Keukenhof, Amsterdam

After a week of chic Amsterdam loft-living, we’re having to get used to living in a Victorian terrace again. We were in town to visit the world-famous Keukenhof garden (about an hour out of the city), but the trip really turned into six days of mainlining carbs, reading, not-being-emailed-constantly and quality time with my man (a novelty as he works all the time).  I booked the flights back in January, when the desire for spring flowers had reached obsessive levels, only to find that by the time the trip rolled around, Britain’s spring had already been in full flow for at least a month…this rather took the edge off the urge for tulip-spotting.

No matter, for I quickly replaced one obsession with another: namely, the art of how to make a perfect Dutch appeltaart.

2017-04-24 14.55.26

Appeltaart at the Rijks Museum

Appeltaart is the dessert of choice for Amsterdammers, and I spent the entire week studying different versions to work out how it’s made. The pastry is cake-like, deeply filled with cinnamon-spiked chunky apple and raisins, and topped with latticework. The apples seem to break down around their edges into a brown-sugary-mass that holds the chunks in place, so there’s a contrast of textures. It’s not particularly sweet, is always served cold in enormously generous wedges and (hilariously) comes with a side of slagroom (whipped cream). If I ever succeed in making a decent version at home I will blog the results.

One other thing to note about Amsterdam is that everyone is dressed like a contemporary art curator. They’re all on bikes, wrapped up in smart tailored wool coats, trainers and thick-rim glasses, off to some glamorous arts job or perhaps simply to a cafe to scoff appeltaart whilst working on their Apple laptops. And I mean everyone – even the kids look cool. The place is spotlessly clean and ordered, except on King’s Day, when the city dresses up in orange, gets leathered on Heineken by 11am and congregates on party boats trailing around the canals with euro-pop and Wham! at full blast. But by 8pm, it is all over and everyone goes home for their tea. In Holland, it seems they like to lose  control in a very controlled fashion.

2017-04-27 16.36.38

Party boats for King’s Day in Amsterdam

Our loft apartment was painted entirely white, overlooked a canal (naturally) and was a short walk from a super-trendy street of independent trendy boutiques and classy food shops. I am sure that not everyone in Amsterdam lives this way, but for the few days we were there, it felt the height of civilisation.

But we were there for the tulips and it is the tulips that I must report back on. The Dutch LOVE tulips and they express their love at the Keukenhof, which is apparently the largest flower garden in the world. It’s only open for two months of the year, from March to May, and is essentially a massive trade show for Holland’s enormous flower industry. The formal beds of spring flowers and indoor pavilions are designed to show off the latest and favourite varieties of tulip, hyacinth and daffodil from individual bulb producers, and they do it with pristine attention to detail; we spotted a gardener placing metal rods into individual hyacinth stems to keep them upright. Imagine repeating that several million times, for that’s what it takes to keep this place looking great for spring flower season.

2007-12-31 23.00.00-2

At the Keukenhof, strips of ornate planting jut up against blocks of colour

2007-12-31 23.00.00-3

Clever geometric design

The geometric ‘designed’ beds are a useful way to highlight individual colours of tulip and I soon picked out a few favourites. The deep, inky-purple shades are dramatic, especially when planted against candy-pinks, but I’m increasingly enamoured by pale yellows, creams and greens.

2007-12-31 23.00.00-7

Darkest purple contrasts with candy pink

2007-12-31 23.00.00-11

Enjoy the soft green merging into pink

2007-12-31 23.00.00-4

These are firecrackers!

The received wisdom for tulips is that you plant a single colour together in blocks, so I was surprised to find a few beds that were a riot of contrasting colours and shapes. And actually, after all the formality in the rest of the gardens, these tutti-frutti beds were a joy.

Matt rather dryly observed that there’s an element of the cruise ship about the Keukenhof and I know what he means – it’s fun, but quite an unreal, artificial creation. Plus it was full of coach parties. Take a peep outside of the fairyland creation and the Dutch landscape gives an insight into what these gardens are all about – marketing the acres-upon-acres of flowers and bulbs that keep the Dutch economy afloat.

2007-12-31 23.00.00-19

Outside, the Dutch landscape is as flat as their ubiquitous pancakes

So I was surprised at how little merchandising there was at Keukenhof…it was difficult to find the name of a variety of tulip and the bulb-shops were tiny. Perhaps maximising visitor-spending is an area of commerce that doesn’t appeal to the Dutch – equally, the cut-flower displays were all a bit ‘plonk them in a vase’, so it seems that floral design is not high on the agenda. (Compare this to, say, Chelsea Flower Show where designs are expected to be cutting-edge and they want to part you from every penny you’ve ever earned). The Dutch are horticulturalists first-and-foremost, and the Keukenhof is a shrine to their preferred artform.

2008-01-01 12.00.05

This is about as artful as the cut flower display got, alas

On a different note, this will be the trip that I’ll remember for when I felt the little monster in my tummy starting to wriggle around for the first time. It is the weirdest thing, like when you drive over a humpback bridge and your stomach takes a few minutes to catch up. I’m 20 weeks, have got an undeniable paunch and remain shocked at how out-of-breath I get from normal physical activity. Four-and-a-half months to go.

The Keukenhof is open from March to May. www.keukenhof.nl/en/

I read: Living Danishly by Helen Russell, Playing to the Gallery by Grayson Perry
We ate: Pasta, pizza, cookies from Stauch, appeltaart, cheese, more pasta, pastries. The Dutch like Italian food and carbs. Matt drank alot of beer.
We watched: National Geographic channel, mostly programmes about plane crashes, Einstein and an American vet

Asparagus and tulips

At various intervals between April and July that Christmas song ‘It’s the most wonderful time of the year’ comes into my mind. From mid-spring to mid-summer, every few weeks a new miraculous thing happens that gives me zest for life….a hillside filled with bluebells in May, a meadow of wildflowers in June, and in April, the first bunches of precious green Evesham asparagus. I came across this brilliant sight on Saturday. The ‘grass is about three weeks early this year – there’s a chance this lot have been grown under plastic but I’m putting that to the back of my mind. What matters is that they were green, squeaky fresh and sweet.

2017-04-01 14.12.08

First Evesham asparagus!

The first asparagus of the season is not to be messed about with. It needs about three or four minutes in boiling water and then anointing with butter, sea salt and black pepper, and no more. I served these up with my favourite spring supper: a whole trout baked with vine tomatoes, shallots, olives and thyme, with a side of new potatoes. And with that simple meal, the winter has gone.

It’s not just the asparagus that’s early. On my last visit to the allotment, about a fortnight ago, the tulips were still thinking about making their presence known. I’d been thinking for a few days that I ought to go and check progress so I popped over there yesterday evening to find, if not a field, then a substantial amount of full-blooms ready for picking.

2017-04-04 17.01.50

I was taken by surprise as how far these have come along in a fortnight

I say ‘ready for picking’ – really, I should have started a week ago. The curious thing about tulips is that they need to be planted in colour blocks. On the allotment, in small strips of colour spaced quite far apart for ease of picking, they looked fun but nothing sensational. But an hour later, when separated out in vases in complimentary colours, they were brilliant.

2017-04-04 17.02.41

Shades of cream, yellow, orange and burgundy

2017-04-04 18.15.05

I collected an armful of tulips…

My current favourite is the combination of Purissima (the big fat cream one) and Moonlight girl (the pointy yellow one). Purissima is HUGE, which on the allotment looked ungainly, but in the vase looks wonderfully showy-offy. After the sparse months of winter, it’s uplifting to have some colour back in the house.

2017-04-04 18.45.24

…and they look a treat

My only concern now is that we miss the rest of the crop. In a few weeks we’re off to Holland in order to admire that great tulip gardens of Amsterdam. Oh the irony if I then miss my own…

Also on the allotment and in the potting-room:

Harvesting: Tulips, last Russian kale
Sowed: Chillies, chard, spinach, sorrel, cima di rapa, courgette, squash, pattypan, borlotti, string beans, runner beans, French beans, ammi, cosmos, cornflower, nasturtium, borage, poppy, zinnia, dill, rudbeckia, bells of Ireland
Other jobs: Strimmed allotment grass for the first time this year. It is making vast in-roads into the veg patches and needs controlling. Dug up the last brassicas and forked over the patch. It took 90 minutes and today I can barely move; our soil needs alot of work.

Too many tulips? Never!

Suddenly, there are apples everywhere. We visited Matt’s 90-something-year-old Grampy at the weekend and the first sight on entering the house was these stacked apple crates, plus a sign at the front door claiming apples for sale. I make a mental note to track down a recipe for the Dutch apple cake that I saw in Rotterdam back in May, generously crammed with fruit and topped with cinnamon-spiked crumble.

2016-10-08 12.45.24

Grampy’s apples are literally piling up

Against all odds, the borlotti beans have come up with a bounteous harvest and I picked a carrier bag-full of marbled pods yesterday. The beans inside are big, around the size of a thumbnail, and milky creamy – I prefer them in this youthful state. Rather than dry them, I’ll pod these and stick the beans straight in the freezer, ready to be thrown into chillies and minestrone when needed. So much simpler than the usual palaver of soaking and boiling for a day.

2016-10-09 15.05.14

First picking of borlotti beans

I’ve brought in the ornamental gourds too, in their stripy green and yellow jackets. They’re brightening up the fireplace with autumnal colour.

2016-10-09 15.05.23

The trug of gourds

But the real job of the weekend was getting started on the bulb planting. A few weeks back I went a little crazy, possibly after imbibing a sherry or two, and ordered a massive number of tulips, narcissi and allium bulbs for autumn planting. The idea was to have a patch of spring cutting flowers on the allotment that could just sit there all year round, perhaps being over-planted with lettuce or suchlike once the flowers have died back.

The bulbs duly arrived (the postman warned me over the weight of the box and was incredulous then I said it was bulbs) and I realised that I may have slightly too many. 310 to be precise. Now I am not the best when it comes to spacial awareness, but there was no way that the designated patch was going to take all these…

2016-10-09 13.19.28

A gazillion bulbs waiting to be planted

As the bulbs were going into one patch of clear earth, we simply dig out trenches and laid the bulbs out in grids. I say ‘we’: Matt did the graft whilst I supervised.

2016-10-09 13.20.29

We (read: Matt) dug out an entire trench to make planting easier

I’ve planted in blocks, so that each colour stays together. There was only room for tulips in the end – the allium and narcissi will have to go into pots or into the garden at Herbert Road, which is no hardship. In went (all from Sarah Raven):

Purissima: a pale cream shade

The Dutch Still Life collection: Helmar, Jan Reus and Bruine Wimpel, a deep red flowers offset with a yellow/red fiery striped and a dusky orangey-pink

The Brandy Snap collection: A mixture of smoky silken shades, with Belle Epoque, Bruine Wimpel (again), Cairo, Ronaldo

Spring green: I love this, a pale white with green stripes from the centre of the flower that lead down onto the stem

Moonlight Girl: An elegant yellow with pointed petals

2016-10-09 13.26.18

Covering them back up

2016-10-09 14.49.24

Covered over and levelled, just waiting for the weeds to take over again

The only question now is…will they all grow?! I went home with about 100 bulbs that went unplanted, knowing that there is now no excuse and I MUST make a start on the Herbert Road garden.

Planted: Tulip bulbs
Cleared: Sunflowers
Harvested: Borlotti, still more courgettes, gourd, dahlia, chrysanthemums, chard, spinach, rocket, chicory