Did You Have Nougat for Christmas? Secrets of An Old-fashioned Sweet

English: Montelimar's Nougat. Photograph taken...
Montelimar's claim to fame: Nougat. But was it really born there? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Did you have nougat for Christmas? If you have, you've renewed with an old tradition that is widespread in Europe. You've treated yourself to a moment of joy in a world that, as the year 2012 comes to an end,  is increasingly sorrowful, with reports of people in Mali getting their hands cut off for alleged thieving or stoned to death for adultery, a young woman in Delhi dying after having been raped on a public bus and horrendously massacred with a metal rod, of Afghan policemen killed in their sleep by their turncoat colleagues who then run to the Talibans for safety...

Which is why I wanted to tell you about something pleasant that helps to reconcile oneself with human nature, a simple, magical sweet made from honey, roasted nuts and whipped egg white. Called nougat in most northern European countries, Russia included, it goes by many more names in Southern Europe: turròn in Spain, turrò in Catalan and torrone in Italy, all three terms referring to the toasting of the nuts it contains. In Sicily, the best variety is called cubbaita  from the Latin cupedia. In Malta, it's qubbadj (close to the Sicilian term), in Greece, it's mandolato (a reference to almonds). And it even exists outside of Europe:  called Gaz in Persia, it's been produced for centuries in Esfahan and Boldaji located in the central plateau of Iran. But it's also been made in Iraq where it's known under another name: Mann al-Sama. However Gaz is different in one fundamental way: it uses the sap from a local plant, a species of Tamarix that is not found in European nougat.

Benevento: Teatro Romano
Benevento: Teatro Romano (Photo credit: rossamente)
There is little doubt that nougat as we know it was born somewhere in the South of Europe and everyone tried to lay claim to it. Chances are however that  it originated in Roman times, a sweet the Latins called cupedia, a term meaning delicacies or fondness for delicacies - the perfect way to call a sweet!

For centuries, it was made  across the Italian peninsula, from Sicily to Benevento to Lombardy. The nougat destined to become the most popular variety in modern times first appeared in  Cremona in the early 15th century: this is the one you've probably had, it is white, a concoction of honey and beaten egg whites. Brown nougat appeared later and is called mandorlato in Italy and nougatine in France. The difference? It doesn't contain egg whites. After those two come all the other varieties: with chocolate, hazelnut, candied fruit - whatever. No doubt, all very good but further and further away from traditional nougat. In Australia and the US, nougat can even become an ingredient in other types of candies.

The French, not unsurprisingly, claim that nougat originated in the ancient Provence city of Montélimar that predates Roman times, and that this is the real "capital of nougat". It certainly was a big production center starting in the 18th century but nowadays Montélimar, a pretty sleepy town off the Rhone river, finds itself by-passed by a new highway (the A 7 Autoroute). Tourists no longer come as they used to and many nougat factories have closed down...

View Rhone river near Montelimar, France
View Rhone river near Montelimar, Franchttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nougate (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Still, what Montélimar did  manage to achieve is pass on the term "nougat" to the rest of Europe: the word comes from old Occitan pan nogat (in Latin: nux gatum) which means nut bread.

But the habit to eat it for Christmas, was that also a French tradition? The French love to make you believe that anything that has to do with food comes from them. But in this case, it's highly unlikely. The link between a sweet originally made in Italy and the Christian festive occasion seems to have a completely different origin: the Bourbon Kings of Naples and Two-Sicilies were the ones to promote nougat. It seems there were several centers of excellence in Benevento (a region under the King's purview) for example Santa Croce del Sannio and Montefalcone di Val Fortore. The "cupeta beneventana" (again that reference to Latin cupedia!) was so famous that it was sent to Rome and given to prelates as a special holiday present, earning the name "torrone del Papa"  (the Pope's nougat). Soon enough - by the 1800s - the habit of eating nougat at Christmas spread across Europe.

Which kind of nougat do you like best? It comes in all sorts: soft and gooey, hard and crunchy, with different kinds of nuts, all white or covered with chocolate...Our modern food industry in the US and UK has taken the nougat recipe to another level, adding sucrose and corn syrup to it and throwing it into all sorts of sweets and candies, creating with marketing inventiveness new candy bars, from Mars to Milky Way and many more.

Nougat is versatile, is everywhere and makes you happy... one reason why I picked it as a pen name. There's another, more personal reason too but I won't bother you with it for now (If you're curious, you  can find it here, in the first post I wrote to introduce this blog, back in 2009...)

Have a fruitful, nougat-full, prosperous 2013!

Nougat sold in Perth, Australia.
Nougat sold in Perth, Australia. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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2013 Will Be The Year of Baby Boomer Novels, Merry Boomer Christmas!

That's my prediction: boomer literature will be the Big Discovery of 2013, as the publishing industry, and not just Hollywood, realize there is a market out there of 78 million boomers in the US alone and many more in the rest of the world. What the boomers did for YA (Young Adult) literature 40 years ago, they will now do for BB lit. History repeats itself!

Merry Boomer Christmas!

For news about boomer lit around the Net, including articles and posts on the Passive Voice, Boomer Café, Digital Book Today, the Kindle Nation Daily, Venture Galleries and more, check here

For great Christmas gifts for the boomer in your life, check the bookshelf of the Goodreads Group discussing BB novels here, there are some 40 BB titles, see here

Or go to the thread in the Amazon Kindle fora, here.

For the next great boomer film, QUARTET, featuring Maggie Smith, Billy Connolly, Michael Gambon and directed by Dustin Hoffman, check here. In the movie trailer you'll see the setting, it's just amazing! Look here: 


It's coming up in January 2013, don't miss it! 

Yes, boomer films and boomer lit have arrived! And it's not just about BB novels: there are BB short stories, BB poetry and, why not, BB non-fiction...

2013 will also be the year of Readers! Just look at this picture I took yesterday in Rome in my neighborhood bookstore:

These are people queuing up to pay! Such a long line, much longer than any you see in other stores in the area - we're in a deep recession in Italy, people aren't buying anything but they're buying books! Whoever said that Italians don't read...And whoever said that women read more than men? Just look at the number of men in that line...

Have a Successful and Happy 2013!
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When Music Meets Poetry...

The international poetry anthology edited by Oscar Sparrow, FREEZE FRAME (published by Gallo Romano, UK) is to be accompanied by music and I wondered what music could ever fit the different voices of 6 totally different poets. Well, now I've stopped wondering and I'm amazed!

Listen to it, tell me what you think:

I find it hauntingly beautiful...Even if you're in a bad mood for some other reason, listen to it, it will change your mood for the better! 

This music has the power of poetry - that ability to operate on one's mood which is poetry's greatest appeal, regardless of the theme. Just let the music and the poems work on you and for you...

NEWS UPDATE: FREEZE FRAME, a poetry anthology, together with audio book, has just come out, click here to purchase.

Also on December 21, there will be a Google+ hangout on 21 December, 6 pm GMT. Click here to join and meet the 6 poets, Paul Tobin, Jefferson Hansen, Jo VonBargen, Candy Bright, Oscar Sparrow and... me!

Freeze Frame - Stop Time - Carpe Diem - Catch the vanishing moment...Let the Mouth of Truth talk to you...

And with my personal warm thanks to the anthology's editor, Oscar Sparrow, tireless and indomitable, and to author and poet Emma Calin (regretfully she didn't participate in this anthology but she is giving us selflessly her time and support). 

Roma-bocca della verità
Roma-bocca della verità (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


The Scandal of the Charity Business: Donors Beware!

Charity show
Charity show (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The charity business is the unsavory side of humanitarian assistance. A recent Arte TV investigation (aired on 11 December 2012, click here) revealed the extent of the scandal in Germany, France and the United States. The film lasts 100 minutes and is in French and German only, but here are the highlights, you don't want to miss them:

- fund-raising activities tend to gobble up most of the donations, in some cases up to 100% and not a penny arrives at destination!  In Germany, only some 230 charity funds out of a total of 580,000 have been classified as bona fidae institutions by the German Central Institute of Social Questions. They base their judgment on whether those charity funds make their budget public or not (most of them don't) and whether less than 30% of their budget is spent on fund-raising. 

In France, there is no similar oversight institution, control is in the hands of  the Cour des Comptes (Controller Court) that doesn't see it as its mandate, and more generally French Justice. As of now, 17 French charity institutions are under investigation. And this has been going on for 3 years now, with still no verdict in sight. Meanwhile these organizations continue to raise money and, interestingly, they refused to talk about their business. In the film, we see how, along with the cameramen of Arte TV, a French journalist (Etienne Gingembre of the Revue Economique, Le Capital), repeatedly  tries to reach them and is every time rudely turned away. 

In America, the situation is better: charity funds must make their budget public and there is an organization, the Better Business Bureau's Wise Giving Alliance (see article below) that provides guidance to donors and helps them avoid scams. 

This said, the fact remains that there is no government oversight or law about what percentage should go to beneficiaries. That 30% limit which sounds so reasonable is simply not respected. Hundreds of thousands of charitable organizations manage to fall through the cracks and avoid investigation while donors keep giving and lining up the fund-raisers' pockets!

- the number of charitable foundations has exploded and they compete with each other to raise funds, mostly via mailing: as a result, they invest increasing resources in communications, PR and mailing out requests for donations. Arte TV dug out the extraordinary story of the St Joseph charity (run by a Catholic priest) in Dakota, US aimed at taking care and educating some 200 local American Indians. Bottom line, because of the costs of fund-raising, they run a huge budget, some $40 million/year! In other words, to give an education to 200 children, $200,000 are spent every year on each child!

- the massive mailing campaigns yield an amazingly low rate of return: somewhere between 0,5% and a maximum of 2% of the requests are answered, and average donations are puny (between $15 and $20). This means that requests and pamphlets that are both costly to print and to mail have to be sent in the millions to give any results, and the campaigns have to be repeated several years (up to 3 or 4 years) to give results in terms of donations!

- a whole mailing industry has arisen in the charity business, in parallel to the charity funds, effectively pocketing the donations or at least leaving very little for charity. They make some charitable organizations look like mail boxes!

- the strategies to request donations verge on the immoral as a result of the acute competition between charity organizations. While Christmas cards included in the mailed request are considered "normal", even acceptable, the inclusion of physical gifts like a writing set, a small wooden carved bison (a St Joseph's gift), a false "silk" scarf etc are close to unacceptable as they induce in the donor guilt feelings for having received such a gift, thus inspiring him to give more than he intended. 

When one brave German journalist tried to draw attention to the fund-raising hubris with both a website (Stefan Loipfinger who ran CharityWatch.org on the web) and a book ( Die Spendenmafia: Schmutzige Geschäfte mit unserem Mitleid, published in 2011), he found himself under violent attack, accused of calumniation and brought to court. In the Arte TV film he reports that his family's safety has been directly threatened and by February 2012 he had to close down his website!

- the humanitarian aid community lives in a state of denial: instead of cleaning up the charity industry and setting rules of behavior and calling for oversight systems, the problems are swept under the rug. As a result, the bad sheep threaten to overrun the good ones and could bring down the whole system. 

Moreover, recession and austerity are bound to hurt the fundraising business. In America, there is talk among both the Democrats and Republicans to tighten up on current tax exemptions on donations, thus putting an end to fundraising hubris. In Europe, government support (where it exists, e.g. in the UK) could come to an end. Furthermore, there's evidence that the ultra-rich gives less today than in 2007, before the start of the recession.

Better Business Bureau logo.
Better Business Bureau logo. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Under the circumstances, it would seem urgent for the humanitarian community to wake up and address those issues! 

Meanwhile, if you're thinking of giving this Christmas, beware! Take a little time to double check on exactly what your favorite charity is up to!

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The Challenge of Designing a Unique Book Cover

A lot can be learned about effective cover design - the kind that will grab attention from even the most distracted reader - by looking at how the well-known British poet Oscar Sparrow went about selecting a cover for his upcoming poetry anthology (6 poets, American and English, including...me, the only continental European! Bet you didn't know I write poetry!)

Consider the challenge: it's a double one. First the cover must reflect the depth and breadth of an anthology, always something difficult to express through a single image. Second, everybody knows that poetry is not a fast-selling genre and to zero in on an arresting poetic image is especially difficult. When was the last time you read a poem? Okay, I won't make you blush, we all have our small, private failings...

Let's return to the cover, here it is:

What do you think of it? I love it! I didn't design it - Oscar Sparrow did it with publisher Gallo Romano Media's expert support - so I feel quite entitled to give my opinion. Let me be clear: I had no say in its design, except for final approval which of course I was happy to give. 

Now, why does this cover work? First, it goes beautifully with the title without however substituting it. Remember the first rule about effective design: either show the word with a picture or write it, don't do both! "Freeze Frame" as a title could have been rendered in a number of ways - including the film clip that was finally chosen. For example, a suggestive image reflecting the "Freeze Frame" poetry could probably have been selected. But how to accommodate the diverse style of each poet?  A tall order! 

The chosen solution is both economic and elegant. Just by glancing at the authors faces through the color filters, you visually and instantly get the message: this is going to be a book of poetry like no other, the authors are so different from one another! Three men, three women, six colors, six sensibilities, six totally different personalities...

Do share in the comments below your reaction to this cover. Does it work for you? Are you curious now about this book?

You are probably wondering about the title. It reflects what Oscar Sparrow sees as a trend in contemporary poetry...but that's for another blog post and I will leave him to explain it!

In the meantime, look for this anthology, it will be coming out soon in three versions: printed on paper (yes, the old-fashioned way), digital and audio. 

Yes, audio! Each one of us recorded our poems, saying them the way we felt they should be said - poetry is music, it should be read aloud. Audio adds a dimension that otherwise would be lost. I can't wait to hear the other poets, I've always wondered how Byron read his poems, and Verlaine for that matter, or closer to us, Tolkien (yes, fiction writers do write poetry too, I'm far from being alone in this...) The audio aspect is truly innovative - and of course, only made possible by the on-going digital revolution.

The digital version should come out first and that will be on 21 December, just before Christmas - I will let you know when it does and where you can buy it...for a poetic Christmas by the fireplace, listening to the poets reading to you... 

Related Articles

Oscar Sparrow ran interviews of each participating author, here they are, just click on the name:

Paul Tobin

Jo VonBargen

Jefferson Hansen

Candy Bright

Claude Nougat

Wondering about Oscar Sparrow, the anthology's Editor? Coming soon, this Wednesday, in an interview by Jo VonBargen, I will let you know!

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A Hidden Factor in the Euro Crisis Revealed: the World Shipping Crisis

Zone euro 2008 ; bleu foncé : de jure ; bleu p...
Euro Zone 2008 ; dark blue : de jure ; pale blue : de facto (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
It may not look like the Euro Crisis and the World Shipping Crisis have much in common, yet they do and here is how. The key element that links them is the lending behavior of the German banks! 

From the beginning of the Euro crisis - it started in early 2010 when Greece officially asked Brussels for a bailout -, I've been wondering what caused Germany to drag its feet. If only Ms. Merkel had moved fast enough to meet Greek demands, Greece would have been saved within the year and the Euro Crisis would never have happened.

Why did Ms. Merkel not move? Very odd, if you consider how often she claims she's a European at heart and that "more Europe" is needed to solve the crisis. 

Not so odd if you consider the lending history of German banks and how they've granted easy credit left and right, at home to political pals, to the Greeks to finance the Olympic Games and more, to Southern Europe in general, to Ireland...and, yes, to the shipping industry!
The government surplus/deficit of Portugal, It...
Starting in 2008 everybody in deficit! Graph shows government surplus/deficit of Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece, United Kingdom, Spain (PIIGGS) against the Eurozone 2000-2010 and the United States. Data from Eurostat. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Instead of pooling the debt which would have been the quick, rational and elegant way out of the Euro crisis, Merkel pushed through entirely different policies, i.e. bailouts coupled with austerity measures and fiscal pact agreements with Eurozone members, all of them politically and institutionally complex, hence time-consuming.  Yet, when it comes to finalizing what she has set out to do and put the needed Eurozone institutions on a solid basis, suddenly it's no go.

The last tassel is Euro bank supervision, but Germany will have none of it. Or will have it with all sorts of limitations, all aimed at protecting German banks from oversight. Why is Germany so eager to shield its banks?

At first, it looked like the German Central Bank, the Bundesbank, was eager to protect the state-owned Landesbanks that have suffered losses with the 2008 crisis and are reeling from accusations of corruption. Indeed, there is strong evidence of an unhealthy relationship between local politicians and the regional-level banks. Landesbank rescues have placed a heavy burden on German state governments (more deficits!) and this has had repercussions on the whole German banking system. A consolidation of German landesbanks that was expected to happen is now unlikely, suggesting that the situation is stalled and that the move towards a healthier system that would stimulate productive competition between the public and private sector, is still far off in the future.

But in Germany, private sector banking is also suffering! Not only did the German banks expose themselves to the Greek and other Southern European debt, they also recklessly engaged in easy loans to the shipping industry. Loans resulted in a huge overflow of needless investment in the ship container market, currently causing some 300 big container ships to sit idle in ports around the world, waiting for customers!

The story of this shipping crisis only recently came out in the New York Times (see article below or the report here).  According to Moody's, Germany’s 10 largest banks have 98 billion euros, or $128 billion, in outstanding credit or other risks related to the global shipping industry. That's about as much as the German banks' exposure to Greece when the debt crisis broke out (they are now down to €5.5 billion) !

All through the Euro crisis, the German Banks have been Germany's Achilles' heel. Though Germany is the locomotive of Europe, its banking system is in trouble. Small wonder Germany resists any proposal to set up bank supervision across the Eurozone! Or, for that matter, any proposal to pool or mutualize the Euro debt...If only Germans would listen to their own Peter Bofinger! I am completely convinced that Germany would be the greatest loser in a Euro breakup and that instead of bailouts we should have gone for Bofinger's proposed "redemption fund" -  but that story is for another blog post.

Now that the Eurozone recession is projected to last well into 2013, setting up a credible system for supervising the 6,000 banks in the Eurozone has become a major building block in the institutional structures needed to solve the Euro crisis. Mario Draghi, the European Central Bank chief, is doing his best to allay German fears that the ECB might control them in some way, suggesting that the supervision of Landesbanks could be done at regional (and not European) level.

International Monetary Fund's Managing Directo...
Mario Draghi at G-7 meeting at the Istanbul Congress Center (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

That looks like Draghi is addressing concerns over the last crisis - the landesbanks - and eschewing the present one - the world shipping crisis. No doubt, German politicians prefer to talk about the former rather than the latter, especially now that Ms. Merkel has launched her political campaign for re-election. The last thing she needs is to come out looking like the paladin of the 10 biggest German banks - but by helping to slowdown the establishment of a Euro bank supervisor, she is satisfying everyone's interests, including those of the German One Percent!

The One Percent however has wonderful ways to zig zag around traps and change the outcome of the game. While the big German banks are hurting from the shipping crisis, and ship funds have obviously lost their appeal, there is one (small) part of the world's One Percent that is having a ball game: because of the crisis, ships that cost hundreds of millions of dollars to build are now selling at the cost of scrap metal.

Guess who's busy buying up ships at bargain prices? Healthier shipping companies, of course, and among them (according to NYT) Costamare, a Greek company! I love that. Greek shipping magnates are real savvy types: their home country, in spite of the government debt fracas, is a tax haven for them, and continues to be in spite of all the talk about recovering taxes, which of course, leaves them with the funds to still act as major agents in the world shipping industry!

No question about it, the Greeks are clever! Small wonder the Germans are so angry and after them. I tell you, in spite of what politicians say to their electorate, austerity and fiscal pacts have little to do with preserving Northern European taxpayers from wasting their funds to bail out Southern European countries and Greece in particular. The real game is played elsewhere, behind the scene and at the One Percent level...

Please share your views. I know not everyone likes to argue in terms of the One Percent, but what do you think about this juicy bit of news, Greek shipowners buying up ships at rock bottom prices? 
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A Walk in the Paris I Love

Last week I was in Paris and I'd like to share with you the Paris I love, a little bit hidden, not your usual monuments and touristic high points. Come with me to Shakespeare and Co., surely the most extraordinary bookstore in all of Paris and probably Europe.

Here it is, lying low and snug between two tall 19th century buildings along the river Seine (in the 5th arrondissement). Yet the bookstore is no doubt much older than its neighbors, just look at the beams climbing up between the two façades: 

Moving closer, the bookstore is in the back, on the left and a neat little restaurant  is up front: 

Here it is at last, the splendid, cluttered façade of the Shakespeare bookstore:

Over the front door there's a reminder of George Whitman, a friend of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, but above all, the mythical founder of the bookstore (he founded it in 1951 and died in 2011):

Yes, "...the business of books is the business of life." I love that! And there's no bookstore anywhere that feels more like a temple dedicated to readers than this one. 
Inside, the charm of old rickety stairs and bare stone walls:

The reading room with a view on the Seine: here you're allowed to read whatever you like but you must put the book back on the shelf when you leave:

There's a place to play chess:

Another for music:

And so much fantasy:

Yes, this is a bookstore I love! 
Even their paper bags to carry your purchase are cute:

And of course, their trademark poster, a painted board on the façade:

This is a library with a personality, a brand, a mission in life: spread the love for books! And that's becoming an ever harder thing to do!

Because times for book stores are not really any happier in France than in the United States or anywhere else in the developed world: a famous Parisian bookstore, the "librairie del Duca" on the Boulevard des Italiens just closed its doors on 30 November. It had been created in 1952 by Cino del Duca, a mythical editor and publisher as well as film maker. His widow had set up a foundation to help artists (she died in 2004) but in spite of annual sales over €2 millions/year, the library didn't make it. Now it's finished, according to the Figaro (23 November) the plot it stands on will be taken over by the next door supermarket, a Monoprix that probably won't even sell books...

After we finished our tour in Shakespeare & Co. (I say we, my husband and I), spending the whole morning there, we went to the neat little restaurant next door that we had spotted walking in, Le Petit Chatelet. Cozy inside, with a working fireplace where they cook your meat:

Yes that's me in the mirror (looking very serious, sorry, I hadn't realized my camera had taken me in!). And the menu of course is classically hand-written on a blackboard:

We opted for a fish soup and it was lovely! Afterwards a nice walk along the Seine, stopping at a book stall:

You can see Notre Dame peeking behind him! And the Seine carries sometimes surprising boats (not just the fast ones for visitors), like this huge coal carrying barge:

The coal looks like warm black velvet...and what a beautiful river. 

Ah, Paris!

If you're in Paris, here are the addesses:

Bookstore Shakespeare & Co37 Rue de la Bûcherie  75005 Paris, tel: 01 43 25 40 93       
They have a neat website where they announce in a serendipitous manner all their upcoming events: http://www.shakespeareandcompany.com/
Restaurant Le Petit Chatelet:     39 Rue de la Bûcherie  75005 Paris, France  tel: 01 46 33 53 40. It's ranked #83 out of some 8500 restaurants in Paris by TripAdviser. The day we were there, there were only French clients, a good sign!

Please share in the comments your own experience of Shakespeare & Co or the restaurant Le Petit Chatelet if you went there, or tell us about your own favorite place in Paris! 
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