Tag Archives: gardens

Light footfalls in the Forest

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I’m back… after a lull and a few health issues, can’t resist coming back to blogging. I’ve kept up with reading all my old friends, under the radar, and am up with the play on the health and antics of various cats and dogs and pigs, and people! And thanks to the magic of technology, the internet has kept me up to date on the strange happenings around the world. I hesitate to put a name to the events which fill today’s headlines.

Here in our remote rainforest, politics and pollution, carbon footprints and climate change feel a long way away. Though I did calculate our carbon footprint today, and since we make one trip into town a week, amounting to fifty kilometres, catch our own water from the roof, and purify it, don’t waste water since we have a compost toilet, build our house with re-cycled windows, doors, kitchen bench, neighbour’s cast-off extractor hood and other donations, and only use electricity for heating, our footprint is fairly light.

D, my love, has used skateboard wheels to create a sliding door which purrs every time it’s opened, while a steel knitting needle and some big beads from a necklace have been used to fashion a light fitting that can be adjusted and moved above the dining table depending how many guests we have. He’s made exquisite sounding bells from divers cast off tanks which function as warning bells for us, and become presents for the people who are enchanted with the sound of the bells, and want one too.

A friend gave us an unwanted Italian stone plinth which, with a great, perfectly round concrete ball cast by D for me for Christmas, has become the focal point of my new garden; another friend delivered a ten foot pallet he wanted to dispose of, which has, with a few extra pieces of wood nailed on, become an elegant trellis barrier painted black and swathed in white wisteria, honeysuckle and star jasmine, dividing drive from garden.

Along the top of the trellis are ranged a row of perfect round black balls. They were once the feet of an armoire, and so ugly that I had them cut off, and have carted them around for the last nineteen years, hoping to find a use for them someday. That day has arrived. Painted black, and augmented with a big central one made by D, they have come into their own. The honeysuckle was grown from cuttings taken from the side of the road. The stubs of used candles are melted down and blended together to make candles for the storm lanterns down the drive when friends visit.

Arum lilies, dug up from a field at a friend’s farm, and roses grown from cuttings, fill the urns and pots, and on finding half a dozen miniature pink buckets in an op shop, I filled with them with pink cyclamens and lined them up on the steps to the house. I fill any gaps in the garden with big white marguerite daisies grown from cuttings – the original plant I bought back in 2003, and have kept supplies of these generous sized daisies ever since. At this moment in the porch are twenty- four flourishing little green rootlets waiting to be transferred to wherever they are needed. Ivy cuttings are also rooting quietly after a walk past an overgrown wall.

A raised vegetable garden is the next step… to be tackled when D has finished inserting two beautiful coloured lead light windows into the bathroom wall which looks out into the forest. They came from a dresser we bought for a song at the local rubbish tip shop. The hinges on the doors and handles would have cost more than we paid for the whole dresser if he had bought them new, D says.

And as well as the hardware, we have the lead light doors to the cupboard now transformed into windows, and the bottom shelves, divested of doors, painted white and flossied up with a bit of moulding, matching another sturdy bookshelf the other side of the room.

The satisfaction of this way of life is immense. Though we are surrounded in the forest by splendid architect designed dwellings furnished with architect-speak fashionable furniture, black leather Mies van der Rohe-like loungers, cow-hide rugs, low backed sofas, I am unmoved by this elegance. I still love my ancient seven-foot sofa, bought from an acquaintance twenty- five years ago when it was already twenty- five years old. New feet gave it a new lease of life, and loose covers made from hemp twenty years ago are still as good as new.

My antique French Provincial arm chairs are still comfortable, even though the cat appropriated them all the years of her life, and the old painted peasant looking chest of drawers gives me as much pleasure as our walnut and rosewood antiques of yesteryear. Pretty china, rugs and cushions, lamps and books have been the same companions for the last four decades.

And books continue to find their way in. Last week it was a book on Tuscany found for a dollar at the local rubbish tip shop. It’s a big illustrated hymn to Tuscany by Frances Mayes, whose other books on finding her Italian house have always enchanted me. This one is filled with exquisite pictures, disquisitions on art and architecture,  wine, and food and recipes. She tells us that when children are born in Italy, they say they have entered the light. The poetry and beauty of this idea of emerging from the darkness of the womb into the light of the world I find very moving.

Mayes says that Italians have the lowest rate of suicide in the world. She puts it down to the contentment of living amid so much deeply satisfying beauty. She also says that Italians are very low on obesity scales compared with other countries, and she puts this down to the fact that they eat such nourishing delicious food, that they feel satisfied and don’t need to fill up with junk food and sugar treats.

So needless to say, I bustled into my kitchen, and began experimenting with her take on Tuscan food, which doesn’t rely on fancy ingredients, and at a quick glance just seems to require good olive oil, good bread, fresh vegetables, including garlic, fennel and mushrooms and devotion to good food! That devotion I have in spades.

Watch this space!

 

 

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The preciousness of people

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A knock on the door revealed a stranger holding a white enamel colander full of strawberries. We had moved into this house in town the day before, and he introduced himself as a neighbour.

That was a very meagre description of what he was, he was a glorious eccentric who I watched every day cycle slowly past on a very high old fashioned bike with a basket on the front, which gave the impression of being far too big for his small skinny frame, and liable to go out of control at any minute. He was on his way to the docks where he was a dock worker – a somewhat unconventional one I imagine.

Again a meagre description of this blue- eyed, wildly bearded, elderly Irishman, who revealed to us that he was a sort of remittance man, exiled from Ireland by his despairing family to make his somewhat erratic way in the antipodes.

He was a poet, he told us. I believed him though I never saw any of his work. His life was a poem. We went to his house, which was a poky little state house. Inside it gave the impression of being a miniature stately home, along the lines of an Irish demense… a few good but battered antiques, the odd oil painting and large old-fashioned sofa and chairs covered in old fashioned country house flowered linens.

This splendid impression of stateliness continued into the garden, which was quite big, being on a corner. He had transformed this rocky site into a miniature paradise, grass walks edged with pleached fruit trees, a vegetable patch, a strawberry bed, a tiny terrace and lawn, and best of all, a deep pond edged with large rocks, which he had created by levering the huge rocks day after day over a period of six months, until a deep hole had been carved out of the stony ground.

He was an eccentric, one of the many who, when I look back, have enriched our lives and given us fun and pleasure. There was Mr Macdonald, a direct descendant of Beatrix Potter’s Mr Mcgregor, who was our neighbour in the country, another Irishman. He only wore a pink woollen vest with long sleeves  and braces, all summer and winter, except on Sundays when he looked quite unnatural, shaved and spruced up in a short sleeved shirt in which he looked very ill at ease. Every spring he would arrive at my door in his pink vest, braces and hob-nailed boots, bearing a huge bunch of sweet-smelling narcissi which I had once told him reminded me of spring in England. He never missed a year thereafter.

There was Alf, an Englishman who served in the Malayan Police, and every three years when his leave was due, not having any family he wished to return to, he would sail to the bottom of the Arabian Peninsula. There he would buy a large flock of goats, and then proceed to drive them through the desert, using the goats as food and currency, until he reached Port Said. There he would get a boat to Liverpool, make a quick visit to his sister there, and then return to his tropical home in Kota Bahru.

Here too, lived Mammy, a giant White Russian, over six feet tall, wearing thick pebble specs for her short sighted grey eyes, and wearing the first caftans I ‘d seen over her enormous frame, all in brilliant colours and garish patterns . Mammy ran the local hotel where everyone gathered in Kota Bahru, and was a local joke too. As a seventeen year old I didn’t think she was such a joke. She and her husband had escaped the revolution in Russia, and made it safely to Shanghai like so many other White Russians.

They had survived the rigours of Japanese occupation and then fled Mao’s Communist takeover, ending up in Singapore. There, one afternoon, Mammy’s husband had walked down the road to buy an evening newspaper, and had never returned. No-one knew whether he had run away or was the victim of some crime. And Mammy was now surviving in this rather heartless superficial society in the remotest part of Malaya but creating laughter and fun all around her – actually rather more than a survivor.

Another neighbour was our Dutch friend Andrea, who had an antique shop full of the most exquisite items of a particular sensitivity, many of which I still posses. She was as nutty about animals as I, and far more lawless, striding into a bikie house to steal/rescue weeping puppies with no tails. I revelled in her poetic garden and laughed to see her huge magenta magnolia blossoms each wrapped in a plastic bag to protest them from the wind… not a good look actually!

Her house was beautiful in that glorious Dutch interior way of Pieter de Hooch and Vermeer, her pottery made you want to hold it and stroke it – and I have some – and her paintings were romantic and exquisite, and I have some of them too. I could actually write a book about her…

These memories were prompted by a conversation with a neighbour on my walk this morning. Since some of them read my blog, I cannot reveal what we talked of, or his glorious quirks of personality, but he reminded me of the joy of being with people who allow their personalities to flower, with no thought of what anyone else may think. Eccentricity is simply individuality, unself-consciousness, and the courage to be and do what feels right. When we are in the company of such people it feels as though ‘the waters of life’ are flowing, there are no limitations, and all things are possible.

Martin Buber, the great Jewish philosopher wrote that: ‘Everyone has in him something precious that is in no one else. But this precious something in a man is revealed to him only if he truly perceives his strongest feeling, his central wish, that in him which stirs his inmost being.’

P.S. The picture is of an antique English drinking jar given me by my friend Andrea.

 

Food for threadbare gourmets

A faithful follower e-mailed me yesterday and asked if I had a recipe for Simnel cake. This is the light fruit cake that’s traditional at Easter, so I told her I’d blog it today. I use Nigella Lawson’s recipe with my own adaptations.

When I make it, I prepare the tin as usual, and then cream 175 g of soft unsalted butter with 175 g of caster sugar. Then mix 225 g of SR flour with half a teasp of cinnamon, a quarter of a teasp of ginger and 25 g of ground almonds. Add one egg with some of the flour mixture to the butter mixture, and mix two more eggs into the rest of the mix in the same way, before adding two tblsp of milk. Finally, fold in 500g of mixed dried fruit, plus some chopped glace cherries if you like them.

At this stage I put half the cake mix in the tin, roll out about 400g of marzipan, cut into a cake sized circle and place on the cake mix, then cover with the rest of the cake. Bake for an hour at 170 C, then turn it down to 150C and cook for another hour and a half. It’s cooked when it’s risen and firm. Let it cool completely on a rack before taking it from the tin.

When cool, paint the top with apricot jam, and roll out another 400g of marzipan and stick it on. With 200g of marzipan, make balls representing the eleven apostles – Judas surplus to requirements here – and stick them on using an egg white – beaten to just frothy. Some people quickly put it under the grill to make it look slightly toasted.

 

 

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A refined conversation

0000534There were six of us sitting at the dining table. The only husband was ‘a former naval person’, in the words of Winston Churchill signing off his telegrams to President Roosevelt. My husband wasn’t well enough to join us, so the rest of us were what some people would call old ladies, but I don’t think it had occurred to any of us.

There was the magnificent matriarch, well into her eighties, now a great grandmother, still jetting around the globe to various children and grand-children, still walking her dogs every day, still wiping the floor with everyone at bowls and golf, still giving lectures on arcane subjects to U3A, the university of the old, still beautiful, slim and elegantly dressed. She was entertaining two of the other ladies in her sea-side house, so I’d suggested they come for lunch.

One of her friends was a gardening devotee, fresh from a tour of the gardens in Melbourne …  sitting beside her, she and I discussed great Australian gardeners like Andrew Pfeiffer and Edna Walling. Magnificent matriarch’s other friend was the titled widow of a distinguished sailor, and a painter, while my other friend, who also painted and had spent her life in France, also sported a title. So you might think that we would generate a decorous and refined level of conversation. I’m not sure what triggered the subject of washing nappies, but this generated more energy, heat, and hysterical laughter than many other subjects before or since around that dining table.

We explored the horrors of scraping and rinsing, the wringing out and pegging on the line outside in freezing cold with frozen fingers. I described my primitive electric boiler on wheels, into which I placed a hose for the water. In it I put the horrid wet smelly nappies and soap powder, and boiled it up, steam filling the kitchen while a particular smell of boiling clothes would penetrate the place. When they’d boiled sufficiently, the heavy boiler had to be rolled to the kitchen sink, the nappies fished out one at a time and swung from the boiler into the sink for rinsing. We all agreed that we used a wooden spoon for this rather than the tongs. By now the kitchen was filled with steam and all the windows misted up.

The sailor’s widow claimed that her lot was worse than the rest of us. She didn’t even have a boiler, but had to fill a bucket and lug it across to boil it on the top of her stove, which then entailed heaving the boiling bucket with stewing nappies back across the kitchen to the sink. The magnificent matriarch reminded us of how the fingers used to swell with all this rubbing and wringing, and I remembered how I’d stopped wearing my wedding and engagement rings as my fingers had swelled so much.

French lady complained about the horror of having a baby sitting on your lap, and the sudden realisation that the bottom of the baby was sodden. Sailor’s widow and I swapped notes on the anguish of getting them dry in a cold climate. Her husband was stationed in Canada then, and mine in England. We carried stiff , square, frozen nappies in from outside, and draped them over a clothes horse or chair in front of the fire to thaw them and dry them. With two babies under two, I was often only one nappy ahead of each baby. No such thing as a dryer back then – a clothes horse in those days was made of wood, with hinges of heavy-duty linen.

We discussed the fine cotton inner nappy and the bulky outer terry towelling nappy, and the great day when plastic outer pants were invented, thus saving us from the trauma of the wet nappy sitting in the lap. Former naval person sitting at the end of the table sat riveted with horror at this refined lunch-time conversation, and rolling his eyes and groaning at intervals, just to remind us he was there.

We happily ploughed on eating our chicken vol- au- vent, and alcoholic dried fruit compote for pudding, his revulsion just giving an added edge to our enjoyment – maybe even revenge for the trials we had all endured. We envied flower expert’s possession of a high-ceilinged old fashioned kitchen which had meant she had room for an airing rack on a pulley to dry everything in the warm air up on the ceiling. French lady boasted that by the time she had her last child, she could order a nappy service in Paris to collect and deliver. We practically jeered at this decadence, sailor’s wife claiming with determination that she had had the worst experience with nappies, and who could argue… buckets, frozen nappies, an’all ?

Our children had it easy, we all agreed, and we had all noticed that our grandchildren never had any problems with nappy rash from their easy disposables. Threat though they are to the environment, this, we agreed was a huge plus, freeing  mothers from the guilt which we experienced if any of our babies  displayed that bright red rash, for which we blamed ourselves for not rinsing the nappies well enough, or not changing them often enough.

This burning subject and un-savoury occupation which kept five intelligent, well-educated  women from prosperous backgrounds fully occupied for years of their lives, would seem utterly trivial to today’s mothers, who not only enjoy disposable nappies, but washing machines and dryers which do the job at the touch of a button.

But today’s women also juggle jobs with housework, children and commuting. I don’t envy them. Though fifties women are considered a joke by most people now-a-days, we actually had time to spend with our children and ourselves. And our trials were very character-forming!

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

Dried fruit compote is one of the easiest luxurious puddings I know. Roughly chop about three cups of dried peaches, prunes, figs and apricots into three cups of cold tea and add rum to taste, plus a cup of brown sugar. Add a stick of cinnamon, six cloves, and two or three star anise and at least a teasp of vanilla essence. Gently heat and simmer until soft, and serve hot or cold with crème fraiche or whipped cream, and maybe a little shortbread biscuit. Peeled sliced apple and tamarilloes are also good in the mix. Add more liquid is needed.

Food for Thought

In Islam, especially among the Sufi orders, siyahat or ‘errance’ – the action or rhythm of walking – was used as a technique for dissolving the attachments of the world and allowing men to lose themselves in God.

Bruce Chatwin,  1940 – 1989  Traveller and writer

 

 

 

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Bullied by the birds

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It’s two months since I wrote a blog about the drought called Summer days and thirsty hedgehogs, and since that time we have had no rain.

The country is split between those who live in towns- and so many NZ towns and cities are on the coast – and those who live in the country. The townies, as country dwellers call them, are loving every moment of the long hot summer, revelling in long days at the beach, splashing in swimming pools, lolling around in their gardens, and sitting outside at cafes and restaurants enjoying leisurely meals in the soft twilit evenings.

Families take off at weekends with their tents and boats and kayaks for old fashioned summer camping days by the sea, in the certain knowledge that there will be no rain. At the same time country folk are measuring how many inches of water are left in their water-tanks, or joining the two or three week long queues to have water delivered. I see trees and hedges dying, and my heart aches.

Farmers are selling their stock since they can’t afford to feed them, for there is no growth in the dry brown paddocks: drying off their milking herds, and worrying about hay for the winter. Gardeners like me, are carting buckets of water from their baths to moisten around trees, watering roses and hydrangeas and salvias all struggling to stay alive in the baking heat, and trying to coax dahlias and Japanese anenomes, usually the splendour of the garden at this time of year, to open their stunted blossoms.

I fill the bowls of water around the garden regularly throughout the day, and anyone foolish enough to knock on my door with census papers, Jehovah’s Witness leaflets, or to fix the faulty electric plug for me, all get their ears bashed to put out water for birds and thirsty creatures. I’ve rung the local rag, and got my daughter to Twitter, and hope the SPCA will remember my message about ringing radio stations to remind their listeners.

But one person cannot defeat climate change! This is our third drought in four years, and in the worst one four years ago, we lost so many birds and creatures. The native pigeon population was decimated, as young birds had no water, and people talked of seeing pigeons drop from the sky, dead from de-hydration. The kiwis who dig their long sharp beaks into the ground for bugs and worms starved because the ground was so hard they couldn’t break into it, and when they did, the worms and other food had retreated deep down to damper layers of soil.

This year, another native bird, the kokako, is not breeding at all – for fascinating reasons – the females can see that there are none of the berries on the rimu trees which they normally eat, and are therefore refusing to mate, knowing there’s no sustenance for their offspring. And hedgehogs are dying of thirst.

I’m thinking I’m going to have to start feeding the birds again. I used to feed the handful of sparrows and a chaffinch couple who lived around here – under a tree a little way from the house, and where I could see from the sitting room window.I also fed the dozen or so mynahs, a little way down from the tree so they wouldn’t frighten off the smaller birds. Moist wholemeal bread for the mynahs, wheat and birdseed, and when I ran out, porridge flakes for the others. They loved it all. They told their friends. Within a couple of weeks I had at least a hundred sparrows, four or five doves, some itinerant blackbirds,  chaffinches and an occasional thrush.

They had also worked out from whence this largesse came . They waited in the plum tree outside the kitchen window and watched me until I came out with their breakfast. And for a couple of hours they sat and barracked me from the plum tree and the garage roof in the afternoon, until I sallied forth with afternoon tea – theirs.

A great whoosh of wings accompanied me to the tree. Then I had to make sure that the neighbour’s ancient lonely dog was not hovering in hope of a dog biscuit. If she was, I had to return with the bird food, and dig out a biscuit and walk her down the road with it, away from the bird food which she would have gobbled up. Dog distracted, back to the birds.

If I was out, they would be waiting for me at the bottom of the road. They recognised my white car, and swooped from telegraph pole to telegraph pole all the way down the road with the car. They’d then hover round the garage yelling “she’s back, she’s back” till I came out. If I went for a walk, they’d fly down the road with me, and wait on the corner.

Finally the worm turned. There were so many birds I couldn’t keep up with them, and was buying a large sack of wheat from the farmers shop each week, as well as extra bread for the big greedy mynahs – money I could ill-afford. The garden was becoming white with droppings, and I was back to the chaos of when I’d had a bird table. The sparrows could probably have made a pot of tea themselves, they’d watched me so intently through the kitchen window for so long.

A short holiday in Melbourne solved the problem. They gave up waiting. I felt guilty but relieved. They didn’t need the food out here in the country. It was just my hobby which had got out of hand. But now, with a hearty respect for the intelligence of bird brains, I think I’m going to have to soften my heart and help them out in this emergency.

That heart sinks at the thought of being bullied by them all again. I’ve done a lot of inner work over the years about letting go of being victim, and preserving myself from being bullied any more, but I’m not sure I can handle being bullied by the birds. It may be a step too far for my fragile self esteem, and feeding the birds may be my last big challenge!

 

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

We had some lovely summer pears from a neighbour which cried out to be transformed into pear and almond tart. I used the wonderful recipe for pastry which doesn’t involve rubbing the flour into the butter. Instead I melt and cool the butter and just stir it into the other ingredients. The resulting dough doesn’t need rolling, but is just pressed gently into a shallow greased tart dish. It doesn’t need pricking or weighting. Just pre-cook for ten minutes in a moderate oven. You then add the frangipane and the sliced pears and cook for three quarters of an hour or more until the frangipane is just firm.

The pastry takes 125 gm butter, melted and cooled, a generous 100 gms of sugar, pinch of salt, half a teasp each of almond essence, and vanilla essence, two generous tablesp of ground almonds and 180 gms of flour. I love frangipane, and will give the recipe in the next post. It’s the perfect base for pears, plums, apricots, peaches, and I love the sound of the word… it sounds…fragrant!

 

Food for Thought

An old pond  –  a frog tumbles in  –  the splash of water

One of the most famous haiku  by the most famous haiku master, Matsuo Basha  1644 -1694 He spent much of his life wandering through Japan, like the medieval troubadours and minnesingers of Europe, three hundred years earlier.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Return to the Joy of Blogging

Bloggers return – some of the balls I was juggling have now rolled down-hill metaphorically, others I’m still tossing in the air, and catching.

In spite of the wonderful messages received when I bowed out, I had begun to sink into a little pit of my own making in which it seemed arrogant to expect other bloggers to read my writings… in fact, I suddenly lost confidence in myself.

But as time has passed, to my amazement, people are still reading my blog, and clicking on likes and follows, and some blogger friends have sent messages of support and comfort, so I’ve taken the plunge again, and am returning to the joy of blogging.

I’ve comfortable now with the fact that this will only ever be a little boutique blog, as it were, and I will never again (I think) become hooked on the ups and downs of stats! So back to the joy of writing for its own sake and the fellowship of bloggers … who I’ve continued to read.

I’m sitting at my desk which is just by the French doors onto the veranda. When I look up, I see the turquoise sea framed by the red blossoms of the pohutakawa tree at this time of the year, and watch the fishing boats chug out to sea. The veranda itself is fringed with the fresh green leaves of white wisteria which grows around the outside. In spring the long white racemes perfume the veranda, and now, the scent of a datura at the bottom of the wilderness part of the garden, reaches my desk.

This long room stretches the width of the house, so that when I go to the other side of the house, and open the French doors at that end, the ravishing smell of the queen of the night pervades the front garden. Especially when it rains.

As I write, a shining cuckoo is singing its piercingly sweet song, and a thrush, now relieved of the cares of parenthood, and forsaking the empty nest in the honeysuckle by the garage door, is warbling joyfully somewhere near the oak tree. And the sound of water is the background to their song as waves break on the rocks below.

It’s that peaceful lull after all the hustle and business leading up to Christmas. The tail end of a cyclone has passed through, leaving us with drenched gardens – but clear bright skies and sparkling blue sea. The orcas I had seen came back and a pod of six, including two babies, took over the next bay, chasing a swimming dog, and going “ viral” as they say, all over the internet.

In the lead-up to Christmas, everyone gets their lawns mowed, the wide grass verges by the road trimmed, and their gardens manicured. Then the tents and canopies start going up, and families arrive from all over the country, and camp on front lawns for Christmas.

Christmas – time in this country is hedgerows festooned with billowing banks of climbing pink roses which I think must be Dorothy Perkins. They grow wherever settlers farmed over a hundred years ago, and have scrambled along dusty lanes and country roads ever since.

Christmas here is also blue and white agapanthus which too, have spread along road sides, and gracefully adorn banks and garden entrances, even though this spectacular flower is now condemned as a noxious weed! They bloom at the same time as the pink roses and the red and orange flax flowers, from which the turquoise and black tuis suck nectar with their long beaks.

The red blossom of the pohutukawa tree, the New Zealand Christmas tree, and flaming orange cannas spreading alongside the blue agapanthus, are also part of the brightness and exuberance that is part of an Antipodean Christmas. No spare leafless trees, pale skies and frosty hillsides here. Instead it’s the peak of summer before the flowers wilt and the hills go brown in the blazing sunshine which always seems to arrive with Christmas.

On Christmas Eve, I drove through pouring rain to our nearest big village in search of a half bottle of rum, to make a coffee and rum sauce for the walnut- coffee meringue gateau. Through the wind-screen wipers I saw a dead bird on the road ahead. I picked out the speckled wing feathers and coral- red head of the bird, and recognised a banded rail. These are rare flightless native birds which live on an island sanctuary out to sea.

I had found a baby corpse on the road some years ago, and put it in the deep freeze, before contacting the Department of Conservation. They were rapt, came rushing out and dashed off with the pathetic little frozen body to put it on their map. They knew the birds had reached a spot on the mainland quite a way from here, but had no idea they might have spread to the mangrove swamps where I had found it.

The bird which I now wrapped in several plastic bags (thank you, maligned plastic bags!) was full grown, and heartbreakingly beautiful with its long pointed beak for digging into mud for food, delicate markings and elegant little legs and clawed feet. It spent Christmas Day and Boxing Day in the deep freeze, amongst frozen bread rolls and my husband’s emergency steak pies, and today I rang the department. Out they came again, and even remembered the last one I had delivered into their hands. Very satisfying to know that a rare breed seems to be multiplying nearby.

And now the New Year looms… I was rather sorry we survived the end of the world. I’d been looking forward to annihilation in a split second, and no more wars, no more cruelty to animals, children, women, men, or the planet! I had thought it would be great to have a fresh start somewhere down the track, and do it right next time – peace on earth – goodwill to all life, animal, vegetable and mineral, and all people whatever their colour, race, religion or sexual orientation.

It would also have been great in that distant future to acknowledge that there is only One Creator, whatever we choose to call him/her or it, Dieu, Yahweh, Allah, Lord Vishnu, Great Spirit, Gott, Divine Source, and therefore no need for religious wars, hostility, judgement or condemnation….  but it seems that we have to clean up our own act now, before we can have that peaceful future!

Maybe one way to start would be to take fourteen year old Minnie Haskin’s advice. George the Sixth, the Queen’s father, used these words to hearten the nation in his Christmas broadcast in 1940, when the islands of Britain stood alone against the terrifying brutality of Nazism.

“And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year: “Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”
And he replied:
“Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God. That shall be to you better than a light and safer than a known way.”

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

Our plum tree is bowed under the weight of a lavish harvest of dark purple plums which are only so-so for eating raw, but delicious when cooked. Every-one who receives a basket of these fruits also gets the recipe I use – borrowed from Nigella Lawson.

To a kilo of plums – more or less, use 300 ml of red wine – more rather than less! Nigella says stone them – I don’t bother, the stones come out quite easily when cooked.

Put the plums in an oven proof dish. In a saucepan boil the wine with two bay leaves, half a teasp of ground cinnamon, two cloves, one star anise, and 200g of honey. Pour over the plums, seal with foil or a lid, and bake for an hour or longer at 160 degrees, until they’re tender. You can keep them in the fridge for three days, and you can freeze them.

Serve with crème fraiche, ice-cream, or custard. I also think they’d be good with rice pudding on a cold day.

The aromatic scent while they are cooking is so delectable that I’d love to catch it in a bottle and spray it regularly around the kitchen.

Food for Thought

A man cannot be comfortable without his own approval.

Mark Twain   1835 – 1910  Great American writer, humorist, publisher of Ulysses Grant’s memoirs, friend of Helen Keller. Abolitionist and anti- segregationist, anti- vivisectionist, anti- imperialist, pro women’s rights.

Born when Halley’s Comet was closest to the earth, and died the day after its return seventy five years later..

He also said; ‘Be careful about reading health books. You may die of a misprint.’

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Real Things Matter

It has to be real coffee. I can’t bear the taste of instant coffee with that smell of dry cleaning fluid lurking beneath the coffee fragrance.

No tea bags either. I reverted long ago to a tea-pot and a tea caddy. I love the meditative ritual of boiling the kettle, spooning the tea leaves from the caddy, and enjoy using a beautiful circular shaped silver spoon with a little intricately worked handle. I wonder who used it for this purpose in the past. When the tea is made, the pot goes on a tray with a cup and saucer with Redoute roses on it, a matching milk jug and tea plate. There’s also a little cream French provincial jug which holds hot water to make the tea weaker if I want. It’s Twinings’ lapsang souchong, the delicate smoky taste such a habit now that I never drink anything else.

I sometimes think that this will be my greatest deprivation when I’m shunted into an old people’s home – which is why I’ll be drinking a nice pot of hemlock before that happens.It’s the same with the ritual of the breakfast coffee and tray. It gives me such a sense of well being to enjoy these pretty things, instead of keeping them for best, and to eat and drink good, honest, unpolluted foodstuffs. There’s also a feeling of mindfulness as I savour these little things.

There’s no way I’d have mucked- around butter on my table either. We have the real thing, not some mixture with chemicals and oils to pretend to ourselves that it’s better for us than butter. I simply can’t believe that a pure substance like butter could be bad for you when the other is filled with all sorts of food substitutes.

The fact is, I don’t want any substitutes in my life. I want the real thing. I don’t want plastic plant pots in my garden, I want lovely terra cotta pots, the sort you find in Beatrix Potter’s pictures of Peter Rabbit in Mr McGregor’s garden. I don’t want hybrid dwarf ageratum and stunted shasta daisies and miniature dahlias in the garden. I want the old fashioned blue ageratum with long stems to loll for most of the year at the back of the border. I want tall straight Shasta daisies, not mean little blooms cowering among the lavender, and in autumn I want those big shaggy dahlias shaking their blowsy heads at the sun, not struggling to find a space among the marigolds. Same with bouncy blue agapanthus. Who wants miniature agapanthus when the real thing is so gorgeous?

I’ve always hated synthetic fabrics. Give me real wool and cotton, linen and silk any day, whether we’re talking clothes or furnishings. And now they’ve discovered that many of the synthetics we use in curtains and carpets emit fumes which are dangerous to health – so why use them? Same with many building materials in modern homes. Houses of yesteryear, built using natural products were not unhealthy like so many modern homes. And we now also know that many of the synthetic fabrics in homes are easily inflammable and burn fast, unlike wool which takes a long time to catch fire.

Apart from the safety and health aspect, natural fibres and natural building products are beautiful.  Worse, our devotion to synthetics and plastic means that we’re using up oil to create much of the litter that’s strangling our planet. The monstrous islands of rubbish as big as continents in the oceans, are made up of plastic. The plastic breaks down into tiny shards and gets into the fish food chain, and finally into us. Serve us right.

Then there’s plastic bags! When I lived in Hong Kong over forty years ago, plastic hadn’t caught on, so we’d take home our food from the markets wrapped in real leaves and tied with real dried reeds. These small parcels were exquisite little works of art, and every Chinese shopkeeper and hawker could create them and tie them with the same instinctive skill. Even in English villages back when, we used string bags to carry our groceries home, not disposable plastic bags. Disposable of course, is a misnomer. Throwaways, yes, but then it takes aeons for the plastic to decompose.

And yes, in my day, of course we had the real thing – cloth nappies. And though the debate rages about the good and bad effects on the planet of disposables versus cloth nappies, at least you can go on using cloth nappies for years afterwards as dusters, car cleaning cloths, and so on, if you don’t pass them on to someone else.

 Actually, the debate over babies having the real thing is not funny, but is sometimes a matter of life and death in developing countries.The big global conglomerates, many of them American, have run such successful campaigns convincing Third World and Asian mothers that their babies are better off with powdered milk, that in Thailand for example, only five per cent of mothers now breast feed their babies. Babies all over the undeveloped world are being fed milk products which too often are mixed with polluted water, for lack of good hygeine. In China, unscrupulous middle-men added industrial additives to New Zealand milk powder to make it go further, and make bigger profits, with the result that thousands of babies ended up in hospital with serious permanent internal damage, and many died. So having the real thing is actually not a frivolous matter. It can be the difference between life and death. And what can be more real than a mother’s milk?

So having got this off my chest, I’m now going to make Welsh rarebit for our light evening meal. It’ll be brown bread, cooked by the local artisan baker, unprocessed cheddar cheese, real butter, and to my chagrin, the milk will be the processed stuff we all have to consume by law. No-one nowadays knows what fresh untampered -with milk tastes like. In my childhood, the cream used to sit at the top of the bottle of real milk delivered to the doorstep, and in cold weather, the sparrows would peck through the lids to get at the cream. They knew the real thing when they saw it.

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

Cheese goes further when used as Welsh rarebit, rather than straightforward cheese on toast, and the difference in flavour and texture is rather attractive for a change. So using an ounce of butter and a level tablespoon of flour – somewhere between half to an ounce, melt the butter and stir in the flour until smooth. Add enough milk, or milk and half beer, to make a stiff mixture. Then add a teaspoon of mixed mustard, a few drops of Worcester sauce, salt and pepper, and about six ounces of grated cheese. Stir it altogether and make sure the cheese is amalgamated. Don’t overcook or the cheese will become oily. Spread this mixture on four slices of buttered toast, and grill until golden brown. Serve at once. This amount will satisfy two greedy people, or four well-behaved people.

Food for Thought

Pilgrim,remember                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              For all your pain                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        The Master you seek abroad                                                                                                                                                                                                                You will find at home                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 Or seek in vain.                 Anonymous 7th century poet

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