The weirdest christmas tradition ever?
Christmas traditions... each society where Christmas is celebrated treasures its own customs and traditions around this special time of year. Some are very traditional and ceremonious, others are more colourful and "profane". In many places people meet with the family around a table copious with certain typical dishes of these dates. In other places streets are crowded with people strolling through Christmas markets, with a glass of hot spiced wine in one hand and a delicious Christmas street food in the other... the list would be endless and very varied. But of all the Christmas traditions I have heard about, I am absolutely convinced that the most... peculiar is the one celebrated in my adopted home, Catalonia.
I think that, much better than my explanation, which may be hard to believe, it is much better that Viggo Mortensen and Stephen Fry are the ones who tell you what it is all about... I assure you that it is worthwhile :)
Tell me, friends, what did you think? In the place where you live, is there a peculiar celebration? (related to Christmas or any other holiday)? I would love you to share it... now that traveling is complicated, it would be a fun way to learn how people build our festivities and celebrate special occasions.
LET'S KNIT WITH A CLEAR CONSCIENCE.
You go to your trusted wool store and have a great time between balls and skeins. You caress them, palpate their softness, smell them, feel them. You shuffle the different options to work out which color combination will best fit the project you envision in your imagination, which wool has the characteristics that best suit the garment to be born from your fingers.
There may be a special occasion coming up, perhaps a good friend's birthday, so you spare no expense and leave the store with a few balls of merino wool that will soon give shape to a wonderful merino wool scarf, soft as a caress and warm as toast. Unfortunately, without your knowing it, you might be contributing to animal suffering, and perhaps that scarf, woven with love and gifted with illusion, hides a sheep's cry of pain. The good news is that you can -we can- stop it.
A pinch of history
The Merino sheep is native to Spain. In the 18th century, after the war of Spanish succession, the English took some specimens of this sheep. It was not until the 19th century that the British transported these sheep to their colonies, including Australia. Today Australia is the largest habitat of these sheep. From the Spanish Merino sheep comes an excellent wool, although perhaps not at the level of Australia or New Zealand because, since the nineteenth century, have worked on genetic improvement to get more wool and better quality. Without human intervention, the sheep would only grow enough wool to protect themselves from the harsh climate. Australian Merino sheep, thanks to centuries of selective breeding, have a large number of folds in their skin which gives them a larger surface area covered with wool. Obviously this is of greater benefit to the producer.
The problem with this exaggerated amount of folds in the skin is that in these folds the flies can deposit their eggs causing an infestation of tremendously painful larvae and even death. The mulesing is a technique that consists in the removal of a part of that skin from around the anus, which is the area most prone to infestation by the accumulation of dirt and moisture. It is performed on young lambs and once the skin heals that area is protected.
The vast majority of merino sheep in Australia are subjected to this bloody procedure, carried out by a person who has completed the mandatory accreditation and training programme, usually a professional mulesing contractor. Antiseptics, anaesthesia and painkillers are not required by Australian law during or after the procedure even though the procedure is known to be painful to the animal.
Woolmark (an organisation that works alongside Australia’s 60,000 woolgrowers to research, develop and certify Australian wool) for its part, mantains that analgesia and anaesthesia for mulesing has been widely adopted by Australian woolgrowers from 0% in 2006 to more than 86% of woolgrowers in 2020 and that Australian woolgrowers work towards the ultimate goal of reducing the reliance on mulesing. The Australian Veterinary Association (AVA) recognizes the negative animal welfare implications of mulesing, but in "the absence of more humane alternatives" for preventing fly infestation, the AVA accepts the practice. But, the AVA also recommends the use of pain relief and antiseptics-- and the accreditation of mulesing practitioners.
But several animal rights organizations report that the animals are attached to a metal frame, lying on their back with their lower body exposed to the air. Often the occasion is used to cut off their tails, and the male specimens are castrated. Usually also without anesthesia. They say that whoever hears the lambs' cries never forgets them. "The lambs suffer terrible pain and enormous stress. It is a blood-stained wool", says Hanna Zedlacher, from the German animal welfare organization Vier Pfoten. The animal rights organisation PETA strongly opposes mulesing, considering that the practice is cruel and painful, and that more humane alternatives exist, and claim that sheep can be spared maggot infestation through more humane methods, including special diets and spray washing. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) states that "mulesing is performed without anaesthesia, and pain relief is not always used. The operation is quick; however the acute pain is long lasting – at least up to 48 hours or from several days to several weeks. The resulting wound bed takes 5-7 weeks to completely heal." and believes that "it is unacceptable to continue to breed sheep that are susceptible to flystrike (the infestation of wounded sheep by blowflies or maggots) and therefore require an ongoing need for mulesing or other breech modification procedures to manage infection by flies risk.
Progress against Mulesing
There has been a growing recognition that better husbandry is the answer, not mutilating animals. In March 2008 Australia’s NSW Farmers Association called for an immediate ban on mulesing in order to stave off threatened boycotts of Australian wool by up to 60 foreign (mostly European) retailers following negative publicity in Sweden and other Scandinavian countries. On that same day the Western Australian Department of Agriculture announced that it would end mulesing of lambs on itsresearch stations.
A growing number of Australian farmers don't mules, but many still do. Companies such as SRS Wool and I-Merino are already producing wool without mulesing sheep, and New Zealand has been free of mulesing for nearly 10 years.
What we can do
The most powerful message each of us can send to the wool industry is that caring consumers will not support animal cruelty. When buying merino wool, inquire of your retailer whether the wool is ethically sourced— that is, from sheep that are not mulesed. If your retailer is unaware of the animal cruelty implications of mulesed sheep, educate them.
How grand are the mountains of bonnie auld Scotland,
Her torrents' wild waters, sun-jewel'd and gloaming;
How rosy the breath of each moorland and heath,
How lovely her lakes, and her valleys how blooming.
No foreign strand, no classic land,
Earth's fairest scenes together,
Can win our praise like yonder braes,
And fragrant hills of purple Heather.
Heather, in all its varieties, shapes and colors, is one of my favorite plants and one of the many reasons why I look forward to visiting the Highlands of Scotland, where its little hardy flower has made it's mark on the wind swept landscape, rocky hills and moors until it has become a symbol of the region and its people.
And it's not just for her beauty, or her fragrance... if we're talking about usefulness, Heather is a firm candidate for first prize. In times gone by it was used to sweep the home, taking away the dust leaving behind a sweet aroma... very metaphorical, right? In the Highlands the medicinal properties of an infusion of heather tops were used to treat coughs, and to soothe the nerves, and heather tea and ointments were used to treat arthritis and rheumatism. ‘Moorland tea’ made from heather flowers, was reputed to be a favourite of the poet Robert Burns.
Heather has its fair share of legends attached to it. As the story of heather goes, when God created the world he looked at the bare hillsides of Scotland and decided that a plant was needed to make the slopes more beautiful. He asked the Oak, the Honeysuckle and the Rose but none were able to live in the harsh conditions. By chance he came upon a small, low-lying shrub with tiny white and purple flowers. It was Heather and He asked “Will you grow on the hillsides to make them more beautiful?”. Heather was not sure if she could do the job but said she would try her best. God was so pleased that he bestowed three gifts upon her; the strength of the Oak, the fragrance of the Honeysuckle and the sweetness of the Rose.
And last but not least, if you have a sweet tooth like me, you'll probably want to know that some of the world's award winning honey comes from Heather Hills Farm, in the stunning landscapes of rural Perthshire. The bees thrive on heather in the moorlands and create a fragrant heather honey that is not only delicious, it is also said to have health benefits too!.
Anyway, when I stumbled upon a wool whose colors matched Heather's so well, I couldn't help but use it to design not one, but two patterns, ( Heather's Charm top, and Heather's Charm cardigan) adding some white motifs, just in case the legend that says that white Heather brings good luck is true...
I am currently working on my "Besurt Hat", a pattern inspired by the rowan tree, perhaps my favorite tree, with its red berries and lighted foliage. This tree holds a starring role in the happy memories of my childhood. Under its branches, always visited by a multitude of birds -robins, blackbirds, thrushes, and even goshawks- eager to feast on its berries, my grandmother told me stories, taught me to knit and, while her bones allowed it, helped me to swing on the swing that hung from one of the branches. In the winter we used to pick the berries and she would make Rowanberry Marmalade. Here I leave you her recipe, in case you feel like making it sometime.
Apple and rowanberry marmalade, a recipe by my granny.
First of all, bear in mind that the taste varies wildly from tree to tree, with some being palatable and some being pretty acrid (you still want them to taste edible to your palate to start with). My grandmother used to say that for the rowanberries to lose their bitterness it is better to pick them in winter, after the first frost. In any case, I would suggest tasting a berry from the tree you intend to gather from to check whether the berries are just hars or very bitter. The very bitter ones are not good for making marmelade.
250 gr cleaned berries, I don't mind the seeds, they're quite small, but could be run through a mill after cooking .
250 gr Apple, cut in pieces
Enough water to cover berries and get cooking started
250 gr sugar
How to do it
We make a syrup. Put the sugar with water in a pan and put it on the fire. We let it boil and let it reduce a little bit. We remove from the fire.
We add the rowanberries and the apple cut into small pieces to the syrup. Let it macerate for about 3 hours.
Put the saucepan back on the medium-low heat and let it boil slowly, until it reduces to the desired consistency... this can take some time, be careful that it does not burn and stick!
Ladle marmalade into sterilized jars, cap and process in a water canner for 10 minutes.
It is kept in the refrigerator. It is better not to keep it for more than 1 month.
IN A STRESSFUL TIME...
Are you keen on trying new international flavours and products from different countries and regions? Do you agree with me when I say that tasting the local cuisine is almost the best part of a journey? And, more importantly, you have a sweet tooth? If the answers are yes, let me introduce you to the “Panellets”. Believe me, you won't regret it. This traditional Catalan "Panellets" recipe is easy to make with just 6 ingredients and fun to customize with different toppings.
Nothing says fall in Barcelona like "La Castanyada" (that we can freely translate as 'the chestnut feast'), a traditional festival that is deeply rooted in Catalonia and celebrated on 1st November, All Saint's Day, although in recent years more usually on the evening of October 31st so it now has to compete with the increasingly popular Halloween.
The Catalan ‘Castanyada’ revolves around the concept of family and friends. In this get-together as the weather gets colder, people eat roasted chestnuts –castanyes in Catalan–, roasted sweet potatoes and small balls of marzipan called ‘panellets’ (pronounced pah-neh-yets) traditionally coated in pine nuts, served with sweet dessert wine.
Their origin is unclear, but it seems they are the descendants of ancient funerary rites which involved taking small bread rolls to the church, or tombs of the departed, as an offering during this festival. Also, the fact that they are long-lasting foodstuff links to the concept of eternity and remembrance of the dead.
Although the most traditional ones are those made of pine nuts, currently there are at least a dozen different flavors of panellets, each of which has its own traditional shape to match its flavor. And all are delicious. My favorites are the (round) pine nut panellets and the (oval-shaped) almond panellets, which happen to be two of the most popular flavors. It makes me very happy to share with all of you, sweet-toothed knitters, my favourite traditional Catalan panellets recipe. It is REALLY easy to make and easy to customize with a variety of different toppings.
Yield: 45 panellets
The traditional ingredients used to make pine nut and/or almond panellets include:
18 ounces (500 grams) ALMOND FLOUR (almond meal). This will be the base of our marzipan dough.
3 1/2 ounces (100 grams) POTATO, cooked, peeled and mashed with a fork. The original recipe is made with almond, sugar, egg and pine nuts only… or what it is the same, just traditional marzipan. The addition of either sweet potato or even regular potatoes is a much more recent contribution and it is likely to be an attempt to cut down on the cost of ingredients, specially considering the elevated price of almonds. Whatever the reason for this, I actually prefer the panellets that contain some sweet potato or regular potato. Why? Because in my humble opinion, the result is a smoother texture and a much more moisturized marzipan
1 1/2 cups (300 grams) SUGAR. White granulated sugar is traditional.
3 EGGS, which we will use (1) in the dough itself (2) to help bind the dough to the toppings and (3) brushed on as an egg wash before baking.
LEMON ZEST, which we will add to the dough.
TOPPINGS: 12 ounces (350 grams) raw pine nuts or finely-chopped almonds (or a 50/50 mix of both)
Make the marzipan. In a large mixing bowl, stir together one egg, lemon zest and brown sugar until combined. Add in the mashed (cooked) potato and stir until combined. Gradually add in the almond flour and stir (or you may need to use your hands) the dough until it is completely combined, taking care not to overwork the dough. Shape the dough it into a disk, cover it with plastic wrap, and and leave it to rest in the fridge for at least 24 hours.
Roll the panellets. Roll the marzipan dough into 1-inch balls (for the pine nut version) or 1-inch little logs (for the almond version), about 20 grams each. Whisk one egg in a small bowl, and place the pine nuts or almonds in a second bowl. Dip a dough ball into the egg mixture until it is completely coated. Then transfer the dough ball to the bowl of nuts, and use your hands to gently press the nuts so that the entire ball is covered. (This takes some patience and will require you to get your hands dirty, so plan for this step to take some time).
Prepare the oven. Heat the oven to 425°F.
Brush the panellets. Place the rolled panellets onto a large parchment-covered baking sheet. Whisk the final egg plus 1 tablespoon of water together in a small bowl. Then brush each of the panellets with the egg wash.
Bake. Bake for 10 minutes, or until the tops of the panellets are lightly golden. (Be sure to keep a close eye on them so that the nuts do not burn.)
Serve. Enjoy the panellets while they are nice and warm. Or you can store them in a sealed container at room temperature for up to 1 week, or freeze for up to 3 months.
Food processor option: Instead of mixing the marzipan by hand, you can pulse everything together (using the same order of ingredients) in a food processor. But remember: do not overwork the marzipan with the mixer, as it could extract the oil from the almonds.
Refrigerating the dough: It is always advisable to let the marzipan rest 24 hours before preparing the Panellets, in the fridge and covered so that it does not dry out.
To work on the table it is essential to have very clean hands and avoid marzipan sticking to us, as well as having a container with powdered sugar to dust the working areas.
The great enemy of marzipan is air, so whenever it is placed on the table or stored in the fridge, it should be covered with plastic or in a sealed container to prevent it from drying out.
THE KNITTER'S LUCK
Dear Knitters, how about a powerful and positive message? According to the experts, our needles are an unbeatable defense against almost any challenge. And by that I don't just mean that they can be really sharp if need be ;) but something a little deeper. Let me explain....
Recently, while I was knitting the Cherry Peaks hat and enjoying some hot chocolate tea, I was listening in the background to a podcast in which a group of psychologists and pediatricians discussed a very interesting phenomenon they called "learned helplessness". In case this is also a new concept for you, let me give you a glimpse.
Long story short, we talk about "learned helplessness" when a person or animal resigns themselves to a difficult situation because, in the past, they made great efforts to get out of it, but were unable to do so. Thus, the person or animal gives up on acting even when conditions have changed and they now have the resources to come out ahead.
The speakers in the podcast gave a couple of very illustrative examples:
The first one is the short tale "The Chained Elephant", by the Argentinean writer and psychotherapist Jorge Bucay. From a young age, the protagonist of the story wonders why the circus elephant, so strong and powerful, does not free himself from the small stake to which he is tied after the show. One day, a wise friend offers him the answer: "The circus elephant does not escape because it has been tied up since it was very, very small. At the time, he tried to free himself with all his strength without succeeding. Since then he thinks it is impossible".
The other example is from the book "Burnout" by Emily and Amelia Nagoski. It seems that studies have been carried out with mice where they develop learned helplessness in the animals by giving them impossible tasks. Eventually the animals stop trying, even when the task stops being impossible. I.e.: put a mouse in a maze with food it can't get to until it develops learned helplessness, then put the food somewhere it can get to it and it won't even try.
The very good news is that as soon as you show the mouse that it CAN get to the food, the learned helplessness just vanishes.
In the opinion of those experts, there is very powerful yet straightforward tool to overcome that learned helplessness that sometimes grips us along with the feelings of frustration or futility that comes with: simply DO SOMETHING. Make a call to a long time no see friend, cook a cake, make a cool album with the photos of the latest getaway weekend... It doesn't have to be something big, just do something.
And then I looked at my hands and there it was. A half-knitted hat, a pattern that was taking shape between my fingers, which would soon be finished and warming my head.
We knitters are lucky enough to be creators, and simply by creating, we push away moments of emotional unrest, of being overwhelmed by circumstances and helpless and numb. By knitting we create the physical evidence that we can make a beautiful impact on our world, and this simple gesture does us great good.