Forum Holitorium

Month: July, 2015

Gift Fig

The doorbell rang Monday morning, announcing the first fig delivery in 2015 with a warning that many more will follow. One of my best culinary experiences ever was eating figs fresh from a tree on the island of Rab. As you might expect, these figs from my father-in-law’s garden in Graz can’t live up to those Croatian figs whose taste has assumed legendary proportions; they are often large but watery. But you should never look a gift fig in the mouth (nifty palindrome, eh?). My strategy in the past to render them more flavorful has been to poach them in red wine or port, but this year I decided to try oven roasting them. Yum. Slice 500 g/1 pound of fresh figs in half, place them face down in a casserole dish, drizzle 2 Tbs port and sprinkle 1 Tbs of sugar on top, and bake them in the oven for 30 minutes at 200°C/400°F.

The basket of figs showed up in the company of a basket of tomatoes and a tall, slender sprig of rosemary exuding a wondrous resiny fragrance. I am letting them ripen further and see shakshouka in my future. Yes, it has been a week of food offerings. On Saturday friends showed up to dinner bearing the first hokkaido squash of the season. I must admit I hesitated before receiving it with grateful hands. Like plums, I associate ripe Hokkaido with fall, and both have appeared recently at the farmer’s market with a message I wasn’t quite ready to accept: the wheel of the seasons is turning and I can’t hold it back.

It had been a gloriously warm and sunny summer until the middle of last week, when a cold front moved in behind thunderstorms. It is July, yet I am wearing wool socks and sweaters again. I look out the window and see rain and grey gloom. Is it September or October? I check my calendar: no. There comes a point every summer when I suddenly realize that we’ve reached the summit and it’s all downhill from here on in: fall and winter will come without fail. That point was reached last Friday. Perhaps that’s why I took to the needles with the first of several hats I have planned, using up stash yarn to make gifts to keep the people I love warm. Above you see my first stab at brioche knitting, a watch cap as introduced by Elizabeth Zimmermann in one of her newsletters collected in The Opinionated Knitter. It took a while to get the hang of the two row repeat, but then it knit up in no time at all – though I needed more than the two hours Zimmermann required to complete the hat.

Carrying on the green theme, our garden zucchini continues to smile. Just when I think I’ve used up the ones in the fridge, the next ones are ready to be picked. TC and I will be garden sitting for the month of August and are responsible for overseeing the peach harvest. Dear readers, what is your favorite way to eat peaches? Any suggestions on how to broaden my peach horizons? Hope you are enjoying whatever is ripe where you are.

One Wedding and an Anniversary

Friday we had a room with a view of Längsee, a lake in the Austrian province of Carinthia nearly small enough to fit in this picture. Dear friends of ours got married in the town of Metnitz, home of one of Europe’s most interesting Totentanz (Dance of Death) frescos, a European genre of art which arose in the 14th century in the wake of numerous famines and the Black Death. I have always been fascinated by this type of fresco, and one of my favorite places in Istria is the Holy Trinity Church in Hrastovlje which has one from the 15th century. The Dance of Death depicts people of all professions and walks of life, from baby to king, from farmer to doctor, standing next to Death as represented by a skeleton or equally creepy figure. The artwork serves as a reminder, a memento mori, that no matter who you are, how high or low your status in the community, we are all equal in the face of death and share the same fate in the end. Alas, there was not enough time to check out the museum devoted to the Metnitz frescoes, a visit probably more suited to somber reflection on a cold winter day. We were there to celebrate one of the high points in life. The joyful party moved on to Stift St. Georgen, a former Benedictine monastery perched above the Längsee.

The monastery was founded by a countess in the 11th century and has been in operation for over one millenium. The hotel rooms, however, offer thoroughly modern comfort. The restaurant and its deck overlook an orchard of around 50 fruit trees. The Stift was a beautiful, tranquil place to spend a few days. There was naturally a monastery garden with all sorts of herbs and medicinal plants, yet it was surprisingly unkempt, as if the gardener had up and quit two months ago and no replacement had yet been found. I resisted the urge to start weeding.

In the evening, TC and I took a lovely walk through the lavender labyrinth. Yes, the paths were edged by lavender bushes, all in bloom and buzzing with bumblebees. A labyrinth is not to be confused with a maze. There are no dead ends in a true labyrinth. You enter and keep walking along until you reach the center, after which you turn around and walk out again. At the center of this one was a stone emitting the heat it had absorbed from direct sunlight all day. We perched on it like happy lizards.

The last wonderful walk we had taken together had quite a different view: the bay of Trieste. Just a few weeks earlier, we dashed away to Trieste to celebrate our anniversary. We took the most direct route and arrived at Opicina high on the cliffs above. Near the famous obelisk statue, erected in 1830 when the road between the Karst and Vienna was finally completed, start several shady trails through the pine trees, from some of which you can admire the Adriatic below. Then it’s time to let gravity do its thing and pull you down the winding road to the city and the sea.

Ah, Trieste, a city existing of layer upon layer of memory of visits past that I can no longer keep separate. I always mean to be a proper tourist, to use that German art history guide I bought on a visit long ago, but once I set foot in the city, it casts its spell so that all I am able to do is stroll along the mole, drink coffee, page through the local Il Piccolo newspaper, reread Jan Morris’s Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere, and stroll some more, admiring the stray cats near San Giusto instead of the collections of art the city supposedly harbors.

This time I discovered something new that is quite old: Arco di Riccardo, or Richard’s arch, one of the last vestiges of the Roman walls. Yes, the Romans were here too. The name Trieste is derived from the Roman name Tergeste, which in turn most likely contains the Slavic word trg, or market. Trieste has a unique position at the crossroads of the Slavic, Germanic, and Romance language and cultural spheres.

Like the city, the cuisine is also a melting pot. At Siora Rosa, the gnocchi with apricots turned out to be more like Marillenknödel jazzed up with a decadent cinnamon sauce than your typical gnocchi. Yet the vegetable platter was more Italian in nature and preparation: Swiss chard, peppers, zucchini, olives, and radicchio doused liberally with olive oil. The boiled broccoli was perhaps a nod to the north and east.

No visit to a city is complete without a visit to the local farmers’ market, which in Trieste is located in the Borgo Teresiano quarter just inland of the Canale Grande. There we picked up white polenta, honey with propolis, and a 1.5 kilo melon. Why oh why don’t Austrians grow melons? There is nothing better on a hot summer day than biting into a slice of ripe, juicy melon. As soon as we got home, we devoured the whole thing.

I hope you are keeping cool with delicious fruit and relaxing like this jellyfish!