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

Derby and Joan

In the top drawer of the tiny kitchen in our London cottage lies the cutlery. A divided wire basket holds the bright, shiny new knives, forks and spoons bought for the life we are making together in England. Beside them lie a jumble of old utensils culled from my mother’s three homes in Hampshire, each house smaller than the last, and all within two miles of each other. The utensils were scooped up from the collection that she could not bear to let go, I remembered, and still can’t abandon. Prominent among them are the knives: old breakfast knives, a small kitchen knife, the knife sharpener, and her old bread knife.

The bread knife has a stained and cracked bone handle and tightly grooved serrated blades. Even knowing that it struggles with the modern artesian breads of the day, I still cannot bring myself to let it loose in a charity shop where it might linger, like a homely girl at a village dance, waiting unclaimed on the shelf. So I kept it and wonder from time to time how old it really is. It does struggle so with today’s artisan breads, tearing the oblong French baguettes and rounded Italian soughdoughs. German breads with their dense rye flour fair better. The multi-grain wheat breads even better yet. But the bread knife and I struggle on, cutting and slicing on the beach-wood cutting board, grateful for each other. It knows it is safe with me and I have no thoughts to abandon it. In fact, I feel safer and enjoy a duller bladed knife.

One year at Christmas, in despair, one of our daughters gave us a new serrated bread knife for the farm kitchen. It is sharp, German and created to march through any loaf that is placed before it. And it does that with the utmost efficiency, taking no prisoners. Before the New Year had arrived it had also taken a piece of my forefinger along with a crusty slice of local artisan bread. When back on the farm I still use that knife – but – with great caution.

This Saturday afternoon as my husband was going out he asked it I needed anything.
“Yes please. A loaf. We are out of bread.” I was expecting him to pick up his favorite Italian bread from Anthony’s Deli on the high street in the village. But he lingered around the weekend stalls set out on the high-street and was gone a long time. When he did successfully return from the hunt, he opened up the bag and brought out a large English Tin Loaf, unsliced.

Derby and Joan

Tin Loaf comes home

It was a big white loaf, just like we used to get from the baker, Mr. Wright, whose wife and family made fresh bread in their shop every day in Fleet. Daily the queues outside of ‘Wright’s the Baker,’ went out the door from nine a.m. through to noon by which time every loaf of bread was sold and all that was left were the tea time cream-cakes. Every variety they made and placed out on their shelves could make and hold chunky sandwiches with a smear of butter before a good chunk of cheddar cheese, and some Branson Pickle without falling apart. They held together and were ready to eat in the van, on the lunch break or in the fields. The sort of loaf – freshly baked – and on the shelf – that immediately made one hungry for a slice.

And that is how we felt when my husband came home on this Saturday afternoon with his trophy which he unwrapped and laid out on the beach-wood cutting board. The tin loaf sat happily on the bread-board while I opened up the drawer and took out Granny’s old bread knife now long married to the cutting board. I swear the knife quivered in recognition and pulled my right hand towards the loaf, as if reaching for an old remembered friend.

Sliced and ready

Sliced and ready

The loaf of bread held steady under my left hand and seemed to sigh in relief as the blade stroked the crust and then bit deep into the first slice, letting the heel of the bread fall gently onto the breadboard. I cut another slice, and another, clean, even slices of bread. I put the knife down and it rested on the counter as if in a swoon of remembered happiness.

The English Tin loaf was rewrapped and put away for tomorrow’s breakfast. Next we put the kettle on.

Tea time memories

Tea time memories

The fallen slices of bread were firm and smooth and lay flat ready to receive a smothering of butter and honey. It was time for afternoon tea which we enjoyed sitting out on the terrace. Once more grateful for those things found, remembered, and not forgotten.

Shopping Baskets are Back

Morning Coffee at the Parlour

At the Fortnum and Mason’s Parlour Cafe service continues at the place of a sedate, unhurried butler coming up from downstairs.
I have ordered an Americano Coffee with hot milk on the side to sip while I wait for parcels from gift-wrap. Already I know that the parcels will be done in the same stately pace as it takes for my cup of coffee to be served. When the coffee does arrive, with the little chocolate ice-cream cone, it is about as perfect a treat as can be.

The Summer Sales are in progress in London. Much as they might like to, Fortnum and Mason’s cannot ignore them. But F&M resent all that mid-season sales imply and it is impressive how they manage to keep the allure around their brand. So the sales tables that are sprinkled through all of the floors are small, and layered with just a little of this and that. On one table lie a few scarves, half a dozen summer hats and clutch bags as if at a summer charity fête. At the kitchen table I weakened to a delicate light green and white stripped mug. It is perfect for those mornings when I do not go out, but boil the kettle at home for a mid-morning Nescafe.nescafe - Version 2

On The Parlour Cafe floor, after the sale table, my eye is quickly drawn to the display of baskets. The wicker picnic hamper is back in fashion. We still have our one from Harrods bought over seventy years ago. Though the real knives and forks have disappeared the then new plastic containers and plates are still alive. These new wicker hampers also have ‘real’ knives, forks, plates and, of course, crystal glasses.

Picnic time

The hamper display is surrounded by shopping baskets in all guises.

All of them are bigger than my mother’s shopping basket which she carried into Fleet every weekday morning.

It would be close to ten-thirty in the morning before she was able to leave the house and drive to town with only a lip-stick and a small change purse in her basket. Once in town she would join friends for a coffee At Mrs. Max’s Café, before walking the high street to shop though she didn’t actually buy very much.

What did my mother do taking those precious morning hours in town? The ladies met at Mrs. Max’s Café, taking an hour or so to pretend they had nothing to discuss, but between sipping their coffee, smoking a cigarette or two, maybe even sampling one of Mrs. Max’s homemade croissants, they chose what secret heartaches to share among the gossip and laughter of friends. Mrs. Max’s pastries were reputedly not only the best in town but in Hampshire. She was French and in some way a refugee from the war. What caused her to be here was a question far too advanced for a child to ask. Did Lady Pechall, with her understanding of many things foreign know Mrs. Max’s story? Had she perhaps been instrumental in helping Mrs. Max get ‘settled‘ in the town? There is no recollection of a Mr. Max. After finishing their coffees and loosening their hearts the ladies got up to leave, saying that they had to ‘get on with it or I will be late.’ Each would stop in this shop and that as they walked the length and back along the High Street, placing orders and possibly putting one or two things in their baskets.

What did my mother buy in our small Hampshire town? Maybe some cooking staples, flour, sugar and raisins. Spices remembered from her years in Africa and still scarce in this immediate post-war period? These she could find in Canes Corner ‘Up to Date Stores’ at the far end of town or maybe at Ernest Oakley’s General Store, situated closer to the center of town. If she has a large list it would be boxed up in an orange crate to be delivered to the house. Mr. James Oakley himself might drive up to the back kitchen door, put the box on the kitchen table and, if Mrs. P was in a good mood and he not too busy, share a cup of tea while chatting, as one does, binding community together. Daily deliveries were still common in the countryside. Milk from Rose Farm Dairy was brought by the milk man on his way home to the dairy farm next door. Late morning would often find me waiting for the milk cart to return and be hoisted onto the back of the old piebald cart-horse to ride the few yards to the farm driveway. Gordon then lifted me back off and I would scamper home again, believing, as children do, that no-one saw me. Bread was delivered three times a week from Jessett’s Store. If he saw me the delivery man would slip me fresh still-warm roll from his basket. Even the butcher, Mr Percy Harden, would drive up with meat and game, considered to big or messy for my mother to carry. It was a time of transition. A time to change, to be more in tune with the new post-war society. For a large Edwardian household such as ours, outdated even then, this was a challenge. My mother had only the beloved Mrs. P. to help her each day. There was no housekeeper to rule the kitchen though my father kept three gardeners for as long as he could afford it.
Today deliver service is offered to the online shoppers of Tesco and Waitrose. Every evening one of their trucks comes down our little street and unload crates of groceries which fit into American sized refrigerators.

Basket for Today

But for some baskets are now the smart midmorning accessory while we become super conscious of our plastic consumption and the need to buy fresh and organic produce.

 

The trolly is permissible on Camden High street though rarely seen on Regent’s Park Road. I bought my basket in Paris, where nearly everyone still shops with a basket.

Basket from France

 

 

But sometimes, when it is full, for I buy most things in our small village, it gets heavy.

 

 

This last week I pulled out from behind the washing machine my mother’s old basket.

photo

She had long ago relegated it to carrying cleaning products up and down her stairs. Somehow she needed to honour its devoted service and hold onto the memories it carried for her.

I too had not let it go and for fifteen years it has held ‘extras’ in the back of a cupboard. But out it came, shaking off the under-stairs dust and, after a spray of furniture oil, it felt perky enough to fit on my arm and come into town. It holds more than I thought. It is well designed and alongside the bigger french basket it has it’s place once more.

Granny's basket can carry

Baskets are for the markets and for those of us who are older, who need the exercise and the daily connection with others. Walking into the village and coming home with our basket full is a good mornings work.