A post for those of you who have been wondering about the earlier appearance of the Himalayan poppy. On our drives through Argyll to catch the Islay ferry, I am often struck by the displays of azaleas and rhododendrons in the front gardens between Inveraray and Lochgilphead. These, in lurid 1970s shades of pink and orange, look amazing when set against the slatey blue-green waters of Loch Fyne, and I have often wondered if the locals are buying their plants at Crarae.
An Edwardian garden acquired by the National Trust in 2002, Crarae showcases an important collection of Himalayan plants in an absolutely stunning setting. Rhododendron Ponticum rightly gets a bad press in a Highland context, but Crarae is home to 600 different rhododendron species and hybrids, which are carefully managed among the native woodland.
The Crarae burn tumbles down the hillside to Loch Fyne, and the garden is built around the water and its gorge. Petal-strewn paths and bridges criss-cross the burn through colourful, gloriously scented woods, while the presence of larches, firs, and and tantalising glimpses of the surrounding lochs and mountains remind you that you are in Scotland, not the Himalayas.
I am sure the garden looks beautiful when it puts on its Autumn hues, but surely nothing beats the colourful eye-candy of the place in early June.
It was a beautiful, sunny day, and I was definintely in the mood for Crarae’s crazy floral confectionery.
The paths around the garden are very well-designed, with several waymarked routes for different walking abilities. I was particularly pleased to see that the Trust had designed a low-level wheelchair-accessible route, which took in the wonderful display of meconopsis at the top of this post. But, after my walking experiments, I was feeling ambitious, and decided to attempt the “white route”, which covered a couple of kilometres and some steep stretches up and down the gorge. The paths are managed, so unlike a “real” hill, there are steps, hand-rails, and benches to assist those who are tired or uncertain of foot. This was a great way for me to to attempt some inclines, and to enjoy some glorious sights and smells along the way.
I managed without the crutch again, as you can see, and am thinking more and more that gardens (of which there are many superb examples in Scotland, including Inverewe, which I shamefully have never seen) are a marvelous way for me to enjoy the outdoors while I am rehabilitating.
In other news, I must also report a resounding confectionery success, relative to which I have a query. While my own baking is rather workaday and unexciting (limited to bread, scones, and the occasional carrot or marmalade cake) Tom has a penchant for fancy cakes and pies which he makes extremely well. He has quite an exacting approach, and can spend months comparing and testing different recipes for tarte tatin or clafoutis. (This means, of course, that I get to try out these delicious treats and I am not complaining). While I was in hospital, Tom did not bake much, and consequently found himself buying a fair few cakes. He developed a fondness for a particular dessert made by Maison Blanc for Waitrose – a sort of chewy, nutty meringue, sandwiched together with mascarpone. He has been wanting to make this since he first tried it, but the cake was bewilderingly unnamed on the Maison Blanc box, and his search for a recipe was initially hampered by the fact that neither of us really knew what to call it. When I was a kid, Smiths, our local bakers sold something similar, (albeit less deluxe) which we referred to as a japonais, but a search for this did not turn up a recipe. Tom finally found a description of something called “Swiss Meringue” in Leith’s techniques bible, which, with chopped hazelnuts and white-wine vinegar to assure chew, sounded about right, and he tried it out on Sunday night. We lacked mascarpone, so he whipped up a vanilla cream instead. This thing was really unbelievably good – much better, indeed, than the Maison Blanc original. Courtesy of the swiss meringue, we have been happily floating away to pattiserie-land for the past couple of evenings, and it has whetted Tom’s appetite to attempt more in the way of such desserts. He has never made macaroons, and has read conflicting things about their ease (or lack thereof) of execution. He wondered whether you had recommendations of a good macaroon recipe, or whether you might have any macaroon-making tips. Any advice very gratefully received!