A time for battening down the hatches and enjoying fruits of summer labour

GALES, storms, tempests, call them what you will, Shetland was battered, belted, thrashed and flayed by the winds, rain and hail just last week and roofs, fences and trees were tested to the limit.

Almost overnight, leaves van­ished from their branches and autumn was wiped out in a wild wintry frenzy. On Friday night we watched the sea leaping up at Blacksness where a mad driver was swirling his car through the salt water spray which fled from each bursting crest.

On Saturday night you couldn’t even see the pier. The wind was so much wilder that it ripped the tips of the waves the very second they began to form and lashed them into smoking spume. Clouds of atomised sea water flew downwind. A layer built up over the sea surface like fog, obliterating everything below it and cutting the whole scene in half.

It was a time to be grateful for shelter, for warmth, for light and a time to hunt rapidly for candles, matches, safety candlesticks and torches. Elements at war usually end up roaring and flashing at each other. Sure enough, thunder and lightning soon followed and the power went off.

What a time to discover than the oil lamp was only half full and that the wick had burned short a year ago, and was unable to reach the fuel level. We tried filling up the reservoir with small pebbles from my geology jars and at last a broad flame rose up to full gleam. Then, as we carefully replaced the glass shade, the lights came back on. Typical! Woe betide us if we don’t learn from it, and fail yet again to stock up on oil and new wicks while we remember.

As if the gales weren’t sufficient unto the day, snow followed. It has been such a memorably fine year that I had begun to take negative weather forecasts with a pinch of salt, but Monday swept the doubt away and Tuesday caught up with it and buried it in a snow drift.

There were at least three kinds of snow. Fine, dry powder gathered against ledges and edges overnight, outlining raised features of all sizes, from drainage lines in fields to door trims on vehicles, creating, in the half light, a kind of double reverse negative image.

After daylight arrived, the sky turned rapidly heavier and more menacing in the north-west and small, thin flutters of flakes shivered across the cold morning, but only for scattered minutes.

Then almost before you could duck for cover, massed armies of huge, wet clumps of snow rained down, hurling themselves onto the chill earth and piling up into thick white mattresses. Driving becomes more nerve-racking and I keep finding excuses not to go out on errands. But enough cold and darkness, let’s cheer ourselves up with a bit of colour and heat.

We are eking them out, the red, the yellow and the striped red and orange. At the rate of a few a day we may still be enjoying the sharp, sweet tingle of summer for weeks yet.

Ah, home grown tomatoes. As the fruits burst in the mouth and the juices dazzle past the taste buds, all the long, painstaking efforts of summer, the feeding, the watering, the trimming, the pollinating, seem wholly worthwhile.

Green ones get turned regularly and examined for flaws or signs of deterioration. They should gradually shift shade as their flesh ripens. But eventually the gaudy, treasured store will be gone and we will have to resort to commercial substitutes.

It seems strange that such a familiar fruit/vegetable was once wild. I remember the wonderful tangles of wild tomatoes growing like weeds through the complex glasshouses of Guernsey’s Tomato Museum.

Thin, spindly stems, with frail green candelabrae, studded with tiny scarlet berries, the size of black­currants. The stems trailed among the paved walk ways and spread themselves across individual display beds of the hundreds of different varieties of tomato in cultivation today, as well as a few trial plants of new and exciting cultivars.

We saw some of the very first roast beef tomatoes; there were early versions of what became the cherry miniatures. Some were heart shaped, others long and thin. There were tomatoes of all hues of red, yellow and orange, as well as brown and almost black, and a number which looked anything but eatable.

The vast, living display was enriched by information boards with stories and prints, archive material and facsimiles of historic voyages to the new world, collecting the great, multi great grandparents of today’s modern redskin.

My Granny Slee remembered tomatoes first appearing on the scene in London when she was courting. They were marketed as fruits then, rather than salad vegetables and were called “Love Apples”. Her young man bought her one and she was very disappointed by the taste.

Mum as a child in the 1920s, while staying with her cousin, was persuaded to try them sprinkled with sugar, chopped up with lettuce in a bowl and eaten with a spoon. Her Aunt had adopted the practice in America where the family had lived for a while after farming became impossible in the aftermath of the agricultural depression.

A flurry of interest has accompanied the launch of the latest tomatoese novelty, a genetically modified, dark, purplish fruit which is claimed to have remarkable cancer preventing properties in mice. I heard of a non-GM tomato too, grown in London by a gardener with native American links. That one is also a dark, purplish fruiting variety and was known to and grown by certain tribes for generations.

We met a Guernsey man during the summer and waxed lyrical on the museum. His face broke the news before his words did. The wonderful place is no more. Bulldozed, built over and gone!

Next week there is another wild, traditional Shetland historical link with the ancient Americas, but until then, keep warm and well and don’t forget the birds.

Jill Slee Blackadder


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