The Morville Hours

Each of us has the potential to hold a thousand different languages on the tip of our tongue. Even if we have nothing more than a smattering of schoolgirl French or the ability to order a glass of wine in Greek, within our mother tongue lie several hundred possible modes of language, each one individually special and specific.

The use of Latin plant names, unapologetically untranslated, in English represents straight-forward borrowing, words imported wholesale and their rules applied to each new hybrid as it emerges from the ground. But there are many more subtle tongues being spoken every day, ones flying so low under our daily radars that we probably don’t even think of them as languages. But in many ways they are: compare the cable and casting off of the knitter against the casting off and cable of a sailor, the builders’ kentledge against the printers’ colophon. The rosin and vibrato of a violinist, the anemometer and the quadrant of the geographer, the gomme and gouache of the painter. Each special skill offers the acolyte a shibboleth – how do real horticulturalists pronounce corymbs and guelder, proper teachers say Melpomene and Calliope? The hunter’s tack is a world away in meaning from the seamstresses’ word for the same, the language of the hack for the horse and the news hinting at the different universes inhabited by both. These idiolects of trades and interests can be both ancient and modern: ‘a bit of 2-by-4’ and an RSJ are immediately understood by a builder but may mystify a hairdresser, who would be more familiar with an upsweep and a fauxhawk.

morvilleThis is a fairly roundabout way of approaching Katherine Swift’s The Morville Hours, but the reason for doing so is because Swift is so astonishingly good at entwining the languages of gardener, builder, priest, beekeeper and a multitude of others into her narrative. The Morville Hours tells the story of Swift’s life and garden using the dual frameworks of the mediaeval book of hours on one hand and England’s traditional horticultural calendar on the other. Both are potentially off-putting subjects in their extreme specificity and almost complete irrelevance to our city-centred modern lives, but in Swift’s exquisite prose both become fascinating and beautiful in their complexity. I found that although I didn’t know what many of the words Swift used meant precisely – the list includes terce, none (pronounced to rhyme with ‘one’ and ‘stone’, not ‘bun’ and ‘fun’), achillea ptarmica, and a hundred other plant names. But it didn’t stop me understanding Swift’s story, and I didn’t mind not knowing as she made me feel that a world was opening up to me through these words, not shutting me out. The Morville Hours is a magical book in that it has the power to transport, translate and transmorgrify things of which I was completely ignorant into fascinating subjects that I just want to more and more about.

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Kellie Castle, Fife

It also made me long for the outdoors, for a life lived closer to the soil and the seeds. It made me miss my birthplace in the south of England, which was so much warmer and more verdant than the colder climes of Scotland. But it also inspired me to go on a visit: to Kellie Castle, a National Trust for Scotland property close to the Fife coast. Like the Dower House at Morville where Swift made her incredible garden, the Castle was home to what are known as ‘improving tenants’, people who live in a property but pay a lower rent because they have offered to improve the building or gardens on behalf of the owner. At Kellie the ‘improving’ family were the multi-talented Lorimers, best-kent among them sculptor Hew Lorimer (he who made the Lady of the Isles on South Uist and carved the seven allegorical figures on the front of the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh), architect Robert Lorimer and artist John Henry (J.H) Lorimer. Inside the house they sensitively restored the building and filled it with beautiful furniture, either of their own making or from the periods spanned by the house’s history. Outside they rebuilt the castle’s walled gardens and created beautiful spaces in which people could while away many a happy outdoor hour. Many of JH’s paintings perfectly capture the play of light on the buildings and grounds at Kellie, and below is one of my favourites – Happy Easter!

Sunlight in the South room

Sunlight in the South Room (c) The National Trust for Scotland, Kellie Castle & Garden; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Where Lemons Grow

I’ve always been a fan of lemons as a flavour: as a child my favourite ‘treat’ drink was Schweppes Bitter Lemon, which always seemed mouth-puckeirngly sour at the time, but now seems quite sweet to my adult palate! But in the last month I’ve read two books about lemons, and have become fascinated with everything about them – their origins, scent, how they grow, and what to make with them in the kitchen. Here follows the beginning of my journey of discovery…

First, I got sick and had to spend a few days in bed feeling sorry for myself, so the husband, bought me a book to cheer me up and distract me from my immune system’s struggles. Driving Over LemonsThis was Driving Over Lemons – An Optimist in Andalucia. Well, they do say you should take in plenty of citrus fruits when you’re ill, right? The author, Chris Stewart, was originally the drummer in Genesis, but that means almost nothing to me and indeed I didn’t realise that was the case until I’d finished the book and was reading the author interview hidden away at the back. The book chronicles Chris’s decision to move with his family to Spain, buying a derelict farm called El Valero and making a new life for themselves in the Andalucian hills. It’s basically A Year in Provence, but further south and set over a longer period. Jolly, gently humourous and the perfect antidote to modern city living, it transports you rural Spain in a miasma of joie de vivre – but the lemons, though omnipresent and heavily scented, provide only the backdrop to the main narrative of family life.

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Beautifully bright Bosa

A few days after finishing Driving over Lemons and feeling fully recovered, the husband and I found ourselves in Sardinia.  Moving house and starting a new job which required working throughout August meant that this was our first holiday this year, so it was magical to be away somewhere beautiful and sunny for two whole weeks. We stayed in Bosa, a Phoenician hill town, for 9 days, then had 4 days in an agriturismo not far from the coast. We’d  been to Sardinia for our honeymoon last year, and had such a marvellous time that we couldn’t wait to go back – it didn’t disappoint!

The land which makes liqueur from lemons...

The land which makes liqueur from lemons…

As ever when on holiday, I had brought plenty of reading material, but chief among them was Helena Attlee’s The Land Where Lemons Grow. I’d bought this book for the husband for his birthday back in June, lured in by the beauty of the cover and happy memories of our honeymoon, and he’d raved about it all the way through, sharing so many delicious snippets of citrussy information that I already felt quite familiar with it by the time it came to read it for myself. I’d been deliberately resisting starting it before the holiday, as when I travel I like to try to read books set in the places I’m visiting, to more thoroughly experience the place not only geographically, but culturally and historically too. Technically, the book focusses mostly on Sicily and mainland Italy, but Sardinia’s just a stone’s throw further into the Mediterranean – so close enough!

Attlee is a garden expert by trade, leading tours and writing books on Italian gardens. She obviously adores plants in all their splendid variety, but it is the citrus family which has really captured her imagination. Although the title makes specific reference to just one member of this family, Attlee’s book covers the whole gamut of the genus, from the three original citrus fruits (pomelo, citron and mandarin) to hundreds of different sub-species.

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Drinking citron fizz in the sunshine

From the Medici to the Mafia, we discover that citrus lies at the heart of Italy’s economy and gastronomy since at least the 6th century. I was also introduced to several fruits I’d never even heard of: the chinotto, a small bitter citrus used to flavour drinks and sweets; and bergamot, the name of which I knew but which I had believed, rather erroneously, to be a herb. It is in fact an inedible citrus fruit whose powerfully fragrant essential oils form the basis for Eau De Cologne, and have done ever since the perfume was first invented by Johann Maria Farina in 1709.

Attlee’s writing is pitch-perfect, balancing the academic with the anecdotal to create a whole which is so fascinating that when I’d finished, I immediately turned back to the first page and started reading it again. Although she is narrating the tale of citrus development throughout history, the book’s form is non-linear and moves effortlessly between place and time – in some books this jars or can confuse the less expert reader (such as myself), but in Attlee’s hands these connected stories simply weave in and out of each other to create a truly rich and vibrant text.

Tagliolini alle scorzette di arancia e limone

Tagliolini alle scorzette di arancia e limone

The book also inspired us to seek out the more unusual citrus fruits we’d read about – and we found both chinotto, in the form of a drink made by San Pellegrino, and citron – again as a drink (see photo above.) We also saw a pomelo in the supermarket, but it was so huge that we stopped short of buying it as we didn’t fancy trying to chop it up with our tiny kit knife. But we did try Attlee’s delicious recipe for pasta with orange and lemon – very unusual but well worth a taste.

The Land Where Lemons Grow is a definite contender for my favourite book of the year – if you’ve read it, let me know what you think, and if you haven’t, what are you waiting for? Hie thee to a (good independent) bookshop!