Wednesday, 10 July 2013

July 10th - A swarm of bees, haymaking and Blue Peter Birthday cakes

Dear Nigel,

The long promised Summer has arrived. Andy Murray wins at Wimbledon at last and the haymaking has started in earnest all around us. The sun casts long shadows in the balm of a late afternoon and there is 'honey still for tea'. This morning I  passed by an old farm wall, too high for me to peep over. Great trees shadowed me and from the other side of the wall came a low murmuring. As I got nearer more voices joined in and the sound got louder. The energy was palpable, the chatter incessant. It was a sound I remember from another life when my dear old friend Raymond would arrive with his straw bee skep, hat and veil, and deftly move the swarm into a new hive with his ungloved hands. He used to say that he'd been stung that many times that he no longer felt it. With his silver pony tail and gypsy earrings he cut a dash wherever and watching him handle the bees was a lesson in gentleness itself.

There is a man at the other side of the village who keeps bees and sells his honey to those in the know. My friend Yuri has bad hay fever this year and we are hoping that a little local honey might help; the idea being that minute traces of local pollen in the honey act as a kind of inoculation. The evidence appears slim but the idea seems a sound one nevertheless; and, without the huge machinery of a GlaxoSmithKline (whose website states they are 'dedicated to improving the quality of human life by enabling people to do more, feel better and live longer.' - when perhaps a better diet, a little exercise and who knows, maybe even a little local honey might do the same.) there is probably not the imperative.

The weekend was dominated by a combined children's party for Sophie and Molly. As has long been the tradition in this house the children put their requests in - Pepper Pig with a crown on for Molly, this year, and  a bee with flowers for Sophie. The cakes when finished are more Blue Peter than Jane Asher - but we like it that way. The one year that I managed to surpass myself and make something that looked like it could potentially be saleable, I found that I was surprisingly disappointed and couldn't work out why. The cake - a  Thomas the Tank Engine, for Tom - was just like the photograph in the book, the colours all the right shade of icing, and yet something was missing. That 'something', I have since come to realise, is that 'homemade' look - like Alison Pearson's bashed-up bought mince pies - that show that love and blood, sweat and guts went into this  and not just a credit card over the counter at the Supermarket.

There is a picture of my cat Martha ( the other Martha in this house) outside your garden gate in July's entry in your diary. She's probably working out how to remove the 'finger-licking chicken' (page 274) from the plate whilst you fuss around with the lighting trying to take a good shot. And she would, that cat has lightening speed. We had Roast chicken in the garden yesterday and I had to have guards watching the meat tray as I took the plates outside. Now I see she's round at your place trying her luck.

The gooseberries are almost ripe for picking. I squeeze one every few days just to check. I don't think they will suffer the fate of the currants who, unless I cover them pretty sharpish with nets as soon as they start to colour, will be decimated in minutes by the birds, but I am looking forward to a decent crop this summer. You are making 'Pork chops and gooseberry sauce' (page 282) with a little cider or vermouth added in which 'the gooseberries will collapse somewhat and make their own sauce.' The sauce is slightly acidic and sharp, the way a good apple sauce should be, cutting the fat of the pork.

More than any herb, without possibly the exception of Tarragon to which I am strangely addicted, it is the Basil plant that reigns throughout the summer. As you point out, 'it loves warmth but it hates to be cooked for more than a few minutes.' But covered in oil and tucked into a roast pepper it stands a chance of giving back some of that summer sunshine that went into its making. I like to make Basil oil when there is not enough leaves for making pesto. And as you'll know, the sheer quantity of basil leaves needed to make one little meal of pesto makes it a very occasional delicacy. The recipe you are preparing basil sauce for is 'Mussel soup with tomato and basil' (page 279). The sauce is left as a thick thread of green which trickles through each bowl of soup.


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