Onward and Upward in the Garden: From the New Yorker

On the Slightly Mad Urge to Preserve

Like virtually every bookish child in the Western world, I inherited certain lessons from Laura Ingalls Wilder. Reading the “Little House on the Prairie” series as a girl, I believed three things: that my future womanly waist would be small enough for Pa’s hands to encircle; that snow could freeze maple syrup into delightful snacks; and that the secret to security and happiness lay in preserving fruits and vegetables for winter.

Is it possible that Laura lied? My attempt at a “sugaring off,” during a tepid winter in southern England, resulted in a small syrup puddle; and Pa’s best shot at encirclement is probably around my wrist. The third Prairie Rule, however, I will uphold until death, in the face of common sense and sanity.

Like cannibalism, or golf, preserving is justified in certain extreme situations. Rosehip cordial helped keep the children of Britain scurvy-free during the Second World War; Russian-style compote is a magnificent use of dacha crops that would otherwise be wasted. If one lives in an idyll of herring and wild raspberries on a Swedish island, or, like the Ingalls family, simply needs fuel to endure the latest grasshopper plague, blizzard, malarial infection, or panther, it’s logical to store what one can of nature’s bounty.

For the rest of us, stranded in urban mire, the need to preserve is nugatory, and the idea of a zucchini glut or raspberry surfeit is ludicrous. Occasionally, I am slightly overwhelmed by green tomatoes. Sometimes there’s a little too much chicory. But, otherwise, I must work with my limited supplies, my accidental bounties, or else acquire my excess elsewhere. It goes without saying that the results have been mixed.

Take shiso, for instance. After years of trying and failing to grow the herb, whose jagged, heart-shaped leaves elevate sushi to the food of the gods, I finally succeeded with super-fresh seed—and how! Oh, I was proud of my miniature forest; I added tiny quantities to omelettes, to Vietnamese pho and magnificent salads, and, when my ingenuity ran out, I found a recipe for salted shiso. Would you like to try a petrified gray leaf? No one else does.

Olives were the opposite. Like many pretentious town dwellers, I have a single runty and badly pruned tree, unimaginably far from the gnarled Greek mountainsides. So imagine my pride when the feeble London sun ripened a handful of olives from turtle-green to bruise-mauve to purple. It was oddly difficult to find out how to brine them; perhaps, like jazz, if you have to ask then you’ll never know. After weeks of daily rinsing, they were ready: eleven blackish items, not unlike rabbit droppings, floating in a pool of oil. They seemed too precious, or perhaps repulsive, to share, and so I saved them until they mummified.

Quinces? Don’t talk to me about quinces. I adore them, for both gastronomic and nostalgic reasons, but they are hard to find. A friend, knowing my weakness, once gave me two dozen. Ignoring his warnings about the astounding effort required, I decided to make Spanish-style membrillo: scented pink cubes of quince heaven, multipurpose and long-lasting—if, that is, one follows the recipe and includes enough sugar. The alternative, while biologically interesting, is a little too moldy to enjoy.

It is in the matter of berry jam, or jelly, that true madness lies, because that’s where the twin urges of foraging and preserving meet. Of course, I never grow enough crop of my own, nothing like it, so instead I must root out sources of free fruit. Free fruit! Who could resist? If you can, can I have yours? I have boiled kilos of wild blackberries that would otherwise have had happy lives rotting on the bush or being nibbled by feral blackbirds. This August, I coveted the golden plums that plopped unappreciated into a neighbor’s ivy, until I had the brilliant idea to make a shrub, or drinking vinegar, from them. I picked, macerated, simmered, puréed, sieved, and, at the climactic moment, discovered that the picturesque ceramic-stoppered bottle I had chosen to store it in was not quite strong enough to withstand the boiling goo, which poured in torrents into every corner of my kitchen.

I have produced dramatically disgusting yet costly pickles. I have made chutney, Britain’s vinegary national relish, which is used by the teaspoonful—once a month at most. My only success, wild-damson jam, is so laborious and precious that I can’t bear to surrender it. Instead, I’ve stockpiled the jars for years, and now only I would dare to eat the tarry contents. I suspect I’m not alone. These days, most of us preserve out of sentiment and curiosity; the resulting jars, usually dark brown and always, always sticky, aren’t exactly keeping us alive. If anything, it’s the opposite. Quince-paste botulism; what a way to go. I’d definitely prefer it to the panther.

  • Charlotte Mendelson is a prize-winning British novelist and the author of “Rhapsody in Green,” a memoir about her passion for gardening.

FT Life and Arts: On Stockholm

There’s nothing wrong with optimism, as long as you don’t get your hopes up. If one really wants something, it’s easy to put doubts aside. This time will be the exception; bad boyfriends changed into princes, strangely easy childbirth, jars of honey waved through in our carry-on luggage . . . surely, for me, it’ll work out.

So, although everyone warned me about the outrageous expensiveness of Stockholm, I knew better. They claimed that restaurants and cafés were beyond the means even of a Londoner, that beer was a tenner and wine was worse. Pshaw, I thought; I can cook. I have inner resources. With thrift, supermarkets and a reasonably cheap rented apartment, I would manage beautifully.

I was a fool. How do Swedes live? And, crucially, how can so many eat out? Stockholm is stuffed with hipster coffee-concepts; meatball-emporia; ancient panelled purveyors of venison, reindeer, herring; neo-Nordic pleasure-palaces where merry Scandinavians scoff Labrador tea, pineapple weed, raw shrimps and lovage, green juniper, cherry kernels, pickled cloudberries, forest leaves and the unbearably intriguing “Sean Connery dip”.

For the gastronomically adventurous, plant-obsessed, fermentation-minded omnivore, walking through Norrmalm and Östermalm is heartbreaking; one becomes a student again, browsing menus in restaurant windows while hoping for adoption by kindly millionaires, before walking sadly away. We became connoisseurs of modest eating: herrings on rye from the wagon outside Södermalm station, magnificent cardamom buns from the 7-Eleven, a wine-box from the official wine-supermarket and once, with our small glasses of house red, the cheapest starter in an allegedly affordable restaurant: smoked reindeer hearts.

Instead of café-culture, we gorged on art. Thanks to cunning Swedish design, nothing was dull, not even the Nobel Museum. Stockholm bristles with ex-palaces and former hunting lodges: the Thielska Gallery, in which miserable old Munch is mitigated by Anders Zorn’s lovely engravings of naked ladies; the Prince Eugen Waldemarsudde, where the late Prince’s own work is fabulously upstaged by the most, indeed, only exciting indoor flower arrangements I have ever seen; Josef Frank’s covetable prewar villas; the magnificent folly that is the Vasa ship, a vast 17th-century warship that sank on her maiden voyage and now glistens in a purpose-built museum under a layer of synthetic wax; tulips and Camembert and famous playwrights, all made beautiful by Irving Penn.

By this stage, I was determined to crack the mystery of Stockholmers’ salaries. If they earn, as is alleged, vaguely the same as the British, where do they compromise?

I think I know: first, clothing. Britain’s charity shops are heartsinking hodgepodges of kitten-jigsaws, soiled copies of Fifty Shades, comic egg cups, regrettable knitwear, acrylic pantaloons and worry dolls, all richly scented with personal odours and staffed by people too rude to work in ordinary retail. Lucky Stockholm is blessed with the compellingly stylish Stadsmission second-hand chain where, as in the best vintage shops, a floor-length tartan skirt and a copper jelly-mould and a silver silk blouse and mint-green brogues and a skein of brown-and-yellow ric-rac braid all seem equally covetable. By me. (OK, the skirt was a mistake.) The Stadsmission shops are thronged with marvellously glamorous adults; why would there be a stigma, when every dress looks so cool?

Second, recreation. Fit-looking slender old people are everywhere, zooming across zebra crossings in classy sportswear, complete with cross-country ski-poles. What’s more, unlike in London, whose sprawl is ringed by suburbs fading slowly into trim commuter villages, Stockholm is surrounded by a tangle of wooded islands. Fresh air and wilderness are a short bus journey away. As in Russia, summerhouses — from barely habitable huts to solid permanent homes — are normal; better still, there is plenty of coast to go round. We had lunch at the summer house of Disa, an intimidatingly well-read elderly journalist. “Will you swim?” she asked. “I do, every day. In the Baltic.”

She limped down a long rough path to a stony ledge; we followed, reassuring each other that we didn’t have to go in. The sky darkened and the wind ruffled the water; she nipped into her swimming costume. Sheepishly, we pulled on ours. A heron flew overhead. We could see no towels, no shelter, no steps.

“Where do —,” I began.

Too late. Disa had jumped in.

A key aspect of British parenting is berry-anxiety; trying to balance chemicals, food-miles, expense against the basic right of our toddlers to eat as many blueberries as they can stuff in their tiny mouths. No wonder Stockholm is full of happy-looking bright blonde parents with many outrageously blonde babies; wild berries are all around. Who cared if the buffet at Artipelag, the out-of-town exhibition space, was beyond the range of even an FT diarist; the undergrowth glistened with bilberries. Ripe raspberries grew forgotten in the fringes of palace gardens and by the river; I took to carrying a Tupperware container on every trip.

On the flight into Stockholm I had heard a woman, looking down on the shivering aspens and firs, the red roofs and endless water say: ‘Look, forest! We’re home!’ and the child beside her said “no, you are, mummy”.

I want to be that half-Swedish child, replete with berries, sea-swum and interestingly clad but still able to claim its British birthright: the joy of coming back to grumpy London, and walking into a restaurant, and sitting down