Category Archives: The Ottoman World

Pleasing the Guild

Count Palewski, Polish ambassador to the Sublime Porte, burst into the room, waving a paper.

‘Yashim! Yashim! Have you seen this?’

Yashim glanced over his shoulder, knife poised above a bowl of little artichokes. ‘No. But have you seen one of these?’ He held an artichoke by its stem and twirled it in mid-air. ‘George brought them in from Kadikoy this morning. Grown in his garden. The smallest artichokes – you could almost eat them raw.’

‘Stop babbling, Yash.’ Palewski flung the paper onto the sofa, and tapped at it. ‘Le Moniteur Ottoman. You’ve seen it?’

‘Seen it?’ Yashim looked blank.

‘You’re in it, Yashim. Prizes, glory!’ He snatched up the paper and squinted at the front page. ‘Well, glory at least. You might not actually win the prize. It depends on what the Guild decide.’

‘The Guild? What Guild – of Soup Makers?’ Yashim had a momentary vision of old Mustafa, the Albanian Guild Master, lowering his moustaches over a steaming bowl of tripe soup. After what had passed between them during the period of The Janissary Tree, Yashim thought it unlikely that Mustafa would be handing him a prize.

Palewski sat down, and spread Le Moniteur across his knees. ‘Not the Soup Makers, no. But affiliated to them, maybe. Food Writers,’ he read slowly. He looked up. ‘The Guild of Food Writers. They’ve made a list of books they might give a prize to, and you’re on it. For your first cook book.’

Yashim laid down the knife and folded his arms. ‘But I haven’t written a cookbook.’

Palewski waved away his objection. ‘No, no, but someone did, and they based it all on you. Comes to the same thing. Your cooking, Yash. Leeks in oil, and chicken with walnuts, and that excellent thing you do with lamb, you know, from Konya? In the sealed pot. Book’s got your name on it, too. “Yashim Cooks Istanbul.” They say it’s awfully good.’

‘Who says?’

‘Oh, all the chaps. NPR and the New York Times. Delicious. It’s like Le Moniteur, but for cooking. And now the Guild have chosen it for their shortlist.’

‘I – I’m very grateful.’

‘I think,’ Palewski said slowly, turning his head to look at the small bag on the floor at the end of the sofa: ‘I think –‘

‘It calls for celebration?’

‘What an idea, Yashim! But yes, why not? If you insist. I happen to have a very good bottle of champagne, the real thing, left by those Italian boys in the Baklava Club. I’m sorry – I didn’t mean…’

‘No, no.’ Yashim gave him a reassuring smile. ‘The Baklava Club. It’s all over now. Fetch out your champagne. I’ll get the glasses.’

The bottle was cold. The cork flew. Yashim drank, but lightly, listening to Palewski talking happily of the Istanbul cook book, and the pilaf with hazelnut and lemon, and a fish, poached in paper – and a dish of beef, with sorrel sauce, which took the ambassador home again, to the shores of the Vistula, and the rolling foothills of the Tatra mountains.

Yashim Cooks Istanbul: Culinary Adventures in the Ottoman Kitchen has been shortlisted for the 2017 GFW First Book Award, the most prestigious in food writing and broadcasting. Copies are available signed and postage free here: YASHIM COOKS

 

 

Thanksgiving turkey Ottoman style

screen-shot-2016-11-23-at-15-13-51Just in time for Thanksgiving, here’s a gentle Ottoman twist on the festive dinner – Yashim’s spiced stuffing, made with rice. Funnily enough, Ottomans seldom emigrated to the United States (an exception was a Syrian, Hadji Ali, aka Hi Jolly, who set up a camel corps for the Confederates during the Civil War), otherwise this stuffing would have delighted them. 

The recipe is below. You will of course find lots more recipes in YASHIM COOKS ISTANBUL, out now.

Signed first editions of Yashim’s new book are available at http://bit.ly/2c7fkIU postage free. Also on sale on Amazon or a good bookstore!

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Yashim’s cookbook available to pre-order!

“What is there not to like about a detective who enjoys cooking as much as he enjoys eating?” The Financial Times
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“Crammed with mouth-watering descriptions of creamy pilafs and delicate meze.” The Washington Post

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Readers of the Yashim mysteries, set in Istanbul, like the way Yashim cooks and they’ve been calling for these recipes. Yashim Cooks Istanbul is designed to work in the kitchen, but it’s also a feast of a hardback, crammed with glimpses into the gorgeous world of 19th century Istanbul – costume, street scenes, some really early photographs – and cooking scenes from the Yashim books.

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There are more than seventy five delicious and original recipes. They aren’t complex and they don’t need to you to go out and find wildly exotic ingredients. Turkish food isn’t like that – it’s more about simple spices, vegetable dishes, pilafs. There are recipes for lamb and fish, lots of salads, and little meze for snacks or starters. In Istanbul, it’s all about freshness and produce in season. Sometimes the simplest things are the most delicious.

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More than one hundred Yashim fans generously volunteered as testers, trying out the recipes from Albania to Pakistan. Their feedback was fantastic, meaning that while the recipes are firmly rooted in the soil of the eastern Mediterranean – with a brief foray to the Veneto, and another into the grasslands of Poland – they have been cooked and approved all around the world!

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Yashim Cooks Istanbul is divided into five chapters, each one built around a book in the Yashim series, and announced by a Yashim-era map of Istanbul, just to put you in the picture. We have soups, meat dishes, stuffed dishes, fish, vegetable (and vegetarian) dishes, and puddings, with measures in US style and metric. Everything the hungry cook needs to make a proper Ottoman feast…
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There are all sorts of easy, traditional recipes in the book – simple and delicious family dishes like Greek fisherman’s stew, pumpkin soup or aubergine chicken wraps, alongside more unusual recipes like stuffed mackerel, hazelnut and lemon pilaf, or fish poached in paper.

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I hope you’ll read the cookbook, enjoying the scents and tastes of old Istanbul conjured up by the short extracts from the novels, and use it to create Ottoman feasts, an everyday supper, or even a delicious picnic!

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 To pre-order a signed copy, visit www.argonautbooks.com/preorder. The price includes postage, and books will be dispatched in mid-October.

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We are almost ready to launch Yashim’s incidental meisterwerk, YASHIM COOKS ISTANBUL: Culinary Adventures in the Ottoman Kitchen, on the crowdfunding site Kickstarter. As soon as it launches you will be able to order copies, watch the video – and even sign up for a guided tour of Ottoman London.

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Everyone who has signed up for my newsletter will also hear about the new audio version of Lords of the Horizons: A History of the Ottoman Empire, and get the first news about a forthcoming Yashim adventure.

Taking a tour of Ottoman London suggested itself last month after some of the high-end travel companies cancelled their trips to Istanbul. London has links with the Ottoman world dating to Elizabethan times, so the capital is riven with echoes and exemplars of Ottoman life and culture, from Wren’s St Paul’s cathedral to orientalist palaces like Leighton House. We will spend the day exploring some of these unexpected refractions of the Ottoman world, as well as art and artefacts in museums like the V&A, with lunch included, a lecture and a movie in London’s plushest private cinema.

Once again, I’ll be giving the details of all this via the newsletter.

 

 

Saving Istanbul’s unique urban farms

Istanbul’s 1500-year old market gardens are on the brink of destruction – to make a park.

Istanbul’s massive city walls stretch seven miles across the Istanbul peninsula like a collar, from the Golden Horn to the Sea of Marmara. They were built in the fifth century when Constantinople was still young, double walls of stone with bands of red brick, regularly punctuated by crenelated towers. For centuries they successfully defied the enemies of Byzantium, resisting over thirty sieges before succumbing in 1204 to a Crusader army, and to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. They are what city walls should be, vast and forbidding, the model for castles in far-off Wales, and a thousand episodes of Game of Thrones. Defenders have flocked to them, many have died upon them, scaling ladders have been hurled upon them, and they have been cursed and blessed in a hundred languages, in the name of half a dozen gods.

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But when the smoke clears and the rubble slithers to a stop, while empires fall and kingdoms are overthrown, you may hear the persistent scratching sound that marks the passage of those walls down the centuries. It is the sound of mattock and hoe on soil, the sound of untold generations of gardeners planting seed in the shadow of the city walls. Even today, peering down from the ruined towers of Yedikule, it is thrilling and sobering to see the little plots of lettuces and onion shoots, leeks and radishes, rolling away from you in a green ribbon as far as the eye can see. Like the walls, these little gardens have survived right down from the days of the Byzantines to our own, and Yashim, I imagine, strolled here, and bought an oka of fresh tomatoes from the gardeners of his day.

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Actually, the gardens have lasted better. The walls were kept up until the early 19th century, and then allowed to decline. For much of their length they are crumbling, and in places they have suffered the indignity of being bulldozed aside to accommodate more roads, in a city that has ballooned from 2 million to 16 million inhabitants in twenty years. The walls no longer enclose the city, as it marches away across the hills towards the airport, and Thrace, devouring and disembowelling the landscape with structures more massive – and unquestionably more repellent – than anything the fifth century could conceive.

The line of the walls, shaded with green, visibly encloses old - crowded - Istanbul

The line of the walls, shaded with green, visibly encloses old – crowded – Istanbul

The gardens have flourished, while the stone decays. If you are in a philosophical mood, you might see the counterpoint between the walls and the gardens, between these two currents of human activity, as positively Ozymandean. Up there, the ravages of war and conflict, and the gestures of pride; down here, quiet digging and planting, and basketloads of edible leaves. The lettuce of Yedikule is famous across Istanbul. The two, as ever, march side by side.

The Yedikule market gardens in the 1880s

The Yedikule market gardens in the 1880s

But not for very much longer, if Istanbul’s mayor has his way. For some years we’ve been hearing about a plan to turn the market gardens of Yedikule into a park. There would be lighting, and landscaping, and a pool. There would be paths, and swings. A scruffy and essentially unregulated zone that has scarcely changed in fifteen hundred years would be Cleaned Up. The plans have that air of slightly desperate sadness we have learned to expect from architectural visions: lonely trees, anonymous people, purposeless activity. And, one half-assumed, the whole thing would be put off indefinitely.

This January, contractors came to the Yedikule gardens and tore down the gardener’s sheds, where they keep their tools and seed.

That they haven’t yet – at time of writing this post – bulldozed the gardens themselves is a miracle, and may have something to do with a surge of protest led by the gardeners themselves and supported by Istanbul’s Slow Food movement.

http://www.slowfood.com/istanbuls-historical-yedikule-gardens-face-destruction/

If you can, do click on the link below and help Slow Food by signing the petition.

Save Yedikule Gardens

Mindfulness, Ottoman style?

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The Ottomans, being meritocrats who rewarded talent over accidents of birth, were naturally keen on self-improvement. If you entered palace service, you were educated formally at first, and then expected to carry on improving your skills and learning new ones. By the end, if you were good, you were in a position to handle the demands of high office. You might even make it to Grand Vizier.

I shall never make vizier, but I approve of the Ottoman attitude to self-improvement. We all try to get better at what we do, and perhaps we should try to get better at things we don’t do, too, or didn’t until now. This year I set aside my books and learned how to restore an ancient house, how to write a screenplay using Final Draft and how to take photographs, principally of food. As many of you will know from your own experience, the effort proved enjoyable, and worthwhile.

I needed beautiful pictures to illustrate Yashim’s Istanbul Cook Book, for which many of you have already kindly tested recipes. I do have beautiful pictures of Ottoman Istanbul, with old maps, illustrations and engravings, to accompany the text and help evoke the atmosphere of Yashim’s Istanbul. I have lovely photographs of the modern city, its markets, ferries, domes and shops, to forge the link between Yashim’s time and our own. That leaves only the dishes themselves to be portrayed, hinting at their excellence.

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Advised by a website called thewoksoflife I bought a new sort of lens, and took estimable advice and instruction available on the internet. Bearded professionals revealed some of the secrets of their craft on YouTube, camera buffs on chatrooms discussed the virtues of RAW and jpeg, and bloggers, in Manhattan lofts as in Cornish villages, showed off their cooking and photographic skills. Absorbing all this, I realised it came down to: the right lens, and the right sort of light. The right lens makes the background blur, which we photographers call bokeh, and the right light is daylight.

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After that, all you need is delicious food, charming surfaces, acceptable crockery, table cloths, clean spoons, salt cellars and small bowls, a scattering of fresh parsley from your garden and a tripod, for which sometimes a box will serve. You also need a reflector, to chase away shadows. I was told I needed tweezers, too, for arranging salad leaves, but I skipped that. I relied on opposable thumbs.

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Above all you need to get your food ready while it is still light, and you need to eat something yourself before you set it all out, otherwise you get hasty. And greedy.

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Patience is absolute. Remember Mustafa the Soup Master in The Janissary Tree?

“As for himself, he thought, patience was his second skin. How could he have lived his life, and not acquired patience in positively redemptive quantities?”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Yashim’s Istanbul Cook Book – a big thank you

Yashim put out the call, and you came from Wisconsin and Istanbul, from Pakistan and California, from Europe, Asia and the Americas, generously offering to roadtest Yashim’s favourite Ottoman recipes for his Istanbul Cook Book. Soups and stews and dolma and sarma, salads and puddings and meze and fish: they have all been sampled, in kitchens from Ankara to Aberdeen. Many of you already have sent in your comments to yashimcooks@gmail.com – most of them, I’m glad to say, enthusiastic.

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A well-known crime author loved the lamb and loved the beans, and will definitely do them both again.

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A kindly tester took her Albanian dish to a Greek film night and adroitly avoided sparking an international incident.

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A five-year old ate everything on his plate, all cooked by his grandfather!

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In America a translator set aside his work to deal with the tiny fish lady, and prepared fresh tuna. He came back for more.

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In Poland, two women cooked three dishes together – and took the skins off a pot of beans, for Yashim’s salad.

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People tracked down urfa biber (aka isot biber) from ethnic groceries – and even on the internet.

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The listings magazine Time Out Istanbul did a recipe – and asked to review the book when it comes out on July 9th.

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Somewhere in America, a tester went to the store for eggplant and only found leeks, so I offered her a recipe with leeks. When she got back to the shop she found the leeks sold out and eggplant back in stock. She made the dish (and a sensible remark about quantities) and loved it.

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A surprising number of cooks sprang a new dish on friends – and were glad that it turned out so well.

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Me too.

 

I’ve had really useful feedback, too, on quantities, and spicing, and oven temperatures and timing, all of which have gone into the book. If you don’t use metric and centigrade, I’ll be adding a dead simple conversion chart.

 

So I would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who has got involved, and hope that you had fun, and to thank your friends and families. I love these photos! Some of you are still engaged on Yashim’s behalf, so thank you: I am really looking forward to your thoughts and reactions, too.

 

Yashim’s fantastic chefs!

A few days ago I sent out a call for people who might enjoy testing the recipes for Yashim’s Istanbul Cook Book. Are the instructions clear? Is the result scrumptious? Are you transported by a touch of heat and cumin seed to the shores of the Bosphorus?

A page from Yashim's Istanbul Cook Book
A page from Yashim’s Istanbul Cook Book

The response has been fabulous – I’m incredibly grateful to everyone who got in touch at yashimcooks@gmail.com. People are road-testing these Ottoman dishes all over the world, from Pakistan to Wisconsin, Estonia to Washington DC (hello to the Culinary Historians of Washington: CHoW!), which makes it a lovely peaceful international effort. To all those who have been in touch, a big thank you for taking part.

I’ve asked Jillian’s permission to include this great photo of a soup – she was the first to send it in. Great saucepan (and I like the book getting a light grilling, too)!

Widow Matalya's Chicken Soup - with a pleasantly battered copy of Yashim's fourth adventure!
Widow Matalya’s Chicken Soup – with a pleasantly battered copy of Yashim’s fourth adventure!

As far as I know, there are no representatives of the southern hemisphere involved yet – but I have a number of recipes yet to check over, so if there are any Aussies out there, give us a shout! And do pass the email yashimcooks@gmail.com around to your friends if they fancy getting a recipe to try: I’m not planning to close the hatch until Wednesday evening, February 4th.

Peasant bread - made with a traditional chickpea starter

Peasant bread – made with a traditional chickpea starter

You might like to know this, taken from the introduction to Yashim’s Istanbul Cook Book:

Most of the ingredients need no further introduction but there are a few spices which may be worth tracking down online or at a likely grocery shop.

I use two kinds of chilli pepper. Pul biber is hot chilli, in flakes or powder – like paprika or cayenne, the more you add the hotter the dish. Isot, or Urfa, biber, is a more subtle creature, darker in colour, made from Urfa red peppers that darken as they grow to deep purple. They are dried in the sun by day and wrapped up at night, the better to concentrate their flavour, which is slightly smoky, slightly sweet, and deliciously warm.

In the Spice Market and elsewhere you want to buy pepper in dry rustling flakes – vendors sometimes add salt and oil to make the mix richer and heavier. Nothing to worry about, just good to know. And powder will contain the seeds, while flakes are all flesh.

Sumac is now thoroughly available, made from a berry with a curiously good lemony and slightly sour taste.

A word on measures and quantities. Most of these recipes specify precise quantities, but we would do well to bear in mind the advice offered to a French chef sent into the kitchens by the Empress Eugenie, the consort of Napoleon III, when the imperial couple made a state visit to Istanbul in 1873. The quote is from my  Lords of the Horizons: A History of the Ottoman Empire.

 ‘The French emperor Napoleon III and his empress, Eugenie, spent a week in Istanbul as the Sultan’s guests in 1862. The Empress was so taken with a concoction of aubergine puree and lamb that she asked for permission to send her own chef to the kitchens to study the recipe. The request was graciously granted by their host, and the chef duly set off with his scales and notebook. The Sultan’s cook slung him out, roaring, ‘An imperial chef cooks with his feelings, his eyes, and his nose!’

Afiyet olsun!

 

 

 

YASHIM’S ISTANBUL COOK BOOK – a call for volunteers!

As you probably already know, Yashim the Investigator – the hero of my series of five mystery novels – is something of a cook. In an idle hour in his apartment in Balat, Istanbul, he will chop and simmer and stir and sprinkle, and rustle up some delicious meze, perhaps, or a grand main dish, all the while thinking about the case he’s on. It’s how he relaxes. It’s how he thinks. Sometimes it gives him a clue…

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The books are full of recipes, and I hope they evoke the atmosphere of 19th century Istanbul – the way it looked, how it smelled, and what it all tasted like. For ages, people have been suggesting that I, the humble author, gather all Yashim’s recipes, and some more, together in one place – and I am pleased to say I’ve done it. Including baklava, of course.

Yashim’s Istanbul Cook Book is on its way.

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It has dozens of authentic recipes for sauces and fish, for grills and breads, for vegetables and kebabs (and pickles, like those being sold by the guys above): Istanbul the year round! And we’ve dropped in passages from the novels, too, to go with them, and lots of fabulous illustrations.

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The book has been designed by Clive Crook, the Art Director of Cornucopia Magazine, so it’s gorgeous as well as delicious.It’s being published in July.

Right now I’m looking for volunteers to road-test a recipe.Send me your email address (to the email address below), and I’ll send you a recipe from the book.

I’ve cooked them all, again and again, but I badly want to know what your experience of following the recipe was like. Did it work? Were the quantities right for you? Were the instructions clear, or did they leave you furiously backpedalling while you ground the forgotten spices and the onions burned?!

A quick ‘It worked’ is all I need (though please don’t stint if you’d rather say more), and a pointer to what, if anything, seemed wrong. I’m hoping there’ll be no complaints but I’d rather discover that now than go to press with anything that isn’t 100% perfect.

By all means tell a friend, if you think they’d like to join in. Ask them to drop me a line here, and I’ll send them a recipe to try. Who knows – you could end up having an Ottoman feast!

Get in touch at yashimcooks@gmail.com

Who’s Who in Yashim’s Istanbul

We must begin with the sleuth himself, of course. Yashim is as old as the 19th century, thirty six years old when he makes his first appearance in The Janissary Tree. He is the sultan’s confidential agent, or tebdil khasseky, in succession to Fevzi Ahmed – of whom much more in An Evil Eye (Yashim No. 4). Unlike Fevzi Ahmed, Yashim can visit anywhere and talk to anyone in Istanbul… for Yashim is a eunuch. Although he can make love, he will never father children.

You want to know how that works? Then you need to read Yashim No. 5, The Baklava Club. I’m afraid that’s all the explanation I can give you here.

I don’t want to press the eunuch theme (which makes some men cross their legs), but it is a metaphor for Yashim’s role as a sleuth. All through history, eunuchs were created to serve in the palace bureaucracy – it’s true for imperial China, and ancient Persia, as for the Byzantines and their successors, the Ottomans. Without family, their interests were allied with the ruler’s own ambitions and desires, making them men a ruler could safely trust.

The Byzantines are thought to have modelled their representations of angels on eunuchs: chaste, and intercessionary, passing between the divine and the sublunary world. Above all, their role is to serve.

Angel from a mosaic in La Matorana, a Byzantine church in Palermo

Angel from a mosaic in La Matorana, a Byzantine church in Palermo

So Yashim, too, serves his sultan, and the people, and the requirements of justice.

He is also a fabulous cook, preparing the Thursday night dinner for his old friend Count Palewski, Polish ambassador to the Porte, as the Ottoman court was called. He draws on the full repetoire of Ottoman Turkish dishes, many of them first elucidated in the kitchens of Topkapi Palace, where Yashim was trained. It’s this palace tradition that allows Turkish cookery to be ranked as one of the three great classical cuisines of the world. The other two are French and Chinese.

Chimneys of the kitchens at Topkapi

Chimneys of the kitchens at Topkapi

Turkish buns

Turkish buns

Yashim has been well-trained. He has worked in the palace, and out of it, for a Greek merchant. He speaks many languages, and reads voraciously – French novels are a favourite, passed to him by the Valide, the Queen Mother, of whom more in a subsequent post!

Jean Leon Gerome's finest work - Arnaut and his dog.

Jean Leon Gerome’s finest work – Arnaut and his dog.