Monday, 6 October 2014


Who am I?
Daughter, nearly a year on from the sudden death of my mother, trying to support my father as he falls away into motor neurone disease, holding on to the self they created in their parenting of me: happy, resilient, loving, amused and amusing.  This self is buffetted hard by the rain and wind of loss and sadness but she still stands up, most of the time.  Thank you Mum and Dad for that.

Wife, sharing with my husband the loss of his father and receiving his help with my own demands.  Torn by living in one place and loving in another.  Having his company on the road as the miles pile up under the wheels.  Needing to find time to focus on each other

Mother and stepmother, feeling at the moment most strongly myself when I talk to my daughter and my son, loving their deep sympathy and understanding, their practicality, watching them in their turn parenting their children and seeing how totally they are adult, responsible not only for themselves but for others.  Being with them is balm to the soul.  Cherishing the love and care of my stepchildren, different from that of my own children but no less important and no less essential to my well being.  Feeling I do not have enough time or energy for everyone.

Grandmother, suddenly moved to laughter by a grandchild, brought into the moment.  Today nearly five year old grandson was given a large model of a plane to his total delight.  "Look Grandma.  It's like a big rocket ship, full of mysterious things."  "Mysterious things", that is what we need.  The two babies in the family, smiling.

Sister, sharing the loss of our mother with my brother and sister.  Knowing that, as my sister and I struggle to find ways to support our father, we understand each other, we support each other.  Admiring the way my brother and his wife cope with their own problems arising from my brother's health.  The relationship with our siblings is a fascinating one.  It may, as our parents die, become the longest relationship in terms of time that we have, predating that with our partners and our children, part of the landscape of our lives.

Friend, not as good a friend as I would like to be, not enough present, although the warmth of my friends on my recent big birthday reminded me that they understand.  I need to find more time for them.  I tend to seize on a day with no claims upon it to take time for myself but sometimes I would get just as much nourishment in a different way from time with a friend.   It is much easier to find time for local friends than for those at a distance.  Note to self: make it happen.

Colleague?  Not any more although the contact with other people who provide accommodation for visitors or who write is important to me to keep in touch with that part of myself.

And just me?  This has been a challenging year for that.  Gardening provided the passion and even intellectual challenge as I tried to make something here which was a fit for the place.  Gardening takes time and being present.  It has been squeezed out and I almost find it easier to be totally disconnected from it than to cope with the frustrations of doing not enough and doing it badly.  I feel as if a bit of me is missing if I am not obsessing about the garden and yet that is the only thing to do just now.  There are only so many hours and days and weeks.  Yoga is something I do for me and keeps me centred in a way I could never have imagined.  Last week I joined a choir and was amazed at how energised it made me feel.  Today for the first time for weeks I picked up some knitting again.  I have of course made a total hames of it and am now busily pulling back what I have done but still, I liked the feel of the needles in my hands.  So here we are, sometimes bobbing up and down a bit, but head above water, still here, still me.  Thanks to all my lovely family coming along on the journey and buoying me up in the waves.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Cyclamen, pansies, tomatoes and abundance

I have always loved cyclamen.  When we first came here nearly nine years ago I longed to establish cyclamen, both autumn flowering cyclamen hederifolium and February flowering cyclamen coum.  I must have bought ten plants of each variety and most of those have simply disappeared.  I longed for them to naturalise and to fill the dry shade under the tree in the side garden but it seemed that only one or two hung on.   Then suddenly this autumn I saw the slender flowers gathering quietly under the tree, certainly twice the size of last year's patch.  Now the flowers are going over and the equally beautiful marbled leaves are patterning the dry soil.  I love them.  They can double and treble and multiply to their hearts' content and I hope they will.  This is an image from the RHS which perfectly captures the delicacy of the flowers.


I have written before about Plant me Now, an online plant sales business, and I have always been impressed with their plants.  When they asked me if I would like to review some for winter containers I thought at once of cyclamen, not the hardy ones I have out in the garden but the slightly tender perennials which are often used in containers, cyclamen persicum.  They really earn their keep in containers as they flower for a long time and they share with all cyclamen varieties the beautiful foliage which is lovely in its own right.


These are the cyclamen as they will be in full flower.  The difference between the species and these hybrids is like the difference between a bare faced girl and one in full make up.  These are brighter and almost blowsy by comparison in these photographs but in containers they shine throughout the winter, even in snow, and are one of the most cheering sights you could see.

As always the plants arrive carefully packaged and in good health.  Plant me now plants are well grown, not artificially rushed into growth.   They are not the kind which are great when you get them and then slowly decline, but sturdy and strong.


This is what you see when you open up the packaging, five sturdy little plants ready for potting on.  I haven't planted the containers up yet because I want to layer up tulip bulbs below the cyclamen and I haven't even made my tulip order yet.  It will do the cyclamen no harm to stay in their larger pots for a few more weeks until I am ready to put the tulips in.  Anyway, we have had such a glorious September that the geraniums in the large terracotta pots are still flowering fit to burst.  I always have trouble deciding when to take them out, cut them back and put them in the greenhouse.  Some years I have just missed the moment and the frosts have got them but this year I think taking out the geraniums towards the end of October will slot nicely in with the tulip planting.


I also have some violas from Plant me now which will do another container for the front of the holiday cottage, underplanted with yet more tulips.  These are Viola Blue Blotch.  These little plants will eventually look like this:


I love the intensity of the colour.  These plants have doubled in size since I potted them on.  I am interested to see on the Plant me Now website that reviews are accumulating and that they overwhelmingly endorse my own experience of the quality of the plants and of the service.  This is just my own opinion, not an advert by the way.  I was provided with the plants to review but I only ever do reviews that allow me to say exactly what I think!

The other thing which is on my mind and in my kitchen by the bucketload is tomatoes!


We may have lost hold of the outside  garden this year but the greenhouse is overflowing with tomatoes and cucumbers. The yellow tomatoes are Golden Sunrise.  They look as if they might not be quite ripe but they surprise with the intensity and sweetness of their flavour.  The little ones are the old favourite, Gardener's Delight.  They are like sweets, bursting with flavour in your mouth, almost fizzing like a sherbet dip.  They are fabulous just eaten as they are but we have had so many tomatoes I have been making a tomato sauce for pasta to go into the freezer.  This is really easy and deeply flavoursome.
 
Take a kilo of tomatoes and skin them.   I used to try to persuade myself that it didn't matter whether tomatoes are skinned or not and in many recipes it doesn't but in this one it really does.  Skinning tomatoes is extremely easy.  Cut a little cross in the base of the tomato with a sharp knife, put them all in a heat proof bowl and cover them with boiling water.  Leave them for about ten minutes and then take each one out on a slotted spoon and remove the skin with your fingers.

Chop the skinned tomatoes, season them with salt and pepper and cook them gently in a little olive oil.

Add about a tablespoon of tomato puree, a tablespoon or so of soft brown sugar, a handful of chopped oregano and a glass of red wine.  Simmer it gently until it is thick and glossy.  When the sauce is cool, freeze it in blocks (we use old ice cream boxes).  It makes a perfect base for a tomatoey pasta dish.  When you defrost it, chop and gently fry  a couple of cloves of garlic and add it to the sauce.  If you put the garlic in at the beginning and freeze the sauce with the garlic in it, the garlic seems to go musty.

What an abundance of colour and taste  there seems to be just now.

Friday, 19 September 2014

September


I have been wandering about through my September photographs.  2009 seems to have been a great season for mushrooms in our garden.  It's interesting how the harvests vary from year to year and how easy it is to forget.  This year is the season of damsons and tons and tons of autumn raspberries.


In September 2010 I find we were visiting our friends in Provence, driving through the Camargue and wandering the glorious stone buildings of Avignon.  I find bulls and white horses and stone streets and a brightness of light that is rare here in North Wales.


In September 2011 our then nearly two year old grandson was busy playing trains.  What has changed?  He and his family have moved house and acquired land and pigs and he has grown tall and gone to school.   He still likes trains as a nearly five year old but the trainlines have become extraordinarily complex!


Oh look, in 2012 I went to Nant Gwrtheyrn, the Welsh language centre on the beautiful Lleyn peninsula, and did a week's intensive Welsh course.  My Welsh has been neglected over the last year with other family commitments.  I must revive it.  Perhaps another visit would be the shot in the arm it needs!


In 2013 the dahlias were glorious.  I left them in the ground for the winter for the first time ever and was gloomy in the spring when nothing seemed to show for a very long time.  Then suddenly in the summer the dahlias sprang into life just when I had entirely given them up.  Now we just need a long, warm autumn.  I have buds but no flowers.  Are we too high and too far North to leave it so long?



This September comes around without my mother and my father in law.  How life changes.  And yet how life goes on, as this year we have new babies, ten month old Eliza, represented by the little Elizabeth Zimmerman jacket, and three week old Ted, represented by the Debbie Bliss crossover cardigan.  I have just had a big birthday.

Seize the day.  Feel the sun on your skin.  Hold the damson jam up to the light.  Hug the people you love.

I am sorry to have blogged so much less over the summer and not to have been out and about connecting with the blogs I enjoy reading.   Thanks so much to those who read me for sticking with me.  I think I am back now!  Time to dive back in again.

Monday, 8 September 2014

September sunshine

The mornings are misty just now.  Not a grey, damp mist but a pearly sheen of mist with the sun somewhere behind it, silvering the sky.


It has been a perfect September day.  We have been working in the garden, Ian cutting some of the hedges and a lot of grass while I have cut back what feels like thirty wheelbarrows full of the self seeders which we like to have here but which take over the world if you let them seed: campanula, artemisia, alchemilla, feverfew.  I love them all but left to seed all over the place they squeeze out practically everything else.

The whole garden is overflowing with harvest.  This summer has not been one for the garden as you can probably tell by the way it has not appeared in the blog.  But just now it doesn't seem to matter that we lost it under the demands of other things.  There has been a fantastic harvest of damsons. There are now twenty six jars of jam on the shelves, waiting for winter.  Damson jam is one of my all time favourite jams but it is not the work of a moment.  I found myself snorting in a very unladylike way when a magazine article I read recently extolled the virtues of damson jam but claimed that you should leave the stones in "for flavour".  If you have ever made damson jam you will know that there are almost more stones than flesh.  A jam where you hadn't taken out the stones would be a toothbreaking, infuriating, hopeless experience.  I am pretty sure that they left the stones in because taking them out takes for ever.  However much you might start the process wearing your pretty pinny and feeling like a domestic goddess, by the time you have spent six hours taking out stones it is likely you will be covered in dark purple goo and slowly losing the will to live.  But the jam, once you come out the other side of the pain barrier, is wonderful: deep and dark and with that edge beneath the sweetness which is a truly grown up taste.  I need to confess here that Ian spent the hours taking the stones out this year.  My contribution was to change the stone free pulp into jars and jars of jam.  I also have a huge jar of damson gin steeping gently in the kitchen.  This is as easy as the jam is labour intensive.  Half a kilo of soft, ripe damsons, 600 grams of sugar and a litre of gin, shaken up from time to  time and left until the damsons have transferred their luscious colour to the gin.  Perfect for Christmas.  It tastes like sloe gin but if anything I prefer the damson variety.  It has a deep, complex flavour, the sweetness of the sugar cut through with the edge of the gin and the damsons.  Yum.


The apple trees are loaded down with apples.  This year our neighbours at the Afonwen Craft Centre are using our apples in their restaurant.  You can't get much more local produce than that!  The apples are Howgate Wonder, a heavy cropping, good keeping, dual purpose apple which begins as a cooker but sweetens over its long keeping time so that it can be eaten by February.  We tend to use it principally as a cooker as the apples are huge!


The hedges are full of rosehips and haws.  We won't cut these hedges until February, by which time the birds will have stripped them.  Then they will be cut down hard.  It is always hard to believe that the bare hedge of winter, around four feet six inches high after cutting, will burgeon to a more than six foot wall of fountaining green but it does.  Every year I wonder about making rosehip syrup but I love the look of the hips so much I can't bear to pick them.


The horse chestnuts are full of conkers, not yet ready to fall.  If you try to prise open the spiky cases they hold tight to their cargo.  Inside the conkers are still pale, not yet hard and glossy brown.


And the crab apples are glowing.  These are Red Sentinel and when they are fully ripe they will be shiny, pillar box red.  They hang on the tree right through the winter, only beginning to fall when the new leaves come in the spring.

The swallows have gone.  We have been away for a couple of days.  Last week they were still whizzing and diving and swooping over the pigsties but the sky was empty today.  Summer is over with their going.  Time for the richness of harvest.

Sunday, 17 August 2014

R.I.P. Eric Thorpe



Last Sunday my father in law died peacefully in our local hospital, aged ninety-five, from kidney failure.  Four days earlier he had slipped into deep unconsciousness and we knew he could no longer be treated.  From then on Ian and I, hugely supported by our son and daughter and their partners, who live reasonably locally, kept him company night and day. Our other adult children, who live far away, provided their own support by phone and text.  How does anyone manage these things without the loving support and care of adult children, I wonder?  When my mother died last year I felt it too: we were not alone, the next generation were with us, taking their share, looking after us in their turn.  It is a good feeling. 

I felt as I do now about blogging when my mother died. Partly I did not want to blog.  There are some things which need privacy.  But I also knew that if I did not mention something so important, if I blogged about gardens or lemon cake or walking on beaches, I would in a sort of way be lying.  This blog is not for baring my soul, for public self analysis or therapy.  Often it is for the things in life that give me pleasure: cooking and eating and books and gardens and making things and the very beautiful place in which I am lucky enough to live.  It marks out the year, follows the seasons, shares the celebrations that punctuate the year with family and friends.  Every now and then I have a bit of a rant about things I hate: bullying, unkindness, consumerism, our society's obsession with looks and celebrity.  It is a blog about my life and if I did not tell you about my father in law's death I would start to feel that the blog was a bit of a pretence, in fact I might just have to stop blogging altogether.

So while this blog is not a place to be sad in I would like to tell you a bit about my father in law.

Born in 1918 in the industrial North West of England, Eric was a Rochdale man to the soles of his feet.  He was the youngest of seven children and I suspect was indulged a little by the whole family.  He certainly grew taller and stronger than his elder brothers which they always claimed was because he got more food as a child.  His family were truly poor in that way we have all forgotten about now. There was no question at all that he could stay on at school beyond the age of 14.  All the children had to work.  Eric loved school and didn't want to leave.  He didn't necessarily have an academic sort of intelligence, although he was bright enough,  but he had a natural quickness of mind, an ability to make people laugh and a way of handling people which made him popular and well loved throughout his life.  He was easy to get on with, always ready to give people a hand, a lover of gambling who nevertheless never bet more than he could afford (which wasn't much!), a devoted father, a man totally incapable of doing anything other than looking on the bright side.  He was very profoundly of his time, growing up in the twenties and thirties and raising his family through the fifties, and of his place, a Lancashire milltown.

The only time he spent away from Rochdale was when he was posted to Orkney for the duration of the Second World War.  Somehow being sent to Orkney was very typical of Eric.  Yes, there were dangers undoubtedly and, despite being a soldier not a sailor, he served on the boats which supplied the many bases on the islands.  He was lucky that he did not suffer from seasickness.   But it was a dangerous place.   There were deaths in Orkney, in fact the first civilian to die in the war was killed on the islands.  The following is an extract from the website which documents the landscape and history of Scapa Flow in Orkney:

It was still the early days of the war but already Goering’s Luftwaffe were wreaking havoc on the home fleet in Scapa Flow, and 16 March 1940 would be a date that the people of Orkney would never forget.
That evening at around 8pm, 15 Junkers 88 enemy aircraft were reported over Scapa Flow and a number of high explosive bombs were dropped causing a fair amount of damage and injuring seven Navy personnel. Anti-Aircraft guns opened fire as did ships' guns, but despite early reports of two aircraft being shot down, no losses were recorded by intelligence reports.
As the raiders fled the scene, the aircraft still with bombs flew inland and decided to jettison their bomb loads some four miles east of Stromness as they reached Brig o'Waithe.
On hearing the raiders overhead, Jim Isbister and his wife Lily rushed to the door and amidst the falling bombs, they pulled two passers-by - Mrs Burnett and Mrs Jane Muir - inside for shelter.
Just split seconds later, a bomb fell on Miss Isabela Macleod’s house across the road and as Jim rushed from his house to go and help, another bomb exploded killing him instantly. Miss Macleod although wounded, managed to crawl from the wrecked cottage and Mrs Muir was slightly injured by splinters. Fortunately Jim’s wife Lily and baby Neil survived uninjured.
In total, five people were killed and nine injured in the raid.  Jim Isbister became the first civilian to be killed by enemy action in World War II. A service was held for Jim at St Magnus Cathedral, conducted by his brother-in-law Rev. TG Tait, and Rev. J MacLeod of Stenness, after which he was buried in St Olaf’s cemetery.
But Eric came safe through the war.  He had plenty to eat, perhaps more than he had been used to as a working class boy in the industrial North West.  He loved Orkney.  As an older man he would trot out his stories of Orkney, worn smooth by the telling,  to make you smile or laugh but he would always at some point tell you "It was the land of milk and honey".  He loved the fact that he could send food home and had all sorts of stories of working out how to send eggs or, on one memorable occasion, a leg of lamb, home to his mother, sisters and wife-to-be.
Other than Orkney, his whole life was Rochdale until he came to live with us in December 2010 after his first ever spell in hospital.  He had very limited horizons in many ways.  He had no desire to travel, unlike his wife who chafed at the restrictions which hemmed her in as a working class woman whose health was poor.  Give him three meals a day and the chance to lay a bet on the horses, people to chat to, a bit of TV to watch and he was happy.  When he lived with us I used to find this narrowness of view both extraordinary and from time to time extraordinarily annoying.  How could he be so little interested in other lives, other people (except family), other countries, other foods, the whole glorious panoply of rich and complicated life?  It was as if, faced by a tapestry which covered an entire wall, he insisted on looking at one dark and dirty square inch in the bottom corner.  But perhaps that was the secret of his undoubted contentment with life.  He didn't want much but he knew what he did want and he took pleasure in it right until illness overshadowed the last weeks of his life.  How many people manage to live a truly happy life?  Eric did, in his small corner, and in it he did a great deal of good and very little harm.  He was a good father, a good grandfather, a loyal worker, a good friend, a good man.
Whenever I hear the quote "Bloom where you are planted" I think of Eric.  His roots were deep.  Perhaps you can't have deep roots and wide horizons.  Yet he took what might have seemed an unpromising start in life and he lived that life cheerfully, with energy and good humour and love.  He honoured his relationships with a deep and wordless loyalty, caring for his wife through her many illnesses, looking after his ailing brother in law, doing his best for his daughter, son and grandchildren.  It wasn't a financial best, he never had much money, although what he did have he was generous with.  It was an emotional best.  There was never any question at all that he loved you and gave you that love unstintingly.  He asked very little of you in return. 
Eric was one of nature's gentlemen.  I am glad to have known him and glad to be married to his son.  I will miss him.

Sunday, 3 August 2014

August

One day I will spend a whole summer by the sea.  I will lie on blankets on the sand and paddle with children and eat slightly sandy sandwiches.  I will walk along cliff tops.  I will watch the tide come in.  When I was a teenager I used to spend days on the beach with my best friend, Ruth.  If you spend enough time on a particular beach you come to know what is revealed when the tide goes out, the places where the water lingers and becomes sunwarmed pools.  You know how the sand behaves, where it ripples and where it hardens, where it goes soft suddenly underfoot.  When the tide comes in again you know where the water goes suddenly cold, where the sand holds out in little islands against the rising water.

I must go down to the sea.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Sarah Raven's Perch Hill Feast

Months ago Ian came in from his office, as we grandly call the overcrowded and chilly porch where the desktop computer lives, and said "Listen to this.  You would like this."  It was an email invitation to Perch Hill, home of Sarah Raven and Adam Nicolson, to a summer event, a feast, with names from the world of food such as Yotam Ottolenghi and Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall.  Visitors were to stay in tents.  It was to be a weekend for wandering around the garden and eating glorious food.

I would like it.  I would like it a lot.  Within an hour I had established that Ian was not bothered about going himself but happy for me to go, approached a friend who is always up for doing something new and interesting, even though she is not a gardener and much more interested in eating food than cooking it, and by ten past nine the next morning we were booked in.  The speed and decisiveness aren't too uncharacteristic but they don't usually get used on something which is essentially a big treat.  It is sort of a birthday present.  It is also a grand gesture towards looking after ourselves in a challenging year.

And so it was that on Friday 12th July I set off on the train down to London with a rucksack on wheels, catching the fast train from Holyhead that rumbles along the North Wales coast before picking up speed and whizzing down through England to Euston.  It was strange, a blast from the past when this was the train that took me to work in London in my business clothes, carrying a briefcase and laptop.

I had plenty of time so I walked from Euston to Charing Cross.  This, and a little further East into Fleet Street and the City, is my part of London.  I know it.  I know its squares to the North and its byways and alleys around the Aldwych and the Strand.  The noise and the traffic buffeted me but I enjoyed the anonymity London gives you, a middle aged woman with a pull along bag, invisible through Gordon Square and down Kingsway, anonymous along the Strand and darting down to Embankment gardens.

I caught a slow stopping train which puttered down through Kent and Sussex and arrived at Stonegate station, the only passenger to emerge onto a silent platform.  Amazingly all our long distance arrangements had worked and there was Erica, all the way by car from Dorset.  "Did you have a plan b?" she said when we met and hugged.  The answer was no.  Had she not been there to meet me I would have had to have a sit down and a think.


It was grey and softly raining on Friday evening, the view hidden in misty cloud.  What seemed like hordes of young people swarmed cheerfully about, arriving with wheelbarrows to move our bags from the car, smiling and chatting with the charming, easy enthusiasm of loved and loving youth. We were sleeping in bell tents set along the edges of a couple of fields, the tents looking hard for the flatter places in a land of soft hills and gentle slopes.  Our slope was side to side, not head to toe, so every morning I woke up just a little closer to the tent wall.  But the airbeds were deep and comfortable and it was a relief to have a duvet and a proper pillow instead of being tied up in a sleeping bag.


Here we are, just to the right of the post.


Unpacking was putting my pajamas under my pillow and then we set off up the slope to the marquee, which served as a dining room and gathering place, and the greenhouse and classroom, which provided sitting space and much more plush and acceptable loos than the portaloos in the field.


I suffered from serious greenhouse envy.  It was a fabulous structure with tomatoes and herbs at one end and big tables and pots of succulents and scented leaf geraniums at the other.


I wonder why we bother with houses at all.  I think I could happily live in a greenhouse.


Dinner was at nine, an Ottolenghi inspired, many flavoured and luscious meal, a real feast.  When Ottolenghi talked, his confident, passionate delight in food and its capacity for infusing life with pleasure and good company spoke to something at the very heart of my life's experience.  Many of the great memories of my life involve cooking in company with my mother, who loved a full table, and with my sister and my daughters, and latterly my niece, producing food to be lingered over.  It made me smile to feel the connection running so strongly between a forty odd year old, male,  Israeli born, academic and journalist turned restauranteur and my English, eighty year old mother who died last year, but it leapt across age and background like an electrical charge: the same generosity, the same adventurousness, a pleasure in food which is both deeply serious and utterly relaxed, about as far from Puritanism as it is possible to be.  Mum would have loved it.  Lovely meal, lovely man.

And that generosity was the running undercurrent of the weekend.  Ottolenghi and his partner and little boy stayed the weekend in a tent and, like all the speakers and participants, wandered about and were as much part of the event as the rest of us.  The gardens were open and accessible all weekend long and, while there was the opportunity to go round the garden with Sarah as part of an organised talk, it was also fine to wander in on your own and mooch about amongst the dahlias and sweetpeas.


There was abundance everywhere, in the food and the flowers and the company.

On Saturday morning I woke with no sense at all of what time it could be.  The sun through the cream canvas made me feel I was sleeping in a bubble of light.  I felt around for my watch and eventually made sense of what it said: half past four.  I rolled over, pulling myself back from the approaching tent wall, and went back to sleep.

Breakfast too was generous, with fresh rolls and bacon and home made jam, yoghurt and granola and sweet cherries and lots of tea and coffee.  Afterwards I chose to walk with a group going round the farm with Adam Nicolson, rather than those going round the garden with Sarah.  If you have been reading this blog for a while you will know that my relationship with my garden has been derailed this year by my wish and need to spend time with my father and with my father in law, both failing in different ways, one at one end of the country and one at the other.  There is neither time nor energy for my usual obsessive thinking and dreaming and working in the garden.  Right now the garden would be like a half finished embroidery or an abandoned manuscript, set aside for another day, were it not for the fact that it keeps on growing, disappearing under a welter of weeds, not a love affair but a vast reproach of outside housework.  And walking is one of my great pleasures anyway so I thought it would be safer to walk with Adam Nicolson.


What a great thing to do!  I knew him as a writer.  I particularly enjoyed "Sea Room", about the Shiant Islands in the Outer Hebrides.  His writing is thoughtful, moving, passionate, knowledgeable.  What I didn't know was that the man himself is funny, one of those charismatic, witty raconteurs who make you laugh with every second sentence even while they are telling you serious stuff about how often you have to move your sheep from field to field.  Every two or three weeks.  Who knew?  So we walked across sheep filled fields, along muddy paths, down under trees, past Batemans, where Rudyard Kipling lived and back up a long slow hill and it was good.

Lunch was another plateful of total deliciousness.  There were various options in the afternoon but I decided I was not going to open a restaurant in this life so chose instead to wander about the garden and to retire to the tent for a snooze.  I had made a pact with Erica that while we were at Perch Hill we would not talk about illness and decline.  I would simply be where I was, in a field in Sussex in summer.

Before dinner Jackson Boxer talked to us about making cocktails.  Like all the speakers he was deeply knowledgeable and passionate about his subject.  I don't even drink cocktails but I came away convinced I needed some Fernet Branca.


The cider tasting the following morning converted me to cider.  The bread making session, where I thought I knew a great deal, taught me even more.  We have been making all our own bread for twenty years or more but I didn't know what I didn't know.


More demonstrations from  Gill Meller and Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall from River Cottage and another feast-like meal in the evening.  This is Gill in the tent showing us how to make salads to accompany mackerel with gooseberries.  I loved the mackerel but this for me was the least successful meal, judged against the astonshingly high standard of the weekend, principally because I was unpersuaded by the use of strawberries rather than tomatoes in a panzanella.  Too sweet, too mushy with none of the tang that tomatoes bring.  The meal did however include probably the best dish of the whole feasting, a starter made with fresh lamb's liver.  I had no idea a lamb's liver in its whole state was so big nor that it could produce a starter of such extraordinary, savoury creaminess.

We chatted to people at our table, all brought together by a love of food or gardening or both (and the not so little matter of having the time and the money to spare to be there).  I had wondered if those attending would be predominantly the privileged: middle aged and middle class women from the Home Counties.  The audience though was more mixed than that, men as well as women, younger people as well as the middle aged, and from all over the UK and beyond.  I talked to a woman from Switzerland who had very enterprisingly come on her own and we drifted across to the bar,  bought another glass of wine and sat by a fire pit, listening to live music which led to probably my favourite moment of the whole evening, when one of the young men serving at the bar proved to know all the words to "American Pie" and the whole bar sang along.

By Sunday morning we had got into the rhythm of things.  A question and answer session, chaired by Adam and involving Sarah, Yotam, Valentine Warner and Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall, was funny and inspiring and challenging by turns.  One of my absolute favourite sessions of the weekend, the bread making session led by Elizabeth Weisburg of the Lighthouse bakery went by far too quickly.


Here is Elizabeth, deftly, wryly, amusingly, making me feel I should branch out with our bread.

Valentine Warner demonstrated some dishes before lunch and was so unaffectedly funny, passionate and expert that I surprised myself by deciding to buy his latest book, "What to Eat Next", from the many possibilities in the shop, having originally intended to buy an Ottolenghi.  I also bought Adam's "The Mighty Dead:Why Homer Matters".  I have been reading this every night since I came home, torn between wanting to keep reading and gobble it all up and wanting it to last, not wanting it to finish. It is part literary commentary, part history, part archaeology, part philosophy, part personal treatise.  It is years since I read the Iliad and the Odyssey and then only in translation.  I remember loving them, particularly the Odyssey, as a teenager but I would have been hard put to remember why.  Will I go back and read them again?  Probably, particularly the Fagle translation which I am pretty sure I have never seen, but it is also likely that I will read Margaret Atwood's "The Penelopiad".  As a woman I am ready for a change from all that rampaging violent masculinity in Homer.


The Perch Hill feast wound to a close at about three o' clock in the afternoon.  We packed the car and said our goodbyes and made ready for the drive to Dorset where Erica was kindly giving me a bed for the night before I carried on to Devon to see my father.  The whole weekend had seemed a very long way from North Wales where I live.  Perhaps that sense of being away had been what I needed.  It reminded me of the fact that I too am passionate about things other than my family, even if family is my core and for now family fills most of my view.  Gardens, food, literature are all things which make up who I am.  If all I do with that reminder immediately is to commit to cooking a different thing in a different way for the lovely jolt of the new I will have taken a lasting benefit away, along with the reminder that it is possible to snooze in the afternoon and to make a floral headdress.  So thank you to Perch Hill, to Adam and to Sarah and all the presenters and all the other guests I talked to and wandered about with. Thank you to all the people who worked so hard to make the feasting happen.   Thank you to Erica for her cheerful, open minded witty company and hospitality.  Thank you to Ian whose idea it was.  I had a great time.