Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Beating the heat

Over the last week or so, we've had a heat wave in France, and the region where I live has regularly been the hottest spot in France. But I haven't really been upset by the high temperatures. At Gamone, I merely have to leave the door open between the living room and the ancient stone-walled cellar (where I'm supposed to be installing a pizza oven), and a cool breeze floats through the house. Besides, the air passes through the stack of hay (for the donkeys) at the northern end of the house. So, I'm cooled by a sweet-smelling flow of air. But this happy experience remains solitary. It's such a delightful cooling system that I often say to myself that it's a pity I can't share my pleasure with other human beings. Ah, if only I were able to cool off in the company of friends, in a spirit of togetherness, like these lucky Chinese folk:

PS To be truthful, I was a little shocked by the fellow (in a colorful plastic tube) who's obviously taking advantage of the global situation (notice his liberated facial expression) to have a leak... not to mention the couple in the background (also enclosed in colorful plastic tubes) who give the distinct impression that they're fornicating. When the weather's hot, though, we can be excused for letting off steam in one way or another.

French village of family-history relevance

A couple of days ago, I made an intriguing discovery in the domain of my ancient family history. It's a little complicated to describe, but I'll try to summarize the situation. My paternal grandparents—referred to, by the offspring of my generation, as Pop and Ma—were Ernest Skyvington [1891-1985] and Kathleen Pickering [1889-1964], seen here in Sydney.

I've practically completed a genealogical document on my paternal grandparents entitled They Sought the Last of Lands, whose chapters can be downloaded here. Concerning the origins of my surname, I'm working on a document entitled Skeffington One-Name Study whose chapters will finally be downloadable here. (For the moment, I've only released the opening chapter of the latter document.)

Normally, when we work backwards in time from a couple such as my grandparents, who came together by chance out in the Antipodes, we would expect that their ancestral lines soon diverge, and that they remain divergent for as far as we move into the past. You only have to perform a little elementary arithmetic, though, to realize that this divergence is generally a temporary illusion. Sooner or later, as you work back in time, the distant ancestors of your grandfather are likely to merge into those of your grandmother (unless, of course, one of your grandparents happened to descend, say, from Australian Aborigines, and the other from Arctic Eskimos). Although this situation is logical, I was amazed when I happened to find that remote forebears of both my paternal grandparents actually lived in the same Old World village, indeed in the same household!

Here is the village in question, known today as Ambrières-les-Vallées and located in the French department of Mayenne:

The village is located on a secondary road between Alençon and Fougères that I used to ride along when I was cycling between Paris and Brittany.

Click to enlarge

I've probably ridden my bike through this intersection, alongside the church of Ambrières-les-Vallées.

At a genealogical level, please don't interpret too literally what I have to say. The historical context to which I'm referring is so far back in time, in the 10th century (before Guillaume, Duke of Normandy, became William the Conqueror), that we have to accept a certain degree of fuzziness in our findings. Don't expect me to show you a photo of a log cabin on the edge of the woods (or even an old stone house) and to explain: "That's the big room where my grandfather's ancestors used to sleep, and here's the corner of the house where their lovely female cousins used to stay whenever they dropped in." The kind of genealogical research results that I'm evoking in the present blog post are generally obtained after lengthy efforts, often stretching over decades (as has been the case for me) and necessitating countless guesses, some which are very bad, whereas others turn out to be quite fruitful, if not perfectly correct. The style of investigations is much like in scientific research, although I hasten to add that genealogy is by no means an exact "science".

Let me outline (without going into details) my genealogical links with this village in Mayenne. In the first half of the 11th century, before the Conquest, Guillaume built a fortress in this village, and he appointed as governor a certain Robert de Verdun, who was so named because his grandfather Godfrey had been the Count of Verdun in Lorraine. This Robert had a son, also named Robert, who was born in the Norman town of Estouteville, and therefore known as Robert d'Estouteville. After the Conquest, these two "surnames" would become famous, both in England and in their native Normandy. People of the Verdun family were among the first settlers in the Leicestershire village of Skeffington, which was the cradle of future families with names spelt Skeffington, Skevington, Skivington, etc. As for the Estouteville family in England, they gave rise to a lineage known as Latton, and my grandmother Kathleen Pickering was a descendant of the Lattons. So, between the father Robert de Verdun and his son Robert d'Estouteville, the village of Ambrières included primordial elements of the two English families from which my grandparents were issued.

Having identified this interesting place and its history, I'm obliged to say that there are still countless loose ends and fuzzy zones in my family history.

POST SCRIPTUM: In the current version of chapter 1 of my ongoing Skeffington One-Name Study, I wrote (somewhat recklessly):
Contrary to what their family name suggests, the de Verduns had nothing to do with the place in Lorraine where a terrible battle was fought during the First World War on the Western Front.
This statement needs to be reexamined and rewritten (maybe enlarged considerably) in the light of what I've just related in the present blog post. As in scientific research, I have to correct constantly my current family-history presentations and "theories" as soon as I happen to realize that they don't seem to fit in with the latest set of alleged facts.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Walnuts in syrup

As I said in my recent blog post entitled Green walnuts, black hands [display], my first batch of green walnuts in sweet syrup has been put in jars and sterilized. The 10 or so jars are now labeled, and the product is ready to be eaten. It's a purely token production, of course, of a personal and experimental kind. But it might implicate local professionals in the walnut domain.

Last Sunday at midday, I invited Tineke and Serge around for lunch outside in the shade of my giant linden tree. After a Greek salad with feta, and a vaguely Greek main dish of braised chicken and mushrooms cooked with turmeric and ginger, we finally got around to tasting the walnuts as dessert. I believe I can speak for all three of us in saying that this product is delicious... and somewhat astonishing in that it doesn't seem to resemble any familiar fruit.

It's crunchy, and the walnut's inherent bitterness is replaced by the sweet aromas of cinnamon and cloves in the thick pinkish syrup.

I'm convinced that local restaurants would be capable of promoting this delicacy, if it could be produced in large quantities. An industrial producer of sweet walnuts would need to find ways and means of replacing all the tedious manual steps of my cottage-industry approach (such as peeling and piercing the fruit) by mechanized operations. And various quality-control tests would have to be carried out in a laboratory environment, as required by European laws. That, of course, is the stumbling block. I'm unaware of the existence of imaginative and daring local entrepreneurs who would be prepared to invest in the large-scale production and marketing of this foodstuff.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Everyday Breton meal

Maybe (surely) I've retained far too little, sadly, from my relationship with my Breton ex-wife Christine Mafart... apart from two brilliant offspring, bien entendu : Emmanuelle and François. What I'm trying to say is that I never really got around to appreciating the habits and culture of Christine's native region, Brittany, which has always had, for me, the hues of damp mists, granitic churches and tombstones, ignorance, religious bigotry and dull archaic traditions, dominated by the stupid pride of being Breton. Whatever way I try to adjust myself to that Breton environment, I simply can't convince myself that I might be Celtic (which I probably am, funnily enough, in one way or another). I prefer the mountains, clearcut cliffs and the relative sunshine of south-east France. On the other hand, up until my dying day, I shall regret the fact that nobody in Christine's family environment ever had an opportunity of introducing me, ever so little, even superficially (to whet my appetite) to the fabulous maritime environment of this mythical land... but I would need a second life to change things at that level. (In fact, I discovered sailing much later, briefly, out in Western Australia, in 1986.) Meanwhile, I'm thrilled to see that my son is discovering exactly and profoundly the legendary and marvelous Brittany that escaped me.

Having said that, I hasten to add that I've got into the habit of eating Breton delicacies such as their wonderful buckwheat galettes (de sarrasin in French), and I often have the impression that I could survive indefinitely on this meal, particularly since the galettes have become available in supermarkets everywhere.

On a hot plate, after a dab of butter, you spread out the galette and cover it with an egg, a slice of ham and grated cheese. Salt and pepper.

With a spatule, turn over half the galette to form a crescent.

Turn it over a second time, to brown the other side. Apart from exotic seafood such as crabs, lobsters and St-Jacques seashells, this is no doubt one of the finest and simplest tasty dishes that Brittany has to offer.

And its charm lies in the fact that it's such an everyday preparation, involving no culinary effort whatsoever.

Awesome news from the Mother Country

When I first noticed a tweet suggesting that our dear former prime minister Julia Gillard was knitting a stuffed kangaroo for the future monarch, I said to myself: "What a charming little hoax story... at about the level of a high school magazine." At first sight, I would have never imagined that it was the bloody fair dinkum truth!

— photography Grant Matthews, styling by Judith Cook © The Australian Women's Weekly

Shit, we're a dumb country, with super-dumb leaders. Is this dreary situation likely to improve in the foreseeable future?

This morning, I was amused to realize, all of a sudden, that my attitudes towards royalty are quite similar to my attitudes towards religion. That's to say, they're excellent subjects for historical research and reflections (for example, my genealogical writings evoke constantly both royalty and religion), but these two themes are as out-of-place in the modern world as the old diseases that used to decimate babies and young kids, only so recently, royals and plebeians alike.

Thanks to science, the world has evolved remarkably since the time when I was a child, witnessing other kids condemned by such terrible afflictions. Today, it's high time that we were all immunized... against archaic religion and royalty.

POST SCRIPTUM: In looking back upon what I've written this morning, I'm amused to realize that I'm far less interested in the Windsor baby than in the three little marcassins that emerged from beneath my mailbox. A wise observer might conclude (whether or not it's meaningful, let alone true): An old man is awed by the babies that he deserves.

Baby beasts at Gamone

About a month ago, I caught sight of a small animal cantering down the road from my house, in the style of a rabbit. I only had a rear view of the moving animal, from a distance of some 50 metres, and it disappeared quickly, so I wasn't able to examine it. I concluded that it was probably a stray cat. Still, the cantering (or maybe galloping) movement seemed to be rather weird for a cat. And I have never seen rabbits or hares at Gamone. I came across a few small black turds on the road near my house, and they too didn't seem to have come from a cat. Besides, there are no scraps left lying around the house to attract cats. So, the identity of the small animal remained a mystery.

This morning, just after the annual passage of the fellow in a tractor who cuts the weeds alongside the narrow road up to Gamone, I think I finally solved the mystery. Unfortunately, I didn't have time to take photos, but here's a Web image of the kind of beasts (same size and colors) that I saw quite clearly, at close range, half an hour ago.

In the vicinity of my mailbox, Fitzroy and I suddenly found ourselves alongside three baby wild boors (called marcassins in French) which promptly cantered off down the road, with my dog on their heels. They disappeared into the grass alongside the creek, and Fitzroy didn't seem to be capable of picking up their scent. A few seconds later, one of them reappeared on the road, and he squealed in terror when he found that Fitzroy was chasing him. But the marcassin disappeared instantly, and all ended well. I have the impression that Fitzroy was just as surprised as me to come upon such small beasts at Gamone.

I left a message with a friend in Châtelus, Daniel Berger, who's a hunter and an expert in the behavior of wild boors, asking him for advice on how I should handle this affair. Wild boors, as their name indicates, are wild beasts, and I don't know whether it's a good idea to have a litter of marcassins just alongside the house. I can imagine some of my readers saying: "Oh, they're so cute. William should catch them and keep them as pets, as friends for Fitzroy." Yes, a great idea... but totally impossible!

Seriously, I don't deny that I would indeed be pushed by an obscure physical desire to cuddle such splendid little beasts (like I cuddle Fitzroy) and to experience the power and determination they would no doubt exert in trying to break free. I would be fascinated, above all, by their marvelous little snouts, used both as a marvelous sensory device (enabling them to carry on dozing in the undergrowth while dogs abound all around them) and as a tool for digging up hard soil and rocks in their search for tasty food. Of the same order as basic human sexuality, the attraction that emanates from domestic and wild animals is a wonderful and mysterious force that surely takes me back mysteriously to my evolutionary origins as an African ape (an expression employed regularly by Richard Dawkins). I often feel that the silly adjective "cute" might in fact be based upon this profound archaic association (resuscitated thanks to a handful of surviving genes) between our ancestors and us. I'm reminded of these links, every morning at about 7 o'clock, when Fitzroy wanders upstairs into my bedroom, moves his front paws stealthily up onto the bed, reaches around until he finds one of my hands (I'm usually still half-asleep), and then starts to lick it conscientiously, cleaning me up (symbolically, at least) for the approaching day.

POST SCRIPTUM: The property of my neighbors Jackie and Fafa, a couple of hundred metres further up the road, is bordered all around by woods. So, it's logical that they receive more visits from wild animals than I do. Jackie tells me that he has often seen a couple of marcassins hanging around their house.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Detroit will have to get a magic horse

This sad photo of an abandoned mansion in an upper-class neighborhood of Detroit certainly gives the impression that the great automobile metropolis has hurtled downhill like an antiquated Cadillac with defective brakes.

Not so long ago, Detroit was an American symbol of prosperity.

Yesterday, with a debt of almost $20 billion dollars, Detroit filed for bankruptcy protection. Soon, many of the city's services will probably be forced to shut down, like this Detroit fire hydrant... not to mention 40 percent of the city's streetlights and half of their public parks.

For the moment, the city's destiny appears to be in the hands of an Afro-American lawyer, Kevyn Orr. To my inexpert mind, this would appear to be just about as bad a solution as being led by a banker or a TV evangelist. In any case, a specialist has stated that "the bankruptcy is likely to be a complicated and protracted process". To obtain urgently-needed cash, maybe Detroit could sell some of the city's assets, such as famous paintings in its art gallery. But how many highly-priced old paintings would it take to buy back the city's prestige as the place where the automobile industry was created?

In the pioneering days of the American automobile industry, whenever a horse-drawn cart drew up alongside a broken-down car (a situation that arose frequently), the man in the cart was wont to yell out sarcastically to the befuddled man at the wheel: "Get a horse!" Today, I fail to believe that there exists any magical horse capable of carting Detroit back along the bumpy road to prosperity and dignity. To put it harshly, a dream has ended... and it's difficult, if not impossible, to simply replace an old dream by a new one.

BREAKING NEWS (Friday 19 July 2013): A Michigan judge has ordered the withdrawal of a federal bankruptcy petition filed for the city of Detroit on Thursday.

Was Winston Churchill an Islamophobe?

I would say that he was. But so what? As outlined in a recent blog [display], even many Egyptians, these days, would appear to have their doubts about Islam, at least at a political level. As for stories about the Prophet riding  through the night skies, to heaven and back, on a winged horse, you don't have to be an Islamophobe to see such a fairy tale as ridiculous nonsense that doesn't even deserve to be examined seriously. I hasten to add that Christianity's alleged miracles are also ridiculous nonsense, and so are Judaism's stories about the creation of the world and the lives of their biblical patriarchs (who simply never existed). Just to fill out the list, the vision of the Mormon founder Joseph Smith [1805-1844] was, of course, ridiculous nonsense, along with his alleged encounter with the angel Moroni. We are utterly surrounded by countless cases of ridiculous nonsense... and nothing proves that this situation is likely to improve greatly in the foreseeable future.

For further information on the interesting concept of Islamophobia, click here.

Real Aussies attract attention

What's the point of coming all the way to Europe, to watch the Tour de France, if you can't attract attention?

Click to enlarge

Incidentally, before publishing this photo, I obtained an authorization from the AFP journalist known on Twitter as Simon.

Although photography is not his main job, he has taken some great roadside shots during the current Tour de France.

Besides cycling, Simon also works on rugby and wine. Interested newspapers Down Under might contact him through Twitter.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Draw me a tree

The great Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, a distinguished aviator [display], wrote a marvelous tale in which the Little Prince asked a space-dweller to draw him a sheep.

This morning, just alongside Gamone, a helicopter was literally drawing felled trees out of the dense woods on the slopes above Pont-en-Royans, and depositing them on empty land in nearby Châtelus.

Click to enlarge

It was funny to see entire trees, foliage and all, suspended at the end of a cable, floating across the slopes. Thankfully, it was never a sheep.

Honest words on Egypt

The French intellectual Franz-Olivier Giesbert didn't mince his words in an editorial in the weekly magazine Le Point concerning the recent rebellion and military intervention in Egypt. In the political domain, Giesbert—a journalist who has often whispered in the ears of French presidents—is reputed for his habit of calling a spade a spade.

Concerning the lukewarm reactions of leftist France to major events in Egypt, "FOG" (as he is called) pulls no punches. The French magazine has authorized me to publish my translation of Franz-Olivier Giesbert's editorial. Click here to access the original article.

Egyptian Rebellion and Unspeakable Racism

Editorial by Franz-Olivier Giesbert

In France, unspeakable thoughts of a racist or colonial kind are starting to taint the soul of the leftist establishment. African economic progress, for example, has been hailed by observers throughout the world, except in France (apart from a few exceptions). Recent Arab revolutions have not really been taken seriously by the French Left, which observed with horror the fall of the nasty president Morsi.

A week or so ago, when 14 million Egyptians (out of a population of 83 million) took to the streets to condemn the Islamic regime of the Muslim Brotherhood, astute leftist observers in France found the situation confusing, as if it were normal that Arab peoples should remain forever under the yoke of rigidly absurd Islamic systems, forbidden to break down the archaic walls that have held them in for so long.

In conventional thinking, every Arab is necessarily a Muslim. In a slip of the tongue, a former French president once laid bare the dogmatic logic that dominates French attitudes towards Arabs. They are all Muslims, not of the moderate kind, but rather bigoted Islamists of a backward nature, unfit for the 21st century. This is the humiliating caricature that was recently erased by millions of Egyptians with a thirst for liberty. And their massive emergence on the political scene triggered the fall of the Morsi regime.

One of the greatest human tidal waves in history swept over Egypt, and outside observers were at a loss to understand what was happening. The Tamarod rebellion was not a familiar item in their mindset, so they imagined it as something dangerous. Then the military intervention seemed to mess up the situation even more.

Certain observers predict utter chaos. They forget that the chaos was already present, prior to the rebellion. Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood were hopeless managers, who operated in a suicidal sectarian style, driving the nation to doom. They chained up the nation's economic forces and resources, and hung on jealously to the key. That was their sole achievement. Instead of creating a lawful state and establishing meaningful links between all the nation's economic actors, they confiscated Egypt's wealth and installed subservient pawns in all the key roles throughout the nation, using methods that brought back memories of the Iranian mullahs under Khomeini. Furthermore, they turned a blind eye upon thugs who terrorized religious minorities such as the Copts, many of whom were pushed into exile as a consequence of this "like it or leave" state of affairs.

Stultified by their religious convictions, members of the Muslim Brotherhood were obsessed by the unique goal of Islamizing the topsy-turvy Egyptian society, whose citizens were already in a state of frustrated frenzy. Drivers had to queue up for hours at gas stations. Murders were multiplied by three in a single year. Among young people under 24 years old, unemployment soared to over 40%, while annual inflation hit the 11% mark. (Concerning the phenomenon of inflation, still seen by certain anti-Europeans as a miracle solution for France, the Egyptian disaster should have been interpreted as a terrible warning.)

When a government decides foolishly to ignore economics, the inexorable rigors of economic science soon seek revenge, spontaneously. In Egypt, this revenge was dramatic. Tourism provides a frightening example of the economic stupidity of the Muslim Brotherhood, who simply despised this industry that used to represent 11% of Egypt's gross domestic product, employing some 3 million individuals. The Brotherhood even added insult to injury by appointing a radical Islamist as the governor of Luxor. In the domain of tourism, this fellow had acquired some experience. In 1997, his group of insurgents, al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya, had participated in the massacre of 58 foreign tourists (not to mention 4 Egyptians) at the Hatchepsut temple. Those were notorious credentials, indeed, which did not go unnoticed in the world of tourism.

The management of a nation is far too serious an affair to be left to a rabble band. Encouraged by the people, the Egyptian army therefore kicked out Morsi just in time to avoid a catastrophe. If ever the Islamic trap had engulfed the nation, bringing with it the threat of civil war, that catastrophe would have become a reality. Today, it is still too early to affirm that the catastrophe has been definitively avoided. The army will be responsible for writing Egypt's imminent history.

Morsi's supporters have been manhandled brutally in the streets, but the army seems to be acting more subtly, with political skill, behind the scenes. The army has looked kindly upon the al-Nour Salafist group, whose members first supported the military intervention and then reneged over the appointment of Mohamed el-Baradei, the army's choice as a prime minister. The military chiefs have promised legislative elections by the start of 2014. Let us see this as a harbinger of future Egyptian harmony.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Maybe I've outsmarted my dog

I have never, at any moment, actually caught sight of Fitzroy stretched out on the Ikea lounge chairs in the living room at Gamone. In fact, he has got into the habit of spending a lot of time dozing on one or other of those two lounge chairs. I know this because I see the traces he has left there: hairs and traces of his muddy paws. But Fitzroy only ever jumps up onto the lounge chairs when I'm out of sight, upstairs. Fitzroy has a sufficient mastery of the science of optics to know that, when he can't see me, I usually can't see him. Fitzroy also understands perfectly well that I don't approve of the idea of his jumping up onto the lounge chairs. I don't know how and when he acquired that knowledge, because I've never had an opportunity of catching him red-handed up on the lounge chairs, and yelling at him or dragging him off. From a moral viewpoint, Fitzroy has the mentality of a pure criminal. That's to say, he considers that a crime only becomes a crime when you get caught. So, as long as you don't get caught, nobody could ever claim that you're doing anything wrong. So, Fitzroy concludes that his dozing on the lounge chairs would only become an offence if I were to actually see him dozing on the lounge chairs... which, as I said, has never been the case. No matter how quickly and quietly I try to race downstairs in an attempt to catch him perpetrating his misdeed, Fitzroy is systematically sufficiently alert and rapid to scramble back down onto the floor before I'm halfway down the stairs.  Sure, I then look at him sternly and reprimand him for having been up on the lounge chairs. But, as we all know, verbs in the past tense don't really count in the dialog between a master and his dog. More precisely, I have the feeling that dogs do in fact understand all the subtleties of the past tense just as well as the finest human grammarians, but they seem to have learned that we humans believe that dogs only exist in the here-and-now, and they take advantage of this state of affairs by deliberately looking dumb whenever we speak of anything that happened in the past.

But, from now on, all of this will be ancient history, because I've invented an ideal method of preventing Fitzroy from jumping up onto the lounge chairs. I've purchased enough heavy cloth to make a new set of robes for the pope, and I've thrown all this machine-washable material over the lounge chairs in such a way (with the help of lengths of wood posed on the arm-rests) that my dog will no longer envisage the chairs as a familiar and convenient place to snooze.

At least, that's the theoretical sense of my solution. Another of my beliefs about dogs is that Fitzroy is sure to understand that I've gone to some trouble (and expense) to implement this solution, and that it would be most unfriendly of him if he were to drag the covers off, or scramble up underneath them. We'll see what happens...

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

In 1857, a US scholar screwed up his Saxon

Ever since I've been interested in family history (that's to say, for over 30 years), I've wondered who was the shoddy scholar who created and spread the false idea that our family name, usually written as Skeffington, has something to do with sheep. Yesterday, I finally succeeded in identifying him, quite by chance. He was an American named William Arthur, and his Etymological Dictionary of Family and Christian Names was published in New York in 1857. Here is William Arthur's faulty explanation, which has spread throughout the domain of Skeffington history—over the last century and a half—like a mild virus:

He failed to see the difference, in written Saxon, between sheep and spears. I've summarized the correct situation in the form of two images:

Here are both words, presented in the celebrated Anglo-Saxon Dictionary by Bosworth and Toller:

 Click to enlarge

Furthermore, it's quite silly to use our modern term "town" for an 11th-century settlement in the woods. The chief of the settlement was simply named Sceaft (the Saxon word for a spear) in the same way that somebody today might be named Smith. But we might speculate that this Sceaft fellow had indeed earned this name through his skills as a spear-throwing warrior. On the other hand, there's no reason whatsoever to imagine stupidly that "Mr Spear" was a shepherd! Unfortunately, though, William Arthur's silly meme is not likely to disappear overnight.

Green walnuts, black hands

It's the green-walnut season at Gamone.

The hard fruit, with their reptilian skin, are impregnated with a clear bitter liquid. If you start to gather these fruit without using rubber gloves, you're in for a nasty surprise. This is a photo of my left hand taken a week ago, when I started to pick green walnuts:

And here's another photo, taken this morning:

As you can see, it's worse and worse! I refrained deliberately from wearing gloves because I needed to peel the walnuts, and it's not easy to perform this operation with rubber gloves. Furthermore, I had to stick a metal spike through each walnut, both vertically and horizontally. Here's a saucepan full of peeled and spiked walnuts, soaking in water, after a couple of days in the sun:

On the Internet, there are all kinds of tales about, say, such-and-such a young couple who had spent an afternoon gathering green walnuts just a few days before their marriage... and they turned up at the church looking as if they'd just been using their bare hands to assemble a greasy old automobile engine. You see, once the walnuts have tattooed your hands in shiny black, there's no way of getting your hands back to normal. You simply have to live with your affliction until it wears off, about a fortnight later.

Funnily, though, various individuals on the Internet offer all kinds of remedies (all of which turn out to be totally false) for eliminating instantly the black stains. Common suggestions are bleach (a solution of sodium hypochlorite or hydrogen peroxide) and lemon juice. Somebody said that common cooking oils would get rid of the stains, and there was even a woman who said that the miracle product was toothpaste.

Now, why have I been gathering green walnuts? Well, as I explained in a blog post two months ago [display], I'm experimenting with a Greek Cypriot recipe for fresh walnuts preserved in sweet syrup. The precise description of this product (both in English and in French) is quite complicated, as I would have to mention the fact that the walnuts were picked when they were green and soft, whereas they soon turn black, and that the preservation process involves lots of boiling in syrup. Then I should maybe explain that the little brown blobs floating around in the dark syrup between the black walnuts are roasted almonds and cloves. For the moment, I think I'll refer to this product, from now on, simply as sweet walnuts (noix sucrées in French).

I'm currently preparing a second batch. Ten days ago, the walnuts in the first experimental batch were smaller and softer, and I spiked them first and started to soak them in the sun before peeling them.

Today, I conclude that it's preferable to peel the green walnuts from the very start. One of the aspects of the Greek Cypriot recipe that worried me a little, when I first saw it, was their advice to soak the walnuts, in the central phase of the preparation, in a quicklime solution. After all, quicklime is a most noxious chemical product, and the idea of using it during foodstuff processing appeared to me as somewhat weird.

In reality, this phase of the operations turned out to be unimpressive. Soon after the quicklime (in a cloth bag) is placed in a basin of water holding the walnuts, the calcium oxide is transformed rapidly into harmless calcium hydroxide, with a certain effervescent emission of heat (which I did not try to observe at close range). And it's a fact that the walnuts had a nice look and feel after this quicklime treatment.

From that point on, the processing consisted of boiling the walnuts, many times, in a dense solution of sugar, with a little lemon juice. I also assembled a few extra ingredients: almonds, cinnamon and cloves.

First, I roasted the white almonds in the oven for about 10 minutes. Then I added these ingredients to the walnuts in their syrup, and boiled up everything once again... until the syrup got thick. Fortunately, I have a powerful gas range for high-temperature cooking of this kind.

The big stainless steel cooking vessel is perfect for boiling the syrup and walnuts. Finally, I filled 10 jars with walnuts, covered them with syrup, and piled them up inside the sterilizer. Incidentally, I had taken advantage of a moment when the syrup was still cool to eat a walnut, both to verify that the product tasted fine (it certainly did), and also to verify that it wouldn't make me ill (it didn't, of course).

I filled up the sterilizer to the brim with water, placed the thermometer inside, and brought it to boiling point on the gas range.

The sterilization process necessitated what seemed to be an amazingly long period of intense boiling: 2 hours! All that remains, now, is to label the 10 jars. Then I'll carry out a tasting, with friends, as soon as possible. Between now and then, I need to learn how to cook some kind of Mediterranean honey-based pastry, to accompany my sweet walnuts.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Dilettante historians

As a young man in Sydney (in the years preceding my arrival in Paris in 1962), I often used to run into an English expatriate literary critic named Charles Higham [1931-2012], who had arrived in Australia in 1953. The news had got around that Higham was the offspring of a knighted British MP who had made a fortune in advertising. Apart from that, the young journalist from the Mother Country had the reputation of being a poet... which sounded good in our rough-and-ready Aussie ears.

— original photo Gene Maggio/The New York Times

In 1963, the Aussie press magnate Frank Packer sent Higham to California with a mission to send back interviews with celebrities, which were to appear in Sydney's The Bulletin under the title of "Charles Higham's Hollywood". Wow! This was a Women's Weekly challenge. Within a decade or so, Higham had become a successful pop biographer, specializing in the life stories of Hollywood personalities such as Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Lucille Ball and Howard Hughes. In 1988, he tackled a steamy subject: the US-born femme fatale Wallis Simpson [1896-1986] whose romantic affair with the king Edward VIII [1894-1972] had led to the latter's abdication.

Here's the publisher's blurb for a 2005 reedition of this inflammatory biography:
The romance of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor has been called the greatest love story of the twentieth century. However with the first edition of this biography in 1988, highly acclaimed author Charles Higham used explosive secret intelligence files to reveal a far darker side to their forty-year relationship. Now the author has re-visited and updated his international bestseller, resulting in a fascinating, and at times shocking exposé of Wallis Simpson. New and disturbing revelations have come to light, adding to the now classic story of an illegitimate child from Baltimore who rose to become the mistress of the king of England and brought about his abdication. Wallis gained control of the Monarch through sexual techniques learned in China, but risked losing everything through a reckless, long-term affair with William Bullitt, US Ambassador to France. Newly released FBI files demonstrate, as no other source has done, the extent of the Duchess’s espionage activities and how she conspired against Britain in the interest of Hitler. This is an intimate and extraordinary account of the woman who very nearly became the Queen of England.
Higham's presentation of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor is conspiracy-theory writing of a Californian kind, but not necessarily authentic history... in spite of the allusion to recently-released FBI files. Concerning the latter, it's clear that FBI agents could hardly be thought of as credible authorities concerning the murky background to Nazi events in the Old World. These agents could do little more than note down rumors that floated their way. Consequently, Higham's presentation of FBI impressions of the "secret lives" of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor deserves to be thought of as no more than poorly-written historical fiction.

Yesterday evening, on French TV, I watched a recent French documentary—presented by a bright fellow named Franck Ferrand—that sets out to demonstrate that the Duke and Duchess of Windsor were traitors working for Hitler.

In the short list of books upon which the program had been constructed, Ferrand included the Higham biography... but without mentioning the fact that the author was by no means a reputable historian. Worse still, Ferrand and his three acolytes placed a lot of trust in a notorious book by Martin Allen, Hidden Agenda: How the Duke of Windsor Betrayed the Allies, published in 2002.

Martin Allen claims that the former King Edward VIII provided the Nazis with military secrets, deliberately, which were exploited to the detriment of the Allies, including France and the UK. In other words, the author is accusing explicitly the Duke of Windsor of treason. The author claims that the British government was aware that King Edward VIII was a potential pro-German traitor, and that the supposed love affair between their king and the US divorcee Wallis Simpson was simply a convenient pretext for getting rid of him, by obliging him to abdicate. Martin Allen says that the UK then used the Duke of Windsor, exiled in France, to send back information on the state of French defence installations. According to Martin Allen, Edward also sent a copy of this precious data to his friend Adolf Hitler, using as intermediary a millionaire Franco-American businessman named Charles Bedaux [1886-1944] in whose fairy-tale castle in the Val de Loire, Candé, the Windsors had been betrothed on 3 June 1937.

The following delightful image clip from the News Review magazine dated 16 September 1937 shows the Windsor and Bedaux couples bedecked, no doubt for fun, in Teutonic gear:

Martin Allen's book evokes a dubious handwritten letter in German from Edward to Hitler, which the author apparently found in his father's papers, sent to him allegedly by the stoic recluse of Spandau, the Hitlerian architect Albert Speer [1905-1981].

The only problem with Martin Allen's devastating accusations is that they are no doubt based upon fake documents introduced amazingly into the National Archives, as outlined here. Everybody has known for ages that British royalty is issued from a Germanic dynasty known as Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. But the dilettante historians of French TV were surely a little too eager to suggest that our royals (already overburdened with minor faults of all kinds, as in any big family) might have been traitors, worthy of facing a firing squad.