Tuesday, December 30, 2014

An artist heads west

Prospect Park, Frank Meuschke

It is 2014's end and my friend Frank is leaving town. It's epic.

Long Island native, Brooklyn resident and side-gardener, garlic farmerNew York City blogger, landscape painter. The real deal.

Out of here.

I found Frank's blog, NYC Garden a long time ago, in the infancy of my own blogging. We both started in 2007 (here is Frank's first post) and it is the rare blog I have read ever since. A staple. It is the only blog of which I am aware (er, aside from this one), that consistently chronicles daily life in this city.

His regular updates, his subject matter - essentially New York, but broken into flower gardening, vegetable gardening, food-lovingurban gardening, in-depth gardening analysis, environmental awareness, exploration of places I don't know, observation of, participation in and witness to local events - be they cultural, commercial or climactic  his writing style, his photography all held my attention and brought me back for more.

The road to the garlic farm

Frank will go on writing, I have no doubt, from the depths of the Midwest where he and his artist-wife Betsy are heading.

The hinterland calls them for many reasons, I am sure, but New York City is not kind to artists. Stratospheric rents, the quality-of-life compromises one makes to live in affordable space, the need for and complications of good studio space. The New York Times says art is not dead in the city, but the same city is hemorrhaging its creative talent. I know so many who have left.

The rest of the country will benefit.

Hudson Clove at the New Amsterdam Market

These moves require great courage, and I admire Frank and Betsy's grit.

Goodbye, Frank - and thank you.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Say it with eggs

Breakfast: a poached egg, wilted arugula, some Syrian pepper. Poor Syria.

I mentioned Syria when I was writing my book, in the intro to the recipe for chicken and olives. But, Don't mention Syria, they said, it might all be over by the time it's published. Well...

The egg is described as heirloom, and comes from the supermarket just upstream of us on Lenox Avenue, the one which also stocks grassfed milk in glass bottles. 

Friday, December 26, 2014

Ham on toast

Day-after breakfast. Ginger ale ham on toasted cornbread, with all-important coffee. 

The ham recipe is on Page 196 of my book, but I'm going to resurrect it next door on the food blog. No sense in depriving everyone.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

A merry Christmas?

Scenes from a simple and beautiful last lunch provided by my mother, in Cape Town, just last week.  

In South Africa we say Happy Christmas, in the States, it is merry. For us, this year, it is neither, and for millions of others, too, it is not a happy time, even as we are frogmarched with the crowds down the lighted way of ho, ho, ho.

That's OK.

So I shan't wish it for you. What I shall wish is that you find a place at the table, any table, when you need one.

I wish hospitality and generosity and costless acts of consideration. I wish a smile upon the stranger on the street and a door opened for someone you do not know. I wish a look in the mirror, a recognition of what is there and the courage and resolve to be kinder than it is easy to be.

And if the dearly departed cat were here, he'd roll his eyes at me and say, Yos weesh the people a merry forgheen' Chreestmas, OK? OK!

Fine. Merry forgheen' Christmas, then.

[Footnote: The sun just came out. I can see blue sky.]

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

What is revealed

...when the cover is lifted.

Have I mentioned that we have not seen the sun since we landed early on Sun(SUN)day morning?

What is this, England?

Above, not England, not New York, but Cape Town, under the tree, a lunch for four, made by my mother. Mushrooms a la Grecque, a family staple (I ate too many with the juice spooned over that brown bread), and tomatoes with mozzarella and basil from the garden. Summer food. First hidden beneath the gosammer-light throw that she stitched together from vintage handkerchiefs I had found in a junk shop on Brooklyn's 5th Avenue in the days when a junk shop could afford the rent on Brooklyn's 5th Avenue. They were neatly tissue-wrapped in a box, and handsewn, forgotten from long ago. The butter in the dish is from Oep ve Koep in Paternoster - we bought four bricks - and I think it's the nicest butter I have ever eaten. Plaasbotter (farm butter), heavily salted and slightly tangy, possibly cultured.

That's it.

May you find some sunshine, somewhere, even if it is within. Sometimes you have to dig away to find where you buried it for later.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Weather report

The fynbos flowers are Leucaspermum, bought from a flower seller on Lenox Avenue, as if straight off Table Mountain. The book beneath is Don't Die in the Bundu, a handbook on survival when stranded in the wilderness. I need another string of lights for this window. On today's list.

Where did the Fuchsia magellanica cuttings come from? I have no idea what you are talking about.

Good Harlem morning to you. Or does it look like evening?

Jet lag woke me and by 6am I was shaping today's sourdough boule, at an hour appropriate for a baker. The starter survived two weeks without feeding and last night was bubbling happily to itself.

The quiet Constantia nights have given way to the middle-of-the-night thumps and bumps of this house, but being back in our most comfortable of beds is still reassuring. A new upright floor heater (we will not use the electric wall heaters at all this winter, to avoid those $500 bills) looks accusingly at me from a corner, convincing the corner of my eye that it is the cat, wondering belligerently where his next meal is. The three-sided conversations that our strange little family used to enjoy have become stilted duets, with awkward silences and spaces for tears.

There are things to do, lights to be strung, lilies to be packed and stored, stories to be written, photos to be downloaded, lists to be made, menus to be conjured, pictures to frame, walnuts to toast, and direction to be found.

The smell of baking bread will help, the living thing in this long, high house.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Out of South Africa

Some of the unpacking... And some last minute Christmas suggestions while we're at it.

Not pictured: the afternoon dark at 4pm several more books, another bottle of the delicious Inverroche Still Bay-made gin (blue box), and yet more soap. And there may or may not be thirsty cuttings from my mom's garden - free of pests, I checked very carefully - drinking up Harlem tap water in Dead Horse Bay bottles as we speak.

The Babylonstoren waterblommetjie is soap is very, very special. And I love Nocturnal Affair's ginger/lime sugar scrub.

The Sea Salt crackers. Positively the best crackers/biscuits I've ever eaten, from Woolworths.  The gelatin powder - odd. It is the easiest I've ever used: no lumps and bumps and swearwords as it forms a skin on top of the hot liquid and refuses to dissolve. Hence.

Black cat cards. I owe many. I ordered them specially.

Marmite cashews. Well. Some things can't be explained. My mother may have denuded Pick 'n Pay's stock on our behalf.

Enameled tin. I like it.

The Lion matches in fancy boxes - again - you had to have been there.

The invisible three glasses? Two may or may not (not, I suspect) be Woodstock (19th century) but the - unrelated - tumbler bears the old South African Airways Art Deco springbok emblem etched on its side.

Mostly, it has been the year of Books by Friends. Notably, Marijke's gorgeous and very, very good Indigenous Plant Palettes. It is going to be an invaluable reference book for me. If you are a South African gardener and do not yet own it, fix that at once and go and buy it. It is coffee table-worthy but also very practical. It would make a very special gift.

Kobus (and Jac de Villier)'s beautiful Strandveldfood is an inspiring collection of unique recipes and gorgeous images from South Africa's West Coast, with its characteristic contradictions of austerity and opulence brought together in stories on plates. Treat yourself to lunch at Oep ve Koep and perhaps the chef will sign a copy for you. Otherwise it is in stock in South African book shops and for Kindle on Amazon.

Ted Botha, author of Flat/White is a neighbor, not yet met - a fellow South African living in Harlem, who has just published a very entertaining book about life in his tenement. I wolfed half of it on the plane (before I fell asleep: I had three free seats to lie flat on!) and can't wait to down the second half. Available in shops in South Africa and for Kindle on Amazon.

There is more, but I am out of juice and running on fumes.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Blue days

When the summer wind lies down the days are so blue your heart breaks.

Kalk Bay is that other part of town I love very much.

We leave the city, soon, bound for the Northern Hemisphere and New York.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Bo Kaap's Happy Boys

We drove to the Atlas Trading Company in the Bo Kaap. I thought they might have the glass chimneys that are so good at shielding candles from wind on outdoor nights. The Trading Co. was closed. Today is a public holiday - The Day of Reconciliation. But we parked anyway, and walked the steep streets in the hot sun. We were too late for the noonday gun.

Mosques, minarets, cobbles...

....and thick old walls. Cool inside in summer.

                             Between the houses people gathered on corners. Something was up.

Then Shafiek (below, behind the tambourine, with painted face) asked us to take a picture of his crew. He told us that music was about to happen, so we stuck around.

We heard the sounds of a band coming up a hill.

And The Happy Boys arrived in a blast of brass and a jittering of tambourines. Kaapse Klopse. The big, big day is Tweede Nuwe Jaar (second new year), but today's was a celebration of an observance of sixteen days of activism regarding non-violence towards women and children (according to their Facebook page).

It felt good to be in Cape Town.

Higher up another troop was moving down the streets to make a union. We circled, and I sat in the shade while Vince took pictures.

Women directed the setting up of dozens of platters of sliced watermelon and spanspek, refreshment for the thirsty troops.

We retreated at last, hot and sunburned. 

I was left with an impression of community and friendliness, and the renewed conviction that this is one of the parts of Cape Town in which I would most like to live, given the chance. And all things being equal.

Which they are not. Of course.

But one can dream.

Monday, December 15, 2014

The blue tides at De Mond

The mouth of the Heuningnes (honey nest) River lay a few hundred metres from the cottage where we spent our strandveld nights, last week.

The place is called De Mond, the mouth - and towards the beach it turns wide and blue.

We visited first at low tide, walking far out onto the flats.

Three hours southeast of Cape Town and a few kilometres from Agulhas, the true southern tip of Africa, it is an empty place. 

...except for birds. Thousands of terns resettled as we walked.

The river arcs out and the tides push in through wide channels where fish jump.

On the white walls of the dunes that separate estuary from sea kelp gulls nest.

The Indian Ocean beyond falls onto the beach with surf we heard every night in our little cottage.

We walked far down the beach. 

We were met regularly by plastic water bottles blowing towards us from the south. Don't get me started on bottled water. 

By the time we had circled back a trickle of salt water was creeping back over the sand flats.

I turned from watching the sea to find our flipflops beginning to drift away.

We could have stayed longer.

But we headed back to the bench above our veld cottage to watch the estuary from a different vantage point.

...and to sip sundowners and eat nostalgic South African junkfood (I had no idea chipnicks still existed, but they do in Bredasdorp).

Plant, bird and road posts to follow.

Saturday, December 13, 2014


We really were unplugged. No laptops, no signal.

The Frenchman and I are back in Cape Town after a few days away near the very, very southern tip of Africa.

There was a lot of sky, there were horizons (whose memory is to be hoarded for the dark and enclosed Harlem days to come). There were fragrant dune plants. There were blue cranes whose rough calls in flight gave us a new thing to remember. There was a wide blue tide whose rising and retreating left exposed and hidden a vast sand canvas where flamingos and terns, salty plants, small fish and hermit crabs made daily new watery pictures. There was the sound of surf, always.

It was good, it was not enough, it was more than many have, it was very beautiful.

Thank you Don, for the suggestion.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

The mountain

The Frenchman is in Constantia with me, and today we walked in the sun.

Monday, December 1, 2014

The rug bug


Spotted beneath poplars and camphors at the Cellars-Hohenort...

A little magic carpet.

A bird's life

This is the early bird on the Constantia patio. A young thrush, fearless, hungry, full of hop.

I will channel the thrush today as I start early, interviewing a woman I have admired from a distance and for a very long time, through her gardens. She invited me for a walk and tea, even though she does not know me and I called her out of the blue. I am looking forward to the tea being coffee (we'll be at a hotel, so no worries) as I just found to my horror that tomorrow's Illy tin is bare. Gulp. Terrible way to start a day. (But knowing about it now is better than only discovering it as I unscrew the espresso pots parts from one another in the morning...)

Then it's off to shop for Tuesday's lunch-under-the-tree ingredients; my mother turns 81, and I'll be the lunch cook. We'll have chilled tomato and tomato leaf consommé; a modern but old fashioned aspic of avocado and shrimp - the jelly will be flavoured with a local fynbos shrub, Coleonema, which is very citrusy; then crispy roast lamb ribs with another local plant, the succulent spekboom, chopped into sour submission as a gremolata; and finally, frozen strawberry soufflé .

I think there are worse ways to be busy.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Summer gardening

In the summer garden I have been toting that bag around, deadheading, snipping, weeding. Then it gets dragged down to the compost bins. Where today, inbetween editing photos and writing a story, I must chop some large branchy bits into smaller, digestible pieces.

The Harlem terrace,  a world reversed, seems impossible. I am not sure what it will mean when I am back. Catless. He followed me from pot to pot hoping for a stray piece of grass, germinated from fallen bird seed. And Estorbo's wheat grass had only just been sown when I left. I even left a pot to germinate inside for him. Who knew he would be gone, when I returned?

I guess there is a cut off time for when one must stop writing about the loss of a cat. And just howl in bathrooms. On random floors. Behind closed doors. Yell at the air that you want him undead.

Death is so unacceptable.