Food and Drink

News from northern travels

Dahlias protected from earwigs with organza bags
Dahlias protected from earwigs with organza bags at Cloudberry Flowers.

I’ve been on a little jaunt. A week in the Scottish borders and in Northumberland making horticultural stops – not to mention startling fellow drivers by singing sea shanties as we were stuck in traffic.

I stayed with my old friend, the award-winning botanist Phil Lusby, author of Scottish Wild Plants: Their History Ecology and Conservation, and his weaver wife Ellie. Sadly, amazon has priced his splendid book more than a little high (£77.99), although they also say that it was published in 1679 so what do they know! Oh, wait. There's a revised edition at a proper price: £11.43. That's more like it.

I learned some very interesting background on the genetics of native roses, which I’ll come back to here another time, and we found a puzzling variegated honeysuckle in a hedgerow. Puzzling, because there was so much of it: not just a single shoot or a single plant – there was masses of it. I suspect virus.

Lonicera periclymenum with mysterious variegation
Lonicera periclymenum with a mysterious variegation growing in a Scottish hedgerow

We had a lovely visit to Cloudberry Flowers in Peebles, one of the new breed of cut flower growers supplying fresh, locally grown, sustainably produced flowers for local customers. Catherine Duncan’s cutting gardens seem steadily to be taking up more of the acre of garden that surrounds the house, encroaching on the lawn.

I was especially taken with the ghostly dahlias (at the top): organza bags keeping out the dreaded earwigs.

In Northumberland I visited Halls of Heddon, celebrating their centenary this year, and from whom I and my friends order dahlias and chrysanthemums. Apart from the fine quality of their plants, customers who’ve had occasion to use their customer service cannot speak too highly of the response.

I always enjoy seeing plants on trial, lined up in rows, side by side, and that’s what you’ll find at Halls. It makes it so easy to compare varieties and I guarantee you’ll be delighted when come across a treasure that you didn’t know. I was very taken with ‘Blyton Everest’, a very tight, white small decorative with lavender tints in the centre.

Of course, we can’t all get to visit but their website is easy to use and comprehensive.

Halls of Heddon display garden
The Halls of Heddon display garden

In Northumberland I also paid a visit to another cut flower grower, Kate Norris at Northumbrian Flowers near Hexham. Busy with weddings, there’s a flurry of brides desperate for flowers as all the pandemic-postponed weddings are back on the calendar, the cutting garden was nevertheless looking very prolific.

Rudbeckia 'Sahara' at Northumbrian Flowers
Rudbeckia 'Sahara' at Northumbrian Flowers

Her bed of Rudbeckia ‘Sahara’ was impressive – such lovely tones – and there was bed after bed of helichrysums in separate colours. Kate had also recently planted more woody plants for cutting, especially hypericums, so I was able to recommend some physocarpus and point her to me my earlier blog post.

And finally, apart from enjoying the magical Borders scenery, I also got to spend a couple of evenings in a delightful little shopfront pub in Newbiggin-by-the-Sea on the Northumberland coast. The Ink Spot is only open a few hours a day, three or four dys a week, there’s no loud music, no food – just cheerful locals and their dogs enjoying drink and conversation. Seats, at a guess, eighteen. Marvellous. I’ll be back.


Abandoned in 1605...

Lyveden New Bield in Northamptonshire, Image made available by Edbrambley at en.wikipedia under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license
A transatlantic visit to Northamptonshire’s Lyveden New Bield, in the heart of England, the other day. This is an unfinished “summer house” abandoned in 1605, before its completion, when its creator Sir Thomas Tresham died and his son featured in the infamous Gunpowder Plot (for North American readers: The Gunpowder Plot was a treasonous plan to blow up the British king by igniting barrels of gunpowder in the cellars under the House of Lords where he was opening parliament).

What remains at Lyveden is a roofless and floorless house through which we wandered, inspecting the graffiti from 1799, plus a recently planted replica of the original orchard featuring many fruit varieties from the early seventeenth century. There are also spiral “snail” mounts, moats, raised terrace walks, a huge grass labyrinth, and red kites soaring overhead.

The transatlantic team was made up of one Brit, me, plus my American wife judywhite, plus the splendid American garden writer and editor, and distiller(!), Fiona Gilsenan, plus Fiona’s ten year old son Julian (To his mum: “You're so lovable and warm. Like bacon, but not crispy.") And thanks, Fiona, for the sample of gin from your boutique distillery Victoria Spirits.

The orchard at Lyveden is going to be fascinating. Grown hard, it’s slow to become established but with its wealth of old varieties I look forward to the day when the fruit is available to sample or even to buy.

And after a visit, there’s a walk through the woods to The Kings Arms at Wadenhoe on the banks of the River Nene for lunch. But we drove the few miles over to The Chequered Skipper at Ashton, named for a rare British butterfly, on the estate of the late Miriam Rothschild. An authority on the sex life of fleas, she also pioneered the use of native wild flowers on roadsides. “I must say, I find everything interesting,” she once said.

My apples are treated with beetle goo!

red,delicious,shellac,apple,cheap. Image © (all rights reserved)
judy came home from the store with a bag of ‘Red Delicious’ apples the other day. I can see why she bought them, 5lb of apples for just $3.99 – that’s 80 cents a pound (in UK money - 50p per pound or £1.10p per kilo). Cheap. Very cheap. Too cheap.

But here’s the thing. It says on the bag that they’re coated with shellac! SHELLAC! That’s the stuff my dad had on a shelf in the garage, in a sticky brown bottle – he used it to varnish the coffee table! No wonder those apples look shiny. It even has an E number, E904. Don't they look shiny in the picture?!

Now it so happens that judy’s reading the new Bill Bryson book, At Home, and just as we were discussing those apples she came across a passage in which Mr B discusses – shellac. Here’s what he says: “Shellac is a hard resinous secretion from the Indian lac beetle.” Yuk. “Lac beetles emerge in swarms in parts of India at certain times of the year, and their secretions make varnish that is odorless, nontoxic, brilliantly shiny, and highly resistible to scratches and fading.”

So, if you don’t fancy eating table varnish made from beetle goo, how do you get it off? Tricky, it seems. Over on the Veggie Boards, said to be the largest and most active vegetarian forum online, they discuss shellac a lot. One member says: “Shellac can't be removed with baking soda and vinegar. Denatured alcohol is the solvent used to remove shellac, but that is very toxic. Food grade alcohol might work, but I think it is better not to buy food with shellac...”

I’ve kept back the last of those apples, I’m just going to hang on to it and see how long it stays fresh under its coating of beetle goo.

But what better reason to grow your own apples or shop at the local farmers’ market?

New variegated culinary sage

Salvia,sage,variegated,La Crema. Image: © All 
rights reserved.How about this for a new sage? Yes, a brand new variegated culinary sage. Doesn’t it look great? It's called 'La Crema'.

Now, I have to say, before you get too excited – it’s only just becoming available in the US in independent garden centers through the Hort Couture brand. And it's not yet available in Britain -  I'll let you know when it is.

But yesterday we received three small plants to try, to assess how good it really is. So the picture is of a little plant just 3in/7.5cm high. But it looks very promising, doesn’t it? It’s a variegated sport of the broad-leaved ‘Berggarten’ and with relatively few forms of the culinary sage available, this looks as if it has a bright future - IF it performs well in the garden. Of course, that all depends on how it looks this summer, how well it comes back after our winter snows here in Pennsylvania, and then how well it performs next year. And will it revert to its non-variegated parent?

I'm hoping it does well, as an enthusiast for colorful forms of culinary plants - after all, I wrote a book on the subject - this is precisely the sort of plant I like to see. If you're growing it, email me later in the year and tell me how it performs for you.

Ireland: Cafe Paradiso

After our fascinating excursion to Fota Arboretum we headed off into Cork for another fine meal at an establishment recommended by Joy and Don. Being so passionate about growing and cooking good food themselves, it’s only natural that they migrate to the best restaurants.

Deep fried courgette flowers stuffed with goat's cheese at the Cafe Paradiso. Image:© Café Paradiso is a fine vegetarian restaurant and I could run on about its virtues. But I’m just going to mention my starter, which I cajoled my wife judy into photographing: “Deep fried courgette flowers filled with fresh goat’s cheese and capers, basil alioi, courgettes panfried with ‘Sungold’ tomatoes and a potato cake.”

It was simply delicious. I’ve tried stuffing courgette flowers myself and I think there must be a knack to it! (I had as little success with daylily flowers – perhaps I should practice…) The crunchy flowers, the creamy filling with its little bite, the slender slices of green and yellow courgette (zucchini for the benefit of American readers), the aromatic basil – and notice the specific variety of tomato… any old tomato just won’t do! The potato cake was a perfect accompaniment. Perhaps one of these days, when I’ve honed my flower stuffing skills, I’ll have a go at it myself.

You can check out many of the recipes from the Café Paradiso in their cookbooks, written by its founder Denis Cotter.

Ireland: Flowers, food and an egret

Summer flowers at Ring, County Cork. Image:©GardenPhotos.comVisiting the little coastal village of Ring, on the coast of Ireland’s County Cork, a few miles from where we gathered seaweed, revealed three very interesting features - and one of them was even horticultural!

First of all, there’s this dramatic display of summer flowers. You swing round the bend on the way to nearby Clonakilty then struggle to keep your eye on the road as you come across this quirky splash of red, white and blue geraniums, petunias and alyssum. Backed by a stone ruin, set out in a neatly painted red and blue boat – it looks just great. And with the mild climate those flowers will just coming unfrosted.

Then as the shore comes into view, there’s a scattering of white birds along the waterline. Not swans, butLittle Egrets feeding. Image:©J.M.Garg GNU Free Documentation License egrets. The Little Egret first started breeding in Ireland as recently as 1997, and in Britain at around the same time, and has now spread to almost every coastal Irish county. After seeing its American counterpart, the Snowy Egret, in Florida it was a bit of a shock and a delight to see what at first appeared to be the same bird in Cork. But it turns out to be the Snowy Egret’s Old World cousin.

Then, suddenly around the bend, you’re passed it on the way to the little quay before you know it, is Deasy's Harbour Bar & Seafood Restaurant. Highly recommended by our hosts Joy Larkcom and Don Pollard, they were not wrong. The mussels starter was succulent and tasty, and judy’s fish spring roll was “fabulous” and the rest of the meal was as good. The menu is short and changes often according to the fish available.

The coast of West Cork. Image:©

So driving around the coast of Cork, enjoying the landscape and the coastline, in one little village too small even for an entry on the Tourism Ireland website, three fascinating features - not to mention the picturesque and still working quay and the breadth of Clonakilty Harbour – bring a most enjoyable visit.