Gardening with Gael - Oh those Russians!
On arrival in Moscow it is clear spring isn’t quite here in spite of rumours of warm temperatures. We are staying with an Irish friend of mine, Trish, who is PA to the Irish Ambassador. The Embassy and her spacious apartment are situated in central Moscow. Trees are bare and stark, their branches outlined against the buildings. It snows as we walk out to a restaurant.
Next morning in Red Square there are the signs of spring. The tapestry of tulips in the Alexander Garden have all appeared above ground. Square plots, each with a different coloured tulip cover a large area. In bloom it is a spectacular sight.
We stop for lunch in a lovely restaurant in Gum, a splendid 19th century shopping mall complete with an arched glass roof, polished marble halls, striped awnings and smart shops.
“Are they real?” asks Dawn of the Rieger begonias which, in full flower, divide the table settings.
“Can’t be,” I say, but they are – lines of them all through the restaurant.
At this point I am tempted to wander from a gardening article into one on food. We had the most delicious borsch. Beetroot red with floating sour cream. The next day at a Georgian restaurant I had an aubergine and pickled mushroom salad with a spinach and coriander khachapuri. It was so fabulous we went back. On the return visit they were out of the salad. I must have over-mimed my disappointment because suddenly complimentary green drinks appeared. Tarhun or Tarkhuna is a Georgian drink made out of tarragon syrup.
There are two main types of tarragon, French and Russian. French tarragon, often used to flavour bearnaise sauce is reputed to have a stronger flavour, but it is the Russian tarragon that is used in the drinks.
A species of perennial herb of the sunflower family, tarragon is found in every region of Russia. It also grows in Georgia, North America, France, India and China. It prefers poor soils and tolerates drought. I have just the place for it.
Russian tarragon is very hardy and grows from root division, sometimes reaching over a metre tall. The oil is acquired by using steam to distil the leaves, stems and flowers which is then made into a syrup. The delicate flavour of the syrup is reminiscent of liquorice or aniseed. With a sprig of mint added it makes a delicious drink. The colour of the drink here is an alarming green and I suspect the addition of some sort of green food colouring.
Spring is evident in the Eastern markets. Topiaried conifers surrounded by daffodils, hyacinths and chrysanthemums add masses of colour. Prior to our arrival there had been a week where the temperatures had risen to between 5C and 15C, enough for the spring bulbs, predominantly tulips, to emerge above ground. They really do like the cold. Since our arrival temperatures have hovered around zero.
Weather forecasts here offer a range. The forecast may say -1C today in large print. Below, in a smaller print it will say ‘but feels like -6C.’ Yesterday, in one of the Golden Ring towns, Sergiev Posad, where there is still snow on the ground, the forecast said 3C ‘but feels like -4C’ and it did. Tulips and tiny
crocuses were making their appearance. Locals photographed them as enthusiastically as we photographed the spectacular golden domes silhouetted against the sky.
Walking back towards the station we passed two men using rocks to build terraces in a garden outside a restaurant. They weren’t getting it right at all. I was desperate to set them right. Fortunately (and to the relief of Trish and Dawn) there wasn’t a handy spade, I had the wrong shoes and no gloves. I got up close eager to intervene but watched them for a minute carelessly throwing rocks with no apparent plan. I had no idea what they were saying but Trish said later they were asking if I was married!
We leave in a couple of days. Today it was 4C ‘but feels like 4’, our first match. As the day progressed it lifted to 7C ‘but felt like 3.’ Then, quite unexpectedly, it snowed. Spring still isn’t quite here.
MOSCOW: Trish, Dawn and I have a drink before the meal arrives. The green concoction I’m drinking is Tarkhuna, made out of tarragon syrup