DAY ELEVEN Potatoes, Linseed Oil and Curd
Currently the Race Marshal and I are six kilometres west of Brandenburg, having a well-earned picnic deep in the Rietzer See Nature Reserve. This substantial protected enclosure (3,200 acres) of lakes and marshland is one of the European bird sanctuaries which were created as part of a movement that began in the 1970's when millions of migratory birds were being killed with nets, glue, traps and even automatic weapons. The EU has made a success of bird conservation - except that the rules permit the taking of “small quantities” of specimens. France and Malta still drive a coach and horses through this loophole. You may remember the plebiscite in Malta a couple of years ago which continued support for their annual slaughter of migrating birds.
Being in this nature reserve reminds me of a picnic, at about this time of year, that the Race Marshal and I had in the Sologne (my photo above), that dark and marshy wooded area to the south of Orleans, in the big bend of the Loire. We were feeling pleased at having acquired some Frinault cheese, local and not much of it around, and were sitting there, bread and apricots to hand (apologies for the pretension), when a cuckoo started to sing away to our right and a second cuckoo started off to the left. They sang happily for about twenty five minutes.
No cuckoos today, sadly, but lunch holds up: some Deichkäse from a bio farm near Berlin - with a loaf of dunkle Kruste, cold deutscher Spargel and a couple of bottles of Berliner Weisse. Food, the need for land to farm, was the impulse that drove Germans into this part of the world. In medieval times, the area east of the Elbe and west of the Oder belonged to various Slav tribes: where we are picnicking, for example, is in the Slavic Hevelli tribe's domain. But then their world of marsh and lakes – such as it is now – began to change. During the 10th and 11th centuries, coinciding almost exactly with the reign of the Hevelli princes, the Medieval Warm Period saw temperatures rise to mid-20th century levels. The causes are thought to have been increased solar activity, decreased volcanic activity, and changes to ocean circulation – and the effects of this global warming were to dry out the marshes and turn them into fertile farmlands. This meant competition for the Slavs because Germans to the east of the Elbe began to move in. (The same sort of thing is happening now in Siberia: Chinese settlers are encroaching on Russian lands from Manchuria across to Lake Baikal). And then competition turned to potential catastrophe towards the end of the Medieval Warm Period when the Pope initiated crusades against the Slavs - who were of course pagan and needed converting. To consolidate Christianity, the crusaders built churches and founded abbeys - like the nearby Lehnin Abbey. Otto, the son of Albert the Bear who had defeated the local Slav prince, built the Abbey in Lehnin because he had once fallen asleep under a tree there and had dreamed of a white deer from whose antlers he was saved by an appeal to Christ. And I should mention that it was Albert the Bear who established himself as the first Margrave of Brandenburg; it was to a successor that Bach dedicated the Brandenburg Concertos. Albert the Bear may have achieved a victory, but on the whole the crusaders did not prosper. The Slavs proved doughty fighters and the consequence was a series of local truces and agreements rather than victories. A notional acceptance of Christianity prevailed but many of the Slavs remained on their land. Their presence to the east of the River Elbe, in particular, is evidenced by the survival of place names of Slavic origin – names ending in “-witz”, “-ow” or “-in”, such as Berlin). And to this day, Slavs are present: the Sorbs, to the south of us near Dresden – still speak a Slavic language, which is now protected under German law. And there is a distinct Sorbian culture - music, customs, literature and a Sorbian language radio. The British Library has many examples of early Sorbian literature, including a copy of the Lord's Prayer dating from 1603.
Sorbian cuisine is generally very simple: boiled potatoes with linseed oil and curd is a favourite – though in fancy Sorbian restaurants you can have fillet of ox cooked in vegetable stock with horseradish sauce, vegetables and parsley potatoes or, perhaps, a platter of delicacies - carp praline, roasted venison meatballs, smoked duck breast, baked goat cheese and others.
There are around 60,000 Sorbs in Germany, many of whom live in Bautzen – the most important cultural centre of the Sorbs. Bautzen itself sits on a hill above the Spree and has a very well-preserved medieval centre. On Easter Sunday, columns of Sorbs ride out to spread the good news that Jesus Christ has risen from the dead. And later there is the Rolling of the Easter Eggs: a tradition that began in the mid-16 century when children from wealthy families rolled eggs down the hill as gifts for poor children - and the tradition, somewhat modified, continues. Here is film of Sorbian song and dance: the serious stuff starts at about 1 minute and 7 seconds - https://youtu.be/COUg1VGXx4s
And some Sorb ladies from Texas singing - the music starts at 2 minutes and 40 seconds - https://youtu.be/45ul5dEBSwM
And here is Al Bowlly singing the Cuckoo Song: https://youtu.be/bHNPKkvcK38