Thanks to Alice, I knew my dormouse when it ran in the front door and froze when it saw me. No doubt it was wondering where my bushy tail was and why my ears weren't so very cute as his, while I was identifying him with the mad hatter and teapots. We had just a few seconds to recognize each other before he broke the spell - presumably to hurry back to the Tea Party. And so I saw my very first and only dormouse. Following a week of unidentifiable signs of life in the beamed roof of our millroom, we now knew we had a resident dormouse who had clearly decided it was warm enough to wake up and take a look around.
After this, it occurred to me that in the past week alone, Elizabeth, not Alice, has been in Wonderland. Just about every day brings a gift of nature in our garden, but this week has been particularly eventful.
It's been a magical week of stars falling into our garden: well, so it seems, in the dark when myriad flickering fire flies light up our garden and, I have to say, our souls. This week, the delight of these tiny magic lanterns has been shared with our awe-struck grandchildren and with a honeymooning couple. What could be more romantic? In time-honoured Tuscan tradition, our grandchildren caught a few, put them under a glass and found in their place in the morning, a few euro. The honeymoon couple, thankfully, didn't try out this magic!
Having been out on our regular 'drive-around-the-growers-and-producers' shopping trip in the local hills earlier this week, we came home to find our cat looking more perturbed than I have ever seen her. Gingerly following her fixed gaze I crept up to the library on the first floor, to find an owl sitting on our sofa. Having safely deposited him back outside, we discovered that he'd tumbled down one of the chimneys. The tale at the end of this adventure is that my husband had been 'talking' to an owl in the garden every night. They had quite the hoot of a conversational line going. It tickles my fancy to think that he decided to get a closer look at the unfamiliar voice.
I learned this week too, that there really are people who run around with large butterfly nets looking for all the world like characters out of a Disney film. We had one staying. Infact I was cooking with his wife while he ran round catching butterflies in his mythical net in our garden. Actually he was a very learned French professor who studied butterflies as a job. We are really chuffed that he identified 40 species of butterfly along our river. Their shimmering haze over our lavender hedge and in the 'butterfly bushes', justifies every bit of the hard garden toil.
We haven't yet had a swarm of bees but are expecting this annual visit any day now. Dragon flies, bats and swifts dart and skim over the pool on these balmy summer evenings. Bees come to sip the salt. The flash of a kingfisher in the river gave us a particular thrill.
Midnight feasting porcupines have eaten our entire potato crop and a spell-bindingly elegant, doleful eyed deer at our garden gate, was forgiven for having nibbled all the young vine shoots.
Our Noah's Ark doves are cooing and canoodling and courting our white maltese terriers, in a case, presumably, of mistaken identity.
Having moved here from London, and worried how I would adjust to life in the Tuscan countryside, I have learned to see the beauty of life in the tiny but wondrous details of the garden and visiting wildlife. Now I wouldn't swop even an ENO opera for the dawn chorus outside my bedroom window every morning.
My cooking is very much inspired by the garden - much of which gets incorporated in the recipes. Anticipation of the moment the lavender will flower is mostly because I can't wait to make my once-a-year, honey and lavender ice-cream and fresh apricot and lavender cake. We had our very own Mad Hatter's Tea Party in the hay-loft, complete with lavender-cream butterfly cakes and English tea-leaf tea. What else!
Recipe for Alice's Apricot, Hazlenut and Lavender Cake
Apricots are so very beautiful and promise so much but are more often than not, disappointing. I often add lavender flowers when using them in desserts to give a zing to the flavour. Baking them in a cake also accentuates their bitter-sweetness
100g organic ancient grain flour
220g hazlenuts (dormice love them). Ground finely
Half teaspoon baking powder
4 eggs. 2 of these should be separated.
150g extra virgin olive oil
150g dark brown sugar
80 g granulated sugar
1kg fresh apricots. Washed, halved and stoned
2 teaspoons fresh lavender flowers plus another spoonful to scatter on top of the cake
Beat together the olive oil and sugars. Add the eggs one at a time including the 2 egg yolks, folding in a little of the flour with each egg after the first. Add the finely ground hazlenuts and lastly the fresh lavender flowers. Beat the 2 egg whites and fold gently into the cake mix.
Place in a greased lined tin. Round or square depending on your cake plate. Arrange the apricot halves plentifully, skin side up, on top. Scatter the remaining lavender flowers over.
Pop in the oven at 180°. Bake for about 50 minutes but check at half time as the apricots tend to burn. If they look too coloured, cover in oven paper to finish the cooking.