Archive for November, 2007

A Taste For Pachamama

Purple PotatoesDawn in the Andes can be icy, but by mid-morning the sun may be hot on your back. After sundown the temperatures drop again, until your hands and feet are numb. The Andean Altiplano is a landlocked depression lying between the eastern and western ranges of the Cordillera, and it slopes from around 9,000 feet above sea-level in Peru to around 13,000 feet in Bolivia. Altiplano means “high plains,” but the Altiplano is not nearly as flat as its name implies. The atmosphere on the Altiplano is thin and the air is dry. The sky overhead is deep blue by day, and by night it is jet black and sparkles with majestic drifts of stars. When I visited Bolivia I was impressed by the snowy peaks that surrounded me, but outer space seemed infinitely deep— and very close. I went out star gazing at night and felt dizzy, as if I was more in danger of falling off the planet than of tumbling down the mountains.

The daily extremes of temperatures in the Andes have prompted a number of different plant species there to evolve tuberous habits. A tuber is a swollen, underground stem that stores up energy so that if a “killing frost” burns off all the foliage above the ground, the plant still has enough life protected under an insulating mantel of soil to sprout again. The concentrated sugars and starches found in tubers have made a number of tuberous Andean plants important food crops for people. The sweet potato, for example, is a tuberous morning glory from Peru that’s now cultivated all over the world. There’s also a tuberous oxalis, called oca, that is a common food on the Altiplano, and of course everyone is familiar with the tuberous plant from the nightshade family known as the potato.

cookiewithmom-med.jpgPotatoes evolved in the Andes, and they’re still cultivated there in great profusion. While we find just few varieties of potatoes on our supermarket shelves, an average farmer’s market in Bolivia will display potatoes of every imaginable shape and color heaped up for display. Little marble sized potatoes are piled up next to long, skinny ones and big round ones. Colors ranging from blues, reds and purples to yellows, whites and browns. The variety of potatoes for sale helps to make up for the relative scarcity of other foodstuffs in the highlands.

The harsh environment on the Andean Altiplano means farming is a risky way of life. Bolivian farmers have turned the extreme climatic conditions they must contend with to their advantage, and they use mother nature’s mood swings to preserve their harvests for the hard times they know lie ahead. Fresh dug potatoes are cut into pieces and laid out on rocks under the sun to dry, while the resident farm dogs prowl and bark any marauding crows away. At night, any residual surface moisture that sweats out from the potato chunks is frozen into a spiky beard of ice crystals, which evaporate in the morning sun. After a few days of this treatment, the potato slices are essentially freeze-dried. These black leathery potato chips are called chuño, and can be kept without spoiling almost indefinitely. Chuño is an acquired taste, but when you get used to it, it’s earthy and satisfying in stews and broths.

Besides potatoes in all their myriad forms, the people living on the Altiplano depend on beans, chiles, corn— and Guinea pigs. Each of these crops is enjoyed fresh during its brief season and then dried for future use. Guinea pigs, or cuy, are native to South America, and they occupy the same ecological niche in rocky peaks of the Andes as the marmot does in our High Sierra, but they’re raised in captivity by farmers too. After the slaughter, cuy are skinned, gutted, butterflied, and given the chuño treatment. Guinea pigs have so many tiny bones that removing them would be tiresome, inefficient— and wasteful. Much of the protein and minerals would be lost if the bones and marrow were discarded.So the cuy are set out spreadeagled on the rocks, just like the potatoes. In the mornings, after the rime of frost has evaporated from the drying flesh, the guinea pig carcasses are gently pounded with a wooden mallet. Little by little, the rodent’s tiny bones are pulverized and the flesh is dried and flattened until the cuy resembles a crisp, meaty, pancake. These cuy pancakes are stacked away and stored until called for. Dried cuy can eaten like crackers or crumbled into soups and stews to give them more flavor and “body.”

Life isn’t easy on the Andean plateau. It seemed to me like half the people I met in Bolivia dreamed of making their way to Miami. But among the traditional people, it is still considered polite to thank the earth goddess, Pachamama, for the blessing of food. Before taking a drink or swallowing a bite, a splash of the beverage or a piece of the food is always spilled on the ground for the goddess. “A taste for Pachamama, a taste for me,” murmurs the grateful diner. I heard this phrase so often as I traveled around Bolivia that I began to notice the people who didn’t give thanks for what they had. This practice of spilling drinks and food makes for sticky floors on buses and in public places. In the absence of any SPCA, giving “tastes” to Pachamama may be the only national institution that keeps skinny stray Bolivian dogs alive. Bolivia can be a tough place to live, but this common, everyday habit people have there of saying thanks gives an otherwise hard and austere country a grace even affluent countries can aspire to.

copyright 2007 Andy Griffin

Parsley Is For Fighting

Parsley

In 1924, long before he became the cold-blooded, paranoid, reactionary, right-wing dictator of Spain, Francisco Franco was the cold-blooded, paranoid, reactionary right-wing commander of the Spanish Foreign Legion, fighting in Morocco. The Spanish dictator at the time, Primo de Rivera, alarmed at the escalating costs of his country’s Moroccan adventure, went to Africa to review the situation with an eye to pulling the troops out. Franco was appalled at the prospect of defeat— and threatened by the potential devaluation of his own valor—  but, as an army officer, he could hardly argue with the President. So, the story goes, Franco laid the table for a meal that Rivera was to share with the Spanish Foreign Legion’s officers’ corps. When the Dictator sat down to eat with the Army, every course had been prepared with eggs. Since eggs, or huevos, are synonymous in vulgar Spanish with testicles, the menu that Franco wrote wasn’t hard for the politician to read. “You may not have any balls, Señor Presidente, but we do.” I’ve searched history books, but I’ve never found the list of dishes cooked for this remarkable— and perhaps apocryphal—  meal. I’m curious to know if the chef used parsley as a garnish. It would make sense if he did, because parsley is for fighting.

 There are three broad categories of parsley ; curly parsley, flat leaved parsley, and Hamburg parsley. Then there are numerous horticultural varieties, or cultivars, of each of these parsleys, like “Bravour,” “Giant Of Italy,” “Titan,” “Garland,” “Fakir,” etc.  And there’s actually a fourth category of parsley too— the plants which are called “parsley,” but shouldn’t be, like cilantro, sometimes called “Chinese Parsley,” or chervil, also called “French Parsley.” Both of these aromatic plants are in the Umbelliferae, or carrot family, the same as parsley, and they have similarly sized leaves that are often used as garnishes, but they’re only distantly related to parsley. Parsley is Petroselinum crispum. The plant’s Latin scientific name comes from the Greek words petro, meaning rock, and selinum, meaning celery— rock celery. Celery is yet another fragrant member of the carrot family. As they forgot their classical Latin, the French came to call this herb persil. Those Frenchified Vikings we call Normans brought the word persil to England, where their Anglo-Saxon subjects garbled it into parsil, and ultimately “parsley.”

 

The wild parsley, or “Sheep’s parsley,” that modern cultivars of true parsley descend from, still grows across Eurasia, and it’s still used as an herb in soups and stews, or as a garnish by anyone who wants to compete with a sheep to find it growing in the hills. Almost as difficult to find— at least here in the United States - is  Hamburg parsley. While the curly-leaf and flat-leaf forms of parsley were selected from the wild parsleys for the texture, aroma, and flavor of their leaves, with Hamburg parsley it’s the fat root that is appreciated. Yes, the leaves of a Hamburg parsley can be eaten, but they lack the rich flavor of  flat-leaved parsley varieties like “Neopolitan” or “Egyptian,” and the texture of the foliage is prosaic compared to the flamboyant curly-leaved parsley varieties, like “Afro,” or “Banquet.” The roots of the leaf parsleys are edible— if you’re stranded on a desert island— but they ‘re small, forked, and fibrous.

Laid out side by side, the roots of Hamburg parsley and parsnip look awfully similar. Parsnips are in the Umbelliferae too. True, the parsnip usually has a larger root that is longer and wider at the shoulder than the parsley root, but both  vegetables are a grubby white. And, like the parsnip, root parsley has a starchy texture and can be enjoyed boiled and mashed with potatoes, or cut into coins and baked or fried. When the consumer can find Hamburg parsley for sale, it’s often sold bunched by the stems, so the leaves can be tossed in a stock or minced for salad. Parsnips are invariably stripped of their greenery and sold loose by the pound. Parsnip leaves may look for all the world like large, coarse, parsley leaves, but they contain toxins called furocoumarins, which cause an irritation to the skin in the presence of sunlight. (When we harvest parsnips we put on latex surgical gloves to protect ourselves.)

 

I wondered if parsley and parsnip are related etymologically as well as botanically. Parsley sure sounds like parsnip. But no. The noun “parsnip” is a corruption of the Latin verb pastinare, meaning to dig up. The verb evolved into pastinaca and was given as a name to the parsnip root.  The “nip” in “parsnip” comes from Latin too. Napus, Latin for turnip, became neep in old English and Scottish. Thick-tongued British farmers called pastinacas “pastineeps” since parsnips were roots. It wasn’t until the 16th century that German farmers developed the strains of parsley that grow fat roots. The plant’s generic name “Hamburg parsley” recalls that northern origin. With harsh winters to contend with, root crops were more important in Germany than down in Morocco, Syria, or Greece where parsleys were widely cultivated for their greens. Like parsnips, parsley roots can survive being covered in snow and even grow sweeter from being exposed to frost.

Elizabeth Schneider, in her authoritative  tome Vegetables from Amaranth to Zucchini, writes of the parsley root that, “It has been deemed the significant indicator of real Jewish chicken soup.” A cautious cookbook author might want to say real “Ashkenazi” Jewish chicken soup. The Sephardic Jewish communities of North Africa and Southern Europe didn’t have the exposure to the root that their German, Polish, and Russian cousins did.  Joyce Goldstein, in her historically flavored cookbook Sephardic Flavors, doesn’t even mention the plant. A quick review of chicken soup recipes in my cookbook library revealed that the most mainstream cookbooks don’t either. Barbara Kafka calls for parsnips in her Soup - a Way of Life, as do the authors of the most recent edition of The Joy of Cooking.  Hamburg parsley may be essential for authentic chicken soup, but I’m not going to argue with anyone who says it isn’t so. The parsley that’s for fighting over comes from further south.

On July 11, 2002, Moroccan soldiers occupied a desert island that stands between the Pillars of Hercules, 13.5 kilometers south of Gibralter across the Straits, and only several hundred yards north of Africa.  The Berber name for the island is Tura, which means “empty,” and until that moment it had been empty, apart from some wild goats. But the name of the island in Spanish is Isla Perejil   Parsley Island.  The Spaniards have claimed this isolated rocky goat pasture since1668, when they took it from the Portuguese, who had taken it from the Kingdom of Fez in 1415. The herbal name of the island is significant. It was Hercules, after all, who formed the Straits of Gibralter by cutting Mount Atlas down to size with a blow of his hand, thus opening the Mediterranean to the Atlantic, and he was said to have crowned himself with a wreath of parsley after he strangled the Nemean lion.

Was wearing a wreath of parsley a hero’s irony, to garnish himself like a Denny’s burger, as he placed a sandaled foot on the furry head of the dead King of Beasts? Perhaps. Or, was Hercules preoccupied with the fluff, bounce, and shiny vitality of his own mane? Parsley oil, after all, rubbed into the scalp is supposed to make hair grow. Was Hercules bald? More likely, this peculiar act by the Greek superman speaks not only of the pride that Hercules had in himself, but attests to the morbid reverence the ancient world had for parsley. To the Greeks, parsley was an ominous herb, having originally sprung up out of the rocks from the droplets of blood spilled by another hero, Archemonos, who was slain by serpents. Fresh parsley was fed to war horses to give them strength, but it only served humans as an evergreen reminder of death.

Hercules didn’t garland himself with the stiff, curly parsley we are used to seeing at the edge of a plate. The wild parsley that fed the sheep and goats and adorned the heroes across the ancient world would have been closer to the flat-leaved types we know today as “Italian parsley.” While Sheep’s parsley grows all around the Mediterranean, it’s fair to call this herb “Italian,” since the Romans were the first to cultivate it as a culinary herb. The Italian parsley variety I grow is called Catalogna Giant. The Catalogna Giant sounds like someone Hercules would have killed once he’d vanquished the Nemean lion, but it’s only an especially hardy parsley that takes its name from the land of the Catalans. I’ve grown all three kinds of parsley, and I’ve found that the curly parsley is a weak plant by comparison to flat leaf parsley, and it pays for its hybridized curls by having the delicate constitution of an inbred poodle. Half the curly parsley I ever planted died after only two cuttings, while the flat leaf parsley keeps on coming back for one harvest after another.

The Spanish came back to Parsley island too. On the morning of July 18th, seven days after “empty island” was filled with Moroccans, Spanish commandoes attacked “Tura,” captured the garrison, and removed the soldiers to Ceuta, the Spanish enclave along the Moroccan coast, from whence they were escorted  across the border into Morocco. Then they turned the occupation of “Isla Perejil” over to the Spanish Legion, which makes poetic sense— under Franco, the Spanish Legion had as its motto, “Viva la muerte,” or “Long live death!” Life is never short enough for some people, and to some minds, the domination of a rocky goat pasture is a crowning glory.

In 1859 the Spaniards began an occupation of the mainland of Morocco, which lasted until 1956. The 100 year long Spanish occupation of Morocco was stupid and pointless beyond measure. The Spaniards fought four protracted wars in what can only be understood as an attempt to recreate the heroic age of the reconquista when the Catholic armies turned the Muslim armies out of the Iberian peninsula in 1492 over 700 years of fighting. Over 1290 years of intermittent warfare have passed since the Moorish invasion of Spain, and the sovereignty of the little island— by whatever name— is still in dispute. Happily, the Spanish Foreign Legion left the island once they made their point, and Isla Perejil is a no man’s land once again— empty— populated again only by peaceful goats nibbling at what’s left of the wild parsley. War has moved elsewhere, to Iraq, Darfur, and Lebanon. It’s too bad that we people can’t stop fighting, but diplomacy seems to be the role of Sisyphus, while world peace remains a Herculean task.

copyright 2007 Andy Griffin

The photo at the top is: Hamburg Parsley on the right and Parsnip with greens still attached on the left.




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