Whenever people ask us about our commercial crops on our little Andalusian farm, we always mention olives and our almonds. Grapes were once a commercial crop for us – in the form of our Malaga-style wine – but that was many years ago. And, while it’s true we also once sold a bushel of pink grapefruit to a greengrocer in our local village, the only other crop we ever used to sell regularly was carob (algaroba in Spanish). Known as boxer in Britain, carob was best known as a chocolate substitute, especially during wartime, when supplies of the real stuff were sparse, and these days, it’s popular as candy (in the States), ground for flour, eaten as a dried fruit and made into syrups and even alcoholic drinks. But, in the 90’s it’s popularity seriously waned, and the price for the brown pods and seeds fell so low, it cost us more in diesel to get to the carob to the factory than we got paid for it.
However, the emergence of veganism has seen a massive spike in the demand for carob, and a corresponding rise in its value, making it a worthwhile crop once again. And, in the event we were paid a handsome €60.00 for our modest three sacks, giving us in turn, a pleasant excuse to continue along the road, to spend our earnings – somewhat ironically – on some delicious, decidedly non-vegan Malagueño cuisine…
My mother’s uncle, Sidney Marcus was a gifted musician and an accomplished violinist, and like many gifted people, he was also slightly eccentric. Occasionally, his eccentricity and his musicianship would overlap, such as when he led the band at my mother’s wedding; not with his fiddle, but on the musical saw! To this day I’ve yet to learn of another wedding, or function of any kind, where the opening dance was Begin the Beguine, to the eerie strains of a vibrating hand saw. And then there was the incident at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, with Sid and the Christmas Cake…
However, before I relate this tale I should perhaps provide some illuminating context: Firstly, we’re going back to the late 1960’s, around the time Sid rose to be first violin of the Royal Opera House Orchestra; Secondly, the fact that this elevation coincided with my mother and her brother Sidney’s (my family went for a narrow range of names back in the day) infatuation with grand Italian opera; Thirdly, that Sid became a source of complementary tickets for productions of those very works; And finally, that Sid’s non-Jewish wife Edie provided us with a fabulous Christmas cake every December. Thus, the scene is set…
It’s a late December evening, shortly before Christmas at the Royal Opera House, ten-minutes before the curtain is due to rise on a production of Aida, or Tosca, or something along those lines. My mother and Sidney have just settled down into their fifth-row stalls seats, eagerly anticipating the approaching performance when they spy uncle Sid peering over at them from the orchestra pit, presumably from the conductor’s rostrum. As soon as Sid sees they have spotted him, he firmly beckons Sidney to come to him, which he dutifully does. Sid then produces a large box, tied with a ribbon, and hands it over to Sidney. The box turns out not only to be very large, but also very heavy. “It’s from Edie” says Sid to Sidney, “Keep it this way up, it’s a Christmas cake…” and then, without further ado, about turns and disappears into the bowels of the orchestra pit, leaving his suddenly-burdened nephew to negotiate his way back to his seat past a host of bemused fellow opera-goers.
The box was too large to put on the floor, and thus poor, red-faced Sidney had no choice but to sit with it on his lap throughout the evening. By the time opera was finished, his legs had gone to sleep and he could barely stagger to Covent Garden Tube to get the train home. Fortunately, he did get it home though, and in one piece, for Edie’s cake was as delicious as it was enormous.
On a more serious note, it would be remis of me not to mention, that in addition to being an exceptional violinist, and an eccentric, great-uncle Sid was one of the gentlest, kindest and most generous people one could hope to meet.
The picture which heads this little post shows a painting I did of my wife Dido’s mews house in Paddington, in the heart of London – the first home we shared at the outset of our thirty-two years together – and our current home, here on Finca Carmel. The contrast in the two dwellings forms a neat allegory for the rich diversity of our adventures over the past three decades-plus, and thus I thought it would make a fitting image for the milestone we reach this New Year’s Eve.
Like countless millions across the globe however, all the fabulous plans we had made by way of celebration, have been confounded by the new ‘C’ word, and thus delayed until some semblance of normality returns.
In the meantime, things as seemingly mundane as our olive harvest provide comfort and reassurance that much of the essential rhythm of life continues regardless of the actions of viruses and governments.
Wishing everyone reading this piece, a relatively happy New Year, and a much improved, celebration -packed 2021 and beyond!
Another year passes, another Hanukkah arrives. For those unfamiliar with the story of the festival, I explain quite a lot about it here, in last year’s post. The reason it held a particular attraction to me as a child was – apart from the delicious foods, fun rituals and of course, the presents – was that it emanated from a period of history that fascinated me from an early age. So much did the story interest me in fact, that at some point, when I was about fourteen I decided to turn it into a comic strip.
Obsessed as I was with the actual history behind the story, rather than with the traditions and alleged miracles, I was keen for the strip to be as close to the ancient reality as possible. Hence, the “evil Greek soldiers” were less evil Greek, and more, ruthless, professional Macedonian mercenaries; while my “heroic freedom-fighter” Maccabees were more, (equally) ruthless, uncompromising zealots. Moreover, although the comic never made it that deep into the narrative, I intended to portray the Hellenised Jews, as less “treacherous collaborators” and more, worldly, pragmatic rationalists (one of which I would like to think I would have been myself!).
However, as was often the case with my juvenile projects, the initial flame of enthusiasm died out before I’d really got going – in this case, after barely the first two pages.
Nevertheless, it remains fun to look at now, and had I finished it, with its austere red-to-black tonality, it might have emerged as an early example of the graphic novel.
In the meantime, I wish all my Jewish readers a very happy, healthy and peaceful Hannukah, and a very merry Christmas to everyone else!
My recent post on line drawing was so well received that I thought I would follow it up with this look at a set of my more studied drawings from 1996.
The images here will be familiar to some, as they form the basis of one of my most successful and enduring themes, which I returned to many times over the course of decade or more. It all started with a casual photo-shoot on the sunny south terrace of our Spanish home, when my wife Dido (the blonde lady in these pictures) and Lynne, an old ballet pal of hers, performed a variety of impromptu poses for my camera. Mostly, they involved dance (see this related post), but they also acted these three, far more contemplative vignettes.
Unlike line drawing sketches, these take account of light and shade as much as form, giving them a more obvious dramatic content. But, as with line sketching, often, what is left undrawn, is as important to the feel of the picture as what is drawn. In the case of these works, it was my intention that the whiteness of the untouched paper in contrast to the painstakingly executed figures, and the shadows they contain and cast, would accentuate the feeling of the harsh Spanish sun, saturating the tender friendship of the two girls.
All in all, I think they succeed pretty well, and for me at least, remain precious moments captured in lead.
As I pressed the “Publish” button for this post, exactly ten years ago to the day, the hour and the minute, my mother Hannah died. Knowing the exact moment of a loved-one’s death well before it happens is a dubious privilege, which until very recently in human history was the sole preserve of the relatives and friends of those on death row. However, in recent times this situation changed when, in a handful of places in the world, the laws on assisted dying were liberalised.
One such place was the country of Switzerland, which in addition to permitting assisted dying to its own citizens, allowed the setting up of Dignitas, a unique facility, on the outskirts of the city of Zurich, for the use of foreigners.
My mother was diagnosed with terminal stage-4 lung cancer in 2008, and was “given” about two-and-a-half years to live. After her first round of chemotherapy, she contacted the organisation Dignity in Dying to discuss her options for placing the end her life within her own control. Ultimately, as a British citizen, her only option when the time came, was to travel to Zurich.
And the time came in September 2010: The cancer was now spreading throughout her body and she was facing about six months of a slow and increasingly painful death. Rather than take the normal option for her compatriots, of moving into a hospice and relying on palliative care with ever-increasing doses of drugs – or, as mum regarded it, surrendering to the cancer – she decided to “take control away from the cancer, and put it into [her] own hands”.
So, on the 6th of September, accompanied by a companion, but crucially, under her own locomotion, Hannah flew to Switzerland, where four days later, at 11 o’clock Swiss time, she took a fatal draught of pentobarbital.
These are the basic facts of my mother’s passing. This post is not intended as either a vindication or a condemnation of Hannah’s actions, nor is it a discourse on the rights and wrongs of assisted suicide. Moreover, were I ever to be in a similar situation, I have no idea whether or not I would make the same choice. The one observation I will make, is that while I totally respected my mother’s decision, being aware of the exact moment of her suicide added a strange dimension to my sense of grief and loss, even as she left for the airport. Whether or not this particular form of grief and loss is preferable to what I would have gone through watching her slow demise in a hospice bed, I genuinely cannot say. The one great comfort I did have, and continue to have, is that she died in a manner of her choosing and; according to her companion, in a state of peace; and most wonderful of all, with her sharp sense of humour intact until the end, as evidenced by this closing anecdote…
When mum and her companion arrived at the house used by Dignitas, they were met by two nurses and shown into a sitting room. One of the nurses (a male), was exceedingly friendly, and especially chatty, to the point, that when he went off for a few moments to prepare the overdose, Hannah, leaned over to her companion, and whispered, “I don’t envy you having to listen to him for the rest of the day!” This says much about my mother’s indomitable personality, and I hope this small selection of photographs , taken between 1961 and 63, reveals her outward beauty too…
We grow three types of almond here on our finca in southern Spain, including the indigenous (earthy) “fina” , the (scented, sweet) “desmayo” (similar to the Californian nut, and what is typically seen on the shelves of north European and British supermarkets and fruit shops) and (the dry) “marcona“. With summer water so scarce here, Andalusian farmers, as a rule, do not irrigate their almond trees, which on the one hand means lower yields and smaller fruits, but on the other, ensures their fruits are intensely flavoured. All delicious in their different ways, we find that the marcona works best for most cooking purposes.
Before we spent so much time in Spain, I only knew the almond as something seen in the nut bowl at Hanukkah / Christmas time; and in its ground form, as a cake ingredient (my great aunt Fanny’s almond cake was my favourite), and as the famous Jewish party nosh, rozhinkes mit mandlen (raisins and almonds).
However, that all changed drastically, and much for the better once we discovered the local cuisine, here in Andalusia, and throughout the Iberian peninsular, where the humble almond (always known to be a “super-food” by the long-lived locals) is a key constituent of every cooks larder.
Of course, just about everyone around here, with a finca, like us, or just a small patio garden, has at least one almond tree, so that in addition to the ubiquitous sack of stored almonds in the pantry, or the bodega, there’s generally a proliferation of the fresh fruits from mid-July until the end of August. Whereas the older nuts will typically be used for such winter staples as Almond Chicken and Albondigas (meatballs) in Almond Sauce, in summer, the fresh, softer fruits, will be blended with stale bread, garlic, olive oil and spring water to produce, rich-yet refreshing ajo-blanco – garnished with halved moscatel grapes, perhaps the greatest of all chilled soups (commercial “almond milk” – eat your heart out!).
But undoubtedly the simplest of all our regular almond recipes, is also the most moreish and is equally good made with fresh or dried almonds. It even works quite well with the sort of (mostly American – heavily irrigated) almonds one has knocking about in plastic packets in British, European and American kitchen store cupboards. The only thing I would suggest doing differently from my recipe below, is to use a cheap, refined olive oil, rather than the first cold press oil I use. Unless one has a Spanish finca like ours, with our own olives and copious amounts of the finest oil, or is extremely wealthy, the taste benefit of using extra virgin oil over refined olive oil is minimal.
Whatever olive oil you use, if you’ve had a packet of almonds hanging around for too long, this recipe is a simple and delicious way to use them up. Salud y buen provecho!
A fact of the current restrictions upon our normal lives is at once curious, obvious and virtually universal; that being the loss of, and consequent longing for, normal, boring, and even tedious everyday experience. Missing erstwhile unremarkable pleasures of life, like going to the pub, restaurants and concerts is bad enough, but when one starts to get nostalgic over things like hopping on and off buses and even journeys on the tube, it’s apparent that the present regime is really starting to bite.
This nostalgia struck me keenly the other day when I was trawling through slides of old sketchpads dating from the time of my commutes to art school (an incredible forty-plus years ago). And, as an artist’s sketchbook is often a tool for magnifying the seemingly mundane into something more meaningful, it occurred to me that the drawings from those old books might provide a peculiarly apposite reminder, for all its apparent dinginess and dreariness, of the glory of normality…
a PICTORIAL celebration of my WIFE DIDO’S sixtieth birthday*
2020 is a particularly auspicious year for my wife Dido and I, for, not only do we both turn 60 this year, on New Year’s Eve we will have been married for 30 years. As a rule, we don’t pay too much attention to birthdays or anniversaries, but for this rare accretion of events we had for once made some serious celebratory plans. However, Covid-19 has meant that both main birthday plans have been (in my case), and will be (in Dido’s case) put on hold for the duration, to possibly both be enjoyed together with our anniversary – a kind of 150 year grand party.
In the meantime I didn’t feel I could let Dido’s big day pass without some kind of surprise acknowledgement of the 32 of those 60 years I have been privileged to share with her. So, with apologies to any strangers happening upon this site, I am dedicating this post to a series of highly distinctive picture impressions of my remarkable life companion and love…
* Header photo shows Dido approaching the Great Crater during a drive through the Negev Dessert in 2011
My “first career”, MODELLING rubber products and other things…
In an earlier post I wrote about my wife Dido’s work as a model during her time in the ballet. What may be much more surprising for many of my readers and followers, is that I too had a brief career in front of the Hasselblads and Rolleiflex. For the first four or five years of my life, I was an occasional child model. In my case however, unlike my gorgeous wife, it was less to do with my photogenic qualities and more to do with the fact that the photographer in question was my mum’s brother, Sidney Pizan.
While the fact I was a cute baby and toddler (well, it’s true) was undoubtedly helpful, the main advantage for an aspiring commercial photographer based in the highly competitive world of 1960’s London advertising, was the fact my services came for free! The pictures here offer a record of what was in effect, my first career, and looking back at some of them now raises a whole gamut of emotions for reasons explained in the captions…