Rainy day job – minus rain

It’s like being stood-up.  The Potwell Inn allotment would be completely parched if it weren’t for the hand watering, and we’ve been quivering with excitment at the prospect of a week’s decent rain – supposedly beginning today. So we woke early, sniffed the air like badgers emerging from their holt, but there was none of what my promiscuous reading revealed last week as – “petrichor” – the smell of rain on hot earth. Plenty of other smells around though, not least from the kitchen which smelt almost Corsican first thing.  In fact the whole flat is infused with the scent of basil – which we grow a continuous supply of – tomato plants waiting for a break in the heat, and elderflowers. If you chucked in a couple of mouldy melons we’d be back on Cap Corse.

Three hours later at around noon, it started at last, thank goodness, but the weather chart shows the weather front moving northwards with us right on the edge. No downpours here, sadly.

So the principal work of the morning was turning the infusion of elderflower, oranges and lemons into elderflower cordial. I salute those who’ve absorbed the lore of collecting the flowers and managed to find a nanosecond when all the necessities line up like bullet points in a presentation. We just pick when we can.  The last batch was made from the ordinary common and/or garden version of elderflower, the weed. This time we spotted a heavily laden tree on the allotment and picked an organic cotton bag full.  Actually it was a plastic bag but the organic cottton sounds less likely to excite our friends, one of whom noisily unpacked my (first time in six months) plastic in a crowded supermarket while upbraiding me for destroying the earth.  A small crowd looked on while she left the unpacked bag on the side, presumably to be thrown into landfill anyway.  Two days later an organic cotton bag arrived in the post and my humiliation was complete.

Anyway this tree was the most delightful mixture of purple leaves and pink flowers.  Last year I stumbled on a fashion shoot in front of the very tree I’m writing about. The model, who was very pretty, was dressed in such similar colours – purple and pink – that she looked rather like the cheshire cat, appearing and disappearing in front of the blossoms.  She was surrounded by an impausibly large number of assistants, dressers, people holding large reflectors and photographers with their retinue.  One of the throng asked me where the toilets were and I was delighted to be able to offer her our bucket, which she refused.

The pink blossoms smelt quite as good as the mongrel white ones and so we picked and infused them for 24 hours.  The only difference in the way I produced the cordial was to bring the sugary mixture to 80C rather than boiling it which I think destroyed some of the flavour. The results (with a bottle of the first batch for comparison) looked lovely and tasted excellent.

As I write, the rain has stopped again but we’ll stick with plan A and go to get vine-eyes from the garden centre. More later.

June 1st and first picking of broad beans

Vegetables seem to be remarkably regular in their flowering and fruiting habits regardless of the weather.  I had thought that we’d be picking the first batch of broad beans at least a week early this year, but in spite of the vast difference in weather between this year and last, we’re picking just two days earlier. Potatoes and tomatoes are a little later but they have both been put out later for fear of a late frost.  The biggest diference this year is the strawberries. Although we’ve got a fabulous crop on the way, last year we were picking ripe strawberries in the first week of June.  This year we’ll be lucky to see them by the third week. The potatoes, I fear, have been afflicted by the incredibly dry weather and they’ll pick up if we get the promised rain this coming week. I’m loath to throw too much water in the direction of the potatoes because I think it diminishes the flavour.  I was grumbling to our neighbouring allotmenteer about the poor flavour of Jersey Royals over the past couple of years and he said he thought it was because the farmers have been prevented from using seaweed because it was thought to be adding too much salt to the soil. Our asparagus, on the other hand is thriving on its thick mulch of seaweed over the winter and is five feet tall now. I do hope there’s as much activity underground because we shall enjoy a good crop next spring.

So this week has been incredibly busy, with a good deal of grandparenting and a trip to replace the water pump on the campervan.  A friend was charged €230 in France 2 years ago for a replacement, but after a bit of research on the internet I sourced a brand new replacement for £50 and fitted it myself at the additional cost of a packet of electrical connectors. I felt absurdly proud of myself.

Apart from that it’s been absurdly busy on the allotment – so much so I’ve hardly had time to write at all. We’ve fitted a hazel wattle screen between the shed and the greenhouse to create a sheltered area where we can grow tomatoes and peppers.  It arrived with one of the end posts pulled out because presumably the delivery driver had dragged it across the floor of his van (after all it weighed 30Kg and he’s probably never seen one before).  Rather than send it back I decided to have a go at repairing it – it took 2 hours of  somewhat grumpy effort but I did finally manage to separate all the woven horizontal branches with the aid of some steel bars, and reinsert the post. It’s now in position and will be an effective screen against cold north winds.  Then, today the temperature soared to 25C so we went up early and  I hammered in the supporting posts ready for the tomatoes, nonethleless we both needed a shower when we got home.  The weather will break tonight, according to the forecast, and we’ll get some rain, so great relief all round.

Someone wrote to the paper the other day lamenting the fact that weather forecasters seem to regard sunshine as inherently superior to rain.  You can tell they’re not gardeners.  In fact there’s a proper drought building up. Our usually damp plot is bone dry down to a foot deep and so we’ve been forced to water as if it were July. Given that a full watering can weighs 22lbs and the round trip to the tank is 100 yards, you can see it’s a bit of a workout to water the whole 250 square metres.

Yesterday my friend Rob – the real botanist – came to check my ID of the Fumaria I’ve been going on about – and,  joy of joys, I was right and it’s Fumaria murialis. This probably means less than nothing to almost everyone else in the world, but it means a lot to me because it shows I’m very slowly getting my eye in.

Tomorrow or Monday the outdoor tomatoes will begin their outdoor life, taking their chances with whatever the weather throws at them.  Meanwhile we’re making the second batch of elderflower cordial.  The first batch is growing on us as we drink it – the problem is that home made is essentially unrepeatable.  This time we’ve gathered a bag of 50+ heads from a purple, ornamental elderflower tree.  So far the result is a lovely rose pink colour.  Sadly we had to buy another eight 500ml  swing top preserving bottles because the rest are all in use, and so our “food for free” cordial, or at least this batch, will cost about twice as much as the commercial stuff. However as the years mount up, home made gets increasingly competitive.  As ever, though, the flavour beats anything you could buy

 

Sumer is icumen in

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Sing loudly, cuckoo! – Well at least I heard one cuckoo on our friends’ smallholding in the Brecon Beacons a few weeks ago and I found it unbelievably moving, thinking that with the climate catastrophy upon us I might never hear it again.

But sumer most certainly is icumen in and so today we picked a load of elderflowers and started the first 3 litres of  cordial. We felt almost secretive about picking it, hoping our neighbours wouldn’t spot us and join in – picking is best done in the sun for maximum flavour and there’s plenty for everyone but I fear very few people would go to the trouble any more even though the difference between our own home made cordial and the commercial stuff is striking.

IMG_5466Summer is as much a smell as anything more meteorological. Yesterday evening we were sitting in the living room when Madame said, “I can smell chewing gum”. I wrinkled my nose up in mimed solidarity and it was true but it wasn’t chewing gum it was cats’ pee.   It was the smell of summer.  There were the elderflowers infusing on the stove, and several different kinds of basil gently sunning itself in the propagator, along with a sink full of fresh spinach and a salad spinner loaded with newly picked lettuce. Oh yes summer is good.

We spent the morning at two exhibitions in Bath.  The annual open exhibition of the Bath Society of Artists is always worth seeing several times. In some ways, although it’s a lot smaller, it’s better than the RWA open. Several friends and acquaintances had pictures in, and there’s less of the gulf between ‘high art’ and village show about it.  Many of the artists necessarily earn their living from other things, but their work is really good – the product of a lifetime’s labour without the deadly grip of the Arts Council. As we left we hubristically resolved to submit some of our own work next year

Then we dropped in at BRLSI (Bath Royal LIterary and Scientific Institution) where there was an exhibition of artifacts and books from the permanent collection.  The headline catcher was a small phial of liquid taken from the barrel in which the body of Lord Nelson was brought back from Trafalgar. Not terribly interesting really, the value was all in the caption. My own favourite things in the exhibition were the botanical books, pressed flowers and drawings which were all on the subject of medical herbs. But one exhibit was truly bizarre –

The other gadget, the tobacco smoke enema, has no modern parallel.  At first an ordinary clay pipe was used and someone administered the smoke enema by poking the stem through the anus and blowing on the bowl.  The risk of burns led to the invention of safer apparatus.

Well thank goodness for that! The afternoon was spent at the allotment as the flat is gradually emptied of plants.  Much of my time was spent in energetic watering, but I did manage to find 20 minutes to sit with my back to a compost heap, measuring and inspecting our mystery fumitory with a copy of Rose at my side. Then in the evening we worked in tandem in the kitchen, prepping spinach, elderflowers and tomorrow’s family BBQ and cooking supper.  We had inspected the peas earlier, hopng for a first taste, but they’re not quite ready.  Next week maybe.

This last few days I’ve been tempted to say that I’ve been feeling the same kind of energy and excitement I had when we first went to art school, everything seems inflected with possibilities.  But I’m a melancholic and I’ve read Tolstoy and Iris Murdoch so I won’t tempt fate by saying I’m happy.  Maybe ‘pretty happy‘?

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