Tuesday 26 August 2014

Scarlet Beauties as ancient as Olive Drupes by Carol Drinkwater

Flowering Pomegranate tree in our garden in the South of France
Various parts of a Pomegranate

Tangerines remind me of childhood Christmases. Can you recall that tangy aroma once you’d pierced the skin with your thumb, peeled it away and the juice began to spray out like an ignited sparkler? Dates were rare in my childhood home. Amber-coloured like big sad eyes, dry and sugary, they arrived in elongated oval boxes, shaped as though to contain school pencils. Each lid had a coloured illustration of a one-humped camel, head held high, clopping over sand.
“It’s a desert the camel is crossing,” explained my father who had spent his war with the RAF gang show entertaining the troops in Africa and the Middle East. He regularly recounted tales to me of Arabian nights, magic and mischief in hot climates and he frequently imitated haunting nocturnal sounds of the desert. His stories, true or exaggerated, gave me a hunger for travel, a desire to uncover the roots of where these exotic foods we ate on special occasions were originally sourced. I longed to hitch a ride with one of those caravans.

It is not surprising then that once I had settled in the south of France on our olive farm, I set off on a seventeen-month journey in search of the history of the olive tree and the early cultivation of its stoned fruit. It is also not surprising that during those months on the road, other flavours, foods, fruits began to excite my interest as well. One was the delectable pomegranate.

When I was in Malta, I stayed in the home of a fascinating couple who were singlehandedly at that stage attempting to ‘re-green’ their island, to reintroduce their neighbours to Malta’s once renowned olive culture by planting saplings grafted with cuttings from a tiny grove of giant Roman trees still flourishing in the twenty-first century on a southern tip of the island.

One morning when I went into breakfast, I spotted on their table a locally-fired pottery dish piled high with pomegranates. Such beautiful fruits, I remarked. Sammy, my host, immediately chose the ripest, skilfully opened up its leathery shell, allowing the juice to bleed on to his plate. He handed it across to me to enjoy. Its seeds and sweet, sweet juice clung to my chin.

I knew that, along with olives and grapes, it was a biblical crop and that it was a fruit much prized in antiquity. I had come across artifacts designed with it at the hauntingly beautiful Ras Shamra, ancient Ugarit, on the Syrian coast near Latakia, but I had not known that camel trails traversing Africa invariably carried pomegranates. In arid climes, the fruit was an essential source of liquid; it was deemed to be a super-food (I doubt anyone back then used my host’s modern description!). Along with the olive, this unusual fruit’s complex history was drawing my attention. Like the olive, it has an honoured place in the religious beliefs of the three western monotheisms. It is mentioned in the Quran, the Torah, the Old Testament, Babylonian texts, Greek mythology, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and has been used many times as a Christian image of fertility and eternity (see Celia Rees’ HG post on the Madonna del Parto ). It also found its place in Egyptian mythology. Pomegranates were cultivated in Egypt before Moses was born. Look at this exquisite silver pomegranate vase from 1323 B.C found in the tomb of Tutankhamen.

There are some who believe that this may be the fruit that grew on the tree of life while other religious academics have claimed it was the pomegranate and not the humble apple that tempted Eve on the tree of knowledge.

Although one single fruit can produce anything up to 2,000 seeds, Jewish tradition teaches 613 seeds, one for each mitzvot or commandment in the Torah. Designs of the fruit were woven in blue and purple fabric into the hems of the High Priests’ robes. Brass pomegranates were also found as border designs on the capitols of two pillars of the Temple in Jerusalem. It is traditional to eat the fruit at Rosh Hashanah. It represents wisdom and knowledge to the Jews.

In The Odyssey, Homer describes them growing in Corfu, in the fertile gardens at King Alcinous’ palace (Alcinous was leader of the Phaeacians. His people settled in Scherie, modern Corfu, possibly arriving from Sicily).

Sicilian fruit
The Romans imported their pomegranates from Libya, which was also one of their most lucrative olive-producing regions.

Although not a symbol of peace, it is revered as a divine gift by Middle Eastern nations who today are fighting one other; its roots lie with the roots of so many of those divided peoples.

The pomegranate is, as was the olive tree originally, a small drought-resistant plant that botanists would more accurately describe as a large shrub. The difference is that the olive is not deciduous. In the Middle East, both of these fruit-bearing trees can be traced back to 4,000 BC.

Its name, Pomegranate originates from Medieval Latin, pomum granatum, meaning ‘seeded apple’. In Herbrew, it is rimmon.

Since millennia, it has been cultivated in Persia – modern-day Iran, as well as Iraq, Israel, Syria, Mesopotamia: the cradle of the Olive Route. It was traded by commercial travellers along the Silk Road and found its way to China. Today in Southeast Asia, it is a highly-prized fruit, a symbol of abundance.

I asked three Chinese students staying with us what the pomegranate meant to them. One, from the south, recounted a lovely story, perhaps a stanza from a Chinese poem? When a lover declares his affections to the woman of his dreams, if she in return is equally attracted, she wears a robe the colour of a pomegranate and allows her suitor to rest his head between her knees.
I suspect that the robes were the scarlet of the flowers rather than the more discreet red of the fruit’s thick skin.

fruit blossom
In Greece, the fruit played an important role in the nation’s classical mythology. It was the fruit of the dead, the underworld... The goddess Persephone was kidnapped by Hades and forced to live in his underworld. Her mother, Demeter, goddess of the harvests, mourned her daughter’s loss and caused all green things to cease to grow. Zeus stepped in and commanded Hades to return the girl, lest the earth grow arid and die. Hades, smart fellow that he was, knowing that no food was to be consumed in the underworld, tricked Persephone into consuming six pomegranate seeds (to quench her thirst from the hot fires perhaps?). The result was that she was condemned to spend six months of every year with Hades underground. Here was the ancient Greeks’ explanation of winter, of the change in the seasons.

Persephone  - Empress of Hades
Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Today, in Greece, a porcelain fruit is frequently offered to those moving house. Sometimes, an actual fruit is thrown to the ground. As it splits open, the juice seeps out and blesses the new home and its inhabitants.

Granada, Spanish for pomegranate, named one of its most magnificent Andalucian cities after it. It is the symbol of the city. Every street sign has the fruit painted above it. Federico Garcia Lorca, poet, native of Granada, victim of the Spanish Civil War, executed beneath an olive tree, wrote of the pomegranate:
‘The fruit is hard and skull-like on the outside, but on the inside it contains the blood of the wounded earth.’

Coat of Arms of Granada

Pomegranates were possibly introduced to Spain by the Moors after their arrival in 711 AD. However, I like to fancy that it was earlier, that they were transported to the peninsula’s southern shores by the Phoenicians who sailed the knowledge of olive cultivation from the coast of what today is Lebanon, all around the Mediterranean. Then, passing beyond the Pillars of Hercules, they founded their trading post of Gadir along the way, (modern-day Cadiz), before pushing the learned world, its knowledge of botany, maps and exploration further, out into the Atlantic Sea. The Phoenicians were not conquerors; they were traders and they took their business to the coastal cities of Essaouira in Morocco and Portugal in the north. Some say they crossed the Atlantic waters and were the first discoverers of the Americas, but there is no solid evidence, so far, of that.
Whether the pomegranate first reached the Untied States earlier I do not know but it was certainly brought to the Americas by the Spanish Conquistadores. Trees growing wild were found as far afield as US Georgia in the eighteenth century...

I could go on. I haven’t touched upon the fruit’s medicinal or cosmetic properties. What excites me is nature’s role in our evolution, our human history, our diet. It is an interactive story. The seeds of history growing wild, nurtured initially by one or several tribes until the knowledge spreads, until we begin to trade, to battle for land to grow our produce, to cultivate, to protect our knowledge and our crops.
Who knows -  The Pomegranate Route could be my next travel book!

I will finish with a word from Shakespeare, spoken by the young Juliet...

Wilt thou be gone? It is not yet near day.
It was the nightingale, and not the lark,
That pierced the fearful hollow of thine ear.
Nightly she sings on yon pomegranate tree.
Believe me, love, it was the nightingale.

and these more erotic lines from the Song of Solomon:

'I would lead you and bring you into the house of my mother, and into the chamber of her that conceived me. I would give you spiced wine to drink, the juice of pomegranates.'

I have never tasted pomegranate wine, but I certainly intend to now.

Carol Drinkwater


maryom said...

A fascinating post - I'm just left wondering how much success I'm going to have with my own pomegranate bushes.On the 'try anything' principle I set some sprouting seeds found in supermarket fruit and now have half a dozen or so tiny shrubs. Maybe I'll keep them in pots and move to a greenhouse over-winter. It would just be so fabulous to grow such an exotic fruit!

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

A delicious post... I've never seen that Egyptian pomegranate vase before. It's beautiful. I once had breakfast in the Old Cataract Hotel on the Nile where a huge silver platter piled high with scooped out pomegranates, was standing on a white linen cloth with shafts of sunlight falling through coloured coloured glass making lozenges of jewels across the table. I'll live with that memory forever.

They also make lovely patterns for even very young children to draw... good for pencil drawings with no colour. I use them to teach line work and texture.

Thank you for a wonderful post from an old History Girl.

Imogen said...

Lovely post! I remember little silver pomegranates being handed out as mementoes at a wedding in Cyprus.

Celia Rees said...

Lovely post, Carol. Thank you! Maybe you can do another one about the remarkable pomegranate's medicinal and cosmetic properties. I recently found a reference to pomegranates being carried aloft at a wedding in Patrick Leigh Fermor's Roumeli. Another association with weddings, as as Imogen mentions above.

Carol Drinkwater said...

How exciting, I I have just had a quick look on Google and found several references to this magic fruit and weddings. For example, Persians place a basket of them on a ceremonial cloth to symbolise a joyous future… I haven't read Roumeli but will now. Thank you. I am not done with the subject, that's for sure, Celia.

Kate Lord Brown said...

Love the quote from the Song of Songs. One of the big joys living here is fresh pomegranate juice. Gorgeous post.

Maeve Friel said...

The pomegranate was also the heraldic symbol of Catherine of Aragon and appears in her coat of arms and on her tomb in Peterborough Cathedral where every year on the anniversary of her death (in January) her grave is decorated with real pomegranates. It also may be seen in the stonework of several buildings in Ludlow where Catherine lived for several months with her first husband Prince Arthur before his untimely death.