These pictures were from a little while ago, but it’s snowing again so I reckon I can slip them past you unnoticed…
We went on a walk in the snow and found these little phrases inserted into gates. Only two, which seems odd. Maybe we should have looked harder. I immediately thought of Sarah Salway, as it is the sort of beautiful thing people actually pay her to do. Tough job eh, but someone’s gotta. I most probably took these pictures and wrote this for her, but you can look too.
Hey look, it’s summer! No really…the sun just came out for five minutes and I ran outside and took this picture of herbs and pelargioniums looking summery, so it must be, see? And summer means it’s time for our summer supper club. This is the easy one. Spring was a bit of a toughie and winter will be almost impossible, but we’d have to try pretty hard to make this duff… The idea behind the menu is to try to make some delicious things out of those crops that are at their best in our gardens and allotments right now, but if you’ll humour me a little I am also planning to make summer garden in cake form with some little petit fours soaked in a rose and honey syrup, like bees buzzing around a summer garden in a mouthful, without the sting, or the fuzzy bits.
Not everything you eat will have been grown by us – we just aren’t organised enough for that – but all the little extra tasty bits, the herbs, the edible flowers, the salads and more will be.
The date is Saturday 7th July, 8pm, and the suggested donation is £30. It’s BYO bottle but we will throw in one free cocktail on arrival: a mint julep, THE cocktail with which to sit and fan yourself on a porch in heat of the deep south, while rocking lazily on your porch swing. If the weather is vaguely warm (you never know) this supper club will be held out on my verandah (if – big proviso – we can negotiate my really quite massive dining table out of the back door). You will be surrounded by twinkling fairy lights and spicily scented flowers and eat delicious seasonal food. Without further ado, the menu:
Lia & Juliet Summer Supper Club
Saturday, 7th July, 8pm
Mint julep, served with broad bean pate and mint gremolata crostini
Chilled cucumber soup with dill oil and borage flowers
Mozzarella stuffed tempura courgette flowers with pesto
Roast baby veg tart tatin with allotment veg a la Francaise
Small allotment salad
Gooseberry knickerbocker glory
Mint tea with honey and rose basboosa (Middle Eastern semolina cake) with crystallised rose petals
I’ve just been reading about Keith Floyd in an old copy of Fire & Knives. The writer, Cai Ross, was saying that part of the beauty of his seminal ‘Floyd on France’ series was the way the producers ‘begged borrowed and conned their way into various French kitchens, domestic and professional.’ Unplanned, these moments required everyone involved to be on their mettle and step up, react well to whatever happened. The result was sometimes chaos, but often magic.
I am just back from visiting Paris, Amiens and Brussels. It was the first leg of a summer-long project which will see me and my lovely/annoying friend Mark Diacono take in nearly 40 amazing allotments and edible gardens, for a book to be published next spring. He’s on pictures, I’m on writing. He wrote about it here (all sorted now, btw, so no more entries please. Unless it’s really, really, REALLY good).
Most of the trip was perfectly planned in advance. Through French friends, google translate and luck we had managed to communicate with the gardeners in Paris and Brussels. Amiens had proved more tricky. We knew there were beautiful, floating market gardens there, but couldn’t find a way in: emails went unanswered, and after a hugely painful telephone conversation in my school-girl French failed to produce any leads, we decided we either give it up or just turn up and chance it. We went for chancing it.
On the map it didn’t look far, and in fact we reached the entrance to the ‘hortillages’ relatively quickly. ‘Phew’ I thought, having worn really stupid shoes, like a girl. But alas, this was just the gateway to the hortillages, which stretched for miles. The path gave glimpses into gorgeous waterside gardens, all reached via little bridges, each one with a locked gate, surrounded by spikes, with perhaps a soupcon of barbed wire for good measure. ‘Take pictures of that one, that’ll do’ I started to say, pointing at vaguely edible stuff far across the water, feeling the blisters form. I was mocked and we walked on, and on.
After that I decided to make like an arctic explorer, pushing through the pain bravely, with a noble look on my face. We started to find little alleyways between houses which led tantalisingly down to open water, close to the bit marked ‘potager’ we had seen on a glimpsed map. We could now reach where we needed to be if we had a boat. We don’t have a boat. Keep walking.
And then finally, joyously, we came upon a hut to hire boats. I arranged the hire, we popped our life jackets on (here I would have inserted a picture of Mark D in a bright orange life jacket for you, laydeez, had he not threatened to also take one of me for similar purposes, and thus stalemate been reached), and puttered out across the water to the area marked ‘potager’. It was nice, very neat, with sweet willow hurdles enclosing weed-free vegetable beds, a little like a museum recreation of the historic market gardens. We were pleased. Mark had already started snapping away when, through a hole in the thick hedge, I spotted a man, perhaps in his 60s, leaning on his fork, once-seriously-good-looking face tanned and lined, eyes twinkly: essentially, everything you want in your French rustic gardener. I took a good five minutes standing by the hole in the hedge to compose my approach, which I believe eventually went [brightly] ‘Bonjour monsieur! Nous prenez les photographs pour un livre…’ [increasingly less sure] ‘um….about… des jardins. C’est possible pour…er…mon ami…um…prenez les photograph a…er…tu – no – vous?’ A gallic shrug, an eye twinkle, a grin and we were around the compost bins at the end of the garden and in.
Jean’s floating market garden was the real deal – weeds, bits of junk and all – as was Jean, a market gardener who has worked this strange, semi-floating patch of earth tous les jours for dix ans. Somehow I managed to conduct a kind of an interview in French (with a few stumbling blocks: if anyone knows why French gardeners might paint the trunks of their fruit trees white, please enlighten me, it was something to do with them getting chaud maybe and…well, I have no idea, though he really, really tried to explain). Jean was relaxed and uncomplaining while having his photo taken, though he must have been puzzled at the whole thing. He was patient and sweet with my rubbish questions, and a bit of a gentle charmer too: when he cut a beautiful soft pink and yellow rose I pretty much knew it wasnt to take to market. It was late in the day after all that walking so the light was soft, with a sort of underwater quality itself, making for some fairly special photos. It was a mixture of tenacity (more Mark’s than mine, admittedly) serendipity, and somehow scraping together the necessary French, and it made for a magic moment. In the book it will seem like it was all planned and sorted beforehand, a fait accomplis (get me. I can’t stop now) but it wasn’t, and I think it will be all the better for it.
I recently threw (with relish) our last vestiges of plastic toys into a skip, and quickly covered them with old carpet before the kids could notice and retrieve them. We have had our fair share of these slowly fading plastic horrors. A red (later pink) ride-on fire engine, a yellow and red car (later primrose/pink): all things for kids to delight in and fight over.
But now we have nothing but a small toddlers’ trampoline, shoved down at the end of the garden. I felt guilty at first but sod it, it’s my garden. Also, guess what? They still play in it. They make potions, to which a few flowers are sacrificed, and very natty snail homes (with gardens and swimming pools) and…actually I don’t really know. They just go off down the end of the garden and I leave them to it.
Yesterday my son was playing computer games indoors leaving my four-year-old daughter out there on her own. She asked me for some chalk, and I gave her two pieces. Then she disappeared. Half an hour later this is what she had done. She calls it the trail:
One Sunday last August I was walking back from the allotment with Adam, a friend and neighbour we share our plot with. It was a glorious summer day and Adam started telling me about the festival of Lammas. It occurs at high summer, not mid-summer (which always feels a bit springy to me) but that point where it really feels like summer: long drawn-out days, lazy times, bounty. Lammas celebrates the first wheat harvest and marks the ripening of the first berries of the year, so you eat bread and blackberries and soak up the good times. Something about this food-based link to the seasons made me look around me properly and completely appreciate that moment: the clear, high, blue summer sky; the kids running in t-shirts and shorts on hot pavements; the wheeling, shrieking swifts; the wheelbarrow full of produce. It’s so easy to miss it when you’re in it, and only really see it when you look back, on a cold March day.
It started the germ of an idea, about creating a celebration based on whatever is in the allotment or garden at that time to make myself stop and look around and enjoy: comforting, cosy winter squash and roots in autumn and winter, fresh green shoots and herbs in spring, and that joyful, bountiful excess of high summer. I mentioned the idea of a supper club to my friend Juliet Roberts and she got it instantly, the idea of creating something of our own, a little (hopefully) magical way of marking the moment, several times a year.
So here’s the plan: this is to be a very modest supper club. We will have four evenings a year, one each in spring, summer, autumn and winter. Sometimes it will be at my house, sometimes at Juliet’s. Each evening will start with a little look around the garden and some chat about what we are up to in it, and what you can do to get growing food at that particular time of the year. There will be a cocktail, food, laughs and chat. There will not be big hunks of meat. We are going to play to our strengths and really concentrate on making something special out of the vegetables and fruits of the season. You will bring your own bottle.
It is our chance to have some fun, to meet some interesting people, and to create something of our own. We also want to put our money where our mouths are about growing and eating good, seasonal food, and to show off our gardens. We will do our best to make it a beautiful evening.
Of course we’re starting with the trickiest time of the year, the hungry gap, but we think we can make something special of it. It’s a time of using up the last preserved food and starting to get the very earliest of the year’s produce in. The first date is Saturday 24th March at my house, the cost is £25 per head, and the menu (currently subject to daily change) looks like this:
Onion marmalade and goats cheese nibbles
Green garlic soup with nettle and walnut pesto and pea shoot shot glasses
Baked ricotta, braised raddichio, potatoes in sorrel sauce, buttered spring cabbage and purple-sprouting broccoli
(The main course will be served on big shared platters on the table, actually there will be other bits and pieces as well as these here. To be confirmed)
Rhubarb upside-down cake with bay ice cream
Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org to reserve a place or to go on our mailing list, and follow us on twitter @liaandjuliet
Or just wish us luck.
PS It strikes me a little late that I just presumed anyone who might read this would know where I live. It appears they dont. North Bristol.
This is not your usual sort of blog post. This is part of a happening. Im feeling very with it and connected. There will be horticulture, but you’ll have to bear with me, as call-centre staff say.
Sarah Salway, an actual bona fide writer of novels, short stories and poems, has written a poem and dedicated it to me. It’s in her new book, which is out now. I’m ludicrously thrilled by this and am planning on dedicating myself full time to my new role of muse. I’ll probably wear something floaty, and drape myself over a chez longue while gazing out of the window, a faraway look in my eye. Over these few days I, along with a group of literary types (An intensity of? An earnestness of?), am hosting a ‘virtual poetry reading trail’. It’s happening all over. It’s totally like the future or something. So pull on your virtual black polo neck and don your virtual black-rimmed media specs while I pour the virtual red wine and pop on some virtual free jazz. Let’s have a little respectful hush in the room and begin. You may nod almost imperceptibly occasionally, and perhaps close your eyes for a short passage, because you are very sensitive and deep.
I wish I could remember precisely how ‘my’ poem came about, but the essentials are this: we were mucking about on twitter, talking about Sarah writing poetry, and for some reason now lost to the mists of time I suggested she write a poem about cheese and onion crisps. ‘I will’ she said. And behold, a few days later, this appeared in my inbox:
When I tell my daughter I’m working,
she nods, pulls her chair right up
to mine, elbows out, breath hot
with cheese and onion crisps.
She chooses a red pencil, starts
chewing, sighs over her blank paper,
tells me to shush. She draws us, stick
mother holding stick daughter’s hand.
Look, she says. I try to concentrate
on my work but she’s learnt
from me too well. Really look.
Clumsy fingers twist my hair
until we fight. I say she has to go now,
to let me get on with Mummy’s work.
Outside she sits so close to the door
I hear every rustle, every sigh so loud
that the note pushed under the door
comes like a white flag. Dear Mummy,
my daughter writes. This is me.
I don’t know how she did it. I realise that it’s also about her own daughter and her own struggles with working from home, but If she’d set up CCTV cameras in our house and monitored us 24 hours a day she couldn’t have captured my daughter more perfectly: crisp love, drawing obsession, clumsy, insistent fingers in hair and all. She takes my face between her two little palms and angles it towards her, so I can’t help but pay her attention. If Sarah and I had sat and drank tea and moaned for hours about the balancing of kids and work she couldn’t have captured that heart-wrenching pull between the two more beautifully. But at that point we’d never met. Anyway, she’s a working mother, who works from home, and so she knew. And she’s an artist. Still, a year or so after I first read it, that last line bring tears to my eyes every time.
It’s a beautiful, beautiful book, full of perfectly captured moments, and as part of this virtual reading trail Sarah will now read us all a specially selected HORTICULTURAL poem called ‘Seeds’. It was meant to embed here in the blog post but I don’t have the technology brain so click here then press on the arrow and she will begin reading. It’s gorgeous.
PS Please do follow the reading trail. It goes as follows:
Tania – Love and Stationery http://titaniawrites.blogspot.com/
Danuta – Different Lives http://www.danutakean.com/
Lia – Seeds http://lialeendertz.wordpress.com/
Nik – Dust http://nikperring.com/
Alice – Things To Do Today http://aliceelliottdark.blogspot.com/
Caroline – First http://www.carolinesmailes.co.uk/blog/
Susannah – The Interruption http://www.susannahconway.com/
Alex – Happy http://www.shedworking.co.uk/
Fiona – Through Carved Wooden Binoculars http://www.writingourwayhome.com/
BookeyWookeyBook – Dad Plays St George http://bookeywookey.blogspot.com/
Scott – Extinction http://meandmybigmouth.typepad.com/
Stephanella – Dental Examination – http://www.thecreativeidentity.com/
You take Ashton Court for granted. I went recently almost by accident, because it is the sort of place you can go by accident. Gifted to the people of Bristol in [long-ago year] by [posh but well-meaning folk] it has just always been there, on the edge of Bristol, special but not special.
It was always the bit of countryside that you could get to on the bus. You could get stoned and do things in the woods there and be very unlikely to get caught out by your mum’s friends (though ridiculously I once was, in all those many, many acres, fag in hand. I wont say who by because my mum reads this, and I believe to this day the friend kept it to herself, after giving me a stern talking to. Gawd bless her). I used to go to the deer park with my dad on Sunday visits. His friend briefly had an ice cream van there, one of those occurrences that is hugely impressive to a young brain, and so still always flits through my mind as I pass his spot. I’ve spent many a chilly birthday picnic there, convinced that it really SHOULD be warm enough for a picnic in early May (it never is). Anyway, it’s a place of many layers, and I view it through a haze of nostalgia. I don’t think a garden could make me more dewy-eyed if it had piped Van Morrison playing from every tree.
But I never really think of it as much of a garden. Council-maintained as it is, I guess any finesse of planting it may once have had has been lost over the years. But on this particular, almost accidental visit the winter light was low and clear, and it struck me what great bones the place has. In particular I have always loved the walls there, particularly the half-crumbled walls in the further flung corners of the estate. There’s no better wall than an Ashton Court wall.
I havent taken the kids for a long time though I can’t think why. Like I said, you take it for granted. But they wheeled about in all that space and gasped at the deer and didn’t complain that they hadn’t actually had any lunch other than a shared chocolate brownie, on account of us being uncharacteristically spontaneous. And of course, them being well-behaved and me being in that Van Morrison frame of mind already, I smiled at them indulgently, and wondered about the other layers that Ashton Court is going to accumulate.
We went to Dorset at half term, and spent our days dodging showers and searching for ammonites and our evenings trying to work out how to play Mahjong in front of the log burner. On the way back home we called in on my nana. Nana is a natural performer: she sang for the troops during the second world war and still goes about singing to the ‘old people’ in homes. It means she has the ability to make my children sit still and listen to her. So when she told them this story – body and face entirely animated, voice full of drama – they sat, fascinated and silent:
‘Once some thieves went to a beautiful big house and stole all the family silver. They ran into the woods to try to hide the loot in the branches but all the trees shook their branches so that the thieves couldnt climb up. All except the poplar. The thieves climbed up the poplar and hid the silver in the branches and ran away. Soon the police ran into the woods looking for the silver. They couldn’t find it, and so they ordered all the trees to put their branches up into the air. Knives and forks and spoons came clattering down from the poplar’s branches, and landed on the ground below. The poplar’s punishment was to hold its arms up in the air for ever more. That is why they grow that way to this day, and why they are known as silver poplars.’
I suspect my kids will recognise silver poplars.