Autumn: In Your Garden

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Autumn is full of excitement. This morning I was setting spring bulbs again and unearthed a huge mother toad in her burrow under the peony. (The peony that let me down, last summer: maybe the plant does not like the toad). The toad was pale yellow and fast asleep until I so rudely awoke her: she blinked at me like an old pug. I tucked her up again under the warm damp soil and leaves; and planted the Queen of the Night tulips in another spot. No wonder people used to think toads such witchy creatures. She was in exactly the same place twelve months ago: it must be her favourite nest and I shall not disturb her a third time. The whole garden has an invigorating fertile humus smell in this limpid late sun: there’s still the green bitter caper-tang of late-flowering self-seeded nasturtiums, pruned lavender and transplanted herbs in my new Medea patch. Especially fragrant is the delicious helichrsyum (“spirals of gold”) – the silver-leaved curry plant which to me smells more like bacon mixed with Parmesan cheese. Next year I shall plant it among the tomatoes for an explosion of savoury scent. What must surely be the last rose of 2014 is in fat pink bud beneath the wall.

Because round here we all shop at Wilkinsons the same horticultural novelties from that store tend to appear in all the local gardens. This autumn many of us have had a go at growing black sunflowers. Not actually black at all, these beauties are multicoloured in deep violet and bronze, copper and gold with leaves that look as though covered in dark verdigris. They glow in the sunlight and have a unexpected and delicious fragrance, reminiscent of cinnamon, dust, nutmeg and gingerbread. Here’s yet another flower that is all too often written off as scentless – along with the under-rated perfumed pleasures of petunias, daffodils, scarlet runners, iris and snowdrops.

The fallen apples don’t lie long enough to moulder and only a few neighbours have the pleasure of fermenting waspy pears and plums. I missed the wasps this year: there were hardly any despite all that heat. The gathered apples are safely indoors, laid on newspaper on trays and filling the dining room with a rich fruity earthy odour that is also curiously oily. In that terrible winter of sugar riots and power cuts (1971, I think) I slept in a house that came alive after dark. The husband, Crippen-like, shovelled coal in the shallow cellar so that the hall filled with bitter coal dust. The wife boiled up chutney: so much chutney! Night after night the sweet and sour vinegary currant and sultana sugar smells wafted hotly beneath my bedroom door, making my mouth drool involuntarily and setting my teeth slightly on edge.

Soon the great boilings of the orange marmalade season will be here; the pickling of onions has begun. A crisp sweet onion scented with pepper corns and a few cloves is an irresistible delicacy. I met a lady at the bus stop in a state of great indignation: one of our best-known supermarkets had told her there was “no call” for white vinegar these days. My old childhood friend Mrs Sarson used to tell my mother that if you peel onions on your knees, holding the bowl of a spoon in your mouth then your eyes will not water. Mrs Sarson was a great pickler and her husband went to his reward eating an onion. She said, ‘He sat there with the jar on his knee looking up at the sky. I says to him, do you think you’re going up there? And then he did..’

There are worse ways to go.

Spring Lamb

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One of my more sympathetic correspondents – a regular reader – texted me this morning to say that she was motoring into the Cotswolds take lunch at The Lamb at Burford. What a lovely April day out! And how many memories this brought back, though I’ve not put a foot through the door since 1959. My father had an old friend who farmed locally and consequently we occasionally drove down for a meeting at The Lamb. For a great treat we once stayed the night. The farmer was a Parson Woodforde figure: he weighed in excess of 30 stone and when he dined chez lui he would have his housekeeper roast two joints of fragrant home-raised lamb. One for his guests and one for himself. Whenever I smell rosemary for remembrance – “Pray you love, remember!” – I think of these feasts.

It was in the dark saloon bar (or possibly the Residents’ Lounge) of The Lamb that I first met Miss Twine, a rich and elderly heiress who wore an item of clothing quite new to me: a small & squashy black velvet hat with a spotted net veil above a very wide and lavishly carmined mouth. I was about two, I suppose, and was presented to Miss Twine to be inspected and admired as she sipped her Bristol Cream. The veil rather foxed me and had to be explained away: not a deformity but a fashion accessory. I remember the warm scent of abundant face powder on her huge soft face, the syrupy luscious sherry and fumes of something which I imagine was a Caron, Coty or Weil masterpiece sprayed generously over the furs and other upholstery of her person.

The final visit to The Lamb was marred by a faux pas on the part of my younger brother. I don’t know what had happened to the roast lamb that day but we lunched at the hotel. The farmer joined us; both my parents were there too, and my grandmother, fragrant in her signature Blue Grass which sat so well with her Players cigarettes. We forget how children notice everything: nearly 60 years later I remember a certain froideur in the atmosphere. My grandmother was an advocate of healthy eating: maybe the obesity upset her. I don’t know.

But possibly it was this slight tension which caused the subsequent disaster. We ordered shepherd’s pie, made in those days with mutton. I can smell that, too: rather dry and grey, like minced up india rubbers. There seemed to be no gravy. We sat on great carved wooden chairs, rather low; I somehow managed to reach the table, but my brother had to be perched on cushions. We never got to the pudding: I can’t remember who noticed first but we suddenly became aware of a great spreading pool beneath my brother’s chair. The cushions were sodden. All I recall after that was my grandmother’s whispered “I think we should leave – now…” And so we did, me enthralled by the drama.

And oddly enough I’ve never tasted a shepherd’s pie since: it’s always been cottage pie, the beef variant. Smells nicer, tastes better. Besides where do you get mutton these days? But ah! The stinging fragrance of capers and creamy onion sauce. Another story, entirely.