Books: Fiction for outdoor lovers

It might be difficult to tell from my writing on this blog (I make far too many grammatical errors and cannot excuse myself for my bad proof reading enough) but I am and always have been a book-worm. I pretty much devour books. I read a lot of varieties but I do love old-fashioned fiction written in the style of the Brontes, Hardy, George Elliot, Jane Austen, Thackery – and I must add, I have ready every novel by Daphne Du Maurier, ‘The Hunger Games’ series a few years back and grew up adoring Enid Blyton, ‘The Butterfly Lion’ and when I was twelve, my favourite book was ‘The Book Thief’. Book-worm.

It is even more exciting when the character suddenly finds his/herself in the most gorgeous scenery or working on the land. I relate to it immediately. I have compiled a list of fictional books for the outdoors, old-fashioned, farm labour lovers on the internet, as well as recommending some outstanding reads worth trying…

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THE SECRET GARDEN – Frances Hodgson-Burnett

“There’s naught as nice as th’ smell o’ good clean earth, except th’ smell o’ fresh growin’ things when th’ rain falls on ’em.”

‘After losing her parents, young Mary Lennox is sent from India to live in her uncle’s gloomy mansion on the wild English moors. She is lonely and has no one to play with, but one day she learns of a secret garden somewhere in the grounds that no one is allowed to enter. Then Mary uncovers an old key in a flowerbed – and a gust of magic leads her to the hidden door. Slowly she turns the key and enters a world she could never have imagined.’ Penguin Books

This is a lovely book sold as a children’s book but it will be a delight to all adults too. It deals with grown-up situations – poorly children, orphaned children, loneliness, charity, father and son love, the wonders of the outdoors, gardening and wildlife and finding life again – but is written in a tone that makes it gentle enough for a child to read it. This is a wonderful technique as it makes a book about serious subjects actually happy. I felt so joyous whilst reading this book. I wanted to go to Yorkshire, run on the moors and play in the secret garden behind a stone wall, weeding in the peace and quiet, be Dickon, the kind-hearted animal and plant whisperer. It is a beautiful read and will make you happy and want to live.

“Sometimes since I’ve been in the garden I’ve looked up through the trees at the sky and I have had a strange feeling of being happy as if something was pushing and drawing in my chest and making me breathe fast. Magic is always pushing and drawing and making things out of nothing. Everything is made out of magic, leaves and trees, flowers and birds, badgers and foxes and squirrels and people. So it must be all around us. In this garden – in all the places.”

ANNA KARENINA – Leo Tolstoy

‘… taking long, regular strides, and with a precise and regular action which seemed to cost him no more effort than swinging one’s arms in walking, as though it were in play, he laid down the high, even row of grass. It was as though it were not he but the sharp scythe of itself swishing through the juicy grass.’

‘‘I must have physical exercise, or my temper’ll certainly be ruined,’ he thought, and he determined he would go mowing, however awkward he might feel about it with his brother or the peasants.’

 ‘He thought of nothing, wished for nothing, but not to be left behind the peasants, and to do his work as well as possible. He heard nothing but the swish of the scythes, and saw before him Tit’s upright figure mowing away, the crescent- shaped curve of the cut grass, the grass and flower heads slowly and rhythmically falling before the blade of his scythe, and ahead of him the end of the row, where would come the rest.’

‘Leo Tolstoy’s classic story of doomed love is one of the most admired novels in world literature. Generations of readers have been enthralled by his magnificent heroine, the unhappily married Anna Karenina, and her tragic affair with dashing Count Vronsky. In their world frivolous liaisons are commonplace, but Anna and Vronsky’s consuming passion makes them a target for scorn and leads to Anna’s increasing isolation. The heartbreaking trajectory of their relationship contrasts sharply with the colorful swirl of friends and family members who surround them, especially the newlyweds Kitty and Levin, who forge a touching bond as they struggle to make a life together. Anna Karenina is a masterpiece not only because of the unforgettable woman at its core and the stark drama of her fate, but also because it explores and illuminates the deepest questions about how to live a fulfilled life.’ www.goodreads.com

It is a BIG read. Not quite as long as ‘War and Peace’ but still a chunky book. The film of ‘Anna Karenina’ focuses mostly on the relationship of Anna and Vronksy, overlooking Levin who actually takes up most of the book. He is a really interesting character. Some people say that the chapters where he is scything and working alongside his fellow farmers is the most boring part of the book. To me, it was the best. I felt a glowing excitement while I was reading it and that was the day I decided I wanted to one day get a scythe. That dream came true a couple of weeks ago. I am sure that anyone who loves farming, being outdoors, physical labour, old-fashioned tools etc. will adore this part of the book. If you don’t, then still read it as the rest of the book is exciting, dramatic, filled with deceit, death, love and hatred, family affairs, success and failure. A typical good old-fashioned read.

 ‘The longer Levin mowed, the oftener he felt the moments of unconsciousness in which it seemed not his hands that swung the scythe, but the scythe mowing of itself, a body full of life and consciousness of its own, and as though by magic, without thinking of it, the work turned out regular and well-finished of itself. These were the most blissful moments.’

FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD – Thomas Hardy

“To persons standing alone on a hill during a clear midnight such as this, the roll of the world is almost a palpable movement. To enjoy the epic form of that gratification it is necessary to stand on a hill at a small hour of the night, and, having first expanded with a sense of difference from the mass of civilized mankind, who are diregardful of all such proceedings at this time, long and quietly watch your stately progress through the stars.”

‘Independent and spirited Bathsheba Everdene has come to Weatherbury to take up her position as a farmer on the largest estate in the area. Her bold presence draws three very different suitors: the gentleman-farmer Boldwood, soldier-seducer Sergeant Troy and the devoted shepherd Gabriel Oak. Each, in contrasting ways, unsettles her decisions and complicates her life, and tragedy ensues, threatening the stability of the whole community. The first of his works set in Wessex, Hardy’s novel of swift passion and slow courtship is imbued with his evocative descriptions of rural life and landscapes, and with unflinching honesty about sexual relationships.’ goodreads.com

One cannot write a list of country-worshiping fictional novels and not include Thomas Hardy in it. ‘Far From the Madding Crowd’ is probably my favourite but I love ‘Tess of D’Urbevilles’ (read the description of the green hills surrounding Tess and her fellow milkmaids – I wanted to be an old-fashioned milk maid living in Dorset straightaway and that was before I had even been or heard of Dorset) and I have read ‘The Mayor of Casterbridge’, slightly less country but an exciting read and still set in Hardy’s Wessex. Dramatic, romantic, honest, tragic and sad (Hardy’s style I am afraid), I urge everyone to pick up a famous copy. Trust me, I know people who have studied his poetry at school and thought they hated Hardy’s melancholy writing, have then read ‘Far from the Madding Crowd’ and realised that he is a brilliant story teller.

‘It was that period in the vernal quarter when we may supposed the Dryads to be waking for the season—The vegetable world begins to move and swell and the saps to rise, till in the completest silence of lone gardens and trackless plantations […] there are bustlings, strainings, united thrusts, and pulls-altogether.’

‘This reminded him that if there was one class of manifestation on this matter that he thoroughly understood, it was the instincts of sheep.’

What to do with bolted lettuce?

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It can be a little frustrating to turn your back for a minute and that whole patch of lettuce you had is now bolted.

Bolted is when the plant literally ‘bolts’ upwards, going to seed.

For lettuce, this makes them pretty inedible unless you like a very bitter taste. The problem is when it all happens at once – what do you do with a dozen bolted lettuces? Here are a couple of tips for not letting the greens go to waste.

Compost

One option is to compost them. Pull them up and leave them to rot down on your compost heap. Green leaves are well known to rot down well and to make a lovely fertile mush. Use your composted bolted lettuce to feed the ground for your next batch of salad, thereby continuing the circle of life and not wasting anything. Please never feel tempted to bonfire or bin something as innocent as a bolted lettuce, it would be such a waste!

Feed the birds

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Not the garden birds but any feathered poultry you, friends, family or a neighbour might have. Unlike us humans, poultry are not too fussy about how bitter their lettuce leaves are. It is very good for them too. A green-based diet does wonderful things to their eggs, making their yolks a rich, yellow colour. My poultry basically rule me – well, I think all my animals believe they are royalty. You  should see the way I am summoned by the cats to feed them. Even one of our pigs asks me to hand feed her every night. But the poultry believe it is their right to have boring chicken food first thing and a special snack in the evening. They stand by the fence and wait all afternoon. It has been a lot cheaper and a lot healthier for  them, I am sure, to give them the unwanted excess of our garden produce. They love old cabbage or cauliflower leaves, any chickweed weeds growing in the patch and the bolted lettuce. If you don’t have any feathered pets of your own, see if anyone you know does and would appreciate the greens. You never know, you might be able to exchange bolted lettuce for half a dozen eggs every now and then. It is the sweet farm-community-business I think we are missing around here – I will give you something you want that I don’t want, in exchange for what I want that you don’t want.

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Fry ’em

Treat bolted lettuce like oriental greens that are slightly strong tasting. Add the torn up leaves into any stir fry and add some flavouring of chilli, ginger, soy sauce etc. as you wilt them down.

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Side Dish

Try frying the bolted lettuce on its own and serve it as a green side dish, just like some pubs and restaurants serve wilted spinach as an optional side dish instead of salad or chips. Fry them in some butter or oil in a pan and serve alongside any meal that takes your fancy.

Lettuce Soup

I haven’t made this before but I have heard that bolted lettuce tastes fine when it is blended into a soup. Here is a recipe I would use if I wanted to make it as I think it sounds pretty good. It is by Rose Prince from the Telegraph Magazine (search online). Let me know if you ever try it, I would love some feedback:

(Serves 4)

– 120g salted butter  – 1 leek, sliced and then washed – 500ml boiling water  – The outer leaves from 2 floppy ‘butterhead’ lettuces, or a romaine lettuce – 150ml Greek yogurt or crème fraîche

To serve:  – 12 pink peppercorns – The leaves from 4 sprigs of dill  – 2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil  – A little yogurt or crème fraîche

1.Melt the butter over a medium heat in a small pan and add the leek. Cook for two minutes until soft then add the water. Bring to the boil and simmer for four minutes. Add the lettuce leaves and simmer for one minute.

2. Put in a blender and process with the yogurt or crème fraîche until very smooth and velvety – you can pass the soup through a sieve after blending for an extra silky texture, if you wish. Taste and season with salt and a tiny amount of ground white pepper.

3. To make the pepper oil, put the pink peppercorns with the dill in a pestle and mortar. Add the oil and pound until the spice and herbs are bruised, releasing their flavour. Serve the soup either hot, soon after you have made it, or chilled, with the oil dripped on to the surface. Add a little more yogurt or crème fraîche.

Let them flower for the bees

Another option is to leave the bolted lettuces where they are, or some of them, for the bees. They do like bolted crop’s flowers, particularly brassicas I have noticed.

Save for seed

If you don’t leave the gone to seed lettuce for the bees needs, then you can always save it for yourself to take the seeds from your favourite variety. Pick or shake off the ready formed seeds into labelled envelopes and store in a dry place for sowing next season.

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