March 4th, 2015 §
This morning I put on my botanist hat and headed to the east side of town to begin one of the year’s biggest assignments: Locate, identify, harvest, press, and mount 35 native British plants as herbarium specimens. It sounds like a bit of a faff, I know, but it’s actually proven quite challenging for many reasons, the first being that I am not familiar enough with the local flora to identify as many things offhand as I could back in the U.S. So I haul wildflower and plant i.d. books into the field with me, but those are no real picnic to decipher. Second, so many plants that one might believe are native are, in fact, introduced. A prime example is the little snowdrop, Galanthus nivalis, which to me and many others is emblematic of late winter in British woodlands. However, it was introduced in the 16th century and then naturalized until it was found in the wild in the 18th century.
Finally, the time of year is a challenge as March is just too early for most plants to be actively growing let alone flowering, which limits what I can successfully identify. The assignment is due in May, and it takes weeks to properly dry herbarium specimens so they can be stored without rotting.
So I figured I’d better get cracking, even with these odds against me. I packed a picnic lunch with a roast pork and chutney sandwich, filled a flask of hot tea, chucked my secateurs into my backpack and headed in the direction of Duddingston Loch, a lake and bird reserve south of Arthur’s Seat.
I tromped some woodland on the way, and cut a bits of holly and ivy (yet unidentified) and Scotch Broom (Cytisus scoparius) before I stopped off at Dr. Neil’s Garden to eat my lunch overlooking the beautiful loch. The Pentland Hills in the distance were still covered in yesterday’s snow, and the streaming sun, shimmering water, and myriad swooping and singing birds made for a perfect picnic.
I made my way up the garden to a sheltered nook with a great wooden bench. It was warm in the sun, and I lay down. Watching the clouds skid across the sky made me so mellow I fell asleep for at least an hour. I can’t remember the last time I slept outside—I was entirely relaxed.
When I woke up I hopped a stone wall and ambled around the loch, climbing amongst the spiney gorse (Ulex europeaus), which of course I cut for my assignment despite being prickered to bleeding. I scrambled up some rocks and found myself on an overhang high above the loch, discovering a beautiful feather along the way. Pheasant?
The top of the hill was a great spot to watch the geese, swans, seagulls and other little birds swim below.
As I was drinking my tea I saw two huge grey herons fly side by side to their nest in a brushy little peninsula. It was an amazing sight, something I’d never seen before—a pair of herons on the nest. It’s egg-laying time. Wish I’d had binoculars!
So it turns out that the life of a plant collector comprises a little hiking, lots of fun thinking about plants, a picnic, a nap in the sun, and some birdwatching. It’s a good life, and added up to one of my favorite days yet in Edinburgh.
July 20th, 2014 §
After the interminable cold of last winter, I am making a conscious effort to gorge on summer with both beautiful, fresh foods and warm-weather experiences. Already it’s the end of July: I saw my first reddening maple this week and the locust trees are browning out—both surefire reminders that we’re slipping toward darker, colder days.
Last week I spent the afternoon at a nearby lake beach, swimming with a friend and her three small children. It was so much fun but what a workout supporting two nonswimming kids at a time in the water while making sure no one drowned! I brought about ten pounds of cut-up watermelon and we polished it off. Sandy watermelon definitely screams summer.
Then Friday I took a date and his dog hiking in the mountains. Tuck got to swim and run trails all day with the first female dog he’s spent much time with, and I think he’s in love.
Humans and canines enjoyed a big swimming hole in a shady, mossy glen way up on the mountain, and during our picnic I met a new-to-me butterfly, the Zebra Swallowtail, that flitted around us for hours. It was my favorite colors—pale aqua and coral. It felt great to spend two days in a row swimming in natural bodies of water.
Yesterday was cloudy and cool, so I cooked all afternoon in front of the open windows, listening to the bird life outside. I roasted a bunch of cherry tomatoes, which are ripening in overwhelming succession, caramelized onions for about 45 minutes, and blanched the year’s first little “Nickel” green beans. All that plus a handful of chopped basil and some shredded provolone went into a quiche made with my chicken’s own eggs, and it was the best quiche I’ve ever made. And it didn’t even include my usual bacon or sausage!
I think, after years of experimenting, I’ve found a good crust recipe. I’ve never been particularly in love with any of my crust recipes, but this one worked perfectly. And it’s so easy I can write it here from memory:
145 grams of flour
1 stick of butter, roughly chopped into 1/8″ pieces (my butter was frozen, and it was fine)
1/2 tsp. kosher salt
3 tbs. ice water
Spin flour and salt in food processor, then add butter and process to coarse crumbs. Dump in all the ice water and then—here’s where it goes against other recipes I’ve used—process regularly for about 30 seconds. It will feel like you are overprocessing, but the crumbs will come together into a perfectly smooth dough right at 30 seconds. Stop as soon as that happens, take out, shape into a disk and chill. Overnight is recommended but I just did it for an hour and it was still okay. Then roll out, dock, and blind bake for 15 min at 450 degrees. Cool, fill and bake again with whatever you want in it. Easy—and a life victory to have finally lit upon a recipe and technique that worked well!
While the quiche was baking I threw together a couple of jars of refrigerator pickles. We have entered the time of year when it’s hard to keep up with the garden’s output, but I love the challenge of having to turn tons of produce into meals.
Speaking of which, my garden/kitchen task today is to shred and freeze squash. I think I will also attempt a savory zucchini bread—the weather is so cool that it’s a good weekend to have the oven running!
And then maybe, hopefully, my dog and I will find our way to a river. Because it’s summer, and the season for swimming.
January 15th, 2013 §
Last weekend’s unseasonably warm temperatures (almost 70 degrees!) begged for an adventure. I found one in a canoe picnic on the Beaver Creek reservoir near Crozet, Va.
I hadn’t been on the water since kayaking two summers ago. It was wonderful to spend hours poking about, exploring the shoreline. Only a few fishermen were on the water, so it felt like having a private lake.
I enjoyed seeing all the beaver-gnawed trees at the water’s edge, but I didn’t find their dam. The best discovery of the day was a bale of turtles in shallow water at the far end of the reservoir. And we also found scads of huge mussel shells in one area. They were big—the size of the mussels you usually eat in restaurants. I have yet to determine if the mussels live in the lake or if someone dumped their dinner shells…unlikely as the reservoir is surrounded by cow pasture.
Watching the mountains change from blue to gold from the middle of the water was lovely treat. And a fantastic Timbercreek Organics beef hamburger at the always-entertaining Fardowner’s in Crozet capped off a wonderful day!