ABOUT a fortnight ago, Lily the Supreme Illustrator and I motored south into the Scottish Borders, where we had the most divine lunch imaginable.
Many of the culinary highlights in my life come courtesy of Society Lady, an artist on stage as well as in the kitchen. Her recipes for green lentils with bacon and celeriac, and for gazpacho, a chilled Spanish soup made with raw cucumber, tomato, peppers, bread and garlic, have featured in this column. She also makes a mean caponata, which is a Sicilian roast aubergine and tomato salad, flavoured with vinegar, sugar, capers and green olives.
Sadly, it’s pointless to make either gazpacho or caponata from locally bought stuff, as the raw ingredients lack the full flavour necessary for such dishes; I’ve yet to find a ripe aubergine in a Shetland supermarket.
Home ripening isn’t an option either, as the fruits are picked far too early, long before their starch and sugar ratio has tipped in favour of the latter. This means they rot rather than ripen in storage.
I usually stock up whenever I’m south, buying these delicious fruits (they are fruits, not vegetables) by the caseload from Asian grocer shops or the German supermarket chain Lidl. They not only keep for weeks, but also ripen; the tomatoes turn a deep, dark red, the peppers increase in sweetness, and the skin of the cucumbers eventually turn a nice greenish yellow to signal maximum flavour. Not the slightest hint of mould, rot or mush anywhere – it’s almost miraculous.
Back to that lunch, prepared, for a change, by High Maintenance Husband. It was simplicity itself and consisted of a salad made from freshly picked leaves and sweet, pea-sized vine tomatoes, pasta cooked al dente and – the ultimate bliss – fresh chanterelles sautéed in a little butter and olive oil.
It must have been 20 years since I last tasted – and smelled – fresh chanterelles (Cantherellus cibarius). These small, firm forest mushrooms are a bright egg yolk yellow, have a delicate apricot scent and a subtle nutty flavour. They are found in the forests near HMH and SL’s hideaway in the borders, but their precise locations are a well-kept secret (in many parts of Europe this mushroom is rare or even extinct now due to over collecting).
How I wish I had them in my garden, and who knows, some mycelium (the underground part), might come in with a tree before we pop our clogs. We already get fruiting bodies of delicious ceps (Boletus edulis), as well as birch and larch boletus in the garden, and James has a knack of spotting them before the slugs do.
Incidentally, B. edulis grows on the top of Ronas Hill, a sure sign that Shetland was once completely forested.
Dessert was served before the main course and eaten on the hoof, while strolling the grounds. HMH is restoring a large garden and has started planting an orchard, where an ancient sprawling black currant bush has survived against all odds, especially browsing by deer and rabbits.
Blackcurrants are easy to grow in Shetland but I’ve never come across a cultivar of such sweetness and superbly pungent flavour. Cuttings taken about now, even from such an ancient shrub, should root in well-drained soil, covered with a piece of opaque plastic to stop their leaves from wilting.
Few things are as evocative as smell and taste when it comes to tapping into long forgotten childhood events. My first wild strawberries in over three decades had just that effect. They grew abundantly among the slabs of a paved terrace in the garden of HMH’s neighbours, who gave us permission to pick a few handfuls.
As a child my siblings and I spent many happy hours sitting in a large, sunny forest clearing, having our fill of wild strawberries. They’re much less abundant now, since the practice of clear felling has been replaced with a more selective approach and such sun-drenched clearings have become a thing of the past.
“Alpine Strawberry” plants frequently turn up in garden centres, invariably in the guise of “improved” varieties such as Fragaria vesca ‘Semperflorens’ or F.v. ‘Baron Solemacher’. I’ve yet to find out what these improvements consist of, apart from perhaps a longer fruiting season, as their flavour comes nowhere near those tiny aromatic berries found in the wild.
Look for the real thing, Fragaria vesca, the true species without a cultivar name, and plant it in the sunniest place you can find. A paved area, with some additional warmth reflected by the stones would be ideal. You won’t get a bumper harvest, but the flavour is so intense that a little goes a long way. This strawberry is easily propagated from seed or by division in spring; it produces no runners.
On my return to Shetland, Lea Gardens’ strawberry season was just about drawing to a close, with the raspberries kicking in straight away. Unless the canes are carefully netted – I use old lace curtains – the blackbirds will go with the lot.
I wouldn’t mind them having a little treat now and again if only they had better table manners. Taking a beak-full from each fruit, leaving the rest, while dropping bits all over the floor, is too messy and wasteful for my liking. Perhaps I’ll find some time over the winter for teaching Blanche and her tribe how to behave in polite society.
Blackbirds love cherries too, and I’m wondering if my friend Angus is sharing his or is busy stitching together some net curtains. He phoned me the other day to let me know that his Prunus ‘Stella’ is laden with fruit, ripened out of doors at Frakkafield. That’s a rare event in Shetland – the only other outdoor fruiting I know of happened a number of years ago at Helendale in Lerwick – both undoubtedly due to above average summer sunshine and warmth.
My offer to drive over straightaway to ascertain if the cherries were of good enough quality to merit description in my column was accepted but sadly had to be retracted by me due to a lack of funds. For a thorough testing of density, crunch, acidity, sweetness and flavour, one needs to eat at least a kilo which, given the somewhat inflated price of £1 per cherry is not feasible on my meagre income.
Alas, there was consolation at hand. Stowaways in imported plants are, more often than not, of an undesirable nature. A bramble arrived thus some years ago, has long since escaped the pot of its host and rooted into a gravel path. It flowered blandly and faithfully each summer and this year has presented me with a small crop of very large and very tasty tayberries (a cross between a raspberry and a blackberry).
Enough of sweet fruits. It’s time to catch up with the vegetables, all sown and planted on 16th June. Our vegetable field is looking splendid, and we are pulling our first leeks and turnips; the tatties are about to come into flower, and there’s an abundance of spinach, Swiss chard, salad leaves and dill.
The leeks came from two different local sources in the form of seedlings, both ‘Musselburgh’: one lot were widely spaced and already growing fat in their containers; the other, sown very thickly into plastic cells and left un-thinned, made for rather spindly plants which are having a hard time to catch up.
All brassicas were bought locally too and, with one exception, are doing very well. My regular readers may remember the rave reviews I gave Calabrese ‘Arcadia’ last year, a green sprouting broccoli that cropped from July until December, then produced some more small spears during March and April. This year’s nameless plants are starting to flower, which is very disappointing.
Another brilliant 2007 performer was the turnip ‘Atlanta’. Having sown them thickly, we used the steamed thinnings as “horta”, dressed with olive oil and lemon juice, had the first tennis ball sized turnips as radishes, then ate them as a vegetable until we grew sick of them and fed the rest to the ponies. ‘Purple Top’, this year’s choice, is bolting all over the place. It has a nice peppery flavour but is too coarse and densely textured for my liking.
I know I always harp on about this, but these examples demonstrate how very important it is to pick the right cultivar. This is also a very important issue for local growers who sell vegetable transplants in the spring. It’s of no use at all to the gardener to buy a tray of plants labelled cabbage, or cauliflower or leek.
Of even less use are the pretty pictures showing – you’ve guessed it – a cabbage, or a cauliflower, or a leek. Please give us their full names so we can find out which perform and which don’t, so we can buy accordingly the following year.
Mr Gentleman has just walked in, waving a letter – not from Society Lady, as is the norm, but from his arch rival High Maintenance Husband, inviting him to stay with them at their Borders pied-à-terre.
Knowing HMH and his nasty ways, there must be some ulterior motive: I guess he’s looking for a cheap solution to his rabbit problems. It goes without saying that Mr G wants to spend time with his beloved SL, and despite all my pleading won’t be dissuaded from going. I’ve advised him to be on his guard (one never knows what that man is scheming), and not to forget the rabbit flea deterrent when packing his trunk.