Year of Grace, Day 230. Hummus – badge of a tolerant society or just a passing fad?

While eating my pan-Mediterranean breakfast of hummus from the local Mercadona (a supermarket chain), harissa from a Moroccan food shop, Catalonian escalivada — a salad of charcoal-grilled aubergines and sweet red peppers — and locally baked bread, with a lacing of local green olive oil from this year’s first pressing, I pondered on the ubiquitousness of hummus in lands where it is far from an original staple.

Bottom left — escalivada, a Catalonian dish of charcoal-grilled aubergines and sweet peppers; top right — harissa, a Moroccan hot chili and lemon condiment; middle right — hummus, flecked with wild thyme flowers and leaves.

Hummus, as everyone knows, is a very simple paste of boiled and mashed chickpeas, sesame paste or tahini/tahina, lemon juice, olive oil, salt, pepper, and garlic (and other condiments to personal taste), usually eaten as a dip for pita or other unleavened or leavened bread. All of these ingredients are common throughout the Mediterranean and widely eaten by poor and rich alike from Lebanon and Syria to Israel and Palestine and less so in Egypt.

So what is it doing in a supermarket in a small fishing village in Southern Catalonia? Where there are not just one but two varieties available – a plain one and a paprika-flavoured one (we prefer the plain).  And moreover, what was it doing in chain supermarkets (Tesco and Sainsbury, and the upmarket Marks and Spencer) in the small town of Leamington Spa in the heartland of England (where one could have a bewildering diversity of varieties)? One could argue that L’Ametlla de Mar has become multicultural, though this is not borne by the current faces I see as I walk around this village of 6000 souls (in the summer the population does triple however). The permanent foreign contingent is largely Western European – Germans, French, English – with a sprinkling of Asians (me and the staff at the Chinese stores and restaurant) and a few North Africans (but then again hummus is not a North African staple). So who are the beneficiaries of this light-meal staple and dip more commonly seen throughout the Levant and supermarkets in England?

I contemplated this as I happily dipped my locally baked circlet of bread into the hummus, sprinkled with the new flowers and minuscule leaves of aromatic wild thyme, that I had picked from a sun-drenched hillside facing the sea in El Perello just two days ago. And I compared hummus’s fate as a global food with that of sushi.

Who could have foreseen that sushi, which used to provoke (and still does) shudders among non-eaters, would become a permanent staple of sandwich, salad, and light-meal food chilling cabinets throughout Bonn, Germany? (Or in England and elsewhere all over the world too?) And yet it has – within the space of 11 years, since I first came to live in Bonn.  It has certainly captured the hearts (and stomachs) of many a Bonn Feinschmecker. It does cause me a great deal of dismay, however, to see it being thoroughly impregnated, or more to the point, drowned, in soy sauce before being conveyed to conspicuously appreciative mouths. (Can one still detect the subtlety of fresh fish thus?)

If sushi has made tremendous inroads into the Bonn gastronomic scene, hummus has not. Or at least as far as I had seen from three months back when I left Bonn in October 2015. And Bonn bills itself as an international city. Bonn lost its status as the capital when it was moved back to Berlin after the reunification of East and West Germany in 1990, and consequently its international diplomatic community.  Years later a marketing agency thought up a campaign to shore up the city’s sagging international character. And the resulting slogan? “Bonn – Stadt, Ville, City.” I cannot help but point out the obvious: it is a markedly restricted view of “international.”

It does come as a huge surprise to me that despite the predominant Turkish and other Mediterranean (Spanish, Greek, Syrian) residents of Bonn, swelled by international students of Bonn University and the staff of numerous UN agencies that have relocated there, hummus is not a regular offering in any Bonn supermarket. Not even in Turkish or other ethnic food shops. And yet, here it is, very much a staple in this humble Catalonian fishing village whose population cannot compare to Bonn’s hundred thousands. And there to be found as well, in Middle English towns such as Leamington Spa, Kenilworth, Warwick, and Stratford, with populations no greater than Bonn’s, albeit similarly endowed with an international citizenry through the universities of Warwick, Coventry, and Birmingham.

Could hummus then possibly become like sushi in the near future, with the influx of refugees from Syria into Bonn? Can exotic foods like sushi and hummus, as they become culinary staples to be found in the smallest of supermarkets far from their native lands, become indicators of multinational tolerance, badges of multicultural harmony in a global society? Would someone who readily takes to foreign and exotic food heartily take an outlander for a neighbour? Accept him or her a friend? Consider and respect him or her as a fellow human being?

Or are sushi and hummus just passing food fads, made popular to the wider world outside of their homelands, by celebrities and/or gourmets, as has happened with sushi? Are marketers, always on the lookout for trends, simply following the latest ones by welcoming sushi and hummus into their ready-to-eat food chiller cabinets?

What do you think? Would you say that hummus in the local supermarket is a gauge of social tolerance? There are other ethnic foods that have gone global – hamburger, pizza, spaghetti. Have they contributed at all to our acceptance of the stranger in our midst? A bit heavy to consider first thing in the morning, perhaps, but you see what happens when you have hummus (unexpectedly found in a local supermarket) in a tiny Catalonian fishing village for breakfast.


Year of Grace, Day 150. Househunting in Muffendorf

I love half-timbered houses, known as Fachwerkhäuser in German. There’s something about the random positioning — horizontal and vertical and diagonal — of the oak timbers and their natural forms that creates such an attractive and charming pattern of black and white. We were in Muffendorf, a village in the south of Bonn, the other day, still househunting. And it was astonishing, and refreshing too, to find not only white plastered walls but also yellow and ochre.

Looking at a Fachwerkhaus always cheers me up. It’s its quirkiness that appeals to the quirky in me. I had had my heart set on living in one. But having tried to negotiate the extremely narrow treads and steeply spiraling wooden stairs — some dating back to the 1800s, practicality won. Were I decades younger and more agile, I would have definitely opted for a half-timbered house.

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 128. A spring concert

One of the advantages of triple glazing besides keeping out extremes of outdoor temperature is that it also keeps out sound. But that noteworthy advantage is also its failing, as not all sounds are good to keep out — like birdsong. It is only the most strident  — the magpies’ — that make it through three layers of glass. A downright pity when the windows are closed, as one misses out on some of the loveliest and most endearing of birdsong —  such as the song thrush’s with its enchanting tonal range. I was unprepared for a virtuoso performance when I opened the windows to air the rooms yesterday morning.

I got out the binoculars to find out which bird was on stage for the impromptu morning concert, and there, perched high on the still leafless poplar in Frau Grau’s little spinney, was a thrush, warbling its heart out ever so cheerily and magnificently. Now I know why a thrush is so renowned and loved — I have simply never before heard its song sung with such fire and gusto.

I suspect my singer thrush is on the lookout for a mate. It’s spring after all, just the time for wooing and romance among our feathered friends. I see the tiniest of birds — the tits — flying in close formation most days, a perfect wingspan apart, mirroring each other’s moves as they flit and swoop through the branches of the yew, chirping all the while. In contrast to the commonly-heard songs of the tits, the thrush’s songs are so unusually thrilling with such heart-stopping improvisations — avian jazz, as it were. Who can resist such a spring serenade? Were I a thrush, I would surely be tempted to check out the purveyor of such spirited singing.

The daily concert in my back garden begins at first light. As soon as the dark of night turns just the merest of a whisper paler, the earliest of vocalizations start. At first it is only one voice, joined soon thereafter by another, and then another. These are not full-throated songs. Not yet. They’re more like throat clearings, practice — getting the musical gear supple and up to snuff for the grand performance later — also known as The Dawn Chorus. That’s accompanied by the panoply of a full orchestra, when every bird is awake and up and about, confirming its place in the grand order of things and the world and life in my garden by singing its unique song to everyone who can hear.

The birds that I see almost year-round in my garden are blackbirds, tits (blue, black, great),  finches, robins, wrens, crows, and magpies. Jays are rare guests, and it is only because they had discovered the feeders we had put out for the smaller birds that they have outgrown their wariness and been seen oftener all this winter. Thrushes — my garden’s Meistersingers — are rarer still, and perhaps they are just back from their winter quarters elsewhere nice and warm, and now that it is also getting slightly warmer in Bonn, are looking to settle down, perhaps to make a new nest, here in the shelter of my garden.

I feel blessed to have heard such ravishing birdsong  yesterday, and on such a perfectly sunny spring day, it was truly divine. I was unable to take a photo of my Meistersinger yesterday, as I no longer have a telephoto lens. (Blast those bandits!) These photos were taken sometime over the past two years. It is highly likely that one of them is my garden’s jazz star. 

Year of Grace, Day 86. A fascination with snow

Having grown up in the tropics, I have always been fascinated by snow. I woke up to it falling thick and fast this morning, and it never ceases to amaze me what a magical transformation a new blanket of snow can create. And when the landscape is of trees — evergreen and deciduous — like the yews and the neighbouring copse that enfold my back garden, the sight is even more entrancing. I find that snow, unlike rain, falls with such a hushed stillness that the everyday din from streets or cars and the usual chatter from people passing by seem thoroughly dampened – as if the whole world has decided to stop making any kind of sound at the same time. Even the two ponies and their riders from the paddock nearby went by noiselessly.

To add to this morning’s enchantment, I saw a woodpecker intently breakfasting at one of the feeders that M put out in the garden. Its black and white and red feathers were striking against the falling snow. Occasionally it would pause and look up and around, on the look out for predators, I suspect. I managed to steal a few photos and film for a good quarter of an hour before Mr. or Ms. Woodpecker took flight into the white-shrouded branches in the trees in the copse nearby.


As well as this enchanted scene from my windows this morning, I am grateful for my dear friend Hong Ching visiting from Malaysia, and for the joy and much laughter we’ve been having sharing reminiscences and catching up. And yesterday, another friend joined us in the evening, increasing our merriment and the decibel level of our laughter. For wonderful life-long friends, I am truly and deeply thankful. And as well for the sumptuous welcome feast that M prepared – I wish I’d remembered to take photos – prawns grilled with garlic and hot Spanish smoked paprika, a salmon cream sauce to go with it, and thrice-cooked pork with sautéed rucola and leeks. All so yummy! My contribution was dessert — a cinnamony crumble made with tangy Topaz apples, eaten with ice cream (for M and Hong Ching) and poured double cream for me.

We’ve had quite a build-up of 5 centimeters, but I suspect that it will all be gone by tomorrow morning, unless we get another snowfall overnight.

Year of Grace, Day 74. Bonn-style Linzer Torte

I should be making all sorts of Christmasy treats now but with tonsillitis and a bad cold, my head is not up to it. As soon as I start moving about in different directions, like you do when you have to take out a pan from a low shelf or stoop to put in something in the oven, I get dizzy and wobbly. So today I shall be a good (read “patient”) patient. I shall have to content myself with keeping my head on one plane and looking through past efforts at creating Christmas goodies.

I tried to recreate a Linzer Torte one Christmas according to the recipe handed down from a dear friend’s southern German grandmother. The recipe was written down in a lovely album by her grandmother herself. I’m afraid I don’t have my friend’s permission to share the recipe with you. But I thought of sharing what distinguishes the family’s Linzer Torte from all others. It is the decorative use of cut-out leaves and balls instead of the usual woven lattice or stars. I had wanted to shape the leaves like holly, but found it too fiddly doing it free-hand without a mould. My friend’s family uses a large round tart tin with a removable bottom. I only have a small round one so used a rectangular one instead.

I couldn’t decide whether to use traditional raspberry or apricot or cherry (not so common) filling –  so I used apricot in the centre and cherry along the sides. I decided not to use raspberry as I don’t fancy the pips in between my teeth. Though I could’ve used a sieve of course to exclude them.

There are two versions of the origin of the name of this tart that is frequently made for Christmas in Austria, Switzerland, Hungary, and Germany. One is that it is named after the city of Linz in Austria. The other is that it is named after a baker surnamed Linzer. It was once considered the oldest recorded confectionery, with a recipe for it dated 1696 in the Austrian National Library, until a researcher found an older similar recipe recorded in Verona, Italy. Whether it is originally Austrian or Italian, the basic ingredients are a rich pastry crust of ground nuts and a filling of good quality preserves. The version that I use includes a bit of cocoa in the crust. The Austrian version is pale and uses flaked almonds to edge the pastry.

Linzer filling - apricot in the middle, raspberry along the sides.

Linzer filling – apricot in the middle, cherry along the sides.

Eggyolk glaze brushed on before baking

Bonn LInzer top view g_4948

Here are two recipes for Linzer Torte: the Austrian one is adapted from the Linz city website; the German one I translated and adapted from the magazine Mein Schönes Land Nov-Dec 2011.

Austrian Linzer Torte

150 g butter

150 g powdered sugar

250 g flour

10 g baking powder

100 g roasted hazelnuts
, finely ground

1 large egg, beaten

1 tsp vanilla essence

Grated rind of 1 lemon

1/2 tsp  – 1 tsp cinnamon

1/4 tsp cloves

300 g red currant jam

1 egg yolk, beaten for glaze

50  – 75 g flaked almond

Optional: icing sugar for serving

Mix butter and sugar until smooth. Mix in the flour sifted together with the baking powder. Mix in powdered hazel nuts, egg, and flavourings.
 Knead briefly and quickly shape dough into a ball, wrap, and chill for 30 – 60 minutes.

Remove from the fridge and divide dough into two portions — a large one about 3/4, and a smaller one. Roll out the larger piece to a thickness of about 1.5 cm (~1/2 inch) and fit on a 22-cm (~10-inch) springform baking pan or tart tin with removable bottom. Spread red currant jam over the dough, leaving the edges uncovered. Shape remaining dough into thin strips, weave into a lattice over the jam, setting aside a strip or two long enough to cover the edge. Brush the lattice with egg yolk and lay the remaining strip/s all around the edge of the crust. Brush the edging strip/s with the rest of the yolk and arrange the flaked almonds on it.
 Bake for about 40-45 minutes or until just golden, at 180º C (350ºF). Allow to cool then remove carefully from pan. Sprinkle with icing sugar to serve in thin wedges.

German Linzer Torte

200 g flour, sifted

200 g sugar

200 g butter, diced

100 g ground walnuts

100 g ground almonds

1 Tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder

1 tsp cinnamon

pinch powdered cloves

1 tsp grated lemon rind

2 large egg yolks

1 tsp cherry brandy (or other fruit liqueur or vanilla essence)

4 Tbsp raspberry preserves

1 Tbsp cranberry preserves

Optional: powdered or icing sugar for serving

In a food processor, pulse the flour, sugar, nuts, cocoa, spices, and lemon rind until well mixed. Add the butter, 1 egg yolk, and cherry brandy; pulse only until the mixture comes together to form a dough. Take the dough out, knead briefly for 2 – 3 minutes, form into a ball, wrap in cling film, and chill for up to 2 hours. Divide dough into two — a large one about 2/3 of the dough and a smaller one. Wrap the smaller piece  and return to the fridge. Roll out the larger piece to 1-cm (~1/4-inch) thickness on a lightly floured surface to cover a 22-cm (10-inch) tart tin with removable bottom or springform pan. Mix the raspberry and cranberry preserves together and spread over the crust, leaving a border along the edges untouched. Take out the rest of the dough and roll out thinly. Cut into thin strips and make a lattice to lay over the preserves, reserving a strip or two large enough for edging the crust. Brush the lattice with egg yolk, lay the remaining strip/s all around the edge to keep the filling in place, and brush with egg yolk. Bake at 175ºC or 325ºF for 30 – 35 minutes, or just until golden. Allow to cool and remove carefully from the pan. Sprinkle with powdered sugar, if desired, before serving.

Notes: You may use all walnut or all almond or any other ground nuts you prefer. For preserves,  any red or other colour preserve is fine, although raspberry, red currant, and apricot are traditional. Instead of lattice strips, use cookie cutters for stars or other forms to lay over the filling.

I am taking being unwell with as much good grace and as little grumbling as I can muster. Like most everyone, I tend to take good health and wellbeing for granted, until illness strikes. So — my deep thanks to good health and its speedy return so that I can turn my heart and the hearth into Christmas mode.

Year of Grace, Day 66. Repeating history, Part 1

Bad Honnef is a charming little town across the Rhine from Bonn, and the other day M and I had late lunch at a Mexican restaurant called Ayuntamiento. It is a bit risky in these backwaters to try exotic cuisine, as you never know whether what you get will be the real thing, or just an approximation, and not even a close one at that. The menu had the usual burritos and enchiladas, which I didn’t even glance at, but one entry further on – pavo en pibil – caught my eye. But the German linguistic transfiguration of the original “turkey” into “chicken” (Hähnchen) hinted at similar sleight-of-hand techniques in the cooking of this Yucatecan specialty. Pibil is the Mexican equivalent of the Pacific Islander’s underground oven cookery, and common to both, the most popular ingredient is the pig (perhaps a relict from prehistoric voyages across the Pacific between South America and the Pacific Islands? — a hypothesis that ethnologist Thor Heyerdahl espoused and risked his life proving, by sailing on a balsa log raft). Authentic cochinita pibil is a suckling pig or parts thereof marinated in sour orange juice, garlic, and various spices, and coloured reddish orange with annatto seeds before being wrapped in banana leaves to bake in an underground oven to a tender succulence that threatens to fall off the bone. Right!! Where in the heart of the Rhineland (Mittelrhein) can one find someone who would cook in this traditional Yucatecan manner? The Slow Food Movement is quite active in Bonn, but I doubt there are practitioners of this pan-Pacific style of slow cooking. Even in the Yucatan it is a dying art. I rest my case. So we had camarones a la plancha for starters and a mixed carne asada. To our great surprise, both were made really well, with a fine attention to pink moistness in the diverse grilled meats and seared, nicely seasoned prawns. The service was also particularly attentive, and when I asked for a hot fresh lemon juice with rum (which was not on the menu), the waitress assured me they would make it, and when it came lukewarm, she graciously brought it back piping hot. It was quite a cold day, much colder than in Bonn and I needed to thaw a bit. Perhaps, given that those two trial dishes were excellent, we might even try the chicken en pibil for next time.

We were not far from Königswinter where M’s very good friend A lives, and we decided to surprise the family. “Give them a call first,” suggested M. Which turned out to be wise, as just as I called saying we were on our way to see them, A said they were just then at the opposite side of the Rhine close to our house as well. Synchronicity and telepathy? He said he had left something for us. After taking his children ice skating near the university and some mulled wine at the Christmas market, we called it a night. And there by the door was A’s present — a bag with a bottle of wine and a book. Ever the generous and thoughtful friend is A.

And last night I decided to investigate the thick book — Robert Harris’s An Officer and a Spy. It was only when I began to read it that I realized I now had in my hands the book that A had offered me to read much earlier. It was the retelling of the Dreyfus affair – the scandal of injustice toward a Jewish army officer in the 19th century that rocked French society. I had refused to read it at the height of the Gaza War. Having read Dreyfus’s own account of his cruel exile alone on Devil’s Island years back, I did not wish to depress myself any further, and told A so.

But last night, the prospect of a new book was too tempting and I began. Intending to read just a few pages until I became drowsy, I found myself reading it halfway through. I was saddened, as I’d expected, at the recounting of this gross injustice. And I could not help comparing that to what is happening now, wherein instead of just one country, France or Germany, the Dreyfus affair and the vilification of Jews that led to the final solution of the Holocaust are being repeated on a global scale. Jews are once again subjected to verbal abuse and physical assault, often fatal. There is a double standard and a jaundiced eye prevailing worldwide where Jews or Israel or Israelis are involved. With this depressing thought of our species’ inhumanity to a minority — our very own kind — I went to sleep.

Despite this, I had colourful and pleasant dreams, which surprised me, and for which I am thankful this morning. In my dreams I was buying fresh crabs at a market, always a delightful prospect. There was also a discussion about a tetraploid mango – no doubt inspired by a conversation with M after dinner while eating our dessert of Jaffa Sweetie. I had thought it might be a hybrid of pomelo and orange – the pomelo providing the yellowish green rind and the orange donating genes for sweetness and fine pulp. M had opined it was most likely a cross between pomelo and grapefruit.

Those dreams have lightened my heart and mind, despite the melancholy aroused by Harris’s book. I am grateful for dear, close friends like A, who is such a warm- and kind-hearted person and equally so is his wife D.

I am also so thankfully relieved that the crow is back on its perch on the fir, though it was not there when my eyes searched for it all of yesterday. I had been worried that the magpie — that avian thief —  roosting on the birch nearby, had something to do with it or its nest. M said that was unlikely because magpies are terrified of crows.

I shall read the book to the end of course, having started it. In his preface, Harris writes: “This book aims to use the techniques of a novel to retell the true story of the Dreyfus affair, perhaps the greatest political scandal and miscarriage of justice in history….” He goes on: “None of the characters … even the most minor, is wholly fictional, and almost all of what occurs…actually happened in real life.”

I am grateful for writers like Harris who, by their popularization of historical events, can rouse me, and hopefully other readers, into a sad realization of history repeating itself in our time.


Year of Grace, Day 62. Too old to rock and roll, too young to die

Jethro Tull – the band, not the English inventor of the seed drill and pioneer practitioner of scientific agriculture – played at the Beethovenhalle last night. Ian Anderson was in top form: how he manages to balance on one leg, lifting the other so gracefully, while playing on the flute is such a wonder! I am 4 years younger and standing on one leg for longer than a few minutes is beyond me. The songs – Bourree; Too Old to Rock and Roll, Too Young to Die — took me back and I could barely keep still in my seat – no one else twitched so much as a muscle – as if it were a classical music concert — except for one mid-thirtyish man seated in front of me who bobbed his head in time to the music. The audience was, as expected, mostly of a certain age – silver and grey were the predominant hair colour. Salt-and-pepper ponytails and hair buns were much in evidence on ageing men. I thought we would be among the oldest, but no – there were wheelchairs aplenty and venerable citizens with gravitas — even a rock-chick matron in a shiny black leather jacket and over-the-knee red skirt with black pointy-toed boots. There was also a solid group of thirty- to forty-somethings and even, possibly the youngest there, a pre-teen girl with her mother. Jethro Tull responded to the standing ovation with such a rousing encore, I expected the staid audience to erupt into some sort of spontaneous physical response to such stirring music. After all it was the end and they were already standing, some in the aisles and the space in front of the stage. But no. “Too old to rock and roll”? Och, man!

Perhaps it was because the performance was at Beethoven’s Hall. What would Beethoven have said, were he alive today? He’d be sorely disappointed, I would’ve thought. He was not one to stand on ceremony. One famous incident had him turning his back to visiting royalty, and when asked, he is reported to have said: “Royalty you have aplenty, but there is only one Beethoven!” Which is why it is said his statue in the Münsterplatz has him with his back to the building behind, once a Royal Palace, now Bonn’s main Post Office.

Lately I have found time to do some things I’ve been putting off. One is mending – somehow it seems so time-consuming, sewing on a missing button or stitching a frayed seam. But I found that it is actually quite pleasant to take time – it only takes a few minutes – to sit down and sew and mend beloved pieces of clothing. And when, every so often, I can lift my eyes from my sewing and can gaze at the garden where there is always some sort of action – blackbirds and robins and wrens scrounging about on the lawn, or blue tits and magpies and jays sampling the peanuts and suet balls dangling from the yew – it is time and attention well spent.

Another long-put off thing that I’ve finally accomplished is planting the spring bulbs that I’d bought earlier. Although I have until December theoretically to plant them, I am glad I’ve done it. Into a large clay pot (to deter the resident moles and voles) I’ve put in layers, from the bottom to the top, tulips – dark purple, almost black to go with pale apricot ones; grape hyacinths – a deep blue almost black on top and paler lower down, at least the photo shows them to be so; and blue crocuses. The button alliums (Allium sphaerocephalum) I’ve planted among the lavenders and rosemary in front, where their pale green and purple bubble heads will go nicely with the silver- and blue-greyish foliage of the herbs, the Elijah Blue Festuca grass, and the nearby artichoke (which I hope will survive the winter again). I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the voles find these tiny onion bulbs not to their taste (or so I’ve read, but I don’t know whether the voles read the same publications I do) and that the moles do not dig them up before they’ve bloomed and seeded themselves. I love having these spring bloomers to look forward to during the cold months.

Although I am a sun lover, I do relish the subtlety of a foggy early autumn morning and the aesthetic effect of a translucent veil on the back garden and nearby woods. Amazingly, even the sounds of traffic seem deadened. Despite the lack of sun, it is lovely.

For all of these that have made my days enjoyable – stirring music from my youth, planting spring bulbs and anticipating their blooms, morning fog veiling the trees, the regularity of bird visits, and even the homely but satisfying and strangely comforting task of mending – I am thankful. The sun has finally burned off the fog and the crow is on its perch atop the fir. Unbelievably, it promises to be yet another sunny day!

Year of Grace, Day 60. Glorious autumn sun

When the sun shines on the turning leaves and trunks in the back garden like it does today, it is magic. The blue, blue sky, with not a single cloud to mar its blueness, is a magnificent backdrop to this autumnal splendour, and the birds cannot get their fill of it. Neither can I. I am transfixed at this evolving show and I am reluctant to get on with chores – not very pleasant ones such as gathering the fallen leaves of the oak, now piling up in front. And it is not even our oak – but the oak just across the path. But I do not begrudge it its fallen leaves – it is such a handsome tree.

A magpie flew in and sat on the very top of the poplar; a wood pigeon perched atop a fir just beyond the birches; and once they had both flown away, a crow found a viewpoint on the very top of another fir. I am aware they are surveying everything for food or predators, but I would like to think that — like me — they are also enjoying just being – not doing anything with any purpose. Just sitting and looking.

It is enough just to gaze on this lovely scene. To be witness to all this beauty. To be alive on a day like this.

Just at this point, a kite – that splendid predator – flew over the garden. Passing breezes set the golden leaves of the birches and hazels dancing and fluttering — some sail gently to the ground. I’m entranced and play with some photos of the birches and a stalwart nasturtium flower I’ve just taken — tweaking them until they are abstracts of colour and form.

On this the 60th day of my gratitude journal, I give thanks in the form of a very ancient blessing – blessed are You, Creator of the Universe, for bringing us to life, for ensuring our existence, and for extending our lives to this day.






The forbidden pleasure of Quarkbällchen

Recently I found myself succumbing to temptation, gustatory that is. There are certain pastries that I have such a weakness for, and one of them is vanilla cream-filled Quarkbällchen, of which I scoffed three pieces on Mardi Gras. Naughty me, but rather apropos for the day, don’t you think?  Some foods are simply irresistible. Quarkbällchen are like the  “holes” cut out of ring doughnuts.  However they resemble them only externally for they are made with Quark or sour cream and eggs, which give their insides a richer, more delectable texture and golden colour than the yeast dough used for standard doughnuts. They are a no-no for me for two reasons:  wheat flour and cream.  I am trying to eliminate wheat and other gluten-containing items  and cream, for lactose-intolerant me, requires that I take a lactase tablet. I probably caved in because it was mid-afternoon, when my blood sugar level is low.  I justified my downfall by the fact that these were my first and only taste of these since last year.

The only place in Bonn I’ve ever seen these heavenly balls filled with vanilla custard is at the bakery at Rewe Supermarket in Weberstrasse, and they’re only available during Carnival.  I wonder if they’re available elsewhere in Bonn? Perhaps I’d rather not know. My other excuse is that it was my first day to be well since getting the flu. In future, I shall try and stick to the permitted pleasure foods of the Perfect Health Diet (70% and above chocolate!).