By the end of the pilgrimage, my regard for her had only deepened. I can’t speak for her, of course.
EH: I know from all your books that you take a profoundly physical approach to travel and to the experiences it yields. You don’t drive or travel by train – you walk, whether in the city or in the mountains, whether in foul weather or fair. A long time ago, I spent many weeks in Burgundy, but I never saw it like you did. The darkness of the trees, the huge size of the rocks, the freezing fog, the most ungracious castles. Alison nails it in her photos.
DD: Parts of Burgundy are paragons of gloom. But I like gloom. So do most Frenchmen and women, it seems. We were there in April. And it rained, sleeted, and almost snowed much of the time.
EH: The ancient peoples of Gaul liked it too – they chose this part of Burgundy as their homeland. Why?
DD: Probably for the abundant water and wood: they used the water for everyday needs, but also in their metallurgy. They were great smiths, makers of swords, shields, chariots, and farm implements. They used the wood for fuel, and to protect their cities. Gallic strongholds had these unusual, “indestructible” (that’s Julius Caesar writing) fortifications made of wood, soil, stones, and iron rods. Caesar called the fortification a “murus gallicus”—the Gallic wall. Remember, the Gauls, who were Celtic peoples originally from what’s now the Steppes of Russia, swept in some time around 500-300 BC. Presumably they wiped out the older civilization, about which almost nothing is known. The Gallic Celts not only loved gloom: they revered it. Don’t forget, they measured time in terms of night, not day, and they worshipped the god of night, Dis. Darkness was good, it was powerful, it was magical! In the case of the Celts who were in what’s now the Morvan, the goddess Bibractis—the beaver goddess that gave her name to Bibracte, the Lost City of Gaul—was all about water, wood, and drippy darkness: what else would you expect from a beaver?
Southern Burgundy and the wine country are different. They’re much sunnier, and drier—that’s why the grapevines thrive. The limestone is often golden hued, and the feel is very different. We now spend a great deal of time in Burgundy. In fact, like Caesar, I returned there to write my book -- I just couldn’t write it in Paris. Caesar was up on Mont Beuvray at Bibracte dictating The Conquest of Gaul; 2,000-odd years late I was holed up in an old farmhouse close to Cluny, way down south.
EH: One of the exigencies of the Way of St. James was the distance you had to cover in any given day. You were on the pilgrimage for months, but that didn't mean you got to dither, sleep in, or take a pass when bad weather came. It must have made choosing what to stop and do an interesting process.
DD: Put it this way -- our relationship with time and place evolved. When we first set out I had this infernal talking pedometer, and I was often checking it to see how far we’d gone. I was concerned about getting to a B&B before nightfall, or finding food or water or coffee. I’m a coffee addict, that is one thing I haven’t managed to kick, and I got terrible headaches and was dizzy when I couldn’t get enough of a dose.
So, at first I was reaching back and metaphorically lashing us from behind, while galloping along. But Alison was never in a rush—she operates on Walk-About Time. After a few weeks I lost the pedometer—thank god—and then I lost my sense of time, except for following the light and darkness and the moaning of my stomach. It was one of the many wonderful transformations along the road. The purpose of our trek was many-fold. It wasn’t a religious pilgrimage, as you know. It was about rediscovery, discovery, regeneration, it was about history and linkages between past and present, between my life in France and my ties to America—and more. Once the obsessive time element disappeared the experience changed radically.
EH: I’ve read a little about how to get into the pilgrimage mindset. Did you find any of the truisms particularly true?
DD: You really do need to walk for several weeks before anything much happens, other than sore feet or aching knees. The hardcore pilgrims have a saying that I quote in the book. In essence the first week is all about your body, the second week is about your mind, the third is when the spirit starts to free itself up. Now, as a skeptic, I can say that this little ditty irritated me no end at first. But in my case the ditty came true. In the third week something unexpected did happen. If for no other reason than this I would do a walk of this kind again, to resynchronize myself with the paradoxical timelessness of natural time. I actually feel, now, that time has no beginning and no end, that our ideas of time are mostly guesswork and a muddle.
EH: Time and again, I was struck with how hard it was to get water -- plain potable water. I am surprised there were no venal townswomen to sell you some from their faucets at almost every occasion.
DD: The water problem got serious in a bunch of places. Much of Burgundy—and other parts of rural France—are abandoned when the vacationers aren’t around. Villagers see people coming and flee: who is the guy with dark glasses, a burglar? It was funny at first.
EH: There’s that school of thought that says some discomfort can result in spiritual thoughts or experiences. Oh, not exactly mortifications of the flesh. They say that dehydration prompts an altered mental state.
DD: Yes, I had several moments of deep, trance-like reflectiveness. We are electro-chemical units, I think, and as such are affected by humidity, light conditions, wear, tear, emotions stirred by all sorts of things. What’s amazing is how one sensation of pain (or intense pleasure) can drive out other sensations. The Italians have a great expression for this: Chiodo scaccia chiodo. It means “one nail drives out another.” Luckily we didn’t get too beaten up. I did wreck my knees and back, and had to do physiotherapy before continuing, and Alison’s back went out once too. The only physiotherapist in the area was Muslim, and 90 percent of his clients, he said, were Christian pilgrims on the Way of Saint James. We assured him we weren’t really the genuine article, and he smiled widely.
EH: Reading Paris to the Pyrenees, I was kind of astonished the way Mitterand fits right into the last 2000 years of French history. You could even read the book for the spectacle of how the French regard their own history.
DD: As to our enigmatic former prez Francois Mitterrand, he remains a hero to many on the left. I was one of the “Generation Mitterrand” who swallowed his spiel and argued with centrist-rightist friends for years, defending him. Live and learn. But you go out into the countryside—especially Burgundy which was Mitterrand’s fief, and the birthplace of his wife, Danielle, a bona fide resistance fighter—and you find signs of Mitterrand everywhere. Postcards, names of streets, graffiti, posters, buildings named after him. Mitterrand came to symbolize the heroic resistance, and therefore the ancient Gallic chieftain Vercingetorix. Anyone who thinks the French—many of them, at least—are not obsessed with their past, with their heroes, and with the ancient Gauls, need only visit some of the places we visited in Burgundy, heartland of Gaul.
Landscape, Formal Garden and Vineyard, Burgundy (L) and Merovingian Era Stone Caskets (R). Copyright Alison Harris
EH: What a haul of vivid characters in Paris to the Pyrenees. I can understand that when you are, yourself, on a quest, you meet others who are, too. It's more of a surprise is to find that even the innkeepers are questing! You met a few frank pilgrims – cockle shells and all. I am wondering -- what did it feel like to know these were one-time encounters? That life would almost certainly not throw you together again? Did you want to deepen the acquaintance you made with anyone?
DD: Years ago I spent 6 weeks driving around Finland, then spent time in Leningrad, before it became St. Petersburg again, with a friend, a Finnish movie director. We had a screenplay I’d written with his input. It was a very intense time. Everywhere we went we were welcomed with open arms and bottles: wine, beer, and vodka. Killer quantities of alcohol -- in fact I almost died of blood poisoning. In each locale my friend knew someone well, or knew him vaguely. I, as a total unknown, became a kind of itinerant confessor. The intensity of the conversations and encounters I had on that trip, nearly 30 years ago, was extreme. What I learned then and have reconfirmed many times since is, people crave confession and its reverse: interrogating someone. The link is anonymity and the assurance that the confessor/interrogation subject will either never be known, will not reveal himself, will not return, or will not reveal your secrets to the world. If he does, it won’t really matter, because you’ll be an unknown quantity in a far-flung place and no one listening will care.
EH: Was the Way of St. James like Russia in that way?
DD: The same phenomena were at work on the pilgrimage. We hobbled in to hundreds of places, strangers in a strange land in many senses. People were curious, wanted to know about us, and many also wanted to tell us their life stories. We had many very deep conversations. In the book I recount several, including the one at the B&B near Bibracte, the Lost City of the Gauls. This time it wasn’t the innkeepers, who were often those most likely to confess or interrogate us because, as you say, many are questers themselves, or are trying to reinvent themselves in a rural setting. So, there were three fellow overnight guests. Within minutes we had connected. By the time the evening was over, it really felt like we were very old friends, and we somehow knew we’d never meet again. It was beautiful, sad, tragic, wonderful, liberating. I won’t pretend this happened many times, but when it did, it was a life-altering experience. I am perfectly resigned to the fact that I’ll never see any of these people again.
Three Pigs, Burgundy. Copyright Alison Harris
EH: The canon of Saint Lazare Cathedral in Autun was a character out of Flaubert.
DD: He was utterly uninterested in religion as far as I could tell. I loved that encounter -- though we came out worse for wear, as anyone who reads the book will discover. The canon was an egomaniac and he clearly wanted to confess to us, to tell us his story. He was very old. What I’ve found is that narcissists and egomaniacs live very long lives.
EH: You met one pilgrim at Mercurey who would not have been out of place on the Way of St. James 500 years ago.
DD: The nutty pilgrim of Mercurey was typical of the hundreds, the thousands we encountered the further south we went. Le Puy en Velay—the other big jumping off point for pilgrimages on the routes we took—was a-swarm with pilgrims draped with scallop shells, dressed in pilgrim garb, with staffs and floppy hats. Many pilgrims—questers, seekers—are clearly very needy, and some need to participate in a costume drama.
We also encountered plenty of totally normal people who were out there for a million reasons of their own. In the end I felt comfortable being alone, even when we were walking in a mob. But I don’t think the mobs are conducive to enlightenment or spirituality or anything much other than perplexity and irritation. Some people love to take a “crowd bath” as the Italians and French put it. That’s not my thing. Next time I’m going to hike as far away as possible from the madding madmen and the visionaries!
EH: You'd do it again?
DD: I’d do it again, although I’d walk northeast, away from the sun. I was blinded most of the time. That was a mortification!
EH: So, when is the next trek?
BOOK TOUR for Paris to the Pyrenees -- you are cordially invited!
Politics and Prose
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In conversation with Stephane Kirkland, architect and historian, author of Paris Reborn
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6 PM, in conversation with award-winning poet Sandra Gilbert
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Posted by Elatia Harris at 12:45 AM | Permalink
Imagine doing it not only in the Middle Ages, but barefoot.
Posted by: Brian D'Amato | Apr 8, 2013 12:19:44 PM
Brian, picture being barefoot, rooted up and chased down by wild boar. A very French forest fate in those days. I read up on pilgrim lore -- it was not unusual to make the pilgrimage and die at the finish, and it was quite ordinary to die en route.
Posted by: Elatia Harris | Apr 8, 2013 12:55:45 PM
What a great challenge to give oneself. Kudos to David and Alison and to Elatia for sharing the fascination here.
Posted by: R. Zinn | Apr 8, 2013 1:04:32 PM
Wonderful interview. I feel as if I walked a mile in very interesting shoes. Beautiful photographs.
Posted by: Harriet | Apr 8, 2013 2:52:07 PM
Wonderful interview. I feel as if I walked a mile in very interesting shoes. Beautiful photographs.
Posted by: Harriet | Apr 8, 2013 2:56:14 PM
What a wonderful interview! Thanks for the read. Nicely done all around.
Posted by: Matthew Sullivan | Apr 8, 2013 3:18:29 PM
great journey, great interview and pictures... thanks
Posted by: mica hubertus mick | Apr 8, 2013 5:00:42 PM
Thank you for this, Elatia.
There's a movie called The Way, starring Martin Sheen and directed by his *other* son Emilio, about this journey:
Posted by: carlos | Apr 8, 2013 5:24:32 PM
Thank you for the journey. Beautifully done!
Posted by: Jeanine | Apr 8, 2013 5:35:28 PM
I feel a little guilty enjoying the stimulation of somebody else's exertions and "mortifications" but enjoy it I did. I especially appreciate the 3-week transition to spiritual freedom. Gee I hope it's true.
Posted by: John | Apr 8, 2013 6:53:29 PM
Thanks for reading everybody! I really appreciate it.
Carlos, I will check out that film. I am fascinated by the subject. Thanks! Someone wrote to me that Paulo Coelho treated the subject, but I can't read him. Reading David's book I was reminded how nature frightens me.
John, I have NEVER done anything so physically arduous as to walk 750 miles, over any kind of terrain. I fell into a ditch trying to get a seat with a view at a French picnic, however. I got in a fender-bender not terribly far from the forest of Rambouillet. If I followed David Downie's lead, I would not be at all surprised if something really different, on the consciousness plane, happened in Week 3.
One person here, Abbas Raza no less, knows all about trekking. I wonder if we could tempt him into France....
Posted by: Elatia Harris | Apr 8, 2013 10:01:58 PM
Thank you Elatia! Your questions had me re-living our walk but from the comfort of my armchair.
Posted by: alison Harris | Apr 9, 2013 7:21:46 AM
Posting this on behalf of Nicolai C., the most extreme outdoorsman I know (night hiking on Mt. Monadnock in February...)
About finding water --
The omnipresent “bac municipal” or “lavoir” where my family filled its buckets of water from as recently as the 60’s, are still around in every French village and provide a source of generally reliable water (though most were stamped “eau non potable” during the 70’s presumably in part to support tax revenues to fund municipal sewage); these enormous stone basins were the point of gathering of the villagers, now they’re “naturally” substituted by telephones, radios, tv, and the internet (sigh).
On friendships made on the road, with people you will never see again --
I’d like to propose an interesting contraposition when it comes to “seeming to be very old friends knowing we’d never meet again”: I had numerous similar experiences as a young Frenchman hitch-hiking around the US of A in the late 70’s. My rather formal education had taught me that one must cherish and maintain ties of friendship, and so I’d taken much effort to write to some of the people I’d met upon returning home. My recollection is that one elderly man and perhaps one other person ever wrote back, the rest of people, mostly in their 20’s-40’s, I never heard back from, not even one very pretty lady whom I met hitching in Yosemite...
Great inspiration to get back to the road and the sea… someday.
Posted by: Elatia Harris | Apr 9, 2013 10:49:50 AM
Read it with pleasure. Thank you, Elatia.
I'm sure that it gave some long distance walkers itchy feet. Too late for me, but one can dream.
Abbas Raza is a trekker! That gained him a few more notches in my book.
Posted by: waqnis | Apr 9, 2013 11:57:28 AM
Great interview! I look forward to reading the book and being an armchair pilgrim.
Posted by: Ben Giordano | Apr 10, 2013 10:53:32 AM
Alison, Waqnis and Ben -- the more I think about this book, the more I'd like to do some kind of a trek in France. Something a little more strenuous than race-walking to restaurants. Or perhaps a couple of doughty bearers and a sedan chair...
Posted by: Elatia Harris | Apr 10, 2013 12:08:28 PM
It sounds like a perfect way to spend time.
Posted by: chris | Apr 10, 2013 4:09:05 PM
Thank you Elatia, Once again you've led me to a place I wouldn't have discovered on my own. It's been an enriching experience reading all of your interviews and articles here and I always look for your name.
Posted by: OTT | Apr 11, 2013 5:51:34 AM
Go for it.
I took part in walks in Provence -- from St Andre les Alpes to Aix-en-Provence. Enjoyed them very much.
Both self-guided and guided walks are available.
Posted by: waqnis | Apr 11, 2013 12:32:19 PM
Cover of Home Boy, HarperCollins India edition, 2010, cover painting by Faiza Butt
Below, author photo by David Williams
In his excellent blog Work Product, Matt Wilkens ballparks the number of English language long form prose fiction volumes published globally, every year, at about 100,000. Not all these works aspire to the condition of literature, of course, but among those that do, Home Boy, by H.M. Naqvi, published last year, has famously pulled ahead of a great many of the rest. Consider that the author was top-seeded. A Lannan Fellow, a recipient of the Phelam Prize, a creative writing teacher at Boston University, an erstwhile banker and a slam poet, Naqvi was less likely to be overlooked than most first novelists. Home Boy, a distinctively American novel by a "card-carrying" Pakistani, has been taken to heart by readers around the world, with translations into Italian, German and, soon, Portuguese, following launches in New York, Karachi and Jaipur. Last month, Home Boy was short-listed for the prestigious and lucrative DSC Prize for South Asian Literature.
In the year since Home Boy was published, I have corresponded with Naqvi, who once wrote for this blog. We have had a long conversation about what is uniquely American about Home Boy; close readers will find it as American as Moby Dick, and much shorter. We talked about the fast-growing South Asian literary festival scene, and about the shifts in artistic intention the first year out has impelled. As well as writing fiction, Naqvi is a correspondent for the superb Global Post, with articles covering a Pakistan it's almost impossible to draw a bead on reading other English language newspapers. What are the tales of the dazzling year, for H.M. Naqvi? And what's next?
Left to right: Covers of the South Asian, German, Italian and American editions of Home Boy
ELATIA HARRIS: Over the year we've been talking, I've read Home Boy three times. For pleasure, and to be a worthier interlocutor. I'll say it again -- you make the eve of 9/11 in New York sound almost edenic. And the three main characters seem very young. Of course, they are young -- but they seem it. The voice of Chuck, the narrator, was beautifully done.
H.M.NAQVI: Chuck is an everyman, like me, like you. He is bright and sensitive, curious and interested in making sense of himself and the world around him. The voice is characterized by his context, by Americana. Consequently Whitman and Salinger and McInerney are invoked, as is Springsteen and Erik B. and Rakim. There is hip-hop and Yiddish and Spanish and Punjabi in the texture of the prose.
EH: Actors say you can play older and smarter more easily than younger and less guarded. Is that a technical issue for novelists as well?
HMN: Actors are a different species. As a writer, I can tell you that there was a technical imperative to assume the persona of an innocent: I wanted to employ the bildungsroman as a trope that informed 9/11.
EH: Chuck and his friends, too, wise up -- to this reader's horror. A year ago, there was ceaseless speculation -- who, in real life, might you have been writing about? I believe our editor at 3QD, Abbas Raza, was mentioned.
EH: But not by you.
HMN: No, but everybody who knows Abbas would accede that he is worthy of a literary Doppleganger.
EH: Mm. You remarked in your talk at the Barker Center for the Humanities at Harvard that every first novel was bound to be a roman a clef. Well, if so... I found something Proust wrote in a letter to friends who felt exposed when A la recherche first came out. "I had the misfortune," he observed," to begin a book with ' I ' -- and already people believed that, instead of trying to discover general laws, I was analyzing myself in the individual and hateful sense of this verb."
HMN: Although I thoroughly enjoy Proust’s rhetorical Kabuki, I am not sure I would agree with his claim.
At the Barker Center for the Humanities, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA
Photo on right, HMN with Prof. Sugata Bose. Photos by Faraz Ali
EH: Back to the bildungsroman, then. I'm not done with that idea. The way I read Home Boy, it was clear the classical bildungsroman, the tale of self-development and integration into the regnant culture, was not happening. Not to Chuck.
HMN: I like to think that Home Boy resists easy taxonomy: it is American but Pakistani, South Asian and but not South Asian, an immigrant novel that turns the trope on its head, a 9/11 novel in which 9/11 doesn’t take place. In this way it also defies the conceits of the bildungsroman. One can make the case that our intrepid hero is unable to achieve self actualization - or to employ a potentially pertinent term - a variety of “jihad.” This, I think, is indeed unusual. I must then agree with you.
EH: Chuck's main men, AC and Jimbo, experience types of assimilation no immigrant would assent to. Long ago I read Ibn Tufail, and later came to see the bildungsroman may have had origins outside the West. Might Home Boy reflect the deep reach of Hayy ibn Yaqdhan into western literature? Starting with Robinson Crusoe? To read Home Boy as a riff -- intended or not -- on managing essential life tasks and big thoughts if you land up on a desert island, was funny-ha-ha.
HMN: I am not really familiar with the phenomenon of the Eastern bildungsroman and as far as I know, it’s not a particularly prominent trope in Urdu literature. The first Urdu novel, Umrao Jaan Ada, is a fictional memoir of a courtesan (analogous, in ways, to Richardson’s Pamela, but, I must add, much superior). I suppose it can be thought of as a coming-of-age story.
I am, however, familiar with the Babarnama, a seminal tract, which, I believe, is mentioned in passing in Home Boy. It’s fantastic, the first modern memoir, and I suppose, another coming-of-age story. It begins something like this: “In Fergana, in the year 1494, when I was twelve, I became king…”
EH: I don't know that work. I remember the allusion, though. Were you taking a leaf?
HMN: I suppose you could read Home Boy like the Babarnama. I would like to read a dissertation on it. After all, the protagonists believe that they are kings, Kings of New York. Alhough our intrepid heroes would have only preferred to have contended with mere hormonal vicissitudes, they have to contend with the momentum of history.
EH: I will never get over Chuck using a mango as he does. I don't want to go into it much because one must read it where it occurs in the novel for it to have all its power. But Chuck...does something with a mango. For all my reading, it remains the definitive image of a South Asian far from home comforting himself in order to get a night’s sleep. Beyond gorgeous.
HMN: The mango has become one of those familiar literary conceits in South Asian fiction, literary or otherwise, signaling esoteric, exotica: Caucasians might chomp on bananas but faraway, in the mysterious East, we feast on that fruit known as the mango. Oh, the mango! Mercifully Mohammed Hanif exploded it. I only wanted to mention it in passing, and about two thirds of the way through Home Boy, I realized I had not deployed it. Consequently, I stuck it in…
EH: No, don’t tell! Readers will have to earn it. And I didn't realize it was obligatory! Also, the way Chuck got his name -- which I won't quote, either. It speaks to his attachment to the Motherland, his longing, the extreme youth that underlies his wayfaring. Astonishing. The prose contains poetry, and sometimes poetry leaps out of the container. While I know it's the same person doing it, toggling between poetry and prose -- has it its psychic costs? And rewards?
HMN: That’s a wonderful question, Elatia. I’m not quite sure how to go about answering it: the psychic costs and rewards of toggling between poetry and prose! Oh my. I suppose I can, I should try. The business of writing is tough, exacting. I write slowly, deliberately; each sentence has shape, texture, a certain resonance. I I can’t move ahead until the last sentence works. I am a perfectionist. I'm a lazy bastard. But I am an aesthete. Duchamps’ urinal (or Fountain), for instance, is not as interesting to me as Sadeqain’s Bathers.
Left to right: Sadeqain's Bathers and the Fountain of Marcel Duchamps
EH: You have remarked in several interviews, and to me, that you never know what's coming up next when you write. So Home Boy can almost sound like an experimental novel that way. Yet to read it is to know you are inside an experience that has been most carefully orchestrated. Could you say that Dionysus writes and Apollo rewrites?
HMN: The first few pages might might be characterized as a Dionysian riff but the rest is work, tough work. I somke a pack, drink soda water. I pace, listen to music. I do pushups. I go back. I go back every day.
EH: I was having a great old time comparing Chuck's integration into society with that of Hanif Kureishi's protagonist of two decades ago in The Buddha of Suburbia. There are some rites of passage -- squaring off with a rich girl, for one -- that no one gets to miss, I guess. Oh, the difference 20 years, 9/11 and two very different writers and cities make. But I am astonished no one asks you about this. Is "Early Hanif" a lifetime ago?
HMN: As far as I know, nobody has explicitly drawn the comparison. It is an interesting one. Trust you to bring it up. Kureishi was of the first generation of South Asian writers who commanded an audience in the “West.” Actually, although he is a somewhat of a rock star in Britain, he’s not particularly well known in the States. I read the Buddha when I was twelve or thirteen. I remember it being very funny.
EH: Well, Home Boy is very funny. To be so sad a story. Do you think the comparison with The Buddha of Suburbia holds water?
HMN: I am certain the narrator of Buddha contended with issues similar to Chuck’s or his pals and partners in crime. Yet Kureishi’s story is a function of a different milieu than mine. In the States, for instance, one can be Chinese American, Italian American, Irish American, Greek American, Jewish American and so on. In the U.K., immigrants become British. Or don’t. It’s either or. Just like Naipaul doesn’t care to be Trinidadian, Kureishi doesn’t care to be considered Pakistani. He is a Briton. Earlier this year at Jaipur, he grimaced during a session when the moderator asked him about immigrant fiction. He said something like, “I’m quite offended. I’ve only immigrated from Bromley to Shepherd’s Bush.” It was very funny.
EH: You, on the other hand...
HMN: On the other hand, Home Boy is written by a card-carrying Pakistani writing about America.
EH: Well, you did it. People have written about your resembling Nabokov that way, conjuring that pitch-perfect American voice. You've told me you're a re-reader...
HMN: I have an inclination to reread certain novels. I have, for instance, I have read Ulysses and Lolitatwice, Waiting for the Barbarians thrice, A Bend in the River five times, The Heart of the Matter maybe six. I like to think that each work reveals something different with each reading. Different works also have different resonances at different junctures. In the decade that separated my readings of Ulysses, for instance, my empathy shifted from young Stephen to bumbling Bloom. If I had read it only once, the novel would have remained something else. I need to reread.
EH: Does that habit kick into your writing life, as well?
HMN: This peculiar pathology informs my writing process. When I write, I want to tell a story, a good story, a story that transcends its immediate context and milieu; and I want to create multidimensional characters, characters that you might imagine grabbing a drink with, perhaps dinner. At the same time, I also want to create a figurative infrastructure that complements the narrative. In Home Boy, I draw upon several almost archetypal American tropes, spanning genres, the century. There is, for instance, The Wizard of Oz and The Great Gatsby in it, and as I mentioned earlier, Whitman, Springsteen and Erik B. and Rakim. Much is stuffed into the the 273 pages. It requires rereading.
EH: I wonder what Eric B. and Rakim would make of the talk at Georgetown University you just gave -- on coming of age, hip hop and Islam. It's been a big year. I would love to know about being on the other side of it. Not to suggest that you or any writer can ever be on the inside looking out.
HMN: It has been a rollicking year. Home Boy dropped last fall. The American tour was frenetic, spanning six cities up and down the East Coast, from the Asia Society to the Brooklyn Book Festival to the august Barker Center at Harvard. In October, the New York Times review was published, which is always a boon for a book. Then the South Asian tour commenced, taking me to Delhi and Jaipur, Karachi, Islamabad and Dubai, which has became an integral part of the Subcontinent.
EH: Help me visualize a literary festival in Jaipur. It seems almost too romantic.
HMN: Jaipur was misty, picturesque, and a twenty-four party. I came across characters that include William Dalrymple, who is a force of nature, and the incisive Amitava Kumar; I met a Nobel Prize winner, a couple of Bollywood actors. There was also a large Pakistani contingent. At the closing night party, I was accosted by a plain-clothes intelligence official who mistook me for Mohammed Hanif for some reason and told me Pakistan and India would be united. Inshallah, I responded. The book was very well received on either side of the border.
EH: It hit the bestseller list.
HMN: It did. The Karachi Literary Festival was also, unexpectedly, a blast. There were readings in English and Urdu, which brought hordes of disparate readers, writers, and traditions together under one roof. The highlight of the event for me was taking the wonderful, venerable Zulfikar Ghose out for a drink, a Scotch, one evening. I told him he is my literary forefather. In turn, he spoke with me about life, love, literature. There wasn’t anything left to talk about by dusk.
Karachi Festival and Home Boy launch, photos by Shahi
EH: You've been translated into Italian and German, with Portuguese to come. You've been to Iowa, the Montsalvat of American fiction...
HMN: In the summer, the German and Italian editions were launched and I received a call informing me I had been selected for some renowned residency. “They fly you down,” I was told, “put you up, and you get a paycheck at the end of the month.” Consequently, I was ensconced in Iowa City, Iowa for a month and a half, a mostly charming urban oasis amid the windswept cornfields. Strangely, Iowa City is the mecca of creative writing in the US, perhaps in the world. Home Boy will appear on the syllabus of several classes. Moreover, I managed to make meaningful progress on my second project there. After a frenetic year, it was good to sit and write again, good for the soul. I was in London for a week-long jaunt to attend the DSC South Asian Literary Festival and to collaborate with the feted painter, Faiza Butt. I returned to Iowa, before returning home to Karachi by Eid.
EH: And now you're in DC. And! You've been short-listed for the DSC prize. That's big. Lots and lots of writing hours guaranteed for the winner. What a condition it is, being a "card-carrying Pakistani" who writes -- for now -- in English. You mentioned in your talk at Harvard a Pakistani writer who, late in life, wrote his first novel in Urdu. If that transition were artistically interesting to you, would it take another four decades for you to make it?
HMN: I'm not a polyglot. I’ll be happy if I am able to master just one language in this lifetime. Of course, things might change. Like Abdullah Hussein, I might feel differently at eighty. Then again, I might be dead at eighty.
EH: Oh, don’t be dead then! I want to ask about your journalism. It's appearing regularly in the Global Post. It's fantastic to read, and I wonder how big a part it plays in your writing life. You've come out as an admirer of Graham Greene. I can't help thinking that, reading your Global Post articles, you could be doing as Greene did in writing The Power and the Glory about the same time that he wrote the non-fiction book, Another Mexico -- two different takes on the same era and material. Does long form journalism attract you?
HMN: Thank you, Elatia. After the publication of Home Boy, I thought I would bang out some short stories, a slim collection set in and around Karachi, but it didn’t happen. Instead, I found myself being pulled in another direction: I began writing about the city and environs. I wrote, for instance, a piece of the phenomenon of inner-city home schooling in a Waziri neighborhood. In Waziristan, the troubled scrim of Pakistan bordering Afghanistan, women don’t leave their houses. In Karachi, however, they run schools.
I also wrote a piece entitled “The Goddess of Taliban Country” about a trip I made into Baluchistan in search for the local incarnation of Kali. I was invited by the Karachi Off Roaders, an intrepid fraternity of self-styled adventurers who make regular forays into the hinterland.
EH: A Pakistan we don't read about much...
HMN: There is much about Pakistan that escapes discourse. Consequently, it is imperative that we make sense of it in a more meaningful, rigorous way. Otherwise, Pakistan is reduced to the headlines and reducing a country of 180 million, the sixth largest in the world, to a sentence or two, is dangerous.
I have written several pieces since that have not been published and will continue to do so. The project complements my novel nicely.
EH: The collaboration with Faiza Butt -- what an amazing painter. You are well-matched. It's so unusual an author would have an impact on the choice of cover art, though. In your talk in London, did the two of you tell the audience much about working together on this?
HMN: Faiza and I have been involved in a unique collaborative act, an exercise that can be characterized as a hermeneutic experiment. Although we work in different though not necessarily mutually exclusive disciplines and mediums – I am a novelist, she’s a painter – she has interpreted my work and I have interpreted hers. The process began last year when she read my novel then interpreted it on canvas.
Detail, cover painting for Home Boy HarperCollins India edition, by Faiza Butt
The spectacular piece graces the cover of the South Asian edition of Home Boy which evokes the frenetic energy of the novel. There is also violence in it, exuberance, humor and this fascinating, compelling pop sensibility at work informed by traditions that might include Warhol and Lollywood and the graphic novel. An essay of mine making sense of her oeuvre appears in the catalog for her fabulous show on at the Grosvenor Gallery this month. I hope to continue working with her in this way.
EH: As far as the next work, you've told me, tantalizingly, "not immigrant lit." In the year that Home Boy has come out, has your sense of audience grown keener?
HMN: Who the hell wants to keep reading about the immigrant experience? There are other, grander matters that inform us. As for your query, the imperative to write is mostly personal. I am excited about what I am working on, a big, bad, bawdy epic that contends with the universe and its vastness.
EH: I was reading Eckermann's notes on a luncheon with Goethe... "My dear fellow," Goethe said to Eckermann. "...My work simply cannot be popular. Anyone who thinks it can be -- and who tries to win popularity for it -- is making a mistake. I haven't written for people in general -- for people en masse. I've written for individuals -- people who are looking for something that engages with their individuality (with what makes them not part of the crowd, with what makes them lonely) and whose minds tend in roughly the same direction as mine."
HMN: I enjoyed that.
EH: Of course, Goethe was a big popular hit. When he was exactly your age, he had to leave Germany hidden in a hay wagon to get some peace. When he arrived in Rome, he registered at the parish of Santa Maria del Popolo under an assumed name -- again, to get some peace. Maybe you know the feeling. I've enjoyed keeping up with you this year.
HMN: It's been uncanny. The interview that spanned months, a year -- years. Thank you for keeping apace.
EH: Yes. You've been most forbearing. Perhaps I'm a bit like Eckermann sounding out Goethe, over years and years of time. Or Boswell following a very young Johnson. Why not just keep on?
Buy Home Boy at Amazon.com, at BarnesandNoble.com, in India at NBCIndia.com, or athttp://www.flipkart.com, in Pakistan at Libertybooks.com, in Italian translation at Feltrinelli, in German translation, starting November 18, 2010, at Amazon.de, and as an iPhone app.
Author Web site of H. M. Naqvi
Selected Global Post articles by HMN
Selected Press Coverage of Home Boy and HMN
There is an archive of book reviews, author interviews and news stories on the author's site. See this page for tabs linking to a CNN video, the New York Times, The Dawn, the Huffington Post, USA Today, the Wall Street Journal, The Hindu, The Brooklyn Rail, Time Out Delhi, Counterpunch, The Millions, among other periodicals.
Additional coverage includes these articles.
About Faiza Butt and HMN at Grosvenor House in London
To read more about Faiza Butt
Posted by Elatia Harris at 12:10 AM | Permalink
Thanks Elatia for a superb posting!
Posted by: Felix E F Larocca MD | Nov 15, 2010 6:46:26 AM
Elatia, great work drawing Husain out with such excellent questions.
Husain, as our mutual friend "Jimbo" might say: rock on, baby!
By the way, I've recently ordered seven copies in German. If you are a German-speaking friend of mine in Brixen, guess what you're getting for Christmas? :-)
Posted by: Abbas Raza | Nov 15, 2010 6:52:58 AM
Excellent novel. Great interview!
Posted by: Pepito | Nov 15, 2010 10:21:45 AM
Abbas, I want to read it in German too! Felix and Pepito, you would both understand better than many readers how many voices need to be blended for an American voice. Thanks for reading!
Posted by: Elatia Harris | Nov 15, 2010 10:26:27 AM
Elatia, thank you for the great morning read, now I must rush before we're late for school!!!!
Posted by: Kate Vrijmoet | Nov 15, 2010 10:36:03 AM
Elatia: An excellent and probing interview.
I haven't read Home Boy. Is there a way I can get a signed copy? Abbas as the possible template for the protagonist is a tantalizing thought.
Posted by: Ruchira | Nov 15, 2010 12:14:15 PM
Ruchira, you HAVE NOT read _Home Boy_? I'll intercede with the author for a signed copy -- I'm not letting mine out of the house.
Posted by: Elatia Harris | Nov 15, 2010 12:55:00 PM
Thank you both for a wonderful read!
Posted by: Louise Gordon | Nov 15, 2010 1:30:38 PM
Looking forward to reading the " big, bad, bawdy epic that contends with the universe and its vastness." :)
Posted by: maniza | Nov 15, 2010 7:42:55 PM
Very interesting. I'm impressed by Elatia's thoughtfulness and deep preparation. I find this an illuminating glimpse into what goes into a first novel, all the ambition and desire and overwhelming sense--if not anxiety-- of influence. All the youthful bluster. If the novel doesn't quite live up to what the author wants to say about it, I guess that's an incentive to make it bigger and better the next time around, which seems to be what he wants to do. I hope he does so!
Posted by: OTT | Nov 16, 2010 4:25:21 AM
Charming and enlightening. This interview is unusual because of the longer connection between interviewer and interviewee, which enriches and deepens the conversation. Well done, both of you erudite humans.
Posted by: Sally Reed | Nov 17, 2010 1:07:00 AM
Wonderful conversation between two smart people!
Posted by: chris | Nov 17, 2010 5:50:31 AM
What a dazzling interview, Elatia, from the enticing glimpse of this debut novel to the very impressive introduction to its author.
Posted by: Barrie | Dec 14, 2010 1:52:48 PM
This is the third in an open-ended series of articles about saffron. Part I highlights the culture that produced the renowned saffron-gathering murals dating to the 17th century, B.C.E., on the Aegean island of Santorini. Part II is an examination of saffron in classical mythology, with particular regard to the representation of female Olympian deities.
Today, I'll be the Saffron Mother. I'll tell you perilously close to everything you ever wanted to know about sourcing saffron -- there's lots to be wary of -- and cooking with it to fantastic effect. If you find you need to know more about saffron than I've written here, more even than you can learn from the research materials cited at the end of the post, then you are indeed special.
The image under the title, Still Life, painted by Adriaen van Utrecht in 1644 and now in the Rijksmuseum, depicts not a single thread of saffron unless, as is distinctly possible, saffron is an ingredient in the luxurious game pie spilling its contents onto a tray just below and to the right of the parrot. The brighter tones of the painting, however -- from the pale yellow of the tulips to the intense yellow of the lemons to the gold-red of the peaches to the striking orange-red of the outsize boiled lobster -- sumptuously evoke the saffron palette. Evoke but do not approach it. If you think a boiled lobster is a vivid orange-red, then you have not made a saffron infusion in a glass pot, and sat spellbound as light passed through it before taking it unto yourself.
Making a Saffron Infusion
An infusion is exactly the place to start a personal investigation of saffron. After all, you might not like the stuff, and if that's how you are, well...better to know it before you add it to food. A word to the wise -- never, never introduce saffron threads into your mouth as you might do a cardamom pod. Oh, no. You won't know it from crushed Ibuprofen if you take it in that way.
The red-orange tangle in the photo above left shows dried saffron threads many times magnified, but an actual-size photo would fail to instruct. Above right is the only flower in the world that saffron comes from, the Crocus sativus L., or saffron crocus. Those shriveled yellow things are its stamens, and no one eats them or uses them for dye, because they release neither flavor nor color, newsy looking though they may be. Those satiny red things are its lady parts, called stigmas. It is this, dried, that you will infuse and taste.
To prepare an infusion, take a pinch of dried saffron threads and fling them into a clear glass vessel that will withstand boiling water. A glass teapot is ideal, especially one with an infuser chamber. Failing that, a Pyrex bowl and a strainer will work -- just don't miss out by infusing in porcelain or some otherwise opaque container. Place your vessel in front of a window during daylight. Pour into it about 8 ounces of boiling water.
Immediately, the water will start to color an opulent yellow, deepening over the next few minutes to a clear thrilling orange. About 50,000 years ago, painters in Iraq applied this color to animals on the walls of a cave. Much later, in the early Bronze Age, it was daubed onto the sacred stones of hilltop shrines throughout the Eastern Mediterranean. This color, made from this substance, has a long, long history of delighting human beings, and you are about to drink of it.
But not just yet. Let the saffron threads continue to infuse for about 20 minutes; while remaining clear, the liquid will gradually intensify in color. Try to sit at your window and look on as this happens -- it's mood-elevating to do so, deeply enlivening, and will contribute to your anticipatory pleasure. More than all that, you will be keeping faith with those distant humans who first teased out the difference between survival and desire, never a wrong thing to do.
The photo at left, courtesy of the BBC, shows an infusion after several minutes. But, honestly, the camera cannot capture it. To heat the infusion back up, pour in about another 8 ounces of boiling water, and strain the liquid into a glass cup -- or a jelly jar. While this liquid is cooling to the temperature you think tea should be drunk at, re-infuse the strained threads in a few tablespoons of boiling water, and conserve this for later, when you will cook with it.
Okay, it's time. The steaming brilliant liquid in the cup before you will have a gorgeous aroma. It is bitter, it is creamy, it is musky, it is luxurious. People have said saffron smells of so many things: wild honey, fresh earth and new-mown hay. You cannot get near another scent that so perfectly expresses the truth of flowers, the fury beneath the sweetness, nor one that speaks so frankly of civilization's refinements.
If you have eaten the food of the Punjab, or Persian cuisine, or Sephardic cooking, or some of the classical dishes of the northern Mediterranean, or even just bitten into a characteristic yellow bun in Cornwall, then you have tasted saffron -- but not like this, in isolation. And you need to taste it like this, to discern how much saffron is right for you in the dishes you will use it to flavor. Too much can taste overwhelming or even medicinal, too little is kind of pointless.
So, take a sip. It's an epiphanial taste, no? It tastes like it smells, and like what it is -- the female parts of an autumn-blooming flower coveted since Prehistory for its frighteningly beautiful stain and magically salubrious properties. Xerxes knew this taste, and Alexander and Aurangzeb. Nowhere on earth is it disregarded. And now you too have had it.
I know -- what if you don't like it? And don't wish to finish drinking the infusion or use the rest in cooking? All is not lost. It may just be that your palate is extremely sensitive to anything that tastes at all bitter. If you don't like arugala, artichokes, pomegranates, tamarind, wild asparagus, green tea, tobiko, rosewater, cilantro, Seville oranges, dark chocolate or fresh chilis, then the odds are very great you will not like saffron and should not put yourself out to try it, even though saffron tastes like none of those things, exactly. But if you've made the infusion anyhow, and are nonplussed, then stir in some sugar or honey. Still no go? Then call almost any good cook living nearby, and make their day. Just say you have about 16 ounces of slightly sweetened bright orange saffron water, with a big pinch of semi-infused threads on the side. They'll be right over.
If on the other hand you are transported by the infusion, whimpering with lust to wrap your lip around still more saffron, then finding out how to choose and use it is the route to enlightened consumption. We should look more closely at what saffron is and is not, who produces it and how it is graded, the better to fend off all those vendors ready, in their avarice, to sell us what is not quite saffron.
Punishable by Death
In the Middle Ages in Germany, the crime of adulterating saffron for sale was punishable by death. We know the names of two Nuremberg merchants whose lives ended horribly for that reason. Today, the penalties for the crime are not truly severe, while the motive remains sky-high. Saffron fraud is lucrative, and widespread. In The Seven Deadly Sins (detail left), painted in 1933, the German expressionist Otto Dix transposes the saffron palette into a sickly key for a political allegory that would have been in large part readable by those nefarious German merchants seven centuries earlier. Avarice is the staring hooded figure at the lower left, Envy with its Hitler mustache rides on her back, and Sloth is the skeleton. If, to plump out their profits several years ago, a few hitherto trustworthy olive oil exporters in Italy adulterated their product with tree nut oil, thus posing fantastic risks to the legions of mainly US schoolchildren who go into anaphylaxis if they ingest tree nuts, then what's a little saffron fraud? It merely detracts from the splendor of certain rarefied experiences at table, after all -- it doesn't really hurt anybody. It can't be a deadly sin.
Millennia before saffron was a point of gastronomy, however, it was two conceivably more important things that people were willing to pay a bundle for -- a dye for the garments of noble women, garments whose color announced to the world the wearer's station in it, and a powerful medicine for numerous ailments, kidney disease, difficult labor and melancholy among them. Avarice and saffron are linked, as intimately linked as saffron and luxury, saffron and nobility and even divinity.
It Could Happen to You -- and It Probably Has
Cynically benefiting from the general confusion about what saffron is, what its signature taste is, and what its true color must be, restaurant chefs of a certain type, and even some home cooks, are inclined to adulterate their saffron dishes with turmeric, or simply to substitute turmeric for saffron, a purer deception. Turmeric is a marvelously tasty, health-giving spice which makes a brilliant yellow stain. While it is foundational to many cuisines, it is not saffron. In the spice market stall photo to the right, you can see truth in advertising about turmeric, if also poor spelling. In case that's the color of the last paella you had in a redoubtable Mediterranean joint, the chef did not use saffron.
Paprika, left, the chili-related powder disappointingly sprinkled on the crest of twice-baked potatoes and such, is another popular saffron adulterant, albeit one that backfires on the culpable cook, for saffron and paprika are mutually canceling flavors. This won't stop anyone hoping to deceive through color alone, however -- paprika is a nice red food colorant, both earthy and bright. Delicious, too, as you know if you've troubled to make a real Hungarian goulash. But saffron and goulash are two words that don't belong in the same sentence, and one mustn't punch up a paella this way.
Dried safflower petals, right, are with disarming frankness called "false saffron," and "the poor man's saffron." Despite their relation to safflower oil, they are not actually a food substance but a dye. In the American South, where I was born and raised, safflower petals find their way into love charm bags, notably for gay men. Also into potpourri. If you are good at blending color with your eyes, you can imagine that a blend of turmeric, paprika and powdered safflower petals would make a highly attractive orange-red that would bleed color on contact with moisture. Alas, others less well-intentioned than you can imagine it quite easily too. For this reason alone -- and there are other good ones -- it's prudent to stay mostly away from powdered saffron.
Saffron-on-Saffron Crime -- If You Can't Prevent It, Avoid It
Certain saffron producers have found ways to make saffron threads go further not by adulterating them but by packaging them to masquerade -- literally to masquerade -- as more valuable and potent parts of themselves.
To see how this could -- and does -- happen, it's worthwhile to return to the saffron crocus for a closer look at its parts. The graphic in the center above, from the Trade & Environment Database (TED) at American University, schematizes the stalk, called a style, connecting the stigma, the topmost very red part, to the rest of the flower. At its base, the style is white, becoming yellow, then orange, then red, then very red at the stigma. The photo at right, also from TED, shows the actual length of the style. As a cook, you're interested only in the stigma. But middling saffron -- whatever one has been asked to pay for it -- may contain much of the rest of the style. Sometimes, you can see it at a glance, as in the pretty photo, below left, from the Saffron USA site, a gateway to suppliers of Spanish saffron. The ratio of dark red to golden-orange and even pale yellow threads means this is not tip-top quality saffron, as attractive to the eye as the color variations are.
Saffron that looks like this, or that has still more yellow threads than this, demonstrates that a product that is pure is not the same thing as one that is potent. If the style is only two inches long, and the dark red half-inch is the business end, then the remaining golden-yellow-orange inch and a half acts mainly to bring up the weight of the product. So while you may have paid less than for stigma-only saffron, you've also bought a lot of filler, because the paler three-quarters of the style tastes of nothing, and releases no color.
There's an invisible and far more villainous condition to be wary of, however. Some saffron producers -- who shall be nameless -- have been known to spray the entire style with an emulsion made from the stigma. I learned of this outrage from my friend, Juan J. San Mames, owner of Saffron, Vanilla Imports in San Francisco, where I lived for many years. He tells me that some of his competitors are using this method of deriving "product x 300%," and the eye alone cannot detect it.
So, current techniques of saffron fraud are outstripping the ability of even the finest eye to spot them. What does one do? One refuses to buy saffron that lacks the needed science-based criteria in labeling, that lacks a money-back guarantee if it's not what the vendor says it is. That is, one refuses to buy most saffron.
The Provenance of the Right Stuff
Below left, in the photo by Steve McCurry, is a crocus field in the province of Khorasan in northeastern Iran, where about 55,000 families work in the saffron industry. To the right is a Reuters photo of saffron-gathering in Kashmir. Saffron culture is skilled, intensive labor, driven by crushing deadlines, for the harvest can occur only during a few weeks in the late autumn. The style need to be rapidly separated by hand from the flowers, themselves hand-picked at dawn in a manner that doesn't disturb their precious cargo. Cropping the stigma from the style is also a job for hands only -- sometimes very small hands. Drying, or curing, happens in special sheds, but it has to start when thestyle is fresh-plucked from the flower. There's not a minute to lose.
Picture a football field planted entirely with saffron crocuses -- that's about 75,000 flowers, yielding only a pound of saffron. The amount you've probably seen in a little glass phial in the international section of the grocery store is one to two grams, with slightly over 28 grams to the ounce. Iran, where saffron culture goes back 3,000 years, is by far the world's largest saffron producer. Kashmir produces much less than Iran, but is a more significant producer than any other country. Depending on whose expertise you value most, the wild saffron crocus, Crocus cartwrightianus L., originated either in Western Asia or on the Aegean isle of Crete, but the cultivar, Crocus sativus L., by now belongs as much to Ayurveda and the Mughals as to the Persian Empire and Aegean civilization.
People like those you see in the photos, whole families from children around 10 to grandparents, need to be decently paid for their part in the saffron industry, and that is beginning to happen. That consideration -- among others such as hotter, drier summers leading to smaller harvests -- must be factored into the decidedly rising price.
For many reasons, I buy only saffron from Iran and Kashmir. That's what I recommend you do. But let's look briefly at other choices.
The storied Spanish saffron industry is in a precarious state at present, as reflected by the most recent price per unit, a multiple of its former self, and in any case, shippers of Spanish saffron seem to me to be fonder of marketing terms than of science. "Mancha," the classic descriptor, refers not to a grade or category of Spanish saffron, but to an area where it was traditionally grown. And even so, it tends to be a real misnomer. Interestingly, compared to Iran, Spain has all these years been a smallish producer of saffron, but a big shipper -- of Iranian saffron, which the law has allowed the Spanish to import, package and market around the world as their own. A drought last year in Iran is behind the price jump in "Spanish" saffron. Greek saffron is marvelous, but it's no bargain, and one is forced to buy it in too small quantities when one can find it at all. In many places across the world, there is "boutique saffron," reflecting minuscule local industry. I would buy saffron on Santorini, say, from a farmer who grew and processed it right there.
But I'm here, not there. So I stick with superb product that has made it over all the quality hurdles, and that I can purchase in large enough quantities -- by the ounce, a little over 28 grams -- to benefit from economy of scale.
Zeroing in on Product
I have professional reasons for buying so much saffron, but if I didn't, I would buy it by the ounce anyway, asking friends who cook seriously -- or just a few voluptuaries -- to go in with me on the purchase. Everybody would come out far, far ahead, and it's the smart thing to do.
Below are two photos from the sites of my favorite -- my only -- suppliers.
Above left is saffron from Iran, sold by my afore-mentioned friend, Juan J. San Mames of Saffron, Vanilla Imports in San Francisco, who has been a direct importer for 30 years. (His vanilla can't be beat either, but that's another story.) The fully saturated uniform deep red-orange color is one of the visual benchmarks of top quality Persian saffron, which must be graded "Sargol" (the absolute best) or "Pushali" (the top tier Pushali is very, very close.) Above right is Kashmiri saffron from Baby Brand Saffron, a company in India that dates to the 1840's. The darker red with its blue overtones -- almost a blood orange color -- and the faint glossiness of the threads are typical of the best Kashmiri saffron. Proponents of Persian saffron tend not to be the same people who worship saffron from Kashmir, and that's an argument I don't wish to take sides in, for it is as needless as it is ferocious.
What, then, is the difference between them, that they have such partisans? Price is one difference, with Kashmiri saffron about 70% more expensive than Persian. Aroma is another. If all you wanted was to sniff at an open 1-ounce tin of saffron -- sometimes, that's all I want -- Kashmiri saffron would have considerably more depth and complexity. It's a knockout. Literal potency is a matter for science to decide, for it can be measured -- there's more about those controls below. But to cook with, do I think one is better than the other? No. If I did, I'd buy that one, and not both. While you can hear the difference between a Stradivarius and a Guarneri del Gesu, and the sound of one instrument might speak to you more, you probably do not believe that one wipes the floor with the other. So it is with the best of the best of Persian and Kashmiri saffron.
A story: recently, I and a group I meet with celebrated the birthday of one of our number with a blind tasting of saffron. We infused Persian saffron from Mr. San Mames as well as Baby Brand Kashmiri saffron, and ultimately murmured an opinion. My friend Lakshmi -- writer, statistician and all around terrific cook -- who grew up in Bangalore, and whose birthday it was, had the last word. "This," she said of the Persian saffron, without being told which was which, "is Mediterranean high culture. Whereas this" -- the saffron from Kashmir -- "is Asia." That observation is my guide in choosing which one to use when I cook.
Alice Waters once remarked something to the effect that cooking was shopping. She was talking about salad greens, not saffron -- but there you have it.
Terms, Touch and Smell
"Sargol" saffron denotes that the stigma has been cut from the style prior to drying. You cannot find any yellow or gold threads in Sargol saffron, and will find almost none in the best Pushali. Importantly, the cutting accelerates drying, because most of the moisture in a saffron thread is concentrated in the style. Moisture not only brings the weight up, but contributes to spoilage.
Thus, Persian saffron that is not Sargol or the best Pushali may become musty, and feel spongy. Familiarity with the literature about saffron will acquaint you with some adjectives that don't actually belong there. "Musty" as a term of approval is one such, but it's possible certain writers, sniffing saffron that has not kept well, pick up on the musty aspect as connoting mystery, the quality of being ancient, a precious thing in a chamber long-sealed. There is, too, an earthy note in saffron which some noses cannot tell from damp.
Touch is a great help in evaluating saffron. When you touch Sargol saffron it it is crinkly and dry, and you can easily crumble the threads between your fingers. In a mortar and pestle, it grinds to a powder very fast. It will keep for several years at room temperature in an airtight, lightproof container.
If we were talking about European saffron, the term to look for would be "coupe" -- or, cut. It's the same thing as Sargol -- stigma only, cut prior to drying. If you're traveling in Sicily or in the South of France or in Greece near Macedonia, you might find some very local saffron, and it would be sad not to buy it -- as sad as failing to buy apples in Vermont -- if it were dry and smelled right and crumbled easily. Not every honest small farmer can send his stuff to the lab for photospectrometry.
Regarding Kashmiri saffron, the term corresponding to Sargol and Coupe is "Mogra," with "Lacha" comparing to Pushali, although Pushali, ranging from excellent to middling, is a more varied category than Lacha. Mogra is as dry as Sargol, with a more satiny feel, as you might expect from its faint natural gloss. But opportunities for being a connoisseur of Kashmiri saffron are indeed scant. There's a long line ahead of you for the product, as the greater part goes first to the Subcontinent, Kashmir having supplied India with top quality saffron since the time of the Mughals.
Saffron and Hard Science
Depending on where the rubber meets the road for you, scientific controls on how good your saffronreally is will be either crucial or not so interesting. To me, they're fascinating, for in saffron you have a substance wherein flavor, color and aroma break down to three chemical compounds whose potency can be tested for. The Chemistry section of the Wikipedia main saffron article is very well done -- according to me and to people who would know better than I if it were -- and I hope you'll consult it to go a little deeper.
For people mainly interested to cook with saffron, I will greatly simplify the riotous activity beneath the features one looks for. Aroma, flavor and color come from three compounds in saffron -- safranal, picocrocin, and crocin, respectively. For the highest category saffron -- the Sargol, Mogra, Coupe, and the best Pushali -- the minimum value of safranal is 20, and of picocrocin 70. Crocin is measured in "coloring units," the minimum being 200 for the highest category saffron. There are also minimum allowable percentages for foreign matter, floral waste, moisture and volatile material -- all these should be very, very low in the saffron you buy.
These values must be established by third-party testing in an ISO-certified photospectrometry lab, using criteria written by the ISO, the International Organization for Standardization, in Basel, Switzerland. Reading a saffron lab report will tell you exactly what you've got your hands on, and I only know one vendor who sends you the lab report for the saffron lot your order came from. This is Mr. San Mames of Saffron, Vanilla Imports. Looking at the report on his most recent shipment of Pushali saffron, you will see that its safranal value is 35.14 (minimum for highest category is 20), its picocrocin value is 86.41 (minimum is 70), and its coloring units 238.14 (minimum is 200.) So the information from him is unusually complete, and highly confidence inspiring. He believes -- and I concur with him -- that this type of information is what you need to make an informed purchase of the world's most expensive spice.
Baby Brand Saffron, too, is ISO-certified, with their number on every container, although they do not release a full lab report. Both these vendors give you far more information than any others I know -- not to mention a guarantee.
Ready to Cook
The most important thing to know -- how to make an infusion -- is already in your repertory.
I might be perfectly happy never again to do anything with saffron threads but infuse them and drink the liquid as a tisane. If this is what you want to do too, just think one pinch for every four to six servings. Depending on who's pinching, a pinch is usually thought of as somewhere between half a gram and a gram. If you want to add sugar, it's just delightful. Rosewater too. You can turn this into a cold drink by letting it achieve room temperature, pouring it over ice, adding a lime wedge and a sprig of mint. You will look far before you'll find a friend who won't be happy to be offered such a drink. If you're fond of your own company, make these things for yourself occasionally, too.
Saffron infuses not only in water, but in citrus juice, vegetable, chicken or fish stock, and in alcohol. It all depends on your recipe, but remember it's water-soluble, so it won't dissolve in oil. The least effective possible way to use saffron is just to crumble it on top of something you're cooking, or to add it dry at the last minute. To make your saffron go as far as it can, you want always to start activating the compounds at least half an hour ahead of when you actually cook. Cooking with an eye to its maximum potency will get you the best results for the least outlay.
If you're making rice, you will want to infuse the volume of liquid the recipe calls for, but adding saffron to a sauce can be as simple as infusing a small quantity of liquid -- 2 tablespoons, perhaps -- and adding it in without worrying the tiny amount of liquid will change the chemistry of performing the recipe.
If you would rather not see saffron threads in your dish, you can pulverize them yourself with a mortar and pestle, or just with the back of a spoon, before infusing. Very occasionally, you will see a recipe where powdered saffron is really best -- you're better off if you powder your own.
Even as an enthusiast, I'd never claim a pinch of saffron improves just about any dish. It should be used judiciously, in recipes that are otherwise simple enough to showcase it. It's a highly complex flavor, and it's a great pleasure to think about it as you take it in. That said, there are flavor synergies you may want to investigate, discussed below.
Despite its profligate beauty, store saffron away from light. If it's visible to you in a glass jar on the kitchen shelf, it's not going to last as long -- but that's true of any spice.
Saffron and Rice
Cooking with saffron begins -- and arguably ends -- with learning how to add it to a rice pilaf. The aroma of basmati rice and saffron cooking together is never to be forgotten, and if you made it your signature dish, you could with impunity leave many other cooking lessons unlearned.
You cannot imagine the difficulty of finding photography that does justice to saffron rice. That shows not only the tint a cook needs to look for when she prepares rice with saffron, but that suggests its deep dimensionality, its almost tear-bringing allure. I found the beautiful shot above on the Golden Rice site -- not where I would have expected it, since golden rice, thanks to the extra vitamin A in it, is not white but pale, pale gold. (I hope you'll take the time to read about it, since it's a route to more complete nutrition for the half of the world for whom rice is the major source of caloric intake.) I would not have imagined that saffron on a pale gold ground could be so vibrant, but this is the most accurate photo of what saffron rice should look like that I've ever seen.
The technique for making a rice pilaf in the style of Iran or Central/South Asia is different from what you'd do to produce a risotto, and the rice is different, too. A risotto alla milanese, the saffron rice of northern Italy, is better demonstrated than written about. For that, you need plump, long grain rice from the Po Valley -- look for Arborio. If you simply use whatever white rice you have, you could produce a saffron rice gruel, and that would be keenly disappointing. If you're going for the Iranian/Asian rice pilaf model, take care to use real basmati rice. Delving into theory of Persian cooking, I learned that every grain of rice should be separate from every other in a rice dish. In the photo above, you can count every grain with your eyes -- that's as it should be.
When cooking with basmati rice, remember to rinse it first -- just put the measure you intend to cook in a sieve, and run water through it for a few seconds, swishing it with your finger. This rinses off a crucial amount of surface starch. To get a rice pilaf that looks like the one in the photo, I've adapted a Goldenrice.org recipe. Executing this recipe with precision and care will give you a heavenly result. If you're cooking it for friends, please do it at the last minute rather than ahead -- the aroma is too soul-satisfying to deny them.
SAFFRON RICE WITH WHOLE SPICES
Heat 2.5 cups of a rich chicken stock or vegetable stock to a simmer, and infuse in it a big pinch of saffron threads. Set it aside for at least half an hour, or even better, start a day ahead with this element of the recipe.
Chop a white onion, and in a heavy-bottomed, lidded saucepan, sautee the onion over medium heat in a splash of canola or coconut oil, until translucent, golden and slightly browned -- about 5 minutes. Stir in 1 clove of garlic, smashed and minced, half a cinnamon stick, 6 green cardamom pods and a bay leaf, and cook over medium heat for 2 more minutes.
Add in a heaping cup of rinsed basmati rice, and cook for 2 more minutes, stirring to evenly distribute the contents of your pan. Pour in the saffron-infused stock, add in a scant handful of sultanas or zante currants, and bring to a boil, stirring. Then, lower the heat and cover tightly, cooking gently for about 15 minutes until the liquid is absorbed. Meanwhile, toast a handful of cashews or almonds until lightly brown, and scatter these over the rice before serving. Serve immediately! Serves 4.
Saffron and Fish
Above are photos of paella, left, and bouillabaisse, right, from Beatrice Peltre, a food writer and photographer par excellence who has kindly allowed me to raid her fascinating blog, La Tartine Gourmande, for photography showing the right intensity of saffron color in these two legendary Mediterranean dishes.
The affinity of saffron for fish is hardly a well kept secret. Even so, there is little agreement about how much saffron to use in these particular classics. I say, use your judgment, starting with about a gram -- a big pinch -- if you're cooking paella for 4 to 6, half a gram for bouillabaisse. A paella involves chicken and sausage as well as shellfish -- mussels usually, and often shrimp -- with most of the saffron flavor concentrated in the rice. Bouillabaisse, like paella, started off as a rather humble dish -- a fisherman's stew. Both were originally cooked out of doors over an open fire. In making a bouillabaisse, one wants only enough saffron to give depth to the tomato-white wine-stock color, not to turn the liquid bright orange. In Bea's bouillabaisse, you can easily see the threads, and they are a pretty touch in preparing all saffron fish dishes that are not haute cuisine. If you make a paella, remember it's about the saffron. A bouillabaisse is a marriage of classical Mediterranean flavors, saffron only one of them.
My own recipes for both are rather too elaborate for anyone who is not paid to cook. They involve making lobster stock and passing it through a drum sieve. (You don't want to know...) But for a first foray into the world of fish cookery with saffron, I have a recipe that pairs saffron and chard, a venerable combination in Provence, where, having fed the green bits of chard to hogs, farmers in olden times were looking for a way to dress up the stalks, which they themselves liked to eat.
TILAPIA with CHARD and SAFFRON
Rinse and cut into ribbons 1 bunch of chard per person for the number you intend to serve. Smash as many peeled garlic cloves as you have heads of chard. Thinly slice a big toe-size piece of peeled fresh ginger root. In a heavy-bottomed lidded skillet, sautee all this over medium heat with extra-virgin olive oil (X-V OO), adding vegetable stock or water as needed, and bearing in mind you want cooking liquid at the end. It will take about 15 minutes for the chard to become soft enough, with you stirring 5 or 6 times throughout, and otherwise keeping the lid on.
When it's done, fish out the garlic cloves (you're done with them, but leave in the ginger), remove the chard with a slotted spoon to a serving dish, and cover. Pour the liquid left in the cooking pan into a small bowl and set aside.
In a fresh splash of X-V OO in the same skillet, quickly sautee tilapia filets that have been dredged in cornmeal, sea salt, and freshly ground pepper. They'll only take about 2.5 minutes -- 1.25 minutes per side for smallish filets.
Check to see if you can get any more liquid out of the chard -- it's probably released some. If so, add it to your small bowl of chard-cooking liquid. Arrange the tilapia on the bed of chard and cover to keep warm.
Tip the chard-cooking liquid from its bowl back into the skillet, and increase the heat to high. Pour in cream (half a cup to a cup, depending on number of people, use coconut milk if you don't like dairy), and an infusion made a day ahead of saffron (about a gram) in one half a cup of good orange juice. Leave the threads in. You'll have a really beautiful color, and you'll need to cook this liquid down, stirring, till it can lightly coat a spoon. Taste for salt and pepper, and add a couple drops of orange flower water if you like. Spoon this over the tilapia filets, dust with chopped cilantro, and serve.
Saffron and Sweets
As the smashing photo of sugar crystals coated with saffron in a market in Iran suggests, saffron has unstoppable synergy with sweets. Until about 10 years ago, I questioned the validity of any dessert that was not chocolate, and if you do too, then saffron could be your true alternative. It marries beautifully with other flavorings used in sweets, such as cardamom, rosewater, fresh lime juice, almonds, ginger and cinnamon.
Combining some of these with saffron will tilt your desserts in a Middle Eastern to Central Asian direction -- and that's a good thing if you feel stuck in the European canon. If you want to punch up that European repertory, however, adding saffron to a souffle au Grand Marnier is a revelation. Likewise to a plain vanilla custard or to a lemon or orange mousse. The amount of liquid for an infusion -- a tablespoon or so -- will not throw off the chemistry of such recipes.
Baking with saffron is a tradition adored by the Swedish and the Germans, especially at Christmastime, and you'll find lots of saffron in Cornish and Dutch baked goods. I'm not much of a baker, but I did create a saffron shortbread cookie made with cornmeal that I'm very proud of, that I would probably bake even if no one wanted to eat it -- the aroma produced by baking with saffron could help you sell your house.
I'm currently developing a recipe for a saffron-lavender panna cotta -- it's almost up there, but not quite. Also, I'm reviving a plan of last summer, to create a sorbet of saffron and white tropical honey from Hawaii, which I intend to garnish with some Sicilian candied rose petals I know about. This week, for someone daring, I'm working up a saffron semifreddo, which I'll drizzle with a hot sauce made of Valrhona chocolate melted in chai. Yes, it will be too much -- but sometimes that's the point.
Using saffron in ordinary desserts can be a newsy thing to do, too, and you won't need to worry about learning an unfamiliar recipe or technique. For instance, a saffron infusion in your favorite rice pudding will dial it up many notches. If you're bringing dessert to a party, you'll get almost infinite mileage out of showing up with a tapioca pudding (please use large pearls) flavored with saffron, cardamom and rosewater. One of the very most social capital-enhancing things about using saffron when you cook for friends is that they'll know you've done something lavish for them, but in fact you'll have spent far less to make the dish in question special than if you'd treated them to a slightly better than usual bottle of wine.
So, what's a ravishing yet easy saffron dessert? One that's summery, and doesn't ask you to hang over it like a lover all during the prep? Consider the avocado... In Brazil and Sri Lanka, they think the avocado is a dessert animal. Please try this for yourself! I have never fed it to anyone who didn't want a subscription to it after the first bite, appalled as they might have been to contemplate it.
AVOCADO SAFFRON MOUSSE
For a mousse for 8, take 3 ripe avocados, peeled and seeded, and blend them in a processor or blender until smooth. Add in the juice of 4 fresh, fat limes, in which a big pinch of saffron has been infused for 8 hours or overnight. (Strain it!) Sift in 1.5 cups (taste to see if this is the right amount for you) of confectioner’s sugar. Because you are not adding heat, confectioner's sugar is very important, as any other kind would stay grainy.
Puree everything until very smooth -- avocado lumps are infelicitous. With a rubber scraper, remove this mixture to a large mixing bowl -- glass or ceramic only. Fold in 1.5 cups of stiffly whipped cream, and chill for at least several hours. It will be a beautiful chartreuse color.
Serve very cold, with a few spoonfuls of tropical fruit and berries tossed with lime juice and a little sugar, honey or agave nectar. Garnish with fresh mint.
Saffron and Dollars
Many, many moons from now, readers happening onto this post and seeing its date, or turning it up through a search, will muse how they wish they'd known to buy saffron way back in the summer of 2008, because it has since become so much more expensive. The price of some things has nowhere to go but up. However, saffron has always, in legend and in history, been valued alongside gold, so modern times are not the problem. I would never blame anyone who, for reasons of principle or finance, just wasn't interested to experience saffron. But the people who feel like that are probably not the people reading this post in its entirety. So I'm going to assume a certain level of interest in readers who have come this far, and actually set out the saffron math -- with the caveat that the numbers at this writing will not for long be accurate. Also, the prices I'm quoting pertain to saffron threads, not powder.
A quick tour of retailers will be instructive. If you don't live in a metropolitan area with easy access to stores run by Iranians and Indians, then you may already shop online for spices, and if so you know that Kalustyans.com and Penzeys.com are two of the best spice merchants you can find. Let's see how fair a deal they're offering on saffron, understanding that their mission is not to under-price other vendors, only to sell you a very high quality product. As it happens, neither Kalustyan's nor Penzey's is selling Iranian saffron at this time, only Kashmiri and Spanish.
So, you can buy 1 gram (a big pinch, the stigma from 190 flowers, enough to cook a dish for 4 to 6) of Kashmiri saffron at Kalustyan's for $14.99, and 1 gram of Spanish saffron (they don't say what grade) for $12.99. At Penzey's you can buy 1 gram of Kashmiri saffron for $15.29, 1 gram of Spanish coupe for $10.89. Shoppers feeling more flush, but in fact getting a far better buy, can purchase 1 ounce (28.35 grams) of Spanish coupe from Penzey's for $169.99, and 15 grams of Kashmiri saffron at Kalustyan's for $89.99.
Now, here's the better way. At Saffron, Vanilla Imports (www.saffron.com), you can buy 5 grams of high quality Iranian saffron for $17.95 -- enough for five saffron dishes serving four to six people each. Scaling up, you can buy half an ounce -- faintly over 14 grams -- of high quality Iranian saffron for $38.95, and 1 ounce (28.35 grams) of same for $72.95. To put the priciest purchase in perspective, you could make 28 dinner parties for four to six people really special by spending $72.95. If you did have 28 dinner parties for four to six, that's between 112 and 168 servings of something you've rendered astonishing for between 43 and 65 cents more per serving than you would have spent anyway. I think this is actually pretty good, and it would still be pretty good if you used twice the amount of saffron we've been talking about. You can see why I like shopping at Saffron, Vanilla Imports.
I like buying Baby Brand Kashmiri saffron, too. The math is not as persuasive, however. But the saffron is, and the math will not be a horrible shock now. To get 5 grams of Baby saffron threads is $35, to get 10 grams is $60, and to get 20 grams is $100. For the difference in price, does it go further so that one can use less? I don't think it goes so much farther that it all evens out, but I believethe aroma is greater, and the taste meets different demands that are made on my kitchen. Remember, I am cooking, not working at the ISO.
It's worth repeating that Saffron, Vanilla Imports in San Francisco and Baby Brand Saffron (through their US resellers, Sahar Saffron in Cleveland, OH) guarantee their products. I don't know any other vendors who do. I've looked everywhere for the best values in saffron world, and I've found them.
Back to the Dutch, and Beyond
It's time to take one last look at that lobster bigger than the poodle in the still life by Adriaen van Utrecht that may or may not depict saffron. InThe Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age, Simon Schama tells us of the tensions produced in 17th century Amsterdam when nimiety in the way of material goods sat badly with a long-established ethic of thrift and virtue. The Dutch were suddenly so positioned as to have anything they could name from anywhere in the known world. Immediately, they began ascribing sinfulness to certain new substances, candied fruit being high on that list. Saffron had been known in the days before super-prosperity was achieved, so it did not quite qualify as a gruesome luxury.
Dutch painting of the 17th century illuminates a question as familiar to us as it was then to the newly prosperous Dutch: has superabundance no moral dimension? Paintings such as this still life both celebrate and condemn the expanding sensual world, so full of the transient beauty that distracts without sustaining, but that so delights us. Should all such temptation be resisted? Or can one give in, while retaining moral fiber? If yes, then how? We too know that struggle, that makes it impossible to think of the rarest and most wondrous substances without ambivalence.
But the Dutch, as usual, are far ahead of us in matters saffron, and in such matters of virtue that can ever attach to saffron. According to the Dutch Embassy in Kabul, this autumn farmers in Uruzgan Province should be reaping their first full saffron harvest, thanks to a project set up by the Netherlands to train Afghans in raising a premium crop that will make a real alternative to opium poppies. It's an initiative to make a Golden Age Calvinist proud.
SELECTED RESOURCES for this Post
Sometimes, you write what you wish you could more simply have read. Time was, I could have used a one-stop resource on the culinary aspect of saffron. If you know anybody who could use the same thing, please send them the link to this post. If you read something here you believe not to be accurate, please write to me with information you think is better.
Persian Saffron: Saffron, Vanilla Imports, San Francisco, CA http://www.saffron.com
Kashmiri Saffron: Baby Brand Saffron http://www.babysaffron.com/
Unfortunately, there is no well written, accurate, entirely up-to-date book about saffron, with instructive and alluring visuals, superb recipes and a convincing bibliography. Each of the books below, written within the last 20 years, meets some of those criteria, however.
The Essential Saffron Companion, by John Humphries, 1998
Secrets of Saffron: The Vagabond Life of the World's Most Seductive Spice, by Pat Willard, 2002
Wild About Saffron: A Contemporary Guide to an Ancient Spice, by Ellen Szita, 1987
Good reading about the spice trade
Spice: The History of a Temptation, by Jack Turner, 2005
Stimulating and reliable cookbooks to take you outside the Euro-American box
A Taste of Persia: An Introduction to Persian Cooking, by Najmieh Batmanglij, 1999
Arabesque: A Taste of Morocco, Turkey and Lebanon, by Claudia Roden, 2006
Invitation to Mediterranean Cooking, by Claudia Roden, 2001
The Complete Asian Cookbook, by Charmaine Solomon, 1992 (Has a very good section on Mughlai cuisine.)
Art and excess
The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age, by Simon Schama, 1987
The Wikipedia saffron page -- Teutonically thorough and accurate, but not very foody. Tragic photos of saffron dishes.
Gernot Katzer's Spice Pages -- Through the University of Graz, Katzer has put up the most comprehensive spice guide on the Web. It's more oriented to botany and etymology than to cooking, however. Still, it's a staggering resource for cooks, and one wishes his taxonomania extended far across the edible world.
The Cooking Inn -- Author and saffron expert Ellen Szita with excellent info and recipes, although the pricing guidelines are out of date.
Amanda Hesser wrote this article about saffron for the New York times almost 10 years ago -- it's still highly pertinent, and explores the then-budding question whether Persian or Kashmiri saffron is best.
Elaine Sciolino wrote in the New York Times Travel Section, last year, about this fascinating newspice emporium in Paris. More Pushali saffron from Iran than you are otherwise likely to see in one room in the West.
The BBC looks inside the saffron industry in Kashmir -- an oldie but a goodie. You'll learn what they do with the petals.
The Trade & Environment Database (TED) at American University case study on Iranian saffron.
The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam has a beautifully organized and instructive site for anyone who wants to OD on Dutch still life painting, and much else besides.
About 3600 years ago, saffron was a component in perfume. I found out it is once more, in a scent from L'Artisan Parfumeur, Safran Troublant, by Olivia Giacobetti. I wear it to bed, just for myself and my poodle, because it's voluptuous yet peaceful too. Read about it in a glorious new book,Perfumes: The Guide,(2008), by Luca Turin, a biophysicist, and Tania Sanchez. This book will start you using your olfactory imagination like nothing else you can read. The prodigious Luca Turin writes a column for the Neue Zurcher Zeitung that you can read in English.
Special thanks to Bea of La Tartine Gourmande. For food photography on the Web, nobody can match her precision and naturalism. Visit her blog and her Flickr Photostream for more definitive food and travel photography.
Posted by Elatia Harris at 12:31 AM | Permalink
Thanks Elatia for this exquisit paean to the art and lore of the most delicate of species.
Saffron is so much a part of Spanish cuisine that becomes blended in our palates and alive in our culture when added to the paella Valenciana.
Best to you: an exceptional writer and inspiring as a chef!
Posted by: Felix E F Larocca MD | Jun 30, 2008 4:05:03 AM
so glad to have the complete story, thanks, John
Posted by: john Altobello | Jun 30, 2008 6:34:11 AM
Thank you for this beautiful story of Saffron. You write with great passion, evoking many sense memories of other experiences of Saffron. I won't be so cavalier with this precious spice again and I am humbled with how people have shared Saffron with me. Thank you.
Posted by: Karen Peters | Jun 30, 2008 7:22:38 AM
This is a stunning piece of writing.
Posted by: Michael Spencer | Jun 30, 2008 9:10:00 AM
Dear Elatia: Incredible, how much research you have done on Saffron. It is precious and my mother always had a small amount in her kitchen. Someday I have to make a special bread pudding with Saffron for you (my mother taught this to me). Thanks for this very interesting and comprehensive and passionate post.
Posted by: Tasnim | Jun 30, 2008 9:31:50 AM
Elatia -- thanks for this sumptuous bounty of information, recipes and delightful musings. Your posts are a joy to read.
I thought you might appreciate the reference to saffron in the last stanza of this poem.
Ananda Coomaraswamy [1877–1947]
Spring has come, with almond blossom,
All about Sharika Devi!
Flower-beds are walled about—
Flowers I'll offer, night and morn!
Spring has come, with almond blossom,
All about Raginya Devi!
Lotus flowers are walled about—
Milk I'll pour her, night and morn!
Spring has come, with almond blossom,
All about Zala Devi!
Mint-plants are walled about—
Puja I'll make, night and morn!
Spring has come, with almond blossom,
All about Shivaji!
Sandal trees are walled about—
I will anoint Him night and morn!
Spring has come, with almond blossom,
All about Narayan!
Tulsi plants are walled about—
Saffron I'll rub night and morn!
Posted by: Tom Daley | Jun 30, 2008 10:08:10 AM
Wow, this is a really great saffron resource! I learned a lot! thank you for sharing your knowledge.
Posted by: Pei | Jun 30, 2008 10:41:23 AM
Elatia -- This is stunning. You're making me hungry, but I've got no saffron in the house. What to do, what to do? Only exercise patience, I guess, since I'm going on a trip tomorrow and won't be cooking for a couple of weeks.
However, I may finally get a chance to have you cook for my friends and me late this summer when I'm back in your neighborhood. I might even let you try to convince me of the validity of a dessert that's not chocolate. Then again, how many times am I ever going to have a chance to try something chocolate that's been prepared by you? ;)
Posted by: JanieM | Jun 30, 2008 12:47:25 PM
Gorgeous, intelligent even edifying!
You can be certain I'll be examining my saffron very carefully!
I always search 3qd every Monday for something wonderful from Elatia Harris. Very rewarding reading.
Posted by: Kathleen | Jun 30, 2008 2:06:16 PM
Posted by: Sagredo | Jun 30, 2008 11:11:05 PM
Another wonderful piece, Elatia! I am transported back to childhood days when my grandmother would take out her "real"saffron, purchased from the "Kabuliwalla" (merchant who brought dried fruits, nuts and saffron from Kabul) to add to the payasam (milk and vermicelli pudding). She saved this saffron for special occasions - others only merited the locally available Kashmiri saffron. I am also transported back to the saffron infusions we enjoyed on my birthday! Thank you Elatia - your writing never fails to delight and transport.
Posted by: Lakshmi Bloom | Jul 1, 2008 2:01:30 PM
E, Just when I think you have hit your high point, you blow in with another record breaking performance...this is an amazing piece of work and I'm so glad to know where I can find it at any time. Bravo!
Posted by: Deborah Barlow | Jul 3, 2008 9:53:07 AM
What can I say that hasn't already been said? Your work, to me, stands as testament to what REAL engagement with life is all about. I don't say that lightly.
I went home last night, dug out that small but precious pack of Kashmiri threads nestled back between Rosewater and Sumac and with an infected reverence prepared an infusion 'a la Harris'. My only modification - the tiniest tinge of honey, born of Australian bush flora.
Exquisite! Why I had not yet got around to incorporating this in my cuisine? That has changed forever.
Posted by: MattInOz | Jul 3, 2008 9:31:48 PM
A precious gem of an article!
Posted by: beajerry | Jul 4, 2008 2:18:24 AM
Elatia a.k.a Saffron Mother:
I was saving this "read" for a rare, quiet period in the week, so I could just sit down and take it all in rather than merely scan; which is what so much of my internet based reading gets reduced to.
Well...where to start? Thanks for writing this piece. In another month or two I'm going to have something I haven't had in a long time; my own kitchen. Three guesses as to what the first "project" for my new laboratory will involve? Hint- I'm not looking for the Higgs-Boson particle.
Beyond the personal inspiration there's this other thing that you do in addition to structuring brilliant essays with first class information. It's those drop-dead gorgeous, had to read it three times, oh wow, bits. Here are three of my favorites:
-More than all that, you will be keeping faith with those distant humans who first teased out the difference between survival and desire, never a wrong thing to do. (and you can do it in a kitchen)
-the aroma produced by baking with saffron could help you sell your house. (that's funny, really funny)
-AVOCADO SAFFRON MOUSSE (hey I think I've seen those guys. Didn't they open for Oasis? They were awesome.)
In Conclusion; So would you be willing to do Saffron Mother IV...if the right script came along, of course.
And I really liked this one:
You cannot get near another scent that so perfectly expresses the truth of flowers, the fury beneath the sweetness, nor one that speaks so frankly of civilization's refinements. (I liked it so much I read it five times and I can't even think of a smart-ass remark to pair it with. Sometimes there are things that you just really like and that's more than enough.)
Posted by: Pete Chapman | Jul 4, 2008 2:58:33 AM
Coming here a bit late - I was waiting to sample the aqueous "infusion," a method by which I have never ingested saffron although I have tasted saffron flavored milk based drinks.
My mother, like Laxmi's, too made purchases from the itinerant Kabuliwallah selling his ware from Kandahar and beyond. But as I said to you before, the Bengali cooking in our home made little use of saffron except in the occasional sweet dish and rice pilaf. So mother ended up buying more almonds, walnuts, raisins and asafoetida from the Afghan vendor than she did saffron (zafran in local lingo).
I too don't use much saffron in my own cooking - rarely ever in meat or fish. Which is why I was out of saffron when your post was published. I got a small amount yesterday (Spanish it says. So it is probably Iranian, according to you) and prepared the infusion. I drank it plain (I love bitter) and not with honey as Matt did. It was quite refreshing. I used the strands a second time for a more dilute preparation which I poured into the Britta water pitcher in the fridge. The drinking water is now delicately perfumed. I might do this often.
Love your article. As always, it is thenthathional!
Posted by: Ruchira | Jul 4, 2008 11:31:09 PM
How wonderful and intriquing you make saffron.
Posted by: cora | Jul 6, 2008 6:12:24 PM
I've given up cooking in favor of other interests(after raising three children and living my early 20's and 30's as a non-paid Martha Stewart since she hadn't "invented" herself yet or invested the idea of a complete home-maker with cachet and glamor into the minds of the American public) public, so I put off reading your essay until now. I'm due to dine out with a friend tonight, and the timing is perfect. Your multi-faceted approach to saffron leaves me with mot choice as to what type of restaurant I want to go to and what I hope to order. Let's hope that there is such a dining spot in Cambridge!
Saffron--who would have guessed the topic could be so fascinating?
Posted by: Ulle | Jul 26, 2008 5:35:30 PM
Numerous thanks for your brilliant article,artful techniques,and sharing your purveyors with us all.I have lovingly cooked with saffron for years,but never a thought to imbibe it.Heavenly!
Posted by: Rattildamae | Aug 3, 2008 4:47:08 PM
Great article. Do you know the best time to pick the stigmas? I am growing them here in Ga. with growing success( for personal use) and am afraid of loosing flavor by harvesting at the wrong time. Any advice???
Posted by: maria f capolino | Oct 22, 2008 10:06:40 PM
Maria, the harvest is in October, and you need to cure the stigma after picking. Saffron should be dry and crumbly by the time we use it to flavor food and drink. I don't grow the saffron crocus, but plenty of people do. Start a search by Googling home saffron culture.
Thanks so much for reading and commenting. And good luck!
Posted by: Elatia Harris | Oct 22, 2008 10:49:17 PM
Hi,I sell pure kashmiri saffron and am trulu amazed at the indepth study u have done on the subject.
Its been a great read
Posted by: Nitika | Nov 12, 2008 6:43:16 AM
I import top quality saffron from Iran without having any middle man involve. I recently import such a large quantity of this heavenly spice and I am so pleased to introduce it to those who love cooking with style. Saffron has many health benefits as well as other especial characteristic such as seductive aroma and fiery red color. I appreciate this exquisite spice and offer it to those who share the same patine about it. I enjoyed the reading , very in depth, and well said.
Posted by: Shahrzad Nazari | Apr 29, 2010 7:35:45 PM
What an article?!! Amazing!!
Posted by: Sam | Jul 11, 2010 1:15:34 PM
Aw, this was a really quality post. In theory I'd like to write like this too - taking time and real effort to make a good article... but what can I say... I procrastinate alot and never seem to get something done
Posted by: jasmine live | Nov 1, 2010 11:36:26 AM
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Posted by: sagar | Jan 21, 2011 5:44:41 AM
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