Thursday, September 13, 2012

Adventures in Puglia: Brewing wild plum liquor

One of the most charming qualities of rural Mediterranean life is the tradition of transforming anything remotely edible into surprising creations that become the life and soul of the party. These people have been championing the locavore and freegan way of life long before they were foodie buzzwords; sourcing food that’s in season and free – from the back paddock, or over the fence from the neighbour’s overflowing garden – is fundamental to their food culture.

Take for instance, their tradition of homemade liquor. For a culture that has a surprisingly moderate relationship to alcohol – sure, table wine is served at lunch and dinner, but no-one ever seems to get blotto – these guys will make liquor out of anything, no matter how tenuous the fruit or vegetable connection. Brewing liquor is just another seasonal domestic activity alongside bottling tomato salsa, making jam, and slaughtering a pig for cured meats (OK, so the last one might be more of a niche activity reserved for farming types, but you get the point).

If you’re lucky enough to experience a typical Pugliese family’s Sunday lunch – assuming you’ve not fallen into a white cheese coma after the scamorza and caciotta have been served – expect a variety of unintelligible homebrew liquors to appear once the espressi are distributed. Perhaps Alloro – flavoured with laurel, better known as bay leaves – or Amaretto, made from the stones in loquats, a small orange fruit that’s native to Japan but grown in temperate climates in both hemispheres.

Wild plums: they look like blueberries, but taste like a nasty, sour slap in the face

Currently, wild plums (prugne) are in season and can be found lining the stone walls throughout the Pugliese countryside. Once picked, the plums look similar to blueberries due to their similar size and dusty white skin, but you’d get a rude surprise if you confused the former for the latter. These plums are face-scrunchingly sour with a stone in the middle, so therefore clearly suited to brewing (i.e. apparently the last remaining option if you can’t eat them fresh, sun-dried, or in a jam).

The plums and alcohol need to soak in a glass vessel for 14 days, and then the sugar syrup step needs 24 hours to settle. The tiny plums impart a deep purple hue, and the finished product is predictably sweet and alcoholic (about 30-40%, but you can’t be too exact in home brewing), with a really delicious flavour – definitely more ‘wild’ and unique than the usual plum taste.

Our 2 x 1.5-litre bottles of wild plums and alcohol, marinating for 14 days

Obviously, you can increase the quantities depending on how much fruit and pure alcohol you can get your hands on – we made three times the recipe, which should keep a few households satiated for the next 12 months.

1kg wild plums
1 litre pure alcohol
(In Italy you can buy 95% alcohol on the supermarket shelf, with a 1-litre bottle costing about 11. In Australia or Britain, you might need a pharmacist’s certification to purchase equivalent-strength alcohol from a medical wholesaler. Can any antipodeans confirm or deny? We’re not sure – recommendations welcome!)
800gm sugar
800ml water
Note: the fruit and alcohol need to stay in a 1:1 ratio, as do the sugar and water, but you can adjust the sugar syrup quantity according to your sweet tooth and alcoholic preferences.

1.     When picking the plums, don’t be too worried about if stems and leaves are still attached – you’ll do quality control later on. Pick plenty more than you’ll think you’ll need so you can be choosy and only use fruit that’s free of insect marks.
2.     Spread out the fruit and foliage onto a tea towel on a tabletop, with a bowl to collect the good plums and a bowl (or compost bin) for rejects. Examine each plum to ensure there are no insect holes – solidified sap should be a warning sign – and look for just one mark on the skin where the stem has been removed.
3.     Once you’ve weighed out 1kg (or however much you’re making), transfer fruit into glass vessel (big 5-litre Italian wine cask is perfect), top with 1L (or equivalent) of alcohol, and seal so it’s air-tight (line the lid with cling film to be safe).
4.     Store in cool dark place for 14 days.
5.     To make sugar syrup, bring 800ml of water to the boil, add sugar, remove from heat and stir to dissolve. Leave to cool.
6.     Place a sheet of gauze over the mouth of the glass vessel and strain plum alcohol into another big jar or glass bottle (the plums might have burst whilst marinating, and you don’t want floaties in your finished product).
7.     Mix cool sugar syrup and plum alcohol in glass jar or bottle, seal, and leave to settle for 24 hours.
8.     Decanter into glass bottle(s) with airtight lids, and imbibe as required!

Monday, September 10, 2012

The non-initiated’s guide to Christianity and Catholicism

What’s the deal with middle-aged nuns in habits and hiking boots trekking the trails in Poland’s Tatra Mountains?* Why does nearly every village in southern Italy start with a saint’s name? Well, it’s because religion, specifically Catholicism, is part of the furniture in these pockets of the world, and deeply rooted to the countries’ history and national character. Travelling through countries where there’s a fine line between (Catholic) church and State must be quite strange for those unfamiliar with Jesus, Mary, the saints and the Sabbath – sometimes I forget that not everyone endured 15 years of Catholic education like I did. 

Street performers outside the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral - destination of the famous Catholic pilgrimage in Spain. Impersonating Jesus Christ - for financial gain, no less - is that not the ultimate sacrilege? (To think I used to get scolded for trying to wear rosary beads as a fashion accessory...) 

As I’ve noted at the past couple of Catholic weddings I’ve attended, most people can’t naturally navigate the stand/sit/kneel/bow heads/genuflect routine – in fact, it completely bewilders them. I guess I’d call myself a lapsed Catholic (fastest growing religion in the world today – BAM!) but try to crack an off-colour joke about priests in front of me – by golly, you’ll wish you hadn’t. That loyalty runs deep. Ditto for Irish jokes. The more I explain the intricacies my inherited religion to friends with different backgrounds, the more I realise it’s pretty bloody complicated. So without further adieu, here’s a very patchy and largely inappropriate summary of Christianity and the Catholic church.

Christians worship Jesus Christ – he of Christmas (“the son of God was born on this day”) and Easter (“he rose from the dead after being crucified on a cross”) fame.

Gratuitous photo of my baking skills. Hot cross buns – more appropriately termed “Jesus cakes” by my Israeli buddy – are meant to be eaten on the Friday before Easter to commemorate the not-so-Good occasion of Jesus being killed via crucifixion on a cross. If that’s not bad taste, I don’t know what is… 
Jesus was actually born and raised Jewish, so he would have had “the snip” as a bebe, and observed the usual holidays like Passover. The Bible (Christians’ go-to/how-to guide) is split into Old and New sections, and the Old part is pretty much identical to the Torah, the Jews’ bible equivalent. So given Christianity was born out of Judaism, there’s really no need for all that anti-Semitism, is there? The only analogy I can think of to illustrate this point is with celebrity chefs. Gordon Ramsey apprenticed under Marco Pierre White, slagged him off ever since, and they both seem like douchebags who cook similar food and overstretch their empires with sub-par restaurant chains. Ok, here’s a better one. Imagine if Jamie Oliver started slamming pared-back Italian cooking (à la The River Café, where he apprenticed) as soon as became the Naked Chef? We’d be all like, ‘Psst! Jamie you tool – we all know the pasta and risotto section of your excellent debut cookbook pays a fat debt to Rose Gray and Ruth Roger’s signature style’. Respect where respect’s due, and all that, right?

Artist Duccio di Buoninsegna depicting a visit Jesus made to his disciples, following his resurrection. Appearance Behind Locked Doors (1308-11), tempera on wood, Museo dell'Opera del Duomo in Siena, Italy. 
Anyway, back to Jesus. During his Earth period, he famously led a posse of a dozen men around Jerusalem and impressed the masses with supernatural powers. Before he died/rose from the dead/ascended into Heaven, he passed the baton to his second-in-charge, Peter. Peter is generally accepted as the first Pope – you may have heard of his rather elaborate commemorative digs in Rome (St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican City, a.k.a. Catholic mecca). The current Pope – the 265th successor of St Peter – is a Bavarian priest and theology professor, born Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger, now known as Benedict XVI. He remains the head of the Roman Catholic Church.

Pope Benedict XVI: Best known for sporting red Prada loafers with his Papal robes, an unfortunate aptitude for creepy close-up photos, and being a member of the Hitler Youth in the 1930s (hardly evidence of any present-day anti-Semitism though; Hitler Youth was pretty much Boy Scouts in those years, right?)
From the middle ages right up until recent centuries, the Church was the brains trust and socio-political big daddy across Europe and Great Britain (all formerly Papal states at various points), not to mention the dominant arts patron – hey, those fancy church altars weren’t going to paint themselves – which is why art-loving tourists find themselves visiting so many churches to see Medieval and Renaissance masterpieces. (This also means that if you’ve had more than a decade of Catholic education, you’ll totally cruise through any university Art History courses on illuminated manuscripts, since you’ll already be fluent in the language of religious iconography. Trust me on this. I got 90% on my final paper and the Professor taking the course was a nun!)

All other churches, sects and cults considered under the umbrella of “Christianity” technically stem from these origins – Jesus and the Popes, that is – though they have their own church leaders. A big sub-category is Protestantism, which pretty much covers all Christian denominations that aren’t Catholic, or Orthodox (i.e. Greek, Coptic, Russian). Martin Luther (an Augustinian monk – not to be confused with 20th century civil rights activist, and no, they weren’t related) initiated a split in Christianity in the 16th century (if you have a spare 14 hours, for further reading, Wikipedia “the Reformation”), urging a back-to-basics approach that was like, uh, about praying and spirituality and actual religious stuff. In those days, the Catholic church was about as corrupt as a GDR Olympics squad, the Enron board, and the News of the World combined. Remember the creepy and morally-corrupt Bishop from Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves? Yeah. You could literally buy a ticket to Heaven in those days.

Pope Alexander VI – as portrayed by Jeremy Irons, above, in 2011 miniseries The Borgias - famously fathered four illegitimate children within Italy’s most powerful family dynasty in the 1500s. Hmmm... slight conflict of interest, perhaps?
Everyone from the Lutherans and the Presbyterians to the Amish and the Mormons have their roots in post-Reformation Christianity. I’m kinda glad I’m Catholic so I don’t have to learn too much about all the religious wars and excommunications that happened in this period. Remember all the Aaron Spelling-produced spin-offs from Beverly Hills 90210 in the 1990s? It’s like a million times more complicated than that.

Another notable split from Catholicism was the Church of England. King Henry VIII cracked it in the 1530s when Pope Clement VII wouldn’t authorise his divorce and remarriage (still a bit of a sore point in the Catholic church, despite being such a staunch advocate of the shotgun wedding), so he broke away, proclaiming himself Pope-equivalent of his own church and the citizens of his empire his faithful congregation. Great-great-[not sure how many]-granddaughter Queen Elizabeth II is currently the supreme head of the Anglican Church.

So, if Roman Catholics can trace their pure pedigree back to J.C. himself, and for centuries ruled most of the world with a (theoretically celibate and humble) workforce who enjoyed more perks than a drug baron’s personal chauffeur, why is it that – in English-speaking countries, at least – “Catholic” has become a byword for poor, overpopulated, potato-eating and provincial? Well, that would be due to the Irish Catholic factor. Alongside their natural talent for breeding, boozing, and general merriment, they’ve exported communities throughout the English-speaking world (FYI – if you try to insult me with hilarious references to my convict origins, given I’m Australian and all that, you’ll receive a detailed summary of my respectable Irish roots).

St Patrick is the patron saint of Ireland, who also managed the feat of banishing snakes from the Emerald Isle. Leprechauns did not play any role in the evolution of Catholicism in Ireland, FYI.
Consistently England’s most unwilling colony up until its independence in 1919, the Irish’s steadfast refusal to trade Catholicism for the Church of England (and green for orange, and the Pope for the Queen etc.) was inextricably tied to such miseries as the 19th century Potato Famine, and the Troubles (the years of IRA terrorist activity in Britain and Northern Ireland – see also: In the Name of the Father).

Irish comedians Rubber Bandits take a bit more creative license with their explanation of the Irish Republican Army and the religious warfare:

So there you have it. The Catholic church's auspicious origins, questionable Renaissance-era practices, and present-day cultural significance summarised for your convenience. We'll leave the discussions on women's reproductive rights and homosexuality for another day.

*The Pope before our current one was Pope John Paul II, from Krakow in Poland. His election to office in 1978 was a huge deal in his homeland, and the overthrow of Communism in 1989 “was as much a victory of the Church as it was for democracy” (thanks, Lonely Planet).