Yak weather

I love a good cold spell; it shuts the climate warming crazies up for a while. We have a nice one now, up here in the Canadas, thanks to an ectoplasmic extension of the amoebic polar vortices, that spin air from Santa’s larder down to these lower latitudes which, in the more Arctic view, correspond to our country’s “banana belt.” In Parkdale, here, thanks to immigration from Tibet, we feel right at home. Plunging temperatures and gale-force winds: just like the high plateaux of Central Asia. “Yak weather,” I call it, in commemoration of one of nature’s cuddliest bovines.

Yet there are no yaks in Parkdale, or rather I should say, lest I be caught spreading fake news, none that I have noticed. Nor is this remark designed to distract the animal rights authorities from any yak I might be keeping on my balconata. I’m for free-run yaks, and ethical spider-silk harvesting in cutting-edge violin manufacture, to cite just the top two items in an eco-friendly website recently shown to me. The spiders on my balconata, which have all presumably frozen to death, were strictly free-run; and the yak is, I swear, an optical illusion.

For Parkdale has no buildings tall enough to make a free-range roof yak feel comfortable. Eleven floors up might seem a start, but for his heart and lungs, two thousand storeys would be more like it. Moreover, while his double-covering of fine yak wool fits him for our winter gusts, he might die of heat prostration in our summers. I am told yaks do not even have sweat glands, and thus should be entitled, if they are bred here, to an air-conditioned barn (whatever our pope may say to the contrary).

Perhaps I have boasted before that we have a Serbian butcher in our neighbourhood, who has wisely catered to a growing Tibetan clientele. Yak chops and ground yakmeat, yak fillets and yak sausages, are plentifully available in beautiful downtown Parkdale, though we have no high-end shops: the truth being that, given our average income, we hardly need them.

I have found that a yak sausage will challenge the assumptions of a lowland, Western cook. The first time I tried to fry one, I found it gave off smoke generously, but was in no way physically altered, except in becoming more like a rock. It was only after diligent inquiry I learnt it had to be soaked for a very long time, and then simmered for another very long time at about the boiling temperature for water at 18,000 feet. After what seemed several days of such exercises, the thing became very slightly elastic, as well as somewhat bigger, and promised to become mutable. Only at this point would it have been possible to insert a kitchen thermometer spike, perhaps with the help of a sledge hammer. To call it “lean” would be to understate the matter. I was warned by the butcher not to try microwaving the thing, for fear of an explosion. Not having a microwave, I was not tempted to try this experiment.

On my next visit, the butcher’s pretty daughter suggested that I try yak chops instead, which are not, after all, processed to twice the density of pemmican, and go well with fruit chutneys.

Did you know that there is no word for “yak” in Serbian? (“Well, we spell it with a ‘j’.”) That is how English spreads as our lingua franca. Our own language expands by theft, in this case from the Tibetans. Or, “loan words” as we like to call them. In the old days, before we stole “yak,” we called this beast a “grunting ox,” our explorers having noticed that it does not moo. It is a peaceable animal, when approached warily, not like the pushy and vexatious cows who were the progenitors of modern European culture. (See here.) Which is well, because a wild, fully-grown male yak weighs about one tonne (metric or Imperial, makes no difference) and has some genius for manoeuvring the high ground.

I like to think of it (picture here) as “the coconut of the Himalayas” — as the coconut is the yak of the South Seas. It can be used to make everything: food, clothing, shelter. Better than a coconut, it can also be used as a beast of burden, in yak trains through the mountains, or to pull a plough. It will carry the bonny Tibetan maiden. The wool has a thousand household uses, the leather will insulate and waterproof your yurt, the calves entertain your children. And the milk goes finally into your tea. (I am thinking here of Tibetan po cha, which comes in a brick, to be hot churned with yak butter and salt, and which the unsuspecting Western guest may mistake for an emetic. Suggest starting with the cheese, instead.)

But the very best thing about a yak is that, should tragedy impend, and you are caught out in the high pastures, which are mostly of stone and free of other food — you can always eat it.