In early June of this year, just as the dandelions were fading after that first golden flush (that moment when they are so lush you can almost imagine planting them in your border) and were starting to turn into the first wave of dandelion clocks, Ray Bradbury died. I don’t know anything about Ray Bradbury except that he wrote my favourite book, Dandelion Wine. I call it my favourite book almost out of habit: in truth there are whole chunks of it I can’t remember. I think I cling to it because it is the one whose atmosphere most lingers with me. It is the atmosphere of high summer childhood: that first morning of clear skies and promised heat, when the air smells of possibility and opportunity; brand new pure white tennis shoes on hot pavements; hazy afternoons spent in a ravine on the edge of town, all dust and deep cool shadows.
It is chiefly about a boyhood summer, but the grown ups move through it quite magically too, and there is a passage that I think might appeal to the preservers and bottlers and jam makers among you, as it sort of sums up why we do it. I am just at the stage of taking out my huge jars of last years damson vodka and brandy. They have sat for a year and soon I will strain them off into little bottles and leave them a few months more to sip surreptitiously on cold evenings in front of the fire, and to give away as Christmas presents. When the jars are empty they will wait for the damsons to be ripe. Not long to go now: they already look ready, so a week or two more and they will be. Each jar (recipe alert!) will be filled about a third with fruit, caster sugar poured on until it fills the gaps and covers them a little, then brandy or vodka poured up to near the top of the jar and the jar sealed, put away and shaken occasionally, to slowly – over all that time – turn into something viscous and rich and boozy, and far more than the sum of its parts. This has become my summer ritual. Here (edited a little for space) is Bradbury’s take on something similar, the dandelion wine at the heart of the book, and it’s just beautiful:
The words were summer on the tongue. The wine was summer caught and stoppered. Since this was going to be a summer of unguessed wonders, Douglas wanted it all salvaged and labelled so that any time he wished he might tiptoe down in this dank twilight and reach up his finger tips.
And there, row upon row, with the soft gleam of flowers opened at morning, with the light of this June sun glowing through a faint skim of dust, would stand the dandelion wine. Peer through it at the wintry day – the snow melted to grass, the trees were reinhabited with bird, leaf, and blossoms like a continent of butterflies breathing on the wind. And peering through, colour sky from iron to blue.
Hold summer in your hand, pour summer in a glass, a tiny glass of course, the smallest tingling sip for children; change the season in your veins by raising glass to lip and tilting summer in.
Even Grandma, when snow was whirling fast, dizzying the world, blinding windows, stealing breath from gasping mouths, even Grandma, one day in February, would vanish to the cellar.
Above, in the vast house, there would be coughings, sneezings, wheezings, and groans, childish fevers, throats raw as butchers’ meat, noses like bottled cherries, the stealthy microbe everywhere.
Then, rising from the cellar like a June goddess, Grandma would come, something hidden but obvious under her knitted shawl. The medicines of another time, the balm of sun and idle August afternoons, the faintly heard sound of ice wagons passing on brick avenues, the rush of silver sky rockets and the fountaining of lawn mowers moving through ant countries, all these, all these in a glass.
Yes even Grandma, drawn to the cellar of winter for a June adventure, might stand alone and quietly communing with a last touch of a calendar long departed, with the picnics and the warm rains and the smell of wheat and new popcorn and bending hay. Even Grandma, repeating and repeating the fine and golden words, even as they were said now in this moment when the flowers were dropped into the press, as they would be repeated every winter for all the white winters in time. Saying them over and over on the lips, like a smile, like a sudden patch of sunlight in the dark.
Dandelion wine. Dandelion wine. Dandelion wine.’
Now I dont know about you, but I think this is why I do it. There are practical, sensible reasons, sure, but I think the poetic ones win. Bottlers, wine makers, and preservers, go forth and grasp your last chance to squirrel away a bit of summer now, and when you prise open the lid or pop out the cork come January, raise a glass, a spread, or a pickle to Ray Bradbury, whoever he was.
Last week was the Garden Media Guild Awards, and I tarted myself up (boldly – if I say so myself – in orange) and took myself up London to see if I would win anything for this year’s labours. I sat on a table of people hauled together by the force of nature that is Ann-Marie Powell, where it’s fair to say we had some fun. And I got shortlisted, for three awards: environmental, blog and journalist of the year. Three times I went: ‘oh! oh! oh!….ohh…’ for alas, it was not my year. I toyed with bitter and twisted, but it is hard to maintain when you genuinely admire the writing of the people who won the awards you were up for (Annie Gatti and Mark Diacono), and it is pretty wonderful to be noticed enough to get shortlisted at all. So I laughed a lot, I toasted the winners with only a slightly wistful look on my face, I hobnobbed and networked like a good ‘un and I went out for a delicious meal after at Moro. Fun, fun, fun.
Home again, home again the next day, I let a little self-indulgent disappointment seep in. Best to temporarily give in to these things, I reckon. Touch the flame and feel the burn. And suddenly the one thing I wanted to do was bake. Put my mind to something simple and repetitive. Gardening, baking, sewing, all ways of ordering the world when I’m feeling out of joint, putting things methodically and carefully back in their place. Creative, sure, but requiring no great mental leaps. Nicely steady too, after those little episodes of risen heartbeats. And quite fittingly it was not just any old cake that was crying out to be baked, but the mother of them all, the Christmas cake. A proper project.
Despite being a pretty keen baker I had never made one before. We always go to my mum’s for Christmas and mum makes a mean Christmas cake, but this year I am being the grown up. We are doing Christmas this year, they are coming to us, and it seemed only right that I should step up, take responsibility and bake the damned cake.
I’m not going to give you a recipe for Christmas cake – there are Delias for that sort of thing – but I will tell you my spin. It involves damsons. Everything has involved damsons this year, since our vast crop from the allotment tree. I bottled up my 2010 vintage damson vodka in August, when I needed the jars to make my 2011 vintage. The 2010 vodka-soaked damsons (I hope you’re keeping up) have been in a big jar ever since, waiting for me to do something suitably grand with them. So I soaked all the other fruity ingredients in damson vodka, and then added the sozzled damsons, just chopped in half and stoned, as the big, juicy ‘glace cherry’ element. For the nuts I stuck to almonds, with their stone-fruit affinities, and I lobbed another couple of tablespoons of damson vodka (plus flour, sugar, eggs, and spices of course) into the mix before baking. We all stirred it and wished for good things (most probably lego- or star wars- or lego star wars-based things where the children are concerned, but I wouldn’t let them tell me).
Four hours it baked for. Such a satisfyingly long time. And yes of course: spicy, wafty house clichés. Now I’ve started down this damson-themed road it feels kind of right to stick with it, tho Im pretty sure putting vodka onto a cake is not really a thing. But hey ho, let’s have the courage of our convictions, and even though it’s a Christmas cake, it is only a cake. So it is getting regular doses of damson vodka, I will use damson jam to stick on the marzipan and – oh hell, why not? – I might even go for purple icing.
Soaking, measuring, stirring, wishing and breathing in spicy wafts. Baking therapy on a day of little sighs and little smiles.