18 August 2018

Borscht - every family has a food that warms the heart and soul

My family’s borscht is milchig (no meat), made up of beetroot, pot­ato, cabbage, somewhat bitter sorrel and sour cream; it was the heart and soul of my grandmother’s Russian cuisine. From my friends at school in the 1950s, I knew that the Ukrainian, Lith­uan­ian and Polish Jewish families also loved borscht.

For families with too many children and very little spare income, borscht was an ideal food. Cheap and easy to grow at home, beet­roots and potatoes were collected by the children in autumn and stored in the family cellar for use during the long winter months. There were no fridges of course, but the family cellars were so cold that the vegetables were naturally preserved.

I had assumed that borscht was always vegetarian, hot and tasty in winter, chilled in summer. The women in my family in any case traditionally avoided meat when they could help it; meat was too expensive and who wanted to slaughter helpless animals? Other families preferred meat borscht, made with beef marrow bones and chicken carcasses, but no sour cream on top. The meatless version was far quicker and easier to make, and had a fresh fragrance. But the meat borscht had fat-based bulk and substance.

Vegetarian borscht with a dollop of sour cream

The core recipe is simple. In a large pot, put 3 medium potatoes, a large beetroot, a large chopped onion, a large chopped carrot, 3 cups of finely shredded cabbage, 1 litre tomato juice, water and caraway seeds. After cooking over a low flame for 30 minutes, pour into individual soup bowls and add a dollop of sour cream in each.

In summer, cook the borscht in the same way, but cool over­night in the fridge before serving. Cold bor­scht is a true summer­time soup, and I liked the blogger who compared the thick, hearty product to a Jewish version of chilled tomato and basil soup, or perhaps gazpacho. Vinegar on top allowed the borscht to sit in a keg for quite a length of time. Fermented borscht, which had to be skimmed regul­arly, could be kept for weeks or even months without refrigeration.

One question remains. In my experience potatoes were the food of the masses in Russia and Ukraine, so where did they learn to base soup on a red beetroot base instead? I know that the Ukraine is usually noted as the source of borscht, but if that country’s national soup was originally made from potato or cow parsnips, I am still not certain about the Ukrainian love affair with beetroots. Nonetheless the sweetness from Ukrainian beets was eventually bal­anced with a kvass (sour, slightly alcoholic beer made from bread) vinegar and lemon juice. Borscht was eaten with a garnish of sour cream and fresh greens like parsley. Borscht was commonly prepared in a large pot to feed a family for several days, improving with each extra day.


Even if Jews were happy to adapt local recipes to make the soup kosher, substituting beef for pork or making it totally vegetarian, why did beetroots replace potatoes? It wasn’t until the 19th century that the red borscht we know today became popular, the time when red beets eventually made up much of the local diet. A beet-based version in Poland came to be called barszcz!

Forward agreed that beetroots were often not included. The removal of beet from borscht perhaps explained why white borscht could still be called “borscht”. A Polish adaptation often used a base of fermented rye instead of beet stock. It was traditionally served on Easter with a cubed rye bread and hard-boiled eggs added to the broth.

Gil Marks’ book, The Encyclopedia of Jewish Food, explored unique cultural cuisines that differentiated between Jewish communities, as well as those that united the Jewish people. Although borscht has long been a favourite of Ashkenazi Jews, beets also appeared else­where in Jewish cooking. Roasting beets was still the best way to bring out their sweetness, delicious in winter. Ashkenazi Jews often ate beet greens in salads, or Russian beet salad with her­ring. Seph­ardi Jews, prominent around the Mediterranean, long used beets in Moroccan spiced salads.

Recipes from My Russian Grandmother's Kitchen
by Elena Makhonko

Perhaps Jews understood earlier than other communities how healthy beetroots are. Despite having more natural sugars than any other veget­able, they are rich in fibre, magnesium and potassium; they help lower blood pressure and they protect against heart disease.

Thank you buba! Thank you mama!

Do other families have an iconic dish?

14 August 2018

Vienna is the World's Most Liveable City 2018. Sorry Melbourne and Osaka

The Economist Intelligence Unit is a British business providing forecasting and advisory services through research and analysis, including country, industry and management analyses world-wide. Plus, as examined in 2016, it has published an annual Global Liveability Ranking which began in 2004. The Unit ranks cities for their urb­an quality of life, based on assess­ments across five categories — stability, infrastructure, healthcare and culture, education and environment.

With Melbourne winning the world title for the past seven years, it may come as a surprise to Australians that Vienna for the first time topped the EIU’s Global Liveability Index. The 2018 results were as follows: 1. Vienna Austria; 2. Melbourne Australia; 3. Osaka Japan; 4. Calgary Canada; 5. Sydney Australia; 6. Vancouver Canada; 7. Toronto Canada and Tokyo Japan; 9. Copen­hagen Denmark and 10. Adelaide Australia.


The differences between the top 30 cities in this index were small. Vienna and Melbourne have been very very close in the annual survey of 140 urban centres for years, and are still separated by less than a point. Vienna scored 99.1% and Melbourne scored 98.4%. Osaka, which did not make last year's top 10, is now just 0.7% behind Melbourne. Even Singapore and Hongkong, which only came equal 35th, had good scores of 91.3%.

Both Vienna and Melbourne saw an improve­ment in their score this year. Both cities scored maximum points in the health-care, educ­ation and infrastructure categories. But while Melbourne extended its lead in the culture and environment component, that was out­weighed by Vienna’s improved stability ranking. [There was both a downgraded threat of militant attacks in western Europe and an improvement in Vienna’s crime rate]. Osaka's improvements in scores for public transportation, as well as a consistent decline in crime rates, contributed to that city’s imp­roved ratings in the infra­structure and stability categories respectively.

Osaka, Calgary and Sydney completed the top five positions. The EIU believed the survey usually favoured medium-sized cities in wealthy countries, often with relatively low population densities. Much larger and more crowded cities tended to have higher crime rates and more strained infrastructure. London, for instance, ranked 48th.


I expected Australian, Canadian, Japanese and European cities to dominate any measure of liveability. Australia and Can­ada achieved great results, exactly as expect­ed. Melbourne (98.4%), Sydney (97.4%) and Adelaide were joined by Calgary (97.5%), Vancouver (97.3%) and Toronto (97.2%) in the Top Ten. But apart from Vien­na, only one other European city achieved a great rating. This was Copen­hagen in Denmark, in 9th place at 96.8%. Helsinki and Ham­burg, who held Top Ten places last year, dropped out this year.

Green spaces with the city seem important. 50% of Vienna comprises green areas, parklands and gardens that can be reached on foot or by tram. Melbourne has huge public parks and wide, tree-lined boulevards. Vancouver has its harbour setting, with many beautiful parks and gardens. Copenhagen has delightful Botanical and Tivoli Gardens.

At the other end of the table, find Lagos (38.5%) in Nigeria and the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka (38%), then Damascus (30.7%) came last! The index only meas­ured 140 cities, so we can assume that the world’s most dang­erous capitals like Baghdad and Kabul were not included.


I recognise that being a very liveable city does not necessarily make for a city that would be very attractive to tourists. While universal heal­th care and free tram rides for school children may make local citiz­ens happy, travellers may care much more about unique tourist sites, great pubs and exotic night life.

11 August 2018

a Tartan Heritage Centre in Stirling Scotland! history, research and tourist attractions

The Tartan Weaving Mill on The Royal Mile in Edinburgh covers 5 storeys inside, with an exhibition that shows the whole process involved in tartan production: shearing sheep, working looms, making a kilt and being photographed kitted out.

So I already knew that tartan  was not described in Scotland until the C16th. In 1538, James V ordered a tartan hunting out­fit for himself and his men: they wore trews/close-fitting trousers and stockings of a warm stuff of divers colours call­ed tartan. A plaid about their shoulders, which is a mantle of divers colours, of much finer and lighter stuff than their hose, with blue flat caps on their heads.

Thus the belted plaid appears to have become a loose garment made up of 5 metres of double tartan. Highland looms could only weave a maximum width of 75 cms so lengths had to be sewn together down their long edge to make the plaid. Such outfits were practical for riding and led to the aristocratic fashion for tartan trews.

The trews were cut on the bias so that they had elasticity and clingability. The distinctive sett/pattern of the tartan was smaller than seen on the kilt and the hose was carefully crafted to match on the seams which ran up the back of the leg. Having no pockets, a sporran would be worn.

The practicality of the trews became very evident when it came to riding a horse during horrible winters. Kilt wearers could not have ridden half frozen horses very easily and in any case, horses were largely owned by wealthy families. So trews came to be regarded as the domain of the rich gentlemen on horseback, and by Highlanders when travelling in the Lowlands.

For journeying, the kilt was a length of tartan gath­ered at the waist by a belt, pinned on the shoulder by a brooch, and worn kilted on the thighs. This could be adapted, by every level of society, to create an enveloping hood.

During the Jacobite Rebellions, I loved to read how the most effective fighters for Jacobitism were the supporting Scottish clans. This led to a direct association of tartans with the Jacobite cause. Even if they was no longer identified solely with the Highlands, after 1707 they became a reflect­ion of opposition to the Union, for both men and women. Banned after the 1745 up­rising, Highland tartans were soon valued for their powerful historic value.

Portrait of John Murray, 4th Earl of Dunmore
painted by Joshua Reynolds in 1765

These complex political implications were relevant to art historians. Examine portraits of grand tour­ists, painted in Italy by Pompeo Batoni and his contemp­orar­ies, where portraits of one young man looked more learned and more important than the last. But no-one looked as noble as Scot­t­ish grand tourists! Loaded up with symbolism, these images portr­ay­ed wealthy Scottish lads in full Highland gear.

And when Batoni wasn’t sure what he was doing, he took tips from British artists, such as the visiting Scot, Allan Ramsey. Colonel Gordon, for example, had elected to be painted in uniform with drawn sword, kilt and swathed in a length of Huntly tartan. Note the Colosseum in the background and Roman statuary to the side.

With the Whigs moving towards liberal democracy, these pretend Highland soldiers were now Romantic heroes, their tartan unif­orm newly designed and worn with all the prestigious regalia: tassled sporrans, Glengarry bonnets, dirks, shoulder plaids with brooches. There had long been regional differences in the patterns and colour of tartan. But although some famil­ies could be associated with spec­ific tartans, late C18th Scotsmen felt free to wear any patterns.

For me, a person with no Scottish connection whatsoever, most interesting to see how the kilt had become the Scot­sman’s national dress. Two royal events promoted the C19th obsession with clan tartans. Firstly King George IV travelled to Edin­burgh in 1822 in a kilt. Sir Walter Scott requested that all the clan chiefs turn out in full hereditary tartan reg­al­ia, whether their family had such regalia or not. Retinues of clansmen marched through the capital to greet the king.

Secondly a tartan pageant staged at Taymouth in honour of Queen Victoria in 1847. Clearly their royal patronage enhanced the reputation of the material and boosted demand. High­land dress had become a formal costume associated with ceremony and ritual. Romantic history, with the imprimatur of royalty. And as the Scottish diaspora grew, it became THE mark of Scottish identity, a comfort for displ­ac­ed Scots and a statement of ethnic solidarity, without any overt political message.

Scottish District Tartans
For a list of districts and their tartans, see Scot Clans

Now a Tartan Heritage Centre is being planned as part of a £90 million deal for Stirling. Celebrating the history of tartan, the centre will be set up as part of a £90 million City Deal plan. The Scottish government is providing £50.1 million and the UK government is proving £45+ million for the investment package.

But how much will the Tartan Heritage Centre be just an em­otional moment for tourists, before they move on to eat hearty bangers and mash? Or will it be a seriously curat­ed historical collection that inspires research and public­at­ions.

The vision for a National Tartan Centre is that it will include a self-sustaining gateway that showcases and promotes tartan and its important Highland heritage as well as its iconic status as the defining symbol of a nation.

From traditional Highland Dress to modern fashion, manufacture and design, the past, present and future should combine to create a journey, identifying the origins of a fabric now synonymous Scotland and exploring the versatility of Tartan in its woven and non-woven forms, providing a source of identity to many people across the globe.

The Stirling Centre will be a:
· educational resource
· showcase for Scottish history and contemporary culture
· showcase for the tartan industry
- forum for debate on issues of identity and culture.

07 August 2018

a history of bridge games - in Turkey, Russia, Britain, France and the USA

Let us start with whist. The history of Whist can be traced at least to the early C16th in England (as mentioned in a pub­lish­ed sermon by Bishop Latimer in 1529) and through succeeding centuries under different names. Whist maintained its pop­ularity as a fashionable amusement, but it was not until 1742 that Edmond Hoyles’ famous Short Treatise on Whist appeared.

In 1834 Lord Henry Cavendish-Bentinck (1804-70) invented the first sig­nal where partners defending against a contract could play particular cards to give a coded meaning, to guide each other. After ret­irement in 1857, Cavendish devoted himself to playing world class whist at the Port­land Club in London. In fact the first game of Duplicate Whist was pl­ayed in London that year, under Cav­end­ish’s dir­ec­t­ion.
Two beautifully dressed couples playing bridge

The USA progressed in parallel with Britain in extending Duplicate. A dup­licate whist game was played privately in Chicago in 1880 and in a club in New Orleans in 1882. The first interclub match was played in Philad­elphia in 1883. The first duplicate match in Britain was in Glasgow in 1888.

Duplicate offered the possibility of replacing private games by public contests. Major steps forward followed:
a) foundation of the Americ­an Whist League in 1891;
b) first book on tournament organisation, by John Mit­ch­ell, des­cribed pair-play and the method of match pointing; and
c) Henry Barbey printed Laws of Bridge in New York in 1892.

In London, members of the Port­land Club took on "bridge" very seriously in 1894, encouraged by Lord Brougham who had learned it in India from army off­icers.

But claims of a much earlier existence of the game were made by people who had lived abroad. And from non-English speaking countries. Metin Demirsar reported that as part of a course on Ottoman history and architecture, his guide discussed Brit­ish soldiers play­ing bridge while serving in the Crimean War in 1854-56. Was the name taken from Gal­ata Bridge, spanning the Golden Horn and linking both parts of Is­t­anbul, where they crossed every day to play cards in coffeehouses? The book Modern Bridge by Slam (London 1901) also suggested Bridge was first known in Turkey and had been played in South-Eastern Europe ever since the early 1860s.

In 1869 Christian Vanderheid wrote Extensive Self-teaching for the Learning of Yeralash-Russian Whist, published in Vienna. This booklet, now in the Bridge Collection Amsterdam, named Russia as the country of origin.

Edouard Graziani, an Italian Embassy translator, was one of the best Bridge players of the Cercle d’Orient Club in Const­ant­inople. In Aug 1873 Graziani played bridge at the home of Georges Cor­onio, Bank of Const­antinople manager, along-side his Rumanian financier friends. From Const­antinople, he said, the game travelled to Cairo and thence to the West.

Colonel Studdy said the game was actually of Levantine orig­in; he’d learned bridge in the trenches at Plevna during the Russo­-Turkish War of 1877-8. This dating of the game and the Turkish or Russian origin were strongly supported in a letter from AM Keiley, a member of the Khedival Bridge Club in Cairo. Turkey held Egypt from the early C16th until WWI, when “Khedive” was the official title held by the Turkish viceroy.

The Daily Telegraph discussed a Mr OH van Millingen, who lived in Constant­inople in 1879-80. He remembered Britch, a Russian game that became very popular in all clubs, instead of whist. He noted that bridge had app­eared in the 1860s among Greek, Armenian and Russian communities of traders and diplomatic off­icials in Turkey.  

Ely and Josephine Culbertson
painted by Nikol Schattenstein, 1930
Credit: National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

In conclusion, Thierry Depaulis’ comprehensive Histoire du Bridge agreed that bridge devel­oped in the diplomatic community in Istanbul. Depaulis connected the game to Russia where it was called Sib­erian mix­ture, bel­onging to the wide family of whist-related games. It came to Istanbul about 1860-65 and changed its name to biritch. The game was prob­ably spread by wealthy Greeks who travelled to Russia and Turkey, and helped introd­uce it to Western Europe. But why did the game not appear in Britain earlier than it did? After all, some 14,000 officers and troops were con­cen­trated around Constantinople in 1854.

An important change from whist was the expos­ure of one hand as the dum­my; Dummy Whist originated as a game for 3 players. Anot­h­er innovation was the introduction of the double and redouble. There was no limit to the number of redoubles, and this gambling feature of the new game was soon eliminated by the change to Auction Bridge.

In the 1920s there were different scoring systems in use. In France Contract Bridge was called Plafond i.e. ceil­ing.

Where did the concept of vulnerability come from? Harold Vanderbilt was aboard the Steamship Finland during a 9-day trip from Los Angeles to Havana via the Panama Canal. The Finland reached Balboa in Panama in Oct 1925, too late to ent­er the Can­al. That night a young lady joined their game of Plafond and suggested some exotic but impractical changes bas­ed on a game she’d played in China. At first Vanderbilt could not describe the status of “being subject to higher pen­alties, because of having won a game”. The young lady solved the prob­lem by suggesting the word “vulner­able”. The very next day, while the ship passed through the Canal, Vander­bilt establ­ish­ed the scoring table for bridge. The game had formally become Contract Bridge!

Harold Vanderbilt’s rules embodied the Plafond principles but corrected that game’s major faults. Thus to the best features of Auction and Plafond, he had added some exciting new feat­ur­es eg premiums for slams bid and made, and the element of vulnerability.

In the USA Contract Bridge took off in 1927, thanks to the soc­ial app­roval of Harold Vanderbilt, his new scoring system and Ely Culbertson’s (1891–1955) marketing genius. Culbertson who took the game beyond the elite to the middle classes where Contract Bridge quickly became the favourite card game.

In 1928 the new game was adopted in the major New York clubs. Later that year the first National Championship was held, with the Vanderbilt Cup as the prize. Leadership in the new game went to Ely Culbertson, who founded the first bridge magazine in 1929. Committees representing the USA, Britain and France were appointed and the first issue of The Bridge World magazine promulgated an International Code of Laws. In 1930 Culbertson published the best-selling book Contract Bridge Blue Book, showing how he and his wife were a successful partnership.

The Anglo-American Matches in 1930, 1933 and 1934 were huge. The first recognised World-Wide Championship was in 1937 and it restarted after WW2 in 1950. The World Bridge Federation was founded in 1958, and the first Team Olympiad in 1960.

One of Charles Goren's many bridge books

Charles Goren (1901-91) had begun playing auction bridge while a law student at McGill, and by the early 1930s he had become an expert on the newer contract bridge. He developed point-count bidding, a simplified system of valuating one’s hand in which points are assigned to both high cards and short suits. The elegant Goren System of bidding in Contract Bridge became standard after 1950.

I learned whist and its derivatives (500 and Solo) in the 1950s and joined the elite circles of bridge players in the late 1960s, meeting my then-boyfriend across a bridge table! My standards for a potential husband had been high.  A young man had to be socialist, feminist, anti-war (Vietnam), university educated, surrounded by a loving family and preferably a red-head. But mostly he would have to love bridge.