Saturday, 25 April 2009

Politicking, and this time it’s personal!

There are rumblings at foot in the village (I’m coming out here, Northwood). The local ruling party, the Conservatives (fingers in throat) are posting “Save Our Small Shops”. Well absolutely, well worthy and most commendable in theory, however, just so impractical in nature. That is unless you are one of the number that need the five or six hairdressers/beauty saloons, or are required to buy/sell a house, four, or the equal number of greeting card shops that are available of the 30 or so shops in the village. What makes me so cross (and here comes the rant) is that not one sells useful commodities like: fish, meat, fresh vegetables, local eggs, a halfway decent loaf or on a personal level, art supplies. We have four coffee shops, well, I can brew my own for one tenth of the cost (using fairtrade beans) and although I too like hangin’ with friends, I find home a more congenial space rather than their multi-national and sadly predicable interiors, where nobody knows the variety or lineage of their coffee.
Just a few good shops survive: a watch repairers, a shoe shop (well, I am addicted), a gent’s outfitters (wonderful, but far too expensive for this household), a haberdashers (oh, hallowed one), a book shop (struggling with on-line sales, guilty), a kitchen design shop (quite beautiful, but how often do you need to spend a fortune refiguring your kitchen? I give it a year) and two wonderful charity shops (both supplied and regularly supported in sales by yours truly). The supermarket is now the heart of the village and has done for the local food suppliers, so sad. Here I blame the archfiend and arch-capitalist of past and present Tories, M.T. (I can’t bring myself to name the she-devil), a strange thing for a daughter of a grocer to do.
Blood pressure now subsiding, from your host, frizzy of hair, natural in beauty, clothes always two years out-of-date but yet weirdly funky, growing her own and always elegant at foot, surviver of commuter hell, Fay

Using Your Marbles

Out of the 20 or so allotments in our association, three of our members are Italian.
Last year, I begged some beans from Francesca as I had admired the vigour and productivity of the unknown (to me) climbing dried bean she’d grown last autumn. Returning home with my generous haul, I immediately went on-line to discovery what exact my bounty was. I had some difficulty finding the variety even with the World Wide Web at by fingertips. A type of climbing marble bean was the only clue, so I checked my favourite Italian seed suppliers. The closest I could find was the glorious borlotti bean, but as I had grown those for years as bush beans I had no idea they came in climbing form, anyway these where slightly different. Although a little smaller than other borlotti beans when freshly dried, the beans swell vastly when soaked and cooked, resulting in a much larger, almost butter bean sized seed. They are the most buttery, earthy and delicious beans I’ve ever tasted.
In the photograph, as well as the mystery beans (left), there are some bush borlotti beans I saved for planting this Spring. The difference is small on first glance, I grant you, but when studied more closely there are some variations in colour, particularly around the ‘eye’ which is bright orange in the mystery bean. I think what clinches the climber as a borlotti-type is the occasional, strange, wine-coloured bean in each group, maybe a throw-back to the same genetic parent and speculatively, I think they could be something like Borlotti Bean Lingua di Fuoco or the Fire Tongue Bean, well we’ll see. I’ve just sown the puzzle marble beans, in the conservatory for now, as being so enigmatic and exotic I’m not sure they will take our night time temperatures just yet.
Curzio, another Italian down on the allotment grows solely grapes for his much admired wine, so he and Nick have a ready made conversation based on weather conditions, yield, soil (sorry, terroir!) and general grape-talk. Nick won’t be chin wagging or doing much of anything else at the allotment for a while as he has injured his back digging my half of the plot. So, he can’t bend and I can’t lift (arthritic wrists); we make a pretty pair when trying to empty the dishwasher, I can tell you!

Clematis Montana ' Pink Perfection' rambling across the garden shed.

Thursday, 23 April 2009

Herb and Walnut Sauce

Follower Red Clover asked, "I wouldn't mind you expounding on a couple of those recipes" when commenting on "Herbs to Sustain You". So, in haste, here is one by Antonio Carluccio that combines simplicity and freshness, resulting in authentic italian taste in super fast time.
One previsor, you must use fresh herbs and chop the walnuts by hand so that the sauce has a fairly coarse texture.

For four

1 oz walnuts
Good bunches of parsley and chives
Smaller bunches of 2 only of the following fresh herbs: tarragon (careful here, it's very strong), dill, basil, mint. I recommend the latter two, but experiment.
1 clove of garlic
4 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Egg Pasta

Using a sharp knife, finely chop the herbs and walnuts
Crush the garlic in salt
Mix the herbs, walnuts, garlic olive oil, salt and pepper
Add half if the mix to the cooked pasta, turn out onto a serving dish, pouring the remaining sauce on top and serve with the cheese. Fini!

Makes a great lunch with a few dressed salad leaves and a glass of something red and italian. Buon appetito!

Top : Chives about to flower and finish for the year.
Below : Mints in pots to avoid a take over.

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Herbs to Sustain You

Warm, sunny days have me busy in the garden, despite an unfairly timed bout of wrist arthritis. The blossom is glorious, although worryingly quiet from an absence of bees, the wisteria running along the back of the house about to unfurl. The first crops of vegetables are planted and growing. The lawn is cut, the fruit trees feed, just the ever present and never finished chore of weeding remains of which I do less each year through either turning a blind eye to certain areas or mulching. (Good for wildlife is my mantra!)

I hate supermarket shopping. I will avoid it at any cost and the cost to my family is they must eat herbs, lots of herbs. The strategy works like this, buy dry grocery basics like beans, flour, rice, pasta, nuts and vegetables, if they are not available in the garden, like potatoes, onions, roots etc with a long shelf-life. (I think the reason I started to grow my own vegetables was to avoid going to the supermarket, that may sound lazy, but I reckon for every hour I would have to shop, I work five or six in the garden/allotment, which illustrates just how much I loath the supermarket run.) For lunch I make soup daily, this is usually one or more from each group above and a bunch of herbs, for example:
Potato and Sorrel Soup
Carrot, Arborio Rice and Chervil Soup
Mint and Split Pea Soup
Celery, Par-Cel and Lovage Soup.

It’s the same story for the evening meal.
Pasta with Parsley, Walnuts and Wild Garlic
Gnocchi with Lemon, Pine Nut and Rocket Pesto
Onion and Rosemary Pizza
Italian Bean Salad with Thyme and Winter Savory
Sage or Borage Fritters
To mention a few, there are just some many herby goodies.

All served with our trusty salad leaves that have taken us through the winter without resorting to the plastic bags of the mixed salad of indistinguishable flavours on the supermarket shelves. For drinks, I make cordials when the opportunity presents itself. Elderflower, autumn raspberry and apple juices and teabags made from herbs, mint and fennel, lemon balm and lemon verbena. I like to grow lots of different flavoured mints, amongst the favourites are black peppermint, ginger mint, berries and cream mint (wow, I know, find it at Jekka Seeds), lime mint, and apple mint but I am continually finding new and exciting varieties that make wonderful hot and cold drinks.

Of course, it’s not quite that simple, a good bouillon or stock is needed for the soup base, Parmesan for the pasta and gnocchi and sugar to make cordials, but you get the gist, and we do eat meat, eggs, citrus fruit, olive oil and many other good things that I can’t walk out into the garden to gather. But at this time of year I like to challenge myself against an empty fridge and eat from nature’s bountiful larder.
So here are a few snaps from the garden pantry plus a general glimpse at what’s flowering now.

Nettles collected at the allotment make a great soup (with leek and Arborio rice) when the tips are picked young.

Sorrel, in a yet to be weeded part of the potagerie.

An embarrassment of chervil, large bunch to all callers!

Making mint tea and the bags I buy, expensive but great for homemade bouquet garnis as well as herb teas.

Pear tree in blossom and a close up of apple blossom.

Viola sororia 'Freckles'.

Clematis armandii now fading.

Wisteria photographed last year about a week from now.
Finally, Geoff Hamilton (1936-1996), known to us here in the UK from his gardening programs, loved by many and irritating some, had a gentle humour that I think is shown by this lovely quote "Seedsmen reckon that their stock in trade is not seeds at all ... it's optimism".

Friday, 10 April 2009

Gardening: Early Influences (Genetic Cuttings and Seedlings)

Back from Paris and now is the time to plunge myself into gardening. A time for growth and while musing upon the seeds to be sown and the cuttings to be taken, with new growth in mind, my thoughts turn to the ones that have gone before. So here is a little historic look at all my genetic helpers.
As a child I was initiated into gardening from an early age. I had a great grandfather who worked in the Black Country (in the British West Midlands) as a mining engineer, which afforded him a free load of coal every week allowing him to run vast private glasshouses, where he indulged his passion for exotic plants. Never growing more than one species at a time, he would (with much frustration from family and fellow gardeners) raise the most glorious orchids one year, only to be tipped onto the compost heap in favour of every known variety of hoya the following year (the great-great-grand-plant of which I still have growing in my conservatory despite the rabbit’s attentions!) Talking of my conservatory, another fossil of my past lurks there. My grandmother’s cactus, cleistocactus strausii, handed down from mother to daughter and now a nine foot relic of at least 60 years to my knowledge.
Perhaps I could also mention another link in family history to gardening, although this one is a little more tenuous. My ancestor, the journeyman shoemaker poet, James Woodhouse (1735-1820) acquired patronage from William Shenstone though his famous garden in Halesowen. After inheriting his estate, Shenstone embarked on elaborate schemes of landscape gardening, which earned him a leading role in the tradition of English garden design and the cult of the “natural” landscape. Woodhouse wrote a poem pleading that he might still be allowed to walk in the garden. Shenstone was so impressed by the poem that he became his benefactor and had my ancestor’s work published, leading to a literary career in London. (Trivia: Shenstone became the first person to record the use of floccinaucinihilipilification, recognized as the longest word in the English language and ironical meaning worthless!)
Back in my childhood, at bedtime, I had garden poems instead of stories. Poems such as Amy Lowell’s Patterns, The Flowers by Robert Louis Stevenson (very influential for a Woodland Fay) Beloved by Elizabeth Barrett Browning and so many more. As for picture books, well just one springs to mind as my favourite and it’s still in front of me, battered and missing most of it’s dust jacket, ‘The Story of Plants and their Uses to Man’, by John Hutchinson (1884-1972) and Ronald Melville (1903-1985) both active in the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. This book, to my knowledge only published once in 1948, has never failed in all the years it has accompanied me through my life, to interest and amaze and has been a catalyst in my desire to grow things both in childhood and to this day.
As for toys, one Christmas, to my endless joy, I received a toy garden. Made like lead soldiers, there were pots and trellises, beds and troughs to be planted with endless lead plants and flowers and then arranged with pergolas and paved walkways in any given permutation, a miniature garden of delight. In the intervening years I sometimes feel as if I have dreamt this toy up, as I have never seen another since, and oh, how I wish I could time travel and return to save it so that I could play once more! Instead, now I’m home from my adventures in Paris, I’ll go outside and wrestle with the real weeds that have been stealthily sprouting from every clod and which were strangely absent from my lovely low maintenance toy garden!