Sunday 24 July 2011

Flower actresses on a garden stage

In a neighbouring garden the Colette rose - firm buds like young bossoms, opening to light pink blooms with an apricot strain - is towering up the wall, creating a flower trail as it goes.  The real Colette, who wrote books in which she treats flowers and people with equal respect, would love this fountain of pink flowers.

When I was a little girl I believed flowers had faces and personalities.  I imagined the garden was a theatre. On the lawn I would arrange roses in small vases and cups in a semi-circle and I would pretend they were actresses while butterflies flitted and danced against a stage backdrop of blue sky with white clouds.  As an adult I still attribute personal characteristic to flowers and I can almost see them prancing around a horticultural stage.  Clearly the imagination of the nobility residing at the court of Versailles was equally fanciful for Baroque ballets and operas are bursting at the seams with garden nymphs, flowers, and goddesses.

One day in February 2009 I was taking the lift to the Performing Arts study room at the French National Library (BnF).  On arriving at the second floor the lift door juddered open to reveal the above poster on a facing wall and I was rooted to the spotMy heart was beating a jig.  The Centre national du costume de scène was holding an exhibition of garden inspired stage scenery and costumes from Louis XIV's reign to the present day.  Imagine my elation for the relation between garden and performing arts aesthetics was the pivot of my thesis. 

In the introduction to the superb exhibition catalogue the centre's director, Christian Lacroix, compared the garden to a theatrical space in which the backdrop changes with the passing seasons and the plants and flowers don varied costumes.  It is true that both garden and stage are ephemeral art forms however, fortunately, the spectator can commit to memory a passionate soliloquy or a spectacular roseI hope to share with you soon a few of the beautiful costume designs and scenery engravings revealed during the course of this inspiring exhibition.

Maybe some of you are familiar with the work of the German illustrator Silke Leffler?  Over the past few years I have collected prints, cards, children's books, and calenders of her work.  She portrays themes which are dear to my heart: friendship, sweetmeats, Christmas, and, of course, GaRdEnS!

Isn't this enchanting?  Here we have flowers with faces, AND the most delightful outfits. Look at those hats!  I wish I could wear one of those; don't you?

Leffler has illustrated several books.  My favourite is The Flower BallCauliflower and Carrot scandalize the other vegetables in the potager because they wish to attend the flower ball.  "Beware of the garden flowers beyond the fence - they look down on us", says Lettuce.  However Cauliflower and Carrot are self-confident and they make a beautiful sight at the dance.  Soon the Marigold and a charming Willow Catkin join them and the other flowers start to applaud.

All illustrations are from Silke Leffler's Mein Gartenjahr (Grätz Verlag).

May I ask you for some advice, please?  I am feeling inspired to make a garden theme blanket using the colours in the first illustration portraying the five flower ladies.  I am on the lookout for some DK yarn which is pure wool - with a touch of merino perhaps - which boasts a fairly wide range of coloursIf you have a favourite I would really appreciate you letting me know.  Thank you!

Before I leave you I would like to share the dress I made for Angélique this week.

 It is a simple dress and I am naming it "Dog Rose" after the following picture:

This is the second dress I have made for little Miss A: the first was a very simple christening gown made in a mad rush last August.  The pattern comes from this Japanese book which was written by Yoshiko Tsukiori.  I am surprised that it is only available in French translation but the diagrams are pretty clear to follow, I think. 

I hope you all a happy, inspiring week.  I am taking the children off to England in a few days whilst my dear husband stays behind to work hard.  In France when starting a new job you have to work one whole year before taking a holiday so wish him luck, please!  

See you soon.

Saturday 16 July 2011

Angélique's Cardigan

Have you ever read this book?

The Czech author, Karel Capek, was a passionate amateur gardener who composed this book in 1929 as a testament to the gardener's inextinguishable devotion to his plot of cultivated earth.  It is both whimsical and earnest in it's description of the gardener's obsessions:

"I will now tell you how to recognize a real gardener. 'You must come to see me,' he says: 'I will show you my garden.' Then, when you go just to please him, you will find him with his rump sticking up somewhere among the perennials. 'I will come in a moment,' he shouts to you over his shoulder. 'Just wait till I have planted this rose.' 'Please don't worry,' you say kindly to him.  After a while he must have planted it; for he gets up, makes your hand dirty, and beaming with hospitality he says: 'Come and have a look; it's a small garden, but - Wait a moment,' and he bends over a bed to weed some tiny grass. [...] A quarter of an hour later he straightens up again, 'Ah,' he says, 'I wanted to show you that bell flower, Campanula Wilsonae.  This is the best campanula which - Wait a moment, I must tie up this delphinium.' After that you go away on tiptoe, leaving his behind sticking up among the perennials. (pp.7-8)

Capek's book follows the gardener's state of mind (which rarely strays far from his little plot)during the course of a year.  It is also a book about the gardener's love affair with the earth which, the author explains, comes with a certain maturity:

"While I was only a remote and distracted onlooker of the accomplished work of gardens, I considered gardeners to be beings of a peculiarly poetic and gentle mind, who cultivate perfumes of flowers listening to the birds singing.  Now when I look at the affair more closely, I find that a real gardener is not a man who cultivates flowers; he is a man who cultivates the soil." (p. 23)

The Gardener's Year is not a moral allegory yet Capek's experience as a gardener taught him a basic principle: 'you must give more to the soil than you take away'. (p. 88)  It is a beautiful book - full of witty illustrations - by an author who relished the human comedy he found in the garden.

Both the above books contain my youngest daughter's two names: Angélique and Rose.  Between the two there is a Breton name squeezed in - Aëlig - which means 'Angel' too.  Let's be honest; it will be hard for her to live up to a double angel name but when you have a Breton husband there must be a Breton name!

This week I finished the Cardigan Rose which was destined for Angélique.  I wanted to choose a flower name for it from all the beautiful options offered up to me by poetic souls in Blogland: daisy, greeny-cream hydrangeas, lady's mantle, foxgloves, buttercup, apple blossom, alchemilla... Yes, yes, my equally poetic soul cried out to each and every one.  How is a girl supposed to choose?

There was one more flower suggested by Annie. Angelica.  Well, yes.  Although I flirted with the other names my mind was made up.  

And so here is Cardigan Angelica 

Again I fiddled and flirted with various mother of pearl buttons - stalk and leaf green, creamy-coloured - but I opted for a similar colour to the yarn.  'Ah yes', nodded my husband wisely when he saw my choice, 'it makes the cardigan look classic', he added.  'Um, NO!'  I thought. 

So whilst knocking back sipping some chilled Limoncello I hastily sewed on some sequins which represent the seeds from the Angelica plant - how pretentious of me, I know ;-).

This cardigan is not flawless.  If the truth be told I had to frog it halfway through as it was knitting up too big and while it is good to plan for the future I really wanted Angélique to wear it this summer. 

Judging from the rainy weather we are all having it will come in handy, I think.

I hope you like it.  Thank you Annie.  If any of you are not familiar with her beautiful blog please take a peek.  As for the other flower names, well, I'll just have to make up some other knitted creations.  Goodness knows I need the practice!

Have a beautiful week.

Saturday 9 July 2011

Pomona and the Poet's Rose

Should you turn right when you leave our house and follow the path you would find yourself on a hillside amongst the rolling Vouvray vineyards.  Here the whirring crickets perform an ostinato to the melody of joyful birdsong while the green, tightly packed, ripening grapes surrender to the beating sun and the drone of wasps.  Dotted around are small châteaux with bright blue painted shutters which are often closed by late morning to ward off the heat.  There are also pastures in which all manner of fruit trees grow: quince, apple, cherry, peach, and walnut some of which are cultivated while others grow wild.

It's a blissful area to wander through but you have to watch out for adders.

If you were to walk down the steep road you would reach our village which nestles in the Loire river valley.  At the heart of the village is the eleventh-century church in which a remarkably dishy young priest preaches most Sunday mornings to a gaggle of unruly children and their sleepy parents.  It is behind the church where I head to when I need to escape from the pressures of family life for there, along a narrow path, are dozens of allotments - or jardins d'ouvriers (workers' gardens).

The earth of these plots of land is dry and cracked; more so this summer than usual.  There is no local irrigation system despite the proximity of the Loire.  The gardens are, however, beautiful.  When I observe the gardeners lugging their heavy watering cans back and forth from neighbouring houses I marvel at their labour of love and the beauty of their gardens.

Hollyhocks are abundant now.

There is, however, a surprise to be spotted among the blooms.

This cardigan is called 'Roses are Pink' (for obvious reasons ;-)) and was inspired by a rose named after our local sixteenth-century poet, Pierre de Ronsard. It was made with Cascade Ultra Pima. The design is my own.
Hollyhocks and roses aside shades of blue are dominant during high summer: purple-blue, blue-grey, the porcelaine-blue starry flowers of'Heavenburn' or Tweedia caerulea, and the pastel-blue Nepeta with its grey-green foliage.  Of course there is lavender: Lavandula dentata and the more aromatic Lavandula intermedia, 'Dutch Lavender', which flowers until Autumn although its flowers are deep violet rather than blue.  Each bush is a den of thieves, as dozens of plump bees, dressed in yellow sweaters, fumble the flowers.
Here is Peony posing in pink

There are fruit trees here too most of which are heavily laden with ripening fruit.  This morning as I sat under an apricot tree observing a woman down on one knee weeding -it can be enjoyable to watch others working hard- I thought about Pomona, the Goddess of gardens and fruit trees, who, being fearful of uncultivated nature and men, would remain in her walled orchard while virile woodland gods would lust at her from afar.

Then I thought how after a long day of tending trees Pomana must have been terribly thirsty and hungry so perhaps, I imagined, it would be a good idea if I baked her some sort of cake.  As I looked up at the apricots and sniffed the surrounding lavender I knew exactly what I would make her:

Lavender Shortbreads with Apricot Coulis
Pomona's Summer Tea Break

So home I scuttled and if you are remotely interested here are the recipes:

For the Lavender Shortbread you will need:

150g plain flour
100g slightly salted butter, cut into pieces
50g golden caster sugar
a few lavender flowers

Preheat the oven to 170°C/Gas 2/fan oven 150°C.
Put the flour in a mixing bowl, add the butter and rub together to make the crumbs.  Stir in the sugar and the lavender flowers.
Work the mixture together until it forms a ball.  Cover it in clingfilm and put in the fridge for 15 minutes.
Flour a work surface lightly and roll out the dough.  Use a cutter to cut out rounds; I like to make mine quite thick.
Place onto an ungreased baking tray and bake for 15-20 minutes until golden.
(Although British Shortbreads are pale in colour I have been influenced by the French Sablés which are darker in colour.)

For the Apricot Coulis I have lifted the recipe from Apples for Jam by Tessa Kiros but instead of using vanilla essence I prefer the indulgence of using a vanilla pod.

100g sugar
1kg apricots (around 15)
a vanilla pod (or a few drops of vanilla extract)

Halve the apricots and remove the stones.
Spilt the pod lengthways and remove all the seeds with a knife.
Add the sugar and seeds to a saucepan with a bowl of water.  Boil while stirring with a wooden spoon until the sugar has disolved.  Leave to simmer for a few minutes. 
Add the apricots, cover and simmer for around 10 minutes.
Blend and chill.

In a few days I will be back to show you the completed Cardigan Rose.  I was overjoyed by all the responses to my flower name/button dilemma.  It has been such a delicously difficult choice to make and so much more fun than thinking on life's real problems, I'm sure you will agree.  Pomona (not the deity but the next best thing) was absolutely right when she suggested I had already subconciously made my choice; lavender coloured buttons. However my heart has since gone along a different path.

I cannot wait to show you.  Until then I wish you a peaceful and joyful weekend.

ps Do you use flowers in cooking? I would very much like to know.

Saturday 2 July 2011

A thousand leaves

Dear readers,

I am so very touched by the kind comments you have left me.  Each one has warmed my nervous blog novice heart.  Each one has put me in touch with bloggers who I have admired for a long while as well as others both new and inspiring.

Thank you.

I have received a couple of mails asking why I had chosen the name Millefeuilles for my musings so here is, hopefully, a simple explanation:

I have always had a soft spot for the delectable French pastry a millefeuille.  The combination of brittle layers of puff pastry together with the smooth crème patisserie and, best of all, the fondant white icing combed with chocolate stripes leaves me quite giddy with excitement.  The French chef, La Varenne, refers to the millefeuille in his cookbook Cuisinier françois which was published in 1651 and generally considered to be one of the first cookery manuals which addressed the noble and bourgeois classes. According to La Varenne this cake would have at least 729 layers of puff pastry.

I am an enthusiastic cake maker and devourer but that is not all.  Of course the literal translation of millefeuille is thousand-leaf and that is the real reason why I have chosen this name for my blog.  Leaves evoke my love of horticulture and the pages on which I have and will write about this passion, mainly in the form of articles and this blog, of course.

The downside is that this is a notoriously difficult word for English speakers to pronounce!

With this explanation in mind I thought I would show you my 'Cushion of the (Not Quite) Thousand Leaves' which was inspired by our apple tree in blossom this spring although the name does little to account for the large number of buttons and sequins added to this embroidery; I simply thought those were fun at the time.  This tree was my own design and if the truth be told it reveals the kind of detailed work I most enjoy.

Moving on...

I have a few projects in progress as usual.  A few weeks ago I discovered this BeAuTiFuL blog and when I saw this photo my heart skipped a beat.  Helen Philipps wrote 'I love the colour so much I had to have it.'  Yes, well, I knew what she meant.  So now I am the owner of these:

Well, I have seven balls not three (cough, cough)

And, oops, how did those get here?

These constitute part of my stash for my first granny square blanket project to be started after my first crochet lesson on 9th July

My work in progress using this yarn is Abi Taylor's Cardigan Rose (details on Ravelry) which is a delightful and versatile knit for my seventeen-month old Angélique.

You will find me sniffing the sprig of lavender to keep me calm while the above-mentioned toddler runs rings around me.  Oh, and please excuse the creased fabric!

Before rounding off I wonder if you could help me with something?  First, this yarn colour is 'Cilantro'.  Although this is a perfectly fetching name I would like to give a flower name to this cardigan for my daughter.  My first thought was of hellebores but as this is a light summer knit I would prefer a flower such as.... white or yellow foxgloves.  If you can think of a more suitable flower name for this colour I would be very grateful if you could let me know.  Second, I will need some buttons but I am not at all sure which colour would compliment hellebore or foxglove or whichever name you choose best.  Again all suggestions will be the most welcome.

Thank you so much.

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