‘Au cas où’ you need some wood, or a bag of fruit.

We’ve been getting in touch with our inner Ariègeois(e) today.

Our foraging country in the Ariège

We spent six years in France, living in the foothills of the Pyrenees in the Ariège, a département where almost everybody still had firm roots in the simple self-sufficient lifestyle of their forbears.  Nobody that we knew would have considered installing, as David Cameron recently has, a faux shepherd’s hut in the back garden.  Instead, most people had a serviceable shed, built of bits of this and that and adapted to personal requirements.

Nobody that we knew ever bought firelighters for their wood burning stove.  Instead, we’d all hang around as the weekly market packed up, rescuing the wooden fruit boxes, now empty of peaches and pears, which when broken up provide perfect kindling material.

Everyone we knew never left home without an ‘au cas où‘ (‘just in case’) bag, to fill with wild mushrooms, or walnuts, or sloes, or chestnuts, or apples, or any free food that came their way.

Foraging in the Ariège…..

That’s been us this week.  We don’t need a garden hut.  But we have got a wood-burning stove.  And today we’ve been re-purposing the wooden casing that our delivery of logs came in.  It’s soft wood, so we know we can only use it sparingly on our stove.  But it’s there – and we will use it.  So here we were, sawing it into manageable lengths, sorting and storing it.

We’re the odd-bods who gather the discarded fruit boxes at Ripon market. We’ve been breaking those up today too, for kindling.

 

Malcolm does a fine job of sawing up some wooden pallets.

And yesterday, our friend Gillian had us over to raid her plum trees.  We came back with a pail full of greengages, and a pail full of czars. Today was the day when we started to convert this ripe fruit into chutneys and cakes and hooch and crumbles.  Our French friends would definitely approve.

 

Snapshot Saturday: Elemental Parys Mountain

As soon as I saw that this week’s WordPress Photo Challenge was ‘elemental’, my mind flew back exactly a year.  This was when we were in Anglesey for a week with the boys.  This was when we visted Parys Mountain.

What an extraordinary place it is.  Its landscape is brutal, ravaged, yet strangely compelling, stained and despoiled by centuries and centuries of mining .  The copper ore found there was exploited as long ago as the Bronze Age.  The Romans knew it.  By the 1780s it was the largest copper mine in Europe, and the ore mined here was used to sheath the wooden hulks of the British Admiralty’s war ships, protecting them from seaweed, barnacles and shipworm.  Eventually, as the copper seams became exhausted the site was largely abandoned.  An industry that once employed up to 3,000 people was by 1840 giving work to a few men, underpaid, undernourished and ravaged by typhus. The site is stained by leaching ores and acids and pools of chemical waters.  A few grittily determined plants make their home here.

 

There’s still copper .  They’ve recently discovered zinc, lead, silver and gold.  Work at this extraordinary place continues.

‘Here we go making mulberry gin….’

My morning sortie to gather a bowlful of mulberries for breakfast (actually, forget the bowl.  Mulberries go directly to mouth) has suddenly got much harder.  Autumn’s in the air as I traipse across the dewy grass.  The mulberries are fewer.

The mulberry tree still bears fruit.

This isn’t just the fault of the weather.  We have some new residents in the garden.  A family of moorhens: mum, dad, and five chicks.  They like mulberries too.  The windfalls that used to be mine, all mine, are now theirs, all theirs.  But who could begrudge such charming tenants?

 

Anyway, I suddenly realised that if we were going to have our much talked-of mulberry gin in time for Christmas, we needed to act.  We had a houseful of helpers.  Not just Malcolm, but Emily and her boyfriend Miquel, over from Barcelona.

Out came the bowls.  Out came the small steps.  Out came the team.  We stripped the tree of any berries that were ripe enough to fall into our hands, as the moorhen chicks cheeped and protested from their lair in the flowerbed.

Emily concentrates on the task in hand.

The rest was easy.  Wash the berries.  Half fill an empty bottle with gin.  Poke berries into bottle.  Add sugar.  Argue about whether to follow the recipe that suggests adding a handful of roasted almonds or not.  Decide to leave almonds out today, but add them to the next batch.  Screw cap on bottle.  Shake.  Place in cupboard with note to self to shake bottle daily for a couple of weeks, then wait for months.  That’s it.  Tidy up.  Before Christmas we’ll strain off the gin, re-bottle it … and look forward to sampling it on Christmas Day.

How many people does it take to fill a mulberry gin bottle?

Or … if you’re on our Christmas present list, you might get a bottle too.

Mulberry gin in the making.

Snapshot Saturday: the texture of tulips

Last week, we were at the Bowes Museum.  This place, with its unusual history and exhilarating present deserves a post all of its own soon.

It happened to be the first day of ‘Turkish Tulips’.  This exhibition though, isn’t displayed in a dedicated space in the museum.  Instead, the artworks chosen have been sited next to existing displays, situated on a grand staircase, or even smuggled into other exhibitions on display. It’s brilliant.  These juxtapositions illuminate both the permanent collection and the works chosen for the exhibition.

Look at this.  We found it in a room of paintings largely from the 17th and eighteenth centuries.  Well, maybe this photo doesn’t convince, but in real life, in glowing, luminous detail, it did. It’s a Dutch 17th century still life, right?

Five tulips in a Wan-Li vase, Rob and Nick Carter, 2016.

Well, no.  It was created not by a Dutchman in the 17th century, but by a British couple, Rob and Nick Carter in 2016.  This is no oil painting on board or canvas, but an image on an iPad.

 

Stop.  Look.  Take your time.  Watch as those tulips, with their waxy-textured petals and burnished stems gradually lose their lustre.  Their colour fades.  The stems become limp. Later still, those once glossy petals take on the texture and appearance of crisp autumn leaves as the exhausted stems slump slowly to the ground.  In some 25 minutes you have watched the life and death of a vase of tulips, filmed over a ten day period.

That film might have been speeded up.  But we, as viewers were slowed down.  And having taken the time to watch this captivating film, we were ready to give other works in the same gallery our fuller attention too.

This is my response to this week’s WordPress photo challenge: textures.  As photos, mine don’t really pass muster this week.  Taking a photo of an iPad image in a public gallery is not really all that easy though.

 

The multi-tasking Handlebards

This is the scenery near Leyburn in Wensleydale. This is Bolton Castle.

Bolton Castle, Wensleydale.

Imagine sitting in the grounds of this 14th century castle as evening draws in, a picnic beside you, to watch The Handlebards’ version of Shakespeare’s  ‘As You Like It’.  You know this will be no ordinary performance.  The Handlebards are four female actors who cycle the length and breadth of the kingdom, with all they need for the tour crammed into two bicycle carriers. At each performance, they take every part in Shakespeare’s comedy of bizarre mistaken identity, family breakdown, love and lust.

So far so good.  But this is England in July.  We’d had two days of almost incessant rain.  In a downpour, the Handlebards cycled the 26 (mainly uphill) miles from Ripon, where they’d performed at the Workhouse Museum.

The Castle has a Great Hall.  Performing here rather than on a soggy greensward seemed a better idea in the circumstances.  And it was.  During the evening it rained.  And then rained again.  The audience never noticed a thing.  We were too busy admiring the way four women became twenty or more people.

A simple, but infinitely adaptable stage set.

To become a man, all they had to do was don a codpiece adorned with a tennis or cricket ball.  A selection of hats served to distinguish one character from another.  Bicycle handlebars identified the wearers as sheep. Your character needs to disappear stage right to enter stage left as someone else?  Easy.  Leave the person whom you were addressing in charge of your hat, and s/he will continue to talk to it.  With the flourish of a stick, a youth became faithful, ancient Adam.  Orlando and his family were all twoubled by an inability to pwonounce the letter ‘r’.  And so it went on, as one inventive twist or piece of slapstick followed another.  Shakespeare would have loved it.

This is the only photo I have of the Handlebards, and it’s out of focus at that. They take a bow as we give them a more than enthusiastic standing ovation.

I’m now a Handlebards groupie.  And the fun doesn’t end here.  In other venues, having travelled there on other bicycles, a troupe of male actors is giving similarly irreverent treatment to ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’.  We’re on the mailing list.

The rain let up a bit in the interval. Here’s the view.

Snapshot Saturday: Mulberries for the taking

The mulberry tree outside the study window.

See this tree?  I look at it every day, from the study window.  As trees go, it’s not so special to look at.  But for two months in summer it gives satisfaction to three households, by providing them with mulberries, day after day after day.

Mulberries ripe and under ripe.

Although they grow on trees, mulberries are a bit like loganberries, or a cross between raspberries and blackberries.  They’re tart, yet sweet, and very moreish indeed.  I can’t pass the tree without scavenging on the lawn for a handful to eat.

Yet another bowlful of mulberries

I collect a dishful every morning to put on my cereal. We add them to summer pudding, to yoghurt, to ice cream. We bake with them. We make syrups, cordials and mulberry gin with them. And the tree goes on and on, producing more and more fruits, every day from July to September.

The birds ignore them.  We don’t.  Such a satisfying job, collecting our daily ration of free fruit.

Here’s a recipe I tried out this week.  It’s adapted from one of Nigel Slater’s reliably tasty offerings.  No mulberries?  Poor you.  Use raspberries, tayberries, loganberries or blackberries instead. They’ll be good too.

Mulberry and apricot cake

  • 175 g. butter
  • 175 g. golden caster sugar
  • c. 200 g. apricots
  • 170 g. mulberries
  • 2 eggs
  • 175 g. self-raising flour
  • 100 g. ground nuts – I used a mixture of walnuts and almonds.  Hazelnuts are good too.
  • 2 tablespoons of milk.

20 cm. loose-bottomed cake tin, lined.  Oven temp 180 degrees (Gas 4)

  1. Stone and roughly chop the apricots.
  2. Cream butter and sugar together till pale and fluffy.
  3. Beat the eggs lightly and add to the creamed mixture a little at a time, adding a spoonful of the flour if necessary to prevent curdling.
  4. Slowly incorporate the flour and ground nuts, then the milk, then the apricots and mulberries.
  5. Scrape the mixture into the cake tin.  I added a few extra mulberries on the top  – this was decoration enough on the finished cake.
  6. Bake for an hour and ten minutes.  Test with a skewer.
  7. Leave to cool, then turn out onto a plate.  Eat.

    Someone’s been eating my mulberry cake ….

And that’s my offering for this week’s WordPress photo challenge: satisfaction

 

 

This is not just any mug …..

Mug.

‘Caffeine Queen’

My favourite cup.

Memories in a drink.

Twenty years.  Cracked, broken, enduring.

Ellie gave me this mug – oh – more than twenty years ago.  Straight away, it appealed to me, though it’s not an item of any refinement.  It’s not fine china. It’s not hand made, nor hand painted. Nevertheless, this piece of unremarkable pottery soon became not just another mug, but my Caffeine Queen.

I’m a caffeine queen too.  Make me begin the day without a strong shot of coffee inside me and I’ll be simultaneously cranky and listless for hours on end. Caffeine Queen and I are united daily at the breakfast table.

She lived with us in Leeds.  She travelled with us when we moved to Harrogate.  Then she went to France, and returned to England when we too came back.

Overnight visitors didn’t realise that she was mine, and mine alone.  If they chose to drink from her when helping themselves to coffee, or even worse, tea, I’d sulk and fume in silence.  Silent, because even I knew I was being ridiculous and unreasonable.

Today though, at breakfast time, I noticed something.  A long black crack running straight down Caffeine Queen’s head.

I’ve drunk from her for the very last time.   If I fill her with hot coffee she may shatter and break beyond repair. If I’m careful, she may see out her days – and mine – in a new role as my favourite pencil pot.

The Queen is dead.  Long live the Queen.