A Pomegranate, by any other name still a Granat-Apfel is, whilst the Fish resides at the Tail-End.


Pomegranate (Punica granatum, Lythraceae, subfamily Punicoideae)

Although Eve’s forbidden fruit is often depicted as an apple, ein Apfel in German, it may have been, in my considered opinion, actually ein Granatapfel, a pomegranate. If we could go 5000 years back to the Sumerian town of Uruk, we would come across the temple of the protector of Uruk, the Goddess Inanna*. In the Mesopotamian creation myth called ‘Inanna and the Huluppu Tree’, and in the myth of ‘Inanna and the God of Wisdom’ one finds the earliest known stories relating to the origin of mankind and its thirst for knowledge. The Huluppu which caused the Goddess Inanna quite some trouble was a pomegranate tree and in the intertwined myth, she stole the gifts of knowledge and culture from Enki the God of Wisdom, while he was drunk [maybe on pomegranate wine?] and impuissant against her charms.

As I briefly mentioned in a post of August 25, 2019, our rather unruly little garden is home to not just one but several pomegranate bushes of at least two different varieties.

Version 2

Cultivar “Legrelliae” or maybe “Ki Zakuro”

Version 2

Cultivar “Provence”

The Provence grenadier was the bush we discovered last year, thanks to its striking bright orange-red flowers.


June 2019

The others either bloomed extremely discretely or not at all that year. By mid-July, 2019, the flowers on the bush above began to set to fruit, a process that took about a month to complete.


July 15th


August 18th



The first test in late August. Yes, the berry is filled with seeds.

Waiting for the fruit to ripen to learn if our Granatäpfel might be edible took several months. Fortunately, a road trip to Helsinki and the Baltic countries [check it out in my TRAVEL blog] saved me from the nail-biting excitement of watching fruit grow for the entire month of September. But as soon as we were back, I couldn’t resist to open up one of the pomegranates with a split pericarp, its outer shell.



The majority of seeds was still quite pale.


I cheated and put the reddest ones on top for the photo … 😎


Although the appearance of both fruit and seeds was typical for pomegranates, they were quite a bit smaller than the usual commercial varieties and they were very, very astringent. I thought they might need more time to mature, so I gave them another three weeks before I collected a few more of the fruit that had already fallen to the ground – with exactly the same result, inedible sourness.

I used a few as garnishes, but it was just no pleasure to eat something evoking the furry feeling in one’s mouth of biting into an unripe banana. Within the next fortnight, it was time to try the pomegranates one last time. Before the announced arrival of our first November storm, I went out to harvest the last of our berries.


They hadn’t changed in color or size, but I was hopeful! A few of the prettier ones were allowed to show off in a fruit bowl near the radiator in our dining room on the off chance indoor living might kick-start their sugar metabolism.


If you think that hulling the seeds from a commercial pomegranate is annoying, you’ve never done it with the tiny seeds in an undersized variety – it took me practically forever!


But eventually, my kitchen machine and I extracted nearly 0.8 l of pomegranate juice from our home-grown berry seeds. And what a mess it was!


I like tart fruit, especially my all-time favorite, maracuyá, the Costa Rican passion fruit. There, I would successfully offset the astringent tendencies of maracuyá juice with honey. When I attempted to do that last November with my pomegranate juice, I failed completely. Even after I added sugar syrup, the juice never turned into a product one might like to enjoy with yogurt and cereal, waffles, or, quite frankly, anything else. I tried to use the juice as a flavorful ingredient for sauces and reductions but never achieved any better than so-so results. Once, having made a spicy sauce to dress an Arctic Char filet, my dinner companion remarked that it looked like blood. Not what I had in mind.


With the onset of pandemic confinement in March, I poured the remaining pomegranate juice done the drain – we needed more space in the fridge for actually usable food. Case closed.

A much more successful preparation turned out to be Saturday’s lemon-butter sauce for some pathetically thin frozen salmon bits. Owing to our continued self-isolation, we buy more frozen than fresh food, including fish. The frozen salmon wasn’t bad at all, just thinner than a lovely slice of fresh-caught wild salmon would be, and therefore it cooked much more quickly. One has to be ever vigilant not to overcook those skinny little filet pieces.


Select the desired number of Salmon filet [preferably wild-caught salmon, not that terrible farm stuff], season the fish with white pepper, cucurma powder, lemon zest, and dill. Allow the fish to come to room temperature before cooking [at least 10 min]

For the sauce:

  • 60 g butter
  • 160 ml of dry white wine [or court-bouillon if you prefer]
  • 1 Tbl lemon zest
  • 3 Tbl lemon juice
  • 120 ml of heavy cream
  • lots of chopped dill
  • cucurma powder
  • salt

Melt the butter over medium heat without browning it. Turn up the heat a little and immediately and carefully add the salmon filets. If you use skin-on filets, brown the skinless side first. Sear one minute in the butter, turn the filets over and sear another minute on the other side – two minutes for skin-on – while basting with the sizzling butter. Turn down the heat and remove the filets from the pan to keep warm. I had baked a potato-onion gratin as a side dish which I kept warm in the oven, so I put a covered plate with the salmon in the warm oven. To make the sauce, add the wine or the bouillon to the pan, increase the heat, and reduce by roughly one third. Add the zest to the boiling sauce, stir for a minute, add the lemon juice, stir and keep the sauce boiling. Slowly add the cream while stirring and continuing to reduce the volume. As the sauce thickens, finish it with salt, cucurma, and dill to taste, and, if desired, another dollop of butter.


When you’re satisfied with the creamy consistency of your sauce, turn down the heat to medium-low, adjust the seasoning, and reintroduce the salmon to the pan to reheat.


If your filets are quite thick, you may have to cover the pan and give them a couple of minutes to finish cooking so that the center turns opaque. Voilá, that’s all!


For my serving, I compulsively add capers to all egg or fish dishes. Also, I would have added a half-a-teaspoon of anchovy paste to the melting butter, in the beginning, to emphasize the deepsea aroma of the fish – had I thought of it at the time.  The wine, both for cooking and drinking was a UBY Nº3, Côtes de Gascogne, a summer wine composed of ugni blanc and colombard grapes, crisp and refreshing but assertive enough to balance the creamy sauce and the distinctive salmon flavor. Bon Appetit !


*Inanna material based on:

“Goddesses, Elixirs, and Witches” by John M. Riddle and

“Inanna” by Joshua J. Mark in the Ancient History Encyclopedia

Contentment – Gratitude


Summer knocked on my window’s ancient, swirly glass with a loud humming sound this morning. A bumblebee’s drone diverted my attention from the computer screen to the outdoors and the bright sunshine therein. A bee had settled on the string of plastic beads with which we raise and lower the insect screens in our windows.


I opened the window very slowly and quietly – which is silly since bees can’t perceive sound – just wide enough to stick the camera through it.


Hymenoptera->Apidae->Bombini->Bombus – B. terrestris, the buff-tailed bumblebee. However, I’m just guessing considering the bleach-blond bristles on this girl’s rear end.

In the cladogram for corbiculated bees, bees with pollen baskets on their rear legs, the Bombini tribe branched off earlier than the Euglossini or orchid bees, while the stingless bees formed a branch that split off the Bombinis. If you don’t care for Hymenoptera taxonomy, nevermind these details. I have fun investigating such tidbits because there have been such tremendous advancements since I went to school trying to absorb fascinating minutiae like this.

And how do we know that this is a female bee? Well, male bees forage only for their own sustenance. They don’t contribute to the well-being of the hive community, largely because they get kicked out as soon as they emerge from their pupal state. Therefore only female worker bees store collected pollen in their corbiculae to bring home to the hive. And as one can see below, my visitor had baskets stockpiled with pollen!


As a matter of fact, it appeared that she had largely landed on those chains to rest somewhere convenient to groom stray pollen as she was very busy sweeping and brushing while hanging onto those plastic beads!

A little while later, I took a stroll through the garden to record the rapid advances in growth and development so far this Spring. It was invigorating to hear the buzzing of such a multitude of insects among the flowering plants.


A Methuselah of a vine, …


… still producing fresh, new growth.



In the afternoon, we enjoyed a Campari on the terrace – in shorts! The thermometer rose to an ambient temperature of 25ºC/77ºF today with dazzlingly bright sunshine and deep blue skies.


We do feel guilty as we take pleasure in this abundance of good fortune in the midst of a pandemic and a national lock-down. We are indeed very fortunate to be able to step outside and cherish the sights and sounds of nature all around us while we continue to enjoy good health. We can only hope for the same for our far-flung family and friends.




Still Self-Isolating

Nearly four weeks into isolation we don’t have any complaints about our confinement. Au contraire, the strict rules which the French government imposes upon the country are designed to keep us safe and for that we are grateful. We have a small garden to enjoy and when we want to exercise a little more, we can walk within a one-kilometer radius around our house. But we have to walk separately, family outings aren’t allowed. This is the form we have to fill out and carry with us every time we leave our premises, even when we just go for a walk. One has to indicate the time of departure, too, because each person is only allowed one hour of exercise per day. As of today, the French government made a smartphone app available which can replace the printed version. Well done!


I, the undersigned, … You pledge on your honor, but the fines are steep.

We are also appreciative of the fact that we happen to live in a small town in a largely agricultural region in the far southwest of France. The population density is low with only a few industrial activities centered around the distillation of cognac. Cognac, which is, after all, called Eau de Vie! Seriously, the numbers below show that a well-disciplined rural area can be much safer in an epidemic than an urban area. This is a graph published in today’s morning e-edition of our local paper, the “SUD OUEST”.

Screenshot 2020-04-06 at 09.44.54

Department of Health Data from Sunday, April 05, 2020, for the Region of Nouvelle-Aquitaine. Charente is our department [similar to county]. 

The Gironde department includes the city of Bordeaux which has the most extensive hospital system with the highest number of patients in the region. The city also received patients who were evacuated to Bordeaux from overburdened regions in the North and East of the country. Additionally, the paper mentioned that during the third delivery wave of protective gear for medical professionals and institutions, the region of Nouvelle-Aquitaine received 3.8 million masks, 2.9 mils. of which were surgical masks, the rest FFP2s.

Online food procurement has been, without a doubt, our main preoccupation during this isolation. Because the fulfillment slots were moving further and further out, we started loading our virtual shopping baskets in three different supermarkets on two different computers in an attempt to find active delivery options. By the time we actually put an order in, we had little idea if we had omitted or doubled up on desired articles in this confusion of baskets. Adding further suspense was the question which of the items ordered would ultimately be available. For our one and only delivery, so far, eight days passed between placing the order and our delivery slot. By the time we received our merchandise, the 70% alcohol and protective gloves we had ordered were no longer in stock, nor were three out of five frozen foods. 

On Thursday morning last week, I set out to retrieve an online order from the drive-through of our closest supermarket chain. I carried with me a print-out of the mandatory attestation and the store’s order confirmation with a bar code. Naturally, being German, I arrived a good five minutes ahead of my allotted pick-up slot, the first of the day. The bar code reader at my drive-through lane beeped reassuringly and I settled back into my car seat to wait for my order, which didn’t arrive. Eventually, I found out that I had checked in before the drive-through warehouse officially opened, thus my “beep” hadn’t registered inside. Bummer. My eagerness to be first in line and avoid as much interaction as possible added a 25-minute wait to the errand.

Our house has an attached barn on one end which we use as a garage and catch-all for things that need to be thrown out, eventually. This garage has now become the official receiving bay for everything arriving at our place from the hostile, virulent outside world.


The garage: first point of entry for possibly contaminated items.

We let new arrivals sit for a while in case of swirling viri. The next stage is The Great Decontamination which requires quite exacting preparations, especially regarding frozen food products. In the laboratory, SARS-CoV-2 seems to lose its infectious capabilities in an environment > 56ºC, while it is pretty much unknown how well the beasties may survive in the cold. We bought frozen foods specifically to have food resources on a longer-term basis thus reducing the need to leave the house. We also know that bleach kills the virus, yet bathing frozen food in hot bleachy water is somewhat counterproductive. To prevent the possible introduction of the virus to our freezer drawers, a special decontamination protocol had to be activated for frozen foodstuffs. The key element was, very simply, to remove and discard all outer packaging. However, storing frozen food nacked as it were, would create a couple of new difficulties, as in identifying the commercially prepared meals and no longer having any associated cooking instructions. Therefore my protocol had to include distinctive stages of preparation.


First stage: Label freezer bags with the name of each food item and …


… set up the opened bags.

The door between the garage and this utility room, or l’arrière cuisine, the back kitchen or la buanderie, the laundry room as it would be called around here, is a very old, ill-fitting glass-paned door. The garage itself, being a barn, has no insolation. So we hung this quilted blanket as a temperature barrier, both against icy drafts and the heat of summer.

For the next steps in the protocol, I donned a pair of gloves, grabbed my camera and pushed that blanket fully to one side before opening the door to the garage. There, I laid out all our frozen purchases and took pictures, one by one, first of each front panel, followed by the relevant cooking instructions.

That done, I took each container, again one by one, and cut it open, being very careful not to touch the content with my potentially contaminated gloves. Stepping through the open doorway back into the utility room, I slipped either the inner pack or the loose content, for example, broccoli rosettes, in the pristine freezer bag with the matching label. The outer packaging went straight into the recycle bin in the garage, which won’t be collected for another week, so our dustmen will be safe.

When all frozen goods were processed, I dipped my gloved hands in a bleach solution and also washed them with hot, soapy water. Then I took the gloves off – I have to be very careful with these gloves, we have only six pairs left – and washed my hands again before closing the freezer bags and storing them in the freezer. Now I have a record of instructions on my computer to consult whenever necessary. It goes without saying that the scissors and the camera also needed to be sterilized.

Afterward, it was time to continue the tedious chore of washing whatever can be washed in a hot, bleachy solution.

Ultimately we had two areas with washed articles that had to dry completely first before refrigeration, and two more areas with unwashed dry goods that will stay in the garage in social isolation till the virus shall have died a natural death – or we need a Cheetos fix.


During this pandemic, we are clearly benefiting from our rustic, semi-dilapidated outbuilding in which one can age chips and cookies to perfection!



P.S. If you’re short on grated Emmental, ring at the garage door. We have more than we can possibly eat before its date of expiration!


A Day in our Lives of Self-Isolation

I was tempted to call this post “A Day in the Life of Iwan Denissowitsches French Sister”, but reconsidered quickly because I didn’t want to be disrespectful to either the millions murdered in the Gulags nor Alexander Solschenizyn. It would’ve been catchy, though.

We have been in self-isolation in our house and small garden since the middle of last week. It was a rapidly evolving decision to shutter ourselves in after I came back from my last physical therapy session à la méthode McKenzie. I had worn gloves to open the doors to my therapist’s building and office, and I used my coat sleeve to open the door to his WC before leaving and I didn’t get close to any of the other patients. Was that enough? I didn’t see my therapist using hand sanitizer, but then, he didn’t actually touch me. He just demonstrated the exercises I was to execute on an upholstered treatment bench covered with a disposable sheet. I then repeated those movements on that very same sheet. Had he changed it after the patient ahead of me? Didn’t it look kind of crumbled? How easy it is to drive yourself nuts!

I washed those gloves as soon as I got home. They are made of beautifully stitched light grey suede and they are quite special to me. My grandmother used to use them for her daily morning exercise on her horse Jassa, roughly 50 years ago when she was the same age as I am now – my grandmother, not Jassa. When I started university, I lived at my grandma’s for the first two semesters. Gradually we developed certain routines in our communal lives. For example, before driving to the stables, she would make a Müsli for her breakfast. It consisted of some diced apple and banana, lemon juice, oat flakes, raisins, hazelnuts, and cream. She would leave a small bowl of Müsli for me on the kitchen counter so I wouldn’t go to classes on an empty stomach. This was also where she would dry her gloves after washing them in the utility sink in the far corner of the kitchen. Washing one’s suede gloves simply mean washing one’s hands in the Age of Corona, while wearing gloves. You diligently soap each finger, the in-between-the-fingers spaces, palms, thumbs, and the back of your hands. Rinse. Repeat. Then dry your gloved hands with a towel to soak up excess moisture and remove the still wet gloves. Take the handle of an old-fashioned wooden cooking spoon, inserting it into all the fingers, one by one, to separate the layers of leather. Finally, dry the gloves dangling from those cooking utensils. Since my grandmother went riding most mornings, there were usually gloves suspended over assorted crocks on the old, wooden draining board in her kitchen, right where she left the Müsli for me.

In order to restock the fridge and pantry after our first full week of seclusion, we had to go shopping. Currently, that is a potentially life-threatening activity for us old folks, but deliveries aren’t part of our lives here in the smalltown hinterlands of provincial France. One of the supermarket chains in Cognac called Auchan offers the next best thing, drive-through shopping. One orders online and picks up the order outside the store. Lately, this has been advertised as No-Touch-Drive-Through where you pull in and open your trunk, they load the purchases into your trunk and you drive off into the sunset.

I set down at the computer in the morning around 9hrs30 in my pajamas to work my way through the virtual Auchan shopping aisles. Three hours later, I was still in my PJs and ready to jump out the window. Owing to the extremely high internet traffic, the website was operating at a snail’s pace, switching again and again to a “we’re doing maintenance and will be back in a few minutes” page randomly alternating with “Oops, page not found” instead of loading the requested pages. Such fun! Some food choices were limited, but basic kinds of pasta and rice were available, and even toilet paper. Since my shopping basket tally reverted to zero several times during this lengthy ordering process, I checked out well before ordering every item on my long list. I just didn’t want to push my luck. My allotted pick-up time was roughly 24 hours later.

En los tiempos del coléra* one has to carefully consider how to emerge into the outside world. Firstly, one has to print and sign the government form in which one pledges on one’s personal honor that this trip to the grocery store is unavoidable. Then the customer and order numbers have to be verified in the Auchan app on one’s phone. Shopping bags have to be loaded, plus an insulated bag for frozen items. The person venturing out has to be outfitted with washable outer clothing, a gaiter** in place of a mask, disposable gloves, hand sanitizer, and courage.

Although I encountered a checkpoint along the way, the Gendarmes waved me through without demanding my paperwork. I suppose a grey-haired old lady in a batterie-powered mini-car posses little thread to the community! The pick-up @AuchanDrive worked very well and was so efficient that I backed into our garage with my load of groceries in no time flat. That’s when the real work began. Since any number of people had touched the groceries and our bags, and we now know that the virus lives happily up to five days on assorted surfaces, everything had to be wiped down with alcohol and then repackaged if at all possible. After that chore, the shopping bags were sanitized as well, and the car door handles, the steering wheel, stick shift, not to forget the little button with which I fold in the side mirrors so that the car fits through the narrow garage door, and the car keys, naturally, everything had to be wiped down, including the table in the utility room were all our groceries had awaited their individual bath. That done, gloves disposed of, I stripped and loaded the washing machine with my potentially contaminated clothing. Next came personal sanitation. Throat gargling with an antiseptic mouthwash which isn’t actually anti-viral, but tastes so bad that it must be a corona killer, how could it not be? I also washed my glasses in hot soapy water followed by a long, hot shower for myself.

I may be paranoid, but the CoVid-19 illness scares me deeply, both for myself and my husband. In Italy, healthcare personnel and facilities have been overwhelmed by the sheer number of seriously ill patients. Protective clothing for nurses and doctors is no longer available in many places so that health care personnel can’t properly care for patients, instead, they succumb to the virus themselves. In Italy, ER doctors are forced to make a dire choice, a life-or-death choice. Who will get the ventilator, who will suffocate in panicked agony in some hospital corridor, alone, utterly alone? To be swiftly and unceremoniously cremated, although, even some crematoria have now reached their operational capacity.

I can not regard any of these issues neutrally because I grew up engaged in discussions of medical and scientific issues. And I spent the majority of my working life as a cellular biologist in three different medical schools. Therefore infectious diseases are neither new nor scary for me. What is scary is the speed with which this new viral fellow spreads its wings among the global population. What is truly scary is the administrative molasses through which our alleged leaders are dragging their feet instead of showing a proactive initiative. China originally denied the existence of a new coronavirus, but anyone paying attention knew by the end of December that something awful was brewing. Yet, for the two following months, there was very little, if any, thought given to preparing for a possible pandemic. Plants could have been retooled to manufacture ventilators and face masks, for example, triage centers could’ve been created, negative-airflow ICU cubicles could have been built, but no, instead, it was called a hoax and scaremongering. I don’t know how many times I responded to Facebook comments which pointed out that tuberculosis is worse, seasonal flu is worse, that there are just a few old people dying. Well, thank you very much, this old woman isn’t quite ready to die yet! And the shame of seeing young adults frolicking on beaches because “this is my time”, “this is spring break”, and “I don’t care what you think” is plain unbearable in light of the thousands that have already died. Where are the parents of these bozos? Why don’t they cut off tuition for cushy student lives and instead let their offspring work as delivery drivers to supply nursing homes with much-needed supplies?

But most of all, I can not regard any of these issues neutrally because I watched helplessly when my sister-in-law Felecia slowly suffocated during the endstage of lung cancer. I’ve seen the panic in her eyes when she couldn’t get the oxygen her brain needed to keep the encroaching madness in check. I remember how she fought us with furious strength to run away from her hospital bed in a desperate quest to find that oxygen that her lungs could no longer process.

I hope to never again have to see that panic in the eyes of someone I love.

*Gabriel García Márquez, paraphrased, original title: El amor en los tiempos del cólera, 1985 or Love in the Time of Cholera, 1988  

**In the frozen North of America a gaiter is not so much protective footwear than a kind of endless scarf protecting one’s neck and lower face against icy winds.                

Happy Fish with a little Frost


You have to admit, these codpieces -allow me to rephrase- these pieces of cod do look happy! They are about to be steamed in a deep pot filled with vegetables cooked in broth.


The night before, I soaked some Tarbais beans and cooked them while the rest of the vegetables received a good wash and dice-and-slice.


In addition to the beans, there were three more newcomers enhancing my latest version of fish soup, yellow pepper for crunch, algae for ocean saltiness, and freshly grated ginger for punch.


Soon, the ingredients were sorted, ready to go in the pot.



As always, my soup began with the dry toasting of crushed coriander seeds, before heating olive oil to receive the first batch of veggies, followed by ginger and lemon zest. Once that was heated through nicely, it was time to add all the remaining, softer vegetables like fennel, yellow pepper, and parsley, all submerged in Court-Bouillon.

The beans joined the party just ahead of the algae which formed a soft bed for the cod. With the lid firmly closed to steam the happy fish, it will be ready to jump onto your plate in about 15 min.


A glass of peppery Côtes de Gascogne Colombard-Ugni Blanc is a perfect match for this aromatic soup, possibly to be followed by some home-grown sweet and juicy grapes with your cheese course?


After dinner, your partner, like mine, might read a Robert Frost poem to you as you relax in the salon. Such a lovely closing of summertime in Cognac, France – although it did put Monty the Fox to sleep.


Late Summer Musing


As August is winding down, the ambiance all around us is turning a subtle shade of Fall. Nothing as obvious as falling leaves, it is rather more a feeling than a color change, as the trees are no longer quite as vigorously green as we recall their rustling splendor seemingly only hours ago.


Earlier this week, we finally managed to do something we had planned to do since the first of May when the venue opened. On our way into town for a walk and a drink, we made the sudden decision to pull instead into the parking lot of the Cognac House Martell. The main building of the Martell Headquarters sports a unique drinking spot, a roof terrace bar. By any stretch of the imagination, we are clearly not in NYC as the building has only five floors, but this is exciting enough for us small-town folk here in Cognac!

Screenshot 2019-08-22 at 10.11.50

A screenshot of a promotional video on the Martell website. It’s an aerial shot of the Indigo by Martell bar overlooking Old Town Cognac.




The swift is the logo for the cognac house. In French, a swift [Apus apus, Apodidae] is called un martinet which ties a disciplinarian ribbon between Jean Martell [1694 – 1753] the founder of the cognac House Martell and Charles Martel of Herstal [~688 – 741] hero of the battle of Tour, founder of the feudal House of the Carolingian, and grandfather of Charlemagne.

One of the recent cognac creations of the House Martell is called the Blue Swift. It’s a VSOP cognac finished in Kentucky Bourbon casks, very hip and international indeed. At the Indigo by Martell rooftop bar, I had a Blue Swift straight up, while my husband opted for a Sazerac cocktail made with Blue Swift. In the link, you can read all the exciting tidbits about the origin of this quintessential Big Easy cocktail. The Cognac House Sazerac de Forge & Fils of Angoulême, mentioned in the blog post, provided the cognac used to make these cocktails in New Orleans in the 1850s. The House ceased production about 120 years later, although some ancient bottles can still be found at auction for gobsmacking prices. The currently operating successor to Sazerac de Forge & Fils is the Cognac House ABK6. A-B-K-6 is an acronym which, if pronounced in French, forms the family name of the owners of the cognac house, Abécassis. After all that deep immersion into cognac lore and the alphabet, we couldn’t help but recreated a traditional Sazerac cocktail at home yesterday with Meukow VS, our go-to cognac for cocktails.


What else happened during this very, very hot summer? Some cooking, of course, by both residents. Chinese dishes and the occasional burger, by one of us, while the other one was more focused on salads & grains.

The garden brought us a lot of joy and a little grief, too, when some new plantings were struggling to make it through the extreme heat in July. The juvenile fig tree suffered especially hard. Although it is carrying fruit, its leaves are largely gone, so we don’t know if the figs will ripen, nor if it will make a healthy comeback next year.


Our blackberries are pretty pathetic as well. They grow so much more plentiful and juicy at our friends’ place in the Pacific NW!


The garden also presented us with a huge surprise, when we realized we actually had a pomegranate bush right in front of that sad fig tree.

Since I had no idea if these tiny garnet apples are edible, I cut one open to discover it was filled with a plentitude of unripe seeds. I’ve since read up on the creatures and I’m now hoping for a harvest of miniature pomegranates in a couple of month or so.


Before saying good-bye to you today, a swift addendum.


Phlegmatic cows, excitable swifts, and one dove as seen from my desk.

À la prochaine, mes amis !


A Gigantic Gourd


Our friends Steve and Lorraine gave us a zucchini the other day. Their neighbor tends his potager with great dedication, growing all his vegetables organically, which they seem to appreciate since his produce grow happily to rather impressive sizes. We were presented with a 1.76 Kg or, in Imperial measurements, a three-pound fourteen-ounce zucchini. What do you do with a beast like that?

One finds zucchini or courgettes in the vegetable section of the supermarket, but biologically speaking they are fruits which belong in the Genus Cucurbita, gourds or squashes. C. pepo, our courgettes are one of the oldest known gourds. They were already cultivated 10 000 years ago in Oaxaca, Mexico. Many gourds are commonly used as winter squash, like pumpkins for example, and they can be stored for months. Zucchini, however, fall into the category of summer squash. They are preferably harvested when they are still young and tender, and eaten raw or grilled.

Clearly, our zucchini fell into the winter spectrum. Quite firm, not to call it wooden, with a large core of seeds, it wasn’t at all suitable for raw consumption. I walked past it for a few days looking at it a bit sideways, to tell the truth, but one can’t very well throw out a perfectly healthy vegetable, never you mind it’s actually a fruit. Finally, I decided to make zucchini bread. I’m not sure what came over me, but it seemed to be the only way to process a kilo-and-a-half-plus of aging zucchini.

Many decades ago, when we lived in Michigan and even earlier in Texas, I used to bake bread occasionally. Those were times when it was difficult, sometimes even impossible to buy actual bread, meaning a same-day baked loaf with a crust and a flavorful center as opposed to pre-sliced, plastic-sheathed squishy things languishing on store shelves for weeks on end. Since moving to France, I haven’t baked anything other than a tarte now and then. And cornbread, I forgot about making cornbread. Anyway, that’s not bread, it’s soul food. I gladly leave the creation of true bread to professionals.

On the internet, I found a well-liked recipe, possibly one of Elise Bauer’s “Simply Recipes”, and adapted it according to the content of our pantry. The dry ingredients evolved into:

  • 2 cups/450 g white wheat flour
  • 110 g coarsely ground blanched & skinned almonds*
  • 120 g cornmeal
  • 1 heaped tsp baking powder
  • 1 heaped tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 2 tsp cinnamon powder
  • 1 tsp cardamom powder
  • a good lick of freshly grated nutmeg

[* I had processed the almonds a few weeks ago for a different recipe and it was high time for the leftovers to disappear. Ditto for the cornmeal. I would suggest just using 3 cups of flour]


Combine the dry ingredients and set aside.

My next chore involved processing that unloved mega gourd.


3 lb 14 oz of gourdness!

Without much fuss, thanks to the kitchen machine, this yielded 1 255 g or roughly 44 oz of squashy flesh.


Lastly, again in the kitchen machine, I combined the wet ingredients:

  • 3 eggs
  • 1/4 cup of white sugar
  • 1/2 cup of light brown sugar
  • 3 tsp of good quality Bourbon vanilla extract
  • 1 envelop of vanilla sugar
  • 1/2 cup of vegetable oil
  • 1/2 cup of unsweetened apple sauce


I beat the wet ingredients until fluffy and creamy, before folding the dry into the wet, adding some coarsely chopped walnuts along the way.



I had no idea how much of the shredded zucchini I should use, so I gradually added three heaped cups, roughly the same amount as the dry ingredients. I should’ve stopped right there. But I didn’t. As there was a goodly amount left, I foolishly incorporated every last bit of the shredded gourd thus tilting the balance of proportion between vegetable matter, or fruit matter as it were, and dough to 2 to 1. Bad move!







After 60 min at 160ºC Umluft or 320ºF convection, plus 15 minutes with the oven turned off, our zucchini loafs looked quite nice with an evenly browned, crusty top.


But the zucchini aggregation had overwhelmed the small amount of dough. Alas, as you can see, instead of bread we had sliceable pudding.


Lesson learned: continue to cook if you must but leave the baking to people who know what they’re doing 😱

A Canicule and a Can of Fish


16. Juni 2019, 21:25:29


17. Juni 2019, 21:59:24

Over in my other blog, you know which one I mean, I’ve recently finished posting about our Loire Valley trip. Castles galore, of course, and some wine and food, scenery, and all those precious memories of adventurous times on the road. But you know, one’s home turf can be beautiful, too! Summer has arrived and with it a changing landscape in our small but lush courtyard garden.


We’re still in the throes of our bathroom renovation which generates daily mayhem in the form of high pitched sounds from power tools setting nerve endings on edge and powdered sticky stuff seeping through cracks and crevices. From the front door through the entry and up the stairs, bubble-wrap-like plastic protects delicate ancient tiles and old oak steps, while thin plastic sheets billow over doorways, but the dust settles everywhere, protection or not. Our house has currently the air of a chantier, a work site requiring hard hats, it seems. To top off all that fun, the main sewer pipe got plugged up by ingrown roots and we had to call the Roto-Rooter pros with their heavy-duty equipment, cash or check, please. Naturally, all this is happening as we go through the hottest week of the year. A quiet cup of early morning coffee in a shady spot under the pergola is much appreciated indeed!


The jasmine shading the pergola is in full bloom, releasing a lovely scent.





I love to prepare pies with ready-made dough from the grocery store in the summer. Last week I had a solitary sweet potato lying around, so I made a pie layered with very thinly sliced sweet potato, pre-sliced Emmental that needed to disappear, spinach – first wilted in a large pan with softened diced onion and a dusting of fresh nutmeg – and tomatoes. Light, easy, and tasty with a green salad, just right for warmer temperatures.


Yesterday’s Tarte au Thon à Canicule, my Heatwave-Tuna-Pie was even easier.

The ingredients were:

  • 280g net or ~10 oz of tuna packed in water, drained
  • 1 medium yellow onion, finely diced
  • 3 Tbl olive oil
  • 1 Tbl white wine vinegar
  • 1/2 Tsp each garlic paste, anchovy paste, harissa paste
  • 1/2 Tsp crushed, dried marjoram
  • salt, freshly ground pepper

mix the above vigorously, cover with saran wrap and refrigerate while you pre-bake the dough, if you wish, and slice the tomatoes in thick slices. Once the dough is ready, toss the cooled tuna mix with 2 Tbl of fresh lemon juice and spread sour cream and sweet mustard generously over the pie bottom. Spread the tuna mix evenly across the pie round and cover it with densely packed tomato slices. I sprinkled some parmigiano bits on it simply because I had them, but cheese is really not necessary for this pie – lots of tomatoes are! Drizzle the pie with olive oil before baking.


Bake the Tarte au Thon à Canicule for 45 min. at 200º/180ºC convection [400º/360ºF convection] for ~45 min. Before slicing, let it rest for 10 minutes or so. As a matter of fact, if you’re not too hungry, slide the pie on a rack to cool down without getting soggy, while you clean and slice a crunchy garden cucumber and maybe some radishes. Especially on a hot day, this pie tastes even better at room temperature.

And don’t forget to close the shutters against the heat!



Cornbread & Sunday Sunshine

As I record my cornbread recipe, it has become increasingly overcast and a light drizzle moistens the air. Not so earlier this morning. When I looked out an upstairs window, the day was delightfully bright, crisp, and shiny.


April 7, 07h57

With my first cup of coffee, I processed yesterday’s cooking pictures. Going downstairs to fetch another cup, I took my camera with me for a delightful stroll among our newly sprouting green stuff. That gave me the opportunity to mingle pictures of sauteed onions with those of delicate vine leaves to make my recipe a little more adventurous.


Saturday’s kitchen session revolved around Southwest flavors which we miss over here in France quite a bit. That is until we discovered a French online business called “My American Market” where we now order things like creamed corn and Rotel chile&tomatoes, not to mention pancake mix and, yes, Cheetos.


The 13 ingredients for my cornbread, 14 if you count the eggs individually 🤓


Firstly, combine the dry ingredients:

  1. 1 package Jiffy corn muffin mix
  2. 1 rounded cup cornmeal
  3. 2 tsp baking soda
  4. 1/2 tsp salt
  5. 1 rounded Tbl crushed, toasted cumin seeds
  6. 1 tsp powdered cumin seeds
  7. 1/2 tsp piment d’Espelette


Then add the moist ingredients:

  1. 10 oz of the creamed corn
  2. 4 Tbl Rotel tomato-and-chile bits without the liquid
  3. 2 eggs, lightly beaten with 1 Tbl of Rotel liquid & some freshly ground nutmeg
  4. 2 Tbl honey
  5. 2 Tbl olive oil
  6. 1/4 cup finely shredded cheese [Comté in my case]

Blend well and pour into the baking dish of your choice. I decorated the top with the remaining creamed corn and coarsely chopped cheddar cheese.


Using a convection oven, I baked the cornbread at 180ºC/350ºF for 10 min, lowered the temperature to 150ºC/300ºF and continued to back for another 30 min. The bread wasn’t quite done, so I added a few more minutes at 180ºC to finish the center and get a nicely browned top.



While the bread was in the oven, the skirt steak for our fajitas needs to be marinated. Some good quality olive oil, fajita seasoning, cumin seeds, coriander seeds, dried herbs, piment d’Espelette – or whatever comes to mind or happens to be laying around your pantry.


We brought that olive oil back from San Sebastián in January, it’s delicious.



Looks like we might have some figs this year!

Meanwhile, it was time to slice and dice the vegetables, green and red bell peppers, yellow and red onions, and a little garlic for the fun of it.


As usual, I sautéed my onions first by themselves at a low temperature to let them gently caramelize, before I added the peppers, garlic, and flavoring.


When all the veggies were pretty much ready, I turned up the heat and added the juice of the zested lemon for a fruity finish. Truth be told, this kitchen version of fajitas, both the meat and the vegetables, is pretty much a lame second choice. Real fajitas should be charcoal grilled, nicely charred, and dripping with Tex-Mex flavor!!


Our Clematis growing steadily over the pergola support.



With a little avocado and a drizzle of Balsamico, it was pretty tasty, nevertheless.



Marcus Meyer and the Winged​ Lions

My sister Bianka did something pretty sneaky recently. She pushed my curiosity button, and I was hooked immediately.

As you know from my last post, my doctor condemned me to a somewhat semi-invalid situation with nothing but restful inactivity which is not half as much fun as you might imagine. Even in the household of two retired fuddy-duddies with neither pets nor children, there are constantly small things that one “does”. Not doing them drives me bonkers but I must be sensible and continue to recline, if not gracefully, at least grateful that I do have the leisure to do so thanks to my husband who not only picks up the slack but cooks tastily.

However, physical inactivity leads to excessive browsing through social media, where I stumbled across my sister’s post of photos she took while walking through a Hamburg, Germany, neighborhood on a November weekend. The Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg is a vibrant city with a long and proud past as an independently governed city-state.

Hamburg’s upwardly mobile history began in 808 CE, when Charlemagne, Holy Roman Emperor, and original Pater Europae ordered a “burg” or fortification to be built somewhere near the confluence of the rivers Elbe and Alster to better defend his Frankish realm against the raids of peoples not yet integrated into his domain, like Slavic and Saxon tribes. The castle became known as Hammaburg, eventually written as Hamburg. The meaning of the hamma part is hitherto unknown. Although such a riverside location close to the sea has enormous growth potential, it may invite calamity as well. The citizens of Hamburg have certainly experienced both.

Some aspects of the city’s past onto which my sister’s post touched became the starting point for a meshuggeneh internet search about Sephardim and Holsteiners. Such an odd combination, don’t you think? The photos Bianka posted contained place names like Krayenkamp, Markusplatz, jüdischer Friedhof [Jewish cemetery], and Großneumarkt which eventually lead me to the work of a Dr. Otto Adalbert Beneke (1812 – 1891) director emeritus of the State Archives in Hamburg and also a published author of historical non-fiction. Through Wikisource, I found his lovely and entertaining book called “HAMBURGISCHE GESCHICHTEN UND SAGEN, erzählt von Dr. Otto Beneke”, meaning “Stories and Legends from Hamburg, as told by Dr. Otto Beneke”. On page 280 we can read the story of a Marcus Meyer which I am retelling in English, below.

Dr. Beneke’s book is written in a manner of German used in the 19th century, printed in an antique blackletter typeface to match. It is a delight to read and I wish you could enjoy it with me. For German speakers: “… um in liegenden Gründen seine Verewigung hypothecarisch sicher zu stellen …”. This passage alone is as lovely as any Shakespearian sentence, expressive, precise, yet poetic. Sadly, it’s beyond my capabilities to write in an equivalent style in English, therefore I didn’t properly translate the narrative, choosing instead to retell it in my own words but following the storyline as closely as possible. In the “Marcus Meyer” Wikisource link above, the German text was transcribed into a modern font for easier comprehension. I do prefer to read the old script, though! I took a screenshot of a partial page to give you a glimpse of the original.

Auszug aus Otto Beneke HH Geschichten und Sagen

Excerpt, Otto Beneke “Hamburger Geschichten und Sagen”

         My modern English version:

[Venice and Hamburg once shared a similarity, a place called St. Marcus Square. Both squares had winged lions. In Hamburg, the square no longer exists, but the lion image can still be seen in the Hamburg Museum.]

In the olden days, a neighborhood of Hamburg called Neustadt or New Town lay outside the gates and ramparts of the town proper or Old Town. Gradually, farmers from the surrounding countryside became inscribed in the St. Nicolai parish of Neustadt, populating the ever-growing area with their vegetable gardens which were called Kohlhöfe, cabbage farms. During the time of the 1563 black plague, the St. Nicolai church made two plots of land available to be used as burial grounds for the pestilence victims.

One of these was called the Krayenkamp because, according to legend, the corpses buried there lured large murders of crows [Kray possibly low German for Krähe = crow; Kamp = field]. Then again, “Kraye” may simply have been, ever so boringly, the name of a former tenant of that piece of land.

The other graveyard between the cabbage farms laid fallow tilSt. Nicolai leased it to Harm Husmann in the year 1623Farmer Husmann hoped to gain a nice profit from crops grown in the rich soil fertilized by all those ancestral bonesFrom 1627 to 1653, his plot neighbored yet another burial ground, that of the Portuguese Jews who had settled in Hamburg since about 1612.

There lived in Neustadt a man by the name of Marx Meyer, who lived a blameless life respected by his peers. His one weakness, though, was vanity. Oh, how he longed to be a proper dignitary in Old Town, a senator perhaps or an alderman, but such ranks were beyond the reach of a suburbanite. When permission was granted for the formation of a militia unit to safeguard Neustadt against roaming marauders, Marx Meyer soon advanced to the position of captain. Many a humble Christian would have been content with such a rank and the resulting elevated standing in the community. Not so our captain who realized that a militia rank would hardly inscribe his name in the history books, specifically his precious new name, since he now signed his name as “Marcus” Meyer. Captain Meyer’s determination to preserve this beautiful name for posterity was so strong that he came up with the ingenious idea of buying himself an alleyway or a square to be named after him. Why not mortgage his immortality to the chartered ground of Neustadt, he reasoned. He donated 100 Lübische Mark to the coffers of St. Nicolai for which the church treasurers awarded him with a name for the remaining acreage of the black plague boneyard next to farmer Husmann’s cabbage patch. In a document dated September 7, 1625, the churchmen pledged “that in his honor, the aforementioned square shall henceforth be known by his name as Sanct-Marcus-Kirchhof”. As a little bonus, they also allowed him to erect a monument to himself, at his own expense, naturally. Thus, in one fell swoop, a lowly Lutheran militia captain was not only inscribed in the temporal archives of Neustadt’s history but he became miraculously canonized for eternal immortality in the Papal register! Indubitably, Marcus Meyer died a happy man.

But already during his lifetime, Marcus Meyer’s so desperately craved name recognition slipped through the cracks of common remembrance in the local population. When a Paul Langermann built house at said Sanct-Marcus-Kirchhof or St. Marcus Square in 1641, he attributed its name to the Evangelist St. Mark in whose honor he forthwith commissioned a bas-relief stone plaque picturing the saint’s emblem, a winged lion, to be incorporated in the front wall of his house.

Roughly one hundred years after these events, the Krayenkamp plot became the building site of the Hanseatic baroque Hauptkirche Sankt Michaelis, one of the five Lutheran main churches in Hamburg. The church is affectionately called “Michel” by seamen and citizens alike. Its copper-clad spire isn’t just a well-recognized landmark, it also functioned as landfall mark for ships sailing up the River Elbe.

The sentence in Dr. Beneke’s story in which I became most interested reads like this: “… Von 1627 bis 1653 haben dann dicht daneben die seit 1612 aufgenommenen Portugiesischen Juden ihre Todten bestattet.” Which translates to “between 1627 and 1653 the Portuguese Jews who had been accepted since 1612 interred their dead next door.”

Who were those “Portuguese Jews”, traders in the most part, who had indeed been tolerated and even appreciated in the Lutheran Hanse Town of Hamburg despite some intermittent ruckus with the clergy? I’ve come across references to Portuguese Jews before, including in historical fiction, but this time, I was determined to dig a little deeper. And, there arises quite naturally another question. Why were there such precise and limited dates given for their burial practices? Let’s begin with a little background research.

For the last couple of thousand years or so, circumstances drove many Israelites further and further away from Eretz Yisrael and their Semitic roots. The Babylonian and Egyptian exiles are known well enough, I assume, but according to a medieval Spanish text, there may also have been a Jewish presence in the Iberian peninsula as early as the time of the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem which culminated in the destruction of the sacred Temple of Solomon in 587 BCE. Israelite captives were brought to Hispania by ship, the text states, and one such sea captain is even referenced by named as Phiros the Greek, who was commissioned by the Babylonian conquerors to transport the Jews. However, this has not been historically substantiated.

Significant waves of migrations were triggered by the Roman occupation of Judea leading to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Second Temple in 70 CE. During the Roman domination over the Levant and the Middle East, Jewish migrations as far as India and China are documented. Other groups began to spread through Central Europe and from there into the Slavic East, while a large number of Jews followed Phoenician trade routes and dispersed circum Mediterraneum, through northern Africa into the Iberian peninsula. Still, others wandered counterclockwise around the Mediterranean Sea through Greece and Illyria into Venice and Northern Italia – all the while settling along the way, forming new Jewish communities in the diaspora.

Historically, through these migrations, three distinct Jewish ethnicities developed out of the Biblical Israelite people. The Central European group became known as Ashkenazim [“Ashkenaz” meant Germanic in Medieval Hebrew], while the Mediterranean Jews of the Maghreb, Portugal, and Spain were grouped into the Sephardim [“Sefarad” meaning Hispania in Hebrew]. Lastly, in contrast to the developing European Jewry, the Mizrahim [“Mizrach” meaning East in Hebrew] are descendants of Jews who lived across the Middle East, in Babylon, Syria, Iraq, and far beyond, including the Caucasus regions and Yemen.

Taking a closer look at Jewish life in ancient Hispania, we see that it had its ups and downs, believe me! After the Roman empire pretty much fell apart with the influx of the Goth from the Baltic region across most of Europe, their western branch, the Visigoth, eventually settled in the Iberian peninsula during the 5th and 6th centuries CE. This worked out well for the Jewish communities therein until the formerly tolerant Goth converted to Catholicism toward the end of the 6th century, resulting in severe taxation and pogroms. Thus, when Tariq Ibn Ziyad rode into town in 711 CE, the establishment of a Caliphate was welcomed by Jewish leaders hoping for relief from oppression. The centuries of Islamic rule over the Iberian peninsula weren’t necessarily one long holiday on the sunny beaches of Andalucía for the Jews, but all in all, al-Ándalus constituted a period of relative peace for the roughly half a million Jews living in Spain at the time, making Medieval Sephardim the largest and most prosperous group of Jews in a diaspora.

Sephardic religious worship and its intertwined secular culture were shaped by the exchanges and discussions between Greek, Persian, Arabic, and Hebraic thinkers, philosophers, poets, mathematicians, and physicians during this invigorating period between late antiquity and the emerging Mediterranean medieval world. When Hebrew scholars began to incorporate Aristotelian worldviews into liturgical tradition, it marked the chasm between the Iberian Sephardic Rite and the worship practices of Ashkenazim which remained aligned with Rabbinic and Halakhic writings. Thus the Central and Eastern European Ashkenazim developed their distinct identity through introspection and stringent adherence to Hebraic traditions in a generally hostile Christian environment. Although they too benefited from periods of acceptance and respect, the Ashkenazim never experienced the same degree of an almost joyous mingling of cultures as the Sephardim enjoyed in the Iberian peninsula.

During long phases of relative freedom in Muslim Iberia, the Sephardim were not as severely segregated from their Christian and Islamic neighbors as happened later under Catholic rule, so they developed a language based on medieval Spanish mixed with Hebraic loanwords which is called Ladino. Just for the fun of it, I listened to a recording of a Ladino speaker and to my surprise, despite my poor Spanish, I got the gist of it [she spoke about the preparation of a plato típico, a regional dish which made it easier to comprehend 😎].

As we have seen, the expansion of the Roman Empire into Judaea and the destruction of the Second Temple triggered migrations not only to Iberia but also into Central Europe. Many of the descendants of Jewish slaves taken to Rome gradually drifted north across the Alpes, almost like a counter-migration to the Goth invasion of southern and western Europe. A Jewish presence in Köln [Cologne] goes as far back as 321 CE, and the granting of “Imperial Privileges” for the Synagogue of Cologne in the year 341 indicates a sizable community. These early settlers were soon joined by more and more displaced Jews, gradually making their way across Central Europe into areas we now call Lithuania, Ukraine, Belarus, Böhmen, Poland, Russia, and so forth.

Along the way, roughly between the 9th and 13th century, a new, uniquely Ashkenazi language developed called Yiddish. Its base is medieval High German, enriched with many Hebrew expressions. There are two main dialects, one more strongly grounded in German, while the other has its roots in Slavic and Romanic languages, and both are spiced with regional flavors. As a personal aside, I want to mention the first meeting between my German mother and my American mother-in-law. Neither spoke the other one’s language, but Yiddish made an initial conversation possible between these two lovely ladies. Subsequently, during my early married life in the US, every time my dear father-in-law used a Yiddish term, he would turn to me, ready to explain and I would have to laugh because it’s just German with a funky pronunciation! Like so many others, the following colloquial German expressions were derived from Yiddish: Bammel haben – anxiously anticipating something, like an exam; Ganove – crook; Mischpoke – originally extended family, later on, something more like rabble; Tacheles reden – clarifying something forcefully; Schmiere stehen – lookout [during the commission of a crime]; dufte – great, cool; Zoff – strife, troubles; geschlaucht sein – to be exhausted; Ramsch – cheap stuff; Blau machen – skip work or school without permission; ausgekocht – cunning; einseifen – to trick someone; Maloche – exhaustingly hard work; abzocken – to take advantage of or rip off someone [This is not a term a woman would use in polite company 😳]. From the 16th through the 20th centuries across Germany and Eastern Europe, Yiddish was much more than a language, it was more than a cultural assertion, it was the beating heart of a people, united in the midst of the diaspora. Despite the deep cleft between Ashkenazim and Sephardim, there is one thing at least their diasporic languages have in common. Traditionally both are written in a form of cursive Hebrew.

After our short linguistic digression, let us consider the fate of the Sephardim during the Reconquista, the “re-conquering” of the Iberian peninsula by Catholic rulers. The textbooks tell us that the Reconquista pitched Moorish invaders against the rightful rulers of the Iberian peninsula, Catholic Spaniards, who gloriously freed their realm from oppression. Especially during the years of Fascism in Spain, the Reconquista was termed as righteous Crusade versus Jihad. One might, however, view certain aspects of this nearly 800-year struggle a little differently.

Until the merge of the Kingdom of Castile with the Crown of Aragon, and the annexation of a part of Navarre, there was no “Spain” as we understand it in modern times. Conveniently skipping pre-history, we move straight into Iberian proto-history when the peninsula was populated by an assortment of indigenous tribes with the addition of a few Celtic immigrants. Beginning in the 10th century BCE, adventurous Phoenician traders, ever so courageously sailing along the Mediterranean seashore, settled in Hispania, establishing, among others a harbor now called Cádiz. Greek merchants followed suit, and ultimately the Carthaginians from North Africa populated large swatches of Hispania. With the final destruction of Carthage, Rome took over and gradually subdued all others until the peninsula became a Roman province during the rule of Emperor Augustus and beyond. It was Roman tyranny which brought large groups of Israelites to the Iberian peninsula in the first centuries of the Common Era.

And then came the Visigoth, see above.

When Maghrebine Berbers and their Umayyad overlords crossed the Strait of Gibraltar in the early 8th century, they intended to expand their sphere of influence into the Visigoth domain. A move, one would have to consider to be no different from previous ethnicities having crossed established borders in search of new territory.

It was, in fact, a very fortuitous moment for the fledgling Islamic caliphate to stretch its wings beyond the newly subdued North African region. The Visigoth kingdom in Hispania was mired in disarray through dynastic infighting. Thus, when Tariq Ibn Ziyad, possibly the son of a freed Libyan Berber in the service of Musa bin Nusayr, Governor of Ifriqiyah, the Maghreb as we call it now, fought the initial battle against the Visigoth king Roderic, it was no big surprise that he prevailed, at least in hindsight. Over the next few years, this initial victory snowballed into Umayyad rule across the entirety of the Visigoth’ Iberian holdings, with the notable exception of Asturia. Well, possibly. Historical records are a smidgen fuzzy about the details.

You see, there was this Gallaecian-Visigoth guy called Pelayu or Pelagius, son of Fafila Dux of Gallaecia. Dad having been killed by Wittiza, another one of a multitude of Visigoth kings drifting in and out of Iberian history during these times of upheaval, young Pelayu, our orphaned squire, became a latter-day hero of the Reconquista. Sometime between 718 to 740 CE, Pelayu allegedly rebelled against Umayyad rule. A small army under the leadership of a Muslim named Alkama and a Christian-Visigoth bishop named Oppa, who may have been a half-brother of murderous king Wittiza, was dispatched against Pelayu and his band of “30 wild donkeys”, as reported in Muslim chronicles. The donkeys won the day and victorious Pelayu returned to his ancestral region where the local leadership proclaimed him Principes of Asturia creating him the founding father of the Kingdom of Asturia, which for some time was pretty much the only Christian political entity in Islamic Iberia. Subsequently, many a Visigoth noble and disposed kinglet gathered in the Asturian exile planning revenge against the al-Ándalus subjugators. Skirmish by skirmish, Asturia grew into the Kingdom of Léon, out of which the Counties of Castile and Portugal arose. Eventually, and with a strong helping hand of other European ruling Houses, who worried greatly about the Islamic presence in Iberia, the Christian position in the peninsula strengthened and developed into several emerging powers, like Léon, Castile, Aragon/Naples, Pamplona/Navarre, Portugal, Barcelona/Catalonia, and so forth, gradually shrinking the Islamic power base to one last caliphate. Fast forwarding to 1491, the deciding victory of their Most Catholic Majesties of Castile and Aragon over the last Iberian Emir in Andalucian Granada, brought all non-Catholic culture in the Iberian peninsula to a crashing halt. The now dominant kingdoms of Castile and Aragon, incorporating also the southern portion of Navarre, would ultimately emerge as the unified Kingdom of Spain during the 16th century. Voilá, Catholic Spain was finally born, almost a hundred years after the rule of al-Ándalus in the Iberian peninsula had ended.

A few months after the victory in Granada, the infamous Alhambra Decree forced practicing Jews to leave the kingdoms of Castille and Aragon by midnight of July 31, 1492, or 8 Av 5252 in Jewish reckoning, the day before the Fast Day of Tisha B’Av, which is the annual commemoration of disasters that befell the Israelites through history during the month of Av. For instance, both Temple destructions happened in Av. During the summer of 1492, many Jewish families gathered their belongings and walked toward Lisbon and Porto in Portugal where they hoped for more tolerance when, only six years later, royal Portuguese ambitions threw another spanner in their hopes for a peaceful co-existence. The Portuguese king was eager to marry a Castilian Infanta but his chances were pretty much nil unless he could please her Most Catholic royal parents of his Christian zeal which lead to a forced mass conversion and related hardships. By 1497 most Jews had left the Iberian Peninsula in search of more hospitable shores, some of which were to be found eventually in northern Europe, mostly in Hamburg, Amsterdam, and London. Thus our “Portuguese Jews” of boneyard fame in Neustadt were the descendants of Sephardim escaping the Inquisition and the Edict of Expulsion of  1492 in Spain and subsequently the Portuguese Edict of Expulsion.

I wonder if anyone is aware that the modern Kingdom of Spain has acknowledged the ill deeds of the Houses of Castile and Aragon in the name of the Reconquista. Since the early 20th century, Spain has granted automatic citizenship to Sephardim returning to Spain. In 2012 Spanish citizenship was extended to the global Sephardic community without the requirement of residency. A truly unique gesture of reconciliation, as no other European nation has granted this privilege to atone for their past expulsion policies, of which there were many.

Now that we have returned in one piece from the hardships of Medieval Iberia, thus solving the “Sephardim” portion of the originally posed question of Sephardim and Holsteiners, we still have to tackle those Holsteiners, won’t we? The name goes back to the Holcetae, as the Romans called them, a Saxon tribe living along the northern bank of the River Elbe near Hammaburg. According to Medieval chronicler Adam of Bremen, their name translates to “those who dwell in the woods”.

Of course, Holstein can also refer to black and white milk cows, but as far as placenames go, our Holstein is the region to the North of Hamburg, traditionally occupying an area between the rivers Elbe and Eider. Throughout its history, Holstein was pulled hither and thither through frequent subdivisions, merges, and changes in ownership. At times belonging to the Holy Roman Empire, it was for far longer periods of time either a Danish possession or under the administration of the kings of Denmark. During the time of the Viking Age, when they sailed their sleek warships further and further South looting and burning, the Catholic Church moved inviolably North, converting Odin’s warriors to Christianity along the way. The Prince-Archbishopric of Bremen and Hamburg, jointly owned by the Holy Roman Emperor and the Catholic Church, had been given jurisdiction over The Faith in Scandinavia and the Baltic-North by the Pope. A certain Magister Adam, a member of the Church of Bremen, whose wisdom we’ve encountered just a few sentences ago, traveled with great enjoyment through Scandinavia. In 1070 he was a personal guest of King Sweyn II Estridssen of Denmark who told him long and detailed stories of Viking history over many a keg of mead, I imagine. Back home, Adam of Bremen spent three years writing his Œvre épique of the Archdiocese and her Bishops. His Gesta Hammaburgensis Ecclesiae Pontificum [Heroic Tales of the Bishopric of Hamburg] wasn’t limited to church history, though, it included a Norse history with unique geographical details of Northern Europe based on his Scandinavian travels. And, remarkably, the Geste incorporated the story of the Viking’s transatlantic journeys to legendary Vinland in modern-day Canada, as the Danish King had told him. Magister Adam’s chronicles of Viking travel to North America were the first such reports outside of Norse Sagas.

As tantalizing as these Viking exploits are, we do have to focus on Holstein and, ultimately the town of Altona, because, as you well remember, we want to decode the reason why Jews buried their dead next door to the Hamburg St. Marcus square only for a few years which begs the answer to the simple question, where else did the Sephardim inter their dead? In order to approach an answer to this question, we have to take a look at something called the Thirty Years’ War. Extremely simply put, it was a Catholic versus Protestants [Lutheran Reformists] religious war that began in 1618. It turned into a major power play between twelve “Reformist” forces led by Sweden against six “Catholic” forces led by the Holy Roman Empire. When it was all over in 1648, thousands of castles and untold numbers of towns and villages were reduced to rubble, leaving large stretches of countryside scorched, mostly in the central combat region of what is now Germany. This war that began as a religious conflict, turned into a political war with profound results for the European balance of power and with a long-lasting effect on society at large. It claimed an estimated 20% of the European population, a geometric mean estimate of eight million people, of which less than half a million were combat casualties, while all others fell victim to famine and diseases like typhoid, dysentery, and the black plaque. Although this represents one of the highest war casualties ever recorded, I can’t help but think that nothing has changed through the intervening centuries. Civilians are still suffering the consequences of religious warfare and power games in contemporary conflicts.

Backpeddling ever so slightly, we return to Hamburg in the 16th century. Right next door to Neustadt, a fishing village grow along the banks of the River Elbe. It became known as Altona. And Altona became the first home of the German Jews when in 1611 Ernst Count of Schaumburg and Holstein-Pinneberg granted them the privilege of permanent residency. Soon thereafter Altona came under the jurisdiction of the king of Denmark who was also favorably inclined towards the Ashkenazim. Hamburg, on the other hand, wasn’t too keen on German Jews. They already had to deal with the Portuguese Jews, you see, and there’s a limit for tolerating those pesky Jewish migrants.

So there we have two communities in close proximity and a bunch of migrants clamoring for residency. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? As ever, back in the 16th and 17th centuries attitudes were, although black and white as in Christian versus Jew, nevertheless colored by practicality, politics, and Mammon. Sephardim in Hamburg were considered to be more valuable business partners owing to their Portuguese and Spanish connections which opened the spice, sugar, tobacco, cotton, and coffee markets to Hamburg traders. In general, the “Portuguese Jews” were wholesalers while the “German Jews” were retailers and as such small fry. The Jewish dilemma went back and forth between Altona and Hamburg for a while, during which time the Sephardim proudly presented many highly regarded members of their community, who were bankers, diplomats for foreign powers like Queen Christina of Sweden and the kings of Poland and of Portugal, there were also highly respected physicians, astronomers, philosophers, and thinkers, while the Ashkenazim were, officially, from 1567 onward only allowed residency in Hamburg as domestic employees in Sephardic households. Such irony, when you consider the many contributions to global knowledge by Ashkenazim. Beginning around 1627, the Hamburg Sephardim began a Talmud Torah, essentially a communal school to study Jewish Law. They met in the home of Elijah Aboab Cardoso for their lessons. In an amusing little aside, the aggrieved Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II lodged indignant objections with the Hamburg Senate concerning this “synagogue” because Catholics weren’t allowed to have a church in this Lutheran town, but nobody paid any attention to the emperor’s whining. The Hamburg Sephardim organized themselves into a proper congregation under the guidance of a Chief Rabbi in 1652. The Ashkenazim had to take a more roundabout approach through the Danish and Prussian holdings surrounding Hamburg. They established a congregation around 1671 in Altona. Against expectations, the Altona Ashkenazim proved to be an invaluable asset for the fledgling community at large. King Christian IV bestowed the privilege of ship-building to the Jews of Altona which was instrumental for the vast expansion of the whale fishing industry there, bringing prosperity to the whole town.

In addition to the separately weaning and waxing fortunes of the Ashkenazi and Sephardic communities in Hamburg, there were traditionally separate burying grounds for German and Portuguese Jews. The Hanse town of Hamburg did not grant burial permission to Jews, so Danish Altona hosted the first of the Jewish cemeteries that gradually appeared in communities outside to Hamburg. However, during the Thirty-Years’-War civilian life in the countryside became increasingly dangerous, hence the standing militia in Neustadt that appointed Captain Meyer, as we’ve seen above. The dangers in outlying areas through cruel and ruthless bands of mercenaries became so imminent that the St. Nicolai parish gave permission for Jews to be buried in a specially designated plot in Neustadt, for a hefty fine, of course. Five years after the Westphalian peace accord in 1648, the Altona congregations disinterred their dead and brought them back home. The Jewish cemetery of Altona is unique as it contains both Ashkenazi and Sephardic graves. In the Ashkenazi section, the gravestones are upright and have Hebrew inscriptions, while the Sephardic markers lay flat and show richly adorned Portuguese dedications.

It appears we have finally reached a conclusion to our search about Hamburg’s Portuguese Jews and the reasons for their temporary cemetery in Neustadt – not without uncovering a new puzzle, though: the curious fact that the Sephardic community in 1652 actively participated in the reburial of their ancestor’s remains, a practice which is not approved in Judaism. But do not fear, we will not go into it today!

Further Materials:

“The Thirty Years’ War: the first modern war?” a thought-provoking blog post by Dr. Pascal Daupin, Senior Policy Advisor at the ICRC, Policy and Humanitarian Diplomacy Division.

Mother Courage and her Children, the remarkable 1939 play by Bertolt Brecht. He uses the 30–Years-War to condemn the ideology of Totalitarianism and the actions of fascists.

http://jewishencyclopedia.com, this is the online version of an encyclopedia about all things Jewish published between 1901 – 1906 in 12 volumes. It has not been edited and therefore only contains references up to the 20th century.