My husband Aurel and I like to celebrate Easter, along with other holidays co-opted from the pagan calendar.
This weekend we are still in the height of the Coronavirus. Happily, we had bought a leg of lamb for the freezer before the nationwide restrictions had set in. The term “lockdown” used by many, including the newspapers, brings to my mind a bizarre cross between lockjaw, a stultifying, crippling contraction that limits motion and communication, with that of a bad film about prisoners in prisons tormented by indifferent or sadistic guards and hardened, malevolent inmates. Probably this is not accidental. Aurel and I do not address the enforced social distancing with this term; rather, we call it self-enforced anti-social liberation. We are liberated from nosey neighbours who are not allowed to get too close for our comfort, interminably pointless meetings at work (since we successfully avoid the non-essential online “socials” that too often seem to be motivated by someone’s need for self-promotion or virtue signalling), interactions with strangers who would otherwise not respect personal boundaries, and finally, a liberation against the news. We noticed early on in the Coronavirus reporting that the news was increasing anxiety and fear, rather than being a measured and calming force. News reporters are people of a sort, so it seemed sensible to restrict their entry into our home along with everyone else. We do not have access to television, but we do have a radio and internet access, so we agreed to avoid their news programs and stop picking up the daily newspaper. We quickly realized how much happier we were once the journalists were also banned from our house. Aurel calls this “news cancellation,” rather akin to noise-cancelling devices. Thus, with everyone removed from our vicinity, we celebrate Easter with a renewed joy of spring, that is renewal itself. Not for the first time I understand why the faeries live far from people and their noise.
The weather here is nothing like back home in New England. In Scotland, the winters are mild and there is very little difference between summer and winter, except in the summer we get far more daylight. If it gets as warm as 70F in summer, that is atypical, the men in urban areas walk about shirtless and the women wear sleeveless shirts and short skirts, as people might back home when it is in the 90s(F). If it reaches 80F (which I have only seen once or twice) there is talk of “extreme heat.” I try not to laugh.
Mostly, it is cold and rainy. Rarely, it is warm enough or dry enough for Aurel and me to sit out back in our garden. In our early days together, we lived in a flat in a more fashionable part of Glasgow, if one can refer to any part of that city as “fashionable.” The city is sometimes referred to as “The Venice of the North,” though I have noticed that this is usually a term used by people who have not been further than the Scottish borders and I have wondered if this is a reference to some quasi-historical (hysterical?) accounts of Venice as a city in which the fumes, bandits, and decay kill off people in droves. Such antique shreds of people’s conceptions about Venice may, in fact, be the only similarity between these two cities, albeit based largely on fiction. When Al and I lived in Glasgow, we began to make a study of the weather and noticed that for each year we monitored, on midwinter’s day the weather was exactly the same as that on midsummer’s day. On the whole, though, one does sometimes see somewhat warmer spells in what is somewhat ironically (alternatively, perhaps too literally?) referred to as “summer.”
We have noticed, however, that we often get very nice weather here in April and May, and this was indeed the case this year. During the past week, the rains have temporarily subsided and the sun has come out. Since we have gentle springs, the snowdrops, daffodils, and primroses have been blooming for some time, and even our tulips are peeking out.
Thus, on Friday I spent a good part of the day dividing plants and transplanting them and weeding. We live in a steading, a small group of cottages, that are completely surrounded by farm fields. Besides us, there are five other families here. We have to drive down a long dirt track, one that due to endless rain and farming equipment, resembles the surface of the moon more than any road I’ve seen. It divides two of these fields and is perhaps half a mile from the main road. This means that the surrounding fields have the upper hand in terms of who is control of what grows where, just by virtue of the relative sizes between fields and gardens. Recently, I have developed the strategy of getting in flowering shrubs and plants that spread quickly to create a barrier between our little garden and the surrounding farmland. I had spent this day dividing up some nice wild geraniums and knapweed and planting them in a row between our garden and the field, up along the farmer’s fence, in the hopes that they would slow the spread of the grasses into our flower beds. While I was doing this in the unusual sunshine and mild temperature (about 60F) Aurel had spent the day indoors, marking student essays, as he is an academic at the university. I like to get him out as often as possible to get some fresh air, so when I was good and tired and in need of a break, I set up our garden chairs and went back inside to collect him.
Aurel is a particularly sensitive person in many ways. One of the ways that this is true is that he cannot be in the sun for more than a few minutes or he gets sunburnt and sick. Now most Americans, even I dare say many Scots, would not understand the extent of Aurel’s sensitivity to sunlight. It is quite true that I have seen him get a sunburn in Scotland in December after ten minutes on a clear day. This is true even though the sun does not get above about 10 degrees off the horizon. We make sure he always wears a hat and long sleeves when we go out to the garden.
I sometimes think that he is really a changeling from a race of faeries that live exclusively in rocks or heavily wooded areas, or else who are nocturnal. The latter seems to make more sense, as he likes to stay up late (I often have difficulty getting him to come to bed at night), and even when our niece was quite a little girl she called him Uncle Owl. Small children are often astute and insightful about such things.
Normally sitting outside is problematic not only because of the weather but because whenever it is nice enough for us to sit outside, our neighbours are also out. One would not necessarily think this is a problem in such a rural setting, but having lived in an old sprawling farmhouse set amidst a large portion of land, over 250 acres, on a mountaintop in New Hampshire, I know from experience that when people have the luxury of having a lot of space, they nevertheless find ways of encroaching on that of their neighbours. Our New Hampshire neighbours assumed that since they were some distance from us they could set up concert-sized amplifiers and have large parties that involved playing very loud rock music all night. They were unaware of the level of the noise that travelled to our house, particularly at night in that terrain. They also let their dogs run free; thus, I was taken unaware by running near-wild dogs and my young niece and nephew scared to death and scratched and knocked down several times. Otherwise, I was also almost run over by a horse that habitually got lose because it was not adequately housed. Then a bull got free. Enough said.
Sitting outside, then, is a problem, even in an idyllic setting like this. Our steading neighbours play bad 80s music outside so they can hear it while they garden or barbecue. They have yet seemed to work out that if they can hear it, then we can, too. Or perhaps they, like many others, think that because they like something others must as well – unless of course there is something wrong with them, such as being different, and in which case, inflicting one’s tastes on them is somehow a fitting punishment? And because they like noise themselves, their mode of communication is to shout. While a healthy shout may be cathartic on occasion, the unfortunate part of their form of converse is that their garden is directly on the other side of a hedge from ours, and we are downwind. The sounds carry straight into our garden, drowning out the birds, the bees, the wind, and our own conversation. We normally have to retreat inside within a short time.
However, on this particular day, I heard the parents shouting at their children, by this time on the other side of our hedge screaming as they energetically kicked a ball, to tell them to get ready for a walk. I know from experience that this means that they’ll be away at least an hour. Hence, I quickly set up the chairs and ran to collect Aurel, who readily assented to a break. We poured some wine and took it out back, our neighbours now but a distant memory to all but the wind.
I, being American, soaked up the sunshine while Aurel enjoyed the warmth and light, despite being covered from head to foot in protective clothing, looking much like a bee-keeper. We sat quietly for a long time, watching our pet bees. When we had first bought our house a small number of years ago, what became our garden was then a desolate dumping ground of thickly matted field grass, scattered with broken cold frames, broken pots, old blankets matted with dirt and an assortment of plastic bottles and bags. After clearing away the debris via many trips to the dump, a place that Aurel somewhat disparagingly refers to as “the civic amenity,” I spent many long hours over many months ripping out the field grasses and weeds with garden forks. I overturned the soil a foot down, sifting through it to extract the hardy roots, and wheelbarrowing them off for disposal in a copse a short walk away. I had then supplanted what had become a series of empty patches of heavy soil with decorative stones, bulbs, flowering bushes, and an overwhelming number of wildflowers, including hundreds of foxgloves. Along the edges of the walkways I planted bunches of wild thyme and chives that the bees especially love. I had planned this garden, though one could hardly suspect the resulting jungle as being in any way planned, with the thought of attracting the bees and butterflies, which happened in very little time. I also ended up attracting a number of rather playful faeries who routinely pinch me as I work and like nothing better than to play tricks on me that result in my falling flat on my backside. There is, however, a benefit to this type of garden; we do not have to cut any grass, nor to live with the messy mechanical noise or fumes from lawnmowers. Aurel quickly discovered that he was enamoured of the bees, having never had spent much time with them in close proximity before, and we get endless delightful from watching them climb in and out of all of the flowers, especially the foxgloves. As far as the faeries go, I have learned to expect their tricks and to appreciate the magic that they bring with their wild ways.
We drank our wine and watched our birds, it still being too early in the year to have any visiting cows that sometimes come up to our fence. We are very fond of a mated pair of crows and of some oyster catchers that come in from the coast to nest and raise their young, and of course we have our pheasant friends. The pheasants, of which there are many around our house, are mating this time of year, so there were a lot of noisy calls (more pleasant somehow than listening to humans) and flapping about excitedly, and a lot of fights breaking out amongst them, though they are normally peaceful.
In all this activity, we noticed a couple of people, other neighbours who are friends of ours, walking up the field towards our garden, a nice retired surgeon and his wife. They did not come close to us as they were taking social distancing seriously, but gave us a warm smile, waving, as they plodded by up the field towards their own house.
We pondered the various sets of neighbors around. Most of the them seemed especially anxious now. Aurel turned to me and said, “I think we’re the only two people who are actually enjoying this social isolation! Everyone else is bored, cooped up, stressed, or arguing!” I laughed. Yet, I was also deeply aware that we were in a happy set of circumstances that meant that our not going to work would not have the same profound detrimental effects on us that many are facing. I thought back to the life I lived alone, before I met my husband, and knew what I would be suffering now if not for him and the fact that his job was safe and we own our home outright, with no mortgage to worry us. I was profoundly grateful for this time, and sorry for the many people who do not have this security – people like my old self in my previous life. I remembered not leaving my apartment in Boston for three days because of a blizzard, and the intense loneliness I felt, knowing that I could be dead and no one would know. If I did not have Aurel I would be back in that – though now it would not just be for three days, but for months on end. And yet, here we were, laughing and enjoying each other’s company in the warm sunshine, watching birds and bees.
Aurel and I are both people of habits and we like rituals. Some of those involve rituals are related to times of the year, such as solstices and pagan holidays such as Saturnalia (now co-opted by Christmas) and Easter. We are not pagan, but see a wisdom in certain pagan practices, such as feasting and revelling giving thanks to the natural world and to the magic in the skies at various times of the year. As the breeze picked up we moved our celebrations indoors to give thanks in our own way.
First thing on Saturday morning, even before making coffee, I pulled my lamb from the freezer and set it aside to thaw. I then set about getting out ingredients for an orange cake. Aurel is also sensitive to gluten, so when we had first met I set about learning to make things that are gluten free. He had given up eating pasta, but I quickly discovered that gluten-free pasta, if you buy a good brand, is actually better than the normal store-bought wheat-based pasta. I then set about experimenting with gluten-free flours. I have yet to find gluten-free bread that is worth a damn, but have managed to make some nice cakes. Also, most sauces that require flour are no different if one uses a gluten-free flour.
Saturday was also a particularly nice day, and once again the noisy neighbours took themselves off, presumably to give their children exercise. After spending much of the day gardening again, in the afternoon Aurel and I once again took some wine outside to commune with our birds, bees, and flowers. The temperature drops quickly in the early evening, so once again we withdrew indoors for dinner.
That evening, Aurel made an experimental chicken pathia for dinner. As I showered, removing the remnants of my gardening activities from my hair and skin, Aurel watched two young deer chase each other playfully in the field in front of our house, then finally disappearing into another field across the track and out of sight. Only a few weeks ago, we had seen a group of 17 deer in that front field, a favourite spot for them in the early dusk.
Sunday was Easter Day. We honour feast days by doing things differently than we normally would. For instance, we eat food that we generally save for holidays, eat one large meal in the middle of the day rather than leaving our main meal for a later dinner, and we use our good china and silver. We also decorate the table with fresh flowers. Even though we have no guests, we do not wear our normal street or garden or house clothes, but dress up in something special. After prepping our feast, then showering and changing, we drank a glass of sparkling white Burgundy and set about cooking in earnest. We had roast lamb with jus and roasted shallots, roasted potatoes, sautéed spinach, and glazed carrots. We had gluten-free orange cake with a homemade blackcurrent compote that I had made and preserved last year and stored in the cupboard. We had a nice white wine with our lamb, as Aurel and I generally drink the wine that we cook with; rather, we cook with the wine that we intend to drink. We both find red wine difficult to drink as it gives us headaches, so we find recipes that use white instead, even for meat, unless there is a reason not to do so.
Later, Aurel, curious, watched the Easter church service from the church in which we were married. It was being aired online but performed to an empty church. This was an evening service and the church was almost unlit. All we could see were the lit figures of the rector, his wife, the rector’s assistant, and one other priest. The rector, adorned with rich, ornate robes and heavy golden emblems of his position, was illuminated with the golden light from a small fire in a elevated brass pit, the other members of his sect more dimly light behind him, their figures barely discernible, less prominent in this rite. This was a bit of theatre to illustrate the light fighting the darkness, spring overcoming the darkness of our winter months. I was somewhat amused at the idea that the fire did damned little to light that cavernous space – was the darkness winning? The entire scene, to me, was reminiscent of Rembrandt’s painting, The Conspiracy of Claudius Civilis, a very pagan image indeed.
Our Easter Feast:
Lamb is very much easier to get here in the UK than many parts of the US. While Aurel and I have subsequently decided that we will no longer eat beef, lamb, or pork, this is a nice dish for Easter, and we happened to still have the lamb in the freezer from our meat-eating days. Keep in mind that the lamb should be marinated for a least a couple of hours, and up to a day, before roasting. All of the prep for the vegetables should be done in advance and ready to roast/sauté while the lamb rests. While lamb is traditionally served with red wine (and the jus is also made with red wine) we make ours with a dry white, such as Sauvignon Blanc, for a lighter version that is lovely, much as beef daube can be made and served with white wine. Aurel is always in charge of cooking the potatoes and this recipe is his; such is apparent, as is his being a mathematician clear from his instructions.
Roast Lamb with jus:
- 500-650grams (just over a pound) boneless, trimmed leg of lamb (or use a bone-in, but adjust the cooking time accordingly)
- 4-5 echalion shallots, cut in half lengthwise, peeled, and the root sliced off, but kept as much intact as possible so they keep their shape while roasted
- 2 Tbsp olive oil
- 1 tsp dijon mustard
- 5 large garlic cloves, peeled and minced
- 1 tsp dried rosemary, crumbed
- Freshly cracked black pepper and salt, to taste
- ½ of a lemon
- ¼ cup white wine
- Procedure: Make the marinade: Mix together the olive oil, mustard, garlic, rosemary, and salt and pepper in a small bowl. Rub it all over the lamb and under the fat and into any cavities left from its being trimmed. (If using a whole bone-in leg, you can make small slits all over the fat without cutting into the meat and push some of the mixture into the slits.) Leave the lamb to marinade in the refrigerator for at least two hours or overnight.
About 30 minutes before roasting the lamb, bring it out of the refrigerator to warm slightly. Preheat the oven to 425F or 220C (about 200C with fan). Set up a large, heavy roasting pan. Set the shallots, cut side down, in a single layer in the middle and set the lamb on them. Roast for 15 minutes, then turn the heat down to 350F/175C/150C with fan. Roast another 30 minutes for rare, or longer for medium, then check for doneness. The temperature at the thickest part of the lamb should be about 130F/54C. Set the lamb onto a dish deep enough to catch the juices and squeeze the lemon juice over it. Spoon the shallots alongside the lamb, leaving the browned bits and juices in the pan. Cover the lamb in aluminium foil and let it sit for 20 minutes or so. The temperature will continue to rise to 140F/60C.
While the lamb rests, raise the oven temperature to 200C with fan (400F) and roast the potatoes (below). While they are roasting, make the lamb jus. While many people use the same pan that the lamb was roasting in for the jus, I find it less cumbersome to do the following: Once moving the lamb out of the pan, pour the wine into the warm pan and scrape up the browned bits. Pour this into a small pan and let it reduce over a low heat. Before carving the lamb, tip the accumulated juices from the lamb into this jus and let it continue to reduce.
If there are only two people for dinner, half of the lamb can be a second meal, alongside roasted vegetables.
Also while the lamb rests and the potatoes are roasting, and the jus is reducing gently, make the glazed carrots and sautéed spinach (below). Alternatively, they can be made while the lamb is cooking and kept warm or reheated just before serving.
Aurel’s Roasted Potatoes
For two people, peel three medium-to-large potatoes (ideally Bartlett’s Elfe’s or Yukon Gold). Cut them into roughly inch-thick slices and cover with water in the pot to soak out the starch (15 minutes), cutting each potato into thirds, as follows:
Rinse out the potatoes, add a pinch of white salt and boiling water. Boil very gently for 7 minutes. Drain and let the potatoes steam off and cool for later. Heat the oven to 180ºC with fan on (otherwise 200ºC). Add goose fat to the baking tray and heat the fat in the oven – it should be hot and shimmering but not smoking. When ready, carefully spoon each potato piece into the hot fat. The fat will sizzle. Spoon the hot fat over the potatoes. Roast for 10 minutes. Carefully turn over the potatoes and again spoon them with the hot fat. Roast for another 10 minutes, then spoon the hot fat over the potatoes once more. Roast for another 5 minutes (25 minutes in total). With a slotted draining spoon, place the potatoes onto a plate lined with kitchen towel. Cover with another sheet of kitchen towel, pat them down. Add any seasoning if required and serve.
Glazed Carrot (serves 2 as a side – double for 4 people)
- 1 large carrot, cut into 2” pieces, then each piece cut lengthwise into wedges (eighths)
- 1 tablespoon of butter
- ½ teaspoon of brown muscavado sugar
- Pinch of good quality sea salt
- Splash of water (approx 1Tbsp)
- Preparation: Bring the mixture to a boil in a frying pan with the lid on. Simmer for at least 10 minutes partly covered. Thereafter toss regularly to coat the carrot and prevent burning. Take the lid off to reduce moisture if required. Serve as and when everything else is plated up.
- 250g package baby spinach
- 1 Tbsp butter
- Pinch nutmeg
- Preparation: Melt the butter in a large pan. Add the spinach and stir until wilted. Add the nutmeg and toss.
© Copyright 2020, Metamorphorica