You could also call these selected items nonpareils or classical exemplars. Naturally some are rare if not priceless; but they range all the way down to a few bucks so feel free to get out your wish list. Here it’s more a combination of significance and romance than monetary value. And unlike the Holy Grail[s] of song and fame their existence is, or at the very least was, undisputed.
Skip to: 100-year-old balsamic vinegar ✧ Austrian Imperial Napkin Fold ✧ Jamón ibérico ✧ Libyan desert glass ✧ Fazioli F308 piano ✧ The Gömböc ✧ Murrhine ✧ Stanton Fancy Back ✧ Su filindeu ✧ Messiah-Salabue Stradivarius ✧ Teosinte ✧ Gaspard de la nuit ✧ Byssus ✧ Luck of Edenhall
You’d probably no more relegate 100-year-old balsamic vinegar to a salad than you would pour Manni olive oil into a turkey fryer. The classical balsamic — the only one legally marketable in the EU as Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale — consists of Trebbiano and/or Lambrusco grape juices that have been gently boiled down for 24-30 hours, filtered, injected with a starter culture, and then ritualistically fermented through a series of progressively smaller casks made of varying types of wood. For a long, long time.
Aging categories break down into twelve years (labeled red), eighteen (silver), and finally 25 to 100 or more (gold). To give you some idea of this vinegar’s rarity and expense, the bottles you see in these photos are typically three inches (7 cm) tall and hold 2.39 ounces.
At the century stage the vinegar is syrupy, almost black, and entirely non-acidic with an intense, indescribably complex flavor. A lot of people are so in awe of this stuff and afraid to risk obscuring it with any accompaniment whatsoever that they just sip it straight from shot glasses. Clans in Italy’s Emilia Romagna region have been crafting the product which now includes Il Grande Vecchio Mussini, Modena Extravecchio, and other brands for over a thousand years. (The oldest stock I’ve ever seen for sale purported to date back to the mid 1600s, though despite its age it was priced more in line with its century-only brethren at around $100 per fluid ounce.)
The Austrian Imperial Napkin Fold
To set the proper mood for Vienna’s crème de la crème of regal textile origami, here’s the Radetzky March by Johann Strauss Sr. ▭
The Imperial Fold, brought out only for state occasions, arose from the Habsburg court sometime during the nineteenth century. You can marvel at these serviettes/dinner roll snugglers at various museums throughout Austria such as the Silberkammer (“Silver Collection”) at the Hofburg Imperial Apartments in Vienna. The technique behind this art form has traditionally been known by only two people at any given time. That’s a little hard to take literally, but in any case it remains a scrupulously guarded State secret.
A few years ago a certain “Joe Worm” surfaced on YouTube to disclose what he himself has determined, after lengthy study and scholarship no doubt, to be the correct process.
Now ideally one would start with a starched and pressed linen, but here he settles for a limp, wrinkly cloth scrounged from the kitchen for his napkin and the hardwood floor for his tabletop.
Have you locked your doors, black-taped your webcam, and pulled down the shades? If so, here is Joe’s video. ▭
Dear Mr. Worm,
I am a representative of the Austrian State Government. Please remove this video and terminate your account immediatly [sic]. Failure to do so will necessitate our Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz und Terrorismusbekämpfung (Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution and Counterterrorism) to take drastic measures…
In all seriousness, thanks for figuring this out so I can sleep tonight.
Jamón ibérico de bellota
Might this be the ham that never saw a church potluck?
In the southern and southwestern parts of Spain you’ll find the black Iberian pig or pata negra. It’s relatively small and slow-maturing (for a pig, anyway), characterized by its ebony hooves and an enviable talent for growing tasty ribbons of fat between its muscle fibers. The breed goes back a thousand years and appears to have descended from a hybridization between domestic pigs the Phoenicians introduced during the Bronze Age and wild boars.
Anything sold as jamón ibérico must come from a free-range pig of at least 50% pata negra gene stock. Ideally these sweethearts are raised on barley and maize for their first couple of months and thereafter left to roam freely and forage for acorns. They can be fattened later on with grain, but compromising their montañera diet like that will dilute the unique flavor and texture the region’s acorns — holm, gall, and cork oak, mainly — impart to their meat. There are four designated quality grades, from the rarefied de bellota 100% ibérico (requiring a 100% pure pata negra hog and only acorns in its diet) down to de cebo ibérico (reducing the hog’s required pata negra heritage to 50%-75% and raising it only on grain).
They stack the hams under layers of salt for 14 days to dehydrate them and then dry-cure them for 12 to 48 months in sheds high up in the mountains. However sinful its flavor may be, they say the meat’s fat portion is largely monounsaturated like olive oil.
All that tranquil puttering about in oak groves and curing sheds isn’t terribly cost-effective, of course, so the end product will set you back. North Americans seeking the paramount jamón ibérico de bellota from specialty food importers will need to fork over $80 or so per pound (which can add up to $900 or more for a whole ham) depending on the donor pig’s acorn history, though the 2009 Christmas season left Spain with a rare glut of ibérico along with lesser jamones they were forced to unload at deep discounts and even in some cases give out free as promotions.
Libyan desert glass
In 1932 geologist Patrick Clayton, the same individual played more recently by Julian Wadham in the film The English Patient, discovered deposits of a chartreuse-colored glass in a remote area of the Libyan desert and managed to lug back 50 kilograms of it.
Normally it’s safe to assume this sort of material is a form of obsidian, a volcanic glass used since ancient times for various ornamental purposes and to make super-sharp knives. Indeed there is some volcanism in that area.
But Libyan desert glass is very different. While obsidian averages between 50% and 70% in silica content, here we’re seeing about 98% which is equivalent to that of modern glass. Also, we now know through cosmic ray track analysis LDG is about 28 million years old versus nine thousand or so for the nearby volcanoes.
If you rule out pre-human atomic warfare that pretty much leaves the heat of a meteor impact as the culprit. Glassy fragments formed that way are called tektites and you’ll find lots of them elsewhere in the world — that New Age favorite Moldavite being an example. But LDG stands alone in its chemistry, clarity and color. Clayton didn’t know this, but local cultures going back thousands of years had also prized it. Note the scarab in the illustration.
In 2006 a Boston University team proposed that a heavily eroded circular formation now known as Kebira Crater may well have been formed by the meteorite responsible for LDG. It’s about 23 km (14 miles) in diameter, centered about 292 km (182 miles) due north of the point where the Egyptian and Sudanese borders intersect at a right angle. Fire up Google Earth or the like and fly to 24° 40’ north, 24° 58’ east if you’d like to take a look.
Demand for a semi-obscure novelty like LDG from collectors and gemstone hobbyists is modest, so at the moment you can pick up high quality rough for what comes out to around $2000 per pound. My own favorite fantasy (I think it’s safe to assume no one has tried this yet) is to melt several pounds together, add some flux, blend well, and cast from that a set of drinking glasses.
Fazioli Model F308 piano
Say you aspire to build the ultimate, take-no-prisoners concert grand piano in terms of its tone quality. Hundreds of issues enter into this, but probably the first you’ll need to address is how to make its strings as long as possible.
One reason for this is that in order to generate the richest waveform a string needs to be struck very close to one end. The closer, the better. If A is the distance between a string’s tuning peg anchorage and the contact point of its hammer and B is the remaining distance from there to its other anchorage at the far end of the instrument (called the “singing length”), you want to minimize the ratio A/B. Mechanical limitations dictate A can only be so short, so you’re left to do what you can with B.
The other reason is that for a given pitch, a shorter string sounds “noisier” in tone and less musical than a longer one. Technicians call this inharmonicity. This is also why the singing voices of children, due to their smaller vocal cords, typically sound sweeter and more bell-like than those of adults even if you disregard the pitch differences. Cute for glockenspiels and Charlie Brown specials but undesirable for concert grands.
Anyone who’s plucked rubber bands knows the longer the strings, the harder you need to stretch them to maintain a given pitch. But right away you come up against the tensile strength of whatever you’re using, both in the piano’s strings and in that herculean metal plate or harp that has to hold all of them. A collective tension exceeding 200,000 newtons (20 tons) is not unusual. But at the same time it doesn’t pay to over-design the harp too much because, well, pianos weigh enough at it is.
Currently the grandest of the grands is the Model F308 by Fazioli of Sacile, Italy. As the number implies, it’s 308 centimeters long or a little over ten feet. Specialized computer algorithms allow the company to finesse the bejesus out of the geometries of the strings, harp, and other components to achieve that length and coax the absolute maximum out of the total system.
But storm clouds loom: Klavins of Bonn, Germany, claims to be working on a Model 408. If it had to rely on the same material for its strings as the Fazioli, which I can’t imagine, it would need to torture them with around 75% more tension. Might this be a good application for carbon nanotube composites? These may well offer tensile strengths in the tens of gigapascals, many times what our toughest steels can now manage. Synthetic spider silk shows similar promise. Stay tuned!
In 1995 Russian mathematician Vladimir Arnold set up two ground rules and conjectured that with enough ingenuity someone could design an object that would both satisfy them and always come to rest at the same orientation when placed on a flat surface.
The first rule was that its shape had to be entirely convex: a ruler would only be able to lie against it at a single point or at most a line segment — no valleys allowed. The second was that its density had to be constant throughout so that, unlike those self-righting clown toys, it couldn’t employ an offset weight of any kind.
After some false starts two Hungarian scientists, Gábor Domokos and Péter Várkonyi, managed to machine a successful gömböc in 2006. Since that time they’ve produced them in a range of sizes and shapes and in several metal alloys as well as in marble and Plexiglas. (Like those transparent dice in Las Vegas casinos, the Plexiglas models prove to the world they’re not cheating with hidden weights.)
In order for the gömböc to do its thing its manufacturing tolerances have to meet or surpass one part in 10,000. This means you need to treat them gingerly since if they suffer the slightest chip or dent they run the risk of getting stuck during their self-righting processes. They’re precision novelties and their prices reflect that.
What’s so miraculous, if not downright spooky, is that whichever way you set a gömböc down it will always have enough kinetic energy to rock and swirl around on its own until it finds that resting point. The name gömböc (pronounced “gembets,” more or less, with a hard G) comes from the Hungarian term for a roundish dumpling. The plural is gömböcök.
There’s a far older geometric toy called a rattleback that exhibits similar mind-of-its-own properties when spun.
Most of us nowadays associate the word murrhine (in that case, spelled murrine) with that intricately multicolored glassware from the Venetian island of Murano.
But the genuine murrhine-with-an-H was a mysterious semitransparent synthetic stone artisans fashioned into goblets and other tableware for the ultra-upscale market. It started out as a liquid they poured into a mold and either baked or possibly left to harden exothermically on its own (like plaster of Paris or Portland cement). But the formula and technique got lost and forgotten sometime leading into the Middle Ages and the finished articles were so rare and precious we don’t have any recognizable samples to analyze1.
Pliny the Elder (23-79 ce) tells us in his Natural Histories “The chief merit of [murrhine vessels] is the great variety of their colors, and the wreathed veins, which, every here and there, present shades of purple and white, with a mixture of the two; the purple gradually changing, as it were, to a fiery red, and the milk-white assuming a ruddy hue. Some persons praise the edges of these vessels more particularly, with a kind of reflection in the colours, like those beheld in a rainbow.”
We further learn that although murrhine felt rather oily and emitted a characteristic smell, its connoisseurs savored those qualities also. Roman statesmen and other elites took enormous pride in their murrhines and dined and drank from them especially when they wanted to put on the dog. Nero even smashed a couple to show everyone who was boss. We know crazed meteorite-worshiping, ostrich brain-eating emperor Elagabalus was also an avid collector so this extends the treasure’s survival well into the third century.
It’s always possible someone will dig up some shards of murrhine or glean some more details from the literature (there’s an ample backlog of carbonized first-century scrolls waiting for restoration and decipherment, for example) and then we’ll have a better idea how and from what it was made.
1. Likely as not there are at least a few murrhine vessels or fragments languishing in private and museum collections, misidentified as porcelain, alabaster, milky agate, or the like. If so, any of those owners who discover the truth of their possession would make history and, if they put it on the antiquities market, become staggeringly rich.
The Edwin M. Stanton Fancy Back
Ah, yes, the days when money looked like money.
This one dollar U.S. Treasury note of 1890 isn’t the rarest paper currency of that genre — others exist in far shorter supply, such as the 1891 thousand dollar General Meade that changed hands for $2.5 million in April 2013 — but it’s quite widely acknowledged as the most legendary and as the most elaborately yet elegantly designed.
Despite posing the ultimate 19th century counterfeiter’s nightmare, the Fancy Back’s layout doesn’t even seem cluttered. Note the enormous dimensional diversity among the various elements on the front side and the overall squint-your-eyes density contrasts on the back. As with most paper currency the stock was 100% cloth pulp made, in those days, by grinding up scraps of cotton and linen purchased by the wagon load from rag pickers.
There would have been a devoted team of master artisans attacking a project like this. Some would specialize in portraits, others in the lettering or organic ornamentation, and finally engineering types who would design, build, and operate the geometric lathes. Through elaborate systems of cams and gears, these latter Spirograph-like devices drove engraving tools to cut the rosettes and other fishnet-like embellishments.
Millions of Fancy Backs were minted and circulated (a blacksmith in 1890 would make about $11 weekly), but it’s estimated only 900 to 1300 exist today. Values nudge past $3000 for specimens in the very finest condition.
Note: A textual sockdolager like this should represent the ultimate challenge for an optical character recognition (OCR) application. Any takers?
There are basically two ways you get to sample su filindeu, “the thread of God,” the world’s rarest and most precariously endangered pasta.
For the first, in early May or October you’ll need to don your best hiking gear and commit to a largely offroad 20-mile overnight pilgrimage from Sardinia’s Nuoro Comune northeast to the tiny village of Lula. There you’ll celebrate a Eucharist at the Santuario di San Francesco d'Assisi and be rewarded with su filindeu in hot sheep’s broth with Pecorino Romano cheese. (It’s a community effort, so don’t mind the plastic tableware.)
For the second, you’ll need to make reservations at either Nuoro’s Agriturismo Testone Inn (which is also a working farm raising the requisite sheep), Il Rifugio, or Ristorante Enoteca Ciusa for su filindeu nero, their prize-winning squid-ink-dyed variety.
The preparation should be straightforward. Knead up some simple pasta dough from semolina flour, water, and salt. Stretch it way out, doubling it over eight times, to get 256 threadlike strands. Align them in parallel over a wooden disk in three layers rotated at 60-degree intervals to form a gridded sheet. When dry, break up into pieces. Minus the layering and drying out part, Chinese stretched noodles have been made similarly for at least a thousand years and many chefs can do it. So what?
The challenge lies with the dough. The Chinese style is more alkaline due to additional ingredients (sometimes lye) which give it a rubbery elasticity. Simple Italian pasta dough is far less coöperative. Despite this, 50-year veteran Paola Abraini and her handful of protégées are able to draw it out hair-thin without breaking it. Likely variables: absolutely precise water and salt ratios with the flour and the speed and accelerations of your hands as you double it over and over to achieve that magical 256.
You only master these through many years of apprenticeship. Others on the island Ms Abraini has attempted to train, along with celebrity chef Jamie Oliver and some Barilla Group engineers who hoped to mechanize su filindeu production, all gave up in frustration.
The silent Messiah Stradivarius
Those fortunate enough to own stringed instruments from the Baroque-era Amati, Guarneri, and Stradivari workshops are scrupulously fussy about who — if anyone — they allow to poke and prod them. Although much of their vaunted superiority would seem to stem more from cachet than reality (blind listening tests reveal them sonically indistinguishable from many of their top-drawer peers), there are many nuances in their physical makeup that do set them apart and make them exquisitely responsive to their players.
Back in the 80s and 90s there was a lot of press about the more finely packed growth rings in the spruce and maple available to those makers, owing to the Maunder Mininum’s reduced growing seasons between 1645 and 1715. Other articles have cited the effect of microbes eating away tiny resonance-encouraging voids in the wood as it soaked in the Venetian lagoons awaiting the sawyers, and the presence of finely pulverized grains of quartz, calcite, aluminum oxide (white sapphire), garnet, and/or other minerals in the varnishes.
More recently we’ve seen physics professor William Fry demonstrate how intimately attuned these makers were ▭ to the way various twisting and pumping actions of the instrument’s body contribute to its sound. They modulated the thicknesses of the front plates in meandering patterns, and applied their varnishes in similarly uneven coats, both to optimize these quiverings and to compensate for the flexibility quirks of the wood that differed for each instrument.
About 500 Stradivarius violins survive, but among them the Messiah-Salabue from 1715 is unique. It was found unsold in Antonio Stradivari’s workshop after he died in 1737, and since at least the early 19th century it has scarcely been played.
You’ll notice from the photo the C-shaped rims at its waist show no wear from errant bows and it has no chin rest or fine tuners installed. The idea here has been to preserve one Stradivarius in as virginal a condition as possible so violin makers and other researchers will always have an exemplar to analyze. It’s on the second floor of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.
Maize or corn as we know it doesn’t exist in the wild and never did. In fact, if all the world’s corn farmers decided to desert their crops tomorrow and let them fend for themselves, the species would eventually vanish because it can’t self-propagate.
There are several wild grasses native to Mexico and Central America collectively referred to as teosinte [tay-o-SEEN-tay]. Their finger-sized ears bear a single row of tough-skinned kernels which you can either crack and feed to livestock or grind into flour. At a high enough temperature some will even pop like popcorn.
We’ve come to understand that sometime around 12,000 years ago the locals began to cultivate teosinte and over several millennia of selective breeding developed hundreds of varieties of maize — or what the first visiting Europeans called Indian corn to distinguish it from the other cereal grains (“corn”) they were already familiar with.
The various species and subspecies of teosinte and domestic maize belong to the genus Zea, maize being Z. mays. Teosinte tends to spring up around maize fields and intermingle itself with the crops. The farmers have divided opinions on that. If you’re interested in experimenting with teosinte you can now readily buy the seed. They say it can be stubborn to germinate — it evolved in the wild to survive the digestive tracts of mammals — but that a dilute hydrogen peroxide solution will speed things along.
Gaspard de la nuit:
Trois poèmes pour piano d'après Aloysius Bertrand Euphony
Back when I was in high school I somehow wound up on a local TV quiz bowl with three of my classmates. One of the challenges put to us by the emcee was to identify Ravel’s Boléro. Though I was very faintly aware of Ravel I had never heard of that piece. It’s still hard to say whether that was good or bad.
Maurice Ravel himself expressed much the same attitude toward Boléro Frank Zappa would echo fifty-odd years later toward Valley Girl: basically, total bewilderment that such a spur-of-the-moment trifle drew so much adulation.
But you’ll never hear that kind of talk from either side of the table about Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit, inspired by the poetry of Aloysius Bertrand (1807-1841). It was and continues to be one of the most astonishing, multilayered pieces of music a single pair of hands can conjure from a keyboard. It’s also widely cited as the most technically demanding in the standard repertoire. Here’s a YouTube video of its Scarbo movement ▭, the last and most difficult of the three, played by Valentina Lisitsa (whose parents originally intended for her to be a ballet dancer).
You can interpret the title as Treasure guardian of the night. The piece describes a water sprite in a tale by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué, a hanged man illuminated by the setting sun, and a gnome menacing someone in a dark room as they try to sleep.
In his book Mind Over Matters, Mystery Science Theater 3000 writer Michael J. Nelson shares his wry fantasies about being a popular college professor who rides to work on a reclining bicycle and, when the mood strikes him, inspires his protégés to ever greater transcendental heights with his own highly personal interpretations of Gaspard.
The noble pen shell is an enormous mussel living in the Mediterranean that secretes threads of a unique character to anchor itself to the rocks. From ancient times artisans have collected these threads, soaked them in citrus juice to develop that magical golden hue, and woven them into an ultra-sheer textile called sea silk or byssus. This product was always stratospherically expensive. Pharaohs, high priests, popes, emperors, and other potentates luxuriated in byssal shawls, gloves, hosiery, and the like.
Likely the most celebrated swatch of byssus is St. Veronica’s Veil, also known as The Vernicle or The Sudarium. Legend tells us St. Veronica comforted Jesus on the way to his crucifixion by drying his face with The Veil, which thereafter miraculously displayed his portrait. Among competing specimens claiming to be the Sudarium, The Veil of Manoppello, tightly guarded at a Capuchin friary four hours by train northeast from Rome, is easily the most impressive. Though the cloth’s actual image falls far short of what you see in the Northern Renaissance panel shown here, it’s hardly less mysterious.1
Byssus textile is now so rare it has no quotable price and it’s only passed along as a gift. Several Sardinian women currently practice this painstaking art, most famously Chiara Vigo who dives by night off the Isle of Sant’Antioco to harvest the threads from secret underwater coves. She has visited The Veil of Manoppello and certified it — whether miraculous or not — as byssal. As for the noble pen shell, its populations have slumped alarmingly from overfishing for its more prosaic value as an entrée.
But not to worry. Someday soon you’ll likely see lab-grown byssal textiles and, once again, maybe have a chance to own a pair of gloves that will fold small enough to fit into a walnut shell.
1. This is not to say people don’t wonder how St. Veronica could have possessed the astounding foresight, not to mention extreme personal wealth, to show up at the crucifixion with such a cloth at the ready.
The Luck of Edenhall
Outside of County Cumbria in northern England you don’t encounter the word “luck” in this sense very often. Here it refers to a talisman, most typically a work of fine tableware in stone or glass, the breakage or loss of which will surely spell doom for its well-landed owners.
Of the many lucks and rumored lucks in the area, that of Edenhall is the best known and quite arguably the most remarkable. It’s a flared, riotously colored beaker about 16 cm (6.2 inches) tall and 11 cm (4.33 inches) wide at its lip, a masterful example of Islamic decorated glassware dating from the mid 1300s. Its earliest owner of record was Sir Philip Musgrave, a baronet and royalist politician who sat in the House of Commons from 1640 to 1643, kept a low profile under the Commonwealth, then served again until his death in 1678.
We don’t know how or when the Musgrave family originally acquired it. The story you usually hear involves fairies leaving it behind in a panic as they fled from a mortal interloper. Less imaginatively it was presumed to have been a souvenir brought back by a Crusader. Lately that idea hasn’t been holding up all that much better than the fairy scenario, though. The last Crusade ended in 1291 and modern analysis on the glass strongly suggests a date at least fifty years later.
The Musgraves guarded and treasured the Luck of Edenhall for generations until they fell onto hard times in the 1920s and passed it along to the Victoria & Albert Museum.
Up until the time it got there it must surely have taken a few tumbles.
The glass is pretty tough, though, and the family routinely kept it stored in a custom-designed leather case and took care to lay down something soft anytime it was brought out and handled.