Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The shock of bad news, and the comfort of roses

This Pierre de Ronsard (Eden) rose is rampaging madly all over our front garden at the moment. I found it, more dead than alive, in the bargain bin of a garden centre years ago. I bought it on a whim and took it home where Skunk looked at it, aghast. (Any other codependent gardeners out there?) It looked so miserable that no one thought it would survive, but it has, and it rewards us with spectacular shows of long-lasting double blooms that fill the garden with colour and scent from May to mid-November each year. Oh, and in case you were wondering, the Surrey County Council private car park sign was given to me by a friend who 'liberated' it in her student days. Honest.

These roses are Nature's way of reminding me not to lose hope when I think the sky has fallen.

Had a nasty shock yesterday morning. Skunk, barely 3 months into his new job - the wonderful new position he found after being laid off last autumn by the company where he worked for almost 20 years - was told by his boss that he was now surplus to requirements, so they were letting him go. I was crushed by the news because his new job seemed to be going so well. He was enjoying the work, his new employers had told him they were delighted with him, he looked like a new person. I felt as if the rug had been pulled out from under us. How dare they! Why now? And more importantly, what were we going to do? 

Truth is, I simply don't have any answers right now. The sun is shining but the world suddenly feels like it has gone cold. I know it's natural to feel overwhelmed by fear and anger and self-pity when these things happen. It's important that I face today's feelings rather than deny them. It's even more crucial to reassure myself that the situation will eventually change, that something will turn up, another door will open as this one closes, and my family and I will be okay. We've been through worse, and we'll get through this as well. I know that happiness lies not in our circumstances, but in what we make of them.

I'm going to hold on to that.

This much I know -- life is full of surprises, like this climbing rose.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

In Arcadia

This is my favourite private garden. It's beautiful in all seasons, even in the gloomiest part of winter. In spring, however, it's glorious beyond compare. It belongs to two close friends, J (who's 80) and her daughter B. The two of them do all the gardening on this property that's almost 2 hectares in size. They are my gardening heroes. I stop by every chance I get. A visit to their garden inspires me to redouble my efforts with ours. But I also come away feeling a bit despairing of the ordinariness of ours which is a fraction in size. You might understand how I feel after seeing these photographs.

[Double click on the photos to see them in better detail. I have a great new camera and am still learning to use it. By which I mean that I've given up swearing at the instruction manual and am figuring things out in my usual manner, through trial and error.]

When J and her husband bought this property some thirty years ago, it was an abandoned farm with nothing on it but some walnut, apple and beech trees. The garden was entirely designed and planted by J, who's English and comes from a family of passionate gardeners.

Acid green leaves of a variegated maple make a nice backdrop for dark pink magnolia flowers.

This is the woodland part of the garden. Rhododendrons and azaleas will soon set this corner ablaze.

Even the composting area (the wooden structure partly visible on the left) is pretty.

On the path up to the wood, this copper beech is just coming into leaf.  

I love this spot at the end of a long path bordered by tall hedges. If you look closely you'll see 'Et in Arcadia ego' carved into the bench. I think it roughly translates into 'Even in Arcadia I exist.'

One of three living willow sculptures by B, who's a sculptor. This willow igloo (we call it a wigloo) has a bench inside it. My children made this wigloo their playhouse when they were younger. J and B also encouraged them to build a fort inside one of their big conifers. Legs and Noodle would collect material for their fort in the wood. We used to hear their woodland skirmishes - the crash and snap of swords and grenades (fallen branches and pine cones) punctuated by loud yelping and hooting. 

Under this huge linden (or lime) tree is a bench that's perfect for post-prandial naps. Its branches swoop all the way down to the ground, so when it comes into full leaf in a few weeks, this bench becomes almost invisible, making it the perfect place to hide. 

A closer shot of the secret bench under the linden. There are a few other linden trees in this garden. When they bloom for a few weeks in late June - early July, bees will forsake most other flowers to flock to them. Linden flowers have the most haunting scent. Their fragrance fills the entire neighbourhood.

Three ewes and three lambs owned by a local farmer keep the grass down in the apple orchard.

This inquisitive little fellow tried his best not to show me he was interested. He trailed me around the apple orchard at a safe distance while I pretended to ignore him while taking photographs. Once I was safely on the other side of the fence, however, his curiosity got the better of him. See his newly shorn mama lurking next to him?

Two local bee keepers, one of them a Druid, keep their hives in this garden. The beehives sit between the apple orchard and the bluebell wood. We're big honey lovers, and all I can say is that the honey from J and B's garden is the best we've ever had.

Happy honey bees!

The more formal part of the garden. Both J and B are masters with topiary shears. I just like to stand and gawk.

The part on the right that's in shade is a wildflower meadow.

Snakeshead Fritillaries (Fritillaria meleagris) have naturalised under a walnut tree.  Here's another look at this tree earlier in the spring when it was surrounded by a carpet of daffodils and crocuses.

 B's vegetable garden or potager wakes up from its winter sleep. Everything is organically grown.

The potager overlooks the apple orchard on one side.

Double, deep pink hellebores.

The view from the terrace of J's house in late afternoon sun. 

Some of these large box and hebe domes started out as cuttings.

Impossible to resist stroking these box topiary balls by the front door.

Climbing roses on the barn wall.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Finding chocolate redemption (and a recipe!)

Some people I know have declared that they're giving up this, that or the other for Lent. The odd thing is, none of them are particularly religious, or even all that disciplined, so I wonder why they do it. Has Lent become just another trending thing, like being disgusted with Tiger Woods has become a trend? How does giving something up for 40 days make one a better person, or change the world? Surely it takes much longer than that. Does abstaining from something like alcohol or dessert or shopping mean we give up the deeper emotional hungers that lead to these cravings in the first place?

Not knowing the answers to any of that, I baked brownies. When I'm in doubt about anything - anything at all - I bake. In fact, I baked two, just to give abstemiousness a kick up the backside. Abstinence and Catholic guilt have failed me as both moral compass or slimming aid, so I abandoned them a long time ago. I've been a happier camper since.

I'm not giving anything up for Lent, except the artifice of Lent itself.

Over the years I've experimented with dozens of brownie recipes. I found a few I really liked and tweaked them until I came up with a version that really rocked. Everyone loves my brownies. They're complex, fudgy and aromatic. People fight over them. Girlfriends hide them from their husbands and children. I get invited to dinner parties on the off chance I might bring some. Once, someone asked to marry me because of them. I kid you not.

Use the best quality dark chocolate you can get. Therein lies redemption.


This recipe makes two pans of brownies because chocoholics never bake just one. You can half the recipe if you wish.


185 grams / 6.5 ounces unsalted butter (If you substitute margarine, I'll hex you.)
170 grams / 6 ounces best quality dark chocolate (I use 74% dark chocolate)
2 cups / 400 grams white sugar
4 large eggs, at room temperature
2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1 cup plus 2 tablespoons cake flour (not self-raising)
2 tablespoons ground almonds
1 tablespoon espresso powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 teaspoon baking powder

Optional (nah, not really):
1 cup walnuts or pecans or a combination of both, coarsely chopped
1/2 cup or more dark or milk chocolate chips or a combination of both (If you can't get chocolate chips, simply medium chop some good chocolate with a knife.)


Adjust oven rack to middle position. Heat oven to 325 degrees F / 162 degrees C / gas mark 3.

Butter and flour two 8- or 9-inch baking tins (square or round are both fine).

Spread chopped nuts evenly on baking sheet and toast in oven until fragrant, about 5-6 minutes. Set aside to cool.

In a medium bowl, whisk to combine flour, ground almonds, powdered coffee, salt and baking powder. Set aside.

Melt chocolate and butter in a large heatproof bowl set over a saucepan of barely-simmering water, stirring occasionally until smooth. When chocolate mixture is completely smooth, remove bowl from saucepan and gradually whisk in sugar. Add eggs one at a time, whisking after each addition until thoroughly combined. Whisk in vanilla. Add flour mixture in 3 additions, folding in with rubber spatula until batter is completely smooth. Do not overbeat, unless you want your brownies rigid like Victoria Beckham.

Transfer batter to prepared pans. Using spatula, smooth batter into sides and corners of pans. Do not resist the urge to lick the spatula when you're done. Sprinkle toasted nuts and chocolate chips over batter.*

Bake until a toothpick inserted into center of brownies comes out with a few moist crumbs attached, 30-35 minutes. Cool on wire rack to room temperature, about 2 hours. Turn out into a serving plate, slice and serve.

Store leftovers (leftovers??) in an airtight container at room temp, for up to 3 days. Storing them in the fridge will give them an even fudgier texture.

* Sometimes I like both nuts and chocolate chips on top. Sometimes I mix the nuts into the batter but sprinkle the chocolate chips on top, as shown in these photos. Or vice versa. Whatever turns you on.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Archipelago of my affections

This wretched blog has been in a coma for the last three months. Can't say I've been a busy mum, because there are women far busier than myself who blog daily. While busy certainly comes into it, so does distracted, uninspired, undisciplined and most of all, lazy. That's it, mostly. Lazy.

I've lived in Belgium for 23 years and have Belgian nationality. But there's little doubt that my heart's home will always be the Philippines, the archipelago of my affections. I still call those 7,107 islands home even if my last visit was 6 years ago, and a shaky bank balance reminds me that the next visit is far off. I call it home, though I regularly feel desperate and angry about how things are over there: the grinding poverty, the natural disasters, the Catholic church's continuing ban on birth control which is criminally irresponsible given the country's population of 97 million with a growth rate of almost 2%, the shocking corruption of politicians from the President on down, the malaise of the educational system, the non-existence of healthcare, the utter disregard for the environment - the dumping of garbage everywhere, unchecked urban sprawl, the rape of coral reefs and pillage of old growth forests, the unquestioned sway of the West, particularly America, on Philippine culture, and the consumerism that shouts from billboards and gropes pinched pocketbooks in sprawling malls. It shocks me that rich friends think nothing of giving a 9 year old child a 3G iPhone or buying their daughter a $6,000 Louis Vuitton handbag for her 16th birthday, while people who've lost everything in recent floods huddle in shanties closeby. And it saddens me that families spend less time enjoying healthy, home-cooked meals together in favour of eating junk-laden burgers and drinking soulless caramel brulee lattes at Starbucks cafes which have sprouted like a rash all over the place.

Living half a world away and railing about the pitiable state of my homeland does not help much. At most it brings me fleeting relief from frustration which lasts five minutes, if that. In a feeble, angsty First World way, I wring my hands and commiserate with the plight of my fellow Filipinos, for all the good it does them or me. I can get really hot under the collar or feel righteous or shouty or guilty; often all those things all at once. Powerlessness - seeing it in others, and feeling it in myself - is hard.

The joy of seeing comes from being aware that life brings its own little corrections to any given situation, if I take the time to look beyond myself and my overblown judgements.

I came upon this beautiful gem of a video yesterday, and found it starkly moving. It was directed by the artist-activist Mae Paner and shot by Boy Yñiguez, a first rate cinematographer who also happens to be a dear friend. The small group that made it worked for free and produced it themselves. Sadly, there have been no takers for this video among cinemas and TV stations back home because it doesn't have any famous actors or politicians in it. Shame on them. If you like it, please share it with others.

It is simply about a poor boy who finds a paper Philippine flag in the dirt, dusts it off and climbs up an abandoned flagpole with it. The song in the background is the Lupang Hinirang, our national anthem, delivered with sparkling dignity by a children's choir instead of the orchestral bombast that usually accompanies it. That is all. And yet. It gave me pause and made me cry. Everything I love about my country IS in that boy - in the purchase of bare toes on slippery metal, in his unflinching ascent, in the shy smile of victory he allows himself when he reaches the top. He is golden like the morning.