A note - below are thoughts from earlier this week, when rain was washing away winter. It’s white outside now, but my hands are still pink.
It’s been raining all day. There’s a golf-ball sized cluster of snow at the base of the rusted hydrangea, hanging on from the frost a few nights ago. It’ll be washed away by tomorrow.
A tray of beets is braise-roasting in the oven. That’s what I call it when I roast whole beets with an inch or so of water, the way Ottolenghi does, with a good pinch of salt, a tight lid of foil, in a 400F/200C oven for 1 ½ hours, until they are tender.
I noticed those long finger-like beets were taking up a lot of real estate when I cleaned out the fridge last week. I couldn’t remember buying them, or their variety. The internet tells me they are called Cylindra, a late nineteenth century Danish heirloom beet that also goes by ‘formanaova’ or ‘butter slicer.’ I liked the sound of butter slicer - creamy and smooth.
The one hour and thirty minutes passes quickly. I take a yard waste bag up the stairs and slowly snip the wild garland off the banister. The pine, cedar, and spruce branches, dried orange slices and pine cones, strapped on with twine and a string of white lights, have been holding on since early December. But as soon as I pull on my garden gloves and begin the extraction, the boughs exhale and let go. It’s a mess.
I lay the remains of the boughs over the small bed by the little mulberry where I planted bulbs a few months ago. Brittle blankets to protect them until spring. The earth is wet and musky. It’s geosmin I smell, a bacteria easily detected by the human nose found in both damp, wet earth and beetroot. We are attuned to the smell, the pungent earthiness of that vegetable. Some love it, others don’t want it in their food. I taste stories in that muskiness, in the rich colour, in the pink left behind.
Consider the earthiness of raw beets from the garden.
From the damp soil that cupped them,
to the blood red dye
that sets trails into my creased hands
where rivers of stories unspool under my nails.
Those bold collectors of light
have given me the rings of Saturn
in their open hearts.
-Deborah Banks, Hunger Moon
Lately, when I’m meant to be writing, I pull out paper and paint with watercolours instead. I don’t know what I’m doing, I just wash the paper with water and play. Eventually thoughts crystallize and I flow over to the laptop. It always works.
That day, before I take the beets from the oven, I pull out my watercolours and instead of paper, I take my new calendar off the wall. The calendar was created by chef Olia Hercules and artist Frances Whitfield as a fundraiser for the Legacy of War foundation. Each month features black and white etchings of Ukrainian scenes and recipes. For this month, January, a woman is preparing dinner in her kitchen. There are pickles in jars on the counter, dishes drying on a tea towel and a horse chestnut tree - a symbol of Kyiv - in bloom outside her open window. I wet the leaves and dab them with green. I add blue to the sky, and brown to her wooden countertops. By the time I’ve added deep orange to a woman’s head scarf in a painting on the wall, the beets have cooled and are ready for soup. Borsch doesn’t feature until March in the calendar. I don’t skip ahead, instead I riff on Delia Smith’s beetroot, mint and orange soup from her Vegetarian Collection. It’s a simple soup, just 300g of cooked, chopped beets sautéed in a soup pan with a chopped red onion and a big pinch of sea salt. When the onions are soft add 2-1/2 cups (500-600ml) water and several good twists of black pepper. After five minutes or so of simmering, blend the soup then add the zest of an orange. Finely chop mint and divide it between 2-3 bowls. Spoon the soup over the mint, then finish with more chopped fresh mint and cracked pepper. It’s a flavour sensation - a river of stories, bold and earthy.
You can buy a calendar here, there are still a few left. Please share an image with me if you decide to paint your way through the months. We can do it together.
The way you have given that etching life through colour is wonderful, Lindsay!
You did a good job on the watercolor lindsay