A summer evening in the Languedoc.
in summer, the song sings itself
above the muffled words--
from The Botticellian Trees
William Carlos Williams
Browned butter biscuits
Tomorrow morning, Séan and I set off on our annual drive to the south west of France. That’s just the 16 marriage-enhancing hours, door to door. It’s a modern Kerouacian romp of shouting at the SatNav and arguing over whether the dog needs a wee.
Service stations are where whimsy goes to die, or at least to stock up on wiper blades and pallid chips, where low aspiration and low blood sugar meet, and weary, glazed eyes seek out sticky glazed doughnuts to fill the hungry gap between now and inevitable Type 2 diabetes. I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t say ‘holiday’ to me.
Due to our (my) desire to be on holiday as soon as possible, we don’t stop much. We rely for sustenance on a hastily-scrabbled-together-at-dawn holiday picnic of egg-and-cress sandwiches, salt-and-vinegar crisps, fruit, perhaps some leftover pie or cake, sturdy biscuits which will withstand being rattled about in the car, bottles of water and a huge thermos of coffee.
Of course, some take en route sustenance very seriously indeed. You know when you get on a plane and your neighbour suddenly produces a linen napkin and a beautiful bento box filled with sushi? You never want to sit next to that person. They would be no use at all if there was An Incident. For example, if we were suddenly required in the cockpit to fly the plane, she would be unavailable to take instructions from air traffic control due to an urgent need to remove the wasabi stain from her three-ply dodo wool sweater.
I am a great believer in the redemptive power of the snack, but it doesn’t do to be too precious. Contrary to what many a modern calendar/mousemat/comedy mug/inspirational postcard might have you believe, sometimes it really is the destination not the journey.
Sturdy biscuits which will withstand being rattled about in the car
These are made from browned butter, which gives them a deliciously sweet and nutty flavour. They are a plainish biscuit, which is generally my preference. You can even leave out the rolling in sugar part if it offends your abstemious nature. They’re the sort of thing you can make when the cupboard’s practically bare and they last for ages in a tin. Perfect for a road trip. If you have one of them in your future this summer, you should try them.
Makes about 3 dozen
150g unsalted butter, cubed
1 tbsp vanilla extract
260g light muscovado sugar
1 tsp flaky sea salt
2 eggs, 1 separated
320g plain flour
½ tsp bicarbonate of soda
½ tsp baking powder
Golden caster sugar, for rolling
Roll them in sugar, or not.
It’s entirely up to you.
In a small, heavy-bottomed saucepan melt the butter over a medium heat, stirring frequently, until the solids go a deep golden brown and it has a rich, sweet, nutty aroma - it really will smell delicious. This should take about 6-7 minutes. Hold your nerve. Immediately pour the butter into a medium-sized mixing bowl to cool and stir in the vanilla. Beat in the sugar until well combined and glossy. Beat in the whole egg and one egg yolk.
In a separate bowl, whisk together the flour, bicarbonate of soda, baking powder and salt. Gradually beat into the butter and sugar until you have a smooth, firm dough. Divide the dough in two. Roll each piece into a log about 5cm wide. Wrap in cling film and refrigerate until firm, at least an hour. At this point if you like, you can freeze one of the batches of dough.
Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas 4 and line some baking sheets with baking parchment. If you are rolling the biscuits in sugar, scatter and few tablespoonfuls onto a sheet of baking parchment. Lightly beat the remaining egg white with a teaspoon of cold water and brush the dough with the egg wash before rolling in the sugar. Slice the biscuits into 5mm rounds and place on the baking sheets – leave a minimum of 2cm between each biscuit as they spread out a bit.
Bake until firm and golden, about 15 minutes. Cool for a couple of minutes on the baking sheets before removing to a wire rack to cool completely. They will keep for about a week in an airtight tin.
In the next few days, I’ll be making projects from my book, Gifts from the Garden, at various points across north and east London and I’d love it if you would join me. If you don’t it’ll just be me, weeping into my dried lavender over what might have been, like a demented, sherry-swigging old fool. And none of us want that.
So, tomorrow night do come to the verdant and lovely N1 Garden Centre at 6.30pm – not only can we get to know one another a little better, there’ll be that added delight of running about a shop when it’s closed.
If you can’t make that, I am running two events at my house this weekend as part of the fabulous StokeyLitFest. Come and sit in my kitchen, walk around my garden, eat nice things, come out smelling fragrant and wonderful. All that for four quid. That’s Saturday or Sunday at 3pm. I hope to see you then.
Christopher Bradley-Hole’s garden for the Daily Telegraph. I loved this combination of clipped cubes of box and yew, and native plants wafting in the afternoon breeze.
If you were ever in any doubt that Chelsea is the world’s biggest flower show, the ticket touts scattered along the path between Sloane Square tube and Royal Hospital Road are enough to tell you that this is the hot ticket that marks the beginning of summer, even when the skies are leaden, the wind brisk.
Inside the grounds, smooth-skinned young men in striped blazers and panama hats rub shoulders with ladies in pac-a-macs up for the day, their sturdy bags packed at dawn with thermoses, mints, bottles of water, biscuits, hankies, notebooks, a selection of biros. Felix Baumgartener probably jumped from actual space with less preparation. They crowd along the rails, speaking of ‘wow factor’, sighing over favourite plants like you might a sleeping puppy, dodging camera crews and gathering free cotton tote bags with barely-concealed glee.
This year, the show’s hundredth, seemed a little quiet to me. Of course, we all collectively clutched our pearls at Jinny Blom’s B&Q garden for Prince Harry’s charity, Sentebole. We sighed over the elegant, meditative beauty of Christopher Bradley-Hole’s garden for the Daily Telegraph and cooed at the traditional, pretty planting in Chris Beardshaw’s Arthritis Research UK garden. While I could admire the technical skill of the Best-in-Show Australian garden, it left me rather cold. The plants all looked a bit crammed in (I know they all are, they’re just not supposed to look it), like chorus girls vying for the role of headline act.
Hard surfaces, such as concrete and stone, and sculptural clipped shapes combined with the deliciously billowy waft of grasses and native plant species. Cowparsley, sweet cicely and other meadow-y delights were everywhere.
After the high-octane hoopla of the show gardens, the Great Pavilion is always terribly soothing. With its banks of flowers, pyramids of vegetables and bowler-hatted nurserymen, it feeds my terminal plant geekery. In these troubled times, just knowing that The Delphinium Society exists makes me happy.
I come home laden with catalogues and ideas, hastily scribbled plant lists and sore feet, desperate to get out into my own little garden to work out where I can cram in just a few more plants. It seems I really didn’t learn anything from the Australians, did I?
The Brewer Dolphin garden designed by Robert Myers. Clipped cushions of box surrounded by billowy native plants, such as wormwood, angelica, musk mallow and ravenswing cowparsley.
The ‘Sowing the Seeds of Change’ garden by Adam Frost for Homebase shows that the trend for combining the decorative with the edible continues to gain popularity. On the day I was there, visitors seemed to be really enjoying the posh potager look.
Jinny Blom’s planting somewhat overwhelmed by the hard structures in the B&Q Sentebale Garden.
And on into the Great Pavilion…
Robinson’s remarkable vegetable display.
A mountain of pelargoniums at the Fibrex stand.
Quite the bunch of tulips at the Blom’s Bulbs stand.
Delphiniums and begonias arranged like a floral army on the Blackmore and Langdon’s stand.
Amaryllis dangle high over our heads at the Warmenhoven stand.
Splendid tiers of well-behaved alliums at the Warmenhoven stand.
An explosion of allium Christophii at the Warmenhoven stand.
A window of clematis.
There’s something comfortingly old fashioned about these cushions of chrysanths.
W&S Lockyer’s auricula display. Note the bowler hat in front of the stand.
I love these orange geums. So cheering.
Always so very difficult to walk past the Hardy’s stand without ordering something.
A little light, post-Chelsea reading.
Chilli wreaths and courgette muffins at Divertimenti.
My friend Julia came to help. Her presence is so soothing I always feel nothing bad could ever happen when I’m with her. And if it does, it’ll transform itself into an anecdote we’ll laugh about when we’re old ladies, sipping cold and alcoholic somethings on a porch. She’s from Chattanooga, which for some reason means I always picture us on a porch swing in the cool shade a clapboard house, even though in our ten years of friendship we’ve never even been south of the river together, let alone to Tennessee.
Julia and I, side by side, trying out the rose petal and sugar body scrub.
Pouring marigold and honey soap.
Making chive pesto.
The extent of my lofty aims for any public appearance is that people come, they take away something vaguely interesting, useful or edible, and I remember not to swear. Over the course of the morning, a chain of delightful Pamelas and Barbaras, Alexandras and Elizabeths, Emilys and Katies came through the door and ate courgette and ricotta muffins, crostini with chive and lemon pesto, watched me thread chillies onto wire to make edible wreaths and plant up colanders with herbs you could scatter on or in a pizza. They got me to sign books for their sisters, their mums, their best friends.
And then my future walked through the door. Or at least the future I aspire to in my wildest imaginings. A tiny old lady appeared at the demonstration table, her lips determinedly lipstick’d and her eyelashes enthusiastically mascara’d. A nimbus of backcombed hair quite doubled the size of her head. Her magnificent black coat was richly embroidered with flowers and leaves. She watched for a little while. She ate a spoonful of pesto. Then she fixed her clear blue eyes on me and said, ‘I have a cook. I am going to go home and ask my cook if she would like your book’. In that moment, it felt like the Brompton Road equivalent of a Pulitzer.
Planting up a pizza hanging basket in a colander
Making a chilli garland.