Saturday, April 30, 2011

Scented viburnum

Walking down Henry Street two days ago I sniffed the air. It smelled wonderful. I stopped, turned sniffed. Aross the street in the park where magnolias bloomed loudly up till a few days ago, I saw the distinctive pompoms of a viburnum. Four viburnums, actually, at least nine feet tall and wide. I have never seen them before, and it is obvious they weren't planted overnight. They have been there, blooming, year in, year out.

So this is one of my new finds of 2011. In addition to Norway maples, of course (thank you Janet), and all other trees that bloom greenly.

I think they are Viburnum carlesii.

I am tempted. Sorely tempted. A heist in the night. An armful of blooms. A roomful of scent. I noticed a woman doing just that yesterday, and I couldn't blame her, secretly snapping a stem. No one ever goes into that little park. Perhaps, if I am lucky, I will dream viburnum dreams.  Nights have been troubled. Rest has been elusive. Thoughts are on the march. At night they build bonfires by the road and hold war councils and show themselves in the firelight. Sometimes it is best to look away.

Then it is morning, and spring, and coffee, and blue sky, and the thoughts act like nothing happened and marshal themselves and make plans. Perhaps tonight they can agree on stealing viburnum. Tomorrow they'll pretend it wasn't them.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Spring in Nutley... Silas Mountsier's garden, midweek. Silas is in his early 80's, was born in this house, and belies his age entirely through a mixture of unforced charm, scandalously funny and slightly alarming true stories and a face in which pleasure in his guests, his garden and his table is reflected instantly.

His friend Graeme Hardie, who lives across the road, flew about, showing off the garden, pouring bubbly, passing around bites of hot sausages wrapped in puff pastry, and cooking and serving a four course lunch.

Hornbeams leafing out.

I have seen the garden in late summer, and in late April its spring emergence is breathtaking.

Richard Hartlage designed this space where every sight line is considered, and fresh. One reads about garden rooms and sightlines till one is bored to death (at least I am), but in a garden like this, where time, effort, talent, love and money have been brought together, the result is beguiling.

Under the melting cherry trees masses of Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica) shared the shade with acid yellow trout lilies (Erthyronium sp), yellow Uvullaria grandiflora, pale green Lenten roses and a bright pink sweet pea-like flower I must identify.

Redbuds in full bloom in the circle of emerging Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra), in which hundreds of daffodils are just passing their peak.

Lessons in green...

A final view, from the street, of marching birches.

I feel very lucky to have enjoyed this garden again, and am sorry we ran out of time to see Graeme's, which is remarkable in its own right. I'll dig out my summer pictures and post them soon. 

Across the road a neighbour was felling a massive oak. I can't even think about it, said Silas, as we were seen off, as the saws whined and trucks roared. The trees stand like green buildings above the neighbourhood and are thought to be hundreds of years old. 

They said it was diseased, said Silas, but it isn't. His happy face folds. To a man who loves plants, who has transformed a garden over a lifetime by buying up neighbouring properties and making of the land something remarkable, the murder of the oaks that towered over his childhood is the only bitter note of the beautiful day.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Spring in the mist

I walked to a nearby appointment in the tire-swishing cloud. This is the last you will see of the zelkovas until fall. Bye-bye zelkovas.


The Long Island College Hospital was looking fetching for a nanosecond as its pear blossom bloomed above its dumpsters. Actually, the zelkovas are their gift to the neighbourhood, so they are not all bad. Their plants are in better shape than their buildings.

The tilt of Joralemon Street as it cobbles downhill to the water and the BQE is decorated by sidewalk plantings and flower boxes and this budding viburnum.

Does a professional gardener live here?

The Japanese maples hang in bloom. A dreadlocked and friendly mail carrier resting on a nearby step said, Hm hmmm: Gonna be a wet wet spring. Hard winter, wet spring.

I believe anything mail carriers say about weather.

In South Africa, we say, Postman. 

Norway maple? 

The crabapples (and lilac) are the end of April. April closing up shop for a whole year.  Glorious month. She doesn't draw the shades and turn out the lights, though, she leaves the building blazing, windows thrown open, shutters flung wide, curtains flying, suitcases spilling silky underwear for all to see.  When April leaves, she makes a point.

There is a garden tour of Brooklyn Heights next month.

Next week, in fact. Hm. The tickets are $40.

Boxwoods and pansies. Not what I would have come up with, but rather fetching.

Cobble Hill Park. 

Time for tulips.

The magnolias are shedding.


Today Vince and I will be sitting beneath spent cherry blossom and flowering dogwoods in New Jersey, in Silas Mountsier's beautiful garden, having a birthday lunch for Elizabeth Scholtz. Betty turns 90 on Friday. The silly royals are holding their wedding on the wrong day!

And last night I heard the small, morse cries of songbirds again, over the roof, into the dark, calling, and I felt a great hollowness in my heart, for their fragility, their tenacity, their spirit, and their long, long journey, in the night over a great city to a place whose location is somehow imprinted within them, and felt keenly how I was unable to assist them on their way. There was no fog, just stars, but just hours before Vince had told me how small birds had swarmed around the Empire State building at night, last year, flying around and around, trapped by the light. It is haunting.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The beginning of fruit...

That was Easter.

In the night, at 1.14am, I went out to the terrace because I could hear birds. Songbirds. It made no sense. I stood on a chair, skin wrapped in the cloud that had dropped softly on the city, looking around in the night, up at the faint orange glow above, reflecting off the bottom of the low fog and heard high, minute calls, pick! pick! pick! I decided that it must be a migration, that the cloud into which all buildings and lights had disappeared had made the little birds fly lower than usual, and that perhaps they call to each other in flight. I kept looking straight up, half expecting to see a flying bird-body...But nothing, just the pick pick! above and to the east. It lasted a good ten minutes. It was wonderful.

We had about half an hour of clear skies on Monday and bright sun before a fog bank pulled in and muffled us in new cloud.

I have so many strawberry flowers. I counted over 100. Overexcitement.

The roof farm - not much going on, I'm afraid. I lost e v e r y single cucumber! Everything else is hanging in there, but I see some instant, juvenile vegetables in my future. Not sure if growing them from seed is worth it for me, mostly because of the space taken up for all those weeks before they are planted out, and because I'm not prepared to protect them on the roof. I need seedlings who are marines, soldier!

The seed-growing is a lot of fun, and very distracting, and satisfies the urge to garden when a garden is not possible yet. But established seedlings are perhaps worth waiting for, and buying from a good grower. We'll talk in a few weeks. Maybe I will have changed my tune. Some good news - the broad beans are up and the roof squirrel appears not to like them. Oh, please note the addition of livestock...It's my Guard Sheep, brought to Brooklyn in my carry-on from Cape Town. To further perplex marauders it has around its neck a beaded Coptic cross from Ethiopia, given to me by a wild painter-girl many years ago, when I lived on Flatbush Avenue and she felt I needed strong muti against Troglodyte landlords, Mexican boyfriends and French restaurant owners.

Count on the microgreens. Very micro, but green. 

The climbing Iceberg on the terrace is covered in buds, and on the street, spring is busting out all over. I am the impatient gardener.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Trees that flower in April these parts at any rate, are up at Shelterpop.

Eating Japanese knotweed

Prehistoric-looking Japanese knotweed growing in Manhattan. I believe that at this stage you actually watch it grow. Ellen Zachos hunted it in the same spot early in the week and I found it on that week's Friday, this tall, up to two feet.

I picked a paper bagful and promised Vince that I would wash it very, very well. Which I did, after grading it into different sizes. I had never cooked with it and wasn't entirely sure where to begin. Ellen, my foraging guru,  had prepared some out in Pennsylvania, when I visited last fall, gratinated with parmesan cheese. It was very good, like super-soft and slightly astringent asparagus. Her knotweed wine ish wunnerful.

My reading indicated that it would be tart, and that it might be fibrous. My stalks ranged from 6" to 16", and I wondered whether to peel the very thin, red-freckled skin from the outside. In the end I did just that, worried about stringy bits, and it took a good hour to wash and clean the whole collection. Then I bagged it in batches and kept it in the fridge. We ate the last pieces last night, sliced raw into thin rounds in a  green salad,  and they were still very fresh and crisp, eight days later, so it keeps exceptionally well.

Various sources said that the leaves would be tough but the tips looked so good to me that I tested a few, boiling them till just cooked. Very soft and tender, slightly sour, with perhaps an almost imperceptible squeak in the texture. We ate them all as a side to roast chicken.

Up next, risotto. Lemon risotto is delicious, and I thought that the knotweed would meet the sour requirement nicely. Diced small and blanched, I added it in the final fifteen minutes of cooking. The Frenchman's verdict? More!

Lamb pot roast. We ate it too quickly for a picture. The knotweed melted into the pot juices until it had formed a creamy sauce with the Sylvaner I had added, and met the sweetness of the carrot and celery perfectly, with a background bite of sourness.

We eat veal once every four blue moons for obvious reasons, and this time I riffed on the theme of blanquette de veau, with mushrooms, knotweed and thyme. And cream. The knotweed practically dissolved and some complexity to the famous creaminess of the dish. This was pretty good.

And finally...dessert! 

Knotweed is described as being similar to rhubarb, and I'd read about knotweed pies, so I thought perhaps I could add it, after cooking in sugar syrup, to the custard of crème brûlée. It was fine. The custard was quite lovely, but the knotweed was a total distraction. I was trying to be too clever. I don't want anything in my crème brûlée, except crème.

What a wonderful plant, how very versatile in the kitchen and how sad that is it ready but once a year. Or perhaps that is its charm. It is very good for us, loaded with vitamin C and resveratrol, and I would love to eat it more often.

If you'd like to learn more about knotweed, read my article on this eminently edible invasive weed in Edible Manhattan

2012 update:

Knotweed and roast lamb
Knotweed curry
Knotweed soup

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Easter Sunday

Happy Easter.

We will hunt marzipan eggs on the terrace with the cat and eat slow-cooked lamb shoulder with anchovies, sherry vinegar, rosemary and garlic (it's better than it sounds - in fact, divine) for dinner. And I will think about early autumn in Cape Town, and miss that, and those, and wonder and dream, and then get back to work. Which is just a way of dreaming, if you want it to be.


When I lived in South Africa a pancake was very wide and very thin and would be rolled up with sugar and cinnamon, and eaten with a sprinkling of fresh lemon juice. It was a crepe, but we did not speak French.

I only liked my mother's pancakes. All others were fatter and more leathery, though they aimed for the same ideal. My mother stirred hers in the bowl with a wooden spoon, the batter in the middle, of egg and milk, being whisked around so that imperceptible quantities of soft flour were swept up from the surrounding crater into the smooth liquid. She never, ever, pulled the flour into the middle in a fit and beat it all together. It took forever. Then it rested in the fridge. Then she cooked them in the green-enamelled iron pan. After that they were dusted and rolled and put into the oven in a pyrex dish covered in foil to heat through. Coming out, they were hot and supple and the sugar and lemon juice had made delicate syrup that mingled with the veins of brown cinnamon that ran their lengths.

Long ago, my mother cooked us a stack of buckwheat pancakes, American style,  for breakfast in Plettenberg Bay, the town where we holidayed, year in, year out. At least my father and my brothers and I holidayed. My mother made breakfast and packed lunch to take to the beach in cool bags, and then came home after sitting on the beach she detested, unpacked the coolbags and cooked dinner. It was the one year when we rented a house away from the beach, on a road that branched down from the main street. She doesn't remember this, but I do. Sitting at that kitchen table, the stack made an impression, and so did the exotic maple syrup that we poured over its top to run like amber waterfalls down its warm, pleated sides.

After years of living in the United Sates, I reluctantly abandoned my thin pancake  ideal and admitted that here, a pancake is what in South Africa may have been a large crumpet. In short, leavened; that which rises up, though slightly. And a pancake could contain Things, like fruit.

So when Vincent returned from Quebec recently bearing two cans of Canadian maple syrup there was only one thing to do.  I found a recipe for wholewheat pancakes online, which included whipped egg whites for lift, and into these I sliced bananas.

My second impression of my mother-in-law, Germaine, after the warm hug at her front door in Beloeil, as we walked in from the December snow outside, was of sitting at her kitchen table and being fed pancakes, the thin ones, this time, one by one, hot from the pan, with maple syrup poured over them. I think I ate four or five, or more, until I realized that everyone else was yawning politely and remaining awake in the glow of my pancake ecstasy. Perhaps she was metaphorically buttering my feet, as one does with cat, to distract it from change and keep it from wandering.

Thank you for the syrup, Germaine...