Cambridge Botanic Gardens & The Commons Cow.

Last week, on a whim, and more unfortunately on a Greater Anglia train (the cheapest option, and for a reason), the Resident Australian and I went to Cambridge, a city in which I once spent many windswept days visiting fellow enthusiasts of various media properties, and which the Resident Australian had never had the privilege of seeing.

Greater Anglia trains can best be summed up by the knowledge that we were half an hour late when we arrived and that the fist seat I sat on fell to pieces. Less of a means of public transport and more of a “possibly viable alternative to walking”, and I never thought I’d find myself wishing I was on a First Capita Connect train instead.

Many were the perambulations we took about the city, and many were the colleges we peered at from the pavement while refusing to pay £4.50 for the privilege of looking at a place where other people are studying, in part because at various points in my life I’ve had friends studying at Kings, Johns, Trinity, Caius and Gonville, Queens, and Darwin, and I resent the idea that I now have to fork out change to go to places I’ve previously just wandered into with friends. We did pop into one or two churches, noteably the surprisingly secluded St Botolph’s:

Photograph by J. Reilly.

We lurched about, dodging ten thousand young men trying to drum up business for Scudamore’s, and made our way down to the river via Silver Street and The Mill, where on the corner at Coe Fen we found a cow chilling out right at the junction of two paths, untroubled by throngs of people, and barely interested in flicking away flies. It was an exceptionally tolerant cow.

The cow, being patted by me.
The cow, being patted by me. Photo by J. Reilly

 

The cow in situ
The cow in situ. Photo by me on my phone.

But what of the title of the post? Wasn’t there some mention of the Cambridge Botanic Gardens?

Oh right, them. Obviously not as interesting as a cow (which on later research turns out to be a Red Poll bullock), but still pretty hip. And swinging. And radical.

We arrived about 2.5 hours before closing, because that’s how we roll, and because the gardens were about a mile from where we were at that point, but handily a mere ten minutes from the station, making them a great stop on the way home. Apart from the bit where you do a lot of walking and we already had done. Well-planned there, I feel.

We took in the greenhouses, because I wanted to look at the mini jungle (and at the gate we’d been told one of the huge lotuses was in flower) and the Resident Australian has a thing for cactuses (for a moment, trudging along behind someone with an expensive camera who has to take a photo of every single cactus, it was almost as if my grandfather was still alive); we took in the rock garden, which has a tiny labyrinth and a semi-circular bench in it, and a little lake which was full of immature moorhens gallumphing about on the lilypads.

Photo by J. Reilly
Photo by J. Reilly

We wandered down to the rose garden, which was alas finished with blooming, collapsed on the grass for a while, and levered ourselves up so that I could go and win a flawless victory with definitely no cheating at all over a maze made of sedge grass (it’s not cheating if you don’t scratch yourself stepping over the bit you’re not supposed to step over), and found ourselves face-to-face with an innovative display of low-water plants called the “dry garden”; excited to discover that apparently grapes fall into this category, even if immature grape bunches look strangely otherworldly.

Further collapse was staved off by a visit to the cafe and an elderflower and rose sparkling drink (what more appropriate beverage can there be for a garden than bits of the garden? Sadly my co-conspirator did not oblige and keep up her end of the bargain by drinking mint tea or anything), and we bravely struck out for the Scent Garden.

In the Scent Garden we squeezed the leaves of every single plant and were treated to a medley of smells ranging from the really quite pleasant (lemon balm, mint, rosemary, something which smelled very strongly of aniseed), the unexpected (curry plant!), and the utterly revolting… I wish I could remember the name of the disgusting-smelling stuff but it had us running back to the rosemary, lavender, and lemon balm to clean it off our hands.

We left via the Chronological Beds, which helpfully divided up various plants into the time periods when they’d first been introduced to our shores. Some definite surprises – tobacco before the potato? Almonds centuries before scarlet runner beans? – and an unfortunate run-in with the aptly-named Prickly Bear’s Breeches (Acanthus), and some unfamiliar faces as well as the very familiar black-eyed susans.

While I’m recounting our sedate, middle-class adventure around the botanic gardens I should point out that the entry fee was far from middle-class and in fact for someone used to the eyebrow-raising expense of getting into the much larger and more exhausting Kew Gardens it felt like a treat to only pay £4.50 to see such variety (and the beautifully-designed dancing fountains in the centre of it all).

The gardens alone were well worth suffering Greater Anglia trains “service” (and at least we got to look at the narrowboats clustering at Roydon), but it was definitely the cow that really made that trip.

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Recipe: Possibly A Kind Of Soup Thing.

I don’t really follow recipes very much, and just have a mental catalogue of “this is how to make acceptable food happen out of one pot” ideas which usually ends up in elaborate and expensive gumbo (did you know that adding rice to the mix to soak up the sauce means that when the leftovers go cold you can make them into burritos? It is possibly a crime against humanity but it’s very tasty) or variations on pasta sauce. This time it was soup.

I’m warning you now, this contained a MAGIC INGREDIENT.

Serves three, has the exciting name “sinus-clearing soup”.

Ingredients (non-magic)

  • 360g braising beef steak, diced
  • 1 potato, diced
  • 1 carrot, chopped
  • 1 stalk of celery, chopped
  • 2 cloves of garlic, chopped
  • 150g button mushrooms, larger ones chopped
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 170g butternut squash, diced
  • 1 gel beef stock pot
  • 1 tbsp ghee
  • about three handfuls of jerk seasoning
  • 600ml water

Ingredients (magic)

  • Leftover noodle broth (approx 250ml) containing:
  1. Another gel beef stock pot, dissolved
  2. 2 tsp of a mix of spices I did myself some time ago which contains garam massala, cinnamon, paprika, ground chilli, celery salt, tumeric, and a bit of cocoa. In what proportions I cannot tell you.
  3. A sachet of noodle flavouring (chicken) which most likely involves chicken stock, monosodium glutimate, dehyrdrated carrot chunks, salt, unidentified green bits.

Method

  1. Melt the ghee in massive pot.
  2. Vigorously rub literal handfuls of jerk seasoning into the diced beef, sling the beef in the pot.
  3. Add the onion, then garlic.
  4. Beef should be pretty brown now. Celery and mushroom goes in the pot. Personally I like to chop/dice things as I’m going along because it provides a natural pause to allow things to cook more but I hear other people like precision.
  5. When that’s looking fairly cooked sling in the squash.
  6. Carrot, potato, and the magic.
  7. Add the stock gel.
  8. Add the water.
  9. Bring to the boil, angrily hitting the pan when the laws of physics dictate that the bastard thing isn’t coming to the boil fast enough. At this point eating raw peas out of the pod and swearing at the cooker are both entirely acceptable ways to try to bend universal laws to the will of your growling stomach.
  10. Simmer for about 15-20 minutes.

What you should end up with is a beef broth with a serious sheen of fat floating on the top. DO NOT SKIM THE FAT, YOU GIANT FOOL. 1 serving amounts to about 450 calories and that is a decent-sized meal. Taste it: it should taste of FIRE and MEAT. If it doesn’t make your nose run you have probably been stingy with the jerk seasoning and you deserve to go to hell. If it doesn’t taste of SERIOUS MEAT you only put one stock pot in and should be stationed under a demon cow herd in hell. Or just an ordinary cow herd, I’ve lived by a dairy farm and frankly normal Frisians are enough.

Vegetarians

Why not substitute pretend!meat protein for the braising steak and vegetable stock for the beef stock pots? The outcome should still be okay because of glorious ghee.

[Fiction] Charming

Ping had never been to a roof-top bar before. She’d been meaning to, in the same way she’d been meaning to book a holiday somewhere and not just spend all her holiday time either sleeping or doing everything she had hadn’t time to while she was at work, but hadn’t got past the intention.

Then the money-off deal came up in her inbox like a sign from the universe, just as she’d started the four-day weekend, and when she emailed Mu he hadn’t immediately responded with sorry, but and instead said I think I can do it this time.

So she stood on a rooftop in Hoxton and wondered why she’d thought being two floors up would make the oppressive heat and chemical mugginess disappear, and thought, a little sadly, about how you get the picture of “roof-top bar” confused with “images of James Bond suaveness and elegance everywhere” and forget that all your friends are hipsters and the Queen of Hoxton is in Hoxton, and that hipsters like industrial earnestness and not beautiful glass sculptures.

Ping cradled an icy glass of Rekoderlig in her hands and tried to pretend to herself that it was a very cosmopolitan and sophisticated cocktail favoured by the fabulously wealthy, and that she was in Dubai, and that the Queen of Hoxton had installed an air-conditioning unit on the roof.

A woman with blonde hair in generous waves and plastic glasses frames with no glass in them approached Ping directly. With a sudden stab of panic Ping worried if she’d somehow stolen her spot, or her drink, or was about to be mistaken for someone else. She cast about vaguely for some sort of life-line, but no one met her eye.

“Are you Ping?” the woman asked, from about six feet away. She gestured at Ping with the neck of her own drink – a Corona – and accompanied the question with an irritated puff of air apparently intended to get her hair off her forehead.

As there were maybe three other people on the roof who weren’t white, and one of them was a man, and all of them were black, Ping thought this question was slightly unnecessary, but she nodded cautiously. Maybe she’d left something downstairs.

“Oh, your brother said could I tell you, he’s run into some friends downstairs,” the woman said, with a cartoonish, letterbox grimace, “and he’ll be up soon. Between you and me,” she said, shielding her mouth with the back of her hand as if she was imparting state secrets, “I don’t think it’s going to be ‘soon’.” She raised her eyebrows for a moment, and when Ping didn’t react, she added, “Also I don’t know why they’d want to stay down there anyhow, it’s dark and warm.”

The blonde woman held the top of her loose dress away from her skin to illustrate, pinching it between finger and thumb. She put her head on one side, and huffed out another puff of hair-dislodging air.

“Thanks,” Ping said, belatedly.

For a moment they both stood in silence. The blonde didn’t appear to be in a hurry to go anywhere – she just stared abstractedly past Ping’s head at the buildings to the West, into the beginnings of the setting sun, and Ping took the opportunity to examine her shoes, which were metallic orange sandals with little leather wing shapes cut out over the ankle bones. They looked dumb.

The blonde woman turned her attention back to Ping with an exaggerated little dancer’s jerk, the kind people did when they wanted to make it clear they were now giving you their full attention. Ping experimented in her head with the idea of telling this woman that she didn’t want her full attention, or even a sliver of it, but as usual what came out of her mouth was blindingly awkward small-talk as her fingers tightened on the condensation of the Rekoderlig glass, and the ice began to melt.

“So how do you know Mu?”

The blonde lifted a hank of her hair away from her nape and fanned underneath it, the Corona dangling against her back, gripped in the curl of two fingers. “I don’t. I know Leah –“ she rolled her eyes at something absent, “—who isn’t even here like she was meant to be, and Leah knows Stella and Gavin and I guess Stella and Gavin know your brother – Mu, was it? – God, excuse me, I’m not normally this gross, I just can’t deal with close heat at all.” She let go of her hair, spread one hand and the bottle in a gesture of exasperation, raised her face to heavens, and said, “Why didn’t I get ice?”

Ping thought, I’m not offering you mine just so you can turn it down.

“Anyway,” said the blonde, “I don’t really know anyone I’m here with and I was starting to get bored, literally all they were talking about was this stupid Flickr-scraping app—“

“Futographr,” Ping blurted.

“That’s the one,” she said, pointing her lower two fingers and her Corona at Ping, before taking a swig.

A man in a lumberjack shirt with the sleeves rolled up to the elbows and a colouring-book of tattoos on his forearms passed between them as if they weren’t having a conversation at all – which Ping felt they weren’t, not exactly – and by the time he’d squeezed on by to the bucket of ice and cans that was standing in for another bar, she could see Mu’s hair poking around the door to the roof.

Ping waved.

The blonde wandered away.

Mu said, “Oh thank God you’re here, I’ve just been trapped downstairs listening to Iain’s blow-by-blow account of how spiritually enriching it is to go and stare at poor people in Laos.” He held his hand over his eyes and peered into the sun. “Hey,” he added, “this is nice, this was a good idea.”

Ping looked at the last fragments of melted ice in her drink and said, “Yeah. Feels like you’re not in London at all,” without a single molecule of sincerity.

 

“How was last night?” John asked, stepping back from the hot water-tap but leaving his mug beside it as if to guard the queue from interlopers.

Ping puffed upwards into her fringe to unstick it from her forehead, both hands on her coffee cup. “Warm,” she said. “Who thinks it’s a good idea to have a roof terrace with no shade?”

“Aw, c’mon,” John laughed, pushing his cup under the hot-water tap. “The whole point of a roof-terrace is to enjoy the three minutes of sun we get a year.”

Ping pinched her t-shirt away from her breast-bone as if she was airing out curtains, and said, “Sun, yes, sweat, no.”

John said, “I have this idea for a cold-tub on the roof of one of those pubs. You just climb in a bucket of ice cubs and sit in it for as long as you can take.”

“Now that,” Ping said, whispering past the back of her hand, “sounds like a recipe for all kinds of problems with your – you know.”

 

At work drinks she found herself standing by John, who elaborated on his ice tank idea and even threatened to demonstrate with a glass of ice-cubes. “At least a cold drink,” he amended, when Ping made a face. “Strawberry cider, right?”

Ping shook her head, surprised. “Corona.”

“You normally have strawberry cider,” John said, with a level of certainty Ping found somewhat irritating.

She lifted the hair off the nape of her neck and fanned impatiently at the skin below, trying to speed up the process of recovering from a day in a sweaty office with only one working desk fan.

“No I don’t,” she said. “That’s a children’s drink.”

Ping grimaced, her mouth wide like a letterbox, and John shrugged and collected up a few more orders on the way to the bar. The pub was air-conditioned, and dark, and almost everyone else from the department had stepped outside to enjoy the evening sun.

“Ping,” John called, from the bar, and she turned with a jerky little dancer’s turn to give him her attention. “Are you sure it was Corona you wanted?”

She rolled her eyes to the dusty ceiling, and mouthed a silent prayer for strength. “Yes.”

 

“Nice shoes,” said a fat woman on the escalator, as Ping flopped on the handrail. There was a whole crocodile of neon tourists blocking both sides of the moving stairs, and ignoring, loudly and Frenchly, the repeated passive-aggressive coughing, tutting, and tannoy announcements regarding standing on the right that were aimed at them.

“Thanks,” said Ping, looking down at the sandals with their cut-out wing silhouette in the orange metallic leather. “I got them on the internet.”

 

John went home to his flatmates, two of whom were cats, and slumped into the groove on the sofa specifically worn for him, a one-cushion gap away from the groove in the sofa specifically worn for Peter, who was half-asleep in front of Total Wipeout in the evening heat.

“It’s like Satan’s arsehole out there,” Peter mumbled, unsticking his arm from the faux-leather cushions to reach for the remote. His eyes widened. “Why am I watching this?”

“Why are you watching this?” John asked, holding his shirt away from his chest to stop it sticking.

“Girl in the pink leotard thing is quite fit,” Peter suggested, changing the channel.

John rolled his eyes, and sank back into the sofa. “You saw two seconds of red hair.”

“Sometimes that’s all you need,” Peter countered, putting his feet on top of John’s discarded bag. “You look weird.”

“Thanks,” John muttered, blowing hair off his forehead. “You look like you’re being slow-roasted in your own sweat.”

Peter levered himself slowly off the sofa, with accompanying winces and twitches as his skin let go the fabric. “Drink?”

“Corona,” John said, vaguely watching the ident on the TV screen. It was new, and featured a group of women with prosthetic legs engaged in some sort of dance with huge fluttering banners. Peter stopped in the doorway to the kitchen.

Corona?” he repeated.

“Yeah?”

“Why would we have—“ Peter cut himself off, shrugged, and returned a moment later with a bottle of Heineken.

 

“You’re being unusually camp,” Bevis said, half-way through the next morning, when John was telling him about the latest deployment on the system and when it was due. “What’s that – that thing where you’re pretending to whisper to someone. Have you been watching Drag Race?”

John was momentarily bewildered by this; he searched the ceiling for some kind of cue as to what the hell Bevis was objecting to, and decided to ignore it altogether.

It wasn’t, after all, as if he’d done anything out of the ordinary.

 

Peter leaned over the bar and blew upwards into his own fringe. “Have you considered getting air-conditioning in here?”

The barmaid shrugged. “Chris has ‘considered’ it an unnecessary expense,” she said, bitterly, “because he doesn’t come in here unless he’s shitfaced himself. I’ll tell him the clientele are complaining, maybe that’ll do something.” She watched Peter hold his t-shirt away from his chest as if trying to keep it from contaminating his nipples, and said, “the usual?”

“Yeah.” Peter sighed. He wondered if there was somewhere online that did men’s sandals with wing cut-outs. He’d never had a pair of sandals before, but the weather was grim, and the idea of wearing flip-flops somehow didn’t appeal.

“Guinness, then,” the barmaid said.

“Corona,” Peter corrected, lifting his ponytail off the nap of his neck and fanning underneath.

“I thought you said the usual?”

“That is the usual,” Peter said.


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