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 expertise. The Phytophactor is a pure botanist trained in plant anatomy, plant morphology, and systematics/taxonomy, pure, undistilled, 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.

The Gelato Challenge

As a partial compensation for having dumped on Italian bread, TPP will admit that gelato is great stuff. Personal challenges can be highly motivating, so far be it for TPP to ever suggest that Mrs. Phactor's gelato challenge is anything but a righteous endeavor. So here it is: 30 different flavors of gelato in 30 days, hey, and licks or tastes don't
count. The effort involved cannot be diminished, nor can the sacrifice.  Her major problem is that our Tuscan residence is quite a ways from the nearest gelato emporium. Today while visiting Florence, she made a major effort to regain her pace.  First, she started with a basic chocolate (now don't criticize, you can get distracted by the exotic flavors, so this is showing some deep strategy). Later when she needed a basic pick-me-up, and had located the Gelato Fanstastico, with a modest 50 flavors (but not black sapote - for that you must seek the Frosty Mango). At any rate this establishment had passion fruit gelato, one of our favorites, but it was not up to Frosty Mango standards although pretty good, and mojito. As much as TPP loves his topical fruit gelatos, he had to admit that the mojito was superb. But it's still no black sapote! We will see how this challenge progresses.  So far her new flavor favorite has been pine nut, pignoli, gelato. Anyone want to make suggestions for her? The comments are open. The image is not Mrs. Phactor, but clearly a well-focused gelato devotee. 

Bread - most disappointing thing in Italy

Bread is great, and TPP has always been a big fan of it. Mrs. Phactor bakes a mean loaf of French bread for which she has some renown. The bread in Italy looks fantastic, and we've sampled a good bit of including a small local bakery, both flat and poofed up bread. It also smells good, but the taste is rather bland. It took some thought to figure out why the flavor seemed to be missing - no salt. It doesn't even help to butter the bread, although that is decidedly un-Italian, because all the butter is also unsalted. There isn't much salt in bread recipes, but apparently it makes quite a difference. As an experiment TPP used the local pizza/pane/focaccia flour but followed his own recipe, and you could taste the difference right away. BTW, the standard flour in Italy is self-rising, so you don't find yeast in stores, but cakes of live yeast may be in the dairy case (didn't think to look there). A very self-sufficient sister-in-law brought freeze dried yeast with her, you know, just in case. The pizza dough made according to package instructions from Italian flour was rather a bit more like a flat bisquit without the stretchy texture of my yeasty pizza dough, which came from an Italian cookbook (also can be used for bread). Anyone know for why this is the case? The curious bread-lovers out there want to know. 

Botanical Geek Tour in Florence - Giardino dei Simplici

Chronological order is just so demanding, so let's back up a few days. Veronica (a very botanical name) works here at the villa and as a natural history student she recommended, once she discovered our botanical interests, that TPP visit the Giardino dei Simplici in the center of Florence.
Florence is a lovely old city on the Arno River filled to the brim with Renaissance art and architecture that is presently under an assault by hordes of tourists.  And therein is the conflict because this city lives on income derived from tourism, so like it or not, the crowds are the life blood of this city. Florence is still impressive, but because of the crowds, not very enjoyable at times.  Generally the less well known the attraction, the further its location is from Il Duomo, Brunelleschi’s dome on Santa Maria del Fiore, the church that dominates its region of the city, or  the Ponte Vecchio across the Arno River, the more enjoyable the tourism is.  Thus the intrepid Botanical Geek Tour team (replacing the recently departed Rent-a-Mob (inlaws), located the L’Orto Botanico, Giardino dei Simplici (medicinal garden ca. 1545) part of the natural history museum complex of the Universita degli Studi de Firenze.  However, the garden is much more than just medicinal plants.  While fairly small in size the collections were very impressive, especially a few magnificent specimen trees (e.g., Zelcova serrata, cork oak).  A large portion of the tropical specimens are pot grown and moved into old fashioned, but very effective quarters for the winter.  Plants were well labeled and organized loosely into taxonomic groups, so sure enough Pilularia, Marsilea, and Regnellidium were right there next to each other. BGT gives this little garden four thumbs up for plant geeks. The garden is located a short walk from the Piazza San Marco, and you can definitely escape the crowds just a few blocks away.  What could they be thinking?  What’s more interesting than a botanical garden? This image is looking up into the huge crown of the cork oak, Quercus suber.

Giardino di Villa Camberaia - Botanical Geek Tour adventures in Tuscany

Some guide book somewhere mentioned that the garden of the Villa Camberaia perched high in the hills above Florence as a great destination for garden lovers.  Well, you know the botanical geek tour squad will try their best to get the straight dope for our faithful readers. Without any particular agenda today, the villa's location was easily found on Via del Rosselino outside of the little town of Settignano. What better than a little botanical adventure a bit off the beaten tourist track. Coming from the south rather than from Florence our brilliant naviguessing found the Via del Rosselino without any problems, except for one; our approach was from the "back" end of the "street". Our Fiat rental car was just much too wide for the high walled, tight-turned "road" (translation - four foot wide goat path).  At one point, with the rear-view mirrors folded inward, there was an whole 7-8 cm on one side and maybe 1.5 cm clearance on the other side. It was amazing! TPP thought we'd have to return the keys to the car rental people and tell them, "Your car is wedged between two rock walls up in Settignano", where upon TPP figured a prohibition about driving in such places was in the fine print of the rental agreement somewhere. Then it occurred to a passenger that no one was getting out of a car so wedged anyways. So the only recourse was to forge onward at a blazing speed of 2 km/hr or so and hope for the best.  These are the kind of roads where you use your car horn to announce your presence because if two vehicles met, one was going to have to back up until you found some place to get out of the way. Why do they make Fiats so big and wide? One corner was so tight it took 5 forward and back maneuvers to make the turn, and the many-colored paint splotched rock by the driver's door was a testament to the number of drivers who failed this test. Here's an image of the final approach to the villa just so you can begin to visualize this road. This is not a driveway, but the main road through this entire "subdivision"!  Beep! Beep! What a place for a botanist from the flat lands! BTW, apparently most visitors walk up from the town having ridden the bus that far. So is it worth it to try to find and visit this garden? The BGT team cannot say; the garden was closed until August 16th! And of course today was the 15th! Can you believe it? The team drove home and made pizza.

GPS - It helps, mostly.

GPS devices are handy little gadgets, up to a point, but still it's nice to have a really good map. So even with our trusty GPS guide the Phactors have made their share of wrong turns, but yesterday while threading our way through a little Tuscan hill town, the GPS said, "turn right here", and we did driving right up a dead-end alley. And there at the end of the alley, where in a classic example of good advise given way too late, was a sign, in English, that said, "Don't follow GPS".  Now the GPS device knew exactly where we were, but it did not know that the road was no longer there. In just the few minutes of our alley tour, two more cars whose occupants were studying their GPS devices drove up the same bloody alley to find the same sign.  What fun! And on twisty, narrow hilly roads, our device took great delight in yelling out "turn sharply right" and "turn sharply left" in response to the hair pin curves with the added advice each time to stay on this road, the only one around, and to not stay on the road would have been a short, quick trip to the bottom. On one occasion when the Phactors made a turn in error, the result of "turn left" being a multiple choice question, our trusty guide said, "make a U-turn if at all possible". Now your really have to screw things up for it to dredge up that instruction. And then later the GPS required an apology because when following a route the Phactors thought they had mastered, the device was turned off to give us some well deserved peace and quiet, and immediately we got lost in the tangle of little streets. And of course there is the classic, "lost satellite signal", just when you are most desperate for information. Sigh. 

Holly or Oak?

When you're in a new place you make some snap identifications, and sometimes they're right and sometimes they are wrong. This one was tricky because the first plant TPP saw was just a shrub. My initial guess was a holly; it just had the look of an evergreen shrub and the leaf was quite holly like, although some time ago TPP got quite a surprise when entering "holly" into the google search engine.  However a day later, there was the same leaf, but now it was on a tree that had a most decidedly oak look to it, and sure enough, there were little acorns forming. Little acorns, there can be little doubt of what you've got. Turns out this "resemblance" has been recognized for some time, so this tree is another iconic species of this Tuscan area, Quercus ilex, the holly oak, not the oak holly. It is an evergreen, a sort of local Tuscan live oak. You don't see a generic name (Ilex - holly) used as a specific epithet very often, but the International code of botanical nomenclature does say this is "legal".

The olive

The two primary crops of this region of Tuscany are olives and grapes.  About 98% of olives go into oil production, and virtually 100% of the grapes become wine. Their priorities seem about right. The humble olive is a drupe, a stone fruit, and is in the olive family with a number of well known ornamentals: privet, forsythia, fringe tree, and ash trees (atypical samara fruits). Like all drupes there is a fleshy outer portion and a pit consisting of a stony fruit layer enclosing a seed. In the olive the fleshy fruit wall is lipid rich, and olive oil is produced simply by squeezing the oil out of the ripe fruits. The trees are in fruit right now, but the harvest won't be until November. Locals say that an Italian family uses about 40 L of olive oil a year, which probably takes about the same number of trees to produce. You really can't eat olives right off the tree because the fruits contain a bitter oleoresin; sun drying, salting, fermenting, or treating with lye (American style) to break down the oleoresin, which is not lipid soluble thankfully. These are not your eating variety of olives, but they are kind of cute.

Tuscan Cypress

So you want some Tuscan plants, well, this tree is about as Tuscan as a tree gets.  Cupressus sempervirens, called Tuscan cypress here in Italy, but the Mediterranean cypress throughout most of its eastern Mediterranean range.  Tall, dark-green, columnar, the trees are highly distinctive and a dramatic element of the local vegetation.  While native they are widely planted for hedge rows and along drives. Everyone wanted to know what they were right away.  Some in this areas are as big as TPP has ever seen them, and they seem to be loved by chick-a-dees. Here a row of Tuscan cypress form a wall behind a terraced olive orchard (gray green trees) with lots of rock walls.

To the manor born - not!

Ah, yes, all my relatives especially Mrs. Phactor and the F1 think my retirement was a brilliant move.  Well, at least the part where TPP rented (actually Mrs. Phactor made this happen if truth be known and credit is given where credit is due) a villa so that everyone had an excuse to visit Tuscany.  Presently the number of visitors is 9; next week it’s just 4 (but more troublesome types), then 4 more, and then 5 more the week after that. Thirteen relatives (rent-a-mob), 8 friends, and a young German biologist, go figure.  How’s that for instigating travel?  How's that for mooching?  The Italian tourist bureau should be giving us a medal!  Is it an actually villa, you may ask?  Sadly no, firstly because Torre a Cona is the summer manor house of the Count Rossi di Montelera, so it actually isn’t for rent, and secondly because TPP was just a university professor, but the estate has a number of residences that are within TPP’s price range.  Look down the hill to the right of the monstrous manor house and you’ll see the 3rd floor loft of our quite spacious, pinkish Tuscan residence sticking up above the olive trees. It’s disappointing that the Count has not walked, or driven, or been  driven, down the hill to greet us yet, so he’s probably busy, or just most likely he doesn’t realize who his tenants are.  He makes some very good wine & olive oil.  Obviously vineyards and olive groves dominate the agricultural landscape here abouts, although a great many other tree fruits are grown in way smaller amounts: apples, peaches, plums, figs, cherries, and even a medlar here or there.  The scenery is just wonderful with manor houses, fortresses, and little towns dotting the hilly landscape with ochre and red tile splotches amid the green of orchards and vineyards.  The fresh produce is quite nice and surprisingly extensive. It appears that testing the concept that someone could get tired of Italian food may take some time. By almost anyone’s standards the assembled troops are eating and drinking very well.  Mrs. Phactor is on a quest to do 30 gelato flavors in 30 days.  Hercules should have had such tasks!  Today she checked off mango & lemon.  Do the Italians make a sausage that isn’t terrific?  Do they make a cheese that isn’t wonderful?  Do they make a bread that doesn’t have a nice crust? The world wants to know. Someone has to try to find out. TPP is the man to let you know.  Ciao.

Monday morning man of leisure

Just a typical Monday morning here in Tuscany for a man of leisure. It's a foggy morning following a rather rainy day, but some rain must fall upon the olive groves to produce all that oil.  Hmm, how does that work?  Jet lag is still a drag; the chianti is a quite uplifting as a counterpoint. Today's major activity will be to explore the shopping and foraging upon the local fare. Ah, the troops have begun to appear and the fruit, boiled eggs, cheese, and prosciutto are beginning to disappear. TPP is truly concerned about those of you who must work today. Sympathies are extended. Now for another cup of coffee. Ciao. 


TPP has taken up a new residency for a month. Rent-a-mob, the inlaws, have already descended upon us. After two days of traffic, airports, airplanes, and in some cases, trains, some lost time, an epic grocery shopping stop to get some bread, some butter, some wine, just the necessities, a fun time teaching our GPS a new language, a quick lesson in the local scary driving style, lots of narrow, curvy, walled roads, a very late meal of carbonara, followed by a fatigued collapse into something remotely like sleep, TPP awakened to find himself somewhere in Tuscany, the paying guest of a count and countess. The point of this is to convince his academic counterpart that waking up surrounded by vineyards and olive trees is just as much fun, just as relaxing, just as renewing as preparing for the fall's onslaught of little academic savages to teach.  The therapy seems to be working. The view is from the long wooden kitchen table so recently occupied by the mob for some coffee, toast, and fruit. Most importantly, the only thing planned for today is to make some dinner, perhaps a nice puttanesca.