July in the strawberry patch

 

 

 

 

Models in line, waiting to pose and pout for the paintbrush.

 

I optimistically thought that if I can beat the slugs, discourage the field mice and net them from the black bird that watches me from the holly bush (because we’ve clipped back the cobnut now, so it’s too stumpy to work as an all seeing power seat for the true proprietor of my vegetable garden), then we (the humans) might just be in with a chance of actually enjoying our own strawberries this year.

Every time I went down I’d discover a new little hole carefully chewed through the netting by the field mouse, so I’d dutifully adjust it to hold him at bay awhile. I also discovered that overwatering was like waving a white flag at the slugs “I give in! Slide this way and fill you boots.” So I’ve watered far less.  No wayward stem has been allowed to stretch beyond the netting and wave a curly tendril daubed temptingly with glowing digits of red. These are religiously tucked back in their corral every time I spot an escapee. And so with all these little tweaks and tricks I’m learning along the way, we’ve done so much better this year.

There’ve been times that I’ve crept down at silly-hour in the morning, gathered up a generous t-shirt pouch of them and wandered back with enough for my family to enjoy on their cereal/yogurt/straight from the hand. Actual bowlfuls!

It’s been the same with the other berries too. But these seem to be permanently guarded by that blackbird and as I open the gate to these fruit beds, he’s there, ready with a shouty stream of pure vitriol. I’d not realised that blackbirds actually knew such language.

But there’s plenty for all here, really.

It’s just the strawberries I don’t feel so inclined to share.

So this morning I woke early, and slipping on a t shirt and wellies, I grabbed a colander and took a wet-let walk through the field, such a whisper of grasses now prematurely brittle and bone pale. This Summer has been longer than the usual week we fondly joke about and has in fact stretched out for more than a month of relentless sun. It’s lucky we don’t mither over the rather middle class obsession of owning a perfectly green, weed-free lawn. The stretch that could loosely be called such looks scorched as if someone’s being playing with a blowtorch. But miraculously, the soft fruits don’t seemed to have suffered at all.

Burrowing under the netting I could see that all the fat juicy ‘domestic’ strawberries have long gone, their season ended last month, but still the wild strawberries keep coming, and some of them are the size of a Gobstopper! Their flavour is so much more refined and perfumed than their rather comical counterpart, almost soapy, but not in the frothy, gag-inducing way; there’s just the gentlest most comforting suggestion of Doves’ Beauty Cream bar… depending how ripe they are. I love them, in fact I’ve become just a little obsessed with them.

So in honour of these seasonal beauties that taste like no other outside of these few months, I found the biggest one, held back from popping it straight in my mouth, and instead took it up to the studio, sliced it in half and got my paints out.

 

Strawberry, painted in egg tempera, onto handmade paper

 

I could go headfirst into a dizzy rant here, you know, about eating with the seasons. In fact I know of quite a few folk who’ve written very eloquently on this. And I know I’m one of the lucky ones that has the space to grow much of my own veg and fruit.

But I will say this: very little can surpass the flavour and texture of the food we choose to eat, when it’s been grown and eaten in the season it was meant to be. The strawberry is a perfect example of this ‘truth’.

 

 

 

 


The plum


 

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.