The smell of the rain

The smell of the rain

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When you live in a country where rain is a regular occurrence, it becomes a fact of life, almost an annoyance. Particularly in areas where precipitation is a year round affair and where the prospect of uninterrupted spells of rainfall implies inconvenience, damp and blocked sunlight for long periods of time, the subject of rain becomes a topic of distaste; a phenomenon which necessitates the need to temporarily flee one’s normal abode in search of warmth and sunshine.

Not so in places where rain is not so common. Such as Malta during the long, hot, dry summer season. A place where week after week of warm to hot sunny days prevail almost uninterruptedly between late spring and late summer: around twelve weeks of hot, dry weather which burns the countryside dry and lets you wonder at the resilient patches of green vegetation which defy the furnace-like quality of what they face and survive almost without a drop of soothing water for sustenance, except for the occasional heavy dewfall which is absorbed through their leaves.

Those of us who inhabit such areas are generally sensitive to a particular sensation which is most magnified when it rains after a long dry period. I term this sensation, the smell of the rain. A wonderfully rich and refreshing earthy smell which brings great joy. An indicator of change to come. The first airborne drop of relief in advance of wetter days ahead.

I used to think that this sensation was something that was simply an undefinable feeling. Some primitive switch to which humans in dry places are programmed to respond. Until an architect friend of mine told me that there is actually a word for it! Petrichor. A combination of two distinct words, petra and ichor designed to embrace and encapsulate the feeling that has been arousing my senses since childhood.

Petra stands for stone while ichor stands for the more esoteric fluid that flowed in the veins of the Gods in Greek mythology! So there you have it: a heavenly fluid mixing with the very earth on which we lesser human mortals stand. Producing a sensation of what flows through the Gods’ own veins! No wonder the feeling of euphoric refreshment which the smell of the first rain brings.

Researchers theorise that the smell of the rain, or petrichor is caused by a combination of factors. Part of the smell derives from an oily substance exuded by certain plants during dry periods which is absorbed by clay and rocks on the ground. When it rains after a lengthy dry spell, the oil is released into the air along with another compound, geosmin, a metabolic by-product of certain bacteria which is emitted by wet soil, producing the distinctive scent. The smell can be further compounded by ozone which is generated by lightning during a thunderstorm.

The purpose of the oil is to slow down seed germination and plant growth during the lethal dry season. It is only when the rain dissipates the oil in the ground that the seeds get the go-ahead to germinate. This would indicate that the plants produce the oil in order to safeguard the seeds from germination under duress.

Just imagine what is taking place whenever you feel this exuberant high! As each raindrop lands on the porous surface of the sun-baked ground, air trapped in the pores forms small bubbles, which float to the surface and release spray-like aerosols.  Such aerosols carry the scent, as well as bacteria and viruses from the soil. Gentle rainfall tends to produce more aerosols which explains why petrichor is stronger and more noticeable after light rains.

As to why it excites us so much? Scientists believe that humans react so joyfully to the smell of the rain because our ancestors may have been hard-wired to rely on rainy weather for survival.

Blood of the Gods splashing on dry stones or complex organic chemicals released by plants and bacteria? Whatever the origin, the magic remains for all those who like me are sensitive to its timeless pleasure.

 

Using Nature’s discarded Bounty: making home-made Carob Syrup.

Using Nature’s discarded Bounty: making home-made Carob Syrup.

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In most Maltese households one is sure to find the ubiquitous jar of “Gulepp tal-Harrub” or carob syrup, an elixir guaranteed to soothe the cruellest of coughs, whose popularity is passed on from generation to generation.  Like most things traditional, however, the home-made varieties so matter-of-factly produced by our ancestors have made way to commercially produced products so that while most people continue to purchase and use the syrup, they have lost the link with its natural source and with it the skill to produce their own at home.

Following last July’s blog entry in which I pondered on the wonders of carob trees and the pleasure of munching some fresh carob pods cut from an old tree, I decided to carry out some research on making Carob Syrup, and on discovering the relative ease with which it can be made, I decided to give it a try and produce enough to last me through the next twelve month cycle until the next carob pod harvest.

My entry today proposes to enthusiastically share my successful experience at making home-made gulepp tal-harrub in the hope that I might entice some readers to try it for themselves thus using a few more of the hundreds of thousands of carob pods which go to waste year after year.

The first step was to source a decent quantity of pods. I found an old, pod-laden tree in a field adjacent to the University and quickly filled a bagful from just a couple of branches. Each pod weighs around 20 grams so around 50 pods are necessary for a kilogram. The pods are already ripe so early in August and the tree had already shed hundreds on to the ground below. The one hundred-plus pods I collected did not even make a dent on the tree’s bountiful output and I felt good that at least a minuscule fraction of its free and generous produce was being put to use instead of wasting on the ground.

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Once home, I spread the pods on the table, removed loose twigs and leaves, and then took them in handfuls to the kitchen sink for a thorough rinse under running water. After patting them dry, I used kitchen scales to weigh a kilogram of pods and placed the pods onto a baking dish for roasting in the oven. I used a very high oven temperature (just a notch short of full) for around 50 minutes until the pods turned a bit crisp and brittle and started exuding the roasted-woody smell reminiscent of roasted chestnuts.

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After 50 minutes I took the pods out of the oven and let them cool. Meanwhile I filled a sizeable pot with two litres of water and proceeded to break each pod into little pieces by hand and throw it into the water. I covered the pot and let the pods soak for 24 hours to release their flavour and juices into the water. The water started to turn brown almost immediately. The liquid eventually formed the basis of the syrup which was produced on the following day.

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After 24 hours had passed, the mixture was placed on the cooker hob, brought to the boil and simmered gently for one hour to release more juice/flavour from the pods. By the end of the hour the liquid was very dark having absorbed the oils, sugars and flavours of the pods. The smell was divine. The pod fragments were then filtered off by sieving and the remaining liquid was put to the boil again after having 1 kilogram of sugar added. Once it reached boiling point it was left to simmer gently for 90 minutes, receiving a stir every now and then.

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The heating reduces the amount of water in the solution leading to a thickening of the liquid until it reaches a syrupy consistency. Once ready, it is recommended that the syrup is transferred hot to sterilised jars and sealed for eventual use.

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I have already received a number of ideas of variations to the above recipe which is time consuming but ultimately simple to make. Some have suggested using one litre of water with one kilogram of carob pods and using less sugar, preferably brown. The addition of bay leaves, cloves, anisette or brandy have also been suggested, while for better storage, one other suggestion is to pour a layer of scotch on the syrup before sealing the jar to lengthen its storage life.

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What are the benefits of Gulepp tal-harrub? You can either enjoy it as a refreshing year-round drink by diluting a couple of tablespoons of it in water, either cold or warm depending on the season. In terms of health, it serves as an effective expectorant, hence its popularity as an elixir for coughs. It is also a strong antioxidant, slowing down cell degeneration whilst also reputedly reducing levels of “bad” cholesterol. And it tastes good!

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Of carob pods and carats

 

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Walking in the Mellieha countryside this weekend, in the traffic-free and solitary whereabouts of Ghajn Tuta, I came across an ancient carob tree laden with ripe pods. The carob, known to science as Ceratonia siliqua and as harrub to the Maltese is a hardy evergreen tree which graces the Maltese landscape and retains a canopy of green in the otherwise parched and dry summer Mediterranean landscape.

The carob is an evergreen flowering shrub, belonging to the pea family. It is native to the Mediterranean region especially in the eastern and southern area of this great Sea and is a very common species here in Malta where it grows without much care or cultivation and is legally protected, although countless ancient carobs unfortunately continue to be regularly uprooted to make way for development.

The carob’s fruit, its pod, has been consumed since ancient times by the peoples of the Mediterranean. The Bible makes numerous references to it such as in the parable of the Prodigal Son where the man who squandered all his riches and ended up working as a swineherd, longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything”.

On the basis of another biblical reference, it is also known as Saint John’s Bread or locust bean given that when Jesus’ cousin John the Baptist was fasting in the desert, “the same John had his raiment of camel’s hair, and a leathern girdle about his loins; and his meat was locusts and wild honey.” The locusts referred to in the biblical passage are not of the grasshopper variety but carob pods!

In Malta the ripe carob fruit is used to produce a syrup called “Gulepp tal-Harrub” which is used to treat chest colds and coughs and also forms the basis of the “karamelli tal-harrub” sweets which are popular for consumption during Lent when it is forbidden to consume sugary sweets. In times of scarcity, the carob pod was ground into a flour to produce bread. During the siege of Malta in World War 2, carob pods became highly prized for their nutritional value and fetched the highest-ever recorded market price of a penny a pod!

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I prefer to eat my carob pods straight from nature. Detached from the tree, rinsed under clean, running water and chewed one small mouthful at a time. Beware of the very hard seeds inside the pod which can easily break a tooth! Eat them in the countryside and spit the seeds onto the soil to help propagate new trees or savour them at home. An unrefined, woody sweet flavour which leaves a delectable aftertaste in one’s mouth!

But does one simply eat carobs for fun? There are many ascribed nutrition and health benefits which can be summarised as follows:

Carob tannins contain Gallic acid that works as an analgesic, anti-allergic, antibacterial, antioxidant, antiviral and antiseptic. It improves digestion and lowers cholesterol level in the blood and is used for treating bowel disorders in children and adults alike. Since it does not contain caffeine, carob is beneficial for people with high blood pressure.

The vitamin E content in carob helps in treating cough, flu and anaemia while the Gallic acid helps in preventing and treating polio in children. Carob fights against osteoporosis due to its richness in phosphorus and calcium. Carob pod husks are chewed by singers to clear the voice and throat.

And the seeds? Small and hard there is not much of a culinary use and unless you wish to plant them in a pot to grow little carob trees, just throw them away into the countryside where they may either take root or serve as food for the birds. But have one final look at them and hold one in your hands. For the humble carob seed you are holding was used by the ancients as a unit of measure for weighing gold and precious stones.  The carob’s scientific name Ceratonia siliqua originates from the Greek name for carob seeds: keration.  The word carat used in this sense is a corruption of this Greek word!

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Snapshot from a historic garden

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Snapshot from a historic garden

For most people, the suburb of Floriana is merely a place of transit en route to Malta’s capital Valletta. This is indeed a pity, for Floriana, in spite of its relatively small size, features a rich variety of places to visit, foremost amongst which its numerous public gardens, mostly on the extensive network of fortifications which were built as an outer buffer to the massive bulwarks defending Valletta itself.

One of the oldest of these gardens is the Argotti Botanic Gardens on the Marsamxett Harbour flank of Floriana.  The garden’s oldest parts date back to 1741 when they served as the private domain of the Portuguese Grandmaster of the Order of St. John in Malta Dom Fra’ Manuel Pinto da Fonseca.  They were later cared for and extended by the Bailiff Ignatius de Argote et Gusman from whose family name the corrupted name Argotti originated.

During the Knights’ period, the gardens were used to grow medicinal herbs and plants bearing in mind the Order’s Hospitaller vocation only to be later transformed into the Botanical Gardens we see today during the early years of the British period in 1805.

Amongst the Argotti Garden’s treasured possessions one finds an extensive and internationally recognised collection of potted cacti which are available for public display in the enclosed area managed by the University of Malta and which is generally accessible by appointment with the Curator during office hours.

The photo which is the subject of this short entry shows an area of dense foliage in the Gardens which is dominated by an impressive giant cactus which looks like some surreal creation from Salvador Dalí’s paintbrush.

The Neo-Gothic building in the background is the Wesleyan Methodist Church which was designed by architect Thomas Mullet Ellis in 1881 and was completed in 1883 under the direction of Poulsen. It was inaugurated for religious worship on the 18th March 1883.

A snapshot of yet another of those nonchalantly and perfectly co-existing Maltese paradox landscapes: a decades old New World cactus flanked by a South East Asian ficus and a North African date palm in a herb garden designed by eighteenth century Catholic warrior monks with a nineteenth century Protestant place of worship filling up the background!

 

Sunset over the southern coast

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Sunset over the southern coast

A beautiful Maltese sunset seen from the limits of Qrendi in the south of the island. The broad expanse of the Mediterranean stretches in an uninterrupted direction all the way to the Tunisian coast about five hundred kilometres away.

The minuscule islet of Filfla, the remotest of the uninhabited smaller rocks of the Maltese archipelago lies silhouetted against the ruddy hues of the setting sun, its imposing 60 metre high cliffs like standing sentinel against the approaching darkness.

The exposed hard layer of coralline limestone karst is almost devoid of soil, its thin layer of organic cover washed into the sea ages ago once the trees which originally bound it to the land were cut. This landscape is far from dead however, supporting rich and aromatic Mediterranean garigue vegetation such as thyme, heather, asphodel and sea squill.

At the bottom of the picture, the small and picturesque inlet of Wied iz-Zurrieq, a tiny and narrow coastal indentation providing shelter to the small fleet of boats which ferry tourists to Zurrieq’s Blue Grotto further down along the coast.

Many call Wied iz-Zurrieq a fjord and superficially it does give the impression of being a mini version of one, but fjords are carved by glacial ice and glaciers have never featured in the Maltese landscape, not even during the ice ages. It is actually a ria, a submerged river canyon caused when a valley that was originally carved by fresh water on land ends up below sea level either due to a rise in sea level or due to land subsidence.

Within a few minutes total darkness will prevail. In the southern Mediterranean latitudes which are ten degrees closer to the Equator than they are to the North Pole, twilight is always brief. Like flicking off a light switch, someone once described it. But until that light switch is flicked off, the ephemeral beauty of the setting sun’s multi-hued light on this beautiful coastal stretch is captured by this picture for all to enjoy.

The joy and sadness of finding a rare flower

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The joy and sadness of finding a rare flower

In the middle of last week a good friend alerted me to the fact that, in a particular coastal spot, sheltered under a copse of tamarisk trees, there were a number of specimens of a very rare plant, the Pheasant’s eye.

On the following day I rushed to the place, as with such delicate plants there is always the strong likelihood that a bout of adverse weather conditions can very quickly dry up all the specimens of what one is looking for, turning enthusiasm into sheer disappointment.

But this time round, luck was on my side.  As I traversed the spot, I started looking for the ubiquitous red flowers of the species.  This was not so difficult as the prevailing floral colour at this time of the year is yellow with huge swathes of cape sorrel and crown daisies carpeting the thin soil cover beneath the tamarisks.

And there they were!  A number of individual specimens of the very rare Pheasant’s eye, Adonis microcarpa.  The flower the Maltese call Ghajn is-serduq or the Cockerell’s eye, there being no pheasants in Malta.  A member of the buttercup family and an indigenous Maltese plant, meaning that it is one of Malta’s original floral species and was not introduced to the island by man.

The Pheasant’s eye is an annual species which flowers during the period January to May.  It grows in soil-rich pockets of land, mostly near fields although it is sometimes also found on garigue.  In Malta, it is classified as rare and is a protected species which cannot be either picked or harmed.  Notwithstanding this, this rare but beautiful plant continues to become even scarcer with observed numbers continuing to decline, particularly in the past few decades.  So much so, that whenever a few are observed, locations are kept as closely guarded secrets lest they be damaged or destroyed.

There is always a joy when one is privileged to observe something which is rare and precious.  But there is also the accompanying sadness that the rarity being “enjoyed” is the result of habitat destruction and loss of bio-diversity.  Compounded by the even-sadder fact that for most of our decision makers and planners, such richness is rudely and ignorantly clustered into the pejorative label of “weeds”: the Maltese “haxix hazin” or “bad grass”.

To the insensitive, what I had the privilege to observe last week may be weeds.  But to me, this simple flower represents natural beauty as an art form: the perfect dimensions, the delicate beauty, the rich hues and the perfect fit with its surroundings.  For, in the immortal words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Flowers are a proud assertion that a ray of beauty out-values all the utilities of the world.”

I am pleased to share with you this particular ray of beauty that I managed to freeze in a photo last week and hope that your enthusiasm and appreciation of such beauty is at least as strong as mine.

Filfla: a rocky outcrop with a story to tell

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Filfla: a rocky outcrop with a story to tell

Placed anywhere else, tiny Filfla would go mostly unregarded: a tiny outcrop of limestone, standing some 5 kilometres out in the open sea; defiant and resolute against all that the elements throw at it.

But not in Malta, where a small surface area and a high population density means that every single hectare of land has its use, its role and its history. Even a small place like Filfla.

The islet is a small, rocky platform which was originally attached to the south-west coast of Malta. An ancient cataclysmic event, resulting in the Maghlaq Fault on the main island tore Filfla away from its parent, like some boulder thrown out to sea, thereby converting it from a nondescript section of coast into the separate entity that we know today.

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It must have once been bigger, of course. But millennia of pounding by the deep blue Mediterranean which surrounds it, accelerated with its more recent misfortune to have served as a sitting-duck target for British warships engaging in gunnery target practice have led to the islet losing a lot of its original mass with today’s surviving chunk looking like the battered hulk of a fortress which has been subjected to a massive and merciless bombardment.

The name Filfla has its roots in the Arabic word for chili pepper, filfel. The name probably originated either due to the islet’s miniscule size or its original shape which may have reminded observers from the Maltese mainland of a small chili. There is absolutely no evidence to suggest that chili was ever cultivated on the island given its small size and its remoteness so the name is most probably descriptive of shape or size rather than associated with produce. Maps from five hundred years ago refer to the island as Piper, which is the Latinised form of filfel. This indicates that Filfla’s name is at least of Semitic origin from the time of the Arab period around one thousand years ago. I am not aware of any older references to the island and its name in classical times.

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According to historical sources there used to be a small structure on the island, dating back to the fourteenth century, which doubled up as a place of worship and a store of food and water for fishermen stranded upon it in times of bad weather. The chapel was deconsecrated in 1575 and apparently the cave housing this chapel/food depot collapsed after an earthquake in 1856 that also sank part of the island. A late medieval painting showing strong renaissance influences which is found in the vestry of the parish church of the nearby mainland village of Zurrieq is popularly known as the “Madonna ta’ Filfla” triptych and is popularly assumed to have once adorned the Filfla chapel, although doubts exist whether a painting of such quality would have been commissioned to sit in such a rather deserted chapel.

Some sources also refer to a fresh water spring which provided a source of drinking water: something entirely feasible given that at sea level, Filfla sports a layer of impermeable blue clay implying that it could support a tiny, rainwater-fed, perched aquifer which recharged annually during the rainy season, eventually leaking out through a spring.

Filfla’s location most probably had a strong bearing on the location of the two imposing prehistoric complexes of Hagar Qim and Mnajdra on the Qrendi coast with some historians speculating that the mysterious offshore rock, silhouetted against the midday sun on the southern horizon, may have possessed some symbolic or sacred significance of context to the two magnificent temples and stone calendars located within 500 metres of each other.

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In more recent times, it was the beauty of the setting, with the gently sloping cliffs on one side and the islet on the other that led the British Governor of Malta Sir Walter Norris Congreve to request burial at sea at a midway point between the two in 1927, thus immortalizing his name by lending it to the aptly named Congreve Channel to the body of water stretching out to Filfla.

Filfla’s major involvement in the international arena took place when the Maltese Government unsuccessfully tried to convince the International Court of Arbitration in The Hague to include it in their deliberations when calculating the median line between Maltese and Libyan waters as a result of a dispute which arose between the two countries for oil-exploration purposes in the early 1980s.

Filfla is a flat-topped plateau which from the distance makes it comparable to a ship. This unfortunate association led to the commencement of a tradition by the British Navy of using Filfla as a target for naval bombardment practice. This action, unthinkable today, but entirely feasible and virtually unopposed in those less sensitive times, created two problems for the isle and its environs. First of all it damaged the soft rocky structure of Filfla resulting in extreme fragmentation and huge amounts of rubble along its sides.

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Furthermore, it also resulted in a huge amount of unexploded ordnance lying idle in the relatively shallow waters surrounding Filfla, obviously originating from the hundreds of unexploded shells which missed their mark. While a land-based target-practice range can be regularly cleared of such unexploded ordnance, nothing of the sort was ever done beneath the surface of Filfla’s seas, allowing individuals to dive and retrieve the explosives for conversion into festive fireworks: an eccentric but also dangerously irresponsible past-time. To this day, fishing is prohibited within a one nautical mile radius of Filfla to reduce the risk of netting any unexploded shells.

However, every dark cloud has its silver lining. The isolation, the destruction and the dangers lurking beneath the waves have in a way also led to the protection of Filfla and its evolution into an off-limits nature reserve of international importance.  It plays host to an endemic species of lizard not found anywhere else on the planet. In fact the lizard species, which is described as large green with bluish spots is actually a subspecies of the one found on the Maltese islands but differs enough to qualify for a separate subspecies title, the Filfla lizard.  And contrary to popular legend and misconception, the Filfla lizard does not have two tails!  The legend stems from a reasonably common occurence worldwide when lizards who partially drop their tails instead of losing it in full, grow a new one next to the stump of the older one making it look as if they have two tails!

Amazingly, the islet also supports one of the largest known colonies in the world (five to eight thousand pairs) of the European Storm Petrel, Hydrobates pelagicus melitensis, the appropriately named Kangu ta’ Filfla: quite an achievement for an island the size of two football pitches. It also has extensive nesting populations of shearwaters and yellow legged gulls who prefer the undisturbed and unlit cliffs of Filfla to those of the nearby mainland to set up their breeding grounds.   The cracks in the rock and the spaces in the boulder scree created by the historical bombardment seem to play an important role in Filfla’s attractiveness as a bird colony.   The islet’s flat top is characterized by coastal garigue vegetation together with a species of giant leek which is very common. Dry during the summer months, the surface becomes a very lush green in winter.  An endemic species of snail has also been recorded.

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A small rocky shoal is also visible very near to Filfla, possibly the remnant of what the islet used to extend to. This tiny rock, barely above sea level is known by several names, amongst which Il-Gebla ta’ Xutu (Xutu’s rock), Santa Maria and Filflett (as a diminutive of Filfla).

For the past few decades, Filfla has enjoyed the status of ‘site of scientific importance’ and is strictly off limits to visitors: a fitting culmination following the depredations it has suffered at the hands of man. So, when in the South West of Malta, do stop and have a long look at Filfla. As in many others things in Malta, it is the ultimate proof that size does not matter, and that even the most negligible of rocky outcrops over here has a larger than life role both in terms of its natural and its historical attributes!

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