Friday, October 26, 2012

Mother Tongue

I’ve been reading Bill Bryson’s Mother Tongue, which chronicles the evolution of English over 1,500 years—from primitive, runic Anglo-Saxon to the global language it has now become. Bryson is always funny and amusing, and this book is chock-full of entertaining factoids. I’m only about one third of the way through it, but I thought I’d share a few choice tidbits with you:

The larynx of Homo sapiens sapiens (aka Cro-Magnon man) was positioned farther down the throat than in any previous hominid, which made well-articulated speech possible for the first time. This physiological change, however—which meant that food and drink must pass over the larynx on the way down the throat—also resulted in us being the only mammal capable of choking. (Curiously, modern humans are not born with the larynx in this lowered position; rather, it descends between the age of 3 and 5 months.)

It is thought by linguists that the Basque language (Euskara) may be the last surviving remnant of the Neolithic languages spoken in Stone Age Europe, which were later displaced by Indo-European tongues.

 cyclist from the Basque team Euskaltel

English underwent countless changes between the time of Chaucer and the present day, many of which I find particularly intriguing. For instance, certain words beginning with the letter n eventually lost their first letter to the preceding indefinite article: e.g., a napron became an apron; a nauger became an auger; and an ekename became a nickname. Similarly, it is thought that Ned came from “mine Edward,” and Nan from “mine Ann.”

Friday, October 12, 2012

Aurora’s Gnocchi

The protagonist of my mystery A Matter of Taste belongs to an Italian-American family in the fishing and restaurant business. The story thus, not surprisingly, centers quite a bit around* food. Since I’m not Italian, and my cooking expertise leans more to the French side of the spectrum, I’ve deemed it prudent to conduct research prior to writing some of the food scenes in the book (e.g., when Nonna prepares “Sunday gravy”). And as the sequels involve the same family—and therefore more Italian food—I consider this research to be ongoing.

So when my friend Robert asked if I wanted to come to his house for a gnocchi-making demo by 90-year old Aurora Leveroni, I readily responded “si, certo!

yours truly with Aurora and the finished product
(photo: Robert Orrizzi)

The word “gnoccho” (the singular form) most likely derives from either “nocchio” (a knot of wood) or “nocca” (knuckle). These small dumplings have been eaten on the Italian peninsula since at least the days of the Roman Empire, when they were made of semolina and eggs. [See here .] After the potato was brought to Europe from the New World, the Italians incorporated it into their dumplings, creating what we now think of as the traditional potato gnocchi.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Lyon: the Gastronomical Center of the Universe

Lyon is nicknamed the “crossroads of Europe,” and—situated as it is at the foot of the Alps, the confluence of the Saône and Rhône rivers, and the meeting of the Burgundy and Rhône wine regions—the moniker is well-deserved.

afternoon sun along the west bank of the Saône

Originally settled by the Celts, Lyon became a major Roman town, and then managed to survive the collapse of Rome by virtue of its importance as a religious center. It continued to prosper during the Middle Ages, largely because of its location: Anyone traveling between Italy and Paris had to pass through the city.

Monday, October 1, 2012

More Fox Terrriers...and Some Other Critters Too

When I wrote my last post about Asta I had no idea that wire fox terriers would continue to pop up in my life.

Robin and I are in Lyon, France right now, and this Thursday will be traveling up north to the Lorraine region for the wedding of our dear friend Judith. Americans tend to think of poodles when they associate dogs with the French, a cliché that I’ve always thought of as apt. After all, the word for poodle in French—caniche—derives from the Latin for “dog.” Hence, for them the poodle is the essence of dog-ness.

And I have indeed seen various poodles during our trip—two small white ones, in fact, traveled with us on our plane. But the other day I was delighted to see this wire fox terrier at the local marché (outdoor market).

Of course, all French folks know and adore the wire fox terrier Milou (called Snowy, in English) from the Tintin comic books. But he’s Belgian, not French.