Be what you would seem to be

Alice in WonderlandNever imagine yourself not to be otherwise than what it might appear to others that what you were or might have been was not otherwise than what you had been would have appeared to them to be otherwise. – Lewis Carroll

I have been musing about writing the anniversary blog for a while but eventually decided that it would be churlish not to say thank you to everyone who accepted my invitation to open the garden gate. You have been charming guests and I have enjoyed your company, your advice and sparkling wit. Many of you have made me smile, convulse with laughter and inspired me. So the garden will be open for another year and you are welcome.

I am sure that some of you must have thought that perhaps you had been invited to the Mad Hatter’s tea party or at least speculated on the nature of the herbs that I use in my cooking. Beltane fires, libations for the wee folk, forests under the sea, stealth birds, breakfast by moonlight, swan roads, seaweed hunting, islands in the mist and sky dancing!  These are the tales that come from the loom of the weaver of dreams. I seek no more than to amuse and divert you with my garden of delights in the outer isles

To know, is to know that you know nothing. That is the meaning of true knowledge. – Socrates

To cube or not to cube?

cubeThis is for Cathy who when not Rambling in the Garden makes soup and has the cube dilemma.
Even if we do not have the time or inclination to make our own stock, most of us have the choice as to whether to reach for the packet of cubes. There are “quality” versions available: organic, low salt, free from additives with all natural ingredients, but a quick peruse of the list of ingredients poses the question why bother?
For example the ingredient list for a well known brand of organic chicken stock cubes contains: maize starch, palm oil, yeast extract, chicken meat, chicken fat, sea salt, roasted onions, caramelised sugar, turmeric, celery, garlic, parsley and rosemary. How you interpret the term chicken depends on your degree of cynicism and knowledge of the food processing industry.  So unless you feel that the “meat” elements actually add anything to the stock the rest of the flavouring ingredients can be easily replaced by the herbs and spices to be found in most kitchens.
A good home-made stock will add depth of flavour to any soup or casserole, but there never seems to be enough available. However, you can used water and adjust the quantities of herbs and spices or add a pinch fairy dust or or a splash of something or other, which you probably do each time you cook without thinking about it. The secret of a good soup is taste as you go, add seasoning gradually (you can always add more), use your palate and instinct, don’t add too much water (you can always add more) and sweat the vegetables before you add the liquid. If you are going to add milk or cream this will soften the flavours so you may have to use a garnish of herbs or chopped nuts or a swirl of flavoured oil to compensate.
Most of us have a list of “rescue” additives on standby to add that touch of magic and sparkle, so here’s some of mine:

  • Dried mushrooms add great flavour, save the soaking liquid and add to the soup or freeze for later. Mushroom ketchup is also good
  • A dash of sherry or Madeira can work wonders
  • The zest of lemon or orange will add a zing and for a touch of real acidity add some finely chopped rind of preserved lemon or lime. If using lemon juice add carefully it is easy to add too much.
  • Grain mustard will add both heat and acidity, they vary in strength so add carefully
  • Chilli, paprika and harissa will add warmth or incendiary heat depending on quantity. Try Tabasco for a slightly different after-burn
  • Turmeric will add colour and an earthy taste
  • Fennel, dill or tarragon will add  a delicate aniseed essence, fennel seeds also work well. Or try caraway for a slightly different aromatic twist, great with root vegetables and cabbage
  • Worcesertshire or soy sauce will add a savoury tang, but use carefully as they are both salty.
  • A little bacon or ham adds a special touch to some delicate soups such as cauliflower, celery or celeriac
  • When using spices either heat in a dry pan or cook for a few minutes in oil to release the flavour before adding to the soup base
  • For a lemony touch try using buckler leaf sorrel or some sumac which is slightly sour
  • Sometimes a touch of sweetness is needed try using maple syrup or pomegranate or grape molasses – just a tiny amount is great in tomato based recipes
  • Don’t forget the old favourites, parsley, rosemary, sage, thyme and bay or the spices, cinnamon, cumin, ginger. cloves, all spice, nutmeg and cardamon
  • Don’t forget and the garlic and try some freshly grated ginger for a subtle bite

Be bold and adventurous use your nose as well as your palate and you’ll never look at a cube again.

Cabinet of Curiosities

Collecting the extraordinary and mysterious

Unicorns’ horns, mermaids, minerals and fossils, shells, insects in amber, astrolabes, musical instruments, lenses, celestial globes – the cabinet of curiosities was a microcosm of the Renaissance world. It was more than a random display of curios, the personal tastes or wealth of the collector as its contents were arranged largely according to the religious and scientific philosophies of the period. Its function was to convey the collector’s perception of art, science and spirituality through physical objects, to inspire both a sense of wonder and curiosity, and to attempt to understand and bring order to the natural and physical world.  At their zenith in the 16th and 17th centuries they were a showcase for the collector’s scholarship and breadth of knowledge. In the age of the polymath, when it was expected that an educated man would be versed in the sciences, mathematics, the classics, antiquities, philosophy and literature, they served as a mirror to the changing cultural and intellectual interests of the period and the development of knowledge. Ultimately they became a status symbol  –  the rarer an item, the more desirable it became,
Although elaborate cabinets were built to house collections, the term cabinet, in its modern sense, is a misnomer as many of the collections required a whole room or suite of rooms for their display. They were in essence private museums and many were ultimately to become the foundations of some of Europe’s great institutions. For example the contents of Tradescant’s Ark were ultimately to become the Ashmolean Museum and Sir Hans Sloane’s collection  provided the foundation for the British Museum.
cabinet curiositiesTo call my small collection of natural history objets trouvés and related items a cabinet of curiosities is also a misnomer. My small assemblage of artefacts does not have scholarly pretensions nor is it a status symbol, just a reflection of my magpie instincts and curiosity. For as long as I can remember I have picked up objects from the beach because they are beautiful, intriguing or mysterious. Over the years they have adorned various shelves and book cases but now they have a home. I needed somewhere to house my expanding collection of CDs, so a custom designed set of shelves was made and fitted by Himself and very handsome they are too. However, what seemed like a large assemblage of CDs when they were scattered all over the house, shrank overnight when they were placed in their new repository. This grand edifice will house somewhere in the region of 1200 CDs! Too late to buy the stock of HMV from the Administrators the only option was to fill the shelves with something else. The solution – my collection of curiosities.
This post was inspired by PJ in a comment on my account of beach combing after the storm. Whilst I have never been lucky enough to find ambergris (colloquially referred to as whale vomit), although Himself found a sperm whale tooth here a couple of years ago; I did find something almost as intriguing but not as valuable. After a certain amount of studious contemplation I decided that it was the ear-bone of a marine mammal – probably a dolphin. To my eyes it is beautiful with a wonderful tactile quality and a perfect example of form and function transformed into a miniature sculpture.dolphin ear bones

Who’s been walking on my beach?

Year of Natural Scotland – Winter Treasure Hunt

ardivachar-beach
I have always loved the seaside in winter and on crisp sunny mornings I need no encouragement to abandon the domestic chores and take a walk on Ardivachar beach. Perfect for a solitary meander, watching the wading birds feeding along the tide edge and scanning the horizon just in case – well you never know what you might see in these magic islands. This stretch of white shell sand runs south for 5 miles until it reaches Howmore River, but even on the days when the wind necessitates a brisk walk, I rarely manage half a league* as I am usually distracted by something that the tide has washed in.
There is always a sense of anticipation after a big storm. What has been tossed ashore? What awaits in the flotsam and jetsam? I am awed by the power of the waves and the wind so I was not too surprised to find that the beach had been entirely scoured by the recent storm. The mountains of kelp which had been accumulating on the beach since Christmas had disappeared. Literally 100s tons of seaweed had vanished overnight. The beach was pristine, wet sand glistening in the pale winter sunlight with scattered kelp tangles, carelessly abandoned by the retreating tide, glowing like amber.kelp tangle
Here was the promise of hidden treasure for the power of the storm had torn some of deep water kelp from its bed. Normally there is just get a tangle of the fronds and stipes of oarweed (Laminaria digitata) and cuvie (Laminaria hyperborea) but today there was sugar kelp (Laminaria saccharina) and other smaller brown and red seaweeds. These had been lifted from the seabed and were still anchored to boulders so here was a chance to look at some of the plants and animals which inhabit the depths of the kelp forests. The calcareous tubes of marine worms and mosaics of encrusting algae and sponges had transformed the grey boulders into vibrant sculptures, cool and smooth but strangely tactile. Red epiphytic algae and purse sponges adorned the larger stipes like eccentric feather boas. Tantalizing traces of the life in the hidden forest beneath the waves.red algae and sponges on kelpSometimes a strange object has been caught in the fronds – animal, vegetable or mineral? Too often it is a piece of plastic, but occasionally it will be something interesting: a mermaids purse, bleached and polished bones or a segment of coral. Follow the tracks along the beach, collect the stray feathers, pick up a handful of small brightly coloured shells, these are the clues and an invitation to the curious to explore.

Life on Ardivachar beach - otter tracks, sanderling feeding on the tide edge, sugar kelp

Life on Ardivachar beach – otter tracks, sanderling feeding on the tide edge, sugar kelp

*(a league is 3.000006027 miles).