Thursday's Child: Pergamon Museum, Berlin

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Museum Island. That’s the kind of phrase that makes my culture-geek heart sing. “Museum Island” appeals to me in the same way “secret clubhouse” did when I was ten.

Museum Island is located in the middle of Berlin, connected to the mainland on either shore by a series of short bridges. It’s home to five museums, settled side by side like a bookcase of culture. Given the opportunity, I could have visited every one of them. But mindful of a short time in a fabulous city (and a husband who perhaps wanted to do a few other things in Berlin), I settled on the two I longed most to see, the Pergamon and the Neues.

This week I’ll be writing about what we saw in the Pergamon Museum. I was so excited to see this collection that I ordered tickets online about a minute after I’d bought our flights. This was complicated by the fact that the website was in German, a language which I do not speak. Every stage of the ticket purchase (and there were many stages) had to be processed through Google Translate, so I knew I was buying tickets to see the exhibits, and not, for example, the exhibits themselves.

The challenge paid off amply. The majesty of these exhibits was undeniable, and their sense of poetry was breathtaking. Every one of them had a story to tell:

The Ishtar Gate is one of the most magnificent things I have seen, anywhere. It was built by King Nebuchadnezzar as one of the gates to the city-state of Babylon, and was named after the goddess Ishtar, the Mesopotamian goddess of love. The gates were erected in 575 BCE to impress and intimidate visitors to the city, and no doubt they did both. Nebuchadnezzar was intent on beautifying Babylon, and also commissioned the Hanging Gardens, one of the seven Ancient Wonders of the World. The Ishtar Gate was originally one of the seven wonders, but was later replaced by the Lighthouse of Alexandria.

The gate on display is actually the smaller, front part at nearly 50 feet high. The taller rear portion was too large to display and remains in storage.

Almost as impressive as the Ishtar Gate is the Processional Way. This work of art spanned the avenue that led to the Ishtar Gate and is estimated to have been half a mile long, with walls up to 50 feet high. The Babylonian New Year’s celebration ran along this corridor, as statues of different deities were carried. The lions that decorated the Processional Way were thought to symbolize power and royalty.

The Market Gate of Miletus is the largest reconstruction in any museum in the world. It is believed to have been built in the second century in what is now Turkey, under Roman Emperor Hadrian. Miletus was known for its philosophers and artists, and at that time was an important port city. The gate was destroyed in an earthquake in the tenth or eleventh century, and only recently restored for display. Over 50 feet tall, the marble gate bears columns and is decorated with friezes and inscriptions.

The mosaic floor is also from Miletus, and features tales of Orpheus.

The Aleppo Room is part of a home that was located in Aleppo, Syria. Between the years 1600 and 1603, a wealthy Christian citizen commissioned craftsmen to design this entrance to his house. It includes Christian themes from the old and new testaments, as well as Persian secular themes and Islamic motifs. The impression is of a serene coexistence of various cultures and religions.

Qasr Mshatta was a winter palace in Jordan, built in the eighth century. The Mshatta Façade, on display at the Pergamon Museum, was the most ornate part of these palace walls. At sixteen feet high, the façade wraps around the display room in two distinct parts: those that decorated the secular parts of the palace display carved animals and other motifs; those that are believed to have been nearest the mosque bear rosettes and designs only, because sacred Islamic art prohibits representing living humans or animals.

Next week, I’ll write about what I saw in the Neues Museum.

Morning Glory

Sunday, August 24, 2014
I've written before about our 25 year friendship with the Jay family. Garth and Andrew started working together at Heinz Canada in 1989. His wife Colleen and I soon met, and hit it off immediately.

We have a long shared history. Garth was master of ceremonies at our wedding. We travelled to New York with them in March, 1994, when I was pregnant with our oldest daughter. Our family travelled to China to visit them in 2008, when Colleen was posted there for three years. Within Canada, we've travelled back and forth to each others' houses and cottages.

But we've never had a visit like we did on Monday.

The Jays have lived in Cincinnati, China and Switzerland over the past fourteen years, but they come back to Canada for the summer and at Christmas, and they always generously invite us to their cottage. But this summer, it just wasn't going to work. Our girls were working at camp from mid-June until the end of August, and the Jays were fitting the cottage in between trips to Halifax, Cincinnati, Brazil, and Panama. Garth and I did our best to match up our calendars, with no luck.

Then in the final email, Garth said, "Well, it looks like the only way we can work in a visit is if I swing by after I drop Colleen off at the airport on the 18th. Ha! Just kidding - I'm dropping her off at 5 a.m."

To which I responded, "We'll host you, as long as I can blog about it."

Given that you're reading this, you can probably guess his answer. His girls were good sports, and they all decided to come along, as long as they could go swimming.

And in the interests of complete disclosure, I have to tell you that it's the first time I've invited guests for 5:30 a.m, and had them show up early. (5:28, if you're counting.)

We swam, we ate, we talked. We played pool games, we laughed. We did all of this super-quietly, because presumably our neighbours were still asleep.

Garth's favourite sentences start with, "Do you want to have a contest…?" which is how pictures like this happen:

(Garth was a willing participant in this photo, and was conscious both before and after it was taken.)

We had a wonderful time, and the only disappointment was the absence of three family members - Colleen, who was en route to a meeting, and our girls. I've promised everyone that the next time we get together before the sun is up, no one will have a silly excuse like "I'm working."

So what do you serve your guests for a really early meal? Anything you can prepare in advance. I tried two new recipes: granola, which I made the afternoon before; and a breakfast casserole, which I assembled the night before and put in the oven as soon as I got up on Monday. I loved them both, and will definitely make them again.

Just not at 5:28 a.m.

Homemade Granola
(from Ina Garten; I halved her recipe and still got a huge batch, but if you're serving a crowd, see her original recipe.)

2 cups old-fashioned rolled oats
1 cup sweetened shredded coconut
1 cup sliced almonds
3/8 cup vegetable oil
1/4 cup good honey
3/4 cup small diced dried apricots
1/2 cup small-diced dried figs
1/2 cup dried cherries
1/2 cup raisins or dried cranberries
1/2 cup roasted, unsalted cashews

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Toss oats, coconut, and almonds together in a large bowl. Whisk together the oil and honey in a small bowl. Pour liquids over the oat mixture and stir until all the oats and nuts are coated. Pour onto a 13” x 18” sheet pan. Bake, stirring occasionally with a spatula, until the mixture turns a nice, even golden brown, 25 - 30 minutes.

Remove the granola from the oven and let cool, stirring occasionally. Add the apricots, figs, cherries, raisins and cashews. Store the cooled granola in an airtight container.

Asparagus and Gouda Bread Pudding
(from Canadian Living)

1 Tbsp butter
1 bunch asparagus (approximately 1 pound), cut in 1" pieces
3 shallots, thinly sliced
10 cups cubed day-old bread
2 cups shredded Gouda cheese
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
10 eggs
4 cups milk
1 Tbsp Dijon mustard
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp pepper

In skillet, melt butter over medium heat; cook asparagus and shallots, stirring occasionally, until asparagus is tender-crisp, about 6 minutes.

In lightly greased 13" x 9" baking dish, toss together asparagus mixture, bread, half of the cheese and the parsley.

Whisk together eggs, milk, mustard, salt and pepper; pour over bread mixture, pressing to submerge. Sprinkle with remaining cheese. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 1 hour, or up to 24 hours.

Uncover and bake in 350 degrees oven until puffed, golden and set enough that centre does not jiggle when gently shaken, about 1 hour. Let cook for 10 minutes before cutting into squares.

Thursday's Child: St. Mary's Basilica, Krakow

Thursday, August 21, 2014

I said it last week, but it bears repeating: Europe is so magnificent that even the less popular cities are full of astonishing beauty.

Before we planned this summer’s trip, the only thing I knew about Krakow was its reputation for being the loveliest city in Poland. I couldn’t have told you anything else, but because it was a not-too-distant drive from Berlin (our other destination), it made for an intriguing choice.

Of course I read about Krakow before we went. But even so, I was awestruck at the beauty of St. Mary’s Basilica. Located just off Krakow’s Main Market Square, we visited the basilica because, well, it was supposed to be beautiful and we were in the area.

Then we walked into a place of worship that’s the equal of anything else we’ve seen. As gorgeous as Notre Dame. As impressive as Hagia Sophia. As ornate as St Petersburg’s Church on Spilled Blood

And the trip planner, the one who blogs about her travels and constantly dreams about where she'll go next, hadn't even heard of it before this summer.

St. Mary’s is home to the largest Gothic altarpiece in the world. This three-panelled carving depicts the lives of Jesus and Mary. Carved from linden wood, the altarpiece is made up of over 200 figures and decorations. It’s considered one of Poland’s great treasures, and was dismantled and hidden for part of the Second World War, although it was later discovered and taken to Germany. It survived heavy bombing and was returned to Krakow in 1957.

The altarpiece, the vaulted stained glass windows, and the high cobalt ceilings dotted with golden stars, all added to the sense of magnificence. My words won’t do it justice, but I hope our photos can.

The exterior of the church is equally fascinating as what lays inside, and that’s because of the legend attached to it.

We were fortunate to be near the basilica at noon, because of the tradition that takes place there, on the hour, every hour, every day of the year. After the clock chimes, a trumpet player enters the ornate watchtower and plays a short tune four times, once each through the north, south, east and west windows. Each time he plays a few bars, then stops abruptly. (The entire ritual is played daily on Polish National Radio at noon.)

Of course, there’s a reason for that. The tune is the hejnal, a short piece of music that used to be played at the opening and closing of the city gates, and as a warning of fire or enemy activity. During the Tartar invasions in 1241, a watchman in the tower noticed invaders preparing to climb the city walls to attack it. He played his trumpet to warn the townspeople of danger. The enemies saw him and pierced his throat with an arrow in the middle of the song. But in the meantime, his warning had given Krakow citizens ample time to meet the challenge.

See the trumpet, just inside the upper central window?
And in an enduring tribute, they play the shortened tune in his honour, once an hour, every day of the year.

A stunning church with a bittersweet story? It just doesn’t get any better than that.*

*Yes, there are other, more prosaic legends behind this tradition. But this is the story I like the best, and I’m sticking with it.

All-season quesadillas

Sunday, August 17, 2014

"And I would never scold the onion
for causing tears.
It is right that tears fall
for something small and forgotten.
How at meal, we sit to eat,
commenting on texture of meat or herbal aroma
but never on the translucence of onion,
now limp, now divided,
or its traditionally honourable career:
For the sake of others,

- from "The Traveling Onion" by Naomi Shihab Nye

It seems like a transition of seasons right now. Warm enough to eat brunch outside today, cool enough to need a sweater while doing it. Warm enough to buy swiss chard and onions at the farmers' market, but cool enough to turn them into quesadillas.

The hardest part of posting a quesadilla recipe is taking a picture that does it justice. Generally, a photo of a cooked quesadilla makes it look a half-moon of fried bread. A photo of the ingredients before they're added to the quesadilla is more evocative, but doesn't tell the whole picture. I've compromised today by taking photos of the assembled but not-yet-cooked product, hoping it conveys just how delicious these quesadillas really are. Because whether it's the middle of summer or the coldest day in the winter, I could come up with a hundred good reasons why these quesadillas would be just right.

Swiss Chard and Caramelized Onions Quesadillas
(from Fresh From the Farm, by Susie Middleton)

1 tsp sherry vinegar
1 tsp honey
1 Tbsp unsalted butter
1 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil (first amount)
2 medium yellow onions, thinly sliced (about 1 1/2 cups)
kosher salt
1 tsp minced fresh garlic
4 cups thinly sliced Swiss chard leaves (from 8 ounces of chard, stemmed)
4 – 6” tortillas
1 1/3 to 1 1/2 cups grated cheddar cheese
4 tsp extra-virgin olive oil  (second amount)

In a small bowl, combine the sherry vinegar and honey.

In a 10” heavy nonstick skillet, melt the butter with 1 Tbsp of the olive oil over medium-low heat. Add the onions and 1/4 tsp kosher salt and cover. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are translucent, 5 to 6 minutes. Uncover and continue cooking until the onions are very limp and light golden brown, 12 to 14 minutes. Add the garlic, stir and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the Swiss chard and a pinch of salt to the pan and toss with tongs until wilted. Remove the pan from the heat and drizzle the vinegar-honey mixture on top, tossing well. Transfer the chard-onion mixture to a plate to cool a bit and wipe out the pan.

Return the pan to medium heat and add 1 tsp olive oil. When the oil is hot, add one tortilla to the pan. Place one quarter of the cheese over half the tortilla, then cover with a quarter of the chard-onion mixture. Fold the empty half of the tortilla over, and cook until browned on both sides. Keep warm until all the tortillas have been prepared and serve immediately.

Thursday's Child: Main Market Square, Krakow, Poland

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Europe is full of treasures. So full, in fact, that it’s easy to focus on the most obvious ones – the grandeur of Rome, the romance of Paris, the poetry of Venice. But any time I visit one of its lesser-known cities, I’m reminded of how deep its treasures run, and how spectacular those other cities are.

That’s how I felt when we visited Krakow, Poland, earlier this summer. Other than its devastating history in the Second World War, I didn’t know much about it. While there, I was beguiled by the beauty of this Polish city that has so often been a target for foreign conquest, and that has had to live with a sorrowful past.

Tower detail

Fresco on one of the buildings surrounding the square
The focal point of Krakow is its Main Market Square. At nearly ten acres, it’s the largest city square in Europe, and is full of beautiful touches, like the mural and the tower detail pictured above. When Krakow was still the capital of Poland, and the country was a monarchy, royal processions often ran from outside the city at the north, through the town square to Wawel Castle in the Old Town’s southern section.

The photo at the top of the blog gives you a partial idea of what the square looks like. It shows the northern and eastern sides, rimmed by stores and restaurants. But what looks like the western side (at the left of the picture) is actually Cloth Hall, which bisects the square from north to south.
Cloth Hall
Cloth Hall was originally built as a centre for international trade. It had its beginnings sometime around the start of the fourteenth century, when a roof was erected over a number of commercial stalls. The current version was built in the mid-sixteenth century in a Renaissance style. At the peak of Cloth Hall’s importance, merchants brought exotic goods from the east to trade for local products. It still operates as a centre of commerce, as its first floor is lined with stalls selling amber, leather goods, crafts and other souvenirs.

View from tower
Originally, the town hall sat in the middle of the square too, but it was torn down in 1820, at the same time as many of the city’s defensive walls. The town hall tower was left standing, only because the protests of Krakow’s citizens prevented it from being torn down too.

Krakow’s Main Market Square has been called the world’s best, and having been there, it’s hard to disagree. It’s architecturally beautiful and has a majestic aura, but in addition it has been transformed into a lively gathering place that showcases some of the best of this wonderful city.
Town Hall Tower in Main Market Square

And what’s that lovely church that dominates the square? It’s St. Mary’s Basilica – more about that next week.
Taking pictures in Main Market Square


Sunday, August 10, 2014
"So early it's still almost dark out.
I'm near the window with coffee,
and the usual early morning stuff
that passes for thought.

When I see the boy and his friend
walking up the road
to deliver the newspaper.

They wear caps and sweaters,
and one boy has a bag over his shoulder.
They are so happy
they aren't saying anything, these boys.

I think if they could, they would take
each other's arm.
It's early in the morning,
and they are doing this thing together.

They come on, slowly.
The sky is taking on light,
though the moon still hangs pale over the water.

Such beauty that for a minute
death and ambition, even love,
doesn't enter into this.

Happiness. It comes on
unexpectedly. And goes beyond, really,
any early morning talk about it."

- "Happiness", by Raymond Carver

Seven things that make me happy:

1. Raymond Carver's poem. And any moment of unexpected happiness that takes me by surprise.
2. Having the girls home for a day off from their jobs at camp.
3. Discovering a new book that's so well written, I fall in love with it. This year I've read a number of books that I've adored - If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, This is How You Lose Her, Dear Life, and Road Ends, to name a few.
4. The scene in Singin' in the Rain, where Gene Kelly sings the intro to the title song.
5. Spending time with the people I love, my family and friends.
6. Spending time by myself.
7. Fresh fruit at the peak of the season, and the desserts I make with it.

This recipe almost merits a separate entry on the list, since it uses two of the freshest fruits available right now, peaches and raspberries. I've cut down the sugar quite a bit because raspberries and peaches are at their peaks, and they're nearly sweet enough on their own. If you're baking out of season or like a very sweet dessert, you could add more. Whatever makes you happy.

"Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think that they will sing to me."

- from "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock", by T.S. Eliot

Peach Raspberry Cobbler


6 sliced peaches (peeled)
2 cups raspberries
1 Tbsp sugar
1 Tbsp flour
1/4 tsp cinnamon

Cobbler Topping:

1 1/2 cups flour
1 Tbsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
1 Tbsp sugar (first amount)
7 Tbsp cold butter
1 Tbsp cold shortening, cut into small cubes (if you have time, put it in the freezer for an hour)
7 Tbsp milk
1/2 – 1 Tbsp sugar (second amount)

Preheat oven to 375, and lightly butter a 2 quart casserole or 8 x 8” baking dish.

For the filling, gently toss peaches with raspberries, sugar, flour and cinnamon. Pour into prepared baking dish.

For the cobbler topping, whisk together flour, baking powder, salt and 1 Tbsp sugar. Grate butter into the dry ingredients and add shortening cubes. With hands or a pastry blender, cut the butter and shortening into the dry ingredients until the mixture resembles cornmeal. Add the milk and toss with a fork until well combined. Remove from bowl and knead a few times until the mixture comes together. Cut into circles with a cookie cutter or overturned glass, and set on the fruit mixture. Sprinkle with remaining 1/2 – 1 Tbsp sugar.

Bake 45 minutes until topping is browned and mixture is bubbly. Cool slightly before serving.