Gazpacho – a chilled Spanish tomato soup (Title Photo)
Dear Readers, now that winter is here, is there anything nicer than a big bowl of soup? It’s a great way of getting more vegetables into your diet, and also for using up produce that’s getting towards the end of its shelf life. Here in the UK we apparently threw away 9.5 million tonnes of food waste last year. My grandmother would have found that unfathomable. All over the world, people eat soup as a celebration, and as an everyday way of getting nutritious food into their stomachs. Plus, it’s a well-known fact ( by me at least) that if you eat soup, you’re likely to eat less of other things because it’s very filling.
So, for this week’s quiz, I’d like you to match the soup in each of the photos to its name, and where it originated. To help you, I am going to name the main ingredients under each photograph (though I do appreciate that there are many regional variations for some of these dishes, so bear with me!)
You will have until 5 p.m. UK time next Friday (21st January) to submit your answers in the comments. When I see your answers I will ‘disappear’ them, but as usual write your answers down first if you don’t want to be influenced by those who came before. Answers will be published on Saturday 22nd January.
So, if you think Photo One is Vichyssoise, and that it’s from Scotland, your answer is 1)A) i).
1) Bread, kale, beans, tomato
2) Leeks, potatoes, cream
3) Beetroot, dill, sour cream
4) Rice, lemon, egg
5) Smoked haddock, potatoes, cream
6) Dried fruit (apples in this case but could be cloudberries, lingonberries or other fruit)
7) Many variations, but always includes tamarind
8) Tomato, lentils and other beans, rice, small amounts of meat, spices such as saffron.
9) Kale, potato, chorizo
10) Shrimp, andouille sausage, often with okra, thickened with a dark roux
Dear Readers, after my wonderful walk in Walthamstow Wetlands yesterday, it was something of a surprise to read that Friday 14th January is predicted to have the highest air pollution in London since March 2018. Londoners are being advised to avoid physical activity, and those with respiratory problems such as asthma are being advised to carry extra inhalers. The pollution is likely to hit Band 10, the highest level on the scale, in Central London.
Part of the reason for the pollution being so high is, ironically, because of the high pressure that is bringing all the lovely sunshine. This area of high pressure is sitting over Western Europe, and because there is practically no wind, the pollution doesn’t get dissipated in the way that it would normally. However, this doesn’t answer the question of why the pollution is so high in the first place.
In London, the main cause of air pollution is road vehicles. Although the Congestion Zone and the Ultra Low Emissions Zones will go some way towards reducing the amount of Nitrogen Oxides (NOX) and particulates, the Mayor Sadiq Khan pointed out earlier this week that car usage in the Capital is back to pre-pandemic levels. London’s roads simply can’t take the volume of traffic, and one estimate puts the cost of the congestion at £5.1 billion per year. Plus, cars moving slowly allow the pollutants to build up in an area. As usual, there is considerable inequality amongst the groups that are most exposed to this pollution, with the poorer inhabitants of London being the ones who suffer the most, as they tend to live closer to main roads. Young children and elderly people are often the most vulnerable, and as many schools are close to busy roads this exacerbates the problem.
Furthermore, I suspect that people who would normally be amenable to cycling or walking in the Capital are less likely to do so if it feels dangerous and polluted. In addition, Transport for London (TfL)has to go cap-in-hand to Central Government every year to get funding, and during the pandemic more and more people abandoned the tube and the buses, and jumped in their cars instead because they felt safer, reducing TfL’s income still further. It’s a tricky situation for sure, and one that requires imagination and creativity to solve.
A study by Imperial College London found that 4,000 Londoners die every year as a result of air pollution. Worldwide, the state of the air that we breathe is a health emergency, but of course the pollution also contributes to climate change. To my mind, the main things that need to change are:
People need to be encouraged to use public transport, with safe, clean, frequent, sustainable and convenient services.
Public transport needs to be accessible for those with mobility issues and those with children in prams.
There need to be more ways to walk and cycle safely in the Capital
We need to protect and enhance our green spaces as they act as a buffer against the worst effects of pollution
We need to encourage the uptake of electric cars, and make sure that there is sufficient infrastructure to charge them.
We need to look at more car-sharing schemes, both formal and informal, to reduce the number of individual journeys that people make. There are too many vehicles on the road with just one person in them.
It is true that air quality in London has improved greatly since I was young: I remember ‘pea-soupers’ in the 1960s, largely caused by the burning of wood and coal as fuel – ‘smokeless zones’ were set up in the Clean Air Acts of 1956 and 1968. What seems strangest to me, looking back, is that when ‘smog’ was expected, all the schoolchildren were sent home from school, which meant crossing busy roads in dense fog. I’m sure there was some kind of logic behind the action, but it struck me as peculiar even as a little girl. These days, the air looks clean and sparkling for most of the time, but sadly it’s still killing people. I reckon that with a bit of encouragement we can do better.
Nelson’s Column during the Great Smog of 1952 (Photo by N.T.Stobbs)
For more scenes of foggy old London, do have a look at Spitalfields Life for some wonderful examples.
Dear Readers, today was a perfect time for a walk around Walthamstow Wetlands – it was cold but not too cold, and there was a perfect crispness about the light that made everything so cheerful. Look at those bouncy hazel catkins, which look just like the tails of the lambs that will be born soon.
The twigs of the weeping willows were a perfect mellow yellow colour, and I think that the electricity pylon actually adds something to the scene. We are so lucky to have so much green space in London – the city certainly punches above its weight in terms of biodiversity.
There was a solitary coot rooting amongst the reeds, and not a hint of wind to ruffle the surface of the reservoir.
A tufted duck glided serenely away, before diving and leaving nothing but ripples.
The gorse is in flower (so kissing must still be in fashion, as they say).
Herons glided over the path, looking positively prehistoric. In a few weeks time they will be setting up their nests on one of the islands, and the serenity will be broken by the sounds of heron chicks, but for now the main sound is the chorus of robins. This one was singing, then listening out for a rival, then singing again.
And a great-crested grebe patrolled the water. No sign of a mate today, but probably she or he is very close.
It was one of those days when I feel delighted just to be alive, and clearly I wasn’t the only one – one woman, who had been admiring the view over the water, just turned to us and remarked how beautiful it was. It was a day for pausing, and looking, and soaking it all in. They say that nature is restorative, and today it felt as if every breath was medicine. I felt so lucky and privileged just to be able to enjoy it. I wish the same for all of us.
Dear Readers, I have some history with eels. When I was growing up in Stratford in East London, they were not only considered a delicacy when you went to the pie and mash shop (stewed or jellied eels also formed part of the menu), but you could buy them at the local fish shop in Angel Lane (long since buried under the 1960s shopping centre). The eels would be slithering in a white plastic tray, and if you wanted one, the fishmonger would grab one by the tail and chop into pieces in a matter of seconds before wrapping everything up in white paper. Sometimes the bits of fish would have a mind of their own, and would still be moving about in the shopping bag by the time you got home.
Once, I was holding hands with Mum when we both noticed an eel on the verge of wriggling over the edge of the tray. The fishmonger was arguing with a customer about the cost of some shrimps and winkles and so he hadn’t noticed. I glanced at Mum and she squeezed my hand while we both held our breath. The eel made it over the edge, plopped on to the pavement and wriggled away down the drain to safety. I sometimes wonder if the animal made it to the Sargasso Sea, which is where all the eels in the world are said to breed.
And therein hangs the tale told in Patrik Svensson’s wonderful book. It tells the story of what we’ve managed to discover so far about the secret life of eels, part of which is their complex and enigmatic life story. We have, for instance, found tiny baby eels in the region of the Sargasso Sea, but have never found an adult eel. Sigmund Freud spent several months as a student in Trieste, cutting up eels and trying to find a male one, without ever finding any eel testicles. You can deduce many things about his later theories from this period, I’m sure. Rachel Carson, better known for her work on DDT in ‘Silent Spring’ started by writing about the sea and its creatures for The Atlantic magazine. Ely Cathedral in England is named for the eels found in the local fen country, and in Sweden they celebrate an eel festival – Swedish fishermen would pay for their fishing rights in actual eels.
What makes this book more than ‘just’ a natural history book, though, is the way that Svensson interweaves the story of his relationship with his father, as they try out different ways of catching eels, sometimes succeeding, sometimes failing. He reveals so much about his Dad, and about how he himself grows from a boy to a man. There is much in this book to savour, and much to learn, and lots to think about, not least when Svensson turns to the precarious future of the eel, and thinks about what it means not just for this species, but for all of us.
“Is it possible to imagine a world without eels? Is it possible to erase a creature that has existed for at least forty million years, that has survived ice ages and seen continents drift apart, that when humans found their place on this planet had already been waiting for us for millions of years, that has been the subject of so many traditions and celebrations and myths and stories?
No, is the instinctive answer, that’s not how the world works. What exists, exists, and what doesn’t exist is always in some ways unimaginable. Imagining a world without eels would be like imagining a world without mountains or oceans, air or soil, bats or willow trees.
Yet at the same time all life is changeable, and we will all change one day, and it was probably at one point, at least for a few people, just as difficult to imagine a world without the dodo or without Steller’s sea cow. Just as I couldn’t, once, imagine a world without Nana or Dad.
And yet they’re both gone now. And the world is still here”.
I heartily recommend this thought-provoking and beautifully-written book. You can buy it in lots of places, and here’s one of them.
Dear Readers, you might remember that I am giving Veganuary a go this month, and while I am thoroughly enjoying my flat whites with oat milk (and I can heartily recommend drinking chocolate with coconut milk for anyone who remembers Bounty bars), I have not found anything that really works with my builder’s tea. And so, I am mostly drinking chamomile tea, and very delicious it is too – I always think that it smells very slightly of pineapple (not surprising as pineappleweed is a close relative), but the name is actually derived from the Greek words for ‘apple’ and ‘earth’ – you can certainly pick up an apple-y flavour too. This herbal tea doesn’t need the addition of milk, dairy or otherwise, and furthermore it has a long-established reputation for soothing frazzled nerves – Peter Rabbit was given chamomile tea to drink after being chased by Mr McGregor in Beatrix Potter’s ‘The Tale of Peter Rabbit’, and if it’s good enough for him, it’s certainly good enough for me.
As it turns out, lots of different, closely-related plants are known as chamomile (or occasionally camomile). The UK’s chamomile is Chamaemelum nobile, or Roman chamomile, which is considered a native rather than a present from the Romans (they gave us rabbits, horse chestnut trees, fallow deer, indoor plumbing and Hadrian’s wall after all so we shouldn’t be greedy). To look at, this is just a very delicate, daisy-like flower, but sadly it’s listed as Vulnerable – my Harrap’s guide describes it as ‘Very locally abundant in damp turf(especially old commons), on sandy, mildly acid soils, kept short by grazing, mowing, trampling or, on clifftops and other coastal grassland, exposure to the wind’. We will be returning to the theme of ‘trampling’ later in this piece!
The map in the book shows that it’s largely confined to the West Country and areas south and west of London in England, and in the far south-west tip of Ireland. Do let me know if you’ve seen it in your area – it seems such a shame to lose it!
Roman Chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile) (Photo Two)
In researching this piece, I came across this wonderful post by Marion Mackonochie on the Mecklenburgh Square website – the square is in Islington, just around the corner from where I used to live. Mackonochie explains that in addition to its reputation as a mild sedative and mood-enhancer, chamomile has been widely used for skin inflammation, indigestion, the relief of hysteria and for the easing of muscle spasms. In Germany, the plant was known as ‘Alles Zutraut’, meaning ‘capable of anything’, and in Slovakia people have in the past bowed to the plant when they saw it. However, it can also set off an allergic reaction, particularly in people who are already allergic to ragweed (Ambrosia artemisiifolia) (a North American member of the daisy family, not to be confused with our yellow-flowered ragwort species), so it’s worth being circumspect.
Roman Chamomile (Photo Three)
Now, you might remember a TV series called ‘The Chamomile Lawn’, based on a book by Mary Wesley (though as it was on television in (gulp) 1984 you’ll have to be in your prime to have seen it). It follows a family meeting up in Cornwall for a family reunion after the Second World War, and the lawn in question formed part of the garden of the aunt who owns the Cornish house. It was a roaring success, and I suspect that a lot of people were so intrigued that they decided that they’d attempt their own chamomile lawn. Alas, such lawns are not really meant for playing football on (pace Shakespeare, who in Henry IV Part I describes the attributes of chamomile as ‘the more it is trodden, the faster it grows’) and they certainly won’t work on heavy soil, or in dry or dingy conditions. You will need 80 – 100 plants per square metre. In a spot where there’s not too much footfall, I imagine that the smell of the lightly-crushed leaves would be delightful.
Incidentally, the variety of Roman chamomile that is recommended for creating a chamomile lawn, called ‘Treneague’, doesn’t flower, which rather defeats the purpose in my eyes. It’s nice to have the smell, but how about the flowers? The one in the photo below would be rather nice, though I do have my doubts about the good intentions of the cat.
Dear Readers, you might remember that St Pancras and Islington Cemetery has been something of a haven during this past few years, and it’s still one of my very favourite places to walk. Today was a chilly but bright day, with a low, blinding sun, and the hedges and treetops were full of very uncooperative birds. Here, for your delectation, is a photo of a male chaffinch’s backside. You’re welcome.
Not all the birds are quite so shy, though. Close to the chapel/public toilets, there is always a family of rose-ringed parakeets. I suspect that they have already picked out their nesting holes for the season, and seemed to be spending their time picking the buds off of the plane trees, and possibly chewing off twigs for their nests. They look so exotic with their bright-green feathers against the blue sky! They certainly brightened up my day.
The winter heliotrope is in flower – it’s said to have a strong, vanilla-like scent, and if I inhaled very deeply there was something in the air. It’s closely related to the native Butterbur, but is fragrant. It’s taken over a whole area close to the chapel.
Winter heliotrope (Petasites pyrenaicus)
A sea of heart-shaped leaves
And right alongside is the memorial to William French, who lost his life trying to save a dog in Highgate Ponds in 1896. Someone always loving decorates the grave, and I thought the dog was looking particularly fine today, which it should do as apparently it survived. You can read the whole story on the Studied Monuments site here – it’s by Bob Davenport, and I highly recommend it. I shall be looking around for some of Bob’s other featured monuments when I next visit the cemetery.
And finally, I wanted to include a shot of the sun through the yew trees on Harwood’s Path. As usual I was teased by the goldcrests, who are always twittering around here but are never still enough, or close enough, to photograph. Still, it’s always lovely to hear them going about their business. Can spring be far off now? Let’s hope not.
The music for ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas (Photo by Grover Cleveland)
Well Dear Readers, first of all congratulations to Mike from Alittlebitoutoffocus, and Fran and Bobby Freelove, who went the distance and managed to complete the whole of the Christmas Quiz, which was quite a marathon this year! Mike got a magnificent score of 43 out of 48, but the winners, with an astonishing 46 out of 48, were Fran and Bobby Freelove, who are clearly champions this year, though Mike, Claire, Sharon, Rosalind and Anne have all given them a bit of a run for their money during the year. And a special mention to Sharon, who got 100% for her answers on French domestic animals on Day Three. Thanks to everyone who’s taken part during the year, and normal Quiz service will be resumed on Sunday next week.
Here are the answers to the Christmas Quiz.
The Photo is of The Partridge Family, a popular show when I was growing up, not least because of David Cassidy, a real teen idol.
Turtle doves are called turtle doves because of their call, which sounds a bit like ‘tur, tur’.
Photo 1) is C, a Bleue du Nord cow
Photo 2) is A, a Baudet de Poitou donkey
Photo 3) is B, a Percheron horse.
1) C) – a red-winged blackbird
2) D) – a great-tailed grackle
3) A) – a common raven
4) B) – a ring ouzel
2) Golden Eagle
3) Golden Oriole
5) Golden Plover
1)D) Greylag goose
2) B) Brent goose
3) A) Pink-footed goose
4) E) Barnacle goose
5) F) Greater white-fronted goose
6) C) Bar-headed goose
The bar-headed goose is the high-flyer, seen flying over the Himalayas from a plane window.
1) B) – The Black swan is from Australasia (though sometimes now seen in ‘the wild’, having escaped from a wildfowl collection.
2) C) – Black-necked swans are found in South America
3) A) – Trumpeter swans are found in North America (including the chilly parts of Canada) (which is most of it :-))
1) E) Bindweed
2) B) Birdsfoot trefoil
3) A) Cowslip
4) D) Cuckooflower
5) F) Greater stitchwort
6) C) Wood anemone
1) B) – Ladies’ Bonnets is another name for Aquilegia/Columbine
2) E) – Ladies Smock is another name for Cuckooflower
3) A) – Lady’s Locket is another name for Solomon’s Seal
4) F) – The Lady’s Slipper orchid
5) D) – Lady’s Mantle is another name for Alchemilla mollis
Dear Readers, I like to think that I’m a well-organised person, but a trip to the garden centre is usually enough to see me coming home with something completely random that I’ve spotted. This week it was a winter honeysuckle shrub – I remember watching the bumblebees feeding on one in February last year, and so I decided that it would be a good addition to the garden. Now it just has to stop raining long enough for me to actually plant the poor thing.
I have also taken advantage of the Royal Horticultural Seed Scheme this year. Seeds are collected in the various RHS gardens, and you can send off for up to 15 packets for a mere £10 if you’re a member. There’s no way that I could use a whole 15 packets, but I shall be sharing my seeds around. I’ve got a nice combination of natives, such as cow parsley, honesty and wild carrot, and some rather more unusual plants.
Honesty (Lunaria annua) (Photo Two)
Wild carrot (Daucus carota) (Photo Three)
One such unusual plant is this Colour-changing Tobacco Plant (Nicotiana mutabilis), where the flowers start white but gradually change to pink.
And how about this Large Yellow Foxglove (Digitalis grandiflora)? It will be interesting to see how this does.
Large Yellow Foxglove (Digitalis grandiflora) (Photo Five)
I seem to have also bought some Hairy Foxglove (Digitalis ciliata) seeds – this plant is smaller and more delicate than the Large Yellow Foxglove. I see a lot of foxgloves in my future, especially as the ‘normal’ foxgloves that I planted last year have probably self-seeded all over the place. Clearly I need a country estate rather than a suburban back garden.
Hairy Foxglove (Digitalis ciliata) (Photo Six)
Ooh, and before I forget, I also have some seeds for this cyclamen (Cyclamen mirabile). I find that Cyclamen do ok in the garden, so I thought I’d have a bash at another species to complement the Cyclamen hederifolium and Cyclamen coum that I already have.
Cyclamen mirabile (Photo Seven)
Anyhow, I am fully expecting to have more seeds than I know what to do with, so I will be up to my ears in seed trays for the next few months. I will keep you posted on my progress, which has historically been rather hit and miss. My plan is to improve the shady, woodland part of the garden, which is lovely in spring but then rather sparse, so that will be my focus for 2022. Let’s see how I get on! And let me know if you have any particular plans for your garden/pots/house plants this year.
Dear Readers. there are some plants that other people seem to be able to grow in abundance, but which are a fail in my garden. I’ve always liked the idea of growing some of the single- flowered dahlia varieties because they are so good for pollinators, but they get eaten to death by slugs in the back garden, and blasted to oblivion in the front garden, however often I water them (my front garden is south-facing and gets the sun all day). When I read in the plant catalogues that a particular variety is ‘one of the very best dahlias for pots, flowering without cease for four months at a stretch’ I could cry. I wonder why it is that I always yearn most for the plants that are the most reluctant to be happy in the garden.And in spite of planting numerous bluebells, in the ‘green’ and as bulbs, last year this was the only one that flowered. I know they’re slow to establish, so maybe this year I’ll have two.
English bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta)
I’ve tried this cow parsley relative, Ammi majus, because I thought it might be as shade-tolerant as the ‘real’ cow parsley, but it wasn’t – it grew but was a bit weak and wobbly, put out one sad flower and then capsized. This year I am going to grow some ‘real’ cow parsley (something else that I suspect I’ll never have to plant again), but more of that tomorrow.
Ammi majus (Photo by H.Zell)
I am definitely going to have yet another go with nicotiana this year – I grew a few in pots and they were very popular with the pollinators. Protecting them from the slugs in the garden is another thing altogether, but I refuse to be defeated, especially as the woodland variety is said to be extremely shade-tolerant, smells wonderful and is very attractive to moths.
Nicotiana sylvestris (Woodland tobacco plant) (Photo by H. Storch)
And finally, and most surprisingly because it grows like a veritable weed in other local gardens, I cannot get Mexican fleabane to thrive. What a pain. It self-seeds in cracks up and down the road, it bursts out of walls, I even have one tiny wild plant growing in the darkest part of the alley by the side of my house, but give it tender loving care and what should be an ideal position and, in my garden at least, it expires like La Dame aux Camellias in the opera. Ox-eye daisies do something similar – when we first moved into the house we had a magnificent showing of the plants beside the pond, but after they died back they never appeared again.
Mexican fleabane (Erigeron karvinskianus) (Photo by Forest and Kim Starr)
I have generally been remarkably lucky with my garden – plants often grow in places where they shouldn’t, and many of them are very accepting of my ineptitude. I wonder if every gardener has plants that ‘should’ thrive in their gardens, but which just refuse to ‘take’? And do they become the plants that the gardener most wants to succeed with, or does it make more sense to accept it and move on to something that will be happy? Let me know your personal experience, dear readers – gardening is definitely a learning experience, and a communal one too.
Dear Readers, I’m looking back at what happened in the garden last year, and am trying to decide what worked, and what didn’t. It’s fair to say that the garden looks pretty good in the spring. Lots of the bulbs do well – the snakeshead fritillaries are naturalising under the trees, and the grape hyacinths usually do pretty well too. You might remember that I’ve planted some wacky varieties of the latter this year, but I have forgotten where I planted them, so hopefully I’ll be in for a nice surprise.
Muscari amongst the fritillaries.
My lovely friend J gave me some forget-me-nots, and they are gradually advancing across the garden, which is no problem to me.
In the pond, the marsh marigold always provides a splendid show of yellow flowers, and I’ve even indulged myself and bought a cream-coloured one this year. Let’s see how it gets on.
And I mustn’t forget the flowering currant. This starts flowering in March, and is an instant hit with the hairy-footed flower bees.
The figwort did well, and was appreciated by a wide range of insects, including this splendid rose chafer..
Rose chafer on young common/water figwort
One of the triumphs of the year, though, was this wild angelica. It grew to nearly ten feet tall before keeling over. Sadly it’s a biennial, so it won’t be around this year, but I’m hoping it will have self-seeded. I shall be keeping my eyes open for any seedlings.
Wild angelica plus bees.
The mock orange did well as well.
Philadelphus with bees!
And oh, the joy of planting something in a pot and forgetting what it is until it comes up. This honey garlic lily was probably my favourite plant of last year. I loved everything about it, especially the way that, when pollinated, the seedheads rise and look like the turrets of a tiny castle.
As usual in a wildlife garden, not all the wildlife behaves itself. How adorable are these two, though? Their mother rears at least one litter of babies in the whitebeam every year.
And they weren’t the only babies either. No one used my nest boxes last year, but both robins and great tits have been inspecting them already this year, so fingers crossed.
The lavender in the front garden attracted the usual range of pollinators, including this very fine wool carder bee.
And I grew teasel for the first time though not, judging by the amount of babies that have seeded themselves around the garden, for the last.
By mid-summer the hemp agrimony was in full bloom, and I started to notice the tiny spiders who lay in wait amongst the flowers. This has been such a good plant for pollinators – everyone from bumblebees to hoverflies seem to love it, and it comes back every year. It is a bit floppy though, so this year I’ve got some plant supports to try to keep everything more upright. Let’s see how we get on!
Oh and did I mention the teasel?
And I forgot that the leaf-cutter bees had been hard at work on the leaves of the enchanter’s nightshade, a ‘weed’ that just popped up. At least it was appreciated by somebody.
And I’m still very impressed with the bittersweet that’s entwined itself with the honeysuckle. To my surprise, it wasn’t just bumblebees that buzz-pollinated it last year, but some of these tiny solitary bees as well. Hopefully next year I’ll be able to get some better photographs and actually identify them.
The water mint did very well last year, and I suspect I will never be without it again either.
And by the autumn there are a few sedums to enjoy.
So, there were quite a lot of successes in the garden last year. However, there were a few failures as well, that I’ll be taking a look at tomorrow. How did your planting go in 2021, if you’re fortunate enough to have a garden/balcony/few pots? If you’re like me, it’s easy to remember the things that didn’t work, and forget about all the many plants that quietly settled in and made themselves at home. After all, a garden is always a work in progress, but it’s those moments of stunning, unexpected beauty that remind me why it’s always worth trying something new.