Rhubarb and roses

19 June 1933

It was only after the last cap was tightened last night that I realised that there’s been a bit of a theme to our recent preserving: fruit and flowers. Gooseberry and elderflower, lemon and elderflower and, last of all, rhubarb and roses.

Normally, I make rhubarb jam earlier in the season, adding crystallised ginger to the pot to give it the sort of sweet heat I crave in the dark days of March. The first, forced rhubarb is slender and pale and, when bottled, shines pinkly from the larder shelves. But this year the rhubarb has been so abundant and lush that we took it for granted, almost forgetting that it would soon come to an end. Which is how I ended up making a batch when the roses were in bloom.

At first I thought I’d use the roses from the bush which towers, two or three meters high, above the hen house, but although they have a lovely scent, it’s not sweet enough to eat. So I turned to my little rambler, still in its early years but laden with its open, cut and come again heads of loose and sweet-smelling petals.

Taking a handful indoors made me think of the little bottles of rosewater perfume that we’d make with our grannie in Ireland, when we visited each summer. She’d save a variety of small containers for just this purpose, and send us out to pick the blooms, pluck the petals from each one and leave the mixture to brew overnight. Then she’d tell us to use it up, but I never did. It was too pretty: the dark pink curls suspended in what was no longer simply water. So I’d keep it, jealously, until the pink turned to brown and the high summer fragrance became something sour and earthy.

I did wonder whether the scent would survive the rigours of the jam-making process. At first, the panful looked akin to an Arabian delicacy: a mound of rose and pistachio Turkish Delight, strewn with petals to serve. Before long, though, the sugar drew the juices from the fruit and the whole lot came to a raging boil, setting quickly in the jars with whole chunks of the softened stems suspended in the jelly. I have to admit, I licked the spoon myself. And the pan. Goodness knows what the children were doing to resist that scent, but whatever it was, I was quite happy not to have any offers of help with the washing up. The rhubarb was softened, somehow, its flavour mellowed but still true, and above it sang the rose, confident and clear.

We are so enjoying bottling this lovely June that it didn’t take Ilse long to persuade me to get on with the elderflower cordial, before the last blooms turned brown and brittle on the trees. We were just in time, bringing in a basketful on Saturday afternoon a mere half hour before the heavens opened. All we had to do, cosy in the kitchen, was boil the kettle for a cup of tea and pour a share of the hot water over the blooms, as well as the zested rind of some citrus fruit. The following day we strained the brew, added sugar and the juice from the same bright fruit and brought it to a simmer. Then it was bottled and put away on the larder shelves. Apart, that is, from the one vessel which made its way to the soda syphon, for tasting purposes.

So much older now than when I made that rosewater – and hopefully a little wiser – I’ve been resisting the urge to save all our preserves against a rainy day. I don’t want to find chutney from two years ago at the back of a shelf, and wonder if it is still good to eat. Of course, it almost always is, but that’s not the point. We don’t make these things to sit in jars for posterity, as evidence that summer was here and that we made the most of it. I’d rather have that proof in the form of good tastes on my tongue. Invariably, I wonder whether I have put aside enough – enough jam, enough chutney, enough bottled fruit – to last the cold months through, and invariably we are still eating it up when the following summer’s bounty flows into the kitchen once more. In this spirit, Fliss made a crumble for our Sunday roast, with the last of the blackcurrants and pears, and it was a delicious precursor of the harvests still to come. This year, for the first time, I have almost got it right. The shelves are nearly empty, bar the bottles and and jars I’ve added over the last couple of weeks. There’s one lot of plums still on hand, which I’ll use to crown a pavlova, and some bottled raspberries which will disappear the moment they grace the table. The only stumbling block is the gooseberries: we are drowning in gooseberries. Not only are we nowhere near polishing off last year’s crop; the two pounds for last week’s jam barely made a dent and the rest are swelling to enormous proportions with all this sunshine and rain. Now that the rhubarb is just about done, I’ll have to turn my culinary attentions to those lovely, prickly-sour little fruits. Perhaps John can find a recipe for gooseberry wine or spirits. After all, that’s what he did with the last lingering sticks of rhubarb. And, somehow, I don’t think that his rhubarb gin will still be hanging around in a year.

Cecily

PS – How about you – are you busy making preserves yet? What do you have an abundance of, in your part of the world? Are you still eating up any stock from previous years?

PPS – If anyone has any suggestions for what to do with all those gooseberries, please let me know. I’m particularly keen on the idea of a gooseberry chutney or relish – something to add a bit of zing to a plain cheese sandwich, or to have with cold meats or fish. Or ways of eating them fresh as part of a savoury dish. We’ll have enough sweet fools and crumbles over the next few weeks as it is!

June in a jar

12 June 1933

I don’t eat an awful lot of jam, and there are certain batches that I make purely to appease the children: blackcurrant, for example. Or a rare jar made of the tiny bilberries that stain fingers purple and teeth a pleasingly gruesome shade of grey. Mostly, though, jam is too sweet for me, and I reach past it for the marmite.

There are, however, a handful of jams that I make year in, year out, and green gooseberry and elderflower is one of them. At this time of year, when the pollen is so high that a casual passing sniff leaves yellow smears on the tip of your nose, there’s nothing for it but to give in to the heat of the kitchen on a sunny Sunday and boil up a batch of this sugary elixir. I only made a small batch – six jars, plus the inevitable part-filled jar to be eaten the next day at tea – but that’s enough. I just need to know that, tucked away on the larder shelves, is an olfactory snapshot of early June in the garden. The sort of June that 1933 is throwing our way: sunny and warm and high with promise and scent. Then, one grey and sulky January morning, I’ll open up the first. Cold from the stone shelves, it’ll barely smell at all, but smeared on a buttery crumpet the sun will begin to rise again. One bite of the sweet-tart gooseberries, the elderflower hanging mysteriously around it, will be enough. I’ll be able to shut my eyes and imagine that it’s June.

There are two other ardent fans in this house. Fliss and Ilse both love this jam almost as much as I, and surely eat far more of it. By way of encouragement, they rashly offered to pick the gooseberries for me. The recipe only calls for a couple of pounds, but these first green gooseberries are so tiny, and my request that they thin the crop so specific, that they quickly came to me with their regrets. Fliss weighed their first scant attempt to both their great dismay, but off they traipsed for more. Really, that’s how good this jam is. In the end, they spent so much time walking up from the fruit plot at the far end of the garden that I took the scales to them, and, eventually, they reappeared, triumphant. A trip out for ices was in order, and Fliss sat quite happily under the apple tree, snipping the tops and tails off with a pair of scissors, while Ilse ran around gathering the frothiest, most exuberant blooms.

Their help made this one of the quickest batches of jam I’ve ever made: so much so that I’m tempted to make another lot next Sunday. But I don’t think I’ll find anyone to thin the gooseberries again. That is, not until another winter has reminded them of what a treat this is. I couldn’t help but notice, though, on my watering-can rounds of the garden, that the scented roses are about to bloom. Paired with the end of the rhubarb, we might soon have another taste of June stored away in the larder. A little posher, perhaps, as all things rose-scented tend to be, but it’ll all still just come from our garden.

Cecily

Taking care

This time of year is always a bit of a slog. It should be wonderful – the weather is warm, the school year nearly over, sometimes the sun even shines. But we’re not quite there yet. Ben’s exams run for the next three weeks. Fliss has a ballet exam soon, and the extra lessons that that entails. John is busy at work, getting everything in place for the Christmas chocolate frenzy. In the garden there’s lots and lots of salad, but not a great deal else. All those things that we’ve worked so hard for have not quite reached fruition, and we’re getting tired.

So I have declared the next month to be the month of Taking Care. Early nights. Good food. Jaunts out at every opportunity, for a little change of scene. Adjustments to the routine, and little treats for everyone when they least expect it.

Outside in the garden, which is so tantalisingly close to the start of the harvesting season, the weeding and watering must go on. There are plants to be staked, and successional sowings to be made. This morning I planted out ten baby fennel bulbs and two rows of fledging lettuces, before sowing more seeds indoors. And although I still pick a bowlful of lettuce each and every day, there are now rocket leaves and baby chard to add to the mix. Seb slipped out before breakfast to pick the first of the raspberries. And there are so many roses on the bush behind the hen house that I’ve filled a vase to overflowing, and more are still in bud.

By contrast, the cutting garden looks quite bare, with pale spears gladioli just breaking through the surface. Beside them, the marigolds are settling in, as are the dahlias, sweet peas, alstroemeria and starflowers. The sunflower seeds have sprouted fat dicotyledons. They are all working very hard, and would benefit from a bit more sun, and I know that there will be flowers sooner or later. To settle our impatience the bedding plants are doing splendidly in their new bed, and putting on a show in purples and pinks and blues. Better still, you can see them from the sofa in the kitchen, and from the sink, and the table, and even the back bedrooms upstairs. It’s brought the garden closer to the house, that bed of Ben’s, so that even those of us who don’t have the time to get out there every day can enjoy the pleasures of June.

Further back, the elderflowers are already beginning to brown and drop their petals. I could be rushing around, making one more batch of cordial to carry this month into the winter. But we’ve plenty of that in store, and of jam. In fact, we’re eating things up at the moment, to make room for this year’s bounty. Sunday evening saw the last jar of 1931 blackcurrants stirred into a marbled, creamy fool. The remaining spring cabbages came straight in from the patch to the pan. Jars of Emergency Pudding (a phrase the children love) mean that there are always mulled pears to satisfy that need for just a little something sweet. There will be time enough to restock those larder shelves. During the summer, when we will have nowhere to be and nothing to do but the things we choose. When a whole day’s agenda might be: Make Chutney. For now, though, we’re taking things as easy as we can, and making life comfortable. Dropping anything which isn’t strictly necessary. Slowing down. Taking care.

A change of heart

When we first dug out the veg plot, I thought it was huge. It was, compared to what I’d had at our old semi: measuring 20 by 30 feet it took me a little while to get used to caring for it all. The newly planted fruit bed beyond, of about the same size, felt almost empty with great swathes of bare earth between the blackcurrants, gooseberries, raspberries and rhubarb. We squeezed a few strawberries into the gaps, to make the most of the space while everything grew. It was marvellous.

After about three years, though, I began wishing for more. Just think, if I dug up the lawn we could probably be self-sufficient! The children made it very plain that they thought that was a terrible idea, so instead I dug up an aimless old flowerbed and started planting vegetables in there, too. They did well, and the following year we extended it.

The thing is though, that no matter how many vegetable beds I add, it’s never enough. I love them. I’d rather sit and gaze on a row of lettuces than anything, really. A well-tended veg plot is the most beautiful way to garden. Except that, all of a sudden, I’ve had a change of heart.

It started with Ilse’s little bulb garden, under the lilac. A second patch of colour in the early spring was a splash of joy, just across the lawn. So we decided to work on the patio area, and plant lots of flowers in pots. Father did so a year or two ago, and his looks glorious all summer long. Ilse and I spent Sunday afternoon arranging things and making a shopping list of plants, before collapsing into a pair of chairs we’d hauled out in the process. We made Ben admire it when he came down from the study, but although he liked it the second thing from his mouth was: you need to dig up that gravel and make a flower bed there. He was right. I’ve spent seven years walking over the patio and away from the house to get to my favourite patch at the end of the garden, and never saw how easy it would be to scrape up a bit of gravel and surround the patio with a sea of colour. He’s promised to help, as soon as his exams are over, and I can’t wait.

They say that one thing leads to another, and that everything happens in threes, which perhaps explains why I had a change of heart about that extra vegetable bed in front of the greenhouse. It’s not quite the right place for a flowerbed – not of the come-and-admire-me border-ish sort. But nor do we want it full of cabbages this year. Thus I find myself embracing an idea I never thought I’d surrender the space for: a cutting garden, providing flowers for the house. We’ve lots of young plants left over from the sowings for our pots, and what with the addition of some bulbs at the right time of year and some judicious purchases, we’ll fill it in no time.

Wandering the garden this morning, secateurs in hand, I came across a solitary aquilegia in a patch of nettles and weeds. I snipped some flowers for the house, and stopped and thought a while. It’s one of those wildlife corners, left a little rough, in between the chicken run and the hedge. I’ve tried to grow things there before, with little success, and had left it to the bees and insects. Yet all it would take is a shearing, a thick layer of newspaper and a packet of seed to turn it into a whole patch of the graceful blooms.

All of a sudden, everywhere I look, there are places for flowers in our garden. How unlike me. I suspect I’m getting old. There’ll always be a special place in my heart for the veg plot, and I’m sure it’ll remain where I spend the bulk of my gardening time. But I rather like it as it is, 600 square feet at the foot of the garden, with its lopsided pergola and battered old bench within. And much as I like sitting on our new-and-improved patio, it was to that old bench that I took my drink last night. Sitting there, under the wisteria, there were literally dozens of bees feeding on the blooms and the nettles and the fruit blossom. More birds than I could name were making their presence known. And before my very eyes the bare earth was filling up, set for a season of growth. So perhaps I’ve not had a complete change of heart. Just a shuffling around, to make room for something new.

A bit of (a) pickle

Sometimes, when I’m not quite sure what to do with a day, it can leave me a bit fed up. Listless. Fretting about things that are beyond my control. In a bit of a pickle, really. Yesterday morning was a bit like that: I’ve a few stitches in my back as the result of a (very) minor procedure and can’t stretch and bend as usual. Housework is fairly uncomfortable. Hanging out the washing is a bit sore. Stretching my arms forward around a quilting hoop is just silly. So once the hoeing was done and the essentials under control, I found myself in the drizzly garden wondering what to do next.

We’ve been having a bit of a dry spell here recently, and are getting all of April’s rain this week, along with May’s. The earth is dark and moist and just begging to be planted. Indoors, the tomatoes are ready to go out, except that the greenhouse is still full of fennel. We’ve had it braised, roasted under a joint of pork, sliced thinly into an orangey salad and still there’s more of it. I ducked in beside it to avoid the swelling raindrops and then, without further ado, pulled the lot, carried it indoors and dug out my favourite preserves book.

I remember looking at this recipe when I was first given the book and thinking that a glut of fennel sounded like a wonderful, if highly unlikely, thing. Well, I was right about part of that. All told I had three pounds of it to pickle once trimmed and chopped. The rain pattered more persistently against the kitchen window as I washed and sliced and blanched in a pot of salted water. The house filled with the scent of liquorice and, knowing how the children love to nibble it, I left a bowl of slices on the table for them to eat, like sweeties, later.

What a difference a little footling about can make to a day. That fug of barely sweetened, spicy vinegar was just what I wanted to steam up the windows. I left one ajar and the smell drifted into the garden, following me and my bucket of feathery fronds all the way to the compost. By tea time there was a row of bright jars cooling on the counter, a crop was saved from bolting and there was room in the greenhouse again. Outside it might have been bucketing but inside was cosy and spicy and acid-sweet. Really, it felt more like autumn than spring.

This morning the labelled jars are lined up in the larder, ready to be eaten with smoked mackerel and other oily fish next winter. I almost can’t wait. But then there’s the rest of spring and summer and autumn to come before that, with all the gardening and bottling that they entail. I’m in no danger of wishing that away. It’s the kind of simple pleasure that I appreciate more and more. A garden to grow things in. Good things to eat and do. A bit of pickle, to get me out of a pickle. That sort of thing. You know.

Bringing it in

Now that the garden is back under control, we can settle into our usual rhythms: a little weeding every day, some planting or staking or some other important task – just a couple of hours out there, four or five times a week. For the last couple of years I’ve made weeding the first thing I do when I step outside. I wander round all the fruit and veg beds and pull up every last little weed I can find. It’s become a habit, partly because I practised it but mainly because it works. My beds have been cleaner than they ever were before. (Just don’t peer into the corners of our garden. We call them wildlife havens, and the air above them hums with life, but most people would call them neglected, instead.)

This year, though, I’ve decided that bringing it in will be the first thing I do each day. I started on Sunday, and found four fennel bulbs to sit our joint of pork on, and a basket of the last of the sprouting broccoli, each stem slender and tender and a deep forest green. On Monday there was cherry blossom, cut from the side which overhangs a veg bed slightly, and between getting it through the back door and into a vase in the sitting room the house was strewn with petals. It was so nearly over that I almost left it out there, and only came back to it after pulling a handful of beetroot from its overwintering in the greenhouse. Half an hour later the blue sky turned black and the rain pelted down, and through the kitchen window I could see the dark sky fill with pale confetti, ripped from the dancing branches. On Tuesday there were bluebells, cut from the patch Fliss discovered self-seeding behind the compost bay (another wildlife haven), and enough little gem leaves, yet again from the greenhouse, to put one or two into everyone’s sandwiches.

There’s not a lot out there just yet, but there’s so much more than I can see standing at the kitchen sink. If I didn’t go looking I’d have missed those bluebells, and that rain would have whipped the end of the cherry blossom from under my very nose. There may not be bowlfuls of salad, but oh! what a difference a little fresh crunch makes in an April sandwich. And even if it’s only a basket of young nettles or beetroot tops to treat as chard, it’s something. I shudder to think how much I’ve missed over the years, waiting for the harvest. So that’s my springtime resolution: keep up with the weeding, and do a different, extra, task each day, but first of all, bring something – anything – in. A little harvest, each and every day. It’s absurd how much pleasure that brings me.

Under my feet

I made it into the garden this morning. It’s time for a spot of weeding, for reconnecting with my other, outside room, and taking in a little of  the newfound springtime sun. Under my feet, the lawn is soft and soggy. The brick paths of the veg bed are alternately springy with moss and slick with errant mud. I keep expecting to clear the beds for sowing but there’s so much out there, waiting to be eaten. Three dozen leeks. Ten swedes. The first tender sprouts of brocolli. A bed of winter salad, barely touched, which will soon come into its own. Tiny green cabbages which, having held on all winter, are taking off in this gentle, tentative sun. Even the greenhouse is full of out-of-season fennel, tucked in there in the autumn.

The moment I set foot outdoors the hens are at my side, tripping me up in their excitement. I’d forgotten how much fun it was to have them trail, Pied Piper style, in my wake. They follow me up and down the lawn as I admire Ilse’s winter garden, a smudge of purple from afar, up close. And when the trowel comes out they vye for top position, as close as they can get to the worms each little spadeful brings. We find a knot of them in the base of a rotting swede, enough for everyone to share. An unexpected feast. There are plenty to go around. In fact, I think there are more this year than ever before, and certainly more than when we first dug out our veg patch. I like to think of them all, burrowing through the good earth, helping the garden grow.

Soon we must erect a hen-proof fence, and sow the first seeds in the warming soil. For now, new life sprouts in the airing cupboard before being moved to a bright windowsill, safe from that little gang of hooligans with their scratching claws, keen beaks and destructive bathing habits. But we can’t hold on forever. Spring is on its way. I can see it in the blooms on nude branches, the nodding daffodils, the crocuses which open their hearts to the sun. In the softening outdoor air. And in the moist dark soil which whispers promises to me from just under my feet.

Pottering with a purpose

The younger children have exactly three trips planned this half term: one morning in town with pocket money and book tokens to spend; one afternoon out with Mother – a trip to the Castle Museum followed by afternoon tea; and one day out in the motor, all together, for a walk or a wander in an as yet unselected location.

All are suitably vague for a holiday which is, in this house at least, all about rest and recuperation. We’ve adopted a let’s see how we feel on the day approach to everything beyond the garden gate. As long as they get out at regular intervals to stretch their legs and have a change of scene, I’m happy. So far there has been dressing up, board game playing, the making of pouches for survival kits, the start of a new manuscript, and much reading. They are expert potterers, able to entertain themselves for days on end with self-dreamed projects and pastimes.

All of which is extremely fortunate, as my own pottering has rather more of a timetable attached to it. Why do I always end up with so much I want to do, each half term? It isn’t as though any if it is terribly important, even, this time around. Honestly, one of my aims was to replicate the coffee cake my mother-in-law baked last week. Frivolous, yes – but I never make the time to ice my cakes in term time, so it seemed the perfect treat for Friday afternoon when the children came home with mounds of muddy sportswear and that start-of-the-holidays glee. Truth be told, it only happened because I wrote it down. Friday morning: clean house with Mrs P. Friday lunchtime: bake coffee and walnut cake. Friday afternoon: pop to haberdashers for thread, bias binding and elastic. Ice cake. Come half past four all was well with the world.

The list goes on, and more is ticked off each day. Sewing, knitting, seeing the odd friend. Preparing for spring in the garden. It’s all pottering, only I know what I want to achieve each day. With only a week off school, I like to have my time mapped out in a vaguely purposeful way. We still get up a little later, and take a lacksidaisical approach to daytime meals (a favourite part of holidaying, to me). But I can immerse myself in each and every moment knowing that, by the end of the week, I’ll have done all that I hoped to.

Needless to say, plans change all the time, but there’s plenty of room for improvements. Ilse has a new task, for which she’ll need a spot of supervision: bunny-sitting a certain rabbit named Sparkles who lives a few doors down. Popping along the street on certain days to check his water and have a few cuddles while we’re at it? I’m sure we can squeeze that in. In fact, that seems to be the epitome of pottering with a purpose.

Veg

Perhaps it’s a symptom of age, but I love veg. I love crisp green leaves and sticky roasted parsnips, beans that squeak and savoys with their little pockets full of gravy. Best of all, I love veg from my own patch, dug out of the mud on a damp January morning, crisp and vital against all the odds.

Yesterday I dug two swedes for the pot, and four leeks. I pulled a couple of our own red onions from the basket – not many left now – and added a few carrots and a bit of celery from the greengrocer’s. By the time I’d put all that veg in the pot there was no room left for the beef, so I popped it in the oven to cook down in a bit of stock, with a few dried herbs for flavour, and added the meat an hour or so later. I could smell it all afternoon – the beef, yes, but also the earthy sweetness of the winter veg and the mild tang of the onion and leek. We had it for supper, with mustard seed dumplings for those with hollow legs, and I felt better and better with each bite.

It’s all I really want to eat, just now, which is a good thing as there is quite a lot still standing in the beds, and the earliest new harvest is just beginning to emerge. I spied the first purple bud of brocolli today. Those winter salad leaves I planted under cover are cropping well now that the light is back, and the beetroot and Florence fennel I planted late and neglected to thin out are having a little winter growth spurt in their unusual cold frame home. An unorthodox method, perhaps, but it seems to be working and if it does I’ll be bottling fennel in March.

Just now, though, I’m pleasantly surprised by how much the winter fields and garden have to offer. I made a celeriac soup for our club this week, with celery and celery seeds to triple its sombre savouriness. There are leftover sprouts to add the the pan with butter and eggs in the morning (it’s delicious, I assure you), and overwintering salad onions to add a zing to anything you like. There are creamily delicate cauliflowers to smother with cheese, and mounds of mashed swede and carrots. Simple foods, homemade and more often than not homegrown, but never boring. There’s almost always something new, something that’s not been tasted since it was last in season. While I was out with my fork yesterday I glanced across at the stumps of the Jerusalem artichokes, cut down on our day in the garden at Christmas. We’ve not had so much as a bite of them yet. Time for them to take their place in the winter menu. Lovely.

Feast

The new year started with a feast, which is by far the best way to start a year, to my mind. I can take or leave the seeing out of the old year – I was reading in bed when 1931 slipped away – but I like to see the new year in with a special meal and plans for the months ahead.

Mother cooked this year: one of her spectacular meals where the whole afternoon slowly unfolds into course after course, with brief rests in between. There was salmon and salad to start, followed by a ham and vegetables, then two puddings and finally, before heading home, apple pie and crackers and cheese. We certainly needed our walk up the hill afterwards, and I was glad I’d skipped breakfast.

Instead, I’d used the morning free from cooking or eating to look to the months ahead. I don’t make resolutions, but I do make lists and sketches and plans. The garden has been mapped out for the coming spring, and the order form in the back of the seed catalogue carefully filled in and dropped in a postbox on our way to my parents’ house. Onions and leeks, swedes and parsnips, broccoli and broad beans and a whole new bed for salads: 1932 will hopefully be slow revelation of the seasons through the tastes and textures of the veg patch. After an icy day out there last week, the garden is ready and waiting for the days to grow long again, and I can hardly wait.

It’ll be a while though, which is why I’ve made other plans for the meantime. A list of sewing and knitting I’d like to work through in the dark evenings between now and then. Pot holders and bookmarks and birthday cards, two blouses and new school dresses for the girls. My annual summer frock. The pair of socks I’ve just begun, and a cardigan for Mrs Eve’s baby, and another jumper for Ben and something pretty and lacy for myself. Will I get it all done? I doubt it. But I’d rather have too much in my plate than too little, especially when the days lend themselves to gloom and and chill and inertia.

That wasn’t something I had a problem with on the First. There was plenty on all of our plates, and stories of our Christmases to share, and the next few weeks to talk about. I hope you too have plenty to look forward to, this coming year. Happy new year. Welcome to 1932.