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!

In my hands, by my bed

One of the things that I love about John is his habit of choosing me books. He watches the pile on my bedside table, topping it up when it gets low. Usually it’s a stack from the library, but last week, as a half-term treat, he came home with a brand new one, leaving it by my bed for me to find when we went up.

He knows me well. I go through phases of being fascinated by stuff, the objects that we surround ourselves with. In my dreams, and in our holiday-going reality, we travel light,  throwing a few essentials into a day sack: a change of clothes, a passport, a bar of soap. The thought of having too much is suffocating, and yet I can see how people find comfort in the things which surround them. We all do; we’d be lying if we claimed otherwise.

The Life of Stuff is a family memoir, probing the generations through the things they loved and the hoard they left behind. Its lays out a pattern of family tragedy which repeats itself through the generations, and the author’s determination to change things, to be different. It left me wondering whether my own relative lack of interest in stuff comes from the fact that we moved a lot when I was growing up. Home is where the family is, regardless of continent or climate or whether the container with our chattels has arrived.

The stuff I love is functional: quilts and clothes, trowels and teacups. The things I make are always about keeping us warm, fed and comfortable. They are made, they are used, they fall apart. New things take their place.

I wore my favourite white jumper into oblivion last winter, and so a new one is on my needles. The pattern is one I’m developing for release this autumn, comfortable and warm and easy to throw on. And although my tester will be making it from commercial yarn, mine is knit from my own yarn, raised by my aunt, sheared by my cousin, spun soft and light and woolen by me. That’s the sort of story the things in my family tend to tell. Well made, well loved, and, one day, well worn. The stuff of comfort.

Joining in with Ginny’s Yarn Along at Small Things

Madeleine

PS – If anyone fancies reading The Life of Stuff once John and I have finished, drop me a line and I’ll send it your way. UK readers only, I’m afraid, because, well, postage.

PPS – Thank you all so much for coming back, subscribing and reading again after my long hiatus. It really does mean an awful lot to me. Your ‘welcome back’ comments had me smiling for days.

For Mother’s Day

For Mothers’ Day this year I had a lingering illness which might have ruined the day but for the gifts I received. They were carried in with the morning tea tray: a little handmade coaster, a bag of Pontefract cakes and a voucher. Oh, they know what I like, and what’s on my mind just now. They know I’d like nothing better than to be out in this glorious sunshine, setting the garden to rights, and that I just don’t feel up to it. So nothing could have been better than their voucher promising me a day’s labour out there. I don’t mind how many times they’ve given me this gift; I’ve never loved it more than I did this Sunday.

For my part, I did some fiddly little jobs – pricking out the tomatoes, pushing the onion sets into trays of compost to bring on indoors for a while. John cleaned out the hens and mowed the lawn and built an urgently required chicken-proof fence. Ben spread compost on the beds and turned the newer heaps onward through the bays. The younger three fetched and carried and helped out wherever and whenever they were needed, and from their bare feet and and legs and arms you’d have thought it was high summer.

I took Seb in the motor to visit my own mother with the gift of a bowl of violas. All the talk of allotments with Father sent me home keen to visit my own space: just a little amble, nothing more. John and I cut a basket of tender brocolli before the buds split into yellow blooms. We noticed that the damson has burst its first white tender bud. And when we opened the door of the greenhouse, the aniseed fragrance of fennel spilled out into the cooler, outdoor air.

In the last hour before supper I carried a rug and my old chocolate tin of seeds out to the garden bench. There’s something very pleasing about making a list of what needs to be planted when, and what’s already in. It made me disproportionately happy. Around me, the day dissolved from industry to play. The children soaked themselves in one last water fight before their baths; John hammered in the last stake; an easy Sunday roast was on its way. Thanks to them, I can sow the next lot of seeds as soon as I like, in the freshly composted beds now safe behind the fence. I needn’t worry about the height of the lawn. And no, nobody wanted to do the weeding for me, even if it was Mothering Sunday, but that’s all right. I’ve had a whole day of gardening despite feeling under the weather, and more has been accomplished than I could ever have achieved alone. And they did it all quite willingly. I couldn’t really ask for anything more for Mothers’ Day.

On Liberty, and love

Whatever happens, people will always want chocolate. As a result, we’ve been largely untouched by the depression. The chocolate industry, and John’s role in it, have grown rather than shrunk over the past decade or so. All those Kitkats and Aeros have kept a comfortable roof over our heads and good food on the table. And although I am careful with my spending, I can afford to treat myself to a Liberty print now and again.

It’s easy to be happy, when everything is going well. My day yesterday consisted largely of taking apart a well loved and washed out blouse to trace a pattern from it, before putting the navy silk aside for other purposes. I arranged the pattern pieces on the bias and began to cut everything out, pot of tea on the table, wireless on in the background. After a while the news came on, and with it people who were so sure that they were right that they never even paused to hear the other side speak.

It was at this point that I discovered I’d cut two identical sleeve pieces, which was a mistake, as they ought to be mirror images of one another. The whole blouse had been a bit of a squeeze, really, and to my dismay there wasn’t a scrap left large enough to cut another piece. So I stitched three pieces together with careful French seams which should be reasonably well hidden under my left arm. Far from perfect, but far from a disaster, either. These things happen. I don’t think I’ll make that particular mistake again, for a while at least.

Had it been a cheaper, less nice fabric I might not have bothered. I might have cut it down at once into a blouse for Fliss or Ilse, and pretended I’d never gone wrong. But I love Liberty too much to let it go.

And besides, we do go wrong, sometimes. But rarely so far wrong that a little love and care can’t put it right. I can’t help thinking that we could do with a little more love all around, at the moment. A touch of understanding and patience for angry people. A dash of agape, of wishing the best for everyone, including those we might disagree with. Perhaps especially for those who are unhappy. Now there’s a challenge for me, far greater than a spot of dressmaking. And although it is hardly an original thought, it’s a pretty important one, here in 1932.

Is it winter yet?

As long as I have known John, which is a very long time now, we have disagreed over the naming of the seasons. To me, a sunny day in May spells summer. Flowering bulbs and a break in the frost means spring, even if it’s only February. And winter starts around the middle of November, when lightweight macs are relegated to the backs of cupboards and the last of the summer shoes are hibernating, polished leather against crumpled tissue, in their boxes under the stairs. I can’t wait for the next season to begin, can hardly sleep for hoping for the spring. Were I in charge, summer would begin in March and last until October. And if November isn’t winter yet, then I dread to think how cold it’s going to get.

John likes to name the seasons by the book. Winter, apparently, does not begin until the setting of the solstice sun. Spring comes in March; autumn in September. And not just at the start of each named month, but on the 21st, and not a minute sooner. He measures his days by the calendar, which is reasonable enough, I suppose, but not sane enough for me.

For me, winter is when toddlers chug up and down the street, blowing steam out of their engines. It’s when even Ben asks if we might light the fire, and I can serve stew three times in a week without anyone complaining. Winter starts when the Christmas crafting does, and the last of the tomatoes’ blackened stems has been hauled off to the compost. When the hens have to be away by four o’ clock for fear of the fox. When the children bother to come back for mislaid gloves.

If I want to take the only sunny day in January and call it spring, I will, and I’ll enjoy it all the more. One swallow definitely makes a summer. In fact, the only season I will not rush towards is autumn. Lovely in itself, it spells the end of my long summers and I hold it at arm’s length as long as I possibly can. That’s why it’s the shortest season of them all, only hanging around as long as the brown leaves on the trees. What with the wind and the rain of the last few days, those have all been blown away. So call it a month early, if you must, but I’m fairly certain winter’s here at last.

Tesselations

There have been page after page of tesselations floating around the house of late. Fliss learned to draw these interlocking patterns from her mathematics mistress and Ilse, spotting the bright sheets of gridded paper, demanded to know how they were done. Ever patient, Fliss taught her sister to draw interconnected crosses three squares wide, and pick each element out in a different colour. Then they moved on to dogs, each one standing on the back of the next so that they rose in diagonal towers across the page. Then came the moment of glory, when Ilse made up her own simple pattern and it worked. When I’m grown up, she announced, and I build a house of my own, this will be the hall floor.

The lives of the six of us, in and out of this house, are a tesselation of their own. They are more than the sum of their parts, and, when all is well, they fit together into a lovely seamless pattern. I see it more at this time of year than any other: when it’s chilly in the bedrooms and so we gather around the fire. When there’s still novelty in indoor pursuits and no-one is fed up with the same games, the same stories, the same selection of crafts. Last night, Ben lit the fire while I got the tea things ready. I sat down with a final cup once the scones had all been eaten, and found the boys engrossed in a game of chess. The girls were drawing more tesselating patterns together. Tea drunk, it was time to give Seb and Fliss their flute lesson, and for Ben to make a start on his prep. Ilse was happy with the shoebox of colouring pencils until Seb was free to join her, while Fliss went off to write an essay on Tennyson. By the time John came home, supper was ready, prep was done, and the children had a fresh stack of patterns for him to admire. It was one of those lovely evenings when everything fitted tidily together.

Of course, not all evenings are quite as neat. Often the things we do jar and clash against each other. Show me a family that doesn’t know that feeling. But once in a while everything fits, just so. The tasks which need to be done fall into place alongside the all important play. Everyone wants to join in the same games, to make the same music, to draw the same pretty patterns. Those rare evenings are worth taking the time to enjoy. And of course, the cherry on the cake was that the patterns the children were drawing summed it up just perfectly.

Swallows and Amazons

There’s been a lot of dreaming about Wild Cat Island in recent months. A lot of den building behind the sofa and at the end of the garden. A lot of packing of knapsacks and traipsing round the house to Rio and back. A lot of pemmican, and grog, and buttered eggs. The stitching of swallows on flags. Piratical attacks. Midnight raids.

At longed-for last, these Swallows headed off with their Daddy – who fortunately didn’t have to be on a ship in the South China Sea – to the Lake District, while I stayed at Holly Howe to look after Vicky (or my vegetables, at least). Three days later, they were back, having had enough adventures to write a novel of their own – which Titty set about at once. Not having been with them, I can only report their travels as they were described to me. A voyage on a ferry to a distant island in the sea, where they camped in the ruins of a castle and made friends with the native children. Post supper swims off the pier. Visits to Rio for supplies, before heading up to base camp, carrying all that they might need. Sleeping halfway up Kanchenjunga, and waking to make the dawn ascent. Searching the cairns for messages from earlier explorers – and, finding none, knowing they were the very first to set foot upon that crest. Returning to civilisation in time to fish for sharks, before the long paddle steamer home across the seven seas.

As I say, I wasn’t there, but I believe what I read in the company’s log. For a little while, at least, they all got to be Swallows: living for the summer, flitting freely about the English countryside. Wild camping in the hills, and messing about in boats. Stories in books are wonderful. Stories shared with friends and siblings, acted out in boats made from apple crates, are even better. And stories recreated in the place where they are set – in the hills and waters set aside for us all to enjoy? They’re the very best of all, apparently.

 

A proper picnic

Come August the moors turn purple. The sun lights up the landscape in patches, falling through windows in the cloud. The rowans are laden with red, the bracken is at its full height, and the gorse is, as ever, in flower. But it is the purple heather I like best: great swathes of it splashed across the tops, broken only by a prow of Yorkshire gritstone here and there.

There are lots of places more classically beautiful – I know that, I’ve seen many – but nothing quite compares to the moors in August. It is still bleak, still hard country to scrape a living from. For great stretches there is nothing, and then a long, low farmhouse comes into sight, and then there is nothing again. Small villages huddle in shallow dales, trees twisted by the wind. Sheep wander freely: Swaledales with their curled horns and black faces. Sheep and pheasants, fattened for the kill, and the hovering birds of prey who have spotted something small and living we could never see. This is an old landscape, constant over centuries, changeable by the hour.

It was here that we took a picnic – a proper picnic, in celebration of John’s fortieth. A family picnic seemed just the thing, and the last time he’d had such a thing for his birthday was thirty four years ago, when he was six. Oh, to have an August birthday. The outings and excursions, holidays and lazy days in the garden that such lucky people have, each year. He always lets us share it with him. This year it was properly hot – almost too hot to sit still on the blanket in the midday sun. Nobody really wanted to, anyway, given that the bilberries were ripe. Lips, fingers and chins were stained purple long before the hamper had even been opened, and it took little persuasion to get the children to collect a few more for jam while John and I spread the rug. We had a late luncheon in the heather – pork pies with piccalilli, sandwiches with bully beef and relish, tomatoes from the garden and cool green cucumber cut into sticks for nibbling. A pause was most certainly necessary, and so out came the books and the playing cards, the whittling knives and the knitting. Nearby boulders were examined and attempted, low paths in the flora wriggled through on bellies, siblings jumped out on before they could get ‘home’.

Yet ‘home’ they all came when they saw me sandwiching blackcurrant fool between the layers of a Victoria sponge. It being a birthday cake, we poked candles into its top, and sang before we cut it. Such simple celebrations are very often the best. A slab of cake – or maybe two – on a proper cloth napkin, with tea in a proper china cup and proper grog for the little ones? Proper French bubbles in proper champagne saucers, followed by a most improper nap in the middle of the moor? Now, that’s what I call a proper picnic.

Tipple

When we moved into this house, we found a number of things left about the place by the previous owners. Some of them were useful: lots of bamboo canes, for instance. Some were less so: the twisted goal posts and rusted wheelbarrows, unearthed when we cleared the bramble jungle. One of the better finds was a stash of demijohns, neat and dusty on a set of shelves, the remains of someone or other’s home-brew ambitions. We took this as an invitation to have a go.

Some things have gone mouldy, and been chucked out. Others have been enjoyed. More have been dreamt up than have been made. Eighteen months ago, though, faced with a bumper elderberry harvest, I decided the time was right to try a classic country wine. I boiled it and stirred it and mixed in the sugar and yeast. I poured it into the demijohns and was amused to find a row of children watching the bubbles rise, rise, then break through the airlocks. Then I put them in the shed, and never racked them off.

There’s been a flurry of spring cleaning, around here. The shed has been emptied and swept out, spider webs dealt with, garden tools sharpened and oiled. I dusted off three demijohns of wine,  wondered briefly what to do with them, and put them back. And there they sat until John, inspired by the last of the forced rhubarb, pulled them out. We tasted it (with some trepidation) and pronounced it really quite nice. A sort of fruity dry sherry, clear and rosy against the light. Perhaps, just perhaps, we were more inclined to like it than most. I don’t think I’ll inflict it on any guests, unless they truly want to try it. But we like it, and I’ll be making it again, this autumn.

In the meantime, John has filled a couple more containers with the type of tipple he is best at. So now there is rhubarb liqueur slowly infusing beside last year’s sloes. Day by day, the colour leaches from the fruit into the liquid, so that the drink turns pink while the rhubarb slowly fades to white. A few more days, a few more turns, and it can be put away for a while.

There are gardeners who raise whole allotments of parsnips or gooseberries each year with the sole purpose of making wine. I’m interested, but not that keen. When it comes to home made drinks, I’m definitely a dabbler. A little here, a little there, a bit of experimentation. I’d like to try an ale, soon. And an elderflower champagne.

In the meantime, there are drinks to be made which are best drunk straight away. Ilse brought me a doll’s teacup of cold mint water the other day, and very refreshing it was, too. I’ll make mint syrup as soon as there’s enough of it. In the meantime, I like to add a sprig or two to a cup of black tea. Warm and sweet and freshly herby, it’s the perfect brew for this time of year.

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This is how

Some people show their love by cooking, or buying thoughtful gifts, or perhaps doing the washing up. I knit.

I cook and clean and sew as well, of course. I grow vegetables, and leave plants and flowers around the house. Some of these things bring me great pleasure. Others just need to be done. And there’s no denying that to sew for someone – or, better, with someone – or to bake a cake and watch your child lick the bowl, is a great joy. A shared joy, and a quick one. Over in an hour, or an afternoon, much to everyone’s satisfaction.

But to show my love, I knit. There is something about those stitches, one after another, sometimes counting, sometimes entirely elsewhere, which is, for me at least, a sign of something more. It isn’t always because knitting takes a long time: a baby hat can be whipped up in an evening. Nor is it about the beauty of the finished product: a knitted dishcloth expresses the same feeling.

Perhaps it has something to do with the solitary nature of it. Knitting is not a collaborative activity. Sociable, perhaps, but not collaborative. Which leaves a lot of time to think about the person you are knitting for, and the qualities of the wool, and how the finished product might look on them.

So many women start to knit in earnest when they have babies. Baby things are small, and quick, which is a blessing when you only have short nap times in which to seize the needles. We then move on to older children and perhaps ourselves. A few pullovers later, our stamina builds, and we are ready for the big one.

It took me many years before John got his cardigan. Hats, yes. Mitts, scarves, socks – absolutely. But that cardigan was a long time coming.

I started it in the spring, sitting in the sun under the tiny bright green leaves of the wisteria. I had a woollen rug around me and I was full of ambition. Two pattern repeats a day, I think I promised myself. It was to be done by June.

The following March found me on the beach at Sand’s End, still knitting. The same rug was spread beneath me, and I was ostensibly minding the picnic things while John and the children skimmed pebbles over the slate grey sea. They threw sticks for dogs, on walks, and ran about, and shouted. I huddled in my hat and scarf, back to the wind, knitting 408 stitches of collar one way, and then the other. After two long rows my fingers were numb and I went to warm them between John’s hands.

It was far and away my biggest project. I’d broken off twice: once for new school jumpers for Fliss and Seb, and again for a thick aran pullover for myself. I was nearly there, though, and that kept me going, until one day it was done.

Every so often I find it draped over the back of a wooden chair, or left in a heap on the floor. Sometimes I have to brush bits of grass or other signs of his day from it. Perhaps I ought to mind. It took a long time to make.

But I don’t. I don’t because I can see that he loves wearing it, and to nag would change that. I don’t because I know a snag or hole can be mended. Because I have no doubt that this knit will still be around forty years from now. All those children’s jumpers, the hats and socks and baby knits, will have been long since lost or worn out or passed on to younger cousins. I will have frogged my own knits to make something fit for a new phase of my life. But that cardigan will be a constant.

I’ll find it on the back of a chair one day. John, I’ll say, you really must let me throw this old thing out. He’ll shake his head at me. You see, this is how it works. I knit things, he wears them, and we both know what it means.

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