In pursuit

How it began…

We received an email: it was a generous offer from our friend, Tom Lywood, to take us truffle hunting in our part of the country. Tom is a poet (‘a rolling word man’ he would say), medieval musician, and an established and successful truffle hunter.

Manic research ensued to find the most promising truffle terroir; to find out the particular species of truffle prevalent (with luck) in our area. I found enough information to fill several lever arch files, including a rather scattered and someone disparate history of truffle hunting and appreciation in Britain through the centuries. However, all of this did nothing to secure any certainty when choosing the ‘best’ place to stage the pursuit.

It also did very little to prepare me for what became the most esoteric ramble I think I’ve ever taken.

We met in a pub in Lewes. Local brew ordered (whiskey mac for me) one of us gamely produced an ordinance survey map. Even though at least 5 years old, it was conspicuously pristine and perfect in every crease… the kind that get’s bought in a fit of enthusiasm yet remains neatly stored on a shelf amongst other ‘local interest’ paraphernalia. We all stared, some pointed, others nodded; we all sat back, none the wiser.

Tom arrived, having valiantly fought the clogged arteries of the coastal roads to reach us. He looked keen to get on, so we left the warm embrace of the pub and quickly clambered into a friend’s draughty old land rover. Lots of rubbing of hands and puffing of cheeks, as much from the cold as from excitement!

After much bouncing, careering and leg bracing the landrover left behind a windy single track road to nose up a narrow rutted lane, eventually coming to a halt on the edges of a private estate. We’d been given the all clear to be here, the owners no doubt somewhat amused at our choice of weekend activity!

Tom emerged from his car, though it’s probably fairer to say ‘unfolded’. At beyond 6ft, he’s a middled aged beanpole with the smile of someone a mere shadow of that age and stature.  Dressing up in ill fitting and rather tired all-weather gear, he flipped open the boot of his little hatchback and released the star of the day. Out hopped Valentino, an Italian Water Hound, his luscious botticelian surfer dude main bouncing. We all stood about making come-hither kissy noises. Snubbing our soppy efforts he and scampered off, nose twitching, and cocked his leg on a nearby beech tree. Tom, meanwhile, ignored all this and pulled out a old, long, hinged box from the car. He carried this to a clear bit of ground. On bended knee he placed it down, and with apparent reverence, slowly unclipped and lifted the lid. We watched, curious.

He pulled out a beautiful medieval looking horn. Holding it with both hands, he stood tall, closed his eyes, and blew. A single breathy note sounded out across the surrounding land. We gazed in wonder, completely thrown by this hark back to another era. He blew the horn several more times, swinging it high, arcing it around, summoning the spirit of the hunt, the truffles and all good fortune. It felt like a reconnection, however tenuous, with another time, when the land rolled out under different ownership and footfall. It now felt somehow altered, wise and hopefully giving.

I think it was at this point that our hearts took on a different beat.

Slamming car doors, thrusting hands into pockets and chins into scarves, we began our hunt.

Tom and Valentino led the way, Tom clutching what appeared to be a little pointed spade mounted on a long handle; a truffle trowel.

We climbed a valley, clambering over barbed wired boundaries and scrabbling up chalky banks. Piercingly cold though it was, faces soon turned ruddy and hands were pulled out of pockets to grasp at the terrain as it steepened further, before levelling out to a light flooded, sparse beech tree copse. Valentino and Tom were just in sight, Tom uttering encouraging noises to his charge “Tino, Tino! Wassat, wassat?” Valentino, head down to ground, nose firmly buried was digging up earth, more earth, and then tiny embryonic truffles. At one point, Tom gently held Valentino’s muzzle and prized open his jaws.  “He’s eaten it. I don’t mind. It’s too small and probably the wrong kind to be bothered with.” Valentino looked suitably delighted and scampered off in a completely different direction, Tom following. Every time this happened it was initiated by Valentino, who with Tom’s urging, would search deeper. Even the minutest of gestures from Valentino would be duly read, understood and acted upon by Tom.

I began to realise that Tom and Valentino were looking at and feeling this land on a completely different plain to us. I looked around, and suddenly felt completely at a loss.  I knew where we were (we had the ordinance survey map, didn’t we?) but I really had no idea what I looking at. Tom was seeing a land that had been lived on, managed, farmed, coppiced, boundaried, fought for and on. To him it was a sprawling rich tapestry of past happenings. There were times when he paused, stood still and closed his eyes, drinking in this land.

For the next 3 hours we rambled, scrabbled, caught our breath and watched. Tom remained calm, buoyant. When he spoke it was always with complete awe and respect for the surrounding land, and never with any frustration that it hadn’t given up any of it’s bounty.

The light began to fade. We hadn’t found a truffle. And to be honest, none of us were entirely bothered by this. The experience alone, being with Tom, a human portal into this otherwise hidden view, had been an extraordinary moment in time. Completely unexpected, and unforgettable.

We’d come a long way and it was time to head back before we lost our bearings for real.

Back at the car, while we concentrated on thawing out toes and fingers, and Tom climbed out of his foul weather gear, Valentino suddenly picked up a scent, buried his nose and with Tom’s guidance, picked out a truffle the size of a golf ball! (Russell Conwell’s “Acres of Diamonds” comes to mind!)

This day went so far beyond anything any of us could have imagined. Yes, finding a truffle was a great result, but spending time with Tom (and Valentino) was a complete honour. This is a man who has the courage and confidence to travel along his chosen path, regardless of whether it’s perceived as out of step with society and it’s fleetingly fashionable trends. He’s not just about truffles. The experience was life affirming, for all of us, I think.

Thank you, Tom.

With love,

Anna

 


New year scribble...

 

Looking back, last year had sparkle in many unforeseen places. I could write a list of things for which I’m grateful, beginning with the letter B *.. just for the hell of it..

Beautiful family

Best of friendships

Bees

Books (illustrated, and read)

Bountiful vegetables

Bicycle (that one that my husband built for me)

Butter (ice cold on warm toast)

Birds

Bread…

But like many I’m sure, I’m brushing off the imaginary clods and cobwebs of last year’s less than spectacular moments (of which there were some), and keenly looking forward to a fresh breeze carrying new challenges…

I know there will be just as many pot holes and hidden bear pits as last year. But it is my sincerest hope that I will be a little wiser at spotting the signs, enabling me to perhaps dodge a few of them. In the case of the occasional leafy patch that gives way underfoot, hopefully I won’t view these ambushes as disastrous, but merely a reminder to keep my paths true and honest, and push on.

2015 has begun. There are things going on in this world that flood me with such horror and disbelief. But there is a sense of relief that these moments bring about a similar reaction in the majority of others; we’ve yet to become inured to the constant barrage of indescribable violence. We still reel with shock and disgust at the inhumane and the unjust. Where the majority feel this way, then surely those that proactively attempt to disrupt, degrade, and destroy – singularly or en masse – cannot win…

It’s time to head up to the studio… but first to wish you the most wonderful year ahead. May we all be lithe enough to side step the bear pits, but kind enough to reach out and pull at the hand of someone who’s fallen in.

Much love,

Anna x

* Because I had to start somewhere, and the letter A didn’t do it for me.

 


A break from scribbles to tell you about a beautiful book...

Like everyone I get my fair share of unsolicited emails… those that you swiftly flush away with the ‘delete’ button, or find slipped into your ‘junk’ mailbox without even a rap at the door …some of them are surprisingly wonderful though. This one that had erroneously assigned itself as junk was an email from a commissioning editor, saying that her client had ‘found me on twitter’ and wanted me to illustrate his book! Would I please consider it.

Here’s where I have to be completely honest: as a freelance illustrator, it’s quite often me who initiates contact with possible clients, that hopefully then flower into future collaborations. I love this because, not only can I handpick those I feel inspired to work with, but also because I get to actually meet some truly wonderful and inspiring souls in the process, many of whom I can now number amongst my friends. So when I get a call, it turns the tables a little. But it’s fun and very flattering (can never have enough of that… illustrators usually have egos small enough to curl into a wren’s egg).

Dino Joanrides is the author in question, and having agreed to take a look we spoke on the phone. And we spoke for quite a while. I think we covered everything from real pasta to butter that comes in tins (who knew), from the ‘right’ kind of parma carving knife to wild boar, and italian sheep that look like goats. During that call I realised how little I know about Italian ingredients and just what an encyclopaedic knowledge Dino has. I saw what a great and essential work this book was going to be. I said ‘yes’.

Here are a few sneaky peaks at some of the illustrations I did to decorate Dino’s erudite writing! Hopefully I’ve done him justice!

It’s a been a joy to illustrate. Inevitably, I now want to restock my fridge and cupboard!

It’s available to buy in ‘all good book shops’ and here.



 

 

 

 

 


Spinning classes...

I’m writing this, having washed myself down, from chin to toe, thus saving the keyboard from developing any further qwerty idiosyncrasies.

To be honest, it may have been more efficient to have brought in a jet spray and just stood in the middle of the kitchen, while some kind child blatted me, the counters, walls, floor and the few brave wasps that insisted on hanging around, such was the demographic of stickiness.

But I really didn’t care. The whole palaver was genuinely bloody fabulous. Heating a bread knife on the Aga hot plate…the smell of singed wax as I shallowly sliced the capping from the comb…the tsunami of perfume as the honey unfolded itself from the cells … mallow, gorse and clover…

I carefully placed the uncapped frames in the mechanical honey extractor I’d hired, and turned the handle. Momentum gathered and honey began to fly from the outer cells. The honey extractor, a big tub, began to shudder and attempt an enthusiastic twerk across my kitchen floor. I braced it against a cupboard with my knees and cranked up the speed, entranced by the flickering little arcs of amber sweetness as they hit the tub wall and began a slow descent to pool at the bottom. Wow. Miraculous.

Stickiness didn’t really arrive until I needed to filter this honey. I found that by using a children’s high chair (a Tripp Trapp in case you’re planning to have a go) I could position the spinner on top and place the tub with sieve below with ‘just’ enough overlap to avoid floor puddles. This worked…ish until I needed to get the last bits out.  I found myself clasping the tilted extractor between my knees, and with a spatular I reached through the internal workings to the persistent little puddle at the bottom. I got the last of the honey!

I also got honey all over me… my hands, wrists, elbows, arms, neck, chin, hair, and smile.

I’ve now potted up this small but precious treasure.

My family are in raptures. I am in AWE.

This has been the most incredible micro adventure I’ve ever embarked on. I have a slow but persistently growing sense of responsibility that has begun to bloom way beyond my family to the greater environ. I’m not an eco-evangalist or hardwired to stand on a crate at Speaker’s Corner on a Sunday! But having watched these incredible animals as they go about their united efforts to survive and prosper I can’t help but see the parallel. We could learn a lot. We could help a lot. We’ve all read the story, you know, the one about “if the bees go, so do we” but it’s more than that. I’m not suggesting we should all become advocates of a communistic way of life. But it’s certainly something extraordinary and quite humbling to see a healthy bee turn around on it’s door step and head back to an exhausted forager, to touch, caress and support it as it endeavours to make it up the ramp to their door.

The hive is now winding down for Winter. The queen’s slowed down her egg production. The whole super organism has set about conserving energy, building and saving stores and guard bees wait at the narrowed door, spiked bottoms waggling at potential wasp intruders who would wipe out an entire winter store in a heartbeat.

Meanwhile, I’ve placed our honey on a shelf in the food cupboard… little glass jars of sunshine for Winter’s grey. Feeling grateful.

 


Oh how we laughed, but not last...

This Sunday’s hive check was golden. The sun shone, the wind slowed to a soft occasional lift, and I used lavender in the smoker which we all seemed to enjoy. The bees hummed with a discernible timbre of Glastonbury. We were all feeling mellow. Even when I gently eased out our single frame of pure honey comb, they almost merrily waved ascent “yeah, take it, fill your boots…” We were all in love. The new queen (Mrs Mallow) unfazed, waggled at me, paused, pivoted and sashayed along frame number two. I blew her a kiss….

Stripped back down to shorts and a T shirt and still humming, I joined my family to collect windfalls and scabby apples that didn’t quite pass fruit bowl muster. We were due to take them to a friend’s house for communal juicing and bottling. Enveloped in the heady perfume of ripened fruit it was a moment of sensuous indulgence. Our hands smelled of apples. As we finished filling up boxes I took my husband for a stroll down to the bees, just to check out the entrance, where earlier little wasps had been dive bombing to gain access to the stores of honey. See those two little words, ‘wasps’ and ‘honey’… add to that, that we’d been picking apples where wasps were also feasting and you maybe able to guess a little of what I should’ve seen coming….But no, I was still humming…

To the bees’ heightened senses, on guard for wasps, we must’ve seemed and smelled like two of the hugest robbers they’d ever spotted. Once alerted one hurled itself at Marc, who with much arm flailing managed to distract her. Another, like some demented wasp seeking missile, decided that I was ‘the one’ and became hellbent on attacking me.

I ran. Bloody hell, I really ran. I zig zagged, looped and flapped through the long grass, up the field and still she hung to my scent, and I swear I could almost here a mocking refrain of the tune we’d been humming in such harmony only an hour before!

With her deranged buzzing literally at my ear I realised only one option was available. I tore up the last bit of the field, cleared the steps and in one fumbling blind move I lifted the cover and dove fully clothed into the ice cold silence of the pool.

I emerged; no one was humming anymore. I laughed with relief and clambered out. But as I started to pull off shoes and empty out water I heard the weak but persistent replay of ‘our’ tune haltingly strike up, getting louder and louder with every second. I ripped off my t shirt, certain she was stuck in a pocket of air, and found her pinned by her stinger to the collar like some forlorn and ragged brooch.

Quickly I put her out of her misery. I felt completely rotten. Lesson learnt.


Yield To The Night (Also titled The Blonde Sinner!)

Alternative title: why choose the easy route, when there’s a whole slippery K2 you could scale instead …

This bee keeping journey has taken a WHOLE new twist. It’s found a mountain range and decided to don crampons, helmet and axe, and climb, rather than journey smoothly around and onwards. Here’s me holding on the coat tails of mother nature’s billowing and omnipresent cloak, eyes tight shut, hoping things will play out to a happy end, in spite of my good but ultimately misguided intentions.

The story so far…

The Old queen flew and took half the workers,

The remaining workers, jobless and bored filled the entire brood box with honey,

We all waited, and waited…. no new brood appeared; workers kicked around, guzzling nectar and honey like a bunch of daytime drunks waiting for the next lockdown,

We introduced a new beautiful, curvaceous Slovanian queen… they all seemed to fall in love with her (we certainly did!)

New little eggs appeared, slowly filling up the emptied brood frames; we got excited! (no Slovenian queen spotted but slight niggling doubt pushed aside as, hey, there’s new eggs, so she’s surely just hiding…)

And then this….

A couple weeks ago I strolled down for my weekly ‘hello and how are you?’ taking in the warm dried hay, the scent of mallow and a blue sky decorated with swooping, feeding swallows… all very halcyon, tranquil in heart and mind. Flipping over and zipping up the hood of my bee suit and giving a gentle huff of the smoker I began to remove the layers of the hive down to brood chambers. No Slovenian queen to be seen anywhere.

Feeling somewhat unsettled, I did one more search…and there, sauntering around on frame no. 2, was a HUGE bottomed queen, blonde, brassy, beautiful and a worker bee’s equivalent to Diana Dors.

Oh you fickle worker bees! Stroking, fluffing, feeding this swaggering new queen.

And OH you murderous tart! Why didn’t you show yourself earlier?! AND WHERE DID YOU HIDE THE BODY?

It’s been 2 weeks since I found the new queen, and we’ve both calmed down a bit now, she and I.  She’s busy laying, and to be honest I’m just wholly relieved that she’s there. In terms of the dark fist fight that I missed, the strongest queen won. So I’m thankful that I have such a tough young queen, because she’s the one who’s going to take the brood through the approaching cooler seasons.

Meanwhile, my crampons and helmet have been removed, but left nearby… just in case.

 

 

 

 

 


...and speaking of the delicious bite of joy...

… Since last writing of the painful mess I’d made, I can now confirm that I’ve a new queen!

She’s a soft, curvaceous young woman from Slovenia… a Carniolan Queen.

Her new prospective harem had been milling around, without proper jobs and so got busy filling the entire brood box with honey.. every single frame was stuffed and actually dripping. The temptation to remove my veil and gloves and do a Baloo was tempered by an acute sense of guilt for having got them into this sticky mess in the first place! They desperately needed someone to lavish attention on and steer them back to colonial supremacy.

To introduce a new queen you have to stretch the courtship out into a sedate series of obstacles. Bees, apparently don’t ‘do’ blind dates well, and tend to mob and kill the intended bride, no matter how beautiful. It was a nail biting procedure.

(Quick story here: my dear grandfather, having waited for over a month for a new queen to arrive in the post from some far flung place, was so overjoyed on receipt, he promptly dropped her and stepped on her!)

I collected her in a small perforated box, stoppered with a block of white bee candy and a plastic cap. Inside this little box she was attended by a few of her original workers who groomed and fed her as I wedged her carriage between two brood frames. The queen less workers were able to greet her, check her out, but keep an enforced respectful distance. After a few days I removed the plastic cap. At this point the white block of candy was accessible to the queenless workers. Rather like some ‘Harry met Sally’ b (sorry) movie playing out, as the Queen dined from the inside, they now were able to eat at the candy from the outside, and at some point meet in the middle and greet each other like tentative lovers..

Well this must have happened, as yesterday, nerves bubbling to the point of a kettle whistling, I headed down the mallow daubed field to check on the state of the hive. To my utter relief and joy, frames has been cleaned of honey and were being filled with new brood and pollen.

So there you have it, the rhythm and equilibrium of the hive has been restored.

And now, at last, I can consider the ‘room’ above, the extra larder where they’ve been making liquid gold. For my first season, I’m delighted to know that I will have a little honey… enough to feel incredibly grateful, and guarantee a little bit of this Summer to spoon onto a Winter’s breakfast of porridge.

The queen has been christened as Mrs Mallow.


She packed her bags last night, preflight...

 

… and here was me, thinking I’d missed the drama, that this first season of bee keeping was actually mostly pure pleasure, only marred slightly by the boil in the bag sensation during scheduled visits in hot weather. But I could put up with that, bearing in mind the golden rainbow of reward I’d already visualised (and tantalizingly sniffed) arcing out of a table top honey spinner in August!

But the truth is, my queen had other plans that didn’t fit quite so neatly with mine, and in between these most recent of hive checks she’d managed to send the whisper out to her team and slipped out unseen, unheard, no doubt to hang out at some intermediate bedsit (be it branch, shed, post box or car bonnet) while her seekers flew forth and found a suitable new home.

I’ve been told this year has been extraordinary in that swarming started as early as March in some areas; due to the mild winter many have enjoyed, the spring flowers came early, which meant queens laid, and hives filled.. and queens got bored/pressurised by their entourage into reproducing and moving on.

I need to confess here that she hadn’t left me queen-less. She’d gifted me a capped queen cell, and her remaining ladies were nursing what appeared to be two more uncapped queen cells. But (and here’s the stab) because I hadn’t sussed that’s she’d gone, and wanted to avoid a swarm, I destroyed what was in fact the ONLY viable queen cell! It was at this point that it suddenly dawned on me that she and half her entourage had already flown, and I was looking at a reduced hive, with no new eggs. I carefully saved the remaining uncapped queen cells and waited… and waited.. until it became painfully clear that they were empty.

I wasn’t prepared for the shock of how utterly torn up I felt about this total cock-up on my part. I felt dreadful, wholly responsible and genuinely bereft. It’s a surprise, because, that’s the sort of emotion I feel for my children when I’ve irretrievably messed up somehow.

No ‘how to’ beekeeping book could’ve warned me about that. But maybe my skin is too thin. Maybe I’ll ‘toughen up’ a bit by next year when I’ll hopefully have a couple more broods to play guardian to. This would be helpful. Can’t walk around with a slap face every time the bees don’t follow the yellow brick road.

But then, if I did toughen up, I suspect the flip side of utter joy and wonderment wouldn’t bite so deliciously and profoundly as it does, when things go well.

 

 


Growing up

 

I think it’s something to do with having children.

There’s a growing sense of a need to make everything that I see, hear, or do count for something… enough that I can create a hook, a tab and carefully place it amongst other experiences.

I don’t want to sugar coat them, or preserve them in formaldehyde. I want the air to flow around them, through them, leaving them fluid and fresh, so that I might gather one to me, pull it on and wear it…

I have the strongest memories of childhood, not all of them wonderful. As such you’d think it not so very important to preserve those… But they are a real part of the making and moulding of this me, this Anna. With these, as much as the happier lighter moments, I’m able to dip in (sometimes involuntarily), tie a loose knot to the end and walk with this gossamer thin silk to the here and now and make a tentative connection. Occasionally, this connection can be a shock. But it’s by making this walk with the ball of silk that I’m able to see how life has moved, shifted and evolved. With this comes as sense of space, time, belonging..

I watch our children, our beautiful, spirited and incredibly individual three. I see these new delicate threads, memories … I want as many as possible of theirs to be happy, without struggle or conflict.  I know, what a load of crap. I mean really, what are the chances of that.  It’s what we all hope for though, as parents. There’s an instinct to rub it better, to distract from the unseen terror, the spider, the freshly gashed knee. And yes, I will rub it better, I will hug and hold … possibly for too long! But they must be allowed to make their own memories and link as they wish. I need to sit on my hands. I suppose that’s this thing called growing up. I’m still working at this, obviously.

 


Going for a chat, I took you with me...

 

Seems a fairly obvious thing to say, but, unless you’ve actually had the opportunity to spend some time around a hive, indeed stick your (veiled) head in amongst the frames, watch them, talk with them, listen .. it’s actually quite a leap of imagination to push beyond that initial response of ‘run for the hills’ when confronted by 30,000 bees.

So in an effort to bypass the hill run for you, I took down my phone and pressed ‘record’.

However, on listening back to it, I will understand if that instinctive need to swipe at imaginary airborne assailants still persists.

Here you go:

A chat with the bees

… and breathe!