My Melancholy At ER
Saturday, December 17, 2011
Saturday was a day that promised much. We were having our daughter Hilary and her two daughters Rebecca and Lauren for dinner. We had also invited our friend Paul Leisz and his girl, Amy. The plan was to watch Buster Keaton’s The General after dinner. For dinner I prepared my special chicken paprika and Rosemary and jointly worked on two pies (one apple laced with Calvados, the other a coconut meringue) from scratch. Rosemary insisted not only on a salad, shredded carrot with green onions and celery but snap peas.
Somehow we burned the chicken, the snap peas were far too uncooked and cold, the rice was not sufficient and the pies were a disaster. Even though we had followed my mother’s The Joy of Cooking recipe to the letter the pie crust needed (but we did not resort to it) a sabre saw for slicing while the coconut cream was as runny as can be.
But it was not all lost. I went to the living room to look through my desk drawer to find my Buster Keaton. I had forgotten that I had moved my computer chair to the living room as we did not have enough chairs. I sat down. There was no chair there.
If fell hard, and the back of my head hit the very hard corner of our Chickering baby grand piano. I did not faint by the pain was electric and intense. I screamed. I have screamed wolf so many times in my life that my wife ignored it but both Hilary and my friend Paul came to the rescue. Paul has taken various first aid courses so he was in control. He instructed Rosemary to bring towels to absorb the blood that was copiously pouring out of the back of my head. He made me carefully sit up and sit down. Rebecca kept saying she was going to call 911. I did my best to disuade her and she did not call. The blood stopped. We dropped off the girls and our daughter (Rosemary was driving) on our way to emergency. An efficient and very tall young doctor (apparently a master of the John Havlicek hook shot) was just as good at sewing me up, three stitches, and he sent me home.
Because a couple of years ago I frequented the emergency ward to look on my friend Abraham Rogatnick and this year I took my daughter Hilary a couple of times for undisclosed problems in the Flanders regions of her body I have come to recognize some of the faces of the people who work in emergency. One is a doctor with white hair and moustache who is the very look of a walking Rock of Gibraltar, all stability and coolness. I have seen those faces many times, it seems.
I wrote here
about my idea of the distillation of the portrait. I would love to do the same with these people. In the past I would have gone to Malcolm Parry at Vancouver Magazine with the idea. Or I might have called up Charles Campbell then editor of the Georgia Straight. Or I might have e-mailed Patricia Graham, until recently the Editor-in-Chief at the Vancouver Sun. Those people are gone as is the possibility that my idea would ever see the light of day.
My head is just fine but the depression I feel has nothing to do with my fall but with my perception of a decline of the media in our city and my inability now to be able to report on what I think is an interesting visual story.
Goh's The Nutcracker - Pure Magic - But No Rabbits!
Friday, December 16, 2011
|Recently discovered ambrotype of Tchaikovsky as a young man.
Courtesy of Dnepropetrovsk Museum Of Music
I have a rule about ballet. This is that any ballet that features people within the ballet sitting down to watch others dance is a ballet to avoid. This rule of mine has not prevented me from seeing many (as in many) productions of The Nutcracker
. Consider that as the father of two girls and their offspring, two girls, again, I have been unduly pressed.
Goh Ballet’s version which my wife and I saw last night on its opening night at The Centre In Vancouver For Performing Arts, circumvented this rather nicely by having the individual dances of the second act happen without Clara watching them. The production was one hour and fifty minutes long and it seemed a lot faster. There was not one moment where I might have yawned with boredom as a product of extreme familiarity with the goings on.
But then there is a feature of The Nutcracker that few people ever mention. And that is that the music was composed by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. And even fewer, who might have suffered through extremely tedious and long versions of the Christmas chestnut, would have known that it was premiered December 18, 1892 in St. Petersburg, on a double bill (!!) with the composer’s opera Iolanta
. Let us hope that Iolanta herself was slim and sang like the goddesses.
My first awareness with The Nutcracker happened in 1972 when a Cuban friend of mine sold me an Acoustic Research amplifier in Mexico City. My friend Jorge told me, “To really listen properly to a good sound system you need a composition with lots of bells and whistles and gongs. So I have brought you my copy of Tchaikovsky’s Suite, The Nutcracker.”
It was some 8 or 9 years ago that I sat down at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre with the anticipation of seeing my heroine Evely Hart dance in Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet
. I was reading my program when I noticed an insert that informed me that since Hart’s partner was sick that night she was not going to dance and someone else would take her place. I left, right then and there, in a huff. A couple of blocks away I stopped to think, “Alex, there is a very good orchestra back there about to play the wonderful music of Prokofiev. What are you doing going home? You are an idiot.” I promptly returned to enjoy the music and the ballet. My enjoyment did not prevent me from returning a few days later to see Evelyn Hart.
I feel that The Nutcracker can be seen as good music with a ballet or as a good ballet with music. Either way, repeated viewings will always reveal something fresh.
Originally I was to attend last night’s performance with my 9 year-old granddaughter Lauren. But she had to attend the last day of her Russian gymnastics class and her mother told me she absolutely had to attend her last class. I had planned to see the Goh Nutcraker through her eyes. At first I was disappointed but my wife Rosemary rose to the occasion and enjoyed the efficient briskness of this production as well as seeing so many young people dance who in other productions are usually more seasoned ballet dancers.
The Goh ballet dancers were professional and I never noted any shortcomings. The little ones never got confused and danced expertly. The Goh seems to have a very long bench as each evening’s Clara (there are four performances) is a different one.
Besides the obvious charms of Michele Wiles (the Sugarplum Fairy) and Cory Stearns (the Cavalier Prince) both principal dancers with the American Ballet Theatre, the real star of this Nutcracker is the strong performance of Damien Carriere. He plays Dr. Drosselmeyer, a very handsome Dr. and perhaps more so with a sexy eye patch. What lurks beneath his GUM Department Store Hathaway shirt?
Since Damien Carriere is a magician, illusionist and actor, his role is what keeps this Nutcracker going in a most believable way. His magic acts are just that and from beginning to end, without having to pull rabbits from hats he makes sure there is no dilly dallying in this production!
We were sitting next to my English friend (watch for his name!) Graham Walmsley who was there with his 6-year-old granddaughter Lucy. Both were delighted but Walmsley, that stiff-upper-lip kind of guy could not understand the constant clapping that seemed to drown out the beautiful music.
In the end I have to mention with a generous sprinkling of snobbishness that the real treat was the music and more so as it was played by my friends of the Vancouver Opera Orchestra and directed by that Hungarian Leslie Dala. Many of these musicians are members of my favourite contemporary music orchestra, The Turning Point Ensemble. These guys can really play. I marveled at those horns and trombones and that rare item the Tchaikovsky popularized, the celeste, an instrument that in but a few seconds can transform a sunny day into a dreamy wonderland of snow. And I did hear that bass clarinet!
As Rosemary and I were approaching our parked car I noticed the smile of a man as he was about to exit a back alley. It was Jeremy Berkman, the orchestra’s trombone player. I asked him to stop and told him, “ Please send my by tonight a paragraph on the music of The Nutcracker.” He did:
Hey Alex, here it goes>
I was joking with Jim Littleford, the trumpet player and contractor for the Vancouver Opera Orchestra (the members of the orchestra performed in the pit for Goh Ballet's Nutcracker) this evening- that at the 7:30pm downbeat he shouldn't worry if we were missing anyone who had mistakenly thought the event started at 8pm as long as he could see the harpist and bass clarinetist were in the pit. My tongue was obviously firmly in cheek, but it is often the fleeting musical surprises that bring magic to a score - and for me in the Nutcracker it is the descending bass clarinet lines - and, of course, the extended harp cadenza. The beauty of these instruments can't really be appreciated on recording like they can with all the overtones ringing into the hall in live performance. I wish I could see the dancing from 15' down below in the pit, but I don't have a periscope! I know there is great dancing and hundreds of very cute kids filling the stage, but it is playing such a rich musical score that both sonically and visually fills my imagination.
Hope this works for you :)
Have a great holidays!!!
Jeremy Berkman, Trombonist and Co-Artistic Director
Turning Point Ensemble
The Sugar Plum Fairy and Crepes
Coins, Toasters and Toastmasters
Thursday, December 15, 2011
In 1965 my friend John Sullivan and I were both doing our military service in Buenos Aires. He was in the army and I was in the navy. Because of our English we both had semi-cushy jobs as translators - he in the Ministry of War, me with the Senior US Naval Advisory Group.
We had our tricks to work less. At the time I was staying at John’s house in Belgrano so we both took the train to the massive Retiro Station downtown. We had befriended the Jefe de Plataforma so he would issue us a couple of official documents attesting that our train had arrived 45 minutes late. We would then go to the plush, polished-wood-everywhere, circa 1930, English style restaurant (very much like the one in Scorsese’s Hugo
. Waiters in pristine uniforms would serve us cafes con leche
with unsalted butter and jam. Tostadas are the Argentine version of toast. Huge, almost a foot wide loafs are sliced and then in half again. These slices of toast, without their crusts occupied a huge dinner plate. We would then plunge them into our cafes con leches. By the time we each arrived at our offices with document in hand there was nothing that anybody could do to punish us for our lateness.
Just the other day I was thinking of the great Brazilan star forward, Tostão (Eduardo Gonçalves de Andrade) who played in the early 70s for the Brazilian National Soccer Team. Unlike Pelé, Tostão was very white so I had my suspicion that his nickname had something to do with the joke that the pale one was lightly toasted. But that was not the case, I have recently discovered. The meaning of the word is a little coin or exactly a tenth of a Cruzeiro. It seems that as a young boy in primary school he scored 45 goals in one game! The goals came in like a shower of coins and is my guess for the origin of his nickname.
Some ten years ago I met local businessman John O’Sullivan through the business magazine Equity. O’Sullivan was championing then and now a special seismic gas valve,. It was ti be installed where the city gas line connects to your house and during an earthquake the valve will automatically shut off your gas using a simple device of a ball bearing that falls (and blocks the access of gas) on your line with any shake. At the time O’Sullivan was having problems with BC Hydro/Gas convincing them at the relative economy of the device. The problem, if I remember well, is that the slightest jolt would render the pilot light of your home furnace inoperative until Hydro showed up.
O’Sullivan’s talent was that of being a persuasive speaker. In fact he is one of our city’s best Toastmasters.
I remember that some 20 years ago I went to Kyuquot on the northern coast of Vancouver Island. It was a small fishing village that occupied a small island. It was an Native Canadian Reserve and I was there for a weekend to teach photography for Emily Carr’s Outreach Program. The island had no electric power except for very noisy generators that were turned on mid morning. This meant that for breakfast I toasted my bread on the gas stove. Anybody who has ever tried this will know that there is a peculiar (some like it, some not) taste and smell to gas-upped toast! When I was toasting my bread it brought memories of the process in our Buenos Aires kitchen in the late 40s. We had prepared our breakfast bread in the same way until my father arrived one day with one of those toasters that had two hinged doors on either side. To toast bread you could only do one side of the bread at the time. But the bread did not have that smell or taste of the previously gassed toast.
It was not until we arrived in Mexico City in 1953 that my mother bought a Toastmaster toaster model 1947 made in Elgin, Illinois. This was the supreme standard of the day and it lasted with us well into the late 60s when I cannot remember how it disappeared. I stupidly ruined its shiny chrome finish by cleaning it with scouring powder and I tested it often by doing the prohibited toasting of previously well buttered bread. If you have never tried this delicacy I recommend it!
In Mexico I had to modify my Argentine Spanish. Tostadas, Argentine for toast, were fried tortillas. Toast was pan tostado. My fave was of course made from Pan Bimbo (¡Bimbo, pan Bimbo, que delicioso es Bimbo!). It was about then that I found out that dunking buttered toast in strong tea in some way enhance the taste of tea. Even now I sometimes put a bit of butter in my tea. It seems that the Tibetans have known of this for centuries.
It was in the early 70s that Rosemary and I would visit my Tía Fermina who had acquired from the US a toaster oven. We were jealous but enjoyed the crackers she would place in her toaster oven with Mexican Chihuahua or Oaxaca cheese.
When we arrived in Vancouver, we were able to finally get that toaster oven. I rapidly ruined the chrome finish of that one! I do not remember why it is that we no longer have one. I guess our oven is very efficient and we can place crackers with cheese of bread with cheese and do it efficiently. When I broil bread with my favourite German Gruyere type cheese I remember that Captain Aubrey and Doctor have their very own toasted cheese prepared by Killick, (Killick! Killick, there!” “Which I’m bringing the toasted cheese, ain’t I?”)on board the HMS Surprise before playing their violin and 'cello.
Last Thursday my friend John Lekich and I were invited for drinks at the Wedgewood Hotel. We met up with five very beautiful women (the one handsome man does not count here), all were blondes except for a redhead. One was a most interesting dental hygienist who resembled a heavy metal version of the Modernettes’s Mary-Jo Kopechne. The redhead gave me her card on which I read the enigmatic name, Divine Miss Jones. We would have lingered as the company was pleasant and very easy to the eye. But I had to leave. I had a romantic date with my wife to buy a toaster.
For close to 15 years my Rosemary and I have indulged in a daily ritual/routine of breakfast in bed. We alternate the making of the breakfast. We have a large and fine Filipino wicker tray. Besides our tea (me) coffee (she) and juice there is the toast. She has it with jam or honey and I have mine plain with unsalted butter. We alternate reading the NY Times and the Vancouver Sun, both made from dead trees.
Since the ritual began we have been plagued by bad toasters that either burned the toast or simply warmed the bread. And worst of all it took a lot of time in the process. I researched the subject and located a T-fal two toast toaster rated at 1200 watts and advertising as toasting in 40% of the usual time. In the picture here you can see the result. The upper English muffin took four minutes and the lower one 7.
John Lekich and I left the company of the women at the Wedgewood. I took John home and from there I picked up Rosemary and we both went to our romantic date at Canadian Tire where we bought our, we hope, our final and ultimate toaster.
|John O'Sullivan's valve
I have never been able to locate my old friend John Sullivan but John O’Sullivan can still be found here
. And he is still selling his miracle valve.
Addendum: In 1967 I was complaining to my cousin Roberto Miranda in Mexico City that I would never be able to become a photographer as I had no darkroom. He asked me, "What do you need?" I answered with a long list. He produced from his wallet an American Express Card and told me, "Let's go an buy it." Roberto had a good salary as he was the rep for T-fal non stick frying pans in the city. It was due to my cousin that I became the photographer that I am today.
Wednesday, December 14, 2011
It was not too long; it seems that I physically through my very good extra large fax machine out my living room in frustrated anger. Since then all my cameras have been rendered obsolete and my students, not suspecting I still shoot Ektrachrome and Ilford FP-4, cannot believe it when I tell them that the only digital device in my possession is a very good scanner and my iPhone 3G. The latter I love and I love the low tech look of its pictures which cannot match that of a halfway decent digital point and shoot. Buying such a device would render my enjoyment of the 3G as pointless and stupid. So I stick to my film guns and instruct my students on how best to use that wonderful good camera feature which is custom white balance. These students of mine are able to display the exquisite unearthly colour of a readhead’s skin without affecting the redness of their hair. These students of mine can simultaneously switch from daylight, to tungsten to a custom white balance while shooting in a studio with flash. I am jealous of their ability but still appreciate the constraints (a favourite word of my friend George Bowering) that film imposes on my shooting style.
We are already in a state of affairs where the difference between a computer monitor and TV set has blurred and soon the difference will disappear completely.
iPhone 4S’s Siri will eventually become a reality with all our computers. Much like in the original Star Treck, will tell my computer (shall I call her Estella?), “Go to Photoshop 15 and remove all the blemishes on my granddaughter’s skin. Please lighten her eyes and blur out the background more.” Better still a Telus Siri will render my terrible Telus remote obsolete and I will ask,” Tel-us Siri what’s showing at TCM?” A mellow voice will answer.
It was a few days ago, December 6 to be exact that the NY Times had a very special Tuesday Science Times dedicated to the theme: The Future of Computing.
I have never been quite tempted to read novelist Neal Stephenson but I read an interesting interview made by John Schwarz. When asked about the future of computing one of his answers intrigued me:
What I am kind of hoping is that this is just kind of a pause, while we assimilate this gigantic new thing, ubiquitous computing, and the Internet. And that at some point we’ll turn around and say, “Well that was interesting – we have a whole new set of tools and capabilities that we didn’t have before the whole computer/Internet thing came along.”
And then there is the amazing clincher:
He said people should say,” Now let’s get back to work doing interesting and useful things.”
That clincher left me thinking in amazement of how well put it is in its simplicity.
Two years ago I left my studio
. Today I passed by the building on Robson and Granville. It is all boarded up for a soon demolition. The agony I felt two years ago is but a memory and I have adjusted to not having a studio. I use my living room/studio quite well with the added advantage that I can serve my subjects good tea in the dining room!
Up until now I have been securing monthly work that pays to the minimum that I must make to keep our bank account more or less balanced. What I must do is to take more pictures. I can no longer generate ideas that I can sell to magazines and newspapers of old. They have either disappeared or they simply do not listen to my voice of perceived obsolescence. It is frustrating but I must simply do more personal projects just to prove to myself that I am still as good if not better than I was when the impetuousness of youth made me brag that I was the best!
Meanwhile I hope that Stephenson is right and we will soon be able to work on useful and interesting things.
In Praise Of Innacuracy
Tuesday, December 13, 2011
In my photography I have always felt pride in displaying portraits that reflect my attitude of showing people as they are in as accurate a way as possible. I have written about recently here
In the darkroom when I print my b+w negatives, the nature of darkroom work prevents me from going over the top in correcting my subjects’ perceived flaws. I always resort to light and shadow to minimize such flaws.
But since so much of what you may see here in my blog is the result of an efficient relationship between two worlds, the digital one (I use an Epson V700 scanner) and that of film, there is the temptation of using Photoshop to place penguins in the Arctic and polar bears in McMurdo Sound. People do just that because like the old dog, they can. Photoshop can remove rings under eyes and smooth skin to make it as radiant as Catherine Deneuve in her prime. Anybody who has ever closely looked at opera programs will have noticed that divas look at least 10 years younger in the pictures. In many cases that is a fact!
I try to use Photoshop sparingly and when I have to have good prints or giclées made I go to Grant Simmons at DISC who has a light touch and you never know from looking at his magnificent prints that his hand has been there.
But we photographers have all been lured by the special effects that have been usually the result of an unforeseen accident or simply the result of doing the wrong thing. Thus unknowingly sending a roll of slide film to be processed as a colour negative brought us what is now called cross-processing. That effect is mimicked by the best photo corrections suites including Photoshop.
Some months ago a model friend of mine told me she had 50 rolls of old film in her fridge. “Do you want it?” she asked me. I was reluctant to take up her offer as I knew that it would probably be very old and terrible film. It was! It was President’s Choice, No-Name 800 ISO colour negative film in 24 exposure rolls. I have since found out that the film, no longer made, was manufactured by Fuji.
What does this film produce? When I scan it I have opted to use the color restoration feature of my Epson. It warms up the usually greenish/cyan/blue tint of old film. The result is a picture that looks like badly restored faded Technicolor. And I absolutely love it! Back in July when my wife, two granddaughters and I drove our Malibu to south Texas my very favourite pictures are the ones taken with No-Name. It is absolutely crazy to take pictures in beautiful sunny days with an 800 ISO film. And yet…
I am down to about 8 rolls and I am keeping it for important projects. Here is a portrait of Lauren, 9, which I took back in August in our garden without my usual flash softbox. I attempted to colour correct the picture marginally. You will note that her hair at the top is greenish. If I attempt to make it less green it will make her face more red. This is called a colour shift and nothing can really be done (except maybe Grant Simmons at DISC). I love it as it is. I have modified the photograph by using the dodging tool of Photoshop to lighten the iris of Lauren’s eyes. The result for me is a striking photograph/portrait that is not in the least accurate. So much for my almost lifelong conviction.
Hugo & The Exhilaration Of A Story Well Told
Monday, December 12, 2011
A few weeks ago I took my granddaughters and wife to see Martin Scorsese’s Hugo
. We saw it in 3-D downtown. We saw it in my least favourite location which is the Scotiabank Theatre. From the moment you enter this place and note the uniforms of the employees which resemble a slightly upscale MadDonald’s you know that the experience will be less than pleasant. The smell of food, particularly pop-corn, French fries and hamburgers is enough to make me feel like not eating anything.
When you sit down you are bombarded with ads with but a few seconds between them. Silence is to be avoided at all costs. Every one of the ads finishes with, “Enjoy the show.” It reminds me of watching so many young people unable to sit still for even a minute without checking the screens of their digital wonder phones. Any space between any even has to be filled with some sort of activity or sound.
This less that stellar experience reminds me of my friend in Memphis who refuses to go to the movies because they don’t serve martinis.
Once you eyes and ears are assaulted with the clips of blockbusters to come and you are left dazed, you can almost settle to watch the movie.
From here on, Hugo was a delight and I would say that the 3-D experience is a good one.
I can remember looking at the faces of the people as the lights turned on in what seems to be so long ago at the Stanley where I had taken my two daughters to see Star Wars. They were all wowed. All had smiles.
The exhilaration of Hugo to me was a bit beyond that. It felt like watching Douglas Fairbanks Jr play twins in the Corsican Brothers.
I saw it as a boy of 8 or 9. I was mesmerized by the fact that when one suffered the twin did too even if he were somewhere else. There is a vision in my head of Fairbanks with a smile on his face on his fast galloping horse.
It was the kind of film that when as soon as I arrived home I took out my wooden sword and ran around swinging it and slashing it in the garden. There was that wonder of discovery in Hugo. But there was more. Without any announcement, Scorsese sneaks in stop motion is done. Stop motion was invented in the 19th century by Georges Méliès, played by Ben Kingsley in Hugo and few would know that the technique is particularly important in the sequels to Star Wars.
As I tell many of my friends, Hugo, the film contains a couple of kisses in the cheek, one kiss in the lips, no cleavage, no sex, no real violence and any deaths seen are purely accidental. And yet by today’s standards such a film should be laughed at. But it entertained both my granddaughter, 9 and 14 without boring in the least the two accompanying adults.
My friend Ian Bateson says that the most important talent in the 21st century is a talent that is not in any danger of becoming obsolete. This is the talent for telling a story. Scorsese’s Hugo, based on the beautiful book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret
by Brian Selznick and with screenplay by John Logan satisfied all of us because it indeed tells a story in which the special effects, as wonderful as they may be (and they are) are secondary to the story.
There are all sorts of hidden stories within the stories. The little boy Hugo has a dream in which a train is unable to stop and smashes through the end of the platform, through the massive entrance to the train station and out the station’s elevated windows. This indeed happened at the Gare Montparnasse in 1895.
I was lucky to photograph director Martin Scorsese quite a few years ago and I would have never suspected that he had within him that talent to tell a story that would satisfy us all and leave us in wonder.
Mazapán, Marzipan - Not Christmas Without It
Sunday, December 11, 2011
|Toledo by the Tagus, 1985
Our guide to our family, Rosemary and our two teenager daughters Ale and Hilary, trip to Spain in 1985 was almost a success because of our constant guide and companion, James A. Michener’s 1968 thick book on Spain, Iberia. If it was not all a complete success is that I still did not know that you don’t take teenagers to museums and galleries without some sort of carrot to entice them. All they really wanted to do was to make eyes to the handsome bellboys of the hotels, particularly those in our Madrid hotel. And then they wanted to go shopping. Art, history and the beautiful Spanish landscape was of no interest to them.
We did manage to arrive to one of the most beautiful cities in the world. That is Toledo. I was amazed to see one late evening from a vantage point similar to that of El Greco’s that his colours, deep purples and blues, in his famous landscape of Toledo by the River Tagus was not all his imagination.
Since I have always been a fan of good mazapán
(Spanish meaning bread dough, but our name for marzipan) I took note of Michener’s advice and we visited Rodrigo Martínez’s marzipan factory. I bought several boxes including some where the marzipans were shaped like different kinds of bread of the sweet kind.
Until a few years ago I could purchase in Vancouver El Almendro (the almond tree) marzipans from Spain. This is no more and I must content myself with the German kind which Mr. Rodrigo Martínez would not approve for its too generous sugar content and the fact that the almond side of it contains pits not all from the almond but from the apricot. This is sometimes called persipan.
|Oebel Christmas Stollen
Christmas would never be Christmas to a Latin without that marzipan. This year the German variety will have to do. But I plan to make my enquiries and see if I can order some of the real stuff from Toledo well in advance to next year’s Christmas.
Whenever I do eat good marzipan it automatically transports me to that magical landscape we saw in 1985 and I feel content.
|From Paris to Cadiz
Peter Owen Limited 1958
As we entered the town, Toledo won our hearts by its very atmosphere, perhaps more impressive by night than by day. As some consolation for the fatigues of the day, God vouchsafed us a warm clear night such as he gives to the countries He loves. In the calm limpid clarity we could see a great gateway, a road running along the flank of a mountain, and at its summit an irregular outline of roof-tops and steeples pointing their arrows to the skies, while in the darkness that girdled the mountain we could hear, leaping and roaring over its rocky bed, that same Tagus we had seen flowing so peacfully through the plain.
From Paris to Cadiz, Alexandre Dumas, translation by A.E. Murch
From James A. Michener's Iberia:
Right across the street, at Calle de Santo Tomé, 5, stood an element of the tourist industry which had always fascinated me, the marzipan factory of Rodrigo Martínez, who ran the big retail shop on the Zocodover where trays of marzipan in various shapes have seduced generations of travellers. In Spain this delicacy is called mazapán and has many distinctive qualities which differentiate it from brands sold elsewhere in the world. Señor Martínez was a small, conservative man in his fifties, cautious in all he did and said, and quite unable to understand why a stranger would be interested in anything so Spanish as a mazapán factory. Gingerly, as if I were a commercial spy, he released one bit of information after another in what was one of the most painstaking interviews I have ever conducted.
‘If it weren’t for the oil contained in the seed kernel of the almonds,’ he began in the middle, ‘mazapán’ would last indefinitely, like the dried meat they chop up in northern countries.’ I must have shown my bewilderment as such a beginning, for he added slowly, ‘You’re probably like all other strangers and think that we get our almonds from Andalucía in the south. But we don’t. The almonds that do grow down there aren’t very good. We get ours from orchards along the Mediterranean coast. South of Valencia. Some of the best almonds in the world and to my taste much better than those grown in Arab countries. More consistent. Almonds and oranges grow in the same kind of soil and the same climate, so they compete.’
He must have concluded that that was all I needed to know about mazapán because he stopped. After some moments of silence he added cautiously, ‘If you did want to make mazapán you’d get the best almonds you could find and dip them in boiling water, then run them through this friction machine, which scrapes off the skin. Look at that pile of skins. It has no commercial use whatever, doesn’t even burn well. When the almonds are clean and shining white you move them over to this machine, but be careful to set the grinding wheels fairly far apart. Into the hopper you put one part almonds, one part cane sugar, and this machine breaks the almonds into pieces and mixes the sugar with them. Almonds cost about eighty-five cents a pound and sugar about ten cents a pound, so you can see that there’s a great temptation to put in a lot of sugar and a little almond, but that makes wretched mazapán. Watch out for the man who puts in less than half almonds. You now throw the whole mass back into the grinder, but this time you set the wheels very close together, so that the almonds are pulverized. Then you press the paste into forms and bake it in a moderate oven for fifteen minutes, take it out, paint it with a glaze of water and sugar and finish it off for another ten minutes to give that lovely brownish crust. That’s the best mazapán you can get in the world.’
Señor Martínez was still suspicious, but he asked softly, ‘Would you care to see what we do for Christmas?’ I tried to show the enthusiasm I was feeling, and he brought down from a high shelf a set of empty circular boxes covered with bright decorations. ‘Into the round boxes we coil long lengths of mazapán made into the shape of eels. They have scales of sugar, eyes of candy, and are filled with crystallized cherries, candied sweet potato, apricot jam and sweetened egg yolks. This big box sells for about four dollars, and lots of children think that the thing inside is a real serpent, but of course it’s only mazapán. I supply stores all over Spain and some in América del Norte, too.’
I said that I was especially fond of marzipan and frequently bought small samples in America, at which his face took the glazed look that overtakes a Frenchman when you praise California wine. ‘I’m afraid that in América del Norte you’ve never tasted real mazapán. Friends have sent me samples and it’s mostly sugar. Very bad. But wait a minute. In Mexico City there’s a man who learned how to make mazapán here in Toledo. During the Crusade [Spanish Civil War] he was on the other side, and when peace came he didn’t want to live in Spain any longer, so he went to Mexico.’ He paused, evidently remembering his long-absent friend, exiled from Toledo by the Civil War. I have heard some very good things about the quality of mazapán he’s making in Mexico, but I’m sure you don’t get any of it in New York.’
The interview had ended, and I was about to leave when I saw a sign which read: ‘Exquisite paste for making the classic almond soup, in packages of any weight, eighty-seven cents a pound.’ ‘Is that how you make almond soup?’ I asked with some excitement. ‘Do you know our great almond soup?’ he asked, his face brightening. ‘I was introduced to it the other day. Best soup I ever tasted. Like angel wings.’ He became positively animated and said, ‘Even better, We make a paste…’ as if he could not believe my sincerity, he asked, ‘Do you really like almond soup? Norteamericanos don’t usually like it. It’s the French who know something good when they taste it.’ I assured Señor Martínez that from the first moment I had tasted this delicious soup, fragrant and heavy with flavour, I had delighted in it. ‘The first bowlful they gave me had a rose petal floating in it. One rose petal deep red against snowy white.’ He realized I knew what I was talking about and said, ‘We don’t use rose petals much anymore. But we make this paste. You take two hundred grams of the paste and one liter of very cold rich milk. You add a little handful of sweet buscuits well flavoured and a small touch of carnela.’ I asked him what carnela was, thinking he must mean caramelo. No, he meant carnela. Everybody knew what carnela was, but my dictionary didn’t give the word so I didn’t find out. ‘You must put these together and beat them thoroughly. Then serve ice-cold…of it’s Christmas, when we use almond soup lot, you can heat it. Like our sign says, it’s classic.
As we talked we were surrounded by trays full of marzipan, some plain some shaped in little cups and filled with apricot jam, and now Don Rodrigo offered me samples, delighted to have found someone who appreciated his art. As I ate he said, ‘After the battle of Navas de Tolosa in the year 1212 there was a famine in many parts of Spain, so the monks of San Clemente convent here in Toledo, developed the secret upon which our industry is founded. How to crush almonds so they will stay good to eat four or five months. We sent our paste throughout Spain and that’s how Toledo became famous for this delicacy. The secret? Well when I was telling you how to make mazapán ….the wheels and the sugar and the hot water….well, I didn’t tell you everything.’
Much later, when I happened to have a bowl of almond soup in Madrid, the host sprinkled it with cinnamon. ‘Canela, he said. ‘The final touch.’
From Iberia by James A. Michener, 1968