Year of Grace, Day 147. Righteous among nations in a little town on the Rhine

Between 2004 and 2008 while I commuted between Leamington Spa and Bonn, I had been unaware that the next-door neighbour and good friend of a friend had been a formidable heroine during the Nazi regime. From May 1943 to the end of World War II in 1945, she had sheltered a Jewish family in her basement. That her husband was a high-ranking military officer, and that her house was in the middle of a very central neighbourhood in Bonn, make her even more heroic. I cannot imagine a riskier or more daring undertaking. How did she manage to do this? She must have had accomplices that were in on the secret, although she may not have risked sharing it at all. The fewer who know, the better, in this case. And her husband – who would have been home on leave from time to time from his posting – how did she keep him from discovering the family concealed under his own roof? It truly boggles the imagination! The tradition then of the kitchen and the basement (then as now used as a pantry and storage room) being the woman’s sole domain may have contributed to the success of this exceedingly audacious act.

For her astounding bravery and this feat of singular daring, in 2006 she was honoured by the State of Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial with the title Righteous Among Nations. She was then 92 years old. Her name is Katharina Bayerwaltes. I wish I had had the chance to meet her and spend some time with her. Alas, she passed on in 2011, aged 97. Fluent in French and English, she became the chief interpreter and right-hand person to the British High Commander when the war ended. (What happened to her officer husband?) And thanks to her cultural efforts, Oxford is the sister-city of Bonn.

But I am equally curious about the family that she had sheltered. Who were they and how did they end up with Katharina Bayerwaltes? Here are a few facts I managed to dig up. It was an elderly couple, Salomon and Henriette Jacoby and their daughter Hildegard Schott, whose husband had already been deported to one of the concentration camps. Although some accounts put them as Cologne residents, they were actually from Oberwinter, a town just across the Rhine from Bonn, where there had been Jews recorded since the 17th century. (By 1888, there were 150, the most that had ever lived there. But by the 1930s however, only 25 remained.) The Jacoby family must have been taken with the other Oberwinter Jews to the assembly camp at Cologne, specifically Köln-Müngersdorf.

On the Jews of Oberwinter, Ute Metternich

An account of the Jews of Oberwinter, by Ute Metternich

From there, the Jacobys must have escaped to Rolandseck, according to Ute Metternich, though this is further from Cologne than Bonn, and from there (?) to Bonn with the help of Josephine and Heinz Odenthal, where Sibylla Cronenberg took them in. In May 1943 they made their way to the home of Katharina Bayerwaltes in Bonn’s south quarter, Südstadt, and there they stayed and survived till the end of the war.

As an aside, the assembly point for Jews scheduled for deportation was a building behind Bonn’s Central Station. This building was in recent years a venue for advanced German lessons for foreign residents (the so-called Integrationskurs, “Integration Course”).

Out of all the inhabitants of Bonn, why had the Jacoby family chosen to knock on Katharina’s door to seek shelter? On their way there and while at the door, how had they escaped the eyes of Katharina’s neighbours? The grand townhouses in this area, built in the early to mid-1800s, are heritage properties and, typical of that era’s town buildings, adjoin one another, wall to wall, with no intervening space in between. The only open spaces are the backgardens. And interestingly, the basements of these mansions were all interconnected. Might there have been some sort of underground railroad for Jews in the Rhineland? I surmise there had to have been, otherwise what are the chances that the Odenthals knew that Sibylla Cronenberg would take the Jacobys in, and later that Katharina Bayerwaltes would as well?

My friend relates that the Jacobys just came and knocked on Katharina’s door one day, and she let them in, and that was that. Katherina Bayerwaltes was the last living member of this group of Righteous Among Nations in this area of Germany; the Odenthals and Sibylla Cronenberg received their awards posthumously. There have been 500 of these awards conferred in Germany.

Oh, what an opportunity lost to have listened to a few stories from this fascinating woman! Once a week since 2008 until she passed away, I was just next door, mere steps away. And I could’ve asked to meet her at any time. But, not wishing to impose, I didn’t. A chance lost forever, alas. If the Jacobys’ daughter, Hildegard Schott, is still alive, she will certainly have some stories of her own to tell – most particularly of hers and her elderly parents’ daring escape and survival. Wherever in the world can she be?

To Katharina Bayerwaltes, Josephine and Heinz Odenthals, and Sibylla Cronenberg, Righteous Among Nations — to remember them and their kind hearts and their indomitable heroism is a blessing. And to Salomon and Henriette Jacoby, and their daughter Hildegard Jacoby Schott, three of the fortunate few to have miraculously survived.

Year of Grace, Day 146. Two fritillaries

These two seemingly unrelated beauties actually belong to the same family of Fritillaria.

This one, Fritillaria meleagris, is a survivor. It’s the only one  that escaped predation when its other companions got their heads snapped off the other week. I never tire of gazing at its structure and pattern. There is also a cream-coloured one, but that one got eaten by snails, alas.

NACHTIGAL survivor fritillary xlnt!_7447

And this one, so many times larger and grander, is the appropriately named Fritillaria imperialis. It’s the first time for me to grow it, and it’s being promoted as a mole deterrent — due no doubt to the foxy scent of its flowers. Its efficacy has yet to be proved though. I haven’t planted it in the ground, as I also have voles wandering under my garden, and they might think it is just the very thing for an exotic meal. Voles are vegetarians, btw.

Fritillaria imperialis

Fritillaria imperialis

To have these two beauties blooming at the same time in my garden is truly wonderful, and I feel blessed. Thank you, Creator of the Universe!

Year of Grace, Day 145. Plants’ colourful coats

All throughout winter, some evergreen plants – not conifers — hang on to their leaves but I have observed that they activate their own unique winter protection. I am speaking of two plants that I am growing for the first time. One is a herb, mountain savoury, growing in a large frost-proof pot near the house wall, and the other is an azalea, also growing in a container with other similar small-leafed azaleas. The companion azaleas, curiously, do not change their leaf colour at all over winter.  The leaves of the savoury and this particular azalea take on a purple colour. The savoury’s are rich and intense, while the azalea’s are a dark blue-purple, and up close, the leaves look spotted with pewter. Now that it’s spring, the azalea’s leaves have reverted to green, perhaps to supply energy (chlorophyll) for the numerous flower buds in the process of forming. The flowers of this particular azalea are blue. The other azaleas whose leaves remain the same green all winter long have red and orange blooms. The savoury’s leaves, however, are still purple, though new leaves are emerging a pale green. And I note that there are tiny hairs on the winter leaves — additional protection over winter, like “fur.”

In an earlier post I focused on the pinky-orange emerging leaf buds of roses. And even when the leaves are fully out, some roses retain their reddish colour for quite some time, perhaps until the plant starts to absorb enough of the right wavelength of light to manufacture sufficient chlorophyll. The rose in the photo only gets direct sun past noon.

This rose gets sun only from noon onwards.

This rose gets sun only from noon onwards.

The mahonias too show the same striking colour pattern: they leaf out in sumptuous colours of red and orange in spring. And in autumn they put on a similar stunning repeat performance. The leaves exposed to a greater amount of sun display more brilliant hues than those which only have sun from noon onwards.

The exception to these colour changes, from green to purple or red, is the willow. In early spring, the fuzzy catkins of willows are always charming. The “fur” of pussy willows is their protection against spring’s widely fluctuating temperatures, often over more than 20 degrees, such as the other day’s early morning frigid 2 C which rose by mid-afternoon to a summery 24 C.

Willow catkins in spring

Willow catkins in spring

I am guessing (and further reading may confirm this) that overwintering leaves owe their unique colours to phytochemicals – antioxidant flavonoids most likely, the same ones that colour the petals of their flowers as well. I have yet to see whether the mountain savoury’s flowers are blue, echoing the blue azalea’s flowers and purple winter leaves. And again I would assume that these captivating colours play a role in protecting these plant parts from not only extremes in temperature but perhaps, because of the increased concentration of chemicals, as well from predation by insects and animals starved for greens throughout winter. But what triggers the white fur in pussy willows in the spring, I wonder?

Leaf colours other than green in the winter – they’re not just for cosmetic or aesthetic purposes; they’re highly functional as well, protecting leaves from all sorts of damage. Ah… nature and her mysterious ways — truly amazing!

Year of Grace, Day 144. What’s in a good day?

What indeed constitutes a good day? Every day is different of course. And each day brings its own welcome blessings and grace, and its share of unwelcome things as well. And a good day for me is when the good things outshadow the not-so-good things. Or better still, when there are no unlovely surprises to mar the absolute perfection of a good day.

Yesterday was one such thoroughly good day. First of all, it was sunny, and that in itself already sets the tone for a splendid day. An early walk into the Kottenforst with my friend and her dog, and it was lovely to behold the new spring leaves among the forest’s dark trunks, while we caught up with the week’s happenings. The refreshing colour of young leaves in seemingly never-ending successive tiers was such a delight. And even Yoshi the dog bounded about, excitedly sniffing this and that plant shooting from the ground.

Fresh new leaves in the Kottenforst

And coming upon a clearing full of pale pink lady’s smock was marvellous!

Back home, I potted up pink geraniums and other complementary plants (sapphire blue and multi-coloured violas) into planters. I hope they flourish this year, and I can already see in my mind’s eye cascades of pink and jewel-like blue with touches of yellow and purple here and there. There is nothing I like better than to be outdoors among trees and plants, and after potting up the summer flowers, I happily spent the rest of the time pottering about the garden – checking the progress of the other spring ephemerals – the tall Fritillaria imperialis (said to deter moles — we shall see!), lilies of the valley, and bluebells; gathering tulips for the table, and photographing a few of these spring garden stars.

It will take another two months for the summer bloomers to get into their stride. My first thought was not to plant for summer, as we are planning to move soon. But why ever not? Yesterday’s few hours were what I had for certain, and it was the right time for potting those plants up. To each day, its own blessings. For splendidly good days such as yesterday, I am deeply grateful.

Year of Grace, Day 142. Grace from friends

So much happens all at once in spring. My attention keeps getting grabbed by the excitement of this flower or that blossom coming up. Or certain garden chores that need immediate action, such as yesterday when the patch of weeds threatening to engulf the Argentinian verbenas and blooming Honesty  just had to be stopped in their tracks. It was an enjoyable task to do, especially in the warmth of the sun, and so satisfying at the end of the day to look back at the result, and to have done all that I had set out to do.

But… in the meantime things that have nothing at all to do with plants or blossoms or the garden tend to get sidelined. In particular I am referring to showing proper appreciation for certain everyday and simple things — such as some dyed eggs that a friend brought me over Easter, and they have been gladdening my eyes every time I glance at them with their quiet and subtle grace.

Today I wish to share them with you. They are the lovely handiwork of a former neighbour, who also happens to be a terrific garden designer. One who has such a firm grasp of colour and control – it was she who for years had a strictly blue and white garden, and only in recent years has she added a few accents of yellow.

Every year for Easter she dyes eggs — using onion skins, she gets a range of warm browns, from the palest to almost chocolate. The patterns on the eggs are from a variety of leaves she lays on before dyeing, or occasionally after dyeing, using sgraffito. Each year the patterns that she chooses to use are different, and the proceeds from the sales go to one of her favourite charities.

Here they are. I hope you too find in them the same satisfying and subdued beauty that I do.

Year of Grace, Day 141. In praise of the fritillary

The other day I was checking out the incipient buds on my little clump of fritillaries (Fritillaria meleagris) whose exquisite flowers I have been anticipating with delight for weeks. To my dismay, they had disappeared! Had a vole decided to have them for a snack, I wondered?

I had purposely planted them inside a tough, rustproof metal screen buried into the ground to deter vegetarian voles. The other burrowing residents in my garden are moles, and the metal cage was meant to deter them as well. Though they are carnivores and aren’t likely to eat plants, they do dig tunnels and are likely to damage bulbs and roots. (The way to distinguish whether you have voles or moles is the type of exit hole. A mole leaves a surrounding mound of earth around the exit, like a volcano, whereas a vole doesn’t – its exit is a neat cavity. So where does it put all that excavated soil, I wonder? And another tip: voles are vegetarians, moles are meat eaters.)

Or could the culprit perhaps be a slug or snail? My heart had fallen at the loss, as these damp-loving lilies have the most fascinating, complex pattern ever. And they are one of the flowers that I most look forward to in spring. Straight lines and squares do not occur in nature, or so goes received wisdom. But have a closer look at these snakeshead fritillaries (another name for them) and you will see a checkerboard pattern, which is why they are also known as Schachbrettblume (chessboard flower) in German. These are not the hapless fallen ones, btw, but ones I photographed years ago in a garden in my old neighbourhood of Dottendorf.FRITTILARY perfect

Going closer to investigate any telltale trails left by a snail, I noticed the fallen buds lying on the ground. Dismay turned to hope. There was no snail or slug slime on them. I rushed them into the house and plunged them at once into water, hoping to revive them. One of the buds was showing a bit of pattern, the other was still pale and colourless. At least I could photograph them, I thought.

Imagine then my joy when the larger of the two opened up later that evening! And the other one – the tiny pale one  – also began to look like its namesake, a mini snakehead.

So here they are, my lovelies – these fritillary lilies whose complexity and beauty never fail to arouse inspiration and awe in me. The only quality they are missing — if one could be unkind enough to say they lack anything – is scent. But that would be gilding this exquisite lily. It is absolutely perfect as it is.

FRITTILARY watery zoom vvg_7393 FRITTILARY floating vg_7385

I am still puzzled though as to how their heads could have been snapped off so cleanly. A bird perhaps? Or the furious gales we had a few days ago? No matter. They have survived their ordeal, and recovered sufficiently to provide me with boundless delight, and for me to be able to share their loveliness with you.

The bud on the far left really looks like a snakeshead, with sinister eye and mouth slightly agape. Photographed at a florist on Bonner Talweg.

 

Year of Grace, Day 140. Spring’s all bubbly and frothy

When the blackthorn and the fruiting cherry and the blueberry tree (which is what M calls the Amelanchier) bloom, the garden looks all awash with bubbles and froth. And it is such a joy to look up as I go about the garden, weeding and transplanting and often just observing and admiring what’s happening. In the dark, the sprays of frothy blackthorn look like the daintiest of handcrafted lace. Occasionally I do show my appreciation by going really close and expressing my awe, but only in my head, though I’m quite sure the plants do sense I have been rather complimentary.

Blackthorn in blossom appear like handmade lace.

Blackthorn blossom appears like handmade lace.

The trees seem to be dancing with delight too – the cherry branches seem poised to soar off into the perfect and cloudless azure sky that we had yesterday. What a brilliant day to be in the garden! The heat of the spring sun surprised me as I transplanted the Argentinian verbenas (Verbena bonariensis). It had been 5ºC in the early morning, and by afternoon the sun had worked itself up into a sizzle at 24ºC, and its warmth on my back as I weeded was welcoming and soothing.

Fruiting cherry blossom will turn into gorgeous reddish purple fruit in summer.

Fruiting cherry blossom will turn into gorgeous reddish purple fruit in summer.

Although it will be months before these verbenas show off their scented, tiny purple flowers on towering stems, I cannot help but imagine how lovely a picture they will make, as their stately stems make a screen through which other flowers and the garden can be glimpsed. That is my vision anyway, and the eventual reality may not measure up. Pests and diseases, a late frost, in other words, nature takes its own course, and the result may be nothing at all as imagined. But sometimes a gardener’s design succeeds and the result is exactly what was envisioned. Or oftener still, nature in its unpredictable way cooperates and creates an even more marvelous outcome. And that is what is so miraculous about gardening and creating with plants.

Kerria japonica, a multi-petalled form.

Kerria japonica, a multi-petalled form.

The Kerria is also in its full glory, arching over into golden cascades, and the mass of frothy bubbles behind makes an excellent foil for them.  The Kerria’s natural growth habit is this graceful, arching cascade, and so is the Forsythia’s.

Forsythia

Forsythia

It is such a pity when both of these are clipped to conform to an unnatural neatness, which is what I commonly see in the gardens in my neighbourhood, and one realises how much of the joyful grace of  these plants at their glory is stifled under gardeners’ tight control. When this lovely Forsythia dares to cascade over the fence, my neighbour loses no time in shearing it to rigid obedience.

This is known as Ranunkelstrauch, Ranunculus bush, in German. I find that there are many plant names created thus: take the Philadelphus for instance. It is called Jasminstrauch, jasmine bush or shrub, not because of its resemblance to a jasmine, but because of its sweet scent. British gardeners, on the other hand, refer to non-native plants by their genus name, instead of coining local equivalents. (There is a certain amount of one-upmanship involved in this among British gardeners, I have been told.)

The blackthorn is the favourite nesting place of nightingales apparently, but sadly there are no more nightingales around these parts. I am still hoping to entice any stragglers that may happen to fly over by leaving untouched some self-seeded shrublets in the back corner of the garden. Nightingales like thick underbrush, especially the bristly, spiny kind afforded by thickets of blackthorn. Perhaps they also like the fruits – sloes, fermenting naturally as they fall to the ground – one of the ancestors of our supermarket plums.

Sloes (Schlehe in German) make a lovely liqueur, btw, and although they are best harvested after frost, I have to pick them earlier to get a share, otherwise my avian neighbours will have scoffed the whole lot (though I make sure to leave them some as well, even though they are not as considerate of me). The traditional English way is to prick the sloes all over with a pin and drop them into a bottle half-filled with gin, with a couple of spoonfuls of sugar to taste. Top up with some more gin to cover. Left in a dark, cool place for six months or better yet, a year, sloe gin makes a lovely after dinner drink. Or any time at all really. After a year, most of its alcohol will have evaporated, and all that’s left is pure essence of fruit. Its rosey-red colour is quite cheering too.

Mireille Johnston, in her book on the food of Provence, gave a recipe for ratafia — oranges and coriander in alcohol — which she noted made a nice relaxing drink to have in the afternoon. Hmm… excellent idea. I can imagine sitting down on a mellow afternoon, surrounded by the sharp Mediterranean scents of lavender and sage and rosemary, as in a Provençal or even a southern Catalan maquis. I rarely touch alcohol before dark, but perhaps a small glass of chilled sloe liqueur (after a year’s rest, quite non-alcoholic ), when I’ve finished with my garden chores and had a shower, and before I prepare supper, would be lovely. I make my fruit liqueurs with vodka, which has no other taste (gin is flavoured with juniper, as of course you know) to interfere with the natural flavour of the fruit. I don’t bother pricking them with a pin. Life is too short and there are more fun things to do.

Besides my gratitude for the glories of spring blossom and the other miraculous wonders of nature, I thank the muse. Show up, other writers have advised, and the muse will too. She has, and I am truly grateful.

Year of Grace, Day 139. Spring blues and consuming passions

Alternating sun with double digit temperatures and rain with freezing nights seem to be what spring blossoms are partial to, and they are all looking their best. Yesterday was a glorious and brilliant sunny spring day, and it was great to be out and about!

In my garden all sorts of blue flowers are out – such a delight to blue-loving me!

The cherry blossoms and magnolia are magnificent.

At the Bonn Botanical Garden

At the Bonn Botanical Garden, a carpet of grape hyacinths beneath a Kanzan cherry.

One of the best magnolias

One of the best magnolias, blooming in the elegant neighbourhood of Suedstadt.

I stumbled upon an antique market in downtown Bonn, and took the chance to search for turquoise earrings. Alas, except for a couple – one too large and too heavy, the other clip-ons – there were none that caught my fancy. It will take a while to find another pair as unique as those lost ones were.

It was fun wandering around nevertheless, just having a look. The stalls were a mix of high-end antiques and junk without any pretensions at provenance. A lot of the jewelry were amber, understandable as we are very close to where European amber gets washed ashore. There were furniture and household linen from France, silverware, and even a couple of stalls with lovely jade and Japanese lacquer.

Although my cupidity was aroused by certain things, I was intent on turquoise earrings, and came away having bought nothing at all. I wasn’t disappointed though. And it felt good not to have succumbed, for once, to indulging in the “consuming passion” that appeared to have affected quite a number of people.  And I look back on how my younger, avid consumer self used to be, especially amidst the irresistible temptations of similar markets in Kyoto and Tokyo. And now many decades on, I realise that less is indeed more.

Year of Grace, Day 138. On spring and bitter herbs, and Goethe and bitter melon too

While weeding the other day (the warmth and sun have stirred the stinging nettles and goutweed into sudden growth), I pondered on the Passover injunction to partake of bitter herbs and I recalled reading of an age-old Greek custom of eating the first greens as a spring tonic. I had gathered a bowlful of the tenderest tops of the stinging nettles, my fingers suitably protected by thick leather gardening gloves. (It is unwise to grasp the nettle with bare hands, as No. 2 son found to his dismay, having believed M who had once said nettles didn’t sting provided one grasped them firmly.) I had hoped to try them out in a recipe from a country life cookbook, but in the end I didn’t.

As with snails that I once relished as escargots, the minute I started gardening and they became a nuisance and thus an “enemy,” I could no longer stomach the thought of ingesting them. Rather perverse of me, because there is no greater revenge among certain peoples than to eat one’s enemy (but that is all in the historic past, hopefully). Instead, the stinging nettle tops are going into an invigorating tea for other, legitimate plants: that is, steeped in water until their absorbed nitrogen and other nutrients are dissolved to become a rich and highly odoriferous cordial. I don’t do a thorough job of weeding and always leave a patch of them somewhere in the back garden, as certain butterflies prefer them to lay eggs on, their caterpillars being partial to the flavour of stinging nettle leaves.

Stinging nettle, some of which have a lovely purple tint

Stinging nettle, some of which have a lovely purple tint

Before glasshouses and polytunnels and heating made winter cultivation possible, what we now call weeds and other naturally growing, uncultivated greens — still tender at this time of year — constituted the first vegetables, so very welcome after a boring diet of pickled and dried ones over the long winter months. It is in the Mediterranean regions that the gathering of the first herbs and wild greens of spring has been recorded as a tradition (though green vegetables of all kinds are highly appreciated and much relished in Asia and Africa too). After months of drought, the greening of the earth from the winter rains calls for joyous celebration. For decades the practice has languished in certain parts of Greece, but thankfully it has been revived, with a younger generation’s renewed interest in neglected traditional foods, as well as in foods that are also good for health, otherwise known as functional foods. (For a Turkish celebration of spring greens, click here for Olga Irez’s account.) This interest also comes rather poignantly when the older generation and their knowledge of these wild plants and their uses have gone and many of these once plentiful plants have become rare. As with mushroom foraging, one really needs to collect these wild greens with a knowledgeable grandmother or grandfather, learning directly which ones are edible and which are toxic.

In Greece, these greens are called horta and include wild relatives of the cabbage (mustards, cress, and rucola), dandelion, amaranth (vlita), chicory (stamnagathi), radicchio (radikia), and sow thistle (achohi). The greens must be gathered before flowering, when their flavour is at its peak. As well, they must not have been growing in areas that have been sprayed with agrochemicals or close to passing traffic.) And if meant to be dried, they must be picked after the dew on them has evaporated, otherwise they go mouldy. Each region has its particular favourites for this mixture, and they are usually seven. The herbs collected are a balanced mixture of sweet, aromatic, and bitter. But as to why seven, no one knows.

Seven seems to be a time-honoured quantity for certain rituals or their components, such as the Japanese seven-herb congee (nanakusa kayu), traditionally eaten for New Year. When the lunar calendar was still followed in Japn, this would have coincided with Chinese New Year, sometime in February or March, when the new season’s growth would have begun, and seri and penpengusa and the rest would have been to hand. None of these would have been on the ground in January.

Seven, btw, is also the EU-regulated number for the bundled posy of herbs designated for Frankfurter Green Sauce (known in its home territory as Frankfotter Grie Soss), a traditional accompaniment to hard-boiled eggs eaten on Maunday Thursday and thereafter as a complement to boiled potatoes or boiled meat or fish. This is a sauce attributed to Johann Wolfgang Goethe’s mother Aja, though detractors say the first written record of the recipe did not appear in a Frankfurt cookbook until 1860, well after Goethe’s death and thus rather improbable. (I rather think it is probable that Aja Goethe may have actually concocted something similar: not all women of the time consulted recipe books to cook). This sauce, which calls to mind Dr. Seuss’ Green Eggs, may well have been brought to the Rhineland by Roman troops, many of whom were from all regions of the Mediterranean and, upon retirement, stayed on to settle in Roman colonies (“colonia,” thus Cologne or Köln) all along the Rhine. Or perhaps the origin of the sauce is France’s Sauce Verte, brought over by the Huguenots. Whoever brought Green Sauce or Grün Soße to Germany, the Frankfurt version’s ingredients are uncontestable: borage, chervil, cress, parsley, burnet, sorrel, and chives; no one herb may constitute more than 30% of the mixture, and at least 70% must have been grown in the Frankfurt region. These are incorporated into sour cream and seasoned to taste. Here in Bonn, lemon balm or melissa and dill are sometimes substituted for some of the herbs.

Lemon balm, also known as Melissa

Lemon balm, also known as Melissa

I am additionally curious about bitter herbs, as bitterness, although one of the five taste principles that are fundamental to Chinese cooking, is not a pleasant or welcome sensation, unless learned and acquired as part of one’s food culture. Bitterness, for many cultures, is equated with curing and cleansing, particularly of the liver. There is a scientific basis for this, as antioxidants such as polyphenols and flavonoids, which are fundamental to good health and well-being, do taste bitter. As Dr. Maturin, in Patrick O’Brian’s sea novels, said, unless the medicine tasted unbearably bitter, his sailor patients didn’t regard it as particularly efficacious. Could the bitter herbs for the Passover meal be linked to the ancient Mediterranean practice of eating and celebrating the first spring greens?

In Southeast Asian as well as South Asian and North Asian food cultures, the bitter melon, variously known as ampalaya and karela, has always been regarded as a health food, though not necessarily eaten because of that, but primarily relished for its own flavour and crisp texture. Okinawans attribute their longevity to a regular intake of bitter melon. Its blood-sugar stabilizing qualities have now been recognized and it can be ingested in the form of tea or tablets, for those unable to tolerate eating it fresh. As a child I could not bear it, and preferred the pale, less bitter types, but now as an adult, I have become very fond of it; the bitterer the better. The small, dark, densely corrugated ones with pointy ends, often called wild bitter melon, that are found in South Asian food shops are extremely bitter, and I am often delighted to find these and prepare them for a pinakbet (Ilocano braised vegetables), for their nostalgic association with home. For the burst of growth of plants in spring and for the health-giving qualities of greens, I am deeply grateful. For the equally vigorous growth of weeds, I am not so grateful, though I may yet try to eat them, if I cannot beat them. They may yet make a particularly efficacious spring tonic. Happy spring to all!

Easter wreath with quails eggs

Spring wreath with quail eggs

Year of Grace, Day 137. Creative ageing: Alexandra David-Néel

One of my heroes on creative ageing is Belgian-French writer, explorer, and one-time opera singer Alexandra David-Néel (1868-1969). At the age of 56, she achieved her goal of living and studying in Lhasa, Tibet, then forbidden to outsiders. In the 16 years leading up to this, she had studied the Tibetan language and Buddhism, and trained as a yogi. After 9 years as a Buddhist practitioner in Lhasa, she returned to France, writing about her travels and Buddhism. Drawn back to her beloved Himalayas, she returned to Tibet, aged 67, braving arduous travel over snow-bound mountains. Stranded there throughout World War II, nevertheless she survived near-starvation, epidemics, and extreme hardship.

She wrote over 30 books on her travels throughout India, China, Nepal, Sikkim, and Tibet, as well as books on Buddhism and Oriental philosophy for the average reader, a pioneer in this field. She was keen to emphasize that her books were not for academics and classicists.

Her advice: A part of every day must be dedicated to intellectual work. Despite rheumatism that kept her in near paralysis, she spent 18 hours daily on her writing, and continued to do so to the very end of her life.

To show just how extraordinary she was, here is a letter written by her father in reply to a marriage proposal by Philippe Néel:

Mister Néel, I am extremely surprised by your letter. Until the present day, my daughter has always expressed a firm reluctance to give up her freedom  and has always protested against  the inferiority which is imposed by the law on a woman after she’s married. Today your proposal has made me believe that she has radically changed her ideas. If this is true, then, Mister Néel, I see no good  reason why I should refuse you permission to marry my daughter. (Source: Alexandra David-Néel website).

Alexandra was 36 years old when she married Néel, but took up exploring on her own after a few years. At the age of 100 years and 6 months, she renewed her passport, aiming to return to Asia and travel around the world in a Renault 4 CV with her secretary as chauffeur. She died soon after without realizing this final project, yet still dreaming and yearning for more adventure and exploration. Her home in Digne, in the mountains of Provence, is now a museum. For more on this remarkable woman, click here.