Spring up

The sight of asparagus spears poking up from the earth is a wonderful moment in the gardening year. The tips emerge looking like something prehistoric; reptilian heads covered in overlapping scales tinged purple, sniffing the air.

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After finding the light, they tend to grow quickly, each day rising higher. Sometimes, its path impeded, a stalk will curve and curl like a fiddlehead fern, but most reach straight for the sky.

To harvest asparagus you should use a sharp knife and cut the stalk slightly below the surface. With mature plants over three years old you can keep cutting the spears as they appear for a month or so. By June, however, it’s time to stop, allowing the plants to succeed in completing their mission of developing tall airy fronds. By doing so, you allow asparagus to store the energy supply they require to come back with vigor next year.

We’ve had two miserly servings from our little asparagus bed so far. We are hungry for more and eagerly watch for new eruptions. I keep saying we will “do it properly” and buy new crowns and plant them in a large, perfectly prepared bed – soft and deep, dark with manure and free from weeds. But since I haven’t arranged this yet, we are left with our few, hand-me-down plants. Perhaps the spears taste so exquisite because we know there will be no glut to work through, just a brief, delectable spell of ultra-fresh, verdant deliciousness.

 

 

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Kefalonia

A week on this aromatic island off the Ionian coast, where every morning we woke up to this view of Ithaka:

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View from the hills outside Evreti

“Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you’re destined for.
But don’t hurry the journey at all.”

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The recent theory is that our view did not take in Ithaka, Homer’s Ithaka, after all (it’s now supposed to have been the Paliki peninsula on the western side of Kefalonia itself). No worries; we were in no hurry to actually get to Ithaka. Not when there were limestone shingle beaches like this one to explore:

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Or tavernas like this one, in Agia Efimia:

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Grilled sardines, stewed octopus and rabbit for lunch

Or cave lakes like Melissani to circumnavigate: ‘Visitors can tour the lake on a boat and admire the wonderful colours in the water, which constantly change as the sunlight falls on it through the aperture in the roof above.’

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Roadside beach north of Sami

One thing a picture can’t convey is the island’s soundscape: a ceaseless rasp of cicadas in the noon heat, together with the tinkle of bells from goats grazing on the hillsides. No wonder some of us drowsed off while chilling on the veranda.

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From the town of Assos we climbed to the Venetian castle on the peninsula above (once used as a prison – but with views to die for).

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Kefalonia’s recent history is marked by two traumas: the massacre of 3,000 Italian soldiers of the Aqui Division by invading Germans in 1943 (inspiring a novel and the inevitable Hollywood treatment), and an earthquake a decade later, which leveled most of the island’s Venetian buildings. Today it builds its economy on the export of Med staples: olive oil, wine (Robola is the native grape) and tourism.

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Khoi pond in Fiskardo

The most intriguing historical angle on the island may be its hosting of an early Christian gnostic sect, the Carpocratians. Who they, you ask? Groupies of Carpocrates, who made Kefalonia his base in the 2nd century CE. Irenaeus wrote disapprovingly that Carpocratians claimed themselves to be above Mosaic law, believing differences of class and property ownership to be unnatural, and also that in order to leave the earthly realm behind one had license to do ‘all those things which we dare not either speak or hear of.’ Early Ionian hippie commies, in other words.

In the end, though, it’s the sea we’ll remember: turquoise and acquamarine, translucent to a depth of over twenty feet, saltier than the Atlantic and warm as bathwater.

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Beach looking north to Lefkada’s mountains

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Return of the blog

It’s been a while. Seeing as how we’re in the late stage of one of those rare, near-perfect summers in the middle of middle England, though, it’s time to re-boot and take stock. First a look back at the interim since September 2013, beginning with a sample from last year’s harvest:

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Boltardy, Crimson King, Golden

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Borlotti beans

An October chestnut gathering expedition to Crackley Wood, with transatlantic help:

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Putting the allotment to bed in November:

Putting allotment to bed

Seasonal cheer in the dark days:

Community hut Xmas tree

Inauguration of the new community hut, an idea of Volutina’s carried to completion with the help of many hands

N & K at Saxon Mill

Sláinte!

The ritual New Year’s hail to the light from a hilltop in Ilmington:

Ilmington shadows

Spring visitors:

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Late January, Aston Cantlow. Thanks for visiting, Aunt Gretchen!

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Glad too that Erika and John could visit. Herewith the album cover for our new band, Vichy Douche Slab (name inspired by object in the spa museum, Leamington). We will literally rock you.

The allotment in mid-April:

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New fruit trees, apple and pear

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A lichtsome Easter voyage up to Glasgow, the isle of Mull and Iona, to see our friends before the oil wars break out at Gretna Green after this September’s referendum:

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Bird? Plane? Independence?

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Sketching en plein air

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This may be the solution for our shed roof

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Hebrides or the Med?

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Front garden in Iona

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Fragment of the abbey on Iona

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Our column outside the Iona PO

An early May gathering at the new community hut:

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Constructing an insect house with Bonnie’s help

Later in the month we stayed in London courtesy of visiting grandparents, checking out this year’s borders at Kew Gardens:

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In June an al fresco supper of peas, beans and strawberries:

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And harvesting sweet peas in July.

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Under a dome of plastic, sparklers and cherry belles

Take a peek, under the hoops, at what is growing in my little polytunnel:

Radish and rocket race ahead, snug in their plastic tube.

Radish and rocket race ahead, snug in their plastic tube.

Polytunnels are not pretty. The plastic sheeting glinting in the sun, rippling in the breeze on plastic hoops, does not blend easily into the earthy, natural delights of my garden. It’s an interloper, an alien, definitely unnatural and inorganic. It doesn’t belong!

Aesthetically unpleasing, polytunnels caught my eye – and then impressed me. Gee, those heat-trapping and insect-repelling domes really produce the goods! I became envious of several massive, walk-in tunnels that have sprouted up on the allotment. Look at those tomato vines, dripping with non-blighted fruit… Check out those brussels sprouts and purple sprouting broccoli, not a cabbage white on them…

And so early this year – keen to get growing, anxious not to have such a dismal season as last year – when I stumbled across a basic kit of plastic sheeting and hoops for £5, I took the plunge:

7th April. The structure is erected and seeds - lettuce, sorrel, radish, rocket - sown within its protective atmosphere.

7th April. The structure is erected and seeds – lettuce, sorrel, radish, rocket – sown within its protective atmosphere. 

So far, so mixed. All the seeds I planted got off to a great start, especially when you consider that the spring has been very cold and delayed. Then three quarters of my lettuce seedlings, looking so succulent, disappeared. Our dear friends the slugs also like warm and protected mini-environments, unfortunately. But they have eschewed the sorrel, radish, and rocket, which I have begun to harvest. Only slightly deterred – it’s early in the season! – I responded by filling the gaps with misticanza, dill, and parsley seeds.

"Sparkler" radish bulk up.

“Sparkler” radish bulk up.

Am I a convert? We’ll see. I’m thinking of placing my tender aubergine plants, currently in pots on my dining room floor, under the protective polythene arch when the time comes.

Beautiful Garden or Successful Plot – do I have to choose?

Venezia

Spring break in Venice, ‘half fairy-tale and half tourist trap’ according to Thomas Mann – but fortunately we found a spot in the third half, working Venice, in the remote northwest of the Cannaregio district. A low-key but atmospheric neighborhood, near the Ghetto and the Sant’Alvise vaporetto stop, it’s a place where there are hardware stores and supermarkets as well as canalside trattorias, where kids ply their scooters home from school, and where – we suspect – allotments are tended by the locals, just up from the park adjoining Calle della Rotonda where we were staying.

Looking along the Fondamenta Riformati

Looking along the Fondamenta Riformati

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A bit of calcio practice outside Sant’Alvise

But it’s still Venice. Water, water everywhere – especially our first two days, when it rained like Genesis, and Andrew, Kate, Naomi and Jacob had to ford alta aqua levels of rising lagoon on the way back from dinner one night. Someone – maybe the Rough Guide? – has pointed out that no city is both so closely involved with the rhythms of nature and at the same time so completely an artifact of human ingenuity and construction.

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Where brick meets water

Steps into greeny depths

Steps into greeny depths

You can easily forget Manhattan’s an island, but in Venice you never do. The great fish market at Rialto is another reminder – we wended our way down there on our second morning and had a hard time choosing dinner. The produce was overwhelming too – pyramids of purple artichokes (carciofi), blood oranges, salate, and herby bunches of what turned out to be young hop shoots (bruscandoli), which we used to make risotto.

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A corner on the Rialto market

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Didn’t get to try these, alas

Crates of chokes

Unloading crates of chokes

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Fruits of the sea – orate (bream)

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It’s what’s for dinner

Venice is improbable because it’s built on sticks, stones on top of silt and sticks, but what’s also improbable is the crazy profusion of styles and structures and artworks, sacred and secular, that rise on top of its rickety foundations. East meets West, dark meets light, stone meets sea, and everything curves like a mermaid’s tail. No wonder Ruskin was knocked for six when he first encountered the city. A few of the standout places for us on this trip were the Madonna dell’Orto, Tintoretto’s own parish church, the jewel-box that is Santa Maria dei Miracoli, the collections at the Accademia and Peggy Guggenheim museums, the canvas-packed Scuola Grande di San Rocco – a kind of orgone box for aesthetic stimulation – and the Palazzo Grimani, where ceiling art is raised to the level of, well, art.

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Madonna dell’Orto – in our ‘hood

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The creamy gorgonzola marblework of Miracoli

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Puh-lease – sculpture at the Peggy Guggenheim

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Zeus’s eagle abducts Ganymede through the ceiling of the Grimani Palace

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Mirrored hallway at Grimani

The most haunting of the places we visited was Torcello, both for the mosaics in the basilica and the island’s air of being abandoned long ago.

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Vineyard and statuary on Torcello

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Outside the Basilica di Santa Maria Assunta (founded 639 AD)

Venice is also an intensely social city – home of such excellent traditions as the giro d’ombra and cicchetteria – and we were lucky to be able to socialize with the Vienna wing of the family.

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Outside the Accademia

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Inside the Guggenheim

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Cousins by the wellhead

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Abbracio from a nephew

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Enjoying a spritz con bitter by San Trovase

“It is held by some that this word VENETIA signifies VENI ETIAM, that is, come again, and again, for however oft you come, you will always see new things, and new beauties.” So says Jacopo Sansovino, and he ought to know.

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Arrivederci

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Ciao bella

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One could get used to this spritz ritual

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Pollici in su, Venezia

Rhubarb rising

IMAG0485Crimson knobs emerge. Then pale, crinkled leaves slowly unfurl. Cherry-red stalks begin to elongate. The rhubarb is on the march!

Last year I divided the one clump we had (acquired originally as a give-away left on a street corner) into three or four sections, discarding the dead fibrous center. I feed each with a nice helping of manure and, reinvigorated, the plants responded with a burst of growth. Rhubarb loves nutrient-rich soil, the richer the better. It’s no surprise that the new plant that has come on the most is the one planted next to the compost heap.

This year I may employ an upturned, black plastic garbage can to plunge one of these rhubarb clusters into artificial darkness. Deprived of light, the stalks will grow tall (seeking the sun) but remain rosily pink and tender. The leaves, unable to photosynthesize, will remain pale yellow and wrinkled. In this manner, I will produce “forced rhubarb” – a delicacy prized in the late winter months. After this early harvest, the bucket is taken off and the plant suffers no lasting effects, though it must not be forced again for several years.

Have you ever eaten poached rhubarb (roasted in the oven with a scattering of vanilla sugar and some freshly squeezed orange juice)? Sweet and tender and stunningly ruby-red.

Before the majority of spring bulbs are in bloom, rhubarb offers the vegetable gardener a vibrant, colorful display that heralds spring.

Before the majority of spring bulbs are in bloom, rhubarb offers the vegetable gardener a vibrant, colorful display that heralds spring.