Monday, 30 April 2007

Blossoming Out

I'm all 'booked out' and need to get away from books, writing, reading, plans: everything to do with paper and pen. So into the garden I go to let the wind blow through my hair (except it’s a bit too short) and clear my head.

Everywhere the blossom is out and it's ravishing. Several years ago I wanted to do my bit for posterity and, in a very tiny way, help to preserve the varieties that were becoming rare, and much of the blossom is the result of that.

I started by planting three different species of fruit tree because anything edible - food - is one of my 'interests': not cooking, just food. History of cooking, unusual foods, exciting combinations, wonderful textures and tastes: all of these. I cook not because I like cooking per se but because I like food. Just as I garden not because I like gardening, but because I like gardens - is that odd?

Many of the old apple trees in our garden had been lost in the hurricane of 1987 and never replaced, so I looked into some species to put in. Cider apple orchards were once common in various areas of England but since the 1950's most of these orchards have disappeared: so we planted a cider apple tree.

It's done very well in spite of my dodgy pruning: the tree's not very tall but it is wide which helps with picking the wonderful large apples it produces. Last year Best Beloved took some of them - along with other odd apples from old apples trees in the garden - to a friend and the two chopped them up with a home-made device.

The chopped apples were put through the press – this is called a cheese but we won't go into that: very confusing. End result, two huge bucket loads of juice. We drank some as apple juice over the next day or two - very cloudy but delicious - and froze what we couldn't drink right away in empty plastic tonic bottles (the waste product of G&T's).

The rest we left for several weeks before bottling. The cider turned out to be quite drinkable but very dry – we didn't add any sugar – so I think it's best used to cook with: great with pork or pheasant cooked a la Normandie with lots of apples and cream.

I also planted two quince trees – not the ornamental Cydonia species but the ones with edible fruit: very medieval. I have made quince jelly in the past which is delicious with game or roast lamb. However, I've come to the conclusion that life is too short to struggle with such a hard fruit. I buy the jelly from the jam stall at the Church fete instead and give the dark yellow fruits away.

The third tree I planted was a medlar – Mesipulus germanica - because it's an ancient variety introduced into Britain by the Romans and not widely grown today. The tree is small but wide spreading: at the moment the leaves are tinged with russet, the blossom a rich creamy, white. In autumn the leaves turn a lovely golden yellow and the fruit is ready to be picked from the first frosts.

But medlars are very tart and not eaten until they are 'bletted', which means so soft that they're almost rotten. Elizabethan recipes give recipes for making medlar jelly – which I tried but it's a lot of work for very little jelly – or a spiced sweetmeat from the fruit.

These sweetmeats are called cheeses – there we go again – but, like the quinces, I'm so much better at eating the stuff than making it. So the medlars are up for grabs too – perhaps my preserve making days are over – it's time to blossom out. Any one for chess?


Book Note: looking for a good book to suggest for anyone interested in fruit trees, I was surprised to find I only have either rather academic ones or ones that are very sketchy: so I have no hesitation recommending Monty Don's The Complete Gardener (ISBN 9781405308908)as a book that not only mentions these fruit I talk about (most do not) but one that also gives very sound practical advice wrapped up in a very attractive format.

I still refer to Cooking & Eating by Katie Stewart - which covers the history of cooking around the world – and A Taste of History by Maggie Black for food in Britain. Larousse Gastronomique can always be relied upon for a definition, of course, but if anyone knows of a new book that covers the history of cooking I'd be pleased to hear of it.

Monday, 23 April 2007

Normal Service Will Be Resumed Shortly

This week's blog was going to be .....but it's been hijacked. So many people have asked what my novel is about and now Mark, of Mostly Books in Oxfordshire, has asked specifically: "So who is it aimed at, and why should they read it?" The time has come to reply to you all.

What do we read novels for – to hold a mirror up to our own emotions, motivations or lives? Or do we read them for pure escapism – to experience a world quite different from our own. And then again, perhaps we read novels to challenge our convictions, to learn something, to experience tension or mystery in an otherwise predictable world.

And when we find a new job, make a new friend, fall in love, marry or become a parent, we inevitably alter. And with every change in our lives our interests, focus, ability to empathize are also in a state of flux. This is especially true when life-changes include marriage and/or motherhood.

So I had these things in mind: to write a 'good story' (by which I mean an entertaining one) and to examine relationships and how they change. I was inspired by my grandmother's life – which was an eventful and challenging one – and because of it I also wanted to explore how tragic events could change a character. We know they can make or break; what will bring out one person's strength and ability to survive may reduce another to a gibbering, self-destructive wreck. And I know which one I'd be: the latter.

As I wrote the book and became involved in my characters, their motivations become clearer. As these motivations crystallized so did the world my characters inhabited. A widely held view is that those who went out to the colonies a hundred years ago lived lives of leisure with down-trodden native servants to wait on them: family stories, and research, showed that of these preconceptions did not apply to most of those in South Africa in the early 1900s.

For example, there was no apartheid and therefore no pass laws in the Western Cape at that time: the importation of slaves was banned as early as 1807, although slaves weren't officially granted their freedom until 1834. House servants (mostly English or Dutch speaking Indonesians - there was only a very small black population there in 1900) were very amenable and were often highly valued by their mistress and treated as a friend, in the home at least.

And when the British Government did not do all it should to safeguard the rights of the black population in S.Africa in 1909, it was members of the white population, as well as the black population, that pushed to achieve the universal right to vote for those 'whatever their race, whatever their colour' (they all tried, but unfortunately failed).

Similarly, not all colonialists were upper class and rich. Indeed, a hundred years ago South Africa was not unlike the American Wild West of the nineteenth century. Many went there to start a new life, escaping such persecutions as the pogroms in eastern Europe. Young men ventured there to try their luck in the goldfields or to fight for their country and young women went there as daughters or wives: some were lonely, many worked hard, few lived a life of luxury. And many women were left in financial staits when they were widowed.

So - whether you have already visited Cape Town, hope to one day or don't think you'll ever get there in person - when you read A Little Blue Jacket you can immerse yourself in the place, in the character Ursula's life, her successes and her failures. In actual fact, the relationships that are formed and the events that happen in Ursula's life, could happen anywhere in the world.

The novel is categorized as historical or general fiction: it appeals to thirty year olds as much as sixty year olds and, as the central character is a woman, it will probably appeal to female more than male readers.

I trust that answers everyone's queries: I do hope those that read it, enjoy it. Normal service will be resumed next week.


PS Do visit the website to see views of Cape Town or find out more about my ancestors if you want to.

Tuesday, 17 April 2007

The Future of the Author

Yesterday was the first day of the London Book Fair. To behold the site at Earls Court is awesome: hundreds of book people, book services, book sellers, book publishers, book printers – you get the message – not the place to go if you aren't interested in books.

After visiting my publisher I had a peek inside the Film & Rights area – lots of little tables with confidential meetings between publishers and producers about to make that novel into a blockbuster. Actually, I'm told that many studios or stars simply buy up Film & TV rights and just sit on them to stop anyone else getting their sticky little fingers on them. Only about one percent of those bought ever get made into anything visual.

Details about my novel are on the book fair site so it's just possible that some Big Noise Hollywood Exec might see the potential. I mean, who wants to follow the herd, grab the latest Richard & Judy book or secure the latest Book Prize Winner and make it into a movie. So obvious. Boring. Go with something fresh and new – that's my advice. And I have just the thing.

But back to the show: although LBF is primarily a trade show for publishers, printers, librarians and so forth it, nevertheless, sometimes has interesting seminars for the likes of authors. And this year quite a few of these were about publishing or marketing online: Web Accessibility, Amazon and Google Book Search, The eBook Challenge, Net Results, Digitize or Die.

Hold on, what have I just spent years writing a novel for? And why have my publishers and their printers used hundreds of kilos of paper mush - sustainable and re-cycled of course - making it into a book. I could have by-passed the whole thing: gone straight onto the internet with an eBook.

But you can't curl up in bed with a computer can you – not comfortably anyway – I mean, what happens when it falls onto the floor because you dropped off yourself after the first chapter? And you can't take an eBook onto a crowded tube train with you, read it on a park bench or carry it down to the beach.

Although it now seems that the eBook doesn't even need a screen to be read. I won't go into all the technical stuff – mostly because I can't understand it – but that's the latest I've heard. But no Luddite me, I can take the digital revolution: the first seminar after I arrived – The e-Book Challenge - might be informative.

But there was nothing for authors in it. By the time I'd worked out that STM was not a rather naughty online romp – pity, the seminar would have been sexy - it was too late to politely leave. I managed to stay awake through all the academic science, technology and math stuff and it did at least get me into internet/publishing speak mode: aggregates (no, not road materials), one-time purchase, unlimited online concurrent usage, etc, etc.

The next one - Net Results: Promoting books online - was hosted (well) by David Freeman of 'Meet the Author' fame. Rose Wilde, the Book Editor who looks after The Times Online, gave a resume of their role in a pleasant, measured way and Anna Rafferty from Penguin kindly shared her knowledge and was very enthusiastic (especially about the latest book she's promoting on the web).

But it was Mark Thwaite of Ready Steady Books ( whose observations were most informative. He encouraged publishers to loosen the editorial reigns - 'give up control' - and open their publications to the web. And he urged everyone to embrace the bolgosphere wholeheartedly, improve their sites, widen their horizons and therefore their audience.

Finally, the one I'd been waiting for - Digitise or Die? What is the Future of the Author? – not so much for the content by this time, more for the panel. Made up of an agent, a publisher, a bookseller and that essential cog in the wheel, an author: Margaret Atwood. Yes, THE Margaret Atwood. And then an unexpected, brilliant bonus: Tracy Chevalier was chair. And what an excellent job she made of it too.

I guess when you're a talented author and as famous as Margaret Atwood you can afford to be very dry if not a tad eccentric. However, although bon mots can be very amusing they don't make for a good interview or informative discussion. There was only one positive thing that Margaret had to say about the web: she has details on her website that mean she's no longer bothered with requests for information, help or advice. Not a fan of the digital world, obviously.

The publisher and bookseller on the panel exhibited quiet optimism whilst accepting that inevitably (and unfortunately for them) digital growth means they have to work harder. But the agent, Clare Alexander, seems to have got it: she embraced the best of digitization whilst cherishing the value of personal contact and the printed word.

But then Clare's a mum – she has teenage sons who are au fait with everything digital – and mums know, that they must get to know, what their children know. They are the future.


Monday, 9 April 2007

Adam & Eve in Eden

It was with full stomachs and smiles on our faces that Best Beloved and I left Riverford organic vegetables in Devon and journeyed west into Cornwall and the Eden Project.

Since this 'global garden' ( opened it's gone from strength to strength. Built into the remains of disused china clay pits, the huge conservatory structures (like ginormous, honeycomb faceted bubbles) called biomes, are visually spectacular. Nevertheless, because of the sunken site they sit in the natural, wider landscape very comfortably.

And these biomes offer a most interesting, educational experience: walking through the Warm Temperate Biome you can enjoy the climate and landscape and see the plants and crops that grow in California, South Africa or the Mediterranean. In the Humid Tropics Biome you can journey through the steamy rainforests typical of Malaysia, West Africa or South America and experience all the pleasures and discomfort of doing so.

Everywhere there was excellent signage, informative plant labels, unusual side shows. There are various outdoor areas of interest too and a building – The Core – positively exploding with interactive and stimulating displays. Seasonal plantings and changing installations add interest: overall, a very informative and fun place to visit.

During term-time there are lots of school parties and it must be a teacher's dream place for class visits. Much of the site is undercover so no worries about inclement weather, there's a ton of stuff to set questionnaires on, harmless thrills like being caught by a water spray in the humid zone and, most importantly, it's safe: no cars, no lakes, no porn shops.

Although the outdoor planting of the sloping sides of the pits is constantly changing, we thought the current planting scheme of such an amazing site rather disappointing. Of course, it may be that with such dominant conservatories the planting simply needs to be much bolder or it may have been because it was March and – in spite of displays of bulbs – there was a lack of vegetation.

But it was the catering – particularly after our excellent Riverford lunch – that really disappointed us: a pizza restaurant and a Cornish pasty outlet were hardly what we expected. The eating areas were character-less cafeterias and the food was very expensive.

The Eden Project boasts 'working with the grain of nature', 'conservation and sustainable futures' and trying 'to manage our resources': surely they should put their money where their mouth is. They should show us how to grow crops to suit the local climate and – ideally – serve it to us.

And I have a cunning plan to address these two criticisms: those landscaped slopes that surround the biomes could be planted with wide swathes of purple sprouting broccoli; quadrangles of carrots, beetroots and leeks; sprawling jungly pumpkins. In the summer months strawberries bedded on straw; pots of tumbling tomatoes; globe artichokes with their dramatic foliage and block plantings of corn on the cob could delight the eye.

Planting like that could make a visual impact; serving those vegetables could give out an inspiring culinary and ecologically sustainable message. Even the catering at the Eden Project should be part of the ethos they espouse: Adam and Eve could never have thrived on pizzas and pasties alone.


Tuesday, 3 April 2007

East of Eden

I've been meaning to visit the Eden Project for a very long time and finally the opportunity arose: one of my brothers was celebrating his birthday by taking the whole family to lunch at Riverford in Devon, the birthplace of the organic veggie box. And from there it was only an hour's drive into Cornwall,and Eden.

But the veg deserve the first blog of this two parter: Riverford grows and delivers organic vegetables ( Organic vegetables appeal to many people and - particularly for pregnant women or those with little children to feed - its nice to know that the vegetables have been grown with natural fertilizer, have not been sprayed with pesticide or treated to prolong their shelf-life.

Of course, to grow your own produce is best of all but not always possible. As most of us have discovered, freshly cropped, untreated green-leaf vegetables don't keep – and flavour and vitamins are lost quickly once picked - so should be eaten as soon as possible. Riverford Farms' veggie boxes are delivered throughout the country on a weekly basis: the vegetables in them are picked today and delivered to your door the next.

Quite obviously – to reduce that carbon footprint - if you have a market nearby it is much better to buy your produce locally. Produce at Farmers Markets, for example, has to be grown within a 30 mile radius and so the vegetable produce will be fresh - their vitamin content fairly intact - and many of them will be organic.

So, you might conclude that what Riverford is doing is not so very special now that there are many outlets selling freshly picked vegetables and fruits. However, the variety of produce is often very limited which makes for a very boring diet: we have all become used to – and enjoy - a very wide choice of vegetables and fruits from around the world.

And it is this aspect of the Riverford experience that impresses me the most: they offer variety. Their farms grow over 100 varieties of vegetables and every weekly box offers something different. In the summer season every type of soft fruit is available, in the winter there are interesting - often long forgotten – vegetables.

The highlight of our visit there was lunch at the field kitchen: no choice but what a treat. We dined on succulent grilled lamb steaks with a salsa, served on a bed of kale and white beans; potato & celeriac gratin; braised fennel; purple sprouting broccoli with anchovy and garlic; butter braised carrots; sauté of leek and Jerusalem artichoke with bacon; a mixed green leaf salad with beetroot, lentils and feta cheese and malted bread.

The vegetarians in our party were also offered a specially prepared filo tart. All this was washed down with excellent wine and local cider and rounded off with a choice of puddings. It was certainly the most convincing argument I've had for locally grown, freshly picked, imaginatively prepared and flavoursome food. A veritable vegetable heaven.