Monday, November 12, 2007

A November Bumblebee

It was on an early November day that I looked out of the window to see a large bumblebee (female for sure) stumbling around on the pavement in a distressed condition. She was lethargic, resting for spells to regain strength, and unsure of direction.
So I went out to collect her in a small tumbler, and took her through the house to the garden behind.
Was she dying of old age? Had she been hit and stunned by a passing car? Or was she just winding down from her summer endeavours and looking for a warm spot where she could hibernate for the winter out of the cold and wet?
Bumblebees have always been my friends. I still love them, even having been stung by one as a youth. An uncle, high up in the church, told me that it was perfectly all right to pick up an angry bumblebee that was trying to escape through the window glass at his fine 18th century vicarage. The sting I got in the finger for my coming to its aid was a slight prick that drew just a little blood. Then, slowly, my hand and then arm suffered from a form of paralysis. Fortunately the condition stopped at my shoulder. I still loved bumblebees but it put me off religion for good.
Bumblebees of the size I had recovered are females. As I understand it, they emerge from hibernation in March each year to find a home (usually in a woodpile or mouse hole) to raise a family.
They do far more good at pollinating flowers than the same number of honeybees, as they will fly around in the rain when honeybees wont.
Inside Dutch greenhouses are little nest boxes for bumblebees. These insects are reliable pollinators and much treasured.
Because of my fondness for this delightful creature, I have built 4 potential winter homes for them, one being based on the Dutch design. I have had no luck to date and do not really expect to be successful as bumblebees have minds of their own and seldom do what we want them to do.
So I introduced my new found friend (I love the way they crawl on the hand) to each one of my boxes, putting her head into the holes provided, and giving her a gentle push from behind as encouragement. She did not like any of them.
So I introduced her to the rather inviting holes in the occhielloni (hypocaust design bricks). No luck.
I put her in a corner of the garden where there are dark crannies and dried leaves near to flowerpots. She walked out into the open.
I was pleased when she crawled (very slowly) beneath the shed/summer house. But by the following morning she was out once more. With her aimless sense of direction she might walk in circles and fall into cracks between the flagstones, often ending upside down. But she was able to right herself and climb out.
By now I had noticed deterioration in her condition – increasing slowness, more resting, and possibly diminished size.
So I told her that she could winter in our shed. I put her in a snug corner. She came out immediately and started to climb – anything. So, thinking that she might want to hibernate at altitude, I found a warm, wooden shelf for her, high up. She fell down right away, and made off in the general direction of the door.
I now took a large flowerpot and filled it with dried leaves and sticks – making it look and feel as near to a woodpile as I could. This I laid on its side, wedged between a bucket of soil and a brick wall.
I’m afraid that I rather pushed her into a cavity of my “woodpile” and added some dried leaves after her to block out the light.
She did not come out, nor did I see her anywhere the following day.
Is she well? Is she happy? Is she asleep for the winter? Or is she dead? I really don’t know. But I care – very much.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Chicken and Swede

Here is a cheap, simple and peasant-like dish, elevated to dinner party status by a spirited addition. This dish is almost invariably a huge success.


You will need:
Swede (rutabaga)
Stock (optional)
Pepper and salt
Ouzo, Pernod or another aniseed spirit. Or star aniseed. Or other liqueur or spirit.
Boned chicken thighs (or legs)
Olive oil
Milled pepper

Pare away the outer skin of a swede or two, or more. Cut the flesh into smallish cubes Cover them with water or stock and boil for 20 to 30 minutes - or until soft. If you are using star aniseed instead of an aniseed spirit, add three stars to the water in which you are boiling the swede. Discard them when the swede has been boiled.
Pour off the cooking water for later-to-be-enjoyed soup.
Mash the swede with butter, pepper and salt.
Now stir in a measure (say, a dessertspoon) of Ouzo, Pernod, Ricard, or other aniseed spirit.
Cover the bottom of an ovenproof dish with the mashed swede.
Take chicken thighs (better than legs) from which you have extracted the single, central bone (if you have done this earlier, put the bones in with the swede when you are boiling it to obtain extra flavour). Keep the skin on the thigh pieces and roll them into bundles before arranging them (one large or two small per person) on top of the mashed swede. If boning chicken legs, also discard the sharp bone lying close to the leg bone and use kitchen scissors to trim away the little white ends of tendon. Wrap in their skin, as with thighs.
When they are in position, dribble or brush a little olive oil over each. Add salt, and give them a good milling of black pepper from the pepper mill.
If it is more convenient, the preparation can be done well before the dish is ready for the oven. Give it about an hour and a half at a medium setting (longer seems to make little difference, so it is an excellent dish might you be late or very late to eat). Anyhow, after the chicken skin has become crisp and golden, the dish will be ready for the table.
That's it. And it's a stunner. Serve on its own, or with baked or mashed potato, or beans, or a salad, or...
Perhaps you do not like the taste of aniseed. It is possible to use any spirit or liqueur for this excellent dish. Use your favourite, or any at hand. Grand Marnier, for instance, is excellent.
I have also made this dish with mashed potato instead of swede, and it was excellent. I flavoured the mash with pressed garlic and de-seeded red chillies finely chopped.