It’s a rainy day today.
My garden needs this, especially the herbs and veg which were considering turning their rooty toes up. Today, they are spritely and beaming at me as I look out the window.
More than any other year, this summer has given me a plethora of veggies in the garden and so I invested in the River Cottage Veg Book. And have we been eating flavoursome food?!
Last night, we had a warm potato, bean and olive salad. The only dressing was lemon juice, basil, salt and pepper after the garlic and chopped olives had been sautéed in olive oil. We ate it with dolmades, with hommus and with flat bread. Closing our eyes, it was easy to think we sat at the edge of the Adriatico, watching trading galleys ease past, loaded with salt, wine, with bales of silks and exotic essences from the east.
Which brings me to today’s kitchen escapades…
One berry slice with an almond meal base. Imagine the tang of raspberries, boysenberries, loganberries and silvanberries and with the crunch of almonds and almond meal. The fragrance through the house made one’s mouth tingle and the colours speak for themselves.
One chocolate and date cake. I needed something to freeze, to pull out when I’m too busy enjoying summer outdoors to slave at the stove. This is a bit of decadence all melted in a saucepan and then with flour and chocbits added. It’s a truly moist cake.
At this moment, the house smells aromatic as the oven roasts veg for a ricotta and feta crustless tart. Thyme lingers on the air, along with rosemary and garlic. And so the rain drips down, the Dog is the epitome of maudlin melancholy and as I think of Greek food, I turn to my Work In Progress where my twelfth century protagonist, Michael, has been found injured after a shipwreck on the southwest Black Sea coast.
I leave you with a small unedited piece…
Birds had settled on a corpse, fighting over eyes and glutinous tissue. Michael picked up a piece of timber and hurled it toward the scavengers, anger implicit. Anger at God, at the sea taking from him the two most valuable things in his life. Anger at his own folly for agreeing to work for ben Simon in Constantinople.
Drowned? Deep in the ocean?
He flung round and scoured the sea – checking the wreckage until he saw folds of turquoise and a limp figure toward the far end of the cove. He ran through the shallows, his heart racketing.
‘Helena,’ he grabbed the folds. ‘Helena!’
She floated on her back, her hair wafting on the tide, her face tranquil, eyes closed. He thought how beautiful she looked – apart from the ugly blue and yellow bruise at her temple and her pallor. The lack of colour horrified him and he slipped his arms beneath her, whispering, ‘Helena, my love. Wake up! See, we are safe…’ But as he stood with her in his hopeless arms, her head lolled back.
‘Helena,’ he whispered, burying his head into her wet hair. ‘I did not mean for this…’
For what? For she and Ioulia to die because of his ego; because of his desire to move upward in the trading game?
He carried her to the back of the beach where rocks lay at the base of cliff walls, and laid her down with the tenderness of a man placing a child in its crib. As the sun moved toward dusk, he scooped a bed of gritty sand, covering her with a damp cloak from the shore and then he began to cover her with small rocks, because he would not have sea-birds peck at her eyes and her decaying body.
At first, he could barely place one rock upon her and he walked away. But the seabirds shrieked and fought further down the beach and it was easier then, small rock after small rock. He offered prayers for her soul but inside a voice said, ‘Hypocrite!’ because he hated God. But he said the prayers anyway.
Finally it was done and he kissed his fingers and touched the head of the rocky tomb, ‘Helena, Ioulia is missing, my love. I…’
Will find her, he thought.
But as sure as Helena was now gone, in truth he knew his daughter was floating in the sea, rocked by the waves, and his heart set to stone. Somewhere, a Greek-speaking peirate with a dromon of God-forsaken slaves was looking to have a return on his assets. Michael would find him and recompense would be demanded.
An eye for an eye.
He lay down next to Helena’s rocky tomb, pillowing his head on his arms and curling his legs into his belly like a newborn as the dusk shadows stretched down the beach. His head ached with a ferocious timbre, each heartbeat roughly measured. And as he felt himself slipping into the blackness of a faint again, he thought what a powerful drug was revenge. He might have been happy to die here and now, but he would find the peirate and he would kill him. If nothing else, as the black edges of unconsciousness claimed him, battle fever warmed his blood through.
‘Ah,’ a deep, gentle voice sounded from above him. ‘You are awake.’
Michael turned his head. The morning sun shone brightly and a large black shape filled his vision, with hairy sandalled toes half-buried in the sandy shingle.
‘God has seen fit to return you to us, instead of taking you to His side.’
Michael pushed back the heavy cloak that covered him, smelling the salty tang of the sea, the growing smell of decay, feeling the roughness of wool under his fingers, questions forming in his mind. But liverish, in pain and grief stricken, he croaked, ‘God is no friend of mine.’
His head hurt, a bone-deep pain, and he reached up to touch it, feeling congealed blood and then a further warm trickle.
I was hit on the boat…
His losses hammered down upon him so that he could barely breathe, let alone move and he stumbled, a strong hand reaching for his elbow.
‘You are very weak and quite injured. You need care.’
Michael trembled – shock, illness and the night cold but the man held even more firmly as he bent and began to puke his guts away.
‘You are ill. Come, we can help.’
Michael wiped his mouth and stood straighter, seeing the black robes of a priest, the cross swinging from his neck. ‘No. My wife…’ But his knees folded and the priest lowered him to the ground and sat beside him. Michael noticed men moving back and forth on the periphery, carrying bodies, disappearing up a track.
‘I am Father Nicholas from the Church of Saint Stephen close by Agathopolis. When the storms hit, we always keep a close eye on the reef, but it is a long time,’ he crossed himself,’ since we have seen such a thing.’
The priest had kind eyes which disappeared into the forest of his windblown hair and beard. He seemed wild, with none of the demeanour of the priests Michael had known in Sozopoulis.
‘We take the dead to bury in consecrated ground at the church. The cargo we leave for the sea to take back. You, my friend, are a lucky man to be alive. The reef rarely gives us survivors. But you need help – your head bleeds freely, you are thirsty and you shiver. I will help you…’ He took Michael’s arm.
‘No! My wife! You don’t understand.’
‘I think I do,’ Father Nicholas indicated the piles of rocks. ‘You have buried her. But you need have no fear. We shall disinter her and carry her with the utmost respect to my church.’
But Michael stood, unable to think.
‘My son,’ the priest’s gentled voice seemed to drift in from some far away distance. ‘You cannot think with clarity. Is it possible that you might just trust us to do what is right for your wife and thus for you?’
Michael tried to nod but once again pitched into black-as-death darkness…