Harvesting the Hill

Recorded and knit together by WSM
First aired on KWMR.org May 20 2020

‘It’s a Debortle’ became the catch phrase for any minor/major hiccup that occurred during the post-production of Coup 53. A blazer-clad and panama-hatted Brit arriving back in England from Iran was caught on camera and asked to describe the exodus of the British from Abadan in 1951. The journalists surrounding him didn’t seem to notice his grin as he repeated ‘Debortle’ while not giving any hint of the word’s origin. ‘It’s a Debortle,’ became the cry and the tee-shirt slogan for Coup 53 and in more than one London household referencing the situation we are all in, around the world.

The UK government’s handling of the Corona19 epidemic in England has been a debortle. But watching the medical staff at the Saint-Pierre Hospital in Brussels, Belgium as they silently turned their backs on Prime minister Sophie Wilmes when she arrived to visit, we see that England is not alone. Countries all over Europe, and continents throughout the world continue to struggle with this itsy-bitsy virus that maybe is here to teach us some sort of a lesson.

Even though this government says we can begin to venture out, as long as we ‘Stay Alert’, like many others we continue to stay alone at home. Guidelines from the “Evenin’ Standud”, dropped on our doormat nightly, continues to say that as over 70 years old we are among the extremely vulnerable. We turn to this guide rather than the three blind men (and women) who at 5 p.m. each weekday night stride out to their podiums at number 10 Downing Street with the day’s rule changes. Barely one thing they say is reliable and by morning it often needs amending – again.

So we stay at home and face each morning’s question–what to wear today? If one is lucky there is someone else in the house who can smile at you looking neat or lovely. But maybe there isn’t, and just the effort of getting dressed can sometimes be too much. But there could be a delivery. A loud knocking on the door in the morning has me racing – carefully – downstairs, but the postman is already leaving before I can open the door. I shout a “Thank you” with a smiling wave and he turns with his happy smile and wave in reply, but is already striding across the parking lot and I don’t think he can notice what I am wearing.

At some point during the day, separately or together, we will go to the park, down by the canal or around the hill. The end of spring has begun to layer white across the green before the summer pinks, blues and purples come to paint the summer hedgerows. There is a tall wall around the bottom perimeter of Primrose Hill. Houses, blocks of flats and even a reservoir are closed off. But from back gardens and small alleyways there are old wooden gates in the wall. The delight in a road or a pathway leading forward never fades. This feature is found in city and country parks all over, and surely must have been a thought for the American writer Frances Hodgson Burnett when she wrote ‘The Secret Garden’ published in 1911.

Now swaths of Cowslips that grew thigh high under the lime trees are beginning to soften from their bright white, while the Elderflower shrubs stand tall and take their turn, gracefully to unfurl their florets. It is too much! and carrying a floppy old plastic bag holding my clippers I walk the perimeter of the hill, eyeing the Elderflower heads as they bow towards me. It is a slow walk, for I must gauge how low the flower heads are, and glance around to see if anyone is watching. If I walk too deeply into the underbrush I may disturb someones lodging. There are only a few signs of human habitation but there are enough to remind me to be respectful. I’m looking for 20 to 30 full flowering heads from the Elderflower shrubs. Being particular, it takes walking the mile perimeter to gather what I need. Then I can saunter on home and pop the bag in the fridge to stay fresh until I have everything ready.

Ros’s Elderflower Cordial
Recipe

Our next door neighbors are also self-isolating. They have returned to London from their years in the Irish countryside. Like us, a smaller home and the lure of grandchildren has brought them back to the city. And, like me, they have brought their country recipes with them. Ros emails me a well-stained 40 plus year-old copy of her recipe for Elderflower Cordial.

Time is 26 hours total if you count harvest and preparation.

Introduction on the Stove

Once bottled and chilled it is immediately delicious. It is a perfect summer drink and my evening glass is going down a treat. The sun is shining this week, and we are very grateful to be allowed back onto our terrace. We were definitely “personae non grata” outside while the Blue Tits began nest building and egg incubation. But now the eggs have hatched and the parents are too busy flying in and out of the nesting box above the Vanessa Bell and Sir Walter Scott Roses to be too nervous about us. Bill Oddie’s bird book says they can hatch 14 eggs but I don’t see how they can all fit in the box. Maybe I will just have come out each evening, sip a little more cordial and count until the one night they all fly away.

This has been A Letter from A. Broad, Written and read for you by Muriel Murch.


Week One of London Lockdown

March 29th 2020 (Updated on April 1 2020) — Week One of Lock Down in London

A week ago on Friday, when my husband walked into Camden for some printer ink and returned with 5 Kilos of rice, I smiled. But now more than a week later I’m grateful to have that not so little bag of rice tucked away behind a chair in the living room. In the United Kingdom the death toll is over over 2200 and in London will be 700 plus by the time this reaches you. We are all finding different ways of being prepared for this new reality and the challenges and solutions of city living are different from life in the country.

Government Alert sent to ‘almost’ everyone

Being of a certain age we have been told – in no uncertain terms – to stay indoors except for one daily exercise adventure. This could be going to the grocery store, the pharmacy or, if really necessary, the doctor or hospital. In an effort to keep one’s sanity, the dog happy, blood circulating and bowels open we are all encouraged to take a daily constitutional in whatever way suits our fancy. There are signs posted in Regent’s Park reminding us to keep our social distance from each other.

We walk carefully, mindful of others on the pathway, staying at that social distance from each other with a grateful nod of thanks. And it is spring and we can all be grateful for that. But I can’t help wondering if someone were to fall, or become ill on the path would anyone stop to help them? Some areas are closed. Understandably the Zoo is closed. But then, also understandably, are the public toilets. The notice, posted by the label for the ‘Golden Showers’ Roses reads ‘Due to the present day crisis these facilities are closed.’ Which, due to the present moment crisis, could provide another critical moment.

A serious crisis moment

But we are taking it all seriously and are tremendously grateful for our neighbors with their offers to help and the shops with delivery services that are working to full capacity. On Monday Vinnie, our milkman, said that he ran out of cheese. At first I thought he had just forgotten the order and put it down to typical milkman behavior. But then my little carrier had only one slab of cheese besides the two pints of milk so maybe his supplies are getting low.

Necdet from Parkway Greens has been busy beyond belief sending out daily delivery vans with boxes of fruit and vegetables. Delivery is free for house-bound seniors giving us another reason to be grateful.

Our little corner of London is quiet. Occasionally we see a neighbor and wave from a scarfed or masked distance while still asking “Are you OK? Do you need anything?” Every weekday morning Bob from Manley Street strides out of his cottage early, not for a walk but off to work. I wonder what is essential about his job and my imagination leads me to him working for MI5 in one of the discreet building along the 274 bus route.

From 8 a.m onwards throughout the day solitary delivery trucks come up and down the street. Masked young men bang on doors to drop off a package and then flee the doorsteps, behaving, though not yet looking, like one of Santa’s elves. No one stops for a signature any more. I’m grateful when our tea order from Fortnum and Mason’s arrives and smile at my last extravagance. If we do get sick at least we can still be drinking good tea.

Another van drops off builders next door. Essential work ? Well that depends who you are asking. It’s a balancing act between abandoning or completing a job, leaving a client in disarray and – or the workmen left with no income.

No longer able to walk to the Camden Bakery I turn to my old farm recipes and begin to bake. But it seems that the whole country is baking and the shortage of flour on the shop shelves this week made news headlines. I suspect this is more than a necessity for food, it is a need for the giving and receiving of comfort within our families and for each other.

First loaves I learnt to bake in 1969?

And who would have thought it possible that the English could garden even more than they do. But on the kitchen windowsill my chard seeds have sprouted and already have four leaves. Soon they will be ready to go out into the little garden patch that I work. But not today because March is going out like a lion. The wind is blowing and we wrap warmly up to take our walk. The door blows shut as we turn to face the empty street and the tiny snow flakes falling on our faces. 

First aired on KWMR.org Swimming Upstream with host Amanda Eichstaedt – April 1 2020

Beautiful Beets

The Spring beets laying out on the farmer’s market stalls look lush and inviting. Beetroot has now been elevated to a super good-for-you vegetable. The baby greens are pretty under the bite sized sections of dark crimson roots tossed in with paint-white feta cheese in a salad.
But what happened to Borscht, good old beetroot soup? It appears lost from all but Hungarian restaurant menus. Classic borscht recipes came from Eastern Europe, Russia, Ukraine, and Poland, with various additions of potatoes and cabbages.
But for today’s cookbooks we are urged towards green watercress and sorrel soups to brighten our spring lunches with creamy yellow hubbard and butternut squash soups to warm us in the autumn evenings.

My borscht recipe was probably birthed from Gourmet Cook Book Volume Two an early, possibly desperate, Christmas gift from my husband. But it has been long since tweaked and fiddled with and now I claim this one as my own.

While here in London, as I edit another ‘final’ version of Farming the Flats, I have come to a page that says, insert Beet recipe here. Oh. OK. Back down to the Turkish greengrocer with Monty I go. But as summer gives way to autumn, the dark beets sit cowering beside the bold orange winter squash who are bursting with fresh grown pride. The beets, like the carrots beside them, have had their greens chopped away. The spring greens that were so bright and brave are fading in this late summer harvest.

Harvest on the kitchen counter

I pluck:
4 beets
2 carrots
1 onion
from the boxes and bring them home where I already have
Bay leaves, sage, thyme and chives from the garden.
Olive oil, salt, pepper, caraway and cumin from the cupboard
Chicken or vegetable stock from the freezer.

Now it is simple soup making.
Parboil the beets in their skins then lift the beets into a bowl to cool.
Strain and save the beet water. Some recipes call for throwing out the beets or the water which is ridiculous. The water only needs straining to remove any left over farm soil and grit.
While the beets are cooling heat the olive oil in a big saucepan,
Add the chopped onion to sweat slowly as you peel and slice the carrots.
(You will notice this recipe is 2 beets to 1 carrot).
When the onion is a sweet yellow add the chopped carrots and then
the caraway and cumin to taste. I’m heavy on both of these.
Stir for a while until the carrots are glistening.
Any wine in the fridge? A glug glug can go in now.
Stir some more and then add the thyme, bay leaves (At least 2) and sprig of sage.
Salt and pepper now as you like it.
When you feel the flavors have been properly introduced then pour in the stock.
Bring to a simmer and cook until the carrots are soft.
Time to slip the skins off of the beetroots, give them a rough chop and add to the mix.
Do you need to add more liquid? If so you have the beet water on hand.
When this is all cooked up nicely, twenty minutes or so, turn off the heat.
Put on the saucepan lid and go and do something else for at least an hour.
Only then come back and fish out the bay leaves, thyme stalk and sprig of sage.
Put the saucepan somewhere low, in the sink maybe, and blend the soup until there are no lumps.
How does it feel? How does it taste?
I like a firmish consistency and to be able to taste the caraway with a hint of cumin
Adjust the liquid with more beet water and flavor with seasoning.
The soup is ready now but will be better still after sitting a little longer.
Because borscht is Russian and Eastern European most recipes call for potatoes rather than carrots and a topping of thick Greek Yogurt.
But since I cooked this in London I used a dollop of fresh Devonshire cream before sprinkling on the chopped chives from the garden.
And the little glass of wine? Well I didn’t put all of it in the soup, just a glug, not two.

Soup supper for one

Sorrel Soup

Sorrel growing in the garden.

Sorrel growing in the garden.

Sorrel is an early, easy leafy green vegetable to plant in the perennial vegetable garden.

Garden sorrel or Rumex Acetosa and French Sorrel Rumex Scutatus both have a tangy lemon flavour. I’m not sure which one I am growing but it may be the French because of its pointed leaves. Sorrel looks like its weedy first cousin wild Dock but is a brighter, springier green. They all look a bit scruffy but are equally useful. Sorrel for soup and salad and Dock (with a bit of spit) to calm a stinging nettle rash when you are out walking.

This recipe is adapted from one given to me by my friend Creta Pullen. Creta, her husband Bill, and their two very enthusiastic dogs run Ocean Song Retreat Bed and Breakfast.  Creta is an outrageous cook and always concocting something new. It was Creta who gave me my Sorrel starts.

Sorrel 3

Blended sorrel soup on the stove.

  • Cut a bunch/handful of Sorrel.
  • Wash and sort it and set it in a jar until you are ready to use it.
  • Sauté a chopped onion or leek or shallot in olive oil.
  • Today I added a little fresh chopped ginger and some turmeric and 4 bay leaves.
  • Stir to colour and soften while dicing up a Russet potato and
    chopping 2 carrots.
  • Now add these to the onions and stir some more.
  • Any white wine in the fridge? A glug or two can go in now.
  • After the wine is absorbed add your home made chicken or vegetable stock.

(There will be more on making stock later).

Sorrel 4

Ready to serve sorrel soup with a hard boiled egg.

  • Let it all cook up gently until the carrots and potatoes are tender.
  • Strip the sorrel leaves from their stems and roughly cut up the leaves.
  • While the stock cools do something else (lay the table, boil an egg or two).
  • Fish out the bay leaves and put them in the compost.
  • Now with whatever blender technique you use, blend the soup and sorrel leaves together. Return to the pot and adjust the seasoning. I add a little pepper here but no salt.
  • Now it is time to add your own favorites. A little milk or cream or butter will soften the flavor. Tonight I made soft boiled eggs.
  • Some warm French bread, a glass of wine and supper is yours and goes down a treat.

Rhubarb-Strawberry Mousse

Rhubarb-Strawberry Mousse

Rhubarb-Strawberry Mousse

This recipe first appeared in The Times in an article by Olwen Woodier in 1989 I think. Sometime later it was adapted from Mallards Restaurant at Arrowwood in Rye Brook, N.Y.

When I found it again about 2010 I changed it a little – as you will too.
1 1/4 pounds rhubarb, finely diced
1 cup sliced strawberries
1/2 cup sugar
2 tablespoons kirsch
1 tablespoon unflavored gelatin
1 cups heavy cream
  1. Combine the rhubarb, strawberries and sugar in a heavy 2-quart saucepan and simmer for 20 minutes, until the rhubarb is soft.
  2. Pour 2/3 of the mixture into a blender with the kirsch; purée and set aside.
  3. Pour 4 tablespoons cold water into a small saucepan and sprinkle the gelatin over the top. Allow to soften for 10 minutes. Heat gently until the gelatin has completely dissolved. Stir into the rhubarb purée.
  4. Combine the purée with the remaining cooked rhubarb mixture.
  5. Whip the heavy cream until stiff and fold into the rhubarb mixture. Chill for several hours. Serves 8 to 10.

There is no sense in leftovers

There is no sense in leftovers