It’s a few years since I last visited Bute and despite the 35-minute ferry crossing being eye-wincingly expensive (if you take your car), it was lovely to return to the island. Rothesay, the island’s town, was once a fashionable resort but is tired and down at heel these days, but Munro’s B&B perched above the town with panoramic views over the Firth of Clyde is a great place to stay – contemporary, comfortable and friendly with delicious breakfasts. We were on Bute to visit two places – Mount Stuart and Ascog Victorian Fernery.
Another glorious day in Scotland – and another wonderful garden.
The annual flower mixes clearly love the conditions – I don’t think I’ve ever seen a planting look quite as good – and in the crystal clear light the flowers positively vibrated with colour. The walled area is a mix of productive planting, magnificent herbaceous borders, extensive glasshouses and lawns planted with specimen trees. Get there early and you will have it to yourself – as we left about 10.30am families were arriving with lots of excited children – still lovely, but not as tranquil.
I’ve recently been to a press preview of new varieties from the Ipswich seed company and have whittled down the many to the few that I found most interesting. Top of my list is the Wasabi Rocket with leaves that really do have the tang of wasabi. I will be making the first sowing this weekend. I also got a top tip from Colin Randall, their vegetable guru, who really does know his onions, potatoes, tomatoes – in fact any vegetable. If flea beetle is a problem, sow vulnerable plants in containers at least 30cm tall – this is higher than fleabeetles can jump.
Pea Terrain and Mange Tout Sweet Horizon are also interesting new late varieties – they are very mildew resistant and I was told that if I sow them this weekend I could be picking peas and mangetout in autumn right up to November.
When it comes to flowers and foliage plants, there was no shortage of colour, but my tastes are usually for subtle shades. There’s a lovely new soft yellow cosmos called Xanthos and a delicate colour-changing Argyranthemum Honey-Bees Light Pink with flowers that slowly fade to pink and a striking hardy begonia called Garden Angels.
I have mixed feelings about petunias – I love their fragrance and some of the soft-hued varieties, but I find them quite hard work to keep looking good over a long period – this probably says more about me than the petunias – but whatever the reason I generally don’t grow them. For those who do though I thought Indian Summer and mustardy-coloured Dijon were both really attractive and I’ve included a photo of Night Sky because it is so weird – it looks like a careless decorator has splattered it with paint.
I first read about this event in Jane Grigson’s Vegetable Book when she wrote that ‘The great event of our summer in France is the garlic and basil fair at Tours. It is always held on St.Anne’s day, July 26th.’ The description that followed was like a siren call to me, so it was inevitable that I would go there. It was every bit as wonderful as she had said, but that was twenty years ago and I felt it was time for a return visit. There is a danger in going back – things do change – and admittedly the mountain ponies, monkeys and dwarfs were no longer there selling rather nasty Alpine sweets (bad taste in every way) – but everything else was as I remembered.
There’s an entire square filled to overflowing with pots of basil in every possible variety, the side streets are lined with trestles laden with the new season garlic, as well as shallots and onions, there are stalls selling charcuterie and delicious street food to be consumed at communal tables, washed down with top quality local wine at 2 euros a glass. Who wouldn’t be happy?
Both garlic and sellers vary enormously!
Cafe and street food is delicious
It remains a local event with all the Tourangeaux (inhabitants of Tours) stocking up with garlic to last until next year’s fair and filling their bags with as many basil plants as they can carry. Torrential rain did little to dampen enthusiasm and if it all got too much there was always the option of eating at one of the cafes in the square, or sitting at one of the communal tables to eat some street food. Unlike many French markets, it did not finish at lunchtime, but lasted well into the evening, so there was time to linger round the stalls, watch what the locals were buying and follow their example. Despite travelling home by regional train and Eurostar, I did buy myself a plait of garlic, a pot of small-leaved basil and a kilo of fresh cornichons for pickling – wonderful mementoes of a very happy return.
Back home with my plait of garlic, my pot of basil and the cornichons now pickling for future use.