Saturday, 31 May 2008

Put a cork in it.

When you're tugging out your plastic corks and unscrewing the caps of those so satisfying bottles of wine, give a thought to the cork forests of the Alentejo. Portugal's cork oaks are threatened each time you buy a bottle of wine that isn't stoppered by natural cork.

If the local communities can no longer make a living through harvesting cork, other less environmentally sound uses for the cork forests will be found. If cork groves are abandoned or ploughed up for intensive agriculture, vast species rich areas will vanish. Acres of flower dappled grasslands, home to a unique eco system, will simply disappear or be swamped under invasive scrubby vegetation.

Cork has been harvested for at least a thousand years, many of the cork forests of the Alentejo may be hundreds of years old and are one of the few truly sustainable forms of agro forestry; it's an indigenous resource that is used without disturbing the natural biodiversity. Cork trees flourish without irrigation, fertilizers or chemical herbicides, and they regenerate after harvesting.

If cork can't be sold the local communities will have to find other less environmentally sound uses for the land, bringing the added risk of wild fires or the creeping desertification now present in Spain.

So spare a thought for the cork and when you next buy a bottle of wine. Make sure the wine produces have 'put a cork in it'.

The photographs were taken in the Alentejo, Portugal, May 2008

Friday, 23 May 2008

Monserrate Gardens

I first visited the town of Sintra in Portugal nine years ago. Then I was avoiding a significant birthday, working on the principle, if it happened when I was out of the country it wouldn't count. On that day I stumbled across a gift wrapped palace in a garden every bit as secret as Helligan.

At the time the Monserrate Gardens and their crumbling palace were teetering on the edge of ruin or restoration. Once the home of the louche gothic author and friend of Byron, William Beckford, its elegant filigree plaster walls and ornate marble staircases showed many years of neglect.

Though officially open as a public park, few people ever went there. The paths were broken and it was hard to find a way through all the overhanging greenery, but the romantic hidden treasures were well worth the struggle: a strange semi Christian temple locked tightly in the grip of a banyan tree, elegant groves of tree ferns, towering palms and bird of paradise lilies sprouting weed like out of every crevice.

This time, instead of wandering in through a broken down gate, I paid a fee at a neat little kiosk, Well scrubbed lavatories and even a few plants for sale indicated a whole new order. Would E.U. funding and renewed civic pride have robbed this horticultural gem of its secret and brooding beauty?

The morning may have been overcast but the garden was the same; as mysteriously lush and green as ever, slightly more accessible but still bewitchingly beautiful. As the heavy rain started the tiny number of other visitors vanished and once again Monseratte Gardens were mine.

On my first visit the palace was wrapped bizarrely in polythene pending restoration. Then the careless guard had allowed us in and we wandered around in secret, marvelling at a fairy tale beauty, even half fallen ceilings and damp green walls couldn’t disguise.

Now the outside is repainted and a polite attendant checks tickets as you enter, but even E.U money had its limits. It will be while before tasteful restoration takes over completely and turns it into a splendid teahouse or museum. Give me romantic decay with a hint of decadence anytime.

Saturday, 10 May 2008

What Would You Do With a Flat Iron?

What would you do with a flat iron?

My mother, a lady of some eccentricity, possibly bordering on madness, always preferred to use a flat iron rather than an electric one, insisting,

'You get a much better finish on your linens.'

'Yes Mum. Yawn!' At the same time vowing never to buy anything that ever needed to go near an iron, least of all one that my mates were only ever likely to see in a museum.

This was the same woman who owned curling tongs that had to be stuck in the fire to be warmed up, then tested on a piece of newspaper. As a small child I went to many birthday parties smelling of slightly singed hair. Once, in a moment of abstraction, and to my great glee, she frazzled my sister's hair so badly a huge clump had to be cut off.

Let me explain. I was seven the year electricity came to our house and by then my mum, in her late forties, was very set in her ways and saw no need to make any alterations to domestic arrangements that had seen her through over twenty years of married life, three children and a world war. She was also seeing visions in the trees, but that's another story entirely...

I've just come back from a few days visiting my big sister. Even before I'd undone my coat and sat down to the statutory tea and cake, she's a stalwart member of the Scottish W.I. and proud of her baking, a competitive sport in her village, where cake mixes are the equivalent of performance enhancing drugs, she dumped a flat iron on the table in front of me.

'There you are. You said you wanted one.'

My man turned towards me, his eyebrows raised in enquiry and surprise.A little wide eyed myself, but ever the adept liar, I smiled brightly and said,

'Great, thanks.'

Then it dawned, many years ago, after Mum had gone into a nursing home and we girls had to clear out and pack up her cottage, I was mildly annoyed when another sister grabbed the old iron griddle Mum had used to make wonderful drop scones. When I unearthed the family recipe for 'scotch pancakes' a couple of months ago, I asked my sister to look out for an old iron griddle, just like mum's. She's always involved in bring and buy sales and, as these griddles were once an essential tool in every Scottish kitchen, I thought it likely one would turn up.

Ah Well. At least I'll be able to get a good finish on my linens. If I had any...Could I use it as a camping iron? Perhaps not.