Field of Science

Italian bread with no salt - an update

The question of why Italian bread has no salt has raised two hypotheses and here are some of the ideas about this from the local natives, Italians themselves. First, they all agreed on exactly one thing; no salt in the bread is a Tuscan thing. Further south and further north in Italy the bread has salt. So it's only Tuscan bread that tastes bland.  Who knew? The favored hypothesis is that Tuscan cured meats, their ham and their favorite salamis are pretty salty, so you just don't need salt in the bread too. The historic hypothesis says that during its many wars with other city states, coastal dwellers sought to punish/subdue Florence by withholding salt. Florence responded by basically saying "We don't need your stinking salt; we'll make our bread without it." But this is a mighty long time keep punishing yourself out of regional pride. These explanations are not incompatible except if you have no salt for bread you also have no salt for curing meat. The things you learn when you travel.

Friday Fabulous Flowers - Italian Renaissance Edition

Several thoughts came to TPP while perusing the Uffizi Museum. Could there really be that many works of art featuring the Madonna and Child? (Yes!) You really had to have some big houses to commission some of those paintings. (Yep!) Some of the small details of paintings are their most interesting feature. And lastly,TPP is certain that one of the portraits was of Sansa Stark. So putting some of this together, and getting the most out of the museum's new no flash photography policy (replacing total prohibition) your flowers today are featured in a work of art called The Madonna of the Lilies by Carlo Dolci in 1642, a painting that is still remarkable in its quality, detail, and beauty.

Who is a botanist?

The Phytophactor is a botanist. His official title is Professor of Botany Emeritus, his graduate degrees are in botany, and the courses he taught were botany courses. Too many of my colleagues think botany is an old fashioned label rather than one of great distinction. Plant science is a favored label of some, but plant science, plant science, plant science, it just doesn't have a ring to it. The problem is that some of my colleagues prefer a narrower perspective. TPP introduced one of his colleagues as a botanist, and my colleague insisted he was not a botanist, so TPP focused things a bit, and said, well, alright Dave here is a geneticist thinking that would mollify him, but again he insisted this was not correct, so fine Dave, you are a cytogeneticist, and then he nodded, stuck out his hand, and said, "I'm a maize cytogeneticist".  Now given the importance of maize, this is not a small field, but not recognizing that you belong to larger and more general collective groups is in TPP's opinion, a small perspective. My ecological colleagues prefer to be called an ecologist rather than a botanist, but obviously they are both. And phycologists, physiologists, bryologists, and others all prefer the smaller, narrower label, as if somehow the broader label diminishes their field. The Phytophactor is a pure botanist trained in plant anatomy, plant morphology, and systematics/taxonomy, pure, distilled, unadulterated botany. And it's time botanists of all flavors reclaimed the distinguished field of botany, the study of plants, not plant science, as their own. There. Said and done. And TPP could not be prouder.

Slay the syllabus!


Now that TPP’s academic alter ego has retired is it time for TPP to stop pointing out the absurdities of higher education?  Nah! Nada! Not a chance! So how nice is this that a columnist at Slate has taken a major swing at that evil monster – the syllabus. Yes, these days a syllabus is treated by many students and virtually all administrators, both being just about equally distant from any real vision of education, as a contract, and TPP totally agrees that this is a sign of the end times for higher education. The problem arises when a student wants to know exactly, precisely, right down to the last twiddle, what they must do in your course to get an A so that they can minimize learning and effort while maximizing their GPA, and your syllabus is supposed to spell this out. TPP actually included a small phrase at the end of one syllabus saying, “This syllabus is not a legal document and not a binding contract.” Wait, wait, the semester has started and that’s still Tuscany outside my window! This is disturbing my wa, my transcendent serenity! It can be restored only by the anguish this blog causes my teaching colleagues.   

Botanical Geek Tour - Italian edition continues


Our Italian Botanical Geek Tour continues with a changing cast of characters, some not so garden oriented, so the Phactors soldiered on to visit the Giardino Boboli and Giardino Bardini, which are right next to each other, almost.  Both gardens are of the formal nature, and in places both provide panoramic views of Florence, especially Bardini.  Giardino Boboli is the formal gardens behind the Palazzo Pitti.  From the Palazzo entry, the Boboli is all up, and fairly steep; it has a amphitheater and quite a bit of statuary, but botanically it’s pretty dull.  At the top the garden ends sort of surrounding the Belvedere Fortress, and if you walk around the fort, and down just a bit, there is the entrance to the Bardini. It’s also steep and mostly up hill having been an agricultural area just inside the old city walls where the steep terrain probably saved it from development. Some areas are still terraced orchards whose trees are espaliered onto stout fences. A slanted pergola walk is covered by some big old wisterias. Other gardens and lawns have spring flowering shrubs, so a bit quiet in August. The views of the city are quite nice, and it was a clear, not too hot day; no city haze! At the very top is a coffee shop for a bit of rest and fortification. The image is a formal part of the Giardino Bardini, looking up the main stair case. The exercise was needed to make room for gelato (peanut butter and an outstanding passion fruit). Florence as seen from the coffee shop at the top of all those stairs.  

Classic Italian botany


Here’s some historical Italian botany; an illustration by Jacopo Ligozzi on display in the Palazzo Pitti and photographed without flash in keeping with museum policy.  Always impressed by how well this camera does in low light conditions. The interesting thing is that this lovely illustration (ca. 1577-1567) of mandrake (Mandragora autumnalis – Nightshade family) is pretty accurate (flowers aren't quite right) while illustrations of an earlier era portrayed this famous toxic plant  anthropomorphically and very inaccurately. (Does anyone remember Mandrake the Magician comics?) This illustration has held up very well for 400 plus years. Ligozzi was about 20 years earlier than Gerard’s famous herbal, which also had fairly accurate (although sometimes mislabeled) illustrations.  According to legend, and as portrayed in Harry Potter, a mandrake it could scream so loud it could kill you if you pulled it up, even if to repot it.  Here the taproots, often branched, look like roots rather than arms and/or legs. 

Friday Fabulous Fern - A botanical resurrection


Any tourist to Florence Italy will get their fill of resurrection because of the abundance of religious-themed art.  But there’s another kind of resurrection that is very common in these parts; so called “resurrection” plants or desiccation tolerant plants.  Many ferns, clubmosses, mosses, and leafy liverworts are capable of desiccation and rehydration, sometimes quite rapidly.  In this part of Tuscany, the agricultural and urban landscape is composed of wall after wall after wall of mostly rough limestone blocks. There’s a lot of surface area there for tough plants who can hang onto the wall by rooting into the cracks and crevasses between or in the rocks. Such environments are pretty harsh, very hot and dry, intermittently hospitable after rains or during a rainy season. Quite a number of these desiccation tolerant plants can be found on the walls of this estate.  The primary fern is Asplenium ceterach, the rusty-backed fern, so called because the backs of the leaves are covered with brown, scaly hairs that hide the sori. As the fern dries out the pinnae (leaflets) and fronds curl such that the brown back side of the leaves is exposed, and the fronds curl almost into a reverse fiddlehead. The hairiness helps reduce water loss, perhaps reflects sunlight, and may speed rehydration by trapping water in capillary spaces. When dehydrated these ferns seem like real crispy critters.  Right now a little demonstration is underway to see how fast some of these desiccated ferns can rehydrate.  As expected some of the mosses are very fast at this indeed. But within minutes the fronds begin to uncurl. 12 hours later the fern was rehydrated looking green and fresh. The non-botanists were quite impressed partly because the transformation is so striking, and partly because people have this idea that ferns are delicate little things.

Fiat - now and days of yore

The Phactors rented a Fiat 500L diesel, and it's been an impressive car to drive, not at all what TPP expected, but then he hadn't driven a Fiat since a friend had a Spider way back in the mid-1970s there abouts. While parking the rental, TPP was surprised to notice that the tiny car parked in the next space was also a Fiat 500L from about the late 1960s (sorry, really don't know Fiats well at all).  It looked to be in very good shape and probably had the classic, whomping, stomping 2-cylinder 500 cc engine. That's less than half the engine of the smallest engine car TPP has ever had, a little old late model Toyota hatch back that was his Queensland car. If remembered correctly it had a 1300 cc engine that could really snap your head back. Any Fiat Fanatics out there that can provide some information?

Death by Vespa

The most dangerous thing in Italy other than the narrow mountain roads enclosed by rocky walls are Vespas. There are two ways to die by Vespa, at least as TPP sees it. Death of the first kind deals strictly with Vespa drivers who dart in and out of traffic, even if the bother to throw out a hand signal before cutting into your lane, or cutting between buses and trucks at the rare stop sign, or zipping to the front of traffic lines. Even with reasonable vigilance TPP has almost creamed a couple of them, and he dreads returning the rental car with a new hood ornament. While mildly troubling, risky behavior is a person's own business and if this is you chosen method of offing yourself, by all means be TPPs guest so long as he remains uninvolved.  Second, and this is rather the scarier, is when you get caught midway across a street, or alley, by a flock of Vespas charging down upon you with the intent to kill. While individually they are not large, in coordinated pedestrian-hunting flocks they can be quite intimidating with their powder-blue alpha Vespa piloted by a sunglass and scarf wearing, flashily-dressed blond (?) matron of indeterminate age in high heels. Yes, this will produce quite an adrenaline rush as you sprint for the relative safety of a bus lane. So beware you drivers and walkers; the Vespas are stalking you. 

In vino veritas

Italy makes a whole bunch of wine, a bundle bunch, and most of it is quite good, and astoundingly quite reasonable in price. To investigate the Tuscan wine scene a bit more thoroughly, a field trip was organized to a family run boutique winery called Campo del Monte (www.campodelmonti.itnear Terranuova Bacciolini, about 50 km away. Images of pineapples kept intruding, but a wine tasting was arranged for our party of six. This family makes some very good wine, and who doesn't like good wine? The field trip group liked the Valdarno di sopra Malvasia a great deal with its dryness and hints of what you might call apple/pear. This area's most famous wines are Chianti Reservas and the chianti reservas made by Campo del Monte was the best TPP has tasted in this price range (12 euro); hey it's all about value. It is a "bigger" chianti than most, one with a pretty intense aroma and a bigger taste. Their best wine is their Isei (served to us by one of the six, a charming college-aged member of the family), a Super Tuscan made from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Sangiovese grapes. It has a real dark ruby red color and a very intense, complex aroma. The wine is quite smooth, dry, and has hints of fruity spiciness. Simply quite delicious. Then the conversation turned to how much wine we could afford to ship home, a calculation aided by our group's facilitator who figured out that he didn't care so long as the old credit card worked. In other words, don't sully this most excellent wine tasting by worrying about something as tawdry as money. Of course, everyone needs some souvenirs.