In the lower apple orchard, the tablecloth is spread across the grass in the patterned shade. A slow buzzing bee wanders and our robin twitters high above us. Slightly damp earth beneath my elbow as we recline on the four sides of our banquet. A gingham tablecloth seen through the pale gold of a Cotes de Gascogne. As the glass touches the lips the scent is sharp, and being warmer has a lemony bite. A zephyr causes patterns to dance and a duck is started noisily from the reeds by the river.
Summer is a lovely time, a time to relish the fruits of the blue green orbe we inhabit. It’s a time for sand in the sandwiches, getting stuck in hot traffic and not doing very much. That we take holidays now and not in the winter means we like doing less when given time off. Winter holidays are not taken to enjoy the cold – with the exception of skiing or skating – most choose far away places that are warm and sunny.
Why? Because it’s not nice being cold, is it? Even when skiing, you return to the warmth of your hotel for the night. Spending it outdoors would be a very unpleasant experience. It is also a time when the nights are long and friendly lights burn in the hallway and kitchen.
Now in our day and age, staying indoors all winter is a choice that some people make. Barely five minutes are spent outside the heated interiors of motorcars or the warm fug of offices. There’s not much difference to summer with all the mechanical contrivances that ease the cold and dark. There is annoying ice on the road, headlights on dark mornings and more vigilance. Not much more. Modern Europeans live in what is almost a perpetual summer.
Those of you who braved my now defunct email series “Thinking Big” will know that I don’t switch my heating on in winter. Put better, it stands on the frost setting and the usual temperature lies between ten and fourteen degrees celsius. It’s not that pleasant – it’s more pleasant than the reality outside with the searing cold menacing your coat. By the time I got back in I was truly thankful to find a warm flat!
I wondered to myself how it would be possible to exist in such a gnawing freeze. It was well below minus ten outside. Yet most Europeans would be picnicing in their dining rooms for all the cold they feel. The thermostat registers a chill and a switch is flicked. Darkness falls and more switches are used. And that’s about it. The chilled wine and mushroom sauce is spread and dinner is eaten with little thought beyond the television screen.
The Real Meaning Of Summertime.
So what am I on about? Well, the point is that if it gets cold then humans have to do something to survive. We’re not animals that get a thick winter coat or hibernate. We get the full force of winter, head on. If we do nothing, we would perish, so do something we must. Yet today – today, we have everything done for us. We are nannied by more than just the State!
So what has this to do with summer save for contrast? A very great deal! Alexander Solzhynitisyn in his wonderfully evocatvive “August 1914” describes a time now long past. He tells of how a Russian soldier chances upon a cellar of a modest house in what was then Allenstein in East Prussia. To this Russian, winter means a bitter cold and boring borscht made of roots and cabbage. Not just every day but for every meal. Not just every day, every day that month. How else can you live through such long and terrible winters? It is merely an accepted fact of life.
Which is why his surprise was the greater when he discovers this cellar. Rows and rows of potted meats and jams. Bottles of fruit wine, shelves of glass jars pickled eggs and dried hams hanging from the ceiling. There are apples and potatoes. There is a place for carrots to be stored along with parsnips and scorzonera. A neat riot, a treasury of colour and flavour! Such a wonder that Germans could make winter a fine and pleasant time!
His honest opinion was why Russians would fight a people who could teach them how to live in such luxury themselves!
Only, this is 1914. There are few food factories, grocers’ shops have peas that have been picked that morning and are already going starchy in the afternoon sun. If you are to have such a cellar you need a great deal of energy. And a store of glass jars to boot. The Germans have that, and it is their gift to humankind – spread from Denver in Colorado to Ekaterinburg in Siberia. The Germans will do what Germans do, and will keep on doing it until they can’t do it any more. What became of the owners of that cellar is never told. How they survived the coming winter without their stored summer is not known. It would have been bitter in its injustice as much as its hunger. Even a return would leave them destitute: not only jars emptied but smashed.
A Summertime Graft.
So what has all this to do with summer? The point is that the family would have been busy all through the summer making and preparing for the next winter. The bounty of my family’s garden in summer was overwhelming. Picking five pounds of beans each day sounds wonderful, except when it comes to the point that you have thirty-five pounds by the end of the week. Sharing this bounty with friends and church saved our bacon – or our shame in putting good food on the compost heap. What it did mean was that as the November frosts came there were sufficient dried beans. Dark evenings opening dead pods to reveal the dried seeds within. They would take us through the winter a flash of summery runner bean flavour in a soup in January.
So summer for us was a time of tremendous effort! Yet all around us people are taking picnics with quiche that comes wrapped in plastic and aluminium. We are sweating over hot stoves in a kitchen that has all the attributes of a small factory! Our onions, tomatoes and courgettes had been chopped and boiled into ratatouille. Pureed into small bags and frozen in margarine tub for form made for delicious winter meals.
Yet the summer is still special: fresh raspberries for one. Peas from the vine that have a crystal sweetness. Tomatoes that melt leaving a cascade of flavours on your tongue and others that are tomatoey yet mild in a simple salad.
If you live in the North of Europe, being busy isn’t just a way of life. It’s how you survive. Being seduced by the wiles of electronic heating controls has made us all fat unimaginative bureaucrats.