Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Closer to (any) God in a garden

Rowan berries glowing in Clerkenwell
The end of September is an important date in our pension planning diary, because it is new tenancy time for the three bedroom maisonette in Clerkenwell which gives a far better return on capital, plus growth, than anything else in our portfolio. 

The flat is just a few minutes walk from the Barbican, the wonderful St Luke's (home to the London Symphony Orchestra) and Whitecross Street market which has become a Mecca for lunchtime foodies seeking the ultimate artisan loaf, french cheese, Thai noodles, wild game pasties, indulgent macaroons and pastries, plus coffee shops and Mediterranean restaurants. Not to mention, joy of joys, a Waitrose store at the end. What's more, there are still hardware shops, dry cleaners, newsagents, barbers and florists.  It is not surprising that people enjoy living here.

So two days after returning from holiday I am deep into long spells on the telephone listening to muzak whilst trying to reach a sentient being to organise landlord gas safety certificates, untangle the byzantine thinking of the council tax department and arrange for this year's treat for the flat - sanding and varnishing the wood floors in the ground floor kitchen, hallway and living room.

One of the particularly attractive features of the flat is that in addition to its own paved and planted front area, it also has a south-facing back garden that overlooks the tree-filled and historic Bunhill Fields and the pretty building that was the first Quaker meeting house in London.

The only drawback is that whilst every tenant loves the garden, not one has ever been an active or knowledgeable gardener. So while the floor sanding is under way I plan to attack the jungle, arriving equipped with long armed pruners, secateurs, green sacks and gardening gloves.

The grape vine has gone berserk, dangling dozens of shriveled bunches of aspiring sultanas over the patio door. The roses too, which were severely pruned two years ago, have responded vigorously to the " treat 'em mean, keep 'em keen" principle and have sent whippy stems loaded with bright scarlet hips all through the vine, passion flower, viburnum and choisya.
Hidden harvest in a City garden

As I untangle the thorny growth, I discover that the vine stem branching off to the west facing wall is carrying bunch after bunch of ripe and juicy grapes hidden amongst the leaves and flowers of the other shrubs fighting for light and air. Small and sweet, but with thick skins and lots of pips, they are not dissimilar to the baskets full given to us in Italy earlier in the month.  Impossible for two people to consume in a week, I turned them into grape juice. See (An embarrassment of riches)

When Manjik the floor sander steps into the garden for a breath of fresh air whilst he waits for the first coat of varnish to dry, he spots the pile of grapes on the garden table. His eyes light up, so I offer him some. As he eats, he looks keenly at the tangle of vine stems and foliage.

"These are grow too much," he says in his slow, accented English. He touches the fat rose hips, and tells me that his grandmother used them. "She not really doctor, but she made medicine for children from these."

Manjik then nods at the two bags full of vine prunings and asks if he can take some, for his garden.  "Before I come to England from Iran, " he says, "I was farmer.  I grow grapes and all fruits."

He carefully chooses and then ties together half a dozen vine stems, some green, others thick and brown, and puts them in the plastic bag that contained his lunch. Then he looks up at the jungle and reaches for the pruners. " I help you," he smiles, " I love this work more than sanding floors.”

So for the next hour, whilst the varnish dries, the Iranian refugee and I work in companionable silence in the golden autumn sunshine of an English garden. 

Grape jelly with lime and tarragon
The haul from the exuberant Clerkenwell vine is well over 2 kilos, so the grapes are carried back home on the Northern Line for processing. As I have plenty of sugar and glass jars to hand, I will make jelly rather than the grape juice solution of the previous week in Tuscany.  White grapes have sweetness but a less pronounced flavour than black ones, so I decide to add the sharpness and colour of limes plus the aroma of tarragon, to make a jelly that will make an excellent partner for roast chicken or grilled fish.

Remove grapes from stems and wash thoroughly and put into large pan with the juice of two limes and the zest of one. Cook gently until juices run freely and fruit is soft, mashing firmly from time to time. Put into a sterilized jelly bag and suspend over a bowl overnight.

Measure juice and for every litre add 750 grams of sugar and stir over a gentle heat until thoroughly dissolved. Add the zest of two limes and a bunch of tarragon tied in a square of muslin and bring to a rolling boil. When it reaches 105 degrees, remove from the heat, remove the tarragon bunch and any scum. Pour into hot sterilized jars and just as it begins to set pop in a sprig of tarragon. Seal in usual way.

Photographs by Sandi.

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