This summer, glinting from the greenery, there are the old regulars...
but also some first timers: a few morello cherries,
and metallic-striped rosemary beetles,
which may be beautiful but will devastate my herbs (tangerine sage here) if not removed.
Less striking but much more welcome, are the first few cobnuts/hazels on our bushes. They're my favourite nut, especially fresh and wet, but the squirrels will get them first. There are suddenly (grey) squirrels everywhere; I caught two of them having sex in the woodshed the other evening. More foxes please.
When the world (well, Britain*) goes crazy, you go to the garden.
So, it's seven years since we first got the keys to this house and my six year old son thought we were having a picnic in a public park because he'd never had a garden before. Now I have a houseful of teenagers who rarely venture out there but I hope it's in their blood, waiting to strike.
While you can't really see the forest for the lack of trees (a mere fifteen), the edible forest garden is now, at least, multi-layeral and almost everything has become highly productive. I'm still losing most of the cherries to squirrels and pigeons, despite losing quite a few squirrels and pigeons to my Scottish wildcat, but even the apple tree that's never produced more than a single fruit before, has over forty this year, and the hazel and Kentish cob are finally producing nuts. Most exciting of all: my asparagus made it through the winter for the first time. If it survives this winter too, I'll actually be able to harvest some next summer. I try to eat something from the garden at every meal: green leaves, herbs, fruit, or preserves/wine made from it, and this year I've also been cutting a lot of flowers to bring indoors.
I've given up trying to name everything edible but I've listed the usual suspects. There are random, self-seedlings coming up all over the place: thyme, sea kale, nasturtiums, rocket and, everywhere, bloody, bloody sorrel. This year, there's quite a few foxgloves too. They're deadly poisonous and, in addition to being beautiful and beloved by bees, they remind me that my garden isn't a mindless all-you-can-eat buffet. I need to think before I pick and double check that I know what I'm eating. Anything is free to self-seed here, at least until I notice, and there are some highly toxic wild plants. The foxgloves help keep us safe.
marjorams, rosemary, bay, chives, globe artichokes, red, white and blackcurrants, pear, strawberries, blackthorn, hawthorn
although Badger was not forgotten. (That little house in the background sells really good chilli chocolate and coffee fudges. It was a steep cliff walk from our caravan, but not quite long enough to burn it all off,
even when we had to move quite hastily through fields of inquisitive steers
which necessitated more beer.)
My younger son (here modelling Torre Argentina cat sanctuary t-shirt) tried lobster for the first time, for a holiday treat. Unfortunately he liked it.
My husband managed to do quite a lot of cooking in the caravan too:
local crab, scallops, sprats and samphire, mackerel and kale.
He and I drove to Devon for dinner at the River Cottage Canteen one evening, which was fun. I was impressed that in addition to beetroot soup and pickled beetroot starters, they had a main dish of roasted beets with candied walnuts and halloumi on the menu, with the beets having top billing rather than the cheese. I asked for it starter sized, as I couldn't choose between two mains, but unfortunately it arrived as a halloumi and candied walnut salad with a total absence of beets, which was puzzling. It was delicious nonetheless, as was my actual main - a wonderful Dorset Vinny and onion tart. I virtually never order the vegetarian option in European restaurants so it was to their great credit that I did so twice here.
I didn't bite the tail off this lizard. I only saw my first lizard in the UK a couple of years ago and the second and third came this week on long walks along the South West Coast Path.
Even better though, was the pair of ravens and their youngster calling for food (either that or alerting his parents to a corvid stalker in the vicinity...).
The site itself is home to a large number of rooks, a couple of whom sit by the snack van, using their long featherless beaks to root hopefully in discarded ketchup sachets. I came here every year on holiday as a child, and the sound of hundreds of rooks swearing unreservedly at dawn always means summer to me. Sad to see someone complaining about them on Trip Advisor - like the beech martens of Crete, they were the highlight of my visit.
For my husband's birthday we were planning on dirty burgers with the family (our own Portobello's Man on Fire, poutine-iful Bread Meats Bread or the Edinburgh sister of our traditional road trip lunch stop in Carlisle: Belted, named after the Belted Galloway cattle) until we calculated that half a dozen sliders, sweet potato fries and hardshakes = 2 x fine dining, and decided to form a breakaway unit of marriage.
Neither of our two favourite restaurants - Edinburgh Food Studio and The Gardener's Cottage - open on Tuesdays (his birthday) and neither does Aizle where I longingly gaze at each month's list of seasonal ingredients posted in the window in lieu of anything as pedestrian as a menu. Norn - which we had also been eagerly eyeing through the still-barred doors - had yet to open, and so we found ourselves playing a fun game of Guess What Dishes Timberyard (open Tuesdays!) Will Make With These Combinations of Ingredients, which is much more creative than just translating from French. In a bid to still meet the mortgage payments, we booked for lunch - which has the option of just ordering a couple of things from the À La Carte rather than a full 4/6/8 courses with wine. I reminded said husband of this plan when the day came, noting as we passed the wonderful Mary's Milk Bar on the way, that we could get a cone for dessert on our walk home. (Having read some reviews that morning - which, it now transpires, can only have been written by people who favour all-you-can-eat buffets - we had some concerns about portion size and had forearmed our stomachs with a slice of birthday cake each anyway - PUDDING #1 KLAXON)
It was a cold day and, I worried, not the best to be in a big, stone, post-industrial building, but there were wood burners and blankets and it was warm and lovely. I did feel a hundred years old because I remembered buying a door there twenty years previously when it was still an actual timber yard. That I am old enough to have been buying anything as grown up as doors twenty years ago seems impossible, but I cheered myself with the fact my husband was celebrating being nearly a decade older. We had a quick look at the ingredients arrangements and ordered a Christmas tree cocktail. I can't remember what was in it but it tasted of pine in a very good way. I am also a big fan of cocktails in stoneware, ungarnished, and I don't care what anyone says. Unfortunately, however, the cocktail led to abandonment of the 'only a couple of courses and one drink' plan and we then ordered a bottle of wine and everything on the lunch menu.
It was all very good. There was some wonderful mackerel, excellent guinea fowl and perfect rabbit.
Offal was well-represented and beautifully cooked. Everything was inventive without pretension and the service was lovely.
I had no desire for dessert because I don't like most restaurant desserts - an innocent coffee panna cotta or pot au chocolat is always being violated by redcurrants or gooseberries or other such inedible WINE-AND-PRESERVE-MAKING INGREDIENTS, but the husband was, shall we say, in celebratory mood by then and ordered one of each - PUDDING #2 KLAXON. I've blocked them out but they almost definitely featured rhubarb, of which I have five metric tonne uneaten in my garden because it's disgusting*. I think there were some nice bits - shortbready, creaminess - but I can't really remember because I had a second glass of wine instead, which is never a good idea for me.
**in my opinion***
Swaying gently down the Grassmarket on the walk home, I remembered Mary's Milk Bar - forgot the dessert we'd just had - and went in for a scoop of something luscious and delicious involving flowers, herbs, spices, goat cheese and very dark chocolate, probably. PUDDING #3 KLAXON. I can't really explain - other than: wine - why twenty minutes later we found ourselves in the excellent Reekie's Smokehouse having an espresso and sharing one of their legendary marshmallow brownies - PUDDING #4 KLAXON. Nor why we chased it all with another slice of birthday cake when we got in - PUDDING #5 KLAXON - before falling asleep in the afternoon to the disgust of our poor, starving children (all actually over 6' and/or the age of 18). Middle age?
UPDATE: ***genuinely delicious rhubarb wine now in production!
I have been noting Badger's ageing for years now. This year, what would have been at least his ninth, he stopped being able to make it up onto the sofas and beds. Instead he favoured the blanket box or, the cat basket.
Two months ago he had a forty-five minute appointment with the lovely vet, who performed his first ferret ultrasound. Badger's abdomen had been swelling up - like a couple of our other old ferrets' had; I feared heart failure and didn't expect to bring him home that day. But he lay back stoically on his blankie, like a pregnant woman, as his huge belly was gelled and investigated for fluid or tumours. The vet concluded he was just fat.
He came home with antibiotics for his slight wheeze but when they had no effect we knew his days were numbered. Frankly, when your ferret is eight you know his days are numbered anyway. It doesn't make it any easier though. Neither does the fact that all but the most sociopathic of aquaintances will understand why you are devastated by the loss of your dog or cat, but try telling someone that you're crying because your ferret died...
Of all the cats, dogs, birds, reptiles and other companion animals I have had throughout my life, Badger was quite possibly my favourite. He was certainly my familiar. It wasn't that he was particularly different in personality to Bear and Lynx - the albino and dark-eyed white ferrets with whom he was rescued - but they died younger and so Badger became a house ferret. Sharing our rooms with a free ranging elderly ferret for three years, was an absolute joy. I can't say it would have been as pleasurable when he was younger because when the three of them used to come out of their shed for playtime in the house, they tended to trash it. Badger's favourite game was climbing the bookcases and throwing all the books off the shelves from behind whilst bouncing up and down on all four paws in delight as they fell. They also enjoyed terrorising my elderly greyhound and cats, getting up and into anywhere they could and stealing objects which would turn up much later, stashed in shoes and behind sofas. But by the time Badger was an only ferret, he couldn't climb higher than the sofa or edge of the bath where he would sometimes join me. This meant he could also have unfettered access to our walled back garden. My favourite thing was to be sitting in my kitchen, drinking coffee with a friend, and to have a frantic ferret burst through the cat flap, dragging a headless pigeon he'd stolen from a cat who was in pursuit. What sort of dull, half life is it without that?
Ten years ago, I was the newly single mother of children aged three and nine, and ferretless after my polecat, Slinky, died of adrenal disease - geriatric and almost entirely bald. I desperately wanted another animal but was suffering from severe anxiety and any further change to my life was almost impossible to manage. Adopting a potentially damaged and equally anxious dog, cat or ferret was an enormous challenge but buying a puppy or kit from a shop or breeder had never been something I could support either. I couldn't cope with the adoption procedures of big rescue organisations who don't have the time or resources to counsel neurotic owners as well as saving animals so I didn't think I would ever have another animal again. I felt like a complete failure and a terrible human being. Then I found a small, private, home-based rescue in north-east England, run by another Jane. I blurted out all my fears and she said it was fine, she'd find me the perfect ferret and she'd be there if anything went wrong. With that sense of security, nothing ever went wrong. I ended up adopting five ferrets from Jane - including Badger - over the following couple of years, all of them utterly beloved and now buried in our garden, but Badger was perhaps - as my son's girlfriend said when she met him - the most loved ferret in the world.
Badger won over nearly everyone he met, and those he didn't probably weren't worth meeting. He was the gentlest, funniest, little magical creature. He came on walks, road trips and even a memorable bike ride. He was never any trouble to anyone - except maybe my cats - and cost us nothing but a small amount of food every day (although props to the Metro free newspaper for a decade of unknowingly sponsoring litter trays). One Easter we discovered his weakness for chocolate when he chanced upon some unhunted mini eggs behind a cushion. Thereafter he would get a tiny taste every year and then follow us around for days to come, hoping for more. When we were at the vet, I said to my husband that it was such a shame he wouldn't make it until Easter this year. But he did and he had his bit of chocolate egg. He was weak and wobbly though so, wanting to spare him the painful death that Bear had suffered, we made an appointment on Easter Monday to have him put to sleep and tearfully kissed him goodbye. An hour later he was back home after the vet pronounced him deteriorating but not in distress. Badger was risen!
But less than two weeks on he was unable to sleep at night and barely eating. I sat up with him in my bed, willing him to let go and stop laboring so hard to breathe. By that afternoon he was still clinging on, but starting to struggle. I carried him to the vet in my arms, wrapped in one of my husband's moth-eaten cashmere sweaters, and afterwards we buried him in the garden next to the other four ferrets, heartbroken.
Badger was a legend: the most loved ferret in the world.
Let's be clear: I don't believe in manifesting one's desires. I don't really believe in anything that requires belief and if positive mental attitude were vital then I wouldn't have made it to forty in excellent health with everything I could possibly need, including a husband who spends the weekend filling the freezer, fridge and pantry with bone-broth-based soups, sourdough bread and kimchi for my weekday lunches, so I don't have to interrupt my hectic schedule of writing poems about oyster sex. Marriage, then: I believe in marriage!
For the entire decade we have been together, said husband has been trying to get me to go and see bands with him. I told him that I attended my lifetime share of gigs and festivals during those white nightdress and para boot teenage years 1992-6 and will now only contemplate live music from a comfy sofa in my living room. Apparently watching Glastonbury on telly doesn't count as 'live music' though. Then this year, as if by self-help book magic, I found myself on a sofa in someone's living room, watching live music. And she sold her own home-made jam afterwards. IT'S LIKE I DREAMT IT.
Which brings us to food. We don't eat out an awful lot because of a combination of the aforementioned excellent husbandly cooking and impoverished wifely writing, but for special occasions and inspiration, it is restaurants to which we turn. The problem I have is that I crave, and am willing to pay for, long, delicious dinners of fresh, local, seasonal, wild ingredients, expertly and innovatively combined...but I cannot bear the attendant fanciness. My handbag (rucksack) does not need a stool. Formal dining, stuffy decor and being the only customer with visible tattoos are not required in order to feel like I am celebrating. Et voilà: like a sommelier to the last sip of wine, appeared Edinburgh Food Studio. No menu, no fussing, no dress code, just excellent food. Then they surpassed even that with a poetry night, for god's sake. Poetry and food! And each course was a response to one of the poems each poet read. I know, right? This should just be a thing that all restaurants do. Poems should come with the bread basket. Peter Mackay read a lovely poem about clarifying wine but my favourite match of the night was Vicki Feaver's exploration of life through death, 'The Gun', with the most wonderful communal dish of heaped meats: rare wood pigeon and venison, rendered even bloodier by a sea of beetroot purée. Mackay's Gaelic, Feaver's gun, the long tables and the beast feast made the evening feel positively Beowulfian.
I was too overwhelmed to take a photo (see: ex-teetotaller, below) - and it wouldn't have done it justice anyway - but an earlier course is pictured above. Underneath the ground ivy flowers and fermented ceviche-like kohl rabi, was some beautifully pink lamb's liver and a mound of pumpkin seeds cooked in the manner of a risotto. The latter was a revelation. I'm not a big fan of eating most grains - like fruit puddings, their taste isn't worth their energy density to me and I'd rather get fat on sweet potato fries followed by clotted cream and a spoon - rice is no exception. Risotto is a comfort food for almost everyone I know but I much preferred this super-nutritious, nutty, crunchy version. And since I am trying to overcome my debilitating addiction to desserts, I will even forgive Sashana and Ben their liquorice ice-cream. I don't like most restaurant puddings anyway because they tend to be fruit-based, plus I'm especially fussy with ice-cream flavours because ice-cream is the true Queen of Puddings. My preferences are plain milk (no vanilla!), bitter chocolate (The Chocolate Tree's sorbet) or flowers/herbs (rosewater/violet, Mary's Milk Bar's pine needle and white chocolate/goat's cheese[!], honey and thyme). But liquorice, god, that's beyond the pale. Skipping it DEFINITELY offset the truckload of buttered sourdough I inhaled though, (exception to grain rule, obviously) so it all worked out for the best really.
One of the many things I love about EFS is not feeling pressured to order wine and more wine. As an only very recently ex-tee-totaller, I never want more than one glass of wine. I mean, I want more, but I can't have more. Having more would have resulted in me gatecrashing the actual poetry readings with a poorly executed fifteen minute improvised corona of sonnets about my dying ferret. Even after my one delicious Elder Royal (made with elder liqueur from Buck and Birch) I was quite tempted to stand up and make a speech but I think that's only because I was sitting at the head of the table and suffer delusions of grandeur. I do wish they sold wine by the glass too, because sharing a whole bottle would leave my dining partner under the table unless it was my 6'7" husband. And, again, I had run away with G instead of my 6'7" husband because us going out for dinner as a couple - and therefore spending double - is limited to birthdays and anniversaries. G is quite the regular because a) she cheats on me with other women (at OUR restaurant) and b) has a proper job where they pay her actual money. Next time I am going with him though, because he is the best man-ifestation of all.
The shrub layer of my edible forest garden is almost entirely comprised of tart fruits that aren't generally eaten raw: currants, gooseberries, rhubarb (I appreciate the latter isn't a shrub but it occupies a similar space). Whilst I love fresh fruit, I'm not a huge fan of fruit puddings or jams which - for me - generally aren't worth the extra sugar consumption.
We always make redcurrant jelly which is beautiful on cheese and meat, but our friends and family are probably fed up of receiving it now. So, what else?
I come from a tradition of home-made fruit wine. A couple of years ago, my sister found some bottles of my dad's vintages in her garage, over a decade after his death. Fifteen years old, it still tasted pretty good, if a little like Holy Communion. I had told my husband all about the legendary status of my dad's wine; I never imagined he would get to taste it himself. Then, last year, life gave him fermented honey and he made his own mead. From there it was always only going to be short step to carrying on the family mantle of fruit winemaking.
Although my dad tried to teach me how to make my own wine as a teenager, I was only interested in drinking it. Indeed drinking it may be why I couldn't remember anything about how to make it and my husband had to buy C.J.J. Berry's First Steps in Winemaking.
From what I can tell, you just mush up your fruit (this is half of last year's crop, from the freezer),
add some sugar syrup,
then - a day later - yeast, and leave it to bubble in the larder, next to your dead dad's ashes (far left) for good luck.
After a week or two, when the fermentation is subsiding, pour it off into airlocked demi johns (only putting it on your window sill to take attractive photos...). Repeat at some point. It's all a bit imprecise, fermentation, which is why I love it. Next: gooseberry, then rhubarb.
I was going to say that, unlike the previous Pruning Gone Bad, the husband formerly known as lovely carries the full weight of this one. But actually, I need to take my share, because if you have to tell somebody: 'Whatever happens, make sure that above all else, under no circumstances, never, not ever, cut through that.' then the very least you could do is to lurk around in the background, making sure they don't. Or better yet: do the job yourself. But let's put that aside for a moment and admire one of my favourite plants in the whole garden:
the ivy. It's not edible - quite toxic in fact - but it's a bee-feeding, shade-loving, concrete-covering fairy tale of exquisite beauty. This year I dispensed with all Christmas decorations except for the holly and ivy draped around the rooms. It also chips away at anything man-made in a frankly admirable way and for this reason, although left to my own devices I would let it consume my entire house, we have to keep it from creeping over onto my neighbour's wall. And so it came to pass that I sent my husband out with the secateurs and pruning saw to cut back the far edge with the above proviso that absolutely nothing was done to damage or stress the main plant covering our wall.
A couple of hours later, as he was clearing up, I went out to cast a cursory glance on the scene, cheerlead, supply tea etc. Imagine my surprise to find what was clearly the main trunk,
supplying all the branches that cover our wall,
I began to hyperventilate. For some moments I sat on the cold earth, mute and pointing, in total disbelief, sucking in air like a toddler working up the world's biggest scream.
My husband went into panicked denial: it wasn't the main trunk, it wasn't cut, it wasn't him etc. Eventually he came up with the defense that he couldn't help it because HE COULDN'T SEE WHAT HE WAS CUTTING. This, reader, is when I lost it. I ranted, I raved, I misbehaved. There was some throwing of light garden implements. It was, by far, the most furious I have ever been with him and I have the redhead gene.
I couldn't bear to look at him so retired to my bedroom to weep over the senseless waste of A DECADE of ivy growth/marriage etc.
When I surfaced later, I was met with this: his unshakable belief in hope over reality. If anything else in the world symbolises marriage as well then I have yet to see it...
When I grow up, I want to be Lisa B-K* of Backyard Industry, so when she posted recently about less than perfection, it reminded me that I have some disasters of my own to own. After an intoxicating fling with instagram, on which airing one's dirty laundry in public can only be done beautifully, I decided to eschew social media. I can understand that, even without the filters, my life must look impossibly perfect and unattainable - the luxury home, the gourmet dinners, the heady musk of success - but, let me remind you: I spent £150 on asparagus crowns over four years and never tasted a single spear because every year THEY ALL DIED and - AND - the fox ate my supermodel chickens. Also it rains every minute of every day in Scotland, FACT.
*We're almost the same age but she's light years ahead of me.
I wrote about my distress at having to transplant a crab apple I had sited poorly and caused to become scab-ridden, and last year it became apparent I had done something terrible to the fanned fruit trees too. I'm not sure what happened: I can't remember if I bought them ready fanned - because you can do that - or fanned them myself, but I clearly recall admiring their perfect fan shapes at one stage. I should have known better because the lazy gluttony of my forest gardening is not particularly conducive to training anything. Thus suddenly (five years later) I had a couple of short, two-dimensional standards instead: one totally asymmetrical plum, due to the shade and competition of another tree;
the other, a curiously thin and weedy cherry.
(It doesn't help their appearance that when my husband concreted in the posts for the supports, he did it much too far away from the wall, so instead of the trees growing against the wall, there is a huge, redundant gap.)
I had also, at some point, absent-mindedly stopped tying the new growth onto the bamboo rib supports and started tying them to the horizontal wires instead, in the manner of espalier. Only I had forgotten that, for reasons still unknown to me, you can't espalier anything but apple and pear trees. I realised my mistake and started retraining them diagonally onto the canes again.
Because you can't prune stone fruits in winter, and it's hard to see where to prune them in full foliage, I took photos while it was still clear what needs to be done. The reappearance of central leaders on both trees is the biggest issue and one I am trying to correct either by hacking them down or bending them over. (For god's sake, if you know how to do this sort of thing and you're reading and weeping, please email me and put me straight?)
I'm still learning how to prune. I have been confidently trimming the coats, claws, teeth, beaks and flight feathers of a variety of huge dogs, cats, mice, rats, rabbits, ferrets, birds and reptiles from a young age, but pruning trees is something I came to only in adulthood. As I walk around the neighbourhood now, I see crossing and inward growing branches and long to lop them so perhaps the instinct is developing, but it's not like the easy, automatic knowledge I have of animals. I have to stop and think about plants. Where is their source of food? Where are their roots? Where are they going to fruit? With animals - even birds, fish and reptiles - it's second nature. I read and read and read but I've come to the conclusion that I need to learn about plants the same way I learnt about animals: by being with them, watching them, interacting with them. Gardening is also a lot like parenting: people have strong views on how it should be done. Different views. Sometimes it can be hard to hear your own instinct above the shouting. This is when you turn off the computer (put down the book), go into your garden and listen. Probably there is a tree sighing.