Tuesday, March 26, 2019

The feeding tree

Life before chickens was simple. All I had to do was scatter grain on the ground, and the birds would visit. When the chickens arrived, they would not get a chance to eat the grain unmolested. And so I needed alternatives.

 Our lovely apricot tree provided the solution. It is aging now, and dying in parts. THe trunk is almost completely hollow, and I began to put grain into the hollow of the larger branches, and also scatter a little along the craggy trunk.

It seems to have worked.

Sparrows cluster to eat a roll of dough

White-cheeked bulbuls wait for their turn

A slaty tree-pie eating rice

Thursday, March 21, 2019

The only real Vindaloo

The five stages of grief are a lie.

For me, grief is like the beach holidays that we would take when I was a child. Amma would sit on the beach while her daughters played in the water and watch us. The rule was that each time one of us got knocked down by a wave, we were to stand up. The idea was that Amma could know we were okay.

Of course, in practice that meant that I would get knocked down, flail wildly, manage to stand up spluttering, and get knocked over again by the even-bigger wave that had been rearing up behind me all this time.

I had thought that the nights of waking up because I was unable to inhale were past me. But then our wedding anniversary came up. I realised that Amma would not call me up to wish me that day or ever again. I bought a new pressure cooker and automatically reached for the phone to tell her and got punched one more time by the realization of loss.

Yesterday I decided to cook pork vindaloo for myself in that brand-new pressure cooker. Mian had been gone for a few days and I was tired of eating leftovers.  I made it properly using Amma's handwritten recipe; when I opened the mixer jar in which I had ground the masala I burst into tears. That was the smell of most of the happy times of my childhood.We had a lot of fun times around pork vindaloo- a special treat for us.

But here is her recipe.
As far as we are concerned this is the only authentic pork vindaloo recipe.  Make it and enjoy. If you don't eat pork, the masala paste is a great rub for any oily fish. If you are a vegetarian, I suppose you could try it on potatoes for a Goan version of patatas brava. But please, no chicken or 'mixed-veg'- that's just wrong.
I follow the recipe as she wrote it in my copy of Thangam Phillip's book, with one exception. Mum would cook the pork before cutting it small. I cut it into inch-or-smaller cubes before cooking and then pressure  cook everything together.

Pork vindaloo

Cut 1 Kg pork into small pieces. You need some fat in the pork, and we also keep the skin on.
Soak 15 kashmiri chillies in vinegar for two hours  (or you can just use kashmiri chilli powder)
Grind together- garlic cloves from one big head (or more) + 2 heaped tsp cumin+ 15 peppercorns + 5 green cardamoms + the soaked chillies + 3 nos of 2" long sticks of cinnamon + 10 cloves + 1/2 tsp turmeric + 1/4 cup of a dark vinegar (sugarcane or malt) + the pulp from a lemon-sized ball of tamarind (about 3 Tbs)
Slice 5 onions and maybe two or three fat pieces of pork thinly.
Heat a pressure cooker and 'dry fry' the thin slices of onion and pork fat. You don't need to add oil because the fat will render.
When it begins to brown, add the pork, the ground masala, salt, two bay leaves (the Indian kind, the leaves of cassia cinnamon) and just enough water to barely cover (less if your meat is very tender).
Let three or four whistles go, and then simmer for 20 minutes or so till tender.

Eat with rice or soft white bread. And beer. It's V.good, as Amma wrote.

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Winter warmth

It's winter. The entire garden (not just the north slopes) are covered with a crackly layer of frost every morning, the bird bath has a layer of ice on it, and the chickens have morphed into little plant-destroying terrors. But here is the surprisingly warm round up of what's happening:
1. Strawberry! The first fruit on our alpine strawberries. Hopefully, this spring will bring many more.

2. Cotoneaster. This is not in my garden. This is along a path the dogs and I walk often. I have tried taking cuttings indoors and outdoors, in winter and the monsoon, hardwood and softwood, and failed each time. This winter, I plan to sneak down and take a plant. A crime, I know. But look at it!

3. Tilling. The winter is the time when I resist local ecological knowledge. The thing to do here is have nicely tilled beds around fruit trees and in the kitchen garden. So every year, G hires minions to dig up the terraces. To me, it is a waste of topsoil and microorganisms to expose the soil to the frost. And so, after they are done tilling, I go around the garden like an evil gnome undoing all their stellar work and dumping leaves and sticks (to keep the leaves from blowing away) around the plants. Why do I not use compost instead? One, I do not have that much compost and two, the chickens will eat it all.

4. Wildlife refuge. I do not cut back my salvia and chrysanthemums all winter. They do look a mess, but I am rewarded when I walk out in the mornings and see the little thrushes that roost there. So the mess stays.

5. On the other end of the scale, this bare and sad dug up patch will be a new garden soon. It is in the square courtyard near Mian's bakery where the Kiwi trellis is. And I want a yellow and white garden here. The area is very shady and so the rose will be happier moved. There I will plant ferns and the lovely Hedychium spicatum which grows wild here. But first comes the adding compost and the mulching.

 6. Mullein: My seed scattering experiments failed this summer. (Or maybe they didn't. Maybe I just need to wait till spring). But now I am eager to try taking root cuttings. Gardener's World, to which I have become a trifle addicted during these long winter evenings, assures me that nothing could be easier. Well, let's see.

As always, Six-on-Saturday is hosted by the very talented Propagator. Do head on over to his blog and check out the other gardens!

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Honey, I strained the wax

The last time Mian and I processed our honey, we did it the hard way by squeezing the combs through a ricer. Not only was it a very difficult and messy process, but we also lost a lot of honey.

This time, I asked G how people here managed it. "I have never done it", he replied. "But my father just boils it all together and then removes the wax."

Genius! And that is what I did.
Here are our combs

And here they are being gently melted down using a double-boiler setup.
Once it was all melted down, I put the bowl into the fridge overnight. In the morning, the wax and sludge had risen to the top, with fairly clean honey at the bottom.
Here it is:
What was left was some very sticky wax with honey in it. I put that out, along with the bowl and spatula.
The bees seemed happy to reclaim atleast some of what had been stolen from them.Here are closeups

Monday, November 26, 2018


It started when G came and told us his hive had yielded 4kg of honey. So far, our total yield over the last few years has been 200 gms. We would check our bees, we decided.

I spent the morning sewing a veil onto my sun hat. The next day, G came over with some clay to seal up the hive again, we cut up a cotton towel to burn for smoke, and gathered our bee-broom and knife.

G opened the hive as Mian and I hovered anxiously by. The first feeling was disappointment, the comb in front of us was empty.
 The second was concern. The back of the door was covered in what we thought was water but turned out to be some sort of transparent slime. Does anyone know what it is? I tasted it (not a good idea with an unknown substance, please don't do as I do) and it was tasteless. Will it harm the bees? Is it a mould?

and then of course, it was decision time. To take the honey or not? G sliced off the first two empty combs as I held the smoker, a plate, and a torch. The remaining combs did have honey.

We took two, and had a debate whether to take another one or not. Not, we decided and left the bees with three combs to tide them over the winter (I also feed them jaggery once all the flowers are gone).

Once that was done, G sealed up the hive again while I trundled back and forth carrying the bees that were trapped in the window to the porch.

Once that was done, I went to begin straining the honey and was startled by a rhythmic movement in the bowl. Part of the combs were brood combs. Now that was awkward. And very upsetting.

Too late to undo that.

Here is our harvest-
The honey combs
 And the unfortunate 'waste'
I will render the empty combs we removed down to beeswax and make some Christmas gifts, but the brood comb is too difficult (and yucky) to clarify properly. I will just throw those away, I am afraid.
After I separated the brood comb from the honey comb, I began to clarify the honey. And that is another story. 

Saturday, November 24, 2018

A mixed bag on Saturday

Winter is supposed to be a time of rest. Instead, Mian and I find ourselves Red-Queening our way through the days, scrambling to not fall too far behind. We were travelling for the last two weeks and returned to find the persimmons clamouring for attention.And the 50Kg of Malta we had ordered arrived.  So I am now back to the relentless peeling, pulping, boiling, bottling that means winter to me.
But here is what is going on in my garden:
1. Veggies: Miraculously, we are still eating quite a bit from our garden. True, radishes seem to make up a rather large part of our diet, but did you see anything as simultaneously summery and christmassy as these tomatoes?

2. Raat Rani: Or the night-flowering jasmine. I tried and killed two plants before this one survived in a frost-protected spot. The first blossom is out, and I am in love.

3. Dianthus 'sooty': The jasmine is a surprise, the dianthus is an old reliable. It never has too many flowers, but always manages to produce a scent-filled jewel or two throughout the winter

4. Aphids: Otherwise known as the bane of my existence. I presently have them on my strawberries and my star jasmine. I spray with a mixture of soap water and neem oil, but it is another Red Queen struggle. Does anyone have any other suggestions?

5. Decisions: Here is the view from our patio where we spend most of our afternoons. I am undecided what to do about the suckers around the persimmon. One option is to remove them, of course. Then I get an open view (but lose privacy) and the tree looks pretty. The other is to just thin them out to maybe a half dozen stems and then in a few years remove the tree so that I get a multi-stemmed short persimmon tree which will be easy to harvest. What do you think? And please excuse the poor beheaded plum on the left- that was before my time, and I don't have the heart to take it out entirely

6. Dianthus Imperialis: This is the fortnight of it's glory. And what glory it is! My oldest bunch is now five years old, and for the last three years, I have been planting a stem or two every year. All for this joy.

Please do go on over to The Propagator's blog to visit other Six-on-Saturdayers!

Saturday, November 3, 2018

Six things I am grateful for

I don't regret my mother's passing; she was in so much discomfort at the end that it would have been selfish to want her to stay longer. And she made it clear to her children, "Don't be angry if I leave now, I am very tired."
I regret very much not telling her enough just how central a part of my life she was, and continues to be. Nearly all my woolens have been knitted by her. And of those, there are two that are the definition of winter. Winter begins when I pull them out of the bag in which they have been carefully stored and it ends when I wash them, sun them, and  pack them away for the next seven months. And all through the cold months, they keep me feeling warm and loved.
The first is a wheat-coloured cardigan, warm and well-fitting and in a lovely colour. My knitting friends have praised it for the accuracy of its neckline (my friends give very precise compliments) but she valued it so lightly that when Madhu chewed a hole in it, Amma repaired the sweater with purple thread. Nevertheless, I wear it all day.
And then there is the bedjacket. Knowing my love for old Hollywood, Amma made this for me from a 1930s pattern. It is lacy, fluffy and exactly the sort of thing Hedy Lamarr might have worn to bed (if she had a mother who knitted). It's only after taking the photos that I realised that the camera was in black and white mode, but I kept it that way- it seems fitting.

I always told her when I wore them; but I don't think she realised just how much all the things she gave me or taught me shaped my life. I wish I had spoken my appreciation more.

And that brings me to the garden. My garden is shaped by the many many gifts friends have given me. And I tell them often, but I  have now realised that it is never often enough.
So here we go
1. Ganesh: At the four corners of our house are four honeysuckle creepers. And they give us more joy than we ever thought possible. All started from cuttings from Ganesh's house.
Besides this, he has given me cuttings of his hydrangeas, and his night jasmine.

2. Lakshmiji: When I first moved in, I praised her garden and lamented that I have a garden but nothing to fill it with. She gave me plastic shopping bags full of vinca, mexican sage, goldenrod, iris, and phlox. "These will take over your garden quickly", she said. "Don't complain when you get tired of them!" I have not reached that point yet.

3. Deepa: The first friend I made when I came here, and still the closest. It is she who gave me her lavender and her succulents, and a glorious salmon-pink rose.

4. Ann: When I grow up, I want to be her. And the many many plants she has given me remind me of that.  Here are my star jasmine and my magnolia, just to name two.

5. Michael: When we visited him in Nagaland, Michael noticed me helping myself to the grape tomatoes that grew so abundantly in his village. The day we left, he gave me a strip of cloth on which he had saved some seeds. Four years later, the Naga tomatoes are going strong and have become the tomato of choice for several homes in our village. Here they are, ripening well into winter.

6. Beth: I cannot grow basil. I don't know what it is I do, but my seeds rarely germinate. The few times they do, they bolt immediately. Beth however is our resident winter gardening genius. Ever since she learnt of my basil woes she has been supplying me with a couple of plants every year. As you see, they are still chugging along.

So many friends, so much love. Mian and I are fortunate. And I mean to tell my friends so. Much more often.

Linking this to Six-on-Saturday on The Propagator's blog. Another source of wonderful friends, support, and appreciation.