Saturday 19 March 2011


A glorious day. Warm sunshine on my back, as I weeded round the bearded Irises, before giving them their annual feed of phosphate...Almond blossom is over, but now plum blossom is at full strength, and the peach blossom isn't far behind. Apricot blossom - arguably, the prettiest of the lot - is just beginning to stir, and the roses are putting on new growth at a rate of knots. 
The new planting for this year is just about completed, with the camellias and azaleas that went in last week rapidly followed by a whole lot of hostas and hemerocallis, which I'd ordered from a supplier in Rimini back at the end of January, and which unexpectedly arrived only a couple of days ago. With no fear of any further frosts, the more tender of the water lilies, which had to go indoors for the winter, have now been returned to the lily pond - although the temperature of the water is still cold enough that I didn't linger over the process of 'planting' them once more, but did an extremely quick in-and-out.

After a soul-enriching afternoon spent with wheelbarrow and hoe - with demands from the junior four-footed every two minutes that I throw for him the pine cone that he carefully placed in the middle of whatever I happened to be doing at the time, just in case I might miss it - tea was served beside the fire in the barn. As we sat,  the sky got darker and darker, in readiness for what felt like the first of the summer thunderstorms. Which I love. The heavens opened, thunder rolled and crashed, and I retired to a long hot bath, in the company of Elizabeth David ('Spices, Salt and Aromatics in the English Kitchen' ), as flashes of lightning periodically split the darkness beyond the bathroom window...

Tonight's Dinner:

Risotto of Funghi Porcini


Wednesday 16 March 2011

Recipe: Apple Sorbet with Calvados

Another one from Anne Willan - the additional garnish of dried apple and a further splash of calvados was at the TD's behest, as he felt the sorbet on its own lacked edge. This recipe produces a wonderfully soft-textured sorbet, with a good strong flavour. It keeps pretty well - although, like all sorbets, it will become granular if left in the freezer for more than a couple of weeks (in which case, simply leave it to melt at room temperature for an hour or so, and then re-churn it in the ice cream machine; it will be restored immediately to pristine condition.)

For 8-10 servings.

Ingredients: For the Sorbet: 2 large Apples, peeled, cored and diced; 1.5 litres of Water; 250g Sugar; 1 tsp powdered cinnamon; 125 ml Lemon Juice; 150 ml Calvados.
For the garnish: 2 large Apples, peeled, cored and diced; juice from 1 Lemon; 1 tbs Sugar; half a tbs ground Cinnamon; Calvados.

For the Sorbet:
1. In a saucepan, heat the Apples, Sugar, Water and Cinnamon, stirring until the Sugar has completely dissolved; then cover and simmer for 15 minutes or so, until the Apples have completely broken down.
2. Sieve the mixture, then stir in the Lemon Juice and Calvados (at this stage, taste for sweetness and add more Sugar if necessary).
3. Chill the mixture, and then churn in an ice cream machine. Freeze until needed (if hard-frozen, then let it soften in the fridge for about an hour before serving).
For the garnish:

Mix the diced Apple with Lemon Juice, Sugar and Cinammon. Spread the pieces out on a silpat sheet, or on a baking sheet lined with greaseproof paper. Dry for an hour in an oven pre-heated to 125 degrees C, then leave aside to cool - the texture at this stage should be pleasantly chewy. When serving the Sorbet, garnish each serving with a small amount of dried Apple, and a spoonful of Calvados.

Sunday 13 March 2011

Camellias - a Discovery!

We decided ages ago that we wanted some more Japonicas, to go under the pine trees, in amongst the hydrangeas, so that there would be something going on in that part of the garden during the winter months, when the hydrangeas are resolutely dormant. Already, we'd put in a row of camellia japonicas - half a dozen different kinds, but all with predominantly white flowers -  between the entrance pergola and the pine trees, and the idea was to plant more, disappearing off into the distance, towards the South Lawn beyond the pine trees - but to have them gradually going through whites, to light pinks, to that kind of strong, deep pink that Camellias are so good at. It's the perfect time of year to go and buy the things, as they're just now properly coming into bloom, so you can actually know what it is you're getting. (All the japonicas we put in a year ago are now absolutely dripping with either blooms or buds, and look splendid).
I researched suppliers, and narrowed the choice of possibles down to two: somebody in Cappanori, near Pistoia, who looked as though they operated a pretty straightforward commercial nursery, and an intriguingly eccentric outfit up towards the Garfagnana, with a website ( which seemed all about  re-discovering camellias from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries which had somehow got 'lost' in the passage of time. There wasn't really a website for the business itself, but digging around I managed to find an address and a phone number, which at least allowed us to confirm that yes, they were going to be open that afternoon. Based in Borgo a Mozzano, which looked interestingly pretty and historic, we decided to  make an outing of it, and piled into the car.
Borgo a Mozzano, we found - pretty, it isn't - and after that we got conclusively lost for half an hour or so. Eventually, we located some broken-down old greenhouses, and a front door (by which stage, I was thinking wistfully of Cappanori), which was answered by the daughter of the camellia grower. No, Mamma wasn't here...she was at the nursery which is actually in Piana della Rocca...another village, about five minutes drive further up the valley. Time was marching on, tempers getting frayed, and we risked not getting to the place before it closed. However...

We did.

And it was amazing. Thousand upon thousands of Camellias, all looking beautifully healthy and jostling for attention...and even more thousands (upon thousands) of azaleas, which it turns out is the speciality of Signora Garibaldi (the Camellia grower)'s husband. Like a chlorophyll version of the 101 dalmations, every time a door was opened or a curtain raised, there were yet more massed ranks of the things...everywhere. And, indeed, Signora G's speciality is all the old varieties, many of which she has 'recovered' from the gardens and parks of the huge old villas in the hills around Lucca - two that we bought, were from cuttings that came from the gardens of the Villa Reale, and all of them could be traced back to some aristocratic garden or other from the neighbourhood. They described themselves as 'appasionati' of camellias - which I think must be an enormous understatement; completely, but wonderfully, obsessed would be more like it. She showed us her working lists of the camellias she'd re-discovered, and when and where, and their overall provenance, and where she had gaps she was looking to fill...and her level of enthusiasm was contagious. 

In the end...after an hour or so...we just about managed to load into the back of the car six large camellias, four medium white azaleas, and an enormous blood-red azalea, which is now in the large copper pot near the garden gate. It was as much as we could fit in, in one go.....but we'll be back, for more!

Tonight's Dinner:

Deep Fried Pork and Prawn Won Ton.

Osso Bucco; Celeriac and Potato purée.