Toronto

A Lesson in Cetology: Meeting Blue the Whale at the Royal Ontario Museum

This spring Toronto saw the arrival of two unusual visitors. One was a deluge of heavy rain that nearly flooded the city. The other was the skeleton of a blue whale, one of the nine killed by drifting sea ice near the coast of Newfoundland in May 2014. The former caught everyone by surprise, while the latter marked the culmination of a project three years in the making by the Royal Ontario Museum. Yet both were, to varying extents, consequences of climate change and harbingers of extreme weather events to come.

So it was hard to dispel feelings of eco-anxiety as I lined up by the ROM’s entrance for tickets to meet the museum’s latest acquisition. The exhibit brochure noted that the 2014 incident wiped out 3% of Northwest Atlantic’s blue whale population, which was a catastrophe tantamount to the United States losing every single resident living in Michigan. Somehow this world of ours seemed to be morphing into a perverted retelling of Moby Dick in which Captain Ahab does succeed in killing the White Whale at the expense of drowning the entire planet. The timely appearance of a stampede of toddlers racing towards the ticket queue saved me from further thoughts of gloom and doom. The stale atmosphere in the atrium was instantly enlivened by eager cries of “I wanna see the WHHHHAAAALLLLEEE!” Pessimism aside, I suddenly realized that I was about to come face-to-face with a real Leviathan, one of Nature’s greatest wonders. In the immortal words of Stubb, the Pequod’s second mate: be it what it will, I’ll go to it laughing.

Blue whale specimens are considered a rarity onto themselves because even in death, these marine giants prove defiant to human control. Extracting whale skeletons is a prodigious task that required ample patience and manpower to execute. Until now, there has been only two blue whales collected in Canada: “The Castle” at the Museum of Nature in Ottawa and “Big Blue” at the Beaty Biodiversity Museum in British Columbia. Both preservation projects spanned well over two decades. Thanks to more funding and better technology, however, the Royal Ontario Museum is able to finish its specimen for display in record time — just under three years. The new whale has been given the rather unimaginative name “Blue.” I personally prefer “Lollipop,” a moniker that was once used in reference to the skeleton to describe the disproportionate size of its skull to its spine. Oh lolli lolli lolli!

The exhibit kicked off with a detailed timeline that chronicled every step of the preservation process. The display began with news reports from 2014 when the whale first captured international attention after footages of its bloated, methane-filled body lying near Trout River, Newfoundland went viral on Youtube. This was followed by a series of government applications, project proposals, and gory photos of museum researchers covered bloody bits of whale as they prepared the carcass for transportation. For an added flare, visitors were encourage to take a sniff of a Fossil wrist watch worn by one of the curators during the flensing process. The wrist band was still saturated with the smell of salt and decay even two years after the event. The timeline ended with a quick primer about how the specimen was actually made. As it turns out, the whale bones were left in containers filled with manure for nine months so that the bacteria could drain the oil residue left in the bone pores. The bones then underwent several rounds of vapour degreasing before they were reassembled for final display.

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After that long introduction, the main star of the exhibition was finally unveiled — Blue or the Whale Formerly Known as Lollipop. She was on a pedestal, head levelled, jaw parted, torso bent in slight contrapposto. This was a mating pose called “coursing,” the display label explained. An old man read the sentence out loud and guffawed. A few feet from him, a young woman looked absolutely crestfallen at this revelation. Meanwhile, at the back of the room, a group of women were nervously eyeing a scale which was designed to calculate the mass of the whale in proportion to the visitor’s own weight. Unfortunately, the result would display in huge orange numbers for all to see. Although the feature was a huge hit among children, I saw only one adult brave enough to mount its platform. All around, the halls were filled with the sonorous rhythms of recorded whale calls and mundane chatters about the skyrocketing Toronto real estate prices.

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If kids won’t stop misbehaving, the parents can dress them up as krills and pretend to feed them to a whale.

The exhibit ended with an analysis of the whale by its individual body parts with life-size replicas of the heart, sprout, brain, baleen, blood, and even excrements (in form of a giant puddle of orange spray on the floor). In addition, a small cabinet showcased various commercial products that were manufactured from whale bones, blubber, and meat.

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Melville on whale brains: “In the case of a small Sperm Whale the brains are accounted a fine dish. The casket of the skull is broken into with an axe, and the two plump, whitish lobes being withdrawn (precisely resembling two large puddings), they are then mixed with flour, and cooked into a most delectable mess.”

Besides the blue whale exhibit, the ROM is also home to several comprehensive collections about natural history and different world cultures. This grand old curiosity cabinet is a great place to spend an afternoon if you’re ever in Toronto.

Now, what to eat in celebration of meeting a whale? The proper meal for any (pseudo)seafarer is undoubtedly chowder and sea biscuits. In Moby Dick, Ishmael managed to devote an entire chapter to describing Mrs Hussey’s famous clam chowder (not a euphemism, I promise). In face of the diminishing fish stocks in the sea, I think it’d better to try out a vegetarian chowder option instead. This corn chowder does make a satisfying meal, but to compensate for the lack of clams or fish, please use full-fat milk or (better yet) cream; it’s the only way to appease both your eco-conscience and your taste buds.

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Vegetarian Corn Chowder

Makes 4 servings.

INGREDIENTS

  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • 3 stalks of celery, diced
  • 2 small Yukon potatoes, peeled and diced
  • 3 sweet mini peppers, chopped
  • 2 ears of fresh corn, husk discarded
  • Half a knob of garlic, minced
  • 1 cup of whole milk
  • 3 cups of chicken broth
  • 2 tablespoons of olive oil
  • Salt and pepper

INSTRUCTIONS

  1. Set a saucepan over medium heat and add the olive oil. Once the oil is hot, throw in all the vegetables except for the corn kernels, and stir until the onions are softened, about 5 to 8 minutes.
  2. Add the chicken broth and bring to a boil. Then turn the heat down and let the chowder simmer, covered for about 15 minutes.
  3. Add the corn and the milk, bring to a boil again, then simmer uncovered for 10 more minutes.
  4. Season with salt and pepper and serve with (preferably) sea biscuits. Or, for a less austere version, freshly baked drop biscuits.

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Germany

The Tell-Tale Soufflé: A Visit to Hohenzollern Castle

I love castles. There’s something captivating about their somber, aloof, don’t-give-a-damn demeanour. Like ancient sages banished from the modern world, they straddle the realm between human and divine, bearing secrets of a long forgotten past. At the same time, these architectural wonders stand testimony to mankind’s perennial ambition (or folly) to surpass limits and attain the impossible. Building stone fortresses was difficult enough without the aid of cranes or trucks; to have done so on a steep hill far removed from urban centres seems almost like an exercise in masochism. One can read centuries of hope, fear, and perseverance on these fortress walls.

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Source: Wikipedia

The most famous castle in Germany is undoubtedly Schloss Neuschwanstein, a fairytale complex nestled on a lush hilltop above the village of Hohenschwangau in southern Bavaria. But I was looking for something less Disney and more Edgar Allan Poe, i.e. a place more suited to hide a dismembered body under the floor boards than to host a family of singing, anthropomorphic mice. With this criterion in mind, I settled on seeing Hohenzollern Castle, which has recently been used for the filming of Gore Verbinski’s A Cure for Wellness, a psychological thriller about —SPOILER ALERT —- a mysterious spa retreat where patients were being killed and then fed to eels (I swear I’m not making this up) to produce an elixir of immortality.

Perched on the verdant slopes of a large hill near the edge of Hechingen, the castle is the ancestral seat of the aptly named Hohenzollern family. “Hohe” means “high” and “zollern” is derived from “der Söller,” which denotes a raised platform or balcony. Therefore, scions of this dynasty are the Higher-ups literally, figuratively, and spatially speaking. In 1218 the family spilt apart into two branches. The Protestant Prussian line ascended to the throne of the German Empire in 1871 and dominated politics until the monarchy was abolished at the end of World War I. Its Catholic Swabian counterpart floundered in comparison, as members became embroiled in endless internal feuds. Today, ownership of the castle is divided proportionally among the two branches, and smiling portraits of its main proprietors, Prince Georg Friedrich and his wife Sophie, appear ubiquitously on all the tourist brochures.

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The Hohenzollern coat-of-arms.
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It is very easy to get to the castle by public transportation. There is a city bus outside Hechingen train station that will take you directly to the base of the castle. You can then trek up to the castle entrance by shuttle bus or on foot.
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A wooden boar sculpture on sale at the gift store. Boars may be sighted in the surrounding forest regions. The baby boars (squeakers) are really adorable with their stripped furs! Unfortunately, the wild boar population in Europe has skyrocketed due to global warming. The milder winters mean more food for the animals, and to keep the population under control, hunters are permitted to shoot boars for sport.
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This is from the underground tunnels leading up to the castle. Definitely Poe worthy.

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Surrounded by flowers blooming is the fair palace door, through which came sparkling, shimmering, twinkling, is the gold décor. Once inside, the tall arched ceilings and opulent interior furnishings instantly drew sighs and murmurs of admiration from my fellow visitors. “This is so much better than the Kardashian house!” one woman exclaimed loudly, prompting a most gif-able look of horror from our tour guide. Unlike Neuschwanstein, which is heavily associated with the romantic persona of its creator Ludwig II, Hohenzollern is clearly designed to pay homage to the entire dynasty. Large, solemn portraits of various Prussian emperors and counts flank all sides of the castle halls. There are in addition two great chambers filled with jewels, weapons, and antiques amassed by various family members throughout history. However, those who wish to pry around the private royal bedrooms are sadly out of luck. Since the fifteenth century, Hohenzollern nobles began to acquire new properties elsewhere in Germany, and the castle remained unoccupied through several generations onward except when needed as a temporary refuge shelter during times of war. By the nineteenth century, most of the buildings had fallen into dilapidation. They were later rebuilt in the Gothic Revival style under the auspices of King Frederick William IV who wanted to create a showpiece edifice to honour his ancestral heritage.

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This is the entrance to the interior. No photo taking is permitted inside. Visitors are also required to put on  large, fuzzy grey slippers before entering the exhibit halls. Children (or those who are still a child at heart) can also get a red royal cape to wear around the premises.
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Here’s a peak of the interior from a travel brochure.
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This is King Wilhelm IV who commissioned a complete makeover of the castle. 
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Michael’s Chapel, the only remaining part of the original castle built in the eleventh century.
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A small bistro for dogs! Too cute.
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It is worth visiting the castle for the view alone.

Brillat-Savarin once wrote, “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.” I think any family history would be incomplete without some consideration of the family members’ gastronomic predilections. As it turns out, present-day descendants of the Swabian Hohenzollerns have made some interesting career choices. There is Prince Ferfried of Hohenzollern, a real Renaissance man who had been a race-car driver, then a reality TV star, and finally a cooking show host. I found a recipe for chocolate soufflés attributed to him, and tried it out. The first two attempts came out as a gloppy mess because I couldn’t get the chopped chocolate and flour to mix evenly with the egg whites. So I took some creative liberties and adjusted the recipe a tad bit. If you are ever in the mood to try a slightly plebeian-tainted royal dessert, please give these gooey melty chococolaty puffs a bake.

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Chocolate Soufflés

Makes 4 servings

INGREDIENTS

  • 4 eggs, separated
  • 1 pinch of salt
  • 100 g (1/2 cup) granulated sugar
  • 1 teaspoon of vanilla or almond extract
  • 160 g dark chocolate, chopped
  • Some butter to grease the ramekins
  • 1 tablespoon powdered sugar

INSTRUCTIONS

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 F or 180 C.
  2. Generously grease four ramekins and set aside.
  3. Melt the chocolate over a double boiler, then set it aside to cool slightly.
  4. Whisk the chocolate, egg yolks, and vanilla extract together until well combined.
  5. With a clean mixer, start beating the egg whites with a pinch of salt on low speed. As the egg whites begin to increase in volume, gradually drizzle in the sugar. Keep beating until stiff peaks form. Gently fold the egg whites into the batter.
  6. Divide the batter evenly among the four ramekins and bake for 15 to 18 minutes until the top has cracked slightly but the centre is still a wobbly, gooey mess.
  7. Transfer the ramekins out of the oven, dust on some icing sugar, and serve immediately. For maximum effects, wrap a faux red cape around your shoulders and enjoy your royal treatment 🙂

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Beijing

Out with the Old and In with the New: Beijing and Clay-Pot Yoghurts

Like Heraclitus’ river, Beijing is in constant flux — constructing, deconstructing, reconstructing. Everywhere the heavy banging of demolition can be heard in tandem with the pitter-patter of firecrackers being set off at building inaugurations. On March 23rd, the Beijing Municipal Commission of Development and Reform unveiled their 2017 budget plan, which promises a complete makeover of the cityscape with 230 new projects at a total cost of 190 billion USD. I once asked an urban planner what was the point of all these endless renovations apart from their novelty value. He replied rather cryptically, “Perfection, of a kind, is what we are after.” The same question when posed to a taxi driver incited a more direct answer: “Kid, how else can we hit our 7% GDP growth target?”

In light of Beijing’s drastic transformations, ordinary city-features have taken on a new historical significance, attracting legions of visitors longing for a reminder of the vanished past. One former neighbour of mine developed a peculiar attachment to old railway stations. Every month or so he would drive over a hundred miles to Qinghuayuan station and take a thirty-minute ride on one of its clunky, outdated trains. Another acquaintance began shopping regularly at Hufang Street Department Store, one of few remaining municipal enterprises left from the Maoist era. “Yes, it may seem impractical to spend two hours on the bus just to buy a pair of over-priced scissors,” she conceded while trying to persuade me to join her on these excursions. “But the place has handwritten promotion posters and moody sales associates who are unafraid to offend their customers, exactly as things were in the 80s!”

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First opened in 1911, Qinghuayuan Station was one of the oldest railway stops in Beijing. Unfortunately, the station had been shut down in October 2016 to pave way for a new intercity rail line.
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Hufang was built in 1959. It still carries some retro household goods like giant bars of lye soap and kitschy ceramic mugs printed with the side profile of Chairman Mao.

Following my neighbours’ lead, I have picked up a habit of my own. When in Beijing, I would constantly scour the streets and alleyways for convenience stands that sell clay-pot yoghurts. As madeleines : Proust, yoghurt : Beijing millennials. In the early 90s, before Coke and Pepsi attained dominance over the beverage market, tuck shops and convenience stores sold drinkable yoghurt that came in grey, round pots individually sealed with a piece of wax paper tied down by red rubber bands. Thick and tangy, it tasted like a cross between Greek yoghurt and kefir. Conservative eaters ate it plain, while the more adventurous minded mixed it with cheap orange soda to create a strange concoction reminiscent of melted creamsicles. The yoghurt could also be heated up and served hot during the winter months to provide some much-needed warmth in chilly evenings. It usually tasted slightly sweeter in the winter than in the summer because the bacteria culture grew at a slower pace in the cold environment.

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The empty clay pots were promptly returned to the vendors for reuse. Children were permitted to keep the rubber bands, which were considered a highly coveted toy in a time before the Internet. Some boys would use the bands to make sling-shots or shoot them at unsuspecting passersby.

A few years ago, cunning Chinese marketers sought to capitalize on this growing nostalgic movement, and started packaging Beijing-style yoghurt for mass distribution. If you live around the Greater Toronto Area, they are now widely available in many Asian supermarkets. Even though it’s tempting to wallow in past memories again, I’ve decided to follow the Beijing zeitgeist and find some new uses for this old product. As Emerson wisely noted: “All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the better.” This holds especially true when the experiment in question yields a light and moist cake topped with whipped cream. The berries are just added to assuage any guilty feelings that may arise from reaching for a second (or third slice) of cake 😉 Please free feel to add another topping of your choice.

Yoghurt Cake

Makes 6 servings

INGREDIENTS

  • 60 g (1/2 cup) cake flour, sifted
  • 20 g  (1.5 tablespoons) corn starch
  • 160 g (3/4 cup) Greek yoghurt or Beijing yoghurt if you can find it
  • 100 g (1/2 cup) granulated sugar
  • 4 eggs, separated
  • 40 g (3 tablespoons) vegetable oil
  • 1.5 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 240 mL (1 cup) whipped cream, chilled
  • 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon of vanilla
  • An array of different berries

INSTRUCTIONS

  1. Preheat the oven to 340 F or 170 C. Line an 8-inch springform pan with parchment, and wrap the outside of the pan with two layers of aluminum foil. Because the cake will be baked using a bain-marie, the aluminium foil is needed as a precaution against possible water leakages into the pan.
  2. Bring 2 litres/quarts of water to a boil and set aside.
  3. In a medium bowl, whisk the flour, corn starch, and salt together, and set aside.
  4. Beat the yoghurt, egg yolks together until smooth. Add the vanilla extract and oil, and mix until well combined. Fold in the dry ingredients in two batches.
  5. With a clean mixer, start beating the egg whites on low speed. As the egg whites begin to increase in volume, gradually drizzle in the sugar. Keep beating until stiff peaks form. Gently fold the egg whites into the batter.
  6. Pour the batter into the springform pan. Place the pan into a larger roasting tray, and set the roasting tray on the centre rack in the oven. Slowly pour the boiling water into the tray until the water reaches halfway up the cake batter.
  7. Bake for 25 minutes, and then turn the oven temperature down to 285 C or 140 C. Continue baking for another 30 to 35 minutes.
  8. Take the cake out of the oven, transfer it onto a cooling rack, and let it completely cool to room temperature.
  9. Using electric mixers, beat the cream, sugar, and vanilla together on high speed until stiff peaks form, which should take about 1 to 2 minutes.
  10. Spread or pipe the cream over the cake, and drop two heaping handfuls of berries on top of the cream. Put on some 80s music and enjoy!

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Travel

A Random Walk Down Zürich: Monet and Matcha Cookies

My first visit to Zürich happened in the most haphazard, random way possible.

It was a hot, humid Saturday in spring 2015. A union strike had caused severe delays across the German rail system. I was standing by the platforms of Offenburg train station, waiting and waiting and waiting for a connection to Freiburg. The scheduled train was two hours late. The atmosphere around the station bordered on mutiny. I had started to ponder the possibility of making the 60-km journey on foot when a tall brunette stepped up beside me. She had a question mark tattooed on her wrist and a tome of Žižek peeking out of her tote. “Oh hell,” she said by way of greeting. “You want a smoke? No?” She lit up a Marlboro, took a few deep drags, and threw the remaining stub onto the rail track before any station personnel noticed her transgression.

Since nothing unites people like shared misery, we quickly fell into a conversation that grew increasingly confidential in tone. The woman told me that she grew up in San Diego, got married and divorced at seventeen, lost a decade to “teenage dumbassery”, and was now working on a Ph.D thesis in anthropology about the depiction of women in pornography. She had just returned from a trip to Switzerland where she broke up her boyfriend and saw an “super rad” exhibit about Monet at the Zürich Kunsthaus. “Would you like to see it? My boyfriend, he didn’t take the break-up too well, so I got a ticket leftover.” By some uncanny coincidence, at the very moment that she posed this question, an ICE train headed in the direction of Zürich pulled up at a nearby platform. Without waiting for a reply, she pressed the ticket into my hand, shoved me into the crowds vying to board the train, and shouted a cheery “Bon voyage!” I managed to squeeze past the train conductor as he moved forward to close the doors, earning myself a few death glares along the way. And so, for better or worse, the die was cast.

Three hours later I have arrived at the Zürich Hauptbahnhof, ready to be educated in the fine arts.

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The station building was built in the Renaissance Revival style with symmetrical proportions, ornate arches and classical columns. The trains were punctual, the facilities immaculate, and clocks eerily in sync. The only disruption to the station’s orderliness was the giant statue of a Guardian Angel hanging above the main atrium. This rotund, whimsical figure exuded joy in every detail: gilded wings, legs bent in mid skip, and a flashy florid romper. The two chalices in her hands were filled with neon pink water, as if she were fixing a cosmo to welcome your visit.

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The Guardian Angel was made by the French-American sculptor Niki de St. Phalle as a gift to the station to celebrate its 150th anniversary.

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The Kunsthaus was located about a mile away from the train station. Judging by the exterior decorations, this square building appeared to be mired in a nihilistic crisis. The bas-relief across the front wall told a harrowing tale about the selfish nature of men. The first two panels showed two boys riding together happily on a pair of horses, filling their #FriendshipGoals. In the next three panels, disaster struck: one of the horses panicked and threw its rider to the ground. The other boy remained surprisingly impassive to his companion’s plight, preferring to stand by and watch than to lend a hand. Furthermore, beside the main entrance stood a bronze copy of Rodin’s Gates of Hell. This group of 180 figures in various stages of torment was created by the sculptor as a tribute to Dante’s Inferno, which begins with the infamous line “Abandon hope all ye who enter here.” I walked through the entrance doors wondering if the museum had some Xanax on sale in its gift stop.

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All the guidebooks simply state that the panels were made by the German sculptor Oscar Kiefer without giving an explanation of the story behind these reliefs.

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The exhibit titled Monet, Gauguin, Van Gogh… Japanese Inspirations explored the process of culture exchange between the East and the West that resulted from the expansion of imperialism in the mid-19th century. Around this time, Japan opened its markets to international commerce for the first time after having isolated itself from the world for over two centuries. French artists were captivated by the arrival of Japanese prints and ceramics to Europe, and adopted many of these foreign techniques to create innovative art styles like Impressionism and Fauvism.

The exhibit opened with a tantalizing Van Gogh painting of a Japanese geisha. This was followed by a series of displays devoted to Japanese woodblock prints.

Van Gogh

The centrepiece of the exhibit was undoubtedly Monet’s paintings of flowers from his own garden in Giverny. I particularly enjoyed a painting of chrysanthemums dated to 1897. Bright and exuberant, the flowers radiated joy and vivacity. There was a delightful sense of innocence about them, a reflection of a bygone world that had been spared knowledge of world wars, the Holocaust, nuclear weapons, and climate change. Museum visitors reacted to these paintings in vastly different ways: Two women sat in perfect posture on the bench in the middle of the room, seemingly lost in contemplation. A few examiners pressed their faces to the paintings as close as possible, and remarked on the artist’s flighty brush strokes, like harsh teachers scrutinizing exam papers for the slightest grammar errors. One little boy appeared more enthralled with the ornate frame that held the painting of the Japanese bridge than the artwork itself. When his parents were not looking, he traced his tiny fingers around the jagged outlines of the frame.

The exhibit then segued from Monet to other forms of Japanese art like lacquerware and fabrics.

I’m not sure if museum displays, like HBO shows, have to fulfill a T&A quota, but the final climax (bad pun, sorry) of the exhibit was a sequestered cubicle filled with nude sketches by Picasso. These drawings were modelled on a popular form of Japanese erotica known as Shunga (春画), a famous example of which once appeared in Mad Men as a wall decoration in Bert Cooper’s office. I was very tempted to snap some funny photos of these cubist figures performing sexual acrobatics. Unfortunately, sex sells a bit too well: the display room soon grew crowded with curious visitors, and it became impossible to take a clear shot of anything.

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The painting is The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife by Katsushika Hokusai

Aside from this exhibit, the museum also housed a large collection of clay figures by the enigmatic Swiss sculptor Alberto Giacometti. It is well worth visiting if you happened to be in Zürich.

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Due to the spontaneous nature of this trip, I didn’t have much time left to explore other places in the city. Before I made my way back to the train station, I found this lovely statue along the Limmat River. As luck would have it, I got at least one funny photo after all 😉

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Of course, the cultural exchange between Japan and France was not limited to the world of fine arts. New ingredients and culinary techniques were also eagerly seized upon by gastronomes in both countries. I will be forever grateful to the innovative baker who has decided to flavour sablés with Japanese matcha. Because matcha can give off a bitter undertone depending on its quality, I have taken a preventative measure by adding some cream cheese frosting to the cookies. Rest assured these cookies are just as good without the extra sugar.

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Matcha Cookies (adapted from this recipe)

Makes 6 to 8 sandwiches

INGREDIENTS

For the cookies:

  • 120 g cake flour, sifted
  • 6 g matcha powder
  • A pinch of salt
  • 2 egg yolks
  • 60 g sugar
  • 90 g butter, softened
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

For the filling:

  • 63 g cream cheese, softened
  • 25 g butter, softened
  • 150 g powdered sugar, sifted
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla

INSTRUCTIONS

For the cookies:

  1. Whisk the flour, matcha powder, and salt together in a medium bowl, and set aside.
  2. Cream the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy. Add the egg yolks and vanilla extract, then beat everything together until well combined.
  3. Add the dry ingredients into the batter, and knead everything together into a smooth dough.
  4. Cover the dough with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for 2 hours, preferably over night.
  5. Take the dough out of the refrigerator and let it thaw for about 15 minutes. Set the dough between two pieces of parchment paper. Roll the dough out into a large rectangle with a thickness of 0.5 cm or 1/5 inch. Using a cookie cutter, cut out the desired shapes and lay the cookies out on a baking tray lined with parchment paper. Return the cookie dough on the baking tray back to the refrigerator for about 15 minutes.
  6. Preheat the over to 350 C or 180 C.
  7. Bake for 12 to 15 minutes or until the edges of the cookies have turned slightly brown.
  8. Remove the cookies from the oven and transfer them to a cooling rack.

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For the filling:

  1. Cream the butter, cream cheese, and vanilla together until light and fluffy.
  2. Add in the powdered sugar in three batches, whisking well after each addition.
  3. Using a piping bag or a knife, spread the filling between two cooled cookies, then nom ’til your heart’s content 🙂

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Travel

A Wench Aboard: Heidelberg, Romance, and Chocolate Snowballs

And so the backlash began. After centuries of glowing endorsements from eminent writers like Goethe, Victor Hugo, and Mark Twain, Heidelberg has finally fallen victim of its own success. German newspapers have long bemoaned the loss of “the cradle of Romanticism” to influx of Massentouristen and their intrusive cameras. A popular travel guidebook recently published in North America went as far as to warn readers against visiting the city because “any surviving charm is stained almost beyond recognition by commercialism.” It was therefore unsurprising that my suggestion to see Heidelberg was met with immediate groans from close acquaintances. “As advertised, it is ‘better than Disneyland’ — better at ripping tourists off that is,” said one co-worker. “Save some money and go to the Black Forest instead. The scenery is just as good plus you earn the bragging rights of having visited the Great-Peaks (Hochhirst) Mountain and the Titisee.”

Haters will hate, yet admirers of the city remained staunchly committed to its defence. One Swedish graduate student — normally a man of few words and even fewer praises  — returned from a conference at Heidelberg University and surprised us by delivering a twenty-minute panegyric about the immense beauty of the university environs, the brilliance of the professors, and the impeccable standard of the rice puddings served at the local student cafeteria. Of course we had to agree that having a cafeteria where the desserts did not taste like death in a bowl was a very impressive accomplishment indeed.

In light of this conflicting information, I decided to heed the Heidelberg University motto Semper Apertus (Always Open) and keep an open mind until I had seen the place for myself.

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The foundations of the historical city (Altstadt) was first built some time in the twelfth century. Most of the layout has been preserved to the present day. Whoever approved of the original design exhibited tremendous foresight in his judgment. Unlike, say, Tübingen where the land surveyors appeared to have forgotten their rulers on the job, the streets of Heidelberg were laid out in a spacious rectangular grid that was perfectly suited to transport large tourist groups (which may partly explain its success in building a 573 million-dollar tourism industry). It was impossible to get lost in this city — as long as you follow the main street (Hauptstraße), which ran in a parallel line to the Neckar River, you would be led through the shopping districts, the market square, up the hill to the castle and then down onto Karl Theodor Bridge. Essentially, you could see all the noteworthy landmarks in under two hours.

The photo the left is Tübingen and the one on the right is Heidelberg.

In keeping with its reputation as a great centre of culture and learning, books maintained a ubiquitous presence around the city. One of the few benches along the Hauptstraße was taken up by a statue of a man engrossed in reading, much to the annoyance of tired tourists, some of whom retaliated by resting their shopping bags on his lap. There was also a number of used book stores along every street. In one store, shelves filled with rare and collectible books extended from the floor to the ceiling. The owner — a tiny woman in her sixties — darted agilely from shelf to shelf on a tall, gliding ladder, much like Mr. Olivander in the Harry Potter movies.

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As Mark Twain once pointed out, “the most frequent figure in and about Heidelberg was the student”. Being the oldest university town in Germany, Heidelberg’s student population has always been a powerful driver of the city’s vibrant culture. The university currently listed 28 registered fraternities (Studentenverbindungen). In his travel account written in 1878, Twain devoted no less than five chapters to describing the dangerous duels that were frequently fought between members of different fraternities to settle matters of honour or love. Official regulations only allowed protection for the participants’ eyes and ears. Consequently, many students received deep cuts on their bodies and walked around the campus looking like the zombie cast of the Walking Dead. I heard whispers that secret duels still took place between certain factions today, but these outings were carried out in utmost secrecy and no footage of the duels has ever been recorded. Nonetheless, I am happy to report that most students seemed to have discovered a more peaceful method to display their masculinity, namely in the game of Bubble Soccer.

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Apart from physical fighting, the other important pastime for students was finding love. In accordance with Frank Zappa’s wise observation “If you want to get laid, go to college,” the most common word associated with Heidelberg was “romance”. Unfortunately, the city seemed to be more famous for stories about unrequited loves than any successful couplings. In Wilhelm Meyer-Forster’s play Alt-Heidelberg, a young prince fell in love with an innkeeper’s daughter, but was forced to give her up when he was called to return to his homeland. The 1951 film Heidelberger Romanze told the story about a father-daughter pair who took a trip together to the city to find their respective lost loves (Spoiler alert: there was no happy reunion). In a macabre twist, the 2000 horror film Anatomy took the tragic love motif to the extreme by depicting the murder of a young medical student at the hands of her boyfriend after the couple had made love in a morgue.

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“I Love My Heart in Heidelberg” (Ich hab’ mein Herz in Heidelberg verloren) was a popular song composed in 1925 by Fred Raymond.

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Chocolate stores offered chocolate hearts as presents for young lovers.

Despite these depressing stories, love was certainly in the air all around the city. The beautiful castle garden was crowded with couples trying to take engagement or wedding photos. One of the photographers could be overhead yelling at the bride to “Smizesmizesmize baby SUPER SMIZE!” She tried to comply by opening her eyes as wide as possible, which produced a rather pained expression as if she needed to go to the bathroom desperately. Under the shades behind the Goethe statue, a young man and a woman held a lengthy statistical discussion about the global economic situation, real estate market developments, and rising childcare costs, before arriving at the conclusion that marriage was an irrational choice ergo they must break up. “I love the way you think,” she giggled and joined him for one last selfie together in front of a fountain.

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By the time night rolled around, the city was illuminated by a soft spectral glow. The central market place grew noisier as bars began to fill up, and waves of buoyant laughter, induced by the flow of alcohol, spilt out onto the streets. Small bands of bachelor-party attendees roamed around, trying to sell packages of condoms to passersby for drink money. I was looking at miniature models of the city through a gift store window when I was joined by an elderly American couple who was also looking to buy souvenirs. When I asked them the purpose of their visit, they replied that they came to Heidelberg to celebrate their fiftieth wedding anniversary. They got engaged here in this city a long, long time ago. The man started recounting details about their extravagant proposal in the castle garden, but his speech was quickly cut short by his wife. “Don’t listen to him,” she told me while giving his arm a gentle slap. “His story is utter bullshit. What happened was, we were travelling through this town, and at the newly renovated train station, he said: ‘About time we get married, huh?’ That’s it.” They burst out laughing, then slowly walked away, hand in hand, towards a waiting car.

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As I watched them drive away, I felt very glad all of a sudden that I came to Heidelberg. Although regrettably, I did not get a chance to try its famous rice pudding.

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What I did try, however, are these confectionary Snowballs (Schneeballen) which were widely available in bakeries around the city. In theory, these cookies sound like pure bliss since Butter Shortbread + Chocolate + Deep Fried = Deliciousness. In practice, they left much to be desired. The shortbread may have been kept out for too long and tasted rather like hard rocks. So today I have resolved to make my own snowballs in order to guarantee their freshness and to use up my leftover Easter candy.

After all, I believe a poet once said that April is the cruellest month, baking / Cookies out of dead hares, mixing / Gluttony and belief, drowning/ Fried cakes with candy glaze 😉

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Schneeballen (adapted from this recipe)

Makes 10 servings

INGREDIENTS

  • 250 g (a little over 2 cups) all-purpose flour, sifted
  • 50 g (1/2 stick) butter, softened
  • 125 g (1/2 cup) sour cream
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 1 large egg
  • 12 g (1 tablespoon) granulated sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 tablespoon rum
  • A pinch of salt
  • 200 g milk or dark chocolate, melted in the double boiler
  • Icing sugar
  • Enough oil for drying

INSTRUCTIONS

  1. Beat all the wet ingredients together until well combined. Add the flour in two batches, and knead the mixture into a smooth dough. If the dough is too sticky, add a bit more flour. Cover the dough with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least an hour.
  2. Divide the dough into 10 even pieces. On a lightly floured surface, roll each piece into a circle with a diameter of about 20 cm. Make some vertical slashes (about 1 cm wide) in the centre of the dough without cutting through the circles. Lift the circle up by the two sides and gather it into a small ball.
  3. Heat a pan of oil over high heat until the oil has reached 350 F or 180 C. Test for readiness by dropping a little ball of the dough into the oil. If the dough rises up immediately, the oil is ready.
  4. Turn the heat down to medium. Gently drop the snowballs into the hot oil, and let the them cook for 8 to 10 minutes.
  5. Once the cookies has turned golden brown, transfer them from the pan and onto a cooling rack. Let them cool for 10 to 15 minutes before proceeding.
  6. You can either dust them with a thick coat of icing sugar or drizzle over a thick layer of chocolate. Whatever you do, please eat them as soon as possible because they tend to lose their crispness quickly.
Food

On Curatorial Matters and Crumb Cakes

Random fact: I once took up a year-long volunteer position at the Department of Classical Civilizations of a sizeable museum in order to satisfy a curiosity about how exhibitions are created and maintained.

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The department had only two long-term personnel: a Curator and a Coordinator. The rest of the staff consisted of a handful of part-time interns.

The Coordinator was a small, energetic woman whose tone of voice, like Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique, oscillated between morose pessimism and defiant hope as she showed me around the curatorial wing on my first day.

“Here are all our storage cabinets. I know, I know — standard museum protocols mandate the use of powdered steel or baked enamel shelves to maintain adequate air circulation and minimize the possibility of off-gas. Obviously, these plywood cases with alkyd varnish are not ideal; they are meant to be a temporary fix when these quarters were renovated in the early 70s. Now that funding has been cut to the bone, I don’t think any changes will happen in the foreseeable future. We have to digitalize all these inventory items as quickly as possible because they will not last forever in this acidic environment. But fear not, I’m positive the budget situation will improve by next year.”

The Pareto principle states that 80% of the work is done by only 20% of the labour force. If this rule applied to the museum, then the Coordinator would definitely count amongst that elusive, high-performing 20%. Throughout my time there, I have never seen her sit down for more than five minutes aside from a few luncheons and meetings. Her hurried footsteps could be heard marching from the storage rooms to the laboratory and the galleries in a non-stop loop. She was in charge of everything from restoring artefacts to social media promotion campaigns, and yet still managed to reply to hundreds of daily email inquiries nearly instantaneously.

The Curator was an elderly gentleman who was frequently away on research trips. On the few occasions when I saw him in the corridors, he would always greet me by a different name — one day I was Martha, and another Maddie. During an inventory photo session, he unexpectedly came to my aid when I had trouble opening the lock on one of the museum vaults that were used to store more valuable artefacts. “This one is special,” he said, then took the key out of the lock, and gave the metal latch a hard bang with the side of his fist. The door immediately flew open without any further resistance.

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I spent most of my time transferring artefact descriptions from inventory records to the new digital database. The information was stored on huge stacks of cue cards, handwritten down by various former curators. There was the rigid, tiny scroll of one woman who exercised stringent economy in the use of paper, allotting exactly one card to every item in the collection. Consequently, her writing is filled with arcane abbreviations and short forms that required hours of additional research to decipher. Her successor wrote in a relaxed, loopy script, but had a strange tendency to leave some tantalizing sentences unfinished as if he were writing for Mad Libs. For instance: “The dancing maenads are engaged in a…”

Since my work station was adjacent to the break room of another department, I was entertained by a barrage of gossip while typing. Initially discussions were centred around Department XXX, which has fallen into financial straits because its curator purchased a number of specimens that turned out to be preserved in a highly toxic chemical. A team of waste-management experts (who charged a more expensive fee than the purchase price) had to be called in to dispose of the entire acquisition. Then came news that Museum XXX had been publicly reprimanded for selling artefacts at a profit in order to cover its operating costs, which incited a number of sympathetic sighs and murmurs. Every few weeks or so, a weepy graduate student would solicit advice on how deal her cranky thesis supervisor who was in the middle of a difficult divorce battle.

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The rest of my time was filled with supervising the galleries during school visits. Once the Coordinator and I encountered a hysterical teacher who said one of her students had licked a Roman grave relief on a dare and asked us if it was necessary to call the ambulance. Another time, I found a little boy lying inside a sarcophagus, pretending to be a mummy. “I can’t move,” he said impassively. “I’m dead for all of eternity.” When I appealed to his teacher for help to get him out, the teacher refused on the grounds that it was against their school policy to exercise coercive power over students. As an alternative solution, he called up the boy’s mother at work, and had her yell at him over the phone. The result was immediate: the mummy revived and ran to catch up with his classmates.

One of the perks about volunteering at the museum was having free access to the small café located on the ground floor. Every day at eleven and three, the smell of sugar, butter and chocolate would swirl around the front corridor, presumably to entice the long queue of visitors waiting to buy a ticket. My favourite offering is a simple crumb cake sold in generous square slices. In spite of the cake’s ordinary appearance, one bite instantly reveals a hidden surprise in the form of an oozing ribbon of strawberry jam. Shortly after I left the museum, the Coordinator emailed me the recipe for the cake along with the good news that after five consecutive denied requests, the department would finally receive a pair of new storage cabinets in the coming year.

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Crumb Cake with Jam Filling

Makes 12 servings

INGREDIENTS

For the cake:

  • 85 g (3/4 stick) butter, melted
  • 100 g (1/2 cup) granulated sugar
  • 125 mL (1/2 cup) milk
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 teaspoon almond extract
  • 120 g (1 cup) all-purpose flour, sifted
  • 4 g (1 and 1/2 teaspoon) baking powder
  • A pinch of salt
  • 120 g (1/2 cup) strawberry jam

For the streusel:

  • 85 g (3/4 stick) butter, melted
  • 50 g (1/4 cup) brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • A pinch of salt
  • 60 g (1/2 cup) all-purpose flour, sifted
  • 70 g (1/2 cup) old-fashioned oats

INSTRUCTIONS

  1. Preheat the oven to 400F (180 C) and line a 8-inch baking pan with parchment.
  2. For the streusel: Mix the butter, sugar, vanilla, and salt together with a whisk. Work in the flour and oats with your fingers until the mixture looks like clumps of wet sand.
  3. For the cake: Whisk the flour, baking powder, and salt together in a medium bowl, and set aside. Mix the butter, sugar, milk, egg, and vanilla together with a wooden spoon. Add in the dry ingredients and stir until just combined. Pour the batter into the baking pan and drizzle the jam on top. Evenly distribute a layer of streusel on top of the cake batter.
  4. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the centre of the cake comes out clean.
  5. Transfer out of the oven and leave to cool for 10 minutes.
  6. Serve with ice cream, or just eat straight out of the pan and rejoice.

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Travel

How to Live like a Roman Emperor: Croatian Palaces and Vegetable Pies

“What brings you to Split?” asked the boy behind the counter as he carefully counted out my change. Although Croatia had joined the European Union in 2013, it still retained its national currency. The coins lay side-by-side on the wooden counter,  one showing a marten with his paws stretched to the right and the other a large tuna in a gentle sea of waves. The marten was so close to capturing his prize that I was hesitant to pick up the money.

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“To see the Palace of Diocletian,” I said. “I’m heading to the basement halls.”

“Ah,” the boy nodded with an air of wisdom beyond his youthful appearance. “But,” his voice suddenly lowered. “Did you know that it is haunted?”

I shook my head. I had just walked past the gigantic statue of Gregory of Nin whose big toe was rumoured to bring good luck. Perhaps I ought to turn back and give it a rub as a precautionary measure against supernatural encounters?

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The lucky toe is on the foot that is stepping forward.

“Croatia has a lot of haunted places,” the boy continued. “At Daksa, fifty people were massacred during World War II. They were bad people for sure, Nazi helpers and the like. Their bones were left to rot in the open, and their spirits haunt the island to this day… There is also the village of Kringa, which was once the home of the vampire Grando. Many, many centuries ago, he rose from his grave and began knocking on people’s doors at night. Those whom he visited would die within the next day or so. The villagers were so frightened that they dug up Grando’s body and chopped off his head. When this happened, a huge stream of fresh blood shot out of the wound!” He pointed upwards, mimicked an explosion with his hands, then with one elegant sweep of his arm, gathered up all my purchases in a purple paper bag. “So if I were you, Miss, I would keep my eyes and ears open and be very, very careful.”

I thanked him for his advice and stepped out of the door. Outside the store’s display window, a French couple appeared to be caught off guard when their toddler son inquired earnestly about a ceramic mug painted with a cartoon couple in mid-fellatio. “C’est un acte d’amour,” explained the flustered mother.

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It was a gorgeous day in this picaresque port city along the Dalmatian coast. The balmy sea breeze quickly dispelled all my thoughts of gloom and doom. I strolled slowly by the crowded rows of market stalls along the palace façade and stepped into the Golden Gate, one of the four entranceways around the fortress walls.

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While in university, I had acquired a grimy copy of Edward Gibbons’ Decline and Fall of the Rome at a book sale because its hefty weight made an ideal support for the rickety door to my dorm. Since its retirement from that critical function, the book has been an ongoing reading project with no end in sight. Its majestic prose provides a surprisingly great source of guidance and solace for our current era of extreme uncertainty.

It was from Gibbons that I first learned about the life of Diocletian (245-316 AD), one of most revered and despised Roman emperor of the third century. The first half of his life was an spectacular rags-to-riches tale of a poor man who had joined the Roman military out of desperation, and then hustled his way to absolute power through cunning, grit and dumb luck. At the time, the Roman empire veered close to the brink of total collapse: the frontiers were attacked from all directions, economic production dropped precipitously, and mass social unrest threatened state administrations at every level. Skillfully exploiting the political turmoil to his advantage, Diocletian was able to consolidate his military power and restore a centralized government through the creation of a tetrarchy in which he allocated the responsibilities of ruling to three other men besides himself.

Sadly, Fortune proved to be capricious: the second half of his life was marred by an equally spectacular fall from grace. In testament to Enoch Powell’s wry observation that “all political lives end in failure,” the tetrarchy system fell apart after only two decades, and the empire quickly slipped back into civil war. Towards the end of his life, the hapless old emperor pulled a Richard Simmons, cut off all his political involvements, and withdrew to a magnificent limestone palace in Salona, which provided the foundations for the modern city of Split.

Today the palace precincts have been converted into a commercial district filled with shops, galleries, and cafés. The only remnants of the original palace structure are the basement halls, which until fifty years ago, had been used as a dump site for construction waste.

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The minute I entered the corridors leading to the basement, the lights grew dim and the temperature dropped noticeably. A strong smell of mud and old cement permeated the air. There were very few visitors, and a bored-looking university student was seated behind the ticket register. Out of curiosity, I asked him if the premises were really haunted. He shrugged nonchalantly, dropped his head down into his folded arms and promptly fell asleep, looking more like a member of the undead than a useful ally against them. I left him to his repose and moved forward.

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I made my way alone around the large circuitous halls; the sounds of my footsteps echoed softly against the walls. The classical arched pillars remained in place, condemned to hold up the weight of the city grounds for all of eternity. One room held a sarcophagus covered with badly carved inscriptions, and another some remains of a medieval olive oil press. There were undoubtedly hints of the palace’s former opulence and splendour, but like the face of a patient suffering from a chronic illness, the crumbling ceiling and the damaged walls bespoke prolonged pain and weariness. Ironically, the original architects specifically chose abstract, geometric designs for the floor plan to symbolize stability and longevity. Perhaps all human endeavours are futile against the destructive power of time.

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If you are a fan of the Game of Thrones, this palace was used as the set for the dungeon where Daenerys kept her baby dragons in Season 4.

All of sudden, I became very aware that there was something moving behind me. The rustling noise was amplified by the silence of the halls, and my heartbeat instantly quickened. Surely the Nazi ghosts and vampire stories were just a joke? I turned around and spotted the intruder: a black tabby was strutting down the hall at a slow and haughty pace. It glowered at me before disappearing into a back room. Split had a lot of stray cats roaming around the city. Other critters included tiny lizards that frequently darted across hot pavements in shuffling steps.

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When I returned to the front entrance, the university student was snoring softly with his head still buried in his arms. I walked past him and reemerged into the sunlight. In stark contrast to the basements, the streets and corridors were brimming with vitality; bouts of laughter rang out amongst visiting shoppers and a group of excited children chased each other around the main peristyle. At that moment, the optimist in me prevailed — there will always be a renaissance after the decline and fall.

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* * *

According to Gibbons, Diocletian took up gardening and planting vegetables after retiring to Split. When former associates tried to pursue him to return to power, he replied that if he could show them the cabbages which he had grown with his own hands, “he should no longer be urged to relinquish the enjoyment of happiness for the pursuit of power.” The local markets at Croatia offer a wide assortment of fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as home-made preserves and bread. One of the most popular snacks is Soparnik, a thin-crusted pie that is filled with either savoury vegetables or a sweet mixture of nuts and cheese. This dish is easier to replicate at home than some of Croatia’s more exotic seafood offerings. I made mine with Swiss chard and parsley, and they make a great vegetarian option for quick dinners.

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Soparnik (adapted from this recipe)

Makes 6 servings (or 1 for a hungry traveller)

INGREDIENTS

For the pie crust:

  • 350 g all-purpose flour, sifted
  • 175 mL water, room temperature
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon sea salt

For the filling:

  • 200 g Swiss chard, washed and dried (leaves only)
  • 1 handful of parsley
  • 1/2 small onion
  • 1 pinch of sugar
  • 1 tablespoon sea salt
  • 2 tablespoon cornstarch
  • 50 mL olive oil

For the finishing:

  • Some olive oil
  • 2 cloves of crushed garlic

INSTRUCTIONS

  1. Knead together the flour, water, oil and salt until the mixture forms a smooth dough. Place the dough in well-greased bowl and cover it with a sheet of plastic wrap. Let the dough rest for at least half an hour.
  2. Chop the chard, parsley, and onion into fine bits. Ideally, you would wash the Swiss chard a day before and let the leaves slowly dry overnight. I opted for a simpler version that relied on cornflour to prevent the vegetable liquids from seeping through the crust.
  3. Set a pan over the stove on medium-high and add the olive oil. Once the oil is hot, add the chopped onions and stir for 2 to 3 minutes until they have softened. Transfer the onion, seasonings, and cornflour to the chopped vegetables. Let the filling sit for 15 minutes before using.
  4. Preheat the oven to 420 F or 220 C. Line a large baking tray with parchment paper.
  5. Divide the dough into two equal pieces. On a lightly floured surface, roll each piece out into a circle with a diameter of 0.5 cm (1/5 inch).
  6. Spread an even layer of the filling over one of the dough circles.
  7. Place the other piece of dough over the filling and seal up the edges with a fork. Cut a little hole on top of the pie to release trapped steam.
  8. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes or until the top of the pie has turned golden brown. The baking time will vary depending on how thick your pie is.
  9. Transfer the pie from the oven. Brush some olive oil and crushed garlic on the pie before digging in. Dobar tek!

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