Sunday, 27 June 2010

It’s too darn hot!

I have never taken to hot weather. Apparently as a baby I would scream in my pram if the temperature rose too high for my sensibilities. I am also prone to heat rashes. So today has been particularly taxing. The Eagle e-mailed to say she had spent most of it shopping with her parents. Yesterday I found her at the gym exercising on the running machine. I was full of admiration for such stamina.

A week earlier the Eagle and the Owl had called around for supper. I had a very special favour I needed to ask of them and generous to a fault, they readily agreed. In the event I need not have sought such a favour off of them. But it was touching that they were prepared to show me such a marked act of kindness.

It was so hot I had to postpone their visit by a further three quarters of an hour whilst I finished baking the main course in the oven. As a starter I served sorrel and spinach soup. I had planned to make a sorrel soup using ingredients from my garden but I lacked sufficient quantities of sorrel and had to make up for the deficiency with a large bag of spinach. The main course was a Delia Smith recipe for asparagus and cheese tart..recipe I had to scour the locality for a flan tin with fluted edges and a loose base. When I rolled out the home made pastry, made with butter and grated cheese (I omitted the lard) it fell to pieces. As a result it looked more like a patchwork pastry case when I placed it in the oven. Not that anyone would have noticed when the baked case was removed from the oven, steamed asparagus pieces placed on the bottom and covered with a mixture of single cream, eggs and grated cheddar and parmesan cheese before being returned to the oven. A simple dish but as Delia opines, quite “sublime.”  The Eagle could not believe I had made it myself despite the fact that I served it from the base of the flan tin.

For the dessert I had made an Angela Hartnett's chocolate and vanilla semifreddo in honour of the Eagle’s and the Owl’s Tuscany farmhouse.recipe Again a simple but stunning dish generously flavoured with Cointreau. When Cristo popped around the following day I gave him a generous potion to take back down with him whilst he watched the football in his own flat. I replaced Angela’s splash of alcohol with a generous tablespoon full to give it an extra kick.  I almost had to abandon the recipe altogether when I could not find any amaretti biscuits to buy even from the local Italian deli. Luckily the Italian bakery further along the road did have some in. Moreover the shopkeeper asked if there was anything else the "young lady" required. It has been many moons since I have been addressed as  young lady. Methinks that shop will receiving my custom again in the near future.

It is customary for me to bake bread for my guests to take away with them. Last week was no exception. I baked two Finnish nissua loaves and a Nigella Lawson Finnish rye loaf. My flat began to resemble the interior of a Finnish sauna with regard to the searing temperature. Truly I suffered for my art.

Living under the roof of a house built in the 1850s the building is as well insulated as modern dwellings. During the long winter months my living room was often so cold I could see my breath upon the air. I deliberately refrained from using my heating whenever possible to keep my electricity bills to a minimum. Cocooned in a quilt and the strategic placing of hot water bottles around my person meant that I could tolerate the cold perfectly well. Only friends thought it cold even after I had the heating on at full blast in their honour. By contrast, there is little respite from the oppressive heat, even with the windows and the doors, including my front door, flung open in a desperate bid to allow the air to circulate. For the winter I would be tempted to install insulation in the loft. However, I have heard that such insulation can cause the rooms below to become unbearably hot in summer as the heat can no longer disperse naturally through the roof. Little wonder that I prefer to keep vampire hours during the summer.

Are you going to Wimbledon Fair?

Coincidentally, last weekend two fairs were held in the neighbourhood. As a spinster of this parish, I thought it fitting to first make my way to the fair held on ancient glebe land attached to the church. It was a modest affair and sadly most of the plants (the sole reason why I attended) had been sold before I arrived. Nevertheless, I still managed to come away with small pots of comfrey, oregano and tarragon. Since there was nothing else that caught my fancy I took the opportunity to wander about the adjacent churchyard in search of the 17th century table tomb belonging to one William Rutlish “imbroiderer to King Charles II”. Strangely its exact location had always proved elusive to me on previous visits. It is quite unusual to find a tomb dating from the 17th century still extant in the graveyard of an English town.  William Rutlish had left generous legacies to the poor of the parish, one of which had led to the founding of a boy’s grammar school. The trustees of said school arranged for their founder’s tomb to be restored in the 1970s and a facsimile of the inscription placed by it.

The streets around the church still retain a distinctly rural air despite being sited within a London suburb. Only the occasional car drives past and there are still reminders of its past as the centre of a thriving agricultural landscape from a century or so ago: elegant iron gates and a high brick wall enclose what was once an imposing country house; the Georgian rectory could be the setting for a Jane Austen novel; the boundary of one road is not marked by pavement but by tall hedgerows; Yet it is the part of Wimbledon close by the Common which is referred to rather archly as “the village”, despite resembling a bustling county town with its crowds of visitors and constant traffic.

By contrast to the fair held in the glebe field, the one on the Common was on a far grander scale. To my delight I found that a number of stalls were selling mature plants from nurseries at very reasonable prices, allowing me to stock up on yet more herbs, vegetables and flowers for the garden. Consequently I ended up carting away sorrel, French tarragon, poppies, marrow, pumpkin and butternut squash. I already plant a variety of flowers to appeal to bees. To further help stem the calamitous decline in their numbers I bought a jar of locally produced honey. A number of stalls supported various charities including several relating to retired greyhounds. If Ellie were still alive I might well have bought her a new leash if only to replace the one I managed to lose when I looked after last summer. Thank Heavens she was such an obedient dog as we had to walk along the final tranche of the route back to her house with my hand holding on to her collar. There was a striped greyhound by one of the stalls, the spitting image of Ellie, other than for the fact that he was unmistakably male. I was intrigued to see his whole body quiver when he became transfixed by a particular scent. It was something I had observed Ellie doing on numerous occasions and I had previously assumed it was a trait peculiar to her: clearly not.

Up on a temporary stage erected by The New Wimbledon Theatre, a couple of Thai dancers performed a traditional dance which was well received. It reminded me of a similar performance I had seen in Bangkok. On that occasion a meal had been set out before me as I watched the dancers. The Thai people I met seemed an exceedingly polite race and it took me a while to realise that they were asking in a very deferential and embarrassed manner if they could see my ticket. I had only decided to venture out at the last moment and part of the price of the ticket included a ride in a tuk-tuk, an auto-rickshaw, to the venue. The journey was so horrendous that I could not remember whether I had even been handed a ticket back at the hotel. Fortunately after rummaging around for a while I able to retrieve the ticket from the depths of my handbag and honour was restored. Whilst in Bangkok I also saw traditional dancing in a theatre. One woman sat on her own at the very front.
“Is she the choreographer?” I asked the American seated next to me.
“No she’s a princess,” he replied.

Royal protocol is still strictly observed in Thailand. I remember visiting one of the royal pleasure palaces and being told the tragic and cautionary tale of the death of a royal princess in the 19th century. It seems a party of women from the royal household were sailing on one of the lakes by the palace when their boat capsized. One of the princesses was trapped beneath the upturned vessel. Another tried in vain to rescue her. Death by drowning was the outcome. Yet the boat was close to shore. Moreover there were people standing on the river bank who, theoretically could have dived in to help. But it was literally more than their life was worth to even attempt to do so. For a mere mortal to touch the royal personage was then a capital offence. So they were forced to stand by and watched the royal party flounder in the water.

I left the fair when it started to rain. At the edge of the Common I saw a couple of shire horses pulling a brewery dray filled with visitors. I scarcely had time to whip out my camera before they had disappeared around the corner. I often used to toy with the idea of taking riding lessons at the local stables. Nowadays, I am of an age and disposition that rather than perch atop a horse, I would be more inclined to fantasize about following such equines at a discreet distance, armed only with a bucket and spade. Their manure would do wonders for my garden.

Going to pot.

In recent weeks I have begun gardening again in earnest. I was pleased with how so much had survived the ravages of a particularly cold and long winter. Thus, in time, the sage, sorrel, mint, lemon thyme, oregano, bay and fennel all sprouted new vigorous growth. The rosemary had remained untouched by the weather. I have added comfrey, curry plant, parsley, basil and camomile to my collection.

Bulbs I had pulled out last Autumn I replanted. Other plants flowered anew such as the Sweet Williams, Feverfew and even the Foxglove. It seems I was particularly lucky with the latter as it flowered last year and usually  the foxglove does not produce flowers until the second year. The hydrangea, hollyhocks, and roses I planted last summer have either flowered or are about to flower shortly. My gooseberry bushes produced a solitary gooseberry. I saw a number of flowers earlier in the year so I assume any other fruit was snaffled by the local wildlife. Next year I must buy netting!

I planted some garlic but the one I pulled out seemed more akin to spring onions than anything else. I have had a few strawberries. I move plants around when the berries form or bring them indoors to ripen. I have far more tomato plants now after the rip-roaring success of last year’s crops. My chilli pepper plant is flowering so I have high hopes for that. I might even get some decent sized courgettes this year. I have already used the beautiful yellow flowers in recipes.

Last year I failed to stake out the sweet peas and crucially failed to regularly cut the blooms, which meant seeding set in and further flowering came to a halt. I have learned my lesson and have been rewarded with plentiful flowers already.

Now that another keen gardener has arrived in the house I have followed her example and set more pots outside. The OF grumbled once that my few pots had left barren patches in the grass. He himself went on to make half a dozen massive scorch marks in the grass, when he used undiluted weed-killer, which destroyed the weed and everything in close proximity. But then gardening, like interior decorating, was never the OF’s forte. Jenny is determined that the hideous bunkers the OF installed in the front garden to house his belongings and the garden equipment must go. She has many ideas for the garden but is going to wait until October to carry them out with my help.

At Christmas I met a man in his 80s, of whom it was said, that he refused to leave his house for extended periods during the growing season. I had thought that was taking a love of gardening too far. But now I find myself echoing his sentiments. In terms of vice, gardening has to be the cheapest and the healthiest addiction around.

Of Mice and Men

When the Partridge came over for supper a few weeks back I showed her around my garden, which was just coming into bloom. Unbeknownst to her, I made sure she did not see a certain piece of garden produce I had come across only a few days before. At first I thought it must be a sleeping mouse until it dawned on me that, given its size, it was more likely to be a dead rat. The next day it had been moved, presumably by foxes, further behind the shrubs. It was out of my direct eye sight but I was still uncomfortably aware of its presence. I did not relish the prospect of having it decay in my strawberry patch. Unfortunately it would have been impossible to dig a sizable hole in that part of the garden as it has only a few inches of soil before you hit matting, placed there in the past to inhibit the spread of weeds, something it has singularly failed to do. My only other choice would have been to place the dead rat on a spade and carry it across the lawn to the other side of the garden, where a deep hole could be dug.

I tried to enlist the support of Cristo but my hero proved to be less than heroic and more of a King Creon. He was all for me slinging it over the wall into the derelict garden next door. I balked at the notion believing myself incapable of managing to achieve such a feat of dexterity as the fence was too high. Moreover, the idea of throwing the rat into the air only to have it land back on the ground before me was too awful to contemplate. Cristo, as if to excuse his own lack of bravery, recounted the story of his nephew’s pet gerbil, which had been exhumed by foxes to his young relative’s distress. So I left the rodent Polynices to its fate. To my relief, the foxes did devour the corpse, leaving only a tiny fragment of the head to bear witness to the rat’s demise.