Despairing of the encroaching weeds that seemed to have sprung up overnight on a diet of alternating sun and rain, fretting at the chances of being able to get the garden in order before the Tuscan sun heats up and all in all feeling a little grouchy, I was quite suddenly stopped in my hoeing tracks by a familiar voice. Our nightingale had returned; she was even permitting me to watch her. Plonking myself down on a pile of weeds, I gave myself up to listen to her first Spring concert. When she had finished her masterful and spell-binding repertoire, the weeds no longer seemed a problem, the grass smelled greener, the clematis armandi sweeter, the fuzz of lime in the branches of the walnut tree more perfect against the azure backdrop. Life in short, seemed more harmonious, my garden more like paradise, my old stone home more adorable, and my dogs whiter after a muddy romp in the orchard.
The return of this modest little brown bird with the most enchanting voice of all her feathered friends, at least in this part of the world, is one of the greatest joys of Spring in Tuscany for me. I would buy my house all over again just because I know that she will wake me every morning before directing the dawn chorus to begin, and sing me to sleep late into the night long after other birds have fallen silent in the dark.
My Florentine husband is well used to my wonder at our annual visitor and to being dragged out to listen to her concert, but like most Tuscans, he still doesn't quite get it. Maybe it's just something too English. As a child I really believed that nightingales did sing in Berkeley Square and even later when working in London and crossing the square for work, knowing that I couldn't expect to hear a nightingale, I would lilsten anyway and feel a strange sort of nostalgia. So when we moved into our 500 year old watermill in Tuscany, the thrill of hearing a nightingale right outside my bedroom window was utterly magical for me.
She arrives with the first signs of Spring , just at the beginning of my favourite moment in the garden. That tender few days when a new flower seems to open just when you look away. When the starry sky falls onto the lawn and the dogs loll in the plush and pretty carpet of pink and white daisies. When a wisp of nearly-breeze tickles your nose with a new perfume that insists on your looking around to find the source. When the river is lulling your senses with the most perfectly Handel inspired music.
This is the moment when I am torn between garden and kitchen. I am so lucky that the French windows of my kitchen open onto the garden allowing me to follow the concert whilst chopping and whisking. The garden ends up actually in my kitchen too. Apart from the potential of the herb garden, all my cakes are decorated with flowers and leaves and often flavoured with them. My walk-around-the-garden cakes can be dark chocolate cake in a swirly garland of magenta and pink satin magnolia flowers, shamelessly overdressed camelias, pert little old-English rose buds, bright orange pomegranite bells, lavendar sprigs; squidgy carrot cake sitting on a wheel of jewel-like ferns curls; simple lemon cake made regal with a garland of tiny yellow pansies.
To celebrate the start of Spring in my Tuscan garden, I would like to share one of my very favourite chocolate cake recipes. All my cakes are adapted to replace butter with extra virgin olive oil. A much healthier life-style option which also eliminates the sometimes overbearing background taste of butter.OL
Be adventurous with flowers. If you don't have any to hand, take a new look at leaves, weeds, anything that has a curious or gorgeous natural flair.
RECIPE FOR SQUIDGY CHOCOLATE OLIVE OIL CAKE
There is no flour and no butter in this densely melt-in-the-mouth cake
360g good quality fondent chocolate
190ml good quality extra virgin olive oil
290g muscovado sugar
4 tablespoons water
5 eggs - separated
Pinch of salt for beating the egg whites
Prepare a medium size spring-form cake tin by greasing it with olive oil and lining the bottom with oiled baking sheet
Place the chocolate in a bowl over a pan of simmering water to melt.
Put the sugar with 4 tablespoons of water in a small pan on a low heat and watch carefully to ensure it doesn't over heat. When the sugar is just melted, add it to the chocolate.
When the chocolate is just melted, remove the bowl from over the saucepan of hot water and immediately add the extra virgin olive oil beating it until it is incorporated into the chocolate and has a smooth silky appearance. At this point allow it to cool a little before adding the egg yolks.
Beat the egg whites with a pinch of salt separately and then fold carefully into the chocolate mix.
Spoon two thirds of this mix into the tin and cook in the oven at 170° for 20 minutes. Set aside the remainder of the chocolate mix for the second stage of baking. When the cake comes out of the oven gently press down the surface and all around the edges with the back of a spoon. It will break up and look worringly unattractive but take heart. Allow the cake to cool down completely. When it is cold, spoon the rest of the chocolate mix on top and return to the oven for a further 15 minutes.
I have served this to estatic friends while it was ever so slightly warm and wickedly oozy, and I have served it cold from the fridge and it always creates a sensation. It is a perfect cake to go to town with the flower or leaf decoration.