Sunstroke

My Theatre Club had an outing recently. Minus one of our members… because she was on the stage!

I met my lovely friend Katia at university, when we were both studying at Queen Mary’s College, University of London. I was reading English Literature and Language, and she was reading Law. One of the first things I learnt about her was that she was a model, which seemed impossibly exciting and glamorous, but she was always so thoughtful, modest and down to earth that half the time I’d forget about her other life outside of university (until I spotted her in Vogue, or modelling for Toni & Guy on huge billboards all across the city).  We’ve remained friends ever since, and try to meet every week to catch up on each-other’s gossip; though hers is a lot more exciting than mine!

She mentioned being interested in acting a while ago, but had been told that her Russian accent would be too great an obstacle and she should give up on the idea. I remember disagreeing, but she’d been put off and, typically pragmatic, seemed to put it to the back of her mind. Then, of course, she was offered a part in a play. Called Sunstroke, it was inspired by two short stories by Anton Chekhov & Ivan Bunin. Wonderfully, they needed a beautiful young woman who was also very Russian; and Katia fitted the bill perfectly.

sunstroke 1

Belka Productions aim to bring undiscovered Russian literary and theatrical gems to the London stage; an admirable vocation given how little we really know about Russian society and culture in the UK (apparently wild mushroom collecting is a national pastime, and they have a thing about watermelon. Interesting details, but not enough to really understand Russia, I’d have thought). Last year Belka produced the critically acclaimed Warsaw Melody at the Arcola (sorry, I know ‘critically acclaimed’ is code for ‘other people said it was good but I didn’t see it’, but it’s the best I can do), and next April they are bringing us A Dashing Fellow. Having experienced Sunstroke, I’ll definitely be queuing up for tickets.

sunstroke 3

Actress Rosy Benjamin

Sunstroke wove together two similar plots, both exploring the passions and torments of love outside marriage. Chekhov’s The Lady with the Dog was juxtaposed with Bunin’s Sunstroke, both tales taking place during a particularly hot Russian summer, and exploiting the febrile effect this has. I found it interesting that the initially blasé predation of the men was subsequently thwarted, when their supposed detachment turned to obsession, and it was their female counterparts who walk away from them in the second half. Perhaps there’s a feminist in me after all. We had wondered where either story would be going after the interval, as they seemed to have been concluded both logically and emotionally. This only reinforced the typically-Russian, saturnine conclusion, however, where the protagonists’ lives were tarnished by their inability to relinquish what they could not have.

Actors Oliver King and Stephen Pucci – Photos © Nick Rutter

The acting was powerful and full of energy, even in moments of stillness. The only aspect lost in translation was the ages of the characters, as they all appeared young and attractive to us rather than this potential distance between them being evident. The set was fairly simple, taking the form of two raised platforms at either end of a traverse stage, and an awful lot of sand. It was also a small, intimate venue, which made being in the audience feel voyeuristic; an impression that worked well with Sunstroke  given the content. The characters’ emotions were additionally conveyed by the presence of the dancer Masumi Saito, whose fluid contortions around the stage simultaneously evoked the stylised precision of Japanese traditions, and the licentious passions of the couples. Multiple layers of symbolism were woven around the fairly simple plot, to be either puzzled over or subliminally absorbed. Found in playing cards scattered across the sand like discarded morals, and the sand itself poured over a splayed kimono as if burying inhibitions.

sunstroke 1

Masumi Saito

A couple of photos I took after the performance

Taken moments before the sand was swept away by the cast and crew

Fellow theatre clubbers, Charles and Steve, towering over me despite my four inch heels.

It was a stunning and thought-provoking production. I was delighted to see Katia’s stage debut, and hope to see her acting more in the future. It was also interesting to catch a glimpse of Russian culture that I suspect the new TV series on FOX, Meet The Russians, will not be focusing on. Despite the fact that Katia will also be featuring in this as well!

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Cocktails from the English Hedgerow

I love cocktails. The name of my blog may give this away… so I thought I’d show you a few recipes that I invented recently.

I love the different combinations of ingredients requisite to a good cocktail, and how they create a unique flavour that your palette puzzles over, until it is able to discern the individual components. A perfume designed for consumption. The different textures, additions of  fruit, spices or herbs, different levels of flavour depending on whether you sip from the rim or mine the depths with a straw – a cocktail is an experience unlike most other alcoholic drinks. The glamour, excitement and elegance they have retained from the age of Prohibition, when their popularity boomed in the 1920s and 30s and they came to represent an era (as sweet ingredients masked the poor-quality spirits available), has also never been lost. ‘Going out for cocktails’ feels a lot more special than simply meeting someone for ‘a drink’.

Traditional or vintage cocktail recipes can transport your imagination back in time to the hotel bar that invented them, or the circle of writers and artists that drank them. Just as much fun, however, is inventing your own! My father has always made his own drinks, and is keen on experimenting himself. Is this an Australian thing, or just a dad thing? I grew up tiptoeing around vats of beer, ale, cider, mead, alcoholic ginger beer, and elderflower wine, to name the more successful projects. I remember once Dad made me show him my favourite climbing tree, a huge, twisted lime tree in the jungle near our house on Nauru. I was about six, and we spent hours collecting buckets of limes to turn into homemade limeade. It tasted wonderful. He managed to bottle the experience of scrabbling up into the tree’s canopy, then stretching out along branches that swayed gently in the breeze, surrounded by small, dark leaves and bright green baubles.

Limes

The scent of fresh lime still transports me back to that tree. My experiments are less ambitious than my father’s, mixology being my focus rather than alchemy (out of laziness and impatience), but I’ve still inherited his interest in creating something you can actually consume and enjoy. I also share my parents’ penchant for flavours and ingredients you could find in a hedgerow, or walking through the countryside; particularly the more unusual. I invited a few of my best guinea pigs friends round to test them out. Four of the best below:

1) The Lovejoy

  • Homemade Cider
  • Lovage
  • Blackberries

You want to know what Lovage is don’t you (I’m glad you asked). Lovage is an alcoholic cordial, made primarily from the eponymous herb (which looks like a massive weed, but apparently is good for you). It’s distilled in Devon from local herbs and spices, and is traditionally drunk with brandy, but I thought I’d try something different with it. It does smell a bit unusual, but it tastes like sugary fennel – simultaneously sweet and herby. It works well with very dry cider as otherwise the flavour is hidden (we tried it with ginger ale and couldn’t taste the Lovage at all) so I purloined a couple of bottles of Dad’s super-dry home-made cider. The blackberries enhance this cocktail’s autumnal feel, and of course taste delicious. Lovage

Lovage

Lovejoy ingredients (mint masquerading as lovage, but you get the idea)

2) Midsummer Night’s Dram

  • Champagne
  • Quince liqueur
  • Fresh fig
  • Fresh mint leaves
  • Ice

To be honest the champagne and quince liqueur work perfectly in combination, without needing further additions, but the mint and fig make it a bit more exciting! Quince – just in case you haven’t encountered them before – are a bit like bright gold, hard, squat, lumpy pears (and, er, more appealing than they sound). Their cultivation also preceded that of the apple, so old references to apples may actually be inciting the humble quince. They’re usually roasted, baked or stewed, or turned into jams and jellies, but they also work perfectly as a liqueur. I muddled it with torn mint leaves, mixed both with ice in a cocktail shaker, then poured into glass flutes and topped them up with champagne. A quarter of a fig secured to the rim was the finishing touch.

Quince

Quince

Midsummer Night's Dram ingredients

Midsummer Night’s Dram ingredients

Katya, Katy and I drinking Midsummer Night’s Drams

3) Cider With Rosie

  • Wild rosehip syrup
  • Hot cider
  • Cinnamon
  • Cloves

I used Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s recipe for the rosehip syrup, found here. Rosehips always remind me of foraging in the countryside when I was growing up. They glow like rubies above prickly hedges, and picking them always felt like gathering treasure. I’d gather bucketfuls, dry them out in my parents’ airing cupboard, and Katy and I would feed them to my pony throughout the winter. They’re packed with vitamins and health, particularly vitamin C, and taste like a cross between plums, tart apples and rose petals. I made the syrup at my parents’ house last weekend (and also picked up a couple of bottles of Dad’s home-made cider). I heated the latter gently in a saucepan with cinnamon sticks and cloves. This cocktail was certainly the most fun to drink -the perfect thing to drink around an autumn bonfire!

Rosehip

Rosehips

Cider With Rosie ingredients

4) Damson’s Creek

  • Damson Gin
  • Sloe Gin
  • Elderflower Cordial
  • Juice from a fresh lime
  • Ice

I was able to use a cocktail shaker filled with ice to mix all the ingredients together in this one, as it didn’t include anything that needed to retain fizz, and it really made a difference. Sweet, sharp, floral and chilled, and very strong! Damsons are slightly larger, egg-shaped, sweet sloes (the latter of which will make your mouth shrivel up if tasted in their natural form), though are otherwise identical to their sloe-gin-cousins. Of all the cocktails, this one had an edge in terms of flavour, and tasted the most like something you’d actually buy in a bar. It didn’t quite beat the Cider With Rosie though, which was a clear favourite.

Damson

Damsons

Damson’s Creek ingredients

Katya and I drinking Damson’s Creeks

Let me know if you try any of the recipes, and if you have a favourite!

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Wild Rosehip Syrup

Despite the chill in the air, the autumn foraging harvest isn’t quite ready. But I was never very good at taking no for an answer.

Visiting my parents’ house in East Sussex last weekend, I pulled on my gumboots and went for a walk. I kept my eyes peeled for berries, nuts and toadstools, as the landscape is incredibly varied and you can find pretty much anything you want if you time your search correctly, but I did have a particular quarry in mind. Rosehips. Remarkably, not everyone actually knows what these are, even when staring straight at them. They’re the seeds (and fruit, most importantly) of the rose, and are small red berries. Not to be confused with all the other small red berries you will find, most of which are poisonous. A guide on this here.

rosehips

Rosehips – distinctively shaped, and easily identified once you’ve encountered them once. They’re also to be found growing on rose bushes, as opposed to any other type of tree or bush, which is a useful clue.

Hawthorn berries

Hawthorn berries, are distinguished from the rosehip by being smaller, rounder, and tightly clustered together. These are actually edible, technically, but I wouldn’t go there personally.

I walked about six miles searching for rosehips, but most of those I found were still orange, or had not ripened in sufficient quantities to merit harvesting. Grazing sheep and horses watched me traipse across their fields in bemusement, and I met several lovely dogs and their owners enjoying the public footpaths and Woodland Trust land. The latter provides a fantastic harvest of sweet chestnuts every year, the ground carpeted with their prickly green cases and gleaming mahogany buttons, so I’ll be back in a month or so to make the most of it.

Wild poppies growing amongst a field of corn, through which the footpath winds.

Ripening corn. This does not count as food for foraging, unfortunately, as that would be cheating (and stealing, of course)

I also discovered a number of puffballs, and these beefsteak mushrooms. They actually taste like beef, as well as looking remarkably similar – they’re pink and marbled inside, and even bleed a reddish juice if cut when young.

You can forage for toadstools any time, though autumn is best as the conditions are perfect for them to flourish. I left these where I found them, however, and doggedly continued my search. I nibbled on blackberries as I hunted along the hedgerows and a few ripe damsons that I had to climb to reach. Finally, FINALLY, as I was reaching home on the meandering, circuitous route I had chosen, I found a large bush absolutely covered in ripe rosehips (I may have done a little dance. The sheep were not impressed). I gathered a small bagful, leaving most of them for the birds, and trotted home to brew up a lovely little potion I’d been planning.

I wanted to follow Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s recipe for rosehip syrup, for some cocktails I have planned later in the week. The syrup is delicious, and can also be diluted and used as a cordial, or drizzled over ice-cream, pancakes etc.

Chopping rosehips by hand – if I’d had more of them I would have used a blender, but I prefer chopping by hand as quality control is more effective; you’re more likely to spot mould and bugs.

Leave the seeds in and chop roughly, as you’re only going to be extracting the liquid.

After covering the pulp with boiling water, and leaving it to stew (off the heat) for half an hour, I then lined a sieve with two layers of muslin and strained the liquid through it in batches. I returned the pulp to the pan and repeated the process, then combined the two batches of liquid and simmered until it reduced by half.

I know that must look like a lot of sugar to add to 250g of rosehips, but it’s normal for preserves I promise! Once the liquid has reduced, remove it from the heat and stir in castor sugar. Once that has dissolved return and “boil hard” (Hugh’s words!) then pour into sterilised bottles or jars. If you want it thicker boil for longer, but I wanted mine for drinks so left it fairly runny.

The finished result. Hugh FW in the background there for moral support.

Is anyone else planning on harvesting the hedgerows this autumn?

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The Landmark Trust

Tom and I had a very special weekend. With my teaching in Tuscany and his managing the business single-handed in London, we’ve been away from the great British Countryside for far too long, so we thought we’d pay it a visit in style.

Have you heard of The Landmark Trust?

It was set up in 1965, as an alternative to the National Trust and The Ministry of Works (the name they came up with doesn’t sound terribly alternative, I know, but  stay with me). They aim to rescue smaller historic buildings that the other organisations are not interested in. You may think this a worthwhile but not particularly impressive or exciting a task as restoring a full-sized castle or manor house, but rather than letting you peer at them from behind ropes, The Landmark Trust restores these miniature buildings so that the public can actually stay in them. You can live in a fantasy for a few days, at the top of a fairytale tower or surrounded by crenellated battlements, beautiful countryside stretching into the distance on every side. It really is the most wonderful experience.

They vary in price according to the time of year and how many people can be fitted in, but are generally very reasonable; off-season, two people can stay in a mini castle for about £60 per night. A few photos below of some of the incredible places you can stay:

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Appleton Water Tower

The Appleton Water Tower, 2

Appleton Water Tower interior

 Gothic Temple, Stowe

Gothic Temple, Stowe

      The Bath House 1

The Bath House interior

The Bath House 2

The Bath House interior

The Chateau, Lincolnshire

The Chateau, Lincolnshire

 The Ruin, Hackfall

The Ruin, Hackfall

Last weekend, Tom and I stayed at Swarkestone Pavilion, near Ticknall, Derbyshire. As you can see from the map below, it’s pretty much bang in the middle of England. We had been intending to go to Paris for the weekend, but realised at the last minute that we were both desperately missing the countryside and having had The Landmark Trust bookmarked for ages, it felt like the perfect chance to try it out. The weather forecast had predicted the start of autumn, with rain most of the weekend and a chill in the air, but this suited us both perfectly.

Map of Swarkestone Pavilion

I adore autumn. The landscape bursts into shades of copper, rust, and gold, and the sunsets seem to set the sky on fire. Dawn walks are accompanied by frost crunching underfoot and breathe misting into the air. You can snuggle up in a heavy woollen coat and pull on soft leather gloves, and wander through the fields and hedgerows foraging for nuts, berries and toadstools. It’s also the start of the cross country season, for any horse-riders out there, which means exhilarating gallops through fields and woodlands, charging over rustic and often terrifying jumps, and getting completely covered in mud. Bliss.

For a more relaxed, peaceful autumn weekend though, I cannot recommend The Landmark Trust highly enough! The property we chose is just outside Derby. We got a taxi from the station, stopping off at Tesco’s on the way for supplies, and eventually managed to locate it when Tom spotted it across the fields. Finding our way inside and exploring was incredible. It really did feel like we’d been given the keys to a private National Trust property, and just told to enjoy ourselves.

The front of the pavilion

Obviously we ran straight up to the roof, to ensure that the defences were suitably fortified.

Tom enjoying the battlements

One of two towers – the left contains a spiralling staircase, and the other a rooftop bathroom.

The first floor living area – complete with open fireplace and entrance to Narnia.

It didn’t have a working fire sadly, but many other Landmark properties do

The kitchen – stocked with every implement you could need. I was particularly impressed by the toast rack personally, but it also contains things like a soufflé dish and rolling pin, which says a lot about the wonderful people that usually stay in places like this (they bake. People who bake are full of goodness, in my opinion). I stocked it with wine, tea and plenty of treats as soon as we arrived, to help compound the impression that we actually lived there.

A manor house was built nearby in the 1560s by Sir Richard Harpur. When it passed to his great grandson in 1630, the young John Harpur was also knighted and married in the same year, which triptage of fortune coincided – probably not coincidentally – with the pavilion’s construction. It looks like a typical Tudor or early Jacobean manor, but reduced to miniature proportions. The tiny pavilion was a majestic grandstand for whatever occurred in the enclosure before it (possibly something romantic like jousting; possibly bowls). According to the website, “it may well have doubled as a banqueting house to which small groups could retire to enjoy the ‘banquet’ course of fine wines and sweetmeats, play cards, or just enjoy the view of their host’s estate”.

The Landmark Trust rescued it in 1985, by which point it was already in a state of dereliction. It had also featured on the cover of The Rolling Stones’ The Beggar’s Banquet though, so, you know, every cloud.

Rolling Stones 1

Swarkestone Pavilion in 1968.

Rolling Stones 2

The enclosure in front of the pavilion, being put to good use.

Rolling Stones 3

The Beggar’s Banquet.  This is NOT Swarkestone, because it had neither roof nor floor when they were filming there, but it’s too wonderful a photo not to include.

We arrived late on Friday afternoon, and managed to have a couple of glasses of wine on the roof before the promised rain arrived.

The next morning I had a luxurious bath on the roof, overflowing with bubbles, and looking out across hay bales and gorgeous countryside as I shampooed my hair into a lather. Tom prefers to shut all the blinds/ curtains to any bathroom that can be viewed from outside, but I’m a little more risqué; I like having a view when I wash my hair! I then made us a cooked breakfast, with Wild Boar pate and Woodland Strawberry jam from Fortnum and Mason. We were on holiday after all.

After breakfast we walked across fields full of golden stubble and scattered with left-over chaff, along a canal towpath, and down an abandoned railway line to the nearby village of Melbourne. We had a couple of drinks at the village pub, then picked up extra groceries and got a taxi back to the pavilion.

The Loggia, a gallery open to the elements on one side and supported by columns. Or “welcome to my hobbit house” as Tom cackled when taking this photo of me. Thanks darling. It’s the boots isn’t it; they make me look sturdy.

A family of swans we came across, making their way along the canal. The parents hissed, but their cygnets were clearly used to getting bread from walkers and made a beeline for us.

Cygnet rivalry. A little further on we spotted a moorhen wandering along the far bank, followed by several black fluff-balls which we presumed were moorhen chicks.

On Sunday Tom went on an expedition to purchase the weekend newspapers, but otherwise we holed ourselves away with lots of cups of tea and plenty of buttery crumpets. It’s a lot easier to write in an environment like this. Buildings seem to settle with time; it’s as if the older they are the happier they are to simply watch you rather than to intrude upon your thoughts. So many hands have smoothed away the sharp edges across the centuries, so many voices laughed and chattered between the walls, that the building is half-asleep; it trusts you to know what you’re doing and to get on with it.

I can’t remember when I last enjoyed a holiday this much. Everything was so easy, and peaceful… the perfect escape.

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