By Mary Jane Paterson and Jo Thompson
A correspondence between a hopeless gardener and a hopeful cook
Tulips and lemon cake
As you know I LOVE tulips. Tulips are my favourite flower. The planting of them, however, terrifies me. You see, as a virgin gardener, the thought of digging holes in my flower bed is simply scary. I just don't understand how you avoid all the other bulbs and roots in your flower bed. Thanks to you I've got hundreds of bulbs to plant, and I am grateful for them, especially at the promise of a wonderful spring morning with ramrod-straight tulips staring up at a blue sky from their pots. I want to plant them myself but am scared of going wrong. I know I sound idiotic but I just need some planting advice and to know if you think they are better in pots or scattered over the garden. I feel they are more formal than that. Advice? And should we peruse the history of the noble tulip? Do you know the Dutch story in detail, you know how tulips were worth a fortune etc etc...
Borders and beds, pots and planters - wherever there's a nook. I pack 'em much in the style of the passengers on those buses your mother wrote about.
The most important thing is not to allow tulip bulbs to get soggy. It's common sense if you think about it: look at the bulb and imagine it sitting in our Wealden clay for five months. Disaster. So, if it's been raining for weeks, as it has been for what seems like weeks here, just be patient and wait a while. They won't come to any harm by going in a few weeks late, as long as they have been stored somewhere cool and dry. I confess to planting in January a couple of years ago, just because up till then I couldn't find a nice enough day to go outside. Bulb planters really take the hard work out of the job: and bulb planters with long handles (I reckon devised for the infirm) are actually a stroke of genius - no bending down, no muddy knees and the bulbs get planted to the right depth. As for the other plants, I've been telling you for ever: just plant the bulbs where there aren't plants - it is that simple, I promise you. I know you're worried about existing bulbs, but if you take a photo of them when they're flowering, you'll have a pretty good idea. I know it's a bit of a faff but it will save you the irritation of slicing a happy bulb in two.
Anna Pavord wrote the seminal work on the tulip, called, you guessed it, The Tulip. She described how when it arrived from Turkey, it took Western Europe by storm, and almost drove people crazy in their anguish and desperation to collect prize specimens. You can imagine this: such an exotic, sturdy yet delicate flower, with stems taking their own shape in vases. My favourite combination of the moment is Jimmy, Cairo and Ronaldo: toffee-coloured Cairo seems weird, but when you put it with purple and burgundy and deep red – sumptuous.
However, the best of the best of the best has to be La Belle Epoque – think damask and Colefax and Fowler circa 1983. I promise I’ll remind you in a few months when it’s bulb ordering time.
Are you out in the garden? I tried calling yesterday but I guessed you must be still outside in this fab sunshine celebrating the emergence of your tulip bulbs - your idea of holding a tulip festival certainly is an admirable if somewhat optimistic goal. But I know I'll be laughing on the other side of my face when your bulb display is a local institution in your dotage. Just imagine, you yourself would be an actual institution – you’d love that. You’d be a date in the diary, a High Day or even a Holiday. Hyperbole aside, I think you’d actually be really good at that, as you’re pretty efficient at hosting events in general. I crumble into a heap at the thought of more than three people for lunch, yet while I’m crumbling, you’re probably whipping up an apple crumble and making your table look rather wonderful at the same time. I forgot to tell you I’ve been inspired by your table linen – now there’s a statement I never thought I’d make, but there it is. Walking down the King’s Road (oh still my beating heart, but how I miss the streets of London) the other day, I noticed the little slice of Heaven that is William Yeoward was having a sale, so nipped in and before I knew it, pounds had been spent on eight lilac cotton tablemats which at the time I thought might change my life and inspire to invite seven for supper. But in the cold light of day I realized that it was probably more like a delaying displacement activity – no change there. For as long as I can remember I’ve been putting off trying to give up procrastinating; I sound like a greetings card but it’s true. I find myself wondering how much more I might have achieved if I had, say, actually read the whole of Tess of the d’Urbervilles at A level, rather than just the introduction and Brodie’s notes. The irony is that when I read it for the first time twenty years later, it turned out to be rather a gripping read. But you remember what it was like when we were seventeen – the things people told you to do were the things we definitely weren’t going to do, at any price.
Table settings and sunshine turn my thoughts to Easter. For all my lack of adroitness at making a table look spit-spot, I do get very over-excited at the thought of rusting up a festive decoration or two. (Remember last year when I realised my greatest achievement was the fact that my Halloween decorations actually made small children weep as they walked up the garden path? The life-size animatronic witch was a particular triumph). So I’m rooting out the slightly bedraggled, stick-legged, almost fluff-less tiny yellow chicks, and decorations for the Easter Tree – by the way, what IS that all about? Did you ever have an Easter Tree as a child? In the words of George W Bush, that is some weird ****.
For some reason, as a teenager I always wanted to make a Simnel cake. I remember tearing the annual Easter recipe article out of my mother's Good Housekeeping magazine and planning one day to feed my own family with it, as no one then would touch it. As things have turned out, no-one here will ever touch it either - I have to admit the effect of the whole marzipan/ ball combo isn't really what you'd call mouthwatering. Do you have any ideas for a good Easter-ish teatime cake which people will actually eat? (I know the Labrador will eat it, but that's not the point).
My fridge, by the way, is looking satisfyingly full this morning. I know this in your opinion creates a state of happiness worthy of Snoopy at his most happy.
I can’t say we ever had a copy of Good Housekeeping in our house. It is the kind of publication that my mother reviled. As she wrote herself it was either fish and chips or Fortnum and Masons for her – everything in between was pretty unbearable in her mind. Bear in mind she modelled herself on Nancy Mitford. I’m afraid Good Housekeeping embodies everything she simply couldn’t bear – middle England at its worst with tips and tools on how to do it all to boot. She was however very tidy and an excellent cook. I’m afraid I am not the former and hopefully I am sometimes the latter. I actually rather like Good Housekeeping – maybe I read in the hope of finding serendipity - if I tidy my cupboard in colour-order or restack my herb shelf in the manner that Mary Berry has recommended all will be well again. (I actually do like doing that sort of thing so there you go!)
In the same vein of my mother’s thinking, I think the fridge should always be very empty or very full: in-between is always disappointing.
The garden is indeed looking Spring-like: our first daffs have appeared and I am waiting for the tulips, in fact you are right, I just can't wait! I am so excited. The tulip mix you ordered for me last year turned out to be brilliant. The peach-coloured ones really were stunning; although they reminded me of blancmange (a bad thing) they were a sight to hold. A friend of mine came around and took a bunch of them round to an eminent gardener who lives up the road. She is now recommending them in her catalogue so you started the craze for flouncy tulips. I actually love Spring: we've got it all to look forward to. Spring food is also delicious. Lighter and fresher and like the plants, greener in general.
Now about the cake. (I love cake too.) Tulips and cake, who knew? I could add them to my CV under Significant Interests. The point about an Easter cake in my mind is that it should not be chocolate. What?? Yes, it's true, one has scoffed so much chocolate on the day, the last thing anyone can face is a chocolate cake. I do know of a rather delicious almond and lemon cake. I have added homemade lemon curd on top (so thick and scrumptious) and then scattered roasted pinenuts all over it. It is absolutely delicious. The pinenuts give it a Jerusalem angle (don't know why) and the lemon flavour makes it taste so fresh. It has a really Eastery feel to it and if you can only manage a tasting of it on Easter Sunday, it really is fantastic for breakfast with a cappuccino.
Almond and lemon cake with lemon curd and toasted pinenuts
450g caster sugar
Juice of 2 lemons and zest of 4 lemons
450g unsalted butter
250g caster sugar
Preheat the oven to 160 C. Mix the butter and sugar until pale and light. Stir in the ground almonds. Beat in the raw eggs slowly – fold in the lemon zest and lemon juice flour baking powder and salt. Spoon into the prepared tin and bake in the preheated oven for 50 minutes.
To prepare the lemon curd (makes 450g – about a large jar-full)
2 large lemons
170g granulated sugar
3 eggs lightly beaten
Grate the zest of the lemon and squeeze out the juice. Put the lemon juice butter sugar and eggs in to a heavy saucepan and stir constantly until the mix is thick. It takes quite a long time and can look like it’s not working – it probably is and just be patient. Pass through a sieve and stir in the lemon zest. Leave to cool and smear generously over your cake. Toast your pinenuts (the most perilous part of the recipe) and scatter on top.
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