Toadstools or Mushrooms?

IMG_3451It’s easy to understand why myths and legends were woven around the nature of toadstools when they appear so suddenly and so very substantially as if out of nowhere.   Where do the spoors come from?  How do they grow so quickly?

This reluctant gardener only noticed them when they had grown in some abundance on the damp mossy grass of the lawn. Knocking them over and pulling them up, they had an unpleasant solidity to them.  I’ve no idea what they are (yet another growing thing for which this statement is true).

This thought reminded me of visiting a local pharmacy in a mountain village in France where it was possible to take in your forest harvest and consult wall charts, and the pharmacist himself, if you were uncertain if what you had picked was edible or not.  There were three broad classifications: Good to Eat, Edible but not particularly nice, and Poisonous.   I’m not sure I would ever have trusted my ability to distinguish between the appearance of some of the Good to Eat and the Poisonous, which in some cases looked remarkably similar on the charts.

I’ve always erred on the side of caution and bought my mushrooms at the supermarket, but collecting mushrooms in the woods was something that my Russian teacher in Moscow was always talking to me about, leading to a knowledge of fungus vocabulary I have never been able to fully display.  Once, when he and his family invited me to visit their dacha we went searching in the woods with a disappointing lack of success.  On the drive back to Moscow however, we had to stop each time we passed someone offering a basket of mushrooms for sale by the road.  At each stop, my teacher got out of the car, inspected the merchandise, and then told the seller why his produce was not of the appropriate quality to be worth buying.  So I never did taste any mushrooms from a Russian wood.

……. Nor from a Scottish garden.

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The Changing of The Season

2013-09-20 13.40.50Given the reluctance with which I embarked on my gardening duties in the height of the summer, I was surprised by just how reluctant I was to admit that the time had come to cut down the plants and ready the greenhouse for winter.  But the Chief Gardener issued the order, so we cut down the tomato plants and gathered together all the green fruit, (including one over large cucumber that had been hidden by all the foliage in that corner where all the plants got overly entwined with each other) took it into the kitchen, and wondered what we would do with it all.

The large tomatoes were wrapped in paper and stored in the ripening drawer, and the partially red ones were lined up on the window sill, but that still left us with a pile to deal with.

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Now, if you search on the internet, as I did, for recipe ideas to use up all the green tomatoes, and you happen to land on blog sites, or chatty food sites, then they all preface their suggestions with comments about it being an annual question, that there are only so many fried green tomatoes any family sized group of people can eat, and that nobody much likes green tomato pickle or chutney.  All of these are true of my household too.

I decided to attempt soup, on the basis that I make a lot of soup, and it’s usually from the sad vegetables left rolling around the bottom of my fridge, and that generally tastes all right, so surely I could make something delicious out of freshly picked home grown tomatoes.  The soup recipes I found fell into two basic categories: an Eastern European inspired ham, onion and potato combination with a dollop of sour cream on top, and an Indian inspired curry flavoured one.

My first attempt was with bacon, onions, garlic and potatoes, all cooked in stock with the tomatoes and then whizzed up at the end.  While we agreed it was a lovely colour, It was surprisingly bland.  I was a bit disappointed, but at that stage it was too late to think that I should have used a more strongly flavoured smoked bacon.  Instead I rescued it with a good shake of Tabasco in the pan, and a heaped teaspoon of parmesan in each bowl, and the Chief Gardener declared it a success.

Aware, from that first experiment, that the green tomatoes somehow soak up a lot of flavour, I embarked on the curry inspired second attempt with more spices.  Fresh root ginger, garlic, cumin, coriander, a tiny touch of chilli and curry were the base, with onion, potato and tomato, all boiled up with stock, and then finally whizzed up with half a bunch of fresh coriander.  The committee agreed that this was a success, without any further refinements required. (And it was a good colour.)

(We made a cold avocado, pepper and cucumber soup with the oversized cucumber….)

Return of the Reluctant Gardener

2013-08-23 09.09.25After my urban break at the Festivals in Edinburgh, I am back as the temporary reluctant gardener.

Everything had continued growing in my absence of course, but now the gallons of water poured and time spent communing with the plants in the greenhouse are bearing fruit.  It’s mainly down to the unusually warm and sunny summer we’ve had that the tomatoes are ripening on the vine.  It’s much more normal to have rows of fruit that are turning a little yellowish orange on windowsills, their sides pressed against the glass in the hope of catching a little drop of sunshine to turn them a little red on one side, and for us to have been looking for recipes involving quantities of green tomatoes.

Not this year; and it’s really quite exciting, rummaging through all the foliage to find the little red globes.  There’s already a few more than we’ve been able to keep up with.  The cucumbers are slowing down production, only a couple a day, rather than the four or five which had been their rate earlier in the month, but the tomatoes are now revving up to overtake them.  Take into account that the runner beans have now started producing at the rate of just under a pound a day, and you’ll have a fair idea of what we’ve been eating for dinner.

Not only has the reluctant gardener been harvesting, I’ve even been mowing the verge outside the house.  There’s a stretch of grass between the pavement and the road in front of every house in the town.  It’s part of the public highway but as the Council mow it about once every 5 years, it has, over time, gradually and without anyone saying anything become part of what each householder contributes to the community.

It’s surprising how few houses have untidy verges.  At some point or another, everyone is out there mowing this strip of greenery.  Some take an astonishing amount of care with it, with neat, square and weed-free edges.  Where one stretch of grass runs alongside two properties, the boundary line is respected, so, as in our case, at the point on the pavement in line with the fence, there is a clear demarcation line: the neat neighbour’s immaculate mowing stops and our more haphazard approach begins.

I have to admit that my gardening reluctance reaches its apogee with it comes to the verge mowing.  The cable for the electric mower doesn’t stretch far enough, so I have to use the ‘big’ petrol machine.  It’s arduous to start, requiring just the right energy, speed and angle pulling on the starter string thing, and then it roars away at high speed (and worries me that I’m going to somehow gouge out the neat neighbour grass when I have to turn it around at the invisible boundary line).  But it’s done now; and the grass while a bit scruffy, is shorter, and we can hold our heads up in the street again.

Two Shots

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A number of the blogs I read regularly have been showcasing two photographs of the same thing; some have been trying different angles, others portrait versus landscape, or wide angle and close-up.  It makes for interesting viewing; it can challenge the ideas of what makes a good photograph.

The reluctant gardener had a go with her camera, not sure of these are weeds or nurtured plants; but they’re coming through the fence.

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Everything but the Fuchsia

IMG_3344Only fuchsias are worth saving.

At a recent workshop run by my friend Nina she offered several sentences taken from gardening books as the prompt for a spell of writing.  While many of the sentences were amusing, in fact so deliciously amusing that we were a little at risk of spending too much time enjoying them, or wondering at their out of context profundity, than writing our own new words….. If you keep chicken you’re ahead of the game; spend as much as you can afford; this linguistic dithering is offensive and ought to be straightened out…… 

For me there was only one obvious choice.  Only fuchsias are worth saving.  It has a certain gnomic potency, a rule to live by……. something straight out of the screenplay for Being There.  It did however also generate an immediate picture in my head, and it was a picture of this fuchsia.  It’s a bold, rather brassy shrub, with large double purple and red flowers, ballerinas with full skirts, dancing in great troupes all summer long.  I now have a half written short story for which this was the jumping off point.

The weather this summer has been perfect for prolific flowers, and now I’ve overcome my childhood habit of popping the buds between my thumb and forefinger before they were ready, they are blooming in their own time.

Isn’t ‘fuchsia’ an interesting word?  It was only when I was writing this that I realised I didn’t know how to spell it.  According to one entry I found online (when I was checking) it is frequently misspelt fushcia, presumably by people like me, who sort of know the letters that are in there and try to arrange them so that they reflect the usual pronunciation.  And we’re all wrong.  But now, I think, I’ll remember it.  Maybe.

For the Want of a Scythe

It would be fair to say that the thought ‘I’d be better off with a scythe now‘ is not one that frequently crosses my mind.  In fact last week was most likely the first time it had ever occurred.  I was bent over, hands swathed in someone else’s thick gardening gloves, long sleeves protecting my arms, my walking boots and woolly socks, despite the near tropical temperature, trying to clear an over grown bed with the aid of some shears, a rake and a fistful of empty compost bags for the rubbish.

As soon as the idea of a scythe popped into my head, so followed the image of cut hands and legs, protective clothing notwithstanding, as I’m realistic enough to know that the instrument would be more of a risk to my well-being than to the overgrown weeds and grass I was attacking.

But the head of the reluctant gardener is filled with a cascade of images and echoes, at least this one’s is; it’s the only way to keep working at the task in hand, as otherwise the lure of sitting on the back step with a cup of coffee would be too great.  I had also reminded myself of the summer after my school friend Linda and I had first read Anna Karenina.  So struck was Linda by the descriptions of Levin finding his feeling of true home and spiritual satisfaction by working alongside the serfs on his estate cutting the crops for the harvest, that she went and got a job working on a farm over the summer holidays.

I was a reluctant gardener even then, often pressed into service mowing the lawns at home, so the idea of being involved in something that was like that, but more so, didn’t appeal to me much.  It did leave me, however, with a lingering feeling that somehow my imagination or interpretative sensibility had been found wanting: I had not been inspired to seek farm work by the romance of the novel we’d read, while, my friend, with her greater sensitivity had found true inspiration in the pages of the book.

I got a job in an office, working in an accounts payable department for the holidays.

When I asked Linda what it had been like working on the farm, had she felt that bond of kinship with her fellow workers?  Had she felt at peace with the world and granted new insights into the human condition?

She shook her head.

‘No.  It was just knackering.’

I had promised myself that I would only do an hour or so clearing the overgrown bed, but I wanted the work I’d done to be noticeable, so I tidied around the edges first, hacking, pulling and stuffing the weeds into the plastic sacks.  Out of the corner of my eye I saw a stone move.  Closer inspection revealed it to be a small brown frog about the size of my thumb.  I don’t know where it can have come from as there are no ponds anywhere nearby.

I put the shears to one side; the idea of accidentally chopping a tiny frog in two quite put me off.  I let the one I’d unearthed pretend to be a stone beside the path for a while.  When I went back, I couldn’t see him, so I don’t know if he escaped or if he got swept up into the bags I took to the tip.  The mystery of where he came from remains: can a frog live without a pond?

He was probably lucky I didn’t have a scythe.

Compulsory Cucumber

2013-07-21 12.53.00The parable of the cucumbers continues.  My ministrations have not been wanting, it seems, as the plants have continued to flourish – the exceptional warm and sunny weather and watering twice a day may have had something to do with it.

Three of the six plants are producing fruit at an incredible rate.  Each day I examine them closely, lifting leaves and those new shoots and runners that are as yet  untethered to check for hidden cucumbers, I watch the developing crop, deciding when each is at the prime moment for harvest, and yet still at least once a week I find one orphan, one greedy offspring that has been hiding in a corner growing relentlessly to be fatter and broader than all its siblings.

The other three plants have not fared so well.  Yes they were green and flourishing, laden with flowers and baby cucumbers, but all the ones we picked were bitter.  We gave them repeated chances; maybe the next one would be sweet; maybe the bitter ones were coming off only one of the plants; maybe they’d taste all right if we peeled them.  But to no avail.  So we cut them down and dug them up.

Even then, with half the number of plants we started with, we are in that phase of the summer where the produce is so prolific that it has become an equally onerous task to consume it as to grow it.  Any visitor receives a couple to take away with them, glasses of Pimms with cucumber and mint has become the drink of choice in the early evening, and every meal has to contain a cucumber element.

We’ve read all the cookery books for ideas; basically it boils down(!) to pickling, soup or salad combinations.  Pickling’s out for the moment as we still have quite a bit of the 2012 vintage left, so it’s salads and soups, and for this particular lunch, soup with a side order of cucumber.

I can recommend the soup, a ‘vintage’ Katie Stewart.  (You can tell its age both from the well used state of the cookery book, but also her suggestion to add green food colour if you’re dissatisfied with the pale colour of the soup au naturel.)  It’s cucumber, yoghurt, walnuts, lemon juice, garlic and a little oil all whizzed up together, chilled and served with a mint garnish in bowls cooled in the fridge.

When the tomatoes start to ripen, we’ll be adding daily gazpacho to the menu, but in the meantime…… cucumber anyone?

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