Pear

 

Conference

 

If memories could be stored in boxes, this summer would have filled the multitude that still sit in our attic from our move here, 16 years ago. Except memories should never be allowed to be stored, sealed, and mothballed. This summer I watched and mentally ‘clicked’ on as many moments as I possibly could fit in my head.

Our children are growing up and it’s taken me until now to acknowledge just how fast it’s happening.

Spring always seems to be so busy amongst the veg beds (dig, sow, plant, water, weed, repeat) that often I forget to look over my shoulder and see what the fruit trees are doing. If I do, I’m lucky to be greeted by a riot of blossom; the trees become petticoated in layer upon layer of froth and flounce. It’s a sight that sends me right back to my grandpa’s orchard in Cornwall. As a child I used to spend hours lying on my back in the grass, surrounded by fresh goslings, gazing up through the gnarly bows of his ancient apple trees.

As Spring slips into Summer, the flowers wilt and their petals pool as confetti beneath our young trees. And miraculously, tiny embryonic fruit begin to emerge.

This year, for the first year ever, both of our young pear trees have decided to push on past the bloom, and braving ridicule from the more productive apple and plum, they’ve produced a total of five Williams, and two Conference. And I almost missed them. Yet there they are, dangling enticingly amongst the curtain of shiny, ovate leaves, ‘almost’ within my grasp… and definitely within a beak’s bite of a keen-eyed bird.

But now I know where they are I’ve been watching them closely, giving the lowest one a tentative squeeze. The second it yields under the pressure of a thumb, I’ll fetch the ladder.

To me, a pear, ripened on a tree, (or a windowsill, if the birds are queueing along the branches) is perhaps the most perfect fruit to eat as is, unfluffed or adulterated with any pastry or pomp. Straight from the tree, there are really only two ways to eat a pear. You can cup it’s round and plumptious bottom, and with the briefest of crunches you’re straight through and into the flesh… or you can use a knife. I have a penknife that I found while climbing in France. It’s a beautiful old thing… simple, elegant and with just one blade. To pierce the skin at the tip, and slip the blade down as the pear widens to it’s fulsome rump, and open out a perfect twin of creamy white, is a joy… and just as messy. That sweet burst of heady, perfumed juice, followed by an unconscious knuckle-wipe of a wet chin.

Autumn has arrived and I’m sitting in my little studio, and I’m finishing these conference pears, in egg tempera. And of course it’s difficult not to draw a parallel with my sweet children, who, like the pear trees, have blossomed and now fruited into young adults…. and I almost missed it. So I’m stashing away these precious moments in my head and heart, to the point where there’s a more than slim chance that I could just burst… this driving sense of urgency that I now feel, like trying to stuff the feathers into a pillowcase, before they float off, out of my reach.

But I won’t forget this Summer.


The plum

IMG_0358

 

I can’t remember the first plum I ate… though I suspect it was perhaps more of a tinned, rehydrated prune, the kind you’re offered in a pudding bowl with others, forming little shrivelled islands in a thick yellow sea of Bird’s Eye custard (which I love). I do recall the heated debates that would ensue, if either my brother or I got the ‘right’ number of prunes that would henceforth have the undisputable POWER to predict a future. In fairness, it was blatantly geared towards girls, and the assumption that they would aspire to marry, and marry a ‘rich man’ at that. The list of potential suitors could perhaps do with an update, to include, among others, ‘Angelina Jolie lookeelikee, yoga guru, ecowarrior, Tom Hollander, bearded person, heaven forbid:Donald Trump’…

Come Summertime, plums would appear in a bowl on the kitchen table, nestled amongst Cox’s Pippin apples and Conference pears. But I rarely reached for them, preferring the convenience of an apple that didn’t leak and make hands awkwardly sticky.

If only I’d known…

Now a ‘grownup’, with a family and a bit of land, we’ve planted apple, pear and plum. They hunker down in a little orchard that we’ve fenced off from the deer, who would strip the young trees within minutes, given the chance. In July it is one of the greatest pleasures, to slip down, alone, to the orchard, and pick a sun ripened plum.  Standing beneath the little tree, with the sun on my back, a warm and voluptuous plum in my hand… the wave of delicate perfume radiating from the blush and bloom of this Rubenesque jewel; a flavour bomb waiting to happen: utterly beguiling.

And then there’s that first bite… the lick-of-the-lips smooth skin as tongue guides teeth to the plump ‘give’ point… the give to the gave, as teeth pierce to flesh; it’s messy. Juice will always roll down from palm to wrist, and if unchecked, will trickle to the bony tip of an elbow as, throwing all caution to the wind, you go in for a second bite. It’s perhaps one of the most sensuous fruits, second only to a ripened fig. Summer love, in all it’s fresh and sweet abandon. And no one wants it to end… so you reach for another plum.

As I write this, I’m working my way through the left over ‘models’ from the egg tempera illustration above… “tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor…” I feel as if I’ve cheated a little, enwrapped as I am in this deliciously sweet moment before time… it is only May.

But it was worth it.


Happens every time

I don’t know why I should be surprised any longer. It’s the same, every time I step foot into this county (country, as many would have it).

Trying my best not to come over all Betjeman or Du Maurier, but you know… it seems to happen to a lot of people… that slow but definite sense of immersion into something otherworldly, a creeping feeling that you’ve slipped unwittingly onto a path running parallel. That step to the side of where you were before… it can leave you feeling refreshed, exhausted and ever so slightly unhinged, in a good way.

When I turned eight, my father made the decision to move us all to North Cornwall. It’d been something he and Mum had been planning for a few years. I had no idea. My brother I just knew Cornwall as ‘the place that takes 8 hours to drive to, and seemingly (sadly) no time to leave’. We’d holidayed there from a very early age, always trailing to the same curve and cup of coastline… bucket and spade in hand, and a promise of Prince’s Sardine and Tomato paste sandwiches. So to my brother and I, it seemed like a jackpot win: a never ending holiday.

The reality was, of course, a little different. As idyllic as the images may be that you’ve conjured up in your minds, living in Cornwall is NOT the same as holidaying there. As money become tough and then tougher still, life became more than the adventure that my parents had bargained on. Clothes were all second hand, and mended and extended. The 50p slot electricity meter was reviled and sworn at as much as the bank manager. Shampoo du jour was Fairy Washing up liquid, and bath water was used again, and again, and unfortunately for the last person, again!

Mum grew everything that she could. As I remember, we ate a lot of rabbit, pheasant, Congar eel, mackerel, liver (tubes and all, just cut them out) and ratatouille. I’m certain there was a huge variety of food, but these particular ingredients stick in the mind more than others. Also, cooking apples, every which way possible! It was all genuinely lovely.

There was no central heating (of course), but we had a little rayburn who performed the daily miracle of warming, drying and cooking all that was needed to keep full tummies and sanity in balance.

School was a struggle. Arriving from another part of England, I was considered ‘posh’ and so it was assumed that I must live in a posh house, and eat posh food, whilst wearing posh clothes and discussing posh pursuits. In truth, my past times were spent walking along the edges of streams counting badger sets, climbing overgrown field boundaries and chatting to imaginary friends that were a little more forgiving than those who I’d failed to charm at school. We couldn’t afford to drive me to potential friend’s homes for a play. We couldn’t afford to have friends come and play. Dad was always working; Mum didn’t drive. And so to a certain extent we became landlocked in this little pocket near the coast.

My brother and I had our chores and beyond that it was a team effort, wherever required. Whether chopping wood, mucking out chickens, cutting stingers, gutting fish or bleaching the mould mottled window sills of the cottage where we lived. We just got on with it.

Rod Stewart sang a lot about sailing and Wings banged on about ‘a little luck‘. (I discovered the sensual delights Marvin Gaye et al a lot later on, with no sense of reproach towards my mother who preferred classical music, or my father who’d rather watch a Western.)

The strangest thing is that although there were many pretty appalling scrapes and hard times, throughout it all, not once do I ever remember feeling that my life was ‘tough’ or untenable, or feeling envious of the seemingly bright and spangly lives of friends or cousins. I’m not sure how they did it, but my parents never betrayed any sense of the futility and frustration that, looking back, they surely must have felt at times. I never once felt that my life was lacking.

How clever they were. It’s not as if I didn’t know how shitty things were. I did. It’s just that they didn’t overdramatise it. They just got on and did their best to rise to the challenge, and move on. It didn’t dent their enthusiasm to stay and play the game they’d chosen.

As an adult now, I can see why their enthusiasm to stay never waned.

When I visit (go home) I find that my breath becomes slower, my head becomes freer, my phone battery dies and is left for dead, and I fall in love, all over again…

The lanes, the hedges, the beaches, the bite of salt water on a fresh cut to a shoe-soft sole. Throwing on a t shirt that’s been line dried, but still feels sea air damp. Babbington leeks, honeysuckle and sheeps scabious launching out from hedges, leggy flowering brambles  grabbing at a bare arm as you tuck into a stone walled hedge to make way for a tourist driving wide-eyed and nervous, one wing mirror already lost in a lane battle (probably on the way down to Polzeath). The suck, lick and caress of the sea as it hits beach or cliff, gently enthralling those that choose to float on, swim in or paddle along the edge of its reach.

Everything about it is utterly captivating, whether the sun’s cultivating salt crystals on freshly sea-dipped skin, or the rain’s lashing it down. In fact I can’t deny that my enrapt state of joy increases in direct proportion to the increased knottage of wind and foul weather, such is my perhaps somewhat perverse definition of ‘wonderful’.

My parents gave me this… a yard stick to measure what’s wonderful, what matters, what’s really important. There are some times when as an adult now, I have some fairly tricky challenges to wade through, days when not a lot seems to be particularly wonderful. This yard stick has proven to be saviour of sanity and humour. This, and of course, Cornwall.

It’s perhaps here, where a food writer might post a favourite childhood recipe, that will evoke deep comfort and hearty joy in the reader. I’m not going to attempt this. But I can thoroughly recommend taking a walk along any narrow, high hedged lane, or sifting through a handful of sand and shell, at the tideline, where the last wave rested briefly before returning to the sea.

 

 


Bees… A Winter of discontent

I’m not sure where to start… I suppose where I left off.

Ah yes. I was spinning honey, with the manual extractor bouncing around the kitchen, light dawning that you really can’t lick your own (honey-slicked) elbows.

Well, in between then and now a couple of seasons passed..

Settled at the bottom of the field overlooking a pond, nestled amongst trees that offered dappled light in Summer, my bees seemed the sweetest and happiest colony. We’d done a lot of learning together, some of it quite steep. But together we’d had a magical Summer. As Autumn rumbled along, the colony were nibbling at the edges of their stores. But as we shuffled into what was to be a pretty wet and unseasonably mild Winter, I could tell that the hive was far too light. Although a beginner, I still knew that this was not a good sign. The bees hadn’t slowed down. They were nipping in and out, scavenging for the last of the ivy nectar. And they were working their way through their precious stores.  After chatting with a couple of more knowledgeable beekeepers and reading whatever information I could find, I decided that I would take advice and supply them with an alternative food source before we hit October, hopefully enabling them to fill their stores some more. Sadly they weren’t that interested, and continued to try for Ivy nectar. And this may have been their downfall. Ivy nectar sets solid in cooler temperatures. And as such is very difficult to access when most needed.

Unable to enter the hive for fear of disturbing the colony, I had to guess what was going on. By January, still with the occasional bee buzzing around, I felt pretty sure that they needed help, and so slit open a pack of bee fondant for them to feed on. This offered some temporary reprieve and with fingers crossed and praying to the mighty Mellonia, I waited for signs of Spring and bee activity.

Then one warmer day in March, heart in mouth, I lifted the roof and took a peak into the hive.

Such the saddest and most tragic sight to take in. The bees were all dead.  It was like a seen from Pompeii. A slight breeze ruffled the wings of these silent thousands, giving the apparency of momentary life. Bees, seemingly frozen mid feed, clung in clumps to the frames. Some were buried so deep within the cells, it was as if they were trying to hide. They were in fact, trying to access the last bits of their ivy stores. Around the cells lay remnants of desiccated ivy nectar. But the worst was yet to come.

Two empty frames a long and there was a full stash of liquid, lifesaving honey. It would’ve been enough to sustain the colony until the first blossom of Spring appeared. They simply hadn’t managed to get to it.

I don’t think I’ve ever cried like that before. I felt wholly responsible, and so eaten up with a fury at my own ignorance and incompetence; such confusion.

I learnt a lot at that point… a lot about bee behaviour… a lot about me. I’d massively messed up on many levels, and really hadn’t known it. But the harsh reality is, that if you take on the guardianship of bees, it can’t be treated as a hobby. It’s a beautiful, huge and challenging role, one that you have to willing to learn, and one that you have to be willing to fail at in order to learn a bit more. Possibly a bit like parenting!

 


Bones, stones and shells

I suspect those who’ve dipped into this blog, have chosen to, with the assumption that I’d write about current work, books just illustrated, commissions just finished. I fully intended to do that.  But every time I look at a clean screen, the cursor heart-beating expectantly, I feel compelled to write about other stuff, outside of my work; no matter how seemingly insignificant and possibly overlooked, the stuff that resonates with me. There’s the slimmest chance they might invoke a similar echo within you, and for that I’m genuinely delighted. But if not, then feel free to head over to another, more focussed, blog!

I used to live very close to the sea.

Like most, having had that as part of my tapestry, I’ve found that, at times, I almost ache to be near again. Lest I sound ungrateful, I adore where I live now, surrounded by woodland and fields, that in some directions stretch out for miles before being dissected by a road. Here we’re raising three children, growing vegetables, keeping bees, and generally trying to live a life that’s balanced, has perspective and doesn’t fall into the bottomless troll pit of materialistic mud.

Nevertheless, when I do go back to the sea I find myself scrabbling in rock pools, ritualistically swimming in stupid temperatures, and collecting things. Many things. Things that once lived… gull skulls, fish vertebra, sand worn driftwood, seaweed.  Others things that once contained life. These are my weakness. These things are lovingly (sometimes secretively!) wrapped and packaged to bring home.

Deposited in jars filled with water, piled in corners of windowsills, reached for in the dark recesses of a bag, every time I pick up a stone, bone, shell, I’m transported. It’s a pulling, sensuous, tactile reverie. If I’m honest with myself, it’s an addictive state. I can feel the sting of spray, lifted and flung with an onshore breeze. I can run my tongue over my lips, the outer corners of my mouth and anticipate the salted skin. I can absentmindedly pull that wind-whipped lock of hair once more from my watering eye. I can look beyond to where the horizon is held back by the rolling swell of deepest blue/green. I can hear the sea.

 


Bees... Yeah, but I'll never make wax candles, okay?*

Sunday 13th April 2014… blue, blue sky. What a backdrop. 

They came with the golden glow that is Pat Brown.

Approimately 15,000 workers and one queen. We all dressed in varying degrees of protected readiness and made our way down to where K had set up the hive; nestled amongst Spring’s sparsely covered branches of a lake side Beech. I readied the smoker nearly burning fingers as I lit newspaper (an ancient OFM, good quality) and gradually stuffed the smoker’s inner cylinder with dried grass that Pat had collected on our way down through the field.
(Note to excited self: Must collect more, and store in paper bag as instructed by Pat.)
With the suck and puff of air pulled through the bellows, the flame – slowed and steadied by the compacted grass – continued to burn at a simmer. Eventually, without any more encouragement, a thick creamy coil of smoke curled lazily from the spout.

Ready. 

Pat opened the lid of the nucleus box and with gentle, slow and loving attention to every nuance of bee behaviour she removed the six waxed and drawn frames. They were loaded with bees, drawn cells, uncovered babies and capped worker and drone cells. A few cells were filled with honey.. their supply until they make fresh from their new surroundings. We transferred all of the frames in exactly the same order as they were originally, pulled cells on one frame rippling intimately  into the perfect curve of its companion frame.

The children stood back a little. 

I couldn’t stop looking. Shocked, entranced, deliriously happy, humbled. I wanted to take off my gloves (ridiculous) and stroke frames, cells, bees (really ridiculous since although they appeared calm, they were preoccupied and a little agitated from their 3 hour journey from Gloucestershire). The smell of the pollen, wax, cedar frames, propolis.. such the headiest of cocktails.

They’re Buckfast bees. I like that. Not sure why, but the name conjures less monk… more imagery of  a relaxed, laid back kind of bee… possibly reclined on a bale of hay, a piece of fresh grass twiddling in it’s mandibles, ‘ears’ stoppered with headphones piping in a little Al Green.

We stood watching as courageous bees started to exit the hive, backwards, hover 2 inches, land, and then stick their little bottoms in the air, almost performing a come-hither waggle! I’ve now learned that this is their way of encouraging their comrades to return. This is where your queen is. So stay close, this is home!

Done with the gawping (for now), we gently brushed one another down, removing any little interrogative foragers off our suits to ensure no one got lost. 

Pat’s 79, sparky beyond what’s deemed normal for someone of that age, and everything I aspire to.
She warned “I can be a bit bossy, but I’d rather you know what you’re doing!” Blue eyes perceptive and quick, wink from a creased-from-too-much-smiling face. We laughed a lot over bread and cheese, and then she was gone… the children asking under their breath if she could be their third grandmother.

It’s now Wednesday 16th April. Every day I’ve been down at least twice to check on them; not necessarily for the benefit of the bees, but the pull is irresistible. 

However yesterday was a turning point. I saw a bee hovering to touch down on the landing strip…she was LADEN with pollen.
They’ve arrived.. 
Click on this link if you fancy a peek. If you have any hints/tips/books to recommend regarding bees then please do get in touch. I’d be delighted.
* Maybe one day…
.