April 2013

posted 2 Apr 2013, 14:25 by Bob Brace   [ updated 2 Apr 2013, 14:28 ]
‘It always snows on the daffodils’ asserts Mr O G to anyone who may be listening. It is true – no matter how mild the weather may have been, as soon as the brave yellow heads open, a snowfall beats them down. They spring back up again, quite miraculously, but this comment is a reminder that last year’s March weather was extraordinary. Take heart. Some of the coldest and snowiest weather of the entire winter has always taken place in March. Our first baby was born at the end of March in 1966, and the snow and bitter winds were so dreadful that he and I were brought home in an ambulance. It wasn’t considered safe to do otherwise, although I understand that nowadays people have to make shift as best they might. The cold was appalling, no central heating or double glazing and now I had to get up in the night as well to feed a baby!

The rural idyll had come as a terrible culture shock. Nowadays they call it ‘the good life’ but believe me, Mr O G had thought of it long before the BBC did. My mother had seen to it that I could sew, and my grandmother had given me her old treadle sewing machine with which she had earned her living as a seamstress during the first world war. I still have it, and I still use it – it has outperformed any electric machine which ever found its way to this house, and now my granddaughters use it as well. What an advertisement! It was lucky for me because things were so expensive in those days that I jolly well had to make my own clothes, curtains and household items like pillowcases – not to mention the mending. But with a curious and inexplicable omission they did not teach me to cook. At school I had shunned cookery in favour of latin and ancient greek at which I excelled, but this turned out to be a singularly useless accomplishment for the lifestyle I eventually embraced.

When Mother finally grasped that I meant it when I said I would get married, she made haste to repair the omission by presenting me with the large tome of Isabella Beeton’s book of cookery and household management. I still have that as well, well thumbed, dog-eared and heavily annotated with alterations, notes to myself, and stains of blood and tears. All I can say is: Isabella had never met anyone like Mr O G. A far more useful book was produced by my grandmother. It is called ‘The reluctant cook’, and is written by a lady with the enchanting name of Ethelind Fearon. Dear Ethelind – she understood about seasonality and most importantly she understood that it is necessary to cook with the ingredients one has, and not those which one’s recipe directs one to acquire. She also understood the need to make it easy and quick. It was she who taught me to make a cake without eggs, and, most useful accomplishment, to make a smooth white sauce. Her directions to make what she called, in one of those lovely literal translations from the french, a ‘ well-joined sauce’ were easy. She did it by explaining the science behind it – namely you must fry your flour thoroughly because that makes the granules expand so that they can absorb the milk you subsequently add. Simple, once you understand.

One of the first things I did when I had mastered this technique was to attempt a cauliflower cheese. Mr O G had brought in a nice looking cauliflower but I had to stand at the sink for ages denuding it of the slugs and bugs which were hidden in its intricate folds. When I finally had it ready to coat in the beautiful white sauce, liberally sprinkled with grated cheddar, I put it into the oven and smugly awaited praise. The scent of the cooking was wonderful. Mr O G came in from the garden, sniffing appreciatively and clearly believing his luck had changed. Once the dish was done, I opened the oven and we both admired the lovely golden brown surface and breathed in the superb aroma. Our mouths watered. It was a pity, then, that as I lifted it out of the oven, I dropped it. It hit the floor in a veritable explosion of white sauce and shards of broken pyrex. While I shrieked and wailed, Mr O G calmly surveyed the wreckage of his dinner and spoke quietly –‘I’ll fetch a shovel’ he said.

I have often remarked that the man is a saint.

It was a long time before I could fancy a cauliflower cheese again. Just as well really, since the slugs and bugs eventually won, and Mr O G gave up growing cauliflowers and concentrated on other things instead.

Cooking in the early days was also hindered by the fact that the house came complete with an ancient Rayburn stove which was supposed to heat the water and cook the dinner. It did, but only if you shovelled an incessant supply of gold I mean phurnacite into its gaping maw. Also you had to nurse it constantly, adjusting dampers to take into account every change of breeze. I was further hindered by the lack of a kitchen floor. One of the first things Mr O G did was to condemn the woodworm in the floorboards. He simply ripped them up and fed them to the Rayburn – brilliant fire, hottest oven ever, but I had to balance precariously on the joists which he had spared and liberally coated with creosote. I have hated the smell of creosote ever since.

I knew little about running a house. I suppose I had envisaged housewifery as spending the mornings floating around with a duster, and the afternoons arranging flowers. It was soon borne in upon me that if I wanted to arrange flowers I must first learn to grow them, and that when one’s house resembles a building site, you don’t need dusters, you need industrial strength steam cleaners.

I also found out that clean clothes did not magically appear in the boiler room. Worse still, there WAS no boiler room. I don’t think I fully recovered from this shock until several years later when Mr O G’s renovations had progressed sufficiently for him to install central heating, mercifully in time for the birth of our second baby. The oil boiler thundered away in its room, the house was warm, oil cost 10 pence a GALLON – life was good!

In April, even now with all his experience, Mr O G finds it quite hard to produce a selection of vegetables. Leeks are still going strong, and some cabbages, while the baby greenhouse lettuces continue to provide support, but there won’t be lot more until the first spinach shows a few shoots. When you cut a cabbage, don’t pull up the root – cut a cross in the remaining stalk and you will get a few more cabbage leaves to help tide over until better things. Fruit still comes out of the bottles we prepared last year, or from the packs we froze. All activity is now centred on the seedlings. The first tomatoes are showing one or two leaves, and so are the squashes. Leeks are a forest. Marigolds, both french and african, are up, so are some dahlias. Mr O G prefers to grow his dahlias from seed each year because keeping the tubers through the winter is so fraught with hazard that they seldom succeed.

In my department the cinerarias are showing a nice surface of green, and morning glories have a second set of leaves. The nicotiana continue to sulk under the surface of their pots. I was so disappointed with the melon plants last year (6 beautiful plants produced just one melon, little bigger than a tennis ball) that I haven’t sown any this year.

Each morning we rush to the windowsill to count any new appearances – it is very exciting, but doesn’t make the dinner. The carrot crop was long since eaten and so were the celeriacs, although we still find the occasional parsnip. I shall probably be driven to buying some vegetables soon.

Back in 1964, before the garden really took off, we had to buy most things. In the garden we found a beautiful and prolific greengage tree, but you can’t just live on love and greengages. They had just about invented the supermarket, but these were in their infancy and could only be found in large towns. They certainly hadn’t penetrated to Tring. Here we had a shop called the International Stores, and it was in the building which is now Lloyds Pharmacy in the High Street. The International had heard about supermarkets and had daringly acquired some wire baskets and allocated an aisle where we could pick up our own cornflakes and custard powder and suchlike. There was a cash register by the door where a lady would ring up the price of the items before we left. Where it went wrong was that this lady was also the person who served behind the counter where they kept the bacon and cheese and butter. Therefore if you wanted bacon she would leave her till and go and wield the fearsome bacon cutting machine and get you whatever else you wanted from the counter we would now called ‘chilled’, only they hadn’t invented that word yet.

It soon became apparent to this lady that I knew so little about cooking that I didn’t even understand the difference between smoked and green bacon, so she very kindly would give me little lessons each week, cutting different types for me and explaining what to do with them. A lot of the Tring housewives would join in with these instructions – they had to, because they couldn’t leave the shop until she had finished and returned to her till. No-one seemed to mind. There didn’t seem to be the desperate sense of urgency there is today. Very few housewives then had employment outside the home, and so, although they certainly had plenty of hard work within their houses, they didn’t watch the clock like we do now. I had been obliged to resign from the Foreign Office when I got married. It was the rule. I don’t suppose they would get away with it now, although it is difficult to see how you could manage overseas postings while trying to live the rural idyll.

Anyway, I duly pursued my education in cooking and household management. I managed to plant a few bulbs, so
that I would have some flowers to put in a vase in the Spring. That was a start but it was a long time before I mastered the art of pruning so that I could look after the roses which had bloomed so fetchingly around the cottage door.

I was vaguely aware that in my mother’s well-ordered house, some bit of an animal had been roasted on a Sunday and the resulting meal had been delicious. So I consulted Isabella’s clever diagrams of animals, and selected what seemed to be a good piece for Sunday lunch. I then proceeded to the butcher – an awe-inspiring and powerful personage in the life of the housewife. He was in a little shop in one half of what is now Diffusion hairdressers. The other half was occupied by the everyday greengrocer. The posh greengrocer occupied superb premises in what is now the Post Office, but he was very expensive. The Post Office was in what is now the Italian restaurant and it was vast and impressive, but there was always a queue.

So I went to the butcher and asked for what Isabella had advised. I was chagrined to learn that it would cost 25% of my week’s housekeeping money. The butcher was a kind man, and seeing my dismay, showed me other cuts of meat and explained how to cook them. The patient ladies from the queue in the International Stores were getting to know me, and they too would join in with the advice. Thus I eventually learned to cook.

After a few years, a new shop opened in the high street, it was in the shop which is now Coral bookmakers. It was very small. You went in the door at one end, shuffled along an aisle where you could pick up your groceries and put them in a wire basket, and when you got to the other end, there was a till, and the door back to the street. The snag was that it was always full of people so that if you forgot anything in the short shuffle along the solitary aisle you couldn’t go back, you just had to ask the person behind you in the queue to pass it along. It was like chinese whispers – by the time the request had been passed right along the queue and returned as an item, it probably had nothing to do with what you had originally wanted. You just had to put up with it, and probably the person who handed it to you would explain how to use it. When you got to the till, the assistant would carefully enter the price of everything which was in and falling out of your basket, take your money and present you with a handful of green stamps. These you saved for a million years and then you could exchange them for a poker for your fire or some such household accoutrement.

The name of this shop was Tesco, and I loved it because I could get more for my money there than I could in the International Stores, but they weren’t so good at the cookery lessons.

I saw this morning that two seedlings of the giant striped stuffer tomatoes have come up. They are very small but at least they have germinated – always a result. Quite a few of Mr O G’s tomato seedlings are bigger and stronger than mine and he points out, not unreasonably, that he has made his choice of varieties after years of testing for the best – what do I expect from an unknown and ancient variety? I still cling to my visions of the superb meals my giant stuffers might produce.

The flower garden is looking good, despite everything the weather has thrown at it. Daffodils are now unfolding and they must have interbred because each year we have more and more different shapes and whorls and shades of colour. The snowdrops have lasted such a long time they have collided with the daffodils, making an unusual and attractive combination. Forsythia is slowly struggling into flower. Like the snowdrops, the hellebores have also had their season extended and they are now joined by the primroses and polyanthus. There were one or two crocuses but the moment they show the slightest colour the birds nip off their heads. I have never been able to resolve this problem.

It won’t be long before the slugs get going. I think we have tried everything in the book, to very little avail. The best thing has been the copper bands. When our hot water tank burst Mr O G, first having replaced it while taking the opportunity to instruct me in the art of this plumbing feat, then bore it off triumphantly and cut it into strips. These he wrapped around every plant container we have and they have lasted quite a few years. The slugs climbing up the pots will not cross them, but of course they can still leap cleverly from any adjacent plant or tree and land neatly and hungrily in my hostas.

Initially we were advised by the guru on Gardeners’ World to breed frogs. Frogs will and do eat a lot slugs. So Mr O G dug a huge pond and created a shangri-la for frogs with all kinds of water plants, sloping beaches, and hidy holes, together with water lilies and a Monet bridge as well. The frogs loved it. They came in great hordes to breed – usually the unmistakeable croaking begins towards the end of March (hasn’t happened yet this year) and the pond is literally filled with frogs, falling and climbing over one another in a breeding frenzy. After a few days they disappear whence they came and the pond is full of frogspawn. The frogs do indeed feast on the slugs – the snag is that the slugs breed faster than the frogs can eat. Guru didn’t mention that. We used to use slug bait but gave it up after we visited Jekka McVicar’s organic herb farm and she explained to us that the metaldehyde doesn’t only kill the slugs but also attracts them from miles around and moreover its effect lasts in the soil for five years without any further application. Horror!

Many and varied are the recommendations for beating slugs organically but few work very well. Ideally one would keep chickens which would eat the pests and turn them into eggs. We tried that, very many years ago, but the chickens steadily and inexplicably died and even Mr O G became disheartened and just took to growing vast quantities more than we need, because we have to share so much with the slugs.

So now we eagerly await the abating of this abominable East wind and the little touch of warmth which will start everything into growth. Plantings this month will include the potatoes which had to be postponed from Good Friday. After much careful studying of weather forecasts Mr O G has come to the regretful conclusion that this will probably not be before the middle of April.

It is time to prick out the lettuce seedlings, and to sow some more to keep the succession going. But naturally all these things must still take place under glass, or indeed on the window sills in the house. The broad beans are now planted in the greenhouse, and the peas and sweetcorn will be joining them shortly. Mr O G has developed the method of filling strips of guttering with compost and planting seeds into them inside the greenhouse (or a cold frame). As soon as the first few leaves develop and the weather is a bit better, he will dig a shallow trench in the garden and slide the contents of the gutter into it. This gives the plants a bit of a head start. It works for parsnips, beetroot and carrots. Broad beans, peas and sweetcorn need deeper pots, and Mr O G puts peas and sweet peas into cardboard inserts of toilet rolls (you have to save them up all year of course). Some people plant their broad beans directly into the ground but we have always found that they simply disappear, prey to the underground army of moles, voles, shrews, mice and other unmentionables, or simply the cold and wet. Peas and sweetcorn will have to stay in doors until danger of frost is passed – usually the middle of May. However, careful study of the weather will be key – there is simply no telling what will happen, frosts have happened in June before now.

It’s going to be a late season folks...........................................