Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Truffle hunting in Alba

You can almost find the truffle fair in Alba by following your nose..... the fair, which takes place in the Cortile della Maddalena, is an annual event in which a huge variety of truffles and truffle-based products are displayed. As you enter the marquee you are hit by the distinctive aroma of the truffle which is pungent and not entirely pleasant. However, grated over a freshly fried egg, the taste of a good white truffle is just sublime. I'm very lucky because I don't have to pay through the nose (sorry!) for these delicacies: my friend Gino is, amongst other things, a trifolaio or truffle hunter. Gino and his little white dogs venture out into the rolling hills of the Langhe to hunt for truffles and they bring back small nuggets of the black and white truffles for family and friends. The dogs are trained from infancy and can detect a truffle up to a metre under the ground, even in the snow. The dog stops directly over the spot that the truffle is buried, and then Gino digs for the treasure. Wth careful instructions about storage and preparation, the truffles are handed over. I must keep them in paper in a jar in the fridge. The jar is important as the odour is so strong that even eggs stored nearby will absorb it through their shells. I need to buy a special truffle grater, as they must be served as thin slivers, much thinner than I could cut by hand. And finally the release of the flavour and perfume as the flakes fall onto freshly prepared pasta........
The lovely town of Alba goes back to prehistoric times, but was re-founded as a Roman town, Alba Pompeia, due to its strategic position on the road from Aquila to Turin. There are a few Roman remains, such as the temple of Pertinax, born in Alba, a governor of the province of Britain and also holder of the dubious honour of being the shortest reigning Roman emperor (86days). The loveliest buildings, however are the medieval towers and beautiful old churches. There are also a few fine examples of Italian fin de siecle architecture with well-preserved wrought iron balconies.
Now it is a thriving, stylish town with good shops, a huge market and a choice of traditional or modern bars. The town owes its air of well-being to the truffles, the wine industry (Barolo and Barbaresco are nearby) and also thanks to the fact that it is home to Ferrerro, the chocolatier. Chocolate addicts can visit the factory shop..... I, however, headed for the Fontanafredda vineyards and, after a tour of the cellars, sat down to a well earned degustazione - or wine-tasting - cheers!

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Is there such a thing as Islamic Art?

So, as I'm about to head off to the Algarve to give my lecture, I'm pondering the term 'Islamic Art'. I have to confess that I am not really happy with the term and I think that, as a definition, it would only apply to a small number of things in any 'Islamic Gallery' of a major museum.
If you visit the John Addis Gallery of Islamic Art at The British Museum, what you are actually seeing are objects made in lands where, at the time that the artifacts were made, the ruling body embraced Islam. Notwithstanding the great patronage of many of these rulers, which has produced a vast array of fine architecture and art, a good percentage of the pieces were made by, or for, non-Muslims: and several of the objects, for example wine cups, would not be associated with a Muslim way of life today.
The first collections of 'Islamic Art' as we know it today started to be assembled in the 19th century, with the Duc de Blacas, a French nobleman, being one of the first collectors to really acknowledge the worth of these pieces alongside classical artefacts. Interest grew, until it reached a pitch at the time of the Arts and Craft movement, whose practitioners admired and sometimes replicated the techniques, forms and themes of such things as lustre pottery and enamelled glass. Amongst collectors and admirers there was a certain amount of ignorance about the actual origins of some of the techniques and the objects themselves, and the scholar Oliver Watson would also argue for a degree of intellectual snobbery, with anything particularly fine being labelled (often erroneously) 'Persian', since this was somehow perceived to be more sophisticated than 'Arab'. This particular trait is still clouding the scholarship of lustrewares today.
So, back to Islamic art. Is it a valid term at all? For certain objects I think it is: take for example the beautiful Iznik mosque lamp made for the refurbishment of the Dome of the Rock by Suleyman the Magnificent. Mosque lamps have a distinctive form, being designed to hang in numbers from the ceiling of the mosque, and can be fashioned from glass, pierced metal or ceramic with a lit wick in oil casting the light. It is clear from the use of pottery, which clearly does not let the light shine through it, that the lamps had a symbolic as well as a functional purpose. This is underlined by the fact that many lamps are inscribed with the Surah, or Chapter, of Light from the Quran, in which Allah is likened to a light and is the only metaphor for God in the Quran. This particular example is inscribed with the Shahada, the Muslim profession of faith and the first of the Five Pillars of Islam. The combination of the form and the use of Arabic calligraphy, which acquired almost the sanctity of a sacred script due to the fact that it was via Arabic by which the prophet Mohammed received the revelations of the Quran, give the object a meaning far beyond its function and associate it strongly with the Islamic religion. This, I believe, makes this particular object truly Islamic art, but such strong associations cannot really be applied to the majority of objects found in an 'Islamic Gallery' and the lumping together of all objects found in such a wide range of countries (Spain to India) and across so many centuries (7th AD to the present) seems to me to be a construct of 19th century Europe which needs revision today.