Apr 06 2004

Paint, Pigs, Primroses… and soup!

Wild Primroses
It is Easter this weekend. Holy Week, Passover, Spring! Suddenly winter is behind us and we’re racing into Spring. It all seems to happen over night, one minute we’re bracing ourselves against wind and rain, sliding around in the mud as we struggle up to the farmyard and the next minute the clocks change the evenings are lighter and we’re plunged into the new season. We’re awash with flowers, singing birds, trees with buds bursting, ewes fussing over their lambs, ducks shouting on the mill pond. And everyone’s in a hurry! Seeds are germinating and begging to be pricked out, flowerbeds need digging, vegetables need planting and all I can do is paint paint paint the holiday cottage in time for the first summer visitors on Friday, Good Friday. The winter tenant left it perfect but the time has come for a new coat of paint, and, oh, how I hate being trapped inside with a paint brush in my hand when the sun shines! And I had my best ever phone message yesterday, did I have some eggs that the children could hatch over Easter and then give me back the chicks on their return to London…..birds and bees?

The hedgerows have started to give of their summer-long wild harvest. The banks are covered with bright yellow primroses. Primulaceae vulgaris or common primrose has been used for hundreds of years as a medicinal herb mentioned by both Pliny and Culpeper. Pliny recommended it for gout and paralysis while later Culpeper urged city ladies to use it to enhance their complexion! Now I think probably best to stick to crystallising the flowers to decorate the Easter Simnal cake, or a few flower heads scattered in salad. I noticed yesterday several clumps in a flower bed with all the flower heads nipped off. A bullfinch or a field mouse, I wonder, someone else who appreciates the sweet taste of the nectar. Primulaceae veris or cowslip is now sadly so rare that they are best left to reseed wherever possible. I have even gone to the lengths to replant them in my garden and nurture each plant hoping they will one day spread again. Gone are the days of Cowslip wine. Cowslips are just one more casualty of modern farming, insecticides etc. Fortunately wild flowers are protected by law now so we can only pick from our own gardens which helps them replenish themselves in the wild. In untouched places.

Sweet Violet
Sweet violets, viola odorata, are just visible in the banks now too, their minute flower heads poking through to the light. They are famous for their scent and also have a large number of culinary and medicinal uses but are used principally as a dye or perfume now. They were used by the Romans to make violet flavoured wine, Horace complained more time was given to growing violets than olives! And of course, famously, Napoleon’s nickname was ‘Corporal Violette‘, a secret name used by his supporters when toasting their hero. Legend has it that when Jupiter turned his beloved Io into a white heifer for fear of Juno’s jealousy he caused ‘Ione’, the Greek name for violet, to spring up from the ground to feed her! However they, like the cowslips, are fast disappearing so I’m loath to pick them in large quantities as was done in the past. Even in my Devon garden they are quite shy. Like primroses they are wonderful candied and used as decoration.

The Ubiquitous Nettle
And then of course there are the stinging nettles, masses and masses in my garden rampaging everywhere despite my best efforts to control them. Wherever my chickens go the common nettle, Urtica dioica, appears, in the hedgerows, banks, ditches, round the perimeter of the fields, absolutely everywhere. They give safe haven to some of our most beautiful butterflies and moths. So it’s just as well nettles make such wonderful soup! Nettle Beer is another traditional country tipple. And listening to the radio as I painted the other day nettles even featured on Woman’s Hour. Recipes are printed on the BBC Radio 4 website: soup, risotto, gnocchi.

In her wonderful book A Modern Herbal, Mrs Grieve talks of a nettle pudding mentioned by Samuel Pepys in 1661: Take one galleon of nettles 2 leeks, or onions, 2 heads of broccoli or a small cabbage or Brussel sprouts and a quarter of a pound of rice. Chop and mix all the vegetables together and place in a muslin bag in alternate layers with the rice. Tie the bag tightly and boil in salted water till the vegetables are cooked. Serve with butter. “We did eat some Nettle Porridge, which was very good”.

Nettles have no end of medicinal uses listed at length by Mrs Grieve and of course they were used to make cloth for hundreds of years. So now maybe I shall feel more kindly towards them as they march through my land!

Add dandelions to your salad now, but not too many, as their old name, ‘pis- en- lit’, tells us, they are an excellent diuretic. Fat Hen, Alexanders and Sorrel are all appearing now too. Use all with care and make sure you have identified them correctly. Watercress, so tempting at the edge of the stream, is to be avoided despite its delicious taste. Liver fluke is a real hazard, so give that one a miss.

blacks oxfordsandy

Blacks and Oxford Sandys

Richard and Leslies piglets are growing like mad now. Apart from Marconi and Co. (see Venison post) they still keep some pedigree Saddlebacks that will finish in four to six months. The bacon is excellent, dry cured and not too fatty, unlike the Gloucester Old Spot. In November they bought some Oxford Sandy and Blacks. They are about fifteen weeks now and will also finish at four months. These little chaps are particularly interesting because the breed has become extinct and these youngsters are the early examples of an attempt to re introduce the breed. I have arranged a barter of a lamb for a pig for the deep freeze, so will report on the pork at a later date!

So what an Easter feast we will have. Soup of nettles, spinach and sorrel, traditional Easter roast lamb, and Simnel Cake decorated with wild flower, and maybe violet ice cream too!

No responses yet

Comments RSS

Leave a Reply