Saturday, April 23, 2011

London Garden Update, Spring 2011

The great advantage of growing most things in pots on a flagstone surface is that it is possible to create a much re-shaped garden each year. And a quantity of bricks and building blocks enables you to raise or lower tubs of flowers and vegetable crops.

A not-too-successful feature last year was a focal-point pot, designed with side apertures for growing strawberries. For strawberries it was somewhat of a failure. For trailing geraniums it was a modest success. Now, for real geraniums (actually pelargoniums) I have higher hopes. Before, I have planted flowers in its open top. This is now capped with a rustic pottery birdbath – one that used to lie on the ground.

When this bath was on the flagstones, and partly shielded by pots of rocket, herbs and busy lizzies, the bathing birds were vulnerable to surprise cat attack. Now, at the cost of privacy, they can have an all-round view when bathing, to see if predators lurk to pounce.

Another good reason for positioning the bath high up on its brick-based strawberry pot as the centre point, is that the more vigorous bathers, like blackbirds, spray the water down on to growing plants around it, instead of the useless watering of flagstones.

The pelargoniums, bought as small plants, are now growing in the place of strawberries, though very young, look happy already. I will rotate the pot during the summer, to give all plants in its circumference a measure of sunshine (our garden only getting morning sun).

The other major change this year is that we are growing more runner beans, having discovered that when harvested at under 6” long they are the tastiest and tenderest of beans.

For them this year I have constructed a bamboo arbour. The beans will grow up 9 bamboos on a wall, then move south over the top of the bamboo arbour, which, because of its asymmetry, looks not unlike the strings of a grand piano. The beans will then be harvested from below.

The “piano” is supported on one side by the 9 wall bamboos, and on the other by 6 vertical bamboos (making it asymmetrical) that rise from sacks of soil in which tomatoes will be grown. These are still in pots, having been grown indoors from seed since March.

The pieris (always our ever-changing and spectacular plant) had become a bit straggly over the years. It has been pruned right back, leaving a few branches of yellow/green leaves in the hope that new bushy growth will spring from low down.

The same treatment has been meted out to the mahonia – for the same reason – hoping for new bushy growth to appear.

It has been somewhat of a winter of violence, as major grapevine rods have been dispensed with, and the apple and pear trees (both in pots) have been cut back severely.

So this season will be one of re-growth for several specimens. Tulips are no longer grown. There are more carrots. And there is one bucket-experiment of main crop potatoes (pink fir apple), besides the successful two of past years for new potatoes (charlotte).

My large wooden sculpture in the garden of lovers was found to be standing on hardwood slats that had rotted. These supports have been replaced by angle aluminium (sprayed brown).

Inspection beneath the sculpture revealed much hidden rot. A lot of this has been extracted, and the wood hardened and treated. It was mainly the heartwood that had rotted. I took out as much of this crumbling rotted wood as I could, sticking my arm up, roughly in the way that we see vets on television doing at the nether regions of cows.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

(Delayed) travel blog to Dieppe in September 2010

Do you mind travelling with us again?

I often think how nice it would be to ask people on a Channel crossing who they were and why they were crossing.

The majority of passengers are in pairs, looking, at this time of year when schools have started again, like grandparents in need of a break and a rest. The couples look very much alike.

An elderly bald-headed man in rust coloured sweater reads a paper with deep concentration. His female companion has hair that stands up like bristles on a broom.

Their food tray is bereft of anything edible. The plastic sandwich cover lies open and empty. Several little milk pots rest where they fell near to two empty cups.

A pen and two spectacle cases lie on the table next to a dog-eared copy of a book of crossword puzzles.

Beside these items lies a new novel that has been partly read by a person who does not respect a book’s binding. So some of its pages look as if they have seen better days, and the unread part remains pristine as if direct from the publishers.

A part filled plastic bottle of water stands next to an open handbag made of fake ostrich skin.

The French coast has appeared on the horizon, but they are unaware of it.

There must be a draught falling down inside a large, rain-spattered sheet of glass behind them because she has donned a pullover/cardigan to add warmth to the rough-knitted under garment of many colours. This multi-coloured under-top confection looks not unlike cotton waste, used by engineers to wipe away grease.

Where are they going? Who knows.

Looking down over a balcony to the deck beneath, two travellers have laid out sleeping bags on the floor. Arab-looking, they appear as if they might wake up from their slumbers and start a fire to heat mint tea. Perhaps they are on their way to Morocco. But they are not there for long. Stewards have told them to behave and sit down.

A mackintosh-clad granny talks to a young girl dressed in blue jeans, orange top and fake fur jacket. They could be going home to France. They, too, have a crossword book open. It might be in French.

As one peers around, people look rather drab. Where are those elegant English we sometimes see on their way to a farmhouse in the Dordogne or villa in Provence? We see none aboard, even those with cabins for the journey who appear just before landing to await orders to regain their cars deep below.

In Dieppe we only see the unstylish and the dull – all black and brown. Where is this much-vaunted French chic? I did query this state of affairs once on Paris, to be told that the good-looking Parisienne ladies are not seen abroad, but are ferried to their shopping expeditions and smart homes by chauffeurs in grand cars.

In this new France I miss the past pungent smell of yellow Gitanes cigarettes and corridor and restaurant WCs, where one stood feet apart and hoped that nothing would drop into the large hole beneath and be lost to those famous French sewers.

BUT, fleas do still exist in France. Margreet was bitten almost as soon as we set foot in Dieppe.

We rather pride ourselves on locating good food in France at a reasonable price. We returned first to a favourite restaurant at the side of the yachting marina. But the waitress there had turned surly. There was none of the usual smiling service. How sad. The staff were angry with each other. And it showed. Of course, this attitude was reflected in their service. It rather spoiled our meal. But if one restaurant is crossed off our list, another is sure to appear to take its place. And there remains our favourite – and the cheapest – where we eat lunch early with scrubbed-up workmen. The meal consists of four courses and unlimited red wine and cider - for just over £10 a head. This shed-like eating place is in the bleak badlands of Dieppe, where the docks are sterile with only a pile of coal and some wind generator blades to hint of commerce.

But change does take place. A favourite restaurant of old was being taken over by new owners after many years of a lovely couple providing us with real French café/restaurant food. It will not be the same place without them, and being a little out of the way I don’t expect we will even give it a trial.

We chose to visit Dieppe this time just after the Retro festival of old cars, and before the International Kite Festival. Both are great fun but it is sometimes difficult to get a room during the festivities, and the port is crowded.

After many years (probably 60 for me) of staying in a room overlooking the town, we have now upgraded to one that overlooks the sea and any festival that is positioned on the enormous grass-covered plage. Because it is generally windy in Dieppe, there are usually kites flying between us and the sea. Moreover, on this occasion there was the added bonus sight from our panoramic windows of over a hundred geese flying south – in a rather ragged formation. And there were four late-migrating swallows jagging past our window – also going south. To the west the sun sets over the sea, creating glorious patterns and colours in the sky as it sinks below the horizon. When the sky is overcast, the colour of the sea is yellow near to the stony shore, changing to pale green, and then blue on the horizon. Sometimes all or some of this panorama disappears behind the rain from storm clouds. When we have eaten too much lunch we may have an evening picnic in our room, now with a fascinating and changing land and seascape as a backdrop.

For choice of restaurant food, I always pick at least one plateful of fruits de mer (mixed shellfish, cooked and raw), and being in a port famous for its fish, a fish of the day. Preferring carralet (plaice), I tried sea bream this time, but found it to have too many bones. Margreet often chooses steak, which, true to French custom, is tasty but chewy. We did once select an expensive wine, but the carafe white and red is always adequate. At least no one says “enjoy” when food is delivered to the table.

One of the main reasons for our short holiday trips across the Channel is to stock up on wine for home consumption. Whereas costs of most things in France escalate (and to worry about it would spoil a holiday break), wine is still splendid value. We buy a selection for £2.50 or less per bottle at one supermarket and even cheaper wine at another. To this we add some Normandy cider to feed the cider vinegar jar at home, and a selection of olive oil, though French oil is hard to come by.

On our last day, with little room left in the car, we bought freshly made Neufchâtel cheese from Olivier’s shop, and this time, some Pelure d’Oignon rosé from a supermarket at £1.50 a bottle. These items were squeezed in beneath the car’s seats.

It is seldom that we make a restaurant mistake. But before we left, and with time for lunch, we selected a place specialising in turbot. The fish was excellent, but the potatoes were rock hard. The chef had appeared late, we were told, but more probably drunk.

As we parked our car in readiness to leave France on the only ship now on the crossing, a van drew up alongside that was registered in England. I wanted to know about the possibility of renting a van for our wine-buying trips abroad. The renter of this van worked in England while his wife and son lived in Charante, in Cognac country, between Bordeaux and La Rochelle. The living there was much cheaper than in England, and having spent a lot of money doing up an old farmhouse he intended to retire to Charante and possibly return to England in old age.

This man had been a baker, so we talked about bread making, with him insisting that I knock down the dough to make the best bread. I mentioned that I never let water near to my bread tins, to which he replied that one should also never let water near to Yorkshire pudding tins either (something that I was unaware of).

He was on his way back having bought two wood-burning stoves in England for his French house, as they were much better and cheaper than in France. Surely, I queried, you don’t need heating so far south? I then learned that Charante is known for its extremes of temperature – freezing in winter and scorching in summer.

What, I asked, did he take back to France that is not possible to buy there. Baked beans and Cheddar cheese was the reply.

We return to England with wine and freshly-made Neufchatel cheese.

Friday, April 08, 2011

Robin training

We had not seen our very tame and friendly robin for at least a month. She liked to sit with us, eat from our knees, completely trusting, fearless, and generally treating us like garden furniture.

When sitting in the garden and vinifying by stripping grapes from their stems into fermentation bins, she suddenly re-appeared, treating us as she always had. It was lovely to see her again, having worried that perhaps a cat might have caused her demise. She has not re-appeared.

In the meantime another robin has fancied himself as king of our territory. He is a wild fellow – dashingly active.

If this newcomer (“The Intruder”) is to become our “house” robin, he is to be trained – that is, to be trained to eat with us in our shed (which is not really a shed but a small, glazed, octagonal summerhouse).

Instruction is conducted in four stages.

For the first stage it must be established that Cheddar cheese is good grub for robins. So morsels are thrown out on to flagstones for the robin to enjoy without having to become too familiar with us.

For the second stage, a morsel is thrown out on to the flagstones and a couple of pieces placed, very visibly, on the sill of the shed door. This bait, when taken, shows the robin that it is safe to be near us.

Stage three involves putting bait on the sill and more on the shed’s carpeted floor. The robin will then know that it is completely safe to be under our feet (we have to be careful when standing up).

The final stage is to bait the floor as well as the top of three boxes of bird food that stand next to my knee.

When the robin flies in, directly or indirectly, to take food from the boxes, it has been trained.

Later, as entertainment for guests, and our own pleasure, the bird will take morsels from our knees – more readily when feeding young, when both parents seem to cast caution aside.

There is something about a wild bird standing on one’s knee that is very pleasing.