Tuesday, 13 December 2011

The Lady of shallots.

Winter brings out the recluse in me. I am like a bear who wants to return to her dark cave and simply go to sleep. Fortunately I usually have to venture out onto the big wide world at least once a week before I can slink back to the safety of my lair. I never was a summer person and have a preference for the night, meaning I try whenever possible to leave the house under the shadow of darkness. Sadly I no longer have gardening to keep me busy. I lost interest in the communal gardens after a property maintenance company waltzed off with a number of my mature plants and vegetables on the pretence they thought they belonged to another flat. Even though I challenged them, the company in question supported their member of staff’s blatant lies over my protests and refused to compensate me. Now the garden has been taken over by someone else and very smart it is beginning to look too. She has removed the hideous bunkers left by a former freeholder when they carried out building work on their own flat. In its place she, or rather a gardener she called in, has created new flower beds and shaped the lawn. She has had my permission to add my remaining mature plants to her own. With more space and a prominent position in the sun I am sure they will continue to flourish. She has also planted a row of bamboo to soften the fencing at the back.  The front garden is beginning to recapture something of its Victorian glory.

I have kept my outdoor herb garden growing sage, rosemary, lemon thyme, mint, bay, French tarragon, parsley, chives, oregano amongst other herbs as well as Swiss chard, wild garlic and sorrel. I managed to grow loganberries, gooseberries and strawberries but not in any great quantities. My efforts at growing tomatoes indoors were not as successful as in previous years where I had sufficient to make several bottles of green and red tomato chutney using a Nigel Slater recipe. My indoor cucumber suddenly died on me having looked so promising. I grew my chilli peppers for as long as possible indoors and then chopped them up and placed the pieces in an ice cube tray before freezing. I add ice cubes to my cooking as required. These peppers have a real kick to them.
Last year I grew fennel and chamomile to make herbal teas. I have found that I only need a very small amount of my dried fennel to flavour the water. When I first tried using as much as I would for commercially grown herbs it proved a disaster: the flavour was far too pungent. I rather like the idea of drinking tea from my plantation even if said plantation was in fact a terracotta planter. My dog rose produced a large quantity of rosehips but I never got around to using them. Ditto the lavender. I was always loath to harvest the lavender when it was in flower as it seems to be a particular favourite with the bees in the vicinity.

My tea rose bush produced a single fragrant red rose. I had to constantly rescue the bush from being strangled by the neighbouring buddleja. I had taken a fancy to the latter because of its heady scent and its noted ability to attract butterflies. I discovered too late that it is an invasive plant and as common and as tenacious as weeds in the vicinity. I even found it growing down inside one of our drainpipes.

Dining out is no longer an option for me. However I do allow my friends to treat me from time to time such as on my recent birthday. In August I was able to acquire a free discount card which enabled the holder to a 50% reduction on food at specified restaurants. I therefore went with Mandip to Livebait in Covent Garden, an upmarket fish restaurant, reasoning that with a 50% reduction Mandip would effectively only be paying for her own meal. The Eagle took me back there for my birthday last month. Afterwards we had coffee and cakes at Maison Bertaux, a patisserie that has been operating from the same premises in Soho since the 19th century. Unlike other patisseries, Maison Bertaux is not part of a chain and bakes its delicious cakes and pastries on the premises. It is expensive but worth every penny for a connoisseur of gateaux like me.

The Partridge and I went on to Maison Bertaux after we had been to a Chinese restaurant in Soho, again to celebrate my birthday. Our favourite restaurant, which we were wont to frequent over the years, has gone so we were obliged to settle on another one at random. We both felt that Chinatown itself seems to have lost some indefinable quality. There are still excellent restaurants there but I would only go on the personal recommendation of my Chinese friends or else in their company. I feel sure they tell the waiters in Mandarin: This is the only Chinese I know. Please pretend for my friend’s benefit that I am fluent in the language and just give us the standard meal as she won’t be any the wiser.
On our way to Livebait in Covent Garden the Eagle and I passed Rules, Londons’s oldest restaurant. Dating back to the late 18th century Rules has been a firm favourite with the literary and artistic world for centuries. It is, or perhaps I should use the past tense, was one of my favourite restaurants. What I loved about it, apart from the wonderful atmosphere, delicious food sourced from their country estate and polite and attentive service, was that I could dine in there on my own or with friends and always be treated with equal consideration. Too often the single dinner is regarded as something of a pariah. If my fortunes ever changed for the better I would take my friends along to Rules for a celebratory meal.   
I cannot afford fine dining in restaurants but I can still hand bake speciality breads and cakes for friends in lieu of wine or chocolates when I visit them for supper or if they dine at Brimstone Butterfly Towers.  Baking and cooking remain one of my constant pleasures in life, although for the first time ever I have deliberately run down my larder and emptied my freezer and fridge after I discovered it was so cold that a carton of cream remained unaffected by being in my handbag in the hall for several days. The Eagle is always urging me to think of ways to turn my hobby into a means of earning money. In the past she offered to set me up in a tea shop or send me over to Tuscany to train in a friend’s restaurant. So long as I have a mortgage such things must remain mere day dreams.

Both the Eagle and Mandip have bought new houses recently and are actively engaged in the horrendous task of renovating them. As well as her London town house the Eagle has a villa in Tuscany. She offered to pay my airfares if I would cook for her and her partner over Christmas whilst they carry out some additional renovations there too. I have had to turn down her invitation, having a prior engagement in Highgate at the Partridge’s ancestral home. The Partridge very delicately told me that I must not think of buying her family presents but if I wanted to make some comestibles they would be greatly appreciated. I should be able to rustle up both having some presents I did not get around to handing out last year. I may be poor in monetary terms but I have always been rich in friends. I hope they realise how much I have always appreciated them.