Topflappen

Dies ist meine Topflappen.



It may be that only one or fewer of those words is proper German. No matter: it's what I say everytime I use it. The Topflappen is a nicely insulated square of material and not heat may pass through it. If Kwai Chang Cain had strapped one to the inside of each forearm, moving the temple soup of the day might well have been less troublesome.

My wife bought me the Topflappen, fed up with hearing my bleats about the endless little blisters on my hands caused by using tea towels to remove half an oxen basting in goosefat on regulo 37. Those of you more familiar with this blog may remember that I have the hands of a howler monkey many years my senior, but I still don't want to make them any more unpleasant with burn scars.

I didn't know it was called Topflappen at first but one day, for no particular reason, I looked at the little label sown into the heat resistant square and noticed that it was Made in Germany, and that it had a real name: Topflappen. From that moment every time I withdrew a hot tray, a scorching pie dish or rearranged the hot oven shelves I would feel compelled to say 'Danke meine Topflappen', for removing from my life the spectre of oven burns. It makes dragging stuff like the strawberry and rhubarb tart solely about anticipation of pleasure rather than tainted with anticipation of pain. I love my Topflappen.



Work at home for any length of time and you'll find yourself doing the odd thing that may not be find accord with the rest of society. You might not get around to brushing your teeth until 3.47pm, you'll almost certainly talk to the radio, you may even find yourself doing impersonations* out loud in the otherwise empty house. Catch yourself in the mirror and you'll likely as not have 'homeworkers hair' - different every day, but usually with more than a passing resemblance to a Walnut Whip or a Mr Whippy that's slipping imperceptibly off it's wafery foundations.

It's most likely to occur when working on a book with a challenging deadline. I'm getting to grips with the fruity version of Veg Patch which means too many days where you get up, eat, sit in the office, leave only to go to the loo or kitchen, before catching a few moments of not working and going to sleep before the next day groundhogs around again.



Spending the day with limited human communication, minor irritations can become obsessions very easily. The bloke who drives by between 2 and 2.15 who insists, every day, on beeping his carhorn as he approaches the bend is, in my mind, Pol Pot in a runaway Trabant. The toaster's slow descent from peak-toasting machine to one-sided burn-or-raw performance is, I promise, noticeable when you work at home.

Flies invade the cool of the house around now every year, not in their hundreds but a few at a time, turning their tedious patterns in the kitchen. They really piss me off. They land on stuff and buzz and do 'fly' things. Like land on the musk strawberries.



I didn't know I had musk strawberries. I had grown a load of Fragaria chiloensis, the Chilean strawberry from which many of our common strawberries have been developed. It crawls easily forming a dense ground cover, if not one overprolific in fruit. But in amongst them I found something that was strawberry but not Chilean. They hang from little green hooked arms, like lanterns, pointing the fruit back to the centre of the plant.



Larger than an alpine but quite a bit smaller than a regular strawberry, I was stumped as to what they might be. Looking closely, they have very characteristic dimples. They're also unbelieveably good to eat. We're eating them ahead of the Emily and Honeoye strawberries and even the Mignonette alpines. Turns out that they are almost certainly musk strawberries (Fragaria moschata). I really don't want to share them, neither does my 4 year old daughter. Flies that land on them are inclined to get me and my daughter quite cross.



Occasionally I take a tea towel to them. I'm a Lord at tea towel flicking. This is not a specialist practice one might part with considerable sums to experience, but the old fashioned twist-it-up-and-flick-against-someones-leg-with-a-loud-snap painful thing, much beloved of school children. Third only to the Chinese burn and the dead leg. Or maybe fourth behind the wedgey. Depends which class of school you went to.

The tea towel is all very good but even when you are a Grandmaster of Teatowelery you're unlikely to get an astonishing hit rate. I've drawn blood with a casual flick of a tea towel, turned a light on with the snap of a wet tea towel, I've even flipped a tennis ball off the ground with one. I know what the shit I'm doing with a tea towel, but catching a fly, midair, I'm thinking my hit rate is maybe 20%, going up to maybe 60% for swatting one before it leaves a wall or kitchen surface. Like fly fishing, it's often more about the sport. Says the man who's never caught anything flyfishing.

I need another tool for delivering my prey unto the afterlife. If, while making one of my many cups of tea, I spot a few flies making parallelograms in the kitchen air or, worse, alighting on a surface, I walk around the kitchen with the Topflappen in one hand, slapping it against my leg or against the other palm, as if Major Von Hapen in Where Eagles Dare with a pair of leather gloves, having noticed something that's displeased him. This usually happens only when I'm on my own, at home, working. I don't actually mean to do it, it just happens. Probably as a result of repeated days working alone working on a book.

Around the kitchen I walk, a clipped march, with the occasional quick flourish of a turn. Heels may occasionally click together. The fly in range, I speak in a voice that alternates between Major Von Hapen's bark and a slightly camp Stephen Fry voice: 'Dies ist meine kitchen, und dies (SWAT).....ist meine Topflappen....und you vill bozzer meine kitchen nein more'.



I reckon my swat-to-kill rate is now about 80%. Thanks to meine Topflappen. Impressive stats homepestbotherers, I think you'll agree.




*Loyd Grossman and the original Churchill dog, if you must know.

A fool

An old friend went to a really tight school. By tight I mean nothing was considered in too poor taste. His mate Jimmy had a dad who developed Parkinsons. He took a few days of school by which time the news spread around to his friends. Jimmy was well chuffed to see all his mates at the gate waiting for him on his first day back. One by one they patted him on the shoulder - he was back, with his mates, who cared. They walked in through the gates together, letting Jimmy walk through first. All was good. Until they began singing this.

Another of his friends was known as Double Diamond. Not because of his preference for that distinctly average ale of the 70s (that is, apparently 'the beer that men drink') but because it has the same initials as Dead Dad: his dad had died unexpectedly of a heart attack.

Tight maybe, but it seems it was just the happy currency - better to be laughing and included than not.

Today would've been my dad's 75th birthday if he hadn't gone toes up a while back. It's been a lovely day, apart from running over my mobile with the tractor.

I did two quiet things in his memory....

I put 500g of the first picked



with 12 heads of



and 4 tablespoons of sugar, a couple of strips of lemon zest and a splash of water into a pan, simmered the lot gently for 15 minutes or so, before pushing the mush through a sieve. Whisked a 300g pot of double cream until gentle peaks formed - then folded it into the fruity puree. Into the fridge for a couple of hours: perfect gooseberry and elderflower fool...



...which I enjoyed with a glass of this



Happy birthday Double Diamond.

The Stones are not tres bon

Bloke wakes up in hospital and sees the doctor standing over his bed. 'Mr Jones, I have some good news and some bad news for you...I'm afraid we've had to amputate both legs...but the good news is I've sold your slippers''

This week and a bit has been a little like that - not that I'm in anyway less able
to audition for the part of Tarzan than I was previously, just that every small pleasure has been in some way tainted by a similarly significant tedium. At Chelsea Flower Show a couple of Mondays back, the weather was scorcio, the company* fabulous and the show itself much more to my liking than the previous year. Small gardens and large almost all had something to take my largely food-focusing eyes. One even had John Cooper Clarke reciting poems. There was a perfectly fine, specially commissioned one but nothing to touch the few of his back catalogue he squeezed in before. Like this one....

Lydia, Lydia
Get rid of your Chlamydia
Only an idiot
Would ever consider yer

I got talking to him thanks to a coincidental chat with the garden's designer that suddenly included him - it would've made my week had he not spent a good 15 minutes trying to convince me that the Stones were still the world's best band. Give me 35 years and all the dosh there is and I reckon I could come up with more than a couple of decent albums and the odd ok single. By the same measure of greatness Herman's Hermits should be on a stadium tour.**

John John
The Stones are not tres bon
John
anyone
if asked, would say 'non'
John

I repaired to the food tent for some chips. They were fantastic. I couldn't find any salt.

Enough: I'll try to take the glass as half full. So, while I have 200 apricots affected by a potentially lethal combination of brown rot and blossom blight that has already done for 3 plums and a few dozen apricots....I will brush over them and focus on the couple of areas that are doing that lovely shift from trying to get a foothold into knitting together to great a place with its own identity.

Last year, after a false start a few years ago, I laid down the foundations of a forest garden. This involved a lot of mulch mat and some trees that one day should grow large. It looked a bit sad if truth be told but when you're planting trees and most perennials you do develop an imagination, seeing it for what it will be rather than what it is. Or perhaps that's the growers self-deception. The year before I'd created an allotment, I'd called it a climate change allotment, and a 21st century allotment - both zipping off the tongue less lightly than the Big Daddy splash. I still haven't found that phrase that encapsulates the loveliness, sustainability and deliciousness all in a kind of three word West Country haiku - one day. Suggestions on a virtual postcard most welcome....

Both spaces take the idea of forest gardening - planting in tiers using all or fewer of all the forest layers from canopy to subterranean - and both areas are dedicated to getting only entirely delicious food in the process. Almost everything (the 'almost' is a safety net, I think it's all) is perennial. Almost everything is edible, and if it's not it's there to draw in beneficial insects or fix nitrogen so that the edibles get an easier ride. More on how the forest garden is evolving next time...or the time after if something more interesting comes to mind. What's going on in the allotment is fascinating enough.



Having settled in and adjusted to their new home they're getting on with being quietly impressive. The Himalayan rhubarb is flowering like crazy, up to 11 feet high and rising, and even a kiwi is flowering...



...as are all three of the varieties of chaenomeles, including the Cido...



while all the chives (Black Isle and White chives below) are throwing up differently coloured variations of flavour in their leaves and hollow stems.





I'm a little fascinated by the Himalayan rhubarb and it's mad flowers. I shouldn't have let it flower if I wanted to eat any, but I wanted to see what it looked like when allowed to do what it fancies. It's getting ridiculously tall....



...with the flowers opening out into amaranth-like tassles



...even the stem is incredible



Never mind the individuals, the allotment itself is just starting to come together, to shift from a scattering of seemingly randomly placed plants to the beginnings of a place. The plants are starting to grow towards and even into each other. Relationships are quietly being formed.

The Rubus spectabilis, with its sweet-tart berries, is giving the gladeye to the Moroccan mint....



...the Scottish lovage is giving the truck drivers flash to the blue honeysuckle (which in turn is popping out incredible berries, usually the first of any fruit ready to eat here)...





...and the Japanese parsley is getting overfriendly with the creeping strawberries...



...while the young American bladdernut enjoys a little protection in the shade of the Himalayan rhubarb.



And the Egyptian walking onions are wandering their merry way around. If you're not familiar with them, they're a weird combination of all that's good about spring onions, shallots chives. Green hollow leaves poke enthusiastically up at the first sign of warmth, developing small bulbils (mini-onions) that gradually weigh the leaves down towards the ground until they touch the soil, allowing the clutch of bulbils to root and grow into a new plant.



This is what they look like as they develop and release new centres where the bulbils grow and throw out more secondary leaves....



..which in turn form more bulbils, which release more leaves...and so it continues - 'walking' around your garden, giving you leaves and bulbs as it goes. If you like the sound of them you can order them from Edulis.



And the bees are going mad for the comfrey.








* Mostly spent with Laetitia M, Lia L, Emma T, James AS, Tamsin from English Garden magazine and Nina, the queen of the Malvern shows.

**Which of course they should.

Go to Otter Farm | by Mark D