Summer flowers or summer blooms? Could I include a blooming cucumber plant in my “flower” list? What about blooming basil, thyme or mint? The mood, and objective, of our backyard has certainly shifted this year. I was aiming at creating working city garden for a while now, but this year gave me the final push. Halfway there model no longer worked. When spring turned into summer backyard turned chaotic, completely lacking any colorful annuals unless self sown, veggie producing container garden jungle. Here are some of my favorites, all grown from seed this year, most saved from last years plants. I am missing names on many of them. What started as an ambitious seed farm with neatly arranged labels, turned into planting frenzy one damp day in May. Just because the conditions were right! Names were misplaced, zinnias mixed up. I can name only two now – the purple brown yellow colored Aztec Sunset, that produces cascades of small, cheerful flowers and neatly drapes itself with its curly branches over the ceramic pot. The other is Queen Lime Orange, the name says it all. Regal, tall, and a chameleon of lime and orange hues currently peeking through cherry tomato plants. I have been careful not to deadhead any of them too early, after observing bumble bees talking their time luxuriating in the pollen of the mature booms. Bumble bees win, every time.
Spider plants, or cleome, have been with me for years. I always gather seeds, then forget to plan them, but nature still takes care of them for me. They overwinter in the soil and pop up when decide it’s warm enough. This year there are pink and some pure white ones. Always fun to watch tiny insects swarm them and slide on their “whiskers” like acrobats.
August brings sunflowers. This year I am growing Ruby Eclipse. We have a mini forest of them right outside the windows, gently bouncing in a wind. Occasionally, the bounce turns out to be not wind, but yellow finches, who take to them with gusto, as if they were woodpeckers. The sunflowers, as well as zinnias, make great cut flowers. Mine stayed fresh in a vase for almost two weeks. I tend to mix them with whatever I can find by the sidewalk, or whatever I prune out in the garden. Entire tomato branch in the arrangement? Why not?
This blog post has been planned for a while…The story was going to start like this: ” Last year, I was planning a trip to Japan that was going to end in a remote Japanese ceramics village, but I ended up in a remote Polish village creating a travelogue of the exquisite Japan inspired ceramics. Does it mean that this year, 2020, I will end up in Japan while planning a trip to Poland?”
That draft was written in January this year. The world has been ravaged by the pandemic since, and our travel remains, for the time being, an armchair traveller’s one. I cannot help though, but to share the photos of the ultimate craftsmanship that can be found in a remote village of Southern Poland that I visited on a balmy October afternoon. I discovered the artist through a magazine article that my Mom shared with me. Next time I visited my parents there were already 3 miniature bowls waiting for me. But there was more to come. My parents happily agreed to a road trip through an iconic countryside so I could experience it myself. That will be part two of this blog post. But now, let me present Ceramika Jurek Szczepkowski. A world of its own, where inspiration, beauty, refined simplicity, and remoteness collide.
One particularly rainy evening in October last year brought me to Starý Plzenec, a small town in west Bohemia. Little over an hour from Prague, it is decisively off the beaten path, and requires a detour from the highway (and detour around its much bigger neighbor Pilsen). Another words, perfect. My brother and I were taking a road trip through Czech Republic on the way to Germany. Small town vibes and old world charm were definitely high on the agenda, as we left rainy and moody Žižkov district of Prague (my enthusiastic “new favorite!”, just brought a confidently restrained “I knew it” smile on my brother’s face). After all, he has been staying there every time he had visited Prague, for several years now. Leaving Žižkov, we were already properly conditioned, if not under the spell, of all the literary and historic references we were trading all day long since we left Kraków.
That evening, we arrived at our guesthouse, complete with a tavern of course, and a bartender genuinely concerned if a small beer was enough for the evening. It was, as we were starting early the next day, but the place was a delight in watching local folks, who gravitated to the place for an evening chat while walking a dog, or a beer and a round of cards game after a day’s work. And then a thick, dark blue and moonless night descended on the little valley and a total silence settled onto this small community.
The next morning was time for a spontaneous adventure!
At this point of the story, a bragging moment! I was recently awarded grand prix for the photo below and its accompanying words in a contest organized by Passion Passport and the sponsor, HotelTonight. The theme was ‘spontaneity’.
“I took this photo at 8 in the morning, in a small town of Stary Plzenec in Czech Republic, where we stayed overnight. All packed, ready for the 2 hours drive to Nuremberg, we walk outside, and suddenly are awaken by frigid morning. The air is practically sparkling, as we survey the surrounding hills and lock our eyes on a medieval looking rotunda above town. Quick time check, ‘we got this!’ and we race up the hill in a muddy path, business attire and all, me out of breath with the ‘big” camera backpack, and laughing, and promising ourselves that we will return here with our families to soak up this view again. And hike to the castle we just spotted on another hill. I was never more happy to be cleaning mud off my shoes, as I was that morning.”
This is the season that I have been preparing for since early summer. How is that for slow living, or a ‘slow project’, because living, well, has been anything but slow recently. I started by sowing pink and white strawflowers this year in my container garden. I managed to harvest only a handful, some of them very tiny, because they disappeared among the ever overbearing purple basil. Then, I dismantled every farmers’ market bouquet I had bought this year, and meticulously separated the strawflowers to dry. They are not making appearance at this table, as I am keeping all the orange hues ones for another occasion. I have also picked every seed pod from wild growing tulipa silvestris in my community garden plot, instead of sending them to compost bin. They dried perfectly, although they do make unnerving rattlesnake noise when shaken…I have made the makeshift napkin holders from strips of random leather piece, cut and threaded through for a bow like appearance.
Other than that, there were few bunches of grasses picked at the same time we went to pick strawberries on a farm, also dried upside down in the kitchen, almost forgotten. The natural materials color scheme that can be reinvented with different plate setting and different linen is my absolutely favorite, not just for Thanksgiving gathering.
Then, there is the star of the season, pumpkin, which I only came to appreciate recently after making the soup for the first time. It is absolutely fool proof and easy recipe.
To serve 4 people: Use 1 butternut pumpkin, cut into 1 inch thick pieces, 1 white onion cut into wedges, 3 cups of broth, 2 inch piece of ginger peeled and finely chopped, table spoon of curry, cumin, and ground coriander each, pinch of red pepper flakes. I like using a cast iron Le Creuset pot to cook it. I lightly cook the onion in 1 table spoon of olive oil, add chili and ginger and give it a minute to sizzle, before adding the pumpkin and broth and cooking over med-low heat for 30 minutes, covered. I puree it when it is just slightly cooled. The color alone is gorgeous, but love the ginger bite in it!
The end of gardening season is almost here. Sure, there is still baby spinach and red mustard that may or may not bring harvest before the frost, and a lone Tuscan kale plant, that I am half heartedly guarding against the critters…The days are short, shadows are long, and there is only enough warmth and direct sunshine to sustain less than an hour of sitting in a garden with a good read.
Before the backyard disappears into a soggy and eventually a frosty, entangled mess, here is a reflection of what did well, and what was only a tease in our city backyard this year. I now strongly believe that documenting is the only way for growth and progress, and it has certain, almost soul nurturing, quality. Teaches patience, and makes the home grown food, when it eventually reaches the table, feel so special. Also, and that is a huge part of why we grow food in containers and even the tiniest of city plots, makes it almost impossible to let the food go to waste. After so much wait and effort (watering by hand with rain water) would you really allow it to spoil? The garden also feels like an extension of our home, generously lending space to alfresco meals, (for us and the neighborhood bees) and offering what is seems like an attractive stopover to occasional dragonfly. Which happens to be my favorite insect of all times!
Winners this year:
- – Pepper Bianca
- – Eggplant Fairy Tale
- – Japanese cucumbers
- – Tomatoes: Sungold, Sweet 100, Black Cherry
- – Garlic German Red
- – Basil Genovese and Thai that were, and still are in late October, an absolute delight
- – Cilantro: both as a fresh plant and dried seeds it produced.
Only a tease category:
- Any large heirloom tomato, maybe with exception of Green Zebra
- Zucchini that only produced gorgeous flowers
Beyond my, now well documented, love of Lisbon there is a little secret. The countryside outside of Lisbon, all within less than 2 hour drive. Looking deeper, past the veneer of maybe little too perfect home renovations, there are still captivating stories to be told, with colorful local characters, oblivious to the demands of instagrammable perfect shots. Moments that unfold into stories, and only take time and curiosity to develop. Enter the village of Ericeira, on the Atlantic cost. While my traveling companions went into the cave looking for elusive sea urchins (elusive mostly because they were not in season!), I opted for the above ground vantage point, mesmerized by the waves. This is how I spotted a local fishermen in the churning and terrifyingly crashing waves. Sometime later, he was happy to tell me his story of the day, but only in a very animated Portuguese! Through little research I figured out that he was harvesting a local delicacy, gooseneck barnacles.
Meandering through the countryside on the back to Lisbon we stopped at Veronica’s farm. The table was set for a casual feast of clams cooked in a simple garlicky broth, bites of cheese, rustic bread and, of course, sardines. The conversation was just like the food, honest, unassuming, and wholesome. Challenges of leaving a steady job in Lisbon to focus on restoring the farmhouse and the small farmland, some successes, some failures, struggling orange trees, dreams and hopes. The every essence of gathering around food outdoors is that you can turn your gaze to the patch of garden where the strawberries on the table came from, or run your hand through the thyme perfuming the clam broth. The connection is made, the homage to the land and the human cultivating and foraging it is paid. Watching the golden light setting on nearby hills feels almost like a frivolous bonus by then.
It is late June as I write this, but it happened to be the same moist, lush green and heavy on a drizzle day as month ago when I set off to photograph the Raspberry Cordial and Rhubarb Cake afternoon treat. You would think that only children get restless when it rains for 48 hours non-stop…Think twice. On day two of the rain deluge in the southeastern Poland, a town tucked away at the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains, in the region called Beskid Niski, I opened wide my parents’ garage door, set up my trusty prop table stored there just for the occasion, and set up an afternoon tea. At least that was the idea, but why not sneak in a little of homemade raspberry cordial, just to warm things up. A quick rummage through the cellar produced a vintage carafe, and the last two unbroken glasses from the set that was given to my parents as a wedding gift. Inevitably, we went down memory lane, reminiscing of long gone neighbors. Objects with rich stories.
Earlier in the day we visited an old family friend, and as it is custom with such visits there, left with a care package of the leftover cake, perfect for my impromptu photo shoot. It was one of those “everyday” cakes, as the host somewhat apologetically explained. No recipe, still warm from the over, made with whatever fruit is in the season. These are my absolute favorites!
I will simply call it ‘Easter state of mind’. Going back, it was truly the holiday that evoked Narnia-like world of ephemeral flowers awaking to the warm rays of sun, and everything that was delicate and wonderful and bound to disappear any moment. Wildflowers were at arms’ reach, when I was growing up, all you needed to do was to go to the end of the fields to a magical stream and cove called “debrza“, and pick to you heart’s content.
Then, there were larch trees growing at the property, planted by my grandfather. By the time I was in college, most of them had fallen in a particularly powerful storm (they have shallow roots). The Easter would not be complete though without an arrangement of daffodils and larch branches that have a captivating lemon-like scent. Some still grow to this day, and there is a whole new generation of them in debrza, planted by my father, to ensure that our Easter decorations in Poland carry on a tradition.
What do you do if you live in a city though…No larch trees in Cambridge that I can find, to forage. But, there are weeping birches hanging over the sidewalks, and their wispy branches make a lovely whimsical addition to any bouquet. I am also partial to vinca, or Creeping Myrtle (not telling where I foraged mine!), that make charming decorations for any cake (leaves are bit waxy and stay fresh for a long time) and is traditionally used for Easter basket decor in Poland.
Technically speaking, the winter was supposed to be over right now. Still when the snow fell, I did not hesitate to head outside to photograph the cloud-fluffy meringue in, well, white fluffy snow. Even my flowers matched, a random bunch of white carnations, as if they anticipated the snow… Pavlova stands up to all seasons, but is sure lovely in winter when the fruit can make up for the lack of flowers in all its prettiness… The recipes are countless. I like the one from Cal Peternell. The reality check version, as I call it.
I highly recommend caramelizing blood orange slices. I followed the technique described in this this recipe by Our Food Stories. The bonus is lovely syrup you can use on french toast or pancakes.
Wishing everyone magical celebrations tonight, however small and cosy, in rain or in snow, at the heart of a party, or lost in a novel…