Tis the season of the satsuma, that Christmassy citrus delight that’s so easy to peel and fills the room with what 5th-century Chinese poet Liu Hsun described as a “fragrant mist”. Not to be confused with the “fragrant mist” used by 20th century poets to describe the urinals at Tottenham Court Road, this is the one that makes people stop work, sniff the aromatic air and exclaim, “Oi, who’s eating an orange?”
You could argue that satsuma season always comes too late, following hard, as it does, on influenza season, when 90 per cent of the population get struck down by those battalions of bacteria that spend the summer months lying low under sun loungers and parasols, plotting their next epidemic. Just as we’re recovering from the first wave of streaming eyes and hacking coughs and long, shivery nights longing for death to take us before the sun rises to sentence us to another day of suffering, along comes the satsuma like a gigantic vitamin C shaped bolt being drawn across the door of the empty stable.
Still, they’re fun to eat and they’re good for filling the toe end of a Christmas stocking. But I’m not here to talk satsumas, I’m here to talk pith.
Not for the firtht time, I hear you cry.
Very funny. Now pay attention. Slaughtermen and matadors will tell you that ‘pith’ is a verb meaning to kill an animal by severing its spinal column. But the slaughter of helpless animals is no subject for discussing at Christmas, so let’s move swiftly on.
The pith we all know and love is, of course, the fibrous white stuff that clings to your satsuma after you’ve peeled it. There are few more satisfying things in life than removing the skin from a satsuma in one piece, but one of them is peeling the pith off afterwards. In fact, it’s so fulfilling that it’s sometimes used in prisons for pacifying uppity lifers. Instead of powerful sedatives, they’re given several dozen satsumas to de-pith, after which they’re rendered so docile that they’re ready to step back into society and take up senior positions on the International Olympic Committee.
And then there’s the pith helmet, that 19th century icon of the British Empire, not made from the pith of the satsuma but from the pith of the sola plant, which grows in Indian swamps. The pith helmet was adopted by the British military in tropical climes because it was light and offered protection from the sun. Its resistance to a bullet or spear was less impressive, however, and it also tended to present a prominent target for the enemy, poking up out of the long grass like a coconut asking to be shied. Realising this, soldiers took to dying the cloth covering of their helmets with tea and so devised the concept of camouflage. The garish scarlet jacket completed the look.
The distinctive shape of the pith helmet is thought to have been modelled on the German pickelhaube, the headgear favoured by kaisers and barons, made, as the name suggests, from the hollowed out husk of a giant gherkin. Actually, that’s not true. The pickel bit was the spike stuck on top, which served as a useful place to keep your satsuma during hand-to-hand combat.
Kaiser Wilhelm, the doyen of the pickelhaube, was a pithy man. He said things like, “We will frighten the British flag off the face of the waters…” and “Give me a woman who really likes beer and I will conquer the world.” Nobody was ever sure what he meant but he was terse, punchy and he didn’t waste words.
We should all strive for pithiness in our communications – it’s just the provocation of all out world war that we should seek to avoid.