Monthly Archives: November 2012

An Autumn Ritual

Standard

The kids are off school for the long weekend and I have a few quiet minutes to write. A contemplative, thankful few minutes. It’s Thanksgiving today and I don’t have to be American or live in America to appreciate the thought behind it. As one of my yoga teachers used to say “Be thankful for all you have, and love yourself – even that little roll of fat on your tummy. You have borne children, you have enough to eat….give thanks for that. Don’t obsess with your body, just love it”. Works for me. I LOVE the perspective!!

In many cultures across the world, autumn is the traditional time for thankfulness for a good harvest, remembrance of those who have lived before us and renewal and rejuvenation for the earth and those on it. In China, Vietnam and Myanmar they have the Moon Festival/Lantern Festival (the moon is a traditional symbol of fertility and continuity), in India in a space of 8 or so weeks we observe Shradh, and celebrate Dussehra and Diwali – each of which is heavy with the symbolism of thanks, rejuvenation and remembrance. Moving Westwards we have All Souls Day in Europe and the Day of the Dead in Mexico. It’s amazing that the Ancients were not connected the way we are, but they related to the seasons and the cycles of the earth so similarly.

In Italy I have been following an autumn ritual of my own – for the last 3 years have religiously made a `pilgrimage’ to that temple of flavor – Alba, which is in the Piemonte region of North Italy. And the presiding deity of which is the Alba White Truffle. Truffles of course are essentially, basically `mushrooms’ – but that’s where the resemblance ends. They grow below the earth, in the autumn, and hold within themselves, a deep and mysterious fragrance that belies definition (atleast in my limited vocabulary). Shaved onto simple dishes like fried eggs or boiled spaghetti, they transform the simple into the gourmet.

White and black truffles. This producer was obviously the playful sort and decided to make his products more friendly and accessible by decorating his display with the animals that typically dig up truffles – dogs in Italy and pigs in France

There are black truffles and white truffles and the most prized of all in the world is the Alba White. Gram for gram it is more expensive than gold and the larger specimens are globally auctioned off with much fanfare (apparently the best are bought by secret consortiums of Hollywood bigwigs). Whatever!

This is what plebs like me buy

…and this is what you buy if you’re a little higher up in the pecking order

Every autumn Alba plays host to the Fiera del Tartufo, the International White Truffle Fair. Truffle `producers’ from all over the region gather to display and sell their wares – not just truffles but also truffle-infused products – rice, polenta, oil, honey, pate and chocolate! The fair also showcases the other fabulous local products – the wonderful wines of the Piemonte region (including the famed Barolo and my favourite Moscato d’Asti), grappa, cheese, cured meats, dark chocolate and pasta. Even the local artisans get into the mood of things and display their wares – I bought a hand-crafted and customized walnut wood bread board 3 years ago and I love it to bits! It will make a guest appearance on this blog at some point.

A wineglass `necklace’ that comes with the ticket is the perfect accessory

So what do you do at the fair? Walk around and inhale the heady aromas, sample the wine, the cheese, the chocolate and the salami, chat with growers and artisans, buy some of the products on offer, drink some more wine, eat spaghetti with truffles, eat some chocolate, drink still more wine…you get the drift…

So what contributes to the hype around truffles? Is it the mysterious flavor? Is is the limited supply (truffles are sniffed out by specially trained dogs, and are dug up , but cannot be cultivated)? Is it the legendary aphrodasiac properties it has? Or is it just superb marketing and branding? I don’t know. What I do know is its unique aroma and the comfort of an annual ritual make it special for me. And for the opportunity to experience something so special, I give thanks.

Good taste and good fun – in so many languages

Advertisements

Faith, family and fursat

Standard

Heigh ho and I’m back! After 4 months…4 whole months of vacations, distractions and (it has to be said) a loss of creative energies, C&K is back! Those who reminded me, those who asked about my blog, those who wrote in and those who told me they miss it – I humbly give thanks. You kept the Faith and I’m grateful you did.

Summer happened a lifetime ago, but its experiences sustain us through the year. A large part of the summer holidays were spent in India – as always it was a full on experience of sights, sounds and smells, with a great deal of eating, meeting and talking happening. This year a bereavement brought the whole family together. And when I say `brought together’ it literally means that. For many days, close relatives literally camp out at the home of the bereaved, offering love, support, food and togetherness. Being the inveterate observer of people that I am, I would often sit in a quiet corner and marvel at the Great Indian Family. I would watch various relatives bustling about, and think about how the connections of blood and marriage bring disparate people together and bind us in an unspoken bond.

During those long days together, after lunch, as is necessitated by the tropical heat, it would be nap time. That was typically the time people would break off into groups by age and gender and find a room each to occupy and find some quiet time. My 4 sisters-in-law and I would all huddle together on one bed, chatting, gossiping, sharing our grief and occasionally catching 40 winks.

And of course when people are together for extended periods of time, there has to be food – even during a time of sorrow, food nourishes and sustains the body and the mind and reminds us of the essence of being alive. So there was food and there was Fursat food. Literally, fursat is an Urdu word that means leisure. But like many words, it has a meaning beyond the literal. It evokes a mood – languor, relaxation and a feeling of revelling in the quietude of the moment.

There are some foods that you can eat only when you `have the time’ – little munchies that do not really satisfy hunger pangs but are what you can call `time pass’. Jamuns are one such.

The jamun is a lovely little fruit that grows mostly in the Indian subcontinent – vividly purple-black, with a large seed at the centre, and a sweet-sour-astringent taste, the jamun is definitely a fruit to be eaten to `time-pass’. Because the berries are small, they are not particularly filling, and because the fruit stains your tongue and fingers purple, it cannot be eaten in a very `civilized’ setting or when wearing really nice clothes!

Purple n plump!

I have wonderful memories of a childhood spent with a large jamun tree in the backyard of our house. My sister and I would whack at the branches with a long bamboo stick and then scuttle around to pick up all the fruit that would fall to the ground. A good wash, and the fun part would begin. The jamuns are dumped in a steel bowl, sprinkled with salt, covered with a lid, and …shake, rattle and roll!! The whacking would bruise the skins, the purple juice would ooze out, blend with the salt…and make magic. Grabbing the bowl and arguing about `my turn now!’ was part of the ritual.

Some salt, a steel bowl, a lid and a good whacking is all it takes

It still works the same way. There’s something so unchanging about the way jamuns are sold and eaten – the jamunwala (jamun seller) balances a basket on the back of his cycle and rides slowly along the street, yelling `Jamuuunnnn walllllaaaaa’. All you have to do is run out into the verandah and yell for him. He cycles right up to your doorstep while you organise the money.  How’s that for service? Interestingly Italy also retains some elements of it’s older, more traditional society. On Thursdays we have a fish seller that visits my village. He parks his van on the main square and yells out `Pesche!!’ at regular intervals…I did a double take when I first saw him. So much like it is back home!

Back to the jamun then. Unchanging but much changed. Just like my country, the ancient Hindu name of which is Jambudwipa (the land where jamuns grow). The winds of market forces blow. From a humble wild fruit it is now an exotic and pricey one sold in the best fruit shops, not just by the jamunwala. Is it because it is now recognized for its fantastic antioxidant properties (like all purple fruit and veg)? Or is it because it is in demand for the therapeutic effect it has on diabetes? Or is it just that the large backyards have disappeared and so have the trees, exposing this homey little fruit to the vagaries of consumer demand?

Whatever be the reason, it still reminds me of childhood, of change and also of changelessness – like love, like food and like fursat.