Oh nettle, where is thy sting?

Nettles in field

I love the smell of nettles in the morning.

They smell of spring to me. I tried to think, yesterday, while playing in the field and kitchen, how to describe their scent. Are they lemony? Peppery? Soapy? None of these will do. They just smell, gloriously, like nettles.

Most of us, most of the time perhaps do not get so close to a nettle patch to catch their heady scent. But if, as I did, you go out with a pair of rubber gloves, nice and early while the sun is just beginning to drive off the dew, you can pick a bagful without getting stung and get a good whiff while you are picking.

Then back to the kitchen and a sinkful of scented green leaves (rubber gloves still on); blanch them and squeeze out the water (rubber gloves off at last), mix with cooked potatoes, semolina, flour and egg. This is the dough for potato and nettle gnocchi, which we ate in the evening with sage butter. I have made nettle pasta (brighter green than spinach pasta) before but it was my first time of making these delicious little dumplings.

Oh, and those nettles are very nutritious, and free, and you can make all sorts of things out of them. All very worthy, but I was just having fun.

Note:After reading the first version of this post, my friend pointed out (see comments below) that the nettles in the picture with the fetching white flowers are dead nettles, which look very similar to stinging nettles and grow in the same places but are unrelated and do not sting.

So I went back to the nettle patch for another look and indeed there is a fine mix of both urtica dioica (with stings) and lamium album (without). Luckily both are edible as I suspect both went into my cooking!

Nettles in kitchen

Making gnocchi

180 degrees

Tom's fields

Beautiful sunshine this morning reminds me of breakfast in the garden with a lovely houseful of people last Sunday. Family from Glasgow, friends from Colchester and from Manchester all came to stay for partner’s birthday.

Last year fourteen friends sat down for a birthday dinner at our house in Chorlton and shrieked in disbelief at the idea of us moving to this distant, empty region.

This year, after breakfast, we walked on Star Fen where a friend took this picture and another said how striking the flatness of the land is: ‘the full 180 degrees,’ with the sky like an upturned bowl.

Last year’s Manchester dinner was grander than this year’s, but I see that both menus featured mushrooms, asparagus and my favourite spring ice-cream, flavoured with blackcurrant leaves. I like that link across the months and the miles, and that two friends from that dinner were here with us at this one: connections, connections…

This year the asparagus was grown in the next village and I picked nettles for the pasta dough from the field at the end of the road.

Modern art in a medieval world

Mermaid

Had a fun afternoon at the church today. Artist Emily Tracy is making an installation for St Andrews, as part of the Altered project (new art in rural churches). She and her art historian father, Charles Tracy put on a tour of the church and talked about her work, Screen, being shown on 11th/12th May

St Andrews was built in the early fourteenth century and has amazing carvings both inside and out (see earlier post). Gargoyles outside are weathered, intriguing and appealing. But my favourites are the indoor carvings: the intricate decoration, the tiny cameos, sometimes comic, beautifully portrayed. The little mermaid above is one and the man eating fruit below is another.

The mermaid is on the Easter Sepulchre, where in the past the host was put to rest on Good Friday before, as was described to us, being brought out on Easter Sunday and placed on the altar in a triumphant ceremony.

Along with mermaids, the Easter Sepulchre is decorated with carvings of abundant, cheerful foliage, making me think of the triumph, the victory that is Spring when life and warmth and growth return. There is little triumph in this spring of 2013, when all over the country farmers are looking at brown fields where there should be fresh green grass for animals to eat. It was bitterly cold again, still, as we walked round the churchyard today.

But the stone carvings, with their leaves and flowers and human faces from almost seven hundred years ago, are irrepressibly cheerful, even, to me, the grimacing gargoyles pointing the way to hell. I hope some of them find their way onto Emily’s Screen.

Man and fruit

A host of golden daffodils; and other things

 

They are everywhere I look in the garden, the daffodils; gold, primrose and white, tossing their heads in the wind, as they do.

I’ve written more about the leylandii hedge than about the rest of the garden, which is lovely. It is a great treat to have inherited so many flowers: there have been snowdrops, hellebores and primroses, then the daffodils, and tulips on the way. And with the warmer weather, at last, there are all sorts of perennials starting to emerge from patches of dead stalks and bare earth; aquilegia and foxgloves, among my favourite flowers, are appearing in all sorts of unexpected places.

I have a few cut-and-come-again seedlings in the conservatory. They look so fresh and green that I want to eat them now, but they are still only babies. Meanwhile I try not to check the length of the rhubarb coming up outside more than every couple of days. Soon, soon it will be big enough to cut.

Yesterday I potted on all the soft fruit cuttings I took from the bushes at our Manchester allotment (a small act of faith, made long ago, before our move was really on the cards). I am pleased to have something here from that patch of ground that my partner put so much into over seven or eight years.

Today I am going to sow beetroot and carrots. And partner is thinking of putting early potatoes in some messy ground where the polytunnel will go later. Feels very daring to be doing such normal things for the time of year. More acts of faith and commitment to this, our new piece of earth.

Is spring sprung at last?

Waiting for spring

The sun has been shining for the past couple of days, but it is still very cold. The equinox has been and gone and British Summer Time is with us. We have the light but not the warmth; this spring is too long coming.

Daughter and grandbabies have been here for a few days. Pictures here are from a walk after seeing them off on the train yesterday. I tried a new route out of the village, via a footpath which implausibly crosses the busy A17 and then over to Star Fen. The winter colouring is still beautiful – bare black branches against a duck-egg-blue sky – but we need more green, more life, more seeds sown and food growing.

Heading back to Heckington down Littleworth Drove, I passed the field where I saw some particularly fetching sheep in winter stubble on my last walk up here (see A walk on Star Fen). I felt sad, as I do listening to the lambs bleating from the dog field, reminded of all the sheep and lambs dead in snowdrifts on hill-farms around the country.

There has been some good coverage of the crisis facing British farmers (see this recent Observer article), but I can’t help feeling that farming stories in the mainstream papers often read like those on disasters happening to other people in a far off place. Yesterday the snowstorms and the dead lambs were front page news, being hailed as the worst disaster to hit hill farmers in 60 years; I have a slight sense of shock when I cannot find a single paragraph on them in this morning’s paper.

But in the meantime, the sun is out and along with farmers and gardeners all over the country I am crossing my fingers that it stays out. Spring: bring it on, please.

Silver linings

Grantham sunset

Second trip to Doncaster this week – feeling tired of travelling and so badly wanted to stay in my garden this morning, destroying more leylandii in the spring sunshine. But the training session I went for was good, a rare chance to get together with fellow trainee mediators; fun, informative and confidence-boosting. And later, while hanging around between trains on my way home, I watched the sunset and regretted the absence of my camera. Silly me – my iPad is also a camera – so here is that sunset sky over Grantham.

I love this sort of sky that looks as if painted by Turner – when you look at it full size, you can see the brush strokes.

Writing this on the little train. Back in lovely Heckington in a few minutes; too dark for gardening now. A quarter of a century ago, in my little garden in Brixton, I used to rig up lights so I could garden in the dark!

Spring in the dog field

Ploughed earth

A short while ago the fields around were still covered in stubble, but now they have been ploughed. This the third field that the dogs and I cross on our regular walk and I am fascinated by the red-brown soil turned over in fat, slug-shaped ridges, such a rich colour, dense and fat and tactile, like something to be moulded or even eaten.

On the far side of the field is Naughty Doris, spoken of in Spot The Dog. She might be hunting in the hedgerow or just eating grass.

The picture below is the view looking back towards the village when we are on our way home.

Hall trees