Cool as a cucumber
Before all hell broke loose in preparation for Christmas, I went to visit my husband's friends in their lovely garden.
The invitation was for afternoon tea. With absolutely no show of effort, the most wonderful plate of cucumber sandwiches appeared from beneath a cloth napkin, then a delicious, orange-scented cake with cream.
This type of English fare, produced with such casual elegance in the garden, made me feel like I had slipped and fallen into a Penelope Lively novel. I floated about for what was left of the day feeling poetic, spoiled and inspired.
In the little garden I have let run rampant, there is a glorious cucumber plant. It has nimbly grown up a green-bean string and is producing more fruit than we can eat.
The best thing about cucumbers is how they go from tiny pickles to huge cucumbers just when you aren't looking. Perhaps there is magic involved? It seems supernatural that this rather bland and slightly bitter fruit is so refreshing and versatile.
There is a recipe for cucumber stuffed with crab in Larousse Gastronomique that I am looking forward to trying with smoked fish or crayfish next time my fisherman brother rolls through town.
The other ways I intend to enjoy my bumper crop this year are more traditional. In salads, of course. But also grated through yoghurt, with or without mint.
I will be chopping them up roughly with heritage tomatoes and red onion, and dousing all liberally with vinegar.
If time permits, I will be stealing my mother's bread and butter pickle recipe, which will keep our sandwiches interesting through the winter months. There are even plans for a few slices to cover my eyes as I try for the odd Sunday afternoon kip.
Cucumbers get both their blandness and their refreshing qualities from being 96 per cent water. They have been cultivated in India for 3000 years and have spread into just about every food culture, eaten either cooked, pickled or raw.
Through careful breeding, much of the bitterness (mainly in the skin) has been removed from the cucumber. However, if you are growing a heritage variety you may be lucky enough to still experience this flavour.
Personally, I like a natural variety of flavours in a vegetable, including bitter. It worries me to think that not only has useful flavour been removed but possibly enzymes and properties that are also good for our general health.
Last year, I made a new year's resolution to hold more garden parties. I threw a large one for 70 at the Parnell Rose Gardens, but the other six or so were meals with friends eaten in my garden, with a few picnics thrown in.
Although there are other more serious resolutions that could be made, I have opted this year to keep mine socially minded. As my family grows, it can be too easy to let friendships drift. This year (as there are soon to be two babies and even less time), I will aspire to afternoon teas.
This simple recipe is a wonderful excuse to eat fresh white bread and expensive artisan butter. Cucumber sandwiches create the perfect reason to invite round a beloved friend, dust off the teapot and float about being charming for an afternoon.
Sunday Star Times