Saturday, July 21, 2012

Splendour in the Grass

Have you ever avoided a busy, national event to go and lie in a meadow? While the roadsides were lined with people cheering on the Olympic torch's journey South, I was looking at the sky through gently waving grass stems, watching grasshoppers vault over colossal obstacles, and butterflies weave, dive and loop-the-loop. Given the choice my son was adamant he was going to the "play park". We didn't make it to the climbing frame and slide when he noticed the grass hoppers in the field on the way there. He and a couple of other boys spent nearly an hour prowling like cats, pouncing every so often, trying to catch them.

The council used to give this open space a regular crew cut leaving a flat, green, giant dog toilet. This year much of the field has been left to go wild. As a result the insect life is flourishing. I don't know if this is a result of the cutbacks but if it is we're all benefiting; a great diversity of wild life will be supported here now. At the edge of the field are large patches of nettles. These are the primary food source of many caterpillars including those of the comma, tortoiseshell and peacock. Intensive Post War herbicide use has led to a decline in our bee and insect population. Some insecticides are persistent in the environment and may have had long term impact on the bees.

It wasn't long ago that meadows would have been everywhere. They would have been bright splashes of colour on the landscape with a wide variety of native wild flowers and edible plants to discover. We are now having to recreate them artificially so that we can go and view them like exhibits. When I visited RHS Wisley a couple of weeks ago I saw an area that is being cultivated as a flower meadow maze. It looked really rubbish. I don't know if it's because of the weather but it does show that even here, where everything else on show was of the highest standard, creating a wildflower meadow is not easy. So much harder to recreate something once it's gone.

Are there any natural meadows near you?

Monday, July 16, 2012

Ten Green Bottles

When researching elderflower champagne recipes on line, I read that you should pick the flowers on the morning of a sunny day when they will have a slight banana scent as opposed to the essence of feline urine that develops by the afternoon. Usually here in Hastings in the summer every day is a sunny day. This year I had to check the weather forecast daily and bide my time. I had already looked around my local green space to find some nice smallish trees with plenty of flowers, within reach, not too near the road. I finally noticed a sunny morning was due so I got all my equipment ready and started sterilising bottles. I went to collect my son from school. We always visit the playpark on the way home which is at the top of the green space. While there, a neighbour arrived with her daughter, her dog and a big black bulging bin bag.
"What have you got there?" I asked.
"Elderflowers" she replied.
I sighed.  She'd pilfered my stash.
Her husband who runs a restaurant makes elderflower jelly. This is what comes of living in a town with enterprising foragers; don't dally when it comes to harvesting your wild foods.
We were left with some really amazing big bunches of white flowers....right at the top of the trees. The next morning my husband and I and the loppers went out on a mission. Half an hour later I was balanced on his shoulders with loppers fully extended risking my life to reach the best blooms. I really don't like heights and in 20 years together I have never sat on my husband's shoulders so this just demonstrates the lengths I will go to to when I've put my mind to something.

Once you've nearly broken your neck getting hold of the flowers the actual making of the champagne is dead easy. I roughly followed a recipe, chucking the flowers, some cut up lemons, some sugar (and icing sugar because I didn't have enough granulated) and a little apple cider vinegar into a sterilised bucket then filling it up with water. I left it in a cool part of the house for a couple of days with a tea towel and piece of cardboard on top.
The next bit was a faff and a half. I had my plastic bottles lined up in the bath to sterilise them with sterilising fluid. I had a big jug of cooled boiled water to rinse them out afterwards. I scooped out all the lemons and flowers I could from the bucket. Then I filled a glass jug with the cloudy liquid and poured it through a tea towel (that had been rinsed in boiling water) into another bowl. This was to filter out any little bits that were left. I then poured this through a funnel into my bottles. When I had finished I left the bottles sitting out next to the washing machine with the tops just resting on them. I had read that it was a way of preventing the pressure from the gas building up and blasting them off. There was a whole thread of horror stories of broken glass and sticky liquid coating walls on the Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall site. I was glad I decided to use plastic bottles. I told my husband about the loose-topped bottles. A couple of days later I came home to find him mopping up an inch of liquid from the floor next to the washing machine. There is something a little upside down about a wife being furious with her husband because he's spilled her home brew while putting a washing on. How times have changed. It's a wonder any of us can keep up.
Only three bottles were left. After a week we did have bubbles so I put one of the bottles in the fridge. It was the most delicious, refreshing, zingy drink I have ever had. Like most things you make yourself it definitely tastes all the better from all the effort. It has actually made my dreich and dreary summer a joy. I can't believe I managed to make this delicious beverage myself and that I made sparkly bubbles from flowers, water, sugar and vinegar. It's amazing. So we went for a walk in the woods and came back with another load of flowers and I started the whole process again. The second batch looks more cloudy. It's worth noting that the flowers do not keep so you really need to have everything ready to go and get them home as soon as possible. We had a bus journey back from the woods. I had collected them in a pillow case thinking they would have more air and stay fresher but when we got home they were already starting to discolour and I had to throw some away. I risked my life, stung my legs to bits with nettles, ruined two tea towels and a pillow case (don't use your best vintage ones) and it was so worth it. I'm hoping my brew will last us into the winter months and will help me cope with the miserable summer. Then there's only eleven months to wait until the flowers come out again to decorate the trees like clusters of magical stars. Something to look forward to!

Monday, July 9, 2012

Pisa Botanical gardens and the leaning tower

We really did dash round the last part of Pisa Botanical gardens. Behind the botanical school we discovered a mostly shady garden about the same size as the area we had just explored. Not having a map we nearly missed it completely. What a shame if we had because our first sighting of the leaning tower was through the leaves at the very back of the garden. Before we went to Pisa friends and family said "oh there's not much to see other than the tower". How wonderful that we stumbled upon this fantastic collection of plant life.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Prickly characters

The next part of our tour of Pisa Botanical gardens is a visit to the greenhouse where a wonderful collection of cacti live. I just love them. I love them for their comical appearance (without stating the obvious), the images of dusty Cowboy & Western films that immediately form in my brain box (can you hear the Ennio Morricone music in the background?) and the fact that it is almost impossible to resist putting out a finger and "ouch!" discovering that those invitingly furry little creatures are dangerous and will hurt you! If I lived in a very hot country I could easily become a cactus collecting addict. Oh, and we saw the most amazing sight in a tiny garden next to the hotel's courtyard, hidden away in the heart of the surrounding apartments; the biggest cactus I have ever seen. It stretched all the way up the side of the five storey building as though it was determined to climb the high wall to reach the sun. The owner thinks it's the biggest cactus in Italy. I believe him. He had all sorts of rigging in place to hold the old giant up. I didn't get any photographs because I didn't want to intrude. It was a very magical garden with little pools that had lots of tiny turtles lounging around and another enclosed area for a couple of very cute rabbits. Just goes to show you don't need to own acres to create a little piece of paradise. My son wanted to visit this garden every time we went back to the hotel.

I am so incredibly busy at the moment and I'm sorry I've not had time to visit all of your blogs recently. I really miss them and look forward to catching up when I have a bit less on. I'm making a few new textile pieces to display in a cafe in the beautiful Alexandra Park and I've organised a Pom Pom Bomb for this Saturday. A lot of people look at me bemused when I say this. It just means making pom poms and decorating the park with them. Other news: the council did an inspection at the allotments. I'm still waiting for the summons to get my finger out but no letter has come. Does this mean my "messy", healthy, rather unconventional allotment/nature reserve has passed?!? I've got my second batch of elderflower champagne brewing in a bucket next to the washing machine; what a drama and a half that has turned out to be...deserves a whole post of it's own.

Hello to new followers and wow I'm blown away by the number of people visiting my blog these days. Enjoy!
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