Tag Archives: Switzerland

Geneva’s Botanic Garden-and Plant Theft

4 Jun


Any flower garden is a pleasure to behold, but a thoughtfully curated, beautifully laid-out, well-maintained botanic garden is truly magical. It is a living museum based on sustainability and conservation where knowledge and art come together to educate visitors and expose them to collections they might not otherwise see. The Geneva Botanic Garden — with its outdoor rock gardens, streams, and ponds; its conservatories; and its arboretum — is such a place.


I visited it twice and saw hundreds of gorgeous plants, including the ethereal, ballerina-like Pulsatilla serotina Magnier:

  
Gunnera tinctoria (Giant Rhubarb) and Orontium aquaticum (Golden Club), at water’s edge:

  
…  Paeonia tenuifolia (Fern Leaf Peony) and Euphorbia rigida (Gopher Spurge):

  
Because botanic gardens are such peaceful places, it is hard to imagine any nefarious activity occurring in them. But botanic gardens contain items of great beauty and of great worth, and just as there have been art heists, there have also been famous plant heists: from the almost-daily theft of tulips in Carolus Clusius‘ botanic garden at Leiden University in the late 1500s (precursor to the really nasty Tulip Mania that would follow) to the 2014 theft of a water lily brought back from the brink of extinction at London’s Kew Gardens–a crime Scotland Yard was called in to investigate.

The result is that at many botanic and private gardens, and in other unexpected places, increased security is now par for the course. Pun intended–a lone, wild lady slipper orchid found on a golf course in England in 1930 (the only one if its kind–the plant had been declared extinct) is said to have more police protection than the Queen.

I was reminded of this dark side of the botanic world twice in recent weeks: first, by a sign in an empty spot at the Geneva Botanic Garden: “Here a plant was STOLEN by someone without scruples and without respect for our collections.” It was a sobering sight.


And second, on a private garden tour on the outskirts of Rome, where a well-dressed elderly lady surreptitiously took clippings of numerous plants and hid them in her handbag.  Luckily, the owner of the garden is usually quite gracious about clippings, when asked. But what is it that compels people to possess something beautiful, rather than simply admire it?

The Independent said it well in an article about the obsession with orchids: “It is a curious and dispiriting aspect of human behaviour that some of the most beautiful features of the Earth can be destroyed by people’s love for them.”

Steak de Cheval: Did We or Didn’t We?

21 May

On a recent day trip out of Geneva, we made a spur-of-the moment decision to stop in the gorgeous old  lake-side resort town of Vevey for a scenic stroll and some lunch. The stroll was lovely, though it was a blustery day:

vevey1
Having worked up an appetite, we were primed for the siren call of steak and pommes frites –and so when we spotted both words on a chalk-board menu in front of a charming restaurant frequented by locals, we headed straight in with barely a backward glance.  No need for menus—we knew exactly what we wanted. The steak was served “au paprika” – which traditionally means a sauce made with sautéed minced onion, paprika, cream, and butter.  The sauce enrobing our steaks was silky, savory, and plate-lickingly delicious. The medium-rare steaks themselves were succulent, and we ate every bite with a sigh on our lips. The pommes frites (french fries) and accompanying vegetables rounded out the dish, and we left the restaurant in a pleasant state of euphoria. I was reminded of the Virginia Wolf quote:  “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.”

vevey2
In hindsight, it was clear I did not begin thinking until after lunch. First, I thought to take a photograph of the chalk-board menus outside, as a reminder of the excellent meal we had just eaten.  And then I thought to read the description of the chef-recommended dish a bit more carefully, as the steak we had eaten seemed to be a special kind of steak—steak de cheval. And then I thought—“Wait a second, doesn’t ‘cheval’ mean…”? Yes, it does. It means horse. Whereupon I thought, “Oh no.”

vevey3
So, did we or didn’t we? We did. For a brief moment, I hoped the dish was somehow “à cheval,” which is a (beef) steak with a fried egg on top. Except ours did not have an egg on top. And it was “de cheval” not “à cheval.”

I’ve eaten calf intestines, cartilage salad, chicken feet, slivered eel, fish eyeballs, squid ink, stewed pig skin, and assorted other animal parts. But this dish—as absolutely delicious as it was–struck a bit close to home. For Americans, eating horse meat is taboo. As the French food sociologist Claude Fischler has argued, we eat within a culture, and that culture determines what foods are considered edible, how to prepare them, when and how to eat them, and with whom. What we eat marks “us” vs. “others.”

Though people have been consuming horse meat  for millennia, in the United States (and in most English-speaking countries) it is culturally inappropriate to eat it, even though some commentators argue there could be good reasons to do so. But across Europe (including in Italy, where I live), and in Asia and Mexico, horse is on the menu.

If I’m honest, when I ate “steak de cheval au paprika” in Switzerland, I dined extremely well. But it also made me think—about cultural norms, and what is taboo, and why. My conclusion:  As someone who enjoys eating other domesticated animals, I cannot judge those who eat horse. And I have to remind myself that this squeamishness works both ways; many of the things we eat have historically disgusted others. This is how the Chinese once described cheese: “the putrefied mucous discharge of an animal’s guts.”

Umm, mmm good.