Monday 31 May 2010

Whit biscuits and a mackerel sky

There was only one consolation for a cold grey Whit Monday,
heralded by this corrugated sky last night,

make and eat
a large number of biscuits.

O's pistachio macaroons from Nigella Lawson's Domestic Goddess.
(Don't be deceived; the sunshine on this plate was only
a teasing glimmer).

Lemon and cumin biscuits from The African Kitchen
by Josie Stow and Jan Baldwin via Sarah Raven.

Then put the heating back on just for a little while 
and watch Springwatch

Sunday 30 May 2010

English music in an English landscape

Visiting Dorchester Abbey for the English Music Festival,
and by chance, (for I had not known they were near)
walking within sight of the Wittenham clumps,
I was offered in one day a perfect fusion of early twentieth century
 English music and painting.

Paul Nash was obsessed with these small rounded hills, 
and painted them numerous times -
this, Under the Hill, in 1912.

Wittenham Clumps was a landmark famous for miles around. 
An ancient British camp, it stood up with extraordinary prominence
 above the river at Shillingford. There were two hills, both dome-like 
and each planted with a thick clump of trees whose mass 
had a curiously symmetrical sculptured form. 
At the foot of these hills grew the dense wood of Wittenham, 
part of the early forest where the polecat still yelled in the night hours.'
'Ever since I remember them the Clumps had meant something to me. 
I felt their importance long before I knew their history. 
They eclipsed the impression of all the early landscapes I knew. 
This, I am certain was due almost entirely to their formal features rather than to any associative force... They were the Pyramids of my small world'. 
(extract from 'Outline' by Paul Nash, quoted in 'Paul Nash Places')

Fortified by tea and cakes in the best tea rooms in England
but in typical English May weather conditions 
(drizzle, sharp showers and a tugging, blustery wind) 
we trudged towards them, 
past quiet cottage gardens,

by wheat fields

down fragrant high-hedged footpaths 

under a circling red kite,

towards Day's Lock on the Thames.

We got soaked.

So damply wedged in our penitentially hard pews 
we listened to the City of London choir performing
Holst, Elgar, Bridge, Finz, Britten, Pearsall, Stanford and Wood. 
Paul Guinery wrote in the foreword to the programme,

'Much contemporary music is very good indeed at conveying anxiety, 
pain or hostility but far less apt at communicating 
exaltation, serenity or resignation.' 

I think we had the last three moods covered today.

Thursday 27 May 2010

Being roped in

One of my favourite museums has just moved closer
thanks to the extension of the East London Line.

That was an exciting afternoon.
A family affair.

Someone we know was roped in to busk at the last minute
as part of the celebrations.

He hadn't expected the marriage proposal.

I first went to the Geoffrye Museum 
as a child with my primary school.
I was chosen to dress up as a Tudor boy
and invited to step over the rope
into the reconstructed Tudor room.

Beyond the rope I was
no longer a sensible little girl in a brown school uniform,
I was liberated. Reborn. Transformed.
All sense of decorum deserted me and
I stuck my tongue out at a teacher.

Portrait of a Boy - Robert Peake the Elder (1551 - 1619)

Wednesday 26 May 2010

Ode to beneficial insects



stay where you are.*

The blackfly

are breeding,

I need your


to chomp

and to chew

and remove from the scene,

the pestilent suckers

that spoil

my broad beans.

I have never seen this many different
spot combinations before.
One of them, not pictured
was entirely black.

Further rhyme variants.

See also

and of course this one
for all you ever wanted to know about

if you'd like to join in with a survey of
Harlequin ladybird sightings.

* Although if you are a Harlequin
you are not really very welcome 
as you out-compete and predate our native species.

Tuesday 25 May 2010

Mango and lime

From now until the end of June,
the Alphonso mangoes are around.
Smooth-skinned, custard yellow and heavily fragrant,
they are about as sweet and juicy a fruit as you could ask for.
You can pick them up by the box
for a bargain price at Indian or Middle Eastern grocers'.
I sometimes think they are the finest fruit on earth.
They come, six or eight to a box,
each highly prized fruit bedecked with
a single strand of tinsel and swaddled in 
yellow or magenta tissue paper.
Opening a box of Alphonso mangoes is like peeping in on a carnival.

So says Nigel Slater in The Kitchen Diaries
and every year we watch for their arrival in an 
unassuming shop nearby.
So far only honey mangoes have been sighted,
but they are pretty good too.

A tea towel round your neck
is an advisable precaution
if tackling them au naturel.
You have to be sure to get every last morsel 
off the large flat stone.

Somebody, and I wish I could remember who,
described how she had nibbled away until the stone was
completely white and covered with rough hairs. 
She kept it as a pet, wrapped in a handkerchief.
It could have been Rumer Godden.
 Her sister Rose had a tiny pink potato with matchstick legs;
which she called Nebuchadnezzar and kept until it went mouldy.

A tidier and refreshing alternative
is mango lassi.

For four people 
blend 200 g of fresh mango
with 255 ml of plain yogurt
and 130 ml milk.

Sometimes we make a non-dairy version with apple juice
and a squeeze of lime.

Monday 24 May 2010

The past, present - in the park

In most species of northern ducks the plumage of the males 
is much brighter and more varied in colour than that of the females, 
who need to be dull and inconspicuous when incubating eggs...
and most northern species retire to moult 
when the incubation of the eggs begins. 
This moult brings the drake into 'eclipse' plumage 
which closely resembles that of the female. 
He, however, remains in this state only for a short time 
and by winter has regained his handsome appearance.

This feather is probably from the little patch of coloured feathers in the wing which is called the 'speculum' - a distinctive feature amongst almost all ducks.

from the King Penguin
Book of Ducks
by Phyllis Barclay.

Sunday 23 May 2010

A ramble in the steps of S.P.B. Mais*

The glory of these glorious Downs is the breeze.

It is air without admixture. 
If it comes from the south the waves refine it;

(not our dog)

if inland, the wheat and flowers and grass distil it.

The great headland and the whole rib of the promontory is windswept 

and washed with air; 

the billows of the atmosphere roll over it. 

The sun searches out every crevice amongst the grass,

nor is there the smallest fragment of surface 
which is not sweetened by air and light.

Underneath, the chalk itself is pure, 
and the turf thus washed by wind and rain,

sun-dried and dew-scented, 
is a couch prepared with thyme to rest on.

Discover some excuse to be up there always, 
to search for stray mushrooms - they will be stray -

and to make a list of flowers and grasses;

to do anything and, if not, go always without pretext.

 Lands of gold have been found, 
and lands of spices and precious merchandise; 

but this is the land of health.

* This description of the breezes on Beachy Head 
is by Richard Jefferies
 and is taken from  Walking at Weekends by S.P.B. Mais
published by the Southern Railway (price sixpence).