Last weekend was spent mostly transfixed by darts. No, not Darts, the darts. I also made medlar jam, medlar syrup and apple and medlar chutney - each was a reasonable success. The darts though, was fabulous.
I'm not under any illusions that most of the rest of the world shares my pleasure. A good wedge of me wants to convince you of the magnificence of darts, another sizeable quartile quietly rejoices in the fact that only some of us can see the beauty. But I'm going to make a little effort - not to persuade you to love darts, but just so you might see a little of the magic therein, even if you then choose to step away from the oche. Give me a couple of minutes grace if you would, and I'll try and weedle food in there somewhere. I think I've got a bigger point to make, but I'm not sure.
Darts is considered by many as a rather ludicrous spectacle. It's often viewed from above, looked down on by some who feel that if it's worthy of anything it's a raised eyebrow. Many of these tutting folk will happily tell you there is beauty in everything, maybe because Jane Austin once said so in one of her few novels, yet find it difficult to exercise that fine sentiment other than about the very obviously beautiful. That's a bit like loving someone in health and for richer, or having a year of eternal summer. I think it's worth looking a little harder for less obvious beauty.
The essence of sport is in the competition - I don't mean 'the winning', or even 'the taking part'. Competition is a state of mind, an agreement you make with yourself to engage with another. The rules are irrelevant, this agreement is essentially a personal one: you will conduct yourself, you will display yourself, you will reveal yourself, having made the agreement to compete. Even though it is an agreement you make with yourself, you may have very little understanding of the nature of that agreement, much less an idea of the consequences.
When the pressure is on, when you have greatness, qualification, glory or even just a perfect moment beckoning, how will you be? Or more accurately, who will you be? These milliseconds don't replay, we have no opportunity to see how the ramifications compound and unravel. Would you handle (even instinctively) as Thierry Henry did a fortnight ago? With a moment to choose, would you slam the ball into the net or do this? Would you do as Andy Roddick did in the final of the 2005 Rome Masters - with a triple match point in the final set, his opponent Fernando Verdasco double-faulted and lost the match. That was until Roddick disputed the call and said the serve was in. Verdasco won the point and went on to turn the game around and win. Extreme moments maybe, but smaller, often unnoticed instances happen in every contest and help make sport much more than the sum of the rules and the fundamentals.
We tend to value the feats of the mind, the intellect, the cultural creations far more than the merely physical. Brain over brawn. Even when it comes to something as apparently physical as sport, we allow ourselves to enjoy a psychological battle. Donald and Atherton's battle of wills was as good as aggressive cricket gets, and, for all the leather and willow, an entirely mental tussle. Coe v Ovett was as much about a clash of personalities as it was about simple running speed. Even when it gets to the most physical of physical sports, it's where your head and heart is as much as anything that separates A from B.
This is what makes football so little about hoofing a pigs bladder around a wet green rectangle, what makes the Tour de France so much more than simply pedaling and dropping cogs, what separates men like Sugar Ray Leonard from other more powerful boxers, and what makes sailing around the world on your own much more than just sitting on a boat in bad weather. It asks questions which you may or may not have any answers to - you may not even be aware that you have or haven't the answers. You may not like what you see. You may surprise yourself. This is what I love most about sport, about music, about pretty much anything - not the 'thing' so much as what the 'thing' reveals.
This is a goal that made me cry when I saw it. He may be the only person alive who would have imagined that possibility, never mind be able to execute it. He knew, I think you can tell, that for a moment he had been touched, that it wasn't really he alone that should be congratulated. A moment made of exactly the same material as this. And this. I could go on, but you get my point. We all recognise magic where we see it.
We seem to withhold this understanding somewhere just short of darts. Perhaps it's one mental leap of faith too far to entertain the idea that beauty is in everything if that everything includes darts. I'd urge you to look again.
There are some unique aspects to darts. They are worth considering when you compare darts to other sports. Your opponent can't block you, can't put you off, can't change the terrain or the target of the missiles. They can't alter one single thing about your opportunity. In short, your opponent can't stop you winning: it's down only to you.
Every single time you go to throw it is absolutely the same as it was last time. Apart from in your head.
Stripped of other complications, what is left is boiled down to the absolute essence of sport, without the usual distractions. There's no pretty Beckham, no excuisite physique, no erroneous decisions, no flukey advantages, no need for outside adjudication. It becomes almost entirely mental, almost completely about what you have inside on the day. Almost everything we'd normally admire above the predominantly physical in other areas of life.
With darts, many of us seem to be distracted by the appearance of the players. We are, apparently, allowed to make remarks about them that would not be tolerated if they were said about their wives. If they were from China or Japan no doubt we would be admiring them as proponents of such a singularly Zen pastime: they imagine the throw, they imagine the dart arc and land, they quieten and focus, then they execute the throw...wwwoooooowwww. Perhaps we don't mind fat sportsmen as long as their foreignness confers upon us a little exoticism.
Stephen Fry has spoken beautifully about the magic of darts and his love for it. There is nothing quite like it for watching a player at the very doorhandle of victory lose it - utterly exposed, completely undiluted by teammates, the collapse often entirely unprompted by their opponent. A single dart can sow the doubt. It's almost properly cruel. Defeat can be naked in darts in a way unlike another sport. And victory uniquely singular also.
Yet most of us don't notice it. We celebrate and knight a canoer who (with a few mates to help him row the way he's not looking) wins a race once every four years, and virtually ignore the astonishing genius of a 14 times world champion who dedicates himself to the practice and execution of his art over many many years, and has it examined against many many hundreds of opponents. I'm not sure why that would be.
There's been a lot of guff and hot air talked recently about gardens and what they might mean, as opposed to just what they 'are'. Many have had their say, and for all the arguments, if there's a commonality it's that gardens can be full of meaning, cultural references and represent far more than an ordered display of plants. Obvious enough you might think. The disagreements seem to come along when some won't accept that they don't always have to. That they can just be enjoyed as a place to barbecue a fish. Or that their cultural importance is not necessarily more significant than their ability to host a game of badminton or to look nice.
If there's a point I'm going round the houses to make, it's probably my first one: you can find whatever wherever you choose to look for it. I'm not here to argue that darts stands alone as the repository of meaning and beauty, just that it has every single milligram of ability to so as a book, an opera or indeed a garden.
And if anyone feels superior to those who can see in darts, Hendrix, Di Canio, Diabate, Korbet, Corbett, Schnorbitz or Ritz biscuits what they can only see in a meaningful garden then I know who I feel sorry for.
What has this to do with medlars? Medlars were hugely popular a century or two back. Then came sugar. Then came supermarkets. And our view of fruit became guided by them. Medlars stopped being appreciated as widely as they had - they didn't fit our new-found prejudices about what fruit should be. They look like an open-ended apple (the french call medlars 'dogs arse') - and if we can't tolerate a wonky carrot, what chance we'll accept a fruit that looks like canine's tea-towelholder? And medlars need to soften, as if rotting, before you eat them.
They are truly delicious - with a taste somewhere between apples, dates and figs. They are perfectly easy to grow, plentiful in production and easily sourced from plant nurseries. There is absolutely no reason why medlars aren't widely available. No reason except we can't be bothered to pay attention to what they are really like rather than just the immediate impression next to their more 'beautiful' cousins.
Part of their pleasure is in uncovering such a fabulously unique rich flavour in such an unlikely packaging. It's the same with darts. But we tend to prefer our sport and our fruit (and our music for that matter) as exotic, good looking, and full of uncomplicated one dimensional sweetness.
Sunday, November 29, 2009 at 8:05 PM
Last weekend was spent mostly transfixed by darts. No, not Darts, the darts. I also made medlar jam, medlar syrup and apple and medlar chutney - each was a reasonable success. The darts though, was fabulous.
Monday, November 16, 2009 at 11:05 PM
The December issue covered some of the possibilities for making the edge of your garden - the hedge - as useful and productive as any other part. Three of the best hedgerow recipes you can find - elderflower champagne, rosehip syrup and elderflower cordial are below, to go with the sloe gin recipe in the magazine itself.
Another early summer classic - refreshing, lightly fizzy, and the perfect level of alcohol for a lunchtime picnic.
8 litres water
1.25 kg sugar
8 large elderflower heads
4 tablespoons mild white wine vinegar
Pour the water and sugar into a pan and warm slowly until the sugar has dissolved, then allow to cool.
Juice two of the lemons, slice the other two, and add to the sugar water along with the vinegar. Cover with a tea towel and leave for at least 8 hours or overnight.
Strain through a fine sieve or muslin cloth, twisting the flowers up into a ball and squeezing to release more flavour through the cloth.
The natural yeasts will get to work on the sugars and begin to turn them to alcohol.
I store mine in flip top bottles as the pressure can get quite considerable, but I know others use old screwtop water bottles. Whichever you use, makes sure they are sterilised*.
The champagne should be ready in around a fortnight, and should be consumed within a month.
A real winter warming smasher - use this syrup over pancakes, diluted to as a hot drink, or for something cooler, poured over ice cream. It's high in vitamins A and C so as well as tasting fabulous, it will do it's bit to help ward off colds.
Th recipe is so simple, and either our native hedgerow rosehip or the larger fruited rosa rugosa work well.
600g granulated sugar
Put a pan with 800ml of water on to boil. Meanwhile, wash the rosehips and remove any stalks, the zap them to bits in a food processor. Add them to the boiling water, cover and take the pan off the heat when it has reached boiling point again. Leave it to stand for 20 minutes, before straining it through a muslin for an hour.
Save the strained liquid. Boil another 800ml of water, add the rosehip pulp, bring back to the boil and let rest for another 20 minutes. This time strain overnight.
Next day throw the pulp on the compost and mix the two strained liquids. This will give you around a litre of juice - pour it into a saucepan and add the sugar, heating gently until it dissolves. Once dissolved, boil for 3 minutes, then pour into
sterilised bottles* using a funnel.
You've got four months to use your syrup, which usually isn't a challenge.
If you're new to foraging and the art of wild harvesting, this is the perfect place to start.
From late May, through June (depending where you live) you'll find plenty of creamy white flowers splattered across hedgerow elders. They grow everywhere - I picked some last year at Basingstoke train station. Their perfume is what spring is all about, and it gives that scent up to the most refreshing drink here is.
It's perfectly simple to make.
Two dozen good sized elderflower heads
grated zest of 4 lemons
159ml lemon juice
Check over the flowerheads for insects - you ant to avoid washing them as this will take away some of that incredible scent.
Put them in a pan, along with the lemon zest. Pour in 1.5l of boiling water, cover with a tea towel and leave to infuse for at least 8 hours (overnight is perfect).
Strain through a muslin. Pour into a saucepan and add the sugar and lemon juice. Heat gently at first to dissolve the sugar, then simmer for a couple of minutes.
Using a funnel, pour the liquid into sterilised bottles* and seal. It should keep for a month or so - although you could always freeze some in plastic bottles if you want to keep it for longer.
Drink diluted to the strength you like.
*Wash jars in soapy water, rinse well and then place in a cool oven - 130C/250F/Gas ½ - for 15-20 minutes.
To subscribe to The English Garden click here
Sunday, November 15, 2009 at 7:17 PM
The perfect use for some of the small crop of chilean guava - muffins.
Definitely one to go in the book.
Friday, November 13, 2009 at 11:32 AM
When it comes to the finest, most sensitive nasal cavity in the world there may be no one nose currently recognised as the best, but if there's ever an olfactory world championships I'd like to put myself forward.
I may be crap at driving a tractor, at keeping an orchard of almonds alive, or spotting the bleeding obvious, but I have a small but valuable gift of picking smells apart.
It was rubbing walnut leaves a few years ago where I discovered this gift.
Trebors sherbet lemons. With just a hint of Old Spice.
Today, after looking after a few chilean guava plants for a couple of years, time to pick the first fruit. I've had the odd one that's managed to turn itself from flower to fruit, but today it's slightly more warranting the term 'harvest'. You've got to have a few of whatever you're picking as you pick, obviously. That's one of the downsides of picking pears, all that promise, so little reward on the day - they ripen later, off the tree, perhaps months after being picked. So you have to wait.
Not so with chilean guava. Pop them in and you'll probably say 'strawberry', maybe 'kiwi'. But then you'd not be up to potential world championship standard like myself would you.
I'll admit, it took a day to get there. It's similar with lookalikes. It can take days, perhaps weeks, for the troublesome lookalike to resolve in the mind. It's rare for a single sighting of Gianluigi Buffon, the Italian goalkeeper, to click as the lead singer from the Flying Pickets. Or to see that Dot Cotton may well be played by Harry Dean Stanton.
There are few things I find more pleasurable as discovering a lookalike. Very few. It's only just exaggerating to say that watching the classic Czech Republic side of 2004 was my favourite footballing experience. 1 to 11 each had a cracking lookalike. TV sound down, you could do your own commentary: former tennis queen Jennifer Capriati (aka Milan Baros) has the ball out wide, slips it past the defender, turns inside and lays it off to Patrick Swayze (aka Pavel Nedved), who finds some space, jinks past one and crosses it in first time to Nicholas Cage (aka Jan Koller) who nods it into the path of the titchy one off Take That (aka Tomas Rosicky) who slams the ball into the back of the net.
Maybe it was the cider that got the better of me.
Where was I. Yes, flavours, smells, and lookalikes can take a little time to reveal themselves and with tastes it's often as much to do with the nose as anything. And so it is with chilean guava. Yes, a little strawberry, a touch of kiwi, something bubblegummy about them. But I knew I hadn't cracked it. Until this morning.
I popped one in and got it without thinking: Strawberry Space Dust.
Monday, November 9, 2009 at 5:55 PM
Run run, had a run, I've had a run, as the Beach Boys almost said.
After many decades of avoiding that most ridiculous of pastimes* , I inexplicably found myself out running last week. Not only that, I did the same two days later. And I intend to do it again tomorrow.
It feels like striking a blow against aging (rather than simply 'getting older'). It is though, inherently, quintessentially boring. Give me a ball and whether it's small, hard and red or inflated to a foot or so across, I'll run after it happily all day. Take the ball away and tell me to run and I collapse unable to breathe nor put on foot in front of the other. I see this as a perfectly acceptable (if involuntary) response from my body to the idea of exercise for exercise's sake.
I enjoyed it this time. My body didn't cave in on me, I didn't yearn for 20 Marlboro, and I didn't stop til I got back. About ten minutes in, way beyond my normal collapse threshold, I felt like I was doing something I'd always do from now. In my imaginary new life (which took over as reality that instant) I was fit, healthy, planning half-marathons, enjoying a body shape that I'd never had before. Any body shape.
All my life I've had to run round in the shower to get wet; I have, as an old friend said, not so much a bottom as a hole in my back. All my life until the last few months, when I combination of spending too much time writing and not enough doing, and working at River Cottage for part of the week have left me with the first signs of a certain thickening around the midriff. I'm being kind: I've a paunch on the way.
So, I thought, if my stomach can change, so can I - I'm going running; we'll see who wins, stomach or legs.
Taking on an imaginary new life as reality is entirely typical of the me of the first 30 years or so of my life - everything is nothing or it's life changing. Go training and grapepicking in France and I come back utterly convinced I'm going to dedicate my time to learning the language fluently. All it'll take is 3 hours a week, let's say half an hour a day. What could be simpler. Same with the guitar. You wait, I'll be playing 'When the day is done' this time next year, 'Angie' the year after, and before you know it I'll have got to grips with '1952 Vincent Black Lightening'.
No such luck.
I think I'd give up all others pleasures if I was able to play 1952 Vincent Black Lightening. Not that it's anything like my favourite song, but it's got to be fun to be able to play that beautifully.
I haven't had that imaginary-new-life feeling since I was thirty, so it's kind of odd meeting it again. But two runs in four days have made me feel awake, sitting straight in this chair, where I'm spending maybe 18 hours of each day getting to grips with writing 'the book' to it's rather impolite deadline. It's either that, or it's the big wafts of szechuan pepper from the jar with the lid off drying over the other side of the office.
*Footnote for pedants: apart from a three week period when I moved back to Winchester in the mid 90s
Sunday, November 1, 2009 at 7:06 PM
I wore a scarf today oh boy, as John Lennon almost said. Rain and wind breaking the mildness that's been haunting (in a nice way) the early part of autumn. I'm rather liking the chance to get a few more logs in, have no great ambitions for an evening beyond reading this or watching that. Along with a quiet glass of something.
I'm getting ahead of myself - there's still a little light out there, and today is one of those rare days when I get to say something that's never (or at least rarely) been said before. I had it a while back when I was in the shade of a pecan tree.
Right here right now, I may have the most beautifully aromatic pockets in the world.
I've been picking some of the last of the grinding pepper, the first small harvest of a particular szechuan pepper. There are a few varieties that are collectively known as 'szechuan', all of which belong to the Zanthoxylum family. I've had many handful from the young Z. simulans (one of the szechuans), Z. alatum (Nepalese pepper) and bagfuls of Z. piperitum (Japanese pepper) leaves over the last few years, but this is the first of the simulans. It's pretty pokey. The corns are a livid red, like the worst eczema. Rub them and your fingers become infected with their lively scent. There is an edge to their smell that's not wholly pleasant. A little like elderflower has something of the cat's piss about it but is somehow no worse for it. Maybe it follows the fart principle: if it's yours, it's ok.
That aromatic edge reminds me of misspent hours putting a fat one together. I was never cut out to be a dopehead. I'd wince anytime someone wanted to 'put some sounds on', or responded to the question 'how's it going' with 'sound' or 'cool, chap'. Perhaps I'm being unreasonable, but it made me want to hit each and everyone of them with a heavy bat. I've absolutely no doubt that I was (and remain) a tedious arse in many ways of my own, but I stand proud and extol that I've never called anyone 'chap'. I never saw what the fuss was about Bob Marley - although this may have much to do with having white 6th formers driving it down my throat when I was far busier listening to the Smiths, New Order and the Cocteau Twins. Obviously, tea should've been my drug of choice.
I was 14, I wanted to be cool, so I nicked a few quid out of my dads wallet* and through the coolest kid I knew I scored an 8th. I smoked it that afternoon with the least cool kid I knew, who just happened to be the kid who the coolest kid I knew scored it from. I guess I wasnt the only one desperate to be cool. I hadn't a clue what to expect. I smoked perfectly unaffected for an hour or two - I suspect he loaded it up like a pro, nicely lined up to coincide with his turn for a puff. Finally, it kicked in and after a brief moment of paranoia, extreme nausea. A short run to the lav and an hour or two of repeated honking and I managed to put myself into some kind of order before dad came home from work (it was half term).
Apart from the odd puff here and there, it was several years later until I reacquainted myself with the rolling of a relaxant. It was the 1992, I was staying in a flat owned by the mother of my oldest friend, the mother who may or may not have been rather friendly with Mr Buttocks. It was the year when Denmark literally dragged themselves off the beaches to win the European football championships. Yugoslavia had qualified but were then disqualifed on account of war, breaking up of the country, genocide etc - the sort of thing that really shouldn't interrupt the serious matter of a football championships. So, a few short weeks before the tournament began, the Denmark squad was invited to cut short their summer holidays and play in a tournament they'd failed to qualify for. Now, if I'd failed to qualify for a competition and was sunning it up after a long year of sweating in a shiny shirt I'm not sure I'd have bothered. If at first you don't succeed, sit in the sun. Anyway, they played a blinder, beating the Netherlands in the semis and Germany in the final, scoring goals like this (reinacted is someone's garden like this) as they went. It remains probably the biggest shock in the history of world football. Or was it all a dream brought on by Pete the Hippy's homegrown greengiggler...I havent checked.
Anyway, Z. simulans has always had a touch of grass about it to me. And it turns out I'm not imagining things. Nosing around on the internet about the various peppers I grow here I discovered that Zanthoxylum simulans contains an essential oil, important in perfumery, called Myrcene. As well as Z.simulans, it's found in bay, verbena and....cannabis.
*I nicked the odd tenner or fiver every now and again from a wallet he kept in an old jacket hanging in his wardrobe. There was never much in there, but I thought I'd get away with it somehow and he never mentioned it. It was just me and him and we were pretty skint and it would've made a fair difference. There are few things I feel more rotten about, and the silly bastard died before I could say sorry. Having said that, I remember he wouldn't let me stay up to watch Dr No when I was about 11, so let's call it quits.