In search of Inspector Lewis

April 25, 2011

Looking for Inspector Lewis? Or perhaps Morse – I confess I never watched much of Morse, he was just so depressing. At least Lewis has that cute Hathaway as contrast. Whichever detective is on your list of favorites, you can find him around almost any corner in Oxford.

It’s easy to spend a day in Oxford on your way to the Cotswolds, but it’s just as easy to take the train out from London for a day. The journey from Paddington station is not quite an hour – be sure to get a train that doesn’t stop, otherwise you’ll have to change at Reading. Trains are frequent – every 15 minutes or so – which always astounds those of us from the West coast, where people are just discovering that public transportation might be a good thing. You can search times and fares on the National Rail site.

Take a bus from the station into the city center, and head for a morning stroll through the University of Oxford Botanic Garden, designed and planted by 1633 – a yew tree, more than 360 years old, is still there. We visited on a hot midsummer day, so appreciated the cooling effect of a garden, but really, a garden is good to visit any time.

Additional hot spots in the city: any Tolkien fan will want to stop by the Eagle and Child pub – a local review gives it good marks. And you can always look up film locations for Inspector Lewis and Morse, plus Harry Potter and loads more movies television.

Scads of walking tours satisfy almost anyone’s interest, but you don’t have to join someone’s group to tour, you can do it yourself. We picked up a brochure at the information office on Broad Street, and, as we walked around the streets I read off the interesting bits.

We’d stopped on Merton Street – still covered in streamers and not a few beer bottles from graduation parties the night before – and as I read the entry about Corpus Christi College, a man stopped and listened. Then he said, “That’s my college – would you like to see it?” So, Sir Tim Lankester, President of Corpus Christi College (recently retired) took us through the college, including the 16th-century library (we almost lost Leighton there) and into the college’s gardens where no tourist goes.

And, as an example of never really being far from home, when he found out we were from Seattle, he mentioned he’d been there in the 1960s. He wanted to know if we still had that “awful great raised freeway” above the waterfront. Fifty years later, we still haven’t escaped from the Alaskan Way Viaduct.

Chocolate Caramel Shortbread Irish

March 14, 2011

I figure if I got four those words in the title, I’d get loads of hits. Chocolate, caramel and shortbread make up the three layers in Magills, a recipe I acquired while living in Ireland. They go by many names – last year, we saw them called Wellingtons in one place, millionaire bars in another and in one prosaic coffee bar they were plain old caramel squares. I call them Magills, because I got the recipe from Susan Stokes who got the recipe from a fellow named Magill. I believe I have the best story, with apologies to Lord Wellington.

(I have translated the measurements from weights to volume. You can’t find Kerry Cream here, but it’s really just sweetened condensed milk. Look for Lyle’s Golden Syrup in the international or baking aisle of your grocery store.)

 

MAGILLS

Shortbread:

1 stick butter, softened

1 cup flour

¼ cup powdered sugar

 

Caramel:

4 Tbl. butter

¼ cup sugar

¼ cup Lyle’s Golden Syrup

¾ tin of Kerry Cream

 

about ½ cup chocolate chips, melted

 

Crumble shortbread ingredients together; press into 8-inch-square pan and bake at 350 degrees for about 15 minutes, until the edges are just barely turning brown. Place pan on rack to cool.

Bring caramel ingredients to a boil and stir constantly until the mixture reaches the soft-ball stage. While caramel mixture is still hot, pour over the shortbread. Let cool.

Using an offset spatula, spread the chocolate in a thin layer over caramel. When set, slice into bars or squares with a hot knife.

 

My Irish brown bread

March 6, 2011

I was once asked – by an American, of course – why there was no soda in Irish soda bread. What? That’s like asking why there are no chocolate chips in chocolate chip cookies. She apparently had a “traditional” soda-bread recipe from her family that contained no soda. I’d say that’s not soda bread.

In Ireland, brown soda bread is called brown bread, no need to specify. I’ve made it for years from a recipe I found in an Irish magazine when I lived in Dublin. When we are in Ireland, we eat as much as possible – you’ll know why once you try it. Brown bread is on the breakfast table at hotels and B&Bs and it’s offered with soup at lunch; at dinner time, you have to ask if they have any left. Brown bread is fast, healthy and extremely tasty. It’s March – make some today.

Marty’s Irish Brown Bread

(This recipe uses weight measurements; it’s the only way I’ve ever made it.)

8 ounces whole wheat flour

8 ounces white flour

1 tsp. salt

1 tsp. sugar

1 tsp. soda (yes, soda!)

1 Tbl. butter

11 ounces buttermilk (this is a half-pint of buttermilk, but it’s half of an Imperial pint)

1 egg, slightly beaten

Mix dry ingredients, then rub in the butter. Mix in buttermilk and egg. This can all be done by hand or with a mixer (don’t over mix). Press into a greased loaf pan or round casserole dish. Bake at 425 degrees F for about 30 minutes. You can turn out the loaf and tap on the bottom to check for doneness; if it sounds hollow, it’s done. Turn out, and wrap the bread in a damp tea towel and  place on a rack until the bread is completely cool. Cooling it in a damp tea towel will keep the crust from getting too hard. Enjoy!

What to eat at the airport

February 1, 2011

Also on the train or in the car. Fresh through security at the airport, we head for coffee, but there’s nothing appealing about the lineup of dry muffins in the case – or, for that matter, the container of cutup fruit (how do they get apples so dry?). (Of course, at the Florence airport, you can get hot brioche, but the trip home is another matter.) I bake this cake to take along – it’s somewhere between cake and shortbread really, not too moist, so it resists being squished in your bag.

What – six egg yolks? Yes, and just think: You can make an egg-white omelet for dinner the night before you leave on your trip. Enjoy!

MARTY’S ALMOND TRAVEL CAKE

1/3 (heaping) cup almonds, toasted and ground

1 1/2 cups flour

2 Tbl. cornstarch

1/2 tsp. baking powder

1/2 tsp. cinnamon

1/4 tsp. salt

1 cut butter, room temperature

1 cup sugar

6 large egg yolks, beaten to blend

2 tsp. grated lemon peel

1/2 tsp. vanilla extract

Butter and dust with flour one 8-inch-round cake pan. Mix together flour, cornstarch, baking powder, cinnamon, salt and ground nuts; set aside. Beat together butter and sugar; gradually add egg yolks. Mix in peel and vanilla. Add dry ingredients and mix until just blended. Transfer to pan. Bake at 350 degrees for about 25 minutes, until the cake is firm to touch. Cool in pan, then cut and remove slices. Wrap individually for a quick snack or breakfast.

Packing for comfort

January 3, 2011

We must think of ways to make ourselves as comfortable as possible on flights these days, because the airlines won’t do it for us. And when I say airlines, I don’t mean the attendants. Attendants on our flights last year, including Delta/KLM to Amsterdam, Air France from Paris, and Southwest to or from anywhere (I love Southwest), were all competent, friendly and professional; it isn’t there fault that American didn’t offer even a pretzel on our flight to Chicago – not one, tiny pretzel.

So, on the flights for our garden tours this year (Northeast gardens, May 14-22; northern France and Paris, June 19-30), we must do what we can for ourselves. When I fly, I try to keep food, drink, and entertainment self-contained, because I don’t want to end up climbing on someone’s head just to get to my bag out of the overhead compartment (and I hope you won’t do that to me).

Because my entertainment options are limited and, probably to most, archaic, I’ll just say that I’ve got my (older generation) iPod loaded with an audio book, and an actual paperback book that will fit in my purse. (I confess to asking Leighton to take anything heavier in his carryon).

A bottle of water is essential (bought as soon as I get through security). Yes, they will offer water on the plane, but it’s a small thing to carry … just in case.

Overseas flights still offer food, which I believe is more to keep us occupied than anything else, but even on long flights I take along a chocolate bar or two for us, plus a bag of toasted almonds/dried cranberries. I wish I could pop a few protein bars in my purse, but I am allergic to all nuts except almonds, and I am also allergic to peanuts; so far I haven’t seen a protein bar that wasn’t full of peanut butter or walnuts. Feel free to recommend a brand that suits my needs.

Dear airlines: look out. When Southwest begins flying overseas (I’ve heard this is a possibility), I will be first in line – OK, maybe not the very first, but I will pay for Early Bird check-in and be in the A line for sure) even if I have to pack my own fried chicken and potato salad for nine-hour flight.

 

Botany is everywhere

December 30, 2010

fior di lisi

The fleur-de-lis is a familiar symbol of all things French, from heraldry to Joan of Arc, so I was surprised to see the symbol in Siena, Italy as the fior di lisi. It’s the coat of arms for Florence, and so also appears in Siena, because Florence is the capital of Tuscany (our guide and friend Antonella is fiercely loyal to Siena, and so likes to downplay that last fact).

The Italian symbol appeared on coins minted in Florence in the 12th century – the same time it appeared on coins in France (thanks to this interesting site for the info: www.fleurdelis.com/fleur.htm). But look carefully at the two symbols and you’ll see that the Italian version shows stamen sticking out of the flower.

And what is that flower? It’s commonly known as a lily, but doesn’t look like any lily I’ve ever seen, unless someone has purposely bent back the petals to make it look like an iris. That is the alternate interpretation – that it’s an iris; now, which makes much more sense, because you can see the falls (petallike structures bending down) and a standard (petallike structure sticking up) so clearly. The fleur-de-lis, known as the golden lily, appears to be Iris pseudoacorus – the yellow flag of marshy ground and water’s edge in Europe.

Except for those stamen in the Italian version. Stamen don’t stick out of an iris; the bees need to land on the fall (which is fuzzy in bearded iris) and crawl in. Maybe the Italians just wanted to set themselves apart from the French, and so they added the floral structure to mark the Florentine fior di lisi. Regardless, it’s always good to see botany getting its due through the many centuries of heraldry and religious symbols.

Next summer, we’ll check out the French version on our tour of Normandy,

fleur-de-lis

Brittany, and Paris, where we may indeed see a few real lilies and irises. Here are the details of the tour.

Italian cypress, not so Italian after all

December 2, 2010

Italian cypress (Cupressus sempervirens) evokes a sense of place more than many plants – those tall, slim, exclamation points in the landscape, whether planted in rows, dotted around or gathered together in small groups, have always spoken of Italy to me. Their contribution to the rolling hills of Tuscany is not overrated, as I saw on our first visit there, in October. From the garden of the villa where we stayed, we could look the cypresses throughout the valley and across to the next hill town. On day trips, we saw them lining driveways that criss-crossed hills up to a house. Close-up we could marvel at the blobby round cones with deep fissures in them. Two things became clear on our visit, one I knew but never appreciated, and the other a surprise.

San Domenico, Siena

Those tall slim cypresses that we see in the States are mostly from a single cultivar. Well, not really a cultivar, but a group. It’s the Stricta group, instead of ‘Stricta’, because over time many slim forms of the cypress occurred, some raised from seed instead of grown from cuttings – and only cuttings would ensure that each ‘Stricta’ was like the last. When raised from seed, they may have some variations in appearance, so all the generally exquisitely narrow forms are collected into the general label.

In Tuscany, we saw the variety that can occur with a straight species. Some tall and thin, some more plump, some extremely treelike, with a trunk showing at the bottom benearth the green coat above. OK, it isn’t as if some of them looked like Monterey cypress, with the wide, wild, windswept appearance that growing on the Northern California coast provides, but still, there was a good mix of Italian cypress forms.

La Foce

The surprise is that Italian cypress probably isn’t native to Italy. It is native to Greece, Turkey, Cyprus and other parts of the eastern Mediterranean region. Because it has been in cultivation for so long – and we’re talking thousands of years – it has naturalized in areas where it was planted. And one of those places is Italy.

Oh, some people scoff at those of us who call it Italian cypress – how could we be so dense? – and refer to it as the Mediterranean cypress; fine, do as you like. But I’ve been to Italy now and I’ve seen it. It is too securely fastened to my memory, and it won’t be anything else but Italian.

 

Notes on Italy: La Foce

November 9, 2010

Sure, October is the only time I’ve ever been to Italy, but it must be the best time. Hearing the olives drop into buckets as they are harvested while sitting in the garden with a glass of wine. Yes, be envious, be very envious.

We rented a villa in one of the Tuscan hill towns, and so we had a home for a week. Although we had several town tours, only one garden was included – I guess we’ll have to go back. You may not think October the best time for a garden visit, but you’d be wrong. These gardens need no frills to be admired. The formal lines of La Foce, for example, are a perfect foil to the Tuscan hills beyond.

La Foce was designed by Cecil Pinsent for Iris Origo, who died in 1988. It was a chilly, windy day when we visited, but the garden and hills beyond held our attention. It’s a place to which I will return, if only to admire the formality around me while gazing out at the muted colors of the Crete Senesi – the unusual clay soil. Winter wheat was being planted while we were there.

Coming soon: what we learned about the Florence airport, renting a car, grocery shopping and the olive oil festival in Montisi.

 

Gardening with a sense of place

September 21, 2010

Do you feel that a garden should reflect its surroundings? Apart from the house around which it is situated, should a garden be a part of the greater natural landscape?

Ilnacullin

Some garden design ties itself closely with place – Japanese gardens reflect, on a small scale, the mountains, valleys and lakes around them. Regional native plant gardens in incorporate trees, shrubs, perennials and bulbs exclusive to the surrounding environment.

And yet there are Japanese gardens around the world, and a native plant garden in a city is decidedly unattached to its surroundings. Ilnacullin, on Garinish Island in Bantry Bay, Ireland, carries Harold Peto’s signature Italianate look.

We borrow whole designs, elements of design, and small design devices to make gardens that we love, so I thought it entirely appropriate to find a house in the Preston Hollow area of Dallas, Texas that you looked like it was lifted out of Hobbiton. The effect of stone (these are the hobbits that took to building houses not burrowed into the hills, but still reflecting a hobbit-hole sort of design) and round windows and a round door suited the woodsy surroundings.

Although some gardens I can’t imagine elsewhere – Lawrence Johnston’s Arts and Crafts style at Hidcote is perfect – I’m all for using elements of those gardens elsewhere. If only someone would build me a double gazebo.

Hidcote Manor, of course

Native plants far from home

August 31, 2010

It never fails that when we go on tour to England, Scotland, and Ireland we see lots of North American native plants in gardens – Oregon grape, red-flowering currant, salal are all ubiquitous in the Pacific Northwest, but cherished ornamentals when they travel across the ocean.

Sometimes the North American natives don’t even cross state lines very often. I have yet to see Veronicastrum (culver’s root) in a Seattle garden – not even my own – and yet it’s glorious in the gardens abroad. In early July we caught this sight at June Blake’s garden, which we visited before we headed to her brother Jimi’s garden Hunting Brook.

The Veronicastrum stands up to 6 feet high with whorled sets of leaves up the stems; its inflorescences form slender lavender (or white) flames snaking toward the sky. What’s not to love?

Oh wait, this just in – “How to grow” advice from the Missouri Botanic Garden says: “Soil should not be allowed to dry out.” No wonder it looked so good in June’s garden. With my cavalier attitude toward watering, I’d better take a pass.


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