Monthly Archives: September 2012

Down memory lane

I took this photo on the construction site of the Hoover Dam, Arizona/Nevada on 30 September 1932. 80 years ago today!

No. Wait a second. I’m not that old. I actually took it during a reconnaissance mission in Iraq in 2004…

As you have probably worked out already, that was a fib too. I have never been to Iraq. The reality is that I was disappointed I hadn’t taken any photos this weekend and so I looked back over my stockpile of the thousands of photos I have taken in the past couple of years and re-worked one which I haven’t used before.

The real photo was taken a year ago today on a strange sort of abandoned building site in Canary Wharf. Here is the original:

The photo is interesting enough on its own, but I prefer my, somewhat fantastic (in the literal, original sense of the word), alternatives.

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Eurasian Jay

I’m quite fond of the composition of this shot of a Eurasian Jay (Garrulus glandarius) as it reminds me of Japanese art. For this reason, I didn’t crop it further.

As you can see, the Jay is beautifully coloured and marked. It is undoubtedly the most exotic looking of the British corvids (with the potential exception of the rare scarlet-beaked Chough). The Corvidae family also includes the commonly seen crows, magpies, rooks, and jackdaws. Some people see the corvids as aggressive, scavengers, thieves, noisy, pests, and even as symbols of evil. They can certainly be some of these things, but I am a huge fan. Corvids are probably the most intelligent bird family in existence…

Sequential tool use

…One type of crow has even been examined as the only bird species known to exhibit sequential tool use (i.e. using a tool to obtain or shape another tool thus displaying forethought and planning going well beyond basic animal instincts). Just check out this video of a crow using a stick to get a longer stick and then again to get a longer stick still so that it can reach food – I can think of plenty of humans who would be flummoxed by that challenge! I may have written that in jest, but some believe that Corvids display intelligence beyond almost any other animal except humans.

Mimicry

Another example of their intelligence is that Corvids are also excellent mimics. The Jay may have a loud rasping call of its own but it can also accurately mimic a number of other bird species. It has even been known to attack raptors such as Tawny Owls whilst precisely mimicking their calls. Just imagine how freaky that would be for the Tawny Owl – having a colourful bird flying at it loudly repeating what it had just been saying in precise replication of its voice?! In this video, you can watch the Jay mimic an angry cat – brilliant!

If you want to read more about the Jay in symbolism and life then this blog post is excellent. But, suffice to say, Jays and the Corvids in general are amazing creatures that deserve our respect.

Update…

Since posting this blog, I have now found an even more incredible video of a crow displaying tool-use intelligence. Just watch what happens when this bird can’t quite get its stick to pick up the worm … it only goes and bends the stick into a hook!

Secret London: Part VII – The churchyard of St Ghastly Grim


St Olave, Hart Street, is an ancient church (although largely wrecked during the Blitz and now re-built) in the middle of the City. It is the burial place of its most famous neighbour, the diarist Samuel Pepys who lived and worked in a long-demolished building opposite.

The inscription above the gateway reads, Christus Vivere Mors mihi lucrum, which roughly translates as Christ lives (or Christ is life), death is my reward. The morbid sculpture work on the gateway further advances the theme with one skull wearing a victory wreath. In 1665, only seven years after the skulls were carved, and only one year before it came within a whisker of being destroyed by the Great Fire of London, 365 people were registered for burial here from the Black Death (including the unfortunate Mary Ramsay, credited with bringing the plague to London) – that would have been a person a day carried through these macabre gates in this small parish alone.

This morbid scene prompted Charles Dickens to include it in one of his books and rename it, the churchyard of Saint Ghastly Grim…

“One of my best beloved churchyards, I call the churchyard of Saint Ghastly Grim; touching what men in general call it, I have no information. It lies at the heart of the City, and the Blackwall Railway shrieks at it daily. It is a small small churchyard, with a ferocious, strong, spiked iron gate, like a jail. This gate is ornamented with skulls and cross-bones, larger than the life, wrought in stone; but it likewise came into the mind of Saint Ghastly Grim, that to stick iron spikes a-top of the stone skulls, as though they were impaled, would be a pleasant device. Therefore the skulls grin aloft horribly, thrust through and through with iron spears. Hence, there is attraction of repulsion for me in Saint Ghastly Grim, and, having often contemplated it in the daylight and the dark, I once felt drawn towards it in a thunderstorm at midnight. ‘Why not?’ I said, in self-excuse. ‘I have been to see the Colosseum by the light of the moon; is it worse to go to see Saint Ghastly Grim by the light of the lightning?’ I repaired to the Saint in a hackney cab, and found the skulls most effective, having the air of a public execution, and seeming, as the lightning flashed, to wink and grin with the pain of the spikes. Having no other person to whom to impart my satisfaction, I communicated it to the driver. So far from being responsive, he surveyed me–he was naturally a bottled-nosed, red-faced man–with a blanched countenance. And as he drove me back, he ever and again glanced in over his shoulder through the little front window of his carriage, as mistrusting that I was a fare originally from a grave in the churchyard of Saint Ghastly Grim, who might have flitted home again without paying.” – Charles Dickens, The Uncommercial Traveller

Secret London: Part VI – The Secret Garden

Squeezed between modern financial services buildings in the City, a small lane leads to what appears to be an old church, St Dunstan in the East. But all is not as it first seems…

St Dunstan in the East is an example of what can be created and achieved from the ruins of disaster. The original church dated back to Saxon London of 950 AD. Situated only a few hundred feet from the start of the Great Fire of London – Pudding Lane – meant it didn’t stand a chance and was raised to the ground in 1666. But this meant that the greatest architect of the time, Sir Christopher Wren (designer of St Paul’s Cathedral) built a new church in its place, and his tower still stands proud today (see above).

But the rest of the body, or nave, of the church is now just an exposed shell – it was destroyed by a German bomb in the Blitz. However, as London was gradually repaired through the ’50s and ’60s this bomb-damaged husk was turned into something beautiful by making it into a public walled garden.

Wine tasting in Florence

Just occasionally you dine or drink out and you experience something truly special. I am sure most people have memories of the finest restaurants they have been to. A number of factors make an evening special: the food, the drink, the surroundings, the atmosphere, the service, the company you share it with, and so on. Rarely, all of these factors come together brilliantly and you experience something you will remember forever.

And so it was for me just over a week ago in Florence at the Enoteca Pitti Gola Wine Bar. My partner and I were celebrating our engagement with a wine tasting that I really will remember fondly forever. Unfortunately, I didn’t have my camera with me, so I had to make do with my iPhone (which can take great pics, but less so at night).

Enoteca Pitti has a wonderful location immediately opposite the hugely impressive Pitti Palace of the Medici. We were guided through an incredible range of 17 Italian wines in total and several delectable plates of Tuscan food throughout a long and wonderful evening by our expert sommelier, Zeno:

Zeno, with his brother and another business partner, is one of the three owners of Enoteca Pitti. On their website, it says, “Zeno is known for creating a comradery with his clients, drinking  along with them, as it is a pleasure for him.” Well, whether comradery or camaraderie, I can confirm this statement 110%. Never have I felt so welcome, so involved, and so enthused by the passion of a someone working in, or running, a bar or restaurant. Zeno’s love and knowledge of wine was abundantly clear and he gave us an incredible tour of some rare and amazing wines of the region accompanied by fantastic local delicacies cooked by chef, Marzia Sassetti. Notice how I said the food accompanied the wine, and not the other way around. First and foremost, this is a wine bar. The food was exquisite, but simple enough not to distract from the stars of the show being poured into your glass.

Just to give you a flavour of the food, we were given a selection of stunning local cheeses and cured meats as well the finest Steak Tartare I have ever eaten and the best pasta including this ravioli lovingly prepared from scratch only minutes before being set on our plates… (click here to see their photo of Marzia preparing the fresh pasta)

But, for me, it was the wines and the stories of the wines – lovingly told by Zeno – which made the evening so incredibly special. We were treated to tastings of three sparkling wines, four whites, seven reds, one dessert wine, and two Grappas (with Zeno often refilling my glass in the process as well!). All of the wines were Italian, many of them Tuscan, and all from small producers who focus all their attention on producing quality rather than quantity. We tried wines which were produced in the hundreds and thousands of bottles rather than hundreds of thousands.

Wines included the lovely white Capezzana Trebbiano 2009 – from a family vineyard that has been producing wine since 804!! And no, I haven’t missed a digit, that is 1200 years of wine production culminating in this…

When you next plan to buy a bottle of Prosecco from a shop or restaurant, see if there is an opportunity to buy a different Italian sparkling wine instead, Franciacorta. They will not rival the finest champagnes, but they are excellent at a fraction of the price. We tried three of them, including, Faccoli brut which had a lovely dry taste with an appley finish…

We worked our way through seven distinct and remarkable reds, finishing on the Langhe Rosso Status from 2001 by Giuseppe Mascarello, a powerful blend of Nebbiolo, Barbera, and Freisa grapes that, if you can track it down, you might be able to order for around £60-70 a bottle…

Zeno explained his sadness and shame that a by-product of the fame of Chianti has meant that so much of what is produced for the international market is mass-produced and unworthy of the name. We tasted a number of superb Sangiovese grape wines including this Monteraponi Chianti Classico Riserva from 2009 produced in an ancient vineyard in the hills of Chianti…

If you go to Florence and you like wine, I could not recommend Enoteca Pitti highly enough – it was a truly superb experience.

Here are the other wines that we tried:

Il Mosnel Franciacorta

Faccoli Franciacorta Rose

Tenute Dettori Renosu

Laimburg Riesling

Renato Keber Collio Friulano 2007

Rosso di Montalcino, Cerbaiona di Diego Molinari 2009 (no website found)

Ragnaie V.V. Brunello di Montalcino 2007 (possibly my favourite red of the evening)

Le Potazzine, Gorelli, Brunello di Montalcino 2004

Il Colles di Carli, Brunello di Montalcino 2004 (no website found)

Barbaresco Roccalini, 2008 (no website found)

Unfortunately, I can’t remember the details of this lovely Passito dessert wine

Finally, the two Grappas:

Marolo, Grappa di Barolo (50%!)

and

Milla (by Marolo) (a much friendlier 35%)