Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Hike it out

I uploaded these pictures weeks ago and never hit Publish. Family events have swamped other impulses. But this was a lovely walk, and allowed me to reconnect with my niece, whom I have not spent time with for a very long...time.  It also gave us both a really good workout. The first hour-and-a half is steadily, steeply, strenuously uphill (upmountain - why is that not a word?).

If you know what that moth is, please say. My South African insect book is sitting uselessly in Brooklyn. The moth is on scabiosa, a South African native that is now common in the international nursery trade.

Remarkably few Capetonians (certain biologist-friends excepted!) seem enthused about walking on the beautiful mountain smack in the middle of the city. It still surprises me. It is famously/notoriously accessible and reveals a world of botanical integrity that is kind of mind blowing. Luckily The Niece is intrepid, and she and I slogged our way up Skeleton Gorge, stopping often to pant, before reaching the top. Approached from this angle it is not, as many visitors think, flat.

Ella is not an ugly girl. Here with Watsonia tabularis.

Real plant ladies. These are the kind of people who first introduced me to the plants on the mountain. Long pants, hats, backpacks, walking sticks, sandwiches and flasks of tea.  The eldest in their party must have been in his early 80's. They were walking with a young guide, possibly to act as muscle in case they needed it. Like us, they were in search of an ethereally beautiful local orchid, the drip disa, Disa longicornu. It flowers in December only in the cleanest of seeping or dripping water.

We found the disas in their usual spot. They are enchanting. 

The botanical ladies also showed me this tiny orchid, about four inches high, growing from the same rock face. Holothrix. I think the species is villosa.

Fifteen minutes later I returned the favour and showed them this exquisite little disa, hidden in a mossy wall. They told me it was Disa vaginata (what if women had described and named more plants?). The flowers less than half an inch across.

The Frenchman and I always make a ritual stop as this little waterfall. I filled my water bottle, and The Niece splashed.

Fast forward past a breakfast break, a long hike down deep gorges past pools flowing with fynbos water the colour of Coca Cola, two reservoirs, and a landscape of twittering orange-breasted sunbirds (if only I had my telephoto with me), and we had come full circle, arriving at the top of our route down: Nursery Ravine. Recent fire had provoked this flowering of Bobartia indica.

It is a relentless series of steps and if you have sore knees, forget about it. I'm not sure Ella has forgiven me. But there is always the gentle jeep track if you need a slower descent.

You can't repress the inner forager. Bracken fiddleheads in abundance invited harvesting. Blanch them in boiling water before eating, and they are delicious (in Forage Harvest Feast they are one of the two fiddleheads I recommend eating).

Long hike, and two days later I was really stiff, but it was wonderful to reconnect with what matters; in most ways (with exceptions, of course) 2018 has been a year to forget rather than remember. I have lost parts of myself along the way, and I have changed. I don't like the change, and I will be working to find the lost bits and perhaps some new ones, too. The only truism I know remains intact: life may be unfair, people do not have to be. We can all choose to act with integrity. I am beyond lucky to be married to a person who has had as tough a year, more so, in some ways, but who has managed to be a solid support - and lifebuoy - throughout. Time for me to return the favour.

In other news, if you usually find me via Facebook, I will be deleting my Facebook accounts at the end of the year, but will still be on Instagram. The latter may be owned by the former but - for now, at least - the privacy and data concerns are far more controllable on Instagram, and I just prefer it as a way to communicate. I will keep posting here too, but as time allows.

And I will be posting a new, late winter walk schedule, soon. On February 28th there is also a wild-inspired cooking class and cocktail-supper lined up for Brooklyn's beautiful Cook Space. I will add these links as soon as they are live.


Dear 2019: Be nice.

Monday, November 26, 2018

My father

Henri Viljoen, 29 November 1932 - 23 November 2018

There will be a remembrance for my dad in my parents' garden on Saturday December 1st at 5pm. 

I do not believe we will meet again, but ever since I heard Laurence Olivier reading it (as a very old man, in a documentary of his life, which my mom and I and my dad watched together), I have loved this poem. 

Death Is Nothing At All, by Henry Scott-Holland

Death is nothing at all. 
It does not count. 
I have only slipped away into the next room. 
Nothing has happened. 

Everything remains exactly as it was. 
I am I, and you are you, 
and the old life that we lived so fondly together is untouched, unchanged. 
Whatever we were to each other, that we are still. 

Call me by the old familiar name. 
Speak of me in the easy way which you always used. 
Put no difference into your tone. 
Wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow. 

Laugh as we always laughed at the little jokes that we enjoyed together.
Play, smile, think of me, pray for me. 
Let my name be ever the household word that it always was. 
Let it be spoken without an effort, without the ghost of a shadow upon it. 

Life means all that it ever meant. 
It is the same as it ever was. 
There is absolute and unbroken continuity. 
What is this death but a negligible accident? 

Why should I be out of mind because I am out of sight? 
I am but waiting for you, for an interval, 
somewhere very near, 
just round the corner. 

All is well. 
Nothing is hurt; nothing is lost. 
One brief moment and all will be as it was before. 
How we shall laugh at the trouble of parting when we meet again!

For more about my dad, you can visit Seven Lessons from My Father

Thursday, November 15, 2018


As snow flurries shroud Brooklyn I hurry this post out to show autumn on Long Island, last week. Beautiful Caumsett State Park is just over an hour's drive from home and is near the town of Oyster Bay, where I think I could live very happily. Quiet water and big trees. Strangely, there is always a long line of cars waiting to get in at the gates, but somehow all the human cargo is dispersed once there. Or perhaps we head in an unpopular direction? We rarely see more than a couple of people once we are off the main paths.

The massive beech above must be one of the most beautiful trees in the state. 

Juniper berries (really cones) were prolific and sweet beside a well trafficked and tarred path. Soon we branched off into the rustling woods and tramped through rustling leaves.

Our destination was the beach and we found it at extreme low tide in the long shadows of winter's time change.

Last time we were here all these rocks were under the shallow, clear water of the Long Island Sound.

A man in his late 70's stood and looked out at the water for a very long time.

The sand was covered in these shells, which proved to be occupied. I have never noticed them, before.

They are slipper shells - Google images revealed this after I searched for "Long Island molluscs stacked." They are native to these eastern Atlantic shores but have now invaded France, where they poach the food from mussels and oysters and scallops. They are hermaphrodites: The big one on the bottom is a female, with males stacked above. If she dies, the next in line male switches to female.

Our picnic on the sand started with salmon roe on the popular seed crackers, with crunchy radishes, then a warming course of beef and beer stew (From Darra Goldstein's lovely Scandinavian cookbook Fire and Ice), and ended with some runaway cheese.

(Darra wrote a very kind review of Forage, Harvest, Feast for The Times Literary Supplement, calling it "a joyous cookbook about the delights of the natural world"- you can read the whole review if you are subscribed!)

We walked down the beach and up through the woods, in a big circle.

We saw only one deer on our walk, and heard lots of woodpeckers, and an owl.

Today it must all be snowed under, and one day we will visit when there is snow and a hard freeze to make it stick.

The linden viburnum (Viburnum dilatatum, locally very invasive) that I collected along the way has been turned into a quivering, crimson jelly, just in time for Thanksgiving. I may make the goose from Forage, Harvest's Feast's list of seasonal wild menus at the back of the book - but our new apartment's oven is small, inside. Perhaps it will be duck, or ducks. Juniper is in season, and I am still finding lots of red berries (viburnum, aronia). Lambs quarter seeds, too. So there is still lots of wild, out there, and plenty from the year's preserves in the forage cupboard.

What will be on your menu?


Friday, November 9, 2018


Photo by Vincent Mounier

My happy place: with my husband, in the woods, meeting a new plant (Viburnum dilatatum, linden viburnum - invasive and delectable, if you like tart flavors). This is out on Long Island's north shore, and within the driving limit that my back can handle right now. Stupid back. I can't sit for long without pain, but I can walk for miles. So it could be much worse.

The fruits make a crimson jelly. And a good, sour powder, too. The seaweed I collected  a little later is already dried and crispy, waiting for future recipes (crackers, for sure, and probably some things I have not thought of, yet).

It is a blustery weekend in New York City and I think by Monday many of the beautiful autumn leaves will have been blown from their branches. So peep as many as you can now if you live in the hood!


Forage, Harvest Feast - A Wild-Inspired Cuisine

Wednesday, November 7, 2018


For another few days autumn in Brooklyn will still be very beautiful. Riding my bicycle home through the park from the farmers market is a pleasure.

And on the days when the sun shines, the sky is that immaculate blue.


Forage, Harvest, Feast - A Wild-Inspired Cuisine

66 Square Feet - A Delicious Life

Friday, October 26, 2018

To the woods!

For the two months before our move the Frenchman and I had to cool our hiking heels. Instead of woodland trails, we pounded sidewalks and Brooklyn neighborhoods, hunting for a new place to live. Once we had moved, it was with huge relief that we headed out again to Harriman State Park, the minute the last box was unpacked. Our usual Catskills haunt is over two hours from the city, while Harriman - discovered this summer - is just over an hour's drive. For my injured back, this is a godsend: while I can walk and exercise as much as I like, sitting for longer than half an hour becomes very painful, so long drives are not fun.

Harriman is a gorgeous park, with hills and woodlands, blueberries for miles, and many lakes. We visited four times in July and early August. Different every time.

We park on Kanawauke Road - Route 106 - and head south towards Lake Skenonto. The trail (yellow above) we chanced upon is still our favorite, although there is much more to explore. We use Gaia Maps (app and web) - you pay an annual fee, and they have superb maps as well as coverage. This lake is also accessible by public transport, from Tuxedo Park.

Cute corts, as the mushroom people call them. Some blue mushrooms (like blewits and milk caps) are very good to eat. Some are not. Cortinarius iodes - above, probably -  is not recommended. It has a tell-tale slimy cap. But so does its identical lookalike Cortinarius iodeioides - confusing, yes?! They also have similar spore prints. Enthusiasts tell them apart by licking the cap. C. iodeioides has bitter slime.

No, I don't lick. And I don't bother with corts at all, for eating - there are easier mushrooms to enjoy.

Like my dear friend the hen of the woods, Grifola frondosa. Also called maitake, or dancing mushroom, by the Japanese. Easy to identify, hugely generous, and delicious. It has been a bumper year for hen of the woods and they have been so prolific that just about every other oak tree in Brooklyn seems to have borne a crop this fall. Not a good sign for the trees, as this fungus causes butt rot, which eventually kills the tree. We saw many on our walk and I collected just one clean specimen, turning it into pâté and soup and a few other things back home. Especially fun when they sell for $20/lb in shops.

The woods were also bristling with honey mushrooms, members of the Armillaria complex. They are also delicious (and destructive to trees), but not a beginner mushroom: they must not be confused with some toxic lookalikes. Fortunately their white spore prints differentiate them from so-called deadly gallerinas (rusty-brown print) and sulphur tufts (purple-brown).

The Frenchman's favourite edible mushroom, after chanterelles. The beautiful black trumpet.

Many fallen logs were studded with little puffballs. While these diminutive Lycoperdons are edible (while young, firm and white inside), I don't see the point. Although on a pretty plate in a restaurant...maybe.

The tall blueberries in open spaces were already burnished with the changing season.

Invasive barberries doing their best to convince us to plant them in our gardens. Don't. They displace local plants and harbor ticks. And birds disperse the seed.

Equally destructive and pretty Rosa multiflora festooned with rosehips (good for jelly, syrups, and Vitamin C).

Also in openings in the woods are stands of hay scented ferns (Dennstaedtia punctilobula).

Here, at our halfway mark, we stop on a cliff above the lake and have lunch. Almonds I roasted in coconut oil with lots of berbere spice and salt. Manchego, and an Italian sausage from our new hood (we didn't like it and will go back to our Columbus staple). After having gone breadless in April, picnics without a crusty baguette do lack a certain...'ow do you ne sais quoi. But both our waistlines thank us. And I do cheat. The Frenchman doesn't cheat. He never cheats. Consequently, he is thinner: Minus 35 lbs since April, me a mere 15...

After lunch we turn back towards the other side of our loop. Lots of moss, everywhere. 

Pixie cups belong to a species of lichen called Cladonia. Lichen is classified in the Fungi Kingdom, and moss in Plant. But lichen is really algae living in symbiosis with fungi. Fascinating.

The woods are late turning, possibly because we had so much rain in August and September.

Back in the car and driving home along the beautiful windy road, I was lucky enough to spot between the trees a glimpse of my first-ever coyote.

Good end to a very good day.


Sunday, October 7, 2018

The Windsor Terrace

I climbed up the fire escape to photograph the new terrace.

All the citrus trees moved with us: Thai limes (Citrus hystrix), Meyer lemon, and finger lime (Citrus australasica - and yes, native to the understoreys of the Australian subtropics) - and all of them have fruit! The largest curry leaf is in the lower left corner (the other went to my friend Irene Khin, where it is kept company by a giant Burmese ginger). The myoga ginger, cardamon and new galangals came, too, so this seems to be an adventure in subtropical edibles.

Other sentimental favorites are there, too: black snakeroot - about to bloom, baby oak leaf hydrangeas (their large parent was adopted), the prickly ash that was so sickly in its first year and now robust (I grew it for Forage Harvest Feast's sake - the leaves and fruit are wonderful), some pineapple lilies and a fat rhododendron. I am not sure why I brought the begonias - probably just because I knew I'd want some flowers.

The terrace receives eastern sunlight, and then some more in the very late afternoon, from the west. The top floor apartment (no more upstairs terrorism!) is very bright and they will thrive indoors in the winter. I hope.

We are still digging our way out from under a mound of boxes; work and book events have taken up much of our time, but there has been progress, and we can now even see parts of the apartment's floor (it is a very solid floor, and does not squeak like the last one).

I am leading an autumn forage-plus-picnic in Central Park this weekend, and the next in Prospect Park. See the link below to book.

And now I must unpack a dozen boxes of books.


Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Autumn talks

Join me at The Museum of Food and Drink this Thursday at 6.30pm for a discussion of native flavors and how they should inform our regional cooking and be used in kitchen gardens. And sip this cocktail, too: From the pages of Forage, Harvest, Feast it is 'Long Nights' - bourbon-based with lashings of spicebush.

And on Saturday I will be at the Union Square Farmers Market in the Food Bookfair tent to sign books from 10am -12pm this Saturday, too, if you'd like to say hello and munch on a mugwort cracker...

In other book news, acclaimed food scholar and author Darra Goldstein wrote a generous review of Forage, Harvest, Feast recently for The Times Literary Supplement, calling its recipes "bold and exciting."

I hope you agree (and some of them - like 200 or so - are even easy!)...


Saturday, September 22, 2018

On the move

Ten days ahead of our move a plant party was thrown. In terms of garden space we are downsizing from a ground floor's 1,000 square feet (if that is confusing read the About page for this blog, all is explained) to a top floor's 100 square foot terrace.

For drinks we had chilled prosecco poured onto a dash of common milkweed gin (made from fermented common milkweed flower cordial and gin).  And nice Brooklyn tapwater with wisteria ice cubes.


(Ones with ribbons are my keepers.)



Thirty nice people came and went and most plants went out the door to new homes. Heavy pots and plants are being picked up over the next few days.

Melina made a plum cake. I made bruschetta rubbed with garlic and topped with heirloom tomatoes and garden basil. (Bye-bye, basil!) Radishes and butter for snacking.

And now, back to packing.

To see all stories about this garden, visit the 1st Place BK tag in the sidebar Pigeon Holes.

If you'd like to catch me in the next couple of weeks, I will be giving a talk about Native Flora and Regional Character at The Museum of Food and Drink on October 4th at 6.30pm (you need to book, and tickets are $20) and on the 6th I will be signing copies of Forage, Harvest, Feast at the Union Square Farmer's market.