One of the fascinating paradoxes of being human is that we are inescapably physical beings who yearn for transcendence. In other words, a well-balanced life should include both reason and a rapturous sense of wonder. Unfortunately, language really stumbles when emotions surge. We do not seem to have a precise vocabulary for complex feelings. How often have I found myself writing, 'words cannot express my gratitude', or, 'I cannot tell you how deeply touched I am'. It's frustrating. It's also, perhaps, the reason why many of us choose to create with a paintbrush or needle and thread. We use our hands to express the raw joy, love, and awe we experience when words fail us. Yesterday my nine-year old son Tristan performed in a room full of quiet people. He was playing a contemporary piece by a Breton composer for his guitar exam. He was serious and calm and his performance was moving. It is clear to me that Tristan plays music to express his gratitude for the beauty which surrounds him.
Tristan and I cherish our regular bicycle rides uphill in the vineyards and along the gentle banks of the Loire. It's not just about getting out in the sunlight, feeling the breeze, and relishing the challenge of flying downhill and climbing up steep roads (he's much better at that than I am). It's about abandonning ourselves to individual sensations, savouring them until they vanish. A fortnight ago I took my mother out for an early morning walk during one of her precious visits. As she buried her nose in a hefty sprig of lilac she told me how much she needed to hold on to such moments: smelling until the nose quits from the abundance of scent. I understood her, of course. The ephemeral lilac has turned to rust now but it was beautiful while it lasted.
Suddenly everything seems to be racing away too fast. We have sprung from spring to summer. I knew this was coming: this is our fourth year in Touraine. Abundant displays of wisteria are fading, the wild blue irises with smudges of violet stand tall for the time being, and poppies are everywhere. The familiar chirp of crickets will soon drown out the fading cuckoo. It's fast forward from now on and I am determined to go out on my bike and cultivate joy. Flowers deserve to be mulled over. Look to them for deeper truths. Their beauty may be brief but they can offer us a garden of memories.
'Stop Tristan', I shout as I see another elder tree in bloom. Most times, when he's too far ahead, I just screech to a halt, carefully cut a few luscious heads, and set off again. I'm on an elderflower mission these days. They are spilling over the banks of the river and I cannot leave them be. Our house is filled with their sweet, heady scent and I have dreamed of making elderflower fritters and trifle (both recipes are in Sara Paston-Williams' book Good Old-Fashioned Puddings).
I'm distracted by scents these days. All of nature is lush with romance and I simply want to join the party. The power of scents to evoke vivid memories has long been a favourite device of novelists and poets. Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past opens with the most famous ‘olfactory flashback’ in literature, when the sweet aroma of a simple little cake releases several hundred pages of childhood memories – or what Proust calls ‘the vast structure of recollection’. Vanilla is all about childhood memories, I believe, and they are almost invariably positive – sweet treats and rewards, ice-cream holidays, innocent pleasures. For me vanilla conjures up the exotic locations where its beautiful flower is cultivated under the warm sun. I often split a vanilla pod and add its precious dark seeds to a simple buttery cake. My children love it too.
And so Mademoiselle Vanille came to be:
I simply had to include a saucy picture of her bloomers mainly because I am quite smitten by the lace which trims them: it dates back to 1890! I was a little sad to see Mademoiselle Vanille go but, lucky girl, she is on her way to Ireland. I had such fun embroidering those exotic flowers and I had a vanilla pod beside me as I worked which I would occasionally sniff. The pod in question ended up in a pot filled with pudding rice, creamy milk and light brown sugar which lightly simmered for an hour. I broke three eggs, gently beat them in and then baked the rice pudding in a cake tin for half an hour. I made a caramel sauce with Breton salted butter. It's a very simple French recipe which comes from a stunning book of an author's favourite dishes: more on that at a later date!
As Chaucer said, 'This world is but a cherry fair'. To quote Katherine Swift in The Morville Year: "Cherry trees have always been synonymous with the brevity of life, not only because of the fleeting nature of their blossom, but because of the short season for their fruit. The sight of them, like the taste of the wild fruit, can be bitter-sweet."
Tristan has grown to love the wild orchard which is off the well-worn track we favour through the vineyards. Sometimes we stop to rest there, kicking off our shoes, and even singing occasionally. Now the green cherries, hanging in abundance, have a rosy tint. In a couple of weeks it will be time to pick them. I know that when these fruit are ripe I will be off with my basket and children to pick them and savour them. Happy days!
Freshly created to bring in the month of June. I'm dreaming of making cherry jam and clafoutis dusted with icing sugar. Mademoiselle Cerise has a handstitched and embroidered bag which she will fill with cherries when the time comes. And look! She's wearing bloomers too! If you would like to take a closer look at her, you may find her here.
I am left wondering how long I will continue making these little creatures which offer me so much joy?
I am so grateful for all your generous comments on my last post. Each and every one of you has given me pleasure. Thank you!