Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Border Control

I am in a cottage garden steadily cutting my way through overgrown hazel and hawthorn to re-establish a path that runs along the back of the property. The garden overlooks a field of ripening squash; on the distant horizon, a large dairy herd is lazily chewing grass; the sun is shining and I can feel its late August warmth on my face. I am working outdoors and it is idyllic; I couldn't be happier.

There are, of course, some downsides: rain is forecast tomorrow and I am due to be clearing stinging nettles for someone who has lost control of their borders; I am using some slightly scary and intimidating machinery; I know that, come next month and the one after, wetter weather will appear and the work will become harder and then it will dry up altogether for the winter.

However, I have spent a working lifetime in offices and classrooms and the claustrophobia has overcome me. In a world that has become increasingly complex and hard to fathom out, the pleasure I derive from simply trimming a hedge, strimming a verge or cutting back summer's faded blooms is infinite.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Mellow Vibes

I have stopped rubbing my eyes when I see who's playing at the De La Warr Pavilion, these days; such is the venue's ability to attract artists - Television, Public Image Limited, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Nelly - who seem at odds with the image of Bexhill-on-Sea as a seaside retirement town, that I am no longer surprised when the likes of Nashville alt-country legends Lambchop roll in to town. Kurt Wagner's loose collective were a distinctly country outfit until the Nixon album of 2000 earned them critical acclaim in this country and the addition of that audience-broadening 'alt' prefix (man, how I hate that 'alt' abbreviation in the current political climate).

Last night, Lambchop were not so much a collective as a trio with Matt Swanson on bass, Tony Crow on piano and wisecracks ("He's from Kansas." "I'm not in Kansas anymore!") and Wagner himself on occasional guitar, drum programming and vocals. On the sleeve notes of last year's album, FLOTUS (not Michelle Obama but an acronym of For Love Often Turns Us Still), one of Wagner's credits was for 'vocal processing' and many of the tracks featured a treated version of his tender voice. Most of the set last night was taken from FLOTUS and the vocoder was much in evidence; it fits perfectly with Lambchop's current sound, which has developed into a repetitive laid-back groove that could be termed soul but would best be described as unique.

Opening with Writer, the set also featured Old Masters and a truncated version of superb eighteen-minute album closer, The Hustle. There were treats from other albums, too, including 2B2 from 2012's Mr. M with it's wry observation, "Yeah, I think it's England/ the dogs they bark at no one". It was an evening of gorgeous mellow vibes and they returned for two more songs by way of an encore. Wagner asked for requests and refused Up With People ("no chance of that until we get a new President") but granted My Blue Wave from Is A Woman, their best album according to my mate, Dave. As if to doff a baseball cap to their soulful antecedents, they finished with an intimate cover of Prince's 1980 song, When You Were Mine.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

The Courgette Cornucopia

A few years ago, a friend of ours started to behave strangely. Towards the end of the summer term, she would hover around the gates at school pick-up time searching out faces she knew and then thrusting packages into their hands. We would often open our front door to find these packages left, unbidden, on our doorstep. In the summer holidays, even our kids would return from playing at her house with her children, laden down. We would catch sight of her in the village 'cooeeing' friends from a distance as they scuttled into homes and shops. People started avoiding her. We started avoiding her. The thing is, you can only have so many courgettes - and we had enough of our own. What our friend had done was start a vegetable garden at home and, being a novice, plant twelve - yes, twelve - courgette plants. Unable to keep up with the courgette cornucopia, she had been pushed to the brink in trying to find good homes for her produce.

It is a familiar feeling for even experienced home or allotment vegetable growers. A glut is always a risk in a good growing year and courgettes, in particular, have become something of a standing joke. However, getting the plants up and running is not always straightforward. Courgettes can sometimes suffer from germination problems but, providing seeds are not too old and are not subjected to extremes of temperature or moisture, it's hard to fail at this stage. So already there are too many plants and the temptation is to plant out more than are needed to insure against failure. Poor weather, especially high winds in May, can damage young plants and dry spells present difficulties, too: courgettes require plenty of water as well as sunshine to succeed. Pollination can also be a problem when honeybees are not as active in bad weather. One year, I had to hand-pollinate my courgette plants by rubbing the pollen-bearing anthers of a male flower into the centre of a female flower; I didn't know where to look.

This year, we may think we are having a rubbish summer because of the poor weather of the past few weeks but we had a warm May and a flaming June and above average rainfall in both and, as a result, courgette plants are thriving: we currently have a continuous crop from the three plants in our vegetable garden that is just about right for a family of five - but it still feels like we are eating a lot of courgettes. Regular harvesting and consuming is the key and, to get the full benefit of the fruit's flavour, courgettes should be picked when they are not much bigger than a Mars bar. We stumbled across a recipe book by Elaine Borish a few years ago called, What Will I Do With All Those Courgettes?, which has proved invaluable. At the moment, we are eating a lot of vegetable curry, which utilises the courgettes and some of our second early potatoes and also takes care of that other glut we are trying to manage: runner beans.