Friday, 29 July 2011

Broad Beans a.k.a. Habas (Sp)

We grow broad beans at Cottarton. It’s about the only bean that does well in our challenging climate. We gather bushels of them. Each year we wonder what to do with them.

They’re not part of Amber’s kitchen repertoire, drawn mainly from Italian and French cuisine. The internet has some recipes. Complicated enough to make you suspect that the chef is trying to disguise the flavour of the beans.

And so I end up taking a bucket of bean pods to Scone where my kid sister Munia, newly arrived from Ecuador is taking care of my mother.

“But of course,” she said. “Those are habas. We lived on them for twenty years in Zumbawua.”

Zumbawua, in the high Andes at an altitude of 14,000 feet, has a climate not unlike Scotland. But there is no Tesco nearby. You subsist there on what you grow locally --- a diet high in potatoes and broad beans. And you learn to be creative about it.

That evening I picked up Munia’s boys at Prestwick. Coming from Northern Italy, they took the Ryan Air red-eye to to spend a few days with their mum. Actually, I had the “red-eye” having to pick them up at Prestwick (a two hour drive from Scone) --- at close to midnight. While driving there, I pondered what I would do to future guests who inflict such torture on me. No doubt some action that would make a tabloid headline. My flinty heart melted on meeting the kids, Juan, Simon, Estevan and Santiago. What could I do but give each a bear-hug!

When they arrived at Scone, after greeting their mum, they unloaded their bags --- Italian coffee, cheeses, cakes, pasta. I swear that half of their carry on luggage allowance (10 kg on Ryan Air) was food.

They’re different from kids I’ve known both in the US and in Europe. Growing up in the high Andes among the Indigenous People, something of the wild nature, unspoiled by civilization, rubbed off on them. They never saw a television except once in three years when they came to Europe. Never cared for fads or designer clothes. In the mountains they spoke a mix of Spanish and Quechua. Lived among people who had absolutely nothing. And they subsisted on broad beans.

Beans (double-peeled) and other garden fruit

Yesterday Juan and Simon double-peeled the “habas”, slowly as if it were a meditation. Double-peeling means shelling the beans then removing the outer husk from each bean. It was a daily chore they carried out for over fifteen years. Many times the volume I had brought because Munia had to feed fifteen people. Perhaps the activity awoke some nostalgia for the clear and cold mountain environment they’d left behind. From Juan I heard about the many ways of cooking the beans.

1. Deep frying in oil.
2. Boiling single shelled beans, salting, then eating the inner beans individually with your fingers while discarding the husk. Goes well with some bread and cheese.
3. Soup --- Juan’s favourite. You cook double shelled beans with bacon, then you puree them.

We had both the deep-fried and boiled beans. Both tasted extraordinary. Was it only the beans, or something of “soul” that had been added to them during the preparation?

Saturday, 23 July 2011

Turning on the Heating

Weather talk in Scotland is usually pleasant, boring conversation. “Nice day isn’t it?” is a common greeting. However the subject can also be controversial.

Today I turned on our central heating.

I ought to feel sympathy for all our friends in the US who are suffering under sweltering heat. I read about it in the news, of temperatures over 100F (42C) in Houston, New York, Washington etc. Hot enough to cause significant distress. Perhaps it has also reignited the global warming debate. But how am I to muster any sympathy for those living in air conditioned rooms, when here at Cottarton, for most of July, night time temperatures have hovered around 6-8C ( 45F)? Daytime temperatures have rarely topped 60F. Last night, after returning from Scone to a cold cottage, I stayed awake half the night, shivering in bed.

No --- I said no, I will not turn on my central heating. Think of your carbon footprint. This is July!! Today I caved into the inevitable. With temperatures unlikely to break 50F, what else am I to do?

Today, Metcheck issued a frost warning for parts of rural Scotland, Omeomeomi! What will become of my dahlias!

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

FLOWER POWER: by Amber Poole

Should we sell them or give them away? If you read this, you must write me back and tell me what you think.

It has never occurred to me until this moment that flowers might not stir the heart of another quite like they do mine. In a similar way: poetry. Flowers and poetry, I suppose, are perceived subjectively. I could not say they are themselves subjective in nature. I’d have to ask, whose nature? Therefore they must have an authentic center independent of my projection, a hallmark of the Land like that of a tree, a brook or mountain. So do they influence outside the limits of our interpretation? Have they that power in their beauty?

Paul went out in the rain this morning and came back with the loveliest bunch of flowers. Their variety and freshness enchanted me. Their fragrance, full of grace. They sparkled beneath the layer of moisture that rested on their petals. Holding them in my hand was like the memory of a great poem. Life is a stream/on which we strew/petal by petal the flower of our heart. (The start of Petals, a poem by Amy Lowell)

Cottarton Flower Farm is at a loss in how to define itself. Paul would like to see a conventional outcome for his labor of love and the months of muscle demanded in the preparation of new beds, planting and so forth. I’m more the romantic sort and see them in a wholly different light.

The problem with selling our flowers is in part lack of visibility but in a greater part their competitive cousins from South Africa and Holland who dominate the market. They’re smartened up with packaging and food filled sachet packets, psychologically placed at the front of the store near the cashier, just in case you might grab a bunch on you way through the check out. They’re pretty too. (Goodness, how could one think otherwise of a flower?) But they all look the same. The same, freesias, daisies, carnations, roses and lilies are raised in protected environments, maintained by generous doses of fertilizer, watered by irrigation systems, in short, fostered for one reason: commerce.

If a Cottarton flower comes to full bloom, it has had to partner with the wind, the rain, our bashful sun whose rays are rarely seen, and bugs and snails and other beasties. These are hard working flowers with a radiance that shouts individuality and character. Yes, Cottarton Flowers have character. Ever beyond into infinite ways/We alone stay/While years hurry on/The flower fared forth, though its fragrance still stays.

It wasn’t so long ago that the types of flowers in our garden were the pride of every manor house in the county. Few women had the means to enjoy such luxury of freshly cut flowers on a windowsill in summer. The Canterbury bells, Michelmas Daisies, Sweet Peas, and the local wildflowers were the show of every well appointed household. But like so much else in our world today, the flowers that can be marketed to the masses are the ones raised and produced in greenhouses and poly-tunnels in far away places.

When I lived in Houston, Texas and a friend of mine asked, “If you could write your life in exchange for the one you have now, what would be different?” I had to think about it for awhile because Zach and I were not flush with money and resources, but we were happy and we laughed a lot and we told stories and we listened to music and we ate very well – even if the phone got disconnected (which if often did) our table was full of wonderful, homemade delights. I eventually answered, “Flowers.” If I could change anything, I’d have the money to put fresh flowers on my table every day of the year.

So I have this idea that there are elderly people out there who can’t get to the store for flowers or who can’t actually afford the luxury of them and I think of taking Cottarton Flowers to them, to brighten their windowsill. I think of the homeless who by a stroke of luck end up in a council flat starting a new life. I would like flowers on their table.

Would it influence them in ways of compassion and kindness? Would they treasure these flowers? For those of us who can buy flowers like a stick of gum, who give little thought to them, who perhaps don’t even change their water or split their stems, have they become just “another household item” to us? How do we bring back the divine, the poetry in the flower that sits on our kitchen table? I think it will return when there awakens a deep appreciation for the gift from the Earth, this gift that grows wild in concert with the four elements and produces the most heavenly flowers. Angels and garden sprites abound, dancing in and out of Cottarton Cottage Garden, as high as the treetops and as deep as the roots where the magic takes hold.

Saturday, 16 July 2011

The Clootie Well

While on one of my walks up Kinnoull Hill I took the wrong turn and, not unlike Dante Alighieri, found myself in an unfamiliar wood. Upon emerging from a thicket I came across the extraordinary sight of several small saplings whose branches were hung with small flags and other memorabilia. In their midst was what appeared to be a small pond --- not merely a pond. Water drained from it into a small creek, suggesting the pond was replenished by an underground spring. Upon closer inspection I saw a pair of beads, and a match box suspended by a ribbon. The scene had the trappings of a religious ritual, but which one? Modern day druids? Hippies?

I recalled my sojourn in Trinidad where people of Hindu origin often hung small flags near their house. Prayer flags to their various deities, asking for favours in money, health or love. The flags were left there and usually rotted and fell to the ground, a sign that the prayer was granted. In the Trinidadian back country I stumbled across a site similar to the one at Kinnoull, next to a spring that gushed out of the rock and into a pool. Nearby were several lighted candles.

Recently I heard of another such site: Munlochy well on Black Isle, near Inverness. The tree branches over the well were covered with rags. Apparently it’s a Celtic healing ritual associated with certain springs. On a nearby tree, usually an ash, you hang a strip of cloth, a piece of clothing or an object belonging to the sick person, in the belief that the magical power of the spring would thereby reach the sick person.

A short meander via Google brought me to the Clootie Well.

I knew the word, but only from Robert Burns where he addresses the devil,

O Thou! whatever title suit thee
Auld Hornie, Satan, Nick, or Clootie.

From Amber I heard about Clootie Dumpling, a desert often served on Burns night. It’s cooked in linen cloth --- or cloot. Hence, Clootie Well.

I wasn’t surprised that an ancient well associated with healing would subsequently become associated with the devil. Isn’t that the way that a new religion supplants an indigenous one? The gods of the old religion become the demons of the new religion. A typical example being the god Pan, whose horns and cloven hoofs became associated with the features of the Christian’s devil. His trident was borrowed from Neptune.

Some of the Clootie Wells have been Christianized. St. Mary’s Well near Culloden is one where people hang crosses and rosary beads in addition to the traditional cloots. When Christianity arrived in Scotland the priests originally tried to stamp out the old beliefs associated with healing springs, but finally realized that people weren’t about to give them up. So they renamed the wells with their own saints. The original Celtic names have only rarely survived.

And so back to Kinnoull Hill and the mysterious spring. On the Internet I found a reference to a Clootie Well on Kinnoull --- Lady Grey’s Well. No doubt she was a person of note associated with the history of the hill.

If you come across such a spring, take it as a stroke of good fortune. You’re in a spot that has been long regarded as sacred; where the spirit of the land is strong. Also, don’t touch the cloots. According to ancient lore, removing them or interfering with them can bring bad luck. In some cases the disease of the afflicted owner.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Who will buy my Canterbury Bells, two blooms for a penny?

And so it’s flower season again. This year we have a new flower stand and a new location, at the end of our access road, by the Smiddy where the flowers are visible to motorists on the main road. The Canterbury Bells are there, a mixed bunch of perennials and wild flowers, and our dry flowers. I confess that I find them all stunning, and not because I happen to have raised them. Dry flowers keep their sunny looks for at least a year. The Bells last for two weeks as long as you change the water and trim the ends every few days. Each morning they seem larger; catch more sunlight. The atmosphere in a room with Bells is transformed as if each bell were playing a tune.

Am I the only one who is so impressed? Over the past week we sold only one bunch. I don’t think that the price is too high --- £2 for small bunches and £3 for Bells. Tesco prices for their flower bunches are higher. What gives?

One issue is that this is summertime --- even though it may not feel like it. Last night’s morning temperature was 4 degrees Celsius. Be that as it may, many of our neighbours already have flowers ready to pick in their gardens. Selling flowers in the Scottish countryside may be like trying to sell ice to an Eskimo.

There’s also tradition and familiarity. Culture. Canterbury Bells, while stunning, are “not in”. They were popular in Victorian days but today no one knows what they are. I get puzzled looks from people to whom I gift the flowers. Forty years ago when my father had his nursery, Bells were common in flower shops. But since that time public tastes have changed, possibly due to the flowers imported from Holland and displayed at each supermarket checkout. The popular flowers are roses, carnations, Gerbera Daisies, gladiolas, alstromeria, freesia, spray chrysanthemums and various Asiatic lilies. These days they are grown in polytunnels, in warmer climates than Scotland.

At Cottarton, we specialize in local flowers, ones that do well in our climate. Also flowers with a strong natural scent. I’m a strong believer in growing things locally, sustainably and out in the open. Our spirit-infused land supports an abundance of many beautiful flowers. Why should we settle for Dutch or Spanish flowers, trucked here over a thousand miles? Or flowers grown in the stale air of polytunnels, prone to polytunnel pests and inevitably sprayed with various poisons? Of course, economics, globalization and advertising have changed public tastes, but Scotland does host an abundance of its own flowers. Flowers that fit into its unique landscape.

This year we have a bumper crop of acroclinium --- paper flower that dries easily. Also heliochrysum, a flower we add to our dried bunches. Canterbury Bells, planted in the summer always survive our cruel winters and shoot up when the snow disappears. Among other early flowers are various wallflowers --- heavily scented, and sweet williams. Up and coming are our sweet peas, dahlias, asters and single blossom chrysanthemums. We grow most from seeds or cuttings. Next year we’ll expand into michaelmas daisies and other perennials.

The main challenge in raising cut flowers here is to protect them against our legendary winds. They’ll batter the blossoms and knock over any stem taller than a couple of feet. Traditional flower netting solves this. Interestingly I have to use “pea and bean” netting then trim off the excess. Flower netting is no longer available. There’s no demand for it. I put a plastic roof over Chrysanthemums to keep the rain off their delicate blossoms.

We need sun! A couple of sunny days a week will do, but we need at least those. Whenever the sun comes out, the acroclinium and sweet peas open up. The chrysanths too. Warmth is even more welcome. It brings out the scents. I'm reminded of days before intensive cross-breeding, when more flowers were scented.

On August 6th we’ll take our flower stand out to the Huntly Fair. It will be our opportunity to talk with customers. Maybe I’ll finally find out --- what is it about Bells and Scotland?