Apple Tree Cottage
30 June, 1978
Not a summer subject, is it! We are now in the part of the year furthest away from Christmas, holly, and mistletoe, so why Christmas puddings at the end of flaming June?
Wimbledon is in full swing, and the strawberries and cream are selling, not like hot cakes, but as strawberries and cream always sell at Wimbledon when the sun is in the sky, and it is the middle of the first week and there is so much still to look forward to. There may even be a Test Match to enjoy too. I remember the late 50s when Christine Truman was playing at Wimbledon and Fred Trueman, the Yorkshire fast bowler, was playing in a Test at Lords, and they sent each other a telegram of best wishes simply because the shared the same surname, or nearly! Such was the gentility of those days. Sadly, it has gone!
Stan, our postman here, has just brought me a letter from Spain. He arrived here about twenty minutes ago and has just left, because besides bringing other people’s news, Stan always brings his own. He is our walking newspaper. He picks up news from the first villagers on his round, and they, at least, receive their mail reasonably early, and then he distributes it free of charge to those of us whom he calls on later. As Rumour in Virgil’s Aeneid, Stan never tires. “Vires acquirit eundo”. Just like Rumour, Stan “gains strength as he goes on”. He devotes the same energy and enthusiasm to the last people on his round as to the first. The final households are given their post quite late in the afternoon, for Stan always seems to finish his round just as it is getting dark, winter or summer, whatever time that happens to be.
Stan is as effective as our local radio. Whether he broadcasts his news in the same form as he receives it is another matter. But then the most reputable news agencies are guilty of elaboration from time to time. For sheer speed of spreading information, Stan cannot be faulted. We never need to read our postcards, for example. Stan tells us who they are from and what they say before he hands them over. In fact, he is more efficient than the Post Office might wish, because he also tells us about the postcards addressed to everyone else. The neighbours up the road know about my cousin’s new car an hour or so before I do. The Post Office has never claimed to provide such a comprehensive service.
Besides news, Stan also gives the weather forecast, and this for free too. After years out in the elements winter and summer, with his face brown and weather-beaten, he glances expertly up at the heavens and pronounces his verdict. Unfortunately, he is not always right. Many a time, thanks to listening to Stan, I have stayed in and lit a good log fire on a day that has turned out hot and sunny, or I have gone on a long horse ride on one of Stan’s “bright days” and come home wet, cold and just a little resentful. Once or twice, on purpose, I have done exactly the opposite of what he has suggested, and of course, the law of cussedness being what it is, each time he turned out to be right. Once I got the car stuck in a snowstorm he had predicted, and the next day I had to listen patiently to his “But I warned thee. I told thee not to go out. I could see the sky were full of it!”
The day will come, and I suppose it is not far off, when our letters will be flashed from one home computer to another, and the Stans of the world will disappear, and we shall only have our computer to talk to. It is strange how the way we send letters today has not really changed since the days of Jane Austen. And it will be a pity if that comes to an end. Some things go on. Others change, and we see the change in our lifetimes, as when television arrived and those who could afford it bought one to see the Queen’s coronation. That was in 1953. Anyway, Stan has left me with a letter from Spain.
It is from my Aunt Jane. She is restless and single and no longer young. She travels the world, settles in a place, puts down roots, and then is up and off to put down roots again. She is one of those wanderers who have to move on. When they know the one-way streets in a town and the best shop to buy bread and have made some good friends, they up sticks and go to find out the one-way streets and bakeries and different friends in another town in another country. When they master some basic conversations in one language, they leave and go off to get to grips with those in another. Aunt Jane stays here from time to time and has enthusiastically helped us with planting the garden. But she has never stayed to eat the carrots she has sown or potatoes she has planted or to see the roses she pruned burst into flower. She travels round the world, happy in her way, I suppose, but always on the move.
Now she is in Barcelona, and she writes, “In a grocery near the cathedral I have just found a Christmas pudding. It must have been on the shelf, forgotten, for several months, but Christmas puddings keep for years, and so I bought it. I am going to boil it up next Sunday”. It is amazing that any shop in Barcelona should sell Christmas puddings at all, let alone in in mid- June, but Aunt Jane has found one. It will soon be time for her to move on.
It will probably be a very good Christmas pudding, but I am sure it will not taste right in Barcelona in Spain. In just the same way “paella” is lacking in something if you eat it in Devon. Food does not travel well. Good food is part of the routines and weather of where it was born. It can be transplanted, and it may survive but it does not flourish. Pineapples must be eaten where there is sun, and dumplings in a steaming stew only reach perfection when the mists of autumn are swirling around the garden outside.
Every rule is made to be broken, and here the exception is pizza. Pizza does travel. It tastes even better out of Italy. My brother, a traveller like his aunt, claims he has enjoyed fine pizzas on four continents. Perhaps, in the case of pizzas, it is the cook who travels. Behind a good pizza there is often a cook of Italian ancestry mixing the dough, twirling it expertly in the air and serving it into the oven on a long racket with the flair of a great tennis player.
Apart from pizzas (and possibly curry, yes, a case can also be made for curry) food does not travel happily. It is merely transported. Take the mint tea of the Tuaregs, for example. In the baking Sahara you are invited into a tent, and you sit on a mat on the sand. The mint tea is boiled in a tiny metal teapot on the charcoal. Then, with a lot of sugar, it is poured from a height into the little glasses, of which you drink three, no more and no less. After three glasses you rise from the mat and take your leave. I once made some mint tea in Somerset, but it wasn’t a success. There were no smiling Tuaregs sitting on their mats, no tent, and no sun.
I remember eating maple syrup with Canadian friends in Niger. While they ate, they were thinking wistfully of Canadian winters, Canadian childhoods and of Christmases long past. The syrup meant something to them, but as a food, it had little appeal. Our African friends got a bit sticky, politely said it was “very nice” and wondered what all the fuss was about. The occasion always outweighs the food. On its own, even champagne disappoints. But we drink it when we have something to celebrate and so we enjoy it.
And mangoes! Delicious under the Saharan sun, a luxurious recompense earned by living in a hard land, mangoes were a let-down when I brought a few out here, to the freshness of our village. Uncle Jasper said that they were very fine, but that, to be honest, he preferred Victoria plums.
None of the things we have known and enjoyed on our travels can be brought back, except as memories. When we come home, we suffer from reverse culture shock. We cannot explain the meaning of those days of heat and tiredness, of friendships made and adventures lived through. Those whose narrow round has always been this village and the hills around it cannot understand us when we mention what we experienced.
Rugs and coffee pots, camel saddles and Tuareg swords, when put on the wall here are like seaweed out of water, dull and ordinary. They gather dust. We cannot put our youth on the wall. Those countries we travelled over, those jobs we did, those workmates we had and those friends we made, we miss them as we look back from our middle-aged armchairs. But are we really thinking of those things? Or are we just remembering ourselves when we were taller?
Anyway, we will wait for Aunt Jane’s next letter to see what she thought of her Christmas pudding. Knowing her, I believe she will enjoy it because she makes the most of whatever comes her way. I am sure that if she could read this, she’d pour herself another brandy and say, “Rubbish! Sentimental rubbish! This pudding is far better than the one I had at your house that freezing Christmas four years back!